TW: casual ableism, paranoia, mind control, violence
The first thing I noticed about the woman standing behind me was that her eyes were fixed on me—not the grave I was halfway through digging up. She was dressed all in black, tall and slim and shadowy with ghostly pale skin.
“Well,” she exhaled with a giddy smile spreading over her face and hands on her hips. “Who are you, then?”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to answer that question. “Just passing through, ma’am. Don’t worry about it.” Not the reaction I’d expected.
“Ma’am. God, you must be joking. Do I look that old?”
“Everybody looks old to me,” I retorted before I could stop myself. She didn’t, though. She had sort of the eternally-twenty-nine thing going on—which I supposed wasn’t young, either.
She laughed at that, and I watched her mouth uneasily. Her teeth looked a little… sharp. Maybe it was just the paranoia of being out alone in the middle of the night, chasing down a body. I figured that would put anybody on edge.
“We haven’t met, right?” I found myself asking, ignoring the strange glance I got from Jo.
The stranger blinked at that, then she smiled again. “Why do you ask?” There was an odd edge to it, something that grated and caught and hurt.
I just nodded, trying to keep my wariness hidden. “Anyway, I was on my way home. Sorry I disturbed you.” I turned away and started walking back towards the main road, my heart still in my throat. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.
Johara whispered—even though she didn’t need to—”J-Jamal? Why is she here?”
“I have some theories,” I whispered back—
“Who are you talking to?” Her smooth voice cut through the quiet air, and I felt my shoulders stiffen. I listened to her footsteps coming up behind me. I was used to having my actions dissected and analyzed—cashiers in stores waiting for me to shoplift, teachers and students alike in school taking apart every word I spoke and wondering if it was a threat—but this was different. I couldn’t place exactly how. Maybe it wasn’t.
“Just myself. Can I go home now?”
“Hmm.” She was right behind me now. I turned around to face her, a flash of irrational fear filling me as I craned my neck up. She was easily a head taller than me. That shouldn’t have concerned me so much. She might have been tall, but that just meant I had a lower centre of gravity. “Is it a ghost?”
My blood froze. I managed to force a smile which sat on my face semi-convincingly. “Haha. You’re funny. I dunno what drugs you’ve been smoking, but—”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anybody.”
She was staring at me, not Johara. As I stood there, frozen, Jo moved her hand in between us, fingers trembling. The woman didn’t move a muscle. She couldn’t see Johara. Somehow, she just… knew.
I won’t tell anybody—don’t tell anybody—I didn’t like that phrase. It echoed around in my head in ways that felt a little bit too familiar, a little bit too dark.
Not that different. Not that different at all.
“Remember the cab driver?” Johara asked, although her voice was trembling. “Maybe we’re not the only ones.” Then I realized the tremble in her voice wasn’t fear. It was excitement.
I didn’t respond. I wasn’t going to give up my secrets that fast. I shifted my feet, and stuck my hands in my pocket, staring resolutely up at the woman. “Tell anybody what?”
She grinned. I still didn’t trust it, but maybe Jo was right. Maybe. My paranoia didn’t like that word either. “You’re Salt, aren’t you?”
“…Is that a joke about me being bitter? Because I’m not following.”
Her eyebrows flickered almost imperceptibly upwards. Shocked, but trying to hide it. “You don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
“Well…” she shrugged. It took me a few moments to realize she wasn’t going to continue talking. Instead, her eyes flickered over me with a bemused interest, examining every inch of me. The out-of-place auburn hair, the baggy denim jacket, the bargain-bin clothes that were the only thing I felt comfortable wearing. I didn’t feel self-conscious about it most of the time, but under her eyes, my skin felt like it didn’t fit. I took a step backwards, and her gaze snapped back up to my face. “You’re lying.”
My heart leapt into my throat. “About what?”
“You’re a Salt. I can feel it.” She gave me a crooked smile, but her green eyes were flashing, desperation writ large. At least, it looked like desperation. It could just have easily been predatory glee.
