Separation Anxiety - 2016

Sett woke up alone again. Which was fine, just disappointing.

They rolled out of bed, tossing the duvet back into place and staring as it settled into the pair of divots where Ratty and them usually slept. They needed a new mattress. 

They cut a small hole in their lips through which to brush their teeth, barely conscious as they rinsed the scalpel that lived next to their toothbrush. A few brown spots refused to wash out. That was an infection risk. They needed a new one of those too.

Before resealing their mouth, they popped a tab of Lexapro and swallowed it dry. A discarded bottle of hairspray caught their eye as they stitched over the hole. That would also need replacing. Funny how everything always seems to need replacing at the same time. 

They meandered out to the kitchen, choosing on instinct to pick up the duvet they had just flattened and huddle themselves in it. It was a weekend day, probably. They could afford to fall back asleep on the couch.

With their eyes closed against the mix of morning light and harsh fluorescent, they fumbled for their kettle, blinking through the burn as they realized nothing was in its place. Their tea kit had been laid out on a clean dish towel, the nicer kettle they had bought as a treat for themselves already half full on the stove.

Sett took stock of the apartment. Ratty’s coat was missing, as usual. She had probably set this out before heading off. They stared at the meticulously prepared tea bag as they waited for the hot water, their eyes dragging along the clumsy creases. It would hold the tea together, that was all that really mattered.

It was good to know that she was at least alright.

It was good to know, too, that she wanted Sett to know she was alright.

She had come to hover in their bedroom a few nights over the past four or so weeks, just watching them sleep. Sett pretended to be asleep, cherishing what had come to feel like the odd intimacy of their distant wife.

Sett shelved their favourite mug in favour of a steel traveller, set the messy tea bag at the bottom, and poured the water over it just before it tipped over its boiling point. They tore the little paper tab Ratty had affixed to the end of the steeping string, stopping above the recycling bin as they caught a smear of black against the white.

“Good morning.” It said, accompanied by a careful drawing of a butterfly. Sett stared at it for a moment, then slipped it into the pocket of their pyjama pants. They sat down on the old, smelly couch and dragged five special threads from subspace. Once they were firmly in their grasp, they tugged, and their banjo materialized on their lap.

Not exactly the instrument for morning music, but it was still helpful. A creative outlet mostly. A fine excuse to make their wrists hurt, too. They began to play, their head hung low to accommodate the weight of the duvet.

“Where is your wife, Sett?” The music asked of them.

“Why doesn’t she come home anymore?” It pressed as the melody darkened.

Ratty had been gone for a while. She had started to pull away ages ago. Or, at least what felt like ages ago. Sett struggled not to blame Eleanor, because it really wasn’t Eleanor’s fault, it just started around the same time they showed up.

Then again, that could be chalked up to the flashback she had while Eleanor was in the Ghostzone. The years between Eleanor coming home with them and that happening were pretty normal for Ratty’s standards. It was so hard to keep track of time on Earth.

All of this to distract from the obvious.

“You know why she doesn’t come home anymore.” The music spoke. “She has stopped loving you.” They stood, refusing to give this line of thought its day in court as her banjo twanged its way back into subspace. 

No. They were going to find Ratty and confront her about this.

They slung their oversized coat around their shoulders as they stomped down to the parking garage. The big van hummed quietly with the several kilojoules of electricity it took to keep Angel alive in her old age. Sett slammed the door open, given the time between floors to get frustrated.

“Angel?” They asked the dark interior. The robot turned, somehow more intimidating as the light from their visor shone through the dust.

“Hello...” A bar flashed across her visor. “...Sett.” The goat had started to feel guilty about the tone with which she stormed in on this elderly android.

“Hi, uh- Do you know where Ratty is?” They asked, throwing out their original accusatory tone in favour of something lighter. Another loading bar flashed across her visor.

“Miami.” She said, the edges of her voice crushed against the strain.

“Miami?” Sett stammered. “What is she doing in Miami?”

“Cocaine, probably.” Sett stared for a moment, trying and failing to decode the layers of whatever went into that response. Angel stared back, her chin falling as her joke flopped. Something clicked in her neck, and her range of motion went from ‘child’s birthday party animatronic’ to ‘upscale lawsuit-themed billionaire theme park animatronic’.

