This was Never a Vigil

by V. Medina

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

You blink, staring at the neat script, how it winds around your knuckles, trying to work out what it’s supposed to mean. Why would you have to come up with a name?

When you try to bring yours to mind, it won’t come. There’s no name sitting on the tip of your tongue, no echo of anything that feels familiar. There’s nothing waiting in the back of your brain and as you realize it, your body starts to tense up. You squeeze your eyes shut and try to steady your racing heart, but you only manage to make it slam harder against your chest as you attempt to repress the panic.

“Okay,” you tell yourself. “It’s okay, I’m okay. It’s fine.” You say it over and over, forgetting the water, forgetting that you need a name. Your world narrows down to repeating the same words, again and again. The only thing that matters is making yourself calmer. Your heart is hammering, your head is spinning, you feel shaky and nauseous and terrified beyond words.

Why don’t you know where you are? Why don’t you even know your own name? Were you drugged? Did something happen? You wind the blanket between your hands, twisting the fabric until it’s a bunched-up mess in your lap.

There’s a door in the corner of the room, and you startle as it swings open.

A woman with long, dark hair pulled back into a braid enters, smiling at you. It’s the kind of smile that makes you feel like nothing is wrong and she can take care of absolutely anything.

“Hello.” She closes the distance between the two of you, sitting down on the edge of the bed, her body radiating a soothing warmth that’s almost strong enough to break through your fear. “Have you found your name yet?”

“I – ” You shakes your head. “I don’t know. I can’t – ”

“Shhh.” She holds her hands up, her calm, reassuring look never once faltering. “It’s all right. I’ll explain everything, love. I need you to pick something, though. Anything will do.”

You swallow, looking around the room, hoping something might jar your brain and give you something to work with. When nothing springs to mind, you shrug. “I don’t know, I – …There’s not really anything there? Like, I know there should be, I feel like there should be, but I can’t think straight. I can’t remember.”

“How about I tell you my name instead? Do you want to try that?”

You nod, making yourself breathe, a long, slow breath in and out.

“I’m called Cin,” she tells you. “And I’ve been waiting for you for quite some time.”

“Oh, uhm, okay.” You nod. “I – I don’t think I remember you though. Is that okay?”

“Don’t worry about remembering me,” Cin assures you gently. “What I need you to do is concentrate and come up with a name for yourself. That’s the important thing right now.”

So you do as you’re told, closing your eyes and sucking air through your teeth. Your senses reach out, casting around in some kind of liminal space, until you hit something. There’s birdsong far away, a crow cawing out an awkward, harsh tune that makes your brain stand at attention.

It seeps into your mind, oozing into every part of you until you can feel something coalescing into an almost solid thought, a memory you could almost grasp with both hands. You pitch forward, crying out and grabbing for the blankets as if somehow they would help you.

“Vivian. My name – it’s Vivian.”

“Easy,” Cin says, holding you steady. “You did wonderfully, love. I’m so proud of you.”

You nod, blinking back tears as your body begins to tremble. “I don’t think I belong here,” you say, your voice quiet and shaking. “I’m not, I’m – I shouldn’t be here.”

“I know, darling. I know it feels that way. You won’t stay long though, I promise.”

“Where am I going?”

Cin smiles in that soothing, confident way that leaves you trusting her without a doubt. “You’ll be going where you belong.”

You nod. “Do – Do you promise?”

“With all my heart.”

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

You look around, confused, and you can’t keep the troubled expression off your face because this is so not normal. There’s nothing coming to mind; no name, no home address, no nothing.

A bird cries outside. You can hear it through the open window, and all at once, you feel yourself slammed with a dizzy spell. Something in your brain gnaws at you with jagged teeth, trying to pull up a memory that you don’t understand.

The bird calls again and suddenly you’re hit with the onslaught of an entire life flooding into your mind. Your name is Efron, you’re eighteen and you were… You were…

You shake your head. Something’s not right; something is, in fact, really, really wrong. There’s water on the table next to you and you take a sip, trying to ground yourself and get your head sorted out.

There’s a sudden knock, and a woman pokes her head through the opening door.

“Good morning,” she greets you with a soft, sad-looking smile. “You’re up, then?”

