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43

 

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.

‘What?’

‘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.

42

 

Matt and Steph decided to stick to Westlake forest. It was relatively isolated, safe from prying eyes, and there were plenty of trees in which to carve a door. Matt brought his pocket knife, a small hammer and a box of nails, and the two of them marched right to the place where the old door had been. Still was, by the looks of it. Matt couldn’t help but think it was still there, just waiting for a key to twist in the lock.

‘Alright. So I guess we just get started, huh?’ he said.

Steph shrugged, looking less sure of herself now that they were actually here. ‘I guess. So, we just carve the outline and the key, cut ourselves and say a word?’

‘That’s what the book says. And that’s what Brian did, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah. It just seems so… easy.’

‘Well. I’ll do the first one. Better hope it’s the last, too, cos I got a feeling I’m gonna get really sick of cutting myself after a while.’ It was a bad joke and Steph didn’t laugh. Matt didn’t really blame her. He stepped up to the nearest tree, a twisted pine that was full of cobwebs and sap on the bark, and started carving his door. Steph waited in silence, shivering in the wind, full of doubt. He cut the sliver of bark and whittled away at it until he had something sort of resembling a key, and then hammered a nail into the tree to make the keyhole. Finally, he stood back and admired the handiwork.

‘It just looks like a tree,’ Steph said.

‘Yup.’

‘It’s not going to work.’

‘It already did,’ Matt said, nodding at the other tree. He remembered the figures chasing them through long red grass – Ray and Jimmy – and tried not to think of where they were now. Maybe right on the other side of that door, still. Rotting.

‘Ah, fuck it.’ He moved quickly, grimacing in advance of the pain, and drew the blade across his palm. It hurt more than he expected, and he sucked in a sharp breath. He stared at the cut and watched it fill with blood, and then he spoke, feeling stupider than ever. ‘Lanua Patet.’

Steph wrinkled her face, staring at the door. ‘Did you say it right?’ she said.

‘Lanua Patet!’ he said again, making his voice loud and authoritative. She stifled a giggle.

‘Goddammit, it’s not funny! I cut myself.’

She laughed again, and when he spoke the words again, louder, she was practically rolling.

Matt shook his head. ‘Fucking hell.’ He smiled at her – now red in the face from laughing – but inside his heart was sinking. Just what the hell were they supposed to do now? What were they doing wrong?

But the thing wasn’t finished yet. He took his pitiful piece of bark and jammed it into the small hole. It didn’t go at first, so he had to twist and push it until he was sure he’d bent the damn thing all out of shape. When it was all the way in, he gave a final twist and…

Click.

Steph had stopped laughing now, and when he turned to look at her she was dead serious. ‘Did you hear that?’ he asked. She nodded. The birds had fallen silent.

Hardly daring to believe it, Matt pulled, and instead of drawing out a broken piece of bark, a whole section of the tree opened up. He stepped back, opening the door all the way, and that was it. Just like that, they’d opened another door.

‘Holy…’ Steph said.

‘Shit.’ Matt could only stand and stare. This world was not like the last one, an entrance into a dark cave. This one opened out into an enormous, brightly lit hallway. They were looking at a wall of varnished wood, with a large painting of what looked like a cross between a spider and a fish: two lidless bulging eyes, a long scaly body lined with eight spindly legs and a bulbous abdomen.

‘I… dunno,’ Matt said. ‘What do you reckon?’

‘I think it could work,’ Steph said.

‘What?’

‘It looks like a house of some kind, right?’

‘A mansion, more like. Look how high up the hallway goes.’

‘So there might be like, a room in there we can stick Brian and Elyse and lock them in. You never know. Or if we get outside into a garden there might be somewhere.’

‘If you say so. You go first, then. We have to check the time difference, don’t we?’

‘Fine. Yeah, okay.’ Matt stepped back, holding the door open for her. She hesitated in the doorway, teeth gritted. Her hands were shaking.

‘Just step in, wait a minute, and step out again, alright?’ Matt said. ‘No exploring.’

‘Yeah no worries.’ She gave him a small smile, closed her eyes, and stepped through the opening.

Almost immediately, her body was filled with electricity. She moved and twitched and glanced every which way, stepped here and there, lifted her phone several times. It was as if someone had switched her onto fast forward. Matt stood in the doorway and gaped, but before he could reach in to pull her out – five or so seconds – she stepped back out and returned to normal.

Matt grabbed her arm and wrenched her away from the doorway. ‘Ah, what’d you do that for?’

‘Didn’t you… What happened to you in there?’

‘Nothing, idiot, what happened to you? The whole time I was in there you were just standing frozen solid like a statue.’

‘I…’ And then it hit him. He laughed. ‘Oh my God, I thought you were having a seizure or something.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Look at the time, Steph.’

She took out her phone, but he shook his head and handed her his, where the stopwatch he’d set before she entered had just reached twenty seconds. ‘Oh. The time difference,’ she said.

‘Yeah. That’s what it was. It must be a fast world. Probably about ten to one, I reckon. So ten seconds worth of light leaving you hit the barrier and then reached my eyes all at once. I saw you moving ten times faster than normal, and you saw me moving ten times slower.’

