“All right,” Max said to himself. “Don’t panic.” He was trying not to. But the voice in his head had not been the usual one that screamed at him. Whenever he’d talked to himself, it was a voice that wasn’t distinct. It was just sort of there, without colour or volume. This new voice had personality. It had come from inside his head the way good headphones made music come from inside his head.
Yes, the voice agreed, please don’t. It was, Max considered in a moment of hysterical clarity, probably a universal truth that asking someone not to panic was probably about as effective as telling someone not to be mad, or curious. It was, by virtue of being said, effective only at achieving the opposite. Oops, the voice responded to that train of thought. Sorry. Still learning here.
“Hello?” Max tried. He really hoped he hadn’t finally snapped. Sure, he’d often talked to himself before. When he’d been in a good place, he’d managed to tell the voice in the back of his head to shut up. Lately, he’d been curled up in bed begging it to stop. But this was something different entirely. The old voice had been technically under his control, like choosing not to yawn.
Hello, the voice replied. I’m glad you’re not comparing me to a yawn. I’m much more of a sneeze. Max didn’t know what to do with this information. The voice seemed to be cracking jokes. Whenever he’d seen this kind of thing in films and shows, the voices were usually less… amiable.
“Who are you?” he tried. There was a part of him that was sure it was probably not a good idea to interact with the new voice in his head. God, even thinking it made him feel like he was losing it. But he needed to know what was going on, and why. If it really was a form of psychosis, he wanted to know what form it would take.
Hello, Max. You’re my new host. Congratulations. Oh. This was worse. This was much worse. If it was psychosis, he was having full-on delusions. If it wasn’t, there really was something inside him now. Had it been the kid? The touch had been unexpectedly and upsettingly painful. Had it been some kind of parasite? Not a parasite! The voice piped up quickly and aggressively. It seemed to be offended at the very idea. Sorry. Just… not a parasite. Symbiote.
“What do you want from me, then?” Max asked. “Symbiotes usually, you know, offer symbiosis, right?” He tried to remember what he knew from fifth grade biology. The only one that immediately came to mind were the fish that would clean the fins of sharks that would normally eat them. He doubted this was even remotely like that.
It really isn’t. You’re going to have to keep washing your own feet.
The voice in his head smiled. He felt a smile in his head that tugged at the corners of his own mouth. It was an unsettling experience. I’m a healer, the voice said. I mend broken things, I think.
I’m pretty new at this. It was kind of hard to measure time in a dog, but I think I’m about two weeks old.
Max suppressed a hysterical giggle at the turn the conversation was taking. He was talking to what seemed to be a two-week old magic creature that was here to heal him. “Oh my god,” Max said, trying not to laugh. “You’re baby.”
I’m baby, it solemnly agreed.
“What do you mean, broken? I’m fine.”
There was a sigh in his head, and he felt a pang in his chest. A pain he wasn’t sure was his or if it belonged to the creature.
I think, Max… I think we both know that’s not true. Max wanted to disagree. He really did. But he couldn’t. There was something inside him that hurt every second of every day. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was something else. Maybe he was just broken, and couldn’t be fixed. That’s not how breaking works, it interjected.
“Can you read all of my thoughts?” Max asked, frowning a little bit.
Pretty much, but only the stuff you’re consciously aware of. I mean -technically- I could go rooting around that skull for memories, but I’m not going anywhere you don’t want me to. That was a relief, at least. You’re welcome.
“You are inside my head without me asking you to be.”
I do need a host, it said, softly. I can only ask for permission once I’m in here. It sounded almost sheepish.
“So if I asked you to leave you’d just do it, no questions asked?”
None, the creature said resolutely. That, too, was a relief.
“Is it easy to find a new host? You jumped from the kid to me. Wouldn’t that cause problems if you immediately find a new person?”
Not necessarily, it said. It might take me a bit to find someone as potent as you, but it’s far from impossible. I do think I’d ask to back seat for a bit while you find someone new then, though.
