Warning: Spoilers for the end of the show.
Warning: Spoilers for the end of the show.
The door rattled under Maksin’s fist when he knocked the second time, vainly trying to overpower the noise inside. All that it got him was a shouted “Go away, Maks!” and then the creaking of the bed resumed.
How had Razija known it was him? Maksin scratched his stubble, shaking his head. Did she know his knocks so well by now? Or was it just a deduction that nobody else would be stupid enough to knock on her door when she had somebody there. Stupid… or enough of an arse. He had to admit it was more of the second one. Had it been on her ship he wouldn’t have dared, but here in a shitty little portside inn she didn’t run things. He did. Or had used to. And even if she didn’t stop what she was doing he knew he had planted a seed of curiosity in her mind. Razija liked her share of sex, loved being the captain and in command, but her weakness had never been the sort heart she so often lamented. It was her curiosity. They wouldn’t have ended up in bed otherwise. Ancestors, they wouldn’t even have ended up friends.Read more
The sun burned hot over the city, a last hurrah to the fading summer.
Jaamac leaned over the edge of the rooftop, cleared his throat and spat; counting the seconds it took the spit to fall. Last semester he had learned all about gravity and falling objects in physics class, now as the summer faded he had still not found a use for it. Maybe he never would, yet another in a line of things you learned but never really thought about past graduation.
In the distance the city burned, like it had burned for three days now. The smoke clouded the skies but the wind did not blow in their direction, so the projects were safe for now. Safe. Funny word that. It used to be this was the most dangerous place in the city. But that was before things changed. He cleared his throat again, spitting over the edge of oblivion. If he timed it right he might hit Nîyaz, who had elected to make the run this time. Running for supplies for the party that never ended.
It was not like they had much else to do now.
The party had been a great idea; Jaamac was not sure who had come up with it. Maybe he had, maybe he had just mentioned something since his parents were out of town, and someone else had run with it. They were friends after all, friends used to trouble and fun in equal measure. It was meant to be a last bit of freedom before the school started up again. The weather had been unseasonably warm, and the door to the roof in Kenley building had been broken since the beginning of summer. With a grill, a few crates of beer, some cheap vodka and as much soda as they could drink, the party had started. He knew everybody there though he wouldn’t call all of them friends, out here allegiances shifted like the weather. Enemies turned reluctantly into allies, lovers into jealous exes.
And then the mist came.
It had rolled in along the Moselle, quickly covering the already flooded recreation grounds, rising to the walkways of the deck level. It had been late at night, but the moon had been up and the mist had glimmered eerily yellow. They had gathered at the edge of the roof to watch it lap against the base of the buildings, and then it had slowly begun to rise. Jaamac remembered being very drunk and spending most of his time making out with Amy, trying to forget what had happened to Dave. Dave had been his mate. Dave had gone downstairs, down into the mist, laughing it off as weird English weather. Dave was dead now.
But they were not. They were young and drunk and the party was still going. Amy had been right about that. There was nothing they could do. So they had shared a bottle of vodka and made out while they tried to forget that Dave had been her boyfriend and his best friend and now was dead and neither. Whether her lips were salty from crisps or tears he had no idea.
The Thames was thick with cold November fog, the shadow of bridges crossing it like cuts. Catherine closed her eyes and breathed deeply, smog and mist coiling in her breast. The city was a distant white noise, the Docklands a resurrected corpse being brought back to life around her. It was the biggest project her firm had ever worked on, and even as an intern she had shared the excitement.
But for very different reasons.
She lit up a cigarette and stood at the edge of the river. Waiting, like she always waited in the quiet sanctity of Sunday evenings. It appeared, as it often did, as a tall man in steel-rimmed glasses and slicked-back hair, an investment banker gone amiss. The faces changed, the voice did not.
“Is it time?” she asked, like she always did.
But this time it regarded her quietly for a moment, then growled a quiet “Yes.”
It was the words that she had been waiting to hear for so long now. Perhaps she should have lit up in a smile. Perhaps she should have shouted with joy. But she just nodded quietly, a quiet affirmation of her determination.
“Show me,” the Beast continued, an undertone of feedback in his voice that set her teeth on edge. An echo of an echo of an echo, cast so far from the source. It sniffed the air, eyes gleaming in anticipation.
“What do you smell?” she asked since she smelled nothing, pulling her coat a little tighter against the sudden chill. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, decaying in autumn and corrupted exuberance in spring. The Beast was never a comfortable presence, so she cherished him.
“We are walking on the path of the plague,” it growled, sniffing the air, the briefcase held in one limp hand like a blunt instrument. “The first one. You can still smell it on the gravel.”
“The street is paved,” she pointed out, because they had left the Thames now, weaving through the rising buildings, empty windows devoid of life or intent. Their target was not distant, but the road was neither straight nor easy.
“To your eyes perhaps.” The Beast sounded almost amused at that. “It landed back there with a cog from Dorset, the men and rats aboard already dead or dying. The City was smaller then of course, but even out here there were scavengers. They stripped the ship and carried death back to their families. November was always the bleakest of months.”
Catherine fell silent at that, tried to picture a time when the city was a small squalid place surrounded by farmland. So much death, but perhaps a greater number of people died these days. There were more people living in London now than there would have been in the entire country back then. What horrors and glories would a plague like that bring today?
“You should have come sooner.” She did not care if she sounded reproachful; she had been ready since she had first met his eyes back at the fairgrounds when she was a child. She had wobbled off one of the rides and managed to clear the crowd before throwing up. She had knelt there, feeling the earth tilt and spin, her mouth tasting bitterly of vomit and cotton candy. Still filled with exhilaration and terror she had got up, ready to ride again when she had caught his eyes.
She had known immediately.
“Are you that much in a hurry to head towards damnation?” It almost sounded amused, the chuckle like ice cubes crunched between broken teeth. “You were too young back then.”
“I thought children were good recruits.” The seduction of the innocent, the trust of a child soiled beyond salvation. She pointed towards one of the building sites. Like all the others, it was surrounded by wiry steel fencing, as if the house beyond would escape unless imprisoned.
“Choice is power.” It shrugged and tore apart the metal fence as if it had been paper. “Children know too little. That is why the church is weak. It feeds on habit, not conviction.”
“I made a choice back then,” she insisted, still remembering the sensation of falling. Still remembering the familiarity. That here was someone, no, something that understood. Understood her. Understood the parts of her she was smart enough to keep hidden after the first dead hamster.
“No.” They walked into the skeleton of the building, still smelling of damp, wet cement. “You did not.”
“I wanted you to come back.” Her heels made sharp sounds against the concrete floor, like the clicking of claws.
“And I did.”
There was no reply to give to that, because it had indeed returned. Finally. Ten years after that first encounter it had walked backed into her life, giving it a meaning it previously had lacked.
“What will it be like?” she asked, walking the unfinished rooms, windows covered by plastic sheeting. “Losing your soul?” Coils of cables rested heavy like intestines, waiting to be assembled into a nervous system for the building
“There are no such things as souls.” The Beast stopped for a moment, looking around. There was almost no light in here to distract from the faint glowing of its eyes.
“And you are the prince of lies,” she pointed out.
“That I am.” But it said nothing further on the subject. “Where is the altar?”
“There is no altar.” She had finally succumbed to the limitations of her human eyes and pulled out a flashlight.
