I'm jolted awake with a start when I hear voices in my room.
I keep still, and keep my breathing in a sleep-rhythm, even though my heart has started pounding again. Probably some roommates, just arrived. Sydney tourists, or something. I try to ignore my heart now pounding in my throat, and at the same time trying to appease it by thinking, I'm asleep, stop panicking, you damned idiot; nobody would expect their dorm-mate to greet them if they signed in during the wee small hours. Be anxious about it later on. Oh, hell, you won't even have to -- you'll probably be out of here by the time they fall asleep. There, problem avoided.
I don't open my eyes, but I listen very carefully, curious despite my anxiety about where these dorm-mates for only hours had come from; waiting to hear a different accent, or a different language altogether.
"Shut up, she's sleeping," one of them whispers.
Oh, just other Australians. Or perhaps Kiwis? Sometimes Kiwis and Aussies sounded quite familiar. Not all the time, of course, but--
"How many times do I have to tell you, she can't hear us. Nobody can hear us, nobody can see us, it's all just weird afterlife bullshit that I am, to be frank, getting really, really jack of."
Blue Eyes?! Oh, no. No. No, no, no, and also more no. I am not still half-asleep and hallucinating. Just goes to show, it was the damn Xanax after all. I would be tearing Alex a new one, when I got home. So much for a rare side-effect. Of course, I would be the one who got the rare side-effect, wouldn't I?
"And before you say anything: yes, I know it's only been, what? Twelve hours? And yes, that has been enough for me to get thoroughly sick of it."
I sit up, and fumble beneath my pillow for my phone and my headphones. I don't care what song I play now, whether it's "Chak De Saare Gham" or so much as the goddamn "Yakkety Sax", if music made them go away, then--
There is a startled cry; Bambi's voice.
"Yeah, so what?"
"...go...go away..." I whimper into the blue-silver dark. Where is my damn phone? I swear I put it beneath my pillow, I swear I did...didn't I? I can't remember, now, and my heart's started thumping like a jackhammer in a empty cathedral, and--
"You...you can hear us..." Bambi whispers, his voice coloured with awe and no little amount of fear. Blue Eyes' eyes have become as round as the moon, staring at me.
"...gwh..." is the only thing I can make my mouth spit out.
"But that's impossible..." Blue Eyes says, bewildered.
"Go away!" I wail, scooting up to the head of my bunk and pressing myself against the wall. "Just go away! Leave me alone! I didn't do anything! I only had two of the stupid pills today, go away, you're not real, you're not -- you're not -- n-not, not...you're not..."
"We...won't hurt you," Bambi says. If I was any less panicky, I might notice the trepidation and hesitance in his voice, but anxiety sets all incoming messages to my grey matter to scramble mode. "It's...it's okay, you can go back to sleep, we're just..."
Oh, now that is a laugh. How is anyone supposed to sleep with two wide-eyed hallucinations staring at you like you're the hallucination?
Ridiculously, I'm suddenly feeling very glad I didn't bother changing into my nightie before I went to sleep. (I have no idea if strange male hallucinations can be as pervy as strange male real people, true. But I have a policy of not being seen in too many shades of undress in front of people I've just met, as a general rule. It's done me well so far. My Dad would be proud, anyway.)
I just stay pressed up against the cold whitewashed wall in the uncomfortable bunk bed, and stare as wildly at them as they are at me.
It's okay, Winter, it's okay. Take a deep breath. You can make them go away. At least, I think I can. Clear the head and bring myself back to reality, right? It's like a sleep paralysis illusion, just close your eyes and breathe, don't give your brain the upper hand. Calm breathing. One two three four, hold it two three, exhale two three four five six...
"Go away," I say yet again, opening my eyes. The taller one snorts at that, and looks a little less shocked and a touch more snarky.
"Trust me, cariad, we've tried." He pauses, and looks down at the shorter hallucination, who still hasn't taken his incredibly unnerving (but, I have to admit to myself, rather beautiful) dark gaze off me. "Er. Well. I've tried. Teddy's just...stumbled along."
