She did not know how long she lay unconscious, but the light was fading as she sat up. Her jeans and T-shirt, though dampish, were dry enough to indicate that quite some time had passed. Next to her on the sand lay her backpack, and spilling out of it was her diary, two pens, a bar of chocolate and a bottle of water she remembered buying at the amusement park.
The pink whale lay a bit further away, its flower half buried under the sand. She picked it up and dusted off the last few crumbs, which flowed off the toy almost like water.
Weird, she thought, sand usually sticks like crazy to plush. She turned the toy over and over. It looked as good as if she had just gotten it out of the box. No indication that it had been in water at all.
Her diary fluttered a page at her in the breeze. She picked it up, and turned a couple of pages. No watermarks, no puckering of the paper, no smudging of ink. And it too, was quite dry.
She stuffed diary, pens and toy back into the bag, then opened the water and swallowed a few mouthfuls. She was a bit hungry, but decided to save the chocolate for later. She had no idea where this beach was, and certainly no idea in which direction home lay. She knew there was a lake about fifty miles west of Lincoln, and supposed she might be there, but she couldn’t be sure.
In the fading light the body of water, be it lake or sea, looked as if it was very big. She saw no sign of an opposite shore.
It was then that the other strange thing struck her. The vegetation she saw in the distance looked grayish, and she supposed that was just a trick of the light, until she looked inland from the beach.
There was no green visible at all. In fact, the things she was looking at could not be called trees, or grass, or shrubs except that she had no other names to give them. There was a lowish growth, or fungus, or covering that looked unpleasantly squishy, with a grayish-pink tone that brought to mind organs, although there was no moistness to it as there would be if they were on a dissecting table. A random memory of the frog dissection they had to do made her shudder.
Dotted at random in this growth were higher spikes of something. These had silvery grey sheen and reminded one of thorny bushes, except for the fact that the ‘thorns’ kept moving sluggishly and seemed to be soft.
Finally there were large sponges, or what reminded of sponges, twisted and twined with what seemed like stems defined by a bluish shadow in between the black and white blotches that was the main color.
All of these things, however, shared one characteristic, they had luminescence dancing over and through them. It was as if she could see the metabolic processes going on, the in-breath making the dancing motes of light rush to the ground level, the out-breath sending them to the tips of the growths. And the lights were becoming brighter in the growths closest to her.
Even the sand she was standing on, she now saw, was emitting a faint glow.
Was she dead?
Had she been killed by Neil and this was now some weird heaven?
But, do you get thirsty and hungry in heaven? And, more importantly, do you feel the need to have a pee in heaven? Because right now, that was what she needed to do more than anything.
She looked around her. Empty beach, empty fields, empty horizon. She moved a little way away from her backpack and squatted down. As her bladder emptied she felt a lot better. She stood again, and noticed that the light had not dimmed any further, as with a normal nightfall.
Then she realized it was because the plants, yes, why not, call them that, were shining more strongly. And then she realized that the low growth was undulating across the sand to the spot where she had peed. As it covered the spot, it burst into light, bright silver shining streaks running through it and even lighting up the more distant reaches of the beach.
And, she now saw in that distance a rectangular glow, such as you would get from light shining out of a window.
Well, at least it was a direction to go in.
But first, she continued to watch the growth as it now pulsed over her leavings. It seemed to be getting thicker, but the horizontal movement had stopped. Thanks for that, at least, she thought, she was weirded out enough by all this.
Why had Neil wanted to kill her, because it was pretty clear that was his intention? She had spoken to him twice. Was he one of those serial killers who have a certain type of girl they kill over and over again? If so, she was sure he was pretty fucked up, since mousy redheads in jeans, T-shirts and plaid flannel were not that common.
And what had happened, exactly?
One minute she was being smothered, then in a sea, then on a beach in some strange, alien landscape with no-one else around. And, oh yeah, what about her vision of the whale while she was in the sea? Had she simply seen it drifting past her and thought it was a fish? But she could have sworn it was an actual whale, swimming and moving, until it changed into a silver shark.
And why was she suddenly so calm? OK, she never really did have hysterics and screaming fits, but surely any normal person would by now be curled in a ball crying for her mother?
Oh my god, she is going to be so worried! What will they tell her when I don’t return from the outing? Wait, what is happening, or happened? Am I lying dead on the floor of the mirror maze? What will happen to Mom when she hears that? How will she cope?
