I halted at the garden gate to Evelyn’s house as Raine stepped onto the path. When she realised I wasn’t following, she turned and raised her eyebrows at me.
“You have to be joking,” I said. “Evelyn lives here, alone?”
“Her family owns the house. It’s complicated. Come on, it’ll be fine, she won’t bite, not this time.”
We’d left campus about twenty minutes ago, skirted the northern side of the the student district and crossed over into Sharrowford’s frayed eastern edge. Overlarge houses from another era squatted between weed-choked empty lots. Further west, toward the city’s core, these sorts of hulks got redeveloped, but out here they were home to the occasional student squat, older people unable to move away, and those hanging on to second homes in the vain hope of selling them one day. It wasn’t unsafe, but it wasn’t pretty either.
My hallucinations loved this place. Shaggy mammoths of hide and scale strode across the horizon, ghoulish forms watched us from dark corners and whipped away as we approached, and low-prowling canine shapes flowed back into the streets behind us as we passed, padding after me with pack curiosity.
I tried to ignore the itch between my shoulder blades, the feeling of being cut off, retreat blocked.
Raine held my hand nearly the whole way. I hadn’t known what to do about that, hadn’t wanted to risk commenting in case she stopped. At first I was self-conscious. What if somebody saw us? But as we settled into a rhythm of walking I allowed myself to enjoy the moments of peace and quiet alongside a person I wanted, so badly, to trust.
When we stopped in front of number 12 Barnslow Drive I wondered for an abstracted moment if she was a serial killer and if this was where she hid the bodies.
Evelyn’s house was a late Victorian redbrick monster draped with a mantle of overgrown ivy, a few tiny sash windows peering out into the street, all of them with curtains drawn. Blue tarpaulin patches peeked out from the damaged slate roof. The garden had gone to seed, grass matted and crowded out by moss, one huge tree in the back rustling in the wind. The garden path was at least clear of debris but the paving stones were cracked and weathered. Framed by the overcast sky above Sharrowford that afternoon, this house was the last place I wanted to be.
Raine’s own obvious trepidation didn’t help. She wore her usual encouraging smile as she squeezed my hand and coaxed me over the garden threshold, but a tightness had seized her eyes, a thrumming expectation in her movements.
She’d tried to call Evelyn three more times on the way here. Straight to voice mail. Text messages too, no response.
She finally let go of my hand once we reached the front door, and shot me an attempt at a reassuring look. “Seriously, Heather, take a deep breath, it’s gonna be fine this time, I swear.”
I nodded and reminded myself that I wasn’t doing anything that crazy. A girl I sort of liked was trying to get me to be friends with her best friend, that was all. A little social effort and risk. And also they both believed in the occult. Oh well.
What was the alternative? I glanced down the street at the swarm of hallucinations blocking my way out. Didn’t fancy walking back that way alone, shouldering my way through the claws and reeking fur and alien drool. I guessed that was my subconscious telling me I wanted this.
Raine pulled out her bunch of keys and fitted one into the lock.
“You have her door key?” I asked.
“Yeah. Like I said, she’s kinda the whole reason I’m here in Sharrowford. You know, look after her, keep certain kinds of people away from her, make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.” Raine tensed up as she swung the door inward, then relaxed when nothing jumped at us. She took a step inside and called out. “Evee! Evee, s’me.”
I crossed the threshold. Raine closed the door behind us us.
I don’t believe in love at first sight, but I was smitten with that house from the first step.
The large open entrance hall probably used to be grand and fancy, a place to impress social callers. But it had since been hollowed out, re-filled and re-used, like a hermit crab’s shell. Bare floorboards, cracked plaster, exposed ceiling beams. Less faded rectangles of cream colour told where paintings had once hung. Boxes were piled up against one wall, some of them open on stacks of paperback books, others filled with odd bric-a-brac, little pewter statues, painted wooden masks, all sorts of strange things I could have spent hours wondering at.
A grandfather clock stood opposite, ticking away the seconds, a beautiful oak-and-brass relic of the 19th century. I’d never seen a real grandfather clock, they were for haunted houses in old movies. I found the sound calming, unwavering. Several thick rugs covered the floor and the heating was turned up against the gathering cold, pumping from a wall-mounted iron radiator, another real relic. I could see the kitchen visible through one doorway, and some creaky looking stairs vanishing up into the darkness of the second floor. Half the room was cast in shadows by the soft ceiling light.
