It doesn’t matter how this begins.
I’ve had three glasses of what passes for gin in Eight to the Bar, and something that the bartender called rum but tasted like motor oil and gunpowder.
I’m not drunk. I’m just talking out loud to myself.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve died and died and died again, and rolled and rolled and rerolled yourself together.
Once, and once, if you’re asking. I’m not one of those who hate the way I remembered myself and walk back out into the inbetween and let myself be wiped out so I can start over.
“Why not?” asks the woman. She’s been here for a while, I think, balanced on the edge of her barstool, the stem of her Martini glass plucked between pale fingers. She raises the glass. Lowers it. Never drinks. She has eyes like the moon. I don’t mean that poetically. I mean she has bits of dusty grey rock for eyes and she weeps silver light. Her tears leave fluorescent puddles on the wooden bar counter, and turn her drink bright acid absinthe.
She’s not one of them, though. Too human looking, despite her moon eyes and her pallid skin and her coterie of satellite sisters who are ranged about her like she’s a queen and they’re her bodyguards. If she was Fay, she’d be prettier. Perfect. She would hurt to look at. She would laugh while she ate me.
Or if I was really unlucky, she would give me a job.
I blink, swivel so that my gun arm points lazily in her direction, and show her my teeth. Bullet cases, silver and bright.
She doesn’t react.
“I invite you to this conversation?” I sneer at her, but she merely cocks her head and pretends to sip at her tear-filled drink.
“You’re not having a conversation. You’re sitting alone.”
The bar is packed. I’m not here alone. I just have a lot of space around me. Even in the busiest drinking holes in New Hope, filled with sinners and screamers of every tab and type, few people choose to sit next to a gunman. Suicide is a pastime, but murder is a sin – you don’t wipe someone out again if they like who they are. But even memories and dreams need to eat, and the Fay pay me well enough.
They used to, anyway. That’s why I’m here, trying to get drunk as a feeb on these abominations that pass for alcoholic beverages. I got a job, and I turned it down.
The Fay hate that.
The woman shifts closer to me, sliding her drink along the counter and ignoring my right arm that hangs between us in warning. My gun arm is easily three times the size of my left, machine sweet, gears and cogs and sights and so hard and shiny.
“So tell me what’s so great about you that you don’t wanna reroll yourself.” Her fingers play with the folds of my loose silk scarf, pale digits slipping into pale folds, tugging lightly.
“Everything.” All of us Divers Peoples have come back from the dead, wrapped around memories and fears and loves. We are the sums of our incomplete nightmares and dreams, shaped to fit a world that no longer exists. I came back with a gun arm and bullet teeth. I shoot other people for a living. It’s better than being dead. Or jackal-headed like the group of men in the far corner, or made of starlight and hunger, squat and armless. I once killed a saint who was a beehive, his mouth full of honey and his head humming with revolution.
I’m not like them. I’m safe. I was born with a weapon. Nothing can get me.
“I wish I could change,” the woman says, and sighs wistfully. “Just… walk out there.” She stops playing with the silk of my scarf, and waves one hand at the packed room, but I know she means the inbetween, that dimension full of human memory and soulstuff and ash and misery. The remains of the human race. “I want to walk out there and unravel.”
She downs her drink and shudders.
“So why don’t you?”
Head bowed, she traces patterns in the mess of luminescent tears on the scarred wood. They drip from her lashes, run down her cheeks. She’s a weeping Madonna, leaving trails of light wherever she goes. “Scared, I guess.”
It’s not a surprise. The dead gods know what she might come back as. Right now she has it pretty sweet – she looks mostly human, even if she’s grey and drippy.
“You might not even come back at all,” I point out. The storms in the inbetween are constant. I’ve been close to the edges of the world, travelled through it. Happens in my line of work. “I’ve seen people march out, marched out. Sometimes they come back. Most times… well, if they do, I wasn’t around to see it.”
She snaps her fingers and the barman hurries over, simian face blanched under the too bright lighting. He pours us both new drinks, and no mention is made of cred. My new friend must be loaded. “What’s your name, stranger?” She raises her glass in mock salute.
