“I don’t know, he was just laying there with his eyes all white and—”
Thomas huffs and clenches at his hair with his bandaged hand while firmly smashing his mobile to his face with the other. He’s a picture of patheticness sat at the table across from me.
I’ve managed to find almonds in a far corner of Kit’s cabinet, and I’m eating them; mostly to give me something to do with my hands so that I don’t slowly strangle Thomas Madigan with his stupid scruffy hair.
Kit is alive. Thomas seems sure that he’s alive, and that’s a start, isn’t it? But listening to him describe his vision again….
Things don’t sound good.
If Thomas had listened to me from the start and taken this more seriously, we might be further along. We might be closer to finding Kit right now, and the thought of all the time we’ve lost makes me grind my teeth.
Mum would tell me to have patience, though. So I shove another handful of almonds in my mouth and try to stay calm so I can keep eavesdropping on Thomas’s phone call.
“Fadwa, I don’t know, I’ve told you everything.” There’s a pause. “Yes, that’s all he wrote. Treatise on the Transference of Souls. No, no author.”
He pauses again and then looks up at me before shifting to the side slightly, as if that wee movement is going to hide his conversation from me.
“Seriously?” He pauses. “Of course you’ve read it. Well is it — no, I don’t know.” He glances at me, and his voice lowers. “I thought that he may have been trying to break the… er, the bond.”
I stare up at the ceiling and tug my parka tighter around me.
“Well, I don’t know,” he mumbles. “That’s what I thought the books and notes may have been for, but if you don’t—” he pauses, as if he’s been cut off mid sentence, and huffs in annoyance. I make an almost identical sound. I just love sitting around, listening to one sided phone conversations while my best friend is in danger.
“Yes, I’m still planning to go. I bought the plane tickets already.” There’s a very long pause, and then he sighs. “I’ll figure it out. Yes. Yes, I will. I will. Fadwa—” He holds the phone away from his head for a moment and sighs before speaking again. “I’m sure it’s not that big of a deal, it’s just—”
A knock on the door interrupts him, and he jumps. His jumpiness isn’t a human thing, I don’t think. It’s just him.
“Fadwa, I’ll call you back,” he says quickly, pulling the phone from his ear with a grimace and ringing off. I get up from my seat at the table and head to the door to find who knocked, but it’s already opening.
“Hullo!” Tanis says, hurrying inside. She closes the door behind her and shivers, shaking off the rain, and then straightens up to flash me a wide smile. Her cheeks are a bright pink from the wind and her nose is pure red. “Thought I’d come by to see how it’s going. I brought food.” She holds up a canvas bag.
“Brilliant, I love you,” I moan, taking the bag out of her hands and opening it. Humans use so much energy, I have no idea why the rest of them aren’t always eating. Especially Thomas. To think of the energy he expends being anxious.
When I open the bag I discover, to my immense grief, that it is not a hot dinner, but rather a collection of groceries.
“Now, I’m going to make food, and you’re going to explain what the fuck is going on,” Tanis says, pointing at Thomas as she peels off her black leather jacket, throws it over the radiator, and shakes her long blonde hair out from under her knit cap before pulling it up into a messy bun on the top of her head. Her fringe sticks out of the bun at an odd angle, and she’s missed huge chunks of hair along her neck.
I pull out the groceries and put them on the counter, inspecting each one. I’ve no idea how to cook. I can do tea and toast, because that’s always what I watched Kit make, but beyond that my skills are… nonexistent. My mum never taught me, because she was an awful cook as well. Conor always made food for us.
Luckily Tanis seems to know what she’s doing, because she turns on the range and pulls down several pots, and gently hip checks me out of the way. I’d kind of wanted to help, maybe learn, but she seems like she has charge of the situation, so I take a seat at the table across from Thomas and tuck my feet up into the chair to watch.
She leans over to the old radio on the windowsill and flicks it on. Soft, poppy music starts to fill the kitchen.
It’s incredible how in less than two minutes, Tanis has managed to brighten up the place. I’ve no idea why Thomas and I have just been sitting around in gloomy, dramatic silence. After his vision at the beach, everything has felt… sharp. Cold.
I’ve been a bit directionless on where to go from here, to be honest. I’ve never really been directionless before.
“So?” Tanis says, turning. She’s in a different black t-shirt today. It’s short-sleeved again. I’d love to know how she manages it. Does she not feel cold? Or maybe she actually is freezing, but does this because she knows that the way the stretched black sleeves curl up a bit over her upper arms makes her skin look soft and smooth like honey.
“Not much to explain,” Thomas responds with a shrug. He doesn’t seem to be benefitting from the sudden injection of warmth and cosiness. He has taken no notice of Tanis’s arms. “I did a water rite to see if I could locate Kit.”
“And did you?”
“Undetermined,” I say, watching Tanis begin cutting up a large onion.
“I saw him, but he was… I don’t know, something was wrong,” Thomas says, picking at the table with his fingernail. “He was lying in the water on the causeway, and definitely alive. But his eyes were white and he wasn’t responsive.”
“Do you think the causeway was a hint about where he is?”
“I don’t see how it could be,” Thomas answers, frowning. “You can see the whole causeway with the tide out, and he wasn’t there. And besides, these things are about establishing a mental link, not a physical one. I was near the causeway and thinking about Eòghan's Cave, so it probably just showed me that because it was already on my mind. No, I think the floating was a bigger clue.”
