He noticed it the usual way. The glitch in the matrix, in the corner of his eye. That was what Benny took to calling it one day, after David had pointed out the way that bird up there looked like it was flying with a broken wing, except that all that was wrong with it was the broken wing, and not the way it was flying. “There’s no bird up there,” Benny had said, but David swore it, that there was a bird right there near that pole over there, see? Flying with its wing all bent, the feathers torn away, the pink skin beneath it clear as water in the bright sun of the cloudless day. It wasn’t moving, but it didn’t seem to notice that. It didn’t seem to matter. And then it vanished, the way a coin vanishes into water: a gooey dip into the blinding pastel sky and a ripple in the clouds. And when he told Benny, that’s when he’d said it. “A glitch in the matrix.” A clip in the media. A blink in reality only David could see, in the instant when his third eye opened and he, for a moment, was omniscient, omnipresent. Omni- there .
“Benny. Are you seeing this?”
Benny, with his nothing in hand, glanced back at him. His hair hadn’t been washed today, and probably not yesterday, either, or last week, and it stuck out at the side with his ear as its podium and waved when he turned. David pointed to the stained cellar door down the long stretch of the alley, pressed up against the wall across from the sidewalk. Benny seemed genuinely shocked, but David could tell by the selfsame look in his eye that he saw it too. “Yeah.”
A cellar door there, in one of the back alleys they’d been through a thousand times. Maybe someone had conjured up the bright idea to make a storm cellar in the week and a half since they’d visited, and built it, and finished it, and left like they hadn’t been there at all. Or maybe it was just another glitch, except that Benny could see it too, which meant this wasn’t something only David could appreciate. He didn’t like that idea: Benny sharing in the things only he had been able to see. Or maybe he did like it, so much that he didn’t want Benny to know about it. Not that he ever would. No, this was real.
David stepped toward it: out of the sun and into the shade of the dilapidated, abandoned building. No one lived in these parts except the squatters who homed here temporarily, and neither of David nor Benny had ever learned any of their names. These parts of the city - the places everyone thought were dangerous and empty and creepy - were the safest for them. Safe and quiet and non-demanding. No one would look for them here, and when the sun started to fall in the sky, they could return to their apartments and think about what they would do the next day. The same couldn’t be said for the people who lived here, temporary and nameless.
As he approached, he could see that this door hadn’t been used for years, probably neglected like everything else around. Well, that blew out the ‘new structure’ idea. The metal was rusted like it had braved the weather for decades, and the handle and the side hinges rusted into a splotchy gathering of yellows and browns and blacks. The wood was off-colour too. He imagined pressing the pad of his thumb to it and coming away with the swirls of his thumbprint forever immortalised in the imperfect crevices. Proof he was there.
Benny followed after him, trotting heavily to catch up to his side. He, David could tell, was excited in his own way. “What do you think?”
“Good prospects.” The alley stretched straight on for several yards, ending in a t-intersection. It was invisible from the sidewalk, but David and Benny knew that it was there. Knew that people liked to stay there, party there, fuck there, waste their sticks there, leave their shit there when they left. A gold mine. “Someone probably stayed here last.”
“Good eating tonight.”
Benny had picked up his pace. Now he was front of David, in the position where he could, if he moved a little to the left, glance beyond the corner and spot anything that anyone might have left there. “Nah, I mean - good eating. Look at all the shit here!” He turned out of the way of the door and made a beeline right out of sight from the road. Out of sight of the world.
Tell me: does he exist now that no one else but you can see him?
It took David a moment to catch up to him, but even then, he didn’t follow Benny. The door had his attention. There were marks on it, uneven and instantly unnerving. Wood usually had scratches on it just like anything else, but these were different. And not the different that rich people liked to buy in their desperate attempts to make their furniture look worn and weathered, either. These markings crossed like claw marks in sets of four, not deep but not shallow, either, and fell unforgivingly across the indents that were supposed to be there. Only monsters with long fingers could make a thing like that. Or wild raccoons. Or rabid dogs. Or stray cats. And the colour of it was off, too. The scratches made it lighter, but it was obviously stained darker, like someone had dipped it in black ink years and years and years ago and let it sit until it got so dark that it inherited someone’s soul. The dark kind of soul that leapt out to David without his even trying. Strange, unwanted, and not all present.
