This isn’t real.

The nightmare creatures sitting in front of me may look like my students, but they aren’t; not really. This isn’t real.

I just have to work through this nightmare vision and it will be fine. I just have to stay normal so I don’t scare the two thirteen year-old girls who are actually here, hidden somewhere under the fucked up monsters my brain is currently showing me. I do this all the time. Half my conversations these days are conducted with nightmares. I can get through this.

“So I have some questions about this paper you wrote for me,” I say, taking deep, even breaths. I pull my attention away from where Rimi’s pure white eyes are staring unblinkingly at me. I don’t know what’s worse: the filmy white of Rimi’s eyes, or the oily black of her twin sister Resha’s.

It’s fine. It isn’t real. Their ashen skin and plaster cracked lips aren’t real. My growing migraine pulses against the back of my eyes, and I bite back a curse. Just a wee migraine. Just a small nightmare. No problem. Piece of piss.

“Right, so,” I continue shakily. My fingers grip the paper in my hands so tightly it creases. “You’ve titled it The Anthropological and Historical Practice of Bee Mourning, or, Colloquially, Talking to Bees. Why bees?”

The rain patters against my window, a horn honks outside, my neighbour blares his tellie, but inside my cramped flat there’s silence. The twins don’t answer.

I make the mistake of looking back up. The nightmares are still there. Rimi’s cheery pink hijab is still dark and sopping, wet rivulets of water running down her too-pale skin. Resha’s round glasses still missing, making her face look pinched and unnatural. 

Fuck acting normally, this is terrifying. I want to absolutely book it out of here and keep going until I hit the River Clyde and pitch myself in.

But Fadwa would say that’s dramatic and probably wouldn’t be pleased if I offed myself in front of her sisters. So I guess drowning is out.

“So, bees?”

Normally when I ask questions I get two sets of rolling brown eyes and a cheeky answer. My students are brilliant magicians — I’m twenty-two and I can’t cast anywhere as easily as Resha can — but they’re also nightmares. Of the figurative, behavioural kind. Not the literal kind in front of me.

My head is thrumming and I want to take off my glasses and rub the spot between my eyes where the paracetamol-immune migraine is building, but I don’t. Even without the soaking hijabs, cracked plaster skin and unnatural eyes, I’m not willing to be blind around the twins.

I clear my throat. This isn’t real.

“In your paper, you wrote that you think there are bee rituals. What—” I glance at Rimi, with her tilted head and white eyes, and flinch, “—what gave you that idea?”

Nightmare Resha blinks once, twice, then opens her mouth to speak. Water runs down her dark blue hijab and into her open mouth.

“Trust her. Follow the water. Ask the bees.”

Water dribbles out of the corner of her mouth, and her words echo with the unmistakable buzzing of bees.

The sound — not her lovely, chipper voice, but the low humming of a swarm of insects — is what makes me break, jerking in my chair and nearly tipping backwards with a loud grunt of surprise. I barely avoid face planting into my floor.

“Thomas?” calls a worried voice from the kitchen as I hesitantly look back up at the girls.

A loud rushing sigh of relief spills out. My students are back. The nightmare is over.

“Are you having a fit or something?” Resha asks, squinting. Her hijab is dry, her glasses back. There’s no buzzing accompanying her words, just her thick Glaswegian accent. She’s judging me, and it’s a lovely thing to see.

“Thomas?” Fadwa appears around the corner in a clash of colours. I didn’t even know she was here; she must have let herself in while I was having a meltdown. “I thought I heard something. Are you alright? Did they set you on fire again?”

“No, we were, uh, just talking about bees,” I answer, hoping that will satisfy her and she won’t notice my shaky voice and slightly puffy breathing. She’s like a bloodhound for anxiety.

“I told you not to write about bees,” she barks, coming fully into the room to stare down her sisters. “I have you studying with Thomas to learn your herbs and theory, not to focus on this pish.”

Her bright yellow hijab clashes hideously with the ugly red patterned jumper that’s swallowing her slender frame, and it’s hurting my eyes. She’s brilliant, but she dresses like an old man made love to a traffic cone. 

“It’s no pish, we’re researching!” Rimi argues. “We’ve been studying bees’ patterns to see if there’s magic in them a magician could use.” An image of the nightmare Rimi and Resha commanding an army of killer bees pops into my mind, and I suppress a shiver. My migraine thrums happily; it seems to enjoy the obvious carnage this idea would come with.

“How are you studying bees? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bee in this part of Glasgow,” I ask, horrifyingly curious despite myself. “I’d figure all the gulls had eaten them.”

