As soon as he was in Westlake, now quiet and almost absent of people, Dale collapsed onto all fours and stared at the damp grass. He wanted to vomit, but nothing would come out. There was just a feeling of horrible sickness, and the visions of what he’d seen swimming in nauseating circles in front of his eyes. ‘Oh, Jesus. What the hell did we do?’ He sat back on his knees and put his hands up to his face, forcing himself to breathe slower. In time, the chill night air cooled his sweat and calmed him down.
It didn’t change that it was all their fault. Brian’s in part, but they all shared the blame. Messing with other worlds, thinking themselves brave adventurers. What were they thinking? He had an image of Jordan, partially obscured through the overhanging branches of a willow at the bottom of the garden, raising his hatchet. He’d closed his eyes, but his hearing worked perfectly fine, and his imagination was all too vivid. When he opened them again, he caught a glimpse of Jordan shoving a hind leg into a black bag, and Solly’s head was lying on its side, muzzle still taped closed, slack eyes seeming to stare right at Dale. Run, they said. Run or he’ll do it to you, too.
But of course, Dale hadn’t been able to move. He’d seen the way Brian had changed, how he’d been able to smell and hear and see things he shouldn’t have been able to. He’d hidden himself well enough so far, but had he moved then, it would have been all over.
He shook his head and got up on trembling legs. Took a deep breath, started down the hill to Westlake forest, where Steph had told him to go if he found anything out. ‘We’re going to be in a lot of other worlds,’ she’d said, a trace of fear in her voice, ‘so our phones won’t be working. Be careful, Dale.’
Be careful. If only it was that easy.
When he arrived at the first door, he found the forest empty. He took out a penlight and flicked it around, focusing on the bark of the surrounding pines, until he found what he was looking for: door carvings. Here was one, and here was another one… no more. They’d only opened two doors all day. That didn’t seem right. Unless they were in a really slow world.
The door he was standing in front of burst forward, slamming him square in the nose and knocking him onto the pine needles. A moment later Steph landed on top of him and rolled to the side, and Matt came soon after, slumping on all fours and gasping for breath.
‘Jesus! What’s going on?’ He scrambled to his feet, eyes watering, and caught a glimpse of mist and grass before the door swung gently closed. It took him a moment to realise that Steph wasn’t breathing. Matt was hacking and coughing in the dirt, so he dropped beside her. ‘Steph?’
What were you supposed to do? Heimlich? No that wasn’t right – CPR? He put both hands on her chest, just like he saw them do in the movies, and pushed down, hard. He’d never been this terrified in his whole life, except, perhaps, for about twenty minutes ago when he’d snuck through Jordan’s side gate while his father was beating him half to death.
Steph’s eyes popped open and she saw him, kicked him in the chest, and slapped him in the face. He leaned back against the tree trunk, staring at her, and she stared back, apparently just as surprised.
‘Fuck,’ Dale said, rubbing his face.
‘I’m sorry,’ Steph said. ‘Adrenaline, you know.’
‘What the hell happened to you guys in there?’
‘The mist,’ Matt said, getting to his feet. ‘Something in it. Too bad, though, that place would have been perfect.’
‘What are you doing here?’ Steph asked Dale as he pulled her to her feet.
‘Jordan’s got it. Bad.’
Steph looked over at Matt with something like resignation on her face and he returned it, tight lipped. ‘What happened?’ she said.
‘I went to watch him today. See what he did, you know? If he was any different. Seemed normal at first. I set up camp in some bushes in the back garden and just sat there all day, being quiet. I was worried he’d be really sensitive like Brian. He just lay around most of the day. I could see into the house through the back door and a couple of upstairs windows, but all he did was sit around and drink beer and watch TV. I didn’t want to leave yet in case he saw me, but then…’ Dale closed his eyes for a second and then forced himself to go on. ‘He killed his dog.’
‘Oh, God.’ Steph put a hand up to her mouth.
‘I saw the whole thing. I couldn’t move, because I knew he’d sense me.’
‘Couldn’t you just run? Hop a fence or just sprint out of there?’ Matt said, but Dale shook his head.
‘You didn’t see him. He was crazy. He’d have caught me in two seconds and he would have killed me. I’m sure of it. He wasn’t thinking like a human being. He’d have killed me, no question.’
The clearing was dead silent now, except for Dale’s shaking voice. He remembered every one of those brutal seconds, would never forget them, but he decided not to tell them. This was the last time he’d ever talk about this, or think about it. ‘The way he did it… He’s got it, the disease or whatever it is. After he finished, then he was all remorseful, hugging the body. Then he sort of woke up and stuffed it in a bag and went inside, and that was when I left. I ran down the side of the house, sprinted off down the street before he could see me. I looked back one time, and I saw a car pulling up in the driveway. His dad’s I think.’
‘Good.’ Steph said. ‘Maybe he’ll call the cops or something.’
‘I’m going there next,’ Dale said, his voice clearing a little. ‘I wanted to warn you first, to stay the hell away from him. But I’m going to the cops first thing and telling them my memory’s come back, that it was him that chucked me off the cliff.’
‘Was it?’ Matt asked. Dale shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter. He’s gotta go down. One of you call and tip them off that he killed his dog, in case his dad doesn’t. They’ll find it somewhere, he wouldn’t have hid it yet.’
‘Call now,’ Matt said. Steph nodded and took out her phone. She dialled triple 0 and waited. ‘This is bad,’ she muttered. ‘This is getting way out of hand.’
