Christine awoke with a start. It was a jolt in her mind that rushed straight down her spine and sent the bed-clothes thrashing. The black fog of a dreamless sleep clung about her, making it difficult for her to gain her bearings, but wherever she was, she was aware it was not home. The soul knows these things before the eyes.
She was not waking in her own bedroom. That much she could tell, and the creepers of panic began their cold climb up the flesh of her bare back. Why was it bare anyway, exactly?
Last night was either very good or very bad... Or both, if she listened to her mother.
The sheets felt unfamiliar and still cool; she can’t have lain here long. But she could not fathom where here could be. Today, or perhaps yesterday by now, was her sixteenth birthday. Her head drummed while she scoured frantically for this snatch of information. So, her conscience began to chastise, a birthday and a mother of a headache and awakening in an unfamiliar bed were the symptoms. Just what was the cause? Oh, whatever could it be?
But she had not been drinking, surely? Aside from the straightjacket her parents’ minds seemed locked in, Christine’s multiple medications required that she partake of no alcohol. Of course, medical advice being worth what it was to a teenager, she did imbibe every now and then. But she had a doctor’s appointment on her birthday, so she couldn’t even have a celebratory tipple with her breakfast.
The doctor! He’d wanted to take a blood sample, hence her reluctance to drink beforehand. It would surely show up. Try explaining why a sixteen year old has booze in their blood at eleven in the morning. She remembered the chill of the needle inside her arm, and then... this bed.
Great. She’d fainted. How embarrassing.
It was certainly a comfortable bed for a hospital. And the atmosphere felt homey, as if she were in a residence surrounded by more active spirits than the cool and cruel expanse of the hospital ward. She couldn’t even smell the disinfectant.
After starting awake, she realised her body had become still while her mind meandered. Where she was had been of primary importance, yet she had not even managed to open her eyes. So weary and heavy they felt that considering the dancing blackness inside her closed lids made her eyes sting. But Christine had to do something.
The sense of activity preyed on her mind. Someone was around, watching her. They wouldn’t leave her to wake in a strange place alone. They would want to know when she woke up, wouldn't they? Perhaps not; she was so peaceful now, on the outside, while her internal world was as bustling as an airport. Closed cases whistling around on squeaking wheels, the tang of static in the air, voices of such great difference mingling into a rushing of noise, and that crackling, omnipresent address system she knew was there but couldn’t quite understand.
Whoever was there on the outside would not know of the turbulence within. Christine had to make a signal, indicate she was indeed awake. And it was torment, a wracking of the will, to force her body over towards the source of the presence. Her eyelids turned a bloody-brown within, and she knew she was facing a source of thin light. Her eyes split open as slow as a chasm, and saw a door across the bare boards of the room. It crept to a close, silently shutting off the shaft of light. A bruise-shaded shadow swept a tiny silhouette off the floor.
“Hello?” Christine tried to say, only for a dry spike of air to lance from her throat. She felt her body snap into a rigid frame, arrested by fear and no longer by the lumbering lethargy she had on waking. Her mind swung open and, before she could think about any consequences of her exploration, her feet were flung from the bed to the shifting grit of bare floorboards. She ached and creaked, rubbing hair out of her eyes as she shambled a trail through the dust. Approaching the door, hands now poised unsteadily before her, a flare of light snatched her gaze.
She spun, dropped into a crouch and broke into a sweat by the time her eyes registered the mirror. A smooth oval set in a woodcut frame against the violet paper of the wall, it seemed a more appropriate place for a portrait than anything. But there it was, catching a dimmer replication of the light and all the worst parts of Christine’s face. With traditional teenage vanity, she scowled at it, the reflection’s brow furrowing in sympathy. Turning left and right and left again, she kept her eyes locked on herself, examining the figure she had awoken with and the shadows below her eyes. She was not amused, and with the usual hyperbole her kind apply to these situations, she turned away in disgust from her pale and pasty countenance. The reflection pirouetted on the spot, a full circle, and tilted her head curiously as she gazed at the girl’s back.
Now Christine began to take in the room. It certainly wasn’t like any hospital she remembered, but what did that mean? She had been born at home and her experiences with hospitals had been fleeting or televised. Certainly there were the Victorian hospitals with their arcane architecture, which this room put her in mind of. Drab and dusty furnishings, with the garish striped wallpaper resurrected from the 70s, a dated attempt at bringing the modern world to the decrepit building. It wasn’t quite square, either, with the bed resting against the flat wall while the door lay off centre on a shorter plane, tapering into the corners. Above it all, coated in drifts of dust, hung the hulking mass of an iron candelabrum. It was empty of candles, and affixed to the ceiling directly by nails rather than suspended from a rope, and with good reason. It would have been scratching across the floor otherwise, so massive was its bulk. Its position and warped shape gave it the impression of a hand reaching into the building from above.