I should lie. I just turned down a hunt, because no damn way will I shoot a Muse, and the Fay could make life incredibly unpleasant for me from here on out. That cred balance that looks okay now is gonna look less so in the morning when I’m sober. But they’ll find me, no matter what. They’ll send one of the others after me if they want me dead, and no name changes will save me from that.
It’s not even my real name, as far as I know. Just one that rolled up in my head like a line in a song that won’t leave you. “John.” Or Johnno, or Johnny, or Oh-shit, depending on how we meet.
“I could tell you that my name is Celeste,” she says. “Or Selene. Or Luna.”
“No.” She stirs her drink with a tiny rainbow stick made of sugar. “It’s Valentina. Drink up, Johnny-boy, we have to leave.” She doesn’t tell me why, but I find myself following her orders, downing my not-gin and walking out with her into the night. Her sisters have gone, melted away, if they ever even existed.
“Where are we going?” I ask her. I know New Hope well enough, though I wasn’t rolled here. Unlike most of the Divers Peoples, I’ve travelled from city-node to city-node, tracking quarry through the inbetween. I had the protection of the Fay then, and nothing could unroll me. With a shudder, I realise that my protection is gone. Unless I’m ready to take my chances, I’m stuck in this forsaken hell hole.
New Hope. The city of endless night, haven to sinheads and screamers and every vice known to mankind in all its variations. A Court City; a life-support system for an alien race. I suppose there are worse places to be trapped.
Valentina is a moth following starlight, her cold hand in my one warm one, the weight of my gun arm slowing us as we navigate the silent alleyways. Above us New Hope’s moons shimmer and shadow through the roiling clouds, boring down with the light from non-existent suns. Her lightning towers catch the storms and her edges crackle.
There are folks who live off danger. You could say, people like me, who go hunting through the inbetween to put a baby tooth bullet in the back of some feeb’s head, or the sinheads on their tabs, screaming themselves into an accelerated madness. But we’re the normal ones.
Other people come crawling right up to the palaces and cast anchors at the foot of their hum and panic. Hand in hand, with Valentina, I’m one of them, feeling the fear quicken through my skin and metal, a shiver of livewire dread. And that feeling, it’s cherry, it’s the dust from the angels on 42nd, or the taste of killing. It’s sick and happy, a badgood pit-of-your-stomach flip.
Valentina takes me to a little building, grey and faceless, the pitted concrete slick with water and mould, the neon sign a pink nonsense scrawl against the flickering darkness. Company of Fools. She opens a door onto a den. Not dust or whatever, sugarsweet and sickly, but something new and strange. The place is packed but tiny, so perhaps there are only a handful of people. The mirrors and lights and curtains and veils and trails of smoke and incense stink make the number impossible to hold. Five or fifteen or fifty.
The Company of Fools is a little piece of inbetween. Not really, of course, but a small safe space where people suckle the ash of memories until their heads sing and they think they’re unrolling at the edges. Not for real. Never for real. Like sleeping was to death – full of dreams and darkness, but you always woke up.
After a while I leave the fools to their little deaths and head back to safer ground, far away from Fay palaces. I need cred. I need a place to stay, food to eat, gin to drink, and for all that I need work. Only, who in their right mind is going to give me a job? Legit work, not hunting.
My options are limited. I’ve got one hand, which makes me slow and unsuitable for manual labour. I have a radiant grin, bullet teeth, black suit and tails, a white scarf promise. I look like I’m ready to kill anyone I meet, which is often true, and the only work I’ve ever done involves my gun arm. Protection services, strong-arming, something along those lines.
Perhaps I can apologise for not taking the Muse job. New Hope is a city of second chances, after all. And third and fourth and trillion. Head addled from the gin and the wretched aftertaste of ash, I trace a path through the thinning crowds back to the club where I first saw the Muse.