“We found a way,” Resha answers in a tone that makes me fully convinced they have a beehive hidden behind their father’s electronic repair shop.

I like the Hussain twins — despite their skill with fire — but at this moment I’m deeply relieved that this is our last tutoring session before I leave for America. Fadwa heard about a man in the Pacific Northwest who can peer into souls and eat out the evil inside, so here I am: finishing my last lesson and preparing to pack up the few things I have in this manky, cold flat so I can travel halfway around the world again after what will probably be another dead end.

I just hope this newest miracle cure doesn’t involve ram’s blood. I’m really over ram’s blood. It always manages to get in my shoes and dry out my curls.

And it tastes awful; it’s more sour than human blood. Sticks to your teeth.

“I need water,” I mumble, pushing myself away from the table and toward the kitchen. Fadwa steps back to let me pass, and her large handbag smacks into me. I fight the urge to ask her for the millionth time what she keeps in there. Usually it’s books. But once it was a skull, and I don’t think it was fully human.

“Happenin, wee man? You look like death warmed over,” Fadwa says cheerily, reaching out to pat at my head. I can’t help myself; I flinch as her arm comes near me. She pulls it back immediately, the smile falling from her face.

“Thomas, are you okay?” she asks, her eyes creasing with worry behind her large glasses. I take a deep breath, then another, then nod.

“Fine,” I say, reaching out to pat her arm in a pathetic failure of a reassuring motion. “Just another migraine.”

She easily interprets what I’m trying to convey: that I had another nightmare during waking hours. For the third time this week. Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to my fucked up visions, but they’re getting more and more frequent, and I have absolutely no idea why. 

Neither does Fadwa for that matter, which is only mildly terrifying, as she’s the best magician I know. Far better than me — probably even better than Cormac Macrae, my old guardian. (Though, I suppose there are a lot of magicians out there who are better than Cormac was, but when I was a kid, isolated on the Isle of Mab and being taught by the only other magical human I knew, he seemed like the most powerful person on earth.) 

Sometimes I think I’d be dead by now if it weren’t for Fadwa and her patience and her magic. My visions brought me to her. Scared, homeless, terrified and on the verge of sobbing, they led me to her.

It’s the only good thing these visions have ever done for me, really.

She thinks it was a sign. Some great indicator from the universe trying to point me to the person who can heal me. I think it was more about balance: the universe has shit kicked me six ways to Sunday, but it was nice enough to pause for a moment to lead me to someone who keeps me fed and moderately sane.

“Maybe you should go lay down,” Fadwa says as I fill a glass of water from my sputtering tap. “I can whip up a sleeping draught.”

The concern lining her eyes and the compassion in her voice puts me on edge, and I want to fight her on it, but she’s right. I’m exhausted. I’ve barely slept this week because every time I close my eyes, the creatures show up. (Or he does. I’m at the point where I’d happily choose to see the creatures instead of having to deal with him.)

“I’m fine,” I repeat, downing my water in one and pushing past her to return to where the girls are. “I’m just tired, it’s nothing.”

The twins smell weakness and are on me in a flash, abandoning their seat at my table and advancing menacingly. Rimi walks like she’s made of air, and Resha is the bruiser. Her footsteps always shake my floor.

“Are you sick?” Rimi asks, a bit too eagerly.

“You kind of look like a skeleton,” Resha says.

“A skeleton with shite hair,” Rimi adds with a sly grin, ducking as Fadwa swats at her. Fadwa has her watch on the wrong wrist and facing the wrong direction, and it clunks against the two large bracelets next to it when she reaches out for the smack.

“You two are terrible people,” I say, feigning offence. “Really, genuinely terrible, and I won’t miss you. I think I’m glad I’ll never see you again.”

It’s a lie. We all know it’s a lie. I’ll be back by December, dejected and depressed after another failed exorcism attempt. Fadwa will have me over for a shitty dinner and the girls will try to resurrect the chicken or something and I’ll sit there, silent and stressed while her father makes threatening eyebrow gestures at me and I think of all the different ways I could go drown myself.

Fadwa can tell I’m spiralling, because she rounds on her sisters, taking the attention off me.

“Get your things together and wait here, alright?” she says, snapping her long fingers to get her sisters’ attention. “I need to talk to Thomas.”

She drags me into the cramped hallway, and I allow her, despite the fact that I’m almost half a foot taller than her. But she could probably break me like a twig if she tried, and I learnt long ago that it’s easier to go along with Fadwa. Her soft edges and round face are misleading.

