The lights are low as I open my eyes and try to take in my new surroundings. I know they’re not the old rock walls of my cell underground. The air is different, it’s warmer in here and…am I lying on a bed? I’m so surprised that I finally manage to fully open my eyes and lift my head. Hope blossoms within my chest as I see my friends sleeping in chairs by my bedside. My wounds have been healed, well some of them, and for the first time in months I feel rested. Then, like so many times before, my hope evaporates and I remember where I really am and who I’m really with. This is just another cruel trick, just another illusion to torture me further. I’m not really with my friends, I’m not really safe. I haven’t actually escaped. I want to scream my frustration away but I will never give Garret the satisfaction. I need to escape this nightmare and get back to reality, not that that’s a pleasant thought but I’ll never get the chance to escape in real life if I let them imprison me within my own mind. I sit up as silently as I can and move the sheets to the side, momentarily distracted by what I see across my stomach and legs. You wouldn’t think that seeing your body covered in thick, jagged scars could be reassuring but they’re beautiful when compared with the gaping wounds and protruding bones that I’ve grown accustomed to. I’ll miss these scars when I escape this hallucination. It’s the first time they’ve put this much effort into making me feel comfortable in this state of mind. They’re trying to put more detail into these false worlds to make it harder for me to realise that it’s not real, to make it harder for me to want to escape. I silently get to my feet, put on a jacket that’s draped across the back of a chair and allow myself one last longing look over my shoulder at the images of the people I care about. I have to force myself to turn and walk down the hallway. I want so badly to return to that room and just curl back up under that blanket and sleep, safe in the knowledge that my friends were there and it was safe to close my eyes, but I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t real. None of it is real. It just looks real, incredibly real, actually. Even I have to admit that this alternate reality is masterfully created. I may have to congratulate Garret when I wake up. I’m at the end of the hallway now and I’ve come to a sort of crossroads. I have no memory of this place, this isn’t the refuge. At least, it isn’t the refuge that I’ve been to. They’ve put me in an unfamiliar environment to try and slow down my escape and, for the first time since they started doing this to me, I don’t mind being delayed. I’m not in as much pain here and the mental strain of trying to get out hasn’t given me a migraine yet. It’s almost nice…almost. I take a chance and go left, just walking at a normal pace. There is no need to rush, there’s nothing in here that can physically hurt me. It’s all in my head. I’m walking for nearly twenty minutes before I encounter another person. It’s odd, usually they bombard me with visages of people that I know so that I am distracted and delayed for as long as possible. I don’t know who this is though, it’s not someone I’ve met before and it immediately puts me on edge. They’re trying new tricks and all sense of comfort in this world evaporates. I don’t know what Garret has planned and I won’t wait around to find out. This man is staring at me, surprise all over his face. He says my name and reaches out to grab my wrist. Not a chance. I take hold of his forearm before he has a chance to grab me and pull him forward, bringing my knee up into his ribs and sending him flying backwards into the wall. I don’t wait around for him to get back up. I run as fast as I can, which isn’t as fast as I’d like taking my remaining wounds into account, and start turning down hallways trusting my instincts to lead me out of here. I can hear footsteps behind me but I refuse to turn and see who it is, that would just distract me. I turn another corner and am stopped in my tracks by a group of warriors. I know they’re Warriors. They’re auras say as much, what I don’t understand is why they’re searching the hallways. I understand pretty quickly when recognition flashes in their eyes and they start moving towards me. I have people behind me and in front of me and nowhere to go but right, up yet another corridor. This place is like a labyrinth. I run, pushing myself to the limits of this newly healed body, but there is no point. I’ve turned into a dead end. There are doors leading off from this corridor but why enter a room? Either way I’m cornered. I’m pressed against the wall, as far away from them as possible, and they fill the corridor. There isn’t enough space between them for me to slip through; they’ve cut off my only way of escape, leaving me with no choice but to fight my way out. I feel a welcome calm settle my frayed nerves as I let my magic flow through my veins, washing away my fear. I feel the marks on my forearms come to life and watch as the group of eight massively muscled and fearsome Warriors stop dead in their tracks. Even in this false reality they know better than to give me a reason to fight. One of them steps forward, his palms up in a placating gesture, and he speaks to me.
