The WallI happened
to pass here
to pass here
The Wall I happened
to pass here
to pass here
by AD Ross
by AD Ross
Heavy footsteps, getting closer. Laura tried again, pushing all her weight down onto the rusted bar. It creaked defiantly and refused to move. The fire door would not open.
He appeared at the end of the corridor. Two desperate, feral eyes, on a face that was half a child’s, fixed upon her. Stoop-shouldered yet lanky, he towered over her, tall as she was. He came, lurching, muttering incoherently.
Laura watched hipproach. He seemed to shift between dimensions; colours strobed along the short blade of the knife he held; his uneven strides lost speed until he staggered in slow motion. She was transfixed, the rusted bar loose in the grip of her fingers.
Dreamlike was the movement. The fire door swung open. To reality, Laura returned; harsh and jarring was her landing. She bolted. He followed.
The sky was blood. Laura noted the oddness but did not stop. She was no stranger to odd. True, this was a notch above usual, but he was still coming, his intent murderous. Time to ponder colour-spectrum hallucinations later.
Ahead were the southern blocks, looming ominously, drab municipal obelisks set against the crimson. She scanned for someone, anyone. The concrete expanse was inexplicably depopulated; debris-strewn more than was normal.
There was a scream, shrill, terrified.
Laura kept running, no matter how the effort burned. She would not be a victim, not here.
Another scream. It sounded like a small child’s.
Now she spared a glance. Something had intervened.
Its shape was vast and eldritch, a lurching, scorpion-like form of rotted timbers, a driftwood chimera. It had emerged from a great mound of refuse, an otherworldly vermin of monstrous proportions.
Trapped in a pincer, he was little prey, lifted easily from the asphalt. He sobbed and begged for his mother. His mother wasn’t coming. Curiously, it shook him and then prodded him with a probing protuberance. He didn’t try to fight back, he just cried. The driftwood chimera was unmoved by his tears.
Laura had stopped running. She watched in horrified fascination.
The driftwood chimera forced him to the ground, pinning his chest with an arachnid limb. The protuberance groped its way into his mouth, forcing his lips open. Teeth closed defensively. The appendage drew back and rammed its way inside, shattering enamel.
Laura scanned the open space between the three towers. Nobody was around, nobody watching, nobody filming with a mobile phone. Her phone had no signal. On the horizon, great pillars of smoke rose to the bloody heavens. The estate had turned from shithole to apocalyptic wasteland. She must’ve forgotten her meds, yet she’d never felt so clearheaded, so corporeal.
His cries were choked out now. The only sound above the low hum of the wind was the wooden creak of the chimera as it shook its vast body rhythmically. She couldn’t help him, even if she wanted to.
With an eye on the driftwood chimera, she made for home.
* * *
The inside of her block was as deserted as the concrete expanse. She crept through corridors of bloodstained dilapidation. Doors were smashed open, violent struggle was much in evidence.
Laura peered through a broken doorframe on the fifth floor. There was no sign of Mrs McKinley. The sofa was upturned, the TV alive with static, the oven sparking, but no one was present. She stifled a sob and backed out into the corridor. The carpet squelched sickly beneath the thick soles of her boots.
Her own front door was untouched. She slipped her key into the lock. It turned reluctantly, sticking and creaking mutinously. She rushed in as quickly as the door would open and locked it behind her.
Her back to the door, Laura examined the hallway. It was different. Old paint flaked from the walls. The threadbare carpet bore an entirely incorrect pattern. She edged forward, into the living room. The furniture was old and passingly familiar. Discarded on the floor was a picture-frame. She picked it up, turned it over, and looked. Her father, impossibly, stood beside his daughter, who looked not at all dysfunctional.
Laura sat in an armchair for some time, staring out of the window, watching ashen clouds move across the crimson backdrop of the sky. The picture lay in her lap.
Hunger drove her to the kitchen. The fridge was empty and smelt foul. In the cupboard, she found a box of stale crackers and a half-empty bottle of cheap gin. In the tired armchair, she feasted on the crackers and sipped the rough spirit from the bottle.
Outside, the red of the sky deepened. She moved to the windowsill and perched. Below, the driftwood chimera still had him. Its movements were faster, sharper. It reared back its great arachnid head; limbs stretched out exultantly. Done, it released him, pulled its appendage from his mouth, and returned satisfied to its refuse pile, settling atop it.
Landed-fishlike, he wriggled for freedom; spitting broken teeth, fingers tugging at great clumps of hair, as if determined to pull them from his scalp. Pitiless, she observed.
Voices echoed in the wind. He heard, as did she.
They emerged from behind the new houses on Culver Street, scavengers, spears in hand. They saw him before he saw them. None looked up to see Laura. From her perch, for the longest time, she took them for people. Actual, living people. They were not.
He stretched out his hand toward them, in mute appeal, until closer, he could see what they were. He shrivelled up and covered his head with his arms, hunkering down to the concrete like he expected to be enveloped. Laughing, they surrounded him.
Their leader looked up to survey the three towers. Guttural, inhuman, his voice came: “Warmth!”
Laura saw his face. A face not of flesh, but of mottled stone, with gleaming jewels in place of eyes.
“Lurker!” another gravel voice declared.
From atop its trash-pile, the driftwood chimera lurched, swishing its pincers menacingly. It would not relinquish its prize.
The stone scavengers lowered their spears and jabbed at the great beast, keeping it back, whilst their leader grabbed the overgrown boy by the arms. The chimera smashed down a driftwood pincer angrily, reducing a humanoid figure to rubble and dirty clothes. It pursued the band as far as the new houses and then fell back, frustrated and thwarted. It turned over its trash-pile and stalked the concrete expanse aimlessly, putting Laura in mind of a child, pouting because it had lost its favourite toy. Finally, sulkily, the chimera settled and there was nothing else to see. Laura retreated from the window.