‘Right. Okay, that makes sense. That’s going to make things a lot easier.’

‘This isn’t the place, though – we need somewhere faster,’ Matt said, pushing the door shut. It closed with a satisfying clunk and he drew the key out. It looked skewed and soft, but when he touched it, it was stiff and brittle, more like thin metal than wood.

‘What was in there?’ he asked her.

She shrugged, glancing at the door like something was about to break it down and grab her. ‘Just a long hallway, with more of those gross paintings. There was a room at the end, but I didn’t really want to go there. I didn’t like how it felt, that place.’

‘Yeah, well. It’s my turn next, I guess. You make the door.’

It took a good five minutes for Steph to gather the courage to cut herself, but it wasn’t long before they had the second door open in another pine. This one opened on a wide field strewn with rocks and pebbles. It could have been anywhere in the Scottish highlands. It was overcast, and a few trees were visible poking out of the thick mist.

‘Looks promising,’ Steph said.

‘Yeah. Alright.’ Matt gritted his teeth, started his stopwatch, and marched through the doorway. When he turned around, he saw Steph through the doorway, twitching and shifting in that same fast forward motion he’d seen before. Which meant he was in a slow world. He waved for her to follow, and an instant later she was by his side, the door swinging shut behind her. On this side, it was inset in the side of a tree trunk as thick as the length of a car.

‘Were you timing it?’ he asked her. She nodded. They’d both stopped their watches as soon as she came through, and they compared them now to work out the time difference. ‘About five to one ratio,’ Matt said eventually. ‘Alright, I guess.’

‘Well we better decide quick, then,’ Steph said, looking around the misty clearing. ‘If we stay here too long it’ll be night when we get out.’

‘Right. I guess we’ll just look around, make sure there’s nothing living around here. Last thing we need is Brian and Elyse infecting a whole other universe with that parasite.’

He started out into the clearing, watching the soft ground in front of him and keeping both eyes wide and alert. The mist swirled around him like a living thing, so rich he could almost taste it. It reminded him of the smell of rain before a storm. Strange insects buzzed and croaked all around – the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear in a swamp more than a place like this – but he couldn’t catch a glimpse of any of them.

‘Hey, Matt! Wait!’ He spun around. Her voice had an echo, seeming to come from no particular direction. He’d barely taken twenty steps and she had completely vanished, lost to the mist. ‘Steph! Where are you?’

There were soft footsteps and she appeared, pale with fright. ‘Thank God. I thought I’d lost you. How are we supposed to find our way back to the door in this?’

‘Footprints, see?’ He pointed at the ground, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Both of their footprints were clearly visible in the mossy ground. Even though they could only see a meter or two in any given direction, it would be easy to follow those back.

‘Okay, low visibility, no obvious signs of life nearby, no apparent danger… I’m starting to like this one,’ Matt said.

‘God I hope this is the one. I want to go home.’

‘Yeah, me too. Come on, we’ll just look a little further.’

Without a word, she slid her hand into his and squeezed it hard. She smiled, and he smiled back, and suddenly things didn’t seem so bad. Moving slowly, they made their way through the mist, and in moments it was as though they’d never been there at all, save a few shallow prints in the mud.

Despair

41

 

The Westlake Watcher: Violence erupts in quiet streets

 

In the aftermath of the horrific mauling of young Zane Blaire, Westlake, Victoria has gone from being one of the most peaceful suburbs to one of the most violent in all of Australia. ‘The crime rate,’ says Chief Constable Tenner of the Victorian Crime Squad, ‘has increased twenty percent in a matter of weeks, and counting.’

‘Assaults are number one, attempted murder a close second, and crime in general is on the rise,’ Mr. Tenner said. When asked whether the nature of the newfound violence was gang or terror related, Mr. Tenner was adamant that neither was the case. ‘The cases we’re seeing are primarily personal and impulsive. The victims are usually vulnerable persons, but not always. Overall, the criminals are committing crimes of violence without any obvious motive or premeditation. In my opinion, the recession is taking its toll on the underprivileged.’

The severe assault on Zane Blaire by Mr. Clement Owens was only the first in a series of what seems to be an epidemic currently restricted to Westlake, and many residents report a growing feeling of fear and suspicion in the streets. Mr. Gruensberg, a tenant living just two streets from Westlake park, admitted that vandals had become a definite worry. ‘I keep a knife at my bedside, and I hear screams and sirens every night. These kids are getting out of control, and we need to do something about it,’ he said.

But is it the kids? Zane Blaire’s attacker was a middle aged man, and of those that have been convicted in Westlake recently the culprits have ranged from young males to middle aged parents to octogenarian grandmothers. Yes, you read it correctly, and eighty three year old Mrs. Maybelle Lance has been indicted for deliberately severing three fingers from the hand of her one year old grandson, whom she was babysitting at the time.

