Into the Nightmare (part 1)
“I'm here! I'm right here!”
Right here could be inches away, could be three corridors, six doors, and God only knows how many of them. Don't think about it. His voice, in the dark, could be coming from in front or behind. Shouldn't have lost him. Karen pressed her cheek against the wall, listening. She thought she could still hear them, that rough noise they made that made her think of snakes slithering over gravel. She breathed in, hard, swallowed.
“I'm coming to you.”
She was in something close to perfect darkness, and the light from her phone made less than a dent in it. Darkness that almost hurt. The vines were out in that - blood-slick and moving about, spilling over walls and under doors. Just because she couldn't see them didn't mean they weren't there, and close.
A footstep? She couldn't help the doubt. “Nick...?”
“Nick, where do I live?”
“36 Hobbledeck Road.”
“I hate your wallpaper. It looks like vomit.”
They could do it. She'd figured that out by now – they had a capacity for mimicry. How much? And how smart? She tried to think back, over just the last few hours: had she said anything about home, had either of them – any of them – had they said enough, or given enough clues? She thought... and still, she slid her hand down to the knife. Only if she had to... if she could...
His shape loomed dark ahead of her.
Karen wanted to fall into his arms, she wanted to go stone-weight limp there, clinging, crying, eyes pasted shut until it was all miraculoulsy over. Instead she had to wait, poised, her fingers around the hilt, waiting for him to come closer.
His face was mostly in shadow; his eyes: just a glint of colour, a reflection of light from
“What does it look like, the wallpaper?”
“Roses. Little pink roses, with a couple of little blue rosebuds every now and then. It's hideous. Karen, it's me.”
“Thank God.” She let her finger loosen around the knife – a shard of glass, the wrapped end of a woollen scarf, the best she could come up with in the heat of those few moments.
Nick reached her spot against the wall, he cupped her cheeks in his hands.
“I lost Tasha,” she admitted.
“We'll find her.”
“Once.... once we get out of here. It's clear ahead. Are you ready?”
“That's my girl.”
She made herself share his laugh. Only way they were going to hold themselves together long enough to survive out here.
She took his hand, she took a shuddering breath, they darted out from the shelter of the wall and made a run towards the broken arch Nick had seen up ahead.
Bright sunlight. Midday in the sky.
McDonalds sat boldly on the street corner across the road from a K-Mart.
“How long until it changes again?”
“I thought you were figuring out a pattern to these things.”
He shook his head. “Not enough for a predictive model. It's a complex pattern if it's a pattern at all.”
“We've got a few hours, maybe.”
Karen checked her surroundings. She was finding it hard to believe by now when she saw an ordinary day, when she saw regular streets, regular people. She kept expecting the lie to be exposed, for their skin to suddenly peel away, their flesh shrivel and melt, for a tangle of dark, rot-soft vines to lie underneath it. The strangled world and this one... a blink, a chance, a hair's breadth between them. “She could be anywhere.”
“Don't. We'll find her.” Meaning: we won't leave, we won't give up, we won't even think about our own escape or ending this until we do.
What if we leave it too late, Nick? There were a lot of people on the street here, there were a shitload of people in the world.
“Are you all right?” He asked her.
“It stung my arm, nothing major.”
“You don't know that.”
“I'm going to assume for now.”
She steeled herself, she swallowed a hard breath: “Okay, which way?”
That could be a sign, couldn't it?
“If only we'd low-jacked her.”
“Yeah, if only.”
Karen sat on the bench, trying to think. Tasha was eight. She was understandably terrified out of her mind. Where was she going to go? They'd just come from her house, just found it empty and undisturbed. She tapped her fingertips against each other trying and trying to think.
Nick came across the road with the burgers.
“I'm not even hungry.”
“Me either, but we need this. Next time might, well, you know...”
Last days. Last weeks. Last forever. And that'd be on us. Right? “Would she go to her aunty do you think?”
“No. No, she wouldn't. God, she'll be panicking.”
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. “All right. Um. Her friends. Does she have any friends near here?”
He shook his head.
The sky was going to errupt soon. It was going to erupt like a bellyful of snakes tumbling out of the sky. It probably wasn't going to be long. Imagine if we had a few weeks of this, if we could go home and get some sleep and write some things down and get some freakin' help.
She took a few bites of the burger – good, in spite of everthing.
“Okay, what about school?”
“That's a fucking long shot.”
“I know... but...”
“We've got to go somewhere. We have to keep moving.”
Again: “We will find her.”
Yeah, but how are we going to find her? And are we going to see something we'll never get out of our minds when we do?
