Rivers of the Dead: Book Two

2~4: To Live or Die

It was noon on Tuesday morning when Liz's phone rang. She'd been hoping Ethan would call, and Ethan's name on the screen prompted her to answer before the second ring. "Ethan?" she asked without saying hello.

"Sorry, no, it's Mrs. Pallet," Ethan's mother answered. "How are you today, Elizabeth?"

"I'm fine, thank you," Liz replied, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. "You're calling from Ethan's phone?"

"Yes. I thought that'd be simpler than looking up your number and calling you from mine, and he said I could."

"Makes sense. What can I do for you?"

Liz could hear the hesitation in Mrs. Pallet's voice. "I'm hoping you'll come by and see Ethan."

"Is he lucid?" Liz asked.

"Yes. He's doing much better, actually," Mrs. Pallet confirmed. "All except for one thing. He keeps asking about Caleb and I don't know what to tell him."

Maybe he remembers, Liz thought, hoping that wouldn't be the case. Then she'd have to explain what she'd done, or more appropriately what she and Caleb had done, and she didn't know what kind of reaction to expect from Ethan. "What have you said so far?" she asked.

"What can I tell him? That Caleb's dead . . . that I'm sorry . . . that . . ." Mrs. Pallet stopped to catch up with her emotions, which threatened to spill out into her words even more than they already had. "I just thought, maybe, since the three of you were so close. It's like he has no memory of the last two weeks, which I guess we were all in a sort of haze, but . . ." She trailed off, uncertain.

"Definitely understand," Liz replied. "I'll be right over."

Liz was normally a careful driver, but today she sped the whole way. She ran stop signs where she could, and only stopped briefly to see if there were any cops at the one traffic signal on the way to Ethan's house. Even though she wasn't the least bit eager to explain herself, she wanted to see Ethan alive and well; she hoped that, at least, would bring some solace to her.

She parked along the curb and got out of the car, and she could see Ethan through the kitchen window, talking to someone. He looked so vibrant it was as if he'd never died, and, even better, he was smiling. It didn't take her more than a second to realize, however, that the smile didn't touch his eyes. Something was still very wrong.

As she walked past the driveway she saw Ethan's dad sitting in his car, idling the engine. He waved to her and smiled; Liz responded in kind. She walked to the front porch and knocked on the door. Mrs. Pallet answered, ushering her inside. "Ethan, honey, Elizabeth is here to see you."

"Okay, send her in," Ethan called pleasantly from the kitchen.

Liz walked inside to see Ethan standing next to the counter, pouring a glass of water from a large pitcher. He appeared well, dressed in his typical T-shirt and jeans, though today he wore black ones instead of blue. "Hi, Ethan," Liz said.

"Hey, Liz," Ethan said, smiling. "Thanks for coming. I guess we had quite the adventure yesterday, didn't we?"

Mrs. Pallet swooped into the kitchen and wrapped her son in a quick hug, kissing his forehead and then stepping away. She looked down at him and said, "Your father and I are going out for a little bit, would you like to have some money for pizza? You don't have to worry about your brother and sister, they're out with their friends and I bet they'll be gone all day."

Ethan nodded. "Sounds good. Thanks, Mom."

Mrs. Pallet pulled a twenty from her wallet and put it in Ethan's outstretched palm. "Here. Don't forget to tip."

"I won't," Ethan said.

Liz followed Mrs. Pallet's movements as she walked out the front door. The sounds of a car door preceded the parents' exit, leaving Liz alone with Ethan. Liz turned around at the sound of a drawer opening and started to ask, "So, how are you—" but she stopped short as she saw the steak knife Ethan had pulled from the drawer and laid against his wrist. "Ethan, what are you doing!?"

"Are you going to tell me why I shouldn't do this?" Ethan asked with a blank expression, though his eyes were filled with wrath. He was serious, Liz knew it in her soul. She was going to watch him die again if she didn't think of a way to diffuse the situation.

"Ethan . . ." Liz said, searching for words.

"The last thing I remember was Caleb kissing me as painkillers and blood loss knocked me unconscious," Ethan said, pain oozing out into every word. Liz would've expected Ethan to be shaking from the amount of emotion he put behind every word, but he held perfectly still, the knifepoint poised unmoving against his wrist. "I know you know, I can see it in your eyes, Liz. Why is everyone telling me that Caleb's dead when it should be me?"

"I can explain," Liz said, eyeing the knife cautiously.

"You'd better," Ethan said, "or you'll get to explain to my parents why I killed myself. Again. I assume you did it the last time, too."

Liz shook her head. "Not exactly. Your mother read your journal and figured it out on her own."

"So that's why . . ." Ethan sighed deeply. He shook his head and muttered, "Interesting, she remembers reading my journal but doesn't remember me dying. Little twists of fate, I guess."

"You remember everything?" Liz asked. "Do you remember anything from the other side?"

Ethan smirked. "No. Like I said, the last thing I remember is Caleb kissing me."

