tw: dissociation/unreality, mild body horror, stalking, psychiatric abuse, anti-plural sentiment (referenced), general sanism (referenced)
Quotes are from Madeline, Holes (Louis Sachar) and Howl’s Moving Castle.
you are not meant for this
you are not meant to be here
sister sister I can be a sister—in an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, there is no lake where it is quite a misfortune to be the eldest of three—
IN THE TIME BEFORE EVERYTHING I USED TO BE SOMETHING AND NOW I AM A BODY IN THE SHAPE OF A THOUGHT OF A DREAM OF A MEMORY
–can you hear me-
I am a mirror and this much I can do am I close did I get it right
When Willow Moray first showed up at my house and told me—indirectly—that I was crazy, that I was still suffering the effects of a trauma long since past, I’d gotten angry. Not because she was wrong. Mostly because I’d heard it before. Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Later, suggestions of attachment disorder. Still later, depression. Maybe anxiety. Most of those words never made out of the psychiatrist’s office.
“Do you think you’re depressed, Jamal?” the psychiatrist asked me.
I fixed him with what I hoped was a Proper Adult withering glare. He chuckled wryly at that. “I mean, do you think you were depressed before the accident?”
I shrugged. Maybe. Yes. No. I didn’t—don’t—have a proper point of reference. Don’t ask me for precision without a measure. Don’t ask me for open answers.
“Do you find yourself fixating on things?”
“Sometimes, I guess.”
“What about the mandalas? Are those helping?”
More shrugs, but he coaxed the answer from me anyway—that they helped, but they were a puzzle first, that I had to figure out how to colour them without any of my twelve colours touching on the edges and making the right numbers, and he seemed concerned until he realized (realizes) that I was doing it for fun. Not out of obsession, or obligation.
It’s weird, what you remember, when.
This is your memory and I am not in it and I am not me—
I don’t know how to shut it down, and everything everybody’s ever told me is that I just need to be here. That my presence—in and of itself—accomplishes something. Jaylie’s thoughts and mine are distinguishable, now, although her words claw through my head like primordial screams. She’s sitting there, still perfectly put together on the outside. It reminds me of Kiera. Unstable inside, raging fury and confusion and fear hammering on the walls of my subconscious instead of my senses, and the mask perfect on the outside. I get that. I used to practice in the mirror, but mine never fit right.
I have no actual resistance to offer. I’m just… here. Where I was trying to be.
Her borrowed face twists into the kind of scowl that Johara would never wear. Bitter, in a way that Jo so rarely is.
“Well? Aren’t you going to say something?” Challenging me to call her on her cruelty.
I don’t have the energy. “If you’re trying to get a rise out of me,” I sigh, “it’s not going to work.” It would, any other time, I guess. I’m just… I’m out of shits to give, frankly. I’m tired. I’m so tired.
DON’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT—
I have to wonder if this is what Will’s life is like. I think I owe her an apology. Before anything else streams into my head, though, the other figures reappear from the void. Not the monstrous one, thank god for small mercies, but the one with his extra fingers is there, glaring me down like I’m a virus or a rat. The one with the fox head is the one who sits down next to me and Jaylie, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“You’re doing it again,” she murmurs to her. “Shut it down.”
Just like that, the flood of thoughts eases up, and I take a deep, shuddering breath. Did I say I was exhausted? That’s an understatement. My fingers are tingling from the effort of pulling myself back together. My chest is asking me why I bothered.
The figures are interesting. I’m not sure who they are, especially since Gurjas didn’t mention them, but they’re not human. At least, they’re not human in here. The little I understand about the Medium makes it clear to me that what somebody is in here and who somebody is Outside can be drastically different things. There’s certainly a touch of dream about them; the spider-fingered one is long and crooked in all the wrong places, like a Black Slenderman with streaks of white chalk on his face, and there’s another who seems barely there at all, made of dust and shards. That’s the one with no face, just a collection of razors and blades spinning in the air in the space where a head would be.
The fox-headed woman, though, is the one I’m dealing with right now. “You came back,” she sighs. “Why are you here? Removing you was hard enough last time.”
“Oh, that’s gratitude.”
“Gratitude?” Jaylie snaps. “Why on earth should—”
“Jaylie,” the fox-headed woman sighs, hand squeezing her shoulder—dark-skinned in contrast to the orange fur on her face, I realize. Everybody else in here is Black, with the possible exception of the one who’s stayed mostly out of my vision, a pale blur on the edge of the void. It’s interesting, that I find that more noteworthy than I would if they were white—or maybe it’s just depressing. “You’re not supposed to be here, Jamal. Nobody’s supposed to be able to get in.”
