For the first couple of years after Wonderland, after my trip down the rabbit-hole, after losing my twin, after the doctors and the hospitals and the drugs and the dislocation, I did speak to spirits.
Mostly I screamed at them to go away. Twelve-foot figures of dripping neon had stalked the nighttime hallways of Cygnet Children’s Hospital. Often they’d wander into my room, ghosting through the door and crawling up the walls and watching me in bed, too terrified to sleep. I’d scream and rave and the night duty nurse would ask what was wrong, then I’d get sedated and wake up to the same monsters in the hospital’s dark corners the next day.
By the time I returned to school, I’d learnt to believe the monsters weren’t real. Difficult, to listen to a doctor tell you the hallucinations aren’t real, as they leer at you over his shoulder.
I trained myself not to look, not to pay them the slightest shred of attention, to keep my distance. They weren’t real. Don’t address them. They’re not real. Don’t look. Not real.
But once, one time, I held my nerve.
So many years ago, I’d almost forgotten.
It happened at home, on the day after discharge from hospital following a period of ‘improved mental cohesion’, encouraged by my parents’ desire to have me in a familiar environment, to have me with them, to let me be normal.
I was drugged up to the gills on anti-psychotics, and trying very hard to hide that I still saw monsters in the street outside, in the family sitting room, lurking in the kitchen, lurching past my bed as I slept. They hovered around me and clutched at my clothes and I could not make them go away, not so much as squeak, because I’d get told off for being insane.
I held myself together all day long, desperate not to get sent back to hospital. Maisie had never been real – so I thought, back then – but at least if I was at home then I could pretend, I could remember, I could have something to hold onto.
My parents had put me to bed that night, I’d faked sleep, then cried under the covers in silence the way only a lonely, sick child can.
Of course, I had to get up to use the toilet. In the dark. A universal childhood trial by fire.
Except my monsters weren’t only under the bed – they were everywhere.
The spirit in question lounged across the corridor outside my bedroom door, more mouth than body or head, a maw large enough to swallow a cow, stuffed with a dozen different sizes and shapes of teeth. It breathed out fire-fed wind, hot and fetid. Tiny beady eyes had turned to regard me as I’d crept out in front of it, pillow held across my body in the only way I knew how to protect myself.
“Go away. You’re not real,” I’d whispered.
It had humped and slithered and slid like sandpaper on rock, along the corridor and down the stairs, thump, thump, wack, wack – and gone.
I’d never repeated the feat.
“Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t the way to your place,” Raine said.
“Not going home.”
“Okay, where we off to then?”
“ … ”
“I’m not talking to you right now.”
I was more angry at myself than Raine, but I didn’t know how to reverse gear.
Between the fear and my crippling teenage under-socialisation, I had no idea what to do except put one foot in front of the other, until I reached a place I could think clearly. Raine tagging along like a determined hound dog made me feel awful, guilty, but also so relieved, and then guilty again for feeling the relief.
A vicious circle. Bad, under-socialised, self-contradictory Heather. I told myself off, told myself I had to stop and talk to her.
Pneuma-somatic attention did not help matters.
Since the moment I’d shouted at the spirits outside Evelyn’s house, it seemed every twisted monstrosity in Sharrowford had decided to come pay me a visit. Giant slack faces peered over the rooftops at us, packs of wolf-hogs and lizard-foxes raced past as if trying to spook me, malformed limbs unfolded from manhole covers and drain gates to wave in the wind like branches of flesh.
Without the Fractal on my arm, I suspect they would have mobbed me.
“Ahhh, the old silent treatment.” I heard the grin in Raine’s voice. “Say no more, I respect the urge, I know the deal. Been here a few times before.”
I shot her a side-eye glare. “Upset a lot of girls, do you?”
“Oho, silent treatment didn’t last long.” She grinned over at me.
I huffed and folded my arms tighter. My feet led me along the northern length of the student quarter, slow and steady, still achy and wobbly from yesterday’s city-crossing trek. Raine started to whistle, utterly tuneless. No handholding on this trip.
Indigo and cerulean spirit-wisps whipped overhead, the tail-feathers and trailing tentacles of house-sized floaters. Charred, blackened heads of gristle and grit paused in their scurrying to watch me pass. A monster gestured to me from across the street, a combination of sloth and lizard, speaking alien sign-language with paws the size of dinner plates.
