Shapeshifted

“Alexander’s series third takes her noir urban fantasy to a new level with more gritty action, light romance and wicked humor. Quick pacing, a well-plotted storyline and realistic characters will hook you. The end result is a lively and addictive story that leaves you wanting more.” ~Romantic Times

“If you enjoy urban fantasy with grit, gore, dark snarky humor and a wholly human heroine who faces challenges and doesn’t give up then go grab these books now!” ~The Book Tart

Nurse Edie Spence is once again called upon to save a life…and this time, it’s personal. Can her new community of zombies, vampires, and shapeshifters come to her rescue when she needs them most?

When Edie was fired from her paranormal nursing job at County Hospital, her whole world came crashing down. Now she’s is once again shaken to her core. Her mother is deathly ill and there’s only one thing that will save her: vampire blood. But with the paranormal community shunning Edie, where can she obtain it…without losing her own life in the process?

SHAPESHIFTED

Edie hopes to procure it at her new job at the clinic across town, where the forces of evil loom large. Vampire gang wars are rampant. Old underground enemies are rising to the surface. And Edie’s zombie ex-boyfriend has arrived at the scene—but is he the same man he used to be? And what should she make of the enigmatic doctor with whom she shares an unexpected connection? She’ll have to figure it out soon, because all hell is about to break loose—literally—and time is running out…

Shapeshifted was published on June 4, 2013 by St. Martin’s Press and in German by Piper Verlag on December 10, 2012 . You can order it on Amazon or via the links below the cover image.

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The first three chapters of Shapeshifted follow:

Chapter One

I’d lost fifteen pounds in six months.

Being a nurse, I’d run through the worst case scenarios first: cancer, diabetes, TB. When I’d checked my blood sugars and cleared myself of coughs and suspicious lumps, I was left with the much more likely diagnosis of depression. Which was why I was here, even though here was an awkward place to be.

“I can tell you anything, right?” I asked as I sat down across from the psychologist.

“Of course you can, Edie.” She gave me a comforting smile, and adjusted her long skirt over her knees. “What do you feel like talking about today?”

I inhaled and exhaled a few times. There didn’t seem to be any good way to launch into my story. Hi, I used to work with vampire exposed humans. Once upon a time, I dated a zombie and a werewolf. So, you know, the usual. I snorted to myself, and admitted: “I’m not sure where to begin.”

“Anything that feels comfortable for you is fine. Sometimes it takes a few sessions to rev up.”

“Heh.” Six months was a long time — I should be getting over things already. Things like being fired…well, shunned, which felt a lot like firing. Maybe I should have let them wipe my memory when I’d had the chance. Figures I would make the wrong decision. “I’ve just been through a rough time lately.”

“How so?”

German cover from Piper Verlag

German cover from Piper Verlag

“I had this job that I really enjoyed. And I had to leave it. To go elsewhere. Ever since then, my life just feels…plain.” I’d spent the end of winter up through July working the full time nightshift in a sleep apnea clinic, monitoring patients while they slept. It was dull. My skin was paler than ever, and my social life was long gone.

There was a pause while she attempted to wait me out. When I didn’t continue, she filled the gap. “Let’s talk about what you used to enjoy. Maybe we can figure out what you enjoyed about it, and think how you can bring those qualities over into your current situation.

“Well. My coworkers were good people. And my job was exciting.” I paused, chewing on the inside of my cheek.

“What was exciting about it?” she encouraged me.

I looked at her, at her nice office, nice couch, nice shelves with nice things. It must be nice to be a psychologist. I looked back at her. She smiled, and opportunity blossomed inside my heart. We, she and I, had patient-therapist privilege. As a registered nurse, I knew the boundaries. As long as I wasn’t a danger to myself, or to anyone else, she’d have to keep what I told her quiet. It wasn’t like she was going to believe me, besides.

I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. “What do you think about vampires?”

The smile on her face tightened for just a fraction of a second. “It’s more important that I know what you think, not the other way around. So, tell me, Edie. What do you think about vampires?”