“I guess I’m special.”
“Oh, wonderful. That’s comforting. Full of answers,” Jaylie sighs.
“Before anything,” I groan, lips half numb as the cold of the ground seeps into me, “take off my sister’s face.”
The fox-headed woman blinks, then glares at Jaylie. I can’t help but snicker internally at the consternation in her expression, especially when she rolls her eyes back at the fox.
“I was just messing with her. Fine.” She narrows her stolen eyes at me, then they turn into flashes of silver in her face, curls twisting around themselves and darkening into black box-braids, skin changing shade and tone into a rich umber. The clothes take a little longer, but before long, she’s back in another elaborate Victorian dress, this one with a corseted bodice and dramatic flared sleeves. “Better?” she purrs.
“That works.” I flop back on the ground. “I’m, uh. Rescuing you? I don’t know. Whatever.” Man, she’s exhausting. Although maybe that’s not fair. I’m not the easiest person to get along with.
“…Uh huh,” she says unconvincingly. “So you’ve killed the banshee?”
“Who, Kiera?” I don’t know if it’s my face or my annoyingly-audible thoughts that give it away, but she scowls at me. “—Look, if she’s a banshee, nobody’s fuckin’ told me.”
“She’s not literally a banshee,” Jaylie grumbles. “It’s just. Close enough. Omen of death, you know.”
I don’t, but learning on the fly is kind of my thing, so I nod. “I haven’t killed her, no. But I…” I hesitate, trying to think of how to break the news that Gurjas was dead, and then as per usual, remember a couple seconds too late that she can hear m—
YOU’RE LYING LYING LYING LYING LYING—
More headaches. And frankly, I’m out of patience. “Would you please, please, please,” my voice raises, “shut up?”
Miraculously? She does. Although the look she’s giving me could probably shatter a diamond.
“I,” my voice feels like sludge coming out of my mouth, “have been through a lot lately. Including a faerie trying to kill me. So you are going to start from the beginning. Including,” I add, “how you have two powers. Because that wasn’t in the beginner’s guide.”
The long-fingered man snickers in the background, and I’ve already decided I don’t like him. Asshole. But Jaylie’s actually taking me seriously, rubbing a sleeve over her face. The thoughts leaking out of her like a sieve are just an unsteady background hum, now, and I thank some… vaguely sky-ish direction that I’m not a Sulfur. I thought dead people were bad. I can’t imagine living with this 24/7.
Jaylie wags her hand helplessly at the fox. “You do it,” she mumbles. “I don’t want to.”
“Say the magic word.”
“Reynare I swear to fu—”
“We talked about this.”
Jaylie glares at Reynare, then rolls her eyes with a long-suffering look. “Fine. Fine. Please. Now leave me alone.”
She snaps her fingers. The others disappear like mist into the void, and it’s just me, Jaylie and the fox-headed woman. I’m still not sure who or what she’s supposed to be—another faerie? A Mercury saving cash on a fursuit? But a moment later, shapes start resolving out of the darkness. A loveseat with elaborate royal-purple cushions; a high-backed chair carved of dark wood and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays; it’s the kind of furniture I’d expect to see in a 1920s movie, not that I have much of a reference point for that beyond the Chicago musical and the trailer I saw for the Great Gatsby.
I sit down on the loveseat, trying not to look like I’m perching even though I am. And once I do, I realize the void is brightening with sunlight, panes of glass folding themselves over top of us and refracting the new light into a soft glow.
“It’s a sunroom,” I whisper, trying not to be amazed. It’s like a more controlled version of what Kiera does to the world when she’s around.
“It’s my mindspace, so don’t break anything.” grumbles Jaylie. I must have looked awfully confused, because she adds, “I’m kidding. It’s psychic. You can’t break it.”
“What happened to leave me alone?” Reynare teases despite herself, and the glare Jaylie shoots her is so icy I can feel it from here. “Okay, okay, have it your way. But try to behave, at least.”
“Not like I have a choice,” she sighs.
“Let me make some proper introductions. I am Reynare, the caretaker of this particular system. Jaylie you apparently know, or have heard of, at least. Sunvay is our protector, and—oh dear, that’s not a look of understanding. Jaylie, dear, a hand?”
“I thought you were the adult.”