It was so cosy. No manufactured anonymity in sight. The sort of place I wish I dreamed about. I had to remind myself this house belonged to Evelyn, who had been very rude to me. Perhaps we had some taste in common, at least.
Raine cupped her hands to her mouth. “Evee!”
“Hmm, well, all her shoes are here, so she must be in.” Raine puffed out a long breath. “Evelyn!”
I noticed the shoes scattered by the doorway - old trainers, some big weatherproof boots, a pair of fluffy uggs - and a coat and a mac hung up on hooks nearby. A wooden walking stick was propped next to the door. Then I noticed two of the rugs had been rolled up and pushed against the walls, to clear a space.
“Are the carpets meant to be like that … Raine, what is that?”
We hadn’t seen it at first, in the gloom. Raine quickly kicked her shoes off and went for a better look. I slipped my shoes off too and followed her.
It was a magic circle.
You know, like you see in those silly books about pagan rituals and summoning demons, all multiple interlocking rings and esoteric symbols and a few words written in Greek around the edges.
It was drawn with a mixture of chalk and dry-erase marker, straight onto the bare floorboards. The chalk and pens lay nearby, along with a sports bottle full of water and a bag of cheese snacks. A big leather-bound book was open on the floor, on a diagram which looked very much like the magic circle, next to another, smaller modern notebook with additions and redesigns of the symbols.
One of my hallucinations brooded in the darkest corner, a hunched, emaciated thing with no tiny pinpoint black eyes and thin bones, skin stretched over bulging ribs, twitching to itself and plucking at the ground with blunt claws. I did my best not to look. A product of my private tension.
“Ahh jeeze, Evee, what the fuck have you been doing without me?” Raine muttered as she looked down at the circle.
Bile rose in my throat. I had to avert my eyes. The symbols around the edge of the magic circle gave me a terrible sense of deja vu, as if I’d seen them in a nightmare. Great, now new-agey nonsense was becoming a brand new schizophrenic trigger, just what I wanted, thank you Raine.
“This isn’t exactly helping my scepticism,” I said.
Raine looked up and cracked a grin for me. She gestured at the circle. “I don’t even know what this is for. I wish Evee had let me know what she was up to. Could be anything.”
“Such as pulling a prank on a mentally ill girl she doesn’t like much?” I gave a sad little smile and shook my head to let Raine know I wasn’t entirely serious. Wouldn’t surprise me though.
“She’d never do that. I’m serious, she’s really not that bad if you get to-”
The Bone-thing in the corner stood up and stretched itself as Raine spoke, slow and sinuous, like a cat, clicking and grinding its joints. I couldn’t help but glance for a moment. Raine followed my gaze.
Her grin died. Her eyes went wide.
“Heather, you see that, right?”
Raine didn’t wait for an answer. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away, hard enough to make me stumble, and put herself between me and the creature.
The Bone-thing stared at us, flexing its claws and unfurling another pair of limbs from its back, delicate arched blade structures tipped with razor-sharp hooks. It clicked and clacked as it whirred its head back and forth, dark grey skin bunching and stretching. The air filled with a scent of acid-etched metal, iron filings and blood. All in my head.
“Raine, there’s n-nothing there.”
Raine bit the tip of her tongue in concentration. She stared it down. A bull-fighter ready for the charge.
The Bone-thing swayed one way, then the other, testing its own weight. I blinked and tried to slow my breathing.
“Y-you can’t see that,” I said. “You’re f-faking it, you just followed the direction of my eyes. Raine, stop-”
The Bone-monster screamed and leapt.
It sprang toward us on kangaroo legs, claw-tipped arms hissing through the air, screeching through a lamprey-eel mouth of ringed teeth. The sound felt like blades rubbed together inside my head, the too-thin bones of its face and naked chest vibrating under pressure.
I’d like to think that under other circumstances I could have ignored it. I’d ignored hallucinations doing much worse before. Instead I screamed and jumped in shock and fell down on my arse with a thump.
In that moment I hated Raine. I hated her for making me suspect a figment of my diseased mind was real, for exploiting my illness, for humiliating me, for terrifying me with my own brain-ghosts.
Raine was ready for it.
That’s kind of what Raine does; takes the impossible in her stride.