“You said that you had built unto me a temple.” There was a quiet warning in those words, and despite herself she felt her heart racing in anticipation or fear.
“And I did.” Catherine played with the flashlight over the unfinished ceilings. “Not a church. A temple to the new gods that ensnare men’s hearts. A convention center.” The interior space was vast and cavernous, and she extended her arms and spun slowly in place.
The Beast stayed silent, so she kept talking.
“One year from now people will come here to worship. Their heroes. Their toys. All the petty material things that fill the emptiness of their lives. This is where the masses will listen to the sermons of Power. Where they will learn the importance of Wealth. The Unimportance of their own accomplishments. A myriad gods, all as empty as the hearts that spawned them.”
She had changed the plans in secret, piece by piece. Small measurements corrupted. Interior spaces just slightly askew. Nothing that her superiors would notice. Nothing that the builders would think odd. But bit by bit she had applied all she knew of discordant architecture to turn this building into a trap. A trap for desire. A structure that would hum with the reflected need of those that milled through it. A building as powered by belief as any church.
“Have you prepared yourself?” Apparently her gift had been deemed adequate, because the Beast had turned to face her, the left arm with the suitcase limp and dead, the right hand curled in invitation.
“Yes.” Catherine tossed away the cigarette, reaching out to take the hand. It scalded her, as if she had reached for a pot without an oven mitt.
The preparation had been equal parts easy and difficult. It was a simple task in theory, to turn your back on all things that made you human. She had slept with her feet on her pillow, her head covered by the sheets, the increasingly rotten air making her nights unrestful. For food, she ate only what disgusted her. She left the vegetables in the fridge to almost rot, choked down the mouldy bread and tried to find joy in the smell of meat gone bad. She had thrown up during those first days, but she learned to choke it down. For lunches at work she ate the least healthy things she could find, imagining clogged arteries and heart disease. Had she not been working she would have let herself grow filthy, but the lesson with the hamster had taught her that her continued freedom and survival rested on fitting in. On not being noticed.
“That will be your life from now on.” The beast held her hand, watching her for any signs of hesitation. “You will no longer gain nourishment from what is clean and pure. You will thrive on filth.”
“Will it taste better?” she asked, a moment of weakness she could not hold back.
“No.” The reply was as short as a slap. “Your purpose is not the enjoyment of your existence.”
“I have never understood joy,” Catherine admitted, remembering.
Even when she had been a little girl riding the waltzer to exhaustion, she had not done it to scream in joy like the other children. She had ridden in silence, eyes closed tightly, letting herself be flung in all directions by the chaos of the ride. Darkness. It was a little bit like death, giving up on the structure that was life.
“And now you never will.” There was no permission asked. She had made her choice a long time ago. Eyes gleaming hungrily, the Beast’s other hand finally released the briefcase. It thudded to the ground like an accusation, and he placed the palm of that horrible left hand on her forehead.
It was almost a relief when the world fell away and took her with it.
The small town lay resting in the valley, but the road headed uphill, high enough that both boys dismounted their bikes and started walking.
"You’re lying," Freddie said, sticking his tongue out at his weird friend.
"Am not." Devlin protested, putting his small back into pushing the much larger bike. "I did it with mum."
"Now I know you’re lying, grownups don’t have nightmares." If they had just been walking, Freddie would have pushed or punched, but now they were already exhausted.
"She does too." Devlin said with a stubborn frown. He was eleven, not stupid. "About dad."
"How do you know that?" Freddie had hushed a little on the subject of Devlin’s dad, a spectre brought back seldom if at all.
"I heard her." The voice was small and tasting of blood.
"She was talking in her sleep?" Freddie paused, so they could both catch their breath. The crest of the hill was still some distance away.
"No. I told you. I can hear dreams as well as steal them." Devlin leaned against the bike, catching his breath. The skinny legs were flaking in the sun, scraped and bruised by too many crashes.
"So what am I dreaming about then?" The challenge was expected, this was the way things were between them. Faster. Higher. Louder.
"I don’t know. You’re not asleep yet." Devlin pointed out the last almost smugly as he started pushing the bike again.
"You are so full of shit you little freak." Freddie laughed, the insult equally familiar.
"Try me." The smuggest of little smiles.
"I don’t really have nightmares," Freddie hesitated for a moment. "No big ones. But…"
"But?" They had reached the top of the hill now, readying their bikes for the breakneck race down.
"I know someone that does."
A shared smile, an unspoken agreement, and then they were off downhill. The world spun around them, faster and faster, the two of them wrapped in childhood invulnerability on their bikes.
A dozen new scrapes later, and a line of bruises across Freddie’s chest from a tumble through a hedge.
"Come on Butterbuns," Freddie implored, gesturing at the kid they were following.
"My name is Burt, and no." Crossed arms and closed face, not even the soda he was sipping on softened it.
"Seriously," Freddie tried again. "This is not a trick."
"Go away." Burt emptied the can of coke, then tossed it at Freddie who batted it away with a smile and an accusation.
"But you wet your bed all the time."
"I don’t." But Burt was blushing now, hands shoved deep in pockets as he hurried his pace.
"Dude, I had the bunk under you at camp, I know." Freddie clapped him on the shoulder, aiming for camaraderie, getting anger in return.
"You said you’d never, ever tell anybody." Burt poked his chest, hitting one of the bruises so he got a wince in return.
"Devlin doesn’t count." Freddie rubbed his chest and looked at his quiet friend, who looked a little bit awkward at having been caught in this. "He wants to help you."
"My mom gets me to go to a shrink. That doesn’t help." The blush had stayed, as had the anger.
"Come on, Burt. I swear this is not to make fun of you. Dev can really help." Freddie looked at Devlin for help.
"I thought you didn’t believe me?" Devlin looked slightly amused at his friend’s insistence.
"I do, it’s just…" Freddie shrugged a little.
"Impossible?" Devlin suggested.
"Just a bit." The smile was almost sheepish.
"What are you two even talking about?" Burt asked, finally intrigued enough for anything but flat denial.
"Devlin can take away your nightmares."
Burt’s bedroom was small, but the wallpaper bright enough for twice the size. With two air mattresses on the floor things were cramped, Burt raised on his own bed like a sacrifice.
"I should never have got along with this," he mumbled shifting a little in his bed.
"Come on, your mum didn’t mind the sleepover." Freddie had half slipped out of his sleeping bag already.
"My mum is just happy I got any friends." The nightlight in the corner painted the room a warm orange.
"Try to sleep a little," Devlin yawned, trying to avoid the unfamiliarity of the surroundings.
"I don’t like to sleep, that’s why I drink all the soda." Burt sighed, then his voice softened into a whisper. "… this is just… is it gonna hurt?" he sounded nervous, shifting in his bed again.
"You’ll be asleep," Devlin assured.
"That’s not what I asked," Burt mumbled into the pillow, but it didn’t answer him.
Sleep came slowly and in spurts, like slipping down the stairs in fluffy socks. Slippery. Quiet. The air mattress was an uncertain bed under Devlin. Unfamiliar. He kept his eyes closed, focusing on sinking through the floor. Losing his body. Losing the walls. Losing the house. Breathing. His own. Freddie’s. Burt’s. There’s a gravity to sleep, a welcome darkness. Breathing. His own. Burt’s. Just Burt’s.