I’m not usually one for the thunder and pulse of the Collective’s hypnodance sets, but the factory-club is a routine pick-up point. I was there for cred on some mundane contract, a little baby tooth bullet to the head for some undesirable. The Collective was seething with a glitter of starshine and filth, and even I found myself trapped in the melody and spin, my heart aching, my gun arm screaming. There’s only one thing that can affect the Divers Peoples like that.
It was on stage, The Collective dj’s jacked into it, channelling beats and melodies, making the crowd shudder and surge.
There’s something about a Muse that makes living worthwhile. In all this mess of After, they are the only things left that are truly real. Humans, not Divers Peoples. No Muse has ever had to roll itself together out of the shreds of memory and ash. People pay good money to jack into a Muse and download inspiration and imagination, but that’s not something I’ve ever needed or could afford.
I only need Muses to exist because they make me hope.
In that seething crowd, the music storming through the crowd and bowing them like reeds, bass vibrating through the soles of my two tone wingtips, I stood at the centre of an empty circle, smiling my bullet smile.
Mid song, the Muse looked up at me, and I could see nakedness and light inside its eyes. Truth and time, miracles and myths. I fell into its world – my world – and for one moment I was alive, my hands red-stained, gathering my mother’s broken bones. The shock of the real. It hurt too much to keep eye contact and I left the club to go kill someone, to let the smell of blood and shit wash away the memory of the Muse and the promises in its eyes.
Two nights later, Frederik came to me and told me someone stole the Muse, and The Collective will be paying for us to retrieve it and the thief. Sounded fine. Except it wasn’t just The Collective credrolling us our trills, but the Fay. They wanted their pet human back, and maybe I was only meant to be a bit of muscle, but I’m not stupid. Bringing a run-away Muse to the Fay was a slow and painful death sentence. They’d eat the poor fuck alive and make it love them for it.
I said I’d think about it. That’s as close to a no I could give. Next morning the rest of the hunters were gone, and the Fay sent me a little present. A tin box, rusted on the edges and filled with baby teeth. I recognised it. Or I thought I did. My mother, pretending to be the tooth fairy, had kept all my milk teeth, each one exchanged for a shiny coin. I’d found them in a drawer after she died. This tin full of teeth. A rattle of protection charms, keeping me safe. No protection charms for her though, shot in the face during a break-in. Dead because she was in her own house at the wrong time.
Memories are best drowned.
The club looks derelict in the not-light of not-morning, and I’m still dizzy with fatigue and soulstuff traces. Even though the streets are deserted, nothing but rain and debris, feathers and sequins and shit, I’m certain something is watching me. My back itches, and sweat gathers in slow trickles down my skin. They will come for me sooner or later, and when they do, I’m fucked.
The Muse is gone, and I have nowhere to go. I’ll need cred, and fast, if I want to make a run for it. I wonder if there’s any point. Maybe I should just enjoy the last days I have left. With my true hand deep in my pocket, fingers clenched around my tin full of teeth, I trawl the bars of New Hope, getting drunker and drunker, waiting for my death to step out of the shadows.
When the darkness deepens, I head back to Eight to the Bar, hoping to catch a glimpse of the moon one last time.
All seven of the lunar woman are crammed onto the stage in the corner, their voices choiring and shimmering through the garlanded rafters, setting the glass spheres to singing. They sway and croon, arms around each other’s waists as they face the rumpled audience. A poster on one pillar proclaims the act to be The Seven Sisters, and shows the moon-eyed girls in simple pen lines, haloed by bright lines of light. Moonlight spills from their faces, their endless tears spattering their grey dresses and the dog-end littered floor.
I fist the tin full of teeth tighter, the rust flaking into the creases of my fingers. Sitting at the bar, my fake gin waiting, I watch and listen.
Afterwards she heads toward me as though she’s scented gun oil and baby teeth, gum rot, fire powder. “Thought you’d come back,” she says as she slips onto the empty stool.
“Nice music,” I say. “I remember those songs.” And I do, vaguely. They were old as wars back before the world ended, oh johnny oh johnny, heavens above.
