Slipping was never the same twice.
Once, when I was twelve years old, it gripped me as I stepped into the shower, a jerk and a twist and another world bloomed around me; I crept naked for hours through a rotting jungle beneath a throbbing black sun. My parents found me curled up under my bed, drooling and insensible. When I was a little older I went missing in the middle of school. Everyone recalled I’d been in biology class, but I never arrived at maths. I’d rounded a corner behind my classmates and felt a tug at the base of my spine, looked back for a moment and found the school hallways replaced by a labyrinth of windowless metal corridors with ceilings so high they vanished into a lightless void over my head. I’d wandered through strange echoes until I turned up in the gym, crying softly at the shapes I’d seen moving in the darkness. Sometimes a Slip was imperceptible, other times I had a moment to brace, to pull myself back from the brink. Often it left me wracked with nausea, my head twisted all wrong around reality’s sharp angles.
After three days of denying the Eye, the Slip hit me like a train.
No time to pull myself to my feet, let alone brace against the library shelves. All I could do was cling on where I’d fallen.
An alien tang of iron and ozone invaded my nose and mouth, a wind from Outside. Grit and stone shifted beneath my shoes even as I still felt the library shelves against my palms. My guts roiled, my head throbbed as if trying to burst. I told myself not to lose control, don’t vomit on the library books, swallow whatever comes up. At least nobody was there to witness this. Nobody in that part of the university library to see the crazy girl having an episode.
Nobody to call for help if I passed out and choked on my own sick.
Had to stay conscious. Panic gave me the strength to pull myself up against the shelves.
Then the shelves vanished, went out from under me, and I fell face-first into the dust and ash of some Other Place.
I sprawled, skinned my hands, smacked my knees and narrowly avoided bouncing my head off the ground. A low whine of pain escaped my throat as I drew my hands up toward my chest to cradle the shallow-bleeding scrapes.
I rolled onto my side and took a moment to catch my breath. Giant rock pillars reached up toward a sky the colour of rotten apricot. The ground looked like cold grey lava frozen in mid-flow, studded with metallic outcrops. The air carried a foul chemical tang. Humanoid shapes stalked in the distance with jerky thrashing motions, obscured by banks of low mist.
“No, no,” I hissed. Slipping was bad enough. Inhabited places were so much worse. I had to get up, get away. Hide.
I struggled to my knees and my head span. I clenched my eyes shut and spat blood onto the rocks and-
And I was back in the library for a split-second, hawking nosebleed and phlegm onto the carpet.
I blinked; back in the Stone-world.
That was new.
For one horrible moment of bright, blazing hope I thought I might be able to shock myself out of this Slip, like waking from a bad dream. I screwed my eyes shut and put my bloody hands over my ears and focused and prayed and told myself none of this was real, it was all in my head, my schizophrenia trying to kill me.
“No place like home, no place like home,” I whispered over and over.
Hey, it worked for Dorothy.
I opened my eyes and saw stone pillars and mist and almost sobbed with failure. Then a mad idea struck me. I grabbed my left hand and tried to make out the faint remains of Raine’s fractal. Needed something to write with. My bag was right next to me on the floor in the library, but I couldn’t touch it over here in Stone-world.
But I could, really. Because none of this was real.
I spent precious moments scrabbling at the unyielding stone, trying to feel for my bag, wincing at the grazes on my hands and wiping nosebleed on my sleeve. The chemical-mist seeped into my clothes, cold and clammy, and the shapes in the mist shambled closer, less and less human with every step.
No bag. Nothing to touch.
I hunched smaller and did the only thing I could think of; I dabbed a fingertip in the blood dripping from my nose and tried to trace the outline of Raine’s fractal. My finger was too wide, the blood too slippery, my hand shook too much. I strangled a whine in my throat. What good was a placebo if I couldn’t use it?
No way out. No way back. Why had I seen that moment of the library? Just to torture me? There must be a way out.
There must be some mechanic that governs this, I thought.
The wrong thought.
