"I can't even imitate myself," she says. Her voice sounds breathy over the phone, and you don't know how much of that is just her fast, excitable way of talking and how much is distortion from the heavy wind that you imagine is whipping through her thin blonde hair as she walks across her campus in the next state over. "I can't even, do you know what I mean?"
"Nope, can't really say I do." You tuck the phone under your cheek and kneel down to open the small refrigerator. Currently available for consumption: milk, cheese, graham crackers, ramen. You'll have to talk your roommate into going shopping, or letting you use the car while he's at class.
"I mean, I can't be anyone else but me, but when I try and be me, like really think of who 'me' is and be her, I fail. I don't even know how." She giggles, high and sweet and somehow slightly lewd, and you are instantly reminded of nights that didn't happen. Midnight snacks, just like this one, swiped from the kitchens and taken down to the riverbed. There is a playfully pleading note in her voice as she adds, "Arthur, I don't know how."
You take a chunk of Munster cheese out before you remember that there is nothing to put it on in this apartment. "Listen, Shel, I – it's really late. You shouldn't be out alone."
"No one ever listens to me anymore," she pouts, and you can picture her face, her small upturned nose. "Just little sweet Shelly, nothing to see here, no matter how crazy she gets."
You take a deep breath and set the cheese on the counter.
"You're not crazy."
"How do you know?" You barely catch the words over the sound of the wind.
"Because I know you, and I know sometimes you…look, I'm not saying you overreact, but sometimes you let everything get to you more than you should, and…what you probably should do is go back to your dorm and get some sleep, alright? Or if you really can't sleep, play Kingdom Hearts, that always cheers you up."
"I live in that game, though. I live in not-real made-ups."
You run a hand through your hair. "Where are you right now?"
"On the bridge."
"What?" You freeze, and suddenly this feels like something horrible and inevitable washing up over you. This day was always going to come –
"I'm crossing the bridge on campus."
"Oh. I just…good."
There is a pause, with nothing but the sound of Illinois air rustling across state lines and into your ear. Then, "Stop trying to think I'm not crazy. It's not working."
You want to tell her that crazy people don't know they're crazy; it seems like common sense. You wait for her to start talking sanely, like she always does eventually, to come back down and be the Shelly who talks about watching TV on the Internet and is deceptively sweet but cusses like a boy.
But first, of course, she brings it up again.
"It didn't happen, you know," she says, and you wander to the couch in the next room, sinking down into the over-worn cushions.
"What didn't?" you say, as a formality more than anything else.
"The part where we all went to Archima and fought off the goblins until our dying breaths. We were knighted. I was the Dream Donor, Ethan was the Tongue Taker, and you were -"
"Stop." You clutch at the arm of the sofa, suddenly gritting your teeth in something like anger that you can't quite place. "Just…stop. If it's not real, why do you keep saying that?" You feel a strange, creeping itching under the skin of your palms, and you rub them against the cushions.
"Because," she says, and in the back of your mind she is thirteen years old and her words are halfway made of stardust. "It won't go away, so my heart is all shredded and I can't sleep anymore."
Ethan comes over to play Call of Duty on Saturday. It's been a long time since you two have talked face-to-face, even though he just lives on opposite side of campus in the law dorms. He practically invited himself, pushed his way through leading texts like he would lead witnesses in your classroom court in senior year and never get caught.
You grab the newly purchased tortilla chips from the cabinet and look for a bowl to pour them in.
"So how've you been adjusting?" he says, leaning his tall, gangly body against the cheap kitchen table with practiced nonchalance. You've known him since the two of you were in the second grade, so it isn't hard to tell that this is calculated. Most of the things he does are. You don't know where this conversation is going, but you have an idea, and it doesn't sound like anywhere you want to follow.
You rip the bag open and begin to empty its contents.
"Still majoring in theater?" he asks.
"Nah. Not much of a job market."
Ethan wanders into the living room to set up the console, and you wonder why you feel the need to take a steadying breath before you grab the salsa and follow him.
"Your goddamn cords are still always tangled," he says, and you laugh, and for a second there isn't this thing, hiding in the shadows under Ethan's eyes and the cracks in Shelly's giggle and the weird, fleeting things in your irises when you look in the mirror. Then you feel prickles crawling up your back, poking at your skin from the inside.
