Let me preface this by saying it's only the first half of the story. The second half is taking a while to write, but there comes a point where the story pauses and shifts gears so it works pretty well on its own until I get the whole thing out. Watch this space.
Helena wants the pain to stop. Later, she will think of better reasons, less selfish reasons. Stopping the bullies from hurting anyone else. Sure. But in the moment she wants revenge, and nothing more, and she hates herself for it. For being such a small, ugly person.
But then, she has been hiding in the library all day just to keep them off her back. Hungry, sleepless, her lower back still hurting from when they pushed her to the ground, she's lost herself in a book about two girls traveling the known world and its inner edges, hidden in a high-backed chair in a badly lit corner. When the lights go out it takes her a minute to look up from the book.
It's not the first time Helena has been left alone in the closed library, and it's not like anyone expects her to come home. She sighs, letting go of some tension between her shoulders, and takes a small flashlight from a pocket in her jacket and curls up in the chair and keeps reading until she finishes the book, sometime late at night.
And then she goes exploring. Just walking around, stepping light and careful, not making a sound, pretending to be a ghost gliding between the bookcases and through the halls, enjoying the dark, the quiet, the smell of old paper held by many hands.
In the deepest, darkest basement level she opens a door she always thought was locked, and that's around when things begin to smudge and blur together. She skims through creaking tomes and brittle parchments and crude clay tablets and the shadows grow and dance around her as the little flashlight seems to shine brighter. Helena can't make sense of most of what she finds: historical accounts involving people and places she hasn't heard of, ancient shopping lists that are probably exciting to archaeologists, treatises on politics and physics and philosophies and swordplay using deep jargon she thinks she might decipher after a good night's rest, and poetry that makes no sense at all but sounds nice.
But among the scattered pages her scattered mind latches onto something. It isn't like words following one after another to build sentences. It's like a chorus of voices, a multitude of sounds resonating with the pain in her heart, harmonizing, pulsing, weaving a fabric of associations, insinuations, intuitions. Helena closes her eyes, afraid, not because she thinks she must be going insane – though she certainly does – but because of the cruelty and vehemence and wildness and the power in the message she is receiving.
And with her eyes closed she can still hear the books speaking to her, without words. It seems like all the knowledge in the world pours through her and the only thing that sticks is the bad because she is a bad person.
And with her eyes closed she can see a thing in the shadows, in the corners of the room, indistinct, smudged. A face without eyes or mouth, watching, waiting. It's not really there, she thinks. Some kind of intersection – but the knowledge is lost, the wrong shape to fit in her mind.
The shadows are everywhere, layering on top of each other, stretching and bending the angles of the room. Helena can't tell if her eyes are closed anymore.
And she's tired of being scared, so she takes the key to power from the books. It's easy once you know how. Painful, monstrous, unforgivable, but simple. The key turns in her head, unlocking it. The key turns in her heart, breaking it. She reaches into her breast with her fingers and pulls her heart out. It's not really happening. It's not even real blood. Something bright red and tangling wet runs through her fingers, falling on the circle of pages on the floor, a sacrifice. The pain isn't even that bad. It seems to belong to someone far away.
And her want and her sacrifice is enough. It's like a light turns on behind her eyes. All the shadows disappear and she opens her golden eyes and the books are burning. Helena breathes in and in and it feels like she's growing taller as she stands up. The smoke doesn't sting her eyes and the heat doesn't burn her. There's just the power, the heavy light she wears on her brow like a crown, making things possible. She hangs on to the need to punish those assholes, the first and only thing she cares about just now, to get Lucy and Kimberly and Neal and the rest, to get revenge, no, justice, just so there's something more in her than power. Something to be for. Something simple and straightforward and just for her. Make them pay. The entire library is on fire now, and she moves to the exit with quick strides, too late thinking she could rein the power in, have it not splash thermodynamics everywhere around her.
But she draws the heat inside her, maybe some instinct to protect the books, or maybe some instinct to avoid being noticed, and she feels her body explode with strength. Helena runs now, effortlessly, breaking through a smoldering plaster wall when she tries to turn a corner but fails to find traction and carrying on without slowing down, laughing even in the middle of this awful destruction, laughing as she hears the sirens approaching outside and realizes how much trouble she's in, laughing just because she's running like the wind and free and strong and clever and no motherfucker can hold her down anymore.
She does manage to keep the laugh down when she gets outside, and a half dozen firefighters approach her with concerned faces. She doesn't run or giggle and she thinks she hides the light under her hair, and she walks confidently, trying not to alarm them. She knows they mean well, and she likes them, and she hopes they can save some books, and if she gets out of their way she might not have to go to jail.
But when one of them puts a hand on her shoulder her anger slips out, she feels just a moment's offense at being touched, and she cuts his arm off at the elbow with a thought.
Haughty, she thinks. Don't care. Be haughty. They are beneath you. They will learn, or they will perish. It's not your problem either way.
So Helena walks away while the man falls down behind her, shrieking, gushing, drawing all attention from her. She keeps walking, urgent but restrained, when her composure slips for just a split second and a small fire breaks out on the bare asphalt where she put her foot down. And she keeps walking, burning up inside, until she comes to Kimberly's house. Standing at the front door she tries to think. Kimmy's parents are friends with Helena's parents, because of course they are, and they know her, so she probably won't get away without killing them too. Not if she's going to have time to make Kimberly suffer. And being her parents is probably no capital crime.
Helena takes to the air, leaving another piece of her heart behind. She rises to the second floor, where she opens Kimberly's bedroom window and hovers inside, slow and steady and soundless. The cunt sleeps on her back, nude, sheet tangled between her legs, making cute little snores, and her head turned to the side with a hand curled up next to her mouth like she's dreaming of sucking her thumb, a breathtaking picture of easy, raw, effortless, guileless sex, only hinted at by the little light coming in from the street, so beautiful it hurts, even now. If only someone hadn't talked her into thinking being gay was an evil thing.
Yeah, it's the inside that counts, thinks Helena. She looks down on that pretty pale face and imagines shoving her thumbs into those cruel judging eyes and feels nothing, wants nothing but for this to be done. On the nightstand is Kimberly's fancy phone. It needs a password, but Helena only has to close her eyes and wish to see the pattern of fingerprints. From there it takes only a minute to find the others' addresses and some small part of her is relieved that she has no excuse for torture. So she holds her hand out and lets the power flow into it, carefully, trying to find an even rate, trying to figure out how to control it, until her hand glows white hot.
Kimberly wakes up at the last moment, from the heat or the light, looking ready to panic. She breathes in sharply, beginning to scream, when Helena drops her hand and karate chops the cunt's head off in one jerking motion. There's no resistance, no noise. There's only a little bit of blood, and the mattress smolders a little bit, and one takes care of the other. A sharp smell of hot copper fills the room, which is impregnated with Kimberly's favorite perfume – some kind of white flower – and mixes into something foul, washing over the few happy memories of her Helena has. And Kimberly still looks at her, her eyes wide and full of tears, her perfect red lips trembling. Helena's hand, cool again, strokes the cheek of the only girl she's ever loved.
'You should have just left me alone', says Helena, bent over and whispering in Kimberly's ear. 'You piece of shit.' And she feels the head stop twitching and go still and for a second it's like the last ten years never happened and she's happy again, a pleasant little fire in her stomach. She wipes the tears from Kimberly's cheeks and kisses those perfect lips, just once, like she used to dream about, and maybe she imagines it but in the murky light those pale dead cheeks seem to blush pink.
