providence or atoms – 2.9

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Anticlimax is often far more challenging to accept than the release of action. All the best stories build up and up, then explode from sheer pressure. We expect our lives to work that way.

For years I believed in my own special susceptibility to that lure, the temptation to see one’s life as a story, with myself cast in the role of the hounded, persecuted protagonist; paranoid schizophrenics slide down that slippery slope with such ease. But we all do it, contort ourselves into narratives, each of us our own hero, expecting the dramatic climax which never comes.

Which was my theory for why Raine couldn’t sleep that night.

After the standoff in the underground car-park, Raine had route-marched me back to campus to pick up Evelyn. Her cheery exterior and borderline dirty jokes failed to cover up the backward glances, the firm grip on my hand, the wire-tightness in her every muscle. My adrenaline ran out, spent, dissipated by the regular pedestrians and streetlights and the sounds of early evening drinking on campus.

I was dead on my feet by the time we got back to the Medieval Metaphysics room. I’d half thought to sit down for five minutes, rest my legs and my mind together, but Evelyn was ready to leave and Raine made sure we didn’t linger. She hurried us out into the corridor, then paused before locking the door.

“You’ve booby trapped this, right Evee? In case-”

Evelyn turned a cold shoulder. “Of course I did,” she snapped.

Down the stairwell and back out into the night, my hand in Raine’s and my reserves sputtering on empty, eyelids heavy and feet like lead. We left campus and skirted the northern edge of the student quarter, past old redbrick Victorian houses and flickering streetlights. The second time I’d taken this route hand-in-hand with Raine. Exhausted notions flittered through my head. Didn’t I need clothes, a shower, my toothbrush? I felt unclean, sweat-soaked, stinking.

But I was too tired to care – physically, emotionally, spiritually. My other hand gripped Maisie’s tshirt, stuffed in my coat pocket.

Raine noticed, bless her. She squeezed my hand. “You holding up okay?”

I almost said ‘what do you think?’, but restrained my exhausted sarcasm. She’d asked a practical question. Raine was nothing if not practical that night.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You’ve gone real quiet, that’s all.”

“I’m tired.”

It was the truth.

I had a companion in sullen silence. Evelyn had barely spoken since we’d picked her up. Stormy faced and shoulders hunched, she stomped on a few paces ahead of us, walking stick clacking against the pavement. Was she used to this panic and flight, this interruption of routine? Or was it my fault again, an imposition, a threat brought down on us by my stupid, needy naivety?

Spirit life ebbed and flowed through these rotten streets, wolf-faced monsters and ghoul-limbed apes and worse, lurking at the ends of the roads. They trailed us, closed ranks as we passed, watched and followed and stalked – but at a further distance. A respectful distance, I thought.

They still left me queasy. Ingrained habit and discipline made me avert my eyes. But the old fear bothered me less than ever.

Just exhaustion, I told myself. Too tired to care.

Evelyn’s house, at least, offered sanctuary. Number 12 Barnslow Drive loomed out of the night, as weed-choked and leering as I remembered, dark and brooding in grand disrepair.

She unlocked the front door, slapped the lights on, and almost slammed her walking stick down against the wall. Raine steered me inside and deposited me, wobbly legs and all, as she slipped back outdoors.

“Just to check,” she said.

Evelyn slipped off her shoes and stomped over toward the stairs, saying nothing as I struggled to unlace my trainers. Raine returned, locked the front door, checked the locks twice, then turned to both of us and clapped her hands together.

“Right, we- Evee? Where are you going?”

“My room.” She did not turn around.

“Evee, we need to prep the place.”

“This house looks after itself well enough.”

“Evee-”

“Leave me alone. Wake me if they drive a car bomb up the garden path.”

She waved a hand over her shoulder in dismissal, then mounted the stairs. Raine sighed and flashed an apologetic smile at me. She actually looked a bit lost, for once.

“I’m going to sit down before I fall down,” I said.

“Yeah, good, good, you do that. Drink some water, hydrate. I need to … go deal.” Raine nodded at Evelyn’s retreating back.

I had zero energy to act as peacemaker or indulge my immature curiosity about their relationship. Taking my shoes off presented challenge enough. Raine ruffled my hair and then hurried upstairs.

