A week after my return from the abyss between worlds, on an afternoon of reassuringly grey English skies and grey English drizzle, detective Webb met Raine and I in the main lobby of Sharrowford General Hospital.
“Heather, Raine.” She nodded a tight hello, standing up from her seat along the wall of the glass-fronted waiting area. “I’d say it’s good to see you both, but I’d be lying.”
“Gone off us so soon?” Raine replied. She shook out her hood and brushed rainwater from the sleeves of her coat.
Nicole glanced around the waiting room. Late afternoon meant fewer visitors, and the A&E department was on the opposite side of the building, but the hospital still bustled with people. Patients waited alone or with their families, nurses hurried to and fro behind the front desks, and the occasional doctor emerged from deeper in the hospital’s labyrinthine corridors. The glass and chrome of the front entrance reflected the leaden sky above, drained of colour.
“Let’s just say you remind me of things I’d rather forget,” Nicole said. “At least it’s only you two and not the bloody werewolf. Where’s the wizard, Evelyn?”
“Not much for vanquished foes, our Evee,” Raine said with a smirk. “This is Heather’s deal.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for doing this for us. I mean it.”
Nicole pulled a not-quite-shrug with her face. Her eyes flickered over us, over Raine’s coat and the water-spotted shoulders of my hoodie, my damp hair and the dripping, collapsed umbrella in Raine’s hand. The glance of a natural detective, her eyes soaked up every detail. “You know there’s an attached multi-story, right? Silly to get wet trudging through the car park out there.”
I blushed, mortified, but Raine laughed. “You assume we brought a car.”
“You took the bus? The stop’s right out there, under cover, what were you doing to get wet like … ” Nicole frowned. “You walked here, in the rain?”
“All the way.” Raine raised her chin, proud of the senseless masochism. She did it for my benefit, pretended it was okay, pretended I wasn’t a total basket case.
Nicole shook her head. “Uni students, never a dull-”
“I needed to feel it,” I blurted out. “The rain, the water, the … forget it, please. I’m going through some complicated things. It’s nothing to do with being a student.”
She blinked at me. “ … alright then, okay. Sorry about that.”
“No, no, I should be the one apologising, Nicky. Wait, um,” I stopped and winced in frustration. “Is it acceptable to call you that?”
Nicole shrugged and pulled a genuine smile. “Don’t see why not. We’re a bit past first names, you and I.”
“Then, Nicky, I’m sorry I had to involve you in the first place. In any of this.”
“Ahhh, don’t be. The nightmares are worth the purpose. Haven’t felt this real in years.”
Raine smirked. “Nicky’s a cute name. I like it, suits you.”
Nicole cleared her throat and dropped her voice. “Miss Haynes, I do hope you’ve disposed of that illegal firearm.”
The detective looked far neater and more controlled than when I’d last seen her. Blonde hair up in a strict bun, suit jacket and trousers pressed and neat beneath a long coat, a quick ironic flash in her eyes and an upward kink at the corners of her mouth. With her chin tilted down a notch, miss Webb was the very picture of a razor-sharp private eye. Nothing gave away her police status, except perhaps the authority with which she held herself. She looked unquestionably in the right place, and the right place was anywhere she chose to be.
Raine shot her a grin and outshone her instantly. “Haven’t a clue what you’re talking about, officer.”
“That’s sergeant, to you,” Nicole said, stony-faced – then broke into a smirk. “Alright, that’s enough bullshitting.” Her eyes flickered over the waiting room and hospital front entrance once more, as casual as possible, as if we ran a risk of being followed. She radiated cloak-and-dagger in the set of her shoulders and the way she positioned herself, back to the wall, eyes high. “You want to head up there straight away? She’s not exactly going anywhere.”
“If anyone asks, who are we?” Raine said.
Nicole’s eyebrows rose an inch. “Sharp question.”
“That’s me all over.”
“It is a good point,” I added.
“Officially? You’re a pair of Sarika’s friends, here to visit the patient. That’s how I’ve gotten you in.” Nicole spoke softly, looking anywhere but directly at us. “Her family – parents, three brothers, one sister – were here this morning. All of them are busy for at least the next few hours, I’ve checked, so no surprises on that front. Sarika will play along best she can if we do get interrupted. None of her family are, you know.” She tapped the side of her head; she meant ‘in the know’, involved, part of our world.
“She knows we’re coming?” Raine asked.
“I did warn her. We don’t want her to start screaming. She does enough of that already, apparently. She’s got a single room, but I hope I don’t have to remind you this is a public hospital, so not too much noise, eh?”
“Got it. Just talk, no fuss.”
“You’re really not charging her with anything?” I asked, a tiny bit too loud. Nicole shot me a frown and Raine reached over to squeeze my hand. “I mean, she should be.”
Nicole shrugged, almost apologetic. “With what? There’s no evidence of anything, unless I or one of you lot is willing to speak up about ghosts and goblins. We’ve hit the jackpot that she’s sticking to her story, so it’s only protective custody. Anything more and you’d have to be family or her lawyer. Besides, I doubt she’s going to cause much trouble from now on.”
“Good,” I squeezed out, but it didn’t feel good. “Good.”
“What is her story?” Raine asked.
Nicole turned and gestured for us to follow. We passed through a set of double doors, then another pair marked ‘inpatient care’, and ventured deeper into the muffled corridors of Sharrowford General.
Down long hallways of blue vinyl tile and ‘You Are Here’ maps, past open ward rooms of full beds and tired nurses at their stations. Past huddles of junior doctors and treatment charts pinned to boards and cleaning staff swabbing the floors. Medical machinery hummed and dripped and gurgled. Antiseptic smells saturated the air. Televisions played low murmurs to themselves. Trolley wheels creaked.
I’d always hated hospitals.
