The Thing That Lives Behind Her Eyes

This is a companion piece to Blank, though it can be read independently.

~

It was a misty, chilly, miserable day, and the Donovans Four, blanket-bundled, sat in a row with their backs to the radiator. Its warmth was anemic, but it was better than nothing — certainly better than either bedroom, both of which might as well have been meat-lockers.

They were safe enough for now, given Da was gone; whether he was at the pub or some half-arsed attempt at a job was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t home, and Mam was actually making breakfast — proper breakfast, sausage and eggs the quartet had lifted from the local VG. Mam never asked where they got half the things they brought home, and Lorna suspected she didn’t want to know.

The scent of frying sausage was wonderful; it overlay, for now, the odor of stale cigarettes, cheap whiskey, and general sourness that had permeated the home as long as Lorna could remember. She had no name for the sourness, and none of her siblings did, either — it was something unique to their house, its genesis lurking somewhere beneath the threadbare carpet. Shiv was convinced it was some kind of exotic mold found nowhere else in the world. Lorna neither knew nor cared; unpleasant though it was, it was the smell of home.

She picked at a bit of frayed, plastic thread that had come loose from the edges of a hole in the carpet. What the original color had been was a mystery, because fifteen years’ worth of stains had turned it into a strange, blobby patchwork in shades of brown and grey, dotted all over with penny-sized burns. Da had a nasty habit of passing out on the sofa with a lit fag in his hand, and Lorna was fairly sure that one day he’d burn the house down like that. She could only hope he’d not wake up when it happened.

Mam hummed a little as she cooked, and Lorna watched her curiously. Like them, Mam rarely dared make noise when Da was home — she was a gaunt ginger ghost, pale and hollow-eyed, but at times there were glimpses of who she maybe ought to have been. Who she might actually be, if only Da would do them all a favor and drop dead.

You could make sure of that, you know.

The thought had crossed Lorna’s mind so often it had left grooves. Yes, she could indeed make sure of that, and on one exceptionally dark night, she very nearly had. It was so, so tempting, but not tempting enough to turn her into a murderer at ten years old. The cleaver had been huge in her tiny hand, which had not shaken as she regarded the useless lump of humanity that was theoretically her father.

No, she countered. No, that’s not me.

The answering thought was hard and ice-cold: Yet.

She shook herself. Right now there was sausage, there was her Mam acting like an actual mam, and her siblings all in a row. They sat as they always did, with Pat on one end and her on the other, with Shiv ready to grab Mick and run if she had to. It was instinct, and it had served them well so far.

“Come on over here, the lot’v you.” Mam’s voice was soft, and her accent softer; she hadn’t grown up in Dublin, though she never spoke of her childhood. “Come on and get this while it’s hot.”

They needed no second urging. In this house, you snatched your food and you ate it in a hurry, unless some of it could be saved for later. Whatever was left would get hidden in an ancient plastic shopping bag beneath Lorna or Shiv’s mattress.

The sausages were greasy, and so hot it burned their fingers, but there was no point in bothering with utensils if you didn’t need them. Meals were an uncertainty in the Donovan household, and hot meals even more so. There wasn’t really time to savor.

For some reason, Mam always looked terribly sad when they fell on their food like wolves. None of them understood it, and dismissed it as one of the many incomprehensible vagaries of adults in general, and their mother in particular.

Scrambled eggs did need forks, but they still gobbled their portion — and it was a good thing they did, because the telltale creak of the porch heralded the arrival of their much-hated father.

He came in stinking so badly of booze that the reek reached the kitchen long before he did, red-eyed, his complexion an odd but familiar shade of grey. Da wasn’t a large man — Mam was actually a touch taller — but he was so much bigger than his children that he didn’t need to be in order to be a threat. Lorna hated that they all looked so much like him, though not nearly so much as she hated the man himself.

As ever, all of them tensed. A trace of sick, liquid fear traveled through Lorna’s gut — not for herself, but for her mam. For Pat, the eejit, who insisted on taking the brunt of their father’s wrath no matter what anyone said to him.

“Save me any’v that?” he asked. He might have been half off his face, but his hazel eyes were sharp as knives, assessing and searching for any sign of weakness.

In point of fact, nobody had saved any for him; the last portion should have been their mam’s, but of course the wretched woman would give it over to this worthless gobshite without a word of protest. Why? Why? Sometimes Lorna wanted to shake her mother, to scream until something like sense pierced whatever fog shrouded Mam’s mind. What little light had entered her blue, blue eyes always went out when Da came home, and yet she never just fucking left.

“Of course, Niall.” Mam’s voice was quiet with defeat.

A surge of molten rage passed through Lorna, from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes. Jesus fuck, Mam, WHY?! WHY DO YOU ALWAYS BLOODY DO THIS? Someday, the words would actually leave her throat, but for now she was silent, while loathing seethed and bubbled within her mind like some kind of boiling poison.

Da said nothing at first, but something ugly and cruel passed over his expression, so minute that somebody less hyper-aware than his daughter wouldn’t have caught it. “No you didn’t,” he said. “You were going to eat that all, and leave a working man to starve.”

Lorna wasn’t quite sure who snorted at that, but somebody did, and it wasn’t her. Working man, my arse, she thought. Working at ruining your liver, maybe. 

For such a small, ossified man, her father could move remarkably fast — he was across the kitchen with jarring speed, but before his hand could connect with his wife’s face, Lorna plowed into him like the world’s tiniest rugby player. She was small enough that the crown of her head barely reached his ribs, but that just meant his stomach bore the brunt of the impact. 

Had he been sober, it might have done fuck-all; as it was, it sent him staggering back out of the kitchen. This time, his slap actually landed, so hard with the side of Lorna’s head that for the briefest of moments, dark stars bloomed behind her eyes. Some dim part of her registered the pain, but in that instant the white heat of her wrath kept it a distant irrelevance.

He hit her again, harder — hard enough to drive her backward, and nearly knock her off her feet. It only fed the hatred-laced fury that surged through her veins, through her mind with all the force and heat of magma. Mam might not have a spine, but Lorna bloody well did — oh, she’d pay for this later, but she didn’t care. Not now, when the resignation of her mother’s voice still rang in her ears. 

Fuck you and the horse you fucked in on, you walking skip fire. The thoughts were there, and mostly in order, but all that left her throat was a snarl that bordered on inhuman. Her ears would not make sense of whatever idiocy spewing from her da’s mouth, because it was as irrelevant as he was. Eyes sharpened by rage bent on his face with a malice so intense it felt as though it might rend her apart.

So fixated was she that she didn’t — couldn’t — dodge the next thing that connected. It wasn’t his hand, it was the heavy glass ashtray that sat atop the scratched and ancient kitchen table, and it struck her temple with such force that it blinded her for half a breath. Ash rained down through her hair, and with it the warm wetness of blood. That hurt, so much so that it lanced down her neck even as it exploded through her head.

She faltered one step, then two; her vision dimmed to a faded grey as consciousness fought and barely won. Her head throbbed in time with the thunder of her pulse, and it sent nausea churning in her stomach.

Her next uneven, agonized breath sent a blessed chill into her veins. It woke now, the thing behind her eyes, a leviathan dormant no more. Lorna herself never remembered what it did when it stirred, but it never forgot. Its malign, proto-awareness never forgot a thing.

Lorna — and everyone else — assumed the Blank was a form of mindless rage so intense there was no room for rationality, but that was not quite accurate. The Blank passed through the valley of wrath, into some strange serenity on the other side. Unlike Lorna, it was, in an odd way, at peace — at peace with what it meant to do, untroubled by things like guilt or hesitance. It saw the fear that rose in her father’s eyes, an echo of the terror he’d felt of his own green-eyed father. It wasn’t rational — not with how tiny his daughter was, how much weaker — but it was a relic of which he would likely never be rid.

The Blank could take no satisfaction in it, for the Blank took no satisfaction in anything. He froze, if only for an instant, and that was enough for it.

It had no weapon near to hand save the ashtray, but that would work. Her da was fast, but it was faster; the ashtray was honestly too big for her small hands, but no matter. It was only in them for a moment before the Blank hurled it at his face with the speed of a striking snake.

Had he been sober, he likely could have dodged, or at least fended it off. He was very far from sober, however, which meant the ashtray made full contact with his face. The Blank was not really much stronger than Lorna herself, but the thing was heavy enough to make up for the relative lack of force. Something went snap, but it was scarcely audible over his sudden bellow. 

There was blood — so much blood — but the Blank watched it with dispassion. It would dye the carpet, as it had several times and several places before now, and there it would stay, testament to Niall Donovan’s inability to learn.

It never spoke, the Blank, for it didn’t need to. Once upon a time it had witnessed its own reflection — its eyes were black, iris swallowed whole by pupils blown wide. That stare seemed to be enough, and indeed Lorna’s hapless father half-walked, half-stumbled out into the misty morning.

Someday, when the opportunity came, the Blank would kill him. Someday, when the time was right and the circumstances such that he would stand no chance of defending himself. Until then, it abided.

~

This one was somewhat grueling to write, but write it I did.

The Curse of M: Chapter Two

Chapter one maybe found here: The Curse of M

~

Lorna’s return to consciousness was a gradual, grudging thing, as though her body instinctively knew that she wouldn’t like what she found when she woke up.

She felt boneless, and more than a little floaty. It took her a moment to realize she was cruising a wave of very strong painkillers, and several more to remember why she’d need them. Damn.

At least she was warm now, and dry, lying on a somewhat uncomfortable bed. It smelled like a hospital, harsh disinfectant and floor wax, the air a little stale. How did she get here? Where was here?

Gingerly she opened her eyes, blinking as her vision swam. Above her were speckled ceiling tiles and an annoyingly harsh fluorescent light. Yep, hospital. Her mouth was cottony, her throat even more so, and she could feel a large patch of gauze on her forehead. A blood-pressure cuff banded snug around her left arm, and there was something plastic attached to the index finger of her right hand.

“You’re either made of iron, very lucky, or both.”

She blinked, and managed to turn her head. A tall woman in pale blue medical scrubs stood in the doorway — she was maybe Lorna’s age, her fair hair pulled back in a ponytail. “What?” Lorna asked, or tried to; all her dry throat could produce was a rasp.

The nurse filled a paper cup with water, and eased the bed up so she could actually drink it. “You went right through the windshield of your car. You were unconscious a full two days before you got here.”

The water hit her tongue like a blessing, cool and soothing all the way down to her stomach. Something about that statement didn’t make sense, but her fuzzy brain couldn’t immediately work out what. She’d been running from the Men in Grey, she’d wrecked her van —

“Shit,” she whispered. “There was a man with me, in the wreck. Is he okay?”

The nurse’s face went blank for a moment, and Lorna could actually see her trying to line up all those syllables into coherent speech. “He’s here, too,” she said, after a moment. “He was in pretty bad shape, but he’ll recover.”

“Where is here?” The surroundings screamed ‘hospital’, but the nurse’s mind said ‘Institute’. Where had the two days between the accident and now gone? Why hadn’t she been in hospital the whole time?

“You’re somewhere safe.”

Well, that was a non-answer if she’d ever heard one. It didn’t help that the woman’s thoughts didn’t match her words — her mouth said safety, but her mind didn’t agree. She was deeply uneasy, and again there was that word, ‘Institute’. There was nothing at all happy about it.

“Can I use the toilet?” Lorna asked. She had no idea what else to say, and she really did need to wee.

“Of course.” The nurse sounded almost relieved. “Let me get you unhooked.”

Lorna’s vision wavered when she sat up, and she had to shut her eyes while she was disentangled from what seemed like far too much plastic tubing. Balance was even harder to find; for a moment she had to lean against the bed, the tile floor cold beneath her bare feet. For the first time, she registered what she was wearing — soft grey trousers like pajama pants, far too long for her, and a grey T-shirt that was equally huge. It felt unsettlingly like a prison uniform.

Her stumbling walk to the bathroom would have been embarrassing if she hadn’t been too drugged to care. It was like hospital bathrooms everywhere, dull and impersonal and smelling even more harshly of disinfectant. She fetched up against the counter, leaning on it heavily while her equilibrium fought to restore itself again.

Unsurprisingly, the reflection she confronted was horrible. There was in fact a large white square of gauze stuck to her forehead; it had a number of scrapes and bruises to keep it company, and she’d chipped her left eye tooth. Her normally olive complexion was ashy, her upper lip split and swollen, her hair a wild tangle of black and grey. She looked…well, like she’d gone flying through a windscreen. You’re lucky you didn’t break your bloody neck, she thought muzzily. She realized, dimly, that all of this was going to hurt like an absolute bastard later, but for now the happy, floaty feeling kept her numb in body as well as mind.

Just imagine if Mairead could see you now. You’d never hear the end of it. She’d looked just as bad after the wreck that had led to her first meeting her half-sister, though at least this time she didn’t have a broken leg. Small mercies.

She couldn’t slam the lid on that thought quite fast enough. Grief welled up around the edges, and spread like dark water through her mind. I’m sorry, Mairead. I’m sorry I ran, but you’d’ve just suffered with me. Her sister wouldn’t have thrown her out for being Cursed — of that, Lorna was entirely certain — but the government had been pondering martial law by the time she’d recovered from the fever. She’d had to get out while she still could, but what this must be doing to Mairead… 

Guilt stabbed at her, and she shut her eyes, hard. Lorna owed Mairead everything she had, everything she’d become — Mairead, and Gran, and Big Jamie, and all of Baile, tiny as it was. It was home, and if she wasn’t careful, the pain of leaving it might swamp her entirely. She wanted to go back — wanted it so badly she could literally taste it — but that could never happen. Not unless she killed her Curse, and if anyone knew how to do that, it wasn’t her.

Jesus fuck, I am so sorry. No. No, not now. There was no time for the burn in her eyes, or the lump in her throat; at least the morphine dulled the edge that would otherwise have cut her to the heart. 

Wanting things is stupid, Lorna. You won’t get them, so don’t waste your time. That voice was older, colder, but still very much hers, and she hated it. “Oh, fuck off,” she hissed. Rallying herself wasn’t easy, especially given her mental glue, but she had to do it, so she did it.

Her business was more or less easily taken care of, and after she’d washed her hands, she sucked down several more cups of water. It cleared some of the glue from her mouth, if not her mind. This whole situation was a lot more fucked than it appeared on the surface, but her brain was still riding too steep on morphine for her to work out why.

The nurse rapped on the door. “You okay in there?”

Lorna cleared her throat. “Yeah. Out in a second.” A bit steadier on her feet, she actually managed to walk a straight line on her way out. Suck it, field sobriety test. 

