Sarah & The Golden Age – The First Six Chapters

I’ve been polishing and scrubbing and making over this adventurous teen and she’s finally ready for her debut!

Here are the first six chapters of Sarah’s origin from the first book in the series of YA sci-fi fantasy novels, Sarah & The Golden Age.

 

Sarah & The Golden Age

by

Gráinne McHale

 

§

 

    Chapter One

   

Have you ever felt like time makes no sense? It’s a strange one, isn’t it? It’s supposed to go in a straight line from past to future. But it doesn’t seem to do that all the time, does it? Sure, the day goes from morning to night every day without fail but what if – like for me – it doesn’t? What if it jumps forward, backward, inside out, upside down or stops altogether and you can’t remember where you are? You’d think you were bananas, wouldn’t you? Well I used to think I was crazy. But now I know I’m not.

   My problems with time began when my parents died in a car accident three years ago. I hadn’t been with them. An oncoming driver lost control and swerved into their lane.

   Time had been splintering and slipping ever since. One moment I was here, the next I was thinking about something from the past and bang! There I was reliving it as the scene re-played itself with me stuck inside it without being able to change it.

   Every day since the accident I fought hard to forget what had happened to my parents but it doesn’t seem like the right thing to be doing. It was so painful to be slipping in and out of their presence in my memories that I had to fight against it happening.

   But it’s making me forget some important things, like the way my Dad used to tease me or my mother’s tone-deaf singing. I have no choice but to let myself remember if I want to hold on to them.

   I have one thing that I treasure above everything else, a photograph of the three of us on holiday in Tampa. It’s the only photo I have of them and I keep it safely hidden under my mattress.

The moon was silent on the way home from the dunes. Everything slept. The sweet scent of cherry blossom carried me along the soundless suburban street where bungalows shrouded in dusk had retired for the night. The twilight was so peaceful I lingered a lot longer at the cold deserted beach than I should have.

   I was reluctant to go back to the foster home because Bobby was spending the night. He was going out with Selene, my guardian.

   I took my time going back because I’d broken curfew a couple of hours ago. It wouldn’t make much difference now. Selene would kill me either way.

   There wasn’t not much to do in Logan at the weekend, the small harbour town where I live. Sitting at the feet of Big Irma, the mountain that protects us from the stormy north, Logan is surrounded by sombre mountains on one side and a capricious green sea on the other. It is practically indistinguishable from any of the other little fishing towns like it running up the northwest coast. If you liked hanging round the local diner or staying in to watch football or hockey, it was the place to be.

   Wait. Something was different. Where was I? A car roared by. A green picket fence was on my right. Rowland Road – my street. I’d come unstuck from time again and had floated around in the sky over the town when I thought about Logan’s geography.

   Coming back to the present was always discombobulating. I wish I could control it better. If I could, I would probably put a stop to it. I didn’t tell anyone about it because they’d throw in the looney bin for sure.

   It would be something if I could change things, if I could re-write the past. But that’s not how it worked. No matter what I did in a memory I was like a fly trapped in solid amber doomed to relive the memory until it played itself out.

   I looked back up the street. In what normally takes twenty minutes had taken me no time at all. That creeped me out. Getting stuck always felt like time-traveling. What must I look like to someone else when I’m ‘not there’?

   My front gate was just a few meters away. Twelve other girls and I lived in the big old red-brick house at the top of Sandy Hill. It was always cold and damp inside. The best thing about it was the outside with its big garden of enormous old oak trees out front and flowery orchard of apple trees out back.

   It was always cold inside because Selene saved money on heating so she could buy more clothes and make-up for herself. She was always hitting the town with her pals. She was short and big-boned. Her feet and hands were tiny and her nose was large and red. She spent a lot of time fretting over it in front of the endless array of mirrors dotting the walls throughout the house. A nose job was her only dream in life and Bobby promised her he’d get her one as a wedding present. She spent most of her day in a silky kimono munching on cheesy chips waiting for Bobby to get back from the garage where he worked on his number one passion: motorbikes.

   Drifting toward the house, the softness of the night overwhelmed me with its delicate shimmerings and soft drippings. There was something different about the air tonight. There was a kind of electric hum that made everything shiver. I should have known what was coming. A memory.

   As soon as I reached the front gate it kicked in. The strongest memory of my mother, Zookie, took me over. I felt a painful twang in my cheek. I traced a finger along the two-inch scar above my jaw. Transported to our old back garden in a cosy little cul de sac in Layton Heights in Wickham, I stood face to face with my mother who was ready to do a trust building exercise.

  I was transfixed by her face. A stab of anguish struck my belly. She didn’t notice and went behind me as she had done years before. I was supposed to let myself fall backwards toward her and she was supposed to catch me.

   ‘Go!’ she said.

  Knowing what was coming, I fell backwards… and kept on falling until I hit the ground.

   She had stepped out of the way at the last moment.

   “Silly girl,” she said, “You should know by now that you can never trust anyone. Not even your own mother!”

