THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 9

Denial

‘Gemma got older,’ said Mr Meade. ‘She had to: kids do. She had to start asking questions. She had to know why she couldn’t be with anyone her own age. She had to ask about leaving, and I had to tell her she couldn’t. I had to imagine all those things for her. They were inevitable. But the problem wasn’t just her.

‘The more time passed,’ he continued, ‘the more I started to worry that I couldn’t properly imagine either of them. As the years went by I understood that the real Alice, too, just like Gemma, would have changed in ways I would never have been able to predict – but my Alice and Gemma, the ones who lived here, could only change in ways that I could imagine for them. It was like they were limited by me. Sometimes I even felt like I was holding them back.’

He spread his hands.

‘Now, Connor,’ he said, ‘do you see my problem?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘For your wife and daughter to continue to exist, they could never be allowed to guess that they weren’t real. That must have made things very difficult for you.’

‘I had to make myself believe in them,’ said Meade. ‘Even though I knew they weren’t real: I had to act as though everything was fine. If I ever gave them the slightest clue that things weren’t as they seemed, it would have been like killing them.’

I knew what he meant.

‘It would also,’ said Mr Meade, ‘have meant admitting to myself the truth: that I’d been wrong to imagine them here. That they would never be part of my world.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t face that – not then. So I thought of another solution.’

He looked at me. By now the volcano had vanished too. We were standing in darkness except for a low greenish glow that seemed to come from Mr Meade himself.

‘I needed someone,’ he said, ‘to come here and prove to me my problem. I needed someone tough and cool and thorough, who would investigate the situation here and reach the only possible conclusion about its causes. I needed someone who could make me face up to what I’ve done.’

‘So,’ I said, ‘you called me.’

‘But Connor,’ said Mr Meade, ‘that’s not quite how it happened, is it? There’s one more thing that you haven’t admitted to yourself either, isn’t there?’

Now, at last, I began to get frightened.

‘I didn’t want an outsider,’ said Mr Meade, his glowing eyes staring straight into mine. ‘I couldn’t have some stranger come here and force me to confess my secrets, could I? That’s why this world has never had visitors. That’s why,’ he added, ‘the only real person who’s ever been here is me.’

‘What about me?’ I asked him, still trying not to believe it. ‘I’m real. I’m here.’

Mr Meade smiled.

‘Denial,’ he said. ‘It’s always the first response.’

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had nothing to say.

I’d known all along, I realised. I’d known when I’d failed to contact headquarters. I’d known when I’d failed to remember my life before I came to this world.

I had never existed outside it. There was no me, except for what Mr Meade had imagined.

I looked down at my hands. They were already gone. So was the rest of my body. But something of me remained: I could still see Mr Meade standing there in watery darkness lit only by the glow that came from himself.

‘Goodbye, Connor,’ he said. ‘I’m grateful to you. You did exactly what I imagined you would do. So I’ll do you a favour. As I finish this, I’ll let you watch.’

He stretched his arms out to either side of himself like he’d been crucified. Then he started to disappear.

It began in his fingers and the tips of his toes: they faded like a dream. His hands and feet went next, then the nothingness started to climb his arms and legs. It was as if schools of invisible flesh-eating fish were consuming him from the extremities inwards. His limbs vanished. His torso shrank. Soon there was nothing left of him but his head. Then that began to disappear as well.

Mr Meade was smiling as his face went: the bare teeth left beneath still looked like a grin. His eyes seemed to get bigger for a moment as their lids and brows dissolved to nothing, giving him a strange, temporary expression of surprise before the eyeballs went too. His skull hung there in the darkness for a moment, still glowing from what was inside it. Then that shrank and vanished and the real Mr Meade – and the only real thing about me – was revealed.

There was a brain. Except for a few tubes and wires attached to it, it was naked.

