“Uh, can I help you?”
There’s a strange boy lurking outside the pub near the entrance to Tanis’s stairwell, and I nearly hit him when I open the door. I didn’t even see him; I’ve been moving as quickly as I can to get her things and get back, stopping only to water her plants and grab some food from her tiny fridge.
(I know Thomas asked me to go to the village and buy food, but I don’t really know how to do that, and I don’t feel like figuring it out right now, and I thought it was probably best if I didn’t steal things.)
I don’t know what Tanis prefers to wear, other than boots and black, so I kind of just grabbed everything, admittedly, and as a result my knapsack is nearly bursting. Its round form causes me to bounce back against the door jamb as I try to avoid running into the red haired boy staring up at the windows of Tanis’s flat like he’s searching for something.
He jumps as though I’ve startled him as well, and takes a long step back.
“Oh, sorry.” His voice is thin and wispy, despite his extremely thick accent. “I was looking for Tanis.”
He’s thin; thinner than Thomas, probably, but close to his height. He looks overbalanced in his baggy blue parka and black rubber boots, and his skin is nearly as pale as the drizzling grey sky behind him. He looks sickly. There’s not really any other word for it. And he’s older than I thought, though. Not a boy. Closer to my age.
“She’s not here,” I say slowly, eyeing him up and down. He’s covered in freckles; more than I have, and they look harsh against his pale skin. He’s beautiful, in an odd way, and the strangest human I’ve ever seen.
“Oh.” His face falls and he puts his hands in his pockets. “Do you know when she’ll be back?” he asks. “I really was hoping to catch her. I, uh… needed to tell her something.”
“I think she’ll be gone a few days.”
“Oh, damn.” He sighs and the air makes a little whistling noise as it leaves his mouth. “Alright, well, thank you.” He turns to leave, then pauses. “Say, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Isla.” I say, turning away, and then I pause. An idea strikes me suddenly, like an electric crackling lighting up my body. This could be the answer to our problems.
I step back and survey the man. He’s odd looking, but he seems kind. A bit lost, maybe, but that could just be the shadows under his eyes. He doesn’t look like he’s in great health, but Tanis didn’t say anything about needing a healthy donor. She fed from an old man, didn’t she? How much different can it be to feed from an old man versus this bloke, who looks like he’s had insomnia for about six years?
“Wait,” I say, my voice echoing out across the empty village street. “I’m heading to her now. I can take you there, if you want?”
I almost can’t believe the luck. This way she won't have to go into the village, and we won’t have to keep fighting with Thomas about his stupid refusal to let her feed from him. It’ll speed things up as well; the sooner Tanis is strong again, the sooner we can get back to our search.
Besides, it’s kind of fitting, I guess. She came over and brought us food. It’s polite to return the favour.
“Would you really?” he asks, his mouth tilting up. He sounds like he has a sore throat. “That would be perfect, thanks. Is it a short walk?”
“Yeah, we’re just over on the other side of the village,” I say, shifting my heavy pack onto my back and gesturing off into the skyline. “She’s been staying at Kit’s house.”
“Oh, you know Kit?” he asks, falling into step beside me. He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets, and his shoulders hunch in on themselves as we walk. “How is he? I know he’s been off work.”
“He’s fine,” I lie, quickening my pace. “He just had a, uh, vomiting bug.”
“A bug? Rotten luck. So he’s home, then?”
“No. Not right now, I mean. He’s just… I’m working on it.”
Fuck. Fuck I wish I were a better liar. The truth keeps popping out before I can even think of something fake. I wish Thomas were here.
My boots squelch into the mud as we walk, and I focus on my feet and the trip. Small trickles of doubt start to curl up in me as we walk and the silence stretches between us. Maybe I acted too rashly. Maybe there’s a reason Tanis hasn’t asked this stranger to be a donor before. Oh, Christ, how are we going to deal with the memory aspect of it all?
“So you’re friends with Kit and Tanis, eh?” the stranger asks. “How’d you meet?”