“What about the cave?” I ask. “That bridge thing leads to the cave, yeah? Seems like a good spot to check.”
“I really doubt he’s in Eòghan's Cave,” Thomas says with a scoff. Why the fuck is he acting like this was such a stupid question? “It’s almost impossible to get to, and no one goes there.”
“That’s not true,” Tanis calls over her shoulder. “You all went there all the time, didn’t you? You used to piss your pants jumping down into the freshwater pool.”
“You think Kit and Owen are hiding out in our super dangerous childhood hangout?”
“They could be,” I push, reinvigorated. Finally, a lead. “We should check, just to be safe.”
“Fine. Wait for the tide to come out and reveal the causeway and knock yourself out. I’ll stay here, thanks. I don’t enjoy the idea of drowning for a hunch.”
Thomas shakes his hair out of his eyes and glances to the side, and then suddenly takes a sharp inhalation of breath. He blinks several times, his breath coming in short bursts, then turns back to look at his hands.
“What was that?” I ask. He looks up at me, his eyes wide. It’s an expression I’m coming to recognise. It’s the same look he had when we were walking back from Towe, just before he told me the shadows were following him.
“Nothing,” he mutters. “Just… my thing. Leave it.” He glances at Tanis, who has her back to us.
I guess I’m supposed to take this as a sign he doesn’t want to talk about it. I don’t get why, but fine. At least I’m starting to get his social signals. Murray would be proud.
New smells are beginning to fill the kitchen, pushing even more warmth into my tired bones. I stand up and wander back to the stove where Tanis is dumping an entire bag of white cheese into a pan and stirring it with quick, fluid movements.
“Need help?” I ask, and Thomas snorts. I make a rude gesture at him behind my back which just makes him snort louder.
“I’m fine,” Tanis says, smiling. “You’ve been through enough today, have a rest.”
I don’t really know what that means. I haven’t done anything aside from watch Thomas nearly have a seizure and give himself hypothermia. On the contrary — it’s the complete lack of action that is driving me crazy.
I have to admit that I thought magic was going to be a lot more exciting than this.
“I don’t want to rest,” I tell her, turning and leaning against the counter next to her and crossing my arms. “I want to stop wasting time.”
Tanis looks at me out of the corner of her eye and keeps stirring the cheese.
“Aye then, Thomas, tell me more about who this Owen shite is. Because Mum had no bloody idea who I was talking about,” she instructs, tearing open a cardboard box of pasta and dumping it into a bubbling pot of water. “And I went and looked through several years worth of humiliating photos and didn’t see a single picture of an Owen.”
Thomas sighs and collapses onto the table. His glasses hit the wood with a soft clink.
“I told you, he was our childhood friend. He came to live with Kit, Cormac and I when we were all twelve.”
“Where did he come from?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas says into the table.
“You didn’t ask?” I find it really hard to believe anyone just grabbed a random kid and took him in and didn’t know his backstory. Like, humans do some weird shit with their family units, but I don’t think that’s one.
Thomas sits up and glares at me. His glasses are smudged.
“I was twelve, so, no. I didn’t. I think my entire life goal at that point in time was getting Tanis’s attention, actually.”
“So why don’t I remember him?” Tanis asks, stirring the pasta. Thomas takes off his glasses and throws them to the table with a clatter, then rubs at his forehead.
“Something is interfering, obviously. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell what is real, sometimes,” he says, adding the last part in a mutter.
I hate admitting it, but I do feel a bit bad for him, honestly. I don’t know what exactly is wrong with him — Kit never went in depth with it — but I know broad strokes. “Something happened to us,” Kit had told me the first time I asked. His eyes had been hooded and sad as he played with the string of his sweatshirt while we sat out on the causeway. “Infected us or something. It’s been happening since we were kids. Thomas does things, sometimes. Things he can’t control. And I think maybe I forget things, too.”
I’ve been wondering if these things are connected to Kit’s disappearance. They have to be, don’t they? This supposed Owen person, Kit missing, Thomas’s visions. It seems so blindingly obvious, and I don’t know why he hasn’t made that connection. I would just ask him, but he’s so fidgety and ill tempered that I think if I push it too hard he’ll just flee the island and never look back. And unfortunately, I need him.
I really don’t want to faff about here catering to his anxieties.
Tanis turns from the stove and stares us down for a moment, her eyes narrowed into slits. Then she grabs a notepad from the fridge and a pen from the table, and taps the tip of the pen against her lips. It leaves a small black ink dot just above her lip freckle.
“Alright, let’s just start from the beginning then. We ken Kit is alive, but missing. Someone named Owen is missing. No one remembers Owen.” She jots down her notes. “Owen also may be imaginary,” she mumbles, just loud enough for me to hear.
“I think they’re both on the island,” Thomas offers, and Tanis pauses in her writing to glance at him.
“Why do you say that?”
He shrugs. “Gut instinct.”
Tanis rolls her eyes.
“Right, so. Two missing, likely on island. Magical interference involved. Not a magician, because Mum and I don’t remember the Owen shite, and magicians aren’t powerful enough to fuck with reality like that. We’d see through it.”
“Could it be a Seelie doing it?” I ask. I’ve been mulling that over — that there may be something faery about this. Conor used to say that if your life was going upside down, a Seelie was probably involved. Murray always thought he just said that shit because he was Irish, but maybe Conor was onto something.
Thomas blinks at me.
