Before Ray swam a face. It was a very familiar face, so familiar that he didn’t think it unusual waking up and seeing it staring at him. The concern the face reflected was uncharacteristic however, and he tried to ask her what was wrong, but the words fell apart as they exited his mouth.
“Ray, thank God.” Hannah reacted to his words – or his groan – whatever the sound he’d made could be called. “I thought she’d done something to you.”
He tried to sit up, find his body parts and remember how to control them. Where was he? He managed to focus his eyes on the display above Hannah’s head. A solar system. The planetarium. And Hannah crouched beside him, a security guard standing at her side. It all came back. Erin, the explosion, the coffee…
“As I recall, it was you who did something to me.”
What was she even doing here? She reached out for him as he attempted to stand.
“Careful, don’t move too fast. What happened?”
“What do you mean what happened? You happened.”
The security guard, a balding gentleman who tended to man the front entrance, narrowed his eyes.
“Tranquilisers,” Ray said, to the security guard as much as to Hannah. “You know you can’t give me that stuff. I’m super sensitive, they mess me up.”
A look of horror crossed her face, remembering a story he’d once told her of a childhood encounter with tranquilizers that worked a bit too well.
“Oh shit. I forgot…”
He grasped the edge of the display case and hauled himself to his feet. “She didn’t.”
“Yes. She knew that I was going to pass out. She waited here. She knew I’d come here looking for her.”
His head was pounding. “How did she know that? How the hell does she know so much about me?”
“Calm down? There’s a psycho on the loose and it’s my fault and you’re asking me to calm down?”
He tottered. Hannah leapt up and steadied him. The security guard put his walkie talkie to his ear. Hannah, always perceptive, saw this and explained quickly, “No. Don’t worry. I’m a psychologist. He’s a patient of mine,” and then mouthed the word, “hallucinating”.
The security guard moved the walkie talkie from his ear but continued to stare after her as she helped Ray to her car.
It wasn’t anything special – an old red Toyota Corolla – but it was her baby. Ray used to tease her by calling her car a write-off, a piece of junk and the like – at first it had been the easiest way to get a reaction out of her… but later it had became one of those strange running jokes that couples share. It was growing dark outside. How long had he been out? And how had she known where to find him? He supposed she knew him better than he’d given her credit for.
She drove him to her place, without asking. He didn’t protest. He was still drowsy and, though he was loath to admit it, shaken. His damsel in distress really had become a femme fatal. He had no choice but to believe that now, even though he still couldn’t picture it.
Hannah tried to help him out of the car, but he brushed her aside. The tranquiliser had worn off and he wanted to preserve a little dignity.
“I’m really sorry, Ray. I was only trying to help.”
The familiar smell of Hannah’s apartment hit Ray like a slap in the face. As she went through flicking on lights, illuminating each section at a time, Ray’s memories lit up too. The spot in front of the large window overlooking the town, now a map of shining lights like stars, was where they’d shared their first kiss. They’d spent seemingly endless Saturdays holed up in the lounge, the warm ochres and russets of the furniture a rich contrast to rain beating on the windows as he helped her with her marking.
She headed straight into the kitchen, separated from the main room by a varnished wooden counter. Ray took a seat on one of the bar stools and watched her as she took two labelled Tupperwares from the freezer and popped them into the microwave.
“So, I thought you were Erin’s greatest advocate,” Hannah broke the silence. “What’s changed?”
“She didn’t deny the printouts.”
Hannah stared at him. They both jumped as the microwave pinged. She turned from him to see to the food, without speaking. He wished she’d say what she was thinking – that he was stupid and gullible – so that he could argue with her, defend himself. As long as the thoughts simply remained in her head he couldn’t refute them.
To break the silence, he turned on the television. There was some game on, a replay of a rugby match. He wasn’t particularly interested in sport, but watching the screen meant he didn’t have to deal with Hannah and her judgemental silence.
After a moment she slid a bowl to him. Spaghetti bolognaise. Her spaghetti bolognaise. Shit.
“Ah, my favourite.” The enthusiasm was genuine, but it came out sounding sarcastic because his heart was pounding and nostalgia had him by the throat. He tried for humour, “Remind me why we broke up again?”
She opened the fridge and filled a glass with juice. “Because you’re still a kid”. The glass landed in front of him, as if for emphasis. “You do stupid things like take this girl into your home, believing she could be from another universe”
“Hey, I didn’t say I believed her.” And besides, it had been Gina’s idea to take her in. He scowled. “Ah yes, now I remember. And you’re the psychologist with the empathy of a…” he looked around, “a doorknob.”
