There’s a ghost in my bed. She’s crying. She is the first, and it has been three days since my Burning—a ritual of my people that resulted in an ashen wound down my back. It healed into the literal shape of a ship on a sea of smoke.
When Nylin saw the ship, she said she always knew I’d be a Ferrier. Nylin’s always right, of course, like most Watchers.
“Don’t take me,” pleads the ghost. “I can’t leave them. My family.”
“I have to,” I say.
The ghost stifles her tears and rubs at her cloudy face. “What’s your name?”
I tell her my name is Gavin, but it feels like a lie. I chose the name for myself two years ago and haven’t used it since. It feels foreign to my ears, in my own voice, but the ghost doesn’t seem to notice. The Disme people don’t need names before they turn eleven.
Her name is Sen. It feels soft, like the feathered edges of her soul.
Sen is maybe nine or ten. I don’t ask because I’ll know soon.
I pluck my dime off the stack of striped, folded tarp beside my bed. Nylin had given it to me, as well as the clothes on my back, the thin mattress beneath me, the lamp that burns only one simple shade of pulsing dim, like a heartbeat.
The dime fits perfectly in my palm, despite not being a perfect circle. It is more akin to a broken ten-piece than uniform currency. The cold metal weighs heavy in my palm and I try not to tremble with it.
I hold my palm flat between Sen and me, then I call my Disme Mark forth, the way Nylin taught me.
The burn comes off my naked back in a wave of chills, as if a cold finger is running a nail down my spine. I roll my shoulders, tense, and my spine pops. The sound echoes around my tent like canon fire. My Disme Mark coils and folds over my head in swirls of black smoke, like a hood being drawn.
It crawls down my face and creeps across my arm. The Mark plateaus on the dime displayed in my palm. It is an empty, silent ship, made of smoke and charred flesh. It is as real as I am.
My ship curls itself around Sen’s wispy, white frame, collecting her. With its first passenger, the Disme ship returns to me, pasting itself onto my back where it had been burned into me not three days before, on my thirteenth birthday.
Sen is no longer in my bed, but she isn’t gone. She is on my ship and for a time, I am ten.
I am thirteen, but I feel like I’m ten; the same age Sen was when she died.
I thrust my hands into the freezing river running around my ankles. Red dye is tugged off the linen canvas I’m scrubbing beneath the current. It stains the water, reflecting green trees and foliage, muddying it to a dense brown. The crisp air smells of pine and chemicals.
Nylin is working beside me, unfazed by the cold, dying canvas for a new tent in the Labyrinth. The hem of her white frock rests on the surface of the river and a strand of white hair brushes her wrinkled cheek.
“Where are we going next?” I ask, my teeth chattering around the words.
“Canada.” The thought makes me shiver. “There’s a portal there I haven’t been to in years.”
I nod to myself and continue working.
“Have you gotten any others? Besides the girl?”
I pause and glance at her. Nylin bunches the canvas and rubs it together. She doesn’t look at me. “Her name is Sen.”
“You spoke to her?” she asks.
“I did. Before.”
“Does she speak to you?”
I pause again and wait. I can feel Sen chuckling in my thoughts, lingering at the precipice between my Disme ship, where she now resides, and my mind. I welcome it and feel her age meld with mine. Ten. “Sometimes.”
Nylin makes a noncommittal grunt and dunks the canvas, sending up a splash. “And do you talk back?”
Don’t tell her. Sen’s voice in my mind startles me to stillness. She won’t like it.
I hear Sen’s words but ignore them. I clear my throat and dunk my own canvas. My feet are numb and my hands are stained a deep, terrible red. “Sometimes.”
Nylin turns and cuffs me on the side of the head with one, wet hand. “Hear me, boy. They are your charges, not your friends. They are on your ship long enough to be taken to their specific portals and that’s it. Don’t be getting close to them.”
Nylin cuffs me again, sharp and startling. “She’s dead, boy. You aren’t.” Nylin hunches over and wrings the water from her linen canvas. “She’ll be gone soon enough. Once we find her portal.”
