Featured September 30, 2020 Fantasy lgbtq+ portals queer contemporary fantasy doppelganger singer

The Secret Death of Lane Islington

By Ephiny Gale
Sep 26, 2020 · 7,099 words · 26 minutes

Largelane

Art by Margot Jenner.  

From the editor:

Lane Islington despises stardom — so good thing she found a spell to locate her doppelgänger to take her place in the public eye. But how far will this deception go?

Australian author Ephiny Gale’s work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. Her collection NEXT CURIOUS THING is available now in paperback and ebook form.

From the author: Lane Islington is a famous singer/songwriter, but she could do without the public-facing parts. So she opens a portal and brings back a doppelganger to do those things for her.


DAY 1

I first meet Lane Islington when she steps out of the lake, all smeared eyeliner and pointy incisors, and says, “Do you want to be a star?”

#

DAY 2

A brief history of Lane’s life through photos, video and song:

At four in Wonder Woman’s cape for Halloween.

At seven as Rizzo in the neighbourhood children’s production of Grease.

At eighteen on the cover of her first album, posed on a battlefield, covered with fresh and dried blood and swinging her guitar above her head like a weapon. The ferocity in her eyes almost convinces you that if you threw her into battle with just a musical instrument she would still win. I’m expecting a poster of this on the walls of her bedroom, but the walls are all empty. White.

Lane plays me the entirety of this album whilst she sets up a tiny bedroom beside her own: she squeezes a single foam mattress through a child-sized door and into the cupboard under the roof, which is perhaps two meters by five. Several pillows and blankets follow. The album is very good, in a pop-rock-punk kind of way, and hardly sounds auto-tuned at all; I can see why it went platinum in less than six weeks.

She never calls me Aeris the whole time, only Aer, which most people don’t get away with until they’ve known me at least a few weeks. But she’s practically my sister, so I guess she’s allowed.

Lane explains that she loves creating music, and that she even gets a thrill out of performing sometimes if she doesn’t have to do it often. I watch the videos: she’s spectacular on stage or in front of a camera, like her whole self has lit up; I can barely tear my eyes away.

But she wasn’t expecting most of the country to recognise her the minute she stepped out of her house, the one she still shares with her mother and younger sister. She wasn’t expecting the rapid-fire requests for interviews and talk show appearances and magazine cover shots. Most of those made her want to swim deep under the ocean and never come back.

So she cast a spell to open a portal to the one parallel world, out of an infinite number, where a girl was identical to her visually in every way and near a lake. And she stepped through the portal and into the lake. And came back with me.

#

Chorus of “Razorblade Girl” from Lane Islington’s second album, also entitled “Razorblade Girl” (2018):

So hey, just be careful if you come a little closer
Yeah, I think you’re pretty cute
But you might learn that I’m a monster
I won’t mean to bite your hand off
Cut your fingers on my skin
A razorblade girl
Just a razorblade girl
So wear your armour if you’re going to come in

#

DAY 3

We work on my walk first: stop swaying my hips, pick up the pace a little, get comfortable walking in Lane’s flat Converse sneakers. Lane always wears flats except for some photo shoots, where she’s been known to be dressed in heels so high she can barely stand up in them.

“No, you’re still leading with your hips,” she corrects. “I lead with my head.” This is something she learned in acting class a couple of years earlier. Slowly, I shift my body as if a string is pulling me along by my forehead.

“Much better,” she says, and turns her attention to my accent.

#

DAY 7

Lane is out of the house about half the time, which is about fifty per cent less than her producers would have liked, and about fifty per cent more than she would have personally preferred. Largely, she seems to get away with this by saying she’s working on her second album, which is true. She’s just simultaneously working on a human decoy of herself.

While Lane is away I have hours locked in her room to practice my walk and watch online videos of “How to Perfect Your Australian Accent,” which I soon learn I prefer to Lane’s personal instruction. Approximating the accent is relatively easy, but most of the internet examples are for broader accents that make Lane laugh. She seems to find my own Clayden accent quite lovely but strange, “as if an English and New Zealand accent got tossed in a blender with some other things.”

And I watch Lane’s three music videos again and again, fascinated by the sight of myself as an international superstar. I watch her concerts where the crowd surges towards her with love. That could be me – distinctly average Aeris Dormer who has barely been clapped for anything.

