“Can’t miss it” turned out to be a typically Raine-like oversight. The Medieval Metaphysics Department was hidden away in the furthest corner of Sharrowford University’s “new” building, Willow House, a snaking four-story structure of Brutalist concrete and brown glass, built in the 1960s to dominate the campus, alongside the Gothic spires and stonework of the university’s tiny old core.
I’d fallen in love with the old university buildings on my very first visit. Soaring ceilings and oak panelling and tiny, intimate lecture halls. But Willow House was the sad con behind the romantic bait. It was ugly and drafty and full of echoes, and I hated its blank impersonal spaces. Other students thronged the ground floor, rushing to get out before the rain intensified, but few other people walked the upper reaches. I jumped at the sounds of gurgling radiators and creaking doors, cursing my nerves and embarrassed at how I looked.
Oddly, my hallucinations didn’t seem fond of Willow House either.
They stayed outdoors, still visible when I risked glances through the stairwell windows into the misting rain. A gaggle of giant predatory birds, smoking with inner fire, clustered around a sixty-foot tree of black shadow-flesh rooted in the university’s central courtyard. I spotted an insectoid behemoth nightmare climbing the side of the library building. But here, inside, there was nothing.
It was a relief, but I didn’t know what it meant.
I’d also slept all day. No nightmares.
Or at least they’d stayed on the far side of sleep, like normal dreams. I’d woken to my mobile phone alarm at three in the afternoon and felt such relief; the weight of bone-grinding exhaustion had lifted. My head felt relatively clear. I could have slept for another twelve hours, I could have danced, I could have hugged Raine.
I couldn’t do any of those things, of course. I was still me, and I was still sleep-deprived. A wave of tiredness had chased a dizzy spell as I’d stood in the shower earlier, and I’d almost fallen over.
I’d been careful not to scrub the fractal symbol off my hand.
Placebo, I told myself. Raine’s kindness, the fractal, and the few moments of fleeting fantasy that my hallucinations might be real. The experience had convinced my unwell subconscious that I was being saved.
But I didn’t care if it was an illusion. Raine was a confidence trickster or a crank, but I liked her, though she probably didn’t swing my way. As soon as I called my mother my life was basically over, so I figured I may as well spend my last day or two doing whatever made me happy.
Right now that meant more of Raine’s rakish smile. More attention. Maybe a hug.
What did I have to lose?
In two months at university, I’d expended little effort exploring beyond the lecture halls and seminar rooms for my own classes; I’d risked careful forays into the canteen, spent several therapeutic afternoons in the library, and made one abortive attempt at attending the student literature club. By the time I found rooms 117 and 118 I’d climbed five staircases and gotten lost twice in the corridors of threadbare carpet and whitewashed walls.
Medieval Metaphysics wasn’t listed in Willow House’s directory on the ground floor, nor included in the thumbnail blurbs for each department and school on the university website, but I trusted Raine, against all sensible judgement. When the philosophy department corridor ran out at room 116 I did my best to think outside the box.
I discovered the doors to 117 and 118 tucked away in the back stairwell, like a dirty secret in the attic, framed by cold concrete and lit by a single tiny window. At first I thought I must be mistaken, these were janitor’s cupboards or maintenance access doors, but a small plaque was fixed to the wall.
A little slot for a name card stood empty.
I swallowed and took several deep breaths in a vain effort to calm my churning stomach and the pulse in my throat. I reminded myself I had nothing to lose.
Part of my subconscious didn’t agree, the same part which had convinced me to wear my best clothes. Before I could knock on the door I had to smooth my skirt and make sure nothing was out of place. I only owned two skirts, long ones. I loved them but I never felt right wearing them. They made me feel frivolous and silly, as if feeling that way wasn’t for me, but I wanted so badly to show Raine that I was—what?
