“Here’s the thing, though,” Thomas says from the backseat, his forehead pressed against the glass. “You can die from having your arms ripped off. And the bean nighe knows how you’re going to die. So does that mean that she has a choice in the matter? Does it mean she decides to rip your arms off, or does she just have to rip your arms off because she’s fated to do so?”
“I don’t think they actually rip your arms off,” Tanis responds with a heavy sigh. She’s seated next to Thomas in the back of the jeep as Murray drives us along the curling Mab coastline. “I’m actually extremely confident that they have never ripped an arm.”
“Please,” I beg, “no one say the words ‘arm ripping’ again, please.” Every time they say it I feel sick to my stomach. I turn back around in my seat to watch Murray adjust the gears and take us around a bend. The movement of the car makes me queasy, and I breathe deep and focus on Murray.
“So what have you been doing on land?” I ask him quietly. “Tell me about your life. Everything. Why’d you stay?”
Murray looks at me out of the corner of his eye and breaks into a wide, blinding grin.
“I’m married,” he responds, holding up his hand. He’s wearing a ring I didn’t notice before. “Her name’s Bridget. She’s human,” he adds, before I can ask. “She thinks her great-grandmum was a selkie, though, but who doesn’t? I met her when I came on land for the day. She’s a marine biologist.” Murray grins, a proud, moon-eyed look crossing his face. “Well, I stayed. She’s the most interesting woman I’ve ever met.”
“She sounds lovely,” I respond, smiling. I figured he had to have met someone. Murray was always the romantic type; it was only love that was going to get him out of the sea, not adventure. “Do you live on the coast?”
“We’ve got a cottage, aye, but we’re in the village. We’re hoping to move further out when the baby is older, but—” Murray pauses and digs into his pocket. “We’ve got a little girl! I didn’t mention that, did I?” He angles himself up in his seat to get to his phone.
“Please watch the road,” Thomas whines from the back, and Tanis flicks him.
“A baby!” she exclaims. It’s an odd noise coming from a woman in a leather jacket, and I love it excessively. “Do you have photos?”
“Do I have photos?” Murray repeats, still grinning. He hands me his mobile and I stare at it for a moment, unsure of what to do, until Tanis leans up from the front seat and wraps her hand around mine gently and clicks a button. The screen turns on to reveal a photo of Murray, smiling broadly next to a woman with bright red hair, holding a chubby baby girl.
“What’s her name?” I ask, unable to take my eyes off the photo. The baby has freckles, just like Murray and me. Her eyes look a bit like Mum’s.
Murray’s grin turns shy.
“Isla. We call her Lala.”
“Oh my God,” Tanis whispers. Her breath puffs across my cheek. “Oh my God, that’s precious, do you really? Isla, she looks just like you!” Tanis sits back in her seat. “Wee seal baby. Oh, I love her.”
“Open up my photos, we have some of her at the beach,” Murray says, taking the phone out of my hand and passing it back to Tanis. I don’t say anything. My chest feels tight and my stomach feels hollow, and I’m not sure if I’m going to cry or tackle Murray to the ground for being such a sentimental idiot. But his smile is contagious, and even with everything that’s happening, I still can’t keep myself from smiling back.
“Thank you for driving us,” I tell him. “You didn’t have to come.”
“It’s an adventure!” Murray booms, tapping the steering wheel. “Thank you for including me.” He glances in the rear view mirror quickly, then back to me. “When this is done, you know, if you don’t want to go back right away, you’re always welcome with Bridget and me. She’d love to meet you.”
My cheeks heat up and I clear my throat.
“Maybe,” I say, looking out the window to watch the sea. “Thank you.”
“And thank you for letting Tanis chow down on you. Really, all around, you’ve been dead helpful. Thank you to everyone, thanks all around,” Thomas says with a sigh, his forehead pressed to the window.. He’s gotten both pricklier and more manic since connecting the dots between Owen and the Seelie blood, and I’m a little worried he’s going to have a nervous breakdown.
“I want to eat your baby,” Tanis says, handing the phone back to Murray. Thomas and I both turn to stare at her, and she blushes. “I mean in the way that babies are cute and not in the way that I...” she trails off and blushes even harder.
“Tanis, please don’t eat my niece,” I say, biting down a smile. “I haven’t even met her yet.”
“I didn’t mean it literally!”
“You can’t just go around threatening to eat people,” I continue. “You’ll get a weird reputation.”
“I don’t eat babies!” she shouts, then huffs. “I just meant— no. Nevermind. Let’s just focus on the plan. The Washer will give you either information or wishes. If you catch them, they’ll give you both.”