Rudderless and aching, I wandered across the junk-filled front room, past the stain on the floorboards from two weeks ago, through the darkness in the kitchen, and into the most comfortable place in the house besides Evelyn’s bedroom.

Once a drawing room or dining room, it had since gone to seed and fossilised, but remained warm and cosy. Two radiators worked hard against the encroaching evening cold. A huge, ancient CRT television lay dead in one corner, probably last switched off in the 1980s, joined in retro-junk aesthetic by the fossilised lava lamp on the mantelpiece, over the very empty and very bricked-up fireplace.

Two cramped bay windows peered out across the front garden, both heavily curtained, one wide windowsill filled with the disinterred contents of a nearby box, mostly wooden masks and weird little soapstone figurines.

A brave soul had mounted a half-finished attempt to re-colonise the room, sometime in the last year. She’d cleaned away the worst of the dust and piled some books on the wide slab of table, half-finished physical reading lists both academic and otherwise. Handwritten Latin translation projects lay next to stacks of Japanese manga. I swear the table was some kind of antique, probably worth thousands. And Evelyn used it as an overflow bookshelf.

Two battered sofas formed a shallow L-shape either side of the door, draped with blankets to hide their sorry state. I sank down into one, then used the last of my energy to peel my coat off and fling it over the sofa’s arm.

My feet ached like bruises. I sat cross-legged and rubbed my arches, wincing and grumbling to myself. Upstairs, Evelyn was shouting at Raine – at least, I assume she was; I couldn’t make out the words, just the tone. A shout, a slammed door, some knocking, another shout.

Raine came back downstairs and popped her head around the door-frame.

I remember that clearly. She asked if I was alright, if I needed anything. I said yes and no, and then she was off again, I think to check the windows were locked. The last thing I heard was her rattling about in the kitchen, through the fog of oncoming sleep.


==


I woke with a gasp, in darkness and silence.

For one very dehydrated moment, I could summon no memory of where I was or how I’d gotten there. Jagged alien shapes loomed out of the shadows, ghostly fingers brushed my throat, and my legs hurt like they’d been squeezed through a clothes press.

Tick, tick, tick.

The slow, regular echo of the grandfather clock in the front hall brought me back. I rubbed my eyes and sat up on the sofa, swallowing on a dry throat. All the lights were off, the room illuminated by ghostly streetlight glow leaking in around the edges of the curtains.

A mystery admirer – no prizes for a correct guess who – had tucked a blanket over me and propped a pillow behind my head. I rummaged in my coat for my mobile phone. The screen backlight almost blinded me.

5.47 in the morning. I’d slept all night.

Filthy and fuzzy-mouthed, I stood up and stretched – and discovered the unbelievable muscle ache in my legs, punishment for the trek across the city yesterday. I sat back down and gingerly probed my thighs, wincing and hissing. Wonderful. My stomach added a complaint too. Hadn’t eaten a bite since yesterday morning.

My mysterious benefactor had also left a tall glass of water on the table, along with a sandwich wrapped in cling-film. I downed the water and unwrapped the sandwich – peanut butter – and silently thanked Raine as I all but inhaled it in four bites.

Delicious quiet and calm enveloped the house, ordered by the regular ticking of the grandfather clock and the distant passing of cars deeper in the city. After the frantic rush of yesterday, I loved the comfortable darkness. No spirits to bother me. Space to think, decompress. I closed my eyes for a minute and just soaked in the feeling, as I flexed my aching calf muscles.

I wasn’t the only early riser, apparently. The other sofa cradled the remains of a second makeshift bed, a couple of cushions and a crumpled blanket. Cold and empty now.

“Raine?” I said out loud, but she was elsewhere.

The womb-like enclosing heat of the house had ebbed away, but I didn’t want to put my coat back on, didn’t want to banish this comfy feeling and start thinking practical thoughts just yet. I kept yesterday at mental arm’s length. Time enough later. I pulled the blanket off the sofa and wrapped it around my shoulders.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was laid out in a big interconnected circle with a few rooms jutting off as dead ends. I wandered into the front room, poked my head into the disused sitting room, peered around in the kitchen. Was I alone? Had Raine and Evelyn been abducted by space aliens or werewolves or creatures from dimension X?

