On Monday morning I kept the easiest of the many promises I had made; I took Lozzie to the park.
And while we were there, I came within a hair’s breadth of breaking a different promise – and almost broke myself in the process.
Strictly speaking, Raine and Twil took Lozzie and I to the park. We could hardly go wandering around Sharrowford unaccompanied. Though I was technically capable of supernatural self-defense up to and including cold-blooded murder without a trace, such feats of hyperdimensional mathematics always came at a cost. We couldn’t discount the idea of Edward Lilburne sending a sacrificial pawn to draw my attention, before trying to kidnap Lozzie once I was busy regurgitating my breakfast. With Lozzie unable to slip Outside at will, her natural escape route was cut off. Like a bird with clipped wings.
Neither of us could risk going anywhere alone, but we weren’t going to let that stop us living. We had Raine’s handgun and Twil’s claws for protection.
Raine was happy to get out of the house too. She relished the opportunity to stretch her muscles, to prove to herself she hadn’t become a long-term invalid, despite still needing the crutch.
She hadn’t been to the gym since the bullet wound, denied her usual routine of exercise – one I’d watched a couple of times, when she’d dragged me to the gym in the very early stages of our relationship. Back then she’d baited me with the implicit promise of her own body, the sight of her getting sweaty, a temptation I fully and proudly admit as one of my many weaknesses. These last couple of weeks, she’d attempted some limited routines at home, push ups and crunches and such, and somehow dragged me into participating again.
Not that I had any complaints.
“Gotta keep the core muscles conditioned. That goes fast if you’re not careful,” she’d told me, before discovering that each push up sent a jagged spike of pain down her injured thigh.
She still beat my precisely three reps.
In the end she’d settled for lifting her small set of hand weights, sitting on the edge of the bed and working her upper body with methodical, meditative precision. I’d never had the opportunity to watch that up close before, and I found the motion of her back muscles quite hypnotic.
Twil proved a little more difficult. Lozzie had made the request, but I delegated the ‘call Twil’ part to myself. Then I discovered, on Sunday morning with phone in hand, that I had no idea what to say. I’d never invited a friend to ‘hang out’ before. I’d never had friends in that way. If I wanted to talk to Evelyn, she was in the same building most of the time, I could knock on her bedroom door. If I needed to see Lozzie, she was always right there. How was this supposed to work?
In the end I sent her a text message.
‘Hello Twil. It’s me, Heather. Lozzie and Raine and I are going to the park tomorrow. Would you like to come with us? Only if you are free, of course.’
I read the message over three times, changed the wording twice, and it still felt awfully stuffy when I hit send. Less than thirty seconds later I received a reply which consisted of a string of emotes and three acronyms.
“Um,” I’d said out loud, blinking at my phone as it lay on the kitchen table.
Evelyn, halfway through the process of supervising Praem’s construction of a sandwich large enough to use for a doorstop, frowned sharply over at the phone and let out a sigh. “I assume that’s Twil?”
“ … there’s no actual words in this.” I stared at the message like a magic-eye picture, but it still didn’t make sense.
“Give it here.” Evelyn marched over and all but snatched the phone out of my hands, tucking her walking stick into the crook of her arm as her fingers flew across the touchscreen. Behind her, Praem paused with a slab of cheese in one hand.
“Don’t tell her off, Evee, please,” I said.
“I’m used to this. Sometimes she needs a kick in the backside. There.” Evelyn slapped the phone back into my waiting hands.
She had sent a message.
‘Heather doesn’t speak your live-laugh-love-poisoned deep fried. Use real words.’
“I don’t understand what that means either,” I told Evelyn.
“Good,” she said. “Best keep it that way.”
“Do you want to come to the park too, Evee?” I asked. “The last thing I’d want to do is leave you out, especially if you’d like to hang out with Twil.”
“Ehhhh.” Evelyn frowned and waved the suggestion away like a bad smell. “I’m not really the park-going type. Besides, I have a lecture at eleven tomorrow.”
“Do you want Twil to hang out afterward? Back here? I’m sure she’d be happy to.”
“She needs to get back to studying,” Evelyn grunted.
I caught Praem’s milk-white eyes over Evelyn’s shoulder. The doll-demon was not going to say it, so I did.
“Is that the only reason?” I asked, making my voice as innocent as I could.
Evelyn sighed. “ … no, but I’d rather not go into detail right now. Even with you. It’s just, I don’t know what to do with her. But thank you, Heather. You’re too sweet and none of us deserve you.”
“Sweet,” Praem echoed.
