It first came a month ago, on his fourteenth birthday, along with the hair. That day, he woke up to a humming, drenched in sweat and with the smooth skin of his head itching. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pinpoint where the humming was coming from. Until Sediniel barged in and, by the horrified look on her face, he could tell; the Noise came from him. When it stopped, minutes later, hair had grown out of his head, blond and smooth, already an inch long. And since then, every time the Noise came, the hair grew.
Sheyen kicks the sheets off.
Footsteps on the corridor outside. He springs up, grabs the brush Mom gave him and starts brushing his hair.
“Sheyen?” It’s Sediniel. “Come on, you’re not even half-ready yet!” She stops under the doorframe, peeks over her shoulder and slips inside, carefully closing the door behind her. Her brand-new tattoos sway gently on the hairless skin of her head, long red strands like kraal-weed rocking in the sea current. She tiptoes her way to the armoire and throws his good shirt at him.
“Get dressed or fake sick,” she says, arms crossed on her chest. “And stop making the Noise. I could hear it next door. Just for today, please?”
Sheyen’s tongue feels rough. He swallows. His ears pop. His eyes linger on her wavering tattoos as she comes and sits beside him. He would have gotten them too, on his birthday, a month ago, if it weren’t for the hair that had ruined it all.
“Was it louder this time?” he asks and keeps brushing. But Sediniel has already fished the yellow book from under the beddings. The In-Betweens: a Folk-Tale.
“Not this bullshit again!” she says and squeezes the book so hard her knuckles turn white. “You are not an In-Between. In-Betweens do not exist. They are monsters our people invented because they shit their pants whenever they come across anything foreign, anyone that’s not Vensymari.”
“That’s what your dad says?” he snaps. Sediniel and her wisecrack opinions. Would she be so eloquent if it were her with the hair and the Noise? No, she could never be in his place; his half-sister is a full Vensymari — not like him. She is Delyan’s legitimate child, all hairless and perfect, and her Art works just fine; no weird Noise emanates from inside her, creeping people out.
“That’s the truth,” Sediniel says. “And it’s our dad.”
“He’s just Delyan for me.” He snatches the book from her hands and tucks it under the mattress. “Ready for your big day?” He pulls his hair up in a tight ponytail, hoping it will draw less attention at the lunch party. His hands are sweaty.
Sediniel nods and sits a little closer, so close he can hear her breathing.
“The tattoos look nice,” he says. “Do they wiggle in the wind?”
“They’d better, unless they used the wrong ink.”
“Don’t worry, they’re already moving.”
Sediniel stretches her neck to catch a glimpse of them on the large mirror across the room.
“The official mark of the Vensymari Artists. You’ll outshine them all in the Academy,” he says and playfully threatens to touch them with his index.
“Hey! They still hurt.” She slaps his hand away.
“Is everyone here already for the lunch party?” he asks and puts his shirt on, fumbling with the buttons.
“Lorna, Berthelen, and Phelien arrived with their parents an hour ago. Haven’t seen them yet. The others couldn’t make it, a storm is brewing across the channel.” Sheyen traces a shadow in her voice. “So that just leaves us, dad, my mom, and our three dear friends with their parents.”
He wipes his sweaty palms on his knees. He should try to be happy for her today. His state is not her fault.
“Come on, why the sad face? You’ve been accepted into the Academy. It’s your first day as an Artist, with the tattoos and all. You’re a full citizen now!”
“The lunch party is stupid,” she says and straightens the sharp crease in her trousers, eyes flying back to the mirror to steal glimpses of the tattoos swaying as she moves.
“It’s the custom. It wouldn’t look good if Delyan didn’t host a lunch party for you. It’s embarrassing enough that I wasn’t accepted in the Academy,” Sheyen says, struggling to keep a level voice. He gropes his pockets for any forgotten candy. He finds none.
“I’d rather we went swimming, just the two of us. I’ll get plenty of Lorna and her gang this year in the Academy. And, anyway, they’re only here to gossip.”
Yes, gossip about his hair and the Noise and how he’s probably turning into an In-Between. His eyes fall on the floor. He’s not the only one disappointed with the turn of events. Sediniel also thought they would leave the house together, off to new adventures, to be trained in the Art, off to adulthood. She might be one of Delyan’s four legitimate children, but her other brothers are much older, already scattered around the country, always away. She and Sheyen were born only a month apart, and the scandal of a bastard child had swept Vensymar like no other. But Delyan was firm on not sending Sheyen away to the islands, to Caprish, his Mom’s homeland. He had kept him close, raised him along with Sediniel. Mom never ceased being Delyan’s mistress, just as she never ceased flaunting her Caprishi heritage; her hair always long and braided in complex coifs, her clothes always a shade of blue or white, her accent always heavy. But Delyan was the First Artist, and just like that, the whole thing had been brushed aside as another harmless quirk of his. It helped that Sheyen at least looked Vensymari. Until the hair grew out and reminded everyone who his Mom was.