“Seelie? I seriously doubt it,” he says, making a face. “What would a Seelie want with Kit?” He scoffs again. I’m going to pull out his throat with my teeth if he makes that noise one more time. “And anyway, Seelies haven’t been seen in centuries, if they’re even real. We’ve got no reason to believe they are.”
Tanis and I stare at him.
“Oh, Thomas. Fuck off,” Tanis says with a sigh, then turns back to the stove.
“What?” he asks, but I shake my head in amazement. And he has the sheer fucking cheek to make me feel like an idiot?
“You’re a magician,” I say slowly. “You’re sitting in a kitchen with a selkie and baobhan sith and you’re telling me that you don’t believe in Seelies? You know we exist and yet you don’t think Seelies do?”
Thomas fidgets slightly and shrugs.
“I’ve never seen one. I don’t think things are real unless there’s proof. Or if they are real, they died out ages ago.” He turns to me as if looking for support. “Come on, you’re the brutally realistic type. You have to know it’s all folk stories. Faeries coming to chew on your bones and swap out your children, it’s all pish.”
“Oh, Christ,” Tanis mutters, clattering at the stove.
“Don’t ‘oh, Christ’ me,” Thomas retorts. “Look at you and the baobhan sith. You’re dying out. If the Seelie are still around, they’re underground and not getting involved with a psychotic ferry man and his quiet friend.”
Tanis slams the pot on the stove down with a loud clang, but doesn’t turn around. I can see her hands gripping the handles so tightly her knuckles are turning white.
“They might, actually,” I say, clearing my throat and trying to cut over some of the tension. “Kit was doing research and I know that he asked me about the Seelie a few times. Maybe he and Owen found one?”
“If they were stupid enough to go poking at them, then maybe,” Thomas allows. “But Kit isn’t exactly the adventurous type.”
“Oh really?” I snap back, my hackles thoroughly raised. I’m getting real sick of Thomas Madigan’s bullshit. “Tell me more, then, since you know everything there possibly is to know about him.”
Thomas looks ready to strangle me. The feeling is mutual.
“Oh, I know plenty, like the fact that he tried to k—”
“What we need is to try to talk to Kit on the astral plane and see if we can get more clues to where he’s at,” Tanis says, cutting over us with a steady voice, even though her knuckles are still clenched. “Thomas, could you do the rite again?”
“I can try,” he says, looking away from me and sighing. “I’ve only done this once. I dunno if there would be any change.”
Tanis puts the steaming bowl of food on the table and I hurry to push the books out of the way, then retrieve forks. She made something with pasta and cheese, and I have no idea what this is but I want to devour it. Kit and Conor never made anything like this.
“Thomas, straighten up and eat something,” Tanis tells him, grabbing a rickety stool from the corner and propping herself up on it. She pokes at the back of his head and he complies, digging into the pasta with a grumble.
No one dishes it out onto a plate; Thomas and Tanis just dig into the communal bowl, so I follow suit. This isn’t what I’m used to. Kit and Conor always portioned things out, and Kit always pokes me with his fork when I eat off his plate. But Tanis and Thomas don’t seem to think this is weird, so I dig in.
The pasta is sweet and rich, the cheese stringy and almost too hot, but it practically melts on my tongue like butter. Tanis is… amazing. The best cook I’ve ever met. Conor had nothing on her.
“We’ll do the rite after we eat,” I say around a large mouthful of food. I can barely pause to swallow before digging in for another bite. I’m in love. With her or the pasta, I don’t know.
“Has anyone told you that you’re extremely pushy?” Thomas asks me, dropping his fork to the table with a clatter.
“So?” I snap back, taking another bite.
“I’m not a battery. You can’t just plug me in and use me.”
“I think I’d like you better if you were,” I mumble, my mouth full of cheese.
“Wheesht, will you?” Tanis says, cutting over our argument. She watches me intently as I lean back in my seat and try to put distance between Thomas and myself. “Christ, the way you two fight. Isla, are you an Aries?”
“No,” I say, frowning. “I’m a selkie.”
Thomas snorts. Tanis reaches across the table to flick his ear, and he flinches back and smacks her hand away. She smacks his hand back.
“Ignore him. He’s a Scorpio. If you were an Aries, it would explain a lot of the tension between you two,” she informs me, like these words are meant to make sense.
“Oh my God,” Thomas mutters as I nod and pretend I’m following. When I find Kit, I’ll have to ask him what an Aries is, because I don’t want Tanis to know that I’ve got no clue what she’s saying.
“In other news, if I’m going to be any help to you lot, I’ll need to find a new donor, and soon,” Tanis says, smiling brightly as she changes the subject. “Thomas, can you think of anyone?”
She’s quite adept at navigating personal conflict, and I’m kind of impressed. Mum was decent enough at it, but I never had any skill for it. She used to say I’m like a battering ram.
I dunno what that is either, actually. I’ll ask Kit that too.
Thomas shrugs and weakly nudges a piece of pasta across with his fork. “Why not just use your mum or Aunt E’s donor, just this once?”
Tanis’s fingers tighten around her fork, and I’m almost positive that the metal bends under her grip. But her gaze never lifts from her food, and her expression never changes.
“My mum and aunt have different arrangements with their donors, as you know,” she says, trying to smile through her stiffness. “I don’t have the same opportunity.”
“What about me?” I ask, trying to soothe her discomfort. “I’d be willing.”