A second later, there was a click and someone answered. ‘Hello? Steph said. ‘Listen, I’m calling because I just heard a dog going nuts in someone’s garden and I, like, stuck my head over the fence and this kid – I know him from school – Jordan Silic – he was killing his dog. There was blood everywhere, please go help, his address is…’ she looked at Dale and he told her, and she repeated it into the phone. ‘Please hurry, it was horrible. Oh, God, I think it’s dead.’
The voice on the other end erupted, and while the other two couldn’t hear what was said, the look on Steph’s face gave them all they needed. She interjected a few times but the raging voice was having none of it, and before she could get more than a few words in there was a click on the line. Steph stared at the phone in her hand as though it was a rotting tomato.
‘Steph?’ Matt said, when she didn’t say anything. ‘What was that?’
‘She just… I mean, they’re supposed to be calm and just believe you, aren’t they? They’re supposed to investigate even when they think it was a prank call or whatever and that… that didn’t sound like a prank did it?’
‘What did she say?’ Dale said, although he thought he already had a good idea.
‘She just lost it. She was telling me how the police department was swamped with assaults and attempted murders as it was, and here some pissy schoolgirl – she called me that – was calling about someone’s dog. And she said she could tell a prank a mile away and I should grow up and sort out my own problems. And then she hung up.’
Matt gaped at her, but despite the sick feeling in his stomach, Dale wasn’t entirely surprised. ‘You guys don’t see it yet, do you? This parasite’s been spreading all over Westlake. Probably beyond that by now. Brian was wrong, it doesn’t need claws or teeth or blood. Jordan’s infection proves that. It just needs, I dunno, to feed.’
‘How’s it moving so quick, though?’ Matt said. ‘And how come none of us have it?’
‘I dunno about you guys, but I haven’t been getting out much recently, except at night. And anything could be infected. Small animals, insects even.’
Matt’s eyes widened suddenly. ‘Flies,’ he said.
‘My Dad keeps getting bitten. He tried to have a barbeque the other day and it was like they targeted him as soon as he stepped outside. It was weird, he had to stop and come in because the repellent wasn’t keeping them off. Shit, what if it’s flies?’
‘How would that happen, though?’ Steph said.
‘Parasite feeds on something, or someone, and kills it,’ Dale said slowly, thinking of Solly, and the flies already beginning to collect as Jordan stuffed the limbs into black bags. ‘Flies feed on the body, get infected. Matt’s right.’
‘Oh no,’ Steph said. ‘Oh, this is bad, guys. The dispatcher must have been infected. She’s probably been getting aggressive and doesn’t even know why. Like how Brian was, in the beginning.’
‘Yeah, but look how long it’s taken Brian, though,’ Matt said. ‘And he’s not even fully changed. He’s still controlling it, mostly. Which means we’ve still got time before things gets really bad, if we find Zindel soon.’
‘Jordan got it way after Brian, and he just killed his own dog,’ Dale said. Neither of them had a reply to that, and for a long time the three of them just stood in the forest, a feeling of dread hanging thick in the night air.
‘Listen,’ Matt broke the silence first. Dale could make out his features in the dark, tight and strained with fear. ‘All we can do is find Zindel. Figure out what we did wrong closing the door. If we can just do it right, make sure it’s properly closed, all the parasites will die. Right? That’s the best course of action. The cops can’t do shit, and Elyse’s blood test isn’t going to help anything anyway. Even if it is possible to develop some kind of cure, who knows how long it will take? This thing is spreading too fast. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not sleeping until the two of them are locked away on some other planet, and the three of us get some answers from Zindel.’
‘Neither am I,’ Steph said.
‘Then forget finding an empty world for Brian,’ Dale said. ‘Even if he does infect it, once we close the door it’ll kill the parasites anyway. Just put the two of them somewhere they won’t die while we find Zindel.’
Matt nodded. ‘You still have the book of worlds?’
‘Yeah. I’ll read through it tonight. It can’t be that hard to figure out. He wanted his daughter Diana to find him, so it’s all in there.’
‘Okay.’ Steph stepped forward and pulled Dale into a hug. He was so surprised it was a moment before he reciprocated, and he looked at Matt over her shoulder. Matt shrugged, looking as surprised as he was.
‘I’m scared, Dale,’ she said.
‘Yeah. Me too.’
‘What if he doesn’t know? Do you think we could… find another world?’
The thought chilled Dale to the bone. Leave Brian and Elyse, hopeless. Leave their families to a doomed world, and take their chances somewhere else in the hopes that they could survive?
‘I… I have a little sister,’ he said. She didn’t reply, and he felt warm tears on his neck. He wondered if Jenny had been outside lately. If she had any fly bites on her. How long would it be before Matt’s dad started murdering stray cats, or torturing Matt?
‘We’ll find a way,’ he said.
She nodded, and finally stepped back, wiping her eyes. ‘Please be careful Dale,’ she said in a small voice.
‘Yeah. We need you, man,’ Matt said.
Dale gave them a bleak smile. ‘I’ll call as soon as I know where to go,’ he said. ‘If you don’t answer I’ll send messages and then I’ll come here and wait for you.’
‘Don’t wait longer than three hours,’ Matt said, and now the fear was in his voice as well as his face. Fear was taking them over faster than any parasite.
There was nothing else to say, so Dale gave a stiff nod and wound his way back through the trees, walking fast, his hands in his pockets and his head hunched, exposing as little skin as possible to the air.