“Reality is like fabric. This is a dumb comparison but it’s the best I can come up with that you can understand. So, this fabric has a pattern. Many patterns, in fact, all made up of people. We see them all and when a new part of a pattern appears we notice. That’s about it.”
I was learning about the world I lived in at a breakneck rate these days. Vlad did not look particularly happy to share all this with me – he avoided meting my eyes while he talked on the plane to Germany and the words came out of his mouth slowly, in laboured portions. Yet he didn’t dodge the question: how had he known I’d seen the girl in that lab. The world was a fabric. I supposed that made sense but my attempt to imagine this fabric only made me wince from the impossibility of doing it.
“So, how do we approach her?” I asked when we landed. I never knew there was a direct flight to Dresden but here it was, saving us hours of valuable time. Neither of us had any luggage, which also sped us up.
“She’s expecting us.” Vlad walked with a purpose, like he was familiar with the place, which he probably was. I tried to keep up because while he wasn’t running, he wasn’t strolling, either.
Vlad spared the briefest of glances in my direction.
“You two had the same dream.”
Even so, we didn’t find Belize in the lab as I’d foolishly expected. We found her in her studio apartment not far from the university campus. I tried not to stare at her as I thought how just a day earlier she had not existed. At least not here. And now I was standing in front of a product of my imagination.
“Hello,” the girl said without a trace of surprise when she opened the door. “I’ve packed a bag.” If I really was the person solely responsible for the presence of this girl in this world, I’d made myself proud. Belize radiated efficiency, a vibe similar to Sonia’s but different at the same time. Belize simply made it clear with her straight-backed, smooth-movement presence she had no time to waste on insignificant stuff.
“Good thinking,” Vlad said and even added a smile. The girl didn’t return it and I liked her even more for it.
While I was still coming to terms with the fact that Belize existed, that she was Adelaide’s negator and that she did not need to have anything explained to her, we were back at the airport, after a silent trip with an auto-taxi.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked. Belize may be fine without asking questions but I wasn’t. Things were moving a little too fast for me. I’d expected we would need at least a few days to find Belize and convince her to join us and it had taken a few hours in total.
“Esbjerg,” Belize said, surprising me. She hadn’t spoken a word since we left her apartment. None of us had but she was the one I least expected to know where we were going. She was the rookie. She was not supposed to know more than me.
“That’s where Adelaide is,” the girl said and swiped her phone over the ticket checkpoint. Which meant she’d booked her ticket before we even got to her; I hadn’t seen her use her phone on the way to the airport. “I can feel her,” she added as if that explained everything. I heard a chuckle from behind me, where Vlad completed our little party but when I turned to glare at him he was clearing his throat.
“Okay, tell me everything,” I said when we settled in our seats: Belize by the window though she hadn’t asked for it, me in the middle and Vlad in the aisle seat. The plane was a small one, the seats were narrow and close between. I had to squeeze myself in my seat and I expected Belize would be in some discomfort but she looked perfectly fine, the seat fitting her like a glove that may be slightly tight but is nevertheless soft and warm to wear. Mine was more like a torture chamber – there was space for my upper body but not my legs. I shifted attempting to find a free inch or two. I failed.
“I’m sorry?” A slight frown breached Belize’s smooth forehead. “What’s everything?”
Vlad laughed and didn’t even try to mask his laughter with throat clearing. My face flamed up in a blush I hoped was underneath the skin.
“About Adelaide.” I had to swallow a snide remark about how good it must feel to be the smartest girl in the room. She wasn’t trying to be smart to show off. She honestly didn’t know what I meant, I could see it in the genuine puzzlement in her eyes.
I saw Belize shoot a glance at Vlad before she spoke. The plane’s engines roared into life.
“Two mentors are keeping Adelaide in isolation in an apartment in Esbejrg. I don’t know why they’ve chosen that place.”
“That’s where they caught up with her,” Vlad said. My anger flared up.
“And you didn’t tell me this because you had a very good reason, I suppose.”
“We did,” he said. “We couldn’t have you go after her on your own, which is exactly what you would’ve done had I told you where she was.”
The anger went out as suddenly as it had ignited. I would have gone after her, he was right. And I would have probably ended up dead trying to kill her.
“I told you we can’t afford to lose any more guardians,” Vlad added softly. “We have to neutralise her the right way.”
“And what exactly is the right way?” We were in the air now, the cloud-free Dresden landscape pulling away from us, getting smaller and smaller until it became a postcard of a piece of the Earth.