Okay, the other hallucination is Teddy. Mental note made. I give the smaller boy a long look; when he realises that I'm staring him down he jumps a little, as if I've startled him out of a reverie. He half-raises his hand, as if he's going to wave at me, then appears to think better of it.
...do all stress hallucinations come with this amount of in-depth character? Or has my mind really, really checked out?
What's curry-ad, though? A different language? They both sound Australian to me. When they were shouting at each other when we first...met, I suppose...twelve hours ago, they sounded particularly Australian -- that odd sort of intense edge that I've noticed a lot of Aussie boys get when they're pissed off and shouting, almost to the point of Strine. I read somewhere that when someone is caught in the depths of dark emotions -- like pain, frustration, or the like -- that they can't help but sound like themselves. Putting on accents was close to impossible.
Curry-ad. The 'r' was rolled. Probably some kind of insult. Great. My hallucination is an arsehole, to add to thing. Wondrous.
"Why don't you try harder?" I ask, with far more bravado than I feel.
"I've been trying so hard I've given myself a headache," the tall one snaps, then pauses, confusion clouding his features. "Well. I think so, if my body could hold on to pain."
That gives me pause. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means we can't feel pain," he replies. "Well...not for very long. Any pain or injury just vanishes. Heals completely. Think Wolverine."
"That's why you're not bruised from him whacking you one, back at the airport," I say to Teddy, who looks rueful and nods.
"Llew's got a mean left hook," he says, and rubs his cheekbone gently, although there isn't a bruise or a scratch on him.
I pause. Llew and Teddy the Hallucinations with names and attitudes and some sort of weird brotherly grudge going on. Are hallucinations meant to be this detailed? I could write a book about them both, by now. Or, well. A short story, at least. Maybe an informative pamphlet.
"So you're Llew," I say, pointing to the tall boy, then to the shorter one, "and you're Teddy."
"And you're Winter," Llew remarks. I tense up immediately.
"How the hell do you know that?"
Teddy is giving me an odd, apologetic yet amused kind of look. "It's...on your luggage tag. Your name, I mean."
Moron, Winter. Of course it is. And either way, they're hallucinations from your own brain. They probably know all sorts of shit about you. Well. Seem to know.
"I knew that," I mutter beneath my breath. Llew is smirking. I want to whack that stupid smirk off his face, but it wouldn't really work, I don't think. How do you belt into a hallucination? Can you? "So. Pain-free hallucinations. That I'm conversing with. My psychologist probably wouldn't advise this."
Teddy and Llew exchange a glance, the two of them frowning a little.
"We're not hallucinations," Llew says, his voice slightly miffed. Almost offended, if I wanted to be totally truthful.
"Of course you are," I reply. I probably shouldn't be engaging' my brain in this madness, but as I do, my heart rate is falling and it's easier and easier to breathe. Whatever works, right? "You're anxiety hallucinations. Or booze hallucinations, maybe, if that's a thing. Or caffeine hallucinations. But I haven't had any caffeine in, oh, fourteen hours, so maybe not that one."
Llew turns an incredulous laser-beam-blue gaze on me. Even in the half-dark, his eyes are bright.
"We're not hallucinations. Trust me, our lives would be a lot easier if we were."
"Come off the grass," I shoot back.
"We're not," Teddy insists. "We're...well, we're ghosts."
Well, that's shut me up. I open my mouth, then close it again, bewildered.
"But, that's...how? How can you be ghosts?"
"By bein' dead, I find," Llew drawls. Teddy makes an irritated face at him, then turns back to me.
"We're...well, I guess Llew-Llew is right. We died. We're not...I mean, we're ghosts. How do you think we've been able to follow you like this? Through a lot of closed doors."
"Prove it," I blurt out.
Teddy and Llew exchange glances, before Teddy says, a little timidly, "Here...give me your hand."