Brains don’t take up much space – not compared to a whole human body. Brains don’t require much energy – about the same as an old-fashioned lightbulb. It was a brutal solution to the problem of human overpopulation and overcrowding but, for now, it worked: in his mind Mr Meade could live out his life in a luxury that the richest person in the real world could only dream of. The system would give him everything he wanted – nearly.

The watery darkness shimmered and then I saw the last thing I ever would – that Mr Meade’s brain was surrounded by more, from other people who’d made the same decision. There were billions of brains floating there, dreaming their dreams, living the best lives they could imagine.

Were any of them happy?

I would never know.

I wasn’t there.

THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

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The final chapter of THE FAIL will go live next Friday, December 18th. Right now my mind is mostly taken up by this:

2Notting Hill Orchestra FilmLondon

Tonight is my debut performance playing theremin with the Notting Hill Orchestra for Film Music. Our first concert is at St John’s Church in Watford. Tomorrow night we play St George’s Church, Notting Hill.

I’m nervous and excited – not a combination that helps keep one’s hands as steady as a thereminist needs them to be, but a fun one just the same. 😀

Yesterday I returned to Alexandra Park School for my second session there as a Book Doctor. Over the course of the day I took appointments with eight students from Year 8, trying to find each one of them a book that would exactly suit that person. Here’s what I ‘prescribed’:

BookDoctoring081215

Ice Station by Matthew Reilly

Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Trouble by Non Pratt

TWOC by Graham Joyce

True Grit by Charles Portis

Model Under Cover by Carina Axelsson

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Everything is Fine by Cathy Brett

A World Between Us by Lydia Syson

Time and Flood by Stephen Baxter

-and, though not pictured-

The Recruit by Robert Muchamore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Thanks again to the staff at APS for another lovely warm welcome, and to the students I met for what were some fascinating discussions. Among these unique individuals the only pattern I could discern was that some said they’d reached a point where they’d had enough of what they’d liked before and were ready to try something new. I hope I helped them find it.

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 8

The System

‘By the end of the twenty-first century,’ Mr Meade began, ‘there were too many people for the Earth to support them anymore. The seas were all dead; the land was all used up by people and their needs. There was mass starvation. Diseases swept the globe. There were constant wars, as those with the strength and stupidity to do it fought over what was left. It was chaos. But we found a way out.’

He pointed at his head.

‘What if we could live in our minds instead? What if was possible to leave reality and spend our lives in other, better places that we could imagine for ourselves? The imagination would never run out of space or resources: the imagination was infinite. In the imagination, there would be room for everyone.

‘Getting there,’ he continued, ‘seemed like a short step. People spent half their lives in their imaginations already through stories, dreams and games. We already had the technology to create the worlds we wanted, and share them with others. So why couldn’t we live in our imaginations all the time? What was stopping us? Just one thing: our bodies.

‘It was our bodies that took up all the space. It was our bodies that needed food, warmth, shelter, light, medicine, more. Our bodies had used up the Earth. They were holding us back. To be free we had to break out. And that,’ said Mr Meade, looking at me, ‘was the deal we were offered.

‘We could either carry on as we were – crammed up against each other, starving, miserable, fighting for the final scraps. Or we could live with total control of our lives, in any way we cared to imagine – and leave our bodies behind.’

He paused. I took the opportunity to get a word in.

‘Why are you telling me this stuff, Tony?’ I asked. ‘I know all this.’

‘You know only what you’re allowed to know, Connor,’ said Mr Meade. ‘The only way you’ll know more is by hearing it from me.’

I blinked, surprised again.

‘May I continue?’ asked Mr Meade.

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Thank you.’ Mr Meade bit his lip and sighed.

Around him, his world began to change.

‘I had a wife,’ he said. ‘We had a daughter. The three of us loved each other very deeply, but we were unhappy. I don’t mean to say that life in the camps was any harder on us than it was on other families: it wasn’t. It was hard on everyone. It was hard to get enough to eat and drink, and it was hard to live with any kind of dignity with so many of us packed into such a small space like we were. One day I realised that I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought that Gemma and Alice shouldn’t have to stand it either. So I decided we should take the deal. But there was a problem…’

‘Alice didn’t agree,’ I said.

