Thin Walls

The silence seems oppressive today. I don’t know why. It’s the same broad beach and clutching sky. Maybe it’s just the fact that everything changed for me last night. Maybe there’s nothing changed outside me, only my interpretation of our fragile, beautiful world. I remove my fingertips from the cool glass and turn away into the dimness of the room, letting the curtain fall back into place behind me. Still, the blossoming day is silent. I choke on it, reaching for the radio to flood the house with the tinny sounds of old rock music. My head hurts, and I hate the truth of that.
When he wakes, I shall have to say something. I’m not sure what – the night lost to us defies description. Do I say – Get out. You can’t be here anymore. You brought us to this? Or do I say – We can work through this. We can resolve this? Or do I just walk away now, into the pale beginnings of a new day, maybe silent, but still burgeoning with the possibility of hope, at least until the light becomes full, banishing shadows and dreams? That seems almost the better course. But I can hear him stirring. I put the kettle on, wait for him to call down to me, until I have to walk up there and sit next to him on the bed, looking at his tired eyes, wondering if he recalls nothing, or everything. Or worse – what if I sit down and he looks up and me, and his eyes are lost? Surely that will send me insane. I swallow at the sound of his voice, and pour the hot water into the waiting mugs, watching the teabags bleeding against the white ceramic. Bleeding. I slop the milk in violently.
He doesn’t say anything when he first wakes. What was there to say. The rooms of our minds were washed in blood and the memory of shared pain. I put the tea down next to him, touched the soft, stubbled skin of his cheek.
“Are you alright?” I can’t help myself. The words mean nothing. But they tear the silence of the world so violently I flinch. He looks around cautiously, as if I might have called forth some half-forgotten creation.
“Ok.” He whispers it, taking the tea in an unsteady hand. “You?”
I know by the way he doesn’t look at me that he knows how useless our words are. Pointless. He remembers.
“I – “
“Well – “
We both subside, each willing the other to go first. Eventually I do.
“I can remember it all, Marco. Can you?”
“Mm.” He still doesn’t look at me, and I have to resist the urge to grab his shoulders, to shake him and scream in his face, spilling the tea across the crumpled white sheets, staining the flavour of the night.
“I said, can you?” Fear makes me abrupt. Fear for the night to come, for the shadows still lurking under the bed, although the morning light burnishes the world.
“Yes, I remember,” he says finally, and meets my eyes. They are darker and deeper than I have ever seen them. Haunted, but not lost. “I don’t want to remember, but I do.”
I lie next to him then, wondering if I can take comfort from him. Or give him comfort. I watch my tea cool, the milk starting to form a thin scum on the surface. Suddenly, I don’t want it. Don’t want the trappings of adulthood. I want to curl in a single bed, my back curved into the older, stronger body behind me, and a toy held firmly in front of me against the darkness. Want nightlights and his wordless protection against raging, uncomprehending parents. Now, I have nothing. At some time I grew past him. Marco cannot protect me here. I hear him sip the tea, feel his hand touch my back, and I almost flinch.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Does it hurt?” He touches my forehead now, fingers gentle on the bruised, broken skin.
“Yes. A bit.” I picture myself colliding with the wall again, almost hard enough to lose consciousness, blackness smearing my vision thankfully for an instant before the cries behind me pull me back, and I roll to my feet again to confront it. I reach for the tea abruptly, wrinkling my nose at the coolness of it. He puts his hand on my waist, and I understand he wants warmth from me, forgiveness. I pull away, feel his hand slide down my back, lifeless.
“I have to heat this up. Do you want another?”
“Please.” He has covered his eyes before I can look at him, and I’m grateful. His pain makes my head hurt more.
The day tastes strange, like the forerunner of a thunderstorm. I am nervous as I walk, as if anything I touch may give me an electric shock. We move around the house, circling each other like a couple of cats. I want to suggest we go out, to breathe different air, but am also scared that maybe we have been altered in some small but noticeable way, and that when we go out people will point, and stare.
“Cat,” he says finally, and I look up from where I have been nervously wrapping strips of paper through my fingers while I pretend to do some accounts. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.” I shrug, try not to sound accusatory. “You – you called it.”
“I didn’t though.” He sounds hurt. “It just came.”
“Yeah, well, they do, don’t they.” We both look upstairs automatically, as if it might be listening to us. Who knows, maybe it is, its fluted ear pressed to the floorboards under the bed, or in the closet, or in the attic.
