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Have you ever seen one of those big, deep rock pools at the beach, the kind that doesn’t look like it ever ends, and wondered where it leads? I have, and I do know where it goes. Here, let me show you…

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Ben Pienaar

 

Dean was the tough guy of Werner beach. The bro, the alpha dog. The guy who was out there in the middle of winter, in a storm, when the waves were big enough to block out the sky. He practically lived out there when school was out, and when class was in he’d often skip it if the surf was good.

So when he saw the rock pool for the first time, he didn’t see a rock pool at all. He saw the next adrenaline fix, the next competition. The other two tough guys of Werner beach – his friends Ron and Andy – were with him, and he knew they didn’t have the guts to go as far as he did.

‘Check it out,’ he said, pointing. They’d been walking across the rocky point to the next stretch of sand to see if the waves were better around the cove. It was a tricky business, navigating razor sharp rocks, slippery seaweed and deceptively deep pools, while strong waves pushed and pulled at your ankles.

‘So what? It’s a rock pool,’ Ron said. He’d been swimming all day but was so anxious to get back into the water he was shifting on his feet.

‘Nah, mate, not just a rock pool. It’s who can go the deepest.’

They peered over the side. The day was overcast, and it was impossible to see below a meter. Dean had grown up here, though, and he knew the nature of such pools: they twisted and turned and joined networks, but they didn’t end.

‘It’s probably not even that deep,’ Andy said, salt matted hair blowing in his face as he squinted into the water. The pool was about the size of a billiard table, and unnaturally circular. The sides were brittle rock and coral, the kind that would cut you if you so much as brushed it.

‘Go touch the bottom then,’ Dean challenged. ‘Bring up a handful of sand and I’ll give you five bucks.’ He didn’t know for sure it was deep, but he sensed it, the same way he could glance at the surf from the beach and sense where the rips were. When you went out to sea, beyond the waves, you could feel the depth under you. There wasn’t anything to say the sandy bottom was more than five or ten meters down – but you knew it wasn’t: it was hundreds of kilometres below your kicking feet.

‘If it’ll shut you up,’ Andy said, and with hardly a breath he dove into the middle of the rock pool and kicked, his pale feet vanishing into the dark, straight down. He and Ron waited for ten, twenty seconds.

Ron raised his eyebrows. ‘Shit. What if he doesn’t come up?’

‘Where’s he gonna go? Even Andy isn’t dumb enough to take a tunnel or something. He’ll either hit the bottom or chicken out. Bet I know which one, too.’

Dean counted another twenty seconds, and was about to say something when Andy rose to the surface and pulled himself over the side, gasping for breath.

‘Bloody hell. It was deep, alright. I went down far as I could go. Shit, my ears are killing me.’

‘You’re supposed to equalise, idiot,’ Ron said, folding his arms.

‘Yeah, well. It was way deeper than I thought. How long was I gone?’

‘Almost a minute,’ Dean said. ‘Did you see anything?’

‘Total blackness, man. Scary as. When I started back up I couldn’t even see the surface properly. It was just a blur of light way up there.’ He grinned, wiping sandy hair out of his face. ‘It was a rush, though.’

‘Alright,’ Dean said, nodding. ‘It’s on. Time to see who the real man is.’

 

*

 

Ron was next, and Dean timed it on his dive watch. One full minute. When he came back up, half senseless with oxygen deprivation, the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Did I beat Andy?’ And then, ‘It goes forever.’

Ever the cocky bastard, he was scoffing at Dean before he was even in the water. ‘You won’t beat a minute, mate, don’t worry. The pressure gets you, for one thing, squeezes your skull. Plus you get disoriented in the dark, don’t even know which way is up. Check this,’ he turned to show Dean the side of his arm, which was badly grazed. ‘Couldn’t even stay in the middle.’

Dean patiently unbound his watch and handed it to Ron. ‘Yeah, but then again, you guys are sissies, aren’t ya?’

Andy laughed. ‘Yeah, alright, buddy. Show us, then. Come on.’

Instead of replying, Dean winked and then turned away from the rock pool. He pried around until he found what he was looking for: a hefty rock lying at the base of the cliffs. It was the size of a basketball and weighed maybe twenty kilos. Perfect. He started back to the pool, cradling it to his chest. Ron shook his head as he approached. ‘Don’t do it, Dean. You’ll run out of breath.’

‘This is how real men do it,’ Dean said. He took a long, deep breath and then entered the pool in a long, smooth stride, not wanting to hesitate. He heard Andy mutter two words a second before he went under, equal parts scorn and respect: ‘Fucking crazy, dude.’

Dean sunk through ice cold pitch blackness for twenty seconds, clutching the rock, and as the light from above rose further and further out of sight, it occurred to him that maybe Andy had a point.

 

*

 

He gripped it for longer than he should have. It was impossible that this pool was so deep. Thirty seconds of such a quick descent should have put him at least thirty meters under, but he didn’t feel like he was anywhere near the bottom. He floated in darkness, and now that the rock was gone and he was no longer moving, he had no way to tell which way was up.

Panic arrived with the first stirrings of discomfort in his lungs – but then he fixed on something, a tiny speck of light as remote as a star. Surely the surface wasn’t that way – he was looking between his kicking feet. Had he turned himself upside down in those few seconds?

No time to think. Ten more seconds at this depth and he wouldn’t have the air to make it back. As it was, his lungs seized and black flecks jumped across his vision as he propelled himself upward, his strokes more urgent and less controlled as he drew nearer. He was going to make it, and best of all he was certain they’d never break his record. No human being was ever going to reach the bottom of that shaft, anyway.

He pulled himself over the side with arms so weak he had to roll onto his back to catch his breath before standing. He stared up at the grey clouded sky and sucked in salty air for a minute or so, a wide smile on his lips. No one said a word.

‘Man, that was deep,’ he said. ‘I bet I smashed you, Ron. How long was it?’ He held out his hand for one of them to help him up, but no one took it.

He sat up. The rock shelf was empty save a lone oncoming wave. He managed to stand before it hit, and scanned the beach for the other two. Nothing and no one. The whole beach was deserted, in fact, which was strange in itself – there’d been at least ten surfers out on the breakers when they’d arrived.

‘OY! STOP BEING ASSHOLES!’ Dean shouted. They had to be hiding. It was either that or they’d headed home as soon as he went under, which made no sense at all unless they were playing a stupid trick. God damn them – Ron still had his watch!

He walked around the cove, but they weren’t on the next beach, and nor was anyone else, so he gave up and went back to Werner, where he found his towel and possessions missing as well. So it was a prank, then: make him walk home in the cold and wet. Record, what record? he could imagine Andy saying with a furrowed brow. I don’t remember any rock pool, do you, Ron? They were jealous he beat them. Fine, whatever, he’d go straight home and they could laugh about it later. Screw them.

How they’d made ten surfers disappear, he didn’t know.

 

*

 

Something was wrong.

From the stars in the midday sky to the empty streets to the black clouds which had been grey an hour ago, everything was off kilter, false. This feeling struck him about ten minutes from his house, and it was strong enough that he stopped in the street and looked around, disoriented. An old man and his granddaughter walked hand in hand along the quiet road, and Dean watched them, trying to work out why they made him uneasy. They were just people, weren’t they?

