Seth considered the bright yellow cover of the book with a grimace, as though contemplating a piece of unsettling and startlingly explicit pornography. Something vulgar found in a Las Vegas gutter, crumpled and moist and laid open like a festering wound. Who in the fuck, Seth wondered, designed the cover of a rape-survivor self-help book to be bright canary yellow?
Frowning, Seth ran a hand back through his long black hair. He checked all of his car mirrors for any sign of approach and opened the book to the first page expecting an accompanying clap of thunder.
The day was bright and clear. Visibility was limited only by the curvature of the earth. For three hundred yards in any direction there was nowhere to hide. No significant shadows for double that distance. It felt like he was parked on the flattest, most open place in all of Washington. But a thousand eyes watched him from out of nowhere, a hundred hands poised to grab his shoulders and the car felt crammed full with ghosts.
“Establishing a Safe Space,” Seth read and coughed.
Again, he checked the mirrors. Again, he scanned the roads. Again, he thought there was no place on Earth private enough for such thoughts or such feelings. Not even inside of his own head.
“Many Survivors have difficulty feeling safe. In fact, many survivors report having never felt safe in their entire lives. Before you work through the following chapters in this book, it is important that you take the time to establish a place separate from your normal living environment where you can feel safe from harm,” Seth read.
Seth looked out to the parking lot again. He’d come to this spot a lot since finding this town two years ago. Since the compass needle he’d taken from the Many Place had pointed him here. Even then, all that had been left of the factory that once inhabited the lot was a slight depression in the ground and the parking lot. Nothing here grew higher than ankle height. Here, Seth could see the whole world at a glance.
Most importantly, the location made it impossible for Seth to forget the exact position of the sun.
“What objects make you feel safe? Do you have any best loved books? Any posters or icons or movie heroes or heroines that inspire a feeling of confidence? There is no right answer for what makes a safe space. There is only your answer. Please know that no answer is wrong or embarrassing. However, if you are a suicide risk it is strongly discouraged you keep firearms in your safe place. While working through the following chapters you may experience extreme distress. You may even have suicidal thoughts. For that reason, please fill out the following list of people you have for support while you go through this process,” he read.
As a child, without hesitation, Seth had gone to another dimension almost as bizarre as the World of the Family. A world only two meters across, yet a world of infinite spatial dimensions where everything that could not be was in arms reach. He had wrestled a serpent and he had taken a compass needle from there, a needle that would point him toward whatever he needed to defeat the Family, and he had not even winced as his mind had expanded to take in the infinity of the Many Place. Yet now, when asked to write down a list of people with whom he would share his feelings… Seth could barely force himself to move.
Taking a pen from out of the visor Seth sighed, closed his eyes, and forced himself to write down names.
-Miss Kate, from the Order, who had brought him to Zebula, and who he could not ever conceive of calling because he always felt like he was interrupting her. And she was paying his rent, which he found humiliating. Except, of course, that was silly as she’d made it quite clear that he -and the fate of the world he carried upon his shoulders- was her number one priority. It made sense, but he just didn’t like it.
-Jason, his therapist, who he already saw once a week was another easy number. The compass needle had pointed to him without fail for the last two years. Seth knew this because he checked it each and every time he had to go to a session.
-Abby, even though she lived on the other side of the country these days. Why he had not put her first, he did not know, as she was the one person he could count on to call him once a week, every week, without fail.
He chewed his lip. Three should be plenty. Three was a perfect number for someone who wanted to do what appeared to be a decent job. But three wasn’t a good number for someone like him, who needed to succeed even if the third attempt failed. He reached deep down and found another name to write.
-Lima from Group had told him to call her if he ever felt down, but he’d kind of gotten the sense she’d rather not hear from him if that happened.
Still, he wrote her name down even though he put her last. He didn’t have so many friends these days that he could be picky because one seemed to dislike him.
“If you have trouble identifying people you trust, then consider people with whom you have a close but neutral relationship. If you cannot think of anyone who you trust to wish you well, who do you trust not to wish you ill?” Seth read and snorted.
That last description applied to every name he’d written down, except Abby.
There were more pages. He flipped through them and sighed. Terrible questions awaited. Questions like “Have you ever felt happy?” that a normal person would never be asked to answer, even a criminal. Questions a normal person wouldn’t have to think on for five or six minutes before answering. Questions like “Have you ever committed arson?”
The questions felt like having his fingernails ripped out. Self torture. Seth figured they’d fill out most of the answers at Group tonight, so he skipped ahead.
