On the day I met Raine, the first thing I did was jerk awake in bed and vomit nightmares into my lap.
That’s not quite accurate. If I could purge the nightmares like a bad meal then life would be a lot easier. No, I brought up bile and what little I’d managed to keep down over the last couple of days, then dry-heaved through the aftershocks, shaking and coated in cold sweat. The nightmares had lashed at me for two weeks; last night set a new record of unbroken pain.
For a long moment I screwed my eyes shut and struggled to forget the nightmare. The endless dark plain, the watchers, and the great Eye which had crammed my head full to bursting with things I didn’t want to know, night after night, until I’d clawed my way out through the bedsheets and back into the sick prison of my nausea-wracked body.
I mumbled some poetry to drown out the Eye, a few lines of Coleridge through the taste of sick in my mouth.
“And now there came both mist and snow, and it grew wondrous cold … and ice … ”
Poor old Coleridge and the rapture of the Arctic weren’t strong enough, not when scratched out through my throat, raw from bile and acid. Pressure spiked inside my head. I felt a nosebleed start, then watched the fat, bloody droplets join the reeking puddle on my bedsheets. The Eye’s lessons filled my mind, a jumble of painful geometry and impossible equations quivering and bleeding on the rim of reality.
I dry-heaved again.
Predawn grey crept around the edges of the sheet I used for a curtain. The green numbers on my bedside clock told me I’d been asleep for less than three hours. Not even two full REM cycles. My room stank of vomit and fear-sweat, cut through by the iron tang of blood. I pinched my nose to stop the bleeding.
I said some unflattering things to myself, then finally accepted that I was suffering the worst schizophrenic relapse of my life. Wonderland was calling me back. Once or twice a month I could handle—I had coping strategies—but after two weeks without respite I felt fragile, brittle, and spent.
It was time to call my mother and go back on the crazy pills.
Crazy was a safety-blanket word for me. It defined a neat boundary in which I could exist without screaming at the walls or talking to people who weren’t there. A safe zone to keep me from being locked in a padded cell. I’m not fond of the word insane because that implies sane is an objective value. Crazy has no opposite.
Raine was about to take away my safety blanket; if I’d known, would I have gone out that morning? For Raine, probably yes.
I’d constructed a routine the last couple of weeks. Strip my bed and my sweat-stained clothes, shove it all into the ancient washing machine in the corner of my one-room bedsit flat, clean myself up as best I could, down three cups of coffee, and drag myself to morning classes.
And try to ignore the hallucinations.
A spindly figure by the back wall watched me with holes instead of eyes. Too many fingers, all pressed to its face, with too many joints, skin made of mushroom flesh and marble.
A vast shadow outdoors drifted across the window, trailing ropy tentacles, a gas-bag jellyfish humming whale song.
I had finally gotten the washing machine going, on my feet by willpower alone, when a ball of spines and black chitin sniffed at my foot. I scooted it away. Of course, I felt nothing. It wasn’t really there.
I put the kettle on, then shuffled into the tiny bathroom to wash out the taste of stomach acid and blood. I spat tainted saliva into the sink over and over again until I felt a little less defiled, then scrubbed the dried blood off my face and blew my nose. The water ran pink. Even when clean I didn’t relish the sight of myself in the mirror, my eyes ringed with dark exhaustion. Sallow and slack and sick. I dragged my hair into a semblance of order.
My stomach clenched with exhaustion-hunger at the smell of instant coffee. I rummaged for food but found another hallucination, huge and covered in wire-coarse hair, shifting in the back of the cupboard. I waited for that one to pass, afraid it would look at me if I reached inside.
I needed real food if I was going to have that fatal conversation with my mother, so I made a deal with myself. A last meal.
“Have to go outside, outside we go. You can do it, Heather, you escaped once before, you can do it again. It’s easy, it’s just a bedsit room. All you’re going to do is walk down the street and get bacon and eggs. That sounds good, yes. Bacon with the fat still on, just how you like it. Come on, out we go. You can do it.”
I kept up the one-woman pep talk to coax myself into real clothes, dragged a thick jumper over my head, found an almost clean pair of jeans, and pulled my coat around my shoulders. I loved that coat, thick and padded like armour to keep the world out. It was the most expensive thing I owned, after my laptop.
That thick security held back the crush of defeat. My parents had never believed I’d make it through university, and here I was, two months into my first year, ready to throw in the towel, ready to admit that the stress of writing a few essays about Shakespeare and Byron had caused a relapse, that I was never going to be normal, that I was never going to have any friends, that I was meant to spend the rest of my life in a drugged stupor.
I was too exhausted to care.
I was also wrong.
My name is Heather Lavinia Morell and I’m not crazy. On the bad days, I wish I were, because then none of this would be real.
* * *
Seven minutes’ walk from my flat would bring me to the front gates of the university campus, but it was half past five in the morning and the canteen was closed. Chill autumn air nipped at my neck and hands, a welcome relief from the unclean feeling of sticky sweat. I had no energy to shower. At the end of the cul-de-sac I turned the other way instead, walking deeper into the tangle of Sharrowford’s student quarter.
I kept my head down.
