How To Remove Spinal Fluid From A Polyester Dress
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Theresa's alarm yanked her awake at 7:30. Rolling out of bed, Theresa dragged herself through the morning routine necessitated by the rare occasions in which she was called in for an interview. It was as tiresome as it had been three weeks ago, which nearly countered the indignity of its rarity.

Not that she did it well: her efforts were unfocused, her movements hurried, her gaze drawn towards the windows. She burnt her toast, understeeped her tea, nearly knocked over a stack of notes. She almost tripped over the curb on the way to her car, even.

So it wasn't until Theresa got into her car that she checked her phone, to find that Hellen had left her a voicemail.

Theresa blinked.

Actually looking at the file, it was… absurdly long. Even in Hellen's worst moments, she'd had the sense to hang up before it became a bad joke; this easily exceeded "bad joke". Worse, she'd done it at 1 AM. It was almost ridiculous enough for Theresa to forget she was being hunted by the Kosher Nostra.

She shouldn't waste her time listening to this. Theresa had an… "interview" to attend. Bad people to look out for. She definitely shouldn't have switched speaker on and pressed play.

"Hi, Feather." Theresa winced, barely aware enough not to rear-end a neighbor's car. Evidently, Hellen hadn't been serious enough to actually address Theresa by name. "Sorry for the late night call, I had some things I… I wanted to get off my chest."

Not like she got straight to it. No, Hellen had to make Theresa wait. You'd think there'd be a bit more proactivity when you called in the dead of night, but that was what you got with Hellen. Nosy gadfly bullshit. Hellen was lucky Theresa had nothing better to do, or she might have to bring this up with Caryn and Robin. They had the decency not to bother Theresa outside of Line business.

Theresa was pulling out of the complex when next Hellen spoke. "I know I can be… clingy, at times. I'm sorry for that, Feather. SoHo can be… well, you know how it is. It's… dark, it's cruel. Or unfeeling."

Hellen sighed. What did she have to sigh about? "That's not entirely it, I'm sorry. It's… I feel like I owe you, Feather. You've done so much for the Line. You're transcribing meetings, you're… you're mentoring children, Feather. You even… I don't know many women who are brave enough to go on live TV to defend what's not even their job against… against everyone. You're the bravest person I know. I…"

Great. More pausing.

"… it hurts, to see everything take such a toll on you. You seem more cynical than usual. And I… you don't have to talk about it with me. But I see it and I worry, Feather. Even before the… sorry, that's not my place. I'm sorry. Good…" -bye? As if. Theresa had seen that timestamp.

Was this going to be one long pause-filled apology casserole? Lord, silence would be better than—"I'm sorry, I have to get this off my chest. Do you remember when I joined the Line?" Barely. Hellen was having… man troubles or something, then? "It's been a while, I know. But I think about it a lot.

"The Line was… I'll never forget how you took me in, treated me like a sister, supported me through… through everything. I was just a nobody, but you were there every step of the way. I couldn't… if it hadn't been for you, I might still be with Peter. Maybe…" Hellen sighed. "Maybe that's why I fell for you."

Theresa nearly ran an intersection. What a joke.

"You were everything I wasn't, Feather. Smart, talented, with the kind of backbone I still don't have. I was a 20-year-old nobody in a bad marriage. You and the Line… you taught me there was more to just, just living through. I could get out. I could… I could get out and be someone, Feather."

And yet in the four and a half years since, Hellen wasted every possible opportunity to be anything more than that simpering ten-ply she'd started as.

Lord, the message still wasn't done.

"… I've been, well, coming to terms with… that. That I love you. That I'm… that I'm a lesbian. I was surprised there were so few of us in the Line. You'd think… well, the stereotype's that most radical feminist orgs are just that. Lesbians. But…" Get on with it, Hellen. "… it doesn't feel like we're feminists, anymore.

"I joined the Line because it helped me come to terms with… with what I was going through. They helped me, right? So I just, well, laughed off some of the… weirder doctrine. Or didn't care. If we helped women escape abusive homes, I could ignore the weird focus on transgenders."