“Not the best time for jokes, I gather.” She reveled in her returned ability to form complete sentences.

“Not really. Do you want me to have Fern take another look at you?” 

“Is that something we can afford?” 

“We’ve helped Fern in the past, I’m sure they would be fine with helping us.”

“Then yes. I would like that.”

“Okay. Good.” Sett made a mental note to reach out. “Do you know what Ratty is doing in Miami?”

“I do not. She says she had courier work. I don’t believe her.” 

“You asked her?”

“I was curious.” Angel said, something like pride stuck behind her motionless face. Sett blinked, realizing what just happened.

“How long have you been able to get curious?” They asked

“I’m not sure.”

“That’s really fantastic Angel, good for you.” They smiled, temporarily forgetting their mission. 

Then it came time to ask the awkward question. There was no easy or non-stalkerish way to ask this, but suddenly withdrawing affection without warning was a form of abuse, so… an eye for an eye is what Sett told themselves.

“Can you- do you know where her cell phone is?” ‘Do you know where her cell phone is?’ was an excellently non-stalkerish way to ask to have someone tracked down. Angel sat up straight, taking just a moment to calculate before pointing off in an arbitrary direction.

“Angel, that’s not helpful. I need-”

“It’s right there.” She pointed more firmly. Sett followed the line of Angel’s arm, then followed a bright orange charging cable out of the side of the glove box and into the van’s cigarette lighter.


So what the fuck?

Ratty barely registered the crack in her metacarpal as one of the worst punches of her life connected with her assailant's chin. She snatched the knife - blade first - from his now dead-stopped swing and jammed its handle into the barrel of the shotgun that was about to discharge into the back of her head. She pushed up on the knife, putting the first shot in the ceiling instead and yanking the firearm out of her other assailants now shaking hands. She braced the barrel of the gun against her shoulder, pointed the butt at his chin, and let a shot off, propelling the mass of wood into his nose.

Number one groaned behind her as number two fell like a sack of hammers, fully unconscious.

“Go home. Bring your friend with you.” She growled, only realizing the damage she had sustained as she pointed with the jagged stump at her wrist. She stared at it as the still conscious young man struggled to hoist his partner in crime. A hand was a complex thing to rebuilt. It was hardly worth the energy.

She stopped weighing the pros and cons as a bullet tore through her eye. She threw her coat up over her face to hide the wound, fearing the kind of extreme measures some people found access to when they realized they were dealing with something paranormal. 

Ratty charged the hallway blind, more by virtue of the jacket over her face than the actual missing eye. She tackled the person she thought was the gunman and knocked him out with a quick and clinical punch. A volley of shots then tore through the back of her shoulder, and she realized her mistake. The mass of flesh slumped off like melting candle wax as she stood up, jamming the top of her skull into her attackers chin.

“Go home!” She repeated, now - understandably - a little more frustrated. The amount of energy it would take to heal would be more than she could muster, and so she just pressed on.

Sett stepped down off the bus in one of Ratty’s two hometowns. It would have been a nice place to retire, if the rampant class disparity could be ignored. Then again, everywhere was like that nowadays. 

The transit here was pretty nice though, so thorough that two different buses took them within a few blocks of their destination. Two portals for Angel in her current state was two too many, and it was calming to watch the snow whiz by on the combination of public transit it took to get here, so best not to risk it, really. 

Sett shut their eyes against the cold as warm vapour whistled through their nose. They had always liked winter. It felt to them like the whole world was taking a quick break: a 45 minute nap so they could be energized for the new year.

Ratty liked winter too, for completely different reasons. As a kid, she spent her winters with her mother in the shadow of the city, and her summers with her father in the middle of nowhere, an hour walk to the nearest town.

Sett crushed the intrusive question of how much Ratty would remember about their past with a fantasy of traipsing back through layers of public transit together with her, visiting Ratty’s mom for a holiday dinner, or her birthday, or the kind of thing normal people did. Instead, for the second time in their strained relationship, Sett had to ask Ratty’s mom to help sleuth out where her missing daughter might have gotten off to.

The Vermington household was frankly adorable. A stout green bungalow that - from the outside - didn’t look as though it could have more than three rooms. That was heavily compensated for by the massive garden space in the front lot, currently grey and rotting under a thin layer of snow.