You look at her, your head tilting just a little. “Yeah, I, uh, woke up a little while ago.” The unspoken question of who she is sits on the tip of your tongue but you try not to ask outright, not yet.

Her smile shifts into something more pleasant as she walks into the room properly. She’s pretty – long hair that’s pulled back and inky black, with eyes to match. She’s built like she might have been a dancer once but had stopped long ago, her body no longer angles and edges, but rather, softness and curves.

She looks at you for a long moment, her eyes narrowing just a little as she studies your face. It feels like she’s reading you, like there might have been a common language written on your face and she can see every letter scrawled on your skin.

“You’ve got a name.” She sits down on the edge of the bed, her hands in her lap. “I can tell. What is it?”

“Efron,” you tell her as you reach for one of the pillows, curling your body around it. “I don’t know who you are.”

She moves forward, brushing a few stray bits of hair from your face. “That’s all right. My name is Cin. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Efron.”

You close your eyes at her touch, feeling tension release from your back and shoulders. Her touch is cool and comforting, like your mom’s used to be.

“Cin?” you ask, your voice small.

“Yes?”

“I don’t know what’s going on here. I thought I was – I remember getting into a crash, I remember – ” Your voice is shaking now, and you want to curl up and hide, even though you know that there’s no running from your own mind and the images it keeps throwing at you.

She puts her fingers to your lips, shushing you gently. “You’re all right now.” She smiles and there’s a promise in it, a reassurance that everything will be okay. “I’m going to take care of you today and that’s all you have to worry about.”

“What about tomorrow?”

Cin closes her eyes, one hand tugging gently at her braid. “Tomorrow you won’t be here anymore.”

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

There’s a bird sitting silently outside an open window. You blink at it and it stares back at you, wide eyes tracking your movements as you reach for the water. There’s something about the bird that feels familiar, like it’s been with you for years now, a friend that had come such a long way to find you over and over again. You don’t remember ever keeping blackbirds, though, or any birds for that matter.

Then again, you don’t remember much of anything.

It strikes you how odd that is, how when you try to come up with a name for yourself, there’s nothing there. Your head swims with half-formed thoughts, worries and fear and exhaustion, but no names.

You try to think back on your life, on the things you’ve done and seen and lived through, but nothing rises up to greet you. You know that you’re here and that you have these notes on your hands, and there isn’t anything else.

This is so far from okay it’s almost laughable. You know you need to take action, to try and come up with a plan and a way out, it’s just a matter of not letting your panic get the best of you.

After a few minutes of careful breathing, you hear a noise on the other side of the door and a second later, there’s a lady – or at least, she reads femme. She’s dressed in comfortable clothes and her hair is pulled back, showing off her round, sweet-looking face. Her expression is tired, worn down maybe, but she smiles all the same.

“Hello,” she says, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. “Who are we today?”

“I don’t know,” you tell her. “I’m not sure what’s going on exactly but I don’t think I have a name for you, if that’s what you’re after.”

“That’s all right,” she assures, looking to the bird in the window. One of her hands reaches out as she makes a soft noise with her tongue, calling it to her.

It flies a circle around the room, then settles down with the two of you, perching on the lady’s arm, closing its eyes.

“Has it sung for you yet?” she asks, her other hand stroking the bird’s back.

“Uh, no. Not yet.”

“It will.”

She shakes her head, sighing, then looks up at you again. “I can tell you who I am while we wait, if you like.”

You nod, going with the idea that more information is better than less. “Yeah, sure. I’m kinda flying blind here.”

“Call me Cin,” she starts. “I’m here to take care of you.”

You look at her, studying her face and the way she is with the bird. You aren’t sure if you actually trust her, but she seems on the up and up.

“Can you tell me who I am?”

She looks at the bird rather than meeting your eyes. “I can. It won’t do you much good though.”

“Oh?” Your confusion is written all over your face. It’s a strange thing to hear and certainly not what you had been hoping for.

“The information won’t linger.” She looks up at you as the bird hops from her arm to the bed, then settles on your leg.

“I’m not really sure what you mean.”

“I know.”

