Praem drew back the privacy curtain, drew her spine up into perfect poise – with the same almost imperceptible hand-flourish she’d used the last half dozen times – and drew a tiny round of applause from Lozzie.
“Here I am,” she intoned, and took two steps forward out of the cubicle, into the seating area where we were all waiting for her between outfits.
“Very blue!” said Lozzie.
“Very … very cuddly,” I managed, trying not to stare too much. “Yes, Praem, you look very cuddly.”
I fought down a blush when Praem’s milk-white eyes located me and stared back.
“Mmmmmm.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Much more her style than the hoodie, or the loose blouse, but blue with blue does seem a touch like a rendering error in a video game. Can’t we compromise, the same skirt but in white or black?”
“Purple,” Praem intoned.
“Purple is good too!” Lozzie said. “Oooh the back is also also good.” She capered in a little circle around Praem, her pastel poncho fluttering.
“Hold up.” Raine pointed a finger-gun at Praem. “I’ve actually got a question, if you don’t mind, of course? Bit personal and all that.”
Praem turned her head to direct a silent stare at the request. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up; my Raine senses were tingling. I detected a twinkle in her eye, hiding behind her oh-so-serious expression.
“That a yes or a no?” Raine prompted.
“Yes,” Praem echoed.
“Cool, okay. How do those things not give you terrible back pain?”
Her faux-serious expression crumbled a moment later, no match for Praem’s poker face.
“Raine!” I spluttered, and swatted her on the shoulder. Blushing, self-conscious – and trying to look anywhere but at what she was referring to – I shot a glance back at the wide entranceway to the clothing shop’s fitting area and changing rooms, where it opened back out into the brighter lights and softly muted colours of the display floor. The attendant lady at the service desk didn’t appear to have overheard us, more interested in her glossy magazine.
Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. Lozzie snorted.
“Come on, she’s probably heard worse!” Raine stage-whispered, nodding toward the attendant. “I bet people shag in these cubicles sometimes.”
“That doesn’t make it okay!” I hissed back.
I glanced at Praem’s impassive observation – then spared an involuntary flicker of my eyes down at the source of Raine’s comment – and had to avert my gaze again.
However crude her phrasing, I had to begrudgingly admit that Raine had a good point. My eyes had betrayed me.
Praem looked gorgeous. This morning, Evelyn had finally attempted to fix Praem’s hair, still singed here and there and curled up at the ends from our crisis in Carcosa. With a pair of kitchen scissors and me hovering nervously within arm’s reach and neither of us with any idea what we were doing, we’d been fully prepared to absolutely butcher Praem’s beautiful cold-blonde hair.
But then Kimberly had appeared, by chance, and luck, and bless her for that, because it was Saturday and she wasn’t at work. She’d seen us from the kitchen doorway, poor Praem sat very still and uncomplaining in a chair, Evelyn frowning in concentration like she was defusing a bomb, the scissors poised to sever an entire springy lock.
Kimberly had all but stumbled into the kitchen, with a “No no no! You need to wet her hair first, what are you doing!?”
“Would you like to take over?” Evelyn had asked her, straightening up with barely concealed relief, then clearing her throat when Kimberly flinched. “And no, that is not sarcasm. I am fully aware I am about to fuck this up.”
“Please do,” I’d added.
Kimberly had gone in with spray bottle and comb and scissors, and done a much better job than we ever could.
“It’s not that difficult,” she’d told us, snipping off stray singed hairs here and there, fingers and comb working in smooth strokes to isolate split ends. “I’ve never done it professionally, that’s a whole school thing you have to do, but I’ve done it for friends and stuff. I can neaten up a mess. And this isn’t too bad, not really. She’s got a lot of hair and it’s very thick, easy to work with.”
Praem was so impassive and still, it was like working on a doll.
When she was all finished, Kimberly glowed with a satisfied smile, a rare, delicate thing like an exotic flower, a little jerky and nervous, but undeniably happy. She’d jokingly brushed off Praem’s shoulders and said, “Anything else I can do for you, madam? Colour, shampoo, blow-dry?”
“No, thank you,” Praem had said – and Kimberly had jumped about a foot in the air.
Renewed, Praem had pinned her freshly neatened hair up in a loose bun at the back of her head, a big trailing mess of blonde loops and loose strands. She seemed to prefer that, and would accept no efforts to tidy it up.
“If that’s what you want,” Evelyn had sighed.
Most of Praem’s bruises and cuts and scrapes were healed up now too, leaving only a few fading gazes and thin scabs on her knuckles. None of us said a word, of course, that her hair and skin and flesh were all pneuma-somatic, a solid projection created by the abyssal soul inside a doll made of wood. If being human meant healing like a human, so be it.
Which is also why nobody pointed out her hair gained three to four inches of length after being cut.
As I said, gorgeous.
