Maxine faffed around on the roof for a few more hours. It was a good roof. It was the kind of roof that invited contemplative sitting and possibly some gazing. It had two large smokestacks, both from the adjacent buildings, and those two buildings formed walls that made it almost like a cozy half-room. The houses on the other side of the street were just a little smaller, which gave anyone sitting on the roof a good view of the downtown skyline, and in summer, a large chunk of the roof was bathed in sunlight, which was good for barbecues. It was a good roof. It could have done with a railing for safety, although Max had never been too concerned with that and the Ozzes had never really considered the idea of going up on the roof at all.
When Maxine had first started renting the room, she’d climbed up on a whim, and she’d spent some time up there reading, leaving her phone downstairs. It had been a good way for her to step away from society, up until she’d once done that after leaving a somewhat vague note on social media and she’d come downstairs to a phonefull of missed calls and voicemails demanding she let them know she was okay. She didn’t make that mistake again afterwards, but she didn’t stop coming up there. It was, after all, a good roof.
She did some more exercises, seeing how agile her ‘improved’ body was, doing flips off the smokestacks. Despite Penny’s necessary changing of her body back -- which she still didn’t know the cause of -- her old one, the masculine vehicle of mass depression, was still ‘improved’. She was still more agile and more powerful than she’d ever been, and messing around with the capabilities of this new one was a good way to distract herself. Sure, she was acutely aware of her body the more she pushed the muscles to their absolute limits, but it felt good, in a way. They screamed at her as she tensed and stretched them, but the pain felt like she was achieving something. She was sure that pushing herself this hard was something a therapist had, at some point, advised against, but she wasn’t really interested in thinking that through right now. The pain was a welcome one.
After a stumble where her knee hit the roof hard, she realized she had to stop. It hurt, of course, but not all that much, and she realized the damage to the roof was more severe than the one to herself. At worst, she’d chafed her knee. But the roof had a small spiderweb of cracks in it where she’d made contact. She wondered just how strong and durable she was now. Sure, she’d been ‘wearing’ Penumbra in their mutually superior form, but she’d still taken a tumble from hundreds of feet up and walked away from it. She couldn’t help but wonder what she could withstand even without the symbiote. She looked at one of the smokestacks out of the corner of her eye. She half expected Penny to tell her not to do it, not to cause any more property damage, but Penny was asleep.
So Maxine did it herself. It was tempting to kick a chimney in half, but she’d already done enough damage her first day, and if, without Penny, she had to be her own voice of reason, she was dang well going to. She didn’t want to let them down, after all. She was trying to set an example for the alien baby. Instead she opted to go downstairs and think about getting a punching bag or something like that. Making herself a sandwich, she wondered idly if she had to maintain her muscle mass, now. Had Penny ‘optimized’ her body to its possible peak, or was there still improvement to be made? She shuddered at the revolting prospect of having reached the Peak Masculine Ideal.
After her snack, she turned the TV on, grabbed herself a drink, and fell asleep on the couch seven minutes later. Images danced on her closed eyelids as she drifted off into strange dreams. Just before she did, in a moment of half-slumber, she wondered if Penny was going to be able to hear or see her dreams. If they were going to remember them better than she was. Her last thought, before she was well and truly gone, was that she hoped to everything sacred that they wouldn’t. Her dreams were rarely good ones.
Maxine was back on the beach, surrounded by black sand. She was the formless creature again, watching the woman in black standing in the waves. Maxine cocked her head. One second, the woman was Victoria. The next it was Penumbra. That was confusing. The woman beckoned, flickering between the two people superimposed on each other, refusing to collapse one way or the other. The woman beckoned, and Maxine felt a deep sadness in her chest. She couldn’t. She couldn’t move. Her limbs were too heavy. The ocean was too big. A large wave washed away the woman, Maxine and the dream.
The next one was worse. It was her family. It was the one that woke her up, the one that had her crying before she even opened her eyes. A sob caught in her throat like a fly in a web when she shot awake and practically rolled herself off the couch to get away from it. She took a breath and looked at the clock. It was a little past midnight.
Max? Penny asked. She could feel the worry in their voice. She felt guilty. She didn’t want to make them worry. She’d left her family behind her for a reason. There was pain she’d push herself to, until she was soaked with sweat and her body protested every movement, and there was pain she wouldn’t subject herself to in her worst moments. She rubbed her face.
“I’m awake,” Max said weakly, still waking up. She looked at the television. There was a wildlife documentary on. She was sure it was probably thematically relevant to her life or her relationship with Penny or something. She didn’t care. She wanted to sleep without being scared to close her eyes. Anything was better than this, especially dreamless sleep.
I know, Max. I’m just worried, they said. Max immediately knew that they’d been awake and present, at least for one of the dreams. She sat down again, now that the couch wasn’t a terrifying spectre that was going to devour her whole. I didn’t know, Penumbra said. I didn’t want to pry.