#

DAY 14

Lane declares that I am ready to leave the house.

It’s only a ten-minute walk to the milkbar and back, but during that time three groups of people audibly recognise “me,” two ask for a selfie and one for an autograph. I’ve practised Lane’s signature for a couple of hours and it’s serviceable. She only writes two types of messages alongside her name: “Rock on!” or “Thanks for the support!” which aren’t creative or exciting, but they’re at least easy to remember.

I’ve seen snapshots of Lane interacting with her fans before, and although she genuinely appreciates them she always looks a little pained. I try not to look too out of character, but I can feel my heartbeat speeding, recognise that my eyes are probably dilated, that my cheeks are warm. The entire walk feels like champagne streaming through my veins.

It doesn’t matter that they think I’m Lane. Most of them look at me like some kind of goddess. Just breathing the same air as me is the highlight of their day, their week, their year. They tell me I’m beautiful. Back at home, I managed to escape “plain” because my face was symmetrical, but I would never be conventionally attractive. In Clayden, girls are expected to be dark and curvy. Lane and I are both vampire-pale with B-cups.

At the milk bar, the cashier holds up a magazine with Lane as the covergirl. She’s dressed as the queen of the amazons, warpaint on her cheeks and arrows in her hands. She pulls it off, utterly, like she’d smash being an amazon if she woke up in their tribe tomorrow morning. The cashier says that it’s a good one.

That outing is the best ten minutes of my life. The strange gait, the silly walk; all the preparation was worth it. At the end, I bound up the stairs into Lane’s room, embrace her a little too fast, and say, “That was better than sex!”

Which is probably the wrong thing to lead with, because Lane laughs awkwardly, but it hardly matters: I can play her in public again tomorrow.

#

DAY 16

I pop back into Clayden. Lane summons the portal – the “redial” version of the spell – and we both step through with swimsuits and a change of clothes in zip-lock bags. After squeezing out her hair and changing, Lane stays behind with sunglasses and a crime novel to make sure no-one accidentally passes through the portal in the lake bed, and I go to visit my parents.

Now, my parents have missed me, but not overly so, because I’m a nineteen-year-old adult and they have two children under ten at home to worry about. And they’ve been concerned by my lack of communication, but it’s not unusual for several days to pass without contact between us, so they haven’t approached the local authorities.

When I show them their gifts – gold necklaces and diamond rings and jewel-encrusted bangles – any worry they’ve had about my absence just melts off their faces. I tell them I’ve dropped out of university and gotten a good, but secretive job across the border. Lane gives me forty per cent of whatever she makes.

It sits heavy in my stomach, this understanding that I could go months without visiting again, and as long as I bring back expensive goods they’ll never complain.

#

DAY 27

Within Melbourne, Australia, Lane is my best and only friend. We paint our nails identically, coordinate nose rings and trade stories of how we got our scars; her ankle scar is from falling through some bushes as a child, camping; mine is from dropping a hot fry-pan. Lane introduces me to her favourite anime and music videos, to fancy coffees and sushi and herbal tea. I teach her the application of winged eyeliner and basic astronomy and how to mix a dozen different cocktails, cross-legged on her bedroom floor.

Neither of us practices magic. I’ve asked her so many things about sorcery that I’m not allowed another question for a whole month, but I’m not sure there’s anything left to ask.

Lane found the portal spell in a library book, but like almost every other spell on earth, no-one could ever get it to work. Lane practised the hand movements until she could do them with her eyes closed, upside down, but it wasn’t until she did them whilst menstruating on her ensuite toilet that the portal actually opened. The library book said nothing about blood falling through air whilst facing north. And that’s the thing about spells: any fool with a keyboard can write them down, but they don’t usually understand half of what made them work: the phase of the moon or a cat crossing your roof or that there’s a pregnant woman next door. So they can’t be replicated.

Every night there are seven “facts” for me to memorise about Lane on a piece of notepaper, followed by a pop quiz on the ones I’ve been given the night before. Lane’s favourite animal is a puma. Her favourite food is spring rolls. Her favourite word is “aesthetic.”