The power flares and roars in Helena's head as she hits the street, crackling stronger than ever before, and she begins to realize the most terrible truth, in some part of her brain under the blazing light where she can still think. What luck that no one has put the key together before now, and that she burned the books. One could even think it was deliberate, some merciful kink in the structure of reality that made the knowledge so deeply hidden, where no one was meant to ever find it. Well, until Helena stumbled along. She walks quickly, carelessly, leaving a wake of small fires, bathing in the bloody smell still hanging over her and trying helplessly not to finish the thought.
The power comes from sacrifice, yes. It feeds on suffering and bloodshed and loss. But she doesn't have to give of herself.
Helena watches the sun rise, shivering in the heat, sitting on a bench in an empty park and eating a small hamburger that cost her the last of her money. She will have to go to school, she thinks. Avoid suspicion. Act normal. Try not to kill anyone else. Is she going to be able to hold back when Lucy comes after her? Probably. Just knowing she could melt their faces if she wanted to will let her shrug off most attacks. They might even relent when they hear about Kimmy. She'll just have to act convincingly shocked. Pretend to pretend to be sad. By the time she sits at the school house door and waits for the teacher to come unlock it – as she always does – she has a plan for every eventuality including confessing to the counselor she might have to visit that she worries she's not really sad because Kimberly was so mean to her.
She holds out until close to lunchtime.
The news come in during recess, when the wealthier kids read the Internet on their phones. The details of the murder, though ghastly, are too bizarre to be kept from the public and the library fire where the fire marshal lost an arm for unclear reasons fades quickly into the background. The bell rings and the class files in to greet the music teacher, Karin, but Karin announces class canceled. You may go home if you wish, she tells them. (Four students do.) Or she and the other teachers and the school counselor will be available if anyone wants to talk, or you may take a study room and talk amongst yourselves (another seven leave, in two groups), or just take it easy and take care of yourselves. And each other. The police may want to get in touch, they'll want to talk to everyone who knew Kimberly and we all knew her, didn't we, just so you're prepared, and you should know though you're almost adults no one can make you talk to them without an adult present, if you're not comfortable.
While most remaining students cluster together in muted conversation Helena shrugs and takes a book out of her desk, opens it to a dog-eared page and begins reading and waiting for lunch. She's not tired at all, somehow, worryingly, but she is ravenous. Her eyes glaze over as she tries to follow the plot – she's reading this books for laughs, both for its many elaborate heterosexual sex scenes and the fact the book was sitting all innocent in a bookshelf in the classroom – and she keeps reading the same page over and over, barely noticing, as she flexes the power within her as gently as she can, finding the finer controls, getting used to it. It's like when she had her growth spurt three years back, getting taller than anyone in the class over summer, and having to learn not to knock things down at every turn. Only it's all in her head, and she can stay perfectly still while the power flickers through the room, coming close enough to cut a hair off the head of Lenny sitting in front of her drawing something with his pastels, just because she can't stop thinking about food.
And she knows without looking that Lucy and Neal behind her have stayed just so they can do something to her. She rubs her eyes, gets up and walks out, with a finger stuck in the book to keep her place, as though she's just going to find a more comfortable place to sit and read or possibly a quiet place to cry without anyone noticing, and Lucy and Neal comes after her without any attempt at discretion, leaving six students in the classroom. She leads them to an unoccupied study room, or rather, goes there with no doubt they will follow. They don't disappoint, throwing open the door with a bang not long after she has sat down in the couch and opened the book.
'We know it was you', says Neal, voice shaking with anger. 'We're telling the cops.'
'Really?' says Helena. She had not planned for this. It's too stupid. 'I cut a girl's head off, and you go out of your way to be alone in a room with me and tell me you're going to put me in jail.' She tries not to laugh, laughs anyway, and the light spills out from under her hair and she stands up and the two bullies seem to shrink under her gaze. 'Is there a version of this story where I don't kill you two assholes first?'
'I – you – you're evil', says Neal, backing up against the wall, holding their arm in front of Lucy, protecting her or shoving her back or maybe both. 'You're a monster.' Helena feels a stab of admiration at their courage. Lucy, meanwhile, seems ready to faint.
'Yeah', says Helena, locking eyes with Neal as she takes her jacket off and begins to unwrap the bandage on her left arm. 'I'm a monster you made. Look.' She points at the scars, jagged, uneven, layered. 'This is from when you flushed my head in the toilet. The first time. This is from when our dear, departed Kimberly put a handful of pubic hair in my soup. This is from when Lucy told me people as poor as me should be killed. This is from when you rubbed chewing tobacco in my hair.'
Helena is not angry at all. It scares her, how calm she stays. She keeps Lucy and Neal pinned to the wall with a steady pressure, just hard enough and hot enough to keep them from moving or thinking too easily. Not that they try to. They are utterly defeated, broken, eyes blank with panic. On a level she observes the power has stopped growing because they're beyond fear. She lets up a little, bit by bit, and wraps her scars back up.
'I'm over all that, I guess is what I'm trying to say', she says. 'You fuckers made my life Hell, I turned into a demon. I'm willing to call that even. I don't want to hurt anyone else. Let's not escalate this to the point where I turn you into two wet stains on the wall, what do you say?'
'Fuck, fuck is wrong with you?' says Lucy, in a high-pitched whine.
'I'm a monster. We just went over this. I'm struggling to stay in control this infinite cosmic power that feeds on hurt. Are you seriously going to try to make me angry?'
'We can talk like civilized people', says Neal, with a pointed look at Lucy.
'More to the point, I'd rather you didn't', says Helena. 'Talk. To anyone else.'
'Like we were going to snitch', says Lucy. 'We were just going to hold it over your head. Hey, our friend was brutally murdered in her sleep at the same time as she browsed the personal details of her friends on her phone, maybe someone should check the fingerprints on the loser who's got a history with those particular three people.'
'See, you should have bought me a smartphone like I asked when you made fun of me for not having one, then I'd know how they worked and we'd have avoided all this.'
'You know you are why people light hobos on fire, right?'
A sound like a thunderclap rattles the building as all of Helena's hate falls on Lucy, like a stormwind through a funnel. Most of her evaporates and a handful of dark greasy lumps splatter the wall before Helena knows what happens. Neal throws themselves to the floor, landing on their face, screaming, and the door flies off its hinges, into a crowd standing outside the room. More than just the trio's hanger-ons, their despicable fanclub who joins in their games. No, it seems like large parts of the school must have heard something going on, kids and teachers and even the janitor.
And they're hurt and afraid and Helena all but loses herself as the power grows explosively and she knows there's no version of this story where her life isn't over and she doesn't know what to do. She needs help. She needs to do something with all this energy. So much energy pouring into the air, it's like it wants to condense into mass. Bodies, she thinks, it's too much to take into my body. Need more. And the light bends to her desire and a handful of dark shapes fold out of the air, shadow things with spindly pointed arms and legs and not much else, jittering and staggering and stumbling into motion, without sound. They step on Neal, and Neal resumes screaming as the needle-legs stab their legs, arms, back. The screams turn to gurgling as the things step on their neck, and helpless low breathless stuttering moans as one step sinks into the back of Neal's head.
Helena watches as helpless and horrified as everyone else. Some mad part of her worries she'll get in more trouble for killing the most queer student in school but she supposes really it's more that Neal never treated her as subhuman, never went out of their way to be mean, even held the others back a couple of times.
The needle-things don't react like the power does, moving with her will. They just move away from Helena, through the crowd, as it falls over itself in a desperate scrabble to get away. In fear or in pain, they scream just as loud, and innocent or guilty, they bleed just as red. Helena keeps watching Neal as their struggle slows to a stop, and her heart breaks all by itself, and the power wraps over it like a cold shroud, and a course of action that was unthinkable a moment ago becomes the obvious solution to several immediate problems.