I was missing something. Scratch that. I was missing everything. Whoever this was, she was working from a completely different context than me.
She took another step forward, a silver streak appearing in her hair. It must have been there before—I just couldn’t see it in the dark—or at least that’s what I told myself. “Come on. Just tell me about it.”
“About—-” I couldn’t keep playing innocent forever. And I was starting to think maybe lying wasn’t going to get me out of this. But I barely believed it myself, that I was more than just crazy, and I didn’t need other people in my business, because it was mine—
I pulled my switchblade out of my pocket, keeping my hands still even though all they wanted to do was tremble. I flicked it open and took a deep breath. “I think you need to back off now.”
I expected her to get angry, or rude, or threaten to call the cops on me with the typical shaky fragility that white women usually used whenever things didn’t go their way. I didn’t expect her face to fall, or there to be hurt in her eyes. She chuckled, although her eyes still held that sadness, and then shrugged. “You never used to be so paranoid. But yeah, I’ll go.”
She half-turned away, and then paused.
“Oh, and… Kiera.”
“My name.” She gave me something that was almost a smile, and then—she vanished. Like she’d never been here. Like nothing had happened at all.
I tried to swallow. My mouth was dry, heart pounding against my ribcage.
“Jamal? Are you okay?”
I nodded, mostly to make Jo feel better. I wasn’t okay, but I needed to be. I didn’t have the energy to not be okay.
You never used to be so paranoid.
I’d blocked out Johara’s accident. There were entire pieces of my childhood missing, erased by trauma and willful forgetfulness. But for the first time in a long time, I started to think some of what was missing was coming back for me.
I pulled out my phone, but my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn’t dial the number I wanted. Instead, I let myself sink to the ground before I fell, putting my head between my knees. You never used to be so paranoid.
You’re a Salt.
What the fuck did that mean?
I took another deep breath, trying to ignore Jo’s worried stare. Then I picked my phone up again, searching for the anonymous tip line. Finally, I gave up and just dialed the main number.
“Ottawa Police Station, how can I help—”
“There’s a body,” I interrupted. I had to keep it short. “LeBreton flats, by the river next to the War Museum. Something’s tried to dig at it.”
“A body? Who—”
I didn’t let her ask who I was. “Buried. You should probably send a car out here or something.” Then I hung up. That was plenty of information.
Which meant I had to get out of here. But I sat there for a little longer anyway, fighting away the unexplainable, sudden urge to cry.
When I got back to the main road outside the War Museum, the black Chrysler was there. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It made sense in a twisted, mean sort of way. Of course the fucking cab driver was back here. Or maybe I’d hallucinated the whole thing and I was walking in circles.
The door opened, and they stepped out, erasing any possibility that it was somebody else. This smelled rotten. Beyond rotten.
I sped up my pace—you never used to be so paranoid—until I was striding towards them, fingers curling until I felt nails dig into my palm.
They gave me a smile—it looked too much like Kiera’s—and I came to a stop in front of them.
“How’d it go?”
“I stayed out of trouble,” I snapped, and then without any more prelude, drove my fist into their face. There was a particular joy to watching tall people stumble, and this one ended up sprawled against the side of their cab, wincing and rotating their jaw. “Now tell me who the fuck you are.”
I drew back my fist, ready to hit them again if I had to. YOU NEVER USED TO BE SO PARANOID—this was some sort of trick, some sort of joke, somebody was trying to hurt me and catch me off guard and I wasn’t going to let them—
They pushed against the car, straightening up with a hand pressed to their jaw. “There’s no need to be violent—”
I hit them again, this time in the stomach. Mostly on principle. I didn’t like condescension. (youneverusedtobesoparanoid paranoia keeps you out of TROUBLE stay out of TROUBLE)
“Jamal, stop it!”
I won’t tell anybody—
Don’t tell anybody.
“Fuck off, Jo.” I snarled. “I don’t need this bullshit.” I glared at the driver, who hadn’t made a single move in retaliation. I didn’t trust that. It just made me want to lash out again, get some sort of response —
The whisper in the back of my head was so quiet that I barely realized it was there. Stop.
