The demon pulled itself free. A long limb here, serrated on one side with teeth, like some horrifically long jawbone. A length of connective tissue there, with flesh sloughing off. A pillar of flesh, extending floor to ceiling, like a long neck or a torso without ribs… all pitch black.
Welcome home, Blake, I thought.
If there were more details to be seen, I didn’t make them out, my eyes fixed on the floor. After the Drains, near-complete darkness and then the brightness of the lost god’s light, the contrast seemed stark here. Even the dim seemed far brighter than the tracts of utter darkness that the sunlight didn’t touch.
Light and dark.
Being in the Drains had helped, in a way. I’d spent far too long straining my eyes to make things out in the darkness. Now, in the midst of the factory, I was especially aware of the illumination from the windows, the way the dust lit up the shafts of light.
Two windows on the north face, four on the east face. The light that came in did so in dim, murky shafts, painting long stripes of light across the floor. The only paths I could travel. I couldn’t even think about moving through the deepest darkness. I couldn’t see what was happening in there. Ur’s domain in entirety.
Time seemed to move in slow motion. It didn’t, but it seemed like it. I had no heartbeat, no breath to mark the seconds. Motes of dust moved lazily through the air, stirred into flurries here and there by Ur’s movement. Ur moved with the force of the tide coming in, slow, impossible to hold back, covering too much ground to even fight against. If I tried to stop him, he’d only sweep in on either side of me, snatch me up, and devour me.
He was vast in a way I couldn’t put words to, the sort of massive that meant he extended from this reality to the Drains, and maybe to other places.
Comparatively, I was less than I had been. Which wasn’t a bad thing, not entirely. The meat had been carved from my bone, metaphorically speaking. My ears, after that constant noise, were almost ringing in the silence. No blood pounded in my ears or made phantom noises. Every noise I heard was real.
I had very little to lose here, as I’d already lost just about everything. At the same time, I had everything to fight for. I’d fought this far, and I wasn’t about to lose my momentum. He was weak, and I had only this one moment to grasp my next move, to wrap my head around the situation and deal with the shock of being back.
The only noises were Ur’s. Grinding his way against a solid surface, slithering, slopping. Faint noises.
If I wanted to, I could simply focus my gaze, ignore the movements in my peripheral vision, dismiss the sounds as something else entirely. Pretend the problem didn’t exist.
I heard a grating noise behind me, something moving against the wall.
I moved. Long strides. Not to the windows. The windows were a trap, I knew that now. The light they shed wasn’t protection, and Ur could and would grab me before I made it.
No, I ran to the place where the shafts of light across the floor criss-crossed. Diamonds and squares were formed where the light crossed paths. I felt Ur clutch me, and I tore free, falling in the process.
I pulled myself to my feet. I didn’t stand in the darkness. I stood at the center of the grid of light. Almost the center of the factory floor, eyes on the ground.
A makeshift diagram of light, diamonds and squares drawn out by the natural intersection of light coming in from the windows.
One maneuver on my part, one maneuver on Ur’s. I’d covered four paces, while Ur continued to swell in size, claiming all of the darkness around me. Grasping hands, moving faces of animals or insects, lunging movements, all in my peripheral vision. Every little movement distracted, demanding that I betray common sense and look, because any of it might be an attack, a bite, a claw, a reaching tendril, a trick.
Any of it might be a feint, as it turned out.
One lunging hand plunged past a shaft of sunlight, briefly illuminated, crumbling in the light even as it reached. Past the second shaft of sunlight- half the size. Past the third- flesh sloughing off to reveal a reaching, grasping claw, smaller than my own hand, but with fingers like kitchen knives.
I slashed out with the Hyena, pre-emptive, before it could do anything to me. It seized the blade, and it wasn’t cut. It pulled me.
If I’d been more clever, I might simply have abandoned the weapon, a casualty of war.
As it stood, I resisted and tried to match Ur’s strength with my own.
He slowly dragged me toward the darkness, inch by inch. I didn’t pull so much as I angled my body to make dragging me harder. Low to the ground, legs straight out, feet skidding on the floor.
Those knife-fingers wove themselves around the blade, wrapping around it in fits and starts, extending, then reaching further. The light ate away at it, but for every step back it took, it gained two steps of ground. The light touching it just wasn’t that strong, and I had no way to drag it back to where the proper ‘diagram’ was marked on the floor.