Outside, in the street, the visions were always worse. Sharrowford’s open skies and public squares gave my hallucinations room to blossom.
A hunched hulk wreathed in black haze drooled molten saliva on a suburban corner, rooted into the ground with questing barbs of knotty red flesh. I passed a tree half-dead from the late autumn weather, wrapped in a layer of pale worms thick as my arm. A cluster of naked bone-white figures in a front garden turned to watch me as I passed, and none of them had faces. A giant shape strode overhead, blotting out the early dawn sky, six pillar-like insect legs towering over the city. I heard a distant boom each time it took another step.
A thousand delusions skittered and crawled and writhed at the end of every road. The few real humans out at this hour weren’t worth acknowledging—in the monochrome dawn static of Sharrowford in November, I could be wrong, I could nod a friendly greeting to a figment of my fevered brain. Couldn’t afford that.
Even if you’ve never visited Sharrowford, you’ve probably at least heard of the university. The city doesn’t have much else going for it, just another post-industrial hulk on the edge of the North of England. The centre dresses itself up as trendy and hip, but it’s old, ossified, trailing edges of decay wrapped around a core of ancient stone and a million hidden secrets.
If you’re anything like me, don’t come here.
I reached Abbots Lane, clustered with takeaway joints and a shuttered video store and my destination—the Aardvark, a twenty-four hour breakfast cafe with greasy tables and dirty floors and incredible food. Other students didn’t go there much. My kind of place.
Another monster lurked in the middle of the road, twitching and shaking, twelve feet of scribbles in the air like rents torn in paper over an abyss. I stopped, reluctant to pass too close. My skin crawled at the way the thing moved, like seaweed in an invisible current. I tore my eyes away and put it from my mind, ready to focus on the very important business of my last meal.
And then I saw her.
A girl stood by the cafe, peering through the front window.
She glanced my way and our gazes touched. She smiled, a rakish flash of her teeth with a little upward twitch of her eyebrows, as if we were sharing some silent joke. I had to look away. Even at my worst I could never have mistaken her for a hallucination.
A leather jacket sat loose on her shoulders. She held her head high, her eyes up, taking the world full in front. Rich chestnut hair swept back loose and lazy from her forehead, shorter than my hair but with that special illusion of never having felt the hairdresser’s scissors. A pair of well-worn boots showed off a faded rose design on the sides. Her eyes were sharp and warm in the cold grey morning.
Her smile cut right through me.
Not the sort of girl who’d ever be interested in me. I knew I was clutching at straws, so alone and exhausted that even a hint of sympathetic human contact had me ready to beg like a dog.
She forgot me, looked back at the Aardvark, then ambled up to the door and went inside. I was about to turn around and start the long walk back to campus, to wait outside the canteen, because I couldn’t follow her in there now. What if she tried to talk to me? She’d work out I was crazy, I’d wither up and die under that smile. I could imagine the disgusted look on her face when she realised what I was.
But then the scribble-monster jerked toward the cafe on flickering legs. It bent, folded itself at the waist like a contracting length of intestine, and pressed what passed for a face up against the glass. I fumed for a moment and then forced myself to step past it and into the cafe. I wasn’t about to be upstaged by my own subconscious. If one of my hallucinations could ogle a pretty girl who I didn’t have the courage to speak with, then at least I could prove I wasn’t afraid.
Truth was, I barely paid attention to her once inside the Aardvark. The smell of frying food all but demolished me. She was already lounging in a corner booth, a book in both hands and coffee on the table in front of her. None of the other patrons—a handful of insomniacs and night-shift lorry drivers—spared me even a glance. I shuffled to the counter at the back to order bacon and eggs.
I took an empty booth diagonally across from the girl, safely hidden from the risk of further eye contact, but close enough that I could tilt my head a few degrees to catch sight of her boots crossed at the ankles, the book in her hand—a battered copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason—and a feathery lock of stray chestnut hair.
I contented myself with those scraps. I’d been doing so all my life. Half-glances at people I liked. Contact was too much risk, to both parties.
After a few seconds of waiting, my body decided it was time to cash in all my sleep debt. I struggled to keep my eyes open, sat up straight, pinched the back of my hand under the table. I tried not to look at the shifting nightmare face pressed up against the glass at the front of the cafe. I wished I’d had the coherence of mind to bring a book myself; I was supposed to be reading Pilgrim’s Progress for class, but over the last two weeks I’d managed all of five pages. Couldn’t even do the things I loved.
The fry cook called out my order from the counter. My mouth watered when I carried my plate back to the table, but then I swallowed one bite and felt wrong.
My vision swam. Vertigo tugged at the pit of my stomach.
Not sleepy anymore.
I was Slipping.
“No, not now, not now,” I hissed through my teeth, a familiar prayer when I felt a Slip rushing toward me. My heart pounded and I started to shake. I bit back a whine of fear and frustration. I was so tired, I was so tired, all I wanted to do was eat, please let me at least get some food in my belly before it happens. Not now, not after two weeks of hell, not ever again. Please.