I hunch my shoulders, shaking all over from the cold and from Sen in my thoughts. Her sorrow is worked into me like a piece of twisted thread. “But, what if Sen wants to stay? What if she doesn’t want to enter her portal?”
Nylin keeps her head down and her voice flat. “She will.”
I am seventeen, but he is twenty-six; my newest passenger.
The Disme Labyrinth has set up in Southern Europe on the tip of a boot. Amongst the tall, striped tents and milling patrons, I see a blonde. He likes blondes.
I follow her into the maze.
The blonde stops at a fork in the Labyrinth. I stand in a shadow cast by a swaying tarp striped red and crystalline grey. She contemplates left into a shadowed passageway, or right towards a hidden chamber. Her friends had gone left, trailing ribbons and bitter coffee in painted cups, but the blonde chooses different, as I hoped she would.
Gavin, don’t. Sen’s words come to me but they’re distant, like a foreign breeze. She tries to insert herself between me and the urges of my newest passenger, but her efforts are for naught.
The blonde turns down a darkened corridor of the Labyrinth. I cannot see her, but I can smell her, fresh herbs and sweet cigar smoke. I reach for her.
A crawl creeps down my spine; someone else’s Mark, watching me. I cannot see the other’s Marks when they’ve been called, but I can feel them, sharp and intrusive.
I let the blonde get away and turn to see who is watching me.
In total darkness, I am cuffed on the side of the head. A yelp escapes my lips. I am seventeen, I tell myself. Seventeen.
“You know better, boy,” Nylin’s voice rasps, almost screeches. “The eyes on my back are always on yours. I’m always watching.” Where my Disme Mark is a ship, hers is an owl. And watch, she does.
“I was just…”
She cuffs me again with the flat of her hand. It startles me, rocking my already absent vision.
Despite the dark, I can picture her face, scrunched and wound tight like aged leather. Yellow eyes, sharp as the edge on newly pressed paper.
“You and they aren’t the hat and the rabbit. You are the magician, this,” she swats at my back, “is the card up your sleeve. They are the faces on the card. Not a dime more, you hear me?”
“Yes ma’am,” I say to the dark. Nylin reels back her Disme, taking my shudder and breath with her.
“Don’t give in to them,” she breathes. “It won’t end well for any of you.”
The Disme Labyrinth has ten passages, ten pathways, ten dead-ends, ten games, ten riddles, ten displays by ten Disme Marked, ten hidden chambers…and an eleventh.
The eleventh chamber is not for them.
It sits at the exact center of the maze, surrounded by the tents of the other Disme Marked.
I walk the outer perimeter of the eleventh chamber thrice. No opening.
A few patrons have made it this far. I pass them with my head low and continue my walk around the tent. Once the last patron has left with the fading daylight, I stop. I am alone.
I walk backward around the outer tarp wall of the eleventh chamber. The ocean-blue sky is bled through with black ink. The white flecks of stars glide forward as I walk back, as if they are stones being pushed in a river.
The way opens.
I step into the eleventh chamber. The portal here is as different as the one in Istanbul is from the one on the coast of Southwest Japan. They are each unique, all seven hundred, twenty-one of them. Different souls belong in different places.
I drop to my knees beside a vortex of wind and earth. Though violent and ground-splitting, the wind doesn’t even rustle my hair or fan the open collar of my gray shirt.
I place my dime face down in my open palm. I call the Disme Mark from my back and it obeys. The ship settles onto the dime, docking there.
Only one is disembarking this time, the oiled soul of a charred creature better left in tales of woe and warning. Tet had slain the creature in a dock-side alley before we left Singapore. Monster and man alike, I collect every soul. Even those I don’t want to. Even those that don’t want to be ferried.
The creature disembarks my ship and is collected into the wild chasm below. A weight comes off my back, my chest, but a stain remains. I am eighteen, but I had been three-thousand, sixty-one.
The eleventh chamber is for me.
When it’s quiet, Sen begs me to find her portal.
“I will soon,” I promise. She knows I don’t believe my words and I let her sorrow flood me. I deserve it.
