A rake thin man, chequered shirt buttoned to the neck, hair perfectly combed, peered at them from around the side of the door. He knew who they were, but he said, ‘Can I help you?’ so stiffly they might have been insurance salesmen. Steph glanced over at Dale, since he was a boy and Mr. Barrow was ever suspicious of girls coming to visit his son.
‘Hello, Mr. Barrow. I – we just wanted to come and see Matt, if that’s alright.’
‘You are aware, Mr. Plazina and Miss…’
‘Steph Courson,’ Steph said, even though she was certain he knew who she was.
‘Courson, you are aware that Matt has been strictly grounded recently?’
‘We know,’ Dale said, looking appropriately guilty, smiling with just the right amount of sheepish. ‘It’s just I haven’t seen him a whole lot since my, you know, my coma,’ he looked down at his feet, as though he were ashamed of being beaten to within an inch of his life.
Matt’s father looked at Steph and she smiled at him. ‘I’ve been studying pretty much permanently until the end of exams, so I thought I’d catch up with the two of them. It’ll just be a little while, if that’s okay.’
He frowned and nodded, stepping back and opening the door. ‘As long as he doesn’t leave the house, I suppose. Not too long though. And leave the bedroom door open, please.’
‘Of course, Mr. Barrow. Thanks,’ Dale said, smiling. He’d combed his usually impossibly messy hair and put on a collared shirt and jeans, and she had on a dress a nun would approve of. They felt his eyes on them as they made their way up the stairs, and only once they were in the hall outside of Matt’s room did they breathe sighs of relief.
Matt opened the door, clearly not expecting them. He was shirtless, track pants, hair wild and eyes gummy as though he’d just woken up. There were no posters in his room, nor televisions, game consoles, or anything a typical teenage boy should have. His parents believed that games and television rotted the brain and corrupted the soul. He’d still managed his own form of rebellion, however – and the room was covered wall to wall with discarded clothes, piles on piles of books, a stash of rum and vodka in his shoe drawer and another secret stash of ‘forbidden books’ under his bed. Among these were Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Carrie.
‘What the hell are you guys doing here?’
‘We have to talk about some stuff,’ Steph said, pushing past him and wrinkling her nose. ‘Jesus, this place stinks.’
Matt closed the door behind Dale and rooted through a pile of clothes for a fresh shirt. ‘Hey, lock yourself in your room for a couple weeks and see if you smell like roses, man.’
‘They had you in here since Exams?’
‘Yup. No holidays for me. They think I’ve been doing drugs in the park with you guys. Plus there’s all the stuff that’s been going on around here lately.’
‘Yeah. About that,’ Dale said. He and Steph swiped some books off the bed and made themselves comfortable. Matt put on a wrinkled blue shirt and sat in a chair by his desk. He nodded, not meeting Dale’s eyes. ‘It’s messed up,’ he said. ‘But there’s nothing we can do. We’ll never be able to find that world again. It’s gone forever.’
‘We’re not so sure about that,’ Steph said.
Matt looked up. ‘What?’
‘Brian’s not doing so good lately. And neither is Elyse.’
He stared at her for a moment longer, and then her words sunk in. ‘Oh, shit,’ he whispered. ‘It didn’t work. The door didn’t close.’
‘Or it did close,’ Dale said, ‘and the parasite just isn’t dying.’
‘Wait, wait. Didn’t the guy in the book say it took time? The door closed and then it was, like – ’
‘A few days,’ Dale said.
‘And Elyse is getting worse, too,’ Steph said. ‘She didn’t say too much, but I’m getting the feeling she’s the only thing keeping Brian from slipping all the way, you know? Becoming one of them.’
‘And there’s Jordan, too, isn’t there?’ Matt said, hand on his forehead. ‘Oh man, what about Jordan? He must have it, right?’
Steph shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I mean, Brian infected Elyse by biting her lip. And she said he was positive that passing it on had to do with teeth and claws, but in the fight with Jordan he only used his fists. She said he’s not worried about that.’
‘Well I am. Do you realise what the hell Jordan would be like if he had what Brian has? You think he’d be all noble and hurt himself instead of other people? The kid’s a borderline sociopath as it is, Steph. Oh, man, this is not good.’
‘Yeah, well. That’s why we’re here,’ Dale said.
‘Why? You have some kind of idea?’
‘Yeah, actually,’ he glanced at Steph. ‘We think we should find a world, a fast one – and put Elyse and Brian there so they can’t hurt or infect anyone else.’