Those are important, but I think I learn more about Lane from just watching her. The way she gets ink all over her hands and lips while she writes her songs. The way she comes home almost mute from a day performing, not because she’s lost her voice but because she’s too overwhelmed to speak. The way she says things so obscene they render me speechless, but usually flinches whenever anyone touches her.

I mean, except for me, these days. I only sleep in the cupboard under the roof now if Lane’s away at night. If I get up before her and she’s awake enough to notice, she mutters, “Come back to bed, changeling,” until I do and she can nestle her chin in my shoulder.

Lane has plenty of other acquaintances, obviously, if not friends. Her best friend, officially, is Willa Zhang, a Chinese-Australian graphic artist who designed a kick-ass scorpion tattoo for Lane (but which she can’t get inked now because I complicate everything), smokes the kind of marshmallow cigarettes they use in theatre shows, and paints her nails rainbow. Lane tells me she sees Willa maybe once a month.

Her best friend, unofficially, is her uncle Trevor, whom she sees every week, religiously, even if she’s interstate and their time is FaceTime. After Lane’s parents split when she was twelve, Trevor started coming around more; he’s the one who taught Lane the guitar, how to read sheet music. In the meantime Lane’s father ran off to America and started dating women not much older than she was.

I can hear the clinks of Lane’s mother and sister setting their table for dinner downstairs. Lane’s perched up here with me, combing the real estate sites, inky fingers warping the skin on her temples in concentration. Thank goodness for the lock on her door, and I’ve surrounded my mattress with all the colours missing from Lane’s monochrome room – tangerines and violets and limes – but that’s no substitute for a place of our own.

#

DAY 36

Every week and a half or so, Lane administers a test on Australian slang.

“I grabbed the torch to find the lollies in the boot of the car before driving to Maccas,” I recite. “And never flashlight or trunk, but sometimes Macdonald’s.”

“And sometimes candy,” Lane adds. “Because we’re becoming Americanised.”

I nod solemnly. “And sometimes candy.”

Lane throws a blue jellybean towards my mouth.

#

DAY 39

I meet men on the internet. I use my real name. We have cyber sex of varying quality and occasionally, when I’m sure I’m alone in the house, phone sex.

I quickly lose interest in most of them. The remainder, when I’m unable to send pictures or meet in person, lose interest in me.

#

DAY 42

There are photos of me-as-Lane on a celebrity gossip site. I’m carrying a coffee cup around the local shopping centre, all bedazzled jeans and tank top scrawled with “Shhhhh” and sunglasses that cover half my face. This is the most awesome I’ve ever looked, I think.

“I hope I’m good enough,” is what I say to Lane. She doesn’t even glance up from her keyboard.

“You look just like me,” she says. “So you’re perfect.”

#

DAY 57

Settlement is only a week away. Lane paces around a small battalion of moving boxes, quizzing me with potential interview questions (your next album/tour dates/boyfriend/inspiration). I know all the standard answers now – I’m just practising making them sound witty.

I’m concentrating so hard that it takes a few seconds to register the thumps on the stairs. And that we haven’t locked the door.

I scramble off the bed and roll under it, bruising my hip and forearm in the process. I clutch my nose against the layer of dust. I’m coated in it already, and force myself to suppress a violent sneeze just as Lane’s mother Audrey walks in.

They argue, of course, which is their usual method of communication. I watch Audrey’s shiny red heels poke out beneath the bedclothes. She’s saying, “This might be the last Sunday we share this home, and it’s appalling that you think you won’t eat dinner with us. I can’t believe I raised such an ungrateful child.”

Lane is saying that she’d had five hours of rehearsal today and that she’s tired and doesn’t want to be yelled at and that she has diarrhoea. Audrey won’t take no for an answer. Audrey calls Lane a lazy, selfish little bitch. Lane calls Audrey an unreasonable tyrant. Audrey expects Lane downstairs in fifteen minutes.

Once her mother’s footsteps have well and truly faded, I wipe the worst of the dust from my clothes and kneel beside Lane on the bed. I’ve seen Lane listless before. Bitter, melancholy. But I’ve never seen her eyes so sad.

She lies us down and wraps my arm around her, the way she likes to sleep even though we usually keep different hours. I don’t know what to say.

Lane breaks the silence with, “You go. Be me. I can’t bear to look at her tonight.”