“Don’t worry, we’ll just eat quickly and then we’ll go swimming. And I promise I won’t say anything stupid to your friends,” he says and gets up.
“They were your friends too, a month ago.”
Sheyen licks his lips; they’re slightly chapped.
“Well, now they think I’m an In-Between.”
“That’s so stupid. In-Betweens are monsters—”
“With twisted Art and a mane,” he says, without turning to look at her. “Maybe it’s not that stupid. The stories say that In-Betweens are half-Vensymari—”
“And what’s the other half, huh? Does the book say that they’re half-Caprishi?”
“The stories don’t specify what the other half is. It’s not important. What matters is that they’re not Vensymari,” he says through clenched teeth.
“What, do you think that all half-Vensymari children turn out to be In-Betweens? Yes, they might be rare, but don’t you think we would know if people of mixed inheritance turned into monsters?”
“Have you ever seen another half-Vensymari? The borders have been strictly regulated for the past fifty years, so how the Salt would we know? And all the signs are here; In-Betweens are supposed to grow hair all over their bodies and their eyes change color. They say weird things happen around them and that Noise is weird, isn’t it now?” A knot is climbing up his throat and he speaks louder to push it down. “They say In-Betweens can put a hole through the world and go to this place of theirs, where they belong. It’s even said they trick Vemsymaris to follow them and let them rot in there, lost in a strange land that looks like home but isn’t.”
The knot won’t go away no matter how loud he shouts. The lunch party is going to be a disaster. Sediniel puts her arm around his shoulders; her skin feels cold against the light fabric of his summer shirt.
“No matter what they say, I like your hair. It’s like your mom’s.” Sheyen bites his lips. It’s sunny, but he shudders. “It’s just one day, don’t let Lorna and her gang get to you. I’m sure dad will get you into the Academy next year. Your Art is just different. He’ll figure something out.”
“Delyan hasn’t got the slightest clue what’s wrong with me. It’s been a month and even he, the First Artist, can’t explain it. Neither the Noise nor the hair.” He accidentally bites the inside of his cheek and lets out a yelp. “At least if he and Mom let me cut it… The Noise might stop then.”
“They can’t let you do that. It’s against the law for a non-Vensymari.”
He looks at her. It’s unfair. He shouldn’t be ruining her party. His tongue tastes like wet cotton.
“Dina, maybe I should stay here. I can’t control the Noise. It just comes,” he admits, as he did to their father before.
“No,” she says and pulls him to his feet.
“I can’t even tell what it sounds like for you all. For me, it’s like a ringing in my ears. And lately it’s getting so loud you could hear it next door.” Of course she did, I bet they heard it all the way down to the kitchen.
Sediniel pulls his ponytail gently and pats his shoulder.
“Dad will figure it out. Next year we’ll be in the Academy together.” Sheyen gazes into the mirror, at them standing side by side, her a bit taller than him. “We look fine,” Sediniel says and opens the door.
Sediniel was right; he should have played sick instead of joining the party. Sheyen can barely sit still and listen, eat and listen, drink and listen to them all celebrating. Even Latima’s delicious food fails to distract him. A sudden headache splits his thoughts in half; his ears start ringing.
“Can you hear it too?”
Sheyen does not look up; he only catches glimpses of the others out of the corner of his eye. Please, not now. No one is talking, forks and fish knives frozen midair, steam wafting. The ringing in his ears fades as they wait, leaning slightly forward, but it doesn’t go away. Barely heard, but still there.
“It’s so strange,” Lorna says and pushes her chair back. Phelien and Berthelen spring up, dropping their napkins from their laps. His so-called friends. Huh. He’s barely seen them this summer. After the hair grew out all of a sudden, they just came around to watch him struggle with the brush — such an exotic tool. And since the Noise became strong enough for them to hear clearly, they’ve been totally thrilled. This freak-friend of theirs is an endless source of entertainment.
“Sit down.” Lorna’s mother says, but Lorna has already rushed to her feet and looks around suspiciously, her eyes finally landing on Sheyen.
“Could it be coming from outside?” Lorna asks.
Oh, for Salt’s sake, playing ignorant just to call him out is an insult not only to him, but to Sediniel, to fucking Delyan too.
Sheyen keeps chewing his bream.
“Could there be something in the gardens?” Berthelen whispers to Lorna, leaning toward Sheyen. Very funny, Berthelen. Yes, the In-Betweens are coming for you.