“At least I’m not a knob”
This kind of witty retort came naturally to her, so naturally that she could deliver it deadpan, while wiping the counter, as if the words were nothing, as if they didn’t sting.
Ray was saved from having to find a response by the chords that signalled the start of news. He moved his attention to the TV, unaware that he was gripping his bowl so tight until he noticed his knuckles were white. They had to wait through two stories before it appeared. Their campus. Their physics building.
“It’s lucky this happened on a weekend”, the physics-journalist said, looking very red finding himself on the wrong side of the camera. “Otherwise… otherwise there would have been people in there.”
The anchor for the story then stated that there were, in fact, people killed. Four people to be precise. A cleaner, an old professor and two students.
Hannah went so pale that Ray thought she was going to faint, she seemed to be clutching the counter for support. He imagined that he didn’t look much better. Who were the students? Were they people he knew? Everything felt like it was moving in slow motion, and it wasn’t tranquilisers this time. His pulse roared in his ears. He was responsible for this. If Erin really had blown up that building, or was somehow involved, he was responsible.
“We have to find her.” He was on his feet, upsetting his chair. It clattered to the ground, impossibly loud.
The sound snapped Hannah out of her daze. “Let’s just call the authorities, they’ll know what to do.” Her hand was already on the receiver of her wall-mounted cordless, dialing the number.
“No.” Ray put his own hand over hers, ignoring the familiar feel. He took the receiver from her and put it down. “If we report it, we get into trouble. I mean we knew she was dangerous. You knew she was dangerous. My God Hannah… four people. We must find her and take her to the asylum.”
“She’s severely disturbed, Ray. How the hell are we supposed to catch her?”
“We’ll think of something,” he grabbed her keys off the counter.
“Either come with me, or I’ll go alone.”
For a second Hannah stood staring at him, looking pale and vulnerable… and then she regained control of herself and snatched the car keys, “Fine. But I’m driving.”
It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan: Drive around town until they found her (how far could she have gotten without any money?) and then tranquilise her and take her to the psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of town.
The counselling centre – despite what regulations dictated – kept a few pharmaceuticals on site for emergencies. Hannah had been entrusted with the keys to the supply room when she’d gone to counsel the people affected by the explosion. Now she sat in the car, outside the back entrance of the centre, psyching herself up. It was probably the only illegal thing she’d ever done and Ray felt bad making her do it.
At length, she let go of the steering wheel and, without a sound, headed into the dark building. Ray leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. He was still having difficulty imagining Erin as a psychotic terrorist, but how did she know so much about him? She knew his name, his surname, what subject he had wanted to take, the fact that he was sensitive to tranquilisers…
Something knocked against the window. He glanced up, half expecting to see a beggar. Instead he looked straight into the piercing blue eyes of the last person he’d expected to see. Erin. As if she had stepped right out of his head.
For half a second they stared at each other. Then he flung the door open. “Erin! What the… hell.”
She was full of scrapes and bruises and her white turtleneck was torn.
“Ray! Ray… They’re coming! We have to get out of here!”
“What? Who’s ‘they’ ?”
She grabbed his arm, cowering. Her eyes were wild and staring into the distance. “Oh my God. They’re here.”
“There! Can’t you see them?”
He squinted into the shadowy street. Empty, completely empty.
“Erin.” He tried to sound reassuring, “Erin, there’s nothing there. It’s in your head.”
“It’s not in my head. They’re right there.”
“What’s right there?”
“I am looking! There is nothing there!”
And then he saw them. At first glance they appeared to just be shadows… he was looking at one particular shadow cast by a rubbish bin against a wall. And then before his eyes it morphed into… well he didn’t know what it was. It was inexplicable and yet familiar… he had seen them before. As a child, alone in his bedroom, unable to sleep because of them. He had seen them under his bed, in his closet, running across his ceiling. They were not shadows… they were not cast by objects but rather seemed to devour light randomly, contorting themselves into strange forms.
“They found…” Erin was panting so hard she was having difficulty speaking, “I knew they would once the explosion…”.
“It’s in your imagination.” He said, this time a little uncertainly. He knew logically there was nothing there… and then nothing moved.