I blushed and frowned down at the phone. “That’s not … well, I … Evee, you-”
Twil saved me. The phone buzzed in my hands, and the first message was filled with herky-jerky panic, obvious even via text.
‘Evee is that you???? Sorry! Sorry, you know it’s just how I am! What are you doing on Heather’s phone? Something up?’
I concentrated on a measured reply-slash-apology, and eventually made myself clear.
‘It’s nothing special or important,’ I messaged her. ‘We’re just going to hang out in the park together for an hour or so. It’s okay if you don’t want to come or if you don’t have the time to spare. Evelyn wants me to remind you that you are very busy in the run-up to exam season and it’s okay to say no. Lozzie specifically wanted to see you, but I’m sure she can wait.’
And all I got back was a ‘Loz? Sure! What time?’
We left the house around nine thirty on Monday morning, just after Twil turned up, but not before she bounded upstairs to see Evelyn. Raine and I exchanged a knowing glance as Twil called Evelyn’s name at the top of the stairs, and was answered by a distant grumble.
“Don’t make out for too long!” Raine called.
I nudged her gently in the side. “Don’t.”
“What?” Raine shot me a grin and gestured at Lozzie. “Somebody’s liable to pop if we wait much longer. Twil doesn’t have time for a snuggle.”
She wasn’t wrong. We’d visited the castle yesterday to sit at the windows for half an hour and watch the strange alien life in the streets below, to recharge Lozzie’s metaphysical batteries. It showed.
Lozzie was practically vibrating, hopping from foot to foot by the front door, her pastel poncho flapping out like the frilled skirts of a jellyfish. I half expected the cat-ears on her pink beanie to start twitching. She’d found a tennis ball somewhere, perfectly clean and brand new – which was a mystery in itself – and she was currently bouncing it off the floorboards, catching it again in one hand with surprisingly perfect dexterity.
“I’m fine! I’m fine!” she chirped at our attention. “Fuzzy and grumpy can kiss for hours, we can go alone!”
“We’ll wait for Twil,” I said gently.
Raine cupped her hands around her mouth and called up the stairs again. “Stop necking and get down here!”
“Raine!” I hissed. “They’re probably not.”
“Oh yeah? You underestimate our Evee.”
“I don’t even think they’re properly together,” I whispered. “It’s more complex than that.”
Raine hiked an eyebrow at me. “You were so sure about them. What changed?”
“Well, maybe I was wrong.”
But Twil bounded back down the stairs a minute later, with a cheeky grin for me and a friendly “Fuck off, hey?” for Raine.
Raine raised her hands in mock-surrender. “Don’t shoot the messenger for speaking truth.”
“S’none o’ your business, yeah?” Twil bit back, a touch less friendly. She clacked her teeth together, an unconscious gesture that showed the contours of the wolf beneath the woman, lurking just below the surface of her angelically pretty face and artfully messy long dark curls.
“Fuzzy fuzzy fuzzy!” Lozzie came out of nowhere and slammed into Twil, a head-butt-hug hard enough to knock the wind from even an invincible werewolf. She’d been too busy tripping into her shoes when Twil had knocked on the front door, so now she buried her face in Twil’s oversize white hoodie, and wormed her hands beneath Twil’s blue-and-lime coat.
“Oof- okay, alright,” Twil puffed to get her breath back. “Uh, hey Lozzie.”
Lozzie smiled up at her. “Go fuzzy?”
“Fuzzy-fuzzy?” Lozzie bounced on the spot like a released spring.
“Uh. N-not right now?”
“Awwww. Okay then!” And Lozzie bounced away as quickly as she’d begun. She threw the locks on the front door and skipped out onto the garden path, and we three had no choice but to follow.
It was good to see her like this, even if she’d had to leave Tenny behind today. No amount of imitative camouflage would convince sober eyes under daylight that Tenny was a human being. Zheng had stayed behind too, half to babysit Tenny, half because she would draw so much attention out there on the streets, even if she could just about pass for human.
I was already planning a repeat outing, at night, for them.
The walk to the park wasn’t too long, just up to the university campus and then a little further along Bluebell Road, though we planned a small detour near the end for the sake of ice cream or chocolate or whatever took our fancy. The sky was ringed with clouds built up like ramparts, and the sun gave a thin trickle of warmth to the waking world, enough to keep the chill off one’s face, but not enough to chase away coats and jackets. The threat of rain stood on the horizon, the ever-changeable weather of the North.
Raine and I had to be on campus later, but not until three in the afternoon, so for this morning we had all the time in the world, and we took it slow. Not just because of Raine’s crutch.
