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Fiction

Christopher Mills, Return to Sender

This is the dead thing becoming the body. This is the dead thing opening the body’s eyes. This is the dead thing rising from the grave. This is the dead thing saying “What the hell—I didn’t ask to be summoned. I was having a great time being dead and dreaming about nothing.”

This is the alive thing staring at the grave, dead thing, body. The alive thing says, “Your case has been reopened, Chris.”

Chris says, “Oh Christ.” The word burns his tongue because Chris became a demon and went to hell.

Chris says, “Fuck.” That doesn’t hurt to say. Generalized swearing is encouraged in hell.

Hell is an infinite suburban shopping mall with cool air conditioning and muzak piped in through the speaker system. Two minutes ago, Chris had been lying in a massage chair staring at the clear blue window of heaven through a skylight. He’s mostly been pretty happy in hell. He eats a lot of soft pretzels.

Now, however, Chris is lying in the grave and the alive thing above him (flesh, pumping blood, blue eyes like the skylight to heaven) is saying, “Chris, I need you to testify.”

Chris closes his eyes. Chris says, “Angelica Mills, God fucking dammit, I don’t want to testify, and I don’t want to get out of my grave, and I want to go back to sleep. It doesn’t matter what happened because I’m already dead.”

Angelica, sweet necromancer Angelica, stares down at the dead body demon that used to be her brother, sneering at her. She scowls back. She holds out a Styrofoam cup.

“Well too fucking bad, Christopher Mills, because I want you to have justice. Get up. I brought you a smoothie.”

“Well, if you brought me a smoothie,” Chris says and opens his eyes, hauling himself out of his grave.

• • • •

Chris drinks his smoothie in the car while Angelica drives. It’s pineapple strawberry, which is his favorite, which is why Angelica used it to summon him. Chris has been trying to find a Jamba Juice in the infinite mall that is his personal hell, but maybe hell is the absence of Jamba Juice.

Chris takes off the powder-blue suit jacket he died in and tosses it to the back seat. He rolls up his sleeves. He puts on the sunglasses he stole from the Sunglasses Hut in hell. They obscure the fact that his eyes are just a slick dark nothing void because he is dead. Chris hates to look at his reflection. He glances at Angelica.

“So what’s going on, Angelica. What’s up. What have I missed.”

Angelica doesn’t look like he remembers. The last time Chris saw his sister, she was wearing a powder-pink prom dress and curling her hair in the bathroom, waiting for Jon Kim to pick her up while Chris was running down the hallway in his powder-blue suit because he was late to pick up Meri. Meri is also dead. Chris wonders where she ended up.

Angelica looks older. Angelica has chopped off her hair and there’s the characteristic sharpness to her teeth and the dark circles under her eyes that come with necromantic practice.

“Doing the black arts now, huh,” Chris says. “Never thought you’d be doing the soft sciences.”

“Drink your smoothie, asshole,” Angelica says.

“Am I the younger sibling, now?” Chris asks. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” Angelica says, and Chris whistles, because that means it’s been seven years since his death. It felt like one long, languid afternoon.

• • • •

The difference between being alive and being dead is that when you’re dead, you just stop giving a shit. When you’re dead, you lie in the massage chair in the infinite mall that is your personal hell and stare at the little square of heaven and you’re reassured that you can do nothing to get there.

When you’re alive you pump blood and you go to the Panera Bread after school with your friends and you eat chips and every chip tastes better than the last and you laugh like everything is the funniest joke in the world. When you’re alive, you argue with your parents and you argue with your sister and sometimes you forget to apologize. When you’re alive, you worry about college and you worry about losing your friends and worry about losing your girlfriend and you worry about losing everything all the time, and then you die in a powder-blue suit on prom night.

And then you’re dead.

• • • •

“Here’s the deal,” Angelica says while parking at the strip mall and turning off the engine. Chris opens the door. It’s a hot day, all San Diego summer and palm trees. There’s no weather in hell. It’s like Chris was never dead at all.