“The ghosts and ghoulies are givin’ you lip, aren’t they?” Raine said.
“Ghosts and ghoulies?”
She shrugged, then very gently tried to take my hand again. This time, I let her.
“They are,” I admitted. “It’s … really bad. I think I stirred them up.”
Raine cracked a grin, not at me, but at the dozens of monsters she couldn’t see. “I’ll chase them off with a baseball bat if I have to. Go on, bugger off, the lot of you! She’s mine, you can’t have her!”
The spirit life paid no attention, but an old man looked up from his garden down the street. I flushed with embarrassment.
“Raine!” I hissed, jerked my hand out of hers. “I don’t need your- I don’t-”
Raine raised her eyebrows, genuine curiosity, not a shred of hurt or offence. I swallowed, put my head down, and forged on.
Raine followed me all the way between the library stacks before she made her move.
To be fair, surrounding me with books is one of the more reliable ways to calm me down, which is why I’d walked to the library in the first place. Despite Evelyn’s Spider-servitor lurking in the basement, Sharrowford University Library was still a source of instant comfort and reassurance for me. Most of the spirit life stayed firmly outside, though a few multi-limbed climbers nosed at us in the third floor stacks, bodies like elongated wingless dragonflies as they clambered and peered. I glared at them in turn and they retreated, slunk back to their hidey-holes.
“Even in here?” Raine asked.
“ … what in here?”
“Spirits. Right? They bothering you right now?”
I paused and half-turned to Raine, not sure what to do with her. She’d followed me into a sort of nook at the back of the third floor, at the end of a pathway between two long sets of book racking. The library’s architecture pinched tight before opening out again into a reading area full of low tables and book-return trolleys. Almost empty this time of day, only a few students sitting there, reading and studying. None faced us. Brutalist concrete wall-support blocked the view in the other direction.
“No,” I said. “They … I think I got them to leave. Peace and quiet, except for you.”
Raine stood with her hands on her hips, her head tilted slightly to one side. A strange ghost of a smile played across her lips, as if she knew a secret I didn’t.
“Feeling any better?” she asked.
I shrugged, then stopped and realised what that look on her face meant. My chest tightened.
“Ah, don’t-” I managed to get out. Raine took a step forward, so close I edged back, mouth suddenly dry and heart hammering. She looked left and right as if for eavesdroppers before turning a knowing, teasing smile on me.
“Raine, not here!” I hissed.
“Where else, then?” she murmured. “I can follow you around all day. Unless you straight up tell me to leave, and mean it. Say it if you want, I’ll go. I promise.”
“You’re violating the sanctity of the library!” I whispered. Raine struggled not to giggle. “Don’t laugh!”
She cleared her throat – softly, at least. “Heather, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’d never, ever call you useless. Never even think it.”
I dropped my gaze to her boots. “But that’s what you like, isn’t it?”
I glanced back up and got a face full of extremely confused Raine. She blinked at me, all her smooth words derailed.
“Uh, what?” she said, far too loud.
One of the students in the reading area looked over at us with a frown. I grabbed Raine’s sleeve and pulled her deeper into the private nook, out of sight of irritated library users. Raine apparently found all this extremely amusing, couldn’t keep a grin off her face. I put a finger to my lips.
“Heather, please, please explain, where did that come from? I promise I’m not going to be mad, when- how- how did I ever give you that impression?”
I averted my eyes and bit down on the guilt. “Evelyn, uh, Evee, visited me yesterday morning before we went to the library. We talked. About you. A bit.”
Raine raised her eyebrows and waited. I felt like a terrible friend and a far worse lover.
“She said, and I quote.” I swallowed, needed real effort to squeeze the words out. “That you need a damsel in distress so you can play at being a knight errant.”
“ … ow.”
Raine puffed out a breath and put a hand over her heart. A flicker of genuine hurt passed across her face, the power of her usual grin showing through but battered out of shape.
“Raine? I-I’m sorry, I-”
“Ow, geeze, Evee. That smarts. Damn.” Raine mock-winced between her teeth. “Maybe don’t take everything Evelyn says at face value, yeah?”
