5. THOMAS

My head is going to explode.

I’m fully convinced that if I don’t lay down, my head is going to swell under pressure and pop, splattering my brains all over the walls of Kit’s kitchen, adding to the disaster of burnt paper and bloody salt we left on his lino.

Isla claimed I should have the bed because I look like a corpse (her words, not mine) but I said no. I absolutely refuse to sleep in his bed. I may be on the verge of death by migraine, but I’m not desperate yet.

Kit’s den is small and cosy, and, as I expected, there’s a quilt over the back of the sofa and a squashed looking pillow propped up on the edge. He’s a habitual afternoon napper, but he can never nap in his bed.

I undress quickly and sink down to the sofa, pulling the blanket around me. I’m exhausted and wrung out and cold as hell. I’d forgotten how cold Mab is; how the quiet and damp can settle into your bones and hollow you out. 

I wish there were a television in here or something to break up the silent stillness of the room, but there’s nothing but records that were probably mine at one point and stacks of battered paperbacks with questionable covers that I refuse to touch.

Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and scratch my nails three times in quick succession against the inside of my wrist, and then blow on the red welts. Across the room, a small fire glows to life in the fireplace. The flames immediately begin to throw shadows on the walls, and I shut my eyes tight so I don’t have to see them.

It’s mid-afternoon. I haven’t slept since yesterday, and the silence of this room is deafening.

The dream catches me off guard. One moment I’m awake on Kit’s sofa, staring at the thick wooden beams of his ceiling, and the next I’m hunched in the corner of his childhood bedroom, my head tucked down, my arms in front of my face, blood streaming down my elbows and onto the floor.

Kit is in front of me, his arm raised above his head, the kitchen knife in his hand stained with my blood.

We’re in the same positions as that night, but caught in the middle of the scene, neither of us moving. That isn’t how this happened, though. Neither of us are speaking, either, which is also wrong. During the actual event he was silent, but I wasn’t — my voice was breaking as I cried and yelled and sobbed for him to stop.

Kit looks calm. He looks older. His hair is long and there’s stubble on his chin and lines on his forehead but he still has those same deep, sad almond-shaped eyes. The same large lips, pulled taught. The same overly solemn expression that weighs too heavy on a face so young.

Seeing him now, he looks more like a selkie to me than Isla does.

“You’re here,” he says, and lowers the knife. He sounds more curious than surprised. “You came.”

I lower my arms as well, no longer needing to protect my face, and the rush of blood seems to slow.

“Yeah,” I say. I don’t want to look at him directly, and I try to swallow down the lump of fear in my throat. “I came. I didn’t have much choice.”

“You look tired.”

I shrug. 

“I am tired.”

Kit’s thick black eyebrows knit together.

“You need to sleep.”

“That’s a bit difficult, considering everything.”

“Are you still having the nightmares, then?” he asks, as if this is a normal conversation between two friends catching up. 

“I’d say the nightmares are still having me.”

Kit’s mouth grows thinner.

“Where are you?” I ask, leaning back against the wall and sliding down until I’m seated, instead of crouching. I pull my knees up and rest my chin on them. “Are you dead?”

“I don’t know,” he says. His eyes slide off me, his gaze growing unfocused as he stares at something above my head. “I think I’ve drowned. Or I’m going to drown. Maybe I’m drowning.”

He looks so sad, so confused, so much like the Kit I used to know that it makes me ache, and then it makes me feel sick. I don't want to have these feelings. Not here, not now, not in this room during this scene. I don’t know how much control I have over that, though. I don’t think I can control how I feel in a dream.

“Owen is missing too,” I say, clearing my throat. “Do you know where he is?”

Kit tilts his head to the side and shakes it, his long, straight black hair rippling. Longer than I remember.

“I don’t know who that is,” he says, and then sits down on the floor as well, wrapping his arms around his spread knees. “But I’m sure you’ll find us.”

“I don’t know how,” I admit, my eyes watching as Kit raises one brown hand to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. I don’t voice the rest of the thought: I don’t know if I want to find him. I don’t know if he deserves to be found.

“I trust you,” he responds. “You’ll find me.”

He extends his hand suddenly, reaching for me, and I stare at it, caught in the midst of a moment that can only exist in a dream, the kind that slows down and allows for infinite breathing room.

He has large, heavy hands, the type that kids like to pick up and play with, tickling over long fingers and twirling around thick knuckles. I remember the comforting weight of that hand in my hair, on my face, skating down my back, reaching out to tentatively hold my own hand in the middle of the night.

It’s the hand that would wrap around the back of Owen’s neck and give him a good-natured squeeze when he made the rare joke. It’s the hand that would reach out and steal things from my trouser pockets just to be a shit.