Forget it. Go home and eat and play some Call of Duty and sleep, and Andy and Ron can go to hell.

            But he couldn’t enter his house – not through the front door. He went around the back and tiptoed in through the laundry, craning his neck around corners as though he expected someone to be waiting with a hammer and a grin. The only sound was that of a ticking clock, so it came as a surprise when he entered the kitchen and found his family. His father smiled as he entered. He was stirring an enormous pot on the stove while his mother set the table, at the head of which Gina slouched and flicked through a magazine.

Dean smiled back, but a crawling sensation worked its way along his back. His Dad never smiled. Mr. Holmes, as Dean’s friends called him, was an imposing and ever professional man, the type who wore a suit to every social event and always kept rigid posture and perfect manners, even with his children. Now, Dean observed his casual stance and the loopy expression. Was he high or what?

‘Hi, Dean, just in time for dinner,’ His mother said. ‘Where’ve you been all day?’ She was just as off putting as his father. She never cared where he’d been, and her voice tended to be flat and full of dry humour, not this sprightly chime. And Gina, who usually flooded him with a million words from the moment he entered a room, barely raised an eyebrow at him before looking back at her magazine. ‘Hey.’

‘Just at the beach,’ Dean said, taking a seat beside his sister. The smell of the cooking wafted over to him from the stove and made him want to gag. Once Ron’s mother had made him a stew of slow cooked lamb, but the meat was bad quality and past fresh, and the bones gave off the smell of rot. This wasn’t dissimilar.

‘The beach?’ his mother said, continuing to set the table. Her smile wobbled. ‘Why would you go to the beach? There isn’t anyone there. I notice you didn’t bring anyone back for dinner, either, unlike your sister.’

The comment was so bizarre that Dean couldn’t bring himself to reply. Why had he been at the beach? It was his second home. And what did she mean Gina brought someone for dinner? There wasn’t anyone here but the four of them. He just shrugged and said nothing. Gina looked up from her magazine long enough to stick her tongue out at him, but he hardly noticed, because he’d just seen the cutlery his mother had set in front of him.

Technically, it was a knife and fork, but not like any he’d used before. The knife had a blade eight inches long with a serrated edge, and the fork had only two long tines. He wasn’t certain, but they looked an awful lot like real silver, too. He opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again. Don’t do it or they’ll know.

Gina sniffed, and her eyes were on him again, but he didn’t meet them. Instead, he watched his mother go into the kitchen to check on whatever his father had in the crockpot. She whispered something in his ear and he smiled widely, chuckled and shook his head. Dean’s father never chuckled. He laughed, but only when a man he respected told a joke, and then in a false, hearty voice – never with genuine mirth. His mother leaned on his shoulder and looked into the pot, her left hand sliding down her husband’s lower back and settling on his ass.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Gina said. There was no trace of the giggling teenager he knew in her expression or voice: instead he saw a cold, cynical girl with steady confidence beyond her years. A stranger.

‘Just had a… weird day, that’s all.’

‘Didn’t get anyone? That’s unusual for you. Were you really at the beach?’

Get anyone? What is she talking about? ‘Yeah. Why, where were you? Who did you bring?’ If he kept the questions on her, maybe she’d stop probing. She seemed suspicious.

She sighed and rested her head in her hand, flipped a page. ‘Don’t even talk to me. Got run out of like three places, almost bloody lost my head. Ended up snatching a baby from up the road, just got lucky. Won’t be enough though, so you better get it together tomorrow. Less people every day.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

She flipped another page and something caught his eye on the glossy paper. It didn’t seem right, so he shifted in his chair to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be a clue there as to what the hell was going…

Meat. Saws and screaming people, blood. An image of a crying naked child having its throat slit by a laughing mother. A long article along one page with the title PREY A DAY: HOW TO ENSURE YOU LAND FRESH ADULTS ON A REGULAR BASIS. Beside it was an image of a smiling family holding the disembowelled corpse of a bulky man.

Dean looked back to his bowl and then over at his parents. His father was spooning hot stew into bowls which his mother lifted and brought over to him and Gina, who was once again staring at him with that intense look.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ She said again.

‘Gina, stop pestering Dean – he’s clearly had a bad day.’ She set the bowls in front of them and went back to the kitchen.

‘Why do you keep asking me that?’ he said, trying to sound annoyed, trying not to think of the things he’d seen, and the internal voice that screamed at him to get the hell out of there before something happened.

‘Why do you smell so scared, then?’ she said. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, leaning in towards him, and then she settled back in her chair with a smug grin. ‘You’re pissing yourself!’ She said. ‘Mum, Dean’s losing it! He’s as scared as a legless bunny!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Gina. What would Dean have to be scared about?’ But as she and his father sat down at the table she sniffed the air and cocked her head, considering it.

Time to go, man, time to go…

Dean scraped his chair back, pointing his long knife at his sister. ‘You’re mental. I’m not scared, okay. Something happened out there and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It was the first thing that came to him, but he saw doubt in her eyes and found hope. Maybe he could pretend to be mad and storm out with the knife. He could be back at the beach before the realised something was wrong.

His father had brought the pot to the middle of the table when he came over so that anyone could help themselves to seconds whenever they wanted. Now that he was standing, Dean couldn’t help but see what was inside, and when he did, the panic that had been simmering inside rose up and consumed him.

Ended up snatching a baby from up the road… Pale hairless flesh bobbed to the surface of a still simmering broth of potatoes onions and tomato, a thick brown sauce. A pudgy hand. At that moment, all three of them stared at him, his father’s mouth falling open in surprise and his mother gasping, a hand flying to her mouth. It was as though they could all see his terror as clearly as if it were a physical thing.

At that moment, the front door opened and Dean himself stepped in, someone’s severed torso and upper body hefted over one shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he called out, turning to shut the front door behind him. His shirt was covered in blood. ‘Helped Andy and Ron out with this one, so we had to split him three ways. Tried to fight, but we took him down with rocks in the…’

He saw Dean and froze at the threshold. The body dropped to the floor with a sick thlomp! Leaking dark blood onto the floorboards.

 

*

 

Had Dean waited a moment longer, the spell would have broken and they’d have had him. As it was, his father managed to curl an arm around him as he pushed past, only letting go when Dean sunk the knife into his neck and pushed him away. The kitchen erupted in screams and clattering pots but Dean was out of there, through the back door and out into the street well ahead of them.

Cold evening air whipped his face as he ran, tears of panic streaming across his face and bare feet slapping asphalt. He didn’t see anyone at first, but when Gina started down the road after him and let out her piercing shriek, people began appearing from the shadows. They stared at him from alleyways and over fences, confused, curious. One man almost got him, an enormous slab who came around the side of a wall and lunged for him, baggy shirt brushing Dean as he leapt aside.

When his feet landed on the blessed soft sand, he chanced a look back. The Other Dean was in front of all the rest, sprinting over the road toward him, his eyes wide and bright: he was as shocked to see another version of himself as Dean was. Behind him, several others emerged from the short houses that lined the beach, necks craning, fingers pointing. He was the Other in this place, there was no doubt about that. And he didn’t want to find out what happened to outsiders here.