I don’t know why I said that. I’m not good with blood, I’m not good at all with blood, and the idea of someone cutting me open to feed on me sounds like the very opposite of being good with blood.
“Oh,” Tanis responds, her cheeks reddening. She puts down her fork and rubs at the thighs of her black jeans, and gives me a bright if slightly false smile. “Oh, that’s really kind of you, but it has to be a man.”
“What about Thomas? He’s supposedly a man.”
Thomas furrows his brows and holds up his hands at me in an offended gesture as Tanis glances at him and then looks away. At her reaction, Thomas lowers his hands and sighs.
“No offence Tan, but I… really don’t want to,” he says, his tone far softer than anything I’ve yet heard from him. “It’s just, blood is currency, you know? Blood is really all we have.”
“Yes, I’m aware of how important blood is, thank you,” Tanis says, her eyebrows pulled together in an expression of annoyed amusement. “I have to drink some every month to maintain motor functions, so I think I’m aware.”
Thomas shakes his head and drops his fork again, leaning toward her.
“No, of course you do. But I’m just not comfortable with it. Blood is dangerous. Those blood pacts with Kit changed me. They fundamentally changed me, and he’s almost entirely human. I’m a magician, and that’s in my blood. What would it do to you?”
“You’re not going to pass magic or some shite through your blood,” Tanis argues, frowning. “Mum definitely used Cormac as a donor once or twice, in a pinch.”
He shoves his glasses up on his forehead and rubs the palms of his hands into his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Tan. It’s not you. It’s me. Giving away blood is dangerous and shouldn’t be done lightly.” He exhales. “I’ve been far too careless with it already.”
“Alright, what are you on about?” Tanis asks, exasperated. “You keep havering on about being careless and shite, and also, what fucking blood pacts are you talking about?”
My eyes bounce from Tanis to Thomas. I’m so glad she asked. Thomas keeps referencing these blood rites he and Kit did, but all I know about is their bonding rite. And I won’t lie, I’ve been deadly curious about what else they did.
“Come on, you know how Kit and Owen and I were.” He pauses. “Well, you know how Kit and I were,” he corrects. “A bunch of wee pagans. We used to go out on Samhain every year and cut our hands and promise to be best friends forever and all that pish. We promised all kinds of bullshit things.”
Tanis stares at him like he’s grown three heads.
“No. I didn’t know this,” she says, shaking her head. Thomas’s face distorts into annoyed confusion.
“Yes you did. You absolutely did, you used to constantly make fun of us for it.”
“Thomas, this is the first I’ve ever heard of this. Were you trying to bind yourselves with magic?” she asks, and Thomas simply shrugs.
“I don’t think we thought it through far enough. It just seemed like the thing to do, you know?”
“But why?” Tanis pushes. Her eyebrows are pulled together. “You’re a magician, you should have known that something like that is old magic. Serious magic. You give your blood to someone else, they gain a part of you.”
“And here you are trying to get me to let you use me for a snack,” Thomas snaps back.
“I wasn’t, actually,” Tanis argues, not rising to his level. “But there’s a big difference between my feeding on someone and you exchanging blood in a rite on Samhain. Why would you do that?”
“I’ve telt you, we didn’t think it through,” Thomas repeats, his voice pitching up. “Trust me, since I left I’ve been wondering it myself. I’ve always been a fucking idiot where Kit is involved, though.”
“I cannot believe Kit went along with that,” Tanis says, frowning and shaking her head. Her lips purse together. “Cormac was always havering on about Samhain and how dangerous it is to do magic then. You may have been a rash little idiot, but Kit wasn’t.”
“I don’t recall him kicking up a fuss,” Thomas responds tightly. His eyes are darting around, like he’s looking for an escape. “I don’t even remember it, honestly. I can’t recall whose idea it was. It might even have been Owen’s. Trust me, I feel like enough of an idiot about it now. We got extremely lucky.”
“What about when you and Kit did the bonding rite?” I ask. “Surely you had to know the kind of magic attached to that?”
Tanis stares at us.
“Bonding rite?” she echoes. Her voice is getting higher now. “You two did a bonding rite?”
I’m realising that I may have just accidentally blabbed a secret. I wish people would warn you when they tell you secrets. How are you supposed to know what you can and can’t talk about?
Thomas winces, but Tanis either doesn’t notice or chooses to ignore it.
“It wasn’t a big deal, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sorry, no, you and Kit basically got fucking married and you didn’t tell me?”
“We told Owen,” Thomas mumbles, trying to sink down into his chair.
“I don’t know who Owen is!” Tanis shouts, slamming her hand to the table. She looks absolutely livid, and her eyes are starting to turn gold. “Christ alive, you got married without telling one of your best fucking friends!”
Thomas pushes back from the table and paces to the other side of the kitchen, backing himself into the corner by the stove and crossing his arms. His weird, jagged scars look pinched and pale in the dim light. I wonder who he pissed off enough to stab him. I think we’d get on.
“You were meant to know, but it all happened so fast. It was the same day he…” Thomas shakes his head. “I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about any of this. Anyway, I’m sorry, Tan, I know you need a donor, but the answer is no.”
“I never expected it to be yes,” she barks. Her eyes are still gold and her hair is starting to float, and I wonder if I’m about to see the full might of a baobhan sith feasting on a man.
But instead she takes in Thomas’s white knuckles grasping his elbows and his blood shot eyes, and her face softens. I can see the moment she decides to let him off the hook. Her hair grows still, her eyes shift back to green. She slides off her stool and walks over to him, reaching out one pale hand to play at his curly hair.