He opens his eyes in an unfamiliar room. Little bare feet. Little chubby hands. The freedom of learning how to run. And so he does so. Down the stairs. Thud. Thud. Thud. Stretching tall to open the backyard door. Thud. Thud. Thud. Grass. Cars quietly growling in the distance. Running through the forest. Thud. Thud. Thud. Chill air. The smell of dirt. The path snaking ahead, a small wooden bridge crossing the stream.
Stop. Stop. Stop. But in the dream he keeps running. Up the bridge. New sound. Thump. Thump. Thump. His feet. His heart. Stop. Stop. Stop.
In the dream Dev freezes solid, sheds the skin of little baby Burt. His feet are still bare. The bridge is still arched like am angry cat. Underneath he still hears breathing. Deep breaths. Wet. Horrible. He is afraid, but he has to look. He has to kneel down on the wood and lean over the edge, upside down, peering into the darkness.
Peering into yellow eyes.
"AAAAHHHH!" Raw throat, panicked heart.
"Dev, wake up, wake up!" Freddie’s hands on his shoulders, pressing him back on the mattress.
"Sorry, I…" No words. Devlin has lost them somewhere, like marbles.
"Did it work?" Burt is awake as well, still drowsy from the dream, eyes wide, the orange nightlight waking shadows there.
"I think so…" Devlin covered his eyes and took a shaky breath. He had thought his dad was bad because that was his nightmare too. But this had been worse and a stranger’s.
"Eeew, you’ve wet the bed." Freddie pulls back with a sudden grimace.
"I saw…" Devlin ignores the wet pyjamas, still half lost in foetid creek water.
"You saw the…" Burt starts, but he breaks off mumbling. "I can’t remember. I really can’t remember."
"That’s because I took it." Devlin lets out a short breath, but his heart keeps racing.
"You mean I won’t be dreaming about it? Ever again?" The hopeful tone nearly broke the terror of the moment.
"I don’t think so," Devlin admitted, though dreams were the last thing on his mind now.
"That’s so cool." Burt mumbled sleepily. "What was I dreaming about anyway? I never remember?"
"Don’t ask," Devlin says with a weak smile. "Just get me some clean pyjamas, okay?
The morning after is bleak with remembered rain, and Freddie and Devlin walks home in silence.
"Dude, I’m never gonna doubt you again." Freddie might be saying that to cheer Devlin up, but words just break against the quiet focus that has gripped the other boy. "Even if you peed your pants."
"Good." A distracted little word.
"Was it a good thing that you peed your pants?" A teasing jab.
"No. That you believed me." Devlin took a shaky breath. "Because Burt was dreaming about something."
"You told me about the bridge."
"And something living under there." Devlin shivers. "Something…" He swallowed hard. "I understand why he didn’t want to go to sleep."
"So what’re you gonna do now then?" Freddie almost sounded worried.
Devlin took a deep breath and didn’t answer. What did he want to do? No, the question was, what could he do. Because it had been a dream. But dreams were simple things he could deal with, memories to forget. This had been… there had been malice in those eyes. And recognition. Sentience.
"Now I am going to get myself a pack of coke," Dev said at last, running a hand over his eyes. "Because I don’t think I want to fall asleep tonight."
“And then?” Because there was always a then, at least for the two of them.
“Then I’m gonna figure out how to slay a monster.”
“You didn’t tell me that your plan involved walking around shouting insults to a non-present evil entity.” Anders sounded like he wasn’t sure whether to be amused, annoyed or frightened as he followed Hawke closely, keeping an eye on the walls.
“For good reasons too, you would have told me I was insane.” Hawke tried to ignore the weight of the bag slung over his shoulder, the awkward feel of the bombs nesting there like little dragon eggs. How much movement would it take to make them explode on accident? He didn’t exactly fight standing still.
“We both would have!” Bethany had her staff in a secure grip, hair loose and wild and a frown near permanently etched on her brow.
“You hear that Meredith?” Hawke shouted, making both his comrades jump. “Not only have you been played the fool by a simple smuggler, you’ve been bested by one that’s insane.”
“Insane and loud. Let’s not forget loud.” Anders gave Hawke a skeptical look, rubbing his ear a little.
“Did I ever tell you how much I laughed at you behind your back you insufferable bitch? Talk about delusions of grandeur, you couldn’t touch me despite the fact that I slept with the most noteworthy apostate in Kirkwall.” Hawke had no ideas if she had eyes in the stone as well, but it still felt good to reach out and put his arm around Anders, giving him a kiss on the cheek before letting go.
“I doubt she cares about who you slept with, Ian.” Bethany looked like she wasn’t sure whether to slap her brother on the back of his fool head or not.
“Oh you’d be surprised,” Hawke said with his most serious look. “She’s a Templar, and they are all about disapproving. All those Chantry people are. Just look at Sebastian. It would do him a world of good to just drop his pants and get laid, might have saved me a lot of pain if he did.”
Bethany blushed brightly crimson, looking away. “I don’t think that’s…” she started, and then the walls started crumbling around them.
Rocks fell, bouncing off Anders’ shields only to reform into Rock Wraiths, lit from the inside by a malicious red glow. Stone scraped against stone as they surged forward, slowly and lumbering at first but gathering speed quickly.
“Andraste’s perky tits, at least you’ve drawn out more rock wraiths,” the healer said with half a laugh, energy cracking around his staff as he prepared to fight.
“Let’s just push past them this time, make them chase us.” Hawke sheathed his dagger, keeping light on his feet as he waited for the right moment.
“And how do you propose to do that, love?”
“Leave that to me, Anders.” Bethany cracked her neck, raising her staff above her head, the air growing heavy and oppressive around her. “Be ready to deal with any stragglers though.”
With a loud crack she brought her staff down, and around the three of them, the air thickened like curdled milk. The rock wraiths slowed like flies in syrup, enabling even the two mages to push past them with ease. Once past, the running resumed, the rocks slowly tearing themselves free from their bondage to follow.
“Not to quibble brother, but why are we being chased again?” Bethany asked, out of breath, hair in disarray. “We could have destroyed them.”
“Maybe we’ve been killing them too fast,” Hawke answered, looking back over his shoulder. “They’re not like the statues of the Gallows that were blighted near impossible to bring down after all. And as long as she keeps summoning them she’s safely in hiding somewhere. We can’t get at her. She could be anywhere.”
“Watch yourself, Hawke, we’ll make a general of you yet.” Anders paused as they came to a fork in the corridor. After a moment of hesitation he picked the left path.
“Don’t even joke about that…” Hawke grumbled. General? That would be the day. “Are you sure this is this the right way to the assembly hall?”
“I think so.”
“I think so?”
“It’s been more than a decade since I was here last, and I left it half in ruin.”
“And nobody around to ask for directions either,” Bethany tried to sound lighthearted, but the empty corridors were starting to get downright creepy.
“You’ve got a point,” Hawke admitted. “Where is everybody?”
“Fighting somewhere else I suppose. Amell won’t go down easily, and there’s a gaggle of Wardens with him. “Can’t you feel the tremors?”
Once Anders pointed them out, Hawke realized that yes, there were tremors in the floor. At first he had thought they came from the rock wraiths, but these were heavier rumbles, like distant thunder in the mountains.
“Fighting what? If we can wade through the rock wraiths before they grow I’m having a hard time imagining the wardens having trouble.” Bethany had stopped to listen as well, but they had to start moving again once the rock wraiths approached.