“I brought you a hairbrush,” the nurse said, surprisingly kindly. “Let’s get that taken care of, and then do you think you could handle eating in the cafeteria?”

Lorna didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she thought that was a terrible idea. Somebody’s making her ask that, she realized, and a vague tendril of unease pierced the opiate-fog. The thought of food was vaguely nauseating, but if she could get out of this room, she might be able to figure out just where the hell she actually was.

“Sure,” she said, hauling herself back up onto the bed. “Can I see my friend, too?” She was ashamed, now, that she didn’t know his name.

The nurse frowned. “Maybe later. He’s asleep now, anyway.”

Somehow, that did not fill Lorna with confidence. Something else she needed to investigate, if she could…once it no longer felt like the top of her skull was about to sail away if she moved wrong. Great.

Her fingers were still too stiff and clumsy to undo her long braid herself — the nurse had to help her, as if she were a child. At least she could handle the brush on her own, and she did, using the action to mask her attempts to actively read the nurse’s mind. It was, of course, worse than useless — she’d never been able to control her telepathy at the best of times, and her drug-addled brain really wasn’t in any condition to even try.

 — too soon, she shouldn’t be up yet  —

A jumble of images were all that accompanied the thought: bland hallways, flat, featureless scrubland, and uniformed men who looked suspiciously like prison guards. Well, hell. It was so at odds with the pleasant, hazy warmth that suffused her that the dissonance was almost too much.

Stop it, she scolded herself. Yes, her situation probably sucked more than she was yet aware of, but she was never going to get out of here with that attitude. 

Her balance was steadier when she stood again, and she fought to clear her head. Though her stomach roiled once more, she firmly tamped down her nausea — orders or not, the nurse wasn’t likely to let her out if she sicked up before she even reached the door.

Two men waited outside it: big, burly, expressionless men. Though they too wore hospital scrubs, their entire bearing shouted ‘prison guard’. Well, damn. Sometimes I hate being right.

The nurse frowned. “Is this really necessary?”

“Yes,” the guard on the right said flatly. Someone must have told him the circumstances of her capture. That wasn’t going to make her life any easier.

“‘S all right,” she said; she tried to enunciate, and probably failed. “Not like I could do much right now anyway.” Which was very true; right now she was every bit as innocuous as she looked. Nobody was going to feel threatened by a tiny woman who looked like she’d been tossed off a cliff.

Both guards looked at her so suspiciously that she almost laughed, but they said nothing. She noted that they consciously matched her slow gait, their posture tense as they watched her like a pair of hawks, and she fought a grimace. Most definitely prison guards.

The hallway was as bland and nondescript as the recovery room: flat white walls, pale, speckled tile floor, and fluorescent ceiling lights that buzzed erratically. Whatever this place was, it looked like a hospital, and even her bleary mind was obscurely worried by that.

Her head spun a little, but she refused to let it slow her down — her own stint in prison had taught her never to show weakness to guards or fellow inmates, no matter how awful she felt. That was a great way to get shanked. So she stayed grimly silent, letting her captors’ thoughts flow through her mind in frustratingly incomplete waves.

Yet again there was that word, ‘Institute’. To the nurse it had been unsettling; the man on the right was indifferent, but the one on the left attached an almost sadistic glee to it. The glee was tempered, however, by the fact that he was unable to physically harm the — inmates? Well, that was an even worse sign. His mind only made Lorna feel more ill.

When they reached a window, she paused. It was covered in metal grillwork, and it looked out on a landscape as desolate as the one she’d seen in the nurse’s head: flat scrubland, tinted red by the light of a bloody sunset. There were no trees, or even other buildings — just a fence, chain-link topped with razor wire, and woven through with heavy cables she suspected were electrified.

The guard on the right nudged her. “Move it, lady,” he said, his tone obviously bored.

“Fuck off,” Lorna said automatically, as she approached the window. Oh hell, where are we? Was she even in the States anymore? The nurse and guards all had American accents, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The sight of all that desolate nothing made her heart sink, even though her head still swum.

“I said move.” He made the very grave mistake of grabbing her shoulder, trying to drag her away.

If Lorna had been sober, she might not have done it — or at least, not done it so drastically. She drove her elbow into his ribcage as hard as she could — hard enough to actually drive him backward, his breath exhaling in a surprised whoosh. She rounded on him before he could recover, socking him in the jaw with all the force she could muster. His lip split where it mashed against his teeth, turning his pained grimace bloody.

He bellowed, trying to grab her hair even as the other guard caught her arm. That one took a foot to the groin, and ouch, that was a mistake — Lorna wasn’t nearly flexible enough to be trying to kick that high, and even through the painkillers she felt something strain at the back of her thigh. Oh, fuck absolutely everything…. If she could feel that while still so very doped, she was going to hate the entire world later.

Guard number two fell to his knees, but to give him credit, he didn’t drop entirely. He grabbed her ankle, but she used his grip as leverage to kick his face with her other foot. Barefoot, she didn’t do nearly as much damage as she could have otherwise, but it was enough to break his nose with an audible snap.

Guard number one, swearing like a sailor, managed to get her into a choke-hold — tight, but not strangling. He wore too much smelly aftershave, and the stink of it assailed Lorna’s sinuses like a solid force. It made her scowl as she gripped his arm, planted her feet on his thighs, and threw herself forward. It was sloppy, and she knew she’d hurt like a bastard later, but it worked — he fell with her, crashing headlong into the wall and losing his grip on her in the process.

She scrabbled away on all fours, wincing when her knees hit the tile, and took off like a fleeing drunk. Her stomach roiled again, and she almost lost all the water she’d just drank. She slammed into the wall herself, and only vaguely registered anything like actual pain as she used it to guide herself in something like a straight line.

Now what? Pure adrenaline propelled her forward, but she had no idea where she was going — she couldn’t have, not knowing where she was to begin with. What little of her mind remained her own was too focused on running to bother wondering about a destination, or what she would do when she got there. It was the running, however unsteady, that mattered. I just wish the floor would stop moving…

 — goddamn bitch  —

 — just embarrassing  —

 — break her arm for that  —

Well, shit. The hallway branched into a T ahead, and she staggered right, still using the wall for support. She’d rather not have her arms broken, thank you very much. I need a hostage. What she would do with one, or how to take one in the first place, were not answers her much-abused brain was willing to provide. Lacking that, she needed a hiding place, but no convenient closets appeared.

She could feel people ahead of her — a lot of people, a full-on crowd whose minds were a sea of nervousness. That was far from heartening, but maybe she could disappear into it. And maybe someone could tell her just what this place actually was, and where.

Her right leg almost gave out under her, but the distant, thudding gait of her pursuers spurred her on. She skidded at the next corner, stumbling so badly she actually ran into the opposite wall with a heavy thud. That, she thought dimly, is going to hurt like hell later. Oooops. In spite of everything, a giggle rose in her throat.

Somebody else caught her before she could actually collapse — two someones, a man and a woman who both wore inmate garb.

“Easy,” the man said, carefully steadying her. His accent was Scottish, though he looked East Indian. He seemed to be about her age, and he was incredibly tall — six-five at a guess. She couldn’t sort his thoughts out from the maelstrom, but his expression was kind enough.

“You look like you were hit by bus,” the woman said. Hers was an accent Lorna couldn’t place — Swedish? Norwegian? Something Scandinavian. She certainly looked Nordic enough: tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, with a face an angel would have envied. Her mind was distinguishable only because she wasn’t thinking in English; it was a truly fascinating garble that momentarily stole the entirety of Lorna’s attention.

“Close enough,” Lorna said. She shivered, and glanced around the corner. Creeping anxiety tinged her high in the most unwelcome way possible, and kicked her nausea up a notch. “Could we maybe move a bit? Only there’s some right pissed off people after me.”

The woman gave her the blank look she was all too familiar with, but the man, miracle of miracles, actually seemed to understand her.

“I’m not sure I want to know,” he said, guiding her further into the group. It was clustered around a pair of blue metal doors, waiting…well, a little like cattle, Lorna thought uneasily. Quite a few of them looked unnaturally placid, and she wondered if they were drugged. Maybe there’s more than enough to go around, she thought, and blinked hard.

I want to know,” the woman said, giving Lorna a frank appraisal. It was almost creepy.

Lorna grimaced, casting another nervous glance behind her. She couldn’t see past the rest of the group, but it also meant her pursuers couldn’t see her. “I might’ve broken a couple noses,” she said. “And maybe a kneecap. I know they were after me — dunno why they’ve not caught me yet.”

Her companions exchanged a sober glance, which didn’t help the nerves that broke ever more strongly through the fog. “It’s possible they were told not to,” the man said. “The doctor who runs this place might want to see what you’ll do next. Sometimes he likes to give us enough metaphorical rope to hang ourselves.”

Before she could ask what the hell that meant, the doors opened. Watching the group move through them made the cattle analogy seem more apt, though there were a fair number of people who didn’t look doped to the eyeballs. Lorna herself felt her high ebbing, and she was already regretting it — the pain the drugs had kept at bay was creeping back, starting with her left shoulder. Because apparently this day wasn’t horrible enough already.

The room they entered was obviously a cafeteria. Long and wide, its walls were smooth grey concrete, unpainted and unadorned, with surprisingly large windows. The dying sunlight they let in stained everything golden-red, but it didn’t make the drab surroundings any prettier. The tables were long, unpainted steel, their benches probably attached and bolted to the floor. Christ, even the cafeteria in gaol hadn’t been this bland.

It hadn’t been this cold, either; Lorna shivered as she joined the queue that seemed to form automatically. Small though she was, cold normally didn’t bother her — Ireland wasn’t exactly the tropics, after all — but her clothes were thin and her feet were bare, and even the artificial warmth of opiates couldn’t combat it. She unbraided her hair, letting it fall heavy over her back and shoulders — not many people seemed to realize it, but long hair could be as good as a blanket against a chill. Sure, she probably looked like Cousin It with a face, but she was marginally warmer.

Her male companion eyed her, but no sooner had he opened his mouth than she cut him off.

“If you make some crack about the Addams Family, I swear I’ll kick you.”

The blonde woman choked on a laugh, and he held his hands up in a placating gesture.

“Good. Now that that’s out’v the way, I’m Lorna. I’d say I was pleased to meet you, but in this place I’d be a fucking liar.” And I’d be even more of one if I didn’t say I want some more… She’d got clean years ago, and had had Mairead keep hold of the hydrocodone she sometimes had to take for cramps. No, she didn’t think she’d abuse it, but better safe than sorry.

Heh. Safe. Sorry. She wasn’t safe, and she was sure she’d be really sorry sooner or later. Really, really sorry.

Again the woman gave her a blank stare, and she sighed. This was going to get old really fast.

Once again, though, the man didn’t miss a beat. “I’m Ratiri,” he said. “And likewise. This is Katje, who doesn’t always understand English.”

“That was English?” Katje muttered. “You could fool me. You look cold.” Without any warning, she wrapped her arm around Lorna’s shoulders, plastering her at her side. “And bony.”

Lorna stiffened. Even her family knew better  than to touch her without warning, and she’d just been glomped on by a complete stranger. It took every ounce of willpower she had not to sock Katje in the face.

Ratiri groaned, and pried Katje away. “Ignore her. She has no sense of personal space. Or tact. Or modesty. It’s best to just think of her as a total savage.”

Katje made a wordless protest, but Lorna laughed. It was a shaky, nervous sound, but it also acted as something of a focus. It helped that her head was weirdly quiet in here; with this number of people, her mind ought to be a mess of foreign thoughts, but it just…wasn’t. Was it because so many of them were drugged, or because she was? She didn’t know, but she wasn’t going to question it. She had too many other questions to be getting on with.

Though the line moved slowly, they were close enough to the deli that she could smell food. Somehow, though she was still slightly nauseated, her stomach managed to growl, reminding her that it had been days since she’d actually eaten. Her misfiring nerves weren’t helping her nausea, either; though Ratiri and Katje both seemed to think she’d be left alone, she still expected her guards/victims to burst in, looking for vengeance. What kind of person would just leave her to a crowd, after something like that? This doctor — and she really didn’t like the feeling that either of her new friends attached to that word — had to be a right strange one.

She was quiet as they collected metal trays and plastic cutlery from one end of the buffet line, again letting the collective, alien thoughts wash through her mind. Sometimes, it was easier not to fight it, and she’d wished more than once that she knew how to meditate. Her bruised hands grabbed things automatically — lasagna that actually smelled good, a small, remarkably fresh salad, and a cup of apple juice. At least the food here might not be so bad, she thought — not that she planned to stick around long enough to get used to it. Out, away, and then…well, ‘then’ didn’t matter. Until she was out, there would be no ‘then.’

“Where are we?” she asked abruptly. They’d reached the end of the line, and Ratiri beckoned her to follow him to a far table.

“I don’t know,” he said, “and I’m not sure anyone else does, either, except the staff. My guess is either Alaska or northern Canada.”

“No one is awake when they come here,” Katje added. “I think that is on purpose.” She deposited her tray on the table, and sat in one enviously graceful movement. “Were you?”

Lorna shook her head, and winced. Maybe it was the cold, but the drugs were wearing off even faster, and all sorts of pain was making itself ever more insistently known. “I just woke up. Thought I was in a real hospital at first.”

“Oh, it’s a real hospital,” Ratiri said, as he sat beside her. “Of a sort. God knows they do enough tests.”

Lorna glanced around. Though there was conversation, it was muted, uneasy, people hunched over their trays. “They’re all Cursed, aren’t they?” she asked, though she thought she already knew the answer. “We’re all Cursed.”

Ratiri nodded, but neither he nor Katje said a thing.

That didn’t make sense. Well, it did — of course the Men in Grey would be stashing their captives somewhere — but…why were they all still here?

She ate a forkful of the lasagna, wincing when the sauce hit her split lip. It really was surprisingly good, though. “I know some’v them are drugged,” she said slowly, “so there’s not much chance they’d run, but what about everyone else? Are the staff like us? I’d think a big enough group’v Cursed could break their way out, guards or no.” Guards, electric fence, wasteland…atomic winter, she thought, and wondered why she did. 

“There’s nowhere to run to,” Ratiri said quietly. “Not unless you wanted to die in the wilderness. So far as I can gather, the only way out is by air, and it would take an actual, coordinated uprising to do it. And not many here would dare try.”

Personally, Lorna didn’t think getting lost in the wilderness would be too bad — but then, she didn’t exactly have much experience with the great outdoors. Homelessness didn’t count. She didn’t buy the ‘too afraid’ excuse, either: there were some nasty Curses out there. In a group, just how many normal people could withstand them? Shit, fear of that idea was why they’d been hunted down in the first place. Sure, her telepathy was useless, but there were people who could walk through walls, could create fire — hell, she’d heard of a few Cursed who had caused earthquakes. Neither Ratiri nor Katje seemed like sheep, but they also seemed to dread the very word escape.

