Nine-Tenths, Chapter 5 – My House

My head throbbed.

I leaned harder against the wall, grounding myself with the cool feeling of the painted plaster against my cheek. Time bent and stretched, and a sucking pit of anxiety sat heavy in my gut. It felt like taking a hit of nitrous, then remembering something horrible I’d done right before it took hold. Motionless, I floundered in a waking nightmare I’d invited myself to.

Reaching up, I placed my hand against the wall, focusing my attention on the cool surface on my warm palm. I could still think. I was still myself. My hand looked a bit different than I thought, but it wasn’t my old masculine proportions.

I tried to step away from the wall, but my legs threatened to buckle as the pain in my abdomen intensified. I crumpled against the wall, breathing heavily, and stayed there for several moments as I waited for my nausea and confusion to abate.

When I was certain that my limbs would hold me steady, I pushed out with my right hand, rolling around my left shoulder until my back pressed against the wall.

I looked up into the dusty but flawless surface of my family’s old hall mirror, and beheld myself, and the girl who stared back was not me.

Her deep brown eyes were not the right color, but they flared in fear as my pulse jumped. Her eyebrows, thinner than mine, rose to a shocked arch under flat bangs I never had in life or death. Where my frame had been a bit pudgy, hers was thin and slight.

The girl in the mirror wasn’t me, but she wasn’t unfamiliar, either.

“June,” I said aloud, and the voice I heard was so much higher and thinner than mine had ever been.

Another wave of weakness and pain washed over me, and I found myself remembering Reese’s words upon our return to the dining hall: “whoever’s got June needs to feed her.”

Food. I needed food.

I walked down the hallway and passed through an arch that led to the house’s spacious kitchen. It wasn’t until I leaned against the counter that I realized I knew the layout of the house perfectly.

This was my house. Not just a weird labyrinthine representation of my house, but the actual house I once lived in, the house I died in. The kitchen counter had been replaced by some kind of composite material, but the layout was the same.

I staggered to the fridge, which was a substantially nicer model than the one I’d grown up with. None of the food inside looked appetizing; June’s hunger had crossed over into revulsion and nausea well before I occupied it.

“Water,” I creaked, closing the fridge, “first.”

It took several tries and far too much stamina to find the correct cabinet, but I did. Glass in hand, I carried it to the sink and drew a glass of tap water. I drank the water slow, letting it run down the center of my tongue and cool my throat.

It must have been years since I last drank anything, and it felt like it. After setting the glass down I leaned against the counter, head spinning around the twin poles of relief and nausea. I nursed the glass over the course of several minutes, gradually standing up straighter as the wracking discomfort abated.

Slowly growing steadier, I assembled a sandwich from the white bread, american cheese, and mustard I found in the fridge. It was the saddest, worst sandwich I’d ever made in my life and my first bite of it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my life. I finished the sandwich as slowly as I could manage, which was still a bit too fast.

Collapsing on one of the coffee table’s chairs, I finally let myself rest. I could nearly think. I could nearly make sense of this. I was June now. Were my new friends still up here, in this brain? I raised a hand to my head, pressing against my temple as if I could feel for them. Nothing happened, of course, so I dropped the hand.

That’s when I noticed the smell.

I wasn’t sure how long this body had been helpless before I occupied it, but it certainly smelled like it had been a while. Worse, I think I caught the smell of an ‘accident’, though thankfully the less fragrant of the two options.

Our next stop on the urgent needs train was evidently fated to be a shower.

Gathering my strength, I trudged upstairs and opened the door to my room, which was… filled with junk. I frowned, crossed the hall, and opened another bedroom door. More junk. That just left the master bedroom. My parents’ room. Even now, knowing that they couldn’t possibly be living here any more, the thought of opening that door was daunting at best.

How long after my death had they lived? Did they haunt this place the way I used to haunt it?

I shook my head to banish the thoughts of my ghostly parents groaning passive-aggressive curses and opened the door.

To my relief, the bedroom was not only fully furnished but also wholly distinct from my parents’ interior decoration sensibilities. There was a warmth here, an aura of life; the clutter and disorganization only made it feel cozier.

My heart lurched as I saw a familiar face on the wall. A framed pencil drawing of Reese hung on the wall, and the sight of their tusked face was at once a relief and a source of stress. Why would they trust me again, after I stole that mask from Finder? I couldn’t even imagine trusting myself, at this point.

I reached up to my face, touched the skin, felt for the place where the edge of a mask might be. Finding nothing, I laced my fingers together, hung my head, and sighed.

Several minutes later, I’d managed to pick out a cute sundress and underwear from June’s clothes, and I finally stripped down and walked into the private bathroom. I was pleased to see that in spite of the clutter that extended to the bathroom, every surface shone spotless.

“One of the Residents must hate mildew more than they hate cleaning,” I murmured, and thought I heard laughter from somewhere, and some talking. I turned on the shower and turned around, looking at June’s naked body in the mirror as I waited for the water to heat up.