The rocks, sharp enough to draw blood even when you stepped lightly, tore his feet apart as he ran across them. He cried out but didn’t dare slow down. His other was gaining quickly now, letting out a whoop of exhilaration that Dean recognized as his own, the triumphant shout he would let loose as a wave took him the first burst of speed propelled him through the spray. From this other mouth it had a different meaning.

He was at the pool. He might have missed it in his panic if the last rays of the setting sun hadn’t glanced off its surface and made it shine for an instant, one dark patch out of many. He turned, gasping as a row of barnacles turned his soles to mincemeat. A large rock lay nearby – the shape and size of the one he’d dropped, in fact – and he stooped to pick it up, aware of his Other’s footsteps drawing up behind him.

He turned at the side of the pool, and the Other came to a stop a few meters away, eyeing the rock. The others were only just climbing the shelf far behind him. For the next couple of minutes, they were alone. Dean wanted to throw himself into the pool now, but he couldn’t. For one thing he was out of breath, his own chest burning with each inhalation (the Other hadn’t so much as broken a sweat), and for another, he dreaded that the pool was a one way trip. No going back.

‘What are you?’ he said.

The Other didn’t approach, knowing he’d have plenty of help soon. Instead, he stood back with his arms folded, glaring at Dean. ‘What are you?’

‘I’m human. I live on earth. What’s this place?’

‘Hewmin? Urth?’ The other spat at his feet, which were covered in a thick layer of callous, not bleeding at all. When they met eyes, it was very clear to both who was predator and who was prey. The Other smiled, showing white teeth that tapered to points. ‘Where can we get more of you, then?’

Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through his system and the knowledge that he was most likely about to die a horrible death, or perhaps it was this image of himself, an arrogant, musclebound, bastard looking down on him, but either way Dean felt a surge of anger and gave the Other a mean grin of his own.

‘Trust me, you don’t want more of me,’ he said. ‘But if you do, you’ll have to go all the way down to hell.’

The others were too close now – he could hear their feet, see their slobbering mouths as they pelted over slippery rock toward him. Before the Other could reply he let himself fall sideways, the rock pulling him as he curled around it and hugged it like a baby, eyes clenched tight and the only sound that of his heart slamming in his chest, burning the oxygen in his body like so much firewood.

When everything was pitch dark and he felt that he was no longer falling but floating, he looked down between his legs and saw a faint light, the pale grey of an overcast sky. Please, please let it be home.

Dean let go of the rock and swam toward the surface.

 

*

 

When he reached for the side of the pool two strong sets of arms grabbed him and hauled him up onto the rocks, coughing and spluttering.

‘Jesus, man, we thought you were dead. How long was that?’

‘Four minutes easy.’ Ron’s voice.

‘Four minutes, man. Are you alright?’

Dean turned over and vomited some seawater, got up onto shaky hands and knees and crawled away from the hole. He kept going until he got to the dry flat rocks and he settled there with his back to the cliff, watching the hole. The other two stood in front of him, exchanging worried glances, and the sun shone into his eyes between two clouds.

‘So… did you make it to the bottom?’ Andy said.

‘Nah. I just went down and down, but it was black all the way. Nothing, no bottom or anything.’

‘Wow, what happened to your feet man?’

‘Shit.’ Dean pulled his feet in and winced at the sight of them. It looked like he’d stuck them in a blender. Now that relief replaced terror, they were starting to sting a hell of a lot. ‘I don’t know. I was kicking really hard on the way up, must have hit the rocks. Can you guys help me back?’

‘Yeah, sure, man,’ Ron said.

‘Hey, you totally win, dude. Ice creams on me, yeah?’ Andy slapped him on the back but Dean couldn’t manage more than a faint smile. ‘Just in a bit, though,’ he said. ‘I want to chill out for a while.’

For a long time the three of them sat and trash talked, Dean barely saying a word, and watched the sunset. Beautiful as it was, Dean didn’t so much as look up at it while they were there. Instead he kept his eyes on the rock pool, watching wave after wave wash into it until the tide came in and obscured it completely. Occasionally the light tricked him and he thought he saw a shadow moving just below the surface, but nothing emerged and he shook himself out of it.

When the sun was gone and the air took on a fresh chill, Andy and Ron locked their arms into his and pulled him to his feet. He gritted his teeth against the pain of sea salt in his wounds, but didn’t say anything.

They shivered and licked ice cream and laughed and joked, but the other two went easy on him, sensing he’d been in much more trouble than he admitted. Their own relief was palpable and he realised they must have been on the point of running for help. Just before they parted ways, Andy put his hands on Dean’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. ‘Hey, man, are you sure you’re alright?’

Dean nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah I’m good. Just shaken up a bit. Let’s hit the surf tomorrow again, yeah?’

Andy gave him his goofy grin and nodded. ‘You know it, baby. Alright, catchya later dude. Chill out, okay?’

On the walk back home, Dean found himself eyeing everything with suspicion, watching the cars and people closely. But he saw nothing, and when he returned home he was met with stern parents and an overly talkative Gina and an overwhelming sense of gratefulness.

He’d made it out alive. For now, that was all he wanted to think about.

 

*

 

They were the Alpha Dogs of Werner beach. They were heroes in their world, and Dean, the first to cross the bridge between the worlds, was the greatest hero of them all. Future generations would erect a statue in his glory. At first, the three boys were the only ones who had the lung capacity to make the journey, but as time went on and food grew more scarce, other hunters came to match them.

Word spread, and before long Werner grew into a prosperous border town, a place to stay before you ventured into the new world. Old and young alike who’d never seen it for themselves spoke in hushed whispers of great cities filled with prey. They could be dangerous in numbers, sure, but a skilled hunter could feed himself and his family for as far into the future as they could see.

 

58

 

Dale had made out like he really thought there would be something in the old tome, but as he sat down on his bed in his quiet house (dinner had been subdued and quick: pizza delivery, pieces shoved mindlessly into mouths, then various family members had disappeared into their respective areas of the house), and opened the Book of Worlds, he realised how ludicrous it was. Zindel had written the thing, after all – he should have known one way or the other.

But he read anyway, from the start, analysing each word, each sentence, not knowing what he was searching for, only that if he didn’t find it he was going to have to wake up his family and convince them that the whole world was going to die if they didn’t follow him into a secret trapdoor in some stranger’s house.

When he reached the crucial chapter, On Closing Doors, he read it through and, settling on one particular paragraph, his heart froze. The section detailing the closing of doors was so badly scorched that it took me a day to make out what I needed, and even then half a page was lost to me completely.

That was it, wasn’t it? The scorched pages had concealed something, some secret that you had to know to close the door. Only that didn’t quite make sense, because a moment later Zindel wrote: Fortunately, whatever was written there must not have mattered, because when I broke the key in half and spoke: ‘Claudo’ the door shut. So whatever was hidden, it hadn’t mattered. Or else, Dale thought, it had mattered, and Zindel had done it without knowing it.

He flipped back to the beginning and started again. It seemed straightforward: a beast followed him to Earth and mauled a child. Zindel closed the door the same way Brian had, and three days later found the animal, so he said, without a soul. He was certain the door closing had done it. What if it wasn’t the door at all? What if he didn’t close it properly after all, and the beast died of something else, some random disease. Oh, shit, what if Zindel never closed that door at all?

