If I'd known what I would see, I wonder if I still would've gone with her that night. Without the ichor, it's invisible.
But I know it's up there right now. Pulsating. Wriggling.
Thanks to the stresses of third-year uni, I became pretty good friends with my dealer, Robbo. He'd given me the sign of the horns when I'd worn a My Dying Bride shirt to pick up a fifty. We started talking metal, and that was that. A few fifties later, he said he was hitting up a backyard show in the sticks that night and that it'd be right up my alley. I was halfway through an assignment and feeling pretty nihilistic, so I asked him how he was getting there. He said he had a Troopy and a spare seat with my name on it if I didn't mind being the only chick. Growing up with my older brother and his friends, that didn't phase me at all: I borrowed Dad's tent and smashed my piggy bank, then we were rattling our way north before I had a chance to cancel my study plans or tell my housemate to stay out of my room.
The eucalypt trunks trimming the road glowed red in the setting sun. I was drinking gin and chatting metal with bearded faces emerging from smoke as thick as cotton candy in the back of the Troopy. Robbo was blasting a local band called Wobbegong. And then it turned out some of the guys I was riding with were Wobbegong all except the bassist—just some girl who replaced a friend who'd recently quit. She was driving herself to the show. I couldn't feel my skin, and it was exactly what I needed.
We pulled in just after sunset. Trees and a wire farm fence bordered the property. Thirty or so cars and vans had spilt in through the front gate and parked up in square and triangle formations with tents between them. Metalheads and hippy-types loitered by their vehicles, cash and baggies changing hands. The house stood in an oval of hedges and citrus trees. Stacks of firewood choked up its wrap-around porch, and a steady cloud of orange-tinted smoke rose from behind the house. Drumbeats kicked my heart. My stomach quivered like I'd dropped.
While I was setting my tent up by a shedding gumtree, Robbo came up to me. "It gets cold here at night," he said. "You'll be warm enough in there? I'm gonna set the Troopy up with a mattress and shit."
I started stomping a tent peg with my boot—said nothing.
"Here." He squatted and pushed the peg into the ground.
I had hoped he'd invited me here just for the music, but I was somewhat prepared for this too. "I got it, dude. This band sounds sick. Go have fun. I'll join you in a bit."
Robbo stood. "Easy. See you in the pit."
Once my tent was up, I got out my phone and skim-read the passive-aggressive messages my study group had left me. I tossed my phone into the tent and zipped it up. Tying my flanno around my waist, I followed the music.
An all-male band with waist-length hair rattled a tin shed that had been converted into a stage. Each band member stood in a shaft of smokey, orange light. A small crowd moshed on a patch of buffalo grass in front of the stage. Another twenty stood back, nodding their heads and stamping their heels. Fifty more were strewn throughout the backyard, drinking, punching bongs, and hanging by a fire pit. I scooped ice into a red cup and topped it with gin and soda, then stashed the bottle behind a potted fern and went back to the stage. I couldn't see any of the guys I'd come with, so I sipped my drink on the edge of the mosh until the butterflies in my stomach were dead.
When the band finished, Robbo crept up at my side.
I gave him a polite smile then pretended to be interested in the band packing up their instruments. "Heavy as," I said.
"Yeah, those guys chop," said Robbo.
"When are your friends on?"
"Not the next band but the one after." He took a baggie filled with white pills from his shirt pocket. "Pinga?"
"It's not really my thing. Thanks but."
The next band was a little too thrashy for my taste, so I ripped cones with some random girls in a treehouse. Through the treehouse window, I saw Robbo funnel two beers then stagger into some guy, knocking his bottle out of his hand. It landed on the grass and didn't break. After that, I went to watch Wobbegong set up. They were playing random chords and growling nonsense into the mic. A girl was standing in the shadow to the back of the stage, just beyond the reach of the stage lights. I couldn't see her face, only her combat boots and some of her green dress. Then she stepped into the light.
Her hair was cut in a horizontal line just above her eyebrows. A few of the tips were curled like fish hooks. She held her bass guitar as though it were dead in her arms. Her spider-leg fingers started working the neck, working her spell.
I wanted to be the only one who knew her.
Wobbegong's live set wasn't as good as their recording, but I would have listened to cats burning if it meant I could watch her play. In one of their songs I'd listened to on the drive in, there'd been an instrumental interlude. When they got to that part in their live set, she stepped up to the lead singer's mic, and the rest of the band looked confused. Her throat was as white as porcelain, and when she opened it, the crowd went silent. She was our necromancer, and we were her undead horde, bound forever to her voice. At one point, she looked right into my eyes, and I looked down into my drink.
At the time, I could make out only some of her lyrics.
Till your wing dust shapes stars anew
Whose flames never die
O corpulent queen
When their set was over, she retreated into the shadows, and I was moved away by the crowd. I don't remember what I did for a good hour after that. Mostly, I remember the feeling of waking from a dream and wishing it was real. I couldn't find her anywhere. When I asked one of the guys from Wobbegong if he'd seen her, he said he barely knew her himself. She'd only practiced with them once before. When I asked Robbo, he tried to hold my hand. I took the rest of my gin and lay on the grass under a dead tree just away from the party. Studying the stars, I wished heat death would just happen already. That was when the shadows solidified and sat down at my side.
"What do you see?" I knew the voice: I was under its spell.
"Darkness," I said. "It's mostly empty space."
