Sleep wasn’t sleep for Miri. Sleep was the world falling away, and a new one rising to meet her feet. A world of velvet shadows and dark new colours. A cat-eye moon usurped the sun in the sky and shattered its glare into millions of blinking stars.
Miri drifted invisibly above Catalpa, more at home in the hot night air than a fish in a tropic sea. Nothing real could touch her—not even gravity. Below her, the city lay in quiet shadow, its citizens in their beds or behind drawn curtains.
There were always a few boltholes of light. Libertalia had no true closing hours, only a limit to its stone-skinned mistress’s patience. Tonight it was alive with laughter. Laughter and alcohol-slurred, grown up feelings…
Miri tried to tune out the fog of alcohol slurred thought. It made her feel blurry.
More inviting was the children’s hall: a rusty chrome rocketship half-buried in the red clay of Catalpa. In October, someone had hung a plastic skeleton dressed like Buck Rogers out one of the windows. Now tinsel and Christmas lights were creeping up its face like myrtle vines.
It was the home of all the children who had nowhere else to rest their heads. Until recently, Allison and Miri had kept their body there most nights. Miri could feel the lights glowing in their fixtures. Kids running and laughing. Bedtime was hours ago, but nobody could spare the time and energy to corral the residents.
As soon as the hall had crossed Miri’s mind, she was there at the speed of thought. Because that’s what she was. A dream freed from sleep.
A clam-shaped record player from another dimension, kindly donated by Maude Simmons (without her knowledge) filled the hall’s conical attic. A horned boy juggled strobing will o’ wisps, while a floating crystal sphere served as a mirror-ball.
“Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock,”
“Jingle bell swing and jingle bells ring…”
Miri giggled silently. The vibrations in the air tickled her astral body. Young children and increasingly gangly teenagers alike were dancing and singing off-key in their pyjamas, or whatever cast-offs they chose to sleep in.
Miri was about to turn visible when she saw Louise. The girl was twirling in the centre of the floor, skin bleeding white with potential energy. Her long black hair swirling around her, blue low-lights flashing as they caught the disparate light.
Miri frowned. She and Louise were usually quite tight. The latter even lent Miri her body once or twice a week; didn’t even ask her to wear clothes in it if she didn’t want to. But Louise had gotten very frowny since Allie’s birthday party. Allison said it was because she told David Louise liked him. Miri supposed she could see why Louise didn’t want people to know she liked David—David was David—except lots of people said they liked him. Even Allie and Arnold.
Especially Allie and Arnold.
Mabel was stationed next to the record player, trying to make herself heard over Bobby Helms:
“Anyone got a request?”
Miri popped next to Mabel, yelling in her ear, “The Bug-Guys!”
Mabel shuddered and jumped. “Don’t do that, Miri!” She frowned and tilted her head. “And the ‘Bug-Guys’?”
“You know!” said Miri. “The ones with the hair and the suits? They make really good songs about submarines and holding hands!”
Mabel nodded with realisation. “Oh!”
She pulled a record out of the box and stuck it in the player. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” started blaring.
Miri grinned at Mabel, accompanied by an excited clapping noise. Sometimes she forgot to affect the gesture that typically accompanied the sound.
Mabel saw David emerge from the crowd and danced up to Louise. She pointed at the pair, hiding a grin.
“See David over there by Brit?”
“Something cheesy and romancey coming up.”
David danced around Brit with perfect, fluid grace and utter, unreserved dorkiness. “So…” he whistled. “Wanna kiss?”
Brit wrinkled her nose. “Really, Dave?”
“What’s wrong? Is this because of the Miri thing? Also, Dave?”
“You don’t just say ‘wanna kiss’ like that.”
David shrugged and took Brit’s hand, spinning the girl and dipping her. “Works for me and Allie. And Arnold.”
Brit giggled. “Arnold and Allie aren’t everyone else. There’s steps for the rest of us.”
Brit knew that was true. Movies and books said so.
David’s tongue curled in thought. “…Swimming?”