“Don’t go with wishes,” Murray says, shoving his phone back in his trousers while still managing to keep his eyes on the road. It’s rather impressive. He’s so good at humaning. “I watch a lot of telly, trust me, the wishes are never the right choice.”
“What does catching her mean?” Thomas asks. “Wishes and information sounds kind of ideal, if she’ll give it to us.”
“They,” Tanis corrects. “And it’s hard to catch them. That’s probably where you got the arm ripping thing.” I make a face. “It’s better to decide what you want and barter for it.”
“Barter? I don’t have anything she’d want.”
“They,” Tanis says again. “The Washer isn’t a woman.”
Thomas stares at her.
“Bean Nighe literally means… washer woman,” he says, frowning.
“Since when do you speak Gaelic?”
“I don’t!” Thomas says, defensive. “But that’s the myth. The wee washer woman of the ford.”
“Well maybe they were called a woman at one point, but they aren’t now. They’re centuries old, and they go by the Washer.” Tanis sniffs. “Just don’t be rude to them, okay?”
“Christ, okay, sorry,” Thomas says, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I didn’t realise. Why do you know all of this, anyway?”
Tanis goes slightly pink and looks out the window.
“Aunt E took me to see them when I was fifteen,” she says quietly. “We were trying to find out if it was possible for me to become human.”
Beside me, Murray shifts a bit and adjusts his rear view mirror. I think he’s craning his neck to hear better.
“You never told me that,” Thomas says. His voice is calmer than it’s been all day.
“Not to point out the obvious, but there were a lot of things you never told me,” Tanis hisses back. Thomas has the decency not to argue.
“So I take it there wasn’t a way?” I ask. I feel bad intruding on this little moment they’re having in the backseat, but I’m dead curious.
“No, there’s a way,” Tanis says, shaking her head. “Loads of ways, actually. But the price was too high. I had to pay just to get information out of them, and then the actual process of becoming human required… too much.”
“What did it involve?” I ask.
“A sacrifice,” Tanis says, shrugging. “What else? Life for a life.”
“I’m amazed Aunt E didn’t go out and kill someone for you,” Thomas says. “I bet she’d have loved a chance to sacrifice me.” Tanis flashes him an annoyed glance and turns back to speak to me.
“Even if I’d been willing — which I wasn’t — the Washer said it wouldn’t be the same. Not a smooth transition, you know? Not like being a selkie. Your magic is stored in your pelt; when you give it away, you sever your tie to it. But my magic is me. I wouldn’t have been the same person if I’d done it. So it just didn’t seem worth it.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” I say, smiling at her. “I can’t imagine you not being you.”
Murray makes a noise that sounds a bit like an ‘awe’, while Thomas snorts.
“Going back to the bartering thing,” Thomas says, “I have absolutely nothing to bargain with.”
“Oh, sure you do,” Tanis says. “For example, the price for my information was the memory of my first kiss. And my Gameboy.”
“I gave you both of those things,” Thomas says, his face scrunched up in offence.
“And they were dearly missed,” Tanis says, patting his arm consolingly. “I was getting incredible at Tetris.”
“Maybe I can trade away the memory of our entire relationship,” Thomas mutters.
“I think they’ll probably want something of substance and value,” Tanis snaps back, her smile never leaving her face. “Oh! Why don’t you trade that time when you and Kit thought it would be a good idea to try—”
“No, no thank you,” Thomas interrupts, his voice high. “I’ll figure it out, thank you.”
I turn around even more in my seat and try to catch Tanis’s eye. I want to know what story she was about to tell. She grins when we make eye contact, and I’m fairly sure I’ll hear it later.
The car settles into an uneasy silence as Murray drives us further away from the coast, cutting inward on the island. I’ve never been this far into Mab before; I’ve only spent time in Towe or in the main harbour town where the ferries leave from. But the island is gorgeous, even away from the coast. The jagged cliff sides turn into dramatic rolling hills and munros and everywhere you look is green.
“This is beautiful,” Murray says, echoing my thoughts. “Bridget would love this.”
“You should bring her,” I tell him, turning to rest my cheek against the headrest so I can watch him. He looks good. Healthy. Almost glowing in his happiness. He was never sad before — I don’t know if Murray is capable of feeling sad — but he looks like he could power a sun by himself right now. “Bring her and little Isla. You can meet Kit, when we find him. You’d love him.”
Murray flicks his eyes to me and takes his left hand off the gear shift to reach for me. I put one small hand in his much larger one, and he holds on tight.
Something warm and tight and calm spreads through my chest, and I let out a long breath.