“Are you alright?” she whispers, and I shrug. Fadwa loves to ask questions, but I dislike talking about these things. It’s only ever her who I talk about it with these days, but it feels uncomfortable. Like the truth of it itches underneath my skin.

“I’m fine,” I lie. “Really, I’m fine, don’t worry about me. You’re too busy for all that.”

She gives me a look that makes me wonder if she’s about to pull a skull from her purse and beat me with it.

“Aye, right. I’m not too busy to help you,” she says, but we both know she’s lying as well. Between raising her sisters, helping her father, and researching for her magical thesis on Seelies, Fadwa barely has time to breathe. Her busyness is half the reason I tutor the twins; I’m knowledgeable at folk magic and remedies, but not enough to justify being a teacher. I just do it to lighten her load.

“I’m fine,” I say again, softer. “The visions are getting worse, but I have a good feeling about this soul eater bloke or whatever he is. I think this could really be what I’m looking for.”

I don’t think that. I don’t think some weirdo living in the woods and eating evil is going to cure me. I’ve been halfway round the world to try to fix it, and nothing has stuck. Not potions or exorcisms or even psychiatry.

Last year I tried to manage them through therapy, and all I succeeded in doing was discovering that I apparently have trust issues, a cynical defence mechanism, and anxiety.

“Are you sure you wanny go through with this? No one will judge you for staying back.” Fadwa looks up at me through her large glasses. She has beautiful eyes, and she uses them like a guilt weapon.

“America was your idea,” I say with a sigh, leaning back against the wall that leads to my bedroom. It’s the only room in this flat that actually has a door. Not even the bathroom has a door, because housing in Glasgow is its own kind of fucking nightmare.

“We could revisit the idea of a blood curse. You don’t know anything about your mum’s family, not really,” she says, her words coming fast. I have to cut in soon if I want any hope of heading off a tangent. “You may be better off going to Hungary to track them down. I was just reading about these stories of Hungarian creatures who—”

“My mum was just a magician,” I remind her, just like I’ve reminded her dozens of times. “And my dad was as well. Perfectly normal. No blood curses. Cormac would have told me.” I sigh and close my eyes. When it comes to my nightmares and visions, it seems like it’s always the same conversation. “Faz, thank you, but I’ve done about sixteen rituals to cleanse a blood curse, and none of them worked.”

“Maybe we’ve been approaching it the wrong way.” She chews on her bottom lip and avoids eye contact, and worries at a bangle on her wrist, and I can tell that she’s thinking six steps ahead of this conversation. “You know, some of the most powerful magicians in history have had visions and visitations. Maybe this isn’t necessarily a curse. Maybe it’s just a way of expressing your power.”

“We both know when it comes to active magic I’m mediocre at best,” I argue, trying to keep my exhaustion and annoyance from my voice. “And those magicians were crackpot weirdos who drank Seelie blood for breakfast and did that shit to themselves. We both know I didn’t.”

“You always insist it’s not Seelie blood, but I really think—”

“Fadwa,” I interrupt. “It’s not Seelies. It’s never Seelies.”

Everything comes back to faeries with Fadwa. She lives and breathes them: she’s spent years researching Seelies and Seelie blood and Seelie myths for her thesis, so now she sees them around every corner. I know she means well, but I’m sick to my fucking oxters of having everything bad in my life blamed on fucking faeries.

For three months after I first met her, she wouldn’t even tell me her full name. When we met, I genuinely thought her name was Hermione. She just let me believe it. For three months. And she wonders why I have trust issues.

“I really wish you would just let me—”

“What’s going on with me is different, and you know it,” I say softly. “Thank you, but it’s not faery stories. You know this is something else, and it’s getting worse.”

“Is it just the visions?” Fadwa asks, lowering her voice. I can clearly see Rimi and Resha watching us from the other room, craning their necks to hear. A small tendril of smoke is rising from what appears to be the ashes of their paper. The smoke twists and turns in on itself until it takes the loose outline of a bee. “Or are you seeing Kit again?”

I try not to flinch at Kit’s name. He shouldn’t scare me still. But it’s hard to move past the terror and pain associated with him when I’ve had to deal with visions of him every night this week.