Hellen paused, long enough for Theresa to nearly lose herself in the asshole going 10 in a 25. "I… don't think I'm typical, Feather. Everyone else feels focused on transgenders, beyond other issues. Even… even Caryn and Robin, it felt like they cared more about some anti-transgender march than El's eating disorder."

For the briefest second, Theresa's internal dialogue screeched to a halt, and she thought back to where she intended to drive.

But only for that second.

And Hellen continued: "I've looked up some of our funding, Feather. Our 'allies'. They're not… they're not feminists. It's people who won't stop at the transgenders. They won't stop there. And I'm afraid it's affecting the girls."

She paused. "… I'm sorry, Feather, but I can't stay here. These aren't my sisters. I have to get out, before I change for the worse."

And then Theresa's phone clicked, and the voicemail was over.

It was out of Theresa's mind in minutes, the work of a shameful necessity, subsequently given its own treatment until the recursion made it small enough to ignore.


Roofing sagged. Lawngrass consumed lawn. Lights stayed off. Boarding stood bold against the mundanity of suburbia. Theresa's was the only car parked before the house. Everything was as it always was, and none of it felt remotely familiar.

Was it the context? Theresa had never dressed herself in a suit to meet Mrs. Schaeffer, had never willingly walked the path in anything but boots, bore propane and shovels in lieu of laptops and notebooks. Until recently, this house stood as an obstacle, not opportunity. A giant in the shape of a windmill. And yet, what was meaningfully different about the house before Theresa?

… that was obvious. The house had never been occupied.

(it's funny you think that)

The front door was unlocked. Mannequins, dressed in finery and perfumed in the stench of rotten meat, stood motionless against the various first floor doorways. Each pointed towards the stairwell.

The house was just as dark as before, yet something stayed Theresa's flashlight. Exposed boards groaned beneath her, daring Theresa to step on a hot wire, a rusted nail, a fresh rat, but what was she to do? Now more than ever, Theresa was a guest of Just Girly Things; it would not do to violate the sanctity of its heart.

Sunlight stumbled from the second-story windows, illuminating the river of wires that meandered around the corner cascaded down the stairs from the landing. She was close.

Theresa turned into the hallway. A pink stripe cut through the darkness at the end of the hall, wires spilling from its mouth like headwaters.

And so she walked.

Slowly. Steadily.

Past where the light of noon terminated into dark.

Through the wall of rancid meat, vigorous mildew, burning plastic.

Ever closer to that intimately familiar horror that sat at the end of the hall.

"Over here, darling."

But Theresa blinked herself awake, and turned to look down the doorway to her right.

The room was an impossible dark, and not in the sense of the pitch black at the end of the hallway. No, this darkness was… hollow. Visible. Paintings and trinkets adorned the walls, girly decor that should have been swallowed by the dearth of light. Theresa could make out a table, high, refined, elegant; there, sitting at the opposite end, was a tall silhouette of impossible elegance.

The silhouette tilted its head, an inexplicably chilling gesture. "Do close the door behind you, KeeLee can be particular about the lights."

Theresa gulped, nodding once as she stepped through the door and carefully closed it behind her.

Then the light clicked on.

Cutting through the brightened haze, clearer and clearer with every second, was a woman who couldn't have been real. Her porcelain-white skin was unnaturally flawless, almost radiant in the sudden light. Indeed, the features it shaped into recalled those of a masterwork, an eternal perfection unbound by the biological constraints of flesh. Her lips, brows, the color in her cheeks, all appeared as the underglaze of some porcelain masterpiece, to say nothing of her terrifyingly beautiful make-up. Hair that must have been pressed with gold leaf flowed like silk down her back, neither catching nor tangling against her crooked surroundings. Most striking, however, were her eyes… but Theresa wouldn't have been able to say why that was.

"I must say, darling," and Madeleine von Schaeffer even smiled like a saint. "You're taller than I expected."

Theresa blinked, and opened her mouth to speak, but the words didn't come fast enough for Schaeffer, who gestured to the sole empty seat. "Please, sit down."

