Tori sat on the concrete floor of the metro station, eyeing the furry purple spider standing on her knee as a lump formed in her throat. This one was the right color.
People passed just feet from where she sat with her spider immigrant of the day. Commuters almost always milled around the metro stations in healthy numbers. Sometimes they flowed like schools of fish, other times they formed thin, disjointed lines. Tori usually ignored the passing people. In equal response, they pretended she didn’t exist. But this was a shaky agreement among strangers. One which Tori reluctantly broke at least once a day, when her stomach’s needs pushed ahead of all else.
She didn’t exactly blame people for ignoring her, perched as she was along the edge of their normal lives. She could still remember a time when she’d had food and a bed, when things like friends, homework, and her annoying aunt were her only concerns. She didn’t remember noticing street dwellers in those days, either.
It was when the spiders began arriving, appearing in Tori’s lap, on her shoulder, sometimes even atop her head, that Tori truly understood, almost with amusement, her new position in this world. Commuters stepped around her no differently than they had before a fairly sizeable, often brightly colored, multi-legged creature with an arguably menacing appearance decorated her person. It wasn’t until after she’d pulled the first few spiders through that she realized how invisible she’d become. Sometimes she felt sorry for all those people, who saw only what they wanted to see. Other times she was jealous.
Here it was another day, or night (she really couldn’t tell from underground), and here she sat on the cold floor with another little spider. Well, it wasn’t so little, as spiders go. She wondered, as she had many times before, where these creatures came from. She was sure she was pulling them from different worlds, different times. Years of training at the institute had left her with quite a keen perception of the many directions in which she could reach, and she was darn sure she was not pulling from the same place every day. Or was she?
If only she could ask this little guy. Her brain blanked for a minute, as if on reboot. Well, why the heck not? Maybe it would answer. She’d seen stranger things.
Tori cleared her throat, testing the voice she rarely used.
“Do you know the kid in the purple coat?”
It said nothing. Of course it said nothing. Vocal folds were unlikely here, weren’t they? But it didn’t even gesture. Motionless, regarding her with a pile of dark eyes, the spider was apparently as unperturbed by her voice as it was by the noise of trains speeding in and out of the station.
So it’s unable to answer. Or maybe just uninterested. She sighed. Excitement dropped away, and suddenly her head hurt. Better nudge the furry thing and send it on its way, like all the rest. She wondered what these new spiders were doing to the city’s ecosystem.
Tori nearly smiled at the little guy on her knee now, as if they shared a joke. She wasn’t surprised at the realization that she was beginning to like these visitors. They were a breath of light in an otherwise dim corner of this world. She wondered if it might stay. What would she do with it? What was that kid doing with his purple spider?
The spider held her gaze. She hesitated before reaching a hand out to it, wondering if its fur was as soft as it looked. Her arm finally started to move, when the spider reached out to her. With its mind.
And it pulled.
If she hadn’t already been sitting, Tori would have fallen to the floor from raw surprise. Despite the shock, she met the spider’s eyes, unflinching as the world in her periphery began turning inside out. The feeling was nauseating, and devastatingly familiar. If she’d had any food in her stomach, it would’ve thrown itself out and onto the floor of the station. Or possibly onto the floor of the forest this spider was dragging her into. Her body squeezed as if it were rolling through a paper press, compressed nearly to the point of impossibility, thin enough to slip through the narrowest of gaps, through the gap separating her city from this spider’s place.
The spider’s eyes gripped her own. Her mind reeled with fight. She’d been exercising her skills every day since escaping the institute. She’d had to. It was either that or go mad. But she’d been doing just enough to keep herself together, the minimum required to remain sane, or at least to hold her balance along on the edge of it. Any more and the whitecoats might detect the activity. And so she’d been keeping herself firmly planted in her own time-space. The one she was born to, anyway.
