There was never a time when keeping Maisie in the apartment felt right to me. It was always a bad deal, right from the get-go, but there were no good deals, and this was the least-bad deal going. I couldn't let her stay out in the world, knowing what she knew, blurting out what she did. It probably would have been fine if I'd left it alone, but I could not live with such a flimsy guarantee. It was the chance that things would not be fine that nagged at me, that kept me awake at night, that made me jump every time the phone rang. I had a wife I loved, and we had a child on the way. I had a life, and I wanted to keep it. A person can't live like that, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and so I did the only thing I could do - the only thing I could think of. It was the right call, but it just so happened that it didn't turn out the way I wanted.

It should have been fine. Everything I knew about reanimates told me it should be fine. I'd been around them almost all my life. My parents could barely make car payments, but they rushed out to buy a Series One from General Reanimation when they first came on the market. Kids growing up today can't even imagine what those early models were like - buggy and twitchy, with those ugly uniforms, like weird green tuxedos. I was only five at the time, and the reanimate creeped the hell out of me when it would lumber into my room to check on me at night or when it would babysit while my parents were out. I still remember watching it shamble toward me, a TV dinner clutched hard in its shaky hands. I wasn't phobic the way some people are. I simply didn't like them. Dead people should remain dead. That's one of those things that always made sense, maybe now more than ever.

So I hated going to that apartment where I kept my dead girl, which, on top of everything else, was hard to afford and which I had to hide from my wife, who managed most of the household finances. I'd have rather been anywhere else - at the dentist, the DMV, a tax audit, a prostate exam. But I was there, at the apartment. I opened the front door and walked in, smelled the weird chemical smell that reanimates emitted, and the feeling washed over me that I had no business being there. My name was on the lease, but I felt like an intruder.

It was a crappy apartment on the cusp of the very wrong side of town, cheap, but not too dangerous. The place was a one bedroom - more space than Maisie needed, since she supposedly didn't need any space at all. She wasn't supposed to, but I always wondered. Sometimes when I came to check on her, the chairs around the cheap kitchen table would look out of place. I always pushed my chairs in, but these were pulled out at odd angles or even halfway across the floor, as though advertising that they'd been moved. I supposed there was nothing wrong with her taking a seat or moving things around if that was what she wanted to do, but she wasn't supposed to want to do it. That's what bothered me.

When I went in that day, she was standing precisely where I last left her, her back to the far wall of the living area, her face to the door, light from the slightly parted curtains streaming over her. I watched the dust motes dance around her eyes, visible through the mask, wide and doll like and unblinking.

Maisie was a black-market reanimate, but she wore the green-and-white uniform of a licensed General Reanimation unit, and of course she wore that matching green-and-white mask, which made her look, to my eyes, like a Mexican wrestler. Plenty of people, even people who liked having reanimates around, found the mask a bit disconcerting, but they all admitted it was better than the alternative. No one wants to check into a hotel and discover that the reanimate bellboy is one's own dead relative. No one wants to go to a cocktail party and see a dead spouse offering a tray of shrimp pate on ciabatta.

I hated the uniform - slick and stain resistant, made of some sort of soft plastic. It was oversized and baggy, making it almost impossible to tell that Maisie was female. I hated the full- face mask, but I had her wear it in case there was a fire or the building manager had to send in a repairman to fix something or even if there was a break-in. I didn't want anyone knowing I owned an illegal reanimate. I didn't need that kind of trouble.

I stepped into the apartment and closed the door behind me. 'Hello, Maisie. You may take off the mask if you like.'

She remained motionless, as still as a mannequin.

'Maisie, please take off the mask.'

With her left hand, she reached up and pulled it off but held on to it. I hadn't told her to put it anywhere, and so letting it go would not occur to her dead brain. Underneath the mask, I saw her face, pale and puffy, hanging loose from her skull, but strangely still pretty. She had long, flowing curls of reddish blonde hair, her pale blue eyes - I'm sure very arresting in life - dull and cloudy in un-death.

I came to check in on Maisie maybe once a week. I should not have to, of course. I ought to have been able to leave her alone for months, but I knew it was a good idea for reanimates to get some exercise lest they gum up. That was part of it. The other part was that I wanted to be sure she wasn't up to no good. Renanimates weren't supposed to have it in them to be up to no good, but if she hadn't been Maisie, had not acted like herself, she wouldn't be in the apartment to begin with.

'How have you been, Maisie?'

Of course there was no response. What was left of her brain couldn't process so abstract a question. That's what Ryan said, and he seemed to think he knew what he was talking about.

'Maisie, get me a beer from the refrigerator.'

I could get my own beer, of course, but I needed to find excuses to make her move. I had to specify one from the refrigerator because otherwise she might get me a warm one from the pantry or she might end up looking for a beer in the medicine cabinet.

Maisie walked off to the kitchen. I followed but only for something to do. I was always bored and uneasy when I came to the apartment. I felt strange, like I was play-acting for some invisible audience, like I was a grown-up furtively trying to recapture the magic of childhood toys. Nothing I said to her or did with her felt natural. Christ, I could talk to a dog and feel less like I was talking to myself. That's why I kept the visits so short. I would drink the beer, order her to do some light cleaning, and then get out of there.

I was thinking about how much I wanted to leave, how much I wanted to get back to my wife, when I walked into the kitchen and saw the fresh-cut flowers on the kitchen table. They were a gaudy assortment of cheap dyed daisies, but they were bright and fresh, very new. They'd been arranged carelessly, and water from the vase puddled on the table. Here's the thing: I had not put the flowers there.

No one else had a key - no one other than the apartment-complex manager or the super. Neither of them had any business in my apartment, and if they did have something important to do, they would have called first. (They had my cell-phone number, since I sure as hell didn't want my wife to know I had an apartment, let alone an apartment where I kept my black- market reanimate.) Even if they had not called first, neither the manager nor the super was about to leave a vase filled with flowers on my kitchen table.

Maisie was now closing the refrigerator and handing me a beer. She did not open the bottle, because I had not asked her to open it. That was how they worked. They did not do anything you did not ask them to do. So where had these flowers come from?

I twisted the cap off the beer and looked at Maisie, who, in the absence of orders, remained perfectly still. 'Maisie, where did these flowers come from?'

She stared at me. It was a difficult question for a reanimate, I realized, even as I spoke it. Too abstract. I tried again.

'Maisie, did you put the flowers there?'

It was a yes-or- no question, and she should have been able to answer it, but she said nothing.

'Maisie, answer the question. Did you put those flowers there?'

Again, silence. Dark, looming, unblinking silence. It was like demanding answers from a stuffed animal. No; our genetic, animistic impulses gave speaking to a stuffed animal a sort of logic. This was like demanding answers from a bowl of rice.

I took a long drink from my beer and sighed. This was serious. More than serious. It wasn't just that maybe my reanimate, which wasn't supposed to want anything, somehow wanted flowers. It meant that she had somehow gotten out of the apartment, gone to the store, spent money - money she'd earned from what or stolen from whom? Had she managed to bring it with her from the Pine Box? It meant a whole spiraling vortex of Maisie chaos, and I had to know. I had to.

'Maisie,' I said. 'Go into the bedroom, remove your clothes, and lie on your back on the bed.'