I raided the fridge. A couple of cheese sticks and a piece of bread kept me going, washed down with apple juice. I unearthed a bottle of mouthwash in the downstairs bathroom, did the best I could without a toothbrush.

At last, I found Raine, in the long back room behind the kitchen, a hiding place for a few modern appliances and exposed plumbing. A long window and a glass-filled door looked out on the jungle of the back garden and the huge tree rustling in the wind.

Raine was sat on an old brokenbacked sofa, staring outside.

“Morning,” I murmured.

Raine looked up in surprise, then brightened into a smile. “Morning yourself. Can’t sleep?”

My word, did she look good. Perhaps it was the low light, or my own state of mind; maybe for Raine it really was that effortless. She’d shed her jacket and left the black polo-neck on underneath, trim and athletic. She ran a hand through her chestnut hair, took a deep breath, stretched. I enjoyed the sight very much. Didn’t say that out loud though.

“Just woke up,” I said. “Quite well rested, actually, I think. Legs ache like crazy though.”

“You haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, have you?”

“I found the sandwich, thank you. What are you doing in here?”

Raine’s smile turned self-mocking with a sideways slide of the eyes. “Watching the back garden in case somebody climbs over the fence.”

“Are we really in danger?”

“No, no I don’t think so. I probably overreacted. But, hey.” She shrugged. “That’s what I’m for.”

“Do you mind if I sit down?”

Raine started to rise. “We should go back to the sitting room, it’s warmer in there.”

“No. I want to sit here, with you. In secret.”

Raine raised her eyebrows. “Sure thing.”

She scooted over to make room. I joined her on the sofa and screwed up my courage.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

“Mm? No, I’m fine. I’ve been up and walking about, and I did nap a couple of hours. Don’t you worry about me.”

“I mean, would you like some blanket?” I flapped a corner of my blanket-wrap at her, heart in my throat.

“Oh! Oh yeah, yeah of course.” Raine failed to suppress a cheeky grin.

I hid my rising blush as Raine shuffled in close, a token amount of blanket draped over her shoulders. She kept an inch or two of personal space between us. A bold, needy part of me wanted to ask her to cuddle, to hug me, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted physical comfort, but I needed something else, something I couldn’t put words to.

“Those people yesterday,” I said instead. “They weren’t dangerous then?”

“Oh, they totally were.” Raine leaned into the sofa and hooked an arm over the back, behind my head. “But they didn’t get a good look at us, and Evee and I have been flying under the radar for long enough they wouldn’t know where to start, whoever they are, Cultists or another mage or whatever. Our local knob-head altar-boys probably know about this house, but knowing doesn’t get you in.”

I shook my head. “So, what now? We all just go back to normal? Forget we saw that?”

“Pretty much, yeah. That’s the name of the game, don’t get involved. Bottom line: you see any of those people again, you don’t approach them. Leave, call me, whatever. Especially the thing in the trench coat, though the smart money says they never let that out in public.”

“What was she?”

Raine shrugged. “Some kinda monster. Bet Twil gave it something to think about. That’s the other reason I reckon we’re alright – Twil’s like the local rabid dog. They’ll be fixated on her, not us.”

“Oh! Twil, she-”

“She’s fine.” Raine fished her mobile phone out of her pocket, thumbed the screen and showed me the call log.

“‘Furry trash bait’?” I read the contact name out loud: the last call, several hours ago.

“That’s Twil. She bit my head off.” Raine grinned. “Guess I deserved it, but she’s fine. She’s back home already, walked the whole way down the motorway embankment and along the train tracks. Totally hardcore, gotta hand that to her.”

“I still can’t deal with the whole ‘werewolf’ thing. It’s so … unnecessary.”

“Don’t about it too hard. You’ll get used to it.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I muttered. “How’s Evelyn?”

Raine turned her eyes to the ceiling, as if she could see through brick and wood and plaster into Evelyn’s bedroom. “Honest truth, I’m not really sure. I’ve known her long enough, seen her beat herself up over mistakes before, but this is different. She wouldn’t even talk to me. Threw her leg at me and all.”

“She … I’m sorry, what?”

“Yeah. She hasn’t done that since we first met.”

“ … excuse me? Did I hear that correctly? The first time you and Evelyn met, she threw her prosthetic leg at you?”

