Audrey had seen this daytime talk show once, hosting a bunch of people who’d had near-death experiences. They all had pretty similar stories: a white light, watching themselves from outside their body, a drifting sensation. It all sounded pretty peaceful, the way they described it.
What they had failed to prepare Audrey for, was how boring it was.
Sit. Watch the steady rhythm of her body breathing. Get up. Wander unseen through the hospital. Eavesdrop on the local nurses' gossip (if she ever woke up, she was going to have so much great blackmail material). Scream into people's ears to see if she could get a response. Fail every time. Go back to her room. Sit some more. Wonder where her father was. Or Special Agent Cooper. Or anyone really. Refuse to be hurt. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Honestly, if she’d known getting blown up and falling into a coma was this dull, she’d have stayed home. It would have accomplished just as much as going to the bank.
She sighed, staring at the mess of her body again. She’d definitely looked better and it didn’t help that the surgeons had shaved half her head to drain the blood seeping into her brain.
“They better give me a wig for my funeral,” she muttered, even if no one could hear her.
Which made it doubly weird when someone else answered, “They probably will.” And that person, when she looked, was Laura Palmer, leaning over her comatose body, intently studying her face.
Audrey blinked several times but Laura refused to disappear, even if she wasn't quite the Laura of Audrey's memories, all saccharine little girl smiles and an endless supply of plaid skirts. This Laura dressed in slimming, ever fashionable black and looked like a grown-up woman, even though they'd been all of three months apart in age when she'd been alive.
Laura continued. “They like it if you look pretty for your casket, even if the only things that are ever going to really care after you're buried are worms and beetles and dirt.”
“Oh,” Audrey said, because what else could she say? “Are you a ghost?”
Laura tilted her head, blonde hair hair sliding over her shoulder. A small frown suggested she had to think about it. “Sort of. I'm not all of me. There are pieces in other places.”
Audrey had never heard all of the details of Laura's death, so she sort of hoped she didn't mean that literally. “If you're here, does that mean I'm going to die?”
“Maybe. I don't know. I don't have any control over that.” Her fingers reached out, danced along the blanket covering Audrey's leg. “That's decided by other people.”
She got up, walked her invisible self to stand on the other side of her body, directly across from where Laura seemed fascinated by the hospital bedding, those dancing fingers moving to pull and tug at the corner of the bed, ensuring it was taut. How that worked when the two of them were clearly incorporeal, Audrey had no idea.
“So why are you here? Is this what I get instead of a bright light?” And that would just be the topper of this terrible cake, really, getting an introduction to the afterlife by Laura Palmer instead of people she actually liked.
Laura smiled. It was a weird, too wide thing that made Audrey shiver. “Would that be better? Blinding light out of the darkness?”
“Than someone who had sex with my father?” No, that didn't sound right, wasn't quite what had happened. “Than someone who fucked him?” Better, that was the word, hard and ugly and true.
Also, oh, that was a surprise, she was still a little angry about that. More at her father maybe, but also at Laura who died mourned and wanted.
“Yeah,” Audrey said. “I think I would've preferred that.”
Laura made a little humming sound, eyes fluttering closed. “It's alright. He thought it was love. Sometimes, if I pretended, I thought it was, too.”
“And it wasn't.”
Laura's laugh was the saddest thing she'd ever heard. “I only ever loved one person in my entire life. But don't tell anyone. That's a secret.” She placed her index finger against her lips, added, “Shhhh.”
Audrey crossed her arms, cold even though that was impossible, not sure what she was supposed to be doing now with what was a clearly becoming-unhinged Laura-ghost. Could you exorcise the dead if you were dead yourself? Or almost dead? Or whatever she was.
“You're in-between,” Laura said, as if reading her mind, which for all Audrey knew, was something she could do now. “Not here.” Laura tapped her own sternum. “Not there.” She tapped Audrey's body. “Neither/nor.”
Audrey swallowed, stared down at her unmoving body. “Is there anything I can do to fix – fix me?”
“I told you, I don't make those decisions. But that doesn't mean you can't help.”
“Dale.” Audrey's eyes snapped back toward her. Laura's face had lost some of its terrible strangeness, settling into a sober, mature grief. “He's in an awful lot of trouble.”
“Is that why he isn't here? Is that...” She allowed the words to die. They sounded too young, too petulant, too much like the kid everyone kept insisting she was. But in front of this weird, too-old version of Laura, she wanted to stand a bit straighter, look a little taller, be the women she thought she maybe could be.
So she took a breath, said, “Any reason that it has to be me in particular?” Laura touched her chest again, then the Audrey in the bed. “I'm in-between, okay. And you're... not?” Laura tapped the side of her nose, a whimsical gesture at odds with her unhappy expression. “Can I ask another question?”
“How do you even know Agent Cooper?”
Laura made that same little confused frown. Her eyes were focused on something in the far distance and her voice came from somewhere even farther, when she said, “He was kind to me once.”
“You never met him. You were dead.”
“That doesn't mean he couldn't be kind.” She refocused on Audrey. “Will you go? Will you help?”
Audrey swallowed. Looked down at the real her, at the rise and fall of her chest. In air, out air. In. Out.
“If I say yes, will I be able to come back?”
Laura just smiled, cold and serene as stone.
“Right.” Took a deep breath, thought of what she might be getting into. Nothing good, she knew. But maybe better than sitting here and waiting for the madness and rot to set in.
She looked Laura in the eye and said, “What are we waiting for?”
