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.