Maybe Murray is my human.
Maybe Murray will be the reason I put away my pelt.
I think I’d like that. I think that’s the kind of commitment I would never second guess.
We drive until the sun gets lower in the sky, and then Tanis begins directing Murray down a narrow one lane dirt track. “Park there, just before the curve. We walk the rest of it,” she says, pointing to a sharp bend in the road marked by a pile of crumbled boulders.
Murray eases into a pull off and cuts the engine. The air in the car is tense with anticipation; Thomas is nearly vibrating and I have a sick excitement building in my stomach.
“We have to hike up to the stream,” Tanis says, getting out of the car and stretching. “It’s not far, but it is steep. When we hit the final stretch, we’ll need to be quiet as well, because the Washer will get pissed if we’re thrashing about and it will ruin any chance of surprising them.”
“Oh,” Murray says, leaning against the car. “I’m going to stay here, then.” He smiles and looks a bit sheepish. “I’m a dad now, so I don’t do monster hunting. Also, I’m shit at hiking.”
He looks so completely unashamed of this that I want to hug him.
“I respect a man who knows his own weaknesses,” Tanis says, nodding at him. “Alright then, lads. Let’s go.”
Tanis’s military-sharp command makes me feel like we should be heading off on a long expedition, laden down with packs and supplies. But instead we just pull our coats closer and set off along the hill — Tanis leading the way in her leather jacket, Thomas and I making up the rear, sliding in my too-big boots and his increasingly muddy white trainers.
“You doing alright?” I ask Thomas in a low voice. Tanis is a far superior hiker than either of us, and she’s almost immediately put distance between us. Thomas stumbles a bit over a rock and shrugs.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “These days it’s almost impossible for me to tell what is and isn’t real or okay.”
“It’s been a lot the last few days, I know,” I agree, almost surprising myself with my empathy. I forgot that having Murray around makes me nicer. Having Murray around makes everything better.
Thomas laughs bitterly.
“Just a bit,” he says. “My best friend might be Seelie. I think I’ve been poisoned. And then Kit….” He stops and steps over a badger hole and holds out a hand to help me around it. “All this time I thought Kit tried to kill me, and I surrounded myself in that, you know? I ran off the strength of my confidence that Kit was not good for me. And now it seems that maybe…. maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was hurt as well. Maybe you were right.”
Thomas glares down at the ground.
“I don’t regret it, though,” he says, his voice fierce. “I don’t regret leaving. I had to. But if he’s been suffering….” His glare softens. “If he’s been suffering, I do regret that.”
My chest twinges. I can’t imagine what this must feel like for him. His world and reality is always shifting, and he’s spent years dealing with the idea that the person he loved tried to kill him. And now he’s having to reassess everything.
I don’t know if I want to be right anymore.
“He’ll forgive you,” I tell him. “He loves you.”
“That is not even remotely the point,” Thomas says, shaking his head. He’s starting to breathe heavier from the exertion. I am too. “But let’s say for a wild hypothetical he didn’t try to kill me. The memory is still there, though. And so is that hurt and fear. There’s no coming back for us, I think. And I don’t even think I want….” He shakes his head and pants a bit. “Nope. Nope, not dealing with that. That’s far too complicated.”
He pauses to put his hands on his knees and take a breath. Tanis is so far ahead of us it’s not even funny, and I’m happy for his pause, because my lungs are burning and my legs feel like they’re turning into seaweed. The tiny hairs at the base of my neck are getting sweaty and I feel hot for the first time since coming to land.
“I have no idea how you manage to twist these things into massive, untouchable dramas,” I tell him, huffing a bit.
“I have no idea how you manage to dismiss huge, fucked up things,” he snaps back.
“Look,” I huff, annoyed. Why won’t he even contemplate the idea of being happy? “Kit loves you. You loved him. You both got fucked around with, you both hurt each other for various reasons. Now you’re going to find him. Seems simple to me. Plus, he’s a selkie. We’re loyal. We find our person and stick with them, no matter what.”
“First off, being loyal isn’t a good thing if it makes you stay in shitty situations,” Thomas says, holding up one spindly finger. “And secondly, do you honestly think that two people who have gone through what we have should even be together? Christ, there’s second chances and then there’s trying to build on a nuclear disaster site. No. If we find him, we’ll clear the air and then… that’s it. That’s the end of our story, I think.”
I blink at him.
“Where the hell did you find rationalism and reasonableness?” I ask, walking again. “I don’t like it. I’m the smart one here.”
“Come off it,” Thomas groans, moving to catch up. “Tanis is the brains.”