She yanked the nightstick out of her jacket, flipped it in her hand, wound up.
And smashed the Bone-monster’s charge to a dead stop.
Couldn’t make sense of what I saw. I sat there like a lemon, unable to process my own sense-data. To be fair, Raine hardly needed any help.
Her first strike caught the Bone-thing across the chest. Apparently those thin ribs weren’t very robust, because they shattered under the stainless steel club, along with my sense of reality. Raine followed through as the monster’s screech warbled out and it crumpled up around its ruined chest, spars of grey rib poking from ragged holes. One bone-tipped limb groped for Raine as she ducked out of the way. She whacked it in the back of the head and it flopped down in a heap, twitching and jerking on the floorboards. She aimed a good hard kick at the thing’s neck, connected with a wet crunch, then hopped back a couple of steps.
Raine let out a victory whoop and shook herself all over, heaving deep shuddering breaths in and out.
When she turned to me, she was grinning; she’d been grinning the whole time.
My hallucination was real and my cute new friend was high on violence. A small, dutiful, still-functioning part of my mind managed to file these facts away for later before it succumbed to numb panic.
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “Make sure it’s dead first!”
“What? Oh, yeah.” Raine laughed and turned back to the Bone-Thing. She flipped the nightstick over in one hand and broke the monster’s fragile spine. At least, I assumed it had a spine. It stopped twitching a few moments later. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Raine ran her free hand through her hair and blew out a long, slow breath, forced herself down from whatever psychological precipice she was flirting with. I tried to get up but found my legs were made of jelly.
“Hey, hey, lemme help.” Raine took my hand and pulled me to my feet, braced me against her side until we were both sure I could stand unaided. She squeezed my shoulder. “I remember the way it felt, on my first time seeing weird shit. Take a moment, okay? Take your time.”
“I’m fine, I’m okay, … thank you. “ All I could do was stare at the dead monster on the floor. Raine frowned in my peripheral vision.
“Sure about that, Heather?”
The world seemed very far away. The dead monster on the floor expanded to fill all my senses - the grainy, pitted texture of the grey skin, the smell of acid and metal in the air, the folded, crimped flesh around the claws, the spurs of bone poking through the ripped meat of the ruined ribcage, the pooling blood leaving awful stains on the floorboards.
“Heather? Hey, Heather, look at me.” I ignored Raine and gently pushed away, stepped forward and poked the dead monster with my shoe.
It was solid enough. Weighty. It had mass. I pushed harder, felt the flesh yield and the bones resist.
Then, I gave it a little kick.
“How is this real?” I asked, and the hysteria gripped me at last. “How is this real, Raine?” I turned on her and spread my arms in a shrug, as if this was all her fault. “This thing even looks stupid, it looks like a rubber suit monster from a horror film. And it’s real. It’s real. I can touch it. How can this be a real thing?”
I found I was breathing too hard, my chest tight and my throat constricted.
“This is bullshit,” I said.
Raine laughed. “You’re gonna be fine, Heather. You know, I thought you’d go on full crying jag. This is pretty much the last way I wanted to introduce you to the real world, but you’re taking this great.”
I shot her a dark look. This was, in a way, her fault. Ignorance wasn’t bliss, but it was better than this.
Raine smiled at me, and I almost couldn’t deal with it; she still held the nightstick, smeared with the creature’s oily black blood. It was right there, dead on the floor a few feet from the magic circle, and she’d killed it. Ten seconds ago she’d committed the most brutal act of physical violence I’d ever witnessed. Wasn’t anything like reading about it. I felt shaky and numb.
And I found her irresistible.
My brain didn’t have any spare bandwidth to deal with the implications of Raine’s violence high or my gut response. I quietly filed away a question - am I attracted to dangerous people, or just likely psychopaths? How did I not know this before? - and crashed back to reality as the adrenaline drained away.
“Quick and really important question,” Raine was saying. “I’m guessing you don’t see any other hallucinations in here, right?”
“No, no I haven’t done. And I better not do.”
“And you didn’t in Willow House, either?”
“How do you know that?” I frowned at her. Raine nodded sagely
“Sneaking suspicion. We’ve got both here and Willow warded against intrusion by various things, and I think it’s dampening whatever causes your visions. So, if you see anything, it’s probably really here.”