“What if I told you they actually existed?” I said. Her smile appeared increasingly strained. “Here, I won’t make it into a question. I’ll tell you what I think. They do exist. There’s quite a few of them out there, actually. They have human servants, some to do their dirty work, and others just to get blood from, like human cattle.”

The words just poured out. I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything, and I knew from looking at her that she didn’t want to hear it — but it felt so good to finally talk about it. The dam had broken. I couldn’t stop now.

“And there’s werewolves too. There were two big packs, but now there’s just one, and they race around on full moon nights in the parks outside of town, and then there’s also zombies, and I dated this zombie for reals once — I knew he was a zombie going into things, and I still dated him. You know how I knew? He told me. I was his nurse one night. At the hospital where I used to work.”

I sank back into the world’s most comfortable couch, and pressed a hand to my chest. “I cannot believe I just told you all that. That felt so good.” Looking up, it was clear my confessions hadn’t had the same effect on both of us.

She gave me a tight high smile. “Do the vampires tell you to hurt yourself?”

Not lately! was the wiseass answer that I wanted to give — but everything I told her was going into a file. If I was going to abuse her listening skills, the least I could do would be to take things seriously, and stay polite. “No. They don’t. They’re not in my head, either.”

She tried a different tack. “Do the vampires tell you to hurt other people?”

Not anymore! “No. They’re not allowed to talk to me anymore.”

I could see her measuring me, weighing my sanity. It was pull out now, and laugh, like everything I’d said had been part of a prank or crazy joke, and wasn’t I hilarious? Or sink like a stone – which was the direction I was heading in. It could be said I lacked the gene for self- preservation that most people came installed with.

“There was this one vampire that I was really close to. She kicked me out to protect me, after I destroyed all the extra vampire blood in the county. I saved everyone…but I ruined everything, too.”

The therapist inhaled and exhaled deeply. “Edie, at twenty-five you’re a little old to be having a schizophrenic break. But we need to do some reality testing here.”

Reality testing. Like everything that’d happened to me this past winter wasn’t real. I stared at the patterned carpeting beneath my feet. “That’s the thing. It was all real. All of it. But I can’t tell anyone about it. You know what’ll happen to you when I leave this room? If you believe me?”

“No.” Her face looked like she was sucking on an increasingly sour candy. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“The Shadows will come out of the ground, and erase your memory of everything I said. Maybe even of me.” I nudged the carpet with my toe.

“Edie, how long have you been having these delusions?”

I didn’t answer her.

“I know you’re a nurse, and no one wants to put you on meds less than I do, but my coworker next door — he’s a psychiatrist. We can go together and check in with him. He could get you in as an emergency visit, and then you can go fill your prescription. Risperdal does wonders for people.”

“Risperdal?” I startled and looked up. I was crazy…but I wasn’t crazy. “No.”

“Edie –” her voice went low. I grabbed my bag and started walking towards the door. “You’re not going to hurt yourself, are you?”

“Not if I don’t stay here,” I said as I shut the door behind me.

 #

 In nursing school I’d done a psych rotation. The nurse I was following and I ate Ripserdal-endorsed microwave popcorn out of a brand new plastic bedpan. It was incongruous at the time, participating in even a small part of the pharmaceutical promotion machine, and eating out of bed pans like they were bowls for food. After that, I’d always made sure to bring my own Tupperware, and limited my brand endorsement to using whatever Med of the Month themed pens were lying around.

I didn’t want to be on the med of the month, though. Even though I knew meds were helpful — and vital, in some cases — for depression. It was just that…well, my problems felt situational. You would have thought that it was the stress of working with vampires and were-creatures that did me in, but no, my depression had come after that, with the onset of spring.

I drove home with the windows down, hoping that the fresh air flowing over my face would make me feel more alive. It did — until I thought about the fact that I had to work tonight. My stomach curdled, and I finally put two and two together. Working at the sleep clinic was killing my soul.

There’re only so many nights you can watch someone sleep on a video monitor and stay sane. I had two years of intensive care unit level experience, and yet I’d spent the last six months watching people sleep, listening to them snore. It was like going from being a fighter pilot to a model airplane captain — the joyless kind glued to the ceiling at a Toys R Us.