“Chris, are you listening?”

“Yeah, I’m listening,” Chris says, and closes the door again.

Angelica drums her fingers against the steering wheel. “Three days ago, postmortem testimony and witnesses became legal in the state of California. They passed a bill. They’re reopening the investigation of a lot of things, now that we’re allowed to ask the dead about what happened. Like your death. So, you need to testify. Give our lawyer your statement. Shit like that. We have an appointment tomorrow.”

“That’s bullshit,” Chris says. “You can’t trust the dead. Demons are all assholes. How come you didn’t rez Meri, anyway?”

“Meri isn’t my brother,” Angelica says and opens the door to get out of the car. Chris follows her, feeling like an asshole in his powder-blue pants and white shirt with the tremendous bloodstain on the front.

They go to Target. Angelica gets a cart. Chris puts pop-tarts into the cart. Angelica steers them to the clothing section.

“What’s hell like?” Angelica asks. She has no illusions about where Chris ended up. Chris has eyes that are pits of void. Chris is trying on shirts in the Target changing room. He can’t testify in the suit he died in, because of the bloodstains, and also because it is an eye-searing blue.

“Hell is an infinite mall,” Chris says in his best demon deal voice. He never expected his first summoning to be his sister. He expected his first summoning to happen years from now, something related to petty crime or backstabbing or social manipulation, something teenage and twee because he was seventeen when he died—I call upon thee Christopher Mills, demon of dead kids and prom night.

“Hell is infinite blank space and void and the enduring an-hedonic anodyne eternity of capitalism,” Chris says.

“So you’re having a great time,” Angelica says.

“So I’m having a great time,” Chris says. “I like this jacket. I’m getting this one.”

“Just spend all my hard-earned necromoney, why don’t you,” Angelica says, and gestures for him to put it in the cart.

“What’s family for,” Chris says.

• • • •

The thing about demons is that demons are all dead people, but not all dead people are demons—only the ones who die unhinged, angry, desperate, longing.

A lot of teenagers die demons.

The nice thing about being a demon is that you are no longer unhinged, angry, desperate, longing, because the worst thing in the world has already happened to you. Becoming a demon is like getting marble soldered to your soul. Being a demon is like seeing the world through the sweet cold acetone of a vodka poured over ice.

You can kick it in the eternal mall forever, punctuated by the occasional trip topside to deal incredible violence. You can do things the living don’t want to dirty their hands with. The worst has already been done to a demon. They can do whatever they want.

The things you get to keep when you’re dead are pretty few: you get the clothes you died in. You get your memories, void of the emotional attachment. You get a coupon for one complimentary alcoholic beverage from the Cheesecake Factory—or maybe that’s Chris-specific, a sorry-you-died, suburban sop for his sins.

• • • •

Angelica takes her dead demon brother home, parking in front of the apartment building, leading him up to the third floor. She makes him carry the groceries. The dead demon brother slinks into the apartment and puts the groceries on the table.

The apartment is nothing like their childhood home. The apartment is a shoebox with white counters and white floors, transient housing for aspirational corporates. It’s not the life Chris expected for Angelica. Not that he ever thought too much about what her life would look like— he was too busy living his own. Seven years ago, Chris would have said that Angelica was going to drop out of college and get her Mrs. degree, just to make her throw something at him. If anyone asked Chris about his own plans, he would have said he was going to be a movie star. The idea of all those eyes on him no longer has any appeal.

“What do you want for dinner?” Angelica asks.

“I don’t need to eat,” Chris says, sitting down on her couch. “I want Thai food.”

“Menus in the drawer in the side table,” Angelica says, tossing him her phone. She sounds so much like their mom that Chris has to stare, letting the phone bounce on the cushion next to him.

Angelica glances over at him. “What?”

“How are Mom and Dad?”