The first thing I need to make clear is that I am not a pervert. I don't have any desire to have sex with reanimates. Given the choice between sex with a reanimate or sex with a real woman, I'll take the real woman every time. Hell, given the choice between sex with a reanimate and no sex, I'd go without sex - at least for a good long while. Like S&M or rubber fetishes or whatever, if you're not into it naturally, it's hard to fake the enthusiasm. If you meet some amazingly hot woman, and she says, 'Sure, let's have sex, only I want to tie you up and stick needles in your dick,' you're probably going to, with however much regret, take a rain check. Unless you like that sort of thing. Plenty of guys like sex with reanimates. They prefer them to real women. It floats their boat. It does not float mine.

That said, I should point out that in most ways it's kind of like sex with anyone else. It has some unique qualities but also lacks some things that make sex with a living woman enjoyable - for example, that unique sensation of having sex with someone you know is alive. So, if you are looking at it objectively, it's a trade-off. That day, I looked at it objectively. I didn't want to have sex with her. I wanted to have sex with my wife and no one else. I liked sex with my wife. Sure, I would look at an attractive woman when I saw one on the street, but I wasn't about to make any moves. There had been some parties, some business trips, where I'd felt opportunities opening, but I never pursued them. I was in love with Tori. I was happy and I didn't need complications and problems and guilt and lies.

If you are like most people, there are probably a lot of things you don't know about reanimates. Ryan says you are happier that way. He says the less you have to think about what they are, the easier it is to ignore them, to enjoy the convenience. Ryan says you probably don't know much about their history, for example, because there's no percentage in knowing the history. You also probably don't know much about their nature, and that's a whole other thing. There's a percentage in that one for you. The key thing that I'm getting at is that reanimates have a greater clarity of thought when their feelings are intensified. You can tease out this clarity either with pain or with sex - at least with the females. I'm told it is impossible for the males to have sex, not unless the penis is artificially inflated. There are rumors of male reanimate sex slaves with permanent, surgically crafted boners, but I'm not entirely sure this is true.

Reanimates are totally different creatures during sex. This is a big part of why guys who like to sleep with them get off on it. Also, probably because they are willing and compliant sex slaves whose needs and preferences can be handily dismissed. Then again, some guys just dig the fact that they're dead. But for most of the true enthusiasts, the main thing is that reanimates are hungry for it. They start to feel things, they start to remember themselves, and they - well, I hate to be crass, but the bottom line is that they fuck hungry and hard, and some guys just love it. Not me. It made me feel unclean, like I'd been exposed to something vile and rotting. Even now I don't like thinking about it in too much detail, and the less I say about the particulars, the better.

Adulthood, however, means doing things you don't want to do. So I had sex with Maisie. As soon as I slid into her, it was like a switch flipped inside her soul. She was something else, something vibrant and powerful - something that felt not alive but rather live, like a storm or a mass of building electricity. That was how she'd been when I'd had sex with her at the Pine Box. She groaned and moaned and murmured. She thrust her hips up at me with a shocking, awkward violence. I didn't want to be there any longer than I had to, so I waited until she seemed good and worked up, and then I asked, 'Maisie, did you get those flowers?'

'Fuck off, you asshole.'

I guess saying that she surprised me is an understatement. I leaped off of her in astonishment and fear, and I lost - shall we say - my will to continue. She, in turn, fell back on the bed like a puppet with her strings cut. Just like that, she faded back to her normal, stupefied, lifeless self - still and naked and slightly bloated, not breathing hard like I was, since reanimates did not respirate - looking at nothing, and thinking, I was sure, about nothing.

I began to gather up my clothes. 'Maisie, get dressed,' I said, 'and come sit at the kitchen table.'

She complied.

I am a nice guy. I like children and animals. I don't especially like violent movies, so what came next wasn't something I enjoyed. It wasn't something that came naturally to me. It was, however, something I had to do. I thought it over. I looked at all sides of it and tried to find another way, but it just wasn't there.

When Maisie sat at the kitchen table, I told her to place her right arm on the table, on top of a thick bathroom towel. Then I asked her to roll up the sleeve of her uniform. With the puffy, pale flesh of her forearm exposed, I grabbed her wrist in one hand and, with the other, thrust a sharp kitchen knife into her arm, just below the elbow.

I've never stabbed a living person, but I'm pretty sure it feels different. Her flesh offered almost no re sistance. It was like stabbing wet dough. I felt the knife nick the bone, but it kept going, all the way through, and I felt the tip of the blade make contact with the towel.

Ryan says that pain works as well as sex, but sex, troubling though it is, bothers me less than torture. Anyone who might begin to think that I was a bad person should keep that in mind. I went for pain only when I had no choice.

Maisie did not scream. She did not stand or pull away or fight. Instead, she looked at me and winced. 'You asshole motherfucker.'

'Maisie, did you put those flowers there? How did you get them? How did you pay for them?'

Her eyes were now wide and moist, almost clear, almost like a living woman's. The lids fluttered in something like a blink. Her mouth was slightly open, and her usually grey lips were taking on some color.

'Fuck you, Walter,' she said without much inflection.

I twisted the knife in the wound. I could feel the flesh pulling and tearing, twisting along with the knife. 'Maisie, how did you do it? How did you get the flowers?'

She let out a cry of pain, and then gritted her teeth together in a sick smile. 'The more you fuck me, the more you torture me, the more I can think, and all I think about is giving you what you deserve. And it doesn't all go away. Each time I get a little stronger.'

I yanked out the knife.

Eight months earlier, I was a different man. I was, at least, not a man who could have imagined he would someday soon be torturing his illegal reanimate just after having sex with her, but life throws you curveballs. That's for sure.

Things were pretty good, and they were getting better. I was married to a woman more wonderful and clever and creative than I ever thought would look twice at me. I swear I'd fallen in love with Tori the first time I saw her at a birthday party for a mutual friend, and I could never quite believe my good fortune that she'd fallen for me.

Tori was a cellist with the local symphony. How's that for cool? She was not, perhaps, the most accomplished musician in the world, which was fine by me. I did not want her perpetually on the road, receiving accolades wherever she went, being adored by men far wealthier, better looking, and more intelligent than I. She'd long since given up on dreams of cello stardom and was now happy to be able to make a living doing something she loved. And Tori was pregnant. We'd only just found out, and it was too early to tell anyone, but we were both excited. I was apprehensive too. I think most men are more uneasy about their first child than they like to admit, but I also thought it would be an adventure. It would be an adventure I went through with Tori, and surely that was good enough for me.

Work was another matter. It was okay, but nothing great. I was an account manager at a fairly large advertising agency, one that dealt exclusively with local businesses. There was nothing creative or even challenging about my job, and the pay was no better than decent. Mostly I tried to get new clients and tried to keep the clients we had happy. It was a grind, trying to convince people to keep spending money on sucky radio advertising they probably didn't need. Most of my coworkers were okay, the atmosphere was congenial enough. My boss was a dick if my numbers slackened, but he stayed off my case if I hit my targets. Mostly I hit my targets, and that was all right. The job paid the bills, so we could get good credit and, consequently, live way beyond our means, just like everyone else. We'd bought a house we could hardly afford, and we had two SUVs that together retailed for about half as much as the house. We usually paid our monthly balance on our credit cards, and if we didn't, we got to it soon enough.

It all changed on a Saturday night. It was the random bullshit of the universe. One of the guys at my office, Joe, was having a bachelor party. He was one of those guys I couldn't stand: he had belonged to a fraternity, called everyone 'dude', lived for football season and to tell dirty jokes. I don't think he really wanted me there or at his party, but he'd ended up inviting me, and I'd ended up going. Frankly, I had no desire to drop a bunch of money to get him drunk, but it would have been bad office politics to say no.