“Uhm. Kit helped me out a few years back, and I just met Tanis.” Despite the fact that I’m fairly sure he’d lose a fight with a stiff breeze, the man’s questions are starting to make me uncomfortable. I may be being paranoid; I don’t know everyone on this island. I’m sure there are loads of people who know Tanis and Kit and would be asking after them. But his questions feel… pointed, and I’m starting to feel a bit nauseated.
Is this anxiety? Is this what Thomas feels like all the time? God, this is awful. I don’t want it.
We pass the post box at the curve that leads down toward Kit’s house and the stranger doesn’t wait for me to walk ahead; he just keeps shuffling forward, his black rain boots scuffing through the mud. Everything about him looks… faded, like if I catch him out of the corner of my eye he’ll just bleed into the landscape.
And his footsteps aren’t making noise.
We step through a puddle and it splashes around my feet, the soft ripple of it echoing through the empty landscape. But though the water kicks up around the stranger’s rubber boots, there’s no noise. No splash. When he steps through the mud, it doesn’t make a sound.
“So you know Thomas then, too?” he asks.
“Hm?” I ask, glancing over my shoulder. There’s no one on the road. No cars coming in the opposite direction, and nothing to be done but to continue walking down the hill. I’m not a fast runner — not that I’ve done much running, really, but I can just tell — and I’d probably tumble down the hill if I tried.
“Thomas Madigan,” the man says, not noticing my tension. “An old local. I saw him the other day at the pub.”
My pace picks up. My legs are short and my stride is small, but I begin pushing it as fast as I can, eager to get back to the house. It’s still too far away though; I can’t even see the tip of the roof from here, and if I shouted, no one would hear me.
“I knew him before he moved,” the stranger says. He’s able to keep stride with me easily. “I’ve heard some strange things about him, though. They say he went nutters before he left, and now he’s totally mad. Sees hallucinations.”
“Alright,” I say, finally breaking. I can’t outrun him. Whatever he may be, he looks like he’d topple if I aimed a punch right. There’s nothing to do but square off. “Who are you?”
I spin, my hands on my hips, hoping to make an imposing figure, but the stranger is gone.
My words echo around me, like they’re mocking me, and no one responds except for a gull.
There’s no one around, no shadows in sight, not another soul on the road. I take off running.
I’m panting by the time I get to Kit’s house. There’s a thin stream of smoke coming from the chimney, and I could melt with relief from the sight of it. Thomas and Tanis are up and the inside is going to be warm, and strange disappearing men are no longer following me.
“Oi,” I say, crashing in the kitchen door. “Something is going on, I just met—”
The words die in my throat as I take in the scene in front of me. Tanis — hair swirling around her head in some invisible wind — has Thomas backed into a corner, one hand around his neck.
“What are you talking about?” Tanis hisses. “Who are you?”
“I trust you,” Thomas whispers. His eyes look white; filmed over. He’s looking at something, but it’s not Tanis, and I don’t think he’s talking to her either. “It’s just a little blood.”
“Tanis?” I shout, dropping my pack to the floor and hurrying to get over to them. “Tanis, what are you doing? Let go of him!”
I tug on her arm, but it’s like a steel vice.
“What are you?” she rasps again. There’s blood smeared around her mouth, and she uses her grip on Thomas’s neck to shove him back against the wall. His head collides with the smooth grey stone, and suddenly his eyes clear. He gasps, his hands flying up to scramble at Tanis’s.
“I don’t—” he starts, shaking his head. His voice is weak, breathy, and she’s pressing on his windpipe too much. “I don’t — please, I don’t—”
“Tanis, let him go!” I say, tugging on her arm again, this time with all my might. I don’t think I would be able to move her if she were at her full strength, but in her weakened state she gives, and I shove her back, placing myself firmly between her and Thomas.
“What the actual fuck is going on here?” I shout. Behind me, Thomas is coughing and panting, and in front of me Tanis still looks ready to kill. Her eyes have gone pure gold, her hair still fanned around her like a terrifying halo.
“That isn’t Thomas,” she snaps, dragging the back of her hand across her mouth. The blood just smears further. “He has Seelie blood in him. He’s not human.”