Laura held out her hand and Audrey grasped it, a bridge over her own body. They walked together around the bed and then through the doorway of her hospital room, only it wasn't really a door anymore, or maybe not merely a door even if Audrey wouldn't have been able to say what it actually was. She spared a moment to wonder if she should be concerned about that but by then it was too late and they were already elsewhere.
Audrey blinked and would have turned around if wasn't for Laura's cold grip on her hand. They stood in an utterly ordinary hallway, ugly yellow carpet thick and worn. To their left were two doors, the one further from them standing slightly ajar. Ahead and to their right, was a descending staircase covered in the same ill-advised yellow carpet.
“Um,” Audrey said.
Laura squeezed her hand. “This isn't where you're going. We have to pick up what you need to get to where you're going.”
Audrey had no idea what to say to that, so she remained silent, let Laura pull her forward and guide her down the stairs.
The bottom floor looked like a pretty ordinary house, even with the ugly carpet, all mid-century furniture and the type of flowery and lacy flourishes Audrey's maiden aunt preferred in her home down in Portland. Except lying halfway between the hall and the den was a struggling woman, flat on her stomach and arm outstretched. She made whining, gasping sort of sounds and kept trying to rise but only succeeded in making jerky, painful-looking movements. Some sort of person-sized, spastic fish left on dry land.
Audrey caught a glimpse of the woman's face as they walked by her. She almost paused, almost said, “Isn't that your mom?” but Laura didn't even break her stride, just tightened her grip and dragged Audrey forward into the living room proper. It looked too big and empty, all of the furniture pushed to the walls. It reminded Audrey of the art room from junior high when, for a brief two weeks, Mrs. Hamilton had cleared out the desks and easels and tried to teach them ballroom dancing. She remembered Donna and Laura – thick as thieves even then – partnering up only with each other every time, barely able to dance for all their laughter. She usually ended up with Mike Nelson and always managed to step on his feet deliberately just to watch his face turn interesting shades of red and purple.
Daddy had gotten a note about that and then she had gotten a lecture and then there were no more dance lessons.
Laura's nails were starting to dig into her palm, but when she tried to pull away, Laura refused to let go.
“Hey,” Audrey said.
“It's coming,” Laura whispered. “When it gets here, you have to grab hold quick. Don't look back.”
“What's coming?” She tried pulling away again, but Laura's hand might as well have been a crocodile’s jaw for all the good it was doing her. “What are you talking about?”
“How you slip through the cracks to get there.” Laura was shaking, Audrey realized, a faint tremor she could feel in their linked hands. Her pupils had gone wide and blown-out, her voice small and terrified. “You won't have much time before he sees you. Please don't let him see you.”
She never got an answer, just a light shining out of the corner of her eye, a bright spotlight that couldn't possibly exist in the middle of a living room. And when she turned her head, she saw exactly what it was illuminating.
She couldn't help her disbelieving smile. “No way.”
Laura pushed her toward the white horse standing impossibly, perfectly dead center ahead and Audrey was already reaching out for it before she'd even realized what she was doing. Because yes, of course, a horse, that was exactly what she needed, how else could she travel, and she looked back to Laura to thank her or ask her to come with her or something, but Laura just stood there instead, a column of quivering black stark against all of those bright floral patterns.
“Hurry,” Laura slurred, eyes milky white and her mother moaning behind her.
“Hurry!” Laura screamed, nine-years-old and swamped in a too-big black dress while something slithered in the shadows behind her, humming happily as it sunk its great bloody hands into the carpet, the walls, the very foundations of that terrible, ordinary house.
Audrey might have screamed or she might have been too shocked to scream, but, with strength she didn't know she had, she hauled herself onto the back of the horse and grasped its mane. Squeezing her eyes shut, she kicked her heels against its flank.
The horse vanished, Audrey along with it.
The room had the sad, generic look of a no-tell motel, walls too close together and thin, cheap covers on each double bed. The room was dark, but the lights outside the window were the neon-hues of a city at night, splashy enough to see inside.
The horse didn't seem bothered by this new location, even if looked positively gigantic compared to its surroundings. Audrey slid from its back to land gracelessly on the floor. She hissed a little at a twist in her ankle and tried to figure out exactly where she was.
A woman sat on the edge of the far bed, dressed in a print dress a few seasons out of date. Her hair – dark in the gloom, but difficult to tell its correct shade – hung crimped just past her shoulders and her eyes looked wide in her pale face. She was pretty, but the sort of ordinary pretty that could be seen a dozen times a day on any given street.
“Hi,” Audrey answered. She bit her lip and then said, “The horse brought me here.” Because, obviously, that made sense and explained everything.
“That's fine,” the woman said. “Just be quiet. He's sleeping.” She pointed to a lump curled up behind her, almost invisible under the covers. Audrey crept to the sleeping form's side, trying to get a better look. Momentary illumination from a passing car caused her to pull in a quick, awful breath of air as she caught a glimpse of Dale Cooper's sleeping face.
“It's not him,” the woman told her, soft and matter of fact. “Just a small bit that stays here with me sometimes.”
Audrey frowned, glancing between the woman sitting up and the man laying down and put two and two together and got applesauce.
“Caroline?” she guessed.
“Hello,” the woman – Caroline – said again. “You're Audrey.”
“I – yes, I am.” Audrey said, sitting down on the opposite bed and tried not fidget too much. The horse appeared blissfully unaware of her discomfort as it chewed thoughtfully on the edge of the ratty bed cover. “Where are we?”
“Somewhere else,” Caroline answered. “It looks like Pittsburgh right now.”
Caroline glanced back at the sleeping Cooper and smiled a little. “Happiness. Fleeting. But then, that's the nature of happiness.”