Tori knew there were very few people who could do what she did. Until this moment, she hadn’t considered that other creatures, non-human creatures, might also have the gift. Curse. Whatever. So, clearly she’d been thoroughly unprepared for this spider’s pull. She hadn’t enough time to find a grip, to find something to hold her to this metro station. No painful vice like the ones wielded by the whitecoats at the institute, no tether to ground her senses in this world, to prevent her from falling completely into this forest place and loosing track of her own home forever.
Prepared or not, Tori resisted the surprisingly strong tug of this little creature. Her mind flailed. Water filled her eyes as she struggled to draw away, as she tried to slip back through the fragile slot between their worlds. The sound of passing trains faded, replaced by the pounding of her heart.
Hot, humid air poured over her face, and the hard cement under her legs transformed into something soft and greenish-blue. A pungent smell, like rotting eggs, filled her nostrils. Strange clicking sounds rang in her ears. She could feel unseen things watching her.
Desperation spilled over in Tori’s mind as she pulled back again, harder. Tears spilled over as she tugged against this creature, until her head was about to burst, until she finally fell back to her place. The clamor of an arriving train burst in her ears. The clicking of that forest, of that unknown where and when, slipped away. Green-blue foliage faded to solid grey concrete.
Shaking from the effort, she marveled at the spider still standing on her knee. She didn’t know whether to consider it a threat, or a friend.
“What are you?”
As if it would answer this time.
The purple spider did pause, before turning on its many legs, stepping to the metro floor, and ambling away. Commuters moved around it, apparently oblivious, yet giving the creature a wide berth. Tori watched, shivering and deeply tired, until the spider rounded the corner.
Despite her exhaustion, she kept her eyes wide, blinking as little as possible, drawing on every sense to re-establish a hold on her world, while knowing full well that this world wouldn’t have missed her if she’d fallen into that spider’s home and never returned. Well, the whitecoats might miss her. No doubt they had for a while. She wondered how hard they were searching.
Tori’s stomach growled. Her head felt light, and not in a good way.
Pulling money from passers-by seemed like too much work just then, let alone trekking up to the streets to find a cheap burger place. She wondered for the millionth time if she should just walk back into the institute and surrender. How long had it been since she’d slipped out the side door with a stolen keycard and nothing else? Maybe they’d learned more about her condition since she’d left. If she thought they could help her track down the old man and the kid, she’d honestly consider returning to that hellhole.
Ever since those two appeared in front of her, only to disappear before she could even say hello, she’d been searching. For months she’d been reaching out of the here and now, into unknown places, grasping around in to find these strangers, who were more like her than anyone in the city she’d always called home, an old man in pajamas and a skinny little kid with a purple spider on the shoulder of his purple coat. It was like groping for two tiny fish in a vast ocean, while blindfolded. And it seemed all she could find were spiders.
As frightening as those spiders might seem, as challenging as today’s little visitor had been, Tori knew the whitecoats were far worse. If they caught even a whiff of those strange off-world ghosters, the old man and the kid, they’d do anything to trap them and use them, just as they’d used her. Tori’s new home on the dirty metro station floor was a better place, a safer place, than the scrubbed white tiles of the institution.
The flood of passing commuters in Tori’s chosen station-of-the-day thickened quickly. Rush hour was a good time for begging. Tori’s stomach knotted in agreement.
Sliding the plastic cup from her side to a spot on the floor a few feet in front of her, Tori ignored the faces of the people passing by, instead concentrating on their pockets, pulling at their contents with her thoughts. She had to rein herself in here. Hunger had become a familiar thing since she left the institute. It was a strong motivator, seriously boosting her strength when she approached desperation, but it could also weaken her control. Trying to tug at wallets and coins, to remind the people they were there, she could accidentally tear a hole in someone’s pants if she wasn’t careful. One or two unfortunate experiences had proven to be enough of a lesson on this.
Tori focused on approaching pockets, and pulled, ever so lightly. Money pressed against pant linings, reminding owners of their presence. People turned out to be quite reliable. They would absent-mindedly put an end to the tugging in their pockets by plucking coins and dropping them to her cup. Sometimes they missed their target, and coins fell with a muted tap on the ground.