“Maybe they’re not as tough as they’d like to pretend.” Hawke shot Anders a teasing grin.
“I’ve got the impression it’s the other way around. Who tends to need rescuing around here lately?”
“Don’t rub it in sister, maybe Meredith actually has gone after them first…” Divide and conquer, the first rule of combat.
“Andraste’s dimpled bum! The statue…” Anders stopped in his tracks, then picked up the pace.
“I forgot you hadn’t seen it, love, it’s outside, in the front courtyard. It’s of the Hero of Ferelden. The dwarves brought it as a gift after the blight had ended. Lord Harrowmount spared no expense.”
“Of my cousin? Maker, I thought I was the only one with a statue.”
“He actually has two. There’s one in Denerim as well, but this one is bigger. Oghren said the dwarves were probably truing to overshadow the one that was erected in Denerim. Dwarven pride and all that.”
“And I suppose this one is big?” No, there was no sarcasm at all in Hawke’s words.
“Not as big as the ones in Kirkwall.”
“That’s a relief anyway.”
“It sounds angry though,” Bethany pointed out as yet another violent shock rocked the keep.
“Very angry,” Hawke agreed.
“The Hero of Ferelden versus the Hero of Ferelden.” Anders paused to ice the path behind them, slowing the progress of the pursuing rock wraiths. The cold air made his breath mist in the narrow corridor.
“You’d think with all the things I messed up for her, I’d at least rate an angry statue. But noo, my cousin has to go and be the big hero again.” Hawke knew he sounded like a sulking child, but it was preferable to sounding scared. At times like this, humor was the last refuge of the damned, even if it meant that he’d come off as a bit of an idiot. He had lived like one after all. Might as well keep it up until the end.Read more
Nine white walls, fluorescent lights painting the angular surfaces in blue and iridescent. Four men and women in pale green scrubs tending their instruments like holy artefacts. One prone woman wrapped in white, strapped down on a table, wires crawling over her like spider webs.
"Approaching oxygen saturation level."
"All systems are green."
"Starting recording in three, two, one."
"Body temperature 36.3 and dropping."
Air cold enough for breath to mist. A subsonic rumble gone unheard making ripples in the clear drip running into the woman’s arm. Nine dull, black rectangles circling the table, equally connected to the wiring.
"Is she dreaming?"
"We’ve got REM movement."
"Sleep paralysis is in effect. We won’t lose this one."
"Her. We won’t lose her."
A soft hand gently touching a cool forehead. The scrape of a pen marking numbers down on paper. A pair of hands rubbing together for warmth, or perhaps due to nervousness.
"Is the inquiry finished? I mean we are doing this again."
"It was ruled an accident. Nobody had thought he’d start to move."
"Guess maybe he had been a sleepwalker as a child."
"Nobody checked for that?"
A question gone unanswered, blame hanging there unassigned. Fingers leaping over keyboards, the clack clack clack like cockroach feet over the quiet hum of the room. A throat being cleared, a deep breath taken.
"Activating gates one through five."
"Heartbeat down to 28 bpm."
"All systems are still green, she’s holding up fine."
"REM is still going. Proceed when ready."
Scrubs rustle as people move to check their stations, but the woman at the centre does not move at all. Just her eyes, pupils running rampant behind closed eyelids. Five of the dull, black rectangles hum to life, the oscillation field coming into effect.
"Lowering the descent path by 0.57."
"That steep? We’ve already got Theta waves."
"We went slow last time, that didn’t work, did it?"
"No need to snap. Keep an eye on the vitals."
Green lights are flickering into yellow, and on the screens brainwaves are slowing down their dance. Checking printouts, one man crosses himself out of sight of the others. Five dull, black rectangles are left, inert in the tensing atmosphere.
"Activating gates six through eight."
"Wait, got an alpha wave flicker."
"Damnit, lower her temperature!"
"She’s already at 35.9. If her core drops more she might go into hypothermia."
Fingertips are turning blue, cyanosis bruising pale skin. Breathing is a barely perceptible ripple in the stiff, white fabric covering her narrow chest. The skull is visible under the shaved scalp, eyes sunken and fluttering under the dark brows.
"REM still stable. Theta is borderline Delta. I think we should open the ninth gate."
"Check the restraints. Sleep paralysis or not, I’m not taking any risks this time."
"Heartbeat down to 20 bpm. Showing signs of hypoxia, we can’t keep this up."
"Let’s do this people. Activating the ninth gate."
The last dull, black rectangle hums to life and in the room, people grimace as the subsonics invades their bodies. Nobody is standing near the girl now where she lays, alone, surrounded by active gates. Needles flicker, showing the steady drain of power as the feeling of unease intensifies.
"Theta field active. Christ, I can feel it in my teeth."
"Still no response. Should we go deeper?"
"Heartbeat down to 17 bpm, she’s cyanosing but the vitals are stable. I vote go."
"Maximum psychic depth exceeded."
Silence is following those words, everybody waiting for a reaction. Eyes flicker between screens, readouts snake paper down on the dark floor. And yet nothing happens, the placid thunderstorm keeps building, immobile yet raging.
"Still nothing. Are you sure she’s not slipped into Delta by mistake?"
"Check the eyes. REM is too strong."
"Wait! We have harmonic tremors!"
"Finally, let’s do this thing."
A quiet nosebleed is running untended, staining green scrubs black. Lights are flickering tornado green, the dull, black rectangles fuzzy with vibrations. The girl on the table jerks convulsively, held fast by soft restraints, her mouth opening in a quiet scream.
"She’s breached, she’s breached!"
"Quick, track her path, track her path goddamnit. I need numbers!"
"Our father who art in heaven…"
"She’s still here, I swear, the numbers doesn’t track."
Eyes jerking open, flickering back and forth in a vortex of blue on black. A tongue extended slowly, the faster, as if tasting the air for scent. Lips pulling back, nostrils widening to a baleful grimace, gums stained with tiny blisters.
"Shit. The numbers doesn’t track, her id is still here, trapped in the field. "
"…hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come."
"Her heart rate’s through the roof, she’s flatlining."
"God almighty, did she bring it back with her?"
Nine, dull, black rectangles fizzling out one by one, the fluorescent lights staining red blood black. Four men and women frozen like Hiroshima shadows, turning towards the centre. One door behind them all, now closed.
Another door open.
Sixty three years ago.
Once the pupils had fled and the teachers had left for home, the school building turned into a spectacular corpse. Grey, flaking walls. Dead windows devoid of life. It rested there, surrounded by low walls and peoples’ indifference. Come morning, tortured students would once more shuffle through the doors, entering their own particular level of hell. Like most places of suffering, it was a place of power. Cameron liked power, and he liked a quiet place to smoke. He got both here.
"Oh look, it’s little Rollie." Teag shoved away from the wall he had been leaning against, smirking at the shorter boy that had dared to approach them.
"Sod off, my name is Roland." Roland had just turned thirteen; Teag was fifteen, and the difference between them was a foot and a helping of stubble. It didn’t stop the shorter boy from trying to push past, towards Cameron.
"That’s a mighty big name for a spaz like you." Teag pushed back, hard enough that Roland stumbled and nearly fell. But he just grit his teeth and clenched his fists.
"Sod off. I’m not talking to you." The blow came fast, hitting Teag in the stomach with enough force to make his breath whoosh out.