My phone rang. I saw the picture of my mom, and picked it up like you’re not supposed to in the car. “Hey Momma –“

“Hey, Edie! Can you come over?”

A lifetime of being my mother’s child meant that I could tell from her voice that something was wrong. “Um, sure. Why?”

“You’re not on the phone in your car, are you?” she attempted to deflect me.

“No,” I completely lied. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing — I just –” she hesitated. My mother was good at many things, but lying was not among them.

As I waited her out, my brain itemized everything bad thing it could be. The list was shorter than it’d been six months ago, since the supernatural community was now shunning me — back then, if she’d called me up like this, I might have panicked and hung up to call the cops, for whatever good they could do.

Thank goodness she’d never known where I’d been working, who I’d been hanging out with, or what I’d been up to.

Now, the first spot on my “reasons my mother could call me in the middle of the day” list was occupied squarely by my brother. Jake had had a brief reprieve from his heroin addiction when I’d been working at the hospital. As long as I was employed there, the Shadows worked their weird magic to keep Jake immune to heroin’s effects, no matter how much he shot up.

He’d been clean up until I’d gotten shunned, when his protection abruptly ended. And sure enough Jake had been hooked again soon after. I tried not to think about him, most times, now. Thinking about him only made me sad.

I stopped at a red light as the awkward lull on the phone continued. “I just got some bad news is all,” my mother finally went on. “You’re pulled over, right?”

“Of course, I am,” I totally lied again. Whatever it was, it must be bad. I prepared myself for the worst. Jake, found face down in some gutter. The image came too readily to mind, followed by sadness and shameful relief.

“Good. Well. I have cancer,” she went on, matter of factly.

“What?” The car behind me started honking. I looked up. The light had changed. “What — where?”

“I was thinking maybe you could come over and join Peter and I for dinner? And then we could talk about things.” The car behind me honked louder.

Talk about things. Sure. Wait until dinner? Oh, hell no. “I’m coming right over, mom.”

At least she didn’t fight me. “Sounds good, honey. See you soon.”

Throughout my entire life, my mother had been my rock. My childhood had been crazy, and while as a teen I’d resented that, now that I was grown up I realized she was human, and she’d done the best she could. Knowing she was frail and sometimes fallible made me love her all the more. I couldn’t lose her now. My heart was racing in my chest, and I felt like I’d been punched. I drove through the light, and pulled to a stop on the next side street to gather myself.

I looked down, and my mom’s picture was still up on my phone’s screen. It was blurry — I smudged it with my thumb, then realized it wasn’t sunscreen transferred from my face, but that I was crying. I inhaled deeply, and swallowed it down. No. Not yet.

I needed to figure out how bad things were first. There were a ton of different kinds of cancer. Thousands, really. There were all the chances in the world that this was an easy one, right? Tons of things that doctors could do. Chemo, radiation, or surgery. My mom was tough, she could get through it. She had a great support system: her church, her husband, me.

But that might not be enough, a small terrified voice whispered inside of me. No one knows better than a nurse that sometimes, despite the best interventions and intentions, good people die.

I turned the screen off on my phone, and carefully set it down on my passenger seat so I wouldn’t be tempted to throw it out the window.

Up until recently, I’d known creatures that lived — baring holy water showers, or tripping into wooden stakes — forever.

If I had to, I’d make them make my mom live forever, too.

Chapter Two

I drove over to my mother’s house on the side streets, avoiding the highway, where I’d only be tempted to speed dangerously and cut people off.

Still, each lurching stop seemed like a personal affront — as though everyone who was trying to get home during rush hour was intentionally blocking me. I rolled up my windows so people wouldn’t hear me yelling obscenities.

By the time I got to my mother’s house, I was hoarse, but exhausted in a good way. I took a moment to compose myself in the car, picked up my phone and put it into my purse, and walked up to the front door.

Which was locked.

