Two weeks and a day after the night which altered my life forever, I did a new and brave thing: answered my front door at eleven in the morning.
Might not seem like much, unless you’re used to monsters around every corner.
A month ago I wouldn’t even have acknowledged the knock. I might open the door to a leering skeletal face or six hundred pounds of fur and blubber covered in mouths. I risked inviting a nightmare to spend days gibbering and whispering in the corner of my bedroom. Better not to answer, pretend I wasn’t home, hide.
But now I was safe. Now things made sense, in a limited fashion. I was still adjusting to the fact I wasn’t mentally ill, at least in the way I’d believed; the world really was demon-haunted. So I left my book and carried my mug of coffee to the door. A unbidden smile tugged at my lips.
The smile froze when I opened the door and found Evelyn waiting there, by herself.
My mouth stalled in a greeting for the wrong person. I was suddenly conscious of my messy hair and my slept-in pajama bottoms and the unmade bed behind me.
“Good morning, Heather?”
“Good … “ I took a deep breath and gathered my composure. “I’m sorry, yes. Good morning, Evelyn. You- you surprised me. Being here. On my doorstep. I mean.”
Evelyn nodded, as if my loss for words explained anything. “Expecting Raine, were you?”
“Actually yes, I was. It’s okay, I’m sorry. Come in, please.”
I stepped aside and closed the door as Evelyn made her way across my tiny flat, her walking stick tapping on the floorboards. My face flushed as I felt Evelyn’s eyes rove across the detritus of my disorganised life. Stacked books, unwashed dishes piled the sink, the mound of laundry at the foot of my bed, class notes spread out across my desk.
“Please, do try to overlook the mess. If I’d known you were planning on visiting, then I’d have cleaned a bit. Or a lot.”
Evelyn eased herself onto her good leg. “A little mess is nothing. Don’t bother yourself over it.”
I flopped my arms in defeat. “But there is mess. There’s always mess. Even sane and sleeping I’m-” I swallowed back the rest. Forced a smile. She didn’t want to hear me whine. “Sit down, please. Take my desk chair.”
Evelyn thanked me and sat down carefully. She put her tote bag on the floor between her feet and did her best to return my smile.
Neither of us was very good at the expression, but Evelyn’s case was due to a permanent tightness around the eyes. Stone cold sober came easily to her, natural and unguarded joy did not.
She looked an awful lot better than the last time I saw her. She’d twisted her great mass of hair up into a ponytail, the rest of her wrapped in a huge dark grey woollen sweater and an ankle-length thick skirt, warm ugg boots on her feet. She looked warm and comfortable, her oak walking stick ready for a hike down a leafy country lane or across some picturesque village green, instead of sitting in a dirty Sharrowford bedsit with the likes of me.
Evelyn frowned and tutted. “Stop that.”
“Being nervous of me. It might be a rational response, yes, but don’t. I would like it very much if you considered me as a … if we could be … ” She waved a hand in the air and grunted.
I blinked at her several times. “Evelyn, this isn’t nervousness. I feel like a disgusting grease troll right now. It’s not doing wonders for my dignity.”
“I … don’t understand?”
“This is the first time we’ve seen each other since our unscheduled dimension hopping accident. I wasn’t exactly in top form then, between the vomiting and the bleeding. And now I haven’t showered yet this morning, I’m still in the clothes I slept in, my hair is a rat’s nest. Not to mention the state of my flat. I can only imagine what you must think. You could have called me before visiting, given me warning. I’m wearing pajama bottoms, for crying out loud.”
“Oh … well I-I … so am I.” Evelyn tugged up the corner of her skirt to show the ankle of plaid pajama bottoms underneath.
“Yes, but you’re clean and well put-together. You can get away with that.”
Even as I spoke I realised that was hardly fair. Evelyn had heavy, dark bags under her eyes. Her hair was clean but it probably hadn’t seen a brush this morning and certainly no touch of the hairdresser’s scissors for many months. Her clothes were fresh but old and well-worn, the collar of her sweater darned and mended with different colour thread.