"Ow, you little wanker!" He rubbed his stomach, making a short rush after the younger boy, who jumped back a few steps, fists still raised. "Cameron doesn’t want to talk to your chubby arse."
"Give it a rest, Teag." Cameron’s voice made Teag pause and Roland lower his fists with something like hope in his eyes. "Kid wouldn’t bother me with nothing. He knows what happens then, right?" The threat was almost friendly, it was a sunny evening and the wall was warm. He was the uncrowned king of Bridgnorth Boys School, and there was peace in his kingdom.
"It’s my sister." Roland’s voice cracked a little then, the desperation he’d been hiding shining through the dirty glasses.
"Reena?" It took Cameron a moment to place the kid, but he knew Loreena. Knew she had a little brother with the same thick, greasy mop of hair. "Look," he continued with a tired sigh. "If you think I’ve been banging her you’re barking up the wrong tree and you’re way too little to do anything about it." Fifteen was a man. Thirteen was a child. That was just the way it was.
"She’s in the hospital." Sharp words, a stab bringing a larger reality into schoolyard shuffles.
"Someone bust her up?" Girls were not immune, but they rarely ended up in hospitals. Not a code really, more practicality. You didn’t need to teach girls lessons the same way, most already knew their places.
"Sort of." Roland looked away.
"Was it the Wallers?" They were the first Cameron could think off, the other school in town had some nasty kids, and for a show of force like that, girls were perfect. Especially ones he had been kissing.
The word was small enough that Teag stepped closer, raising his hand. “Pipe up kid, or I’ll smack you.”
"It was Bloody Mary!" The threat of a slap was real enough to make Roland nervously cover his cheek, when he had been bravely facing fists before.
"That’s rich." Teag groaned and looked back at Cameron. "You want me to whup him for you?"
"I thought I told you to shut it, Teag." Cameron’s voice had that particular shade of patience that never boded well for anybody.
"But, Cam…" Teag was interrupted by a blow to one shoulder, hard enough to rock him and make him stumble back, far harder than Roland’s jab before. Cameron rubbed his fist and stared down the other boy.
"Go and nick some beer," he ordered.
"But…" Teag protested.
“Go." That was an order, not a suggestion, and Teag muttered and walked off, leaving Cameron and Roland alone in the concrete wasteland that was the schoolyard.
"You want a smoke kid?" Cameron offered the younger kid one from the pack. Smoking was a ritual of adulthood. Or peace-making.
"No thanks." The shake of is head was almost shy, as if the fight from earlier had left him.
"You’re what, thirteen?" Cameron guessed. "Old enough to start."
Roland shook his head, looking nervously at the ground. “My dad would smell it.”
"I get it." Three little words, and none of them a lie. Cameron did get it. Dads and their dislikes. There was a moment of silence that was almost companionable, before he broke it so he wouldn’t appear weak. "What’s he doing about your sister?"
"He thinks someone attacked and tried to rape her." From the sound of Roland’s voice it was equally likely that his dad blamed Loreena as her attacker. Good girls stayed at home.
"And you don’t." Cameron lit up the cigarette, trying to judge the pudgy little kid in front of him. It was surprisingly hard.
"I know who did it." No hesitation, he stared at Cameron as if to dare to call him a liar. "Bloody Mary."
"You told me already." Cameron kept his face blank, his voice neutral. "Why do that by the way? Tell me?"
"I’m asking you, kid.” Cameron put the slightest hint of force into his command, letting his voice carry through.
"Because I knew you wouldn’t laugh at me." The confession was fast enough that Roland looked surprised as the words stumbled out.
"Kid, I could laugh at you for a dozen reasons. You’re fat. You’ve got glasses. You’ve got greasy hair, and you’re a scaredy cat." But that wasn’t what Roland had meant, and they both knew it.
"I’m not fat. And she’s real." Roland swallowed hard, staring at Cameron as if he dared him to object.
"You keep saying that," Cameron drawled, fishing for the truth.
"I saw her." Words of quiet conviction.
"Did you now?" Interest sparked, if he had been a cat, Cameron would have been swishing his tail. As it was, he sucked on his cigarette instead.
"At the hospital. In the mirror in the bathroom." Roland was breathing faster now, as if just remembering brought back the urgency he had felt when coming here.
"Don’t see your face all torn up. She didn’t like your chubby little cheeks?" Cameron reached out and pinched his cheek. To his surprise, Roland slapped his hand away. Well now, the kid had guts.
"I’m not stupid," he protested. "I didn’t say her name. But I saw her there. Looking out. At my sister."
"So you ran here."
"No." Roland shook his head, daring Cameron to touch him again. "I smashed the mirror. Then I smashed all the mirrors close by that I could find so she’d be safe. Then I ran here."
"Cops ain’t gonna like that," Cameron said with an appreciative laugh. "Vandalizing hospital property. Nor is your dad," he added after a moment’s thought.
"I’m not going home." There was a quiet terror in Roland’s voice, but for once it didn’t seem to be about his dad. "Not until I fix this."
"You?" Cameron couldn’t help the laugh. "If you’re the big man here, why are you talking to me then?"
"Because I don’t know how," Roland admitted, his frustration evident.
"And you figure I do?" Cameron remembered being thirteen and frustrated, changing like the world was changing, but not sure into what. The older kids had seemed like they knew everything, but it didn’t take him long to figure out they were just making shit up. Same as the adults.
"Everybody says so." It was too flat to be flattery.
"And didn’t everybody tell you I’m a dick too?" People came to him for help at times, but to beat people up. Not catch dead girls in mirrors. He had no idea how word had got out about what he sometimes did in his spare time.
"They did," Roland freely admitted. "But I’d owe you. And they say you like it when people owe you." His voice trembled just a little.
"You trying to play me kiddo?" No voice there, just an honest question. The kid seemed legit.
"No, I swear!" Roland held up his hand as if he was taking a vow. "I’m just trying to save my sister."
"Ah, what the hell." Cameron stubbed the cigarette out and ran a hand over his short hair. "I’m in kid. Never picked a fight with Bloody Mary before."
The house was small, the dirty bricks shoved up right against its neighbours. Too close to comfort, claustrophobic little walled backyards. They were standing in one now, Cameron first, Roland hovering a step behind. The girl that had opened the kitchen door stared at them both, her mouth an angry frown.
"What are you doing here Cameron? You broke up with me, remember?" She crossed her arms over her chest, fifteen and filling out faster than the boys could handle.
"I remember we weren’t together at all," Cameron protested, puffing his chest up a little. "And that ain’t why I’m here, Eve. It’s about Reena."
"Shit, listen, I don’t know anything." Eve made a move as if to close the door, but Cameron had taken hold of her wrist, hard enough to cause her to gasp.
"She went to your party." Quiet, calm words. Stating facts. "I know that. And now she’s in the hospital." He wasn’t threatening her. Not really. Not yet.
"She was attacked on the way home, alright? I told the cops." She tugged defensively at her arm, but he didn’t let her go.
"Well, you lie to cops, you don’t lie to me." Cameron’s voice grew hard as he filled it with will. "Tell me the truth.” The word stung his throat a little, like it always did. Commands were simple, truth was hard. They did not get along, him and it.
"I… it was just a bit of fun," she defended herself, and this time he let her go. "You know how it is." She rubbed her arm, bruises waiting to bloom under the skin.
"I know." Cameron nodded, mostly to get her to continue talking. She didn’t protest when he pushed past her, into the kitchen. Her parents weren’t home, not on Wednesdays.
