The exams came and went, and everyone scraped through – including Dale, who received a special consideration because of the small matter of his coma. School ended for all year levels above ninth, and celebrations were in order. For everyone else, that was. Elyse and Brian were playing a different kind of game, which involved trimming fingernails (an increasingly painful activity), keeping out of sight, resisting the urge to torture small children to death, and waiting for the parasites to die.
On top of all this was the horrible knowledge that they had essentially committed murder. Because, of course, Jimmy Lee and Ray Deakin had been reported missing by their parents, and the police were casting the nets wide across Westlake and all surrounding suburbs in a fruitless search. Fruitless, because by now it had occurred to all of the gang that the date and time the two boys had vanished from the face of the earth coincided exactly with the date and time they were in the process of locking two unseen pursuers in another world. Permanently, and irrevocably.
Matt’s parents had grounded him for sneaking out of the house, but now they had him permanently confined within, certain that child kidnappers were roaming the streets. Dale’s parents were similarly paranoid because of what had happened to him, and Steph holed herself in her room, sick with fear and worry and unable to do anything about it. She called Elyse several times, but only got an answer around three o clock.
‘Hey. Where’ve you been all day? I think I’m losing my mind.’
‘Sleeping.’ There was a pause. ‘I was at Brian’s last night.’
‘At Brian’s? Is everything… How is he?’
‘Not good. Neither of us is good.’
‘Look, you know it wasn’t really… I mean, we couldn’t have known, right? And what were they doing there in the first place?’
‘Not that, Steph. I mean.’ There was a long sigh. ‘We’re not getting any better.’
‘I’ve got it. I’m sure of it. It’s horrible. I mean, some parts are really good, in a way, but it’s really horrible. I don’t know how Brian is dealing with it – he’s got it way worse than I have.’
‘But we closed the door, didn’t we?’
‘I don’t know. It didn’t seem all that closed to me. Nothing really changed. Dale told me he read through the whole book again and Brian definitely did everything right, though, so I dunno.’
‘Maybe it’ll just take time. Get worse before it gets better, you know.’
‘I don’t think so. I’m getting really scared, Steph. Brian changes every time I see him. He’s not the same as he used to be. All he thinks about is the burn.’
‘Burn. It’s like, the feeling you get. I can’t explain it. It’s this thing, this parasite, making you want to do really bad things. I’m worried he’s going to turn into one of those monsters. And me too.’
Steph didn’t say anything for a few minutes. She was huddled on her bed, staring out of the window at an overcast sky. She listened to her friend sob quietly on the other end of the phone.
‘There could be something we can do,’ she said.
‘Not a permanent fix, but it might give us time. Remember how we were talking about going into another world?’
‘If you and Brian went to a really slow world for a while, it would give the rest of us time to try and work something out. We could keep the key, lock you in some empty world that has, like, one hour for every ten of Earth. That means it would take ten times longer for you to change, and there wouldn’t be anyone to hurt.’
‘Oh God! Steph, that’s brilliant. But how would we find it?’
‘It’s already in the book, isn’t it? That empty place he visits in chapter… six I think? And he leaves because there’s nothing there?’
‘We thought there was nothing, too.’
‘It’s safer than Earth, Elyse.’
‘What will you guys do?’
‘I don’t know. It’s a last resort. We’d have to wait. I mean, if we put you in there too early you might starve before you could get out.’
‘I don’t know about that. I don’t really… eat much food any more. I don’t think Brian eats at all.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It just doesn’t fill me up. And it tastes like dirt. I had chicken soup last night and I swear it tasted like pond water.’
‘That’s not good. Look, see what Brian thinks. I’ll talk to the others. If you’re really not getting better, we’ve got to do something.’
‘I thought closing the door would end it. Why hasn’t it ended it, Steph? This thing should be dead inside me by now, but it just keeps growing.’
‘Elyse, we’re gonna find something out, yeah? Just take a deep breath.’
She heard Elyse take a long, shaky breath on the other side.
‘We’ll figure something out. There’s probably something obvious we haven’t thought of and Dale will point it out and we’ll do it. Just a matter of time.’
‘Maybe I should go to the doctor? Maybe they’d give me, like, some antibiotics or something?’
Steph paused. ‘That’s not a bad idea. But what the hell would you tell them? That you’re getting horrible urges that only go away when you hurt yourself? They’ll send you straight to a psychiatrist.’
‘You’re right. What if I get a blood test? I know it’s in my blood, it’s changing colour and Brian’s skin is almost black, in some places, and thick like tar. They have to pick up on it.’
‘Okay, yeah. That’s a good idea. But that takes time, doesn’t it? I’ll talk to the others in the meantime. And just… try and watch Brian. If he’s as bad as you say, you’re probably the only person he’ll listen to.’
‘Yeah. Steph? Thanks.’
‘Thank me all you want when this mess is over. I’ll come see you after your blood test and let you know what the others said, okay?’
‘Yeah. Okay.’ She took another heavy breath. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Steph closed her phone and stared out at the window for a long time, seeing nothing.