“For crying out loud –” I knocked on the door. They knew I was coming, Jesus —

Peter opened up the door. “Sorry. We called Jake, too.”

“Yeah, well, the bus system takes a lot longer to get here.” If my brother even had bus fare. But I could understand Peter, my stepfather, wanting to assess Jake’s condition before he let him in.

“Edie — dinner’s not done yet –” my mother apologized from the kitchen of her house. I dropped my purse on the floor, took off my shoes, and joined her.

“I’m not even hungry, mom. Tell me about everything. Now.”

“Well –” her eyes darted to Peter first. It was so unlike anything I’d ever do, that look to him for permission, and it made me want to shake her. But that was who she was — she wasn’t going to change now. “It’s breast cancer. Stage four. I’ve known for a while now –“

“Are you kidding me?” I said, my voice rising in anger. Peter took a step forward, waving his hands at me to calm down. I’d seen her two or three times since Christmas — talked to her about once a week on the phone. She’d seemed down, but not sick. Or sick, but not cancer-sick. I’d assumed she was just depressed about Jake. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“You just seemed so depressed, Edie. I thought you were like me. Upset about Jake.”

No, I’d written Jake off. It was an entirely different feeling than upset. “Mom — how bad is it?”

“Well, you know, the doctors have been trying very hard to get ahead of things. But it seems like they can’t. We didn’t find it early enough. The chemo’s not working, it’s on my liver too, and it’s inoperable – I’ve got a couple months, maybe a year, but –“

“You’re wrong.” I interrupted her, and looked to Peter for confirmation of her words. He looked away. “Oh no — no way. They’re wrong.” I ran back out to my purse, and returned with a notepad and a pen. “Okay, tell me who their names are. I’ll ask around about them, find out if they’re any good — which I can already tell you that they’re not — and we’ll find new doctors for you. Better ones. The best ones. Best ones ever.”

“Edie –” My mother looked so harmless from behind the island of her kitchen, the light shining down from above, haloing what I now suspected was her wig. “It’s not going to be like that.”

“You’re wrong.” If there was a way I could go into her body myself, and individually strangle cancer cells, I would do it.

“There’s quality of life to be considered too, Edie –” she began.

“You’re a nurse. You should know how that is,” Peter said from the side. I turned on him. I didn’t care what he had to say about things. For all I knew, it was sleeping with him that had given my mother cancer. Like HPV. Or all those winter trips to Florida he’d made them go on — maybe it’d gotten in through her skin.

I knew I was getting a little irrational, but it was better than the alternative.

“I want you to be on my side in this, Edie.” She came out from behind the island, and I could see her fully now, the way her clothes didn’t hang right. When had that happened? How had I been so blind? I was a nurse, for crying out loud. But she wasn’t a patient. She was my mom.

“I want to be on the fighting side!” I pounded my chest with a fist.

“That was always your problem, dear.” My mother smiled at me, sadly. “You never knew how not to fight.”

 #

I spent the rest of dinner determined to prove her wrong — as if somehow, making it through until dessert without blowing up again would show her that she needed to change her damn mind. I ate with a vengeance, swallowing under chewed bites of food, feeling overcooked chicken scratch at my throat on its way down — all the while realizing that she didn’t eat as much as she ought to.

If it was any consolation — which it wasn’t — at least I’d be here when Jake got his effing act together enough to arrive. Maybe he would be on my side in this, and we could talk her out of giving up together. And maybe there were little green men living on the moon.

He’d probably hope she’d die, so he could get his inheritance, and then shoot it all up his arm. I stabbed another bite of chicken with a knife.

After dinner, we sat in the living room after dinner, to talk. Turns out when cancer is the elephant in the room, there’s not very much to talk about. She told me about her church’s mission project, down in Mexico, and I listened without actually paying attention.

I didn’t even feel like I could cry. Crying would be an admission that things were irredeemable. If I kept being strong, I could somehow force her to be strong, too.

So at the end of the night, after Jake didn’t show up, I took my dry-eyed leave.

“Really, Edie, we should hang out more,” she said gently as I hugged her on her spot on the couch so she wouldn’t have to stand. Trying not to notice how weak she was when she hugged me back.