“Gwen, no one is going to hurt you,” he has a deep voice and soothing, slightly southern, American accent. He has long dark hair pulled back into a bun at the back of his head…and a sword at his hip. He won’t fool me.
“Let me out of here,” I say. I won’t back down but if Garret’s game requires me to negotiate, rather than fight my way out of here, then so be it.
“Okay,” he says. With a small hand gesture to the seven other warriors, they all back out into the hallway. I hear him whisper ‘Go and find Derek. Now’ and two of them disappear. Nice try Garret, that hasn’t worked before and it’s not going to work now. This may be a new world and these may be new people, but Garret is still up to his old tricks. I guarantee ‘Derek’ will show up and try and calm me, try to convince me that I’ve escaped and that I’m safe. It won’t work, it never has and it never will.
“Gwen, try to stay calm. It must be disorienting but I promise that everything is okay, you’re safe here,” he tries to calm me again. Garret has never used a stranger to keep me here before, so maybe he IS trying out some new ideas. He takes a step towards me and I send up a jet of flame, making it perfectly clear that I don’t want anyone near me. He puts his hands up and steps back again. We’re at an impasse and I don’t know why I’m allowing it. I should just use my power to destroy them and get out, but this world feels so different form the others. Something just feels so…out of place and I have the strangest feeling that it’s me that’s out of place here. This place feels too real and at the same time I know that it can’t be. We stare at each other for almost a full minute, him assessing me and me intimidating him, before he speaks to me again.
“My name is Kenneth, I’m a Warrior. We never got the chance to meet before.”
Kenneth, huh? Garret has even gone to the trouble of naming his illusions.
I can feel people running nearly 200 metres away, the vibration carrying through the floor, and I freeze. My whole body seizes up. I’ve never been able to feel that; these worlds have never been able to conduct my power like that. I need to leave.
“I am leaving now. If you try to stop me, I will kill you,” I warn Kenneth and his five remaining companions. I take a step forward and so do two of the Warriors. Didn’t I just warn them? I raise my hand and send a gust of wind towards them, slamming them all into the wall. I hear the thump as they hit the ground in the hallway. I set off at a run once more but they recover quickly and are chasing after me. Kenneth is calling my name, asking me to stop, but there is no chance of that. I’m stupid enough to run down yet another dead end but I don’t pause long enough to let them get the upper hand. I turn to them and take a step, a shock wave blasting through the hard packed earth and knocking them all down again the moment my foot hits the floor. I’m about to run, much faster this time, when I hear a voice that brings me to a stop. Not because it’s familiar and I know the person it belongs to, but because, for the very first time, the voice has been created flawlessly. Every time I have been inside one of Garret’s hallucinations I have been able to get out simply because he hasn’t been able to recreate the people I know best. I can always tell, but this voice is so familiar. It’s so real that I stop dead in my tracks. I can’t help it. It’s just a small hesitation, but it’s enough for Kenneth and his group to catch up to me. It’s enough for him to catch up to me too.
I don’t want to turn around. His voice is so real that I just know that he is going to look real and if he looks real, if they all seem so real, I know I’ll keep hesitating and Garret will win. This all runs through my mind in the split second it takes me to turn around and I want to kick myself. Stupid, stupid, STUPID!
He looks tired. His usual sexy stubble has grown out, clearly he hasn’t shaved in a while and his hair is messy and long. Garret has never made him look like this. Garret always makes him look strong and tries to emulate his usual demeanour. It’s painful to see Derek look like this. Anya and Oliver have the same weariness about them but all three have the same look of hope and maybe even happiness in their eyes. Garret has out-done himself. The details in this world are exquisite and being trapped in one of these hallucinations has never been more painful or alluring. Hank looks angry and I manage to tune back in as he tells Kenneth and his team to back off. It’s been a grand total of about four minutes since I first ran into Kenneth and about forty minutes since I left the room where I woke up. It doesn’t track; they must have already been looking for me before Kenneth sent those guys to get them…what am I thinking? THEY AREN’T REAL GWEN! They just popped up out of nowhere when Garret decided he wanted them to. He’s stepping toward me and the closer he gets to me the better I can analyse him. I can see part of his scar showing beneath the sleeve of his t-shirt, Garret has never included his scar before. Is this real? Am I really here? I remember my escape. I was with the old man from the cells. We travelled across Antarctica, I used my dwindling strength to create a boat out of an iceberg and we got to Argentina. There was an abandoned warehouse…I hid beneath a desk. But none of this was real. I can’t believe that it was real.