“Maybe in the middle,” replied Brit, “but more like—”
Miri appeared beside the pair and crowed, “Flirting!”
David and Brit’s turned as one towards the phantom girl.
“Hi Miri,” said Brit, a touch flatly.
Miri didn’t return the greeting. “The thing you do before kissing is flirting! I got it from Allie’s big dusty brain library!”
“…Why do we have to do that?” asked David.
“Don’t know,” answered Miri. “I was looking for stuff about frogs.”
Brit smiled and cocked her head at David. “Okay Miri, tell him how to flirt.”
Miri rubbed her chin. “…Tell her she’s cute.”
David beamed at Brit. “You are cute!”
Brit blushed, but Miri snapped, “No! You have to say it all sideways.”
David and Brit looked at each other.
“…Your hair is like the sea at night?”
“Foamy and weird?” asked Miri.
“No! Like… you ever been to the beach when there’s a full moon? It’s all black, but the bits the light touches are all silvery blue. It’s prettier than anything!”
Brit laughed. “I like that!” She looked back at Miri. “What’s next?”
“Um, I think before you do the kissing now you have to go on a date?”
David and Brit’s expressions both dimned, until the former’s eyes widened with an idea. He took Brit’s hand:
Miri watched the two of them run down the attic stairs. None of them remembered it was technically bedtime.
Miri was happy. She helped! She even helped David, which was very generous of her.
For the next fifteen minutes she literally moved through the crowd, possessing dancers for fractions of a second, riding the endorphins that swelled and dipped with the music and every transfer.
Something down there niggled at Miri. A normally bright and buzzy nebula turned to sullen red giants and white dwarfs.
Miri flickered between the attic and one of the ringed dormitories. Billy was curled up in a hammock, tail sullenly shooing away hot, heavy air. He was cradling one of his Famous Five books. It didn’t look to Miri like he was reading, though. Just staring at the pages.
Miri was about to solidly place herself by Billy’s side, but then she saw what was going through his head. A little house, far away, beside a copse of glass and gold trees. But they were shadows compared to the smiling, dark-lady.
Miri hissed through her teeth. Mothers. Nannies. Granddads. Why was that all anyone could think about lately? She’d never had any of those, and she was fine.
Miri didn’t appear to her friend. What good would it have done? She didn’t know what Billy had lost. She couldn’t even hug him.
Instead, she found Tom Long on the lowest floor, trying to block out the party-noises with a pillow.
He jerked as Miri appeared above him, almost tumbling out of his hammock.
“Billy’s being sad upstairs. Go be not-nice-but-sorta-nice to him.”
“…Not-nice-but-sorta-nice.” Tom nodded. “Sounds about right. Will do, Ghost-Girl.”
Miri hung in the sky again. The last major hub of activity in Catalpa was Mistress Quickly’s lab in Freedom Tower. She and Doc Danny were conducting half-mystical rituals over the sleeping stranger that, if they were right, would soon be Miri herself.
A body. Her own set of flesh and bones. Miri still didn’t know what to think of that. Did she know how to be her own person? Would deciding everything she did every day be hard? Would she and Allie still be sisters?
Would she be able to do stuff like this anymore?
On the other hand, she could eat coconut ice cream without Allie whingeing about it. She’d be able to see herself in a mirror. She wouldn’t have to hug Billy according to a time-table.
And when the sun rose, she’d be able to feel it on her skin.
Well, either way, she was going to enjoy being ghosty while it lasted.
Miri fled into the wild bush that cradled Catalpa. She sunk into the patient consciousness of a crocodile and glided through black waters, scaring the life out of fish as she passed. Then she took to the trees, singing with the metallic, whooping voice of a nightjar.
She was a native rat, running with all it had from a feral cat. She was the cat, too. She was everything.
Minutes and hours blurred together. Beyond the very basics of cause and effect, time was subjective—and Miri’s entire existence was subjective.
A thought occurred to the girl. How did Brit and David’s date go?
She flew into the cove on the sea breeze. The curved sliver of silver that was the moon that night lit the crashing waves. Brit and David were lying asleep beside each other, sprawled like seal pups on the moondust sand. Brit’s head was resting against the boy’s shoulder.
