mind; correlating – 1.5

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“We- we should leave before I pass out.”

I was trying very hard not to look at the twitching, skeletal shapes descending from the ridge, creeping toward us through the mist.

“Leave?” Evelyn’s voice shook. She took a deep breath and used the stone pillar at her back to pull herself up. She was unsteady on her feet, all her weight on her right leg. “Yes, you can do that, can’t you? You-”

Thunder interrupted us.

A rolling crash shook the ground, so deep and so loud it rattled my bones. Evelyn slammed her hands over her ears. I winced and screwed up my eyes. The rotten-apricot sky boiled and bubbled, clouds like sea-tossed oil. The stalking figures in the fog stopped and crouched, as if the skin of the world threatened to buck them off.

Evelyn lowered her hands as we both watched the sky.

“That wasn’t happening earlier,” she whispered. “You can get us out?”

I opened my mouth to explain and a wave of dizziness passed through me. My vision swam, black around the edges. My knees buckled and I struck out with one blood-smeared hand to break my fall, felt my feet slip out from under me.

Evelyn lurched forward and caught me under the armpits.

She hissed with pain as her left leg buckled and we fell together on our knees, instead of face down on the rocks.

I clung to her shoulders, squeezed my eyes shut as my consciousness ebbed back, along with the throb of pain in my head. Evelyn did her best to hold me up as I sagged, but she wasn’t very strong.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I let go,” I said, gripped by an urge to explain myself, explain why we were here, like I was embarrassed to be rescuing her from this nowhere-place. “This morning, when I felt your hand, I wasn’t strong enough. I-I didn’t know I could do this, I thought it was all insanity, I wasn’t- didn’t think it was real.”

“Oh, I probably wouldn’t have saved me either.” Evelyn’s voice quivered beneath the veneer of cynicism. I pulled back and she looked at me with mouth agape.

“What? What is it?”

“Are you aware you’re bleeding from around your eyes?”

I wiped my face. My sleeve came away smeared with sticky crimson. “Huh. That’s new.”

Evelyn looked at me like I was mad. Which I wasn’t. Not anymore. Too numb to panic over blood from the eyes. One more misfiring bodily process wasn’t worth my attention.

We had to get out.

I had to do it all over again, in reverse.

A second peal of thunder ripped through the landscape, juddering our bones and shaking my brain. Evelyn suppressed a scream and dug her fingers into my upper arms. The rotten-apricot clouds bulged downward, a swell in an inverted ocean, surrounded by a churning vortex widening by the second.

“Something knows we’re here,” Evelyn said. She nodded toward the creatures in the mist. They were less than forty feet from us now, frozen again in the wake of the thunder, clutching at the ground. “They certainly do.”

“It’s okay, it’s fine, it’s-” Not real?

Evelyn stared at me, wide eyed. “We are most certainly not fine.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know.”

“Then do it, get us out of here, before-”

Thunder, deeper and longer and louder, the voice of an angry god. We clung to each other, two tiny soft vulnerable apes surrounded by stone and metal and sharp bladed things. The thunder rolled and rolled, ten seconds, twenty seconds, and just when I thought it was never going to stop, it began to ebb away.

Evelyn wasn’t looking up. She didn’t see the sky.

The cloud bulge parted; a black rope of tentacle reached through.

The distance, the scale. Thick as a train tunnel.

I tore my eyes away.

“Okay, okay.” I felt sick as my mind touched the Eye’s lessons. “Just hold onto me. I think I can move both of us, I dunno but it’s-”

“You think? Oh God, can you or can’t you?”

“I can. I know I can. It just hurts so much and-”

I never got to finish that sentence, because the world reared up and shook us from its back.

The thunder roared and the ground shuddered. Evelyn and I scrambled to find something to hold onto, slipping and sliding across the floor of the pit, barely clinging to each other.

The great black tentacle rushed down toward us. Displaced air washed away the mist, revealing the knife-and-bone-creatures all around. They were screeching, screaming as they crouched low to the ground, long claws dug into the rock, hind legs locked against the stone.

They’d anchored themselves, like fleas in the hide of a dog.

I realised, in that moment of clarity, exactly what we’d been standing on all along.

Whatever it was, it was scratching its back.

The ground shook side to side in a sudden burst of motion, so fast neither of us had time to brace. The first shake threw us against the floor, bruised my hip and the side of my ribs and drew a sharp cry of pain from Evelyn.

The second shake sent us flying.

The ground span beneath us as we were tossed out of the dip in the landscape like rag dolls. It was a miracle neither of us passed out or suffered whiplash. Evelyn’s hands clawed my arm and she screamed over the rush of air as we fell, her hair lose and streaming out in the wind.

I wasn’t letting her go this time. I tightened a death-grip around her shoulders.

People with much more courage than me don’t have time to think while they’re falling from the sky. I certainly didn’t think. That might be what saved us. I groped with my mind for the right formula, the correct equation to take us back home.

Out.

My head exploded. For a second I thought we’d hit the ground and this was death, but Evelyn was still screaming.

Then I saw it, grasped it, had it. Not with my eyes, but with my soul, or what passes for a soul in creatures as small as us, compared to the black, dripping truth of the engines and gears of reality I was trying to manipulate.

“Close your eyes!” I screamed, hoping Evelyn could still hear me.

Reality folded up.


==


Evelyn and I landed with a soft thump on the floorboards of her front room.

We didn’t let go of each other for a very, very long moment, even when Raine scrambled to her feet from nearby.

“Evee! Heather! Fuck, yes!” She laughed with relief. “How- what- you know what, I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth, this is amazing, I don’t care how you did it.”

I managed to meet her eyes but I couldn’t form any words. My body felt distant, a shell I inhabited on a whim. Evelyn gingerly rolled off me and sat in a heap.

“You two, holy shit, I can’t believe that worked,” Raine continued. “Heather, wow, I-”

“I don’t know what you’re laughing at,” Evelyn said. Her voice croaked, thin and strained, but she cleared her throat and out came the barbed tongue. “This is all your fault, you realise that?”

“What?” Raine blinked, a goofy smile on her face.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, you know perfectly well what you’ve done.”

“Me?” Raine spread her arms. “Evee, come off it, you’re the one who decided to try untested magic without me here.”

“Well you should have been here to stop me, shouldn’t you?”

Evelyn turned to look down at me. She dropped the scorn she’d used on Raine and met my eyes with naked concern. I tried to blink. Eyelids were heavy as iron.

Raine laughed. “I don’t believe you. Come off-”

“This is no time for auguring.” Evelyn clicked her fingers at Raine. “Get a glass of a water, the chocolate in the tin, and some of the painkillers – the good stuff, the co-codamol, and be quick about it.”

Raine opened her mouth to argue but then finally realised I wasn’t sitting up or saying anything. She all but ran out of the room. Good Raine, could always rely on her. Shouldn’t have distrusted her. It was all real, wasn’t it? All of it.

“And you did kill the thing that came through in my place, yes?” Evelyn called after her.

“It’s under the bin bags!”

Evelyn returned her attention to me. “Heather, Heather can you hear me? What you did there was very brave. Oh dear,” she whispered. “Please don’t die now.” She reached down and awkwardly patted my cheek. I realised she was trying to slap me to keep me conscious.

With great effort I managed to turn my head to one side, then heaved with every last ounce of energy I had and rolled myself over into the recovery position. The world went dark for a moment.

Directly across from me lay the dead monster, underneath some black bin liners Raine had draped over the shattered corpse. Poor, lost thing, transported to another dimension where nothing made sense, unable to go home, then confronted by two terrifying apes and beaten to death when it had responded in fear. Not fair, was it?

Raine returned and helped pull me into a sitting position, though I whined and resisted, just wanted to lie down and sleep forever. She held a glass to my lips and made me drink drink small, sharp sips of cold water as I stared into middle distance. She broke off a piece of dark chocolate and held it up.

“It’s okay, Heather, you don’t have to eat a lot.”

“You need it for the serotonin,” Evelyn said, breaking off several squares for herself. “Best medicine after too much exposure.”

I just stared at it. Didn’t register as food. Raine shot a wordless glance at Evelyn.

“No, Raine, I have no idea what’s wrong with her,” Evelyn said. “She did all that with nothing except her own brain. Even my mother couldn’t do that. Heather, open your mouth.”

I accepted being fed, too distant and dissociated for embarrassment. Sip water, eat bite of chocolate; the process went on for ten, fifteen minutes until I begun to feel merely exhausted instead of dead.

“ … the … ” I coughed – a spike of headache pain – and tried again. “The painkillers would be nice.”

Raine lit up and sighed with relief.

“She’s back, she’ll be fine,” Evelyn said.

Raine grinned. “I’ll bet. Here, courtesy of Evee’s supply.”

I swallowed the pills with a mouthful of water, licked my lips and realised I was still smeared with my own blood. I made a half-hearted attempt to wipe my face on my sleeve. “What … what-”

“Shhh, don’t worry about it right now.”

“Go run her a bath, we’re both filthy,” Evelyn said. “And fetch my stick, I’m sick of cowering on the floor.”


==


By the time I woke, night had fallen on Sharrowford.

The hour after we’d returned from the Stone-world was a soft blur of bodily need and bare consciousness. Raine had helped me up the stairs and into the bathroom. I was barely able to undress myself, all my movements slow and stiff, clothes stuck to skin with half-dry cold sweat. I’d pushed away Raine’s well-intentioned help, far too embarrassed to let her strip me. In the end it took me ten minutes just to get my clothes off while she waited outside.

In the bath, I’d drifted off for a long time, soaking in the hot water. Couldn’t recall the last time I’d had a bath. Always showers. Less dangerous. Eventually I summoned the energy to wash the blood off my face and the iron tang of that other world off my body. Raine left me clean clothes, a baggy tshirt and plaid pajama bottoms which I assumed belonged to Evelyn. Took an awfully long time to get into them.

I let Raine guide me to Evelyn’s bedroom, where she told me to lie on the bed. She’d draped a blanket over me and said to sleep as long as I needed. If I’d been tucked into bed by a girl like Raine a few days ago, I’d have been over the moon, too excited for sleep, but I passed out the moment my head touched the pillow.

Nothing like a supernatural near-death experience to disarm anxiety disorders. I wouldn’t recommend it though.

Only now, sitting up on the mass of quilts and sheets on Evelyn’s bed, did I feel a distant twinge of embarrassment.

A little streetlight glow filtered around the edge of the curtains, but otherwise the room was dark. The door had been left ajar. I tested the strength in my legs, then wobbled over and peered out into the corridor. A light showed from downstairs.

I descended the stairs slowly, one at a time like a small child, clutching the old wooden banister to hold myself up. My head still ached with pain’s echo and my legs trembled as I walked, but that was nothing; weakness radiated from my core, as if I’d pulled a muscle I hadn’t known about. Halfway down I smelled greasy food and my stomach grumbled. Soft muttered conversation broke off as the stairs creaked.

In the front room the magic circle was gone. Cleaned away. A dark stain lingered nearby.

I found Evelyn and Raine sitting at the kitchen table.

“Heather!” Raine stood up and took my hands. “How do you feel? You slept okay, yeah?”

“I’ve been better,” I mumbled.

“I bet, I bet,” Raine said. “Come on, sit down. You hungry?”

“ … extremely.”

Evelyn sipped from a mug of tea and met my eyes with quiet regard. She was freshly scrubbed, hair washed and pinned up behind her head. She had a fluffy blanket draped over her shoulders, tshirt and shorts underneath.

I tried not to stare at her – at her problems.

The kitchen was all cracked tiles, wooden counters, and a massive metal stove, rustic and cosy and very much my kind of place. An antiquated survival into the modern world. Heat poured from a naked iron radiator bolted to the back wall. Raine settled me in a chair and set about reheating some of the chicken stew they’d been eating.

Sitting hurt. I took a moment to probe my left hip and the side of my ribs, left elbow and shoulder. Bruises from Outside.

”Starting to feel the aftermath, are you?” Evelyn said. “It’ll be worse in the morning.”

She was bruised too, a nasty purple welt on her chin and I assumed more underneath her clothes. I tried to give her a smile.

“You can look, if you want. No need to pretend you don’t see,” she said.

“Wait ‘till she’s got some food in her, hey Evee?” Raine said, spooning rice into my bowl of chicken and setting it in front of me. The greasy smell made my mouth water.

“I think Heather is more than capable of fending for herself.” Evelyn turned to me, expression softer than the one she kept for Raine. “I don’t let people see me like this, but I assume our relationship is rather past that point.”

“Nothing like saving a girl’s life to break the ice,” Raine said. Evelyn shot her a withering look.

In tiny, selfish way, I agreed with Raine; I felt guilty, as if I’d taken a dirty shortcut to Evelyn’s heart.

“I was only being polite,” I said. “It’s rude to stare at … “ I gestured with my eyes at her bare legs.

Well, what remained of them.

Evelyn’s left leg was twisted at the knee and ankle, the muscles thin and withered, as if it had once been broken in multiple places and healed at the wrong angles. She flexed her left foot as if to show me it still worked.

Her right leg, the good one, was artificial.

A pale rubber socket ringed the stump of her thigh, attached to the matte-black curve of a modern prosthetic limb. It terminated in a blade-shaped support-structure inside a plastic foot. It looked wrong, a blunt piece of machinery attached soft flesh, but it was far less weird than everything else so far today.

“Carbon fiber,” she said.

“State of the art stuff. Costs an arm and a leg,” Raine said, and cracked a huge grin. Evelyn rolled her eyes, and I could tell by her expression she’d heard that joke a million times before. A tiny pang of jealousy pricked at me, but I was too hungry to care.

“I have to eat.”

Evelyn just stared level at me, so I dug in.

Rice and chicken. Doesn’t sound like much, but it was the first proper home cooked food I’d eaten in weeks. Not a cereal bar or a microwave ready-meal or coffee. The empty, bruised space inside me responded with the most intense hunger of my life, and I had to force myself to go slow. A wave of animal gratitude passed through me. I asked who made it. Raine had. Salt and pepper, oregano and cumin. Real food, made by a – friend?

Raine busied herself clearing up the table, but Evelyn watched me and sipped cold tea. Raine kept giving her meaningful looks, which drew worse and worse counter-glares from Evelyn until I was sitting in the firing line of an emotional cold war.

“I have not forgotten, Raine,” Evelyn said eventually, thumping her mug down. “The severity of my-” she bit the words back and took a sharp breath. “The moment requires significantly more gravity.”

“Iiiiif you say so.” Raine sat back at the table, turned a smile on me and touched my arm. “Let me know if you need anything, okay? There’s brownies in the fridge, if you fancy one for afters.”

“Do you really think I’m that callous?” Evelyn carried on. “That much of a bitch? Your confidence in me is touching. We’ve both been through rather a traumatic experience today, Heather and I. Give me a moment.”

Raine held up both hands in surrender, a barely controlled smile on her lips. “I didn’t say anything.”

I swallowed a mouthful of food and put my spoon down with a clack. “Will you two stop it? Please? I can’t deal with you bickering on top of … everything else. Not right now.”

Raine had the good grace to look sheepish. Evelyn nodded and took a deep breath. She sat up straight and a suppressed wince passed over her face. She struggled with her posture for a moment before she caught my eye and spoke.