A fragment of one of the Eye’s lessons burst into the forefront of my mind, summoned from the dungeon of my subconscious by my desperate need to escape. A twisting, impossible knot of mathematics grabbed my mind like a bunched fist. I doubled up with the sudden pressure in my head and vomited onto the stone ground. I spat and whined and sobbed, and the sound drew the creatures in the mist, their knobbly heads twitching and whirring.
Out, the equation spelt on the surface of reality.
I dry-heaved and struggled to stay upright, the edges of my vision blurring as darkness closed in.
The equation completed. Searing white-hot razor-sharp needles in my brain. I blacked out.
A moment of the stone ground beneath my cheek – then nothing. Sliding through darkness. At least I’d passed out face down. Couldn’t choke on my own sick.
Then, I felt a hand.
In the non-space between dream and the waking world, between reality and schizophrenic illusion, somebody held my hand. It was small, clammy, and grabbed my own with sudden urgency.
The hand gripped tight enough to hurt, crushed my fingers. Another hand joined it — or at least a couple of fingers did, a stump or two, half-a-hand — grasping my wrist with panic, holding on against some whipping, tearing force trying to pull us apart.
Don’t let go!
I couldn’t see or hear, but I felt the pleading in my bones: please don’t let go!
I wasn’t strong enough. I tried to help, to reach out and hold on, but the dream ripped us away from each other, and I slipped down into merciful unconsciousness.
“Heather? … Hey, Heather? Time to wake up … You are breathing, right? Right.”
I woke in a rush with no idea where I was, squinted bleary eyes against the light and struggled up out of a sucking quicksand feeling which turned out to just be cushions. I coughed and hacked and gasped for breath, my heart going a hundred miles an hour.
A gentle grip on both my shoulders eased me back down.
“Hey, hey, easy, easy,” a voice purred.
Raine’s face came into focus as my vision cleared, her eyebrows knotted in concern. I found armrests and worked out I was half-reclined in a big armchair.
“Hey, Heather, just breathe, breathe. You’re fine, you’re absolutely fine. Just breathe for a moment, don’t think about anything else. Just breathe.”
Raine took deep breaths to set the pace. It worked, I copied her breathing and my heart rate dialled down. She nodded encouragement and smiled at me. She was the best thing I’d seen in days.
Behind her were the overstuffed bookshelves and soft shaded glow of the Medieval Metaphysics room. I cast left and right and saw the other armchairs were empty, suddenly horrified at the prospect Evelyn might be here too.
“It’s just us, Heather. Just me here.”
I felt drained by the Slip, my head stuffed with cotton wool. I wiped my face on my sleeve and it came away smeared with half-dry blood. My hands throbbed with dull pain from the grazes and cuts.
Raine crouched down in front of me so we were eye-level. “Heather, I need you to do me a really big favour. I need to go somewhere for five minutes, can you wait here until I get back? Don’t try to get up, don’t go anywhere, just wait here and I’ll be right back.”
I levelled as much gaze I could muster at her. “I’m not a child.”
“Yeah but you’re also very obviously not okay. If I’m gonna get some water and a towel to help you clean up, I gotta know you’re not gonna try to stand up and fall over.”
“ … okay, I’ll … yeah. Thank you. Sorry.”
Raine stood and — to my surprise — ruffled my hair. “Promise?”
“Yeah, promise you’re not gonna run off?”
“I hardly think that’s needed … okay, I promise.”
Raine was true to her word. She was gone less than five minutes, returned with a bottle of water and paper towels, but her brief absence gave me time to recover and think, time to transmute confusion into suspicion. How had I moved here from the library? I couldn’t help but notice she locked the door behind her as she left, and threw the latch again to lock us in when she came back.
This was the second time Raine helped me clean myself up after an episode, and she was no less patient and gentle than the first. That made me like her way too much for my own good. I felt pathetic and needy. She perched on the arm of the chair and helped me wipe my face, rubbed my back as I scrubbed at the sticky blood under my nose, handed me the water to wash the taste of vomit out of my mouth. She took off her leather jacket and I found her bare forearms very distracting, until she produced a bottle of anti-septic hand gel and I winced as I rubbed it into my grazed palms.