I was mortified by the power of my own words.
Apology wouldn’t cut it now. Radical measures were required.
“Oh for pity’s sake, we can’t do this in the library.” I grabbed Raine’s hand and set about dragging her off somewhere I could actually speak my mind.
“Hey, Heather, just breathe, just take a moment, okay? We have all the time in the world.”
I was terribly out of breath. I’d pulled Raine all the way from the library, blushing and flustered at my own decision, and led us up every one of the hundred and seventy six steps of the back staircase in Willow House, to the pokey concrete landing outside the Medieval Metaphysics room. I’d intended to head inside, but had to stop and let go of Raine to put my hands on my knees and concentrate on getting my breath back.
Raine rubbed my back until I could stand straight, but I made a conscious effort to step away from her. She deserved my unencumbered honesty. I did my best to push my hair out of my face and into an approximation of decent order. Raine watched me patiently, thumbs hooked into the pockets of her leather jacket, a curious look on her face.
“I … I don’t even know how to phrase this.” I sighed and rubbed at my eyes. “I’ve never had a conversation like this before.”
“Start wherever you like. I’ll keep up.”
“Why do you like me?” I blurted out. A grin fought to surface on Raine’s face as I raced to cover my tracks. I held up a hand. “Don’t- don’t answer that yet.”
“Okay. I could write an essay on it if you want though.”
“What Evee said – is it just because I’m vulnerable? I don’t want to think that, but I don’t understand what you see in me, Raine. I’m not pretty, or particularly well turned-out. I’m small and scrawny. I’m a coward-”
“Let me finish. I’m not a very interesting person, either. I suppose I’m not a complete idiot but that’s about all I have going for me. I’m no fun to be around. I’m hard work. Look what I’ve done this morning. I don’t get you, Raine.”
Raine nodded, sagely and understanding, taking me very, very seriously. That look on her face was enough to start me on the road to feeling better. I managed a shaky smile, was about to admit I knew I was being unfair on myself, unfair on her, I knew there must be things in me that I couldn’t see. I began to compose an apology.
“Evee’s right,” Raine said.
“ … what?”
She met my eyes without a hint of shame. “I know what I’m into, I know what I find attractive. I can’t help that. I guess it’s a little bit messed up, but likely not in the way you’re thinking. I’d never force a role onto you, Heather.”
My mouth hung open. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You mean you … ” I gulped. A bitter, borderline hysterical smile twitched onto my lips. I hiccuped. “I knew it. You don’t want me to be brave, or-”
Raine shook her head. “Uh-uh. My turn.”
“I’m scared for you,” she said, and put up both hands in surrender. “Regardless of whether or not we make out after this, or never touch each other again, I’m scared for you. I know what the message from Maisie means to you. I mean, hell, Heather, if I was in your shoes I’d do the same. I’d probably already be throwing myself at the Eye. Elbow-deep in it. Probably be dead. I get it – and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
She cut through every extraneous detail, right to the heart. Raine was a miracle, and I was not worthy.
“I’m scared too,” I admitted, sniffed, and realised I was almost tearing up. Raine reached forward but I put a hand out. I had to say this stuff. “But I can’t- I don’t want to be weak anymore, hide anymore. That’s worse than fear of pain. Much worse.”
“It nearly killed you the first time. The brain-math stuff.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to! Maybe it can be mine, instead of inflicted on me. This isn’t all about Maisie. It’s about me, too.”
A change came over Raine. She raised her eyebrows and nodded. “Ah. Ahhhh. There it is. Thereeee it is. You know what, Heather?”
I was trash, I was awful, a coward and a traitor, I left Maisie behind, I didn’t deserve Raine, I didn’t have it in me to hold any of this together.
Raine cracked a grin. “You’ve convinced me. I’m in. I’m on board.”
I shook my head at her, lost.
“Count me in. I’m still scared for you, I don’t want you to bleed from your eyes or chuck your guts up, or worse. But, if I tried to stop you? I think that would hurt you more. So, I’m in.” She shrugged. “After all, protection is what I do. If you’ll have me.”
“That … thank you … ” I sniffed and wiped away the transient tears. “I do, Raine, I want … I like us. I really, really like you, but I still don’t understand what you see in me.”