   My face smarted with pain again. There was the blood once more on my fingers.

   “Good Lord, you’ve cut your face!” she cried. “How did you manage that? Oh look, there was glass there. Oh well, I guess you won’t be forgetting this lesson anytime soon.”

   She helped me up and put a tissue to my face to soak up the blood. Kissing my forehead she said, “You only need yourself in this world. Listen to your heart and God will always look after you.”

   Two stitches and two years later I was still baffled by what had happened, but just as impressed. No one had a way of putting things like Zookie had.

   She was always praying, even when she was doing the dishes or hanging out the clothes. She’d chat away to God like he was always right there beside her. I used to worry she was mad but I loved listening in. Mostly she would say thank you for a lovely sunny day or thank you for a lovely rainy day, or asked what it was supposed to mean when a dish broke. It was baffling. She could put a positive spin on everything.

   Sometimes she’d stare into the mirror sometimes and smile, crazy with happiness, seeing God right there looking back from inside her. She’d look at me like that too and it was the single best feeling in the world.

   But I didn’t know what to think about God now. When I lost her, I lost that feeling his name used to bring up.

   Soon that memory would fade. One day it would be gone, just like her. So I stayed in our old back garden as long as I could. When the memory ended I was standing at the front gate, alone in the world. I might as well not belong to it at all.

 

 

     Chapter Two   

 

All the lights were off in the house. Selene must have gone to sleep. A beer can sat on the pillar beside the gate. A bad omen. Maybe she and Bobby had gone out. I hoped that was the reason the house seemed so unnaturally quiet. Getting to bed shouldn’t be too difficult, just a matter of shimmying up the tree at the side of the house opposite my window and slipping in without detection. I’d done it before.

   As I pushed the front gate in it whined loudly. Great start. I glanced up but the house remained still and undisturbed. I’d have to be quick. Hurrying up the garden path I skipped gingerly up the porch steps. At the top step I tripped over something, lost my balance and came down hard on my shoulder with a loud clatter.

   “Aw jeez!” a voice hissed. 

   I clutched my shoulder, stifling a cry and biting against the pain. Someone had been sitting with their legs stretched across the top step. In the dim light coming from the moon I made out the shape of Bobby.

   “What the hell are you doing?” he snapped, hauling himself up and taking me with him by the crook of my elbow like a ragdoll, as though I weighed nothing at all.

   I’d been able to avoid him for weeks but now here we were alone together in the middle of the night. My nerves got the better of me. I yanked free and darted for the door. But he swiftly intercepted me, barring the way with a sinewy tattoed arm.

   “Ah-ah not so fast,” he spat, “Where exactly you been all night, chicky? Selene’s been zippin’ dillies.”

   He was drunk. He always talked like this when he was drunk.

  “N-none of your business,” I said.

  Tall, sharp and top heavy like a boxer, my unintentional stammer give him a superior sense of ease and he relaxed his weight against the door.

   “What’s all up with you, eh?” he said.

   “I’m tired,” I said, “I want to go to bed.”

   “Not so fast,” he said, dropping his eyes down my front, giving me a good looking over.

   Bobby was used to getting his way. Everyone loved him because he was handsome and had a motorbike. I disliked him for the exact same reasons. You can never trust a cliché, Zookie used to say, especially a walking one.

   “Been up to something we shouldn’t, maybe?” he said.

   He reached out and clipped my chin with his thumb. I slapped his hand away, making him laugh.

   Ever since he’d first started calling on Selene two months ago he’d taken one look at me and decided to make it a part-time job to torment me. He flicked cigarettes at me, called me an ugly loser, he would even spit on the ground near me when I walked by. But we’d never been alone before. Now he was coming toward me cocking his head curiously to one side like a predator.

  “You always run away when you see me,” he said, “Why is that, I wonder?”

  His hard grey eyes glistened. Long trails of greasy black hair fell down across his face as he reached a hand into his pocket to bring out a pack of cigarettes. Distracted for a moment, he lit one. I didn’t hesitate. I dashed down the front steps.

   I shouldn’t have been surprised when I felt hands grip me from behind. The next thing I knew my face was being pushed into the front lawn. His whole weight bore down on me so forcefully I thought my ribs would break. Then I was on my back, my face inches from his, my hands pinned over my head.

   Time slowed and I experienced everything to an intense degree. Bobby’s face contorted with malicious glee, his twitching muscles writhed under the soft wrapping of

 

his skin, his heavy breathing, the life in his body burning away cell by cell from moment to moment. When I opened my mouth to scream he’d already thought to cover it with his hand.

   “Hush up,” he whispered. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I promise.”

   Replacing his hand that covered my mouth with his lips, he kissed me. No one had ever kissed me before. People say sixteen is late but here it was being forced on me.

   I squirmed, but it only made him more insistent and he tightened his grip around me by wrapping us up together in a tangle of limbs and pressure; his hands going everywhere, clamping round my waist, my neck, pulling me to him with a hunger I didn’t understand.