At last he came to a page that said “What do you want to accomplish?”
He thought about that for a long time.
A crow appeared from out of the lingering rubble of the factory, twitched its wings then cawed before flying off. Like magic, the black of its wings formed a living piece of night as it took off into the sky. Long grasses swayed in the wind. The sun gleamed on his hood ornament.
He’d tried Walking between Worlds.
He’d tried Summoning Silas.
He’d even tried stealing from the Many Place.
There was a long list of things Seth had tried to end the curse upon him and it stretched back almost his entire life. He’d never tried therapy.
“To find out what I want to accomplish,” he said and wrote.
And to not be afraid of the dark. Or confined spaces. Or ghosts. Or sex. But the parking lot wasn’t safe enough to write those answers down.
Nowhere was that safe.
Seth checked his compass.
It was still pointed toward the therapist’s office.
Seth called them the “Spooky-Bottom Trees” and he couldn’t help but love them. Perhaps it was because some aspect of their character inspired him, or perhaps because they were particularly attuned to his own sense of himself. Or at least his sense of who he wanted to be. Whatever the case, he loved the trees.
How they soared, those Spooky-Bottom Oregon evergreens! Everywhere springing up from the ground, over rivers mountains and plains, indomitable and never alone. Some of the trees had dead branches at the bottom and kept their green safe from forest fires at the very top, which Seth related to. Perhaps he even admired it. Hidden, out of the way beauty, was better than no beauty at all. And to Seth’s way of thinking, hidden beauty was the only kind you could trust. The only kind that existed purely for itself. The only kind people wouldn’t try to take from you.
There were fewer Spooky-Bottom Trees at Crater Lake than had been at Lava Tunnel State Park -Seth had explicitly refused to enter the eponymous lava tunnel, though Zebula had sent Abby in and demanded she smuggle out a piece of obsidian from the very end of the tunnel- but he still found their presence restful and reassuring. He hadn’t slept so well in years.
If the entire purpose of the trip hadn’t been explicitly to travel to another dimension beyond human understanding, the vacation would have been wholly pleasant. Or at least, Seth wouldn’t have been able to make any complaints. On the first day, Zebula’s entire brood of about eighty or so direct descendants, had gone kayaking and Seth had caught a fish as big as his arm. The fish had looked at Seth, so startled and scared, before he let it go. Rather than feeling guilty, the experience left him feeling righteous and magnanimous and bigger than all the bad things that had ever happened to him. Hidden inside of him, was beauty. And it was beauty for himself, no matter what had happened to him or what he had seen, or even done.
Then there had been the brikes on the second day -Abby called them recumbent bicycles and, with a disdainful snort, said they were for people who wanted to exercise and be lazy at the same time. Seth had liked them, though. They made him feel swift and centered and he’d taken one out daily. And he couldn’t complain about the company. Seth had met almost all of Zebula’s fourteen children, most of their spouses, and about half of their children and in some cases, their children’s children. Surprisingly, Seth liked almost all of them. They had that settled, slow way of acting that calmed him. Like they had not a care in the world. Carefree, yet to a one they could be relied upon if something bad happened, even if it was happening to a stranger.
Seth had slept each night in his tent with Zebula and Abby with the light always on and nobody in Zebula’s entire enormous extended family had said a word about it. Even the few he didn’t care for. Given the sheer size of her Clan, none of them seemed quite certain Seth wasn’t related to them somehow. Zebula’s family were the sort of people who assumed everyone was at least a second or third cousin until proven otherwise with DNA evidence. Seth could not conceive any place on Earth closer to heaven than Crater Lake, Oregon.
He kept on feeling that way until the day, toward the end of the trip, then Zebula came to sit by him, expression as serious as death.
“It’s time,” she said.
Seth knew he was still not allowed to die, that he had not yet fulfilled his destiny, so he supposed it only made sense that he had to leave heaven sometime.
It made him sigh.
“I’ve been to the Chasing Grounds, the World of the Wolf, and the Many Place. What’s so special about this world? I was enjoying the vacation,” Seth lay on an air mattress, drinking grape soda with a half-eaten hot dog next to his head.
Perhaps if other people had known about his Walks between Worlds, they would have felt more grand and significant, but since he shared these things only with Zebula -and occasionally Abby and Miss Kate- he couldn’t even bother himself to sit up. Yes, there was a world for dog and wolf spirits and a darker, more malevolent world for demon wolf spirits. There was a world another world with almost infinite spatial dimensions, and pretty much every place in it was on top of every other place. So what? The inflatable mattress was comfortable, and his stomach grumbled that he’d want to finish that hot dog soon.