He doesn’t answer, just picks up a sheaf of the papers from the desk in his slender hands, and sighs. “We had to try something, Cat.” He puts the papers back down, but gently. The figures are angry and red as they walk down the page, and I rub my forehead.
“Maybe we tried the wrong thing.”
“Maybe I did, you mean.”
“I didn’t say that.” But maybe I did mean it. I don’t know. But I’m culpable too. I guessed what he would try to do, where he would search, and I didn’t stop him.
“Where did it go, do you think?”
“I don’t know.” But I do. I can feel it, somewhere just beyond the reach of our outstretched fingers, walking the other side of an invisible wall, pushing its horned head against it, bending it like the soft skin of a womb. It’ll be through, in time. I think Marco knows it, too. We only pushed a chair against the door last night. We have to work out how to lock it. I get up, finally.
“Marco. We have to get ready.”
“Yes.” He pushes his hands back through his thick dark hair, scattering late morning light from it. Part of me wants to reach out to him, to tell him it’s ok. But I don’t think it is. I turn and lead the way to the basement stairs instead.
Marco rights the fallen table while I prowl the edges of the protective pentagram. Here and there the chalk is smudged, and I kneel to re-draw it, murmuring under my breath as I do so. We will bless it together before the clients arrive. Tonight of all nights it must be strong.
I hadn’t glimpsed it prowling the edges of the circle, but I had felt it. Marco had, also. I’d looked up at him from across the circle of joined hands, and seen his eyes glitter back at me in the candle light. It’s all window-dressing, of course. We don’t need the candles, the soft dark cloth on the table. We do need the shape of safety around us though. And everything else – well, it’s the drama people pay for, isn’t it? We could do this in the broad, disinterested light of day, sitting holding hands on the grass outside. Every school kid with any talent that’s messed with a ouija board will tell you that. Because you always try it in the daytime first, don’t you? Because it feels safer. It is safer. The dead don’t mind the light – but other things do.
I’d looked over the bejewelled, manicured hands of the women between us, and seen Marco’s own knowledge. I’d prayed no one had scuffed the pentagram as they entered the room, then gone back to what I was doing. Contacting someone’s husband, someone’s sister. Pulling solace out of the air. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually it depends just how fond people were of each other. If they weren’t, then none of the dead can be bothered to talk to them, mostly. We don’t make things up, though. That’s dangerous. The dead don’t like it. And maybe we’re strong enough not to be hurt, and to protect our clients, but one or two disrupted séances is all it takes to ruin your reputation. We’ve seen it happen.
But it had been slinking around us last night. I felt its breath on my cheek from the other side of the wall. Felt Marcos alarm. Had turned my head to blow it back, gently. It had gone, too. They always did. But I knew it would be back. This one would be different. And I knew why. Marco could never hide much from me. After we had helped the women to the door, and waved them off gently, and I had pulled off the irritating, long dress to put my jeans on again, I saw him watching in the mirror.
“What did you do?”
“Tried to bring us some luck, is all.”
“You can’t do that, Marco. You can’t summon the Lady.”
“No, but sometimes you can bring – power.” He looked uncomfortable.
“Why do we need power?” I had unwrapped the head scarf, and now I pulled my hair back into a dark ponytail. “What do we need that for?”
“We’re almost broke, Cat. We’re not making enough. We need to stretch further.” His voice was defensive, and I moved past him into the bathroom, wiping the make-up from my face. “The house is costing more to up-keep than we’re making.” The house. The rambling, beautiful, ancient house. I love it. Love belonging here, listening to the old voices whispering in the walls.
“So how much will you make it cost us, Marco? What attention will you bring us?” I watched him in the mirror, not really angry. Not yet. That came later. That came in the bloody hours to follow
“It’ll be fine. I didn’t let it through.” He turned away from me, but not before I’d seen the indents cutting his forehead in two. And I thought, yes, but you left your scent, didn’t you?
We lay together in the night, his hand on my arm. I didn’t turn to him. I was listening to the voices in the walls. They were anxious. There was a heavy presence moving through the darkness just beyond us. I sat up, feeling its weight pushing close to me. Marco didn’t move, but I could hear the whisper of his breath. He was chanting to himself, low and constant. I couldn’t make it out, but I was sure it wasn’t a banishing spell. No, he was summoning, I was sure of it. I shoved him, suddenly, hard.
“What are you doing?”
“Cat?” He sounded mostly asleep.
