Summerhouse land, p.33
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       Summerhouse Land, p.33
 

           Roderick Gordon

  ‘I know, but it’s done now – primed and ready. Are you okay?’ Curtis asked. Sam didn’t answer, too full of apprehension to complain about the pain. Then Curtis made sure Sam and Damaris were linked together with the length of rope he’d brought along.

  He moved to the cliff face which was barely visible in the moonlight. ‘So this is precisely where you entered the valley?’

  ‘Yes, this is the place,’ Damaris confirmed. ‘Where the ivy is at its thickest.’

  ‘So what do I do now?’ Sam asked, despite Curtis’s efforts to brief him how this would happen. As they stood there in the gloom, Sam’s mind had gone blank. It was all so unremarkable and low-key. There was no sense that this was a momentous occasion, a landmark in the history of the valley because what they were about to attempt had never been done before. It was certainly one of the most important moments in Sam’s life. Was this really when he was going to cross back into the world, back into his time, back to his old life?

  ‘You go through,’ Curtis said simply. ‘And, Sam, whatever you do, don’t let go of Damaris.’

  Sam gripped Damaris’s hand tightly. ‘That’s it? I just walk into the cliff?’

  ‘Yes. Go ahead. And good luck.’

  His arm extended before him, Sam ventured forward a step, skeptical that this whole escapade was going to achieve anything. How could it possibly? He’d feel the hard surface of the white stone against his fingers, a solid impassable barrier, and that would be it. A walk back to the village again.

  As he touched the cliff, his fingers twitched as if he’d received a shock of static electricity. It was momentary, leaving a tingling sensation.

  He felt a slight resistance but persevered, pushing harder. To his astonishment his hand seemed to sink into the stone, its surface wavering as if under water.

  ‘I think this is working,’ he said with surprise.

  ‘Well, let’s get on with it, shall we?’ Damaris urged.

  ‘Okay,’ Sam said, and took a giant step, pulling her in with him.

  Part Three

  RETURN

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Vertigo and dizziness and nothing. It’s less than nothing, because even darkness can be something.

  Sam can’t tell which way is up or down. He only has awareness of himself, his own breathing, his heart pumping blood around his body.

  And Damaris’s hand in his.

  As she’s pulled away from him, he grips it with even more determination. He’s not going to let go of her if it’s the last thing he does.

  Then his feet find a surface below them, but he can’t find his balance. Although he’s falling, tipping forward, he doesn’t go all the way over as something stops him.

  He feels sick, however after a second or two this and the dizziness pass and he manages to find his equilibrium. Straightening his legs he stands upright, for some reason thinking about the raft in the Kon Tiki book and how much this must be like stepping back onto land after weeks of rough seas.

  Damaris’s hand is still in his, but she’s not on her feet – he can tell from the angle of her arm. He can’t see her, or anything else for that matter, but then hues of gray smear and wipe across his vision, like paint in rain.

  He waits, and the world around him begins to find form – solidifying, or rather feathering because it’s gradual, into some kind of order, into dark and shade and shape.

  Into evening.

  Sam doesn’t know how he knows this because the only sounds are those he and Damaris are making, but he does know it. He’s sure of it.

  ‘Are you all right?’ he says to Damaris in a whisper.

  As he turns to her something catches across his face. It’s the branch of a tree and it’s not the only one as others snag against him. He could be in the lost gap, but he doesn’t yet allow himself to believe that he’s back in his time.

  ‘Hey?’ he asks Damaris, becoming anxious.

  She finally responds, with a groan.

  ‘Let’s get out of this,’ he says.

  ‘Can’t … not now,’ she gasps.

  ‘Come on. I’ll help you,’ he tells her.

  It’s difficult because Damaris is on her knees deeper in the ivy-covered tree, but Sam pulls her up and after him as he drives a way through the branches. Once free of them, it’s still not plain sailing because the ground is so uneven.

  He pauses for a second to reach out and explore what’s around him. In the almost pitch black his hand encounters timber, rough timber. The fence at the end of the garden?

  ‘I think we’ve made it,’ he whispers to Damaris. ‘I really think this is the lost gap.’

  She doesn’t reply.