I was getting used to June’s body, bit by bit. It still didn’t feel like mine, but it wasn’t like my old body, lumpy and awkward, no part of it interesting enough to find repulsive. Being in the body I inhabited in June’s mind felt right in a way that nothing else did, but strange as it was, embodying June was the final catalyst that brought clarity.

“I’m transgender,” I told myself in the mirror, then immediately grew self-conscious and stepped into the shower, bracing for water that I feared would be too cold but was in fact too hot.

By the time I stepped out of the shower, the questions I’d been ignoring until now started to demand attention. I had to accept that my arrival was almost certainly responsible for the distortion of June’s headspace, and possibly for the separation of the Residents from one another.

The trouble lay in my inability to remember how I ended up in June’s headspace at all. The last thing I knew for sure about myself was that I had been a ghost. The last few months or years of that had been particularly fuzzy, and I could only find the faintest hint of memory about June moving into the house.

Whatever conclusion I might have come to was co-opted as I finished dressing and saw June’s smartphone sitting on the bedside table. I picked it up and unlocked it with pure muscle memory, entering a password pattern I didn’t technically know. I tapped the message notification, read the most recent messages, and dropped my jaw as the horror of my situation made itself clear.

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Monday, 16:31
Dear June bug: How are you settling into that old house? I hope nothing too strange has happened – Aunt Ruthie

From: June Pérez, Sent Monday, 16:42
I’m settling in fine, Ruthie, thank you. Nothing strange at all, just a beautiful house. Do you know you don’t have to sign your texts?

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Monday, 18:31
Dear June bug: If something strange happens, you’d better let me know. Your great-uncle was the last person to live in that house, and he swore up and down that the place was haunted. – Aunt Ruthie

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Tuesday, 08:19
Dear June bug, when was your last visit? Let’s have dinner together. – Aunt Ruthie

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Yesterday, 14:12
Dear June bug: It’s not like you to ignore me when I ask you a question. Is everything all right? – Aunt Ruthie

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Yesterday, 15:21
June bug, I’m becoming concerned because you don’t answer my texts. I asked you to set up your voice mail box but I guess you forgot. Call me! – Aunt Ruthie

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Yesterday, 18:50
Hello??

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Today, 9:01
Dear June bug: I’m very worried about you. I wanted to call the police but Harold said I should try to get ahold of you again. – Aunt Ruthie

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent 2 hours ago
June please answer!!

From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent 45 minutes ago
June: I’m driving to your house. I will be there in an hour. If you don’t answer the doorbell I will have to let myself in with the spare key. -Aunt Ruthie

“Oh shit,” I murmured. “I have to host. As June. By myself.”

“Not… quite!” someone said in my brain. “There. Did that work?”

“Oh! I! Yes! I can hear you!” I put a hand on my head. “Can you hear me? Are you a Resident?”

“Why yes I am, Avery,” said the voice. “My name is Cora, and I’m here to help. Everything is going to be okay.”

Nine Tenths, Chapter 4 – Unfortunate Soul

Ingrid led the way, hands clasped, steps slow. Though her lips moved, the words of her prayer were drowned out by its sound, that soul-stirring chime that threatened to distract me when I was in danger. The longer the sound persisted, though, the easier it was to let it blend into the background of my senses, and its effect on my psyche proved to be more soothing than dizzying.

Besides, I had a lot to think about and that was distracting enough. It hadn’t even been twenty minutes since we’d encountered that mirror, and my head was still swirling with contradicting thoughts. My body was female, and it felt more right than anything ever had. Had my mind changed too, or had I been a closeted transgender woman my whole life without realizing it? I don’t remember experiencing anything that felt like the ‘dysphoria’ that my trans friends had experienced.

I’d been fine with my body. As fine as I’d been with anything else. Fine enough to function. Maybe numb sometimes. Maybe a little empty. But fine.

“You all right?” Reese asked me. They kept a slow pace, hands in their pockets and shoulders hunched. “Sorry we couldn’t take the time to slow down and let you process.”

“It’s okay,” I replied, looking down at my slight, slender hands. “I’m processing. I kinda find Ingrid’s prayer sound helpful for it.”

“Glad it does something for someone other than Ingrid,” Reese said with a dry chuckle, looking back at Ingrid. “If I can be helpful, let me know, okay?”

“I thought you didn’t trust me because I wasn’t a Resident,” I teased, smiling just a little bit.

Reese peered at me, then looked away and said, “just because I don’t trust you doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.”

I grinned at them. They glanced back and away once more, smiling a bit themself.

As the hallways grew wider and the rooms clearer, Reese gave Ingrid the go-ahead to end her prayer, which she did. Upon encountering a dead end, we reversed course only to find that the course had changed since we last walked it.

I quickened my pace until I had caught up with Ingrid’s long strides.

“Hi, Ingrid,” I said.

“Sister Avery. Hello.” She turned to face me, and I was struck once again by her unusual appearance, her human features on head belonging to a beast. “Are You Well?”

“I think so, yes,” I said, smiling. “Thank you. And thank you so much for saving us back there.”