Raine wet her lips, slowly, and took a step toward me. An aspect of her posture cut me off, the set of her shoulders, the way she moved, a new angle to her I’d never seen before.
“Slow it down, Heather. Lemme explain.”
“Yes, your vulnerability is part of the reason I like you. Not the only part. Not in the sense I want to exercise power over you or dominate your life. That would just make me a scumbag, and pretty unremarkable.” She cracked a grin, leaned in closer, her voice softer and softer. “And hey, I know I’m nothing if not remarkable.”
Raine put her hand against the wall next to my shoulder, boxed me in, emphasised the height advantage she had over me.
“Look at you.” She smiled, bit her lower lip, really looked at me in a way that made me blush hard and bright red. “You’re small and mousy, you’re so careful with what you say, you’re so nervous about almost everything around you. It’s so cute I could eat you. I think I will.”
I spluttered. Very elegant.
“But I won’t stop you from being strong,” Raine said, quieter and softer. She leaned in, dangerously close now. “No matter how much you change, you’re always going to be Heather. Yeah, so maybe you learn to cut through solid steel with your mind, or command demons, or fight a god, but at the end of the day you’re still gonna need a hug. You’re still going to be shorter than me, and I’m still going to be able to pick you up and princess carry you, and you can’t do a thing about it.”
Raine winked – and swept me off my feet.
Literally, she ducked and grabbed me behind the knees too fast for me to react, tipped me back and lifted me up. I yelped in surprise, caught between a put-me-down wriggle and clinging to her for support. Raine laughed and held me up easily, grinning like a mad woman.
“And I would be honoured, lady Morell,” she said. “If even after you have ascended to Time Lord status, you still look to me for that hug.”
I’d never blushed so hard or felt so flustered. One arm around Raine’s neck, the other flailing for outside support, I goggled at her, barely able to catch my breath.
“Oh my God, put me down!”
She laughed again but did exactly as I said, tipping and then depositing me straight onto my feet. I shook all over, but not with fear or adrenaline. A bizarre species of arousal gripped me even when Raine took half a step back, gave me space.
I didn’t know what to do with my hands. One of them had fluttered to my chest, over my heart, but the other seemed this useless blob of meat, fingertips tingling as I gaped at Raine.
“Don’t do that again without warning me,” I managed.
“Can’t make any promises there.” She cracked a grin and I gave her a death-glare. “You loved it, come on.”
No response there. I had, despite my better judgement. She’d made her point incredibly well. She could see it in the way I averted my eyes, the way I swallowed down my growing arousal, the way she made me feel when she handled me like that.
“So, Heather, are we together or not?”
“ … can we be?”
“Because our relationship is off to such a great start, isn’t it? First kiss to first blazing row in under three hours. That’s gotta be some kind of record.”
“You’d have to do a lot worse than that to put me off.”
Raine waited, apparently nothing left to say. I hesitated, still terribly flushed, one moment forcing myself to look at her, the next unable to even contemplate the smug, in-control expression on her face. Was this how relationships worked?
“I … well, I do want to … ”
“Say it. Tell me what you’re thinking. Put it into words, Heather. As clumsy as you like.”
I looked at her. Really looked at her, let out all the stuff I’d barely been able to express even in the privacy of my own mind.
Raine was a masterpiece of athletic femininity. I hadn’t been able to keep my eyes off her these last two weeks. How could she possibly feel the same way about me? From her collarbone to the way she flexed her calf muscles, from the subtle curve of her hips to the feathery chestnut of her hair, she was like something out of one of my teenage fantasies.
She could have anybody she wanted – it was terrible and wrong to think, but a weird, jealous, bitter part of me was convinced she could have any straight girl she wanted, let alone the eager partners she’d find in any lesbian bar. The city did have those, right? I had no idea, I was so isolated and behind and cast adrift.
Anybody she wanted. Big boobs, big laugh, big heart, any quality she desired. But instead, Raine had picked me, a scrawny weird little disaster lesbian with a supernatural sword of Damocles hanging over my head and a growing desire to dedicate myself to a lost cause.
“I’m not exactly a low maintenance girlfriend,” I said.
Raine shrugged. “I don’t give a shit.”