“Kit is the brains, actually,” I correct. “Tanis is the heart. I’m the muscle.”
“What am I, then?”
He opens his mouth to respond, but we’ve caught up to Tanis, who is standing still with her hand in the air.
“Just beyond that boulder,” she whispers, pointing to a huge rock pile jutting up beside a hill. “There’s a stream and a cottage. We’ve got to go as quietly as we can, alright?”
Thomas and I nod, and we all set off shoulder to shoulder, walking slowly to muffle our footsteps.
The Washer’s stream runs down the side of the munro, and as we come around the side of the rock, a cottage becomes visible. It’s old — it looks more like a bothy than a house, with its fieldstone walls and slate roof — and a wooden water wheel turns gently against the side of the cottage. It’s picturesque and storybook and does not seem like it was built on a pile of ripped arms.
Tanis puts her finger to her lips and steps out into the garden, Thomas and I following. We move slow, crouched down to the ground, picking up our feet to walk as quietly as possible. Thomas lifts his feet an almost ridiculous degree to creep through the grass, and I’m hunched over, like I’ll be quieter if I’m smaller.
I think it’s working, though. We’re almost totally silent. I didn’t expect this to work.
Someone clears their throat behind us.
“You’re not very subtle. I heard you coming a year ago.”
My heart jolts in my chest as the three of us turn.
The Washer looks at us, their head tilted to the side, moss green eyes set on Thomas. They turn a white blue for just a flash of a moment, and then the Washer smiles.
“I highly recommend you stop smoking,” they say, their voice hoarse and deep but clear like a bell. Thomas crosses his arms across his chest and pulls himself in a bit. I don’t know if he’s scared or just trying to protect his arms.
The Washer stands up from the low field rock wall they were sitting on and approaches us slowly. They’re tall — tall and lean, with long fingers and long legs, and they move silently across the grass on bare feet.
I’ve never seen anything like them.
The Washer’s short cropped blond hair — so white it’s almost the same grey as the morning sky — is slicked back against their head as if soaking wet. It exaggerates the rest of their sharp, angular face and causes their large eyes to pop, and their lips — the colour of earth and moss — stand out starkly from their pale, dewy skin.
They’re some genderless being of mist and moss, and they are both the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen, and the most unsettling.
“Hi,” Thomas says, his voice hesitant. He clears his throat and stands up taller, until he’s just past the Washer’s height. He pushes out his chest, and his voice comes out unnaturally low. He sounds like a twat. “I’ve come for answers.”
“Wishes?” the Washer asks, coming closer. They’re wearing a shirt and trousers, but I can’t seem to focus on what the clothes actually look like; it’s like trying to look through fog. Looking at them directly kind of hurts, actually, like watching Tanis when she’s in her baobhan sith form. They’re too beautiful to look at.
“No,” Thomas says, shaking his head. “No wishes. I’d like information.”
The Washer tilts their head to the side, and a corner of their thin green lips lifts up.
“Maybe I’m in a wish granting mood,” they say wryly. “They’re more fun than answering questions.” The Washer cricks their head to the side, and something gives a wet pop. “I’ve been very bored.”
“We know what we want,” Tanis says firmly, stepping slightly forward, eyes flashing gold. “And we’re willing to barter.”
The Washer looks at her for a long moment, and then sits back down on their stone wall.
“I’ll give you three wishes, or one answer. For the same price.”
“What’s the price?” I ask. “Memories?”
I don’t have very many memories of value, except for ones of Mum. I don’t want to give them up, but I will for Kit. If I have to.
The Washer crosses their legs and props their arm on their knee and gives us a lazy wave, but they’re looking at me. “Don’t worry about that,” they say. Their voice is deep and whispery. “All three of your memories are tainted and worthless, anyway. No, you’ll be the one to pay the price, but that comes later, I believe.”
I don’t think the Washer is about to rip off our arms, but I don’t think they’re harmless, either. Cold discomfort prickles over my skin, and my stomach feels hollow and dark with tension.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Tanis asks, stepping toward me. Just a bit in front of me.
“Are you choosing the question?” the Washer asks her, tilting their head. “Is that what you’d like to know?”
Beside me, Thomas scrunches his eyes closed and shakes his head. He shoves his glasses up and rubs his palms into his eyes. I wonder if he’s seeing something right now; this is the look that usually accompanies one of his visions.
“No, it’s not,” Tanis says wearily. Her fingers reach out to grip my wrist. “But we’re not agreeing unless we know what you want.”
