20. THOMAS

When everyone goes off to give Owen a new life, I fill up the tub to drown myself.

I know the steps. How many times has Fadwa walked me through this? How many times has she offered to do it in the cramped, green bathroom of her family’s tiny flat? “Just to be safe.” Just in case it is Seelie blood giving me visions and migraines and nightmare visitings.

And every time, I told her no. It wasn’t Seelies. Don’t be absurd.

She could have purified me years ago. I could have been healed within a month of running away to Glasgow. I could have spent the last four years living my life free of hauntings, if Owen hadn’t wormed inside my brain. I could have put the clues together and come back to Mab and taken care of this. I could have taken care of Owen years ago.

I can’t think about him, though. I can’t think about him, or I’ll get distracted by the anger and fear that’s spent so many years comfortably settled on Kit’s shoulders. It’s incredible how easily I’ve shifted the hatred. Like it was just looking for somewhere to go.

When the tub is full I add the whole canister of Saxa that I had the twins fetch from Kit’s kitchen. Then a tisane of heather and dried juniper for healing and cleansing. I hang bundles of bonneset from Fadwa’s bag over the doorway of the bathroom, over the window, another above the tub. Bonneset for a passive exorcism. Bonneset and I go way back.

I set the dried nettle on the lid of the toilet next to the lighter, so I can burn it when the time comes. I’m doing it the old fashioned way — no magic during the ritual, since it pollutes the water. Next to the nettle and lighter I place the tea of bitter herbs I’ve just made, and the knife. And then I stare at the tub.

This isn’t my first exorcism. I’m intimately familiar with the rites and rituals associated with them in every culture. They’ve ranged from boring, to terrible, to downright comical — like the friendly Norwegian man who tied me to a chair and doused me in ram’s blood. (When my visions were still there the next day, he gave me several Gullbrød bars and my money back, and recommended I see a mental health professional.)

Somehow knowing this exorcism will actually stick makes it harder to get in the tub.

I’ve folded my trousers and socks and jumper and am standing in front of the cold water in my pants and thin t-shirt, still trying to will myself to start, when there’s a gentle knock on the door.

“Yeah?” I call, not looking away from the tub. The door creaks open and Kit walks slowly, unsurely into the room.

“Alright?” he asks, leaning against the door jamb. He’s not doing it to be cool or casual. I think he still can’t fully stand up.

“Alright.”

“Do you, er, need anything? Uh, tea?”

I give him a quick, half-hearted smile and shake my head.

“Er, no, I’m fine. I’ve got everything. Just have to… do it.”

“Right.”

“Yup.”

We both pause, staring awkwardly at the tub, watching the wee bits of dried herb floating along the surface and sticking to the side of the porcelain in a ring of herbal sludge.

“Do you want company?” he asks finally, breaking through the tension.

“Yes,” I respond without hesitation. “That’d be great. Er, thanks.”

Kit closes the bathroom door and walks over to the toilet and picks up the bundle of nettles and lighter and tea. He hesitates for a moment over the knife, and then picks that up as well and sits down neatly. He sags a bit when he does, like his whole body is weighed down by the exertion of living. His long hair frames his long face and his lips are pulled down and everything about him looks stretched out and tired.

He shaved, though. So that’s something.

“Right,” I say, nodding. “So I suppose I just… get to it.”

I take off my glasses and fold them with two tiny clacks, and Kit reaches out to take them. I hand them off carefully, keeping my fingers from brushing his hand. Then I clench the sides of the tub and will myself to get in.

The water is a shock to my system, and I let out a sharp hiss as I lower myself in gingerly. The fabric of my boxers billows out around my scrawny legs and my t-shirt clings uncomfortably to my chest, and I bring my knees up, both for warmth and a natural instinct to make myself as small as possible.

I feel like I should recline back, kick out my legs, close my eyes. But this isn’t a bath. This is a purification. A drowning of the past.