The bird opens its mouth, lets out a caw, and you get hit with a wave of nausea. There’s flash of light, of memory, and you’re sure someone is screaming and you’re falling, falling, falling down into a dark sea.

You teeter a little, one hand trying to grab at anything that might keep you upright while the other reaches out for Cin. “Oh god…”

She laughs, the sound gentle, and lets you hold onto her, shifting closer so she can wrap an arm around you, the only thing keeping your head above water.

“You’re all right,” she says, her voice soft. “You’re fine, I promise. Just ride it out. It settles soon enough.”

You gasp and the memories come at you in waves. Your life pulls you in a mad dance across your own mind until you’re left falling forward, dazed and dizzy, your hands still trying to hold onto something to keep you afloat.

“My name was Cam,” you say through shaky breaths. “My name was Cam but at my funeral they used Carolina. They used my fucking birth name.”

“I’m sorry,” Cin whispers. “I’m sorry they did that. They should have called you by your proper name.”

You laugh; it’s bitter and angry and hurt. “My parents never believed me. They didn’t care that I wasn’t their fucking daughter. They were going to make things go the way they wanted. It’s not like I could voice an opinion on it.”

Cin rubs circles into your back, listening with all the patience of the saints you never believed in. “It wasn’t fair.”

“Nothing ever was,” you reply. “And now I’m – ”

“Going somewhere brighter,” Cin tells you. “Now you’re on your way to somewhere that lets you be who you are.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

You take in a few more shaking breaths, now wet with the threat of tears. “I don’t know what to say.”

“That’s all right. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be off soon, I promise. You just spend a day with me first.”

“Are you – I don’t know, some kind of detour for the dead?”

She shrugs one shoulder. “Yes and no. Some of you just pass through on your way, that’s all.”

You nod, looking at her for a long moment before you speak again. “You look like you’re waiting for someone.”

Cin tenses up. “Sort of.”

“Did you lose someone?”

She sighs, shutting her eyes. “Not exactly. They’re coming back, just not yet.”

You consider your next question, but find yourself unsure how to phrase it exactly, so you just let the words spill out how they want to. “Are they dead too? What happened to them?”

Cin laughs, a dark, heavy noise that somehow fills the room with its volume. “They’re, well, not dead, but one might argue about living, too. I guess you could say they’re detained. They’re busy right now but they’ll come home soon.”

You nod, humming for a moment as you consider more questions, but change your mind instead. “So, what happens after this? For me, I mean.”

“You stay with me for the day, then you get to move on. This body is only a temporary one.”

“Okay.” You shake your head, still not entirely sure what to make of any of this.

“I can tell you more,” Cin offers, though she seems to hesitate before saying so. “I’ll even give you something a little better than water.”

You laugh. “I feel like alcohol is probably a good choice right now.”

“Let’s see what I can scrounge up.” Cin gets to her feet, gesturing for you to follow. “Come on, I’ll start at the beginning.”

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

There’s a tingling sensation in the back of your brain, something trying to scream out and give you the information you’re trying to recall, but it lacks the vocabulary, the ability to articulate. Something has woken up and now it’s trying to make you stand up and pay attention. You’re not sure what it is though, beyond a vague, unnerving feeling of disorientation and fear.

The notes on your hands unsettle you, more so when you realize there’s no name sitting anywhere in your mind, nothing to offer but a vague recollection of having one. You know that you had a name, that you hadn’t gone through the world without one, but like hell could you determine what it is now.

There’s a bird—-a big, black crow, peering at your through a window. There are more behind it, a whole flock of blackbirds outside, some of them in the trees, some of them idly flying. They all have the same kind of eyes, dark and distinctly unbirdlike. Some of them stare at you while others pay no mind, enjoying the sunlight and their freedom. The eeriness of this situation is not made any better by their presence.

You watch the bird at the window carefully, waiting to see what it does, but it only caws once and flutters its wings. It’s enough though, enough to shoot the memories down your spine like a needle into bone.

You shiver, reeling from the onslaught. Your name was Anne-Marie; you were thirty-two and had a family. You had a wife, a daughter, and now? Now you have nothing. Now your family goes on without you, your daughter grows up without one of her parents and, if you’re very lucky, maybe you’ll get to watch as your family moves on.

