Gone

By Julie Elizabeth Powell (pen)

Fantasy, Action & adventure

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Gone by Julie Elizabeth Powell (Sample)


ABOUT THE BOOK

Gone was inspired by a tragic event in the author’s life, its first draft written more than seven years ago. It has taken until now to find a way of having it published.

When only two and a half years old, her daughter’s heart stopped and she died. Unfortunately, doctors resuscitated too long and too late and brought back into this world a severely brain-damaged child, who was wiped clean of her memories and anything that had made her Samantha.

Samantha’s life (and that of her mother) became a nightmarish one of pain and suffering for seventeen years until she died for the second time at the age of nineteen.

One question haunted the author throughout those terrible years: Where had her daughter gone?

Gone is one answer to the question.

This story is about a mother who finds herself inexplicably taken into a mysterious world, where the impossible meets the undeniable.

The fantasy sees her struggle against insanity and fear, encounter extraordinary characters and grapple with the awakening of a dream.


*

Part One

Avalon

Chapter One

(Death Of Fatwoman, Her Secrets Intact)

Normal. She despised the word. And what did it actually mean?
The dictionary told her, ‘conforming to a standard’, but where or how were these standards formed, and by whom?
In bygone years someone must have decided how people should behave, how they should look, and even how they should think or feel, branding, or ridiculing or even burning at the stake those who didn’t agree.
But which of us ever conformed, she wondered? Who did not err or deviate, or invited some disorder into their lives, using the litany of ‘normal’ emotions as an excuse?
She knew firsthand about the mess of shattered lives, so how elastic was normal?
How normal was it for one person to kill another, or others to wage war and annihilate millions of innocents? How normal was it to maim or wound or consent to the suffering of others?
Maybe somewhere there was a mental monitor, she reflected, like in those TV shows that measured audience response? A monitor where minds were calculated on a scale from one to ten, by some ‘normal’ boffin, who weeded out the spoilers with the stroke of a pen, to be forever exiled.
But she was kidding herself.
She may not know what normal was, but she knew what it wasn’t, what it couldn’t, and what it shouldn’t possibly be.
Normal didn’t lie within the unnaturally small, motionless, contorted figure she’d seen only yesterday. Normal may have a hidden agenda, be encompassed by the fear of the unknown, yet it wasn’t within those vacant dark eyes or the strange animal cry. The cry that always came without warning, from the tightly clenched mouth.
Extraordinary now shrouded the lives they were living, a bizarre umbrella under which they now existed.
And she was powerless to change any of it.
She hated each visit; wishing each one could be the last, yet love compelling the emotional cycle.
Was that normal?
For nearly fifteen years, unfortunately for Charley it was.

*

Hitching the eternally slipping strap of her handbag onto her shoulder and portfolio under her arm, she quickened her pace, pulling the bulging carry-case, one wobbly wheel squeaking its protest, whilst pushing yesterday’s visit into the dark place.
The streets heaved with people, even this early in the morning, each seemingly engaged in the race to riches, disconnected from those around them.
But, she asked herself, was she being fair? Were they only shaping bubbles around themselves, as protection from the sometimes cruel outside world? One of which even she wasn’t fully aware until Jenny had changed the course of their lives.
But wasn’t she as guilty as the rest?
With the bubble, yes, she admitted, but making money wasn’t the real motive behind why she drove herself so hard. Ali Baba’s cave could never reveal enough to recover what she’d lost.
What better anaesthetic than to slave in every available moment? That way she wouldn’t have to think about the figure that lay in wait.
Ignoring how her conscience picked at the wound, she dodged the gathering crowds, turning her back on the question of what she could have done differently.