Miri smiled. That looked like a good sign. She wondered if they’d gotten a kiss in…
She was about to plunge back through the layers of time to the date itself, when she noticed something.
David was twitching in his sleep. A low whimper escaped his lips. Miri could see his eyes glowing under their lids.
Miri titled her head. She’d watched a lot of folks sleep in her time. They usually didn’t do that.
Miri rained down over David, soaking into his dreams:
She was standing somewhere familiar she’d never seen before. A dim cave of timber and hay. A barn. Like where they kept the town’s cows.
It was nighttime, she knew that. The only illumination was a moonbeam spotlight pouring in through a window frame.
Miri breathed sharply—
Pain. Like razor blades stuck between her ribs and lungs. Her body was covered in bruises she could not see.
Miri wasn’t wearing any clothes. That itself wasn’t unusual. It was kind of her preference. One thing she and David agreed on. But it felt wrong. Like she was standing there with no skin. She was the wrong shape, too.
There was someone there with her, in the dark. She knew it in her teeth roots. Miri wanted to run out into the night—run and run and run—but her legs weren’t listening.
For the first time, that felt wrong.
Her fingers throbbed.
Groans in the shadow. Slurring, sour words:
“Should invite Bertie to one of our parties… old fuck probably would mount you in a second if I gave him the excuse.”
Something stepped into the light. A man in a mulberry bathrobe, holding a heavy bucket of water in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.
His cheeks were marked with flushed hexagons.
Alberto Moretti gave a cold, pale smile. “Might take a raincheck if he saw you now.”
Miri whimpered. She knew what was going to happen. It had happened so many times. How did she keep forgetting?
Alberto set down the bucket and took a long swig of his whiskey. “You know, Miri (or was it “Mealy”?), I used to be the favourite.” He twitched. “Well, besides Auntie Witch, but like any of us are ever going to top that stuck-up bitch.”
He stumbled forward towards Miri. She tried to step back, or dissolve into something the psychic could not touch, but her skin might as well have been an iron maiden.
Alberto gave a wonky grin. “I was going to unite the world in telepathic unity. I was going to make misunderstanding extinct.” Alberto’s shoulders drooped. His smile died. “Then he found out what I could really do. But that was okay. He had you.”
Alberto leaned down, whispering hot, burning breath in Miri’s ear. “I know your mother, boy. I’ve seen your heart. ‘New human.’ Nothing human in there…”
Alberto was right. She was wrong, and awful, and evil, and Lawrence should hate her—
Alberto pointed at the bucket. “Make us a couple of chopsticks. Sharp ones.”
Miri obeyed without hesitation, and the water answered her just as readily. Two sharp skewers of ice flowed into her hands.
Again, Miri didn’t hesitate. Her vision shattered into sharp, bloody darkness. She didn’t scream, either. What sounds did force their way out of her made her fingers feel like they were breaking inside their skin.
She fell hard to the ground, dropping the now red and sticky skewers. Tears and worse retraced old, dried out paths.
She could still feel the water. Alberto was standing over her. A sewer network of alcohol tainted blood.
She did, working shakily back to her feet.
“Clean yourself up, get your pyjamas back on, and go back to bed.”
Miri broke out in quiet, wrenching sobs.
“Oh, shut up, Mealy,” she heard Alberto say.
All of a sudden, he grabbed her somewhere tender. Hard.
He hissed, “Next time, maybe I’ll make you poke something Bertie gives a fuck about.”
Miri exorcised herself from David’s body, fleeing into the night. If she had a real voice, she would have screamed.
Alberto Moretti sat alone in his old bedroom. There was a lock on the door. The esper was reading a magazine bearing the masthead “STUPID FUCKING DECISIONS.” His face scowled out from the cover.
Alberto lowered his printed memories to find Miri standing in front of him. To his welcome surprise, she’d bothered with that shiny bathing suit she projected for people in meat-space. In fact, it was now a cover-all.