“Gwen?” he says again and I flinch and stare straight at his face. I watched the words come out of his mouth this time and there was no delay. He spoke and there was no glitch like in some of the other worlds. He comes to a stop barely three metres from me and for the first time my instincts aren’t telling me to kill him. I don’t feel like I need to run…I don’t need to run. I need to make sure he’s real, but how? He said he was watching me for nearly three weeks before he spoke to me, maybe I should ask him questions. Is there anything that only he would know about? Can I take the risk that Garret wasn’t in his head too?
“It’s really us Gwen, your safe,” he says. His voice sounds pleading, but I don’t know what he wants. “Do you recognise us?”
I must look ridiculous, frozen and blank and staring like I don’t have a brain. I can’t take it anymore. I’ll give Garret the reaction he wants.
“I know you’re not real. Just because Garret put more effort into what you look like doesn’t for a second mean that I won’t kill you and get the hell out of here,” I growl at the fake Derek. He flinches looking both shocked and incredibly hurt at the same time. I hesitate, again, dropping my hands before I can do what I’d planned and burn this place to the ground. His expression was just so…Derek.
“Gwen, please,” he sounds desperate. “Please believe me. We are real, you’re safe. We found you at the warehouse, do you remember? You called out to me with your mind and told me where you were. Please remember. Think hard, okay? Please.”
“It’s just what he wants me to think. You look real, but you can’t be,” I respond, but I’ve lost the conviction behind my words, my voice dropping to a whisper, and my belief in Garret’s deception has begun to fade. He must have picked up on my confusion. The hope in his eyes begins to show on his face, just a little bit. He takes a few steps closer to me and I find myself letting him. I want this to be real so badly. I look to Anya, Oliver and Hank, analysing them as well. I can’t help believing that I will find just one fatal flaw. Their eye or hair colour will be wrong, they’ll be taller or shorter than they should be, their voices will be different, SOMETHING. But there isn’t anything and I turn back to Derek. He is barely two metres from me now and as he goes to take another step I put my hand up, stopping him. I can’t let him get any closer.
“Ask us anything Gwen,” he says. “Things that only we’ll know, we’ll prove that we’re real.”
I laugh out loud, a laugh that is scary even to me. It’s a disbelieving and slightly insane laugh.
“How could I believe you? Garret was in everyone’s heads, there’s nothing he won’t know.”
His face falls as I finish but he looks determined.
“He won’t know anything about before we were at the refuge. He didn’t know you existed then and he wouldn’t have been able to get any of the information about anything I saw or anything we did before I introduced you to him,” he says and it makes sense. He would have felt Garret rifling through his memories, looking for specific information. It would have taken too much power and too much time for Garret to remain unnoticed while he searched Derek’s mind.
Think Gwen, concentrate. Some minute detail from before I left with Derek. He said he watched the robbery…
“Why did I need stitches after the robbery?” I ask. If he was there then he’d know.
“You were stabbed in the ribs by one of the robbers as he was trying to intimidate your co-workers. You also split your knuckles on one of the robbers’ teeth when you punched him in the face,” he doesn’t hesitate when he responds. It gives me more hope…dangerous, dangerous hope.
“How many stitches did I need?” I give my follow up question.
“Fourteen,” again he didn’t hesitate. “You got ten to close the stab wound to your ribs and four to close your knuckles. I remember because you didn’t bother with anaesthetic and I counted to see if you’d give up and ask for some and, if you did, how many stitches you managed to get first.”
He’s right again, about all of it, but I’m still not convinced. This information could have been gotten from medical records.
“Where did I go for lunch with my friend and what was her name?”
“You went to your local sushi train, they knew who you were and you didn’t even have to order. You were there with Carmen,” he answers immediately. I fire off my next question.
“Why did you interrupt our conversation and what happened afterwards?”
