and less pleasant places – 6.4

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Numb.

A weight pressing down on my chest.

Hands quivering, a high pitched ringing in my ears. Ashes in my mouth; the taste of inevitability.

Raine and Twil both spoke, but they sounded so far away, as if I was underwater. I screwed my eyes shut, and when I opened them again I realised I was staring right through Kimberly, still cowering on her sitting room floor.

“When Lozzie was here-”

Kimberly flinched at the sound of my voice – stretched tight, to breaking point. I struggled to focus.

“When Lozzie was here, you saw her- was she- she was … ”

“Y-yes?” Kimberly squeaked, so eager to please.

I squeezed my hands into fists, digging fingernails into my palms. Must stop shaking. My head swam, hot panic forcing its way up my throat. Too many questions, and I already knew the answers. Nowhere go. Nothing I could do. I felt so helpless, a wave of strangled frustration super-heating itself into black despair.

“Heather, hey,” Raine murmured, squeezing my shoulders, trying to catch my eye. “None of this means a thing yet. We all need to slow down and figure this out, okay?”

“What did she do? What did she look like?” I snapped at Kimberly, too hard, enough to make her start in fear again. “Was it really her? Was it her?”

“Heather.” Raine put a firm hand on the back of my neck, fingers in my hair. “Hey, look at me.”

“Don’t you understand?” I whirled on her. “If Lozzie was here, that means-” I stopped short, as if giving voice to my horrified deduction would make it true. I rounded on Kimberly again. “What did she look like? Exactly, what did she look like?”

“Like, um … I-I don’t-” She raised her hands to ward me off. “Please don’t be angry-”

“Did she look like herself? Like the Lozzie you knew?”

Slowly, hesitating, eyes locked on mine, Kimberly shook her head.

“Did she … ” I could barely squeeze the words out. “Like something was pulling her around, like a puppet??”

Kimberly bit her lower lip and glanced at Raine, who graced her with a reassuring nod. “It’s okay, you can answer. Nobody’s angry with you.”

“T-that’s a pretty good way of putting it, yes.”

I shook off Raine’s grip, suddenly claustrophobic and constricted, too hot in my scarf and coat. I pulled them away from my throat. Breathing too fast, almost hyperventilating. Needed more air, couldn’t breathe, had to take action, had to do something. I cast around the room for a handhold, anything at all, my eyes glazing across Twil still at the sink, staring at me, Raine speaking, her words lost to the ringing in my ears, Tenny waving her bunched tentacles, agitated by my panic.

“Lozzie, what have you done to yourself?” I whined, and bit down on my lips to still my voice.

“Heather, hey, hey.” Raine tried to catch my frantic hands as I tugged at my scarf. “Heather, slow down, breathe. You’re having a panic attack.”

“A justified one!” I snapped at her.

“Uh, did I miss part of this?” Twil asked, wide eyed, still flexing her blood-smeared hand to shake off the remains of the knife-wound.

“Could say that, yeah,” Raine answered.

I turned on Twil. “Can you smell if Lozzie was in here? You can do that, can’t you? If she was here a week ago you must be able to pick up her scent. Was she here?”

“Uhhhhhh.” Twil stared at me, frozen, balanced on eggshells.

“Was she here? Twil, please, please try.”

“Heather, Heather look at me,” Raine said, soft and coaxing, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of anything else right now. If Lozzie had been here, then I was right, and Evelyn was wrong.

Twil made a show of sniffing the air, then shrugged, still frowning at me like I was an explosive pressure-plate. “Kinda hard to tell with all the ganja smell, and it was a week ago, yeah?”

“Then she wasn’t? It wasn’t really her?”

Later I felt awful for putting Twil on the spot like that, subjecting her to my wild demands. Desperate for the slimmest handhold, I pleaded for her sense of smell to prove my worst fears incorrect.

“I uh, I dunno. I never knew her for long, not enough to learn her scent proper.” Twil pulled a pained grimace. “Look, I can’t smell Lozzie, so maybe it wasn’t her?”

“I’m not lying!” Kimberly almost shouted. “I’m not lying, I promise, I wouldn’t lie to you. I promise, promise. N-not lying.”

“Nobody’s accusing anybody of lying,” Raine said, and finally grabbed me by the wrists, holding my hands down. “Heather, look at me.”

She used her voice like a steel whip, the kind she never directed at me, enough to make me flinch and obey from sheer shock. I blinked back at her, almost panting.

