Time's Up: Art & Excerpt from Chapter 19
A voice called out to Mitch. It was not so much a voice, though, as it was a presence: a thing inhabiting a world not parallel or beneath but beside—inside—the one he and Sid had occupied in blissful ignorance. It cast gossamer fishing lines through twilight and shadow, and upon him they latched fishhook claws, raising his body like a marionette from the floor, from the warmth of the rug, of Sid, and out the door into the cold, wet night. Under a sky strewn with wisps of cloud like silver swaths of silk, puppet strings bit into arm, leg, and neck, jerking his body this way and that, lumbering down stairs slick with rain and moss intent on carrying his clumsy feet to a four-story death.
Time to go, Mikolaj, called the presence, the voice, in all its distorted clamor. Its mechanical monotone shrieked through a mouth of metal, vocal cords like air raid sirens. It foxtrotted from the high octaves of femininity to the low growl of demon speech, more suited to Latin than English, and it said: Your time here has ended.
Somewhere inside, Mitch stirred, a lone bubble breaking the surface of a stagnant pond. Not enough. Never enough. Cinder blocks anchored his ankles and cemented him to the riverbed with the scum and weeds and bones, denying him even the smallest hope that he might break the surface to the waking world. So deep and murky was that pond, that lake, that boundless sea; so heavy was the otherworldly dusk hung over it, that he was scarcely aware of the snare in which he was caught. Because he was empty. Drained. Tired. His body had done this a hundred times before, and it knew the futility of resistance, having endured the monster’s somnambulant duress for days and weeks on end. There was no waking, no. Not unless the monster made it so.
Payment is due for your crimes, it said, I, the teller; the judge, jury, and executioner.
Mitch felt the mud squelch between his toes and the rain soak his hair and clothes like a deep-sleeping child feels the forehead kiss of its mother, aware but undisturbed from the dream. Only it wasn’t a dream. It was a trance forced upon him, a cage set around him without lock nor key, an electric fence whose voltage never slackened. Under this coercion, Mitch’s body stumbled through wet brambles, between damp aspens. His wifebeater clung to his chest as a second skin might, arms left to be raped and pillaged by Viking rains.
Follow me, Mikolaj. Accept the fate you’ve become too cowardly to face.
He followed. The power he faced was shrouded in inexplicability, like diamonds in the rough, opal in the cliff. Resistance was a futile thing; a toothpick at a shootout.
But while Pando’s voice was strongest, its influence an insurmountable force of the preternatural, there was, still, another voice. In the background. Weak. Quiet. Frail, by comparison—but familiar; one that begged, cried, and very nearly screamed over the crash of lightning, the thrum of thunder:
Mitch, wake up!
It was a pallid, sickly imp of a cry beside the giant that was Pando and the One-Eyed Fox, the Trees and the Silence and the Pebbles and the Dirt. But Mitch, lost in a vortex of confusion, a hurricane of doneness with the life he led, found his way out by way of its words, like markers on the mud trail back to reality.
He gasped, a man emerged from the crushing depths of a deep, dark sea and fell to his knees. Sid fell with him. Mitch puked black fluid: hot, bubbling, like demonic ichor or tar or oil and stinking like all three. He choked. He sputtered. He clawed at his throat and his chest but the poison kept coming, slathering his lips, chin, neck. The purge crushed his belly against his spine, and when at last the torrent ended, another began, from new holes, from his ears and eyes and nose until the knees of his jeans and his hands up to the wrists were soaked in hell’s sick.
Mitch coughed. Mitch gagged. Mitch’s head swam, his stomach twisted, his tongue dried and his eyes teared—teared not the saline water that tears were supposed to be but more of that ebon filth, streaking his cheeks like a nightmarish perversion of the Virgin Mary weeping blackest blood. The rain washed it away with caring hands, but the waterfall didn’t stop: a vicious cycle of gray water streamed from his eyes, his orifices, his everything.
Sid held back fistfuls of Mitch’s tangled hair. He held him tight, hunched over him as if the bulwark of his body might somehow protect Mitch from the assault wreaking chaos upon him. Sid must have known the chaos came from within and not without, but he hunched anyway, protected anyway, playing pretend.
When it finally ended, throat aflame with acid, tasting of rotten meat and gasoline, Mitch gazed into the lake of black beneath him. At first, he thought the movement was the ripple of rain. But after blinking away unholy filth clouding his sight, he saw the truth of it.
Twitching legs. Onyx wings. Beetles thrashed in the sticky pitch he’d puked up from his own gut, writhing and flapping and chittering until, one by one, they drowned, died, and went still.
Mitch’s scream was a silent one.
Sid ran round to face him, collapsing in the muck. His hands fluttered to Mitch’s shoulder, Mitch’s face, unsure where to go, where to land, how to help.
“We’re out of time!”
Panic bled into his voice, tainting it with salmonella and sepsis. He hauled Mitch’s arm over his shoulder, straining to support and drag him back to the tower, a golden beacon of safety, bright and box-shaped in the near-distance.
“We’re out of time, Mitch.” Terror and tears. Sorrow and dread. Every awful emotion was there in those words, and it wrenched Mitch’s heart and lungs in so vise a grip he struggled to find air under the crush.
Rain disguised tears, but a voice’s cadence never lied. Sid was crying. Sid was hysterical as he said, over and over, like some horrendous mantra: “We’re out of time, out of time, out of time,” and the fact Mitch knew what he meant only made it worse.
After constantly wondering how long everything would last, Mitch finally had his answer.
Not long at all.
A huge thank you to Galle, my wonderful illustrator, for bringing this scene to life masterfully!