Why the show? she asks. Why set up a full Labyrinth with games and customers and libations, just to open a portal?
I stretch out on the mattress in my tent and stare up into the point where stripes of red and grey converge. It’s peaceful, for my ship is once again empty, save for Sen. “Nylin says it’s safer this way. The Disme ritual for opening a portal takes hours, precise measurements, and the use of our Marks. Hiding inside our tents calls less attention.”
I guess that makes sense, Sen says. But, the customers…
I chuckle. “We can’t very well set up a traveling Labyrinth and take no customers. That would be suspicious.” I draw in a breath and sigh. “Besides, we need the money, to get from place to place.”
Has it always been this way?
I nod, though Sen can’t see it. “My people were once troubadours in France. Then players in Greece. In recent centuries, the other Disme groups have had circuses, bands, theatre acts. Anything that allows us to travel and set up where we need to.”
There are more of you out there?
“Yes.” I swallow. “There are a lot of dead, Sen. A lot that need to be captured and ferried.”
Captured? she says.
“The creatures….” I trail off and roll onto my side. I try to stifle the shudder threatening to work me over.
Are we going to sleep?
“Yes, Sen. I’m tired.” I close my eyes and latch onto the calm of her. I think she’s humming.
I paint them, sometimes. I sit on the pallet in my train car, or the bed in my tent, pushing and pulling the ground corpses of insects or the dust of rocks, bound in linseed oil, over stretched canvas.
On a good day, they are each distinct. I paint the old man who went in his sleep, playing music for the dragon slain in Egypt. I paint the young lady who fell down a flight of stairs, dealing cards to a rabid wolf that was put down. I paint a girl picking mushrooms, with the Storm Weaver the triplets had trapped at the mouth of a Hawaiian volcano.
Today is not a good day.
I paint them all the way I see them on my ship. I call it “my ship,” pretending that these souls are not a piece of me. A tenth of me, to be precise.
I paint four heads and three faces. There are too many legs, not enough eyes. Tentacles, fangs instead of ears, claws instead of smiles. I paint them like this when I cannot tell the frantic child from the hungry beast, the breath of fire from the wail of tears.
On a good day, when my mind is clear, it’s almost worse.
On a good day, I know them. I know what they are and the pieces that make them. I paint them enjoying each other’s company and exchanging smiles. These paintings are like my ship, just smoke.
I wonder if it’s Sen who spoke, then reality dawns. I turn from my canvas, brush still poised with a glaze of red paint. Meadow is standing in the doorway of my tent. I can smell her, even over the pungent oil reeking of fish eggs. She smells like her name, warm, fresh, and subtly sweet, like honey. Her Disme Mark is a rope.
She is too tall and too thin, like her brothers. Her canary-yellow hair hangs limp around her narrow shoulders as she looks at the canvas on my easel. She usually smiles at me, but now she is wearing a tight frown on a long face. “There’s another.”
I follow Meadow to a river off the coast of Southeast Asia.
The corpse of a massive squid rests at Dell’s feet. He is holding his dime out to the creature, and I’m certain his Disme Mark has been called, keeping the creature’s soul still, powerless. I cannot see the Mark, but I can imagine the towering redwood, made of char and smoke like my ship, pinning the beast beneath it.
I get closer, my hand in my pocket, fingering my own dime. “Take him down yourself?” I ask.
“Her,” Dell corrects, pushing the copper hair from his brow. “Tet was here, but he had to get back to the Labyrinth for readings.”
I move closer to the squid. Her soul is so red it’s almost crimson, a struggling cloud of red haze.
I pinch the dime from my pocket and place it my palm. I tremble and offer Sen a silent apology. “Release her.”
The squid’s red soul squirms to get away but my Disme is faster. The ship crashes around my head, startling my hair. The black tendrils of smoke capture the red soul, encasing it in an ashen prison. Still the soul writhes and fights against the barrier of my Disme Mark.
The Mark returns to my back, stitching itself there in slow, painful pieces. The squid fights, ripping newly joined Mark to flesh. It feels like nothing but a sting from a bee or a shock from a door handle. The true pain is in my mind, where the squid is warring with the lad who overdosed in Ireland. I feel Sen scream.
