Chapter 7 – Going Home
Two days after the visit from … whoever he was … Amy was on her way back to the aerial course. She'd spent the last two days in the 'arena' – what she knew as a play-park – and in the running course. The running course consisted of various flat obstacles that were perhaps angled oddly or missing lots of surface. Whatever their defect, you had to scamper over them. Amy had never been particularly fast at running but again it seemed that her hamstrings and calf muscles were more developed than everyone else's in Elsion. This seemed awfully unfair on the people who'd been working hard day and night to find a way to retreat from the pain and blunder on regardless.
Perhaps the man was right and she'd be heading home soon. He seemed to know all about her situation but when she'd asked him how he'd come by this information he'd simply tapped his nose and told her to ask her mum. Amy's first reaction was that he meant Elayna but then it clicked that if he'd known she didn't belong there, then he probably also knew who she was. Though how he knew anything at all about her remained a mystery, given that had sauntered smugly off only moments later.
“You ready?” Jonnie called from further along the path. He'd reached the ladder and the belay point for the fan drop that concluded the course.
“To plummet fifteen feet with no worry of death? Of course I am!” she grinned.
She jogged the rest of the way then hastily reached for the harness to fix herself into the system.
“Eh, careful,” Jonnie chastised, “Do it that quickly and I legally can't rule out the possibility of death.”
“Fine …” Amy slowed down the process, carefully double-checking every knot she made and every carabiner she clicked into place, “Am I ready?”
Jonnie scanned her preparations but could find no fault, even with her terrifyingly unsafe exuberance. “Yep, I'd say so.”
Amy clambered up the first few rungs of the rope ladder then the height seemed to set in and she decelerated to what Jonnie liked to refer to as life-preserving speed. Regardless, she reached the jumping platform that was the summit of the course within seconds. She righted the wire, steadied her breathing – which always slurred into a pant that combined exhilaration, core fear and giddiness in situations like this. The feeling propelled her into the air.
As her feet left the platform, roughly five words were shouted. Amy herself whooped with delight, unbeknownst to Jonnie, who was busy on the ground being so shocked into a pulse-stopping moment of paralysis that he emitted a guttural cry and almost let the rope slip from his hands. The source of his surprise were the two figures who had at that moment materialised into the forest. One was a woman he didn't recognise, who yelled 'Amy!', the other cried 'Jonnie!' with delight and was Nanya.
Nanya looked unchanged, if a little worried by the shoddy belaying work Jonnie was currently attempting to fumble back from. He turned to face Amy whose eyes had swooped down to the forest floor at the sound of the commotion and whose body was currently following suit. Her eyes however, were now rather more troubled, presumably by the sight of the girl she'd been keeping the world warm for and a woman who'd just elatedly whooped her name. Both of these seemed like they would be welcome surprises to Jonnie but he was adamant that he would resist the urge to turn his head and investigate. He was a responsible trainer. He was so not going to drop Amy.
As soon as Amy landed, she unclipped herself, unlocked the gate and sprinted towards the two, still in her harness.
“Mum!” she cried, answering that question for Donny, “Mum, why aren't you helping him?”
“Him?” Amy's mum furrowed her brow.
“Donny!” Amy pointed agitatedly toward a strange, misshapen picture of a cluttered room. It was only when she thrust her hand mindlessly into the picture that Jonnie realised that it somehow actually was a room, some sort of door, with a wiggly gold line outlining the door frame.
“Donny Grant Patrickson!” Amy's mum thundered, “I told you to stay there! Will you never be satisfied?”
That was the moment Jonnie noticed the red-faced figure lying stomach-down on the forest floor, from his waist down still on the floor of the room. Jonnie traced round to the back face of the door but saw only the distressed faces on the other side, already attempting to drag something invisible out of thin air.
Jonnie returned to the front and grabbed hold of the boy's shirt, hauling with all his might. He could see the strain on the faces of everyone and knew this was serious. They'd been less frightened when he'd lost control of Amy. The boy was a dead weight, which wasn't a good sign – but eventually his feet emerged from the doorway, just as the opening was beginning to shrivel up and shrink.
They rolled the boy over to lie him face up, Amy hurrying to get him in the recovery position, tears already lining the lines of her cheek and jaw bones. The boy had thin blonde hair that was drenched with sweat and a nose that hooked slightly at the end. His mouth was curled up in a grimace of sheer pain and his clothes were singed roughly at the elbows, where they'd been dragging against the edges of the doorway.
“Is he …?” Jonnie mumbled, since all anyone else seemed to be doing was crying.
“No!” Amy bellowed, “Do not even think that word!”
“I was going to say 'alive',” Jonnie replied.
“Huh.” Amy chuckled feebly. She was probably worst affected by the boy's ragged state of unconsciousness. She was kneeling by his limp figure slapping him lightly, desperate for him to: “Wake up! Wake up!”
She pounded on his chest and a sliver of gold trickled out the corners of his mouth.
“Oh my God!” Nanya spluttered, “He must have swallowed some of the gold matter!”
“The what?” Amy whipped around to face her.
“Doesn't matter.” Nanya shook her head. “Just keep going!”
Nanya knelt down for Amy to lean the boy against her back, curling him forward. She thumped his chest again and again with the tenderness and technique of someone who'd been trained explicitly in the art of keeping people alive. More gold began to torrent out in streams from his lips. The velocity of the spurts began to decrease and the volume of gold expelled per thwack also reduced. Eventually all that came out was a splutter and his eyes began to blink open. He caught sight of Amy in front of him, her breathing unsteady and on the edge of despair. She then draped his arms around her and held her tightly, his eyes screwed up with the apparent force of his relief.
