‘What’s it about?’
Curt looked down at her, still flicking through the channels, passing over sexy soap operas, infomercials and fairyland reality cop shows.
‘The Simpsons if Homer were a middle manager at a sexporium is the best way I can describe it.’
She looked up at him. ‘Why do you even know what’s on fairy TV?’
‘You should sit up if you don’t want to go to sleep.’
‘I’m good right here.’
‘It’s…it’s part of my reeducation process, I guess. Once I converted over to the good guys, I thought it would be best if I took a fresh look at everything. There’s only so much time you can spend in the gym, or taking voluntary patrols or whatever.’
He stopped when he saw the bright animation of the show, but turned the volume down. ‘Ever notice me hanging around with any of the other recruits? Ever notice them volunteering to be partnered up with me? I don’t have any friends here.’
‘You got me.’
‘Yeah, I do. Before though…gym, patrols, assignments, I needed something else. Started studying fairyland, thought it would give me an edge when applying for the aide position. They stream fairyland TV in the library, so I used to watch it while studying.’
‘…how is it that you can keep denying that you’re a closeted geek?’
‘Because I still don’t understand half of what comes out of your mouth.’
‘You didn’t tell me if I did a good thing or a bad thing.’
Stef jumping conversation tracks, so normal for her, but still so hard to predict – it was like verbal whiplash. He muted the TV and gave a shrug. ‘I can’t tell you yet. The fallout from this is going to be massive, you’ve got to know that.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Assuming we can do damage control, that we can keep her hidden, we can minimise the utter shitstorm that’s brewing, it’s going to be hard though.’
‘I thought about keeping her down here.’
‘Smart. Out of system territory, so even if she’s found, she’s safe. We’re screwed, but she’s safe.’
She gave a big sigh. ‘Do you see the same problem I do?’
He nodded. ‘Yeah. People will start noticing if Ryan is going down to fairyland every day.’
‘Yeah,’ she said, defeat in her voice, ‘pretty much. I’ve got an alternate though. My old apartment, the Agency is already picking up the bill – Ryan stole it from me while I was dead, which I’m pretty sure is illegal, but whatever. And, it’s my place, so it’s not going to be weird if he’s going there.’ She smiled. ‘Besides, I never go back there, my home’s the Agency now, I was only holding on to it out of habit, and because I kept my stuff there.’
‘That would work.’
‘Please tell me I did good.’
‘Yeah, newbie, you did good. I just hope it stays good.’
He unmuted the television and turned up the volume. ‘I’ve seen this one,’ he said as watched Ollit stuck in a window, Winnie-the-Pooh style before shrinking and escaping from his justifiably-angry wife. Ollit buzzed around, just out of her reach, trying to argue the investment value of lottery tickets.
He heard snoring.
‘Sleep well, newbie,’ he said as he turned the volume down to just audible, and turned on the subtitles. He pulled off his jacket and dropped it over her – it had to be cleaner than the sheets.
After the episode finished, he channel surfed, watched a pundit argue for the unified fae currency; five minutes of a live pursuit, ending with the perp crashing into into the seventeenth floor of an office building, wings twisted; a gnome meditation show, which was barely more intesresting than the landscape channel; then found another Ollit episode.
Five minutes in, after a strange soloquiy among his drinking buddies that started off as an extended metaphor comparing women to beer, and ended up as a speech about taxes, a scream drowned out the fairy’s attempts to fly home.
He turned off the TV, and shook Stef’s shoulders. She didn’t wake up. He shook her harder, and she still screamed. He clamped his hand over her mouth. ‘Hey, newbie, wake up.’
She screamed against his hand. ‘Stef, wake up.’
He looked away from her to the thin walls – they were soundproof enough to hide the clandestine sex that kept the lights running in the cheap hotel, but he wasn’t convinced that it would stand up to tortured screams.
He took his hand away from her mouth for a moment, grabbed her discarded uniform shirt from the end of the bed and tore away one of the sleeves. He wadded the material and forced it into her mouth. She still screamed, or tried to, but the noise was gone.
He stood, kicked his shoes off, but left the socks – somehow, unless he had warning, he never managed to get his socks off in time – and small touches of reality were good. He pulled his pants off, stomped on them for a moment, then put them back on – buttoned, but his fly undone. He discarded his vest and tie, undid all the buttons on his shirt, then rebuttoned it haphazardly, askew, and left half the buttons open.
He looked down at himself and gave a small nod of approval – all in all, he looked like any other client of the hotel. He grabbed his bank card, the room key card, gave Stef, one more look, then left the room.
He bounded down the stairs, hoping to add to his just-had-sex, out-of-breath appearance, and knocked on the front desk.
The clerk took a minute to appear, then came through from the back room, a large container cup from Famous Fry’s in his hand. ‘Done already?’
‘Just getting started, you said you had toys, what you got?’