“I’m lost,” I say quietly. Although I think I’m catching up, slowly. The term system isn’t totally new to me. I’ve never actually met one, but even if I dress like somebody from the nineties, I do have a Tumblr account. …Okay, it’s mostly gifsets of Gillian Anderson mixed in with Emily Haines and Death Cab for Cutie lyrics, but I pay attention to things.
Jaylie leans forward with a roll of her eyes, and while I can’t blame her for having a bit of a chip on her shoulder, it’s getting a little old. “Catch up, little miss detective. I’m crazy, we’re inside my head—or a copy of it—and these are the voices that talk to me and tell me to kill people.”
Reynare grumbles in irritation. “Only Sunvay does that. And they always deserve it.”
—Oh, yeah, this much I recognize. Maybe not in word, but in spirit. “Sorry, but the crazy ax murderer voice isn’t gonna work on me. Especially not after Kiera.”
Jaylie just sticks her tongue out. Of course. She’s seen the memory that brought me here—which I’d be more pissed about, but it means we have at least one thing in common.
“Fine,” she sighs, and for a moment, I can see past the facade into how fucking exhausted she is. “They’re my… alters, headmates, multiple personalities, whatever.”
“Oh, so you’re all—”
“If you say the same person,” she mutters, in a voice so bone-dead-tired it sounds like it’s going to fall asleep just coming out of her mouth, “I swear to god I will chuck you back to the banshee myself.”
“Noted. Same… body? When you’re not, uh, wherever we are?”
“Corner of the Medium. But also kind of in my head. Magic is weird.” She scrubs at her eyes before I can notice them watering, and I try to shove the noticing out of my head so she doesn’t feel bad. “Been here a while hiding from the banshee.”
“I assume you’re asking why she’s after us,” Reynare supplies kindly, and I nod. “I’m afraid we’re not sure. This is terribly inconvenient, but a dissociative disorder like ours necessarily comes with a large helping of amnesia.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” I can’t help responding. But that… god, that makes a lot of sense. Jaylie was surprised to hear that Gurjas was dead, but she was there when it happened. Wasn’t she?
“Not me,” she mumbles. “Somebody else.”
I’m annoyed for a moment before it processes what she means. Her body. A different mind. “The amnesia is—depending on who, er, who’s driving? Sorry, my only real frames of reference here are Inside Out and Psycho. And I’m trying to focus on the first one.”
That gets an actual laugh from Jaylie, albeit a small one, and I can’t help but smile, feeling somewhat accomplished. It’s weird. She’s annoying and sharp at the edges and the cause of so much of this trouble, but it’s kind of nice to meet somebody who isn’t keeping it together better than I am.
“You’re awful at this,” she snickers, and I turn bright red in horror as I realize I cannot mask my thoughts in the Medium, at all. “Now stop mugging at me and tell me what next.”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to share?” Reynare asks idly, and Jaylie just blows her a snarky kiss. “I suppose not.”
“Oh, you’re not—?”
“I have Sulfur powers when I’m fronting. In here, it’s just Jaylie who has the powers. Annoyingly enough, the little wretch.”
“Okay, so the only person who remembers what happened with Gurjas is whoever was fronting. Who was that?”
Reynare and Jaylie pull an identical grimace. “Rassar.”
“And that’s… bad?”
“Rassar is the one with the blades for a face,” Jaylie groans. “And then Jurie switched in, who is probably worse. So, that’s a non-starter.”
“Ah. Just my luck. Okay, back to the two powers thing. Is that because you’re a system?”
And that’s where Jaylie’s smile, full lips curved, completely vanishes. Her silver eyes darken, and it’s like she’s shrinking away from me. She doesn’t want to talk about it.
Reynare glances at Jaylie, then back to me, crossing her arms across her suit jacket. “It’s… complicated. Somewhat the other way around. It’s probably easier to discuss once we’re out of the Medium—”
“No!” The terror in Jaylie’s voice is piercing, and I feel another surge of fury at Kiera. God, Kiera terrifies me enough. What the hell did she do to Jaylie?
They both look over at me, and I realize I have to explain why I even came in here. I’d had this idea that the ghosts could check in on her, that I could talk to her somehow, make sure she didn’t get trapped. But now that I’m here…
Without meaning to, I make eye contact with her, silver eyes in her heart-shaped face, long eyelashes thickened with mascara, and she sees all of it. I don’t mind. Because in return, without hearing anything from her, without anything except my own eyes, I can see that she hates it here. The sequence of events puts itself together, anyway. It wasn’t Jaylie who ended up pulling them into the Medium—it was whoever it was that witnessed Gurjas’s death. Rassar, or Jurie, one of the two—god, how do they pick their names? And I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that they’re the one calling the shots on whether or not she can leave on her own, too.