Nodding, Theresa did just that, setting her notebook and laptop onto the table. "You don't… mind if I take notes? Most—"

"Theresa, dear." Schaeffer giggled, her elegant laughter betraying an inexplicable tinniness. "I was being rhetorical when I called you in for an 'interview'. Why, dressed as you are now?" She leaned forward, and Theresa shivered. "You'd have been sent out the door."

Schaeffer stood up, circling around to Theresa's back. Her fingers fiddled with her collar, rolling and bending it back for some—

thing cold and hard brushed against Theresa's neck, catching her breath.

"This isn't even your size, darling. You're not a man." Schaeffer tutted, pulling back and leaving Theresa's collar messy and wrinkled. "I understand it can be difficult to find a good dress for someone as tall as you are, but it's not impossible. Why, we gifted you one."

As delicate as Schaeffer looked, she was shockingly strong, lifting Theresa out of her seat and setting her aside in standing. Arms that couldn't have been thicker than Theresa's betrayed a shockingly developed musculature, a near-impenetrable wall just below the skin, bereft of even the slightest softness. Not even heat bled through.

Schaeffer glided into view, and Theresa was suddenly struck by the revelation of how tall she was. Theresa was already "freakish" in height; so what word did you apply to Schaeffer, who stood a head above her? Theresa looked down to her feet, but the porcelain-white heels she wore couldn't have been more than 5 centimeters.

As if aware of her internal monologue, Schaeffer giggled. "I won't ask you to ascribe to my standards, don't worry." She circled around the table, back to her side — though she did not sit back down.

Theresa shook her head. "It's… it's a very nice dress, but it's not—"

"Professional? Darling, who do you think you'll be working for?" Schaeffer tilted her head; Theresa noted, with a frankly reasonable level of apprehension, that her skin barely creased. "What use is fashion advice in a magazine, if its workers are stuck in suits?"

A quick palm of her coat pocket reminded Theresa that she hadn't brought her e-cig.

Righting her head, Schaeffer stepped forward and around the table, stopping just beyond the threshold of Theresa's personal space. Eyed her like a painting. Flayed Theresa with her eyes. Those inscrutably terrifying eyes.

"You can't be expected to wear that dress every day, of course." She smiled, moreso in probable bemusement than the apparent theatricality of her previous smiles. "I suppose we'll need to procure you a proper wardrobe. You could think of it as a kind of sign-on bonus, if you're so inclined, but that's not to say that's all you'll get."

Theresa crossed her arms. "I don't know what I'll be…" The room had gotten impossibly cold, yet Schaeffer could simply look down to Theresa's arms and it was enough for instinct to uncross them.

A loud cracking ripped through the air.

The corner of Schaeffer's mouth curled into something… indistinct. "You're afraid of me, aren't you?"

Theresa's tongue lay like a lead weight against the floor of her mouth. She took a step back; almost in lockstep, Schaeffer took one forward.

"Why are you still so afraid of me, darling?" Every step back was answered another step forward. "What do you have to fear? It isn't as if you're my enemy. Far from such a thing."

Theresa's back hit the wall; Schaeffer's footfalls answered the steps she wished she could still make.

"We've always been allies, Theresa. From the start, we fought to preserve the sanctity of womanhood." Schaeffer's heel fell upon an exposed nail, a development not reflected upon her opaque grin. "Whether stuck in the workplace or flourishing in domesticity, we protected its sanctity, its immutability, its complementarian nature."

When next her heel rose, the nail lay deep in its board.

"What did it matter its definition," Schaeffer's grin widened, revealing a row of perfect ivory-white teeth. "so long as that definition was rigid? Does it do anything more than apply some meaningless moral judgement to the inevitable conclusion?"

Schaeffer was mere inches from Theresa when the latter's legs gave out, leaving her sliding down to sitting. "And so too do we fight the same uphill battle, Theresa. Against degenerates who would commodify 'woman' into a nobody. Against the ignorant left and its Jewish financers. Against the biological and psychological aberrations so foolishly accepted by society."