“Come on, children, don’t be silly,” Lorna’s mother says and turns back to her plate, her cheeks flushed. The ringing fades away completely. Sheyen hardly resists the urge to rub his ears — the others don’t need more fuel.
“It was like the rumbling before an earthquake,” Berthelen says, grasping for words, “But there was a high pitch to it too. It was like your gut clenching when you hear something been torn.”
“Enough. This is nonsense,” his omniscience, Delyan says, so nonsense it must be. Lorna’s mother grants Delyan a nod and a prim smile. She gathers her shawl around her shoulders and clears her throat. Nonsense, says Delyan Nedyre, first Artist of the Academy, so yes, let’s keep eating fish.
Berthelen is the last to sit back down. As he takes his seat by Sheyen, he leans over to leer and whisper, “Or maybe, it’s an In-Between’s squeal.” The sun-glare glimmers on his bare pate.
Sheyen grips his fork and stabs the next bite, concentrates on how to swallow without choking.
“Let’s make a toast,” Delyan says and raises his glass. “To our Sediniel, who crossed into adulthood today. May your tattoos sway gently under the wind of the Art.”
Glasses clink and Sheyen does not look any of them in the eye. Not even Sediniel, though he knows that’s petty of him. He sips some wine; he can’t allow himself to jinx her. It’s supposed to be honeyed but it tastes like ash.
This, too, is in the book Sediniel hates. Whatever the In-Betweens eat tastes bitter, and they always crave something sweet. It could have been written about him, really, and he bets his friends read it too, so he drinks some more.
Delyan clears his throat. Sheyen can feel his father’s eyes on him, but no, he won’t look up; Mom is not here to scold him this time. Even Delyan didn’t dare invite his exotic Caprishi mistress to a family party. Sheyen’s presence was never questioned, since he used to look like the rest and Sediniel wouldn’t have it otherwise, but things have changed and clearly, Delyan didn’t realize how much.
“Also,” Delyan says, “I am confident that next year Sheyen will also be ready to join the Academy.” Great, they’re all staring now. “To progress and advancement.”
Sheyen finally looks up from the red algae garnish, his cheeks hot, his ears ringing. On his right, Berthelen stifles a giggle.
“Everyone gets in the Academy at fourteen,” Sheyen says, gripping the glass he is not raising. What will he do if he’s never accepted in the Academy? Become a sailor, like his mother? Work the salt marshes or the fields, like the Artless? Be exiled so that this weird Noise of his only echoes far from Vensymari ears, away from home? He tries hard not to blink as the rest of the company sits still, their glasses half raised, their hairless heads reflecting midday’s sun-glare. The adults are polite enough to smile, but Lorna and Berthelen and Phelien stare, pressing their lips together to prevent a laugh.
“Sheyen, everyone’s talent in the Art matures in its own pace. Yours is special.” Delyan wears his disciplined tone, which says be silent.
“Special as in freakish,” Berthelen mutters under his breath and Lorna leans forward to hide her smirk behind her woven fan.
“Perhaps what In-Betweens lack in talent, they make up for it in hair,” she whispers loud enough for Sheyen to hear it. Sweat swells out of the roots of his hair and he wipes it with the back of his hand. How stupid of him to expect that things would remain the same after the hair grew out. At least Sediniel looks as pissed as he feels. She grips her fork so hard that her knuckles turn white while trying to pin down an olive and failing.
“Sediniel, your glass,” her mother says, eyebrows arched and smiling.
“To the talented,” Delyan says and faint clinking follows.
“And to the In-Betweens,” Berthelen sniggers, elbowing Lorna under the table.
Sheyen does not dare to look at him, for fear he might plant a punch in Berthelen’s throat. Sediniel fidgets as her fork screeches against the porcelain plate; the olive still rolling.
“Phelien, why don’t you take Lorna and Berthelen for a walk?” This is Lorna’s mother, and her voice carries an urgency that can’t really be argued. All three of them push their chairs back and step out, humming the old In-Between nursery rhyme. Halfwits. He swallows; his ears pop. The ringing starts again. Only a month ago, all five of them would have run out together. How could he have ever thought that things would get better? He hoped the hair would be overlooked, that once he got in the Academy all would be disregarded, interpreted as a misunderstanding. Today is a nightmare.
The ringing in his ears reaches a high pitch, muffling all other sounds as if it presses a pillow against the world. Everyone winces at the Noise, hands fly up to ears; Delyan shoots him a sharp glance. Sediniel takes his hand in hers under the table and squeezes it.
Sheyen holds his breath, stop; the ringing blares. The air tastes metallic, specks of dust flood his throat, stick to his tongue. Sheyen swallows, his head light like a drifting bubble. What if they’re right, what if the stories hold truth? What if he is turning into an In-Between after all? He pushes the chair back and starts running.