"Yeah." She smelled like church incense. "The stars will go out. Time will end."
"I was just thinking that," I said. "I'm Emma."
"Cara," she said. "The darkness has a shape, you know? You can see it if you know how to look."
She stuck her tongue out. There was a tiny paper square on the tip. She put her tongue away. "A step in the right direction."
"I've never tried it."
"I'll stay with you." She dipped one finger into a baggie, sticking a tab to her fingertip.
"Okay." I held out my palm and shuddered when her skin met mine. "Will I get sick?"
"If you fight it, maybe."
She lay on the earth next to me. "Why'd you look away when I looked at you?"
I was numb, but I still felt my cheeks fill up with blood. "I dunno."
"You don't need to be nervous," she said. "You don't need to be scared—of anything. I was. But not anymore."
"Why?" I said.
"The darkness we see in our universe is just a shadow. And a shadow speaks of the object casting it. When you know the shape of something, it isn't as scary anymore."
She let that sit. We might have lain there for hours.
At some point, something started tugging at my mind—some old grief trying to claw its way back to the surface. A cactus-needle sensation spread out from my belly. I had to do something; I didn't know what. I could isolate each sound produced by the band on stage. A crimson aura rippled out from the dead branches above me. Something was wrong.
I was poisoned, dying.
The back of Cara's hand touched mine. Cold fire travelled through us in a circuit. I could have rolled on top of her right then. Our flesh would've fused. The needling sensation reached my fingers and toes, diluting through my shivering muscles. The tab turned to powder in my mouth. I exhaled forever. My mind was as clear as a glacier.
"Fuck," I said.
Cara giggled. Our circuit broke as she turned to her side, eyes upon me.
I turned my head to face her. She was gray in the dark, but I could see each layer of her skin. She was a vampiress. I would have let her slash my throat and drink me right then and there. "I feel like I know you," I said.
"Maybe you wouldn't like me if you knew me," she said.
The music grew louder. The sounds of conversation excited me. I wanted to step back into the world with Cara on my arm and have everyone watch us like we were queens. "You want to party for a bit?"
Cara nodded. "Dance with me."
They did stare. But I saw only Cara. I couldn't tell whose arms were whose. The bands that played were haunting and perfect. We screamed lyrics we didn't know. As I brushed a flake of ash from Cara's cheek and went to kiss her, we were wrenched apart. My vision settled on Robbo's animal eyes. He had an arm over each of us, half dragging us to the ground.
"You good, Robbo?" I said.
"You know this guy?" said Cara.
"What?" Robbo palmed Cara away and put a hand on each of my shoulders, reeking of beer. "You came here with me. I invited you."
I tried to shrink out of his grip, but his thumbs were claw hammers under my collar bones. "Dude, you're drunk. Let me go."
He let go then pushed my forehead dismissively. "Don't 'dude' me, hey. You could've said you were a fucken dyke."
I felt no fear, no anger. Robbo was a lump of wet dust steered by hormones and dick blood. I smiled—just at the insignificance of it all. Robbo's eyebrows made a stiff V as he stepped towards me. Cara hooked one finger under his chin and brought his ear to her mouth. I didn't hear what she said, but his eyebrows relaxed, and he walked away, disappearing around the corner of the house. The band—which had only stopped playing inside my head—resumed, and Cara pulled me in, kissing my throat, chin, mouth.
Later, Cara and I sat on a patch of grass by the fire pit. I sat with my arms propping me up and Cara between my legs, her head under my chin. We didn't speak, just watched the fire like it was hell. When she leaned forward to toss a bottle into the fire, I noticed a tattoo at the base of her skull.
"What's your tattoo?" I said.
Her skin tightened over her spine as she tucked her head into her chest, presenting a lifelike black caterpillar curled upon itself in a spiral. I plummeted into the tattoo, into the emptiness that was most of Cara—most of us all.
Her voice pulled me back out. "What casts its shadow upon our universe is still in its larval state. Fat, malleable. Soon it will harden, forming a chrysalis."
Something clicked. "Time will end," I said. "Heat death."
Cara rested her head on my breast, listening to my heart. "Yeah, Emma. You get it. You do."
I inhaled her, wanting to trap her in my lungs forever. "What happens when it hatches?"
"That will be too beautiful for our eyes to see."
I woke in my tent, green polyester glowing in the morning sunlight. I'd pissed myself a little. My tongue was cotton. I could feel a pimple bulging in the crease of my nose. I popped it and wiped away the pus with the back of my sleeve. I was on top of my sleeping bag, which was covered in dusty boot prints. I slapped about on the ground for my phone. I found it, and it was dead.
Cara was a forgotten dream at this point. I was only worried about finding water and somewhere to throw up. I yacked through the doorway onto the dirt. The front yard was empty except for a few tents and people packing them into their cars, as well as the host's parents, who were going around with a black garbage bag picking up cans and empty baggies. Robbo's Troopy was gone. I didn't see anyone I knew, and when Cara's face came into my mind, it was a twisted blur. I could remember her tattoo, though. It crawled around my brain and turned to stone.
"Fucking asshole, Robbo," I said. "Fucking stoner fuck."
It wasn't too hard to find another dealer. His fifties were sticks, but they made me cough and melt. That was a minor issue anyway. I had no idea what had happened with Cara. Had she come into my tent and snuck off when I pissed myself? Did she leave the party before I crashed? Idiot. I'd left my phone in my tent and didn't get her number. Social media turned up nothing. I messaged the guys from Wobbegong, but none of them replied. Probably because of Robbo.