* * *
Laura’s room looked as it once had; a time so far back that its reappearance dredged with it a haul of buried memories. The stuffed rabbit was a Christmas present. Sitting cross-legged, beside a short, artificial tree, sparsely decorated with tinsel, she had received it. Her father smiled. He rarely did. The rabbit should be in a charity shop somewhere, not sitting on the pillow. She swatted it to the floor.
Her drawings of nightmarish creatures from other times and places were nowhere in evidence; nor were her meds. The bathroom cabinet was cleared out. There would be no chemical escape from this hallucination. She exhaled slowly. So many times she’d called down an apocalypse, she felt an uncanny lack of surprise at all this, as if she were responsible. No doubt it was that childish predilection to believe the fanciful, to escape into fantasies, which she’d never been able to fully cast aside. It was dangerous. Dr Randall told her so, warned her not to reject reality.
She slept. There was nothing else to do.
In dream, the sky was blue again, at least behind the grey veil of the clouds. Her mum watched TV. A boy was missing. His mother cried for the camera; her mum rolled her eyes, coldly. A bad family; always had been. Drugs, gangs. This was inevitable. No sympathy. Laura leaned against the kitchen counter, eating a slice of toast. She’d be late for college if she didn’t leave soon, but the TV caught her attention. She wandered over to see. Fear cut through the dream.
Laura woke at the sight of the overgrown boy’s face and the sky was still blood.
There was no more food. The crackers were all gone and so was the gin. Brown, shitty water came from the taps in glops and spurts.
“Oh, fuck a duck sideways,” she muttered. She had to leave soon.
Delaying the inevitable, she opened her mum’s bedroom door. There was a double bed. That should be gone, replaced by a single. More photos, her father in many. She gazed down at the grandest upon the dresser. In the picture, they were a family. They’d never been a family.
The wasteland seemed more appealing now. She took a deep breath before the front door and moved her key to the lock.
The door rocked. She jumped back, startled. There was another heavy knock.
“You gonna’ let me in, or what?”
She hesitated. The voice belonged to an Englishman and was unfamiliar.
Unfamiliar, yet welcome.
Treading lightly, carefully, she moved to the peephole. In the corridor was a man with a heavy pack slung over his shoulder, wearing an army surplus jacket over faded black clothes; his dress sense almost a mirror of hers. His unshaven face was drawn, fatigued. Dried blood caked his hands. Some crazy little voice at the back of her mind said it was good to see him.
“How’d you know my name?” Immediately she took a step back and cursed silently. Why did she have to speak?
“It’d be a bit strange if I didn’t.” Through the peephole, she saw him glance over his shoulder. It looked like a casual gesture, but somehow, she knew it wasn’t. “I’d like to come in now please.”
“What the hell’s going on?”
“You don’t know?” He turned his back to the door, and she heard his mumbled curses.
“Can you get me out of here?”
“I came here to ask you that.” That was quiet, not meant for her to hear. He raised his voice; “I don’t know, but we can help each other.”
“Why should I trust you?” The crazy little voice was insisting that she could and should trust him. She tried to ignore it.
He shrugged, incredulous. “Do you think you have much choice?”
She hesitated and turned to look over her shoulder at the uncanny state of the hallway and the empty kitchen beyond it. With a defeated sigh, she turned the key, tensing herself, anticipating an attack. Yet the sight of him, standing in the corridor, smiling tiredly made her relax, made her feel safer than she had in years. He stepped over the threshold like he was home.
* * *
Black beans, from the tin, had never tasted so sweat. So much better than stale crackers and cheap gin.
He sat in the chair opposite, not eating, frowning. He’d expected to find more supplies, not share the little that remained.
“You’re not a shadow, I wouldn’t have felt your presence if you were. So that means you’re off your own branch, but you haven’t woken up yet.” He glanced up at the ceiling for a moment, summoning patience. “Do you still have your key?”
She finished the beans first. “What?”
“You used a key, to get here, to this branch. Tried it on a door, any door; came through, found yourself here, in this version of the world. Do you still have it?”
He leaned forward expectantly. She pointed toward her keys, deposited on the side table.
He shook his head irritably, as though he were speaking to an idiot. “No, your key.”
“What the hell is going on?” She straightened in her seat; narrowed her eyes determinedly. “You don’t seem surprised at any of this shit.”
“You lost the key, didn’t you?” His jaw clenched in exasperation.
She exploded from the chair. “I don’t have any key! I don’t know what the hell is going on, and I want you to tell me.” She turned away, cheeks burning. The outbursts had to be controlled. Dr Randall said that was crucial. If only her meds were here.
He stood and spoke gently. “You went through a door, didn’t you? It was normal before you stepped through and then, suddenly, it was like you’d walked through the devil’s sphincter. Whole world gone to shit, right?”
She didn’t turn around. Fingers sought the comfort of her hair, thick bundles of it to pull. Recalling the fear stung. She was not a victim.
A hand rested on her shoulder. She looked down, the urge to swat it away absent; the revulsion at being touched mysteriously vanished. If even her mother did this, her skin would crawl. She should be flailing, trying to claw out this strange man’s eyes, yet the touch felt no different to her own. She stared at the hand and some crossed wire, that crazy little voice, said it was her own.
“Did someone try to hurt you?”
She pulled away, dismissing the crossed wires’ weird signals. “He said he’d cut me up, and he gave it a try.” She grimaced and snorted. “But instead, he got mouth-fucked by a giant wooden scorpion and I’m not sorry.”
“A Lurker?” He sucked air between his teeth. “Ooh, nasty.”
She drifted toward the window. Down below, the driftwood beast was still pacing, inconsolable at the loss of its prize.
“So, you’re being chased, but you didn’t have your key with you?”
Irritated, she answered: “I already told you no key.”
He tilted his head, impressed, maybe even proud. “You opened a doorway without it.”
“You still haven’t told me what’s going on,” she said, moving back toward him. “Don’t tell me you don’t know either. You’re way too casual, like all this shit is just normal-everyday to you.”