   A heavy, unbearable feeling of inevitability came over me. At that moment, I felt the fear I imagined all women must feel at a time like this, that of being a prisoner of their body, weak, exposed, an object. Just like when a memory takes me over I found myself  drifting away from the moment. From somewhere high above in the trees I watched the scene down below as if the whole thing were happening to someone else.

   “Sarah,” he breathed in my ear.

  I was jolted back into my body. My first impulse was to fight, but something was different. I felt strange. As his hands moved down my body, a nauseous sensation came over me. A part of me I never knew existed before was actually enjoying what was happening.

   Although it seemed impossible, I suddenly became aware of a new person forming inside me. A new Sarah.

   When Bobby moved his lips down my neck, her face came up out of the darkness of my mind. She looked just like me was standing still, not moving, as though she were asleep or in a trance. The space around her became vast and huge, beyond the depth of  darkness. An endless void opened up inside me.

  Suspended within the fear of her waking up and ensnared by a mouth and hands that were threatening to devour me and make me want to flee from myself, the opposite of what I expected to happen occurred. A deep sense of peace washed over me.

   Something was very different. My body felt like it had been electrified. It were as though it had taken me over. My teeth bit down hard on Bobby’s tongue. Shrieking like an animal he jerked away clapping his mouth with his hands. The taste of his blood in my mouth did something to the newly-forming Sarah in the darkness.

   Her eyes opened. They were blood red.

   Where had I gone? I was drifting between reality and the strange dark peace inside my head. For the first time ever I’d lost control of my body. I couldn’t get back to it. I couldn’t locate myself. The other Sarah came into sight. Her arms were reaching out toward me. Her face was so dark, so terrifying, so marred by pain and suffering that I couldn’t look at it. My heart was about to cave in.

   But then I felt shaking. Pain. In an instant I was back in my body looking up at Bobby who was sitting on top of me on his haunches. 

   My head was ringing. I realized that he had just hit me in the face. Warm blood trickled from my nose and down the side of my cheek.

    The porch light came on.

 

 

 

 Chapter Three

 

  Selene was standing in the doorway. Bobby scrambled to his feet. For a few awful moments it seemed the world was about to turn inside out.

   Selene was not moving but her whole body was vibrating.

  “You little piece of crap,” she said, finally.

   “She came on to me!” Bobby said, folding his arms, “She just went crazy.”

  Selene didn’t look at him. All the while her gaze had been locked on me. Slowly, she began to descend the steps. Bobby went to her but she stepped around him heedless of his simpering. Looking down her nose, she shook her head.

   “You nasty little bitch,” she said.

   I started to get up.

   “No,” she said, putting her foot on my shoulder and shoving me back down.

   “Stay down there in the dirt. It suits you. You think you’re so high and mighty. So different. So special. Too good for this place. Well I’ve got news for you, princess. You’re not. You’re just the opposite. You’re nothing. Nothing!”

   She didn’t know it but the truth of her words hit home. I felt the unexpected need for the girl, the other Sarah. But she was gone. Disappeared into thin air as though she never existed. It had just been a hallucination.

    Selene eyed me for a moment. Without warning she lunged for me. Bearing down on me with her fists she shook with a fury so intense I thought she would kill me. I could hear Bobby laughing in the background. It was a sickening, nervous, perverse laugh.

   Selene began dragging me toward the house by my hair. When she yanked me up the steps a sharp pain in my neck made me cry out. She let go quickly and cast about terrified that one of the neighbours might have heard. She grabbed me under the shoulders and made short work of hauling me inside. Bobby followed up the steps with a look of mesmerized awe on his face. When she got me over the doorjamb she slammed the door in his face.

   There was a clatter of footsteps on the landing. All of the girls were coming to my rescue, flying down the stairs like white witches in their billowing nighties. They grabbed Selene and tried to haul her off of me. They managed to break her grip on me and I made for the stairs. When I was half way up Selene broke free and leapt after me. On the top step I lost my footing. Falling forward, my feet shot backwards and hit her in the stomach.

   A horrible cry pierced the air. I turned in time to see her body tipping backwards in slow motion. Suddenly her spine sprang forward in a reflexive attempt to counteract the inevitable. For one terrible moment she hung suspended in mid air. But then, eventually, she toppled back, crashing to the bottom and landing in a contorted lump by the door.

  Bobby was began thrusting himself against the door trying to get in, but her weight was barring the way.

   I clung to the steps, immobilized. Nobody breathed. Was she dead? Oh God, had I just killed someone?

   Groans came from below. Selene began to unwrap herself in twitchy jerks like some kind of enormous broken spider. My faculties returned. I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in.

   “No, Sarah, don’t!” someone called out. “I have to pee!”

  It was Maggie, the closest thing I had to a best friend. Selene hadn’t done much to inspire loyalty among the girls, especially Maggie, who seemed to be in a perpetual state of laundry duty for being ‘an everlasting pain in the mind’.