Dale closed his eyes for a second and then opened them again. No, it couldn’t be that. Zindel said he’d seen the outline of the door disappear. Was there something else that had happened? Some other event that had sealed the door closed finally, but something Zindel didn’t consciously do?

So, from the book, what event? The mauling of a small child? Dale laughed out loud, a shaky, hysterical laugh he didn’t like the sound of at all, but before it took hold of him he stopped, abruptly, and stared at the page. What if that was it? An innocent sacrifice. The door opened with blood, so it must be closed with blood. The thought had an uncomfortable ring of truth.

He mulled it over, and decided on two things. Firstly, there was nowhere near enough proof to be certain of it. Sure, it was the only event written that may have had an impact, though Zindel didn’t seem to think so, but there was something else: The book which I had to use (the same one that contained the method to open the doors) was badly burned on account of the previous owner attempting to destroy it… Now what the hell did that mean? Why would someone try to destroy a book they wrote? Especially since opening a door was no big deal, just a few carvings in a tree and a little cut on the hand. So why burn that last bit? Unless the burned section mentioned that to close a door you needed a sacrifice.

            Shit.

57

 

Steph felt like she had a cork sitting in the back of her throat the whole dinner. She sat with her parents and her younger sister and fought tears while they laughed about a spelling mistake on Kylie’s test.

‘I was supposed to write “pass” but I wrote “ass” on accident!’ she was saying, and put a hand up to her giggling, food filled mouth as mum and dad burst out laughing. Steph couldn’t help but stare at her. She had lived with this little girl her whole life, her entire life, and yet she couldn’t really remember appreciating her. She was an annoyance who was always crying or screaming high pitched laughter or stealing her clothes or telling their parents that Steph had snuck out of her room to see her friends late at night.

‘And what did you teacher say?’ Steph’s mum asked, still smiling.

Steph had come through the front door, wondering how she was going to tell her family everything, how she was going to convince them to come with her all the way up to Zindel’s house and go through that tiny trapdoor. She had been pondering this carefully when her eyes had wondered over her father’s hands as he ate. He had remarkably long fingernails. And there was something else. A tiny, black cut on the back of his right hand.

‘What happened to you?’ she’d asked when she saw it.

‘Oh, that? I got a splinter today and your mother dug it out for me. Bloody shovelled it out, more like.’

‘Sorry, dear, it was very stubborn.’

‘Stubborn? You went at it like it was your worst enemy!’ Steph’s gaze had moved over her mother’s face as she’d spoken, and she saw it now. So subtle, but it was there alright. Just the slightest pointing of her incisors, the slightest enlargement of her eyes. Perhaps she hadn’t been liberal enough with the fly repellent.

And that, of course, had been that. Problem solved.

‘She said if I ever had trouble spelling I should ass her a question,’ Kylie said, and then erupted in another peal of ear splitting giggles.

Was she really going to die, this girl, Steph wondered, laughing along with them. Was she really going to grow long nails and razor teeth? Were black veins going to appear all over her small body? Would she hurt their parents first, small claws digging at flesh through the bed sheets?

She forked sausage and mashed potato into her mouth without tasting it and looked at her parents, who were talking about the primary school. They’d had parent teacher day.

‘And you haven’t been bullied at all, have you Kylie? Ms. Maree seemed to think there was a lot of fighting and meanness going around lately.’

Kylie shrugged. ‘I saw Mary pull out some of Jessica’s hair and there was blood.’

‘Oh, my God. They don’t have standards at these schools any more.’

‘Too slack on the punishments, I reckon,’ Steph’s dad said. ‘They wouldn’t have taken that stuff in my day. Take a stick to the buggers.’

‘You’re not wrong. Half those kids haven’t been punished in their lives.’

If you only knew. Steph watched her parents, taking in every precious wrinkle in their faces, the way her mother wrinkled her nose at the prospect of badly brought up children, the redness of her father’s face from the tabasco he’d poured all over his mashed potatoes. The people who’d raised her. Were they really going to hurt anyone? Maybe they’d take kitchen knives to each other and slice themselves to raw meat. Or maybe when it got bad enough they’d lock themselves in a room with Kylie. No way. They’d kill themselves before they hurt us.  Maybe they would. But the parasite would win in the end, one way or the other, she knew that much. She had a whole empty planet to prove it.

They sent Kylie, kicking and screaming, to bed just after dinner. Normally Steph would disappear into her own room without a word to them for the rest of the night, but this time she stayed in the sitting room with them, sipping at tea and talking and trying so, so hard not to cry.

‘So how was the day, honey?’ her mum asked. ‘You’re a little subdued tonight.’

‘Uh, it was, you know.’ She forced a smile that she was sure her mother saw right through and felt a tear slide down her cheek.

‘Oh, Steph.’ She came over and gave her a hug, her father flashing her a sad smile over her shoulder.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry!’

‘Nah. It was just. It’s just been a bad day that’s all.’

‘You don’t want to talk about it?’

Steph shook her head and then spoke anyway. ‘Just all the violent stuff that’s been going on, you know. Everyone going mad and hurting each other.’

‘I know, honey, but you know none of that’s going to happen to any of us. It’s just the recession taking its toll.’ The lie was clear in her mother’s voice, but Steph appreciated the effort.

‘We’ll just have to be more careful about leaving the house, especially after dark,’ her father put in, when her mother had released her. ‘Glen Warwick just down the road got beaten so badly two days ago he’s still in hospital.’

‘Glen?’ her mother said. ‘God, I didn’t know that.’

‘And it was a group, apparently. Two old guys, a girl, and two young fellas. Now I want to know what the bloody hell  kind of gang that is.’

‘Thanks for the comforting words, dad.’ Steph said.

He shrugged. ‘You’ve got to be realistic,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ Steph said, sadly. ‘You do.’

She went over and hugged him, ignoring the look of shock on his face. She hadn’t hugged him since she was ten years old. He gave her an awkward pat on the back. ‘Try not to let it get to you, darlin’. Like your mum says, nothing’s happened to us, we’re gonna be alright.’

‘Thanks, Dad. I better get up to bed.’

She kissed her mother good night and went slowly up the stairs. She felt more helpless than she’d ever felt in her whole life. She was thinking about Glen Warwick, and whether he was starting to dream about stabbing the nurses, or if that came later. She was thinking about all the people who were already acting on those desires, spreading the parasite exponentially.

A man hits his girlfriend in a fit of uncharacteristic rage. She leaves him and moves to another state, where she later assaults her roommate, who goes to a bar a week later and scratches a guy hitting on her, who gets into a brawl with several other guys, one of whom flies back to his native country – America, say – where he starts kidnapping children to torture them. When they arrest him, he attacks several police officers before they’re forced to shoot him. The officers start getting a little more free with the baton… It just went on and on and on. Slow, insidious, inevitable.

‘Steph?’ She realised she’d been standing at the top of the stairs, tears still streaming down her face, for a long time. Her little sister was standing in the door to her bedroom, staring at her.

‘What’s wrong, Steph?’

‘Kylie… you should be in bed.’ Her voice was so shaky she could barely get the words out, and her little sister came to her, dropping Rex, her favourite teddybear, so she could wrap both of her arms around Steph’s waist. In a minute, she was crying also.

‘What’s wrong, Steph?’

‘I’m just sad, Kylie. I love you, you know that? I do.’