Audrey couldn't disagree with that assessment. “Laura – do you know Laura?”
“Part of me does.”
“Okay, Laura said Agent Cooper was in trouble. Can you help me?”
Caroline tilted her head, hummed tunelessly to herself for a moment, then said, “Maybe. Not a lot. There are rules I have to follow.”
“And just who gets to decide those rules?” Caroline shrugged, continued on with that same tuneless hum. Something about it reminded Audrey of the thing crawling behind Laura, made her want to scratch and dig and burrow herself under the comforter beneath her, like she was five-years-old again and hiding from the monsters in her closet. But she couldn't do that, not if she wanted to help Agent Cooper out with whatever trouble it was he was in (and at this point she suspected that trouble was pretty big, with a capital B-I-G).
“Okay,” she said. “So what can you do?”
Caroline drummed her nails against the bed, frowning at Audrey thoughtfully. “I suppose you don't want to ride off still in those clothes.”
Audrey glanced down at herself. She had already been at the hospital when she'd … woken up (but not really woken up) and apparently that meant she got to hang out in a hospital gown even outside her body. So, no, she really didn't.
“Is there something else I could wear?”
Caroline waved a hand at the room in general. “See what you can find.”
Audrey stood, took in the limited space. A suitcase lay open on the low bureau, more dresses and light feminine clothing spilling from it. On the floor, there was duffel bag filled with miscellaneous odds and ends, mostly socks and men's underwear, but nothing that looked much better than what she already had on. But then she saw it, tossed carelessly over the sole chair in the room, so atypical of the man she knew – or maybe just typical for this Agent Cooper, the one who slept soundly in Caroline's bed.
She picked up the trenchcoat. And underneath saw black slacks, a sleeveless undershirt and black blazer. She grinned.
Yeah, that would do.
She gathered them up in her arms, pausing only briefly to pick up the matching lace-up oxfords from the floor. Another passing car gave her one more look at Cooper's face in repose. He looked awfully young and it made her heart hurt a little to see it. She kissed the tip of her index finger and pressed it against his forehead.
“I'm coming,” she murmured. “Just you wait.”
He sighed in his sleep. She rose, looked over to find all of Caroline's attention centered on Cooper.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Of course,” Caroline said. Her eyes remained where they were, locked on Cooper's body on the bed. Audrey didn't think she was going to say anything else, so she slung the clothes onto the back of the horse and tugged the cover out of its mouth.
“Stop that, you don't know where it's been.”
The horse snorted, but otherwise stood still as she used the top of the bed to give herself a boost back onto it. She glanced one more time at Caroline. She hadn't moved at all, weight leaning back on her arms, head turned to look behind at Cooper, with the pale expanse of her neck stretched taut, almost painfully so. Audrey wondered if she would ever move again after she left, or if this is where the dead remained once the living stopped paying attention to them. It didn't really matter, she thought. Places to go, agents to rescue.
She kicked her heels back and the horse took her away.
Glastonberry Grove. Audrey remembered playing among the sycamore trees as a little girl, pretending to be a captured princess trapped by fairy circles, awaiting rescue by a dashing prince (although more often than not, the role of the prince was played by a reluctant Bobby Briggs, so “dashing” was straight out). The Log Lady had found them there once on a sunny Saturday in early fall and had thrown such an epic snit (“Don't you know?” she'd yelled, practically dragging Audrey out bodily. “It isn't safe!”), that Audrey hadn't gone back in years and years.
It didn't look so different now, if you ignored that it was night with a full moon and hooting owls for company. Which was so utterly banal and ordinary, she actually found it a little eerie.
She got off the horse, a bit more carefully this time, oxfords landing solid and sure on the forest floor. Her – his – clothes fit well, comfortable and worn in, hugging her curved frame like they're been tailored just for her. Maybe they had been, between where she had been and where she was now. She stuck her hands in the pockets of the trenchcoat, turned her head toward moon above and let the moonlight wash over for a moment.
“Hey there, Audrey.”
She whirled around and oh. Oh, she thought it would be another dead person because that was the pattern, but it wasn't, oh no, oh no.
Johnny Horne, dressed in a t-shirt and khakis, hair combed and neatly tied back, smiled at her and it was the first time she could ever remember that it looked whole and happy and sane
“Hi,” he said and he sounded like a man, not a child, not like a child at all and she was already running. Running toward him so she could throw her arms around him and listen to the wonderful, real rumble of his laughter, of a young man ever so amused by his silly little sister.
“Johnny, god, Johnny,” she said, muffled in his shirt and already crying without meaning to, getting his wonderfully normal T-shirt all wet.
“Hey, hey, come on now, Aud, it's not that bad.” He held her close, one hand petting her hair and it was stupid how comforting and perfect that was. “I promise.”
“Shut up, just – shut up, stupid jerk.” And then she called him a bunch of other, far more terrible names which just made him laugh harder and her hold him a little tighter.
She drew back a little, got a good look at his face, his perfectly perfect face and he looked back with smart eyes that were right here with her in that very moment, not off on walkabout in his own head. They were so, so warm and so, so sad that she had to bury her head back in his chest so she didn't have to see them anymore.
“Oh, Audrey,” he said, more a sigh than anything else. “You know this isn't me, right? Not all of me anyway.”
“I – I know. None of you are all of you and I'm only an in-between piece and I have to do something, but I don't even know what it is.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders, pushed her back just a little, so he could look down at her, meet her eyes with his own. “Do you remember the day you pushed me down the stairs? When I changed?”