“Most don’t.” She takes my untouched gin and nips it. “People think we’ve hired a Muse.”
“People are idiots.”
“But you’re not?”
The tin edges are scraping my hand raw. “Oh no, Valentina. I’m the biggest dumbfuck feeb of the lot.” I should have just taken the job. Who cares what the Fay do to some wayward Muse and the fool who took it. “Turned down a cushy gig,” I say, and run my tongue along the inside of my bullet casings, tasting the fear caught between them, salt and steel.
She takes a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her skirt pockets and dabs the light from her face. “You must have had your reasons. Some gigs aren’t worth the rum.”
There’s no point in explaining to her that the kind of people who employ me aren’t gonna worry about a bum note or a bad crowd. They take things personal. And personal, in gunman terms, is not a good thing for no one.
“Don’t let this vex you,” Valentina says. “I could offer you a job.” She grins and her teeth are opalescent stars. For a moment, I’m blinded, brainless. She puts one long-fingered hand over mine, and her skin is cold and chalky-smooth as polished sandstone. “We can’t talk here. Meet me at the Fools.” Her sisters are sidling toward us through the crowd of music-lovers and moon-lovers, their faces set in celestial disapproval. Valentina lets go my hand and blows me a kiss goodbye.
There’s no point in staying for the Satellite Sisters’ second set, and I walk out into the sweat-drenched night, the moon-women’s vocals following me in silver chimes, exhorting me to straighten up and fly right. I know where Valentina wants me to meet her. The night before, Valentina led me through the city, past the haunts I thought I knew well, and through the maze of winding streets, the smoky speakeasies, the neon bars, the noodle stalls and java carts, until I’d found myself in a part of the city I’d never bothered to tread before.
The endless rain tends to rot everything in the city eventually, and the bridges that spin and span the city, the lightning towers that ring the borders, can make New Hope seem a nightmare churning of constant chaos and decay, but there are places where the ground tricks you and the sinheads and screamer packs thin out. The centre, close to where the Fay have a palace. It’s not a place smart people go.
I heard a theory once how the palaces are extensions of the Fay Ships, visible only in this dimension. It makes as much sense as any of the other rubbish drunk fools spout as they wind their philosophies up around them like cloaks. And it explains why the world, which is strange enough already, gets weirder near the palaces. The world eddies, it shifts and loses focus, and Divers Peoples slip further from where they began. No one likes to be close to the palaces.
And no one wants to get eaten, not at first.
That’s where Valentina would want to meet me later, in her room full of ashhearts and soft water-pipes, where the dreamers unrolled, while outside the city of New Hope stood against the storm, expanding itself memory by memory like a coral reef.
Before last night I’d never believed ashdens really existed. After all, I’d been out there. For real. Walked through the inbetween, or ridden in a traveller’s carriage, and I wanted to unroll about as much as I wanted to be eaten by Fay. But Valentina was missing something important. Not her eyes; that was hardly what mattered. Some hidden part of her that made her hollow and incomplete as a doll that’s had its batteries pulled out the back.
Did I want to go to her and her offer of a job?
I pause in the narrow alley. It’s cold and dark and quiet. The rain falls in a soft haze, a brief respite from the storm, and all around me the street sizzles softly with water. There are no people out. They are locked up in their dens, or hidden away behind glass and stone. Underfoot, the ground pulses, steady, magnetic. A sure indication that I’m near the palace. I can even see it, a little, through the veiling rain, flickering in and out of existence, a twisting spider turning itself inside out and back again. It gives me the cold sweats, that knowledge that at any moment something is going to come up behind you and tear right through your back, pull out your insides and laugh at you as you die. I swallow. The fizz of rain masks out any other noise, but I swear I hear a pitterpatterpausepatter that sets the hair on my neck to stand up like I’m one of those fuckers that rolled together only half-human.
The Fay want me dead, and here I am, right in the middle of their web, because the only feeb stupid enough to be out here so close to a palace this night is me. Valentina is the set-up. There’s no job, no rum-money, no secret trills waiting to land in my cred balance.