Sett knocked, taking an instinctive step back as they always did. A bubble of anxiety rose up through their chest, popping as the lock screeched through its strike plate. Eva Vermington opened the door, shooing her cats away with the heel of her slipper.

“Just a second, Han.” She called into the house. Sett winced as they realized Ratty went through her childhood named after both a fed and a Star Wars character. That must’ve been rough. “Hi, I’m sorry-” The older woman stopped dead in her tracks as she locked eyes with Sett. She never liked them. The paranormal in general had left a bad taste in her mouth.

“Hi, Eva. I’m sorry to-” Sett started.

“It’s ‘Miss Vermington, please.” Miss Vermington stepped out, her slippers browning in the snow as she forcefully closed the door behind her. Sett wondered if all in-laws were this bad, and reveled in that moment of normalcy.

“Of course, we’re sorry.” The goat spoke softly, immediately put on their back foot. “We need- Ratty is- She’s not missing, but-” They stammered to try and find a non-stalkerish way of communicating what they were trying to do. “She ran off, and we know she’s okay, but we haven’t seen her in, weeks, I think… She seems to be avoiding us and… I don’t know, you’re her mother, and I thought you might have some insight.”

Eva stared for a moment, having made a decent living off of stalkers in their past life. With her miniature vendetta, she was really looking for a reason not to like Sett. But this screamed ‘concerned wife’ louder than it screamed ‘malicious creep’, and to be honest, the fact that Sett hadn’t aged a day since they met in Eva’s early 20s signalled that - if this goat wanted someone found - a ‘mere mortal’ wasn’t going to stop them.

“I forgot about the ‘we-us’ thing.” Plus, who doesn’t like an adultery case? “When did it start?” Eva asked, putting no effort into keeping the eye-roll out of her voice.

“She had a- we’re not sure what you would call it, like a PTSD attack the other day, and-”

Hang on. That’s not right. That was six years ago. Sett doesn’t notice. They stop mid-sentence, but they don’t really understand why or what about what they just said was wrong.

“She’s just been getting more and more distant ever since.” They finished, keeping it simple.

“Oh, okay.” Eva lit a cigarette, taking advantage of the moment away from her kids. “Easy. Something in that episode reminded her of you and now she’s avoiding you because she doesn’t want to be reminded of that part of herself.” There was no blow-softening in her tone: a pitch perfect recreation of a Sherlock Holmes asshole with a revelation half as interesting.

“We-” Sett stammered, their eyes drifting out of focus as they processed the information.

“Jesus, don’t cry. Look.” Eva stomped their cigarette, already having finished it, and drew out another. If offered, Sett wouldn’t have taken one, but they also felt like it would have been nice to be asked. “She get violent? Scream-y and twitchy and whatever?”

“She didn’t- hit me, or anything.” 

“But everything but?”

“Yes.” They remembered the shivering pile of fear that’d replaced their wife, not days, but years ago.

“She’s afraid of hurting you.”

“Ah, um-” That was… marginally better. “So how do we-” Eva jumped as the door opened behind her, dropping her cigarette and kicking it into a puddle. She tried to flap the excess fumes away as both her and Sett turned to look at their guest: a tiny Ratty.

“Mom- can you-” She started, stopping as she caught Sett’s eye. There was something adorable about seeing her big, tired eyes in such a tiny skull.

“Go back inside Han.” Eva snapped, immediately annoyed at the interruption. Little Ratty ignored her and stepped - in her socks - out into a puddle of slush. One of the house’s cats slipped by in the commotion and went tearing across the lawn, tearing Eva away for a few moments.

“Hi, I’m Ishmael. What’s your name?” She asked. Sett crouched, getting eye level with the little possum and managing the best smile they could without a mouth.

“Hi Ishmael, we’re Sett.” They beamed. “I thought your name was Hanratty?”

“Ishmael’s my middle name. It’s way cooler. Do you wanna see the movie I’m working on?” She asked, taking the goat by the hand instinctively and beginning to lead them into the house. 

Hanratty Ishmael Vermington. H.I.V. Three strikes for the possum's shitty name.

“We-” Sett stammered, looking over their shoulder and immediately being burned alive by Eva’s glare. “I don’t think your mom would be okay with that.”

“Oh, okay.” Ratty dropped Sett’s hand and - not sure what else to do - went back inside of her own accord.