Raine turned a grin on me. “Yeah! Bit smaller back then of course, we were only fourteen.”

I looked away and back again, trying not to say anything rude.

“Heather?”

“What on earth did you do to her to warrant that?”

Raine laughed. “Why have I gotta be the baddie? Maybe she overreacted, you don’t know.”

I gave her a look.

“Okay, you got me. I broke into her house.”

“You did what? This house?”

“No, where she grew up, down in Sussex. To be fair, it wasn’t the first time we met, though it was the first time we spoke. Long story short, I saw her outside – one of the few times she was allowed outside, anyway – because I’d climbed the wall of the Saye estate for a peek. I was actually looking to nick stuff from the garden. It’s this great big old farmhouse, sort of thing you’d be into.”

“What were you doing in Sussex? I thought you grew up in East Anglia.”

“Running away from home. Story for another time.”

“I … ” Curiosity grabbed me. “O-okay?”

“So after I saw Evee outside, I had to know more, I had to know who she was. It’s not every day you see a girl with one leg missing. She wasn’t like she is now, either. She looked a lot more … well, messed up. I didn’t have anything better to do right then, and just the sight of her, made me want to help, you know?” Raine patted her own chest, over her heart. “Stirred my noble spirit and all that.”

“And you broke in?”

“I broke right in, yeah. Dodged her family and the uh, things they kept in that house, and found her. Bit of a crash course.”

“Let me guess. She screamed her head off and threw her leg at you?”

Raine laughed. “Yeah, spot on!”

“I think I would have done the same,” I lied. If Raine had appeared in my bedroom when I was fourteen I’d have thought she was a walking fantasy. “What happened after that?”

“That, well, that’s not really my tale to tell.”

“Oh, Raine, come on, you can’t leave me hanging there.”

“I’m serious.” She spread her hands. “You told me off once before, for breaking your trust, for spilling the beans about you in front of Evee. And you were totally correct, hundred percent, had me dead to rights. I’m trying not to be a hypocrite here. I don’t want to lose your respect.”

“Oh … yes, yes. That’s a good point.”

I was such an awful, intrusive gossip. Raine must have seen it on my face, because she hesitated and smiled. “Short version is I helped her with her family issues, and she helped me not, you know, end up on the streets.”

“I want to know more about you,” I blurted out, then blushed and rushed to correct myself. “I-I mean, about your past, you two. I feel like I don’t have a way into it.”

“You’re already in, Heather.”

I sighed. “Evee said some things about her mother yesterday, I made the mistake of asking a question.”

“Oho. She blew up at you?”

“Thought she was done with me for good. For a moment.”

“She hates her mum. Maybe start smaller than that?”

I eyed Raine, her bright look, her fluffy hair, the way she sat so comfortable and obviously not aching all over like I did. “Aren’t you exhausted? Yesterday afternoon was far too much for me. Is this what you and Evelyn get up to?”

Raine laughed with genuine amusement. “No. Totally not. That’s the sort of thing we try to avoid.” Her amusement faded quickly as she studied my face. “I’m so sorry we messed up, Heather. What I said yesterday, I meant it. I know what that all meant to you.”

I shook my head. “Feels difficult to process now. My sister might be alive, yes, but what does that mean? Grief was one thing. This is … uncharted territory.”

“Your first instinct was rescue,” Raine said. “I’d say that’s pretty damn well charted.”

“Survivor’s guilt. Panic. I don’t know. I left her behind. If … if there’s anything left to rescue … ”

“What’s she like?”

Present tense. Thank you, Raine. Thank you.

“Like me, I guess. We were-” I took a breath. “We are, twins. I was very different, before Wonderland. I guess she’ll be different too, now.”

“Can I see that tshirt again? The one with the writing on it?”

“Later. I don’t want to get up, this is too comfy.”

Raine held my hand under the blanket. She didn’t need to speak. Everything I’d ever wanted in a friend. A partner?

What was I to her?

I was useless, by any comparison I cared to make. Raine was the quintessential action girl, capable and practical, good in a crisis. She was violent, a fact which still sent a strange sexual thrill through me when I thought about it in private. And Evelyn? Evelyn could do magic. She was half-crippled and spiky and acid-tongued and took no nonsense from anybody.