Her current outfit – the latest of about half a dozen different combinations she’d been trying on in the shop’s fitting area for our varied opinions – consisted of a long skirt the colour of a clear sky seen from underwater, with a very high waist that hugged her abdomen. The waistband was a tall expanse of overlapping and interwoven ribbon material over the base fabric. I knew nothing about fashion, I wore shapeless layers more for protection and enclosure than appearance, but even I could tell that particular item was both fancy and probably quite expensive. But the skirt wasn’t the problem.
The problem was the thick, ribbed, polo-neck sweater. A beautiful deep blue, tucked into the skirt, and fitting Praem perfectly.
How could a cuffs-to-collar top put such emphasis on Praem’s already substantial chest?
“Do not make her self conscious,” Evelyn growled at Raine. “I will whack you so hard with my walking stick, they’ll arrest me for grievous bodily harm.”
“Boobage is fine!” Lozzie agreed, puffing out her cheeks.
“Of course it’s fine, of course!” Raine held up both hands in surrender. “Suits her, of course, perfect, elegant, beautiful. I’m just, you know, mechanically curious how Praem doesn’t get back pa-”
“Because I am much stronger than you,” Praem said in her sing-song voice.
Raine burst out laughing. Evelyn rolled her eyes again. Lozzie said “big strong” under her breath.
“Well, that’s me told,” Raine said. “Fair point, rock on.”
“I like them,” Praem said, and made me blush beetroot red.
“Could we maybe stop talking about boobs?” I asked.
“Quite,” Evelyn grunted.
It was lucky we were in here mostly alone.
We’d been in the changing rooms now for a good twenty five minutes while Praem tried on outfits, a mix and match of various promising prospects. She and Lozzie had piled up exciting clothes from the racks and display shelves out on the shop floor and then checked in with the attendant. Two separate piles had grown either side of Evelyn on the little seating bench – one for items to purchase and one for rejects, next to the few bags of things we’d acquired from other shops.
Slowly but surely we were building a mental picture of Praem’s personal style, beyond variations on maid uniforms: plush, smooth, cuddly, and mostly unornamented.
The store was called Hartellies, buried deep in Swanbrook Mall, Sharrowford’s only shopping centre, an ugly labyrinth of fake marble floor tiles, gaudy kiosk stands, shiny chrome store fronts and too much glass everywhere. The mall sprawled out across two consolidated blocks next to Sharrowford’s main high street, with metastasised extensions connecting to a massive M&S department store – in which Evelyn had purchased for Praem precisely ten pairs of socks and six pairs of tights – and the concrete shell of a multi-story car park.
Hartellies struck just the right balance between trendy and traditional – for Praem, at least. I doubted Raine or Lozzie would have found anything to suit them here. The little fitting area was a major bonus, structured to allow exactly what we were doing right now, ringed with curtained cubicles on two sides and larger cubicles with doors in the back, all with full-length mirrors.
It was so far the most successful shop we’d been to. The others on this windy and mild Saturday morning had yielded little to pique Praem’s interest.
We’d taken Raine’s car. It was barely a fifteen minute drive, and cost a whopping five pounds to park in the multi-story, a sum which made me so outraged I’d spluttered in disbelief as Evelyn had fished about in her purse for the coins, but under the circumstances it didn’t seem wise to take the bus. Not with walking sticks and crutches and my lingering exhaustion from failed brainmath yesterday. The psychological balm of a mobile safe place was worth the petrol. Plus, Lozzie and I were quite small, so cramming ourselves into the back seat either side of Praem wasn’t that much of a squeeze.
Raine even drove. After a week of recovery she swore up and down that she was well enough to drive, that her left thigh was stiff but functional. She hadn’t dialled back on the painkillers, which worried me, but she wasn’t lying.
I found it rather intoxicating in the end, watching her drive, watching her be in control, performing with skill.
I was considerably less intoxicated when she needed to sit in the driver’s seat for a full ten minutes after we arrived, waiting for the ache to subside.
“It’s cool, you can go on without me,” she tried to shoo us out of the car. “I’ll catch up, I’m fine. I’ll be fine, five minutes. Fine.”
“You are a terrible liar, stop trying,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Raine!” I tutted. “I’m not impatient, you dolt, I’m worried about you. I’m not going anywhere until you can stand up properly. And if you can’t stand at all, then Praem is going get behind the wheel and take us right home again.”
“Awww, no, come on-”
“No but,” Praem echoed me.
So Raine had rested, rubbing her left knee, and we’d not needed to go home.
We’d made a real day out of it so far, a kind of fun I was not used to. ‘Shopping’ as a teenager had meant timidly trailing my mother around Reading town centre, dragged up and down Broad Street in her infrequent efforts to acclimatise me to places other than home or hospital. I’d certainly never gone clothes shopping with friends, and the strange inherent intimacy surprised me. I’d never even really picked my own clothes before, just worn whatever my mother bought for me.