   I was staying put.

  For a long time after that there was a lot of fuss about calling an ambulance. Selene wasn’t having it. It was obvious to everyone that she wouldn’t stand a chance trying to concoct some sort of sob story in her state with twelve young witnesses milling around ready to call her an abusive lunatic and only a greasy-looking boyfriend lurking around to back her up.

   She didn’t say that of course, she just mumbled on about being too tired to wait in the emergency room and would go in the morning if she had to. I plugged my ears and slid down to the floor leaning my back against the door. What would she do to me? I’ll be sent away to the correctional for sure and never heard of again.

  The fuss eventually died down and I must have dosed off because I woke up some time later almost frozen to death on bathroom floor. Shivering and bruised I yearned for my bed.

   With my heart creeping up into my throat, I opened the door slowly onto the dark hallway. Bracing myself, I half-expected Selene to leap out of the dark and attack me again. But she didn’t.

   The house was dead. I dashed to my room. Fearing for my life, I pushed the shabby  wooden dresser against the door. I would call the police in the morning if I could get to a phone. Maybe someone could pinch Selene’s for me. I reeled as I tried to figure out what I was going to do but I couldn’t think straight.

   The clock said 3:33am.

   Standing in the middle of a room that had suddenly lost its meaning, I realized I was staring out the window. For the first I became aware that it was wide open. That was very strange. I always shut my window to keep what little heat there was inside.

   I went to close it but a powerful gust of wind pushed me back. It couldn’t have been possible but I was positive something enormous had just whooshed past the window. Rigid with fear, I stealthily craned my neck to look out.

   In the limbs of the opposite tree, a man’s face with jet black eyes was staring right at me. I almost screamed. But then it was gone. I stared hard at the blank space where it had just been but there was nothing there. Had it some kind of trick of the moonlight in the leaves? What was going on? Had I finally lost it? No, at the very least it was hallucination brought on by head trauma.

   I fumbled with lifeless fingers to close the window. I locked it shut and drew the curtains tight.

   I shut off the light. Then those dark eyes overtook me. It were as though they had looked right through me. What the hell had I just seen? Something very real, with a dreadful face. Some kind of demon? I thought I would be sick.

   I was not leaving my room again so I buried under the covers of the bed and pushed the nausea away. I was plagued by a recurring thought: it was my fault. I had somehow brought all this on myself, because I was weak, useless, a pointless piece of nothing., a point of attraction for chaos and violence. I couldn’t avoid the realization that insanity was starting to creep in, and for once I prayed that I would become unstuck from time forever and get lost inside my memories, in the past where it was sad but at leas it was safe and known, forever.

   Overcome by guilt and drifting towards an exhausted oblivion I was tortured by a terrible tomorrow. Nothing would ever change. None of my problems would ever go away. Unless…

   Unless maybe I went away.

 

 

   Chapter Four

 

I woke up the next morning to the sound of lots of hustle and bustle on the landing. Everyone was up and getting ready for school and the bathroom wars were underway. Pulling the duvet over my head and reaching to the dresser I picked up a book that Zookie had given me once, the Tao Te Ching. Something was inside. It was the photo of my parents. That’s strange, I usually remembered to bring it with me everywhere. It marked chapter twenty-two which read,

 

“Allow yourself to yield, and you can stay centred.

Allow yourself to bend, and you will stay straight.

Allow yourself to be empty, and you’ll get filled up.

Allow yourself to be exhausted, and you’ll be renewed.

Having little, you can receive much.

Having much, you’ll just become confused.”

 

It calmed me down for a few moments, enough to think. At first, the panicked thoughts of what had happened clamoured and clanged between my ears, but gradually and gently, little hints of revelation began to swirl to the surface.  One thought dominated the rest. I knew I had brought it all on myself; how Bobby and Selene treated me. It was dangerous to think something like that, that I had attracted violence to me by my thoughts, or emotions., but I just couldn’t shake the idea. Most people would insist that these things were just random, that I was an innocent victim of the mindless violence of the world. But I couldn’t accept that. I just knew there was more to it than that. My behaviour allowed them to attack. Weakness invites aggression: dog psychology. If I hadn’t let Bobby kiss me in the first place none of this would have happened.

   But it wasn’t just as simple as all that. There was something fateful, something inevitable about these events that seemed far beyond my control. There was a stronger force at work that I had nothing to do with. It controlled the way things were going and was always one step ahead. It was like I was being haunted by some kind of demonic entity. The face in the trees returned. What the hell had that been? Was I going out of my mind? Then that awful thing returned to my mind’s eye. The thing I’d tried to forget. The woman with the red eyes. They all lingered and mingled and mangled my mind as I fought to find a solution.

   There was a loud knocking on the door.

   “Sarah, what gives?” said Maggie. “Open the door, will you?”

I jumped up and hauled the dresser back a few inches enough to let Maggie squeeze inside.