The great suffering of the crowd makes the power spiral out of control. Their pain makes her feel bad. In fact, the thought that anyone will remember her as this monster is unbearable. And the fewer people left to raise alarms the easier it will be for her to get away. So the power rolls out of her in waves, thick sharp light cutting them all to pieces – the constructs as well as the people – killing quickly, with little bloodshed. Quiet spreads. The school only has about three hundred students and fifty staff, Helena recalls. Limited casualties. And it's a little bit out of the city, people have certainly called the cops but they may not get here before she can get out.
But no. Outside the windows, past the people running away, she can already see a line of blue and white cars, with cops behind them pointing rifles at the building. Maybe she could blow up the cars with a fireball before she has to find out if she's bulletproof.
Instead she blows out a window in the back and runs into the woods. The woods are thick and old and she stumbles awkwardly between roots and pits covered in deep moss and tangles with ferns and blueberry bushes and low hanging stinging spruce needles. To Helena's surprise there are people here too, stumbling after her, calling for help, shooting and coming closer to hitting each other than her, but still closing in as she concentrates on not starting any forest fires.
One bullet hits a girl hiding in a thorn bush, who screams once and falls silent, and Helena reaches out to the shooter and pulls his intestines out of his mouth from fifty meters away. It feels fair to her, but the cops retaliate with burst fire and something she thinks must be a shotgun that cuts a fairly thick tree trunk in two next to her head. Her leg decides to quit mid-stride and she falls, fast and hard enough to cut her cheek on a bush despite trying to cover her face with her armored arms. Jaw clenched and aching, she feels around for peoples' heads, takes twenty-six of them – everyone facing in her direction within the forest – and pulls them off.
The noise, the chaos doesn't stop, and Helena crawls through the underbrush, haphazardly, left leg still on break, trying to squish flat against the ground, away from the bullets. After a while she realizes it's just her screaming. She stops to breathe, flops over on her back, looks down supported on her elbows, and sees a broad trail of blood behind her and more pumping out of a hole in her thigh, and suddenly her head spins in a much more unpleasant and distracting way than what the power does to her and she slides down in the moss.
Some intuition, some insight in the workings of the world she's gained in the last day warns Helena that healing is a lot harder than harming, and she draws in an ocean of power, everything she's spilled out here and in the school, enough that a fire in a storage room she hadn't noticed goes out from the drop in temperature, draws it into her, replacing the wide awareness of the battlefield with a brutally fine, exquisite perception of her wound. And determination. And the power sings and begins to knit the flesh together and suck the blood back in, and it's still not enough, and she takes another piece of herself, feeling something tear in her chest, ignores it, shoves her fingers into her leg and rips the wound out, and she wants to scream but it hurts so much she can't breathe.
Trembling, feeling hollowed out, thinner, a dry skin stretched over bones a size too large, she limps deeper into the woods. The storm fades, or moves to somewhere deeper inside her, under the armor. Helena holds the light at the forefront of her mind, where it spills from her brow and lights the way and keeps her strong and stops her thinking too much about the hundred or so people she has killed.
The day goes on and helicopters turn up to hunt Helena. She shoots them out of the sky with fireballs when they get close and the fires begin to spread after all. Losing all direction, hot and ever more desperately hungry, she finds a line of trucks and tanks moving over a field at the edge of the forest, and starts running in the other direction. The sounds of stomping boots and another helicopter come closer and she turns the key and slips through space a little bit, leaving another piece of herself behind, and finding herself back in town, at dusk, on an unfamiliar back street with the forest on one side and a faceless storage building on the other.
For one second, in the quiet, guilt almost falls on Helena, a wave crashing against the wall of determination throbbing in her temples. She keeps moving, wiping something from her cheeks. Probably sweat. And she finds a gas station and walks in to find food before remembering she has no money and they'll probably have seen her face on TV.
There's three people in the small store, including a clerk, and they all stare at her nakedly, concernedly, mutely, but, she realizes, not like they were looking at a wanted murderer. She takes a look herself at her reflection in the glass storefront and finds she's somehow covered almost head to toe in blood and dirt, her long hair tied in greasy, pine-riddled knots, her shirt in shreds, and the light flaring from her forehead casts her face in long, harshly angled shadows. For a long moment she can't look away from the ruin that used to be her favorite non-book thing in the world, her steel studded leather jacket.
'Sorry', she says to the room, piling a stack of plastic-wrapped sandwiches on her arm. 'I'm very hungry, and I'm going to take this food. Don't bother calling the cops, they're already trying to kill me.'
And she leaves without trouble. But then someone down the street calls out her name and her shoulders sag. Just a moment's privacy to shove food in her face, what does it take? Where can she go? She looks to the sky and her eyes fall on a tall building in front of her. Ten, no, twelve floors tall and with a flat roof. She tries to do that space-slip thing again, but trying to think through how she did it tangles her in doubt and for an instant it's like the entire planet Earth is scraping over her skin, she's stretched out over everything and flimsier than a soap bubble and the air resistance pushes against her with a force like a train as she moves up at an angle and she keeps going just because she's too high up to dare stop.
Flailing, tumbling, straining, Helena falls on her knees on the rough concrete roof, somehow coated in a thin layer of gravel, and the pain strangely feels worse than anything else. Stinging lances of pain stabbing into her kneecaps, immediate, eye-watering, real. It reminds her heart to beat, her throat to draw in air. She falls over, turning sideways to avoid crushing the sandwiches, scraping her elbow and still catching two of them under her. A quavering, shuddering cry escapes her as she hugs herself and rocks from side to side on her back and lets the tears wash over her face.
Sirens approach down there but she still has time, she thinks. Time to just give up for a while. Stop being cool and strong and hard in the way that no one can be without thinking, knowing people deserve to be blown to pieces for standing in her way.
It occurs to Helena the best thing she can do is let them kill her. It will keep her from killing anyone else, and she can't imagine any other way to accomplish that. She stands up, sniffles, and steps to the edge of the roof and looks down on the hard ground. It probably won't hurt. It'll kill her for sure, if she can keep herself from doing anything stupid. If she can die. What reason, what justification to keep doing this can she possibly have? She remembers thinking, when zombie apocalypse stories were in the fashion, she would rather die than live in a world where people have to kill each other because they can't trust each other.
The soldiers down there run around like ants. They aim searchlights along the ground, not showing any interest in her location. And she's so hungry she wants to throw up.
So she sits down and devours two sandwiches and then when she starts on a third, beginning to feel the taste of roast beef and mustard, she decides trash food is a reason to live. Good enough to kill anyone for? Probably not even in self-defense. But if she has one reason she might think of others, she doesn't trust her low blood sugar defeatism. She doesn't trust that she's supposed to be stomped on her entire life, hated and feared and alone just because she doesn't fit in, and then die the same way just to make everyone else happy. She deserves at least to have time to think about her options. Maybe time to feel properly bad about her mistakes. Maybe even time to try and make up for them.
Helena wracks her brain trying to conceptualize a folded space, some kind of pocket dimension, a way to easily bring the remaining pile of sandwiches with her. She can teleport, she shouldn't have to worry about these details, she thinks. It's easier if you just don't think about it, obviously, she just has to want and know that wanting means she can. But she doesn't even know, she can't picture what it is she wants to do. Once you start thinking, how do you stop?
A light startles her out of her thoughts, a narrow cone of light shining on her from above. Then another one, in her eyes. Then a rattle of small explosions around her. In her shoulder, sending her down in a graceless twirl. Dizzy, not sure if her good right arm is still attached to her, fighting not to throw up from the pain, she lashes out completely blind, surrounding herself in a bright electric blue ball of fire that grows and grows until she feels the message is clear.