“You stay away from my son.” Eva growled, throwing the cat over the threshold and slamming the door.

“She looks really young for-” Sett started, bewildered at a Ratty - born in 1998 - that looked no older than 12 in 2016. They were cut off as Eva dragged them off the porch and down the lane.

“I would actually really prefer if you left HIM alone. This is a Christian household, and I don't want any of your Satanic business corrupting my child. Now...” With a final half-shove, Sett was off their mother-in-law’s property. “...please leave.” They froze in the street for a moment, processing a lot at once.

“Can I ask, how old is Han?” Sett asked, deliberately using her first name to avoid misgendering her. 

“No, leave.”

“Right, of course, we’re sorry.” Sett slunk away, now more confused than defeated. Although, it should be noted, still pretty defeated.

“Alright, everybody out.” Ratty dragged open the ridged red door of a shipping container with the stump of her wrist. Inside, a huddle of foxes shielded their eyes against the new light. They looked cold, underfed, the scraps of burlap left to them seemingly accidentally doing nothing to hide their ribs, their sallow stomachs. “There’s a van outside, it’ll take you somewhere safe, we’re gonna try and get your lives back on track.”

They were intimidated by the half corpse, each giving her a wide berth as they slunk out of captivity. Only one stopped to speak, their fur stained black around their lips, nose and eyes.

“You’re going to die.” She said. Ratty looked down at the puddle she was standing in, the leaky roof doing no favours to any of these women. One eye missing, the other half swollen shut. No hands, one arm, and a limp from putting her leg through a rotting stair.

“Takes more than this to kill me.” She shrugged. The fox stared for a moment, then joined her fellow captives on their way out of the building.

Time to deliver a package.

Ratty took a rumpled cardboard box from her messenger bag, checking the map of the building’s top floor she had scrawled on it a half-hour earlier. Boss’s office was up ahead.

She set it down on the desk, sitting down on the window sill and watching everyone file out. This wasn’t a ‘bring the building down’ bomb. It was more of a ‘we can get to you anywhere’ bomb. Designed to scare, not to do too much damage. Still, it was good to make sure everyone who mattered was safe.

She heard it chirp as the last woman - the one that told Ratty she was going to die - climbed into the back of a moving van. Her contact had forgotten about her. That was fine, ten seconds was enough to get out.

Or, it would have been if the door wasn’t stuck.

That was fine too, Ratty thought. She sat back on the window sill as it went off, blowing her out and across the street, throwing her spine against the curb and her head - horns first - against the grey pavement. They cracked off, leaving unevenly shaped stumps. With what little energy she could muster, she turned her head to watch them roll to a stop on the sidewalk next to her. That was fine. They would grow back.

“Shit! Ratty are you-”

“Yeah.” She gurgled, her throat too far forward in her mouth. “Call Angel.”

Their horn clicking as it vibrated against the window of the train back downtown, Sett chose to focus on the incongruity of little Ratty looking and acting half her age. The first mystery they set out to solve this morning was more or less put to bed from the start. Eva hadn’t told Sett anything they didn’t already know, and this one - despite some metaphysical implications - was a little more approachable.

Time was Ratty’s domain, something she had inherited from her father, but something she rarely touched. For someone who could ostensibly time travel, she showed up late or out of breath a fair amount. She also wasn’t exactly available for questioning.

Sett sat up and looked around the car: someone sleeping a few rows down, but other than that they were completely alone. They scooted into the centre row, pulling up the music player on their phone and scrolling down to a file titled ‘our song’

Ratty’s voice came first, energized as Sett warmed up.

“Ready?” She asked. There was a pause where the recorded Sett nodded. “God, I’m so excited. When was the last time we did this?”

“Not sure.” They said, beginning to strum. There was a thick vaneer of love on the pair voices. It was - admittedly - a little hard to listen to. Sett shut their eyes, gently tossing their switchspace form through the seat behind them. It was easier to leave their body when there was something physical to push the two apart.

The first notes lit up subspace like a single flash of a broken street-lamp, then another, and another, until the entire hidden world was lit in the golden-orange hue of neglect. The train was all but gone, extant only in the spread stance that kept Sett upright against the gentle rocking.

Subspace was beautiful. Sett had no good reason for not visiting more often, only that it was, well, hardly more than beautiful. That, and their guest. They waved lazily to their subspace reflection before going on with their investigation.

