TW: Abuse by adults (referenced), isolation, claustrophobia, death, deliberate triggering/self-harm, panic attack, suicidal ideation, medical/psychiatric abuse (past), medical/psychiatric racism (past), lesbophobia (past), queer slur use
I’d been at Mrs. Chaudhury’s house for three or four days now, and Gurjas and I still hadn’t spoken. Not for any particular reason. I don’t think he was mad at me; I wasn’t mad at him, exactly, just as uncomfortable around ghosts as usual… and every time I looked at him, too, I could see through him a little bit more. Images fading in the sunlight.
I couldn’t. Not again. Not after the morgue.
So I avoided him. I knew Mrs. Chaudhury knew something about ghosts now, and that Jo existed. I wasn’t sure if she’d put together how I’d found Gurjas’s body so easily, but I didn’t really want to have that conversation. Admittedly, I don’t want to have most conversations. But I really didn’t want that one, because Gurjas was leaving, and I was trying not to notice.
I knew it would happen eventually. Ghosts, more or less, had their one piece of unfinished business, even if there were multiple things they should be worrying about. That one thing was what kept them anchored to the world. I didn’t know what Jo She’d chosen not to tell me and that was probably for the best, But Gurjas’s—he didn’t have to tell me. All he wanted was to make sure his family had closure.
That was fine. Or at least, that would have been fine, if he wasn’t the only person left who could tell me anything about Jaylie. It was him or Kiera, and Kiera wasn’t the easiest person to get information out of on the best of days.
He was sitting on a chair in the corner, watching the three kids work on what appeared to be some sort of art project. Three, because instead of making me look after two under-tens, Isaiah had very kindly brought over his son to babysit Ruben and Sulha instead. Apparently Zinc had done it a number of times, which didn’t make me any less amused at how he yanked the safety scissors out of Sulha’s hands before she could cut off some of his hair.
“They look like they’re having fun,” I said to Gurjas with a smile. “Although I have some questions about Zinc’s tastes,” I added, eyeing the diorama he was working on. I wasn’t sure what kind of mark he was going to get on a lovingly-recreated clay copy of Ozzy’s bat incident, but points for creativity, I supposed.
“Oh, it could be worse,” Gurjas laughed. “Sulha’s pirate phase isn’t over yet.”
“That’s a thing? I thought Jo was just weird.”
“I wouldn’t call Sulha particularly normal, if that’s your point of comparison.” He was the happiest I’d ever seen him. Wistful, perhaps… but happy. I’d never really seen him with his kids before, but I could imagine what kind of dad he was just from the way he talked about them.
I sat down in the chair next to him, far enough away from the kids that they couldn’t hear. They had music lessons in half an hour anyway—an absolutely mystifying concept to me, but I supposed that was how normal families worked. You had after-school activities and family friends and babysitters and—well, apparently, Ozzy Osbourne dioramas.
“I appeared in Chandra’s dreams again last night,” he said after a moment. “I would speak to her directly, but…” He shook his head. “She has enough to worry about. And I won’t put that on you or Isaiah.”
“Is there a way for you two to… actually talk?”
“If a Salt and a Sulfur work together, yes. But like I said. All of you have enough on your plates. And she’s being hard enough on herself as it is.” He faded just a little more, then brightened back into vivid lines.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “You could… stay. If you wanted. I mean, you don’t have to—”
He looked over at me, then chuckled. “I forgot. You can tell, can’t you? Not all Salts can.”
“I thought we all had the same powers.”
“The basics are the same. The details differ.”
There was a lot I wanted to ask him. How he’d gotten his powers, how they worked—but I kept thinking about the girl in the void. “Tell me about Jaylie.”
“And here I was enjoying you being an actual person for a change.”
I decided to let that slide, although it stung more than I thought it would. It reminded me – and not in a good way – of how I’d been thinking about Kiera. A real person, versus… something else. “She’s Black, right?’
He blinked, looking owlishly at me. “That’s what you’re starting with? Yes, although I don’t—”
“Long box braids? Really likes dresses? Chin sharp enough to cut glass?”
He gazed at me for a moment, then dragged his hands down his face. “Oh, I see. You’ve already met her.”