After you've played for about an hour, Ethan suddenly puts down the console and looks directly at you and you know you're not getting out of this now.
"Are you still pretending not to remember?" he says, low and direct. The tone is innocent, but the implication of duplicity is strong. Classic Ethan.
"There's nothing to remember," you say.
"Except there is," he replies, "You and Shelly and I. They needed us, once. And I've been thinking about it, and I think we needed them. We needed Archima and the Bureau of Wizardry. And the Seawindle Sisters and the Mist Man-"
"What the fuck are you talking about," you say, hoping to sound as dry as possible while there is something crawling around behind your eyes.
"You know," Ethan says, and he leans in closer, and for a moment the sheen of light on his glasses hides his eyes and you're afraid of what you'll see when he moves again. "When there are kids who go off like us in books, they never talk about what happens when they get back home, about-"
"-how hard it is to live with these…memories of incredible places that are real and yet shouldn't be, these…fantasy lands that-"
"- give you control and respect and let you save something, and then…yank that away from you when you go home. Take me, I was the Tongue Taker, and instead now I think I just keep talking to keep everyone else quiet, and you-"
"Shut the hell up!"
You lunge, and the two of you are rolling around on the floor, throwing punches, but you are bulkier than Ethan, you always have been, and in the end it is you pinning him to the floor, smashing his head against cheap carpeting. His glasses are bent and askew.
He gasps, then chatters on, as though he's lost the ability to stop himself. "I don't know what's going to happen to us, Arthur. Shel thinks she's crazy for believing it, but she can't stop because she knows it's true, and you've convinced yourself it never happened. Me, I just keep knowing it happened but keeping it a secret because-"
"I don't care!" you roar, and slam him again for good measure. "Things like that don't happen! We're not living in the fucking Magic Treehouse, Ethan!"
The room goes silent except for your panting breath. Slowly, as the panic fades from the corners of your vision, you let him up.
Ethan's face is utterly without emotion. He stands, grabs his coat. When he turns, the look on his face is something like disappointment.
"I'm not surprised you're not going into acting anymore. It was probably too close to your title, Skin Shifter."
He closes the door behind him.
Something shivers across your skin, under it, sliding across your shoulder blades and over your shoulders to tickle up your neck.
Slowly, you pack the controllers away.
A week later Shelly goes missing from campus.
It takes three days for her mother to call and ask if you have any idea, any at all, where she's gone. You immediately forget the essay you're writing (due first thing tomorrow along with your notes and five citation sources) and call up Ethan with a foreboding that threatens to sweep your mind far into dark crevices it does not want to inhabit.
"How long has she been gone?" he asks, and in your head he's pressing his lips into a fine line. Maybe his fingers are starting to drum out a pattern on his knee, which sometimes used to happen when he was thinking.
"Her roommate called her mom when she hadn't come back for two nights in a row. That was yesterday." You sink onto your bed and pray that your own roommate doesn't come home. Somehow this feels intensely private. This is a remnant of something that the three of you had together, once, before Shelly cussed you out in the Starbucks parking lot and said that she had to go away for college or die here alone.
You're not alone, you had said. You're not alone at all. What do you call me if you're alone?
A white dwarf, she replied, and opened the car door. A poor dead star that got so scared of itself by the end that it blew to smithereens.
"She doesn't even have a driver's license. What're we gonna do?" You ask these things of Ethan because you don't know anymore and something is clawing in your stomach up through your throat and into your brain. Something tears away at the edges, like bloody clotted scabs pulling at fresh skin. Something wants out.
"I don't know," Ethan says, then, "Well, I mean."
"She might have gone to…okay, I know you…don't remember I guess" - he doesn't believe that - "but she might be somewhere by Lake Michigan."
"Why?" You clutch your knee under your jeans.
"Because, Arthur." His voice is calm and almost cold. This, whatever it is, will be direct logic, hard and fast and Ethan. "That's how we got to Archima the first time."
In the end you take two cars, because the coast of Lake Michigan, even when restricted to within Illinois borders, is not a small area. You remember Shelly talking, once, as you walked down a (cobblestone?) street that you cannot recall, about whether or not it was dangerous to bum a ride from a stranger. She seemed to think not, as long as you were careful and checked for the mark of Guild on their foreheads (there is no Guild). You remember the pungent scent of horses, the sound of their hooves among the cries of the street venders (there are no horses, there are no streets).