Slip vertigo yanked me sideways. My vision fogged with a ghost of elsewhere overlaid on the cafe, dark and windswept and ashen. I skidded to my feet and banged my shin on the edge of the booth, then lurched for the toilet.
I slammed into a toilet stall in the cafe’s public lavatory just before another wave of vertigo rolled over me. Bracing my feet against the floor and my hands against the stall walls, I pushed and held on, I anchored myself as hard as I could and squeezed my eyes shut and whined and prayed under my breath. I could have done this in the booth and saved a few seconds, which might have made all the difference between staying here and Slipping over, but the pathetic thought in my head was that I couldn’t look like a crazy person in public, not in front of a pretty girl who’d smiled at me.
Bracing myself didn’t always work; maybe it didn’t work at all, maybe it was pure delusion. I’m supposed to have those. Delusions.
I smelled bone ash and the spice of chemical fire, heard howling wind, and felt the bite of alien air on my exposed skin. How’s that for a delusion?
My hands jerked, as if the walls weren’t there anymore.
“Hey, you okay in there?”
My eyes snapped open. The walls were back, solid, here. The air was filled with the smell of cheap toilet cleaner and greasy food. I spluttered and gulped.
“Yo, you can hear me, right?” The voice spoke again, drifting up and over the stalls, female and concerned. She knocked on the stall door. “Sure hope you’re not deaf, ’cos then I’m just talking to myself, and that’s never a good look. Seriously, you okay?”
I froze up. I could lie, or I could say No, I’m not okay because I just fought off a portion of my own diseased mind that wanted to make me spend several hours lost in another world. Safest thing was to stay quiet, pretend I wasn’t there. She’d shrug and give up and go away.
“I know you’re in there,” she said. “I can see your shoes under the door. Drank too much last night? It’s no shame to ask somebody to hold your hair back for you, you know?”
How had I fought off the Slip? My mind betrayed me—before I could shy away, my thoughts alighted on a fragment of knowledge imparted by the Eye, some equation which governed what had just happened to me. My head throbbed with sudden pressure. I choked and doubled up and vomited a string of bile into the toilet bowl, then whined with pain and felt a nosebleed start.
“Yeah, you are two hundred percent not okay, girl,” she said. “Right, executive decision time.”
She stepped into the next open stall, clambered up on the toilet, and peered down at me over the dividing wall. I yanked myself as upright as I could manage and stared back at her, feeling like a plague victim at the bottom of a pit.
It was the girl in the leather jacket with the rakish smile and the pretty eyes.
“W-what on earth are you do—” I tried to say, but it came out in a croak as another nauseous spasm gripped my stomach. I doubled up and heaved bile into the toilet bowl, then spat and jerked upright again and felt blood running from my nose. I clamped a hand to my face.
“Ahhh, jeez, look at you,” she said, not unkindly. “For starters I’m helping you get cleaned up.”
She vaulted the top of the stall with a little hup and climbed down in front of me.
“I’m not— I don’t need— I-I don’t even know you.” I backed away and fumbled with the latch, then burst out into the bathroom and clutched my coat around myself, dripping nosebleed onto the floor tiles.
“We can change that part easy enough,” she said. She held up her hands and flashed the same smile she’d given me outdoors, beaming endless confidence straight into my brain. That’s the only thing which stopped me running. “Hey, look, I’m not gonna bite, ’less you ask me to. I saw you come in here and thought, ‘Heeeey, that girl looks a bit messed up, maybe she needs a hand, maybe she needs some help.’ And, yeah, you are a bit messed up, let’s be honest. If you don’t need help then I’m Ned Kelly. I’m not being catty or weird. Solidarity, you know? Gotta look out for each other.” She thumbed over her shoulder. “One of those guys out there coulda followed you in here instead, found you passed out on the toilet. Here, lemme help.”
I wiped at my nosebleed, then pinched it off, breathing through my mouth.
“You’re not hungover. I know, I can tell.”
“ … how can you tell that?”
“Seen that sort of look in your eyes before. I don’t know what your deal is, but hey.”
She held out a hand.
The smile, the knowing look in her eyes, or just the fact that she was stunning; I took her hand.
I’m so easy.
“I’m Raine,” Raine said.
“Heather,” I muttered.
Raine was true to her word. She steered my exhausted body over to the sinks, helped me wipe the drying blood from under my nose and the vomit from my lips. She waited with me for the bleeding to stop, handed me paper towels, and made sure I leaned forward so the blood didn’t drain down my throat, then got me to wash my mouth out. She fetched a glass, filled it with water, and made me drink it all, slowly. Her hand on my back helped, a gentle, unfamiliar pressure. She wet another paper towel and suggested I wipe my face again, just to help me feel better.
I couldn’t speak, too mortified to even mumble a thank you.
“There, feeling a little more human now, eh?” Raine smiled at me in the mirror. I managed to shake my head. “So, you’re not hungover, you don’t look like a druggie, but hey, you never know. You haven’t greened out, and I’m gonna presume you don’t do Molly?”
I frowned. “Who’s Molly?”
“Ecstasy. E. Party drugs. You don’t really look like a party girl, but I don’t want to assume and be an arsehole about it.”