“Sheyen? Where are you going?”
As soon as he leaves the mansion, the ringing stops, his ears still throbbing, his brain numb. He walks across the saltwood garden, all the way to the cliffs overlooking an ashen sea, summer storm dawning over the horizon. He would be better off inside the mansion, only he isn’t going back. Nobody will care if he misses dessert anyway, all of them too busy cooing over Sediniel’s new tattoos. All of them ignoring that he also turned fourteen, months ago, and yet no tattoos for him.
A stick breaks underfoot and he turns to see Sediniel resting against a tree trunk, looking at him over an apple. The scarlet tattoos meander on the skin of her bare skull, under the shallow breath of the wind. They make her look like the rest of them, all grown up. Ready to harness her talent in the Art.
“You hate apples,” his voice scratching his throat. “Just throw it away.”
“Father says we shouldn’t waste food—”
“It’s not that he can’t afford it.”
He grabs the apple from her hand and makes a run for the edge of the gardens. Chest crashing into the iron balustrades, he tosses it down the cliff and watches it roll until it hits the rocks by the beach.
“Why did you do that?” Sediniel struggles to catch her breath as she sticks her face out of the rails, looking down.
“I just did you a favor. You are an adult now, anyway. You don’t have to eat it,” he says, with half an eye on her tattoos. “You’re a full citizen.”
He tries his foot on the railing, makes sure that it holds and climbs. The rust, eating away the metal, smudges his palms. Sediniel watches closely, the tattoos’ brisk movement betraying her agitation.
“I, on the other hand, am obviously a child, so I can still do this, right?” He balances with a single foot on the railing. He shoots a grin her way, swift and sharp, to chop her gurgling disapproval at its root.
“Come with me. Look!” He lowers himself to ride the iron, one leg hanging out, and nods towards three distant figures walking along the beach. “It’s Lorna and the others.”
“So what? Come on, let’s get back inside, there is a huge storm coming and Latima is making chocolate.” She pulls his leg, almost hanging her whole weight on it.
“Let’s go and say hi.” His fists are itching for a brawl. “Stop it, let’s go meet them. Stop!”
“No.” She climbs up and grabs him by the hair. He pulls loose and loses his balance for good, landing on the other side of the fence, face down in the dirt.
The wind howls.
“And they made you an adult?” He springs up, readjusting his belt. There are twigs and grass tangled in his hair. Why couldn’t he remain as he was, hairless like everyone else — except Mom? His eyes sting a bit, but nah, it’s the wind.
Sediniel is still on the ground, on the other side, dusting off her cloak.
“I’m not going back inside.” His gaze wanders to the beach below, the three silhouettes gone now. They must have taken the long route back to the mansion. So, they’d rather chance the grey cliffs in a storm than pass by him. Without a warning, as always, the ringing roars in his head, louder than ever, deafening. Fine.
“Sheyen? Do you hear the Noise? Sheyen?”
Let her talk and shout. It’s all right, she’s got to be mature now. He runs down the path towards the sea and the ringing runs along with him, piercing his brain, muffling his breathing, the sound of his steps. It brings with it the stark smell of ice, the tart taste of marmalade gone bad. He spits. His ears hurt. It feels like they’re bleeding, but when he reaches the sea, the ringing stops, abruptly, absolutely.
As if a blade cut it in half.
Sheyen takes a sharp breath, his lungs hungry for air, like he’s just barely escaped drowning. He looks over his shoulder. Back along the path, Sediniel’s mouth opens and closes without a sound. At a loss for words, huh?
He takes his stand on the beach, a couple of pebbles in his hand. He takes his shoes off; the tingling of the cold water under his feet feels soothing. The cinnamon-sanded beach stretches long and narrow to either side, abandoned in acute silence. The storm approaches fast yet mute. No wind. No waves, which is rare. Even the neighbor’s dogs have stopped barking. He sends the first pebble skimming across the surface, but it does not skip at all, just sinks.
He takes his shirt off, throws it towards his shoes, by a flat rock. The silver sails of Mom’s ship are nowhere to be seen. She is always there to preach about taking pride in their Caprishi heritage — her heritage, only half his — but always gone when they give him trouble about it. He dares a step forward.
“Did you hear that?” Sediniel says behind him and he jumps.
“When did you… Hear what? The Noise?” He gapes at her as she looks around, her lips thin, her eyes squinting. Her shoes are already wet.
“Sssh!” She is walking on the tip of her toes, but the soft crunch of dried seaweed betrays her. Where was it before? Her long neck stretches as she tries to hear better, forehead furrowed and full of doubt.
“What is it? I don’t hear anything.”