I am one hundred, fifty-four.
The allure of Labyrinth Disme is mystery.
The people come to walk the maze of tarp and tent. They come to see the odd folk that work inside its passages and chambers, hosting games and besting impossible acts. They come to see the magic that any sane person would disregard as a trick of the light, smoke and mirrors.
We remain in one city long enough to hunt and harvest, then we disappear. Our arrival is never announced, and we leave nothing behind but dead souls in hidden portals.
When Count is healing from a bite, broken leg, or other injury, I work the ticket counter.
A father of three daughters steps to my window and tips his hat. “Say, do you offer a military discount?”
“No,” I say. “Our prices are fair.”
He leans an elbow on the counter. “How about this one time, son? I got my girls here, all wanting cocoa and churros. Stuff gets expensive.”
I flare. “Fuck off, you…”
I am clasped on the shoulders and jerked back into the booth. I stumble and fall on my ass, into a pile of tarp and ribbon.
Nylin moves to the window and apologizes to the man, handing him four tickets, free of charge. She closes the window and pulls in a long breath. The owl burn on her back stares into me with knowing eyes.
She won’t face me. “I know it’s hard, boy. I know it. But you got to keep them tied down. Can’t have you lashing out at the locals. Talk like that brings questions we can’t answer.” She glances at me over her shoulder. “Stop letting them in.”
I am nineteen, I remind myself. I am nineteen.
She is warm astride me, beneath me. She has dark hair and green eyes that are mute in the dim of night. Distant music meets my ear; the sawing of Glade’s cello.
My hand trails over her knee, and glides down the length of her thigh. Real. Flesh. Warmth. My own heart beats in my palm as I touch her, in my lips as I press them again her neck, her collar, her chest. She hooks her leg around my back.
She moans when I push into her, but it sounds like a scream. Her soft, warm hand tangles in my hair and cups my neck, but it feels cold. She digs her nails into my back, but they feel like claws. She rolls me over to straddle my hips, but I feel pinned. She breathes my name, but it sounds like a cry. Like battle.
When we finish she is so still that I expect to see her soul rise from her body. She takes a breath and rolls over to place a languid hand on my back. I know what she’s doing before the single finger begins tracing my skin. I let her.
“Is this a tattoo?” she asks. “Or…”
Her intake of breath is as sharp as the minor cord Glade hits on his cello outside my tent. I watch the pulsing lamp breathe in tune to the melody. Warm. Real. I am nineteen.
“But, it’s so dark. How’d you get it?”
“I was taken into a clearing by an owl when I was thirteen. She, an elephant, a pentacle, and a tree strapped me hand and foot to four posts. An ocean poured oil down my back then a crow set it ablaze with a torch wrapped in sage.” I say it because it’s true; because it’s absurd.
She rolls away from me, onto her back in laughter. “You carnival folk are so strange.”
Carnival folk, not quite. Strange, she has no idea.
I would kiss her, but I can’t remember her name. My ship is brimming with passengers and they threaten to overtake me. Cold. False. “You should go.”
A fury radiates from her that’s almost as palpable as the frost within me, but she leaves my tent. I roll onto my back.
You were cruel to her.
It’s rare for Sen to surface these days. She’s always there, probing gently, curious but not wanting to intrude; no matter how often I tell her that I enjoy her company. She’s been with me the longest, after all, and the others pay no attention to living age when they are all dead. They see only the hierarchy, of which, Sen is at the top.
When she surfaces, the rest quiet, and it’s peaceful.
“No crueler than I usually am,” I say, rubbing my face.
She could die, you know, Sen says in my thoughts. On her way home from here. Before she even leaves the lot. And the last thought she’ll have will be about you tossing her away without a smile and a kiss.
“I kissed her plenty.”
Sen’s scoff is hollow. Cold. False.
“Leave it be.”
Her sigh is worse; piercing and deep. You don’t love them, do you?
“You wouldn’t understand.” The abrupt silence leaves me feeling empty and tight as I wait for the madness to rush in around Sen’s departure. But it doesn’t come, not yet.
