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,
shaped like a face but with no holes for eyes or nose or mouth
but with a pulsing light inside it of a color I could not identify
a long time
and it beckons, it calls my name
I’m running. Reese tries to grab my arm
and Finder tries to rear back but it’s too late
I have it in my hands
dive into that strange light