“I am,” Belize said. “Can I please have a soda water?” she added, which threw me off until I saw she was talking to the steward who was pushing a cart along the aisle. I had apparently become blind and deaf to everything but the matter at hand. “Thank you.”
“Could you perhaps elaborate?” I spoke slowly, careful to not let my emotions get through. I am, she’d said, two simple words that she probably thought explained everything. They didn’t.
“I will need to spend some time with her, shadow her, if you will. That way she wouldn’t be able to use her powers of conviction. It won’t be pleasant for her, I’m sure but there is no other way.” She took a sip from her can of soda water and sighed, probably with pleasure.
“I can think of one other way.” I was sure I could do it, I could kill this woman. And I wouldn’t have any regrets.
“No,” Vlad said. He was staring at the back of the seat in front of him and he didn’t break his stare as he spoke.
“Do you really believe having Belize shadow her forever will work?” I said. “How exactly? What’s to stop her from, I don’t know, running away while Belize is asleep?”
“That’s not how it works with guardians and negators,” the girl said. I turned to her and, riding the wave of righteous indignation, cocked an eyebrow. I had made her a little too well prepared for my peace of mind. How could I even do that? How could I bring into existence someone who knew more than I did? I filed these under “Unanswerable questions”. If I asked Vlad, he would probably shrug and say that was how the universe worked, giving me a completely useless answer.
“Oh?” I said, unable to keep a sarcastic note out of my voice. “And how does it work?”
“Like magnets,” Belize said, unfazed. “When we’re close together we stick together. I’m the only one who can leave. Adelaide can’t. That’s what negators are for, to intervene when a guardian goes rogue.” She put her hand on mine. It was soft and cool. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Lars. I really am. But killing Adelaide is not how we should solve the problem. I am the solution.”
She was trying to comfort me but I didn’t want to be comforted. She was offering a solution to the problem but I didn’t want a solution. I wanted revenge. I wasn’t about to share this fact with her or Vlad. Vlad probably suspected it: I’d caught him looking at me as if trying to read my thoughts several times. I would suspect me, too, if I was him. He hadn’t confronted me about it, not yet. If he did, I would deny everything.
“And you’ll just leave university and, what, move in with Adelaide?” I asked Belize. This sounded too simple and too horrible at the same time. Getting yourself saddled with a long-term flat mate to keep them from killing people sounded more like cruel and unusual punishment than a solution.
Belize shrugged and took another sip from her can.
“I can take her with me back to Dresden and have a mentor help me keep her in line.”
“This is like… round-the-clock care for a toddler.” It sounded worse and worse. “And what about your personal life? Your future? Will you devote your whole life to keeping Adelaide in check?”
A mischievous smile brightened up Belize’s serious face.
“I doubt that would be necessary. I’d give her a year or two at most.”
The smile widened.
“Didn’t you consider I may not be the only one who would rather not have a stranger as a flat mate? Adelaide would hate every day of it, I promise. She wouldn’t be able to go out because she will have a mentor by her side every time I’m not around. She will not have a minute alone. Well, except when she uses the bathroom, I guess. She will not be able to meet other people. And she will most certainly not be able to make anyone believe anything she wants them to believe. You call it round-the-clock care for a toddler. I call it justice. I’m pretty certain the house arrest will do the job. And I’m pretty certain I’ll enjoy it,” she added as she gazed at the clouds. Right now she looked as scary as Adelaide. It took some effort to shut my gaping mouth. Each of us was as bad as the next one.
“And then what?” I asked when I could speak again. The solution was cruel but simple. And yet it wasn’t complete. “What happens after a year of this? You get a fully rehabilitated Adelaide who only makes people believe things when it’s for a good cause or in their own interest?”
Belize chuckled. Even Vlad smirked. Apparently, I had said a joke and I was the only one who didn’t get it.
“Would you care to share the joke?”
Belize turned and looked me straight in the eyes.
“After a year of this Adelaide will no longer be a guardian, Lars.”
“What?” I frowned at Vlad and his smirk. “Is this true?”
He sighed like a father who really wanted his child to stop asking questions but will oblige this one last time. I didn’t care how much he didn’t want to talk about it. I had to know.
“How?” I repeated.
“It’s the proximity of the negator,” he said. “Remember how you couldn’t dream when Sonia lived with you? That’s how it begins. Keep a guardian and a negator in close quarters long enough and you end up with just a negator and a plain human with memories of supernatural powers.”