‘I love you, too,’ she said simply.

‘You dropped Rex.’

‘I know.’ And then she let her go and gave her a sad smile, wiped her face, picked up Rex, and said: ‘Goodnight, Steph. You’ll feel better tomorrow. Mum always says so.’

Steph stood at the top of the stairs for a few minutes after she closed the door. And then she went down to her own room, feeling completely empty. She had never known it was possible to feel so dark before. She had never known that despair like this existed in the world.

As she lay, propped up in her bed, staring at the half moon hanging in a black sky, she realised that the only thing stopping herself from committing suicide was the knowledge of what it would do to Kylie and their parents. They had enough pain in store for them, after all.

She looked out over the night sky and thought about Earth, ten years from now. Empty, overgrown cities. Starving monsters with wide mouths and all seeing eyes stalking deserted streets, causing pain at every opportunity, spreading parasites to every level of the food chain. Perhaps some would organise. Humans were, after all, so intelligent. Maybe the more capable would make farms out of the less able, immense factories in which pain could be freely harvested, medical science used now to keep crops fresh for as long as possible.

She sat in the dark and thought about the future. It was no longer a question of dread. For Steph Courson, the world had already ended.

56

 

The three remaining friends stayed together for a while, walked Steph to her house, then Dale and Matt walked to Matt’s place. The two of them walked quietly down dark streets that seemed alive in a way they never had before. There was a sense of danger, an adrenaline rush when any stranger was sighted briefly in the light of a streetlamp and every dog growled behind a fence. The air was thick with fear and violence. Police sirens wailed constantly in the distance, a sound rarely heard in the Westlake of the past. Twice along the way they heard windows breaking; once a scream.

‘You sure you don’t want to crash here?’ Matt said. ‘I know my father’s probably got the bug, but he’s not far along and… he’s a pretty strong guy, you know, I – I think he’ll manage to hold off a bit.’

‘Its fine, Matt. I’ll be fine.’

‘Alright, man. I’ll call you guys tomorrow, round noon. If none of us have thought of anything by then, we get anyone who’ll come with us and go back to Zindel.’

‘What the hell will we say to Diana? She seemed kinda suspicious when we left, thought we stole something.’

‘I dunno, we’ll think of something. Listen, you sure…’ A dog’s barking had been cut off by a howl of pain a moment ago, and an ominous silence fell in its wake.

‘The Book’s at mine, anyway. I want to read it again, see if there’s anything we missed.’

‘Alright, man. Good luck.’

‘You too.’

55

 

The air was filled with a constant roar now, a sound so loud and all consuming it was enough by itself to flood them with terror. Each beat of Brian’s heart thumped through his body. Elyse lay at his feet, breathing but alive, and smiling a beautiful, bloody smile.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I went too far this time.’

‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘It’ll keep us alive for the rest of it. It’ll keep us till the others get back, or till the rocks up there come smashing down here.’ She sounded drunk, and he remembered how that was, when you took just a little more than you needed and you figured you’d never have to feed again. He didn’t want to tell her he was still burning. Just a little, but it was there.

‘Brian,’ she said.

‘Yeah?’ He looked at his feet because he was afraid to look at her, see what he’d done to her. He was faint from blood loss himself and the sand was a darker red in a wide patch around them.

‘Come lie with me a second.’

He glanced up at the sky of comets and his skin prickled, as though it could sense the destruction. He took a breath of the rich air and lay down beside her once again. She looked at him, her brown eyes swimming with fear and sadness, searching his own as if they might hold some hope. ‘Kiss me,’ she said.

He leaned in, and for a few minutes all he felt was her tongue and the warmth of her tears on his face and that heavy, bone deep roar in the sky, like the world was about to blow apart. I hope it happens before I forget who I am. I just don’t want to forget.

Not long, now.

14

 

The stereo was hooked up in the garage, playing The Rolling Stones to drown out the screams. Jordan didn’t think anyone would come anyway. Not many people went outside at night these days, no matter what they heard. Except those who were out hunting.

Jordan had been drunk all day, and he’d been satisfied for most of it, too, but the burn was coming back in force, and after sitting and biting his tongue to pieces and pulling his hair out in messy red black clumps, he went back into the garage to see his parents.

True to his word, Jordan had taken out one of his father’s eyes, and it lay beside the corvette, partially mashed into the concrete from when Jordan had stepped on it. Frank Silic himself was still standing, but a lot of his wounds were deep enough that it was possible to see bone. Jordan had worked his left hand with a coil of barbed wire, and now his wrist was hanging by a thread. Dina was still conscious, but hanging with all her weight on the ropes. Her yellow dress was more red now, her face so covered in blood and wounds and swollen that it was barely possible to tell that she was human – she looked more like raw meat.

When he walked in, Jordan felt a last shudder of the grief that had racked him all day. Remorse came to him each time he’d satisfied whatever it was inside him that was feasting so hungrily on the pain. When it was eating, it released him from the burn and he was almost himself again. Those moments were the worst, because that was when he had to face what he’d already done, and what he still had to do. A few moments later, it was gone and he became more concerned about how he was going to feed himself properly without letting his parents die.

Tourniquets, a low, hideous voice whispered to him. Take limbs. Luckily, he’d already collected a bunch of strong belts from the cupboard under the stairs, remnants of gear he’d had when he used to enjoy indoor rock climbing. He wrapped them around his father’s legs, pulled them so tight he thought if he just left them long enough Frank Silic’s legs might just fall off by themselves.

He laughed at the thought, and then his father kneed him, hard, in the face. He reeled back into the shelves, laughing, and his father screamed something at him through his gag, only he couldn’t hear because The Rolling Stones was playing loud enough to make the garage door shake. I can’t get no… sat – is – fac – tion.

It was a game. He committed himself to the rules: use only a pair of nail scissors to amputate the right leg, and only his fingernails for the second. No breaking the rules, and if his father passed out he’d have to wake him up and start again.

It took a long time, and by the end of it all the fight had gone out of Frank. He was covered in his own vomit. The tourniquets held tight, but even so there was a pool of blood practically deep enough to swim in under his hanging body, covering half the floor and seeping under the car. Jordan had to stuff some old couch cushions under the garage door to make sure no blood ran out onto the driveway. He himself was covered in sweat, breathing hard, sleepy and satisfied, like he’d just had a rich, filling meal.

He dropped to his knees in the blood before he made it to the door. One of his father’s legs was lying in front of him, blue and swollen. Eat it, the lizard voice said, but it was far away now and had no power, and instead Jordan bent down and hugged it, and before he knew what he was doing he was crying again, deep, racking sobs that shook his whole body.

In these moments of clarity he felt like he’d gone to sleep a young boy, tucked in by his mother the way she used to, putting his teddy bear beside him, and then he’d wake up here, now, soaked in his parents blood, having killed his dog and mutilated his parents so badly they might not survive the night. He hated his father, despised his mother, but the idea of hurting them… And then suddenly, here he was.

Brian did this. Him and Matt. It had all started after that big fight, the one where Brian had beaten him and the other two so badly. Yeah the other two, who had just happened to disappear soon afterwards. What had happened to them?

‘I don’t know.’ He said aloud, eyes still closed. He felt his father’s cold hairy calf against his cheek, sticky blood clinging to his clothes.