The guard of the sword was largely gone at this point, the wolf’s skull emblem damaged and partially scraped away by the efforts of the Drains or the fall. The claws inched closer, doing their best to seize the blade and reach for my hand.
The light didn’t eat the hand, but it did chew through the thicker arm, further back. Severed from Ur, the hand lost its strength, I stumbled back, landing on my back, and I scooted back until I was safe in the center.
Notches had been taken out of the sword.
The Hyena twitched.
Was it still alive?
No, it wasn’t the sword. It was something reflected in the sword.
I had to use my free hand to tear the metal out of my left hand. I cast it aside. The metal smoked where the light touched it.
Fucking stupid of me. Ur could leap across reflective surfaces.
Ur didn’t seem particularly inclined to push past the light again. My so-called-diagram wasn’t a wall, not absolute protection, only a preventative measure. The light was mottled here and there, where it failed to get through the windows, or where windows were cracked or covered in dust. Ur could push through if and when it wanted to.
I swallowed, utterly still, still on my back. The Hyena had stopped smoking, so I flipped it over, letting the light hit the other side. It took seconds before it was burned clean.
Somewhere outside, a cloud moved over the sun.
My diagram began to come apart, and Ur gained ground.
One reaching extremity, a deformed, tumorous lump- so large I had to turn my head to avoid looking straight at it as it loomed.
I couldn’t hope to fend it off, so, still lying on the ground, I brought my feet up, bracing against it, arms stretched out to my side for more traction. It pushed me, striving to push me out of the diagram, into waiting oblivion.
Spindly arachnid legs unfurled from the thing. The ones that didn’t crumble away in the light poised, their needle points aimed at me.
Another mass of darkness moved directly above me, perched on the ceiling.
I rolled, releasing my resistance to the thrusting limb, pulling my legs back from the stabbing legs that followed after me, piercing the ground.
The darkness on the ceiling shifted, then dropped.
A column of darkness, right in the middle of the diagram. Meat and gnashing teeth, spilling out like water.
Kneeling, I grabbed the Hyena, because it was the only weapon available, and I struck out.
This time, Ur recoiled. The column thinned out at one section, the lumps of flesh that were reaching for my feet and knees losing their connection to the source. There was less of Ur’s being feeding into them to give them more mass to extend my way.
I didn’t know how or why the cut had worked this time when it hadn’t before. Warming in the sun? No. It didn’t make sense, it was still cold to the touch. The factory was cold.
But I cut again, repeating the same action, over and over, until I’d gutted the column. The ‘foot’ of the column that had touched down in the middle of the diagram broke apart, large hunks of black meat and ichor that became piles of black squirming maggots that shriveled up into nothingness in the sunlight.
I heard something behind me and turned, slashing out again-
This time to no avail.
Tendrils caught at my neck and chest, tearing. They thinned out by the second as the dimmed light touched them, but they still took strips of skin with them, not consuming, but still wounding me, inch by inch, morsel by morsel, working to drag me out of the meager light. One tendril caught me around the knee.
I cut, backhanded this time, and managed to sever the worst of the tendrils. The light did the rest. I stumbled closer to the middle of the mesh of light near the center of the factory floor.
The pillar of Ur still hung overhead, and I turned, cutting at it, blind.
Again, it recoiled.
Two more cuts. Ur retreated, pulling the broken pillar of flesh up and away, up to the ceiling and out of sight.
A moment later, the sword began to move of its own accord, twitching. In the corner of my eye, the weapon was dark, and the cracks got darker, widening-
I tossed it down into the nearest, brightest spot on the ground. It spun in place, smoking. I saw a piece of Ur slip free and try to find its way to darkness, only to disintegrate before it did.
Ur retreated as the cloud moved out of position, the light growing stronger.
Something was off. The timing of Ur’s responses, the inconsistency of it- Ur hadn’t flinched when I’d made contact. Sometimes before, sometimes after, and sometimes not at all.
I knelt in the light, and I reached for the Hyena, picking it up for the third time in the last five or ten minutes. I turned it over in the light, letting the sun clean it. I saw how, when I turned it at certain angles, the darkness leaped into it, spreading into it.
Reflections were a means for Ur to travel. Reflections were also a means for light to travel.
This weapon cut both ways.
My heart thrummed in my chest, but my body was still. I recognized the pain of holding the Hyena, the spikes piercing flesh, but it felt distant.
Ur would win this in the long run. I had a weapon, but it did far too little. I might as well have been using a bucket to empty a lake.