It started out in a bar and inevitably moved on to a strip club. We went through the obligatory bullshit of lap dances and stuffing G-strings with bills and drinking too many expensive drinks. I guess it was an okay time, but nothing I couldn't have done without. Hanging out with Joe and his knuckleheaded friends at a strip club or spending an evening in front of the TV with Tori - I'd have taken the night at home in a heartbeat.

Ryan was one of the guys there. I'd never met him before, and I couldn't imagine I would want to meet him again. He was tall and wore his blondish hair a little too long - to look rakishly long, I guess - and had the body of a guy who spends too much time in the gym. He'd grown up with Joe, and the two of them were pretty tight. He was the one that suggested we go to the Pine Box. He said he knew a place that was just insane. We wouldn't believe how insane it was. We had to check out this insanity.

It was a bachelor party, so we were drunk and tired and disoriented from an hour and a half in close proximity to tits. We were all, in other words, out of our right minds, and no one had the will to resist. We drunkenly piled into our car and followed Ryan to his insane place about three amazingly cop-less miles away.

The Pine Box had no markings outside to indicate it was anything, let alone a club. It looked like a warehouse. We parked in the strip-mall parking lot across the street - Ryan said we had to - and then crossed over to the unlit building. Ryan knocked on the door, and when it opened, he spoke in quiet tones to the bouncer. Then we were in.

None of us knew what we were getting into, and in all likelihood, none of us would have agreed if we had, but we were now fired by the spirit of adventure, and so we went into the ware house, which had been turned into a makeshift club. There were flashing red lights and pounding electronic music and the smell of beer in plastic cups. Tables had been set up all around a trio of ugly, slapped-together stages, and atop them danced strippers. Reanimate strippers.

'Dude, no way!' Joe cried drunkenly but not without pleasure. 'This shit is sick.' Even while he complained, he forced his way deeper into the crowd. Had anyone else spoken first, had anyone objected, we might have all left. But Joe was in, and so we all were. He found a large table and sat himself down and called over to a waitress. You could tell he was loving it - the pulsing music, the lights, the smell of beer spilled on the concrete floor.

The waitress, I saw after a few seconds, was a reanimate - not as pretty as the strippers but wearing a skimpy cocktail dress and no mask. Somehow I hadn't noticed that the strippers weren't wearing masks, because they were wearing nothing, but this waitress, with its brittle blonde hair and dead, puffy face exposed, seemed to me inexpressibly grotesque. It had not been terribly old when it died, but it had been fat. Now it moved in a slow, lumbering gait, like a mummy from an old horror movie. It took our order and served our drinks without eagerness or error.

The music was loud, but not so loud that you couldn't talk, and I had the feeling that was important. People came here to look, but also to make contact with each other. They were reanimate fetishists. I'd never heard of them or knew they existed before that night, but as Ryan told us about his friends, about his Internet groups, about the other underground places in town, I became aware of this entire subculture. There were guys out there who were just into reanimates. Go figure.

Joe seemed drunkenly amused, but Ryan was in heaven. He went up to the stage and put money in their G-strings. He paid for a blocky, jerky reanimate lap dance. He had reanimates shake their reanimated tits in his face.

I thought he was the biggest asshole I'd ever met, and I thought the Pine Box was disgusting. I hated looking at the pale, bloated, strangely rubbery bodies. Even the ones who had been beautiful at the time of death were grotesque now, and many of them bore the scars of the injuries that had taken their lives. One was a patchwork of gashes and rips. One of them, perhaps the one who had been most beautiful in life, had vicious red X-marks on its wrists. It was monstrous and disrespectful and wrong beyond my ability to articulate. I'd never liked dead things, and I knew full well that we only tolerated reanimates because they were hidden behind masks and uniforms that allowed us to forget what they really were.

Ryan saw my mood and tried to get me into the spirit of things. He offered to buy me a lap dance, but I was a bad sport. I wasn't having fun, and I wasn't going to pretend to have fun.

I stared into space and tried not to look at the dancers, though once in a while I would sneak a look just to make sure it was as bad as I thought. It was. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the dancers stop. It caused a little commotion, and so I turned to it. A dancer stood on the edge of the stage, its arms slack by its side, slouching and staring out into the audience. Staring, I saw, at me. At least I thought it was me. Its left hand was weirdly angled, and it took a few seconds for me to notice that it was pushing its long fingernails into the soft skin of its palm. Dark and watery reanimate blood dripped onto the stage. A couple of men in jeans and T-shirts came up to it, shouting orders and gesturing violently, but it remained still, its dead, pale eyes locked on mine.

And then I knew it - I knew her, knew who she was or who she had been. It was Maisie Harper. Knowing that felt like falling, felt like a plummet toward my doom. I remembered that face, and, more horribly, she remembered mine. She had taken her secret to the grave, but then she had left the grave and brought the secret with her. She stared, and her eyes locked with mine, and I could not turn away. And then she opened her mouth and said one word. Even from a distance I could see what she said: 'You.' That's when I knew I was in trouble. It was when I knew things would never again be the same.

In the apartment kitchen, I sat staring at that weird, unclotting reanimate black blood drying on the towel. Some of the drops had gotten onto my pants. After I'd stabbed her and Maisie had openly defied me, I'd wrapped up her arm and told her I was done with her. She had gone to stand in the living area, in that spot where she seemed most contented - or whatever passed for contentment with reanimates. Ryan said they couldn't process much information. They had very low brain activity, and their ability to feel or experience from moment to moment was very limited. That was what Ryan said, but I was beginning to get the feeling that Ryan might not know precisely what the fuck he was talking about.

I cleaned up as best I could and went home. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Tori had been out shopping for baby things with a friend, spending more than we could probably afford, which might once have bothered me, but now I had other things on my mind. She'd been long home by the time I got there, and she wanted to know where I'd been. She stood there, still strangely thin despite her advanced pregnancy, looking like a toothpick that had swallowed a grape. She wanted to know what I'd been doing to get blood all over my jeans. I was too uneasy even to lie to her, and so I got angry. I hated to get angry with her, but I was frustrated. I might have told her to fuck off. I was not patient, that much is certain. There was some screaming and crying. She accused me of being insensitive, and I told her she was being irrational because she was pregnant and hormonal. As a rule, pregnant women don't respond well to that sort of thing.

The bottom line is that we didn't usually fight like that. I didn't usually speak to her that way, and it left her confused and angry.

Sunday was no better, and Monday at work was a disaster. I hadn't been sleeping well, and when a client called in with a complaint, I probably wasn't as sympathetic or attentive as is appropriate for a competitive industry like advertising. There was an argument with my boss, who acted like a total asshole, even though he was probably right in this case. Things were falling apart, and I was going to have to figure out what I could do to put them back together.

The Pine Box had a Web site with a password. You got the password for the site at the club, and you got the password for the club at the site. The passwords changed every two weeks or so. It was a clever system designed both to keep the circle of information tight and to insure that regulars kept coming back.

I became a regular. I kept coming back. I had to know just how much Maisie could recall.

Almost every time I went I saw Ryan. It wasn't like we were friends or anything, because I couldn't stand him and thought he was a dick, but he didn't have to know that. Truth was, I needed him or someone like him to guide me though this fucked-up world, and if buying him a few drinks and pretending to laugh at his jokes was what I had to do, then I was willing to take my lumps.

He was into reanimates. That much was probably obvious, but he was into them not just in some weird sexual way. It was the whole package, and he was into them the way some guys are into Hitler or the Civil War. He loved the information most people didn't want. He read books and blogs and articles in scholarly journals. He liked facts and dates and statistics and hidden histories.