Evelyn started to respond, then sighed and rubbed at the bridge of her nose. She drew herself up as straight as she could with her crooked back, and I felt a sudden desire to shrink away, certain she was about to yell at me.
“You’re right,” she said. She swallowed and looked at the floorboards, shoulders tense, face stiff. “I should have called, I should have acted normal. I’ve gone and made you uncomfortable.”
It made me want to hug her.
I didn’t, of course. Sane and sleeping I may be, but bold was not in my nature.
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, and felt lame. “Forget it, I was rude to mention it. Do you want something to drink? If you don’t like coffee I have some tea as well.”
Evelyn kept her gaze fixed on the floor. “I am not very good at socialising. Not very good at maintaining friendships.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, neither am I.”
She finally looked up. A mote of understanding passed between us, and Evelyn nodded slowly.
I brewed a cup of peppermint tea for her and left her with the run of my books while I squeezed myself into my flat’s tiny bathroom with a clean change of clothes. Only once under the shower did I realise that I hadn’t asked her why she was here in the first place.
When I returned I was delighted to find Evelyn had made herself quite at home. She’d settled back in the chair with her cup of tea perched in a clear spot on my desk. A real smile crossed my face as I recognised my copy of Paradise Lost propped open in her lap.
“Have you had the pleasure of reading that before?” I asked.
I sat down on the bed to dry my hair and resisted the urge to rub my sternum - to massage the untouchable bruise inside my chest.
The bruise had pained me since that night, since Outside, wounded internally in some obscure manner I couldn’t pinpoint. Raine had plied me with good food, guilty food, fried chicken and supermarket sushi, fresh fruit and scrambled eggs, but all the protein in the world didn’t help the bruise heal.
Evelyn closed the book. “No. No, I haven’t had a lot of time in my life to read for fun.”
“Feel free to borrow it if you like. Milton’s one of my favourites. I know poetry isn’t for everybody, especially old poetry. It’s not a popular form anymore, but I love it.”
“Mm, perhaps.” Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “So, you wouldn’t have minded if it was Raine at your doorstep, seeing you unshowered and unclean?”
“That’s … different.”
“Is it? Really?”
“She’s already seen me at my absolute worst. There’s not much more for her imagination to fill in.”
“I’ve seen you at your worst,” she said. “Such states are badges of honour, not sources of shame.”
I couldn’t keep the incredulous frown off my face.
Evelyn sighed and gestured around the room. “This is hardly the worst condition to which a human being can sink. You should be proud of how quickly you’ve accepted reality. Most people who have to be introduced to magic spend the rest of their lives trying to refute or forget it, or go mad in the process. You’re not smearing your own excrement on the walls, are you?”
A lump formed in my throat. She didn’t get it. “Well … no, but-”
“You’re doing better than I did.”
I struggled with a moment of pain and frustration, then pulled a false smile to control myself. “Evelyn, my state has nothing to do with monsters and magic. It’s because of Maisie. I’m not struggling to accept reality, I’m grieving for my twin sister.”
“Ah, well, uh.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “That’s different, yes. Yes, of course. I … yes.”
“It’s fine,” I lied.
To grieve would be such a relief.
I’d dealt with Maisie’s absence for years by telling myself she was always with me; imaginary friend plus. Except she’d been real, so now she wasn’t here. I was incomplete.
Evelyn raised her chin, assumed an air of importance. “Regardless, I didn’t come here to lecture you, Heather. I came here to apologise.”
“For the way I spoke to you when we first met. I was an uncharitable ratty bitch. Raine’s cried wolf so many times that when she finally brought home a real one I wasn’t ready.”
“You’re mixing your metaphors, there.” I almost giggled at the absurdity. “Me, a wolf?”
Evelyn waved a hand. “You get what I mean.”
“I do, and thank you. You were … ”
“I am a difficult person, I know. You can say it, I won’t be offended.”