And the aura that oozed from it - too strong. So strong that David could feel it pulling at him, tiny hooks clawing into the skin of his cheeks, his neck, his chest, his stomach, drawing him near. What would Doctor Poole say? “This is a safe place, David.” Again, like a mantra through his mind. This is a safe place, David. This is a safe place. Nothing can hurt you here. Nothing will find you here. Nothing can touch you here.
But this wasn’t Doctor Poole’s office.
“... Are you even hearing me right now? David! Earth to David Haller!”
And, just like that, the creeping tendrils flickered and withdrew, and the plastic wrapping around his mind unstuck and let the world back in again. He tore his gaze away from the door and looked to see Benny staring at him from the farthest wall, his palm up and fingers curled in impatient confusion, a frown knitting his brow. “What?”
“Called your name about a thousand times. What, you interested in that thing?” He nodded his chin toward the cellar door, turning away to inspect the pile by his feet.
David moved away from it. Nothing there, there was nothing there. It was probably empty. There were plenty of things to keep his attention around Benny’s feet. They had a silent game going every time they went scrounging anywhere, he and Benny, of who could find the most valuable piece in the pile. Not the prettiest, not the biggest, not even the fanciest looking. Most times, it was up to the value of the thing. If it didn’t have value, no one wanted it.
He stepped behind Benny, peering over his shoulder. His friend turned his head, pushing a sheet of newspaper across the ground and prodding a few empty cans with his toe. “What did you see in that door, anyways?”
“Uh - just… stuff.”
“Chyeah. Shit.” Another nudge loosened the pile. The cans came tumbling down, thin metal tumbling noisily away. “Just stuff? That’s all?”
What are you going to tell him?! ‘Just stuff.’ Yeah, right. “Yeah. It’s really not…”
“Sure it’s important.” Benny crouched by the pile, struck by something that had caught his eye. He reached down and plucked something out. Perfection came in the form of a pen, it seemed. Better than sidewalk scrapes and the hot twist of alleyway squabbles. It was silver, and, David saw, as Benny turned it in his fingers, there were no dents and no scrapes on the surface.
David glanced back.
“And - and I don’t - I don’t know, she thought that maybe it would be good to pawn off. To… to sell. You know.”
The last thing David wanted was to disclose his past to a woman he hardly knew. Yes, Melanie Bird spoke softly and calmly to him, the way Doctor Poole had all those years ago. But she was no Poole. Where Doctor Poole had worked with him for years and gotten to know him as well as he knew himself - albeit in that calmer way David himself had never mastered - Melanie felt like a stranger who barely understood what he was going through. An interloper, pressing at his thoughts like she deserved to be there, all in the name of helping him.
Don’t let her do that. Don’t let her know what you’ve done.
They’ll leave you like they’ve always left you.
“Can you remember why she wanted to sell it?” Melanie leaned back in her seat, her arm rested comfortably against the armrest. Her fingers were curled comfortably against the light fabric, and her index traced smooth, slow circles, almost benevolent in its motion, as though inviting David to concentrate there, to watch the way it ran, to make him more comfortable.
David dug his elbows into his thighs and plucked at his sleeves lightly with his fingers, staring hard at Melanie’s fingers. “I don’t know.”
That was a lie. He knew why Lenny wanted to pawn the pen off. He knew why he wanted to pawn it off, which, unsurprisingly, coincided with Lenny’s reasoning. Moore would have leapt for joy when saw the ‘Aurora’ written on it. He was a hard man to please, and had turned away offers from people bigger than him. He was a take-no-shit sort, the kind of person that stared Death in the face and demand it show him the fingers and toes it cut off for his wares. Even Lenny, with all her wit and easy magnetism, had found Moore a difficult guy to deal with more often than not. “He’s easy pickings,” she’d said one day, and marched right on up with her black boots, her black jeans, and someone else’s polished phone. Then it was talk, talk, talk, and she came right back with that same phone and no drugs. No deal. But he did like shiny things.
“It’s important that you remember everything, David.” Melanie spoke slowly, as though she was trying to reach David through the ether and pull him back down to earth. “Anything you can think of that would help us piece together the story of your life. The real story.”
