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 l