“Heather, breathe,” she said, soft and serious. “Focus on breathing. You’re in the middle of a panic attack, okay? Just breathe with me, in and out. Slow right down, yeah?”

“Raine,” I whined. “What if I saw the real Lozzie, Outside? What if it was her? What else can teleport between dimensions except her and I? If she was here, if what I saw Outside was here, it must really be her.”

“Then right now Lozzie might need you, and she needs you to be thinking clearly. I know how much she means to you. We will find her, I promise.”

I shook my head. “More than that. It’s more than that. I-I can’t put it into words.”

“I know,” Raine murmured.

And in that moment, staring back at her boundless confidence, she made me believe she knew all my fears, the ones I couldn’t voice, the terror of leaving myself behind. For a moment, she made me believe, and it worked.

I knew she didn’t, not really. But it did work.

“Take a deep breath, Heather. Do it now, okay? Just one, for me, come on.”

I nodded, managed to suck down a deep breath, and another, and another, slowing, steadying. The numb, hot panic began to ebb away. I nodded again, tried to still myself. “I have to do something. I have to find her.”

“We will. But first, let’s get some information, okay?” Raine cracked a smile for me. “Look before you leap isn’t exactly my style, I know, but I think this is your show now.”

I managed another nod.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Twil said, and I turned to see she was addressing Kimberly with a shrug. “I don’t know what this is about either. Second time they’ve pulled this on me, I’m in the dark here.” She gave us both an unimpressed look.

“I’ll tell you, but first I really must sit down,” I said.

Raine raised her eyebrows and pointed a thumb at the kitchen. “Cup of tea, anybody?”

==

Not the most relaxing cup of tea I’d ever had, but it did the job.

Kimberly needed that space and time as much as I did, to calm down, and it provided a good excuse for us to all sit around the little floor-height table and pretend, if only for a couple of minutes, that we were normal people. A group of young women visiting a friend on a Sunday lunchtime, for a chat and a cup of tea.

The truth sounded like the setup to a bad joke: a sociopath, a werewolf, and a mathematician all prepare to interrogate a necromancer.

None of us expected to laugh at the punchline.

Raine made the tea, not Kimberly, who seemed to require every last scrap of courage to merely sit cross-legged at her own table without bolting, though some of that may have been embarrassment at the rather sad state of her kitchen. She only owned two mugs, one of which was badly chipped, so instead I was allotted a measuring jug, and Raine was going to drink out of a cereal bowl.

The waiting was so awkward that – perhaps paradoxically – it helped me calm down further.

Twil stared at Kimberly, grudge written on her face, and Kimberly stared at the tabletop, frozen in fear. Now that Kimberly was no longer waving a knife around, Tenny had decided she approved, and stopped trying to interpose herself between us, wandering off to run her sticky black tentacles over the contents of Kimberly’s flat. I thought it better not to mention Tenny, and I could have stayed quiet while Raine took thirty seconds to brew the tea, but my frayed nerves couldn’t take the tension in Twil’s omni-directional scowl.

“Twil,” I said. “You’re death-glaring. Stop it.”

“Uh huh, am I?” Twil grunted, not looking away from poor Kimberly. She slapped her hand on the table, palm up, flexing the fingers and wincing through clenched teeth. “Still stings like a bitch, you know?”

Her palm was blemishless. Werewolf healing had sealed it up already.

I rolled my eyes. Panic had turned to exasperation – we had more important matters to deal with.

“Hey, so, Kim,” Raine piped up from over in the little kitchen.

Kimberly flinched, eyes jerking up as if to obey an order. “Yes? Yes?”

“If you don’t remember names, here’s some for you,” Raine said, as she filled the mugs and substitute-mugs with hot water over teabags. “The very pretty short one to your left is Heather – she’s kind of in charge, so listen to what she says – and the one with a face like a smacked arse, that’s Twil.”

“Oi!” Twil twisted and barked at her. She waved her hand in the air. “I got fucking stabbed here.”

“So you’re going to sulk, like a big baby?” I asked. Twil boggled at me. “You’re invincible. I assumed you caught the knife on purpose, to spare Raine’s arm.”

“Well, yeah! But it still bloody well hurt.”

“I am so very sorry,” Kimberly said.

We all paused at Kimberly’s quivering apology. In the moment’s silence that followed, I looked at her – really looked at her, for the first time.

