Roughly six and a half months before the massacre at the gas station, Elise—still known, at the time, as Danaë McCollum—had been on a lengthy trip with James. They were excavating a pre-Genesis archaeology site, or something like that. The details had quickly become hazy. Elise didn’t remember things like graduating from college, the career path she had chosen, or the places she had visited.
All that mattered to Elise at that point were the moments with James.
The long, quiet moments in bed, right before the sun rose, when she had woken up but he was still sleeping.
The times that they read books together at sundown, after dinner but before they grew fatigued.
When they slow-danced to staticky music played over a radio, alone in the wilderness except for the birds and a few dirty trowels.
Those were the moments that had eventually driven her agreement to substantiate, after all.
As a result, Elise didn’t remember most of the excavation that they had worked on. Those memories had been dismissed as insignificant. Her memories resumed around the time that she had realized that she hadn’t menstruated in several weeks.
She’d gotten accustomed to a body with a uterus, accepting it as an inevitable unpleasantry of reproduction. She detested but tolerated the clockwork arrival of menses, rich and bloody and always accompanied by cramps. Yet it had been more than two months since she’d last needed to buy pads.
Additionally, the smell of eggs made her queasy, and she vomited as soon as she crawled out of the sleeping bag she’d shared with James.
That, more than anything else, had sealed it for Elise.
The trip into town to buy pregnancy tests was long, even with James handling the driving. They bought three tests to be sure. Elise waited until they got back to the dig site before peeing on one, then sat on a bucket to watch the pink lines develop.
“Pink,” she’d said. The word was almost drowned out by the rain drumming on the canvas roof of the tent. “Of all the infantilizing colors to subject an adult woman to.”
“That’s because the adult woman is possibly having an infant,” James said.
“I won’t be babied.”
“I didn’t say anything about you.” But he was starting to smile broadly. Elise was best described as surly, but she’d lately been downright brittle. Both of them knew what her worsening mood implied.
James was the one who picked up the home pregnancy test, undisturbed by the drops of urine lingering on the tip. They had been neck-deep in mud, worms, and mildew for months so his wife’s bodily fluids were nothing in comparison.
He only looked at it for a moment. He set it down.
“What?” Elise asked.
He’d helped her stand from the bucket, held her very tightly, and kissed her.
“Thank you,” James had said.
“Yeah, right,” Elise agreed. “You better fucking be thankful for this.”
And that was how they’d learned that they were to bring Victoria Faulkner into this universe.
Roughly six and a half months after the pregnancy test, Elise was fleeing the gas station massacre and the law enforcement personnel who had arrived to sort through the bodies.
She didn’t stop driving again until the RV ran out of fuel, which happened west of Seattle. She searched the vehicle for money and found nothing. She must have burned Chris and Tina’s wallets with their bodies.
She normally wouldn’t have made such an error, but it felt like someone had stuffed her skull with cobwebs. The exhaustion of new motherhood had rendered Elise stupid. She felt nothing like the woman who had once dispatched gods with a mixture of violence and cleverness. She’d have been lucky to walk a straight line without falling over at that point.
Elise parked the vehicle off the road, deep in a ditch concealed by trees. Victoria wouldn’t sleep without being held, so Elise crawled into bed and held that useless thing while trying to rest. She kept the damn baby on her chest while she caught a few moments of fraught, restless sleep, jolted awake by every little sound that she heard outside of the RV.
In her moments of consciousness, Elise’s thoughts drifted while her hand rested on Victoria’s back, rising and falling steadily as she snored.
It wasn’t the first time that Elise had slept with a baby on her chest.
She had frequently visited her mother, Ariane Garin, in the years after the birth of Marion. The baby had only been Elise’s half-sister: the product of Ariane’s infidelity with an angel. Elise had no responsibility for Marion. Yet she had cared for Marion when she had been as useless as Victoria was now, rocked her when she squalled, and even watched her sleep once or twice.
Ariane’s mothering experience had been vastly different from Elise’s, though. She had bottle fed Marion, for one. Breastfeeding was simply not something Ariane was interested in doing. “It makes your breasts sag,” Ariane had announced while mixing baby formula out of goat’s milk and witch’s brew.
Bottle feeding meant that it had been easy to prop breakfast in Marion’s hungry little mouth and walk away to do other things.
Elise had no such luxury.
Furthermore, Victoria was a much whinier baby than Marion. She wriggled and grunted loudly even when she was asleep. The amount of feces she could blast out of her wrinkled ass was almost enough to disgust even Elise.
That was how Elise was finally roused from the RV’s uncomfortable bed before dawn: by a very noisy, very wet bomb dropped in Victoria’s diaper.
She changed the baby, nose wrinkled at the mustardy slime coating Victoria’s vulva and butt.