I raised both hands in surrender, still teetering on the edge of hysteria. A strange laugh entered my voice. “I can’t- Raine, I can’t- I can’t process this. Okay? I can’t process this. What does this mean?”
“I’ve been trying tell you. It means you’re not crazy.”
“Yes, I am. One monster, which, okay, I’ll admit it’s probably not made of paper-mache and chicken wire, does not explain a lifetime of hallucinations and blackouts. One dead freakshow does not negate schizophrenia.”
“You’re not schizophrenic. I mean, you’re probably not. You might have a touch of it anyway, I don’t know for sure, but that’s not the point. You ain’t crazy, Heather. You’re touched, you’re haunted, and it’s not your fault.”
“What even is this thing?” I gestured down at the monster. “Where did it come from? What’s it doing here? These are basic things that make no sense, Raine!”
“Oh, I have no idea.” Raine laughed. “Evelyn, she … uh.” Raine’s smile died as realisation returned. “Evelyn might. Ahh fuck.” She turned and raised her voice, calling to the empty spaces of the cavernous old house. “Evelyn! Evee!”
“Maybe she’s hiding?”
“Maybe.” Raine glanced down at the monster’s corpse. “No red blood on it, that’s a good sign. Right.”
“ … right, yes.” I swallowed, hard and involuntary.
“Come on, stick with me, in case there’s more of them.” Raine grabbed my hand.
The frantic search for Evelyn acted as a firebreak on my mounting hysteria, gave me a task to focus on, even if I was just tagging along. Raine’s panic helped as well, raw and real and turned to practical ends as she checked corners and slammed doors open and shouted for Evelyn.
Half the light switches in the place didn’t work. The floorboards creaked and the windows let in precious little light. The rooms were a jumble of old, stately furniture and junk piled up in crates and under sheets, except for Evelyn’s comfy, pastel-filled bedroom, the bed piled with layers and a laptop abandoned amid a huge slab desk. Raine raced through a study packed with books, then took the stairs back to the ground floor three at a time and leap the last half-dozen. I struggled to keep up.
I wish my first impression of Evelyn’s house had been less tainted by circumstances. I could have spent days going through those books, peering at the mysterious contents of all those crates, the haul of over a century of family history. So many nooks and crannies, hidden secrets, rooms full of surprises.
She wasn’t there.
Back in the front room Raine seemed lost. We’d covered the whole house. She looked at the nightstick in her hands and stared at the Bone-thing’s corpse for a moment. Then she started toward the door before thinking better of it and backing off. I struggled not to look at either the dead body or the magic circle on the floor. The circle tickled at the edge of my mind, taunting me to pay attention.
“Maybe she went outside?” I tried.
“No, not without her cane.” Raine jerked a thumb at the wooden walking stick propped up against the wall. “She wouldn’t get very far.”
“She needs a cane?”
“Fuck, why can’t I find her mobile phone anywhere?”
“She must … must be here somewhere,” I said. I didn’t believe I was right.
Because Evelyn wasn’t here, was she? She was wherever those ethereal winds had taken her. That unmistakable disfigured hand clutching at my wrist, desperate to hold on.
In a dream, in a hallucination.
In a place only I could go.
Raine’s panic, the distraught look on her face, allowed me to entertain a line of thought I had kept locked and bottled and shuttered for a decade, since I was a scared little girl crying for a twin sister who never existed.
What if all this was real?
Evelyn had insulted me, humiliated me. She was a clear competitor for Raine’s attention. I owed her nothing. What sense was there in risking myself for her? That’s what a sane person would have thought, a self-interested rational actor, with a healthy sense of caution.
You know what I thought?
Nobody deserves Wonderland.
I forced my eyes down, to the magic circle on the floor.
The interlocking design and the symbols meant nothing to me, but my subconscious understood. All those buried lessons from the Eye. The magic circle described more than words; it was a species of mathematics.
The inside of my skull tingled with pressure pain and my stomach clenched with tension.
I squinted and concentrated. The pain climbed as I dredged my memory, trying to connect the circle to the underlying principles I’d been taught over and over again. I hunched up around my chest, my mouth bone dry, back drenched with sudden cold sweat.
“ … Heather?” Raine stared at me.
My eyes teared up, stinging and aching as a great wave built behind them. I hiccuped and tasted bile in my throat, acid reflux as my body rebelled. I wrapped my arms around myself to control the shaking.