'Leave me alone', says Helena, in the silence after the fire, as the two helicopters fall out of the sky. Something whistles through the air towards her and she throws her hand out and it bounces away with a metallic noise. A rotor blade, maybe. Everything is on fire within several blocks, and she can hear faint screams from below and turns her attention to her ruined shoulder instead, with a sullen, self-righteous sort of anger. It doesn't go away even when she's repaired the wound, and the feeling of being a whiny child makes her even angrier.
What does she want? Out of here. She steps down to the ground, cutting diagonally through the building. There's a scream of tortured steel amongst the falling rocks, and maybe something more, but Helena moves on, not looking back, with the sinking sun in front of her, while the sky turns red.
There are men in rows with rifles, and she kills them with sheets of fire. There are tanks, and she sinks them into the ground. There are airplanes, quiet and ominous and strangely shaped, and she disintegrates them with her eyes.
There are walls, and she does not care about the walls.
It happens so quickly. Just like that, most of the city where Helena spent her life is gone, the army is gone, and she is gone, somewhere far away, in the deep forest, alone but for a single bird singing somewhere in the night. A cuckoo, which doesn't strike her as symbolic but safe. A safe feeling coming from desolation, from solitude. Helena remembers learning about cuckoos for the first time in a book that said they sing in the wildest, deepest part of the forest, far away from humans. She thinks it feels like coming home. Maybe it is symbolic after all.
And as she thinks these still and lonely thoughts she wrangles her jacket off (tearing it even more), wades into a little stream, drops to her knees, bends over and drinks until she coughs and gasps for breath. Dropping to her stomach, rolling over, scrabbling for a spot on the mossy bank that keeps her head just over the water before washing herself and her dissolving clothes with stiff cold hands, until all she has left is her raw and aching skin and a few tough threads and the bandages on her forearms, and the light on her brow abates bit by bit, as if burning out.
For a moment she floats in the darkness and nothing seems to be, nothing is there, Helena isn't there, there's just the timeless void. She could die now. Maybe she already died. It wouldn't be bad if it was like this, she thinks. Nothing. Oblivion. Nirvana.
But then she thinks about how she's thinking these things and ruins it. Everything hurts. Her throat hurts, she must have been screaming much more than she was aware. And her breath catches with a horrible rasping sound when she remembers what she did. She doesn't know if it's self-loathing or sympathy or what, but she's overwhelmed by pain so impossible she wants to tear herself to pieces. Squirming feebly to get off her back, she vomits violently, silently, invisibly in the dark, heaving until the acid burns her sinuses and cramps burn in her stomach muscles. The smell makes her gag all over again, and she rinses her nose with an exhausted desperation. At some point she falls over in the moss and can't seem to summon the strength to move again and she lies on her arm and thinks there's no point in moving anyway because she just wants to get away from herself and she's stuck.
And the light comes on again, just a flickering candlelight, and she reaches in for the remaining part of her heart and rips it out of her chest, slick and darkly glistening in her hands where it doesn't hurt her. But it's like it keeps growing back and by the time she lies down with her jacket wrapped around her she's already feeling again.
'Help me', says Helena, a whiny croak, a prayer to her power, a pure and undirected wish.
And as the light fades from her forehead, a gentle liver-colored light rises from the ground in front of her. The stuff that came out of Helena takes shape and walks to her, a figure seemingly made of dark glass with smoldering red threads running through her inside, giving her shape a dull glow. This one has a face, unlike the creatures Helena made before, and maybe that's what makes her less frightening.
It's an inhuman face, like a mask, idealized, flawlessly proportioned, made entirely of the same glassy substance, adorned with two short sharp horns instead of hair and glistening in the dark with its own inner light. But its owner looks on Helena with naked concern.
'Having a bad day?' says the glowing girl, kneeling at Helena's side.
'I'm trash', says Helena, reaching out with a shaking arm, not knowing why. 'And I did a bad thing.'
'It'll be okay', says the strange girl, pulling in Helena and cradling her in her lap. Her skin is softer than it looks, and warm. 'I think you just need a little love.'
'Whuaag', says Helena, meaning to ask who she is, but finding herself shaking and sobbing, struggling to get free, finding no strength in her body.
'Oh my, it's been a long time since you've been held', says the other girl. 'I can tell these things. I'm a succubus.'
'Are you going to sex me to death?' says Helena, her voice small and brittle.
'Nah, I'm more into dudes. And you're nourishing me right now, it's not so bad is it?'
'It doesn't, uh', says Helena, suddenly aware of the succubus' body pressed against her, the flawless curves, the hard muscles, the soft swell of her crotch against the back of Helena's head. It makes her body come alive, and she thinks of asking if this preference for dudes is particularly deep and abiding, and she's surprised at what comes out of her mouth instead 'You're right, I can't even remember the last time anyone touched me. That I wanted. I must have been like four.'
'I won't let go.'
For a long time Helena floats in another darkness, warm and comforted, until her tears run out.
'I, um, this is nice', she says, hands lazily stroking the warm arms wrapped around her chest. 'I'm just so tired. I'd like to lie down all the way. And I'd like to hold you too. If you want.'
'Sure', says the succubus, and lifts Helena off her and onto the ground. The moment she lets go Helena panics, feeling like she's falling, and she takes hold of the succubus as soon as she lies down, on her side, facing Helena with a curious smile. Helena moans helplessly, burying her face in the succubus's chest, and the succubus just sighs, patiently, and strokes her hair and neck.
'Why are you so nice to me?' says Helena, with her small, still voice. 'Don't you know what I've done?'
'I'm not here to judge. Let's worry about that later.' The succubus's voice is warm and soft, but too precise, too quick, not quite human.
'Why are, where did you come from? I didn't make you, right?'
'It's more like you summoned me. I'm from, let's say outside. It's like what you'd call higher dimensions. You've seen some of this, you know it's hard to conceptualize, using words to talk about it in like, linear time is sort of like making the sun burn with a typewriter. But I'm here, Helena, because you needed me. I'm older than time and I've watched you since before you were born, and I unfolded from the moment you wished for me and I took form here in space because you paid with your soul. And when you don't need me anymore I'll go out there in the meat world and fuck and love and see what I can see down here for as long as it'll let me live and then go back outside.'
'My soul huh?'
'Don't worry about it, you'll grow more. You have a massive potential for caring.'
'I can listen to you talk all night', says Helena, looking deep into those shiny red eyes though she can hardly keep hers open. She leans in, without thought, feeling the heat of the succubus's breath on her lips, and then a handful of warm fingertips.
'Dudes, remember?' says the succubus, with a pointed smile.
'Sorry', says Helena, bending her neck to hide her face, eyes closed, cheeks burning, but smiling. 'I thought my guardian angel, yeah, I remember. What a waste.'
The succubus pulls Helena closer, and kisses her forehead, and maybe she does something to make her go to sleep. She's vaguely aware of being asleep, of dissolving in relief.
Almost two years go by in the forest. Helena doesn't see the succubus again after that long, dark night, nor any humans. She spends her time hunting and fishing and figuring out what plants to eat, and stitching clothes and shelter together from nothing but leaves and rodent fur, trying to hold back from using the power to make it easy, and failing when she grows faint with hunger and cold. She grows a little taller and thinner, and finds a lot of muscles she has never had cause to use along with tools on the large steel multitool she kept in her jacket for so many years.
Sometimes, at night, she haunts a farmhouse she's found where no one ever seems to move, scavenging a handful of clothes, some firewood, an old shovel, glass bottles, thread and needles to try and patch up her jacket. She takes a scent tree from the rear view mirror of a tractor standing in an overgrown field, but returns it the next night after finding the artificial smell overwhelming, inescapable and disgusting.