“Help me with this quick,” I said, pushing the dresser back against the door.

“Easy,” she said, pushing her weight against it as well till it stood solidly against the frame.

She hugged me tight and looked me over assessing the damage. She flinched when she saw my eye.

“Ah,” she hissed, “That’s a pretty punnet of strawberries.”

I looked in the mirror next to the door. She was right. A red and black smatter of bruising had bloomed around my right eye and on my chin overnight. I looked away.

“Are you alright?” said Maggie.

I nodded solemnly and returned to the bed. Maggie’s face was full of sympathy and she followed me. Snuggling up against me she whispered.

“She won’t get away with this, you know. I’m going to stay here with you today. They’ll never know. Any trouble and we’ll skip out the window and peg it to the dunes, ok?”

“Ok,” I whispered.

 “Where do you think your grandmother is now?” Maggie said.

  “Huh?” I said.

   That was a strange question to ask at such a time. It triggered a montage of flashbacks I could not escape from. They were the best memories and feelings Zookie had ever given me in and I felt them powerfully within a handful of moments. When I returned to the room, Maggie was still waiting for an answer.

“I don’t know,” I said. “In heaven, I guess… if it exists.”

   It was hard to think of Zookie as really gone. I had avoided entering into conversations  about it because everyone was so adamant that she was absolutely gone, dead, lost forever. I didn’t believe that.

    “I dunno…” Maggie said, dubiously.

    “What do you mean?”

   “Oh… Well, I don’t know what I mean exactly. I mean, what about heaven? It’s odd but it doesn’t really seem far away if you think about it. It seems like it’s real close as soon as you think about it. Like it only exists in your head or because you thought about it. But you could say that about anything really, couldn’t you?”

   It was surprising to hear Maggie speak like this. In the six months I’d known her, I’d never pegged her as the philosophical type. She noticed my intrigued expression.

   “Haha, you didn’t think I was into that stuff, huh? I got that one from one of your books! Anyway, I don’t think we ever really die. We just…eh, change into something else, I think.”

   I was starting to feel uncomfortable in a way I did not understand.

   “It’s a bit silly when you think about it,” Maggie continued, “It’s impossible to imagine not being somewhere, isn’t it? When you think about it, how could you not be? It’s probably some kind of a conspiracy that we’re brought up to think that we’re supposed to die and stop existing completely. I think we’re only told we die and so we do. There are tribes in Australia that believe that, you know. They believe they’re supposed to die at a certain age, like 36 or something, because it’s some kind of tradition, and then they do! Their heart just stops and they die. It’s a fact.”   

   “Really?” I said, feeling a little dizzy.

   “It’s true. It’s on the internet.”

   “Well then, it must be true,” I chuckled.

  “What’s wrong?” she said, with a start, “You’ve gone all grey. Are you feeling ok? Was it something I said? God, I’m sorry, Sarah. I didn’t mean-”

   “No,” I said, “I’m fine. I think I just ate too fast. I’m going to lie down. Stay here, will you? I want to talk some more.”

   The sun had gone down and a few drops of rain spattered the window. The air was that hot kind of electric like it gets just before a heavy downpour.

   “I have a strange feeling,” I said.

   “What is it?”

   “I’m not sure,” I said, wondering if I should give words to the exhilaration and desperation I’d been feeling since the night before and risk losing my nerve. Everything was inside out and I felt I had little control over what I was going to say. I opened my mouth and decided to roll with it. “Like maybe something impossible will happen. There’s this big gap now. Like a big hole. Like it could be a door, even…”

   “Huh?” said Maggie.

   “I’ve been having the same strange dream every night.”

   “Tell me,” said Maggie, sitting up eagerly.

  “They’re always in this same place I don’t recognize but know. There are loads of people. They’re all crazy looking, like animals or aliens or something. They know me and they all clamour for me, reaching out their hand to me, and I feel bad. Like I’m suffocating. It’s like I can’t go to them because I’m afraid. Then a bird appears and I follow it away. It’s a small speckled frightened thing hiding in tall grass near a wall. It’s afraid of a white fox that’s stalking around. I see the fox and catch it but, in my hands, it changes into a white cat. It wriggles out of my grip and lands near the bird. It sees it and pounces, catching it in its mouth. It runs away with it and I can’t follow because it’s too fast. I feel horrible and then I wake up. What do you think that means?”

   “Hmm,” said Maggie, “I don’t really know. Maybe you need to protect something or are trying to protect something that can’t be protected, you know?”

  “Yeah, it’s a bit like that, like it seems that no matter what I do I can’t save the bird, or I’m not supposed to. The bad thing is always going to get it and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

   “You mean like fate?”
   “Yeah, maybe.”

   “Don’t think about it too much. You’re just sad right now.”

  “No. It’s not a sad thing. I always thought that. It’s good. It means I can’t control what happens to others because I’m not them. All I can do is think about myself, right? Not in a bad way. My life is more important than caring about trying to save other people when I can’t, when it’s not up to me. What’s going to happen to them will happen to them and it’s really none of my business-”

   “What if someone was about to get hit by a car or something and you could push them out of the way?” Maggie interrupted.