“I think it was the Noise, but this time it sounded different. More like a screeching, or fabric being ripped.” She pulls her tunic tight around her.
“Like a ringing perhaps?” he asks, “Or shrill, like the laughter of the In-Betweens?”
“No. Shut up, Sheyen. It’s gone now anyway.” She folds her hands on her chest, shuddering . He sits on the ground and takes another couple of pebbles in his hand.
“It never crossed your mind? That the tales might be true?” he asks. “Cursed is who lies in-between, who sways back and forth, neither out nor in. Hunted by those who spot the sign, its mane, its ear, its mismatched eye? They say it of all the half-breeds.”
“It’s about the In-Betweens, not about half-Vensymari children,” she scoffs.
“Oh really? Well, that’s the song Phelien and Berthelen were humming at lunch. Haunted by both silence and noise, torn between a home and a choice. Damned to belong under the frames of doors that lead to opposite ways. Cursed is who lies in-between, not one of us, a soul incomp—”
“Stop it! And no, only the illiterate believe in old-wives tales.”
“The stories say that all they can taste is bitterness! My tongue doesn’t feel right today. They just linger in this In-Between place because they have nowhere else to go. And they won’t let me into the Academy. Dina, what if it’s happening?”
“You’re just scared.”
She kneels next to him and palms a pebble herself, weighs it and then throws it as far as she can.
Not a sound comes back.
“What’s the Noise like for you?” he asks. “When it comes, I can only hear this damned ringing in my ears. The others said that it sounds like a rumbling and at the same time like paper being torn.” His voice comes out almost too loud.
“Who said that?”
“Lorna, Berthelen, Phelien, everyone.”
“They’re idiots,” she snaps. She flicks the pebble and then another and another. None skips. “They have no right to treat you like that,” her voice an imitation of her mother’s. She flicks and flicks as if her only goal in the entire world is to empty this shore of its pebbles. “You’re my brother and th—”
“Don’t!” He grabs her arm and looks around.
“Why not? It’s not a damned secret.”
“No? Then why am I not called Nedyre, like you? Why did I not get any tattoos? Delyan’s other sons all had them at my age.”
She twitches, opens her mouth, but stays mute.
Sheyen lets go of her. The tips of her ears are red, like always when she’s angry. His cheeks are burning.
A drop of rain lands on the naked skin of her head, then another and another. And then, he notices. Her tattoos have lost their brightness, their color only a muted shade of red.
“Put your hood up,” he says in a careful voice. “Are you feeling all right?” Her tattoos stop swaying. They’re not supposed to do that. He runs his tongue over his lips. They taste like a stranger’s — like porcelain, unused and undusted.
“It’s so quiet,” she whispers.
Plump drops of chilly rain land heavy on his cheeks. He blinks hard, chasing the swelling tears away as he stands, letting her expression sink in behind his eyes, in silence. This silence they share and this Noise they don’t.
Sediniel suddenly looks back, towards the mansion, rainwater racing unhindered down her nape, soaking her light green tunic.
“Tell me what you heard before. I need to know,” Sheyen says.
Her nails must be down to the roots the way she is biting them now.
“Was it that horrible?” he asks.
Lightning. Nine woven blossoms, eight woven blossoms, seven woven blossoms. But no thunder.
“Yes. Like flesh being torn.”
The rain raps against the rocks. The wind swoops in and he gasps as tiny needles prickle his skin, reaching deep to his lungs. Something is missing from the landscape, but he cannot tell what. He bends down to get his shirt and shoes, which lie drenched near her half-eaten apple.
The sounds. The sounds are missing.
“Leave it. Let’s go.”
“Sediniel, I need a favor.”
“It’s the hair on my head. That’s what’s making the noise.”
“That’s about the stupidest thing I—”
“No, think. The Noise started when the hair appeared. And it’s getting worse every day. And if there is any truth in the stories, we must stop it. What if my eyes are next? What if I wake up and one of them is suddenly blue, or brown or anything other than green? What if I drag you to the In-Between place?”
“I need to shave it off. I don’t care if Mom gets angry or disowns me or lectures me forever. She’s not mixed. She’s just foreign. I should have got rid of the stupid hair a month ago.”
“It’s illegal to shave it. You’re not a Vensymari to go around bald, you need to get approval first,” she says in one breath, looking at him straight in the eye.
“I’m the First Artist’s son, right? They won’t do shit to me.”
Sediniel scans the beach, her gaze travelling from his clothes up to the garden and then to the clouds. “Something feels wrong. I feel like… like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff. It’s weird out here; too quiet.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” he shouts. “It’s happening and we have to stop it. Will you help me get rid of the hair?”
Mute lightning flashes. A wave swells and crashes against the rocks without a sound. Sediniel presses her lips together and holds her breath. Rain drenches her in silence.