Some of her dubiousness must have shown on her face. “You have not met man who run this place yet,” Katje said. “He is…some of us think he is not human.”

Isn’t that melodramatic, Lorna thought sourly. If her two victims hadn’t come for her yet, they probably weren’t going to, and her fuzzy fear was joined by irritation — at this place, the cold, her mounting pain, and especially at herself, for getting caught in the first place. “Last I checked, aliens hadn’t landed when the Curses started. Is he one’v us?”

“He’s a telepath,” Ratiri said. “We can’t plan anything without him finding out. Some of us tried.”

Lorna twitched. A telepath? Another one? She hadn’t met another like herself, and she didn’t want to. Especially not one who could control himself. She’d read enough science fiction in prison to know that never ended well. “And what happened?”

“They disappear,” Katje said grimly, and popped a whole cherry tomato in her mouth.

Lorna looked at Ratiri. “Does she always sound this dramatic?”

“She’s practically turned it into an art form. She’s right, though. And, while I’ve only met the doctor once, I never want to do it again. He’s human, but he’s…wrong.” He shuddered, staring down at his food. “He didn’t ask questions. He just sifted through my mind, and I could feel him doing it. He might be Cursed, might be one of us, but to him we’re test subjects. Once he’s in your mind, he can control you. He just…takes you over.”

Well, that was more than a little alarming. Dammit. “So he what, plays Mengele with us? Fucking brilliant.” She should be scared. She was scared, but she was also sore, tired, annoyed, and once again nauseated. She shoved her tray away, pressing the heels of her hands to her temples. The drone of passing thoughts might be bearable now, but it was still…wearing.

Neither responded. They didn’t need to.

Ratiri raised his hand, but hesitated. “I can do something about your pain,” he said, a little awkwardly. “May I?”

Lorna looked at him more than a little askance. Sure, he seemed nice enough, but she’d just met him. Still, she was feeling steadily more awful. “How?”

He seemed to read her expression with disturbing ease. “I don’t need to touch you,” he said. “I just need to pick at your aura.”

My aura? she thought. Sounded a bit New Age, but at this point, she’d take what she could get. “Go for it,” she said, trying to mask her hesitancy.

Privately, she thought it looked a bit ridiculous, him picking at something she couldn’t see, but she couldn’t argue with the results. Both pain and nausea faded to tolerable levels, though her buzz unfortunately went with it. Still, she’d take the trade-off.

“Is that your Curse?” she asked. “Because if so, it’s a lot more’v a gift.”

For the first time, he smiled. “I’d say so too, if it hadn’t got me caught. Do you mind if I ask what yours is?”

She scowled. “Telepathy, and it’s fucking’ useless. I can’t shut it off, but I can’t control it, either. I just get snips and bits’v things from everyone around me. All it does is give me a headache.”

It took a moment, but Katje choked on a tomato — the first ungraceful thing Lorna had seen her do. “That,” she said, red-faced and wheezing, “is bad. Very bad. He will want to be seeing you.”

No need to ask who he was. Katje really did seem a bit of a melodramatic sort, though; whoever ran this place probably was an arsehole and a half, but Lorna wouldn’t put it past Katje to exaggerate. True, Ratiri seemed much calmer, and he was downright scared as well, but this was the twenty-first goddamn century, not bloody Auschwitz.

And if this doctor truly was some kind of monster, if he was so interested in her telepathy…well, Lorna could be extremely annoying if she wanted to. If she was too aggravating to deal with, he might just give up. More than once in her life, she’d been so annoying that people gave her what she wanted just so she’d go away.

The real thing she had to focus on was how to get out of here. It would probably take awhile to work out the logistics of a viable escape plan, but she didn’t buy the idea of it being impossible. She doubted the others would, either, if they weren’t so damn terrified.

She jumped when a loud clatter broke the quiet. Someone a table over had flung their dinner-tray, and she swung around to scan the room. Her gaze fell on a trio of young men — very young, in their early twenties at most. They must have just arrived, because they wore street clothes, rather than the prison-uniform: baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts, none of which looked like they’d seen the inside of a washing machine any time recently.

Something in her went cold when she saw the tattoo one sported on his neck. It was a Russian prison tattoo, a knife with an ornate handle, and it signified that he’d killed someone while in prison. One of her old cellmates had three skulls on the knuckles of her right hand — Tatiana, her name had been, a downright crazy Russian woman who had killed her cheating husband, his mistress, and the brother that tried to intervene. She’d explained the long and detailed history of Russian prison tattooing to Lorna, and had been baffled when Lorna didn’t want one herself. This was not going to end well.

“Why do you sit here?” he demanded. His English was very accented, though still intelligible. “I know what you are, what we are. Why are you cattle?”

Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lorna thought despairingly, not here. Not yet. She wished she could actually use her Curse to communicate with him, but no, of course not. God forbid it be of any use to her.

Nobody said anything, which seemed to serve only in pissing him off. “Pathetic. We are gods. They are — are ants. Why do you not walk out?”

He had the right attitude, at least. She could use his help, if he’d shut up and quit drawing attention to himself. “Nyet,” she said, wracking her brain for what Russian Tatiana had taught her. The woman had taken Lorna on as some bastardized combination of daughter and protégé, and Lorna had let her, because she didn’t want to get shanked. It had certainly been an education. “Podozhdite. Poka ne.Wait. Not yet. God only knew what it sounded like, with her own heavy accent, but she had to try.

He turned his head, blinking at her. “Vy govorite po-russki?

Okay, at least she knew that one. “Nemnogo.A little. A very, very little, she thought. “My dolzhny pogovorit’ pozzhe.” She meant to say ‘we must talk later’, and she hoped she was close enough.

He rattled off something in Russian far too rapid for her to understand, and she shook her head. “Pozzhe,” she reiterated. Later.Kogda my znayem bol’she.” When they knew more…if they knew more.

He actually paused, and she hoped she was getting through to him. Come on, kid, she willed. I can use you. All of you. Just don’t be a bunch of flipping gobshites.

That fragile hope was not to last. One of the others grabbed the table one-handed, and actually ripped the bolts out of the floor with a tearing screech. He lifted the entire thing over his head, and hurled it at the buffet line.

Even some of the more drugged-up inmates shrieked at that, trying to duck when the table crashed into the counter, shattering the glass sneeze-guard. The sound echoed off the high walls, nearly deafening after so much quiet.

Katje, wiser than she looked, dove under their table. Lorna knew that if she had any sense, she’d do the same, but she was close to despair.

“Nyet, you bloody moron!” she cried, even as her heart sank. “You’ll get us all put in lockdown. You know that word, right? Where we’re stuck like bugs in a goddamn bottle?”

He gave her a look of total incomprehension — but then, so did Ratiri, so it was likely a problem of her accent rather than his English proficiency. He shouted at her in Russian, and she shouted right back, in a bastard mix of English, Russian, and Irish. Some small part of her knew she wasn’t helping matters in the slightest, but logic had gone out the window. They’d obviously been in prison before — they had to know this was doomed to end badly.

Fortunately for Ratiri, she evaded his attempts to restrain her when she hauled herself off the bench. More than ever did she wish there was anything at all useful about her Curse — if she’d been able to properly use her damn telepathy, maybe she could actually convince them to just hang on a while. She couldn’t understand the idiot kid, and she highly doubted he understood her, but she couldn’t stop. She never had been able to, once her temper got going, no matter how disastrous the outcome.

“Will you give over and sit down, before you get us all locked up? You’re right, we need out, but for Christ’s sake your timing’s fucking’ awful. Just. Wait.

With what little rational mind she had left, Lorna wondered where the guards were. They should have come running the moment the table flew — were they too stupid to head off a riot before it started, or were they waiting to see what happened? She hoped it was the former, because the latter idea was too ominous to contemplate.

He screamed something else unintelligible, and she stalked toward him, yelling right back. The man with the knife tattoo suddenly found himself being the only reasonable one when his other companion joined in.

The poor bastard grabbed both his friends, holding them back. “What even are your words?” he demanded.

She answered in broken Russian and fractured English, hoping he’d understand, and that no one else would. “You are right. We need to escape. But trying to cause a riot won’t work, and now all four of us stand out. Sit down, shut up, and wait until we have an actual goddamn opportunity. Christ, I know you’ve been in prison before,” she added in English. “You ought to know how this works.”

“What are you, a predatel’?” the man on his right sneered.

Predatel’. Traitor. Snitch. “Do I look like a goddamn snitch? Fuck you in the ear!” Lorna didn’t hit him, but it was a near thing. They’d blown it, and she knew it — all of them, herself included. They were going to wind up separated, and never be let near one another again.

He ducked his comrade’s arm and shoved her, and now she did punch him. It hurt like a bastard — apparently Ratiri’s aura-thing had a short half-life — but he rocked backward.

As if some unseen thread had snapped, what seemed like half the cafeteria weighed in. In reality it was only a few people, but that was more than enough.

Ratiri merely tried to restrain the man on the left, but Katje socked him right in the jaw. To Lorna’s surprise, it was a decent hit. Whatever else Katje was, she knew how to throw a punch.

Ratiri winced, pulling the man backward and pushing him out of the way with unfortunate mildness. He was not, Lorna swiftly realized, a fighter by nature, which wasn’t going to do him any favors now. He might be giant-sized, but anyone who had been in prison longer than a week knew how to spot the weak link, and he was it.

The man she’d first hit made a grab for her hair, and earned himself a forehead to the face. Pain exploded through her head, shockingly intense, enough to momentarily send her vision grey. She staggered, kicking him in the knee on sheer accident, and ran into a complete stranger — a middle-aged Hispanic man. He righted her balance with surprising gentleness, right before punching her attacker so hard he fell over backward. Hell, maybe we’ll get a riot after all.

The cafeteria doors slammed shut with an almost majestic thud, and the room abruptly fell silent and still. It had to — quite suddenly, Lorna found she couldn’t move, and it didn’t look like anyone else could, either. What in flying fuck? Stark terror flooded her veins, warring with her anger and what little was left of her high in such a way that she was almost sick again.

Someone was moving, though; a heavy, measured tread across the concrete floor. Lorna, who had been stuck in place facing away from the door, couldn’t see who or what it belonged to, which just made it worse — she hated having a threat at her back, and it made her shoulder blades itch. Something in her stomach quivered, but she couldn’t be sure if it was fear, nausea, or some horrible combo of the two.

“I am going to release you all. You will stay still, you will behave, and you will tell me exactly what is going on here.” It was a male voice, deep, mostly American, but with a slight shift she couldn’t identify.

In spite of everything, she almost wanted to snort. It was pretty damn obvious what was going on; either that was a rhetorical statement, or the questioner was a moron.

The strange, invisible lock that held her immobile abruptly vanished, and she wasn’t the only one who sucked in a deep breath of relief. She turned, and had to peer around the third Russian to see anything.

They were faced with an extremely tall man — Ratiri’s height at least — who regarded them like they were an exhibit at a zoo. He didn’t look much older than Lorna herself: late thirties or early forties at most, though there were threads of grey through his blond hair. While his height made him imposing, there was nothing in his appearance that could explain the level of gut-wrenching fear the sight of him inspired. If he was the doctor Ratiri and Katje had mentioned, she took it all back: there was something about him straight out of the Uncanny Valley. It took everything in her power not scarper, because nope. All aboard the Nope Train. It squeezed at her chest like a vice, like a band around her heart, and bile so far up her throat that she actually had to swallow it back.

His eyes raked the crowd, and they were the palest, coldest eyes she’d ever seen. She half expected them to glow red, like he was a bloody Terminator. “Well?”

No one spoke. Lorna doubted anyone was able to, but the silence was excruciating. It reminded her far too much of being called up before her old primary school’s bastard of a headmaster, which probably had a lot to do with what she did next.

“He started it,” she said, pointing at the bloody-faced, belligerent Russian kid. Technically his friend had, but Lorna actually halfway liked that one, so his mate could take the fall.

Those ungodly laser eyes fixated on her, and she wished she hadn’t spoken. One of his pale eyebrows arched. “Did he? Young man, step forward.”

The kid obviously didn’t want to, but someone behind him actually shoved him. He shot Lorna an extremely dirty look, which she returned full force. 

The man stepped forward, giving the boy a thorough, downright chilling, and wholly unimpressed once-over. Despite her self-imposed lifelong training against showing weakness, she couldn’t help but shuffle away; she was stubborn, not suicidal. 

“Strength,” the man/doctor/whoever said, flatly. “Dull. Dull, and more trouble than you are worth.” He reached out with a truly disturbing lack of expression, caught the boy’s throat, and squeezed. Somehow, with one hand, he snapped the kid’s neck like a pencil.

At this point in her life, it took a hell of a lot to genuinely horrify Lorna, but that was more than enough. Blind instinct made her rear backward, and she wasn’t the only one — as if some spell had been lifted, the crowd erupted into chaos, every damn one of them fleeing for whatever cover could be found.

Lorna herself practically dove under one of the tables, thwacking her head as she did so; if she hadn’t started out with a concussion, she probably had one now. Dark stars bloomed behind her eyes, and she only staved off actual unconsciousness by sheer force of will. Ratiri had mentioned telepathy, but he’d said nothing about that sort of strength, and even through the pain, she wondered if the bastard had multiple Curses. Jesus, is that even possible? If it was, she’d never heard of it.

The boy’s body hit the floor with a thud that was almost nauseating, and guilt joined the lump of leaden fear lodged in her gut. If she hadn’t said anything — but then, that terrifying man would surely have killed someone. Not that that knowledge helped: she was still the one who had chosen his victim.

The bastard turned, searching. He managed no more than that, though, because a moment later, every window on the eastern side of the room shattered. No, not shattered — they practically imploded, shards of safety glass filling the air like glittering hail.

Frigid air blasted in, momentarily knocking all the breath out of Lorna. Some wild part of her remembered the exploding streetlights, the drunken collapse of a roof that ought to have weathered the storm, and she realized with dawning horror that she was somehow the one doing this.

Stop it, she thought, but her mind was so besieged by panic that she couldn’t have done it, even if she’d known how. Not all the pain in her head came from hitting it. She clapped her hands over her ears, as if that would somehow do any good, and shivered from shock and revulsion as much as from the cold. Christ, this was like one long nightmare that only got worse.

The overhead lights exploded, one by one, and the western windows cracked into a crazed mosaic. At this rate she’d bring down the roof in no time, and then what? Just how much worse could this get?

