The day Harry Yorker fell in love was the worst in his life.
At least, so far.
That was the thought on his mind as he lay in the middle of Plunder Road, blood streaming from both nostrils, face swollen, lips cut, and ten dollars poorer. He’d begged his father not to give him the money, knowing exactly what would happen to it, but Mr. Yorker was not one to give in to bullies. ‘It’s only one kid?’ he’d said, eyeing Harry from across the table. ‘You just hit him back, son, you’re big enough. Goddamn, you let some little bastard push you around, you deserve what you get. It’s a tough world, you gotta learn to fight.’ With the word fight he’d plunged his fork down into the rib eye on his plate as though it had done him personal harm, spraying juice over the front of his shirt.
Well, Miles Braider had learned to fight, and Harry got the distinct feeling he enjoyed it a hell of a lot, too. He never reacted to anything, Miles, but he had an intensity in his eyes when he hit Harry, an internal fire that no amount of pain would ever quench.
It was four thirty now, but Harry didn’t want to go home. Better to stay out as late as possible, come back pretending he went for takeaway. When his father commented on the wounds, Harry would tell him. Yeah, you should see the other guy.
For now he just wanted to get out of the world, away from Miles, away from his father, and away from himself – this weak friendless boy who could hardly think of a reason to go on living if, well, his life depended on it. As he dragged himself to his feet, awakening a whole world of aches and pains, he thought it would be real nice to get away from his body, too.
So he went to the park.
Anderson’s Reserve was an enormous basin like a meteor crater, and the trees were thickest right in the middle, at the bottom. In the past, Harry would lie on his back and stare up through towering Pines and Gums at the sky, and drift away. But as he descended into the shade and silence he wondered if he had the balls to stay there ten minutes, let alone all night. True night was at least an hour away, but down here it had come early, and even the crickets no longer chirped.
But God, it was good to be free. When he reached his spot, a soft circle of grass beside a manhole cover, he sat cross legged and closed his eyes, hands resting on his knees like a monk. The blood dried on his swollen face, and though he still felt pain with every movement, somehow it didn’t seem so bad anymore. He breathed the rich scent of pine needles and autumn leaves and listened to the gentle creaking branches and the occasional flutter of batwings.
He spoke to himself in a low voice, a habit long nurtured as an only child with no friends. All of his deepest conversations had been with himself, and now he had more serious things to consider than ever. Suicide, for example.
‘It doesn’t have to be bad. We both know there’s no heaven or hell. It would be just like this, now. Total peace. That has to be better than this world.’
‘No way. I’m not killing myself, not if Miles gets to live. It would just confirm I’m a coward.’
‘Not if you do it in a cool way. You could go out with a bang. Get a big knife, stab Miles to death. Run at the cops so they shoot you dead. That’d be a way to go. You could write a note, blame your dad.’
‘That’s twisted, man.’
He chuckled to himself. ‘Yeah. Think about it, though. Suicide, man. If it wasn’t so great, why would so many people do it?’
He fell silent for a long time, playing his Final Stand out in his mind, savouring the way it would feel to sink a screwdriver all the way to the hilt into Miles Fucking Braider’s neck, when the unmistakeable sound of leaves crunching beneath a foot made his eyes snap open.
It was a girl.
Holy shit, she’s beautiful. She was standing half behind a tree a few meters away, one bare foot in a patch of old leaves, watching him with wide eyes and biting her bottom lip as though guilty for disturbing him. She had hair the black of deep ocean, large eyes in an angular face, and a firm, slender body clothed in a torn black dress. Even from his sitting position Harry could tell she was nearly a head taller than him.
So stunned was he by her beauty that he didn’t notice what was wrong with her hands until she came a step closer and curled one arm around the thick trunk of a pine. It was a large tree, so that she shouldn’t have been able to encircle it completely, but encircle it she did – with a hand and fingers at least four times the length they should have been, silver pointed nails scratching the bark.
He scrambled to his feet and took one step back, wanting to run but not wanting to take his eyes off this strange girl. There was something about the way she looked at him – head cocked to one side, curious – that made goose bumps rise on his skin.
‘Uh… Hi. I’m Harry,’ he managed. She took another step forward and then hesitated when she saw him move away again. Gave him a small frown, then shrugged as though it didn’t matter.
What she did next pushed him as close to the limit of his sanity as he’d ever come, an act so effortless and yet so earth shatteringly impossible that he would leave the forest that night doubting everything about reality as he knew it: Uncurling her arm from around the tree, she used one of her delicate fingers to cut through the air, a black line appearing in the wake of her sharp nail as though she’d used it to slice open the fabric of a camping tent instead of empty air. Then she gave him a sideways glance and whispered, in a voice as light and dry as the wind, ‘Please don’t kill yourself, Harry,’ and in one smooth motion stepped through the opening she’d created and sealed it shut behind her. Besides a slight shimmer, flashing and gone in a second, it was as though she’d never been there.