Mostly mental hospitals as they loomed in my pre-teen memories, full of playroom confinement and big-boned nurses with rough hands, pills for me to swallow and child psychologists to explain away my Maisie.
But after the abyss, Sharrowford General was too bright, too exposed, nothing like safety and security in the dark hollow of number 12 Barnslow Drive. Echoes of alien memories urged me to seek shadows, retreat from light, hide out of sight.
“That she wasn’t involved,” Nicole said as we waited for an elevator to arrive.
She’d escorted Raine and I all the way to a bank of supplementary lifts at the rear of the hospital, where nobody else was around. A spiral stairwell yawned open on one side, an ascending fluted spine of concrete and metal.
Couldn’t keep my eyes off it; the vertical geometry and complex topography called out to me.
“That she doesn’t know a thing,” Nicole was saying. “She got invited to a party by mutual friends of her ex, a bloke who walked out on her a month or two back. She didn’t know these people very well, but there was a lot of heavy drinking and some designer drugs, then things got weird and dangerous. She hid in a closet until the fire broke out.”
“Designer drugs?” Raine smirked.
“That’s what’s in the police report.”
“And what’s her real story?”
“What’s in the report.”
“Come on, don’t give us the same nonsense from the newspapers.”
Nicole shrugged. “She’s not exactly coherent. They brought in the big guns to interview her, but she’s a survivor, she’s clever. She’s messed up like you wouldn’t believe, but she used that to shut down the questioning. The station’s going to draw a blank on this one, eventually, when the coroners throw their hands up in defeat.”
“Good thing we … good thing we burned that body,” I murmured, trying to distract myself from the stairwell.
A pained, far-away look came into Nicole’s eyes. She swallowed hard and nodded. “If I could forget ever seeing that, that would be great.” She sighed sharply and glanced between Raine and I. “You two wouldn’t happen to have some time to spare after this, would you? I’d like to talk over some stuff, if you don’t mind?”
“Is that a police officer ‘if you don’t mind’?” Raine asked with a shrewd smile. “Or a Nicky Webb ‘if you don’t mind’?”
“The latter. Nothing to do with police work. Personal stuff.”
I couldn’t keep my mind off the stairs. My hands felt restless and my shoulder blades twitched. I pictured how much faster it would be to ascend through the central gap of the stairwell, to haul myself up with tentacles to grasp the handrails and hooked claws to anchor myself in the walls. My skin itched and crawled to change, to adapt, to race. I shuddered with faint disgust at the feeling of phantom limbs that had never existed, metaphors for myself in a place that had not really been an ocean.
“Heather? Ground control to Heather, this is Sharrowford calling.”
Raine’s hand drifted in front of my face. I blinked and gasped, breathed in a lungful of air, snapped to and looked right at her.
“I’m fine,” I lied.
“You wanna take the stairs? Fancy a climb?” She grinned for me, all confidence and reassurance. I shook my head, guilty and confused.
“No I … I shouldn’t … ” I sighed as Raine’s knowing smile battered through all my resistance. “Yes, yes I want to climb, but not the stairs. Up the middle. It would be faster. I would be faster.”
Raine craned her neck to peer up the stairwell, at fire doors and handrails receding upward. “Hey, might be fun? I do need a cool down after the walk here.”
“Don’t be absurd, I’d expire halfway up.”
She looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t know that for sure. Won’t find out if you don’t try.”
Nicole was frowning at me in curious speculation. I looked right back at her and waited for the inevitable.
“You seem different somehow,” she said.
I forced a smile. “I’m still me.”
Raine had taken me swimming two days earlier. The experience had not gone well.
All week since my return my biological rhythms had been out of sync, erratic and overcharged – appetite and digestion, circadian and alertness, hormones and sexual arousal. I ate and ate but never felt full, and put on less than a single pound. My fingernails needed trimming every single day and my hair grew by two full inches. I felt sleepy at strange times, fell unconscious on the toilet or at the table, then lay wide-eyed alert in bed for hours, tucked up in Raine’s arms, replaying Maisie’s words over and over in the dubious comfort of the dark.
Raine and I had sex three times a day for six days in a row. I felt insatiable, like an animal in heat.
She didn’t complain, but I think it was almost too much even for Raine.
Her tall tale that I had the flu was a Godsend; I only managed to drag myself to two lectures at university, twitchy and jerky and restless as I listened to the drone of old professors. I did want to be there, I craved normality, I devoured books, but I couldn’t sit still.
I needed to move. Run, jump, climb – swim. Sex helped, physical contact helped, being around my friends helped.
Phantom limb syndrome did not.
“Why the sudden interest in that?” Evelyn asked.
We’d been in her magical workshop when I’d finally worked up the courage to pose the question. The Eye’s squid-minion, still trapped in its temporary clay vessel, was slumped against one side of its invisible prison. It had begun to dry out, body stiffer than before, cracks in its wet-bag hide. Evelyn had been exploring our options out loud when I’d changed the subject.
“I was just wondering,” I lied, then stammered in mortified embarrassment. “I-I mean, not to treat you as a curiosity. I mean- I’m sorry, Evee, I shouldn’t have asked. Please forget I said anything.”
“You get to ask me anything, you fool,” she grumbled and sat down, frowning at me with curious concern. “And no.”
“Not at all?”
“Not when I have my leg on.” She tapped the knee of her prosthetic through her skirt. “Phantom pain, certainly, but that’s not quite the same thing.” She watched me for a moment. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m … I’ve been … ”
Evelyn waited a heartbeat or two before she sighed. From her, that was respect. “I can deduce the problem, but considering what you’ve been through, it’s best you share your symptoms.”
“I’ve told Raine.”
“Raine is not a mage. And she’s too easy on you.”
