Elyse felt uneasy long before they reached the clubhouse. Brian was on edge, seeming to move with conscious effort, burning with barely restrained energy. When he spoke, his words sounded careful and measured, although he occasionally erupted in long bursts of words, and while he kept pace with her most of the way, now and again he’d hop up on a post box, balance along a fence or swing from a tree branch. None of this was quite unlike him, but it was so much more intense. He’s just nervous. Only that wasn’t it, either – all traces of shyness were gone and occasionally she caught a gleam of eagerness in his eyes. Hunger.
They passed into the other world, crossed the field, and kindled a fire in the club house just as they did the last time they were there. They spread their books around the sandy floorboards. They’d been quizzing each other on biology and history on the way, but once they settled onto the beanbags with their books in front of them, they fell silent.
Elyse tried to study for real, though she was very conscious of Brian’s leg touching hers, and a little while later she gave up and just pretended. It occurred to her that she hadn’t heard him turn a page of his biology textbook for over twenty minutes, or scratch a single note in the margin. She felt his eyes on her.
Finally, she gave up the pretence as well and turned to look at him. He glanced up at her with an innocent expression, apparently absorbed in his study. She raised her eyebrows. ‘What?’
‘What’s on your mind, Brian? You’ve been holding something back this whole walk.’
‘I’m not stupid.’
He let the text book tumble to the floor and sat up next to her, a serious look on his face. For a few moments, he didn’t say anything at all, just looked at her as though appraising whether he should tell her or not.
‘I was just thinking,’ he said at last. ‘That it’s pointless pretending we came here to study.’
Her heart jumped. Holy shit, he’s going for it. Who’d have thought the kid had it in him?
‘Really?’ She kept her voice level. ‘Well, what did we come here for?’
He did the right thing. Instead of answering, he leaned in and kissed her. She expected him to pull back after a few seconds, wait for some kind of reaction or apologise, but then that was something Boy Brian would have done. This Man Brian only leaned in further, pushing her slowly back onto the beanbags. Too much. She needed to breathe, but he was showing no signs of stopping. She had a hand on his shoulder and pushed gently back, but he paid no attention, and all of a sudden he was biting her lower lip.
He moved forward again, pushing her all the way down, and this time he bit hard. His teeth felt like knives, and she tasted blood almost immediately. She grunted and pushed him away, hard enough to send him back on his ass. ‘Ouch! Fuck, Brian, what was that?’
He was staring at her, breathing hard, but all the mischief was gone from his eyes. She regarded him for a second, feeling the cut in her lip tenderly with her fingers. At first, she thought his expression was apologetic, and a good thing, too – that hurt! But for some reason he looked more terrified than remorseful.
‘Oh, shit,’ he said. ‘I’m so stupid. What have I done?’
‘What? Jeez it’s not that bad, okay, just go easy next time.’
‘No, I’ve… You don’t understand. There’s something I’ve got to tell you. I think I might have just done something really bad. I was trying so hard not to, you know, I just… Lost control.’
‘Brian?’ She didn’t know whether to be amused or genuinely concerned. He was acting like the world was over. ‘It’s really not that bad, okay?’
‘Yes. I think it might actually be.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
So he told her. Starting from his early fruitless expeditions and the time he saw the smoke, right up until the most recent fight with Jordan. She sat by the fire and listened, touching the cut in her mouth every so often with her tongue. He was restless and ended up pacing up and down as he spoke, occasionally throwing some more kindling on the fire.
‘I’ve never felt like that before, Elyse, you have to understand. I mean, Jordan’s massive – he should have been able to beat me with one hand tied behind his back, you know? But he couldn’t touch me. I still felt the pain, but… if anything it just gave me energy. And I felt so strong. It was like beating up a bunch of five year olds. I mean, nothing bad’s really happened to me, has it? It has to be a good thing. They could have done anything to Matt, broken his legs or put him in a coma like Dale. It has to be good.’ He paused, breathing hard, and watched her from across the fire.
‘Brian, I…’ She looked at him, at his big eyes and misshapen teeth. She hadn’t noticed earlier, but his nails looked like they hadn’t been cut in months. ‘Don’t you see what’s happening to you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re becoming one of them.’
‘No, no I’m not. I’ve got it under control, Elyse. The burning’s already through my whole body, but it hasn’t changed me, has it? Just a few things, that’s all.’
‘It hasn’t changed you yet. But you said yourself it hasn’t stopped. What makes you think it will? If what you say is true, this whole planet we’re on was pretty much destroyed by that – that parasite that’s in you now. The things that chased you – that’s what you’re going to become. Why wouldn’t you?’
‘No, you don’t understand. Those guys were infected by it, yeah, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have chased me, anyway? I mean, I’m just an alien to them. Maybe they thought I was someone from that tribe they’d massacred. Or maybe they were just hunters who were curious to see what weird animal was running around in their world. From their point of view, there’s literally no reason for them not to kill me.’