Harry did not dare approach the spot, and turned and hurried through the trees as fast as he could, faint with terror and casting frequent glances over his shoulder as he went. ‘Never again,’ he muttered, weaving through trunks and hopping over low bushes, ‘I am never coming back here again.’
He couldn’t have been gone long, but the park was deserted and dark, and as he ran across the great football over it was starlight and not sunlight which illuminated his way. His father was going to be mad, but that was okay, because that was something normal and real, something that made sense. ‘Never go back. No way, no way, no way.’
But he knew he would, because for the first time in his life, Harry Yorker was in love.
His father was too bug eyed to notice, but Mr. Salander wasn’t. Harry had made it to the last period without anyone saying a word, but Salander did a double take when he entered the classroom with his hood up, and put a hand on his shoulder after class as everyone was leaving. ‘Hang around a minute, Yorker.’ Someone stomped on Harry’s foot on their way out and when he looked up he saw Miles flash him a deadpan look. Even if I don’t say anything, he’ll assume I did. Shit.
Salander was a good guy, but he didn’t know how things worked. He was young, clean shaven, and he always wore a suit to school. He had a sense of humour, but he tried to hide it by talking in a stern serious voice all the time and not smiling much. He was probably the main reason Harry had managed to get away with skipping school for so long.
When the door clicked shut after the last kids and the room was quiet save a ticking clock and the distant sound of laughter and banging lockers, Salander leaned against the blackboard with his arms folded and raised his eyebrows. ‘So, wanna tell me what’s going on?’
Harry shrugged, hands in his jacket pockets.
Salander sighed, eyed him over his reading glasses. ‘Look, if it’s your dad, there are places you can go for help. And if it’s another student, there’s plenty the school can do for you.’
‘Oh yeah? Like what?’
‘I’d take a photo of your face right now, for starters. Then I’d go about trying to get Miles Braider expelled.’
Harry stared at him, terrified. ‘You don’t know it was him.’
‘Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t make me blind, Harry. I teach two of Miles’s classes besides this one, but I only had to talk to him for about five minutes to understand he’s got some serious mental problems. In my opinion, he belongs in a school that specialises in the treatment of, ah, special needs kids.’
This is bad. This is going to be bad for me. Harry knew he should get out of there now and pray Salander didn’t do anything about it, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. ‘What makes you say that?’ he asked.
‘Come on, Harry. I majored in psychology at university, but you don’t need a degree to see he’s on a one way path to jail unless his parents get him medicated. I don’t have much hope for that, though – I met his parents. All the staff here are concerned about Miles, but we haven’t really been able to catch him doing anything too bad.’
‘It was him that broke all the windows last month.’
‘You can prove this?’
The principal had arrived early one morning to find every single one of the P – Block windows shattered, a smouldering pile of tables and chairs in the quadrangle, and the word DEATH TO SCHOOL spray painted over and over on the brickwork.
‘He told me.’
Salander winced. ‘Sorry, not enough. What he’s done to you now, though… we can expel him for that, Harry. That’s assault.’ He sounded eager, and Harry wanted so badly for him to be right. He was a good guy.
‘That’s not how it works,’ Harry said.
‘Oh? How does it work?’
‘I say he beat me up, he says he didn’t. His parents won’t want to pay for any special school, so they’ll back him up, say he was at home with them. The principal won’t be certain either because I’ve been to school twice before with bruises from my Dad. Can’t expel a kid without solid proof.’
He watched Salander deflate as he spoke, almost felt bad for the guy. Then he remembered the look Miles had given him on the way out and hardened. Whatever Miles was going to do was Salander’s fault, now.
‘There’s gotta be something…’
‘Yeah. Just leave me alone. I’ll be okay.’
He left the classroom for the fast emptying halls, where mean words followed him, friends talked in groups about a life of parties and girls of which he would never take part, and deodorant hung so thickly in the air it made his eyes sting. He wondered if he’d ever make it out of this place alive.
Harry never went home when he could help it. At least his dad had eased up about him skipping, but as long as the two of them were in the same room the tension was there, stretched taut like the skin of an overblown balloon. Dinner was the crunch of chicken bones between teeth, evening was the glug of scotch down a rough throat, bedtime was a blaring Television and drunken mutterings through a thin wall. Harry had become a ghost.
It’s better this way. As long as I’m a ghost, I can be free. This thought, coupled with the idea that he might see her again, buoyed his step and put a dark smile on his face as he turned off plunder road and hopped over one of the Private Property signs that bordered the park. On the nights he couldn’t sleep he would stare out of his window at the distant stars and wonder if she was looking up at the same constellations or if she was away, in her other world.
By the time he reached the clearing at the centre of the forest he was tiptoeing, breathing light puffs of vapour into the cold air, unable to shake the feeling that he might scare her away with his movement. He settled down cross legged beside the manhole, just as he’d done that first time, but he didn’t close his eyes. He wanted to see her arrive, tearing through reality as she’d done.
