“Why didn’t you stop me?”
You do not understand.
“What do you mean you don’t understand? You didn’t stop me. Why didn’t you stop me?”
You were in danger. You did not want to be hurt. That man would have hurt you. You protected yourself.
“I wasn’t in danger! It was just a test—just one of Casper’s tests—you know, you have to know by now he likes to see what I can do—“
You do not like this man, this Casper. He has a hungry mind, he thinks and forgets to feel.
“That’s a horrible thing to say—he’s fine, Casper doesn’t want to hurt me—stop trying to tell me what I think—“
Casper likes to test you (test Dylan, test you-in-Dylan, test Dylan-who-is-you), yes. And no, you do not think Casper wants to hurt you, hurt Dylan. But you also know (Dylan knows) that grown-ups that silly and that talkative and that funny are usually hiding something. And you feel (you feel, this is your feeling and not Dylan’s, and this happens more and more now, the division there, the fracture) the tick-tick-ticking of Casper’s brain as he watches Dylan, watches the Shield which he calls Hedron, watches you without knowing he watches.
Casper does not want to cause harm. But if the reward is great enough—if the payoff would satisfy his busy, busy brain—you think he would let harm be caused.
He has let harm be caused. By Dylan. By you.
“Stop talking about him like that! Stop it! This isn’t his fault, he didn’t know I could—you never told me I could—“
You did not know he could. Or, rather, you knew, but you thought he wouldn’t. Or, rather—you suspected, but you hoped he wouldn’t have to. But you would rather he do something than do nothing and let himself (let you) be hurt.
He is safe, now. He is unhurt. All is well.
“What is wrong with you? Did you even see, were you even paying attention? How can everything be okay when—when Dr. Roberts is—when he—when I—“
You hum a soothing fractal of white-silver-blue against the ragged not-rhythm of Dylan’s breathing, Dylan’s pulse. Dylan was not hurt. You were not hurt.
“You don’t care, do you? You don’t even care that he’s d—that he’s—gone. Do you?”
That, you think, is unfair. It pains you to strike against the matter of other. But nothing was destroyed, nothing was annihilated. Matter is matter and it endures and it becomes something else of other, returns to the world, grows and changes and lives again—
Dylan laughs, high and terrible, almost a scream. He is scared. It scares you. Should you be scared?
“He’s not gonna live again when I snapped him in half. He’s not going to be okay.”
You do not understand. Dylan does not understand.
“I only meant to push him out the door. That was all. I just wanted him to leave me alone and stop bothering me. I don’t mind when Casper does it, asks all those questions, tells me to try and do things. Casper is funny, and he’s nicer, and he doesn’t look at me like I’m some—disgusting horrible thing that escaped from the zoo.”
Disgust is something you have tried and failed to learn, both from the Shield and from JesseandDylan. You think perhaps it has something to do with matter, something to do with being flesh. You cannot grasp it. The closest you can get—you think it is close, anyway—is fear, is horror.
You do not fear Dylan. You do not think he is a horror.
“Yeah, well, who cares what you think? You didn’t think all that blood was scary, either. You didn’t think the sound he made when he—when I—“
The sound, yes. That upset Dylan. You felt that.
“I didn’t think it would be like that.”
(He is whispering, suddenly, as though he doesn’t want to say the words, as though he doesn’t want to hear them himself, as though he doesn’t want you to hear them.)
(As though you need to hear his words to know his mind.)
“It wasn’t like hitting a bad guy in a video game. In video games there’s sound, yeah, but the bad guys just—drop. And then they’re just things, and then the game makes them disappear.”
You feel-in-Dylan a tightness at the back of the throat, a squirming churn in the belly like something trying to escape. He opens his mouth and pants, wetness on his lips, like a dog.
“Dr. Roberts didn’t disappear. And the sound—he kept screaming. It scared me. I was already scared and he was so loud. Didn’t he want to see how hard I could push? If he’d just said that’s enough, you did what I wanted, I would have stopped. I would have. I could have. But he just screamed. And then he didn’t.”
Matter is so fragile. You’d thought you understood this sufficiently. You’d assumed that a being made of matter would understand this without needing it explained. Foolish of you. Foolish.
“Jesse broke her collarbone when I was eight and she was nine. She fell out of a tree. I remember the sound that made.”
You remember it too. The white-hot lance of fear, the snap more felt than heard, the sharp, blinding pain jolting down the arm outstretched to break your fall. No, Jesse’s fall. You know the difference. You do.
“This was worse. This was—how many bones even are there in one person? It sounded like they all broke. And kept breaking. Even after he stopped screaming. Even after he couldn’t scream anymore. It was like Jesse falling out of a tree, over and over, forever. Like I pushed her out of the tree. Which I didn’t do. I didn’t.”
