‘Daniel!’ his mother shouted up the stairs. ‘Hurry up or you’ll be late for school!’
The voice was designed to penetrate the pillows that he had carefully placed over his head to drown out the noise of the traffic outside. That was the first call, he reasoned. There’ll be at least two more before I have to get up. Cold, rain-washed light poured through the thin curtains on the window and endowed his room with an unappealing chill.
He snuggled down tighter. ‘Daniel Royce! Come down now!’ That’s two, he thought dreamily… another minute to go. He sighed in contentment; a minute when you really need one is worth ten minutes any other time, he figured. Amazingly, he managed to drift off, despite the traffic and the time.
‘Come down now or I’ll send your father up to get you!’
That was it; the final ultimatum. You’d think, his woolly thoughts said, they’d be more understanding of an only child. With a massive effort of will, Daniel, Danny to everyone except his mother, made his tall, lean body crawl out of bed and stumble to the toilet. Semi-alert, he then directed it into the bathroom and performed the morning ritual of splashing the minimum amount of tepid water on his face and then brushing his teeth in world record time.
The face in the mirror that looked back at him was now ready to face the world; honest dark green eyes, a gaunt face framed by waves of black hair that defied comb and brush, and a cocky smile were just the tools he needed… he peered closer…
‘No spots! That’s great,’ he told his image. ‘You’re still too handsome for your own good.’ He grinned to himself then went to throw on some clothes.
Downstairs, his mother was busy in the kitchen. ‘Did you get your homework done, Daniel?’ Gloria Royce was forty-ish, tall-ish, dark-ish, medium build-ish and worked for an accountant. She was meticulous and orderly, traits she had totally failed to pass on to her son.
‘Yeah, it’s OK,’ he lied, as he poured milk over his flakes and started shovelling them into his mouth. Homework? Damn! I forgot. I’ll do it at recess. No-one will know.
The kitchen table he sat at reflected his mother’s passion for neatness, as it was always set perfectly, just like the dining table in the other room. Just like their house; a nice, two-storey semi-detached terrace, left hand of the pair, with its own garage on the side and a border of privet hedge on three sides. It was built of red bricks and had a grey slate roof. All the windows front and back were bay windows. There was a brick-paved path and a crushed stone driveway.
His room was upstairs at the rear. He had a double bed, a built-in wardrobe… with mirrored sliding doors… that had a shelf for his CD player. There was a TV set on a small stand by the foot of the bed. A tall, thin stand held his collection of discs including some really old stuff like Pink Floyd, Procul Harem and the Stones. His window was on the left of the bed and ran the length of the wall. And along the ledge of that window was his prized collection of books. Not just any books; Danny Royce was fascinated by fantasy and science fiction. In those stories were his own dreams and fantasies; in them he could escape the drab and the boring. In them he could see visions of his own desires.
The room was his sanctuary; from the world, the drab, the future. With his evening ritual of television on, headphones on and book opened, he could relax back against the pillows and float away to places that weren’t like this one; where things were… well… different.
‘Isn’t it sports day today?’ his father asked, as he came in through the kitchen, cup of tea in one hand, his tie in the other. Arthur Royce was an older version of his son, but with enough extra weight that actually made him look trim and fit, and just a shading of grey at the temples. His hair, unlike Danny’s, had been shortened and trained to the brush and comb. There was a grin on Arthur’s face, because he knew how much his son loathed sports; in fact, his son was misplaced in so many of society’s pigeonholes. It was a disarming sort of grin that said he understood Danny’s feelings but, hey… don’t worry. And it worked, because Arthur Royce was a salesman with that unique gift that salesmen have been trying to fake since selling began… honesty. It stood out from him like beacon and he was the best motor vehicle salesman in Manchester.
‘Don’t tease,’ Gloria gently admonished her husband. This was a morning ritual between the two of them. Her husband had a pragmatic, practical view of the world, whereas she instinctively knew that their son had a more sensitive side to him. And it needed careful handling. ‘You know he doesn’t like sport, and it’s not as if he’s going to have a career in it, is it, Daniel?’ She ruffled Danny’s hair in that annoying way mothers do. Gloria Royce saw a shining future for her one and only offspring.