Taking it easy was the point.
I hadn’t yet worked up the courage for tri-layered skirts and rainbow tights in public, but I wore my new pink-scaled hoodie. An ankylosaurus, armoured and secure, emerged from the depths of abyssal time onto the streets of Sharrowford. Raine wore her leather jacket, and Twil always looked ready to call somebody questionable names and throw down for a fight, despite her porcelain beauty.
I’d half-entertained the notion of asking Lozzie to wear something less conspicuous than her pastel hoodie and the pink hat with the cat ears. She stood out. But I didn’t have the heart. She loved herself, and I wasn’t going to step on that.
Her uncle knew where she was already, knew where we lived. If he was going to move on us, he’d do it regardless. A few passers-by with strong impressions of the girl in the bright poncho wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.
If the Heather of four or five years ago had seen us walking down the street, she would have thought we were the coolest people ever. She would have assumed we were on our way to somewhere very mature and exciting – a literature class with a famous professor, a notorious lesbian club, a subversive political meeting – rather than what we were actually doing, which was going to the park to eat ice cream and play on the swings.
“Hey, I see that little smile,” Raine murmured, walking beside me with her crutch under the opposite armpit.
“Just feeling presentable. For once.”
“Looking gorgeous, more like,” she purred back.
My cool did not last long. We were barely five minutes out from the invisible protective bubble of the Saye house, when Lozzie began to gather an entourage.
The streets of Sharrowford always teemed with pneuma-somatic life in all its dizzying alien variety. I’d simply grown used to it, and grown used to the quiet refuge of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. More recently I’d grown used to the way the spirits kept a respectful distance from me, well clear of the scent of the abyss clinging to my soul.
I spotted a dozen different strange amalgamations and alien impossibilities before we even reached the end of the road. A creature like a polar bear but with tentacles in place of a head was snuffling along the opposite pavement, following the sticky slime trail left by a humanoid figure with a tail like a slug. A bat-like giant glided overhead with wings of jagged obsidian, slow as a blimp on unseen air currents. Ghouls – crosses between dogs and people and apes – lurked in alleyways and scattered in polite deference before my passing. A flower made of glowing flesh and shining steel had attached itself to a stop sign, brown roots running down the metal and penetrating the asphalt, but when I approached, it withdrew its anchors and shuffled off along a nearby wall.
Lozzie smiled and waved at eyestalks which rose above the nearby houses, and blew brief kisses at hulking, slumping creatures at the ends of the roads we passed. She trailed her fingertips across the tops of floating flesh-masses and made ‘fffttt fttt’ come-hither noises at skittish deer-creatures with claws instead of hooves and eyes of molten silver.
In the past I would have been mortified with embarrassment, but now it didn’t seem to matter. So what if random people thought she was mentally unwell? She wasn’t, and I knew that. If anybody had a problem with her then they could answer to me, and that was all that mattered.
Until the hound.
It was loitering in one of those thin alleyways between two sets of terraced houses, with overflowing bins and lichen-covered walls. Lozzie was skipping a few steps ahead of us when it padded out onto the pavement and nosed against her leg.
“Awww, hello there.” She instantly stopped and squatted down to pet the scaly head. “Aren’t you a friendly one? Yes you are, yes you are!”
Raine laughed softly and Twil pulled an uncertain grimace. They couldn’t see the hound, only Lozzie talking to thin air.
It was a cross between canine and deep-sea predator, as if a dog had evolved around an oceanic geothermal vent. The size of a golden retriever, but plated with thick overlapping scales instead of fur, showing patches of wrinkled grey skin beneath. Huge black eyes stared up at Lozzie, surrounded by wiry black bristles. A mouth of needle-teeth hung open as a long thin grey tongue lolled out. Slender tentacles rose from the creature’s back, waving like seaweed in an invisible current.
Deja vu and disquiet stopped me in my tracks.
“Heather?” Raine stopped too. “Is it not safe?”
“Good boy,” Lozzie was whispering to it. Ears like armoured flaps twitched at her words. “Good boy good boy, wanna come with us, good boy?”
“Um, Lozzie,” I managed, and my voice came out far too tight. “Lozzie, is that … is that one of the … dogs, that was following you around before you first left for Outside?”
“Mmm?” Lozzie looked up at me, puffed a cheek out as her eyes rolled up in thought, then shrugged. “Maybe! Dunno! Sometimes they don’t let me know but that’s okay because they’re all good and one is just as good as the others, if they’ve gone somewhere else that’s okay too, they don’t have to come back to me. I took some of them Outside to help but some of them stayed here so maybe!” She stood up and slapped the side of her thigh several times as she took a step forward. “Good boy, come with us!”