Brian killed them! Brian and Matt! And he remembered after that first fight, Matt flipping him the bird with bloody teeth. They’d put some kind of demon curse on him. One way or another, it was them. It was them.

He stood up, slowly, and turned his dazed eyes on his mother, who had woken up and was staring at him with wide, panicked eyes. Eyes that wouldn’t have touched him twenty minutes ago, but now went right to his heart. What are you? they said. What are you?

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘But I’m going to put an end to all of it, now. I’m going to end it tonight.’

She moaned, thinking he was going to kill her, but of course he could never do that. Now was the time to act, when he wasn’t driven mad by that damned burn. He could take the time to think, to search. When he found them, then he could satisfy his hunger. Then he’d have a meal to end all others.

He turned and left the garage, locked the door behind him, and went for a quick shower, made it hot enough to raise blisters on his skin. Then he got dressed in black, stuck bony long nailed hands in deep pockets, and left the house.

53

 

Excerpt from Arthur T. Zindel’s journal

 

Despair.

This day has been both surreal and terrible, and above all, it has been an awakening. I met three brave children today, and they told me that Earth was doomed. In my mind, I was to live here in my heaven in total peace, and as though it were the real Heaven of the Almighty, I would eventually (and so I thought, inevitably) see all of my children, spurred on by my book to find me. I am under such illusions no longer.

            And Earth is doomed. The children left me to save who they could, but I don’t believe they will ever be back, and if they are, they will most likely be infected by the horrific parasite that has taken over the planet.  I offered them this place to live, a place to which they could escape if they needed it. I meant the offer sincerely, but I don’t believe I’ll be here if they do come.

            I was growing old when I decided to settle, and I’m older still, but if those brave children showed me anything, it was that I have grown soft in my comfort. A scared old man, just waiting to die, the one thing I swore I would never become, a miserable thing to be. I could not help them, and it was as much due to my own fear and doubts as any real helplessness. 

Well, no longer. I will collect what few belongings I have, cut a new door in some dark corner of this island, far away from everyone, and I will continue my travels.

            I still wonder if there is another place out there such as this, or perhaps even a better one. If there is, I doubt I shall stay, unless I am so close to death by then that I’m incapable of leaving. Settling down, dwelling on old memories and children long past and who were better off when you were gone, these are the occupations of those who are already dead.

            Whoever finds these journals, please remember me, if you can, as the reckless, brave adventurer I portrayed myself to be in my books, and not the scared old man I have become. Remember me well, and know that when I die, whether I am burning in some hell, screaming in terror, or lying alone in a desert, it will be an end to a well lived life. A life full of remorse and mistakes, maybe, but worth it all the same.  

            Adieu.

            Arthur, T. Zindel.

52

 

Matt stood up, shaking, and wiped his hands over his face. He wasn’t aware that he was crying until he felt the wetness on his skin, and he looked at his muddy palms, surprised.

‘This really is paradise.’ Steph stepped up beside him. Dale was still on all fours, retching and sobbing. Matt knew exactly how he felt – his whole body was in shock.

They were on a grassy hill on an island in the middle of a sparkling ocean. Other islands were visible on the horizon, but the one they were on could have been a continent for all they knew – there was no visible end to it. Even so, they didn’t have to look long to see everything they needed to see, and to know exactly where to find Zindel.

At the foot of the hill they were on there was a narrow bridge of sand that connected them to the mainland. Much of what they could see was jungle, but there was what looked like a primitive fishing village on the shore, and from where they were standing they could see the wooden houses (most on stilts), stretching well past the tree line. A hundred or more boats were scattered out in the sea nearby, and small figures – they looked a lot like humans – were moving around on the docks and walkways. To the left, another steep hill rose from the trees, terminating in a series of cliffs. At the top of these, built with vision but not much skill, was an enormous house, and it was so normal looking, so Earthly compared to the strange round topped huts, that it could only belong to Zindel himself.

‘Hey, check out the sun,’ Steph said. Matt looked up and saw what looked like a white, pockmarked circle hanging in the sky, more like a moon than a sun. It was bright, but he could look directly at it without any pain, and yet the warmth from it was deep and pleasant, like settling under a warm blanket on a cold night. ‘Nice. Kinda weird,’ he said.

Dale came up beside them on trembling legs and stared dubiously down at the village. ‘I know they’re probably good people and all,’ he said, ‘but maybe we should just avoid them.’

‘Yeah,’ Steph said. ‘Just in case. He has to be in that house up there, doesn’t he?’

‘If he’s still alive,’ Dale said. Neither of them replied to that, nor did any of them move. Matt felt painfully visible to the people down in the village, but still he hesitated. The place was paradise, sure, but if they’d learned anything from their travels it was that real paradises were as rare as gold, and much harder to find. Perhaps such a place didn’t exist at all.

‘This is our last chance, guys,’ Matt said. ‘We go up to that house, see if we can find him, but if he’s dead or he’s not around, that’s it, isn’t it? No Zindel, no way to close the door for good, no Earth. At least not for a long time.’ The others said nothing at first. They were thinking, like Matt, of what they would do if that were the case. Go back for their families, maybe – although Matt’s father had been bitten – he was sure of it. Maybe he’d already done something, hit his mother and infected her, too. Brian and Elyse would be beyond help, but at least their end would be comparatively easy.

‘Screw it,’ Dale’s thick voice interrupted his thoughts. He pushed past Matt and started off down the slope. ‘Let’s just find out one way or the other, okay? I’m sick of mysteries and magic.’

Steph’s hand slid into Matt’s and he glanced at her. Her face was grim, but she nodded and forced a smile, and he gave her one back. It wasn’t as hard as he thought, in this sunny place. If it doesn’t work, she can stay here with me. There’s always that. They started after Dale.

It took less than half an hour of walking through the thick green grass, but Matt was already getting a feeling of urgency as Dale stepped up to a wonky doorway and knocked on the wooden frame as loud as he could. Who knew what the time difference between this place and earth was? If Zindel was still alive here it had to be a slow world, which meant that time was whizzing by on Earth. Steph must have been thinking the same thing, because she leaned in and said: ‘Let’s be quick. We can’t look for him too long if he’s not here.’

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the door slid gently aside, not fitted with hinges but in a kind of clay track along the floor. Dale stood aside, no doubt intimidated by the huge figure that stood before them, and so Matt was the one he saw first. His lined, light blue eyes settled on him from under a mane of grey hair and then widened slightly. ‘My God,’ he said. ‘My God.’

Arthur Zindel was a good three inches taller than Matt, who was almost six feet himself, and had the wide, thick build of a lumberjack. The only break in that image came in the form of a pair of delicate glasses – one cracked lense – balancing on his nose, and the accent, the Oxford English of a 1930s gentleman. His clothes were made of dirty, sewn leather and he reeked of sweat and soil.

‘We… We read your book, Mr. Zindel,’ Matt said, sounding like a schoolboy talking to a principal. He cleared his throat. ‘I mean, we came here to find you, because there’s some bad stuff happening on Earth. We thought you could fix it.’

‘Earth.’ He repeated the name as though he hadn’t heard it in a very long time, and finally shook himself, blinking. ‘You’re from Earth.’ He was staring at them as though they were aliens. ‘Yes, well, of course you are. Right. Come in, all of you.’ And a moment later he was gone from the doorway.

