Cracked lines. Shattered glass. Light distorted through water, waves bent and twisted so my eyes do not understand. Grating like shearing metal and screeching tires. Fingernails across steel. And the sterile, gaunt scent of alcohol and latex.
I focus on sensations rather than sight. A hand grips my own, so hard I can feel bone against stiff bone. Papyrus skin and brittle fingers like bamboo. Tense, tight. Straps across my chest and arms. I don’t try to move. A pinprick in the crook of my elbow, a dull ache like the frozen cold of winter.
“Shizukani shite kudasi, kawai.” Silence, love. My mother’s voice wraps around me. “You’re safe, now.”
Safe from what?
I close my eyes. Images flash though my mind. Sounds. A siren’s howl cutting through the cold night. Francisco throwing some kind of liquid on me, trying to put out the flame. The chaos, screams, motion swirling around me, people moving and crying and shouting. The lapping warmth against my skin. Eyes the color of grey stone staring at me as I struck the match. Did it work, Silas? Is the portal closed? Are the shadows gone?
“We’ve got her on a strong dose of Clozaril,” a voice says, male, raspy, like the crinkle of aluminum foil. “She was likely experiencing a psychotic, hallucinatory episode. The drug will help suppress the hallucinations.”
The word echoes in my head. The hallucinations. The hallucinations. The hallucinations. It starts to lose meaning. What am I hallucinating?
“We’ll keep her on the ward for seventy-two hours minimum for observation.”
“What happens after that?” My mother’s voice, her slight accent, rife with worry. I roll my head to the side and open my eyes. Through the blur in my eyes, I see a man in a white coat is sitting across from my mother, talking to her, though my mother’s eyes are fixed on me.
“We’ll determine whether she needs inpatient or outpatient services, and what kind of therapy or drug program will work best.”
“I don’t understand. Why is she unhurt? She should have…” Her voice collapses into itself. “She should have burned alive.”
Because I’m a Pathfinder, mother.
“We’re every bit as surprised as you are, ma’am. My team and I will be doing everything we can to try to answer that question. But your daughter is lucky to be alive after what she did to herself.” It’s not about luck. “And we’re all incredibly fortunate that no one else was harmed.”
Guilt crashes into me. I didn’t think of that. Claire, Kalifa, Basi, Francisco. What could I have done to them? The monumental selfishness of what I’ve done knocks me over. I close my eyes again. I can’t face this.
Did it work? Are we safe from the shadows? Am I? If so, it will have been worth it.
My mother sighs, a sound that takes effort, a breath that seems to nestle into my chest and resound with sadness.
“Thank you, doctor.”
He doesn’t respond. I hear the rustle of clothes as he stands up, his hard-soled shoes against the floor, the click and whisper of the door closing behind him.
I open my eyes again, alert and aware now, too restless to pretend to sleep. The blur has faded. I can focus my eyes again. I practice, and pin them on my mother. Her head is still bowed, her shoulders heaving, sobs silently wracking her body. I open my mouth, to apologize, to comfort her, to say something, anything. But then she pulls her head back, wipes the tears from her cheeks, and opens her eyes.
They are black as coal-tar.
I freeze. Oh, god. Fear floods through my veins like quicksilver. I tense and feel my body start to quiver. What are they doing here? What are they doing in her? This is wrong! She stares at me as though not really seeing me, the blacks of her pupils indistinguishable from her irises.
“You did that.”
I whirl, twisting my head around to the other side of my hospital bed. The dark hair, long black lashes, and sharp jaw of Silas Voladores. He stands just behind the closed door, in the corner of the room, watching me. His eyes are like twin hawks, angling down for prey. There’s no warmth in them. He advances on me, predatory, and I instinctively draw back. I glance over at my mother, looking for comfort, for support, for help. But her eyes are leaking empty black tears, and she seems not to notice my fear.
“What do you mean?” There’s a tremor in my voice I can’t control.
“You let them into this world. You brought them here.”
“You lied to me, then,” I hiss as anger bubbles up into me. You told me what to do! I want to scream. But I am more afraid of him now than I ever was. I temper my words. “You told me we would close the portal. Together.” I pin him with my eyes, a mouse staring down an adder. Suddenly his gaze softens, his glare relents, and he steps up next to my bedside and crouches down next to me. The coldness on his face melts into tenderness. I meet his eyes, and realize they’re moss-green again. Not the cut steel they were at Claire’s. He takes my left hand in his and he is warm to the touch. Not the bitter cold his hands were before.
“Noomi,” he says, his voice soft like wind through autumn leaves, “you were deceived, yes. But not by me.”
I bite back the anger on my tongue. He traces circles across my palm with his fingertips. His eyes never leave my own. I cast a glance over at my mother, whose head is bowed once again, the sobs quieted. But she seems to have no perception of Silas’ presence, or of my speaking to the empty air.
The hallucinations, the hallucinations, the hallucinations. The word courses through my mind. It strikes me again that I’m having a conversation with someone who doesn’t exist in reality. But if they put me on a drug, wouldn’t that stop it? If this were an illusion, the medicine would make him go away, wouldn’t it?
“I freely acknowledge that it’s my fault,” he says, eyes round with concern and apology. “I should have known. I should have guessed this would happen, and I should have warned you. But I underestimated them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When you and I went to the shadow world together, they were able to record my image. When you were vulnerable, they sent an image to you. Mine. They created a projection of me and sent it you. But think, Noomi. Surely they didn’t get it exactly right. There must have been signs.”
“Yes,” I say, though my heart is sinking. I should have known. I should never have trusted him. The other. “Cold hands, not like yours. They were like ice. And your eyes. Yours are green.” This coaxes a thin smile from him. “His were grey. Stony. Metallic.”
He glances across at my mother, who seems to have drifted off, her head pressed against the bed, her hand still pressed against mine, though her grip has slackened.
“And now the shadows are here,” Silas says sadly.
“I should never have—”
“Stop. You could have done better, Noomi, yes. But this guilt isn’t yours.” My body seems ready to cleave in two. To crumble into dust. To fly like seedlings with the wind.
“Why should I trust you?” I whisper.
As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know it’s too late. I believe him. I can’t help it. My heart tells me this is him, the real Silas, not the illusion presented to me at Claire’s party. That was the hallucination. That was the illusion. His hands, so gentle, clench around mine. He takes my wrist between his fingers so firmly I have to fight the urge to pull back. I tense, but his eyes are soft and kind. He smiles at me. It changes his face as surely as the sun breaking through the clouds.
“You don’t have to trust me. You have to trust yourself.”