No candles, and yet she still could see. Burning grimly, but with a solid red flame, a little lamp sat steadfast at her bedside. It was tiny, merely a dot of light in a cylinder of blackness, yet still it gave her sight of the whole room.
Christine turned, stumbling over her own ankles, towards the maw of the door. How and who, she did not want to bring to mind, but whoever had opened the door behind her must have seen she was up and about now. But they had not acknowledged her, not even made enough sound that Christine had been aware of their presence. Just her and the light. Perhaps, she soothed herself, they had gone quickly to summon the doctor.
But Christine still would have liked some answers, and sitting in her room hoping the person who wasn’t there might return would not do. Sitting in this room at all did not appeal to her, despite her mind already drawing conclusions on it being very resolutely her room. How long had she been asleep? If it was night again, she would never know; there were no windows.
Yes, yes, windows. Christine felt the search for windows or a clock to tell herself the time was a convincing reason for leaving her room. A practical excuse seemed warranted, since she did not want to give any credence to the apprehension she sensed in there. Christine gave herself a curt nod and turned toward the door. In a blink, it was pressed against the flesh of her nose. The slam jarred her, shaking her almost as much as the ringing in the room that came after. She crumbled back into the dust, her legs and gown fanning out from her body.
Christine rubbed her bare and pimpled arm. There must have been a draught, though she could not feel it. At this point, she noticed her watch was missing, and she would indeed need to leave the room to find the time. In fact, as she gazed at her toes and took in her body again, she found all of her jewellery was missing. Of course, that would be a practicality, as this hospital obviously couldn’t afford to keep an eye on the patients, so leaving them unconscious and laden with silver and gold would be rather reckless. They would be around somewhere. She’d have to ask. She’d have to leave the room.
She rose again, gown rustling over her legs. As her foot pressed softly in the dust, the door inched further across its frame. Christine frowned, suspicious. She drew her foot back. As if a taut string were between her toes and the door, it was pried open at her motion.
Another step forward, and the gap narrowed. A full step back and she could see into the hall through the gaping doorframe. Christine took a breath, then wondered what for, before striding towards the opening. The door clattered against her shins as she stepped beneath the frame, and no bracing with her forearms could hold against its closing. Christine stumbled back into the room and slapped against the door, cursing at the barrier.
Behind the door, she heard the piercing giggle of girls at play.
Christine drew back from the door, rising to her full height. Quickly, the laughter faded, as if moving away down the hall, and Christine reached for the handle again.
Christine whipped back around to face her room, twisting her gown and knees about herself and banging flat against the left bar of the doorframe. Her eyes moved far too fast to take in the details of the room, seeking to cover every inch at every moment, as she sought the source of the laughter she had felt on her own neck.
Nothing jumped out.
Christine rested against the beam for a moment, head lolling back and chest rolling with the search for air. Finally, she was composed enough to lower her arm, which had hammered against the wall and remained outright after swinging away from having her fingertips on the door handle. Rubbing her thumb across her fingers, she stepped forward from the wooden beam and turned back to the door.
“Jesus!” she squealed.
“Where?” the little girl in the gaping door-frame asked. She tilted her head and watched with deep interest set into her black eyes.
Christine slowly lowered her hands. Under her gown, her skin rippled and swelled like waves as she gulped in the chilled air of the room. She must be the doctor's daughter. She must. A few deep breaths, some positive internal dialogue, and she was able to clear her throat and address the girl, who was still waiting, patient and polite, mute and unblinking.
“I’m sorry, you startled me. Were you being a naughty girl and swinging on my door?”
“No,” she squeaked, shaking her head.
“Are you sure?” Christine probed gently.
Christine crouched in front of the girl, creasing her brow with exaggerated furrows of confusion. “Is that a no you’re not sure, or a no you weren’t playing with the door?”
The girl remained silent, intently looking through Christine.
“What’s your name?” Christine asked, deciding on a less direct approach.
“Mai,” said the girl, offering a little curtsey in her purple dress.
“So you’re Mai?” Christine repeated, smiling in return.
Christine opened her mouth, suddenly curious, but found herself lost for words in the intent gaze of the girl. It was now sharply focused on her, and those huge eyes suggested a wisdom beyond her appearance of youth. She settled on trying to find a way out of this place, or at least some clue as to why she was here. “Do you know where the doctor is?”
“The doctor is in his study.”