She was a wreck, much worse than the scared woman I recalled from the aftermath of the cult’s pocket dimension. Her clothes were clean enough – and actually quite cute, between the unicorn print pajamas and the bubbly, goofy cartoon dragon on her tshirt – but Kimberly herself looked far from healthy or whole.

Her face was pale and drawn, gaze downcast, eyes ringed by dark circles of exhaustion. She’d been chewing and biting her lips, mangling her own flesh in a nervous tic that must have been going on for weeks, spotted with dried blood and half-healed cracks. An irritated scab had formed on the side of her neck, from incessant scratching, and her chin was bruised where Raine had thumped her to the floor. I had the distinct impression her auburn hair was naturally much brighter, as if the colour had been leeched from her.

She looked weary – a weariness that even adrenaline couldn’t shake.

I’d know that look anywhere. Here was a woman who hadn’t slept properly in a long time.

Had we done this to her, or was this the backlash from her own memories, payback for being part of what I’d witnessed in the cavern beneath the cult’s castle? My heart went out to her, but I hardened it a little, on purpose. Lozzie had vouched that Kimberly had never killed anybody, but that was all.

“Yeah, bloody right you should be sorry, you-” Twil barked.

Kimberly shuffled back from the table. At first I thought she was retreating from Twil’s shout, but then, shaking like a leaf, hands clasped tight in her lap, she bowed her head until her face was level with the floor.

“ … you … should … uh, hey, don’t- uh-” Twil trailed off, frowning. “What are you doing?”

“I apologise for harming you, and I’m very sorry for attacking you all. I am very s-sorry.” She swallowed, her effort not quite enough to keep her voice steady. “Please accept my apology. I’m not worthy, and I’m not import-”

“Stop, stop. Bloody hell.” Twil squinted at her in horror. “Don’t do that, just say sorry. You don’t have to grovel.”

Kimberly didn’t move. She stared at the floor.

I think I was beginning to understand her. Perhaps she didn’t deserve my heart to be quite so hard.

“It’s alright, you can sit up,” I murmured to her. “You don’t have to treat us like that, we’re not like the Sharrowford Cult. Your apology is accepted. Isn’t it, Twil?”

“Eh? Oh, uh, yeah. Sure. As long as you don’t do it again.”

Kimberly still didn’t move a muscle, except a hesitant glance at me from the corner of her eye.

“Kimberly, sit up,” I ordered.

She stayed frozen for another moment, then slowly straightened up, blinking at us like a cornered animal.

“Look, no harm done, yeah?” Twil smiled and held up her hand, flexed her fingers like claws. “S’already healed, just like that. Cool huh? Bet you wish you could do that.”

Kimberly nodded. “M-most impressive.”

Raine bustled over with the tea, clacking mugs and substitutes down on the table, settling herself on her knees across from me. Twil gulped the stuff down like it wasn’t piping hot, and Kimberly seemed to rejuvenate slightly after a sip or two. She began to breathe a little steadier. I forced myself to drink, still flushed and unsteady from the panic attack, still trying to distract myself from the million questions and gut-wrenching worries, still a useless lump without a way to help my friend.

“Ahhh,” Raine sighed, big smile on her face. “There, isn’t that better? Nice and civilised now. Best thing about a brew.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to answer properly, and focused on another sip of tea.

“So what’s all this about Lozzie, then?” Twil asked, first me, then Raine. “Is this another one of Evelyn’s big secrets?”

Raine shook her head. “Bit complex. Heather’s seen her, that’s all, or something pretending to be her.”

“Yeah, I kinda followed that part, I think.”

I took a deep breath, trying not to let the panic back in. “Outside,” I said. “I saw her Outside. And she was all wrong. Not herself.”

Twil’s eyebrows climbed. She stared at me in exactly the way I didn’t want to be stared at. “Right. Right then.”

“We don’t know it was really her,” Raine added, for my sake – but it had the opposite effect.

“If she was here as well, that means it’s the same thing I saw Outside,” I snapped, then shuddered as I forced a deep breath. “That means it’s Lozzie. Don’t treat me like a child, Raine. I can deal with this.”

“I’m serious,” Raine said, and I could see she was. “We don’t know it’s really her.”

I had to avert my eyes. My panic had transmuted into anger – a determination to do something. But there was nothing I could do. Hard but brittle, determined but rudderless.

