Chapter 29: Powerless
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Maxine’s perception was vague and fragmented. She flickered in and out of the black oceans of consciousness. She remembered retrieving her phone out of her pocket with heavy arms and sending a message to Victoria, while she could keep her eyes open. It was hard to see anything, her vision red and shaky with pain, her eyelids sticky. She saw streaks of blood on the small screen and was briefly aware of how much her body hurt. Penny was nowhere to be found, and Max found herself slipping away with every second. She thought she’d sent it. There were footsteps and distant shouting. There was a voice, closer, soothing. It might have been Victoria. Maxine hoped it was Victoria. She felt hands on her, hands that picked her up and carried her. And with that, she was gone again.

Maxine was on a beach. There was a figure in the surf, beckoning her. She looked at it lazily. That was her, she knew, and got up, walked towards it. Every step was heavy, the black sand seemingly trying to keep her from going, but she paid it almost no mind. She didn’t understand why it had taken her so long to get there. Because it had mattered? She reached the water. It was cold, as she looked down. Her feet were hidden in the water. Back up. The figure was gone. Down at her hands, then behind her, at the beach. 

There was a figure sitting in the sand. She knew it was someone she ought to recognize, but in the logic of the dream, their features were impossible to see and impossible to recognize. The figure was a person, hands wrapped around their knees. Slowly but surely, their skin turned black. Maxine reached out to the figure, but the figure didn’t move. She sighed and was about to walk back up onto the beach when she found that the surf, pulling back to the sea, was pulling her with it. She fell backwards onto the water, the icy cold enveloping her and pulling her under, into the infinite freedom of the deep dark.

Maxine’s eyes shot open. There was a ceiling. That was something. Ceilings were an important part of houses. That meant she was inside of a house, or an apartment of some kind. There were sheets, which hurt slightly to move against. Her skin hurt to the touch, as if she’d scraped it. She swallowed. That hurt too, her throat feeling like she’d been gargling glass. God, was there anything that didn’t hurt? She groaned, and of course that hurt too. She propped herself up and her joints, her muscles, her entire body protested. She sat up against the headboard of the bed. She was in Victoria’s room. Victoria wasn’t there.

There was a note on the pillow next to hers. Picking it up carefully with shaking fingers, she read it. It wasn’t very long, but it was sweet. 

‘Maxine,’ it read. ‘I hope you’re okay. I found you and did my best to clean you up. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t want it to happen again. I’m scared for you, but I want you to know that I’m here for you. If you’re confused: You’re at my apartment. I’m currently running some errands, getting groceries and so on, but I should be back in a couple of hours. There’s a bowl of soup in the fridge, I don’t know how easy eating is going to be for you. You can, of course, take a shower if you want to. Just… take care of yourself, and be careful. By the time you wake up, the new window should be installed, so don’t worry about that, either.’ There were a few lines of white space below that, and then, in a very uncertain hand, were just a few more words. ‘I love you. Victoria.’

How long had she been out? She carefully put the note back on the pillow and looked at her hands. Her skin was slightly red, as if she had a first degree burn over every inch of her body. But that wasn’t the worst thing, of course. The worst thing was the fact that they were her old hands. The bad, hairy ones. The big ones. They were the hands of someone who wasn’t good enough, of someone who’d failed. This had been her punishment, and this time, she’d hurt someone else in the process. Max had never known Penumbra to be out like that. She had hurt them and used them and Penny had done their best to accommodate her. As if summoned, she felt something, someone stir in the back of her head.



I’m sorry.

Maxine thought long and hard about what to say next, knowing full well Penny could see and hear all of it. But they also knew that her first and second thoughts were not always who she was. She wanted her communication to be honest and clear. She wrapped her arms around her knees, leaning her forehead against it, trying not to be too aware of her body, how it moved, how it behaved, how it felt. 

“I’m the one who should apologize, Penny,” she said. “I wore you out. I hurt you. I let you down.” She sighed and let herself, and Penny, feel the regret. Show them that she meant it. She felt Penny frown. 

What happened after… after I… Their voice trailed off when Max sighed and gave them blanket consent to go through her memories. She tried to warn them, but it was too late, they were already living it, living through it. The pain. The sheer terror of watching her body fold and unfold, her body reassembling itself at the instruction of someone who didn’t know what they were doing. The memory of Maxine tearing herself apart and putting herself back together again, piece by piece, through trial and error, all while suffering unimaginable torture, inflicted unwittingly by herself, on herself. 

She could feel Penumbra crying softly, and she didn’t know how to comfort them. They felt her pain as if it was her own. They could shut it off, of course, but it was clear to her that they’d chosen not to, and she felt guilty, so guilty. 

I’m sorry, Penumbra said. Maxine shook her head again. They hadn’t done this. This was her own fault, her own doing. They’d had no hand in this. She had let them down, she had failed, she’d pushed them too far, she was the one who’d fucked up, sh-- No. No? No. I failed you. I failed to see how… hurt you still are. I’m so sorry. 

