They all sat around the table again. In front of them, the ouija board, the wine glass fallen on its side. The scene resembled a rerun of earlier - (Of when? Ryland wondered. how long ago? Minutes, hours, days? Longer?) apart from the cups and mugs that obscured certain letters and numbers, and Rick Meredith's absence.
Briefly, Ryland wondered whether he should check if Rick was okay, but the thought passed and he was left wondering why he hadn't acted, just gone and checked on him. It wouldn't take long. Why was he still sitting here? It just wasn't like him.
Ryland made sure the others were calm, seated again around his table. They sat in silence, with eyes that looked betrayed, trying to grip onto the intangible, trying to make sense of an experience that may or may not have happened.
Suddenly, Tisha busied herself: from Ryland's kitchen came the sound of cups and mugs; a kettle boiling; a fridge door opening and closing.
Ordinary sounds, that tried to comfort. And somehow, in a way, succeeded. Domestic sounds, that tried to eliminate the fear of what had happened. But failed.
Harry Danes' smile returned.
"I'd love a cuppa!" he said.
Memory takes different forms. Danes and Ryland had felt the fire and were unburned. Maya had seen the back of Harry Danes' head blown open by the soldier's bullet. DeStiy had faced rejection by Satan. The quiet woman had seen her own past, and nothing had changed.
And all these thoughts and memories were like water. When you were within them, they drowned you. But now you were out, they dripped away, quickly, hardly leaving a trace.
Hands fidgeting, eyes wide, they stood expectantly, awaiting answers, looking within themselves, trying desperately to make sense of something, something already drifting away.
You are alone onstage.
You place your script on the floor behind you and sit on a chair, the only prop.
You smell sweat and cigar smoke, the reek of after-show theatre from many years ago.
Flickering gas lights dimly illuminate the stage.
You realise you are naked.
The shock subsides when you realise the script requires you to be naked and you remember your clothes are in the changing room.
You reach for the script. It has become a newspaper. You can't remember buying a newspaper.
With horror you realise you cannot remember where the changing room is.
Rick managed to calm himself- or at least throw a cover over his fear enough to allow Timmy and Tracey to stop crying. Tracey distractedly made Timmy some warm milk, while Rick and his son tickled each other on the floor.
Timmy's laughter made Tracey smile a little; Rick's laughter was hollow, and it made her stomach churn.
She put a dvd of cartoons on the tv.
She gave her son some chocolate biscuits with his milk.
She sat down next to Rick.
And felt the trembling fear in his confused, inarticulate desperation.
In front of the tv, Timmy giggled.
Rick raced to his apartment and burst through the door, frightening both Tracey and Timmy.
Tracey's shock was magnified when she saw Rick's face. Rick stood over Timmy, staring down at him for forever before picking him up and hugging him, unable to hold back the tears.
Tracey reached for them both.
"Rick! What's happened?"
Timmy began to cry.
"Rick! Tell me! What's the matter?"
It was a minute or two before Rick could control himself enough to speak properly, and even then all that came out was "Timmy. Fire. Burning."
Confused and frightened, Tracey let her tears flow too.
"A dream," Maya Reimnitz mumbled, "A nightmare. That's all it could have been."
"But the fire!" Tisha's voice was weak, but recovering strength. "We all saw the fire... didn't we?"
"I can still bloody taste it!" Enoch DeStiy coughed, turned and gobbed on the floor behind him. "Smoke. Burning flesh- "
Rick, wide-eyed and staring, suddenly burst into life. "Oh my god! Jesus! Timmy!" and he raced past Ryland, taking the stairs three at a time, stumbling, pulling himself up, racing to his own apartment.
Danes' words from within the apartment called them.
"They're still there, you know. Waiting."
Ryland stared at Danes' back, then strode out of the apartment. He'd braced himself to see human debris littering the floor: to see them, half-collapsed, frozen, desperate, pleading for help - or maybe too close to death to know they needed help...
They were there, okay, but this was not the human carnage he expected.
Gone was the freezing air, gone the ice and frost-painted walls. And in place of the half-dead bodies strewn on the ground, there they were: standing, checking themselves and each other, asking each other if they were okay.
Asking what had just happened.
Harry Danes shook his head. The world outside was quiet, but certainly not silent. Birdsong nearby. Distant traffic noises. Occasional flashes of brilliance as sunshine reflected off moving vehicles. Everything was clear and sharp in the cold winter sunlight.
He didn’t really know exactly what he expected to see, but whatever it was, it wasn’t this. Not this normal scene.
His eyes kept looking up into the clear blue sky. Into the empty blue chill of a beautiful morning.
No, this was not what he expected at all. But then, this, all this, was beyond anything he’d come across before.
Where had the fire... gone? Ryland frowned. Why was nothing burned? Was he himself the only one to experience this… this hallucination? Danes was a strange man, sitting there, motionless. Did he have any answers?
Ryland visibly jumped as, without warning, Danes leapt to his feet and ran to the window. He leaned against it, one hand shielding his eyes from the bright glare of winter sunshine, his head looking one way then another, up, then down, as if he was looking for something.
What was he doing?
What the hell was “if they exist at all” supposed to mean?
