That night all thoughts of the portal are buried as I struggle through my shift at ‘Steak Home’. Sweat seeps freely from my pores and the almost chewable puffs of smoke swelling from the cigars of drunks and clouding up the restaurant sting my eyes and clog my nostrils. I cough, pressing one of the cool pint glasses to my head.
‘Steak Home’, with the clever slogan: ‘Why stay home when you can steak home?’ coined by me, used to be grand. The must-be place for fun and steak lovers alike. It was what gave my family its fortune. When mum and dad died five years ago, Drake took over, and needless to say, ‘Steak Home’ changed. The no smoking rule was quickly abandoned. The calming music that undetectably used to set the mood was replaced by loud, offensive dribble, and the well-kept booths promptly became un-kept. We still serve steak.
It was never my intention to work at ‘Steak Home’ other than during the summers but it has been two full years now, and if Drake has his way, I will be doing evening shifts here for two thousand more.
After putting up with a series of uncountable insults, I decide I need a break. Pushing my way through the crowded kitchen, I grab my coat and head outside. I welcome the icy air and pong of rotting garbage. Anything is better than being in there. I lean against the wall and close my eyes.
Suddenly, I’m in a forest: not dense but with a few sturdy trees about. There’s sleet on the ground and my feet slip slightly as I meander to a more crunchy section, covered in fallen twigs. I look around, the moon my only source of light. It feels as though someone is with me, watching me, but someone who cannot be seen. I take a step forward; a gentle breeze touches my face. My mouth goes dry…what now?
Then I hear a voice: his voice. ‘You jest at scars that never felt a wound,’ he says. I squint through the obscurity to get a glimpse of him but see nothing. I hear laughter: mine. Then everything goes black and once again my nostrils register the stench from the restaurant bins.
I snap my eyes open. What is going on? I exhale, clutching my knees for balance. It has been almost a fortnight and I have had visions of my mystery man more times than I can count. I wipe my clammy palms on my thighs and take a deep breath. Up until now, I had only seen him in my dreams, never sensed his presence so clearly nor been absorbed into the scene so completely. A part of me suspects Peculiar Lad could answer many of my questions, but for some reason when I am around him, I can’t bring myself to ask him any.
The door bursts open and I jump. It’s Drake. Why is he even here? He usually leaves Marceaux in charge.
‘Get back to work,’ he hisses, his greasy hair falling into his eyes. ‘I didn’t agree to run this place after you killed our parents simply to have you hanging out here.’ He slams the door behind him. I swallow the urge to scream, smacking my skull on the wall as I throw my head back.
It is a long and draining night. By the end of it, my feet ache and the predictable headache arrives. At last it is closing time, and as usual on my nights, I am the one to close up. I head to the backroom to get the keys but am stopped. Through the glass top of the office door I make out Tracey Bakeswell, one of the waitresses, stealing money from the safe. I watch for a while. This is not her first time. She knows the code and is not in the least bit wary. I push open the door.
‘Dezaray,’ her eyes widen as she forces an awkward smile, ‘keep this between us?’
‘I know.’ She grimaces. ‘I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to but I truly am desperate.’
‘You’re stealing cash from my family business, Tracey.’
‘What family?’ she asks incredulously. ‘Everyone knows that since your parents died you don’t get a penny. If anything, you should be back here with me.’
I scan her hand. Not more than a few hundred.
‘Take what you have. Leave now and I won’t mention this to anyone.’
‘You’re a lifesaver.’ She smiles graciously and rushes out of the room.
I am lost in thought when the owl’s cry alarms me. I look up, the moon seeming at eye level; full, low, slightly red. Taken by its beauty, I stop and admire its reflection dancing on the brook. I smile wistfully. What I wouldn’t give to lie down in this water and float away.
Footsteps snap a twig nearby and remind me I should keep moving. Islon isn’t really a dangerous part of London but you never can be too careful. I continue on through the wood; being sure to remain on the overgrown footpath dimly illuminated by lampposts. As I walk, I allow the woods to claim my mind. I appreciate the low hanging branches of the tall robust trees, the flutter of the wind rippling the surface of the stream and the scuttles and flurry of the wildlife.
Something shiny in the shadows strikes my eyes. Peering through the lampposts’ haze, I recognise the man I’ve dubbed Tinfoil leaning against a tree just off the path. I call him Tinfoil because that’s what he always wears: tinfoil hat, coat, and fingerless gloves. I often see him on the weekends in town, yelling out predictions and profanities at passers-by. Most people give him a wide birth – especially since he once told a man he was heading for a fall, and the next thing I knew, that same man was in a wheelchair – however, I’ve never really bothered. Tinfoil never offends me in any way and usually fails to notice my existence, keeping his head down and his crinkling hands inside his torn pockets.
I move closer, preparing to give my usual nod on the off chance he looks my way, but stop when his head twists in my direction. His eyes widen with that crazed look I’ve seen him give others, and he jumps into my path.
‘I see the light,’ he gasps, ‘shining bright. Walk through it.’
I furrow my brow.
‘I see the light!’ he cries, ‘shining bright. Walk through it.’
My heart pounds as I stumble to get around him but he keeps leaping in my way.
‘I see the light. Shining bright. Walk through it.’
Oh dear. A crazy person is telling me to walk into the light, this can’t be good. I pretend to step one way, and when he follows, quickly step another, finally getting around him. His gloved hand grips my wrist, the folded foil poking at my skin.
‘Get off!’ I exclaim.