It would seem that the violence isn’t restricted to residents of Westlake, either, but also to its police force. There has been a remarkable rise in reported complaints of police brutality in this area. To this, officer Tenner simply states: ‘The more violent people are becoming… it’s the police defending themselves, isn’t it?’ In response to the case (details on page 5) of Emanuel Lerner, who claimed to have been bashed by three police officers for no apparent reason, Tenner declined to comment. (Continued page 36).

40

 

Excerpt from Book of Worlds

 

A place exists in Greek Mythology, one of the seven Greek hells, called Pandemonium. I believe the English word meaning ‘great noise and chaos’ probably originates from this hell. Pandemonium, to the best of my knowledge, is essentially made up of an endless network of cramped tunnels. A powerful wind whistles through the tunnels constantly, and the poor souls who are condemned to wander the tunnels for all eternity are eventually driven mad by the constant howl.

            The world I will tell you about in this chapter is not hell, in the sense that people go there when they die (At least I don’t think so – I didn’t meet any dead folk there at any rate), but this place is undoubtedly the closest thing to hell I have ever found in all my travels, and of all hells, Pandemonium is the one that comes to mind when I think of it.

            I opened the door in the floor of my attic. By now you will have realised that the house in which I lived was by this time littered with magic doors. To walk around the place would not reveal anything out of the ordinary, unless you were looking. But there was a secret door around every corner, in hallways, in ceilings, in trees, walls and cupboards. I have more keys than can fit in my pocket.

            It was a trapdoor, and that was a mistake I will never repeat as long as I live, and I’d advise you to make it one less time than I did. You see, trapdoors are risky things. Imagine, for example, your door happens to open on darkness, as many do, and as this one did. If it were a normal door, you could take a few steps in and poke around, knowing you could always run back through the door if you found something you didn’t like. But a dark trapdoor… If you’re hanging by your fingertips in the dark and can’t feel a thing below you, for all you know, you could start falling and never stop.

            Anyway, I was still a relatively young man, and I was drunk on adventure. I’d been through so many tight scrapes, some of which you’re familiar with, dear reader, and I thought there was nothing I couldn’t handle, no danger too great to brave. What greater adventure is there, after all, than leaping blindly into utter darkness, with no way back and no knowledge of what lies ahead? Only death, I think.

            So I jumped. And I landed in Pandemonium.

            I didn’t fall for long, but I assure you it was long enough. The real problem was that I hit rocks on the way down and when I landed I was in pitch darkness, totally disoriented, with a horrendous wind howling in my ears. It was loud, but not so loud that I didn’t hear the trapdoor shut behind me. The sound of it echoed in my ears from every direction.

            For the first several hours, I tried to find the trapdoor. I climbed up what I thought was the vertical tunnel that led to the door, only to find it levelled out into another tunnel entirely. I went back down and tried another vertical tunnel, with the same result. I hardly need to tell you, but it wasn’t long before I was irredeemably lost.

            The hours that followed were the darkest I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had some dark times, believe me. Initially there was only despair, but it was followed by a feeling of terror so intense it almost drove me insane. I don’t know how I managed to hold myself together at all, curled up in those tunnels, grazed and bleeding and hopeless, but I did.

            I searched for a way out for a long, long time. I ran on the hope that the tunnels were only a small part of a larger world, and that if I just explored enough I was bound to arrive at an exit to the tunnels, whereupon I could discover the nature of the world I was really in. As time went on, I become more and more convinced that there was no larger world, and that what I saw was all that there was. The tunnels, if not endless, were the entirety of the world I was in.

            In the end, of course, I did find my way back to the trapdoor, but it was by sheer luck. I’d been going in circles, and while I thought I’d travelled many miles I had in fact not gone far from my original entry point. Emerging from one tunnel, I bumped my head against the ceiling and heard a hollow sound, and when I looked up I saw the tiniest pinprick of light above me. It was the keyhole to my trapdoor.

            When I emerged, I was bleeding, starved, dehydrated (the walls almost leaked salt), and fascinated. Over the years, I made several more ventures into this peculiar hell, mapping the intricate tunnels on a piece of paper, storing my valuables there (a foolproof safe if there ever was one), and cutting doorways.

One would think that only terrible worlds could stem from one such as that, but some of my greatest adventures came from the doors I carved in that rock. In fact, it was through one of these doorways that I discovered the strange Islands of Grale, and the priceless artefact I recovered from there, which sits to this day on my desk…

39

 

Jordan didn’t sleep all night. He lay naked on his bed, drenched in a sweat that was boiling and freezing at the same time. It was like having a fever the temperature of the sun. The fan turned slowly above his bed, and beneath its comforting thwup, thwup, he heard every sound in the neighbourhood. He heard his father’s snores and his mother’s soft breathing, a rat scuttling over tiles and the quiet paws of the cat that hunted it. He heard a muffled conversation in one neighbour’s house, the clack of billiard balls in the other’s, and smelled dirt and sweat on the players. He heard a baby crying three, no four houses away.

His senses were sharp, but specific. Evolved to find specific sources, for specific purposes. They were showing him sources of food.