*

“Mornin’, Charley lass, the usual papers?”
As she handed over the money, she smiled at Harry’s insistence on calling her lass. At forty-two, some lass, she thought.
She lingered, while gazing at the short, stubby man, compelling her mind to the moment.
He must have been well into his seventies, she decided, as he stood behind stacks of newspapers, magazines and rows of coloured wrappers that decorated the chocolate bars. She couldn’t help but notice the shine of his hairless head, which bobbed up and down as he served his constant stream of customers.
Each day she’d stopped, he’d told her snippets of his life, never for an instant interrupting the flow of reading matter leaving the stand.
‘Not tempted today, eh?” asked Harry, his usual grin stuck on his face, seeing her eye the chocolate.
“You know I’m trying to give it up, Harry, if only to wear this new trouser suit for more than a few weeks before I go up another size.”
“Come off it, lass, ya look great ta me! There’s nowt wrong with a bit of meat on a woman, somat to get ‘old of.” He sighed then said, “I remember when Maggie ‘ad ‘er generous curves, until a new fad diet took ‘old. I really miss ‘em.”
“There’s meat and there’s lard, Harry.” Changing the subject quickly, she added, “Anyway, how are things?”
“I’m alright, family too. Ya look a bit tired lass, what’s up?”
“I’m fine," she replied, at the same time wondering how many times that stupid phrase was said in a day.
“Ya work too ‘ard, ya do, Charley. I’m saying ya should slow down, enjoy life a bit. If ya don’t, it’ll pass by like a double-decker when it’s rainin’,” he said, his eyes fixed on her, a serious expression on his deeply lined face.
She’d never talked about Jenny to him. How could she, like this, in the middle of the street on the way to work? And how could he understand, weren’t their lives worlds apart?
Stop wallowing, she told herself, while one hand strayed to one of the slabs of chocolate, the other gravitating to the bulge of her hip.
Surely one small bar wouldn’t hurt?
She felt its rippled back, could almost taste the mixture of caramel and chocolate just before the unmistakeable flavour of peanut.
Why did she deny Jenny’s existence? And how could the world of chocolate change things? Would it prevent the pitying looks if she confessed her secret, act like some magic talisman against the condemnation reflected in their eyes? Did guilt and shame intertwine, she wondered, and which came first?
How to choose, she pondered, seeing one of her favourites, anticipating the warmth of honeycomb melting on her tongue.
None, she decided, as if snapping out of a trance, shrugging away temptation.
“Must be going, important meeting,” she said. “And has anyone ever told you, you should have been a shrink?”
“Only for the people I like, lass,” he said, with a grin as she walked away, noting the anxiety in her face and voice.
Watching her stride into the distance, a strange feeling came over him and he almost called her back.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he muttered, before shrugging his shoulders and busying himself with the new flurry of customers.

*

Her shoes made a sharp clicking sound as she crossed the hard tiled floor of the cavernous foyer.
She needed all her energy today, she thought, as she joined four others in the lift for her ride to the eighth floor of the tower block.
Soon, she padded along the thickly carpeted corridor and unlocked the glass-panelled door, before switching on the office lights.
Setting down the newspapers on top of her desk, she plonked the wheeled carry-case next to it, the portfolio alongside, finally sliding her handbag into the bottom drawer.
After organising the coffee percolator, she extracted the paperwork for the meeting, stacking it in a neat pile on her desk.
Strolling to the large artwork station on the other side of the room, she stared at the drawings upon which David and she had been working so hard these past few weeks.
Would it all go according to plan? Would they sign? Why did she continually worry about everything, she asked herself?