Not just a crazy weirdo? Who was I kidding? What did I expect, that we were going to go out to late lunch together, so I’d dressed up cute? I’d showered, scoured myself clean, stood in front of the bathroom mirror and fussed with my hair for minutes on end. I was wearing my best sweater, a cream turtleneck with no holes or raggedy ends, and I’d even brushed down my coat, the most effort I’d taken in weeks. But my skin was still pasty and pale, my eyes still dark-ringed from chronic sleep deprivation, and I knew I looked awful.
The longer I hesitated the more I felt out of place.
I’d worn winter mittens to conceal the fractal Raine had drawn on the back of my hand, but now I tugged them off, worried she might think I was ashamed. I cursed myself again and pulled my back straight and knocked on the door.
My heart pounded. I clasped my hands behind my back, then thought that looked too formal, so I folded them in front, then worried I looked twee and girlish, so I fluttered about for a moment at a complete loss.
And I realised nobody was answering.
I knocked again and listened.
Disappointment unclenched my stomach, but respite lasted only a heartbeat: what if this was a test? Raine had given me the key and specifically stated I was to go in if she wasn’t here. Was she inside, waiting for me to show initiative? Was she smirking behind her hand at my timidity? I decided right there that if she was inside and pretending not to hear my knocking, I was going to turn around and leave. I would not grovel for comfort.
A few hours of sleep had given me back a portion of my spine, but not my full capacity for rational thought.
“Raine, are you in there?” I called out, and rapped my knuckles on the door one final time. I fished out the little key she’d given me and fitted it into the lock. The thunk of the bolt echoed down the empty stairwell, and in that moment, before I pushed the door open, I noticed a tiny tree-like symbol scratched into the wooden door frame.
It was identical to the fractal Raine had drawn on my hand.
I pulled myself up to my full height—not much—set my face in a confrontational scowl, and opened the door to the Medieval Metaphysics Department.
And found nobody inside.
Instead, I found a treasure trove.
The wall between rooms 117 and 118 had been removed long ago, and the combined interior had been turned into a scholar’s grotto. Patterned blankets pinned up over the windows kept the light out, replaced with the gentle glow from a pair of shaded desk lamps. Sagging, overstuffed bookshelves leaned against one wall. A tangle of racking hid the far side of the room, packed with overflowing cardboard boxes filled with junk. The other door was blocked by a heavy filing cabinet.
A large leather-bound book lay open on a low table in the centre of the room, accompanied by a sheaf of notes, a pair of empty mugs, and a creepy little stone statue of a goat. A trio of comfy armchairs squatted behind the table, with some blankets bundled up on one of them. A polished wooden cane leant against another. On the wide windowsill I spotted a kettle and a box of cheap tea bags, a compact laptop, and a fist-sized stress ball.
The books drew me into the room, the same way I’d been drawn into the abyss of Wonderland. Curiosity hadn’t killed me yet, but it might, one day.
I expected the room to smell of dust, but I crossed the threshold to the scent of warm tea and old books, conspiring to soothe my senses. My stomach unknotted and the tension drained from my shoulders. This place was lovely, private and quiet and cosy, the kind of place I daydreamed about. The rain outdoors had picked up, pattering off the windows. If this was Raine’s personal space, then—but how? You couldn’t just commandeer a whole departmental room for your little club.
I ran my gaze along the bookcases and lifted my fingers to the spines of the books. The titles raised red flags: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, The Golden Bough, The Lesser Key of Solomon, along with dozens of titles in Latin or Greek, none of which I could read, and at least a few in Arabic and Hebrew. At one end I spotted a cluster of modern books about witchcraft and paganism, by authors with awful pen names like “Star Raven” and “Silver Wolf.”
I sighed, but did my best to withhold judgement. I already felt guilty and stupid for getting angry at Raine earlier, when she wasn’t even here.
The tome lying open on the desk was different. Real, a leather cover, cracked and brittle. Pages yellowed by age, covered in tiny handwritten script, notes in the margin in a different hand, in a different language.
I’d never seen such an old book before. It delighted me. A century old? A century and a half? It wasn’t crumbling, so it couldn’t have been truly ancient. I was tempted to feel the texture of the pages between my fingertips, even if the content was probably utter nonsense. I peered closer to see if I could make out any of the words.