She made it sound magnificent, this ‘real story.’ David Haller, legendary child annoyance, former aficionado with the sticky fingers and wandering eyes, caught up in a psychiatric hospital for six years licking artificial cherry juice off his fingers, was more than what he thought he was. Here they were, enclosed in the space of these four yellow walls, brushing memories and comforts back and forth in the hopes of uncovering the real story that eluded the storyweaver all those years ago. Poor, miserable mutant, thinking he was sick when all he really had were the declarations of closed-minded humans. They harboured mortal thoughts and called them “normal.”
Ah, but no. The real story. The one David knew was wayward, until they had come along and told him it wasn’t. If they knew, then they knew: who was David to argue?
He lowered his hand, shoving his knuckles into his sleeves and balling his hands into fists. It was a comfort to him, somehow, to hide his hands away from the world. To have some semblance of control over some part of his body. Even if he couldn’t control what happened with his mind, he could at least curl his fingers against his sleeve-warmed skin and hide away in his index finger. Just for a little bit. “I was… and we - we were almost always together, me and Lenny, when I wasn’t studying. This was when I was still in college.” He turned his head to the side, digging his nails into his wrist. “And, uh… well, she didn’t want to go to college. She was fine where she was, you know. She had ways of getting money.”
Melanie drew in a breath and adjusted herself in her seat. Her tone was more solemn than usual, and David believed, for the briefest moments, that she had figured out the secret and was judging him for it now. If she had, she didn’t make it obvious. “So she wanted to sell it for money?”
“Something like that, yeah.” Could she tell that he was lying? His lies always settled in his throat, and they curled around his breath now as he spoke. Was there a superpower for knowing when someone lied? Or maybe that was just telepathy. “She was always really good at finding things to sell.” And finding people who were willing to put up with her stories until they were convinced they wanted to buy those things from her.
She gave him a light smile. It seemed, in David’s gut, that there was a knowing glint in her eye. It made him nervous. “Good. Tell me what happened next, son. Remember every little detail. I promise, this will help us all in the end.”
Does she know? You know telepathy, you can read her mind and figure it out!
David nodded. His heart made itself clear in his chest, aching with worry. Melanie couldn’t take all the credit for it. Amy was still out there somewhere, captured and suffering at the hands of the same people who took him. And they definitely weren’t cops.
He shut his eyes.
There was a hole in the wall, two inches wide and three inches tall, disfigured, disjointed, and discoloured. By all means, it was an ugly hole, spread across the dilapidated bricks like it owned the entire wall, the entire alley, the entire building, the entire city. It would swallow its unsuspecting victims whole, infect them with its terror, and send them screaming out black tendrils to spread to even more unsuspecting villains. That was always how it happened. The scare. The panic of it, the widespread plague that came with the notion that nothing was safe, that nothing could be safeguarded against it, that anyone could be affected. That there was nothing anyone could do, least of all the vassal, the messenger, to make it stop. Even if they wanted to, this bane always licked promises up their ear and bore arguments into their mind. How do you know? You’re it. Don’t you want to listen to me?
When it was all said and done, the chosen one would slither back to the hole that killed his self and stole his autonomy. But how can any human fit into a hole that size: two inches wide and three inches tall? Easily. Close a fist, pack tight against the wall, and squeeze down to the size of the scourge inside. Make it precise: two, three. Nothing more and nothing less, or the fit won’t work.
He felt a light, cold tap against his arm, and then a clatter, as the object in question fell to his feet. Realising, with a blink, that he had one hand pressed against the building, David drew his fingers back and closed them into his light fist: a protective measure. The hole wasn’t a hole after all, but a piece of miscoloured brick wall. Probably a stain from coffee or something black that had hit the wall. He looked toward Lenny with a frown. “What?”
“Are you even listening to me?” She was crouched by the closest wall, arms rested on her thighs. One hand held an empty tankard, which she lifted with a grin and threw aside. In her other hand was the pen, and she had somehow gained a dark smudge on her cheek while he had been off in his mind. “I was thinking, maybe… Moore’s out today, right? But I know this guy a few blocks over...”