These things do not exist, but you remember them. Piece by piece they flood you, populate the dry dull scenery of dead grass highways. The sensation is strange and overwhelming and threatens to blind you behind bright starbursts of color. Freakishly thin women with pointed ears dance on the overpass. Tiny winged monsters flit under semi trucks.
You drive in the fast lane.
"You need to remember the Mist Man," Ethan says.
"Jesus Ethan, this isn't the time. Hang up, you're a shit driver even without the phone."
"This is important," he says coolly. "Shel's mom says that her dorm room is covered in her posters, and under the posters she's written 'Heavy Dark' over and over again."
"So?" You can't deal with this right now, you can't –
"The Mist Man, Arthur! The creature that stalks the dying and eats their dreams. Shelly is the Dream Donor. He was her mortal enemy, her own personal facet of the Heavy Dark that - "
You nearly slam into a pickup truck as you change lanes, your breathing suddenly harsh. You pull off the road, feeling the jolt of the rumble strips and then the bumps of gravel beneath your slowing wheels. You slide to a stop and just breathe for a moment, and the graffiti on the overpass ahead of you takes on new forms.
"She's going to die."
"I…maybe not, but that's what she thinks."
"No, I mean…she is literally going there to die. The fucking – the Mist –"
"No, she's not – Arthur?"
Ethan's increasingly frantic words grow foggy as you drop your forehead against the wheel. Your breath spirals out of control and darkness fuzzes your vision and somewhere Ethan is saying "Arthur are you okay, it's okay" and something finally, finally bursts from your skin.
A spectral dog flies down the freeway. Every scent of every person is coded with a unique, beautiful note in a raucous symphony. The dog follows one thin, sustained note in particular that hovers weakly an octave above the rest, glowing faintly with energy from another world. He follows the strand to a quiet beach full of uncomfortable pebbles, deserted in the cruel autumn wind, and then stops being a dog.
You text Ethan and get out of the car.
You find her sitting under an outcropping of rock, knees tucked up to her chest, and your heart could pop from sheer relief. She does not look up from the dark water when you sit down next to her on tiny wet rocks that cling to your jeans.
"He didn't come." The words are not as broken as you expected. They are empty, and that may be even worse.
"The Mist Man? No. He's not going to."
You sit in silence for a moment, watching her small, paint-chipped toenails digging in the damp pebbles. A particularly large wave dunks her feet in icy lake water and you shiver. "You should come home."
"I can't, though. The Mist Man could've come and killed me here, maybe, but at home I'm just crazy."
"No one thinks you're crazy, Shelly."
"No, but I am. I am crazy, because these things – these pictures of dreams keep showing up and -"
You put your hand on her shoulder, as firm as you can make it. "No one thinks you're crazy, Shelly."
She looks up at you then, dry brown eyes decorated by insomnia. "If I were sane, you could change shape right now."
You pause for a moment to think. "I don't know. I think maybe…maybe we still have the things we used to be able to do, just in different ways. The world is a bitch, but I guess we still get to keep those."
She tilts back her head and laughs. It doesn't sound like it used to, but then again it hasn't for a long time. "Which world? No don't tell me, I know there's only one."
You smile, even though your heart isn't in it, and put your hand on top of her cold glove. You are both thirteen years old and she is made of stardust and you can escape from your skin and become anyone in the universe. "No. There's more than one. They just might be hard to tell apart, a little. Just…I guess just know that if you're crazy, so'm I. And Ethan is too. He'll be here, as soon as he finds us. Just…come home."
She leans her head against your shoulder, thin soft hair brushing against your neck. There is no sound, save for the rustle of deep water hiding ordinary treasures. "It's okay. I know you're sorry."
It's a rude assumption, but that's always been Shelly's style and you are sorry, you are sorrier than you've ever been that you couldn't have remembered sooner. That you cannot give her that world back.
"You know I took an Astro class first semester?" You flip her hand over and intertwine your fingers with hers.
"I learned that white dwarfs can start fusion again if other stars in their system give them enough energy."
She snorts. "Shit, you know I don't actually know anythin' about stars." This makes you feel like chuckling, almost, and that's enough for now.
You grip her hand tighter as you sit and watch the waves.