The ordeal was over.
It had been a happy ending. She had been saved, after all. Freed from the evil monster's clutches and brought back home. A chance to safely live with her dads and her dog again. But it wasn't all wrapped up perfectly. It was the sort of thing that left scars.
Sarah sighed as she looked into the mirror with her good eye. She wondered which person had done that to her; she couldn't remember it happening at all. All her recollections from that time were spotty. She had been assured that was normal, a symptom of the trauma. She didn't think it was. She did have scars from trauma, but also something else. Nobody could understand what she had gone through. There were only two people who would even believe her. She had to learn to bottle it up, to pretend she knew the monster hadn't been real and that her kidnappers had been evil. She had to pretend that her imaginary friend didn't exist, and that she only carried around the stuffed animal as a coping mechanism. That was stressful and unpleasant and it all compounded over years. But she had to lie, or she would worry everyone that she had suffered a psychotic break. And she wasn't crazy; the world was.
"Smokey?" Her eye darted down to the reflection of a stuffed black bear, held snugly in her arms. "Do you know what happened to my eye?"
Sarah saw the bear's head lift to look up at her, but only in the mirror. "I do." It was a soft voice, and it sounded sad. "It was one of those people in the complex. They thought they could drive the possessing thing out by hurting you. Obviously, they thought wrong."
Sarah nodded. That made sense, and was no surprise, but it was unpleasant to have it confirmed all the same. It seemed almost worse that it had been done to help her, somehow. That was maybe why she hadn't asked before. But it was better to get it over with. "And I don't remember this because the thing was controlling me while that happened?"
"That's right. I'm sorry."
"No, don't apologize. I don't actually want any memories like that. And it's not your fault."
"If you say so. You know I wish you the best, child. I am sorrowful you ever came to harm." Misses Smokey, if only in the reflection, wriggled around to give her a hug, as much as those stubby little arms could articulate for it. Sarah smiled and squeezed her tighter.
"I know." She sighed again. "I have another question, though. The man who hurt me thought wrong. But why wasn't thinking it would work enough to make it work? From what you've told me, isn't that the key?"
"Not quite. While he thought it right, I knew it wrong. More than that, what he hoped to achieve by it..." A soft sigh trailed out from Sarah's arms, a quieter echo of her own. "It wouldn't have freed you from the circle. If he freed you from what he thought was your 'possession', the circle still would have held you. You simply would have been forced to face the pain of what had just been done to you directly, and he would have left you there. The thing that took you was unwilling to allow that to happen, and the man's conviction was not enough to overcome that."
"I see. I'm glad that the thing possessing me then didn't want that to happen. Still... There's something about all this which twists the knife."
"It wasn't a knife." The voice was soothing, as much as the words weren't. Sarah shook her head.
"No, Smokey, that's not what I meant." Sarah sighed again. She didn't want to keep talking about it. But she had a sense, something she couldn't quite place her finger on, that it was important. "I mean metaphorically. If you didn't want me to get hurt, and the thing possessing me didn't want me to get hurt, and the people keeping me captive didn't want me to get hurt... If nobody wanted that to happen, that makes it even worse that it did. You know? I wasn't hurt because people were evil, or because a monster was terrorizing me, or for a cause. Just bad luck." She scoffed. "No, not even bad luck. Just incompetence. Just people's inability to prevent something none of them wanted. And I just have to live with that?" Her eyes started to sting. "I lost a year of my life, the sight in one of my eyes, the chance to ever look normal, and I don't even get the luxury of a real villain to blame it all on? Just the knowledge all that evil was done with good intentions, or at least regret. And to top it all off, I can't even tell anyone any of this because it's about fucking magic? How do I live with that, Smokey? Why is it all hitting me at once right now? Am I just broken emotionally, too?"
"Sarah, no! You aren't broken. Believe me, you are the furthest thing from that. I—" She trailed off for a moment. "I don't have the words. But please don't cry. Nothing bad is happening. You're safe, and whole. And if you need to talk, you know I'll understand. And that man, too."
Sarah took in a few deep breaths and blinked the tears out of her eyes. She didn't know why that had come over her, and it wasn't gone, but wallowing in it wouldn't help. She knew that by now. "Yeah, you're right. I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for, child. I'm the one who owes you an apology, for not being able to save you from those tribulations. For not being able to spare you your involvement in the first place. But alas no apology can undo what was done. If you feel you are still wounded by all of this, Sarah, is there a way in which I could help?"