“Fine.” Her eyes linger on the soundless waves. “But only if you come back to the house with me. Now.”
Sheyen nods, relief spreading on his shoulder blades like warm butter. “We’ll sneak in through the kitchen so nobody sees.”
They run back, Sediniel first with Sheyen lagging behind her to steal a last glance at the wrinkled sea; Mom had better be back soon.
The mansion, their father’s summer home, always smells of baking. Its thick stone walls, its light elderberry furniture, the curtains, the sheets and the inside of the wardrobes, have all been imbued with the fragrance of dessert cooking in the ovens. Today, it’s lemongrass pie and hot caramel-flavored chocolate. The smell spreads better in the silence.
Only it shouldn’t be silent. Their father should be here, sipping seadrop liquor with their friends’ parents by the unlit fireplace. When he left, they were all still lounging in the dining room, heavy with Latima’s cooking. He can’t hear them now; even the servants are nowhere to be seen.
Still shivering, barefoot and half-naked, he crouches over the boiling pot of chocolate, letting the delicious steam warm his insides. The thought of grabbing a spoon and digging in flashes, then fades.
“Hello?” Sediniel almost whispers standing under the doorframe, looking down the drab corridor. She trails back into the kitchen and closes the door gently behind her, heading for the saltwood chest where a blunt pair of scissors is kept under the towels. The water-weight clock that never worked properly hangs overhead. The faint creaking of its cogs always out of tune, a tick too late, a tack too long. Only now it echoes smoothly, first a tick and then a tack, tick tack, tick tack.
“The clock is working,” she mumbles distracted, groping in the chest.
It sounds wrong, he wants to tell her. Disorienting. But the words snag on his tongue.
“Where is everyone?” she asks and Sheyen turns to check the door they snuck in from, scanning the garden through its colored glass, hoping to spot someone they missed before.
“Perhaps they’re out for a walk?” Alarm coils under her casual concern; her gaze has followed his.
“And Latima? The kitchen servants?”
“They’re probably running some errands downtown.” Highly unlikely, but she mustn’t be sidetracked from the haircut, the moment is too convenient. What if she changes her mind? He’s been nagging her to help him for a month now, and she always refused.
“All four of them?” Sediniel strokes her head just above the forehead, her tattoos still dim and lifeless, but she doesn’t seem to notice and he won’t tell. He glances at the scissors.
Lightning. Unheard thunder rattles the pots on their shelf.
“Something is wrong,” mutters Sediniel darting glances at the shelves as if they are about to tilt and crack. “The house is wrong, they didn’t even put out the ovens. And the storm,” Sediniel says pointing a finger towards the glass door. Rain whips the glass and for a couple of breaths they linger, waiting for the din to come; what comes is only silence.
She approaches the door, ready to open it.
“Sediniel?” he says. “Quit stalling. Obviously, they’re going to be back any minute now. We need to be quick.”
“Quick? Sheyen, something is off, I can’t hear a thing from outside the house. No rain, no thunder, no barking dogs. Nothing.”
“I know, which is why we should do it now. Something’s happening to me and maybe this is how we stop it.”
“Why would it stop? And not a word about the stupid tales.” Her face is taut, about to snap, her lips a line, her fists bunched. “There is no such thing as… as the In-Between People.” Finally, finally she turns away from the door. “But, if that’s what you want… When your mother comes back though, you won’t hear the end of it.” Reaching into the top drawer, she pulls out a small bundle wrapped in the scraps of old kitchen towels.
“Latima’s meat razors,” she whispers in answer to his arched eyebrows.
The razors rattle as they land on the table by the scissors. Sediniel crouches over the thin blades, inspecting them closely and takes one between thumb and finger.
“I’m not sure how to use these, I might cut you.”
“I don’t mind, just do it.” But she’s not listening. Sheyen follows her unflinching look which turns towards the glass door. Three figures stand there, waving, drenched.
“It’s the others,” Sheyen says. He wants to move but for a couple of deafening heartbeats his feet are wreathed with iron. The figures’ gestures expand, become quick, become sharp. Yet there is no sound as their fists pound the glass. Before thoughts form, he rushes to the glass door to latch it shut.
“Sheyen,” Sediniel gasps but Berthelen is already leaning against the glass and turning the door-knob. He takes a step into the kitchen. The water-weight clock sounds a bell and stops.
The room seems smaller with all three of them bursting inside. Berthelen’s shoulders have widened over the summer and he now stands a full head taller than Sheyen. Drops of rain gleam faintly on the skin of his head, and his hands are curled into fists by his sides, face washed red with anger. Lorna stands next to him, skinny and poised. She pushes her hood back tossing unreadable looks to her older brother, Phelien, who looms behind them. Sheyen doesn’t like the way he unfolds his Vensymari limbs, long, lithe, and braided with muscle. Sheyen struggles not to take a step back. This is, after all, his house. Scurrying feet tap on the marble and Sediniel stops next to him. He turns and looks and his heart skips a beat. She is scared.
