Authors: Andrew Smith
Tags: #Social Issues, #Survival Stories, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Violence, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Friendship
People had been here recently, too. I could smell them. The place reeked like an underground pisser in summertime, and the stink made me want to pee, too, so I did it, right there against the wall under the staircase.
Fuck this place.
I watched the conical stain of my piss slick downward over the wall. It somehow made me feel good, like I was real, alive.
I looked at my feet, and that’s when I found the knife. Perfect and beautiful, like it had just been purchased at a sporting goods store, and I could almost smell the freshness of its leather sheath. Someone had taken care of it. Someone who didn’t need it anymore. I turned it over in my hands, felt the sharpness of its edge, then unbuckled my belt and threaded the sheath onto my side.
Something crashed into the wall in the kitchen. It sounded like the door on a cupboard. It slammed three more times before I rounded a brick hearth where water splashed down from the shattered chimney somewhere above me on the naked second floor.
A man stood there, kicking his foot against the wood paneling beneath the place where a sink should have been. He was completely naked, deathly pale, but covered with brilliant tattoos all the way from his belly down to the soles of his bony feet; and nothing at all above his waist, just white, hairless skin. He looked like a centaur or something.
He turned and glared at me, his jaw working up and down like he was chewing something, trying to get words out, and my hand fell down onto the handle of the knife before I realized it was only a ghost.
Then he vanished.
“Wait! Wait! Please, let me talk to you.”
He was gone.
I went over to the place where he’d been standing and kicked the wall as hard as I could. I felt the wood cracking beneath my foot, and when I looked down inside the empty black crib where the sink had been, I saw him again—the man—curled on his side, rotting in death.
Rain came straight down from the vacant square where a window had looked out—on what?—from over the sink, and it made his skin slick, snakes and fish, twisted cables of wire and swords, saints and skeletons that vibrated like cartoons inked on his rotting hide. Something black crawled up inside his nostril. I turned away and threw up beside a twisted heap of metal window blinds that was left crumpled on the kitchen floor.
The lightning came less frequently, but the rain was constant, howling against the tin sheeting and bare floor above me. I kicked the metal blinds, turning them over. There were maybe a dozen harvesters that scattered out from underneath the heap.
And I saw the body of a little boy there, too.
He had only one shoe on. Nothing else.
I covered him again.
“Fuck!” I staggered out of the kitchen, around the fireplace, the smell of aluminum; the smell of aluminum and vomit.
I shut my eyes, and leaned my folded arms on the broken piece of countertop where I’d left the dictionary.
I have got to get the fuck out of here.
Get a grip, Jack. You’re not going anywhere.
I had to think.
I peeled through the pages. Some of them tore. Some would not separate at all.
The rain kept pounding.
Pounding relentlessly against the anvil of this wrecked house.
The water came splattering down on the stairway. The stench was nauseating.
I couldn’t hear the bugs. That was good.
I looked up
There was no such word in the dictionary.
There were no entries for
Okay, asshole. Maybe this dictionary doesn’t list the names of places.
So I looked up
. Earth had to be in there, right? It wasn’t just a name.
And it wasn’t in the book, either.
Bet you don’t have the balls to look up
, do you Jack?
I looked up
I found it.
Of course I found it.
* * *
Fuck you, Jack.
* * *
So I threw the book against the wall, and it splattered like a crushed wasp and fell, fluttering dying paper wings onto the heap of the other dead things cluttered on the floor.
And when it slammed against the wall, I noticed the writing there.
At the top, near the ceiling:
The number had been written four times at different places on the wall.
Maybe the person writing it wanted to be sure someone would see it.
Maybe he knew I was coming.
Painted with two fingers; I could see how they pressed together, tracking the strokes of the numbers, smearing the curves and lines—a first and middle finger—dip and stroke, dip and stroke, with something dark, some foul concoction, because Marbury wouldn’t easily give up anything pure.
Outside, the rain raged.
I moved closer.
My shirt still hung open, unbuttoned. I flattened the left side with my palm and looked down at the number stitched there.
Maybe everything had the same number here.
I tore the shirt off. After I knotted it into a ball, I lifted the broken shower door with the toe of one boot and put the shirt on the floor beneath it. Somehow, water had begun pooling in the carpeting there, and I saw something that looked like a long black slug wriggling through the fibers. I could feel the sides of my mouth turning down in disgust and I pressed the door flat beneath my foot.
Now I was nobody.
Welcome back, Jack.
The lightning moved off into the distance but the rain never slackened at all. The sky shifted to the boiled paleness of the Marbury dusk. When I moved closer to the wall, I could make out what had been left as a message.
And there, just below the highest scrawl of the number—my number—my eyes fell upon a drawing of circles inside other circles.
At the midpoint of them all, the word
The center of the universe.
An arrow from the exact middle. It crossed the shape’s perimeter, pierced the concentric interior of a second, larger circle.
In this one,
I am going to build something big for you.
From there, an arrow shoots into a third.
Trapped inside that circle are the words:
I DON’T KNOW THE NAME OF THIS ONE.
I SAW THE PREACHER THERE.
IT’S ALL MARBURY, BUT IT’S ALL DIFFERENT.
THIS WAS THE HARDEST TO GET OUT OF.
And then, the smears of letters that said:
YOU AND SETH HAVE THE KEYS.
The hardest to get out of.
A third arrow, another world.
The circle encloses the first three.
The final circle, an outer ring that surrounds them all.
I recognize the hand. Of course I recognize the hand.
I DON’T KNOW HOW MANY MORE THERE ARE. IT IS PROBABLY UNCOUNTABLE.
