By the end of the day, Brian had lost the spring in his step. Specifically, the spring that used to come from his right leg. It wasn’t the kind of pain that usually came with deep cuts, that was the thing – it didn’t throb or itch. It burned a little, but inside, as though the blood was burning in the capillaries of his thigh.
He waved goodbye to the others, walked to Matt’s house with him, forcing laughter at jokes he would have found hilarious any other time, and when he made it home he dropped his bag inside the door and headed straight for the upstairs bathroom. He shut and locked the door, took off his pants, and propped his leg up on the bathtub so he could see it in the mirror. The bandages had turned black in patches. Or was it just the dark brown of dried blood?
The cuts seemed to have healed a bit more. They were crusted over with black scabs that were slightly wet and oozing small amounts of the black (no, dark brown) blood. He ran his hands over the skin, but the burning sensation was definitely inside him. Only it couldn’t be an infection, because the skin wasn’t swollen or red at all. He didn’t have a fever, and there were no tell-tale red lines travelling up his veins. Apart from the sensation, he felt fine.
His body was fighting it, whatever it was. He looked up at his reflection in the mirror and stared at it for a long time. Like the habit he had of talking to himself, it comforted him to stare at his own eyes, to make his expression strong and unafraid. He promised himself he’d go to the doctor if the burn ever got above his waist. No, screw the doctor – this thing was supernatural. If the burn got above his waist, he’d tell the others, that was all. The solution would be somewhere in that world. Or with the keymaster himself, Arthur Zindel.
Yet he was reluctant. They’d been horrified when he’d told them his version of the truth, in which the beasts hadn’t even seen him. None of them had liked that he’d gone off on his own in the first place, and Dale had even suggested closing the door. ‘We can always find another world that doesn’t have anything like that in it,’ he’d said. In the end, Brian had only convinced them otherwise by pointing out how far away from their clubhouse he’d been, and that he’d only seen two of the beast men. They’d made him promise never to go alone again, and that was even after he’d convinced them that the world was just as safe and empty as it had ever been. If he told them the whole story, they might never want to explore another world again, and they certainly wouldn’t let him go by himself.
Brian stood in the hot shower for a long time. He turned the water temperature up, and then up again, until it wouldn’t go anymore and his skin was turning bright red with the heat. He stood there a while longer. It felt good.
Later, he lay on his bed and just stared at the ceiling. He’d put more bandages on his leg but every few minutes he got the urge to tear them off and look at the wounds, see if the healing process had progressed. He tried not to think of how much sense the other world was beginning to make, after what he’d seen. A thriving ecosystem, only almost completely devoid of life, and the things that were there had the same black skin, the same indiscriminate hostility.
Most of all, he tried not to think of that damn burning.
He couldn’t sleep because of it, in the end, and he turned on the light and sat at his desk. He opened his laptop, closed it again and slid it to the side. The wound felt the same, but when he checked the bandage he couldn’t see any more black spots. Remembering the black blood spurting from the man’s throat, he reached into his top drawer and pulled out a swiss army knife his father gave him the previous Christmas. He flicked out the knife, barely two centimetres long but sharp enough.
Just where the burning was creeping up around the top of the bandages, he made a small incision, enough to draw a little blood. It was dark red. Very dark, but still red. Or dark brown, maybe. Gritting his teeth against the pain – though it was a lot less painful than it should have been – he made another cut a little higher up. A drop of blood from that one dibbled down to the cut beneath it and the difference in colour was obvious: the one above was far lighter, the colour of normal blood.
His mobile buzzed loudly on the desk and he dropped the knife, startled. It was Elyse, of all people. His heart skipped two beats as he saw the time: almost midnight. Why would she be calling him?
‘Uh, hey,’ he said.
‘Brian, it’s me…’ He heard what sounded like a gasp on the other end of the line and realised she was crying. ‘Steph just called me. Dale’s in a coma.’
‘A what?’ he stood up, staring at his dark reflection in the window.