James had not mentioned that this would be a necessary part of parenthood.
Elise wouldn’t have taken it as a deterrent if he had, though. She just would have assumed that he’d change all the diapers.
Dammit, he should have been changing all the diapers.
Once Victoria was clean, Elise ate what little food remained, abandoned the RV, and started walking to Seattle.
She didn’t walk the entire way. Only the first twenty miles or so. There had been a time that Elise would have been able to jog twenty miles without difficulty, but it was so much harder with blood sluicing from between her legs, and it only flowed harder the faster she walked.
The seven pound weight strapped to her chest didn’t help either, especially when that weight screamed to be fed every hour.
As a result, Elise took those twenty miles as slow as she could tolerate.
Once she found a bus stop, it wasn’t difficult to convince a driver to give her a lift for free. Not once he saw how stained she was, the misery on her squalling baby’s face, the exhaustion creating bags under Elise’s eyes.
“What do you need—OPA shelter or just a general woman’s type shelter?” the driver asked.
Elise clung to the yellow pole set into the floor behind him, swaying with the motion of the bus. She thought she’d have passed out if she sat down for even a moment, even while Victoria was squirming and fussing. She couldn’t risk sleeping, especially on a populated bus.
“What’s an OPA shelter?” Elise asked.
The driver exchanged looks with another passenger.
“OPA shelter,” the passenger said.
Elise couldn’t argue. She could barely focus her eyes.
The shelter was in a remodeled hotel. Elise realized that “OPA” must have meant “Office of Preternatural Affairs” once she saw that the sign was white letters on a black background, but by then it was too late; the bus was pulling away, and rain was dumping on Victoria’s ruddy-cheeked face.
Elise trudged inside the lobby.
“Scan your thumbprint, please,” said the desk clerk without looking up.
Elise’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“So that we can check your benefits.”
What harm could there be in that? Elise had changed all details of her life when creating a substantiated body, and that had included minute details, like the shape of the whorls on her fingertips and even the arrangement of follicles on her head. Nobody would be able to associate her identity with the marks of this body.
She swiped her thumbprint. The system gave a sharp blat.
“Doesn’t look like you’re registered,” said the clerk, pushing her glasses up her nose as she squinted at the screen.
“Registered with what?”
“Are you even preternatural?”
Elise hated it when people answered questions with questions. “If I tell you no, are you going to make me leave?”
The clerk finally looked at Elise. She noted Victoria, and the blood stains on Elise’s legs. She saw the heavy bag slung over Elise’s shoulder with a busted zipper that revealed rain-sodden diapers.
And she said, “Goodness, no. You’re not going anywhere. Come with me.” The desk clerk leaped to her feet and hustled Elise down a hallway.
Elise was not so exhausted that she didn’t notice all the cameras. The OPA was still irritatingly fond of surveillance. Black electronic eyes tracked Elise to a back room, where the clerk filled out paperwork and procured a room key, and then tracked them up to a higher floor.
If Elise was going to be found, it would be there, at that shelter, where her every move was being recorded.
That was good. The thing was, Elise did want to be found.
But she wanted to be found by the right person.
Right now, she didn’t know where James was. She trusted that he had good reason for missing the birth of his daughter. Good reason for leaving her to fend for herself when she felt far weaker than she ever had before, even when she’d been gutted by the claws of her enemies.
She knew he’d been abducted. She didn’t know what his excuse was for failing to escape by that point.
Perhaps he had escaped their unknown enemy. In that case, he would be looking for her.
Elise only needed to wait until he located her.
Unfortunately, making herself available to James meant that she was making herself available to the ones who wanted to kill her as well. More fights were coming. It likely wouldn’t take long.
She needed to rest before they descended.
The clerk, who identified herself as Ruby, led Elise to room number thirty-nine, down at the end of the hall on the third floor. She knocked. A woman answered it.
“Yes?” asked the woman, a young but haggard Latina with thin lips and narrow shoulders.
“You have a new roommate,” Ruby said. “Danaë, meet Hailey.”
A roommate. No. This would not work. “I need my own room,” Elise said. “And a locked door.”
“We don’t have space for everyone to get their own rooms. You can have a locked door. You just won’t be the only one behind it.” Ruby’s voice and eyes had become gentler. “Hailey can help you.”
Elise studied the Latina woman with fresh eyes. She had disproportionately wide hips and a belly as loose as Elise’s. The shape of her abdomen underneath her rucked-up tank top indicated diastasis recti, a condition where the muscles separated during pregnancy. Her arms were flabby. She was weak and generally non-threatening.
It was also very likely that Hailey had an infant close in age to Victoria.
Elise relented, stepping into the room. She had little other choice. Victoria was beginning to thrash again, indicating a need to eat.