First we went somewhere fancy, a little boutique shoe store called Kline, where I felt deeply uncomfortable and out of place and like everyone was looking at us. Then Evelyn spent almost two hundred pounds on a pair of boots for Praem and the glances changed.
Then we tried Primark – a mistake. The place was wall-to-wall with young teenagers, lit up like a football pitch, and the women’s clothing selection was what Evelyn derisively described as “disposable rubbish.”
“But this!” Lozzie had held up a sort of weird floaty cross between a dress and a hoodie.
“It’ll fall apart inside a month,” Evelyn grumbled back, her shoulders hunched, grumpy around so many people. “Besides, Praem isn’t interested. Are you?”
“Pajamas,” Praem had said, staring halfway across the store. We’d left ten minutes later with a set of tartan pajamas and lots of tutting from Evee.
“The trick, Heather,” Evelyn explained to me later, after we’d left the mall to head down the high street and into a Superdry store which Lozzie had known about somehow, “is that sometimes spending more money upfront costs less in the long run.”
Raine was holding up a black-and red jacket to Lozzie’s front, to their shared interest, but I didn’t like the Superdry store. Bright lights but dark surfaces, like my mental image of a nightclub, trendy and hip and covered in clean marketing full of perfect smiling people, nothing like the real lives that came in here for self-presentation.
Though I did like the contents.
“Evee,” I sighed. “I can’t justify seventy pounds for a hoodie, no matter how pretty it is.”
And it was pretty. Dark pink, the colour of shadow-soaked tropical petals, with palm-sized diamond patterning in lighter pink across the shoulders and upper arms, like lizard scales, with the hood and zipper and pockets rimmed in white. Thick fabric, double-stitched seams, the thing was like armour. I loved it the moment I saw it.
Evelyn shrugged and glanced at Praem, who was staring at a selection of beanie hats but otherwise uninterested.
“Say you buy a five pound tshirt from Primark,” Evelyn continued, “and the seams start to go within six months. Or you spend twenty pounds on a tshirt from somewhere like this, and you’ll be wearing it for twenty years. I assume I don’t need to do the maths for you?”
“ … well, that’s obvious, but-”
“How old do you think this is, Heather?” Evelyn tilted her chin up.
Evelyn had come out dressed as normal, wrapping herself in too many layers for her frame. She wore pajama bottoms tucked into her socks beneath a long skirt, and a tshirt beneath a heavy cream jumper, coat over the top, though at least the pockets were flat today, all her magical detritus left at home. Today we were as normal as we could get.
She was of course talking about the cream coloured jumper, the one she wore often. Thick enough to smother an elephant, the collar and cuffs and one armpit repaired with slightly different coloured thread, the thing was obviously a little old.
“I’m not exactly good at fashion. Ten years?” I guessed.
“Twenty five. At least.”
I blinked. “ … are you serious?”
“Mmhmm. This jumper is older than me,” she said, a little pleased with herself. “My mother’s, actually, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of quality. Things last, if you look after them, and you get what you pay for, in the long run.”
I glanced back at the hoodie with the beautiful scale patterns. An echo of reptilian life. Could clothing make up for a mental gap in my self-perception?
“But still. Seventy pounds,” I said.
“I’ll buy it for you, if you want.”
“Evee! Absolutely not. I couldn’t let you do that. Oh, no, please don’t, I-”
“I’m doing it.” She reached over to the rack of hoodies.
Evelyn turned an unimpressed, dead-eye stare on me. “Heather, we’ll leave the theory to Raine, but the least I can do with my incredible level of class privilege is look after my friends. Now shut up and let me buy you a present.”
“Well … I … I suppose, but- but Raine already bought me a hoodie. This one.” I poked a pink cuff out from the end of my coat sleeve. “It’ll be a bit odd if you’ve both done it.”
Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “Is hoodie purchasing some sort of lesbian mating ritual that I’m unaware of? Are you duty bound to climb into my bed if I get you this?”
I blushed and went quite still. “I-I- I m-mean, you’re- t-taken-”
Evelyn’s expression transformed into a perplexed frown. “That was a joke, Heather. I’m not flirting with you.” She sighed, and added under her breath, “What does ‘taken’ mean anyway? Tch.”
I let out a huge embarrassed sigh, colour blooming in my cheeks. “You kind of were!” I hissed, and cast a glance at Raine, but she was just beyond earshot, watching Lozzie getting excited over an oversized hoodie with a sort of oil-film rainbow tie-dye effect. “I have enough trouble threading the needle between Raine and Zheng lately without you flirting with me too.”
“I thought that needle was throughly discarded by now,” she grumbled, taking down the hoodie and checking the size label. “Small, I assume?”
“Uh, yes, small. Obviously. And yes, I think. I … I couldn’t use the needle to knit anything anyway. I don’t know how to knit … this … weave.”
“We are torturing this poor metaphor to death.” Evelyn checked the hoodie over for loose threads as she spoke, almost deadpan. “Are you bumping uglies with Zheng and I haven’t noticed? I assumed she’d make a lot of noise, or make you make a lot of noise. One way or the other.”
