Copyright: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and all other characters that originally appeared in Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television program Xena: Warrior Princess. This piece of fan fiction is not for profit and is not intended to infringe on that copyright.
Violence: Although this story is generally light-hearted and (I hope) humorous, the story contains scenes of violence - mostly recounted and originally portrayed in the television program. (You'll understand what I mean when you read the story.)
Hurt/Comfort: There are moments of hurt/comfort scattered in this story, but for the most part the characters try to be brave soldiers.
FIN Warning: In a very bizarre and roundabout way, this is a post-FIN story and the situations that occurred in the final episode of Xena are referred to in this story. If you are trying to pretend that that episode never happened, you may want to avoid this story.
Love/Sex: This story depicts a loving, sexual relationship between two women (although they're too busy to do the wild thang). If you are under 18 or such a thing is illegal in your neck of the woods, then please shut the door behind you when you leave.
Language: Yes. Lots of it, and a lot of it is stuff you wouldn't say in front of your mother unless you liked the taste of soap.
Feedback: Please! Any and all. Non-constructive, negative feedback will not be ignored, but it will hurt my feelings.
Special Thanks: As always, thanks to my beta-reader Jane (XetG). Without her, this story would be a complete disaster. You're the best, buddy!
Well, If You Hum A Few Bars
"It is impossible to experience one's death objectively and still carry a tune" Woody Allen
I died last Wednesday at 6:01 pm. It was like going to sleep but with a lot more pain. I awoke in the arms of a beautiful woman.
"Get up," she said with a smile. "We have work to do."
The afterlife isn't at all what I expected.
OK, OK, I know you have a lot of questions. Like how did I know it was 6:01? What exactly did I think the afterlife was going to be like? And, most importantly, who was the beautiful woman?
Whoa. Let's start at the beginning.
I knew it was 6:01 because the last thing I did before dying was look at the clock. No, I take that back the last thing I did was try to insert my new Ani DiFranco CD into the CD player. I took my eyes off the road to see where the slot was, then I saw it was 6:01 and I realized I was late, then I put the CD in the player, then bam!
I never wanted my last words to be "oh fuck, how could I have been so stupid?" But I'm ashamed to admit that's exactly what they were. Not literally, of course. I didn't really have time to say that much.
As to the question of what I expected the afterlife to be like, well I certainly expected the whole tunnel and bright light thing. I was ready for it. There was no way I was going to get trapped between this world and the next, haunting the scene of my death especially when the scene of my death ended up being the friggin' Eastshore Freeway. I was going to find that light and march right toward it. I had it all planned out.
But the only light I found upon waking up was an intense blue one, coming from the beautiful woman's eyes. I got lost in them. It was like floating in a swimming pool on a hot summer afternoon. She smiled down at me and I returned the smile. Sure, I was dead. But she was beautiful. Did I mention that already?
Yeah, I know, you're wondering who she was. Hold your horses. Who she was is complicated. You'll have to let me tell the story in my own time.
I guess I should describe her before I get too far along. I won't say she was beautiful again, I think that's been established. Her hair was obsidian a shiny black, but with hints of mahogany when you got close. She had amazing, high cheekbones that gave her a regal bearing. Her smile was so bright it warmed me right down to my toes. Her skin was flawless. It was the color of a latte mostly milky white, but with a rich brown undertone.
I knew, as I lay floating in her arms, that she was an angel. Screw that Roma Downey chick - this was the genuine article.
"Come on, Gabrielle, we have to get out of here," she murmured, helping me stand. I felt my knees tremble and I clutched a bit frantically at her arm. Oh no, this wasn't possible. My angel had come and it was all a case of mistaken identity?
"I I'm uh...not Gabrielle," I stuttered. What the heck, might as well admit it right up front.
She looked at me for a moment with the most scrutinizing stare I'd ever been graced with. She was like an art appraiser trying to estimate my worth. I was ready for her to pronounce me a cheap forgery and walk away in disgust.
"My name is Allison Peckham," I said, as if that would help the situation.
"It's all right, sweetheart," she said with a dazzling smile. "Let's get away from here."
I suppose people had called me "sweetheart" before. Well, there was my mom and dad. When they called me sweetheart, it was like a pat on the head nice. And maybe my ex-girlfriend Emily had called me "sweetheart". That was more like a peck on the cheek, an arm around the shoulders. Also nice.
But when this woman this beautiful stranger said "sweetheart" I was an apple dunked in warm caramel love and home surrounded me.
My knees were wobbling and the rest of my body decided to join in. I turned into a quivering mess. Just as I was sure my legs would complete their transformation into Jell-O, she picked me up in her arms. The best course, at this point, would have been to lay my head against her chest and let her take me anywhere she wanted. Bed would have been good. Heaven would also be high on my list. A bed in heaven would have been perfect.
Instead, continuing my pattern of bad decisions for the day, I turned around and looked at the wreckage that was my car. Enough time had passed between my death and waking up in the woman's arms, that the rescue workers had arrived. I watched as the Jaws of Life opened my car like a can of Spam, and I had the odd experience of watching my lifeless body being pulled from the mangled metal.
You don't want to know the gory details, do you? Well, even for you sick people who do, I'm not going to share. Let's just say the ick-factor was off the scale. If I'd still been standing, I would have crumpled to the ground in a lady-like fashion: my eyes would have rolled back in my head, I would have turned in a slightly clockwise direction, and I would have landed elegantly on my ass so that I didn't break anything. But if you remember, I was in her arms. The only thing I managed was the eyes rolling back in my head part. When I asked her much later, she confirmed that it was very, very ladylike.
I dreamt that I was flying. With her. In the dream, I knew how she flew there really was some wild explanation that made sense in a dream logic kind of way. Oh, and I was reciting a poem by Sappho. It was actually quite normal as far as my dreams usually go.
I woke up in my own bed. I just lay there for a while, taking in my surroundings. It was dark, but the moon was full and the streetlights were bright, so I could see everything in my room. Yep, it was definitely my bed. My dirty clothes were in a pile on the floor, just where I'd left them that morning. My copy of The Best Lesbian Erotica 2001 was shoved under my pillow, all of my favorite parts still dog-eared.
"I knew it was all a dream," I said joyfully, as I sat up. I reached for the bottle of water that always sat on the bedside table, but instead of grasping it firmly, my hand passed right through.
OK, ghost story cliché alert. You'd think I'd have been expecting that. It was all her fault; she set me up. I guess she was trying to be nice, putting me in familiar surroundings. It caught me off guard.
"I'm really dead?" I waited for someone to laugh at me and tell me I was being silly. It didn't happen.
"Shit," I said, drawing my legs up and letting my head fall on my knees.
I had planned on being a lot of things when I was twenty-eight. Being dead wasn't one of them. I was hit by the most complicated combination of emotions I'd ever felt. Anger, confusion, frustration, hope, amazement, jealousy, excitement, and a thousand other feelings whizzed inside my head like ping-pong balls being shot from a cannon.
Her voice soothed the storm inside of me and I looked up. She was sitting quietly on the floor in the corner. She smiled, but looked worried and slowly stood up, coming to sit down next to me. I didn't feel the bed dip or hear the bedsprings squeak.
"I know your death was a shock, Gabrielle. Are you feeling better now?" She reached up and with the tip of her index finger she tucked a stray lock of my hair behind my ear. I tried to formulate an answer to her question, but my whole head was tingling from the simple gesture.
"I'm sorry," I said, "you have absolutely no idea how sorry I am. But I'm not this Gabrielle person. My name is Allison Peckham."
She looked confused and frustrated. "I know you're Allison Peckham." She blew out a breath and it made her bangs fly up. "This is going to be a lot harder than I expected."
Maybe it's just me, but hearing an angel say those words was a bit disconcerting. I had enough emotions zinging around inside of me, and one more wasn't welcome. I looked at her, my eyes begging for an explanation.
She took a deep breath and began. "You are Allison Peckham. You are also Gabrielle. Allison Peckham is simply your latest incarnation. You've lived many lives we've lived many lives. Together."
She paused, with her mouth open slightly, ready to say more. At least I hope she was ready to say more because her opening shot went way wide.
"I don't understand," I finally said, hoping she'd try again in English this time.
The minute I said the words, a memory popped into my mind. I was standing next to her. Her hair was longer and wilder, she was wearing a leather dress and bronze chest armor, but it was definitely her.
I don't know how it was possible, but my confusion was raised even higher to astronomical levels of perplexity. She must have seen something cross my eyes, and she grasped my wrist.
"Do you remember, Gabrielle?" she asked. Her eyes searched my face. I felt like one of those drawings in kid's books "there are five faeries hiding in this picture, can you find them?"
"My name is Xena," she said.
"Zeena?" I echoed, feeling like I was failing a very important exam.
"With an X," she said.
It took me awhile to figure that one out. Hey, I was dead.
"What do you know about Karma?" she asked.
The abrupt change of subject made me a little woozy. I sucked in a lungful of air before answering.
"The belief, held by Hindus and Buddhists, that there is a force generated by a person's actions which, in its ethical consequences, determines the nature of a person's next existence." I grinned, proud of myself for proving yet again that I wasn't just a pretty face.
Xena looked impressed. She smiled, stroking my wrist with her thumb. That was nice.
"Your existence as Allison Peckham is just your latest turn of the karmic wheel. We have shared many lives together." She paused, as if trying to decide whether to continue. "We're soulmates, Gabrielle."
