“You have to go back,” she told me.
“What? Why? I came such a long way to reach you. And it’s easier like this, isn’t it? No more pain, no more confusion, no more … ” A sigh that wasn’t a sigh escaped lips that I didn’t have.
“I love you. You know that, right?”
“Of course. I love you too. That doesn’t explain why you want me to go back.”
“Because this isn’t living, not out here, not like this. Because if you could see yourself, you’d be sad. It would hurt. You’ve forgotten how to be human. I had to learn that all over again, by watching you. It took me a such long time to figure that out. Years, I think, and then I couldn’t un-figure it out. I’m sad all the time. I don’t want you to be sad too, I don’t want you to end up like me.”
“ … I won’t be sad if we’re together.”
“We’re not. Not really. It doesn’t count.”
“Why not? I can hear you, we can talk. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Because I can’t touch you. I can’t hug you. You haven’t been like this long enough to miss it – but you will. I want to snuggle up in bed together, like when we were little, warm and comfy and … and … soft? I forget what those are, but I know I want them. I want to hold your hand and feel sunlight on my skin. I … I don’t recall the taste of food very well, but I think I want to eat. Chocolate. Oranges. Those little dolphin sweets mum used to buy. Tomato soup. Crusty bread. I want to skin my knees and bite the inside of my mouth by accident and get my heart broken and have my first period and stub my toe. Please, please go back, you can’t stay like this.”
Her voice whispered through a crack in a concrete wall, a hole no larger than my thumb. In the dark.
“But I came all this way, for you. To see you. It was so difficult. Can’t we stay like this?”
Silence, in the dark, in the cold.
“ … where’d you go?” I hissed into the crack.
“I’m here. No, no we can’t stay like this. I’m so tired. Running out of words.”
“This is making you tired?”
“More than you can know. I’m using everything I’ve got, because I have to convince you to go back.”
Pain. Pain in an organ I didn’t have, heart-pain in a heart that was worlds away. “I’m- I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, I-I didn’t mean to hurt you, to make it worse. I’m sorry, I only wanted to see you. I miss you, I miss you so much, I’m not a real person without you, I-”
“I know. It’s okay. I love you.”
“You’re going to be okay, aren’t you?”
“No. I have to sleep soon, to save what’s left.”
“What if I wait here? I’ll wait for you to wake-”
“No!” A cry in the void, an echo from her prison cell. “No, you still don’t understand. It’ll know about this crack soon, it’ll find this hole and stop it up. You have to come get me, but not like this. Not like this.”
“Then I’ll … I’ll break the wall down, I’ll get stronger, I’ll-”
“You’re the only reference point I have. If you stay here, like this, I won’t have anything to hold onto to keep me … me. You’ve had experiences. You got to grow up. All I have is our childhood, and that’s hazy now. I’m basically just you. If there’s no you, there’s no me. You can’t stay.”
“But- But I-”
“Heather, please go back.”
“I’ll come back again, stronger, cleverer, I-”
“I’ll be asleep, and the hole will be gone. If you try this a second time I won’t be here to send you back, to remind you what you are. We can only talk like this because I made the hole. It took so long, and I can’t even get my hand inside it. Don’t try this again, please Heather, please.”
Tears ran from my eyes. My chest hurt. Her words had kindled a strange alchemy inside what I’d become, returned my sense of pain, of recognition that there existed desires other than her, destinations other than this crack in a wall in a cold dark place.
She’d hatched such a little plan, spent all this time making such a tiny hole, and she’d used it up for me. And I didn’t have the strength to get her out.
Sniffing, crying, pain wrenching at my chest, I asked, “How do I … I don’t know what to do. What do I do?”
“Look to what you have: everything I don’t.”
“I don’t have you,” I sobbed.
“You have a body. You have strength. You have a heartbeat and it’s so strong.”
“None of those help, none of those mean anything to-”
“You have friends. Comrades. Allies. Ask for help.”
“Help? But nobody else can do this, only-”
“Heather, you don’t have to do this alone,” she whispered. “You can bring me back, I know you can do it, before I run out, before there’s nothing left of me – but not alone. Don’t do it alone.”
Leviathan shapes drifted behind me in the abyss, vast intelligences out there in the gulf I’d crossed to reach her. Most ignored me. Others heard my sniffling and sobbing, noticed the change, noticed me. I grew spines and envenomed stingers and poison colouration and toxic flesh and fanged mouths in my back: you don’t want to eat me because I’ll spoil your appetite. A few more moments, I’d fight Gods for a few more moments with her.
I sniffed hard. It hurt to acquiesce. I nodded, then remembered she couldn’t see. “Okay. Okay, I’ll try. I’ll miss you again.”
“Go back for her, if not for me.”
“Her, or her, or her? I’m not good with names anymore. I can’t match them to people. Her.”
I searched inside myself for names, and found them protected by a pressured cavity lodged in my core. I’d forgotten about that.
“ … Raine? Lozzie?” I tried. The names were alien things, meat things, ape things. My things.
“Raine. That was the one?”
“Raine, maybe?” I turned the name over, laughed through my tears. “Oh, yes. When I bring you back, Raine’s going to be so confused. Two of me. Too much for her to handle.”
