Ghosts in Quicksilver: Chapter 2.20: The Forest For The Trees

TW: anti-Arab racism, bullying, violence, mental illness, dissociation, unreality, eye horror (not trauma to eyes)

I don’t remember the first fight I was in. Part of that’s because it’s hard to tell the difference between a fight and being pushed around; bullying versus confrontation. But I remember one in particular, because it was one of the last ghosts I remember seeing for a long time.

The white boy who’d tripped me was a big guy, maybe fourth, fifth grade. I’d seen him around, mostly lurking in front of the portables or sneaking out the back wire gate of the school to smoke pot with the seventh and eighth graders during recess. I wasn’t sure what his problem with me was, but it was probably the same as everybody else’s. I hadn’t said hello or goodbye the right way, or at the right time, or I’d looked at him weirdly, or he didn’t like my name, or my clothes, or the way I talked. Maybe he thought I was from Iraq (Eye-Rack, was how he said it. I wasn’t sure he was wrong, but it didn’t sound right either.) The point was, he didn’t like me.

I struggled onto my hands and feet, swallowing the taste of blood in my mouth. I’d bitten my tongue. Then I looked back at him – past the sneer on his pale, slightly frost-reddened face, to the man standing behind him. He was as pearly gray as all the rest of the ghosts, but he was Black, or maybe just a mess of mixed blood like me.

When he noticed my eyes on him, his curious look turned into appraisal.

“Well, kid,” he said with a snort. “You gonna let him get away with it?”

I ignored him, and stood up, trying to avoid the older boy’s eyes. Sometimes if I just didn’t say anything that worked –

The punch took me by surprise and knocked me right back onto the ice, feet slipping out from under me. I was just glad I hadn’t hit my head. Next thing I knew, the ghost was squatting down next to me. He had calluses on his knuckles and fingernails cut down to the quick, deep lines cutting through his pink palms.

“I know, I know. I should just walk away,” I mumbled, mostly to myself as I spat salt and dirty snow out of my mouth. I was just glad Jo wasn’t here.

“Nah. Fuck that.”

I glanced up at him, surprised. Adults usually pretended not to swear around me. He smirked at me, stubbled cheeks elastic with age. “You’re gon’ get it no matter what. Learned that the hard way. Ain’t nothing gonna stop a prick like that from throwin’ his weight around. Kid like you minding your own business? He don’t give a shit. And the teachers standin’ around? They’ll blame you whether you did anything or not.”

I liked his voice. He was from somewhere else, somewhere south of here – although everywhere was south of Ottawa, really, everywhere that mattered.

“So what do I do?”

“If he’s gonna see you as a threat,” he said, jabbing a nicotine-stained finger into my chest that slid right through, “rise to the challenge. And make him regret it.

I didn’t know what that meant, but I reached forward in the snow, and my fingers closed around a chunk of ice on the ground, exposed in the March thaw. I wasn’t sure what to do-

The older boy’s boot hit my stomach, and I tried not to throw up. I hadn’t even done anything to him. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t-

I got up, chunk of ice in my hand. They’ll blame you whether you did anything or not.

And I made him regret it.

——

I stayed back, standing on the porch and glancing hesitantly between Sunvay and Kiera. I should have left. I was brash, sure – but I wasn’t brash enough to get between anybody and a baseball bat. Certainly not between a candidate for worst person in the world and her stalking victim. No point in sugar-coating it. But… but I did want to help, and I was scared for Jaylie, because Kiera was much more powerful than her. And somehow, for some reason, I was scared for Kiera, too. I’d already saved her life once, and for all that I kept trying to tell myself that she was the monster here, I just – I didn’t want anybody to die. It was childish, and stupid, and it was pretty much all I had to offer.

Part of me, too, wanted to see how it worked out. The rubbernecking impulse – the one that didn’t really believe that anything bad would happen. The part that still believed that this was drama, the kind of conflict that people had over snubs and perceived insult.

And the much smarter part of me knew that Jaylie was going to be in a whole load of trouble if the cops showed up. Again. For somebody who held her breath while passing police stations, I was getting involved in an awful lot of crime scenes. Maybe I should reconsider my career choices.

Calm down. You can get involved if it gets out of control. The smartest thing I could do was be here. Somebody just being here would keep things from spiralling… I hoped. It hadn’t worked at McStab’s, but who knew?

Kiera put a hand on her hip, snickering. “Banshee? Is that really what you think I am?” She reached casually into the air next to her, showing off her trick again and pulling her sword from the air like it’d been tucked between the folds. She spun it in her hand, hilt tumbling over her knuckles, and she looked so relaxed that I could almost pretend that the ground below wasn’t flickering between normal, salt-speckled asphalt and some sort of bone-white dust. It was little things that were wrong; cracks in the porch wood that disappeared if I looked straight at them, TV static between the gathering clouds, rot appearing and then retreating on the scattered tree trunks. Other people’s instability – at least the little bit I’d seen – didn’t seem to have as much middle ground as hers. Maybe it was just because she’d been like this for so long that it’d become her normal.