For her sake, I tried to remember. Shit, I tried to remember for my sake. But it was no good.
"I'm sorry," I said, shaking my head.
"It's OK," she said with a sad grin. "I'm sure you'll remember. It's probably just the shock of dying - again."
Her words triggered another memory. I was speaking to my mother, who was dressed in strange clothes. "And when Xena died the last time," I said. Not surprisingly, Mom was giving me a very strange look.
How could I remember telling my mother about Xena? I was tired of being confused, and I was starting to get pissed. I savored the warmth of my anger. It was a familiar feeling, and comforting in a way. I didn't deal well with confusion, but I was a master at being pissed off.
"I don't remember being this Gabrielle person," I said, pulling my arm from Xena's grasp. "None of this makes any sense. Even if I believe you, then why are you sitting here, in my bedroom, telling me this? Let's just review my life and get on with the next one. That's how things work, right?"
"No," she said, sitting back a little. She probably felt the heat starting to rise from me. "I mean, yes. Usually, that's how things work, but not this time. This time we have a job to do."
I looked at her, waiting for the bad news. Somehow, I knew it was going to be bad news.
"It's about your friend Derek," she began. "I know this is going to be hard for you to believe "
She trailed off, obviously searching for the right way to say what she needed to say. I nearly laughed at her choice of words as if everything else she'd told me was easy to believe.
"Derek is really an entity known as the Deliverer. He's helping an evil god called Dahak." She pronounced the words very slowly and distinctly.
I answered with a guffaw that burst from my chest. "Derek? An evil entity?"
"Yes," she said, nodding firmly. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. He was using you, setting you up in exactly the same way that he set you up millennia ago. Through you, Dahak was going to gain entrance into this world. He would have destroyed humanity. And he still will, unless we stop him. We must do this."
I was still trying to get over the picture of Derek as the embodiment of evil. But when I heard the words "we must do this," I snapped.
"What do you mean? Who the hell has the right to tell me that I have to turn into Supergirl now that I'm dead? I don't see why I have to do anything."
That struck her speechless, and she stared at me. Her mouth opened again. I decided that it really wasn't a good look for her.
"We have to do this because it's what we do." She said it as if I'd asked her the color of the sky. As if I should just know, and if I didn't know, I could just look for myself. Well, it didn't seem so obvious to me.
"It may be what you do, but it's sure as hell not what I do," I said, a little irritably OK, a lot irritably.
She raised a single eyebrow at that statement. I can never figure out how people do that.
"Anyway," I continued. "I'm sure there are lots of people who died recently who would gladly help you fight evil entities. Why not go find one of them?"
"Because we're partners," she said. This time she said it like a mother telling her child not to pick her nose in public - just don't do it, and don't ask questions. She stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. "So, let's go."
"Where are we going?" I asked. I crossed my arms too, but didn't stand.
"You don't believe what I'm telling you about Derek, so I'll just have to prove it to you," she replied. It was her turn to be irritable.
I stood up reluctantly and faced her. She watched as my face reflected my decision-making process.
I thought of a story that I'd once heard about an elderly woman who was traveling by air from Los Angeles to Oakland. She asked for help at LAX and a friendly skycap escorted her onto her plane and all the way to her seat. Soon after taking off, she fell asleep and woke a few hours later, wondering why they hadn't landed. She asked a stewardess and soon discovered that she was on a flight not to Oakland but to Auckland.
I suddenly realized I was that woman on the way to Auckland. It certainly wasn't what I had planned, but I might as well sit back, order some free cocktails, and watch the in-flight movie. There was nothing else I could do except wait until the authorities sorted everything out.
"OK," I said with a sigh, motioning ahead of me with a fling of my hand. "Lead on."
She took my hand and smiled at me. Did I mention how beautiful she was?
We approached the front door of my apartment and I paused as Xena walked right through. OK, back to the ghost story clichés. Would it feel strange? Would I get all tingly? Did I need to concentrate really hard and Xena reached back to grab me and pull me unceremoniously behind her. I didn't feel anything at all. It was really disappointing.
We walked silently down to the sidewalk. Xena led the way, which was a definite advantage, since I could watch her firm ass. She wore tight black jeans with a crisp, white oxford shirt and black work boots, polished until they shone. It was a perfect combination of raw sexuality and refinement. I could look at that view for eternity.
"I would offer to drive," I said, to break the silence and not make it too obvious that I was ogling her ass. "But I'm afraid the PT in my PT Cruiser stands for 'perfectly trashed.'"
She glanced back and I think she grinned at my attempt at levity. Well, the movement around her lips may have been a nervous twitch, but let's just say it was a grin.
As we walked down the block, I snuck glimpses of her, trying to remember. There did seem to be something vaguely familiar, but it wasn't her walk or her broad shoulders or her breasts. Umm...did I say breasts? She turned to focus those crystal blue eyes on me, and a memory tweaked me those eyes and that ebony hair, but somehow different.
"You know, I do seem to remember you," I said. "But I don't think it was from a previous life. Have we met? I mean, in this lifetime?" I felt really stupid saying those words, but I was going with the flow.
"Think second grade," she said cryptically.
I looked at her and thought about Mrs. Austin's second grade class. I pictured myself sitting at my desk in the back row. Sitting next to me was a little girl with crystal blue eyes and ebony hair, pulled into uneven pigtails.
"Oh my god, you're the brat who stole my lunch money."
Her eyes flashed with irritation, and I think a little regret.
"Well, you got back at me," she replied defensively. "You gave me a bloody nose."
"You were a nasty, spoiled, little brat; I hated you."
Blunt and accurate are my two middle names.
"You were supposed to see through my rough exterior and love me anyway. We're soulmates; why couldn't you understand that?"
"You were mean," I explained.
"Yeah well ." She was starting to sound frustrated. Good, that made two of us.
"Then you disappeared one day and we weren't allowed to ask where you were. Months later my mom told me you had died leukemia, right?" It was all coming back to me.
"Did you feel anything at all?"
"Scared that I'd die too. What do you expect?"
She didn't say anything, just looked disappointed. I was used to that look, I'd grown up with it. It could be flashed at any time, though it was usually reserved for the C minus on the report card or the speeding tickets.
"For god's sake, Xena," I snapped, "I was eight years old. How the hell was I supposed to know about this karmic cycle crap?"
She didn't answer and we kept walking in uncomfortable silence.
"Which way to Derek's apartment?" Xena asked gruffly when we reached the end of the block.
"Don't you know?" I asked just as gruffly. "You seem very sure that he's the embodiment of evil, I assumed you knew where he lived."
She put her hands on her hips and looked at me. Her eyes shone through the darkness, like little searchlights. I couldn't hide.
"He lives in the flats," I replied, lowering my eyes from the unnerving look. "We've got to go all the way down University to Sixth Street, and then hang a left. The hostel is about three blocks down. He lives above it."
She didn't say anything, just turned in the right direction and started walking faster. I hustled to catch up.
We'd gone about a block when I realized that ghosts shouldn't have to walk.
"Hey, is there a reason we're walking to Derek's?" I asked. "I mean, we didn't walk to my apartment from the freeway. Did we?" I had an image of Xena carrying me in her arms for three miles, and felt a twinge of guilt.
"No," she replied, looking back at me over her shoulder. I was having trouble keeping up. "If you want to be somewhere badly enough, you can sort of pop there. You wanted to be home in bed, and I went along for the ride."
"Oh. OK. So how do we pop to Derek's? Do I twitch my nose and say tinkle, tinkle, tee?"
"Let's just walk; we have things to discuss," she said.
Now usually, when someone says they have things to discuss, they well discuss. But Xena just kept walking and didn't say a word. I never really got on with the strong, silent types, so I decided to ignore her.
OK, I couldn't ignore her.
"Well?" I said exactly four seconds later.
"Well what?" she asked, maintaining her steady stride.
I was tired of talking to her back, so I hurried my steps until I was beside her, taking two steps for each of hers. I grabbed her elbow and slowed her down. "The discussion," I said, rolling my eyes. "I'm waiting."
In hindsight, I suppose I should have been a teensy bit less confrontational. But I didn't remember that Xena doesn't respond well to confrontation. Let me rephrase that, I didn't remember that Xena responds too well to confrontation she always wins.
She looked me in the eye, then down at my hand holding her elbow, then back at my face. She pulled her arm out of my grip and turned away, continuing to stride down the sidewalk. OK, she wasn't ready to discuss. I made a mental note: Xena will discuss when she's ready.
I knew she was getting pissed at my lack of memory, but there wasn't anything I could do about that. It wasn't my fault and it was making me just as crazy. If we completed the mission, maybe my memory would come back.
"The mission"? Jesus, I was beginning to sound like a CIA operative.
"I really think you're wrong about Derek," I said after a couple more blocks. I decided that if I initiated the conversation, Xena might jump in. It felt right to do it that way.
"You don't understand," she snapped.
Well, no one said it was going to be easy.
"Of course I don't understand." I tried not to snap back, I really did. "Haven't I said that about a million times? I don't understand any of this. I thought the afterlife was going to be straightforward, but I have no idea what's going on. And I'm pretty sure you don't either."
"I know that Dahak needs to be stopped," she said firmly, "and destroyed once and for all, if possible."