“They’re fine,” Angelica says. “They moved to Arizona a couple years ago. So they’re fine, except for the fact that their only son died in a brutal, unsolved murder before he even graduated high school, so you know, that kind of destroyed the whole nuclear family thing we had going on.”

Chris stares at her. Angelica stares back, the dark circles under her eyes the size of saucers. Chris takes off his sunglasses and the gaze bounces between them: void, iris, void.

“You’re mad at me,” Chris says.

“Just a little,” Angelica says. “Mostly I’m mad that you died.”

“You know that I’m no longer capable of giving a shit about that,” Chris lies. He’s perfectly capable of giving a shit about that. It’s just that he can’t really empathize with the sentiment, even if he’s perfectly capable of sympathy. He would have been a real horror if Angelica had died. He would have resurrected her the next day out of spite.

“I don’t care,” Angelica says. “I just want you to get justice, even if you don’t want it. So tell me how you died.”

“Hold on, I’m calling the Thai place,” Chris says, and presses numbers into the phone. “Hi, yeah, I’d like to order pad Thai, spring rolls, green curry with chicken, two Thai iced teas.”

• • • •

They eat Thai food. They watch old television that’s new to Chris because he died before it came out. Angelica talks about her job, which is a corporate necromancy gig—mostly paperwork, very little resurrection, all above board and clean-legal.

They clean up the takeout boxes. Angelica does a skincare routine. Chris inspects all of Angelica’s kitchen drawers. Angelica closes the door to her bedroom. Chris calls through it, “Hey don’t they teach you not to go to sleep around demons in necromancy school?”

“Goodnight, Chris,” Angelica calls, muffled.

“I’m going out,” Chris says, and scoops the car keys up and heads out the front door before Angelica can say anything. He makes his way back to her car. He puts his hands on the steering wheel and realizes he doesn’t know where he wants to go.

He wants his massage chair. He wants a soft pretzel. He wants the square blue skylight of heaven. Maybe Chris’ll head back to the Target and sit underneath the fluorescence until someone kicks him out. He’ll stare at the displays and pretend he’s still in his personal hell. Chris knows this isn’t what he’s supposed to do with his brief interlude from death. He should enjoy being briefly alive again. Except he’s not alive, and living holds very little appeal for him now.

Everyone he knew is seven years removed from him. His sister is older than him now. His parents are in Arizona. Meri is dead, too. This is why he didn’t want to be alive again. Alive means really thinking about the fact that he’s dead. Alive means making decisions about where to take his sister’s car because sitting alone in her living room has no appeal.

Chris sighs. He puts the car in reverse and pulls out of the parking space. He’ll go to the beach. His personal hell has no ocean, so at least sitting in the sand will have some novelty value. He can sit on the dark shore and pretend that this is something like death. Death-adjacent.

• • • •

The dead body demon looms over Angelica’s bed and pokes her shoulder. She cracks an eye open, glares at the pit-eyed undead staring at her, and pulls the covers over her head.

“Go away, Chris,” Angelica mumbles. “Get out of my bedroom. I’m sleeping.”

“So, I thought about the testifying thing. I seriously don’t want to do it,” Chris says. “Can you just send me back? It’s nice seeing you again and all, but I don’t want to talk to the lawyer.”

Angelica pushes the covers down, shimmies up to sitting. “No, I told you. I want to solve your murder. I want justice.”

“Well, I don’t want justice, and I’m the one that died,” Chris says.

“I don’t understand why you’re so apathetic about this.”

Chris shrugs.

“You were seventeen and died on prom night,” Angelica says, frustrated. “Aren’t you pissed about that? That’s the whole rest of your life you didn’t get.”

Chris shrugs again and sits down on the bed so he’s not facing her. There’s sand in his hair.

“You’re thinking about this like an alive person,” Chris says. “None of that matters when you’re dead. When you’re dead you’re just dead. All the things that could have happened didn’t happen. I guess there’s a world where I lived for a while longer, and I guess the Chris in that world would have cared, but I can’t care. I guess you care, because you’re alive. But I don’t really want to talk about it.”