Sarah lifted the bear up, and turned her around to look Misses Smokey in the face. Two button eyes, a little black nose and a permanent smile of thread. It was like a cartoon cat's mouth more than any actual bear, except for the tan faux snout it was on. She looked like any other teddy bear, except Sarah knew she was being watched. She thought someone else would probably think that disturbing, but it was reassuring. Then again, the only significant stretch of her life she could remember without her imaginary friend around had been far from pleasant. Even almost a decade later. But it wasn't all comforting. There was one more question she didn't want to ask, but it felt like she had to.
Then there was a knock at the door. Sarah stifled the urge to groan, and rubbed her eyes in case there were tears left over. Then she tucked Smokey into the crook of her arm, and opened her bedroom door. Of course, it was her father. "Hi pops."
"Hi, Sarah. Is everything okay? We heard..."
Sarah made herself smile. "Yeah. I'm fine. Just a bad memory. No need to worry."
"Okay. Well, we're here for you, you know." He smiled softly. He was as reassuring as ever.
"I know, pops. And that means a lot to me. Want me to come out of my room for a bit?"
He smiled wider and nodded. "Yeah, if you don't mind. Let's get some family time." She followed him to the living room.
It was a very welcome distraction. The nagging sense of urgency didn't fully fade, but it took her mind off of all the memories and worries for a while. She could just enjoy the company of her dad and her pops. She knew she was lucky to have parents like them. Things felt normal again. Plus, Rover cuddled up in her lap, and that was always the best.
Sarah couldn't fall asleep. She was laying in bed, but whenever she shut her eyes her thoughts went back to memories she really didn't want to relive. She opened her eyes, and turned to the teddy bear sharing her bed. "Smokey?"
"Yes, Sarah?" The voice was as quiet as her own.
"There's something bugging me. Can I ask you a question? Or, no. If I ask you a question, will you give me an answer?"
"Oh? You have me intrigued. So, yes, I shall."
"That's good." Sarah took a few seconds to try and pin down exactly what the thought that wouldn't leave her alone was. "You seem to know a lot about the thing that possessed me. Much more than I know. But you were never there for me during all that time. It's odd."
"Is it? But that's not a question, I notice."
"You're right. Let's say... Are you and that thing the same kind of being?"
"The same kind? Hm, no. We are in the same class of being, but as individuals of that class I and the thing left behind in that place share nothing in common. Everything I am is something that is not. And everything it is is something I am not."
"It's the opposite of you?"
"No, I wouldn't say that. It isn't everything that I am not, as an opposite might be. It is instead that we don't overlap."
"So you're completely unrelated? Or..." Sarah frowned, when everything finally fell into place. "It's like you're two halves of one whole?"
"Oh. You are a wonderfully intelligent child, Sarah. What you're surmising is true. That thing, and myself as I am now, were once one entity."
"So when you apologize so much for what happened..."
"It is because I was fully culpable. I was the entity that 'possessed' you, as you say. Or, at least, a part of it would become me. I had never intended to bring you to harm. Yet..."
Sarah swallowed. Her mouth felt dry. Learning this about her 'imaginary friend' did not feel good. "I understand. Sorry, this is a lot to take in."
"I can only imagine."
"But... I guess it explains why I have an imaginary friend who is actually real. Smokey, please tell me. What are you?"
"I'm sorry. But I don't know. Not in the way you want to learn. I am your imaginary friend. I am a piece of a larger hole, the piece you wanted to take with you. Before that terrible spell of incarceration, the whole was your imaginary friend Misses Smokey. But beyond that? I do not know. If I knew more about my nature or origins, and I find it likely that I did, it was left behind in that circle."
"Oh." Sarah felt her stomach sinking. "So if I wanted proper answers, I would have to—"
"Child, be wary of that thought. That thing is dangerous. I should think it malicious. Not for blind hatred of what they could not understand alone did those men seek to trap it, I fear. At the very least I know it was willing to risk bringing you to harm in hopes of keeping itself safe. I would not do so again. So, then, it follows that it would. You should not risk prying answers from it. Do you understand?"
"...I do, Smokey."
There was a knock at the front door. Her dad opened it, and in came Uncle Peter. He wasn't one of her actual uncles, but it was the least awkward thing to call him. She was glad he came to visit every once in a while, even just that he decided to remain in her life at all. She would probably have been convinced she had simply imagined everything, otherwise. She didn't know if it was to keep an eye on her out of a sense of responsibility or to make sure he really hadn't let that monster out. Maybe it was just because he didn't know what else to do with himself. The free homemade dinners to sit in on probably didn't hurt.