I used the sleeve of my sweatshirt to scrub the remaining length of blade. I pressed it against my thigh, so only a bit of the metal was exposed. I angled it so the light would catch it, reflecting off to one side.
Ur recoiled, responding to the faint shaft of light.
Not a wound, but still, a tool.
I could feel my tattoos creeping in to replace the flesh that had been torn away.
I’d have loved to hurt it. I moved the light, and in the corner of my eye, I could see Ur shift in response. Moving the light back and forth, I saw Ur react, sliding back out of the way. Rather than deal with the moving light, Ur simply avoided the areas the light roved.
I aimed for the thickest patch of darkness.
The light didn’t penetrate. It was as though there was no surface there to catch the light.
That darkness was supposed to give way to light was a truism, a law of reality.
That Ur was apparently breaking that law…
I focused the light on the parts of Ur I could make out, driving him back, scanning my surroundings. The demon crowded at the light, smoking where it accidentally got too close, trying to find a way closer to me – a crack it might use to sneak into the diagram, a shadow that ran along a bump in the floor.
There wasn’t anything, but this was a struggle that Ur would eventually win. As time passed, more clouds could pass over the sun. The shafts of light would move.
My eye traced the path, memory informed me about general directions involved.
As the sun rose, I’d lose ground. It wouldn’t be soon, but given time, the lights would no longer intersect.
The diagram would come apart.
My heart was going crazy as I moved the blade, turning it to pass the light steadily over the surroundings.
Ur was smart enough to anticipate the movement of the light, to predict where I would move it and move out of the way before the light touched it.
Here and there, Ur had covered up windows, or covered up parts of windows. Where Ur scraped against the edges of windows and sections of wall, falling debris clouded the light.
My eye fell on one window – there wasn’t much glass, largely covered, but it was close. The only things of substance on the floor between Ur and me were chunks of rock and scattered pieces of glass from the window, ranging from a foot across to mere dust. The little shards caught the light, scintillating in rainbow hues. It was very possible my foot could slip.
Another section, further away, suggested a path to the window. The same window I’d been running for when I’d fallen into the Drains.
Broken window or run for the intact window, further away?
I bent down, and I placed the Hyena on its side, blade facing the window, catching the light from the window so a shaft of light extended along the floor.
Widening the path.
Could Ur anticipate me?
How smart was the demon?
I bolted. A reckless, headlong rush.
I was two paces away from the window when Ur finally stirred. Tendrils snaked across the window, a mesh, smoking from contact with the light.
But I was already moving, one leg going far in front of me, as I changed direction. The foot skidded long, I tipped over, and my hands came down amid glass and rocks.
I grabbed the largest pieces of glass and rock, feeling pain jolt up my arms from the cuts in my hands, and I sprinted back.
Already, tendrils and spidery limbs were moving to block my retreat. Criss-crossing, smoking, disintegrating, but forming a net, a barrier, a wall.
Ur to the left of me. Ur to the right of me. A covered window behind me, a net in front of me.
I leaped, a headlong dive for the biggest gap.
Ur got his claws and teeth in me. Ur took chunks out of me. If I’d taken a second longer, I might not have made it through. Sun-weakened limbs failed to hold me.
I collapsed, losing my clutched glass and rocks.
Rock and broken glass.
My eyes narrowed to lower the chance for error, I took in my surroundings, watched for a clutching hand, trickery.
I saw only faces, vague figures, humanoid in shape. A segment of Ur shaped like six bodies, shrink-wrapped in oily black skin. Mouths agape, the skin stretched tight against lips and teeth-
I moved the Hyena, and the light pierced one body. Ur moved away, collapsing the figure. Not a real person, or even a good effigy. A trick, a psychological ploy.
I’d trapped myself in this diagram here. Stepping outside for more than a moment at a time could only spell my doom.
Waiting was just as bad.
Ur was too big to fight.
I spat on the largest piece of glass, then used my sweatshirt to rub it clean of dust.
With one of the smaller rocks, I propped it up so it caught the light. Some shone through, a pale light extending beyond the glass, some was reflected back toward the window.
I did more with other pieces of glass I’d collected. I only had a handful, scarcely half a window, but I did have some.
There was just a bit more inside the area the ‘diagram’ covered, and I used that as well.
It wasn’t much, but it served to expand the area I had to work with. That was something.
I grabbed one piece of concrete and scratched it against the floor.