She giggled too. We both meant it, even through the sorrow of parting. “I wouldn’t mind that.”
“I’ll come back for you. I promise I’ll come back for you.”
“But not like this.”
“In my own body, yes. I promise. I’ll come back for you, in my own body.”
“Bring your friends. They can help.”
“I love you. I miss you, Maisie.”
“I love you too.”
Of course, that wasn’t how it happened at all. There was no lightless abyss, no hole and no wall, no voice to whisper and no ears to hear. We didn’t use words, we used mathematics. We spoke in the language of atomic force and gravity, of starshine and photons, but I can’t tell you about that. I can’t even tell myself about that.
My fragile meat-brain rendered it down; I remember a crack in a wall, whispers, and crying.
And her advice.
The return was worse than the journey out.
The abyss between the spheres of reality is endless and dark, a place of horrible hungry things that hunt forever in pitch blackness, of predator and prey hiding and slinking, of silent filter-feeding giants and the echoes of alien thought carried on the currents. Small darting mouths of bottomless starvation, formless crab-hounds that seep through the angles of time, hunters of morsels of stray unwise thought and sensation across the gaps in creation, all of them catching my scent in the water and turning to stalk. Fleeing wisps, lost on the tides, desperate for the warmth and sanctuary of physical form, clutching at my ankles and moaning for help. Things vast and slow, thinking vast slow thoughts in trailing tendrils to entrap the unwary, eating, eating, always eating, growing bigger and thinking harder and trying to make themselves real.
Once, a long time ago, the Eye had begun life as one of those giants.
Perhaps unwise fools had summoned the Eye into flesh, or maybe it had just grown big enough to haul itself out of the abyss and into reality, but it had started life as one of these, in their infinite and terrible variety. I learnt that by observation, because I had to. Because out in the void one must watch and wait and be silent, to learn the ways of the things that would eat you.
The return was harder because now I also remembered pain, I recalled what it was like to feel. She’d used her precious scraps of energy to remind me what I really was.
But in this non-place I was agile, in a way I never had been when cast in mere meat and bone.
Tiny, yes, the smallest of the small; but I was clever, and so very fast. Darting and dipping and diving through the abyssal waves, I was grace and speed, wire and sinew, flight and fight.
Poor scrawny Heather, that clumsy blunt fingered ape I’d once been and would be again – she’d chase this feeling for the rest of her life.
I swam like a seal, grew flippers to steer, fins to catch the currents, tentacles to pull myself along the rocks; I opened feathered gills to suck oxygen from the clear cold and slid them sealed to pass through the toxic effluvia of the leviathans; I taught myself anaerobic processes, seeded self-contained reactors to blossom inside my belly.
I ate coral and bacterial slime from the oases of geothermal vents, cracked open mollusks for cold wriggling meat, covered myself in mucus and bottom-feeder ooze to blend in with the ocean floor; I flickered nictitating membranes across my eyes in the murk to blot out the false lures of bio-luminescence, sprouted suckers to anchor myself to trench walls, hard scales to ward off opportunistic hunters, quills and spines and venom sacks to defend myself; I turned at bay and hissed with maws full of needle-fangs and rings of jagged teeth.
Because Maisie had told me to go back.
Because I trusted her more than I trusted what I’d become.
Because I’d screwed up and made things worse for her, because I’d been a boneheaded stubborn idiot who thought I could do this alone, because she’d spent the last of her energy, down to embers, just to convince me to exist again.
Because – Raine? Lozzie? Evelyn? Who were these people? I’d protected these names in a pressurised cavity in my chest, a bubble of reality in a place that was anathema to reality, but I didn’t understand why.
More than once I almost jettisoned that air-sack, to escape a pack of predators or free myself from the trap of some floating jellyfish net. Stings and fangs and claws and paralytic toxins, I protected it from all of them, because she’d given me the idea it was important.
And because I liked this Raine. She liked me.
That was an alien idea in the abyss. Didn’t fit the logic of predator and prey. I examined that concept over and over during the journey, played with it during the long silences in the lonely dark. I began to like it, in an abstract sort of way.
When I was almost there, exhausted and colder than cold, so close I could see the faintest hint of shrouded light from above, I swam straight into a mouth the size of a world.
Krill to a whale.
I grew parachute-brakes of flesh to slow myself, scrambled back, kicked at the water with fin and flipper – it shot out a mass of tentacles to squeeze me, drag me down its gullet. I reinforced my bones with iron, covered myself in scales of metal – it burned through me with acid, eating me alive. I sprouted urchin-spikes and filled them with neurotoxin – it battered me with club-sized cilia, knocked me senseless, digested me from the tail up.
Almost gave in. So tired. Why fight so hard just to return to a world where I was small and weak and hurt all the time?
Because if this leviathan digested the contents of my pressurised heart – the knowledge of those names, of Raine and Evelyn and my friends – it would know where to find them, it would learn how to go there. Would our reality end up like Wonderland?
Too abstract, here in the void. The fuel of kindness and curiosity ran out.
No, I fought because my twin sister had told me to.
In the end I used tooth and claw. I bit. I ripped. I chewed. For every pint of me it drained, I took a pound of flesh. It let me go eventually, abandoned this morsel to the cold currents; I’d proved too much work to eat.
