TW: Abuse by adults (referenced, poked at, in general if that’s a trigger please be careful!), isolation, claustrophobia, death (permanent), deliberate triggering/self-harm, panic attack, minor suicidal ideation, medical/psychiatric abuse (past), medical/psychiatric racism (past), racism (past), lesbophobia (past), minor slur used (d-slur, lesbian)
Gurjas was fading. I’d known it was coming, but the panic still rose in my throat as I watched him sit in one of the soft chairs that ringed Isaiah’s living room. He had that rewound-VCR look to him, sometimes here, sometimes almost gone – and I knew what that meant.
I sat down on the chair next to him. “How are the kids?”
“Doing well. Not quite as, uh, gloomy as Zinc here.” He indicated the diorama that Zinc was making for – school, I assumed? Although I couldn’t figure out what class could possibly permit a clay-and-popsicle stick depiction of Ozzy’s infamous bat incident. “I’ll consider that a blessing. Sulha is, however, in her pirate phase.”
“That’s a thing? I thought Jo was just weird.”
Gurjas laughed at that. “I wouldn’t call Sulha the most normal of girls, if that’s your point of comparison.” He was oddly relaxed, if wistful. “I appeared in Chandra’s dreams again. I would have spoken to her, but…” He shook his head. “She has enough to worry about.”
I thought about how badly she’d been adjusting to the powers – to the point of denial – and decided I agreed with him. “How would you? I’ve never – I mean -”
“You can’t do it on your own. You’d need a Sulfur to work with you.”
That was good to know. Once he said it, it made sense to me. Still, even if I could understand why he didn’t think speaking to her directly was a good idea, I had to wonder what would happen when she found out how much I’d been involved. I didn’t know exactly what Cassandra had told her, and Chandra’s steely-lipped denial hadn’t helped. Plus, I’d been avoiding her.
I glanced up at Gurjas. It was weird, remembering how much I’d disliked him. Maybe I just didn’t like parents. The second I’d found out Isaiah was a father, I’d gotten twitchy, too. “You could stay, if you wanted.”
“Ah, I forgot. You can tell, can’t you?”
“I guess it’s weird being on the other end of it. Being a ghost, I mean.”
“Incredibly so. Although it has its uses.”
I leaned forward, curling my hand under my chin. “Gurjas. Tell me about Jaylie.”
He groaned. “And here I was enjoying you being an actual person for a change.”
I decided to let that slide. Also, to dispense with subtlety. “Is she Black?”
He blinked, looking owlishly at me. “Well, that’s a question. Yes, for the record, although-”
“Long box braids? Really likes dresses? Chin sharp enough to cut glass?”
He stared at me. Then he buried his face in his hands. “Fuck.”
Hearing Gurjas swear was kind of like watching a drama kid solving calculus. “Uh. Is that a yes.”
“Yes,” he sighed. “That’s her. Down to the chin.”
“Ah. I was hoping for a yay, or a good for you, or…”
Gurjas dragged his hands down his face, giving me an amused 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.
“Ah. Shit. How did, uh -” I tried to think my way through it. Sometimes it worked with this stuff. “Yeah, you’re going to have to walk me through this. You said she was safe.”
“Yes. That was the idea. I’ve been keeping an eye on her, making sure nobody else got in. I don’t know how you did.”
I shrugged. “Fell down a rabbit-hole? I don’t know how you can block off the Medium, though. Isn’t it kind of… wibbly?”
“Most of it. Jaylie has her own corner of it, her – I don’t know what the actual word of it is. Most people have a piece they’re connected to some way or another. Anyway, I helped her reinforce it a bit before we left the ward -”
“The ward?” Then it clicked. “The psych ward. She was your patient.”
He nodded, looking more and more distressed by the moment. “She’s a Sulfur – I think, anyway. She can do a lot of things. I’m not sure she’s fully human. It gets complicated with D- with what she has,” he substituted quickly. Damn him. He was still keeping secrets – although medical secrets I could forgive him for, I supposed. “She’d never been in the Medium before, but she has… Have you ever had a therapist before?”
“Yes,” I drawled, keeping my sarcasm as much to myself as possible.
“Have they ever mentioned safe spaces, or mind palaces?”
“I mean, yes, but I thought those were… I don’t know, thought experiments.”
“Usually. She copied hers over to the Medium, every detail, every piece – I don’t know how it got so intricate.”
All I’d seen was a black void. I had the awful feeling that wasn’t a good sign. I hoped it was only a bad sign for me. But he was rambling, which was unheard of from him. So I let him keep talking. He didn’t even notice I’d gotten my pad out.
“Anyway, I – sometimes there’s unexpected fallout, instability triggers, so we left the ward, I checked her out just for a walk, and -” He stopped short, tugging at the edges of his turban. “I don’t remember my own death. I imagine that’s a good thing,” he said darkly.
“Well, she got into the Medium fine.”
“Yeah. I checked on her a few times. I told her not to let anybody in, and not to leave until it was safe. Kiera can’t get to her in there.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. “Any idea why Kiera’s after her?”
“No clue. But I’d started hearing about the Salts already. Jaylie had been on the streets a few days when the cops brought her into the ward – I guess Kiera lost track of her for a little while.” Disjointed, messy, but the narrative was starting to come together.
And then something hit, jarring and unpleasant.
“Gurjas, can she see outside of her space in the Medium?”
“Hm? No, not that I’m aware.”
My fingers spasmed, tightened around my pen.
He hadn’t told anybody. He’d refused to tell me.
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.
Had he just not realized? Had he been too dizzy and blurry from his recent death, too focused on trying to keep his cellophane form together, that he’d never put it together? Was he the kind of villain I’d almost expected at first? Or –
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.
“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. Three people at work, one at school, one following Isaiah around with the keen eagerness of somebody who didn’t get to read as much as she did when she was alive.
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.. 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-
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.
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.
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.
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.