It was the wrong thing to wonder. A hand grabbed Lorna’s hair, right at the crown of her head, and used it to drag her out of her hiding place. Of course she had to bash both knees on the bench as she went, adding two new sources of hurt — as if she didn’t already have enough. If she’d been in any shape, she’d have lashed out with her fists, but she was so disoriented and cold and ill that all she could do was stagger.

When she found her balance, more or less, she found herself faced with that terrifying doctor. She always felt short compared to most of the adult world, but he made her feel positively miniscule, and it didn’t help that he was looking at her with a dreadful, detached curiosity. Motherfucker.

At least he released her hair, leaving her to rub at her scalp with bruised fingers smeared with someone else’s blood. He was bleeding, too, she saw: something had cut his temple, and the wound bled as only head wounds could. If it bothered him, he gave no sign at all, which somehow made it worse.

“Stop that,” he ordered, almost casually, as if all the glass in the cafeteria wasn’t shattering around him.

Unfortunately, the western windows chose that moment to implode. Lorna instinctively tried to duck, but his hand shot out with unnerving speed and snatched her hair again.

“I can’t!” she cried — two words even her accent couldn’t mangle. 

He tilted his head to one side, that horrible, clinical curiosity intensifying. “You really mean that, don’t you?”

She didn’t bother responding, because really, what could she say? Her every instinct was telling her to run, even if she had to let him tear out half her hair to do it.

He didn’t give her a chance. He touched her forehead with his other hand, and darkness sucked her down like quicksand.

~

The book itself can be found on Amazon; it’s enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, should anyone want to take a free look.

An actual update

I knew I had been in active here for a while, but I did not realize just how long. Fail. My digestion is now back as it should be, at least, and the fourth book in the M series is now up for sale:

The War of M was seemingly won, but at a terrible cost. With millions dead, and the Northern Hemisphere a wasteland, rebuilding will take decades.

What few know is that the war is not yet over. Thorvald might be dead, but the creature that created him remains alive and well, and is determined to traverse the gap between the Void and Earth. Earth, however, is not the only dimension it threatens, and humanity has gained itself some rather strange allies. Airships from another world that plow the skies bring what hope may be found, while ancient gods wake from their long slumber.

Among them, but not of them, walks one who should never have existed: an abomination broken at the moment of her birth. Scarred in mind, body, and soul, she has the potential to defeat their foe — if her telepathic allies can glue all the fractured segments of her self into something whole, before it’s too late.

I am hard at work editing book number five, but now I might have the energy for more short stories (I hope). I live in Washington State and am avoiding the outside world even more than usual, because as a former long-term smoker I would really rather avoid the coronavirus (I also have a housemate over 60 who was also a long-term smoker, so that’s extra impetus to stay home). I’m happy to say there really hasn’t been much in the way of panic here: grocery stores are out of things like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and streets and businesses are eerily empty, but for the most part people are simply being sensible.

It’s somewhat surreal that I grew up very close to the epicenter of the virus in this state; I know exactly where the care home is. Hearing Kirkland described as a suburb of Seattle is likewise surreal — considering there’s a lake between the two, we don’t really think of it that way. It’s understandable, however, because probably nobody outside of Washington has ever heard of Kirkland (unless they shop at Costco, that is). I have an uncle still living in Kirkland, and he emailed me this picture of his local coffee shop:

image1 (1)

You know it’s serious if Washingtonians aren’t going for coffee, because our reputation for being caffeine addicts is a well-earned one. Meanwhile I’m looking at 1-3 inches of snow tomorrow and a low of 17, which makes me very glad I didn’t buy plants yet.

Fever II

The long-deferred second part of Fever (You Set My Soul on Fire). Ironically, while I myself have been ill, I haven’t had any fevers.

 

Gerald Hansen

 

Secrecy. Secrecy was safety, or so Gerald’s mother had said. It was why their family had survived so long. (If she was to be believed, it had been a gift much like his own that kept his granddad from getting lynched. The man had lived into his seventies, though he inconveniently died before he could teach Gerald much at all.)

In all honesty, secrecy hadn’t exactly been hard. They lived in a world where damn near everyone would turn their own mind inside out to rationalize away something that ought to be impossible, and his gift wasn’t exactly flashy. There were times it utterly sucked, but it was as invisible as any gift could be. Nobody was likely to wonder why his presence lightened the mood in a room, or why he had a better bedside manner than anybody else in the hospital.

No, it hadn’t been hard, but now each new case of fever added a pebble to the stony weight of dread in his chest. The idea that people could just…could just wake up with a gift went against everything Mama had ever told him, but what the hell were the odds it would be anything else? If she hadn’t died of cancer the year before, he would have interrogated her.

His tiny apartment was stifling as he paced the living-room, heavy with Louisiana air so humid he felt like he could grab a handful and wring it out if he tried hard enough. The AC had choked to death on god only knew what, because apparently his day hadn’t been bad enough. Sweat trickled in rivulets down his face, his back, but that dread was a cold thing — a chunk of ice in his soul, if not his body.

Somebody had come for the blonde girl today. He hadn’t known her name, because she’d been brought in with no ID, but he doubted she was very far north of twenty, skinny as a rake and just as tall. She was burning, just like all the others, her freckled face so red she’d barely looked human, and her fever-glazed eyes didn’t seem to take in him or anything around her.

He’d been so sure she’d die, but the fever broke: by the next day, she’d been lucid, if exhausted. She’d also started a very tiny, very localized rainstorm in the bathroom, and within twenty minute she was just…gone. Men came and took her away, despite the protests of himself and other staff members — men in grey suits, with a complete lack of what anyone might call an expression.

Secrecy.

Secrecy. Hiding in plain sight. Gerald had done it all his life, and he could damn well keep doing it. Empathy didn’t do anything tangible, and he’d been taught to control it for as long as he’d been able to speak. He was safe. He was safe.

So why was he so afraid?

He stood still, and stared out the window. There had been less traffic since the fever took hold, which meant less exhaust to foul the breathless, sodden air. He had no reason to be afraid, and yet afraid he was, because instinct told him those men in grey wouldn’t care that he wasn’t like the others — if they clocked him for what he was, he was screwed, but dammit, they wouldn’t.

Isolation, he thought. He needed to get out of the city — he needed to get out of the country, if he could, and find somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The epidemic had to end sooner or later, so he could go without leaving the hospital in the lurch.

Still sweating, he took his laptop into the bathroom; it was the closest thing to a cool space in the entire apartment. If the wifi decided to cooperate, he could start making a list of potential places.

Secrecy. 

Safety.

He had an hour before he needed to leave for work, and he was damn well going to use it.

 

~

 

Unsurprisingly, Gerald found the wards still busy as a termite mound. The alcohol scent of disinfectant was overpowered by the general, rotten-onion-odor of sweat and sickness; the medical staff were all used to it, but any patients lucid enough to register it wrinkled their noses.

So far as he was concerned, the smell was worth it just for the wonderful coolness of a functioning air conditioner. He’d showered before he left for work, but such was the humidity that he felt like he’d swum across the parking lot. His sweat would dry soon enough, which was more than could be said for their poor patients. More rooms had been crowded with extra beds and cots with each passing day, and this morning was no different. At this rate, they’d run out, and god only knew how they’d find more of either.

Saline, he thought, as he wove his way through the hallways. The quiet hubbub of voices was strangely soothing, and it made a very odd counterpoint to the sick-stink. What were they going to do, when they ran out of saline? In the height of their delirium, the patients were incapable of drinking on their own; if the saline ran dry, they might start seeing actual fatalities. The fact that they  hadn’t yet bordered on miraculous, but that couldn’t be counted on to last.

The crowd parted, and a brief ripple of silence fell — it followed a pair of men in grey, who between them carried a stretcher bearing a semiconscious young man. They looked at no one, and nobody dared question them. 

Heart in his throat, Gerald did his best to relax as they passed. Once again, he reminded himself that nothing about him stood out. True, the white staff outnumbered the black, but he was hardly alone, and he was physically…average. Average height, average build, his haircut short and unmemorable. 

Still, he held his breath until they passed, and forced himself to project an air of calmness as he began his round. The room that had held the blonde girl was now occupied by three people, red-faced and soaked with sweat, in various states of semiconsciousness. 

If this damn fever continued its mathematical rate of acceleration, the men in grey would find themselves overwhelmed — if they hadn’t already. What would they do, if everyone eventually came down with it? What did they do when one of them did? Gerald was fairly sure he didn’t actually want to know.

Secrecy. Safety. Two words, a mantra, eventually followed by a third: escape. He just had to weather this, and bide his time, and get the hell out of anything resembling a city.

 

~

 

Geezer

 

The man with no name sat at the back of the bar, nursing his third beer.

He was a regular fixture, and he had been for the last year; he’d stay until he felt it was time to move on. He never knew when the itch to travel might strike, but it might be safest if he did soon.

“You gonna finish that thing?”

Faded blue eyes tracked to the barman’s. He was young — maybe mid twenties — but a good kid. He’d given Geezer a place to stay in exchange for odd jobs, and hadn’t even mentioned anything about the twin scarred ruinations Geezer called hands. If the kid made certain he had jobs that didn’t need fine motor skills, nobody needed to say anything.

“Workin’ on it. Helluva thing going on out there.” He jerked his head at the TV, which had been muted all day. Sound wasn’t really needed, given the text that crawled across the bottom of the screen. Every channel had it, and no two seemed to say anything like the same thing.

“I read on the internet it’s some government program that fucked up,” the kid said. “Like, some virus they made to destabilize a population.”

Geezer snorted. “If they did, it worked,” he said. He wasn’t about to tell the kid — or anyone else — that he damn well knew better. Oh, he didn’t know the real cause, but he knew what it wasn’t, and it wasn’t that.

He stared down at the foamy depths of his beer, golden in the sunlight that slanted through the windows. “Kid, if you get the fever, don’t go anywhere, you hear me? And don’t take anybody to a hospital or doctor or anyone like that. Ain’t safe.”

“The hell? Why not?” 

There was a very odd note in the kid’s voice that made Geezer look up. “Think about it. Government didn’t do this, but they’re sure as shit gonna overreact to it. It’s not just the fever, it’s what follows.”

The kid snorted, but there was doubt written beneath the impressive sunburn on his face. “What, the curses? You don’t — I mean, you don’t really believe that, do you?”

Yeah, there was real fear in the kid’s brown eyes — fear that made him seem a good ten years younger. For the first time that day, Geezer took a good, hard look at the kid — his red face, the sweat on his forehead. Yeah, it was kind of hot in the bar (air conditioner gone to shit, and the part they needed wouldn’t be there until next week), but…dammit.

“You’re sick, aren’t you?”

The kid looked away, and shrugged his bony shoulders. “I’ve felt better.” Hands that weren’t quite steady polished a glass that was in no need of it. “Probably nothing to worry about.”

Geezer’s eyebrows rose, and he sighed. Fuck everything. “Kid, you shut this place right now. If we get you home and resting, maybe it won’t be so bad.” He didn’t believe that for a moment, and he doubted the kid did, either but it was something to say.

The kid’s apartment was directly over the bar; once he’d locked everything up and flipped the sign to Closed, it didn’t exactly take long to get there and get him settled. The place had been an utter sty when Geezer first took up residence on the couch, but it was organized with military precision now. Sure, the collection of DVDs sat on a shelf made out of a board held up by two cinder blocks, and a square of milk crates covered in plywood passed for the coffee-table, but it was tidy.

“Go on, kid. I’m not much of a nurse, but I’m the best you got. If somebody comes asking after the bar, I’ll just tell ’em you shut it to keep the sickness out.”

The kid actually did as he was told, and Geezer settled himself on the sofa. An ashtray (made from a hubcap) took up one corner of the coffee-table, and he dragged it over before he tapped a cigarette out of the crumpled pack in his pocket. It would be a few days before he’d need to go get more, and by then the kid ought to be past the worst of it.

A flick of Geezer’s battered Zippo lit the cigarette, and the smell of lighter fluid joined the sharpness of the smoke. If the kid was lucky, he’d wake up with something he could hide, and nobody needed to be any the wiser. He had a sister, but Geezer didn’t dare call her for fear she’d give something away, by accident or on purpose. She didn’t ever need to know, either.

He propped his feet on the coffee-table. It might be that he was only delaying the inevitable, but it might not, either. His last prophecy-seizure had showed him a world that seemed to be at least half-ass okay; unfortunately he had no way of knowing when that would be. So often, the shit he saw didn’t make any sense until it had already happened.

Would they get him, the Men in Grey? He had no way of knowing that, either, because the only future he never saw was his own. Logically, the answer was no; they were taking away everyone who’d been sick, and he wasn’t going to catch that fever. He’d been born with the sort of curse it was inflicting on so many — if he didn’t have some kind of immunity, he’d be very surprised. Nobody looked twice at a broken-down old vet.

Not yet.

This wouldn’t stop with the fever. Geezer knew that much, at least; somehow, at some point, the fucking MiG would find a way to clock the cursed even if it didn’t show. This wasn’t the sort of place they’d pay attention to, though, and the kid was like him in one way: he was beneath the notice of anybody who supposedly mattered. There was an upside to being the kind of person society didn’t care about — when shit hit the fan, nobody thought about you, so long as you weren’t an idiot who drew attention to yourself. Flying under the radar wasn’t too hard when people tried not to look at you, either out of fear you’ll attack them or beg for change.

Get something invisible, kid. Hell, get invisibility, if that’s even a thing. Geezer didn’t know just how many different curses there might be, but they were probably going to find out soon enough.

Fucking wonderful.

 

~

 

Raoul von Rached

 

For the first time in decades, Von Rached found something well and truly interesting.

He had always known that others like himself existed, rare though they were. As he understood it, magic ran in families, or had once done; so far as he had been able to discover, both sides of his family were now long dead. Even the aristocracy in the normal world had an unfortunate habit of inbreeding itself to extinction, and among his kind there were even fewer of those to go around. If they had been at all like his mother, it was no real loss.

This fever, however…

Von Rached was not about to bother with the news, or even the CDC feeds he should not technically have access to. No, he sought the man who was supposedly some combination of superior and handler, as if anyone could actually control him. Letting them believe that made his life less annoying, so he allowed it.

Andrew Crupps lived alone, in an expensive flat in an upscale neighborhood of America’s capital city. It was exactly what one would expect of a civil servant devoid of any real imagination or creativity: pure white carpet, flat white walls adorned here and there with bland watercolors for which he had no doubt paid a fortune. Even the sofa was off-white. The occasional splash of color — a replica Ming vase with an artificial fern, a Persian rug in red and gold — only offset the sterility.