I shook my head. “You don’t need to be so formal about this. We already made up, didn’t we?”
“Accounting for one’s mistakes, one’s debts, I find it important. It can be a matter of life and death. And I do not like to make mistakes.” Evelyn’s voice carried a razor edge I didn’t much like, but then she took a deep breath and the feeling passed. “Anyway, the other reason I’m here. I have the first steps of a possible solution to your unique problem.”
I perked up, everything else briefly forgotten. “Yes? Go on? I did wonder why you’d come all this way. A solution?”
“Yes. It’s taken a little bit of thought and some questionable research, but I believe I’ve come up with a place to start. An experiment, to figure out how this Eye-” She waved a hand. Total dismissal, as if the Eye didn’t even matter. I liked that. I liked that a lot. “How this thing is contacting your mind. We can go from there.”
“How soon can we begin?”
Evelyn inclined her head. “If you’re not busy? Today. We need to go to the library, there’s some details I need check before we begin. Then back to my house, to do some real magic.”
“The library? For books?”
Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “No, for video games and Chinese food,” she said, but not unkindly. “Of course for books.”
“Magical books, right, yes.” I nodded. “I admit, I’m fascinated. By the prospect, I mean.”
My words stalled and stuttered in time with my uncertain excitement. So many questions, no way to phrase them. But books, they would teach me everything.
Evelyn held me with a steady gaze, as if measuring me.
“The books I have do not make easy reading. Real magical grimoires can be … demanding, on the mind. Try, please do, you deserve the chance, but temper your curiosity.”
“I will, I will. I’ll be careful.” I nodded.
“Mm, good. Remember that.”
“Thank you, Evelyn. Really, thank you.”
“Humph.” She grunted and looked away. I detected a hint of embarrassment, almost bashful. I was about to tell her it was okay, but Evelyn continued before I could speak. “Raine tells me the warding sign is on your left arm now. Show me.”
I rolled up my sleeve to show off one of the best presents I’d ever received. This version of the Fractal was much larger than the one Raine had drawn on my hand. Thick black lines wrapped around the pale curve of my forearm, a tree of folded angles spilling from a kinked central trunk, clean and precise.
Evelyn leaned forward with a professional frown. She grunted approval and I felt a flush of pride. Raine had dedicated half an hour of delicate work to the Fractal, so intimate with my arm lying across her lap, this little fragment of irrationality which kept my nightmares at bay and the terrors from my doorstep. She’d bought a body art marker pen for the task, and left it on my desk so I could refresh the design if it started to fade. The ink was supposed to last up to six weeks, but I checked the integrity every night.
Evelyn straightened up and shook her head. “Raine was an idiot to draw it on your hand the first time, out in the open like that. You are keeping it concealed, yes? She was clear about that much, at least?”
“It’s always under my sleeve. Nobody’s going to see it.”
“Get used to that. Doing everything we hoped it would?”
“Absolutely. No more nightmares. I’m sleeping. Real sleep. I even had a couple of actual dreams, normal regular dreams.”
“No lingering effects? Nothing at all?”
“Well, there’s a sort of pressure in my head after I wake up, like a distant ringing in my ears. It goes off after an hour or two.”
Evelyn stared at me and nodded slowly, as if this made perfect sense.
“Is that supposed to happen?” I asked.
Evelyn laughed, a humourless, dry sound.
“I have no idea. We’re miles beyond precedent here.” She looked down tapped her fingers on the closed cover of Paradise Lost in her lap. “An educated guess says your ‘Eye’” - she actually did little air-quotes with her good hand - “is probably still trying to get through. It’s not discouraged by a firewall. For our purposes, that’s a good thing.”
“Yes. For now. How about the … ” She sighed and gestured with one hand. “ … spirits?”
“Oh, no more haunted apartment!” I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “They’re keeping their distance like never before. They don’t completely ignore me, but I don’t feel like a beacon for horrible weird monsters anymore. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, how much less messed up the world feels.”