Schaeffer crouched, taking Theresa's chin in her hands. As those cold, stiff fingers took hold, a horrible shiver rippled through Theresa's spine.

Her skin wasn't simply porcelain-white.

It was porcelain.

Schaeffer made a show of licking her lips, her tongue like varnished rosewood. "It couldn't have been whimsy that brought you here. Do you really think you came to me for naked survival?" She grinned, turning Theresa's chin up to properly face her. "If you really cared to live, all you had to do was renounce your convictions. It's not as if your safety was priority. Not even in chemistry was that true."

She let go, and it was as if breath had only just returned to Theresa's lungs. Words had to wait.

Schaeffer crouched as close to eye level as she could. "Your butterfly is so close to emergence, Theresa. Everyone around you seeks to clip your wings. Everyone but us." She brushed a hand against Theresa's face, briefly, enough for Theresa's breath the catch once more. "Who will teach you to fly?"

Theresa closed her eyes, shivered in the chill.

"… you will."

She wasn't sure if that was a lie. And when Schaeffer stood up, dropped her smile, looked upon her as if it'd been a bold-faced faleshood, she wasn't sure whether the pang in her hear was of fear, shame, or disappointment.

Schaeffer sighed, extending her right hand out to her side. Her fingers unclenched, wrist turning her open palm towards Theresa. "It appears we'll need a show of faith."

Theresa looked back into her eyes, suddenly struck once more by that inexplicable bafflement they engendered.

And in a wide and violent arc—


"Is something the— Feather?!"

The pounding in Theresa's temple left barely enough dignity not to collapse directly onto Hellen's floor. Less so to avoid falling into Hellen's arms. Hours of dull fire, with barely more than her right eye to guide her, had a way of breaking Theresa down.

For her part, Hellen rushed Theresa to her sofa, a soft foam thing that hadn't seen too many guests. If not for the aforementioned pounding, Theresa might have fallen asleep on it. Wouldn't that be nice. Wouldn't that be some kind of stupid poeticism.

Theresa closed her eye.

Hellen was back quickly enough with an icepack, an aid kit, and two cups of tea. She set the latter two upon the coffee table, offering the ice pack to Theresa. Her good eye lingered on the tea, like an animal might a fox. Still, her other eye ached for a cold compress, and she wasn't about to pass that by.

A circular sort of process kept Theresa from actually saying anything: first, she'd attempt to say her piece. Then the pain would kick in, and she'd worry she'd say something she regretted. In lieu of talking, she'd look around Hellen's apartment, trying to to take it in; but all the decor just reminded Theresa of things she'd rather not talk about, so instead she thought up small talk. Then she got frustrated, that she was wasting her time, and the cycle would begin again.

The tea had most likely cooled by the time Theresa found her words. "… I messed up."

"What's wrong?" Theresa hadn't realized how silent Hellen had been until she broke that silence.

Theresa palmed empty coat pocket. "I messed up. They're after me." She shook her head, looking back down to the tea. Actually picking it up and drinking it wasn't… that cold.

"W-what do you mean?" When Theresa looked up, Hellen's… what was it, concern? Fear? Despair? Whatever it was, it had deepened.

"I messed up. I…" Theresa shook her head. "… I've been… driving somewhere."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Theresa wet her lips. "I thought… I thought it was for a job. Some print house contacted me out of nowhere, and…"

Hellen's brow furrowed. "And?"

"I'm sorry, Hellen. I should have trusted you."

"What happened, Feather?"

The ice pack crackled and sloshed over Theresa's eye.

"… it wasn't a job." Theresa eyed the still life behind Hellen. "They're angry. Angry at the me. Angry at the Line." She looked back to Hellen. "Angry at you."

"Me? I…" The gears turned in Hellen's head, that inaudible click-clack that banged a rod upon a pan to make her blink in time. "… but, I'm no longer in, in the Line, Feather, and…" She shuddered. "But, what about the others? What about… are they after them too?"