I spend a few heartbeats looking at him, expressionless, before stretching out my right hand towards him. His fingers reach out then draw back for a moment in a manner that seems instinctive, before he clasps my hand in his.
"Oh...!" I gasp out. My turn for wide eyes.
Once, when I was drunk at a party that someone threw back in high school, myself and some of the boys I took Music Industry Skills with decided to participate in a ridiculous game of chicken involving the ice and water left in an Esky that had been relieved of all its beer. The winner was the one who left his or her hands in the freeze the longest. I won, clocking up a good forty-five seconds, swearing through my teeth. The boys were most impressed, and thought it was a great laugh. (I was given the last available stubby of Cascade to be found anywhere at the party as a prize for my insanity. Despite my frozen fingers, I had felt quite accomplished.)
Having Teddy's hand in mine brings back that feeling instantly. I don't want to be rude, but the cold is so unexpected and uncomfortable that I wrench my hand out of his, shaking it back into life. Teddy's eyes are wide.
"Of course I did! You're utterly freezing!"
"We're ghosts," Llew says, calmly. "No body heat, none of that. Just cold, cold, cold."
My knuckles actually ache from the onslaught of sudden freeze. "To say the least."
"So that. On top of walking through walls and doors and things. And being totally Antarctic to touch. Ghosts." He frowns deeply. "Plus, you know, we remember dying. We were alive last time we knew each other. Well. Mostly. Six-month gap between his death and mine, but--"
"Do you believe us?" Teddy talks over Llew, and I get the distinct feeling that he doesn't like Llew mentioning the 'd' word.
...god, I'm thinking like they're not hallucinations already. But you can't feel hallucinations, right? Oh, sure, tactile hallucinations, but they never feel like this.
"Ghosts," I murmur. "But...okay, ghosts. Why can I see you? Why can't anyone else?"
"Fucked if we know," Llew shrugs.
I shake my head in bemusement, moving to sit cross-legged on the center of the bed, no longer trying to smash myself into the wall.
Ghosts. Ghosts...? How is this possible? Although, it explains why nobody in the food court yesterday lunchtime batted an eyelid when Blue Eyes -- Llew, right -- laid into Teddy like he did...just me...
"So, you can't feel pain?" I have to steer the conversation into less unbelievable waters, at least for the moment, or I have a sinking feeling my brain will set its blender settings to high' and press the on button. Not that talking about not being able to feel pain is really any more believable than ghosts, but...
"Yes," Llew says. "No. Well, kind of."
"If we get hurt, it's like a memory of pain," Teddy answers. "Not a real sensation. A memory of sensation. Like when I touched you, just then...I...I didn't feel your hand, really. Just a memory of what it might have felt like. Kind of. It's hard to explain."
"Pain doesn't last long," Llew adds. "It's not comfortable, but it's just a memory, so it's not worth whining about."
"Says you," Teddy huffs at him. "Certain types of pain for three damn seconds can still be bloody hideous. Like getting slogged in the face, for example. Felt like the start of a migraine."
"Oh, I know all about that," I blurt out. Winter, why are you making conversation with the supposed ghosts? Make them go away so you can get some bloody sleep. You've got a goddamn plane to catch at six in the AM, you know?
Teddy's look is sympathetic. In the silvery half-light, I can't see the actual brown in his eyes, just the lambency and darkness and the long lashes. Absolute doe eyes. Combined with the gentle slopes of his jaw and nose and cheekbones, he is...well, lovely enough to be a girl, frankly.
"You get migraines? I used to, as well. Aren't they just horrible?"
"They set me out flat on my back for hours at a time," I admit, slightly distracted from watching his lips. They're soft and androgynously pretty, just like the rest of his face. What a ridiculously lovely man. Ghost. Hallucination. Thing. I wonder how old he is. Or isn't, as the case may be.
So...how old was he when he died, then?
That thought is utterly chilling. I focus on Llew's face. He notices, and tilts his head at me, the ghost -- ha! -- of a smirk hovering around his lips.