“Evee! And no, we’re not!”
“Mm, just thought to check.”
“You’re being as bad as Raine, and no, I can’t-”
“Hat,” Praem intoned from the blind spot over my shoulder.
“Oooooooh.” Lozzie rejoined us too, eyes going wide at the beanie Praem had pulled down over her hair. Velvet white, high quality, and rising at the top corners into a pair of cat ears.
“Oh, really?” Evelyn huffed and tutted. “That’s so-”
“I want one too!” went Lozzie. Evelyn stifled a word inside a cough, which I’m pretty sure was ‘tacky’.
“Meow,” said Praem.
We left there with two hats, one in white for Praem, and one in pink for Lozzie.
The rest of our route took us all the way down the high street, toward the big pedestrianised ‘town square’, lined with fast food places and bakeries and real estate agents and jewellers, all sterilised and clean, air-dropped in from an external vision of a trendy Northern city. Even the local pneuma-somatic life shunned the big open area with its clean white frontages and twee cafe seating. The spirits preferred to scurry across the rooftops in the corners of my vision.
The real Sharrowford lurked at the threshold like a ancestral affliction, branching off into the warren of brick-paved lanes beyond the square, where the tall buildings cast deep shadows on unique shops and strange businesses.
One of which was a women’s underwear store catering to larger sizes. Evelyn assured me this was “unique enough, believe me.”
“Hey, no judging here,” Raine said, deadly serious through her smile. “Support’s important, you know?”
“Oh, right, of course,” I’d said, stifling a blush.
Evelyn took Praem to buy underwear, but Raine and Lozzie and I waited across on the other side the lane, window-shopping in a bizarre little store which sold nothing but hand-carved wooden statues of animals.
Inside, I happened across something remarkable, which had nothing to do with us.
Lozzie took a liking to a carved ferret, about ten times life size, and squealed with muffled joy. She would probably have stolen the thing if she could fit it under her poncho. Raine found a palm-size tiger, and purchased it.
I found a spirit.
Attached to the ceiling with a mass of brown sticky webbing, hanging upside down and shaped like a splash of frozen muddy water caught in mid-air, the thing possessed two dozen multi-joined limbs, spindly and precise, each one terminating in a pneuma-somatic approximation of a carving tool, chisels and knives and little scrapers. Its head was shaped like a CCTV camera, and it hung behind the store’s owner – a middle-aged woman busy with the latest of her creations, breaking away only to take Raine’s payment. She gave us warm smiles and answered Raine’s polite, impressed questions with striking enthusiasm.
A three-foot carving of a crocodile lay on a table behind the cash register, emerging from a block of featureless wood, taking form in slow motion.
And as she returned to her work, the spirit mirrored every motion of her wood-knife and chisel, with each limb copied four times in a whirling blur.
Had this random stray spirit imprinted on this woman? Was it trying to mimic her, trying to create art?
Or was her skill and passion a gift from this unseen guardian angel?
I’ll never know. The world is full of strange things, unique things, phenomena which defy classification, which one passes by a hundred times a day and does not know about. My struggles with the Eye and our rivalry with Edward Lilburne did not define even a percentage of a fraction of what went on all over Sharrowford every day.
Praem and Evelyn returned carrying a glossy little shopping bag from the underwear store, which even Raine knew better than to joke about.
But Lozzie had no such qualms. “Can I see later?” she chirped to Praem, in total innocence.
“Lozzie,” I tutted gently. “It’s private-”
“Not like that!” Lozzie went wide-eyed at me – or at least as wide as her permanently sleepy ocular muscles could manage – and giggled in scandalised mirth.
“You may,” Praem intoned.
We made our way back toward Swanbrook Mall, planning to try more stores. Despite a few successes we still hadn’t found anywhere for the real staples of sartorial choice. We passed by the alleyway that I knew led to Mount Emei Secondhand Books, and I yearned to spend the next three hours exploring the shelves.
“I’ll take you out here in a few weeks time,” Raine murmured to me as I cast a longing glance back over my shoulder. “A bookshop day, just for you.”
“Oh, I wasn’t- wait, how did you know I was thinking that?”
Raine winked, and slipped her free hand into mine. “If I didn’t track your book lust, I wouldn’t be a very good girlfriend to you, would I?”
“Book lust?” I grimaced through a giggle. “Please don’t call it that.”
I endured the same reaction to the all-too-spotless chain bookstore back inside the shopping centre, but I was a good friend to Praem and did not derail our entire trip to spend half an hour gazing upon hardback copies of books I’d already read a dozen times.
Raine did not let go of my hand. She’d spent most of the shopping trip up until that point with her head on a covert swivel, always in the rear of our little group despite her crutch, always eyes-up and watching the periphery. She did it quietly, without making a fuss, but I knew she was watching to see if we were being followed. Once we got back inside the shopping centre though, she finally began to relax, and I was the self-conscious one, my hand in hers in public.