“It’s Jurie,” she says finally, the response to the question I hadn’t asked yet. I’m getting used to that. “Do you know how to leave the Medium? On your own?”
“No,” I admit. “I hadn’t gotten that far.”
Reynare shakes her head. “Typical. It runs on fairytale logic. Did your mother ever read you fairytales?”
Ouch. “No, that was—not a thing, no.” At least Reynare isn’t reading anything, so that one’s just an accident.
“Well, think of it like The Wizard of Oz. Tap your heels and think of home, for example. It runs on your own internal personal mythos, whatever that may be—”
Jaylie snapped her fingers, and Reynare was halfway through swearing at her when she disappeared. “That wasn’t helping, was it?” she said wryly.
“Not at all. Isn’t that a little rude?”
“Oh, probably. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I’m not used to having to deal with them all the time in close quarters. Besides, she can go on, can’t she?”
I stifled a snort, suddenly reminded of Cassandra. “Well, I still need to know this. Although I think my brain might blow up.”
“You’ll be fine. I promise.” Jaylie gets to her feet, skirts swishing around her ankles. “If it helps, I don’t understand it very well, either,” she admits, although it clearly rankles her pride a little. “Everybody’s exit looks different. Usually it’s a Salt thing, so for me it’s—well. Usually I don’t have to worry so much about getting in or out.”
I wonder if she’s going to answer the question floating on the tip of my tongue, then I decide to ask it out loud as she conspicuously ignores it. “How come you can—”
She seems entertained by that, then clears her throat, waving her hand at the sunroof and shoving it aside with a flick of her hand. She’s basically a god in here, I realize, and I wonder what that must be like. I know that none of it’s real, not really, but still. “The point is, the Medium is… it’s made up of dreams, beliefs, all of the stuff from people’s heads. Like dust-bunnies.”
“That… is not the metaphor Isaiah used. But I’m following.”
She heads out into the void, and I follow, realizing that glass walls are rising up on either side of us, transforming a void into a corridor, mirrors climbing up on either side of us as the glass backs itself with silver. Does she design this in her spare time or is it doing this on its own? Food for thought.
“So to get out,” she continues, the ragged chiffon edges of her skirt fluttering behind her and reflecting in the infinite tunnel of reflections on either side of us, “you need to have your own personal idea of escape or release. Tap your heels three times, or, uh, walk through a wardrobe, go down a rabbit-hole, whatever’s actually important to you.” She grins. “Some people take the release part literally, apparently.”
“Is your, uh, exit—”
“I should be so lucky.” Her lips turn downwards, but the scowl is temporary. “Anyway, figure that out and you’ll be fine.”
An exit. Bloody hell. Now I have to figure out how I personally think about escape. I didn’t sign up for a philosophy session, and I got in here by upsetting myself as much as I could. Now I have to do the opposite. The fact that it’s fucked up people who get these powers just gets more and more ironic by the second.
I pause as she turns towards me—and she pushes me against the wall, one hand against my shoulder, the other grabbing my cheeks and chin, nails digging slightly into the skin in warning.
“You seem very nice,” she murmurs, “and I can see enough of your brain in here that I know you’re not lying to me. But let me be clear. I don’t know you. I don’t trust you. And right now, you are in the part of my mind where no one is welcome. I suggest you remember this if you decide to make me angry,” she says quietly, silver eyes flashing with—not menace, exactly. Warning. Fear. It’s a put-on, clearly—somebody this shattered can’t possibly be serious about–
“Shattered, huh?” She leans in, only an inch taller than me but it feels like much, much more. “I’m serious, Jamal. Don’t cross me. Just remember. I’ve been in your mind. I’ve seen your version of the banshee, rose-colored glasses and all.” Then she lets go, patting my cheek. “Just think of it this way. Now you know I’m psychologically disturbed enough to be worth protecting.”
Well, that’s a line. I don’t know how I feel about that. But… sure, why not. I chew on the inside of my lip as she continues on her way through the mirrored labyrinth, and I follow close enough not to lose her. In one of the mirrors, I catch a glimpse of green eyes and long teeth—and I look away. Jaylie knowing what the Kiera in my subconscious looks like is bad enough. I don’t want my conscious mind thinking about her, too.