"We . . . we performed a spell to bring you back. Something happened," Liz replied sheepishly.

"Obviously, it worked," Ethan said, pulling the knife away for a moment to gesture down at his body. "So, where's Caleb?"

"I don't know. He . . . there was a moment, during the trance, when I thought I saw him," Liz paused, not wanting to mention that she saw Caleb put a knife to his chest. "But then . . . then you were there."

"He gave himself up for me?" Ethan asked, his blank expression fading completely as horror overtook him.

"I guess so?" Liz said, not sure what else to say. "I heard something, after. Something about 'a life for a life'."

"Then I guess . . ." Ethan lowered the knife and threw it back inside the drawer. "I guess I can't go through with this. That'd mean his sacrifice would be for nothing, right?" He shook his head ruefully and turned his wrathful eyes on Liz once more. "Liz, how could you let him do that?"

"It wasn't supposed to . . ." Liz choked back a sob, but seeing Ethan's need for more information, she continued despite emotion threatening to destroy her ability to speak. "I-it was just supposed to be a divination spell. W-we w-were looking for a w-way to bring you back. I-I d-didn't think this w-would happen! I already lost you, do you think I wanted to lose him, too? God, no one realizes I'm the only one who lost both my friends! And now you hate me, and—"

To Liz's surprise, Ethan crossed the distance between them and wrapped her in a hug, crushing her against him. He held her for a minute, giving her strength as she desperately clung to him. "I forgive you," Ethan whispered, his own voice cracking with emotion, "but I need something from you."

"What?" Liz asked, whispering back.

"Your help."

"With?"

"We're going to bring Caleb back, but this time, you're going to do it right."

Liz pulled back to consider Ethan's eyes, seeing determination through his tears. But she couldn't respond to that emotion, not this time, not after what happened to Caleb. "Ethan . . ."

"He deserves to be alive," Ethan said resolutely.

"Ethan, I already screwed up once and lost Caleb. I don't think I can," Liz explained, shaking her head firmly.

"Can't or won't?" Ethan asked angrily.

Liz stepped away and stared out the window, trying to figure out how to explain it to Ethan. She wanted to help, she really did, but she knew the truth, and it was as plain to her as it would be to any practitioner of magic. "Can't," she said at last. "Magic requires will, and I don't have it. Not for this. I can't risk it. I can't risk losing you again, too. My heart won't let me. Even if I tried, the spell work wouldn't possibly succeed. I doubt I could manage the pure emotion required either. I'd be too scared to pull it off."

"Fine. I guess we have one option then," Ethan said.

"What?"

"If you say it's 'can't' and not 'won't'," Ethan said slowly, reasoning out his thought process as he spoke, "then I guess you'll just have to teach me how to do it, and then I'll do the spell."

"Ethan, you're completely untrained, and—" Liz protested.

"Then you'll fucking train me!" Ethan screamed at her.

"Ethan . . ." Liz said consolingly.

"Liz," Ethan said, gripping her arms as fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. His eyes were filled with desperation. "Please. I beg of you. Please. I can't kill myself because it would nullify Caleb's sacrifice, but I can't live without him, either. I can't live like this, don't you understand? Please, I need this!"

Liz took three seconds to decide. One to catch her breath, a second to file her emotions away, and a third to respond to Ethan's needs. She knew the truth of it now, and it was simple. "Okay," she said firmly. "Then we start tonight."

Ethan's eyes widened as he hugged her again, just as tightly as before. "That was a much quicker turnaround than I expected," he said, laughing. It was somewhere between hysterics and delight, but Liz loved the sound of it anyway and embraced Ethan back.

"I'm a pragmatist, Ethan," Liz explained as she ran her fingers through his hair. "I can see you're not going to be dissuaded, and I know what can happen if you go seeking magic without knowing what you're doing. You could end up dead. Again. If you're going to chase death either way, I'd rather help you try to avoid it than leave you to face it alone. We start tonight, and you're going to do exactly what I say."

Ethan pulled back and gave her a critical look. "I'm to be taking orders, am I?"

"Yes, and you will only attempt the spell when I say you're ready," Liz said firmly.

Ethan's response had twice the determination her statement had. "But I will attempt it."

"Yes. I won't stop you," Liz replied. "Once you're ready."

Ethan stepped back and extended his hand to Liz. She took it and shook. "Deal," Ethan said.

"Well then, warlock, your first task is simple," Liz said, taking a step away from Ethan. She paced the kitchen, wrists crossed behind her back, looking the part of the teacher about to instruct her student in discipline.

"What's that?" Ethan asked.

Liz paused and reached to the wall, pulling the cordless phone from its receiver and tossing it to Ethan. "Order the fucking pizza. I'm starving and magic requires energy."

Ethan laughed, and this time there was nothing but delight in the sound. Liz wanted to sing. "You got it, sensei," Ethan said. "Magic requires energy. Anything else I should know?"

"Yeah," Liz said, "If you order mushrooms, I'll make your life hell."


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