“This has nothing to do with Kit,” I sigh, pulling off my glasses and running a hand through my hair. Nervous ticks, the psychiatrist told me. Ways of expressing my anxiety. “I’ve telt you a million times, what happened with Kit was unrelated. I really wish you wouldn’t—”

A knock on the door interrupts our conversation, and a low groan escapes me. It’s always like this before I leave. Everyone who comes to me for tinctures and tisanes and charms suddenly starts pounding down my door when they hear I’m leaving the country for a few months, like they just absolutely can’t survive without some shitty, bitter tea.

 Holding my hand up to Fadwa to gesture that I’ll finish in a second, I put my glasses back on and cross to the door to yank it open.

A short, stocky black woman I don’t know is stood in the hallway outside my flat, scowling at a piece of paper in her hand. Her mass of curly dark hair flops out of her eyes when she tilts her neck to look up at me, and she squints as her gaze roves over my body. She doesn’t seem pleased by what she sees.

“Are you Thomas Madigan?” Her raspy voice is high, her accent thick and definitely Northern. I nod. 

“Aye, that’s me.” Fadwa tries to peer around me, and I push myself further into the gap of the open door to block her. “What do you need?”

The woman in the hall shoves the paper into her pocket, hitches her canvas rucksack higher up on her shoulder, and fixes me with an even look. “I’m hoping you can help me.”

I do my best to survey her in the dimming light let in by the hallway’s dirty skylight. She’s short but not petite, and even still she’s swimming in her clothes. Her jeans are cuffed up at the ankles and shoved into a pair of heavy work boots, her thick jumper sleeves rolled up several times to hit her wrists. 

My eyes fall on the rucksack again. She looks like a hitchhiker. Brilliant. People who are new to the city are always a mess, and my life is cluttered enough.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not really available at the moment. There’s another bloke three streets down who might be able to help you, his name is Reid, lives above an O2 shop,” I say, going to close the door. 

“Wait,” she exclaims, catching the door with her hand. “Hold on, no—”

“I’m sorry,” I repeat curtly, looking up and down my hallway to check for neighbours. They’re all normal, and I try not to be obvious about my magic, even if they wouldn’t believe it. “I’m about to leave the country, so I’m not taking on any work right now. If you’re looking for a tonic or love potion, I could probably make that quickly, but otherwise—”

“I don’t need a love potion,” the woman insists, staring at me with large, dark brown eyes. “I need your help because Kit Macrae is missing.”

My body tenses up and my hand falls, and the door slams into my shoulder.

“My name is Isla,” she continues, her tone even and brisk. “I’m Kit’s friend. He’s gone missing, and I need your help.”

Adrenaline has shot through my body, washing out my veins and leaving a cold, throbbing anxiety that pulses in time with my migraine.

The weight of the heavy oak door is lifted from my side as Fadwa yanks it open and steps forward into the hall. Her upside down watch clasp catches at my jumper, but I barely notice as the thread snags and comes loose. 

“You need to leave,” Fadwa hisses. She towers over Isla, but Isla doesn’t seem fazed. 

“Just hear me out,” Isla answers, looking away from me to address Fadwa, her round face set in grim determination. “I need a magician, and Thomas is my best bet. Kit would want me to get him.”

“Absolutely not,” I say, shaking my head. Jesus, I should have known. The visions. The dreams where Kit keeps showing up. Of course this was coming. The nightmares as good as told me. “No. I have no interest in helping you, and especially not Kit Macrae.” My voice breaks slightly. “I haven’t seen him in four years and that’s perfectly fine by me. Like I said, there’s someone down the street who can help you.”

“I don’t want just some magician!” Isla insists, her voice echoing off the walls of my hallway, and I wince. “Here, let me come in and I’ll explain it all, alright?”

“You’re not coming in here,” Fadwa says, folding her arms. “We’ve no idea who you are.”

“I’ve telt you, I’m Kit’s friend—”

“Kit Macrae is a pure psycho, so that doesn’t exactly help your case—”

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but my business is with Thomas, so could you bag out?”

“Thomas isn’t letting you into his home—”

“Thomas is right here,” I say weakly, closing my eyes. My migraine is pounding and I feel like I’m about to pass out, and Fadwa and Isla argue like they’re the same person. “Just come on in and stop shouting.”

“Thomas!” Fadwa starts, but I wave her off. I don’t want anything to do with it, but I also don’t want a screaming match in my hallway. My neighbours already complain about the smells when I burn garlic. I can’t afford to get kicked out of another flat.

“Thank you,” Isla says, nodding at me and slipping under Fadwa’s arm and into the flat. Her rucksack knocks me in the side, and I can feel a heavy, thick weight in it.

“I cannot believe you’re letting her in,” Fadwa hisses, her dark eyes narrowed. “After everything that boy did to you.”