But most nights she can sleep. Not having people in her life gives her a kind of peace she has never known. Just not being afraid all the time takes a long time to get used to. She grows stronger, more energetic, climbs mountains and builds with stone and soaks in the quiet and the strange beauty of this untamed wild. She can spend a whole day sitting on the edge of a cliff and watch the sky and not think about anything, feeling bigger and stronger and more here when she comes down. This is how you grow your soul, she thinks.
Or at least let it scab over.
The bandages on her forearms, her armor, she leaves off after cleaning them one hot July day. The scars crisscrossing her wrists don't seem to bother her anymore, and she has to have some better use for the fabric. She experiments with weaving it into various arrangements for carrying and dragging things, but she doesn't find that many things to move around, and she ends up wrapping up her hips and her little breasts. It feels right, even normal, and she wonders how far from humanity she's drifted in the months of using underwear that keeps falling apart at the slightest breeze.
Sometimes Helena wonders why any part of her wants to hold on to that humanity. When she can be only herself, here, without expectations or labels or hate.
One day, while trying to scrape a wolf skin by half remembered methods she learned in a book that may or may not have been full of crap, it occurs to Helena she has stopped hating herself. You can't go around feeling guilty forever, she reasons. If she feels anything, it could be happiness.
Then, in the second year, she begins imagining meeting people. Maybe just one person or two at a time would be nice, no panicking judgmental crowds. Well, really just one, if she's honest. As she prepares for sleep, unwinding her coverings in the careful ritual she's created to preserve the slowly wearing-out bandages, she dreams of a girl walking up to her fire, lost and alone. And they're touching each other, curious, hungry, ecstatic. She relives the memory of the succubus holding her, regarding her, caring about her. And her sleeping dreams about the succubus are so real she suspects the time-loose higher-dimensional creature is there on some level. Every night she dies in the arms of ghosts, and every day getting up and leaving the dreams behind is a little bit harder than before.
So Helena walks west one day, and keeps walking from sunrise to sunset, and keeps walking when her stores of meat and tinder run out and her rope disintegrates as she climbs down a cliff and she pulls something in her shoulder in the fall, and she keeps walking when she leaves her empty beaver skin pack behind and when she wears holes in her wolfskin boots. In the middle of some kind of prairie, walking on bare, dry, caked dirt, out of water and with the setting sun in her eyes, her right foot begins to bleed, and she limps on until her left bumps into a rock and she falls on her knees with a grunt and decides to fall the rest of the way down. She cries a little, but it could just be dust in her eyes The worry that she may have to use the power to find water is growing, but still a distant concern. Hungry and hurting, but no worse than she knows she can manage, with nothing left but one bandage serving as underwear and a moose skin parka she wraps around herself as a blanket, she drifts to sleep watching the blurry stars.
And in the morning, not far away, she finds a road, flat and straight, and follows it south. Not much later a car appears behind her and Helena keeps walking, not looking around nor running to hide. Her back is stiff and her head is full of cotton and there's nowhere to hide anyway. Heat spills over her cheeks and forehead as the car stops next to her. It's been so long at first she mistakes the sensation for embarrassment, but then cold fear runs through her, like waking up at the edge of a cliff. The fear, at least, makes the power flicker out, and she holds on to it. I will die before I harm another person, she thinks, for the first time.
It might not even come to that. She could go peacefully, go to prison, like a normal human. The cops don't usually shoot you down in the street if you're not actively murdering people. At least not unless you have a much darker complexion than Helena. Even so, she begins to realize, serenely, she'll take whatever comes to her.
'Can I get you a ride?' says the car, or rather, the driver, speaking through the open passenger side window, next to Helena. Numb, she steps in and sits down.
The car smells old. Worn leather seats, polished wood interior, a seatbelt that clicks and ticks and resists being pulled out. But there are no ornaments, no stickers, no bobblehead dolls, not even anything hanging from the rearview mirror. Helena has seen more cars on television than she's ever been in, but still it strikes her as odd. And the driver, a plain-looking white girl, blonde page cut, plaid shirt, blue jeans, seem even odder. It's the way she looks at Helena, patient, smiling, maybe a little concerned, as if she has no idea what Helena has done. Maybe she gets a fresh start.
'Thanks', says Helena, and introduces herself. No reaction. 'I, it's been a long walk.'
'Reverend Charlotte Calavera. Yeah, I'd say it looks like you've been on the road a year or more. Not headed anywhere in particular, I take it?'
'No, how, wow, I never met a priest before.'
'That's fine, I meet a lot of people, so it evens out.'
'No I mean, I think, that's maybe lucky, maybe I need to talk to a priest.'
'Oh, well, we can do that. Is it, should I pull over?'
'No I, that's a bit sudden. Right now I actually really need some water.'
'There's a bottle in the glove box, feel free. And then I guess we can build up to it. Take it as slowly as you need. Ten minutes away from my place, if you'd like to get cleaned up, loan some clothes, eat. I've got a guest room and I'd like to invite you as my guest.'
'That's', says Helena, suddenly struggling with something hard and hot in her throat. She wants to say something flippant about how she's not in a position to pretend she doesn't want to impose, but instead she makes a choked sound and leans back and cries, shaking and powerless, cradling the bottle to her lap, trying to be still and quiet and failing.
'Don't worry about it', says Charlotte, touching the back of her hand to Helena's shoulder. 'Not the first street kid I've taken in, nor the smelliest.'
'No it's, thanks, I just never knew, people could, be so kind.'
'Well I'm a humanist, I might be biased on that one.'
The two women drive into the small town of Ford and to Charlotte's house, a squat one-story cube next to the cemetery. There, while Charlotte runs some errands, Helena rediscovers the pleasures of hot running water, clean skin, clothes that almost fit and Arundhati Roy, read by electric light while curled up in a pile of blankets in an easy chair. Time runs down, like condense on a cool glass of juice on this hot day, and as lunchtime approaches Helena puts a casserole in the oven, as she was asked, and sets the table. And from the low stone wall marking the edge of the boneyard she picks five dandelions, which she puts on the table in a tall glass.
Charlotte comes back five minutes later than she said she would, when the boiling casserole has cooled just a little, before Helena gets very worried. She mentions her often uncanny timing, and somehow makes everything funny and easy. She breathes in air and breathes out light and Helena can't even really hear what she's saying, she's lost in those gentle pale eyes, the song of that voice. Something about a church. It seems she wants Helena to join a meeting with a bunch of people for some purpose.
'I'm not really good with people', says Helena, desperate.
'It just takes practice', says Charlotte, not missing a beat.
'No, yeah, I'd like to, I just have a lot on my mind right now. Hey, you know, this is stupid, I owe you a life debt, I'll do anything for you. I mean that. So, I'm not going to ask anything of you. I couldn't do that. I'm specifically not doing that.'
'But there was this thing I had to talk about. I mean, I don't have to talk about it with you, I could find someone else. Charlotte, I, I really can't impose any more.'
'Nonsense. You want to talk, I can make time. This could take all evening?'
'I guess, um, a couple of hours anyway.'
'Well what do you know, my evening just opened up. Let me make two phone calls and I'm yours.'
'You're making it really hard to even comprehend my own level of gratitude myself here', says Helena, mumbling, as Charlotte bounds to the phone on the wall. She moves that way, bounding, darting, bristling with energy. Helena watches the smooth muscles of her shoulder and wrist as Charlotte doodles on a post-it note while talking, moving with such confidence, such joy, and it's even harder to think about what she's going to say.
'So', says Charlotte, turning to Helena, arms spread wide as if to embrace her, and Helena realizes she's hugging herself where she sits, and tears her eyes away from Charlotte, with effort. 'You're pregnant.'
'I'm joking. Let's sit down, you can lie on the couch if you want.'