Audrey shook her head, tears coming again. “No, no, I don't – god, Johnny, I'm so sorry, Mom said it was all my fault-”
“No, Aud, listen to me, it wasn't, okay?” His hands, warm and solid against her shoulders, squeezed gently. “There's something that lives out here in the dark and the deep. And it wants. It's terrible and hungry and there's nothing that it won't do to get more and Aud? Aud, it followed me home.”
She sniffed, wiped at her cheeks. “I don't remember that.”
“Well, you were three, so, you know, that's not a big surprise.” He smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. “But you know what? Even at three, you protected yourself. You made sure it – I couldn't hurt you. That you and Mom and Dad were safe.”
“... you were trying to hurt us?” And trying to reach back toward that time, she didn't really remember it – like Johnny said, she'd been three. But there was something at the edge of her memory, a glimpse of her brother, she thought, her brother with wide eyes and a grin that wasn't a grin at all. It didn't connect to any incident, just a free-floating image of a human boy and his white, white teeth.
“That's what it does,” Johnny said quietly. “It rides rough 'til you're all used up, then consumes everything you care about. And you'll let it, because you've forgotten what it was like to be something that didn't want what it could give you.”
She bit her lip. “That's why Agent Cooper is in trouble, isn't it.”
“Yeah. I'm sorry, Aud.”
She nodded, took a shuddering breath in, then stepped back from him. No use crying over spoiled milk or spoiled brothers. “Okay. So, what do I do?”
“I can give you what you need to prepare yourself. That's all, though. There are -”
“Rules, yeah, I heard.” She was already tired of hearing that excuse. “Let's get it over with.”
He still looked sad, but he nodded and pointed her toward the fire pit, the circle where she pretended to be a fairy's victim lo those many years ago. “There. Look in there and think of love and you'll find it.”
She didn't bother to ask what 'it' was. Rules, she knew.
The fire pit wasn't really a fire pit, it seemed. Instead the stones surrounded a viscous, black substance that smelled of burnt engine oil. It reminded her of gas stations and the school machine shop and the muscle cars her Uncle Jerry sometimes took a fancy to when he imagined her father was looking the other way. It should have been too dark to see a reflection, too much night and too much pitch, but there was nevertheless another Audrey staring back at her from it, a pale moonglow imitation of herself.
Think of love, she said silently, but what sort of love was that? She'd never really understood the love – if you could call it that - from her parents. Maybe she had the hearts of a few boys at school, but they were convinced her love was an easy thing to capture, then dispose of when they got bored. And as for Agent Cooper...
Agent Cooper who had never looked at her like she was a source of constant disappointment. Who was kind even to the dead. Who listened to her as she cried over chocolate shakes and french fries and acted like a perfect gentleman and told her that what he wanted from her was nothing more than to be her friend.
Or maybe John. John Wheeler, who wanted to run away with her, even though they both knew how foolish it would be, but he wanted her to know anyway, because he liked being honest with her. Who sang silly country songs and smiled like a little boy with the greatest secret in the world and whispered ridiculous, terrible jokes in her ear when she lay beside him in the dark.
Or perhaps the parents who didn't understand her and made no effort to, but whom she couldn't help but look at with a fierce loyalty that surprised even herself sometimes.
Or even Johnny, Johnny unable to be the man he was because of a bad fall or a bad man or a monster that crept around the edges of shadowed woods and yet here he was and he was proud of her.
She loved them, she loved them all, even if they didn't always love her back, even if their love was a weak, brittle thing that could shatter and leave shards behind to be cut on. It was love, it was love, it was love and maybe that was enough.
And there was something there, in her false reflection in the oil, an object distorting her face. She plunged her hand through it, but didn't hit ground like she should have, her arm reaching reaching reaching into that black, ugly pool, the burnt oil smell making her gag, but she didn't stop, not until her hand grasped something slender and smooth and she pulled with all her might.
She held a sword. There was ugly black ichor coating her coat sleeve and hand, but the sword was clean and shining and sharper than sight.
“Well,” she said, smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Neat.”
She walked back to Johnny, sword held point down, and an easy swing to her arms. Next to her brother, two red curtains hung, suspended from nothing at all in space.
“Is that where Agent Cooper is?”
“Do I need the horse?”
Johnny looked over at the white horse, which was calmly munching on the grass at their feet. “He's just a horse.” Audrey raised one, disbelieving eyebrow. “And that's just a sword.”
“I'm taking the horse,” she decided. “Daddy's been promising to buy me one since I was six anyway.”
“That's fair.” Johnny laced his hands together, giving her a step back up onto the horse. The sword rested at ease across her knees. “I can't follow you. Once you go, you'll be alone.”
“Can you tell me anything at all?”
Johnny tilted his head, eyes squinting and Audrey recognized the look. The Horne classic: trying to figure out the rules so you could get around them.
“There's fear. It's all there is. It's important to remember that.”
Her hand tightened around the sword's hilt. “Okay.”
“I won't be here if you come back,” he said.
If. She didn't think that was a slip of the tongue. “Okay.”
“Love you, Aud.”
"Love you, too, Johnny.”
And they didn't say goodbye as the horse stepped forward and Audrey slipped between the curtains.
Zig-zag patterns on the floor tiles. The couch she sat on was a crime against the human back. Jazz played somewhere.
Laura Palmer sat across from her. Black dress. Too-old face.
“Did you see me?” Laura asked, only not quite. Those were the words, but they weren't the right way, ending on little hiccuped shupt sounds.
“What?” Audrey said. “I see you now.”
“Other – shupt – me.” Laura's eyes closed and she swayed. “Scared little girl.” Shupt shupt.