“Well yeah, this isn’t too far from a normal Thursday for me,” he said with a shrug. “Usually in a situation like this, where you haven’t woken up yet, I’d leave quietly and not say anything; but I dropped my key in a lake full of glass piranha, so I don’t have that luxury right now. So just brace yourself Laura, I’m gonna’ come right out with it.
“You have powers. You’re special. More than human. You can open doorways to other times and places, other branches on the tree that is the time-space continuum. You’re Amaranthine, unfading, ever constant, undying, above all the petty little humans in your life, this current life, which is just one shit example from an impressively vast collection.” He grinned and gestured ever more extravagantly with his hands as he spoke.
Laura glared back at him unamused, her face stony. He frowned and changed tact.
“Or maybe you’re just delusional, and I’m a figment of your imagination. Either way you need to get us both out of here. To do that we need your key. Your shadow on this branch should have a copy. You know the one I mean ... if you really think about it.”
Laura squinted out at the bloody sky, the apocalyptic rendering of her everyday world, so much like the scenes she liked to draw; hoping to see through it, to the normal, which must be hiding beneath. The ravaged world refused to dissolve, remained defiantly extant. She closed her eyes, defeated, feeling a wash of despair building within her ...
And then she saw it, in her mind’s eye. The key, and with it, the compass.
* * *
They were a gift, from whom, no one could say. Yet her mum insisted they were important. She usually scorned the fantastical, mocked sentimentality, but an otherworldly gleam came into her eyes whenever the subject of the key and the compass came up. When questioned, she seemed genuinely no better informed than anyone else, but raise the idea of selling the odd items and there would be rage, incorporeal rage. It’s your birthright – blink – I don’t know what that means – blink – but it is!
Laura didn’t like the key or the compass. The vibration in her eyeballs started around those things, no matter how recently she’d taken her meds. She was trying to avoid crazy; the key and the compass were lunacy forged in silver, plated in gold. If she wasn’t smart, she’d swear they were under some enchantment. But if she were smart, she’d recognise that was just delusion; Dr Randall agreed.
She wanted to be smart, to realise that she hadn’t stepped through a doorway into hell. Except that meant her grasp on reality had literally dissolved and she might be destined to spend the rest of her life running from the monsters in her mind, bumping unknowingly into padded walls.
“Maybe the key is just a metaphor, in your mind. One you need to wake up,” he said, smiling reassuringly.
Laura said nothing, nodded, went back to emptying the packed suitcases she’d found under her mother and father’s marital bed. Somehow, it was unsurprising he could tell what she was thinking. The crazy little voice insisted that she could tell what he was thinking too, if she paid attention. She held back from trying, a little afraid of success.
“It’s not here,” she said. The declaration was final, incontrovertible, though there were still suitcases and drawers to search.
“You remember something?”
“They ran. Camps, for refugees, on the news, before ...” Laura trailed off. Dimly, she could see the block before the sky bled, alive with fear and panic. Mrs McKinley refusing to go. This will all blow over; you’ll see, but not before the looters have had everything you own. She’d been here, normal, a happy daughter; no meds. Her father said they had to go. It would get worse. Ultimately running had made no difference.
“In your travels, you saw camps, outside the city.” It was not a question. Without meaning to, she had looked into his memories. “Dominus, you walked right past it.” She chuckled; it was so much like him.
“So, you remember me, now?” He’d never mentioned the name he liked to use.
She scowled, retreating in her mind, retreating from the flashes of impossible, bloodstained adventures, as enticing as they were terrifying. “We’ve never met before. I wanna’ go home. I need my pills.” She was normal, just ... imaginative, suggestible. Dr Randall said so.
Dominus mirrored her scowl and stood. “Pack up anything you need. We’ll go soon.”
* * *
In sullen silence, they prepared to depart. Laura froze. She could hear something scraping against the exterior cladding outside the window. Dominus looked up, and without speaking or giving any visible sign, told her to get back. She reacted without hesitation, as if his instincts were now hers.
It came through the windowpane, a writhing mass of latticed plastic, moulded into a lizard-form, fabricated organs visible throughout its hollow body. It scuttled inward, quick and agile. Peg-like teeth snapped viciously.
Dominus pulled a blade and then a second. They were reassuringly familiar and like nothing Laura had ever seen. Whoever designed them had looked at a nightstick and decided that could be more lethal with a blade in place of a blunt baton. The nightstick-blades pleased her. Instantly, she wanted a pair of her own, though that was wrong, she knew. Dr Randall said she mustn’t carry knives or weapons. She could be expelled, arrested. That wasn’t normal.
Dominus stepped forward, plunged the blades into the lattice-lizard’s neck at opposing angles, snapped them back and wrenched its head clean off. The lattice-body skidded off into a corner, limbs still roving, scrabbling.
“We have to go.” The sound of more claws came from the broken window.
She followed without a word, allowing herself only a quick glance, fleeting; home as it might have been, home half-remembered. Into the wasteland they fled.
* * *
“They want life-force, mostly,” Dominus explained, “sometimes other things. Lurkers feed on hopes; dreams; imaginings.” He noted the sour look on her face. “Or maybe they just represent your neuroses. I’m sure your psychiatrist would agree.”
They had edged around the ‘Lurker’ and its upturned trash-pile. It watched them with glass-eyes affixed from rotted-reed antennae but kept a trepidatious distance, as if taking them for something dangerous.
As they departed, Dominus produced a small, clear crystal from his pocket and tossed it toward the driftwood chimera. The last she saw, the Lurker was sniffing at the asphalt, investigating the parting gift. He raised a mischievous eyebrow when she gave him a quizzical look.
He led them out into the ruination, streets littered with burnt-out cars and discarded bones, hugging the shadows of abandoned houses.
“Blessings from the gods. The old, or the new; I’m not sure which,” he muttered.