We would sit at the bar with nearly naked dead women dancing around us, and Ryan would go on and on about reanimate history. Some of it was stuff I already knew, and other things I'd never heard before.

'Were you old enough to remember when they first began to capture pictures of the soul leaving the body?' he asked me. 'You're a few years younger than me, I guess. I was six. It was amazing.'

I was too young to remember it, but we'd all seen the pictures, watched documentaries on late-night television. The first pictures were taken by an MIT grad student whose grandfather was dying, and he set up his modified camera in the hospital room. When the pictures first came out, everyone thought it was a hoax, but then they found the process could be repeated every time. Suddenly people knew the soul was a real thing and that it left the body upon death. It changed the way we thought about life, the afterlife, dead bodies - the whole deal. In some way, it changed the nature of humanity. Our mortality defined us, but with that mortality seriously in question, no one was really sure what we were any more.

'It was all a crock of shit, anyhow,' Ryan was saying. 'No one knew where the soul went, did they? It could just go up to the clouds and disappear or turn into rain or whatever. Maybe everyone goes on to eternal suffering more horrible than anything we can imagine. No way to tell, but all those assholes imagined they had angels and harps and heavenly choirs sewn up, and that's what opened the door for all this. Soul photography was in 1973, and by 1975 the first-generation reanimates began appearing on the market.'

'I always wondered about that,' I said. 'It only took them two years to figure out how to turn dead people into product.'

'That's because they already knew. Here's what they don't teach you in Sunday school: the technique was actually developed by the Nazis during World War II. They were plotting some huge offensive in which they would overwhelm the Allies with an army of the dead, but fortunately the war ended before they had a chance. Americans had the secret for years but knew they could never do anything with it, that the public would flip out. But after the soul photography began, they saw an opening. Christ, do you have any idea how much money the government has made by licensing the procedure? And then there are all the regulations, you know?'

'The regulations,' I echoed. 'What was that, like the Alabama Accord or something?'

'The Atlanta Convention - a big meeting between industry and government to set the ground rules. When you buy a reanimate from one of the Big Three, they'll warn you never to remove the mask, that it messes up the preservative process, and I think just about everyone obeys. No one wants their reanimate to fall apart on them. And then there are the quarterly servicings. If you miss even one of them, your reanimate becomes unlicensed and can be confiscated by the cops.'

Ryan was also very interested in where the reanimates come from. 'They pay you, like, what? Seven or eight thousand to sign up, but not a whole lot of people in this country are willing to sell their bodies for eternal slavery, so most of the reanimates come from Africa or Asia. I always thought that was one of the reasons for the masks and the uniforms. I think a lot of white Americans might be more uncomfortable if they had to stare into a black reanimate face. More zombie- ish, I guess.'

'So where do these come from?' I asked. Most of the strippers at the club were young white women.

Ryan shrugged. 'Some are from Eastern Europe, though those are hard to get because you need ones that spoke English when they were alive. Still, you have any idea how many poor assholes in Latvia are trying to learn En - glish just so they can sell their bodies? But the Americans? They're drug addicts, people with terminal diseases who want something for their families, whatever. A lot of them sell their bodies on the black market. They get less, but there are no taxes. Some young hottie gets pregnant and can't afford an abortion? Maybe she hocks her body, hoping to buy it back. That's the teaser, you know. You can always buy it back. How many reanimates out there do you think were convinced they could get their bodies out of hock before they died? Even the black- market dealers let you do it, because they know people can convince themselves that they'll be able to redeem their bodies. Almost no one ever does.'

I wondered if that was what happened to Maisie Harper - some crisis she couldn't tell her parents about, so she pawned her body, sure she would have time to buy it back.

'Bunch of morons,' Ryan said. 'Convince yourself of anything. It's crazy to think that because some chick believed she would always have more time, you can walk in here and just fucking buy her like you would buy a loaf of bread.'

Until that moment, I'd had no idea you could buy a reanimate from the Pine Box. This changed everything. 'You mean I could - a person could - buy one of these girls?'

'You thinking about it? Be hard to explain to your wife, but yeah. I mean, it's not like a showroom. You can't just point and say, "I'll take that one," but they are sometimes willing to sell if they have extra or if one of them isn't working out.' He now waved his fingers at Maisie. 'Like that one. I guess you've thought about it.'

I turned to him. 'What do you mean?'

He grinned. 'Oh, I don't know. It seems to have a particular interest in you, and you in it. I've fucked it, you know.' He grinned at me again. 'It's good stuff. I bet you they would let it go cheap. I mean, if you wanted a messed-up reanimate, that is.'

I felt as though I were floating outside my body. Was Ryan hinting that he knew about me and Maisie? How was such a thing possible? But if he did, so what? We were brothers in sick, fucked-up, reanimate enthusiasm, weren't we? And even more importantly, he raised this new thought: they sold reanimates here.

Buying Maisie. It seemed too good to be true. It seemed like all the stars were lining up to make my life easy, or at least to give me an out from unbearable complications. They sold the reanimates, and they might be willing to sell Maisie in particular.

Ryan must have noticed how thoughtful I looked. He laughed. 'Before you do something rash like buy, you might want to sample the goods.'

'Sample the goods?'

He nodded. 'It's only a hundred dollars. They have rooms in the back, and you get a full hour. You can pick any girl you want. If she's on the stage, she's available, but if you are thinking of buying that one, you should check her out first.'

I looked over at Maisie. She was dancing around a pole very slowly, and she was looking at me. The idea of having sex with her, with any of them, was utterly repulsive to me. 'No way,' I said.

'Don't knock it. If you've never had sex with a reanimate, you have no idea what you are missing. They love it, man. You wouldn't believe how into it they are. It's like they feel alive when they're doing it. They talk, almost like normal people. Sex and pain do that.'

'How do you know about pain?' I asked.

He shrugged. 'Different guys have different interests. You meet all sorts of reanimate enthusiasts here. Some are into sex, some are into . . . crazy things.'

I was already dismissing this. If people wanted to torture the dead, that was their own business. I was thinking about Maisie and sex. I was thinking about what Ryan had said, that they seemed more human during sex, and they spoke. That meant that Maisie could be telling anyone anything. I really didn't want to try it myself, but I had to know.

I paid my hundred dollars to Yiorgio, one of the Pine Box's owners. He was a good looking Greek guy with long hair in a ponytail and a linebacker's physique. He looked like someone who would be curt and dismissive, but he was actually very friendly. He spoke with a heavy accent, but he was very gregarious and casual, like paying to have sex with a reanimate was no big deal. He made his customers feel at home, which I supposed made him a good businessman.

The thing with Maisie was awkward. Wearing nothing but a G-string, she came over to stand in front of us. 'You want to go with Mr Walter Molson?' Yiorgio asked her. 'He is true gentleman.'

I winced when he spoke my name. I didn't want her to know it. She recognized my face, but until that moment, I don't see how she could have known my name. She did not react, and I hoped that maybe the information was lost on her dead brain.

She followed me to the room Yiorgio had given us. I was expecting something unspeakably seedy - a dusty room with cinder-block walls and a stained mattress on the floor - but the space was actually very neat and pleasant, with a bed and some chairs. The room was well lit, the walls newly wallpapered and with paintings - landscapes and fruit and the kind of bland things you see in hotel rooms. The bed looked freshly made. Yiorgio was clearly a class act.

I closed the door, and Maisie stood there looking at me, not blinking. Yiorgio had told me that whenever I spoke to her, I needed to begin the command with her name or she might not listen. I said, 'Maisie, sit down on the bed.'

She sat.