The fairy opened the small gate and ushered him into the back room.
A wall of whips, chains and cuffs stared back at him. He ignored the masks and aprodesiacs.
‘Looking for something special?’
‘Looking for something new,’ he said. ‘Got any mutemasks?’
The fairy unlocked a small cabinent. ‘Just the one. Six hundred.’
He stared at the low-quality mutemask – the price was at least three times what was worth. ‘Seems fair,’ he said. ‘Need me to reswipe?’
‘Nah, you’re good.’
He took the mask, and ran back up the stairs. He ran the room card over the sensor and closed the door behind him. She was still screaming against the impromptu gag.
He carefully extracted the torn sleeve before snapping the mutemask in place over her face. He swivelled the gas canister at the base to break the seal, and there was a hiss of air as it began to pump oxygen into the mask.
The mutemask – low quality or not, soaked up every decibel of her screams.
If she’d been screaming the whole time he’d been gone, then it was fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes and she still hadn’t woken herself up. Fifteen minutes, and he still couldn’t wake her.
He expected thrashing, for her to throw herself side to side and off the bed. She wasn’t. She was twitching, small movements, hands opening and closing, feet twisting.
She was in pain.
She was screaming and she was in pain. Russia all over again. He wanted to hold her – it was so wrong to be sitting by and doing nothing. Useless, he was being fucking useless again.
He reached out for her shoulder, and she flinched like he was toxic. A lump formed in his throat, but he ignored it. He laid down on his own pillows, held her hands, and waited for it to be over.
Thirty minutes later, her eyes opened.
She flailed away from him, pulling at the mask, trying to rip it away. She overbalanced, went off the side of the bed, hit the little table and went still.
‘Stef!’
He slid out of bed after her, lifted the table away and grabbed her shaking form. He freed the snaps and pulled the mask from her face.
She still shook, and tears ran down her cheeks. He pulled her up, and pressed his hands to her head, looking for damage, and his hand came away bloody. ‘Stef, you’re-’
She opened her eyes and focused on him. She stared for a moment, shuffled closer, and pressed herself to his chest. ‘Arms go around,’ she said after a few seconds. He did as he was instructed, and held her trembling form close.
‘You fell asleep,’ he said after a moment.
‘Do you really think you need to tell me that?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘I guess not. Is that…That’s what you go through every night?’
She nodded, and wiped tears away with the back of her hand. ‘Sometimes I get a night off, so it evens out to three or four days a week, but if I get two nights off in a row, I pay for it the next night. How long?’
He raised his head to look at the clock. ‘About forty, forty-five minutes.’
‘Ok, yeah, that’s good, that’s normal.’
‘Nothing about this is normal, Stef.’
This made her push him away. She stood on wobbly legs and climbed back onto the bed, hugging a pillow instead. ‘Why thank you, captain obvious.’
He stood. ‘I can’t help you if I don’t understand.’
‘No one can help me.’
‘I-’
‘Don’t, just don’t. I don’t want to know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never wanted to know what’s wrong with me, and that hasn’t changed just because it’s now magical instead of mental.’ She slumped, and pressed her face into the dirty pillow.
‘Stef-’
‘Labels give people power. I don’t care if people think I’m crazy, I am, so it’s only fair. I care if people can look at me and go “oh, there goes case eight-four-seven-two of paranoid schizophrenia. If that’s even what I have, it’s my best guess. I don’t want to find out what’s wrong with me because it’s not wrong, it’s just me. I don’t want them to label me because a label means they can lock me away, force pills on me, and take her away.’
He looked at her for a moment, then sat beside her. She took a few seconds, then leaned against him. ‘I’ve never…I’ve never said that out loud before,’ she said.
‘What about to Ryan?’
‘…I had an episode, he saw, I didn’t really need to explain…You can’t tell-’
‘Your secret’s safe with me.’
‘Thanks.’
‘I couldn’t wake you up, I tried.’
‘Nothing works,’ she said, ‘and we’ve done some crazy shit to try and prove it. There doesn’t seem to be any outside stimulus that can wake me up. What’s shaking me going to do when blasting out my kneecaps does nothing?’
‘Sorry.’
‘It’s not your fault. I wanted to come back…this is just the price I have to pay. I think it’s hell.’
He felt himself suffer mental whiplash a second time. ‘What?’
‘The nightmares…I think it’s hell.’
‘What do you-’
‘Nothing. I don’t remember anything. It’s all just the impression of terror and pain when I wake up.’
‘And you can’t find anyone-’
‘-else who’s going through the same thing? No. It’s not exactly something you would advertise though. And no one can know, the more people know, the more chance they will have to redact experiment 5323, then it’s one of two options, neither of which I want.’
‘Running is always preferable to death.’ He let it hang in the air for a moment. ‘I’m hoping so, anyway.’