Angelica stares at Chris’s back. From behind, it’s like he never died. He’s getting a lot of sand on her bed. He must have gone to the beach overnight. Chris used to do that when he was alive and couldn’t sleep. Chris would come home and track sand into the house and their mom would yell at him and he would apologize and then he’d do it all over again the next week.

“You died for something stupid, didn’t you?” Angelica says.

Chris shrugs again. He shifts to look back at her.

“I really didn’t miss the way you see through my bullshit,” Chris says, and his expression is sheepish, kind-of embarrassed, the black holes of his eyes a little scrunched up.

“Meri killed me,” Chris says. He smiles a little when he says it, like it’s the punchline to his joke.

• • • •

Chris has had a lot of time to think, sitting in the massage chair in the infinite shopping mall of his personal hell. Chris has teased out the last ten minutes of his life thread by thread.

Meri had another boyfriend, before Chris. That part is normal. The other boyfriend died. Less normal. Meri wanted the old boyfriend back, and was willing to skip ahead to the advanced chapters of the soft sciences (necromancy, permanent resurrection, trading lives for lives) to bring the boyfriend-who-was-not-Chris back. Not normal.

The last fact was unknown to Chris until prom night, when Meri tried to kill him and he tried not to die and she got his blood all over the carpet and Chris got his hands crushing around her throat because he was scared, because she was saying just die already, Christopher, chanting syllabics with her last whispering breaths.

Then Chris died, because Meri had managed to hit an artery. In the last moments of his life and the first moments of his death, Chris remembers seeing a third figure in the hotel room. Someone who hadn’t been there before.

Jesus Christ, Meri, he remembers the ex-boyfriend saying, sounding shaken. Sounding alive. The ex-boyfriend moved into Chris’ field of vision, blurry and decentered. I am so fucking sorry, Chris remembers the ex-boyfriend saying. He remembers the ex-boyfriend closing his eyes. Embarrassing.

Then Chris woke up in the infinite mall that is his personal hell. Chris liked malls when he was alive, so he’s pretty sure this hell belonged to the ex-boyfriend. Things could have ended worse, overall.

Chris should probably have more feelings about this sequence of events, but it feels as if the whole night happened to someone else.

• • • •

Chris finishes his story over breakfast. Breakfast is a transitory affair. Angelica white-knuckles the steering wheel with one hand while eating an untoasted strawberry pop-tart. Chris drinks his coffee from a thermos that reads TRANSVERSE TURNABOUT NECROMANCY SPECIALISTS, INC.

“I killed Meri,” Chris says. “So there’s nothing to be done. Closed case. Justice or whatever. So, we really don’t need to be going to the lawyer’s office.”

Angelica breathes in and breathes out. Oxygen exchange in her alveoli, proof of her living cells doing their invisible business. “Do you remember the ex-boyfriend’s name?”

“Alvin something?”

“You don’t remember his last name?”

“No,” Chris says. “I was kind of busy getting murdered at the time.”

“Okay,” Angelica says. “Meri’s last name was Thompson, right?”

“Yeah,” Chris says, and then clutches his thermos when Angelica does a sharp right turn onto a cross-street, nearly spilling his coffee. “Hey, what the hell?”

“Never mind the lawyer—we’re stopping by my job first,” Angelica says grimly.

• • • •

Angelica’s office is in a big building surrounded by a field of black asphalt. She parks badly and yanks the door open, leaving Chris to scramble after her as she walks into the monolith. They walk through the lobby. They get in an elevator. “Hand me your blazer,” Angelica says.

Chris takes off his blazer and hands it to her. Angelica puts it on. She takes a little squeeze bottle out of her purse and pours gel in her hand, slicking back her hair in a single motion. Two actions to transform her. Angular hair, angular shoulders, dark shadows under her eyes. Angelica should be the demon, not Chris.