I’d suffered a panic attack once before, in the bath after the failed kidnapping attempt, and I remembered it all too well. The shaking, the replaying memory, the shortness of breath. I knew it didn’t mean I was a coward – though I was, for other reasons – it was a physical response that I had no control over. But this time was different, nothing had happened to me, no bottled trauma bursting forth.

I felt utterly useless.

Useless.

Turned out I was more similar to Raine than I’d always assumed. I’d learnt that over the past few months; to my enduring surprise, I could be good in a crisis – but only when a clear action presented itself. A person to flee from, or run to, a foe to defeat, a friend to save.

But what could I do here, now, for Lozzie?

Nothing. I didn’t even know how to locate her. She was out there somewhere, in God alone knows what state, maybe even worse than dead, and I was sitting in a nice warm room having a cup of tea. I cursed myself for a fool. Perhaps I didn’t care enough, perhaps that was the truth; Lozzie was a stand-in for Maisie, or for myself, and I was terrible. Half a person, and a bad friend.

I had to find her – how?

“You’re the … ” Kimberly murmured, interrupting my rousing self-hate session. She took another sip of tea to steady herself, and addressed Twil again. “Please excuse me for using a crude term. You’re the Brinkwood … w-werewolf, aren’t you?”

Twil grinned like a cat that got the cream. Kimberly was about to stammer out another apology.

“Your reputation proceeds you,” I said. “Lucky you, Twil.”

“Haha!” Twil barked with laugher. “Yeah, you know it. That would be me, yeah. Your lot – sorry, former lot – knew all about me, huh?”

“You did come up in conversation several times.” Kimberly swallowed before adding: “As a person to be wary of.”

“Rarr.” Twil made a silly monster noise and mock-menaced with her hands, laughing. Kimberly managed to pull a very, very hesitant smile.

“Twil’s a huge numpty, she’s not scary at all,” Raine said. “And neither is Heather,” she added before Twil could launch off on one at her. “We’re all friends here now, right?”

“I’m not a numpty, you dick,” Twil muttered.

“ … sure,” Kimberly said, and I saw her throat bob as she swallowed. “Friends.”

“Raine.” I sighed. “Couldn’t you phrase that in a way which doesn’t make you sound like a mafia enforcer?”

“Ah?” Raine laughed. “I’m serious though. We’re taking it nice and slow, having a cup of tea, all friends now.”

“Kim, can I call you Kim?” I asked, and Kimberly nodded hesitantly. “Raine is incredibly stupid sometimes too, and I’m sorry for how intimidating she can be. She didn’t bother you the first two times she came to visit, did she?”

Kimberly glanced at Raine from the corner of her eye, then shook her head. “Not at all, no, not at all. I understand you have to … be sure of me. I just … I just want out.” Her carefully guarded front slipped, her face falling before she took a shaky breath and pulled herself back together. “I’m sorry. I understand.”

“How’s your chin feel, Kim?” Raine asked, and gestured a little too close to Kimberly’s chin with her bowl of tea. “Bumped you pretty bad there, sorry about that.”

“Oh, um.” Kimberly probed the bruise on her chin, which was rapidly turning purple. She suppressed a wince. “No, no I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Raine.” I gave her a look. “I might not to able to speak your private language of subtle physical intimidation, but even I can read that. Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Raine spread her hands. “Hey, I’m sorry, really.”

“You didn’t sound it.”

“It’s okay, I’m okay,” Kimberly blurted out. “Really, I’m fine, please. Please don’t … don’t … don’t fight.”

Raine and I shared a glance, equally embarrassed. A lover’s quarrel, at a time like this? I sighed.

“We’re not,” I said. “I’m scared for my friend, and it’s making me irritable. I’m sorry too.”

Kimberly stared at me, uncertain how to accept that apology.

“Shall we start at the beginning then?” Raine asked. “Take it in your own time, Kim, tell us what you saw.”

“The beginning?”

Raine raised her eyebrows, then looked at me.

I did not feel in charge. I felt lost and useless – but I had to be strong, somehow. Marshalling my thoughts, I tried to start at the beginning.

“What time did Lozzie show up here?” I asked.

“Oh,” Kimberly mouthed. “The … beginning. Yes. Okay. Okay.”

Kimberly’s fragile composure came tumbling down. She opened her mouth, closed it again, swallowed very hard on a dry throat and took a long draft of tea, hand trembling. Nervously, she glanced at our faces, then pointed at her little plastic bag on the table, the one full of dried cannabis, next to the hand-rolled cigarettes on their protective plate.