I found a condom tangled in my sheets. My housemate had let her younger sister get ploughed in my bed.
I moved back home with Mum and Dad and smoked joints in the garage when they went for walks up the coast. Getting back into uni sucked. I'd sit on my laptop doom-scrolling and watching porn. My study group carried me until I missed our presentation and got kicked out of the chat. I bought tickets to three festivals and bailed on the first two. In the last month of summer, black caterpillars with green guts infested our backyard. I let them crawl on my hands.
One night, it rained, and the entire state took a breath. My parents were watching some British cop drama in the TV room, and I was in a mood. I took my laptop into the library and lit a candle. The rain tapped the window like a stalker. I Googled "caterpillar tattoo" and went from there. Mostly, there were photos of actual caterpillars, cartoon caterpillars, and that pothead caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. I scrolled past a hentai advert or something, thought of Cara, and started touching myself through my trackies. Then I heard the TV room door open. Soon, Mum was standing in the library doorway in her faded PJs.
"Studying?" she said.
"I was," I said. "I can't fucken focus."
I scrolled aimlessly.
"Dinner's in the oven. It's getting cold."
"I know, Mum."
"Are you okay, Emma?"
I slapped my laptop shut and pinched the bridge of my nose. I got up and sidestepped my mum into the hallway.
"Where are you going?" she said.
"Out," I called from my room.
"In this weather?"
"It's fuck all."
I packed my laptop into a plastic Coles bag. As I was rummaging around for my keys, Mum stepped into my bedroom doorway.
"Are you going to smoke pot?" she said.
I choked out a laugh. Then I found my keys and squeezed past her, heading for the front door. As I went out, I said, "I'm gonna go study, Mum."
"Oh," she said. "With a boy?"
I slammed it behind me.
Five minutes later, I was parked on a vacant block overlooking a black ocean with a plastic bong pressed to my lips and Mum's electric arc lighter held to the bowl. I pulled, coughed up my lungs, and sat in the smoke cloud with the windows shut. I took out my laptop and hotspotted my phone. Then I opened a new tab and hovered my tingling fingers over the keyboard while I rummaged through my brain.
I imagined Cara swaying in front of the mic on that tin stage and found the memory I was looking for: the lyrics. I searched for them and got a direct match.
The URL was childrenofibb.org. I cracked the driver's-side window. The wind whipped the smoke right out. Tiny raindrops flicked onto my forearm.
I clicked the link, and it brought me to a website with a black background and centered white text. At the very top was the title Children of Ibb. Below it was a piece of text art: Cara's caterpillar tattoo but not as detailed. After a month of trying to find some sort of lead, I fisted the steering wheel. The horn made me jump. Below the caterpillar were Cara's lyrics, in full. They filled the gaps in my memory.
Make yourself of our offering
Feast upon and carry us
Upon your guts
Unto lightless damnation
Till your wing dust shapes stars anew
Whose flames never die
O corpulent queen
We born of your refuse
The only other thing on the page was a password box near the bottom; I assumed it would grant me access to the rest of the site. I tried "caterpillar" and "Cara" in lower and upper case, but whenever I pressed enter, the page just refreshed.
Stoned brainless, I didn't know what to think. My best guess was that Cara was in another band or something. Searching "Children of Ibb" turned up nothing new. I was letting the caterpillar text art go out of focus when my phone vibrated in the cupholder: A call from my ex-housemate. I answered unconsciously and said nothing as she apologized again and asked if I was going tomorrow.
"To what?" I said.
"Purgatorio," said Moll. "Obviously."
"I bought a ticket ages ago." I put her on speaker and packed another cone. "Yeah, maybe."
"Let's go together, babe. I was gonna go with my sister and that, but they're shit cunts."
I choked a little as I ripped the bong. "True."
"You have to get over that other shit sooner or later, Emma. Rather do it fucked up with me at a festival, right?"
I exhaled. "I guess."
"Stop being devo. It's gonna be fun."
Dad drove me to Moll's—which still felt a little like my place—at around ten. The clouds had lasted the night. All the trees and roads and front gardens were wet and alive. I sat in the passenger seat swiping forgettable faces from my phone. As we pulled into the driveway, Dad said, "Wait."
I let go of the door handle and faced him. "What's up?"
"How are you, chicky? How are things?"
I looked at him in his dorky shades and triathlon shirt and realized, for maybe the first time, that he was a person too, not just my father. "Good. Yeah."
He nodded briskly. "Great. Good."
"It's just uni," I said. "Yeah, and I guess this girl."
"Oh? Like, a friend, or…?"
"Like a girl, Dad."
"Oh." He readjusted in his seat. "So what happened?"
"We had fun, but I drank too much. I woke up alone. I didn't get her number, and I can't find her anywhere online. I dunno."
"I met your mother on a work trip over east and thought I'd never see her again. One day, I just bumped into her in Freo. Maybe you'll see her again, chicky."
I smiled, then took my drinks and got out of the car. "Thanks for the lift, Dad."
As the door shut, he said, "Love you."
I opened the door. "You too."
Moll was a pinball bouncing between groups of people I'd forgotten the names of or never met. She smoked my weed and lost me in the main-stage crowd within an hour.
