Zimmy didn't have nightmares. Or, at least, she couldn't imagine anything a sleeping mind could conjure up that her waking mind couldn't top. It was why she couldn't sleep, and was glad she didn't have to. Staying awake was bad enough, most days.
So Zimmy didn't have nightmares, if only because there were few things worse than her normal life.
But the sight before her eyes was what she imagined a nightmare might feel like. And it was certainly one of her worst fears given form. She honestly, genuinely hoped that she might be hallucinating it…but the little specks of clarity in her buzzing brain couldn't be hallucinated. Couldn't be faked. This was really Gamma she was looking at.
Gamma, sitting out in the bright sunlit yard, surrounded by a gaggle of giggling girls. Smiling girls. And Gamma was smiling back at them. Talking with them. In fact, as Zimmy drew nearer, she realized…it wasn't just talking.
Gamma was singing. Some stupid little nothing song. And it was simultaneously the most wonderful and awful sound Zimmy had ever heard.
"Hey!" she snarled. Scruffy and dirty and bare footed, she stalked towards the group like a vulture descending over some food that hadn't quite stopped wriggling. They all looked up at her – Quislett girls, she should have known – with identical alarmed expressions. All except Gamma, who smiled and waved. It made Zimmy almost smile, and it was enough to get her back to shouting to the people who really needed to be shouted at. "What are you doin' to her, ya freaks?! Leave her alone!"
It was like finally getting close enough to plug a power switch into its outlet. Gamma's wonderful voice floated through the mess of her mind, clear as a bell and even more beautiful.
"Hello, Zimmy! You are back from your tests! I am very happy to see you!"
"Why're you sittin' with 'em?" Even if Gamma being happy to see her made Zimmy feel all warm and glow-y, there were still important matters to be sorted. "They's all just saying bad things about ya! About how you're stupid and ugly and, and fat, too! And you've gotta big nose, like Donlan!"
"Oh, no, Zimmy, they…"'
"We were just takin' the poor little mite under our wings," said one girl, with a stupid hat.
"I know what it is like to learn a different language," offered another, smiling at Zimmy. She was a lot uglier than Gamma was. "I thought it would be nice to help."
"This is only our second lesson, but she's really good." The third girl leaned over and touched Gamma, actually touched her – just a little bump on the shoulder, but Gamma smiled at this stupid girl. It might as well have been a declaration of war.
Zimmy was not stupid. She was illiterate, and all around uneducated, but she wasn't stupid. "…you're teachin' her English?!" she demanded, her voice rising to a piercing screech that made them all draw back, although not nearly far enough.
"Is there something wrong with that?" asked Paz, as though she didn't know.
"Yeah, come on, don't be a twit," said Janet, scowling up at Zimmy. Wearing an almost fierce expression, she nodded over at Gamma. "Come on, she's been practicin' for an hour. We'd almost got her through the whole song.
Gamma blushed and fidgeted in her seat. "What's goin' on?" Zimmy demanded of her, mental voice sharp as ever. "They's probably set you up for some kinda nasty trick! Girls like that like that sorta thing! Don't do what they tell you!"
"…please, Zimmy. I would like you to hear me sing, very much. I worked very hard on it. I…I think you would be proud of me?"
Well, that changed…everything. It made it a little better, at least. If it was for Zimmy, that was okay. Even if she wanted to shake these girls until their teeth rattled for putting the rotten idea in Gamma's head that Zimmy didn't think she was what the world revolved around.
"…don't come cryin' to me when they make you sing somethin' stupid."
She folded her arms tightly across her chest, and gave a little grumbling huff that was all the other girls heard. Gamma, for her part, smiled in relief, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star…"
She struggled, with the sounds. Well, why wouldn't she? She'd learned from three stupid girls with three stupid accents from three stupid places. But the words were English, and recognizably so. For a girl that Zimmy had never heard three words together of English in her life, it was like someone had tied her to a lightning rod in the middle of a power plant rainstorm.
It was also, she realized numbly, the first time she'd ever heard Gamma sing. They'd known each other forever…and she'd never known that Gamma could sing. That she even wanted to sing. They could talk just fine in their heads, and between the mess in Zimmy's and the clutter in Gamma's, something like this would have normally been impossible.
"Like a diamond in the sky…"
They didn't think she was stupid or ugly or fat or possessing a big nose. How could they? Even if no one could ever love Gamma like Zimmy did, it was inconceivable to her that anyone could see Gamma as anything but amazing. Gamma should think that they were stupid and ugly and fat and big nosed, all of them, just because she was so much better.
Since Gamma was too nice to think that way, Zimmy thought it for her.
So even if the faces of the three Quislett girls weren't sufficiently worshipful, as they listened to Gamma sing her little nothing song, Zimmy could tell that they approved, that they liked it, that they liked her. Soon, they'd be able to tell Gamma as much, and she'd understand it.
She'd probably like them, too, when she finally did understand.
It wasn't as though Zimmy was unaware of their outcast status within the Court, how they were strange even by Chester House standards. And that Gamma had thought it might be nice sometimes for them to have other friends.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star…"
Gamma loved Zimmy, and Zimmy loved Gamma. But what if there wasn't enough in Gamma to go around? What if all these greedyguts stole it? What if Gamma, sweet and stupid Gamma, let them?
