In a small room, high above a street in Los Angeles, a man lies sleeping beneath an open window. The blinds are closed, rattling softly in the breeze, but daggers of sunlight pierce the slats and blaze across the thin, greying counterpane that rises and falls with each breath. Behind closed lids, the sleeper’s eyes flicker from left to right like slides on a magic lantern.
At his head, a woman sits on a plastic chair. The novel she bought yesterday lies open on her lap. Her hand is splayed, palm-down, across the page, glowing in a shaft of light. Her head lolls on to her shoulder, jerks up like a marionette’s, lolls again. Beside her, a machine beeps and feeds a string of numbers to a luminous green display.
Traffic noises echo from the street outside – frenetic car horns, angry shouts and the Doppler-shifted wail of sirens. All night long this discordant symphony has raged, but it is only when the door clicks gently open that the woman jolts awake.
‘Doctor,’ she says, sitting upright in her chair. The book slides from her lap and crashes to the floor. ‘Is everything alright?’
The doctor, a sharp-jawed man in his early forties, walks over to the machine and presses a button. ‘No change.’ He smiles at her, his eyes hollow with exhaustion. ‘I’m afraid that’s the best we can hope for right now.’
She nods, ‘Thank you,’ bends down, flattens the mangled pages of her novel and nudges it under the chair.
‘You might want to shut the window,’ the doctor says.
‘Why? What’s going on?
‘They’re evacuating Glendale, shifting everyone south.’ He shakes his head. ‘It’s madness. We’re already twice over capacity and they reckon it could reach us by nightfall.’
The woman stands, turns round to the window and prises open the blind. The glass pane is tinted, mirrored slightly, so that her own pale face is superimposed upon the opposite building. Now she thinks about it, perhaps there is a faint tinge of smoke filtering in though the cracked-open frame. And the sky seems darker than usual.
She pushes the window shut and turns to the doctor. ‘I thought they said it was under control?’
‘They thought it was.’ He wipes a hand across his brow, where a fine sheen of sweat has gathered. ‘We have contingency plans. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but we have to tell everyone to be ready just in case.’
She nods her head and slumps back down in her chair. He feels a sudden burst of sympathy for this woman and her futile vigil. The vehemence of his pity surprises him.
‘Call me if anything changes,’ he says, glancing at the machine.
The doctor turns and walks from the room. The moment the door closes behind him he has forgotten her.
In the main building, the injured have begun to arrive. The majority are suffering from smoke inhalation but already he can see some horrific burns being wheeled through the emergency room. His stomach recoils at the sight, the smell of charred flesh, the raw glistening lesions. He had thought he would overcome this weakness in time, but it still plagues him.
When he looks up, he sees a paramedic approaching along the corridor, pushing a man on a trolley. The man is still conscious but barely a man anymore. He does not even have the energy to scream. The paramedic is talking non-stop to her patient, head bent over the trolley, which gives the doctor enough time to fix his face, to find at least the semblance of compassion so that today, of all days, the first thing she sees in him will not be disgust.
She looks up, smiles. Without saying a word, he takes the trolley from her and wheels it into intensive care. Nurses descend like shadows over its occupant. He pauses to mark some notes on the patient’s chart before walking back out into the corridor, where he finds her waiting for him.
‘That was a rough one, right enough.’
He nods. The semblance of compassion fooled nobody. ‘Are you going straight back out?’
‘No, I’m finished for now. Shift change. What about you?’
He glances at the clock on the wall. He can’t remember when his shift started or when it was supposed to end. ‘I’ve got a few minutes,’ he says.
‘Then come and talk to me before I sleep.’
‘Aren’t you going home?’
‘They’ve set up extra beds in the mess room. I’m staying here.’
‘Are you sure? You could get out now, while there’s still time.’
She shakes her head, looking up at him through black eyes. ‘Where would I go? The whole city is burning. And they will need people to move the patients when the fire reaches us.’ She reaches out and squeezes his hand. ‘I just need to sleep for a while, then I’ll be fine.’
Together they walk out of the ER. All of the seats are occupied and several people are sitting, even lying, on the floor. He steps carefully over a teenage girl, sitting cross-legged near the door. She is playing some computer game, headphones jammed into her ears. On the screen, a cloaked figure stands in front of a castle surrounded by a moat that belches geysers of flame. Jesus, is there not enough fire in the world already?
The mess room is several floors down on the opposite side of the hospital. When he pushes open the door, he sees the extra beds – thin mattresses laid out on the floor – but nobody else has come to claim one yet.
They sit down, side by side, with their backs against the wall. He takes her hand in his and she closes her eyes, tilts her head back and sighs. ‘I had such plans for us. We were going to get out of this hell, buy a cabin somewhere, grow vegetables.’ She smiles. ‘But you never even asked me out to dinner.’
Outside, another ambulance arrives and disgorges a trolley of something that was once human. In the ER, in the midst of chaos, the girl plays her computer game. And in the small upstairs room, the man sleeps on, while the machine beeps its obscure communications to the green display.