“Thank God,” he garbled into her hair, then hacked out a series of ripping coughs. "Agh My throat! Ugh, it stings. It's like the bile you throw up when you're stomach's empty of everything else."
"Are you okay?" Amy sighed, the tension in her visibly evaporating.
"Yeah. I think it's all gone now. Are we in Elsion?" he inquired eagerly.
"Yeah," Amy mumbled. Then, standing up, she continued with extra volume, "And thanks for not listening to my mum and coming here anyway as I'd presume you did."
"My pleasure." Donny glowered at Amy's mum, whose eyes flitted to the ground, studying the various shapes and positioning of the pine needles on the forest floor. She raised her head to bore a pleading stare into Donny's eyes. He nodded reluctantly and almost imperceptibly.
"Shall we go or ...?" Jonnie tailed off.
"Go where?" Nanya still couldn't suppress her grin of glee when she caught sight of her brother. "We can't go home. Mum's there."
Jonnie's forehead creased. Nanya was right. It would be idiocy to show up with both her and Amy, not to mention Donny and Amy's mum. Elayna would probably transform into some sort of interrogation officer and they wouldn't get a sentence out of her that didn't end with a question mark. Maybe they could find a secluded area of the forest to talk in – there was a cave Jonnie had played in as a child only a few minutes walking distance away.
Oh. Oh, oh, oh. What a perfect way to exact revenge on that irresponsible tornado of an acquaintance! The cave was dismissed from his mind and the moment when he would see the expression on the rascal's face , presenting this little band of dimension-jumpers to him, began to take shape in his mind.
"I have an idea," Jonnie suggested, gaining the immediate attention of the group, "Allan Talagoe owes me an elephant-sized favour after those riots."
Allan had awoken at one in the afternoon to his dog – Yapper – threatening to reverberate his eardrums beyond survival with his well, yapping. He'd leant forward onto his elbows, twisted to reach under his head and grabbed his pillow, which he'd then hurled at the damn mutt. If nothing else, the action would arise him from his current drowsy whirlpool of leftover dreams. There'd been the man chasing him during the Mexterian riots, then Jonnie's face not even hating him, which he could have dealt with – a lot of people hated him – but pitying him. There was no worth in Jonnie's regard for Allan, no respect left. When had that gone?
Jonnie had been his long time Vurakan training partner. Jonnie had never excelled physically himself and like many in his situation had been enrolled in sessions after school to further his thought of strategy, tactics and technique. When Allan had come of competing age (thirteen), Jonnie had been assigned to him to help him struggle through his first year of competition, the two being long term school friends already. Nobody excelled in their first year. It just didn't happen.
Well, except for Jonnie's super-samurai sister ... Sister! Allan hadn't been in favour of female categories anyway, never mind allowing his – completely essential – training partner whisk himself away from a two year union of strengths with he, Allan Talagoe. He'd not stopped contact or anything, not by a long way, in fact he'd been far more supportive of Allan and his new training partner Jai than anyone could have expected of him. He'd offered to hang around after Nanya's practice time to give their team a hand with forming some sort of bond, as they'd so far only scuffed their heels and pouted, having very little of any sort of interest to say to each other. Allan had turned him down with the pretence that he thought too much of Jonnie's time would already be taken up by the Championships. Of course, his actual objection was more along the lines of fury and outrageous offence at being abandoned for a girl. He wouldn't have been so friendly of course, had Nanya been a boy and they'd been competing against each other. Allan reckoned he'd have taken excuse for hostility and never spoken to him at all. Ever since they'd set foot on Later School territory Jonnie's mind had been expanding, leaving no room in his head for the friend who'd taught him, a scrawny little runt the first time they met, how to appear wiry and plucky, so he could at least have the façade that he could defend himself in a fight.
The rage had been blunted with time and Nanya had shown she was worth the effort. Still, it wasn't as if Allan had actually done anything wrong so if anyone was especially unjustified to be still showing annoyance a year on it was Jonnie. It was as if he hadn't even wanted to help him the other night. The whole family had rolled their eyes and not batted an eyelid when the Mexterian maniac had come chasing after him. He'd been beginning to doubt Jonnie's care for his safety the way he was talking, going on and on about how unreliable and immature he was – as if he and the Mexterian were friends or something. He'd taken matters into his own hands and slipped out the back. By the lack of a chase, he assumed the Mexterian had been too busy chit-chatting with Jonnie to notice. He'd gotten home swiftly, darting between a few street fires that had sprung up in protest – whether these were in protest against Mexterians or against Mexterian opposition – Allan had neither a clue nor a care. He'd done his part. He'd made his mark – or his bruise as the situation had turned out. It was not his fault that his aim was out by a few inches. In fact, perhaps if Jonnie hadn't abandoned him, he'd have precision worthy of the first Vurakans to practice abstraction of pain and would have been able to hit the fanatic, instead of his wife.
He shrugged off his grudges and memories, returning to a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise that had been slowly diminishing on the plate. He was distracted to the extent of being unaware enough for any intruder to have been able to hand-feed him his lunch without his even noticing. The reason for this distance was eluding him, partly attributing to his lack of concentration itself. Something had been off about that night, something far less tangible than Jonnie's inexcusable cold demeanour. Had it been Elayna? Nanya? The house? Something had set him on edge and was pushing him further toward nerves buy his inability to identify it.