“Good, good. I didn’t know exactly what it would do left on human skin for days on end.” Evelyn’s eyes took on a distant look. I rubbed the skin around the Fractal and asked one of the questions I’d been avoiding thinking about these last two weeks.
“What is it? The Fractal, I mean. You call it a warding sign, but what is it, how does it work?”
Evelyn’s eyes snapped back to the present and she stared with sudden cold precision.
“How much do you want to know, really?”
I couldn’t answer that. I took the low road.
“You’ve been practising that line, haven’t you?” I asked.
Evelyn huffed with irritation. “I may have done. I find unrehearsed interaction more difficult than most people, and I had considered you might ask that question.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s actually quite sweet. You have a flair for certain kinds of dramatic delivery, that’s all.”
Evelyn looked as if she was sucking a lemon. “Well, how much do you want to know?”
“I don’t know.” My shield of good humour crumpled, and I cast it aside. “I need answers.”
I shrugged, at a loss. “Everything. I know, I know, magic is real and unicorns exist and I’m not schizophrenic, but those are facts, not answers. Not the ones I need. Why me? Why Maisie? What happened to us? What now?”
Evelyn nodded, thought for a moment, and then spoke.
“The warding sign is part of something much larger, my family’s … inheritance. My inheritance. The warding sign’s particular set of angles generate a kind of repulsion or firewall effect, as far as I can tell. It’s one of the very few things I have which works consistently. Which is bloody useful, because otherwise it would be impossible to keep my home shielded, or keep you hidden, or really do much of anything without attracting unwanted attention.”
As she spoke, Evelyn stared at the exposed fractal on my arm. I rolled my sleeve back down, feeling protective and self-conscious.
“I think I understand,” I said.
“I suppose Raine did the actual penwork for you, yes?”
“Uh, yes. She did.”
“And she’s been visiting you every day, has she? Spending a lot of time together?”
“Not- not every day.” I shook my head and forced a laugh.
Just most days; an edge in Evelyn’s voice prompted me to edit the truth.
Raine had eased herself into my life with shameless familiarity. She turned up unannounced when she didn’t have class and learnt my schedule so she could find me on campus after lectures. She sent me text messages and silly pictures and told me good morning and good night and take care. At first I hadn’t known how to respond, but after so long without a friend it felt good to let her take control. She took me out to eat greasy burgers and chips, made food on my horrible pokey little bedsit oven, watched movies and cartoons with me on my ancient laptop. We talked about everything and anything - except magic and spirits and demons. I’d lent her a copy of Watership Down and she was trying to get me to read some Kant.
Evelyn saw straight through the fake laugh, stony-faced. “She slept with you yet?”
“What? Evelyn, excuse me?”
“Well, has she?”
“No! No, we haven’t- she hasn’t even- we- it’s not like that. I don’t think it is, anyway.”
“With Raine, it always is.”
“I wouldn’t know how to judge that.” An old frustration surfaced for the first time in a long time, fed by indignation and a yawning pit of uncertainty. “I don’t have any experience with romance. None whatsoever. Maybe you don’t appreciate that about me, Evelyn. I spent a significant chunk of my teenage years in psychiatric hospitals, and the rest of it as the weird mentally ill girl who might go catatonic or start screaming at any moment. Not to even mention the whole lesbian thing, that’s a minor blip compared to the rest, but it doesn’t help my odds. I’ve never even kissed anybody. Raine is nice. I don’t know what that means. We’ve hugged a few times.” I shrugged and looked down at the floorboards, embarrassed more by my loss of control than the intimate details.
“Well,” Evelyn said at length. “That makes two of us.”
I expected a cruel joke, but lowered my defensive hackles when I saw she was dead serious.
“Yes, Heather. I too am a kissless virgin. What did you expect? Look at me. Nothing wrong with that, especially under the circumstances.”
“’Kissless virgin’?” I echoed. “You shouldn’t put yourself down-”
“It’s a meme.” Evelyn waved the question away.