What was I? Weak. I whined about pain and got scared of a little adversity.

“Yesterday, I was worried you might … think poorly of me.” I struggled to express myself. “I could barely keep up. Maisie – she reached out. Evelyn did the magic. You’re heroic-”

“Heroic?” Raine broke her silence. “I’m just an overconfident dyke with a Robin Hood complex. But thanks, that’s sweet.”

I cleared my throat and tried to focus, tried not to blush. “Compared to that, what do I have to offer?”

“Everything,” Raine said.

I looked up into her eyes. No guile there. No humouring me. I shrugged and felt lame, no answer to her sincerity.

“I’m gonna break my word now,” Raine said. “When I first met Evee, she was resigned to her own death. She was terrified of me, of course, but once I broke her shell, I realised there was very little left inside. She was absolutely convinced she was dead within a year, two at most, and she was probably right.”

“ … what? What was happening to her?”

“That’s the long story, the part I won’t go into. It’s her business to share or not. But the important part is that I didn’t save her. I’m just a catalyst. Sure, I might be a hero.” Raine cracked a grin. “It’s cool that you think so, but you’re just as heroic as me.”

“That’s nonsense,” I said. “You did actually save me. Maybe you don’t realise-”

“Heather. Read my lips: I think you’re cool.”

“ … don’t be silly.” I had to look away, blushing and confused. I wasn’t strong, or useful, or cool, or anything else Raine wanted to call me.

Raine was right about one thing: she was a catalyst, for a question I’d lacked courage to ask. I had no more guts this morning than over last two weeks, but now all my defences lay in ruins, frazzled by the last 24 hours and besieged by Raine’s attitude toward me.

With clarity came the risk of rejection. I glanced at her and away again, twice, before I managed the words.

“Raine … do you- do you like me?”

She blinked at me in mock-innocence. “Do I like you?”

I sighed and almost rolled my eyes. “I mean, a-are you into me? I can’t figure it out. Figure you out, I mean. I’m not used to it, used to other people in my life. I never had teenage years to figure any of this out, figure out other girls, navigate … you know. When you told me about Twil, when I thought she was your ex-girlfriend, I … I felt jealous. I-I don’t know what that means.”

A unstoppable, badly suppressed smile crept onto her face. “Do you want me to be into you?”

My heart tripped over itself. “Oh, don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

That. You know what. Don’t tease me.”

“I can’t help myself.”

Raine leaned in close and slid her arm across my shoulders, bringing her face inches from mine. I caught her scent, of leather and hand soap and the subtle spice of her body. My mouth went slack, my heart fluttering.

“R-raine-”

“Heather, I have spent almost every day for two weeks as close to you as I can get without freaking you out. We cuddled on your bed while watching movies. That didn’t give you a clue?”

I felt frozen, hypnotised, heart going a million miles an hour. I managed a strangled whisper. “I … I’m not sure.”

“Yes, you huge idiot, I like you a lot. I find you fascinating, from your face to your earnest, unguarded intellectualism, from the way you tuck one foot up under your lap when you’re concentrating, to the well of courage I don’t think you know you possess. Part of me … ” Raine looked off to one side and wet her lips with her tongue. I felt like a mouse before a snake. I had visions of us doing it – it – right here on this battered old sofa in the soft darkness. My chest tightened. I couldn’t breathe properly. “Part of me wants to show you how good I could be for you.”

She leaned back and straightened up, took a deep breath and smiled. Normal Raine again.

“But I’m not going to,” she said.

“W-what?” I spluttered at the anti-climax, slightly offended in a new and bizarre fashion. “Why? Why not?”

Raine laughed and held up her hands. “Heather, I’m not going to fingerbang you on this sofa, because of exactly what you just said. You never had teenage years. We can take it slow. Know your own heart first. I ain’t gonna take advantage of you.”

“Don’t be so absolutely ridiculous.”

There is no other point in my life, I believe, when I could have done what I did next. Exhaustion made me capable – not sleep deprivation like I was used to, that bone-shattering tiredness which robbed me of all decision making power, but an emotional exhaustion, a lack of any more will to care, a knife through my inhibition and trepidation.

I jerked forward and kissed Raine on the lips.