“All right, that’s far enough,” said a voice.
I jumped out of my skin.
Hand to my heart, heart in my throat, I stared at the source of the voice.
A woman had been sitting very still in one of the armchairs all along, half-hidden by the blankets which she’d eased aside.
“I-I-I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there. I-I must have— I didn’t see, when I opened the door, I-I’m sorry.”
She’d seen everything—the way I’d nosed around the room, my eye-roll at the shelves, my blatant interest in the book on the table.
She didn’t look impressed.
For a moment I thought she must be the professor left unnamed on the door plaque, but then I realised she was my age. Her stern expression made her seem older than she was. She could have glared a hole through sheet metal.
She was short, maybe my height, but better filled out, with an amazing mass of golden-blonde hair twisted up in a loose bun behind her head. She wore an oversized fisherman’s jumper and a pair of plaid pajama bottoms. In one hand she held a mobile phone; in the other she gripped a chunk of white quartz the size of a golf ball. A book lay abandoned in her lap. Bizarre in retrospect, but I felt terrible for interrupting her reading.
She was almost exactly the sort of girl I’d dreamed about meeting at university, tucked away with her books, wearing pajamas, soft, fluffy, almost cuddly—if it weren’t for the sheer hostility on her face.
“So, can I help you or not?” she asked, words like bullets. Her frown deepened.
I realised, too late, that she was a little bit afraid.
Afraid of me? The mouse-like, jittery girl she’d spooked merely by speaking, who hadn’t seen her sitting there in plain sight? She could probably tell I was crazy, tell from a mile away. That must have been why. People always think the mentally ill are dangerous.
“I’m sorry for intruding,” I said, and couldn’t stop the flow once I started. “I really didn’t mean to interrupt your reading, I was told to come here, this specific room. I must have gotten the wrong— I mean, no, I was given a key.” I held up Raine’s key. “I didn’t think anybody was in here, I knocked and—”
“Yes, I quite heard all the knocking. Who told you to come here?”
I took a deep breath and put the brakes on. “I met a girl this morning, Raine, she told me to come here this afternoon. I— oh! Are you Evee?”
The woman let out a heavy sigh and squeezed her eyes shut. She tossed the lump of quartz and her mobile phone onto one of the free armchairs, then rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“You don’t get to call me that,” she said. “My name is Evelyn.”
“Evelyn. Right. Sorry. Heather. That’s my name, I mean.”
When Evelyn looked at me again all the hostility and the hint of fear had left her expression, replaced with dull contempt, even worse on a face which seemed so naturally inclined to kindness. She had that sort of round face which had never shed all the teenage puppy fat, and these big blue eyes, narrowed at me.
She was also missing most of her left hand; I hadn’t noticed until that moment, I’d been so focused on her expression.
Evelyn still possessed her thumb and forefinger, but had lost the first knuckle of her middle finger, most of her ring finger, and the little finger was gone along with a portion of that side of her palm. The wound was long healed with smooth scar tissue. I did my best not to stare.
“So, Heather?” she asked. “What obscure species of lunatic are you?”
My mouth fell open. She could tell.
“How do you—”
She waved a hand at me and stood up from her chair, favouring her right leg for such a long moment that my gut reaction was to move forward to help her stand. Only embarrassment held me back. She didn’t speak until she found her balance, straightened up, and stared me in the eyes.
“I assume you’re Raine’s latest pity project? Which means you’re either batshit or useless. So, come on then, let’s make it easier on all of us. Wiccan? Flat-Earther? Astral-plane warrior? Or are you one of the really hard-sell cases? You do look a bit fundamentalist Christian.”
“What? No! I’m none of— wait, wait.” I held up a hand as a pit opened in my stomach. “What do you mean, ‘pity project’?”
“Oh? You think you’re the first sad little kitten she’s dragged home? You’re not, and you certainly won’t be the last, either. You’re not clinically depressed or anything, are you? Because I really don’t approve of her pulling this routine on the mentally ill.”