Matt looked at him. ‘That’s your plan? Lock them in another world? Like opening doors isn’t what got us into this in the first place?’
‘It’ll buy us time,’ Steph said. ‘Elyse was the one that suggested it to me in the first place. Think about it – if it’s a slow world that has one hour to ten of ours, we have ten times longer to figure out something to do before they turn.’
‘Buy us time? To do what? Watch Jordan and see if he kills anyone? Shut the door again? Oh, wait, the key’s broken already. Is there anything in the book about that?’
‘Calm down,’ Dale said.
Matt nodded and closed his eyes. ‘Jesus Christ.’
‘I don’t know about any of that,’ Dale said, ‘but I know someone who might.’
‘Who’s that?’ Matt said, eyes still closed.
‘Dale? Isn’t he, like…’ Steph started, then trailed off. She was remembering the note to Diana from the Book of Worlds, in which Zindel hinted about going to live in a slow world, some kind of paradise.
‘Yep,’ Dale said. ‘He’s in a slow world. And if it’s really slow, then it could be he’s still alive. Hell, it could be he’s only been there a year or two, on his time.’
‘And it wouldn’t be closed, either,’ Matt said, thoughtful. ‘He said he only ever had to close that one door.’
‘Wouldn’t he have the key with him, though?’ Steph said, but Dale shook his head. ‘Half the reason he wrote that book was so that Diana would figure out where he was and go find him. He would have left her the key somewhere. Although I can’t remember anything in the books saying that. Maybe he left her the keys in the will or something. He sure as hell wouldn’t ever close the door for good, though, because it would pretty much mean certain death for him.’
‘I don’t know if I like it,’ Matt said. ‘There’s too much we don’t know. How are we going to find the door? Where do we even begin looking? Who says this Diana chick didn’t already grab the key and go find him? I don’t know of any way to make a second key, do you? It’s a stretch.’
‘It’s all we’ve got,’ Steph said.
‘I know. Damn. I’m in, then. So what’s the actual plan? How are we gonna do this?’
Steph glanced at Dale and then said, ‘we hadn’t really got that far yet.’
‘I think you two should start looking for a world we can leave Elyse and Brian in,’ Dale said. ‘It’s better if more of us go – some of the places out there are dangerous as hell, so you better bring weapons, just in case.’
‘And we’re looking for, what?’ Matt said.
‘Firstly, a barren world. A place that looks like there’s nothing living in any direction. Kind of like the world we started in, actually. Second, it has to be slow – the slower the better. If you found a place where it was like a month over here for one hour over there, that’d be pretty good. Then I guess it’s just a matter of getting them to go there.’
‘Why don’t you come with us?’
‘Someone has to keep an eye on Jordan, find out if he’s really got it. I’ll do that. I still can’t remember anything about my coma but… I get a feeling sometimes. Just a bad feeling.’
‘What if he does have it?’ Steph said.
‘We’ll have to burn that bridge when we come to it. We’re not sure, yet.’
‘Great.’ Matt said.
‘In the meantime I’ll start trying to figure out where the hell Arthur Zindel is. I’ve still got the book, and he apparently left enough clues for anyone with a brain to work it out, so I’ll get on that. I just hope his world isn’t too fast, cos that means it’s gonna take a hell of a lot of Earth hours to get answers from him.’
‘Ah, what a mess,’ Matt groaned.
‘And we’ve got to wait for Elyse’s blood test,’ Steph said.
‘What?’ They both looked over at her.
‘I told her to get a blood test. In case like, I dunno. I mean, a shot of antibiotics can’t hurt, can it?’
They exchanged glances and shrugged. ‘Yeah I guess not. As long as they don’t drag her away to some lab for a bunch of lengthy science experiments.’
‘Okay,’ Matt said, ‘so me and Steph look for worlds while you spy on Jordan and start looking for Zindel. Then after Elyse’s blood results, if that doesn’t help at all, we’ll dump them in some desert world and all three of us go talk to Zindel together. Anyone clear on phase three? Like, you know, if Zindel’s dead, or if he has no idea how to solve our problem?’
There was a deadly silence following this.
Finally, Dale said, ‘He’ll help us. Trust me, we find Zindel, get back in time, and everything’ll be okay.’
‘What makes you think he’s got the answers?’ Matt said, after a minute.
Dale shrugged. ‘He has to. He wrote the book on it, didn’t he?’