“I guess.” There was a sword in Audrey's lap. That was strange. Why would she have a sword?
“Such a good little girl.” Leland Palmer walked up behind Laura, dressed like the Horne family lawyer of her memories, not the white-haired corpse the town had buried. His hand drifted toward Laura's neck, thick, masculine fingers drumming staccato beats against the uninterrupted line of Laura's skin. “She was my angel.” Shupt.
“You killed her.” Everyone knew that. Leland Palmer killed his own daughter and tried to leap into the grave after her.
He looked at Audrey with clouded, milky eyes. “I – shupt - loved her.” His hands laced together, tightened and started to squeeze. Laura didn't seem to mind. In fact she started to smile at Audrey, mouth stretching across her face, wider, wider, wider.
Animals, Audrey had once read, never smiled because they were happy. They wanted you to get a better look at their teeth.
She gripped the sword – important, it was important, why did she have it – and stood. “Don't let me interrupt.”
“Don't go,” Laura said, smile in her shupt shupt voice.
“Don't go,” Leland said, hands wrapped tight around his daughter's neck.
Audrey backed up, not willing to take her eyes off either of them until she slipped through the red curtains and into the hall. It had more of that same zig-zag pattern floor and another long line of curtains. Audrey walked until she found a small break in them and slipped through.
Another room, much like the first, only without the furniture. The music was louder here, the floor cleared like Mrs. Hamilton's classroom. Would she see her old teacher here, speaking all wrong and dancing backward with blind eyes?
The sword in her hand felt heavy. She moved on.
A hall, identical. Another room, the same. A little man, dressed in red, danced soft shoe to the jazz beat, a giant in a bowtie standing in silent sentry over him. The little man reached out a hand toward Audrey.
“Better with partners?” he said in that shupt voice that was starting to really grate on Audrey's nerves.
“No,” she answered, because it wasn't. She didn't think. She reached up to rub her forehead, surprised to see how dirty her hand was. When had that happened?
“Sure?” the little man said, grinning like the grand-high lunatic of a madman parade.
“Pretty sure,” Audrey whispered, slipping into the next corridor.
The music got louder the further she moved on, the sword in her hand a mighty weight dragging on her arm. A hall. Red curtains. A room. Hall. Curtains. Room. She wanted to know where she was. She wanted to know where she was going. She wanted to know what the hell she was doing here in the first place.
Between the cracks, she remembered, from... somewhere. Someone?
There was something she was supposed to be doing.
“Take a break,” Caroline said, pushing her onto one of those uncomfortable couches that were apparently the only sofas they had in this place.
“Don't you feel better?” Laura said, straightening the sword so it lay flat against her chest and stomach, hands folded over the hilt.
“Don't get up,” said poor, doomed Madeline Ferguson, all smiles under her unseeing eyes, looming over Audrey's still body.
She'd been here before, hadn't she? At One-Eyed Jack's, with Blackie hissing in her ear, the sharp, short prick of a needle and the dizzying effect of the drugs in her veins. Just lie back and take it she remembered someone telling her, as if that was supposed to be a kindness as she watched her own emotions drift ever further from her grasp. Somehow, standing on the far shore away from her own fear made it even more terrifying.
A figure flicked in the corner of her paralyzed vision, like Laura's shadows, like the unnatural grin of her brother from so long ago. The women surrounding her shuffled out of its way, mouths opening wide, jaws practically unhinged. Shrieks like terrible sirens came from their mouths as the thing crawled toward her, over her, on top of her. It bent over her with greasy gray hair and teeth bared, this almost man that wasn't a man at all.
“Shouldn't have come here,” it said and giggled, rubbing denim-clad legs against her sides. “Shouldn't have tried to hide.”
Its breath smelled of burnt oil and decay, teeth far too close to her neck, terrifying smile in place and oh god, why had she come here? It was right, she shouldn't be here, she should never have come, never ventured in, never never never.
“All alone,” it crooned to her, its mouth against her skin. “Little in-between girl, all alone.”
Because of the rules! she wanted to scream. Because of those stupid fucking rules!
And in that moment, she remembered. Remembered what Johnny had said in the woods, before she'd fallen into the black. About fear.
All of this was fear.
All of this was only fear.
Oh, clever boy, her brother. Clever, clever boy.
Her hands tightened against the sword's hilt. She could move, she could feel it again, up close and personal, that terror that had been so distant from her. But more than that, underneath that gibbering, primordial panic was something simmering and hot and red. How dare they do this to her. How dare they reduce her to a flopping, faint-hearted child. How dare they make her forget.
She was Audrey freakin' Horne and how dare they
She jerked the sword up. The thing shaped like a man skittered away from her, his white-eyed chorus falling abruptly, unnaturally silent, a record scratch in the middle of an atonal song. She rose from the sofa, hands around the hilt of her sword, wild-eyed and furious.
“Don't you ever,” she snarled. “Don't you even dream of it.”
It tilted its head and smiled, which if anything, made her even angrier.
“He isn't here,” it sing-songed. “He's gone away to play, walking with fire.”
She took a step forward and it scrabbled back from her, crawling on the floor like a deranged crab, eyes flickering toward the sword in her hand with something like – it wasn't quite worry. She didn't think it was anywhere near capable of experiencing any sort of human emotion, but it bore a passing resemblance. Good. Let be wary. Let it fear her. She sure as hell was done fearing it.
“I want Agent Cooper back,” she said.
“You won't find him.” Nothing visible had changed about it, and yet she would be amazed if anyone thought this thing was human. “All mine now.”