They get off the elevator into another polished stone lobby. Angelica leads Chris past the desk, waving a greeting at the secretary in white. Monochrome is traditional for necromancers—all the best firms are white collar, white shoe, black-box arcana.

Chris follows her down the glass corridors. They pass other necromancers, and Angelica exchanges greetings—thought you had today off, Ange? Hey Ange, working hard, hardly working?

None of the necromancers give him a second glance. Chris catches glimpses of other dead people sitting in offices, dressed in archaic robes, togas, dresses, and windbreakers from the eighties. Some of the dead have evidence of violent crime smeared across their clothing. Chris shivers but follows Angelica into the glass box labeled ANGELICA MILLS.

“So why are we here,” he asks, sitting expansively across one of the chairs in her office. “Did you forget some paperwork or something?”

“Or something,” Angelica says, and opens the small fridge on her desk. She takes a bottle of dark blood out and pours it on the floor in a practiced circle. She opens a filing cabinet and takes out an expurgated soul-null femur (exorcised, washed, vacuum-sealed in plastic), and places it in the middle of the circle. Then she puts a ribbon-wrapped box of fancy chocolates next to the femur. She takes out the corporate-branded knife block from its drawer, and places it on her desk.

Angelica takes a deep breath and rattles off her focus syllabics, channel earth, channel hell, channel heaven, dial in souls of the dead, operator please give me MERI—

“Wait, Angelica,” Chris says, standing. “Angelica don’t—”

—THOMPSON please god and amen.

A flash of light like the afterimage on a CRT screen. When Chris’s eyes adjust, the bone and the blood are gone, replaced by a slim young woman holding the box of chocolates. She opens her eyes. They’re the clean white void of heaven.

• • • •

The difference between an angel and a demon is that an angel died without regrets. An angel is a demon who didn’t die unhinged, angry, desperate, longing. An angel died with satisfaction, clean belief, Joan of Arc burning on the stake, Meri Thompson dead on the hotel room floor.

It’s not a moral judgement.

An angel has a clean conscience. An angel has their satisfaction crystalized into a film that clarifies their vision. Nothing much matters once you have everything you wanted: You can afford benevolence once you’ve cleared the game board.

Kindness is an affordable luxury. Angels tend to be condescending. That’s why most necromancers prefer to deal with demons: at least with demons, you feel like you can outsmart them. With angels, the game is already lost. They bought Park Place and Boardwalk five turns ago.

• • • •

“Well, this is awkward,” Meri says, opening the box of chocolates.

Meri is identical to the last time Chris saw her. Sky-blue dress, glossy lips, and sparkly eyeshadow above eyes that look like they’ve been excised with a bottle of white-out. Her entire neck is a dark pulpy bruise. Her skirt is splattered with Chris’ blood.

Meri eats a chocolate. “Hi Chris, Angie. Didn’t think you’d end up going corporate.”

“Well, I didn’t think you’d kill my brother,” Angelica says.

“If it makes you feel better, he killed me back,” Meri says. “No hard feelings, Chris.”

Chris takes off his sunglasses and rubs his eyes. “Fucking hell. I wish we had just gone to the lawyer. Angelica, why. . . ”

He’s not sure how he wants to finish the question. Why resurrect Meri. Why aren’t we at the lawyer’s. Why am I here, Angelica. Chris feels like he should feel differently, staring at Meri, who he thought he loved a long time ago. Chris longs for the mall muzak. He wants to close his eyes and be back in hell.

“Meri, what was your ex-boyfriend’s last name?” Angelica asks, ignoring Chris.

“Gra—” Meri starts, and then narrows her eyes. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because I am going to fix everything you did seven years ago with your shitty teen homebrew necromancy,” Angelica says.

“Um, no,” Meri says. “Also, I did a great job? You don’t have to be an asshole about it.”

“What do you mean by fix?” Chris asks, sitting up.

Angelica ignores her brother again, crossing her arms. She smiles.