I copped an elbow to the temple as the sun broke the clouds into scattered bits and started cooking my brain. Everything smelled like urinal cakes. I bummed a few smokes off some dreadlocked guy and went with him to a drum and bass stage which had been set up like a tiki bar. It reminded me just how much I hated that shit. I ditched him like Moll had ditched me, then bought a Long Island iced tea in a plastic cup. I watched the hacked-up grass as I wove between circles of fried nineteen-year-olds on the way to the metal tent, keeping an eye out for baggies.
My head started throbbing, and I wanted to yack. My right eye went blurry. I dialed Dad but hung up. As I was putting my phone in my pocket, I stared absently at an older group—most of them in their late thirties, some younger—sitting against a temporary fence. Most of the guys wore patched vests. Some of the women wore them too, but a few dressed like witches. One of the guys had a bald, tattooed head and a steel-wool beard. A girl in a band shirt and black jeans was sitting between his legs. I squeezed my eyes shut. Red flowers bloomed through the dark. I was a pea-sized ball of nerves in the middle of a colossal body. I closed my eyes and then opened them again to see if it was real.
Sure enough, it was Cara.
Sweat curled every tip of her fringe. Her skin was marble. They all seemed to be laughing at something she was saying. The bald guy peeled open his right eyelid with his fingers and squeezed an eye drop into his eye. My fat, dead feet carried me to the shade of a fig tree as big as an apartment block. I sat between two massive roots and thumbed my skull, wanting to crack it open and tear out my brain. Some guy double-parking Exports stumbled my way and asked me if I needed a beer and a friend. When I told him to go away, my eyes welled up. Every teardrop was a pascal of pressure gone from my head. The guy got the message and left.
I hit the back of my head against the tree. Unto lightless damnation—yes, fucking please. I shut my eyes and let my head sag against my chest.
A few minutes later, I heard the crunch of fallen fig leaves again and said, "Piss off, dude."
I felt a thud as he sat down next to me. "Hey," he said. But it wasn't him.
I opened my eyes to Cara's emerald irises and thick eyeliner. Her church-incense aroma washed over me, eroding my headache like a beach. Then I remembered how she had been sitting with that bald guy, and I said nothing. She wiped my tears with her thumb. I washed out to sea.
"Where'd you go, man?" I said. "I woke up alone. You didn't give me your number. You don't even have Messenger."
Cara lit a ciggie and nestled in at my side between the fig roots. "Those are the same jeans you wore that night," she said. "Check your back pocket."
I did, finding a crumpled post-it note with a phone number on it. "Shit."
"You said you wouldn't forget. Not even—and I quote—if someone smashed your brains out with a brick. My phone was dead. I didn't get yours."
"I'm sorry," I said, so frustrated with myself that I could have chewed a knuckle off. "I honestly thought I was just fucked and that what we had was just in my head."
She passed me the ciggie then took my hand and squeezed it. "It wasn't."
I shoved her with my shoulder and smiled. "It's been weeks but feels like minutes."
"Who're you here with?" she said.
"My ex-housemate. I don't know where she is, but. I don't care."
Cara stood and helped me to my feet. "I was just about to hit the metal tent." She reached into her bra and took out a baggie. She ripped it, put a tab on her bottom lip, and kissed me, depositing it on my tongue. Before I could say anything, she said, "Easier to ask for forgiveness than permission," and dragged me away by the elbow. "I missed you, Emma."
Stage lights bounced all over the tent. A progression of heavy chords carried the crowd into a stop-motion rampage. Everything was trimmed crimson and breathing. We swigged gin from Cara's silver flask until we were just about bowling each other over. The mosh sucked us up like the tide. After the first band wrapped up and some stoner metal group started, I stood behind Cara with my palms splayed over her belly. Her t-shirt fabric was soft and warm — straight from the dryer. She let the guitar puppeteer her, her head lolling back onto my shoulder. I gnawed her throat.
"Who's the corpulent queen?" I said, shaping my palms to the bottom of her rib cage, feeling her abdomen twist and undulate.
"One of many names," she said. "Her truest is Ibbdgalgar."
"It's easier if you just see."
She guided my left hand between her legs. "Do you want to see?"
A black caterpillar sprung into my mind. I traced the creases between its pudgy segments. "Yes."
"Soon," she said. "Can I stay with you tonight?"
We left as the sun turned the sky the color of a grapefruit, outlining every mountain and valley in the atom-bomb clouds. Cara wove her fingers through mine as we rode an escalator down to the underground platform. I could smell hot rubber and body odor. Two crackheads were arguing on the wrong side of the yellow line. Groups of people who'd clearly been at the festival sat on the concrete, possum-eyed and gurning. Anxiety sprouted, turning my diaphragm to wood. I had to sleep, study. Cara squeezed my hand. I exhaled. I stood against a pillar under the platform display and pulled Cara into me. The crimson auras were shrinking now, layers collapsing. My brain was still steaming, though.
"You sure it's not weird—us staying at my mum and dad's?"
"Yeah," said Cara. "Trust me, my housemates won't be sleeping tonight."
"The guy you were sitting with?"
Cara squinted at me. "You saw me and didn't come over?"
"I thought you and him… I thought…"
"Munch? Fuck no. We go way back. They said you can come, by the way."
"The gathering. It's how I can show you."