Twice he closed his eyes and reopened them, but she didn’t appear. Night fell, the cloud cover blocking the moonlight so that even his dark adjusted eyes could only make out dark lines of trees and black ground. He got up and paced, abandoned. He jammed his hands in his pockets and started back through the trees, choking back tears. She hadn’t been real, after all. I’ll hang myself right here. Get a rope from Dad’s garage and tie it to a tree branch right over where I first saw her. No one will ever find me.
‘Don’t do that.’
He spun around, air catching in his throat, and there she was, standing in the clearing he’d just left, long fingered hands by her side, mouth turned down at the corners, concerned. Her black dress was badly torn at the hem, revealing a perfect white leg.
She nodded, coming forward tentatively as though afraid he’d run again. But he couldn’t have run if his life depended on it – he was hypnotised. When she was a meter or so away she stopped and regarded him. Her neck was twice as long as his, and she looked down on him with as much curiosity as he did her.
‘W… Where did you come from?’ he asked, his dry mouth struggling to form words.
She looked confused at his question, and without answering turned and walked back to the manhole cover. He followed, terrified that she would leave him again, but she turned when she reached the clearing.
‘Would you like me to show you?’ she said.
When he nodded, heart in his mouth, she bent down and, with a single finger, flipped the manhole cover from its opening. It spun around in a lazy circle and then landed in the grass with a dull phum. The hole it left was blacker than the forest, as black as the opening she’d made. He knew immediately that this was it – an entrance into that place, wherever it was.
To his horror, she stood aside and gestured for him to go first.
‘Don’t… don’t you go first?’
She shook her head. ‘I have to close it.’
He leaned over it, but there was nothing to see but void. She waited beside him patiently, a smile on her face that was half knowing and half challenge. Go on, it seemed to say, I dare you. That, coming from a girl like her? Harry would have jumped off a cliff.
He extended one foot over the opening, held his breath, hesitated. Fuck it. You were going to kill yourself anyway. He tucked his chin and dropped.
The first seconds were utter terror. The circle of dim light vanished above him as he fell, his stomach dropping out of him the way it did on a rollercoaster. He tumbled, tried to orientate, but there was no wind resistance, and the sensation of falling was replaced with one of floating. How is she going to find me? He thought with a rush of panic. I’ve gone too far – this place is too big. I’ll be here forever.
But just as that unsettling notion took hold she appeared, floating gracefully beside him with a wide grin. Her teeth were pearly white, small, and neatly tapered to points, but somehow he was no longer afraid of her. She put a reassuring hand on his back and he broke out in pleasant goose bumps.
‘Where are we?’ he asked. He searched for a source of light, but couldn’t find one. How could he see her so clearly?
‘Home,’ she said. Before he could press her about where home was, she tugged at his shirt and he experienced a strong sense of deceleration, though he hadn’t realised they were moving at all. They’d been spread eagled, like skydivers in freefall, but now their feet swung underneath them and they descended slowly. She pointed into the blackness below them, and an enormous landscape materialized from the nothingness – not emerging, but being created – fields and lakes and even a castle popping into existence on a giant floating rock about the same size as the reserve from which they’d come.
‘Oh my god. Are you doing that?’
Instead of answering, she waved her hand and the entire landscape disappeared without so much as a sound, and in its place she made a lake, its calm waters extending as far as Harry could see. An island of white sand and palm trees floated in its centre, and it was here the two of them landed, floating gently down to its narrow shore.
Harry went to his knees and dug both of his hands into the cool sand, hardly able to believe that it existed. But the island was real alright, though the sand was softer than any beach sand he’d ever felt, and the waters of the lake didn’t lap at the shores the way they did naturally – the ripples travelled instead away from the island, perhaps to lap at some other distant shore.
As he took everything in, from the palms illuminated with that otherworldly light to the bright green moss covered boulders, the word heavenly came to mind, and on its tail a worrying thought. ‘Am I dead?’ he asked.
She laughed, a high cold sound that struck him as mean until she said, ‘You are funny, Harry Yorker. I like you.’
He stood up, trying not to betray his relief that he hadn’t been beaten to death by Miles and come to such a lonely, if beautiful place. Not entirely lonely. I wouldn’t mind being dead if I could be with her forever. She’d turned away from him and was standing with arms folded, looking out over the lake, and he came up beside her. ‘I like you, too,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I don’t have a name.’
‘Oh. Do you… were you born here?’
‘Yes. I floated for a long time, until I learned to make things. I made my body, too, when I went to your world for the first time and saw people. I added some things, though…’ She raised a long hand and waved her fingers, smiling. ‘Do you like them?’ But before he could answer, she ran one nail along his face, the light touch enough to make him shiver.
‘Yeah. You’re beautiful.’ He could never have said such a thing in the real world, but in this dreamlike place, anything seemed possible. Maybe he was losing his mind?
She didn’t reply, far more comfortable with silence than he was. A million questions fired through his mind, but he restrained himself. He had a feeling that he was here only because she was curious about him, and if he disappointed her in any way she would take her world and vanish from his life for good. He made himself wait until she spoke again.
‘Do you like this place? I can never make the things I want. I don’t know what they look like. That’s why I always visit your world. To find beautiful things.’