“What’s wrong? What happened to your tattoos?” she says.
“Same that happened to yours,” Phelien growls.
“What?” She whips around and her eyes lash at Sheyen for confirmation. Her hand flies up to her skull, fingers tracing the fading patterns. Sheyen returns the stare and nods slightly. It’s pointless to lie. “This can’t be happening.” She tries to catch a glimpse of her reflection in the glass.
“Something’s terribly wrong.” Lorna’s crystal pitched voice, now so cold and clear. No one moves. Not right away. Then, Phelien takes a step forward, heads for the chair closest to the kitchen bench and sits, carefully, scanning the room as if looking for something stolen.
“The sounds outside are missing. Everyone else is missing,” he says. “It’s just us.”
“We came back from the beach and no one was home,” Lorna says, like crystal cracking. As she opens her mouth to speak again, Sheyen feels his hair stand on end.
“Maybe they’re out somewhere,” Sediniel speaks first.
“No. We were just out looking for them. Not a soul.” That’s Berthelen. He is looking Sheyen straight in the eye. “We warned you.”
Sheyen feels something creeping up the back of his throat, bile. His stomach is a tight knot that presses his chest, presses and presses. A sour taste in his mouth. He needs to run, only he won’t.
“What? Are you serious?”
“The Noise took them. He took them. He’s an In-Between.” Lorna’s voice comes out flat.
“Sheyen was with me all day, he didn’t do anything. How could he, how could anyone? Are you stupid, did you hit your head on something?” Sediniel has taken her place right in front of him.
“Cut it off, Sediniel. You’ve heard the Noise inside him. He sent them to the In-Between place, because he hates them all.”
Time is a drowsy cat arching its back slowly. Lorna looks so different now that Sheyen realizes that he doesn’t really know her. Not the girl he played tag with; when they ran until their lungs were about to burst, stumbled on a root and feigned falling and then kissed, a swift brush of lips against lips followed by secret smiles and a prickly sensation running right under his skin.
“How would he do that?” Sediniel roars. “How—”
“Shut your mouth.” Phelien stands up, arms ready to strike.
“You shut up, you rotten pigfly shit,” Sheyen pushes his sister aside and walks up to Phelien. A blow just under his ribs might be enough to force him down, if he moves fast.
Berthelen jumps Sheyen from behind; he falls on Sheyen hard, knocking him flat on the marble. Before Sheyen can crawl back up, Berthelen sits on his waist, knees on his sides squeezing tight, pinning him, face down.
“Stop it, you tarnished half-breed,” Berthelen says. “Bring them back!” He grabs Sheyen by the hair and pulls up so hard that Sheyen hears a loud crack at the base of his neck. Berthelen loosens his grip, but, as Sheyen’s still pinned down, there’s little he can do. He squirms, growls and gasps.
“Stop! What are you doing?” Sediniel’s voice pierces Sheyen’s ears and only now he realizes she’s been going like that for some time.
“Bring them back!” Berthelen leans close to his ear and shouts as if he’s about to spit his lungs out.
“Just a minute, and I’ll fart them out.” Sheyen snorts. He would sneer but he feels the skin of his face stretched tight on his cheekbones.
“Bring them back, you soulless mutt.”
“It’s the hair. Get rid of it. Make it stop,” Lorna shouts.
“I’ll do it!” Sediniel’s voice comes out strained, almost choked. “Let me do it! We were about to cut his hair anyway.” She brandishes the razors and the scissors, Phelien steps back. “That’s what he wanted me to do. Right, Sheyen?”
He can barely turn his head to see her. He wanted to get rid of the stain, true enough, but this stain, he now sees, will never leave. It has spread, quick as ink on white linen. Blending in is not going to happen. The tattoos are not going to happen. Kissing Lorna again is not going to happen.
“Fuck her.” Lorna is standing by the boiling chocolate pot. “Cutting it is not enough. Let’s burn it off him. Make sure it never grows again.”
Sheyen’s mouth turns numb, his tongue a sack of sand about to crumble.
“Hold him tight,” Phelien barks. Sheyen gulps down air too thin to fill his lungs.
“You’ve gone mad,” Sediniel hisses, close by, on his right. Berthelen ignores her, digs his knees deeper under Sheyen’s ribs, making him wince and writhe. Metal clatters; Lorna gasps.