He gripped the blankets with both hands, panicking, dying, forcing himself to stay where he was, and the night passed by torturous seconds. He stayed when the sun touched the sky, and his ears rang with a thousand bird calls. He stayed while his parents made breakfasts and cleaned up and headed reluctantly to work, the conversations of ten or so families reaching him, the sound of food being shovelled into forty mouths and being chewed, the smells of bacon and human skin and dog and cat hair filling his nostrils.

He listened to his parents get in their cars and drive away, and then he got up.

He walked unsteadily downstairs, hand trailing on the banister for support, and made his way through the kitchen to the back door. He slid it open and stood on the threshold, morning sunlight pouring over him. It warmed him a little, but the blood was ice cold in his veins.

He stood for a long time in the sunlight, drenched in a lake of cold sweat, the world spinning around him like the world’s worst hangover, his knees shaking with weakness, and realised he was dying. The tip off was the way his heart was beating like a drum without any rhythm: Thump thump… Thump. Thump. Thump Thump Thump………. Thump.

It was a few minutes before he realised he could hear another heartbeat besides his own, very close by, and it was a lively one, too. Excited. Full of blood and life. Slowly, as though he had a bowling ball hanging from his neck, Jordan looked up, squinting in the sunlight.

Solly was there, tongue hanging out, tail smacking the washing line he was tied to in time with his heartbeat. When he saw Jordan looking, he barked once, as if to say good morning old buddy! It’s been so long! But Jordan couldn’t smile back. All he could do was groan and slam the door shut.

So weak. He sat down on his couch and turned the television on, and tried not to think about the burning inside him. He was certain now that it wasn’t an illusion – there was a real, actual fire inside him, and it was burning him by inches. Or if not a fire, then the bright red sparks you see after you’ve put the fire out, the ones that just burn and burn and never seem to go out. He could see them embedded in his muscles and bones and liver, just burning on and on, flakes of black and white charcoal floating off in his bloodstream. That would explain why the veins in his arm were so black.

He went to the fridge and grabbed a raw steak and a six pack of his Dad’s Victoria Bitter. Somehow he knew the steak would be better raw. The VB was to put out some of the cinders.

The day wasted away, and Jordan finished the six pack and got another one, and a pack of lamb cutlets, which he munched on while watching he didn’t know what. He wasn’t really looking at the television anyway, just the screen. The images were there, but he didn’t see them, didn’t hear the words. His mind was drifting elsewhere. Rather, it had been drifting before, hovering on the edge of consciousness and rationality, and now it was moving further out to sea.

He watched nothing and sipped beer and thought of nothing at all, nothing but the burn. Images popped into his head unbidden, the way they do when you think of nothing. A starving man would have thought of hamburgers and cheesy pizza and fried chicken, but Jordan’s starvation was of a different nature, and the images were of a different type. I’m sick. I should see a doctor. Only a doctor couldn’t give him what he needed.

After the second six pack, he went back to the sliding door and opened it. So much time had passed – it was already pretty dark. No one would see anything. No one would know. Solly lifted his head, eyebrows raised quizzically.

Jordan went back into the house and rooted through the garage without really thinking about what he was doing. When you were hungry enough you didn’t care what you ate, as long as it filled you up. He ended up grabbing a roll of duct tape and a small hatchet his Dad had used to cut down a dying tree in the front yard.

He went back out to the sliding door and stood on the threshold just as he’d done earlier. He was shaking really bad now. He took out his phone to check the time – six thirteen – and dropped it on the bricks. His parents had left around midday, which meant his dad would be home around eight thirty or nine, and his mom an hour later. Two hours.

Jordan took two steps outside, then dropped down on all fours and vomited into a large flowerpot. For a moment he was afraid he saw blood, but of course it couldn’t be – his blood was black, and this was red. It was just the raw meat.

Thump, thump thump thump… thump. Thump thump. Thump……….. thump. His vision was narrowing, as though it was too much of an effort to see everything at once. Only the important things were visible: the brick stairs leading up into the back garden, the washing line, Solly.

He picked up his tools and took the stairs carefully, feeling those embers burning all the way. He’d lost much of the muscle he’d gained, but there was enough to get him the rest of the way. After this, it’s all over. If I do this, I’ll do anything. Don’t do it. Please, please don’t. I’m dying. Fuck. Die then, just don’t do it.

But the instinct to survive is the most powerful one there is, and when he reached the top of the stairs Jordan stretched out the duct tape. Solly was standing now, whining slightly, wanting to run up to him and lick him, but the leash was holding him back.

Jordan hovered just out of reach for a minute, unsteady, fighting it until everything he had left to fight with was gone, and he was empty. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, buddy.’ He stepped in, curling an arm around Solly’s neck and cutting his whines short a moment later with the roll of duct tape. Solly shook his head around, annoyed, and looked up at him with mournful eyes. It was almost as though he knew what was happening, was pleading with Jordan. Hey, best friend, why’re you doing that? What did I do to you?

He was still looking up at him with those sad eyes when Jordan, vision now diminished to a pinpoint, his legs so unsteady he was a few minutes from falling down and never getting up, brought down the hatchet.