“Meri, listen to me very carefully. I am going to live a perfect life. I am going to live a perfect life and die with no regrets and then I am going to go to heaven and I am going to strangle your immortal soul with my bare hands. Or you can tell me your ex-boyfriend’s last name.”

“Christ,” Meri says. She doesn’t wince, because angels are allowed to swear on God’s names.

“I’m not fucking playing,” Angelica says.

“Grant-Wood,” Meri says, dripping with condescension. “Alvin Grant-Wood. But that’s not going to help you. It’s too late. I’m dead. Chris is dead. There’s nothing you can do about that. Thanks for the chocolate, though.”

“Meri Thompson,” Angelica says, all acid and broken glass. “You died before you went to college. You have no idea what I’m capable of. Thanks for the name, though.”

Angelica lifts one of the knives from the corporate-branded knife block and stabs Meri in the throat. There’s a bright flash. Meri dissolves into fine bone dust. The box of half-eaten chocolates falls to the floor. The hairs on the back of Chris’s neck are all raised—he’s never seen the aftermath of a summoning. Angelica’s pants are chalky with powdered bone. She glances at Chris.

“Hand me the broom in the corner, would you?”

Chris grabs it, but pauses before he gives it to her. “Angelica, what did you mean by fix?”

“I’m going to swap you and Alvin Grant-Wood,” Angelica says calmly, the consummate corporate professional having an ordinary Tuesday afternoon in the office with her dead brother.

“Oh,” Chris says. He hands her the broom. He opens the door and walks out of Angelica’s office before she can say anything.

• • • •

Chris finds himself in the men’s bathroom. The slick curve of the sinks and the large mirrors all scream a certain caliber of corporate. Chris feels out of place, in his seventeen-year-old dead body, in his shades. He stares at himself in the mirror. He takes off his glasses.

There’s an abrasion across his cheek from the rug his body thunked against when he died. A cut on his lip from where he bit it before he died. His eyes are the hollow void of space, like the pictures of black holes that were in his science textbooks.

The idea of swapping his death with Alvin’s life makes something in Chris’s brain trip a circuit breaker. He’s thinking about massage chairs. He’s thinking about pretzels. He keeps drifting back to thinking of the clean blue square skylight, heaven’s crisp cerulean filtered into his eyeless eyes. Blue, void, Meri with her eyes like circles of milk.

Chris doesn’t remember what color Meri’s eyes used to be, which maybe makes him a bad boyfriend, but she killed him. And he killed her. And now she has a bruise over her neck and he has a stab wound in his chest. The thing that bugs him most is that she’s going to look like that forever now. He’s trying not to think about how her eyes are porcelain glaze. Meri died satisfied. Chris didn’t know that.

It makes Chris angry, that Meri would be satisfied by his death when Chris himself died unhinged, desperate, angry, longing. Chris doesn’t want to be defined by his last moments. He thinks he used to be a good person. He listened to his parents. He only minimally tormented his sister. He tried to be kind. But he killed Meri, and then he died, and that’s the grief that sunk him deep into the massage chair.

Now he’s dead. Even if the ending is shit, the story’s over. He’s free. He should be free.

Another man enters the bathroom, walking briskly over to the urinals. The stranger glances at Chris. The stranger’s eyes are black pits. The stranger flashes just the briefest commiserating grimace. A what can you do expression. An another day at the office expression.

Chris shoves his glasses on and walks out of the bathroom.

• • • •

Angelica intercepts her brother in the lobby. She hands Chris the bag full of necromancy supplies. She shoulders her second bag, which has her work laptop and the algorithmic focus syllabics for exchange-transfer-swap.

“Where are we going now?” Chris asks.

“Back to the cemetery, ” Angelica says, but neglects to give him any more details. Technically she shouldn’t be doing personal errands with work supplies. Expurgated soul-null femur is pricey.