Now. Sediniel releases a holler. She charges at Berthelen, pouncing on him like a rabid dog. Berthelen screams and loses his grip. Muscles bowstring taut, veins sizzling with panic, Sheyen rolls over and pushes himself up. He lunges at Phelien and Lorna and thrusts at the pot they’re holding. Metal clanks and Phelien shrieks as the pot lands on his toes; boiling chocolate spills over his arms, feet and clothes, quickly spreading on the floor. Phelien stumbles back, eyes wild, scalded arms flopping.
Sheyen whips around to check on Sediniel, sprawled in the corner by the glass door, lips bleeding. Berthelen marches towards her. Sheyen thrusts at Berthelen to push him aside. Sediniel launches first, razors in hand, before Berthelen’s foot digs into her groin sending her crawling. Sheyen clashes into him and shoves him aside, hard. He sweeps to his sister, razors scattered on the soiled boards. Lightning. Her eyes swell with angry tears, her jaw fixed tight. He props her up and together they rush to the glass door.
The door behind them stands ajar while they pant their way through the garden. There is no denying it now; the world outside the house has been stripped of every sound, an animated painting raging around them. The rain pours down mute and cold, turning the soil to mud; the leaves shake on the saltwood trees without a rustle.
“Run.” He drags her on until they reach the fence where they climb over, supporting each other, limbs shaky. They careen down the path to the beach.
“We need to get away from the house,” his voice hoarse. The pebbles churn under their feet as they reach the rocks just above the water and stop.
A slurping sound ripples the silence. The sound of flesh breaking. The rumbling of a mouth full of stones. A high pitched screeching. So that’s how it sounds.
“The Noise,” Sediniel whispers.
A hunched figure stands on the spot where Sheyen’s clothes should be, by the rocks. No taller than he, dressed in his shirt, wearing his shoes, lank golden hair hanging drenched to its ankles. Bony tattooed hands huddled up to its chest, clenching the discarded apple. The figure sups its juice, swallows and buries its face in the fruit, gnawing, lips pulled back; there are no teeth, just gums. It sucks and swallows and never looks up, famished. The Noise emanates from inside it, growing louder with every chunk it gobbles.
Sheyen takes his sister’s hand and gently pulls her closer, her breath rasping in his ear. The creature stands just steps away from them. Sheyen can’t bear to look at its face. The creature smacks its lips, sucks at its gums and stumbles forward.
They don’t wait for it to take a second step. Faster than their racing heartbeats, they turn together and, holding hands, they jump into the sea, falling among the soundless raindrops for a panicked eternity before they hit the surface. Coming up for air, looking at each other, they start swimming away from the beach as fast as they can. The waves rage bitter and silent, salt creeping in the wounds of his chapped lips. Sediniel pushes him on, stroke after stroke leaving them in the exact same spot with backs turned to the house until a drop of courage forces him to look over his shoulder.
“Look,” he says.
The figure, a white smudge in the dark, dawdles up the path they came from. Sheyen can hardly hear the Noise from this far. It reaches the fence and climbs over. It keeps walking, through the garden towards the kitchen. Towards the door that’s left ajar. Towards the others.
Shivers seize him. Lightning. The creature stumbles into the kitchen. Nine woven blossoms, eight woven blossoms, seven woven blossoms. Screams, and then nothing. Only silence. The house falls dark.
Suddenly thunder. The wind now blusters and the rain splashes around them.
“Sheyen,” Sediniel gasps. It’s the house, all lit up now, not just the kitchen. There are figures in the garden and along the path to the beach, holding lanterns. Voices. Familiar. They call their names. Their father.
Sediniel pulls him first towards the shore, pushing his limp body to swim. When their feet touch the sand, she hugs him. Her tattoos glisten red under the faint moonlight.
“I see them,” Latima shouts, “Delyan! I see them!”
The beach feels frozen as they crawl out. Warm arms wrap around them. Their father’s face looks strange, stripped as it were of color.
“Where were you?” Latima has run down with blankets. “We’ve been waiting in the house, thinking you would be back by nightfall,” she stifles a sob. “We’ve looked for you everywhere.”
“Where were you? Sheyen?” Their father rubs his arms to warm him; Latima is cradling Sediniel. Limbs limp, Sheyen stares back through tangled hair.
“You’re bruised!” His voice frays. “Sheyen, what happened?” He shakes him hard. “Where are the others? Were you together?”
He sees them now, the parents of Lorna and Berthelen and Phelien, lanterns in their hands, their eyes wild as they search for those who are not there.
“Where are they?” his father asks again.
Sheyen turns his head towards his sister, licks his lips — they’re sore. Sediniel nods slowly. Licks the tears that reach down to the corners of her mouth. Sheyen seals his lips shut. He rubs the lobes of his ears; for now, it’s quiet inside him.