Immediately attentive, Ryland stood. He knew better than to trust the quiet. Experience had taught him that pain and death was as much at home in glorious sunshine as in mist and darkness. His hands felt his own face. There was no pain there. His body appeared to be fine. His mind? Alert. It had already assessed Harry Danes: unburned, physically undamaged. Confused? Yes, confused, obviously, but that was understandable. So was he. Yes, mind: strangely, unexpectedly clear.
"You uninjured, Danes?" Ryland clarified.
"Good." Then, "the others!"
Danes looked up. "In the passageway... if they exist at all."
Ryland became aware of the silence as one becomes aware of a noise that had been there for a long time. Without warning, the roar of the fire had suddenly ceased, and the turmoil of his own thoughts echoing and hammering in his head had diminished to just the awareness of Harry Danes, sitting cross-legged next to him and studying his palms.
Ryland's eyes darted around the room. No flame. No burning. The only brightness came from the window, sun streaming through, pure and holy and quenching. The stillness was almost tangible.
He swallowed hard to stop the tears.
There, in the forest, Ryland motioned to his unit: take cover. Down. Hide. Be still.
The effects of the orange gas would last maybe ten minutes. Until it wore off, stay unseen, unheard.
That was then. This is now.
Danes' voice, repeating: I will not believe. This is not real.
Ryland lowered himself to the floor and waited. Flames licked around Harry Danes but did not burn. Throughout the room flames danced and cast devilish shadows on the wall. But there was no noise.
Ryland saw Danes join him on the floor.
Danes spoke quietly:
"Enough. I understand."
This is not real.
He'd been here before, Daniel Ryland, this Not Real place.
Flames licked his body, tugged at his clothes, spattered wet on his face. No, not flames. Leaves. Tendrils wrapped themselves around his bare legs, their thorns catching his skin, tearing, burning like fire. No, not fire. Vines. Up his legs, into his face, clinging, ripping his thin uniform. Hot sweat and thorns.
Foliage. Dense forest.
His comrades had animal faces. Ready to tear him apart if he moved.
The orange gas had settled.
That wasn't real.
He saw his hand burn. And felt no pain.
Neither the coughing and spluttering of the others, nor the roar of the fire could hide the noise of Harry Danes' screamed pain.
Ryland, teetering on the edge of utter panic, unable to think, even of running away, reacted. And that's what it was: not a thought. Not a planned action. It was neither fear nor bravery. It was one thing, one thing alone: instinct. Pure instinct.
He stumbled into his burning apartment, his intention to rescue Harry Danes.
Danes' screamed again, this time Ryland made out the words
"I will not believe!"
Danes' clothes burned.
"This is not real!"
Within seconds the passageway was obscured, hot smoke burning everything it touched. And with a ferocious whoosh! flames exploded out of the apartment, reached above the smoke and shot out along the ceiling, it's noisome crackling a terrifying shrieking of plaster and wood being destroyed.
Every now and then a finger of flame would reach down, feeling for more to feed on, but the gruel of blackened smoke vomiting from Rylands apartment cut them off before the fire could do no more than scorch.
With one final push, the apartment door budged again and Danes walked into the hellish conflagration.
Danes winced as the heat from within the apartment passed through the tightly held doorhandle and burned itself into the flesh of his palm. He grimaced: he would not release it. His shoulder against the door, he pushed with all his strength. Black smoke swirled around him, pouring into the passageway, as slowly, so slowly, the door budged inward.
He coughed and spluttered as fingers of smoke reached down into his lungs. His grip on the doorhandle faltered when he almost collapsed, but he kept his weight against the door, always pushing, forcing forward, inching further, further into the room.
Moving slowly, painfully, using the wall as support, Harry Danes moved towards Ryland's apartment. The roar of the conflagration within diminished, smoke drifted out through any gap it could find, pulsating, almost as if the room breathed fumes.
Rick mouthed "No!" Ryland looked away, knowing that opening that door and allowing fresh oxygen into the room would create a backdraft, a sudden explosion of fire that was likely to create a flash fireball which would explode and consume them all in this passageway.
Harry Danes slowly reached for the handle of the door. Ryland protected his face with his hands.
Maya watched as Harry Danes took a step toward the soldiers. With a shrug, one of them, the one who's rifle still pointed at Rick's face, turned through forty-five degrees and fired into Harry Danes' face. The noise and the flash were catastrophic, together the sound and the light tore at all her senses, and she fell forward, covering her face with her hands.
She was vaguely aware of someone's voice in a foreign language. It sounded hard, uncaring, animalistic. Somehow, she knew it meant "Clean up the mess."
A boot kicked her head.
Then it all went black.
Danes watched each agonised movement as Ryland pulled himself upright and leaned panting against the wall. Rick, his hands still alternating between feeling his eyes and reaching out for something, croaked "Fire!" and pointed at Ryland's apartment door.
Ryland, the muscles in his face barely able to move, his words barely understandable, tried to say "Don't open the door, let the fire's heat out here."
Danes heard "door" and "heat" but with his eyes glowing with excitement, shook his head slowly.
The roar of that furnace became a terrifying shriek.
The smoke became thicker.
But for Danes, nothing had changed.