“I was warned she was coming,” I mutter. “Just a few minutes ago, a vision told me to trust ‘her.’ I’d bet they meant Isla.”

Fadwa is so suspicious her eyes are nearly slits, but she doesn’t respond; for a moment her overprotectiveness has been overcome by her curiosity. I capitalise on the hesitation and push past her to the main room. Rimi and Resha are still at the table playing with the smoke bee, and they look up with matching expressions of interest.

My flat feels extremely small with five people in it, and Isla shifts from side to side, glancing around the room and taking it in. Out of the shadows of the hallway she looks younger; all her features are rounded, and her face is covered in freckles, like someone took a brush and splattered her with dark paint. Her large, almond-shaped eyes are easier to see as well — a dark, bottomless brown with golden flecks that I immediately recognise. They’re just like Kit’s.

“You’re a selkie.” I take a step back as I say it, crossing my arms and leaning against the doorframe. 

Fadwa does a double take, looking Isla up and down, but Isla merely juts her chin out and stares us down. 

“Aye, so?” she asks, crossing her arms to mimic me and planting her feet.

“So nothing, I’m just stating a fact,” I say. I’m too tired to fight. I’m just going to hear her story and try to shoo her out of my flat, preferably without anymore nightmare creatures popping up to say hello. 

“You never told us you knew a selkie,” Rimi says, her tone accusatory, and I close my eyes. I don’t want the twins privy to this conversation. Whatever it is Isla has to say, it’s about Kit, and I don’t want the girls knowing anything about him or my past.

“I don’t,” I answer, turning to Fadwa. “Take the girls home. I’ve got this.”

“No, I don’t think—” she starts to argue, but I shake my head. 

“I don’t want them involved,” I say quietly. Then, more forcefully, “Go. I’ll call you tomorrow, I promise. I’ll be alright.”

“Selkies aren’t violent,” Resha argues, staring at Isla, who has her thick black brows furrowed. “He’s a magician, he could totally handle her.” 

Fadwa’s eyes flick to my arms, still crossed against my chest, and I fight the urge to roll down the sleeves of my shirt so she can’t see the criss-cross of scars on my forearms. I know what her pursed lips and pinched brows mean: Historically speaking, my poor efforts at magic weren’t at all helpful in holding my own against a selkie.

“We can be violent if we want,” Isla says, grinning, and Resha grins back. My stomach churns.

“Naw, it’s not in your nature,” Resha retorts, and Isla lifts one shoulder in a good-natured shrug, as if conceding the argument. I don’t like anything about the wee bond that’s starting to form here.

“Looks like you finally learned something,” I say with a tight smile that I’m trying and failing to make look natural, before meeting Fadwa’s eyes. “Go. Really. I’ll be fine.”

Fadwa looks more likely to plant one of her small white Keds against my throat than to leave me alone right now, but she doesn’t argue.

“Fine,” she snaps, collecting her handbag. “I left you food on the counter. Ring me, aye?” She leans in to kiss my cheek, but it’s perfunctory as usual, her lips kissing at the air near my face, and then she swats at her little sisters. 

“I’ll call.”

“Have fun in America,” Rimi says, giving a lazy wave.

“Aye, don’t get shot,” Resha adds, shooting me a wicked smile and finger guns as Fadwa ushers them out the door. She gives me one last simmering glare before the door closes behind her.

The moment they’re gone, Isla relaxes.

“They’re a colourful lot,” she says, unfolding her arms and leaning back against my counter. “She your girlfriend?”

“Friend,” I correct stiffly. I think Fadwa would vomit at the mere insinuation. “I tutor her sisters.”

“You’re a teacher?” Isla asks, cocking her head. “I didn’t know. Kit said you travelled.”

Icy dread trickles down my spine at the idea of Kit saying anything about me, and it quickly burns through to anger. I’ve tried extremely hard to believe that Kit stopped existing when I left Mab four years ago. The idea that he and time kept moving without me makes me feel unbalanced and queasy, like I’m seasick.

It also confirms that he and Owen still talk about me; Kit could only know I’ve been travelling if someone had told him, and I know it didn’t come from Cormac. Our yearly Christmas phone calls were brief and devoid of any substance. I never even told him where I was because I didn’t want Kit to know.

Owen is the only one from home who knows what I’ve been doing, because I told him when he called me last. I didn’t even think about it: I was shocked from the news of Cormac’s death, fresh off several failed exorcisms, and overly nostalgic to be hearing from one of my childhood best friends after four years of self-imposed silence. 