“No, I don’t take things like that. I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke or drink, at all.”
I expected a return of the rakish smile and a familiar old refrain: How do you have fun, then? She did look the type to say that.
Instead, Raine put her palm on my forehead. It was so soft, so surprising, and so brief.
“Yeah, not clammy enough to be food poisoning,” she said. Raine took a step back, chewing on her lower lip, and spread her hands in a speculative shrug.
She was a whole head taller than me, more athletic—though that’s not difficult—and she looked healthy. Strong. Much more alive than my face in the mirror. She was about my age but she seemed so much more mature, a real adult rather than a floundering child.
“Thank you,” I said. “But I’m … I can’t explain what I was doing. You don’t want to know. Thank you for helping, but … I should go finish my food. I’m sorry, I probably stink, I know.”
Raine made a gun with thumb and forefinger, aimed it at me, and nodded, solemn and serious.
“What? No! No, I’m not even strai— no, it’s not morning sickness. I’m crazy. I’m a crazy person and I was being sick because I thought I was being pulled into another dimension, and a giant eyeball in the sky was teaching me impossible physics, which makes me ill, and I’m at the end of my rope because I’ve been going mad and not sleeping and barely eating for two weeks.”
I averted my eyes as I spoke, couldn’t meet Raine’s gaze. A long silence followed. I wanted to curl up and die. I prayed she wasn’t a student at the university because there was no way I could ever bump into her without crawling into a hole in the ground. But that wasn’t going to be a problem anymore, was it? Because I was going to call my mother and drop out, take my medication again and be a zombie.
Raine grabbed my hand. I looked up and saw raw, naked fascination.
“We should get some food in you,” she said. “It’ll be getting cold. Nobody likes to waste a whole fry-up, and you paid good money for that.”
* * *
Raine joined me back in the booth with my rapidly cooling breakfast.
“This place is top notch, you know, but it’s always pretty quiet,” she was saying. “A lot of the snooty-trouser types on campus won’t come to places like this. Sure, they do one of those drinking tours of the city a couple of times a year, but they’re all Oxford and Cambridge rejects, all think they’re too good for Sharrowford, really.”
I ate a mouthful of bacon and had to stop myself shovelling it in, to avoid overloading my tender stomach. My puzzlement at Raine helped. When I looked up she met my eyes and smiled.
“Good stuff, yeah?” she said. “I come here, like, once, twice a week. Nice quiet place to think in the wee hours of the morning. All the regulars, the lorry drivers and whatnot, they’re actually alright guys. Never bothered me nothing.”
I nodded and felt awkward. She was so obvious, the way she was avoiding asking.
“You’re a student, right?” Raine said. “I know I’ve seen you in the university canteen once or twice. I never forget a face like yours, Heather.”
“ … pardon? What does that mean?” A blush rose in my cheeks.
Raine grinned and shrugged. I tried to hold her gaze but I faltered, gave up, and focused hard on the next two mouthfuls of scrambled egg instead.
“So I assume your lack of food for the last two weeks had nothing to do with the crappy canteen fare?” she asked.
“I don’t go there much. I don’t live on campus.”
“Oh?” Raine’s eyebrows climbed. “You a first year?”
She gave a low whistle. “And not on campus. Special circumstances? Living with friends? Rich parents?”
“My parents made it a condition of me attending university. They pay the rent, didn’t want me living on campus, what with all the noise and drinking and stress, things which might set me off. Or people who might try to take advantage of me. Because I’m crazy.” I speared a fragment of bacon on my fork, then looked up and held Raine’s gaze as best I could.
Raine narrowed her eyes and tapped two fingertips on the tabletop. “You don’t seem crazy to me.”
All my nervous reticence went out the window. What did I have to lose? She’d already seen me covered in sick and shaking with terror. I couldn’t go any lower.
“Appearances are always deceiving.” I managed to pull myself up straighter. “For example, I thought you looked like the sort of girl who would laugh at me being sick and then try to sell me cannabis.”
“Really? Shit.” Raine laughed and ran a hand through her hair. “Definitely not the sort of look I’m going for.”
“And what look might that be?”
“Robin Hood of the urban jungle.” She puffed out her chest and hooked her thumbs into the pockets of her leather jacket. “Guess I better rethink if it’s making me too scary. I’d hate to have frightened you off, Heather.”
“Keep the jacket, it suits you,” I managed to say before my courage ran out.
“Really?” Raine cracked a grin.
I ate more. Raine gave me just enough silence to know the question was coming.
“I … ” A lump in my throat. Wanted to look away. Fought the desire to get up and leave. “I can’t have this conversation. I haven’t in … ever, really. Medication never really did anything and I never told anybody the pills didn’t work, so … ”
The silence stretched out long enough to hurt. I felt myself shrinking.
“Lemme guess.” Raine clapped her hands together. “History, right?”
I blinked up at her. “I’m sorry?”
“History student, am I right? You’ve got that sort of hunched-up-with-the-books look about you, too many long hours in the uni library, not enough sleep. But I guess that last part isn’t related. And you haven’t got the natural bearing of a STEM student, either.”
“ … no, you’re wrong. Literature.”