“ … ‘meme’?”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “An internet joke, never mind. Point is, we’re not so different, you and I, and that is fine. All the more reason not to let Raine take advantage of you.”
“I don’t feel taken advantage of. If anything, it feels like the opposite. She’s been … ”
‘Too kind’ died on the way to my lips, blotted out by the memory of Raine’s ecstatic grin as she beat a monster to death with a truncheon. She was kind to me. Beyond that, I didn’t really know, did I?
Evelyn did not look impressed. I took a deep breath and steeled myself; may as well get this out of the way.
“Okay, let me put all my cards on the table. Are you jealous, Evelyn? If I understand correctly, you’ve close with Raine for years. Have I intruded on something? I’d rather we be open about this.”
“Jealous?” Evelyn’s eyebrows climbed in surprise. “No, most certainly not. Whatever Raine has said about me, I’m not interested.”
Final word. I nodded. Sure.
“Look, Heather, I’d advise you not to get to close to Raine. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”
My turn to raise my eyebrows.
Raine Philomena Haynes. She loved her middle name, and I liked it too, though I did wonder if she’d adopted it herself in an pretentious act of self-creation. It took me a long, winding evening to weasel out her surname, which she hated for reasons I didn’t understand. Twenty years to my nineteen, which seems a more significant gap at that age.
I knew her now - but not enough about her, and I told myself it was subconscious behaviour on her part. She’d happily spend hours extolling the finer points of any book I handed to her, and share her favourite foods - chicken korma and pomegranate - where she’d grown up in leafy Suffolk, what she thought of Dambusters and Shrek, and a growing litany of teenage japes and hijinks, but they were all oddly unconnected to concrete people, her family, or any personal history with Evelyn.
Evelyn put down her tea, steepled her fingers, and gave me a sober look.
“Raine requires a damsel in distress for whom she can play the Knight Errant. And let’s be honest, you do fit the bill. That’s why she shows so much interest in you. I used to fill that role, but I changed. If you fail to remain dependent, her attitude toward you will deteriorate.”
I struggled to keep a straight face. Maybe Evelyn was jealous, even if she didn’t know so.
“Did she treat you the same way she treats me now?”
“Not exactly. With us, the reality-shock was the other way around, or should have been. But she’s the same as always. Don’t get me wrong, Raine is … ” Evelyn gestured, searching for a word. “Once she’s made a decision she will fight your corner even if it kills her. She is loyal, and she means what she says, and one could not ask for a better- you get the picture. But she’ll hurt you in the long run, if you let her.”
I didn’t want to think about this. Was I just filling in a role? I didn’t feel that way. I chewed my bottom lip.
Then I realised what was wrong with this whole picture; what had been wrong since the moment I’d found Evelyn on my doorstep, alone.
“Wait a second, isn’t … isn’t Raine supposed to accompany you almost everywhere?”
Evelyn smiled. The first real smile I’d drawn from her, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. Sharp and devious and smug. “Indeed, indeed she is. I thought it was past time I engaged in some creative disobedience.”
“But- but- you keep implying that Sharrowford is dangerous, that-”
“Heather, I am more than capable of defending myself.”
“I saw how Raine reacted, when she couldn’t reach you by phone. Genuine fear for you! For your safety.” I cast about for my mobile phone. “I- I have to call her.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Evelyn snapped.
I spread my arms, intimidated by her tone but unwilling to bend. “What? You can’t seriously expect me to betray her trust.”
Evelyn huffed and hunched a little in the chair. “Some things have to be done without Raine hovering over our shoulders all the time. You saw how she reacted, that night. She wants to coddle you. I’d just simply prefer you retain a little independence - and I too, perhaps, dare I bloody well hope. She won’t like you getting into the books, the grimores, if that’s what you want. Go ahead, call her if you like, it’s your choice.”
I hesitated. Just enough.
That smile crept back onto Evelyn’s face. “Come on then, it’s past time we went and did some serious work, before she spoils our fun.”