“I’ll come by tomorrow,” I told her, as Peter escorted me to the door.

“She needs some rest, Edie,” he said, when we turned the corner to the front hall. I bent over to push on my shoes, and grab my purse. “She’s very tired these days.”

He blocked the door with his hand, and looked pointedly at me. I knew what he was saying with his eyes.

I could think whatever I wanted to think, but he wanted me to keep it to myself.

Peter and I didn’t always agree — but I had always thought I’d known, up until today at least, that he had my mother’s best interests at heart. If he thought I was just going to take this lying down —

The shadows in my mother’s face were mirrored in his, too. I’d been busy pretending they weren’t there so I could be mad at him. Now I wondered how many nights he’d spent up, kneeling beside her at the toilet, how many pillowcases he’d found beside him in the morning covered in her hair. I shoved my three year old self down into a box, and found the grown up nurse in me again. I stood a little straighter, and let her take charge.

“I’ll visit every other day, so I don’t wear her out. Let me know if you need to take a break, too.” I took a step forward, staring at him. “And this time, tell me if anything changes — or I’ll never forgive myself, or you.”

He grimly nodded, and then opened the door to let me out.

 #

I drove off like a sane person. I didn’t take out any mailboxes or lampposts on their street. But two streets over I almost hit a garbage can, so I pulled over again.

Now it was safe to cry. Huge sobs welled up, and there were no Kleenex in my car, so I was forced to daub at my teary-snotty face with the bottom of my shirt. I’m sure I looked charming, asphyxiating with sorrow and baring my pale stomach in turns. When I reached the end of my crying jag fifteen minutes later, exhausted, I knew I could safely drive.

A part of me that wasn’t dissolving in pain started doing calculations. Things would be easier if I hadn’t destroyed all the extra stored vampire blood in the county, in December — the thing that had gotten me shun-fired. If I hadn’t done that, and I were in this situation now, I could steal some vampire blood from work…or I could just stand outside the transfusion lab, and waylay someone, karate chop them in the neck or some shit, and make them give me all their keys.

But I didn’t know if the lab was still being used, since I’d ruined things so successfully seven months ago, over the holidays.

While I wasn’t paying attention — or while that distant part of me was plotting — I took the exit to County hospital again. I didn’t fight myself, even as I pulled into the parking lot.

It took a while to find a spot, as seven o’clock was prime visiting time, which was good since it’d make it easier for me to get in. I knew from prior experience here that the intensive care units were on lockdown, and you’d need a badge to get inside.

But floor Y4, the one that cared for all the supernatural patients, had another barrier — and just one elevator. I wove back through the stairs and hallways until I found myself, feeling odd in civilian clothing, outside its orange doors.

First things first. I rummaged in my purse until I found my old badge. I’d kept carrying it, even though I didn’t think it’d do me good anymore. Chances were if I met an old “friend”, I’d be dead, and not have time to wave an expired badge around. But old habits die hard.

I ran my badge in front of the elevator’s lock. The lights didn’t flash. I waved it, more slowly, again.

No such luck.

Second — I kicked the door. “Hey!”

My voice echoed in both directions down the hall. I didn’t know what else was on this floor, I’d never looked around when I’d been working here. Now I wondered how far I was from a security guard. “Hey!” I shouted, with more force, and slammed my fist on the door.

Y4 didn’t need guards, normally — because it had the Shadows. Creepy tar-like things that fed on the hospital’s pain, they lived deep inside the ground underneath it. They monitored guests at Y4, and kept an eye on the elevator door.

“Come on –” I looked up at the acoustic tiled ceiling. There were plenty of cracks up there for them to hide in. “I know you can see me. And I know you know who I am.”

The Shadows wiped the minds of anyone who saw anything they shouldn’t. I’d had an option when I’d left, to let them wipe me. “Please. It’s important –” They were the ones that’d initially contacted me to work on Y4, in exchange for straightening out my brother. I knew they had similar bargains with the rest of Y4’s crew.