“This was all normal.”
In her mind’s eye, she could see another life, her own but not. Her father was a respectable man, her parents’ marriage a happy one. These things had never been true, but here, they were, and she could glimpse it, through half-closed eyes. She’d had friends. No double vision, no vibrations behind the eyeballs. Little creativity though. No imagination. Limited horizons. Just a contemptable normal, or not even really that; just a sketch of a normal. Less than a shadow of herself. Boring, mundane, never imagining anything strange could happen. Until the news said something strange was happening. The sky begins to bleed. The earth opens. New beings, fresh lifeforms, emerging from inanimate materials. The end-times come.
“Remembering things?” he asked. When she didn’t reply, he offered, smirking: “Or imagining them?”
She changed the subject. “The blades, where’d you get them?”
His face brightened. “I took them from a Wolf of Winter, a million years from now and a trillion miles from here.” He unsheathed one and handed it to her, hilt-first. She took it. The feel was familiar, if slightly heavy. Her wrist came alive, and the blade rotated, clumsily for a moment, then fluidly, then expertly. The weight was a little off, nothing more.
Dominus walked beside her, watching approvingly.
“I know how to use this.” She clenched her fist and brought the blade to a halt in a guard position parallel from her wrist to the point of her elbow. She handed it back.
“Of course you do,” he said, receiving it.
“What am I?”
Dominus grinned. “Not normal, whichever way you spin it.”
* * *
The Stone-kind had taken the camp.
There had been soldiers to keep the refugees safe – they turned on each other and then they ran. Madness reigned. Some refugees tried to get away. They didn’t get far. The jewel-eyed stone men came out of the ground. They overwhelmed everyone. Her mother was among the first to die. In terror, hiding behind an army jeep, Laura watched. She couldn’t reach her dad. They took him, struggling, shouting. She covered her mouth to smother her scream. And then she was someone else, a daughter from a different life, strange and medicated, lost in an unfamiliar world.
“It’s like I was here. Another me.”
Under an abandoned truck they lay, watching the camp below.
“I wouldn’t worry about it; either she was just a shadow, holding your place on this branch, acting as your eyes and ears. Or you’re living out your delusion, in which case you made all of this up, and you know everything about it.”
“Oh great, nothing to worry about then,” she scoffed, before an involuntary sob escaped her. She ground her teeth angrily and dug her fingernails into her palms. Dominus noticed and squeezed her shoulder again.
“Whatever you decide is going on here, I am going to help you.”
“I don’t need saving.” Angrily she swatted his hand away. “I’m not a victim.”
“Good stuff, you stick it to the bastards.” He pointed almost merrily to the figures who been watching them for some time.
They had the trucks surrounded. Ruby eyes gleamed in the dim half-light, hungry, envious.
“Warmth!” their leader exclaimed, voice rumbling deep. Marble joints creaked. Cracked, statue-fingers reached exultantly to the blood sky. “So much warmth!”
The four-ton truck flipped over like a plastic model; it was no true obstacle to stone hands. There was no escape. The Stone-kind closed in. Dominus raised his hands peaceably, offering them no resistance. Laura backed up, as far as she could, insisting to herself that it couldn’t be real. Yet the inhuman embrace felt all too real. Her skin crawled. She struggled. Implacable, they held her; dragged her down the hill, toward the camp. She looked to Dominus. He had his blades; he could use them, surely, he could carve them a way out? He was marching along almost amiably.
“So, which set of gods do you lot serve anyway?” he asked, conversationally. If the Stone-kind understood the question, they didn’t let on. He caught her eye and she glimpsed apprehension beneath the well-practiced façade of relaxed confidence. Flashes of other times and places ran through her mind’s eye, sensations of excitement and danger, recollections of the future, seen through Dominus’s eyes. She braced herself against the memories, feeling they might subsume her. She shrank back into herself, back into the grip of the stone men and the horrors they had prepared, with only the hope that Dominus knew what he was doing.
* * *
The rows weren’t fully visible from the truck on the hillside, hidden as they were behind the perimeter of upturned army vehicles surrounding the camp. Cultivated neatly like ornamental bushes amongst the tattered tents and broken prefabricated buildings were the structures of living metal wire. Hung upon them, bound into their vaguely moving vines, were the refugees. Most were dead. Some were not.
“Laura?” His voice was hoarse, pained, but unmistakable.
Her heart broke. It took with it whatever composure she still possessed.
“Oh, Jesus no!” she wept. Here he was. In the flesh. She’d sworn she never wanted to see him again, yet all she wanted now was to run to him. Inhuman arms would not have it. They dragged her by.
“You bastards!” her father screamed, thrashing, strength recharged from anguish. “Let her go! I’ll kill you all! If you hurt her, I’ll-” Living wire sealed his jaw shut.
The leader of the Stone-kind chuckled mockingly. It was a rumbling, cruel, tectonic sound.
Laura struggled against their grip. Angry tears burned her eyes. Her teeth ground madly. She would not be a victim. Not there, not here.
“You’re going to regret that.”
The Stone-kind turned their heads, curiously. Dominus seemed very calm, very resolved. They had crossed a line. Unnerved, the Stone-kind hushed.
“This way,” their leader insisted, casting a nervous glance back at their captives.
* * *
Metal wire vines snaked around her arms and lifted her. More enveloped her torso and legs. Strength sapped from her core outwards, almost at once. It was a lull, seductive, insidious. Into it, she could fall easy and never rise again. Let herself bleed away into the wires, surrendering strife, piece-by-peaceful-piece, until she ceased to be at all.
“Stay with me,” Dominus said.
Her eyes struggled to focus.
“Just a little longer.”
She murmured, something, nothing. Dreamless sleep seemed better.
“Think of dad.” Dominus said the words knowingly, in what seemed to be her voice. Her eyes snapped open.