So I do, because I love her like a sister. I brush the last of the dust bunnies from my hair and hide my blossoming bruises beneath a long-sleeved top and jeans. I even draw on some lipstick – “Bubbleshine Pink” – before I head downstairs.

There are fancier dinner plates than we ever had at my house, growing up. Candles burn in the middle of a beige tablecloth, and each set of shining cutlery has an accompanying embroidered napkin. Lane’s sister Imogen is seated in her ballet costume, fiddling with the elastic on her leotard – I wonder if she’s a little slow.

“Everything looks really nice,” I say. Audrey eyes me like a hawk. Apparently that’s not the kind of thing Lane would tell her.

But the dinner progresses fairly smoothly. It’s not hard: I ask polite questions, I listen, I try to anticipate their needs. Before Lane was born Audrey had a bit-part on a game show, one of those ladies who spun tiles or opened cases, with a few speaking lines per episode. She’s asked Lane for expensive face cream for her birthday ever since Lane was eleven, and complains with Lane doesn’t perform household chores “with love.”

Audrey wants to be worshipped.

I understand; so do I.

It’s not like Lane is an easy person to live with. She has a caustic sense of humour and whenever I get a pimple she insists on popping it herself – immediately. She streams music most of her waking hours and calls me an idiot for the tiniest infractions, like loading a toilet roll the wrong way.

Until recently I didn’t even know there was a right way.

But Lane never seems to be good enough for Audrey, so Lane doesn’t really try, which Audrey can’t stand, and on and on in a malicious cycle.

By the end of the meal, whenever she looks at me, a tiny smile is curling at the corner of Audrey’s mouth.

#

First verse and chorus of “Version of Me” from “Razorblade Girl” (2018):

Hey baby girl, you know, I didn’t sign up for this
Her baby girl, I was expecting someone better
You’re always so sullen; why can’t you smile?
Why can’t your compliments go on for miles?
Why can’t you love me
Why won’t you love me
While I’m screaming at you?

Well, I’m sorry that you were expecting somebody
Sorry I let you down
But you can get fucked if you think that I’ll change
Just to keep you around
You think that I’m rude
I think that you’ll find
You love a version of me that’s only in your mind
You wanted your princess
But I am just the witch
Tough luck

#

DAY 76

Our new house is two storeys, four-bedrooms, although one of these bedrooms – mine – has been hidden away. Lane has lined the first-floor hallway with bookcases, and while there’s a gap for her own matte white door, mine has a bookcase attached so you wouldn’t know there was a door at all. The knob can be found behind The Complete Works of Shakespeare and swings inward, to where my windows are almost opaque, like a bathroom.

I give my first interview on The Sam Daley Show, wearing a starry cocktail dress with a faux-bloodstain like a sash. The makeup lady gives me eyeshadow like peacock feathers; I feel her breath on my ear. When I walk on stage the crowd cheers like I’ve saved the fucking universe: they’re on their feet, they’re whistling. I want to fall to my knees and bask in it. They’re cheering Lane’s name, but it’s my name now, too. I keep walking, I raise my hand and show my incisors. It’s easy now, easy. The audience is a wave of love and I’m up at its peak under the lights and now I’m fucking complete.

When Lane watches the show, afterwards, she says that I’m not as quick and clever as she is, but that I’m more natural – more likable. She’s satisfied; I can do most, if not all of the interviews from now on.

Glory, I think, glory, and run my tongue along my teeth.

#

DAY 78

Lane’s door is halfway open, so I pull it the rest of the way and declare, “I miss sex.”

Lane is pulling a rockabilly t-shirt over her head. Before her album came out, she’d collected a small handful of both boyfriends and girlfriends, but there’s been no-one since.

She only hesitates a moment, and then says, “Fine. It’s good for our career. Just no-one awful or ugly. And if you’re going on more than two dates with someone, you need to run them by me first.”

#

DAY 147

In Clayden, sex had felt a bit like receiving a bunch of likes on a social media post. I got my rush, my validation, even if the experience itself wasn’t all that satisfying. It was a small, invisible trophy. I felt worthwhile and full up for a few days afterwards, and then that feeling would dissipate and I would have to find another guy to chase away the circling thoughts of being unwanted.

But it’s different as Lane. Everywhere I go, I am watched, I am desired, I am salivated after. I no longer feel a need to collect men as beads on a string. A hook up once every few weeks is more than enough, and it’s about my pleasure now just as much as theirs.