I gave him my address in Glasgow so he could forward anything Cormac had left me. And now apparently he’s given it to Isla, so she can burst into my life and harass me about the person I hate most. 

There’s no bad blood between Owen and I, but the invasion of my privacy makes syrupy anger ooze down my lungs. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised — he’s shit at lying and never could keep a secret.

“What do you want from me?” I ask Isla. It’s not a cold question. Just a tired one.

“I’ve telt you,” she replies, squinting at me like I’m an idiot. “Kit is missing, and I want your help.”

“Why would I help?” 

My question seems to catch her off guard, like it never once occurred to her that I wouldn’t immediately drop my entire life and race to Kit’s side. Like she expects me to upend my life for the man who knowingly added to my nightmares.

“Because he’s your best friend,” she says, her earnest confidence slipping. “And he needs your help.”

“Kit isn’t my best friend. Kit isn’t anything to me, not anymore.”

“But he was once,” Isla argues, undeterred. “He’s told me how close you were growing up. Best friends and in love and everything else. He would help, if you were missing.”

She has no idea how every word she says sends a spike of panic flooding through me.

“Kit tried to kill me,” I spit, the anger finally breaking through my anxiety and quieting my migraine for a moment. “Whatever he and I used to be, that’s gone now.” I take a deep breath and push my glasses up my nose. “I don’t know who you are or how you know him, but he clearly left out that detail when telling you our story. I’m sorry he’s missing, and I don’t wish him ill, but I don’t owe him my help.”

My hands are shaking, and now I do roll down the sleeves of my shirt, covering my arms and hiding my scars from view. I close my eyes and take another deep breath, determined not to think back to that night, crouched in the corner of his bedroom: my arms over my face, the sting of cool metal, the drops of hot blood—

Shaking my head, I open my eyes. No. I’m not going there.

Isla narrows her eyes and pulls her bottom lip into her mouth as she surveys me. I can’t read her expression. I don’t know if it’s a selkie thing — I could never read Kit, either, not really — or if I just don’t know her well enough to tell what’s going on behind her deep brown eyes. But then she lets out a long exhale and folds her arms again, and I know she’s squaring her ground.

“I know there’s something wrong with you, and you don’t know what it is,” she says, her voice even. “You can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t sometimes, yeah?”

My heart thuds into my stomach.

“Did Kit tell you that?”

He would know. He was there when it began, when I was sixteen and first started getting the occasional nightmare, when I would go nights without sleeping because of the visions and migraines. In those early days, he used to stay up with me. He used to rub my head. 

Before Fadwa, he and Owen used to be what kept me going. Owen hovering with tea and paracetamol, Kit placing his large hands over my eyes to block out light. Owen kept me sane, and Kit kept me safe.

Until he tried to kill me, that is.

Isla nods and sighs. Her fighting stance loosens and the naive confidence she’s been wearing as armour drops away.

“I need a magician. I tried tracking Kit down, but I don’t know the island well enough, and anyway, I think there’s something magical going on.” She scrunches up her face, as if recalling something unpleasant, then barges onward. “If you agree to come back and find Kit, you can finally get your answer.”

“You know what’s wrong with me?”

A sharp, unfamiliar feeling of hope whips through me.

“No,” Isla says, shaking her head. “But I think Kit does.”

“Why?” The small spark of hope gets doused by confusion. “I don’t understand.”

Isla fixes me with a long, cool look and blinks slowly. She’s quite pretty underneath her murderous expression. Fucking selkies. They’ve all got beautiful exteriors, but their insides are full of nothing but salt.

“There’s a lot of things you don’t understand about Kit.”

I suppose she’s right. I used to think I knew him better than anyone in the world. But these past few years I’ve realised I didn’t really know him at all.

I turn away and look out the large three-paned window that takes up the far wall of my flat. It offers an excellent view into the flats across the street, but tonight I can’t see anything. Late October in Glasgow means dark skies and rain most evenings.

“I need to think this over. I’m not going anywhere tonight.”

“That’s fine,” Isla responds, her tone brightening. “Do you have an extra bed? If not, I can take the sofa.”

My headache spasms as I whirl around to face her.

“You want to stay here?”

“Well I don’t have anywhere else to stay, do I?” she retorts, her North Coast accent thick and heavy. “I became human two days ago. I’m skint. I hitchhiked from Mab and came here directly.”