“Heather, I want to thank you, for rescuing me. You have my gratitude, and I am in your debt.”

I blinked at her.

“That’s her way of being friendly,” Raine said.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “You have no sense of gravitas, Raine. Absolutely none.”

“Uh, sure, you’re— you’re very welcome?” I shrugged. “I don’t even know what I did, not really.”

“Mm, yes, so you say.” Evelyn leaned back in her chair with obvious physical relief.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m not interested in the what. I know what you did. You breached the membrane between here and Outside, and you did so without any magical tools or devices, no access to the relevant books, no knowledge, no training, no history. Your mind, alone. I want to know how.”

I held up a hand – the how presented itself to me in a flash of the Eye’s lessons, and suddenly the food in my belly turned to lead. “I can’t- it’s very difficult for me to talk about this. I-I-”

“Hey, Evee, maybe drop this?” Raine said softly.

“Raine filled me in on the basics, the things you told her about,” Evelyn said. “But I need more, I need the details. Yes, there’s some entity out there feeding you hyperdimensional mathematics in your dreams, but-”

I curled up, cold sweat beading on my forehead, nausea roiling in my belly. “E-Evelyn I-”

“- what I don’t understand is how you executed it, any of it-”

“Evee, drop it, seriously,” Raine raised her voice. “She’s exhausted and I told you this makes her ill.”

“Will you stop babying her?” Evelyn turned on Raine. “Not everybody needs your bloody ministrations twenty-four seven.”

I lurched out of my chair, shoved my face over the kitchen sink, and vomited.

The edges of my vision throbbed black. My knees buckled. My body had nothing more to give. Gentle hands touched my back and Raine murmured in my ear, talked me through each deep breath. Clear mind. Just breathe.

I groped for the tap and washed my mouth out, then turned on Evelyn. She was frowning at me, confused. Same expression I’d seen on a dozen would-be friends in my early teens; oh dear, turns out little Heather Morell is crazy. Better handle her like blown glass.

“I don’t know anything,” I snapped. “This is what happens, when I try to think about it. Well done, thank you for that, Evelyn, thank you. Why do you think I was bleeding so much when I came for you? Bleeding from my eyes? It’s not supposed to be in my head, it’s alien, and it’s killing me.”

I forced myself to hold her gaze, to stand straight, hanging onto Raine for support. I wasn’t really angry at Evelyn. I was angry at everything, life, reality, the Eye, all my certainties crumbling beneath me. No outlet for the frustration.

“Heather, hey, let’s get you sat down again, okay?” Raine purred.

Evelyn swallowed and looked away.

I allowed myself to be sat back down, rubbing my tender stomach muscles. Raine put a glass of water in front of me. I drank slowly.

“Some of us never had the luxury of fragility,” Evelyn said.

“Evee, for fuck’s sake,” Raine said.

I gave Evelyn a very unimpressed look. She cleared her throat. “What I mean to say is, it’s difficult for me to place myself in your shoes, Heather. I’m quite used to all of this.”

“What, almost dying in other dimensions?”

“Well, no, not that, that was new.” Evelyn looked awkward and took a long sip from her mug. She settled it back on the table and stared at it for a moment before she continued. “I suppose you need it right from the top. Very well. I am a magician, and Raine is my bodyguard.”

Raine slapped the table. “Come on, at least upgrade me to companion. Champion, even! Childhood friend, at the very least?”

“You might not believe in what you’ve seen today-”

“She’s been practising this for hours,” Raine stage-whispered. Evelyn stopped and glared daggers at her.

I glanced between their faces, trying to gauge if this was serious. Of course it was. Did I doubt everything I’d seen today? The blood, the sweat, the choice I’d made, to save Evelyn?

A tiny, screaming part of me refused to accept this was real.

I’d ignored the most important implication.

If this was real, then —




no




A great tightness seized my chest.

Had to distract myself. Deny, deny, deny.

“Magician?” I repeated, struggling to keep my voice level.

“Yes. Magician. Mage. Wizard. Whatever term makes most sense to you.”

“So, what, you … ” An unbidden laugh entered my voice, the leading edge of hysteria. “Throw fireballs and talk to black cats? Do you have a cauldron in the basement? Dancing brooms?” A hiccup slipped out as I fought to control myself. “Is that what the Medieval Metaphysics department is all about? A secret magic school in Sharrowford university?”

Evelyn sighed and sagged heavily in her chair.

“Not that sort of magic,” Raine said with a sad kind of smile. “It’s a bit more difficult than that.”

”The department is a convenient bureaucratic fiction,” Evelyn said. “Protective colouration. It did exist, from 1902 to 1954, for the study of the sorts of things I do, but it wasn’t in the open, you understand? Respectable academia was a cover for a tiny coven of men from the university – professors Ambleworth and Wakeley, and a few hangers-on – who founded the department when they encountered certain books they shouldn’t have been in possession of, things they shouldn’t have seen. Ambleworth went mad in 1948 and died in a mental hospital. Wakeley blew his own brains out two years later. The others limped on for a little while but there was another suicide and a scandal, that ended it.

“All that’s left is the book collection in the university library, rare things, things you can’t find anywhere else unless you’re part of the right clandestine cliques. I know all this because my family was involved — is involved. Now the department is just me. When one’s family has donated as much money to an academic institution as mine has, they sort of let you do what you want, as long as you keep it quiet and appear respectable.” She pulled herself up, looked me in the eye. “And what I do there is study the books. Officially I’m getting a degree in Classics.”

A battered spark flickered inside me. “Classics? You’re learning Latin and Ancient Greek?”

“I don’t need to learn them, I was taught them as a child. Came with the family obligations. I turn in a few essays every term and the university turns a blind eye. I’m even lined up for a postdoctorate program afterward. They don’t have a clue, it’s just me and Raine. If you meet any other magicians in this city then it’s too late, you’re already dead.”

The way she spoke the last words made my skin crawl. I blinked at her.

“Yeah, it’s more Hannibal Lecter than Harry Potter out there,” Raine said, then caught the look on my face and put her hand over mine. “Hey, that’s why I’m here.”

“There is no community of mages,” Evelyn went on. “There’s my … family,” she made the word sound like an insult. “There’s a few dangerous cults worshipping things they shouldn’t – a couple of them right here in Sharrowford – a few lone madmen, maybe even one or two others like me, and there’s things out there in the city we try to avoid. And you, apparently.”

I shook my head slowly.

“No, no this isn’t real.” My voice quivered. I had to convince myself. The alternative was unthinkable. “You’re just … this is just a story. This is some fantasy nonsense play-acting. It’s not real.”

Evelyn frowned. “You need more proof than what happened today? You provided your own proof quite handily, I thought.”

“Yes, but what if I’m crazy?” I had to bite my lips for a moment to control my voice. “What if you two have been watching me and stalking me, cataloguing and recording my behaviour, and you’re both perfect improv actors pulling some sick joke on me, riffing off whatever I’ve hallucinated today?” Evelyn blinked in surprise but Raine nodded sagely. “These are the sorts of questions I have to ask myself.”

“Didn’t Raine kill the tick in front of you? Wasn’t that real enough?” Evelyn asked.

“The what?”

“The tick, the thing which came through in my place, when I completed the swap. That’s what I’ve decided to call it, unless I find it properly described and categorised elsewhere. I think that’s what those things were. That, or fleas. The proof is still right over there.” Evelyn gestured at the kitchen doorway.

I looked round and saw what I’d missed in the front room. Several black bin bags bulged next to the stairs, double-wrapped, sealed with duct tape.

Dissociation washed over me as I imagined the contents of those bags, as I looked back at my new friends and noticed other details I’d missed earlier: the shiny clean nightstick on the kitchen sink draining board, next to a butcher’s cleaver.

“Hey, somebody’s gotta do it,” Raine said, smiling awkwardly. “Don’t be scared of me, yeah?”

“That’s okay, I’m not scared.”

Raine’s violence had turned me on earlier, the rush and the romance of it, but the thought of her chopping up a body and stuffing it into rubbish bags left me ice cold.

This couldn’t be real, because if it was —

Traitor, weakling, coward.

The void yawned wider.

“It’s not real,” I whispered.

Evelyn steepled her fingers and considered for a moment. “Raine, pass me the fade stone.”

Raine fetched something from the kitchen counter and pressed it into Evelyn’s palm – the chunk of white quartz I’d seen her holding twice before.

“Pay close attention,” Evelyn said.

I stared at her, not sure what to expect. She held the piece of quartz in her lap and closed her fist around it, then lowered her eyes in concentration.

She wasn’t there.

Oh, I thought, I missed her standing up and going into the other room. I looked up and around, caught Raine smirking at me. I cleared my throat and frowned with mounting confusion. “Wait, wait, I was supposed to be watching Evelyn.”

“Heather, look at the chair,” Raine said, barely able to hold back a laugh.

“And don’t laugh at me. I still haven’t forgiven you for earlier, Raine, laughing at me when I was on the verge of a panic attack.”

She cleared her throat, sheepish now. “Take a look at the chair, seriously.”

I glanced back at Evelyn’s chair. The blanket she’d had wrapped around her shoulders lay draped over the back. Her walking stick was propped against the armrest.

“And?”

“And nothing,” Evelyn said.

She was sitting exactly where she’d been before, and somehow I simply hadn’t seen her. The blanket was wrapped around her shoulders again.

I blinked at her, felt a dislocation of time and space, like reality had just failed and glitched out.

“Where- where did you go? What just happened? Don’t- don’t try to confuse me, I … ”

Evelyn held up the quartz chunk. “This stone, a little piece of inheritance. The right sequence of thoughts, personal silence, a little practice, and the user is edited from the sight of an observer. I don’t quite know where it came from, but I suspect my family made it somehow. You’ve seen it before, I was using it Outside, to hide from the ticks, and from you, when you barged into the Medieval Metaphysics room.”

“Hiding from me? I’m not exactly threatening.”

“I told you. There are things and people in this city we want to avoid. You could have been anybody.”

“Okay, that was … okay.” I swallowed, throat dry. My hands were shaking.

Raine stood up, stepped behind my chair, and started to rub my shoulders. I shrugged her off and pushed her away.

“Heather, hey, it’s good for you, I promise I’m not-”

I turned on her as the ground began to crumble beneath my feet. I groped for a way out, anything to hold back that one thought.

“Are you even real?” I demanded.

“ … Heather? Of course I’m real.” Raine grinned and spread her arms. “I’m flesh and blood, you can touch me as much as you like.”

“No, this isn’t real, neither of you are real. You—” I clamped down on the lump in my throat, the wrenching in my chest. “You’re too good to be true, Raine. You’ve everything I need, you’re a walking, talking fantasy, my brain telling itself a fairytale about being accepted and wanted. About a cool older girl taking me under her wing. You’re not real.”

“Heather-”

Tears were rolling down my cheeks. I fought to keep speaking.

“No! How can you be real? What a coincidence, that you’re here in Sharrowford, that you happen to go to the Aardvark on the exact morning I did, at the exact time I did. What a coincidence that I have a breakdown and you just happen to see me. You’re not real. This is my fantasy and I’m sitting in an empty house in the dark, talking to myself.”

Evelyn and Raine shared a glance. Evelyn looked like a deer in headlights.

I knew I was being unfair, scrabbling for the slimmest handhold I had left to deny, deny, deny.

“Heather,” Evelyn said. “You performed a technical miracle today. You can’t-”

I rounded on her. “And you, you’re even worse. You’re the unspoken promise that my insanity means something. That being crazy has a purpose. You’re the beginning of paranoid schizophrenia, persecution complexes, banging my head against a padded cell wall for the rest of my life.”

“Have you finished?” Evelyn asked. I tried to stare her down, but I felt like a sick child.

“Why Sharrowford? Why are you even here?” I said. “Can either of you answer that?”

“The Eye has been feeding you knowledge for a decade,” Evelyn said. “The most likely explanation is that it wanted you in Sharrowford, so it nudged you to choose the university. I’m not surprised, considering the nature of the city, the sorts of things that happen here.”

“Heather, it’s okay.” Raine tried to take my hand but I flinched away from her.

“That still doesn’t explain you two,” I said.

Raine leaned down so I couldn’t avoid her face. “Heather, hey. Sometimes you get lucky. The nightmares stopped, didn’t they? Even if we’re not real, that’s a pretty good trade off.”

That look on her face – the kindness, the understanding, the bloody-minded stubborn refusal to give up on me – shattered my last line of defence, and I started crying.

I wrapped my arms around my head and rocked in place on the chair, great big wet sobs ripping out of my throat. Ten years of bullshit and lies. Ten years of being this and the whole thing fell apart around me and I couldn’t keep it out anymore. I scrubbed at my eyes, hid my face behind my hands, drew my feet up onto the chair and tried to curl into a ball. “It can’t be real it can’t be real it can’t be real.”

Raine put her arms around me, held on tight. I tried to push her off but I didn’t care anymore, gave up and buried my face in her shoulder. She could cut me up and shove me in bin liners like the monster if she wanted, because I was living trash.

“Shhhhh, it’s okay, Heather, it’s okay.”

“It’s not, it’s not, it’s never okay,” I cried.

“It will be, it-”

Couldn’t deny it any longer. The truth came out in a wail, at last:

“I left her behind.”

Neither of them said anything for a long moment, but I could picture it. The shared look over my head, Evelyn’s frown, Raine’s realisation. I kept going, pouring it all out between the wracking sobs and the horrible pain in my chest.

“My sister. Maisie. My twin. I left her behind in Wonderland. If she was real then I left her behind. I left my sister behind.”


==


“Here, Heather? Try to keep something down, you really need it.”

“I don’t feel like eating.”

I’d cried until empty but the wound still ached. Twin-shaped hole in my chest, ten years in the making.

Evelyn had brooded in silence as Raine held me and hugged me and brought me tissues to blow my nose. Eventually I’d uncurled, sat up and tried not to feel like the worst traitor and coward in the world. A glass of water and long minutes to calm down and think.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think I’d-”

“Heather,” Raine said before I could bury myself under a mountain of apologies. “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to let it all out. That’s some burden, you don’t have to bear it alone.”

“Mm.”

“ … so, are we real now? Gotta start somewhere.”

I shrugged. “What choice do I have? At least I’m not lonely. Imaginary friends are better than dying of a brain aneurysm.”

Raine put her hand over mine and gave me a smile, an it’s-going-to-be-okay smile. “Real friends are even better. Promise you that.”

I shook my head. My throat tightened up but I had no more tears to cry. “I left her behind.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Raine said. “Right, Evee? Could that have been her fault?”

“ … no, of course not. A child, Outside, in a face-to-face encounter with a … with something beyond our comprehension. No. Raine is correct.”

“Survivor’s guilt,” I said. “I know. A ten-year dose all at once. Knowing what it is doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Difficult, I understand,” Evelyn said, with such conviction.

I looked up at Evelyn, this mage with her fluffy golden hair and missing fingers, stolen limbs and spinal problems. I wondered what her history was. What could she do, what were her limits?

A seed of an idea took root in my mind.

A seed only possible after a day like today. I didn’t dare give it light or water.

But I started to ask the questions anyway.

“Why were you even over in … wherever that was?” I gestured at the air, at the Outside places. “You did a spell, took yourself there?”

Evelyn looked away, failing to conceal her discomfort. “In a manner of speaking. You saw the circle, the methods I used. Yes, that was magic. Of a kind.”