Mr Meade scowled at me.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Please go on.’

‘The problem was Gemma,’ said Mr Meade. ‘Alice thought it wasn’t right that we should make a decision like this on her behalf. It was fine for Alice and I to leave our bodies and go live somewhere imaginary: we’d seen enough of the real world to know we wanted no part of it anymore. But Gemma was just a child: she’d barely lived, barely seen anything. To decide, for her, that we would go and never come back – to take her away from the real world forever, before she’d really had a chance to find out about it for herself? We didn’t have the right to do that to her. That’s what Alice said.

‘But,’ Mr Meade continued, ‘I didn’t listen.’

The air had got darker and thicker. The whole of the room was an aquarium now: fish scuttled up the walls on spider legs and swam, wriggling, all around us.

‘I took a decision: I went ahead and booked the operation for myself, and told Alice and Gemma what I’d done.’

Mr Meade smiled bleakly.

‘The idea was that when they saw I was serious, it would make them decide to go through with it too and come with me. It almost worked. When Alice realised there was no way she could talk me out of it, she booked the operation for two days after mine. Two days after I left, Alice and Gemma were supposed to follow me to our new home.

‘We spent my last few days in the real world deciding what we wanted our next one to be like. My job was to make sure it was all here and ready for when they arrived. Then Alice and Gemma took me to the clinic. They held my hands as the surgeons gave me the anaesthetic. I told them not to be scared, that I would see them again soon and then we would be together for the rest of our lives.’

He sniffed.

‘I left my body and came here. I got it all just the way they wanted. But they never arrived.’

The walls of the castle had become transparent. Or perhaps it had ceased to exist: it was hard for me to tell. The floor still felt solid beneath my feet. Mr Meade was still standing just a few steps away from me, but everything else was water. Away out to my left I could see the volcano: that seemed to be underwater now too. Its fake-looking lava lit us with a low orange glow.

‘I suppose,’ said Mr Meade, ‘that Alice and Gemma must have changed their minds. Maybe they never really wanted to come with me at all: I don’t know. I waited. I kept hoping. And when my hope died and I knew I couldn’t wait any longer, I did the only other thing I could.’

‘You imagined them,’ I said.

Meade looked at me, but this time he just nodded.

‘To begin with,’ he said, ‘it was easier than I thought it would be. I remembered every detail about them that I could, and the system did the rest. It made them live and breathe. It made them love and laugh. It made them be here, exactly as if they were. I was amazed at how real they were. At first it was hard to tell the difference – and I didn’t want to. I only wanted us to be happy. And, for seven years, we were.’

‘Then what happened?’ I asked.

I wanted to hear him say it. But I already knew.

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

This post is to mark the passing of Shigeru Mizuki.

shigeru_mizuki

As well as being a manga genius it was he, more than anyone else, who introduced younger Japanese generations – and the wider world – and me – to the fascinating, charming and terrifying creatures known as the yokai. As I now know thanks to wonderful new English translations published by Drawn and Quarterly, Mizuki was a terrific historian and memoirist too: Showa is amazing.

MizukiBooks

There’s a lovely tribute to him by translator Zack Davisson here. If you don’t yet know Shigeru Mizuki or his work, his Seven Rules of Happiness (listed there) are as good an introduction as any.

His books live on.

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 7

The Truth

Gemma was there. Near the centre of the room, just in front of the shattered aquarium, she was sinking into the floor.

‘Help me!’ she said. ‘I can’t get out!’

The floor was already up past her waist. As I stood in the doorway just in front of the hatch, watching, the level rose up to her armpits.

‘Come on!’ she yelled. ‘You’ve got to help me!’