The last shred of humanity in his mind squealed like a rat in a cage, telling him to make it quick, put Solly out of his misery before he had a chance to register any pain. Only that wasn’t how it worked, was it? No pain, no gain. He had to eat something, even just a little. If he made it quick, Solly would have died for nothing, it would be like hunting a deer and then letting it rot out in the sun.

So he chopped Solly’s front paws at the forearm and tied shreds of his shirt around them to stem the bleeding. He had to make it worthwhile, didn’t he? The rat won out when he took the hind legs, though, and he left out the tourniquets. He was already filling up on the pain, felt his belly swelling with it. It wasn’t in the belly, though, it was somewhere much deeper, a need much more fulfilling. A fire that only went out when you poured blood on it.

He eased up a little after that. Once you tapped in, the pain kept coming without much further encouragement, and he sucked up every ounce, the parasite within crooning with satisfaction. He dropped the hatchet and stood up, kicking the squirming, dying animal in the ribcage and watching the pool of blood spreading and soaking in the grass. A minute or so later and he was full enough that the parasite stood back and let his rat conscience take charge. He picked up the hatchet and took a few swings into Solly’s neck, and it was over at last.

Jordan collapsed on the twitching body of his childhood friend and hugged the torso, feeling the quickly departing warmth beneath soft fur and sobbing. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, over and over, for all the good it did. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please, I’m sorry.’

He didn’t know how long he was there for, but when he started to come back to himself it was full dark. His head was spinning and he felt hollow, no longer a human being but an empty puppet that had, for now, control of its own strings. Even so, he felt more normal than he had in so long. The burn was gone, not just reduced but gone completely. He’d lost the reach of his senses that had tormented him only a few hours ago, so that he felt almost deaf and blind, though he could probably see and hear better than most people on earth even then. He stood up, leaning against the washing line for support, looking up at a cloudy sky and resisting the urgent desire to vomit.

When it passed, he looked back down at Solly, poor Solly, lying at his feet in five separate pieces. Shit. He should have planned this better. He could put the pieces in a garbage bag, but how was he supposed to explain away the bloodstained grass? He could dig the earth up there and say Solly did it and ran away. Suspicious, but that was all he could do. He hadn’t even thought about this, why? Because you were dying, that’s why. All you could think about was killing.

            He was shaking from residual adrenaline, but he no longer felt weak. Hell, he was getting stronger by the second. A few hours and he’d be in condition to run a marathon or lift a hundred kilos. He grabbed some bags from the kitchen, being careful to use paper towels under foot so he didn’t get blood on the tiles, and managed to fit what was left of Solly easily enough into two of them. He set them aside and stepped back to appraise the dark patch in the grass.

A hose, that would do it. Drench the ground there, when the water evaporated the blood would mingle with the soil, look just like dirt. Then he just had to open the side gate, so he could say he left it unlocked and that was how Solly escaped. And have a shower and throw away his clothes – that one was probably more important.

First, he picked up the bags, hefted them over his shoulder, and headed back into the house. He’d stick them in his room, wait until his parents fell asleep, and then bury them in the back garden. Couldn’t risk the garbos finding that, could he?

He moved slowly, head down, deep in thoughts, most of which were really about Solly, the dog, the friend, than Solly, the corpse. Fresh tears made tracks in the blood on his face as he made his way through the kitchen, and he paused with one hand on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, shaking.

You can still take yourself out. There’s always that. There’s lots of ways. You could drink the bleach from under the sink. Or cut your throat. Or slit your wrists with your knife and bleed out. You could steal your dad’s car and drive into a wall. Or Matt’s house, yeah. You could do that.

The front door opened, and Jordan spun around, shocked. His father entered. He took one step and then froze in the doorway, taking it all in. He looked him over, slowly, noting the blood that soaked his clothes, the black lumpy garbage bags over his shoulder, the utter terror and exhaustion written in his features.

Jordan lowered the bags to the ground, but he hadn’t tied the one holding Solly’s torso properly and the weight of the dog’s body pushed at the opening. It didn’t fall out, but the familiar cream coloured fur was there in full view.

All coherent thought fled Jordan’s mind in those moments of silence, and he said: ‘He ran away.’

His father closed the door behind him, and turned the key in the lock.

38

 

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.

‘Oh.’

‘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.

‘Arthur Zindel.’

‘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.’

‘Excellent.’

‘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?’

37

 

Not far from the forest in which the door to another world had been closed for the last time, the sunlit grass rose in a steep hill, levelling out in a pleasant field at the top, where the council had the sense to install a public barbeque and a pagoda. The whole park was visible from there, so on a cheerful sunny day it was ten to one there would be at least one family sitting in foldable chairs, taking in the sunshine and drinking beer with sausages sizzling nearby. The day Zane Blaire almost lost his life was no exception.

Zane was thirteen, and the last thing he wanted on this fine spring day was to actually be out on a fine spring day. What he wanted was to lie on the couch at home blowing people’s heads into fragments on Call of Duty, or maybe decapitating peasants with a large axe in Skyrim, with a bowl of chips between his knees and a coke within arm’s reach.