Zebula only shifted a bit of tinfoil around in the coals of the campfire, not saying anything. If he thought he heard her grumble, it was only to herself and probably something that didn’t really mean anything. She’s been sharp as a tack for the entire time he’d been living with her, but this past month or so something had seemed ever so slightly off. Like the way an old television or computer monitor could just seem to fade suddenly, right before it winked out forever. Seth continued, undeterred.
“They won’t hurt me again. You said they couldn’t do to me anything that wouldn’t have happened without them. Not without my consent, anyway. I know that now. I promise the only thing that could make me give them permission now is torture, and you said they couldn’t do that.”
He liked to argue with her, recently. He’d never been able to argue with anyone before. Not without danger anyway. Seth liked to argue. It made him feel powerful.
It was early morning, and while the sky was gray there was not enough light for the Family here. Not that he’d seen them in years now. It felt like a hundred, but it had only been four. But he was still careful. Zebula was wrong to say he was growing careless. He had never let the dark touch him since he got away. Not even once.
“Say their names. Remember them. Now please.”
Seth sighed again, deeper than before.
“First came Ella, the Full Knowing Choice of Evil. Then Tomas, her husband, the Seeder of Corruption. Silas first son of Ella, Everything You Want and Nothing You Need. Rosa, daughter of Tomas, The Dark that Devours the Light. Melanie, daughter of Tomas, Profit by the Pain of Others. Ricardo, son of Ella, the Hate You Feel for Those Who Love You. Then came the lesser children. Lisbeth, daughter of Silas, the Love of Lust. Stacy, daughter of Ricardo, the Bane of Error. Terra Joy, daughter of Melanie, the Terror of Joy. Byron, son of Silas, the Harm Inflicted as Affection. Eric, son of Melanie, Collecting on what Cannot be Balanced. Susannah, daughter of Richard, All the Agony You Could Ever Want. Basil, son of Silas, the Truth is what You Want it to Be.”
After he was done, and the sound of their names had died in the air, Seth shivered. He shoved the rest of his hot dog in his mouth despite his throat growing dry. Now it was his turn to grumble, but even so his thoughts of the Family were far off. The happy memories of Zebula’s Clan and her granddaughter Abby were too fresh. Seth had never liked anyone so much as he liked Abby, and it was teenage crush, best friendship and older sister all mixed together. He’d never been this happy before. It reminded him of the time in his life before the Family. Before he knew he was Ella’s Chooser. He thought of this as he chewed the hot dog. He liked a cold crispy campfire hot dog almost as well as he liked a fresh one.
“All I have to do is say ‘no.’ That’s all. Then everybody in the world gets to live. I can do that. Easy,” he said with a full mouth.
Zebula said nothing, only squatted there by the fire. She looked at the giant colony of tents where all of her dozen plus children and their families were spread out. The she frowned again.
Seth supposed Zebula’s frown was for the missing tent. The one where her youngest son would have been set up with his own family. Abby had told him enough of that story that he’d managed to piece it together. Some creature rather like one of the Family had stolen Zebula’s youngest child from her. Abby had killed it, decades later. Even if Abby had been awful in every other way, Seth would have loved her for that.
“You see everything in front of you, boy, except the tip of your nose. Know what angle they’ll come at you? The Family is the dark behind your eyes and the back of your own fool head. They’ll come at an angle you can’t even see,” Zebula croaked.
“I’ve seen enough,” said Seth, “or at least enough to say one damn word.”
Zebula spared a look to the bit of tinfoil in the fire, and a very slow smile worked its way over her frown.
“You see so much, eh? How long you think it would have taken you to notice that I’m stuck like this?”
Seth stared at her, trying to puzzle out the meaning of her strange grumble.
“So smart. So clever. I need your help to stand back up, boy.”
Seth rolled off the air mattress, crunching a bag of chips underneath him as he did so.
“Sorry,” he grunted, as he wrapped his arms around Zebula’s waist and lifted her up. She weighed almost nothing. Even less than she used to.
“Don’t break me now, Einstein. Put me down. Gentle now.”
Seth was happy to be of help and he helped her sit down on a log where she could work the cramp out of her back. He argued with her, yes, but he also hated to win. Winning an argument with Zebula was like feeling the bedrock shift under your feet. Like the Earth shifting in its orbit. That could never make a person happy.