“I’m—” Foremost in my mind was reluctance to admit that Yes, I’m crazy, please use that as a barb against me. Here, have this ammunition to belittle and insult me. Instead I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “There’s no need to be so rude.”
Evelyn’s eyebrows climbed an inch. “Ah, not a total doormat. At least you’ve got that going for you. And yes.” She paused, puffed out a sigh, and shrugged. “I suppose I am being rude. It’s hardly your fault, but Raine has rather a pattern by now. I’m sick of it and you are the last straw. Are you a lunatic? I’m right, aren’t I? I can see it plain on your face.”
I gathered what little resources I had for a return volley of indignation. In all likelihood I was about to merely squeak at her and retreat.
“Heeeeey, Heather, you came!”
Raine rounded the doorway with a great big grin on her face before I could speak, but the flush of relief turned sour as Evelyn’s words echoed in my mind: pity project? We both looked at her, me on the verge of panic and Evelyn glaring daggers. Raine’s grin petrified as she glanced between Evelyn and me.
“Shit,” Raine muttered.
“Good afternoon, Raine,” Evelyn said, and made it sound like knives. She put her hands on her hips.
“Uh, Evee, this is Heather, I met her down the Aardvark this morning. Heather, you look great, did you sleep? You did, yeah? Told you it would work.”
“Yes, I did, thank you.” I almost melted under Raine’s sudden attention. I drew my left hand up toward my chest, not sure if I should show off the fractal design or try to hide it. “But actually you said you didn’t know if it would work.”
“What worked?” Evelyn asked. “Raine, what did you do?” She noticed the drawing on my left hand and jabbed a finger in my direction. “Raine, what is that? What is that on her hand? Tell me I’m not seeing what I think I am.”
“Evee, it’s fine. She’s fine.”
“You never cease to surprise me, you know that?” Evelyn said. “Every time I think you’ve reached your ceiling, a theoretical limit, you find entirely new ways to be staggeringly stupid. And for god’s sake, lock the door.”
Raine hurried to close the door and throw the latch. “Look, Evee—”
“And stop calling me that right now. In case you can’t tell, I am not best pleased with you.”
“Evelyn, look.” Raine cast about and settled on me. “I’m really sorry about this, Heather, it’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I don’t— I don’t want to be involved in this,” I said in a very small voice, and put up both my hands in a gesture of surrender. If I could have vanished into the floor at that exact moment, I would have done so. This was like an argument between an old married couple. I’d never felt so awkward. My stomach was churning and my face was flushed with embarrassment. “I can just leave. I’m sorry.”
“See, Raine?” Evelyn said. “She’s got a lick of sense. She knows when to cut her losses and run. Perhaps you should learn from her.”
I edged toward the door. I was consumed by a sense that Evelyn was like a dangerous dog, that she’d go for me if I turned my back.
“Evee, give me five minutes to explain, this is all going to make sense,” Raine said, then she turned to me and put a hand out to stall my retreat. “Please don’t go, Heather. This is all just a misunderstanding. It’s my fault, I promise, Evee’s not usually this bad.”
“What’s to explain?” Evelyn said. “You had me send you the warding sign so you could impress a girl you met less than twelve hours ago. So you could do what? Tag your conquest?”
“Excuse me?” I bristled and turned a frown on Raine. “Conquest?”
“It’s not like that,” Raine said to me. She said it with a smile, with such charm that under different circumstances I would have believed her; I wanted to believe her.
“And worse than that,” Evelyn continued. “You gave her a key to the department, where you knew I was going to be. What on earth were you thinking? She could be anybody.”
Raine turned that same winning smile on Evelyn, but also spread her hands in frustration. “You think I would put you in danger? You think I would let anybody dangerous within a hundred feet of you? You really think I would do that?”
That threw me for a loop. Danger? It had a similar effect on Evelyn too; she visibly dialled back for a moment, awkward and averting her gaze.
“Look,” Raine said. “The reason I brought Heather here is that she’s the real deal. She’s had … experiences.”