Raine tilted her head to peer at the back of my left hand. “Ah, it washed off. I guess that explains what happened?”
“Mmhmm. Guess so … “
Discomfort grew in the silence. The plain embarrassment I should have felt was muted underneath days-old humiliation and a growing terror of Raine herself.
How else could I have gotten here?
“Here, sorry.” I handed her the wadded up mess of bloody paper towels. Raine smiled and touched my head lightly with her fingertips, then got up to dump the paper towels into a waste bin. My throat constricted at the sight of her back, and I blurted it out, no plan. “You brought me here, didn’t you? You found me passed out in the library.”
Raine stared at me for a second as if she’d only just realised how crazy I was, then laughed. “Please, Heather, give me some credit. If I found you unconscious in the library I’d call an ambulance. Hell, I’d do that for anybody passed out, anywhere, except perhaps in the recovery position after some heavy drinking.”
“Then how else could I have gotten here?”
Raine cocked an eyebrow at my tone and made a show of looking me up and down. “You know, I think I could carry you. You’re small enough. But across campus and up all those stairs in Willow House? Without anybody seeing? Naaaah.”
“Then you— you must have done it. There’s no other way.” The lump in my throat grew larger. There had to be an explanation.
“We could test it if you want, just to prove the point. I’ll princess carry you up and down the stairwell until you’ve had enough.” Raine cracked one of those grins which made my legs melt. She flexed her arms like a bodybuilder — Raine was willowy but wiry, and without the jacket on she did look quite well toned. “You want a guided tour of the gun-show?”
I shook my head and had to look away. Started to blush.
“Look, I’m sorry, I … sorry.”
“Hey, it’s cool, no worries. See, I was going to ask you the exact same thing.” Raine sat down in one of the empty armchairs – not Evelyn’s one, which was conspicuously occupied by a pair of neatly folded throw blankets.
“How did you get in here?”
I blinked at her, lost.
“The door was locked,” Raine said. “I locked it myself early this morning, and you were asleep in that chair when I got here. So unless you had a copy made of the key, before you uh … left it here, then you somehow entered a locked room. Or, you know, you’ve got a secret past as a master cat burglar and safe cracker, which would be seriously cool. You know how to pick locks?”
“I … I don’t know, no. It must have been unlocked. I had an episode, a-” I frowned, came up short, and recalled the touch of a disfigured hand. “Wait a moment, Evelyn could have let me in, and then left.”
“She’s not on campus today,” Raine said instantly. Her certainty threw me for a moment.
“How can you be so sure?”
Raine gave a sheepish smile. “Even when we’re having a set-to, I always know where she is. She’s at home all day today.”
“Oh, right. Fair enough.”
I lapsed into silence. Raine waited with a little ghost of a smile still gracing her lips. I couldn’t keep my thoughts from her, something about the way she looked at me. Maybe I was just an easy mark, a sucker for her type. I sighed and gave up. “It’s difficult to trust you. I’m sorry.”
“To trust anybody? Or me in particular?”
I gave her another little glare, the most I could summon. “You in particular.”
She said it without a hint of defensive posture, no how-dare-you-not-trust-me in her voice, just curiosity. I wondered if it was an act.
I gestured at the bookcases along the wall, the rows of occult titles and new age pagan authors and silly nonsense in Latin and Greek. The old book on the table was gone, along with the sheaf of notes and the little goat statue. I forced myself to sit up straight, argue my case.
“You really believe in all this stuff, don’t you? And so does Evelyn.”
“What, those?” Raine did a double-take at the books. “That stuff’s mostly performance art, mass market paperbacks and a few reprinted dark ages fantasies written by monks for fun. Gets pretty boring in a monastery with nothing but a load of dudes around, I guess.”
“But everything you said before, it sounded … ”
“You think Evelyn would keep the real thing out in the open like that?” Raine grinned.
“Then I was right. You do believe in some supernatural mumbo-jumbo.”
“Heather, this room is always locked. You didn’t have a key. You had a ‘Slip’, didn’t you? That’s what you called it? Please tell me I’m getting it right, because I’m very, very interested in you – in your condition.”