I go back to Clayden for my birthday and partially regret it. My parents look excited to see me and buy me a rainbow ice-cream cake to celebrate, even though I’m mildly lactose intolerant and turning twenty years old instead of five. My younger sister has made me one of those paper fortune-tellers that you put your fingers inside, complete with golden glitter glue. My little brother gives me a glossy ceramic horse that he made in art class.

In Melbourne, I display these two presents on the shelf above my bed, even though Lane is clearly unimpressed by their craftsmanship. I resist the urge to tell her to fuck off. Lane herself has gifted me an expensive black and white dress that’s much more her style than mine, but I don’t think she knows that. And she didn’t even wrap it.

We have generally settled into the new house well enough. Lane has installed a camera at the gate, so that she can see anyone who approaches on her phone regardless of whether she’s home or not. She’s also installed a camera in the living room, attached to a device which throws chocolate Lindt balls at me whenever she presses a phone button. It was originally designed to allow you to watch your dogs while you’re at work and toss them treats. I suspect it’s more to do with her checking in on me on Tuesday mornings when our maid comes and I’m supposed to be hidden in my room.

I pose for my favourite photo-shoot so far, a triptych of villainous portraits where I am Cersei Lannister, I am the queen from Snow White, I am Lizzie Borden. My face is covered with hundreds of glued-on diamonds, I am wrapped in golden silk on a sea of black apples, I step naked out of a bath filled with crimson paint. I feel so goddamned powerful, my whole body is singing with it, I could practically levitate off the ground…

Right until I walk back through my front door.

#

DAY 183

Lane beckons me to her piano and starts teaching me to read sheet music. No announcement, no explanation, just pointing to notes and naming them and playing them over the keys. Once I clue in to what she’s doing I try to step away, but she grabs my arm.

“No,” she says, “it’s time. Think how embarrassing it would be if someone showed you some sheet music in an interview – your own sheet music, and you couldn’t even say that note was A.”

I sigh and grumble and provide some example excuses, but Lane won’t let go and eventually I have to admit she has a point and join her on the leather piano stool.

“Okay,” I mutter, and press my finger against a crotchet. “So this is A?”

#

DAY 204

It’s Halloween: the only day Lane and I can go out in public together. Lane takes me to October “Toby” Johnson’s party – he’s the lead guitarist of Ninety-Nine Riots and, I am happy to conclude, very cute. Lane is dressed as some anime character named Annalise, in a black bodysuit and blue body-powder, turquoise hair and iridescent makeup. Very alien-sexy. As for me: her plainer cousin, with dyed-black hair and a lace masquerade mask, in a simple violet dress. Literally, I’m introduced as her cousin Madison.

This is the first and only time I will ever kiss Lane. We both drank a bit too much – Lane from the light beers in Toby’s fridge with the sunglasses-wearing-panda on them, and me from the novelty of Toby’s vodka fountain – and someone suggested a game of spin the bottle. Kissing Lane was fine, I guess, but I’m not super into girls and when we pulled back, Lane had this particularly sharp expression which I interpreted as her wanting a repeat. My life is already at least eighty-five per cent Lane Islington. No need to get romantically involved with her and make it a hundred.

Shortly after that Toby and I end up making out in his walk-in closet. He’s a decent kisser and pretty good with his hands for twenty-two, but it doesn’t get any further than his fingers between my legs because he hasn’t planned ahead. I hate that about guys. His astronaut costume looks great but is a bastard to remove, and there aren’t any condoms in his closet. I don’t know why he can’t just go and get some – surely there are some elsewhere in the house – but maybe he’s embarrassed to be caught fucking a nobody.

I bite his neck a few times so he knows that I’m somebody, down a couple of the panda beers and dance with Lane to her first single, “21st Century,” because we’re that kind of casual narcissists.

#

DAY 379

Lane receives the phone call on an ordinary day. We’re curled up at either end of the couch, so I’m close enough to hear her tone drop from bluster into a cold numbness.

I can never ask Lane to repeat this part, but I think this is more or less what she said:

Trevor was in excellent health for his sixties – in fact he was chopping wood at the time – but he had tooth pain that he had been putting off going to a doctor for. The axe came down, something like an abscess popped in his mouth and he must have breathed in some of the liquid because it infected his lungs.