David could only stare at the little black mark on her cheek. He gestured to his face, a mirror of where he saw the mark on hers. “You have a, uh…”
Lenny lifted her hand, wiping it against the mark. When she drew her hand back, it was gone. She turned her hand to show him. Nothing. “There’s nothing, kid.” Her lips quirked up in a mischievous grin, like she thought it was funny he had accidentally seen something he shouldn’t have. Again.
“Oh.” David frowned and shook his head. “It’s - I’m probably just seeing things, that’s all.”
“Isn’t that how it always goes? You get something stuck inside your head, yapping in your head like a noisy little dog, and you’ve gotta let it out.” She reached up, tapping her knuckles against her head. “That’s why you go to that doctor, right? It gets all built up in your system, and then you’ve gotta flush it all out before you explode. ‘Cause you think you’ll get fixed that way.”
He took a few steps toward Lenny and her little collection of stuff - if she was around it, that made it hers: unspoken rule of her commanding presence. “Doctor Poole’s nice. He wants to help me.”
Lenny wrinkled her nose in disbelief, standing and reaching up to tug at her dark hair. How she got her fingers into it when it was that greasy and tangled was beyond David. “What about your girl? What’s her name? Lily? Tilly? Thought she was trying to help you too.”
“Philly.” He made his way past Lenny, to a little pile of junk. There was a trash bag on top of it, so maybe there was something in there he could find for himself. Lenny was a sharer, but he wanted something to count for it. She could scrounge for days; that wasn’t his forte. But he wanted something . “She doesn’t give up on me. That’s not how we work.” He crouched next to the pile, pulling up the bag and using it to move the clutter aside. “Sometimes it’s hard, you know, to deal with some of the things she says. It’s probably the same for her.”
“You’re off right now, aren’t you? Huh?” She laughed, moving next to David and shoving her hand under the garbage bag. That was her way: no care whether or not her hands got dirty. She was the kind of girl who preferred to get down and dirty to make things easy, rather than making things harder by keeping it clean. No room for taking her time here, or anywhere. She’d stick her hands in a squealing pig if it meant she could sell its heart.
“No, we’re not off. She’s just - we… had a fight.” He shoved a few cups aside, falling back on his haunches.
“Why? She think she’s too good for you?”
“Can we just - can you stop talking about it?”
Lenny looked at him, her brown eyes darkened by her scowl, and David swore he could feel hostility radiating from her. Swore that her arm was about to shoot out and shove him off balance, just so she could laugh about it. This was the suffocating sort of energy he always felt in his dreams: the type that came with claws and teeth and entrancing arms that wrapped around your throat and whispered you’re living, you’re living, you’re living... until you weren’t anymore.
But you’d love what kills you every time.
The moment passed. David blinked, and saw that she wasn’t scowling at all, just staring at him like he’d just asked her to cut off her arm. “You good, kid?”
Shaken, he looked away. He began to root through the pile again, touching every piece through the thin plastic of the garbage bag, but it didn’t help. His fingers prickled when he touched them, the same way gooseflesh felt when it rose on an arm. “Yeah.”
David rested his hand on his chin, looking out towards the window. He didn’t want to look at her, didn’t want to see the utter disappointment he knew she must be wearing over her face, knowing he wasn’t answering her questions the way she wanted him to. He wanted to answer her questions too, if it meant he’d get out of here faster. “I can’t remember anymore. It just… happened. ”
For a moment, Melanie looked almost desperate enough to stand from her seat, like she wanted to come over and shake him by the shoulders and tell him to continue, like she couldn’t stand for him not to. Maybe her serene facade was beginning to crack. He did that to people. Made them question their adherence to their better nature. “How do you feel right now, David? About us discussing your past?”
He looked to her, his throat tight with impatience. He wanted to leave, to go somewhere far away, where he wouldn’t be able to hear anyone’s thoughts, wouldn’t be able to hear anyone talking, wouldn’t find himself drained by everything in his head. Remembering was the hardest part. It hurt his brain, made it hard to focus. “I feel like it’s not helping.” It definitely wasn’t going to help him remember anything.
“It may seem difficult now,” she said, “but in time, this will come to help you.”
Empty promises. Always the empty promises. Every person he’d ever seen was guilty of it, whether or not they knew. He wanted to believe her, but there were birds that flew in spite of being broken, and there was still a hole in the wall of his memories. As long as those existed, he couldn’t ever believe there wasn’t something wrong with him. Something in his system that needed to be emptied. Need to be cleaned .
