What Lies Between

Penn, an average girl, is working late one night at her aunt's cafe when a boy comes and turns her world upside down.

How could he know how to get her parents back? How could he know about the nightmares?

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1. What Lies Between

I sigh as I stack another huge bag of flour on top of the other six I’ve just stacked. I stare the last half an hour of my shift in the face and feel like crying at the prospect.

My aunt, Grace, had some crazy idea to open a café with a small shop which I’m now forced to work in every night after school and at weekends instead of studying like every other kid in Gate.

“There has to be more to life than this,” I announce to my aunt. “A life past the boundaries of Gate, to get away from the same boring routine and from the memories, there just has to be something more than this, Grace.”

“Penn, I keep telling you this. You never go to the boundaries of Gate. It’s dangerous,” she replies from counting the takings for the day. “This is as exciting as life gets now, Penthea. Should I be offended because I come under the ‘same old boring routine’ category?”

I groan loudly which makes her laugh.

“You know what I mean!” I protest.

“Penn, I did tell you to go home and get some sleep,” Grace reminds me.

“And leave my pregnant aunt here alone, risking the wrath of Matthew when I get home then dealing with an extended edition of nightmares? No thanks, Grace.”

She stands with her hand on her hip looking far from impressed with me. “I’m pregnant not incapable, Penn. You need to sleep, you haven’t slept properly in weeks and when the baby gets here, it’ll only get worse. The café is dead and I doubt it’s going to get any more exciting at this time of night.”

The bell rings above the door, signalling a customer.

“You lied!”

I stick my tongue out at her and wait for the customer to approach.

The familiar looking boy with big green eyes and brown sweeping hair walks towards me. He’s beautiful, nobody can deny him that. He looks around and seems pleased that it’s empty. The café always is late on a Wednesday night, and he looks like he knew it.

I must know him. I feel like I should run up to him, kiss him and tell him I’m glad he’s come to see me. Weird. I’ve never meet this guy and I want to kiss him. Way to play it smooth, Penn.

I give him a minute to look at the menu while I fill a pastry box for Matthew.

“What would you like?” I ask with a smile, my best attempt at being nice so close closing time.

“A date with you?” he grins at me.

I sigh; I should have seen that one coming from a mile off.

“I meant from the menu,” I say.

“You’re just raining on my parade here, Sweetheart.”

Grace looks up from the piles of coins in front of her. “And you’re just embarrassing yourself, Sweetheart.”

The boy blushes as I stifle a laugh.

“Just a pot of tea then, thanks.”

I want to ask him what the point in coming here was when he could easily make that at home rather than fighting the autumn winds to get here, but I hold my tongue. I’m getting good at it according to Matthew; he tells me I’m far better than when I first went to live with them.

Grace hands me an old metal teapot with a collection of tea leaves at the bottom. She gives me a small ‘I told you to go home’ smile as I fill it with water.

Collecting the cup with a strainer, sugar and milk onto a tray, I try not to slam the pot down onto it too loudly. I walk to his table, obviously he had to sit at the table furthest from the counter, and place it in front of him.

“I don’t need the milk,” he tells me. “After spending time in Paris...”

He trails off, smiling to himself.

“Where is Paris?” I ask him. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a long journey from Gate but the views are beautiful.”

I nod, imagining what Paris could be like. Is it a city? Does it have shops like Gate? What views like there?

The boy strains his tea, puts a single spoon of sugar into it and gestures for me to sit down.

“I have to work,” I tell him, probably a little too quickly. “I have to help shut up the café but enjoy your tea, sir.”

“Sir? Do I really look that old?” he questions with a playful tone. “Call me Joshua.”

I shake his outstretched hand. “Penn.”

“Is that short for something?”

“Penthea.”

Joshua sips his tea. “That’s a pretty name.”

“Thanks,” I reply. “I better help my aunt.”

I start to walk away when the mysterious boy says something that could catch my attention from a mile off.

“I know how you can get back to your parents.”

I turn around so sharply, it hurts my head.

“What?”

My mouth feels dry.

“You heard what I said, Penn.”

I march back to his table and stand in front of him. I must look furious because I can feel my face heating up.

“You have no right to come in here and make crazy statements like that,” I growl at him. “Get out.”

“Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious about how?” he asks.

I shake my head slowly. “You’re delusional.”

Again, I attempt to walk away but he laughs.

“Your nightmares have been worse recently, right?” he continues. “They’re trying to contact you, Penn.”