Danny cringed inside. Oh, no! The career thing again! ‘No Mum,’ he replied, sincerity lighting up his eyes, ‘University next year, then into human resources or management.’ That was the stock, non-specific answer designed to stop further probing. Quickly he shovelled food into his mouth on the theory that you can’t be expected to answer questions with your mouth full, ergo, you won’t be asked any.
His father listened to the exchange with the same benign expression he always used when his wife started on about Danny’s career. But Arthur, “Roller” to his friends, saw through it all. You don’t sell to people without being able to read people, and everyone was an open book to Arthur Royce…it was a special gift he had. Thank God he’d never told Gloria! But he would wait and watch, and help where he could. In time, Danny would put his hand out for help or advice and he would be there. His son, Arthur told himself, was a clever lad, who, for some reason, chose to hide his talents and maturity; who needed something to jolt him out of his lassitude so he could develop into… what? What did Arthur want for his son? What did Danny want?
School for Danny Royce was a grey, concrete, post-modern polytechnic that epitomized the worst of all things architectural and seemed to have little to do with the encouragement of learning. His uniform was an uninspiring blue blazer with grey pants and a red and grey striped tie. The school grounds were concrete and bitumen and the playing field was, depending on the weather, either a dustbowl or a quagmire that separated the school from the canal and the railway marshalling yards beyond.
Danny Royce was locked in to a culture where the bland and drab became the mediocre and normal; where fighting against it was not cool. But, deep down, he could think and he could achieve things… but… by doing so, he would stand out… be different… be a target! And if he survived that, he had reasoned, he would be expected to keep it up! To achieve more and more! No, he told himself, just get by, mate. Look after yourself. See which way the wind’s blowing. Something will come up. There’s plenty of time.
His new bike was testimony to his new-found ethos. His parents had promised it in return for favourable exam results, yet he had told his friends and schoolmates that his parents had given it to him in an attempt to buy his affection… and they believed him.
Danny’s environment was the English industrial hinterland of twenty-first century Greater Manchester, and that was his whole world.
Everywhere else had to be worse, he’d decided long ago, or else he wouldn’t be where he was; he was probably being punished for sins in some past life. Danny Royce was sixteen years old and cynical enough for twice that.
There was one bright light in his life… Emily Coburn. She attended the same school, and they were sort of going together… which was perfect for him because the casual indifference of the relationship deflected prying eyes; and questions. Danny Royce was not an easy target. But sports days changed all that.
Four times a month, Danny got to demonstrate how hopeless he was at sport… any sport.
Mr. Chowdhri was tall, dark, lean, fit and taught sport. Danny wondered sometimes if there was a sport his teacher wasn’t good at, but he couldn’t think of one. Mr. Chowdhri coached the running team, the soccer team, the basketball team, gymnastics, the girls’ hockey, and netball. To make matters worse, he was always enthusiastic and upbeat, no matter how bad you were; he believed in you. Danny liked him.
‘… and Royce,’ Mr. Chowdhri was saying. ‘Join Oldham and Culthorpe on the blue team. Right. Let’s have a good game.’ Danny shuffled across the soccer pitch to where the two nominated boys waited. He saw the contempt in their eyes from thirty feet away and could almost read their thoughts… the top players in the school saddled with a dead-beat like Royce. Doesn’t take much, Danny told himself, to read minds that small, anyway.
‘Don’t get in the way,’ Barry Oldham hissed at him as they walked to their side of the pitch. Oldham was the school bully and he was big, blonde, solid and tough. ‘Play right full-back and stay there!’
The sports field was Oldham’s arena; here he played his games of domination and control. Here he dispensed misery to those who displeased him or rewarded the faithful. But not everyone fell under his spell… one in particular got under his skin. And I can do it without confrontation, too, Danny reminded himself, as he gave Oldham a wide smile and a mock salute. Two years ago they had had a set-to behind the bicycle shed… the outcome had been inconclusive. Doubt obviously reigned in Oldham’s mind, but Danny couldn’t care less. He certainly wasn’t going to revisit the experience… but he certainly wasn’t going to pretend he wouldn’t.
