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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.

49

 

At first, all Elyse and Brian could do was look up at the sky. It was both frightening and beautiful at the same time, a pitch black background pierced by thousands of red and white lights, some no more than pinpricks, others so large they could have matched earth’s moon for size. How many of those pinpricks were suns, how many planets, and how many were comets large enough to crush this planet? Enough.

‘I think I can see them moving,’ Elyse said after a long while. It was true. Brian squinted up at the closest rock and, after a few minutes, he was almost certain it had moved away from its nearest neighbour. Like watching clouds moving on a day with only the slightest wind.

‘Any one of those up there, no matter where it lands, this whole planet will die,’ Brian said.

‘Maybe. We don’t know what the atmosphere is like here. Maybe most of them will burn up. Or all of them, even. There must be an atmosphere, anyway – we’re breathing, aren’t we?’

‘And they’re burning.’ Every comet they could see had a ring of fire, or a tail running behind it. Hundreds of them were burning up even as they watched, appearing and vanishing in seconds, filling the sky with fireworks.

Finally, they took their eyes away from the scene long enough to absorb the rest of their surroundings, and it was just as Matt and Steph had told them: canyons, mountains and cliffs; a desert without end. The sand was reddish brown, and everything smelled like fire. When he turned to Elyse, she was looking at him, shivering. The air had a chill to it, the kind that crept up on you and slowly worked its way into your bones.

‘We’re not going to die,’ she told him, though he wasn’t sure if she meant it as a question or a statement.

He pulled her in for a hug, though his skin was as ice cold as hers. He could the wild, irregular beat of her heart. ‘All we gotta do is wait, now,’ he said.

‘I know, Brian.’ She pulled away from him, and fixed her brown eyes on his. ‘But what is it we’re waiting for?’

‘Death, maybe. Think about it like this. We’ve been playing Russian Roulette, and we just pulled the trigger. Now we’re waiting to see if a bullet comes out.’

‘That makes me feel much better.’

He cracked a smile, the first in what felt like a very long time, and she smiled back, a shadow of the old Elyse in the curl of those cracked, bleeding lips.

‘Hey, come lie down with me,’ he said. He took her hand and led her a little way – not too far – from the door, and the two of them lay on their backs in the cool sand and stared up at the sky, their heads touching.

‘You know, even if we did die. This isn’t that bad a way to go, huh?’

‘No. I guess it isn’t.’

‘I’m really sorry for, you know, for infecting you.’

‘Forget about it. It’s over.’

‘Yeah. How bad are you, right now?’

‘Pretty bad. I’ve got this, I don’t know, this anger. I want to tear things up, and…’

‘I know what you mean. I know that feeling.’

They were silent for a while.

‘Brian?’

‘Yeah?’

‘How bad are you?’

He squeezed her hand, almost hard enough to break a bone, but she didn’t make a sound. ‘I don’t know if I can make it,’ he said. He swallowed. It was hard to keep his voice steady. ‘I think I might die before that sky falls on us.’

‘Brian? You can hurt me if you need to. If you let me hurt you. Just enough so we don’t… you know, starve.’

His blood was boiling now, but he didn’t reply straight away. They hadn’t come into this world with tools or weapons of any kind, but his nails and teeth had already grown a long way since the last time he cut them. He could smell her skin in the chilled air, and her sweat, and even the dark blood that pumped through her veins.

You never had a choice, anyway, he thought.

48

 

It wasn’t hard to find Diana Zindel. Steph, Matt and Dale went straight from Westlake forest to Westlake library, where they collected as many books on town history as they could find, which amounted to four. Arthur T. Zindel, being a relatively famous author, was mentioned briefly in two of them, not at all in one of them, and extensively in the fourth. In that one, he was described as ‘one of Westlake’s literary triumphs, a man who brought mystery and adventure to adults and children alike.’ That alone didn’t help much, of course, but when Dale reached the last paragraph of the miniature biography, he clapped his hands and grinned up at the other two, who had been scanning through hundreds of pages of detailed and vastly boring Westlake history.

‘What?’ Steph said without looking up. Matt took a break, rubbing his eyes and breathing a long, tired sigh.

‘I got it. I know where he lived.’ Matt stopped mid rub and Steph glanced up, hopeful.

‘Listen to this,’ Dale went on, and cleared his throat: ‘Seven years after his disappearance, an eccentric end to an eccentric life, Zindel’s estate was legally passed on to his youngest daughter, Diana Zindel, who lives in the great Victorian Manor on Ridge Road, Westlake, to this day. Many of his books continue to sell in schools and bookstores all over the  world, and it seems he represents a page in Westlake’s history that will never truly be forgotten, blah blah blah.’