It was bad. Really bad. Clumsy and short, a fumbling moment of mashing my lips against hers, lucky we didn’t clack teeth. I ended the kiss as fast as I’d started, blushing beetroot red and unable to breathe. Raine stared at me in blinking surprise.

“Well.” My voice trembled. “There you go. Deal with that.”

Raine did. She leaned over me and cupped my cheek. My heart was ready to burst out of my chest. I thought I was going to have a panic attack right there.

“Like this, Heather,” she said.

She was much better at kissing.

When Raine pulled back I had to put a hand to my heart. My breath came out in a shudder. I blinked rapidly at her, then hiccuped. She laughed softly.

“Hey, take it easy, Heather, easy. Breathe, yeah?”

“I am breathing, dammit. Didn’t expect it to feel like that.”

“You sure do know how to inflate my ego.”

“Shut up. Shut up and do it again.”

Afterward, we cuddled on that sofa for a long time, talking about everything and nothing, my head on Raine’s shoulder. We talked about that old house, all of Evelyn’s bric-a-brac, and how Raine wanted to take me clothes shopping. She confessed she’d been up most of the night, prowling the house, checking the windows, waiting for the assault which never came. I told her how much I enjoyed the comfortable darkness, she told me how cute I looked while asleep.

And told me she thought I was brave.

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“You managed to surprise me just now.”

“I keep surprising myself. I … I think I don’t know myself very well, in a way. I don’t feel very brave though. I don’t think that’s in me.”

By the time the first grey fingers of dawn reached across the sky, Raine had fallen asleep with her head tilted back on the sofa.

What had I done to deserve her?

If I’d believed in karma, I’d have rationalised this as payback for all those years of horror. I snuggled closer, but didn’t have the courage to reach up and run my fingers through that beautiful thick hair. She was warm and toned and strong. I recalled her body in motion: Raine with a nightstick in her hands; Raine slamming Twil up against the door; Raine creeping through the shadows last night.

I was attracted to the violence, on some level. Perhaps merely that she could.

Sleep did not return. I snuggled with Raine as dawn struggled to break, but caffeine dependency and my bladder conspired to keep me awake. Wriggling out of her embrace and the blanket was easy, but leaving her behind was not. I tucked the blanket over her legs and up around her chin. She would know, if she woke without me.

Raine hadn’t actually answered my question earlier. She’d kissed me, but were we an item? Did she really like me, or was she just humouring me? What on earth did she see in me? Compared to her I was scrawny and small, weird and pallid, permanent bags under my eyes and more baggage in my soul.

Her damsel in distress. In need of saving.

“You’re far too hot for me,” I whispered.

There would be time for snuggles later, and more if she pushed me. All the time in the world. Right now, I felt strong and empowered, lifted up by oxytocin and serotonin, warm and right and supported.

I could do this.

Raine had my back.

I found a jar of instant coffee in one of the kitchen cupboards, so old it had probably belonged to Evelyn’s dead mother. It sufficed for now, along with another cheese stick. Back in the ex-drawing room, I needed light, so I cracked one of the curtains on the grey morning. Spirit life churned all the way down the road, a hundred unnameable ghoulish forms, mouths full of teeth, ratchet-limbs and slavering jaws, canine packs and slippery lizards. Perhaps this was part of what made the house the most supernaturally defensible place in the city, a vortex of pneuma-somatic life.

The old fear had faded. A decade of terror, gone pale.

I knew why. I’d spoken to one of them, made demands, been obeyed.

Well, that spirit had been largely immobile, frightened of the Demon Messenger. Not some slinking, stalking thing which made my shoulderblades crawl.

I switched on one of the lamps on the drawing room mantelpiece and angled the bulb toward the table, where I shifted some books to clear a space. Evelyn owned some tempting titles between the comic books and old paperbacks: The Conquest of Gaul in Caesar’s original Latin, and a beautiful hardback copy of The Iliad. Time for those later, as well.

I extracted Maisie’s tshirt from my coat pocket. Cradling it in both hands, like the relic of a saint, I carried it to the table and carefully unfolded it, laid it out, tried to think clearly.

HELP

How, sister? How?

Maisie’s tshirt did not smell of her, or of me. I sniffed it again to confirm.