Rush-hour eventually faded, the crowd thinned, and Tori’s cup was not empty. She counted coins while her stomach urged her to hurry up. There was enough. She stood slowly, leaning a hand against the rough wall while her legs remembered their job. Numbness in her lower extremities eventually gave way to a painful prickle, and she started to walk.
After turning the same corner as her recent spider, Tori faced train tunnels to the left and long escalators to her right. She wondered which way the spiders usually went, as she headed toward the long escalators that would carry her away from her refuge, toward the streets above.
Walking in the open air, in the light, this was the most dangerous time of her new existence. Dirty clothes and stench might keep all the regular people at bay, but she suspected the whitecoats would be searching for her among the discarded class.
That’s not where they’d found her originally. Some clueless psychiatrist had referred her to the institute when she was only a teen, surely with no idea of what really went on in the institute’s sterile rooms. She could picture the head whitecoat at their first meeting as if it were yesterday, as if the decade since had been nothing but a nightmare. Dr. Gottskill was his name. It wasn’t long before she’d renamed him Ghostkill.
He had a deep and scratchy voice. “Spatiotemporal Dysplasia,” he’d said to her Aunt Vivian on that first day. In response to Viv’s blank face, he said it again, more slowly, “Spay-shee-ohh-temp-or-all.”
Viv narrowed her eyes in a very Viv way.
“No, Sir,” she’d said, with an air of superiority Tori attributed to her steady diet of religion and self-help books. “It’s called Schizophrenia.” Aunt Viv’s arm wrapped around Tori’s shoulders. “Skit-so-fray-nee-ahhhh.” Viv savored her moment. “Maybe you’ve heard of it?” She re-arranged her scarf with a sigh, followed by a dramatic pause few could pull off so well. “Her father basically died of it.”
Of course, it was easier for Viv to believe that Tori was schizophrenic, that her dad had been, than to believe they could slip through time and space. The notion that someone could reach into unseen places was scary. It was a thought that most people, Viv included, were simply unable to entertain.
Even Tori was initially frightened at the idea that her hallucinations were actually nothing of the sort, but were instead real experiences. But the scientists, the whitecoats, eased her mind. In the beginning, anyway.
At first, they made her ability sound cool. They told her she was lucky. They told her she had a superpower, and she bought it, like any confused and wishful kid might.
As it turned out, though, there was nothing cool about spatiotemporal dysplasia. Had the whitecoats intentionally lied to her? Who knows? They had no idea what it felt like, how completely terrifying it was, to dip and slide into other times and places, to see creatures and landscapes that made no sense. No wonder everyone thought her dad had been crazy. No wonder he’d thought so, too.
At least the institute had given Tori the explanation her dad never found. Ghosting, they’d called it. Visiting other wheres and whens. Whitecoats held her down, day after day, assaulted her senses with painful vices to tether part of her to the here, and drugged her up for easy control before flinging the rest of her out there. Out wherever, whenever they wanted a peek.
It wasn’t Viv’s fault, of course. Viv and all the other regular people still lived under a mountain of ignorance. Only the brightest of humanity could see a faint outline of the truth of things, in this time and place. It’ll be centuries before the masses begin to understand how very little they’d ever understood. Humanity’s progress will skyrocket once that happens. It seems learning cannot begin in earnest until one believes, until most believe, there is something to learn.
Tori’d glimpsed that future more than once. The one where people are safe and healthy, where their troubles are nothing more than mild ripples in a vast and sturdy civilization. She savored the warm glow she felt every time she slipped into that kind of future.
Those were the good days.
On the bad days, she flickered in and out of wastelands, where life stretched thin and starved. Whatever events, large or small, that shifted the future of humanity between these two possibilities and across so many in-betweens, she couldn’t begin to fathom. Sometimes she suspected Aunt Viv’s activities nudged them all toward the future wasteland. If she could sell her own niece to the institute, who knows what else Viv, and all the other Vivs out there, might do.