“May I- I’m sorry, this is very difficult for me. Do you mind if I … ?”

“You wanna toke up?” Raine asked. Twil snorted to herself.

Kimberly nodded, seemingly embarrassed. “It’s the only thing that helps anymore.”

“You can’t sleep,” I blurted out, a moment of true empathy.

Kimberly stared at me. “How did you know that?”

“It’s sort of obvious. I’m not a mind reader or anything, don’t worry. I know the feeling, that’s all.”

“Obvious, mm. You’re right, I can’t sleep, things keep running through my head. Things, um, all the time. I can’t stop thinking about-” She came up short, lost and distracted. “I wish I could delete all memory of the last six months. I’m sorry. I-I don’t want to be blowing smoke in your faces. I can go to the bathroom window, or something?”

“Is that when you joined the cult? Six months ago?” Raine asked. I heard a hint of cold in her voice, though I doubt any but me would have noticed.

Kimberly shook her head, hugging her arms around herself protectively. “No, no, that was earlier, last February, but it didn’t get bad until I realised I couldn’t leave. I-I can tell you all about it, if you like?”

“Lozzie first,” I said, softly, and Kimberly nodded, resigning herself to the task.

“Well, I don’t mind thirty minutes of second hand smoke,” Raine said. “Any tobacco in that?”

“Oh, no, no.”

“What about you two?” Raine asked Twil and I. Twil shrugged, and I shook my head, too focused on thoughts of Lozzie to care right now.

Kimberly bowed her head, muttered a thank you, and plucked one of the hand-rolled cannabis cigarettes from the little plate on the table. She dug around under the plastic bag full of weed and located a lighter, flicked the tiny flame on, and lit up.

She didn’t smoke very much of the reefer – I’ve been informed by Raine that’s the correct term – one short puff to start her off, then a long, deep drag which made the end of the roll-up glow like embers. Kimberly closed her eyes, held the smoke in her lungs, before carefully blowing it out the corner of her mouth, away from us. Still, the smoke filled the air with a heavy, musky scent.

Perhaps it was a placebo effect, but I swear I saw her muscles begin to relax, saw the tightness around her eyes let up, saw her become more human and less a terrified animal. She blinked several times and knuckled at her bleary eyes, then awkwardly offered the reefer to us.

“Would you like some?”

“Nah,” Twil grunted.

“Oh, uh, thank you, but no.” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“I would,” Raine said, “but I gotta keep a clear head on my shoulders. Wouldn’t wanna be all floppy if Stack turns up right now, would I?”

Kimberly’s eyes widened at Stack’s name. Suddenly her gaze flicked up, over Raine, toward her front door. “Did you lock the door? You did lock it, didn’t you?”

“When I made the tea, yeah. Made sure. No worries.”

Kimberly nodded. She took one more long drag, then put the cigarette out with great care, gently stubbing it on the little plate, then pinching the end with her fingers to make sure it had stopped burning.

“Better?” Raine asked.

“Getting there, yes, thank you,” Kimberly closed her eyes again for a long moment, concentrating on the contents of her own head – and bloodstream, I assume. Raine and Twil shared a wry look, but the whole process had fascinated me, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she felt like now, what kinds of pain the drug took away from her. When she opened her eyes again she looked almost relaxed, and younger, her real age, less haggard and run-down.

“Your hair is longer than I remember,” she said to me, voice a little loose, and even managed a small smile. “Suits you.”

“Oh, um, thank you.”

That was the last thing I’d expected. Kimberly was right though, my hair was longer than on our first, brief meeting. My hair hadn’t seen scissors since I’d moved to Sharrowford, getting on for almost seven months now, the ends of my tresses well past the base of my neck. I hadn’t thought about that in months, until a random stoned compliment from a ex-cultist.

Raine laughed. “We’re onto the stoner talk already?”

“I’m sorry,” Kimberly blurted out. “It’s only to take the edge off.”

“Will you tell me about Lozzie now?” I asked. “Please.”

Kimberly nodded. “Are you going to help her? She’s a good kid, she never deserved any of this. I-it’s a good thing you killed her brother. I never thanked you for that. I should. I think.” She frowned to herself, suddenly lost in confused thought.

A lump formed in my throat. “I’m going to try. I have to find her first.”

“Start at the beginning,” Raine prompted softly. “What happened?”