From murderous to motherly in the blink of an eye.
“It’s alright. I don’t think I could live with myself if you did say yes. You look awful, you know that, right? You need some sleep. And a haircut. Kit has got some shears somewhere, I could just tidy it up for you…”
Thomas waves his hands over his head like he’s waving off a persistent fly and stands up.
“I’m fine, Mum, I’m fine,” he says, frowning. But the shakiness is gone from his voice, and there’s a smile at the edge of his mouth. It’s a tense, borderline hysteric smile, but a smile nonetheless. I don’t get these two. Their emotions are too sudden to follow. “Thanks for dinner, Tan. I’m going to… go sit on the roof for a bit.”
He grabs his parka and disappears through the door, and I turn to Tanis, my question clear on my face.
“Did he say roof?”
Tanis sighs and takes up his abandoned chair.
“It’s fine,” she says, picking up Thomas’s fork and spearing a clump of uneaten pasta. “He does this. He gets angry and turns into a wee bitch and then goes and sits on the roof or some other high spot. I think it helps him think.”
“How would heights help anyone think?”
“I gave up trying to understand Thomas a long time ago.” Tanis grimaces. “Honestly, I gave up on that well before we broke up.” She sighs and pops another piece of pasta into her mouth. Her pink lips close around the fork, and she sucks a bit of cheese off it.
“Why don’t you just get a new boyfriend?” I ask, dragging my eyes away from her mouth. They land on her knees, jutting up just above the ledge of the table, because she has her thick boots propped up on the highest rung of her chair.
“Why would I do something as awful as that?” Tanis asks, pulling the fork out and tilting her head. She makes a face, like the idea is revolting.
“So you’d have a donor. You’re gorgeous, I can’t imagine it would be difficult for you.”
The words are out before I can stop them. Christ, I hope that was okay. Conor said you’re not supposed to comment on people’s appearances where they can hear you.
I guess it’s fine, though, because Tanis smiles and scrunches her nose at me, then looks away.
“It would be easier, probably,” she says, then shrugs. She leans forward and braces her arms against the table and stares me down with a small smile. The blonde side fringe that won’t tuck up into her bun slips into her eyes. “I’ve done the boyfriend thing, though. They’ve all been disastrous. I’m… not a good fit with men.”
My fingers feel like they’re tingling, and my heart rate picks up.
“I imagine that’s difficult when you need them for dinner.”
Tanis laughs and pulls her hand through her fringe, flicking it to the other side of her face.
“They’re fine for donors. Just not what I’m looking for in a partner.” She looks away, and for a beat her face falls. “Sometimes I wish they were. It would be easier, I think. If I could just date a man and have him be my donor and do the normal thing.” Her cheeks flush a bright pink and she clears her throat. “But unfortunately I only seem to be attracted to women, so….”
“I don’t think that’s unfortunate,” I respond slowly, sitting back in my own chair. My heart is beating so fast that I think it might make me sick, except it’s not a bad feeling. I don’t know what this is.
“Anyway, women are better,” I continue, trying to push past the weird breathy feeling taking over me. “Easier. Less stubborn.”
“Oh, I wouldnae say that,” Tanis responds. There’s a sly humour hiding in the corner of her mouth and the crinkle of her eyes. “They’re just a good stubborn. More of a challenge and less of a roadblock.”
“Thomas is nothing but a roadblock,” I agree as the door swings open.
“I heard that,” Thomas snaps, shaking off his jacket. He smells like cigarette smoke, and it tingles at my nose. I can feel a sneeze building in the back of my throat.
“I thought you were going to the roof?” Tanis asks, getting up to put the bowl of pasta in the fridge and refill the kettle.
“It’s fucking cold and raining,” he mutters, reaching out for a book and pulling it toward him. It’s one of the brightly coloured ones like Tanis had all over her flat, with the overly muscled man on the front. “I’ll be in the den if you need me.”
He wanders into the den and settles down in an arm chair across from the kitchen door. Tanis and I watch him go. The kettle hums its gentle roar, and then clicks off.
“So what’s your story?” she asks, pulling down two mugs. I should argue, should tell her I don’t want more bitter water, but watching her go through the gentle motions of tea making is slightly hypnotic. I let her question hang in the air as she drops the tea bag into the mug, pours the water in with one fluid motion, then stirs and stirs and stirs.
“Not much to tell,” I respond, watching as she spoons out two teaspoons of sugar into each mug. “I’m a selkie. I come to land once a year for a day and I visit with Kit. I’m just staying on land until I find him.”
“What did you do before you came to visit Kit?”
Something warm bubbles in me. She didn’t ask me why I stayed; didn’t tell me off. She just wants to know what my life was like before this odd event.
“I visited my mother,” I say, the words slipping out before I can stop them. “She was on land. Had a nice set up. I would visit her and her husband.”
“Why did you start using your trips on Kit, then? Don’t you miss her?” She slides the tea mug in front of me and sits down, resting her elbow on the table and setting her chin in her hand. Her entire focus is on me, and the weight of her undiluted attention makes me feel breathless. “My mum and I fight something awful, but I can’t imagine going more than a few days without seeing her.”
“She passed. My brother came to land a few years back, but I dunno where he is. So Kit is kind of all I’ve got.”