Cara came out of my tiny en suite in one of my t-shirts, hair tips still dripping. The candlelight turned her skin to gold. She felt like silk when she climbed into bed next to me. We lay on our sides, her lips parting as I ran my hand along her ribs. I went to kiss her, but she shuffled playfully away, rolling onto her back. I kissed the shower water from her neck and hooked the elastic of her panties with the tip of my finger, pitching them up as I slid my finger from one hip bone to the other. The elastic snapped back into place as she wriggled down the bed. I put my hand under her shirt and cupped the side of her breast. She pulled me into her, our lips in perfect sync. Pleasurable fire swelled out from my belly. We tested each other's mouths with our tongues. I moved my hand to her crotch, feeling my own panties soak right through. She pushed me gently away, rolled back onto her side.
"You don't know me," she said.
"I do," I said, going in for her again.
"Uh-uh," she said, barring my lips with her finger. "Come to the gathering with me. If you still want me after that, I'm yours."
I sighed, then smiled. "When is it?"
"First of March. I'll pick you up."
She kissed my forehead then blew out the candle.
When Cara fell asleep, I took my phone and a plastic bag from under my bed and tiptoed into the TV room. I put on some random nature documentary and got under a blanket. I took my vibrator from the plastic bag, starting slow and building pressure as I replayed my short-lived interaction with Cara in my mind. After I came, hard and silent, I zoned out, half thinking about nothing, half watching the documentary.
Of all things, it showed a timelapse of a butterfly escaping its chrysalis. The chrysalis turned transparent, the butterfly's black-and-orange wing patterns becoming visible beneath it. The bottom of the chrysalis opened like an egg from Alien, but upside-down. Then something fished that name out from my subconscious mind. Ibbdgalgar. I said it aloud as I picked up my phone, quickly finding the website in my history. Having only heard Cara say it at that point, I had no idea how to spell the name or if it was even the password at all.
My phone was at one percent when I finally got the spelling and casing right. The URL became longer, and the page refreshed. The caterpillar text art and lyrics were still there, but there was more text below, and the password box was gone.
Welcome, child of Ibbdgalgar, born of her vomit and dung
Gather with your kin
And place the ichor upon your eye
Look to the stars
And sing her name
Should the offering suffice, fear not the eternal silence
But be born of wing dust anew
— The Prophet
Below that text was the previous year's date, followed by a list of twenty to thirty street addresses from around the world. I scrolled until I found a WA address. I pasted it into Maps and found a property in the Hills, less than an hour away from my parents' house. I pasted it into a general search next, finding several news articles about a bushfire that started there: The house's residents—a retired couple—had burned to death inside of it. I searched a dozen other addresses. More were isolated rural properties, many with news about them having gone up in smoke. Only one bushfire, though.
At this point, my eyes were stinging, and I could feel an ulcer throbbing on the side of my tongue. I swallowed four Panadols and went to bed. I remember seeing the sunrise trimming my bedroom window before I finally fell asleep.
When Cara's Uber reversed out of my driveway, I waved again then shambled out of the midday sun into the relative cool of the house. Mum was stomping out from the TV room with the blanket I'd used the previous night bunched up in her arms. Dad was lying on the living room couch reading a swollen book with a retro spaceship on the cover. Mum made an effort to ignore me as she continued into the hallway.
"She was nice," said Dad.
Before I could return his smile, Mum called out from the laundry, "Emma! Sheets off. Now."
I rolled my eyes and walked to the laundry, where Mum was muttering something under her breath while stuffing the blanket into the machine.
"I just washed them," I said.
"Disgusting," she said. "That's our family couch. You have no respect for anything."
"That girl. I can't believe you brought her home. Why on our family couch?"
"We slept in my bed, Mum."
"No. I found it in the blanket. It's in the bin now. Disgusting."
I shut my eyes and mouthed "Fuck." I couldn't remember putting my vibrator away.
Brushing past me, Mum said, "Sheets in; turn it on."
"Mum." I followed her down the hall into the living room and then the kitchen. "Nothing happened."
She went to the sink and started scrubbing a plate I'd left in it. "Is she the one who gives you the drugs?"
I folded my arms over my belly. "There's no drugs."
"Don't lie to me, Emma. I found your marijuana butts in the garage."
I said nothing. Dad sat up, shrugged.
"Maybe you let druggies into your own house, but not here you won't," said Mum, turning away from the sink, her eyes pepper-sprayed. "When will you grow out of this phase, Emma?"
I unfolded my arms, ready to pulp my fist on the wall. "Phase?"
I hadn't noticed, but Dad had got off the couch and he now stood at my side. "I don't think it's a phase, Shell. I like Cara. It looks like she makes our daughter happy. Don't you want our daughter to be happy?"
Mum's bottom lip started trembling. Dad smelt of a secondhand bookshop and morning breath as he put an arm over my shoulders and pulled me in. Mum did the same, hands still damp from the sink. My parents held me until I told them I had to study and wriggled free.
Having Cara's number in my phone was like having a winning lottery ticket. But it took her ages to reply, and her texts were always short. I tried to focus on uni, but my brain made a schedule around unlocking and relocking my phone. Moll messaged me a dozen times, and I ignored every text, frustrated they hadn't been from Cara. I checked childrenofibb.com every day.
This whole thing had started with me trying to get into contact with Cara after that backyard metal show. Now it was another layer of hers I needed to know intimately. I couldn't stand to think she had a life beyond me, even though she had already asked me to be a part of it. I didn't care what it was, as long as it brought us closer. I thought it had something to do with metal. The dark lyrics, the caterpillar symbol, the rural addresses where maybe they'd hosted shows—an underground music community or band might look like that. I couldn't explain the fires, though.