Lane is getting the call because Trevor is in an induced coma at the local hospital. I barely know what to say. I thought comas didn’t really happen to people in real life.

After she relays this story to me in a monotone she seems to come a bit alive again and is going to leave without a jumper on, so I shrug off the hoodie I’m wearing and wrap it around her shoulders before she reaches the door. I’m afraid that’s the most useful thing I do that night.

A couple of days have passed and I can see her approaching our house. She comes in, ashen and unwashed-looking, with an old leather book under one arm.

“He died,” is all she says before she locks herself in her room.

#

DAY 383

Four days seems to be the mourning period that Lane’s producers will allow.

She’s barely left her room since Trevor died, and yesterday she gave me her phone to monitor because she was getting too many texts and voicemails and didn’t want to deal with any of them. Her curtains have been permanently drawn, which doesn’t seem healthy, but I guess it hasn’t been very long and grief is a process. She drags herself between her bed and shower every day, but doesn’t actually get dressed in anything but pyjamas, and sometimes she’ll reach the kitchen but prefers it when I bring her room service.

“Lane,” I say gently to the shape under the covers, “I know you’re still feeling awful, but they want you to meet with them about recording the new album. They know the tracks are almost ready and everything.”

Lane drags a pillow further over her head. “You know the stuff,” comes her muffled voice. “You do it.”

I study the mound of bedsheets. It’s not like I can force her to leave the house. This is something kind I can do for her when she’s feeling like shit, isn’t it?

“Okay,” I say finally, “I’ll meet with them if it will help you. I haven’t actually done this part as Lane Islington before, remember? But if I’m a bit weird they’ll think it’s just because I’m grieving.”

Lane makes some kind of sad animal noise in response, and I leave her alone.

#

DAY 393

Lane ends up saying, “You do it,” to a lot of things.

I take Lane’s place at Trevor’s funeral, which seems like the kind of thing Lane will be furious about later, but she yells and cries at me until I agree. I take her place at the wake afterwards, and at comforting Audrey and Imogen through a weekend of tears and binge-watching Jane Austen movies. I take Lane’s place ice-skating with Willa, even though “Lane’s” performance on the ice is sub-par. To the outside world, Lane is recovering slowly. In our secret little world of two, Lane doesn’t seem to be recovering at all, and I’m starting to freak out a little.

All Lane seems to do these days is watch anime on her tablet, read from the leather book she keeps under her pillow (apparently it was Trevor’s favourite), and order food deliveries. When I’m not at home she has the drivers drop the plastic bags inside the gate, and then pilots a drone through the skylight of the upstairs hall, has it pick up the bag and then return to drop the food on her bed. I’d declare this kind of cleverness a good sign, but sometimes she doesn’t even go to the kitchen for cutlery; she just eats it all with her hands, even things you’d always think you’d need a fork or spoon for.

When I am at home and she’ll let me, I’ll sit with her in the dark and watch a show, but she doesn’t usually want to talk. She says, “What is there to say? He died,” and the first few times I don’t have anything to say to that. Later I say, “Yes, but you didn’t,” and try to coax her out of the house or at least into the garden to get some sun. But that seems to make her shut down into the foetal position instead.

“Lane,” I say, after I’ve brought her the third lemonade of the day, “remember you’re actually recording the album next week. That’s not something I can do for you.”

She calls me a stupid bitch then, for agreeing to record the album at all when I know what sort of state she’s in, but – I hope – she also knows I’m right.

#

First verse and chorus of “My Air” from “Razorblade Girl” (2018):

When life gets hard
And you just want to cry
Just open a window
She’ll be there by your side
When life is a burden
And you just want to die
She’ll be your shield
She’ll wrap her arms around you

My air
When the smog surrounds and the will is fading
My air
When curtains close and I can’t leave my room for days
When the lights go out
One by one
Starts at my eyes
Snuffs out the sun
If my lungs give out
If the stars blink out
You are my air

#

DAY 344

Thank goodness Lane really does record the album. She’s sullen when she leaves the house, a dozen rings on her fingers and a hood pulled down over half her face, even though it’s not remotely cold. She manages okay in the end, switching into performance mode when she’s actually in the studio, even though she has to take more breaks than usual. I’m proud of her, and I tell her as much.