Every muscle in my body froze, then my arms fell uselessly by my sides, like every bit of energy had been drained out of them. I still wanted to fight. I was still angry. The words were still ringing around my head, echoing louder and louder—but the whisper was stronger even than that. Stop. A simple command. My own head trying to be rational. Or—
Maybe I was paranoid, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted right now. “What did you do to me?” I hissed.
The driver didn’t look terribly startled. That was not helping the paranoia. “Ah. That wasn’t me.”
I raised my fist again, considering the switchblade in my pocket with a level of seriousness. We were out in the open, but I could feel walls closing in on me anyway—
“Willow, that’s enough,” sighed the driver, although with a bit of thought I realized I’d probably winded them. Whoops.
“Willow?” I echoed. I could feel Jo glaring at me. I turned to her, and hissed under my breath, “What?”
She crossed her arms. “If you hadn’t been so ready to pick a fight,” she replied acidly, “you would have noticed there’s somebody else here.” She inclined her chin back towards the car.
I turned to look, rubbing my hands against my face. There was somebody else in the front seat. I stared at the silhouette in the dark window, confused, and then the window rolled down. The white girl inside poked her head through,
You done being an asshole now?
“Will,” the driver said again, exhaustion obvious in their voice as they glared down at the blonde. “Lose the gum.”
The blonde chewed thoughtfully, then grinned at me. She looked a little like a fox, with high cheekbones and a pointy chin, strands falling from her blonde ponytail and framing her face. “Okay. You done being an asshole now?”
I blinked. Yeah. Okay. Reality was definitely coming apart a little. First strange women who knew me for some reason, spat out nonsense and vanished, and now I was hearing voices in my head, apparently. Well, that wasn’t completely abnormal. But the voices weren’t supposed to be real.
“To answer your question—” Willow glanced up at the driver, who was giving her a pretty annoyed look that I had no context for, “out loud because I think Avery’s mad at me, I’m Willow. This is Avery.”
That did not answer my qu—
“Okay, yes, that doesn’t actually answer your question—”
“Get out of my head!” I snapped. This was not happening. I was not standing here getting psychoanalyzed or hypnotized or whatever by some stranger with an attitude—
The driver muttered something angrily in French, and Will shrugged. “It’s not my fault she thinks so loud.”
“This is some kind of trick, isn’t it?” I snarled. Kiera’s words were still dancing around my brain, one thought chasing another’s tail in a neverending circle.
Will blinked, then sighed, shooting a look up at Avery. It was Avery, eventually, who answered me.
“You can talk to ghosts. Can’t you?” they said softly.
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. “Fuck off. Your friend started getting at me for the same thing.”
“Kiera isn’t my friend.”
“You fucking knew—you knew I was going to run into her?”
Avery shook their head. “It’s—” They pulled a face.
“You read my mind. Right.”
“Not on purpose. It’s like trying to block out a foghorn. Her name was right at the surface.” They gave me a soft half-smile. “You’re, um, freaking out a bit.”
“Is that supposed to make sense to me? How—how does any of this make sense?” My head was spinning more and more. I could hear police sirens in the background, and Will made a face that mirrored Avery’s annoyed expression as the blue and red lights started getting closer.
Avery smiled, brown eyes crinkling. I wondered how they could look at me like that after I’d tried beating them up. Hell, I’d even split their lip. I hadn’t decided whether or not I felt bad or not yet. “You’re not the only freak in Ottawa.” They nodded their head at the Chrysler. “Want a ride? From one freak to another.”
Inside my head, their voice echoed again—not the same kind of controlling whisper as before. Just an open message. You’re not alone.
“Fine.” I slid into the back next to the blonde with the bubblegum—then stuck a finger into her face. “I’m not an asshole. Usually.”
Willow just grinned at me. “Don’t hit my best friend again and no harm done.”
I opened my mouth, searched for a response, and then settled for a grumbled sort-of-apology.
“That’ll do. Welcome to the club.”