You’ve got something, man.
No you don’t.
Dude, will you just shut up for, like, two seconds?
He looked at Melanie. “What if it doesn’t?”
“It will, David. You’re a mutant, not a human. These things should be dealt with differently than how you’re used to.”
“But what if it doesn’t? ” No, this was an important question. The memory work, the talk work: they would either help him, or it wouldn’t. There was no third option. Too little help was not enough help. Thinking barely yielded anything to him. “Is it hard for anyone else to remember their powers?”
Melanie turned her head. There it was again: her patience, slipping away with a sigh: he saw it in the way her shoulders fell. But still, her eyes were kind. “No. Not like this. Which is why I want to work with you, David. You’re very important. I want to help you. Never, in the history of Summerland, have we ever failed to help someone find out how to control their powers. How to control their mind. David, I promise, as long as you stay here, we’ll give you the help you need.”
He’d sure like to believe that. As it was now, she didn’t answer his question. If it didn’t work - if there was something more wrong with him, if his memories kept splitting into smaller and smaller fragments, if he couldn’t control his powers - what would he do? You’re not sick, she’d said.
What would any of them do, if she was wrong?
He ran a thumb over his temple. Screw it. Focus, focus!
Benny laughed when David pulled away and stood. “Giving up already?”
“There’s more stuff over here.” David was no Benny, and he came away empty-handed and cursing his terrible luck. No skills, no way of finding anything. “That stuff’s too small. You’ve got the eyes, not me. That’s your job.” He was already looking at the door.
“Really? You’re going to go over there again?” Benny twisted to look back, holding his balance on an arm. A grin seeped into his voice. He would be one to think it funny. He always thought these things were funny - David, caught up in the weight of a world he couldn’t quite see. “You seem real preoccupied with that. What, it scaring you or something?”
“No, I…” As he moved closer, the pull grew stronger. It came from the door, as though some invisible magnet-like entity with strength his opposite were surrounding it. Opposing energies, perhaps: David’s, light and confused and messy, and the door’s, heavy and firm and composed. It knew what it wanted, didn’t it? And David - David didn’t.
He felt something hit his calf and looked back.
Lenny’s dark gaze, filled with mirth, gleamed behind a curtain of short, uncombed black hair. “Finish your sentence, kid! I don’t got all day to wait for your mouth to catch up to your brain!” She snickered mindlessly, standing up straight again and kicking the bag back into the pile. As it tumbled across the ground, David couldn’t help glancing down at it, his eye attracted by the residual black streak - the same dark mark that Lenny had on her cheek earlier - smearing across the concrete like bug guts. Steaming bubbles popped through it, the vapor curling up into the air and wrapping around Lenny’s calves, up her thighs, around her torso. Up, and up, and up, to her grinning lips, to the menacing look in her eyes. Never a look Lenny would wear. Not with him.
David took a step back toward the cellar, drawn toward its seductive tug and away from the danger of the Lenny’s aura.
Listen to her.
Go back to her, and everything will be fine, fine, fine!
He suddenly felt sick, his eyes burning, and turned away. His teary gaze returned to the door.
A slow, thick line of blood rolling out from the crack. It spread along the web-cracked wood, seeping through, pulled by an invisible force even greater than gravity: up, down, into the invisible crevices that David couldn’t see, crackling and cackling and teasing him to come closer. He took a step, looked closer, and saw that the blood was tainted. Through the red of the liquid ran dark tendrils, like burnt and blackened fingers. As the blood moved, the fingers curled, beckoning him forward.
What are you doing?!
Too much, too much!
“How is this helping me get Amy back?” David curled his fingers in his hair and leaned his head back, staring up at the ceiling. His restless foot tapped against the floor: an attempt to drive the nerves away.
“You can’t rescue your sister until you know exactly how your powers are triggered.” There was a hint of impatience in Melanie’s voice. After all, she was only helping David understand what had really happened that day. She hadn't been part of it. She hadn’t caused it. She was only trying to extract what happened, in an attempt to fill David in on his powers. Trying to piece together what they both wanted to know. This was a good thing for him. He would be better off for it. He wasn’t sick. Only affected by a power he couldn’t entirely control yet. “We can help you.”
