“Her Middle Name Was Boom”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

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The hour or so that had passed between Rory hanging up the phone and him arriving in front of the Alfheim Room 808 had felt like a blur. He’d peeled off his bloodstained hoodie, scrubbed his face and hands raw with the clean inside of it. Burned that and his jeans and his shoes in a rusted steel drum, then stopped into Fabi’s just long enough to throw on a pair of her tattered sweatpants and old tennis shoes (which were actually a size too big for him) before hailing a cab to Delphi. He hadn’t told Fabi where he was going. Just that a friend needed help.

“What is it? I’m here,” were the first words out of his mouth as the door swung open.

He stared at the bloody bandage wrapped around his old friend’s head. One lens of Jules’s glasses was cracked, the frames bent and sitting crooked on his face. “Meet me next-door.” He spoke quietly. His face was gray.

“Why next-door?”

“Just do it.” The door closed in Rory’s face.

Seconds later, the door to Room 807—Max’s room—opened, and Jules poked his head out. 

What the hell is going on?

Rory stepped inside. Jules shut the door behind him.

“What happened to your…?”

Rory lapsed into silence as he moved from the entryway into the room proper, staring speechless at his surroundings.

The place looked like it had been hit by a tornado. The mattress had been shredded, furnishings overturned. Max’s precious TV lay facedown, busted, on the floor. There were several smears of blood on the wall above the bed, and a lone, long, diagonal streak of it further down, close to the nightstand.

“Max,” Rory breathed. He turned to Jules.

“She’s hurt, but it’s not too serious. She’s asleep next-door.”

Rory nodded, sank down on the corner of the bed. “What happened?”

“That rift on her chest…” Jules drew a ragged breath. “There’s something on the other side of it. Something with a mind of its own. And it’s trying to come through.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

A few minutes later, Rory was sitting with Jules at the little table by the window, letting his old friend’s story sink in.

“I’m so sorry,” he said finally.

“Sorry for what?”

Rory looked at Jules incredulously. “Dude. I was boning your girl.”

“Thanks for wording it so delicately.” Jules paused. “Max said you didn’t know about me. She said you left when you found out. It wasn’t your fault. She misled us both.”

Rory nodded. “Well, you seem like you’re handling it well.”

“I have bigger things to worry about. My theory is severe emotional distress makes Max vulnerable to possession. In this case, it was triggered by abandonment—yours, then mine. She got upset; the void-entity gained a foothold, temporarily took over. And as you can see”—Jules gestured around the room—“it’s destructive. And strong.”

“What do you think it wants?”

“Not sure.” Jules stared at the table. “It doesn’t seem to have much regard for the vessel it’s in. It…made Max slam her head against the wall. Over and over.” He swallowed. “When I tried to restrain it…well. You can see how well that went for me.”

Rory again surveyed Jules’s hands. There were claw marks on one of them, crusted with dried blood. “But it’s gone for now?”

“Seems to be. The sedative I used wore off not long before you got here, and Max came around for a bit. By then, she was just Max again. Didn’t seem to know what had happened.” Jules’s chin gave the faintest quiver. “She was scared.”

“What do we do?”

Jules sighed. “I’m doing everything I can every day in the lab, trying to find a way to close the rift. No progress yet. And I’m still investigating the Nihilite coven by night.”

Rory looked him in the eyes. “Tell me what you need.”

Jules hesitated, averted his gaze. “It’s…kind of a weird request.”

“Jules.” Rory waited till Jules again met his eye. “I’ll do whatever you ask.”

A muscle twitched in Jules’s temple. He once more shifted his gaze. “Well…I think that…we shouldn’t abandon Max right now.” He took a deep breath. “Either of us.”

Rory puzzled over what this could mean.

“You should move back here,” said Jules. “I mean—if you can.”

Rory blinked. “To the Alfheim?”

“I booked a suite on the eleventh floor. Three bedrooms. One of us should always be with her if possible.”

“So you want me to look after her when you’re away.”

“It’s…a little more than that.” Jules hesitated. “I mean—you do actually care about her. Right?”

Rory picked at a dent in the wood of the table. “Well…yeah.” He chewed his lip. “But I…I think…I thought…you know…that I’m probably the one who doesn’t belong in this picture.” He fell silent a moment. “I mean, don’t know how you feel about that. You know. Now that you know.”

Jules took a shaky breath. “What I think,” he said, “is that Max being validated, wanted, loved—is the only way I know to keep whatever this thing is from taking her over. So. If there’s someone else who cares about her as much as I do…” His eyes flicked up to meet Rory’s. “…someone I trust…then…I guess I would…welcome the help.”

The words someone I trust caught in Rory’s brain. “I…don’t know if I get what you’re saying.”

Jules let out a sigh that was almost a laugh. “I don’t know where we’ll end up when all this is over. When Max is well again…when she’s strong. At that point, I guess she’ll have to pick one of us.” He paused. “But I’m thinking that…you know…that may not be the best thing for any of us right now.”

At last, Rory understood. “Jules.” He shook his head. “There’s no way in hell this is really what you want.”