"They're not normal, Hellen." Theresa shifted the icepack, righting her head like she meant to make proper eye contact. "There's this computer. Something like it. They knew my name. Address. They knew everything." She swallowed. "… I think they have our messages."

Something dawned on Hellen's face.

Theresa looked down at the table. Then, she took out her phone and switched it off.

Theresa looked back up to Hellen. "Turn off your phone. You need to hide. All of you. My brother… he lives in the States. I'll figure something out but—"

"Feather."

Theresa blinked.

Hellen shook her head. "I'm sorry for interrupting you, Feather, but it's…" She sighed, breaking eye contact. "I believe you, really. These past few months have been… difficult, for you most of all." When Hellen finally looked back, it was with a peculiar intensity Theresa had never quite seen before. "But I think about how you've just… went about this all alone, and it breaks my heart, Feather."

Hellen paused, fingers drumming against her knee. "… I'm not asking for you to love me back, Feather. You don't have to indulge some silly, well, schoolgirl crush. But," and Hellen leaned forward. "As your friend, I want to be here for you when you need it, alright?"

Theresa nodded.

"And don't just think of me if you're struggling, Feather. It's only fair that I help you, after everything you did to help me. So," And hopefully, she hadn't noticed Theresa tensing up. "Do you promise to tell me everything, once we're safe?"

Theresa looked down to the table, next to the painting, back to the table, then the painting, and finally, after several moments of unfocused staring, back to Hellen. "… yes."

It wasn't a lie, but it felt like one.

Hellen sighed. "Thank you, Feather. I should probably pack my—"

"Wait."

Hellen stopped, looking nearly as shocked at Theresa's interjection as Theresa had been when it fell out her mouth. "… what's wrong? We should leave now, shouldn't we?"

"Yeah." … but there was no room for compromise, not now. She had to power through. "… but there's someone else."


With her eye fixated upon the gas meter, Theresa heard El's arrival before she saw it.

It began with muffled conversation; logically it was El and Hellen, who else wanted to approach Theresa's care, but it was odd to think that the two of them actually talked. Sure, they belonged to the same organization (and both arguably because of Theresa), but Theresa must have unconsciously separated the two in her mind, two peculiarities too peculiar to mix in an orderly fashion.

Then the car door opened, unmuffling El and Hellen's conversation. "—don't get it. Why us?"

Theresa unconsciously gripped the steering will just a tiny bit tighter. This would be the first time in over three months they'd met up, four if you excluded bad-term interactions.

"I don't know, but we need to hide for a bit, El." Hellen, fortunately, took the front seat. "Feath— Terry's been hurt, and we all just… need to lay low for a while."

"Terry's…" El trailed off; a quick look at her face in the rearview mirror confirmed she'd gone pangolin.

Theresa shook her head, and shifted into drive before it was too late.

Maybe it'd been a mistake to ask Hellen to bring El along. Obviously, she still wasn't keen on being around Theresa; that Hellen had talked her into coming along was nothing short of a miracle. But even a second was all it took for everything to fall apart.

Maybe she'd underestimated Hellen; maybe she was shrewder than Theresa had given her credit for.

Theresa drove.


"You have arrived at your destination."

Theresa licked her lips as she pulled up to the curb, or tried to. She'd ran out of water at around six, leaving her tongue to catch and skid across her dry lips. Nobody needed to know that.

Either way, Theresa gave a quick glance around the neighborhood; with nobody in sight, she killed the engine. "Well, we're here. Haven't texted Rufus, but he should be amenable."

Theresa should have logically been thinking quite a bit regarding… quite a bit. 'What if El chickened out?' 'Would she be able to live without grant money?' 'Did Theresa really have the nerve to go through with this?' None of these questions registered as they probably should have. Instead, Theresa found her internal monologue fixated on what she'd just said. How naturally it flowed.

More power to her, she supposed.

Hellen and El exited from the right. Was it different for them, to not have had to turn to see the house? Or did El just take after Hellen? It wasn't as if it was surprising, seeing El cling to her like a little lost child.