“Of course,” she said with a single slow nod.

I peered at the cross she wore, a simple gold crucifix hanging from a thin chain. “So in this place, prayers really work, huh?”

“Prayers Work Everywhere,” Ingrid replied.

“Sure, I mean, just,” I coughed and tried another conversational tactic. “What religion are you, specifically?”

“I repudiate Organized Religion,” she answered, “Though I understand its Utility.”

“So you’re not Christian?” I asked, pointing toward her cross.

“No.” Ingrid took the pendant between her fingers and rubbed her fingers on its surface. “The Sign of the Cross reminds me to be more Christ-Like. His Actions toward the Marginalized and Downtrodden are Ideals I strive for. I look up to Christ not as Messiah, but Exemplar.”

“Oh. So what do you call yourself?”

Ingrid shrugged. “The Term nearest the Mark would be, I suppose, Theist,” she said, “but my Relationship to God is Deeply Personal. The Light of my Faith Shines Through because it is Strong, not because I wish to Bear Witness.”

I felt a bit nonplussed. “Huh.”

We kept walking, submitting ourselves to the house maze’s will. After a few minutes of turns and one dead end, we found ourselves back in the banquet hall where the Voidlings had trapped me and Reese.

“Well ain’t this some shit.” Reese pulled a chair out and collapsed onto it.

“Be Patient, Sibling,” intoned Ingrid, who ran one hand over the chair backs as she traced the perimeter of the banquet table. “Let us Rest Here a moment. You both look Tired.”

“I feel tired,” I muttered, collapsing into a crouch next to the wall. “But not sleepy-tired, just. I can’t think.”

“Yeah, that’s how we get,” grumbled Reese. “Whoever’s got June needs to feed her.”

“I’m Not Certain Anyone is Guiding June,” Ingrid said, gesturing up to a large painted portrait on the wall. The woman I’d seen in the first painting was there, still in the same clothes, but standing now. I couldn’t quite tell whether she was wobbling on her feet or I just couldn’t get a good look at her.

“How is that possible?” Reese stood, looking up at the portrait. “It’s been hours! Where’s Iris? Where is the mask? Did the Voidlings get it?”

“If the Voidlings had the Mask,” Ingrid said in a grave, soft tone, “June would not be Standing Still.”

Reese’s voice was soft when they spoke again. “Yeah. You’re right.”

“I’d really like it if someone could help me understand what you two are talking about,” I said, trying to keep the mounting exasperation out of my voice.

“Ah.” Ingrid looked away, chagrined.

For their part, Reese stood up from the chair and took a step toward me. “Avery, I’m sorry. I keep meaning to get you filled in, but it’s just… how do I explain something to you that all of us knew from the moment we became conscious?”

“Even that’s confusing!” I laughed. “Should I maybe try asking questions?”

They laughed too. “Sure. That’s gotta be better than me just feeling it out.”

“Okay.” I hauled myself to my feet, walked over to the table, climbed up onto it (moving one of the chanuki-labras out of the way) and sat cross-legged in the center. “Let’s start with this. Who is June? What don’t I understand about her?”

“June Pérez,” explained Reese, “is a 27 year-old female human person who exists in the physical world. She has a driver’s license, a cat named Butter, and a gig writing listicles for clickbait sites that pays more than any of us expected.”

“I already have questions,” I said, but Reese barreled on.

“Your next question may be, ‘Reese, why did you specify that June is a human person who exists in the physical world?’”

Sheepish, I ducked my head. “Yeah.”

Placing a hand on my shoulder, Reese looked me in the eyes. “It’s because we don’t.

I blinked. “What?”

“We don’t exist in the physical world, Avery,” Reese said, “and neither do you. All Residents exist only as part of June.”

“I Contest the assertion that we Do Not Exist in the Physical World,” Ingrid piped up, “but it is Irrefutably True that June is our Only Means to Interact With It.”

“This is hard enough to explain as it is, Ingrid,” Reese grumbled.

“What?” I asked again. I felt light-headed. I felt sick. Everything had felt so real up until this point, but now nothing at all felt real. “What are you saying? We don’t exist? This isn’t real?”

“It is real!” Reese replied. “We do exist! Just… we exist inside June’s mind. That’s where we are right now.”

“I…” The words weren’t coming. The enormity of it flattened me. “What?”

Reese sighed, and Ingrid said, “Give her a Moment.”

I clutched my head, nausea wrenching my gut. “You’re saying that I… only exist inside someone’s head.”

Reese’s tusks pressed against their cheeks as they tightened their jaw. “Kinda… reductive, but you could sort of say that.”

“How is it reductive?” I asked, my voice breaking. “Can I leave?”

“Well, no, but—”

“I can’t leave,” I said. “I get hungry when someone else doesn’t eat. Nobody eats in here. Right?”

“I mean, yes, that’s true, but—” Reese mumbled.

“Then how is it reductive to say that I only exist in someone’s mind?” I asked, wild-eyed. “I can’t leave, I can’t eat, I can’t talk to anyone outside of this place!”