By the time Tori’d finally escaped the institute, there was nowhere to go. Aunt Viv, if she were alive, would’ve surely just sold her back to the whitecoats. So Tori went underground, to hover just below the sightline of regular people, do her best to hold herself firmly and quietly in the here and now. The early days after the escape were fragile, scary times. Pictures and voices crept into her head, beacons from other places, but she didn’t trust herself to succumb. She was terrified, and barely tethered.
Tori reached the streets to meet a blinding sun. She coaxed her eyes to adjust quickly to the shock of light as she skirted the edge of the crowded sidewalk, destined for the nearest fast-food. Averting her gaze from passers-by, she found herself looking into dark corners, hoping to see one of her colorful spider immigrants. She wondered for the first time whether they were annoyed at her for snatching them. She was ashamed she’d not wondered this before. Searching for the old man and the kid for months, and all she could find were spiders. What was it about them, about her, that made spiders so easy to bring through?
Finally in line at the junk food spot du jour, Tori ignored the growl of her stomach and studied her feet. They were wrapped in the same loafers she’d had on the day she’d left the institute. Their original sea-blue color had transformed from months of scuffs and grime into a bluish camouflage. Still, a view of dirty shoes was preferable to the stares of disgust undoubtedly pointed in her direction from others in line.
“Can I help you?” The cashier asked.
“Uh,” Tori looked at the coins again in her hand before making her order. Quick calculation of tax. “Yeah, dollar cheeseburger and a dollar coke,” she said.
No response from the cashier. She looked up at him. He was just a kid, all acne and scraggly hair escaping his hat. He looked over her shoulder and shifted on his feet. Maybe it was his first day. Maybe it was her odor. Her face burned.
“Please,” she said, hoping the kid just needed a reminder to focus on the task at hand.
The boy’s fingers shook a little while he looked to the register to tap in the order. His eyes flicked up a few times, focusing behind her.
Oh damn. Security. It was the smell, wasn’t it?
She turned around, starved and now annoyed, ready to argue that she had every right to stink up the restaurant. But it wasn’t security. She saw a familiar face, smiling above a white coat.
“Hello, my ghost,” he said. Scratchy voice.
She felt a prick in her neck. Someone must’ve been behind her. Her legs buckled and the world blurred. She forced her eyes to stay wide open. A well of anger boiled, tinged with hunger and fear, surged up from her depths as she sank to the floor. She looked at Dr. Ghostkiller and burst with a last conscious thought.
She was back on the floor of the metro station, cross-legged, eye-level with the knees of commuting masses flowing by. Her head was thick, fogged.
She’d been here before, right?
Of course she had. This metro was her home. Wait, which station was this? She looked around. No signs.
Panic danced on the periphery. She focused on the floor, cold and gray, familiar. Thoughts flitted around her mind, just out of grasp. Here eyes were dragged away then, tugged as if by a magnet, to look to the right. The old man and the kid were headed in her general direction, just as they did on that one day, in a station, so long ago. How long ago was that?
They walked just like everyone else there, yet their presence was different. Electrifying. They hadn’t seen her yet, just as they hadn’t on that day. Tori’s heart flipped as she tracked their approach. Once they finally neared, they both paused on cue, as if struck by the same jolt. They looked down in unison and regarded Tori, sitting on the floor. Just as they did on that day.
The kid’s eyes went wide.
His voice was small, melodic. “Whatzit?”
Tori wanted to speak, to ask the kid why he didn’t remember her from before. But nothing happened. She was frozen, watching the scene unfold. Again.
The man, with white hair and a mish-mash of pajama clothes, said to him, or maybe to Tori, “Seems be onve us, Bay.”
This was the same scene. Exactly as before.