The inky blackness above was lit by little pillars of pain, shooting up into the sky to be eaten. Somewhere behind the goat’s corporeal form, a weak chain tied a standing figure with very little ambient pain to someone whose anguish was enough to shield their eyes against. Someone was being fined for not paying their fare.

Sightseeing was not what they came for today.

Ratty’s voice started just off beat, the quiet sound of paper being set aside taking its place as they ditched written lyrics in favour of improvisation. With that, the jade plane of time flickered through the floor below, as though colouring in-between the orange lines.

And it was too fast, or too slow, or possibly both, depending on how they looked at it. Black blades of grass seemed to be racing to try and keep up with their colour, what sparse scenery existed seemed almost confused, bending and shearing out of shape to keep pace before jumping ahead, further out of sync with the rest of its plane.

Well, fuck.

There's your problem.

On a hunch, Sett unplugged their headphones, stopped ‘our song’, and watched as Hell’s material plane crashed into existence with its usual intimidating thud. It roared in the sudden silence, cutting through subspace with a screeching grind. Sett turned to the source of the sound: Hell cut perpendicular to the path of the train, and roughly 500 kilometres to the South-East, Hell’s Kitchen was burning.

Three unique energies stood in the centre of the blaze: the other end of a broken chain, now limping through his afterlife, the sucking black-hole of the elder god: Decay, and the soulless ambition of one Director Eden Ross.

And then a fare inspector tapped Sett on the shoulder. In an instant, subspace was gone, the plane of time was gone, Hell was gone.

“Ma’am, we really prefer if you stay seated while the train is moving.” Sett took stock of their situation: standing in the middle of the aisle, spinning with their arms outstretched. They sat down, avoiding eye contact as they wordlessly tapped their transit pass against the inspectors ticket checker.

A green check mark and a mumbled “have a nice day,” and he was on his way again, leaving Sett to stare out the South-East window.

Ratty focused on her breathing as her spine pulled itself back into alignment against the cold faux-porcelain of her bathtub. After a long fall, lungs were always what she prioritized. She hated not being able to breathe.

Of course, after that was one hand; whichever one had sustained the least damage. Today, it was her right hand. A lucky break. She kept one of the nigh-indestructible generations of IPod in the pocket of her work jacket, and liked to listen to podcasts when she had to lie still and pull herself back into alignment.

Today was only slightly different. She had gotten stuck. The bloodied and cracked wheel of her music player refused to scroll any further than ‘our song.mp3’. She stared at it, annoyed for a few minutes before choosing to go back to focusing on her breathing.

She barely moved as the door clicked, Angel lurching into the room with Ratty’s cell in her hand. Ratty propped herself up to grab for it, grimly satisfied to find she had an elbow with which to do so again. She plopped back down, phone in hand, wincing as her back crunched a little under the weight.

📞 10:04am:     Missed Call (13) -     ❤️🐐

✉️ 10:05am:     New Message -     ❤️🐐: “Hope you’re o...

✉️ 2:56pm:     New Message -     ❤️🐐: “Ratty, theres s...

✉️ 2:56pm:     New Message -     ❤️🐐: “I don’t know w…

And, what she was actually looking for:

🏦 3:08pm:    Tap here to accept your Interac™ E-Transfer from Jane …

Her retainer covered food for the month. After other expenses, food for the unemployed folks in the building, etc., she would be able to put away another thousand or so dollars. Ratty let out a sigh as her head lulled back, her throat finally sealing itself against the rest of her neck guts as she relaxed. She shut her eyes against Angel’s glare, just focusing on her breathing, and on the knowledge of a couple extra grand in the bank.

“Your horns are broken.” Angel cut through the peace.

“Yeah.” Ratty replied, doing her best to say ‘go away’ without actually saying it.

“You should talk to Sett.” Angel continued.

“I can’t move.” as if to say “I’m probably going to have to.”

The robot stood and stared, silently watching her charge bleed down the drain.

“You and I are similarly motivated, Hanratty.” She began. “I like to be useful.”

“Everyone likes to be useful.”

“This is not useful. You feel as though your life is finite, and the faster you use it up, the more useful you will have been.”

“Okay.” Ratty slumped deeper into the tub. “Thanks.”

“You’re not listening to me.”