"OK then, explain to me how Derek, the sweet, wonderful man that I know, is actually some evil entity called 'The Deliverer' and how he's helping this Dahak. I really need to understand."
She looked at me and saw by my expression that I honestly wanted to understand. Did I mention how testy I get when I don't understand?
"Tell me what you know about Derek," she requested, slowing her pace so I didn't have to work so hard to keep up. Being able to breathe when I talk is always appreciated.
"I met Derek about six months ago," I began. "My ex was doing an article on him for the local paper. She introduced us at a party, and I ended up talking to him for hours.
"He was starting a foundation that would provide all sorts of services for those in need," I continued. I'm sure my eyes were starting to light up. They usually did when I told people about Derek. "He was really into having people volunteer; and whatever skills the volunteers had, he could tailor to the hostel. If you were a cook, you could come to the hostel to cook; if you were a businessperson, you could help with job-seeking skills. He concentrated his work on the volunteers because he felt that they would be self-perpetuating."
"Sounds like a real saint," Xena said sarcastically.
I was taken aback and stopped talking. It was definitely the first time anyone had questioned Derek's motivations.
"His family were killed by a drunk driver three years ago," I said, defending him. "He went through a really bad time drugs, alcohol, a suicide attempt. Then, someone helped him turn his life around. He's just trying to give back by helping others."
"And you believe all that?" Xena said, her mouth twisting into a sneer.
"He wasn't lying, I'm sure of it," I replied vehemently. "I didn't go back and check his story, if that's what you mean."
"You're still falling for the smooth talkers, huh?" Xena said. There was a condescending tone in her voice. This woman was seriously starting to annoy me.
"Xena, the entire Bay Area is enamored with him. The mayor gave him the fucking key to the city."
"I tried to make you realize the mistake you were making these past few months." Xena shook her head sadly.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I was watching you," she explained. "I tried to get through to you. But you've got walls a mile high and a mile thick."
"Hey," I said with a laugh, "I've worked my whole life building those walls."
"I know," she said. She looked at me and I saw intense sadness in her eyes.
I had tried to be flip I'm usually good at flip. But her response, and the way she looked at me, stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know what to say. I decided to stick with flip.
"So, you tried to send me a psychic message?" I said with a grin. "Too bad I wasn't in the studio audience of 'Crossing Over'."
"I was trying to get through to you in your dreams," she said, ignoring my flipness.
"Oh, is that why I kept having nightmares? I thought I was just eating too much cheese before bed."
She smiled just a little. To say I breathed a sigh of relief would be an understatement a huge understatement, similar to the time Magellan said the Pacific Ocean was big.
"Let's get back to the 'you watching me' thing," I said. "How long has this been going on, exactly?"
"Since I died, more or less," she replied.
"Since we were eight?" I was so shocked I stubbed my toe.
"Yep," she said, smiling at me fondly. "I had to wait until you uh joined me. So I watched you and tried to help you if I could."
"Wow, like a guardian angel?" I appreciated the fact that she didn't use the word "death". It was a sore subject.
"Not exactly," she said. "Just someone waiting for her friend to catch up."
I smiled, thinking about the beauty of that statement. Then I thought of all the things I did in my life that no one was ever meant to see. My smile turned upside down and I could feel the heat rising up my face. I knew that I was blushing. Oh yeah, flaming red-hot blush, glowing brighter than Rudolf's nose. She didn't seem to notice. I decided it was a good time for a subject change.
"So, how 'bout those Raiders?"
I was never any good at subject changing.
"This would be so much easier if you remembered your life as Gabrielle," she said with a sigh. Her face reflected so much disappointment. My stomach tensed. It felt just like dinner with my parents.
"Why don't you tell me something about Gabrielle something that'll trigger my memory," I suggested.
"OK," she said, tapping her chin with a long forefinger as she thought. "Well, you were Queen of the Amazons."
"I was Queen of the Amazons?" I asked, grinning at the thought.
"Yep," she said with an answering grin.
"Oh my god, that's so cool. Wait a minute, though. Did I have to cut off my left breast?" I automatically grabbed the appendage in question.
"No, that's just something men made up to make Amazons sound crazy," Xena explained.
"What a relief." I sighed. "That's my lucky boob. I can't imagine being without it."
"I'm not even going to ask," she said, shaking her head. As if she didn't have a lucky boob.
"So was it just one big lesbian orgy?" I asked, starting to think about the possibilities. "Did everyone get their periods at the same time? Did we kill men every full moon and drink their blood? Did we drown all boy children? Were we the ones to invent artificial insemination?"
She reached out and grabbed my shoulder, stopping my forward progress and my mouth at the same time.
"No, yes, no, of course not, and yes."
"Um can we do that one at a time?" My brain started frantically trying to match answers with questions.
"Do you remember it at all, Gab-Allison?" Oh, now I was going to be called Gab-Allison?
I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I thought about orgies and drinking blood I couldn't remember if those were yes's or no's. A memory came to me. I tried to focus, but it was just a jumble.
"Well, that can't be right," I mumbled.
"What did you see?" she prodded.
"I think I was painted blue and I was howling at the full moon," I replied vaguely.
"Yes!" she cried. "That's my girl." She pulled me into a hug and kissed my head with a loud smack.
I began to wonder where I could buy some blue body paint.
I spent the rest of the walk to Derek's trying to remember things, and Xena kept looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I'm sure she was waiting for a light bulb to appear above my head.
"I'm not going to remember anything if you keep staring at me," I finally snapped.
"I wasn't staring at you," she answered in a very petulant tone.
"Oh yes, you most certainly were staring at me," I said in a very patronizing tone.
"Was not." Still petulant.
"Were too." Still patronizing.
Then, without trying, I remembered Xena holding two fish on the end of her fists.
'You want me to fist a fish? Xena, I can barely say it, much less do it.'
I smiled at the memory, and she saw my smile and guessed what it meant. She grinned back at me.
I would have been happy if we'd stood there all night, the two of us grinning like a couple of pinheads waiting for the freak show to start. But I still had to prove to her that she was wrong about Derek, so we continued walking until we finally arrived at the hostel.
"This is it," I announced, gesturing toward the large building like Vanna White presenting a "W".
The hostel had once been two separate Victorians that had been remodeled to make one massive building. Derek lived in a small studio apartment in what had once been an attic.
I was ready for my second experience of walking through a door when a woman passed us on the sidewalk and climbed the front steps. We followed her into the house before the door closed.
"Excuse me," I mumbled as I moved around her toward the stairs to Derek's place.
"Why did you say excuse me?" Xena laughed. "She can't hear you or see you."
"Sorry if I don't have the ghost etiquette down yet," I groused. "I've been dead for less than eight hours. Cut me some slack."
She just rolled her eyes and we headed up the rickety staircase. I reached for the banister to steady myself and my hand went right through.
"Goddamn it," I said as I stopped. "I assume if I fall I won't break my neck, but it would still be inconvenient."
"The stairs are only as steep as you want them to be," Xena explained patiently. "Just walk up steadily and you'll be fine."
I did as she suggested, and it seemed to work. I didn't tell her she was right. Seemed like her ego was in pretty good shape she didn't need any boosts.
"So if I can't hold things or touch them "
"You can hold me," Xena interrupted, waggling her eyebrows.
"Yes, and that's very nice, thank you," I said impatiently, "But my point is: why was I sleeping on my bed? Why don't we sink through the stairs? In fact, why don't we just sink into the ground or float into space?
"There are certain rules that govern us," she answered in a mystical voice. "Those rules, combined with our perception of reality, dictate what we can and can't do."
She sounded just like a girl I met once who belonged to some weird cult. They believed that aliens, who looked like large bipedal gerbils, would come one day and take the true believers to their planet which sounded a lot like Oompa Loompa Land in Willie Wonka's chocolate factory.
I smiled and nodded vaguely. I appreciated that Xena was trying to get me on the same page. I just misplaced my library card.
I heard the clatter of footsteps coming toward us and tried to move to the right on the narrow staircase, but Xena was in the way. A woman clumped down the stairs and barreled into me. Instead of bouncing off and sending us both tumbling, I felt a strange sensation like a thousand tiny fists pummeling me. It hurt for an instant and then it was gone. I took stock of myself and realized that I was still standing and appeared unscathed. The woman continued down the stairs, oblivious to her ghostly encounter.
"Christ on a fucking bike that felt terrible," I groaned.
"Well move out of the way next time," Xena suggested.
"You could have warned me. I thought it would work the other way around they'd walk through me and feel a strange shiver or something."
"If you hang around for another century or two, that might start happening."
"I guess I have to wait that long to be able to move shit and rattle chains and stuff like that," I said, disappointed that I couldn't be The Ghost of Christmas Past for someone.
"That'll take more like a millennium," she replied.
"Man, the afterlife blows."
We reached the top of the stairs and then ascended another, even smaller set of steps to the attic apartment. At the top, we walked through Derek's front door. The apartment was small, and I could see in an instant that he wasn't home. However, a young woman was sitting on his futon, her back to us. She was talking loudly into a cellular phone. I wondered if talking loudly on a cell phone was some sort of universal rule. I could have asked Mystic Xena, but decided to listen to the girl instead.
"So he gets this phone call that some girl he knows is dead," the young woman was saying. "And he just goes like white. He was like a fucking ghost."