My embarrassment crashed out, replaced with sick realisation; Raine and Evelyn really believed all this stuff, these nonsense supernatural books they had lining the walls. They were playing some melodramatic double-think game that I’d unwittingly wandered into. Or worse, they were recruiters for some exploitative new-age religious group, the lowest rung in some organisation they’d oh-so-gently introduce me to. The supernatural, the implication of danger, the forced drama. I’d read about this sort of thing before. I was the right demographic to be a victim.
“The real deal?” Evelyn rolled her eyes and thumped back down into her chair as my expectations collapsed. She winced and rubbed her left leg. “That’s what you said about the Wiccan, the one who tried to flog healing crystals to me. And the goth who believed she was a vampire. They were both the real deal, until they weren’t.” She turned sharply on me. “What makes you different, dear?”
“Nothing. Nothing. I’m … I’m a crazy person.”
“Oh, she admits it! Wow, Raine, you really do know how to pick them, well done.”
“She’s not crazy.” Raine sighed with exasperation. “Heather, you’re not—”
“Yes, I am.”
“Please, just tell Evee what you told me this morning. I promise this is all gonna make sense.”
“No, thank you.” My heart hardened with disappointment and humiliation. All I’d wanted was to hang out with a nice girl for a couple of hours. A girl who’d take the lead, cheer me up, somebody about whom I could maybe fantasise or at least have a fleeting dream. Not this new-age cult-freak stuff. “That was between us. You and me. I can’t … I don’t want to.”
“You don’t have to explain the whole thing, just the gist of it.” She reached out for my hand but I drew away from her.
“Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could. I wouldn’t want to vomit all over your nice carpet, would I?”
Evelyn gave Raine a sickly-sweet smile of smug triumph.
“Heather sees things which aren’t there,” Raine said, and I felt my stomach drop out.
“Raine!” I squeaked.
“She was abducted by monsters as a child—taken Outside,” Raine said, and I could hear the capital O. “She’s had night terrors and daylight visions since then.”
“Raine, stop! This was between you and me. In confidence.”
“She’s been Outside, Evelyn, the real deal. She has lost time, gets dragged back there. Look, the reason I messaged you for the sign this morning was—”
Raine’s brazen betrayal paralysed me as she explained what had happened at the cafe this morning. Evelyn’s eyes narrowed and her expression changed as Raine spoke, but the contempt never lifted.
“Let me get this straight,” Evelyn spoke slowly and quietly when Raine finished. “A girl who sees things which aren’t there claims that when you held up a mystical symbol at one of her hallucinations, it vanished.”
“Yes.” Raine nodded and grinned. “The sign worked.”
“A vanishing you couldn’t see.”
“In fact, you couldn’t see any of this. You don’t have any proof for this except what she says.”
“It was the sign, Evee. You know it works. And I’m pretty sure it was a servitor, it was following me and—”
“We are not going to talk about that in front of other people,” Evelyn said. “It was a placebo effect, Raine. You’ve picked up a sick girl off the street and convinced her you’re doing magic.”
Raine actually laughed. “We are doing—”
I raised my voice. “It was a placebo effect.”
“Thank you, Heather,” Evelyn said. “Thank you.”
“How is this any different to your situation, Evee?” Raine asked.
“My situation? My situation? Oh yes, please, Raine, that’s going to get you out of the doghouse, comparing me with a verifiable lunatic.”
Despite everything, curiosity prickled me. Was Evelyn like me? I’d never met anybody with similar issues who I could talk to. All the other high-functioning schizophrenics at Cygnet Hospital had been teenage boys, much older than me while I’d been there.
“Your … your situation?” I asked.
“Is private, thank you very much.”
“Evee, the whole point of bringing her here is to help her,” Raine said. “The sign helped her, it kept her nightmares at bay. It worked!”
“Great. Wonderful. Then go help her. Take her home. Feed her. Potty train her.”
“Will you stop?” I said, incensed at last, but Evelyn didn’t even bother to look at me.