"…how I wonder what you are…"
Zimmy would have listened to Gamma sing stupid little nothing songs until the sun imploded. If she'd been in a more fit state, she might even have realized then what Gamma's theory had been – that the rhythm and effort and focus that usually came with both singing and listening to a song could have a focusing, grounding effect on Zimmy. She might even have realized, if her misery and distress hadn't been amplifying all her usual problems, there and then, that Gamma's theory was actually correct.
Zimmy wasn't any of those things. So, as Paz and Janet and Margo applauded Gamma's efforts, Zimmy collapsed limply onto the ground as though something had eaten her muscles right off her bones.
If she'd been alone, she might have just dropped out of her real self, there and then. But she wasn't, and as the other girls all made concerned sounds and asked stupid questions, Gamma slid down from the picnic table she'd been sitting on, and settled herself at Zimmy's side.
"Are you all right, Zimmy?" She sounded concerned and worried – it was almost enough to make Zimmy cry, or feel what she thought usually moved normal people to tears.
"You're my friend…my friend…you can't ever leave me…what'll I do?"
The bright and sunny today became a cold, dark night. The grass and tidy pavement became the dingy, filthy streets of the city. Zimmy noticed. There and then, she just didn't care. Gamma didn't seem to notice. Or, if she did, she didn't move away from Zimmy's side.
Just like it had always been. Just like it always should be.
No one else was there. Zimmy had enough control to not deliberately draw anyone else in with her. She wasn't cruel. When they finally came back to themselves, the other girls wouldn't even have realized what had happened.
It was still exhausting. Being awake was exhausting. Being alive was exhausting. Zimmy's system couldn't take the kind of shock that real and true terror brought, and the thought of anyone else leading Gamma away was real and true terror if anything was.
So Zimmy just curled up on the pavement and shivered, her arms over her head, her eyes shut tight. But she knew Gamma was there. She knew it by the way she could still think, and was still herself, and the way Gamma ran a hand lightly over her side in a gentle sort of reassurance.
"…I do not like that they take you away for these tests, Zimmy. I do not think we should let them do it anymore."
"Fat lot of good that'll do us. Those god damn bastards…they do whatever they want…"
"So do we." Gamma bent over and kissed Zimmy softly on one aching temple. "Some people are nice. Those girls are nice. They do not think I am stupid and ugly."
"Just cause they says so, doesn't mean they means it. Girls like that, can't trust a word they say." On a wild whim, Zimmy added: "Probably won't even have faces tomorrow. Bet they usually don't."
Gamma made no reply for a few seconds, and then: "…Zimmy? Do you not want me to learn English?"
That was a loaded question that Zimmy was in no fit state to answer, especially not with an appropriate lie. She tried anyway. "It's just a stupid waste of time. You and me, we can talk just fine, like this. Why d'you gotta waste your time with them? They talk funny, too."
"…because, if I can speak English, I can talk to you in two ways. Not just one. And I can sing you songs, when you forget who you are, or when you can't find me. I could even teach them to you. Singing is fun – it passes the time."
And one thing Zimmy and Gamma had was time. Until the Court politely requested her presence for this test or that, they did as they pleased. Did what they wanted. Did what they had to.
There was something Gamma wasn't saying – Zimmy could feel it, deep in her head, like a fish deep in the depths of a pond. She got a sense of what it was, all the same. Gamma was afraid that the Court might one day do something to the connection in their heads, take it away or change it up so they couldn't trust it anymore, and watch what happened. They'd be helpless, if they did.
Unless Gamma knew English. She'd never ask Zimmy to learn Polish. Zimmy would have tried, if she had, but they both knew she'd go crazier trying.
"…ask Carver. She talks all right. It's not like she's doin' anything useful, 'cept goin' to class and skipping out on her punishments and hangin' around the woods. Maybe you could help her not be such a damn moron."
She heard the affection and amusement ringing in Gamma's reply. "I will certainly try. I will talk to Antimony instead. Thank you, Zimmy."
Like Gamma had Zimmy to thank for anything. Like Zimmy shouldn't learn every language there was and thank Gamma until her tongue was numb in all of them.
But Carver was okay. Carver was kind of weird, and Carver was a little bit like Gamma, enough that Zimmy could stand the sight of her. She thought that she could stand Gamma hanging out with Carver a little bit, and they both owed Carver enough.
What no one else knew about Gamma was that she was chatty. Without a way to say everything she thought, she just thought it in her head, all in a row, thought after thought after thought. It created an effect similar to the static in Zimmy's head, except it wasn't static or white noise. It was just noise, and it meant something, and it helped. And they'd known one another long enough that it was the easiest thing in the world for them to pick a thought out of their heads and pass it to one another.
But maybe there was something to be said for opening your mouth, once in a while. Gamma laid herself down next to Zimmy, the only two people in the cold streets of Birmingham. She got so close that Zimmy could feel Gamma's breath on her neck, her touch soft as a spider's footfalls against Zimmy's skin, and she sang aloud so that the hallucinations knew not to even bother coming near, to go the other way around, because here was one barrier they would not pass.
No matter who came to drag Gamma away, Gamma wouldn't budge. It was the one thing Zimmy could depend on in the entire world, and so who could blame her for clinging to it like a limpet in a storm?
"Twinkle, twinkle, little star…"