Silence. Maybe they weren’t even here anymore. Maybe they were being punished. They’d abandoned Y4 once before, to chase after an escaped prisoner of theirs. I’d destroyed the stored blood in their absence, rather than let it get stolen. There’d been a war on — it made sense, at the time.

But if I’d known I’d be condemning my mom — I waved my badge across the reader again, angrily. “Let me in!”

“Why?” Darkness coalesced over my head like a tiny storm, bringing back bad memories.

“I want in. I want my old job back.” I took a step back so they couldn’t rain on me. I didn’t want them to touch me — if they washed over me, they’d know my heart in an instant. And it was still in their power to erase parts of my mind.

“You have nothing we want anymore, human, and we’re shunning you besides.” The darkness began to drift away, like blowing smoke.

“Come on –” I pleaded with the ceiling tiles. If I hadn’t just come straight over after seeing my mom, I never would have said it, but — “Isn’t there anything I can trade you?”

The remnants of the cloud stilled, looking like a thin membrane overhead. “You know who we were looking for?” The thing that embodied their presence thrummed in time with their speech, looking like gray lung tissue shuddering back and forth with unholy breath.

“No. Who?”

“Santa Muerte. She is still missing. Should you find her, then we may talk.”

Done with talking, and done with me, the wisp of gray evaporated.

I didn’t know how the hell I was going to be able to find something — or someone — that the Shadows couldn’t even find. Them sending me off on some goose chase was not a feasible answer. Dammit to hell —

A crew of three people, none of whom I recognized as former coworkers, were returning in scrubs from the taco truck. They were surprised to see me there, and one of them waved their badge in front of the door.

If I could just get downstairs — I might know someone who was on PM shift right now. If I explained what was going on with me, what had happened to my mom — everyone down there who was staff was human. They all still had beating hearts.

As the elevator doors opened for them, I tried to step in alongside them. One of them blocked me. “I just want to go down –” I said by way of explanation, trying to sound innocent and kind.

The man who blocked me shook his head. “No you don’t. Trust me.”

“No, really, I do. You don’t know me but –” I held the door open as his smile got tighter. “Please, it’s just –“

“You’re not authorized.” The one nearest me gently pried my hand off the door. I let them because I didn’t know what else to do — fighting with them was not going to help my case.

Without my hand, the elevator doors closed, taking them away.

I looked up to the ceiling, where the Shadows had been. “This isn’t the last of me,” I told them.

But if I didn’t think of things, fast, and make some miracles happen, it might be the end of my mom.

Chapter Three

What was I even talking about? Or thinking of?

I pulled my little Chevy into the parking lot of my new apartment “home”. How could I explain things to her, if my plan had actually worked? Yeah, mom, just stay still while I inject you with this strange red stuff. And if you feel a little like eating raw meat afterwards, I won’t blame you.

I’d met daytimers before, the servants of the vampires who had only gotten a drop of blood. They were mostly miserable people, scrabbling for their owner’s favor to survive. I couldn’t condemn my mother to that existence, even if I could get my hands on vampire blood.

This evening had been a fool’s errand, just an excuse to keep the denial rolling, doing something, keeping up pretense, instead of giving up again.

I walked up the stairs to my place on the second floor and opened the door. Minnie, my Siamese, still loved me. She wound around my ankles as I stumbled to my couch.

Moving had been a top priority, once I’d gotten a new job, so as not to get any unwanted visitors in the middle of a full moon night. My new place was the upper right half of an older fourplex near the south side of the city.

The only decoration I had on the wall was a giant silver cross. The couch I sat on had most likely fallen off of a werewolf’s truck, and the mattress in my bedroom had been recently turned upside down to hide the stab wounds — stab wounds that had probably been meant for me, but I hadn’t gotten to ask the stabber about them at the time. The world I’d been in had been a dangerous place. I’d barely gotten out alive. It was no place to send my mom, even if I could figure out how.