“Tea,” I say, my teeth chattering. I pull one hand away from its grip around my knees and hold my hand out, and Kit passes me the chipped mug. I throw it back in one. It’s gone lukewarm in the time I’ve been delaying, and it tastes like bitter, mossy piss. The herbs didn’t strain properly, and they stick to my gums. I have to run my tongue over my teeth to get them off, and then swallow them down.

“Burn the nettle,” I cough, gagging a bit on a stray petal that’s stuck to the back of my throat.

Kit’s fingers fumble with the lighter, but then the nettle goes up with an acrid stink and a puff of thin smoke. He sets it on the corner of the tub and uses both hands to push the smoke in my direction.

I inhale the smoke, taking deep lungfuls. It tastes and feels awful, but I keep at it. If I can smoke cigarettes, there’s no reason I can’t do this.

“Knife,” I tell him, holding out my hand. He gives it to me, hilt first, and I needle the tip of it into my pointer finger until sluggish, red blood begins to well to the surface. Dropping the knife to the floor, I hold my finger over the smoking bundle of nettle and squeeze until a single drop lands onto it. It gives a wee sizzle, the smoke gets darker for just a moment, and I breathe deep.

And then it’s time for the drowning.

This is the part I’ve been dreading. The part that’s had me dragging my feet. I hate water. I’m terrified of drowning. I always have been. How could I not be? My parents drowned, and Cormac never hid that fact from me. I spent too many nights as a kid imagining my lungs filling with cold needles, my voice being swallowed by frigid waves. I came far too close to living those nightmares last night for my own comfort.

Taking a deep breath, I push myself beneath the surface of the freezing, salty bath. I count to five and then open my mouth.

I break the surface immediately, gasping and choking and spitting, my body and mind absolutely refusing to obey the direction to swallow the water. Shaking the water from my hair and eyes, and I mutter a curse and go back under.

This time I manage one large mouthful of frigid water before I gasp my way back to the surface again.

“I can’t,” I say, shaking my head, my hands shooting out to grab either side of the tub to haul myself up. Kit leans forward and places a hand on my shoulder, stilling me.

“You have to,” he says. “You can do it.”

“I can’t. I can’t make myself fucking drown.”

“You don’t have to drown,” he says, his brow furrowing and his eyes narrowing. “You’re not supposed to die.”

“Yes, well, my mind is having a hard time believing that,” I snap. I take several steadying breaths and blink up at him. The salt water is burning my eyes, stinging at every cut and scratch on my body. “Sorry.” I lick my lips and try again. “I’m having a hard time keeping myself down.”

“Do you…”

“What?”

“Do you want help?” He stares down at the floor. “Fadwa walked me through the rite. I know what you have to do.”

I imagine Kit’s hand on my chest, holding me under. Blinking up at him through a watery layer, his face swimming as I take desperate, terrifying breaths.

“Let me help,” he says, softer. The image breaks.

I nod.

Instead of reaching out to hold me down, he stands up and pulls his sweatshirt over his head. It messes his hair into a nest, the static making it stick out in all directions.

“Move forward,” he commands, steadier now.

“What?”

“Move forward,” he repeats, tapping my shoulder. I obey, moving through the freezing water a bit, and Kit climbs in. His sweatpants grow dark from the water and cling to his legs, and then he slots himself in behind me. His arms rest on either side of the tub ledge, carefully not touching me.

“Alright,” he says. “Now just breathe. And then I’m going to hold you under.”

“I’m scared.”

The words sound pathetic and weak between the chattering of my teeth, warbling with each shiver of my body. But there they are. It’s all I can think. I’m scared.

“I won’t let you drown,” he responds, and I shake my head. The cold droplets go everywhere.

“No, not of the drowning. I mean, I am,” I add, “but... it’s more….” I trail off and shrug. I shouldn’t say it. It’s horrible.

“Whatever it is, it’s okay.”

“I’m scared of getting healed.” I spit the bitter words out and let them float in the water in front of me. “I’ve been like this since I was a kid. I don’t know anything else. I don’t know who I am or what I’ll be or what I’ll do with my life without it.”