His study? Hospitals don’t have studies. Christine realised she must be in a private residence. Perhaps he had taken her to his home to recover. Nothing creepy about that... Well, fainting was no emergency, and the hospitals were so quarrelsome with giving up their beds. Not entirely convinced, Christine smiled at Mai, who was still quietly observing the older girl. “Um, do you think you could show me?”
“Yes,” Mai said, and did not move.
Christine offered out her hand, but Mai kept her own behind her back. She bounced on the balls of her feet. Christine waited another moment, and gestured out of the room. “Shall we go?”
“After you,” Mai said. She stepped back into the corridor, allowing Christine out of the doorway. “I can only show you the way.”
Christine shivered in the hall. It must have been very draughty in the old house; she could feel a current of air pushing her from behind. Rubbing her arms again, she realised the strangeness of following someone behind her, and turned to Mai to try to point this out. All she found was a matted carpet.
“Mai?” she asked, veiling her frustration. “Come back. How can I follow you if I can’t see you?”
“Follow what you can’t see,” the corridor echoed with a giggle. “That’s the only way to find me.”
“Mai!” Christine growled, thumping her foot against the wood of the skirting board. Taking breaths to calm herself, Christine waited, closed her eyes, and spread her hands out at her side to relieve her tension. After a moment, she looked around again, but still there was no sign of Mai’s return. Shaking her head, Christine took a step to the right of the door, the hall running at right angles to it along the wall of the room. On feeling the thin carpet beneath her toes, she heard Mai again, at the back of her head.
“Beware of the dog.”
Christine rolled her eyes at the games of the girl, and kept moving right.
She passed several doors on the left, which, just by their imposing stature, simply looked locked. She ignored them. At the far end of the corridor, she came to a corner, heading right and up the other wall of her room, with another door facing that passage, on her left. The door looked old and rotten, with ghastly shapes picked out in the grain. The passageway looked wide and free. She took no thought to decide on heading right again, along the outer wall of the room she was already in.
“You’re going to the dogs.”
Christine halted, stumbling over her own heels. She looked back along the corridor, and found no one. She looked ahead again, to find her passage now stunted and ending in an open door. With no sign of the source of the voice, so eerily gentle in its delivery, she condemned herself for gazing up at the portraits lining the wall. All of them were handsome men, groomed and well dressed, of different periods yet sharing a familiarity in their features. Stepping forward, toes curled with caution, she crept closer to the open door.
A breath brushed past her, and Christine swung to her right. Another portrait, another man, sure and steadfast in his blood-red coat, a musket in one hand and a leash in the other. Crouched at his side was the thing which pulled in Christine's gaze; as hulking a brute as its master, a slack-jawed black dog. Its fangs looked truly wet.
Christine leaned closer, fingertips gripping the picture frame. Her eyes met the dog’s, and so tactile was the painting, she was certain the beast’s hairs rippled with the wind. Christine’s fingers crept onto the canvas, and she reached to stroke the dog.
The jaws clapped shut. Christine dove back, crashing against the bare left wall. She landed in a heap, and when her head was clear, drew back her legs against herself in alarm. Across the hall, stretching from the painting with a maw gaping in a yawn, the black dog set down on the floor. It padded, claws silent, back and forth along the length of the frame. Yet there it was, on the floor, turning side to side right in front of Christine.
Christine was shaking, a wind she could not feel rippling her simple gown. Some more breaths calmed her as she waited for the dog to pounce. Yet it would not. The eyes would not meet her and she could not see their colour, or if they were there at all. It sniffed. Could the fiend even see her? As her heart slowed and her mind’s frantic buzzing cleared, she set about rationalising its existence. Surely it did not exist at all. If she had fainted from the blood-test, perhaps she had hit her head. Perhaps she had been given something to help her sleep it off. The dog, perhaps the entire house, was an illusion as her mind tried to cope with the trauma.
An illusion. Christine rose straighter against the wall. She was pleased with her hypothesis. Her education had been put to good use, for once.
The dog barked, rattling the hall and sending Christine cowering behind her knees.
“Come to me,” the breath ran through her ears. Christine’s face ached with her cringe of fright. Slowly, she parted her legs, peering between her pimpled knees. The fiend peered back. Yet it was not a hulking brute, a mass of black slinking across the hall and slathering at the thought of devouring her. It was now a stunted little brown cloud of fluff, head tilted and a single ear cocked in curiosity. Christine wiped her eyes and giggled, girlish and bubbly. Whatever the doctor had given her, it was strong. So strong that this pet of his had ran through her mind as a hellhound. She smiled, fingertips reaching out to the furry pup, and without thinking, she was upright and striding towards it, hands prepared to clasp it up like an infant. Soon, she was on her knees, the dog’s head in her hands, rubbing its ears and strands of fur between her fingers.
“Hello, hello,” she cooed.