Grinning despite the wind and the cold, in his uncomfortable boots and floppy shorts, in a shirt way so big that it let the chill wind gust up it, and with his elbows, knees and thin arms and legs seemingly uncontrolled by his brain… Danny sauntered away to obey; he could feel eyes boring into his back.
Basketball was worse. There was nowhere to hide. You had to actually do something. Something neat, he’d worked out long ago…like, specialising in fouling by not being able to get out of the way in time. Like missing the hoop no matter how many shots you had at it or how near to it you were. Luckily they saved basketball for the afternoon so that he could clear off for home straight afterwards.
In the evenings he rode his bike around the streets delivering the local paper, his Discman player belting away through his earphones; and on Saturdays he worked for his Dad at the car-yard he managed. Danny’s job was to detail the cars; washing, polishing, vacuuming the interiors. He liked that job. There was something in the shape and feel of the metal. Something tactile. And he didn’t have to concentrate too hard while he did it. His mind could wander a little; daydream, even. The jobs paid for the CD’s and books he bought, most of them from the half price swap-shop, and left some over for movies and Emily. Actually saving money was an alien concept.
But he needed the books and the music. They offered a calming space in the world he was so uneasy with; they brought solace and refuge. He needed Emily too, otherwise, at sixteen and without a girlfriend, he’d be definitely un-cool. The formula seemed to work both ways.
Above the world that Danny knew, there is an astral plane, a plane visited by very few. Fortune tellers and new-age gurus tell of it in the imprecise way of the ignorant; psychologists and writers of books on the subject treat it as a means to their own gain; clergy and philosophers ignore it entirely… yet true mystics, natural healers and native shamans know it’s there… they use it.
To the true believers, the mind can travel this plane; unseen and unknown, the mind is free to roam the vastness of this astral landscape and seek enlightenment.
Something else now travelled this astral plane, and this something sought not enlightenment…
…it sought a soul.
The spell spiralled out from the hole between realities and with the speed of thought scoured the mindless puddle of auras that patterned the astral plane. Millions upon millions of bland, drab, neutral colours lay below; true colours of bright minds were there, but they were as lilies on the pond, few and thinly spread.
There was only one colour that was right, only one aura that would fit.
Only one… and that one was… was…there!
The spell slowed, hovering over one place… yes… this one! Slowly it descended…
…over the sleeping form
…its ghostly message fading into the mirror it found there
…then it collapsed, reverting as it did so to a small, worn book that fell to the floor… its job done.
Rain bled out of the evening sky and seeped down Danny’s bedroom window like a continuous slow blink. The world vanished beyond the pane, only the dim outlines of the roofs across the back gardens hinted that there might be more to the universe than his room. But the room was warm and the CD throbbing away was a new one and Emily Coburn was sitting on the end of his bed reading the CD cover and nodding her head in time with the beat. It was late afternoon and this was a normal way for them to get over the day. Sometimes they went to Emily’s house, sometimes to Danny’s.
Emily was medium height, slim and one month older than he was; she had very short blonde hair and a liking for Gothic make-up. And silver ear studs. And diamond nose-studs. She had pale blue eyes, bright blue nails and wore shapeless, baggy jumpers and pants.
Everything she wore hid everything she was.
Danny was lying face down on the bed with his head towards the foot of the bed, reading. His undivided attention was on the story of a world that was shaped like a disc, which rode on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stood on the back of a great turtle.
Part of Danny’s mind heard the music, and another part took in everything the book had to offer….
…someone’s watching me…
He could feel it, there was definitely someone watching him. Just in front of the bed, slightly to his right was the mirrored slider door. In it he could see the reflection of his bedroom door… it was shut. The hairs on his neck prickled.
…I can feel eyes on me…
He looked at Emily, but she was totally focused on the CD. Then, something fanned over him… like a faint breeze… his skin crawled with goose bumps… a shiver ran down his spine… vertigo gripped him for a brief second… and there was a strange itch behind his eyes…
…then it was gone. Everything was normal again. What caused that?