I remember that hand punching a hole in the drywall of Cormac’s library when we were fourteen. I remember those knuckles turning white the countless times Kit clenched his fist in frustration and anger, his eyes closed as he tried to breathe through it. I remember that hand, warm and large and brown and familiar, holding up a knife.

“I don’t trust you,” I whisper, moving back from his reach. His sad eyes bore into me, and then the hand with the knife comes up.

 My eyes snap open and I’m back on the lumpy sofa in Kit’s living room.

“Good fucking morning,” I mumble, running my hands over my face before reaching toward the floor for my glasses. I see the swarm of bees emerge from under the sofa before I hear them, and I cringe back with a shout.

I close my eyes and catch my breath, and then hesitantly reach again.

Nothing flies out from under the sofa, because nothing was ever there.

The door to Kit’s room is still closed, so I assume Isla is sleeping. Hob chirps at me from the front window as I sit up, and leaps down with a rumbling purr to wind around my legs.

“Right, let’s find you some food.”

His dry food is kept on the counter next to the bread box, and I pour out probably too much into his bowl before filling up the coffee maker with a bag full of grounds that’s wedged in the back of the cupboard. Kit’s probably had this bag for years — he was never a coffee drinker.

I pause in the middle of putting down Hob’s food. There’s a small paper plate in the corner with wet cat food on it. It was there yesterday, but I barely paid attention to it. But the food is soft. Like it was put down recently.

It was probably Isla. She probably found it during her thorough search of the pantry and gave it to the cat when she realised it wasn’t meant for human consumption.

She was right that there’s no food in the house but bread and butter, which I’m sure to hear hell about when she gets up. I’m not hungry, but I don’t relish the idea of meeting up with Tanis and having another fish supper shoved down my throat. Between she and Owen and their love of all things fried, I ate enough greasy chips as a kid to last me a lifetime. So I put two pieces of bread in the toaster while I wait for my coffee.

Hob crunches loudly beside me, and I grimace.

“Where did Kit go, Hob?” I ask. He ignores me.

“What do you think my odds are of making it out of this without severe emotional trauma?” I push, but there’s no answer. Fucking cat.

The smell of burning bread wafts toward me and I curse, scrambling to unplug the toaster and hissing as I pull the slightly charred pieces out to drop onto a plate. Maybe if I put enough butter on them, I won’t notice.

I manage to find a wee jar of gooseberry jam in the back of a cupboard (with absolutely no help from Hob), and sit down at the kitchen table with my pathetic breakfast.

My eyes wander to the tidy pile of books and papers stacked along the edge of the table. There’s a ragged-looking yellow legal pad on the top of the pile, filled with Kit’s tidy notes. He’s always written so neatly, and I’ve never understood how he has the patience. Maybe it’s because he’s always been able to slow down, to breathe, to look at all angles. It’s his best and worst trait; sometimes he gets so caught up in the inspection that he forgets why he started looking in the first place.

He doesn’t seem like he should be the smart one. He was a brute of a boy — all thick lines and heavy looks. But he was the one who would take his time, who would look at all the angles, who would try to assess the situation and take the notes in his even, trim handwriting while I went off half-prepared, ready to shout down the problem or lie my way out of it.

“What are you researching?” I wonder aloud, flicking through the legal pad until I come to the most recent notes. My name is in the middle of the page, as well as Kit’s and Owen’s names, all lined up vertically. 

Owen’s name causes a wave of relief to hit me. For a moment I was wondering if I had actually imagined him, and his presence in my life had been some kind of extended hallucination. But here it is in black ink: Owen Darrow, circled multiple times in thick lines. 

Kit’s name is just below his, reading ‘Kit Macrae — selkie’. I’m just above. ‘T. Madigan — ?????’

There’s nothing else on the page aside from a note in the far corner.

‘Find book — Treatise on the Transference of Souls.’

“What the hell having you been getting into, Kit?” I mumble, looking back through the pad for any explanation. But there’s nothing. Just pages upon pages of notes, scrawled reminders, and citations to books with titles about blood magic and ancient rites.

A jolt goes through me as I realise what this research is for, and why someone who has no magical abilities of his own has been researching so thoroughly. He’s trying to find a way to break the bond. The blood bond we did when we were eighteen, just the two of us, being stupid and reckless and in love, promising each other things we were too naive to understand.

“Did you ruin the bread?”

Isla is standing in the doorway, blinking sleep out of her eyes. She’s appropriated what looks like a pair of thermal leggings that are significantly too large for her and another of Kit’s jumpers. Her hair has gone wild in the night, her curls crushed on one side. Two mismatched wool socks slip down over her ankles, and she looks incongruously cosy for someone so combative.

“I think there’s more,” I say, still too distracted by Kit’s notes to fully engage with her. She sighs and collapses at the table, then reaches for my coffee and takes a sip. She frowns, makes a face and shakes her head, then takes another sip.