“It was that or hag.” Sunvay shot back. His eyes were amber in the real world, but they flashed green back at Kiera for a second. A taunt, maybe – or a distortion of Kiera’s powers. I couldn’t tell, but either was likely. 

She brushed it off, but the cracks got a little deeper. “I’d expect humans to be so unimaginative – but you? Really?”

He twitched at that, and I frowned. I supposed Jaylie’s alters were something other than human depending on the perspective, but that didn’t seem right. For a moment I thought he was going to respond – but instead, he raised his hand, beckoning at Kiera.

“Come on. You’ve been trying to kill us for months now. You sca-”

Kiera’s sword cut an arc of gold through the air, and I held my breath, for a moment thinking it would hit Sunvay – but he leant backwards just enough for the saber to hiss past him. He blocked the second swing with the bat, and with each strike he stepped backwards, staying on the defensive. On a particularly hard swing, he dropped the bat, Kiera’s sword lodged into the wood. Kiera jolted forward at the sudden weight, and Sunvay slipped down into a crouch, suddenly smaller and lighter, and kicked her feet out from under her.

It wasn’t Sunvay anymore. I didn’t know who this was, but their hair was a loose puff of ash-gray curls all around them, pale scars decorating their bared arms like lightning scars. Kiera vanished into a streak of silver and reappeared standing a moment later like nothing had happened, and the new person just snickered in a hoarse voice.

“Lovely,” Kiera deadpanned. “I’m fighting all your little personas.”

Not-Jaylie’s face dropped into a scowl – then they slammed an open hand into Kiera’s chin, foot swinging up into a kick. Not street fighting. Jaylie had clearly learned somewhere.

Still, that only worked on some

Kiera just caught the kick, only wavering slightly at the impact. “Aw, cute. I’m stronger than that, honey.” Her face split into a grin too wide for her mouth, shark-teeth on full display. Then she shoved the foot down, slamming her forehead into Not-Jaylie’s. I winced just watching it, and blood ran down from the ash-haired scalp.

I should do something.

Do what? I was in exactly the same position as before. I could fight, sure. Not like this. I could stab people, and punch people. And I could talk to dead people. That was it. Jaylie had actually learned how to fight somewhere; I hadn’t. My big skill was that I was tenacious and stupid. Kiera would eat me alive.

“Is that all you’ve got?” Kiera taunted as Not-Jaylie stumbled to their knees, clearly dizzy. She tossed the baseball bat over to them, and it clanked against the asphalt. “Come on. Show me what you’ve got, wechselbalg.”

I didn’t know what that meant. What was she trying to prove? Why Jaylie? Jaylie hadn’t done anything to her. This was just cruel.

Kiera raised her sword over Not-Jaylie – but then Jaylie raised her head. “Stop.

Kiera’s arm stopped midair, her face a sneer of rage.

“You forgot, didn’t you?” Jaylie said in a low, mocking tone. The ash-hued hair was gone, braids falling down her back with a rattle of beads. But Kiera didn’t stop for long – the Sulfur trick had slowed her down, but that was all. She shifted with another streak of silver – in the low light, all I could see was the silhouette until she prowled into the intersecting rings of lamplight.

“A panther,” Jaylie said, almost approvingly, and Kiera bared her teeth at her. “Very clever.” She leant down to pick up her bat, and dark red bloomed across her hair. Reynare straightened up, pointing the bat at Kiera. “Not clever enough. You know we can see you.”

See her? But –

Oh.

Jaylie was a Sulfur, and a Mercury. I didn’t know how exactly having two at once worked, but Kiera hissed at Reynare with a fury that gave away exactly what she meant. She leapt, but Reynare dodged the telegraphed jump easily. Except halfway through the leap, Kiera shifted back into herself, and her fingers grabbed Reynare’s hair, yanking her backwards and throwing her down to the ground.

“Get out of my head,” Kiera snarled.

“Love to. Stop thinking about us.” Reynare tore her hair out of Kiera’s grip, strands melting like they were made of ash. She put more distance between her and Kiera. “You can’t, can you? It’s constant, Every time we’re near you. You can’t stop thinking about us, and what we are.”

“Get out.

“We can’t stop. Any more than you can, apparently.”

“Then shape the fuck up. Show me what you’re actually capable of.” Kiera feinted with the sword, then slashed at Reynare’s cheek, fingers turning to silver-tipped claws. Actual silver, I realized, as Kiera bit almost through her lip, blood running down her chin until she pushed the silver away. Was that possible? And good god, why would she hurt herself like that, unless –

Oh. Oh, god.

The claws had actually hit Reynare, and blood was dripping down her cheek as well. Blood, and a little bit of smoke, because it had burned her; not a lot, but enough. Even when Reynare’s features turned back into Jaylie’s, the cuts remained, and the slight, rancid smell of burning flesh. “You want to know what I’m capable of? That’s what you want?” she almost crooned, looking back at Kiera with eyes burning quicksilver-bright, voice so sweet that the fury behind it almost seemed like a mirage if you weren’t paying attention.