‘She didn’t call it that, but they found him in Westlake and he was beaten up really bad. She said they had him in stable condition, whatever that means, but he isn’t awake or anything.’
‘Who did it?’ Brian asked, although the name was already dancing in the front of his mind. Jordan. Who else?
‘They don’t know Brian, but it has to be Jordan, doesn’t it? Or one of the other two?’
‘Probably all of them at once, if it’s that bad. Come on, Elyse, we’ve got to tell someone, right?’
‘Steph’s already there, she said she told the cops already and they said they’d look into it. Brian, we should go over.’
‘Yeah, yeah. You getting a ride?’
‘My mum’s driving me. Can we come get you?’
‘Yeah, of course. See you soon, okay?’
His parents were shocked, predictably, and his mother offered to come, but he shook his head. ‘It’s okay, mum, they said he’s stable. We’re just gonna go see him.’ He almost added: ‘I know who did it, too.’ But somehow the words didn’t leave his mouth. Something kept them in there, telling him it was a bad idea.
Elyse was right next to him in the car, crying against his shoulder, and despite the circumstances he felt a surge of warmth. Poor Dale, he kept reminding himself. A bloody coma. Poor, unlucky Dale. Trying not to smile. What the hell was wrong with him?
Any pleasure at Elyse’s closeness left him when he walked into the stark white hospital room and saw Dale’s face. The top of his head looked caved in. Some hair was missing on his scalp where the surgeons had cut it away to reveal some nasty looking stitches. Both eyes were heavily swollen and his lips looked like they’d received a double shot of botox injections.
More than anything, what tore Brian’s heart the most was the sight of his friend’s right arm in plaster. He remembered watching Dale pull card after card out of thin air with that hand and flick them into the air until a whole deck was gone. And the time he’d taken everything out of Matt’s pockets without him realising until he got home. He’ll never do that stuff again.
Steph was also there, and Dale’s parents, and half an hour later Matt came in. His eyes were red and he was out of breath. ‘Damn parents tried to stop me from leaving on account of it’s a school night,’ he explained. ‘Didn’t have my phone with me so I had to run.’
‘They didn’t let you leave?’ Brian said. ‘Jesus Christ.’
‘Thanks for coming,’ Dale’s father said, shaking Matt and Brian’s hands formally. Dale’s mother gave Elyse’s mother a hug.
‘Where did they find him?’ Brian said, sitting next to Steph and watching Dale’s chest rise and fall slowly. He gave her a significant look. Was it near the forest? Was it near the door? But she shook her head.
‘At the bottom of the cliffs.’
‘The bottom? They threw him off?’ Matt said.
‘The barrier was broken at the top,’ she said. ‘The cops said it looked like a bad beating.’
‘Well it was Jordan, wasn’t it?’ Matt said, looking from one to the other.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
‘I already told the cops, Matt,’ Steph said. ‘But they think it’s a bit of a stretch. I mean, that fight was ages ago, wasn’t it? And Jordan hasn’t look at us since. Now he shows up out of nowhere and throws Dale off a cliff?’
‘Are you kidding me? It was Jordan, right Brian?’
‘Kids, you can’t accuse someone of something like that just because you got in a fight once,’ Dale’s father spoke with a voice croaky from years of smoking. He had grey hair and dark, tired eyes. ‘The cops will deal with it, alright?’
Brian met Matt’s eyes, and shrugged. ‘If it was him, they’ll find out, won’t they?’ he said. ‘His knuckles will be all swollen. The cops are probably at his house right now, checking.
‘Yeah. I guess.’
‘There’s a lot of horrible people in that park,’ Elyse’s mother put in sternly. ‘Especially at night. Any drug addict could have attacked him.’
They were silent for a long while, all of them lost in their own thoughts, listening to Dale’s breathing and the working of the machines. Brian stared into his lap and thought about Jordan. The cops had better goddamn get him. He had to grit his teeth against his rage. Because if they don’t, I will.
His hand strayed automatically to the wound on his leg, and then hesitated. It was the strangest thing, but the burning had stopped.