“Contact me from where?” I retort. “The afterlife?”

Joshua sighs; I can see he’s growing impatient with me. “No, Penn. You aren’t thinking about this, your nightmares aren’t nightmares.”

“What are they then? Dreams that I’m just interpreting wrong?”

“They’re not dreams at all.”

Grace walks up to us and tries to look less concerned than she already did.

“Is everything okay? Things sounded a little…heated.”

“Fine,” Joshua claims. He raises his cup and drinks the remainder of his tea. “I better go. Places to be and people to see.”

Grace smiles at him, clearing the table and leaving.

Joshua stands up and smiles at me. “I won’t go away, you know.”

“You’re making insane comments, Joshua. Leave me alone.”

He laughs musically; it has a melody of its own. “Penn, it’s not that easy. They want you to go home.”

Before I have chance to reply, he brushes past me and leaves soundlessly. Not even the bell above the door rings.

My hands are pinned to my sides, machines beep and the woman still cries over my lifeless body. I can see a patch of light coming from window that hurts to look at for too long.

“Wake up,” the woman begs. “Wake up, Penn.”

Her voice is so familiar, I feel like I know her but I can’t do because she’s just a dream, right?

“They tell me you can hear me,” she whispers in my ear. “I know you can. They’re giving up on you, Penn. Give them a reason to believe you are fighting.”

Suddenly, the woman is gone. I’m no longer frozen and forced to listen to the beeps.

 I’m alone.

It’s too dark to know where I am yet there’s a small street lamp glowing in the distance. I tell myself to walk towards it and I’ll be safe.

My stumbling footsteps echo in the alley too loudly for my own comfort.

I stop to discover they’re not my footsteps.

A hand covers my mouth and drags me backwards, towards the pitch black.

My own screams are enough to wake me up. My hair pasted to my face, my body tangled in the sheets, pulse racing like I’ve been running for hours.

After a few deep breaths, I can’t bring myself to go back to my hellish world of night terrors.

Fresh air, maybe a walk, will do me some good before I wake Grace and Matthew up for the second time this evening.

I clumsily put my shoes on the wrong way round. Living on four hours sleep a night isn’t ideal for me or for my aunt and uncle.

Soon, I’m outside breathing in the cool autumn air. I lean against the door wondering how I can spend the rest of my life like this. I know the simple answer is that I can’t. Doctors have tried to cure me, herbalists have given me wild and wacky potions to drink, even old wives with their tales.

Yet, here they still are.

“Don’t you think it’s a little late to be out?”

I jump with shock before groaning.

“I thought you’d gone.”

Joshua winks at me. “Not just yet, doll.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Fine,” he says. “Not just yet, Penthea.”

I roll my eyes. “I guess that’s an improvement.”

Joshua leans against the wall next to me. “You haven’t asked why I’m here yet.”

“Even if I don’t ask, I’m sure you’ll tell me anyway.”

He laughs his musical laugh. “You won’t believe me.”

I sigh heavily. “It’s three in the morning, Joshua. You’ve been gone for over a month and now you’re stood outside my house waiting for me.”

“You’re dead.”

I laugh. “Grace and Matthew will never know I’m gone, it’s fine. So why are you here?”

“No,” Joshua says slowly. “You’re dead. All of you are dead.”

“What?”

He says it again, slower this time then waits for it to sink in.

“You’re joking, aren’t you?” I say.

He shakes his head. “I wish I was.”

“But,” Joshua starts after giving me some time. “You can go back.”

“Go back where?”

He takes my hand lightly. “Penn, you’re not dead yet.”

“What?” I say in disbelief for a second time.

“Your nightmares take you home.”

I stare deep into his green eyes. “How did I… you know, die?”

“You haven’t dreamt of it yet. I can’t tell you until then.”

“Joshua!” I protest as loudly as I dare for the time. “Please help me out. You’ve just told me I’m dead and so is everybody else!”

He takes my shoulders firmly. “Penn, you aren’t dead at least not yet.”

The sudden realisation hits me.

“So Grace and Matthew are –”

“I’m sorry,” he says softly.

“The baby?”

He nods slightly.

I glance briefly up the empty street. The houses in a neat row on either side of the cobbled road, people I know that live there. All of them are dead. The only house with light in the windows belongs to Mrs Hopewell, who owns the sweet shop, who gives me a bag of chocolate nuts if I take her coffee order. The family next door with Nathaniel who walks with me to school every morning talking about how he wants to be a doctor, the girl who comes into the shop every night to buy her boyfriend a cupcake, Abigail that takes the morning shift at the café.