It was now three o'clock. He reckoned he had a fairly jammed day today – there was the final few days of course practice coming up before the Agility Season began. That was how the Championships were constructed – and also the Elsion calendar. Each country held their own Championships and had variations on the rules but tournaments were held in separate cities. There were at least five within Turntour that Allan knew of and everyone Allan knew always headed up to Asion for the tournament there. He assumed he'd see Jonnie there – and Nanya – but he assumed that they'd probably have their work cut out with the animosity that customarily was tagged onto the status of defending champion to bother with him and Jai. He and Jai who had been functioning far better recently and had even been named contenders for the title.
A series of rapping knocks on the oak of his outer door awoke him from yet another slip into stupor. He shook his head, despairing of any hope to actually accomplish anything of the mammoth heap of tasks he'd somehow gathered today, then slumped into the hallway. He plucked a key from a coffee table as he trudged through his hallway – box standard and brown – and shoved it into the keyhole of the inner door. He swung this open and almost abandoned his plan to answer the door entirely when he realised he hadn't unlocked the outer door either and they key for that was all the way back in the kitchen.
“Ugh!” he moaned, “Wait a sec, I'll be right back!”
He half-jogged, half-shuffled through his house to where his sandwich lay dejected and Yapper sat eyeing it mischievously.
“No,” he muttered non-committally, “Don't eat … that. Oh, right, I forgot to feed you. You'd probably be forgiven if you stole my sandwich.”
He sighed despondently and headed back towards the outer door, thrusting the key in and bitterly wrenching it around to the right, yanking the door open.
“Oh for God's sakes,” he groaned.
There on the doorstep was the main culprit of his inattentiveness, who was – in Allan's head – taking the blame for Yapper going without breakfast this morning: Jonnie bloody Carrater. Yep, there was Nanya and two strangers who seemed to be struggling to take in – presumably the extent of the banality of – the town of Belchest. One of them was a young boy of early to mid teens, with short blonde hair and content eyes. The other was a ratty little woman who's eyes projected a kindness her rodent-based features seemed to contradict. And Nanya. Wait, hadn't he noticed her already? – Oh good God. What the …? How could there be two of her. One was enough to compete with for Jonnie's services but two? The girls' youth category had no hope this year if somebody had cloned Nanya Carrater.
“Explain,” Allan spluttered, “I'm not even going to ask questions.”
“Can we come inside?” Jonnie pressed, “I mean, I'm not being chased by an angry lunatic extremist or anything but this is still pretty urgent. We just need a place to talk and we'll keep well out of your way if you don't want to get involved.
Always the perfect gentleman was Jonnie.
“Fine.” Allan couldn't bring himself to disagree due to a combination of owing Jonnie – he undeniably did put himself in danger for Allan on Monday night, even if he had done a shoddy job of it – and pure curiosity. He indicated Nanya's double. “I want to know her name first.”
“Amy,” she replied immediately, much to the irritation of the woman, who seemed about to scold her, “Amy Oswald.”
“Amy!” the woman hissed, “Please shut up. Now.”
They herded into the house timidly, Jonnie being the only one to have ever been inside it before. Nanya had visited his old house a couple of times, before any of them had broken double digit birthdays. It wasn't exactly a world renowned art gallery – far from it – but if they'd been interested in the sight-seeing aspect of Belchest town centre, then maybe they had some sort of fetish for the mundane.
As soon as they were far enough into the house, Allan reached around them and slipped the door closed.
“Do you want privacy?” he smiled, determined not to be as blunt as Jonnie had acted as host only a few nights ago.
The group exchanged glances. Jonnie replied, “Could we have some privacy … to decide if we want privacy.”
Allan rolled his eyes. Jonnie's humour was dry at best, uncomfortable at worst when he just muddled a few alliterating words together. There was no core to it – nothing inherently funny that he spoke around. A funny story to him was the telling of an unremarkable event but doing so comically, which he habitually failed to do.
“Whatever you want …” he sighed, “I'll be in the kitchen seeing if my dog's left any of my lunch unharmed.”
At the mention of the word dog, Yapper skittered out of the polished wooden-floored kitchen onto the thin, straggly carpet of the hallway. He spotted – or sniffed, probably – Jonnie and bounded forward in a clumsy greeting. Jonnie called out in surprise then in glee as he recognised the seven-year-old beagle that had been their hide 'n' seek sniffer-dog since their fifth year of Earlier School.
“Hiya, Yapper!” Jonnie exclaimed into the dog's face as he tickled the roots of Yapper's ears. Yapper melted gratefully into the affection, as if he'd completely forgotten that Allan had done the exact same thing with him before bed for seven years. Traitor.
“Hey, Yapper,” Nanya murmured, never having been fond of the dog. She'd met him a couple of times but he'd been so busy sucking up to Jonnie that he'd been all out of love by the time he'd sniffed her outstretched hand in greeting.
Yapper nodded like a rapper acknowledging his fans, before scanning the two new faces and … Amy … before returning to Allan and staring accusingly at him.
“Right, I have to go feed him,” Allan announced, “Feel free to take the living room to talk.”
Amy seemed to remember something and her face snapped into an expression of alarm, “Oh my God! Mum!” – to the woman, giving her an identity – “What about Dillan?”
