The Transmundane, Episode 12: On the Paths of the Dead

Seitetsu turned around in a complete circle, but none of the dark-windowed houses sitting behind flawless lawns on either side of the street was at all familiar. All the books said astral travel was dangerous, but I didn't think they meant getting lost within ten blocks of your house!

The streetlights smudged the signs with orange glare, but Ashlyn said, "We're still on Grove, but that says Sepulchre Drive. There's nothing like that crossing Grove." She pivoted too. "That's weird, I can't see through the windows. It's like they're all painted black on the inside or something."

Sepulchre. He walked back to the intersection and looked down the streets of identical white-painted, grey-roofed houses running off to the vanishing point in each direction. Far away, past where he could see, the streetlights merged with the stars. Oh shit.

Behind him, Ashlyn gasped. He spun, but she was just staring down Sepulchre Drive and hugging herself despite the mild night and her sweatshirt. "It doesn't end," she whispered, her voice choked with tears. "Just this, to the darkness behind the farthest stars..."

He took her hand, but she didn't seem to notice. "It doesn't end. Just a speck of life, and then this, forever."

"Ashlyn, you're creeping me out." She stopped talking, but he could see the tears dripping like orange jewels from her face. "Ashlyn!" He moved obligingly enough when he pulled on her hand, but her eyes seemed locked to the end of the endless street. Only one thing to do. He reached up and covered them with his hands.

Ashlyn gave a brief shriek and half-collapsed on him, burying her face in his chest. "Oh, God," she mumbled after a moment. "Oh my fucking god."

"What? What is it? Are you okay?"

Headlights cast their combined shadow across the intersection and Seitetsu automatically moved to the sidewalk, half-carrying Ashlyn. Wow, she's light. I hope that doesn't mean what I think it means.

With an almost inaudible purr, the white-and-gold bus pulled up next to them and the door swished open.

Tetsu looked up at the driver, who wore a spotless white uniform with a cap that shadowed his face and glittered with gold braid all around the brim. Then he looked at the logo of golden wings and circle on the spotless white side of the bus. Forces of good come to the rescue, or the bus to Kingdom Come? But almost anywhere's got to be better than here. He was about to help Ashlyn into the bus when she pulled away.

"No! Look at the sign!"

PANDEMONIUM VIA DIS & YOMI. I guess that answers that question! His mouth was so dry that his "No thanks" to the driver came out as more of a croak, but it seemed to do.

"All right. You'll get where you're going in the end anyway," the driver said. The door shut and the bus glided away down Sepulchre Drive.

"That was close!" He maneuvered Ashlyn from the sidewalk to the lawn and lowered her to the perfectly-trimmed grass. "Ashlyn, are you all right?"

"Just give me a minute." She flopped back on the grass, eyes closed, and breathed deeply.

How does she look like that even in a sweatshirt? No wonder Tiffy doesn't like her! No, no, bad Tetsu. Mind out of the gutter until you rescue Ashlyn from the Suburb of the Dead! Something reassuring, um. "Well, at least we know the world isn't as bad as we thought." Being a smartass is sort of like being reassuring, right?

"We do?"

"Well, the bus to Hell was empty, anyway."

"It was?" She sat up suddenly and opened her eyes, but then squeezed them shut again. "Damn it," she said through clenched teeth. "I really really hate this place!" She settled her breathing again and continued. "How can the bus to Hell be empty? All you have to do is turn on CNN and you'll see hundreds of people who belong there!"

"They say God is all-merciful, maybe he doesn't send anyone to Hell. But then why bother with a bus?"

Ashlyn put her hands protectively in front of her eyes and peered around awkwardly. "Tetsu, can you break into one of these houses?"

"Sure, I guess. You see a rock anywhere?" But the perfect yards and perfect street didn't have anything lying loose, so he settled for wrapping his coat around his hand and punching the window.