“Why’s that such a bad thing? You can’t just—come on. You have to tell me something.”
Gurjas gave me an amused, though slightly annoyed look. I could see why he and Isaiah had been friends, actually. Besides the immense dad energy, they had the same ‘you’re being stupid but you’re being so sincere about it I feel bad telling you’ look down pat. Maybe it came with parenting. “She’s hiding in the Medium.”
That had been obvious now that he’d said it. I stopped for a moment as the kids left. Zinc gave me a funny look on the way out of the door, and I tried to look normal. Then I tried to think my way through it. “You said she was safe. That place doesn’t seem…”
“It’s not ideal, no. But Kiera can’t get to her in there.”
“I thought faeries used the Medium?”
“They do, but… Jaylie has her own corner of it. Lots of people have a place in the Medium they but hers is particularly strong. I helped her reinforce it before we left the ward.”
“The ward?” Then it clicked. “The psych ward. She was your patient.”
He nodded, looking more than a little distressed. I felt a little bad for pushing now that I knew what their actual relationship was. I couldn’t fault him for being protective of somebody he’d met in the psych ward — his patient – but that didn’t mean I trusted him.
(you don’t trust anybody)
“How’d I get there?”
“I’m not really sure. Luck, chance, a crack in the walls. She might be too busy hiding from Kiera to think about other visitors. She’s a Sulfur, I think.”
“It gets complicated with plur–” He stopped. “It gets complicated, sometimes.”
“So you what, you busted her out?”
“Something of the sort. She didn’t belong there, and there’s sometimes unexpected fallout when it comes to Sulfur instability. Even if it was just for a short time, to get things stabilized…”
I thought about Will, broadcasting her emotions into other people’s heads. That, in a psych ward. Jesus. No wonder Gurjas had gotten her out of there.
“I’d started hearing about the Salts when the cops brought her into the ward. I suppose Kiera had lost track of her for a while, but once we were out of the ward, I suppose she picked up the trail again.” A dark look crossed his face. “I don’t remember my own death. I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“So you weren’t deliberately jerking me around.”
“Not entirely,” he admitted. “But I also…” He took a deep breath. “I don’t remember dying, but I remember her running. If I told anybody where she was, or what Kiera was after, she would be in danger.”
I believed him, even if I didn’t agree. Although—Lila , the woman with the came to mind. If Kiera got Jaylie handed to her, would she stop murdering Salts? I didn’t think so, but it was possible other people would have come to different conclusions. At least it made sense now, why he’d been so close-lipped.
And then something hit, jarring and unpleasant.
“Gurjas, can she see outside of her space in the Medium?”
“Not that I’m aware. I think only ghosts are capable of that.”
My fingers spasmed, and I pushed my hands on top of each other in my lap. It hadn’t occurred to him. I couldn’t be angry, I couldn’t. He was desperately trying to keep her safe—
But he hadn’t told anybody. He’d refused to tell me until now.
I’d fallen into Jaylie’s endless, bottomless void, an unexpected stranger, and her unstable, unleashed thoughts had been a maelstrom. And that was what happened with Sulfurs, wasn’t it? Unstable thoughts ran amok like microphone static or speaker fuzz. The kind of unstable thoughts you might get from a lonely girl. I didn’t know what the other things in there had been, but not all of them had been human.
Gurjas hadn’t told anybody where Jaylie was.
Gurjas had been ready to pass on, once he was buried.
It was a mistake, I tried to tell myself, and I wanted to believe that, because the alternative was that Gurjas had done it on purpose, out of sight, out of mind, and I couldn’t imagine that.
Or was this just what happened when adults tried their best and their best wasn’t good enough?
I hated being a teenager. But more than anything, I thought, I hated being this kind of teenager. At fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, you could still be an angry kid. Seventeen, you could still get away with it. I lived on my own. I’d called myself an adult for years. But for the first time, I looked at Gurjas Singh Chaudhury, twice my age at thirty-six, and wondered when grown-ups had gotten so young. Were all adults this uncertain and insecure? Were all adults this painfully… stupid?