“What?” I exclaim. “How do you know?”
“He told me I could feed from him, and when I did, his blood burnt me. He was trying to poison me.”
“No I wasn’t!” Thomas shouts. His voice sounds hysterical with fear and panic. “I didn’t know! Tan, I didn’t—”
“What if he’s the reason Kit is missing? What if he swapped out Thomas at some point? Isla, he could have been playing us.”
“Tan,” Thomas rasps from behind me. “No, Tan, it’s not — I would never —”
“Then why did you send Isla away before you offered to let me feed?” Tanis argues, and a part of me twinges with the truth in her statement. It’s a good question. Why did he — no. We don’t have time for infighting right now. I don’t know Thomas, and I don’t even entirely like him, but he saved our lives with the nuckelavee. And Kit trusts him. So I have to too.
“Tanis, sit down,” I say, my voice stern. “Nothing took over Thomas’s body, and he wasn’t trying to kill you. Something is going on here, and I don’t think it’s his fault.”
“How would you know? Do you—”
“Do you trust me?” I ask her. The sharpness fades from her golden eyes, and I watch as they begin to settle back into green. “Do you trust me?”
Her hair falls flat and lank around her face and her body seems to curve inward. The welts from her injury the previous day reappear on her soft and sallow skin, and she stumbles on unsteady legs. I reach out immediately and wrap my hand around her arm.
“Come on,” I say, my voice soft. “Come on, come sit down, then let’s get you back to bed. I got your things for you,” I say, steering her toward one of the kitchen chairs. She allows herself to go; despite being an immovable, rooted object the moment before, she’s now as liquid as water.
“Are you alright?” I ask Thomas, turning back to him. He rubs at his throat and nods, his brown hair flopping into his face.
“Bazdmeg,” he croaks to himself. I don’t know what language that was or what that means, but I don’t think it was nice.
“Good. Make some tea.”
“I don’t want tea,” he argues. “I want to know what the fuck is wrong with me.” He rubs at his throat again. “Really, I swear, Tan, I didn’t know. I would never have told you to feed if I’d known.”
“How do you not know that you have Seelie blood in you?” Tanis shouts. Her voice is weak though. Even trying to yell, she’s hoarse. “With everything that’s been going on with you, isn’t it blindingly obvious that it’s side-effects from Seelie blood?”
“I’d thought about it, sure,” Thomas says, his voice getting higher and higher pitched. “But Seelie blood doesn’t just… happen. You have to accept it willingly, and I’ve never—”
He trails off, his brows furrowing, his eyes darting from side to sigh. Tanis is tracking his movements like a dog after a squirrel, and even though she’s crumpled in the chair, she looks ready to lunge. She doesn’t believe him.
“Tanis, have you ever fed from Kit before?” I ask. Tanis’s eyes snap toward me, breaking their fixation on Thomas, and she shakes her head.
“No, never. I told you, I was going to start using him as a donor this month.”
“I’ve only willingly exchanged blood with two people,” Thomas pushes in. I don’t think he’s talking to us, just talking out loud, his fingers tapping quickly against his leg. “And both of them are missing.”
“You realise this doesn’t make you look any more innocent,” Tanis says sharply.
“Tanis,” I say, shaking my head. “No, I believe him. Think about it — if he were Seelie, you’d know. He couldn’t leave the island, right? Can’t cross running water and all that, isn’t that the myth? Trust me, you’d know. You’ve known him your whole life.”
I have no idea what has happened to bring me to this point in time; standing in Kit’s kitchen without him, defending Thomas Madigan using faery stories that Conor and Mum told me as a kid.
Tanis looks away, and I know I’ve convinced her.
“It has to be Owen,” Thomas says, swallowing. “He could have done all this—”
“Sorry, hold on,” Tanis interrupts, scoffing. “So the prevailing theory is that you’re crazy and have poisonous blood because of some imaginary friend who might be a faery?” She’s calmed down, but there’s still a dangerous air around her, and in the short time we’ve known each other I’ve never seen her this… inhuman. “Do you realise how far fetched that is? You’re putting this all on someone none of us remember.”