He looked up, and now Steph was grinning back at him, though Matt still looked dubious. ‘What’s the publication date of that book, though?’ he said.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Steph said. ‘We don’t need Diana to be living there. We just need the house, and the doors he left behind.’

‘That’s what I mean,’ Matt continued. ‘What if they knocked it down or something. What if trees got cut down and they dug a hole and filled it with concrete and built something else. What would happen to the doors?’

Dale felt a sour twinge in his stomach, but shook his head. ‘I dunno. But Zindel says destroying the door doesn’t work remember? He mentions trying it in the book, but the door was never gone, it just transferred to something else in the same place. Even if the house is demolished, the doors would still be there somewhere, hidden. It’ll be alright.’

‘Yeah, I remember that,’ Steph said.

‘Well, what the hell are we waiting for, then?’

 

Ridge road was about as far out of Westlake as it was possible to get while still being in the suburb. The road itself rose on a hill whose highest point was far above anywhere else in the area including Westlake park, but there was no view because all the surrounding roads were lined on either sides with tall trees that only let strips of sunlight shine intermittently through their branches.

‘No wonder none of us ever heard of this place,’ Matt said as they struggled up the steep hill to the top of the arch. They’d been walking for close to forty minutes and, with their long pants and sleeves, they were sweating hard. Still, better that than get a fly bite and spend the next few days wondering. ‘It’s a bloody jungle.’

The others saved their breath for the climb, and at last they arrived at the top of Ridge road, where the winding gravel became a straight and pleasant asphalt lane, trees descending steeply to their right and a tall hedge to their left. Dale saw a gap in the hedge up ahead, where a metal gate stood. They stopped in front of it, gentle wind cooling the sweat on their brows, trees rustling all around them, and looked up at the letters engraved in the metal: Z I N D E L

‘Well that was easy,’ Dale said.

The gate was unlocked, and it let out a cringe inducing squeal as they pushed it open. The vision on the other side was much more pleasant, however: the hedges concealed a garden of neatly cut grass and perfectly maintained and colourful flowerbeds, the smell of fresh fertiliser reaching them from across the lawn. There was a pond in one corner and a narrow artificial stream branched off from it and wound its way in a loop around the whole garden and then back again. A clay brick driveway led to the front door of the large house – three stories at least – built from heavy wood and stone.

‘It’s beautiful,’ Steph said.

‘Yeah, well, I dunno about you guys, but every second we spend smelling the roses out here is another one Brian and Elyse spend waiting for the apocalypse,’ Matt said, and without another word he marched up the driveway and knocked on the front door.

The other two stepped up beside him, and when no one answered Dale knocked again.

He’d barely taken his hand away from the door when it swung open, revealing a squat old woman with suspicious slit eyes and a tight lipped mouth. She didn’t relax in the slightest when she saw that they were mere teenagers and not insurance salesmen. ‘Yes?’

For a moment they were all lost for words, and then Steph said: ‘Mrs – Miss… Um, are you Diana Zindel?’

She looked at Steph for a long time, her expression deadpan, Steph holding the smile on her face as best she could. ‘Yes, that’s me.’

‘I…’ Steph looked across at Matt, who gave her a smile of his own and rescued her. Of the three of them, he’d always been the best liar, after all. ‘Mrs. Zindel,’

‘It’s Miss,’ she interrupted.

‘Miss Zindel,’ he went on, unfazed, ‘We are all really big fans of your father’s work – Arthur T. Zindel –

‘What’s his middle name?’

‘Uh… Sorry?’

‘If you’re such big fans, what’s his middle name? What does the T stand for?’

Matt could only stare, and the words were out of Dale’s mind before he could even remember where he’d seen them. ‘Terrence,’ he said. ‘His middle name is Terrence.’

Her face softened slightly as she took in their expressions. ‘Well alright. I’m sorry, it’s just, we’ve had some vandals in the area. Was a little suspicious you might be looking around for things to steal or something. Paranoia. Come in.’

She turned around and walked into the house, leaving the front door open behind her, and the other two looked at Dale, relieved and curious. ‘It’s on the last page of the book,’ he explained. ‘He signs off with his whole name. I just remembered randomly.’

‘Jesus, she’s nuts,’ Matt whispered. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

They followed her into the house, and found her brewing tea in a kettle on the stove. She’d set out four china teacups on the marble counter. The house seemed somehow larger now that they were inside, only sparse furniture here and there, no clutter, barely a speck of dust to be found. Paintings of all kinds lined every wall in the house.

‘So,’ Diana began after a brief silence in which she eyed their long sleeves and thick pants suspiciously. ‘All I know about you is that you are probably not vandals and you are a fan of my grandfather’s. How can I help you?’