They'd reached the playground, and they were calling out her name. Nick had moved off a little way into the trees behind the swings and slides, moving quickly through them, searching for a girl who might be hiding, crouched small, not daring to raise her eyes or uncover her ears. Karen scanned the tennis courts, the netball court, the rows of grey and green classrooms. She saw a few boys on their skateboards and she approached them.
“Do you know Tasha Crisp?”
A few of them shrugged. One of them said, “Little kid, year four?” He was probably two or three years older.
“Yeah, that's her. Have you seen her?”
Thunder again. Louder. And the sky was loosing its colour, not clouding over at all but still going grey, still blushing a faint grazing of violet, taking on Van-Gough-like spirals. Crap.
The boy shook his head: “H'ain't seen her.”
“Okay, you guys should go home.”
Because I said so. “It's going to rain.”
“It's not even cloudy.”
The sun was full, warm, harsh – Karen figured only she, only Nick, only Tasha would be able to see the reddening, the encroaching ugly pale blue creeping into its colour, bruising the sunlight, bruising the ground where it fell. “Please. Trust me.”
One of them laughed.
You little shits. And what was she going to do about it?
She couldn't do anything. And she needed to find Nick. She'd seen him heading off for the treeline, and she barrelled her own way down through the shadows. Even as she ran it was happening, the air was getting darker, the ground felt soft, slimy, that purple-backed shadow was falling down over the canopy.
It was like seeing the trees melt. Their upper halves sloughed away like burnt candles, leaving stumps, leaving a ground thick with swirling, nearly dead vines. And these things were killers, she could feel them struggling at the soles of her shoes, trying for purchase, trying to get a good grip and drag her down. There might be no shelter at all out here. She turned on her phone, held the light up. Nick. Over here.
There was no school behind her anymore. Beyond this forest graveyard there were naked hills. Naked hills, and a crater, a puckered spot in the ground where these vines had swarmed out of, already dying, moving rapidly over the grass, killing.... She hadn't forgotten.
Then they'd made it to the river.
Nick. Over here. She held her phone as high as she could. They can't make light. I don't think they can make light.
“Karen!” But it might or might not be him.
Hold up your phone. They'd already established that calling did no good.
“Karen... Karen...” When they said it like that, over and over, nothing else... that was a sign. That was something that warned you to turn around and run the other way. But what if it was Nick, maybe in trouble, maybe caught, and calling for help? We should have gone to the supermarket and bought some proper knives. Stupid, not to have thought of it before. And maybe it wouldn't change again. Maybe they'd won. Maybe that'd been the last burger she was ever going to eat.
She could hear something up ahead, a weight of some sort crashing through what was left of the trees. It came from downhill, and it was the same direction as that voice was coming from. A perfect replica? The real thing?
Karen took the knife out of her pocket, tightened the wrapping, and started down the hill.
She was focussed on one direction, on listening for the sounds, for seeing a wink of light that might tell her he was there; she was looking for a clicking on and off of a screen in some uninformed rendition of morse code. She was waiting for his voice, and trying to hear the quality of the sound, trying to detect that faint crackle, that not-quite-right emotion, a repetition – all the warnings.
Not focussed on the dead stumps behind her.
And when they rose up, she was only warned by the shadow that came swimming over her. She turned around only just in time to see it. What she saw: she didn't think words had been exactly invented to describe it: a hydra-head of intestines, a nest of snakes, a hundred-speed film of weeds growing out of a grate in a city street. All and less and more. These limbs that came flying at her were dark, their surface was rough and flaky, at the same time veined, and lumpy as if they were riddled with tumours. There was something rotten about them, something almost undead... as if the zombie apocalypse had finally come, but in plant form. And these vines – that was for want of a better thing to call them – were cloven at their edges, about twice the width of a hosepipe, with little teeth right at the ends, stubby, serrated, sliding grotesquely out of a vegetative sheath as they readied to strike.
Karen dropped to one knee just as this one came flying overhead. It was a narrow miss. And it happened too fast for her to think about raising the knife in some kind of bladed parry. She only just had the time to go down, to drop her head, to narrowly avoid being struck. She had time to roll away downhill as a second vine-head slashed the ground where she'd been.
And she rolled up to her feet.
He wasn't there. He might have heard her, he might not. But she had about twelve of these things, no fourteen, no twenty... already fanning out in a circle around her. Closing a net. And her knife was just a hastily cobbled together shiv – broken glass from a laundry window, the ends of a blue and green scarf. It was next to nothing.
“Well, you asked for it.”
Two of them slashed at her, and she dodged them. She was getting quick. And now she sprang at the centre, knife going back and forth, back and forth, slashing whitish gashes in the two vines that came to intercept her. Here, here was a root. She drove the glass blade into it, deep as her arm's strength would buy her. She was transfixed for a moment watching the white liquid – thinner, bluer, odder than milk – well up around the heart-wound.