“And you deserve better. I’m not fun, I’m not attractive-”
“You are! Hey, don’t put yourself down like that.” Raine pointed a finger-gun at me. “If we’re going to be together, I’m making an executive decision. Every time you say something bad about yourself, I’ll tickle you for sixty seconds.”
I frowned at her. “Absolutely not.”
She broke into a grin. “Are you ticklish? I haven’t had a chance to test yet.”
“Don’t you dare,” I said, feeling that odd aroused pull in the pit of my stomach again. “Look, Raine, I’m ugly and I’m scrawny, there’s nothing of me, at least not compared to you.”
Raine cocked an eyebrow and looked down at herself, grinned and puffed her chest out. “What, you jealous of my bomb-ass rack? S’yours if you want.”
I gaped at her, blushing terribly, totally overwhelmed. After what felt like an eternity I managed to look away. “I … Raine, take this seriously. I want you, I really do, but I-”
Raine touched my chin. I looked up at her. “If I’ve been taking things too slow for you, too slow to show you what I think of you, we can go as fast as you like.”
She kissed me.
It wasn’t gentle this time.
She all but pushed me against the wall. Raine wasn’t crude enough to shove her tongue down my throat, it wasn’t like that. It was the way she handled me, moved me into position, took charge.
Nobody was around to see, but I was mortified anyway. Mortified and powerfully turned on. When she let me go, I put a hand to my chest and hiccuped twice.
“T-that wasn’t like this morning,” I squeaked. Raine smiled, warm and confident, back to normal.
“Different kind of kiss,” she said.
She gave me a moment to recover. Rubbed my back. Tucked my hair behind my ears for me, gentle fingers against my cheeks.
“Wanna go back to your place?” Raine asked. “Breakfast can wait, Evee can entertain herself for an hour. Or three.”
“Raine, neither of us has showered since yesterday. We’re both disgusting. I need to go home and shower, not … not do anything sexy.”
Raine’s smile turned smug and teasing. “You’re saying we both need to shower?”
“Yes, yes we do.” I almost huffed.
“I can think of a way to save time doing that.”
My heart stopped. I swear, my heart stopped. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to slap her or let her pick me up again.
“ … my-” I squeaked, took a deep breath, and put up as much token resistance as I could muster. “M-my flat’s shower is too small for two people.”
“Showering together?” Raine mimed mock-shock. “Heather, so bold!”
“You said it, not me.” Raine raised both hands.
“You were heavily implying it. You insufferable wind-up.”
Raine laughed, a big good-natured belly laugh. “Well, the shower at my place isn’t the best, but it’s one hundred percent big enough. Fancy a walk?”
My hands shook like doves and my heart was gearing up to fly out of my chest. My face must have been bright tomato red. I’d never done this as a teenager, never fumbled through the first few steps of physical romance, had no idea what the proper etiquette was or how I was supposed to act toward Raine. Weren’t we supposed to, I don’t know, go on a date first?
My body said no. No wait. Now. Now.
I nodded. That was all I could manage. Raine slipped her hand around mine and squeezed.
“Hey, relax. It’s just a shower,” she said.
“Oh, shut up.”
We didn’t even make it out of Willow House before last night caught up with us.
I was far too busy imagining a million embarrassing things involving Raine in the shower, to notice how many steps we took and how many sets of double-doors we passed through. Too preoccupied with the feeling of her hand in mine, my own palms sweating, my heart ready to leap out of my chest, to notice the lack of other students or the eerie quiet in the top floor corridor of Willow House.
Raine stopped before the doors to the main stairwell. I looked up, expecting a flirtatious joke or a teasing wink.
She was staring back the way we’d walked, a frown on her face.
“Uh?” was all I could manage.
“That’s odd,” she muttered.
“What, what’s odd?”
“Corridor seemed longer. Stairwell should have been back there, one set of fire doors back.”
“Oh, Raine,” I sighed. “What are you talking about, it’s right here.” I let out a nervous, breathy laugh. She was as excited as me, losing track of space and time.
She didn’t laugh.
In the stairwell, I stopped laughing too.
“Where are the windows?” I murmured.