Nothing. It only crumbled. Too weather-worn.
I tried others, and for the most part, I got the same effect. They didn’t leave a mark.
If I chewed off the flesh at the end of one finger, could I use the bone to scratch the floor?
Probably not worth it, not with the time involved, even if it worked.
Instead, I used the rock to scratch the blade. One side, roughing it up, grating metal with stone, until it was too scratched and too embedded with dirt to reflect anymore.
Holding it so the one reflective side caught the light, rather than Ur, I used the blade to scratch at the floor.
Spikes and rough spots on the blade gouged my hands.
I pulled off my sweatshirt, wrapping a sleeve around the handle, and I ensured the spikes wouldn’t cut me too deep.
One hand on the handle, the other on the pommel, to drive it forward, to push, or tap.
The floor had absorbed a lot of moisture, had dealt with extreme cold and a fair amount of heat. Canada took pride in its long, cold winters, but the summers hereabouts could get brutal enough. It meant my job wasn’t as hard as it could be.
I cut lines into the floor.
The Barber was, if I wasn’t mistaken, a demon of the third choir or thereabouts. He was abstract, like Ur, though more inclined to take solid forms. As a demon of ruin, he was opposed by structure. Geometric shapes and symbols.
Ur was a demon of darkness. The natural conclusion was to oppose him with light. Light was the sole reason I wasn’t dead already.
But Ur was, above all else, a demon of oblivion, of erasure.
To oppose him, I had to create.
Where the blade scraped ground, it left white tracks.
I scraped out a thick diamond, a minute’s work. Then I began to draw.
I’d never been much of an artist. It didn’t help that I’d never existed, but the point stood. The memories in my head were of me helping other artists frame their work, using skills I’d learned on the farm and honed over two seasons in Carl’s commune.
I didn’t try to be fancy. One image, simple, to represent something. A circle with two dashes inside it for eyes to be the head, an oval with lines drawn across it to be a swaddle of cloth. A baby. Then one image for every year.
The baby crying- lines radiating from its open mouth while two crude figures stood above, impassive. The baby walking, arms reaching out, the parent facing away. So it went. A small child pushed to the ground by a fat teenage girl. By his cousin Kathryn.
I stopped when I’d drawn images to line two faces of the diamond.
On the opposite side, I drew another diagram.
A baby, crying. But the lines – I was sure to double check the first baby I’d drawn and draw the lines in the reverse angle for the swaddle. In the second picture, the figures held the child. In the third, the parent stood with arms reaching.
In the fourth, the small child pushed to the ground had a rectangle for a skirt, no notch for shorts.
The images were drawn to sit opposite one another, and even if my ability to draw wasn’t all that, I had a keen sense of space honed by years of work. False, imagined, but they were skills I possessed all the same.
The memories in my head weren’t real. They were artificial, or stolen, or given. It was very possible they were simply pieces of reality that had fallen into a particular configuration.
All the same, they were inspiration. I needed to draw something, a lot of something, and my memories were the one well I had available. Four images to a face, eight for me, eight for Rose.
When I’d drawn the eight year old Rose, counterpoint to eight year old Blake, I sketched out another diamond, thick and fat.
Ur lunged for me as I drew the fourth line. On a level, I’d expected it. On another level, I’d made the mistake of letting the shadow I cast give him an avenue for attack.
I managed to pull my arm back inside the diamond, and Ur didn’t pursue.
Darkness writhed in the shadows at the periphery of light, stirring.
Rather than try again, I adjusted the position and angle of glass, catching the light, and painted a bit of a shelter, illuminating my work space. Faint, barely there, but it helped me brave the gap and finish the line.
I backed up until I was in the center. Each little picture came very close to being a hieroglyph. It made sense when I considered that hieroglyphs had been cut into stone tablets and walls.
This is the tale of Blake and Rose, I thought. Was it coincidence that the images I’d drawn of Rose seemed thicker, the lines stronger? Had I been leaning harder on the Hyena, or had the work earlier blunted the very tip of the shattered blade, allowing for a broader, clearer groove into the floor?
Or was it representative of something else?
My light was disappearing.
Ur lashed out, reaching, but Ur didn’t pass over the line.
This tale of Blake and Rose is my creation, I thought. I turned my attention to the brightest patch of floor. If I worked here next, then by the time I was finished, the light might have shifted to give me room to work elsewhere. I was already plotting the greater work. When I ran out of years, I could move onto pivotal scenes. If I reached a wall… My eye fell on a patch of graffiti, barely visible in the dim light that seeped through the windows.