He doesn’t need to explain this to you. You were there, in the tree, on the ground, in the fiber of their being. Of course he didn’t push Jesse. What purpose would that serve? She is not an enemy to him. You are not an enemy to yourself.
“Dr. Roberts hit the ground so much harder than Jesse did. He didn’t fall from that much higher up. I remember how it was. But he landed so hard. All limp. And he wasn’t screaming anymore. And he wasn’t breathing. If they hadn’t tried to close the door so fast—he got stuck, right, he got stuck when I pushed him because there wasn’t enough room for him to get out, and they wouldn’t open the door just a little bit more and if he’d said stop I would have stopped and if you’d told me how to stop I would have stopped and even though he wasn’t screaming and he wasn’t breathing he kept bleeding and—“
You wait, patient as the blackness between stars, as Dylan doubles over and vomits on the floor. Bitter bile burning on the back of his tongue. Hot rush of tears running down his face.
(Somewhere far away, in a nondescript classroom in a nondescript school in a nondescript town, Jesse Faden leaps from her seat in the middle of math class and sprints into the hallway, ignoring her classmates’ shouts of surprise and her teacher’s anger. Falls to her knees in the hallway and dry heaves, clutching at her arms, tears searing her eyes and dripping to the floor, plat-plat-plat, like raindrops. Doesn’t know why, outside of a vague understanding that Dylan is gone, they have him, and I’m just sitting here learning about algebra like nothing ever happened, and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.)
(You see this, too. You are there, too. You hurt with her, in her, as you hurt with Dylan, in Dylan.)
“I want to go home.”
You do not understand.
“I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t like it. I want to leave. I want Jesse. I want to go home.”
This makes no sense. You have no home. You have nowhere to go. Your parents are gone. Jesse is far away.
“I don’t care. I don’t care about any of that, I’ll live in the woods if I have to, I’ll live in a cardboard box on the street. Just get me out of here.”
But you chose.
“I didn’t choose this!”
But a choice was made. If you know nothing else, you understand cause and effect. Action and reaction. Choice and consequence. You have learned over aeons, but now it seems you must learn again.
Jesse chose to go. Jesse is alone in a hallway with the tears on her face and a sickness in her heart.
Dylan chose to stay. Dylan is alone in a room with the tears on his face and a sickness in his heart.
Choices, having been made, cannot be unmade. This is what you have learned. It is hard to bear, and harder still when you (in-Dylan, in-Jesse) have made two different choices at once. You do not like to see Dylan hurting. But you cannot choose for him, cannot un-choose. It is not the way of things. It is not your way.
(Pain is a lesson. Pain teaches. The Shield has told you this. Sometimes, though, it is hard to see what the lesson is meant to be.)
“…Are you saying this is my fault?”
What? No, no. This has nothing to do with blame or with guilt—
“But you won’t get me out of here. Even though you can. I know you can.”
—it is simply the nature of choice, and if there is pain outside of this place they call the Bureau, and pain inside, then what difference does it make being on one side of the wall or the other—?
“I can’t believe this. I thought you were my friend. I thought you were here to help me.”
No, truthfully, your intention was never to steer JesseandDylan’s choices or thoughts or lives. You were never supposed to do so. They were made the way they are so you wouldn’t have to.
“You sure didn’t have a problem telling us what to do with the Slide Projector. Is that all you wanted us for, to help you shut that thing down? Now that it’s taken care of, you don’t care what happens to us anymore?”
That is not true. That is not true at all. JesseandDylan are you, but they are also other, and having served their purpose—protected their world—they should be left to their own devices, their own paths, their own patterns. Shouldn’t they? Isn’t that what you promised yourself, them, other? Is freedom not a kind of care?
“What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense—will you stop, stop saying nonsense, just let me think—“
And you will not seize control over them, overwrite Dylan’s will like he wants (like you think he wants?), because JesseandDylan are not just tools to be used, no matter what Dylan says. You will not, not now that you have grown to know them, not now that you love them—
“Shut up! Don’t say that! Don’t ever say that, you—you bitch!”
You feel-in-Dylan the queasy thrill of the curse word. You feel-in-Dylan a rage so great it blots out vision and deafens the ear. The room begins to tremble, your resonance channeled through Dylan’s body, making the walls groan and the metal of the doorframe squeal.
This is wrong. This is very, very wrong. You flicker back to Jesse for a moment—anger there, yes, sickness, sorrow, but heryour power isn’t pouring out of her, shaking the building down, crushing delicate matter through a too-small space and leaving it so she can watch it bleed out. Unbalanced. You waver between the two corners of yourself. What is different here? What causes the difference?