Nobody cared. Not about the pair of lesbians holding hands, or about Evelyn Saye the magician, or about Lauren Lilburne out in public.
We didn’t look that different to any other group of students out on a Saturday. Walking sticks and crutches, Praem’s impassive intensity and Lozzie’s pastel poncho, my lingering bestial twitches and Raine’s bodyguard aura, all of it combined to mark us out as ‘very student’, as Raine put it, but we wouldn’t draw a second glance in the centre of Sharrowford, a city that very much wanted to be what it thought we represented.
We’d scouted out a few more likely shops, but kept coming up empty handed – too bland, too expensive, “too bloody middle class,” as Raine phrased it – until we found Hartellies and Praem had waded in without reservation.
I would have hated this sort of trip by myself. Alienating and meaningless. The last time I was in the shopping centre, I’d been stumbling along next to Amy Stack, on the way to a meeting with Alexander Lilburne. We did avoid the food court, if only to stay away from bad memories, and I was faintly sad that neither Zheng nor Tenny could join us. Too big, too scary, too different to be out in public.
But I was with friends, and that bottled up the failure and the guilt.
I felt unworthy of such a reprieve.
“You want one of those too?” Evelyn murmured, pulling me off the path which led to dark thoughts.
I blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”
Praem had returned behind the thick privacy curtain of the changing cubicle, handed Lozzie the blue skirt and ribbed sweater, and was busy trying on another outfit, while we waited on the little low backless couch seats. I’d been idly drawing my hand across the thick fabric of the ribbed sweater. Lozzie was chattering something to Raine, and Evelyn had leaned in beside me.
“The jumper. Polo-neck seems perhaps your kind of thing?” She frowned over the words, as if not quite certain.
“Oh. Uh.” I tried a smile, chasing away the ghost of guilt. “Maybe. It certainly looks comfy, but I doubt I could pull off the look like Praem. I don’t have as much, if you know what I mean.”
Evelyn frowned. “You’re the one who asked us to stop talking about breasts, Heather.”
I felt my cheeks colour slightly, but I retained my composure. “That’s not what I meant. I mean I’m not-”
“You could pull off any look you want,” Raine added from my other side.
“Listen to your lover, Heather,” Evelyn said. “She wants you in that skirt.”
“Stop- stop double teaming me,” I protested.
That one made Lozzie giggle.
“If you want one similar,” Evelyn deadpanned, as if none of this mattered, oddly detached, “I’ve still got a hundred and fifty pounds earmarked for you.”
“What?” My eyes went wide. “Oh, Evee, no, not after you already bought the hoodie for me, I can’t-”
“Yes you can,” she almost snapped.
“I- I mean- the blue is too much for me-”
“Weren’t they in white, too?” Raine asked. “Cream, or black, or lilac? Anything you like.”
“I want a rainbow one,” Lozzie added. “With a hood.”
“Different store for that, I’m afraid,” Evelyn sighed, then much to my surprise she poked me in the side. “Go pick one out. Go on.”
I glanced at Raine, either for help or permission, I wasn’t sure which, but she just winked at me and nodded over Evelyn’s shoulder, toward the clothing racks beyond the fitting area. “I can see them from right here. Go on, go grab one and come try it on.”
“Oh, fine!” I huffed and stood up. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
“You’ll look great!” Raine called after me as I all but scurried out of the fitting area and back under the lights of the shop floor. I cast a backward glance at the young woman at the attendant’s counter, feeling like I was doing something wrong, but she didn’t look up from her magazine.
Raine hadn’t exaggerated, the display shelving with the ribbed sweaters wasn’t far from the fitting area, and I could see my friends unobstructed. Raine raised a thumbs up and gave me a broad wink, and I responded with a performative little huff before turning to focus on the clothes. These ribbed sweaters did feel very comfortable. Like a hug, warm and tight and thick. I doubted they’d look any good on scrawny little me. I didn’t have Praem’s plush layers to fill one out. But I picked one up anyway, in white. Not my usual sort of look, but maybe it would work, maybe it would be okay.
I didn’t deserve this.
The feeling was sudden and crushing.
I didn’t deserve such good friends. I certainly didn’t deserve presents or treats or fancy new clothes. I’d failed.
Yesterday, I’d failed to find Edward Lilburne. I’d filled a bucket with sick and blood, over-topped it with pain, gotten precisely nowhere, and had to be rescued. I hadn’t told anybody how close I’d come to the edge of the abyss, consumed by an awful sense of defeat. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight knew, but she hadn’t appeared to offer help or advice. She’d ignored my pleas in the bathroom mirror last night.
I shouldn’t be here, having fun. I should be banging my head against the problem of the Eye until either I cracked it or cracked my skull.