To be honest, I made an effort to ignore that part, telling myself that I knew Cara, that she would explain everything soon.
Summer died slow, and I burnt daylight on the first of March swiping through trash on my phone, my heart leaping with every false notification. Cara had let my "What's the plan?" text fester for nine hours, so I called her, only for the call to ring out. I started thinking she had gotten bored of me and gone to the gathering by herself, where she was doing lines of coke and getting fingered in an orgy. She moaned inside my head, which I slapped until my brain restarted. Then I looked at my phone. Her name was on the screen. I answered but forgot what language was.
"Emma?" she said. "You there?"
"I'm out front."
I put my phone in my back pocket, picked up my backpack, and jogged into the living room. Mum was cooking in her apron. Dad was behind her, chin on her shoulder. I checked the buffet and the kitchen counter but couldn't find my keys. Opening my backpack on the coffee table, I said, "Have you seen my keys?"
"Take mine," giggled Mum. "Oh, and, honey, keep your phone on you. Call me if you want to come home."
"Yep," I said, undoing Mum's front door key from her keychain.
"You want to take a bottle of wine?" said Dad, opening the pantry door.
"What about some dips?" said Mum. "They're going to expire soon."
"I'm good," I said, taking my backpack and heading out.
There was a dented white van parked on the driveway. A heavy bass riff rattled the side mirrors. Cara wore a band shirt and trackies. I felt overdressed, even in a t-shirt and jeans.
"Sick ride," I said.
"It's a fucking bucket."
When I got in, she took my backpack and threw it in the back then undid her seatbelt and kissed me. She tasted like tobacco and toothpaste. We drove out of my street as the sun dropped below the rooftops. She threw a pouch onto my lap, and I started rolling.
"Where are we going?" I said.
"North," she said. "You'll see."
"Will I know any of the bands?"
"It's not like that. Why? You nervous?"
"No. I dunno. I'll be good after a drink."
She reached over my knees and opened the glovebox, revealing her silver flask. "Go easy. You don't wanna be too fucked your first time on ichor."
I licked the paper. "What?"
"Acid's a step in the right direction, but it can only take you so far."
"What is it?"
"Eyedrops. You'll do fine."
I lit the rolly and passed it to Cara and turned the music up.
Suburban streets turned to rural roads as twilight turned into an open, windless night. Rabbit eyes reflected in our high beams. A roo leapt clean over a wire fence. Cara hardly spoke. It was time to see, she reasoned. We pulled onto a gravel driveway a bit before eight. The house stood in an oval of hedges and citrus trees and had a wrap-around porch. Cara killed the high beams. I could see the glow of a fire behind the house, which was dark.
"Wait what?" I said. It was the property where we'd met. "What are we doing here?"
Cara drove around the side of the house, tyres crunching fallen gum nuts. "We're friends with Dylan."
"The guy who hosted the show? Are his parents here?"
"Yeah, him. And I'm not sure."
Cara pulled up by the tin stage where another white van and two cars had parked. The stage lights were off, and I couldn't see any equipment. The fire pit burned tall. A dozen people, most at least a decade older than me, sat on camping chairs around the fire, dressed in black robes, hoods back. I recognized the bald guy with the steel-wool beard and two or three others. Cara had called the guy Munch. Looking closer, his scalp tattoo was the same as hers. Some of them had green spirals painted on their faces, and a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and pronounced cheekbones was going around with a bowl, paint dripping from her fingertips.
The stars were bright and textured. They might have been bonfires in the mountains of some other planet floating just a few hundred meters above our heads.
As Cara took her phone from the driver's-side door and turned it off, she said, "You can't have your phone. Where is it?"
Mum's words stiffened me. My phone was a lump of lead in my back pocket. "In my bag," I said. "You threw it in the back."
She nodded, then tossed her phone into the glovebox and shut it.
I'd almost finished Cara's flask at this point, so I got out of the van with an unlit rolly in my hand and walked right up to the fire, eager to break the ice. Everyone stopped staring at the flames to stare at me. I waved and said my name.
A few of them nodded before everyone returned their attention to the flames. I pursed my lips and sat in an empty chair. When I looked over my shoulder, Cara was walking towards me in a black robe, a second robe slung over her forearm. She was the necromancer I had seen her as the last time we were here. She went around the circle. One by one, they stood, hugged her, whispered something into her ear, then sat back down. I watched with a stupid smile, wishing there was some sort of music playing. Anything. Cara tossed the robe onto my lap and pulled a chair up beside me.
"It's tradition," she said.
"And the face paint?"
She nodded then leaned towards me, her chair on two legs. "And don't worry. These old cunts will loosen up soon. If they didn't want you here, you wouldn't be here."
"Where's, uh, Dylan? I didn't get to meet the guy last time. Didn't know you knew him either. So, he's part of"—I scanned the robed figures around the fire; they might have been some Nordic metal band—"whatever this is?"
"In a way, yeah."
I frowned, then stood up and put the robe on anyway. It reeked of dry sweat. Sitting, I took Cara's hand. She squeezed mine pale. Then the woman with the bowl was in front of us, finger-painting a green spiral onto Cara's face. Then the woman's shadow fell over me. Her joints clicked as she bent down to my level.
"Born of vomit and dung," she said. "Welcome, Emma." Then the paint was in my eyes, mouth. It was chunky and bitter, but I'm sure it wasn't yack or anything.