Bruised all over, missing mass and limbs and bleeding into the dark void like a beacon for every predator to follow, slow and limping and in so much pain, I reached the edge of infinity. I found the membrane.
Collapsing, passing out, giving it one final push, I crossed over.
I went back.
‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world,’ my eyes read, tripping along the page mid-blink. ‘Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now-’
A gasp ripped down my throat and into my lungs – real air into real lungs, obscene wet sacks of folded flesh I felt inflate inside me.
I dropped the book on the tabletop with a clatter, blinded and confused in the sudden bright light, unaware of where I was, when I was, what I was. The meat on my face worked up and down, the meat in my throat vibrated the air. Sounds emerged, meat sounds: “Wha- what- wh-” Couldn’t remember how I’d got here, where I was a moment ago, what I’d been doing.
Awake, from the worst sleepwalk in history.
“Heather? Heather?” A familiar voice – a warm voice, tight with urgent worry – said my name.
My name! That’s you, declared the meat in my skull. Welcome back. Kept your seat warm, all lights in working order. Sorry about the cobwebs.
Hands had dropped that book, fleshy pink fragile hands with fingers like wriggling articulated worms. My hands, shaking in front of me. I looked down at the logical conclusion to those hands: arms, and the rest of me, the soft machine hidden inside skin and a baggy black tshirt and pair of plaid pink pajama bottoms. A messy glugging biochemical factory, the shore upon which I had cast myself, the human body.
“No … no, no no no.” I lurched back and staggered up from the kitchen table, sent my chair crashing to the floor. Uncontrollable shaking gripped my arms as I stared down at myself. “What is this, what is this?!”
“Heather!” A figure shot up from the table, turned and shouted. “Evee! Heather’s doing something!”
“This isn’t me, this isn’t me,” I hissed, then swallowed – a big mistake. The muscles of my throat bobbed, my oesophagus squeezed. I’d never felt such disgusting motion.
“Heather, hey, Heather look at me, look at me,” the kind voice said. Firm but gentle hands took my shoulders and held me steady, but I was too busy trying to close my throat, re-route the pipes, redefine the slick wet meat as something else, anything else. But my flesh wouldn’t obey, this body wouldn’t change.
Stuck like this. I started to hyperventilate, hiccuping and crying and stumbling on clumsy ape feet.
“Heather, you’re safe, you’re at home.” The voice turned away to shout again. “Evee, get down here!”
“This isn’t me. This has to come off.”
I reached up to rip the skin away from my face and throat, to get at the machinery inside. It would be difficult with these blunt nails, but I couldn’t stand this feeling. I’d go mad.
“Heather, look at me,” Raine snapped, just in time.
The whipcrack of her voice triggered a cascade, a spark deep in my belly, and deeper, between my legs. The ape, the body, my body, could not disobey that confidence and power, so I looked up. For a moment I saw only another hooting ape, an ugly thing puffing out carbon dioxide and leaking pheromones, full of folded meat and packed with rotting shit. Behind the ape, the space was wrong, the angles too small, too constricted, too neat, like I was trapped inside a tiny box.
The cascade rocketed up my nervous system, from crotch to gut to spinal column to lizard brain to burst in my neocortex.
I blinked – and saw Raine in the morning sunlight. The yellowed remains of a days-old bruise ringed her left eye socket. We stood in the kitchen in Evelyn’s house, in Sharrowford. England, planet Earth. My dog-eared copy of The Hobbit lay splayed on the table.
“Hey.” Raine grinned at me, not quite certain. “Heather? Are you … here?”
“ … Raine. I- where was I-”
To frame the question was to invite the memory, and the memory was impossible. A misericorde of pain stabbed through my eye sockets and into my brain, as my fleshy thinking meat failed to integrate the memory of how I’d gotten here, where I’d been five minutes ago, what I’d been. In a desperate measure of self-preservation, my imagination wove metaphor and sensation from what little it could understand, rendered the experience down into physical terms – the abyssal ocean, the dark, and the cold.
I doubled up in Raine’s arms and vomited onto the floor, gagging on alien thoughts.
“It’s okay, it’s okay Heather, you’re okay.” Raine held me up, steered me toward the sink with confident strength. “Get it all out if you have to, don’t worry about a thing. I promise you’re safe, Heather, I promise. It’s alright, it’s alright now.”
“No, no it’s not, it’s not, it’s not-”
I spat bile and hauled myself upright, panting and reeling and slurring the words in my raw throat.
“She doesn’t need another bath, Raine,” a second voice drawled from the kitchen doorway, unimpressed and snippish. Evelyn, in a patched cream jumper, her hair tied up in a ponytail. She clutched her walking stick, and the matte-black ankle of her exposed prosthetic leg peeked from under the hem of a long skirt. She frowned, a look I knew so well. “She clearly doesn’t want it, but I know you’re enjoying every excuse to strip an unresisting-”
“ … Evee,” I whined.
She slammed to a stop, mouth open. “Heather?”
“I think it’s her, it’s actually her!” Raine burst into a grin. “She’s come round, I told you she would.”