The binding on the outside… it only dawned on me now. It was a creation of a sort too. Not just words hidden in graffiti, but the graffiti itself.
Nine year old Blake. Playing with Paige and Molly. Rose’s version of that image wouldn’t have that.
Ten year old Blake. Torn away from his cousins.
I had a clear path available to me. I was containing myself within this diagram that Ur couldn’t pass, but I could extend it. So long as I was careful, I could stay largely within the diagram, continuing to expand it.
I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t need to go to the bathroom. My heart didn’t beat.
I’m a false man, I thought. A vestige, maybe, a boogeyman.
I could do this for days, I thought.
I hated the idea of waiting, of taking hours or even days to do this, but I could cover this floor in images.
Where would Ur go then? Into the walls? Retreat beneath the factory?
Ur stirred, moving around the periphery of the room, while my eyes were focused on the images I was etching into the floor. My attention was divided several ways.
I almost missed it.
In one moment, Ur was there, writhing, making phantom images, distracting, and I was drawing the head of a twelve year old Blake over a test paper scrawled with doodles, marked with a big fat ‘F’ in the middle.
In the next moment, Ur was gone.
The factory empty, the way utterly clear.
It was if Ur was communicating with me. Negotiating, maybe, or tempting. Aren’t your hands tired? Aren’t your hands hurting from this tedious, awkward work? Don’t you want to go back to Jacob’s Bell and help your friends?
Leave this crude binding unfinished, and you can go.
Go, I imagined Ur saying, so I can catch you by surprise, snatch you up and devour you once and for all.
I kept scratching. Thirteen year old Blake and his first crush.
If I couldn’t remember her face, was that because the event wasn’t real, or was it just faulty memory at work?
The quiet was eerie.
The light moved as I worked. I took a minute to adjust the mirrors, and gave my hands a rest.
No wind, no slithering, scraping, grinding or any of that, not even my own breathing or heartbeat.
Utter, complete quiet.
Then a sound. A sudden crack.
Rocks fell from above. Pebbles, landing and skittering across the images I’d just drawn.
I had to be careful, looking up. Up was dark, and very little light from the windows reached the ceiling. The ceiling was that same utter darkness that had swallowed up the light from the blade.
But as the light from the windows had shifted, a section of ceiling above me had illuminated.
Binding diagrams, as I understood it, extended all the way up and all the way down.
Ur couldn’t loom above me anymore, not with the diagram here.
Ur could, however, work in the abstract.
The demon was devouring the roof. It was like something from a cartoon, but Ur was cutting a broad circle, further around than my own, and when the demon finished, the roof would fall.
Right on top of me.
On top of my diagram of created art.
Stay put, get crushed.
Run, get caught.
Hyena in one hand, handle and arm wrapped in my sweatshirt, a large piece of glass in my other hand, I ran. Broken glass scraped underfoot as I scrambled for the nearest window, hoping I could somehow run faster than Ur could raise an obstacle or seize me.
I needed to make this bluff into something I could take advantage of. To seize on the fact that he was pretending not to stand in my way, and catch him by surprise.
I couldn’t. Demon’s flesh extended from pockets of darkness. An ‘x’ of limbs, barring my way. They smoked and crumbled in the light, but a barrier was a barrier all the same.
Ur reached for me, and he succeeded in catching me: teeth clutched my injured hand. This time, I knew how to use the Hyena. A stab, extending the blade so it faced the nearest available window as I finished cutting, the light bouncing back to catch the knobby, ulcer-ridden head that had extended from darkness. Cut and light together, so the light could make the cutting easier and the cutting wouldn’t be undone by easy replacement of flesh.
It let go. I kicked it, using that same action to push myself further in the direction I wanted to go.
More tendrils and limbs. Not big ones this time – a multitude of smaller ones.
I wasn’t going to make it. The light wasn’t enough.
I thought of the lost god that had suppressed Ur. I wasn’t naive enough to think he could somehow reach me here. Just a random god of light that a tribe had once worshiped, preserved only by word of mouth, perhaps, until the tribe or the myth had passed from human memory.
I roared, not in fear, or in worship.
The demon ate existence. It was opposed by creation and light.
I roared only to generate noise. To create that noise.
The effect wasn’t tangible, but if Ur put more demon’s flesh in my way before I reached the window, I couldn’t tell with my eyes screwed shut.