Matt took the lead again, and Dale marvelled that he could imagine such detail in the space of mere seconds, and deliver it so convincingly. ‘The thing is, Mrs – Miss Zindel, we found a book of his, Book of Worlds it was called, and well, like I said, we’re all big fans. The reason we’re here now is, like, we want to go on a kind of uh…’ he glanced at the other two, but Dale and Steph just raised their eyebrows. They had no idea where he was going with this. ‘Pilgrimage, that’s the word. We thought the book was really cool, and you know how like, in New Zealand they go on the Lord of the Rings tour, and all that, yeah? We sort of figured wouldn’t it be cool to go around this house and check all the places he mentions in the book. Also…’ And the expression of nervous hopefulness was perfect. Dale couldn’t help but smile. ‘Also we were kind of hoping you might have some more stuff of his. Any unpublished books or things like that? Or keys…’

She passed them each their cup of tea, and led them into the next room, where they sat down on large but uncomfortable wooden chairs. Her mouth showed a hint of a smile now, and Dale felt a surge of hope. She’d known what they were talking about.

‘Well, you really are fans, I can see that now.’

‘That’s for sure,’ Steph put in, nodding. ‘We’re probably his biggest fans.’ Dale saw Matt nudge her foot with his own.

‘And all you want to do is… look around the house? I can’t really remember much of what’s in the book, but…’

‘Oh, you read the book as well?’ Matt said.

‘I read the first few chapters, but my father’s work never particularly caught my imagination. He was just so… fantastical. I was always a very practical girl, never much interested in fiction and magic and all that.’

She caught herself before she said the word nonsense, but Dale saw it. She’s chucked it. Oh, God, she’s thrown the keys away. By the look on his face, Matt was thinking something similar.

‘Oh, not to say there’s anything wrong with it,’ she went on. ‘It just wasn’t for me, personally. I think it irritated my grandfather very much. He was always writing things for me, trying to enchant me, trying to make it all seem real. Sometimes I wonder if his final disappearance wasn’t some silly attempt on his part to make me think he’d gone to another world. To get me into all of that once and for all.’ She smiled and looked down at her tea. ‘Strange man, my father.’

‘Um, so, you didn’t… I mean did you keep anything of his?’ Matt said, literally on the edge of his seat.

‘Oh, listen to me ramble on,’ she said, looking up at them. ‘Of course I kept all of it. I had a feeling someone like you lot might track me down one day. Truth be told, I was hoping some of the things he’d left behind would appreciate in value as the years went by. Doesn’t look like I’m having much luck, though. Anyway, come along and I’ll show you.’

She stood up and was already on her way out of the vast living room, and so didn’t see the looks of utter relief on all of their faces. Dale gave Matt a nod and smile as they started after her. We got this, man.

She took them up to the second floor, a maze of dusty hallways and empty rooms, and into an ancient bedroom. It was large, a window taking up most of one wall and looking out into the rolling back garden, but it felt cramped. The bed was enormous, and a desk of almost the same dimensions stood against one wall. Shelves of books lined every possible inch of spare space. ‘This was his bedroom,’ she explained, heading over to a small cupboard near the window.

‘Bloody hell,’ Dale said, staring at a wall of books. ‘Look how many he wrote. Half of these have his name on them.’ It was true. Standing so close, Dale realised that the thick, musty smell of the room was coming from the books, as though they were developing, becoming richer with age.

‘Yes, he was very prolific. Up at eight o clock every morning, writing almost nonstop until lunch time. You couldn’t have woken him up from those dreamworlds with a sledgehammer. I imagine this might interest you a bit more though, on your pilgrimage.’

They turned to look, and Dale’s heart thumped in his chest. Diana Zindel was holding an unadorned wooden case about the size of a lunchbox. ‘He mentions in the first part of the Book of Worlds the tree where he hid them, and out of curiosity I dug at the foot of it and found this. Like I said, he’d go to any lengths to add realism to his books, just for me.’

She handed the box to Dale, who opened it. There they were, about twenty or so ornately carved keys, done with much more care than any they’d done so far, looped together with a piece of string. Some were bark, some chipped stone, a couple of hard clay, and one even of glass. ‘Wow,’ Steph said. ‘He really made those?’

‘Yes.’ She stood back, watching their reactions with arms folded over her chest, clearly enjoying herself. ‘You can keep them if you want.’

‘Matt swallowed loudly, looking at her with wide eyes. ‘We can… keep them?’

‘Yes, of course. Like I said, I doubt they’d be of much value to anyone else, and I suppose I’ve got enough money I don’t need to take the pocket money from a few teenagers for a box of wood chippings.’