She was crying, too, eyes red with tears.
Alberto raised an eyebrow. “What’s the matter, kid? Finally read the wrong creep’s mind?”
“Why did you do that?”
Alberto looked around his mental prison. “Seeing I haven’t had hands since before you were born, I kinda want to know how I did whatever you’re talking about?”
Miri balled her fists and glared, eyes burning with Allison’s stolen fire. “This.”
Distant cries echoed through the room. David lay bruised and bloody between the girl and the esper. Somehow, despite his blind, ruined eye sockets, he stared right at Alberto.
The psychic drew deeper into his chair, recoiling from the prone boy. But he couldn’t avert his eyes from “Get that away from me.”
Alberto roared. “Take him away!”
“I thought you were just sad,” said Miri. “And silly! You taught me the fun bad words! Allie kept telling me you were bad, but I didn’t think—”
“I was drunk most of the time.”
“Then why did you keep getting drunk?”
“You weren’t there—”
“Yes I was!”
Alberto was quiet.
“Would you do that to me if you could?”
A sigh. “Look, Miri, it was a long time ago—”
Miri snapped, “David didn’t look much smaller.”
“David was barely David back then… you never met his mother, did ya?”
Alberto shook his head. “Course not, you weren’t a… thing yet. She was a monster of a kid. Tear you apart just like that if you pissed her off. For her life was all running and screaming and tearing the world apart for kicks. Tried to drown me when I first met her. Just because she could.”
He smiled at the recollection. “She was fucking beautiful.”
Miri frowned. “How is being mean beautiful?”
Alberto rolled his eyes. “No wonder the tiger-plush likes you. Nothing has ever been as free as her. You hear that, kid? Nothing. Even I couldn’t control her completely, and God fucking knows I tried. My life literally depended on it!”
“What does that have to do with David?”
Alberto spat, “That little shit was the anchor Laurie hung around Fran’s neck! He was the thing that made her give up the ghost! He was such a fucking pussy. I could’ve forgiven that. Billy’s a pussy, and you didn’t see me cutting off his tail or shaving him or something. But he dragged Fran down with him! Domesticated her!”
Alberto pointed angrily at Miri. “You know what? David should fucking thank me! You think he could be what he is now without the rage I gave him?” He broke out in a shaky grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “I killed Mealy! I made David his mother’s son.”
Miri gave Alberto a long, hard look. “…You’re mean,” she said. “And stupid”
“Well, piss off.”
Miri left Alberto in his private purgatory. Now more than ever, she wanted that body. Better a blind, deaf and dumb form of her own than having to share a brain with someone who did that.
But then, if she had a body of her own—if she could be touched—someone could hurt her like David had been.
She needed to talk to Allie about it. She was smart. She was older.
Allison was asleep right now. Early on, her and Miri had experimented with doing away with sleep entirely in favour of alternating twelve hour shifts in the driver’s seat. The result had been two equally grumpy sisters.
Miri sifted through the fogbank of dreams until she found Allison standing in the middle of a snowy field. Between her and a tall wall of snow-capped pines stood a muscular, curly-haired blond man in blue jeans and a brown fleece jacket. He had his back to the girls, hammering away at a fifteen foot model of Freedom Point and rambling into the cold air:
“…I’m doing it right the first time. Don’t want to do this again next winter.”
Miri tilted her head at the sight.
Dreams are weird.
Allison didn’t seem to notice her sister’s appearance in the vista, instead watching the blond man with narrowed eyes.
“Allie,” Miri said into the other girl’s ear. “I need to talk about something…”
Allison’s only response was to ask, “What is he doing?”
Miri glanced quickly at the blond man. “I don’t know, it’s a dream. So, I made David and Brit go on a date-thing, and then—”
Allison clearly wasn’t listening, still watching the man at work.
Allison didn’t even look at her.
Miri growled to herself. Fine. If Allison wasn’t going to talk to her for some dumb reason, she was just going to wake up and take her turn in the body.