“That’s true. She really is.” I smiled, almost sadly. “My … my mind keeps trying to solve problems with body parts I don’t have. It’s upsetting, makes my skin crawl, but at the same time I almost cherish the feeling. Sometimes I look at a mug of coffee and I try to reach for it with a … a … ” I made a gesture from my flank, indicated a limb which wasn’t there, which I couldn’t even describe, which had never existed in flesh.
Gills at my neck stayed stubbornly shut, tentacles refused to uncoil from my sides, spikes of bone would not extend from my back. A bittersweet reminder of lost grace – and a shuddering disjunction of flesh and spirit, moments of dissociation and nausea that I clung to in awful nostalgia.
Evelyn waited for more. For all her faults and tempers, she was a good listener when she cared to be.
“You don’t know if … if … oh, this is a crazy thing to ask. There’s no way to … grow-”
“Heather,” she barked, and I flinched. “If magic could regrow limbs, I wouldn’t be be walking around with eight pounds of carbon fibre attached to a stump. Trust me, I have tried.”
“No, no, of course not. Evee, I’m so sorry, I just had to ask, I had to-”
She cleared her throat and held up a hand. “You didn’t deserve that. Touchy subject.”
“It was unthinking of me.”
Evelyn nodded awkwardly, wet her lips, and paused before she continued. “More importantly, whatever you’re experiencing is not phantom limb syndrome. Stop thinking of it as such. You need to be extremely careful.”
“It’s not? I do?”
She peered at me, frowning hard. “You said it yourself, the oceanic impression was all a metaphor. Your brain has done this to itself, a defence mechanism. You never had tentacles, or gills, or anything-”
“I know!” I put up my hands as if to ward her off, couldn’t bear to hear more. “I know. I know. But it still feels real. I still feel it.”
“You better be bloody careful, Heather. You inform me if anything changes. Anything.”
“I … I will. I will.”
“Watch yourself. Promise me.”
“I promise. Okay. Okay.”
I devoured wikipedia articles about marine life and deep sea diving, glued to my laptop for hours, to Youtube videos of jellyfish and sharks and deep-sea monsters with fangs and suckers, uploads of research submarine footage and whale pods and glimpses of colossal squid in the pelagic darkness. I watched Blue Planet over and over again, cried to myself at seals slipping through the waves, felt dull recognition for their fluid grace in the water and clumsiness on land.
Ocean floors and thermal vents made me ache for catharsis. I tortured myself with longing for a place that had never existed in the way my mind interpreted it.
Dark water and cold currents eroded my foundations.
More than once I slipped into Lozzie’s new bedroom and curled up with her in the quiet and the dark. I’d always been more comfortable in the shadows – literal, historical, social – than the bright lights of the modern world, but that proclivity increased a dozen-fold. With the lights out and the curtains shut, I could almost pretend I was back in the abyss.
Or maybe that was an excuse to spend time with Lozzie.
I had so many questions for her, was dying to ask how she’d communicated with Maisie to save me from Wonderland, about her Knight, about the dreams we’d shared. I had a list, I’d written it all down like a good little academic – but Lozzie was barely there. She slept sixteen hours every day in her spartan, empty room, and stumbled about sleepy when awake. My half-hesitant questions fell on confused ears.
She couldn’t function without the Outside. For me, the merest thought of hyperdimensional mathematics felt like poking my tongue into the raw socket of a shattered tooth. Needed time to heal. Dare not test a Slip, test to see if we even could.
I lent her three changes of pajamas. Luckily we were about the same size, because she owned nothing besides the clothes she’d appeared in, a plaid skirt and her pink poncho with floppy rabbit ears attached to the hood.
Where had that poncho come from – Outside? Soft pastel pink with two bands of blue and one of white in the middle, very comfortable to wear. I even tried it on in vain hope for insight. All I found was a normal laundry instructions tab, ‘made in Bangladesh’, and a balled up sock in the pocket.
The first time I curled up with Lozzie, we fell asleep tangled together like a pair of small animals.
Raine found us, found me. She sat on the edge of the bed and stroked my hair until I woke up.
I was terrified.
“It’s not a-” I slurred, bolted upright, pulled myself out from Lozzie’s embrace, one leg still wedged between hers. “Raine, it’s not- it-”
“Shhhh, it’s okay.” Raine whispered in deference to Lozzie’s continued slumber. “You can nap more if you want, I didn’t really want to wake you, just couldn’t help myself. S’too cute.”
“It’s not a sexual thing. It’s not.”
“Ahhh?” Raine’s grin was warm in the dark, completely accepting. Part of me wished it wasn’t, almost wanted her to tell me off, to be jealous, but not hurt. A selfish paradox. “Didn’t think it was. But hey, if that’s what you’re into.”
“It just- we just- I’m treating her like Maisie. She deserves better, but … I … ”
Raine just stroked my hair. Stroked me into calm silence – then took me back to our bed and pinned me under the sheets until I climaxed three times.
Perhaps it was a sexual thing, to her.
I didn’t need a surrogate Maisie, I need my twin sister. Her words, the first words we’d exchanged in over a decade, replayed again and again in my head – or at least my poor ape-brain memory of them did. I rocked myself to sleep, telling a memory that I loved her. I cried when alone, in the bath, on the toilet, with my own thoughts and her echoes. Beautiful, but sharp enough to cut.
The abyss had been easier.
I made several abortive attempts to talk with Praem, but even past her habitual taciturn style I couldn’t phrase the questions right. She stared back, she understood, she echoed in agreement, but we had nothing to discuss. How does one talk about the abyss in human words? Our only shared reference point was here, embodied, in the taste of strawberries and the feel of sunlight.
I kept nothing back from Raine – not my new interests or the phantom limbs or the paradoxical ache to feel the abyss again. She kept me sane, but how could she understand?
When I stopped falling asleep on my feet, and ceased eating three thousand calories a day, she accompanied me down to the university gym, to the pool. I wanted to feel my body suspended in water, dive to the bottom of the deep end and close my eyes, brush the faintest shadow of abyssal grace.