Erin dug her fingers into his arm. Nothing separated itself from the wall by the dustbin and nothing began coming towards them.
One could miss it if one looked away. One had to look directly at it to see it. It was a great dark shape about 7 foot tall. It was like the shadow cast by a person… except it did not lie flat on the road, it drifted across the road.
“Oh my fu…” Ray felt his jaw drop open. Really there was nothing else he could say. In one fluid motion, Erin dived at him, then she was scrabbling over him to get into the back seat. He slammed the door.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hannah coming out of the building.
“Hannah! Get in the car!”
She hesitated, probably in confusion at both the command and the fact that Erin was now sitting in her back seat.
“Just do it!”
He had never used that tone with her and he hoped she didn’t decide to take offense and disobey in protest. Luckily whatever Hannah may have been, she wasn’t stupid. She saw his panic and immediately knew there was something wrong. She was next to him in an instant and they were already a block away when she asked what they were running from.
“I’m not sure.”
She glanced at him, “What do you mean you’re not sure?”
“I mean I’m not sure. There was something there though… something unnatural,”
Erin, who was kneeling on the back seat, peering out of the rear window, commented, “No. They’re natural. They must be because they’re in every universe I visit.”
Ray saw Hannah’s eyebrows shoot up, “Ah I see. We’re running away from shadows?”
The comment was directed at Ray and he knew what she was thinking. Erin was delusional, he was gullible. He didn’t care though. He sat back in his seat and let his heart calm down to its usual rhythm. He knew that what he’d seen had been more than a delusion and suddenly all kinds of things were flowing through his head. All kinds of doubts… if those things were real… then what if all her other ‘delusions’ were too? He was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice that they had pulled up at the gates to the psychiatric hospital until Erin saw the sign and started trying to get out of the car.
“No! No you can’t bring me here! You don’t know what you’re doing!”
The town was a small cluster of lights on the horizon. It was closer than it looked, but not so close that she’d be able to run there. Erin kept trying to pull up the locks, but to no avail.
“Erin,” Hanna said levelly, “we’re not doing anything, we’re going to run some tests. If nothing comes of the tests, you’ll be free to go.”
It took Ray a beat to realise why Erin’s door wasn’t opening – Hannah’s “piece of junk” had one back door welded shut and one with a child lock on it. Erin was a prisoner. No wonder Hannah was so calm.
After security had checked the boot of the car, Hannah signed a piece of paper and two men in black uniforms unlocked the gate and let the car in. There were two floodlights on the fence. They were like small suns in the darkness and they blinded Ray temporarily as the car moved through the gates. Erin chose that second to strike. She jumped into the front seat, onto Ray’s lap, unlocked the passenger door and was gone into the night.
“Shit.” Ray jumped out after her, running as fast as he could in her wake. She was easy to spot on the dark landscape because of the white shirt she was wearing, but that didn’t mean she was easy to catch. He hadn’t done sport in years or been to the gym in months and he battled to keep up with her frenzied dash.
“You can’t run forever!” he screamed at her. “Eventually I’ll catch you.”
He was aware of Hannah and a security guard running behind him and this spurred him on. No way was he going to let them get her first. Erin was his responsibility.
Suddenly, Erin slammed into some invisible barrier and his heart skipped a beat – one of the shadow creatures? But no, it was a fence separating the grounds from a sheep farm next door. There wasn’t enough time for Erin to change direction, so she attempted to climb over the fence – a foolish thing to do since it was probably electrified. Ray reached her before she got very far, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her backwards. He lost his balance. They both tumbled to the ground. He managed to keep hold of her as they rolled in the dirt and she wriggled and kicked and screamed.
“Ray! You don’t understand! Let me Go!”
“Oh, I understand. I understand perfectly. You are sick, Erin. Very sick.”
“I’m not sick! Ray let me go, you don’t know what you’re doing…”
He didn’t let her go, he held onto her, pinning her to the floor until Hannah and the security guard came jogging up. The security guard was panting, but Hannah seemed to have taken the time to load a syringe before setting off after their escaped psychopath. She dropped to her knees next to Erin, found a vein in her arm and injected enough tranquiliser to keep her unconscious until they had her processed and in a room.
Ray would have been glad of this, relieved even, if it hadn’t been for the words she said next. As her eyes began to close, Erin made a last attempt to get her point across. In a small, sleepy, voice she said, “You will regret this Ray… they’re going to get you… don’t let them…get… you.”