I almost gaped again. Memories of supernatural powers. I wished I could have that. Maybe I could invite Sonia to move in permanently, have this whole guardian business over with. It would be so good to be plain human again. And that was exactly what I was now going to do, after we finished with Adelaide. After I dreamed Antonia back.
“It really is this simple,” Belize said. “The simple solutions are the best ones, don’t you think?”
I made a sound of agreement but I wasn’t fully convinced. It was true that simple solutions were the best ones but that simple? A one-year house arrest and you get a safer world from Adelaide? I wanted to believe it. It would have been great to be able to. But I couldn’t. Adelaide would continue to be dangerous even if she did reverted to a plain human by the end of her sentence with Belize. Nobody seemed to worry about that.
“Do you feel better now?” Vlad said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do. I hope it works.”
“It will work, Lars,” Belize said. “You’ll see.”
The long, two-floor apartment building we stopped at looked like a prison. It was light grey, with two rows of square windows running along its length, and with metal doors at the end of short stairways at regular intervals. Here and there bicycles stood propped on the staircases and there even a scooter close to the far end of the building.
I shuddered, maybe with revulsion, maybe with anticipation. I wasn’t too sure. I felt both and both were getting more intense by the second while we got out of the rental car and Vlad said goodbye to it. The car, of course, didn’t answer. They weren’t programmed to answer and now I wondered why. Their board computers talked quite a lot, come to think of it. Adding a “Goodbye and have a nice day” somewhere wouldn’t hurt. My mind was actively looking for distraction. I focused.
The word pulled me out of my thoughts. The hand on my shoulder helped.
“Yes?” I said. “Shall we go in?” I didn’t add ‘I’m ready’ because it would sound ridiculous but I was ready: ready to face Adelaide, ready to talk to her if necessary, and most of all, ready to resist killing her. Yes, I was ready.
“In a minute,” Vlad said and took his hand off my shoulder. “Lars, I need to be sure you will restrain yourself. Madeline and Alisher are in there and they are perfectly capable of restraining Adelaide, okay? We go in, we present Belize, and they three will take it from there, are we clear about that?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “I’m only here to make sure she gets what she deserves.”
Vlad’s eyes narrowed. I met his suspicion head on, without blinking. I was here to make sure Adelaide gets what she deserves. I was also here to watch her get it without interfering. It was pointless. There would be too many people around. One of them was bound to succeed in stopping me. Vlad, probably. He was strong and fast enough to catch me before I strangled her. Yes, trying to exact my revenge on Adelaide here and now was pointless. A year from now? Who knew? Vlad watched me carefully for a few seconds and then turned.
He led the way up the stairs of the second flat, with an old black bicycle chained to the metal railing. Belize followed with the nonchalance people move with when they are visiting a friend or going to a party they may not be very excited about but have decided to have a good time nevertheless. I was last and I walked up those stairs after I scanned the empty street. Whatever Vlad said, a surprise was always an option. I’d learned that two weeks ago when my certainty that nothing too dramatic could happen to my family burst in a pool of blood.
There were two doors in the tiny hall that the three of us filled up shoulder to shoulder and Vlad knocked on the one on the left. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly but apparently noisily enough to attract Belize’s attention. She shot me a sideways glance, curved her lips in a comforting smile and redirected her attention to the door, which was opening.
“Everything all right?” Vlad asked the short, round-headed, wrinkly man.
“All under control,” the man said and stepped aside. That had to be Alisher who was either eighty and looking thirty years younger because of his lifestyle or he had been fifty for a very long time. His pitch-black narrow eyes stopped on me for a second and then he nodded and let us in. I took another deep breath but this time Belize ignored it or didn’t notice. She went into the flat nodding in response to Alisher’s nod. She acted like she’d been doing this all her life. It was more than a little disturbing to see her act this way when I knew two days ago she didn’t even existed. And I hadn’t exhausted myself dreaming her into existence. It had happened as effortlessly as breathing. I had to get rid of my so-called powers, I really had to.
“Hello,” I told the short man.
“Hello, Lars,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
“Thanks,” I said for no particular reason. I guess it was just good to know somebody liked the sight of me.
The apartment seemed to consist of a tiny hall with an even tinier bathroom behind a half-open door, and a large living room that doubled as a kitchen. Madeline stood in the centre of the room smiling at me. At least I assumed it was Madeline though she looked nothing like herself or rather, the self I’d known her as. She was taller, thinner, and younger, with a long face and a mass of chestnut curls. There was a ironic spark in her eyes and a crooked smile on her lips. I would have probably taken her for a stand-up comedian if I didn’t know who she was.