“Oh, I won’t be benefiting from this. Your payment won’t go to me,” the Washer says, smiling openly now. It’s both cruel and kind, meant to be comforting but coming across as terrifying. “You’re about to find out that I won’t be telling you anything you don’t already know. No, don’t worry little baobhan sith, the price won’t be anything Isla isn’t willing to pay.”
“We’re not going to get a straight fucking answer,” Thomas growls, grinding his knuckles into his eyes.
“Fine,” Tanis says, her grip on my wrist getting tight. “We’ll ask one question. No wishes. Right?”
She looks to us for confirmation and I nod. Thomas doesn’t notice; his eyes are still shut and he’s rubbing at his temple. His hand is shaking slightly. His whole body is shaking, and he’s curled in on himself a bit.
It suddenly hits me that this may be it. This may be Thomas’s one chance.
We came here to find Kit. Or rather, I came to find Kit. But for Thomas… this may be his only opportunity to heal himself. I know I told him Kit has answers, but I don’t even know if that’s true. I was grasping at straws and desperate to get him here. I’ve dragged him through hell and trauma and the past to get here.
I don’t think Kit would have done that. Murray wouldn’t either.
We can get more questions. I’ll pay the price.
“It’s your question, Thomas,” I whisper. “You can ask about Kit, or…” I swallow down the wave of anxiety building in me. It tastes like disloyalty. “Or you can ask how to fix yourself.”
Thomas’s hazel eyes fly open, and he stares at me.
“Isla—” Tanis starts, but I shake my head and squeeze her hand. This is so fucking stupid of me, but it’s what Kit would do. He’d trust Thomas to make the right choice.
“Your choice, Thomas.”
His eye twitches, and he takes a deep breath.
“I’ll—” he pauses, breathes again. “I want to know—”
He cuts off, his breath coming in quick gasps, and then he falls to the ground, convulsing.
“Thomas!” I shout, dropping to my knees and reaching for his seizing hand. “Thomas, are you—”
The air ripples around us, and Thomas is gone.
The Washer blinks.
“I didn’t actually see that coming,” they say. Their mouth bursts into a smile. “Fascinating.” They rub two long, spindly fingers across their mossy lips, still grinning. “Well.” They adjust their seat on the wall and nod toward the empty patch of grass where Thomas just was. “Just for the show, I’ll answer three questions.”
“We dinnae want your fucking—” Tanis starts to snarl, but I put a hand on her arm. Her eyes are turning full gold and her hair is starting to move.
“Where is Kit?” I ask, not hesitating.
“You know where Kit is,” the Washer says. “I imagine Thomas is on his way there now. He was certainly thinking very hard about him. I could almost smell it.”
I don’t know where ‘there’ is, but I’m fairly positive that asking for clarification won’t do me any good, and I don’t want to waste a question.
“Is Owen there?”
The Washer frowns.
“I don’t know an Owen.”
Tanis lets out a barking laugh of frustration and grabs at her hair.
“Ask them—” she starts, but I shake my head.
“How do I save Kit?”
The Washer looks at me. Looks through me, almost, and I feel as though I’ve been doused in cold water, like cool droplets are skating down my skin. Their eyes flash white blue, and then settle back to normal.
“You won’t, I’m afraid.”
“Where can I—”
“Your questions are done,” they interrupt, holding up a slender finger. “I’ll give you more, though. For your pelt.”
My heart juds against my chest.
“My pelt? Why would you want my pelt?”
The Washer smiles at me and shrugs.
“Why wouldn’t I? It’s fascinating, the magic of possibility. The power of sacrifice. You’d give up your pelt for the boy. Why not for me?”
“I didn’t give it up for Kit. And besides, it’s just a pelt. You can’t do anything with it,” I argue.
The Washer’s smile drops, and they tilt their head. Their mossy eyes are almost sad as they look at me.
“Oh, little one. There’s so much you can do with a life not lived.”
Next to me, Tanis straightens up and stares at something behind my shoulder. Her green eyes narrow. “Owen?”
I turn to see what caused Tanis to speak, but before I’m able to get a good look, Tanis has already started to shift. She barely pauses to undress, tearing her clothes off before she shrinks down, gasping into the change until she’s on four legs and shaking a black boot from her back paw. And then she takes off like a streak into the dusk.
“Tanis!” I shout. “Tanis, hold up!” I bend down to grab her clothes and try to take off after her, but she’s already gone, moving too fast for me to keep up. Behind me, the Washer begins to laugh. It sounds like thunder and wind.
“That’s Owen?” they ask, their laugh rumbling through the valley. “Really? Oh, that’s a brilliant joke.”