Cara picked a hair out of the paint on my forehead and said, "Digging the look."
I wiped my lips and whispered, "This is fucking weird."
Cara's smile became a straight line. "I told you—it's tradition." She turned away from me and started talking to the dude sitting next to her.
I collapsed upon myself, not wanting to live in a world where Cara hated me. I'd have cut my tongue out right then and there to stop that from happening. I was grateful when Munch stood and cleared his throat, hoisting me out of the hole I'd been digging myself into. Everyone followed suit.
"Welcome, Children of Ibbdgalgar," he said, his voice a boat motor rumbling below deck. "Tonight, we bid farewell to an old friend and welcome a new one." He nodded at me, and I nodded back.
"First, we take the ichor so we might see. Then there's a time to settle in. Then we send off our brother, who has reached the age." He lifted his arms and rotated his palms forward. "'Till your wing dust shapes stars anew."
Everyone echoed the line but me.
Munch took out an eye drop vial filled with a green liquid and squeezed it into each of his eyes. He blinked, shuddered, then started around the circle, dispensing the ichor to the Children of Ibbdgalgar, whoever they were. When it was Cara's turn, she looked at me and said, "It's okay, Emma. I know you didn't mean it." She blinked rapidly as the liquid diluted through her eyes, turning her whites the same color as her irises for a moment, before quickly fading.
Munch placed one palm on my shoulder. I felt he could pick me up with just that one hand. "It only hurts the first time," he said, raising the pipette over my left eye.
The drop fell in slow motion.
I was a salted snail when it struck my eye. I collapsed into my chair, squeezed my eyelids shut, and bit my fist until it bled. My eye was burning out of its socket. A nauseating wave rippled through me, telling me that what I'd done was wrong. Very wrong. Irrevocable. I was about to scream when Cara hugged me from behind. She was my anchor in the burning, sickening darkness, and she stayed until I levelled out.
When I opened my eyes, the Children of Ibbdgalgar broke the circle with open arms. Some seriously heavy metal started playing from a large speaker built into the other white van. Cans of beer were tossed around with euphoric grins. Cara took me by the sleeve. Things started to feel as they had always felt with her—surreal and sensual. I could almost see some bright-green energy flashing through my nerves. As euphoria turned me into a strap of seaweed swaying back and forth on a coral reef, I babbled with the Children of Ibbdgalgar about metal and about how Cara and I had met. We downed beers and smoked our throats to shreds. I was arms-over-shoulders with Munch, and we shamed the hyenas with our cackling. Cara danced in front of the fire, a muscular black snake charmed by something in the sky. Her aura wasn't just a crimson trimming; I wasn't just seeing all of her layers. It's hard to put it into words. Echoes of her were reaching out and collapsing back into her all at once. She had extra, rippling angles. My brain cooked trying to make sense of it. I looked away, but whatever I focused on exploded and imploded into higher-dimensional infinity. I yacked on the grass, and Munch gave me a beer to wash it down.
The woman who'd painted our faces lay on her back close to my yack, spasming and staring wide-eyed into the stars. "Ibbdgalgar!" she moaned, then repeated it over and over.
Cara swept me up in the psychedelic whirlwind that was her. I could see only her face. The rest was an incomprehensible blur. She tilted my head back and kissed me from my throat to my chin. Then, held up upon my feet by invisible puppet strings, I saw it.
The darkness between the stars shuddered like licorice jelly then started rippling between star clusters like a river through rapids. It stretched and bulged, blindly crawling through the universe, moving just to move. I was a pea-sized ball of nerves in a colossal body again. I pushed Cara to the reach of my arm.
"Bathroom," I said, the word coming from a speaker somewhere above my head.
"Don't go into the basement yet," she said. "You hear me, Emma?"
The world was one big error screen as I staggered towards the house—escalators of color blooming out from and back into a million focal points. I shut my left eye, and while the hallucination was still strong through my right, it was no longer impossible.
Next thing I remember, I was talking to my reflection in the bathroom mirror after vomiting a cluster-bomb of rainbows into the sink. My body ripped apart and rebuilt itself all at once, and I laughed until I tasted blood. Maybe it was that, or maybe it was because I yacked, but I felt I could bear it now. I washed my yack down the sink and left the bathroom, passing a closed raw-wood door on the way out of the house.
In less than an hour from that moment, I would learn that what I’d heard through the door was a muffled cry. But at that moment, I ignored it, rejoining the Children of Ibbdgalgar by the fire.
When I had danced my bare feet bloody, I dragged Cara down to the grass with me. We watched the darkness pulsate and wriggle as we were simultaneously splayed and crushed in and out of our physical selves.
"What is it?" I said.
"I said I'd show you, didn't I?" said Cara. "It's everything, Emma. It has always been there. We see only its shadow. And a little more of that shadow, with the ichor."
"Yeah, the ichor—what's that?"
"Concocted by the Prophet, the first awoken Child of Ibb. We are new, Emma. Forty, forty-five years. And while we are spreading, our numbers must remain small. Relatively." She rubbed her calf against mine. "Do you still want me?"
"When it's done, Emma, take me on a bed of Ibbdgalgar's flesh. It doesn't matter who's in the room. It's just you and me."
I started to spin out with the possibility of Cara and I entwined with not only our bodies but also our souls. Then the music died, and Munch said, "It's time."