At least you’re alive, she whispers. While I’m stuck here with dregs and beasts, waiting for you to find my portal and take me home.
There is a demon in this city.
I follow Tet, Glade, and Count into a small marsh of dirt roads and boarded windows. The wet air touches my skin and rolls down my face in beads. I can smell the life, the death, and the dying, all rolled into a reheated plate of left-over casserole surprise.
The demon is dealing with a five-tailed fox, its back to us.
Gavin. Please. Don’t.
I try to shut Sen out, but it’s no use. I feel her fear as authentically as I feel my own. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper.
Tet, Glade, and Count each glance at me, their tired faces scrutinizing, questioning. I draw away from them, just slightly. They are Disme hunters; officers to my prison guard. They wouldn’t understand.
Count nods to me then releases his Disme first, slowing time to a glacial pace. Glade releases his next and the marsh concaves around the demon. The fox sprints away.
Tet’s Disme is slight and swift. It cuts through the demon before it has time to turn and address its attackers.
Then, it’s my turn. My Disme ship glides through the resistant air. It absorbs the demon whole like a paper towel to water. My ship returns and the demon is in me. I am more than a million.
“There’s a griffin down South and a serpent out West,” Tet says, rubbing his hands. “Dealer’s choice.”
“Tin will pick the griffin,” Count mutters, pushing his dime into his pocket.
The demon in me flares like fire, running rampant around my ship. I try to follow Sen, to make sure she’s safe, but there are too many passengers. I twitch. “The serpent,” I say, hoping it could wrangle this monster. I am too much.
I am twenty-one.
Tin’s hidden chamber is third in the Labyrinth. He divulges hidden secrets, historical tales, truths of creation; but like everything else in Labyrinth Disme, it is a trick of burned abilities.
He has a following in every major city, from New York to Tel Aviv. They come with questions of love and longing, wellness, both physical and monetary, questions about their heritage, their god, their unborn children. Tin, the showman that he is, answers them.
We are in Australia, I think. I can never be sure.
The hour is so late that even the stragglers are departing the Labyrinth, finding exit routes far easier than they had found entrances. A tip to Penny’s Disme, no doubt.
I wander into Tin’s chamber and sit across from him. There are candles burning on a multitude of open surfaces. My face is flush in the cramped space, a perfect circle with not stripes on the tent walls but tall numerals. Ticking clocks sit on the floor, hang from strung wires, and sit perched on wooden stilts. An open homage to his Mark.
“You come with questions,” Tin says in his monotone voice.
I wave a hand in front of his tired face. “It’s me.”
It takes him a moment. “Oh, Gavin. What can I do you for?”
I tilt my head to one side. “Where were you just now?”
“The Garden of Eden,” he says. “I was enjoying the fruit.”
I wonder if he’s making a joke.
“And you? Who are you right now?”
“Me and myself.” I am twenty-one. I am twenty-one.
Tin smiles and nods, cording his face into wrinkles. He isn’t as old as he appears, though his eyes have been fogged over for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wondered if he’s blind, in the conventional sense, but I’ve never asked.
“You’ve come about a girl,” Tin mutters, standing just enough to bend at the waist and crack his back. He sinks onto his seat with a lanuginose sigh.
“The girl,” I say.
“Ah, Sen. I thought you two were still in a row.”
“A constant.” Not that we fight often, of course. I have a job to do; to get Sen safely to her portal. A job I haven’t succeeded at.
Tin chuckles. “Still not so hot with the ladies?”
My cheeks warm with the flickering candlelight. “Sen isn’t a lady…so to speak.”
“A girl is a girl is a girl.”
Tin cracks his knuckles. “What do you want to know?”
“I was wondering if you could find her portal.”
To my surprise, Tin frowns at me. I watch his lip draw up and quiver slightly before he composes himself. “Sure, son. I’ll have a look.”
The elf has the boar by the tusks. I am ninety-four. I am eight.
The pixie is clenched around the throat by the hunter. I am two-hundred, seventeen. I am forty-three.
The Siren is singing to the black dog. I am. I am.