Kimberly sniffed and stared at the extinguished blunt for a heartbeat. “She wouldn’t stop knocking.”

“ … what?” I breathed.

“A knock on the door doesn’t happen much around here, not to me anyway. There’s only a few people who might knock on my front door, and the door frame won’t hold a chain properly, so I have to call out. You know, ‘who is it?’, and hope they don’t decide to break in.” She pulled a weird little smile. “That’s never happened before, by the way, so well done.”

“I didn’t break the lock,” Raine said gently. “Picked it. It’ll work fine.”

“So, I get home from my shift about half five last Thursday night, and then there’s this knock on my door. Right away, like somebody had followed me up the stairs, right behind me. Only I hadn’t seen a soul. I’m very careful. I have to be.” Kimberly took another deep breath, hands gripping each other tight in her lap. “So I called out, but there wasn’t any reply, just another knock. The first couple of times, I thought it was kids messing around, I thought they would run off when I came to the door. So I … I-I stood there, to listen. And I heard this … this breathing.”

“Through the door?” Twil said. “S’pretty thick.”

Kimberly nodded, shaking slightly. “I’ve seen some weird things, with the Brotherhood, things I don’t want to think about again, and when I heard that breathing I knew something was standing out there, something that shouldn’t be. Waiting for me to … to … I don’t know, to stop paying attention, so it could hurt me.”

“What made you feel that?” Raine asked. I couldn’t say a thing, hanging on every word.

Kimberly shrugged. “Intuition? The breathing sounded wrong, like she couldn’t pump the air in and out of her lungs properly.”

“But you opened the door eventually, right?” Raine said.

Kimberly closed her eyes, radiating regret, before she nodded again. “I couldn’t take it anymore. It was dark out, and getting late, and she kept waiting longer and longer between knocks, and then hammering on the door all at once. I figured if it was the Brotherhood, then they’d be more direct, so maybe it was a junkie or something, just somebody from the estate messing with me. Then I got this idea in my head, that maybe one of my thralls had survived, come back to me, just for somewhere to go.”

“Thralls?” Twil squinted at her.

“She means zombies,” Raine said.

“Zombies? Oh, oh, I suppose so, yes. That’s a good word. Anyway, I thought maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. I mean- I didn’t want to think about them again, I-I’m never going to do it again, I swear, I swear to the Goddess. But … at least I could put it to rest. I thought maybe I’d get it safely inside, then call you, maybe Saye could put it down. Send it back? I don’t know how that part works. I was sure that’s what it was, but I was just making myself feel better. I took a knife from the kitchen, hid it behind my back, just in case, and opened and the door. And it was her.”

Kimberly stared at nothing for a moment. The weed and the tea wasn’t enough to hold back what she’d seen.

Lozzie, what had you done to yourself?

“Kim?” I almost couldn’t whisper. “Please, I have to know. She’s really important to me.”

Kimberly swallowed and pulled herself together again. “Lauren- Lozzie, she wasn’t herself. I’d know her anywhere, she was always so sweet to me. She tried to step inside. I didn’t say a word to her, I couldn’t, but I didn’t want her to touch me, not the way she looked, so I just backed up and let her in. I wanted to scream. The knife, that was stupid, stupid, pointless.”

“What did she look like?” I whispered.

“She just stepped inside and circled each of the rooms, it was so weird. Have you ever seen a cat in a new place?” Kimberly jerked round at us suddenly, eyes wide and blinking. “When they don’t know where they are, they’ll circle around the edge of the rooms. It was like that. Mapping? I don’t know, I have no earthly idea what she was doing.”

“Kim, please.”

“She looked wrong, alright?” Kimberly blurted out. “Like you said before, like something else was pulling stings connected to her muscles. I think she was trying to smile at me, but Goddess, it didn’t look like that, she couldn’t pull the muscles right. She walked like a machine, all her parts all wrong, and I was so afraid she was going to touch things, like my bed, and everything would be contaminated.” Kimberly was tearing up, squeezing the words out. “I don’t know why I felt that. She wasn’t human anymore, but it wasn’t like a thrall, it was something else and it was filthy and wrong and it wasn’t supposed to be here.”

“Filthy … ” I echoed, and let the word hang in the air, in my mind, the idea wrenching at the inside of my chest.

Raine reached across the table and took my hand, squeezed hard. “It wasn’t her. Heather, we don’t know if it was really her.”