I pulled out my phone and called a few numbers though — the denial train continued. I went through my address book and dialed old friends. Asher the shapeshifter, who’d helped me out more than I deserved. I called him first. I left a message on his voicemail. “Hey. I know I’m shunned. But I’ve got a problem — and, as usual, a stupid plan. Call me back.”

Then I called Anna, the vampire who was partially human, and the one who’d initiated my shunning for my own good. I got a high pitched beeping, like a fax machine calling, from her old line. I dialed it again, hoping against hope that I’d misdialed and this time she’d pick up.

Nothing. Just more faxing beeps. I stared at the useless phone line. I guessed vampires didn’t have to worry about early termination fees.

Lastly, I called Sike, the only daytimer I’d ever been fond of. I got the three rising beeps saying that her phone was disconnected –- dead –- which made sense because so was she.

I didn’t know how to get ahold of anyone else without stalking Y4 directly, which I figured the Shadows would put an end to as soon as they realized I was camped outside. And I didn’t want to tempt them to wipe my memory.

I reluctantly pulled out my laptop. If the Shadows were going to offer me a needle-in-a-haystack’s chance of help, well, I was stupid enough to try to take it. For now. But I knew that in my current state the internet could be dangerous for me –- I was only one bad search away from staying up all night going from Web MD to crank sites, and winding up at dawn trying to convince myself that my mom’d get better if only she drank her own pee.

I carefully typed in Santa Muerte, and swore to myself to have the strength to leave the rest of the internet alone. I was surprised to be rewarded with a few hundred pages of hits.

Santa Muerte — the literal translation Saint Death — did exist. At least as much as the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy did. She looked a lot like the Virgin Mary, except for the fact that she was a skeleton inside of her voluminous robes, with a skull-head, and bone-hands. Anyone could pray to her — and there were tons of people who felt neglected by the Catholic church who did. She was the patron saint of the downtrodden. Prisoners, gun-runners, drug-dealers, assassins, kidnappers –- a saint for people who had to assume God was going to disapprove of their life choices, but who still felt a need to pray.

If disenfranchised people prayed to her for aide, she was my kind of deity. “If you’re not too busy helping murderers, maybe you could get off your lazy Saint-ass and heal my mom,” I told my computer screen, while I clicked through to the next page.

While Santa Muerte was interesting conceptually, she didn’t seem to be of any current help to me. I doubted the Shadows were chasing a nebulous concept. They’d been holding someone physically imprisoned, which implied they were an actual person, someone who probably liked the name. Being the Saint of Death sounded majestic and grim, no matter what language it was in.

Once I got away from abstractions — there were a thousand other things she could be. If she was even a she. I snorted. She could be anything. A person that they’d trapped, an ancient vampire, or some unknown were-creature. A cryptid. I knew there were weird things in the world now, things I hadn’t even imagined existing a year ago. Santa Muerte was just the final piece of strange straw on the were-camel’s back.

I closed my laptop’s lid and curled into a ball on my couch, and when Minnie came over to snuggle me, I didn’t push her away. I must have fallen asleep there, because the next thing I knew my phone was ringing in my hand.

“Hello?” I mumbled. I hadn’t looked at the incoming call on purpose. Then I could pretend it was someone who could help me, calling me back.

Instead I got the peeved voice of the receptionist at the sleep clinic that I’d left hanging for my night shift. “I don’t suppose you’re coming in to work tonight?”

“No,” I told her, and hung up.

 #

There was no way to get back to sleep after that. I couldn’t believe that my mother had cancer. A couple of months. Less than a year. By this time next year, I’d be…without a mom.

It was too horrible to grasp. I tried to do things to distract myself, seeing as feeling bad for myself or her wasn’t going to help. I read books without reading them, flipping pages at random. I tried to watch a comedy, but the whimsical acting felt like an insult to my current life.

As I wandered around my place I wished I had someone to talk to about things about. I didn’t mean to be a loner, but that’s just how it was. My zombie boyfriend had left town months ago, and I couldn’t see the werewolf I’d briefly dated –- one night standed — again, after the shun. Same thing for Asher. I was tempted to call him up again regardless, but leaving repeated messages on his voicemail would be too pathetic for words.