Emily tossed the CD cover to one side and twisted around to look at Danny. ‘I’m bored,’ she announced, with a pretend pout. ‘Let’s go to a movie.’
‘Mmmm mmm,’ he replied, still holding his book as he looked around the room. Everything seemed in place.
Emily reached over and took the book from him. ‘Movies,’ she demanded.
With a deep sigh Danny rolled over and sat up. Everybody, he moaned, always wants to… he caught a glimpse of something in the mirror. Something odd. He twisted his head to look at his door, and then turned back to the mirror.
‘Em,’ he said quietly, ‘look in the mirror.’
His girlfriend lifted her eyes to the wardrobe door and frowned. ‘What am I looking at?
‘The wallpaper. The gas-lamp. See them?’
‘Wallpaper? Gas-lamps?’ What’s he getting at, she asked herself.
Danny looked back at the wall and door of his room and then back into the mirror. The image had gone, his own room was back. ‘What the hell was that?’
‘What? What are you doing, Danny?’
He shook his head. ‘I know it sounds weird, but just then, in the mirror, my room was different. There was a floral wall-paper on that wall,’ he pointed to the image of his room, ‘and just along from the door there was a bracket sticking out with a gas-lamp on it
‘Can you see it now?’ There was concern in her voice, because deep down, beyond all the cool and posturing, she really did like Danny… and this wasn’t like him at all.
‘No. It’s gone.’
A thought crossed her mind. ‘Danny. Have you been… you know… taking anything?’
‘Like what?’ Did she mean… ‘You know I don’t take anything.’ Emily breathed a sigh of relief. There were so many stories of onset adolescent personality disorders, some triggered by substance abuse. Too many people she knew took medication just to cope. ‘Maybe it’s the books, Danny. You do read an awful lot of that weird stuff.’
‘Yeah.’ His eyes were still fixed on the mirror, but nothing happened. ‘Yeah. You’re right. Let’s go to a movie.’
Danny Royce was developing a twitch.
It wasn’t something he particularly wanted, but… the last couple of days… things were starting to appear… suddenly… jumping out at him from unexpected places. They always appeared in mirrors or reflecting surfaces, they always caught him off guard. Images. Flashing seconds of something else… somewhere else! Like the bedroom with the gas-lamps. He’d seen that several times. He was getting nervous. He didn’t know who to talk to. And he was certain that Emily had noticed… the way she kept looking at him out of the corner of her eye…
‘Fancy a lift to school?’ his Dad asked as he came in to the garage and broke Danny’s reverie.
‘School. It’s raining.’ Arthur pointed to the bike his son was holding. ‘You’ll get wet on that.’
Rain was kind to Danny. It softened some of the hard edges of his world, and muted sound. Lights were reflected and amplified in fractal disharmony… perfect for when you’re going mad, he thought.
‘Are you OK?’ Arthur asked, taking his eyes off the road for a second. ‘It’s just that you’ve not been your usual effervescent self lately.’
Beyond the window glass of the passenger’s door the world slid by in wet, grey silence. Inside the car Danny felt safe, although he was careful not to look into the side mirror. ‘Yeah. I’m just…’ What? What could he tell him? Hey, Dad! I’ve just been looking into an alternative universe! Or… Do you know every mirror shows something that’s not there! ‘…off colour. Not feeling well.’
‘That’ll soon pass, then,’ Arthur said in his jolly, trust-me voice, not believing a word his son had said. ‘On a slightly different theme… next year is your final year at school, Danny. Have you made any appointments with the school adviser?’
‘For what?’ he asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach telling him he already knew.
Arthur peered at the road ahead between the metronomic sweeps of the windscreen wipers. ‘Career options. Further training. Apprenticeships. You know, Danny…’ he smiled, ‘…the getting-on-with-your-life stuff.’
‘We-ell,’ he began, slowly, ‘I thought to check out the university options…’
‘Stop it!’ There was a bite to his father’s voice, one that instantly commanded his attention. ‘This isn’t your mother you’re talking to. I watch things; I know things. It’s my job. OK?’ The school took shape through the rain. ‘I know you hide your smarts. You’ve done that for a long time… only doing enough to get by.’ The car came to a halt and Arthur turned to face his son.