"Do you often sit in the dark and talk to people?"
I scowl. "Dead people don't often follow me back to my bloody hostel room and harass me all evening."
"Since when are we harassing you?" He actually looks slightly offended at my claim. "Told you before, we can't leave. I dunno why, but we're stuck following you."
"Hell if I know. It's frickin' creepy. I thought it was something you were doing. Own any magical amulets or MacGuffins of that type?"
"I'm not doing a thing!" I insist. "I just turned around at the bloody airport, and then the bloody pair of you were having a bloody stoush and I was the only person who could bloody see you!"
"With a distinct lack of actual blood," Teddy pipes up, but I am in far too bad a humour to laugh, or even smile.
"Weird," Llew declares, and then gives me a highly exasperated look. "Will you turn the light on already? I'm sick of sitting in the bloody dark."
I have known this person for what, ten minutes properly? And I am already convinced the sole purpose of his existence is to annoy the living daylights out of me. This is hardly the beginning of a legendary friendship. With very bad grace, and still scowling, I snap on the light above my bunk. Warm light floods the room, and I can see the faces of my two unwanted tagalongs clearly, as clear as if...well, as if they weren't dead.
Llew has the brightest blue eyes I've ever seen on anyone, dead or alive. They're not sapphire-coloured or even sky-coloured, but an almost slightly unnatural shade of blue, swimming-pool-blue.
"Finally," he sighs, referring to the light, or so I imagine.
"What's a curry-ad?" I ask him, and he blinks at me.
"Say what now?"
"A curry-ad. You called me one before, when you were being a smart arse." Has he stopped being a smart arse since he started talking? "What's it supposed to mean?"
He blinks again, then he laughs. "Oh, cariad! It's like...dear, sweetheart, you know, that kind of thing." He sees the look I'm giving him and laughs harder. "I was being sarcastic!"
Well, isn't that a surprise? "What language is it?"
"You're Welsh? Were...Welsh." What's the polite tense to use with dead people?
"Half-Welsh. My Dad is. Well, naturalised Australian, and all that shit, but I think he holds dual UK citizenship? Dunno, really. One of those two."
"And he taught you Welsh."
"Not seriously. But I know basic shit, and when someone's telling me to piss off or that they're sick of my behaviour or whatever."
"Do you believe us?" Teddy asks, out of the blue. He looks at me beseechingly. "I'm...you're not having a hallucination. I promise. I mean, maybe you get them regularly, but I promise that we're not one--"
"I don't," I say, almost completely truthfully. "Never had." Not visual ones, anyway.
Llew snorts. "Yeah, why was the first thought you had upon seeing us 'oh hey, I'm hallucinating', then?"
"Well...I just..." My tongue goes thick in my mouth. Don't ask that. Don't. I'm suddenly glad that my sleeves are long and they can't see the parade of scars marching from my wrist to my inner arm. "Just...just got anxious, is all. Happens occasionally. Very occasionally."
"Did you take hallucinogens at the gig?" Teddy asks, looking puzzled. "I didn't--"
"No, just...it's..." I trail off. I don't even want to let the laundry list of offenders escape my mouth. Abilify, Xanax, Lovan... I don't want to admit to two non-hallucination ghosts that nobody else can see what I'm on, what may or may not be causing all this, none of it. Wasn't that why I came down here? To prove I could still function despite the pills and the diagnosis? Except that I don't really, I can get rid of it. I can, I totally can, I'm not really that sick, I don't need them. That's why I came down here, to show everyone that I don't need -- I'm not as sick as -- I don't need anything, the more everyone says I do means the stronger the thought I have the sickness will get, and that's bollocks, it's just, it's just in my head and I'm okay, I really--
Teddy hesitantly touches my hand, a shiver of cold passing through me and shocking me out of my panic-spiral of thoughts.
"It's all right," he says, and his voice is strangely pleading. "I just thought...I mean, I was on Prozac. I was...I was pretty sick, before I...I..."