"We were playing truth and dare," she started, closing the door after Roland had stepped in as well, looking a bit lost inside a stranger’s house. "She picked a dare, so Rosie told her to call for Bloody Mary."
"Where did she do it?" Cameron looked around, the kitchen clean and tidy, the couch where they had made out not a month ago.
"Upstairs bathroom." She pointed at the narrow stairs. "The rest of us waited outside. She had a candle and everything."
The old rules, passed down from child to child. Say Bloody Mary thirteen times while looking in a mirror in a dark room. Hold a candle. Look deeply into the mirror and she will appear and tear your face off. Or worse.
"You were planning to hold the door shut, weren’t you?" Roland raised his voice for the first time, an accusation spat at her back as they climbed the stairs.
"It was just a bit of fun," Eve defended herself. "Scare her a bit. Hold the handle and tell her it wouldn’t open. That the Bloody Mary would get her."
"She did." Roland sounded grim.
"Who are you anyway?" The question was filled with annoyance, Cameron was one thing, but Roland was just an annoying little brat.
"Reena’s kid brother," Cameron supplied, stopping outside the bathroom door.
"Anyway," Eve continued with a guilty look at Roland. "She started screaming and yanking at the door. And when it didn’t open I guess she must have opened the window and jumped. Tried to get home and got attached by some creep." It was the story she told herself every time she went to the bathroom.
"You don’t seem very sorry." Roland glared at the taller girl, his fear and frustration finally having a target.
"That’s because she thinks I dumped her for Reena." Cameron was running a hand over the door, only half paying attention to them.
"You did, you bastard." She raised her voice, but Cameron didn’t even look at her.
"You weren’t my girl. Neither was she. Just a bit of fun." He caught Roland looking at him from the corner of his eye. "What’s that look for kid?"
"Nothing," Roland lied." Are we going to stop it?" He looked at the bathroom door as if it held a lion behind it.
"Yeah." Cameron pulled back his hand and nodded.
The bathroom was small and dark. They had hung blankets over the narrow window since the sun had not gone down yet. The bathtub had a slight drip, each droplet making Roland jump. The candle in his hand flickered unsteadily.
"This is a really bad idea." The hot wax stung his hand, but he just bit his lip and stared into the dark mirror.
"Don’t be a wuss." Cameron was a darker shadow on the loo. Roland could hardly make him out.
"Will it even work on a boy?" He had pictured himself brave, but faced with this he went hunting for excuses. He had seen her once; he didn’t want to see that terrible face aimed at him.
"Just man up and do it." The impatience in Cameron’s voice was a greater threat than the dark mirror. "And it will. You’re her brother."
"I don’t even know why it worked this time," Roland mumbled, willing to do anything to postpone this until he could his courage once again. “People’s been doing this for ages.”
"Synchronicity. Sight. You’ve got the Sight, your sister must have it too. Eve was pissed at her because she thought I had dumped her over Reena. She wanted revenge. So did Bloody Mary."
"Never you mind that. Just call her."
Roland sucked in a deep breath, then spoke loudly. “Bloody Mary.”
The candle flickered. The bathtub dripped. The street outside fell silent. His own breathing felt too loud. “Bloody Mary,” he spoke again, looking deep into the mirror.
His face was reflected there, scared, frightened eyes behind the glasses. His hair was standing up; he resisted the urge to smooth it down. “Bloody Mary.” More wax dripped over his hand, the hot burn turning into tingling discomfort as the wax hardened and tugged at his skin. This place smelled odd. Not citrus.
"Bloody Mary," he said, voice cracking a little. Was Cameron even there? He didn’t see him in the mirror.
"Bloody Mary." He tried to count on his fingers how many times. Five. The tub still dripped.
"Bloody Mary." This was ridiculous. He had been imagining things. There was nothing that could come out of a mirror.
"Bloody Mary." The dripping tub started running, and Roland chanced a look behind him to see if Cameron had turned the faucet on. But when he turned back he saw a glimpse of movement in the glass.
"Bloody Mary." He was scared now, and the tub was running and the bathroom smelt weird.
"Bloody Mary." Nine times now, and Cameron made him jump as he shifted. But he didn’t say anything.
"Bloody Mary." His throat was dry. The bathroom smelled of blood. The water in the tub sounded heavy. Almost alive.
"Bloody Mary." Eleven times, still enough to turn on the lights and get out. Right? Eve would not hold the door shut this time. Not by herself.
"bloody mary." Almost there. The words were small and dry, he was six again, afraid of the dark and the things that lurked there. The things he saw but which his daddy said was lies. You got whupped for lies.
"bloody…. mary…" Maybe she would think he was a girl, his voice had cracked like one, filled with half a sob. He kept staring into the mirror, waiting for something to reach out for him, ready to jump back.
He had not been prepared for something to rise from the tub. It was a shape, a shade, a ruined face and bloody shoulders. The bathroom smelled of blood and the flickering candle betrayed just enough to terrify him. He nearly dropped it as he backed up against the door. It should be gone, he wasn’t looking in the mirror, but it was here, with him. In the bathroom. The tiny bathroom. A girl with a maimed face and red shoulders, her skin in flecks, shed like dandruff.
He screamed and fainted.
“Wait." Cameron’s voice, a steady word in the dark, and impossibly, the ruined girl stopped. Bloody Mary halting, turning towards the boy that had grabbed her arm.
"You’ve got it all wrong," Cameron continued. The candle kept burning on the floor, wax pooling around it. Roland was a pale lump next to it. He supposed he couldn’t blame the kid; this apparition had been coming for him. But now it was looking directly at Cameron himself, and he reached out to run a hand over her shoulder. Slippery. Bloody. The dress drenched in it. "There’s no other girl, babe."
Bloody Mary wasn’t a monster, she was a myth. An idea intruding on reality, a fear shat out among the living. There was not one Bloody Mary with a confused origin, there were a multitude. And there was one. The glass half empty and half full. She was Mary queen of Scots. She was Mary Worth. She was Black Annis and Mary Hell and right now she was just Mary. Mary who had died. Mary who had lost her boyfriend to another girl and had taken that anger with her to the grave. Anger shared by Eve unleashed on Loreena. This was between girls, but what was between girls except boys?
"You’ve got it all wrong," Cameron whispered, in the voice he used to get the girls to do what he liked, and forgive him for it. "There never was anybody but you, babe." He ran his fingers over her maimed face, feeling the cuts there. The flaps of skin. The red flesh underneath. She smelled of offal, but he had a strong stomach.
And so he kissed her.
Wet. Red. Dead. There was an appetite in her, but it was dwarfed by his own. She had terror, but he had will, and then he had her. Knew the moment. Knew her heart. “I left you because you’re not good enough.” Knew her heart so he could break it. “I’m sorry babe, but it is true.” She was frozen, caught in the trap of a life she had already lived, but with a difference. “You’re boring me, babe. I can’t stand to look at you anymore.” Hard words, with a pity to them that cut worse than knives. “Look at yourself.” He turned her towards the mirror, the corpse like putty in his hands. Self-destruction. He knew that intimately. How to bring it out. “You’re ugly. I think you should just fuck off and leave us all alone.”