“That doesn’t mean I somehow teleported in here,” I said, a little harsher than I intended. “Yes, I- I had a Slip, in the library, and I passed out – or I thought I passed out, but obviously I was sleepwalking. A fugue state, whatever.”
I trailed off and felt awful after my mini-outburst, but Raine just nodded for me to go on. I rubbed at my grazed palms and took my time.
“Sometimes, after a Slip, I wake up in a different place, because I lose time, I walk around, my body auto-pilots, I don’t know. So I must have left the library and walked here and the door happened to be unlocked. Nothing supernatural about it.”
Raine glanced at the blanket-shrouded windows. “It’s pretty packed out there today on campus, despite the crap weather.”
“ … so?”
“So you think you walked across campus with blood all down your face, and nobody said anything? Nobody called campus security? Nobody took you by the shoulder and asked you what’s wrong?”
I shrugged and tried to ignore the chink in my explanation. “People don’t care.”
Raine laughed softly. “Heather, this is Sharrowford, not London. It’s not a crime to speak to a stranger in public. Especially a girl with blood down her face.”
I shrugged again, shrinking from this line of thought. Raine took a deep breath and leaned forward in her chair.
“But you’re right, yeah. To be totally honest, Evee and I are into some ‘supernatural mumbo-jumbo’ pretty hardcore, and you know, Evee would love to hear it put like that. No joke, she’d get a kick out of it.”
“Great,” I muttered. “So you’re crazy too.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve had … experiences. Our situation is kinda unique. When I met you the other day, I thought maybe we could do some good, for you. You’re not crazy, Heather. You’re haunted.”
“ … can you show me any proof?” I meant to stop there, but the words kept coming, sceptical and biting. “Werewolf pelt on your bed? Summon a ghost? Read my mind? Wave your hands around and shout abracadabra?”
Raine couldn’t keep a smile off her face. “How about the mark I drew on your hand? It held the nightmares at bay, right? Evee’s warding sign worked, didn’t-”
“That was a placebo, Raine. I know it was just a psychological trick. There’s nothing supernatural about a fancy drawing on my hand. I mean something I can see, something I can’t explain away. Can you do that?”
“I can’t, no, but-”
“But Evelyn can. She’s really the whole reason I’m here in Sharrowford.”
The implication of Raine’s words rolled right over my head. I was too busy venting my frustration.
“What on earth was her problem with me, anyway?” I said. “She was so rude and spiteful. I’ve never been spoken to like that, and it’s not as if I demand a lot of respect.”
Raine sighed and her smile turned awkward. She ran a hand through her hair and thought for a moment before answering. “Evee is kinda touchy, she doesn’t like new things or having to deal with new people, it scares her. The other day was all my fault, I should have let her know you were coming, or just invited you over to my place instead. She’s a total sweetheart once you get to know her, I promise.”
Evelyn, scared of me? I didn’t believe that. She seemed like a spoilt, smug brat.
A selfish little question snagged a corner of my mind; I couldn’t stop myself.
“Is she – Evelyn, is she your girlfriend?”
Raine opened her mouth and froze for a split-second. I scored the delightful if short-lived victory of seeing her blush. “Uh, haha, uh, no, she’s … she doesn’t- Well, that’s her business, but no, we burnt that particular bridge a long time ago. Also, wow, Heather, you’ve got one hell of a finely tuned gaydar there.”
“No, I haven’t. You’re just very obvious.”
“Am I really? Ah, well, can’t complain, can I?”
She did swing my way. What delight. Pity she was bonkers, and very likely using my sexuality as a weapon.
“Are you and Evelyn in a cult? Is this a recruitment strategy?”
“Cult? Noooo, no no no, oh Heather, Heather.” Raine and rested her chin in her hand. “That word has a very different definition for us. The whole point of me being here with Evelyn is to avoid cults.”
“What, she might start one if you don’t keep an eye on her?”
“That would be an idea, wouldn’t it? Maybe if you join us, we count as a cult? Two’s company but three’s a crowd? Maybe you can pitch the idea to her.”