“What do you mean, potent?” Max asked, a little worried now. He wondered what exactly the creature was getting out of this arrangement. Sure, it had claimed it was a healer, but he didn’t even know if the creature was here to play psychoanalyst or if it had some kind of healing properties. And he wanted to know what it was he was giving it in return.
Well, it said, slowly, as if gathering its thoughts, if you agree to be my host, I can bind to most of your system. Heal injuries, strengthen what’s there. I think I might be able to tweak your reflexes, too. Give the whole system a bit of an oomph. And in return, you feel things for me.
“What the hell does that even mean?” Max said, rubbing his face. He’d been lying in bed, trying not to think too much about the fact that he now seemed to be sharing his brain with someone else.
Feelings, it said, are nourishing. I mean, I don’t mind nutrients, but I’m not going to start nibbling at that coffee you had earlier. Not without your permission. But the good stuff is feelings. It paused. You have a lot of them.
“Everyone has feelings,” Max said softly. The voice, the other one, the old one, scoffed. Apparently he’d found a creature that fed on drama queens.
You feel things harder than a lot of people around you. I don’t know why, but you do. It makes you a good host. I think we can help each other.
“How can I trust you? You’re constantly reading my mind,” Max interjected. It was a good point, even if he said so himself. It was hard to trust someone after an invasion of privacy like that, no matter how well intentioned they were.
To be fair, it said, that does go both ways. I can’t think without you hearing it. I’m just better at turning off the big bad brain pan than you are and just listening. Good golly, is it noisy in here, it quipped.
“Wait, so this isn’t… hold on, so right now, you’re not strictly speaking talking, you’re just thinking and I’m hearing it?”
I live in your head, it said. “Would you prefer I do this instead?” The voice in his head had come out of his mouth that time. His lips had moved of their own accord and the voice that had come out of his face had been his and not-his. Husky, more in-control than he’d ever been.
“Fuck, that’s freaky.”
Not doing that again without asking you. I feel gross now. Sorry about that, I just thought it was the best way to show you.
“Well, you sure showed me.”
Heh. I sure did. Hey, I have a request.
Pronouns. I’m figuring out what they mean, how they work. You use he and him, but for others you use she, her, they, that kind of thing. I know instinctively it’s a whole thing, but I don’t think I understand.
“Oh, it’s to differentiate between singular and plural, and genders.”
“Hoo boy. Uh… can you find out by looking around?” The voice in his head nodded and fell quiet for a second.
Ew. No thanks. I like the concept of femininity, but no gender for me, thanks.
“So I just… use, like, they and them to refer to you?”
Yeah, sounds good.
“So, what do I call you?” he asked. “Are you a person? If we’re gonna talk, I think I’d like to be able to use a name to refer to you. Even if it’s just to myself, yknow?”
That’s fair. I don’t have one. Not really. The voice paused. Can I look around for one? The question had been very polite, almost formal. Max was about to ask what they meant, and then he realized that they were probably asking him for permission to root around in his head. He didn’t see why not. He couldn’t make sense of most of what went on in there anyway. Someone else having a look couldn’t hurt. Thank you, they said. Then, he heard some ‘hmm’s and ‘oh’s as they seemed to peruse his… thoughts? Memories?
“Find anything in there? Where are you looking, anyway?” Then he felt something he had never felt before. A small part of his brain… itched. An itch on the inside of his head. It wasn’t necessarily pressing, but it was a unique sensation from a place he’d never felt it before.
Right here, the voice said, and there was a kind of smug playfulness in the way they’d spoken. Sorry, little joke. When I first joined you, I got a fairly thorough understanding of how to say things to be understood. But the finer stuff… I don’t have access to the pop-culture background you do. Or didn’t, rather. Goodness gracious, there’s a lot of anime in here. He felt the voice giving him the side-eye.
“Don’t judge me,” Max grumbled.