Clumsy and slow, I flailed like a cat and sank like a rock.
I hadn’t been in water deeper than a full bathtub since I was eight years old. My limbs didn’t remember the correct motions. Humiliated, cringing, gripped by a desire to burrow into the ground and cover myself in spines and armour plates, I’d been ready to pull myself out of the water and cry myself empty in the changing rooms.
Luckily, I had Raine.
She’d taken my hands and lent me her patience, a long hour of warming up muscle memory and teaching anew.
Luckily, we’d gone in the middle of a workday.
We shared the pool with only three other people – a man doing laps in the lanes and a young mother with her infant son in the shallows, none about to stare or laugh at a twenty-year-old woman learning how to swim.
Luckily, Raine provided me with plenty of incentive.
She took our outing dead serious, of course. She neither tried to be seductive nor show off. A one-piece in dark navy blue with a couple of red stripes up the sides, simple plain exercise wear – but on Raine, in motion, simple plain exercise wear was dangerous. She swam confident and strong, muscles humming, toned stomach and legs flexing under the water. I’d had to tuck my hair under a swimming cap, but hers was so short she didn’t need one, raked back, wet and gleaming. She raced up and down the water like a real fish. She wasn’t even a good swimmer but she made it look natural.
I assume I had an effect on her too. I hadn’t owned a swimsuit before now, so she’d picked one up for me, same as hers in a smaller size, but I felt like a gremlin next to her, short and flat and scrawny and weak.
“That’s it, keep your body straight, and kick. Kick, higher! That’s it, that’s it, you’re doing it. See? Like riding a bike.” Raine beamed at me as I joined her by the underwater handrail again, and touched the bottom with my toes.
“I want to … ” I panted for breath. “I need to go underwater.”
She cracked a grin. “Do a length first, prove to me you can. No, better, prove it to yourself.”
“I can, I can feel it, it’s like a memory from a … from out there.”
Raine laughed. “Length first, then dive. I’ll come down with you too, alright?”
I swam that length, puffing for breath at the end as Raine pulled up beside me, jittery with excitement as I clung to the rail and the wall. I stared down into the deep end of the pool, into the echo of a memory of something that was not water.
“Remember,” Raine said. “Your head’s the heaviest single part of you. Lead with your head, you’ll get down there no problem. Keep your eyes open too, try not to headbutt the floor.”
“I’m going to do it. I’m going to try.” Awkward and clumsy, my heart a-flutter, I manoeuvred my goggles over my eyes, took several deep breaths, and dived.
Ten minutes later I sat in the changing room, shivering and cold, half-wrapped in a towel, trying not to cry.
“It’s not enough, it’s not enough,” I said past a lump in my throat. “It’s not the same. Not even a substitute.”
“Hey, Heather, hey.” Raine sat down next to me on the bench, her own towel shoulder to shoulder with mine, both of us still cold and wet in swimsuits. She put an arm around me. My toes were freezing on the unheated tile. “It’s only a first attempt. We’ll find something, we’ll try again.”
“Couldn’t stay down for long enough. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, with my eyes closed, maybe that would be enough. My lungs are … crap,” I swore, threw the word at the world, at my body.
“Hey, come on, nobody can hold their breath for ten minutes.”
“Twenty-four minutes and three seconds,” I recited.
Raine let out a single laugh. “Seriously?”
“I looked it up. I was down there for … ”
“Six seconds,” I echoed. “And I couldn’t move right, it was awful, disgusting, slow. Look at these.” I held my hands out in front of me.
“We could get you a really long snorkel.” Raine’s voice admitted no hint of a joke, but I laughed. A tiny sad laugh, but still a laugh.
“Its like drinking coffee to replace a heroin addiction,” I said. “And everything stinks of chlorine, ugh.”
“Maybe you really should take up deep-sea diving.”
“Raine, I’d die. Can you see me in a wetsuit, air tanks on my back, diving?”
She shrugged. “Why not? Plus, you’d look stunning in a wetsuit.”
“ … because … because I’m scrawny and bookish. Because I’m weak. Because that’s not what … not what people like me do?”
“See? Feels silly to rule it out, doesn’t it? You could do whatever you wanted. Wait for the summer, we’ll go down to Devon or something, you can learn to scuba dive.”
I laughed again, one sad puff. “Raine, be serious.”
“I am serious. You and me, Evee and Praem. We could invite Twil as well if she’ll come, maybe her and Evee will finally bone down if we get them out of Sharrowford together.”
I blinked at her in mild disapproval. “’Bone down’?” I echoed, but she was already off again.
“Evee can rent a cottage for a couple of weeks, we could go to the beach, go hiking, and you could learn to scuba dive with a real instructor. We’ll do it together, it’ll be fun. We’re students, we’ve got time to live some.”
“Raine, we can’t … we can’t sponge off Evee for everything.”
“It’ll be for her good too. Get her head out of this for a bit.”
“ … we can’t.”
“Then ask your parents for help.”
I laughed again, despite myself. “Oh yes, that’ll go down well. Raine, you’ve met my parents, can you imagine me asking my mum for money to learn to scuba dive? They wrapped me in cotton wool for years. They’d go spare.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Won’t know unless you try.”
I shook my head in amazement. She was serious. A spark of cheer had lit in my chest, but it was too weak to push back the cold. “It still wouldn’t be enough. I could dive the Mariana trench and it wouldn’t be enough. It was all just a metaphor. Where I was, it wasn’t water at all, not really.”
She could have pushed, told me it was all going to be okay, told me we’d find a way, but Raine fought with herself for a moment, with that urge to make everything alright for me, and instead she just nodded. She understood.
“Besides,” I said. “I don’t have time. Not for anything. Not while Maisie’s … ”
And that, Raine knew, was where to push. “We’ll get her. I promise.”