“What you get up to with your weird little friends is none of my business, really,” Evelyn said. “I don’t know why I bother.”
“Evee, I know there are—” Raine shot a glance at me before she continued, lowering her voice. “Rituals you can do. Methods for figuring out exactly what’s wrong with Heather, what’s haunting her.”
Evelyn looked at Raine as if she’d bitten into a lemon. “She is haunted by her own brain chemistry. Deal with it, Raine.”
Raine lifted her chin, voice low and serious. “If you won’t help her, then I’ll write to your dad instead. He’s still got contacts.”
“Oh, he’d love that, yes. You know he prefers to pretend you don’t exist, that I freed myself with—” Evelyn flicked a glance at me and suddenly cut off, as if she’d forgotten I was there.
I couldn’t stand this anymore. The disappointment, the third-wheel feeling, the pounding in my head. I boiled over.
“You two really believe all this stuff, don’t you? I’m not your kind of crazy.”
“Heather, it’s not like that.”
“Oh?” Evelyn smirked, razor-thin. “Then please, enlighten me. What exact manner of nutcase are we dealing with this time, Raine?”
The way she looked away from me to Raine broke a fragile little thing inside me. I raised my chin. Made myself stand tall and straight.
“Schizoaffective disorder,” I said, and was rewarded with the snap of Evelyn’s attention back to me. I tried to keep my voice steady and defiant as I used my dirty little secret like a bludgeon. I was halfway successful, but I felt shameful and disgusted at myself. “With co-morbid hallucinatory and dissociative episodes, with non-specific triggers. That’s what I was diagnosed with as a child, thank you.”
Evelyn raised an eyebrow as if she expected more, but I’d run out of angry words. My chest tightened, a lump grew in my throat, but I wasn’t going to give either of them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I still had the key in my right hand, so I slammed it down on the table, turned on my heel, and made for the door.
I got halfway down the philosophy department corridor before they stopped shouting at each other. I’d been forcing myself not to run, but in the main stairwell Raine came after me, calling my name, and I broke.
“Heather, come on, wait! It’s not what you think it is!”
I almost tripped down the stairs in haste to escape her false promises. I was such an idiot, what had I been expecting? I sniffed back tears as Raine rounded the stairs behind me.
“Heather, let me help, please.”
“You’ve helped enough!”
I didn’t look back.
On the other side of the stairwell window, my hallucinations raged in the pouring rain, driven to frenzy by my distress. Two scythe-sharp flying shapes tore at each other, trailing black blood and fragments of hissing, burning metal as they fell past, outpacing my own stumbling progress down the stairs. A wounded giant staggered in the distance beyond campus, a four-legged hulk pushing against some invisible force. The giant predatory birds were fighting in the courtyard, spilling molten viscera across the concrete. The thing which had been climbing the library earlier was now atop the building, head open like a flower of flesh, discharging spores the size of footballs.
Raine made a grab for my arm on the last flight of stairs and succeeded in turning me to face her for a moment. She was smiling in the same reassuring way she had that morning, warm and welcoming and promising help.
“Heather, it’s okay—”
“Leave me alone,” I tried to say, but my voice came out as a wretched scratch and I pulled away, almost fell over, stumbling and skipping steps, clutching my coat around myself as I finally hit the ground floor and fled out into the rain.
* * *
An hour later, my hair still damp, I sat on the bed and stared at my parents’ number in my mobile phone.
Raine had tried to call me three times. I’d blocked her. I dreaded a knock on my door and had to remind myself that I’d only walked her to the block of flats. She didn’t know which unit was mine.
What had I lost? The last remaining scraps of my dignity, and the sliver of hope that Raine had given me that morning.
I’d never felt so humiliated, not even in Cygnet with the other crazy people, poked and prodded and drugged. I’d been willing to accept the illusion, to humour Raine in exchange for some transient warmth, an afternoon of friendship, a hand to hold. Couldn’t even have that.
Friends weren’t for me. Lovers even less. My headache was coming back, the pressure mounting behind my eyes.