“That’s not true!” Reese cut in. “If you’re a Resident, you still get to do those things.”

I shook my head. “Why? How?”

Reese pointed up at the portrait on the wall, where June still stood. She’d turned slightly, and now pressed her face against the wall. Her body was still enough that the portrait could have been just a portrait and I’d have had no idea.

“June exists in the real world, but she’s not… a person,” they said, “not like we are. All of the people out there in the physical world who think they’re talking to June? They’re not. They’re talking to a Resident.”

“Usually Iris,” added Ingrid.

“I… I don’t understand,” I said, but before Reese could respond, we heard someone calling from the hall.

“Hello?” called the voice in a light, hesitant tenor. “I hear voices! Where are you?”

Reese snapped to attention, pushing the chair away as he scrambled to his feet. “Is that Finder?” he called.

“Reese! Oh, thank God!” replied the voice. “Don’t move! I’m gonna try to get to you.”

“Even Finder was Lost,” Ingrid murmured, her thin eyebrows drawing low.

Through the door jogged Finder, a boy in his mid-teens whose hair captured a perfect windswept look in spite of this place’s complete lack of wind. His face broke into a relieved grin upon seeing the other Residents. “Reese! Ingrid!” He leaned hard against the end of the table, trying to catch his breath. “Thank goodness I found you.”

Reese jogged to him and rubbed his back, peering at the boy’s face. “Are you okay, bud?”

“I mean, I wasn’t, but then I found you two!” Finder smiled at me. “And somebody new! Avery, right? Are you a Resident?”

I managed to speak, but my voice was so small. “I don’t know.”

“You Are,” said Ingrid. “You Must Be.”

“Avery…” Reese walked a few paces back toward me. “She’s a little confused. She didn’t know any more about us than we knew about her.”

“Finder,” Ingrid asked, “do you know Who Has the Mask?”

“Yeah,” said Finder, “I do. But I can’t put it on for some reason.”

“You have the Mask?” Reese whirled in place again, gripping the back of the chair where they’d been sitting moments ago and leaning toward Finder. “How? Where did you find it?”

“It was laying on the ground,” Finder said, chewing his lip. “By itself.”

Reese sighed and shook their head. “That shouldn’t be possible. But a lot of this shouldn’t be possible. Bring it out, me and Ingrid can try.”

Finder slung his backpack onto the edge of the table, reached in, and pulled out

You have to understand

an austere mask with a glossy enamel,

desperation

shaped like a face but with no holes for eyes or nose or mouth

Changes you

but with a pulsing light inside it of a color I could not identify

a long time

and it beckons, it calls my name

terrible pain

I’m running. Reese tries to grab my arm

wasn’t thinking
wasn’t myself

and Finder tries to rear back but it’s too late

please

I have it in my hands

please

dive into that strange light

forgive me
forgive me
forgive me

Nine Tenths, Chapter 3 – Revelations

As the Voidlings oozed into that familiar-and-unfamiliar banquet hall, I pressed my weight backward against Reese, who braced against me in turn. I could find some measure of comfort in the feel of their ropy back muscles against mine, in the knowledge that someone literally had my back. We stayed like that for several minutes, eyes fixed on our respective Voidlings. For their part, the horrible entities crept into the room and stopped just inside the doorways.

“Do they know we’re here?” I asked after a while. “They won’t move away from the exits.”

“They seem to enjoy blocking exits,” grumbled Reese. “Like cats and boxes.”

“Is there anything we can do? Distract them somehow?”

“Maybe,” Reese said, “but not without a risk that they’ll deduce where we are and feel us out. I was hoping another Resident would find us, but it seems like June is… bigger on the inside than she used to be.”

We went quiet. A few seconds passed.

“So, June,” I said.

“June,” Reese agreed.

“She’s the woman in that painting.”

“Again, not a painting, but yes.”

I frowned. “But she’s also… this place.”

“Yep.”

“Can you, like, elaborate on that?”

“Rather not do it right now, I think?” Reese said through a clenched jaw.

“Okay, fair,” I said with a sigh, and we lapsed into another silence, slightly more awkward than the last.

Maybe my third attempt at conversation would buck the trend. “So,” I began, but Reese cut me off.

“Ssh, do you hear that?”

I fell silent and heard it. Beneath the whispering of the Voidlings thrummed a low ringing noise, like the long chime of a tibetan singing bowl. As the sound increased in volume and clarity, Reese murmured, “that’s Ingrid.”

My head started to swim, but not in an unpleasant way. Something about the sound inspired a confused euphoria in me, and when my head dipped down for a moment, Reese took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t fall into the prayer. I need you here.”

“Prayer…?” I slurred. “Ingrid?”

Where I felt dazed and euphoric, the Voidlings reacted to the ethereal sound more adversely. The one I was staring at lurched into the room with us further, abandoning its post at the door in order to move away from the source of the sound.