She leaned over and planted a kiss on my wet hair. I looked down at my hands, at scrawny exposed legs sticking out from under my cold towel.
“This body is so useless. Hate this feeling. I wish I’d never gone, or never come back, or-” Never spoken to Maisie? Never returned to Raine? Never.
Raine glanced around to make sure we really were alone in the changing room, then dipped her head and planted a kiss on my exposed collarbone.
We decided to shower the chlorine off at home, together.
Still not enough.
Raine looked at the hospital stairwell, then at the lift – just arriving, doors opening with a bright, cheery ding – then back at me.
“Executive decision.” She cracked a face-splitting grin. “No choice, it’s up the stairs for you and me.”
“What? No, Raine, it’s okay, I mean it. I’ll … I won’t make it, I can’t climb all that way.”
“You totally can! You’re so much tougher than you think.” She put one foot on the first stair and gently encouraged me on, my hand in hers. I put up a token resistance, but Raine’s mad grin and beaming confidence pulled me forward like a magnet. My feet almost danced up the first few steps, tripping out the squeaky music of damp shoes on vinyl floor.
“Is this some domestic issue I don’t want to know about?” Nicole called after us. She stuck one hand between the lift doors to stop them closing. “I’m not climbing seven stories with you nutters.”
“You don’t have to,” Raine called down from the top of the first flight, the first mini-landing. “See you at the top, Nicky!”
“Oh I’m going to expire doing this,” I huffed and puffed already, free hand to my pounding heart. “Raine, what are you doing to me?”
“Giving you what you need.” She winked, and we climbed.
We ran two flights, almost giggling, but that was more than enough to sap my reserves and leave me heaving for breath, bent double and clinging to Raine’s arm. We walked the rest of the way, my thigh muscles aching, feet dragging. Raine made it look easy.
It wasn’t the same. Not agile, not fast, nothing like the grace of the abyss – but it was something at least, here in the flesh.
Nicole beat us by many, many minutes, and I had to rest again at the summit.
The rear half of the top floor of Sharrowford General Hospital contained a bank of single-patient low risk isolation rooms. Large and spacious, with their own attached showers and toilets, an NHS relic from a time before efficiency savings and public-private partnerships. The rooms were intended for patients whose unique conditions were so distressing for them – or for others to witness – that they were best tucked away up here, far from prying eyes.
A tall and beefy uniformed police officer stood at the entrance to the corridor, hands tucked behind the small of his back. His eyes slid over us, cold and blunt, then alighted on Nicole. He broke into a big smile.
“Sergeant,” he said, and gave her a nod.
“Collins, weren’t you here this morning?” she asked. “You pulling double on this detail because you don’t have to move your fat arse too much?”
He pointed down the hallway to the left. “Vending machine’s got chocolate bars. Can see the door from there. Technically, never out of sight of my post.”
“You lazy bastard,” Nicole laughed. Collins laughed too, then stopped himself with a cough and asked Nicole a question with a glance at Raine and I. “It’s fine, they’re fine,” she said. “Here to have a little extra-legal chat with our charge. Give me a shout if anybody from the station shows up, alright?”
“Sergeant.” He pulled himself up rigid and stared straight ahead.
Once we were past and beyond earshot, Raine turned to Nicole. “Did I misread the signals, or is big lad back there sweet on you?”
“Collins? You’re having a laugh. He’s married, three kids. Ugh, no thanks.” Nicole shook herself. “I’m popular with rank and file now, that’s what it is. Made the force look good and showed up the brass at the same time. Hero detective rushes into a house fire, saves a young woman from a crazy doomsday cult massacre. Big hand all round.”
She stopped in front of one of the rooms, one of the few with the door closed. Both rooms either side were empty, but I could hear murmured conversation from further down the hallway, the sound of a television, the clearing of a throat.
“Pity that’s not how it happened, eh?” Nicole pulled a rueful smile. “I could leverage this, get back onto homicide. Nice and straightforward, one-to-one deal, keeps the rank and file happy and I get to have a career again.” She paused. “Not sure I want to.”
I blinked away from the door, away from my trepidation and the unexpected reaction of my body, surprised by Nicole’s hollow tone. “Nicky?”
“I’ve drafted a letter of resignation.”
“What?” Raine grinned in disbelief. I blinked at her too. Hadn’t expected this. “But you’re the hero of the hour.”
“Can’t say that part doesn’t feel nice, yeah.” Nicole shrugged. “But how do you go on, knowing what you know? How do you do participate in … in … what we did? Real, bleeding-edge real – and then go back to policing, I dunno, pub fights gone too far and domestic violence? Makes me sick. I can’t talk to anybody about what I saw, about you lot, about … ” She blanched in the face, swallowed, steeled herself. “Talk to my dog, mostly. Dunno how you do it.”
“We have each other,” I said.
Nicole stared for a second. “Huh, yeah. Yes, I suppose you do, don’t you.”
“Don’t be a stranger, Nicky,” Raine said. “I’m not joking. You’d get on with Evee, better than you think.”
She snorted. “You’re all about ten years younger than me, I’d be a bit out of place.” She glanced down the corridor. “How’s that other woman doing, the wizard in training, whatever she was?”
“She’s doing well,” I said. “She lost her job, and she still can’t go home, mostly because of us, so we’re looking after her for a bit.”
“Why, you interested?” Raine asked, a kink in her voice.
“Thinking about going private,” Nicole was already saying, speaking without looking at us, as if into the distance. “Private consulting. Industrial espionage would be fun, but I suspect my bread and butter would be chasing unfaithful spouses with a telephoto lens. Sharrowford’s a bit small by itself, but between here and Manchester, maybe over Liverpool way too. I’m a bent copper now anyway, whatever I do. Always tried to do the right thing, thought it made a difference. Fucking police.” She turned back to us, sighed and forced a smile. “What do you think then? PI Webb, can you see it? Should I buy a fedora, take up chain-smoking, practice my gravelly voice and hang out in shitty bars?”