I felt him tear at me, scrape and clutch, and I only screamed louder, struggling to hold the Hyena at the right angle, so the light would help forge the way.
If I’d stopped making forward progress as limbs clutched me and tried to drag me back, I couldn’t tell.
“I am the Thorburn bogeyman!” I screamed, the words raw. “I am made of stick and bone and birds and spirit and false memories!”
Something tore at my eyelid. I twisted my head back, screaming my anger to Ur and his factory and to the world.
“I beat you! In this I’ve beat you! You can swallow me up, but those scratches will stay! People can learn how to stop you! It’ll be easier!”
Something caught me around the throat.
“Tear down the roof to hide it and you’ll let the sun in! Tear out the floor and people won’t come inside! I’ve won! I’ve won!”
My words felt like they had power.
“I’ve won, Ur!”
My fingertip brushed glass.
With a final surge of strength, I heaved myself forward and through.
When I opened my eyes, snow had settled in my one eye socket. With the act of opening the eye, I felt snow touch the eyeball itself, drifting free to trace a line over my cheekbone.
I blinked a few times, clearing my vision in my one good eye.
The snow was wet and cold, and I used it to wipe my face clean, wary of the broken glass. I was bleeding from wounds the demon had inflicted, and the snow served to dilute it. The blood was too dark, too thick. Almost congealed.
Nothing to do with Ur. Only me.
When I spoke again, my voice was quiet, the words for me, not for it. “I know how you work now. I’m weak and broken and flawed and fake, and I still beat you, you motherfucking fucker. You’re living on borrowed time. I’m going to finish that diagram, and I’ll squeeze you to pulp between diagrams. And I’m going to tell people exactly how to stop you, just in case something happens to me. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
I picked myself up, still careful of the glass. My body felt too light. New birds were perched on the thicker growths of branches that had grown where flesh had been ripped away.
My eyes fell on the graffiti.
“I won,” I said, my words very small in a dark, still, silent Toronto.
My life in Toronto, reduced to the contents of cardboard boxes that sat out in the hallway.
Half my furniture remained. The futon, the table my television had sat on, my coffee table. My toolbox was gone.
Joel had forgotten me, his memories piecing together the best available explanation about this mystery client who had taped out a diagram at the edges of the apartment, and he’d packed away my things.
He’d replaced the bathroom mirror. I stepped in there, and I gazed at my reflection.
I’d nearly forgotten what my face had looked like. I hadn’t seen it for weeks.
Except for some markings around my blind eye where Ur had torn the eyelid, it was still my face. Pale, with a dark circle under the one eye, some branches and darkness around the blind one. Amid those branches, three birds were clustered together in the corner where the tear had happened. Beady black eyes standing out from my flesh in three dimensions – one bird in profile, the other looking out straight on. Three eyes visible in total, matching the general curvature of my eye socket. I blinked, and they blinked slightly out of sync with me and each other.
I was a vessel, and the spirits would fill in the gaps in the way that made the most sense. If I was damaged, they’d shore me up, but I’d become less me. Already, some of the branches were raised, the skin rougher.
The conclusion was simple enough. I was operating on borrowed time.
I’d mentally described a handful of others as being capable of straddling that boundary between human and Other. Comfortable in both worlds, just ugly and freaky enough to be Other, but not so much that people couldn’t explain it away.
Seeing those three beady eyes standing out from my face, I wasn’t sure I’d pass.
I was less able to pass in public than Midge, the four-hundred and fifty pound hillbilly cannibal murderer.
I grabbed a washcloth, and I got it damp. I gave my face a thorough scrub. The water was almost black as I wrung the cloth out. I scrubbed my face again for good measure, and on the second wringing, the water was almost as bad, leaning a fraction closer to black-brown or black-crimson.
Five more washes and rinses, and it still turned out more grime than not. Like trying to wash dirt or vacuum up a beach. No amount of scrubbing or vacuuming would change the fact that there was more dirt and sand than one person and one tool could clean up.
My arms, too, were more black than white tone, a dense forest of branches, littered with feathers and small prey birds hiding in their midst. Chickadees and sparrows. I was pale, and no amount of rinsing at the sink was going to suffice to get my hair clean.
When I was more or less as clean as I could get without actually stopping to take an actual shower, I found a box and began going through the contents until I found clothes.