Zebula eyed him expectantly thereafter until he remembered to bend over for her cane and to take her little bit of tinfoil out of the fire. It burned his fingers, but Seth dared not show it for fear she’d find him weak. Zebula was almost ninety now, but the callouses on her finger were still thicker than Seth’s and it always embarrassed him a bit to let her know that. He supposed it came from a lifetime of taking cookies out of the oven.
“How is it, you think, the Family wins so much?”
Zebula opened the tinfoil a bit, rummaging through the contents, and Seth was surprised to find what was there was not food at all but the barest sliver of ice and something dark next to it. Something black and shaped like an arrowhead. It was the piece of obsidian from the cave, he realized. How the ice did not melt, he did know.
“The other Choosers… they must have never gotten help. From you. From Abby. Or Miss Kate,” Seth ventures.
“Don’t you think those other Worlds fought back to defend themselves? We’re all a little bitty piece of this World, Seth. Remember that. You and me, different as we are, we’re the same in most ways. We’re both flesh. We’re both blood. Gravity holds us the same way. Sun shines on both of us. Don’t you think those other Worlds sent little pieces of themselves to help their Choosers along?”
Seth stood very still.
“What’s that for?” he asked, nodding to the arrowhead and ice.
“It’s a mirror -after a fashion, Seth. That’s all it has to be. True after a fashion, that is. It’s all about what you believe. A mirror that has been close to fire. A mirror that has touched its own death and known pain. A mirror that held onto the cold through it all. A mirror that reflects the dark as well as the light. Believe that. Make yourself believe it. It’s going to be our key.”
Zebula walked down to one of the flat bottomed boats that her oldest son, Abby’s father, had rented. She struggled to take a seat at the prow and watching her climb in was terrifying, like watching a child play with knives, until she succeeded at the last perilous moment with a smirk. Just the idea of what might happen if she fell, how those brittle bones might handle a tumble, made Seth break into a sweat. She didn’t ask him to come, but she didn’t need to. She just waited. That ice wouldn’t take long to melt.
Seth brushed the crumbs off of his shirt and pushed the boat out onto the clear lake. He climbed in, trying to rock the boat as little as possible as he did so, and grabbed the oars. There were other people making their way around the lake, lots of other families camping, and it was extremely touristy, but already Zebula seemed to have set them on course to a world apart. Crater Lake was unnatural, a volcano with no top now filled with water. Water where there had been fire. Somehow being there in that moment, he became more aware of that. The Spooky-Bottom Trees seemed to loom higher around him. The water grew clearer and deeper.
“Find the crease in your mind, Seth,” she said. “You know what another World feels like. Feel the place where another World touches ours. Where one place touches our place. Feel for it.”
Seth closed his eyes and rowed, knowing somehow that he wouldn’t hit another boat. Knowing that if he even came close that Zebula would give warning. He trusted her completely, as he had never trusted anyone in his life. There was something toward the center of the lake… something tugging at him. He’d done this in his dreams with Zebula and Miss Kate, when they’d taken him to the Chasing Grounds and World of the Wolf. Except this was stronger, more present, more real.
There was an island not far from where Seth rowed, he could see it even with his eyes closed. Far from the center and yet a schism emanated from that island. A jagged line where the world felt like it had been cracked by some impossible force. Seth corrected the course of the boat toward that line.
“Keep going Seth, and focus on the ice and the arrowhead. That’s our key. It’s a mirror that has touched pain and a compass that knows its way through the dark. That’s what will give us access. Focus on the Truth of that.”
Seth focused. His own compass had been left at home, too valuable to take and, besides, all it did was point at Zebula. What was their compass now? A mirror that reflected its own death? A mirror that told no lies, and held nothing back, maybe. A mirror that gave only perfect Truth. Ugly and beautiful truth. He could almost see what that would look like… the truth. All of it, not just the bits and pieces Ella had given to him, but all of it at once. It looked like the night sky, dark and empty, but bits of light glowed in the bulk. Seth saw a way pointing to the Truth through the dark, it was a thousand glimmering strings, each touching every other string exploding out and out and yet not quite infinite.
There was a cracking sound, like a break in the ice over a lake, except bigger than that. It wasn’t ice that was cracking but the universe. Reality had split apart and a chasm had opened to a place beyond. Seth didn’t open his eyes, even as the boat fell.