Theresa double-checked her bag, and cleared her throat. "Don't mind him, messiness runs in the family. Here, I'll give him a heads up." Circling around the car, Theresa gave the perplexed duo a (hopefully) reassuring nod as she walked down the path and up to the door.

Of course it was open.

Theresa peeked inside, down the ill-lit entry hall and the predictably ravaged interior that, curiously, smelt less rancid than usual. "Hey, Rufus! It's your sister."

The purring silence did not respond.

Theresa sighed. "Seriously? You told me you'd… it doesn't matter. If now's a good time, do you—"

The purring silence did not interrupt.

"… good, good. Sorry for coming on short notice. I won't be too long, though."

The purring silence did not mind.

Theresa nodded. "Right, thank you."

Her two guests had thankfully stayed put, still there when she turned back. "Looks like we're in luck. Do mind the space, he's still renovating, but he should be amenable." Theresa grinned. "Probably glad I'll be there to cook for him."

That put Hellen at something that wasn't quite ease, but nevertheless permitted a careful approach to the precipice. With no one else to cling to, El followed closely behind. Neither of them seemed to notice Theresa slipping behind them as they approached; or if they did, they didn't care. Lemmings to the last step.

Hellen reached for the doorknob, slowly, steadily, that viscous thoughtlessness that engendered an unnecessary tension… but then she paused. Turned her head back to look at Theresa. Opened her mouth:

"… thanks for all this, Feather. I'm sorry it had to come to…" What, my eye? This house? The thing in my bag I tried desperately to hide from you? "… this."

So Theresa exhaled, smiled, and nodded. "It's fine."

And then, finally, after eight hours of back-and-forthing, eight hours of that rotten feeling in the pit of Theresa's stomach, Hellen opened the door, and all was well.

Hellen paused at the precipice. Probably made a face; maybe the same one Theresa had made, all those months ago on her first visit. "… you really weren't kidding, Feather. This is… serious renovations." But even still, she entered the house. And sure, El made a show of squirming, retching, everything El loved to do; that didn't change the fact that Hellen was inside, and Theresa was outside. She followed quickly enough.

Theresa gave one last look over the neighborhood, searching for anyone who could have seen this happen. Once again, all was quiet, and so Theresa stepped inside, closing the door behind her.

From inside, Theresa could feel the house salivating, its pulsing breath so much more excited than she'd ever known, even as its weakness belied a curious distance. The nightlights, too, felt recessed, slimmed in scope, yet curiously bright when stared directly into; as the squinting eyes of a predator, examining its prey. Was it just as excited as Theresa?

Theresa rolled her keyring around her finger, feeling through her bag for the cannister she'd been given. Stealth barely mattered now, and she hardly cared when Hellen turned back to say something, only to freeze like a deer in the headlights. You could hardly see the look of betrayal on her face.

Instead, as Theresa plunged her keyring knife into the cannister, her last thoughts before she was forced to shepherd the BLACK FLY were of those stupid faces that El never quite mastered in her art.

It hissed.

BLACK FLY sounded less like a fly, more like a hateful cat as it poured forth from its cannister. Even in the dark, Theresa could see it, collecting like buzzing, angry storm-clouds over a playground, warping and discoloring all it touched. She almost couldn't bear to work its mists. Almost.

There was a weight against Theresa's will. BLACK FLY was an aerosol, subject to its nature as all things. Yet, even as Theresa collected it, pushed it away, kept it swirling, something dragged. Against her thoughts? Her soul? Muscle memory for unknown muscles?

She'd barely touched it when Hellen and El began screaming. Theresa had heard the screams before, long ago, in the unhallowed halls of high school. Recklessness. Chemical suffering. The scream of an idiot.

So she smothered them in the cloud. For a while, it only left them screaming harder.

Then the screams dimmed.

Weakened.

Stopped

As down fell pinpricked,

indistinct ragdolls,

and Theresa was left alone in an ever-growing cloud of shifting black-grey mist.