‘Uh,’ Dale looked uncertainly back at them, shrugged his shoulders, and entered the house, and Matt and Steph followed once again. Matt was supressing a smile. He’s alive! He’s still alive and we found him! Shit, we did it!

            The house had the appearance, from the outside, of being a shoddily built manor, the work of an overly ambitious architect. Inside, it was an oversized Viking longhouse, and nothing more. It was maybe three storeys tall, but there was only a ground floor and a very high ceiling, no stairs, all floorboards, two glassless windows. In fact, Matt realised, as he took a seat on a thick tree stump with the others, it was very similar to the clubhouse they’d built themselves, if they’d had more time and fewer creature comforts from Earth. There was the fireplace, complete with a small gap in the roof to disperse smoke and a barbeque spit across it. A tall handmade bookshelf in one corner, packed with dusty volumes. A large barrel of water in the opposite corner, and another barrel of something black. A wooden cup, a frying pan, and a sharp stone knife sat atop one barrel, and a thick spear leaned against the wall there. Beneath one of the windows was a handmade table, on top of which were piles of exercise books and hundreds of pens.

‘I’m going to have to start making my own pencils and paper, unfortunately,’ Zindel said, but the others weren’t listening. All three of them pushed passed him and crowded around the water barrel. Ignoring the cup, they brought handful after handful of surprisingly cold water to their mouths, almost moaning in pleasure. He watched them and then laughed. ‘Of course, you must have come through Pandemonium! Drink all you want, please. I pray I never see that nightmare place again.’

When they were satisfied at last, they moved to join him, sitting down on the stumps in the corner that served as chairs. He scrutinized them so keenly that Matt began to feel uncomfortable, though he didn’t blame him. He hadn’t seen human beings for a long, long time.

‘I’ve only got ten working pens left and there are lots of folk down in the village keen on having them as a gift. They’ve never seen such things as pens and paper,’ he said, eventually. They didn’t reply and he fixed them all with a steady, ancient gaze. ‘But of course, you’re not here to hear about this world, are you?’

‘No, Mr. Zindel,’ Matt said, bringing his attention back to those wide blue eyes. ‘We need your help, really badly.’

‘And there’s not a whole lot of time,’ Steph said.

Zindel closed his eyes and nodded. ‘I’m sorry, it’s just so strange to hear the old tongue again, and speak it. The language here is musical, too, but… I missed this. And other humans. I’m already rambling.’ He stopped short and sat up straighter, fixing on Matt again. ‘Tell me everything.’

And so they did. It was surreal, sitting in a tight circle in this other world, talking to a man they’d never met about such horrible, unbelievable things and having him accept them without question. When they finished, he was rigid in his seat, one hand planted on his knee and a look of deep concern on his face. There was a short silence, and he glanced from one to the other.

‘Well… I was about to say I couldn’t believe it, but then I’m hardly one who can say things like that anymore, considering I literally wrote the book on it. Still, I never would have believed such destruction was possible. That a world so close to Earth, so accessible, could cause so much damage.’

No one replied: all were thinking of what kind of horror was yet to be caused – what kind of things were happening even as they spoke.

‘But you say you closed the door?’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ Matt said. ‘We were all there for it. Brian said he did everything you did in the book, and we all read it and it looked right.’

‘Oh. What did he do, then? Tell me exactly.’

‘First he broke the key – ’

‘You’re sure it was the right one?’

‘Yeah, we only had one. He broke the key and then he cut himself and said the word, Claudo I think, and that was it. That was all you did, anyway.’

Zindel said nothing.

‘So?’ Steph said. ‘What did we miss?’

But the old man was shaking his head, slowly. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘You missed nothing. That was all there was to it.’

‘It can’t be!’ Matt said. ‘It can’t be all there was to it – the door didn’t close! We could still see the outline, and the parasites didn’t die at all, they just kept spreading.’

‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ Zindel said quietly. ‘I still remember closing that door all those years ago. I did everything you just told me, and three days later the beast was dead and the door was closed for good. The outline and the keyhole disappeared the moment I said the word.’

Deathly silence greeted these words, but it was the look on Zindel’s face that said it all for Matt. He was pale, aged with fear. The implications were sinking in now. His eyes darted from Matt’s forearms to Dale’s eyes, checking for black veins or recent scars. Is that all he cares about? His bloody paradise?

            ‘What about the books?’ Dale asked at last, nodding at the bookshelf in the far corner of the house. ‘Don’t they say anything? Where did you find out about how to close a door in the first place?’

Zindel shook his head absently. ‘I lost the original volumes a long time ago,’ he said. ‘But it doesn’t matter. I’m certain, absolutely certain, that you closed the door.’

‘But we can still see the outline!’ Steph said.

‘Then I am also certain that the door is still open. It doesn’t make any sense. I cannot understand it at all.’ He stood up suddenly, paced the room and stood in front of the book shelf. They watched him, breathless. The whole of earth hung on this one man, and whether he could answer this one question.

‘Mr. Zindel – ’

‘You can call me Arthur. Since we’re contemplating the end of a world I think we can use each other’s first names.’

‘Okay,’ Matt went on, ‘Arthur, maybe there’s more than one way to open the door?’

‘Absolutely not,’ he replied. ‘The original material was clear. There has only ever been and will only ever be one way.’

‘What if it’s the parasite?’ Steph said. She was pale, and her voice shook as she went on. ‘I mean, some parasites are pretty resilient on Earth, and these ones are efficient enough to have taken over a whole other world. What if the door closing just wasn’t enough to kill them? Like maybe they were too adaptable to die. Maybe that world wasn’t even their original world in the first place, but some other universe they infected from somewhere else.’

Before she’d finished, Arthur Zindel had closed his eyes and bowed his head, and Matt saw him give a slight nod, as if it all makes sense. ‘I fear,’ he said, ‘that Stephanie is most likely correct.’

‘But you said, you said anything in another world when the door is closed dies without the connection! You’re supposed to know.’ Matt was standing up. He was furious, as though Zindel was the one at fault.

The old man turned to him, now looking every inch of his hundred odd years, his initially gigantic body seeming smaller, hunched under the weight of his guilt. ‘When I began my journeys,’ he said. ‘I was only a young man, like yourself. I was playing with things I never understood, and everything I learned I learned from my own experiences, from travelling, and most of all from almost dying in a hundred horrific ways and somehow surviving. I was the first man on earth – that I know of – to actually travel to another world. You see the author of the original material was a theorist, and believed that he was studying the devil’s work. He killed himself, and I believe he tried to destroy the book. In other words, Matt, the only difference between you and I is that I’ve lived longer, and seen more horror than you. You should never have come here, any of you. You’re wasting time.’

‘Wasting time?’ Matt said. ‘Time to do what? To go home and bury our families?’

‘To save them, if you can,’ Zindel answered. ‘Bring them here, but only if they do not have the parasite. If anyone does, I’m afraid I’ll have to have them executed. The people here are innocent, and that parasite has cost enough already.’

‘Oh, so no worries, then?’ said Matt. ‘My parents are both written off, then. And so are two of my friends, and oh, yeah, the rest of the fucking world.’