“So … wait, it’s really just you and her?”
“Yeah. Serious. Scout’s honour.” She held up three fingers, dead serious. “It’s not like there’s nobody else aware of us. There’s a couple of people around who we both know, but most of them we try to avoid. We’re not in any kind of group or whatever. And hey, I was actually in the girl scouts, so you know this counts.”
I shook my head and looked away. I wanted to believe her so much, if not about the supernatural stuff then at least that her interest in me was real.
“I’m being a hundred percent honest with you here,” she said. “There’s some stuff that’s … difficult to explain, understatement of the century, but the easiest way is just to have Evee show you. You and her got off on the wrong foot the other day.”
“No kidding,” I said, then tasted fresh bitterness. “You’re not in the clear either. Evelyn’s not the only one mad at you. The way you blurted out everything about me, things I told you in private. You talked about me like I wasn’t there.” A lump formed in my throat. “Betrayal hurts, Raine.”
“Ahh, shit. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Heather. I have this thing where where I leap before I look, you know?” Her sheepish smile crept back. “It’s a bad habit but it gets results. I wasn’t trying to betray your trust, I was just thinking on my feet.”
I’d wanted her to laugh it off or say it was for my own good, so I’d have an excuse to continue being mad, a reason to keep her at emotional arm’s length; but instead I got that smile and an apology, an excuse based on the very reason I found myself drawn to her.
“In future, try thinking more clearly.”
“In future?” Raine cracked a grin.
“Is this how you treat all your ‘pity projects’?”
Raine spread her hands. “Look, Evee was being a right bitch when she said that, it was aimed at me. I like to help people, I can’t help being the way I am. I’ve had these run-ins with people like you, but not like you, if you get my meaning.”
“No, Raine, I don’t. Am I just another-”
“You’re not just anything, Heather. My attempts to help people in the past haven’t really worked out, not since Evee herself, but you’re the first one who isn’t crazy. You’re the real deal.”
“I am crazy.”
“You’re totally not. Will you come with me to Evelyn’s place? You want proof, she can help with that. And it would be really cool if you and her get along. I’ll call ahead, let her know we’re coming, smooth things over. Plus, her place is her own territory, she’ll be fine. I promise she’s not always like that.”
I let out a huge sigh and levelled a resigned gaze at Raine; she was breaking down all my barriers. “You do realise how wildly irresponsible you’re being?”
“What, in trying to make a friend? You need friends, Heather. Doesn’t take Robin Hood here to know that.”
“No, in telling me I’m not crazy. You can’t say those sorts of things to a person like me, Raine.” My chest tightened as I poured out one of my greatest fears. “I can’t allow myself to believe that my hallucinations are real. I can’t risk pretending the supernatural is true. Do you have any idea how unmanageable people like me get when that happens? You won’t like me very much if I start talking to things which aren’t there, screaming at my own brain-shadows. A relapse becomes a downward spiral into a pit. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life institutionalised. It’s terrifying.”
Raine nodded, the grin absent for once. She took a deep breath before speaking. “I won’t let that happen to you.”
That was one of the kindest things anybody had ever said to me. My parents were all about doctor’s orders, take the right drugs, try to be normal; they’d medicalised me. I had to look away from the sincerity I saw on Raine’s face.
“You barely know me,” I said.
“Yeah, but I want to. First step is come meet Evee, properly this time. Please, Heather? For me?”
I wrestled with myself. I wanted Raine – or at least I wanted her attention, her presence, a little warm comfort. I gave in, weak and stupid, and made a bargain with myself, the craziest thing I’d ever done: perhaps humouring Raine for one day, one night, was worth it. Then I could call my mother and leave before I started to believe my own delusions. Just a day, for me.
“One condition,” I said, my heart in my throat as I clutched my courage.
“Hug. G-give me one, I mean. Then I’ll come to Evelyn’s with you.”
A smile blossomed on Raine’s face. “Heeey, sure.” She held out a hand to help me up.
I needed the hand – not because of any post-Slip weakness, but because I was almost shaking with nervous anticipation. I thought my knees might give way as I stood. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t look Raine in the eyes.