“Literature! Dang, you got a lot more guts than me. I could never do that.”
I felt the littlest flush of pride. Enough to lead me on. “And you?”
“PPE,” Raine said, then rolled her eyes. “Though I sort of dropped the E and most of one P, so now it’s just philosophy. Would be plain sailing, but I’m in a sort of experimental degree program right now, all a bit hush-hush.”
“ … you lost me. You— you talk too fast for me,” I said. “It’s the sleep deprivation.”
Raine laughed and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Heather. PPE: politics, philosophy, and economics, it’s—”
“I know what PPE is,” I said. “You just don’t look like … well … ”
“Like one of the wankers who studies PPE at Sharrowford? No kidding. They all want to be MPs and spads and think-tank suits. Boring, the lot of ’em. But enough of that, I’m more curious about you. What’s your favourite book, miss literary scholar?”
“That’s an impossible question to answer, and I suspect you know so.” I sighed, but Raine grinned again and wiggled her eyebrows at me. “I suppose … there’s too many. Um … ”
I started slow, named a few titles I’d read as a teenager, then books my dad had given me, science fiction novels and fantasy worlds, my dad’s old stack of Interzone magazines and mum’s copy of Watership Down. I rattled and stuttered and picked up steam, began to retread my favourites in my head, and told Raine about the summer I spent reading The Hobbit seven times. When I looked up at her again, she was beaming. I cut off mid-sentence, blushing terribly.
“Not such an impossible question,” she said. “Easier than talking about mental illness.”
“I can talk about books because I love them. I don’t love being crazy.”
“What’s it like?”
Her tone was so straightforward, not what I’d expected; no pity, no coaxing, no kid gloves for the crazy girl. Nothing like the doctors, the psychiatrists. Nothing like my parents. A pressure valve popped in my subconscious, a breach in years of inhibition and shame. She’d already seen me at my worst, and when I called my mother later I’d be as good as dead. Why lie? At least I could unburden myself once before I vanished into a hole for the rest of my life.
“Have you ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?” I asked.
Raine nodded, and waited for me to continue.
“I went to Wonderland,” I said, and felt my throat try to close up. “Not the place Alice went, that would have been fine and I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I call it Wonderland because that’s the only cultural reference point we have, but it was nothing like that. It was dark, and vast, and full of things that wanted to teach me impossible lessons. Impossible creatures, giants, things watching me … ” I swallowed as my words ran out; I’d never dredged this deep before, not out loud. Somehow I kept speaking as I stared at the tabletop, digging through the refuse of my self. “I was nine years old. You know how sometimes children can see things or experience things which would really mess them up, but they just keep going because they don’t know any better? Because they’re children? That’s what it was like in Wonderland. A dream, and the payload of trauma only hit once I woke up.”
“Yeah,” Raine said so softly.
“And there was no rabbit hole or magic mirror to get there. We went through an abyss underneath my bed. A hole. A non-place. Me and my sister just found it one night as we were reading stories to each other in the dark, under the bed covers with a torch. She came back from the toilet, and there it was under the bed, inviting us. And we just decided to go in, because that’s what you do when you’re children and you’ve been reading fairy tales all your life and nobody tells you it’s possible to see things which aren’t real.” I took a shuddering breath and forced myself on, to the hardest part.
“We were twins. My sister and I. We went in together, because we did everything together. But when Wonderland let me go, I was alone. Her bed was gone. Her clothes, her— everything. It was just me. And later on, after the screaming hysteria and the hospital and the tranquillisers, I tried to ask my parents. ‘Where’s my sister?’ ” I swallowed hard and bit back on the pain; the wound was still open, no matter how old.
“What happened to her?” Raine asked.
“She never existed,” I whispered. “You can’t know what it’s like, to grow up with another half, a twin, who turns out to be a lifelong delusion. A hallucination. Just me in the family photos. She was never real. Six months later I got an official diagnosis, from the child psychologists at Cygnet Hospital in London.”
Raine waited for me to continue, head tilted slightly to one side.
“Ever since then, I’ve had nightmares. It’s like being back there, and I wake up screaming, my head full of … of— pressure in my head and— and—” I started to shake, had to back away from the idea. “Night terrors, they call them. They come and go, it’s not every week, or even every month. Sometimes I think it’s finally over, but the respite never lasts. I get daytime hallucinations too, monsters and things, and sometimes—rarely—I Slip. That’s what I call it, when reality spits me out to some other place for hours on end. That’s what was happening to me just now, when you found me.”
I shook my head. “No, other places. I think I’d die if I had to go back to Wonderland again. It’s almost never the same. First time I Slipped I was ten, and I went to this place full of giant worms and pyramids and … the doctors put me on medication.”
“No. They didn’t do anything, but I pretended they did because I wanted the side effects to stop. I learnt to live with seeing monsters everywhere.”
Raine’s eyes narrowed into a shrewd look. “What exactly did you see in Wonderland, Heather?”
I looked at her for a moment like she was one of my hallucinations.
“I-I can’t talk about it, it hurts to think—”
“Please, try,” Raine said, then reached across the table and took my hand. Hers felt so warm and soft. I tried to pull away but she held on. “You’ve never told anybody this, have you?”