“Heather? What’s wrong?”
The relevant lesson burst into my conscious mind, a nightmare-ghost, a present from the Eye.
It was the mental equivalent of plunging my hand into boiling water; I whipped my mind back and howled in pain, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut as the pressure in my head slammed to a blinding spike.
I made it into Evelyn’s kitchen and got my face over the sink before I vomited, once, twice, three times, until my stomach muscles clenched on nothing. My vision blurred and a high-pitched whine invaded my hearing as a nosebleed started. I coughed and snorted out blood and pinched the bridge of my nose.
Raine joined me at the sink, hands on my back. “Heather! Shit, what happened-”
“I can do this,” I said between heaving breaths, and wiped my mouth on my hand. I turned the tap on and splashed my face with water. It ran pink with blood. “I can do it.”
“Do what? What? What are you talking about?”
“I can- I can- don’t- don’t touch me, it might not work.” I pushed Raine away and stumbled back into the front room as fast as I could. Raine grabbed my arm.
“Heather, hey, woah, come-”
“Don’t!” I yanked my arm out of her grip and almost fell over as I lurched back to the magic circle.
“Heather, I- now is not- I need to find Evelyn, please-”
“I’m trying! I know where she went!”
I forced myself to stare at the circle. For a moment I shied away from the pain and the implication of what I was trying to do.
I owed Raine. She’d saved me, in a way, that morning in a sad little Sharrowford cafe. She’d given me a sliver of hope and kept me from giving up on life, made me try for one more day, then one more week, and here she was with her best friend - her girlfriend? I didn’t care anymore - lost and gone like I had been. On the other side of nowhere. Elsewhere. Outside.
I plunged my mind back into the boiling water, back into the Eye’s lesson.
My nose streamed with blood and my head pounded as my mind ran impossible pathways. I curled up as my body tried to vomit again, but my stomach was empty.
Each piece of equation burned like molten metal; I forced myself to picture every one with perfect clarity. I was shaking all over. My knees felt ready to collapse, my fingers and toes were numb with pins and needles.
Raine stood arm’s length away, one hand outstretched as she hesitated to touch me.
The pain in my head rose to a crescendo.
I slotted the last number into place.
I screwed my eyes shut as the angles of the world twisted and inverted, as Raine’s face ran into a kaleidescope of colours, certain that I’d be rendered truly, irreversibly insane if I watched the process happen.
A whisper of alien wind brushed my face, the taste of iron and ozone. Grit and stone shifted under my feet. I opened my eyes and saw sky like rotten apricot. The Stone-world from this morning.
I’d Slipped, on purpose. I’d made it happen. It worked.
At least it wasn’t Wonderland.
I trembled. Every muscle ached like I’d been worked over by a gorilla with a rolling pin. My head pounded with an expanding band of red-hot steel inside my skull and a razor-sharp stabbing behind my eyes. I had to lean forward to stop the nosebleed draining down my throat.
I’d also drained myself in some other, less easily definable way. I felt weak and bruised inside, in a core place I’d never felt before. A phantom organ.
I squinted through blurred vision, across the bleak grey rock of this Outside place. It was so ugly, barren and broken, with towers of stone like arthritic fingers. I stood in a natural dip in the landscape, filled with foul-tasting ground fog and surrounded by a jagged ridge.
Shapes prowled the ridge, jerky things with knife-bodies and thin bones, hidden in the mist.
“Evelyn?” I tried to call out, hacked and coughed and spat to clear my throat. “Evelyn?”
And there she was.
Evelyn sat with her back against the base of a stone pillar, her knees drawn up to her chest, small and shaking. She gaped at me, speechless, a lump of white quartz held in one hand. Her loose bun of blonde hair was lank and damp from the soaking, sucking fog, and her palms were scuffed, clothes dusted with gravel, eyes red-rimmed from crying.
“ … You? H-how … ” she managed to say, then glanced up at the figures on the ridge. They’d heard our voices, peering and clicking and creeping down into the dip to find us.
“I felt your hand, this morning,” I said. I struggled to stay standing, hands on my knees to hold myself steady.
Evelyn frowned at me. “What? That was you?”
We stared at each other, the magician and the schizophrenic.
Except I wasn’t, was I? I wasn’t crazy.
No more safety blanket.