“Her prayers don’t hurt them, but they hate the noise,” said Reese, shuffling us to the side to let the Voidling pass by. “I don’t like hanging out with her, but I like how much our chances of survival go up with Ingrid around.”

It wasn’t until both Voidlings disappeared through the far door that I dared turn and look at the woman entering the room, tall and slender and wrapped in gauzy robes. Ingrid appeared mostly human, but for the strange proportions of her head. At the end of a furless muzzle, her flat nose and subtly murmuring lips led the way for a sloped forehead, large eyes, and fluted ears between which a long mane of pitch-black hair flowed.

Around her shone an aura of white gold, which slowly faded as she ended her prayer and turned to face us.

“Praise be. We are Graced with a New Resident.” Ingrid spoke in a strong alto that threatened with each fullstop to break into a sermon. “And in Reese’s Care. I cannot imagine a Safer Companion for Our New Sister.”

“Sorry, your—”I yelped, but Reese talked over me at their full voice.

“Okay slow your roll with the sister stuff, Ingrid,” they said, “since we really don’t know if she’s a Resident or not.”

“One way or another, she is Our Sister,” Ingrid insisted, “for she Thinks, and Feels, and Speaks, and is a Part of June. What Else but a Resident could Do These Things, Reese?”

“That’s the problem! We don’t know what she is at all!”

“Excuse me!” I cut in at the top of my lungs. “Time out!”

Both of the nonplussed Residents turned to peer at me, and I asked: “Why are you calling me ‘she’?”

Ingrid was the first to react, after only a second or so. “Have We Misgendered You? I Apologize.”

“I mean, um, th-that’s not,” my face felt hot. Why did my face feel hot? Why didn’t I want to say ‘yes, I’m a guy’ to Ingrid? “I just wanted to know why, not for you to necessarily, uh. Stop doing it.”

“Well, you do, kinda, look like a girl?” Reese ventured, cautious, “that is, by societal standards. I know I can’t count on that, but, uh.”

Ingrid nodded. “Yes, My Answer is the Same as That of My Sibling.”

“I look like… a girl?” I looked down at my hands, and for the first time, I noticed how much smaller they were than I remembered them being. The hair on my arms was fine and light, barely visible. “Oh. Is. Can. Could I…”

“I Passed a Mirror in the Adjoining Hallway,” Ingrid said, and I was off like a rocket.


I stared at the girl in the mirror. The near-perfect reflection of the colors and shapes of my body were visible to my eyes for the first time since I arrived, and that reflected girl was simultaneously so familiar and foreign. I could see myself in her face, I recognized the moles on her cheek, and her irises had the same brown ring inside a green ring as mine. But I’d never seen the swell of her breasts before, nor those wide hips. The small beer belly I had in life was instead a soft curve, forming a gently generous hourglass shape.

“So I guess this is news to you, huh?” Reese rested a hand on my shoulder and smiled at me through the reflection.

“Yuh-huh,” I confirmed.

“You okay?”

“I think so?” I touched my cheeks with my fingers. The skin was so soft. “I might be better than okay? But I also might be freaking out?”

“Praise Be to God,” intoned Ingrid, “for These Gifts, and For Our New Sister, Avery.”

“Ingrid!” Reese hissed. “Not now!”

“Now and Always, Sibling,” Ingrid replied primly.

“Um,” I said, and they both turned their attention back to me.

“Yeah?” Reese prompted me.

“I… think,” I said, lifting my hand and gently pressing my fingertips to the mirror’s surface, “I think she pronouns are okay.”

Reese smiled. “Better than okay, maybe?”

“Yeah.” I laughed, and tears gathered at the corners of my eyes. “Maybe so.”

Nine Tenths, Chapter 2 – Doors

Reese and I descended the stairwell to a landing, where I noticed a large portrait hanging on the wall that depicted a woman in the fetal position. The detail was magnificent, and if I focused I could make out the individual locks of hair squeezed between fingers of the balled fists on her head.

“Wow,” I said.

Reese turned around, halfway down the stairs, and looked at the portrait. “Oh,” they said, face falling as they saw the curled-up woman. “June…”

“Have you seen this painting before?” I asked them.

Reese scowled at me, an effect granted substantially more menace when their frown included those gleaming white tusks. “It’s not a painting. Look again.”

I did, and felt my heart lurch as I saw the woman in the painting move, flexing her whitened knuckles. “Oh my gosh,” I murmured, stepping up to touch the canvas. It felt like a painting under my fingers, but the pigments shifted to animate the scene.

I turned to face Reese. “Where am I, really?” I asked them. “Is this the afterlife?”

Their scowl deepened, and they took a few steps back up the staircase. “How about this. I’ll tell you where you really are once you tell me what you really are.”

The wall pressed against my back as I tried to take a step away from that glare. “Why are you so suspicious of me? I’m not malicious, just confused! Why is that such a crime?”

“Because.” Reese stepped up to the landing, looming over me. “Around here, there are exactly two kinds of moving, talking thing. One kind is a Resident.”