‘It’s… It could use some sunlight. And like, maybe a breeze?’
She nodded, and a moment later a ball of burning red appeared in the sky, bathing everything in a pleasant orange glow, though not quite like sunlight. A warm wind blew in across the lake, making her long hair flow. Harry stared up at the makeshift sun, trying to guess how large it was, and how far away. ‘Can you do that with anything?’
‘No. Only in this world. And I can’t make anything alive. Nothing like you.’ She stared at him for a long time, and when he met her gaze she reached out and touched him again, her hand running the length of his arm. ‘I’ve never seen one of you up close before. I’ve been visiting your world for a long time. I was always too afraid.’
‘You don’t have to be afraid of us. Uh, no, that’s not true – but you don’t have to be afraid of me. I mean, you’re like a goddess in this place. No one would…’ he swallowed, a thought occurring to him that jarred him as much for the evil at the core of it as for its potential. ‘No one would stand a chance against you.’
‘A goddess,’ she said, turning her chin up and smiling. ‘I like that word.’
‘I can tell you anything you want about my world. I could show you things – stuff you don’t have in this place.’
‘Really?’ her eyes lit up, childishly hopeful, and another jarring thought came to him, this one not so unwelcome: Sex. Holy shit, I’m going to lose it to a supernatural being. The thought terrified him almost as much as it excited him. For all her additions she was still the most stunning girl he’d ever seen. ‘Yeah. And I could bring more living things here, if you wanted. Animals – maybe even people, if I could find the right ones. Good ones.’
‘You would be my guide to your world? And bring life?’
‘Anything you want.’
‘How can I repay you?’
Say it. Grow a pair and say it. You’re in another universe, talking to an all powerful goddess, who wants to give you something. If you don’t say it I’ll make you cut your wrists tonight. He said it, with an expression of the deepest seriousness and only the hint of a smile. ‘You could kiss me.’
She furrowed her brow. ‘I don’t know what that is.’
‘It’s good – you’ll like it. It’ll be the first thing I show you. But you have to let me touch you.’
She took a half step back, wary. ‘It’s good?’
She nodded and let her arms hang by her sides, waiting to see what he’d do. Heart racing madly, he stepped in, one hand settling on the back of her head, and kissed her before he lost his nerve. Her whole body was rigid, but she relaxed and opened her mouth for him, passively allowing him to explore with his tongue. He pulled back after a moment, watching for her reaction. She considered, shook her head as though uncertain, and then to his amazement pulled him in and kissed him again. This time, she bit down on his tongue just as he got going, hard enough to draw blood, and held him there for a second or two before letting him withdraw.
He staggered back in the sand, shocked, and she licked her lips with a mischievous smile. ‘What the hell?’ he said. She laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘It was nice. But I liked the second one better.’
‘You almost took my tongue off.’ But he found he was laughing along with her, and soon the pain faded to a mild throb.
‘Thank you, Harry,’ she said, turning back to look up at the burning red sun. Though it hadn’t moved or changed at all, she must have read something on it because the next thing she said was, ‘It’s getting late. I should take you back.’
‘Oh, okay. I’ll be back soon, though, won’t I?’
‘Of course,’ she said, smiling. ‘You’re my guide, remember?’
And with that pleasant affirmation reverberating in his mind, she took his hand and the two of them flew back through the empty sky for home.
Harry was not his usual alert self the following day at school, and he kicked himself for it later, thinking how he’d wandered so carelessly through the school after fifth period, aware of nothing but the impossible memories playing through his mind. He deserved what he got, really.
The sunlit parking lot was so close, just a few steps to the end of the hall, when a door opened behind him and a hand took hold of his backpack and wrenched him off his feet. A second later Miles was pushing him against the back shelves of a janitorial closet, door swinging closed behind them.
‘What you tell him, Yorker? Did ya tattle on me?’ He mimicked a child’s voice.
Harry didn’t reply. He dropped his bag and stood with clenched fists, hoping a beating was the only thing Miles had in mind. His teeth were still loose and his bruises would be there for days yet.
‘It’s okay if you did. It wouldn’t change anything. You can’t get away, Yorker. Even if they expelled me you couldn’t get away.’
‘Yes I would. I’d call the cops on you. You could go to jail for assault.’
‘Ooooooh, I didn’t think of that. Assault, huh? Wow, that’s a serious crime. I bet I’d be in jail for a whole week.’ It was unnerving, the way he spoke. His voice was condescending, animated even, but his expression void.
Harry held his gaze, looking for a flicker, a sign that anything was in there besides whatever evil cogs and screws kept him turning. ‘What are gonna do, beat me up for my lunch money your whole life? Is that how you’re gonna make a living?’ He tried to inflect a mocking tone, but his heart was beating too fast, muddling his words and making his voice shake. He swallowed. Just hit him. Get it over with.