“He's at your grandparents',” the woman explained, “Your Aunt Helen and Uncle Philip were going on a couples' holiday this week so they were looking after little Olivia. I thought maybe the little one would like some company since she's a four-year-old who's going to be spending a week in a town where none of her friend's live with two people she has very little conscious memory of who are both over twenty times her age, I thought she might like some company. Of course, I didn't tell them we were leaving too so they're expecting me back to pick him up on Sunday. Don't worry. I've made the necessary arrangements.”
“It's okay. He's gone. He went to feed Yapper,” Jonnie explained on hearing Celia's wink-wink codeword for what he couldn't even begin to fathom had to take place in order to hop back between worlds without even pulling a lever.
“Ah, right. I wrote a code that will initiate the cracking sequence in an hour, then tomorrow, then again in four days time. If I don't make it, it'll open for ten minutes every day at noon, meaning I can get a signal to the machine and set a new date.”
“Well,” Amy smacked her lips, opening the living room door, “You had no need to put that it code. I doubt that a single person I know would be able to put that to any use. Oh wait – is this even the room I'm supposed to be going in?”
Jonnie nodded and led the way in.
The living room had a single faun couch and two armchairs that combined flat cushions with ornate swirling patterns of wood that supported the arms. Even so Donny ended up sitting on the floor at Amy's feet, tracing the criss-crossing repeating motif that littered the floor. His spirit had diminished since he'd been re-united with Amy. The reality was setting in that he was somehow abstractly only minutes from home but simultaneously could never reach his family without Celia's help, which was a daunting prospect considering his newfound distrust of her. The woman had practically been his family. How could she have allowed any of this to have happened to her daughter? Donny's parents had always been the over-protective ones in his street. Donny had been the only child born into a long string of miscarriages and so was sort of like King Edward VI in that respect. Edward was Henry VIII's only son and as such had been shut up and not even allowed to learn to fence originally. Donny had not been disallowed from things like climbing trees but he could sense that his parents were glad it was Amy who took the urge to do this. But Amy was an only child too and as they both knew, Celia would have had far more reason to coddle her and wrap her in bubble-wrap.
“So how're we doing this?” Jonnie opened, “Are you three just going to pop off back to Earth and we'll never see you again or something?”
“Well see, there's a bit of a problem there. We could do that,” Celia reasoned, “But we'd probably just end up back here tomorrow. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not exactly happy about all this. I don't know if you thought that for some reason I'd done this – maybe accidentally – but it's not me.”
“Well then who is it?” Donny had his head tilted onto his shoulder, scanning the titles that lined Allan's six-layered bookshelf.
“I can think of one man who was aware this kind of thing was possible, one of only three people who were even aware I was here. He must have been younger than I thought because I take pride in my numeracy and I'm adding him up to be about thirty-eight by now. This is going to sound awful but when Amy got to six years old and I knew he'd have reached thirty, I was actually a little relieved because there was one less person who knew my secret.”
“Who is he, Mum?” Amy whispered. She was sat on the couch perpendicular to Celia's. Both Donny and Nanya were still averting Celia and Amy could not seem to drag herself away from him.
“His name's Sam. That's all I have. I don't even remember his last name but I think it may have started with a 'd' … or maybe an 'f'.”
Jonnie, who'd been daydreaming since 'computers' – mysterious objects that Amy had told him all about but that he could not even fathom the workings of – had been brought up, flipped his mind back to the room and hazily focussed on Celia.
“So you're saying this Sam probably has some crazy idea about other worlds that nobody pays any attention to?”
“I'd have hoped he'd have kept it quieter than that but yes, I suppose.”
Jonnie rummaged in his trainer rucksack with the Vurakan logo sewn onto the front pocket. He produced his battered and moss-stained copy of 'Otherland'.
“Was his name Samael Drafson?”
The diameter of Celia's eyes sockets seemed to triple as her mouth closed into a tight 'o', rather than the traditional wide 'O'. Her face paled.
“When was that written?” she croaked.
“Just last year. I read it a lot. That's the only reason it's so tatty. He keeps a running narrative of this guy who takes a tour of all the different worlds. It's really interesting.”
“So you … how much … how well do you understand what's going on, Jonnie?” Celia muttered, attempting to regain her composure.
“Not half as much as I'd need to know to actually make it work but I'd reckon that the guy who wrote it would probably have a far sounder understanding.”
“Is it in mass circulation?”
“Nah, it completely crashed. Everyone took him for a loony. I was only reading it for the story-lines. In one world, the guy goes ice-skating on sherbet dust with a penguin, while both of them wore fancy tuxedos.”
“I … see.”
“Does that change anything?” Nanya asked, “Well, I'd imagine it really must. I meant what does it change?”
“Oh, Mum!” Amy interjected, “There was this guy at the course grounds who said to tell Celia Oswald that he wanted to see her. That she'd probably know who he was. I guess you do.”
“Wait …” Jonnie's heart sprinted, “You mean that guy was this guy. That guy from the door was this guy from the grounds who is also Samael Drafson?”
“Guy from the door …?” Donny enquired, “Come on, that could easily be Mr Tumnus if it was the door to a wardrobe. Specifics, please!”
“The night of the riots. The guy who came chasing after Allan – he didn't keep chasing him. Amy, remember when I said that he saw him go out the window and ran after him? Well, not quite. He kind of got hit in the head by a rock – not by me, no,” he hurried, seeing Nanya's horrified, surprised and maybe a little proud, expression, “There was a slightly older guy who was standing there with a blood-covered rock saying he'd done wrong before so may as well do wrong to help those doing good.”