Willow House’s main stairwell should have been walled with a bank of windows on every floor, grubby brown glass set in concrete surroundings, gazing down across the main square on campus. At this time of day the stairwell should be flooded with at least weak sunlight and echoing with the distant sounds of other students shuffling or hurrying up and down the building.
Blank white breeze-block wall. No windows. Strip lights hummed.
“Did we get turned around?” I said. A veil of dislocation floated down over my brain.
Raine let go of my hand and stepped forward to peer over the railing. My heart almost missed a beat, and not in a good way. I scurried along after her.
“Huh,” Raine grunted. “Ain’t that unique.”
I looked down, over the railing.
A wave of vertigo rocked me on my feet and swirled through my head. I clutched Raine’s hand and held on tight.
The stairwell extended forever in an endless spiral, down and down and down, until the flickering strip lights gave out and darkness swallowed an impossible depth. Mile after mile of identical repeating steps and banisters. I looked up – the same, a dizzying height repeating into infinity. I closed my eyes and my breath came out in sudden ragged gasps.
“Hey, Heather.” Raine squeezed my hand. She was so calm, so collected, so together. Held me back from the brink. I opened my eyes and saw her perfect confidence. How was she not shaking in panic, how did she deal with that abyss above and below? “Ease down.”
“You can. Hundred percent. When weird shit happens, the best thing to do is stay calm.”
I nodded. I knew that, in theory. “I’ll try.”
She gestured at the alien stairwell around us. “Did you uh, dimension hop us by accident? Got a little too excited?”
“ … do you see blood coming out of my eyes? This wasn’t me.”
“Right.” Raine pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. “Okay, good news, we’re still in Sharrowford.”
She showed me the phone screen: full signal.
I fumbled out my own phone and opened Google maps. It showed us located in Willow House, exactly where we should be.
“The other best thing to do when weird shit happens is call Evee.” Raine held her phone to her ear. I shuffled on my feet and tried not to look at the yawning, impossible abyss as we waited for Evelyn to answer.
“Evee, it- yeah, yeah, it’s fine, I- listen, listen, Heather and I have stumbled into some kind of … loop, in Willow House. Closed space, I dunno, like- yeah. Is this the surprise you left last night, for our cult friends?”
A flush of relief washed over me. This was Evelyn’s magic. Just a mistake. We’d stumbled into a trick meant for other people. She’d wave her hands and mutter some Latin and everything would be back to normal.
I heard some very exasperated noises from the phone. Raine winced.
“Yeah, okay. No, no don’t come here, no.” A long pause. “Yeah. Don’t keep us waiting. Bye for now.”
“What did she say?” I asked. Raine stared at the phone, and I realised she was psyching herself up. She shot me a grin, overlaid on tension.
“This isn’t Evee’s doing. She rigged the door of the Medieval Metaphysics room to give any intruders instant explosive gut pain. Not uh … not this.”
“ … where are we then? Raine, where are we? What is this?”
Raine’s smile died. She fixed me with a serious expression. She didn’t let go of my hand. “You know how I said I’d probably over-reacted last night? That those weirdos probably didn’t even know who we were?”
“Think I may have been wrong. We’re in a trap.”
providence or atoms – 2.11
For the first couple of years after Wonderland, after my trip down the rabbit-hole, after losing my twin, after the doctors and the hospitals and the drugs and the dislocation, I did speak to spirits.
“She said, and I quote.” I swallowed, needed real effort to squeeze the words out. “That you need a damsel in distress so can play at being a knight errant.”
should be “so you can play at being a knight errant.” I think?
Very, very well spotted, thank you.
And the girls still haven’t showered.
Yeah, so maybe you learn to cut through solid steel with your mind, or command demons, or a fight a god, but at the end of the day you’re still gonna need a hug. – remove a from before fight
Loved this chapter. Thank you for writing it.
Nice to see more communication and cuteness.
It’s also good to see a horror scenario where you don’t need to cut the phone lines for it to remain scary. I’m reminded of a short story, Descending by Thomas M. Disch, about a man who visits a department store finds himself trapped in an endless stairwell of descending escalators. I found it inexplicable and unsettling when I read it in a sci-fi collection, although now I reread it the metaphor for credit-card debt seems rather obvious and detracts from the childish fear it once caused me. Maybe these stairs are a metaphor for student loans?