He was here. He’d come back. Memories, from her own life, from her other lives, surged up through the blanket of numbing paralysis. Her dad, her dad; he slammed the door on his way out. Tears were in his eyes. Too weak and he knew it. Run away, like you always do. That was what her mum said. He could find the strength; she wanted to tell her mum, tell him, but she was a child, and she couldn’t find the words. She knew how her dad felt. How did she know that? How could a child know that?
Run away Dominus, like you always do. Another memory had snuck in covertly. Dominus was staring back at somebody, somebody who needed him; much as her father had stared back at her. Dominus’s face shifted, morphed into another in the fugue of recollection. She expected it to be her father’s, but it was her own.
“Please, we have to help him, save him ...” she begged.
Dominus shook his head. “We can’t take him off this branch, this is his world. But there is someone else here who doesn’t belong.”
She knew whom he meant.
“You’re responsible. You brought him here.”
She howled, enraged, frustrated. “You bastard!”
“That’s the spirit.” He chuckled, knowingly. “Just stay awake for five more minutes. Help’s coming.”
* * *
Help arrived in a monstrous, driftwood form, just as Dominus intended. It launched itself at the barricades, scattering steel hulks. The dead vehicles crashed into the camp, ploughing through stone bodies. An explosion announced its arrival like a claxon of catastrophic mayhem.
She was straining impotently against the grip of the wire vines. Dominus seemed very calm. He wasn’t struggling. Even after the explosion, he didn’t start to struggle. Instead, he closed his eyes, and his lips began to move. He was reciting names. The wiry entanglements began to shudder in discomfort, until, jerkily, the vines rushed to disentangle themselves, like a poisoned man desperate to wretch up a contaminant.
He hopped down without a care as the living mass of wire withered.
“How’d you do that?” Her struggle was making the vines’ grip only stronger.
“Fed it my past lives.” He grinned. “That’s like feeding a baby aviation fuel. You could do it-”
“Can you get me down?”
Disappointed, he drew his blades and cut through the wire vines as easily as if they were made of string.
“So, what’s it going to be, are we going to save the little shit?” he asked when she was free. “He’s up that way, somewhere.” He waved his hand, vaguely.
“I’m going to save my dad.”
“He’s not your-” Already she was away. “You can’t save him.”
“Watch me,” she shouted back. He ran after her. She turned, defensively. “Don’t try to stop me.”
He spun his blades, bringing the hilts forward, offering them up. “You’ll need these. I can find the key and the compass. Meet me back here.”
Cautiously, she took the blades, half expecting a trick.
“This isn’t going to bring you any closure. You can’t save your dad. You’ll fail.” He spoke the words apologetically. “But someone you brought here, well that’s a different matter.”
She tucked the blades into a guard position, resting them against her forearms, and sprinted forward. If this were indeed a delusion, it would make sense; why she couldn’t save a figment of her imagination. So maybe she was just running deeper into her mania, her flight of fantasy. Perhaps the only way out was to confront reality. If Dominus was a part of her psyche, maybe he really was trying to save her, to get her home? It all went through her head. She probably believed it too. She didn’t turn back though.
* * *
It was all muscle memory. She didn’t have to think about how to use the blades. Her body moved as if it were someone else’s. The strikes didn’t have the power they should, that she expected, like she’d been someone physically stronger when she’d learned the moves. But the timing, the form, the fluidity; it was all perfect. The stone golem moved in slow motion. It swung and jabbed at her without success, until it was off balance and flailing desperately. She stepped behind it, locked her blades, and ripped its goddamned head off.
She ran on, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if all this were real, the concussive force of her steps drowning out any warning that might be calling out to her in Dr Randall’s measured, dulcet tones.
Her father’s mouth was sealed shut by the living wire vines, but his eyes were still open. They focussed on her and there was relief. She swung the blades around and slashed at the wires, making quick, nimble cuts with practiced fluidity. In moments, the metal vines were receding, withering back into the earth. Her father staggered but managed to keep his balance. Laura turned to face him, but all the things she’d wanted to say, had ever imagined saying to him, dissolved, leaving her mind blank.
He stared at her for a moment. It was her father, unmistakably, but so much older than she remembered. His dark hair had greyed and thinned, his aquiline features were creased with lines, his stature seemed shrunken. She realised quickly that he’d grown no shorter since she’d seen him last; it was she who’d grown taller, a woman not far off six feet in height and not a child of forty-eight inches. She smiled dumbly, hopefully. His face changed. The expression was as unwelcome as it was omnipresent in her memories.
“You’re not my daughter,” he growled, backing off half a step.
She swallowed and said nothing.
“Where is she?”
“Back that way, two rows over.” The words came of their own accord. She turned and walked toward the place where the Stone-kind had hung her other self, beckoning him to follow. She hadn’t come down that row with Dominus, nor had she traversed it on her way to save her father. She remembered the way vaguely from another life, just well enough to retrace it. The other Laura was concussed and semi-conscious before they fed her to the wire vines. She turned her face away when they came to the place, unable to look at her own dead body.
Laura stared at the muddy ground, pushing at it with the toe of her boot, listening to her father cry and to the ever-shifting sound of chaos that moved with the Lurker, somewhere on the other side of the camp. It seemed the driftwood scorpion was keeping the Stone-kind occupied elsewhere, quite possibly on purpose.
“Who are you?” her father asked.
She opened her mouth but had no answer to offer.
“If you think I won’t beat you to death ...” he hissed. This was the father she remembered, even if the words were a little stronger than anything she could recall him saying. She raised her head defiantly, hardly caring about her own corpse hanging by his shoulder.
“I’m the one you walked out on,” she spat back.
His brow creased in confusion. “What?”
“You never even looked back, did you? Never gave a shit what happened to us. Just took the easy way out.” She paused, choking down a sudden sob. “Was it me? It was, wasn’t it?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m her.” Laura raised an arm toward her doppelganger, but kept her eyes turned half-away. “From the world where you walked out and left us.”