There’s a pregnant pause, and then Kit shifts closer to me. The water splashes and sloshes against the side of the tub, dangerously close to spilling over. This tub wasn’t meant for two grown men, and it’s cramped and tight and overfilled.

“You can stop this right now. You can keep the visions. No one is going to make you do this.”

“No,” I say immediately. “No. I want this.”

“You don’t have to do it today,” he argues, his voice soft in my ear. His hair tickles against my cheek. Back to chest, his words so close, it feels like I’m asleep, back in one of my dreams where his arms are around me. If it weren’t for the cold, I’d think I was. But the dreams are never cold. His arms are always warm.

We’re going to drown,” he would tell me.

I guess he was right.

“Yes, I do,” I answer him. I take several breaths, and then carefully place my right hand over his. “I do. Hold me under.”

“Are you sure?”

I turn my head just a bit to give him a weak, insincere smile.

“Never.”

It’s a testament to how well Kit knows me that he doesn’t count down or give me a warning. He knows I’ll worm my way out of it, keep putting it off, distract him until the rite is ruined. He just wraps his arms around my chest and drags me under the water.

I sputter at first and my body instinctively lashes out, but Kit holds tight. We’re barely beneath the surface. If I craned my head just a bit more, my nose would break through and I could breathe.

But I have to do this.

I will my body to still, my muscles to relax, and I take the first breath. The water burns going down and my body fights against it. One of Kit’s hands moves from my chest to push the hair back from my forehead and stays there, heavy and secure. I take another breath, and my legs kick out.

Another. My chest heaves.

Another.

My fighting is getting weaker now. My legs are sluggish to kick and my chest is burning like my organs have been set on fire and the embers are trying to escape through my lungs. I tap at Kit’s arm once, weakly, then again, more persistent. Begging. I can’t take another breath, I can’t keep doing this, I’m about to….

We break the surface. I’m still limp in Kit’s arms, even as I take a gasping, desperate breath that feels like a knife tearing my lungs to shreds. I claw at the edges of the tub, and Kit guides me up and out of the water. I lean against him and we both stagger, landing on the floor of the bathroom in a sodden heap. He’s still too weak to support my weight.

I’m heaving, water running off me in rivulets as I tear open the lid of the toilet and fold my body over it, allowing the rhythmic spasms inside me to take over as I vomit water and herbs and bile and something green and milky into the bowl.

My nerves are screaming, my muscles shaking, heat overtaking my body as I keep vomiting, unable to stop. Mouthful after mouthful of saltwater comes out. I’m dimly aware of Kit behind me, pulling my hair away from my eyes, his hand on my back, putting a thread-bare grey towel over my shoulders as I continue to vomit. Black oil. Yellow grass. Purple heather and greasy mud. Dark, bracky water.

I vomit until there’s nothing left in me, taking desperate shivering gasps against the ring of the toilet. My muscles can’t hold me up anymore.

Kit presses the mug to my lips.

“Drink,” he urges, and I chug it down. Fresh water. Not salty. I rinse my mouth and spit it into the toilet, and then fall back onto the floor, breathing heavy.

Kit leans against the wall across from me, soaking but unscathed.

“Thank you,” I croak, slumping against the sink. He nods, and then stares at the tub.

“I guess it’s my turn now, isn’t it?” he whispers. His eyes are locked onto the water, his hands clenched tight around his knees. “Will you… will you help? I don’t think I could keep myself under either.”

Will I help hold him down?

Will I help him drown for the second time in twenty-four hours?

I look back at him. He’s doing his stupid stoic thing where he tries to pretend he isn’t scared shitless.

I wish we could both just drop our acts.

“No,” I croak, shaking my head. “We’ll do it later.”

An exhausted smile breaks across his face, and he leans back against the wall.

“Thank God.”

He reaches upward for another towel, tugging at it weakly to get it free of the rack. It lands on his head and he lets it sit there for a moment. He looks too tired to move it.