“Kind of like Robin Hood,” Amy observed.
“Except a with a stone instead of a bow so basically a less elegant Robin Hood,” Donny adjusted.
“Who is also giving Vurakan competitors messages to give to their parents in other dimensions and writing books about said other dimensions,” Jonnie finished.
“What are you going to do, Mum?” Amy asked, with an ounce of the confidence Jonnie had ever seen her show.
They were interrupted by Allan poking his head between the door and the door frame, refraining from opening the door further than was necessary. His auburn curls were shoved forward against his temples by the wood.
“Two things then I'm off out to walk Yapper,” he began, “First: the kettle's boiled and the teabags are in the cupboard directly above it. Second: sorry to mention this, but it has been bugging me since Amy said her name, whom I'm assuming the existence of is going to remain a mystery to me. Wasn't Oswald the name of that woman your dad had a thing with, Jonnie? I mean, of course I don't mean anything by that but it's like when you hear a tune being played by a troubadour and you're walking with someone and you're like 'I was dancing to that a few weeks ago' and then you remember who's party it was but it's ages later and you still want to tell them. Well, it's like that if you know what I mean, which I'm assuming you don't, Jonnie, considering you haven't been to a party since we got too old for pass the parcel. Anyway, see you all later.”
He let the door slip closed, the sound of the lockset clicking closed placing a full stop at the end of his spiel. All eyes turned to Celia. Her cheekbones blanched, her normally subtle hint of blusher contrasting starkly with her queasy complexion. Her eyes flicked back and forth, as if she was desperately searching for excuses to get out of this – to get out of the fact that she'd let Amy believe she was the product of an anonymous hook-up with a stranger she'd had no contact with before or since. Donny knew she'd let Amy believe that she was an accident, unwanted. No matter how little that seemed to affect her, it still had had the potential for magnanimous repercussions. She caught Donny's eye and Donny wondered if she saw the foundations of rubble that his trust of her had been reduced to over the course of today. Nanya and Jonnie simply peered at her, their most dominant emotion appearing to be plain curiosity. She didn't even glance towards Amy.
As it happened, it was Amy who spoke first, "Mum? What was he on about? And don't say that it's nothing 'cause your face is tripping you."
"I loved him. Jonnie, I promise I did or else it would never have gone so far," Celia spurted.
"Why are you telling me that?" Jonnie's curiosity resisted morphing into suspicion and instead transformed into confusion.
"Because he was your father!" Celia seemed surprised he was still doubting this fact.
"So you did ... Know my dad?" he ventured, "It was you. There were rumours that my dad had an affair with a woman from out of town when Nanya was two but my mum said they were rubbish."
“Well, parts of it are. For example, I'm a little more than 'out of town' but well, isn't it obvious by now why Nanya couldn't possibly have been two at the time?”
“Glaringly,” Donny muttered. Nanya nodded.
Amy fiddled with the threads of the couch.
Jonnie, ever the optimist, shook his head fervently and declared, “Not to me, it isn't.”
Nanya made a guttural sound of irritation and cast her brother a withering glance, “Come on, man. You clearly have a second sister – the second sister who couldkick your ass all the way to southern Euliol if you bug us.”
Jonnie hesitated then nodded submissively, “That does explain why you're so good at Vurakan. The pain must be … less connected … given that only one of your parents was afflicted with it.”
“I don't feel the pain at all, though,” Amy interjected, absently twisting one of her severely combed locks of amber around the index and middle finger of her left hand.
“Well there's no ginger anywhere in your blood-line that I can trace and Michael's hair was as dark as Jonnie's so clearly recessive genes are playing their part. Besides, I've always wondered if maybe that's why you get those little colds all the time.” Celia spoke without raising her eyes from the carpet, “I don't need any of you to forgive me but I need you to help me make up for something to Samael Drafson. Please. Not for me, for him. Donny, I excluded him, just like I did with you. Can't at least you see how hurt he must have been? I can't make up what I did … here … but maybe there's something that would make him happy. Jonnie, you said he saved your life. Don't you owe him something for that?”
“He's a maniac! He kills people – he admitted to it! He's probably just trying to lure you,” Jonnie blabbed, “I wouldn't go anywhere near him.”
“Sam did always seem a little sombre,” Celia mused, “Maybe he was hiding guilt. Is he wrong though? He killed a Mexterian, who wants to basically kill children.”
“ – For the greater good,” Nanya interjected, leaning forward on the couch, “You can say what you like about how idiotic the Mexterians are but they're not murderers. They aren't evil. They're just insane and twisted. But they think they're doing what's right in terms of the future of Elsion. Therefore, killing one of them is so not something you can just shrug off.”
“Wow,” Donny murmured, “You two really are twins aren't you. Next time you land in my world I'll put you in the debating team. I won't even be able to tell the difference.”
Nanya smiled than turned back to Celia who'd regained a little colour in her face and wasn't quite beaming with pride – but maybe glimmering – presumably at the miniature adults she'd had various roles in the forming of.
“I was wondering if … any of you would like to come with me to see him? He's pretty much what most of your lives are hanging on by now,” Celia glanced at them all in turn.
Donny looked at Amy then at Nanya. Jonnie caught Nanya's eye and his gaze darkened slightly. Amy shrugged at Nanya. Nanya didn't know where to look. Nobody looked at Celia.
Celia nodded and rose from the couch, “I'll give you some time to discuss. See who's coming and who isn't and if anyone needs to go back to Earth for anything.”