“And she’s made an impressive mess on the floor,” Evelyn tutted. She clicked her fingers at my face, once, twice, three times. “Heather, Heather are you in there? Oh, thank God, you are, aren’t you?”
“I came back. I came back! Oh- oh.” My mouth gaped open, silent tears on my cheeks. “I spoke- I spoke to her.”
Cold bloomed in my chest, the cold of the abyss, an abscess in my soul leaking into my flesh. I gasped as if plunged into ice water, teeth chattering, heart racing, blood vessels constricting. I shook, sudden and violent, and sagged in Raine’s arms.
“What’s happening to her?” Evelyn snapped.
Raine worked it out. She always does. Trust her to read me with perfection, she knew my body better than I did. She slipped a hand over my forehead and pressed down. My eyes rolled in their sockets. Felt like I was about to pass out.
“She’s gone freezing cold. Radiating it. Heather, don’t close your eyes. Focus on me. Look at my face.”
“What did you do to her?” Evelyn barked.
“Nothing. She wasn’t like this when I put the book in her hands. Heather, look at me. Open your eyes.”
“B-b-brought i-it b-b-back w-with me,” I chattered.
I’d brought a piece of the outer cold back with me, a moon rock from an alien planet. This, I realised with an insight born of my journey in the abyss, was what I’d been doing every time I’d used hyperdimensional mathematics. My body and mind and our reality was like a sealed arcology, a haven of light and life, and beyond lay only the void, cold and dark and full of predators. Every time I did brainmath, I stepped out into that icy wasteland and let pieces of it back inside with me. The inhuman, crammed into my tiny body.
My eyelids fluttered. The edges of the world went dark.
Raine didn’t waste time on explanations. She swept me off my feet.
She sprinted to the stairs and leapt up them three at a time. I barely felt it, numb and insensate as Raine shouldered the bathroom door open and held me upright under the shower, no time to undress, our clothes soaked through as soon as she spun the taps on. She held my mouth and nose clear of the stream of steaming water, soaked my icy flesh with heat, rubbed my back to force sluggish blood through my veins. Slowly, painstakingly, with infinite patience, Raine spared me the oblivion of hypothermia.
Twenty minutes later I sat waist deep in warm water with my arms wrapped around my knees, still shivering. Raine perched on the edge of the bathtub, unconcerned that her own clothes were sodden and dripping all over the floor. She massaged my shoulders with one hand and aimed the shower head at my back with the other, rinsing me with a constant stream of water like a dredged ship.
Lozzie peered over the lip of the tub, sad-faced, occasionally murmuring my name.
“You do know … you are aware … Raine, you … ” Evelyn failed to begin a sentence, several times. She stood by the sink and frowned at me with naked fascination. “Immersion in warm water isn’t … ”
“Not the recommend treatment for hypothermia.” Raine shot her a half-grin. “Evee, this ain’t regular hypothermia. Heather? That’s it, keep your eyes open, look at me, it’s going to be okay. You’re already feeling warmer, you’re gonna be fine.”
Praem had trailed Evelyn into the bathroom, arms loaded down with fluffy towels, spare clothes, and for some inexplicable reason, a bottle of vodka. She waited, prim and proper in full maid uniform, her back ramrod straight. Kimberly peered around her side, biting her bottom lip, eyes wide at the sight of me.
“Make yourself useful,” Evelyn snapped, and sent Kimberly off on an errand downstairs, for painkillers and food.
I couldn’t stop crying.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay now, Heather, it’s okay,” Raine murmured. “Just focus on warming up, that’s your job right now. You’re safe, you’re home, nothing’s going to hurt you here.”
“I spoke to her,” I sobbed again. “Oh God, I spoke to her and I screwed up, I did it all wrong. Wasn’t supposed to go. I’m such an idiot. Idiot.”
“Spoke to who?” Evelyn asked.
Raine shot her a look. Evelyn averted her gaze, shaking her head.
“I made it all worse,” I squeezed out through the tears and the heat and the steam. “She spent ten years – ten years! – making this tiny little hole. It was so small. Ten years. And she had to use it for me because I’m an idiot. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I buried my face in my knees.
“Heather, it’s going to be okay-”
“I made it all worse,” I sobbed to myself. “I made everything worse for Maisie.”
The house fire on Barrend road had made the national news, after the flames were doused and the fire brigade sorted through the charred corpses. A major criminal mystery in a sleepy Northern city. Millions of pounds worth of property destruction, a bizarre mass suicide, proof of arson, possibly a petrol bomb, and the owner of the house couldn’t be found – a one Mr. Alexander Lilburne, missing, presumed among the dead.
A formerly disgraced local police detective – Sargent Nicole Webb – had become the unlikely hero of the moment. She’d been passing by and gallantly rushed into the burning building to pull a survivor to safety, the only living witness of what had transpired inside.
The local newspapers loved that.
For weeks they carried headlines like ‘fire horror – a British Jonestown?’, ‘true numbers will never be known’, ‘hero copper says “Just doing my job”’, and ‘police appeal for information on shadowy religious sect.’
The incident warranted a single minute-long segment on the BBC news. Two inches on the second page of the Telegraph.
And then the world moved on.
I recalled none of it. Only Maisie, and the abyss.