  ‘If it is, we need to move farther along,’ he says, his arm around her as he negotiates the moss-covered stones and lattice of ivy stems. Then he stops beside the fence, peering around. It seems to be the right place from the little he can see, but he can’t be sure. Because if Sam is where he thinks he is, it’s the same section he climbed over on his way into the valley.

  Damaris mumbles something as he helps her lean against the fence. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asks, while unpicking the knots on the rope that links them together. He has to do this by touch because there’s so little light, and he leaves it on the ground after he’s finished. Then Sam sets about taking off the crown – even just the movement as he opens the controls and presses the right button is unpleasant, but worse is to come as the prongs retract, scraping against his skull. ‘That hurts like a …’ he mutters, as he finally removes the crown and stands there, feeling the dampness from the blood at the four points around his cranium. Without the valley to heal him the discomfort isn’t just going to go away.

  But the pain makes him think more clearly. ‘Tell me what’s wrong?’ he says to Damaris as he didn’t receive an answer from her the first time he asked. He has to shake her gently before she replies.

  ‘Feel terrible. So sick,’ she swallows, barely able to stand even propped up against the fence.

  ‘I’m going to get you over first, but we have to keep the noise down.’ He places a hand on the fence and pushes against it. It doesn’t creak nearly as loudly or seem to be as rickety as he remembers. ‘There’s a compost heap on the other side, so you won’t hurt yourself.’

  He doesn’t wait for a reply and with much heaving and grunting and hardly any input from Damaris, he manages to manhandle her to the top of the fence, then over it. She slides messily down the other side, landing on the heap with a small flopping sound. He knows she’s all right because after a short pause she begins to moan again.

  Sam can hardly contain his excitement – he can’t wait to see his home. He heaves himself up the fence; it’s easier to climb it now because of his physical transformation, but still not as easy as he might have expected. Nevertheless, he swings himself over the top, propelling himself forward so he lands on the far side of the compost heap and avoids Damaris. She hasn’t moved from where she fell, slumped forward, her head in her hands.

  At least there’s some light here. His eyes immediately settle on the old garden bench where he would find some relief from his headaches. Seeing it again, something so much part of his old life, makes him want to shout with joy, but he doesn’t.

  ‘Stay here for a second. I’m going for a look round,’ Sam says to Damaris.

  He creeps slowly from behind the large copper beech tree. There, at the end of the lawn, he has the first view of his home. This is the moment he’s dreamed of.

  ‘I’m here,’ he says. ‘I can’t believe it. I’m really here.’

  He begins toward the house. It’s peculiar but each step, each movement, takes more effort than it should, as if the air is dense, resisting him. As if he’s wading through honey. And while there’s light coming from the kitchen windows in the house, it’s also odd because there’s no color to it. And no color to the sky. It’s dark and Sam may be relying on his night vision, but it’s more than that. All the color is absent. Everything is monochr
ome.

  He forgets about this as he spies something farther along the lawn, immediately crouching low.

  No movement, but two shapes. One is somehow suspended in the air. The other, fifteen or so feet behind it, is a person, completely stationary.

  Sam holds back for a moment. He can’t for the life of him work out what the suspended object is. Ever so slowly he edges around, trying to use the gray-hued illumination from the house to understand what he’s seeing in silhouette.

  ‘Maxie?’ Sam mouths.

  The dog seems to be stuck in mid leap.

  ‘And who’s that?’ Sam whispers to himself, straining to make out more of the figure behind Maxie, but it’s obscured by shadow. He throws caution to the wind and moves closer, taking small steps across the lawn.

  ‘Dad?’

  Sam knows he can’t have any interaction with his family – Curtis drummed into him how disastrous it could be. But there doesn’t seem to be much risk of that, not with the strange situation he’s found himself in.

  Sam reaches the dog first. Maxie is several feet above the ground in mid leap, but still as a photograph. ‘This is so weird,’ Sam whispers, then notices something around his pet’s mouth is glittering under the illumination from the house like multi-faceted diamonds. Sam realizes that he’s looking at droplets of airborne saliva. As the dog snapped his jaws open, they must have flicked out, but the droplets are static, completely immobile.