‘You know what you don’t get, Harry?’ Miles took a small step forward, hands dropping loose by his sides. ‘I don’t do this shit ‘cos I hate you. I don’t do it ‘cos I want your fuckin ten dollars either. I do it ‘cos I’m a dog and you’re a rabbit. It’s just who we are.’
He took another step and now he was in striking distance, but Harry was leaning back against the shelves, couldn’t do it yet, couldn’t overcome that formidable barrier between speech and violence that Miles crossed with impunity. ‘You’re not a dog, you’re just an asshole,’ he said, but he felt the truth of Miles’s words in his heart.
‘You wanna fight me, little rabbit?’ He was real close now, breath blowing in Harry’s face with each word. ‘Cos you know what’ll happen, you try to fuck with me? I’ll come back with a blade, and I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’
He spoke the sentence with such calm, the tone sharing none of the threat that the words held, that Harry didn’t see the strike coming. It was a gut punch, as shocking for its suddenness as its power. Harry’s legs buckled but Miles didn’t let him go down, one fist gripping his collar while the other unleashed slug after slug into his abdomen until his body revolted against the onslaught and he vomited. Miles saw it coming and took two quick steps back in time to avoid it. Harry collapsed and lay on his side, mouth opening and closing while his diaphragm spasmed, huge black waves passing across his vision, flashes of death.
As he was taking his first desperate gasps of air, Miles came forward again and crouched on a clean patch of floor beside him. His words would repeat themselves in Harry’s mind in the days that followed, while he waited to see if Salander did anything. ‘I know you think I’m threatening you, rabbit, but I’m not. I’m just telling you. If I get expelled, my Dad’s gonna chop my pinky off and tell people I got it stuck in the blender. And if that happens, I’m going to kill him and mum too, and then I’m gonna come find you. So if I was you I sure wouldn’t be telling anyone anything. Bye, rabbit.’ He gave Harry’s hair a playful ruffle and then stood up and slid out of the room, leaving him to suck in precious lungfuls of air until he was fully conscious.
Luckily, he had everything he needed to clean up his vomit.
He brought her the neighbour’s dog – a plump beagle named Rusty that liked to yelp at possums at three in the morning. As an afterthought, he also brought a dead magpie from the roadside, folding its soft body into a plastic bag. Once they landed, in an ocean of wavy green hills and fields, he let go of the Rusty and watched him go tearing across the grass at top speed. She followed him with comically wide eyes. ‘A real live thing,’ she whispered, ‘in my world.’
‘I brought this, too. I dunno, I thought maybe you could do something with it.’ He dumped the magpie onto the grass at their feet and she stared at it for a long time, glancing from it Rusty, jumping around with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
‘Why doesn’t this one move?’ she said.
‘What? Oh, it’s dead.’
‘Dead?’ She knelt beside it and prodded it with a long finger, her nail sinking disturbingly deep into its feathers. ‘What is dead?’
‘You haven’t… well I mean it’s, it’s like the opposite of what we are. It’s like if I stopped thinking and talking and moving and just became a piece of meat. Just a thing, a dead thing.’
She held it up by one limp wing, analysing it. ‘I didn’t know things could go from living to not living.’
‘Yeah. In my world, it happens to everyone eventually. If you damage a living thing enough, it can die as well.’
She looked up at him, alarmed, as though he might drop dead at any moment. ‘Will you die?’
He nodded, then shrugged as if it were no big deal. He supposed it wasn’t, but she made him feel brave all the same. ‘Yeah but not for ages. Years and years.’
‘I don’t like that,’ she said, and didn’t smile when he broke out laughing a second later.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just. I dunno. I don’t like it either.’
‘I don’t want the living things in my world to stop living. Then I’d have to find more to replace them. Can it be undone?’
He opened his mouth to say no and then stopped himself. ‘Not in my world,’ he said at length. ‘Not by people. But maybe here, with you?’
Rusty, tail wagging madly, yapped at them from a few meters away, wanting their attention. She twirled her finger and the sound stopped, though Rusty wasn’t fazed. Harry wondered if he could still hear his own noise. ‘He might want food in a bit,’ he said, considering for the first time that he might have made a mistake bringing the dog here. She didn’t reply, her attention fully on the dead magpie in her hands.
The bird’s wings fluttered and Harry’s heart skipped a beat, but just as he was about to ponder the implications of knowing someone who revive the dead he realised that she hadn’t done that at all. The bird was moving alright, but its wings turned strange circles and its head nodded and twisted unnaturally, its body jerking unnaturally, handled by external forces. The frustration was clear on her face. ‘I can’t make it move by itself,’ she said. ‘It’s just like all the other things, not like the dog at all.’ She let it fall to the grass with a wet thump.
‘That’s alright,’ he said. ‘I can get you more living things. As many as you want.’
She smiled at him and then kissed him with the casual ease most people gave hugs. ‘That would be nice,’ she said.
Harry stayed invisible for a fortnight. On earth, he was quiet and obedient until even his father struggled to find reasons to punish him. He took side streets and went the long way round to his classes. He made no eye contact, nor did he speak, except to answer questions. He stole pets from back gardens and tore pages out of National Geographics in the library, so he could show her different parts of earth.