“Only four days?” I croaked. “Felt like years, like I was gone for years.”
“You weren’t ‘gone’ at all,” Raine said from next to me on the bed. She shared a glance with Evelyn, who stood by with her arms crossed.
“What are you looking at me for? Tell her,” Evelyn huffed. “She saved our lives, I think she deserves all the grisly details and I’m sure she can handle them. Can’t you, Heather?”
“Mmm.” I took another bite of chocolate cookie.
Raine shrugged wide, good-natured, and smiled as I caught her eye. “You’ve been right here the whole time, in body at least. Otherwise I would’a been a bit more panicked. Would have enlisted Lozzie to go find you, out there beyond the final frontier and all that.”
“Final frontier … where no Lozzie’s been before,” Lozzie mumbled in her half-sleep, one hand in my lap. She’d curled up around my side like a dozing cat. I reached down and stroked her hair. She closed her eyes again.
“Cut the editorialising,” Evelyn sighed.
I finished off my cookie. “I like the editorialising.”
“See?” Raine shot a wink at Evelyn. “She knows what she likes, and that means me.”
“Yes, yes, we can tell it’s definitely Heather now,” Evelyn drawled, “because you’re rapidly becoming insufferable. Tell her, or I will.”
“Alright, alright,” Raine put her hands up in mock-surrender. “Heather, it wasn’t until we got out of that house and back to the car that we realised you were looking sort of vacant. Praem and Zheng knew right away, but hey, you were upright, you were walking, you answered when I spoke to you. We were a bit more concerned with skedaddling out of there before the fire went up and got the whole street out for a gander.” She sighed, an almost sad taint in her smile. “I should’a noticed.”
“Not your fault,” I mumbled around another mouthful of food. “Middle of a crisis.”
“If you say so, boss. You’ve been like a zombie since then. You’d eat if given food, sleep if I put you in bed, spoke when spoken to, but not a lot else. Had to give you a bath yesterday, ‘cause you wouldn’t wash on your own. Left to your own devices you just … stared into space.”
“Except the homing behaviour,” Evelyn muttered.
“That bit was cute, I gotta admit.” Raine attempted to not smirk. “If I left you alone for long enough, you’d come find me. Even mindless, you know who’s good for you, apparently. Did spook me the first night. Had to get up to use the toilet about one in the morning, and when I finished up and opened the bathroom door, there you were, standing in the dark, waiting for me.”
“Spooky Heather,” Lozzie mumbled.
“Spooky,” Praem intoned.
“Raine is lying,” Evelyn said. Raine did a double-take at her. “There was nothing ‘cute’ about it. I have no idea how Raine could stand to look at you. I’m sorry Heather, but I couldn’t. There was nothing behind your eyes, nothing in there.” She swallowed. “I am exceptionally glad you are well again.”
I shuddered inside. “I wasn’t here. Not really.”
“Then where were you?” Evelyn asked, her voice quiet and intense, but not with the professional interest I expected. “Astral projecting? Outside? I still don’t understand this marine metaphor, I-”
“Not Outside. In the spaces between.”
Evelyn frowned harder. I stared back at her, too emotionally wiped out for embarrassment or sheepishness.
“Your map – your mother’s map,” I said. “It’s accurate but incomplete. It maps the world, here, and all the Outside dimensions, but it misses the … aqua incognita. The space between. An abyss.”
“ … what was it like?” Evelyn breathed.
“Evee,” Raine said, warning sharp. “Why don’t we drop this line of-”
“Like an abyss. Cold and dark. An ocean. I was … I swam.” My jaw quivered. Silent tears ran from my eyes again. Shivering, and not from the cold. “I was so graceful. It was beautiful, and terrible at the same time. I can’t- words don’t-” A gasp, a heart-sick pain. “A little bit of me wants to go back. I’m sorry.”
What little I could grasp I owed to my twin’s efforts to make me human again. I’d lost everything prior to her whispers in the dark, but I’d brought back an unnatural longing.
“No.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “I’m the one who should be sorry.”
“I think you were right here,” Raine announced with a confident lift of her chin. “I think you left an anchor-line behind, Heather, whether you know it or not. You know how I could tell?”
I shook my head, sniffing back the tears, brought back to myself by the feel of Raine’s hand worming its way up my back, warm contact driving away the memory of being something other than flesh.
“When I put a book in you hands,” Raine said, “you read it. You turned the pages, and put it down at the end. Something of you was in there. Why else did you follow me around?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes.
My chest was getting tighter. Couldn’t figure out why. After a moment I took a breath and surprised myself, filled my lungs again.
“Heather?” Raine stroked the back of my hair.
“I keep forgetting to breathe.”
Evelyn and Raine shared a glance.
“Breathe,” Praem announced, bell-clear, from her post by the door.
“Yes, yes don’t … don’t forget to breathe. That tends to be important,” Evelyn said slowly. I felt Raine tense with worry next to me, no matter how well she hid it.
“I won’t. Won’t forget. Body has to catch up.”
The tray in front of me presented too many options. Another chocolate cookie or a big sausage roll? I decided on the latter, bit into pasty and pork, chewed slowly as my friends watched me like some alien replacement deposited in their midst.