Only this morning, before she’d left for work, Joe had tried to settle her nerves, warned her to calm down.
How could she when so much depended on this deal? But had he been right? He was always saying, what would happen would happen; no matter how much she pulled at her hair or paced the floor.
“Morning! I see coffee’s started. Now go, sit,” said the newcomer, hands flapping, as if shooing a wasp.
Charley followed Anne’s bidding, biting the corner of her lip as she at last sat down behind her desk.
“And there’s no need for that look, we’ve been friends too long!”
She watched as the short, rounded figure bustled around the rooms, her French plait already showing signs of rebellion, while indigo eyes flashed with buoyant optimism as each task was ticked off her list; sorting the mail, watering the jade plant and partially opening the blinds.
“Here, now relax and drink this,” she commanded, passing Charley a mug of steaming coffee. “And we’ll see what Mystic Belle has to say!”
Perching her backside on the edge, tucking her right foot under her, her left barely touching the floor, Anne flicked through the pages of the morning’s tabloid, after chucking the broadsheet onto the chair to the side of the desk.
Folding the paper in half then smoothing the correct page, she read aloud, “‘Change is in the air for Leos today and it’s no time for indecision or negative thinking. It’s time for these sun lovers to shine at their best, dazzling those around them. Lucky number five’. There, you see, it’s fate!”
“You’re making it up!” Charley countered through a fit of laughter.
“Nonsense, read it for yourself,” rebutted Anne, yet didn’t spin the page for her to see.
“That stuff’s utter nonsense!”
“When has she ever been wrong? Remember when you decided to start this place, wasn’t she spot on? ‘Leos mustn’t delay in taking new opportunities’. I remember, clear as day.”
“You should have become a full partner then, David said so too.”
“What me? No thanks, I like what I do; organising you two. And I can’t draw a straight line!”
“Stop with the clichés, would you? And there’s more to this place than that, you know it. I don’t know how we’d manage without you.”
“I’m happy with the way things are, I can work with my friends, doing a job I enjoy and sleep at night. All work and no play, and you know how I like to play! You on the other hand…”
“Work keeps my mind occupied, you know that, it’s easier, though if we don’t clinch today’s deal the business will start to drift and we need this,” said Charley, feeling her face redden.
“That’s it, that’s enough! There’s more than one way to skin a cat – yeah, yeah, I know, but it’s my way of, well who cares about skinning cats. No I didn’t mean that, oh just listen! If this deal fails, there’ll be others! The business is doing fine, don’t be so dramatic. You always think the worst! But it’s not going to fail; the illustrations are nothing short of brilliant, so there!”
“But there’re plenty of others who…”
“Not as good as you two! And...” Anne broke off, twisting her body slightly to look at the picture of the silky-white unicorn amidst a sea of blues hanging on the wall, before adding, “That one for instance, always been my favourite, there’s something so, so thrilling and yes, definitely magical about it.”
She gazed at the picture for a moment longer, and then said, staring back at Charley, “And who in their right mind is going to refuse any of those beautiful illustrations as covers for their books? None, right? David will be here in a minute, he’ll put you straight. More confidence than a cocked hat, that one!”
“Whatever that means,” Charley began, then quickly added, “Yes, okay, I get it!” raising her hands in surrender, after seeing the look that crossed Anne’s face as she raced to answer the telephone shrilling on her own desk.
Her mind rambled again, filling with worries and wants and wishes, until finally, sighing, she turned to stare at the paperwork in front of her, knowing that in a couple of hours they’d know one way or another.