“Smoking’s bad for your health, detective,” Raine mock-tutted.
“Knowing you people is bad for my heath.”
“You’ve got the … the … ” I struggled over the words. Her condition was my fault, in a way. “The skills for it.”
“And the police contacts, the goodwill. The other contacts too.” She nodded at Raine and I. “Is there such thing as a ‘paranormal detective’ in your world?”
Raine shook her head. “Not unless I count.”
“Well, maybe I’ll be the first.”
“You’re always … ” I hesitated. Nicole was so torn up about this and it was my fault. I’d introduced her to a reality that had undermined her identity, her sense of purpose, her reason for living. True, I’d done it to avoid killing her, but I’d still done it.
But cold abyssal logic fought with natural empathy. A contact on the police force was useful, an asset, an advantage. A private eye less so. Survival instinct said argue her out of the decision, tell her to stay in the job. Everything else I had screamed no, battered me with guilt and shame. Invite her in, as a friend.
“Heather?” Raine leaned forward, tried to catch my eye.
“You’re always welcome at the house,” I finally squeezed out. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole sighed, then turned away, back to the task at hand, the reason we were here. “You ready?”
She knocked softly on the closed door, and led us inside.
Phantom limbs prepped for confrontation with a foe, as I stepped over the threshold of the hospital room. Defences tried to unfurl, spines attempted to sprout, plates and scales and bone ached to armour me. I shuddered, my stomach churning with disgust and nostalgia.
It all fell away at the sight in the bed. Pointless.
Sarika Nilam Masalkar was, by any sane and reasonable standards, human wreckage.
Gone was the sharp-eyed, quick-tongued woman who had threatened me at the top of Glasswick tower. Gone was the leader who had kept the remains of the Sharrowford Cult together, who had masterminded their doomed rebellion. Gone was the howling banshee of bitter revenge from inside the house on Barrend Road. In her place, propped up on a rampart of pillows in her hospital bed, was a palsied, tremor-wracked, skittish shell of a woman.
She jerked away as we filed into the room, flinched as if to throw herself off the bed.
“It’s me again, miss Masalkar,” Nicole said, putting on her victim-consolation voice and a nice big smile as she closed the door behind us. “With your visitors. I did tell you we were coming.”
Sarika stared, blinking bloodshot eyes – at me.
She still had a glimmer of her old spite. Exhaustion lay like lead weight on her shoulders, in the bags under her eyes, in her hunched spine.
She was still pretty, high cheekbones and delicate nose, though her coffee-brown skin was waxy and pale with stress. Her eyes were rheumy and crusted, her mouth slack. The roots of her long dark hair showed several streaks of premature white. She clutched herself, both forearms covered in a dozen scabs where she’d picked and scratched until she bled. Her lips were the same, bitten and chewed raw. She rocked back and forth, body in the thrall of an unheard orchestra of shakes and twitches. Her breath wheezed and snorted, erratic and stuck in her throat, as if she couldn’t regulate her lungs properly.
One of her arms was pierced by multiple drip-lines, one feeding her saline, the other attached to a bag of morphine and a dose button. An oxygen machine stood by the bed with a hose and mask with straps for the head. An emergency sick bucket sat within easy leaning distance, to stop her fouling her clothes and sheets.
Her family had left fresh flowers and a traditional bowl of fruit on the bedside table, along with a small stack of books and an electronic tablet. None had been touched.
“ … told me, told me,” Sarika echoed in a broken half-mumble. Her eyes unfocused and stared elsewhere, past us, past the walls. “Told me, told me. You did. I remem- … rem- mmmm.”
For a long moment, I just stared at her, at this shivering shape on the bed, this broken woman, this human I’d brought back. I had no memory of how I’d achieved this feat, how the hyperdimensional mathematics fit together, only an echo from across a gulf of memory, lost in the time before Maisie had reminded me what I was. But I felt such terrible responsibility.
Nicole stepped past us, a tight look on her face. “Well,” she murmured. “She’s all yours. Remember what I said, not too much noise. And the nurses will be doing their rounds. One of them comes in, we’re all friends here.”
“No problem,” said Raine.
“What will happen to her?” I asked. “In the long run, I mean.”
Nicole shrugged. “Her family’s very close, very big. I got the impression she was a bit of a wayward daughter, a little estranged. The parents were obviously really hurting at the sight of her. She won’t be left institutionalised.”
“She lost everything,” I said. Raine squeezed my hand, but I barely felt it.
“You did save that woman, Heather.”
Shouldn’t I have felt elated? Sarika was alive, I’d pulled her from the Eye’s grasp and rebuilt her from nothing, even if I couldn’t recall doing so. She was living proof it was possible. Now I was here, talking to her almost seemed secondary, an excuse made up by my subconscious purely so I could witness the result of my work.
It was terrible to behold.
Would this be life enough for Maisie? Could I bear to see my twin like this?
Yes, I knew in an instant. Anything was better than the Eye. The abyss was better than the Eye.
Even ruined and broken, I would love my sister. If I had to, I’d dedicate the rest of my life to taking care of her.
“Sarika?” I tried.
Her head jerked round, snapped back to me, eyes sharp and suddenly present. We stared at each other, a long moment of contact.
I meant to speak, to say ‘you can probably guess why I’m here,’ or ‘I have questions I need to ask you,’ or just ‘what does it want?’ But I couldn’t get any words out. She’d been my enemy, she’d tried to kill me. In the final moment, she’d tried to kill Raine.
She was alive, and human.
She was a miracle.
She turned away again, panting softly, to stare out of the window at the grey sky and the rain on the glass.