“Yeah?” She eyed the curtains surrounding them, glanced at the sword in her hands, mouth thinning into an angry white line. “Let's just see about that.”
She strode up to the nearest curtain and, gripping her sword like a bat, swung.
The blade sliced cleanly through the velvet and sent a pool of red fabric falling to the floor. Something shrieked behind her as if in pain. She ignored it, strode forward, did it again to the next row of curtains.
The jazz descended into discordant notes. The black and white patterns of the floors started to ooze into each other, like melted candle-wax. The sofas looked like they had been abandoned in the rain years before, more mold and rot than sofa. And through it all, the ugly cries of whatever thing called this place home.
“You can't do that!” it said. “You can't!”
She snarled in response and cut through another row of curtains. The lights flickered in time with the screams.
“You can't you can't you can't you can'tyou can'tyou can'tyou can'tt'nacuoyt'nacuoyt'nacuoy!”
Howls of the damned and deranged and all those women with their blinded eyes and terrible smiles. Her lip curled and she swung the sword.
The curtain fell.
And there was silence.
Audrey stepped over the puddle of red and into the black. She didn't know how big the room was. Perhaps it stopped mere feet from her. Perhaps there was no end. She couldn't tell because her eye was drawn to a pool of light, another spotlight in another impossible place.
In that light, sat a man.
He had his legs crossed in front of him and his arms secured behind him. His head hung low, black hair out of its normal gel slick and nearly obscuring his face. His breath was labored and there were chains around his arms, his torso, snaking back off into the gloom beyond.
“Agent Cooper,” she said. It came out breathless, small. She tried again. “Agent Cooper.”
He didn't twitch. She walked forward and hunkered down beside him. His eyes were closed, the skin around them pinched as if in pain. Perhaps he was; manacles on his wrists sat over red skin and dried blood and the chains around his chest bit into the fabric of his shirt. Every time his chest rose, they constricted his breathing. And his shoes were missing. That bothered Audrey in ways everything else here didn't.
“Agent Cooper,” she said a third time. He made a quiet noise, more like a distressed animal whine than a response and then fell silent. Her heart stuttered; was she too late? The thing in the red room had been with her brother only a short time and it had driven him completely mad. If Cooper had been with it even longer than that...
No. No, she wasn't going to panic, let the fear that practically wept from the walls of this place find refuge in her again. If she only had a small part of Cooper to bring back, then that was just the way things were and they'd both learn to live with it.
So she straightened her spine, barked, “Special Agent Dale Cooper, you wake right the hell up this instant!” and shoved his shoulder.
He gasped, eyes fluttering open. He raised his head with a slow, painful-looking deliberateness and settled his gaze on Audrey's face. He spent a too long moment blinking at her without comprehension, before saying, “Audrey?”
She let the breath she'd been holding, giving him a small smile. “Hey, Agent Cooper.”
He closed his eyes, swallowed, the lines deepening around his eyes. “Oh Audrey, no, you shouldn't be here.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” she said. “I'm here to rescue you.” He gaped at her. His disbelief rankled just a bit. “You don't have to look so shocked about that.”
“What? No. Audrey, listen,” he said as she walked behind him to get a better look at how his hands were tied. The manacles were separated, but the chains connected to them had been wrapped around his arms so tightly his elbows nearly touched each other. But they had loose ends leading out into the dark, which meant if the links were cut, it would be fairly easy to unwrap them from his arms.
She swung the sword in a lazy arc and rested the point on a link half a foot from Cooper's hands. “Agent Cooper, you need to stay still, okay?”
“What?” He strained against his bonds, trying to get a look at her, but he couldn't turn his head quite far enough. “Audrey, what are you doing?”
She walked back into his line of vision, settled down so they were eye to eye. “I'm going to get you out of those chains. But I need you to trust me.”
He frowned. “I've always trusted you,” he said, like he was confused that it was even an issue.
And oh, that. That, she felt, from her heart all the way down to her toes, curled up in her shoes. She almost kissed him in that moment, to show him all the things she kept hidden and locked inside her. But she didn't think she could live herself if that ruined it, ruined them, so she squeezed his shoulder instead and positioned herself back over his chains. She tightened her hands around the sword's hilt and lifted it above her head.
“Ready?” she said. His shoulders stiffened, bracing, but he gave her one quick nod of his head. She swung the sword down true and hit the first chain.
Something screeched in pain. She hit the chain again and then a third time. The echoing, terrible cries bounced around her as she did, never ceasing until the link finally snapped. From the metal oozed an ugly substance that looked like old milk and smelled like rotting eggs. She gagged a little, covering her nose with the sleeve of her coat. One the ground, she could see Cooper panting, the wounded skin around the manacles reopened and dripping blood.
“It's – it's okay, Audrey,” he told her, voice hoarse and thin. “Don't stop.”
“Alright.” Her voice came out fainter than she thought it would and she had to blink back sudden, sympathetic tears. She sniffed a little and swiped at her face. No turning back now, no fear that could be used against her.
Hang on, she thought, though if it was to him or to herself, she didn't know. She stepped toward the second chain and swung the sword again.
It took longer this time, the wailing building into an expansive crescendo each time she hit true. By the end she was practically screaming along with it, desperate to finish and leave them in blessed silence. And when she thought she couldn't take it anymore, when she could no longer tell the difference between her cries and monstrosity surrounding them, the links broke.
The chains wrapped around Cooper fell away and he slipped forward.
She rushed to him, sliding her arm along the front of his shoulders and pushing him back into a sitting position. He brought his arms up to hold onto her, hissing in pain at the movement. The manacles still encircled his wrists, though they slid more easily now along the blood-slick.