Now you’re dead. Or had been dead. You’re really not sure what’s going on at this point.

Your body comes down from the strange high the memories produced, shuddering and shaking, when the door opens. A woman that you don’t know enters. She’s in a plain, grey dress with few decorations of any kind, except a necklace with a dark blue stone. She doesn’t look like someone who would hurt you – more like make you some cookies and sit down to have a talk about your poor life choices.

Maybe that’s what this is. Maybe she’s going to go over your life and determine what happens to you next. You bite your lip at the idea, nervous about the thought of your life being judged by some grand arbiter of the universe. The idea does not sit well with you.

“Don’t look so nervous,” the lady says. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Where are we?” you ask. You’re not sure if questions are welcome but you’ve never been good at keeping your mouth shut.

“Here’s just a little house in the country. Nothing scary, I assure you.”

You laugh. The sound rattles in your chest, hollow and nervous. “I can’t say I entirely believe you, Miss.”

“Cin,” she corrects. “I’m called Cin. And you are?”

“Anne-Marie. Did you not know that already?””

It feels like Cin should have known. If this place was some kind of judgement hall, they should really have their shit together. Then again, you remembers the notes on your hands. Maybe she doesn’t know a damn thing about you.

“Where do you think you are, Anne-Marie?”

“I don’t know,” you say slowly, careful with your words. “I thought this was something like a waystation? Somewhere between my life and whatever happens after.”

Cin smiles. It’s a beautiful sight and you’re caught off guard by how lovely it is, the way her smile lights up her face and makes her seem like she’s so, so proud of you.

“You’ve almost got it.” Cin crosses the room and sits on the bed next to you. It’s hard for you to stop looking at her, to remember that there is so much you should be dealing with right now besides thinking about how pretty this complete stranger is.

“You’re traveling right now, but you’ll get to where you’re going soon enough. All of you will.” She looks to the bird, smiling and calling it to her with a click of her tongue, then gestures to the creature with her free hand. “Does she look familiar?”

You look at the animal, tilting your head as you study it. Something in its eyes rings in your brain; something about the way it looks at you with this knowing expression that you didn’t know birds could even have.

“It’s….”

“She’s you, my dear. Or most of you.”

“How does that even work?”

Cin laughs, raising her arm up and letting the bird take

flight. “This body is a vessel for the dead. As you travel onward to the worlds beyond, some of you stop here to keep me company. I get a bit lonely, you see.”

You blink. “So, I chose to be here?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“But why didn’t I remember who I was at first?”

“Well,” Cin begins, gesturing at at your form. “This body does have an occupant besides all of you. It’s hard to them to keep hold of themself. But when you all come to visit, it helps them. Every single one of you has helped restore them just a bit.”

“And what happens when they’ve got themself intact again?”

“Then, they come back to me.” It sounds like she’s been waiting for this to happen, like it’s been a long, hard time without her partner.

“I’m sorry you’re lonely.”

“It’s all right.” Cin gets to her feet, rising with a dancer’s grace. “Come on, let me get you something warm. You’ll not be with me too long and I like to make sure you have something to keep you cozy while you’re here.”

She walks to the door, throwing you a sweet smile when she looks back and you’re still on the bed.

“Come on, lovely. Let’s go.”

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

Nothing looks familiar, nothing comes to mind, nothing – nothing feels right. Nothing feels like what it should be, even though you’re not sure what that even means. Everything is stringy and weird at the edges, a dreamy, cotton-candy quality covering everything.

You fall back against the pillow, closing your eyes, and –

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

“Wait – ” You hold up one hand, looking at it carefully, something ringing in your mind. This place isn’t where you should be, not where you belong. But it is, it’s the bed, the blankets, the pillow that smells like you and –

Her? Her. The woman, the woman who will enter, the woman behind the door. The woman who comes and saves you from confusion and fear and loss every damn day you wake up in this place.

Something is screaming in your head, crying out in pain, vengeance, anger. It wants to be free, to let loose and tear the world apart.

No, not the world, just a part of it, just what trapped it inside this place.

There’s a door and behind the door there’s a woman but what’s important about her? You don’t know, can’t recall.