She obviously hadn't seen any ghosts recently. My complexion was still quite rosy, I'm happy to report.
"And when he hung up the phone, he says something like 'that's not possible' and runs outta here like his hair was on fire. I shouted out to him and he was all, 'I'm going to the hospital' as he's running down the stairs like a fucking maniac."
"I suppose we need to go to the hospital," I said with a moan. We'd have to walk all the way back up University and across campus to get there. Not that I was tired. Hmm, maybe there were some upsides to being dead.
"Hang on a minute," Xena said. She stared at the girl, who acted like she heard something and turned around quickly, looking in our general direction.
Xena drew in a sharp breath. "Oh no," she whispered.
I tried to figure out what had upset her. The girl had obviously decided she was hearing things, but remained turned toward us. She was young, maybe seventeen or eighteen, but her height and build made her look older. She was tall and broad shouldered, built exactly like Xena. She also had the same hair color as Xena black with mahogany highlights. She didn't have Xena's eyes or facial structure, though. Her eyes were blue-green, the color shifting as you looked at them. She smiled at something the other person said, and her nose crinkled in a very adorable way.
"Does she look familiar?" Xena asked.
Oh, not another memory puzzle. I was ready to complain when that adorable nose finally sunk in.
"That's my nose," I said in amazement.
"Your nose, your eyes, and my hair and body," Xena added. "She's ours all right."
"What do you mean by that?" I squawked.
"One of our descendents," she casually replied. A confused look crossed her face. "But it's too much of a coincidence."
"Maybe Dahak wanted to wipe out as much of our line as he could. She's probably the purest one in existence."
"Oh no which means they have a contingency plan. She'll most likely do in a pinch. I'm sure once Derek has confirmed you're dead, he'll come back and implement Plan B."
"It's a given that she hasn't killed anyone, so she's definitely a blood innocent. Too bad she didnt inherit my mental acuity. If she had, she'd be as far away from him as possible. She also wouldn't say 'like' so often."
"Xena!" I shouted to get her attention.
"What?!" she shouted back.
"If she's our descendent," I said, pointing to the girl who was still chattering away. "And she looks just like both of us, then what I mean how did we I mean ."
"I have many skills," she purred.
Oh, I remembered that all right.
As we walked back up University, I became downright pensive. We passed the video store, and I thought about all the movies I'd never see. We passed Taco Bell and Foster's Freeze, and I thought about all the food I would never eat. We passed my favorite lesbian bar, and I thought about all of the Saturday nights I'd never experience.
OK, my life was shit and I wouldn't miss it in the least.
I stared at the back of the woman striding in front of me, who was still walking way too fast. Xena was in silent mode again, and it was driving me crazy. What can I say? I'm an oral person. Many have been amazed at what I can do with my mouth.
"Xena?" I said, and was happy to see her slow down a little. "Was the life when we were Xena and Gabrielle our first life together?"
"No, we had several before that," she replied over her shoulder.
"Then why do you call me Gabrielle? Didn't I have a more exotic name before or after?" This was my roundabout way of saying that I really didn't like the name Gabrielle.
"You'd rather be called Ralph?"
"I was a man?"
Maybe I was a woman with a peculiar name.
"Oh, yeah," she said with a smirk. "Several times."
"That's weird." I tried to get my head around it, and felt the thought tumbling around up there like one of those bugs in a Mexican jumping bean.
"I prefer you as Gabrielle," Xena said, waiting for me to catch up. "In that lifetime our souls really met for the first time. We had a connection, a bond unlike any other."
"Was it the first lifetime we made love?"
"Well, technically "
"We didn't make love?"
"Of course we did; you didn't let me finish."
"Well, what the hell does 'technically' mean?" I tried to attach "technically" to the start of different sentences. None of them made sense.
"Sorry. It was a poor choice of words," Xena said with a shrug.
"Fucking lousy choice of words, if you ask me," I growled.
"What is the deal with your mouth?" She growled back. "When you were a bard, you never relied on foul language to get your point across."
I was ready to reply with a colorful comeback, when I was suddenly struck with a memory; I could picture her looking guilty about some indiscretion her mouth was opened as an apology struggled to come out but I wouldn't let it, as my ancient Greek potty mouth spewed uncontrollably.
"You're lying or you've got selective memory," I said with a knowing smile. She recognized my look and shrugged, grinning because I'd gotten another glimpse of my past life, even if it caught her in a lie.
I grinned back and we walked a while, in a more comfortable silence. After a few blocks, I again caught her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. This time, though, I saw something I hadn't noticed before. Well, I'd noticed it, but I hadn't recognized it. It was a wistful look, as if she was a poor, hungry child looking into the window of a candy store.
The word "clue" written in neon suddenly began to flash in my brain.
I remembered all that she'd said about soulmates and karma and love shit, I had even asked her if we'd made love in a previous life, and I joked about it. "Insensitive" and "clod" were also two of my middle names. I'd like to use the now familiar excuse that I was newly deceased, but I'm afraid I was just born that way. Well, maybe not born that way, but years of surviving my parents had certainly contributed to my emotional deficiencies.
OK, Al, I thought, she loves you. No, she adores you, she is besotted with you, she what's another word for "worships the ground you walk on"? Fuck, she thinks you're the other half of her soul. No wonder she's hurt that you can't remember.
She expected you to throw yourself into her arms and whisper words of devotion while you nibbled her earlobe a bit, I continued berating myself. Wait, can you whisper and nibble at the same time? See, there you go joking again. Stop it!
After chewing myself out for a while, I decided that instead of trying to remember particular occasions of my ancient Greek life, I should try to remember my emotions my feelings toward Xena. I'd fallen behind again and I looked toward her, watching the shift of muscles under her shirt and the movement of her ass in the tight black jeans. I tried to open my mind.
Nothing. Other than thinking that her ass was mighty fine, my mind drew a complete blank. Aside from a physical attraction, I couldn't feel any deeper emotions. Was I that shallow? No, I had depths. Really.
I spent the rest of the journey to the hospital pondering my depths. Xena managed to restrain herself from giving me that wistful look again, thank god. When we reached the doors to the emergency room, she turned to me. Her jaw was set and her eyes burned with a steady, blazing light.
"You ready?" she asked.
I gulped. It was time to focus. When the mission was over, we could have a nice long talk. Maybe if I put my hands on her ass
"Well?" she prodded.
"Yes," I said, my voice cracking.
"Good." She nodded her head once very commando. "Let's go."
We walked through the glass doors of the emergency room into a reception and waiting area. I spotted a clock and saw that it was just past four in the morning. There were a few people sitting around the area, holding stomachs, heads, and various bleeding body parts.
I realized that I hated hospitals the minute I saw blood and smelled that horrible hospital smell. I turned around to ask Xena if I could sit this one out, but she was dashing around, looking for Derek. I didn't see him, but I did recognize a curly blonde, sitting off in a corner.
I walked over and approached my ex, Emily. A doctor was sitting next to her. She was sniffling, holding a crumpled Kleenex to her face. She always had a problem with snot coming out of her nose when she cried.
"I'm sorry it took so long for us to get everything sorted out," I heard the doctor say as I approached. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of procedures and red tape that we need to take care of."
"That's OK," Emily said with a sniff. "I understand." She was always understanding until you pissed her off.
"Has her family been notified?" The doctor asked hesitantly. He seemed to be judging Emily's mental state ready to have a nurse take over if things got too weepy.
"I called them. They should be here by now." She wiped the Kleenex ineffectually across her nose.
"I'm sure they'll be here soon. The coroner will need to see them as soon as possible."
The word 'coroner' triggered a few more intense sniffles from Em.
"I can assure you that she died instantly," the doctor said, patting Emily's knee. "She didn't feel any pain."
"That's a crock of shit!" I said loudly.
"You OK?" Xena had walked up behind me. She put her hand on my shoulder and began to softly knead the muscle near my neck.
"Why do doctors always say that?" I continued angrily. "Do they think we don't know they're lying? I sure as hell felt pain. A lot of it."
I walked up and stood a foot away from the doctor and Emily. "Tell him to shut the fuck up, Em." I said to my ex.
"There was massive head trauma," the doctor was continuing. I tried to ignore him, but wasn't successful. I remembered the truck in front of me, bright red brake lights, gripping the steering wheel, the air bag, the rear of the truck smashing the windshield, and I started to feel a little unwell, and Xena grabbed my arm, dragging me away. I followed her, shaking the images from my mind.
I had been going with the flow, but at that point I wondered if it was all just a dream. It was simply too preposterous, wasn't it? I was probably in a coma or having a life-saving operation. People have really weird dreams under those conditions, don't they?
Then again, I felt like I did when my cousin Timmy told me what men and women did to make babies. It was ridiculous, preposterous, and completely incomprehensible. Both sex and the afterlife were so crazy they had to be true.
"I can't find Derek anywhere," Xena said as she continued to pull me away from Emily.
Right, I thought, shifting my brain out of neutral, the mission. Focus, Al.
"If he came here at all, then he left again," Xena continued. She looked at me, concern showing in her eyes. "You OK?"
"Yeah, I I'm good."
Xena grinned at me, and I could tell that she was remembering something, but when I tried, all I saw was a fuzzy image of a cave with huge stalagmites.
"We need to get back to Derek's," she said urgently. "I was stupid. One of us should have stayed with the girl. Hang on to me."