Awake now, the woman reaches down and retrieves her novel from under the chair. On the cover, famous London landmarks cower beneath a starless black sky. She opens it again at the first page and begins to read.
Today is an anniversary of sorts. Not a good one. It has been exactly 100 days since any London weather station recorded a drop of rain. Now every morning brings some new catastrophe: another factory out of business, another wildfire out of control. It’s always the same. Surprise! Disaster! Then there’s hand wringing, finger pointing and an abject failure to acknowledge that these things are not happening in isolation. And it hurts me to admit it, but I have been complicit. As long as the lights stayed on and water flowed from the taps, I averted my eyes from this slippage in the bounds of normality.
But I saw what happened in Cape Town, in Mumbai and Barcelona. You don’t like to think it will happen to you, but it’s time to acknowledge the possibility. And perhaps part of me has always known it would come to this – this moment of being surrounded by the detritus of forty years and realising that none of it can come with us. I never imagined how much it would hurt.
The parameters are stringent, determined by the boot space of the hatchback, the weight that can be carried on one tank of petrol and the amount of luggage we can hide from the North Orbital checkpoint guards. They love their petty tyrannies, those guards; any pretext will do to pull you over, especially if they think you’re heading for the border, which, of course, we are. My Scottish passport allows the three of us to immigrate there. What we are not allowed to do is emigrate from here; England closed its borders when it started to haemorrhage working age citizens to its northern sister. There are still legal channels, if you have the money, but legal does not mean uncomplicated, and even uncomplicated things often prove impossible in the end.
If all goes well, we should be turning up at my parents’ house near Fort William at about 8pm. Unfortunately, they don’t know that. I’ve tried calling, over a dozen times this morning, but nobody is picking up. Things are better up there. It still rains, for one thing. And my parents’ setup is close to ideal; they can siphon water from the stream that runs through their garden and there’s dad’s allotment. But it’s unlike mum to ignore the phone. No news is never good news where my mother is concerned.
I’m getting that sick feeling again. We need to leave soon to make it across the border before curfew. Thank god Smidget is no longer with us. It would have been far too risky take her, and I’m so glad I don’t have to become one of those people who left their pet behind. All those poor abandoned animals. They were our beloveds and we deserted them. I understand why but they deserved better.
The cases are in the car and we’re almost good to go. Any moment now I’m going to have to tell him about it. It’s not that I wanted to deceive him, or even thought he’d disagree about the necessity of leaving, but he is such a worrier. If I’d involved him in the planning, we’d still be sitting at the kitchen table, writing out elaborate lists. And perhaps I have dissembled a little, made out that I’m less anxious than I am. Change frightens him. There is part of him that will be forever twelve years old and newly, brutally alone.
At night he worries and during the day he sleeps, usually in front of the television. It’s always tuned to one of the trash channels that plays endless repeats of once popular shows. Right now, there’s some medical psychodrama from years back, with the obligatory chisel-jawed doctor, worried loved ones and machines that go beep. I’m sure we saw it the first time around; the closing moments find them surrounded by some apocalyptic fire. I want to turn it off, but if I go in there he might wake up, and then he’ll remember how it ends.
Perhaps it would be better to tell her first. She’s as sanguine as we are neurotic. If I take her out of school, away from her scores of devotees, she’ll make new friends in no time. I can just imagine the swarm of wide-eyed, west coast youths hovering around my parents’ house. The taking her out is a moot point, anyway. They turned off the water to all the schools at the beginning of the holidays, and nobody has told us when it’ll be going back on. If it’ll be going back on.
I knock on the closed door of her room, as she insists, and she does not reply, as is customary. I can see her in my mind’s eye before I even enter the room, sat cross-legged on the floor. She has a perfectly good desk but apparently it has ‘bad associations’, by which she means she does her homework at it, so she takes to the floor for leisure activities, by which she means the game.
I tried to play the game once but I never got close to making it into the castle. The first time, I was eaten by wolves. The second, some unknown adversary coshed me over the head. The third and final time, I got trapped in the burning forest and that, frankly, was that. I’ve never understood why she loves it so much; it’s a convoluted, interminable, lonely world she has chosen for herself. I did suggest she try one of those interactive games, where she gets to be a dragon to someone else’s wizard or something, but she just gave me that look.
Perhaps she didn’t hear me, as she doesn’t glance up when I walk into the room. She’s sitting beneath the window with her back to the door, headphones jammed in her ears. I stamp my feet a little as I cross the floor, hoping the vibrations will alert her to my presence. She gets so absorbed in that game that I worry it would be dangerous to wake her, like we used to think it was with sleepwalkers.
She’s outside the castle now, standing on the far side of the flaming moat that encircles it. She’s going to be so angry when I disturb her, no matter that she can play in the car all the way to Fort William. Just getting to the castle is a challenge, and not one she’s going to be happy to repeat. I wonder what it is she’s looking for.