“Why go there?”

“She was jealous,” Raine said.

“Oh for pity’s sake, Raine, that is such an ugly word.” Evelyn turned back to me. “I was … intrigued, by what Raine said about your ‘Slipping’ episodes. I didn’t believe it was possible. There were a few relevant passages I recalled from Unbekannte Orte, and an incantation in Stellhoff’s Unfinished Book, but I’d never risked the procedures before. And … well, as it turned out, there was no way to bring myself back again. Hubris and arrogance. Raine should have been here to stop me.”

“There’s nothing about me to be jealous of,” I muttered.

“Heroism, perhaps.”

“That wasn’t heroism. I’m a coward. I just had to know if it was all real.”

Raine opened her mouth, probably to stop me beating myself up, but Evelyn spoke first.

“Hardly the act of a coward, to voluntarily put oneself through such a test. I should know.”

I said nothing, took up my food again, just to fill the roaring silence inside my head, but it tasted bland and chewy now. Raine kept trying to catch my eye with another smile, and after a few moments I let her.

At least I had that. At least Raine was real.

If a bit weird.

Raine was busy saying something about a permanent solution to my nightmares – but I paid another sliver of attention to the dangerous seed in my mind.

“Evelyn,” I said. “Tell me about magic, please.”

Evelyn started to speak, but Raine raised her voice and took my hand.

“Look, Heather, you’ve been through a lot today. You can worry about all that tomorrow.”

“No,” I said, and pulled my hand away. She was pretty and she was dashing and the memory of the earlier violence still sent a thrill through me at the sight of her, but not like this. “I’m not going to be treated like a child. If you’re going to treat me like that, I’m going to just go home and … and forget about both of you.”

It was an obvious bluff, but I kept my poker face. Raine smiled all the same. Evelyn let out a dark laugh.

“Perhaps you were right, Raine,” she said. “Heather and I are a little alike.”

For the next hour, with the wind picking up outside, they told me truths.

Magic, according to Evelyn, was not throwing fireballs or waving pretty wands, it was not casting the runes or reading the future in tealeaves. It was blood and bone and the application of human willpower onto the secret workings of the cosmos. It was stolen half-remembered scraps of Latin and Greek and older, inhuman languages from a time we best left forgot. It was to scream the names of alien gods and their unseen workings in the hope a fragment of knowledge would yield a result. It was frequently unclean and dangerous and potentially obscene.

As I came to learn, her words did not do it justice. No words can.

Raine and Evelyn had known each for years. Evelyn became terse and evasive over the details, but I gathered that she’d had problems with her family’s expectations of her, and Raine had stepped in to help. I found out later what exactly those expectations were, but at the time I left Evelyn to her privacy.

Raine convinced me to eat again as we talked, and this time I kept it all down. She fixed me a mug of hot chocolate and offered to add a slug of vodka from the fridge.

“No, thank you.”

“It’ll help, promise. It’s hardly the devil’s juice, it’s not even Tesco Value, and I’m only gonna give you a little drop. You’re not allergic or anything?”

”No, no, I’m not.” I sighed. Why not abandon another foundation? “What the heck. Go ahead.”

Peer pressure. Not something I ever experienced back in school. Never went to parties, never had any real close friends, never got offered a cigarette or stolen alcohol. That had always been for bad girls, people going off the rails, and I hardly needed any extra help to do that.

The hot chocolate went down smooth, chased with a sharp aftertaste and a slow warmth radiating out from my chest. I drank more, sighed, and realised I’d never done this either – sat in a cosy, comfy room with people my age. Friends? My soul was weak and sputtering, but I felt it. I wanted more.

“Where do I fit in to all this? What happened to me? Maisie and I?”

My throat caught when I said her name, but I had to say it now.

“I don’t know,” Evelyn said, shaking her head. “I could make an educated guess, but I don’t know what it was that took you, what it wanted, anything about it. This Eye — I guarantee we’re all much happier in ignorance of the motivations of such a being.”

Raine got up and crossed behind my chair as Evelyn spoke. She went in for the shoulder rub again and this time I let her touch me, stiff and tense at first, wincing as she melted the knots out of my muscles. Evelyn looked on with barely concealed distaste. I wondered if it was jealousy, but I didn’t have the extra mental bandwidth for that right now.

“Why do I see the things I do? If they’re not hallucinations, then … “

Evelyn studied me for a quiet moment. “I have a theory.”

“Theories for everything, our Evee’s got,” Raine said. “One for every day of the year.”

Evelyn fixed Raine with a dagger-stare. “Will you stop that? And I am usually correct.” Raine held up one hand in surrender and Evelyn continued. “I suspect your waking visions are the ability to see pneuma-somatic fauna, without aid of trance-state or device, likely an intention or side-effect of the Eye’s changes. I’ve never heard of it before, I have no idea if it’s possible, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Pneuma-somatic fauna,” I echoed, deadpan. “Means what, exactly?”

“Well … a less technical term … that is-”

“Say iiiiiiit,” Raine said, lighting up with a grin. “You know you want to.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and huffed. “Spirits. You can see spirits, anima, kami, whatever you want to call them. Though I suspect you of all people don’t need to be told that doesn’t mean bedsheet ghosts and headless ladies.”

My menagerie of horrors? I nodded.

“And there was that Servitor following me, don’t forget,” Raine said, a hint of smug pride in her voice.

“Yes yes, we’ll have to look into that,” Evelyn waved her down and fixed me with a penetrating gaze. “More importantly, Heather, as Raine has made it abundantly clear to me, you want the nightmares and the visions to stop, to go away. Correct?”

‘Yes’ died on my lips. Evelyn saw more than she let on.

She saw the seed, growing.

“Heather?” Raine prompted.

“Because that is not the only option,” Evelyn continued. “You deserve to know that. You did things today, with nothing but your mind, and that-”

“I think now’s a little too late at night, Evee,” Raine said. “And uh, practical issues first, right?”

“You see? Raine would have me coddle you.”

“Evee, come on, you promised,” Raine said.

“I did no such thing.”

“You did! And hey, she saved your life today, don’t be a shit about this. You’re not the only one who can sulk.”

“Stop it. Both of you,” I hissed, shrugged Raine’s hands off my shoulders. “Stop talking past me and over me like I’m not here. Promised what?”

“I’m gonna put the warding sign back on your hand,” Raine said. “And under your pillow, and on your door. And Evelyn here, my lifelong friend and ally,” she said with an unexpected twist to her tone. “Is going to help look into a more permanent solution. Aren’t you?”

Evelyn looked unimpressed, arms folded.

“If you can make the nightmares stop, then … ” I swallowed hard.

It had been ten years. One night in Wonderland had ruined me.

Not the only option?

Revenge?

Rescue?

I dared not touch the idea too closely. White hot and impossible. Ten years? Couldn’t think this way, I’d drive myself over the edge. My resolution must have shown on my face, because Evelyn took a deep breath and answered me.

“Yes, yes I believe we can stop the nightmares. Using the warding sign will buy us time for a more permanent solution. We’ll have to see.”

“There you go, wasn’t so hard, was it?” Raine asked. Evelyn huffed.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I muttered. “In more ways than one.”

“It’ll be okay, I promise,” Raine said, and squeezed my shoulders.

“Says you.”

“Yeah, damn, right, says me. Welcome to the real world, Heather.”

And then there were three.


==


I suppose you want to hear about the rest of it, don’t you? About the events in Sharrowford the following year, the ones which made the national news, the ones you don’t know half the truth about. And after, about how we turned back the clawing at the rim of reality.

But first, about those in Sharrowford my new friends were so eager to avoid.

And about my twin sister. About Maisie.

Don’t come here.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

mind; correlating – 1.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I halted at the garden gate to Evelyn’s house as Raine stepped onto the path. When she realised I wasn’t following, she turned and raised her eyebrows at me.

“You have to be joking,” I said. “Evelyn lives here, alone?”

“Her family owns the house. It’s complicated. Come on, it’ll be fine, she won’t bite, not this time.”

We’d left campus about twenty minutes ago, skirted the northern side of the the student district and crossed over into Sharrowford’s frayed eastern edge. Overlarge houses from another era squatted between weed-choked empty lots. Further west, toward the city’s core, these sorts of hulks got redeveloped, but out here they were home to the occasional student squat, older people unable to move away, and those hanging on to second homes in the vain hope of selling them one day. It wasn’t unsafe, but it wasn’t pretty either.

My hallucinations loved this place. Shaggy mammoths of hide and scale strode across the horizon, ghoulish forms watched us from dark corners and whipped away as we approached, and low-prowling canine shapes flowed back into the streets behind us as we passed, padding after me with pack curiosity.

I tried to ignore the itch between my shoulder blades, the feeling of being cut off, retreat blocked.

Raine held my hand nearly the whole way. I hadn’t known what to do about that, hadn’t wanted to risk commenting in case she stopped. At first I was self-conscious. What if somebody saw us? But as we settled into a rhythm of walking I allowed myself to enjoy the moments of peace and quiet alongside a person I wanted, so badly, to trust.

When we stopped in front of number 12 Barnslow Drive I wondered for an abstracted moment if she was a serial killer and if this was where she hid the bodies.

Evelyn’s house was a late Victorian redbrick monster draped with a mantle of overgrown ivy, a few tiny sash windows peering out into the street, all of them with curtains drawn. Blue tarpaulin patches peeked out from the damaged slate roof. The garden had gone to seed, grass matted and crowded out by moss, one huge tree in the back rustling in the wind. The garden path was at least clear of debris but the paving stones were cracked and weathered. Framed by the overcast sky above Sharrowford that afternoon, this house was the last place I wanted to be.

Raine’s own obvious trepidation didn’t help. She wore her usual encouraging smile as she squeezed my hand and coaxed me over the garden threshold, but a tightness had seized her eyes, a thrumming expectation in her movements.

She’d tried to call Evelyn three more times on the way here. Straight to voice mail. Text messages too, no response.

She finally let go of my hand once we reached the front door, and shot me an attempt at a reassuring look. “Seriously, Heather, take a deep breath, it’s gonna be fine this time, I swear.”

I nodded and reminded myself that I wasn’t doing anything that crazy. A girl I sort of liked was trying to get me to be friends with her best friend, that was all. A little social effort and risk. And also they both believed in the occult. Oh well.

What was the alternative? I glanced down the street at the swarm of hallucinations blocking my way out. Didn’t fancy walking back that way alone, shouldering my way through the claws and reeking fur and alien drool. I guessed that was my subconscious telling me I wanted this.

Raine pulled out her bunch of keys and fitted one into the lock.

“You have her door key?” I asked.

“Yeah. Like I said, she’s kinda the whole reason I’m here in Sharrowford. You know, look after her, keep certain kinds of people away from her, make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.” Raine tensed up as she swung the door inward, then relaxed when nothing jumped at us. She took a step inside and called out. “Evee! Evee, s’me.”

I crossed the threshold. Raine closed the door behind us us.

I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I was smitten with that house from the first step.

The large open entrance hall probably used to be grand and fancy, a place to impress social callers. But it had since been hollowed out, re-filled and re-used, like a hermit crab’s shell. Bare floorboards, cracked plaster, exposed ceiling beams. Less faded rectangles of cream colour told where paintings had once hung. Boxes were piled up against one wall, some of them open on stacks of paperback books, others filled with odd bric-a-brac, little pewter statues, painted wooden masks, all sorts of strange things I could have spent hours wondering at.

A grandfather clock stood opposite, ticking away the seconds, a beautiful oak-and-brass relic of the 19th century. I’d never seen a real grandfather clock, they were for haunted houses in old movies. I found the sound calming, unwavering. Several thick rugs covered the floor and the heating was turned up against the gathering cold, pumping from a wall-mounted iron radiator, another real relic. I could see the kitchen visible through one doorway, and some creaky looking stairs vanishing up into the darkness of the second floor. Half the room was cast in shadows by the soft ceiling light.

It was so cosy. No manufactured anonymity in sight. The sort of place I wish I dreamed about. I had to remind myself this house belonged to Evelyn, who had been very rude to me. Perhaps we had some taste in common, at least.

Raine cupped her hands to her mouth. “Evee!”

Silence.

“Hmm, well, all her shoes are here, so she must be in.” Raine puffed out a long breath. “Evelyn!”

I noticed the shoes scattered by the doorway – old trainers, some big weatherproof boots, a pair of fluffy uggs – and a coat and a mac hung up on hooks nearby. A wooden walking stick was propped next to the door. Then I noticed two of the rugs had been rolled up and pushed against the walls, to clear a space.

“Are the carpets meant to be like that … Raine, what is that?”

We hadn’t seen it at first, in the gloom. Raine quickly kicked her shoes off and went for a better look. I slipped my shoes off too and followed her.

It was a magic circle.

You know, like you see in those silly books about pagan rituals and summoning demons, all multiple interlocking rings and esoteric symbols and a few words written in Greek around the edges.

It was drawn with a mixture of chalk and dry-erase marker, straight onto the bare floorboards. The chalk and pens lay nearby, along with a sports bottle full of water and a bag of cheese snacks. A big leather-bound book was open on the floor, on a diagram which looked very much like the magic circle, next to another, smaller modern notebook with additions and redesigns of the symbols.

One of my hallucinations brooded in the darkest corner, a hunched, emaciated thing with no tiny pinpoint black eyes and thin bones, skin stretched over bulging ribs, twitching to itself and plucking at the ground with blunt claws. I did my best not to look. A product of my private tension.

“Ahh jeeze, Evee, what the fuck have you been doing without me?” Raine muttered as she looked down at the circle.

Bile rose in my throat. I had to avert my eyes. The symbols around the edge of the magic circle gave me a terrible sense of deja vu, as if I’d seen them in a nightmare. Great, now new-agey nonsense was becoming a brand new schizophrenic trigger, just what I wanted, thank you Raine.

“This isn’t exactly helping my scepticism,” I said.

Raine looked up and cracked a grin for me. She gestured at the circle. “I don’t even know what this is for. I wish Evee had let me know what she was up to. Could be anything.”

“Such as pulling a prank on a mentally ill girl she doesn’t like much?” I gave a sad little smile and shook my head to let Raine know I wasn’t entirely serious. Wouldn’t surprise me though.

“She’d never do that. I’m serious, she’s really not that bad if you get to-”

The Bone-thing in the corner stood up and stretched itself as Raine spoke, slow and sinuous, like a cat, clicking and grinding its joints. I couldn’t help but glance for a moment. Raine followed my gaze.

Her grin died. Her eyes went wide.

“R-raine?”

“Heather, you see that, right?”

Raine didn’t wait for an answer. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away, hard enough to make me stumble, and put herself between me and the creature.

The Bone-thing stared at us, flexing its claws and unfurling another pair of limbs from its back, delicate arched blade structures tipped with razor-sharp hooks. It clicked and clacked as it whirred its head back and forth, dark grey skin bunching and stretching. The air filled with a scent of acid-etched metal, iron filings and blood. All in my head.

“Raine, there’s n-nothing there.”

Raine bit the tip of her tongue in concentration. She stared it down. A bull-fighter ready for the charge.

The Bone-thing swayed one way, then the other, testing its own weight. I blinked and tried to slow my breathing.