They pointed at their own chest, and then at mine. “Like me. And what I assumed you were.”

“What’s the other kind?” I asked.

“We call them Voidlings, and I just rescued you from one,” they said. “Now, you don’t look like a Voidling. You don’t sound like one. You don’t act like one. So you’re probably not one. But if you’re not a Resident, and you’re not a Voidling, what are you? I don’t know, and you don’t seem to know either, but what all that means is: I cannot trust you.” They stepped back and started down the stairs again.

I followed Reese down the stairs; their hostility was frightening but not nearly as much as the idea of being alone in this place. “Why can’t I be a Resident?”

“Because I don’t know who you really are,” Reese replied as they walked, “and you don’t know June.”

“Why should I know June?”

“Because this is June,” they said, sweeping their hand out in a gesture indicating the entire area. “We are June. The fact that you don’t know that is how I know you’re not a Resident.”

“You’re not making any sense,” I accused.

Reese tensed up, clenching their hands into claws for a moment before complaining to a nonexistent audience. “Why! Did I have to get stuck with the anomaly! Couldn’t Cora have found her instead of me? Or Iris? This isn’t what I do!

I grimaced. “Hey, Reese, c’mon.”

The sound of a balcony door slamming against the wall stopped us in our tracks. For a moment, all was quiet. Then the faint strain of those damning whispers picked up.

“We gotta go. Keep your eyes on that balcony and don’t look away.” Reese took my hand and led me toward the front of the room, becoming my sight forward so my own eyes could stay fixed on the stairway. “Tell me when you see it.”

“I see it,” I replied, forcing my eyes to remain on the boiling outline of the Voidling that stalked the balcony. I felt nauseated just looking it. “It’s headed away from the stairs for now.”

“Good. Don’t look away. Try to block its line of sight to me,” Reese commanded. “It won’t notice me if you’re in the way.”

I kept my eyes on the walking nightmare, shuffling my feet to interpose myself between its eyes and Reese’s body. My anxiety spiked when the Voidling leaned over the balcony railing, its eyes fixed on us, but felt some measure of relief when I saw no further movement from the entity.

“I can’t believe this is working,” I said, shuffling after Reese, “given that you’re bigger than me.”

“We think it’s like looking into a bright light,” they said, halting us in place, “so the safe area is bigger than you. We’re at the door, by the way. I’m gonna open it, you back through and close it.”

“Yes!” I said with as much confidence as I could muster. When Reese let go of my hand, that confidence drained away immediately. “I think!”

“Don’t think,” Reese said, throwing open the double doors, “just move!”

I backed up, caught the doors in either hand, and pulled them shut with a heavy thud.

“It will have heard that. Let’s move.” Reese broke into a jog alongside a long banquet table that looked like the great grand-daddy of the one in my old house’s dining room. As I ran after him, I stared at the candelabras placed in regular intervals on the table. Though each one was half a meter tall and had three candles instead of nine, their design was otherwise identical to my family’s heirloom chanukiah.

“These rooms are modeling themselves after the house I used to live in,” I said as we pedaled to a stop at the far side of the room, “like it looked when I was—”

Reese halted, and turned their head to face me. “When you were what, Avery?”

“When I was… younger,” I said, knowing even as it left my mouth that my attempt at diversion would fail.

Reese straightened up to their full height and fired a piercing yellow glare at me. I glanced at the door ahead, then back at the figure blocking the way to it. They took a step forward, and I took half a step back.

“Is it your intent to lose my trust, is that what this is?” they asked, voice a dangerous purr. “Are you provoking me, Avery? Because it’s working. I’m provoked. I’m doing my best to keep you alive and you’re lying to me.”

“There are things you’re not telling me, either, okay?” I yelped, too adrenaline-addled to act in my best interests. “I’m doing everything you tell me! Okay? I’m just in a situation that makes no sense, and you’re being kind of a jerk, and I’m just really scared and anxious, okay?”

“Stop saying okay!” Reese barked, but they backed off a little. “You’re making me anxious!”

“I’m sorry!” I wailed. “Please be nicer to me!”

“Okay! Fine!” Reese clutched their head with both hands. “I’ll try! But you need to fill me in when we get a minute, oka— uh, capisce?”

I took a few moments to slow my breathing, calm my heart. “Yes. That’s fine. Thank you.” I panted, steadying myself on the back of a chair just like the ones I’d grown up with. “I’ll tell you everything I know.”

“Okay.” They sighed.

“But,” I continued, “I get the feeling that what I know won’t answer the questions you want it to.”

Reese nodded. “I can be pissed off about it then. For now, let’s find Iris, or at least another Resident. Sorry I yelled.”

“Sorry I flipped out.”

“If your day’s been half as bad as mine, flipping out is just good sense,” said Reese, turning to the door and pulling it open.

We both froze in place, staring at the Voidling that sat on the other side of the doorway.

“Oh,” they murmured, “so it’s like that.”

“Close the door!” I hissed.