The man himself had no idea his home had been invaded until there was quite suddenly a Von Rached in his kitchen, where there had been no Von Rached a moment before. He jumped, swore, and dropped a jar of marinara sauce that shattered upon impact with the (white, of course) tile floor. The resultant mess looked remarkably like blood.

“I— I didn’t hear you knock.” Crupps swallowed, but rallied himself. He was a tall man, and reasonably fit for his forty-odd years — not normally someone who was easily unsettled, but just now he was pale as his anemic flat. 

Von Rached arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t bother,” he said. “It hardly matters — you won’t remember this anyway. Hold still, Andrew, and this will be over much sooner.”

He stepped over the mess and broken glass, while the wide-eyed Crupps fought an urge to flee and just barely won. “This really isn’t — you should make an appointment…” The words trailed off, and he went both still and calm, his mind wrapped in an artificial haze of serenity. It made it extremely easy for Von Rached to enter it, and look about as he pleased.

Every mind he had ever inspected was different, but there was one thing they seemed to have in common: some manner of inner landscape. The person themself was often entirely unaware of it, but it was blatant enough to Von Rached.

Crupps’, naturally, was very like the sort of office in which he worked, and very nearly as impersonal as his home. His mind was tidy enough that Von Rached didn’t need to rummage for long before he found what he sought.

The human memory, he had found, could be an incredibly peculiar thing. Crupps’ conscious powers of recall were nothing remarkable, but the things he stored below the surface of his mind were far more complete. A mental file labeled ‘fever’ revealed a great many things the man himself likely would not have known he could retain, though the language was somewhat…less than professional.

Morbidity rate 30%?

Fatality rate, 0. How?

Alteration rate from fever: 100%

Known alterations thus far (terminology subject to change):

 

  • Pyrokinesis (fire)
  • Transmutation (conversion of objects to other objects?)
  • Flight (note: calling it ‘Superman Syndrome’ was overruled)
  • Chloropathy (plant manipulation of some sort)
  • Aura manipulation (how very New Age)
  • Clairsentience (reading the history of…everything. Note: subjects prone to suicide)
  • Aquakinesis (water. Note: calling it ‘Aquaman Syndrome’ overruled)

 

Von Rached was somewhat disappointed that there were no telepaths among that number, but it was early days yet. While he had suspected the fever inevitably lead to the acquisition of an ability, it was useful to have confirmation that it was so thus far. 

Transmission vector unknown. 

Subject commonality…apparently nonexistent.

Recommended course of action: pray.

Well, that was hardly useful. Von Rached could study this, once given funds and facilities. If anyone could divine the true source of the fever and its effects, it was him.

Crupps was the key, and thus it was Crupps he would use. The man would forget Von Rached had invaded both his flat and his mind, but on the morrow he would convince everyone who would listen that it was imperative to study this phenomenon — and that only one person was qualified to do so.

Yes, things were about to get far more interesting.

Still Sick

The stomach issues, they do not abate. I have a doctor appointment on the 19th, and I hope at least pauses before then. I’ll go a day or two where things actually seem okay, and then it’s right back to all sorts of gastrointestinal hell that shall remain without description. I totally sat Thanksgiving out, because I just was not willing to put a lot of food I don’t normally eat in my stomach and play Digestive Roulette. At least I’ve been chugging allll the water and Gatorade.

I have no actual writing to offer, but I can contribute a picture of the cat ball. Everything is better with a cat ball. (Her name is Boo.)

20180104_184111

Fever (You Set My Soul on Fire)

Later — not very much later at all — the world would agree on one single thing: it began with the fever. Everything that followed — the wonderful, the terrible, and the seemingly impossible — had its roots in the pandemic that defied all logic or explanation.

 

Ratiri Duncan

 

Ratiri couldn’t remember having ever been this sick.

He’d been a healthy child; the worst he’d ever dealt with was a bad case of strep throat when he was twelve. As an adult, there had been one, maybe two bouts of true influenza, but otherwise he’d been blessed with the same rude health his father had possessed (before the poor man’s angry, alcohol-abused liver turned cancerous, at least).

Now, though…it was fortunate he’d literally fallen ill at work, because he lived alone. The fever had felled him as abruptly as it had all its other victims, but fortunately for him, another doctor had broken his fall. It hadn’t been nearly as fortunate for her, who, being much shorter, had been knocked over like a tenpin.

Things went fuzzy after that. He had a dim awareness of a line in his arm, and his vision occasionally focused on a bag of saline that shone with dark, diamond-purity under the dimmed fluorescent lights. The steady blip of the monitor told him his heart rate was decent, but he couldn’t focus on it — or anything else — for long. In his moments of borderline delirium, he wondered if someone had filled his joints with rusty razors when he wasn’t looking.

Dimly, he registered the rustle of a shifted curtain, the metal hooks whispering over the rod. Ratiri had to blink a few times, because the brighter light from the hallway stabbed straight into his brain.

“It’s all right, Ratiri. I’ve just got more acetaminophen.” The soft, Estuary accent belonged to Angie Cohen, his fellow on the pediatric ward. She sounded beyond weary, and he was coherent enough to wonder when she’d last slept — and why she was bothering with the acetaminophen. Nothing they’d yet found had managed to mitigate the fever in the least, but apparently they had to feel like they were doing something.

Ratiri swallowed, but his throat was on fire, and he found it would produce no sound. At least she injected the medicine into his line, rather than try to make him take it orally. She was too pale, and the smudges of exhaustion beneath her eyes were so dark they looked like bruises. A faint aura, pale and clear as the saline, limned her, and he wondered if a migraine was about to punch him. It was welcome to try; by now, he doubted he could feel any worse.

Angie ran the thermometer over his forehead, the plastic cool and smooth against his skin. Her eyes widened when she read it, and she somehow managed to pale even further. “You hang in there, Ratiri,” she said, and there was a distinct tremor in her voice.

He had little choice but to do just that, struggling to curl up on the narrow hospital bed. It was too short for him; he stood a full six-foot-six, and his feet dangled no matter what he did. The thin hospital blankets were nowhere near enough, and the gown might as well have been made of paper, because he was so, so cold.

Consciousness took a brief holiday; when it returned, he hoped it had enjoyed the trip, because he certainly wished it had stayed there. How long it had been gone, he didn’t know, but he’d gained no real rest. His limbs were still heavy with exhaustion, and neither thought nor vision would focus.

A nurse appeared at his side, but her voice was unfamiliar. It didn’t really matter, for it wasn’t much time before his mind gave up; this time, when darkness took him, it kept him.

 

~

 

When awareness returned to Ratiri, it did it in slow degrees. He was no longer freezing, he realized, and the agony in his joints was gone — the fever had broken. It had broken, and he was still alive, which he’d probably be grateful for once he no longer had a catheter.

Opening his eyes took a great deal of effort, and he wasn’t sure the result was worth it; his vision swam, and refused to settle. God, how long had he been unconscious? Given the catheter, it had to have been at least a day. When he’d gone under, nobody who’d had the fever had yet come out of it — though at least nobody had died, so far as he knew.

“Somebody’s come back to the land of the living.”

Angie entered his view, fuzzy and indistinct. Ratiri blinked a few times, but his eyes didn’t clear — if anything, his vision worsened. He could make out a few of her features, sure, but she was surrounded by a faint light of shifting green and blue. It was lovely, really, even if there were threads of grey in it. It wasn’t like any migraine aura he’d ever heard of (or experienced, for that matter), and there was a distinctive lack of headache.

Silent migraine, he thought, but there was no conviction behind it. Instead he tried to speak, and failed entirely.

“You just stay put.” The head of his bed raised, and Angie pressed a plastic cup of ice chips into his hand, which felt so weak he could scarcely hold it. “You gave us a bloody scare, Ratiri Duncan — even more than all the others.”

He managed to get an ice chip in his mouth without dropping the cup, which he counted a win. Its chill was a blessing against his tongue, and it soothed his dry throat enough to let him form actual words. “How many died?” Jesus, he sounded like someone had taken his vocal cords and given them a good scrubdown with lye.

“That’s the thing,” she said, even as she fussed with the empty bag of saline, “we haven’t lost anyone. I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but we haven’t had a single fatality.”

Ratiri’s vision might be bolloxed, but there was nothing at all wrong with his hearing. Angie’s tone was one he recognized all too well: gratitude and unease in equal measure. It was the tone only used for inexplicable recovery, because ignorance of the cause meant they didn’t dare hope that it would last. All too often, it didn’t.

“Complications?” he asked, around a second piece of ice. The shimmering light remained, even as his eyes finally decided to do their job. “Neurological?” It occurred to him that he might well have had a stroke, especially if his fever had been high enough.

Angie winced. “Um, you might say that. Sort of. Look, Ratiri, you just stay here, and if any men in suits show up and ask you questions, crazy questions…just say no, all right? You were extremely sick and you’ll be a long while in getting well. That’s all anybody needs to know.”

She hustled out before he could say a thing. Just what the hell had that been? Angie wasn’t a nervous one, though she was probably still exhausted. Crazy questions…it wasn’t like he could answer anything that might be asked. Of his illness, he honestly knew nothing.

He set the plastic up on the tray beside his bed, and stared at the ceiling. The fluorescents were dimmed, which was just as well; he didn’t want to know what full brightness would have done to his eyes. The fingers of both hands wiggled easily, as did his toes, and he could raise and lower both arms and legs. He could even touch his nose with each index finger, which gave him some hope that there hadn’t been any stroke. If it was an aneurysm, he’d be dead.

Okay, probably not a stroke. What else? The brain was an extremely complex organ, and it regularly demonstrated some new way in which something could go wrong. Ratiri was too tired to even attempt to sort it out.

There came a knock at the door. “Doctor Duncan, are you awake?”

Ratiri blinked, hard. “I am,” he said. “Technically.”

Without waiting for permission, a man in a tidy suit pushed the curtain back. A small man, trim and fit, with something that seemed to be a mobile in his right hand. Behind him was a second, just as tidy, though rather taller and broader. And both of them bore outlines of shimmering light.

Ratiri blinked again, but the auras remained — paler than Angie’s, colder, and both as grey as their suits. Oh damn, something really had gone wrong…

“We just need to ask you a few questions,” the smaller man said. His accent was hard, clipped, and so aggressively RP that it was obviously not his natural accent. There was nothing at all menacing about him; he seemed, honestly, rather fussy.

“I’ll try to answer them,” Ratiri said, “but I’ve literally only just woken up five minutes ago.” The ice might have soothed his throat, but his voice sounded no better.

“This won’t take long.” Although there was a plastic chair not far from the bed, neither man sat. “Have you noticed any changes?”

“Changes in what?” Ratiri asked. “I feel like it wouldn’t take more than a breeze to knock me over.” The lights still shimmered, but he had enough wherewithal to say nothing. He wouldn’t have said anything even without Angie’s bizarre order, because he really wanted these two to go away.

The men looked at one another. “We’ll come back later,” the smaller one said. “Meantime, get some rest.”

The pair were gone so swiftly that Ratiri honestly wondered if he’d hallucinated the entire encounter. Obviously he needed more sleep.

 

~

 

Lorna Donovan

 

Lorna had steadfastly refused to go to her sister’s when the fever hit, because she hadn’t thought it would be anything serious. 

At first, it wasn’t; she took her paracetamol, drank plenty of herbal tea, and curled up on the sofa to watch cat videos on YouTube. Sure, it was unpleasant, but nothing to fuss over.

Then day two hit.

When she woke on the second day, she was not, at first, certain she’d actually woken at all. She was freezing, clammy with sweat, and her mind and her eyes felt so heavy that she couldn’t move. The light dimmed and brightened at seemingly arbitrary intervals, which was oddly irritating.

Movement wasn’t to be thought of, until her bladder grew too insistent to ignore. It took every ounce of strength she had to leave her soft (if sweaty) bed and haul herself to the toilet, leaning against the wall for balance. The seat felt like it had been carved out of ice, but she was pretty sure her piss was close to boiling. 

When she’d had her wee, it took her a moment to summon enough energy to drag herself to the sink. She had a dim idea that brushing her teeth might make her feel a little better — until she caught sight of her reflection, and staggered backward.

It was no real surprise that her face was red, but Christ on an actual bloody bike, there were blisters around her mouth. She leaned heavily against the counter as her blurry eyes tried to inspect them — they were little bumps, hard and white, painful when she touched one. 

Yeah, nope. Apparently her brain decided that was all a bit much, because her vision fuzzed grey, and she found herself on the floor before she could even register the vertigo. Awareness wandered away, and left her just conscious enough to realize how fucking much her joints hurt, even apart from her collapse. Just…fuck.

Eventually, something like actual thought pierced her muzzy brain: Jesus, Fun Size. Three words, and odd ones, but they sounded like Mairead. Trust her sister to come make sure she wasn’t dead, because god bloody forbid she use the telephone like a normal person.

Strong hands — cold hands — lifted Lorna off the floor, as easily as though she were a child. Given Mairead was pushing six feet and Lorna herself hadn’t even cleared five, it was no wonder, really.

She tried to say something, but her brain wouldn’t even supply actual words. There was fear now, churning through her mind like shards of glass in oatmeal. Cold fear, dark and heavy—

why didn’t you come to my house dammit you little eejit —

I didn’t need to, Lorna thought, but the words wouldn’t reach her throat. Not then I didn’t—

Abruptly, she found herself back on her bed, on top of the sweat-soaked duvet. A fleeting thought of laundry passed through her mind, gone as swiftly as it came.

— Doc Barry’s going to skin her —

Mairead was gone, and Lorna had just enough time to wonder if she’d been there at all before her sister’s voice floated through the door. Something about fevers and eejits and could the doc come out to the cottage, or should they drag Lorna straight to the clinic? 

No. No, she didn’t want to — she couldn’t leave her cottage, her home, her safety zone. It was just a fever, just a bleeding stupid fever that wasn’t enough to knock her down, because nothing ever knocked her down, not like this—

“I’ll get her together before you get here.”

You. Who? Who’s you? 

“No,” Lorna managed, somehow. No, I’m not going anywhere and you can’t fucking make me it’s not safe. “Stay.”

Something in her mind shifted, because suddenly she saw herself through Mairead’s eyes — a tiny woman in an ancient, oversized Judas Priest T-shirt, long dark hair a sweaty tangle and eyes glassy with a fever that might just be broiling her brain. Oh shit, was that really what she looked like? Was that really her? No, that wasn’t her, she wasn’t Mairead and she couldn’t see things like that—

Her mind checked out at that point, and didn’t find its way back until she was laid out on a gurney — an actual gurney, was that really necessary? She’d be fine. She’d be fine, if only everyone would leave her alone.