Chris and Angelica get in the elevator. They don’t talk on the way down, or as they walk out the building back into the sunny California sun, or as they get into the car and Angelica shrugs off the blazer and hands it back to Chris. As Angelica is pulling out of the parking space, Chris says, “I don’t want to be alive again.”

Angelica stops the car halfway pulled out. “What?”

“Put me back, Angelica. I get what you’re doing here, but I’m not really interested.”

Angelica stares at her brother. He doesn’t look like she remembers, because memory is mutable for the living. He looks younger than she remembers him.

“I don’t care that you’re not interested,” she lies, and finishes pulling out of the parking spot. The first thing you learn in intro necromancy classes is that it’s not a good idea to resurrect your relatives.

• • • •

Angelica drives down the highway in silence. The sun competes with the air conditioning. Chris turns on the radio but can’t pick up anything but static. They pass billboards that say things like MCDONALD’S NEXT RIGHT and OUIJA SPECIALISTS CALL NOW FOR A FREE CONSULTATION.

“Ouija guys are all hacks,” Angelica says.

“You’re a hack,” Chris says.

“God, you’re annoying,” Angelica says. “I didn’t miss you at all.”

“That’s clearly a lie.” Chris leans his chair back. Angelica keeps her eyes on the road. She’s driven this route a hundred times. The first time was the day they buried Chris, and the last time was yesterday when she brought a shovel to unearth his coffin. She didn’t use expurgated soul-null femur for his temporary resurrection. It was old school. Bone-of-the-dead and genetic-sibling-blood that she drew from a shallow cut on her side and bandaged over. Old-school is supposed to make the connection stronger, give the dead a longer time topside.

“Why didn’t you resurrect me before this?” Chris asks.

Radio static. Sunlight bright as the eyes of angels, glittering off the highway railing.

“Things really sucked after you died,” Angelica says. “I missed you a lot. I don’t think I would have done the necromancy thing if you hadn’t died. I went in thinking I was going to resurrect you. But by then, I don’t know. I was almost done with college, and the investigation around your death had been closed. Missing you felt normal. And if I brought you back it’d be temporary. And I’d miss you worse after. I made an exception yesterday because I figured that justice was worth the heartache. Like, I love you like a brother cause you’re my brother, but I’m not going to kill a guy for you.”

“You’re kind of killing a guy if you’re swapping me and Alvin.”

“He’s already dead,” Angelica says. “Alvin doesn’t count.”

Radio static. A passing cloud that drapes the car in cool shadow.

“I’m sorry I died,” Chris says.

“Well, it really wasn’t your fault,” Angelica sighs.

• • • •

The second thing you learn in necromancy classes—real necromancy classes, 700-level university ones—is that you are in charge, not the angels, demons, or assorted purgatorial dead. You do not listen to them. You do not let them twist your thoughts. Demons lie. Angels employ damning truth. People, dead or alive, are generally assholes.

This includes the necromancer. Angelica remembers falling asleep in her required ethics class as the professor droned on about the responsibilities of the necromancer, the myriad differences between alive and dead. Angelica almost regrets not paying any attention, now that her dead body demon brother is sitting in her car, drinking coffee from her work thermos.

She remembers the night he died in a smeared paint sort of memory, the weeks after in splattered acrylic. Angelica can say with perfect clarity that she resents Chris for the months of her life that resemble Jackson Pollock canvases. Her parents bought her a lot of therapy. Her parents paid for half of her university degree, major in necromancy, minor in business.

Sometimes people leave, is mostly what she learned. Sometimes you can bring them back. Sometimes the demand and supply curves meet imperfectly and no one is happy.

“Why don’t you want to be alive again?” Angelica asks, curving her car gently around the freeway off ramp.

“I don’t know,” Chris lies. “What the hell am I supposed to do if I’m alive, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Angelica lies. She’s spent years imagining the world where Chris lived. “Get your GED. Call Mom and Dad. Go to college. Take a gap year. Get a girlfriend who doesn’t have homicidal tendencies. Move to LA and try to make it in showbiz.”