Their battles fade, falling away into the cavernous background and playing like a soft din of strings over rowdy dinner guests. This is familiar to me.
Gavin, Sen breathes.
“You’re back,” I exhale.
I never went anywhere.
I know that. I can feel her there, just on the edge, always.
But you. You want to send me away.
“I thought that’s what you wanted.” The demon is gone but the others on my ship are belligerent; warring with each other out of fear and rage. Sen is hiding below deck. She holds her knees to her chest and rests her head against the wall. She says nothing, and I feel her begin to drift. “Sen, don’t go, just…stay, awhile.”
She does, serving as a barrier between madness and me. It’s just a matter of time, I tell myself, until something truly awful happens to her…something worse than dying; but I don’t say this aloud. Sen already knows. She doesn’t speak into the silence for a long while. Not until I close my eyes.
If I were…out there…would you…with me?
Her pauses vibrate like little hums in my thoughts and it makes me laugh.
Don’t laugh. Not at me.
I bite my lip. “Would I what with you, Sen?” I try to picture her how she is now, older, and not the ten-year-old waif that had leveled on my bed in the guise of a white haze. I try to picture her real. Warm.
How you are with the other women?
“No,” I state, rolling my shoulders into the mattress. “I fuck other women, Sen. It wouldn’t be that way with you.” I regret the crassness in my words as soon as they leave my dry lips. The raw honesty pins Sen silent, fading.
“You are my only calm. My only reprieve. Sen…”
I catch myself. “Nothing.”
Is it nice, to be in bed with someone?
She would be eighteen now. She would have suitors of her own, boyfriends and the like, taking her for dates and dances, meeting parents and family. If she wasn’t dead. “It is.”
I envy you that.
“Envy is a beautiful color on you.”
She scoffs. You wouldn’t know. You’ve never seen me before. Just…this.
“Then tell me. What did you look like?” Did. The ugliest of words. Worse even than why.
Sen tells me about her long, dark hair in curls and braids. She tells me about her freckles, her blue eyes. She tells me about the blush on her skin, the way her smile caught the light. She tells me everything until I fall asleep.
Tet spreads the cards across a low table in his chamber. The hour is late, and Penny is knitting in the corner.
The cards are always different and today is no exception. Tet uses the cards for patrons, a visual to fill the gap between his Disme and the customer’s ignorance. His Disme Mark is a well.
Tet rubs his chin. “It’s hard to tell with you. Reversals oppose the original meaning, but, in your case, a reversal could speak to…well…”
“The dead souls inside me?”
Tet nods once. “What are you carrying these days? Besides Sen.”
What, because they are things and not people.
“A man,” who died of a gunshot wound at the hands of his wife’s lover. “Three ladies,” who died in a car accident at the hands of a high, semi-truck driver. “A Chimera, a Hell Hound, a Minotaur, two Fauns, and a water Nymph.”
Tet scrunches his brow down at the cards, as well as the open air between us. “That doesn’t sound so bad. The cards look worse.”
“Yeah, well, the Nymph is trying to seduce the man, while the Chimera is torching one of the ladies. The Hell Hound is feasting on the Minotaur who has another lady pinned by her throat, and the two Fauns are chasing the third lady around with pan flute music that sounds like gravel grating, a high whistle, and nails on a chalkboard.”
Tet stares at me.
“Oh, and there’s a guy with some sexual disorder masturbating to the whole scene.” But Sen is safe.
I glance over at Penny whose hands have stilled. Her eyes are wide beneath the frame of her pixie cut. She stands abruptly, drops her knitting and announces, “Closing time,” before all but running from the tent.
I am twenty-four. I am ten.
Sen stays with me. She follows me to the eleventh chamber. She sees portal after portal from the bow of my Disme ship and every time she is left behind. With me.
“This portal is for the damned,” I tell her.
“This is for the purest of heart.”
“This for the children younger than you had been.”
“This for those who don’t belong.”
“For those that did but do no longer.”
“For the cursed.”
Not even this one? she asks.
“You aren’t weak,” I tell her.