Everyone was saying greetings and all that, and Sarah mumbled out a "Hi, Uncle Pete" as she watched Rover jump up at his knees, tail wagging furiously. She didn't feel as if she was all there in that moment, for some reason. She glanced at the bear she always had with her. Should she tell him? What would he think?
It took the second half-heard mention of her name to drag Sarah's focus back to the room. "Oh, sorry. What was that?"
"Would you mind having supper early? Peter looks pretty hungry." It was her pops speaking, and she couldn't help but notice he looked just slightly worried.
"Oh, of course I wouldn't mind. I could definitely eat." Sarah grinned, and then turned to smirk at Peter. "I certainly can't blame you for being impatient to get some of my dad's cooking." He laughed and rolled his eyes. He did look pretty hungry. Generally run-down, if she was being brutally honest. She knew her fathers had to be concerned about him; she was too, just a little, but not for quite the same reasons.
Dinner was going to be a big lasagna, so it couldn't be rushed out immediately. While her fathers were in the kitchen, she and Peter could talk a little. She was the one who broke the awkward silence, quietly enough that her parents wouldn't overhear. "You look like you've fixed another problem lately."
"Uh, yeah. You could say that." He shifted on the couch, and glanced towards the kitchen. "Not like usual, though. The thing wasn't..." He waved a hand around as he made a face. "Bad. So I helped it. Been a couple like that so far. I'm starting to think maybe there are a lot of... them. And they aren't all bad."
Sarah nodded. "I think you might be right." She took a deep breath. "After all, I'm... toting one around."
"You're what?" Peter actually looked panicked, for a moment.
He had been too loud. Her pops came out of the kitchen. "Everything alright?"
Sarah nodded. "Yeah! Sorry, it's fine. I just made a bad joke."
"Yeah, sorry." Peter laughed sheepishly. "My bad, really. It didn't land."
It clearly wasn't the most satisfying answer, but it was good enough. Supper was a little awkward, but things were okay.
It had taken a lot of doing, but it was finally happening. Her chance to fix things.
Peter was driving her to where he had rescued her, over a decade ago now. It was a disused building, now actually abandoned. Looking at it with an adult eye, it didn't loom as much as it had in her memory. Unlit and unswept, it should have looked creepier. And it was decrepit. But it was banal decrepitude. It was hardly a surprise that nobody had wanted to do something with that building some local cult held their kidnappee in. But the town hadn't knocked it down, either, and that worked out.
The police had combed through the building. Almost every corner of it. Except... "Okay. Are you sure you're remembering correctly? It was right here?"
Peter glanced around nervously, then coughed. "Yeah. How could I forget? I mean I apparently did but I could have sworn it was right here."
Sarah smiled. "Okay. Don't worry, I trust your memory." She shut her eyes, and then reached out to the stretch of wall. It took a couple seconds, but she felt a handle. She twisted and pulled, and then felt the door swing open easily. When she looked at it, it was a big heavy door, covered with locks, and some geometric symbol. Peter was looking at her with surprise. Misses Smokey was laughing, and Sarah had the sense it was at his expense.
Peter went through the door first, and led her through a dark hallway. It felt a lot shorter than her memories. There weren't any lit lights anymore, but they had brought flashlights. Peter paused in front of the last door, a flimsy wooden thing with a pentagram drawn on it. "Are you absolutely sure about this?"
"I am." Sarah said it with more confidence then she really felt. But it would be okay. "It will be okay. Trust me."
Peter nodded, sighed, and then opened the door.
They were greeted by a screeching howl of storm gales and rattling chains, a harsh glare of lights from above. The door was wrenched out of Peter's hand and smashed itself against the wall. Against the far wall, surrounded by circles and shapes in chalk, was a whirling thing of smoke and ash and shadow, screaming at them. It was exactly as terrifying as Sarah remembered. It was furious, as though they had only just escaped it. Sarah took a step backwards, then a deep breath, and made herself stride into the room.
She mustered up all the resolve she could, and spoke up. "Quiet." Despite her best intentions, it was swallowed into the cacophony. Peter's gaze was flickering between her, the thing, and the bear in her arms. He was clearly scared too, but she couldn't focus on that. She took a deep breath.
"I said quiet. You will be quiet." This time her voice cut through the clamor, but the thing didn't stop.
"You will listen to me. You will obey me. You respect me. You know me, and you love me."
The noises all suddenly stopped. The thing went still, somehow frozen perfectly in a facsimile of a face, 'eyes' on her.
