The Way Station
I crouched inside Willow-Wisp, watching the vampire master. There was so much wonder and awe in his face that I couldn’t look away.
“You did this.” He didn’t take his stare from the sky as he felt for my hand. “You gave me this.”
I laced my fingers with his because despite everything awful he was, everything terrible he’d done, the sun formed him into something pure. Something miraculous.
Two weeks earlier when he’d awakened in the sun, he’d been unable to do anything but scream. He’d shoved his face into the dirt of Willow-Wisp and waited to burn, waited to die.
And even when he’d begun to accept that it was real, that he was able to take the sun, he couldn’t force his eyes open. He’d knelt with his fingers over his eyes and his face tilted to the bright warmth of the sun, and he’d broken down.
I wasn’t the only one who’d cried with him. No one with a heart could have remained stoic beneath the vast emotional effects of his disbelief, his sweet joy.
He’d spent an eternity in the dark. Coming into the sun was life-changing.
Only Shane had slipped from the graveyard, unable to show his heart. He would cry in front of no one. But I knew that even Shane Copas felt the power of that moment.
I’d crawled to Amias and held him as he’d cried, because I couldn’t bear for him to feel alone in that moment. And I was so grateful, so happy, because someday, that would be me. Someday I, too, would be a vampire. And I would have the sun.
He squeezed my fingers. “I have everything now.”
I smiled. “You can—”
But then I jumped to my feet as a sound like a train roared through my head and a zing of terror streaked after it. There and gone in seconds, but the heaviness of it lingered.
Disoriented and dizzy, I left Amias to fall asleep in the sun as I staggered from Willow-Wisp. I knew what was going on—and I hoped that soon I’d become a little more adjusted to it.
Someone was begging admittance to the way station.
I might not have to be inside the house to open its metaphysical doors, but it would be a while before I got the hang of things. I had to let the benevolent spirits in while either barring the malignant ones or banishing them once they slipped through.
And that was easier said than done.
Once I’d accepted the way station as it had accepted me, I’d become part of it. I felt it. The house lived, and it lived inside me.
I wanted only to protect it.
The Jikininki was waiting for me. He stood in the doorway, his brow furrowed, his hands on his hips. “The house is sighing.”
“Sorry, Jin,” I muttered.
The urgency of the visitor was affecting the house, which in turn affected me. And Jin, apparently.
He was right behind me as I rushed through the house to find the one spot I would allow the spirits to come through.
The kitchen—much to Jin’s chagrin.
He didn’t like the “nasty spirits” coming through his kitchen, he’d said.
I let them come in through the kitchen because it was the most comforting room in the house. It was large, it smelled good, it had an enormous table, and there was always cake. Jin liked to bake.
Once I grew more familiar with my new job, I might let them come through a dedicated room in the basement. But not yet. The kitchen relaxed me. It was my safe space. I wasn’t telling Jin that, but it was true.
And that was where I’d decided to meet and corral the scary ghosts.
I sat down, put my clasped hands on the table, and took a deep breath. “Okay. Okay, then.”
And with Jin standing behind me, peering at a spot on the far wall, I opened my mind, and then, I opened the house.
For a second, the wanderer’s memories and fear and despair engulfed me, but I closed my eyes and pushed them away. They didn’t belong to me, and I wouldn’t need to keep them.
He appeared with a sound like the humming of old fluorescents, his image dim and wavering until finally, the world, the magic, and the house gave him back his body. Or a body. Perhaps it’d been his in another life, or perhaps it was only similar.
He didn’t appear to realize that he was now in possession of a physical body, or that Jin and I were aware of him.
He stayed crouched and slightly dazed, but suddenly his eyes widened and he put his palm on the old wood floor, then lifted his hand in front of his face and stared at it. “What is this? What is this?”
“Hello,” I said. “Welcome to the way station.”
Frozen, he stared at me, afraid to move or speak. Fear was in every line of his body. Maybe he thought if he didn’t move, I would no longer see him.
I pointed at the chair across the table from me. “Have a seat. I’m here to help you find your way, but first you’ll need to rest and get your bearings. Do you understand?”