  Then Sam lifts his gaze to see what Maxie is jumping for and spots the well-chewed tennis ball. Avoiding the dog, he stands on tiptoe to push the ball above him with a finger. It’s stuck fast in mid-air. He applies more pressure and manages to move it a degree, but it’s still firmly suspended there.

  Then Sam lowers back onto his heels again and lays a hand on his levitating dog’s flank. There’s no warmth and Maxie’s coat is stiff and unyielding.

  ‘What’s going on?’ Sam asks himself, turning to look at his father across the lawn. He inches nervously toward him, Curtis’s warning ringing in his ears. It’s one thing to make contact with Maxie, but how would his father react to a new, improved version of his dead son suddenly materializing in the garden?

  Mr White is in his tracksuit and trainers. He’s been on one of his all too short runs around the block and, predictably, there’s a lit cigarette in one hand, the other raised from throwing the tennis ball.

  ‘Dad,’ Sam chokes, overcome with emotion, but his father is inhumanly still, as if made of stone. Sam moves around Mr White, trying to see his face more clearly despite it being in shadow. Then Sam takes a hesitant breath before he waves a hand in front of his father’s eyes and asks, ‘Dad? Can you hear me, Dad?’

  There’s no reaction, nothing. He’s completely motionless and silent.

  ‘You can’t, can you?’

  Sam extends his hand toward the glowing tip of the cigarette. Even the smoke is frozen in the air, but he finds he can change its position with a swipe of his hand, as if he’s smudging chalk across a blackboard. Sam even goes so far as to touch the burning tip of the cigarette with his index finger, but there’s no warmth there.

  Looking up at the gray-tinged light flooding from the kitchen windows, Sam mutters, ‘Mum?’ as he thinks of her. He knows it’s very likely she’ll be in there at that time of evening, so he hurries toward the house and mounts the steps to the open back door.

  ‘Mum! It’s me!’ he cries as soon as he enters the kitchen. It’s the strangest thing because although the room is brightly illuminated all the color is leached from it, the blue tiles on the floor reduced to a neutral gray, and even the patterns on the mugs hanging by the sink rendered in black and white. And Sam can see that both his mother’s and brother’s skin is a pasty gray, and their clothes are dull shades of the same color too.

  But Mrs White is there, at the hob, and Sam runs to her, overjoyed to see her again. She’s frowning with concentration as she stirs a saucepan with a wooden spoon; steam hovers above it, completely static, and the liquid in the saucepan with its raised swirls resembles solidified wax. Positioning himself between his mother and the hob, he stares into her eyes for some moments, wishing there was a way he could talk to her, despite the fact that he’d be breaking every one of Curtis’s rules. But Sam also knows there’s no chance of that here, because as if she’s some sort of ultra-realistic sculpture Mrs White’s eyes are fixed on the saucepan, her face frozen, unresponsive.

  He gently takes hold of her motionless forearm and gives it a squeeze. He can detect some give in it, some softness, but it’s not nearly as soft as normal flesh, and again there’s no warmth. He squeezes a little harder and can see that he’s made an impression, but then releases her. In a cruel twist, he’s finally been reunited with his mother, and it’s meaningless. It’s not her, but an effigy of the person he loves. On the verge of tears, Sam turns from her. He’s barely given his brother a passing glance, but now goes over to him. Jesse’s at the table, a hamburger raised to his gaping mouth as he prepares to take a bite.

  Sam’s sadness turns to anger. ‘Hope you darned well choke on it!’ he snaps. Of course, if Curtis has got it right, this moment in time predates Jesse’s fateful attack on Sam, but he can’t help but feel bitterness toward the boy.

  Sam leans in so that his face is inches away from his brother’s. ‘You’ve got a lot to answer for,’ he says, scowling at him, then he breaks into a grin as he thinks of something. He reaches over to dig his fingers into the bun, pulling at the burger. It’s curious because it’s no small feat to drag it out, as though there’s some kind of inertia fighting to keep it in place. And when Sam lets go of the gray piece of meat, it simply hangs in mid-air.