He was a mouse living a grey, empty life. With her, though…
They travelled through galaxies together, floated across warm oceans, explored caverns that extended, for all he knew, forever. She asked him questions, and he told her everything he could. He told her about Miles, and his father, and how he’d wanted to kill himself the night he first saw her. Those long nights were the best he ever spent, and if only he could have gone on living like that he might have been happy. If only.
Then one night she showed him what she’d been doing with the animals.
She took him there without warning – hardly able to contain her excitement as they flew through the dark, yet she refused to answer any of his questions. They landed in a place unusually bare for her: a wide stone slab, empty but for a single house. It had an oak slab of a door and no windows at all. It was made entirely of wood, and stretched for at least hundred meters over the flat land, one long hallway.
‘What is this place?’ he asked her when they touched down in front of the huge door. This time she relented, facing him with a certain light in her eyes he didn’t like any more than the answer she gave him.
‘It’s my collection,’ she said.
‘Right. Your collection of what?’
Instead of answering, she pushed open the door and gestured for him to enter. He hesitated. A long hallway stretched before him, a scarlet carpet aligned down the centre and candle chandeliers along the ceiling, casting shadows across walls of rich mahogany.
Only when he’d taken a few steps inside did he see the doors. They lined either side of the hall, spaced several meters apart, each with a golden handle and a carved wood sign hanging above the threshold. The signs bore only a single word, and they followed a disturbing trend. Drowning; Crushing; Bleeding. One said simply: Knives.
‘What are these? Where are the animals?’ The doors stretched all the way along the hall, though he couldn’t see what was at the very end. He stopped in front of one marked Burning, halted by a sound from within: a crackling fire, a sizzle of bacon in a pan.
‘That’s my favourite,’ she said. ‘Do you want to open it?’
He didn’t. He wanted to turn and run from this place. He wanted to fly back to the sunlit beach with the soft sand and the palm trees and drink cocktails with her and forget that this place existed. But he found himself placing a hand on the gold handle. It was curiously warm. He pulled.
It was a possum he’d taken from the primary school. Each of the grade one classes had a pet animal: hamsters, a rooster, a mouse, and each child got a chance to take it home with him or her during the term. He’d been planning to steal at least one or two more from the other classes, but hadn’t got a chance yet. The walls and ceiling of the room were made of sticks, and straw covered the floor. The possum crawled towards him, staring with its enormous brown eyes, but a thick wall of glass divided them.
Harry was about to ask her what she was feeding it when the straw in the back corner of the cage burst alight, flames licking the back walls and spreading across the floor. The possum panicked immediately, scurrying into the far corner and huddling there, paralysed with fear. Oh, no. It can’t be what I think.
Only when the flames licked its fur alight did it move again, pelting around the room at full speed while hair melted and skin fried. Here was the sound he’d heard outside, the sizzling and cracking of meat in a pan. Harry’s stomach turned, but he couldn’t look away. Something still didn’t quite add up in his mind. The picture wasn’t complete.
When the room was filled with smoke and charcoal, the fire burned out, leaving the possum’s charred corpse in the middle of the room, a twitching heap of crispy skin and white eyes. She rested a hand on his shoulder, her fingers hanging over it like vines, and said, ‘Watch.’
The process that followed was not quite a reversal, though the result was the same. First the smoke and ash disappeared, replaced with fresh straw and sticks. The corpse shivered, then twitched again. Its skin loosened, new grey hair sprouted from fused pores, ligaments stretched and flexed, and a minute later the possum returned, squeaking, to life. ‘If they die in this world, I can make them come back,’ she said. ‘They can live on forever here.’
They watched the fire light up again, but before it reached the quivering possum Harry shut the door. He stared down the long corridor, wondering how many rooms there were, and how many were yet to be filled. ‘Why do you kill them?’
She frowned. ‘I have to kill them. You told me so. Everything alive has to die. If it didn’t die, it wouldn’t be alive.’
‘So this….’ He squinted down the corridor, trying to read more of the signs in front of the doors. ‘This is a collection of deaths?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s a collection of lives. Endless, beautiful lives.’
Harry vowed he would never go back. This world, he told himself, made sense, for all its ugliness. It had taken that possum, burning and being reborn – perhaps even with a memory of all its previous deaths – to bring home to him how utterly helpless he was in that other place. Did she have a room there for him? If you don’t go back, maybe she’ll make one.
But he couldn’t really believe that, either. Sometimes he caught her looking at him with a warm smile and soft eyes. She wasn’t sick, he knew that – not the way Miles was sick. Miles had nothing inside of him, but she did. It was just she’d had no one to bring her up. She’d simply existed, with unlimited power and a lonely soul. She was only curious.
He wanted to help her, but he was afraid of her.
So he went to school. He ignored Salander’s meaningful looks, and made sure he knew where Miles was at all times, every bit the frightened rabbit Miles told him he was. He told himself this would be his life for the next few years, at which point he could get a job, any job, and move far away from his father, from the dense forest, from her.