Zindel looked down at the floor, and it seemed as though he might topple over any second. ‘It is a tragedy,’ he said, so quietly none of them could hear. ‘And I admit it is all my fault. All I can offer you is this place, my home. Save who you can and come back here – it’s all you can do.’

The rage flowed out of Matt as if through cracks in in a dam wall. He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.

‘We should get going, guys,’ Dale said in his calm, quiet voice. Matt felt Steph’s hand on his shoulder.

‘This world can be your home,’ Zindel said. ‘If things really are as bad as you say, Matt, perhaps you shouldn’t go back at all. Stay here and never go back. Or find a new world from here. It wouldn’t be bad. I know it looks like… well not the pinnacle of civilisation, but I’ve never been anywhere more perfect than this. I hunt with the people in the village twice a week, and fish and swim in the ocean almost every day. The islands and the jungles here are bursting with life. The tribes rarely fight because there is so much of everything. It is a paradise. You’d never have to go back.’

‘It’s not going to happen,’ Matt said, taking a step towards the door.

‘Wait, please! How is Diana?’

Matt gritted his teeth. ‘I don’t know, go ask her yourself.’

‘Won’t you tell her, bring her here?’

‘Bring her yourself, you’re the great traveller!’

‘It’s madness to go back,’ Zindel replied, and his voice was a little harder. ‘I can find the answer, somewhere in the books I have here. I’m sure of it. It will just take time. Please, stay, help me.’

‘You’ll have to look without us,’ Steph said, pulling Matt away before he could open his mouth again. ‘If you find anything, there might still be time.’

Zindel said nothing to that, and Matt finally turned with the others to go. ‘Thanks anyway,’ he heard Dale say behind him, but there was no reply. They left the ramshackle building and its lonely occupant and stepped out into a warm wind. Dark clouds drifted across an otherwise perfect blue sky. They headed up the hill in silence, looking at their feet rather than the large boulder from which they’d emerged and its doorway.

Only when they reached the top of the hill, and Matt had pushed the little stone chip into the keyhole, did the weight of it all settle on them. Matt’s anger had held his tears at bay, but at the thought of returning home and seeing his fanatic, wide eyed father and scared mother, they came at last and he swiped at them impatiently. When he turned, he saw the other two looking as bad as he felt.

‘I guess that’s it, then,’ Dale said. He looked ten years older than he was. Tears were pouring out of Steph’s eyes but she made no move to wipe them away. ‘Brian and Elyse…’ she said, and swallowed.

‘Listen, guys,’ Dale said. ‘It’s not over yet, okay? There’s something there we’re not seeing. Zindel too – we didn’t give him that much time to think, after all, did we? He might think of something later on. Or we might.’

Matt gave his friend a small smile and slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Yeah, man. Soon as we get back, we’ll do some research of our own, and round up anyone we can who’s not infected, in case we gotta run after all. Yeah, it’s not over.’

But the moment he turned away from them and swung open the thick stone door, the smile disappeared from his face and the tears came fresh. It wasn’t over, only, deep in his heart, he knew there was no hope. One by one, they climbed through the narrow doorway and once again entered the screaming tunnels of Pandemonium.

51

 

Matt went first, then Steph, and Dale last. He didn’t bother pulling the door shut behind him, because he knew it would close by itself, just as they always did. Sure enough, when he landed, after sliding and scraping his way down the tight tube, the square of light above him vanished a few moments later, leaving them in suffocating darkness.

The space was so cramped they were all touching each other, but for the first minutes none of them moved. The wind buffeted them from several different directions, but it didn’t sound like wind, it sounded like human screams. It was the most horrible sound Dale had ever heard, and it was so loud in his ears they hurt. He tried to shift around so that he was on all fours, but the tunnel was too cramped, and he ended up bumping into Steph and then sitting in an awkward squat with his back against the wall. What if we die in here, lost in the tunnels? Will our screams join the others? The fear hit him, an ice cold blanket settling on his shoulders.

He leaned closer to Steph and shouted as loud as he could: ‘To hell with this! Tell Matt to pass back the keys and we’ll get out and try something else! There has to be a better way!’

He waited, but she made no response. Damn, but the wind was loud. Then her hand found his and tugged, and he realised she was trying to pull him into one of the interleading tunnels. That could only mean Matt had actually started crawling down one of them. ‘Are you insane! You don’t even know where you’re going, Matt! These could lead anywhere!’ But again, his screams were lost to the wind, and a few moments later he was crawling on all fours, his scalp brushing the ceiling and his elbows clipping the occasional protrusion of rock.

It lasted an eternity. There was no communication, no reassurance that Matt had so much as an inkling where to go beyond a vague notion of where the other door would be in relation to the original trapdoor. Twice Dale had to squint against unexpected light as Matt tried one of the keys in a door and stumbled on one of Zindel’s other worlds, but both times he closed the door a moment later, and they moved on.

Dale’s mouth went dry. The air smelled saltier than the ocean, and it sucked the sweat from his skin, leaving behind a salty residue. His mouth became so dry that his tongue felt like a piece of beef jerky flopping around in his mouth. He was thirstier than he’d ever been, and he was bleeding from a hundred tiny cuts. He bumped his head, his arms, constantly rubbed his knees and feet on the harsh rock. If he could see, he was sure he’d be leaving behind a bloody trail.

Now and again, he squeezed Steph’s hand, and she squeezed back, and he somehow found the strength to crawl on, and on.

They went up and down and as far as Dale was concerned they were lost for good. They would never find their way back to the trapdoor, let alone Zindel’s world. They would simply wonder these tunnels forever, the weight of a whole planet above them and nothing but blackness and screams in front of them, and their skeletons would never be found. And then Matt opened another door and blinding light shone into the tunnel.

Dale squinted ahead, sure the light would vanish again as Matt closed the door, but then he felt Steph tug his hand and he was crawling forward after her, into the brightness. It was impossible, too good to be true, but when he squeezed out of the doorway after her and tumbled into soft, green grass and saw a blue sky above him, he knew they’d done it. They’d found paradise.

50

 

The Silic house, outwardly, was dark and uninhabited, save the car parked in the driveway. Not that anyone was paying attention. Anyone who passed by was either hurrying home before nightfall or lost in their own private daydreams of blood and slaughter and pain. Some were already on their way to insanity, but these were not quite as far down the track as Jordan was, or they would have smelled the pain leaking from his house and been drawn to it like vultures to carrion.

Inside, Jordan took a breather. They had a fridge in the garage, and his father had always kept it very well stocked with beer. He was halfway through the first slab, but he’d been feeling drunk before he’d even started on it. The smell of blood was rich enough to taste in the air, and his head was spinning pleasantly.

‘I’m going to hurt both of you today.’ Jordan said, sipping a beer. ‘Real bad.’ He was sitting on the front of the corvette. Neither of his parents answered. He thought his mother might be unconscious – her head was hanging on her chest. His father just looked dead to the world. Jordan had cut his nose off with the saw and written his name with his long nails in his father’s chest, deep enough to see parts of his ribcage.

‘After that, I’m going to kill as many of the motherfuckers that did this to me – I’m going to kill as many of them as I can. But you’re first. You’re definitely first.’ He chuckled, and sipped more of his beer. When he looked at his father again, Frank Silic had fixed him with one slit eye full of hate.

Jordan decided, when he next got hungry, he was going to cut that one out.

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