We’d called Nicole’s personal number and left a message, to let her know we were interested in employing her very particular skill set. That was, for the moment, all we could do. The best course of action, Evelyn had assured me. Safe. Detached. Without personal involvement.
But surely I shouldn’t be here, pretending to be normal.
“Why did you save me?” I whispered under my breath, to the only person who knew what had happened out there on the edge of cold infinity.
“Can I help you find anything?”
The bright and cheery voice made me jump – half in surprise, half in embarrassment. I turned with an expression like a startled squirrel, and found the young lady attendant from the desk standing a few feet behind me, all polite and proper, with a perfectly plastic customer service smile on her heart-shaped face, framed by a helmet of brown hair.
“Oh, no, thank you,” I rushed to reply. “I was just going to try … this … on.”
I trailed off, deeply unimpressed.
There were two of her.
The attendant was still sat at her little desk next to the fitting area, nose in her tacky magazine, dressed in white blouse and denim jacket and hoop earrings – and the exact same person was also standing in front of me, but wearing a smart one-piece dress, totally appropriate for a shop attendant in a slightly upmarket clothing store.
A yellow dress, with matching yellow shoes, and little yellow sunflower earrings.
There was a tiny percentage chance that this particular clothing shop just so happened to employ a pair of identical twins, and one of them had by chance decided to dress all in yellow, on the exact same day that we ended up here, and then by the pure perverse mechanism of cosmic determinism, walked up to offer me help. This slim possibility sustained my veneer of normality for about a quarter of a second, until I realised the one in yellow had approached me from the exact angle to make the doubled twin impossible to miss.
Perfect theatrical blocking. A professional at work.
“Sevens,” I hissed. “What are you doing?!”
I flicked a glance at my friends, but Praem was stepping out of the changing stall at that exact moment, and Raine had looked away. I had no doubt Sevens had timed that to perfection as well.
The pretty young Service Worker in Yellow batted her eyelashes at me. “I’m sorry, miss? I was only offering assistance, if there’s anything I can help you find? I’m very sorry if I’ve given offence somehow.”
“Oh my goodness, don’t do that.” I grimaced at her. “That is positively creepy.”
Her plastic smile slipped, tainted by simulated nerves. The Banana-Coloured Shop Assistant had particularly mobile eyebrows, involuntarily raised in surprise. “C-creepy?” she stammered, glancing over her shoulder for help.
“You haven’t done something … something unnatural to that poor woman, have you?” I whispered, gesturing with my eyes at the lady she was copying, the one sat at the desk. “I haven’t forgotten what you did to the students in that lecture hall, even if you did reverse the effects. Don’t you dare, Sevens, not here.”
The Precariat in Sunburst looked back at me, throat bobbing, hands clasped just a little too tight, sweat breaking out on her brow, the very picture of a put upon service worker subjected to a unjustified berating by an unreasonable customer. For a horrified moment I came up short, my heart juddering to a stop as one of my worst fears threatened to unfold into reality.
What if this wasn’t Sevens?
What if I was ranting nonsense at some uninvolved woman? Heather Morell, being openly insane and unstable in public. Everything I’d always been trained to avoid at all costs. All the blood drained from my face as the woman in the yellow dress struggled for the right words.
Then, in the split-second between two flustered blinks, the irises between her thick dark lashes flashed from deep brown to the yellow of an electric storm.
“Sevens!” I hissed at her, almost spitting with outrage. “Don’t make me feel like I’m abusing a service worker, that is disgusting!”
Sevens-as-Part-Timer cleared her throat and resumed her plastic smile. “I’m very sorry you feel that way, miss.”
I flinched. I would have jumped, but Raine’s voice was far too deeply ingrained as a source of safety and comfort and protection. She was at my shoulder, and I’d been so absorbed in telling off Sevens that I hadn’t heard Raine approach, even with her crutch. She leaned on it now, peering at me with curious concern as she put her free hand gently on my forearm. Far behind her, back in the fitting area, Evelyn was casting an idle glance our way as well.
“You okay?” Raine asked.
I spun back to Sevens – and found nobody there.
“Heather?” Raine dropped her voice. “Hey, saw you talking to yourself, is this invisible monster stuff?”
I screwed my eyes up and let out a deep sigh. “No, no, just … an irritant. It’s gone now.”
Raine went tense, eyes roving beyond me, over the racks of clothes and neatly folded jumpers and hanging skirts.
“Not another servitor?” she whispered.
I almost laughed. “No, no. Nothing so clear as that. It was Sevens. Being infuriating.”
Raine relaxed instantly, and raised an eyebrow at me. “What’d she say?”
“Um, nothing. She asked me if I wanted help finding clothes, bizarrely enough.”
“Ahhh, being a weirdo. Gotcha.” Raine’s mouth tilted into a knowing smile. “Hey, you ever need help scaring off some invisible stalker, you lemme know.”
“I will do.” I managed a little smile, and felt fake all over.
Raine nodded down at the ribbed sweater I was still holding. “Going for one in white, hey?”
