Probably Sort-of Safe
The story so far:
And now…Chapter 13
As the days passed and the first light of spring refused to arrive, concern grew. The snow became black and brown-yellow, the color of old bruises. The chill seeped into bones, making every movement an effort. Cruel cold fingers gripped skin and would not let go.
“When does it end?” people cried. ‘When will this winter end?”
More days of bitter, boring cold passed and people retreated into their houses. Towels and coats were jammed under doorways, to try and keep out even the slightest tendril of winter wind.
Every man, woman and child lived in a state of constant agitation. They were tired of the winter, and tired of the in-doors, and tired of being tired.
It seemed like the dam would never break. And then one afternoon…
Lim, Clark and Melissa sat with their backs against the door, watching each other’s breath drift across the clearing. For amusement, they competed to see who could create the longest and strongest stream of smoke.
“It’ll be nicer out tomorrow,” Melissa said. “Probably. Any day now, things’ll pick up. Probably.”
The boys shrugged. It was all they could do.
“I just want winter to be over,” murmured Clark. “That’s all I want.”
“Don’t we all,” Lim said.
“But it’s more…it’s just…if it’s not winter any more than it can’t happen…” Clark froze. His voice, exhausted and depressed, halted, sucking back in the puff of smoke that contained the newly spoken words.
“What is it?” asked Melissa.
“Never mind,” said Clark, pushing up and away from the door, “let’s forget about it. C’mon, it’ll be dark soon.”
“That’s the other thing!” Lim said, on his feet now. “You’re always saying stuff like that, about not wanting to be here after dark. Why?”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize I needed your permission to not like being in the woods at night!” shouted Clark. “Can’t a guy just have a couple of fears that aren’t anybody’s business?”
“That’s a load of crap,” said Lim. “You’re gonna tell me that a magical door and a key that fell from space and an army of monsters and crap, none of that phases you, but being out in the woods at night is enough to freak you out? What a loada garbage.”
“It’s true, Clark,” said Melissa. “We’ve spent plenty of time in the woods when it gets dark out. But it’s only recently that you’ve gotten all buggy about it. What gives?”
“It’s not anybody’s business,” he insisted.
Lim placed one hand on Clark’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze of comfort. Melissa took the other shoulder in her own hand.
“Clark, man, you can tell us,” Lim said. “Let it out.”
The other boy’s face shook and puffed for a minute, as if his mouth was trying to contain a load of TNT that had just gone boom.
At last it burst out.
“It’s dumb, and you’ll all think it’s dumb and I know and I know that it’s dumb, I do, but…but ever since I found that key, I’ve been having the most awful dreams of my entire life. They…they don’t feel like dreams. I don’t…I can’t…it’s like I don’t even know that I’m asleep until I’ve been woken up. And sometimes even after I’m awake, it’s hard to shake that feeling.”
“Why wouldn’t you say something?” said Melissa.
“I don’t know, what was I gonna say? ‘Hey guys, I’ve been having weird dreams and they’re really scary and now my tummy is giving me an owie so I’m gonna take a nappy-nap.’?”
“What happens in these dreams?” asked Lim.
“At first…at first I’m just in bed, right? Just lying there, trying to fall asleep like you do every night. But then I hear this noise, coming from my hallway and I know, I just sorta know, that whatever it is that is making that noise is not supposed to be in my house. Do you know the feeling?”
Both said, “Yes.”
“So I…I have to go look. I just…I just do. I go out to my hallway and everything is…wrong somehow. At the end of my hallway is a door that isn’t supposed to be there. And yes, it’s that door.” He pointed. “It’s in my house. And as I watch, it opens. It opens all on its own.
“I look outside through the door and I see a snowy winter night in the woods. I see this spot.
“So there I am, standing there, looking out, when all of the sudden I hear the noise coming from behind me, the same one that got me out of the room in the first place.
“Only…only now that it’s so close to me I can tell what it is. It’s a growl. A hungry, huge growl. And I know it belongs to the biggest, meanest, most ferocious thing in the world, and that thing is standing right behind me.
“And that’s when I realize that my house is gone. There’s nothing behind me but a giant black void and the beast. I can’t go back. But I can’t go forward because I know, know, that if I take so much as a single step, the monster is going to rip me apart.
“So I stand there, totally still, for hours and days of dream until finally my alarm wakes me up.”
Tears rolled down Clark’s face and he turned his back so they would not see.
“Clark…” began Lim, but he could not go on.
Melissa said, “Clark, that really, really sucks.”
For some reason, the crying boy began to chuckle.