“Madeline.” I stepped forward, not sure if I would go close enough to hug her or stop myself but she decided for me. She too made a step forward and took me in her arms.
“I’m so happy to see you well,” she said in a deep, husky voice.
“So am I,” I said when she let go. “You look well, too.”
She smiled. So did I. I would smile till my head split into two as long as it helped me keep my eyes on Madeline and not the figure on the couch with the red hair and the crossed arms.
“Get up,” Vlad told the figure and I broke the thread keeping me connected to Madeline and normalcy. I turned and faced Adelaide.
“Hey,” she said sparing me only a glance and pinning her eyes on Belize who stepped around Vlad to face her. “And what do we have here?”
“My name’s Belize,” the girl said, her nonchalance unshaken by the tiny woman with the belligerent face. “We’ll be sharing a flat for a while.”
“Right.” Adelaide shook her head. “Mentors to the rescue. Did they tell you why I did what I did, though?”
She was standing three feet from me, with Belize to my right. Alisher had slipped into the room noiselessly and had taken up position at the door. Madeline was still in front of me, in the centre of the room. Vlad was sitting on the couch like a man without a single care in the world, the ankle of his left leg resting on the knee of the right one. His socks had a yellow duck pattern on dark grey background. I focused on them and took another deep breath.
“You believe guardians should not exist. That the world should take care of itself,” Belize said smoothly. “That is your right. It’s also your right to be wrong but we have an obligation to minimize errors like that.”
For a second the room was completely quiet and then Adelaide burst into laughter. The woman who had killed my daughter, my little girl who had never done anything bad to anyone, without batting an eye, was laughing. I heard the snap in my head clearly. It came from the severed cord between my instincts and the rational thoughts that had kept them in check. The laughter had tipped the scales and the cord had torn. I was fed up with rationalisations. Antonia was dead and they wouldn’t let me get her back. Why did I have to play their game? I couldn’t think of a single reason.
Her laughter still ringing in my ears, piercing them like snake teeth, I lunged at Adelaide and grabbed her by the neck. It was thin enough for me to almost be able to encircle with one hand but I wasn’t after her neck. I found her windpipe and squeezed will all the strength I could gather. I could hear Madeline yelling “No, Lars!” and Vlad jumping to his feet through the thumping of my heart that echoed in my ears, but neither of them tried to pull me away from Adelaide who was, I noted with pleasure, choking. Her face was darkening fast, her skin flush with blood, her gaping mouth trying and failing to take in any air. I squeezed harder. I hadn’t expected the windpipe to be so slippery, so I dug my finger deeper and the choking sounds became louder.
The woman was clawing at my hands and kicking at my groin but none if it hurt. I could feel her nails tearing my skin and her knee connecting with my testicles but pain was absent. I had no time to dwell on why that was, I had a job to finish.
“Lars, let her go!” Madeline said and that puzzled me. Did she really think I would let the murderer go? I squeezed harder still. There was a crunchy sound and Adelaide’s hands fell to the sides of her body like the limbs of a puppet with the strings cut off. Her eyes dulled and her chest hitched once, then twice. Her mouth hung open and her body loosened and became heavier so I had to put a hand on her back to keep her steady while I made sure she was dead.
I held her windpipe tightly and watched her face for signs she was faking death. But her pupils were huge, her body was limp and she was not breathing. Madeline was silent. Everyone was silent. I looked up.
The room was empty and darkness was pouring in from all directions. I let go of Adelaide’s throat and her body dropped. I didn’t hear a thump but when I looked down there was no floor, only darkness. I’d expected a punishment for killing a guardian and I had wondered vaguely what it would be but it hadn’t shaken my certainty I had to do what needed to be done. This woman was dangerous. She couldn’t be fixed by a negator and a couple of mentors, however good they were. And she had killed my daughter. She had killed an innocent girl just to make a point. I had every right to kill her and I regretted nothing.
The darkness thickened and closed around me, like a huge warm blanket of nothingness. I thought maybe I’d meet Antonia here, wherever I was. I thought I should’ve talked to Sian one last time. I hoped she’d understand. And I hated I’d never see her again. I was sure I won’t. The darkness was all around me now, no up and no down. My head spun, stirring all thoughts into a lump of hope and sadness. I closed my eyes.
“Well, well, well. Who would’ve thought.”
It was Adelaide.