You’re the one who grew up obsessed with this stuff, Max. This Sailor Moon character looks neat. I wouldn’t mind watching it some time.
“Did you find anything yet?” Max asked, a little impatiently.
I can stop if you’re uncomfortable. I think I have a few options. Well, one, but who’s counting. There was a little chuckle.
“If you would. It’s not that I’m ashamed or anything…”
Hey, it’s your privacy. You don’t have to justify wanting it respected. And just like that, they eased off. Max hadn’t even noticed the soft pressure until it went away. It wasn’t exactly painful or unpleasant, but he knew to look out for it now. And he was more than a little grateful that the creature had not only offered but pulled back after Max had agreed. He was trying not to trust the creature entirely but was finding it hard not to take a liking to the voice. They were nice. Thanks. So are you.
“Hush. What’s the name you said you found?” Max was, despite himself, smiling. He’d propped himself up in bed, leaning against the wall with the blankets wrapped around himself. He often cocooned like this when he wasn’t feeling great, and it was comforting.
I quite like Penumbra. Not quite in the darkness. Not quite in the light. Max wondered where they had even picked up a name like that. You watched a physics documentary two years ago.
“And you remember that?”
Uh, no, Penumbra said. You do.
“Huh. Cool. Can I call you Penny? Penumbra is a mouthful.”
Oh, cool. Yeah, sure. I think I like that. So I think the most important question comes now.
Do you want me to stay? You’d change, obviously. Be stronger, I think. I can also leave, if you want me to. I’m very grateful for how long you’ve allowed me here to begin with, but I don’t want to be--
“You can stay,” Max said. “What did you mean, stronger?”
I can show you, if you want, Penny offered.
“Go for it.”
He felt… strange. Like his entire body was flexing, tightening up, like someone was tuning the strings on a guitar. It went away after a second, and he didn’t feel much different than he had before.
Well, you’re sturdier now, but I think, to get the most out of this, I’m going to have to bind myself to you. Don’t worry, I can undo it, but it is a bit more of a… commitment.
“Fuck it, why not?”
Stand up, please. Max did as he was asked. He was curious to see where this was going to go. If he really had been experiencing a breakdown of sorts, he was committed to it now. Reality is what you perceive it to be, right? He stood up and stretched. He did feel a bit more in shape than he had before. Then something weird happened. He felt a fullness, a pressure that went from his head and dissipated into his body. And then all over, his skin changed colour. Well, not so much changed colour as something seemed to be seeping from it. It was like he was sweating oil. Quickly, the substance coagulated into an extra layer of skin, all purple and black and swirling colours he could have sworn were completely new. He wasn’t panicking. He felt like he should be, as the substance crept up his neck and slowly started to cover his face. Then it closed over his eyes.
He opened his eyes. They were… different eyes. The room had gone dark while they’d been talking, but now the shadows were just… different shades of black. It wasn’t like turning up the brightness, it was like turning up his ability to perceive the darkness. He turned his head. He was taller. He looked at his arms. They were long, muscular, and covered in the same black liquid that moved around gently. His hands were longer, more slender than they had been. He took a few steps forward, to the corner of his room, where the mirror faced the wall, and spun it around. He cocked his head as he looked at the being in the reflection.
He was definitely no longer just Max. The creature in the mirror was easily seven foot tall. His entire body was covered in the black-and-purple oil-like substance. There were two shapes on the head that looked a little bit like eyes, white and catlike. What struck him was that the body was distinctly feminine. He put his hands on his now-present hips. It was a good-looking shape, for sure.
“Doesn’t look like me,” he said to himself, finding it easy to talk even with the black goop over his face.
That’s because that’s me. Well, sort of. Me plus you, I guess.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Penny.” The face in the mirror finally gained a mouth. It had teeth. A lot of teeth. Big ones. It grinned from ear to ear, and it spoke.
“Nice to meet you too, Max.”