After that she continues to improve a little. She still spends most of her time in her room, but she’s taken to making deals with me. She’ll spend half an hour outside in the sun if I read aloud to her. She’ll keep the curtains open that day if I do an interpretive dance to her entire first album. She’ll walk to the milk-bar if I sing her to sleep.

I am a very mediocre singer. I start with a series of nursery rhymes and then switch to a handful of pop ballads at her request. Her eyelids have closed from where they peek out from her blanket fort.

“Goodnight, Lane,” I whisper. “Sorry I can’t really sing.”

She makes some kind of animal noise. “You’re not that shitty,” she murmurs. “You have a nice vocal quality. You’re just very untrained. I’ll give you tips.”

She’s asleep by the time I sneak out the door.

#

DAY 376

I’m woken at about 7:15 A.M. to distant shouting. I lie there for a few moments, hoping it will stop, but if anything it’s just getting louder. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was coming from our front gate.

I clamber out into the hall and knock on Lane’s door. No answer. “Lane?” I twist the knob; her room is empty and unusually neat, but her mobile phone is vibrating on top of her bed. She hasn’t left the house, then.

I wander around the hallways for a minute, calling Lane’s name and listening for signs of life, but there’s nothing but that muffled shouting. I don’t think that’s Lane. I step back into her room and realise the curtains are open. We hadn’t even made a deal about that. And there’s a note on the bed, next to where the phone is buzzing.

A sudden rush of nausea and adrenaline hits me as I pick up the notepaper.

A –
Thank you for everything. Now it’s all yours. Anything numerical you need, I’ve hidden it behind the bookcase. Don’t worry that the new Lane can’t play guitar: she’s still grieving the man who taught her, and she’ll learn it all again in the next few months, anyway. If she’s feeling a bit rusty with singing she can take some revision lessons. Don’t hate me too much.
L

I turn over the paper with shaking hands and a churning stomach, but that’s really all it says. I stare out the window, as though Lane might just be sitting in the backyard, but there’s no-one there. My mind is empty. My feet are rooted to the spot.

Eventually, the noises start to creep back in: the shouting, the steady vibration of the phone. I pick up the phone reflexively. The video stream from the front gate appears from the screen: it’s Audrey, and she’s screaming for her daughter, and she looks just about ready to scale the fence.

After a moment I press the speaker button. “I’ll be down in a minute,” I tell Audrey through the gate’s speaker-phone, and abandon Lane’s phone back on the bed.

On my way downstairs I tuck Lane’s note into the pocket of my pyjama shorts.

Outside, Audrey looks furious and coiled, like she’s desperate to hit me. That wouldn’t be too bad, I think. I open the gate for her.

“You fucking bitch,” she seethes, her bared teeth inches from my face. “I thought you might be dead!”

I stare blankly up at her. I know my face should have a better expression on it, any expression, but I can’t seem to summon anything. “I’m here,” I say.

“You took a goddamn eternity to get down here!” she says. “I called your phone a dozen times. What the fuck were you doing?”

I feel my eyes getting even wider. “I left my phone in another room,” I say after a long moment, and that’s not even a lie.

Her fist opens and twitches as though she’s about to slap me, but then she turns away abruptly before she can. Audrey walks a circle around the front garden. I notice that some of her shirt buttons have been done up wrong, that her lipstick is a little smudged. She pulls her own note out of her bag and thrusts it towards my face. “What is this?”

It’s folded so I can’t read it. I take a gamble: “I wanted to tell you I love you.”

Audrey’s hand with the note is shaking violently. There is at least one tear down her cheek now, though you wouldn’t know it from the rest of her face.

“I really hate you sometimes,” she says, though all the sting has departed. She wraps her arms around me, strong and anchoring. “So you’re really alright?”

“I’m not going anywhere, if that’s what you mean.”

She makes a satisfied hum deep in her throat, and rocks me back and forth, standing up under the morning sun.

#

After we’ve had green tea and Monte Carlo biscuits and Audrey has left again, I plod back upstairs to Lane’s bedroom. The house feels different, soulless. Where is Lane?