‘You said you get urges to hurt things.’
‘Yeah, but like I say, I can control them. I can just hurt myself a little, and that’s enough, you know? There’s no need to do more, and even if there was I could resist, no problem. I’d never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it, no matter what. Elyse, you know this, right?’
She sucked on her lip and said nothing.
‘Look. I know what you’re going to say, and I agree. We’re going to have to close the world.’
She let out deep sigh of relief and closed her eyes. Thank God.
‘I might be able to control it, but now there’s a chance I’ve infected you. It’s too much of a risk. One mistake is all it takes. So, yeah. We’ll close it. Hell, we can even do it today, now.’
‘And we have to tell the others everything,’ she said, opening her eyes.
‘Yeah. Of course.’
He came and sat down beside her again, this time leaving a space between them as if he were afraid he might lean over and take a bite of her arm at any moment. She stared into the fire, her mind spinning with everything he’d told her. God, it was such a mess. And it had seemed like a simple, benign world to begin with. A safe adventure. Trust Brian to find the one dangerous part of it all and bring it to their front door.
‘I’m so sorry, Elyse.’
‘It’s fine. I mean, once the door closes, the parasite dies, right? Or disease, or whatever it is. Like the book says, nothing can survive outside of its own world once the door closes.
‘Yeah, I mean that’s what I figured – if I felt like it was getting out of hand I could always just close the door.’
‘Well. Consider it out of hand.’
He laughed nervously and cast her a sideways glance. ‘Totally worth it,’ he said.
She managed to suppress a smile and stood up. ‘I’m sure I’ll find it funny later, Brian. Right now I’m pretty keen on getting the hell out of here and closing the door for good.’
‘Yeah, I guess we better get moving.’
The walk back to the mountain was peaceful and quiet. They’d both packed their schoolbags with as many books, bags of sweets, bottles of liquor and various other paraphernalia so it would be easier to clean out the clubhouse with the others. This, coupled with extra gravity, made the walk slow, and eventually Elyse began to relax. It was all going to be alright after all, wasn’t it? Besides, it was hard to stay mad at Brian for long.
‘I think this spring has been the weirdest time of my life,’ she said as they navigated the boulders and long grass at the foot of the mountain.
‘Yeah, weird is the word for it,’ he said. ‘Not all bad, though, huh?’
She thought about Dale, still lying in his coma, and his parents waiting endlessly for him to wake up. And she thought of long days and nights in the clubhouse and dancing around the bonfire, and of Brian’s rough, burning kiss. ‘No,’ she said eventually, ‘not all bad.’
He took her on a slight detour along the side of the mountain and showed her the remains of the thing he’d killed. Now it was nothing more than scattered bones, and it looked almost like a human skeleton, although with some strange deformities: the razor teeth, enormous eye sockets and six inch claws being the most noticeable. Elyse shuddered to think what it had looked like in life, and what would have happened if one had followed Brian through to Earth. Looking down at it, she finally asked Brian the question she hadn’t dared to ask earlier.
‘Can you show me?’
‘What you look like. I just… I need to see how bad it is.’
‘Uh. Yeah, I guess.’
He lifted his shirt over his head and dropped it in the sand, and when she finally gathered the courage to turn and look she sucked in a quick breath through her teeth. ‘Oh, God, Brian.’
‘What? It’s not that bad, is it?’
His skin, drawn tight over bone and muscle – not an inch of fat on him now – was covered in scars. Some of them had an order to them, as though he’d carefully incised himself, a surgeon administering necessary treatment to the patient; others looked wild and random, urgent gashes done in the heat of the moment.
She stepped forward and ran her hand down a particularly deep scar that ran down from his chest and curved in a spiral over his abdominals. He backed away, pulling his shirt back on. It was too late, though, the horror of what he’d done to himself showed on her face. ‘Oh, God, Brian,’ she said again, shaking her head.
‘Come on, it’s just scars. I’ll be fine. I heal so fast, now, I could do it forever if I had to.’
‘Well, you won’t,’ she said, hefting the bag on her shoulders. ‘We’re shutting this place down, alright?’
‘Yeah, I know.’
They made the rest of the journey in silence. Finally, less than half an hour after they’d entered the door they stepped back out and into Westlake forest, and before either of them could say another word to each other both of their phones began to buzz repeatedly with missed calls and messages.
‘What the hell?’ Elyse dug hers out of her pocket and read three missed calls from Steph and one from Matt. She was on the point of calling one of them when her eyes fell on the latest text message from Steph. She read it three times and then looked up and met Brian’s eyes. She was stunned, but a wide smile was spreading over his face as he read his own phone.
‘I know. You want to go now?’
Elyse, the message read: Get ur ass out here now. Dale awake! Tell Brian, he’s not answering phone. Repeat: Dale Is Awake!