I got down flat to spread my weight and started feeling ahead with my hands for which parts of the floor were solid. There wasn’t much. Like in Gemma’s room there was a sort of shelf the consistency of thick mud that seemed able to take my weight, but beyond a line about thirty centimetres from the doorway the floor was already almost liquid again. To be able to haul Gemma in I had to stick my legs out of the hatch and back out onto the stairs. I stretched my hand out towards her.

‘What are you doing here?’ I asked her. ‘How did you get out past the shark?’

‘I didn’t,’ said Gemma. ‘It came here with me. It’s underneath me right now!’

‘Grab my hand, then,’ I suggested.

‘I can’t reach!’ she said. ‘Come closer!’

I wriggled forward as far as I dared. Our hands were almost touching.

‘Come on, Gemma,’ I told her. ‘Try harder. Reach.’

‘I am trying harder,’ she said, sounding outraged. ‘I’m doing my best here but I’m stuck. And if you don’t try harder to get me out of here the shark is going to get me!

She flailed towards me a little, but by now I was certain.

‘Reach,’ I said.

‘I can’t,’ she said.

‘Try.’

‘I told you: I’m stuck!’

‘I don’t believe you,’ I told her.

I wriggled myself back to the doorway and stood up.

Gemma goggled at me. The floor was up to her neck now.

‘You… can’t… just… leave me here,’ she said, her lower lip trembling.

I didn’t answer.

‘But it’s coming!’ she said. ‘It’s going to get me!’

‘Maybe,’ I said.

‘Oh my god,’ she said. ‘You’re heartless! I hate you! I HATE YOU!’

Then it happened just like before. A circle of floor more than two metres across suddenly turned to teeth. But this time Gemma, still looking at me, was at its centre.

The shark came out of the floor with Gemma in its jaws, lifting her into the air. Gemma screamed – a wordless animal cry of agony and horror that ran right through me like a jolt of electricity. The scream continued as the shark thrashed around, worrying at its prize like a dog with a bone while Gemma’s arms, still free, flapped wildly.

I felt sick.

‘Tony,’ I said, ‘that’s enough, don’t you think?’

The shark froze in place, with its body sticking up out of the water. Gemma froze too: her mouth was still open but the scream had stopped.

‘Who are you doing all this for, Tony?’ I asked. ‘It isn’t for me, which means it must be for you. You’re in charge, and this is just some kind of show you’re putting on for yourself. I’m asking you to stop. Please. Just stop it. Right now.’

The shark and the girl began to change. They shrank down and inwards. Then there was Tony Meade, standing on solid floor. He was crying.

‘All right,’ he said, and sniffed. ‘All right.’

I took a step into the room. I was relieved to find that my foot didn’t sink.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘How about you tell me exactly what’s going on here?’

I know I sound like some kind of detective or policeman sometimes, but really that’s not what I do: in fact I’m more like a counsellor.

The technology to make imaginary worlds has been around a long time. The system is essentially perfect. That means that when an imaginary world fails, the reasons are never technical: they’re emotional. If a world’s got problems, that means that the people who live in it have problems – or, in Mr Meade’s case, the person. As I knew now, he lived in his world alone. My guess was that this was probably the root of his problem. But that was what I needed to find out.

I wasn’t there to arrest him. I was there to understand him.

‘So Gemma wasn’t real either,’ I prompted. I tried for a smile. ‘For a while I wasn’t sure.’

Mr Meade scowled at me.

‘You really are heartless,’ he said, surprising me.

‘Excuse me?’

He gave me a look like I was stupid.

‘That was my daughter,’ he said. ‘And that…’ He pointed, past me, past the hatch that still lay open to the empty stairwell beyond ‘…was my wife.’

I shook my head. ‘They weren’t real, Tony. You made them up.’

‘What difference does that make?’ he asked. ‘I loved them, didn’t I? I loved them,’ he repeated, ‘and now they’re gone.’

I frowned. ‘You can imagine them again.’

‘No,’ said Mr Meade, shaking his head, ‘I can’t.’ He looked down, sniffed heavily, and looked up at me again. ‘You were right. This has gone far enough. Further than it ever should have gone. It’s time it was finished.’