“It does,” he said. “It really, really does.”
Soon they all began to giggle. Lim had the thought that no matter the cold, and no matter the upset, everything was going to be OK. It would be a long time before he felt this way again.
The air around them began to buzz.
“Do you guys feel that?” Melissa said, or tried to say, because now the air was vibrating and no sound could escape the steady cry.
The children put their hands to their ears and collapsed to the ground. Their screams were swallowed by the siren.
The air exploded. With a crack, there was suddenly a burst of light only a few feet away from them. They threw themselves into the snow and closed their eyes against the stabbing light.
As quickly as it had begun, the screech ended. Slowly, carefully, the children picked themselves up out of the snow.
An older man was standing where the light had been. Where he stood, the snow had been blasted away and the earth was blackened. His hair was solid white and slicked back against his head. He wore an old suit, the kind your grandfather wore in old photographs.
“Frightfully sorry about that,” said The Man of Locks. “Met some odd resistance in my entry, always makes for a bit of a stressful landing. Hope it wasn’t too much of a bother.”
They stared at him.
He shifted from foot to foot. “Still,” he said, “mustn’t dilly-dally. The sooner we move this along, the sooner things can get back to normal. So, which one of you has the key?”
When the words finally sorted out into sense, they were a bucket of ice water thrown across Lim’s soul.
“What’s it to you?” he said, sounding more hostile than he’d intended.
“Well, my brother made it, after all. And I made the lock it goes to. Now, whether that means that he is more powerful over me or I over him is a subject for others to debate at other times. So, if you please-”
“But who are you?” asked Melissa.
“I am The Man of Locks,” said The Man of Locks. “It is my task to ensure that things that are locked away remain so. Now if you wouldn’t mind-”
“How,” said Lim, “are we supposed to know that you are who you say you are? For all we know, you’re just some lunatic with sirens and a lightshow.”
“Or one of the bad guys,” whispered Clark.
“Or one of the bad guys, right,” said Lim. “So before we give you anything, you’ll have to prove that we can trust you.”
“Look here!” snapped The Man of Locks. “I’m not going to stand in the snow, debating my credentials with a group of hooligans who have been using a cosmic by-way between dimensions like it was a trampoline!”
“Or whatever you lot have these days.” He drew his mystical sword. “Look: Magic sword. Conversation ended. Give me the key.”
“It’s ours,” said a voice, and Lim was as surprised as the others to realize that it was his own. “We found it and we’ve used it. It’s ours.”
“Young man,” said The Man of Locks, “you must not say such things. You don’t know what you might do. It is vitally important that I get this door and all the others like it closed off. Have you seen the state of the world? This bizarre winter? It will only grow worse and worse until eventually The Lonely King-”
He stopped. The sword wavered. There was something new in his eyes as he studied Lim. It was something like fear. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. “You’ve already begun, haven’t you?”
“Started what?” Lim said. He did not like the trembling that he heard in The Man’s voice, or the nervous glances Melissa and Clark were throwing at him.
“You will make it your own,” said The Man of Locks. “And soon it will be yours and you will be lost. No matter,” he said, and he took up the sword once more. “I am sorry, but my task does not allow-”
A small rattling came from behind the children. They turned to look. The Man of Locks leaned around them to see what was the matter.
The door knob was turning on its own.
“NO!” wailed Clark. He backed away, his eyes bulging with horror. “NO! NO! NO!”
The door opened. It did not reveal the other side of the forest. No, this time it stood ajar before a gaping chasm of black.
Something was rushing headlong towards the opening.
“Get away from there!” bellowed The Man of Locks.
He pushed Lim and Melissa aside, only to be tackled to the ground by what appeared to be a black tank made of fur, claws and wicked fangs.
Clark was on his knees, rocking back and forth, his hands cupping his ears.
“You can’t be real!” he cried. “You’re not! You’re not!”
The massive canine sank its fangs into The Man of Locks’ shoulder and began to drag him towards the rift in the world.
Lim grabbed a branch and battered at The Dog.
Its eyes flashed red and it lifted its head as if ready to release The Man and attack Lim.
“Lim!” shouted Melissa. She grabbed him by the coat and pulled him back.
The Dog growled and began to move forward.
“Enough, leave them,” said a Voice that came from nowhere. “It’s only silly children playing silly games. Come.”
With a final grunt of annoyance, The Dog pulled The Man of Locks over the threshold.
He reached out a hand, fingers grasping as if hoping to find some purchase in the air, or to connect with some invisible figure that might pull him free.
“Forgive me,” he whispered.
The door slammed shut.
The children were left in the cold.