I pulled on a fresh t-shirt and boxers. My sweatshirt was closer to me than my jeans, so I grabbed it, contemplating throwing it away.
It was tattered, torn in spots, thanks to Ur. Frayed wool stuck out to trace my collarbone, at the collar of my shirt.
It was dark, and it wasn’t dark with grime. Seen in the right light, it was just… darker. In the exact right light and position, I could see that same essence rolling off it like a kind of smoke, as if it were a recently extinguished candle. Brown-gray smoke, the faintest aura, clinging millimeters away from fabric.
“You went through the Drains too, huh?” I asked my sweatshirt. “A little less real, a little more spirit. And you were a gift, too… shit.”
I pulled it on, then my jeans. Clean socks and my winter boots. My first aid stuff was in my toolbox, and my toolbox was gone.
I tore up a t-shirt using the blade of the Hyena, and I wrapped my left hand. The wrist of my other hand had already healed. Or, in more exact terminology, the spirits had already filled in those cracks and gaps. The skin was particularly rough there.
What happened if they got my whole hand? Would I lose control of it?
I left the rest of my stuff where it was. I traced walls of the apartment with my hand as I walked out.
“I guess I’m giving you up too,” I said. “Bye, apartment.”
I didn’t linger.
I reached the garage, and I felt a moment’s trepidation, seeing how dark the place was. It made me think of Ur, and the Drains.
But fear didn’t have the same hold on me. I’d faced down my greatest fear and called it false.
Would that I could do the same with… fuck. What did I even call this? ‘Despair’ was so melodramatic.
But… despair all the same.
The bike was gone.
Maybe it was in storage. More likely, if Joel had no memory of me existing, he might have deemed me a squatter.
If my bike wasn’t sold, he’d probably sell it sometime soon, or give it to one of our friends, same as the toolbox.
My life, taken apart, the bits and pieces scattered.
I could build something that resembled it, but I would never quite have it back.
A part of me wanted to stay, to try and scrounge up those bits and pieces.
But it would be an illusion. It would run contrary to the reasons I’d left the Drains. Those reasons had given me the strength to fight my way free, and I couldn’t deny them.
That desire to stay and find my bike, to reach out to Joel and see if he had any word on the subject, it was a desire to be the old me.
I’d never really had a proper trial to face my future.
Was this endless well of grime and the state of my clothing supposed to suggest that the Drains hadn’t quite let me go? That that place could pull me back in if I wasn’t careful?
If so, this might well be my trial.
I turned my back to the empty space, because I didn’t like the feeling that stirred inside me when I stared at it. My thoughts were on Rose, the danger to my friends, the state of Jacob’s Bell, the lawyers, grandmother.
I could see my expression in the side view mirror of Joel’s car.
Try as I might, I couldn’t twist my expression into anything other than barely repressed anger.
“Wait, it’s a demon?” Ty asked.
“Yes,” Rose said.
There they are. I hung back.
“As in, something like what was in that warehouse?” Tiff asked.
“Factory, not warehouse,” Rose said. “And no. Not like that thing. The thing in the factory was a minor demon of the first choir, maybe on its way to becoming moderate, I don’t know. The Barber is in the middle tiers of the third choir, according to the books.”
“Does that make it stronger or weaker?”
“It’s stronger,” Rose said, confident but not sounding too pleased to be confident. “But, and this is important, it’s a strength we could control, if it came down to it.”
“I dunno,” Ty said.
“You’re flippin’ crazy,” Evan said.
“I’m being realistic,” Rose said. “What I need to know is… do you trust me?”
“Yes,” Alexis said. “I’d be a lot more inclined to exercise that trust if I knew what it stemmed from.”
“That goes two ways,” Rose said. “I’d feel less guilty about drawing on it. But we’re in dire straits, and…”
“What?” Ty asked.
“The house spirit is reacting. Something’s inside,” Rose said.
“Shit, shit,” Ty said.
“Something or someone?” Tiff asked, her voice small.
“Something,” Rose said.
I was already stepping into view.
I saw their eyes widen. I saw fear, I saw hands moving closer to weapons, and it killed me a little. Delivering a little wound as sure as a slice of a knife could, a little crack for another bit of spirit to get in.
I couldn’t bring myself to speak.
Evan was the one who drew closer, before anyone else. Who let his guard down. He settled on the back of the armchair closest to me.
I reached out for him, and my fingertips only touched my side of the mirror.
Silent, I let the hand drop to my side.