Birds scream and you remember and forget and remember and –

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you see two notes written on the back of your hands. The first says to take a drink of water. The second tells you to come up with a name for yourself.

She is –

She is not you, you are you, and not you, and you are too much to be trapped in this one little body, this frail little form. You stutter, your movements slipping and you make the water topple off the nightstand. The glass breaks and a bird screeches.

It’s crying out in mourning, you can feel it in your aching bones, though you has no idea who’s died.

hedgehog scene break

When you wake up, you don’t look at your hands. There’s no need to learn what’s written on them. You remember now.

Getting to your feet, you look down at yourself, the pale, human form that houses you. It seems so strange, so sad, to let this little body go, but it’s been far too long since your real form has seen the light, has tasted the air and felt the world tickle your senses. It’s been too long since you could reach out, feel the pulse of the planet, of everything that lives within it. You’ve missed feeling the turn of the Earth.

The vessel, small and fragile, starts to break down, skin falling away, leaving exposed muscles, tendons, insides that fall as if being peeled from the bone. Blood pools at your feet; pieces of the body hit the ground with a smack that echoes in the bare room. It’s crumbling, skin flaking away, meat decomposing as soon as it touches ground.

And then there’s nothing but scraps of flesh that had once been a person, and now there’s just you. There’s your proper form existing in a black mass of shadow and dust, bending down to touch the blood and viscera, caressing it fondly with an inky hand. It had been a good body, one that served you well, even if it was meant to be a prison.

Your true state is shadow and whispers and the sweet sounds of the mourning birds and death omens in the night. You’re every last breath and every dark coffin. You’re the end of all things and finally, finally, you’ve been freed once again.

You slide under the door, moving through the place you and yours have occupied, the place that your wife tried to make into a home for each of the dead who helped you. She has always been kind, though she didn’t let her kindness stop her from getting things done, and now you get to greet her as what you are supposed to be.

You don’t touch the floor as you move, letting your being glide over the ground, reveling in being able to do this again. It feels like freedom, the first steps you’ve taken after being shackled for far too long.

She sleeps, and it makes your shadows curl in delight at the sight of her. She is a gift, a treasure beyond any jewel, beyond any memory you have. You may have lost yourself, your power, almost everything that made you who you were, but you didn’t lose her.

Sliding beneath the covers, you form a dark body, curling around her with too many arms. You hum into her ear and kiss her shoulder at the same time.

Cin stirs, opening her eyes and sucking in a sharp breath. For a moment, she doesn’t move; then a laugh erupts from inside her, the sound filled with a joy you’ve not heard from her since before you left. She turns around, kissing you on one of your mouths, smiling as she tastes you. You have always been dirt and smoke and bonfires, funeral incense mixing with the taste of dark, seedy fruits.

You both only slow for a moment, just long enough for her to crack her human shell, to slip out of that body and join you in the night as what you both truly are. She hadn’t always been shadow and smoke, but her time with you has changed her.

“I’ve missed you, my love.” You whisper it against her, your many mouths making it a chorus of affection. “By Earth and Star, I’ve missed you.”

Creatures such as the two of you no longer possess the ability to cry, but there’s a crack in your wife’s voice all the same. “I knew you’d come back.”

You laugh and the walls shudder. It’s not a loud sound but it rocks the foundation of the house anyway.

You wrap around each other, shadow on shadow, smoke on smoke. You blend and turn and taste each other until every part of you is mixed with one another and there’s no point in trying to remember who is who anymore. You are one being, at least for the moment and you have never felt more at peace.

hedgehog scene break

When you rise, there are two notes written on the walls of the Underworld. The first says welcome back. The second says you have always been loved.

hedgehog scene break

V. Medina is queer, non-binary, disabled, and living in Clarksville, Tennessee. They share a townhouse with their two cats, partner, and an overly cluttered desk. Their fiction has appeared in Broken Metropolis: Queer Tales Of A City That Never Was and they have an essay in the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue of Uncanny. In their spare time, they enjoy doing divination, teaching themself random hobbies, and dyeing their hair whatever color strikes them at 3 AM.

“This was Never a Vigil” (© V. Medina) was published in Issue 12 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.