She rushed from the room, raising a limp arm hurriedly to her eye to fence in tears.
“Well, I'd love to go,” Donny began, “It may be childish but it sounds like an adventure. But I don't see how either of us can miss that much school, Amy, because it sounds like he lives quite a way off. Plus, my parents will notice I'm gone. And I'm not exactly essential to some mission.”
“Me neither,” Amy agreed, “but I can't go back without my mum and Mum can't go back without talking to this guy.”
“You could stay in our spare room. Maybe your mum had to go away for work. You could say she went to see the super-collider in Switzerland!”
Donny hopped onto the arm of the couch, thudding onto the unforgiving wood that lay beneath about barely a skin thickness of cushion. He kicked off his trainers and slipped his feet under Amy's legs to tickle her.
“Could you imagine a week-long sleepover?” Amy speculated excitedly, “We could talk to each other through the walls on picto-chat our DSs when we're supposed to be sleeping like we used to do in primary!”
“So you're going home?” Jonnie prompted.
“Yeah,” Amy replied, “It was nice to meet both of you. I'll never look at a Tarzan swing the same way again.”
Jonnie wrapped around Amy in an encompassing hug that he had always longed to enclose Nanya in. She'd never been fond of such fluffy emotions – or any overly drawn out display of emotions, positive or negative, for that matter – and had never seemed to even consider the possibility that other people enjoyed showing their love.
Donny raised an eyebrow at Nanya and tipped his head toward the hug that was about to disband. She nodded and they swooped upon their siblings and friends – the specifics of blood bonds discarded for the moment. Somehow their four heads ended up in a scrum formation, each head bashing against the other.
“We should walk around like this,” Donny observed, “It's cosy.”
“Hmm …” Jonnie contemplated, “How could Amy get her head in the clouds from here.”
They shrugged each other off and exited the living room, to deliver their verdict. Celia was sat straight-backed in a lawn chair that was lined up against the side of the staircase, which powered strictly upward to the floor above. The floor above was obscured by the fading light of late afternoon. She barely registered their entrance until Donny called her name.
“Oh,” she murmured, “What have you decided?”
“Well, we're going home.” Amy signalled herself and Donny.
“And we …” Jonnie stared deeply at Nanya. “Need time to decide. Don't we, Nanya?”
Nanya rolled her eyes but Donny suspected that she was in fact relieved that she hadn't signed up to anything, “Fine … But can you talk to our mum about all this first? She deserves to know that this is going on.”
Elayna had had neither the chance nor the nerve to bring up the matter of Amy being Amy again. Michael had never mentioned another child. He'd gone off to die, not to go shack right back up with that woman. He'd contracted Gullion, which he'd mentioned they called Parkinson's in the … place he'd been, where people lived to their eighties. He'd seemed to take bitter pleasure in the irony that even the Earth geniuses couldn't figure out a way to solve it. The symptoms had been showing. He'd said he was leaving because he couldn't bear to be a burden to them. He would not have gone back to her. What was the point in admitting all that to her if he was just going to scuttle back to her arms? No, they must have been twins or something. Ironically, Elsion women had notoriously low fertility. What were the chances that venturing … further afield … would produce such a fruitful bounty.
She couldn't hate him for it though – he hadn't wanted to marry Elayna. He'd been twenty-three and with no children, desperate to leave something to the world. Other than Jonnie they'd had no luck though and she'd only been fourteen so she could hardly imagine how confusing and disorientating it must have been for him to have had a sister older than his wife. She'd been a newly inducted training partner during his final year at the Championships and they had gotten along well, that couldn't be denied. But there'd never been anything particularly romantic or sexual between them. Still, Michael had needed a wife and Elayna, loathe to admit it, had been in thrall to his charm and wit and his somehow pure honesty that had seemed so endearing. Honesty? Really? She must have been blind.
Now the woman was on her couch, like a friend over for tea and a quick catch-up. She seemed to be finding this experience twice as awkward as Elayna was – and right she should! While she could not blame Michael for searching further afield, she could certainly slap handfuls of accusation on this woman. She'd known he was married; Michael had told Elayna that she'd agreed to continue with their romance even in light of this knowledge. Surely as a woman there should have been some sort of code that made this off limits?
“So Amy is your daughter?” Elayna opened icily.
“Yes, as is Nanya,” she replied rigidly, moving the absolute minimum of jaw muscles as she spoke.
“No!” Elayna snapped angrily, “You've taken my husband from me but you are not getting my daughter! Next thing I know you'll be throwing a birthday party for my son.”
“I'm sorry,” she uttered, devoid of desperation or remorse, simply stating a fact.
“For how much?” Elayna had to resist the urge to spit at the rat-faced woman's feet.
“All of it. Well, not for Amy and Nanya. It's a good thing that they exist.”
“Don't bring them into this. They were the fortunate outcomes of a rather messy set of circumstances. Why are you here? Do you want 'your' daughter back?”
“No, no, no,” Celia scrambled, “I wouldn't dream of it. She loves it here. No, I'm here by accident. The thing I once opened to get here – to explore – somebody, a semi-famous crackpot author by the sounds of things, has opened it up from this end and yanked Amy and Nanya through it, switching them. I have to go see what he wants – then I'll be out of your hair.”
“Then why did you come talk to me anyway? Go find him. Fix this. Now!”
“It was part of a deal. Nanya asked me to.”
“You've spoken to Nanya?” Elayna's rage erupted ruinously from the depths of her heart.