Her words sent a tingle of adrenaline up my spine and I had fleeting memories of hanging onto crumbling cliff edges and clutching the final strands of rope bridges. And then, Pop!
Can you imagine what a piece of sock fuzz feels like when it gets sucked up by the vacuum cleaner? I mean, there it is, minding its own business, becoming really tight with the carpet fibers, when whoosh, suck, it's suddenly in a bag full of yuck. Well, I guess it's not yuck to the sock fuzz, but it still must be a shock.
Why am I telling you a story about sock fuzz? Because when I popped with Xena, I was that sock fuzz. The walking through doors thing had been hugely anticlimactic. But the popping thing? Ho boy.
"Sweet mother of god!" I squealed when we landed at Derek's apartment. Is landing the right word? Well, whatever you call it when you pop in.
"You'll get used to it," Xena murmured.
"Get used to it?" I said, feeling to make sure all my body parts were in place. "I don't want to get used to it. Xena, that was icky."
"Damn it, she's gone," Xena growled. She really was very good at growling. Her growl distracted me from the ickiness of popping. "We should have stayed with her." The growl had become a snarl. "He was bound to come back for her at some point. How could I have been so stupid?"
"Xena, come on, don't beat yourself up about it," I said, trying to soothe the savage beast did I say breast again? Oh, no, beast.
"Don't you see? It's just like before." She turned pain-filled eyes to me. "I lost focus then too let my pride drive my brain."
I had no idea what she was talking about, and didn't seem able to focus on what she was saying. Someone was yelling in my head.
Xena left the apartment and kept talking. I followed and tried to listen to her instead of the voice in my brain. We began to search the hostel looking for the girl. After twenty minutes of fruitless searching, Xena said something and turned to me for a reaction.
"What?" I asked.
"Are you even listening to me?" Xena asked with an annoyed scowl.
"I'm trying, but she's so friggin' loud," I growled. I'm not bad at growling myself, if properly motivated.
"Who? What are you talking about?"
"My mother she won't shut up." I put my hands over my ears. Not surprisingly, it did no good whatsoever.
"Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you." Xena waited for me to move my hands and then continued. "The dead can hear the thoughts of the living when they talk directly to you."
"Well, as usual, my mom won't leave me the fuck alone."
"Listen, if you want some time, I can "
"No, don't leave me," I said, reaching out to clutch Xena's arm like a three year old facing her first day at preschool.
I listened for a while and then rolled my eyes. "Not surprisingly, she's nagging me. Can you believe it, even after I'm dead, she can't stop complaining."
"Are you serious?" Xena obviously hadn't been watching my life very closely. This was very typical behavior for my mother.
"Oh yeah," I said. "She says I was driving too fast. I shouldn't have been driving such a flimsy car as if it was made out of cardboard and duct tape. I shouldn't be living in the Bay Area, it's the epicenter of evil."
"Well, she's right about that."
"So you say" suddenly, my mom's words were cut off and I could hear her crying. Then, I heard my father, crying and telling me he loved me. Xena looked at me as I went very still and tried to maintain my composure. In other words, I started to completely fall apart.
"Go to them," she whispered. "I'll wait for you."
I nodded and then found myself next to my parents. It was my first solo popping, and it felt absolutely icky. Was I ever going to get used to that?
My parents were in a small room with a dying ivy plant in one corner, and broken toys in another. They sat next to each other in chairs covered in some sort of ugly yellow material. Pictures of cornfields and windmills covered the walls. I realized immediately that this was the "grieving family room" in the hospital. You'd think they could have piped in some uplifting music. A Souza march would have been nice.
My mom was leaning into my dad. He had his arm around her shoulders and she was sobbing into his polyester golf shirt. My dad had tears in his eyes. I watched the tears accumulate and finally fall down his cheeks. I realized I'd never seen him cry before.
That was wrong. In fact, everything was wrong. That's all I could think. My death was wrong. Does that sound selfish? Shit, of course it was selfish. I wanted to be alive. I wanted my parents to be happy again. I wanted my mom to be nagging me because I still had a chance to do things differently, not because I'd wasted my life. I wanted my dad to be proud of me. I wanted to be happy and with Xena. That realization snuck up on me and I felt that horrible sucking feeling. This time, I was relieved. I popped next to Xena. We were back in my bedroom in my apartment. I fell into her arms, and she held me while I cried.
"I'm so tired," I mumbled, when the tears finally slowed down.
"Sleep now," she said, and I felt the vibration of her words through my cheek, which was pressed tightly against her chest. "It'll be better in the morning."
I believed her; she never lied to me before. I remembered that at the same time I remembered what it felt like to have her strong, warm arms hold me tight.
Remember that sock fuzz I was telling you about before? Well, when I woke up some time later, I felt like my mouth was full of it. I just have to say that it is completely unfair to wake up with a dry mouth and not be able to drink the water that's sitting on the table next to you. I decided that whoever organized the afterlife needed to rethink a few things. I started a list. Number one: either allow the dead the ability to eat and drink, or don't make them hungry and thirsty.
Thinking about drinking made me think about coffee, and I started whimpering. I looked out through my bedroom door and could see my coffee maker in the kitchen. It was sitting there, patiently waiting to be of service. All I would have to do was grind the beans, put a filter in, pour in the coffee, pour in the water, and hit that beautiful red button.
I whimpered again, then finally realized that something was missing. OK, someone was missing. One tall, dark, deadly, grumpy, monosyllabic, beautiful, ex-warrior princess was nowhere to be found.
Maybe my emotions were a little on edge because of the whole coffee thing. But once I realized Xena was missing, I panicked.
Had she realized that I wasn't really this Gabrielle person after all? Or was I this Gabrielle person, but did she think I would never get my memory back? Had she decided to cut her losses and find some cute blonde bimbo who would carry her sword and wash her feet every night? Was she leaving me in a safe place so that she could risk her neck while I kept the fire blazing and cooked the fish?
Or was she dead? I mean, of course she was dead. But had she gone up against this evil god on her own and gotten her soul eaten - or whatever evil gods do?
My head started spinning and my palms got sweaty. I quickly added "The dead shouldn't have panic attacks" to my list as I listened to my breath coming in gasps like it belonged to someone else. Just as the spots starting dancing in my vision, I felt a presence beside me and I sank into a familiar embrace.
"You weren't here," I said, trying to get my breath under control. "And I thought you were I didn't."
Actually, I may have been a little less coherent than that.
"It's OK," Xena said, running her fingers through my hair. "I'm here now. I'm sorry I left you alone."
I sat there for a while, enjoying the warmth and comfort. I thought about how safe and secure I felt when she held me in her arms.
"Can we stay like this for eternity?" I asked when I got my breath back.
"No," she said softly, continuing to stroke my head. "Because my arm is going to sleep."
"Oh, sorry." I reluctantly pulled out of her embrace.
She smiled warmly, but then frowned and started shaking her arm. "Ow, pins and needles, pins and needles, ow, ow, ow."
"So what have you been up to?" I asked as she continued to wave her arm and then rub it vigorously. "Did you find Derek? Did you find the girl? What time is it anyway? Is there really no way I can have coffee?"
I'm always like that when I wake up. I think it's because I haven't had a chance to talk for a while. It backs up.
"It's around noon," Xena replied, finally tucking her arm beside her.
I waited for more information, but she obviously hadn't heard my fifty other questions. I tried again. One at a time might work better.
"So, you've had eight hours. What have you been doing?"
"I didn't find Derek or the girl, but I've been gathering information. I can't believe you slept for eight hours." Xena seemed a little preoccupied with the time. Yes, we were on a mission, but I would have appreciated a little more detail on the information she'd gathered. We were partners, right?
I started to feel pissed off and then a memory hit me. I was talking to Xena about not sharing "The Plan". It couldn't have been a real memory, since we were in a modern movie back lot. But my feelings were definitely authentic.
"Spill it, warrior princess, or I'm going to sleep for another eight hours and then find my own way to the Pearly Gates."
"Just slow down," she said, holding her hands out in a placating motion. Then she looked up at the ceiling. "Is it too much to ask that in just one lifetime she could be a morning person?"
"Who are you talking to?" I asked, looking up at my bedroom ceiling and only seeing a few cobwebs.
"No one," Xena replied. I didn't need any memories to know she was hiding something. Everyone who's ever lied to me has had that exact same look.
"Is there some kind of divine being who's watching this whole shebang? Does she look just like Martha Stewart? Can I meet her? Why can't I have a direct line to God?"
"Gabrielle " Xena's hands were still placating. "Do you want to know what I found out or not?"
"I just want to understand the politics of the afterlife. You know, who to make friends with, who I can snub. Let's say I'm at some big soiree in heaven. I'm standing at the buffet table and there's only one crab leg left. Someone who looks like Martha Stewart is standing next to me, reaching for it. Do I hold back or make a quick grab?"
"Do you lie awake at night thinking of this stuff?" Xena asked.
She looked like she had no idea what I was talking about. Obviously, she didn't need to worry; she had God's cell phone number and God took her calls.
"Fine. Let me commit the ultimate social faux pas."
"Allison " Xena grumbled.
"OK," I replied with a sigh. "Why don't you just tell me what you discovered about Derek 'Mr. Evil Personified'?" I made little quote marks with my fingers.
Xena rolled her eyes at my little quote marks.