“You know how to reach me if you need help,” Ruby said. That was mostly directed toward Hailey.
She shut the door, leaving Elise with her new roommate.
Hailey did have a baby Victoria’s age—a week older, Hailey explained with delight. She also had a three year old son and a five year old daughter. There was no father in sight.
“We have so much in common,” Hailey said.
Elise strongly doubted that.
Hailey pushed the three year old’s toys off of one bed, leaving Elise to collapse on the twin mattress with Victoria. There were child-sized fingerprints on the fitted sheet which were the exact color of strawberry jelly. Hailey must have allowed her children to eat in that bed, and they were disgusting. No more disgusting than the infant that Elise nursed in that bed, to be fair.
She slept while the rain poured.
Children played in the next room.
James didn’t appear that day, or the next.
Elise’s understanding of parenthood was limited. It wasn’t something she’d ever personally desired, though she might have if she’d had a spare moment to consider the scenario before learning she was infertile.
In Elise’s last life—the one where she’d had a half-sister named Marion, the one where she had slain gods—she had been born without a uterus because of a condition called complete androgen insensitivity. That meant she was genetically male, but unresponsive to the hormones that should have made her develop as a male in her mother’s womb.
As a result, Elise had been born female, but unable to bear children.
And that was fine with her.
If she’d been designing a new body for reasons other than to procreate with James, she wouldn’t have chosen to give herself a uterus. Elise had hated a lot of things about her last life. Having an intersex condition wasn’t one of them. The lack of menstruation had been incredibly convenient, in retrospect.
Now she was female genetically. She had lived over twenty years knowing that she bore a womb and that the womb would eventually bear a child.
Still, the urge to procreate was limited to humoring James.
Elise was fairly certain she didn’t have parents in this life. She’d appeared on the Earth fully-formed and prepared to live in the way she chose. Why make parents when she didn’t need them to exist?
In her last life, her parents had been terrible. Her father had trained her from toddlerhood to kill. He’d only ever given her attention when it was to punish her or beat her into shape. And even though Ariane’s relationship with Elise had improved in their latter years, Ariane had remained a slutty idiot who opened her legs for every abusive jackass in the universe, with absolutely no regard for the needs of her eldest daughter.
They hadn’t been good role models.
So yes, Elise’s understanding of parenthood was limited.
She’d heard a bit about other peoples’ understanding of parenthood, though. It had been impossible to escape the opinions once she’d become visibly pregnant. Random strangers had told Elise that she would instantly fall in love with her baby. That it would be exhausting, but worth it—whatever that meant. They’d said that she didn’t truly know love, and wouldn’t know it until she held her baby in her arms.
Clearly, these random assholes didn’t know what Elise had gone through in order to be with James. And they had been wrong about everything else, too.
She didn’t love Victoria.
It would have been wrong to say she hated the infant. Resentment was probably the correct word for the feeling. Elise resented having to shove her nipple into the baby’s mouth every time Victoria freaked out. She resented having to carry her, lest Victoria spend hours shrieking—a noise that Elise definitely hated. She resented being forced to eat enough food for her body to produce milk while healing from the violence of a draining labor.
But how was Elise to love this thing? This burden, this chore? A seven pound deadweight that James had requested and should have been caring for.
Parenthood was not what Elise had expected, and she had expected very little out of the experience.
This is how Elise’s week in the shelter unfolded:
On Monday, Hailey showed Elise “the ropes.” Hailey was a tiger shifter, which meant that her understanding of such ropes largely involved wringing adequate protein out of the dining room in order to survive, as well as feeding her whiny children. She showed Elise which parts of the OPA shelter to avoid because they were filled with vampires. And she showed Elise where to find the free diapers.
On Tuesday, Victoria screamed every moment she was awake.
On Wednesday, she slept so much that Elise thought she might have died, and she stared at the baby’s chest for about six hours to make sure it continued to move. Elise was stupid enough to think she missed the screaming.
The screaming came back on Thursday, and Elise wished Victoria’s corpselike state of the previous day would return.
Friday was rent day.
“Rent day?” Elise asked, frowning at Hailey as she bounced Victoria vigorously in the crook of her arm. “This is a government funded shelter.”
“Get down from the gods-damned counter, Gregorio!” Hailey snapped at her three year old. Gregorio ignored her, stretching onto his toes to try to reach the box of teething crackers on top of the refrigerator. She hooked his arm around his waist and dropped him on the floor. “We don’t pay rent to the shelter itself. We pay rent to the Alpha.”
Elise dredged a name out of the cobwebby depths of memory. “Rylie Gresham?” When she said the name, she vaguely remembered a cute blond girl with a big smile who had turned into a man-eating werewolf.