“The doctors … ”
“But you lied to them a lot, right? You told them the drugs worked, and you never really told them the core of it, not at ten years old. What do you dream about, Heather?”
“Why are you even asking?”
“Because you need it, don’t you?”
I gulped, screwed my eyes up, and for the first time in my life I told the truth.
“A … an Eye,” I said, and felt my stomach clench. Raine squeezed, I squeezed back. “A giant eye, the great Eye, and it is all the sky, from horizon to horizon.” My voice dwindled and I tried not to shake, tried not to think about what I was saying. I squeezed Raine’s hand until my knuckles were white. “It has a million million servants in the ruins and dust below. And it watches me, and it thinks at me and sorts through the neurons in my brain and forces me to learn things— things about reality, physics— no, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t—”
Raine was up and into the seat next to me before I lost control. She put her arm around my shoulders. I sat and shook and she told me to take deep breaths, and I did, until I could think clearly without seeing the impossible equations and unreal physics the Eye had spent ten years force-feeding to me. Nobody paid us the slightest bit of attention, two university girls having a moment of private drama.
“You okay?” she asked eventually.
“No, not really.” I sighed, turned away, and wiped my eyes. She disentangled her arm from around me, and I was too much of a coward to ask her to keep it there. “But, um, thank you.”
“You really needed that, huh?”
“I guess so,” I muttered. I had never spelled it all out before, not in such simple terms.
Raine studied me for a moment, then said, “What if I could prove you’re not crazy?”
And there was the catch, the other shoe dropping: Raine was a kook. A really good-looking kook who gave me attention and comfort on one of the lowest mornings of my life. At least I could have an hour of companionship before I called my mother and tore everything down. I didn’t want Raine to leave.
“You can’t prove a negative,” I said.
“Ha, you sound just like a friend of mine. Okay, that’s true, you can’t prove a negative. What if I could prove you’re sane, Heather?”
“There’s no such thing as sane, there’s only subtle grades of illness and wellness. I just happen to be close to the deep end of the spectrum.”
“Yeah, but people like you are supposed to be deluded, right? You don’t believe any of the stuff you see is real, or at least that’s the impression I get. You’re not technically paranoid schizophrenic, that’s not the diagnosis they ever gave you, is it? I’m willing to bet they tried real hard to put you in that category, but they couldn’t find enough markers, because you don’t believe it’s real.”
I nodded, but I didn’t see where she was going with this. If I’d known, I would have gotten up and ran.
“See any hallucinations in here, right now?” she asked. “Parrot on my shoulder? Skeleton doing the cooking behind the counter?”
“They’re— they—” I struggled for a moment, still mortified at having it out there in the open, even if it was just one person who I’d probably never see again. “My hallucinations are more coherent than that. Singular, separate, almost never replacements or additions for real people or objects.”
“Right, got it.” Raine nodded, dead serious. “And do you see any right now?”
“Do we— do you— do you have to ask that? Can’t we, I don’t know, talk about something else?”
I hesitated, then raised my eyes to the scribble-thing still peering in through the cafe’s front window.
“Yes. Outdoors, there’s a thing made of rents and breaks, gaps in the air which open on blackness. It actually peered through the window when you entered, and hasn’t stopped staring.”
Raine’s body language changed. She sat up and turned to look over her shoulder as if she could see the monster, her head on a swivel. Suddenly both her hands were visible over the tabletop as she flexed her fingers. She looked at me, then back at the window.
She was alert, on guard. I figured it was an act, but it was still very endearing.
“Really?” she asked.
“Can you describe it?” She squinted at the window.
“Just like I said, the shape of a person, but sort of like a scribble.”
“I don’t know. Maybe ten feet? It’s pretty tall.”
“Eyes? Face? Hands?”
“No, it’s got a mass of black for a face, like a knot in a tree. And the limbs taper off into sharp points.”
Raine turned back to me with a wild look in her eyes. “Ever tried shouting at these things in Latin? Greek? You know any Latin?”
“One sec, I have to message a friend real quick.” Raine pulled out a chunky mobile phone and sent a text message, then placed it on the table and winked at me. “Can’t prove a negative, eh? Let’s do an experiment, Heather. You’re gonna love this one. If you’re not impressed, I’ll buy your breakfast. Hell, I’ll buy you breakfast anyway, and lunch and dinner, and another breakfast. Oh wow, you got no idea. This is not what I was expecting.”
The phone buzzed. Raine scooped it up off the table, grinned at whatever the message contained, and then took my hand.
* * *
Outside, in the weak morning sunlight, the scribble turned to watch as Raine led me out of the cafe.
“Uh, Raine?” I gulped and pulled my coat closer around myself.
“What? What’s it doing?” Raine looked up and down and everywhere. She figured out the right direction from the way I backed up, then put herself between me and the creature. It bent toward us, extending limbs like knives made of night.
“Following— um, it followed us when we left. Raine, I don’t like this, it’s not normal, this is my head reacting to my own attention.”