Neither did it seem like it had been subjected to ten years of washing machines and dresser drawers, which at least made sense. The strawberry design was not faded with wear, just utterly filthy. I rubbed the fabric between my fingers. It felt real enough, pills and thin patches and all. The washing instructions on the collar label were clear as day, in English. Tumble dry low, do not bleach, wash with like colours.

HELP, written in black.

Blood? No. It didn’t smell of iron. It had dried hard, more like tar than heart-blood. Were those Maisie’s fingerprints whorled in the substance? Couldn’t tell.

HELP

I lifted the hem of the tshirt and peered inside. A scrap of black caught my eye. I lifted further, turned it inside out.

Found the rest of the message.

Half-mangled in a child’s fingerprint scrawl, nowhere near as large and neat as the single stark word on the front. Horror grew in my chest as I read, tears brimming in my eyes.

‘I want come come out now. please come back and let me out. heather. heather I miss you. heather. where did you go? I want to see the sun again. I want to eat food. I want to stop thinking. stop thinking stop thinking. please heather. please reach. please I love you please. I miss you I miss life I want to leave please let me die stop thinking stop’

The message resumed in a different hand, as if picked up again in a period of stability. A more mature hand?

‘I don’t know how much time I have left. I can’t think clearly when I’m not using the numbers, but with the numbers I know there’s less and less of me every time I think. you probably killed yourself years ago. or maybe you’re in a nuthouse. if you’re not, you’re the last link I kept. no time left.’

Maisie had added a date below the message, 364 days from now, a year from yesterday. Was this her time limit?

It was. I knew. Deep inside, I knew.

I scrubbed at my tears and stopped crying.

HELP

“Okay,” I whispered.

How, I didn’t know yet.

But I knew where to start.

Stuffed in the same pocket as the tshirt was the pamphlet Evelyn had given me earlier yesterday, Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology. If I’d believed in fate, I’d have taken that as a sign, but I required no further encouragement.

That pamphlet was the water and sunlight to the seed of an idea planted in my mind two weeks ago, when I’d Slipped on purpose, when for just a moment I’d forced my spongy, delicate human mind to comprehend the levers of power behind reality’s surface, and yank them toward my own ends.

I couldn’t do that again, I knew. The bruise in my chest would split me in two. To even think it was to invite nausea and pain and icepick headache twinges behind my eyes.

But the pamphlet gave me somewhere to start.

Cracking the pamphlet open right there was a terrible idea. Even a glance at the equations inside stirred terrible nausea. I began to half-plan a strategy of empty stomach and sick bucket. A difficult and disgusting task, but the Fractal protected me from real danger. If I took it slowly, I knew I could do it, for Maisie.

But I was hungry for knowledge now, for a foothold now, and the first time I’d visited Evelyn’s house I’d gotten one short look at a lure designed exactly for somebody like me: the study upstairs, full of books.

Darkness still lay heavy in the upstairs hallway, some of the windows shuttered as well as curtained. Floorboards threatened to creak, and I dared not fumble for the light switch. I didn’t want to wake Evelyn. Not because I felt guilty, but because I figured she really needed the sleep.

I picked the wrong room at first, opened the door on a barren bedroom, just a frame with a mattress, quite sad and lonely. I crept further along the hallway and located the correct door, the one with a brass handle.

Light flooded out as I pushed it open.

Evelyn looked up from the desk. Furtive, blinking, flinching.

“Oh! I- sorry.”

I’d surprised her in our shared natural environment, surrounded by tightly packed bookshelves along every wall, the smell of print and paper in the air. The desk, a meaty slab of wood large enough to sleep on, was littered with notes and old tomes and Evelyn’s notebooks open on page after page of shorthand and diagrams. Two small reading lamps haloed her with light. She was wearing pajama bottoms and a huge shapeless jumper.

“Evee?” The pet name slipped out. She looked like absolute hell.

She sniffed. Her eyes were dry but rimmed with the raw red that only comes from a whole sleepless night of torment. I knew, I’d seen that look in the mirror often enough. She avoided my gaze, showed me a shoulder and shuffled notes around on the desk, just to occupy her hands. She glanced back at me, defeated and sagging.

“Do your worst,” she muttered.

I was completely lost. “ … excuse me?”

“You’re here to yell at me, I know. Get it over with. I don’t deserve any better.”

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