“It’ll just bust through. Like that other one is going—”

Bang. The Voidling we left in the atrium burst through the other door, sealing our only other exit. I whirled to face it, staring it in its nonexistent face while Reese kept their eyes on the other entity. Back to back, we shuffled away from the door and toward the center of the room.

“So these things… kill you?” I whispered. “If they catch you?”

Reese exhaled through their nose sharply, the near-silent suggestion of a sardonic chuckle. “Sometimes,” they said, “but sometimes not. Sometimes you come back, but you’re different. Sometimes you get replaced by someone new. Sometimes you’re just gone for a while, and then you come back the same as you were before, or maybe a little weaker.”

“That’s awful and I don’t want it.“ I fought back a sob. “I was so happy to be myself again, but now I’m just going to die for good.”

“No. Listen.” Reese sighed. “They don’t know we’re here. We can maneuver. We still have a chance. Just trust me and I won’t let you die. Please don’t give up yet.”

I focused on my breath. I kept my eyes locked upon the formless empty mass, the protean cluster of ill omens and despair that invited me to my own demise, that beckoned with promises to end my pain. I stood fast. “Okay,” I said. “I won’t.”

We stood, and we stared, and we waited.

Nine Tenths, Chapter 1

You have to understand: desperation changes you. When you spend a long time in terrible pain, you become someone you never wanted to be.

I never meant to do this to you. I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t myself.

Please forgive me.

 

My name was… Avery. I guess it still is, if you tack a ‘late’ on the front.

I kicked the bucket at the age of 29, a failson with no accomplishments aside from three-quarters of a Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Psychology and the third fastest speedrun time worldwide on Super Climb Up. My death was as unremarkable as my life, my murderer a stray dollop of shower gel on wet ceramic.

I had felt like some kind of ghost in life, drifting through a comfortable but empty life afforded to me by our culture’s worship of male mediocrity. When my life ended and some fraction of my consciousness endured, I couldn’t gather my thoughts enough to see the irony of being a real ghost.

My spirit walked the halls of my home for what must have been years, dazed and aimless. The whole of my consciousness felt stuck in the frightening moments one experiences after being startled awake: disoriented and upset, ready to lash out at even the slightest provocation.

I imagine I did lash out, because after a while new people stopped coming by. I didn’t realize how much worse that would be, but it was far worse. Loneliness prolonged the days and my distorted senses distorted even further.

At long last, something disrupted the monotony, and… I don’t remember anything after that.


When my senses returned to me, they returned quick and clear. I felt like myself again, which, while nothing to get excited about, was at least a relief. I could feel myself breathing. I forced my eyes open to stare at the dull grey ceiling of the house. I remembered my forgettable life, my thoughts held still when I wished them to, and time seemed to be passing at a normal rate. It felt like… life.

Was I alive again?

I stood up without difficulty. I peered around what seemed to be my old bedroom, but it was barren. That lent credence to the notion that my time as a ghost had been real; my belongings had been taken from this room a long time ago. The paint on the walls had grown dull over time.

“Avery, my man,” I told myself aloud, “you are in over your fool head.”

I approached a window and tried to look outside, but saw only a near-palpable darkness. The windows both resisted all attempts to open them, no matter how hard I tugged, and my arms were distinctly sore when I gave up and walked to the door.

The handle turned easily, so I pulled open the door, bringing myself face-to-face with a nightmare.

I backpedaled into the room, arms raised in a futile attempt to protect myself as my eyes squeezed shut to block out the painful sight. I couldn’t describe what I’d just seen in any physical terms. It looked like being punched in the stomach. It looked like crying alone. It looked like the sucking pit where your heart ought to be.

But even with my eyes shut, I couldn’t shut out the sound. Susurrus rustling coalesced into hissing whispers that spat indistinct litanies of condemnation and judgment. I knew every word by heart without understanding a single one.

The whispers grew closer and sharper as the entity approached. The wall pressed against my back and I quailed at my fate.

“Open your eyes!” called a voice from the doorway.

“Wh-who!” My voice was a high-pitched, terrified yelp. “Who’s that!”

“Open your eyes!” the stranger called again. “Open them now, or you will die!”

I tore open my eyelids, feeling the breath leave me as my gaze fell into the unbearable shape only inches away. The entity hesitated, staring through me with eyes that burned like the road flares around a fatal car accident.

“If you can see it,”called the helpful voice, “it forgets you exist. Just don’t touch it. Sidle around. It’s okay to blink, but do it fast.”

I did as they asked, keeping my eyes fixed on the formless monster. Its gaze almost seemed to move along with me, but with no intent to the movement—they simply rotated, like 2D sprites from a vintage first-person shooter.

I allowed myself a glance over at the stranger. Just inside the door stood a tall, muscular androgyne with long, pointed ears, dark gray-green skin, and a pair of clean white tusks that jutted up from their lower jaw on either side of their nose. Despite resembling an orc from a Tolkien derivative, their outfit was modern streetwear, a black tank top and jeans and enough piercings to get a job at a skate shop.

Pointing at the entity, they barked, “don’t look at me, look at that!”