The window shattered as easily as spun sugar. Shards of glass two or three centimeters thick bounced glittering across the pale carpet. They were the only thing on it.

"You're right. It's empty. Not even marks in the carpet where something used to be."

She made her way across the lawn toward him; he hurried back and put his arm around her. "For sale, one afterlife, never used, still in shrinkwrap?"

"But not in mint condition any more."

"Well, no. Did you really have to break the window?"

"Uh." He tried the doorknob, which turned easily. "I guess not. But you said to 'break in'!"

"I guess I did. Doesn't matter, apparently."

"If they have bus drivers here, they might have cops."

"Even jail would be better than this; at least there'd be someone you could beat up. But they might call the troll to bail us out."

"I don't know if I could beat up an angel anyway. So, how do we get out of here?"

"Oh, sure, make me do all the thinking." She hugged him closer, though.

"I did say I loved you for your mind!"

"Keep buttering me up. I'm thinking."

"Uh." If she hadn't asked... "You're gorgeous and brilliant and will undoubtedly get us out of here before the Pigs of Heaven show up?"

She burst out laughing. "Pigs? Does anyone say that anymore?"

"Hey, bellbottoms came back around!"

"Bleah. Don't remind me." A moment later, she exclaimed, "Stars! Can we navigate by the stars?" She tilted her face up and shielded her eyes from the horizon with her hand. "Um, do you remember how to find the Pole Star?"

He looked up too, but none of the constellations looked at all familiar. I walked back to the intersection, and looked left, so whatever street is to the right of those stars is it. I hope. "Come on, I think I have an idea." He led her back to the intersection. "Stay here, okay?"

"No!" She clutched at his hand in near-panic.

Threaten to abandon the girl who's scared to open her eyes, yah. Smooth move, moron. "Okay, okay! I won't leave you." He gripped her hand firmly. "I just need to look around a bit. I think I can figure out which way is back."

"Okay. Sorry."

"My fault. Don't worry about it." Yah! There's that triangle around the end of the road. Well, if it had an end. "Okay, I looked down that street, so back is this way." I hope.

"I hope you know what you're doing."

"Me too. Watch out, curb."

"Thanks. Maybe we better walk in the street."

A block of identical houses passed, then another. Or maybe the same one. I wonder if we went back, if that window would still be broken.

"Are we getting anywhere, Tetsu?"

"Maybe... Yes! There's a house ahead with a carport instead of a garage!" He clapped his hand over her eyes, and shivered as her lashes brushed his palm. I'll have to get her to do that again when there's a bed handy! "The road still goes off to infinity."

She flushed. "Thanks. I didn't mean to look, but it's hard not to."

"It's okay. Let's keep going."

In the next block, a house on one side of the street was made of brick and the one opposite it had a bicycle in the driveway. Then half the houses were distinct, then all of them, and the street was lined with trees. Keeping a firm hold on Ashlyn's hand -- No replay of the Orpheus legend for us, thanks -- he looked behind and saw that after two blocks the street dead-ended into the elementary school's athletic field.

"WE MADE IT!" He grabbed Ashlyn around the waist and swung her. "You are a genius!"

"Yeeek!" She clung to his arms, but she was laughing too. "You're the one who got us out!"

"Yah, but the stars were your idea!"

"So we're both smart!" She sobered. "And a good thing, too. I don't mind spending the rest of eternity with you, but I was hoping for someplace with more night life. So to speak."

"No kidding. Still, at least now we know how to escape the Suburb of the Dead."

"I wonder if we can get an English paper out of it. Oh shit, is it light over there?"

The sky was still choked with thunderheads, but there was definitely light filtering through the clouds on the eastern horizon. "Yah. And we're all the way across town. I hope our parents don't try to wake us up."

"Yah. I don't know what would happen, but so far we haven't found a lot that's fluffy and happy about all this."

"Let's go, then!"

"Hey, wait up, I'm not a soccer player!"

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