A high-pitched sound; a child’s laugh and fox’s scream that got tangled up in each other and forgot which was which. Right at my back and far away. The palace shifts the dimensions around it, pulling the silk threads of past and present and space and memory. My time is up.
The movement happens without thought. One minute I have my back to the Fay, frozecold with the knowledge that it’s going to eat me oh fuck eat me oh johnny oh johnny how you can scream and the next I’m facing it, my gun arm raised, baby teeth bullets chattering through the night rain, tearing into skin and bone, spraying blood across the darkness.
It stares at me as it dies. Eyes wide, as though I’ve made some kind of faux pas. Like it can’t believe what had happened.
Not a Fay.
Just some bonethin kid with his rows of startled eyes. Eight, all unblinking, filled with slow-moving stars, his extra head hanging small and limp against his left shoulder. It takes longer to die. “Why?” it asks in a voice too deep for its babyface, but that’s all it manages before the kid crumples.
Rain mists around us, and I lower my gun arm.
Black water, the faint scent of blood, the final echo of gunshot, and then there is nothing but this body in the endless rain, and me. And no fucking Fay whatsoever.
A faint trace of smoke reaches my mouth, and I taste old blood and burned sugar before the rain washes it all away. The kid sprawls at a weird angle, body twisted, one face wrenched toward the hidden moons and the bitter sky. Lightning cracks in the distance, and in the blackwhite light I see my mother’s face superimposed. A ghosting thing, quick as a wink from an angel. The other head, small and soft-skulled, stays as it is, mouth and eyes still open in accusation.
The fingers on my good hand tremble, and I tuck them deep in my pocket, folding the tin of teeth in my palm. No one saw me shoot down some stupid innocent kid. No one saw the thieves who shot my mother in the face and left the world darker and emptier.
My throat is dry, and I open my mouth to swallow the endless rain. My mother was murdered, and my memories of her made me a murderer. The teeth are a warning that my time is up and the only person who has taken the time to talk to me like I was real is some weeping singer who can’t see what I am. All she wants to do is die. Not even die. She wants to be erased.
That body in the rain isn’t going anywhere, and soon enough someone is gonna find it and find the baby teeth bullets chewed into its meat, and someone is going to come for me. In New Hope Fay contracted murder is fine – suicide by unrolling is fine – but even on the edges of humanity we have our rules about killing innocents.
I need to get out of here.
Four thousand heartbeats pass, slow and jerky. I’m alone in the Company of Fools, curled up in a corner, my gun arm pressed against the wall as though I could will it into shadows and nothing, fall into the maze of wallpapered crimson hibiscus and grinning archaeopteryx. Perhaps whoever imagined this place into existence read the same books I did as a child, our fingers skimming the same painted illustrations of terrible lizards, the ancestors of chickens, tiny things that would become horses, rats, people.
My good hand reaches out and traces the finger-clawed wings, the reptilian teeth. It’s faintly soothing, the dry wallpaper under my finger tips bringing me back to reality. Anchored, I don’t do any of the drug while I wait, but ash is in the air, and with every breath my head gets fuzzier, less my own. I remember snippets of conversations I never had, I mumble to myself about places which no longer exist, and laugh with someone else’s voice.
Valentina sinks next to me on the small tapestried couch. She takes a proffered water-pipe and breathes in the memories and ashes of dead human, their soulstuff filtered and sweetened to taste. She drips moonlight on the floor, spilling us in a cocoon of silvery beams. “You’ve been a naughty boy,” each word a swirl of perfumed smoke.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “Someone came to me, told me all about you. You’re dangerous. Said I should stay away.”
“Someone, eh?” There’s always someone ruining it for everyone. “So why didn’t you?”
“Because I need you.” The way she breathes it makes my stomach tighten, my cock throb, but she’s still weeping moonlight as she unrolls little by little, just enough to be safe. “I need a dangerous man. I want you to take me there.”