— hospital — 

“No point.” Doc Barry’s voice, heavy with the tones of Limerick. “Busy —” nope, there went Lorna’s awareness again.

“The blisters—”

 “— saline…everything we can.”

God, no more fear, no more. Christ, how was she to handle it if it pressed in from all sides? How could she stand it, how could she even fucking breathe —

— there she was again, but not through Mairead’s eyes. She could see Mairead too, her face milk-white beneath her freckles. Jesus, she didn’t need to look so scared, everything would be all right once Lorna was done baking like a Sunday roast.

More fear, more cold, but now she was inside again. Somewhere along the way her shirt and shorts were replaced with soft dry cotton, and now there was a little thread of relief, of hope. She’d hold onto that, so long as she was cognizant enough to hold onto anything at all.

 

~

 

“Mam, I think she’s waking up.” Was that Niamh, the younger niece?

“Good. It’s about time I was able to give out at her for being so stubborn.”

Before she’d even opened her eyes, Lorna smiled. It was tired, but it was a smile nonetheless, because she was warm and dry and no longer felt like someone had shoved razors anywhere razors shouldn’t go (which was pretty much everywhere, but she couldn’t think of a better metaphor). “Had to try.”

“Try to give me heart failure, more like.” Mairead’s face was as weary as her voice, pale and pinched with worry. “You’re staying with us, and I won’t have any argument. Jesus, Fun Size, you had a fucking seizure, your fever was that high.”

Lorna blinked up at her. “I what?”

Mairead rolled her eyes. “Seizure, Lorna. Apparently they can happen when your temperature’s gone over forty-one degrees.”

“Doc Barry says you’re lucky to be alive,” Niamh added. The girl was her mother in miniature, freckled and violently ginger.

Hush, you. Go on out and tell your brothers and sister.” Mairead shooed her away, shaking her head.

Oh, good Jesus… Lorna fought the urge to draw her blanket up over her head, because there was too much going on in it. Seizure, her sister said, but along with it came an echo of terror Lorna herself was too exhausted to feel. Tangled among it were things like almost lost you and eejit and god don’t you dare ever do that again you little shit —

That thought was so complete, and it sounded so very Mairead that Lorna was laughing before she knew what she was doing. She’d often heard echoes of her gran at the back of her thoughts, but Mairead was a new one. 

“You can come up with better than ‘little shit,’” she said. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed a load of asphalt and then sicked it right back up, but at least she could speak. Sort of.

“Oh, trust me, I will,” her sister said, and paused just a moment before shaking her head. “Doc ought to release you by the end’v the day, if you can manage to not die.”

Lorna stuck her tongue out, because she was an adult. Honest. She had a driving license to prove it, somewhere.

“Mature. Don’t move.”

Since moving didn’t seem at all appealing, Lorna actually did as she was told. Recuperating at Mairead’s wouldn’t be bad at all, even if there were a lot more people than she was used to living with — the bed in the spare room was nice enough, and there were two magnificently fluffy cats to keep her company. (Mairead had made the mistake of letting the kids name the kittens, and as a result the poor things were called Godzilla and Mothra.)

The cold’s outside, she thought, and so’s the rain. The room lacked a window, so she had no idea if it was raining or not, but it was Ireland — the balance of probability tilted toward ‘yes.’ She was warm and dry and at least no longer sick, even if she did feel like she’d been tossed off a cliff into the sea and dragged back in a fishing net.

glue those cats to her if it’ll keep her in one place — the thought was accompanied by mental images of the cats, Lorna, the spare room, and a roll of duct tape, all jumbled together. If the fever had gone and fried her brain to the point of hallucinating, she was going to be very annoyed…eventually. For now, she’d settle for some tea, if somebody would be nice enough to give her one.

Niamh snuck back in through the door, with her siblings at her heels. The four of them ranged in age from ten to sixteen, and had spent four years being enabled in mischief by their surprise aunt. None of them had known Lorna existed until she was twenty-eight, and vice versa; she’d come to her sister’s home only after the wreck that killed her Liam, and left her with no one.

Kevin, youngest of the quartet, sat on the end of her bed. He was still a little lad, sandy-haired like his da, and he looked at her with an expression that suggested he didn’t quite believe she was really alive.

“Come on, I can’t look that bad,” she said — but no sooner had she spoken than she caught an image of herself, a fleeting picture from his perspective. She looked absolutely terrible, ashy-grey and hollow-cheeked. How long had she been ill? Surely she didn’t look that bad—

Kevin blinked, and Lorna’s own vision went momentarily dark. Dread and disbelief churned in her chest — disbelief, because there was no way she was actually seeing anything through her nephew’s eyes, and dread for no logical reason at all. She was just tired, that was all. Some rest and tea and she’d be right again, back home in her cottage and at work in the pub. Christ, how the hell were Big Jamie and Michael handling it, being down a bartender?

Don’t get used to it. This thought was wholly hers, pulled from somewhere in the depths of pure instinct. Be ready. She had a terrible, irrational, and totally inescapable fear that her life was about to get much, much worse.

 

~

 

Kajte DaVries

 

Fortunately, Katje’s client had gone before she started to feel really ill. She’d woken with a cold, and called Adlar to cancel their appointment — there was no point in getting him sick as well, and she hardly looked her best right now. 

Adlar, bless him, had come to her flat anyway, but only to bring her soup and tea. “You rest,” he said, “and you call if you get worse. I mean it.” He was such an earnest man, and he had no family himself — the classic driven businessman who hit his thirties and realized that while he had plenty of money, he had no close people in his life. Katje had taken him on because really, he just needed to figure out how to talk to a woman and he could get an actual girlfriend. He wouldn’t be the first contract she’d taken for that very reason, and he would surely not be the last.

“You’re sweet,” she said. “I would ask you in, but I am afraid to breathe on you.” Her voice had shifted from sultry to hoarse.

“I would rather you rest,” he repeated. “And I mean it — call me. If I’m at work, I can still send someone.”

She waved him away with a promise and an air kiss, and retreated into the warmth of her flat. Any sensible escort kept an appealing flat, but hers was actually homey — no animal print fabrics or anything like that, and furniture that was comfortable rather than showy. 

The soup smelled wonderful — minestrone, if she wasn’t mistaken — so she’d shuffled her slipper-clad feet into the kitchen. Few of her clients ever got to see the huge, fluffy, soft, and entirely unsexy red bathrobe she was currently swathed in, but she was alone and she was going to be comfy, god dammit. 

Shivering, she pried the lid off the glass container — this hadn’t come from any supermarket, that much was certain — and actually managed to eat the better part of a bowl before she wanted to do nothing more than crawl into bed.

Once she’d tidied her kitchen, she did just that. The robe might be unsexy, but it was nothing compared to the flannel pajamas she wore beneath it — they were thick, soft, warm, and a hideous pink-and-green plaid that really shouldn’t exist.

Admittedly, her bedroom was somewhat more in line with what one might expect from someone in her profession: lots of silk and dramatic lighting, but the satin sheets had been banished in favor of flannel, and the mattress was like a cloud. (It ought to be, given she’d spent two thousand euro on it.) Her achy, fevery body snuggled down into a nest of sheets and satin duvet, and she fell asleep before she could feel any worse.

 

~

 

“Katje. Katje. Katje, wake up now.”

Katje groaned, and cringed at the pain in her throat. Oh god, why should she wake up? She felt absolutely horrible — she hadn’t been this sick since she was a little girl, and caught a dose of tonsillitis that had ended in an emergency tonsillectomy. Who was here — who was bothering her?

Something plastic rolled over her forehead, and she was dimly aware of a beep. “Katje, can you hear me?”

The voice, she realized, was familiar — Liesje. Liesje, her client — Liesje the doctor, whose family had no idea she was a lesbian. Who had called her? A number of Katje’s current clients were friends with former ones — she tended to find them by referral — but how was she here? Why was she here? Shouldn’t she be at the hospital?

“Katje—”

“Yes, I hear you.” Katje’s voice gave out at ‘you’, but still. Speech had happened. She was so cold and so tired, and why did anyone have to bother her? She must look awful right now.

“Katje, I need you to sit up. I need to listen to your heart.”

“You wouldn’t answer the phone.” Adlar, his voice not entirely steady. Maybe he had called Liesje — she was one of the few people who had a spare key to the flat. “You wouldn’t answer the phone, or the door, and I was worried.”

“He was not the only one,” Liesje muttered. 

Whatever had or hadn’t happened, she needed to pee. Badly. “Bathroom,” she croaked. “Bathroom now, heart later.” She didn’t care if it was about to explode, so long as she got to pee.

Liesje helped her to her feet, and she tried not to think about just how much mystique she was probably losing in this state. The tile floor was cold beneath her bare feet, but she managed to take care of the necessities and even wash her face (no moisturizers, though, because she just did not have the energy. She already looked like Death left out in the rain for three days; moisturizer wasn’t going to do a damn thing.) 

“Katje, I think you need to go to the hospital.” Liesje’s pale face swam before Katje’s eyes. “Your fever is very high.”

“What if it’s the fever?” Adlar’s voice was low, heavy with anger and worry. “Liesje, if they’re in the hospital —”

Whatever he said next was a mystery, for Katje’s consciousness slipped a little. Sitting upright was just too much effort, and she slumped against Liesje. The woman’s skin was so soft, and smelled very faintly of rose water. Artificial scents weren’t allowed in hospital, but rose water, Liesje had once told her, reminded her of a favorite, long-deceased grandmother.

“And if she seizes? Adlar, I have nothing here — no magnesium, no saline—”

Again, sound faded, and Katje was dimly aware that someone was taking her frigid, sweaty top off. It was only a pity she was in no condition at all to appreciate it.

“You know what will happen if she’s got something,” Adlar hissed. “Something obvious.”

Katje scowled. She didn’t have any diseases, thank you very much — she was very careful about that. The air was so chilly against her skin, but one or both of them wiped at her body with damp cloths. They were even chillier, but it felt better than stale sweat.

“Help me with the tub, then. Her fever must come down somehow, and then she needs to drink. Go, fill it with lukewarm water.”

An absolutely frigid metal circle pressed against her chest, and it took a moment for her unsteady mind to realize it was a stethoscope. Liesje had something of a kink for them, and they could be surprisingly fun if you got creative. There was definitely nothing enjoyable about it now, however.

“Yes, I know this is no fun,” Liesje said, “and it will be even less fun soon, but we have to get your fever down somehow.”

What the hell does that mean? Katje didn’t have the energy to ask aloud, or even to help when Adlar took her trousers off. She had a hazy, dim annoyance that she hadn’t shaved her legs in two days, but she didn’t care and she doubted they did, either.

Somehow both of her clients got her onto her feet again — not exactly easy, given she was quite a bit taller than Liesje, and nearly of a height with Adlar — and brought her, stumbling, into the bathroom. She had no idea what they meant to do until she found herself lowered, feet-first, into a tub of water that felt as frigid as an Arctic sea.

Katje tensed, and jerked away — at least, she tried to. Liesje caught her before she could climb out of the tub. 

“Katje, I know this must feel awful, but you need it. Your temperature is over forty degrees.”

“Forty?” Surely that couldn’t be right — not when she felt so terribly cold, half-submerged now in the icy water. “Why is this so —”

She couldn’t finish the question. She couldn’t even fight Liesje’s gentle but incredibly firm hold on her shoulders.

“It’s not cold, Katje, it just feels like it because your fever is so high. Five minutes and we will take you out.”

A hand — Adlar’s, she thought — brushed the tangled, sweat-sticky hair back from her forehead, only to snatch itself away a moment later. She was vaguely aware of a startled hiss.

“God, Liesje, she’s burning.”

“Hence the bath.” Katje fancied she could hear the poor woman rolling her eyes. “Get some panadol, if she has any. It’s better than nothing.”

Perhaps he went, or perhaps he did not; Katje was too distracted by the sudden rush of chilly water through her hair to notice. Liesje’s soft hand smoothed it over her forehead, and her face.

“I know this will be hard, but Katje, when we take you out, you need to drink water — as much as you can. Keep sipping, even if you aren’t thirsty.”

Thought of eating or drinking anything at all was almost too much to bear, given the pain in her throat, but Katje was in no condition to argue. She was just pathetically grateful to be brought out of the tub, limp as a noodle and helpless as a baby. Somehow, she found herself dried and dressed in clean pajamas, soft cotton that was nowhere near warm enough. She shivered so hard she was sure her bones would break apart, but Adlar caught her before she could burrow back under her duvet.

“No,” he said, and she suddenly had a glass of water pressed into her left hand. “Take this, Katje and drink.”

Her throat was so sore that she could barely swallow the pills, and sipping at the water was pure torment. When unconsciousness took her again, it was a mercy.

 

~

 

How long she slept, she didn’t know, but Katje woke feeling much less awful. Exhausted, wrung-out, but at least she no longer wished she was dead. 

A trip to the bathroom made things even nicer, though her reflection looked like absolute hell. Once she actually felt like a human, it would be time for some serious self-care.

When she stumbled her way back out into her bedroom, she found Rien beside her bed. Liesje or Adlar must have called him, because he worked from home and could most easily stay with her. He was no longer her client — he’d graduated from the Katje Academy of Women 101 — but they’d stayed in touch.

“You should eat,” he said, “and rest.” His expression was calm, but he was pale, and even tired as she was, she did not miss the strain in his voice. 

“I’m not hungry,” she said, though even as she spoke she realized that wasn’t true — her stomach gurgled audibly even as he helped her out to the sitting-room, and got her settled on the sofa with a fuzzy red blanket.

“Of course you aren’t,” he said, and she doubted she imagined the relief in his tone. “Some broth, at least, and toast if you can manage it. I will change your bed.”

Somehow, food happened before she could say a word, and she even managed to eat some of it before she fell asleep again, curled in a ball on the sofa.

When she woke once more, she found Liesje beside her, tension written in her every line. “Katje, when you feel better, you need to go,” the woman said, low and urgent. “You have a passport, yes?”

Katje nodded, but her abused, half-cooked brain refused to fully comprehend any of that.

“Go, then. Go to Canada — get far away from Europe. We’ve all pooled money for you to stay somewhere, until things blow over.”

“What things?” The words were almost lost in a yawn. “Liesje, what in fuck are you talking about?”

The woman looked at Rien, who looked back with an expression Katje didn’t like at all. It wasn’t just worried — there was actual fear in his hazel eyes.