Helena does sit on the couch, and she starts shaking and Charlotte holds her until she stops, and she says, slowly, 'I don't know where I should start. I'm better now, I should say. I was, I did some, some people died. You may hate me for that. But you don't have to be afraid. The thing is, what I did, I'm pretty sure I sold my soul to Satan.'
'Ah, yeah, that never goes well. How bad he cheat you?'
'Ha, no, I think I got a pretty good deal.' Helena stands up straight, holding on to a little cockiness, a little devil-may-care, a little hurt – that comes easy – and makes herself cold, and turns on the light behind her eyes and looks down on Charlotte and watches her eyes go wide. Just a little cruelty, she thinks. Just enough to prove the point. She has a glass of water on the table. She picks it up and crushes it into a melty, steaming lump in her hand and sits back down, cooling both herself and the glass in a couple of slow breaths.
'Damn', says Charlotte. 'That was you back east? The capital, all blown up? Back two years, and you've been living in the woods ever since?' She sounds sad, and she's holding Helena tighter than before. Helena nods, silent, weeping again.
''Tell me everything', says Charlotte, and she does, talking in a flat small voice, starting with how Kimberly was her best friend since before either of them could remember, and when she comes to meeting Charlotte the sun has gone down and the last of the casserole with it.
'And I don't understand why you're not running away screaming yet', says Helena, sitting in the dark room with her hand in Charlotte's.
'Well, I'm not saying you shouldn't go to jail', says Charlotte. 'But I'm not saying you should. I think there's still a kill order on you so giving yourself up may not even be possible. I think we should sleep on it at least.'
'O, okay, thanks. But that's not, I don't get you.'
'No? Let me be straight. I look at you, I don't see a scary monster. I see a very lonely, very scared girl, and I want to help.'
'And all that helping, you do this all day long, every day, don't you?'
'Yeah, I decided long ago I could do more for other people than for myself. And I've found it the world gives back more than you give, it pays you back every moment of every day.'
'Man, I don't know what drugs I'd have to be on to believe that.'
'That's okay, I'm not trying to convert you, you asked is all. I know you're coming from a different place, I mean, I just heard your life story, I can't claim I understand you, your beliefs.'
Helena sighs and leans back, suddenly too tired to speak, or at least to argue.
'I want to, though', says Charlotte, squeezing her hand.
'You're sure you want to share a bed with me? You do know, I find you very attractive.'
'I trust you wouldn't impugn my honor, and I'm not leaving you alone, not out of arm's reach, not for a moment. I think you've been alone for long enough.'
'But I'm just going to take, I want so much of you, I want all of you to myself (and definitely in a gay way) and that's crazy and selfish cause you're giving and all that and you've given me more than I can ever repay.'
'Like I said, I like giving. I'm trusting you not to take any more than you need. I'm going to convince you that you deserve – you think you're a bad person and you don't deserve to have anything good, right, well I'm going to show you different. Simply put, I'm going to love you (maybe in a gay way) until you learn that you're allowed to be loved and allowed to love yourself.'
'How do you do this thing where you care so, you barely even know me, are you even human? You could be an angel, you know, maybe you wouldn't even know it.'
'Could be. Does it make any difference, though?'
'Not for you, I guess. It'd just help me feel less inferior, knowing I literally can't measure up to you.'
'But how do we know you're not an angel too?'
Helena considers this question while falling asleep, safe and warm with Charlotte in her scarred arms, dreaming of feathered wings carrying her up through the air.
Some days later, Helena still loses her breath a little when Charlotte touches her, shows her face after some careful polling by Charlotte suggests no one recognizes her; has a job that mostly involves following Charlotte around and helping her carry things, and pauses for a moment when Charlotte asks if it's only her who wouldn't mind if time stopped right now.
'No', she says, eventually. ''I still need distance. I need to believe it's possible to change, to recover from the, to get better.'
'That's good, I mean, the words. Poetic. Do you believe you're going to be able to believe that?'
'That's a start', says Charlotte, and kisses Helena's forehead.
For a moment Helena thinks she would stop time, if she could, and be damned to any consequences. So to speak.
Only a very small part of her thinks about the fact that she probably could if she really wanted to. The power, whatever it gives her, she begins to realize, is never worth the cost. This moment, at the riverbank, under the stars, is going to have to be just a moment in time, and it'll have to be enough.
Time seems to tangle around them when Helena is woken up, with rough hands pulling her from the ground and angry voices. Many voices. The stars still shine, blurred and spinning, and some of them seem to have come down to Earth. This comforts her and grounds her and she's able to make out Charlotte's voice, as the others shrink to a disgruntled rumble.
'Victor, Tobias, Kelly, Kevin', she says. 'Shelly, Jean, Cole, Fredrick, Louis.' She faces them, one by one, naked and held with her arms pushed high behind her back and calm. 'I can see you're all drunk, so, this is fine. No harm done. We're all just playing around in the woods. But I think it's time to start thinking about going to bed.'
'You're too nice, preach' says one of the men, in the back. 'Your whole problem when you get right down to it. You've been lying down with this demon.' He stops, pointing at Helena with a bitter, sober, stony face, as if waiting for absolute truth to manifest from his words. After a while, when Helena and Charlotte only stare at him, he goes on. 'Now you've got to burn.'
'Now it's getting ridiculous', says Charlotte, while the flock begins to move towards the flickering lights away down the river. 'A pyre? You're going to burn yourselves a couple of witches? Either I'm not drunk enough for this joke or you have been coming to my church for seven years and not heard a single word I've said and don't try to tell me this has nothing to do with her being gay, this is a hate crime.' Her voice rises steadily towards a crescendo that turns into a short yelp of pain.
'No', cries Helena, a mindless sound of protest, one thought ripping through her confusion, stronger than the struggle between the knowledge in her head and her heart that she deserves whatever comes and her body's wish for people to stop shoving her, shop touching her, stop frightening her. She digs her heels in the soft grass and the key turns and slices through the scars inside her and into the fresh new tender meat and power explodes from her in a wind that rattles the ground and shakes the trees and sends the crowd around her stumbling. With a nod of her head she sends the wind up, lifting them all almost off their feet, turning her hair into a flaring wild wide halo, coldly glittering in the dark with the reflected light from her forehead. The river gushes into the air beside them, washing over them in a wave that pushes them firmly back on the ground.
There is a noise like a hurricane in a waterfall, and Helena breathes in and stops it, grasping every particle of air and water and wood flying around and dropping it gently down. Only because she doesn't want to raise her voice. 'You're a pack of superstitious, inbred, uneducated, homophobic assholes', she says. 'I don't believe you care about my mistakes or the people that died for them. I think all you care about is making me hurt because I'm not like you. You don't care about this amazing woman who's always telling you we're all just people, and you don't deserve to have her in your town. You're dogshit.
'But I don't want to hurt anyone. So here's my offer. If you let Charlotte go I'll do whatever you want. Or if you hurt her I'm going to wipe your fucking town off the fucking map. What will you have?'
'You're not a p' says someone. One of the three or four women in the mob. Helena doesn't look very closely. She just interrupts her with a finger-gun that disintegrates the woman from the shoulders up, making a slick mist spray over the ones behind her.
'I was really not inviting a discussion there', says Helena, blinking away tears, holding on to that thin hot thread of loathing. The mob, as one, reels back, letting go of her arms and Charlotte's.
Charlotte gives her a look that's all sad and brave and scared and loving at the same time, standing awkwardly holding her own elbow. 'You're really doing this?' she says. 'That's a real fire over there.'
'Well, yeah. Using demonic powers to keep you from getting hurt, that's one thing. But I've got to die, there's no. There's no place for me in this world.'
'Fuck me, you're as full of shit as they are. Let's just get out of here, we'll figure out out together, if you really have to die it'll be by my hand, I promise you.'