There I was in that small room with Maisie. She sat on the side of the bed, her face empty and her eyes as unblinking as a doll's. She was all but naked, but totally oblivious. She'd been beautiful when she was alive, I knew, and she was still beautiful in death - if you liked that sort of thing. But even though I felt the surprising heat of her proximity, I had no intention of having sex with her - with it. She was a dead thing, a corpse made active by some mysterious mad science, and that did not get me all worked up. Plus there was the guilt. I didn't want to be the sort of person who would both kill a woman and then fuck her dead body. That wasn't how I saw myself.

'Maisie,' I said. 'Do you know who I am?'

She did not react.

'Maisie, do you remember ever seeing me before?'

Again, nothing. It was better than getting an answer, but it didn't put my fears to rest. Ryan said it all came out during sex, and I knew I was procrastinating. I was looking for some other way to find out what I wanted to know, but I didn't see it. Taking in a long, deep breath, I told her to take off her G-string and lie on the bed. She did that.

I took off my clothes. I'd been afraid I was not going to be able to perform, but I think her nudity and mine were enough to get things going. Her body was strangely warm, almost hot, but it didn't feel like body heat. It was more like there was a chemical reaction happening just below her skin. And the texture was all wrong. It didn't feel like skin, and her flesh didn't feel like flesh. Lying on top of her felt like lying on top of a water balloon. I didn't want to lick or suck or bite or even run my hands over her. I just wanted to do what I had to do and see what happened.

It was like Ryan had said: she was into it. Really into it. She bucked wildly, grabbed onto me, she grunted, groaned, and murmured. And in the middle, she began to speak. 'God damn it,' she said, 'you killed me. I'm fucking you, and you killed me. Walter Molson, you killed me.'

I pushed myself off her and staggered backward to the wall. It was worse than I thought. Far worse. By arranging to have sex with her, by putting her in a position where she could learn my name, I had made it worse. I was going to have to do something about this, and I was going to have to do it soon.

The real beginning of the story was two years before all this. Tori's sister was going through a bad patch with her husband, was maybe thinking of getting divorced, and Tori wanted to go out to California to be with her for a few days. We hadn't been married all that long, and this was going to be my first time alone in the new house. I loved my wife, and I loved living with her, but I was also excited for the solitude, which I missed sometimes. You get to thinking about it and you realize you can't remember the last time you spent more than an hour or two without someone else around.

The first night she was gone I was exhausted from work, and basically fell asleep right away. The second night, a Saturday, was something else. I thought about calling up a couple of friends and going out, but somehow it seemed a waste of an empty house to leave it. I was in it for the quiet, for the privacy, and I didn't want to waste it with socializing. I ordered a pizza, turned on a baseball game, and prepared to enjoy a night of not picking up after myself, of leaving the pizza box on the coffee table until morning.

I took out my bottle of Old Charter, and I swear I only planned to do one shot. Two at the most. I wasn't interested in getting drunk, and I was sure that drinking too much would put me right to sleep. But somehow I didn't stop. The game on TV was exciting, and one shot followed the next with an unremarked ferocity. Come eleven o'clock, I was good and drunk.

Come one o'clock, it seemed to me like a crime against humanity that there was no ice cream in the house, like the UN Office on Desserts was going to come gunning for me if I didn't take care of things. I understood that I was drunk, very drunk, and that driving under those conditions was somewhere between ill-advised and fucking moronic. I also understood that there was a convenience store not half a mile from my house. A straight shot out of my driveway, past four stop signs, and there you are. No need even to turn the wheel. I might have walked. The air would have done me good, but since the idea didn't occur to me, it saved me the trouble of deciding I was too lazy to walk. Something else never occurred to me - turning on my headlights.

That was bad enough, but running that second stop sign was worse. I wasn't fiddling with the radio or distracted by anything. I just didn't see it, and I didn't remember it. With no headlights to reflect against it, the sign was invisible. I had a vague sense that I ought to be slowing down somewhere around there, which was when I felt my car hit something. Sometime thereafter, I knew I had to stop, and after spending a little bit of time trying to find the brake pedal, I did in fact stop. I was a drunk moron, no doubt about it, and I realized I ought to have turned on my headlights before, but I knew enough not to turn on my headlights now.

I grabbed the emergency flashlight from the glove compartment, spent a little while trying to remember how to turn it on, but soon enough everything was under control. I got out of the car and stumbled the hundred or so feet since I hit the thing. My worst fear, I swear it, was that I had hit a garbage can, maybe a dog or cat, but when I approached the stop sign I saw her lying on the side of the road, her eyes open, blood pooling out of her mouth. There was a terrible rattling in her breath, and her upper body twitched violently. And then I saw the damage to her skull. I saw blood and hair and exposed brain. She raised one limp hand in my direction and parted her lips as if to speak. I looked away.

You never know who they are until you are tested. I'd always thought of myself as the guy who does the right thing, but it turned out I wasn't that guy at all. In that moment I understood that I was drunk, I'd been driving without headlights, and this girl was going to die. I could see her brain, and I could hear her death rattle. Nothing I was going to do could save her, and that was a good thing too, because if I'd thought I could save her, I can't say for sure I would have. Even so, I ought to have called 911 - I had my cell phone on me - but if I had, my life would have been over. I would have been looking at jail and disgrace. Everything I was and wanted to be would have been done.

All around me it was dark. No lights were on. No dogs barked. No one knew I was there. In an instant both clear and decisive, I got back into the car, turned around, drove past the girl I had broken, and managed to navigate my way into the garage. Amazingly, I could find no sign of damage on the car. I was drunk as hell, and I knew it, which meant I could not trust my judgment, but to my foggy eyes, everything looked good. So with nothing else to think about, I went upstairs, got undressed, made a vague gesture toward brushing my teeth, and went to bed.

In the morning, hungover and panicked, I went out and looked at my car. Nothing. No blood, no scratches, no dents. To be certain, I took my car to an automated car wash. Then I began to relax.

The murder, as they called it, of Maisie Harper was a big story for about a day, but then there was that category 4 hurricane that started heading our way, and no one much cared about Maisie Harper any more. The hurricane missed us, but it hit about two hundred miles north of here, and that generated enough media attention to keep Maisie's name, if not her body, pretty well buried.

Of course, the cops kept working it, and the story made the paper, though only small stories in the back. At first they had no clue who would kill the twenty-one-year-old college student, home for the summer, out for a late- night stroll because she could not sleep. Then the police began to suspect it was her boyfriend. They arrested him, and it looked like I'd caught a break and this guy would take the fall. I cheered the cops on. I didn't bother to think that he hadn't done it, that he was mourning for this girl he possibly loved and very probably liked. All I could think about was that if they nailed him, I could exhale. But they didn't nail him. They let him go, and they made some noise about pursuing more leads. Every day I would look out the window expecting to see cop cars pulling up, waiting to cart me off in shame. The cars never came. They never suspected me, never came to talk to me. There were no witnesses. No one had seen or heard a thing, and eventually the story blew over. In the process, I learned a very important thing about myself. I could do something terrible and live with it, and when the going got tough, I could keep my cool.

When I was done with my hour, I went to see Yiorgio in his office behind the stages.

'You had good time, my friend?'

'I'd like to buy her,' I said.

He laughed. 'You did have good time. Ryan, he tells me you have never before been with reanimate girl, yes? Maybe you should try some others before you are so sure.'

'I don't want to try others. I like that one. How much?'

'You've been good customer, so I don't want trick you. Maisie is difficult girl. She does not always listen. She becomes maybe a problem for you, and I do not want that you come back and tell me you no longer like so difficult a girl. You maybe tell me you want your money back.'