‘Thank you so much, Miss Zindel,’ Dale said. You just saved the world, lady, and you’ll never even know it.

‘Diana is fine,’ she said.

‘Thanks. Oh, right. My name is Dale, that’s Steph and that’s Matt. Sorry, we were just all excited, you know?’

‘That’s fine,’ she said.

‘So, would you mind if we, uh, looked around his room a bit? You never know, he might have hidden more things from the book, right?’

‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ve got a few things to do in the house, so just let me know when you’re ready to go. As it happens I do have a manuscript of his. He disappeared before he published it. I’ll let you have it before you go.’

‘Uh, wow, thankyou so much,’ Steph said.

‘That’s alright. I’ll leave you to it, I suppose.’ She looked them over one more time, as if trying to decide whether she could really trust them alone in her house for more than a few minutes, and then she gave an almost imperceptible nod and left the room. A minute later they heard one of the chairs creak downstairs. She was going to stay by the front door, just in case.

‘That was easy,’ Matt said quietly.

‘That’s because it was the easy part,’ Dale said. He’d dropped to all fours as soon as he was sure she wasn’t coming back, and was now feeling the floorboards with his fingers, as if searching for a loose one.

‘What are you doing?’ Steph said, but by then Matt had caught on and was searching the boards on the other side of the room.

‘Don’t you remember?’ he explained, lifting the small bedside table to check underneath. ‘The door to Pandemonium? It was a trapdoor, in his bedroom.’ So they searched in silence until they’d covered every inch of floor they could find, inhaling enough dust along the way to insulate a house, when Steph suggested they move the bed. Dale leaned against a bookshelf, massaging his scalp, and nodded. ‘She might hear, though,’ he said, glancing up at Matt, who simply replied: ‘We’ll tell her the truth. We were looking for a door from the book. She already thinks we’re weird, doesn’t she?’

The bed was made of some dark, dense wood, but Dale and Matt managed to lift the bottom half off the ground so it didn’t make a sound, and move it until it almost touched one of the walls. The trapdoor was there, deep scratches in a clear square in the wood, and a small hole in the middle. For a minute, the three of them stood in the dusty, cramped room, and stared at the floor. On the bedside table, an old alarm clock ticked the seconds loudly away.

‘Pretty funny, when you think about it,’ Matt said, smiling.

‘What?’ Dale said.

‘Everyone’s scared of monsters hiding under their bed, and this guy straight up opens a portal to hell under his, like, on purpose. Right?’

Dale and Steph just stared at Matt, and his smile faded. ‘I guess it’s not that funny.’

Dale put the box down and took out the key ring. It wasn’t hard to find the right key – small and sharply cut, and the only one made of the same varnished wood as the floor. He dropped to his knees and pushed it into the tiny lock, the other two standing over him, and heard the familiar, satisfying click as he turned it.

‘You guys ready?’

Neither of them answered, so he pulled open the trapdoor. The three of them looked down into the square hole. It was absolutely, totally black, the kind of darkness that not even the sun in all its blinding brilliance could illuminate. Impenetrable, all consuming.

‘So,’ Steph said in a shaky voice. ‘Who’s first?’

47

 

Frank Silic knew his son was bad, but not in any evil or unnatural sense. Had that been the case, he would have surrendered Jordan to the system, sent him to the shrinks and the juvenile prisons and all the rest of it. But Jordan reminded him too much of himself for him to believe that. Frank had been an angry boy, too, and sometimes he’d been mad enough to want to kill human beings, let alone dogs. He’d never done it, but it was the same thing, wanting it that bad, and the only way to keep a boy like that in line was to beat him good and hard. If it weren’t for the beatings he himself suffered as a boy, Frank was certain he’d have gone down different roads in life, darker ones and dangerous ones, and he wasn’t going to let that happen to Jordan, not if he had to break his arms.

The house was quiet when he came home from work, which was odd. Usually Dina would have started dinner by now, there’d be pans and pots boiling on the stove and the radio would be on, and her high pitched, off key voice would be sailing out the window. But the kitchen windows were dark and silent, today.

Feeling uneasy, he pushed open the front door and called out his wife’s name. The house was dim, not a light on anywhere, and there was no reply. He closed the door behind him and stood for a few moments in the house. Her car was here, so either she was out walking at this hour – which was a very un-Dina like activity in the first place – or… what? Jordan was probably still up in his room with plaster casts on his arms. The doctor hadn’t given Frank so much as a second glance when he told him his son had got in a bad fight. That was becoming a lot more common in Westlake these days.

His shoes echoing on the tiles, Frank walked slowly through the house, turning on lights. ‘Jordan? Where’s your mother?’ He ducked into the sitting room and saw everything in place, perfectly clean. Wherever she was now, Dina had been busy earlier. The house looked spotless. The hallways and kitchen were mopped, the laundry and bathroom shining.