“Y-you can’t see that,” I said. “You’re f-faking it, you just followed the direction of my eyes. Raine, stop-”

The Bone-monster screamed and leapt.

It sprang toward us on kangaroo legs, claw-tipped arms hissing through the air, screeching through a lamprey-eel mouth of ringed teeth. The sound felt like blades rubbed together inside my head, the too-thin bones of its face and naked chest vibrating under pressure.

I’d like to think that under other circumstances I could have ignored it. I’d ignored hallucinations doing much worse before. Instead I screamed and jumped in shock and fell down on my arse with a thump.

In that moment I hated Raine. I hated her for making me suspect a figment of my diseased mind was real, for exploiting my illness, for humiliating me, for terrifying me with my own brain-ghosts.

Raine was ready for it.

That’s kind of what Raine does; takes the impossible in her stride.

She yanked the nightstick out of her jacket, flipped it in her hand, wound up.

And smashed the Bone-monster’s charge to a dead stop.

Couldn’t make sense of what I saw. I sat there like a lemon, unable to process my own sense-data. To be fair, Raine hardly needed any help.

Her first strike caught the Bone-thing across the chest. Apparently those thin ribs weren’t very robust, because they shattered under the stainless steel club, along with my sense of reality. Raine followed through as the monster’s screech warbled out and it crumpled up around its ruined chest, spars of grey rib poking from ragged holes. One bone-tipped limb groped for Raine as she ducked out of the way. She whacked it in the back of the head and it flopped down in a heap, twitching and jerking on the floorboards. She aimed a good hard kick at the thing’s neck, connected with a wet crunch, then hopped back a couple of steps.

Raine let out a victory whoop and shook herself all over, heaving deep shuddering breaths in and out.

When she turned to me, she was grinning; she’d been grinning the whole time.

My hallucination was real and my cute new friend was high on violence. A small, dutiful, still-functioning part of my mind managed to file these facts away for later before it succumbed to numb panic.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “Make sure it’s dead first!”

“What? Oh, yeah.” Raine laughed and turned back to the Bone-Thing. She flipped the nightstick over in one hand and broke the monster’s fragile spine. At least, I assumed it had a spine. It stopped twitching a few moments later. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Raine ran her free hand through her hair and blew out a long, slow breath, forced herself down from whatever psychological precipice she was flirting with. I tried to get up but found my legs were made of jelly.

“Hey, hey, lemme help.” Raine took my hand and pulled me to my feet, braced me against her side until we were both sure I could stand unaided. She squeezed my shoulder. “I remember the way it felt, on my first time seeing weird shit. Take a moment, okay? Take your time.”

“I’m fine, I’m okay, … thank you. “ All I could do was stare at the dead monster on the floor. Raine frowned in my peripheral vision.

“Sure about that, Heather?”

The world seemed very far away. The dead monster on the floor expanded to fill all my senses – the grainy, pitted texture of the grey skin, the smell of acid and metal in the air, the folded, crimped flesh around the claws, the spurs of bone poking through the ripped meat of the ruined ribcage, the pooling blood leaving awful stains on the floorboards.

“Heather? Hey, Heather, look at me.” I ignored Raine and gently pushed away, stepped forward and poked the dead monster with my shoe.

It was solid enough. Weighty. It had mass. I pushed harder, felt the flesh yield and the bones resist.

Then, I gave it a little kick.

“How is this real?” I asked, and the hysteria gripped me at last. “How is this real, Raine?” I turned on her and spread my arms in a shrug, as if this was all her fault. “This thing even looks stupid, it looks like a rubber suit monster from a horror film. And it’s real. It’s real. I can touch it. How can this be a real thing?”

I found I was breathing too hard, my chest tight and my throat constricted.

“This is bullshit,” I said.

Raine laughed. “You’re gonna be fine, Heather. You know, I thought you’d go on full crying jag. This is pretty much the last way I wanted to introduce you to the real world, but you’re taking this great.”

I shot her a dark look. This was, in a way, her fault. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it was better than this.

Raine smiled at me, and I almost couldn’t deal with it; she still held the nightstick, smeared with the creature’s oily black blood. It was right there, dead on the floor a few feet from the magic circle, and she’d killed it. Ten seconds ago she’d committed the most brutal act of physical violence I’d ever witnessed. Wasn’t anything like reading about it. I felt shaky and numb.

And I found her irresistible.

My brain didn’t have any spare bandwidth to deal with the implications of Raine’s violence high or my gut response. I quietly filed away a question – am I attracted to dangerous people, or just likely psychopaths? How did I not know this before? – and crashed back to reality as the adrenaline drained away.

“Quick and really important question,” Raine was saying. “I’m guessing you don’t see any other hallucinations in here, right?”

“No, no I haven’t done. And I better not do.”

“And you didn’t in Willow House, either?”

“How do you know that?” I frowned at her. Raine nodded sagely

“Sneaking suspicion. We’ve got both here and Willow warded against intrusion by various things, and I think it’s dampening whatever causes your visions. So, if you see anything, it’s probably really here.”

I raised both hands in surrender, still teetering on the edge of hysteria. A strange laugh entered my voice. “I can’t- Raine, I can’t- I can’t process this. Okay? I can’t process this. What does this mean?”

“I’ve been trying tell you. It means you’re not crazy.”

“Yes, I am. One monster, which, okay, I’ll admit it’s probably not made of paper-mache and chicken wire, does not explain a lifetime of hallucinations and blackouts. One dead freakshow does not negate schizophrenia.”

“You’re not schizophrenic. I mean, you’re probably not. You might have a touch of it anyway, I don’t know for sure, but that’s not the point. You ain’t crazy, Heather. You’re touched, you’re haunted, and it’s not your fault.”

“What even is this thing?” I gestured down at the monster. “Where did it come from? What’s it doing here? These are basic things that make no sense, Raine!”

“Oh, I have no idea.” Raine laughed. “Evelyn, she … uh.” Raine’s smile died as realisation returned. “Evelyn might. Ahh fuck.” She turned and raised her voice, calling to the empty spaces of the cavernous old house. “Evelyn! Evee!”

“Maybe she’s hiding?”

“Maybe.” Raine glanced down at the monster’s corpse. “No red blood on it, that’s a good sign. Right.”

“ … right, yes.” I swallowed, hard and involuntary.

“Come on, stick with me, in case there’s more of them.” Raine grabbed my hand.

The frantic search for Evelyn acted as a firebreak on my mounting hysteria, gave me a task to focus on, even if I was just tagging along. Raine’s panic helped as well, raw and real and turned to practical ends as she checked corners and slammed doors open and shouted for Evelyn.

Half the light switches in the place didn’t work. The floorboards creaked and the windows let in precious little light. The rooms were a jumble of old, stately furniture and junk piled up in crates and under sheets, except for Evelyn’s comfy, pastel-filled bedroom, the bed piled with layers and a laptop abandoned amid a huge slab desk. Raine raced through a study packed with books, then took the stairs back to the ground floor three at a time and leap the last half-dozen. I struggled to keep up.

I wish my first impression of Evelyn’s house had been less tainted by circumstances. I could have spent days going through those books, peering at the mysterious contents of all those crates, the haul of over a century of family history. So many nooks and crannies, hidden secrets, rooms full of surprises.

She wasn’t there.

Back in the front room Raine seemed lost. We’d covered the whole house. She looked at the nightstick in her hands and stared at the Bone-thing’s corpse for a moment. Then she started toward the door before thinking better of it and backing off. I struggled not to look at either the dead body or the magic circle on the floor. The circle tickled at the edge of my mind, taunting me to pay attention.

“Maybe she went outside?” I tried.

“No, not without her cane.” Raine jerked a thumb at the wooden walking stick propped up against the wall. “She wouldn’t get very far.”

“She needs a cane?”

“Fuck, why can’t I find her mobile phone anywhere?”

“She must … must be here somewhere,” I said. I didn’t believe I was right.

Because Evelyn wasn’t here, was she? She was wherever those ethereal winds had taken her. That unmistakable disfigured hand clutching at my wrist, desperate to hold on.

In a dream, in a hallucination.

In a place only I could go.

Raine’s panic, the distraught look on her face, allowed me to entertain a line of thought I had kept locked and bottled and shuttered for a decade, since I was a scared little girl crying for a twin sister who never existed.

What if all this was real?

Evelyn had insulted me, humiliated me. She was a clear competitor for Raine’s attention. I owed her nothing. What sense was there in risking myself for her? That’s what a sane person would have thought, a self-interested rational actor, with a healthy sense of caution.

You know what I thought?

Nobody deserves Wonderland.

I forced my eyes down, to the magic circle on the floor.

The interlocking design and the symbols meant nothing to me, but my subconscious understood. All those buried lessons from the Eye. The magic circle described more than words; it was a species of mathematics.

The inside of my skull tingled with pressure pain and my stomach clenched with tension.

I squinted and concentrated. The pain climbed as I dredged my memory, trying to connect the circle to the underlying principles I’d been taught over and over again. I hunched up around my chest, my mouth bone dry, back drenched with sudden cold sweat.

“ … Heather?” Raine stared at me.

My eyes teared up, stinging and aching as a great wave built behind them. I hiccuped and tasted bile in my throat, acid reflux as my body rebelled. I wrapped my arms around myself to control the shaking.

“Heather? What’s wrong?”

The relevant lesson burst into my conscious mind, a nightmare-ghost, a present from the Eye.

It was the mental equivalent of plunging my hand into boiling water; I whipped my mind back and howled in pain, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut as the pressure in my head slammed to a blinding spike.

I made it into Evelyn’s kitchen and got my face over the sink before I vomited, once, twice, three times, until my stomach muscles clenched on nothing. My vision blurred and a high-pitched whine invaded my hearing as a nosebleed started. I coughed and snorted out blood and pinched the bridge of my nose.

Raine joined me at the sink, hands on my back. “Heather! Shit, what happened-”

“I can do this,” I said between heaving breaths, and wiped my mouth on my hand. I turned the tap on and splashed my face with water. It ran pink with blood. “I can do it.”

“Do what? What? What are you talking about?”

“I can- I can- don’t- don’t touch me, it might not work.” I pushed Raine away and stumbled back into the front room as fast as I could. Raine grabbed my arm.

“Heather, hey, woah, come-”

“Don’t!” I yanked my arm out of her grip and almost fell over as I lurched back to the magic circle.

“Heather, I- now is not- I need to find Evelyn, please-”

“I’m trying! I know where she went!”

I forced myself to stare at the circle. For a moment I shied away from the pain and the implication of what I was trying to do.

I owed Raine. She’d saved me, in a way, that morning in a sad little Sharrowford cafe. She’d given me a sliver of hope and kept me from giving up on life, made me try for one more day, then one more week, and here she was with her best friend – her girlfriend? I didn’t care anymore – lost and gone like I had been. On the other side of nowhere. Elsewhere. Outside.

I plunged my mind back into the boiling water, back into the Eye’s lesson.

My nose streamed with blood and my head pounded as my mind ran impossible pathways. I curled up as my body tried to vomit again, but my stomach was empty.

Each piece of equation burned like molten metal; I forced myself to picture every one with perfect clarity. I was shaking all over. My knees felt ready to collapse, my fingers and toes were numb with pins and needles.

Raine stood arm’s length away, one hand outstretched as she hesitated to touch me.

The pain in my head rose to a crescendo.

I slotted the last number into place.

Reality collapsed.

I screwed my eyes shut as the angles of the world twisted and inverted, as Raine’s face ran into a kaleidescope of colours, certain that I’d be rendered truly, irreversibly insane if I watched the process happen.

A whisper of alien wind brushed my face, the taste of iron and ozone. Grit and stone shifted under my feet. I opened my eyes and saw sky like rotten apricot. The Stone-world from this morning.

I’d Slipped, on purpose. I’d made it happen. It worked.

At least it wasn’t Wonderland.

I trembled. Every muscle ached like I’d been worked over by a gorilla with a rolling pin. My head pounded with an expanding band of red-hot steel inside my skull and a razor-sharp stabbing behind my eyes. I had to lean forward to stop the nosebleed draining down my throat.

I’d also drained myself in some other, less easily definable way. I felt weak and bruised inside, in a core place I’d never felt before. A phantom organ.

I squinted through blurred vision, across the bleak grey rock of this Outside place. It was so ugly, barren and broken, with towers of stone like arthritic fingers. I stood in a natural dip in the landscape, filled with foul-tasting ground fog and surrounded by a jagged ridge.

Shapes prowled the ridge, jerky things with knife-bodies and thin bones, hidden in the mist.

“Evelyn?” I tried to call out, hacked and coughed and spat to clear my throat. “Evelyn?”

And there she was.

Evelyn sat with her back against the base of a stone pillar, her knees drawn up to her chest, small and shaking. She gaped at me, speechless, a lump of white quartz held in one hand. Her loose bun of blonde hair was lank and damp from the soaking, sucking fog, and her palms were scuffed, clothes dusted with gravel, eyes red-rimmed from crying.

“ … You? H-how … ” she managed to say, then glanced up at the figures on the ridge. They’d heard our voices, peering and clicking and creeping down into the dip to find us.

“I felt your hand, this morning,” I said. I struggled to stay standing, hands on my knees to hold myself steady.

Evelyn frowned at me. “What? That was you?”

We stared at each other, the magician and the schizophrenic.

Except I wasn’t, was I? I wasn’t crazy.

No more safety blanket.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

mind; correlating – 1.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

‘Can’t miss it’ turned out to be a typically Raine-ian oversight. The Medieval Metaphysics department was hidden away in the furthest corner of Sharrowford university’s ‘new’ building, Willow House, a long snaking four story structure of brutalist concrete and brown glass, built in the 1960s to dominate the campus alongside the gothic spires and stonework of the university’s tiny old core.

I’d fallen in love with the old university buildings on my very first visit, soaring ceilings and oak panelling and tiny intimate lecture halls, but Willow House was the sad con behind the romantic bait. It was ugly and drafty and full of echoes and I hated its blank impersonal spaces. Other students thronged the ground floor, rushing to get out before the rain intensified, but few walked the upper reaches. I jumped at the sounds of gurgling radiators and creaking doors, cursing my nerves and embarrassed at how I looked.

Oddly, my hallucinations didn’t seem fond of Willow House either.

They stayed outside, still visible when I risked glances through the stairwell windows into the misting rain. A gaggle of giant predatory birds, smoking with inner fire, clustered around a sixty foot tree of black shadow flesh rooted in the university’s central courtyard, and I spotted a insectoid behemoth nightmare climbing the side of the library building. But inside, here, nothing.

It was a relief, but I didn’t know what it meant.

I’d also slept all day. No nightmares.

Or at least they’d stayed on the far side of sleep, like normal dreams. I’d woken to my mobile phone alarm at three in the afternoon and felt such relief; the weight of bone-grinding exhaustion had lifted. My head felt relatively clear. I could have slept for another twelve hours. I could have danced. I could have hugged Raine.

I couldn’t do any of those things, of course. I was still me, and I was still sleep-deprived. A wave of tiredness had chased a dizzy spell as I’d stood in the shower earlier, and I’d almost fallen over.

I’d been careful not to scrub the fractal symbol off my hand.

Placebo, all of it, I told myself; Raine’s kindness, the fractal, and the few moments of fleeting fantasy that my hallucinations might be real. It had all convinced my unwell subconscious that I was being saved.