I pocket Lane’s phone and drift around the house and gardens. If Lane has truly died, where is the body? I can see no fresh dirt to mark a grave, no bloodstains, nothing out of place. Nothing in the news to indicate her body has been found elsewhere. And I don’t think she’d do that, anyway; if it was found by anyone but me, it would ruin everything we’d built.

A breath catches in my throat: when did she stop calling me “Aer” and start calling me “heir?” From right at the beginning, or only the last few days, or somewhere in between? A thousand little moments tie themselves together in my brain. I feel so goddamn stupid. If I’d been paying any attention at all, she’d still be here.

I’m back next to Lane’s bed, gazing up at the ceiling. Was that hook always there, with an inch of rope tied around it? It was always so dark in Lane’s room lately. Is that drop of blood new, where it’s stained the floorboards underneath?

#

DAY 660

If Lane seems a bit different this past year, well, everyone changes and grows. If she can’t quite pull off the fierceness of the warrior attitude anymore, then she can still do pastel goth, avant-garde, dystopian, gothic lolita, street punk, body paint…

If you haven’t seen Lane in a gown on the red carpet before, or with coloured hair, call it evolution. If she seems to smile more easily, well, she’s been doing this for longer now. Fame affects people strangely.

The second album does even better than the first. Not long after Lane’s disappearance, I film the music videos for Razorblade Girl (flying knives, ala Carrie White), Version of Me (I play all the characters: the knight, the witch, and the straw-filled puppet princess), and My Air. That one’s the twist to the guts: I didn’t even realise it was going to be on the album until shortly before it dropped as a single. The song Lane wrote for me. She seemed embarrassed to play it with even just the two of us in the room, but apparently she’d shared it with her producers and they’d fallen over themselves for Lane’s first ballad.

That song fucking haunts me over the first few months. The music video is me as an astronaut, floating through space, the helmet initially full with water but draining as the song continues. Whilst my astronaut lips move through the water, my hands are folding a zoo of origami animals which come to life around my space suit. I don’t really know if I “get” the video concept, but apparently this was all worked out with Lane before she went AWOL.

I haven’t been back to Clayden since Lane disappeared. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Lane was getting awfully good at summoning that portal by the end: she could do it one-handed with her eyes closed, and even move the portal a little through the air. I only tried to summon it once or twice and couldn’t even do it right. If there’s a chance she’s starting over there with the dregs of Aeris Dormer’s life, I won’t return and screw that up for her. I hope she’s doing a better job with it than I did.

They want me to do an international tour next year, and yeah, I guess I’ll go. I’m becoming a passable guitar player and a proficient copycat singer. Lane’s settling around me now like a second skin.

I’ve had more than one day where I forget I haven’t always been Lane Islington.

#

DAY 5140

When did life get so goddamned dull? I’m sipping a mandarin vodka beside our swimming pool, an old married lady at age thirty-two. Tied the knot with Toby Johnson three years ago after he’d finally got his head on straight. Released my fifth album twelve months ago and thought it was pretty rocket-fuel-hot, but only my capital-F fans seem to have heard of it. I can even go out sometimes without being recognised. Still gorgeous, but no-one seems to care anymore.

A few bubbles break up the stillness of the pool. I lean forward, narrow my eyes towards the shallows. Tip my sunglasses up just in time to see a surge of water and then a dark head break through the surface. “Holy motherfucker,” I whisper to myself.

She emerges smoothly, like the bow of a ship, like a watery goddess. She’s wearing a perfectly fitted suit, mirrored aviators and diamond-encrusted fingerless gloves. Even soaked from head to toe, she looks the picture of an ultra-glamorous FBI agent.

The original Lane Islington grins at my dropped jaw and flashes me her pointy incisors.

“Wanna be a star?” she asks.

This story originally appeared in Next Curious Thing.


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Next Curious Thing

An otherworldly banquet of contemporary fantasy, dark fairy tales and soft science fiction, Next Curious Thing collects some of Gale's best short fiction from 2013 to 2018, including 'In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold' (Syntax & Salt Editor's Award winner) and 'Wrecked' (Tangent Online Recommended Reading List). In addition to its previously published stories, Next Curious Thing features six brand new tales original to this collection.

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Ephiny Gale

Ephiny Gale writes speculative fiction of many flavours, often with generous helpings of strangeness, female characters, and queer content.