*

Something about the picture drew Charley’s attention.
Alone in the office, she’d already been working on some ideas for the new artwork, had glimpsed the signed contract that lay on the desk, tossed the pencil to one side and smiled.
She’d stretched her legs through the kneehole of her desk as her body sought the comfort of her office chair and now fixed her eyes to the illustration on the wall.
As a cat might, she felt ripples of warning down her spine, while nerves jingled an unrecognisable tune, until a giant fist punched into her chest and opened its steel-like fingers to clutch Charley’s heart and hold it mercilessly, forcing her to lean forward and gasp for breath.
The unicorn’s eyes captured her own, the blue intensity drawing her closer.
Spasms of pain, which now crept menacingly up and down her arms, jolted her mind further towards the magical creature.
Cautiously, she leaned back in her chair and tried to breathe slower, while the unicorn held her gaze, beckoning.
A fuzzy haze filled her eyes and mind. She felt the soft brush of hair upon her brow.
The vision of a winding road flicked into being, chaotic scenes of herself, zigzagging between speeding cars, trundling lorries, tall buses and deafening motorbikes, straining to look backwards, avoiding what was ahead.
The road disappeared, leaving her tottering on the edge of a ragged and crumbling cliff, the malevolent void waiting to devour her. She wanted to call out, pull back, but as in dreams, the vision merely played out the horror of inevitability, until the eyes of the unicorn drew her into its realm.
Cold rushed into her every pore, as would an Arctic storm. She felt the pain had clinched its deal with death, now knowing there would be no turning back.
Now she had to face something different, she knew. What, what?
A vibrating aura now surrounded the unicorn, accompanied by a low motor noise, reminding Charley of the small boats that hummed on the park lake during the summer.
They’d taken Jenny there a month before life had changed beyond all reason.
Her mind twisted and turned and twisted again.
How many times had she stood over Jenny and wished she could kill her? The first time the idea had shocked her; that such thoughts would dare to enter her mind. Yet, as the years had rolled by, as Jenny had grown thin and twisted and colourless, that dreadful thought no longer seemed so wrong, hanging in the air between them like Damocles’ sword.
Charley’s mind jerked from one memory to another. Was it the unicorn, she wondered? Did it have the power to show her life within its large spherical eyes?
As through an age-old projector, she saw the glow of her wedding day; confetti-filled happiness, continuing through to the birth of her children, each ripening into the mainstay of her life, until tragedy had wiped clean emotional stability.
As she watched the scenes unfold, felt the daily drudge of her tormented mind, Charley felt not a little guilt at how, for most of Jenny’s life she’d wanted to run and run, put miles between them.
But, she knew, love had chained her as securely as Jacob Marley to his piles of cash. Forced to inflate an invisible steel wall around her heart; so to make possible those bleak-filled visits within those brightly lit, disinfected rooms.
Was it possible, she thought, to love and hate someone at the same time?
As the visions faded into nothing, she whispered goodbye.
She felt tears spill down her cheeks, mingling her fear with sorrow and regret, until her lips caught the salty trickle, forcing her to taste the acridity of her life.
Yet it hadn’t all been bad, no, it hadn’t, it hadn’t, she decided.
But as life relinquished its final breath, one last image magnified within the wondrous circle of the eye of the unicorn – the tortured figure she’d visited the day before.