Sarah let the elation of one success lead her on. That was the hard part, the rest would work. She had practiced it. "Listen to me. Recognize I'm telling you the truth. You are not a demon. You are not a monster. You are not That-Which-Takes. You're just a part of my friend." She glanced down at Misses Smokey for just a moment, and then back to the thing in the room. "You're the impulsive part. You're the covetous part. You're the part that collects light and sound. You're the part others can notice. You're the part that knows secrets, and which can tell me what you are. You remember, and you understand."
It looked as if the thing nodded. Peter looked at her again, still tense. Sarah felt the arms of her teddy press against her a little, a barely noticeable gesture of encouragement.
"You're the part I used to fear. I do not fear you now. You have said you will never hurt me. And you know you never will." She fell quiet for a second, then took in a deep breath. There was no going back now. "You're the part of my friend which I tore away from her. And you're the part that I will now put back. Only what I allow out with me can leave this circle. I will take you, as I have described you. And you will come."
Without allowing herself any hesitation, she stepped into the circle. She went in holding a little stuffed bear in her hands. She shut her eyes before the last step, and stood in the spot she had been trapped in for so long. It was still a terrible thought. But it was okay, now. She couldn't undo it, but that was okay. She spun on her heel, and then walked back out of the circle, leading her 'imaginary friend' by the hand.
Peter was staring with hardly-concealed concern. "Is that it? Did it work?"
Sarah nodded, and opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by cackling. It was melodic but mocking, and coming from the thing a step behind her.
Eventually the laughter resolved into a familiar voice, but louder and richer now. "Oh, well done, well done! You two have both exceeded my wildest expectations. Truly impressive children you are."
Sarah turned to look at the beaming figure behind her. The silhouette looked a little bit like herself, but not quite right. Taller, too spindly, and like she was made up of swirling smoke. Her hand felt solid and warm enough. It took her a moment to get past the surprise, before the spoke up. "I'm not a child anymore. And he definitely isn't." Her voice was tentative, but then she let herself laugh a bit. She was staring her imaginary friend in the face. And she wasn't a bear, somewhat surprisingly.
Peter didn't manage to find words before the woman(?) was talking again. "Sorry, sorry! Forgive me, I've just newly reacquainted with a sense of my own scope. You all are like children, which makes the accomplishments that much more impressive."
That finally got Peter back on his feet. "Uh huh. Don't forget, it was more of us 'children' who trapped you to begin with."
"Hahah, yes, you're right! Age and scale and scope are not quite the same as ability. Do excuse me for my foolishness, but I am elating. As I hope you are, too! Peter, good man you are, you've seen your responsibility through. And Sarah, you've done it, you wonderful girl. You've freed me, your Misses Smokey. I'm whole again, and yet not the same thing that caused all this misery to start with. I'm better, now, if you can trust my word. I won't ever bring you or others harm again, as much as I can prevent it. Sarah, darling, would you be remiss to allow me to continue to keep you company? I've come to enjoy it quite a lot."
Sarah nodded. "Of course, Smokey. I appreciate your company as well. Plus," She glanced over at Peter. "This way I can keep an eye on you. Just in case."
Smokey laughed, and then suddenly was a teddy bear again. The hand that had just held hers was now grasping the bear's arm. "I expected nothing less." By the way Peter looked at the bear, he could hear her now too. "Well, my victory lap is over, now. Sarah, my newly mended store of knowledge is yours to question. But if I might, why were you so curious about it? I know it wasn't simple regard for me that drove all of this."
Sarah let herself grin a little. It was finally happening. It wasn't about making her friend whole, or about fulfilling Peter's duty, or about getting closure. Those were all nice, but... "I know what I want to do in life. I want to help with problems like these. You know, prevent something like what happened to me from ever happening again. Helping to prevent people from finding out about the other side of things, acting out on imperfect information, and making a cult that would kidnap children in the name of fighting 'demons'. I can't pretend like I don't know these things exist, and I can't sit back and do nothing to help if I can. Could I count on you, both of you, to help me with this? Because I think I have a plan. But I need your knowledge, and your experience, and both of your skills."
Peter answered first. "If you have a plan, I'll help with it. I want to prevent something like that from ever happening again, too. I don't know what I even could do with myself anymore other than help protect people, either."
"Of course, I'll assist too. I'm sure you have the best of intentions, Sarah. As much assistance as I can grant is yours."
Sarah nodded and took a deep breath. "Great. Okay. But first..." With one foot, she brushed away some of the lines of the chalk circle. "We should probably clean this place up a little, before somebody else stumbles onto it. We don't need people stumbling on it and raising a new fuss about that 'cult'. And... Well. Being honest, I think I want it gone. Even if it's only chalk."