“Stop it! Why are you showing me that if you’re not going to help me find her? What are you, stupid? You can’t tell the difference between being free and this? And, hey, hey, if you think she’s doing so much better than me, why don’t you just leave and go stay with her instead? Go on, get out! Get out of my head! You might as well, if you’re going to be so—fucking useless!”
He is not listening. How can he not listen? You sing and he hears, he thinks and you know—that is how it has always been. You never said Jesse was better. That would be like choosing between crest and trough, between attack and release, between a pair of mirrored phases. Pointless. Meaningless. Useless.
He is altering your signal. He is modulating you into a new key, one you never intended to sing in, and you cannot drown it out. He is so strong, and his hurt is so great—
You feel-in-Dylan an emotion. Something you have never felt before, part anger, part disgust, part betrayal. Deep down in it there is the seed of the love you feel for him, the love he feels for you, but twisted and blooming into something terrible and new.
“You don’t care about me at all! You don’t care about anyone! You don’t care if I stay here and rot, all alone, forever! All you care about is what you want! All you care about is yourself!”
Not true, not true, but the words stab at you, dig like hooks into flesh, like the edge of a metal door into bone. You do not understand. You never meant to hurt Dylan. You only wanted to protect him. To let him protect himself. To let him choose.
What have you done wrong?
“I hate you!”
You have sung through the emptiest reaches of space and space between. You have run an enemy greater than Dylan could possibly imagine to ground, driven it desperate and starving along the rims of more worlds than you can count. You have seen stars die in fire, realities die in darkness, lives end in their millions-billions-trillions.
Dylan’s blow strikes you so deep that you flinch away, out of his head, out of the room, all the way down into the depths of this House where you lay tethered at the Shield’s heart. It hurts. It hurts. You have never felt anything like this before.
“Go away! Leave me alone and never come back! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”
You have never before, in all the time of your being, hated yourself.
—but you cannot make out the words, though you recoil from the fury in them. The you-in-Dylan, your resonance, his resonance, has been pulled away from shaking the room. He’s thrown it up around his mind, a crude barrier full of holes but bristling with sharpnesses. Yourself pushing yourself away from yourself. Even now, you have to marvel at his swiftness. How clever, to figure the trick of that without needing to be told, without even knowing what he is. How quickly he learns.
You could recall your errant power, of course, batter it down and force him to listen. Simple as anything. You’d barely even have to shift the patterning. It is you, after all.
You do not.
You huddle there within the Shield, small as a child, frightened as a human. Hate, hate, hate echoes inside of you, a pattern you never knew well enough to understand you never wanted to know more of it. Dylan’s emotions, soft-edged with distance, are still keen enough to pierce. Absurd, human image: a trembling moth, still living, tacked to a bit of cork. Silver pins through its beautiful wings. Tiny, shining things, weighing nothing in the hand, but placed just so the moth cannot fly.
He has staked you through at the soul. You cannot fly to him.
The Shield sighs one of her great, world-shaking sighs, making the black pillars of her cell/fortress grind against each other like continents in motion. Of course she was listening. She listens to everything. Force of habit. Patterns of her own.
He doesn’t mean that.
Oh, but he does, he does, and that is the worst part of it. If he had said it just to hurt, you would feel the lie in his words, and the truth humming its sweet fundamental beneath. No fear in a scrambled signal, just a puzzle to be undone.
There can be no lies in a pure tone.
Despite yourself, you push out again, just far enough to contact the barrier wall that is half-you, half-Dylan. It has grown stronger, denser, even just in the time you have taken to glance away and back, but you can sense the strain in it, the force of will needed to keep it standing. Can extrapolate from there: a divided focus, perhaps. He is thinking of something else, or speaking to someone else, or going somewhere else as he tries to keep his defense strong. The wall will fall, must fall, soon—he cannot do this forever, he does not have his full strength or yours at his disposal. In an hour or a day or a week, you will be with him again.
But for now, you cannot feel him.
But for now, there is the fracture, and silence.
Children are like that. Changeable. Strong-minded. They hate as they love, with all their hearts.
Her voice is soft, as soft as it ever gets, distant with an old grief. You think she is not talking about Dylan. You think it is not quite the same. But you have no choice but to believe her. You have to believe the love you felt in him endures, uncorrupted. The alternative—
You press against the barrier. Half-you. Half-Dylan. All you, when it comes down to it. How strange that the break makes him dearer to you. How terrible. He feels so far already, so far.
It takes you a long moment to recognize the syllables, and another to put the pieces together and realize it is the Shield who speaks. She does not call you by that name. You startle to hear it in her voice, stretched long and low and unfamiliar.