‘If you think you mother’s picking on you now, wait until you start your last year without any plans for the future. And if you can’t decide soon, you can come and work with me while we sort something out. Ok?’
‘Yeah. Sure.’ The writing, Danny knew, was well and truly on the wall. He opened the door and stepped out into the rain… into his future.
‘It’s not easy, growing up,’ Arthur said to him before the door closed. ‘But, it’s harder to pretend you don’t want to.’
The images had haunted him for two days. His house didn’t feel safe anymore. The mirrors would show things he didn’t want to see, things that disturbed him. They would appear without warning and only last for a second or two, but they always shocked him. Like the other room that was there sometimes, the one with the wallpaper and gas lamps. And it was always a different time there.
Maybe Emily was right, he argued. If she couldn’t see the things I see, then the chances are they’re not there. And if only I can see them, then I’m going mad. Or I’ve gone mad.
Emily Coburn had left her house with her mother’s negative opinion of her choice of clothes ringing in her ears.
Which pleased Emily a lot. Polished Dr Martins, designer jeans with the knees ripped, grunge tee-shirt and an old scuffed leather jacket were the perfect statement of an individual who spurned crass middle-class values. The nose and ear studs were her statements for the new conformity. Besides, Danny liked her style of clothes.
She felt a lot in common with Danny, because she knew exactly how hard it was to be yourself, to be an individual. Like Danny, Emily came from a comfortable home, but with the added burdens of an older brother and sister, both of whom had gone to grammar school and then on to university. Their selfish sense of achievement and success had placed expectations upon her, expectations that were now the focus for her rejection of that sort of life. There was now a reason for rebellion and therefore legitimacy in her chosen life-style. She was in the middle… an individual… herself.
A frown crossed her face as she got off the bus near Danny’s street and walked the short distance to his door. He’d been keeping to himself these last few days and that worried her. What if he really did see these things he told her about?
She hadn’t decided to go out with him because he was handsome and popular; but neither had she thought he was crazy. Emily had decided to go out with him because he was like her and looks weren’t an issue. An accessory to her rebellion had been needed; a misfit that accentuated her own individuality. But it hadn’t worked out that way, in the end. Grudgingly at first, she had been forced to admit to herself a growing fondness for Danny. Sure, sometimes he was pig-headed and sometimes he was vague; sure he was as casual to her as she was to him. But she was under no illusion as to her own designs in this… it was all an act. A front. A smoke screen. It kept the expectations at bay.
And she knew that Danny was doing exactly the same thing. She knew he was smarter than he let on… she knew how he had got the new bike. Emily also knew something else was going on, but whatever it was, it eluded her; she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but whatever it was she wanted know.
Mr. Royce answered her knock on the back door. He was in his Saturday gardening clothes and carried a mug of tea in his hand. ‘Aha,’ he greeted her. ‘Just what the doctor ordered. He’s been in his room all morning, moping about.’ He nodded towards the staircase. ‘Why don’t you go up and get him to come down? Tell him there’s a cup of tea ready.’
Emily smiled as she climbed the stairs. She liked Danny’s father, and she thought that he liked her. Danny’s door was shut, so she tapped on it.
‘It’s me,’ she called out. The tinny sound of a Discman came through and a muffled voice told her to come in. Danny was up and dressed in his normal Sunday attire of faded jeans, badly scuffed track shoes and football training top that desperately needed cleaning or ironing, or both. He was facing his bookshelf, Discman on his head and a frown on his face.
‘Hi,’ Danny said, over his shoulder.
‘Your Dad said there’s a cup of tea downstairs,’ Emily told him as she sat on the end of the bed.
‘Your Dad said… oh, take them off!’ She pointed to Danny’s head and the earphones.
‘Sorry, Em,’ Danny replied with a sheepish grin as he reached to his belt and turned the machine off. ‘I was miles away. I’m trying to find a couple of books that have gone missing.’
Danny had made his bed and the counterpane was rolled down and spread across the foot of the bed. That was what Emily was sitting on. But there was something under the counterpane, something square and hard.