Hailey gave Elise a funny look. “Uh, no. Corina.”
Corina, it turned out, was a panther shifter who claimed to own Yesler Terrace, the neighborhood that the shelter was located in. She sent thugs around to collect rent from all other shifters who dared to live within those boundaries.
This was what Elise learned when someone pounded on the door moments later.
Hailey shoved her kids into the bedroom, handed the infant to the five year old, and then shut the door before answering it.
Corina’s thug was a glowering man with no neck.
“Here, take it,” Hailey said, shoving an envelope at him. “It’s all there. Now get out of here, Bruce.”
Bruce hung out, opening the envelope and counting the money slowly.
“You don’t trust me?” Hailey asked.
He stuffed the money back into the envelope. His eyes flicked to Elise, scanning her slowly, up and down, baby included.
“You’re new,” he said.
Elise studied him as he had studied her. He easily weighed three hundred pounds, most of it muscle. He wasn’t quite six feet tall, but still taller than her. His lips were like purple sausages. The scarring on his forehead suggested abuse from a silver weapon, though he’d clearly survived.
She could take him.
“What about it?” Elise asked.
Bruce sauntered into the apartment. Hailey’s baby started whining on the other side of the wall.
He smelled Elise with the same languor he’d counted the money, nose skimming inches from her shoulder. “What are you?” he asked.
She just looked at him.
“You better register with Corina,” he said.
Elise continued to look at him. She wasn’t going to talk. Victoria had finally fallen asleep.
“Are you stupid?” he asked.
“Come on, Bruce,” Hailey said. “She’s new. And I don’t think she’s all there, if you know what I mean. Not a shifter, though.”
“But preternatural,” Bruce said. “All preternaturals in Yesler Terrace gotta register with Corina. You learned that the hard way.”
There was a standing lamp about two feet from Elise. It would serve as an excellent makeshift weapon if Bruce attacked. Not silver, which meant it wouldn’t permanently injure Bruce, but she could knock him with it hard enough to make him regret bothering her. And even a shifter probably wouldn’t regenerate if she ripped his head off while he was down.
But then stories would get around about a woman who could kill shifters bare-handed.
Elise would get attention all right, but not the kind she’d wanted. She had probably slept six hours total that week, and none of those hours consecutive. She wasn’t ready for more assassination attempts.
So she didn’t plan to attack Bruce.
Not until he reached down to jab Victoria in the back with a knuckle, anyway.
“What the fuck is this?” he asked.
At least, that was what Elise assumed he’d planned on saying. She didn’t let him get the last word out.
She pushed forward. Snapped her head toward his. Drove the bony ridge of her forehead into the bridge of his nose, which broke with the sound of celery cut by a butcher knife.
Elise pivoted, keeping the baby behind her as she slammed her hand into Bruce’s mouth. She wrapped her fingers around his tongue and dug them in.
With her fist blocking his throat, he couldn’t breathe. He gagged. His eyes watered as she dug her fingernails in, bringing him to his knees. He tried to bite down on her forearm, but she pulled hard enough on his tongue that the frenulum began to tear, and he reconsidered.
Bruce wasn’t a very intimidating thug.
“Hailey doesn’t pay rent anymore,” Elise said. “Take your money back, Hailey.”
But the other woman was shaking, panicking, immobile.
“Give Hailey’s money back,” Elise said.
Bruce tossed the envelope aside.
Elise contemplated taking his tongue. She surveyed his teary eyes and considered the choking sounds in his chest. He was going red very quickly.
Would a shifter recover from suffocation?
“Go away,” Elise said.
She released Bruce. He scrambled to the door, gagging for air.
“You’re going to regret this,” he said, which was one of the least creative threats Elise had heard in a long time.
He bolted, leaving the door open to the hallway.
“Why?” Hailey asked tearfully. “Why did you do that?”
“He’s nothing,” Elise said.
“Bruce isn’t, but Corina is! You don’t defy her. She’ll make an example of you. She’ll come after my children!” The children who were now all crying in the bedroom, because they wanted to come out. Spoiled monsters. “We’ll have to run, and gods dammit, where will we go? How will we get there? Why, Danaë?”
Victoria screeched. She’d woken up.
Elise didn’t have to look down this time. She lifted the hem of her shirt and attached the baby to the breast, which silenced her instantly.
A week in the shelter, stuck with Hailey and her litter of kittens. James still hadn’t made an appearance to change his baby’s diapers and let Elise get a few solid hours of sleep.
Her patience had gone the way of Adam.
Elise was ready to get attention. If she happened to fix a few minor problems while she got that attention—well, there were worse things.
“I’ll take care of Corina,” Elise said. “Where in Yesler Terrace can I get silver knives?”
And that was how Elise’s first and last week at the shelter ended.