But the Owens’s had invited the Blaire’s to the barbeque, and they had two kids of Zane’s age, or so his mother said; they were actually nine, so Zane just had to come. Besides, the sunlight would do him good. Zane could practically feel the melanomas growing beneath his skin.

Most of the parents were sitting in a rough semicircle, looking out at the view and drinking beer and talking about impossibly boring things, while Mr. Owens and Zane’s father were standing at the barbeque, doing pretty much the same. Zane had been dismissed with a soccer ball and told to keep the Owens twins occupied, which would have been fine except that they were the most annoying little shits Zane had ever come across.

Curiously, the mood was tense from the beginning. The two families had gotten on relatively well, but before Zane had been told to go play, he noticed lots of tight lips, icy smiles, sharp words. One of the Owens twins – Hayden – had been almost reduced to tears by his father when he dropped a plate and broke it. Zane almost felt sorry for the kid until half an hour later when he deliberately tripped Zane and made him graze his face on the gravel and just laughed at him.

Zane imagined grabbing Hayden’s laughing mouth and ripping it wider and wider until the whole top of his head came off. Instead, he gave the kid a light, good natured push and sent him onto his ass.

Mr. Owens, halfway through a heated political argument with Zane’s father, whipped around the moment Hayden hit the ground and stared at Zane. Mr. Owens was covered in fly bites and a film of hot sweat, his bald head red and angry. Zane stared at him, feeling the horrible sinking feeling he got when punishment was imminent.

Hayden’s face was scrunched up in an expression of pain as he staggered to his feet, rubbing his ass, and his voice rose to a whine just loud enough to pierce the ears of everyone in a twenty meter radius: ‘Zaaaaannnneeee!’

Zane was already stepping back with his hands up in surrender. Mr. Owens was on his way over, spatula gripped in one white knuckled hand. Zane pretended not to notice him and pointed at Hayden, who was smiling at him with a cruel gleam in his eye. ‘You tripped me!’ Loud enough so Mr. Owens would hear, for all the good it would do.

‘You think it’s funny to bully little kids, Zane?’ Mr. Owens was there suddenly, looming over Zane, who blinked up at him.

‘He tripped me!’ he said. He glanced over Mr. Owen’s shoulder at his own father, who was walking slowly over from the barbeque with a look on his face like he wasn’t sure if he should step in or let Mr. Owens dispense justice on his son. Then Zane lifted his elbow to prove his point, showing where the blood was leaking from a fresh graze. It was the worst thing he could have done.

As soon as Mr. Owens saw the blood his face changed. His eyes widened slightly, as though surprised at something, and his tongue darted out and licked his dry lips. He opened his mouth to say something, and then stopped before any words came out. Zane stared up at him, suddenly full of fear but not sure why. It was something in Mr. Owens’ face. He was standing there in front of Zane, but he was vacant. A fly landed on one of his open eyes and bit it, and he didn’t so much as blink. A black spot spread into the white of his eye.

Mr. Owens smacked Zane with the spatula so hard the end snapped off the metal handle. Zane’s world went white for a split second and he found himself lying on his side at Mr. Owens’s feet, the left side of his face numb.

He started struggling to his feet when the handle struck him in a back handed blow and he was down on his ass, just like Hayden had been a moment ago. His ears were ringing but he could hear shouting in the background – his father – and crying. Dad’s coming, it’s okay. That was the thought foremost in his mind as Mr. Owens thrust the broken end of the spatula straight through his neck.

Zane was on his back now, and Mr. Owen was on top of him, stabbing, pulling out, stabbing again. Zane watched fountains of his own blood spraying up into Mr. Owen’s face. His eyes were wide and with each thrust his expression grew more ecstatic, an incredulous smile spreading across his face, as if he just couldn’t believe how much fun he was having. Everything silhouetted against the sun, so far above, and with every thump of his fast beating heart the glare deepened and the sky flashed white.

There were people around now, but Zane could only see their shadows – mostly he was just focused on that bright bald head above him, laughing now, like a madman, screeching with laughter. His weight shifted as the others tried to pull him off, but whoever they were, they weren’t enough.

The world had narrowed to hold just those wide, screaming eyes, one of them with a spot of black that had grown and merged with the pupil to make one giant pit with a narrow ring of white on the outside. Zane saw his own hands reaching up, scratching at Mr. Owens’s face, digging into his eye sockets. Just like with the fly, he didn’t blink, and he just kept right on laughing as Zane pulled his eyes all the way out of his head. There was a tug, as if the eyes were trying to pull back, but then he saw it was because his dad had finally managed to wrench Mr. Owens off him.

The sun blocked out a moment later as what looked like ten people crowded around him. He felt pressure around his neck and a tight feeling all over. He was very cold. That was the last thing he remembered.

36

 

In the next room, Brian’s father, Edmond Poole, propped himself up on his elbow and stared at his wife, much as Brian had stared at Elyse. After a few minutes, she opened one irritable eye and said, ‘What?’