I didn’t care if it was illusion. Raine was a confidence trickster or a crank, but I liked her, though she probably didn’t swing my way. As soon as I called my mother I was as good as dead, so I figured I may as well spend a last day or two doing whatever made me happy.

Right now that meant more of Raine’s rakish smile. More attention. Maybe a hug.

What did I have to lose?

In two months at university I’d expended little effort on exploring campus beyond the lecture halls and seminar rooms for my own classes, with some careful forays into the canteen, several therapeutic afternoons in the library, and one abortive attempt at attending literature club. By the time I found rooms 118 and 117 I’d climbed five staircases and gotten lost twice in the corridors of threadbare carpet and whitewashed walls.

Medieval Metaphysics wasn’t listed in Willow House’s directory on the ground floor, nor included in the thumbnail blurbs for each department and school on the university website, but I trusted Raine, against all sensible judgement. When the Philosophy department corridor ran out at room 116 I tried to think outside the box.

I discovered the doors to 117 and 118 tucked away in the back stairwell, like a dirty secret in the attic, framed by cold concrete and lit by a single tiny window. At first I thought I must be mistaken, these were janitor’s cupboards or maintenance access doors, but a small plaque was fixed to the wall.

‘Medieval Philosophy and Metaphysics, Professor-’

A little slot for a name card stood empty.

I swallowed and took several deep breaths in a vain effort to calm my churning stomach and the pulse in my throat. I reminded myself, I had nothing to lose.

Part of my subconscious didn’t agree, the same part which had convinced me to wear my best clothes. Before I could knock on the door I had to smooth my skirt, make sure nothing was out of place. I only owned two skirts, long ones. I loved them but never felt right wearing them, made me feel frivolous and silly, like feeling that way wasn’t for me, but I wanted so badly to show Raine that I was – what?

Not just a crazy weirdo? Who was I kidding? What did I expect, that we were going to go out to late lunch together, so I’d dressed up cute? I’d showered, scoured myself clean, stood in front of my bathroom mirror and fussed with my hair for minutes on end. I was wearing my best sweater, a cream turtleneck with no holes or raggedy ends, and I’d even brushed down my coat, the most effort I’d taken in weeks. But my skin was still pasty and pale, my eyes still dark-ringed from chronic sleep deprivation, and I knew I looked awful.

The longer I hesitated the more I felt out of place.

I’d worn winter mittens to conceal the fractal Raine had drawn on the back of my hand, but I now tugged them off, worried she might think I was ashamed. I cursed myself again and pulled my back straight and knocked on the door.

My heart pounded. I clasped my hands behind my back, then thought that looked too formal, so I folded them in front, then worried I looked twee and girlish, so I fluttered about for a moment at a complete loss.

And realised nobody was answering.

I knocked again and listened.

“Raine?”

Disappointment unclenched my stomach, but respite lasted only a heartbeat: what if this was a test? Raine had given me the key and specifically stated I was to go in if she wasn’t here. Was she inside, waiting for me to show initiative? Was she smirking behind her hand at my timidity? I decided right there if she was inside and pretending not to hear my knocking, I was going to turn around and leave. I wouldn’t grovel for comfort.

A few hours of sleep had given me back a portion of my spine, but not my full capacity for rational thought.

“Raine, are you in there?” I called out, and rapped my knuckles on the door one final time. I fished out the little flat key she’d given me and fitted it into the lock. The thunk of the bolt echoed down the empty stairwell, and in that moment, before I pushed the door open, I noticed a tiny tree-like symbol scratched into the wooden door frame.

It was identical to the fractal Raine had drawn on my hand.

I pulled myself up to my full height – not much – set my face in a confrontational scowl, and opened the door to the Medieval Metaphysics department.

And found nobody inside.

Instead I found a treasure trove.

The wall between rooms 117 and 118 had been removed long ago, and the combined interior had been turned into a scholar’s grotto. Patterned blankets pinned up over the windows kept the light out, replaced with the gentle glow from a pair of shaded desk lamps. Sagging, overstuffed bookshelves leaned against one wall. A tangle of racking hid the far side of the room, packed with overflowing cardboard boxes filled with junk. The other door was blocked by a heavy filing cabinet.

A large leather-bound book lay open on a wide table which stood in the centre of the room, accompanied by a sheaf of notes, a pair of empty mugs, and a creepy little stone statue of a goat. A trio of comfy armchairs squatted behind the table, some blankets bundled up on one of them. A polished wooden cane lent against another. On the wide windowsill I spotted a kettle and a box of cheap tea bags, a compact laptop and a fist-sized stress squeeze-ball.

The books drew me into the room, the same way I’d been drawn into the abyss of Wonderland. Curiosity hasn’t killed me yet, but it might, one day.

I expected the room to smell of dust, but I crossed the threshold to the scent of warm tea and old books, conspiring to soothe my senses. My stomach unknotted and the tension drained from my shoulders. This place was lovely, private and quiet and cosy, the kind of place I daydreamed about. The rain outside had picked up, pattering off the windows. If this was Raine’s personal space then — but how? You couldn’t just commandeer a whole departmental room for your little club.

I ran my gaze along the bookcases and lifted my fingers to the spines of the books. The titles raised red flags: The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, The Golden Bough, The Lesser Key of Solomon, along with dozens of titles in Latin or Greek, none of which I could read, and at least a few in Arabic and Hebrew. At one end I spotted cluster of modern books about witchcraft and paganism, by authors with awful pen names like ‘Star Raven’ and ‘Silver Wolf’.

I sighed, but did my best to withhold judgement. I already felt guilty and stupid for getting angry at Raine earlier when she wasn’t even here.

The tome on the desk was different. Real. Leather cover, cracked and brittle. Pages yellowed by age, covered in tiny handwritten script, notes in the margin in a different hand, in a different language.

I’d never seen such an old book before. It delighted me. A century old? A century and a half? It wasn’t crumbling, so it couldn’t have been truly ancient. I was tempted to feel the texture of the pages between my fingertips, even if the content was probably utter nonsense. I peered closer to see if I could make out any of the words.

“Alright, that’s far enough.”

I jumped out of my skin.

Hand to my heart, heart in my throat, I stared at the source of the voice.

A woman had been sitting very still in one of the armchairs all along, half-hidden by the blankets which she’d eased aside.

“I-I-I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there. I-I must have- I didn’t see, when I opened the door, I-I’m sorry.”

She’d seen everything – the way I’d nosed around the room, my eye-roll at the shelves, my blatant interest in the book on the table.

She didn’t look impressed.

For a moment I thought she must be the professor left unnamed on the door plaque, but then realised she was my age. Her stern expression made her seem older than she was. She could have glared a hole through sheet metal.

She was short, maybe my height, but better filled out, with an amazing mass of golden-blonde hair twisted up into a loose bun behind her head. She wore an over-sized fisherman’s jumper and a pair of plaid pajama bottoms. In one hand she held a mobile phone, a golfball-size chunk of white quartz in the other. A book lay abandoned in her lap. Bizarre in retrospect, but I felt terrible for interrupting her reading.

She was almost exactly the sort of girl I’d dreamed about meeting at university, tucked away with her books, wearing pajamas, soft, fluffy, almost cuddly — if it wasn’t for the sheer hostility on her face.

“So, can I help you, or not?” she asked, words like bullets. Her frown deepened.

I realised, too late, that she was a little bit afraid.

Afraid of me? The mouse-like jittery girl she’d spooked merely by speaking, who hadn’t seen her sitting there in plain sight? She could probably tell I was crazy, tell from a mile away. That must have been why. People always think the mentally ill are dangerous.

“I’m sorry for intruding,” I said, and couldn’t stop the flow once I started. “I really didn’t mean to interrupt your reading, I was told to come here, this specific room. I must have gotten the wrong- I mean, no, I was given a key,” I held up Raine’s key. “I didn’t think anybody was in here, I knocked and-”

“Yes, I quite heard all the knocking. Who told you to come here?”

I took a deep breath and put the brakes on. “I met a girl this morning, Raine, she told me to come here this afternoon. I- oh! Are you Evee?”

The girl let out a heavy sigh and squeezed her eyes shut. She tossed the lump of quartz and her mobile phone onto one of the free armchairs and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“You don’t get to call me that,” she said. “My name is Evelyn.”

“Evelyn. Right. Sorry. H-heather. That’s my name, I mean.”

When Evelyn looked at me again all the hostility and the hint of fear had left her expression, replaced with dull contempt, even worse on a face which seemed so naturally inclined to kindness. She had that sort of round face which never shed all the teenage puppy fat, and these big blue eyes, narrowed at me.

She was also missing most of her left hand; I hadn’t noticed until that moment, I’d been so focused on her expression.

Evelyn still had her thumb and forefinger, but had lost the first knuckle of her middle finger, most of her ring finger, and the little finger was gone along with a portion of that side of her palm. The wound was long-healed with smooth scar tissue. I did my best not to stare.

“So, Heather? What obscure species of lunatic are you?” Evelyn asked.

My mouth fell open. She could tell.

“How do you-”

She waved a hand at me and stood up from her chair, favouring her right leg for such a long moment that my gut reaction was to move forward to help her stand. Only embarrassment held me back. She didn’t speak until she found her balance, straightened up, and stared me in the eyes.

“I assume you’re Raine’s latest pity project? Which means you’re either batshit or useless. So, come on then, let’s make it easier on all of us. Wiccan? Flat-earther? Astral-plane warrior? Or are you one of the really hard sell cases? You do look a bit fundamentalist Christian.”

“What? No! I’m none of— wait, wait.” I held up a hand as a pit opened in my stomach. “What do you mean, ‘pity project’?”

“Oh? You think you’re the first sad little kitten she’s dragged home? You’re not, and you certainly won’t be the last, either. You’re not clinically depressed or anything, are you? Because I really don’t approve of her pulling this routine with the mentally ill.”

“I’m-” Foremost in my mind was reluctance to admit yes, I’m crazy, please use that as a barb against me. Here, have this ammunition to belittle and insult me. Instead I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “There’s no need to be so rude.”

Evelyn’s eyebrows climbed an inch. “Ah, not a total doormat. At least you’ve got that going for you. And yes,” she paused, puffed out a sigh and shrugged. “I suppose I am being rude. It’s hardly your fault, but Raine has rather a pattern by now. I’m sick of it and you are the last straw. Are you a lunatic? I’m right, aren’t I? I can see it plain on you face.”

I gathered what little resources I had for a return volley of indignation. In all likelihood I was about to merely squeak at her and retreat.

“Heeeeey, Heather, you came!”

Raine rounded the doorway with a great big grin on her face before I could speak, but the flush of relief turned sour as Evelyn’s words echoed in my mind; pity project? We both looked at her, me on the verge of panic and Evelyn glaring daggers. Raine’s grin petrified as she glanced between Evelyn and I.

“Shit,” Raine muttered.

“Good afternoon, Raine,” Evelyn said, and made it sound like knives. She put her hands on her hips.

“Uh, Evee, this is Heather, I met her down the Aardvark this morning. Heather, you look great, did you sleep? You did, yeah? Told you it would work.”

“Yes, I did, thank you.” I almost melted under Raine’s sudden attention. I drew my left hand up toward my chest, not sure if I should show off the fractal design or try to hide it. “But actually you said you didn’t know if it would work.”

“Details, details!”

What worked?” Evelyn said. “Raine, what did you do?” She noticed the drawing on my left hand and jabbed a finger in my direction. “Raine, what is that? What is that on her hand? Tell me I’m not seeing what I think I am.”

“Evee, it’s fine. She’s fine.”

“You never cease to surprise me, you know that?” Evelyn said. “Every time I think you’ve reached your ceiling, a theoretical limit, you find entirely new ways to be staggeringly stupid. And for God’s sake, lock the door.”

Raine hurried to close the door and throw the latch. “Look, Evee-”

“And stop calling me that right now. In case you can’t tell, I am not best pleased with you.”

“Evelyn, look.” Raine cast about and settled on me. “I’m really sorry about this, Heather, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

“I don’t- I don’t want to be involved in this,” I said in a very small voice, and put up both my hands in a gesture of surrender. If I could have vanished into the floor at that exact moment, I would have done so. This was like an argument between an old married couple. I’d never felt so awkward. My stomach was churning and my face was flushed with embarrassment. “I can just leave. I’m sorry.”

“See, Raine?” Evelyn said. “She’s got a lick of sense. She knows when to cut her losses and run. Perhaps you should learn from her.”

I edged toward the door. I was consumed by a sense that Evelyn was like a dangerous dog, that she’d go for me if I turned my back.

“Evee, give me five minutes to explain, this is all going to make sense,” Raine said, then turned to me and put a hand out to stall my retreat. “Please don’t go, Heather. This is all just a misunderstanding, it’s my fault, I promise, Evee’s not usually this bad.”

“What’s to explain?” Evelyn said. “You had me send you the warding sign so you could impress a girl you met less than twelve hours ago. So you could what? Tag your conquest?”

“Excuse me?” I bristled and turned a frown on Raine. “Conquest?”

“It’s not like that,” Raine said to me. She said it with a smile, with such charm that under different circumstances I would have believed her; I wanted to believe her.

“And worse than that,” Evelyn continued, “you gave her a key to the department, where you knew I was going to be. What on earth were you thinking? She could be anybody.”

Raine turned that same winning smile on Evelyn, but also spread her hands in frustration. “You think I would put you in danger? You think I would let anybody dangerous within a hundred feet of you? You really think I would do that?”

That threw me for a loop. Danger? It had a similar effect on Evelyn too, she visibly dialled back for a moment, awkward and averting her gaze.

“Look,” Raine said. “The reason I brought Heather here is that she’s the real deal. She’s had … experiences.”

My embarrassment crashed out, replaced with sick realisation; Raine and Evelyn really believed all this stuff, these nonsense supernatural books they had along the walls. They were playing some melodramatic double-think game that I’d unwittingly wandered into. Or worse, they were recruiters for some exploitative new-age religious group, the lowest rung in some organisation they’d oh-so-gently introduce me to. The supernatural, the implication of danger, the forced drama. I’d read about this sort of thing before. I was the right demographic to be a victim.

“The real deal?” Evelyn rolled her eyes and thumped back down in her chair as my expectations collapsed. She winced and rubbed her left leg. “That’s what you said about the Wiccan, the one who tried to hawk healing crystals at me. And the goth who believed she was a vampire. They were both the real deal, until they weren’t.” She turned sharply on me. “What makes you different, dear?”

“Nothing. Nothing. I’m … I’m a crazy person.”

“Oh, she admits it! Wow, Raine, you really do know how to pick them, well done.”

“She’s not crazy.” Raine sighed with exasperation. “Heather, you’re not-”

“Yes, I am.”

“Please, just tell Evee what you told me this morning. I promise this is all gonna make sense.”

“No.” My heart hardened with disappointment and humiliation. All I’d wanted was to hang out with a nice girl for a couple of hours. A girl who’d take the lead, cheer me up, somebody I could maybe fantasise about or at least have a fleeting dream. Not this new age cult freak stuff. “That was between us. You and me. I can’t … I don’t want to.”

“You don’t have to explain the whole thing, just the gist of it.” She reached out for my hand but I drew away from her.

“Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could. I wouldn’t want to vomit all over your nice carpet, would I?”

Evelyn gave Raine a sickly-sweet smile of smug triumph.

“Heather sees things which aren’t there,” Raine said, and I felt my stomach drop out.

“Raine!” I squeaked.

“She was abducted by monsters as a child – taken Outside,” she said, and I could hear the capital O. “She’s had night terrors and daylight visions since then.”

“Raine, stop! This was between you and me. In confidence.”

“She’s been Outside, Evelyn, the real deal. She has lost time, gets dragged back there. Look, the reason I messaged you for the sign this morning was-”

Raine’s brazen betrayal paralysed me as she explained what had happened at the cafe this morning. Evelyn’s eyes narrowed and her expression changed as Raine spoke, but the contempt never lifted.

“Let me get this straight,” Evelyn spoke slowly and quietly. “A girl who sees things which aren’t there claims that when you held up a mystical symbol at one of her hallucinations, it vanished.”

“Yes.” Raine nodded and grinned. “The sign worked on it.”

“A vanishing you couldn’t see.”

“Right.”

“In fact, you couldn’t see any of this, you don’t have any proof for this except what she says.”

“It was the sign, Evee. You know it works. And I’m pretty sure it was a servitor, it was following me and-”

“We are not going to talk about that in front of other people,” Evelyn said. “It was a placebo effect, Raine. You’ve picked up a sick girl off the street and convinced her you’re doing magic.”

Raine actually laughed. “We are doing-”

I raised my voice. “It was a placebo effect.”

“Thank you, Heather,” Evelyn said. “Thank you.”

“How is this any different to your situation, Evee?” Raine asked.

“My situation? My situation? Oh yes, please, Raine, that’s going to get you out of the doghouse, comparing me with a verifiable lunatic.”

Despite everything, curiosity prickled me. Was Evelyn like me? I’d never met anybody with similar issues who I could talk to. All the other high-functioning schizophrenics at Cygnet hospital had been teenage boys, much older than me while I’d been there. “Your … your situation?” I asked.

“Is private, thank you very much.”

“Evee, the whole point of bringing her here is to help her,” Raine said. “The sign helped her, it kept her nightmares at bay. It worked!”

“Great. Wonderful. Then go help her. Take her home. Feed her. Potty train her.”

“Will you stop,” I said, incensed at last, but Evelyn didn’t even bother to look at me.

“What you get up to with your weird little friends is none of my business, really,” Evelyn said. “I don’t know why I bother.”

“Evee, I know there are—” Raine shot a glance at me before she continued, lowering her voice. “Rituals you can do. Methods for figuring out exactly what’s wrong with Heather, what’s haunting her.”

Evelyn looked at Raine as if she’d bitten into a lemon. “She is haunted by her own brain chemistry. Deal with it, Raine.”

Raine lifted her chin, voice low and serious. “If you won’t help her, then I’ll write to your dad instead.”

“Oh, he’d love that, yes. You know he prefers to pretend you don’t exist, that I freed myself with—” Evelyn flicked a glance at me and suddenly cut off, as if she’d forgotten I was here.

I couldn’t stand this anymore. The disappointment, the third-wheel feeling, the pounding in my head. I boiled over.

”You two really believe all this stuff, don’t you? I’m not your kind of crazy.”

“Heather, it’s not like that.”

“Oh?” Evelyn smirked, razor-thin. “Then, please, enlighten me. What exact manner of nut case are we dealing with this time, Raine?”

The way she looked away from me to Raine broke a fragile little thing inside me. I raised my chin. Made myself stand tall and straight.

“Schizoaffective disorder,” I said, and was rewarded with the snap of Evelyn’s attention back to me. I tried to keep my voice steady and defiant as I used my dirty little secret as a bludgeon. I was halfway successful, but I felt shameless and disgusted at myself. “With co-morbid hallucinatory and dissociative episodes, non-specific triggers. That’s what I was diagnosed with as a child, thank you.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow as if she expected more, but I’d run out of angry words. My chest tightened, a lump grew in my throat, but I wasn’t going to give either of them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I still had the key in my right hand, so I slammed it down on the table, turned on my heel, and made for the door.

I got halfway down the Philosophy department corridor before they stopped shouting at each other. I’d been forcing myself not to run, but in the main stairwell Raine came after me, called my name, and I broke.

“Heather, come on, wait! It’s not what you think it is!”

I almost tripped down the stairs in haste to escape the false promises. I was such an idiot, what had I been expecting? I sniffed back tears as Raine rounded the stairs behind me.

“Heather, let me help, please.”

“You’ve helped enough!”

I didn’t look back.

My hallucinations raged outside in the pouring rain, driven to frenzy by my distress. On the other side of the window two scythe-sharp flying shapes tore at each other, trailing black blood and fragments of hissing, burning metal as they fell past, outpacing my own stumbling progress down the stairs. A wounded giant staggered in the distance beyond the campus, a four-legged hulk pushing against some invisible force. The giant predatory birds were fighting in the courtyard, spilling molten viscera across the concrete. The thing which had been climbing the library earlier was now atop the building, head open like a flower of flesh, discharging spores the size of footballs.

Raine made a grab for my arm on the last flight of stairs, succeeded in turning me to face her for a moment. She was smiling in the same reassuring way she had that morning, warm and welcoming and promising help.

“Heather, it’s okay—”

“Leave me alone,” I tried to say, but my voice came out as a wretched scratch and I pulled away, almost fell over, stumbled and skipped steps, clutching my coat around myself as I finally hit the ground floor and fled into the rain.


==


An hour later, hair still damp, I sat on my bed and stared at my parents’ number on my mobile phone.

Raine had tried to call me three times. I’d ignored the calls then blocked her. I dreaded a knock on my door and had to remind myself that I’d only walked her to the block of flats, she didn’t know which unit was mine.

What had I lost? The last remaining scraps of my dignity, and the sliver of hope that Raine had given me that morning.

I’d never felt so humiliated, not even in Cygnet with the other crazy people, poked and prodded and drugged. I’d been willing to accept the illusion, to humour Raine in exchange for some transient warmth, an afternoon of friendship, a hand to hold. Couldn’t even have that.

Friends weren’t for me. Lovers even less. My headache was coming back, the pressure mounting behind my eyes.

Time to leave. I pressed the dial button.

“Heather, dear, how nice to hear from you,” my mother answered. She seemed so far away on the other end of the phone. “ … Heather?”

I couldn’t get the words out. I’d intended to rip the plaster off as quick as I could, tell her I was done, I needed to come home, I was giving up. I’d even rehearsed the words: ‘Mum, I need help. You were right, I can’t do this’.

“Heather? Heather? I can’t hear you, dear, there’s no sound on my end. Can you hear me?” She tutted and sighed at the phone as I struggled to open my throat.

She ended the call and I sat there in the growing dark. A tentacle grew across the far wall of my apartment, a thick black rope of pulsing muscle, bleeding phantasmal blood into the sink below. The phone jumped in my hand. My mother calling back. I gathered myself and answered.

“Hi mum. No, I think the phone malfunctioned. I think I pressed the wrong key. Yes, yes of course. No, just calling to say hi, see how you and dad are. Oh, I’m fine, I just ate dinner. Got caught in the rain earlier, sort of enjoyed it, but I’m dry now, don’t worry.”

The fluidity of my lies surprised me. As I spoke to my mother, I cursed Raine. She’d given me this little glowing mote of promise and now I couldn’t let it go. Sleep without nightmares had bolstered my reserves. Maybe that was all I needed. Maybe the proof that placebos worked would hold the Eye at bay.

After I finished lying and ended the call, I did something very unhealthy.

I needed comfort, real comfort, and there was only one unconditional source of that in my life. I got into bed and hugged my pillow to my chest and closed my eyes.

And allowed myself to remember her name.

I thought about Maisie.

My twin.

I wasn’t supposed to remember her. She’d never been real, she was a schizophrenic brain-ghost, and the more I reinforced those neural pathways the harder it would be to ever let her go. But I saw her every time I looked in the mirror. Maisie, who I’d spent ten years of childhood alongside, doing everything together, playing together, growing together. We’d creep into each other’s beds and cuddle in the dark and fall asleep together. Sit with our heads together. Hold hands and laugh together. Fight and push and play and live.

I clung to the memory of cuddling my twin. I pictured it and felt it now, made the pillow into her, conjured up all the comfort and warmth I’d wanted from Raine. I imagined the things Maisie and I would say to each other, things I was really just saying to myself. What would Maisie think of Raine? If only she was here, I’d feel stronger. But if she never existed then she’s just me, so she is here, Maisie was always with me, and I can do this.

Afterwards, I cried a bit. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

That night I was careful not to scrub the fractal design off the back of my hand, but I didn’t renew it with a marker pen. It wasn’t real, after all. It was all in my head. I could do this with willpower alone.

The fractal lasted three days until it washed off.

I slept, recharged, ate, and prayed I wouldn’t bump into Raine or Evelyn on campus. Three days of denying my nightmares, of letting the pressure build up on the other side of sleep. Three days of telling myself the distant ringing in my ears was just fluid draining. Three days of pretending I was normal.

One morning I did bump into Raine; I spotted her on my way to a lecture and my heart missed a beat. Couldn’t mistake that leather jacket or her easy rolling walk. She was so pretty it hurt to avoid her, to double-back and pretend I hadn’t seen her, keep walking fast in case she’d spotted me. I hid like a rat.

The next day, in the university library, my luck ran out.

Standing deep in the stacks, my hand halfway to a book, I noticed the fractal was too faint to make out anymore.

The distant ringing sound sharpened, somewhere beyond the range of human hearing, felt in the centre of my head. I tried to focus through the sudden spike of headache. I’d come to the library to read and I was going to have a nice afternoon with the books and write half an essay. The fractal was just a placebo, this was all in my head. All in my head. It had washed off, so what? It meant nothing. I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my face.

My hand came away covered in blood. A nosebleed.

My gut clenched and my vision lurched sideways. I flailed to catch myself on the shelves, smearing blood, knocking books over and clutching the metal frame, pain far away as the world wavered and span.

I Slipped.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

mind; correlating – 1.1

Next Chapter

On the day I met Raine, the first thing I did was jerk awake in bed and vomit nightmares into my lap.

That’s not quite accurate. If I could purge the nightmares like a bad meal then life would be a lot easier. No, I brought up bile and what little I’d managed to keep down over the last couple of days, then dry heaved through the aftershocks, shaking and coated in cold sweat; the nightmares had lashed at me for two weeks, and last night broke the record.

For a long moment I screwed my eyes shut and struggled to forget the nightmare. The endless dark plain, the Watchers, the Great Eye which had crammed my head full to bursting with things I didn’t want to know, night after night, until I’d clawed my way out through the bedsheets and back into the sick prison of my nausea-wracked body.

I mumbled some poetry to drown out the Eye, a few lines of Coleridge through the taste of sick in my mouth.

“And now there came both m-mist and snow, and it grew wondrous cold … a-and ice …”

Poor old Coleridge and the rapture of the Arctic wasn’t strong enough, not when scratched out through my throat, raw from the bile and acid. Pressure spiked inside my head. I felt a nosebleed start and watched fat bloody droplets join the reeking puddle on my bedsheets. The Eye’s lessons filled my mind, a jumble of painful geometry and impossible equations quivering and bleeding on the rim of reality.

I dry heaved again.

Predawn grey crept around the edges of the sheet I used as a curtain, and the green numbers on my bedside clock told me I’d been asleep for less than three hours. Not even two full REM cycles. My room stank of vomit and fear-sweat, cut through by the iron tang of blood. I pinched my nose to stop the bleeding.

I said some unflattering things to myself and finally accepted I was suffering the worst schizophrenic relapse of my life. Wonderland was calling me back. Once or twice a month I could handle, I had coping strategies; two weeks without respite and I felt fragile, brittle, spent.

It was time to call my mother and go back on the crazy pills.

‘Crazy’ is a safety blanket word for me. It defines a neat boundary in which I can exist without screaming at the walls or talking to people who aren’t there. A safe zone to keep me from being locked in a padded cell. I don’t like ‘insane’ because the word itself requires a ‘sane’ with which to define against. Crazy has no opposite.

Raine was about to take away my safety blanket; if I’d known, would I still have gone out that morning? For Raine, probably yes.

I’d constructed a routine the last couple of weeks. Strip my bed and my sweat-stained clothes, shove it all into the ancient washing machine in the corner of my one-room bedsit flat, clean myself up best I could, down three cups of coffee, and drag myself to morning classes.

And try to ignore the hallucinations.

A spindly figure by the back wall watched me with holes instead of eyes, with too many fingers pressed to its face, too many joints, skin made of mushroom flesh and marble.

A vast shadow outside drifted across the window, trailing ropey tentacles, a gasbag jellyfish humming whalesong.

I finally got the washing machine going, on my feet by willpower alone, when a ball of spines and black chitin sniffed at my foot. I scooted it away. Of course, I felt nothing. It wasn’t really there.

I put the kettle on while I shuffled into the tiny bathroom to wash out the taste of stomach acid and blood. I spat tainted saliva into the sink over and over again until I felt a little less defiled, then scrubbed the dried blood off my face and lips and blew my nose. The water ran pink. Even when clean I didn’t relish the sight of myself in the mirror, my eyes ringed with dark exhaustion. Sallow and slack and sick. I dragged my hair into a semblance of order.

My stomach clenched with exhaustion-hunger at the smell of instant coffee. I rummaged for food but instead found another hallucination, huge and covered in wire-coarse hair, shifting in the back of the cupboard. I waited for that one to pass, afraid it would look at me if I reached inside.

I needed real food if I was going to have that fatal conversation with my mother, so I made a deal with myself. A last meal.

“Have to go outside, outside we go. You can do it, Heather, you escaped once before, you can do it again. It’s easy, it’s just a bedsit room and all you’re going to do is walk down the street and get bacon and eggs. That sounds good, yes. Bacon with the fat still on, just how you like it. Come on, out we go. You can do it.”

I kept up the one-woman pep talk to coax myself into real clothes, dragged a thick jumper over my head, found an almost-clean pair of jeans and pulled my coat around my shoulders. I loved that coat, thick and padded like armour to keep the world out. It was the most expensive thing I owned after my laptop.

That thick security held back the crush of defeat. My parents had never believed I’d make it through university, and here I was two months into my first year ready to throw in the towel, ready to admit the stress of writing a few essays about Shakespeare and Byron had caused a relapse, that I was never going to be normal, that I was never going to have any friends, that I was meant to spend the rest of my life in a drugged stupor.

I was too exhausted to care.

I was also wrong.

My name is Heather Lavinia Morell and I’m not crazy. On the bad days, I wish I was, because then none of this would be real.


==


Seven minutes walk from my flat would bring me to the front gates of the university campus, but it was half past five in the morning and the canteen was closed. Chill autumn air nipped at my neck and hands, welcome relief from the unclean feeling of sticky sweat. I had no energy to shower. At the end of the cul-de-sac I turned and walked deeper into the tangle of Sharrowford’s student quarter.

I kept my head down.

Outside, in the street, the visions were always worse. Sharrowford’s open skies and public squares gave my hallucinations space to blossom.