'It won't happen,' I said. 'No returns. I understand the rules going in.'

He shrugged. 'So long as you understand. Let me tell you something, though. The reanimates, we give them whatever name we want. This one come, she tell us her name. Would not listen to any other name. Very willful.'

I nodded. All of this was making me even more convinced I had to get her out of circulation. She knew who she was. She knew who I was. I didn't know if a reanimate's testimony had any legal standing, but I didn't want to find out.

'I want to buy her,' I said.

'Okay, my friend. You are very determined, yes? You may buy her for eight thousand dollars. I hope you know, this is cash, and all up front. But it includes lifetime servicing.'

Eight thousand dollars was a good price. An economy reanimate from one of the Big Three would cost at least fifteen thousand dollars. Even so, I did not know how I was going to get that kind of money. We had no real savings, no more than a fifteen-hundred-dollar cushion at any given time. But I had some ideas.

'I'll get you the money,' I said. 'Soon. Don't sell her to anyone else until I do.'

'Who am I to break up true love?' Yiorgio asked.

I blundered my way back to my chair. I hardly noticed Ryan was still sitting there until he started to punch my arm and ask me how I'd liked it.

He was joined by another guy now, a regular named Charlie - older and almost entirely bald but for a strip of white hair and a very white goatee. He was well dressed and spoke very deliberately. He spoke like a rich man.

'This is Walter,' Ryan told Charlie. 'He and Maisie have that thing.'

I was not about to ask what he meant. Better to just be cool, be one of the guys.

We sat around and talked and drank, and then finally, Charlie turned to me. 'I'm having a party at my house tomorrow night. Ryan knows about it, but I think it's time you joined our circle. It's the sort of thing a hobbyist like you shouldn't miss.'

I was going to have a hard time explaining to Tori where I was going without her. She was about five months pregnant now, starting to show in earnest - not as big as she was going to get, but still new enough to being big to be sensitive about it. You try telling your pregnant wife not to get all worked up about it. You try telling her that she desperately wanted to be pregnant, and now she was pregnant, so maybe she should stop complaining about it. Dealing with a touchy pregnant woman who is self-conscious about her appearance makes negotiating with North Korea seem like a pretty sweet deal. There was something about the way Ryan and Charlie spoke that told me that if I skipped the party, they wouldn't quite trust me, wouldn't quite consider me one of them. I didn't know what Ryan might already suspect about me and Maisie, and I didn't want to give him any reason to worry about me.

Tori was furious with me, of course. I was always going out, she said. I was being secretive, she said. I was one of those asshole husbands who cheats on his pregnant wife because she is now fat and ugly. Of course I told her I had never touched another woman, but she didn't believe me, which bothered me. I ended up leaving for Charlie's party with her shouts ringing in my ears and the thin satisfaction of slamming the door.

Charlie lived in a verdant old neighborhood, and his house was massive to the point of being intimidating, probably five thousand square feet and gloriously appointed. Ryan was there, and I recognized quite a few people from the Pine Box, but even so, it was hard at first to shake off the feeling that everyone was judging me for my creepy interests. I drank too much beer too fast, but that made me sociable, and that made things easy. The beer was served by unmasked reanimates in tuxedos. All of them, I soon learned, were black market. And that began to put me at ease. Charlie had illegal reanimates. Why shouldn't I have one?

The party had gone on for a couple of hours, and it seemed like just a regular party to me - people talking and eating, taking hors d'œuvres from trays. Ryan had promised something wild, but I began to think I was missing something. Then, at about ten at night, we all went outside to the fenced- in, private yard. The mood changed at once. It was tense and charged, full of an almost sexual expectation. Everyone spoke in low whispers. A couple of men even giggled nervously. I asked them what was going to happen, but they wouldn't tell me. 'Better to be surprised,' one said, and then his friend gave him a high five.

There was a big sheet of heavy plastic set out in the middle of the backyard, and Charlie ordered one of his reanimate servants to go stand on it. The thing lumbered onto the plastic and stopped. Charlie told him to turn to face the crowd, and it did so. It looked like it had died when it was in its forties or so. It was a slightly heavyset white man with thinning reddish hair and sad grey eyes.

Charlie turned to his guests.

'Hey, guys,' he said, 'this is Johnny Boy.'

'Hi, Johnny Boy!' the crowd shouted.

'Johnny Boy has been a little slow to obey orders lately,' Charlie said. 'He's not disobedient, but he's getting a little old.'

'Awww!' cried Charlie's guests.

'What do you think? Should we retire him?'

Charlie's guests cheered.

Charlie turned to the animate. 'Johnny Boy, would you be so good as to remove your clothes for us?'

With the fumbling and mechanical efficiency of its kind, Johnny Boy began to remove its clothes. Perhaps out of habit or training, it folded each piece of clothing, and it left them piled on the plastic sheet. When it was done, it turned back to us, entirely naked. Johnny Boy looked like it'd been killed in some sort of accident: its torso was all messed up, not exactly scarred, but exposed and purpled in places. Its belly was distended, its flesh swollen, its penis and testicles so shriveled as to be almost invisible. Charlie's guests raised their drinks and toasted it.

'Johnny Boy,' Charlie cried, 'be so good as to hold out your arms.'

Johnny Boy held out its arms.

Now another reanimate arrived with what looked like an old stained butcher's apron, which he handed to Charlie. After putting it on, Charlie lifted an axe he'd clearly had nearby, though I had not seen it until this moment.

Charlie turned to the crowd, brandishing the axe. 'You boys ready to send Johnny Boy off in style?'

The guests made it known that they were ready. I took a step back. I understood now what was happening, the weird grotesqueness of it all. What did it mean? Was it a crime? Was it even cruel? I didn't know, but I didn't want to know, I didn't want to see. Yet I knew it would be a mistake to leave or even to show my feelings, to make these guys feel like I thought I was better than they were - which I did, by the way. I stood there and made myself watch.

Charlie, after taking a moment to flash a wolfish grin at his guests, brought the axe up and then swung it down on one of Johnny Boy's outstretched arms. The limb tumbled down to the plastic sheet, continuing to move, and the stump remained outstretched, oozing a slow and steady flow of black, watery liquid. Johnny Boy began to scream. It did not move its legs. It barely moved its head, but it screamed and shrieked and wailed. The guests cheered. People hooted and clapped and drank to its suffering.

'My brakes!' Johnny Boy cried out. 'Oh, my God, the truck, the fucking truck!'

The crowd cheered again.

Charlie handed the axe to Ryan, and he cut off the other arm in a quick, clean stroke. Johnny Boy still screamed, sometimes just noise, sometimes about the impending head-on collision with the truck. Its stumps continued to produce their black blood, like a kitchen faucet left running just a little. Then the axe was handed to another friend, and he cut off one leg. The body tumbled over, but this didn't slow the screaming. It seemed not to know or care what was happening now, but the past, its death, was vivid and real and immediate. The crowd loved it.

I stood there feeling nauseated and horrified while the last leg was cut off and the crowd gathered around to laugh and point and cheer on the dismembered torso. I could not have held my breath all that time, but if anyone had asked, I would have sworn I didn't breathe between the time they started hacking up the reanimate until the time they finally put the pieces on the fire and burned them into stillness and silence.

The party began to clear out after that, but it was still too early and I was too shaken to go home. I wanted to make sure Tori was asleep when I got there, so I wouldn't have to deal with her. I went to a bar and drank too much, but I'd learned my lesson. Even though I now drove a car with headlights that went on automatically, I still checked them before driving home at almost 1:00 A.M.