‘Here it is, silly,’ she admonished, reaching under the cover for it. It was indeed a book and she tossed it towards Danny. To her all his books were the same.
Danny turned the book over in his hands. The book was surprisingly heavy for something so small; it was no bigger than his two hands and was half an inch thick. The front and back covers were made from leather that had cured to the texture of fine wood and was just as hard, and a brass clasp locked the two covers together. There was no spine to the book, the pages and covers being bound with ten metal rings.
The metal binders looked like silver, and Danny whistled silently to himself. The leather covers were hard and cracked, and any title had long since worn away. There was nothing printed on the front or the back covers. With his thumb he lifted the clasp… and opened the book.
He couldn’t quite make out the title page… the writing looked like… Danny twisted the book to pick up the light… like… runes! He was amazed. This was old!
The paper wasn’t paper; it was parchment, brown and fragile with age. The runes, once black, were now faded to grey. His fingers traced the outlines.
‘This isn’t mine,’ he told Emily. ‘I’ve never seen it before. It looks…’
‘What?’ There was a weird look on Danny’s face and Emily didn’t like… light dawned on her. ‘Ah! I get it! First the visions in the mirror, and now a mysterious book.’ She gave him her mock-serious look. ‘You set it up! Admit it! You put that book under the cover so that I would find it. It’s all a set up!’ Emily was actually relieved to think that it might be just that. But…
‘No, Em. Look.’ Danny sat down next to her. ‘These lines here are called runes. They’re old.’
‘They look like a kid’s stick figures to me,’ she replied. Emily had to admit, though, that the book did look very old and fragile.
Carefully, Danny turned the page. More runes. He flipped through the entire book; there were only about twenty pages, but each one was covered in runes. They made no sense to him. He tossed the open book onto the bed next to Emily.
‘I’ve got a book on Celtic history somewhere,’ he told her as he reached to open his sliding cupboard.... he stopped before the mirrored door…
…which showed something in the room behind him
…something on the bed
The room was normal. The bed was normal. Emily was normal, but looking at him with a strange expression on her face.
He turned back to the mirror… a golden glow covered the book. Quickly, Danny spun around… but the room was as before. In two strides he had reached the bed and looked down at the book. Only dark grey runes greeted him. Slowly he picked up the book and held it open before his chest. With his heart hammering against his ribs, he turned to the mirror. There he saw himself, with his dark floppy hair hiding one eye, then his eyes moved down to the small, dark book his image held…
…slowly, very slowly, he tilted the book
…showing the pages to the mirror
…slowly they came into view
…and golden light burst from the mirror!
There… before his eyes… in the mirror… were runes of living gold…
The two pages each had one line, and with trembling fingers Danny turned to the next page…
…a line of runes glowed on each of those pages. Hurriedly he flicked through the book. Each page contained one line of golden runes.
And they could only be seen in the mirror!
‘Emily! Look at this! Look at this!’ Danny’s eyes and mouth were open wide in amazement.
Warily Emily leaned to one side where she could see into the mirror. There was Danny… and the book… and her face peering around the corner of the mirror… yet there was something else there. Something liquid… around the edges of the mirror… a faint sheen like oil on water… shimmering… the hairs on the back of Emily’s neck rose.
‘Daniel!’ She only called him Daniel when she was angry… or frightened. Her mouth and lips for some reason were dry. ‘Daniel… something’s not…’
Danny was now leaning towards the mirror, inches away, eyes glued to the golden runes he alone saw. ‘Em… this is fantastic…’
…the mirror rippled
…as the oily sheen filled the entire surface
…framing Danny like a corona
…pulling at him
…sucking him forwards in horrific slowness
…into the glass
…into oblivion. Then there was nothing but the strange sheen upon the glass.
The door into somewhere else had been opened. Briefly. Microscopically.
The paths of two universes momentarily crossed and were aligned. Spatial and temporal vortices harmonised into one, and the two physical aspects cancelled each other out.
The spell had done its work in this world…
…the mirror filled Emily’s eyes…
…and she found her voice