This was going badly. And I had figured out, now, why Jaylie had two powers. It looked like I was the only human here.

I glanced up at the swiftly-darkening sky. The moon had disappeared.

Kiera hadn’t noticed the sky yet. She was too busy grinning manically, taking pride in some sort of perceived victory. “If this is all, then that means I win. I win, I knew I w-”

“You stupid, jealous bitch.”

Kiera lashed out at Jaylie again – and the bat hit her squarely in the ribs. She collapsed to the ground, and I found myself running off the porch, onto the asphalt, and then I stopped, because I was not equipped for this, for any of this.

“You think you’re the first person to hate me?” Jaylie didn’t even sound angry. She sounded… resigned. There was fury there, yes, but it was so tangled up with exhausted sadness that it was all the more terrifying. Fury was alive, fury was passionate. This was different. “You think you’re the first person to try banish me with silver and iron? Or even just – know that I didn’t belong and use other tricks on me, try get back the child they deserved?”

The moon was back. The moon was –

A black spot rolled around it, down to focus on Kiera, and I stuffed my knuckles in my mouth, trying not to scream. The moon was not back. The silvery thing hanging in the sky wasn’t a moon. It was an eye. And as I watched, more of them were opening across the blue-black sky that was too dark for sunset, all focusing on Kiera.

“I didn’t know,” Jaylie spat, her voice almost breaking. “I didn’t know I was a changeling until you came after me, you worthless fucking fraud. That’s what the others were locking up, away from me – and I’d wondered, sure, but not knowing, not remembering, kept me sane. Don’t you understand? You did this to me. You did this.”

Faerie. Jaylie was a faerie. I’d heard the word changeling before – I didn’t remember the specifics, fairy tales had always been more of Jo’s thing – but this made sense now, except-

-except it didn’t.

The sky was moving. Why was it moving? It wasn’t a sky, skies didn’t lurch like that, or rise upwards. It was a body – a massive, horrifying, lithe body lifting itself up and exposing the orange-streaked atmosphere behind it. There was no head, just a ragged stump that could have been a neck.

It was the Headless. It was the Headless, the god that had thrown me out of the Medium the first time, and it was here. How was it here?

Calm down. I had to calm down. Jaylie was a Mercury, too, I was probably hallucinating –

But Kiera was staring at the Headless, too. She was seeing the same thing. Mercury hallucinations weren’t shared, right? They weren’t. Oh, god. What did I do? Whatever was happening, Jaylie was doing it.

I willed my feet to move. They wouldn’t obey me – so I squeezed my eyes shut and managed to get them moving the first few steps before I opened my eyes again. Jaylie. I had to get to Jaylie.

I grabbed her shoulders, turning her away from Kiera. Her silver eyes were frightening in the dark, shapeshifter trick or not. “Jaylie, you gotta stop.”

“Absolutely not. She ruined my life.

“I – I know. But if she and I can both see… that, so can everybody else.”

“It’s just a mirage, it’s not real.”

“It looks pretty fucking real to me!”

I don’t care!” Her voice did rise this time. “I don’t care! If it was that nobody helped me that’d be one thing! I’m used to that! But everybody who helped me died for it! I’m not okay with that and I shouldn’t have to be okay with that, and you are not going to stop me from doing the world a fucking favour!

I felt like I was being stabbed. Mostly because – she was right. She was right, and I didn’t know how to respond. Nobody was backing me up on this. Not even Will, who had the most reason to. It was time to give it up.

Kiera was getting to her feet. I just noticed it out of the corner of my eye, and then I saw her sword in her hand –

This was my fault for letting it get this far. My fault. My fault. My fault.

So I did the only thing I was good at.

I pushed Jaylie out of the way.

——

“This wouldn’t be such a problem,” came the familiar voice, “if you weren’t such a self-sacrificing idiot.”

I tried to open my eyes, winced, and rubbed at them.

“If it helps, by the way,” Jo sighed, “you aren’t dead.”

I squinted against the light. I wasn’t cold, even though it was November. There wasn’t any snow on the ground.

“…Well. I suppose that’s good news,” I mumbled. “You got anything else for me?”

“Yeah. I have no idea how to get you home.”

Ah.

I probably should have stopped at the good news.


And that’s all folks! Ghosts in Quicksilver will resume with Book Three: Mercury in April 2021. In the meantime, keep your eyes open for the physical copy and official release of Book Two, planned for some time in March with preorders opening in early February.

This chapter is going live on December 31st, 2020, which also means this marks four years of Ghosts in Quicksilver as a web serial. I was talking about how I didn’t think it would last this long LAST year, and now I’ve not only made it four years, I’ve made it through the disaster that was 2020. That’s worth celebrating.

Thanks for sticking around. Book Three is the final book of the… well, this was always intended to be one book, but series, I suppose! And here’s to 2021 being a brighter year.

<– Chapter 19

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