Miri opened their eyes. She felt Allison’s costume melt and reform into her own. The morning light that flowed in through the room’s open window was still burnished with dawn. She was lying on top of a bed—
Miri squeaked when she registered Drina Kinsey’s arm draped across her chest, scrambling so fast out of the woman’s embrace that she rolled off the side of the bed.
The thud only made Mrs Kinsey groan in her sleep.
Miri hopped to her feet and looked at the woman who’d mothered her body and sister. It was funny. She looked more like Allison than you’d think on first look. It was their skin. Allison was about as tanned as a cavefish. Drina Kinsey was a solid Hungarian olive. Or Roma, if Miri’s creator told the truth. Seemed like an odd thing to lie about to her.
Miri wondered if she looked anything like Drina.
She decided not to wake up Drina, instead heading into the kitchen and getting started on breakfast.
A lot of breakfast. It’d been a while.
When Drina Kinsey emerged from her room, she found herself walking into a veritable kingdom of food. The air was thick with smoke and grease. She saw her daughter sitting between two towers of maple syrup drenched pancakes, inhaling bacon and scrambled eggs like black hole.
Drina smiled bemusedly at the sight. “Jeez, Allie. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
The girl looked up at Mrs Kinsey, cheeks bulging. “Sorry, Mrs Kinsey,” she murmured through the egg and bacon bits. “I’m Miri.”
“Oh. Hello then. Pleased to meet you then, Miri.” Drina took a seat at the kitchen table. “So… where is Allie right now?”
Miri looked up at the ceiling. “Hanging out in the sky.”
“Ah. Was this planned?”
Miri nodded vigorously. “Yep! The calendar’s in her room at the kids’ house. I get to be in charge for two days now, unless there’s an emergency.”
Miri shrugged. “Like if there’s a big fight, or the big people try attacking the town, or we need something welded quick.”
“You’re saying all that’s up to Allie to handle?”
“She’s good at lots of things!”
Drina nodded. “Always has been.”
She was starting to suspect there was a reason her daughter was willing to rent out her body for days at a time.
The two ate in silence for a few minutes. Drina was silent, at least. Miri was a loud eater.
Eventually, Drina felt the need to say, “You know, Miri, you can call me ‘Mum’ if you want to.”
Miri gulped down her current mouthful and considered the idea. “…No thanks,” she answered matter-a-factly. “Don’t feel like it right now.”
A little relieved, Drina said, “That’s alright too.”
Miri hummed in thought. “…‘Aunt Drina’ okay?”
Drina smiled. “Absolutely.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Probably Mrs Barnes,” said Drina.
Miri sat stock still. One of the benefits of being an esper, even by proxy: you always knew who was at the door. And why.
Drina opened the door to find Maude Simmons standing in front of her. The super-scientist’s lead apron was stained with oil and amnio, and her expression looked like she was simultaneously about to hand Drina a giant novelty cheque and tell her she had cancer.
“Is Miri here?”
In a small voice, Miri answered, “Yes, Mistress Quickly.”
“Is something the matter?” asked Drina.
Maude grinned with a kind of exhausted mania. “I think we’re ready for the transfer.”
Miri lay on an old doctor’s examination bed in the centre of Mistress Quickly’s lab, or as it had once been known, the boiler room. A band of dull grey metal crowned her brow, tethered by dozens of wires to a beeping, radio antennaed octopus of super-science and hospital cast-offs.
Miri was told that, for a few seconds, this machine would be her brain.
This machine had many tentacles. Python-thick power cables that snaked across the metal floor. Wires that burrowed into the sleeping girl lying beside Miri.
The empty body lay half-submerged in a tray of synthetic amniotic fluid, pale and naked. A caterpillar ripped from its chrysalis too early. Miri herself was in a paper-gown. Mistress Quickly and Doc Danny said they didn’t want to risk psychic interference from her costume.
Sitting at her side, Drina Kinsey squeezed the girl’s hand. “I’m sure it’ll go fine.”
Miri knew Mrs Kinsey was trying to be nice. But how could she know?