“What do you mean?” she asked, dreading the answer, and hearing in it also a kernel of something… wonderful and horrible. A terrible salvation. 

I gave you the power to do this, Max, Penny said. I knew how hurt you were, how hurt you -are-, and I still gave you the power to do this kind of damage to yourself. Your… self image, the way you see yourself led to this. We both know that. The voice hesitated. I should have never given you that kind of… tool. That kind of weapon. Max pondered what they said, let the words repeat in her head, over and over again. What they said was true. She got the feeling, slowly but surely, that there was a conclusion there, that Penny either was incapable of or unwilling to arrive at. 

“Yes,” Max said, and she felt the symbiote stir. They had probably expected her to resist, to tell them that, no, this was all her fault. But that’s not how she felt. Not really. Sure, this was all her fault, but not in that way. “This shouldn’t have happened,” she said. Penumbra began to apologize, but she mentally held up a finger. “I wasn’t finished yet. You’ve… always been here to help me, Penny. You were always trying to do good and help me, right?” Penumbra nodded, of course. 

Max sighed and hung her legs, too big, too bulky, over the edge of the bed. Everything hurt. Even her head hurt. She wondered if she’d injured her brain somehow. Gosh, how easy it would make things. If her brain damage was just severe enough, she wouldn’t have to remember anything anymore. Hey, Penny said. 

“I know. Don’t think like that. My point is… where are you getting your help, Penny?”

What do you mean?

“Where do you think you’ve gotten ideas on how to be kind to people? How to help them?” It was a fairly simple question, but they couldn’t answer. They’d apparently figured it was an innate thing. “Well, sure,” Maxine said softly, “but humans are complicated things. Psychology is weird. And yet you’ve always been able to say exactly what I needed to hear, right? You’ve always been there for me right when I needed you to be.” Penny nodded suspiciously. Max could tell that her tone was tipping them off.

I don’t know where you’re going with this, Max. 

“I’m the one telling you that you were the one who told me what I needed to hear. I’m the one who felt like you were there right when I needed you to be. And you have no other frame of reference.” She paused. “You think you’re doing the right thing because there’s a part of me that thinks I deserve help, and you’ve latched onto that.”

Wait… Penumbra began, but Maxine wasn’t going to let them interrupt her. 

“You only think you’re helping because you’re doing what I think would help me. You don’t know anything else.” Her voice began to crack and tears formed in her eyes. It hurt. Why did that hurt? Why would it? She took a deep breath, saying the thought out loud she knew Penumbra could already hear in her head.

“You’re bad for me, Penny,” she said. Penumbra stammered a protest, but it was half-hearted. “You’re bad for me because I’m bad for you. You’re a creature who wants to do good, but as long as you’re… connected to me… You’ll have no idea what good is. You literally can’t.” She stood up unsteadily. She felt weak. “As long as you’re with me, I’m just teaching you how to give me the tools to hurt myself better.”

N-no, Penny said, but she could hear the panic, feel it. She could feel Penumbra retreating into themself. She knew that what she was saying was striking home. That they agreed. Maxine and Penumbra both knew that they didn’t work together like this. All she had needed to do, apparently, was convince Penumbra of what she’d known all along. Finally, Penny saw what she’d been saying this entire time. Maxine was simply not good enough. Th-that’s not… You’re not…

“I am,” she said. “I’m hurting you. And I taught you how to let me hurt me.” She got more resolute by the second. She clenched her fists. She could feel Penumbra coiling, panicking. They didn’t know what to do and she knew that, for the first time, they felt trapped in her head. Not by her, but by fear. For the first time, Penny was afraid to touch anything because they were scared of doing something wrong. It was killing her. The creature deserved better. Penumbra deserved so much better than her, someone who wasn’t so broken, someone who could do better and be better. 

I -- I’m sorry, Max. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean… I didn’t think… I didn’t… Penny cried. Max cried. They both knew where this was going and neither of them really wanted to acknowledge it, or say it, but it had to be acknowledged and it had to be said. Maxine, finally, looked deep inside, and found the energy to do the right thing, what she’d had to do all along. She knew that this would happen again, and again, and every time she hurt herself it would only hurt Penny more. They were too good, they deserved better, and she was going to make sure they had the chance. 

“Penny,” she said, and the words died on her tongue over and over again. They had shared a mind for what felt like less than a day and more than a lifetime. Penumbra had been a part of her. Of course, that was the problem. There was no mind she trusted less than her own. What good could come of a creature living in it with her?

“I think you should leave.”


For those interested in finding out where this goes right away: There are several chapters after this already finished, available for Patrons

I'm working on a new story, called "We're Not So Different, You and I". It's a Sci-Fi Fantasy Romance. When I hit 30 chapters or the end (whichever comes first), I'll start publishing it on Scribble. The first 14 chapters are already available for Patrons. 
I'm also working on the sequel for Horns In The Library, which I'll start publishing on Friday if all goes well.

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Thanks again for reading, and I'll see you all in the next one.