I watched him and waited.

‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ said Mr Meade. ‘But there’s a condition. It’s got to be in my own way and in my own time. Without wishing to be rude, Connor, I have to tell you that what you think is happening here doesn’t actually matter at all. So, don’t interrupt me ’til it’s over. All right?’

‘Sure,’ I told him.

‘All right.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Seven years ago, I was offered a deal.’

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 6

The Lie

The rest of Mrs Meade’s face was changing too: the freckled skin of her cheeks whitened, stretched then split around two enormous fangs that came out from the sides of her mouth. Between the big fangs I saw that the rest of her teeth had changed into a sort of nest of hooks.

With a pop of punctured denim four bare white legs pushed out from the sides of her dungarees, taking Mrs Meade’s total number of limbs to eight. She bellyflopped off the staircase onto the web of threads, which bounced as they took her weight. Then she scuttled across the stairwell straight at me.

I sighed.

‘What are you going to do, Mrs Meade?’ I asked. ‘Are you going to bite me?’

Her eight eyes flashed fury. Her fangs unfolded from her mutilated mouth and let out a high, thin scream. She kept coming. She was close now. She was almost on top of me.

I had no choice.

‘Mrs Meade,’ I said, ‘you can’t fight me. You can’t even frighten me. Because the thing is, Mrs Meade, you’re not real.’

She froze, hanging in her web, and frowned at me.

‘Whad?’ Her words were muffled at first; her fangs were making it hard for her to speak. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean,’ I told her, ‘you don’t really exist. You’re like the castle, or the creatures in the aquarium. Your husband imagined you: he made you up, as part of his world.’

‘Ridiculous,’ she said, her mouth becoming human again. ‘That’s a ridiculous thing to say. How can I not be real?’

She sneered at me. She huffed. Still lying on her front with her spider legs spread out around her she smiled contemptuously at me, as though I’d said something so stupid that it should have been funny.

Denial. I’d seen it before.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Meade,’ I said sadly. ‘But it’s true.’ I decided to take a gamble. ‘I can prove it.’

She stared at me.

‘Go on,’ she said.

‘I have a question for you,’ I told her. ‘Can you remember your life before you met your husband?’

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I have an excellent memory. I remember everything.’

‘But can you remember anything that you’ve never told him? Are there things you know that he doesn’t? Because if there aren’t, that proves I’m right – and you’re only here because your husband imagined you.’

She blinked. I waited.

My bet was that there had once been a real Mrs Meade. Mr Meade had imagined a replacement for her based on his memories of his real wife – which would mean that this Mrs Meade, the replacement, would know nothing that he didn’t know.

The other possibility of course was that a real Mrs Meade had never existed. Maybe Mr Meade had imagined a wife for himself from scratch. In that case, what I’d asked her wouldn’t prove anything. Maybe Mr Meade was just really good at pretending: maybe whenever this imaginary wife of his had talked to him about her past or her memories he’d always managed to convince her that he didn’t know them already; that he hadn’t imagined them for her; that he didn’t know everything there was to know about her; that she was real. Either way, if this Mrs Meade didn’t believe me, things were about to get even nastier than they were already.

‘Do you have memories you never told him about?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Meade. ‘Lots of things.’

Her voice didn’t sound so certain.

‘Tell me something your husband doesn’t know,’ I said. ‘Tell me something that proves you didn’t just come out of his head.’

‘Why should I?’ she asked back. ‘Why should I tell you anything?’

‘Because if you don’t,’ I said, ‘you won’t be able to stay here. You can’t keep going if you know you’re not real. You’ll cease to exist.’

I saw it begin. I think Mrs Meade felt it too: she shivered.

‘But I do remember things!’ she said.

She was disappearing. It was happening quickly. She was already transparent. I watched her look down at her hands – and through them.

‘But… this isn’t right!’ she said. ‘How can this be right? I’m real! I must be real: I have a child!’