And near the edge of the wall, just at the level of my own heart, floating out there, somewhere—who knows—in Jack’s universe, in deliberate and dark lines, I trace my own fingers around the strokes that had been left behind.
Maybe it’s blood
, I thought, the tip of my finger following around a precise drawing of a hammer.
* * *
It is in Conner’s hand.
* * *
Henry Hewitt had come to Marbury before I did. It was Henry who’d pawned the glasses off on me when I was alone in London. I couldn’t count the number of times I considered getting even with Henry for trapping me, and now I’d done the same thing to my best friends.
It was clear we had all somehow fallen apart, fallen together.
Conner had gotten there before me.
Faintly, somehow, I began to remember. An argument about something, about the next steps. Conner yelling at me about how I fucked it up, saying,
Henry said you would bring things here. He didn’t mean the lens. We weren’t supposed to bring the lens here. We fucked up, Jack. We fucked up.
And first Conner, then Ben and Griffin, disappearing in the garage; falling, all of us.
That’s why he drew that mark.
Conner got here first.
And one second might be a month through the Marbury lens.
I knew that.
We all did.
At the far edge of the wall, opposite Conner’s drawing of my universe—our universe—I saw more writing:
MIND THE GAP.
FENT IS LOOKING FOR YOU.
THE BUGS ARE EVERYWHERE.
STAY OUT OF THE RAINWATER.
JACK—I WILL FIND YOU AGAIN I PROMISE.
WE WILL PUT THINGS BACK.
* * *
I couldn’t stay there. There were dead people in the room. And the rain poured down endlessly.
There was an inch of standing water on the floor. I kept wondering about the warning to stay out of the rain, and who—or what—Fent was.
A hallway led off to the right of the entryway, but it was so dark I couldn’t see to the end of it. I stayed out of it as long as I could, but it was dry, so I eventually gave up being scared of what I couldn’t see there.
At the end of the hall, there were two doors. One of them opened onto a small bathroom. The toilet was missing; there was a black hole in the tile floor where it had been. A slot window above the bathtub let in a steady sheet of rain, but it ran down the wall and into the drain. Here was where the shower door came from.
The other door led to a bedroom. It was dry, but very dark. The window had been boarded over with the broken slate top from a pool table, and the floor was covered with jumbles of dusty cloth: towels, sheets, clothing, drapes, blankets. I could see where people had been sleeping. There was a wide closet set back into one of the walls, but the doors were missing. When I got closer to it, I could tell it was the spot someone had used as a toilet.
There was nothing else I could do.
I shut myself into the room.
I pulled the knife I’d found out of its sheath and held on to it.
I took off my boots and socks and sat down on the matting to wait out the storm.
When I stretched out, I realized I’d laid my head down on a pair of green surgical scrub pants. Dotted with blood on one of the legs.
They were mine, from somewhere else.
Fuck you, Jack.
Henry said you would bring things here. He didn’t mean the lens. We weren’t supposed to bring the lens here.
And in the dark, I took the injured lens from my pocket and held it between my fingers.
I even pressed the lens up to my eyes; one, then the other, pleading with it.
The words from the dictionary swirled, a dizzying cloud in my head.
Marbury: (noun) Third planet in order from the sun. No natural satellites. This planet, as the only in the Solar System which is inhabited by humans.
Fuck this place.
* * *
Just before morning, the Hunters came.
I couldn’t sleep. I lay on my side, curled on top of the blankets, so hungry and thirsty it felt as if I were dissolving, caving in on myself. The rain did not slacken at all; it became this constant white noise, like flying on an airplane that was never going to land.
I got up and walked the hallway, irrationally hoping that maybe it wouldn’t be raining anymore once I got back to the front door. And I thought,
It’s only rain; it’s not like you haven’t been in rain before; you need to get the fuck out of here, Jack.
Everything smelled like warm metal. The air was so thick it felt like I was breathing in fibrous stuffing from torn seat cushions, just the way I’d remembered that unsatisfying Marbury air.
It’s all Marbury, but it’s all different.
I decided I was going to leave. I had to find some food, something better than this place, and I believed Conner was nearby, and that when we found each other, we’d be able to somehow fix things and put everything back where it belonged. Being around Conner always seemed to make things somehow
. I knew we’d messed things up here in Marbury. Maybe back home, too.
In the blank, pale light before the dawn, I saw them in front of the house. I looked out through that jagged slot window on the door, and there were two of them, wading in knee-deep black water. It was like a sea, and what was left standing of the other houses looked like moored ships, crewless and dead.
I saw the marks first—fiery sashes. On one of them, it stretched across his waist and curled around his thigh. The second Hunter was marked by only a small upturned arc below his left collarbone, a red smile. I ducked back, peering through the slot with one eye, watching them as they strained their way through the water. They stopped every few steps, smelling, looking around.
Maybe they knew I was here.
The bigger of the two, the one with the mark that cut downward to his thigh, carried a steel jack handle. At one end, in the usual style, was a sharpened human femur that had been lashed, somehow, to the bar. And they were both old, mature, covered in spikes and purple splotches. The smaller one had horns growing out of his nipples, curving upward, and he kept licking at them, nipping, showing his black teeth.
He carried what looked like the head of a three-tined garden cultivator, and was completely naked. Maybe the scalp loincloth fashion I’d seen previously in Marbury hadn’t caught on here. Or maybe he was hunting for his first kill. The larger one had a pair of dried and purple human hands, fingers twisted together, overlapped and woven, cupped around his balls, braided onto a belt made from a Christmas tree light cord that had been strung on either side of his crotch through the dangling headless torsos of Barbie dolls.