   “Well, of course I’d save them. But I think it has to do with how much space there is between people,” she said.

   “What?”

   Maggie’s face was a contortion of amusement, caution and disbelief.

   “If you go down to the level of atoms,” I began carefully, “they are all billions of miles away from each other, relatively speaking. They are as far away from each other as planets are as far away from each other in space. Do you see? What does that tell you about people? That they are even further away from each other! So much so that they could be entirely different universes in themselves!”

   “Whoa now. That’s gnarly!” said Maggie, “Bit lonely, though…”

   “Yeah,” I laughed, “I mean that’s how different we are from each other.”

  “But I don’t feel different to you,” said Maggie, patting her hands on mine and mimicking a confused kind of alien creature from another world.

   “Hey,” I giggled, patting her back.

   “I think it’s just like an optical illusion?” I continued.

   “How?”

   “I don’t trust the body here. I mean the body that is in this world. I don’t trust its emotions or its senses. They just blind you and distract you from more important things.”

   “Like what?”

   “From the fact that nothing is real.”

   Maggie’s face dropped.

  “It’s not real,” I continued quickly, afraid of losing her, “It’s as though we are doing battle with an animal every day. That we’re actually caught inside of – like we’re not our bodies, we’re just caught inside our bodies – and we can’t get out, unless we die. It’s like the minotaur in the labyrinth. We keep looking for the centre, the meaning of everything, but there’s only horror and death at the centre. There’s only the minotaur waiting to eat us – the animal, the monster. I agree with you when you think there is no death, but I don’t think there’s any life either. It’s all just the same thing inside some big indifferent glob of chaos. There’s nothing there. And neither are we…”

    Maggie’s eyes crossed for a moment and then she shook her head in a goofy way like a dog shaking off water.

   “But we are here!” Maggie laughed, trying to pull me up out of the hole I didn’t know I had sunken into. She brushed my arm affectionately.

   “I see what you mean though,” she said. “That’s what I mean about feeling like there’s a heaven. It’s like all that counts is how you feel and that’s what will happen, y’know. So why not feel good?!”

   “Easier said than done,” I relented.

   “It is,” Maggie insisted, “It is easy. Just do what Peter Pan does. Think happy thoughts and keep thinking them till you’re all blissed out.”

   “Why do you think that?” I said.

  “Because it feels very wrong to think that there’s nothing, Sarah. It actually feels like I’m dying if I believe that. We’re here now and that’s what matters.”

That night I found it impossible to go to sleep. Of course, being asleep for most of the day didn’t help. At about 3am, I gave up. My mind was a mess, racing and chasing its tail, falling all over itself. I sloughed off the sheets and got up. The room was stifling and I hauled up the window. A cold gust blew through me inflating my nightdress up around me like a hot air balloon. It was delicious. Freedom lay beyond, just out of reach. The night called and the trees watched. They could have been whispering it. The answer. I suddenly heard it. A thought on the breeze, louder than all the rest, kept repeating the same thing.

  

   

Chapter Five

 

It was freezing out. The rain dripped on my hood and the wet fabric chilled my bare arm underneath it. I’d packed a sleeping bag, a pen-knife, a first aid kit, toothbrush and toothpaste, a pair of fresh clothes, a book, and my wallet which only had ten dollars in it. I stuffed a few scones from the kitchen in too on the way out the back door. No one heard me leave. If I was going to run away, I’d had better get as much distance between myself and the house as fast as possible.

   The dawn was threatening the horizon. Birds were beginning their morning salutation and the first stirrings of life could be heard in the central streets below. Clanging beer barrels for the bars and delivery trucks had already started up in the centre. No one could see me or I’d have much less of a chance. My plan was to get to the motorway and follow along until Bitterworth. There I could get a bus to Helling and then… well, I’d just be in Helling, a big city. My plan wasn’t very clear after that. It was loosely based on the idea that I’d find some kind of job and somewhere to live. I’d have to rough it on the streets for a while until I could afford a hostel. People did things like that all the time. Well, at least in movies they did.

   The grey clouds lumbered through the galing sky. I pulled my coat tight around me and cursed myself for not bringing warmer clothes. The edge of the suburbs opened out onto a large acreage of barley fields which would cover me from sight and some of the weather, hopefully. I picked my way through the sturdy stalks at a brisk pace, all the while trying not to argue with myself.

   This was the only way. Only a crazy person would stay. What? Stay and wait for Selene to exact a terrible revenge for what she thought I’d done with Bobby and maybe put me in the hospital in the process? And also leave myself wide open for Bobby to pounce on whenever he wanted? Maybe next time I wouldn’t get away so easy.

   No way. I wouldn’t be a sitting duck. I hated leaving Maggie but I knew she would understand. And I knew that being without her would hurt me more than it would her.