“Yes. She said if I came to talk to you – to apologise – that she'd consider coming with me to find him. She seems to think that if one of the twins goes with me, he'll see that they shouldn't be involved in any of this and he'll leave them be. I'm not so sure but I guess it's worth a shot.”
“So you do want to steal my daughter,” Elayna leant triumphantly back on the couch.
“Well, not really. She and Amy's friend Donny are probably feeling even more betrayed by me right now than even you. Jonnie doesn't want her to go at all but I think she wants to come to help Amy – so that she and Donny can go home and get back to school. She took Amy's place on the quizzing team while she was … away … and Donny said she did really well.”
“That's not the point. You're not taking her.”
“Jonnie said he'd go too if he couldn't stop her. To protect Nanya from trying to protect everyone else.” Celia instantly regretted this. She was practically gloating.
Despite her attempt to lather herself in ice and cold distance, Elayna was moved to smile at the thought of her son, how he was the living embodiment of her top qualities in a person. He thought hard before everything he did, he was passionate about his family, he understood that he was not going to be a protective figure in Nanya's life – she didn't need any – and he resented it, but he still respected it.
“I want to see them. I want them to figure out what they really want and then I won't stop them if they do decide to go. It's possible I couldn't anyway. I'm sick – I mean, everyone's sick but I'm on my way out. I think you call it cancer. It's in my stomach – well it was originally but now it's everywhere. Anyway, if I discover that you have manipulated them into wanting to go on this … pursuit, then know that I will personally place myself and all my possessions between you and them and you will never speak to a single one of us again. Understood?”
“Good,” Elayna puffed, “Well, go get them then!”
Jonnie was hoping with all his fervour that Nanya opted not to walk into the arms of that man. The light in his eyes had been just like hers, except with the sick pleasure of someone who crosses the line – and loves it. He hadn't saved his life. At the very most he'd have been knocked unconscious. But anyway, Samael Drafson's latest fancy had just happened to have a fist raised to Jonnie's face. Jonnie doubted he even knew he was there to 'save'. Celia could argue all he wanted about how he must have been looking for Amy, wanting to keep an eye on the havoc he'd wreaked. Yeah, right. He'd seen an opportunity to vent his crazy fetish and had gone for it. It was sick.
He'd not been surprised how glad he'd been that his mum hadn't been keen at all on the idea. It was stupid and frivolous and Jonnie really wasn't sure that Celia deserved Nanya's help. Donny and Amy were right to go home. The excitement had worn off. They had no reason to go. Jonnie wasn't even sure what they'd be going to do. All he knew was that if nobody did, he'd probably lose Nanya again. So, if Nanya refused to stay behind, he wouldn't hesitate to accompany them to Asion – where Celia said Samael lived.
He leaned into the door as he opened it, holding it open for Nanya, who offered him a nerve-ridden smile. They treaded their own carpets with trepidation, Nanya also with slight relief for this was her first time home since her … trip. Elayna called to them from the kitchen. The kitchen consisted of a battered wooden table with a tattered linen tablecloth scrabbling to keep a hold of its surface so as not to let itself slip the table through its gaps. There were four chairs, which they made a habit of not tending towards the same one of each. If they each had their own seat, then one seat would have to be the Empty Seat, where Michael would have sat and they'd never have gotten through a meal without constantly re-evaluating their lives and whether Michael would have been proud of them.
Elayna beckoned to them with a stubborn smile that could not be budged even by the news that the woman who'd ruined her marriage wanted to take her children to the house of a madman to try to convince him to leave them alone. Her dark hair was tied back loosely, stray wisps framing the bottom of her face, which was pale with the strain of concentrating on her anger, her pain and her sorrow while still putting her children first and not letting them see it. Jonnie made a mental note not to ask her how she was or she'd know that her resilience wasn't worth it and where would the use be in that?
“So,” Elayna began, “I hear you want to go convince this man to leave you alone, Nanya.”
“Yeah. I want to meet him in person.”
“Why?” Elayna muttered, “I mean, what good can it possibly do?”
“I don't know … I just … have to. Tell me you know what I mean, Jonnie?”
“Actually, I honestly don't believe that's true,” Jonnie placed his hand nervously on the back of his neck. His sister could be a monstrous wall of rage when she wanted to be.
“But I have to! Celia needs someone to protect her, right? Why can't that be me?!” Nanya did not look angry or betrayed but rather just that her hopeful little simmer had been shut off and was now cooling to the point where it would dissolve into memory.
“Look,” Jonnie reasoned, “I know. You want to go. But if you meet this Samael guy … what good will it do? He might want to talk to Celia alone. You'll be in Asion next week anyway. Maybe you can arrange to meet him or something. I don't know. But just please, even if you don't understand why I want this, please just don't go. Just … for me?”
Nanya looked from Mum to brother, brother to Mum, both desperately pleading with her just to stay home, not to leave them again. How could she disappoint them both for a woman she actually hated? She fell into an embrace of her brother and bleated her assent into his shoulder.
“Okay,” she murmured, “Okay, okay, okay. This is important to me but you are both far more important. I love you both so okay, okay? I'm home now and I'm not going anywhere.”
“How much longer?” Amy moaned, “It's killing me that I'm never going to go up there again –” she indicated the aerial assault course, “– and I just want to get home so I can move on with my life.”
Donny leaned onto his right arm, which was perched on a loose but large rock that he could keep stable if he applied the right pressure with the right force on the right area. He flipped his left wrist so the inside faced upwards.