‘Alice,’ I told her, ‘I’m truly sorry.’

I meant it. Thinking you’re real for what feels like all your life, and then finding out you aren’t and it’s all been a lie? I couldn’t imagine what that was like – and I didn’t want to. It was bad enough just watching Mrs Meade’s face. It was fully human again now but her expression had taken on a dreadful, blank, staring look. She seemed numb, as though everyone and everything she knew and loved had just been taken away from her. They had. In the very last moment she seemed to snap out of the trance she’d been in and find a final, desperate urge to keep existing.

‘Wait!’ she yelled. ‘NO!

Then she vanished.

For a moment I stood there alone at the top of the staircase, taking the time to try to get things clear in my mind.

Had a real Mrs Meade ever lived in Mr Meade’s world? There was only one way I was going to find out, but in a sense it didn’t matter: this Mrs Meade had thought she was real. I had not enjoyed telling her the truth about herself. In fact, at that moment, when I tried to remember anything at all that I liked about my job, I found that I couldn’t.

I took another deep imaginary breath then I reached for the wheel on the hatch that led to the aquarium room. It turned. The hatch swung open. I climbed through.

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 5

The Reason

Floor was lapping at my chin. Ripples in it were spreading out around me over the white rug, and on across the pink carpet. I was paddling to keep my head above the surface. I couldn’t see the rest of my body. And Gemma was screaming.

‘Get out! Get out of there! It’s coming!’

I felt a kind of trembling in the floor all around me. I realised that she might be right: something was coming up from underneath me – something big.

I decided to take Gemma’s advice. For a second I thought about swimming on ahead towards her bed but the doorway was nearer so I swam backwards. It seemed further away than it had been: it took me two frantic, splashing strokes before my arm slapped down into the thicker, more solid floor by the door. I started trying to climb out, but it was like trying to escape from bog or quicksand.

By now Gemma was screaming wordlessly – just shrieking in terror. The sound of her shrieks was disturbing me almost more than anything else in the situation. I kicked and struggled until I managed to get my hands through the door: with both I took hold of the sides of the bottom of the doorway and hauled myself through. I heaved my legs up out of the floor. On my back in a kind of ball, I rolled clear.

I was only just in time.

The fluffy rug was a circle maybe two metres in diameter: that circle and the area of pink around it suddenly turned into teeth. Two sides of something like a massive man-trap snapped shut where my body had been – a mouth. Then the biggest shark I’d ever seen flung itself out of the floor, lunging for me.

The shark’s big grey body was like a pillar rising up out of the ground. Then it was falling towards me. I caught a glimpse of rolling eyes, a blunt grey snout and a big wet hole full of triangular fangs. Still lying on the floor, wriggling backwards frantically, I grabbed the only thing I could: I swung Gemma’s pink bedroom door against the shark’s snout – once, twice. On the third time, the shark fell back. The door slammed shut.

Silence.

My heart was hammering. My arms and legs quivered with adrenaline. While I waited for my body to recover I tried to understand what I’d learned.

For the first minute or so after opening Gemma’s door I’d thought I’d found the cause of Meade’s world’s problems: Gemma had outgrown the fairytale childhood her father had imagined for her, and now she wanted out. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

This world was collapsing. Mr Meade’s control over it was failing: he couldn’t hold it together. If Gemma had caused all that, then she was winning. She should not have been stuck on her bed with her back to the wall. By now she should have been able to do whatever she wanted.

It was possible, I supposed, that the reason Gemma was in her situation was that she didn’t know she could change it. Perhaps her parents had kept her power over the world they shared a secret from her. Perhaps she’d never imagined anything for herself, in all the years she’d lived there. Perhaps.

The other explanation was that Gemma wasn’t the real cause of the fail.

I knew who was.

I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of the third card and closed my eyes.

