Peri shifted besides him nervously, tugging on the sleeves of his hoodie. He had found Tommy unconscious in the park after Tommy hadn’t returned to the car. They had raced back to their family as quickly as possible, Peri asking hundreds of questions while Tommy struggled to remember what had happened.
“Hey Mum,” Tommy replied with what he hoped was a winning smile.
“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” she said, glaring at Tommy’s beaten up appearance.
Tommy had expected yelling and shouting, but his mother spoke in an even, deadly whisper. Glancing around, Tommy’s throat constricted. People were everywhere. What if more of those things appeared? They were shadows, and they were monsters, and they could hurt someone.
“Look, Mum, I can explain everything –”
“Where were you? Vanished into thin air… no sign, no message… brothers worried sick… could have been hurt… did you even care… did you even spare a thought for me… your father… grandmother… could have been taken…”
“Taken?” Tommy looked up eagerly, startling his mother out of her rant. “What do you mean, I could have been taken? Taken by what? Mum? Taken how?”
“Tommy.” Peri was tugging on the sleeve of his grubby hoodie. His tone was hushed and urgent, and Tommy recognised the warning in his voice. But he didn’t care. His eyes were only for his mother, who watched him with a look of such pure loathing that Tommy wanted to shrink away into the crowds and vanish all over again.
He wouldn’t, because he wasn’t a coward.
“Let go, Peri –”
“Peri,” his mother said, grabbing Peri by the hand and tugging him into her arms.
Her hands went to his twin’s face, cupping his cheeks and turning his chin this way and that as she looked him over for harm. Tommy felt burning indignation. He would never let his brother get hurt. She should know that, understand that, by now.
“Oh sweetheart, are you okay? You seem flustered and you have a temperature. You might be getting sick again…”
“You.” She swung around to face Tommy, her eyes burning. “Did you even spare a single thought for your brother before you went charging off? Something could have happened to him… he could have had an attack, or fallen ill, or –”
“He might have needed the hospital again! You could have hurt your brother!” She started coughing, her whole body shaking while she covered her mouth. She looked very ill.
His mother stared, looking at his dad but not seeing him. It made the hair on the back of Tommy’s neck stand up. Her eyes looked milky and her hands shook with small tremors. She swayed on her feet.
“Thea.” His dad moved, taking two steps forward and grabbing his mother lightly by the arm. “Thea?”
His mother’s eyes fluttered open and she gave a weak smile. “I think I need to lie down,” she murmured, before fainting.
His father picked her up, one arm behind her neck the other behind the back of her knees.
“Get in the car, Tommy.”
“Now.” He sounded old. “Please. Just do this for me.”
Tommy nodded, climbing into the back of Don’s old trash heap, and buckled his seatbelt. Peri moved to slid in beside him, but their mother’s voice interrupted, moving along the twilight breeze so softly they almost didn’t hear. “Peri?”
Peri looked at Tommy, silently asking if he was alright with his eyes. Tommy nodded stiffly, forcing a smile. Peri left with a frown, sliding into the back seat beside their mother and taking her hand.
Don climbed into to his trash-heap and buckled up. He flicked on the indicator and pulled out into the retreating traffic. The radio played static and the car was silent except for the humming of the engine and the crunching of gravel beneath the tyres.
Neddy watched Tommy through the rear view mirror, his bright eyes questioning and pitying. Tommy hated that look and he had been getting a lot of it lately; whenever Grandi was in the same room and completely ignoring him. He hated people feeling sorry for him, or people thinking he couldn’t handle something.
Don pulled onto the freeway and merged with the traffic heading home. “She didn’t mean it, Tommy. She hasn’t been well lately. Dad thinks it some new flu. Thea wouldn’t…”
Tommy sometimes forgot that Don, Neddy, Misha, Lochie and Ria had a different mother to he, Peri and Vivvy. His father’s first wife had died shortly after Ria was born. His father had met Tommy’s mother at the hospital. She had been working in the laboratory. They were married seven months later. Seven months after that Tommy and Peri had been born prematurely. Don had been eight at the time.
“Thank you,” Tommy whispered in the silence of the car.