There are no words that can express how little I want a stranger lurking around my flat — especially a stranger who is apparently best friends with my homicidal, insane ex-boyfriend. But she seems more determined than dangerous, so I nod anyway. My head is pounding out a fucking mariachi and I don’t have the energy for an argument. I’m so nauseated I could vomit. 

But I don’t think she’s likely to kill me. She needs me.

“I’ll get you some blankets then,” I mumble, heading to the closet in the hall where I keep the spare bits of bedding. I don’t have much; my life in Glasgow has been sparse, designed to be packed up and left at a moment’s notice.

“Oi, can I have some of this?” Isla calls from my small galley kitchen. When I appear, bedding in arm, she’s leaning over the ceramic container of food that Fadwa left behind. She’s already discovered my utensil drawer, and is digging into the food even as she asks.

“Uh, I suppose so.” 

I drop the bedding on the sofa and lean back against the wall to watch Isla. 

“I’ve never been wild on humans,” she sighs, all previous animosity gone, “but I absolutely love their food.”

She looks almost blissful, her eyes closed as she delights over Fadwa’s shitty cooking, and I can’t imagine for a moment how someone so forceful and vibrant could care for a man as quiet and sharp as Kit.

“If you don’t like humans, why did you become one?” I ask, curious despite myself. I’ve always wondered. If you could live in the sea, away from the horrors of human nature, why would you give that up?

Isla’s fork pauses in the air before her and she stares at me.

“Kit was missing,” she says, her voice slow, as if I’m stupid. “Someone had to find him.”

Anxiety raises its hand again to squeeze at my chest. I’ve no idea what Isla’s story is or how she knows Kit, but I hate the idea that there’s someone out there who loves him enough to come to shore and change their entire life for him. 

Once upon a time that person would have been me.

“Right, well.” I push off the wall, my body unsteady and shaky. “I’m going to bed. Don’t rob me.”

“What would I even steal?” Isla asks, raising an eyebrow as she glances around my empty flat. “And where would I put it?”

It’s a good question, and one I don’t have an answer for. So I take refuge in my room like the coward I am.

The migraine that has been humming along cheerily in the background of my day bursts to life as soon as I’m alone and free of distractions, and it’s almost more than I can handle to kick off my shoes and trousers and fall into bed. 

I don’t sleep yet, though. The migraine won’t let me.

Sometimes, when I hurt like this, I wish that magic worked like… magic. That I could snap my fingers and heal myself. That I could say some catchy words and get rid of my curse. But I’m not that good of a magician, and magic isn’t that compassionate. It’s unstructured and violent and needlessly contradictory, and I’ll never practise it well enough to bend it to my will.

Other times I want to go back to the six months I spent absolutely shitfaced when I first got to Glasgow, waking in and out of sobriety, having an exasperated Fadwa help me stumble up my stairs and into bed. 

But liquor doesn’t keep the visions away. It just makes them judgemental. I used to wake up with a hangover migraine next to empty Buckfast bottles, only to see a nightmare Owen with leafy red hair and too large eyes leaning over my bed, his face sad. I got sober because of him, in the end, and I hate him for it a bit.

I think your visions are a gift,” he used to say whenever I was bitching about them and havering on about chucking myself off a cliff. “Maybe you should embrace them. I would.

What a shitty fucking gift.

Fuck Owen and fuck the visions and fuck the migraines. Fuck memories of my past and fuck me while I’m at it. Really, truly, all around: fuck my life.

Part of me thinks that if something were really, truly wrong, Owen would have called me. It’s not like we talk often — or ever, really — but we’re still friends. Kit is the one who turned on me, not Owen. We’ve always been close. And he called me to tell me about Cormac’s funeral, didn’t he? Why wouldn’t he call me about this?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we aren’t close. Maybe I closed the door on that friendship when I ran away from home.

When I fall asleep, it’s with my head shoved under my pillow, thinking of Kit. 

I’m not surprised when I feel his weight settle in bed next to me. 

I knew it was coming; this happens often enough, and I’ve learnt by now to recognise the patterns of my strange dreams. Of course this would happen tonight.

One arm comes around my middle, crossing against my chest and pulling me back into an embrace. His body is always warm when this happens; always firm, always alive, always smelling faintly of the coast. Always exactly as I remember him. There’s a lurch of pain and guilt and fear in my stomach as I lean back into his arms, because it feels so good, and in these moments I miss him so much.

I hate these nighttime visitings more than any of my other hellish visions. I think it’s because I never see him. I never have to look at him. I only ever feel him and hear him, and those tactile, auditory memories are the ones I can’t burn out. If he appeared as some misshapen creature, I think I could handle it. But the strange rot that’s lurking inside me knows nothing scares me more than the fact that I miss this. I miss him.