“Things are happening to people who had the fever,” Liesje said. “Strange things. I don’t know why, but I do know men have come and taken all the patients away, even when they’re better. Nobody knows where they go, not even the families. If they know you had it, even now you’re over it…”

“They started shooting people,” Rien added. “The news suppressed it, but I’ve heard things online. You’ll be safe in Canada, until things…stabilize.”

Katje’s eyes flickered from one to the other, and dread coiled cold within her.

 

~

 

Three countries, three illnesses, and three people as yet unknown to one another. One man whose vision is filled with auras delicate as an aurora, one woman whose mind is no longer her own, and another woman still in ignorance of the curse bestowed upon her spirit, legacy of that strange sickness. None yet with any inkling of what awaits, of the hideous trials that lay ahead of them.

The fever is only the beginning. 

 

~

 

This story is the first of a pair, both of which precede The Curse of M (first chapter may be found here.) The fever is indeed only the beginning.

The Curse of M

June, 2012

Lorna shivered, hugging her coat closer about her, and glanced uneasily upward. The sky was grey, heavy with leaden clouds that hung dark and sullen over the expanse of Puget Sound. The water churned, frothing into whitecaps as fitful winds gusted from the west. She’d already been kicked out of two corners at the Pike Place Market, and lost half a day’s money; panhandling in Seattle was a lot harder than it looked, especially since she was far from the only one with a guitar. 

City’s too damn weird, she thought, and not for the first time. How was she to stand a chance against the girl asking for someone to make her dreams of a cheeseburger come true? Or, worse, the one with the sign that read, ‘Ninjas killed my family, need money for kung fu lessons’? If she’d realized Seattle was so full of eccentrics, she would have gone somewhere else. It was too hard to stand out enough to attract enough notice.

She made it undercover before the rain started in earnest, clutching her guitar case close. On weekdays, she’d found, the Market was actually possible to navigate without having to kick people; at half an inch shy of five feet tall, Lorna would often get literally stepped on in crowds. The guitar case helped — it was a little over half as tall as she was, and she could use it like a shield against jostling.

There was a restaurant near the main entrance, an old-fashioned place with prices reasonable enough to allow her a sandwich and a cup of tea. She’d been in the States two months now, long enough to properly get the hang of American currency — and to discover life here was nearly as expensive as it was in Ireland. She wormed her way toward it now, shivering again as the wind picked up.

 — damn weather  —

 — weird  —

 — windows are down  —

 — great, the basement will flood again  —

 — something smells good  —

 — oh God, what did I just step in  —

Lorna winced, pressing her free hand to her temple. She knew there was nothing to be done for it — God knew she’d tried — and it was almost enough to drive her back to drink. Why the fuck did it have to be this one? Oh, it wasn’t a flashy Curse, not something that would get her caught (or shot) on sight, but at times it felt like her brain was being squeezed. A dull headache lurked at the edges of her mind, just waiting for the right moment descend on her like the bricks beneath her boots.

Unfortunately, she needed a crowd if she were to successfully panhandle, so she had no choice but to suck it up and deal with it. If she was lucky, food would stave it off until she could get to her bus and lay down for a while.

It was the fever that had preceded the Curses – a fever and a cough, like the worst case of flu a person could imagine. It swept across the globe in less than a week, and the only reason it hadn’t been called the pandemic from hell was that a relatively small percentage of people actually caught it. It would have wound up nothing more than a footnote, if not for what followed. Where the virus went, magic followed, and it did so with a vengeance – whether anyone liked it or not. So far nobody, especially the Cursed, did.

The restaurant, she found, was busy, but not as jammed as she’d feared. It was big, with a high ceiling, worn hardwood floors, and large plate-glass windows looking out over Puget Sound. The water was even choppier now, the sky alarmingly dark. Fat raindrops, wind-borne, splatted against the glass, and she sighed. There was no way she was heading back to her bus until this cleared up.

She’d been in here often enough that the hostess knew her by sight, and directed her to the counter with a wordless wave. A number of scents drifted to her from the kitchen beyond, all delicious, and her stomach growled like the thunder outside as she clambered up onto one of the tall barstools, carefully leaning her guitar beside her. 

The aroma reminded her, achingly, of Jamie’s — of the pub and the life she’d left behind with it. Grease, coffee, baked ham, a sweet mingling of fruit pies…all that was missing was the beer. What the village must have thought of her abrupt flight didn’t bear considering; every time she let any thought of it creep in, an acidic pit formed within her stomach. She owed them all so much, but she’d fled like a thief in the night, and hadn’t dared contact even her sister. It wasn’t safe, and not only for Lorna herself.

“Haven’t kicked you out yet, huh?”

Lorna glanced at the man beside her, and gave a tired grin. He was an older man, perhaps in his sixties, with a face weather-lined and a shaggy mop of salt-and-pepper hair. She didn’t know his name, and hadn’t given him hers, but he’d been her semi-companion at lunch for the last week. Tending bar, she’d learned to read people well enough, and the weariness in his faded eyes was not wholly from age. At times they bore the same hunted, harried expression she’d seen in her own reflection — if he wasn’t Cursed himself, she’d be very, very surprised.

“Not yet,” she said. “Only a matter’v time before they get sick’v us both, though.” And Jesus, where will I go then? Portland? San Diego? 

The approaching waitress snorted. “Nobody’ll boot you, as long as you keep buying stuff. Same as yesterday?”

Lorna nodded, and flinched when a clap of thunder broke right overhead. It was so close and so loud that it rattled the old man’s mug on the counter. As if on cue, the wind picked up, misting the windows with a fine spray of salt water.

“Is this what you call normal around here?” she asked, when the waitress returned with a mug of hot water and a tea bag. (American tea; Lorna would never get used to it. Who put the bag in the cup? Honestly.)

The woman frowned, her expression blank until she translated what was likely a garble to her — Lorna’s Dublin accent was so thick that she’d been asked, more than once, if she spoke English. It had stopped being amusing after the first three times. “Not until recently,” she said. “People keep trying to blame it on climate change, but if you ask me, it’s got something to do with all the Curses floating around. Whatever they even are. Seems like every time there’s a storm, more people get dragged off. It’s like the storms out them as Cursed, or something.”

Lorna didn’t choke, but it was a near thing. She felt the old man freeze beside her, and a jolt of his dread hit her in the solar plexus like a half-brick in a sock. “You’ve got the Men in Grey here?” she asked. Christ, she’d thought it was safe, even if just for now — there hadn’t been any reports of them this far west, last time she’d checked the news (four days ago. Shit.)

The waitress sighed. “Is there anywhere that doesn’t? Hang on, hon, I think your order’s up.”

Lorna glanced at the old man. She didn’t need her useless telepathy to know what he was thinking. While she didn’t know where he stayed, she’d been living out of an ancient VW Bus, and she’d be an absolute shit if she didn’t at least give him a ride somewhere safer. And where the hell do you think that might even be? a nasty little voice whispered, from somewhere within her growing headache. You’re out of West, Lorna.

Oh, piss off. That voice had grown ever more insistent in the last week, no matter how creatively she swore at it. There were times it felt like it wasn’t even hers.

When her sandwich arrived, she ate half of it in three large bites, grabbing a takeaway box for the rest. “Come on,” she said quietly. “That’s got to be our cue. I’ve got a bus in a car park up the hill, and I’m thinking it’d be best if we weren’t visible for a while.”

She hopped off the stool and snatched up her guitar case, ignoring his startled look. He seemed poised to question her, but she forestalled it with a glare. They could hash out her motives later. Lorna dropped a twenty off at the hostess’ station — more than her tab, and certainly more than she could afford — and shoved the old man out in front of her.

“You’re taller,” she explained, when he glanced over his shoulder at her. “People’ll actually get out’v your way.”

They hadn’t even made it back to the Market proper when somebody screamed. It was more than a mere cry of alarm; there was real fear in it, and a frision of worry passed through Lorna. Pain and shock from God knew how many people slapped her like a physical thing, momentarily stealing her breath. Something came crashing down, something far too close — not the roof, but at least one stall.

 — Tricia says there’s two more in here  —

 — got the main entrance covered  —

 — the hell do we always have to catch them in this weather  —

Lorna swore in Irish, and prodded her pseudo-friend in the back with her guitar case. “Go,” she said; she had to stand on her tiptoes to at least try to hiss into his ear. “We’ve got company at the entrance, so we’ve got to weasel our way out the back. Don’t run unless somebody else does.” Cold though the wind was, she was sweating, her mouth dry and pulse racing. Nobody actually knew what happened to the Cursed when they got caught, but there were whispers, and none of them were good.

Her quasi-friend halted so abruptly that she slammed into his back, and got a face full of damp, slightly smelly wool. She swore again, wiping her face on her equally damp sleeve, and peered around his arm.

Shit.

Nobody knew just what the Men in Grey were, who they worked for or what they really did. All anybody did know was that where they went, the Cursed disappeared — the Cursed, and anyone who tried to intervene. Not that there were many of those. They were, as the name suggested, men in bland grey suits, often fitted with earpieces and sunglasses, like bad impersonations of Secret Service agents. On the surface they were so cliché that it could be difficult taking them seriously at first, which was probably the point, but they’d gained one hell of a reputation.

Now what? Lorna wondered, a little wildly. If she’d been alone, she would have ooched her way through the crowd and run like buggery, her height for once an advantage, but she wasn’t alone. Rationally, she probably didn’t have much to fear, since both she and her almost-mate looked as normal as anyone else, but somehow, the Men in Grey always seemed to know. Maybe there was no real hope of blending in.

Lightning flashed, so brightly that even undercover, the strobe-glare was momentarily blinding. Lorna blinked, disoriented, and on instinct she shoved her companion to the left. Sunglasses, or no, the MiG would be as temporarily blinded as everyone else, and she meant to use that to disappear into the heavier part of the crowd.

“Pushy, aren’t you?” her companion asked, just before a clap of thunder actually rattled the roof.

Lorna wasn’t the only one who jumped, and she certainly wasn’t the only one who swore. “Oh, you’ve not seen pushy yet,” she said, though if his ears were ringing as badly as hers, he might not have heard her. “What in hell’ve we got ahead’v us?” she asked, louder, once again right into his ear.

He half-turned. “Booth blew over,” he said. “Think it landed on a couple people.” If he was at all afraid, he certainly wasn’t showing it; only the grim set of his mouth betrayed any worry at all. God did she envy him.

A surge of terror not her own crashed into her mind like a brick — terror, and a pain so intense it almost made her ill. She caught a glimpse of one of the grey-suited bastards through someone else’s eyes, the dull, phantom thump of what was probably a punch to the kidneys echoing through her back. Oh god dammit, OW.

Before she could do or say a thing, another booth went crashing down — from the discordant jangling, she’d wager it was one of the jewelry-stalls. More screams, and far more swearing, and suddenly the tide of the crowd turned against them, a stampede headed for the relative shelter near the entrance. Even her companion, tall though he was, couldn’t stand against it — he was the one who ran into her now, forced backward by sheer press of numbers.

Lorna staggered, losing her grip on her takeaway bag and nearly dropping her guitar. Her back still ached with someone else’s pain, the bright afterspots of the lightning still danced before her eyes, and she was well and truly fed up. She’d never let anyone shove her around back home, and she didn’t intend to start now.

“Blow this,” she said, the words practically a snarl. She turned, ready to kick whoever was nearest her out of her way  —

 — and found herself face-to-chest with one of the MiG.

“Shit,” she breathed, heart lurching in her throat. She kicked anyway, even harder than she’d intended. Her boots, one of the few things she’d brought from Ireland, were steel-toed, and she heard the crack of his kneecap even over the panicked din.

He dropped like a lead balloon, and actually howled. Real professional there, mate, she though. Rather than flee, she went right over him, seizing her almost-friend’s coat with her free hand.

“Well, damn,” he said, half admiring. She didn’t miss the rather vicious kick he delivered himself.

In spite of her mounting rage, Lorna laughed. It was a slightly hysterical laugh, but it felt good nonetheless.

“Let’s blow this Popsicle stand,” he said. “I need a weapon.”

She blinked, stumbling when someone bumped her shoulder. “A weapon?”

He didn’t respond, but he did try to pat down the prone Man in Grey, who was now also sporting a bloody head wound. To her companion’s obvious disappointment, the MiG didn’t seem to have a gun on him.

Not that it really mattered — they both got knocked away from him, separated by a thundering herd of schoolchildren who must have been on a class trip. Lorna lost sight of him, and cringed when she accidentally whacked a kid with her guitar case. She was little enough that she could probably squeeze her way out among them, but she couldn’t just leave her almost-friend, who was rapidly losing the ‘almost’ status.

She struggled back toward him as gingerly as she could, trying not to smack any more children. The wind had whipped the Sound into such a frenzy that she actually tasted salt on her lips, her face chilled by the frigid spray. If this kept up, the Men in Grey might be the least of their problems. Did America get hurricanes on the west coast? She didn’t think so, but there was a first time for everything.

No sooner had she cleared the gaggle of kids than someone else grabbed her, a large hand clamping onto her left shoulder like a vice. It was another MiG, his suit damp and rumpled, and his expression was downright murderous.

Undignified though it was, Lorna screamed, and swung her guitar case around. It smacked him in the chest, hard enough to break his grip and send him staggering. She cringed at the thought of what it must be doing to the guitar itself, but that could be worried about later. If she had a later. Don’t let this be how I die. I’m not going out like this. 

The man flailed, and she hit him again, using the case as a monstrous, awkward club. She didn’t even hit many other people, because the press of the crowd lessened as it lumbered onward — much of it toward the restaurant.

“Will — you — leave — off!” she cried, and hit him square in the jaw. Persistent bastard, she’d give him that, but the weight of the guitar and her own relentless assault drove him back. Men. Bloody grabby, pushy, grasping men — she’d had more than enough of them for one lifetime, thanks so fucking much.

She jumped when a salmon went sailing overhead, smacking him full in the face. For a moment she paused, blinking, but only a moment — it was an odd sort of distraction, but she’d use it. Back she scrabbled, hunting her lost companion.

Another fish went flying over her head, this one shedding chunks of crushed ice. Somebody was raiding one of the fish stalls, hurling salmon like stinky, slimy missiles. They weren’t aiming, either — the fish hit whoever and whatever happened to be in the way, which only added to the chaos. She wished she’d thought of it first.

Her boots slipped on the wet, ice-strewn pavement, and she almost crashed into the now-lopsided display. Her new best friend, it seemed, was the salmon-bomber; he’d hurled half the fish already, and had another in his hand when she grabbed his sleeve.

“C’mon, Red Baron,” she said. She had to shout to be heard. “I think we’d best be off.”

