Elyse and Steph were sitting in Steph’s room, music turned up high so that her little brother couldn’t listen from the door, as he sometimes did. Steph was sitting far back in a chair with her feet resting on the windowsill and Elyse was flipping through a magazine. Since Dale’s misadventure, it had become a habit of theirs to meet after school and talk about literally anything and everything – except about him.
‘What do you mean, he’s different?’ Elyse was saying.
‘Well, it’s like Matt told me – he’s crazy. You remember the first fight they had with Jordan? I mean, I love ‘em all to death, Elyse, but they were getting their butts kicked. And that time it was just Jordan and Jimmy.’
‘And they didn’t get their butts kicked?’ Elyse said.
‘Nope. Matt said he took care of Ray, and Brian beat the shit out of the other two.’
‘Matt beat up Ray Deakin with a broken middle finger?’
‘Well, that’s what he said. But, you know, it’s Matt.’
‘I saw Brian the other day and he looked fine. Didn’t even have a bruise.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I’m saying! Matt said he’d never seen Brian move like that before. And that story Jordan and his goons are telling at school, about fighting some other school? I mean, come on.’
‘I guess. Do you think it has something to do with… the world?’
‘Maybe. I dunno what else it would be. You saw the kind of wildlife in that place as well as I did. Could be something in the air.’
‘But we’ve all spent time there and we don’t… wait.’
Elyse sat up in bed, the magazine forgotten, her brow furrowed. ‘No way. I bet it is.’
‘You know how he told us about going into the world all by himself that one time. I mean, he’s been super protective about that key since day one.’
Steph nodded. ‘Yeah, he was being such a dick about it. Didn’t even want to lend it to Dale, when he asked. Said it was him who found the world so he should be the one with the key.’
‘Steph, isn’t it obvious? He must’ve been going into the world alone tons of times. He made it out like it was just once, but I bet he’s done way more. I don’t know about you, but I got the feeling he wasn’t telling us the whole story, either. That’s it. If there is something there – some contamination or whatever – he’d be most vulnerable to it if he’s spending every other day there. And he probably is, let’s face it.’
They sat in silence for a while, and then Steph shrugged and pushed back up against the windowsill. ‘I mean, it’s not really such a bad thing, by the sounds of it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Come on, Elyse. Suddenly he’s all manly, fighting off guys twice his size, sweeping you off your feet.’
‘He is not!’
‘Okay. Anyway, it sounds harmless enough.’
‘Yeah. I’m just worried. You read the book too, you know what the guy said. Always treat a world as dangerous, even when it looks like paradise. There was only that one place he mentions in chapter seven that was actually as good as it seemed. The other ones were either hellish nightmares or tricks or no better or worse than this world.’
‘They can’t all be bad. He probably didn’t write about every single world he went into, either. Only the bad ones are interesting enough for a story. No one wants to read about rainbows and bunny rabbits, do they? Look, we’ll watch him. Besides, Brian’s not an idiot. He can look after himself.’
‘Yeah, that’s for sure.’
‘Hey, you think all this Jordan stuff is done with, now?’
‘I dunno. Hope so. I doubt it. Wouldn’t it be nice if fights actually solved anything? Probably it just made him angrier.’
‘Yeah, but it has to end up somewhere. One of them’s gonna get expelled or arrested or something, if it keeps up.’
‘Or Dale will wake up and tell the police who did it,’ Elyse said, quietly. Steph didn’t reply.
After a longer silence, or as close to silence as was possible with Lana Del Rey blaring in the background, Steph said what all of them had thought about at one point or another, but none had dared say out loud. ‘What if there’s a way to help Dale in another world?’
Elyse looked at her friend, a familiar aching sadness rising in her gut. ‘Steph…’
‘I mean, think about it. There are infinite worlds, right? It just depends on where you make the doors. And they’ll all be similar to this world in some way, won’t they? So doesn’t it make sense that there would be one world, somewhere, where they know how to, you know, bring people out of comas? I mean, it’s not like he’s dead or anything.’
‘Maybe. But you just said yourself, there are infinite worlds. How many would we have to look through before we found one where they knew how to do that? Every tree in Westlake would have a door in it.’
‘We can just close each door after we finish with it,’ said Steph. ‘And not only that, but what about the dream worlds?’
‘What do you mean?’
Steph was sitting upright now, literally on the edge of her seat. She was speaking quicker, gaining momentum as she went, but her desperate hope only left Elyse deeper in despair.
‘In the book, the guy is convinced that every dream anyone’s ever had exists in another world somewhere. That when we dream all we’re doing is travelling to another world – a world that really exists – without the use of a door. Don’t you get what that means? Dale is dreaming right now, which means he’s out there!’ She gestured at the window, as if Dale was walking through the neighbourhood as they spoke. ‘All we have to do is open the right door and we could find him and just, I dunno, tell him to wake up!’
‘It’s the same problem, Steph,’ Elyse said. ‘There are just too many worlds. How would we even know where to start? And even if we were in the right world, Dale could be anywhere in it. What rule says we’d open a door in the same area he happens to be in at the time? It’s just too… impossible.’
Steph slumped a little, and Elyse felt a stab of guilt. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘Yeah, I know. Maybe we should find our own world, anyway. Why should Brian have all the fun? He’s breaking the rules, why shouldn’t we?’
The words hung in the air for a moment, and Elyse couldn’t help but smile at the thought. ‘You know,’ she said slowly, ‘that’s not such a bad – ’
Her phone buzzed loudly on the bed and she saw Brian’s name pop up on the screen.
‘Hang on.’ She turned the volume down on the radio and picked up.
‘Hey, you know I was thinking exams are pretty soon, and my English is rusty.’
‘I thought English was you best subject.’
‘No, Brian no English. Brian say screw school.’
Steph rolled her eyes and Elyse threw the magazine at her face. ‘Funny. Yeah I’m up for it. Tonight, same time.’
‘Yeah, see you then.’
‘Cool, don’t forget your brain.’
She hung up, and shrugged at Steph’s knowing grin. ‘What? I need to study. Besides, maybe I’ll find out something about what’s up with him these days, right?’
‘Oh, I bet you will.’