Jordan wasn’t in his room, nor anywhere else in the house. ‘Where the hell are you, boy?’ he grumbled, thumping back down the stairs. Maybe she’d taken him out somewhere and bought him something to compensate for the punishment he’d received. Typical of Dina to undermine his authority. No wonder the kid was growing up so messed up, every punishment he got was followed by a reward. Frank headed to the garage, the only room in the house he hadn’t checked, although he didn’t expect to find them there.

The adjoining door was in the hall at the bottom of the stairs, a creaky wooden thing that always took a few hard shoves to get open. Frank got it open on the second and flipped the light switch on the right of the door. The fluorescent light bulb flickered twice, and in those moments the scene in the garage was illuminated, flashes of horror that froze him to the spot. Flash – Dina, dangling with her hands tied to one of the rafters overhead, unconscious, face bloody. Flash – gardening implements, power tools, knives, screwdrivers and saws in a haphazard array spread over the roof and bonnet of the corvette Frank had been tinkering with for the past five years – his baby.

Then the light came on completely and he saw it all at once, and now Dina was blinking, her head rising to look at him, face beaten worse than anything he’d ever done to her, which was saying something. Her eyes were wide and bloodshot, and when she saw him standing there they filled with total fear, as if he’d done it to her.

He opened his mouth, not sure what the hell he was going to say, when she screamed: ‘Frank he’s in the broom cupboard!’ and then his eyes went black for a split second and he was on the concrete floor, both arms in front of his face.

He rolled over and saw Jordan standing in the doorway, the door of the broom cupboard just across the hall swinging open on a broken hinge. His son was grinning wide enough to stretch the skin all over his face and show narrow teeth, spaced too far apart and jammed in dry gums. He’d lost the plaster casts, but his arms weren’t exactly healed – when he lifted the hammer he was holding to rest it on his shoulder a shard of bone shot through an open wound in his elbow, dripping black blood.

Frank scrambled backwards until he ran into the car and then pulled himself to his feet. He kept his eyes on Jordan, which was hard enough the way the world was swimming in front of him, but Jordan didn’t move and a moment later he had his hands on a hatchet that was leaning against the car’s windscreen – the same one that Jordan had killed the dog with, in fact.

‘Hey, Dad,’ Jordan said. He stepped into the garage and shut the door behind him. Frank struggled to concentrate. Why did Jordan look so strange? He looked huge, ropy black veins coiling all over his body like snakes. His eyes bulged out of his head.

‘I’m gonna kill you,’ Frank said thickly, aware of warm blood spilling down the back of his neck.

Jordan didn’t say anything, but Dina had enough voice for all of them, and she began to scream in her high pitched, off key tenor with everything she had, and at that moment Frank could have kissed her. ‘Hellllllp us someone pleassseeese!’

Jordan had moved from the doorway, and before the first word was out of Dina’s mouth he’d sunk a large fist into his father’s midsection. The world shrank to a pinpoint instantly and Frank was on a ball on the floor, breathless. He’d never been hit that hard in his whole life, not by anyone. The hatchet was loose in one hand, but he forced himself to hold on. Dina’s scream whined in both ears: ‘Pleeeeeeeeaaaa – ’ And then it cut off, though Frank’s ears continued to ring in the silence.

A ropy, impossibly hard forearm curled around his neck and squeezed, and less than a minute later the last pinprick of light in Frank’s eye winked out.

46

 

When they arrived in the forest, there was nobody there. There were plenty of doors, though. In a rough circle around the original door, the one that was theoretically closed, there were about ten others carved in the surrounding trees, and no way of telling which one Matt and Steph were in, or for how long they were likely to be there. It didn’t matter. Elyse used the time to tell Brian everything.

‘They want to lock us away somewhere?’ he said, when she told him about her last conversation with Steph. ‘No way! Look what happened in the last world. It’s a death sentence. Better off leaving us here, we can hole up somewhere and just wait it out.’

She gave him a cold look, and he took a step back. ‘What?’

‘Look at yourself, Brian.’

Of course, he didn’t have to. His torn body said everything. ‘You’re losing your mind,’ she said, ‘And so am I.’

‘If we let them lock us away, Elyse… You really think that’s a good idea, the way we are?’

She didn’t flinch. Hands in her pockets, hair over her shoulder, she told him the way it was, like always. ‘If they don’t lock us away, we’re going to hurt someone.’

He opened his mouth to tell her that was absurd, that it wasn’t as though they were a couple of puppets dancing around, that if he didn’t want his hand to pick up a knife and cut someone it wouldn’t – and then he thought of the kid on the bench. How much of my thoughts are still mine, anyway? So he said nothing, just took her hand in his and stood there with her, waiting.