The lights were out, so I thought I was safe, but when I walked through the door, she was waiting for me, sitting in the dark.

'What is going on, Walter?'

'I don't know what you mean,' I said. 'I wanted to hang out with some friends. Christ, you are the only wife in America that doesn't want to let her husband out of the house once in a while.'

'You got a call while you were out,' she said.

'A call! Oh, my God, a fucking call! No wonder you are so upset.' I stumbled past her.

'I don't know who it was. It was a woman. She sounded, I don't know, retarded or something. I think she was saying your name, but I couldn't understand the rest.'

'Jesus Christ, Tori,' I shouted. 'A wrong number? You are giving me shit about a wrong number? Have you lost your mind?'

I stormed upstairs, and she didn't follow. After fifteen or twenty minutes, I figured she was going to sleep on the couch. Just as well. It gave me time to figure out what the hell I was going to do with Maisie, who was now calling my house. She must have done it during sex or right after sex or while stabbing herself or something. The point was that someone might have seen her do it. This someone might not have understood this time, but what about the next time or the one after?

Two days later I went to the Pine Box and paid for Maisie. I brought her over to the apartment, and I left her there. Everything was fine for about two months. Then it fell apart.

After the incident with the flowers, I decided I needed to visit more regularly. The next time I went over, she had newer flowers, and on the mantel she'd placed a goldfish bowl with two fish. There was a little tube of fish food next to it. Maisie herself was still and lifeless, as she usually was when I walked in.

'Maisie,' I said, 'do you want something? Do you need something? Is there anything I can get you that will make you happy?'

She didn't answer.

'I like your fish,' I tried.


'Maisie, I order you not to leave this apartment.' Her head moved, just a little. Nothing else, but I knew that deep down she was laughing at me. This dead thing was laughing at me, and she meant to fuck up my life any way she could. Christ, the flowers, the fish - she was toying with me, torturing me. She could ruin me any damn time she wanted to, but she wanted to draw it out. She wanted revenge.

The next day at work was a nightmare. Crap from my boss, fatigue from lack of sleep. As soon as I got out I drove over to Maisie's apartment. Nothing new happened. Maisie seemed like any ordinary reanimate, and I began to think that maybe I had panicked for nothing. Maybe it was a bad patch and now everything had blown over.

Then, on Tuesday, everything changed.

I was halfway through another crappy day when the receptionist rang. 'Um, Walter, you need to get out here. There is someone here for you.'

'Who is it?'

'Christ, Walter, just get out here.'

I went to the reception area, and there was Maisie, uniform on, mask off, her hair and eyes wild. She stood in front of the receptionist's desk, one palm out, raw and bloodied. The other hand held a piece of glass. She brought the glass down into her palm. Around her were the receptionist, one of the agency creatives, and a guy from the mail room. They were just staring.

'Ahh,' she cried. 'Walter. Walter Molson. Walter Molson.'

Now here was Xander, my boss.

'What the hell is this, Walter?'

'I don't know,' I said. 'I don't know.'

'Get that thing out of here,' he said. 'I don't know what you're into, but take your perverted, illegal shit somewhere else.'

I managed to get her into the elevator - empty, thank God - and into my car. I shoved her in the back and drove her to her apartment. I put her in the bedroom, and I called a locksmith to change the locks to the kind that had to be opened with a key even from the inside. I wasn't supposed to change the locks on these doors, but I didn't give much of a shit at this point. We were into the endgame now. I knew it. I had to get rid of Maisie, and I knew just how to do it.

Once the locks were taken care of, I called Ryan to get the number, and then I called Charlie.

'Hey,' I said to him. 'How often do you have those little parties?'

I could hear cloth scraping as he shrugged against the phone. 'Two or three times a year, I guess.'

'The thing is,' I said, 'I have a unit-' I didn't want to talk about reanimates over the phone. You never knew who might be listening. 'I need to get rid of it.'

'Maisie, huh?' I could practically hear the grin in his voice. 'I wondered if things weren't going to come to this. Now, we don't need a full-blown party to have a good time. Something more casual can be whipped up pretty easily. You bring her over Saturday night; we'll fix things up for you.'

I didn't go into work for the rest of the week. I didn't call the office, and the office didn't call me. I guessed that job was done. On Saturday night I went out, and Tori didn't bother to argue. Things had never been the same since that fight we'd had after Charlie's last party. They would get better, I knew. Things would improve once I'd dealt with Maisie. Everything would be patched up very, very soon.

I picked up Maisie and brought her to Charlie's house. I was expecting just a half dozen guys or less, but there were twenty- five or thirty people there - almost as big as the last party. I brought Maisie out of the car and led her inside.

'Christ,' said Charlie. 'You sure you want to get rid of it? It's pretty sweet.'

'Trust me,' I said. 'It's gone haywire. You don't want it.'

That was good enough for him. We ordered Maisie to stand in the middle of the living room, and we all got beers from a big bucket in the kitchen. A couple of the guys, including Ryan, said they wanted to taste her before the end, and I knew it would be ungracious to refuse. I just nodded and let them take her into the bedroom. There were probably eight guys in all who went with her. I was worried she would speak, but these were not exactly the sort of people who go to the police with their suspicions.

It was maybe eleven before they brought her outside to stand on the plastic sheeting. She was still naked from the antics in the bedroom, and I arranged her so that she was facing the crowd. I knew this was something I had to do, but I didn't feel right about it. I mean, it didn't matter. It shouldn't matter. She'd been stripping long before I stumbled into that club, and she'd been subjected to far more degrading things. I'd subjected her to them myself. What did one more indignity matter to an animated corpse running on some kind of weird biological batteries? But I knew that she wasn't as oblivious as we'd always thought they were. I knew that it would be an indignity, that whatever Maisie was now, I thought she deserved to end this miserable existence with whatever measure of respect I could provide.

Unfortunately, I couldn't provide any. I needed her destroyed, and I didn't have the guts to do it myself. I knew that much. I needed these guys to do my dirty work, and I would give them whatever they wanted, let them take their pleasure with her any way they chose, if only they would get rid of her for me. Anyhow, I knew that Maisie had some kind of will of her own. She could refuse if she wanted to. I wished she would. It would make me feel better, and it would demonstrate to the others why she needed to be destroyed.

Charlie stepped forward with the hatchet, and though I meant to turn away, I could not resist taking one last look at Maisie as she stood naked in the night air. She looked in my direction, but her glassy eyes did not meet mine; they aimed themselves instead at nothingness. In that moment, I felt justified. It really just was some sort of misfiring biological machine. This wasn't murder. It wasn't anything like it. It was a mercy, really.

Then Charlie handed me the axe. 'You first,' he said.

I shook my head.

He thrust the axe forward again. 'No way, bucko. You have to get this party started.'

Well, fuck, I thought. I was just standing on ceremony now. I'd already killed her once. There was no point in being squeamish. I told her to hold out her arm, and she did. She didn't look at me, and there was no expression on her face. Maybe she wants this, I thought. Maybe she doesn't want to be a reanimate any more. I sucked in my breath, and I tried to think about nothing as I swung the axe.

It was like slicing butter. The arm came right off. It was so easy. I probably would have gone for the other arm, but Maisie started screaming, and that distracted me. It wasn't like a normal scream, like a human scream. She opened her mouth wide, impossibly wide, like a snake unhinging its jaws to swallow a rat. Her eyes went wide and wild. There was a pause, only a beat, but it felt long and unnatural, and then she began to let out a long, loud, unnatural scream, not of pain, but of anguish, unimaginable anguish.