Munch lifted his hood into a stiff black cone and started walking into the house. We followed. He opened the raw-wood door, and we descended a dark flight of stairs, emerging in a cement basement. We formed a circle around the centerpiece, and everyone who hadn't raised their hoods already did so now. My muscles had seized at this point, so Cara raised my hood for me. I could see through only a horizontal slit.
Side by side on the ground in a circle of candles there were a pair of handleless doors. Bolted into the corners of each door was an iron cuff. In each cuff, there was a wrist or ankle. Wearing only a cloth gag, the woman I had seen picking up cans and baggies lay on one door, the symbol of Ibbdgalgar carved fat-deep into her belly. She had worn her wrists and ankles to the bone, and her eyes moved in erratic circles as she twisted, flapped. She was that Dylan guy's mum.
Dylan lay with his father in a sticky red puddle over by the water heater. Bound to the other door was an old man who looked as though he'd escaped from a concentration camp. A huge grin spread across his painted face. He lay still and breathed steady.
Inside my hood, I felt I was watching a movie or something, unable to interfere with the events unfolding. There was no guilt, only fascination, and a pleasurable anticipation in my loins. I salivated for Cara.
I salivated for blood.
Munch squatted over the old man and emptied the ichor vial into the man's eyes. Then he stood and started to chant. After the first line, I found myself following along.
Feast upon and carry us
Upon your guts
Unto lightless damnation
Till your wing dust shapes stars anew
Whose flames never die
O corpulent queen
We born of your refuse
We repeated the words until the candle flames reached the ceiling and the Children of Ibbdgalgar were a moaning black vortex veined with a single streak of green. Dylan's mum snapped one of her forearm bones trying to escape. Her muffled screaming approached climax as a thousand tiny lumps wriggled their way beneath her skin towards her belly. Her fingers and toes turned black. Her limbs shrunk out of their shackles. All of her bones and muscles and organs were pooling in her stomach, which was bloated and splitting at the seams. Her head deflated like a balloon. One lump burst through the symbol of Ibbdgalgar, unfurled itself, then crawled off of her on a hundred tiny legs towards the old man. The vortex stopped. She erupted.
A wave of black caterpillars crashed over the old man, whose exultant laughter turned to choked, demented shrieks as they burrowed into his skin and ate him from the inside out. In a matter of seconds, nothing remained of either of them. There was only a crawling carpet of caterpillars that weren't caterpillars at all.
"He is with Ibbdgalgar now!" cried Munch. "Upon his guts till her wing dust shapes stars anew! A world that never dies!"
A pair of hands took mine, pulling me down upon my knees. I felt the not-caterpillars' guts soak through my robe and stick to my kneecaps. Cara was guiding me between her legs. Her hood was off now. She had bunched her robe up to her waist, and she wore nothing beneath it. There was only her slick, contracting flesh, and the black-hole-mouthed creatures that crawled peacefully upon her. If I had felt her then, tasted her then, I would never have been able to stop.
I removed my hood, and reality knocked me onto my back. Some of the Children of Ibbdgalgar were eating the creatures. Others were bleating insanities, masturbating. I crawled to the staircase and started climbing it, not a care for how I gouged and bruised my body. At the top, I pulled off my robe and threw it aside.
The next thing I remember was sprinting down a bitumen road. I kept looking over my shoulder or up into the sky and feeling Ibbdgalgar's terrible presence pressing upon me—constricting the Earth, smothering it dead. I ran until I saw high beams through the trees behind me then threw myself into a serrated thicket and lay as still as roadkill. Too shocked to cry, I stayed there until the sky turned gray and the ichor faded, leaving me feeling like I'd gone blind or lost my ability to taste. Then I took my phone from my back pocket.
No notifications from Cara. One missed call from Mum. One minute ago. My phone flashed and the word "Mum" appeared near the top of the screen. I answered.
"Emma? Emma? Are you okay, honey? I had a terrible feeling."
Snot dripped from my nose into my mouth. "M-Mum?"
"Emma, where are you?"
"I don't know. I don't know."
"Baby, drop a pin. I'm coming."
I woke in my own bed with watery yellow yack in a bucket on the floor in front of me, and Mum behind me, propping me up on my side. It was like I'd had my insides cut out and replaced with bags of wet shit. But the fact that I'd woken up at all kept me from despair.
I hadn't dreamed. There was only the lightless damnation. Heat death. No time. Nothing. My senses were mostly normal but more exhausted than I could ever remember.
I spent three days in bed, telling Mum and Dad I had eaten raw chicken. I covered for Cara too, saying she'd gotten sick as well but couldn't stomach a car ride home. I guess I still wanted to keep her to myself. She still hasn't called.
Of course, I told my parents nothing about what had happened in that basement. I watched the wrap-around porch smolder on the news the morning after. And when I checked childdrenofibb.com, the addresses had been changed to include that property, as well as another two new addresses here and about thirty overseas. The date was current too.
I haven't told anyone, and I won't. I won't, because every time I unlock my phone, my heart gallops thinking that Cara might have called. It's her I think of when I'm by myself—her sweat-curled fringe and church perfume.
NICK PETROU works as a freelance writer out of Perth, Western Australia, where he likes to read unsettling fiction and complain about the sun. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Orchid Press, an anthology by Quill & Crow, two anthologies by Black Hare Press, in Frost Zone Zine, and in AntipodeanSF. You can find out everything there is to know about him (and more) at nspetrou.com.