Don and Neddy smiled at him through the rear view mirror, while Ria pulled him into a sympathetic hug. The conversation turned to other topics and Tommy was finally left alone to his thoughts, which was both good and bad.
He leant forward and pressed his head against the glass. The quickly cooling air bled through the glass, soaking into his fringe. The stars were slowly waking up while moon stayed hidden. Everything cast a shadow, dancing in the changing light. Every time he focused too long on one spot, Tommy saw a face or teeth or claws reaching towards the car. The birthmark over his heart felt cold and his head pounded.
His mind was straining hard, trying to break down the wall that blocked his mind. Tommy knew that he was missing something, that he needed to remember something, but it was caught, trapped in a place he couldn’t reach.
What was happening to him? What had happened to him?
Tommy tried to figure it out, pulling pieces of the puzzle from memories he did recall, but they didn’t fit. So many pieces were still missing and he couldn’t even remember if there were any more. The shadow today… what was it?
Tommy opened his eyes and breathed out, looking at the nearby farms and the Things in the shadows that chased the car. He recoiled from the window like it had bitten him. Ria glanced at him, rubbing his hip where Tommy’s elbow had smacked it.
One of the shadows was moving quickly, galloping along the road. Its outline resembled a massive wolf, with a rider sitting on its back in a saddle. The wolf’s dark green fur was jagged and spikey, sticking up everywhere like it had been electrocuted.
His heart pounded fast. He couldn’t tell Don to drive faster because that would lead to questions he couldn’t answer. How did someone explain to his brother that he needed to break the speed limit because the shadow of a hippopotamus-sized wolf was chasing them? Without getting locked away or slapped right into a shrink’s office?
Something zipped by the back window, a blur of movement that could have been a bird except that it had four wings instead of two. A buzzing sound started in his ears. Another shadow zoomed by from the opposite direction, then another and another.
The palm of his hand was giving him a cold burn. He felt a strange sensation, a building of energy inside him that rushed through every part of his body, right down to his fingertips and toes. Tommy clamped down on the source of the energy, stemming the tide so that it couldn’t spread. The wolf moved quickly.
Don pulled through Misselthwaite’s massive gates and the buzzing stopped. Tommy saw his father and one of the twins helping his mother. Peri stood nearby, staying close, eyes glued to Don’s car.
Tommy sat frozen in his seat. Ria had unbuckled already and was sliding out, saying something to Neddy as he went. Ria couldn’t have been a metre away, but Tommy heard nothing but the beating of his heart and the low growling of the shadow by the gate. Don had opened his car door and was saying something in reply, his lips moving soundlessly. Everything sounded like it was underwater.
His fingers dug into the upholstery. The rear-view mirror showed the wolf pacing in front of the gates. An invisible force stopped it every time it tried to get in. Tommy saw a blue shimmer in the space between the two pillars, woven like a net flash.
He dragged his eyes away with effort, only to find his Grandi watching him from the porch. A hand rested above her heart and she clenched her locket tightly as her lips moved rapidly.
Tommy felt electricity slam into his body. He shoved past Don and sprinted off, hearing shouting behind him but not looking back. The shadows ran along the edge of the property, on the other side of the gate, following him, chasing him.
He didn’t know where he was going or trying to run too; there wasn’t a safe place. But something in his belly was leading him. Tommy followed the feeling, not giving it a second thought as he heard their animalistic shrieks, so high pitched he was sure they would break glass.
He veered away from the fence and started running towards the bush that sat on the other side of the creek. His steps flattered as he pushed through the first layer of trees, zigzagging in and out of the Australian natives. He heard a howl some way off. Tripping on tree roots and rabbit holes, he didn’t slow down.
He broke through to the other side, seeing the familiar shape of the maze. The creek trickled away soothingly below him and he jumped without a second thought. The water came up to his knees, and shocked him with its coldness. He waded through, feeling water and gunk soak into his shoes and through his jeans. Getting to the other bank, he hefted himself out using a low hanging branch.
A concussive blast knocked him back down. Tommy landed on his back, losing his breath. The creatures paced and prowled along the property line, alternating turns as they charged at the shield keeping them out. The same blue pulse appeared whenever they made contact.