Radio static. Chris leans forward to turn the dial off.

“If I’m alive,” he says. “I’m going to be the guy who killed his girlfriend forever. Whose girlfriend killed him forever. I’m going to have to live with that forever.”

“You’ll have an entire lifetime to get over it,” Angelica says, and Chris laughs, startled. Angelica is so mean. He had forgotten how mean she could be.

“I mean it!” Angelica says, irritably. Her soft edges were all scraped off in the aftermath of Chris’s death. “Like, I’m not saying that life’s not shit, but some of it’s not shit. You died. I got over it. Well, I didn’t, but you know. I’m still here.”

“You’re a paragon of mental health,” Chris drawls. Demons are supposed to be assholes.

“Thanks,” Angelica says. The necromancer is supposed to have a firm hand. The necromancer is not supposed to summon family. “Look. If you really don’t want to be alive, I’ll just go ahead and dismiss you. You can get back to your massage chair or whatever.”

Chris turns the radio on again. The static sputters. A few bars of music escape, jaunty bubblegum pop dissolving back into noise. He’s thinking about malls. He’s thinking about sunlight and dark seas and Thai food.

“I’ll give it a shot,” he says thoughtfully, like the words are a drink he is savoring on his tongue.

• • • •

They hike up to the hill with the grey headstone and disturbed earth all dried out from the day’s sunlight. Angelica doesn’t let Chris help with the resurrection swap setup. Chris watches his sister snap on blue nitrile gloves and pour blood in arcs. He remembers Angelica drawing diagrams in physics class, the same clean geometry, the same crisp motions. She’s a necromancer because of him. Chris wonders who Angelica is in the world where he didn’t die.

“Get in the middle,” Angelica says, gesturing for him to get back in his grave.

Chris folds his new blazer neatly and puts it down on the dry grass. He climbs over the bones and blood. He lies down in the grave.

From this angle, the sky looks just like the clean blue square of heaven. Chris imagines that he is still in hell. Maybe hell is mostly in his head. Maybe he’s taking his personal hell everywhere he goes. Maybe he’s dreaming in the massage chair. Maybe Angelica pushing him around is his own personal hell. Maybe seeing Meri was his own personal hell. Maybe hope is his own personal hell.

He hears Angelica chanting syllabics: hello operator dial hell, dial earth, transfer operator signal red, blue, alpha, CHRISTOPHER MILLS—

Chris’ teeth start vibrating. The void of his eyes begins to ache.

—ALVIN GRANT-WOOD, on, off, -.01234t54, +237754—

A full mind hypnic jerk.

—operator please dial me transfer line hollow, reverse, synchronize—

Chris remembers: swimming in public pools, driving his sister to school, laughing with his friends at stupid videos, kissing Meri between the library stacks, his dad making pancakes in the morning, the way he and Angelica could sometimes talk without words, the way he trusted that the world was good, once upon a time, how he loved Meri with abandon, how he loved his parents with abandon, how he loved his friends with abandon, he was going to be immortal forever, he was never going to die, he wanted to be a movie star, he wanted to go to college, he wanted to live—

—CHRISTOPHER Mills return to sender—

He remembers the sick twisted delight of hope.

—please god and amen.

• • • •

Chris stares at the square of blue sky from his open grave.

“Did it work?”

Angelica looks over the side of the grave. Chris stares up at her. Blue iris, brown iris, blue iris. She smiles. It transforms her face.

“So I know you’re going to hate to hear this,” Angelica says, looking down at her living brother, “but we have to go to the lawyer to get you declared legally alive again.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Chris says. The words don’t hurt his tongue.

Isabel J. Kim

Isabel J. Kim

Isabel J. Kim is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. When she’s not writing, she’s either attempting a legal career or co-hosting Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture—both equally noble pursuits. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Find her at isabel.kim/ or @isabeljkim on twitter.