“That’s a good look for you,” I say. Kit turns to look in my direction, the towel still on his face, and then slowly reaches up to drag it through his hair. The ends tangle up and soak through the terry cloth. He frowns as he runs his fingers through the knots fruitlessly, then gives up.

“Hand me the knife, would you?” he asks, pointing to the kitchen knife laying vaguely near my pinky.

It takes me a moment to realise what he’s asking.

“No,” I say, shaking my head. I push myself off the sink and turn around to open the brown cabinet underneath. It’s been four years, but the first aid kit has lived under here since before I was born, and it’ll be there when I’m dead. After a moment of blind searching, my fingers clasp around the tiny plastic box and I drag it out, flipping it open and digging through it until I find what I want.

“Come here.” I tap the floor in front of me. I don’t know why I’m doing this. I’m freezing and aching and so tired I could sleep for a year, but somehow this seems crucial. Necessary. Kit’s own small purification.

He scoots across the floor and sits in front of me obligingly, facing me.

“Not like that,” I scold, too weak to put any real force into my words. “Turn around.”

He doesn’t.

“C’mon. Shift.”

He watches me and I think he’s going to ignore my instructions again, but then he does, using his hands to navigate and turning himself around, presenting me with his bare brown back.

There are still scratches running up and down it from where I dragged his body over the rocks.

My muscles scream as I reach forward to pull his hair back. I try to smooth it down, but the damp strands tangle around my fingers. It’s useless. No wonder he was ready to hack at it.

“Got a preference?” I ask, raising the scissors.

He shrugs.

“Take it all, for all I care.”

I’m not going to do that. He’d look weird as hell. Too blunt. Too thick. His hair softens him. But the long, tangled locks are weighing on him right now, dragging him down, making him look drowned.

I gather up a handful of hair and hold it out from his body and make the first cut. It’s jagged and uneven and not easily done with tiny first aid scissors, but I keep at it, the black locks falling one by one to the ground between us, until his hair sits soft and light at his shoulders.

“There you go,” I say, my energy slowly coming back to me as I put the scissors down and brush the stray wet hair from his back. “You’re now the proud owner of the world’s worst fucking haircut.”

“Feels great,” he whispers, his hand coming up to run through it. He jerks when his hand runs through the shorter length, unaccustomed to less hair. Then he stands shakily and turns to me.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get dry.”

He doesn’t offer a hand to help me up. He can barely balance himself.

I trail him next door to his old bedroom, where he’s already digging through a pile of laundry. He’s shivering when he throws me a pair of boxers and a t-shirt, then takes several pieces of clothing for himself and turns around. It takes me a moment before I follow suit, facing my own corner to change out of my soaking clothes.

Normally my mind would be racing, going into overdrive, analysing every moment and action. I’d be working myself into a fit of anxiety. I’d be tasting the awkwardness that’s hanging in the air between us.

But my mind is clear for the first time in years. My head is empty. All I can think about is the ache in my muscles and the sour taste in my mouth, and my deep desire to sleep. I can already tell that I’ll sleep through the night. No dreams. No visions. No nightmares.

I don’t remember what that’s like.

When I turn back to face Kit, I almost laugh. The clothes he threw me are huge on me, hanging off my frame like sacks, whereas his are too tight. His t-shirt clings to him and his sweatpants are too short. He’s a man wearing his boyhood clothes, and the years that have passed have never seemed starker.

“Your budgie’s dead,” I say, gesturing at his too-short sweatpants.

“Get tae.”

“Thanks,” I tell him, pulling at the black t-shirt he gave me. I should go get my clothes from the bathroom and wander back to my room and collapse, but Kit is already staggering to the bed, pulling a thick jumper over his head. He runs his hands over his arms, clearly still cold.

I don’t feel cold. I don’t really feel anything.

“C’mon,” he mutters, throwing another jumper at me as he collapses into his bed. He rolls against the wall and goes still, and I wonder if it’s possible he’s already fallen asleep.

I put on the jumper and follow him, unsure and unsteady. The bed creaks as I sit on the edge, and my body sinks into it unwillingly.