   When I got to the motorway, I stopped. Something niggled at me. What was it? Did I forget some- Oh God. I pulled my bag off my back. Rummaging through it, I pulled out the book I’d brought, the Tao, and rifled through the pages. It wasn’t there. The photograph of my family. How could I have forgotten it? It must still be in my room somewhere.

   The crops whipped past my face as I raced back keeping a watchful eye on the ground in case it had just fallen out. Would I make it back before anyone noticed I was gone? I looked at my watch. It had stopped! Another reason I envied the other girls their phones – a second clock. I’d never had enough money to buy one and Zookie hated them. She said she’d rather chew glass with her eyeballs than let me have a phone; accusing them of rotting your brain, and being mind-control devices as part of a vast international conspiracy to keep the masses in check.

   I knew what I was going to do. I’d leave my bag and jacket at the edge of the field behind the wall of the last estate and arrive back pretending I’d gone for a walk if anyone asked. The day had taken shape, cars were leaving driveways, traffic was building up. Jogging down my street, I found the house to be still. Judging by the lack of girls hanging out on the doorstep, the bus had already come and gone. Climbing up to my bedroom window was a good option but if I was caught it would be disastrous. The safest way in was through the front door. It made no sound as I opened it quietly. Empty. Selene was probably still in bed. Even if I did bump into her I could still run away by finding some excuse to duck out.

    My bedroom was just how I’d left it, except I was sure I’d closed the door before I’d gone. I searched through all my books and in the bed and under it. I tossed out all the clothes from my drawers and turned the room upsdie down, but there was nothing, no sign of it. Then I heard a noise behind me. Selene was standing in the doorway fully dressed holding a cigarette.

   “Looking for something?” she said.

   “Eh, no. Yes! I can’t find my -,” think Sarah, think “history book.”

   Selene’s lip curled as she took a long drag from her cigarette.

   “Oh really?” she said, taking something out of her pocket.

   A triumphant expression crossed her face as she held up the photograph of my parents.

   “I thought maybe you had been looking for this?” she said. “It was lying outside the back door when I got up this morning.”

   A stab of panic pierced my heart. She edged nearer to the doorway.

   “I wonder how it got there? Curious that it should. Isn’t this very precious to you? I’d think you’d take better care of something like the this: the only photo of your parents.”

   “Can I have it, please?” I said.

   She turned the photo around to look at it.

   “Ugly aren’t you?” she said, grinning. “But your Dad was a real dish. Oh, I see… You got your looks from your mum.”

   There was too much at stake to fly off the handle, which was exactly what she wanted me to do. I turned around and started picking up the clothes I’d splayed all over the floor.

   “Oh,” she said, pouting, “then you don’t want it? Ok then, I’ll just -“

   When I looked up I saw that she was holding the end of her cigarette to a corner of the photo. I lunged for her but she darted out of the room, and I heard the door lock from the other side.

   “Stop!” I screamed. “Don’t, Selene, please!!”

   There was only the sound of laughter and the smell of burning plastic as a response.

   “You little slut,” she barked through the door, “You ungrateful slapper. For all I’ve done for you this is what I get? And then you try and run away! I heard the back door close last night and when I look out there you were carting off into the night with a backpack like a little bum. Well I’ve had it. You’re going straight to correctional for this. I’m going to tell them what you did to me, pushing me down the stairs. And don’t think Bobby will stand up for you. He told me how much you’ve been trying it on with him. It makes me sick! It doesn’t matter anyway because me and Bob are still going to get married. You hear me? He loves me! Me!

   The window. I could still get out. I gripped the rungs and pulled hard. It was stuck fast. She’d done something to it.

   “Trying the window, you little maggot? Haha! There’ll be no more galavanting for you, sweetie,” Selene hissed. “You’re nailed in from the outside. I suggest you pack another bag while you wait. A bigger one. This time you won’t be coming back.”

  

 

Chapter Six

 

Nothing happened all day. Selene had gone out and left me and no one would be back for hours. It was gym day which meant three hours of sports after school. This was the end of everything I knew and nothing that was to come would be in any way good. For the first time in my life I was completely lost, alone and without hope. I lay on the bed and let everything that had happened take me over. All the grief, confusion and fear coursed through me like a tidal wave. It hurt so much but I hadn’t the strength to stop it. It was strange but it felt so good to just give in and let go. There was nothing good in the world. It really did seem that it was made up of absolutely nothing at all, and if there was any kind intelligence to it, it was an evil one.

  There was a loud bang. A book had fallen from a high shelf onto the wooden floor. My heart had nearly burst with fright. But the room began to tremor. Was it an earthquake? Something strange began to happen. But it was no earthquake. I could feel like my senses were playing a trick on me.