Raine opened the text message she’d received. I glimpsed a picture on the screen for a split second, a jumble of lines. She grinned at me, then she held the phone up and showed it to my hallucination.
A miracle happened.
The scribble-thing screamed, a split-second tearing of rusty nails across the inside of my skull. I clamped my hands to my ears. As quick as it began the sound dissipated and lost all force. The creature unravelled, twisting and pulling at itself, scraps of darkness floating away on the wind until it vanished, the wounds in reality closing up and sliding shut with a papery rustling sound.
“What happened to it? Is it gone?” Raine asked, still holding up the phone, reluctant to look away. “It’s gone, right? No way that didn’t work. Come on, Heather, say something!”
I was speechless. Nobody else had ever touched my hallucinations. They interacted with me if I was careless enough, but never anybody else. And none of them had ever done anything like that.
“It’s … yes. Yes, it’s gone.”
Raine turned back to me, smug all over. “Did it explode? Fireworks? Bada-boom! She shoots, she scores!” She threw her hands up and whooped and punched the air.
“I don’t— no, it sort of fell apart. I mean, that doesn’t prove anything, all you did … ” She’d used suggestion and trickery, I wasn’t well, and I was sleep-deprived. “How did you do that?”
“Oh, I have no idea.” Raine waggled her phone. “All I did is point this in the right direction.” The screen showed a symbol drawn on a piece of paper, a symbol like a blocky fractal representation of a tree. “But I can introduce you to the person who made it happen, a really good friend of mine. She’s … well, she’s kind of like you, a little bit. I think you’ll get on great with her.”
“Wait, wait, stop.” I held up a hand and noticed it was shaking. “That wasn’t real, that was one of my hallucinations. A hallucination, not real.”
“Sure it was,” Raine said, then rummaged in her jacket and pulled out a thick black marker pen. “And you’ve been kept up for two weeks by nightmares. First thing you’re gonna do is go home and get some sleep, because you’re totally shattered and that’s not helping you think straight. I’m not going to dump a load on you about the occult and invisible monsters and how I just banished a servitor with magic, not before you’ve got a few hours’ sleep in you, because then you’ll think I really am trying to exploit you, right?”
“What? No, I never said you were a nutcase or anything.”
“Yeah, but you thought it. No shame, I would too, in your place. When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like nails. Here, hold out your hand.”
I was helpless to resist, too confused and still in shock. Raine stuck her tongue out from the corner of her mouth as she copied the symbol from her phone on to the back of my left hand.
“There.” She slapped the cap back on the marker pen. “Now, I got no idea if that will actually help you sleep or not, but it might, and might is better than more nightmares.” She grinned and pointed a finger-gun at me as I cradled my graffitied hand.
“I … I suppose.”
“Now come on, I’ll walk you home. I’ll fend off the monsters with a sharp stick if I have to.” Before I could stop her she looped her arm through mine and led the way.
Thankfully, Raine wasn’t psychic—she did have to ask where I live, but my barriers were so weak by then that I just told her. All my caution, years of my parents acting like I was a disabled child, the lectures on staying safe, how easily I’d be hoodwinked because I was mentally ill, all of that went out the window.
“So, what else do you see around here, Heather?”
“What other monsters walk Sharrowford’s streets?” I caught that look on Raine’s face again, naked fascination.
“They’re not … they’re not real, Raine. They’re phantoms of my diseased brain, for god’s sake.” I had to take a deep breath and look away, a blush rising in my cheeks.
“Pretty please? I’m dying to know. Hey, come on, look at me. Heather?”
“I-I know what you did earlier wasn’t real. It was a confidence trick, and right now I don’t care. But my hallucinations are not real.”
“Sure they’re not, but tell me about them anyway.”
Slowly, the words sticking like dry toast in my throat, I told Raine about the thing with three legs that squatted at the end of Peasley Drive, and the hulk to the south, towering over the city in mute silence. I described a shambling ape with a sprouting mushroom for a head, and the humpback reptilian sloth which ambled across the road ahead of us. Raine listened, nodded, and asked questions like she was compiling a taxonomy. She only stopped when we reached the foot of my block of flats. We swapped mobile phone numbers, my fingers numb as I made absolutely sure I had hers correct.
Raine checked the time on her phone and puffed out a sigh. “I’d love to come up and make sure you actually get to sleep, but I’ve got class.”
“It’s okay, you’ve … I don’t understand why you’re being so friendly, doing all this. Being nice.”
Raine cocked an eyebrow. “You know this city isn’t safe for people like you? Ahhh, who am I kidding, you haven’t the faintest idea.”
“What? Sharrowford?” I almost laughed, despite everything. “It’s hardly the crime capital of England. The worst things that happen here all seem to be the fault of students.” Raine gave me an odd look, the sort of look the doctors used to give me, an I-know-better look tainted with patronising compassion. I felt myself bristle. “Wait, you mean because I’m crazy?”
“No, Heather, I mean because you can see things you shouldn’t. You wanna know why I’m doing this? Because I don’t wanna let somebody like you get hurt. And I think you’re kinda sweet.”
I tried to form a reply, but found my mouth was made of useless flapping rubber. “Um … o-okay?”