“She spoke,” Kimberly said. “Once.”

“She spoke?”

“If you could call it speaking. When she finished circling the rooms, she stood right there.” Kimberly pointed at the middle of the floor, staring at me. “Her voice, it was like she couldn’t inflect the words, didn’t know how to say them. In a way, it wasn’t her, you’re right. It wasn’t Lauren Lilburne at all. She said ‘back to school’, and then she left.”

A moment of silence stretched out over the low table. Twil puffed a big sigh and muttered, “That’s some creepy shit alright.”

“Back to school?” I echoed. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, I don’t want to know,” Kimberly said, burying her head in her arms. “I don’t want to to know any more about magic, I don’t. It’s not real, none of this. Please, I don’t want to know.”

‘Back to school’. The phrase echoed inside me, down into the abyssal depths, until it found suitable material with which to resonate.

The Eye, the Eye’s lessons – I’d never questioned before why I thought of them as lessons. Back to school? Had the Eye gotten to Lozzie somehow? Why would it? Why would it care about her? What did that mean?

What if it was directed at me?

A cry for help.

‘Back to school’.

In the black silt-layer of my soul, I began to make a plan. I sent the first tentative mental probes down into that lightless abyss where I buried all those years of the Eye’s lessons, where I tried not to think about them. The first tremors of nausea and the pinprick tingling of a headache reared up slowly, the heads of a watchful hydra, as I posed a question of all that inhuman knowledge: I had to find Lozzie – there had to be way. How?

My fingers strayed unconsciously to the Fractal on my left forearm, underneath my sleeve. Time to dredge the depths.

“What did Lozzie look like, other than the obvious and creepy part?” Raine asked.

“What?” Kimberly emerged from behind her arms.

“What was she wearing? Was she clean? Glowing blue and purple? Rainbow socks?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what surprised me. That’s why I thought she was with you, c-clean, I mean, not glowing or whatever. Taken care of, you know? I don’t remember what she was wearing. Uh, jeans, maybe? A coat? But she was clean. Hair was all brushed. She was even wearing shoes. That’s not like her.” Kimberly sniffed. “Do you mind if I smoke again?”

“Go right ahead,” Raine murmured, more concerned with me than Kimberly. She raised an eyebrow at me, a silent question.

I realised I was sweating, eyes scrunched tight, trying to hide the mad thing I was doing.

“I’m fine,” I lied, then forced a strained smile and a deep breath. “I’m just thinking.”

I wasn’t fine. Even the effort of defining the right question of the Eye’s lessons was enough to make me feel like vomiting. I had a map of the universe in my head – our reality, Outside, everywhere – and the tools to use it, but I could barely touch them without searing my mind with white-hot fire, let alone rummage through them for such a specific purpose.

“When she left, where did she go?” Raine was asking Kimberly. I squinted, trying to think of another way.

“I don’t know,” Kimberly said. “I didn’t follow her. Look, I know I’m falling apart, but I’m not crazy, I wouldn’t have followed her for anything. I locked the door and … cleaned up, and then I hid, alright? In bed. Anyone would have.”

“Mm. Maybe.” Raine nodded, trying to keep it light. “Maybe I would have too. Still, you should have called me.”

“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” Kimberly’s head twitched, on the verge of another scraping bow, but she caught herself at the last second. “Stack came the next morning, I-I couldn’t.”

Finding Lozzie with hyperdimensional mathematics would be the most complex thing I’d ever attempted. This was no bending or breaking of physical laws, no bullet-deflecting or teleporting a handful of dirt. This was metaphysical. How could I even specify her, define her? Her body? Her soul?

Did I have the mathematics to describe the human soul – a particular human soul?

I winced. A spike of pain jabbed into the back of my skull, just from thinking of that idea. Too deep, too toxic, too dangerous. Perhaps I could find the correct equation to define the human soul, but I’d cook my brain long before I got there.

There must be another way.

“Did she leave anything behind?” I asked. The others all looked at me. I sniffed and wiped my forehead. “Lozzie, I mean. Did she leave anything behind?”

“No. No, nothing at all.”

“Heather?” Raine asked.

“I’m fine,” I lied again. “I’m just worried, and … hungry. It’s been a morning, hasn’t it?”

“Why don’t we all go out and get something to eat?” Raine asked, and nodded to Kimberly. “I’ll treat you too, yeah?”