Chapter Two

(Madness Of The Impossible)

The noise had stopped. The miasma had cleared, leaving behind an undecipherable fragrance.
The pain had vanished, only to be replaced by confusion. It flooded into Charley, as a strange sensation of weightlessness both seized and freed her at the same time. Had madness finally claimed her tortured mind, she asked herself? Had the struggle of existence now found its end? Was this how it should feel?
She sensed the tightness on her cheeks where her tears had dried.
Eyes the colour of ripe green olives, surprise and complete bewilderment forcing them the size of the moon, now gaped at her overweight body, which was now slumped in the office chair, those same eyes closed, dark-red hair in disarray across her now waxen face, her mouth slack, one corner holding a bubble of transparent spittle.
Had it been her own hair she’d felt after all, she wondered? It hadn’t seemed so.
And where exactly was she?
A hundred questions zipped through her mind, each demanding immediate answers – yet there were none. What was happening? Was she dead? Was she stuck in some weird dream of the night before? Or had she fallen asleep in relief of fixing that contract?
Words flitted through her brain – impossible, ridiculous, stupid…crazy – while it tried to make sense of what she thought she was seeing. Surprised, that given what she suspected had taken place, she could think at all.
But then how would she know? Out of all the things she’d read, she’d never come across a handbook entitled, ‘Etiquette For The Dead’ or ‘101 Things You Should Know About The Other Side’ or even ‘A Ghost’s Rendition of Heaven Versus Hell.’
There’d been nothing to prepare her for this.
Though she’d heard accounts about these types of experience. The idea of ‘otherworldly’ or ‘beyond the veil’ had been intriguing.
As had the make-believe worlds she’d illustrated so often in her work, in fact fascinating to the extent that she had felt undeniable urges to draw the places of the imagination, where myth and magic were part of daily life, where every inhabitant knew the lines of good and evil.
But surely neither of these perceptions actually existed – as if real places?
For a while after it first happened to Jenny, trying to find answers, Charley had researched into many branches of the mysterious and paranormal and found most of it to be ridiculous.
Charley knew that curiosity was an important factor in human makeup, yet Jenny was a conundrum that could never be answered. The only conclusions for Charley had been that what had happened to her daughter was beyond the worst cruelty any dictator could enforce upon its people; the most profound form of torture imaginable.
Somewhere in the building a door slammed, the voice of a telephone shrilled, insistent and unanswered, the bleeps and groans of the traffic outside continued, all oblivious to the sagging body in the office chair.
Was she really dead?
Things seemed to have become jumbled in her mind. Had the image of the unicorn truly spiralled her mind’s eye into madness or the picture itself? Was that where she was now?
What was she thinking! To even touch upon such a solution had more than a shadow of lunacy attached.
Yes, that must be it – she’d gone loony, she decided. If there was a moon at which to howl, she’d soon be thrusting her chin, feeling the yearnings of the pack inside her throat.
Yet if this were the case, why was she able to think so freely or have so many ordered questions? Wouldn’t rambling gibberish be her stronghold, if she had indeed become trapped within the realm of the insane?
But again, how would she know? Perhaps this was how it felt. Maybe logic and reasonable thought processes didn’t abandon the crazy – it only seemed so to outsiders, those not privy to the same experiences.
But then to the barmy, surely their world was completely logical and reasonable; it was the outsiders who were off beam, they who were stuck in the wrong place.
But Charley knew that the worst kind of madness was standing by while her daughter malformed into what she had been allowed to become.
Madness accompanied by powerlessness, fuelled by guilt, shame and fear. To be managed only by chocolate. Where anguish could be enclosed, stilled by its velvety softness, or its dark bittersweet piquancy.
Though the immediate effects of chocolate didn’t last long, she remembered, as the worms of guilt and disgust soon hollowed out the comfort zone, allowing torment to once more take residence, prompting the infinite cycle.
Surely whatever was happening to her now could never be as dire, she thought.
But why was she thinking of all that now? Hadn’t all that been left behind? Her body had certainly never felt lighter!
The telephone’s voice cut short, its sudden silence forced an eerie hush to the room as she waited with uncertainty.
Or was her memory playing tricks again?
It wasn’t the first time that she’d forgotten what she was meant to be doing or found herself in a place to which she’d had no recollection of travelling. When she’d had the nerve to ask, her doctor had told her not to worry, that grief sometimes underwent unusual manifestations – though still quite normal.
That word again. It kept creeping into her mind like a sly despot in a supposed democracy.
Something had changed, though as yet Charley couldn’t understand what it was.
How was it possible for her to look upon herself other than a mirror – surely it was a dream after all? Only in dreams had she been able to do this. Further confusion made her question whether it was her body at all, almost as if it belonged to a stranger, wilting and waiting for someone to come. Yet it had to be.
And the physical pain had been so real only moments before, though there was no trace of it now.
Moments before, when she’d looked so intently at the picture, one that almost breathed it became so tangible. The thought of where she could actually now be became trapped in her mind, though her mind continued to dismiss the likelihood.
She was sure of the day that had unfolded as usual. Up at seven, breakfast for the three of them, kisses for her husband and son, a bus ride, a walk, the office, the meeting – the hopes, the dreams, the unwanted memories, and then the twinges in her chest, the visions...the unicorn.
Yes, she was sure of it all – but what was this?
The telephone once again declared its urgent quest.
It couldn’t be true. Stuff about out-of-body experiences and bright lights and being ‘called’! It was all such nonsense – though she hadn’t seen any bright lights and as yet no one had actually spoken to her.
Yet here she was.
She continued to hover as a bee deciding which flower to use, as if unsure of its location, afraid of its commitment – confusion still raged, nevertheless something told her that the options were no longer hers to decide, as she felt a tug deep within her.
As Charley was being pulled inexorably backwards, her mind envisioning it being sucked into some implausible dimension, she saw the office door open and the look of concern on David’s long, lean face, as he took in what must have happened.
Charley watched as he rushed over to the body in the chair – her body – and immediately pick up the ‘phone.
They’d been friends for many years, since college. It had seemed inevitable they start a business together. She’d seen him married, divorced and married again.
Always calm in a crisis, Charley wasn’t surprised to see him now, holding her hand, pushing away the hair from her face, talking softly – waiting. She saw unhappiness overshadow the usually humour-filled prominence of his blue eyes while he murmured words she could not hear, as only silence now filled her ears.
But it was all too late. Though surely now all her misery was at an end?
She tried to tell him, shout from her weightless position, but found the words trapped in her throat.
Without warning, whatever it was that was dragging her backwards yanked her body with uncompromising deliberation.
Looking away from the scene below, she tried to focus on this unstoppable force behind her, struggling to understand what was happening and wondering, with not a little fear, where she was being taken.