“Heather, hey?” Raine got my attention, voice sharp and focused. “Is this not safe?”
“Yeah, yo,” Twil piped up, hands deep in her pockets, trying to look nonchalant. “I got no problem with friendly invisible monsters, I think, but I can’t see what we’re dealing with here? Clue me in?”
“It’s fiiiiiine,” Lozzie said.
“It’s … I … it’s technically safe, yes.” I sighed, mostly at myself. “Lozzie used to have a whole … group of spirits following her. I just don’t … don’t like-”
I made eye contact with the hound, and found it looking back at me. The wrong sort of intelligence lived behind those oily eyes. Neither canine nor squid, but something truly alien to our order of being. Abyssal instinct and savanna ape answered with one voice – a shiver down my spine and a flex of phantom limbs and a hiss clawing up my throat.
The hound dipped its head, flattened armoured ears against its skull, and hid behind Lozzie’s legs.
“Oh no!” Lozzie chirped, squatting down again. “Heathy’s nothing to be scared of! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” she chanted to the poor spirit, arms going around its scaly midsection.
The hiss died in my throat, replaced by a mortified flush.
“You scaring dogs now?” Twil laughed at me.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I just- Lozzie, you know how I feel about pneuma-somatic life. I can’t just get over it. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t feel the same way about you,” she told me, looking back over her shoulder. “See? See? He’s just scared. It’s okay, good boy, you’re a good boy, Heathy’s not scary, see? She’ll give you a pet too, okay? Yes! Yes!”
“Um.” I froze.
“You don’t have to have to,” Lozzie said. “But it’s not scary and it doesn’t feel slimy or cold and you can just do it once and then stop again.”
I swallowed and looked around for help. Twil was still mostly bewildered. Raine shrugged and said, “It’s up to you. No pressure, we can just walk on if you like.”
“No pressure!” Lozzie agreed.
“No, I’ll- I’ll do it,” I said.
And I did, though I got it over quickly so I didn’t have to think about it too much. I made a conscious, deliberate effort to fold back my phantom limbs, took three steps forward, and bent down to briefly pat the head of the nightmare aquatic dog. It was barely even there, a faint impression of pneuma-somatic scales and warm flesh. Lozzie held it still and whispered to it about how I wasn’t scary, and before I knew it I’d straightened up and stepped back again, shaking slightly.
The real hurdle was doing that out in public. An empty residential street, but still. Crazy Heather, petting things that didn’t exist.
“Hey, Heather, you okay?” Raine asked me softly, as Lozzie stood up and gave me a big beaming smile. Raine took my hand.
“I … I think so,” I said.
“You didn’t have to do that, you know?” Raine murmured even softer. “You don’t have to let Lozzie pressure you into stuff.”
“She didn’t,” I said firmly. “They’re not scary. That’s all. It’s me, not them.”
“Hey, yo, invisible monsters are pretty scary,” Twil put in. “Like ghosts.”
Lozzie was already skipping ahead again. The oceanic hound trotted along at her heels, and other spirits were already taking an interest. A thing like a cluster of seedpods and tiny wings landed on her shoulder, and a lizard the size of my hand, made of spun glass, climbed up her poncho.
“They’re not monsters,” I said.
By the time we reached the park, Lozzie had accumulated almost a dozen pneuma-somatic friends. Another hound had appeared along Bluebell Road, almost identical to the first, along with a sort of goat-like creature with horns of brass and human arms instead of legs. Weird little collections of flesh and teeth and lizard-skin sat on her shoulders or rode on her poncho, along with a faceless owl sitting in the hood and a lime-green jellyfish thing trailing in her wake.
They all kept a respectful distance from me, which I very much appreciated, but for the first time in a long time I didn’t mind them so much. Their presence made Lozzie happy. That was enough.
We stopped at a newsagent’s on Bluebell Road, before doubling back to the park. Lozzie and I got ice cream cones with flakes. Raine bought a grape popsicle. Twil made an unconventional choice.
“It’s ice cream time,” Raine laughed. “Not fried chicken time. You’ll be sick if you run around too much after that.”
“Shut up, no I won’t,” Twil whined back through a mouthful of meat. “I’m hungry, alright? I can eat chicken if I want.”
“Don’t food shame,” I teased Raine.
“Yeah, listen to your better half,” Twil shot back. “‘Sides, I’ll be finished by the time we reach the swings. Iron stomach, that’s me.”