Tori was back in the time and place, when and where she met the old man and the kid, the ghosters like her, but not like her. Like her, but free. She was reliving the past that had set her on the hunt to find them again, had led her to drive her skills beyond what the whitecoats had taught, maybe beyond what the whitecoats knew was possible. After that day, she’d taken the skills honed in the institute and reversed them, in an attempt to find these two, the free ghosters. She stopped pushing, and she began pulling.
It’d taken time to figure it all out. Just as pushing a shopping cart took different muscles than pulling one, the switch required Tori to practice different ways of maneuvering, of navigating time and space. Since that meeting day, most of Tori’s time was devoted to searching, and to pulling.
Tori struggled now against the frozen playback, struggled to break the past and speak to the old man this time, as he smiled at her again, as he had before. But she sat mutely on the cement, a dirty, gaping, homeless, spatiotemporal dysplasia lady. His eyes held complete softness. And complete understanding.
Movement distracted her from the travelers’ faces, drawing Tori’s eyes to rest on a large spider perched atop the child’s shoulder, nearly camouflaged against the child’s purple coat. The spider swiveled slightly, turning its pile of black eyes in her direction.
And then, damn her, she’d blinked. Just as she had before. And the two ghosters, the two unlike any she’d ever seen at the institute, the old and the young, un-drugged, fully awake, in control of their fate, were gone. Slipped away, just like that.
Tori awoke in a bed. Her back and legs, cushioned by a warm mattress, hurt less than they had in so many months of living on floors. Her head was heavy, her thoughts slow. She laid still, studying the familiar white ceiling tiles. Alarm rang at the edge of her mind. How long had she been back?
Memories crept in. Recent ones, soft and broken. They’d already put her to work, with much heavier drugs than before, but not ghosting this time. No longer visiting, no longer simply an observer. Now she was pushing.
Because they’d seen her push the head ghostkiller out of the here and now. No tether for him, no return. She smiled, though her jaw resisted the movement. Where had he gone? She thought maybe she’d sent him to the last place she’d been herself, to the forest of the purple spider. She recalled the unseen things watching her when she’d briefly slipped into that world. She had no doubt they were dangerous.
Tori chuckled out loud.
A mechanical click sounded almost as soon as she’d made noise. She turned to look at the two-way mirror, knowing they’d be coming for her. Soon. And this time with heavier drugs. Would she ever surface again from their control?
She closed her eyes and began slow, deep breaths.
Footsteps in the hallway. Approaching.
She groped at broken thoughts. Spiders. Purple. She pulled.
Voices outside the door. Hushed and planning.
Desperately, she pulled. “Please,” she whispered. She cast out her thoughts as far and as wide as ever. Tears streaked down her cheeks and her nails dug into her palms.
She jumped when something lightly touched her knee. A sob escaped her throat. She opened her eyes, preparing to kick the whitecoats before they reached her with another needle.
It was a purple spider. The purple spider? It stood still, pile of eyes gleaming, watching. And, again, it pulled.
Nausea gripped Tori as the squeeze engulfed her body. She cried out in resistance, digging her nails keeper into her hands to keep her senses alarmed, to tether herself to that spot.
The door clicked and began to open, about to allow in whitecoats and their narcotic-induced slavery, a thing Tori knew was worse, way worse, than this spider. Maybe worse than anything. Worse than anywhere, anywhen. And so she dropped her grip, relaxed her fists, released her hold on the world of Viv and the metro and the ghostkillers.
Tori looked into the many eyes of the little purple creature and let it take her away.
Nausea faded the moment she stopped resisting, and the squeeze between places became something different, more comforting than painful. Sterile, tiled walls of the institute slipped away quickly. Tori heard a faint human yell before completely disconnecting from everything that was there.
Blinding light. Warmth. Her body dipped awkwardly as she sat up, finding herself in the sand. She blinked at the brilliant sun. Faint outlines of figures stood before her, waiting for her eyes to adjust.
A child’s voice floated toward her from the direction of the figures. “S’onve us.”
“So tis,” said the old man.
The boy giggled.
Originally published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, February 2018.