“You were asked on a scale of one to ten what I was and you answered that because I’m arrogant, cocky and a stalker that I was a negative twenty,” he smirks. “I teased you about your jeans and you got mad at me. Your fingertips burned holes into your chair.”
I feel my face lift into what I think is a smile. I don’t know anymore, it’s been so long since I smiled at anything, so long since I had anything to smile about, I don’t remember what it feels like. My smile disappears into something much more familiar as he tries to take a step towards me. He stops immediately and I’m grateful. I’m not ready to believe that he’s real yet and I don’t want to get close enough to touch him and find out. I recover quickly enough and fire off another question.
“Why did you laugh at me before we teleported to the canyon?” I say, my voice is shakier than I want it to be. ‘Derek’s’ face falls but he still answers quickly enough.
“You packed your stuff into a T-rex shaped backpack,” he replies, his voice is careful, the verbal equivalent of defusing a bomb. My expression must be showing my uncertainty. “I made you mad both times that I entered your dreams because I made comments about you not wearing pants. The night your room caught fire you ate carbonara and dropped your fork when I spoke to your mind. The sketch book that I opened on that first night was full of landscapes, some realistic and some that looked straight out of fairy tales.”
I’m in shock when he finishes and I stay silent, I have no idea what to say. He holds his hand out to me and I stare at it. This is my chance. If I take his hand I can find out for certain whether or not he’s real. If my hand glides through his like it would through smoke then I can continue with my plan to burn this whole hallucination to the ground, but if it’s not…
Derek is watching me, his hand still outstretched, just waiting for me to take it. I have to, don’t I? I need to stop playing this game and find out. I reach out my trembling hand, touch my fingertips to his palm and…they don’t go straight through it. I pull my hand back as if I’ve been electrocuted and know that I’m staring at his hand in shock. Something is sliding down my cheek and it takes me a moment to realise that it’s a tear. There is a tear sliding down my cheek. I never cry, I haven’t cried in years. I reach my now violently shaking hand out to Derek again, placing my whole palm over his and this time I can’t hold it back. I sag under the weight of my own relief and sit with my back leaning against the wall. I haven’t let go of his hand, it’s all of a sudden the most fascinating thing in the universe. He kneels in front of me, not taking his hand away from me and not trying to touch me at all. I’m hugging my knees to my chest, studying his right hand, as he sits cross-legged on the ground in front of me. He lets me hold it and play with his fingers for a few minutes before he tries to get my attention. When I look up I notice that the Warriors are gone and Oliver, Anya and Hank are sitting on the other side of the hallway. Anya has tears on her cheeks and has her arm linked with Oliver’s. They are all smiling encouragingly at me and for a moment I forget that I’m not imagining them. Derek squeezes my hand, making me jump, and I turn back to him again.
“Hey,” he says with a small, relieved smile on his face. I don’t respond so he continues. “How are you feeling?”
How am I feeling? Overwhelmed, grateful, relieved, sore and achy, exhausted, shaky and unstable…
“Warm,” I finally manage to say. He looks completely confused and I find myself explaining myself. “I haven’t felt warm in months. It was so cold…so cold.”
I huddle into the jacket that I swiped from the room and feel something close to euphoria at the warmth I find inside it. With my knees to my chest I fit completely inside the jacket, the hem collecting on the tops of my feet. It’s now, as I look down at this wonderful jacket that for the time being is the most amazing thing ever, that I recognise it. It’s Derek’s; I’ve seen him wear it a million times. Garret couldn’t have re-created this jacket; it’s a detail that would be completely worthless to him. Derek starts saying something but appears to think twice about his first question. Instead, he decides to say:
“I was wondering where that went.”
He smiles at me and I feel a sudden pain in my chest as I realise that he might want it back.
“You don’t want it back right now do you?” I didn’t know it was possible to feel near panic at the thought of giving a jacket back to the person who owns it.
“No, don’t worry, it’s yours,” he says to reassure me. My panic must have shown on my face. “Keep it for as long as you like.”
I feel my hand unclench and realise that it wasn’t my face that gave me away, it was the vice like grip I had on his fingers. I stare at his hand again. I’m still amazed that it didn’t turn to smoke when I touched it.