Lozzie led us the rest of the way, past the car-barriers and beneath the shadow of the university buildings and through the park gates.
Yare Broad park is not broader than it is long, and I have no idea what a ‘yare’ is meant to be, but it’s very good at being a park.
Sprawling out from the far edge of the university campus, sloping down before collapsing into several miles of open wetland crisscrossed by raised wooden walkways and filled with wild ducks, Yare Broad is by far Sharrowford’s largest park. Sequestered from the busiest parts of the city by the bulk of the university campus, the views are marred only slightly by one of the huge modern off-white student residential blocks. Quiet on weekdays, except for an occasional thin trickle of university students, which kept it always more than totally empty, it was the perfect public place to feel neither crowded in nor completely alone.
We wandered past little copses of trees, down snaking pathways, toward a children’s playground area on the far left of the park, shaded by several very old oak trees. Almost nobody else was about this time of day, late Monday morning. We spotted a couple of joggers, a few people sitting on distant benches – probably university staff getting some fresh air and sunlight on a break – and one group of students having a picnic which seemed to consist of a lot of alcohol and not much food.
Lozzie was first on the swings. She scoffed down the rest of her ice cream and leapt up onto one of the old metal-chain swings, planting her feet on the broad rubber seat and standing tall. Her spirit friends scattered across the area, doing the sort of inexplicable things that spirits do. The hounds started sniffing for something along the ground. Several of the smaller creatures still clung to Lozzie as she began to rock back and forth.
“Er,” said Twil, stopping at the edge of the playground asphalt, frowning at the ancient metal slide and slightly rusty swing frame. “How is this place still standing?”
“I’m sorry?” I asked, focused on the last few bites of my ice cream cone.
“Because it’s cool!” Lozzie said.
She produced her mystery tennis ball from inside her poncho again, and started bouncing it off the ground as she swung backward, catching it each time on the return, a feat of dexterity that even Raine would struggle with.
“It’s a fuckin’ death trap,” Twil started laughing. “This is the sort of shit they tear down, you know? Replace it all with modern plastic and a nice soft landing of wood chips.” She tapped the asphalt with a heel.
“We’re hardly going to be doing somersaults,” I said with a little sigh, and wandered over to join Lozzie. I brushed a few stray leaves off the seat of the swing next to her, and sat down. “We’re just here to hang out for a bit. For fresh air and sunlight.”
“Could’a done that in the back garden,” Twil muttered. She went over to a bin nearby and tossed the wrapper from her chicken, licking the remaining grease from her fingertips. “I know, I know why I’m along. Bodyguard duty, right? I don’t mind, it’s cool.”
“Noooo!” Went Lozzie. The old metal chains made a rhythmic creaking as she rocked back and forth, adjusting her body weight to swing further each time. “I wanted you to come, fuzzy! And we’re gonna do handstands.”
Twil blinked at her.
“Yes, Lozzie’s going to teach me how to do a handstand,” I said. “We are going to enjoy ourselves. We are. We’re just sitting in the park. ‘Hanging out.’ That’s all.”
We were going to enjoy ourselves for half an hour, eat these ice creams, and relax, and most certainly not think about the fact that PI Nicole Webb would be breaking into the office of Edward Lilburne’s lawyer that very night. In less than twelve hours we would all be gathered around the kitchen table with butterflies in our collective metaphorical stomach, waiting for the phone call.
The Heather of just six months ago would have felt awfully self-conscious sitting on a swing in a park, childish and silly.
That all mattered so little now.
“Yeah, lassie,” Raine said with a grin, clacking forward with her crutch. She very gently pushed against my back, rocking the swing by a couple of inches. “Don’t be a stick in the mud. Scared you’re gonna skin your knees?”
Lozzie was really going for it now, rocking her whole body back and forth on the swing, the seat almost vertical on both ends of the arc, the chains creaking like a ship at sea.
“Pfffft,” went Twil. “Me? I’m alright. I’m invincible. Just hope you lot are up to date on your tetanus jabs.”
With a sudden lump in my throat, I looked up at Lozzie, swinging back and forth further and further, her pastel poncho streaming out behind her as she bent her knees. My guess was she hadn’t seen the inside of a GP’s surgery since her parents had died, let alone been scheduled for booster jabs. She caught my look and giggled, face whizzing past at high speed now.
“I don’t need it!” she yelled.
“But what if you fall and cut yourself?” I asked.
Lozzie answered by forcing her momentum to the absolute limit, arcing the swing as far forward as it could go under her body weight – and then she jumped.