They couldn’t have stood for more than a minute when one of the doors clicked open and Steph and Matt stepped through. They closed the door behind them and Matt looked up, noticing them for the first time.

‘You guys look like hell,’ Brian said. It was true. Matt seemed to have lost about five kilos, his face was pale and full of tiny scratches, his hair a bird’s nest; Steph had a similar sickly look and she had a gash on one arm that was crusted over with dried blood. She gave a tiny smile at the sight of Brian but didn’t come near him. She looked afraid.

‘Man am I glad to see you guys,’ Matt said, slapping Brian on the shoulder and forcing a smile of his own. ‘You would not believe the places we’ve been.’

Brian looked around at the doors, trying to count them all and then seeing that some trees had as many as three carved into their trunks, some only big enough to crawl through. ‘I can imagine.’

‘Believe me,’ Matt said. ‘You can’t.’

‘Did you get your blood test?’ Steph asked, but Elyse shook her head. She glanced at Brian, and it occurred to him she was about to tell them where he’d been and what he’d been doing. He spoke before she could answer. ‘There’s no time for that. Me and Elyse gotta get out of here soon. As in, today.’

Steph and Matt exchanged worried glances. ‘What do you mean? What happened?’ she said.

‘It doesn’t matter. Have you guys found a place yet? Anywhere decent, it doesn’t matter. We just need to be away from… Earth.’

But Steph looked at the ground and Matt shook his head. ‘It’s not that easy, man. I mean, half the places are deadly. Just stepping in places and looking around, we’ve almost been eaten like five times, crushed once, drowned a couple, and I almost fell out of a tree like a hundred meters tall.’

‘They can’t all be like that, though?’ Elyse said. ‘Why would all of them be so hostile?’

‘No, it’s not all of them. Those were the bad ones. We found a couple that were really barren, but they were both fast worlds. You two would probably be long dead by the time we figured anything out on this end.’

‘So what are the slow worlds, then? There has to be something, right?’ Brian asked.

Another worried glance. They didn’t say anything.

‘What? Come on.’

‘There is the last one, the one we just came from,’ Matt said. ‘It was a slow world.’

‘Yeah,okay… So?’

Matt shrugged and looked at his feet, and in the end it was Steph who came out and said it. ‘It’s dying. We think it’s an apocalypse.’

‘You think it’s – what?’

‘An apocalypse,’ she said again. ‘The door opens up in this big valley, mountains and canyons everywhere like a desert. We couldn’t see any life around, but there were a bunch of really tall trees in the distance and Matt said he could see a river, but it looked like a mirage to me.’

‘Okay, what about the apocalypse thing?’

‘The sky,’ Matt said slowly, ‘is full of rocks.’

‘He means meteors, or comets or whatever they’re called,’ Steph said. ‘We thought they were stars at first, because they were so bright, but then Matt saw they had these tails on them and we realised they were comets, coming in through the planet’s atmosphere. Hundreds of them.’

‘Thousands,’ Matt said.

‘Yeah, maybe thousands. Some of them were really big, too.’

‘Oh, man.’ Brian was staring at the door they’d just come through. If a meteorite crashed into that door, would the force of it break through to earth or was it impossible for anything to cross over as long as it was locked?

‘Come on, guys,’ Elyse said. ‘You’re kidding, right? That’s the best world? None of the others were better than a bloody apocalypse?’

Matt shrugged. ‘Half of ‘em were fast worlds. More than half, even. Then there were all the ones with horrible monsters in them, and suffocating gases. There was this giant castle one we thought could work, but then we explored a little further and…he shuddered. ‘I’m gonna have nightmares about that one.’

‘The apocalypse world is twenty to one, guys,’ Steph said. ‘It’s the best we’ve found so far. Plus, the comets were still, you know, far away – ish. I would have given them a few days to hit at least, which could translate to like, months of Earth time.’

‘Far away – ish?’ Brian said. He looked from her to Matt, and though they didn’t reply, his heart sank quickly. They meant it. They really meant it.

‘That’s the best world you’ve got?’

‘There must be better ones out there, I guess, but…’ Matt shrugged. ‘We won’t find them without looking for who knows how long. And I gotta be honest, Brian, I’ve risked my life more times in the past twenty four hours than most people do their whole lives.’

‘He’s right, Brian,’ Elyse said quietly beside him. She took his hand in his and squeezed gently. ‘It’s time to go.’