"Well, I hung around at the hostel," she said when her eyes returned to their proper position. "I learned how to make lentil soup, how to pad your resume, and the best places in Berkeley to panhandle."
"That's nice," I said sarcastically.
"I also learned that Derek's having some big party on Saturday night." She looked at me and titled her head forward, raising her eyebrows.
"Oh, yeah," I said with an off-hand shrug. "It's the social event of the season. It's going to be at some rich philanthropist's mansion in the Oakland hills."
"And you forgot to mention this because?" Xena drawled.
"I didn't think " I began.
"Obviously you didn't think," Xena said, cutting off my explanation.
I don't like to be interrupted, even in the middle of a lame excuse.
"Xena, I had a few other things on my mind. Like dying."
She didn't like that excuse either.
"Gab-Allison, I told you that Dahak was planning to ascend into this world with Derek's help. We've been trying to figure out what he's up to. You couldn't just mention this party? What did you need me to do, draw pictures?"
"OK, I should have told you!" I snapped. "Excuse me, all right? You know about the party now, so let's just drop it."
"Fine!" she snapped back.
"Good!" I don't always need the last word, but in this situation it was required.
She opened her mouth as if to challenge my last word stake, when we both heard the front door of my apartment opening.
I was being burgled posthumously? Well, I thought, that just takes the cake.
Xena reached for her hip (though she swears now that she didn't). Fortunately, her chakram wasn't there. There was also no six-shooter or any other deadly weapon that I'm sure she wielded in previous lives. I say "fortunately" because after a few seconds, Emily walked through the door. I'm not sure if Xena could have harmed Emily with her ghostly chakram, but I'm glad I didn't have to find out.
I watched Emily curiously as Xena unbent from her defensive crouch. Em carried an empty box. It was actually an empty Duraflame log box, but that has no bearing to the story, so I don't know why I'm bothering to tell you.
Em paused in the living room and looked around like she didn't know where she was. You could tell she'd been crying and hadn't slept. To be blunt, she looked like shit. She took a deep breath, and then came into the bedroom.
"Hi, Em," I said. I couldn't stand the silence, and it seemed so strange to be in full view yet not be seen.
She picked up my pillow and hugged it, taking a deep sniff. She started crying again. I wanted to hand her a tissue you know, the snot problem.
"You stupid little shit," Emily said through her tears.
It was a term of endearment really. Xena snorted and I gave her a dirty look. She decided it might be better to leave us alone, and skirted around Emily, leaving the bedroom.
"You know I promised you I'd do this," Emily said. She began looking around my room. She spotted my erotic calendar and unpinned it from the wall.
That's when I realized why she was there. One night, after a few too many vodka and red bulls, we'd made a pact. If either of us died unexpectedly, the other would get to her apartment before the family could and remove all embarrassing items. We were both out to our families, but telling your mom and dad that you're a lesbian is a lot different than having them find your strap on in your underwear drawer.
"Thanks, Emily; you're a real pal," I said.
"I thought it was funny at the time," Emily said, as she pulled out my back issues of On Our Backs magazine.
"It's important, Em," I replied as if she could hear me.
"I just can't believe this happened." She started pulling some of the more tawdry books from my bookshelf.
"I know, Em. I'm a moron. By the way, my mom bought me The Guide to Lesbian Sex, so you can leave that one."
Emily looked at the book in her hand, and then put it back on the shelf. Maybe, on some level, she could hear me.
She picked up the dog-eared copy of Best Lesbian Erotica 2001 and threw it in the box, then opened the drawer on my bedside table and removed all my vibrators. Finally, she sat on the bed beside me.
"Under the bed, Emily," I said. "Don't forget the stuff under the bed."
"Well, that's it, I guess," Emily said with another deep sigh.
"No, no, under the bed!" I shouted. Now she doesn't hear me. Does God hate me?
"Oh yeah," Emily said, bending over and pulling the box out from under my bed.
Emily sat on the bed, staring off into space.
"I'm sorry, Em," I said. I was sorry that I couldn't love her as much as she needed as much as she loved me. I was sorry that I couldn't talk to her and explain.
"I'll never forgive you for this, you little shit," Emily said.
"Yes you will," I replied. I reached my hand up to her face and touched the tear that trailed down her cheek. For just a second, I could feel it, and her head jerked. She turned and looked directly at me.
"Love you," she whispered, and then grabbed the boxes and hurried out of the apartment.
Xena wandered back in just as I stood up.
"Let's go," I said, brushing past her. I didn't wait to see if she was following.
I got down to the sidewalk and then realized I had no idea where I was going. Xena quickly caught up. I swore that if she asked me if I was all right, I was going to deck her.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
I decided not to deck her.
"I'm fine. What's the plan?" I asked briskly.
Most people would have realized that I was avoiding talking about certain subjects like Emily, my death, that kind of thing. Xena wasn't most people.
"She really loved you, you know," Xena said.
I glared at her. Most people would have recognized that my glare meant "drop it". Did I mention that Xena wasn't most people?
"She's always loved you," Xena continued. I kept glaring. "She's loved you in all our lives, although sometimes she's been your sister or mother."
My glare became a look of curiosity.
"Do you remember her?" Xena asked.
And I did. I remembered an Amazon with curly ash blonde hair giving me her mother's fighting staff.
An Amazon Princess doesn't refuse a gift from another Amazon.
"Ephiny," I whispered.
"I thought you and Emily were good together. Why did you break up with her?" Xena asked. Man, she just wouldn't let this go, would she?
"She smothered me, I needed breathing room," I replied with a non-committal shrug.
"She loved you and you broke her heart," Xena said, looking searchingly into my face. I felt my jaw clenching.
"Can you be any more melodramatic?" I asked coldly.
Xena kept searching my face. I felt like her eyes were crystal blue darts and my face was a balloon. I couldn't stand it any more and turned away. I walked rapidly down the sidewalk.
"I'm going to need dynamite to break through those walls," Xena said sadly as she followed behind me. "Hopefully I'll find a real heart beating somewhere and not a cold piece of ice."
I really wanted to come up with a witty comeback, but I just couldn't. I sniffed loudly, jammed my hands into my pockets, and continued to stride down the sidewalk.
I walked back toward the hostel, because I had no better idea of where to go. Maybe we'd luck out and find the girl with my nose. I don't mean use my nose to find the girl; I meant the girl, who had my nose, we would find. Or something like that. Anyway, like Xena said, where the girl was, Derek was sure to be eventually.
I spent the entire walk thinking about what Xena had said, yet pretending that I wasn't thinking about what Xena had said. Finally, she stopped talking, but I could hear her steps behind me and feel her eyes boring into the back of my head.
I wondered if I really was a cold, heartless bitch. Maybe I broke up with Emily because I knew she wasn't my true soulmate. Wasn't that what Xena should believe? Speaking of Xena, she certainly had a lot of nerve. She wasn't exactly going to win Miss Congeniality, was she? Some would even say she put the "ice" in Ice Princess.
She was just pissed, so she was taking it out on me. It all came down to me having no memory of being Gabrielle. Well, I couldn't do anything about that, could I? I was trying my best. All things considered, I think I was doing a damn fine job dealing with being dead. How many people have you heard say those words? Not many, I'll bet. So, Xena wasn't going to get away with hassling me about it. She could shove her "cold piece of ice" comments up her
"I'm sorry," I heard myself say. I thought there was an echo, but realized that Xena said the same words at the same time.
"I shouldn't have said you had a cold piece of ice for a heart," she said.
"I'm sorry I'm being such a bitch," I answered.
"You have every right to be upset with what's going on," Xena said. "You're coping very well considering you died last night."
I winced at the "d" word.
"I think it's just the lack of coffee," I mused. "If you do have a hotline to God, could you see if you could arrange something? I'll even take instant at this point."
Xena grinned. "I'll see what I can do."
I almost said, "There is a God" but realized that I hadn't seen her yet.
"So, what's the plan?" I asked, trying to look raring to go, sans coffee.
"You seem to know where you're going," Xena said, moving to stride beside me.
"Well, OK." I grinned at being put in charge however short my rule might be. I took a deep, commanding breath. "If the big party is only two nights away, Derek may be at the place getting things ready."
"Exactly!" Xena exclaimed. "He'll be readying the site, preparing an altar, making sure it's easily defended."
"Well, I was thinking more in terms of making sure the crystal was polished and the champagne was chilling," I replied. "Anyway, we need to get up to the house. Unfortunately, my invitation with the map was in the glove compartment of my car."
"Ah." Xena said.
"'Ah' is right," I agreed. "But I'm thinking there must be something lying around the hostel. I know you were hanging around there all morning, but now we know what we're looking for. At the same time, there's always the chance we'll run into the girl with my nose."
"You don't mean run your nose into the girl."
"No, I meant the girl, who has my nose, may be run into by us." I clarified unclearly.
"So, sound like a plan?" I looked up at her, suddenly feeling unsure.
"Sounds like a great plan," she said, throwing her arm across my shoulders.
Things were looking up.
After three hours of looking in every room of the hostel for an invitation or a map, and finding neither, things were looking down.
"It was a good plan," Xena said, trying to sound encouraging. Unfortunately, it reminded me of an adult telling a three year old that they'd drawn a great picture when it was really just a mess of squiggly lines in primary colors.
We'd gone into every room of the hostel and listened in on way too many conversations. There were no maps posted to notice boards, and no excited whispers about the big soiree.