My heart leapt into my mouth as she sailed through the air, poncho streaming out behind her, small spirits clinging to her shoulders or tumbling onto the grass as she cleared the edge of the asphalt. The stunt lasted less than two seconds, and she was probably less than four feet off the ground at the apex of her jump, but my phantom limbs whirled to life as I jerked out of my own seat in a futile effort to catch her.
Lozzie landed on the balls of her feet with all the grace of a ballerina, bending knees and spinning on the spot to face us with arms thrown wide.
“Also I never fall!” she announced.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil sighed.
I had a hand to my heart. “Lozzie.”
But Lozzie just stuck out a hand toward me, the other one already busy bunching up her poncho and tucking it into her trousers. “Come over onto the grass! I’m gonna teach you to do handstands, like we said. You too, fuzzy-wuzzy.”
“I can do handstands, easy,” said Twil.
“Then show us how because Heather wants to learn. It’s easy, I promise-promise. It’s easy you just have to balance right upside-down and not let all the blood to go to your head too.”
I let out a huge sigh, but Raine took that moment to squeeze my shoulder, cutting off whatever complaint was brewing in my heart. She caught my eye.
“We won’t let her hurt herself,” she whispered.
“ … it’s not that,” I managed.
I wasn’t afraid of Lozzie falling and scraping herself, not really. Bruises and grazes were part of life. On a level I didn’t understand, I knew she was safe from that. Whatever Lozzie was, she was above such concerns.
But at the apex of her leap, I’d been terrified she was going to vanish before she hit the ground.
“I know,” Raine whispered back. “All the better reason to spend time together now, yeah?”
I forced myself to eat the last bite of my ice cream cone, then got up and joined Lozzie and Twil as they wandered out onto the grass. Lozzie stuck her hand out again, and this time I took it in my own.
At first I was quite incapable of imitating Lozzie’s demonstration of a handstand. She bent forward, put her hands on the ground, and just flipped her legs into the air, waving her shoes about as her poncho flapped down into her face despite her efforts to tuck it in. Twil made it look even easier, but she was cheating, with her werewolf strength and regenerating muscle.
I tried three times, couldn’t get myself up, and then when I finally did I just wobbled and fell over sideways, to the sound of Raine’s affectionate laughter. I felt faintly embarrassed, but I’d made this request, I’d suggested this little outing, and I was going to stick with it even if I looked like the biggest idiot in the world.
I had more success when Lozzie became my training wheels. She held my ankles as I huffed and puffed to keep strength in my arms.
But it was worth the effort. When I finally managed to balance by myself and Lozzie took her hands away, she clapped and laughed, and I laughed too when I finally fell over and rolled onto my back. Lozzie helped me up and hugged me and I hugged her too. Then Twil showed up both of us by doing a cartwheel.
“Show off,” Raine laughed.
“Flaunt it if you got it,” Twil shot back.
Lozzie produced her tennis ball again, out of nowhere. With a manic giggle on her lips and a flick of her wrist, she said, “Fetch!”
Twil almost fell for it. She jerked one way on sheer instinct, before catching herself and blushing incandescent red. Lozzie broke down in giggles.
“Lozzie!” I scolded, hand to my own mouth, but I was laughing too.
“You- you didn’t even throw the ball! It’s still in your hand!” Twil spluttered.
“That’s your complaint?” Raine asked.
“It’s cheating!” Twil snapped.
“It’s- it-” I struggled to control myself. “Lozzie, that was quite rude.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Lozzie said through a bout of terrible giggles. “I just had to! And it’s cute and it’s sweet and I didn’t mean it in a bad way and I’m really sorry I didn’t throw the ball for real and you’re lovely fuzzy and I shouldn’t joke about it and-”
“You know if you throw that ball I can catch it before it hits the ground, right?” Twil said.
Lozzie stopped dead and bit her bottom lip at Twil, eyes shining beneath her heavy lids.
“Out here?” Raine asked. “At full speed, in public?”
“Nah, like, half speed,” Twil said. “Normal person speed. Just, you know, good.”
“Can I?” Lozzie whispered, face lit up like a star.
“Do it,” Twil said.
So Lozzie threw the ball.
She didn’t throw it far, more vertical than horizontal, but Twil’s confidence proved well founded. Our werewolf friend had more energy than any actual dog, and it was always impressive to watch her run, though she kept her promise and stuck well within human limits. We were in public, after all.