I just wasn’t good at keeping track of people. The fact that no one ever seemed to keep track of me, either, was not lost on me. I’d never known how to relate to the real world, or myself, I’d just run from crisis to crisis trying to even things out. Fix my parents’ divorce, fix my addict brother, fix my patients at work — with all the placating and atoning I was doing, in a previous life I must have been an asshole. I’d managed to maintain a vague sense of self via helping people, and in return it gave me a feeling that I had a semblance of control.

But losing my mom would send me reeling. I could feel it. Everything beginning to spin away.

I went back to my room, and poured the Ambien out of my pill bottle. I popped two of them, drank a full glass of water, and surprise! It was eight AM.

I woke up normal, only remembering that I’d been upset about something and what was it, when memories hit me in the stomach like a physical blow. I reached for the Ambien again and spilled them out to count them.

I could just stay in bed. They said that Elvis had a diet where he took sleeping pills so he wouldn’t get up and eat. I wondered how long that’d work for me. Just because I’d lost fifteen pounds didn’t mean I was thin — as long as I drank some water with my pills, I could probably keep going on stored fat for an easy week. I’d be like sleeping beauty, up until I got evicted.

If I remembered right, I’d sort of quit my job yesterday. It wasn’t too late to call in and play the “I just found out my mom got cancer” excuse. They were nice to me there, even if the work was slow.

I tried to imagine myself going in tonight though. Sitting in the small video booth, listening to people snore, thinking about my mom, all alone.

That wasn’t going to be healthy for me. Worse even than double Ambien’ing it for a few day-nights.

I shoved myself to sitting, and reached for my computer.

There were tons of nursing jobs on Craigslist, mostly wanting experience that I didn’t have. I sent my resume out anyways, scattershot, just to give me something to do. And then I cleaned my place — it was bigger than the old one, but funkier too, so my rent had stayed pretty much the same after I’d moved. The hardwood floors meant that Minnie’s hair had collected in tufts in the corners of the living room. Suddenly hunting all of these down seemed monumentally important, and I set on the task industriously.

Anything to do something. Just not to think.

I was chasing down the last of these when my phone rang. I picked it up, dust covering my face. “Hello?”

It was one of the places I’d sent a resume to earlier. The person on the far end of the line had a slight accent, and wondered if they could ask me some preliminary questions.

“Sure.” I opened up my laptop and brought it back to life so that I could use it to cheat if need be. “Where are you guys located?” I asked, to buy myself some time.

She gave me an address, and I plunked it into my browser first off.

“Yes — two years of prior hospital experience. No, I don’t speak Spanish –” Some things weren’t worth lying about when they could be easily disproved. My browser hopped into map mode and pulled up the street view of Divisadero clinic. I saw it had a huge Santa Muerte mural painted in front of three elaborate crosses on its wall and a dramatically shadowed numeral seventeen. The woman on the phone began making polite excuses to get off the line with me.

“Hey, no wait, please. I’m very interested in working there. Public health has always been a passion of mine.” Completely not borne out by my resume or working experience, but hey. I shrank the map program and saw just how much further south Divisadero was, and made an assumption about how much of a pay cut it would be. There couldn’t be that many other qualified nurses applying. I zoomed back in quickly. The mural on its side was huge, and her outstretched skeleton hand seemed to be beckoning me. “I can even interview today,” I crossed fingers on both my hands. Please, this time, just let me get what I want.

She inhaled and exhaled loudly, and gave me a time two hours from now.

“Thank you — public transportation? I have a car — if you say so. OK. See you then.”

I hung up the phone with her and paused to really think. Despite the fact that I’d slept normal hours last night, I wasn’t used to being up during the day. I was covered in dust and cat hair — and I’d just volunteered to be at an interview in two hours. But it was an idea. The mural seemed more stagnant than it had barely a minute ago — now that I wasn’t deluding myself, her outstretched hand was more ‘pointing up the street’ than calling out to me. But still. Nothing said I actually had to take the job. I might as well see, right? And two hours was long enough for a shower and coffee.