She pulled me into a hug.
Oh, it was worth the bargain. I knew it was just oxytocin, happy brain chemicals, the ancient alchemy of physical contact, but it felt so good. I hadn’t hugged anybody — except my parents, on occasion — in years, and those had been brief upper-body affairs. This was the full English Breakfast, mushrooms and tomatoes too. Raine wrapped her arms around my shoulders and rubbed my back and I couldn’t resist the urge to rest my head on her shoulder. For the first time in a long time, for just a moment, I felt warm and protected, even as I knew those were the exact feelings she was using to bait me. She smelled of cheap detergent and moisturising soap, leather and rain.
She smiled at me when she eventually let go. I nodded an awkward, blushing thank you, embarrassed at how cheaply I’d been bought.
“You want those, I’ll give ‘em away for free, you know?” Raine said. I frowned at her.
“Are you certain you can’t read my mind?”
Raine laughed. “Sure.” She pulled her mobile phone out of her jacket. “I’m gonna call Evee then, let her know we’re coming over.”
“Are you sure she won’t mind? I don’t want to cause another argument.”
“Not with ample warning. That was the mistake I made the other day. Never surprise Evee, if you can help it.” She smiled at a private joke and stepped away a pace to make the call. I sighed and flapped my arms and noticed my bag was next to the chair. Somehow it had made the journey from the library too. I must have picked it up without realising during my frantic scrabbling around on the floor.
“Hm. Weird.” Raine frowned at the wall as she held the phone to her ear. She lowered it and stared at the screen. The look on her face made me nervous.
“Raine? What’s wrong?”
“Went straight to voice mail,” she muttered.
“Maybe Evelyn’s phone ran out of battery?”
“No. Never. Her phone’s never supposed to be off. Kind of a safety thing. Even if she’s in the shower, she’ll get out and pick up when I call. We have an arrangement for this.”
“Maybe she took a nap, put it on silent?”
Raine shook her head. “I know when she sleeps. And her phone’s never on silent. I’ll try again, maybe it was a fluke.”
She did. Straight to voice mail.
“You know when she sleeps?” I muttered. That’s one intimate friendship. Maybe I should be jealous.
Raine puffed out a big sigh and forced a smile for me. The visible effort did not reassure. “It’s probably nothing, but let’s get moving. One sec.”
Then Raine raised the biggest red flag so far. Possibly the biggest red flag I’d ever witnessed, and I’d spent time in a mental hospital for children. She crossed to the racking which took up one side of the room, reached behind a box, and pulled out a nightstick.
A foot and a half of matte black steel with a projecting side-handle. A sleek, alien object in her soft hands. A riot police truncheon. I stared, wide-eyed.
She shot me a sheepish grin as she shrugged on her leather jacket, then concealed the nightstick inside.
“What- what is that for?” I asked.
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal to carry. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s legal to own.”
What I didn’t say is how dangerously sexy it made her. I could only half-admit that reaction to myself. She was armed. Part of me said run away, hide, this can only end badly, with you dead in a ditch. The other part of me wanted to find out what the truncheon was for. I was falling hard.
“Yeah, technically.” Raine waved a dismissive hand. “But hey, we’re not gonna get stopped and searched. Who ever heard of college girls carrying offensive weapons?”
“I-I’m not comfortable with this, Raine.”
“It’s only insurance.” Raine took my hand in hers. “You’re probably right. Evelyn’s been mad at me ever since I brought you up here, so yeah maybe she’s turned her phone off to mess with me. Or maybe it broke. Let’s go find out. The cosh is just for a worst-case scenario, and that’s never happened. You got nothing to worry about, not with me on bodyguard duty.”
“You’re carrying a weapon,” I said softly.
“I know, right?” She cracked a grin.
“This is crazy. You’re crazy. I’m crazy. I can’t do this.”
“Hey, I gave you the hug. Gotta keep your bargains, Heather.”
I don’t know if it was the grin, the weapon under her clothes, or the lingering warmth of her skin.
I couldn’t resist.
Slipping was never the same twice.