45

 

Dale didn’t leave the house that day. His windows were closed, and he’d spent the morning spraying the entire house with Raid, making sure the fly nets were up. He explained to his parents and older sister that there was a new insect-borne disease doing the rounds which made you vomit for days on end. When he thought they were sufficiently convinced, he went into his room and read Book of Worlds cover to cover for the second time.

When he finished, he dropped it on the carpet and put his head in his hands. He was still like that an hour later when the answer came to him, arriving in his mind unannounced, like he’d had the thought all along and hadn’t acknowledged it until now. It came in the form of a quote from the book, in the chapter titled Letter to Diana: To get to heaven, one must first cross hell. What hell, Dale wondered, had the author been thinking of? Pandemonium, of course.

To find Zindel, they would have to enter Pandemonium, find the door that led to the paradise land he lived in now (Dale was almost certain it was a place called Grale), and search for him there. To get to Pandemonium, they’d have to find out where Zindel had lived all these years. Considering he was a well known author and must have lived near Westlake for his original handwritten book to end up in the school library, that couldn’t be too difficult.

He sat up at last, heart beginning to beat steadily with renewed hope. There was something he could do, after all. It seemed almost too simple, but then Zindel had really wanted his daughter to find him, hadn’t he? He didn’t want to make the riddle too hard – just hard enough that she’d have to put in a little effort to figure it out. Yeah.

He reached for his phone, then hesitated. They would be in the forest, still looking for places. Better to meet up with them, first – safety in numbers, especially with a nutter like Jordan walking around. He stood up, snatched the copy of the book, and headed out. He wore long sleeves, because the flies were out.

44

 

Brian was in a bad place. There had been a period, one that had lasted far longer than it should have, in which he’d convinced himself that he could coexist with the parasite. Control it, even use it to his advantage. But he had been wrong, and he knew that now.

He was standing in front of the mirror in his bathroom, looking at a monster. His veins were prominent and dark, capillaries spreading over every inch of him like black cobwebs. There was not an ounce of fat on him, but his muscles were ropy and dense, giving him the odd misshapen look of a starved bodybuilder. He’d just tried to file down his teeth – the fifteen or so that remained at any rate, but the result was broken looking stubs that were still as sharp as pins. He had successfully cut his nails that morning, but the process had been deliciously painful and there had been blood. His eyes were huge in his skull, and he no longer felt the need to blink. They missed nothing, and his sense of smell and earing were tuned to the sounds of life for kilometres in every direction. He was living in a different world.

The time had at last come when he could not feed from himself, and it wasn’t just because his whole body was torn, burned and cut, many of the wounds still open and oozing blood. He’d caught and killed a rat from under the house, and while he’d taken his time, he doubted the satisfaction would last longer than a couple of days. Then what? Two rats? A cat? It would be that or die, he knew.

It was a hot day, but Brian left the house dressed in a black hooded jumper and track pants. It would only take a casual glance at him for someone to see something was badly wrong. His blood temperature had dropped several degrees, so the heat didn’t bother him too much. Nothing came close to matching the furnace inside him, anyway.

He meant to go for a walk, maybe through Westlake. It was hard to think, these days, but walking helped. Today was no different, or it wasn’t at first. He went, shoulders hunched, eyes fixed only on the next few feet of the path, past the cliffs, the forest, the lake for which Westlake was originally named. Over one of the rolling hills (on the opposite side of the lake to the one on which the boy Zane was almost murdered), and then out through a low wooden gate and onto Caspian street. Everywhere seemed deserted, though it was school holidays. People were getting scared, even in broad daylight.

After the park, he let his mind drift and his feet took him in their own direction. He thought mostly of Elyse, and also of death. A dark, quiet part of his mind reminded him that there was always suicide, but another part asked: what about her? It was a difficult question to answer, and he still hadn’t come to any kind of satisfactory solution, or any solution for that matter, when he realised he hadn’t moved for some time.

He was at Westlake primary, only that was impossible: he had started out barely an hour ago, hadn’t he? And even at a jog, it would have taken almost two hours to reach the school from his house. He took his phone out of his pocket at checked the time. One thirty. He’d left the house at one. Not possible. I wasn’t running… was I?

It was holiday time for the year tens and above at Westlake High School, but the primary schoolers didn’t finish the year until mid December. It was lunchtime, and children flooded the school oval in their dark blue uniforms and red hats, playing cricket and chasey and yelling at the tops of their voices. Behind the cricket nets the ground sloped steeply away to meet a wooden fence, and gum trees blocked this area from the metal fence and the road beyond that. Brian stood there, hidden in the shade. I don’t remember hopping that fence.