Chapter Three

(Would You Like Chips With That Madam?)

This weightlessness wasn’t wholly a bad thing – being so used to lugging around excess heaviness, the sensation was completely new to her. Was this how it felt to be slim (or dead), she wondered?
Images of floating astronauts flicked through her mind as she moved her hands down her body, surprised to find it still clad in the dark blue trouser suit, though the white blouse underneath had rumpled and creased and the collar had twisted out of kilter.
Did it matter?
Who’d have thought that it would be the last thing she ever wore? She couldn’t suppress the question of whether it was the right thing in which to meet and greet…she quickly tucked the errant collar into place, refusing to finish the thought.
Though if other people’s calculations were correct, shouldn’t she be wearing white, all wispy and ethereal? She’d always been far from wispy and ethereal and despite her newfound buoyancy could never be either. She couldn’t help but smile at the idea, imagining herself as some enormous white cloud descending upon an unsuspecting angel – wouldn’t they get a fright!
And that fragrance was becoming stronger and somehow more familiar – yet she still couldn’t distinguish exactly what it was.
She didn’t know how or what had made it happen, but suddenly she found her body being turned, so that she was facing forward and being pushed from behind, the office and everything she’d ever known had disappeared.
But what she actually saw was so incredible, that she realised that she had to believe it was a dream or she would have broken into hysterical and uproarious laughter, being so out of control that if there was any sanity left within her it’d never be found. It was just like the stories she’d read about.
She’d been plunged straight into a cliché!
There in front of her was a long, brightly lit passage, though it was more like a round tunnel, something that an enormous worm might create, at the end of which was a silvery glow.
Conflicting feelings battled within her, prompting visions of a courtroom drama. ‘You see, Your Honour, this woman has now passed into the realm of the insane, where hallucinations are part of daily life, normality completely lost. We can only pity her and install her within the most secure walls until it can be ascertained as to whether she will become violent.’
‘Your Honour, you must not believe my esteemed colleague, this woman is as sane as you or I, and it is only that many cannot see beyond earthly claims – this venture is perfectly as it should be in these circumstances.’
But what circumstances, she wondered?
A recollection of something she’d read once jolted her mind; that the tunnel memory of these experiences was explained by scientists as some kind of closing down sequence of the eye and brain.
Was this all it was then? Were they right after all? The idea of there being something else beyond earthly constraints had, to her, always been a relic of religion; something to which she’d never subscribed and this rationalisation had seemed far easier to believe.
Though she had no choice, as the pull was too strong to resist, she felt her body being moved, neither slow nor fast, towards the silvery light, all the while her mind thinking that at any moment she’d either wake up in bed eager to share her weird dream with Joe, or find some beefy hospital nurse watching over her to make sure she swallowed the correct dosage of pills.
She couldn’t deny that this experience seemed far more than her brain and eye mechanisms shutting down.
All manner of emotions threaded through her, testing the limits of control, for despite what seemed to be happening to her, she still felt some vestige of command – albeit questionable or illusionary.
Though her mind felt itself bursting at the seams, wanting to smash mission control, with its cautious countdown and safety checks and race with gleeful intent towards the silvery beacon. Its debatable source didn’t seem to matter so much any more.
Time had lost all meaning since this strange journey had begun, because although she’d felt to have been moving along the passage for quite a while, she still seemed no nearer to the beckoning radiance.
Yet now, as she travelled through the tunnel she saw doors on both sides.
They hadn’t been there before.
None were marked, but each was a different colour. Then Charley suddenly noticed a single word written on one of them.
The moment the word registered, the unseen force slowed her down and stopped her in front of it. The word PAST stood out in embossed gold letters on the black painted door.
Bewilderment was still the basis of her emotions as she wondered what was expected of her now.
Staring at the portal, Charley gingerly reached out her hand to touch it, half expecting a hidden entity to suddenly grab her, as in those low budget horror films. They never failed to make her jump, despite suspecting what was coming. Though this time nothing like that happened.
The surface of the door felt soft, almost velvety, but as she looked down for the handle she saw there wasn’t one. Pushing a little harder, the door moved with her hand. When she tried again it felt as if her hand had dissolved into the door itself, but had not actually gone through it, nor would it open.
Well, what was the point of this, she thought, a door that squishes when you touch it, but didn’t open?
Charley slid both hands over the door but still nothing happened, apart from that ‘squishy’ feeling. Just when she was thinking it must be time to either wake up or move on, the little finger of her right hand brushed the ‘P’ in the word PAST. The letters instantly changed to read RECENT PAST.
A surge of interest buzzed through her, and she now deliberately touched the sign with the little finger on her left hand; the letters changed to DISTANT PAST. Now understanding how a scientist must feel on the brink of some new discovery, Charley found that by touching a letter with different fingers, each spelled out various periods of the past.