“Five twenty-eight,” he sighed, “Jeez, it's like counting down to the end of a period at school.”
“Yeah, except all we're doing is going back to a place where our school actually exists.”
“Yep,” Donny nodded, returning his left arm to the star moss.
His legs were crossed lazily down the hillside, his laces undone and trailing downwards. His torso wasn't quite vertical and his elbows were set, popping slightly inwards like cruise control. The cold was beginning to set in but he unexpectedly found his heart racing with the anticipation of going home. He was beginning to miss adults, the constant reminder that there was something to look forward to once school ended, in the world of work.
Amy's legs were draped over a large boulder on a flat stretch of ground, entertaining both of them with the suspense of her struggle to stay upright on her unstable perch. Occasionally she'd purposefully shake herself off balance, just to steady herself again in a flurry of ninja moves that blended more into the posture of a hula dancer (hands out, bottom half wiggling). Now having done this six times and bored herself beyond belief, she sprung from the rock and knelt down next to Donny.
"Do you think my mum is wrong to ask Nanya and Jonnie go with her ... straight into the arms of a self-confessed murderer who is clearly pissed off and may want revenge for something?" Amy's voice revealed a slight pleading tone, perhaps hoping for some semblance of agreement that her mum had not done absolutely everything wrong. Donny found it difficult to picture Celia doing anything for the right motives any more.
"I think Nanya's wrong to want to go. I've been thinking about it and it really has nothing to do with us. This is between your mum and Samael."
"Hmm ..." Amy pondered, "Time?"
"It's been thirty seconds."
Amy groaned and began to scan the ground, her eyes mechanically inching along the forest floor. She let out a mutter of triumph and reached for a short stick hidden in the long strands of grass. She scuttled back over to the rock, beckoning for Donny to follow. The grass was far thinner over here, allowing her to scratch a 'naughts and crosses' grid into the soft forest floor. She dug a wiggly cross into the centre square and thrust the stick toward Donny. He placed an elliptical naught into the top right corner. Amy replied with a cross in the top-left, which Donny chased with a naught in the bottom-right. She proceeded to lead him at heel around three different links of two which resolved with him having squashed every attempt at an uprising but had left no room for his own attack.
The twig being in his right hand, held like a pencil, Donny reached out his hand to erase their game. Amy grabbed his wrist in panic and he wondered if perhaps she'd hoped to leave it there as evidence of existence in this world. Then she twisted his wrist round and examined the inside of his arm, or rather his watch. The realisation that the game had taken a good two minutes thudded into Donny, winding him and expelling a startled splutter.
“Oh my God!” he croaked.
“How can we still be here?” Amy's gaze trembled as she let his arm fall.
He could sense the fair hairs begin to prick upwards as what little was left of his trust in Celia crumbled away and he was left with the realisation that the air was simply air behind him. There would be no … charged fields of electricity for him to amplify to save them all … no cosmic signature they could trace back home. The door had not opened and was not even locked. It was simply gone and could only be replaced from the other side, sort of like when Boo's door was shredded at the end of Monsters Inc.
Amy was loosely gripping his goose-pimpled arm, as if she was struggling to concentrate on clinging to him for support. Her eyes were searching the horizon but her mind was likely far further away. Donny's mind was near in three dimensions, four if you counted time but in the one that counted, in terms of the dimension that couldn't be breached – well, he wasn't about to hop back in time either but he'd never expected to – there could not be more distance between he and his thoughts. He would study every day for four hours after school if the door opened right now, simply because he could.
“What should we do?” Amy whispered, so quiet that he was not sure that he'd have heard her had she still been sitting on the rock.
“Well, your mum trusted us to hop across worlds by ourselves so surely we'll be okay in a glorified rural village?” Donny nodded toward the buildings of the town centre, which were low and had red roofs like the houses of the ancient Greeks.
Donny swivelled to face her.
“Is it okay if I cry on you?”
That struck Donny lightly, like a young Victorian teacher not yet used to the hatred and animosity they'd come to feel toward the young. Amy had never seemed particularly averse to crying, much less around him. Donny reckoned he'd seen Amy cry with sorrow about three times in his life. One was when she broke her arm in the tree – or rather falling under it. The second was when she watched 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' because, she'd explained, her childhood was marked by that moment and she was now a 'young adult'. And thirdly was when Dillan had nearly had to have his leg amputated. She'd excused herself by saying that it was unfair that Dillan couldn't cry so she'd just have to do it for him. She'd cried plenty of times in anger and frustration as well as joy and desperate happiness. If somebody had been pestering her – rubbing their hands on her hair to see if they could make static electricity, winding her up about spending so much time around Donny and Cameron and Declan and Oliver and Stuart and Patrick and so on and so forth, or just generally being immature and moronic – she'd swallow deeply and hold tight as if she were trying to keep a gag reflex down, then as soon as she was alone, or at the very least Donny was the only one around, she'd loose her tears in ravaged, howling sobs that emanated frustration and radiated anger. No matter what, crying had never been something she was ashamed of.
“Uh, sure,” he mumbled, “You always do, don't you?”
But she was gone, submerged in the salt water that insulated her from the world. It was like the relief of the release of the tears ate up all her attention and there was nothing left to think about. Donny wrapped an arm around her, inadvertently wiping a tear from his own cheek, like an infectious yawn. He didn't feel sad yet. In fact he felt hopeful, for some elusive reason. If it was possible to invent a dimension-jump then surely it was possible to access it … wasn't it?