A hunched hulk wreathed in black haze drooled molten saliva on a suburban corner, rooted into the ground with questing barbs of knotty red flesh. I passed a tree half-dead from the late autumn weather, wrapped in a layer of pale worms thick as my arm. A cluster of naked bone white figures in a front garden turned to watch me as I passed, and none of them had faces. A giant shape strode overhead, blotting out the early dawn sky, six pillar-like insect legs towering over the city. I heard a distant boom each time it took another step.

A thousand delusions skittered and crawled and writhed at the end of every road. The few real humans out at this hour weren’t worth acknowledging – in the monochrome pre-dawn static of Sharrowford in November, I could be wrong, I could nod a friendly greeting to a figment of my fevered brain. Can’t afford that.

If you’ve never been to Sharrowford, then you’ve probably at least heard of the university. The city doesn’t have much else going for it, just another post-industrial hulk on the edge of the North of England. The centre dresses itself up as trendy and hip, but it’s old, ossified, trailing edges of decay wrapped around a core of ancient stone and a million hidden secrets.

If you’re anything like me, don’t come here.

I reached Abbots Lane, clustered with takeaway joints and a shuttered video store and my destination – Aardvark, a twenty-four hour breakfast cafe with greasy tables and dirty floors and incredible food. Other students didn’t go here much, my kind of place.

Another monster lurked in the middle of the road, twitching and shaking, twelve feet of scribbles on the air like rents torn in paper over an abyss. I stopped, reluctant to pass too close. My skin crawled at the way it moved, like seaweed in an invisible current. I tore my eyes away and put it from my mind, ready to focus on the very important business of my last meal.

Then, I saw her.

A girl stood by the cafe, peering through the front window.

She glanced my way and our gazes touched. She smiled, a rakish flash of her teeth with a little upward twitch of her eyebrows, as if we were sharing some silent joke. I had to look away. Even at my worst I could never have mistaken her for a hallucination.

A leather jacket sat loose on her shoulders. She held her head high, her eyes up, taking the world full in front. Rich chestnut hair swept back loose and lazy from her forehead, shorter than mine but with that special illusion of never having felt the hairdresser’s scissors. A pair of well-won boots showed off a faded rose design up the sides. Her eyes were sharp and warm in the cold grey morning.

Her smile cut right through me.

Not the sort of girl who’d ever be interested in me. I knew I was clutching at straws, so alone and exhausted that even a hint of sympathetic human contact had me ready to beg like a dog.

She forgot me, looked back at The Aardvark, ambled up to the door and went inside. I was about to turn around and start the long walk back to campus, to wait outside the canteen, because I couldn’t follow her in there now. What if she tried to talk to me? She’d work out I was crazy, I’d wither up and die under that smile. I could imagine the disgusted look on her face when she realised what I was.

But then the scribble monster jerked toward the cafe on flickering legs. It bent, folded itself at the waist like a contracting length of intestine, and pressed what passed for a face up against the glass. I fumed for a moment and then forced myself to step past it and into the cafe. I wasn’t about to be upstaged by my own subconscious. If one of my hallucinations could ogle a pretty girl I didn’t have the courage to speak with, then at least I could prove I wasn’t afraid.

Truth was, I barely paid attention to her once inside The Aardvark. The smell of frying food all but demolished me. She was already lounging in a corner booth, a book in both hands and coffee before her. A few other insomniacs and a couple of night shift lorry drivers didn’t spare me a look as I shuffled to the counter at the back to order bacon and eggs.

I took an empty booth diagonally across from the girl, safely hidden from the risk of further eye contact, but close enough that I could tilt my head a few degrees to catch sight of her boots crossed at the ankles, the book in her hand – a battered copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – and a feathery lock of stray chestnut hair.

I contented myself with those scraps. I’d been doing so all my life. Half-glances at people I liked. Contact was too much of a risk, to both parties.

After I few seconds of waiting my body decided it was time to cash in all my sleep debt. I struggled to keep my eyes open, sat up straight, pinched the back of my hand under the table. I tried not to look at the shifting nightmare face pressing up against the glass at the front of the cafe. I wished I’d had the coherence of mind to bring a book too; I was supposed to be reading Pilgrim’s Progress for class, but over the last two weeks I’d managed all of five pages. Couldn’t even do the things I loved.

The fry cook called out my order. My mouth watered when I carried my plate back to the table. I swallowed one bite and felt wrong.

My vision swam. Vertigo tugged at the pit of my stomach.

Not sleepy anymore.

I was Slipping.

“No, not now, not now,” I hissed through my teeth, a familiar prayer when I felt a Slip rushing toward me. My heart pounded and I started to shake. I bit back a whine of fear and frustration. I was so tired, I was so tired, all I wanted to do was eat, please God let me at least get some food in my belly before it happens. Not now, not after two weeks of hell, not ever again. Please.

Slip vertigo yanked me sideways. My vision fogged, a ghost of elsewhere overlaid on the cafe, dark and windswept and ashen. I skidded to my feet and banged my shin on the edge of the booth, then lurched for the toilet.

I slammed into a toilet stall in the cafe’s bathroom just before another wave of vertigo rolled over me. Bracing my feet against the floor and my hands against the stall walls, I pushed, I held on, I anchored myself as hard as I could and squeezed my eyes shut and whined and prayed under my breath. I could have done this in the booth and saved seconds, might make all the difference between staying here and Slipping over, but the pathetic thought in my head was that I couldn’t look like a crazy person in public, not in front of a pretty girl who’d smiled at me.

Bracing myself didn’t always work; maybe it didn’t work at all, maybe it was pure delusion. I’m supposed to have those. Delusions.

I smelled bone ash and the spice of chemical fire. Heard howling wind, and felt the bite of alien air on the skin of my face. How’s that for a delusion?

My hands jerked, as if the walls weren’t there anymore.

Slipping.

“Hey, you okay in there?”

My eyes snapped open. The walls were back, solid, here. The air was filled with the smell of cheap toilet cleaner and greasy food. I spluttered and gulped.

“Yo, you can hear me, right?” The voice spoke again, drifting up and over the stalls, female and concerned. She knocked on the stall door. “I hope you’re not deaf, ‘cos then I’m just talking to myself and that’s never a good look. Seriously, you okay?”

I froze up. I could lie, or I could say no, I’m not okay because I just fought off a portion of my own diseased mind which wanted to make me spend several hours lost in another world. Safest thing was to stay quiet, pretend I wasn’t there. She’d shrug and give up and go away.

“I know you’re in there,” she said. “I can see your shoes under the door. Too much to drink last night? It’s no shame to ask somebody to hold your hair back for you, you know?”

How had I fought off the Slip? My mind betrayed me. Before I could shy away, my thoughts alighted on a fragment of knowledge imparted from the Eye, some equation which governed what just happened to me. My head throbbed with sudden pressure, I choked and doubled up and vomited a string of bile into the toilet bowl. I whined with pain and felt a nosebleed start.

“Yeah, you are two hundred percent not okay, girl,” she said. “Right, executive decision time.”

She stepped into the next open stall, clambered up on the toilet and peered down at me over the dividing wall. I yanked myself as upright as I could manage and stared back at her, feeling like a plague victim in the bottom of a pit.

It was the girl in the leather jacket with the rakish smile and the pretty eyes.

“W-what on earth are you do- “ I tried to say, but it came out in a croak and another nauseous spasm gripped my stomach. I doubled up and heaved bile into the toilet bowl, spat and jerked upright again and felt blood running from my nose. I clamped a hand to my face.

“Ahhh, jeeze, look at you”, she said, not unkindly. “For starters I’m helping you get cleaned up.”

With a little ‘hup’ she vaulted the top of the stall and climbed down in front of me.

“I’m not — I don’t need — I-I don’t even know you.” I backed away and fumbled with the latch, burst out into the bathroom and clutched my coat around myself, dripping nosebleed onto the floor tiles.

“We can change that part easy enough,” she said. She held up her hands and flashed the same smile she’d given me outside, beaming endless confidence straight into my brain. That’s the only thing which stopped me running. “Hey, look, I’m not gonna bite, ‘less you ask me to. I saw you come in here and thought, ‘Heeeey, that girl looks a bit messed up, maybe she needs a hand, maybe she needs some help.’ And, yeah, you are a bit messed up, let’s be honest. If you don’t need help then I’m Johnny Cash. I’m not being catty or weird. Solidarity, you know? Gotta look out for each other,” she thumbed over her shoulder. “One of those guys out there coulda’ followed you in here instead, found you passed out on the toilet. Here, lemme help.”

I wiped at my nosebleed, then pinched it off, breathing through my mouth.

“I’m not-”

“You’re not hungover. I know, I can tell.”

“ … how can you tell that?”

“Seen that sorta look in your eyes before. I don’t know what your deal is, but, hey.”

She held out a hand.

The smile, the knowing look in her eyes, or just the fact she was stunning; I took her hand.

I’m so easy.

“I’m Raine,” Raine said.

“Heather,” I muttered.

Raine was true to her word. She steered my exhausted body over to the sinks and helped me wipe the drying blood from under my nose and the vomit from my lips. She waited with me for the bleeding to stop, handed me paper towels and made sure I lent forward so the blood didn’t drain down my throat, then got me to wash my mouth out. She filled a glass with water and made me drink it all, slowly. Her hand on my back helped, a gentle, unfamiliar pressure. She wet another paper towel and suggested I wipe my face, just to help me feel better.

I couldn’t speak, too mortified to even mumble a thank you.

“There, feeling a little more human now, eh?” Raine smiled at me in the mirror. I managed to shake my head. “So, you’re not hungover, you don’t look like a druggie, but hey, you never know. You haven’t greened out, and I’m gonna presume you don’t do molly?”

I frowned. “Who’s Molly?”

“Ecstasy. E. Party drugs. You don’t really look like a party girl, but I don’t want to assume and be an arsehole about it.”

“No, I don’t take things like that. I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke or drink, at all.”

I expected a return of the rakish smile and a familiar refrain: ‘how do you have fun then?’ She looked the type to say that.

Instead, Raine put her palm on my forehead. It was so soft, so surprising, and so brief. “Yeah, not clammy enough to be food poisoning.” She took a step back and chewed on her lower lip, spread her hands in a speculative shrug.

She was a couple of inches taller than me, more athletic – though that’s not difficult – and she looked healthy. Strong. Much more alive than my face in the mirror. She was about my age but she seemed so much more mature, a real adult rather than a floundering child.

“Thank you,” I said. “But I’m … I can’t explain what I was doing. You don’t want to know. Thank you for helping, but … I should go finish my food. I’m sorry, I probably stink, I know.”

Raine pointed a finger gun at me and nodded, solemn and serious. “Pregnant, right?”

“What? No! No, I’m not even strai— no, it’s not morning sickness. I’m crazy. I’m a crazy person and I was being sick because I thought I was being pulled into another dimension, and a giant Eyeball in the sky was teaching me impossible physics which make me ill, and I’m at the end of my rope because I’ve been going mad and not sleeping and barely eating for two weeks.”

I averted my eyes as I spoke, couldn’t meet Raine’s gaze. A long silence followed. I wanted to curl up and die. I prayed she wasn’t a student at the university because there was no way I could ever bump into her without crawling into a hole in the ground. But that wasn’t going to be a problem anymore, was it? Because I was going to call mum and drop out, take my medication again and be a zombie.

Raine grabbed my hand. I looked up and saw raw, naked fascination.

“We should get some food in you,” she said. “It’ll be getting cold. Nobody likes to waste a whole fry up, and you paid good money for that.”


==


Raine joined me back in the booth with my rapidly cooling breakfast.

“This place is top notch, you know, but it’s always pretty quiet,” she was saying. “A lot of the snooty-trouser types on campus won’t come to places like this. Sure, they do one of those drinking tours of the city a couple of times a year, but they’re all Oxford and Cambridge rejects, all think they’re too good for Sharrowford really.”

I ate a mouthful of bacon and had to stop myself shovelling it in, to avoid overloading my tender stomach. My puzzlement at Raine helped. When I looked up she met my eyes and smiled.

“Good stuff, yeah?” she said. “I come here like once, twice a week. Nice quiet place to think in the wee hours of the morning. All the regulars, the lorry drivers and whatnot, they’re actually alright guys. Never bothered me nothing.”

I nodded and felt awkward. She was so obvious, the way she was avoiding asking.

“You’re a student, right?” Raine said. “I know I’ve seen you in the university canteen once or twice. I never forget a face like yours, Heather.”

“ … what, what does that mean?” A blush rose in my cheeks.

Raine grinned and shrugged. I tried to hold her gaze but I faltered, focused hard on the next two mouthfuls of scrambled egg.

“So I assume your lack of food for the last two weeks had nothing to do with the crappy canteen fare?”

“I don’t go there much. I don’t live on campus.”

“Oh?” Raine’s eyebrows went up. “You a first year?”

“Yes.”

She gave a low whistle. “And not on campus. Special circumstances? Living with friends? Rich parents?”

“My parents made it a condition of me attending university. They pay the rent, didn’t want me living on campus, with all the noise and drinking and stress, things which might set me off. Or people who might try to take advantage of me. Because I’m crazy.” I speared a fragment of bacon on my fork, then looked up and held Raine’s gaze best I could.

Raine narrowed her eyes and tapped two fingertips on the tabletop. “You don’t seem crazy to me.”

All my nervous reticence went out the window. What did I have to lose? She’d already seen me covered in sick and shaking with terror. I couldn’t go any lower.

“Appearances are always deceiving.” I managed to pull myself up straighter. “For example, I thought you looked like the sort of girl who would laugh at me being sick and then try to sell me cannabis.”

“Really? Shit,” Raine said. She laughed and ran a hand through her hair. “Definitely not the sort of look I’m going for.”

“And what look might that be?”

“Robin hood of the urban jungle,” she said, puffed out her chest a bit and hooked her thumbs into the pockets of her leather jacket. “Guess I better rethink if it’s making me too scary. I’d hate to have frightened you off, Heather.”

“Keep the jacket, it suits you,” I managed to say before my courage ran out.

“Really?” Raine cracked a grin.

I ate more. Raine gave me just enough silence to know the question was coming.

“I … “ A lump in my throat. Wanted to look away. Fought the desire to get up and leave. “I can’t have this conversation. I haven’t in … ever, really. Meds never really did anything and I never told anybody they didn’t work, so … ”

The silence stretched out enough to hurt. I felt myself shrinking.

“Lemme guess,” Raine clapped her hands together. “History, right?”

I blinked up at her. “What?”

“History student, am I right? You’ve got that sort of hunched-up-with-the-books look about you, too many long hours in the uni library, not enough sleep. But I guess that last part isn’t related. And you haven’t got the natural bearing of a STEM student, either.”

“ … no, you’re wrong. Literature.”

“Literature! Dang, you got a lot more guts than me. I could never do that.”

The littlest flush of pride. Enough to lead me on. “And you?”

“PPE,” Raine said, then rolled her eyes. “Though I sort of dropped the E and most of one P, so now it’s just Philosophy. Would be plain sailing, but I’m in a sort of an experimental degree program right now, all a bit hush-hush.”

“ … you lost me. You— you talk too fast for me,” I said. “It’s the sleep deprivation.”

