Karen doesn’t leave the house anymore.
Food comes by delivery. The money won’t last forever, but forever is more than a day away, so she doesn’t think about it. Lily’s kibble comes by delivery too. She needs walks, of course: Karen stands in the doorway and throws her a ball, sometimes feeling guilty for not cleaning up after her – sometimes grateful for the times when her cousin comes to help – sometimes unable to care.
She spends most of her time in bed, with Lily cuddled up beside her. When she’s awake, she stares up at the ceiling, scritching gently behind Lily’s ear and trying not to remember. When she sleeps, everything she wants not to remember comes flooding back: flashing headlights; screeching brakes, screeching metal, shattering glass; the raw red line the seatbelt left seared into her breast; Tanya’s gasping choking breath, the naked panic in her eyes, the metal jutting from her ribcage; the taste of blood on her lips when she kissed her, frantically, as if to keep her alive; the silence, before the sirens –
Karen tries not to sleep.
This isn’t sustainable – she knows that – but in the moment she can’t be bothered to care. One day follows the next, and nothing changes.
She stands up, one day, to drink a cup of hot chocolate and feed Lily, and Lily doesn’t follow her. Her tail wags, once, twice, but her head stays bedded down beside her paws, and her closed lips are pulled back and puffing with every breath.
Karen panics, calls the vet, and makes it nearly to the door before the memories hit her. Headlights stabbing at her eyes, shards of glass glittering across her arms. Pain. Whiplash. Tanya’s bloody fingers laced in hers, her grip weakening with every passing heartbeat –
She finds herself curled up on the floor, shaking, head tucked tight beneath her arms.
Usually Lily would come to her, lick her hand, lie beside her until she could breathe again. But still, she lies on the bed; still, her skull is tight with tension.
Karen calls her cousin. No reply. She leaves a voicemail, grabs her laptop, emails him, and bites at her fingers while she waits for a response. In between page refreshes she looks at vet sites on the internet, trying to find something that matches Lily’s symptoms; nothing she sees is at all helpful.
Somewhere between the search results something catches her eye: necklace … heals those who wear it … realm beyond dreams … still … anyone can … hope. It’s gone before she can get a closer look.
Her cousin calls her. He’s on his way.
Karen goes back to bed, curled up tight around Lily’s back. Panic keeps her awake, at first, but after a while it wears her down. She hasn’t slept right in weeks.
Face nuzzled close to Lily’s ruff, breathing in the furry scent of her, Karen drifts into blackness.
She’s in the car again. Tanya is beside her, driving. Laughing. Her lipstick is red as blood against her teeth.
Karen knows what’s coming. She knows. Helpless, as always, she waits for the slam of the brakes.
… realm beyond dreams … heals those who wear it …
Tanya reaches for her hand, polished fingernails shining. To deny her feels like a betrayal. I love you, she wants to say, I love you, please, survive – this time, this time, don’t crash – this time, this time, stay with me – but Lily needs her, and Karen opens the door behind her and rolls out of the car.
She’s in a forest, evergreens towering high into the sky. The smell of earth and needles is soft beneath her feet. She sinks her fingers into the soil and pulls: clumps of loam fly through the air, and then there is a hole beneath her, a well, a winding stone stair. Down, down, down she clambers – runs – falls. There is a realm beyond dreams, she knows, and she will find it.
There is a door, massive and wooden, gilt with runes she cannot read. She enters.
A labyrinth of ruined walls surrounds her, shining with danger, beneath a bruised and reddened sky. She doesn’t know this place. She doesn’t know the way, but there is a soft sick dog-scent in her nose, and she walks on.
The moon takes its place in the sky, then sets again. Karen keeps walking. Each turn leads to more turns, endless and twisting. Her feet grow sore, and her eyes forget the meaning of weeping. She has walked for days, for months, for years, maybe. Snakes lurk in the shadows, hissing when she passes. Ancient traps spring at her, triggered by a faulty step, a hand in the wrong place, a word not spoken. She lets them wound her, and walks on.
At last, after a thousand lifetimes of walking, she finds a road that has an end: a wall rising up in front of her, and a wooden chest before it, almost crumbling into dust. It falls apart beneath her fingers. Between the ashes she finds a necklace of burnished gold and burning amber, warm as life beneath her touch. She lays it around her neck, and looks up at the bloodstained sky, and wakes.
“Awake yet?” It’s her cousin’s voice, loud and harsh against the memory of the dream. “I’ve been to the vet and back already. Sorry to run, but I’ve got to be off again – I’ll talk to you Saturday, yeah?”
“Right here. She’s fine now. I’ll tell you about it when I’m not late for work.”
A jangle of keys, and the door opens and closes. Karen finds Lily lying at her feet.
She stands. Her fingers hover by her throat – the memory of gold and amber, the burning life-warmth in her veins.
She eats breakfast. Lily follows her, looking hale as ever.
She picks up the long-forgotten leash that hung by the door.
“Come on, Lily,” she says. “Let’s go for a walk.”