He shook his head from side to side, slowly. “What’s happening?”
“Do you remember your death?”
“I remember losing my way,” he whispered.
I nodded. “You died a violent death.” Those were the people who ended up lost. They made no smooth transition. And they needed the way station to put them back on the right path.
He walked toward me, finally, hiding his genitals behind his borrowed hand, and sat down in the chair I’d indicated. “Am I alive, then? Have I come back to life?”
“What…” He looked around the room, his shocked, confused expression slowly changing to one of plain wonder. “What do you mean?”
“The second you entered the way station, you…” I swallowed, tapped the table, cleared my throat. Delayed the inevitable.
I’d had a few people come through in the last two weeks—and each one of them had been devastated by the news I was forced to give them.
Jin, impatient as always, told him for me. “You have already begun to rot. You will be divested of your borrowed flesh in approximately one hour. You must be on your way before then, or you will be stuck as a useless ghost in limbo forever, and you will never find your paradise.”
“It has to be better than the path of nightmares you pulled me from,” the man murmured, surprising me. “I’d rather stay here than go back.”
“You don’t understand,” I said gently. “You won’t stay here as a spirit. You’ll be expelled back to the path you were on before you found the way station.”
He shuddered, and then he began to understand.
All the spirits described different paths, worlds, and experiences. But they all had one thing in common. Sheer horror. And some of them fought their expulsion.
Not all the spirits would have only an hour. Some of them had less time. Some of them seemed able to stay a little longer, and some of them, like Jin, could apparently hang around forever.
But those were the exceptions, and taking a chance usually meant a rotting corpse on the floor and a soul who was stuck forever.
We had to hurry.
“Jin,” I said. There was another reason I liked using the kitchen as the landing spot for the wanderers.
The Jikininki went to the huge fridge and pulled out a package, then walked to the table to set it in front of the visitor. “For you,” he said, magnanimously, as though he were the one who had decided to feed the spirits a special treat before they continued on their way.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Carson.” He tore open the package and then stared down at the tray he’d revealed. He delicately touched a package of cookies. “Is this real?”
“You have only a little while,” I told him. “But while you’re in this house, in that body, you can eat. Go on. Have some sugar and protein.”
He tore into the food like the starving man he was, and I watched his absolute joy, smiling. He grabbed the bottle of cold Coke, twisted the lid off, then drank half the bottle in one gulp. I said nothing more until the food was gone.
I slid my hand across the table and finally, unable to resist a kind touch, he wrapped his fingers around mine.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“She is the Gatekeeper,” Jin answered, before I could. “The Caretaker. She beckons the lost and wards off those who would do harm to the way station.”
The stranger nodded. “It was the first relief I’d had in…eternity. I heard you. Felt you. And the tormentors quieted and shrank away.” He blinked quickly against the tears that threatened.
“I’ll show you the way,” I told him. “You were lost. The way back won’t be terrible. You’re not meant to be here and Jin is right. You have your paradise to find.” I turned my hand in his and squeezed his fingers. “Are you ready?”
“No,” he whispered, then wiped away the tears on his face, shocked at his ability to cry. “I miss being this.”
“There will be something better waiting,” I promised. “Better than this.” I didn’t really know what was waiting for him, but I couldn’t bear to send him off in despair.
Without another word, I closed my eyes, held tightly to his hand, and found his path. It was like a spark of golden sunlight in the darkness, and when I found it, I latched onto it and gave it to Carson. “There’s your path. Do you see it?”
“I see it.” And finally, there was something in his voice besides reluctance and tears. “I’m going home,” he realized, and I could feel his relief.
He was ready.
“Follow that spark, Carson. Find your way."
I released his hand and the house—the way station—tossed him back into the darkness. But he would find his way, now that he had his bearings.
The body, already beginning to rot, listed sideways and slid from the chair.
Jin was there to catch it.
I hurried from the room, hoping the Jikininki would drag the body from the house before he hunkered down to devour the flesh of the newly dead corpse.