‘You don’t think… I mean Brian’s been acting pretty odd. Don’t you think?’

‘Odd? What do you mean?’ she said, though even in the dimness he thought he could see the shadow of a half smile on her face. You would have thought, he and Brian both being males, he would have had the most insight, but it was always her wearing that knowing smile whenever something came up.

‘I mean,’ he said, ‘he locks himself in his room all hours of the day, walks around in a long sleeved jacket with a hood on and long pants in the middle of spring, grunts two words to me on a talkative day, and goes to bed early every night, sometimes without dinner. To be honest, he’s got a bit of a sick look to him, lately.’

‘You do realise you’ve just described every male seventeen year old in the world, right?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Definitely.’

‘No, what about the going to bed early without dinner? Most teenage boys eat like horses and stay up all hours.’

She gave a smug snort and rolled onto her side, facing away from him. ‘You don’t really think he’s going to sleep, do you honey?’

‘What do you mean?’ Feeling more clueless than ever. ‘His light’s off and it’s quiet, what else’s he doing?’

‘That nice girl Elyse Mars has been sneaking into his room every night, that’s what.’

‘What?’ He could almost hear her smiling.

‘Her mother called me the other night. She’d snuck out and she wanted to make sure Elyse was safe.’

Edmond lay back on his pillow with his hands behind his head, and let out a sigh of relief. ‘Yup,’ he said, before he drifted off. ‘That’s my boy.’

35

 

Elyse clipped her finger and toe nails with a pair of pliers and then disappeared back into her room. She didn’t like looking in the mirror any more. Her eyes were wide and it gave her face a starved, haunted look. Her dental retainer didn’t fit any more – her teeth were spaced too far apart, and some of them were sharp enough to bend the plastic.

She scanned a hundred internet sites, about parasites, about diseases, about serial killers. She read stories of people who had been kidnapped and tortured to death, and forced herself to stop. It was making her so hungry. She read magazine after magazine from a pile beside her bed. She called to make an appointment for a blood test the following day. She thought about Jimmy and Ray, and what they were doing now. Already months had passed in that other world. She wondered what they were eating, what they were doing to each other.

In the end, she was just waiting for Brian to call, and she didn’t have to wait long. If she was this restless already, he must have been going out of his mind. She’d just finished dinner – a once delicious home made lasagne that tasted like compost wedged between slabs of old cardboard – when he called.

‘It’s getting sooner,’ she said before he had a chance to speak.

‘I know,’ he said. His voice sounded thick, a tone she was beginning to recognize. He was struggling.

‘I haven’t healed from last night yet.’

‘Me either. It’s getting quicker though, the healing? Isn’t it?’

‘Not much. Not enough, anyway, if we keep going like this.’

‘Yeah. Stay longer this time and we’ll think about it. We’ll work something out, okay?’

‘I’m on my way.’

She told her mother she was going to bed with a headache, stuck some pillows under her bed sheets, packed an overnight bag and crept down the hall and out through the side door of the garage. She had a suspicion her mother knew she’d snuck out last night, and judging by the tentative looks and thoughtful frowns, she had a feeling her mother also knew where she went. That was fine by Elyse. Better her parents thought that and silently disapproved than know the truth.

Moving was easy for her, but like so many things now it seemed to add to her hunger. The feeling of power as she hurried over the pavement, so light on her feet she could clear a fence at head height in a quiet leap. Her eyes picked up on the slightest movements in her peripheral vision, and whenever she saw something the burn surged inside her. She saw a bird eyeing her from a tree branch as she brushed by and she came close – so close – to grabbing it and biting it’s head off, just to feel that sweet release, whet her appetite. A moment later it had flown away and she picked up the pace, sick with herself.

She hopped easily over Brain’s neighbour’s back fence, landing like a cat on the soft grass, crossed the yard, scaled a young oak and ran along the topmost branch, stepping easily onto Brian’s window sill. She tapped against the class with her toe, both hands gripping the brickwork to keep from falling. He lifted the window open and she slid inside like a shadow.

As soon as she was in, she pushed him against the wall and kissed him, hard – much harder than he had when he’d infected her, and he responded with a smile and a sharp bite on her bottom lip that drew blood instantly. His light was off – his parents probably thought he was out at a Matt’s or Dale’s – but the moonlight was more than enough for them to see by. Brian said he could see at night just as clearly as he could in the day, that it was the same difference as standing in the shade or the sunlight. He pushed her gently backwards and brought a finger to his lips. ‘No noise, remember? What did you bring?’

She dropped the bag on his bed and started taking things out. There was no real need for so many, except that the variety helped, somehow. Like different kinds of pain fed them in different ways. Sometimes she’d even get a craving for a burn or a deep cut like she used to crave chocolate or ice cream. She had a bunch of different knives, scissors, needles, matches.

He’d already laid his out on his desk, the heavy duty stuff like the wood saw and the hammer and the butcher knife, plus a bunch of other things. Her eyes lit on a coil of rusty barbed wire beside his computer and she picked it up, while he pulled off his shirt behind her. ‘Where’d you get that?’