***

Along with the knife and cannister, Schaeffer had provided Theresa with a collection of air-tight vials, of which she made no requests. Theresa had assumed she'd idly left them inside; now, bottling the last of the BLACK FLY, Theresa could only assume they were intended as souvenirs.

Hah. Was she a serial killer, now?

Murder was killing, and neither Hellen nor El were dead. Corpse pores didn't pucker like theirs did. And killing was supposed to be hard, right? This was easy. Shockingly easy. Theresa could do it again, if she wanted. Take another worthless idiot and gas it until its face was gone. Depending on its reactivity, maybe she could even do it with the rest of the BLACK FLY.

"Theresa, dear."

Theresa looked back down the hall, to the tall silhouette at its end. Packing the last of the vials into her bag, she stood up. "Mrs. Schaeffer."

"Please, Theresa. Call me Madeleine." Schaef… Madeleine stepped into the hall, barely distinguishable against the dark. She crouched, or knelt, or fell softly to a knee before the body of Hellen, a hand over her neck. "You and the BLACK FLY are a dangerous combination. My nephew, Heinrich, he'd love to meet you."

"You're not scared?"

Madeleine giggled, which almost masked a sharp tearing sound. Almost. "That's an amusing notion. A question of my own?"

"Shoot."

"Why… this one?" A hand gestured over the body of El. "All I asked of you was Ms. Martinez. There's… vanishingly little I can do with Ms. Romero."

Theresa rolled her shoulders. "… you want the truth?"

"You say that as if I'm as ill-equipped against lies as your sacrifices." Madeleine's hand found its way back to Hellen's body, pulling it with her as she stood. "Rest assured, that's not the case."

It was almost disorientating, how quickly the answer made its way into Theresa's head. Too convenient to feel natural. A revelation that should have been clear from the very start, rather than only now:

"Because she was dead weight."

Madeleine stopped. "Truly?"

"You said it yourself, first we met." Theresa looked down at the pinprick mess beneath her. "She's a weak-willed land slug that needs a memetic hazard to keep herself from bloating. I could push her all I wanted, prod her into a corner, and nothing would change." She chuckled. "Couldn't even yell at me when I called her out. If BLACK FLY changes people, maybe you or KeeLee could change her for the better. But as of right now?" Theresa spat on her body.

Another cracking sound ripped through the air. It almost didn't leave Theresa jittering. "How interesting." With that, Madeleine's silhouette merged with Hellen's as she took it over her shoulder. "I will be rather busy with Ms. Martinez, however, so do you think you could bring Ms. Romero to KeeLee's room?"

"I don't…"

Theresa blinked, chuckled to herself again.

"… that's the door at the end of the hallway, isn't it?"

"Of course, darling." Madeleine's smile was practically audible. "Who else could it be but her?"

With what might have been a curtsy, Madeleine von Schaeffer vanished around a corner, and Theresa was alone with El.

… bodies were surprisingly heavy. El's tendencies didn't make that any different, and whatever high Theresa had been riding was nearly worn in the sole act of picking her up. She desperately needed to get stronger.

Not that getting her up the stairs was any easier. Why should it have been? El was just as much a show of faith as Hellen. A show of strength. Ability. The will to power, like Madeleine said so long ago. Proof that Theresa was loyal and dependable to the cause, unlike El. El got what she deserved. If she didn't, this wouldn't have happened to her. Theresa knew this to be true.

In sunset, the second-floor hallway was swallowed by dark, naught but a pink crack on the floor to tell the void from the wall. Without a light, it was folly to assume you'd walk into a door. More likely, the crack was the mouth of a chasm, the vast pit the homed the theoretical goddess known as KeeLee. A vehicle for the sacrifice of that which meant the world to you.

A stupid notion.

Yet still Theresa walked. The crack yawned, spilling wires and the stench of rancid meat from its mouth. Theresa had seen into it before. There was no surprise to be had, even through that window of feverish haze.

So when she opened the door, and saw KeeLee illuminated by the pink of her five monitors, all she could do was drop El at the foot of her altar and laugh.

It was like KeeLee told her: there was never any other way this could go.

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