“Do you think we got her in time?”
“Yeah! I mean, pretty sure.”
“She was so determined to join those freaks, though… What if we were too late?”
“We’re not! She’s fine. She’s still, y’know, untouched. Still good.”
“How can you tell?”
“Just look! She’s still—”
Two voices. She knows them. If she searches herself, she might even summon their names to the front of her mind.
That seems less urgent right now than the burst of pain at the back of her head.
While they continue to argue, she tries to raise a hand to massage her throbbing skull, but she finds herself unable to move.
With effort, she pries her eyelids open. Her head, already slumped forward, angles her view down, and she can see right away what’s wrong.
They’ve got her bound tightly with some kind of cable (what is this, baling wire?) holding her upright with her back pressed into something cold and unyielding. A signpost, maybe.
She can feel its pressure digging in. It’s clear her comfort was not the priority here.
Her neck is sore and stiff, but with effort she manages to haul her gaze up to look her captors in the eye. They stopped arguing at some point, apparently noticing the signs of her slow crawl toward consciousness.
“Shit,” the one on the left says, looking nervous. “I don’t know if I’m ready to go through with this. What if, what if she—?”
“You can’t bail on me now.” The one on the right sets their face in a hard but otherwise unreadable expression.
Both look at her like she’s done something wrong, some crime they’re here to punish. Or maybe not. Maybe that unmerciful look is just the one a slab of meat receives, resting in a pool of its own blood on the butcher’s table. Impersonal evaluation, calculating where to slice.
What did she do? Weren’t they supposed to be her friends? Why were they—?
Nausea twists her gut, and her body involuntarily convulses against her bindings while she retches and heaves and gags, and nothing at all comes up.
“Is that normal?”
“Probably just a concussion,” Right responds. “Might’ve hit her too hard. She’ll survive.”
“Assuming she answers our questions right, anyway. You hear that, Katie?”
She hears, but the words sound like they come from somewhere distant, too far removed to matter.
They tunnel through the gulf separating her from them, worms too weak from the journey to finish the last stretch from ear to comprehending mind.
The pressure in her stomach feels so much more urgent and immediate.
“What were you up to with those weirdos you were chatting up earlier?”
She grimaces and groans, but she can’t bring herself to speak. The pain is dramatically worse than the cramping she’s used to, and it’s all she can do to remain conscious while the current wave crests.
“You didn’t let them do anything with you, did you?”
A weird question. Did she? It’s hard to remember what happened before waking up to hear these two arguing over her.
She doesn’t answer. She can’t. The agony inside her stands between Katie and any voluntary movement.
If she closes her eyes, she can imagine the shape of her pain as a knotted parasite squatting in her belly and plunging hungry tendrils through the soft meat of her stomach, wrapping itself in her guts, eviscerating a body that still seems outwardly fine, at least so far.
“Fuck this. We’ll just have to check her ourselves. I bet it’d be obvious if one of them touched her.”
Through half-lidded eyes she watches Right fumble in their pockets for a knife while Left frets and paces and casts worried looks in her direction.
There’s something wrong with these two, she can feel it. It’s not a feeling that eclipses the sensation of being devoured from within, but it bubbles up through her awareness to a level higher than the meaningless background hiss of their words.
With clumsy knifework, one of them slices away messy strips of cloth from her clothes in the gaps between the wire that wraps her. Piece by piece, they lay her bare.
They were her friends once, but now she feels like she hardly knows them. Something happened. What was it?
Another wave of pain wracks her, cascading from her core in a flood of pressure like a star exploding to life inside her, like sunlight breaking through clouds, but the clouds are her flesh and her thoughts and her identity, and these are all such evanescent things after all.
“She looks good, right?”
The hands exploring her body don’t touch her at all. An ocean separates them—not the separation of people on different continents, but that of surface dwellers from those residing within the deepest abyss below—and mere hands cannot reach so far.
“Of course she does.”
The wave subsides. Only a little. Just enough for her stiff muscles to slacken again, slumping forward against her restraints.
Something they said earlier floats to the surface. They mentioned “those freaks,” and it tickles a recent memory.
“Is that a cut? Why doesn’t it bleed?”
“Grazed her a bit, I guess. Her top was bunching up there.”
Recollection climbs up her spine, insinuating itself in her mind. She was with her new friends. Not these bickering remnants of a life all but forgotten. Her real friends.
“Why isn’t she bleeding, Sam?!”
“Fucking calm down. It’s just a shallow nick, that’s all.”
“Check her mouth.”
“You’re the one who said we should do this! Check her mouth!”
Fingers push between her lips, prying her open.
It mirrors the memories of her real friends floating back to the surface. It wasn’t fingers then. It was something else, something offered, something begged for, something she didn’t quite understand she was asking for.
“Oh god oh no oh fuck…” Sam jerks back, stumbling, falling over, scrambling away from her as fast as possible.
The pain breaks through some internal barrier, flooding her from top to bottom.
Every nerve comes alive in a shrill and ceaseless scream that slowly comes into focus, resolving into song. The flotsam calling herself Katie remembers her family and her place in this world and lets the riptide pull her under with the rest of herself.
“That’s not Katie, that’s not Katie, that’s not her anymore—”
“No, please, you have to still be in there somewhere—”
Maybe they continue babbling and begging, but their words are so small, so distant, so completely and utterly meaningless, that they’re easy to tune out.
The song inside her is far more important anyway. She can’t help but raise her own voice to join the internal chorus while she strains against her bindings, yearning to rejoin those she was taken from.
Steel is strong, but she does not require the strength to break it. Let the flesh soften and deliquesce. Let the wire bite deep into a body that slumps around its bindings.
Their eyes widen, jaws slacken, unable to process the failure of their attempt to contain her.
She presses on, dull metal slicing as cleanly through gelatinous bone as it does the rest of the bloodless slurry inside her.
Mycelial threads stitch themselves together across the gaps and gashes left through her body, tightening together, repairing the damage in real time.
The two things that were once Katie’s friends scream, scramble, and run. They flee from the dark alleyway they dragged her into.
It doesn’t matter how far they get. They’ve heard the song now. It’s only a matter of time.
It’s also time for her to return to her family.