tw: unreality, monsters, mental illness, referenced child abuse
I’m falling, and the world has gone all white and grey—like an old movie, or a washed out photograph. Like a ghost.
Falling where? part of me asks. The other part of me is silent. The wind whipping through my hair is warmer than it should be. Then the white void around me starts to change. Tiles build themselves out of nothing, shimmering into existence.
Beige, white and blue. I’m in the Civic Hospital emergency room. Something’s wrong, though. Everything is sideways. I’m still falling, but the linoleum floor is skating past my boots, and the silhouettes of people I can’t quite see are walking around on a vertical surface that should never support them. They look like ghosts, too, blurry and silver and unclear.
“Wait—” I reach out for one of them, but my hands pass through them, streams of silver running out from my fingers. “Where am I?” I say quietly at first, the wind-that-isn’t-wind not ripping them from my throat but instead stealing them away like a thief in the night.
Kiera is gone. The park is gone. The sun is gone. I’m—
We’re in a library. Both of us—Johara’s standing next to me, alive, her ringlets acting up in the humidity and brown skin clearer and cleaner than mine has ever been. She’s running her fingers over the spines of the books in their shelves, whispering their names to herself like she’s casting some spell that’ll tell her what to read next.
I’m holding a book. I know what it’s supposed to be. The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Jo had found it for me, and told me that it had a lesbian character in it. She isn’t wrong. I just wish—
The book reads something else on its creamy white pages.
You are a ghost.
I freeze up. I already knew I was dreaming. Except, I’m not sure I am. I don’t know where I am.
I would, if I could.
DO NOT STAND AT MY GRAVE AND WEEP—the book starts to proclaim in inky capitals, appearing on the pages bit by bit, word by word. I AM NOT THERE I DO NOT SLEEP—
I drop the book.
I need to—
The library vanishes. I’m standing… somewhere. Somewhere I almost recognize. The trees whistle at me, and I grab onto a branch that hangs over me, worried that the world will tilt again and I’ll fall.
I think I know where this is. I’m in the Greenbelt, or one of those other undeveloped pieces of land threading through Elmvale and Alta Vista. This is near my old high school. Too near. My friends and I came here to smoke our cigarettes and share music. Johara wasn’t in high school yet, but she’d come and meet us here anyway.
But even though it’s late autumn, the sun is bright, the grass is emerald-green, and there’s no hint of a breeze. In fact…
In fact, there’s no wind at all. The leaves aren’t moving, and the clouds hang suspended in the sky, decorations on some celestial mobile.
“Where am I?” I ask the empty air. I don’t really expect a response. I’m not dreaming, but I’m not awake either. If I was dreaming, the bark wouldn’t feel so real under my fingers. Think, Jamal. Think. You can figure this out. I don’t have my notebook, but my memory’s pretty good. Usually, anyway.
I’d been trying to get away from—
Kiera. Fucking Kiera. I…
I don’t know how I feel. That’s not unusual. Trying to actually explain how I felt about something beyond the obvious—“I’m angry,” “I’m sad,” etc. always ended up with a shrug. But here, I’m completely and utterly alone.
“I was—” I say to the empty air. “I was scared. I felt…” What had I felt? Being scared wasn’t it – or at least it wasn’t all of it.
Something lances through my chest, a shock of pain that’s gone as soon as it arrives. Kiera was… Familiar. Not because of the past life nonsense. I still don’t know if I believed that. It was the way she made me feel. Like I should run away, but it was easier to sit down, shut up, do what she wanted—
no no no don’t think about that—
Half-remembered, half-forgotten. Not the foster home with Bill and Alice. Not the one where Jo had died. Before that. Before—
My head hurts.
I’m sad. I’m sad, because I almost – almost felt like I could like her, for a moment. I almost do. She’ll terrify me, out on LeBreton flats, or in a restaurant over nachos of all things, and somewhere in her words and the way she talks, there’s someone interesting, and I almost forget to be scared. Some of it is the draw of the puzzle, the curiosity of it all. Some of it is that she’d be so much easier to hate if she wasn’t –
None of that makes any sense. What, I’m supposed to be shocked that a serial killer’s kind of charming? But serial killers are also supposed to be men, and you’d think that wouldn’t make any difference, and it shouldn’t. Figures that being a lesbian doesn’t insulate me from those kinds of bad choices.
It helps, actually, that there’s nobody here. Not even the risk of anybody. Nobody would ask me what was on my mind, or what I was thinking, or if I was okay. It means I can take a moment to shrug all of that away, and put it away in a box that I can deal with when it’s no longer relevant.
I don’t feel like I remember Kiera for the reasons she wants me to. But I do anyway. I don’t know what to do with that. Hell, I don’t even know where I am. I have a guess, though. I’m stupid when it comes to plenty of things, but I can connect the dots. Will had talked about elementals losing control of their powers.. And everybody had been fairly vague about what that entailed… in general, actually, but particularly when it came to Salts.
I press my fingers experimentally against the tree bark. It feels real, but it could still be the memory of a feeling. Maybe the queasiness I feel, the way the world seems to be very far away and too close at the same time, hazing at the edges, is just the memory of something too.
The more I question it, though, the less solid it gets, and then I’m falling again. No, not falling. Floating. Everything bursts into feathers, and I’m—
shard one/memory/runrunrun why does she hate you you haven’t done anything wrong
shard two/are you SURE you forget everything ANYWAY
shard one/I don’t I don’t I don’t I don’t
if everything is black then the light won’t hurt my eyes
i don’t wanna see
STOP/STOP/STOP/TURN THEM BACK ON
(the lights are turning back on strip lights floating in the darkness hanging onto nothing)
—somebody is here somebody is here how can somebody else be here that’s not how it works—
I’m hanging in the darkness by a thread
I’m staring into—
Who are you who are you who are you
Eyes, they’re eyes, and I drop to—ground? floor? hardsmoothcold remember how it feels sense memory
head is full somebody’s screaming—
“Jaylie, dear, you should let her breathe.”