‘Like it? Neighbour put it out on a junk pile. Probably off an old fence.’

‘Nice.’

‘Yeah.’

She turned around, her excitement faltering a little as she saw the results of the night before. It was bad, but she knew even before he lifted her top over her head that she would be worse. He’d had his fun with her for longer, and she needed less than him to be satisfied.

‘Shit,’ he said, running a hand over the scars in her stomach. He hadn’t cut his nails the day before, and they were sharp enough to cut glass. She shivered. ‘We’re in trouble, aren’t we, Elyse?’

‘Yeah.’ She reached out for the pair of scissors and held them up like a dagger. ‘Me first.’

‘Fine.’

They were sharp – the reason she chose them, and, gripping him by the wrist, she got the point all the way through the gristle in his palm, pushing so hard they ended up falling backwards onto the carpet, him stifling sounds of agony and her trying to hold back a little – slow down. Of course, it was a useless effort. Once the first bite was taken, the next was inevitable, and the next, and the next.

Eventually, she just gave in. She kept to the knives, because that was just what she craved, and she was cruel with them, re opening the wounds she’d made last night, dragging them in slow spirals over new flesh, making an artwork of his torso. She found his shin bone with the point of a paring knife and worked it down the side, sawing at it slow, relentless, blunting the knife, watching him arch his back in silent agony. All the while, feeling the dam walls breaking inside her, extinguishing the burn and filling her up. Scratching the itch. At last, she sat back, dark blood up to her elbows, and smiled. They were both covered in icy cold sweat.

Brian groaned and sat up, pushing her roughly against the side of the bed and standing up, a little wonky on his feet. ‘You’re alright?’

‘Yeah,’ she was a little sleepy, but she’d managed to hold off enough that there was still some of that lingering burn left in her, for what would come next.

‘Good.’ He reached out to the desk with blood streaked hands and came away with the saw in one hand and the coil of barbed wire in the other. ‘My turn.’

Later, they lay sprawled out on his bed, letting the blood dry in the breeze from the window, their bodies already starting to close up the wounds, repair the damage. Too slowly, though, much too slowly. Elyse rolled over and winced as the new scars stretched and dry blood crackled and flaked. Once you were good and satisfied, pain just felt like pain. Brian turned to look at her, his eyes bright and aware, but shallow in a way, more like an animal than a human. Totally unselfconscious.

‘Brian?’ she said, for a moment not even sure he was aware of her.

‘Yeah?’

‘We’re running out of time.’

‘We can keep it up a while longer, though. I kind of want to, you know? Don’t you?’

‘No,’ she said, nowhere near as certain as she sounded. She felt as if the voice in her head, the familiar reasonable voice that had always belonged to her, was dying. ‘It’s playing with fire. Pretty soon these night visits aren’t going to be enough. You know that, don’t you? What will we do then?’

‘We’d never hurt anyone. I mean, we’d just never hurt anyone, right?’

She thought about seeing the bird on the way there, wanting to grab it and bite its head off, and said, ‘I’m not so sure.’

He sighed and propped himself up on his elbow. He watched her with those shallow eyes, one hand moving slowly across her chest and belly, feeling the damage he’d done in such fervour just minutes ago. The barbed wire had made deep gashes, taken chunks out in some places. ‘You’re probably right,’ he said.

‘Of course I am. Think about it now, Brian, while you still can. Because if you’re anything like me, your mind changes when you’re… what do you call it?’

‘Hungry.’

‘Yeah. When I’m hungry enough, that’s all I think about. It’s only times like now that I feel like I can think properly. And right now I’m thinking, the longer it goes on the more hungry we’re going to get, until we never feel like this anymore. We’ll do something horrible and still be hungry afterwards, and then we’ll do something worse and still be hungry after that. We’ll end up as one of them.’

‘But look at us, Elyse. Even when we’re hungry, we can still control what we do, right? It’s like deciding to eat salads instead of hamburgers. We’ll make a system of it – find people who really deserve it.’

‘I don’t think anyone deserves what I want to do. Besides, what if we have trouble finding someone? If you’re starving and all you see is hamburgers, you’re going to eat them, aren’t you?’

‘Collateral damage.’

She stared at him, at those bright eyes, and it struck her how far he’d already gone. Collateral damage. She decided not to tell him about the blood test, or anything else she’d talked about with Steph. If he was thinking like this now… The more he knew the more likely he’d try to stop it. He was becoming brainwashed. The parasite was eating the parts of his brain it didn’t want and adding parts of its own.

Instead of talking, she nodded and gave him a nervous smile. ‘We’ll think of something, anyway,’ she said.

He hugged her and she stared over his shoulder at the moon. She wondered if there was a door that would take them back, so they could lie on those barren white plains and hurt no one ever again.

It was a long time before she slept, and when she woke up, the first sparks of the fire were beginning to kindle.

34

 

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,Steph.’

‘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.’

‘We?’

‘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.’

‘The what?’

‘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.

‘What?’

‘Not a permanent fix, but it might give us time. Remember how we were talking about going into another world?’

‘Yeah?’

‘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.

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