Time to leave. I pressed the dial button.
“Heather, dear, how nice to hear from you,” my mother answered. She seemed so far away on the other end of the phone. “ … Heather?”
I couldn’t get the words out. I’d intended to rip the plaster off as quick as I could, tell her I was done, I needed to come home, I was giving up. I’d even rehearsed the words: Mum, I need help. You were right, I can’t do this.
“Heather? Heather? I can’t hear you, dear, there’s no sound on my end. Can you hear me?” She tutted and sighed as I struggled to open my throat.
She ended the call and I sat there in the growing dark. A tentacle grew across the far wall of my apartment, a thick black rope of pulsing muscle, bleeding phantasmal blood into the sink below. The phone jumped in my hand. My mother calling back. I gathered myself and answered.
“Hi Mum. No, I think the phone malfunctioned. I think I pressed the wrong key. Yes, yes, of course. No, just calling to say hi, see how you and Dad are. Oh, I’m fine, I just ate dinner. Got caught in the rain earlier, sort of enjoyed it though, but I’m dry now, don’t worry.”
The fluidity of my lies surprised me. As I spoke to my mother, I cursed Raine. She’d given me this little glowing mote of promise and now I couldn’t let it go. Sleep without nightmares had bolstered my reserves. Maybe that was all I needed. Maybe the proof that placebos worked would hold the Eye at bay.
After I finished lying and ended the call, I did something very unhealthy.
I needed comfort, real comfort, and there was only one unconditional source of that in my life. I got into bed and hugged my pillow to my chest and closed my eyes.
And I allowed myself to remember her name.
I thought about Maisie.
I wasn’t supposed to remember her. She’d never been real, she was a schizophrenic brain-ghost, and the more I reinforced those neural pathways the harder it would be to ever let her go. But I saw her every time I looked in the mirror at my own face. Maisie, who I’d spent ten years of childhood alongside, doing everything together, playing together, growing together. We’d creep into each other’s beds and cuddle in the dark and fall asleep together. Sit with our heads together. Hold hands and laugh together. Fight and push and play and live.
I clung to the memory of cuddling my twin. I pictured it and felt it now, made the pillow into her, conjured up all the comfort and warmth I’d wanted from Raine. I imagined the things Maisie and I would say to each other, things I was really just saying to myself. What would Maisie think of Raine? If only she were here, I’d feel stronger. But if she never existed then she’s just me, so she is here. Maisie was always with me, and I can do this.
Afterward, I cried a bit. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
That night I was careful not to scrub the fractal design off the back of my hand, but I didn’t renew it with a marker pen. It wasn’t real, after all. It was all in my head. I could do this with willpower alone.
* * *
The fractal lasted three days until it washed off.
I slept, recharged, ate, and prayed I wouldn’t bump into Raine or Evelyn on campus. Three days of denying my nightmares, of letting the pressure build up on the other side of sleep. Three days of telling myself the distant ringing in my ears was just fluid draining. Three days of pretending I was normal.
One morning I did bump into Raine; I spotted her on my way to a lecture and my heart missed a beat. Couldn’t mistake that leather jacket or her easy rolling walk. She was so pretty it hurt to avoid her, to double back and pretend I hadn’t seen her, to keep walking fast in case she’d spotted me. I hid like a rat.
The next day, in the university library, my luck ran out.
Standing deep in the stacks, my hand halfway to a book, I noticed the fractal was too faint to make out anymore.
The distant ringing sound sharpened, somewhere beyond the range of human hearing, felt in the centre of my head. I tried to focus through the sudden spike of headache. I’d come to the library to read, and I was going to have a nice afternoon with the books and write half an essay. The fractal was just a placebo, this was all in my head. All in my head. It had washed off, so what? It meant nothing. I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my face.
My hand came away covered in blood. A nosebleed.
My gut clenched and my vision lurched sideways. I flailed to catch myself on the shelves, smearing blood, knocking books over and clutching the metal frame, pain far away as the world wavered and spun.