“Right!” I snapped my attention back onto the roiling, ugly mass. I much preferred looking at a cool gargoyle person, and I used that as my anchor to keep me moving, keep me from thinking too much about what I was looking at.

“Good,” said my new friend, close to me now, “you’re doing great.” I felt hands on my shoulders, leading me backward but keeping me facing the entity. With Reese’s guidance, I kept backing up until I saw the door, and I reached out to pull it gently closed with a gentle click.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t get bored too fast.” The hands on my shoulders lifted.

“Thank you so much, Reese,” I said, turning, only to freeze in place as I processed what we’d already said to one another. “W-w-wait.”

“Okay, so what’s your deal,” Reese demanded, leaning in close and poking my chest with a big finger. “What are you doing here, Avery?”

“Why do you know my name?” I asked, backing further away down the hall. “Why do I know your name?”

“I think a better question is, why don’t I know anything else about you?” When Reese straightened, they loomed over me by almost a meter. “What’s it mean that I met you right after everything blew up?”

“Blew up?” I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about that, I swear.”

“I hate that I believe you.” Reese sighed and rolled their shoulders, glaring down the hall. “Listen, there’s something really wrong with this whole place. I need to find Iris; she’ll know what’s going on. You’d better come with me.”

I hesitated for a fraction of a moment before nodding. Reese took my hand and led me to the door at the end of the hall, the one that led to what used to be my sister’s room. They opened the door and muttered something I couldn’t understand under their breath before speaking up. “It changed again.”

I slipped around Reese and through the doorway before I realized what they meant. I stepped onto a balcony that overlooked a massive atrium, decorated in the style of my old house but far larger than it had ever been. From the ceiling hung a huge chandelier. Mounted on it were rows upon rows of copies of the lamp that hung over the stairwell in my home.

“No way,” I whispered, putting both of my hands on the balcony railing to peer down below.

“Yeah, that’s a mood.” Reese clapped me on the shoulder and walked to the stairwell. I scampered after.

Dark and Quiet, Part 1

THE MIRROR

My name is Yivi Ableton, and I am the last girl on Earth.

Let me try to explain. Well. First, let me contextualize.

Growing up in the nineties, you get a certain idea about what the word ‘apocalypse’ means. With the years 2000 and 2012 both coming up, everyone had a take about what would make the world end and how it’d go. Lurid depictions of slavering zombies, giant meteors, and ceaseless war called to us from movie posters and book best-seller lists. By the time the Y2K experts were done making sure that our own failure to plan ahead wasn’t going to doom us all, I’d personally concluded that I must have seen every conceivable configuration of world-ending possibilities.

I was, as you have no doubt guessed by now, mistaken. Continue reading

I02. Fest in Snow

It wasn’t the first snow of the season, but it was the first real one, and Icaela couldn’t be happier to be out in the thick of it. As a flesh-and-blood human subspecies, she was hardly “immune to cold,” but something about a powerful snowfall lifted her spirits, made her feel full of energy and life.

Her brother was the exact same way, as she was reminded when she saw him bounding through the mounds of snow on the edge of the street toward her. After a few hops, he tripped, tumbling over the snow and into the street, laughing out loud. No one was driving today, even though the streets had been cleared: given the snow and the street blockages for the festival, taking the Rail was just way, way easier. Continue reading

C04-E03. Friends and Colleagues

“Cameron Owens, right?” The smiling young man standing before Cam had pale blue skin with darker blue spots all across his cheeks and down the sides of his neck. His hair was a deep blue, and his eyes were the same color from pupil to sclera, just solid blue. Cam knew about elemental mutants, but he’d never spoken to one up this close. “I’m Reg! Welcome to the night shift. Let’s go say hi to your supervisor.”

Cam nodded, following mostly quietly. “Nice t’meetcha.” he muttered, eyeing the store around him, the stark difference from the aisles and shopping areas to the managerial bits behind the scenes for employees.

Reg led Cam out of the stockroom, past the employee lounge, and out to an aisle where a dark-haired woman was running diagnostics on a tabletshell and peering up at the ceiling from time to time. Continue reading

I01. Cold Open

The Ethertech University Library was the home away from home for many a student, teaching assistant, hobbyist, and professional magic user, but it was especially so for Icaela Bancroft. Its inclusive environment, safety, and boundless sources of knowledge had been a source of safety and edification for her long before she landed a scholarship at the university, and now that she was pursuing her degree, it was even more so.

Today, she sat in the conference annex, at one of the small tables under a silence field emitter that could be switched on for relative privacy. It was 14:20 when Icaela spotted a familiar figure walk in: she was a woman in her mid-twenties, short and curvy and weighed down with a heavy backpack. Her dark brown hair was pulled into a messy bun from which unruly curls spilled, and a pair of rectangular glasses sat low on her nose. At her hip, an elaborate pistol frame of silver and wood jutted from a real leather holster.

The girl’s name was Madison Andershaw, and she was one of the most talented enchanters Icaela had ever met. Continue reading