“Take you…?” I know what she means, but I want to make her say it, because I am not going to walk her to the edge of the world and help her kill herself. I’m all kinds of things, but I’m not that.
“Take me to the inbetween, and bring me back, all new and rerolled.”
Oh johnny oh johnny how you can lie.
We walk out together in a night filled without stars. There is only rain and the endless ring of storms that send lightning shivers through the city’s skin and neural network, powering the dreams that grew around the grit of some feeb’s half-remembered life. Valentina holds my human hand in hers, and this time her fist is hard, sweaty, the moon-coolness washed away by an electrical surge of renewed energy. She’s going to die, and she’s excited.
“Do you hope this time you’ll come back being able to see?” I can’t help the curiosity. What is it that makes Valentina hollow?
She laughs at me. “I’m not you, Johnny boy, I’m not afraid of the dark.”
I want to argue with her, but I can’t. The truth is a glass splinter, too small and brittle for me to extract safely. I have to let it linger and infect me. Instead. “Then what are you afraid of?”
She weeps silver words onto the dark road, and they spell out what she cannot say out loud. We are all, at the end, scared of the same damn things. It’s not the dark, or death, or not being who we thought we might once have been. It’s the knowledge that it doesn’t matter how many people pull themselves together out of the inbetween, how many of us are reinvented, how big our cities get, how real our memories might be, there will always be the Fay. The shadows on the wall, watching us. Waiting. Consuming.
The hollowness inside Valentina is fear. We slip our skins just to keep running from the monsters in the dark.
The inbetween is close now. Just another corner or two and we will turn to face its endless roiling nothingness, the teeth of the storm. The ground beneath feels grainy, indistinct, and the bee-buzz of the end of the world sounds around us, humming into our bones.
Valentina’s grip is fiercer, dragging me onwards. I wonder who is escorting who into death. “I’m just taking you to the edge,” I remind her. She’s already deposited the full amount into my cred-balance. As soon as she’s disappeared into the storm, I can turn tail and find myself a traveller stupid enough to take me through the inbetween and into the next city point. Start erasing all traces of this identity and find a new one. “And I’ll wait for you.”
“Will you?” she asks, one eyebrow raised.
“That’s what you paid me for.” Take her feeb new rolled-together self back to her home, keep her safe while she’s all vulnerable and soft. A little moulted crab. I’m a gunman. No traveller or scavenger out on the edges of New Hope looking for easy pickings is going to approach me. And sure, I’m a murderer, but I gave Valentina my word.
“And what if I don’t come out?”
I grimace. “You will.”
“So sure,” she whispers, mockingly, and for a moment she is Valentina at the bar, smoky smooth, shedding moonlight wherever she goes, and not a woman weeping for things she does not remember.
We have chosen a spot near the foot of one of the vast power pylons that ring New Hope. This one is marked in red painted scrawl, words seventeen foot high screaming out a message to some lost family, lost world.
I WANT IT ALL
A sentiment anyone who pulled themselves out on this indistinct strand could understand. I want it all back, I want it all how it was before, I want it all to end, I want it all to begin.
When she takes a final breath and walks away from me, the world almost goes silent. I sit with my back against the flaking metal, gun arm ready across my knees. The A of ALL towers over my head, a rocket to the stars that aren’t there. Overhead the lightning flickers from cloud belly to cloud belly, and the sharp ozone stink burns inside my nostrils. Far away music drifts in and out of hearing, soft swoops of vowels turning to static and hiss.
Valentina’s pale dress disappears into the storm, a ghost into black fog. My stomach clenches, and the gun makes an odd noise as the metal contracts. I bare my bullet teeth to the end of the world while I wait for Valentina to unroll and reroll and emerge newly-skinned, rememoried, and for one brief moment; free of hopelessness.
There’s no way to tell time in this new world. It skips and shudders and spins at its own pace, but I count out heartbeats, and I wait. When I reach four thousand, I stand, stiff-muscled and aching, and push myself away from the ALL. One-handed, I wrap my white silk scarf about my mouth and nose, and plunge after her.