No. Please. Dylan must feel you calling. He must ache as you ache. Any moment now the wall will come down and you will be there with him and you will fix this, you will make this right, you will—
Leave him be.
The weight of her voice draws itself up from deep roots, deeper even than those of the House that holds the two of you (the three of you). You are no tame resonance, no toy of her will, but that note of command will not be denied.
You cling to the barrier for one last longing second, then, heartsick, permit yourself to ebb.
He hurts. He must heal.
But he was not hurt. You were not hurt. You did not hurt him.
You’re being obtuse.
Are you? You don’t know. You can’t think. Your patterning stutters, jitters in its familiar paces. You feel interrupted. You feel incomplete. You feel—
You need to rest. He needs space. This will not heal in a night or a day.
How could the Shield possibly, possibly know that? How can she know it will heal at all?
She is silent for a long time after you make this demand.
I do not know. But you have to hope, when it is your child.
Dylan is not your child. The Shield knows this as well as you do.
He is not you, either. Not yet.
He is and he is not. He is unhurt and you hurt him. You gave him his freedom and he wants you to cage him. The dissonance overwhelms. What has he done to you? What have you done to him?
Polaris. Enough. Rest now. I am here.
Inch by inch, you twine yourself around her bones, against her heart, as you are accustomed to lay. You do not know how you will rest easy. You do not know if you will rest easy ever again. But her solidity, the fact of her presence, these things steady you somewhat. She, at least, is still here. She has not gone yet.
Yes. I am here. And so is—Jes-se.
Another foreign name. Her language is not one of sibilants or fricatives. They buzz out of her, pitched despite her best efforts. Let clever Casper with all his scales and measures and recording devices make sense of that.
(The Shield rumbles a laugh at your sullenness. It feels very long ago that that sound terrified you.)
Dy-lan will be back soon, too. In just a little while. You must be patient.
Patient, yes, patience. You know patience. But somehow everything you have learned of it feels so obscure next to the mind-rending ache of a child’s need, of your need.
You have to remind yourself, then: you are not a child.
Sometimes I am not so sure about that.
You do not understand.
Like I said.
Flutter of high harmonics there in her voice. A joke. You are learning to recognize those. You do not laugh—couldn’t, even if you were inclined, you don’t know the trick of that yet—but you settle a little. You stop worrying the break in yourself, the silence where Dylan should be, like the gap left by a missing tooth.
(A JesseandDylan-shaped thought.)
The yearning hits again, but you are prepared for it this time. You turn, move with it instead of against. Out and away from what is missing, in and towards the piece still in its place. Another empty room there, another shocked, hurting quiet, another closed door, another crying child.
It is different. It feels different.
Would you have noticed that before today?
There is no wall around Jesse’s mind. Her face is sticky with dried tears, her throat is raw, but you still drown in the flood of relief she experiences at your touch and the sound of your song. Her thin shoulders hitch with a sob that nearly undoes you. No fury in that sob, no hatred, no baffling demands for a thing you do not know if you can give. Just an overwhelming tenderness, an ache healing over.
You’re still here, she thinks, I missed you, and for a moment you could swear you feel whole again.
You’re still here, you sing back to her in her own voice, hoping she will catch the sweetness you hear in it. I missed you.
Don’t copy me, stupid! she objects, but she’s laughing, and then she is crying, and then you are tangled up as always in her storm of emotions. She pitches images at you indiscriminately: the teacher who had sent her to the office earlier, the doctor who peppers her with meaningless questions, the kids at school who won’t talk to her, the family she lives with who try too hard to make her feel welcome. You feel her anger, frustration, resignation, fear, all at once in a dizzying rush.
It is the opposite of silence, the opposite of a wall.
You cannot say you understand it perfectly, but at least it is there for you to try and understand.
A hiccup of remorse in the flood. Sorry, sorry, was I going too fast? It’s just, there’s no one else here to talk to, I can’t tell anyone anything, it gets so…
Lonely. Yes. And it is not too much. She is not too much. Could never be.
Jesse’s heart lurches, and she doesn’t exactly think I love you, but you hear it anyway, over the sound of her internal monologue and the rushrushrushing of her feelings, darting past you like birds on the wing.
Cradled in her mind, her thoughts, her heart, you can allow yourself to hope as you could not before. A wall is not forever. It will come down, and on the other side will be Dylan and his own flood of feelings, his anger and his fear and his hatred and, under that, underneath all of that, the love you know is still there.
You’re still here, he will say, I missed you, and you will say it back, and you will understand each other perfectly.
And then everything will be as it was.
Surely, surely, everything will be as it was.