More questions jostled in her mind – whose past, hers or someone else’s or maybe it meant world history? Although she couldn’t find immediate answers, she was certain of one thing – she didn’t want to relive any of her past!
The moment this thought flashed its meaning, she felt the familiar tug on her body pushing her toward the light, so turning to face it again she continued down the tunnel, spotting more doors along the way until once again she was stopped in front of one with markings.
This time she knew more of what to expect as she stared at the black letters upon a bright yellow door spelling out the word PRESENT. Nevertheless, when trying her hands on the letters nothing happened. She worked them all over the door, not missing the slight stickiness, feeling a little like a trainee masseuse, but still nothing changed.
A seemingly ridiculous but valid thought passed through her mind as she looked intently at the door. Should she try touching it with another part of her body? Well why not? Don’t debate; get on with it, she told herself.
Feeling not a little foolish, Charley used her arms, shoulders and elbows, but again nothing changed. Short of flinging up her legs like some karate expert, she couldn’t think what else to do, and though her body felt much lighter than usual, she still couldn’t see herself acting like some athletic character from one of those special effects films. Even if she had the long black coat, she just knew what a ridiculous spectacle she’d make.
In frustration, she moved to lean her forehead against the door, but as her face moved; her nose touched the letter T. At once the letters changed to FAMILY PRESENT.
Feeling totally stupid, Charley tracked her nose along the letters to see the sign change, each showing the different areas of Present.
Deciding that this too was of no interest to her, she clearly remembered her life just before…well just before all this, whatever it was. And that if she was stuck in some dream or other dimension, it was slow on answering the many questions that continued to pile up in her brain like some motorway traffic jam.
Again she was seized from deep within before she’d grasped the notion that maybe she could have found some answers through that last door. Perhaps it was a test and her ‘present’ situation would have been explained? Now it was too late, because when she looked back the door seemed miles in the distance behind her – and yet surely she’d only just been pulled away?
What, she thought, was the point of all this? Can a person go nuts after they die?
Before she could do or think anything else, the silence was broken by a noise behind her, Charley turned quickly, sure she could hear muttering and giggling; but saw absolutely nothing except the empty tunnel and cloudiness of doors.
Facing forwards, the force shifting her along, it wasn’t long before she heard the noises again – unmistakably voices.
A brand new thought pushed others to one side, as Charley’s first real sign of panic crept into her. Despite the strangeness of this journey, seeing her body from above, being drawn along, the weird tunnel, the tantalising illumination, the doors and the changing letters, now only the word schizophrenia echoed through her mind.
Why else would she be hearing voices in her head?
Hanging onto some kind of explanation, she wondered if perhaps someone was trying to wake her up? Could that be it? Should she pinch herself or whack her hand across her face or try to find something to stab into her foot? Ouch! Or…maybe…there’s no place like home? But no red shoes! She stifled a giggle; worried that hysteria might take control.
Charley faced the direction from where she thought she heard the voices, this time glimpsing two shadowy figures.
“Come out!” she shouted, with more confidence that she felt – fear that the noise was only in her head forcing weight to her words, at the same time realising she could actually speak again.
“Who’s there?” she added, this time not as loud. And why was her heart beating so fast, if she was supposedly dead?
The shadows appeared again, as if from inside the tunnel walls.
Then as they moved nearer she could see more details, as the shadows sharpened into two, brightly coloured, but eccentric-looking young men.
Catching up with her, while at the same time she could feel her body coming to a complete stop, she noticed they had identical faces, though one had dark, spiky hair, while the other’s was fair and curly. She saw that both had straight, large noses, twinkling blue eyes, wide smiles and smooth, almost creamy skin, guessing that they were a little over five feet in height, of slim build but not skinny.
Charley couldn’t help smiling, especially at the extreme clothing they were wearing; sea green trousers, bright mustard jackets with just a peek of crimson shirt showing at the V, with matching ankle boots and overly large bow ties.
Another jolt of surprise washed over her, as part of her had expected to see people she’d known. Maybe Uncle Ted, his thickset arms hugging her close, his belly laugh ringing in her ears as he explained heavenly protocol, if this was indeed where she was. Or Grandma Annie, taking her hand to lead her to sanctuary, those vivid blue, wisdom-filled eyes laying Charley’s fears to rest.
Of course she might not be dead, but rather had been plunged into an insane hallucination!
“We are Fun and Games, he is Fun and I am Games,” said the one with dark hair – his voice not quite as light-hearted as she’d expected, but definitely not Uncle Ted or Grandma or even Mr Arnold who used to let her ride high on the bales of hay when she was a child and had died after being kicked in the head by one of the horses.
“Yes, Games and Fun we are, Fun am I and Games is he,” agreed the other.
“Well, I am pleased to meet you,” said Charley, somewhat shaken. After all what else should she say?
Keep away from me, I think you’re a figment of my imagination or this is ludicrous, what a scream or a dream or please help me I’m crazy? Wild thoughts rampaged.