“So, what, are you saying you are my Laura? From like a parallel universe, or something?” he asked, incredulously.
She nodded, but then shook her head, defeated. “No, not a parallel universe. There’s no such thing. I’m just having some sort of breakdown and I’m seeing you here, trying to make sense of it. You’re not real. She’s not real. I’ve just lost it.”
Laura looked right at her other self, expecting the world to dissolve around her to reveal a padded cell, or worse; some dark cellar, where he’d locked her up, made her his victim, a reality so painful that it made this fantastical horror show an appealing refuge.
The world, the bloodied sky, the ongoing apocalypse; all of it remained obstinately unchanged. Nothing dissolved. Rather, she got a fleeting glimpse of what it was to die.
“Not real?” Her father’s mouth tightened, dangerously. “Not fucking real?”
Dazed, teetering at the threshold, she focussed her eyes on her father, almost too late.
He made an enraged, animal noise and charged.
She still had the blades. Her arms worked by themselves, executing someone else’s reactions.
One blade stopped just as it dug into the skin at his throat, leaving a mark indistinguishable from a shaving cut. The other stopped just as it parted the fibres of his shirt, an inch above his navel, leaving no more than a pinprick indentation.
He froze, powerless and afraid, afraid of her. Unconsciously, she smiled.
“Do you have any idea how many times I’ve imagined putting a knife to your throat?”
He backed away slowly, eying the blades nervously. “You can’t be Laura. No matter what happened, she could never turn into such a hate-filled little bitch.” Once again, she saw the father she remembered.
“It was me, wasn’t it? Why you left. Because I wasn’t her, little Miss Perfect.” She looked again at her dead self and got another glimpse of passing. It made her wince, hold herself back from the threshold. It was all the invitation he needed to run.
For the second time, her father left. Desperately, Laura tried to follow, but this time there was more than a slammed door in her way. Half a dozen stone men emerged from the rows, spears in hand, jewel-eyes gleaming.
Their leader took a step toward her and raised an accusing marble finger. The mottled face shook with anger.
She let out a demonic shriek and rushed at him.
* * *
“Help me. Laura, please.”
She stopped and ground her teeth, the sound of his voice, pitiful as it was, making her shudder.
“Please,” the overgrown boy sobbed, air whistling through his broken teeth. “Please help.”
She looked up at him. His tracksuit was tattered, his face covered in grime and bruises, his limbs bound by living wire vines. His brutish, half-child face contorted in a piteous grimace. She’d hacked down six stone monstrosities using instincts and muscle-memories that were not her own. She’d pummelled their leader into the muddy ground as the stone man pled for mercy. Slitting this boy’s throat should be no difficult thing.
Laura raised a blade until it rested against his throat. He whined and his swinish eyes followed the edged steel fearfully. The power of it felt good. She was not a victim. It would be satisfying and there would be no consequences in this place. She told herself to do it, ignoring the voice of Dr Randall, which insisted this was unhealthy, not normal. Yet as her fingers tightened around the blade’s grip, she heard another voice. It belonged to Dominus.
This isn’t who I am. This isn’t how I do things.
“Easy for you to say. You’re not weak. You’re dangerous, no one’s preying on you.”
Oh, I am weak, and afraid; I really am, but this still isn’t how I do things.
She narrowed her eyes; willed herself to do it. Yet the strength went from her arm. The blade dropped away from his throat. She couldn’t, as detestable as the boy was.
“You ready to get out of here?” Dominus asked. He had appeared behind her, the key and the compass in hand. The objects shimmered, mystically. He glanced up at the boy. “Despicable little shit, isn’t he?”
“My dad ran.”
“Yeah. It could have been worse though.”
She bit her lower lip and went to work on the wires holding the boy. He flopped to the ground and then scrambled toward her legs, meaning to wrap his arms around them. She got the sole of her boot into his shoulder and pushed him away. He skidded in the mud.
“We’d better go. The Lurker’s running out of Stone-kind and I don’t see any doors around here.”
* * *
The Lurker was waiting for them, guarding the discarded end of a porta cabin where a lockable door remained on its hinges.
“Oh, fuck a duck sideways!” Dominus exclaimed, dismayed but unsurprised.
The great otherworldly vermin reared up, expectantly.
“It wasn’t helping us?” she asked, keeping her shoulder behind his. Behind them, the overgrown boy cowered and whimpered.
“It was, but only because I kind of promised it the contents of your imagination,” Dominus admitted, sheepishly. “Thought we’d be gone before it finished off the Stone-kind.”
The Lurker advanced, reaching out at Laura with a multitude of freakish limbs.
“I need to swap you.” Dominus thrust the key and the compass toward her, his eyes on the blades. Reluctantly, she held them out hilt-first. He tossed the key and the compass down at her feet and snatched the blades.
“Come back for me!” he shouted and charged at the driftwood chimera. It skittered backward, fearfully.
Laura cursed, grabbed the key, and the compass, which was connected to it by a chain; took the boy’s filthy, sweaty hand, and made for the door. In a frenzied blur, the key clicked snuggly into the keyhole despite the wild variance in their shapes, the door swung open, and they stumbled out into another world.
* * *
She stared up at the sky. The clouds were deep grey, thick and bruised. Tensed, she searched for some indication of the sky’s colour behind the covering, hoping and praying that it would be a light blue and not the claret-red of the nightmare. Finally, she spotted a parting in the clouds. She exhaled, almost on the verge of tears. It was blue, blue and normal.
She dropped her head, which still felt heavy, thankfully and recognised the refuse-strewn space as the bins behind one of the north towers. Her relief was short lived.
In her peripheral vision, she saw him rising from the piss-stained concrete. He still had the knife. He was making incoherent noises, not even attempting to form actual words. Her head swam and an insidious urge to go limp rose through her chest.
“I should have killed him,” she said to herself, starting to feel almost far away.
No, you shouldn’t have; but that doesn’t mean you can’t beat the shit out of him now, Dominus’s voice answered.