“I know - I know you can help me. All this stuff, the - the powers, the things that happened to me before Clockworks.” Lies weren’t bad when they wouldn’t affect an outcome, right? They could all be used as stepping stones to help him learn. This was what Doctor Poole would have done. He would have guided him through his mind, calming him along the way, showing him reason.
Just like the door.
He heard her footsteps approaching - felt the darkness creeping up behind him, strong and cold, but she was Lenny. She was his friend. They had come here together, to find their next hit, together. Whatever was there was a product of his own mind. His own mind. No super-being prowling behind him, watching, waiting until he wasn’t looking to snap him up in its terrifying jaws and make him the next hole in the wall.
Something laughed - in the cellar. Laughed. Best friends till the end, huh?
“Hey, man, you feeling okay? What are you, uh, huh… looking at?” Benny’s hand rested on David’s arm.
Something cold snapped at his skin, drilling into his muscles, and David flinched, tugging his arm away. Shit! “What the hell was that?”
The cellar door creaked, groaning so deeply it reverberated through his stomach like hunger pains. But hunger pains didn’t drill so deeply into his body. They didn’t snake through his bones and creak, nor climb the sides of his neck and settle in his teeth, nor crawl to his temples and slam their invisible knuckles against the soft of his skin. His head shook with pain and his ears rang metallic, chipping at his thoughts.
“David,” Melanie murmured. Her voice sounded distant, but when he looked at her, through the brick wall, he could see that she was standing now, one hand reaching toward him. “It’s all right if you can’t remember anymore.”
“Should’ve said it earlier, kid!” Behind Melanie, Lenny grinned, waving her fingers at him. Her other hand at the pen. She tossed it up, and it wheeled through the air once - flip - twice - flip - thrice - flip . Then, sudden and shark-like, she snatched the pen out of the air. “Come on. Forget these losers!” Every word sent a wave of pain through his head, and he couldn’t shake it off.
“No - s-sorry,” he murmured, turning back to the door. There was a crack where it opened, several centimeters wide, but it was there, and he swore it opened all the more the longer he looked at it. There was something inside, peering out at him, invisible but present. He didn’t need to see it to know that it was there, watching, waiting: existing in the shadows of David’s sight, as real as anything else.
You’re just seeing things!
“Come on, David.” Melanie. “You’re seeing things.” Lenny.
An empty plastic trash can flew behind Benny, slamming against the wall with a resounding CLANG! that David swore was far too metallic a sound to come from it. He flinched and staggered back. Everything sounded too loud: Benny in his ear, screaming something he couldn’t understand: a thousand voices in the road, springing heads out from the sidewalk and the roaring cars and the constant teeth they bore and the shrill shriek of the kettle, incessant and faint and louder and louder and louder and the cans flying into the wall and the sky flickered just for a second the sky flickered without a sound and the sun blinked out and the world stopped turning and everything jolted like ice on a hot day and he looked back out the window but there was a hole in the wall and the leaves just like the bricks and Lenny ducking and slamming into David and sending him staggering and falling onto the door and someone screamed above David in the second level of Summerland or maybe somewhere beneath the door someone screamed his name and he didn’t know who it was and Melanie grabbed his arm but her mouth was closed and he opened his mouth to say something anything at all this was not real but he couldn’t say anything and there was no light and he looked up and there was the bird again with the broken wing big as the sun shrouding them in darkness there was no light there was no sight and
He opened his eyes. The room was still here, orderly and quiet. No holes in the walls, no broken furniture, no dumpsters stuck halfway through the floor. His fingers clutched the armrest so tightly that his nails pushed into the skin of his fingertips, but he only felt them vaguely. They throbbed when he took his hand away. He let his arms fall to his thighs.
Melanie still sat across from him, her brow furrowed, her index finger pressed against her bottom lip. When she realised his confusing, she lowered her hand and leaned forward. “And what happened next?”
For just a moment, it felt as though this room was a dream. A glitch in the matrix. He shut his eyes. His head was pounding. Opened his eyes again. Still here. “What?”
“You said you walked to the door. What happened next?”
David frowned. “What door?”