“Doesn’t matter. Are you up to doing the rite you mentioned? The one to see if Kit is dead? We should do it now.”

“I agree,” I say, taking my coffee back from her and setting it on the table between us. I won’t be finishing it. “I normally would want to use something of Owen’s as well, but I don’t exactly fancy the idea of going back inside Cormac’s house right now, so I suppose we’ll just focus on Kit. Push comes to shove, I think I have an old t-shirt I stole from Owen years ago.”

“That’s fine,” Isla says, pulling my plate of toast over to her. “I don’t know who this Owen is, so I don’t really care.”

“You’re wildly empathetic,” I remark, then drag a hand through my hair and stand up. “Right, so, you go find me something of Kit’s. A shirt or something would do. I’m going to scrounge around in here for the rest of what I need.”

Isla nods and heads off back toward the bedroom, my toast in her hand, and I tackle the cabinets for the supplies I’ll need. Kit has the majority of herbs, which doesn’t surprise me. He always hung around the edges of my magic lessons with Cormac, listening in even though he has no magic of his own. But most of what I do doesn’t even really require magic. Kit and I probably practise the craft the same way.

I cut down some of the dried garlic hanging over the kitchen sink and mix it with mugwort and hawthorn blossoms that are shoved in the back of the cabinet, adding a heavy helping of cinnamon at the last moment, because this is going to taste like steamed shite. Dumping the herbs into a cracked Visit Mab! mug, I pour boiling water on top and let it steep. Isla emerges with a black t-shirt in one hand and a knit cap in the other. 

“Beanie,” I say, nodding at it. “It’ll likely have hair on it. More personal than a shirt.”

I set the mug on the counter and pull on my trainers and the parka that I left by the door yesterday, and motion for Isla to do the same. My limbs are aching, and my head is starting to throb. I don’t want to do this.

“We’ll need to be outside.”

“Why?” she asks, slipping her feet into the boots she’s been wearing. She picks up the parka I gave her as well. 

“I’m going to be trying to slip into the astral plane, to put it in lay terms. Being outside helps. I’m going to use the sea as a conduit, to keep me anchored.”

“You can find him in the astral realm?”

I pick up the mug and hold the door open for Isla, who squeezes under my arm, knocking into my side as she heads outside. She jumps off the stoop again. Is she not capable of walking normally?

“I can search for him, a bit. Try to make contact with his mind. If he’s dead, then… well, I’ll know.”

“Why didn’t you just do this yesterday?” Isla asks as we ease ourselves over the low sea wall. It’s easy for me to step over it, but she has to scramble a bit, because her legs are so short.

“Because it’s difficult, and, frankly, I didn’t want to,” I respond. My mind goes back to my weird dream. I don’t really want to go digging around in Kit’s mind. It’s bad enough that he’s rooting around in mine.

We reach the shoreline quickly. The tide is out, so the jagged rocks littering the beach are visible, and I sit on the largest one close to shore and pull off my shoes, wincing slightly at the cool October air and the wet, slimy feel of the cold rock beneath me.

Seaweed between my toes is my is my least favourite sensation in the world.

Barefoot and already halfway to hypothermia, I pick up the mug and scrunch my face in advance of the scalding, bitter liquid. I finish it off in two gulps, then set the mug next to my shoes and roll up my jeans.

“Right,” I say, swallowing down a burp that taste like garlic and cinnamon and sadness. “Did I ask you if you’re alright with a wee bit of blood?”

“Oh, please not more of this,” Isla responds, going slightly pale. In another situation I’d maybe be sympathetic to her squeamishness, but honestly, she’s so damn unflappable that it’s nice to have at least one thing up on her. So I ignore her queasy expression and walk out until the water is high enough to lap over my ankles and send waves of pulsing, shiver-inducing cold through me.

Digging in my pocket and pulling out the fishing knife I took from Kit’s counter, I score a line across my hand, cutting over the thin scab of healing skin from the cut I made yesterday. 

This is the worst part of doing serious magic; your hands look like they’ve been torn apart. Cormac’s hands were so gnarled and scarred by the end that you could barely see the ridges of his palm. As a kid it used to terrify me. I never wanted my hands to look like that.

I wipe my bloody hand on the beanie, the fibres of the knit catching on the wound, then pull it away and cast it into the water. 

Closing my eyes, I crouch down, submerge my hands, and think of Kit.

I will my breathing to slow. I make my mind blank and I focus on the cold water lapping at my skin, the way it ebbs and flows, tugs in, then reverses. I follow the tug, matching my breathing to the movement of the water.

Kit. Show me Kit.

I inhale the sharp air; the sour smell of algae-covered rocks, the briny water. The harsh wind sending mists of rain into my face.

Kit. Show me Kit.

My whole body goes cold like I’ve been fully submerged, and I open my eyes.