“You took the blades,” she protested.
You don’t need them.
Without thinking, she spun around and slammed her fingers into the boy’s throat. He gagged and dropped the knife. She got her boot to it and slid it away; it disappeared down a drain. At the same time, she grabbed his outstretched wrist and pulled him toward her, manipulating his movements so that she could get her hand behind his elbow. She applied pressure. The joint strained. Bones cracked. The boy dropped to his knees. She landed a savage kick below his ribs, and he went all the way to the ground. She stamped on his lanky, prone form again and again, until he was begging for mercy, and she was laughing, giddily.
Finally, she pulled her up hood and stalked away, leaving him in a pool of his own blood. She turned a corner and walked right into two uniformed police officers.
* * *
Laura stared at the table, sullenly. Sergeant Cameron sighed, tired and unsurprised. They’d been here before.
“You put him in intensive care,” Cameron said.
Laura couldn’t supress a snicker. The Sergeant’s teeth clicked together.
“Jordan’s been in and out of consciousness, but we managed to speak to him. He didn’t make a lot of sense, but he did say you kidnapped him, did things to him.”
She flinched at the sound of the boy’s name. Whenever anyone spoke it, a wave of prickliness cascaded down the back of her neck. For years now he’d cast covetous glimpses in her direction. Each time she’d rejected his advances the insults he’d hurled had grown stronger, slut, bitch, whore; the more extreme his threats had become. He’d promised he would cut her; if he couldn’t have her, he said, he’d make sure no one ever wanted her. She’d grown accustomed to living with the uneasy certainty that sooner or later, his talk would turn to action.
“Did you?” Cameron pressed, already half-believing it was true.
“He took me,” she muttered. Admitting that made her feel sick. In that moment, she wanted to believe that they’d both tumbled into an apocalyptic other world, but she could only return to a more horrible conclusion. Jordan had taken her, had kept her somewhere, tied up, and all the while she’d fled into a fantasy. She thought about the key and the compass but couldn’t recall when they’d left her grip or what had become of them. She realised that she hadn’t thought about Dominus once since her return; found no concern within herself at what might have happened to him. There were bruises, signs of restraint tattooed up her arms, but she wondered if the grip of the stone men and the embrace of the living wires had simply been Jordan’s hands. The thought made her gag. Sergeant Cameron averted his eyes for a moment.
“Are you saying he did things to you?”
“I don’t remember. I guess so.” She dug her nails into her palms, determined not to break down.
“Where’d he take you? You have to give me something, Laura. I can’t help you otherwise. All we have is that both of you two disappeared for forty-eight hours and then we find Jordan beaten half to death by the bins and your boot-print on his face.”
“I don’t know.” It was getting harder not to cry.
“Come on now, I need more than that. I know what a little shit Jordan Nesbitt is. But you’re no angel yourself, and if there’s a lass on that estate who I could see terrorising the local Neds it’d be you.”
Laura closed her eyes. “I don’t know where he took me because I was seeing shit.” She could hold back the tears no longer. “I saw monsters and my dad was there and the sky was all bloody and I’m just a fucking loon.” She collapsed against the table.
“I take it you’re off your pills again.”
“No, they just don’t work anymore.” She clutched at her hair, begging for the sky to turn bloody once again. She never heard the interview room door open.
“Sergeant, this young lady seems to be in distress.” The voice was English and familiar. Laura smiled, relieved; the fantasy was taking her again. She didn’t look up, fearful of breaking its spell. “I won’t file a grievance if you give me the room so I can speak to my client.”
She heard Sergeant Cameron stand, heard his chair scrape against the floor; heard the door as he left the room reluctantly.
“I didn’t ask for a lawyer,” she said, keeping her head down, her eyes squeezed tight shut.
“Good job I’m not one then, isn’t it?”
Finally, she looked up. It was him, here in the real world, shaven now, wearing a suit.
“But I just imagined you, didn’t I?”
“You still believe that?” He deposited the key and compass on the table before her. “I wonder how long before you wake up. I was a lot younger and I kind of already knew it was coming. But then, they didn’t have psychiatrists where this version of me was born; nobody telling him the visions were an illness. They’re sending Dr Randall by the way, to do an evaluation. He’ll tell you you’re crazy, not in so many words, but you get the picture. At some point though, you realise you’re not; you realise that you’re Amaranthine, that you don’t belong in this world.”
“I don’t know what I believe, so how can you tell me what I’ll decide?”
“I know because you came back for me. I didn’t die at the pincers of a Lurker with a dream-straw stuck down my throat. Something happened to you, after this point, and you woke up, you remembered who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. I’m glad; death by Lurker is most definitely not death by too much fun.” Dominus stood and straightened his jacket. “I’ll find out whatever it was when the time comes, anyway, when I get there.”
“You’re talking like you’re a time-traveller.”
“Yes. Haven’t you been paying attention? Opening doorways to other times and places? I guess we’ll have to work on that. The compass is set, anyhow, for whenever you’re ready. Just find a door, bumble through the rest like we always do.” He paused at the door of the interview room and smiled at her. There was something profoundly sad in that smile. “I’m glad I got to meet you, before I well, you know, become ...” He shrugged. “I don’t know, feels like maybe things won’t be so bad after all. You’re not a coward. You do what’s right, even when it’s difficult. I need that backbone.” He raised his hand to knock.
“Hey, wait a second. Run away Dominus, like you always do. What does that mean?”
His head snapped around as though he’d heard a gunshot and he looked as though he’d seen a ghost. He swallowed nervously.
“Being able to go anywhere, at any point, to countless different versions, to live different lives; something that wonderful always comes with a cost. You broaden your horizons and become aware of the possibilities, the beautiful, magnificent possibilities, but also the horrifying ones ...” His voice faded and she watched his face darken as knowledge and memories assaulted him. “The temptation to run and hide, just to pretend none of it exists; that never goes away.”