“You’re summoning, aren’t you? You stupid – “ I didn’t finish the sentence, rolling out of the bed, crying out as my feet touched the floor, because it was icy. “Do you even know what you’re calling?”
“I know what I’m doing! I’m not summoning anything! You want to lose this place?”
“You want to lose everything? Something’s coming! Help me!” There was no chalk in the room, so I merely stood in the wash of moonlight coming through the window, my hands out to the side, not muttering, shouting the arcane words, feeling frost forming between my toes. I didn’t know what it was. But I could feel it, a heavy and muscular beast slouching along the edges of our dimension to be born. I prayed there were no thin spots up here.
The blow took me by surprise. One moment I almost thought the frost was receding, but maybe, in retrospect, my feet had just become numb. Marco had swung out of the bed and was coming towards me, neither fighting or helping me, his hands stretched out to me placatingly, his bare chest gleaming brown in the dim light. Then I was spinning sideways, in the grip of something unseen, and I collided with the wall before I could even bring my hands up to protect myself, feeling darkness bite at me before I staggered to my feet, hands out again, taking up the chant where I had left off, seeing Marco with his mouth an oh of horror.
“Chant!” I screamed at him, and he did, flinching away from my anger. But there was no need. It was gone. Waking into the dimness of the morning, I had known that it had only retreated before it could be banished. And looking at Marco, now, as we set up the room for the night to come, I knew that he knew it too. The beast had the scent, and it would not be thrown.
“It must have tried to come through here,” he says as he collects a candle that had rolled into the corner.
“Yes.” The basement would be full of weak points, where we invited the dead through to talk and be heard. Not weak enough for the thing yet, though. But soon. I can still see temptation at the edge of Marco’s eyes, but it fades every time he looks at my bruised forehead. Dammit, I am tempted. But more – I’m afraid.
“Yes?” I look up from checking the edge of the pentagram, seeing pain in the lines of his face.
“I’m sorry.” His hands are out to me, begging forgiveness.
“It’ll be fine.” I can taste a lie in my words, and glance around anxiously. The voices in the wall are low and scared, and I think that maybe there would be none of the dead come to visit us tonight. Something far worse than them prowls just beyond reach. I jump as Marco touches my face – I’d barely noticed him cross the room. His fingertips are cool and soft, and I lean into him suddenly, letting him put his arms around me. We hold each other there, in the artificial dark, waiting for a sign of what is to come.
“I don’t think we should do this tonight,” he says. I lift my head from his chest and regard him. “I think it might be dangerous.”
“It’s all dangerous now.” I see the meaning hidden in his words, though. For you. Dangerous for you. I am always the one that travels further, that stands the strongest, that anchors the group. It is always me between the clients and the dark. Not that that is Marco’s fault – he has been my strength since the dark days of childhood. Some of us just see the path clearer, is all.
“We still need to make our living, Marco. We’re not going to be able to find any power in what lies beyond. Only death.”
“But maybe – “
“No! You want the demons couching at your door? Nothing for nothing. We’ll pay the price.”
“But I didn’t want this.”
“Yet now we have it.” I take the packet of cigarettes from his pocket and light one, coughing at the unfamiliarity of the smoke, yet needing it. “You don’t read enough of the old stories.”
“I do.”
I shrug, suddenly exhausted by the conversation. I leave him in the basement and climb to the kitchen, trying to listen to the voices in the walls, but they have fled. The cigarette tastes bitter, and I drown it in the sink.
I open the door behind my eyes. I feel it before I see it. Know what it wants. Slam the door again, casting aside the arms of the powdered women seeking comfort, lunging across the table with my hands outstretched without backing away from the door, feeling Marco closing his fingers through mine. I can dimly hear screaming from another place, and hope they have the sense to run. Where I am, the walls bulge alarmingly, barely holding it back. The door rattles and whines, and I push the hands of my mind against it. Marco is behind me, his hands flat against the door too, and he is screaming for me to let go, to get out. He knows what it wants, too. But he cannot hold it alone. I push harder, thinking, boards. They are there, slamming across the door, nails plunging into the wall. Marco sees what I am doing, and suddenly there is a maelstrom of wood in front of us. We both jump back. The door is gone, a mass of crossed, bolted wood in its place. For good measure, a massive, ancient chest of drawers blinks into existence, squatting fatly where we had stood. All around us the walls are creaking and groaning, and I see shapes pushing against them – a horn, a muscled shoulder, powerful, terrifying paws. We look at each other, and step back.