I glance at Llew, who is staring fixedly away from us, outside the window, his jaw tight.
Pieces fall into place like shards of smattered glass, and I wince. I understand what Teddy did, now.
"I'm...I'm really sorry." The words taste like metal in my mouth. What good are platitudes? "Really...I'm sorry..."
Teddy shakes his head, but his eyes look slightly glassy. "Don't be. I'm...I'm sorry about you, too. Sorry about the anxiety, I mean. Sorry, it's...it's a real fucking pain in the arse, isn't it?"
Warmth floods through me and dissolves my discomfort; I have to laugh at that. "Understatement of the century, really!"
The grin he gives back to me touches his Bambi eyes. "I reckon."
My laughter slowly turns into a yawn, despite my best effort. I glance down at my phone, now extricated from its hiding place beneath my pillow, and grimace at the digital clock proclaiming that is is quarter to two in the morning.
"Look, I don't mean to be rude, but...I have a plane to catch at five-thirty, and I've been kind of stressed today, so...would you mind terribly if I got some shut-eye? I mean, I'm not sure what you guys are going to do, but hey, there's three empty beds here, so, um...you could nap, I guess?" I pause. "If you guys really are stuck with me, stuck in my proximity, I mean, thing is...um, well...thing is...tomorrow I'm going home." I pause. "To Brisbane."
Llew and Teddy exchange a wordless glance that I can't read.
"Can't be helped, I guess," Llew says. "Maybe that's a good thing. Get the hell out of Sydney and...ha, start again? Start the afterlife. Weather's nicer up that way, isn't it? Even if the place is full of dickheads."
"Oi," I complain. Don't know why; I was born in Adelaide and moved to Queensland with my family when my younger brother Sadwyn was barely a week old. I'm hardly a native, really.
"Not apologising," he shoots back. "Look at it this way: I'm pretty sure God exists. He might've even made Queensland. But why He filled it with dickheads remains a mystery to me."
"You stole that from Tim Ferguson," Teddy says. "And don't be a pain, Llew. We had a good time at Schoolies, didn't we?"
"That wasn't in Brisbane, that was Surfers Paradise. And you threw up off the balcony of our unit, if I recall correctly."
"Well, yeah." Teddy looks faintly embarrassed. "That was because of the booze, though."
"Yeah, and which booze was it? XXXX. Queensland beer. Proves my point."
I'm giggling and yawning, now, a ridiculous combination, but I can't help it. Teddy catches my yawn and smiles at me, kindly.
"You'd better go to sleep, Winter. Don't worry about us. If we end up in Brisbane with you...well, there are worse places to be than there, really."
"Can't think of many," Llew says beneath his breath, just loud enough for me to hear. I want to zap back something really witty and cutting, but I yawn again, and lay down.
There are two newly-dead ghosts in my room, one of them being quite obnoxious about my home state (and everything else), I have a plane to catch at sparrow's twit, and even while panicking about hallucinations and anxiety and small pink cosmos-coloured pills, I think I just had the best night of my life.
"Yeah, I'll just...just get a few hours. Sorry about that. Just a few hours. We'll sort everything out in the morning, yeah?"
Maybe they're hallucinations, too. Whatever they are, I'm not afraid of them any longer. As far as hallucinations go, I kind of find myself feeling rather fond of them -- of Bambi-eyed Teddy and even that sarcastic half-Welsh git, Llew.
Talking to ghosts. Talking to hallucinations. Talking to dead men. Maybe when I wake up, they won't be there? I'm not sure what I believe.
The weird things I do, man. The weird things.
I think I hear Teddy murmur "good night, Winter" along the edge of my hearing before I slip into proper, actual sleep. I think I find it quite sweet.
go to chapter: i. wintering | ii. cast away your troubles | iii. hallucinoghosts | iv. planespotting | v. a short guide to the afterlife | vi. rules of engagement | vii. thin ice
side-stories: let's get high
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