They stayed there for a moment, her taking his weight, him resting his head on her shoulder. When he managed to get his eyes open, they were bloodshot and red-rimmed, but dry.
“I hate to ask more of you than you've already done,” he croaked. “But I would prefer to leave this place somewhat sooner than later.”
She laughed a little, and if it came out a bit wet, well, it'd been a long day.
“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”
She helped him up, his body a heavy, heated presence against her own. There wasn't much pleasure to be found in that; she could see the fine tremors in his legs and every movement he made was accompanied by a wince. Holding the sword in her far hand, she slung her arm around his waist and let him use her shoulder as crutch. In this way, they crossed the threshold of ruined red velvet together.
He gawked at the mess on the other side. “Did you do this?”
“Remarkable,” he murmured and she had no idea if he meant to say it aloud, but she had to bite back a grin.
They shuffled back through each decayed room. The lights seemed dimmer than when she had come the other way and there was a faint chill, as if a window had been left open with no one to close it. The chair Laura had once sat in was tipped on its side, a inanimate turtle with no one to flip it off its back. The whole place reeked of abandonment.
Cooper's hand tightened around her shoulder but he said nothing.
They passed through one last, sad hallway and finally came to stop in front of the only pair of intact curtains. Her white horse, none the worse for wear after whatever-it-was she had done to this place, stomped on the ground and tossed its mane, the perfect picture of equine impatience.
“Hello,” Cooper said, reaching out an arm and running a shaky hand down its neck. “Where did you come from?”
“It's our ticket out of here, I think,” Audrey said. “Do you think you can ride?” He eyed its back for a moment, then shook his head. “Okay. Well, maybe if you just keep a hold of its mane when we walk through, it'll be okay.”
He did as instructed, tangling his finger in the long white hair. She ducked around to the other side and did the same.
His mouth tightened, almost grimacing. “I must admit, I am... trepidatious.”
“I thought you wanted to leave.”
“I did. I do. But I am uncertain what it is that waits me on the other side.” He looked at her, worried and worn. “I might have done terrible things while I was trapped here.”
“If it makes you feel better, I don't know what's going to happen to me, either. I think I'm still in a coma right now.”
He started. “My god, what happened?”
“Civil disobedience. Bomb. You know how it goes.” She tried to keep her voice light, but her stomach tightened and she felt cold all over. What would happen to her once she was finished with all of this?
She glanced back at the hall behind them. A light flickered, then went out, leaving the space even gloomier than before. “Still, it's got to beat here, right?”
The last part came far more unsure than she had intended. Copper slid his hand over to hers and intertwined their fingers. His voice was gentle when he said, “I couldn't agree with you more.”
He squeezed her hand in two quick pulses, so she responded in turn.
Heads facing forward, warm hands together over the horse's neck, they passed through the last set of red curtains.
It was still dark in Glastonberry Grove, but the edges of the sky had taken on lighter hues, morning nibbling at the edges of the void. Audrey turned to Cooper only to find him vanished from her side. When she stepped forward, her shoe clinked against something.
The manacles, she realized. She didn't know what that meant. Something good, she hoped, but she might never find out. Whatever rules governed the universe, they were beyond her ken.
She was exhausted, she realized, the sword a heavy burden in hand. She stumbled back toward the fire pit, staring down at the pitch. Her reflection as gone and her weariness was a greater thing than love or fear for her now. So she took the sword and with a final burst of strength, stabbed it into the center ground of the pit. She half-expected it to sink, but it slid only a few inches and then no further. If it had been stuck in a stone, it could not have been held so fast.
Let it be the next coma patient's problem, Audrey decided.
She attempted to mount the horse. It took a few tries but she finally succeeded, even if she was more flopped over it, than actually riding.
“Home, Jeeves,” she told it, which seemed incredibly funny and had her muffling her giggles against its neck.
It moved at a steady pace, the rhythmic clop-clop of its hooves almost hypnotic. She was pretty sure she drowsed for a bit because when she next opened her eyes, they weren't in front of the hospital like she'd expected (or even Laura Palmer's house as she'd half-dreaded), but rather on the lawn of the Great Northern Hotel.
Well, she had ordered it home, hadn't she.
“Good horse,” she said and gave it a friendly pat on the neck.
The steps through the front doors and on toward the Hornes' apartment were performed more by muscle memory than conscious thought and she didn't even try to care how she was opening doors or taking off her shoes or not sinking through to the ground when she flopped onto her bed. If this was how she was going to die, she'd do it in her own room, thank you very much.
She opened one baleful eye to glare at Laura, sitting at the edge of her bed.
“Really?” she asked Laura or maybe the universe in general.
Laura smiled. It resembled a more human thing rather than the terrifying rictus of the red room and took Laura back to looking like her proper age.
“Thank you,” Laura told her, which surprised her a little, because she couldn't remember Laura ever thanking her for anything while she'd been alive.
“Yeah, well.” She waved her hand at the room, not otherwise moving from her prone position. “I defeated the monsters and got Agent Cooper out of trouble and rode a horse. No big deal.”
“Hmm,” Laura said, though it sounded pretty far away. “Monsters don't get defeated, you know. They just go back to sleep for a little while.”
That sounded ominous, but Audrey didn't feel very worried at the moment. “Do I have to fight them right now?”
“No,” Laura said, voice drifting away She was on a boat, Audrey thought, one traveling off into the blue, until the horizon swallowed it whole. And from even farther still, Laura whispered “You can sleep now and dream. Maybe you'll even dream of me."
Audrey took at least some of that advice and fell asleep.