'It's not so bad, being killed by the one you love', says Helena, stroking Charlotte's cheek with her hand, the same hand that killed a woman not ten steps away, not twenty seconds ago. Charlotte closes her eyes and leans on her. Helena fights to keep her own eyes open, to stay upright. 'But I shouldn't put it off. I should. I don't. You were the only good thing about being alive.'
'Don't do this', says Charlotte, now only sad. Helena starts walking toward the torches, and Charlotte stumbles into the forest.
The mob follows Helena, at a distance. Well, she can't fault them for being scared. She climbs on top of the pile of twigs and firewood that looks made for her, clasps her hands behind her and waits for the stunned yokels to use those torches. She's very tired, and it's hard to let go of the power, but she does, and the heat from above fades just as the heat begins to grow from below. It's harder still to resist using it when the heat turns painful and she's breathing smoke and trying not to cough. But she looks away from the sad crappy people, up to the sky, and she thinks even through the smoke and the haze she's never seen so many stars, and she can pretend nothing else matters.
And then a burning, screaming Charlotte tackles her and the ground comes up and knocks what little breath she has out of her. The world fades, and there is only smoke and pain and fire (when did the fire get so big?) and Charlotte's thrashing and terrible screams. It's easy to snatch the heat away, like pulling a table cloth out from under a full table, and stick it down in the ground, but it's too little, and much too late. Black and cracked, Charlotte lies still and keeps screaming in a thin, breathless voice.
'I don't know what to do', says Helena, kneeling down, caressing Charlotte's bald head between her hands. She's not burned all the way up, she has skin left, mostly just covered in soot, but it's still way too much, tearing the burns out would be crazy, and Helena can't think of any other way to heal. And Charlotte stops screaming and then stops breathing. And Helena is alone in the dark.
For a long while, Helena just lies down holding Charlotte's corpse in her arms, thinking, with a quest certainty, that there's nothing more in the world for her to do. Solid, cold, numb, it's like the pain is too big to feel at all. She imagines she is the eye of a storm, wearing her violent blistering feeling like a cloak on top of a nothingness. And she clings to that blanket, that veil, that distance and stands up, breathing in just like she did when it all began. When the power woke.
Distance. Clarity. Imperiousness. These things will be useful to her. It doesn't have to make sense. It's dangerous to try to make sense of things. Helena remembers. She must only want, and know that she can take what she wants.
Down. That's what she wants. Down. Downer. A hole grows before her feet, the world unraveling into a flat darkness. Downer. Below the world. Twisted colors come up to meet her, and distant noises. The tearing of tortured metal and flesh, earth-rocking impacts, dissonant song. The hole unfolds, unravels more, grows wider. It won't consume the whole town, Helena decides, but it sure will leave a mark. It stops growing just at the edge of Charlotte's property. A Hellmouth, is what they'd call it on television. They deserve that much. Ragged edges where the weave of reality now bleeds into the abyss. She could close the door behind her, but she just might need it to come back. And she doesn't care. Royalty is a continuous cutting motion, some philosopher's words drift through her mind, and she thinks she understands what it means. She will cut, and keep cutting. Maybe she started even all those years ago and practiced on herself in preparation for this day. The light on her forehead envelops her and she cuts through the dark matter, going down, and beyond down. Downer.
And the world turns around Helena, turns past the directions she knows, turns into something revolting. A hot wind full of rotting, cooking meat blows into her face. The screams seem solid, saturating the full spectrum of sound, coming from everywhere. Vast, spindly structures surround her, more insinuated than seen in the lack of light. There's no light here but her own, only a kind of shine slithering over things, shifting colors she couldn't name. She pushes all the vileness away from her. Cutting. Keep cutting. The ground shifts under her bare feet, sickening, and with a horror that comes close to stripping away her shield of uncaring superiority she realizes the twisting ground, moaning and grunting quietly far beyond the cacophonous noise, is made of people. There are eyes looking on her in agony. Warped tangled bodies wriggling, trying to get away from the weight of her feet. Fingers, clawing, flailing in desperation. A lot of the fingers are very small. Her foot slips in a head of hair, tearing a large bleeding wound. Something like compassion is the last thing Helena can afford now, but she lifts herself off the terrible ground anyway. Not because she cares. She can't care. It's entirely within her power to rip apart this leviathan, this sea of flesh, to end their suffering or even put each of them back together in their own, separate bodies, but she doesn't care that much. Not walking on the defenseless people is just more practical, she tells herself. Heck, who knows where they have been? There's things crawling among them that don't resemble human limbs but worms or tentacles made of shit, and she turns the horror and disgust against them, decides that she hates them for offending her with their presence. It's so easy.
They're just people anyway. She has to remember she's more than them. Keep that knowledge at the forefront of her mind. Keep cutting. Royalty.
And she cuts through the stinking air, searching the endless fields of suffering, the forests and valleys of suffering, the bridges and towers of suffering, searching for a familiar face. Though her eyes glaze over and she can't see any faces, can't keep thinking of these things as people. She starts digging, aimlessly, ripping through mountains of screaming mouths, finding ever more of the same as the power grows and she digs ever more violently.
Further down Helena finds, without surprise, moving things. Creatures much like the ones she's summoned before, and some made of flesh, all different shapes and sizes. They seem to be digging through the caverns of the people-lands much like she does, and building. A team of spike-limbed spider things are working in some kind of mine shaft structure made of many thigh bones and chains of writhing spines, throwing heads split in half on a large pile. Some of the things are fighting, or eating, or fucking each other. One titanic four-legged beast stomps over armies of humanoids not much larger than ants compared to it, shoveling their mangled masses into its town-sized gaping mouth. It turns to look at Helena with a single black eye, producing a roar that rattles her bones from a few kilometers away, and taking a step towards her that halves the distance. Helena, floating a little higher than its head, makes a cutting motion (ha) with her hand, severing its front legs close to where they connect to its bowl-shaped body, where they're thinnest. The giant breaks its fall with its arms, sinking deep but still struggling forward, and Helena cuts those off as well and leaves the thing behind, not hurrying. It won't hurt to set an example. To act like royalty.
She is above them all, above hurting people for her own comfort. Or amusement. Or even survival. Above being hurt or threatened. Above being lost. She wants to find Charlotte. Focusing entirely on the memory of Charlotte, her shape and weight and scent, her wit and bravery and unending kindness, Helena closes her eyes and sees a bright light, far away, the gentle golden color of that lovely hair, and rushes toward it, cutting through strange spaces and stranger things, more foul, more warped; it's like the place refuses to be accustomed to, insisting on offending even as its crimes grow beyond her comprehension and only leaves her with a gaping, dizzying impression, like falling.
And somewhere below the void below the world below downwardness itself, there's Charlotte, stuck in some kind of wheel made of weeping wood, covered in little animals, like rats, but with eight legs ending in tiny hands. They're working rapidly, spinning slender pink threads out of Charlotte and chewing them. Helena turns them to dust along with the wheel with something that does not even resemble a thought, just an imperative of scourging, of hate. Charlotte falls down on a mewling surface of infant's faces and Helena is amazed to find her whole, though her skin is one solid bruise, and she does not move, except to make faces at every baby's cry.
But Helena picks her up and closes the two of them in a bubble of iron that finally turns the infernal noise off when it closes with a flat click, and rubs Charlotte's skin back into shape, slowly, bit by bit, trying to hurt her as little as possible, and while she works Charlotte seems to wake up.
'Huh, Helena', she says, her voice small and disbelieving. 'You came after me. Thanks-thank you. I, how long did, it felt like a hundred years did you kill anyone? Anyone else?'
'No, I, I just came as fast as I could', says Helena, and hugs Charlotte hard. 'It, it's over now.' Her eyes seem to be burning, and she thinks dimly she has stopped cutting.