Handstands, playing catch, relaxing on the swings. This was all so normal, but it touched me in a way I was having trouble processing. Lozzie and Twil went on like that for a few minutes, but then we all retreated to the swings again, talking about everything and nothing while we swung back and forth. Even Raine put her crutch down and sat on the swing next to me, as Lozzie and Twil debated how fast they could both run. By the time I’d gathered my thoughts, they were up again, and this time Twil was trying to show Lozzie how to do a cartwheel. The spirits had followed her out there, the oceanic hounds circling like sharks, other creatures sitting in the grass, or following at Lozzie’s ankles.
I watched, and wasn’t even aware of my own smile.
“Hey,” Raine murmured, rocking back and forth gently on the swing next to me. “You needed this as much as Lozzie, didn’t you?”
“I suppose so,” I said, and caught my smile, guilty and confused.
“Hey, it’s okay, it’s good to see you happy.”
“I feel like I’m Outside,” I said.
Raine stopped swinging, eyebrows raised.
“Not in a bad way,” I hastened to add. “This is how it felt in the dreams, the Outside dreams with Lozzie. I’ve told you about them before, but I can’t explain how they felt. Her enthusiasm, her energy, it’s infectious. As long as I didn’t wake up too far, I was never scared, no matter the weird places she took me. She’s so unconstrained, so free. I like it. I like that she shares it. It’s how we became friends.” I sighed. “There’s just a touch of that here, right now. Just a touch.”
Raine said nothing, but reached over and ruffled my hair. I let her, and closed my eyes, feeling like a cat being petted.
“Only a shame that Zheng couldn’t come,” I said.
“I dunno,” Raine said. “Put her in a big coat, she’ll be alright. Nobody’s going to freak out about a tall lady, which, you know, if she doesn’t show off her teeth, that’s all she is.”
“Maybe,” I murmured.
We lapsed into companionable silence. I used the toe of one shoe against the asphalt to rock myself back and forth on the swing. Raine’s gaze wandered past me, over my shoulder, along the pathway that led away from the little playground area.
“Also, I’m not sure if I should say this, considering my track record,” I built up my courage with every word. “But it’s good to see Lozzie and Twil getting on.”
“Oh?” Raine snapped back to me, a smirk on her lips. She glanced at Lozzie trying to do a cartwheel on the grass, before Twil caught her again, Lozzie’s slender form crashing into the werewolf’s front with a tangle of limbs before Twil righted her. “You think Lozzie’s … ?”
“No,” I said, quick and sharp.
“She did ask for Twil to be here,” Raine said. “You can’t rule it out. I think this calls for a ‘puppy love’ joke.”
I shot Raine a look. She cleared her throat in surprise.
“Don’t,” I said. “I mean it. Lozzie’s not given any indication, and I would prefer to respect that. Plus, I’m not making any more assumptions about this sort of thing. I made assumptions about Evelyn and Twil, and I don’t think that was good for Evee. I think I helped the pair of them into a mistake.”
“Ahhhhh,” went Raine. “Evee’s not talked to me about it.”
“She has to me. A little. And I think maybe I shouldn’t have encouraged them into it. Even if it works out. I was … pushing too hard.” I sighed, and shut my mouth as Lozzie wandered back toward us. Spirits padded after her, and a particular creature – a sort of long-tailed lizard made of translucent greasy crystals – stuck so close to her it seemed almost protective.
Twil stood out there on the grass for a moment longer, hands on her hips, frowning at something off to our left. When she finally turned to follow Lozzie, she kept looking at – I followed her gaze – a lady on a bench?
A young lady, in coat and jeans with dark hair in a ponytail, sat on a bench about fifty feet away down one of the snaking pathways, eating a sandwich out of a plastic wrapper. The trees sheltered her from the rest of the park, but did not obstruct the view between us, like a natural cubby in the park’s topography.
Twil’s pose, the set of her musculature, everything about how she held herself, set me on sudden edge.
Like a hound with a scent.
“Twil?” I asked when she got close, my stomach suddenly churning. “What’s wrong?”
“I saw her too,” Raine said softly, rising from the swing and putting her weight on her crutch. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think it’s anything!” Lozzie stage-whispered, eyes wide as she could make them. “I don’t recognise her, it’s just a person. Just a person. Nothing-nothing.”
Suddenly her hand was in mine, and I was on my feet, trying not to stare too openly at the woman on the nearby bench. Something tingled in the back of my skull.
“She keeps looking over at us, and she’s crap at being subtle about it,” Twil growled between clenched teeth, doing a far better job of not giving us away. She kept sneaking sideways glances. “Was watching Lozzie. I could feel it, yeah? You know my senses are good at things like this, she was, sure as sure.”