It’s dark here in her room. Too dark. The sun is still shining, not a cloud visible through her open window, but the sky has taken on an indigo hue. It’s like looking through an aeroplane window at 40,000 feet, or the barely perceptible slide into darkness brought on by an eclipse. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I don’t think so. I have never seen anything like it before. What the hell is going on?
The castle was built on a promontory, high above a raging black ocean. On windy days spray lashes its battlements, encrusting them with a fine sheen of salt, and the castle glows ghostly in the moonlight. Nobody knows how long it has been there. It is old, very old, but time has passed over it leaving barely a trace.
The visitors still arrive but they are fewer now than before. Evidence of those who came and never left litters the bailey: the bones of abandoned horses crushed beneath a weight of automobile carcasses. There is even a rusting caravan. That was before the cliff top path eroded into the sea, and now the only way to reach the castle is on foot, through Wolf Forest to the place where you are standing.
The castle lies straight ahead of you. Behind you, the forest is on fire. You can feel the heat on your back, hear the howling within. The wolves that chased you this far have now become your allies in terror. One lollops past you, gasping, towards the cliff edge. The world is burning and there is nowhere left to run.
This has become your normality. The wolves, hidden assassins, and even the drought-fuelled fires are always there and always escapable. Your true adversary is the darkness that runs close at your heels. When the darkness catches up with you, you lose.
Using your black-handled cane as a guide, you step over tortured pieces of metal and bone, up to the foot of the motte. A flying bridge leads up to the keep, across a moat filled with fire. The wooden planks are widely spaced, and as you pass over each gap, you can see the tumult below, flames dousing the underside of the slats. You lift your cloak above your ankles and step gingerly from each plank to the next, until you arrive at the foot of a long flight of stone steps.
At the top, two lamps in brackets burn perpetually on either side of a plain wooden door. A steady wind blows in from the ocean, but the flames lie as still as if captured under glass. You raise your cane and rap on the door. Then, after several seconds of silence, you reach for the handle. The door yields to a barely perceptible amount of pressure, swinging open into the dark interior.
A hallway stretches into infinity ahead of you. Matching pairs of wooden doors are identically spaced along the walls, each in perfect symmetry with its counterpart on the opposite side. Under your feet, a diamond matrix of black and white flagstones gives the illusion that the floor lies half a metre lower than its true depth. To your right, there is a low table, on which sits a lantern and a box full of matches.
You light the lamp, setting the matches back down, and walk a few paces up to the first pair of doors. Which will you choose, the left or the right? The difference feels significant but you have no idea why. Your memories are bubbles of gas trapped in magma. Do you even know why you are here?
You reach for the right hand door, because it is better to choose than to starve, but the door is locked and will not yield. Its opposite number, however, is less obdurate and creaks open with a little persuasion. Your lantern light falls on a corridor identical to the one you have just left. There is the same row of closed doors, the same puzzling geometry of floor tiles. To your right, sits the table from which you retrieved the lantern and where you left the matches. They are still there.
You turn around to find that the front door has followed you. You remember that the door has no handle on the inside, nor bolts, locks, keyholes, or any indentation in the solid wood. It is a door that can only be opened from the other side.
This time there is no choice. You walk on, your cane tap tapping on the flagstones. Each set of doors you pass, you take care to keep looking forward, to give the impression that you are uninterested, so that when you pounce on one it will not be expecting you.
But the doors know all of your tricks. As before, only the left one will open. And when you refuse to step through it, instead pulling it firmly closed, a quick glance over your shoulder confirms that the front door has followed you again. The table with its box of matches has arrived back at your right hip.
This is how things proceed. You walk forward, you choose a door; to your left it will not open, to your right it returns you to the place where you were. Failure to choose returns you there too. Hours pass. You have no watch and no way to judge the passage of time, except for the ever-depleting oil in your lamp. When there is no oil left, the flame shudders and dies.
The darkness is coming. It is there at your back, breathing down your neck. You have to keep going, don’t stop, even when you feel the castle yield, and the air opens out around you. When there are no more doors and no more diamonds, and your cane no longer tap taps but thud thuds against the softening ground, don’t give up.
Ahead, the corridor is dissolving into a square of light. A wind blows through it, towards you, carrying the stench of fire. As you draw closer, shadows and shapes start to appear, sharpening, until you realise you are looking through a window into a small room in a far away city.
Then, as always, there comes a moment of clarity, a bubble rising to the surface, when you are permitted a glimpse of the truth. You see this place for what it is. You know what you are running from. Then the darkness closes its jaws around you, and nothing remains but the faint smell of smoke and the ceaseless beep of your heart.
E. A. Fowler
E. A. Fowler currently lives and works in Edinburgh. She has been variously a bookseller, TEFL teacher, publishing assistant, PhD student, neuropsychology researcher and information analyst. She enjoys surreal, speculative fiction, and has recently been published in Lucent Dreaming magazine.
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