I’ve been between and in before. Tracking people the Fay want dragged back to their palaces and their beautiful claws and teeth. But I had protection, the blessings of our overlords and ladies. Now all I have is my gun arm, the rattle of baby teeth in tin, my mouth full of silver casings. None of these things is going to save me if I start unrolling. I pull my memories closer to me, focusing on the things that make me Baby Teeth Johnny with his radiant grin. I was once this man who knew only that I was safe, that as long as the Fay were the fiddlers and I danced to their tune I would be just fine.
If I start to tear apart, how will the thing that was once me know where to return? I look down. In the darkness of whirling soulstuff there are no foot prints. Only faint depressions mark the volcanic silicate and ash, slowly filling as Valentina’s path is erased. Here and there are spatters of moonlight, already almost gone.
I draw the rusted tin from my pocket, flick it open with one hand. The baby teeth are tiny opals emitting a candle light glow. Out here in the inbetween the teeth are not fragmented memories, but bits of an actual flesh and blood human being. They were never my teeth. They probably belonged to some child Muse. The dead gods only know what happened to the damn thing. Is it still alive post-extraction, or did the Fay gently skin it and whisper honey words into its raw flesh after? Did they eat it slowly, molecule by molecule? Or did they let it go free? It is too late to save it, only one thing matters now. The teeth will not unroll and disappear.
Carefully, I shake out tooth after tooth as I follow the last traces of Valentina. Each step I take unravels me a little, grain by grain I lose myself into the swirling ash of other humans, my recollections splitting and drifting away.
Valentina is made of marble bones by the time I find her. All the dead skin whipped from her frame, all the weeping moonlight swirled into the dark. I sit with her as she constructs herself anew from memories she pretends are her own. As she grows I disappear. I tell myself I’m stronger than her. I know how to do this. I focus on a memory that I know is mine. My finger, chubby, nail bitten right down below the finger tip, slowly underlining sentences that I sound aloud. The images on the page flicker bright as butterflies, garish, familiar. I hold onto my childhood, my mother singing as she moves behind me. Good things this time, I tell myself. Not fear or pain or loss. I have lived that life already.
Oh johnny oh johnny how you can love.
Bitter confusion fills my mouth, and my bullet teeth fall out, dissolving into the ground. They will be left behind and forgotten. I spit to clear the taste.
“Hey, Johnny-boy,” Valentina says. Her hand is naked against mine. “It’s time to return.”
My gun arm shatters, the pieces flying away on the endless storm, and the past winds itself around my bones.
“The teeth,” I tell her. “Follow them back.”
The Muse’s teeth light our way through the infinite between, tiny shifting comets in a space that no longer exists. As we walk I shed myself, and grow.
It doesn’t matter how this begins.
I’ve had a few glasses of the best gin that cred can buy in Eight to the Bar. I’m not drunk. I’m blinded by my companion. Valentina the sun. She fills my glass from the gin bottle we bought, our conversation threading between the songs the Satellite Sisters – all six of them – are belting out from the tiny stage.
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve died and died and died again, and rolled and rolled and rerolled yourself together.
Twice, and twice, if you’re asking.
It doesn’t matter how many times you come back from the dead, you never stop learning.
Valentina’s eyes are burning holes, and the light that sears out of her shows every scar and twisted bit of dirt, every torn corner, every line and wrinkle of every face in the bar. She runs her bright fingers down my arm, her nails catching on the feathers that push shadow dark through my skin, and I lean into the touch, soaking up the warmth.
In four thousand heartbeats, we will have finished this bottle of gin, and the sun and I will walk out into the dark and moonless night, and we will fly away.
Art: Stephen Pickering
Cat Hellisen is the South African author of the novels Beastkeeper and When the Sea is Rising Red.
Now based in Scotland, she writes fantasy and horror with the occasional dash of science fiction.
Her short stories have featured in Tor.com, Apex, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and her poetry appears in the collection of world SF poetry Multiverse.
You can find out more about her work at http://www.cathellisen.com