Raine nodded. “I believe you. Thought so too. Getting the creeps, you know?”
“Maybe she just liked the look of my poncho,” Lozzie murmured. She pressed in close to me and I wound a protective arm around her.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I spoke up. “We’re being … ”
I glanced at the woman on the bench.
She can’t have been much older than me, perhaps in her mid-twenties. She’d glanced up briefly and met my eyes by pure chance. Twil was right, she was doing a terrible job of pretending not to watch us. She made a show of looking one way, then the other, eyes oh-so-innocently wandering over to check on us, then quickly darting away again.
Eye contact at fifty feet distance, for less than a second. I couldn’t even see her pupils, let alone read what lay behind them.
But abyssal instinct just knew.
She must have realised we’d seen her watching, because she started to get up.
“Want me to go get her?” Twil grunted. “Could question her, quiet like. There’s hardly anybody around.”
“Nah,” Raine said. “Too much risk. We should leave, and call Evee, let her know, if she’s-
“Heather? Heathy-Heathy? Heathy?” Lozzie was tugging on my arm, going panicked and breathless. “Raine, Heather’s not here.”
Lozzie was right. I was not there, and I was not listening.
Abyssal instinct knew.
And this time, that side of me was not afraid. There was no conscious decision. One half of me simply acted, took control, and damn the consequences.
“It’s one of them,” I murmured through numb lips.
I took three paces forward before I even knew what was happening. I let go of Lozzie’s hand before the mental transformation completed, before the hiss rose up my throat and abyssal instinct overwhelmed my rational mind. Somebody said my name – probably Raine – and somebody else said “woah, what the fuck” as I picked up my feet and took off at a dead run, straight at the woman getting up from the bench.
She looked up, saw me coming, and swallowed a scream.
I just went for her. Full on, no restraint, running across fifty feet of grass, pure instinct. One foot in front of the other, as fast as I could make them go.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not the most athletic person in the world. In fact, I hadn’t sprinted in a very long time. If anybody in the park saw me in that moment, all they’d have seen was a rather scrawny young woman doing a very poor job at covering ground. I stumbled, I planted my feet wrong, it’s a miracle I didn’t twist an ankle or pull a muscle, and I was panting my lungs out before I’d covered even half the distance.
The cold survivalist logic of the abyss did not care. This prize was worth the damage.
She stank of the Eye.
Staring at me in blind terror, she fumbled with her bag, dropped it, had to pick it up again and managed to draw a pen-knife in one hand and a small metal cylinder in the other. Hands shaking, eyes wide, she backed up a few paces as if resisting the urge to run. She had only seconds to make the decision.
Instinct demanded the tools for the job, and hyperdimensional mathematics happily provided. I was maybe twenty paces from her when a tiny pop of pain burst inside in my head as I flicked the essential value from a zero to a one, and my phantom limbs exploded into writhing, strobing, perfect life from my sides, tugging and pulling on flesh deep inside my torso.
But this time they had some additions – barbed hooks of bone set in rotating sockets.
I hadn’t needed to consciously build those. Too much time watching squid videos on youtube.
In the abyss I’d been prey. I’d hidden in the dark and lived off algae and slime. But for this task, I needed to be a predator, and my body knew how.
Instinct screamed at me to shove a tentacle into the woman’s head. Pin her down and eat her thoughts, pluck apart the electro-chemistry of her brain, find the Eye’s subtle control just like I had with Edward’s servitor. A human being was so much more complex than a servitor, and there was no chance I could go blundering about in there without doing incredible, irreversible damage. I’d leave this woman a gibbering wreck, or in a coma, at best.
Abyssal instinct did not care. It cared about my friends, my mate, my pack, and it cared about Maisie. But it did not care about random apes.
And it was me. I cannot pass responsibility off onto a part of me by externalising it. I made that decision, I gave in to the urge, I wanted to do it.
When I was almost upon her, the ex-cultist, the Eye-ridden woman, lifted the little metal cylinder, pointing it at me, hoping to catch me with the end before I could touch her. But she couldn’t see the strobing pneuma-somatic tentacles. Her other hand held the little pen-knife in a white-knuckle grip. Up close, she was obviously a wreck. Eyes ringed with dark bags, a twitching tic in her face, her body bony beneath her clothes in the manner of somebody who had not eaten enough for weeks on end. She clamped down on a scream, teeth together, feet scuffing in panic as she forced herself to stand her ground.
I was almost on her, ready to grab her at wrists and ankles and hold her in place while I unpicked her brain.
And then Twil slammed into my back and brought me down.