My fingernails have drawn blood on his palms.
“Cat, you have to get out of here.” His eyes are desperate.
“You won’t hold it alone. It’ll find me anyway.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I know.” Of course I know. The idea of him promising me is laughable. I rise from the table. The room is empty, the chairs knocked over. The candles gutter on the table. I step away from my chair without thinking, and only when I hear Marco scream “No!” do I realise what I am doing. I try to throw myself backwards, but it’s too late – I am already partway across the pentagram, and the walls rend, a sound heard across many dimensions. Jesus, they must have been thin. The torn edges flutter in the middle of the room, and it steps through. Behind it, the darkness surges and roars, and I fear that night for the first time. Because we have drawn attention to ourselves. I feel Marco coming around the table, his arms already outstretched, chanting in his cigarette-rough voice, but I seem unable to do anything. It is looking at me, reaching out with one scaled, taloned hand – standing upright, its horned head hangs low to avoid the ceiling, and its body is a mass of scaled ridges and bunched muscles. Its eyes are violet, and it beckons to me, its voice deep and guttural at the edge of my mind. I step forward, feel Marcos hand on my arm, fling him off. It is promising me secrets, knowledge, eternal life. Power. More power than my desperate, clinging brother can give me. I see myself as a queen, passing between the walls effortlessly, beautiful, terrible and eternal. Men bow before me and women flee me. It touches me, one talon passing across my face with the tenderness of a lover. Marco’s voice rises to a crescendo, and I see the creature flinch back. As it flinches, it snarls, and in the twisted mass of dripping fangs I see the truth.
I close my eyes, flinging my hands towards it, screaming, “Marco, to me!” I feel him follow me into the darkness as we say the ancient words, heaving with terrible power. The thing advances on me still, and I throw a barricade between us. It rips it aside easily, and its breath on my face stinks of the pit. I throw another one, feeling Marco pushing his hands against it to hold it in place. The things throws aside barricade and man, waiting for our resistance to subside. I feel Marco’s consciousness flee, and I am alone in front of the broken walls and the thing that has come through them. Help me, I think, not knowing who can or will come to my aid. Help me, dammit! There is no reply – of course there isn’t – and the thing wraps an arm around my waist. It is on fire. I push as hard as I can, physically and psychically, and I am aware of its laughter, and then it is stepping back to the wall with me helpless under one arm.
And the wall comes alive. All those voices, all those ancient, welcoming voices whispering to me through the walls of our house. My house. They come through the rent like an advancing army, and when I start to chant again, they join me, and their half-seen hands push and pull at the thing, numerous enough to make it stumble, for its hold on me to falter. My voice has risen to a scream, and is carried on the wave of sound around me. The edges of the wall mumble towards the creature hungrily, and as it tries to resist I pull myself away from it. The house trembles with the cacophony of power. The thing reaches out to me with one twisted hand, and in its eyes is something that approaches a plea. I shake it off with a twist of distaste on my face, and don’t stop the words. The army falls on it, and it is pushed through the rent ahead of them, leaving behind silence as the wall heals itself. I fall to my knees, and keep chanting. I chant until I am hoarse and dizzy, and only then do I remember Marco. I open my eyes with a gasp, and the dimness of the cellar rushes to reclaim me as I pull back from the other world. My knees are sore on the stone floor, and the sleeve of my dress is pinned to my arm by blood. I get up stiffly, like an old woman. He is in the corner of the cellar, slumped against the bare brick wall, but he is breathing. I crouch in front of him, touch his face gently. It is as if he has waited for my touch to awaken, like sleeping beauty, for he gasps and grabs at my wrist, his eyes flying open.
“Cat – “
“Shh. It’s gone.” He gapes at me, and I see a shadow in his eyes for one moment. Then he pulls me to him, and we lie curled on the floor, warm body to warm body, until the candles die and the darkness comes in.
Later that night I lie in the curve of his belly, listening to the deep echoes of his breathing reverberating through me. My bandaged arm glows white in the darkness, and I listen to the murmuring in the walls of the house. Thank you, I think, and feel their warmth for me. Know we can never leave this house. Not now. Or I can’t. And think to myself, that Marco might. Because the shadow in his eyes was fear. Because I called the dead to my aid, and they came, and saved me when he could not. But the whispering of ancient voices soothes me, and I sleep cradled in the arms of the dead and the living.

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