I’m on the beach, walking across the uneven basalt causeway toward Eòghan's Cave. It’s a familiar path; the same one Kit, Owen and I walked countless times as kids. The tide is out to reveal the causeway, and it’s damp and slippery beneath my feet. I’m walking on the surface of the North Sea, Cormac’s house behind me, the sloping hillside curving along beside me, and everything is silent. Nothing exists except for wind and sea and sky.

This far down the coast, the hillside has turned into ragged cliffs, impossible to climb and only accessed by puffins. I’d have to turn around and walk farther down the coast line to find the more reasonable, gentle incline that will take me to Kit’s house, then to Cormac’s, then back up to the village. 

But instead of heading toward the safety of the land, I keep walking forward, slipping over damp stones and catching myself on sharp shells as I continue toward Eòghan's Cave. It’s built into the cliffside, the large opening flocked on either side by strange, hexagonal basalt columns. They look carefully stacked together and their perfection — the absolute deliberateness of their appearance — gives the cave an eerie, unreal feeling.

Carved by the Seelie and protected by the sea, Cormac used to say.

The tide is coming in quickly, already lapping up against the causeway. The cave will be inaccessible soon, but it doesn’t matter, because what I’m looking for isn’t in the cave. He’s lying in the water three yards ahead of me.

My feet carry me toward him slowly, haltingly. He’s not moving.

I speed up, scrambling over slippery rocks and splashing through the water as I go farther and farther, until the ice cold water of the North Sea is above my ankles and Kit is lying at my feet.

He’s on his back in the water, his black hair fanned out around him, not moving. His eyes are pure milky white.

I fall to my knees, not noticing the rough scratching of the rocks, and feel for him. His skin is freezing to the touch but — he’s breathing. He is breathing.

“Kit?” I ask, nudging him. His mouth is partially open, full lips turning blue, parted as if trying to speak. His white eyes just keep staring up into the grey, misting sky. There should be dark eyes blinking up at me. Not this… nothing.

“Kit?” I repeat. His hair floats around my hands. “Kit? Can you hear me?”

His lips move slightly — a twitch, barely more — and then they move again. Saying something.

I bend my ear to his face slowly, trying to catch what he’s saying, but there are no words, it seems. Or he’s too quiet. I rest my hand on his chest to brace myself and lean further, until I can feel his cool breath on my cheek, and he begins whispering again.

All I hear is the fluttering of wings, and the high laughing cry of a seagull.

My eyes snap open and I’m on the rocks in front of Kit’s house, gasping back to reality with Isla at my side. The causeway is ahead, fully revealed by the low tide. I can see all the way down it to the cave. Kit isn’t there.

“Thomas? Are you alright?” Isla crouches down by my side, her hands flitting around my shoulders. At some point I lost my balance and I’m now kneeling on the rocks, the icy water soaking into my trousers. I’m freezing, shaking so hard my teeth are chattering and every inch of my body feels like it's vibrating with cold.

“Thomas?”

“I’m okay,” I croak out, pushing myself to my feet. Isla puts a firm arm around my waist to steady me, and I lean into her. She’s warm and firm and I fall into her more than I mean to.

“Did you see him?” she asks. I nod and rub at my eyes with the heel of my palm, remembering too late that I’ve left a gash in my left hand. I pull back from Isla’s hold and try to put distance between us.

“He’s…” I shake my head. “He’s not dead.” He was breathing. He was breathing and trying to say something. If he were dead, I wouldn’t have seen him at all. 

But that vision wasn’t right. Nothing about that was right. I’ve never done this before, never gone into the astral plane to try and contact someone, but I know broad strokes. And those strokes weren’t meant to involve Kit laying in a pool of water, his eyes milky white while he shivers to death.

I tell Isla what I saw in quick, huffed breaths as we make our way back over the rocks to shore. My feet are numb, which makes it difficult to find my footing. I nearly slip several times. Finally Isla wraps her arm around mine and takes over steering, and I try not to lean on her too much.

When we reach the shore, I’m breathing hard, and Isla’s face has sharpened into a mask of intense annoyance. 

“Right, so, what does that mean?” she asks for at least the third time.

“I don’t know,” I tell her honestly. Just another question I don’t have any answers to. It’s a familiar feeling. “I really don’t know. But there definitely is something magical going on.”

“I’ve been saying that since the beginning,” she mutters, picking up my mug and shoes and setting off up the grassy incline back to Kit’s house. She doesn’t wait to give me help.

Before I follow her, I turn around and face the ocean once more, half expecting Kit to be floating behind me. 

But there’s nothing except the sound of seagulls and the salty smell of the ocean and the dark, rolling shape of the cliffs on either side of me, and far in the distance, the chasming mouth of Eòghan's Cave.

ISLA >

B. GILMARTINComment