Normally, I’d have said yes. It wasn’t news to me that adults fucked up. But there was a difference between seeing everybody over eighteen or twenty or twenty-one as devils out to torture or ignore us, and realizing how many of them had meant well—honestly, truly, sincerely meant well—the whole time.
I felt sick.
Gurjas seemed to have regained his composure. “At least now you know,” he sighed with a small smile of relief. “And I’m assuming she saw you, too, so she has an ally.”
That’s all I wanted, I tried to say. I shouldn’t have had to fight him for it. But I just nodded, feeling the numbness spread across my face and hands. I couldn’t—no, I remembered exactly the last time I’d felt like this. When Kiera had showed up wearing Chandra’s face. How would Chandra have felt, knowing this?
He’d meant well.
He’d been trying to protect her.
He was a father.
You’re being too hard on him, plenty of me claimed, while the rest shrieked in fury that he’d been too busy keeping her safe that he had almost killed her.
“I hope I did the right thing.” And then he looked to me, his shape flickering. I knew what would happen. I had two options. Both of them ended with him passing on. It was his time—he’d done what he’d marked down in his mind as his final acts. I could call him out. I could tell him how close, how fucking close, he’d come to condemning some poor girl to a life of darkness and isolation, too afraid to go outside or come back to the real world.
Or I could lie.
“Yeah. Yeah, I think you did.” I managed a smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of her.” Platitudes, promises I had no idea how to keep.
Gurjas closed his eyes. His soft smile was the last thing to disappear, mist fading into the light. And then I was alone in the house again.
I barely made it to the kitchen sink before I threw up. I still couldn’t feel my hands or face. He’d meant well. He’d meant well. No wonder nobody could find her. Maybe there were missing persons reports out for her under another name. Maybe she was just listed as a runaway. Who fucking knew?
I started to cry, desperately glad nobody else was in the house to hear me. Even in my own apartment, Nathan was home most of the time and the neighbours were close by below and around. Before that, foster homes didn’t have much in the way of privacy, and—
Brown girls didn’t cry. Tough girls didn’t cry. Dyke girls didn’t cry. They could lash out, sure, and be angry and stomp around and threaten to break people’s noses. They could smoke on school property and cut the sleeves off their Value Village shoplifted t-shirts. I’d cried in front of Will and then pretended it didn’t happen, ignored her texts while I was here—all two of them—and it was easier to sulk, or be sullen, or—or, well, bash my head open as an escape tactic.
Gurjas was gone. I’d found his body. I was tracking down his murderer. I was doing what he asked me to do. And it didn’t mean a damn thing, did it? Because I was still doing what I was told to do.
I couldn’t stop fucking crying, and there wasn’t anybody here to hold me this time. It just kept coming and coming and coming, like I was going to shake apart from the inside. Gurjas was dead, the real kind of the dead, the kind I couldn’t fix. He would keep believing that he’d done the right thing and I’d clean up his mess. I’d carry it. That was fine, that was fine, it was—quite frankly—easier than negotiating hurt egos—
I wanted to be the one vanishing. Everybody else could deal with the problems they’d made. Hell, I’d seen Kiera coming apart like broken glass. I probably didn’t want to know who’d broken her that badly. She didn’t scare me, not the way the desperate look on her face did.
I wanted to be dead.
“I want to be dead, I want to be dead, I want to be dead,” I whispered under my breath, trying to chase it away or bring it closer, I wasn’t sure which. They’d never been able to make me admit it. Not at the psych ward. Not in the therapist’s office, stubbornly colouring in mandalas and not looking him in the eye when he asked me how I was coping.
Dead, or somebody else. Somebody not jealous of their dead sister.
I sank to the tiled floor. Stupid. The whole thing was stupid. It wasn’t like I ever asked for help anyway. I did this to myself. I didn’t have a right to get mad at others—
(it’s a prerequisite to be a little fucked up)
(I can’t lose you, not again)
I pushed my face into my knees. Five sessions of therapy wasn’t enough to help with… everything. I guess I was traumatized. Admitting it hurt. But what else was I supposed to say to myself as I sat here in the midst of a panic attack I couldn’t explain?