We ended up sitting in an empty corner in the TV room, still hoping someone would say something about the party. Xena seemed to be paying more attention to Judge Judy.
"I guess no one here's been invited," I finally admitted.
"Of course not," Xena said. "Why invite the people who are actually supposed to benefit from the fund-raising? I'm sure there'll be a few token homeless, as long as they're photogenic enough. But they'll be brought in the back door and then quickly taken out again when the cameras are turned off."
I wanted to tell her that she was being far too cynical, but I wasn't exactly "Miss Glass is Half Full" myself.
"You're right, but I'm sure if Derek knew "
"Don't you dare sing Derek's praises. Can't you remember what happened with Khrafstar?" Xena asked angrily.
"No," I replied just as angrily. I can't help it when someone snaps at me I snap back. It's a defense mechanism.
"You didn't try to remember," Xena prodded, her forehead furrowing with frustration. "Maybe if you closed your eyes "
"I can't remember, OK?"
"But you remembered other things, didn't you?" She had that wistful look in her eyes again. This time, it was directed right at me. How could you say "no" to that?
"No," I said coldly. I heard the words "cold piece of ice" echoing in my head and decided to rephrase my response. "Maybe I remembered something I don't know. Sometimes I see pictures, but I I'm not sure."
She kept looking at me so I closed my eyes and tried to remember. Nothing, just the backs of my eyelids.
"Well?" she asked hopefully when I opened my eyes again.
"I'm sorry," I said.
I didn't lie to Xena. I hadn't seen anything. But I'd felt something, just for a moment. As if a hand was pushing me away. I looked at the disappointment in Xena's face and my hands started shaking. I crossed my arms, hiding my hands in my armpits. She noticed, but pretended that she hadn't.
"That's OK," she said, trying but not quite achieving an encouraging smile. "It'll come."
I felt like I was standing on a train platform, waiting for the 5:15 express. The train was late, but Xena was standing beside me, reassuring me that it was on its way. There was a tingle in the pit of my stomach. The problem was, I couldn't decide if it was joyous anticipation or terrible dread.
I didn't have much time to consider my tingly stomach before we heard the words we'd been waiting for most of the afternoon.
"Can some of you guys pick up the boxes from the storage room and load them in the van? They need them for the party at the mansion."
We turned to see a large man leaning into the TV room. He had a bent nose that had obviously been broken a few too many times and no right ear lobe. He cast a belligerent eye on two teenagers sitting on the sofa. For a minute, they looked like they were going to ignore him, but then wisely changed their minds and got up. We followed them outside.
It was simple, really. All we had to do was wait for them to load the boxes, and then hitch a lift.
"That was a great plan I had, huh Xena?" I said as the van sped toward the hills with us in the back.
"Yes, Gabrielle, it was a great plan," Xena agreed. I decided not to quibble about the use of that other name.
"So, how can we be sitting in this van, and not sink through?" I asked as we merged onto the freeway.
"I told you before, it's all about perception," Xena said. She closed her eyes and leaned against the wall of the van.
I was interrupted by a snore. I realized a little shamefully that I'd had eight hours of sleep while she'd been information gathering. I stayed quiet for the rest of the trip and tried not to think about oozing out the bottom of the van.
I started to feel carsick the minute the van headed up the winding roads of the hills. Getting carsick when you're dead was one more thing to add to my list.
Luckily, we reached our destination just as my tongue began to stick to the roof of my mouth. That was dangerously close to the point of no return. I swallowed a few times as the van slowed, and then put my hand on Xena's knee to wake her. I turned and found her already alert and ready for action. She was in commando mode again.
The minute the back doors of the van opened, we jumped out. Well, Xena jumped out. I stumbled, nearly twisted my ankle, and then knocked my elbow through the guy with no ear lobe.
"Fucking shit goddamn cocksuckers!" I shouted vehemently. I didn't really need to say "vehemently", did I?
"Graceful as ever," Xena drawled.
I glared at her and tried to pick up the pieces of my scattered dignity.
"I'll have you know I studied ballet for six years," I said as I tried to walk gracefully up the path.
"And you hated it," Xena replied. "The only reason you kept going was because you liked looking up the other girls' tutus."
I'd forgotten that Xena had been spying on me most of my life. This was so not fair.
"You know," I replied, "all those times you were watching me, you could have sent me a sign or told me something useful."
"Yeah like 'Becky Foster's a lying bitch' or 'don't take that blue pill, you'll be tripping for a week'. Shit, the winning numbers to the lottery would have been nice."
"You didn't need to win the lottery," Xena claimed ludicrously.
"Are you crazy? Never mind, I already know the answer to that."
She smiled at me indulgently, like a parent smiles at a child who has just finished a piano recital. I rolled my eyes and sighed, like a child who has just been smiled at indulgently by her parent after her piano recital.
"Why don't you stop thinking about my mental state, and take a look around you," Xena said. "Do you notice anything strange?"
I did as instructed. We were high in the hills actually on top of the ridge. It was a clear day, and the entire Bay Area was laid out below us. It looked like an alien landscape all blue and silver and green. It was beautiful. If I had an extra hundred million dollars or so, I'd have to build my mansion on this very spot. Too bad I never won the lottery.
"Wow," I said, struck into monosyllable by the view.
"Look closer," Xena said, turning me gently to the left.
I was looking at the mansion now. It looked more like a castle. There was a high stone wall and an actual iron gate topped with vicious-looking spikes. The gate was open, and what we could see of the mansion revealed a gothic structure with a massive tower at one end. I imagined a young virgin being locked inside by her evil stepfather. The mansion appeared to be made of stone and it appeared to be hundreds of years old as old as any similar castle in Europe. But all of that was impossible. First of all, that much stone couldn't possibly have been hauled all the way up the hills to build the castle the expense would have been astronomical. Second of all, the oldest houses on the ridge couldn't be more than a hundred years old and even that was stretching it.
"Wow," I repeated, still stuck in my favorite monosyllable.
"Did you notice the trees?" Xena asked.
I looked. There were huge trees ringing the castle walls, providing even more seclusion to the property. They were mainly thick fir trees, their dark branches tangling together and wrapping around the tops of the stone walls.
"They look menacing," I said, proud that I managed to get beyond "wow".
"They shouldn't be here," Xena stated.
OK, that one flew over my head. I looked at her in confusion as it fluttered away.
"Look at the area around us," Xena said, pointing up and then down the hill. "Notice something?"
I looked around at the denuded hills and new homes all around us. In 1991, a fire started in a box canyon and quickly turned into a firestorm. The fire had swept this area, consuming everything in its path. No house, tree, or blade of grass was left. That is, no house, tree, or blade of grass besides the house and trees and blades of grass I was standing next to.
"I don't understand," I said, looking again at the trees for signs of the fire. "Maybe the castle survived because it was made of stone or the fire didn't jump the walls, but the trees "
"Let's go inside and see what other interesting things we can discover." Xena was grinning like a kid on her way to the ice cream parlor. She was easily amused.
We walked past the men from the van, who were setting up outdoor lights, lining the drive toward the castle.
Right, I mused, that really cheers it up. Add a few balloons and the partygoers will never think they're approaching Count Dracula's castle.
We passed through the iron gates. It was absolutely quiet in the forecourt. At first, I thought it was because there was no one around. Then I realized that all the noises I'd heard outside the gates the birdsong, the men working, the ambient sounds of the Bay Area were gone.
"It's quiet," I said astutely.
"As the grave," Xena replied. I winced and she made a face halfway between a grimace and a grin. "Sorry."
I guess when you've been dead for nearly twenty years, you can joke about it. It was still a bit difficult for me.
The front doors were heavy oak with wrought iron hinges. Like the rest of the castle, they were obviously hundreds of years old. You just can't fake that.
We walked through the doors and entered a huge entry hall. Several people were cleaning and decorating. A man was on a ladder polishing a huge chandelier. A woman was wrapping a garland of realistic looking ivy around the banister of a great stairway. The stairs wound up and away from us for at least forty feet.
I had that feeling you get when you're somewhere you're not supposed to be. I instinctively crouched down behind Xena and began to follow her on my tiptoes through the entry hall.
"They can't see you, remember?" Xena said loudly as she strode forward.
"Sorry," I said, forcing myself to stand a little taller. "The creep factor in this place threw me off."
The entry hall led to a large banquet room, where more people were setting up massive tables for the buffet. There were small tables and chairs around a large dance floor. The furnishings were all impeccable. It was obvious that no expense was being spared.
"Wow," I said, back to my favorite monosyllable, "now I'm sorry I'm going to miss the party."
"I don't think you would have seen much of it, even if you attended," Xena said, moving to a small door set unobtrusively in a corner of the room.
"What do you mean? And where are you going?" I said, jogging a little to catch up.
"We're going down," Xena replied. "And I think you'll understand the rest when we get there."
We walked through the door and headed down the rickety wooden steps that started immediately past the doorway. Wood gave way to stone after awhile, and still we moved downward.
"Tell me it's my imagination and it's not getting warmer," I requested.
"I don't want to lie to you," Xena replied.
Finally the stairs stopped. There was a roaring sound, like a high wind. It was pitch dark, but from the feel of the air and the echo of sound, I could tell we were on the edge of a large open space. I heard Xena fumble with something, and suddenly torches, which ringed the huge space, illuminated the cavernous room.