I got it?
Something struck her from the side, catching her on the cheek and sending her over-balanced, onto her hip. It snapped like a whip, coming at her again, catching her on the shoulder and inflicting a gash that burned all fire and acid. Karen pushed herself to her knees, she scooped her hair away from her eyes, seeing what she knew she'd see: a whole bunch of these vine-things bearing down on her, gathering backwards for a killing strike.
What they did to Ken.
Unbidden, unwelcome: that image of her friend, half-cowering against a tree-trunk, scrabbling in the leaves for his dropped kitchen knife, his hand almost on it as a trio came swinging his way, tearing him, a flurry of dead skin, dark shadows.... and then. He'd been wide-eyed, his cheek, nose, ear slashed; his collarbones slashed; a ragged slash directly across his throat – the one that'd killed him.
His name had still been trembling, convulsing in her mouth.
Still doing so, in her heart. Her Ken. Her Ken.
So she'd seen this. She was almost paralysed by seeing it now – four of them this time – coming at her. She was small, she was tiny. But she was angry as well – he'd been eighteen, maybe nineteen, she'd idolised him. And then she'd had to see him that way. The vines lunged. She threw herself to one side, slashing at the closest one, feeling the satisfaction of her knife cutting deep. And she pushed herself forward, stumbling and tripping, but still making distance, hurling herself on another one, stabbling, slashing; jumping back barely in time to avoid being gutted by its kin – by its other limb. All one big lifeform for all we know. Life Jim, but not as we know it; lives Jim: but what does it matter?
The hill was clear on one side of her. She stamped hard on the wounded vine, slashed its head off, spun to slash one that was drawing itself up again. But the others weren't dying fast enough, and more of them were hovering towards her now like severed electrical cables. They were not bound to their roots - she'd learned that by now - but they wouldn't get too far without them. And the root was wounded – take that you bastard. Enough?
She turned downhill, she saw absolutely darkness, but seeing what was behind her she sprinted into it anyway.
“Nick! Nick! Listen to me! Tasha!”
Karen was running blind. She was running downhill, her feet told her that. But beyond that, her sense of direction was absolutely buggered. She was only aware of how deep the dark was, how swallowing, how absolute. She felt as if it had fingers that reached out for her, scraping her along the cheeks, along the back. She could feel the heat where she'd been cut – along her cheek, on the edge of her shoulder. Not all that deep, not bleeding badly; but those impact points flared, they sucked energy into themsevles, they tingled around the outsides like nettles.
“Nick!” She held her phone up. On. Off. Wait. Wait. On. Off. On. That's deliberate, that's a signal. Answer me back with one.
She'd seen something. A wink of light.
Just a bit off to the right and further downhill. She raced that way; feeling as the ground evened out, as it grew a little more solid underfoot. Harder to invade concrete. Welcome to Earth, bastards. Hope you like it.
They do. They like it too much.
Her feet splashed in the dark. Karen froze. Her heartbeat rose up into her throat, her body knowing before she did what she'd done. And it was fatal. It was surely fatal. Down the bottom of the hill, along a narrow path: the swimming pool. The fences must be long gone. Now there was just the water. Just the water. And her. And them.
And if she was dead, there would just be Nick and Tasha. And maybe Nick could find Tasha, maybe he could reach her, or maybe he'd go there, and he'd do it, because he had to, and what might happen if he didn't? The world maybe.... maybe...
I'm dead. She felt oddly calm about that part. It seemed easier than whatever else she was going to have to do. She repositioned her knife in her hand all the same – because she was going out with a fight, that much she promised herself – and began stepping slowly back. Who knew if or how they had detected her – a snowball's chance in hell maybe that she could creep back out of their range, just past the path, out of their way.
They must be thick in the water, breathing and growing and multiplying – the way they did in the river – they must be flourishing in there. And a wrong step, a wrong breath....
The ground shook. It was a soft, even rumbling, emanating out of where she knew the pool was. I'm dead. It was a thought that came from a long way away, stripped of all its meaning, all its context, she felt the vines reaching out, clotting around her feet. She could only see them when they were so close she was staring them in the eye, their ends hovering in her face. One struck. She slashed it away. Another: and she caught it, bent it under her arm, breaking it just enough to cripple it; while another one ripped along her forehead, while another flicked into her already injured shoulder. Then the vines around her feet tightened, they closed in around her ankles, pulled her over. She slashed one more time and then felt the concretehit her face. She was dragged. She felt numb. She felt dizzy. She felt her legs hit the water. Not that cold. And she felt it closing in on her, over her head; felt the vines reaching all over her, dragging her down, tightening...
Darker, darker down here than even what it had been like up above.