All of them are dead.

“So what happens now?” I ask, my tone dead too.

Joshua drops his hands to his sides. “Well, that’s up to you.”

“Joshua–”

“I have to go,” he says, suddenly looking up. “Somebody is coming.”

He starts to walk away when I catch his hand and pull him back.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll be back but until the next nightmare,” he smiles, kissing my hand. “Farewell.”

The door opens causing me to almost fall into Matthew. He pushes me back up.

“What are you doing out here, Penn?” he asks, his voice rough with sleep.

I turn around to point at Joshua who I assume will still be there.

Of course, he’s gone. Whatever delusion told me he would have hung around after he’d told me he would have to go must be crazy.

“I needed some air,” I tell him. “I was just about to come in.”

“But I heard you talking to somebody.”

I shake my head. “There’s nobody out here to talk to. Shall we go back to bed?”

Matthew gives me an inquisitive look and starts heading for the stairs again.

For one last time, I look out onto the street where my whole life has just come apart.

Maybe everybody in Gate is dead but we all think we’re alive, my last thought before I fall into a dreamless sleep.

...

The hand is forceful, dragging me away from my light.

“Calm down, Sweetheart,” the voice says. “It’ll be easier if you don’t fight it.”

I drag my heels along the floor trying my hardest to stop it.

“Almost there.”

He suddenly stops. A car door opens and I’m thrown into the car.

His face, unexpectedly, is young and familiar. He shuts the door behind me and climbs into the driver’s seat.

“Where are you taking me?” I question him.

“You need to see this, Penn.”

A pair of brilliant green eyes appear in the mirror.

“Joshua?”

“Hey, Penn. I’m sorry but you haven’t got the time left for this to happen naturally.”

“I should have known.”

He laughs. “Probably.”

“Joshua, can you tell me where we’re going?”

“To witness your own death,” Joshua informs me. “A great first date, I know.”

I manage to pull myself up. “Who said anything about a date?”

“I did.”

“Fantastic.”

“See? You’re thrilled!” Joshua says cheekily. “You’re attracted to me, admit it.”

I prop myself between the seats, ignoring him. “Why do I need to see this?”

“So you can fight against it.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

Joshua frowns, staring at the city road. “Then I guess you’ll die in the living world and remain with Grace and Matthew.”

“And would that be so bad?”

He falls silent.

“Joshua?”

“No, it wouldn’t be.”

“But?”

Joshua sighs. “There are people that want you to live.”

A question comes into my mind.

“How are you here if you were in Gate and you’re here now?”

“That’s the fun part that I can’t explain either.”

The car stops and Josh tells me to get out. I do as he asks, waiting for him to do the same.

He stands next to me, taking my hand in his own.

I look down at our hands intertwined.

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s a force of habit.”

“Why?”

Joshua shakes his head. “Penn, in your other life, I mattered to you.”

“Let me go with the cliché and say we dated, right?”

He nods, smiling slightly. “Cliché is right this time round.”

“But how are you here?”

“I almost died with you,” Joshua says. “But I left Gate with your parents. Grace and Matthew agreed to take care of you. They’re your real aunt and uncle. Grace was pregnant. They died in the car crash that put you in the coma and me in and out of consciousness.”

My mind spins for a moment. “What about my parents?”

“They crashed the car into the back of ours. They never died.”

“Then how did you go back with them?”

Joshua smiles at me. “They escorted Grace and Matthew, and then found me but you were nowhere to be found. But Penthea means fifth, you’re the fifth generation to be able to wander amongst the living and the dead.”

“What?”

“Don’t make me say it again, Penn.”

He leans in, I think, to kiss me but millimetres from my face, he stops.

“We’re about to miss the accident.”

I realise we’re next to a road where the cars have been muted.

Joshua points to two cars coming towards us. “Watch.”

A drunken driver brakes in the middle road, the front car, us I guess, swerves to avoid it but it’s too late.

The car smashes into it so violently; I close my eyes and bury my head into Joshua’s shoulder.

I hear another screech of brakes which tears through my body.

“Do I have to watch anymore?”

Joshua rests his chin on my head. “Do accept you almost died now?”

I nod, still not revealing my face.

“Then you can go home.”

“Home?” I say. “Which?”

“To Gate,” he tells me. “Heaven’s Gate.”