But as each midnight rolled around he found himself wide awake, eyes fixed on the moon, and his mind in another world. Thoughts of a different future, one in which he didn’t work an empty job in the big grey city, worked its way into his mind.
In his dreams, he saw the two of them driving down a seaside road somewhere in Europe, exploring, hunting. She could make anything they needed, money, food, a house. He would help her finish her collection of lives (and deaths), and teach her to take only those evil people from the world who had no right to exist in the first place – those who deserved a place in her great hall. With power like hers, nothing could stop them going where they wanted, doing good things – great things, even. He would teach her how to love, and earth would be their endless honeymoon. Sometimes he was still awake at sunrise, heart slamming in his chest, his head full of dreams.
It was only a matter of time before he started getting ideas.
All he needed was a single phone call.
Harry hitched up his school bag and headed back around the gym, wind blowing dead leaves against his ankles as he walked. He left the school via the back gate – the gate he always took. The one Miles would be watching.
Streetlights flicked on as he turned onto Plunder road, but he didn’t need their dull glow to know he was being followed. He didn’t look yet, though – he needed to keep up the pace until he could see that familiar, comforting sign.
‘Hey.’ He didn’t turn. The tone of Miles’ voice chilled him more than the night air, and that alone was enough to tell him his plan had worked all too well. Quick feet crossed a road behind him. ‘Rabbit.’
There it was: a low wooden sign in front of a narrow grass causeway. The path led a steep downhill, and there were no lights in the park, but that would be to Harry’s advantage. He turned at the entrance, heart slamming in his chest. All those long midnight hours spent dreaming and wishing, and here he was. No turning back.
Miles slowed to a stop, silhouetted by a streetlight. A truck rumbled by, but a row of trees and bushes separated Plunder Road from the highway. They were alone. Just as promised, Miles had a long knife in one hand. He let it hang there in full view. His eyes were wide and empty, and Harry found they reminded him almost of hers.
‘You told,’ Miles said. ‘I heard Dad talking to Salander on the phone last night. Telling him about things I’d done. I had to sneak out the back before he could get me. Slept in the fuckin’ bushes last night.’
‘Yeah. You’re gonna go to prison for sure. Assault, vandalism. Some boys home at least.’
‘No, I’ll definitely go to prison,’ Miles said, eyes flashing. ‘But it’ll be for murder.’
The next minutes were primal. Harry’s past and future vanished, and all that existed for him was the subtle shadows that showed him humps and ditches in the ground, the heavy thumping behind him, and his destination. He rushed, cold wind in his face, and for endless seconds that was all he knew.
Miles caught him on the football field, his long strides thumping with mechanical persistence. Harry could see the edge of the oval, but before he could throw himself down the slope Miles slammed into him and the two of them tumbled through the leaf strewn grass to the trench at the bottom. Miles buried the blade to the hilt into Harry’s back on the way down, but when they hit he lost his grip and rolled away. Harry got up first and staggered, dazed, into the trees.
For the next minute, the only sounds were loud breaths and thumping feet. No time for screaming, and no point. Harry dragged himself deeper into the woods, trying to suck air into a deflated lung, feeling hot blood soak his shirt. It was darker than it should have been, and when he laid eyes on the clearing it was barely visible, the corners of his vision closing him out.
But a moment later, he smiled.
Because she was here, after all.
The manhole stood open in the clearing, and her head hovered at the opening, watching him. Harry reached for her, but Miles’s arms closed around his legs in a rugby tackle and brought him down, winding him. Unconsciousness crept a shade closer.
Harry met her eyes, and reached.
He was too far away, but that was alright: her arms were long, and she had the strength of a goddess. She took his hot hand in her cold one, gave him a small, perfect smile, and pulled.
Miles didn’t even have time to scream.
Universes blurred past as she wrenched them through space, but Harry was oblivious to all of it, wrapped up in the agony of healing. She pulled out the knife and fused his flesh together where it had been parted, a crude but effective solution, though the process hurt far more than the wounds had, a hot melting pain that left no room for thought.
It stopped when they landed, and he gasped and rolled over onto his hands and knees, blinking. Floorboards. We’re in the collection hall. He scrambled to his feet and almost fell over, half expecting Miles to fall on him with the blade, but of course he was gone, whisked away in an instant. She alone stood in the middle of the hall, watching him.
‘I thought you weren’t coming back,’ she said. He rubbed his head and fought a wave of nausea as his stomach settled. He leaned against the nearest door. It was marked FALLING. He wondered how she’d managed that one.
‘I’m sorry. It took me a while to get him to follow me. But I got him. You got him. Where is he?’
Without smiling, she extended one of her black nailed fingers and pointed down the length of the hall. He followed the gesture, but the last door was too far away for him to make out the sign. A nervous chill ran through him. Is this really happening? He pushed away from the wall and started towards it. She padded behind him on pale feet.
‘The others won’t take that long, will they?’ she said.
