"You bastard." The tightness in Teresa's chest made it hard to breathe, let alone speak. Her bandaged hand clenched around the lighter burnt into her palm, sending delicious spasms of pain racing up her arm. She imagined Yarrow's phone burning, its screen blackening and case warping, as overheating electronics consumed it from the inside out. The toxic smoke would boil out of the speaker like a shark pup eating its way through its mother's womb, and once into the cabin of Esther's ridiculously oversized car it would choke the passengers with stinging tendrils of cancer forced down their throats…
And then Teresa's head jerked to the right as Esther slapped her, hard, across the face. The sound was thunderous and meaty, and it echoed in the closeness of the station wagon. It was the kind of slap a mother on her last nerve would deliver to the buttocks of an unruly child; the kind which would strip away all dignity from the recipient as everyone within earshot turned to see who was getting spanked. It was discipline in its purest, most primeval form.
Teresa spun, furious beyond belief, and –
"No," Esther said, softly but forcefully. "I am sick unto death of your temper tantrums, Reecy. There won't be any witchcraft in my car. There won't be any more fighting, or screaming, or breaking things." She raised her tiny hand in emphasis, and Teresa could see the delicate network of veins that crackled across the wrinkled skin. "Or so help me, baby, I will turn you over my knee, you just see if I won't."
Teresa just sat there, gawking. Her entire jaw ached, the skin of her cheek blazing like a fresh sunburn. She managed to nod, numbly, when Esther's raised eyebrows indicated the desire for an answer to her ultimatum. All Teresa knew at that moment was that she didn't want to be hit again. Her anger had been replaced with a cold inability to process what had just happened, and she struggled to assemble her thoughts into something coherent.
"I do beg your pardon," mumbled Netty from the floor, "but would someone mind terribly telling me what just transpired?" Teresa had dropped the phone when Esther slapped her and it now lay, face-down, on the floor by the old woman's feet. It left a scorched patch on the carpet when she picked it up, the warm plastic ripping out carpet fibers with a sound like Velcro tearing. Esther's nose crinkled disapprovingly and she shot a withering glare at Teresa.
"Brain reboot," giggled Yarrow. "Fulcrum gave her the three-fingered salute."
"Never you mind that, Mister Netty," Esther cooed into the phone, suddenly all sweetness and light. "Just had to do a little housekeeping. But that's all settled now, and Miss Reecy here is gonna sit quietly and listen to all you have to say." She pointed the phone at the woman in question. "Isn't that right, baby?"
Teresa nodded again. "Yeah. I wanna hear how you plan to raise the fucking dead," she sneered, then stuck her tongue out at Esther when the older woman frowned at her coarseness. Swearing was apparently still possible, even under the Voice-induced prohibition against misbehaving. She filed that away for future reference.
Netty cleared its throat in a decidedly prim manner. "Now then, I never said anything about Necromancy, just that I would be able to return your son to you. Allow me to explain." It held an impeccably manicured hand up in a conciliatory gesture.
A blackboard materialized behind Netty."Information is energy," it began, writing equations with chalk. "I can prove this mathematically but that will take longer than your patience will hold. Suffice it to say that Einstein has already proven that matter is energy" – with that, Netty tapped the familiar E=MC^2 equation – "so if all things are merely slow, solid forms of energy, then the manner in which those slow, solid forms are arrayed is what we would call information. And physics states that energy is neither created nor destroyed, just rearranged. Therefore, information is never truly lost." With a flourish, Netty finished writing equations and turned to look at Teresa, a triumphant expression upon its face.
"Uh," said Teresa eloquently. "What?"
Netty pinched its eyes closed and sighed dramatically. "Your son isn't truly gone, just in a different energy state. Given enough time, I can reverse that, and thus return him to you." Netty's smile returned, an impossibly brilliant white span of perfect teeth. "Would you consider that sufficient payment for your time and effort on my behalf?"
She considered this a moment, chewing on the chapped skin of her bottom lip. "Proof," she said finally. "I want proof you can do this, and not just blowing sunshine up my ass."
"I thought you might say as much." Netty looked far more smug than any human, male or female, in a flower-print frock had any right being. "Yarrow? The book, if you please."
Yarrow picked something up from his lap with his right hand and passed it over the seatback to Teresa. It was several inches thick, the spine laced together with blue ribbon and pages that felt like construction paper. She lifted the brown leatherette cover.
TOMAS LUIS REYES, said the birth certificate, and under it was the I.D. bracelet her son had worn home from the hospital. On the page opposite was a photograph of a newborn boy, and below that was the little knit cap which had kept his head warm.
It couldn't be, she thought, immediately dismissing it as a forgery. Anyone could have a bought a cap like that. But… there, near the brim, was the stitch she'd dropped when she'd made it and was learning to knit for the first time. And the way the peak was slightly stiff, because Tommy had liked to pull it off and chew on it.
She held it to her face and inhaled. It smelled just like she remembered, of baby shampoo and little-boy hair, a smell she had been unable to forget for the past two decades.
"Impossible," she said, choking on tears, her breath ragged. "This cap burned in the fire. Everything burned. There's no way you could have found this."
"Exactly," said Netty. "Impossible. But there it is, nonetheless."
The deal was struck.