“Oh, yes. Well, I don’t know, really.”
“I do know. And I know you’d look great in that.” Raine shot me a grin, the sort of heart-stopping rakish smile she’d used on me when we’d first met. It still worked. “I don’t tell you that often enough,” she lowered her voice. “You could wear anything you’d want and you’d look incredible.”
“D-don’t be absurd. Raine. I’m flat as a board, this won’t do anything for me.”
“Nonsense. Hey, no, don’t look away,” she put the tiniest whip-crack into her murmur, and I had to obey. “I mean it, Heather. You wanna try a different look, do it, I’m on board. Hundred percent. I know you like lots of layers when you’re out and about, but if you wanna experiment at home, go for it.”
“ … I … ” I swallowed and bit my lower lip, my brain caught up on too many different things to put up any resistance. “I suppose I would like to wear skirts more often … maybe.”
“Yeeeeah, that’s more like it. Tell me what you want. Skirts, huh? I got you all those coloured tights way back. Come on, hey, you in a ribbed sweater, a ruffly skirt and a pair of purple tights? Practically royalty.”
I laughed, despite myself. “Raine, that sounds so silly. I don’t know if I can pull off ‘girly’.”
“Forget can,” Raine. “Focus on want.”
I sighed and shrugged.
“Go try that on, at least?” she said.
“Oh, alright. Alright, I surrender. I’ll try it on. As long as nobody laughs at me. You must promise.”
Three minutes later I was behind the closed door of a changing cubicle, peeling myself out of my coat, alone with my reflection in the full-length mirror.
I stared at myself for a long, long minute, in my shapeless hoodie and jeans. Abyssal dysphoria blurred my self-image.
“I’m just going to look silly in this,” I muttered under my breath, and pulled my hoodie up over my head.
“You’ll look wonderful if you let yourself believe,” my own voice answered.
I scrambled to get my hoodie off, freeing my vision in a tumble of hair, heart rate spiking – and discovered the me in the mirror had taken the liberty of a full-on top-to-bottom wardrobe transformation.
Ribbed sweater sleek and neat and form-fitting – in bubblegum pink, not white – highlighting curves in a way I didn’t dare acknowledge I possessed, matched with a knee-length skirt made of at least three different layers of frilly, fluffy, lacy material, flouncing out from my slender hips in dark purple accented with black. My own slim legs emerged beneath, wrapped in white tights and terminating in a pair of pink trainers.
Seven-Shades-of-Heather pulled a nervous, flinching smile I recognised all too well, and did a little hip-jutting hands-out pose to show off the outfit. She slid one foot back and tapped the heel, and the sides of the pink trainer lit up briefly with LEDs buried beneath semi-transparent rubber.
I just stared, open mouthed.
“ … w-well?” she said after a moment. “Don’t just stare, say something, please.”
“I do not look like that,” I managed. “I could never look like that. Those clothes are too lovely for me, I’d ruin them with vomit and blood. You’ve made me look pretty and I am not-”
“Heather, how many times?” The Me-In-The-Mirror slipped into that know-it-all diction which made me cringe, sighing and dropping the cutesy pose. “I can only play your role, I can add nothing which you are not already fully prepared for. And you are fully prepared for light-up shoes, believe me, you are so ready for these.” She tapped her heels again, and both shoes lit up in a flashing pattern of pink lights.
“You’ve got highlights,” I said, outrage racing to catch up with the shock. “I would never get highlights, don’t be so silly.”
“Don’t be so silly yourself,” Seven-Shades told me with my own voice, in my own faintly offended tone. One of her – my – hands went to her fringe in the mirror, to the little blonde highlights in ‘my’ hair. “Raine would eat you alive. Not that she doesn’t regularly do that already.” Sevens-as-me flushed slightly and cleared her throat. Goodness, I was a horrible little oversexed goblin.
I sighed. “This is not the time for that, Sevens.”
“It is exactly the time for that. For me!”
“I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for your games. Plays, sorry. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to even be here on this shopping trip. I certainly don’t have the time to be dressing up like a novelty cake. I should be at home, focusing, trying again.”
“And almost tumbling head first into the abyssal waters beyond reality?” she asked with a disapproving press of her lips. Infuriating habit, and all mine.
“ … thank you,” I said, but with a little huff. “For yesterday. For saving me.”
“You are welcome,” she said, with genuine grace and a little smile. At least I was polite.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to interfere though, beyond putting on your plays?”
“Natures are different in the deep abyss,” Sevens told me. “You know that. You’re not the same when you’re unexpressed in reality. Do you think the same differences don’t apply to me? You think a play means anything in the dark? I don’t wish to go there either.”
“Oh. Um. Okay, fair enough.” I frowned. She had a point; Sevens was a thing of frills and light and the crumbly taste of fresh bread, she’d get eaten fast down there. “I suppose you wouldn’t last a minute in the abyss.”