He could feel her form crumbling in his hands like the girl had crumbled once upon a time. Hate turned inwards. Rage directed at herself with nowhere else to go. The serpent eating its tail. She never said a word, but he saw her eyes as she fell apart and faded, as the blood evaporated, as the faucet resumed its steady drip. He was her eyes and if he had a heart maybe it would have broken a little as well.
Lucky for him he’d never had that problem.
Twenty years ago.
When you were young, all houses were cities, all rooms were houses, and all closets were secret places filled with adventure. All you had to do was open the door…
Noor dug deeper into her mother’s closet, pulling out a brilliantly turquoise shawl. She shook it over her head and it turned alive, like the sky at mid-morning, like the Brighton sea.
"Look!" Her cousin Asma laughed and grabbed a red shawl, running over the bedroom floor, the crimson fluttering behind her like a cape. "I’m Superman!"
"It’s Supergirl," Riya corrected, leafing through her magazine where she was seated on the bed. She was older than the girls, old enough to wear the hijab instead of playing with it. Old enough to babysit her little sister and her cousin. "And she’s blonde."
"Superman’s got black hair," Asma argued, striking a stubborn pose. "And he’s awesome. So I’m Superman."
"Don’t be daft," Riya sighed. "And stop shaking the bed, Noor."
"I’m not doing anything." Noor’s voice was quiet. The doors had opened so she had hidden under the shawl, the world turning turquoise and safe. "I’m not doing anything at all."
Ten years ago.
When you are older, houses are as replaceable as cities, and closets are where you store the things you don’t want to look at every day. The detritus of life.
Noor pulled the raincoat tighter around her, glad for the protection of her hijab. The Brighton winter was wind and rain, an endless barrage of grey interspaced with moments of brilliant blue that held the promise of summer once more. Not today. Today was a grey day, and it chilled her to the marrow of her bones. She hadn’t been back here since she was nine. Not on this street. Not to this house.
"This looks like a nice place to grow up." Sîsê angled her umbrella to shield them both from the wind, which tore at her short, black hair.
Noor smiled a little, she wasn’t sure whether it was a sad one or a fond one. Her thoughts had run in the opposite direction, she remembered the house as having been much larger. A world, not just a worn down townhouse on a featureless street. “It was nicer back then I suppose.”
"I was being ironic." Sîsê reached up as if to brush spider webs from the path before them, the many rings on her fingers glinting dully. "I’ve got goosebumps getting ready to hatch. But I suppose you don’t see the shadows as strongly as a child."
Noor bit her lip, her voice tightly controlled when she answered. “Oh you do. You really do.”
The few short steps to the door felt like crossing a river, the wind tearing a final warning in the umbrella before Sîsê folded it up as Noor unlocked the door. The air inside was almost dead in comparison, the electric light a fluorescent pale when she turned it on. A family home devoid of family.
"Is this where she disappeared?" Sîsê shrugged out of her raincoat, the absurdity of the fancy white dress she wore underneath making Noor smile a little despite the seriousness of the situation. She had known the Kurdish woman for a year, and had yet to see her dress less than fabulously.
"Yes," she finally said once she realized that the question was not rhetorical. "Or, well, no. Upstairs. In the master bedroom."
The stair creaked under their feet, she had lost the touch of moving unheard, unseen that she had as a child. She was too heavy now, the floorboards betrayed her. She had always felt that one of the perils growing up was losing that special protection from the world you had as a child. As if nothing could really hurt you. And then you grew up and realized that children were no safer than anybody, quite the opposite in fact.
The master bedroom had changed in increments like the house had, shedding skin with new carpets, a new bed. But the bones were the same. The walls. The closet. “My parents moved out eventually,” she mumbled, almost to herself. “I couldn’t sleep.”
"Parents don’t move out because their kid has nightmares." Sîsê had her eyes half closed, walking through the room, touching surfaces at random.
"Maybe it was the bad memories." The shrug was harder than Noor had meant, being back here made her teeth hurt. "My sister disappeared after all. They kept expecting her to return for a while, but after a year… they gave up I suppose."
"What did the cops say?"
"They didn’t take it seriously. Thought Riya had run away from home. Or maybe that her family had shipped her off to Pakistan to get married against her will. You know how it is."
"I do." The sigh was a shared one. "I take it that wasn’t the case?"
"No. That was part of the reason I want to be a police officer. And part of why you are here." Only part. Noor pushed her hands into her pockets, gritting her teeth a little.
"I know. You told me. Your cousin disappeared as well." Sîsê walked over to the closet door, placing her palm against it. The rings clicked a little, the world’s tiniest knock.
"Disappeared from here." Noor could not keep back a shiver, tensing as the door was opened revealing clothes and nothing else. No monsters. "My dad sold the house to one of his cousins. Last month his wife broke her hip, Asma came over to help take care of her. She had just finished her degree and was looking for a job. Thought it might be easier down south."
"Where are they now?" The closet door was closed again and Sîsê walked over to sit down on the bed. Gently, as if she was afraid to wrinkle it.
"In the hospital. She tried to get off the bed and there were complications with her fracture. She was nearly hysterical and refused to stay in the house."
"I can’t blame her." Sîsê looked like she had bit into something sour where she sat. "This feels… let me put it this way, I would not like to sleep here. Did she say anything that might shed light on what happened to your cousin?"
"No." Noor glanced at the closet door. It was still closed. Securely closed. "She got into hysterics at the mere mention of Asma. That’s why I asked you to come and see what you could pick up."
"I have to warn you, my gifts are not reliable."
"You helped us find that little boy," Noor protested.
"Noor. You would have found him without me. I told you. You have the Sight." The words fell with quiet conviction but were not believed.
Instead Noor shrugged and looked towards the window. “Maybe I just don’t like the things I see.”
"That doesn’t mean that they go away. I never took you for a coward."
"It’s not that."
"No, it’s…" She drew a deep breath, trying to find the words to explain. "I don’t want to be noticed."
"You’re a Muslim woman training to be a cop, believe me, you are getting noticed."
"Not like that."
Stay still, be quiet and hide. Wait. Wait for the dawn. Wait for the shadows to pass. Be the rabbit, be the mouse. Stay still, be quiet and hide. Find the floorboards that do not creak. Walk on the side of the stairs. Sit at the front of the loo so your pee would hit the porcelain and not the water and make a sound. Stay still, be quiet and hide.
"My grandmother taught me how to close my eyes." Noor ran her hand over her face.
"By your own account, your grandmother was a deeply miserable woman."
"That doesn’t mean she was wrong."
"Just because you close your eyes, doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Like in this room. I can feel it, I just can’t pin down where…" Sîsê closed her eyes, her hands resting lightly on her knees, palms up to reflect her own energy back at herself.
"I lived here for years. There’s nothing…"
The kitchen was dark. She wouldn’t turn on the light. She just wanted water, and the streetlights painted yellow streaks on the floor. She was invisible in the dark, a shadow amongst the shadows. The sound of water filling up the glass felt sounded like a waterfall, and the shadows perked their ears. So she closed her eyes and counted to ten, and when she opened them again she drank the water and snuck back to bed.
"Nothing." Noor repeated the word as if it would make the world around her submit to her wishes.
Her parents’ bedroom was dark. She was standing in the doorway, frozen. She had a nightmare and had wanted to crawl into their bed. A safe haven. She was the baby. She could do that. Except that she could not. She was standing in the doorway. On the threshold. Looking at the shadows. Seeing them.