When she woke up – really woke up, for real, for real – she had three weeks of her life missing, along with a good chunk of her hair and some of her skin. The burns were mostly superficial and the doctors told her that the bruising in her face would eventually go away as her nose healed. She still had a cast on her leg and pain in areas she didn't even know could feel pain, but hey. She was alive and pretty sure that meant all of her parts were in one place and that was a good thing.
Her dad had gotten hurt after getting a fight with Doctor Hayward over something no one wanted to tell her about, but he would pull through, even if that meant his ability to aid Audrey with her own recovery was... limited, at best.
(Donna would eventually come clean and Audrey would say, “Count on Daddy to completely screw over someone else's family in every meaning of the term,” and then Donna would cry and then Audrey would tell her they were going to have to get some manicures or pedicures or do some stupid sister bonding thing and charge it all to Daddy's credit card).
Her mother was – well, her mother was there and that counted for something, she guessed. And Johnny remained, as ever, a child trapped in a man's body. Although sometimes she wondered if, when the sunlight caught his eyes just right, she couldn't see that other Johnny in there, doing his level best to protect his family the only way he knew how.
It was easy sometimes, to pretend that nothing had happened to her in those other places, with those other women and the stink of burnt oil lingering in the velvet of red drapes. She had no proof of it, not really, and she'd been told coma dreams could be incredibly vivid. But then she would look outside to the front lawn or hear the owls in the trees or see Mrs. Palmer wondering around town like an ancient ghost and know that it was real and it was everything.
Six weeks later, she sat at her usual table in the restaurant of the Great Northern, enjoying a cup of coffee and the business section of a New York Times she had swiped from the front lobby. She was still stuck in the godforsaken wheelchair for another two weeks until her leg cast came off, but her face barely had any bruising left, the splint was already off her nose and her hair was growing back. Itching like crazy, but growing back, and if she had ever been tempted to shave her head, this surely cured her of it.
From behind her, she heard a soft, “Hello, Audrey.”
She smiled, but didn't try to turn. “Hello, Special Agent Cooper.”
Cooper sat in the seat across from her, dressed in a red and black plaid shirt and jeans. He'd lost some weight since she'd last seen him and old, healing wounds peeked out from under his shirtsleeves. He no longer slicked his hair back, letting black strands fall carelessly across his forehead, and it made him look far closer to the young Cooper she’d seen under the nighttime glow of an eastern city than the ramrod straight embodiment of righteous fury that had rescued her from One-Eyed Jack's.
The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, but as a smile, it was a work in progress. “Not Special Agent anymore. I turned in my notice three days ago.”
“Oh. I'm sorry.” And she was. She thought maybe she was getting a pretty good idea of what Cooper looked like while grieving. “I didn't know.”
“It's alright. I didn't know myself until I handed it in.” He fell silent as a waitress poured a coffee into the cup in front of him. He didn't pick it up, just fiddled with it, spinning it slowly between his hands. “Audrey, I need to ask you something and I would appreciate your honesty. Can you do that for me?”
She swallowed, folded her paper and placed it carefully on the table. “Okay.”
“There are details of the last few weeks that have taken on a certain dreamlike quality, making it difficult to determine what was real and what was merely imagined, but I have a very clear image of you standing in a room of red curtains. So, please, tell me: were you there, in the Black Lodge?”
He looked back at her with something like heartbreak. “Oh, Audrey, why? Do you have any idea what could have happened?”
She tilted her head. “A little. So?”
He mouthed her answer – so? - and rubbed a hand down his face. “I don't believe I can emphasize in strong enough terms just how foolish and dangerous that was.”
“So you're the only person who gets to do foolish and dangerous things, huh?”
“I'm an adult, Audrey, I worked for the FBI. That's – that was part of my job.”
“And you're my friend and you were in trouble. So.” She shrugged. Before – before lots of things, actually, she would have been embarrassed at his criticism. But now, she'd been through too much and seen too much and it was difficult to be unhappy about any of it, with Cooper – scared and weary but alive and himself - sitting in front of her. “Tell you what – if you want to yell at me about it, can you do something for me first?”
He inclined his head.
“Say, 'Thank you, Audrey, for being the best knight in shining armor a former special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation could ask for.'”
He blinked several times. He had, Audrey noticed, not for the first time, really long eyelashes for a man. “Audrey - ”
“Dale,” she answered, to see how it felt, and was rewarded with a startled almost-laugh
“I'm not going to win this argument, am I?” he said, though he didn't sound disappointed about it.
“Seems unlikely,” she agreed.
He straightened a little. “Audrey,” he said again.
Everything about him softened. “Thank you.”
And he meant it, which made it all very worth it indeed.
“You're welcome,” she said and meant it herself.
Then Cooper's eyes widened and he said, “I apologize if I alarm you, but were you aware there is a rather enormous white horse staring at you intently through the windowpane?”
She looked over her shoulder, found that a horse had, indeed, wandered up to the window again and said, “Oh. Him.” She waved. The horse snorted and began to eat the flowers sitting in the boxes lining the sills. The staff had replaced them at least four times in the last week alone.
Cooper swallowed. ““That's – that is an oddly familiar-looking horse.”
“He's a noble steed,” she told him. “And his name is Mr. Whiffles.”
“I see,” Cooper said, though he didn't quite. He concentrated instead on drinking his coffee rather than discuss the matter of strange horses following little girls home.
The silence grew comfortable between them as Audrey picked her newspaper up and began to read once more. And maybe her hand stretched out bit on the table and maybe he rested his fingertips against it and maybe, Audrey thought, words were really rather overrated.