“Oh, I would last. I would just be very different.”
She split my face in a grin which looked nothing like me – to reveal a double-row of razor-sharp shark-teeth in my mirrored mouth.
“Goodness,” I breathed, flushing in the face with abyssal envy. “That’s more like it, yes.”
Sevens closed her abyssal maw again, and her teeth returned to normal.
“Besides, all I did was anchor you.” She huffed, exactly like me getting exasperated. “Because you still refuse to use the secrets of creation.”
I huffed too. “That is the exact same thing you said before. Along with all your ‘I am only a question’ nonsense.” I waved a hand at her in the mirror, at her making me look pretty and well-dressed. “What sort of question is this supposed to ask?”
Sevens-As-Heather gave me the most infuriating look, a sickening cocktail of condescension and timidity. My own superiority, on ugly display in a nice skirt.
“You cannot address failure through sheer bullheadedness,” she told me, with a tone like a schoolmistress, totally at odds with that playful outfit. Did I ever sound like that? “I anchored you once, but I won’t be able to do it again. Now that I’ve done it, now that you’re aware, doing it again would cost me dearly. If you must sip from the cold depths, you must be anchored first.”
“Anchored? How?” I asked. “I can’t push brainmath further without more … I don’t know! More power, more knowledge, more-”
“Must I put on a play to communicate something so fundamental?” Seven-Shades gestured at herself, at me in the mirror. “Not that you have to dress like this at all, actually. Both of them would gladly devote themselves to you even if you were dressed in rubbish bags from an open sewer.”
“Both of them … ”
I trailed off, throat closing up, heart rate climbing. I knew exactly what she was talking about.
“Your sister told you what to do,” she said.
“Maisie told me to gather my friends! She didn’t tell me to have a lesbian threesome!”
“There we go.” Sevens sighed. “I know you haven’t accepted it, I know you need educating, and I will be producing quite the show for-”
“You mean polyamory,” I spat. “Yes, I looked the word up, like Evelyn suggested. Were you watching that too? You’re saying what exactly? That I’m supposed to emotionally anchor myself by … with … well, with Raine … and … Zheng too? How is that supposed to work?”
Sevens pulled that smile, my own knowing smile, tight and twitchy, and I wanted to swear quite loudly at her.
“You’ll figure it out,” she said.
“It’s not … it’s not normal,” I replied, vaguely aware that meant nothing.
“Nothing about you is normal, Heather.”
I sat down with a thump on the cubicle’s tiny built-in wooden bench. “This is absurd. I can’t do that to either of them. I can’t exploit them just to-”
“Choosing family is not exploitation,” Sevens told me with a little frown.
“ … don’t make me confront this. Please. Not now.” I shook my head. “I didn’t even know polyamory was a thing until recently. Until six months ago, I’d never had a relationship. I barely know what I’m doing with Raine, I am not the person for this.”
“But do you want it?”
“I don’t deserve it! I never expected to be attracted to somebody like Raine. Let alone Zheng. I always thought my type was more … well, like how Evee looks, I suppose. Soft and cuddly. Somebody I can build a pillow fort with.” I felt myself on the verge of cracking, a pressure inside my chest.
“Yes dear, sapphic love comes in many forms, yours is not invalid.”
“Besides, Raine … ”
“Is not jealous unless you tell her to be. Haha!” Sevens-As-Me lit up – and also lit up her shoes again in a little double heel stomp.
I stared at the me in the mirror. At me, dressed up and confident and shining inside. I noticed that Sevens had a sort of semi-transparent aura, a flickering and wavering halo of phantom tentacles, my tentacles made beautiful even in echo.
“I don’t want my life to sound like the title of a vaguely offensive pornographic film,” I huffed. “‘Petite lesbian gets gang-banged by two bulldykes.’”
“Heather!” said the Other Heather, aghast and blushing.
I blushed too. That was unfair and rude of me.
“Getting into a polyamorous relationship isn’t going to solve anything,” I whispered. “It’ll just create more problems. Big, complicated, emotional problems that I am not prepared to deal with.”
“Ahh, but they will be wonderfully fun problems.”
I gave her a death glare.
The Heather in the mirror cleared her throat, looking suitably chastised. “And I will help you, I will help you make it work,” Sevens said.
“How could I possibly focus on that when a man I don’t even know has stolen the means of rescuing my sister?”
“Sapphic love is the means of rescuing your sister, and nobody can take that from you. Think about it, Heather. You refuse to see what is right in front of your eyes.”
“Do you want it?” she said, losing patience. Me, irritated. “Do you want both of them?”
Knock knock came a gentle knock on the door.
I jumped. “Yes?”
“Heathy, okay?” Lozzie’s voice called through the wood. “Need help?”
I glanced back at the mirror. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was gone. It was just me again, staring back in rumpled reflection.
“Yes, Lozzie,” I murmured. “Yes, oh, I do need help with this. I absolutely do.”