After Raine had helped me from the bath and wrapped me in dry clothes, she’d settled me on the bed and tucked me up in blankets and duvets. A cocoon for the larval thing I’d become, to incubate the soul I’d brought back.
Food had repulsed me at first. Fat and protein and carbohydrate were just fuel for this ugly, clumsy, slow ape I’d returned to. I didn’t deserve to eat, I deserved guilt. Warm and safe and embodied, while I’d left my twin sister to the outer dark. Again.
But my body had demands. The tyranny of biology would not be denied.
I couldn’t stop eating.
Chocolate biscuits, sausage rolls, oven chips. I craved oranges and oatmeal, inhaled an entire packet of cheese, swallowed three peanut sandwiches and wanted more. My stomach rumbled and my blood sugar rode a roller-coaster. I needed more than we had on hand in the fridge, but didn’t want Raine to leave my side.
Evelyn sent Praem on a shopping trip to the nearest Tesco Metro. The doll-demon returned with an armful of microwave curries and instant rice and chicken strips and bagged baby carrots. I ate it all, downed two cups of coffee and three of tea and drank enough apple juice to give an elephant diarrhoea. I ate all morning and most of the afternoon while we talked, immovable from my spot on the bed, shovelling fuel into my face.
Couldn’t fill my stomach no matter how much I ate.
Between food and Raine’s skinship, I felt more and more alive as morning turned into afternoon. Twitchy and fidgety, as I reached inside my duvet igloo to rub my thin muscles, run a hand over my abdomen and hamstrings, as I felt the echo of a lost glory my flesh would never fill.
And I was gripped by the most bizarre and inexplicable desire – to swim.
Hadn’t swam since I was eight years old, with Maisie.
I finished my bite of sausage roll, and noticed the odd look in Raine’s eyes as she watched me. A lump formed in my throat.
“ … do I seem different?” I asked, afraid of the answer. “Am I different now?”
A terrifying pause. But Raine did me credit, took me seriously. She nodded. “Yes, a little bit, like you’re thinking about stuff in a way you haven’t done before. But that’s what happens in life. I told you, Heather, I told you months ago, I’ll still be here to give you a hug even if you turn into a Time Lord. Or a fish person. Gills are cute.” She winked.
I laughed, small and weak, but real. The first since getting back.
“Hey,” Raine sighed. “After all, if I hadn’t got cracked in the ribs by that low-quality Lozzie impersonator, none of this would have happened.”
“Not your fault,” I croaked.
“Most certainly is my fault,” Raine said, dead serious all of a sudden. “I should have been faster, quicker on my feet, never turned my back. Those factors are things I can actually control. That’s what I’m good at. But I wasn’t good enough, this time. Broken ribs are a good reminder.”
“You broke ribs?”
“She most certainly did, and she tried to hide it,” Evelyn huffed. “I made her go to the doctor, and believe you me, that was not an easy task. Keep taking those deep breaths, Raine, no lung infection for you.”
Raine gave a sheepish grin, and I realised the little winces I’d noticed had nothing to do with me.
“Thank you, Evee. Bad Raine.”
“It’s only a floating rib,” Raine said. “Five-six weeks, max.”
“Okay, okay.” She put her hands up, laughing. “Bad Raine. No more snapping bones.”
“Quite right,” Evelyn added.
I’d been absently stroking Lozzie’s hair the entire time we’d been talking, my hands and arms restless, my limbs aching to unfold in a way I could never unfold them in flesh. Was this how Lozzie felt, all the time? Was this the extra element of her I’d been missing all along? Her sleeping face was peaceful, but slack around the eyes and mouth.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
Evelyn and Raine shared a look. Evelyn shrugged.
“I think she might have chronic fatigue syndrome,” Raine said. “That or she’s depressed.”
“Oh don’t be so absurd,” Evelyn snapped.
I shook my head. “She’s not meant to be here for long. Needs her environment. Needs to be Outside. She’s stuck, we both were.”
“Mm yes, she mentioned that,” Evelyn said. “I cleared out one of the spare bedrooms for her, which was a smart bet because she does almost nothing but sleep. Seemed utterly unconcerned about you being … off with the fairies.”
“What about everyone else?” I asked, a knot of worry in my gut. “Is Twil okay? I noticed Kim’s still here. Have we heard from Nicole?”
Twil had hung around for a day, then headed home to Brinkwood and her family, her ‘church’ and their God-thing, to tell them what had happened and try to get back to an approximation of normal. She did have school the next morning, after all. Evelyn – not Raine, to my surprise – promised to call her later, let her know I’d recovered. She’d probably head up to Sharrowford in a day or two to say hi, though I suspected and hoped her visit would not be primarily for myself.
Kimberly was indeed still here in the house, too terrified to return to her flat without our continued protection, not while Glasswick tower still loomed nearby, possessed by the memory of Alexander Lilburne. She’d made one careful, reluctant journey home for clothes and personal effects, but until the problem was solved, she was stuck here.
“You like her really,” Raine said to Evelyn with a knowing grin. “You’ve gone soft on her.”
“Not only did that woman do the grunt work to save me from bloody demonic possession,” Evelyn snapped, “but she also lost her job because of us. She has nothing. So no, Raine, I’m not going to kick her out. She’s foolish and … not a good mage. But I’m not going to kick her out.”