“Sarika?” I repeated, and stepped forward, wriggling my hand free from Raine’s grip. She moved to follow me at a slight distance, but Nicole hung back. I approached the edge of the bed. “Sarika, you … do you know who I am? Can you … speak?”
“Mm,” she grunted. Her legs made tic-like jerking motions under the sheets. Her breath wheezed.
“It’s out of your head now, is that correct? All the way out, like before Alexander made his deal? It’s gone?”
“ … mmhmm.”
I lowered myself into a chair by the bed. “There are things I need … need to know. Things I need to ask.”
“Y’know already,” she slurred, staring out of the window, sullen and hunched. “Told you.”
“You don’t know what I’m going to ask.”
“Crushed us.” She lifted one hand and ground a fingertip of the other into her palm. “Squish.”
“Yes, yes, we figured out what happened. That’s not what I want to ask.” A bizarre part of me desired to reach out and touch her arm or her shoulder, because what I’d brought back was in so much pain. Didn’t matter that she’d been my enemy; she’d been tortured like Maisie and I had been, like Maisie still was. “I need to ask about the Eye.”
A shudder of pain passed through Sarika’s body as her breath hitched in panic, sucked through gritted teeth. She groped for the morphine dose button, jammed it over and over with her thumb as she curled up on herself, like an insect exposed to fire.
“I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry but I have to ask,” I said. “I need to know what it wants. Why it wants me. What it’s-”
“I c- ca- c-c-c-c-” Sarika made choking sound, like an object lodged in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Oh fuck, I’ll get a nurse.” Nicole jerked for the door.
“Nnnnnn!” Sarika grunted, pure irritation.
“Wait, wait,” Raine said.
“Nnnnn … nnnnn … can’t. Can’t.” Sarika panted for breath, slurring her words as the pain passed. “Just run.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. A lump grew in my throat. “I can’t.”
“No other … choice? Hide.”
“I can’t do that either. Sarika, listen to me, please. Listen carefully. I don’t know how much Alexander told you of what he knew about me, but I have a twin sister. When we were nine years old, the Eye kidnapped us both. Took us away, to the place where it lives. I escaped. My twin, her name is Maisie. She’s still there.”
Slowly, gripped by tremors and struggling for breath, Sarika turned her head to look at me. We made eye contact. I felt tears on my cheeks, ignored them.
“She’s been there for ten years,” I continued. “More than ten years now, because last month was my birthday. The Eye had you for a few hours.”
Sarika blinked once. Her brow knotted with concentration.
“I left my body,” I said. “That’s how I pulled you from its grip. I left my body to find my twin, and I did find her, but I couldn’t … ” I swallowed, my own breath shuddering with an intensity of outrage and anger I had never thought myself capable of. “I saved you from the Eye, and I had to leave my sister behind, again. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. And I had to leave her behind. Again.”
“Heather?” Raine murmured in my ear. A hand squeezed my shoulder. “Heather, I can do this, if you want.”
“No, you can’t.”
Sarika stared back at me, and understood.
“I would not ask you this to hurt you,” I told her. “Because there’s no purpose to that. My purpose is understanding, knowledge, insight. I need to know the Eye. What it wants. Why it took me and Maisie. Why it won’t let her go. It had you and the whole cult, enough humans to do whatever it wanted. So why me, why us?”
Sarika grunted. An affirmative.
“Thank you,” I said. “Please, try. Whatever you have.”
Her jaw quivered with effort as she straightened up. Hands fluttering, she mashed the morphine button again, but she’d already maxed out the dose. She dropped the dosing remote and twitched a bitter smile at me.
“Twins,” she slurred. “Explain- explains the feeling.”
“The what? What feeling?” I sat forward, on the edge of my seat.
“Half. Half you, half her. Confused it. Suppose we all … all look the same, to it. Didn’t expect two of us to actually be the same.” She smiled, then grunted and convulsed once, as if heaving to be sick. “Gods make mistakes. Fuck reality.”
“Mistake? What do you mean, what made a mistake? The Eye made a mistake? With Maisie and I?”
Sarika panted, sudden and rapid, and let out a low whine, a horrible animal noise I knew all too well from nights in child mental hospitals, the panic of a person trapped inside their own mind with something that hated them. She hunched tighter into herself, curled up almost into a ball, on the verge of a scream.
“Why don’t we back off for a minute, give her some space?” Nicole said loud and clear.
“No, not yet. Sarika? What do you mean, it made a mistake?”
“Can’t. Nothing more,” she whined, curled up so tight she pressed her face into the sheets. “You think I- I asked? It needs the other half of … of … you.”
“For what? Why?” I was out of my seat, hands hovering over her, desperate for that tiny nugget of meaning. “What for?”
“Prop- prop-” she choked on nothing again. “Propagate? Let you out- adopt you- cuckoo. Adop-”
She heaved herself up, turned to the side, and vomited into her sick bucket. One, twice, three times, she spat blood-laced bile, hacking and coughing, wheezing for breath.
I stepped back. Slowly, painfully, Sarika deflated back onto the bed, drained from the effort of relating what little she’d gleaned of the Eye’s purpose and desires. Nicole kept glancing at the door. Sarika turned on her side in the bed, curling into a foetal position as she muttered under her breath. I caught scraps, ‘torn apart’, ‘missing missing missing’, ‘sorted and catalogued and put back together and ruffled like cards and-’.
Sobbing and dry-heaving into her pillow, her body gripped by tremors, I’d used her up.
Stiff and awkward, my mind racing, I finally stepped back and gave her some space. I backed away, from her, and from what she’d said.
“Heather?” Raine took my hand, tried to catch my eyes. “Heather?”
“Like I said,” Nicole sighed. “Not exactly coherent. Any of that make sense to you? Didn’t seem very helpful.”