Miri couldn’t stop looking at her self-to-be. It looked a lot like Allie. But not exactly like her sister. She guessed that was a good sign. It looked a fair bit younger than Allison, but that was okay. Miri never felt as big as Allie did.
It had her hair. The hair Miri always thought she’d have, if she had hair. She hoped she’d described everything right to Mistress Quickly…
Drina asked Doc Danny, “How long until we start?”
“Few minutes, ma’am.”
Drina smiled gently at Miri. “You ready for this? I’m sure we could put it off for a day or two if you needed—”
“No,” Miri tried to say firmly. “Me and Allie have been waiting for this forever. We’re ready.”
Miri wished Allison could’ve really been here. Mabel had even offered them use of her body for the occasion. But Maude had put her foot down.
“We’re trying to transplant a consciousness. I’d rather have as few of those as possible floating around. Unless Allison wants the new body.”
Besides, someone had to be ready if Alberto made a break for it.
The metal plague-doctor from Freedom Point’s infirmary drew some blood and collected some spittle from Miri’s new body.
“Vessel’s vitals are in the green, Miss Quick,” said Dr. Beak.
“Right,” said Mistress Quickly, face lit by the green glow of her CRT console. “You good, Miri?”
Miri nodded. “Yes, Miss Quick.”
“Let’s get cracking.”
Maude pointed at Doc Danny. The boy pushed some buttons on the transfer machine.
The lab was filled with a rising electric hum. Miri winced as what felt like tiny needles made of headache drove themselves into her skull.
Drina frowned. “Is something wrong, Miri?”
Miri had her eyes screwed shut. “Hurts.”
Mrs Kinsey glanced over at Mistress Quickly.
“That means it’s doing its job,” Maude assured them. “Now, Miri, I want you to project yourself out of Allie’s body. Slowly as possible. Can you do that?”
Miri nodded. She took a deep breath and exhaled, picturing herself riding out on the air—
It was like being peeled out of her own skin. The lab swirled around Miri as she tumbled intangible through the air, unable to find purchase.
The transfer machine’s antenna became black hole and lightning rod in one, drawing Miri inexorably into the machine.
For the first time, Miri truly knew gravity.
She found herself nowhere. That was the only word for it. There was no sound, light, or even darkness. She couldn’t feel Allison, or anyone else. She couldn’t move, for there was nothing to move in.
Was this what sleep was like? How could anyone bear it?
Miri waited. And waited. She kept waiting. She waited forever.
When Miri opened Allison’s eyes again, she was screaming. Drina and Mistress Quickly were gently but firmly keeping her pinned.
Doc Danny was scanning frantically at the console read-outs. “I think the connection between the bodies is too loose. If we adjust—”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Danny,” shouted Mistress Quickly. “Does she look like she’s good for another go?”
Miri whimpered. She’d messed up. It was all her fault. Allison was going to be stuck with her forever.
She wouldn’t get to feel the sun after all.
Drina shushed the child with decade-practised skill. “There there. It’s not your fault.”
William St. George hid in the attic of the children’s hall, torch propped between his legs shining on his already impressively worn copy of Five Run Away Together. He startled when the attic hatch creaked open.
Allison floated up through the floor.
Billy squinted at her costume. No, not Allie.
“Sorry about the body stuff.”
Miri shrugged. “Miss Quickly put it in the freezer or something. Says we can try again.”
“We got cocky. This thing is alien meets Artisan meets me. We’re lucky it didn’t explode…”
“That’s good. Allie alright?”
“Yeah. Gave me a couple extra days in charge, too.” Miri drifted over to the record player and dropped the needle. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” again blared through the attic. She extended a hand to Billy. “You wanna dance?”
Billy smiled. “Sure!”
The pair laughed and threw each other around the room for hours.
It felt good to move. It was better than nothing.
On another world, somewhere beyond “somewhere else”, a witch gazed into a well. It was a deep well. It yawned down past the earth it dug into, deeper than time itself.
“Oh,” the witch said. “How cute.”
Elsa Lieroinen shouted over her shoulder. “Ávrá! Fetch me my super-duds! We’re going to Catalpa.”