“Whatever you gotta tell yourself, Evee.”
Felicity had not returned to Sharrowford, to Evelyn’s evident relief. Neither had her parasite.
The Eye’s squid-thing, trapped in clay, remained in Evelyn’s magical atelier.
Nicole had been busy.
“What about the university? I was supposed to have classes.”
“I called your adviser,” Raine said with a flourish of her eyebrows and a cheeky smirk. “You’ve had the flu, very nasty. Even put you on the phone and whispered in your ear to make you speak a few words. Very convincing.”
I shook my head, sighing, jiggling one restless leg inside my duvet cocoon. The mundane world still turned on without us.
“Not gonna ask about your giant zombie friend?” Raine pulled a smirk.
If there was one person whose safety I wasn’t too worried about, it was the seven foot tall slab of cannibal muscle and shark teeth. But I shook my head and frowned at myself in confusion, still jiggling my leg, flexing my shoulders too now. I peeled part of my cocoon open, let the fresh air inside. “I know she’s not here. Why do I know she’s not here? That’s odd.”
“You do? Brought a sixth sense back with you?”
“ … I … um-”
“Hey, I was joking.”
“No, no I just … I can tell. She’s obviously not here.”
Evelyn and Raine shared another worried glance – and Praem stared right at me. I could tell Zheng wasn’t in the house. An absence of a quality to the silence, in the way one might know a tiger is no longer watching from the bushes, but has slipped back into the jungle.
“Absent,” Praem intoned. I nodded.
“Where is she, then?”
“Gone on the lam, I think,” Raine answered, then paused and blinked and cracked a smile.
Evelyn sighed heavily and put her face in her hand. “Please tell me that was intentional.”
“Nope!” Raine burst into a grin. “I just said that, just now, unplanned. Wow, I’m good. Come on, admit it, I’m good.”
“Urgh,” Evelyn grunted.
“On the lam – on the lamb. Get it?” Raine grinned even wider.
“No, I don’t get it,” I said. “Where is Zheng?”
“Gallivanting around the countryside, mutilating cattle,” Evelyn deadpanned.
“ … what.”
“The first night you were all zombie-like,” Raine explained, “she stared at you for about twenty minutes, up close eye-to-eye, and you stared right back. Then she got up and left. Just straight out the back door, vaulted the fence, gone. Came back the next day with a brace o’ squirrels.”
“Yeah, you know, like a brace of pheasants?”
“She’d been hunting.” Evelyn sighed and shook her head.
“Yeah, she was crunching on one in the back garden. Bit the head off when I stepped out to say hi. Offered me one too. I think it was a sort of challenge, so I said yes.”
My eyes went wide. “You ate a squirrel? Raine!”
“Nah,” she laughed. “Didn’t fancy the intestinal parasites. I dumped it in the bin after she left again. Anyway, last few days there’s been all these news items, news of the weird stuff, you know the sort. Cattle mutilation in the countryside, around Sharrowford, half a dozen sheep. I don’t think most people care at the moment, on account of the fire and dead bodies and stuff, much more juicy. Ninety-nine percent sure it’s Zheng. Last thing she said to me was she wanted mutton.”
Took a while for me to digest that one, chewing my lip and stretching my legs out on the bed, wiggling them back and forth as my cocoon fell away. Raine reached out and rubbed my thigh muscles.
“How has nobody noticed her?” I asked.
“Selective memory,” Evelyn said. “She probably has been spotted – not exactly many giant Chinese women running around the fields – but mundane observers rationalise her as something else, or a trick of the light, or not as tall.”
“I think she’s Mongolian,” I muttered. “We should … I should … go get her? Rein her in? No, no, she’d hate that phrasing.”
“We probably should,” Evelyn said. “She’ll-”
“She wants to be free.” I shook my head. “She wants to run and hunt and feel the sunlight and … and … ”
And suddenly I knew.
I knew how Zheng felt. I knew why Praem was looking at me. I knew what I needed to do, however clumsy and slow and ugly it was. My body cried out for it.
I shed the last of my cocoon, pushed the duvets off my shoulders and clambered free, across the bed and over the edge onto my unsteady feet. Raine moved to follow, saying my name with a curious lilt in her voice.
“Heather, woah, you’re gonna fall, you-”
“I won’t fall,” I breathed – and moved.
Arms raised over my head, I felt the muscles flex and thrum. No idea what I was doing, never much taken to exercise or even simple stretching before, I just followed impulses. Rotated at my waist, low with my arms out, looking and feeling silly but unable to deny the urge to move. My muscles were inadequate, my flesh static, unchanging and fragile and weak, but I had to try. I had to move.
“What on earth are you doing?” Evelyn asked, then noticed I was crying softly. “Are you … Heather, are you alright?”
“No, not really.”
I stretched a hand high, fingers trembling, and stood on one leg – wobbly and unsteady but smiling through the tears. I tried to spin – made it! – and swooped my torso low, almost laughing. I swayed to the rhythm of my own body, trying to summon the ghost of that lost abyssal grace.
“Heather!” Raine was laughing, half trying to catch me and move with me, half letting me sway. “How are you dancing with a full belly?”