But he didn’t move. Instead, he leaned against a tree near the nets and watched the children play. There were no particular thoughts in his mind as he stood there. It was becoming harder to focus, and more and more his default state was one of passive receptiveness. He moved in reaction to things, acted according to instinct and gut feeling, and as a result patches of life were blind to his memory, like the walk to the primary school, for instance. Time flies when you’re having fun, a voice said in his mind, out of nowhere.

In the short time he watched, two fights broke out in the schoolyard. The first one wasn’t so bad, two of the older boys laying into each other over a disagreement in their game of soccer. A teacher standing at the sandpit intervened fast enough, though with her back turned she missed a younger boy holding another’s head in the sand, laughing and shoving sand in his mouth until he choked and coughed it out, crying. The second fight started near the jungle gym, and it was four on three, two of them girls, and there was plenty of blood before a couple of teachers managed to tear them apart and march them up to the sick bay. One girl had blood running from her ear, but she wasn’t crying. In fact, all the kids were smiling. One of the teachers hit a boy on the back of the head, quite hard, for no reason.

There was only the sandpit teacher left, now, and she was preoccupied with those trouble makers, already settling another dispute between two boys who’d kicked over each other’s sandcastles. Brian’s gaze moved to a boy sitting on a bench not far away. He was alone, snapping twigs in his hands and placing them beside him in some pattern Brian couldn’t discern. An outcast.

It would be so easy, wouldn’t it? One arm around the neck, hand over the mouth, and pull backwards. They’d go rolling down to the bottom of the slope. Then he would get on top, collapse the airway with a well aimed fist, break some ribs into lungs with another, and then get to work. It’d all be over in a few minutes, sure, but what minutes they’d be! He’d once eaten half a chicken in less than ten minutes, this would be like that. Rushed, but satisfying nevertheless.

Brian stood and stared at the kid, his eyes boring into him until he was sure the kid had to look around, had to feel the hairs on his neck pricking up or something, but he didn’t. It was so long, didn’t the lunch bell go at two? But when Brian checked his phone it was just one forty.

He broke out in a cold sweat. All his sweats were cold, these days. He clenched his fists, unclenched them, looked at the road, then back at the kid, then up at the blue sky. Maybe if he did it, he wouldn’t remember it. He’d have one of those mini blackouts, and then when he came to he wouldn’t have to blame himself. He could blame it on the parasite. It was still horrible, sure it was, but at least then he could still live with himself. If he blacked out, it was the parasite working, not him. He’d have a free conscience and he wouldn’t be so damn hungry anymore.

The boy took his hat off and swept the sticks into it, and then put it on the bench. He said something to himself in a low voice, and then looked out across the oval, hand over his eyes. A girl was pulling another girl’s hair and making her cry.

Brian took a step forward, then took a step back. He curled an arm around the tree and gripped it, hard, as though a hurricane was imminent and it was the only thing rooting him to the earth. Think, Brian. What the are you thinking, man? Think about where you are, what you’re doing. Get the fuck out of here.

But he didn’t move. Slowly, his arm relaxed and fell back by his side, and then he was just standing and staring again, eyes fixed on the boy to the exclusion of all else, leaning so far forward he might fall on his face at any second. A tear rolled down his cheek. His teeth were gritted so hard his jaw hurt, and they were sharp enough to cut into his gums.

A hand fell on his shoulder.

He turned, shocked that someone had managed to sneak up on him, when he could hear conversations happening on the other side of the oval and smell the sweat on the skins of a hundred children. Hell, he still had the tang of blood in his nostrils from that last fight, yet here she was, right next to him, looking into his eyes like an angel from heaven: Elyse.

‘Brian, what are you doing here?’

He let out a breath of relief and pulled her into a tight embrace, feeling her heart beating almost as fast as his. She smelled like oranges and blood.

‘Thank Christ you’re here,’ he whispered, his voice harsh. He led her further down the slope, deeper into the shadows. She looked at his tear stained face and just shook her head. ‘Oh, Brian. What are you doing?’

‘I don’t know. I just want this to end, you know?’ He looked at the grass at watched a tear fall onto one green blade.

‘It’ll end soon.’

He looked up at her, and behind the same despair he felt, the same helplessness, he saw hope. ‘What do you mean? Your blood test?’

‘Not back yet. Steph and the others, they figured some things out. We’re gonna meet them in the forest today.’

‘Oh, man.’ He hugged her again, and although the relief was there, it was nothing more than a little cold water on a burn. The dread would return soon enough. And the hunger. He kissed her, and she kissed him back for a minute or so before she pulled back.

‘There isn’t much time, is there?’ she asked.

He looked at her full, red lips, and thought about how nice it would be to eat them off her face, maybe draw one of his long nails across her unblinking eyes, and he shook his head. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said.

She took his hand, and they left the school grounds and the screaming children behind. The kid on the bench didn’t see them go.

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