“Do you know where the university’s Medieval Metaphysics Department is? Well, it’s not really a department, there’s only two of us. Anyway, point is, I’ve got class until three, which means you’re gonna sleep for six or seven hours, then you’re gonna come up to the department and meet Evee. I think between us we might be able to shine a light on your head.”
“The— the what? Sorry?”
“Medieval Metaphysics Department. It’s in the top of Willow, technically just part of the philosophy department. There’s only two doors, one-one-seven and one-one-eight. One says— oh, wait, here!” She fished around in her jacket, pulled out a bunch of keys and slipped one off, then pressed it into my hand. “You’ll need this to get in, the key to one-one-eight. If I’m not there, just go on in, make yourself at home.”
“Why?” I asked.
Raine cracked another smile. “Because I’m Robin Hood.”
“You can’t miss it.”
That was such a good opening. I feel dragged in immediately and the visions are so vivid! Thank you for posting, I’m going to binge this story now.
ooh great fucking start great fucking lesbiance digging the spooky shit, lets goooo
good fucking start good fucking lesbiance good fucking spooky shit let’s gooooooooooo
Solid start, I love it. Hopefully we get some names to these beasts.
Nice but painful start, you cant but sympathize with Heather.
Thank you! I hope you enjoy the story!
Hallucinations are inconsistently referred to as delusions throughout.
Even at my worst I could never have mistaken her for a hallucination. – Yes, she could. That’s the whole problem.
A pair of well-won boots showed off a faded rose design up the sides. – of well-worn* boots
After I few seconds of waiting my body decided it was time to cash in on my sleep debt. – After a* few
Anyway, point is, I’ve got class until three, which mean you’re gonna sleep for six-seven hours, then you’re gonna come up to the department and meet Evee. – which means* you’re
Looks good. Enjoyed the 1st chapter. Thank you for writing it. Really hope it isn’t all a hallucination.
Uhm is there any applications to read this on my phone or this is just on the websites?
btw, this is really great. I stopped reading the book I’m currently reading when I saw this. It’d never disappointed me and reached up to my expectations.
You are very welcome! Always great to see readers enjoying the story!
As for reading the story on your phone, do you mean as an ebook? All three websites where Katalepsis is published should work fine on mobile, but I assume you mean something else?
I wish I was >>> I wish I were
Well color me very interested, because this is a hell of an opener. It gave me a good idea of what to expect and I like what I see.
Hi, is there a discord server for fans like me to hang around?
There is! There should be a permanent public link to the Katalepsis discord in the menu below the site’s header art, just between the ‘Support Katalepsis’ and ‘Patreon’ links. If it doesn’t work for you for any reason, please let me know and I’ll send you a different link or something!
This is a great first chapter! I like how well you’ve conveyed the routine nature of these horrors for Heather, the way she has an established set of steps for dealing with the dreams and the way she numbly lists the bizarre creatures she sees on the way to Aardvark
Thank you very much! And thank you for all the comments you’ve been leaving while reading! Sometimes I don’t have time to check the site for a few days during the week, but I promise I do get around to reading them all eventually.
Please, I need to know, which city Sharrowford is modelled on, or failing that at least what county it’s in. Realllly, I just wanna judge you based on where you think the edge of the North is.
My current working theory is Nottingham, purely for the repeated Robin Hood references, although I could also see Sheffield.
In my mind and my notes, Sharrowford is a generous base of Sheffield with a dollop of Manchester, and a sprinkling of Norwich – which, yes, I know, is not in the North at all. As for location, well, it’s somewhere east of Manchester, maybe a tiny bit southward.
Yeah okay it’s basically just fictional Sheffield, but a lot uglier because I like Sheffield and it’s nowhere near as grim as Sharrowford.
Ah, nice to know we agree on the edge of the north, I have this conversation with way too many people tbh. My rule of thumb is, where Wales begins, the North ends.
Never been to Sheffield, though I once had a flight out of it’s weird Robin Hood themed airport.
Lovely start! Really took us into Heather’s head, very vivid. I was skeptical about the story for a while and decided to check out the first chapter on a whim. I was hooked before halfway through.
Thank you! I’m glad you liked the opening, and hope you enjoy the rest of the story if you decide to keep reading!
Wow, just one chapter in, and I’m already loving this
Thank you! Hope you enjoy the rest of the story so far!
What an opening! Well done, beautifully written.
Thank you very much! Hope you enjoy the rest of the story so far!
I like this take on the “All just a dream” trope and smashing it up with the “morning routine”.
Hey, thank you! Glad you enjoyed the story of the story, I tried to do some different things with some of the more common urban fantasy tropes. Hope you enjoy the rest so far!
Is “e” supposed to be voiced in “Raine”?
Nope! It’s actually a real name, and is pronounced as the English word “rain”.
Oh, I see. Thank you! 🙂
// English is not my native language.
You’re very welcome indeed! I’m always happy to answer questions like this from any reader, but especially from those for whom English is a second language. I hope you enjoy the rest of the story so far!
Okay wow, this rules.
Girls can have a manic pixie dream girl, as a treat.
Raine kind of is a treat, for Heather …