“I can understand that,” Tanis says quietly, looking up over her mug. Her green eyes burn almost amber in the low light of the kitchen. I dunno if it’s the light, or her strange magic changing them. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
There’s a scratching, stuttering noise from the other room, and both of us turn to see Thomas standing in front of Kit’s record player, his hands in his hair and his eyes wide in alarm.
“Sorry!” he says. “I, uh, thought it worked differently.”
He fiddles with a knob and low, gravelly music echoes out of the record player, before he picks up his book and sits back down in the chair. Snippets of the music float into the kitchen, clashing with the pop already playing from the window radio.
“Bless him, he’s a wee mess,” Tanis says fondly, then sighs. “Both of them are.”
“He’s not what I expected,” I tell her, clinging to the change of topic. There’s a rock sitting in my stomach from talking about Mum. “The way Kit talked about him — not that he talked about him much, mind you — but still, I expected… I don’t know. Someone less…”
I nod, laughing with relief that she found the words for me. Tanis scrubs her hand through her hair and props her chin back on her hand. Her eyes flick to Thomas, and she lowers her voice.
“He wasn’t always, you know. Used to be quite fun.”
Tanis must see the disbelieving look on my face, because she grins and continues.
“I dunno what really happened with him or with them. He and Kit were going to leave the island together; Kit was going to go to uni in Aberdeen, and Thomas was going to go just be some kind of general menace, I dunno.”
This sounds about in line with what I know. I think I know a bit more than Tanis does, though, and that makes me squirm. I don’t know why Kit would tell me things but not her.
“Then out of nowhere, Thomas calls me in the middle of the night, all upset, said he had to catch a ferry. So I picked him up and took him there, but I didn’t realise he was leaving, right?” She looks at Thomas again, and I follow her gaze. He’s fast asleep, his legs tucked up in his chair, the book propped on his knees. It’s the first time I’ve seen him not look all angry and pointy.
“So next morning, Kit doesn’t know where he’s gone and would no say a word about what happened. Was an absolute wreck. Didn’t leave the house for nearly a week.” Tanis is speaking quickly, leaning into the story, her words becoming more slurred and her accent thicker with enthusiasm. “Two weeks later, Thomas leaves a voicemail on the pub line saying he was sorry, but Kit wasn’t the person he thought he was, and he had to choose himself.”
“That’s not vague at all,” I hum, glancing at Thomas’s sleeping form.
“No, not in the least,” Tanis agrees. “When I asked Kit, he just told me that he’d fucked up. He said he’d done something awful, but would no talk about it. And then Thomas just… became a no-go subject.”
I bite my lip.
Clearly Thomas and Kit were keeping secrets from Tanis, but I don’t know why. I don’t see the point of it; I trust Tanis. I trust her more than Thomas, at least, and there’s so many layers to this that it’s hard to keep them straight. Glancing at Thomas again, I lean in.
“Thomas said Kit tried to kill him.”
“Kit wouldn’t do that,” I say forcefully, shaking my head. “I don’t care what Thomas says, it’s not true.”
“I’m not sure I fully believe it either,” Tanis says with a worried frown. “I don’t think Thomas is lying — he doesn’t do that. I mean, he lies. He lies all the time, but not about something that big. I mean…” she pauses, and looks at Thomas again. “I know Kit has his… moods. But he’s not violent.” She pauses and furrows her brow, as if reconsidering her words. “Well… I guess rather, it’s the Thomas of it all I don’t believe. If Kit did try to kill someone, it wouldn’t have been him.”
Tanis looks suddenly deeply guilty.
“I mean, Kit has always been a sharply soft touch, you know?”
Protectiveness flares in my chest. “No, I don’t know.”
“I just mean… he feels things more strongly than others,” Tanis says. Her tone is soft, and I can hear the worry in her voice. “Things happen and he just buries them. Doesn’t work through them, you know? He’s always struggled a bit with it, I thought. Things build up and then sometimes they just come… bursting out in these big, mad displays. But there’s a far cry difference between depression and homicide.”
“Thomas seems more likely to be the killer of the two of them,” I say, looking at Thomas again. Tanis sighs and looks over as well.
“I dunno. Sometimes I think they’re both capable of more than I expect. I remember once when we were all kids, there was this awful fight because Kit thought that O—”
Tanis breaks off her sentence with a surprised cry, just as I jump to my feet.
Thomas has disappeared.
One moment he was there, sleeping, and then the next the air around him rippled and pulsed and he disappeared, the book in his lap falling to the ground with a soft thunk.
“What the fuck just happened?” Tanis shouts, racing into the den. “Did he just fucking teleport?”
“I didn’t know he could do that?” I ask, following.
“He can’t,” Tanis snarls, picking up the book he had been reading. She sniffs it and then sets it down. “That’s not a magician thing, as far as I know.”
“Then what happened? Where did he go?”
Tanis shakes her head, her eyes wide, and then kicks off her shoes.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to track him,” she says, hooking her hands under each side of her t-shirt and lifting it over her head. Suddenly she’s standing in front of me in her worn black jeans and a yellow bra. “Stay at the house, but listen for my signal — I’ll call to you if there’s anything wrong.”
Her jeans go next, and then she turns her back to me — apparently completely unconcerned by her frenzy to get her clothes off — and unhooks her bra. Her pants follow in quick order. Totally unprepared for the sudden pressure that’s building within me, I turn to the side and look away. Mum always said humans are weird about naked bodies.
I guess Tanis isn’t really human, but I give her privacy anyway.