“Do you—”

“Being alone in the dark still freaks me out,” he says to the wall. Absolving me of the decision.

My feet slide under the blankets and I lay as close to the edge of the bed as possible, not touching him. My body screams gratitude, my muscles turn liquid, and a satisfied, relaxed sigh escapes me.

We lay there in silence as the light in the room grows darker, the sun setting behind the ocean. The women will be done with Owen’s rite soon. He’ll be turning human even now.

“Thank you,” Kit says suddenly, breaking the silence of the room. “For finding me.”

“It wasn’t me,” I argue. I can’t accept this gratitude. Not now. “It was all Isla. And Tanis. They did it. If it had been up to me, it wouldn’t…. I didn’t want to….” I trail off as hot, syrupy shame washes through me, clogging up my chest and choking my breath.

I would have left him. I wouldn’t have looked for him. I would have let him stay in that cave, bleeding out under the care of a nuckelavee until Owen came and stole his life away.

“I’m so sorry,” I break. “For everything. For what I did, what I thought, for leaving, I—”

“You did the right thing,” Kit says, his voice steady. He turns from his side onto his back, and our shoulders brush. “You did the right thing by leaving.”

“But you—”

“It worked out.”

“I’m sorry.”

Kit stares up at the ceiling. I can’t look at him. I can’t see his tangled hair, his scratched up skin, the tired bags under his eyes.

“We’re not apologising for what we’ve done,” he says. His voice is a whisper. “Not anymore. Promise.”

“But—”

“Neither of us are apologising. Neither of us did anything wrong. We don’t have to feel guilty. Not with each other.” There’s a firmness to his voice. A commanding tone. He almost never uses this voice, but I recognise it. This is the line. This is the point where he said no to some scheme of mine, or told me to stop distracting him, or told me I was pushing something too hard. There’s no negotiating with that voice.

He sighs and shifts.

“I remembered what happened that night. I feel like you should know.”

“No,” I cut in immediately. “No. I don’t want to know.”

“Why not?”

I know this is foreign to Kit. Untenable. The idea of having knowledge and answers right there and turning your back on them. He could never do that. He’s been fighting against his mind to find the answers for years. He’ll be digging the truth out of this for decades.

“It’s done,” I shrug. “I don’t want to go back. I…” I pause. “I forgive you, for it all. Even if you didn’t do anything. I just… want us to be past this. Past that.”

I’m so tired of living in that night.

Kit is silent. His breathing is even, present. Not asleep. Just slowly cycling in and out as he ruminates on my words. Chews them over. Takes his time.

He’s always gone slow.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” he whispers finally. “Even before I realised something really wrong had happened. Even when I still thought I was responsible. Before all this, before we did the bonding rite, before everything, we were friends, right? Best friends.”

I nod.

“I miss that,” he says. The words seem to punch out of him, and once he starts, he can’t seem to stop. “I miss you. That’s what I’ve missed most. Having my best friend.”

“I missed that too,” I whisper. I missed him too. Christ, I fucking missed him. Even when I hated him.

“I’m your friend, Thomas. Whatever happens, whatever has happened… that’s all I want. I just want to be in your life. I just want to be your friend again.”

The weight of the space between us is crushing.

There are words for this moment. So many words I could drown on them, and I want to say them all. I want to tell him about my anger and my sadness and everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve gone without him. I want to scream about what happened here, what happened to us and our family. I want to tell him I’ll never forgive him, that I’ve missed him terribly, that I don’t know what I want.

That I still, deep down, don’t know if this is real. If this is another nighttime vision. If his shoulder against mine is created by my mind to comfort me while I’m actually drowning somewhere in Eòghan's Cave.

So I don’t say anything. Because I can’t trust this, can’t trust my voice, can’t trust that what he’s saying is true and not fuelled by fear and gratitude and desperation, or isn’t invented by me. Perfectly crafted to what I’ve wanted to hear most.

I search under the blanket and find his hand. I squeeze it, just once, and he squeezes back.

And then I turn over to face the door and let sleep wash over me.

B. GILMARTINComment