A long time passes (or so it feels) inside this quiet, smooth ball, closed to the world, lit only by Helena's own flickering white light. Holding the shivering Charlotte in her arms, not moving, not caring if the air runs out, not trying to say anything, just being. Helena grows a little in this moment, she thinks, trying to comfort someone else, feeling helpless but still not giving up. Maybe that's what being needed does.
'Thanks by the way', says Helena, at last. The light is almost out and she's sitting up, stroking Charlotte's hair as she lies quietly across Helena's lap. 'For saving me. I don't know, in hindsight, clearly, dying was a bad idea.'
'Given what we now know, yeah. I didn't think there would be anything, but here we are in the afterlife.' Charlotte speaks slowly, quietly, deliberately, maybe remembering how to make words. 'But at least you'd think, I tried pretty hard, couldn't I go to Heaven?' A little shiver runs through her, again. 'I wasn't even, I don't even know how I caught the fire like that, I didn't plan on dying. But, you know, I'd still have done it.'
'Yeah you would. Even knowing I'd have had no problem getting out of here by myself.'
'I'm stupid that way. But what the Hell, it's only pain.' Charlotte struggles to her feet, awkwardly. 'Um, just a thought, but can you like manifest clothes for us? You know how distracted I get.'
'Good thinking', says Helena, smiling, trying not to blush. 'I've got power coming out my ass here, it's all these people going mad with pain, so bad I can almost taste it.' A slick film of shadow wraps over her and Charlotte's bodies covering all but their faces; weightless, textureless, black as night.
'That's', says Charlotte and pauses, searching for words. 'Practical?'
'I could put some more fashion into it I guess. Just doesn't seem like the best use of brain power right now. Want to get out of here?'
Charlotte hangs on Helena's back as Helena pushes the iron out of the way, as well as the noises, the smells and the endlessly varied living structures and occasional monsters in their path, and they go further in. Demanding to know the way home, Helena sees one light very high and far away that could only be the way she came and one much closer, so they decide to try that way first. Even though it takes them somewhere deeper, darker, through structures of something like black stone scaffolding, thin hungry towers reaching high into the dark. Almost nothing moves here, and eventually the ground melts away and leaves only blackness scattered with pinpricks of light that could be mistaken for stars, except they're hanging right there in front of the women. Helena reaches out to hold one, curious, but pauses with its warm light spilling over her cupped hand. It seems like it would be wrong to touch it, and Helena wrinkles her forehead to see where that thought comes from, without success.
'These are the first people who lived on Earth', says a voice coming from everywhere. Charlotte comes close to falling off in surprise, and Helena wobbles around and sinks further down to find balance. In front of them now hangs a shape a shade less dark than the darkness around them, something with ten fingers, ten toes, a mouth, two blazing golden eyes.
'Nothing ever dies here, you see', says the figure, in a warm, friendly voice, just a little bit fake. 'But you know that thing about the bird grinding and sharpening its beak on a mountain of diamond and within a heartbeat of eternity the mountain turns to dust, well, this is the dust that's left of us after feeding on each other for long enough. We could call it the soul. We're pretty sure they still feel pain. I think it's beautiful.'
'You're human?' says Helena, curious.
'Certainly. You may call me God, or Satan. I've been here long enough to qualify.' She raises a slender hand and thee chairs float up from the void to seat them, sturdy comfortable things creaking of expensive leather, and a smooth glassy floor under their feet. It happens so easily, so undramatically, so naturally, Helena and Charlotte are sitting down before they even think about it. 'But I started out just like you, crawling in the mud, reaching for the stars. And yes, I can open the door back home for you.'
'That's cool', says Charlotte. 'I don't suppose you just want us to ask you nicely? God-or Satan?'
'I want many things, Charlotte Calavera. For one thing I want to avoid our friend here making holes in my home to find her own way out. So I should hope we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement.'
'Sure, I could try and fix the one I made on the way in too', says Helena. 'I think we're on the same page here, I don't want to break any more stuff.'
'I'm taking care of that, don't worry. It just takes some effort. Some finesse. You know what I'm talking about, Helena – you have power, but almost no control.'
'That's what I want from you, you see. The key to power you bear. You wouldn't miss it, I'm sure.'
'I guess I wouldn't. If, if you can make it so no one's going to try to kill me for what I did?'
'I can send you to lands where no one's heard of you. Make a fresh start.'
'Um, and what would you use the power for?'
'Oh, some restructuring. Nothing that concerns the planet Earth. If I were given to value judgments I might even say it would make things better for the poor souls in this place. Mm, most of them anyway.'
'Nah. Sorry. I'm not trusting anyone else to use this power. If you'd destroy it, maybe.'
'Fine', says God-or-Satan, and maybe she sits a little straighter, or her eyes burn a little brighter, but her voice keeps it false joviality. 'Had to give it a shot, didn't I? No, I'm not dumb enough to raise my hand to you, but the offer's there if you ever want it. For now, I don't suppose we have any further business, unless you girls would like to play a little game before I send you home.'
'Hm', says Charlotte. 'I really miss the sun, and I'm sure this is a trap to keep us here forever at the very least.' Helena takes her hand, and tenses her legs to begin to stand up, but the creature in front of them keeps talking, dropping the pretense of friendship and raising her hands in defeat.
'Just a minute', she says. 'Literally a minute. It's no doublespeak, no evil magic bullshit, just a really fun little riddle game I thought of myself. And I so rarely get guests with their mouths and ears still in place.
'Here's the deal.' She quickly stands up and draws an oval in the air behind her, with both hands, making a vertical flat blue disc. 'You can step through here and go home. That's taken care of. No ifs or buts. And, unrelated, you may ask me a question. Any question at all. You can assume I know everything. You ask, and then I'll ask you a question with a right and a wrong answer, then you answer, and then I answer. I won't tell you if you got it right or wrong, but I'll lie to you if you answered me wrong, and if you were right then I'll tell the truth.'
'I can't fail to see that's really fun only for you', says Helena, while Charlotte leans back in her chair, lost in thought.
'As opposed to who?' says the Call-Me-God-or-Satan thing, smiling from ear to ear.
'Well you've got my attention, you son of a bitch', says Charlotte. 'How do I phrase this, let me think. Could you tell me how to fix the world, like, step by step, how I get people to recognize everyone else's humanity, recognize the common good and incentivize them to work for it instead of using up everyone and everything they can, gather enough people with the right expertise and the right influence to figure out what Earth needs and how to make it happen?'
'Is that your question?' says the god, with a deep chuckle.
'No, I'm just trying to establish –'
'I'm just fucking with you, love. Yes, I can give you knowledge of how to do this, and failsafes for every eventuality. Imprint the knowledge in form of memory right in your brain where you won't lose it.' Helena looks at Charlotte as she blinks at the same time the creature does and jerks back and stares into the distance, her head clearly full with strange new knowledge.
'Then my question is', says Charlotte, squeezing Helena's hand, 'how can I fix the world?'
'Ah, so clever. So thoughtful and wise. I'll ask you then, is there a Heaven?'
'Yeah', says Charlotte, with a look that could burn the Devil, then looking down, squeezing Helena's hand so hard it hurts. 'Sure.'
'See, isn't this fun?' says God and snaps her fingers. Charlotte's head snaps back again and she looks at Helena with haunted, desperate wonder. If her eyes was a hundred years older before, thinks Helena, now they're a thousand.
'No', says Helena, turning to the beast, pointing a finger, while pulling Charlotte up with her other hand, going, forward. 'We're going now.'
'You don't want to play? I'll make it an easy one.' The demonic creature shrinks away from them, and her voice fades as they fall into the blue disc portal thing.