‘Tonight free.’ Tinfoil leans close, so close I can see a spit bubble bobbing from one lip to the other as they meet. ‘Tomorrow a cage.’
I gulp, twisting my wrist, but he’s surprisingly strong for such a withered character.
‘Tonight free. Tomorrow a cage.’ His eyes leave mine and lower to the ground. ‘Tonight free. Tomorrow a cage.’
I watch, unmoving as he repeats this a few more times, his grip lessening. Finally, he sets me free, still repeating the words to himself. Not bothering to hang around, I run through the woods, hopping over logs and boulders that others who do not visit here as often as I do would be unaware of.
I’m tired, exhausted in fact. Having been unable to sleep after last night’s run-in with Tinfoil, I somehow manage to drag myself to college and now to work. Though I tell myself not to dwell on the ramblings of a mad man, I still find myself wondering what this cage might be, and if it is literal or metaphorical.
I scowl as I line up with my co-workers. I hate when Marceaux gives me two dinner shifts in a row yet here I am, again, preparing for another evening with another unruly crowd. Or at least I am until Marceaux calls an impromptu meeting.
‘This is serious,’ he says as he pounds his fist on the bar. ‘Someone...one of you,’ he points an accusing finger at the line of staff in front of him, ‘has stolen from ‘Steak Home’. I want to know who.’
Tracey and I exchange glances, neither saying a word.
‘It has been happening for some time now and I have looked the other way, hoping the culprit would one day confess, slip up or better: just stop.’ Marceaux eyes us disapprovingly. ‘But last night more than usual was taken, a few thousand to be precise, and I cannot allow this to continue. Now fess up.’
I am inwardly stunned. Tracey had definitely not had a few thousand in her hand. I peek in her direction and catch her eye; she looks away guiltily. Obviously she had been hiding a lot more money on her.
‘How could it be any of us?’ Steven cries. ‘No one can get into that office without a key.’
All eyes are now on me.
‘Apparently they can,’ and I shrug. Tracey Bakeswell did.
‘You were last night’s closer, Dezaray.’ Marceaux studies my reaction.
‘Yes, but no one knows the code to the safe besides Drake. Maybe he staggered in drunk a few nights and doesn’t remember.’ Something about the way Marceaux watches me makes me sure he knows I am lying. I have never been a good liar after all.
‘I too considered Drake, but he has an alibi for every incident. Do you?’
I shake my head. ‘Not unless someone saw me taking a walk in the woods. I’m sure the owls by Beatrice Brook could vouch for me.’
‘You realise, if you do not confess, they can simply run fingerprint tests,’ Marceaux snaps at us. A couple of cops stroll in from the backroom, looking like they are in the mood. Then something happens, something I never thought would.
‘It was Dezaray,’ Tracey cries. ‘I saw her. Last night and last Wednesday.’
‘What?’ I screech.
‘Do you deny it?’ asks Marceaux, smiling triumphantly.
‘Why would I steal from my own business?’ I cry.
‘Your business?’ Tracey scoffs and a few chuckles follow. ‘Everyone knows that, since your parents died, you don’t get a penny. It’s no wonder you were back there with your grubby paws all over what you feel is rightfully yours.’
Without thinking, I lunge across the table between us and smack her in the face.
‘My nose is bleeding,’ Tracey squeals as I continue to maul her. Four strong hands pull at me.
‘Get off,’ I demand.
‘Come with me, Trouble.’ One of the officers sneers as he roughly yanks on my arm. I panic. I don’t like this. He’s hurting my shoulder and the other policeman is egging him on. What, with the sound of everyone laughing and the absolute betrayal of Tracey…well, I lose it. With all my strength, I whack the man in the mouth with a wooden salt shaker from the table. One of his teeth drops to the ground. He is angry now.
‘Theft? Assaulting a police officer?’ Tracey squeals. ‘You are done for.’
I detangle myself from the web of arms and bolt out the door. The cops are hot on my heels as they bound after me. Everyone from ‘Steak Home’ has rushed to the window to watch. I’m going fast but there’s no doubt the police are faster. I’m getting a stitch. I glance behind and the one I struck is practically on top of me. In no time, he tackles me to the ground and slaps a pair of handcuffs around my wrists.
It’s bloody freezing in the cell they throw me into and they seem in no hurry to bring me that extra blanket I’d asked for. It seems Tinfoil was right. Last night I was free, tonight I am caged. What’s worse, they’ve tossed me into the same cell as some kooky old lady who keeps eyeballing me from her corner.
‘Can I help you?’ I ask impatiently.
‘Come into the light,’ she croaks. That’s a laugh. There’s hardly any light in this place.
‘I’m quite comfortable here thanks.’
‘Come into the light,’ she croaks a little more loudly, causing her to cough. Not wanting her to suffer a heart attack on my account, I reluctantly stroll over to the bars of the cell to be nearer the flickering florescent lights in the corridor
‘Lexovia?’ she says. ‘You are the Elentrice, Lexovia.’
‘No.’ Poor old lady. ‘I am Dezaray Storm.’
She chuckles. ‘You were always such a kidder. You are going to be in a world of trouble once they find you missing from Coldivor. Best you get back to the portal.’
I am about to disagree with this senile old woman but the mention of the portal captures my attention.‘I am honestly not Lexovino, or whoever you think I am,’ I state, braving a few steps towards her, ‘but perhaps you can tell me more about her, Coldivor and this,’ I shrug, ‘this portal?’