The tugging grew stronger. Tommy heaved himself up, feeling his jeans harden as the creek water dried. Limping – he had twisted his ankle and hurt his knee in the fall – Tommy pushed forward, hobbling towards the maze.
The entrance was a dark mouth. Branches hung down to make sharp teeth, the leaves pressed together to make a mouth. The stars were the only light, the moon nothing more than a thin slice of yellow hidden behind dark clouds.
The wind picked up, making Tommy shiver as it rustled his damp clothes.
His vision was going blurry again, the constant pain in his temple getting stronger and stronger. The tugging was painful, competing with something else inside Tommy that wanted him to go anywhere but into the maze. His palm tingled, the bandages itching like crazy, and in his irritation, Tommy unwound them. The cut had scarred over again, a silver upraised eye in the middle of his palm.
Free from its bonds, a cold burn exploded from the scar. Tommy screamed as his head imploded. A humming started in his ears and he stumbled forward, his sore knee going out beneath him. Dazed and scared, Tommy fell through the door.
He fell like Alice through the rabbit hole.
The air whistled in his ears, the wind pushed his hair of his face. He spread his arms and legs out like he had seen skydivers do on the telly. The air continued to whip at his face.
Tommy looked around quickly. Nothing. Darkness, darkness and more darkness. It was lit only by strange balls of multi-coloured glowing fire. They looked like little burning stars. He reached out, catching one in his hand, and felt no burn. He grabbed it fully, bringing it back into his body and cupping it between his hands.
He continued falling.
He had lost track of how long he had been falling for – hours? A day? Days? It felt like an eternity. Wind whistled in his ears. The air grew hotter and dryer, like what he imagined plummeting through a volcano might be like. The little stars disappeared momentarily, before a blue-tinged light illuminated the entire space around him.
It was massive. He couldn’t see a beginning or ending, a wall or any side.
When the blue light finally ended, there was nothing. Just dark. Dark that stretched on and on and on.
Tommy looked down and the shout that ripped through his throat was lost to the roaring of the air in his ears as the wind took his breath away. Something was directly below him. And another sat on the edge of the dark and eerie blue to his right. He stretched his eyes further, in the other direction, and saw a spot he was certain was another of the shapes.
The one below him was closer now, and he realised that it was a single solitary tower
It was upon him in one moment. Tommy was falling alongside it in the next. He could see his reflection in its pale, transcalent surface. Glass, but not any glass Tommy had ever seen before. As he stared, his reflection rippled. The glass wasn’t reflecting him and the emptiness anymore. He could see water – lots and lots of water.
…boiling, spitting, and hissing, raging. Ash rained down from the sky the colour of fresh blood, from clouds of absolute black. Blue lightning flickers. An endless blanket of smoke smothers the earth, choking the green out. A glittering, magnificent city of glass and gold crumbles, falling to pieces and disintegrating in acidic air...
… a beautiful garden of jewels. Emerald coloured grass, glass flowers made of every precious stone imaginable, fashioned and blown with such a lifelike artistry that they are alive and growing. A garden turned into a battlefield. Arrows flew like autumn leaves, spears were shattering, shields breaking, steel clashed against steel, sword met sword…
… people. People as beautiful as carved statues with flawless skin, and people of every shape and size. Monsters and creatures. Claws dripping red, the stench of burning. Skeletons and revenants fighting, dying, over and over again. A man cries red tears...
… coming back to life and bowing to a boy. A girl holds a flag – the colour of night with a single silver apple tree – in front of a crowd of chimaera. A boy is born from a river of lava, covered in flames and smiling. A warrior cradles the body of a man to his chest, crying, his tears mingling with the muck on his sword. A girl falls into mist, her eyes pure white. Two men fight atop a crumbling palace of crystal – one with wings of pitch and ruby, the other with wings of pearl and gold…
Tommy ripped his eyes away, feeling himself tear in two. He wanted to scream, but couldn’t make any noise.
Tommy was falling again. The tower was still beside him and he could feel it calling to him, whispering in his mind.
He shut his eye tightly, squeezing, refusing to look or hear.
The call turned into a cry; the cry into a scream. He didn’t open his eyes again.