When my eyes opened I was back at the room I’d seen first – the castle’s winding white staircase. The glittering silky threads criss-crossing the empty space to my right seemed thicker than before, like there were more of them now. I’d appeared near the top of the staircase. Ten steps above me, standing in front of the hatch that had led to the room with the smashed aquarium, Alice Meade was waiting.

‘Stop,’ she told me, folding her arms over the front of her clay-stained dungarees. ‘I don’t want you to see him.’ She jutted her chin. ‘I won’t allow it.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘He doesn’t want to see you,’ she said. ‘He’s upset. That’s what’s putting our world in danger. I can’t let you risk my family by upsetting him more.’

I looked at her sadly. She seemed like a nice lady. I didn’t want to tell her what I had to tell her, but I was running out of options.

‘You’re right, Mrs Meade,’ I said. ‘This world’s problems are being caused by your husband. But they began before I got here, and if I don’t get to speak to him, pretty soon now this world is going to fail completely with us still inside it. In fact,’ I added, starting to climb towards her, ‘I think it might already be too late.’

‘I told you to stop,’ said Mrs Meade.

I kept climbing.

‘I’m warning you: if you don’t stop,’ she said, ‘you’ll be sorry.’

‘Go ahead,’ I said, still climbing, watching her. ‘Do what you’re going to do.’

‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Fine!’

It was already happening.

A line of bumps was forming across her brow, bulging like bubbles beneath her skin. Just below the front edge of the headscarf she still wore to keep her hair back, six angry red boils were appearing on Mrs Meade’s forehead. As I watched, the pus-yellow centres of the boils swelled, then split open. Eyes looked out.

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THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 4

The Gem

When I opened my eyes I was standing in front of another door. This one was pink. Its doorknob was made of some kind of crystal, with a daisy trapped inside it. I knocked.

‘Open it,’ said a voice from inside, ‘but don’t come in.’

‘Huh?’

The room was pink. The walls were pink. There was a pink armchair, and a pink chest of drawers on top of which was an impressive collection of dolls and teddy bears, most of them pink or wearing it. In one corner of the room was a large pink dolls’ house. In another was a bed with pink bedclothes, on which a girl was standing.

The girl looked to be in her early teens. She was dressed in black. She was pale and very thin. She was standing on the corner of the bed, in the corner of the room, with her back pressed against the walls. She looked scared.

‘Freeze!’ she said.

I did, with one foot off the ground.

‘I’m serious,’ said the girl. ‘Don’t take even one step into this room.’

‘Um, OK.’ I put my foot back down and stayed in the doorway. ‘Can I ask why not?’

‘There’s a shark in the floor,’ said Gemma.

I looked at her.

I didn’t know what to think about the shark. I had seen one before, when I first arrived at this world: hearing the same animal mentioned now was a coincidence I didn’t like. The other possibility of course was that Gemma was just crazy. Either way: she believed there was a shark in the floor. I decided to play along.

‘OK, Gemma,’ I said, staying where I was. ‘My name is Connor. I’d like to ask you some questions…’

‘I’ve got one for you first,’ said Gemma. ‘Can you get me out of here?’

I looked at her. ‘Out of where?’

‘The room,’ she said. ‘This world: all of it. I have to get out. Can you help me?’

My hunch had been right, then: someone was being held in Meade’s world against their will, and I’d found her. But I still needed answers.

‘Is that what you want?’ I asked. ‘To leave this world?’

‘More than anything,’ said Gemma.

‘Since when?’ I asked. ‘Your father told me you were happy here.’

‘My father.‘ Gemma scowled.

I waited.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘I won’t pretend we haven’t had good times. I loved this place when I was little. Playing with the dolphins. There was a dragon I used to ride too. It’s probably still around somewhere.’ She sniffed. ‘Daddy always gave me everything I wanted.’

‘But then?’

‘But then I grew up.’ Gemma gestured at the room around her. ‘I mean, look at this place. It’s like living in a snow-globe – a pink snow-globe. I’m thirteen years old. I’ve never met anyone my age. You’re the first visitor we’ve ever had. I…’ She sniffed again. ‘I can’t go on like this anymore.’