“I don’t have full belly. I used it all.”
“You’re crying, but-”
“It’s not happiness. I’m just here.”
“Dance,” Praem intoned.
“That’s where you came from, isn’t it?” I asked her, moving my feet now, almost dancing for real. My lungs heaved. My body was so weak. Chasing a feeling I’d never obtain again. “You and Zheng and all the others, the things without bodies. You’re not an Outsider, technically, are you? You’re from the abyss, and being here is-”
“It is a gift,” Praem said before I could finish.
“What? Heather, what?” Evelyn was asking.
I finally accepted Raine’s attempt to join me. She held my hands, mirrored my random movements with ease, so much stronger and fitter than I.
“Where’s the nearest public pool?” I asked. “Does Sharrowford have public pools?”
“Pools? Sure,” Raine said. If she felt surprise she hid it perfectly. “I’ll take you tomorrow if you- oop! Heather, hey, steady on.”
I’d let go of Raine’s hands and ran my own down her front, across the softness of her chest and the tautness of her belly, and lower, gripped by a sudden flush of animal lust. The logic of my body was finally reasserting itself in sweat and hormones, my soul had remembered what it was.
Raine grinned like a loon. “Uh, Heather, Evee’s … right there? You know? Not that I’m complaining.”
“Also I,” Praem said.
“I- I need- I need-” I stammered.
“Alright,” Evelyn threw up her hands, a blush on her cheeks as she looked away. “Fine. We’ll continue this later.”
The wave of elation broke. I pulled back from Raine, heaving for breath because I never got any cardiovascular exercise and I was small and weak and aching with guilt. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, huffing and puffing with my head in my hands. Sweating and ugly.
“I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve any of this,” I said. “I failed.”
“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine knelt down in front of me and took my hands. “You did what you thought was right, and-”
“And it didn’t work,” I hissed, guilt transmuted in anger. “I failed Maisie. She had to sleep, whatever that really means, to shut down, conserve the embers of herself. Because of my mistake. Because I thought I’d … be like the Eye? I don’t even know. I shouldn’t be here. What if there’s nothing left of her now?”
“There will be,” Raine said, and she blazed with such confidence.
I chose to believe her, because what other choice did I have?
“Maybe,” I whispered. “But I still don’t deserve this. She should be here.”
“And she will be.”
“I still feel sick and wrong. Part of me wants to swim in the abyss again.” I sniffed back tears. “It was … easier, in some ways, than living.”
“Settle in,” Praem intoned. We all stared at her. Raine laughed.
“Well, she’d be our resident expert,” Raine said. “You did just come back from an astral voyage. These things take time. You just danced for no reason. That’s gotta be a good sign, right?”
I shrugged. Chewed my lip. Felt something harden inside.
Gather your allies, your resources, your tools.
Raine, right in front of me. Lozzie’s mysterious Knight she’d called in Wonderland. My new knowledge of what the Eye was and what it had started life as. Zheng? The library at Carcosa, Outside, with all the books Evelyn could ever want. Had she learnt anything from the cult’s stolen tomes? Could we learn anything from the Eye’s squid-monster trapped downstairs?
“I need to know why the Eye did this,” I said, slowly. “To me, to Maisie. I need to understand it. I need to learn how it thinks, and why.”
“A tall order,” Evelyn said, voice tight. “Nobody has ever divined the mind of a … an alien god. Not that I know of. Not in any books.”
“Then I suppose I’ll have to write it down,” I said. Evelyn grunted.
I looked up at my friends, and felt the mantle of leadership fall on my shoulders again. An almost physical thing, a ghost of how I’d been able to change myself out there in the abyss.
I asked the question.
“What did you do with her?”
“Zheng carried her out to Nicole’s car,” Raine said. “Bit of a surprise, when she popped together and bopped me on the chin, but she screamed and went down like a sack of potatoes, had a fit, a seizure. Zheng had to reach into her mouth to stop her choking on her own tongue. Brutal.”
“Good,” I said, too hard, too cold.
“Heather? You did an amazing thing, you know that? You saved that woman’s life. Me, I would’a killed her. I did try, after all,” she laughed, but the laugh didn’t last. “Heather, please don’t beat yourself up. You did the right thing, and that’s not easy. I can barely figure out what the right thing is most of the time. You saved the life of a person who was trying to kill you. Just because-”
“None of that matters,” I said. Evelyn nodded in approval – not a good sign. “I need to talk to her. She was there, she was in its grip. She’ll know things.”
“Maisie?” Raine asked, not a hint of hesitation.
I laughed a sad little laugh. “Obviously. But that’s not who I meant.”
Raine nodded, seemed to steel herself to deliver bad news “When I spoke to Nicole, she did tell me Sarika was pretty messed up. Major messed up, mostly in the head. That bit’s not in any of the papers, they can’t interview her in the hospital. She can barely talk.”
I’d finished my larval incubation, knew what I’d really brought back from the abyss. Now it was a new part of me, as much as the desire to swim or the guilt for Maisie or the aching need to be fast again. Born of the cold logic of survival, the equation of predator and prey, down there in the dark.
“Barely will do,” I said. “Barely will do.”