"Noor?" Sîsê raised her voice in alarm, but she didn’t rise from the bed. Her dress was pooling around her, the pearly white washed grey by the faltering daylight. "Noor!"
"There is nothing here." Noor leaned against the doorjamb, her legs unsteady. This was ridiculous. She was nineteen. She’d done the Great Manchester Run. She was not hyperventilating.
"Noor, I can’t get up." Sîsê sounded too calm for her frightened face, eyes large and black. "Tell me what you see."
"I don’t see anything," she snapped, looking away.
"You are. And I can’t get up. You have to help me. Tell me." Sîsê’s voice was a snapped command, a hint of force there she had never used against her friend.
"I…" Noor looked back, despite herself. Sîsê was sitting ramrod straight, her nostrils wide. Despite her own wishes her eyes slid downwards. Cramped hands. Nails digging into her knees. The white dress revealing dark calves.
Riya had been screaming, that part she remembered. A high pitched, frightened sound cut short by a thud and a shuffle, muffled by turquoise. She had stood still and frozen, the littlest aqua ghost. Asma had been sobbing but their parents hadn’t been home. Sîsê was doing neither, just hyperventilating, frightened, shallow gasps.
"I don’t want to," Noor whispered, but she was. Seeing. Understanding.
The shadows under her parents’ bed had been thick. Thicker than the darkness. And they had moved. When she had opened the door, something had slid back. Underneath. Unseen. Until now.
There were hands there. Big ones. Gripping Sîsê’s calves hard enough for the flesh to bulge. She had been right as a child, she hadn’t been imagining things. There were monsters under the bed. Monsters that had shuffled and skittered and scared. But they had never touched. She had imagined them imaginary, had believed her parents when they said monsters weren’t real regardless of what her grandmother said. And maybe they weren’t. Not for children. But children grew up.
And they were real now. Large, clawed and terribly strong when they pulled. Two screams. One thud.
There was a scraping sound in the grey daylight. Then nothing but silence.
The road was a straight black line, the lawns painted summer brown. Row upon row of pale houses rested quietly together, their windows empty, their doors securely locked. In the gardens, ‘for sale’ signs had replaced barbecues and bikes. As the economy stumbled and people lost their jobs, mortgages went unpaid and the banks moved in. Some windows still lit up as the evening approached, glowing like cats’ eyes caught in traffic, but more and more just remained dark.
Marcie ran a finger over the windowpane, the glass cool against her fingertip. Outside, the streetlights created little pools of light surrounded by shadows, like puddles after the rain.
"Don’t touch the bloody window." Vilma’s voice was a sharp snap, and Marcie yanked her hand back with a guilty look on her face.
"I was just taking a look," she defended herself, looking back at the pacing figure of her friend. Vilma was one year older, they’d been friends since high school and stayed that way through boyfriends and failed engagements.
Vilma nodded but kept pacing, kept smoking. “Maybe that’s how they get you,” she said with a shrug, chewing on the cigarette. “You never know.” She had started smoking again a week ago, eight years of discipline shrugged off in a single night of terror that had her call up Marcie and sob on the phone.
"There’s nothing out there." Marcie checked again to make sure. Lonely streetlights. Dark windows. The neighborhood had been built on a field, so the few trees that lined the street were scrawny still. They would probably dry up and die unless the bank started watering the lawns.
"If you’re going to be this way, you might as well have stayed at home." Vilma huffed and paced, checking the windows, checking the door, her hands shoved deep into her pockets.
"Listen, I am here because I’m worried, okay?" Marcie sighed and went to pour herself another cup of coffee. She left the door to the kitchen open when she returned, the lights on.
"Worried that I’m going crazy?"
"Yeah. Just a little. But also that you might be right," she admitted, returning to her post at the window, cup in hand.
"You’ve seen something too then." Vilma put out her cigarette, the quiver in her voice betraying how desperate she was for someone to believe her.
"No, I…" Marcie hesitated, because she hadn’t, at least she wasn’t sure what she had seen. Just something. Late one night. And now she stood by the window, afraid to look away.
"You wouldn’t have tried to talk me into moving in with you otherwise. I snore too loud."
"I saw… something," she admitted. "I’m not saying that I know exactly what it was." In the dark. Moving. The headlights of the car… She swallowed some coffee to get rid of the chill that ran down her spine.
"You think I know?" Vilma’s voice was soft there for a moment, stepping close enough so they could stand there side by side.
Outside, the evening was quiet. Once, a car passed, driving quickly, on the way to somewhere else. The streetlights remained there, undisturbed. Was the shadow across the road thicker? Did the windows of the empty house there bleed a slightly thicker darkness? Oil was thicker than water. What was thicker than shadows?
"Not many people left on this street now." Vilma pulled out another cigarette and lit it, the match a flame against the dark utside.
"I guess the bank has foreclosed a lot of houses." This neighborhood was by far the worst hit, though Marcie had seen the signs all over the city. This block was ground zero.
Vilma snorted contemptuously. “If you believe that story.”
"Come on, it’s happening everywhere."
The single world left a dent in the silence between them, like a stone casting ripples across the pond. It was happening everywhere, that Marcie knew. But especially here. Where she had driven so many times to visit. Where she had watched houses empty and families move away. One by one. And nobody bought the houses. They just stood there, like corpses lacking the soul that should inhabit them. Like undead buildings.
"Christ, what are you getting at?" Marcie didn’t want to think, but she did it anyway. Because she had been driving home one night. Because she had seen something skitter across the road. Because she had thought it had been a cat. Just a shadow. And then something followed and she hit the breaks and the headlights had been swallowed for a moment before she was left clinging to the wheel, hyperventilating.
"I don’t know," Vilma admitted, frustration and fear making her voice sharper than normal. "But I do know one thing. Do you really think a bank intent on making money would foreclose that many people? It’s not like they can sell the houses. Not on this market. Some money would be better than no money."
"They’re just greedy stupid bastards." She willed it to be so, because the alternative would be to admit that something was wrong. Very wrong."
"I didn’t see any moving vans."
"In most cases. I didn’t see people move. The houses just turned up empty."
"Shut up," Marcie snapped, because there was a sign in the yard now outside Vilma’s house. There hadn’t been one when she arrived. Though she only saw the back she could guess what the front said ‘For Sale’. "We should get out of here."
"I told you. This is my house." Vilma’s voice cracked a little. She had seen the sign too. She walked over to the drawer and yanked it open, pulling out the revolver that she kept there. "They’re not making me move."
"I’m not sure the gun will help." Marcie was holding the curtain in one hand now, watching the shadows deepen into rainbow black. Guns helped when someone wanted to rob you. Helped against monsters. Zombies even.
Shoot them in the head.
What happened to the families missing? Marcie’s heart was beating too fast, too hard. It was almost like an infection, these foreclosures. Like a disease. How did they spread? Was it enough to share a fence? Did a road protect? It was like a disease that moved slowly around the homes, tendrils stretching out to infect previously healthy buildings. No. Not infect. Kill. No future. No chance of a sale.
These houses were shells, undead buildings shambling immobile along deserted streets. No banks were needed once the wheel had started turning. One empty house brought down the value of its neighbor.
Undead. The dead spaces that were windows. The blackness she had felt more than seen as it crossed the road. Once bitten… forever changed. The darkness was compact outside. Vilma waved the gun at the empty window.
But houses didn’t have a head you could shoot them in.
And they were already inside.