I hoped Jo got home soon. It was good that she had company. Somebody else to talk to. It just…
It just meant that I was alone more. That I didn’t turn around to somebody ready to listen.
Get it together, I told myself.
Why? the exhausted part of me spat back.
But I actually had an answer. I didn’t mean to keep calling Jaylie a kid. Technically, she was older than me—not by much, but all the same. Still, though. Gurjas had treated her like one. Every other adult probably would too.
I closed my eyes, trying to remember how to breathe. This wasn’t about Gurjas at all. He was dead and buried and mourned. And it wasn’t about Kiera. She was a force of nature, something to be stopped—whatever I saw in her, whatever I empathized with, it wasn’t the point.
Jaylie was the point. And I wasn’t leaving her alone in there with the hundred-eyed monster any longer than I had to. I just had to figure out how to reach her.
Think, think, think.
Time for the pad, again. I scrubbed the tears from my face. My brain hurt, but focusing on something else was good. It clarified things, and pushed the suicidal thoughts into a quiet corner of my consciousness.
Jaylie was in the Medium. Most people couldn’t get in or out—but I had, somehow. So there was a way, somehow. If I could get to her and communicate to her who her friends were—I could get the ghosts to check on her, I thought. Johara, and the others I ran into. It meant I’d have to talk to them more, but I could get over that. I could try, anyway— Or.
The thought sent my chest lurching. The next thought didn’t help.
For us to make any contact, I’d have to get back there.
Think, think, think. What did Isaiah say?
Two weeks inside, an hour outside… Usually. Normally. If I’m lucky. If this works.
Destabilizing was… I didn’t fully understand it. But Will kept talking about trauma. Everybody talked about trauma.
I leaned forward until I tipped onto my knees, staring at my hands. This was probably exactly what Isaiah had been talking about, my self-destructiveness, but it didn’t feel like self-destructiveness. Talking to the dead was one thing. This felt like power.
But it meant hurting myself—and nothing so simple as bashing my head open again or smoking a whole pack of cigarettes.
You destabilized – you lost control of your powers – when you were hurting. When you were trapped inside your own head and you couldn’t get out. When you were scared.
I took a deep breath, and exhaled, and I forced myself to remember.
Hours and hours in the waiting room. I know the moment they come out into the waiting area. I try to hit them. When Mr. Krasinski (it was his fucking son’s fault how dare he) tries to stop me, I try to hit him too.
The psych ward is quiet. I’m only there for three days. I count the tiles. I count the ceiling panels. I count the doors. I count the windows.
They tell me, and I almost remember, biting somebody.
They write three words in my file—Oppositional Defiant Disorder—that follow me until I finally get myself out of the system and never have to tell anybody ever again.
I look it up, obviously. They don’t tell me what it means.
My sister is dead (she’s not dead not really she comes back to me soon afterwards but I don’t know that yet, not sitting in the little corner of the ward waiting to wake up)
and they’re drugging me for
being angry about it
I open my eyes, head pressed to a cold floor. I hadn’t been far from having another panic attack anyway—what bothers me is that I almost can’t remember it. I remember the pain. Like my chest ripping open. The rest is suddenly… fuzzy. The memory is raw, but distant, like watching a movie far away. Something that happened to somebody else.
I recognize the black infinity above me, but around me, just above where the floor is, there’s a grey-blue mist. That’s new.
My eyelashes are sticky with salt, and I try to scrub it away, making out the figure out in front of me.
“I’m sorry,” comes the sincere voice. “That’s awful. They shouldn’t have done that.”
The girl in front of me can’t be more than twelve. She’s got natural, fuzzy hair that falls in a mix of black frizz and ringlets around her face, brown eyes that I’ve almost forgotten the shade of—tree-bark brown, flashing with gold when she gets excited or angry—and she’s wearing the same denim overalls and pink t-shirt that she was the day before the accident. A memory of Johara that doesn’t belong here.
It’s the voice that clues me in, and I’m too burnt out, too twitchy and too much of an exposed nerve to get more than passingly angry.
“Hello again,” I croak from my abused throat. Jaylie’s eyes flash—the right colour, but too bright for this empty void.
Time for the fun part.