First there was motion.
(The gentle vibration of a moving car.)
Then there was sound.
(The hum of tires over asphalt.)
Much later, there was vision.
(A long, lonely stretch of desert highway.)
And finally, after a few million subjective years, the helpless thing cowering behind unresponsive eyes uncurled from its fetal position and became a person again. Teresa blinked, coughed, and gagged a bit, the taste of bile strong in her mouth. "Jesus," she murmured.
"Here," she heard Esther say as something warm and fibrous was pressed into her left hand. "Drink this. You'll feel better." Numbly, she raised the object to her lips, was surprised to discover it was a paper cup from a coffee chain, then was surprised at her surprise. The cup was so exceptionally normal that when compared to everything which had happened in recent memory, it was the strange thing.
She sipped the dark liquid carefully, half expecting it to scream all the way down her throat. She supposed that it wouldn't particularly surprise her if it did. The coffee was warm and bitter.
It matched how she felt in her heart.
"Someone mind telling me what the hell just happened?" she asked, as much to the cup as to the woman beside her in the back seat. "Second time today I've woken up in this goddamn car with no idea what hit me."
"You had a bit of a fit, dear." Esther brushed the bangs from the younger woman's face reassuringly, her touch that of a grandmother soothing a colicky child. "But you're better now."
"Bullshit." Teresa spat, and found the round vulgarity oddly comforting. The old, familiar anger was returning too, a fire in her chest that rose to fill her face. "I don't have 'fits'. Never fainted in my life, neither. Now you tell me what really happened."
"Psychogenic fugue state," pronounced Yarrow from the driver's seat. His voice was more nasal than before, due to the rolls of bloody cotton which had been shoved up each nostril and taped into place. "Characterized by reversible amnesia, wandering, and loss of original personality. It is etiologically related to…"
"Someone," Teresa hissed, "needs to tell me, using very small words, what the hell happened back there, with the exploding cat and the weird shouting girl and the cheeseburgers and OH FUCK WHAT HAPPENED TO MY HAND?" She jerked her right arm into view; it was swathed in a mitten of bandages which extended up to mid-forearm. "I CAN'T MOVE MY FINGERS!" she screamed, whirling to confront the others.
"Teresa!" shouted Esther. "Reecy! Stop!" She caught Teresa's flailing wrist, locking it in place with her velvet granny-grip while smoothly relieving her of the cup of scalding liquid. She placed it on the floor between her feet but never released her grip or broke eye contact with Teresa. "Reecy, you just sit there and relax for a while as I explain things best I can. Will you do that for me, please?"
Teresa nodded. Then, "Reecy?"
The older woman shrugged. "Teresa, Tereecy, Reecy. Just thought it suited you better." She smiled, and for the first time Teresa noticed how straight and white her teeth were, brilliant against her dark skin. "Calmer now? Good. Now, you can't remember what happened," she explained, "because you weren't you at the time. You went… away in a moment of stress and became somebody else. But now the stress is gone, and you've calmed down and become you again." Her smile broadened, and the corners of her eyes crinkled. "And we're glad you're back now."
"What. Happened," Teresa breathed, through teeth clenched with fear and frustration, "To. My. Hand." The anger was still building inside her chest despite Esther's "let's all get off this ledge and go talk about it, okay?" tone, but she lacked any true desire to fight.
"Now," Esther said cheerily, "the important thing to keep in mind is that there was no permanent damage done. No, no, just relax," she said as Teresa tensed. "The reason you can't feel your hand is because we immobilized it and gave you something to help with the pain."
She took Teresa's left hand in her own, and held it gently. "You have a bit of a nasty burn. Back there, when things became… difficult… you did something very brave. It saved us all, and I want you to know just how much we appreciate that. Don't we, Yevgeny?" She looked pointedly at the driver's eyes through the rear-view mirror. Muttered nasal sounds of thanks lacking any real conviction emanated from Yarrow's direction.
Esther turned back to Teresa, her face wrinkled in sympathy. "But Reecy, when you did this very brave thing, you hurt yourself something fierce." Esther's face wrinkled in sympathy but her eyes never left Teresa's. "Your lighter got so hot that it melted some, and burned your hand. We didn't want to remove it for fear of hurting you worse, so we just bandaged you up. We were going to take you to the emergency room, but…" Her voice trailed off.
"We thought it would be too dangerous," offered Yarrow.
"Yes," Esther agreed, nodding quickly, as if she were reassuring herself as much as Teresa. "Too dangerous. But I want to tell you, Reecy, that we are gonna take care of it soon as we can. Soon as it's safe."
Teresa laughed then, a sharp coughing laugh that threatened to bring up blood, or possibly venom. "Safe. I haven't been safe since I met you fuckers. I was safer back in Frontera where 200 pound dykes were trying to shiv me for cigs on a weekly basis." She shook her head slowly and relaxed back into the bench seat of the station wagon. "Sure, safe. A thirteen year-old girl in cat ears tried to shoot us at a Denny's while we ate breakfast. That is so goddamn surreal it redefines everything. What's next? I get maced by a nun?"
"Surreal," said a tinny voice from the front seat. "Excellent word choice. I'd have chosen 'anomalous', but a good word nonetheless." The voice was soft and British, with an accent that suggested sophistication without arrogance. "But if you want to talk surreal, might I recommend you look at the front of your shirt?" Teresa looked down, starting when she saw the bloody mess that covered her chest. "You were shot in the heart, and yet here you are with only a freshly-healed scar and not a gaping mortal wound. So, my dear, you are just as surreal as everything else that has happened today."
"Who's talking?" Teresa demanded, struggling to look into the front seat. Esther released her hand. "Who are you?"
Yarrow picked his iPhone off the dashboard and handed it back to her. "Hello," it said, an androgynous face appearing on the display screen. "I'm the Internet." A hand extended towards the screen, and then the phone vibrated, as if in handshake.
"Call me Netty, for short," it said, and gave her a cheeky wink.
To be continued in Curse/Or Chapter 4: Infodump