“I’m Charley, Charley Woods; well at least I think I am. I’m not quite sure what’s happening, where am I?” Couldn’t she think of anything less predictable to say?
Fun stepped forward stretching out his hand, Charley supposed she should do the same. They shook hands quite formally, there was no sudden electric shock or something nasty dripping from her palm, nor had his hand become detached from his arm, leaving her screaming in fright.
Games then did the same, but Charley didn’t fail to see the sly look he gave Fun, being quickly covered by a slippery smile.
She was uneasy. She’d never liked clowns, and although these two didn’t have white made up faces with wide painted red lips, nor stars or tears or any other marks that clowns wore, something about them reminded her of those creepy circus people.
It could have been the false air they had about them, as though if she looked beneath the surface, peeled away the mask of geniality something very nasty would be revealed. She’d always felt that way about clowns – as if they were hiding something mean.
“You should come with us, we can show you a great time. Don’t bother going any further, nothing for you down there, is not,” said Games.
“Come with us you should. Show you a great time we can. Down there for you is nothing, further going, bother not,” said Fun.
“Come with us,” Games said.
“With us you should come,” agreed Fun.
“Why should I do that?” Charley couldn’t shake off the heebie-jeebies and she certainly didn’t want to go anywhere with them. But why should she feel this way, after all they’d been polite and welcoming?
“If you come with us,” said Games, his voice dripping oil, “you will have the freedom to do exactly what you wish, whenever you wish. You’ll…”
“– Wish for the freedom, yes it’s all mine, oh delicious, delightful, dreadfully divine,” Fun interrupted, his blonde curls curiously tightening as he spoke.
“Oh what frolics, festivity and fantastic foolery,” said Games, his spiky hair bristling as he took hold of Fun’s hands and spun them both around.
“You can have all the things you’ve ever dreamed, look how you’ve always wanted – be happy at last,” Fun added.
“Yes, at last happy you will be,” Games finished.
Again the two figures spun around each other, this time doing a little extra dance.
“It’s so easy, you just have to come with us and it will all be yours,” Games continued, as he whispered in Charley’s ear.
“With us you should come, so easy it will be,” Fun concurred.
Charley was tempted, their words seductive, as their meaning flowed into her. But she was still unsure.
“What do I have to do in return?” she asked these two strangely likeable, yet un-likeable figures. No, if she really thought about it, they weren’t likeable at all. And why was her stomach suddenly filled with large snipping crabs?
“Oh, nothing really. You don’t have to worry about that. What does it matter? You’d give anything for what you want, wouldn’t you?”
This time the pair spoke in unison, whilst moving either side of Charley, taking her arms and guiding her along with them, unhooking her from that unseen force, their smooth words easing the pain that had been a part of her for such a long time.
Yet she knew something wasn’t right, that although she wanted to believe what they’d said, nothing could ever be so easy – Jenny was part of that pain and she couldn’t wipe her away, however hard it was to bear. But oh, how she wanted to let it all go.
She clearly remembered thinking, so sure she was slipping into death that her pain would now surely be at an end – the relief had been irresistible. Was this where it was supposed to happen?
Too many decisions, she was tired of it. Like trying to choose what she should have from the menu the few times she and Joe had dined out, knowing that most of the stuff would lay on her hips like uneven cement. Why was it, she wondered, that chips were usually secreted at the bottom as an added extra (like a wanton and reckless desire) or called French Fries, as if that made them a little less…sinful?
But it didn’t feel right; these two, chips or no.
Yet how long had it been since she’d taken notice of her feelings, for years taking refuge in the safety of the practical and the security and drive of work, always doing what needed to be done, glossing over the tangled mess of emotion? And yet…
Charley snatched her arms out of their grip, stepped backwards with determination, surprised that she could do so. She had to make sure. And no matter what she may or may not feel, she knew that to go blindly into anything was, was risky, if not completely stupid.
“No, you have to tell me what I have to do first!” Knowing that there was always a price for everything gave power to her words.
“Oh, come on,” said Fun, an ingratiating whine filling his words.
“You’ll thank us in the end,” joined in Games.
“No,” Charley repeated, “tell me first, those are my terms.” Where did all this potency suddenly come from? Where was the woman who always shied away from confrontation? Yet she couldn’t ignore the warning voice deep inside her.
Fun and Games only looked at her in silence, then at each other, their smiles secret and devious, until they began to move backwards.
Before she knew what had happened, she saw their shadows merge and then disappear once more into the wall.
Charley was deflated as she felt the loss of what they’d had to offer. What if this was another test and she was meant to go with them? It had been so tempting, she admitted, a world without pain – all that baggage gone. Was it too late, could she call them back? Should she? Could she rely on her instincts? What else did she have left?
Wondering if the next thing she saw would be Alice’s white rabbit, then remembered how unreliable it had been, Charley was once again aware of the invisible energy that pushed her along the passageway, this time finding comfort in its presence.






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