I was ten when I died. Surely, I was.
The Disme Mark returns to my back. The Jin wrangling the clock maker. I am endless. I am time.
I ask Nylin who will ferry me when I die. I ask her if I will live forever.
She doesn’t know.
Tin finds me. He has been avoiding me lately.
I circle the eleventh chamber. The stripes of red and grey are dull in this smog-infested city. It clings to my skin, my hair, the inside of my nose, the roof of my mouth. It is thicker than my Mark and muddies the already frantic static in my head.
“You found it,” Tin says.
I glance up at him and stop pacing.
There are patrons here, pointing and smiling, exchanging chatter. I wait for them to disperse; for my heart to stop pattering like a damn machine gun. “Here?”
Tin’s face is sallow. He nods.
I look back at the eleventh chamber with no entrance and no door. I tilt my head to look at the sun, still up but not high enough.
I chew at my lip and my hands shake. I stuff them into my pockets and my feet begin to tap. “I’m not ready.”
Tin nods again, sullen. “Is she?”
I shake my head, though it’s a lie. Of course, she’s ready. She’s been ready for eleven years. But me…
“Call her up, son. You need to tell her.” Tin turns, leaving me alone at the eleventh chamber of the last portal, at the center of Labyrinth Disme.
“Sen,” I say, butchering her name around the collapse in my throat. I clear it. “Sen?”
The way my name rings in her voice makes me bite my lip. I want to lie. I want to tie her down and keep her there, just there, at the in-between. I need her there, to keep me safe, to keep me sane. To keep me.
What is it?
I swallow. “We’re here.”
I walk backward and the sun falls. I walk backward, and the way opens.
This portal is feather soft of powder blue and yellow dust. It is clean, warm, and blinding to my own eyes.
I kneel beside it, longing to smell the strawberry fields and roasted cherries I know must be inside. I long to see the sun-drenched landscape, lush and green, the skies dotted with air balloons and clouds no thicker than a ribbon. I long to hear Sen laugh, running in an open meadow. I long.
I tap at the dime in my pocket. I had hoped to find it lost or misplaced, but no, it’s there, like always.
“Are you ready?”
I think so.
My hands are sweating. I pull the dime from my pocket. My hands tremble. I place the dime just so. I grind my teeth. My Disme Mark comes free and I close my eyes.
Gavin. Come with me. Please.
As much as I want to, I cannot board my own ship or take a portal not meant for me.
But the strawberry fields. The blue skies. Sen.
She disembarks my ship, falling from me like a lurch in my stomach. I linger, waiting for her to come back, to simply return as sudden as she had left, but she doesn’t.
I am left alone with the raging beasts and monsters at the forefront of my mind, the ship returned.
I am left alone wondering who will ferry me when I die. Will I die? Or will I simply be this madness for all time? “They are your charges,” Nylin had said. “Not your friends.” I bury my face in my hands. What am I without Sen?
“Gavin?” The voice is soft and warm. Real.
I turn and there they are.
Meadow stands at the center, a true smile on her face. Nylin is there too, beside Tet and Tin, Glade and Count. All of them.
“Nylin made dinner,” Meadow says. “Are you coming?”
Even Penny is smiling at me.
My eyes wander over their faces; considerate, knowing. I tremble as I stare at them, burying this ache and longing for Sen. Their faces hold no fear as they look on me, no judgement, no sorrow; only compassion. I consider each of them and their lack of understanding. But still, they’re here.
“Come along now,” Nylin says. “It’ll be going cold soon.”
I look from her to Meadow and back again, then push to my feet. I turn my back on Sen’s portal and with an indrawn breath, I let it close. I close my eyes and a tear rolls down my cheek as I tell myself again and again that Sen is safe. Without me, she is safe.
I open my eyes and Nylin frowns. She closes the space between us and I brace for a cuff or chastisement, for I surely deserve it. She reaches up and cups my cheek in one, trembling hand. Her yellow eyes consider me, soft and gentle. “I’m so sorry, my boy.” Nylin wraps her arms around me and I let her. I hug her back and press my face against her shoulder, where I weep through my smile.