"Holy shit!" I cried, moving closer to Xena. I was already pretty damn close, but now you wouldn't be able to slip a piece of toilet paper between us.
"There's definitely some shit involved," Xena said, "but it sure as hell ain't holy."
The room was the size of a football field. A massive stone edifice had been erected in the center. It was obviously an altar and was ornately carved with scenes of death and torture. The roaring sound I had heard, as well as the heat, was emanating from behind this altar.
Xena walked casually toward it. She was like a little kid that fell into the lion's cage at the zoo toddling toward the animal and shouting, "Here kitty!"
I was torn between sticking to Xena like glue and trusting her to protect us, or staying at the foot of the stairs the only visible means of escape. It wasn't much of a choice; I stayed where I was. What can I say? I've got trust issues.
Xena stopped in front of the structure and gazed at it, her hands on her hips.
"Gab-Allison, come here, you've got to see this," she said, turning toward me.
"Do the words 'no fucking way in hell' mean anything to you?" I asked.
"It's OK," she said reassuringly. "At least for the moment," she added losing her reassurance points immediately.
"I'm good right here, thanks. I'll just pick up a postcard on the way out. The pictures are always better than the real thing anyway."
"I really think you'll want to see this," Xena said.
Curiosity is a powerful emotion. For some people, it's stronger than fear. I'm one of those people. And Xena knows me way too well.
I walked hesitantly toward her, waiting for someone or something to jump out at us. When I got close enough, I discovered that the altar was built around a gaping hole in the ground. The tremendous heat was coming from this fissure, as well as a smell like rotten eggs. Brimstone, I thought to myself, and then pretended I hadn't thought it. The carvings in the stone were gruesome and horribly realistic; they appeared to be ancient. There were dark marks in some places, and I pretended that I wasn't seeing bloodstains. There sure was a lot of pretending going on.
"It's horrible," I said. I grabbed Xena's arm. "But it's just some multi-millionaire's idea of art. He probably brings his dates down here to scare the shit out of them. So, let's go, yeah?"
I pulled at Xena's sleeve, but she didn't move.
"You didn't notice the display?" she said, nodding her head toward an alcove in the altar.
I looked over and saw a strange collection of items sitting there. I edged forward a little to get a better look. There was a wooden staff, two three-pronged daggers, a wooden lamb, and a metal disc with sharpened edges.
"Some kind of collection of weapons," I said. "Except the lamb. Of course, you could probably bludgeon someone with it."
"They're all things of yours, Gabrielle," Xena said, shaking her head. "Don't you remember?"
I remembered that it was the same staff that Emily I mean Ephiny had given me. And then another memory came to me. "I think I remember throwing that staff into a wide river."
"Dahak must have watched it and kept tabs on it," Xena mused.
"What about the other stuff?" I asked.
"Your sais, your lamb," Xena replied. "It's a shrine to you."
"What's that metal disc?" I asked, reaching out and touching the cold metal.
"Careful," Xena said, pulling my hand back. "It's sharp. That's my chakram."
"So it's not just a shrine to Gabrielle," I pointed out.
Xena looked pensive for a moment. "No, I didn't mean my chakram. It became yours." She looked like she was going to say more, but she clenched her jaw. A jumble of emotions flickered quickly through her eyes anger, sorrow, shame. Then they were gone.
"There's something else," she said, moving closer to the items. She leaned over and then pointed behind the lamb. I moved cautiously toward her and looked where she was pointing.
"Hey, that's my fountain pen," I cried indignantly. "My dad bought that for me when I told him I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I was eight. I thought I'd lost that forever."
"Dahak has collected everything that's important to you everything that defines you," Xena explained.
"Creep me out!" I exclaimed. "This is just like TV, when the cops find the psycho stalker's hidden room and there are pictures of the leading lady plastered all over the walls."
"All he needed for the collection was you."
I still didn't want to believe any of this. Yes, I was in denial. But it was a much more comfortable place to be than at the scene of my planned sacrifice.
"OK, Xena, look," I began. "So someone has a little obsessive-compulsive disorder. This someone may or may not be Derek."
"Shh," I said, holding up my hand. "Let me finish." Xena sighed, but remained silent. "I'm just suggesting that we shouldn't jump to any conclusions here."
"Gab " I looked at her sharply. She started again, "Allison what do you need me to do to convince you that we're fighting the ultimate evil?"
"All I see is some kind of old stone altar that was probably purchased on the black market and smuggled into the country, a little collection of junk that may or may not be associated with Gabrielle, and my fountain pen."
"You're forgetting the opening to Dahak's realm," Xena said.
"Xena, I find it hard to believe that the gateway to hell is in the basement of a mansion in the Oakland hills. Now, if it was in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese, I might believe you."
I suppose it's not a good idea to make fun of evil entities when you're standing right next to their front door. No sooner had my joke about Chuck E. Cheese escaped from my lips than an ominous rumbling began, and the ground beneath my feet began to move. We were having an earthquake at a very inconvenient moment. The words "what a fucking coincidence" sprang to mind, but before I could voice them, a red glow began to emanate from the hole.
"Run!" Xena shouted.
I felt the heat building and a pressure growing with it, as if something was squeezing my head. I tried to breathe, but the air was being sucked forcefully from my lungs.
I heard someone say, in a strangled, helpless voice, "I can't, I can't". It took me a moment to realize that it had been me. I wanted to move, but my feet refused to obey orders. I screamed at them, but they stuck to their treasonous ways.
I felt an immense jerk and my arm was nearly pulled out of its socket. I was moving in the right direction away from the altar so I didn't protest. Xena half dragged and half carried me across the floor and on to the stairs. I'm sure she would have continued to haul my ass up the steps, but I knew, in a panicked, barely coherent way, that it would have slowed us down. I thrashed a bit, and she lowered me enough that I could get my feet under me. My momentum kept me moving upwards, and she followed.
We finally reached the top and fell through the door. I could feel the energy from the basement withdraw, and I knew we were safe for the moment, but my body was still shaking with the sudden fear. I took fast, panting breaths. I felt the need to say something, but the only things that came out of my mouth were groans and single syllables like "ga" and "bu" and "shi".
Xena's eyes were wide and I could see her body twitch as the adrenaline slowly left her system.
"Are you all right?" she asked. She ran hands over my arms and shoulders and stroked the side of my head and face, reassuring herself that I was OK.
I nodded and took a deep breath, letting it out as slowly as I could manage which was about a millisecond. "Fuck," I said. My first discernable word - it seemed appropriate.
"Wh why didn't you pop?" I stuttered.
"Why didn't you pop?" she asked. She was just managing to catch her breath.
"Too busy doing the Shaggy and Scooby-Doo impression, I suppose," I said. "Shit."
"That's what we're up against," Xena explained unnecessarily.
"Evil," I said. "Got it."
"He wants to take over the universe," she continued.
"Not a good thing," I said, still trying to breathe. "Also understood."
"We can't let that happen," Xena said.
"Whoa. That's where you start to get a little fuzzy," I said, waving my hand to stop her. "It's the 'we' part of that equation."
I realized we were still uncomfortably close to the door to the basement and began to move away and across the room.
"Gabrielle, no one else can do this," Xena said, following me.
"You seem to have missed my performance down there," I said. I didn't particularly want to relive it, but I had to make my point. "I froze and turned into a blithering idiot. This doesn't bode well for our success."
"Your reaction was understandable. He hurt you Gabrielle, he " she stopped herself and I could see in her eyes the decision not to say more. "You may not remember everything, but a part of you obviously does."
"And whatever part that is, it obviously controls my legs. I don't function very well without moveable legs. I think you'd better tell God that she's made a horrible mistake. You need to find another assistant. I know it's short notice and all, but unemployment is quite high in the Bay Area right now. I'm sure you could find someone more suitable. Admittedly, it's a specialized profession "
"Allison," Xena said, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Take it easy."
Her hand felt nice there, and it calmed me a little at least enough to stop my insane diatribe.
"All we have to do is stop Derek," Xena said. "If we can manage that, we won't ever have to go near that altar again."
"That would be a good thing," I said with an encouraged smile.
"So let's concentrate on that," she said decisively.
"Right. Brain ready to concentrate on Derek," I reported. I would have girded my loins, but I didn't know how.
Xena looked around indecisively, and I felt my resolve crumble a bit.
I was about to tell her where to place her help wanted ad, when two men walked past us. One of them carried a clipboard and looked disgruntled.
"So Derek hears about some antique and just drops everything and hops on a plane to LA," the disgruntled man said. "Leaves me in the shit. Everything's going wrong the caterers claim we ordered food for twice as many people as we did, the champagne won't arrive until the last minute, and won't be properly chilled, the string quartet cancelled "
"When will Derek be back?" the other man asked, trying to look sympathetic, but obviously not caring.
"Tomorrow sometime. He has to pick up another big shipment at some point in the day, I'm not sure when. I do know that he still won't be around here to help me."
The man continued to grumble as he walked away with his companion.
"Well, that was convenient," I said with a smile.
"We know that Derek isn't around tonight, but we'll need to figure out how to find him tomorrow," Xena replied.
"At least it means we can get out of 'Transylvania'. And hopefully never come back again."
I moved quickly toward the front doors.
"Right behind you," Xena said, following on my heels.
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
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