   The walls and the furniture swirled and pulsed, shrank and swelled. The table lamp at once had no mass and then suddenly loomed massively above me as though it was about to fall and crush me. Was I having some kind of nervous breakdown? None of this could be real. Then a strange thought occurred to me. I realised that none of what had happened to me in my life had been real at all. I knew now that I would die and it wouldn’t make any difference to the world. Death was the final escape. Why prolong it? What was there to lose? This was my salvation. The very air itself seemed to be encouraging me to do the unspeakable. Yes, something very real was encouraging me to take my own life. It whispered, “Do it, the world is an evil place. No one needs you. No one loves you. You’re alone. It’s just going to get worse from here on out.”

   A cool breeze swept across my face. The window was wide open. How? I rubbed my eyes and squinted at it to make sure I wasn’t just seeing things. But there it was, yawning the big black night at me. I started toward it. My body felt new, different. What had been happening to the room seemed to be happening to me also. The exhilerating lightness and terrible weight of my own being was at once excruciating and exquisite. Where were my feet? Somewhere very far below. I was walking in slow motion, all my senses had also slowed down. As I neared the window it grew larger, not just because it should have according to reason but as though I was shrinking. And then I realised why. I was sinking into the floor. I fell forward pushing at the ground but my hands sank into the wood like it were made of soup. I tried to cry out for help but my voice had left me too. Was this it? Was I dying? A sound came from the window. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

A man in a black military uniform stood in the room looking down at me. I hoped against everything that he was here to help but something in me was even was making me even more terrified of him than what the floor was doing to me. It was his gaze, it was how a predator locked onto a victim: wide-eyed, intent and ready to pounce. His mouth was slightly open, he didn’t seem to breathe in his transfixion. The rest of him didn’t get any better. Under a wave of shortly cropped brown hair his ears were bizarrely pointed and beneath a slightly hooked nose sat a cruel mouth framed by an unruly copper beard. None of him about him seemed human. It registered with me unpleasantly that he was also very attractive which made no sense given the situation.

   It was too much. I was either going to faint or find a way to escape. A spark of strength came to me from nowhere and I struggled against the floor. To my surprise I actually managed to get an arm loose. It didn’t matter much though because the man was coming towards me. On his hands he wore thick gloves with which he used to grasp my waist. I tried to scream but again no sound came out. What was wrong with me?

   With one strong motion he removed me from the floor and held me up in front of him with practically no effort. I fought and squirmed against him but he subdued me by moving a hand to my neck and squeezing the air out of my lungs. Our eyes met again. His bore right into me. I was charged with an inexplicable feeling of security, followed by a voice that said, “It is safe.” I ignored it because of what was happening to him. His eyes were softer now but not in a good way. He’d caught his prey. The rest of him was braced for violence as though he were on the verge of murder. He turned to the window and when he turned back he did the strangest thing: he smiled at me.

   “Put me down!” I said, finding my voice.

   As soon as I’d spoken the floorboards shot up in jagged forms, and formed long splintered feelers that whipped and grabbed at our limbs. We rose up and hovered a few feet above the ground. We were flying! He clutched me to him and the next thing I knew we were flying out of the window. As we hurtled straight up into the sky I clung onto him for dear life, hiding my head under his chin against the wind speed that threatened to snap my neck back if I didn’t do otherwise. I was being abducted by some kind of alien.

   Now clear of the strange effects the room had had on me, my faculties returned.

   “Put me down!” I repeated.

  I was flatly ignored. His gaze was faraway, fixed in the future somewhere. Over his shoulder I caught sight of something following us. It had come from the bedroom and was shapeless but liquid, changing its form from a black to a metallic type of substance. It gained on us.

   “There’s something behind us!” I said.

   Their faces were close and he didn’t look at her or look back but just increased speed, gripping me so tight all the air left my body. The shape matched us and gained again, reaching out a feeler that flung out and coiled round my ankle.

   “It’s got me!” I cried.

   He flipped us sharply. The feeler was whipped off me and the shape sailed over us. The man pulled up his sleeve and pressed a button on a thin digital panel he was wearing on his forearm. The thing returned overtaking us with furious speed. Its form splayed out in all directions and launched at us engulfing us completely. We were trapped inside it and a suffocating rubber-like material cloyed at our bodies like it was trying to vacuum pack us. It wasn’t a creature but a kind of device designed to capture, or worse. I was losing my breath.

   Tangled up in the mysterious man and the crazy substance, I kicked and pushed as hard as I could at its sucking trying to stop it from going into my mouth. It was pitch black inside the thing, I couldn’t see anything, I could only feel it squeezing tighter and tighter as though I’d been swallowed by a snake.

   There was the sound of tearing sound and then light poured in. The man was slashing the thing open with a knife. He pulled me by the legs and yanked me out sending me free-falling through the air! I hurtled toward the ground. Time stopped. All I felt was the deadening terror of death. There was a sharp jolt, and I was in his arms again.

   In a reactive panic, I clung to him and my face brushed against his neck. Just as it did a blinding pain shot through me. It must have affected him too because he seized up in mid-air and we began to free fall. The ground which had seemed miles away just a second ago was now rushing up to meet us.