“He wasn’t imaginary! He was—”
“Look, something just happened,” I shout, pushing off from the counter where I’ve been resting. “I went to get Tanis’s things and there was this bloke there. He said he was looking for Tanis, but I dunno if that was true. I told him he could come back with me, because I thought he might be able to be a donor for you,” I say, nodding toward Tanis. Saying it now, it seems like a terrible, horrible idea. Why did I even think of it?
“But he started asking all these questions, and then started talking about Thomas,” I say, shaking off the queasiness that comes with thinking of the stranger. “He knew you were back on the island, and he said you’d gone crazy.”
“All the locals say that,” Tanis cuts in, dismissive. “Everyone thinks he went nutters and ran away.”
“Do they really?” Thomas asks.
“You didn’t exactly have the best reputation before you left. You were always odd. And Hungarian. Folk always liked Kit more.”
Thomas inclines his head and nods at Tanis like she wasn’t just choking the life out of him a moment ago. There are still little beads of blood on his chin from where her fingernails had cut into his skin.
“I mean, I guess they’re not wrong.”
“Please, can we focus? Please?” I snap, feeling like the only rational person in this room. Thomas flicks his eyes away from Tanis, who tucks her feet up into her chair and rests her chin on her knees to look at me.
“What did he look like?” Thomas asks.
“Like shit,” I say honestly. “Really pale, freckled. Tall, red hair. Thick accent.”
“That’s Owen,” Tanis and Thomas say at the exact same time, and then pause.
“What?” Thomas asks, his eyes wide as he rounds on Tanis. “You remember Owen?”
“No, I…” Tanis shakes her head, her own eyes wide and confused, a crease forming between her eyebrows. “No, I don’t know why I said that.”
“But you knew that was Owen. You remember him,” Thomas pushes.
“No, I don’t,” Tanis argues, shaking her head and squaring her jaw. “I don’t, I don’t know who that is, or why I said that.”
“But this is proof!” Thomas says, his words coming faster. He’s getting excited, worked up. “Kit remembered him the other night, too. And just now, I had this memory-like vision that I have no recollection of, and you knew what Owen looked like! I told you he had been pulled from your memory, but he’s coming back!”
“Wait, go back,” I interrupt, panic leaping in my stomach. “Kit remembered him? When did you speak to Kit?”
“I didn’t speak to him,” Thomas says, deflating, “I just had another of those dreams, and he—”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Tanis interjects. I nod furiously. God I hope I’m not wrong to trust him. Please don’t let him be playing us.
“I did tell you! What, do you want me to come to you everytime I see something weird or fucked up?”
“Yes!” Tanis shouts. “Jesus Christ, sometimes you are the most frustrating person—”
“Can we please—”
“Alright, well then, while you were choking the fucking life out of me, I had a memory of Kit from the night he tried to kill me, and I handed him a knife.”
“You handed him a knife?”
“Slow down!” I shout. I feel like I’m drowning. Everyone is talking over each other, explanations and realisations flying too fast, and I can’t keep up. Thomas has a small bruise forming on his neck, Tanis looks close to passing out, I’m really, desperately fucking hungry, and I’m having a hard time following what’s happening. “Can we go back to the start? The man I saw—”
A loud pounding echoes through the room.
I fall silent, and so do Thomas and Tanis. As one, all of our heads turn to the kitchen door, where through the filmy white curtain, we can clearly see the shadow of someone standing outside, knocking.
We freeze, staring at each other.
The person knocks again.
Thomas backs up slowly toward the counter, his hand searching for a knife, and Tanis unfolds herself from the chair.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Don’t answer it,” he hisses.
“You don’t know who it is!”
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“So what, we just pretend we aren’t here?” Tanis whispers back.
“Yes!” Thomas spits. “That’s exactly what I suggest we do.”
The stranger outside rattles the doorknob, and all of us jump.
“I know you’re in there, Isla,” a deep, muffled voice calls from outside. “I can hear you talking.”
Thomas and Tanis turn to stare at me, and my stomach drops to the floor.