“It’s still there, happening, isn’t it? The version of the world with the bloody sky?”
“Yes, and that’s just one. There are countless others, and some make that place look like a paradise; but that’s not what I’m talking about. Not really.”
“The gods,” she began.
“The old and the new,” he continued, “facing each other from either end of the tree, the ancients buried in the roots and the eventuals growing in the branches. Sooner or later one set of gods tries to take the tree from the other.” He turned to the door and knocked. “Maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t woken up, after all.”
* * *
They charged her with aggravated assault. There was no physical sign of her having been injured or raped, no evidence in the block of a place where Jordan could have hidden her. Dr Randall sat with Laura as she recounted all that she’d experienced, scribbling notes with the enthusiasm of a man whose career was about to experience a dramatic upswing. Laura didn’t mention Dominus’s visit in the interview room, nor did she show him the key and compass, suddenly afraid that he would say Sgt Cameron had left her alone, that there had been no man claiming to be her legal counsel, that it had been Cameron who’d returned the items to her. She was intrigued by what Dominus said and found that she wanted to believe that she wasn’t really a deluded nobody; that she was in fact a magical soldier in a grand universal war with unearthly monsters and evil gods. But outwardly she made a well-practiced show of accepting the unreality of all she’d experienced.
Laura’s mother arrived soon enough, with a real lawyer in tow, her dad’s old brief, who was no stranger to getting McKyres out on bail. Valery McKyre rampaged through the station, haranguing any officer too slow to evade her, warning them that any jury would find her daughter innocent; she had clearly acted in self-defence. Laura wondered if the bail hearing came up so quickly and bond was set so paltry-low just to shut her mother up.
When she finally got home, to home as she expected it, Laura collapsed face-first onto her bed and slipped into a deep sleep. She dreamt of Dominus, dreamt of being him. Through his eyes, she saw a woman, on her knees, drenched in blood, reaching out to her, silhouetted before an alien sky that was ablaze. Run away Dominus, like you always do, the woman said. Laura woke with tears in her eyes.
“When are you going to tell me what happened?” her mum asked.
Groggily, Laura pushed herself up high enough to turn her head. Her mother was sitting facing her, her back to the drawing table, leafing through a stack of Laura’s most recent drawings. She raised her eyes, piercingly blue, intense, difficult to lie to, and fixed them on Laura.
“I don’t know.” Laura turned her face back to the pillow. She couldn’t bear the thought of telling her mother what she’d seen.
“You don’t know when you’re going to tell me, or you don’t know what happened?”
“Well Dr Randall called, asked me to ask you to give him a ring. He sounded all very excitable. Something about that little shit waking up and talking some nonsense about a scorpion, or something.”
Laura’s eyes widened, but her face was obscured, so her mum carried on speaking.
“Whatever happens I’m proud of you and no matter what, that little shit will rue the bloody day he ever laid eyes on you.” Laura became aware of her mother leaning over and then hesitating, reminding herself that her little girl couldn’t bear physical affection. She began to back away. Laura pushed herself up and reached for her mum’s hand; she squeezed it and tried not to wince.
“Love you,” she mumbled, pulling her hand back as gently as she could bear.
“Love you too.” Her mum withdrew, clasping her hands together and blinking away tears.
* * *
Laura tapped the landline handset against her chin and stared out of the window, down at the spot where the driftwood scorpion had violated the overgrown boy. Her chest felt nervously tight. Her would-be tormentor was awake and talking. She could no longer keep the truth of her reality sealed in its box, at once mundane and fantastical. She would have to speak to Dr Randall and find out what the boy had said; whether he’d endured the otherworldly horrors she’d seen or experienced something altogether more banal. But she couldn’t bear the thought of either being told that she was indeed a time-travelling, dimension-hopping immortal or just a delusional schizophrenic. She didn’t want to call Randall for the same reason she’d avoided trying the key and compass, or why she hadn’t checked the bottom of her wardrobe to confirm they were indeed fresh copies given to her by Dominus and not those she’d always possessed; she wished she could remain in a state of flux.
Procrastinating, she made some toast and turned on the TV. There was a report on the news; there had been some kind of terrorist attack on a local hospital. Security footage had leaked. Massive figures, wearing some type of black body armour, wielding exotic weaponry, were striding through the chaos. The oddly flat motorcycle helmets they wore had blacked-out visors, which were adorned with the spray-painted outline of a skull. They looked uncannily like a character she often drew, a cybernetic slave-soldier from the far future. Laura felt her breath catch in her throat. Through the smoke, one of the figures emerged dragging the overgrown boy, struggling, clothed in a hospital gown. A slight woman wearing an expensive-looking red leather jacket and designer jeans followed jauntily, skipping her way through the pandemonium. She noticed the security camera and looked up, flicking her unruly hair from her face to grin at the lens. She almost seemed to see Laura, rooted before the TV, and mouthed the words run away, like you always do mockingly, before bouncing along after the overgrown boy and his monstrous kidnapper. Laura stared back at the oddly familiar woman, trying to place her, until she realised that she’d seen her when she’d dreamed of being Dominus. Run away Dominus, like you always do, the woman, bloodied and desperate, had said.
The sound of her plate clattering against the carpet snapped Laura out of her trance. She knew immediately what she needed to do. She raced into her room and pulled open the drawer where she’d stowed the key and compass. She felt her eyelids flutter involuntarily as she touched the gold-plated-silver.
Laura approached the front door and let her key slip into the lock. Despite their disparate shapes, key and keyhole clicked together snuggly. She looked down at the compass and hoped it was indeed set correctly, feeling her resolve waiver. In the silence she could hear her own shallow, uneven breathing.
Laura frowned and looked back toward the living room, trying to recall when she’d switched the TV off. She shrugged, deciding it wasn’t important, and turned the key.
The door swung open to the bloody-skied hell. She smiled and crossed the threshold.