Jaylie Jaylie Jaylie that’s not my name that’s that’s that’s—
An unbearable pressure lifts off of me, and I stuff my knuckles against my mouth, tears of relief springing to my eyes. I’m still… not floating, exactly. I’m kneeling on something so black and shiny it looks like glass, or obsidian.
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
I can see her reflection in the floor, hazy as it is—purple and black and a touch of gold. My neck hurts, so I lift my head slowly. Combat boots tied with frayed ribbon, fishnet stockings, and the hem of a skirt that—
“Stop staring,” she orders, and I snap my eyes the rest of the way up. The Black girl staring down at me is—okay, age is impossible to guess at this point, but she’s definitely young, despite the fact that she’s dressed like an extra from a Victorian gothic romance.
“I’ll blink more next time,” I shoot back. Not my best retort ever, but I feel like I might be concussed.
“Who are you? And how’d you get here?”
“Well, first, I’d need to know where here is.” I debate the merits of getting up, then just roll over onto my back. The girl pulls her skirts away with a little huff. Man. I must really have hit my head hard.
“A lady can never be too careful.”
I sit up so hard that I can feel my brains rattle around in my skull, and turn around. There’s… five? Five of them in total, four taller figures standing there behind her. “Did he call you Jaylie?”
“Yes.” She’s cautious now, backing up. “Why?”
“Where are you? Where are we? I—I—”
“You’re working for her, aren’t you?” Jaylie practically spits it out. Then, with a flash, one of the other figures is in front of me, hauling me up by my shirt collar like I weigh no more than a feather. He’s all legs and arms, so disproportionate I think I must be seeing something wrong, but no—his arms alone are almost half again the length of his torso, and he has extra fingers on each hand, knuckles spread as he holds me in mid-air.
“I can break her, if you need me to,” he says dispassionately, the white streaks on his face almost-but-not-quite a skull shape against dark skin.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I squeak instead—
Jaylie shakes her head, but then she makes a dismissive gesture with her hand. As she does, I see something shift in the background—something large, towering over all of them. The other three figures almost glow against it, and they’re all—not quite human. One of them looks like it might have the head of a jackal or a fox, and another doesn’t seem to have a face at all, just a mist filled with the glinting of knives.
The long-limbed man drops me, and the darkness leans forward, something coming out towards me. Then its eyes open. All of them. There
Its hand comes toward me, and I’m frozen stiff. I can’t even think about running.
Jaylie turns her back, then looks back over her shoulder at me. “Please just leave me alone,” she says quietly.
Then the monster’s hand covers me, blocking out every bit of light, every bit of sound—
I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost
I’m lost I’m lost I’m lost
mouth of blood
SOMEBODY HELP ME—
I stumbled backwards, hitting the floor with a thud that my entire body could feel. I dug my hands into the floor. Carpet. I was on carpet.
I blinked blearily, trying to clear my vision. “Light,” I managed to croak.
The light switched off, and I wiped my eyes, body still shaking. Johara was sitting next to me, tears running down her face before dissipating into mist. She looked… I couldn’t decide whether she looked scared or relieved.
“Thank god,” she exhaled. “Thank god, thank god, thank god.”
I tried to sit up, then collapsed back onto the floor. “I don’t—” I croaked, “I can’t—”
“It’s okay,” came another voice. I vaguely recognized it, and then Isaiah came into view, his hand on my back as he helped me sit up. Isaiah, the only other Salt I knew. I was so glad it was him. He handed me a glass of water, and when I took it, I realized he was a little less together than I’d thought. It was a weird thing to notice, with my head spinning and the world trying to flip on me again. But there were beads of sweat at his temples, more soaking his curls, relief drowning his eyes-
“You’re dehydrated. That’s normal, especially your first time.”
I swallowed a mouthful of water. God. I didn’t know water could taste so good. “First time?”
“You were in the Medium.” Isaiah peered at my forehead. “And injured, which probably didn’t help.”
“What’s…” I took another drink of water as my voice gave out again. “What’s the Medium?”
Isaiah chewed on his lip thoughtfully. “It’s… limbo, basically. The in-between. World between worlds.”
None of that made sense to me. I’d been… somewhere else. I’d been—
“Where the hell is Kiera?” I hissed.
“What?” Jo was clearly confused, looking between me and Isaiah. “What do you mean? Was she in there with you?”
“No, but I was trying to get away, I—”
I hadn’t left. I’d fallen, through the Medium.
I started shaking again, and Isaiah bent over, picking me up as if I weighed no more than a feather. There was someone else in the room—
Chandra. It was Chandra, unveiled, dark hair loose over her shoulders, pressing the cold back of her hand to my cheek.
“You’re staying here tonight,” she said quietly. “As long as you need to. You need to recover.”
I wanted to insist, to say that I was fine. But my head wouldn’t stop spinning. I was shivering, even though I wasn’t cold. I could barely get my mouth to form the words.
“Where was I?” I asked again.
Isaiah put me down onto a clean bed, the sheets almost unbearably soft. When was the last time I’d been in a real bed? “The Medium. I can tell you more about it when you’re better.”
“I don’t understand.”
He turned to leave, and I reached out and grabbed his wrist. “Jaylie,” I whispered. “I saw her.”
“In the Medium?”
“Yeah. I have to find her. Make sure she’s safe.”
Isaiah turned back to me, then sat on the edge of the bed. “And we will. I promise. You need sleep.”
It was only as I was drifting into sleep that I saw the snow outside the window. It’d been late October. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask how long I’d been gone.