“Pleased to meet you,” said the dog in Mai's sweet tone. "Hope you guess my name."
The fingers froze. The dog’s mouth parted, a thick tongue worming its way around its chops. Christine withdrew, crumpling back onto her rump, wringing her hands. She turned to the wall and thumped it with an open palm.
“What is wrong with me?”
Silence met her cry. Except... not quite silence, but the ringing of noise suddenly departed. And now that buzzing, growing in her right ear. Christine whipped her head to view another painting. It seemed to seep into the wall, extending miles beyond where the doctor’s house could possibly go. In there, or perhaps out there, was a desert stretching on beyond the horizon, with a scorched sky overhead. Nothing but sand on the ground, with more sand in the air between. The grains deep within the picture seemed to writhe and roll. With a rush, a cloud of sand flapped out into the hall, showering Christine’s feet. She jerked back, mouth gaping and ducked down to wipe her feet.
The buzzing was louder now; no more could she satisfy herself that it was merely a road outside, a blender in the kitchen, or even a stressed imagining of her mind. Christine looked up and her mouth immediately closed. A great tumult of black roared out of the frame and spread a thick shadow through the hall. Christine threw herself to the floor hard enough to cry out, and then clamped her hands over her mouth and nose, elbows desperately thrown towards her ears, for fear of any of the storm of locusts getting in.
She could feel the cloud growing heavy over her, the rushing and buzzing penetrating into her ears. Louder it became, her skin prickling with the carpet of the swarm. Her eyes streamed, they were so tightly shut. Her feet scrabbled at the floor as she tried to kick herself away from the frame, away from the noise. And then, just as her hands buffeted against something warm and soft and wet, the noise ceased.
Blindly she ran her hands up and down herself, over each other, gathering herself into a ball so she could feel her feet. Every inch of her was clean and clear. Controlling her breath, she cracked open one eye, then the other.
The dog was there, upright and shambling. Again, it was a huge black brute, eyes shielded in creases of dark muscle, sharp ears pinned back. Christine gasped, pushing with her legs back along the hall. After some skittering and faltering, she was finally upright, and dashed past the framed pictures, down the hall, around the corner, back the way she had come.
A door opened as she ran on, slapping out from the wall and slamming her to the floor. Christine groaned, hand over her face, blood trickling from between her lips. The impact clattered her jaws together and left her with the blazing agony of her tongue.
Christine rolled onto her side, tongue lolling to the sandy floor. She squeezed out a blink, eyes slowly opening to the light cast out of the door. She smiled, in spite of the pain. Pushing herself onto hands and knees, she crawled into the room, where a man with a horseshoe of white hair sat at his table. His left hand was at work, while his right stroked the unseeing dog Christine had ran away from.
At last, the Doctor. He would help.
Christine crumpled into a ball at his side and tugged hard on his sunlight yellow coat. The man turned from his work. A fine tinkering with tools was all Christine could make out in the glare. His face passed across the lamp, cutting out the light. Christine felt a burning cold as he touched her rippling skin. Her eyes, no matter how hard she sought, could not meet his.
“Help me,” she gagged. “Are you the Doctor?”
“I Am.” he answered, a voice wafting warmth across her cheek.
“Please,” she whispered, too frozen to wipe away a falling tear. “Doctor, I’m not well.”
“Then I can help you. I’m the only one who can.”
“But where is everyone?” Christine asked, bolstered by the soothing tone of the doctor. “My family? Other patients? Where am I?”
“You are alone. But you can leave any time you like.” He freed his coat from her hands, swung his chair around, and gestured to the far wall. There was a window there, and outside, Christine saw the pale light of day.
Her head was roiling with doubt, but already the flesh of her feet had carried her to the window sill. Already, her hands had gripped the latch, and prepared to spring it open.
“Alone, alone, leave her alone,” a voice rattled around the room. The doctor sighed, and kicked his chair around towards the door. Christine fought her heavy head, arms resting on the window frame, and turned back.
“Follow me,” Mai commanded, a tiny figure in the arcing doorframe. Her eyes were sunken, face creased; she looked like a doll left in the bottom of a toy-box.
“I want out,” Christine replied, still sounding thick through the damage of her tongue.
“That is no way out!” the child insisted, remaining in the door, flapping in agitation.
“It looks like one.” Christine shook her head, and showed another pained smile. “It’s easier this way.”
“Ignore my daughter, please,” the doctor insisted, rising and gesturing with open palms, a nudge through the air, towards the window. “She knows not what she says.”
Christine nodded. She opened the window, and quietly slipped away.
Mai counted. “One, two, three...” She frowned, disappointed. No splat.
The doctor regarded her with a knowing smile. “You can try again with the next soul.”
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