Tracy felt her knees buckle as all the horror of her situation, and what it would do to those she loved, rose up to engulf her. She fell to the sand, curled up in a ball and howled. Tears streamed from her eyes, tears for herself, her mother, her father all those years ago, her loneliness, her longing for a boyfriend, to be normal, to fit in.
A soft velvety brush against her cheek roused her. The low growth was all around her head, silver light glowing and sparkling as it ingested her tears. She jumped up, brushing frantically at her face and body, until she was sure there were no traces of it on her.
Whatever the house ahead held, it had to be better than this beach with its alien stuff. She ran, hard, for the glow she had seen earlier and which now blazed in her mind like home.
As she ran her body took over, leaping over obstacles, bouncing from a hard surface to soft one without a stumble, driving her on toward the distant oblong. Distantly she was aware that now there were more objects like rocks, hard instead of yielding, and that the sponge like trees were closing in until they pressed in on her and she was having to duck under the stems, and that the ground was no longer just sand, but some kind of hard-packed dirt. But none of this stopped her headlong flight until she was within a dozen or so paces of the window and in a clear space.
Ahead of her was a rhomboid shape of some bluish material, with a rectangular opening out of which the golden light was spilling. All around it the dirt was clear of all growths or shapes, except for some octagonal slabs that formed some kind of pathway to one side of the structure. She advanced more slowly now, trying to discern what exactly it was.
It seemed to be some kind of made structure, hence house. At this point she decided that it was a waste of time to try and find words that did not exist, and use the ones she knew. She moved up to the wall of the house, and tried to peer through the window. However, even though light was spilling from the opening, the glass was not clear. It was cloudy and more like a membrane, so she could not see through it.
She saw no other opening on this side, and so she followed the path around the house. The angle the rhomboid formed at the bottom forced her to detour a bit and step away from the wall, even though the path clung to the foundations. Suddenly a section of wall disappeared, and the golden light poured out.
Standing in the opening was a person? Beast? Thing? Squat to the ground, with impossible short legs and there seemed to be four of these, a burly torso with slender arms or feelers or tentacles and a domed top with what seemed to be eyes, and certainly was a mouth as it was open and making a noise. Behind it was what appeared to be a pruned thorn bush. Also silver, also with the luminescence flowing up and down it, but with less twigs. In fact, if you squinted, it was humanoid, although impossibly slender for a human. It placed a limb on the dome of the creature in front, which immediately quieted down.
It then moved around and out, coming to rest in front of her. With the light behind it, she could not see it clearly, but had the impression of dark eyes and soft mouth.
It was studying her intently, then it took her hand in its limb and pulled her forward. This happened so quickly that she could not resist. In the clearer light she could see it was humanoid, wearing the thorny bush that had been woven or knitted into some kind of garment that resembled a robe.
It had a small head set on a long neck that seemed boneless, the way it moved back and forward as it inspected her. The limb grasping her was incredibly pale, almost transparent, and moving under it she could see veins carrying a bluish fluid, and under those another network carrying some kind of greenish fluid. The luminescence was in the robe, the hand itself was slender, three fingered and surprisingly strong.
The creature, meanwhile, had started sniffing around her feet, and making little snuffly noises. Whether this meant that it found her disgusting, was considering eating her, or merely interested was not at all clear.
Now the man/woman/thing lifted a hand to her hair, and softly touched it. Then it’s mouth stretched wide in an irresistible smile. She had to smile back. And as soon as she did, she was pulled into the house.
Once inside she saw there were more of the humanoids, and another domeheaded creature, which she realized served as pets and watchdogs, as they took up a position just inside the door.
The other humanoids came forward slowly, and the one who had pulled her inside said something to them in a soft, chirring voice. Then it turned to her and said, in English, “You are from otherside? You Red Lady?”
“Oh my God, you speak English. How can you speak English? What is this place and how did I get here? And who are you? Is this some weird mutant facility? Are we still close to Lincoln? And why is everything so strange and what is that smell and what is happening to me?”
With each sentence she heard herself get shriller and shriller, and the last words came out as a scream, which made the humanoids moan and clap their hands over their mouths. The one who had brought her inside looked at her with what could only be described as compassion in its eyes before it placed hand on her neck and squeezed. She felt a moment of panic and then the world darkened and she fainted.