“It’s not that bad.” Max picked up the remote and flicked through the channels and found one that was delightfully ridiculous, something about government conspiracies and ancient aliens. “It was just a dream.” In truth, the dream had been a complete fabrication, much like the stories that were playing on the TV just now. Her family had never been as bad as the dream had made it out to be. But the memory felt that way, and so the dreams did too. They always did. “I’m fine,” Maxine lied. Penny’s silence was deafening.
She decided to go to bed and try to sleep some more. She hoped there wouldn’t be many more dreams. None that were too painful, at least. Or too painful for Penumbra to watch. She felt guilty for letting them sit through a slideshow of her worst fears and memories meshing together into an eldritch abomination of mockery, laughter and disappointment. Penny wrapped themself around her brain in what was the closest thing they had to a hug, and it helped. A bit. Sleep was thankfully dreamless.
The next morning, Maxine and Penny woke up together. Max wondered if that was by design or a coincidence. Penny had no idea. I just woke up when you did, Penny said. I didn’t plan for it. Though I think I was awake a bit after you dozed off again. Did you know you make noises when you sleep? Max was a little bashful as she made coffee and frowned.
“What kind of noises?”
Just… soft mumbling noises. Penny paused for a moment, and Maxine could feel them spooling up for a verbal bullying of minimal proportions. Or maybe mewling is a better word. Max sighed.
“Forget I asked,” she said with a soft laugh.
You know, Penny continued as if she hadn’t said anything. Like a kitten.
“I’m begging you.”
Or a puppy.
“Behave or I’m making you watch terrible movies all weekend. Nothing to do but sit there and watch attractive people drive cars and shift gears.” She sipped her coffee triumphantly as Penny sulked playfully.
You enjoy them. The accusation in their tone was one Max wasn’t even going to pretend to deny. Terrible movies were some of her favourite guilty pleasures. Especially the ones with the attractive people and terrible dialogue. It was like reading tweets made by famous painters. Something about it was just delightfully ridiculous. And you call -me- the monster, Penny said with a giggle.
“On a more serious note,” Max said, “what happened last night? With the body changing back?” Maxine finished her cup and rinsed it out in the sink, looking out of the back window while she did. She didn’t want to look down. Her hands were too big.
I still don’t really know, Penny said. I think, now that I know the resistance is there, I can keep you, us, in your more ideal form longer. But I still don’t want to push it. We don’t know what’s causing this, and having us turn back into… There was a pause. Max wondered if her distaste for her body was something Penny experienced second-hand. This… I don’t want to consider what would happen if I don’t ease that process along.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” Max asked with a straight face as she dried the cup and put it away. It was a stupid question to ask, she knew, but it had to be asked regardless. Worst case scenarios were her forté. She always found herself in them.
We could die, Penny said dryly. I can feel my limits, and yesterday we skirted them. Imagine if you stop changing while your heart-valves aren’t fully formed. Or your veins become too thin for blood to reach your head. Or you just have a full-on stroke.
“Oh,” Max said.
“You mentioned something about being able to keep the form longer this time around? How long was it last time?” she asked as she went to the bathroom and turned on the shower. She wanted to be and look her best. She had a date this afternoon, after all.
A bit over an hour, Penny said. Maybe two. I think I can double or triple that, if I’m careful and clever. They waited for a moment and then proceeded while sounding extremely smug, in a way that was equal parts endearing, infuriating, and impossible to resist. And I am -very- clever. Oh yes.
“Have you been watching my memories of old British sci-fi serials again?” Maxine asked. She’d been slowly giving Penumbra blanket permission to root through her memories of media, and she was now worried about all the terrible fiction she’d consumed over the years.
Maybe, Penny said with whatever the opposite of guilt was. She couldn’t blame them. She’d watched most of her favourite shows more than once for a reason, every terrible, overly dramatic scene and horrible visual effect a treasured memory. She wasn’t surprised in the least that Penny had latched onto them. She stepped into the shower, deliberately leaving the lights off. It was something she’d done when her depression days had been really bad and it helped now, too. Steaming hot water cascaded off of her, and the heat helped her focus.
“We have to remember to pick up a bottle of wine before tonight,” she said, thinking out loud. Penny smiled at her.
You’re looking forward to it, they said. It was a fact, and an indisputable one. Despite her reservations about how much she ‘deserved’ Victoria, every second spent with her had been wonderful. She closed her eyes and sighed. She remembered sitting so close to Victoria she’d felt the warmth of her skin. Maybe you can sit so close you can almost touch and then not touch again tonight, Penny teased. That sounds riveting.
“Listen,” Max said with a soft laugh, “just because teasing comes easy to you -- Why does it come easy to you?”
It’s all confidence, baby. I have literally never done anything wrong in my life. I’m not old enough. Penny winked. I’m a catch.
“So what do I have to go off, then? I’m almost three decades older than you.”
Charming personality, sense of humour, nice eyes, pretty face -- if I do say so myself -- or maybe just your enjoyable presence in general.
“Jesus, you didn’t have to go that hard.” Maxine blushed as she turned the water off. She didn’t get compliments very often, and she resisted everything Penny had just said. But it had also been very nice to hear.
I think, Penny said, all of the smug playfulness gone from their voice, I really did.