Kit’s hair brushes across my cheek as he — or his nightmare doppelganger — leans in to whisper in my ear. I know the words that are coming, the same words he’s always said, the only thing he ever says to me when I dream of him.

“We’re going to drown,” he whispers, his warm breath ghosting across my neck, his words weighed down by his heavy accent, and then I snap awake into the morning light.

I breathe through my nose and close my eyes against the strip of sun coming in through my window and turn my head to face it more fully. I love the sun. I love the warmth of it on my skin, and I love that in the bright light, there are never shadows crawling around the corners of my vision.

I don’t want to go back to Mab. It doesn’t have this kind of sun. The island is cold and damp and the wind sinks into your bones and the sky is always grey and blown out. I was happy there, once, but all the things that made me happy can’t be recreated. My carefree childhood has passed; my old tutor is dead. I’ve not been back in four years, not even for Cormac’s funeral, and Kit….

I’m terrified to face him.

But Isla said he knows what’s wrong with me.

Like usual, I don’t know what to believe.

With a groan I pull myself out of bed and stumble to my bathroom. Thinking myself in circles doesn’t accomplish anything. My thoughts always feel scattered and stretched and sticky, and I just wind up confused.

The shower water is freezing when I get in, like usual, but I never have the patience to wait for it to heat up, so the first few moments are always hell. But I don’t mind it so much; sometimes the only place I feel safe is the shower. Even when it’s cold, the steady pressure of the water beats back my migraines.

I shift back from foot to foot, waiting for the water to warm, pushing my head back into the spray and letting the cold trickle down my scalp, slowly changing from freezing to warm, and I relax.

There’s movement at the corner of my vision.

“Get the fuck out of my bathroom,” I call to Isla. Jesus fucking Christ, I know there’s not a door, but this is insane. She can’t just barge into my fucking shower.

The shape moves again, and I wipe the water from my eyes and spin, ready to cast Isla down to hell if I have to. But before I can even move to set her on fire, the recently warmed water turns icy and sputters out of the shower head. Dark, brackish water pools around my feet and I shout in surprise and duck out from the stream as a swarm of bees emerges from the shower drain. I stumble back, losing my footing and falling hard to the tile, my heart racing.

When I look back up, the bees are gone. There’s no movement at the corner of my eye. The water is clear and warm again, like the seawater was never there.

I’ve never been a crier, but as I sit, sore and scared on the floor of my shower, the overwhelming urge to sob washes over me.

It hasn’t always been like this. It used to be just nightmares. Unsettling dreams, strange memories, occasional headaches with odd figures flickering at the corners. Then it was a vision once a month, or doing double takes as things shifted around me. But now there’s no division. These hauntings have bled into my life so much that I’m at a point where I can no longer tell what is real and what is nightmare.

I just want it to stop. Fuck all of this.

I rush through my shower and get out quickly, scrubbing too hard at my body with the towel because sometimes the sudden pain of reality helps to ground me. I barely bother drying my curls; no matter what I do, it will dry into an untidy, scruffy mess, so what’s the point? 

When I dress, I pull out several extra changes of clothes, shove them into my rucksack, and then head to the kitchen.

Isla is awake and standing at my counter, currently in the process of folding an entire piece of toast in half in order to properly fit it in her mouth. She looks disgusted, but I can’t imagine why. I’m the one who should be horrified by what I’m witnessing.

“You have no food,” she scolds, her mouth full of bread. “How do you live like this?”

“I’m leaving the country soon,” I respond, deliberately avoiding looking at her as I edge toward my coffee maker. It appears to be the one thing in this kitchen she hasn’t dug through. 

“So your plan is to just not eat until you do?”

“Something like that, aye.”

“Your life is sad, mate,” she grumbles, finishing off my last piece of bread. 

She’s not exactly wrong.

My hands go through the calming motions of setting up the coffee maker, and then I turn back to her. My kitchen isn’t big enough for us both to fit comfortably, but Isla doesn’t appear to care. She just stands her ground and stares up at me. All earnest confidence, like it’s not even a possibility things won’t go exactly how she wants.

“So have you decided?”

“I’m leaving for America on the first of November. That’s almost a week exactly.”

“That’s not a no,” Isla says. 

“No,” I sigh, pulling off my glasses to rub at the headache that’s already forming. “It’s not a no.”


2. ISLA >

B. GILMARTIN2 Comments