I finally look up at him. “Seriously? I’ve never even considered it being called that.”

He grins childishly. “The more you know, hm?”

He kisses my forehead and rests his head against mine.

“I’ll see you when you wake up,” Joshua says. “We have a journey to go on.”

“Joshua, you could not make this sound any more like a fairy tale if you tried?”

“Probably,” he says. “I could tell you that at the end, the prince and the princess lived happily ever after.”

I release his hand and cross my arms across my chest in mock disgust. “You’ve ruined it now.”

He snickers then waves at me as I feel myself waking up.

I rub my eyes, realising for the first time I haven’t woken up screaming.

“Morning,” Joshua says, handing me a cup of tea.

“How did you–”

“Grace let me in,” he tells me. “She thought she knew me.”

I nod, mournfully looking down at the cup. “They don’t know they’re dead, do they?”

Joshua doesn’t reply.

“When I leave, nobody will remember me, will they?”

“No,” he says. “Not unless you use your ability to wander in your sleep.”

I sip my tea to steady my nerves.

“We walk to the boundaries today,” Joshua tells me. “You tell them that you know and accept you were dead.”

“And it’s as simple as that?”

Joshua nods.

“Do I say goodbye to them?” I ask him.

“No, goodbye means you will never see them again. Goodbye means forever.”

I stand up, realising I’m already fully dressed from the previous night. “Let’s go then.”

“You can leave so easily?”

“If I think about it, I’ll be sad but if I go and just consider this a mad adventure then maybe I’ll make it.”

“Are you sure?”

I nod to him. “I’ll be back here again to see them.”

Joshua stands up too and holds out his hand. “We can go there now without the hike, if you want.”

“No, I always wanted to go to the borders. I’ll walk.”

“Fine. We’ll do things your way.”

I smile, walking down the stairs.

Grace lies on the sofa and smiles at me. “Going somewhere?”

“Just for a walk with Joshua,” I lie. “I won’t be back for dinner.”

“That’s fine,” she agrees. “But nowhere near the border, okay?”

I open the front door to let Joshua out first. “See you soon, Grace. I love you.”

She frowns at me. “I love you too? What’s this about?”

I close the door and pull Joshua along the street quickly so she can’t question it further.

It’s not long before we make it out to the surrounding area of Gate. From up here, it looks tranquil. The kind of place you’d move to when you settle down.

“How did Nathaniel die?”

Joshua shrugs. “I’m not sure.”

“I hope it was peaceful.”

Joshua smiles at me gently. “You’re a caring person, Penn.”

The trees grow thicker and the sky becomes paler as we get closer to the border.

“Tell me what Paris is like, when we first met here, you mentioned Paris.”

Joshua stares at me. “You can’t remember?”

“I think I’ve been here too long.”

“It’s picturesque,” he starts. “With a tall tower called the Eiffel Tower where you can see the entire city. People call it the city of love and it’s beautiful. There’s a bridge where lovers put paddocks onto it to ask for their love to last forever like the locks.”

“Have we been there?”

Joshua takes my hand.

“Once on a school trip,” he tells me. “We ran away from the class and went to the Notre Dame; you lit a candle and said ‘Maybe they will let them rest now’. You never said who but your parents told me that your mother saw the dead when she was younger.”

“Great, I was even normal then.”

He nudges me for interrupting.

“We then went to the Eiffel Tower. You sat down and told me you would live there one day.”

“When did we go to Paris?”

“A week before the accident,” Joshua says. “We were only home a couple of days before.”

Joshua stops and looks up.

“We made it.”

I look at whatever he thinks he’s looking at.

“I’m not seeing it, Joshua.”

He sighs, looking amused. “You’ve reached the edge of death.”

“How do you know?” I frown at him. “I can’t see anything.”

“That’s because of your ability, the borders merge.”

I take a deep breath, remembering what I had to say. “I accept that I am living in the realm of the dead and that I have died. I wish to return to life.”

The ground shakes slightly and Joshua smiles at me.

The last words I hear before the darkness plunges around me are:

“We did it, Sweetheart.”

My eyes flutter open.

The mystery woman smiles at me.

“I know he could do it.”

“Mum?”

She kisses my head. “I’ve missed you so much. I better tell your father.”

Again, she kisses me. “Penn, never leave me like that again.”

She pulls out her phone and leaves the room.

Joshua sits next to me, smiling proudly. “I think I did an amazing job.”

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