That lasts all of two moments, however, because out of the corner of my eye, Tanis has started to change.
Her back is to me so I can see her spine twisting and curving, each nob jutting oddly and forcefully into her skin, and then suddenly she’s falling, collapsing to the floor in a smooth, fluid motion as her skin ripples and is replaced with fur. She gasps through the change, and then one harsh, keening cry sharpens and turns into a whine. In the space of two breaths she has gone from woman to wolf.
The hair on her back is mixed through with grey and white, tapering down to a soft brown on her legs and ears, and her nose twitches as she turns to stare at me evenly. The eyes are the same, though; bright green, shot through with wee flecks of yellow and one-hundred per cent Tanis.
I should be struck through with how impressive this is, or maybe by how painful it is for her to change her shape, or even with how fearsome she looks on all fours, her hackles raised, her jaw open in a snarl. But honestly all I can think about is how absolutely adorable she is as a wolf.
That’s probably a wildly inappropriate thing to think, but I can’t help it. I just love dogs.
“Oh,” I say, because that’s all I can manage.
Her nose twitches and an ear swivels around in a distinct expression of amusement, and then she’s padding through the den to the kitchen, scratching at the back door. I turn the handle for her and then she’s gone, bolting off through the night.
She told me to stay here, but there’s no way I’m letting her charge off alone.
I’m already wearing my parka, but I pull on the pair of rubber boots Kit keeps by the door and clatter down the steps. It’s completely dark out, with very little moonlight to reveal anything beyond the wee jut of grass leading to the coastline. I can hear the ocean and the tide coming in and out, and on a far cliff I can see the lights of the village and the lighthouse. But everything else is dark and still and quiet.
There’s a confusing flash of movement far down the coast, and then the unmistakable sound of a dog barking. Or rather, a wolf. Three sharp barks, punching through the night, then a long howl.
I take off running. My feet slip on the dew damp grass and I slide for a moment once I hit the rocks that denote the start of the beach, but I keep going, racing as fast as I can to the shoreline. It’s easier to see down here; the moon reflects more brightly off the water, casting a dim light on the beach.
Not far away from me are two shapes, and another staccato bark confirms that I’m heading in the right direction.
“Did you find him?” I call out, scrambling across the wet sand and rocks. For a moment it seems like they’re in the water, but then I see the jutting rocks of the causeway that Thomas and I were near earlier today, and I realise they’re not in the water, they’re just on that strange, rocky, semi-underwater bridge. Another bark. I’m close enough to see the shapes clearly now in the moonlight, revealing Tanis in her wolf shape, nudging at an unmoving body.
Thomas is sprawled out on the rocks, the water soaking through his thin t-shirt and the wind whipping through his hair.
“Is he dead?”
Tanis lets out a low whine and a chuff, then turns her back to us and surveys the coast line, her hackles up.
“Thomas?” I ask, kneeling down next to him and touching at his wrist. He’s cold, but there is a pulse there. “Thomas? Wake up.”
He doesn’t move.
“Wake up,” I say again, shaking him. He stirs slightly, but his eyes don’t open. “Oh come on, you absolutely useless, neurotic little lump, wake up!” I thump on his chest harder than I mean to, and his eyes flutter open, to my immense relief. He lets out a loud gasp as his hand shoots out to grab my wrist.
He looks at me for a moment and then his eyes go wide and he scrambles back in the water, digging in his heels to push away from me, his hands flying up to cover his face as a horrifying cry is ripped from his chest.
“Please don’t, please don’t hurt me,” he shouts. I sit down heavily in the water, the wind knocked out of me at his words.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say as softly as I can, reaching forward again slowly to pull his left arm away from his face. My hand skates across his cold, wet skin and I can feel the raised tissue of his scar. “Thomas, it’s me. It’s Isla. And Tanis.”
Thomas lowers his arms, but his eyes look hunted and he’s still breathing hard.
“Isla? I — sorry, I thought I saw…”
“The shadow things?” I ask, and he shakes his head. Tanis gently noses at his elbow and makes a soft chuffing noise.
“No, not shadows, it was…” he shakes his head again, as if trying to dispel whatever he saw. “I’m sorry. Can you… do you think you can help me back to the house?”
I stand up and offer him my hand and he takes it, his long fingers gripping around my wrist as he pulls on my weight to get himself standing. He’s soaked through and shivering, his black t-shirt clinging to him.
It’s the second time today I’ve pulled him out of the water here. I hope this doesn’t become a recurring thing.
“Put this on,” I say, pulling off my parka and passing it over. He tries to put his arm through it, but he’s shaking so badly that he misses, and nearly stumbles. “Okay, hold on,” I say, draping it over his shoulders and buttoning the top button.
“Come on, let’s get back. You can lean on me. One foot at a time, yeah?” I tell him as cheerily as I can manage. “And don’t push me in. I don’t know if I can swim in this body.”
Thomas doesn’t laugh, but he shivers a bit harder, which may indicate amusement, and we continue to carefully slip back over the rocks until we’re off the causeway.
I didn’t know he could teleport. I wish he’d fucking told me. We could have saved so much time and energy walking up the fucking hill to get to the pub.
Once on firmer ground, he finds his legs enough to stumble over the sea wall and up the grassy slope to Kit’s yard. Tanis streaks in front of us, still a wolf, and darts into the house, her nose still going as if searching out danger. She doesn’t bark or howl, so I assume it’s safe and I follow her in.