He didn’t get a chance to retort — the entire roof groaned as it tilted sideways, water sluicing down onto everyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. Lorna instinctively ducked, though there was no real point; she wound up soaked anyway. With a growl and a curse, she took off across the treacherous pavement, dragging her companion with a strength that always surprised people. She was vaguely aware that he was still slapping people with a fish, wielding the salmon like a smelly cudgel. Jesus, what was he, before the Curses? 

Another unfortunate MiG got a face full of salmon, and a pointy elbow to the rib cage immediately after. Unlike the others, he didn’t go down so easily — Lorna had to slam her forehead into his nose and knee him in the groin. Of course his nose spouted blood like a fountain, spraying over her hair and face, stinging in her eyes and temporarily washing her vision red.

Lorna swore, ignoring the screams that erupted at the sight of so much blood. Wiping her face on her sleeve did nothing but spread it around, and she gave up when they staggered out into the storm. The rain would take care of it on its own.

It was bucketing now, the wind blowing it almost horizontal: fat, heavy drops that felt hard as marbles. It slipped beneath the collar of her coat, turned the hems of her too-long jeans into wet shackles.

At least her boots had a little more traction, and she used it as she bodily dragged her fish-wielding friend away from the crowd. There were so many alien thoughts in her head that she gave up trying to think herself, relying on instinct as she fled the scene of…well, it wasn’t her crime, but it was a crime, all right. They just had to reach her damn bus, which was up a somewhat nasty hill. What they would do after that didn’t matter.

Overhead, a streetlight shattered, the bulb going off like a small glass bomb. Christ, was someone shooting at them? She didn’t dare pause to check — if there was a sniper, she could only pray the rain would fuck up his aim.

Her friend stumbled behind her, and for a horrible moment she thought he’d been shot, but no — the gale-force wind had literally ripped his fishy weapon from his hand. He cursed, but didn’t try to retrieve it — fortunately, because Lorna would have hauled him along like a sack if he’d tried. She’d be damned if she’d drop her guitar, though: it made a more effective weapon than a salmon.

Lightning forked overhead, a brief, brilliant filigree against the blackness of the clouds, followed by a clap of thunder that rattled her jaw. A stray thought hit her: was one of the Cursed doing this? Was there another one out there — one who could muck with the weather? There were, she knew, Cursed that could do that, though they rarely did it on purpose. Half the reason people were so afraid of the Cursed was because so many of them couldn’t actually control their Curses, which occasionally had lethal consequences to anyone around them.

Her legs burned as she hauled arse up the hill, though not nearly so much as her lungs — sheer lack of money had forced her to quit smoking when she reached America, but it had only been two months. She was panting like a dog on a hot day, now as furious with herself as she was with everything else. Not so long ago, she could have made a run like this without breaking a sweat, but she was sure as hell sweating now, and not only from adrenaline.

“I’m too old for this shite,” she muttered, though she shouldn’t be — she was only thirty-three, for Christ’s sake. She had no excuse for being this out-of-shape, but the only real exercise she got was shifting beer-barrels.

Her friend, it seemed, didn’t share her problem: he kept up with her easily, and might have outpaced her if he’d let himself. That was even more embarrassing, since he had to be at least twice her age.

Another streetlight blew, and another — if there was a sniper, he had piss-poor aim. If nothing else, they had that in their favor, however dire the situation might be.

 — up ahead, going up the hill  —

 — pay for that  —

Oh, no. No. Lorna’s fists itched to hit someone, to sock at least one of the twats in the jaw, but the desire wasn’t strong enough to make her want to actually have to confront any of them. She scanned the street as best she could through the deluge, but her eyes were still blurry and stinging from her unfortunate blood shower. 

 — see them. Wish I could just shoot them both  —

 — get a promotion for this  —

Lorna snarled, white-hot rage crowding out anything else her mind might cough up, singing in her veins like sweet music. This she could use; anger and her were old friends, and it kept her going, smashing hesitation and indecision into bits before either could even try to take hold. Her grip on her companion’s hand tightened until she felt the bones creak, but if he made any sound of pain or protest, she didn’t hear it.

She felt them before she saw them — two Men in Grey came pelting toward them from the right. They looked like drowned rats, but one of them was armed with what looked, to Lorna’s blurry eyes, like a taser.

Once again, sheer instinct took over. She released her companion’s hand and swung the guitar case in a wide, clumsy arc. It was completely graceless, but it worked — the heavy end caught the man full in the face, knocking him back into the second.

Lorna hit him again, but this time the handle broke. The case went flying, but so did her attacker, dropping his taser. Unfortunately, it cracked into a dozen pieces when it hit the pavement. She’d get no use out of it. Admit it, she thought, you’d probably just zap yourself if you tried.

The second man scrambled to his feet with a glower, but the guitar itself cracked him upside the head. Her friend must have pried the case open when she wasn’t looking, and his second swing hit so hard the neck snapped in half.

In spite of everything, Lorna winced at the death of her poor instrument. Priorities, she told herself, fumbling through her coat pockets. Her fingers were chilled to the point of numbness, but they found her keys nonetheless. She yanked on her companion’s sleeve, and shoved them into his hand.

“Green van,” she said. “Stomp the accelerator or it won’t start.”

He pushed his sodden hair out of his eyes, staring at her. “What the hell are you gonna do?”

“You’re faster than me. Go, will you? I’ll catch up.”

She struggled after him, bent nearly double against the wind. Even unencumbered by the guitar, her sodden clothes, all too big, might as well have been lead weights. Neither of the men behind her was in any condition to give chase, fortunately, and if there were others, Lorna couldn’t sense them. While she was running on adrenaline, she’d crash soon enough, and she wanted to be well away before she did.

When she finally made it to the car park, she found her friend swearing at the bus. The engine coughed and shuddered as he pressed the gas, but it refused to turn over. He’d left the driver’s-side door open, so of course half the interior was soaked.

“Shove over,” she said, actually shoving him for emphasis. His clamber over the gearshift was far from graceful, and he swore like a sailor when his foot got stuck between the console and the dashboard.

“Welcome to the circus,” Lorna muttered, wrenching the door shut. Now that she wasn’t running, she was chilled through, her temper growing fouler by the second. “Come on, come on.”

The engine coughed again, and roared to life when she floored the accelerator. Even yet she hadn’t quite got the hang of American cars, or at least not of this monstrosity – from her perspective, everything was on the wrong side — and she fumbled with the gearshift before she got it into reverse. The tires, nearly bald, squealed and slipped on the wet pavement, sending the entire bus lurching to the right.

“You actually drive this thing?” he asked, and gripped the dashboard.

“More or less. Live in it, too.” She winced as the undercarriage scraped the curb. “What are you doing?”

He was, in fact, rifling through the pockets of his huge overcoat. “Grabbed this off one of the goons,” he replied. From some inner pocket, he produced an actual bloody handgun. “Not much, but it’s loaded.”

Lorna snorted in disbelief. “When did you manage that? And just what is it with you Americans and guns?” She’d never even touched one herself, but she had a hazy idea that there was more to it than just pointing and pulling the trigger. Recoil, or something like that.

He did something that made the gun go click. “I’ll give you the lecture later. Will this thing actually make it up this hill?”

“Oi, no insulting my ride.” She leaned forward to wipe the condensation off the windshield, but all she did was smear it around. The ancient windscreen wipers didn’t do her any favors, either.

A stray thought hit her brain — not words, but an image. Somebody was very nearby, and they were looking right at her bus.

 — there you are  —

“Oh, shite.” A fresh burst of adrenaline filled her veins as she stomped the gas again. The engine protested when she slammed it straight into fourth gear, peeling up the hill with another screech of tires. “Is that thing loaded? ‘Cause I think we might need it in a minute.”

“Well, fuck.” The window squeaked as he rolled it down, and rain immediately blasted in. “Where?”

“Don’t know. Close, somewhere ahead’v us on the left.” Lorna’s heart was in her throat again, anger joining the adrenaline in a red-hot wave.

“Head right at the stop sign. If we can reach the freeway, we’re golden.”

Yeah, if, she thought. The intersection was momentarily empty, and she prayed she wouldn’t hit anyone who might be approaching.

The bus shuddered again when she turned hard right, and for a second she was afraid it would tip over. What was that bloody game her nephew played — Grand Theft Auto? It was a lot less fun in reality.

There weren’t any cars, but there was, at the next intersection, a police barricade. She had no space to pull a U-turn, even if she thought the bus could handle it. The thing looked unmanned, so she kept the accelerator floored.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

“Hang on.”

“To what? My own ass?”

Lorna didn’t answer, because there was no answer to be given. The wooden barrier splintered apart when she hit it — whatever else might be said of her bus, it was sturdy as a tank — and she gave a triumphant laugh. “Pog mo thoíne, jacknob. Shut the damn window, will you? I think you can put the gun away.”

“What does that mean?” he asked, struggling with the window. The icy blast of rain couldn’t be helping his grip.

“‘Kiss my ass’.” It was amazing, really, what you could get away with saying in America; she’d yet to find a single person who spoke a word of Irish. More than once in her panhandling, she’d sung songs made up entirely of curses, and nobody knew the difference.

 — ran the damn barrier. Are they even worth it  —

“Oh, come on,” she growled. “They just don’t quit, do they?”

She didn’t get to finish the sentence. The front tires blew with a deep, explosive, echoing boom. The bus pitched forward, back tires actually lifting off the pavement, and Lorna’s stomach lurched with it.

The steering wheel refused to respond — the bus careened wildly, spinning what felt like a hundred and eighty degrees. Lorna barely had time to recognize the second crash, and less time to register pain, before she flew at the windscreen and everything went black.

 

~

This is the first chapter of the first book in the M series. The rest can be found on Amazon; it can be read for free with the Kindle app. The series itself is dark urban fantasy, in which magic returned to Earth and promptly punched it in the metaphorical face. Within it are a hefty number of disasters both natural and magical, human nature at its best and worst, and unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects — along with a side-order of humor. Among humanity, there are no absolutes; society can surprise even the most cynical.

Fire

Unlike poor California, Washington has managed to escape fire season without too much incident this year. Imagine my surprise when this happened across the river:

vlcsnap-2019-10-28-19h40m12s811

The image quality is terrible, because my camera is not exactly stellar and I had to zoom in quite a lot. Fortunately this was backed up against an orchard, which right now is too wet to burn. My guess is some eejit didn’t fully douse their burn pile and then the wind picked up. Fortunately it only took a few hours to get it out, but that wasn’t a great thing to be seeing.

In other news, I’ve been pretty ill the last few weeks, hence why I’ve been all but silent here. My stomach has decided it hates me, and my doctor is still trying to figure out why. Her best guess so far is IBS, which…no thanks. There’s not really anything that can be done about that aside from finding (and avoiding) potential triggers, which so far seems to be quite a number of foods I actually enjoy. (I’m not and never have been a foodie, and I already had a limited diet thanks to no longer having a gallbladder.) Coming up with meals that are actually appealing has been an exercise in both creativity and frustration, but I’ll get there eventually.

Sleepless

The dead don’t sleep, no matter how much they wish they could.

Fun Fact: I actually saw a woman get struck by lightning on a Seattle pier as a kid. (It was a little bolt, and it hit her umbrella, so the worst it did was make her jump.) We all decided it was time to get inside. This is related to Death After Life, though it stands on its own. The first in Sharley’s stories is Sanitarium, but all of them are designed to be read independently.

 ~

One o’clock on a wild, windy Seattle morning, and Sharley couldn’t sleep. She never would again.

Sitting still was not always possible at night, so she wandered. There was nothing in the darkness more dangerous than she was; she had nothing at all to fear, though anyone who accosted her sure as hell did.

Out she went, into the rain and wind. Heat and cold were matters of indifference to her now, so she wore only a T-shirt and jeans so old they were soft as cotton. The rain on her skin was wonderful, because she felt it — the chill made her feel, for the moment at least, something close to alive. The heavy drops were hard as stones, soaking shirt and hair in minutes, wicking up from the hems of her jeans. Wind carded through her sodden hair, fresh and ever-so-slightly salty, for she was not far from the shores of Puget Sound.

Here, for now, she was free. Alone, there were none to stare; her pallor and the scars of the wounds that killed her could attract no notice if there was no one to see them. She really doubted any of them saw her for what she really was (because everyone knew that dead was dead, and it wasn’t as though she decayed in any way), but so many of them seemed, subconsciously at least, to register what she wasn’t. The older she got, the harder it was to act like them, or to understand why she should.

Lightning split the sky, and Sharley laughed aloud in unfettered delight. Thunderstorms were a rarity in Seattle, but she felt just as much power in them now as she had when she still lived. The resultant thunder was so deep and so loud that it shuddered all through her, a brief, fleeting facsimile of the heartbeat she no longer had. Breathing was a conscious effort that wasn’t worth it unless she spoke, but now breathe she did. It was bracing, brisk, and probably other words starting with ‘b’, though she couldn’t remember any. The rain on her face stood in for the tears she was unable to shed, cold and clean and pure.

Another flash, and another rumble of thunder, and Sharley turned her face skyward as the ghost of static danced over her bloodless skin. She thought of Frankenstein, of galvanism, and her bare feet carried her out to the shoreline, to the piers. In places she had to all but wade, for the drains, clogged with brilliant autumn leaves, had no hope in such a downpour. The streetlights glowed with golden halos, so bright against the blackened sky.

Flash. Flash. Veins of jagged silver darted from cloud to cloud, nearly overhead, and the thunder sent a remembrance of adrenaline surging through her useless veins. The wind wound around her like a caress, so powerful and so, so alive. Beneath her feet, the water buffeted the supports of Pier 56, the Sound stirred to surging whitecaps as far as she could see. Oh, she needed to get out of the city — she needed to get back to the mountains, away from the prying eyes of the living.

A bolt of lightning as delicate as filigree shot down, and struck her right on the brow, and for a moment — one beautiful, ephemeral, wonderful moment — her heart beat. Her nerves sparked as they had when she lived, and for that one instant she felt the true chill of the rain and wind. For that single, transient, fully involuntary breath, she was alive. The rain-tears on her face were beautiful, not sorrowful.

Yes, she needed to go. This was not her world anymore; should anyone see her out here, she would have much explaining to do, and she had no wish to. There would be more storms — more stolen seconds of life. This was a world of so much beauty, but she could no longer share it with the living.

A change was coming — of that she was entirely certain — but unless she was much mistaken, it was yet years away. Until then, she would be a phantom in the mountains, save for the tiny snatches of impermanent life. Perhaps, someday, she might live again — or perhaps she might pass on, and go wherever it was people went in death.

Until then, she would watch for storms.