Raine laughed and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Heather. PPE: Politics, Philosophy and Economics, it’s-”

“I know what PPE is,” I said. “You just don’t look like … well … “

“Like one of the wankers who studies PPE at Sharrowford? No kidding. They all want to be MPs and special advisers and think-tank suits. Boring, the lot of ‘em. But enough of that, I’m more curious about you. What’s your favourite book, miss literary scholar?”

“That’s an impossible question to answer, and I suspect you know so.” I sighed, but Raine grinned again and wiggled her eyebrows at me. “I guess … there’s too many. Um … ” I started slow, named a few titles I’d read as a teenager, then books my dad had given me, science fiction novels and fantasy worlds, my dad’s old stack of Interzone magazines and mum’s copy of Watership Down. I rattled and stuttered and picked up steam, began to re-walk my favourites in my head, told Raine about the summer I spent reading The Hobbit seven times. When I looked up at her again, she was beaming. I cut off mid-sentence, blushing terribly.

“Not such an impossible question,” she said. “Easier than talking about mental illness.”

“I can talk about books because I love them. I don’t love being crazy.”

“What’s it like?”

Her tone was so straightforward, not what I’d expected; no pity, no coaxing, no kid gloves for the crazy girl. Nothing like the doctors, the psychiatrists – nothing like my parents. A pressure valve popped in my subconscious, a breach in years of inhibition and shame. She’d already seen me at my worst, and when I called my mother later I’d be good as dead. Why lie? At least I could unburden myself once before I vanished into a hole for the rest of my life.

“Have you ever read Alice in Wonderland?” I asked.

Raine nodded, waited for me to continue.

“I went to Wonderland,” I said, and felt my throat try to close up. I fought it. “Not the place Alice went, that would have been fine and I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I call it Wonderland because that’s the only shared cultural reference point we have, but it was nothing like that. It was dark, vast, full of things that wanted to teach me impossible lessons, impossible creatures, giants, watching me … ” I swallowed, my words ran out but I kept going, it poured and poured as I stared at the tabletop. “I was nine years old. You know how sometimes children can see things or experience things which would really mess them up but they just keep going because they don’t know any better? Because they’re children? That’s what it was like in Wonderland. A dream, and the payload of trauma only hit once I woke.”

“Yeah,” Raine said.

“And there was no rabbit hole or magic mirror to get there, we went through an abyss underneath my bed. A hole. A non-place. Me and my sister found it one night, as we were reading stories to each other in the dark, under the bed covers with a torch. She came back from the toilet and there it was, inviting us. And we just decided to go in, because that’s what you do when you’re kids and you’ve been reading fairy tales all your life and nobody tells you it’s possible to see things which aren’t real.” I took a shuddering breath, and forced myself on, to the hardest part.

“We were twins, my sister and I. We went in together, because we did everything together. But when Wonderland let me go, I was alone. Her bed was gone. Her clothes, her— everything. It was just me. And later on, after the screaming hysteria and the hospital and the tranquilisers, I tried to ask my parents ‘where’s my sister?’” I swallowed hard and bit back on the pain; the wound was still open, no matter how old.

“What happened to her?” Raine asked.

“She never existed,” I whispered. “You can’t know what it’s like, to grow up with another half, a twin, who turns out to be a delusion. A hallucination. Just me in the family photos. Six months later I got an official diagnosis, from the child psychologists at Cygnet hospital in London.”

Raine waited for me to continue, head tilted slightly to one side.

“Ever since then, I’ve had nightmares. It’s like being back there, and I wake up screaming, my head full of … of- pressure in my head and- and-” I started to shake, had to back away from the idea. “Night terrors, they call them. They come and go, it’s not every week, or even every month. Sometimes I think it’s finally over, but the respite never lasts. I get daytime hallucinations too, monsters and things, and sometimes – rarely – I Slip. That’s what I call it, when reality spits me out to some other place for hours on end. That was happening to me just now, when you found me.”

“Wonderland?”

I shook my head. “No, other places. I-I think I’d die if I had to go back to Wonderland again. It’s almost never the same. First time that happened I was ten, I went to this place full of giant worms and pyramids and … the doctors put me on medication.”

“Anti-psychotics?”

“Yes.”

“They work?”

“No. They didn’t do anything, but I pretended they did because I wanted the side effects to stop, and I learnt to live with seeing monsters everywhere.”

Raine’s eyes narrowed into a shrewd look. “What exactly did you see in Wonderland, Heather?”

I looked at her for a moment like she was one of my hallucinations.

“I-I can’t talk about it, it hurts to think-”

“Please, try,” Raine said, then reached across the table and took my hand. Her hand felt soft and warm. I tried to pull away but she held on. “You’ve never told anybody this, have you?”

“The doctors … “

“But you lied to them a lot, right?” she said. “You told them the drugs worked, and you never really told them the core of it, not at ten years old. What do you dream about, Heather?”

“Why are you even-”

“Because you need it, don’t you?”

I gulped, and screwed my eyes up, and for the first time in my life I told the truth.

“A … an Eye,” I said, and felt my stomach clench. Raine squeezed, I squeezed back. “A giant eye, the Great Eye, and it is all the sky, from horizon to horizon.” My voice dwindled and I tried not to shake, tried not to think about what I was saying. I squeezed Raine’s hand until my knuckles were white. “It has a million million servants in the ruins and dust below. And it watches me, and it thinks at me and sorts through the neurons in my brain and forces me to learn things- things- a-about reality, physics- no, I can’t, I can’t,” I shook my head.

Raine was up and into the seat next to me before I lost control. She put her arm around my shoulders. I sat and shook and she told me to take deep breaths, and I did, until I could think clearly without seeing the impossible equations and unreal physics the Eye had spent ten years force-feeding me. Nobody paid us the slightest bit of attention, two college girls having a moment of private drama.

“You okay?” she asked eventually.

“No, not really,” I said, and sighed. I turned away and wiped my eyes. She disentangled her arm from around me, and I was too much of a coward to ask her to keep it there. “But, um, thank you.”

“You really needed that, huh?”

“I guess so,” I muttered. I had never spelt it all out before, in such simple terms.

Raine studied me for a moment, then said, “What if I could prove you’re not crazy?”

And there was the catch, the other shoe dropping: Raine was a kook. A really good looking kook who gave me attention and comfort on one of the lowest mornings of my life. At least I could have an hour of companionship before I called my mother and tore everything down. I didn’t want Raine to leave.

“You can’t prove a negative,” I said.

“Ha, you sound just like a friend of mine. Okay, that’s true, you can’t prove a negative. What if I could prove you’re sane, Heather?”

“There’s no such thing as sane, there’s only subtle grades of illness and wellness. I just happen to be close to the deep end of the spectrum.”

“Yeah but people like you are supposed to be deluded, right? You don’t believe any of the stuff you see is real, or at least that’s the impression I get. You’re not technically paranoid schizophrenic, that’s not the diagnosis they ever gave you, is it? I’m willing to bet they tried real hard to put you in that category but they couldn’t find enough markers, because you don’t believe it’s real.”

I nodded. Didn’t see where she was going with this. If I’d known, I would have got up and run. Raine sucked on her teeth and nodded slowly.

“See any hallucinations in here, right now? Parrot on my shoulder? Skeleton doing the cooking behind the counter?”

“They’re- they-” I struggled for a moment, still mortified at having it out there in the open, even if it was just one person who I’d probably never see again. “My hallucinations are more coherent than that. Singular, separate, almost never replacements or additions for real people or objects.”

“Right, got it.” Raine nodded, dead serious. “And do you see any right now?”

“Do we- do you- do you have to ask that? Can’t we, I don’t know, talk about something else?”

“Please, Heather.”

I hesitated, then raised my eyes to the scribble-thing still peering in through the cafe’s front window.

“Yes. Outside, there’s a thing made of rents and breaks, gaps in the air which open on blackness. It actually peered through the window when you entered, hasn’t stopped staring.”

Raine’s body language changed. She sat up, turned to look over her shoulder as if she could see the monster, her head on a swivel. Suddenly both her hands were visible over the tabletop as she flexed her fingers. She looked at me, then back at the window.

She was alert, on guard. I figured it was an act, but it was still very endearing.

“Really?” she asked.

“Mmhmm, really.”

“Can you describe it?” She squinted at the window.

“Just like I said, shape of a person, sort of like a scribble.”

“How tall?”

“I don’t know. Maybe ten feet? It’s pretty tall.”

“Eyes? Face? Hands?”

“No, it’s got a mass of black for a face, like a knot in a tree. And the limbs taper off into sharp points.”

Raine turned back to me with a wild look in her eyes. “Ever tried shouting at these things in Latin? Greek? You know any Latin?”

“What? No.”

“One sec,” Raine said. “I have to message a friend real quick.” She pulled out a chunky mobile phone and sent a text message, then placed it on the table and winked at me. “Can’t prove a negative, eh? Let’s do an experiment, Heather. You’re gonna love this one. If you’re not impressed, I’ll buy your breakfast. Hell, I’ll buy you breakfast anyway, and lunch and dinner, and another breakfast. Oh wow, you got no idea. This is not what I was expecting.”

The phone buzzed. Raine scooped it up off the table, grinned at whatever the message contained, and then took my hand.


==


Outside, in the weak morning sunlight, the Scribble turned to watch us as Raine led me out of the cafe.

“Uh, Raine?” I gulped and pulled my coat closer around myself.

“What? What’s it doing?” Raine looked up and down and everywhere. She figured out the right direction from the way I backed up, then put herself between me and the creature. It bent toward us, extending limbs like knives made of night.

“Following- um, it followed us when we left. Raine, I don’t like this, it’s not normal, this is my head reacting to-”

Raine opened the text message she’d received – I glimpsed a picture on the screen for a split-second, a jumble of lines. She grinned at me. Then she held the phone up and showed it to my hallucination.

A miracle happened.

The Scribble-thing screamed, a split-second tearing of rusty nails across the inside of my skull. I clamped my hands to my ears. As quick as it began the sound dissipated and lost all force. The creature unravelled, twisting and pulling at itself, scraps of darkness floating away on the wind until it vanished, the wounds in reality closing up and sliding shut with a papery rustling sound.

“What happened to it? Is it gone?” Raine asked, still holding up the phone, reluctant to look away. “It’s gone, right? No way that didn’t work. Come on, Heather, say something!”

I was speechless. Nobody else had ever touched my hallucinations. They interacted with me if I was careless enough, but never anybody else. And none of them had ever done anything like that.

“It’s … yes. Yes, it’s gone.”

Raine turned to me, smug all over. “Did it explode? Fireworks? Bada-boom! She shoots, she scores!” She threw her hands up and whooped and punched the air.

“I don’t— no, it sort of fell apart. I mean, that doesn’t prove anything, all you did … “ She’d used suggestion and trickery, I wasn’t well, I was sleep deprived. “How did you do that?”

“Oh, I have no idea.” Raine waggled her phone. “All I did is point this in the right direction.” The screen showed a picture of a symbol drawn on a regular piece of paper, a symbol like a blocky fractal representation of a tree. “But I can introduce you to the person who made it happen, a really good friend of mine. She’s … well, she’s kind of like you, a little bit. I think you’ll get on great with her.”

“Wait, wait, stop.” I held up a hand and noticed it was shaking. “That, that wasn’t real, that was one of my hallucinations. A hallucination, not real.”

“Sure it was,” Raine said, then rummaged in her jacket and pulled out a thick black marker pen. “And you’ve been kept up for two weeks by nightmares. First thing you’re gonna do is go home and get some sleep, because you’re totally shattered and it’s not helping you think straight. I’m not going to dump a load on you about the occult and invisible monsters and how I just banished a servitor with magic, not before you’ve got a few hours sleep in you, because then you’ll think I am really am trying to exploit you, right?”

“What? No, I never said you were a nut-case or anything.”

“Yeah, but you thought it. No shame, I would too, in your place. When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like nails. Here, hold out your hand.”

I was helpless to resist, too confused and still in shock. Raine stuck her tongue out the corner of her mouth as she copied the symbol from her phone to the back of my left hand.

“There.” She slapped the cap back onto the marker pen. “Now, I got no idea if that will actually help you sleep or not, but it might, and might is better than more nightmares.” She grinned and pointed at me as I cradled my graffitied hand.

“I … I guess.”

“Now come on, I’ll walk you home. I’ll fend off the monsters with a sharp stick if I have to.” Before I could stop her she looped her arm through mine and led the way.

Even Raine wasn’t psychic, she did have to ask where I live, and my barriers were so weak by then that I just told her. All my caution, years of my parents acting like I was a disabled child, the lectures on staying safe, how easily I’d be hoodwinked because I was mentally ill, it all went out the window.

“So, what else do you see around here, Heather?”

“Excuse me?”

“What other monsters walk Sharrowford’s streets?” I caught that look on Raine’s face again, naked fascination. Hunger.

“They’re not … they’re not real, Raine. They’re phantoms of my diseased brain, for God’s sake.” I had to take a deep breath and look away, a blush rising in my cheeks.

“Pretty please? I’m dying to know. Hey, come on, look at me. Heather?”

“I-I know what you did earlier wasn’t real, it was a confidence trick, and right now I don’t care. But my hallucinations are not real.”

“Sure they’re not, but tell me about them anyway.”

Slowly, the words sticking like dry toast in my throat, I told Raine about the thing with three legs that squatted at the end of Peasley Drive, and the hulk to the south, towering over the city in mute silence. I described a shambling ape with a sprouting mushroom for a head, and the humpbacked reptilian sloth which ambled across the road from us. Raine listened, nodded, asked questions like she was compiling a taxonomy. She only stopped when we reached the foot of my block of flats and we swapped mobile phone numbers, my fingers numb as I made absolutely sure I had hers correct.

Raine checked the time on her phone and puffed out a sigh. “I’d love to come up and make sure you actually get to sleep, but I’ve got class.”

“It’s okay, you’ve … I don’t understand why you’re being so friendly, doing all this. Being nice.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow. “You know this city isn’t safe for people like you? Ahh, who am I kidding, you haven’t the faintest idea.”

“What? Sharrowford?” I almost laughed, despite everything. “It’s hardly the crime capital of England. The worst things that happen here all seem to be the fault of students.” Raine gave me an odd look, the sort of look the doctors used to give me, an I-know-better look tainted with patronising compassion. I felt myself bristle. “Wait, you mean because I’m crazy?”

“No, Heather, I mean because you can see things you shouldn’t. You wanna know why I’m doing this? Because I don’t wanna let somebody like you get hurt. And I think you’re kinda sweet.”

I tried to form a reply, but found my mouth was made of useless flapping rubber. “Um … okay?”

“Do you know where the university’s Medieval Metaphysics department is? Well, it’s not really a department, there’s only two of us. Anyway, point is, I’ve got class until three, which mean you’re gonna sleep for six-seven hours, then you’re gonna come up to the department and meet Evee. I think between us we might be able to shine a light on your head.”

“The-the what?”

“Medieval Metaphysics department. It’s in the top of Willow, technically just part of the Philosophy department. There’s only two doors, 117 and 118, one says- oh, wait, here!” She fished around in her jacket, pulled out a bunch of keys and slipped one off, then pressed it into my hand. “You’ll need this to get in, the key to 118. Just go on in if I’m not there, make yourself at home.”

“Why?” I asked.

Raine cracked another smile. “Because I’m Robin Hood.”

“Medieval Metaphysics?”

“You can’t miss it.”

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