With Johnny Boy, the guests had loved the shrieking, but there was something different here, something conscious, and we all knew it. Everyone remained still in a moment of stunned confusion, and then, snapping out of his daze, Charlie took the axe from my hands. He swung with a kind of madness, as though he recognized that Maisie was not a plaything but an abomination, something that had to be destroyed before he was forced to consider what she was, what she meant by her mere existence.

The second arm came off. She had not raised it, and Charlie swung at it as it hung by her side, slicing through just above the elbow and slashing deep into her body.

Maisie screamed again, and Charlie this time swung at her leg. It was a clean cut, and her torso tumbled to the ground, twisting and turning, spraying blood in a sickening, black ooze. Still she screamed. She would not stop screaming.

It was my mess, but I could not bear it any longer. I ran to my car, and I drove home and came crashing through the door like a man possessed. I found my bottle of Old Charter and filled half a water glass and drank it down. Only when I was done gagging on its burn did I realize Tori was awake and on the couch. She'd barely noticed my commotion. She was sitting in front of the TV, and she was talking to me.

'I can't believe how sick some people are,' she was saying. 'I've never heard of anything like it.'

And there it was on the TV. The local news anchor was talking, and the words Reporting Live flashed over and over again. I saw Charlie's house in the distance behind the reporter, who spoke about shocking scenes of carnage, a twisted sex cult devoted to the rape and mutilation of reanimates. He could barely restrain his disgust as he spoke. In the picture I could see police cars, their lights flashing, and a figure too dim and distant to recognize being pushed into the back of one.

Would they mention me to the police? I had no idea. I didn't know these guys, not really. They were well and truly fucked, and so maybe they didn't have any reason to betray anyone else. Charlie owned the house, and he would seem like the big fish to the cops. Maybe they wouldn't ask too many questions.

I looked at Tori, so disgusted by the scene before her. She glanced at me, and as saddened as she was by this spectacle of human depravity, something passed between us, some sort of unspoken code, communicated only with our eyes. It said that we were a team, we were alike. People like this were practically of a different species, and they had nothing to do with us.

Maybe I should have confessed everything then. Maybe I should have come clean. I was never one of those guys. Not really. I was drawn in by circumstance. A terrible accident, a split-second decision to do the wrong thing, and then the terrible fallout. But I wasn't one of those monsters. I didn't like mutilating or having sex with reanimates. I thought it was sick, beyond sick. So maybe Tori would understand if I controlled the story.

I said nothing, though, because I held on to the belief that there would be no story to control. Maybe the guys at the party would keep their mouths shut and this horrible chapter of my life would finally be closed. In fact, maybe this was the best thing that could happen. Maisie was gone, and the people who knew about me and Maisie were gone. It was perfect.

I went to bed with Tori and, enflamed by this mutual bond of righteousness, she made it clear she wanted to make love. I felt too disgusting to violate her pregnant body. I felt like a polluter. Afterward, however, I was glad we'd done it. One last, sweet memory to hang on to.

The next day when the phone rang, I was sure it was my doom calling. It was, but doom rarely takes the shape we most fear.

'Mr Molson,' said a voice on the other end in tones of practised official blandness. 'This is Detective Mike Gutierrez. I need you to come speak to us, today if you can.'

My heart pounded so hard I feared it would burst, but my brain was racing. If they wanted to arrest me, they would not call. Maybe I was safe.

'Regarding what?' I asked.

'Well, it's an unusual matter. I suppose you saw on the TV about the raid on the reanimate mutilators last night?'

'I saw something about that, yes,' I said.

'Well, in addition to the arrests, we confiscated the, um, remains of one of their, well, victims, I suppose. Thing was all hacked to bits, but the torso and head were still there. And the thing is, the head is still talking. You see, the damn thing is still alive - or animated or whatever - and it's mentioning a name. Mr Molson, it's mentioning your name, and you are the only person with that name in this city.'

I tried to sound casual. 'How odd. What is it saying?'

'I think it's best to discuss that in person. Can you come in today at, say, noon?'

I nodded, but then realizing that he could not hear me, I told him it would be fine. I then hung up the phone and sat very, very still.

This was it, then. They had me. They didn't know it yet, or they would be coming for me instead of asking me to come to them, but it was only a matter of time. Maisie's dismembered body would very likely never testify in a court of law, but the cops would come after me if they could, and at the very least, Tori would leave me and I would be ruined with lawyers' fees. I would become an object of scandal and horror. That was the best-case scenario. The worst - jail, where everyone inside would know what I had done. I would be one of those perverts who would be found murdered after a few months of unimaginable torment.

I could not face any of that. I was ruined, but I did not have to live with the ruin. And why should I? We all knew the soul left the body at death. I'd seen a hundred movies of departing souls. Unlike some cynical people, I didn't think the soul departed only to fade into nothingness. This life was just one part of the journey, and it was time for me to get a move on.

I am not a brave man. I did not own a gun and could not have used it if I had. I did not have the courage or the strength to cut my wrists. Instead, I went back to that bottle of bourbon, and I collected some very strong pain pills Tori had gotten but not really used after she'd broken her wrist last year. I drank all the whiskey and swallowed all the pills. I looked for more pills. I found some muscle relaxers, Ambien, Xanax, and a few other things to throw into the mix. Some probably did nothing, but it seemed to me that the whole cocktail ought to be pretty lethal.

It was. I was probably dead within an hour, though time is hard to measure now. Only when I was twinkling out did it occur to me how horribly I'd screwed up. I'd forgotten how I'd raised the money to pay for Maisie in the first place. The offices of General Reanimates had given me almost ten thousand dollars to sign the contract, and that seemed like a good short-term solution. I would buy it back eventually. I didn't see any reason why I couldn't. I had plenty of time. It didn't weigh on me at all, and at the moment when I should have been thinking of nothing else, I was thinking only of escape. Somehow I'd simply forgotten.

I suppose a pill overdose must be a good deal for General Reanimates. No cosmetic work to be done. Not that it much matters. I wear the uniform, and I don't see many living people at all these days. I'm out in the desert, working on an alternative-energy project, setting out solar panels. At least I am making myself useful.

I cannot speak. I cannot will myself even to move, only to follow orders. My mind is mostly still there, though I do not feel entirely like myself. Maybe it is because my soul is gone, and maybe it is because I am dead. I don't know. I don't remember dying, don't remember my soul leaving. I only remember falling asleep and then waking up in the General Reanimates lab. I cannot even wiggle a finger of my own free will. I've given up trying. I cannot imagine how Maisie did it.

There is nothing for me to do but endure my lot and think. It is hot here, and I feel it. We are not insensible. Our uniforms don't breathe, and we cannot sweat. I am miserable and I itch, and every movement is painful. My bones feel like they are scraping together, rubbing, chipping, grinding down. I work twenty-four hours a day. There is no rest and no end. I can do nothing but what I am told, and I have no escape but my memories. I have told my story to myself I don't know how many hundreds of times. I pretend there is an audience, but there is none, and there never will be. Someday, I hope, I will wear out, but for all I know, this torment, with regular servicing, will last a hundred years. A thousand.

Somehow Maisie could break through, if only a little. Maybe it was anger or the sense of being wronged. Maybe if my end were not so fitting, I could find the will, but I doubt it. I have tried. I don't think anyone could try more than I have, but then I suppose we all try. The man right next to me must be trying, too, but he cannot tell me about it. I think it was just that Maisie was exceptional. Maybe in life, certainly in death. She was, and the rest of us are not, and that is what I must endure over the long, unending horizon.