“Not yet. Let’s finish this first,” I said quickly. We couldn’t leave the room now – I had an idea, and I needed to be in here for it to work, or so I thought.

Raine frowned at me. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“I’m fine, Raine. What happened with Stack?” I asked Kimberly, to get the conversation moving again, to take everyone’s attention off me. “She knocked on your door too?”

Kimberly nodded. “In the morning, at dawn. The knocking woke me, though I hadn’t really slept. When I asked who it was, she said it was her, completely open. She said, uh, she said if I didn’t open up, then she’d wait on the estate for me and find me when I came out and … do things, to me. I believed her. She would. She would really do that. She asked the same things you did, about Lauren. And told me not to tell anybody else.”

“Meaning us.” Raine frowned.

“I-I didn’t tell her I’m in contact with you, because she didn’t ask. Believe me, please, if she had, I would have. She only cared about Lauren’s visit, and then she left. Now she … if she knows you came here … I … oh, Goddess, please, I don’t want her to come back. She’ll kill me, she’ll really do it.” Kimberly shook, barely able to hold her reefer without dropping it. “The others, they’ll call me an apostate, be angry, but Stack, there’s nothing inside her.”

My mind was a million miles away, elbow-deep in the mud at the bottom of my soul. I tried to hide it, sit upright, hold back the mounting pain in my skull, resist the urge to clench up around my stomach.

An equation, wedded to the map, not to find Lozzie – but to find whatever was in this flat last Thursday night.

Time, that was definable, I could just about do that without being horribly sick everywhere. Space, well, I had that right in front of me, Kimberly’s cramped sitting room. All I had to do was rewind, track backwards, find that ‘Lozzie’ who was here and use her as a reference point.

So simple, put into words. Just like that, just rewind time inside my head, pinch the loose threads left behind by a passing entity and follow them to their current destination.

It was the most complex piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I’d ever attempted, and I couldn’t even touch each component as I prodded them into place. I’d put it together all at once, when it was ready – and try not to foul Kimberly’s carpet with the contents of my stomach. I glanced up, at her open bathroom door. Yes, I’d make it there in time, it was only a few paces. I’d apologise afterwards. I had to do this now. Lozzie needed me.

Raine leaned back, watching Kimberly’s face with shrewd attention. That’s the only reason she failed to notice what I was brewing. “We might be able to help with Stack, maybe, depending on … well, you see, when you were trying to explain yourself to us earlier, Kim, you said that Stack must have seen you ‘go’.”

Kimberly blinked up at Raine, frozen for a second.

“Ahhh, what’s this?” Twil grinned. “Been up to no good again?”

Kimberly shook her head. “No, no, I-”

“Go where?” Raine asked, low and gentle – and then happened to glance at me. “Heather? Heather?”

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Twil asked.

“Oh,” Kimberly mouthed, and scooted back from me.

I felt a bead of blood leak from my nose and trickle down to my lips. I couldn’t speak.

“Heather, what’s-” Raine’s eyes went wide – she knew what this looked like, by now. “What are you doing?”

“Fi-finding- Lozzie,” I squeaked.

“Heather, woah, woah, stop!” Raine reached for me. I rocked backward, away from her. All I needed was another few seconds.

I nudged that final essential piece into place, that conceptual assumption, the one I hadn’t questioned: who did I need to find? Whoever was in this flat last Thursday.

The definition in place, I saw, as a molten spire of pain erupted up my brain-stem and into my skull. Described in mind-melting hell-math, I saw.

And the thing I’d defined – the thing in this flat last Thursday – stared back at me through the equation I’d built, and caught me looking.

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8 thoughts on “and less pleasant places – 6.4

  1. Prepare for that moment when everything falls apart and we realize that literally everything is just a rather stretched out lesson to better *understand* how the world functions.
    Its letting the kids out in the schoolyard for half an hour so they can spend time forming gangs and do their politics to better learn how to interact with each other.
    The Eye is a good teacher and left some puzzles Heather can play with if she gets bored.

  2. I’m wondering something Heather seems too panicked to think about (with good reason)… what does this thing, this Outsider that got Lozzie, want? It’s acting deliberately to some end- the ‘back to school’ was seemingly a trap for Heather specifically. Is it like the god of Twil’s family, a mind-parasite seeking more hosts?

    Maybe it just doesn’t know what it’s doing is very rude and it’ll leave Lozzie once Heather asks politely. :p

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