  It takes both hands, but Sam lifts the burger up above Jesse’s head. Allowing himself a chuckle when it’s done, Sam’s eyes gravitate from the burger to the ceiling as it dawns on him that at this very moment his former self is probably in the room directly above. As he’s still contemplating the ceiling he becomes aware of a sound, a very low, almost sub-audible rumble, similar to a plane taking off in the far distance. That’s when he realizes how complete the silence is: apart from the unceasing rumble, the only sounds are the ones that he makes.

  With a final glance at his mother, he leaves the kitchen and begins to head up to the first floor. Because of the resistance, it takes more effort than it should to climb the stairs, as if he’s moving against the wind.

  He enters his bedroom. The dim night light is burning, and there, lying on top of the bed and still in school uniform is his sickly former self. Sickly because the gray boy has alarming growths on his head, and his eyes are clenched shut as if he’s in agony. He’s also considerably smaller than Sam is now. Sam feels so very remote and detached from this boy, because he was that person such a long time ago. Or at least it feels that way.

  ‘Another migraine?’ Sam asks. Recalling Curtis’s warning about the dangers of the same matter coming into contact with itself, Sam doesn’t venture too close to the sickly boy, stopping in the middle of the room.

  There’s a plate on the floor by the bed with an untouched sandwich on it. ‘You never could eat during one of those,’ he says to himself, trying hard to remember the specific evening, but there were so many like this. As Sam looks at his desk, he considers leaving a message for himself, something along the lines that it’s going to be all right. ‘Might mess up the timeline,’ he mumbles, wary of doing anything that could alter the events that will lead to his former self entering the valley.

  With that thought, Sam is reminded that Damaris is by herself outside in the garden and hurries from the room – gratefully leaves the room, because it’s not easy to look at oneself in such a state.

  Once he’s downstairs, he can’t resist a last visit to the kitchen. ‘I love you, Mum,’ he says, staring at her face again and fighting back the tears. As he’s stepping away from her, he catches his reflection in the mirror on the wall and stops dead. His face is gray too.

  ‘Not a good look,’ he t
ells himself, moving to the mirror to peer at his ash-colored pupils and drab teeth. The surface of the mirror has condensation on it from his mother’s cooking and after thinking for a moment, he uses a finger to write in it, pressing hard to form the letters.

  He turns to Mrs White again. He’d like to stay there with her for a while longer, but there’s not much point and, anyway, he needs to see to Damaris. As he returns outside, he finds that she’s moved from the compost heap and is on the lawn by his father and dog. She’s still far from steady on her feet.

  ‘How are you now?’ he asks.

  ‘What is this?’ she asks back.

  ‘My home. We made it through,’ Sam laughs. ‘That’s my dad. And that’s my dog, Maxie.’ He points at his bedroom window. ‘I’m up there, too.’

  Damaris nods. ‘No, I meant why is it like this?’ She swings an arm weakly in front of her. ‘It’s all sort of sluggish.’

  ‘I don’t know. And everything’s colorless as if it’s stuck ... stuck in time.’ Sam frowns as he considers this. ‘Curtis said there might be some sort of transitional period or something – but he was only guessing. Maybe this doesn’t last long and everything returns to normal after a bit?’

  ‘Or maybe we did this and it never goes back?’ Damaris suggests. She abruptly clutches her stomach with one hand and cups the other over her mouth as if she’s going to throw up.

  Sam watches her with concern. ‘But if it does change back, we shouldn’t hang around. We need to get away from here and find that address,’ he says.

  Damaris is still holding her mouth, but he can make out what she’s saying. ‘You’re bleeding.’

  He gingerly touches one of the incisions from the crown in his forehead. It’s wet with blood. ‘Yes … I don’t have the valley to heal me.’

  Damaris is staring at him. ‘But why don’t you feel sick too?’

  Sam shrugs. ‘I don’t know. I feel just fine.’ He gives her a wry smile. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a seasoned time traveler.’

  Damaris isn’t amused. ‘Well I feel blooming awful, and you’re going to have to help me if we’ve got to go far,’ she says to him. As she lets out a tremulous groan Sam realizes that Damaris hasn’t had to endure any lasting discomfort or illness for such a very long time. Whatever she’s going through now may feel measurably worse to her than it actually is.

 
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