By the time Thomas and I clear the kitchen, Tanis is back in her human form and wearing the large jumper that’s been sitting over the radiator. She looks up from tugging her pants back on and gestures toward Kit’s bedroom with her head.
“Put him in the bed,” she instructs, and comes up to support Thomas’s other side as we help him to the bedroom. It’s wee and cramped and nowhere near as tidy as the rest of Kit’s house. I didn’t make the bed when I got up this morning, but Thomas is so out of it that he doesn’t notice the rumpled sheets.
“Arms up,” Tanis instructs, and Thomas complies, his eyes still closed and his forehead scrunched up as if in pain. He mutely lifts his arms and lets Tanis pull his soaking t-shirt off. “Now your jeans,” she instructs. I expect him to snap at her or growl something out, but instead he just undoes his flies and kicks off his jeans and crawls up to the pillows, which makes me unspeakably scared. I’m not sure how to handle a docile, compliant Thomas.
“I’m going to stay with him tonight, just in case something is wrong,” she whispers, pulling the blanket over Thomas’s shoulders. “If he disappears again, I want to know.” He flinches at the sound of her voice.
“I’ll stay too,” I say, pulling the pile of clothes off the chair next to the bed and settling myself in it. I drag one of the three blankets piled on Kit’s bed off the end of the mattress and wrap it around myself. “I want to grill him when he wakes up about what the fuck just happened.”
“You and me both,” Tanis says, standing up to close the door. She leaves it slightly ajar, and in the dim light spilling in behind her, her golden hair glows with a hazy red halo. It’s almost the same colour of the russet spots of her fur.
“Watching you shift was brilliant,” I whisper. “Do all baobhan sith look like that?”
Tanis settles in bed next to Thomas and pulls the blankets over her lap. “I dunno. It’s just my mum, my aunt and me.”
“In your family?”
“Of my race.”
“Oh.” My face heats. I can’t imagine being one of the only selkies left. There’s loads of us; dozens of herds, and even more of us on land. There are so many herds out there that I can’t even begin to imagine a life on the coast without selkies nearby. “I’m sorry.”
Tanis shrugs and picks at the blanket.
“It’s the way of things now,” she whispers, deliberately casual. “Those of us in the lowlands got chased out by industry. My family has always been on the island, though — Mab is small, but it’s been good to us.” I track the the movement of her fingers as they slide around the soft edge of blanket. She rubs the wool between her thumb and forefinger. “But it’s rare for us to be born, and the vengeance killing business isn’t exactly booming these days, so….”
“That seems so lonely.” I blush, and try to take back my words. “I just meant, you were made for one thing, and now you don’t do it anymore, yeah? I mean, hunting down cheating men and slaughtering them, all that. And since it’s just the three of you….”
“It’s okay,” Tanis says, saving me from myself. “It is a bit, yeah. I don’t… I don’t necessarily enjoy being a baobhan sith. I’d rather be human, to tell you the truth.” She stares down into her lap. “Life is pretty long when you’re fighting an ongoing battle to survive.”
“How old are you?” I ask, holding my breath. I’m not sure how I’ll respond when she tells me what I know is coming — that she’s three hundred years old and has seen the rise and fall of mankind, that she’s glimpsed so much more in her life than I’ll ever imagine.
“I’m twenty-three. You?”
“Oh, uh, I’m twenty-four. Sorry, do you mean you just look twenty-three or you are twenty-three?”
“I am twenty-three. Why?”
I bite my lip, and Tanis’s blank expression cracks.
“Thomas did the same thing, you know. It took him ages to ask me, and I think he was worried that I was going to be like two hunners or something. But no, we have a normal life span. We’re not immortal. Unless you bury us under a cairn, we’re pretty hard to kill, though. But nah, we just live a bit longer, but so do selkies.”
“Oh,” I say, thoroughly humiliated. “Well, that’s good.” I look down at my lap and scratch my finger along the wooden arm of Kit’s bedside chair. “Selkies don’t live that long, though. At least, not once they give away their pelt and become human for good.”
“Do you not like being in human form, then?”
Her voice is soft and inquisitive, her gentle accent sliding over her words. She doesn’t sound like Kit, whose accent is so heavy it sits like a weight on your ears, or even Thomas, who sounds like he doesn’t belong anywhere. Sometimes when she’s very quiet, Tanis’s words sound like the wind and grass are whispering them right into your ears.
“I don’t,” I tell her honestly, still picking at the chair. “Being human is very uncomfortable. And it’s so lonely. Everyone is cold all the time and alone.”
Tanis is quiet. The radio and record player are still going in the other rooms, and I can hear Thomas’s uneven sleep breathing.
“I understand that,” Tanis whispers. “Being not human is lonely too.”
Thomas huffs and shifts in his sleep, pulling the blankets tighter around his chin, and Tanis smooths a hand across his forehead, pushing wet curls back. I wonder what that feels like. I wonder if her palms are soft or rough, if her skin is warm like a fire or cool like the ocean.
“We should let him sleep,” she whispers. I nod. I don’t want to sleep. I want to find Kit. I want to stop wasting time. I want to touch Tanis’s skin and see if it will warm me.
“Goodnight, Tanis,” I say, pulling the thin blanket up higher around me. “You make a very pretty dog.”
She scrunches her face up in an expression of mock horror and turns her back to me, the mattress shifting with the motion.
“Goodnight, Isla,” she whispers. “I imagine you make a very pretty seal.”