“Actually, it is.” Jules nodded, worked his jaw. “If I’m being real…I don’t think I can handle this on my own.”

Rory stared at him a moment, then dropped his gaze to the table. “Jesus…this is weird. Is this weird? This is weird.”

“Things have always been weird with you and me.” Rory looked up to find a wry smile on Jules’s lips. “Look…I know it’s a lot to ask. So don’t feel obligated. I mean, I know I just said I can’t handle things on my own, but if I have to, I’ll find a way. The last thing I want is to push you into something you’re not comfortable with. So if you—”

“Eh, stop. It’s fine. It’s fine. Fuck. This is the twenty-first century, yeah? Desperate times, bruh.”

Jules let out a faint breath of laughter.

“I told you I’d do anything you asked,” said Rory, more seriously. “Didn’t I?”

Jules studied the table.

Rory heaved a sigh. “So, can I see Max?”

Jules nodded. “She’s sleeping in our—my room. I don’t know if you’ll be able to wake her right now. The sedative’s still wearing off, so she’s groggy at best. But yeah, it’d be nice if you could stay with her while I start having our things moved upstairs. I’ll give you a dose of sedative to keep on hand in case she has another episode.”

“What about this room?” Rory glanced around at the wreckage. “You said you don’t want the Enclave finding out what’s going on with her, right?”

“I’m not even thinking about that tonight. I’ll just keep it booked in my name and keep the Do Not Disturb sign on the door till I figure out how to get it cleaned up without anyone seeing. For now, I’ll put Max’s things in the hall, have the hotel staff pick them up from there.”

“Look at you.” Rory’s voice carried a teasing note of pride. “Going rogue.”

“Don’t remind me.” Jules sighed, got up from his chair. “I swear this whole affair will be the ruin of me.”

“For what it’s worth,” said Rory, “you’re not in it alone anymore.”

Jules looked at him, inhaled deeply. “I know.” His lips twitched in the faintest flicker of a smile.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Rory moved through the melancholy half-light of Room 808 to Jules’s bed, where Max lay motionless under the sheets.

He sank down gently on the edge of the mattress, caught his breath as he surveyed her face. 

Her head, like Jules’s, was wrapped in a bandage, but all the bloodstains seemed to be on the front, where Jules’s had been on the side. There were claw marks on her face and neck, bruises around her eyes, bite marks on her lower lip. Black veins snaked out from the neckline of her shirt, their gnarled tendrils extending as far up as her cheeks.

Rory could only assume these were coming from the rift.

“Goddammit.” He kept his voice to a whisper. Tears stung at his eyes.

He climbed up on the bed, lay down next to her. Found her hand beneath the sheets, wove his fingers through hers. “This is bullshit, Max. Total bullshit.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I am so, so sorry I made you sad today. That I yelled and walked out on you. I had no idea how close to the edge you were. I’m betting Jules didn’t lose it on you like that. No offense, girl, but the dumbest thing you ever did was keep hanging on to me when you had him.”

He lay there quietly, his thumb stroking her hand. “You know, if I’m honest, I don’t know why I’m even here. Jules says you need me…says he needs me.” He breathed an almost-laugh. “I…don’t know how to even start to believe that. But I’m sure as hell not turning either one of you down.

“So…since I am here, I guess I just wanna say…

“I don’t know how it feels to have a literal void in your chest. But I do know what it’s like to feel hollowed out inside. To have this raw, red hole through your middle that you’re desperate to fill any way you can. And I know how it feels to have something else try to take control when you feel afraid. Something that wants to hurt you…sometimes even hurt the people you love most.” He slipped an arm around Max’s waist, rested his chin on her shoulder. “You see, Max,” he murmured, “Jules is good. Incredibly, improbably good. It’s hard for him to show it, I think even more than it used to be, but he cares more about people than anyone else I know.” His eyes swept her ashen face. “And, as for me…well. I’m not good. Not even fucking close. But…if there’s anything about me that might help you, it’s that I know what it’s like to live in constant fear of yourself.”

Rory inhaled, exhaled, softly. “So, I guess what I’m saying is…if we’re all lucky here…I mean, fuck. I don’t know what the fuck I’m saying. I guess I just…” A helpless little laugh. “Ahhh…I really, really don’t know, Max. I guess…that I…just kinda hope that…having both of us—me and Jules—will somehow be exactly what you need right now.”

A shadow fell across his face. He disentangled from Max, sat up quickly, realizing it was Jules in the doorway blocking the light from next-door. “Uh…sorry.”

“It’s okay. I might as well get used to it.” Jules pushed a wheelchair over to the bed. If he’d heard anything Rory had just said to Max, his face didn’t show it. “Stuff’s been taken upstairs. Help me get her into the chair?”

As Rory and Jules eased Max into the wheelchair, her eyes fluttered open, registered confusion as they shifted from Rory to Jules to Rory again. “M’dreaming?” she mumbled. 

“No.” Jules kissed her head, tucked a blanket over her. “We’re both really here. To stay.”

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
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