|Photo found from myScienceAcademy.org, originally from photography.nationalgeographic.com|
Austin heard choked sobbing coming from the living room. His mom was on the phone, talking to someone--probably Patti. Patti and his mom had worked together at the shirt factory in town, and they’d been laid off at around the same time. If she was calling Patti, they must have gotten another bill.
“I just don’t know how we’re gonna make it.”
That’s what she said every month. Which bill would go unpaid this month? Which apostle would need to be robbed to pay the other? He couldn’t stand listening to his mom cry for one more second, so he climbed onto his bed and closed his eyes. He meditated on his room, with it’s mounted bookshelves packed with fantasy novels and basketball statistics books, until his head pulsed deep down. He took a deep steadying breath, and opened his eyes in Shadewood.
He didn’t know how Shadewood existed, but he was glad it did. He’d found it by accident six years ago when his mom and dad had still been married. He’d only been six, but he knew if they didn’t leave each other, one or both of them would end up dead. One night, he heard his dad slap his mom. He’d closed his eyes, wished to be somewhere else...and then he was.
Hot wind blew across the nape of his neck, stirring his hair, now long and pulled into a ponytail with a short leather strip. He grinned up at the astoundingly orange sky, so bright and vibrant it would have looked color corrected on film, and estimated it to be about midday.
Something crashed in the blue-ish black woods ahead. He readied his bow. This was his safe place, but that didn’t make it safe. He crept through the woods, ears tuned for the slightest noise. The breeze rustling the inky leaves masked his movements, but also any others. He heard a twig snap to his right and froze. He strained, listened, then fired an arrow into a nearby bush. He heard a solid thump, then a shrill shriek that cause him to scream as well.
“H-hello?” he called to the bushes. “Who’s there?”
A girl about his own age scrambled out. She was dressed similar to him--high leather boots, a sleeveless shirt, except her pants were ripped where the arrow must have whisked by. Instead of a bow and arrows, she had two daggers sheathed on her hips.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Katie. Who are you? Why haven’t I seen you before? How did you get here?”
He noticed she had a British accent. She must be from his world, then.
“I’m Austin. I wished myself here. What about you?”
“I use my wardrobe.”
“Your wardrobe? What are you, a character in a C.S. Lewis book?”
She rolled her eyes. “My stepfather likes to drink. I used to hide in my wardrobe, but one day, I wished I had somewhere else to go. When I crawled inside, I came out here.”
“That’s about how it was for me. But how have we never met before?”
She shrugged. “You sound like a Yank. Maybe it has to do with timezones?”
Before they could continue, they both noticed it was suddenly silent. The wind had stopped blowing, but more than that, every creature in the woods had fallen still. Then they felt the ground tremble, like something massive had just fallen to the ground. Then again. And again. Footsteps. Big ones.
“What the bloody hell is that?” Katie asked.
Just then, a voice boomed like a loudspeaker.
“KATIE! WHERE ARE YOU, YOU LITTLE BITCH?”
The color drained from her face. “I must have left the door open.”
“What the fuck is that?”
The crashes were getting closer. Austin scrambled up a nearby tree to get a better look. As he broke through the canopy, he saw it. It may have been human in the other world, but here, where Austin’s slightly doughy physique was transformed to lean and hard, Katie’s stepdad had transformed, too.
He was a gargantuan, towering creature. It seemed he could reach up and tear down the sky. His skin was loose and ill-fitting, like he was only wearing a skin suit. When he spoke again, the flesh on his head shifted and Austin caught a glimpse of what was underneath. It was slimy and bone-white, with long, sharp teeth, and massive, black pools for eyes.
Austin raced down the tree and grabbed Katie by the arm.
“We have to go!”
She didn’t move, but jerked her arm out of his hand.
“No. This is my place. I won’t let him ruin this one, too.”
“Katie, you didn’t see that thing. It’s huge. It’s not human.”
“No. He never was. He’s a monster, and he needs to be dealt with.”
She had her daggers out. She crouched, ready to strike. The ground shook with another footfall, this one close. Austin swallowed hard, but before he could do anything else, Katie charged. He called after her, screamed for her to stop, but she ignored him.
“This is for Mum!”
He heard the monster roar, Katie scream, then a chaotic mix of noises. He wanted to help her, but terror moored him like an anchor. He had to escape. With one last furtive look in Katie’s direction, he closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was home.
The silence was deafening, heavy, judgemental. He curled into a ball and cried, hating himself, wishing he’d stayed to help his new friend. He heard his door open, and his mom came in and sat next to him.
“Hey, sweetie. You probably heard all that from earlier. Look, we’ll figure something out. These are grown-up problems. There’s nothing you can do.”
That wasn’t true. He could’ve stayed, could’ve fought, could’ve done something instead of running away, just like he always did.
As his mom took him into her arms, Katie’s last scream echoed in his ears.