I swallowed, stared at the detective until she frowned at me, and then down at my pocket. Hands trembling, I pulled out my mobile phone and thumbed through my contacts.
“I have to call my mum,” I said.
“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine said. She understood instantly, put the pieces together almost as fast as I. “That’s not what Sarika meant. I don’t think that’s what she meant at all.”
“She might. She might.”
“And we can do it at home, you don’t have to-”
“I have to ask her now. I have to, I have to.” I stammered, voice shaking in my throat. I found my mother’s number, pressed the call button, and held the phone to my ear. My heart hammered in my chest.
“Heather, it’s going to be fine,” Raine said, strong and clear and confident. For once, I did not believe her. “That’s not what Sarika meant.”
“What if she did?”
“You could wait five minutes,” Nicole suggested. “Ask her to clarify, if she can get the words out? What’s the rush? I don’t follow.”
I shushed her with a wave of my hand.
Four rings, five rings, and the call connected.
“Heather? Heather, dear?” My mother’s voice from the other end of the country, tinny and distant on the phone. For bizarre childhood moment I wanted a hug from my mother.
“Mum, yes, it’s me, I-”
“It’s been three weeks since you last called! I left a message two days ago. Look, I’m at work right now, but-” she broke off for a moment, to answer a question from beyond earshot, then returned to the phone. “Heather, it is lovely to finally hear from you,” a hint of sarcasm in her voice, a edge of reproach. “I’m going to make some time here in a moment, and we can-”
“Mum, I have to ask you a question. Right now. And- and I need you to just answer it, not … not get like you do sometimes.”
“’Get like I do sometimes’?” Her voice rose by half an octave. “Well, excuse me, what is that meant to mean? What is this-”
“I need you to tell me the absolute and total truth. Mum, mum, I never ask you for anything. Tell me the truth.”
A moment of silence. For the first time in my life, my tone shocked her. In a smaller voice she said, “What is this about?”
“Mum, am I adopted?”
Lot to breakdown here. The fact that we’ve never seen Heather’s parents in person, only heard her mum on the phone is worrying. Even her trip back to her parents was just glossed over in story. And Heather doesn’t look like her mother at all. Hell of a cliffhanger here and a lot of questions to answer.
Normally I wouldn’t want to provide external context for speculation, but I’m going to break my rule this once because it’s my fault: Heather’s Christmas visit to her parents was glossed over purely because of narrative pacing, possibly a mistake on my part! Raine and Evelyn did meet them, and they exist in the world as actual people. I don’t want to give the impression I’m trying to mislead readers by artificially withholding information that would be apparent to Heather.
So good! Thanks so much, I’m really impressed by your constant hard work on this.
Got to be honest, totally didn’t see the adopted question coming, I didn’t understand the mumbled half-speak that Sarika gave. Loving Nicky’s development. The swimming scene was adorable AF.
The coocoo is a bird that doesn’t raise its own young, instead hiding their eggs in the nests of other birds.
So Sarika mentioning coocoos and propagation in the context of why the Eye wants Heather and her sister paints a pretty specific and scary picture.
Or at least that’s my reading of it.
Thank you! You are very welcome!
Swimming scene is close to my heart, too.
Time to adopt the Top Web Fiction button and descend on it like a flock of cuckoos! http://topwebfiction.com/?for=katalepsis
Thank you! Thank you for all the votes!
Seeing Sarika in such a shape is so heartbreaking. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
So if Heather is adopted, Masie is still her twin right?
should be, Otherwise the eye not realizing Massie and heather are two different people because they are so similar wouldn’t work.
The one probable scenario I can see where they aren’t really twins is heather/massie being sent to be adopted at which point some protective magic makes her copy the twin that is allready there to fit in.
If the eye never considered the possibility the adoptive family allready has a kid it could fail to realize the second child isn’t just some extension of his cuckoo
the likeliest scenario is massie and heather being identical twins that split from the one egg the eye created/changed and the eye not knowing enough about humans
Sympathy for Sarika does seem to be quite a divisive issue! It’s really interesting to see people’s different responses, thank you.
Coocoo, huh? That’s very interesting considering the long digression on Heather’s inhuman dysmorphia.
Makes me wonder about about Lozzie too, given how hard a time she’s having adapting to the real world again.
Lozzie is very obviously struggling. Heather – not so much. Or at least in a different kind of way.
“replying Maisie’s words”
replying -> replaying
“woman leaning how to swim”
leaning -> learning
I swore I read this chapter before, maybe I got too caught up in the story to catch typos last time? Anyway, feel free to delete this comment, or not, as you see fit.
Thank you very much for spotting those!
Hmm. I wonder, would Heather get more out of parkour than swimming? There’s a whole ethos wrapped up in it of looking at the world in terms of the most efficient way to get from point A to point B that fuels a lot of imaginative locomotion. Like, a skilled parkourist COULD climb up the middle of a stairwell at speed (this kind of shenanigans https://youtu.be/GVVquj6HsEU?t=206), maybe not with tentacles and hooked claws, but something similar. Or would it just be the same problem, throwing the differences into sharper relief?
Also, Heather looking up marine life; https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/there-are-many-benefits-to-being-a-marine-biologist
I know you mentioned this in the discord as well, but maybe!
Heather’s major obstacle in getting into parkour is her general lack of athleticism. But imagine … parkour with tentacles?
Heather. Raine. Evelyn. You are UNIVERSITY STUDENTS. How do you have THIS MUCH FREE TIME? That’s the real magic in this story.
lmao, very true. to be fair, Heather is a first-year literature student, and I knew more than a few who had enough time to write multiple novels on the side while studying. Evelyn is a Classics student but she’s already fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek and probably more besides. Raine, well, Raine is just being Raine, probably slamming out politics essays in an evening. Twil’s gonna have her work cut out for her though, if she gets into uni, doing an actual hard science subject.