‘No. No way. I’ll get better at it, I promise. Especially now he’s out of the way. I’ll be unstoppable.’ He half whispered this, as though to himself, and it gave him another thrill. His future was dawning on him. He would never return to his father’s shitty asbestos riddled unit. School was out forever, and the only job he’d ever have was to rid the world of monsters like Miles and send them to a hell of his own devising.
He turned to her before they reached the door and smiled, heart full to bursting. In that moment she looked more stunning than ever, rich dark hair hanging over the loose black rags she wore for clothes because, as she’d told him once, she liked to wear the darkness. He wanted to tear them off her then, but she wouldn’t understand. He’d have to explain it to her, later. ‘Do you love me?’ he said before he could stop himself.
She didn’t reply at first, searching his eyes for meaning. ‘Love you?’
‘Do you want to kiss me?’
She considered that, then nodded, and this time it was better than before, her tongue more eager and her teeth less so, letting him go with only a nip. ‘Did you like it?’ he said when she pulled back, still watching him so curiously.
‘And there’s more we can do. Stuff that feels a lot better. I can show you.’
‘I’d like that,’ she said, and for the first time since he’d met her in the forest he found he had real hope that things were going to turn out alright, that he could teach her to love him and that his dreams might come true after all. Her eyes left his, darting to the door at the end of the hall and then back again.
‘Can I see?’ he said.
‘Yes. You’ll have to help me think of new deaths, later. I don’t have your imagination.’ At the last word, she traced a finger in a circle on his forehead, as though imagination was a physical thing, a liquid perhaps, locked in Harry’s skull.
This door was larger than the others, and made of a kind of wood so dark it was almost black. The sign above it read STABBING. He hesitated, something in his soul telling him not to do it, the same thing that had made him feel so sick and horrified when she’d shown him the Possum. This is different, he told himself. Miles deserves it.
‘Go on,’ she said, her voice high and breathy. ‘Open it.’
And God help him, he did.
Miles stood in the centre of a steel room. The left and right walls were lined floor to ceiling with bright blades, steeply tapered; they made for minimal internal damage and maximal flesh wounds. Miles didn’t so much as glance at these brutal instruments, arms loose by his side and head up. He faced the doorway, expressionless, not a hint of fear in him.
He really is empty. The thought jolted Harry, though he wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Even in his wild imagination Miles had never begged for his life or whimpered in fear – it just didn’t fit. But surely there should be something – an animalistic rage, some cold words of defiance. No, Harry saw now that Miles was not even an animal. Animals, at least, had souls.
A mechanical grinding sound started up, so deep Harry felt the floor vibrate. It was enough to make his adrenaline surge as if he were the one inside that death room, but Miles kept his steady, blank look, his eyes unfocused. Maybe he’s in shock.
The walls shuddered into motion and the blades began their slow progression. Still Miles didn’t move. Harry watched him with clenched fists, wanting him to scream, to beg, to threaten or plead or anything at all, but Miles didn’t so much as twitch, not until at last the razor points touched him for the first time, piercing his arms and shoulders first, instantly raising spots of blood like red beads on his skin.
And he smiled.
‘No,’ she said. So small a word, and whispered, but to Harry it seemed to freeze the universe. The walls certainly stopped moving, though the tips of the blades remained just inside Miles’s flesh, centimetres away from pinning bone and piercing vital organs, seconds from entering his twisted brain and severing whatever abnormalities existed within to make him the way he was.
His eyes, Harry realised, hadn’t been unfocused after all – they’d simply been fixed on something over Harry’s shoulder. Her. Harry knew this even before he turned and saw that she was staring right back at Miles, hypnotised.
‘He’s just like me,’ she said, and smiled a real smile. Harry would think of that smile often, trying to work out exactly what was behind it. In the end, he couldn’t believe it was real love. It was something else, something more like recognition.
There was time for Harry to feel his stomach drop out of him as he saw his future change. Not much time – the space of a few heavy heartbeats – but in a way it was eternity, because he left a part of himself in that space. He left his hope.
She sighed, and waved a long fingered hand.
Death wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it.
In a way, it was like sleeping. His days were short, compressed to the space of a minute or so, in which he stood in an empty room; in which he watched the walls closing in; in which he braced himself for six seconds of agony, followed by the blink of an eye, a single instant of oblivion which he learned to cherish.
He yearned for more of that, in time. If only he could be dead for a day, or a year, free from this reality. He yearned for that almost as much as he yearned for her.
She came to visit him, sometimes with Miles, who never tired of watching him die, and sometimes alone. She rarely spoke, only stood at the glass and looked, with a distant sadness in her eyes, but also, he told himself, fondness. He was after all the agent of her happiness, the one who’d brought her her soulmate.
‘Are you happy?’ he asked her the last time she’d opened his door – years ago, now.
She cocked her head to one side, considering, and he wondered if she really knew what happiness was. But the smile she gave him left no room for doubt. She was happy.
And that, he often thought to himself, as he was reborn in the bare room for the thousandth time, and the familiar grinding of unseen machinery began, was all he needed.
He closed his eyes and waited for death.