“No,” Ratty turned over, opening her phone and turning on something loud and room filling. “I’m not.”

“Customs office, New York, New York. How can I help you?” It was weird to talk to another demon again after all this time. Becca was a demon, and she and Sett spoke just about every day, but the ones who were still ‘in it’ had a certain way of speaking: like everything was okay, and the credit for that should rest squarely on their shoulders.

“Yes, hi. I was just calling to see if- sorry-” Sett shielded their phone against the sound of downtown traffic. They thought it ridiculous that their quiet little corner was just next door to one of the busiest parts of the city. “I was just calling to see if passage is open right now?”

“Oh, yeah. Passage is actually always open. You should have gotten a newsletter about it, we’re actually under new management.” Sett knew that much already.

“Uh-huh.” They murmured, half sprinting through a slim gap in traffic and giving a polite wave as they went. “Angelcorp, right?” The voice on the other end went silent for a moment.

“I’m sorry, who is this?” She asked.

“I’m Sett, uh- icon of chaos?”

“Oh! Sett!” She hooted. The goat winced as They pictured John - likely in the same room if he was in New York at all - heard their name said out loud. They hoped he knew not to fuck with them. “Yeah, sorry about that I just- y’know, they really drill into you like ‘don't talk to journalists’ so… I just had to make sure. Yeah, it’s Angelcorp. You should come see actually…” the desk demon went on, content to monologue now that she assumed it was safe. “It’s changed a lot since you got out. They have these big fuck-off cables going through the mouth like, at all times. I don’t even think they run elevators anymore. It’s crazy.”

“How are they keeping it open?” Sett asked, crossing the threshold of T35, heart racing.

“That’s the even crazier part! You know Decay? Like, the elder god? It’s all her. She’s been doing some crazy shit to it, like making it rot. It smells like a fucking septic wound in here all the time, and the time dilation! I mean they warned us about it but like, I mean it feels like it’s worse than downstairs! Which side of this thing is supposed to be Hell again, am I right?” The demon laughed. “Anyway, where are you living now? We should get-”

Sett hung up, bracing their back against the door and slipping to the ground, struggling all the way to catch their breath. Becca stood up over her desk as Sett sunk out of their eye line.

“Everything alright?” She asked.

“I... Maybe.” They stood again, determined enough to ignore the ache in their chest as they pushed past into the elevator.

“Uh… okay.” Becca shrugged as the weirdest part of their day ended.

Elevator. Tense.

Hallway. Tense.

Keys. Tense.

Sett hung their coat behind the door and made a b-line for the bathroom, desperate to wash the feeling of grime from their hands. They screamed - almost fainting -  as they locked eyes with Ratty’s half reformed corpse. The pair stared at each other for a moment, each painfully aware of the gruesome scene. Ratty ashamed, Sett - in spite of themselves - disgusted.

“Good news!” Angel’s interruption re-startled Sett. “Ratty is home!”

“Yes, I can see that.” Sett said.

“Hey babe.” Ratty sighed.

“Why are you bleeding?” Sett asked. Ratty stared down at herself, still mostly not there.

“I dunno. Lotta effort to stop.”

“Right, of course.” Sett knelt on instinct, pulling a needle from switchspace and finding Ratty’s skin thicker than usual as they went to work. It was a great deal of effort to swallow the day and come home to take care of Ratty.

“Where have you been?” They asked, pressing on through the work, tough as it was.

“I- I’ve just been working.”

“We’re supposed to be a team.” They murmured. No response. This was just self-harm. Whatever had taken over Ratty during her attack, it was just making her hurt herself. Any wound at all in the kind of possum that could literally freeze time on command was self-harm by omission. 

They weren't going to talk about Hell today. 

Ratty would do something stupid.

“Do you ever think about what would happen to me if you didn’t come home?” Sett rolled back on their haunches. Ratty stared at the ceiling for a moment, her lips searching for the first word in her response.

“We have savings. You would be fine-”

“That’s not what I’m asking.” Another moment passed. The goat dropped their tools and turned on the fan, pulling some of the stench of rot out of the room.

“No, I don’t.” Ratty said plainly. Sett stood stunned for a moment, then pulled their tools back into subspace.

“Can you heal this yourself?” They asked.

“Yeah, probably.”

“Okay. I’m going to stay at my shop for the night.”

And with that, they turned and left.