‘Is that,’ I asked, ‘why you smashed the aquarium?’

‘What?’ Gemma looked shocked. ‘The aquarium got smashed? When?’

‘Never mind that for now,’ I said. ‘I guess what I’m really asking is, do your mum and dad know how you feel – about not wanting to be here anymore?’

Gemma frowned at me, then shrugged.

‘I told them.’ She smiled bitterly. ‘Daddy freaked. He took my cards away so I’m stuck in this room. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, now I can’t even set foot off the bed.’

I saw I’d avoided the subject as long as I could.

‘So let me get this straight,’ I said. ‘You’re standing on your bed because there’s a shark in the floor.’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘Listen, Gemma,’ I said, ‘I can help you. But I need you to come with me.’

I held my hands out and beckoned.

I’ve learned something: no one ever really gets rescued. The most you can do for someone is to help them rescue themselves. If someone in trouble can’t make at least some effort to get themselves out of it, even if only through their will to survive, then ultimately whatever you can do for them is going to fail. Maybe Gemma had given up hope. Or maybe – and this was what I wanted to check – she didn’t really want to escape.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘It’s OK, Gemma. Everything’s going to be OK.’

She gave me an exasperated look.

‘I told you,’ she said. ‘I can’t touch the floor. There’s a shark in it. Which part of that don’t you understand?’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll come and get you.’

‘No!’ yelled Gemma. ‘No, no, no!’

But I’d started walking. And already I’d noticed something strange.

The floor of Gemma’s room was carpeted wall-to-wall in (what else?) pink. On top of that, in the centre of the room, within reach of my first step, was a large, round, fluffy-looking rug. The rug was white. When my foot came down on it, instead of meeting solid floor it sank, up to my knee.

All around the place where my foot and lower leg had disappeared into it, the rug and the rest of the floor of Gemma’s room still looked like floor. But my foot was now stuck – trapped in place as if by thick mud.

I took another step and the same thing happened. My foot sank up to my knee. Keeping my eyes on Gemma I pulled my first foot free of the floor – it made a sucking sound as it came out – and took a third step. Things got weirder.

The area in front of Gemma’s bedroom door seemed to be a kind of shelf, like you get on some beaches when you wade into the sea: my first two steps had met something sticky but essentially solid. My third step, however, met nothing but liquid.

I overbalanced, fell, and found I was swimming.

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

 

THE FAIL

by

Sam Enthoven

Chapter 3

The Queen

I didn’t go straight to her: Meade had designed his world with better manners than that. When I opened my eyes I was outside a door. I knocked.

‘Yes?’ said a voice from behind it.

‘Mrs Meade? I’m Connor. I was wondering if…’

‘Come in. Don’t mind the mess.’

The door opened on an artist’s studio. There were sketches all over the walls – shapes scored in charcoal lines on paper. I saw stacks of books on the floor. In the centre of the room, silhouetted against the twilight sky outside the window, a woman with long red hair was sitting with her back to me.

‘I hope you won’t think it rude if I don’t get up?’ said Mrs Meade. ‘The clay’s just perfect right now. Please: come around where we can see eachother.’

Stepping carefully between the book-stacks I did as she asked.

Mrs Meade’s denim dungarees were spattered with pale grey splodges. There were more grey marks on the scarf she’d used to tie her hair back. There was another grey splodge on her cheek. I liked the way she smiled at me.

‘Pottery,’ she said, indicating with her eyes the wheel that was spinning between her knees and, on it, the grey blob she was moulding there. ‘Ever tried it?’

‘Never,’ I said.

‘It’s harder than it looks. But I think I’m getting the hang of it.’

I watched her work. Her fingers were moving with amazing speed and delicacy. The shape she was making was unusual. From what little I knew of potter’s wheels, what was made on them was normally supposed to be rounded: what Mrs Meade was making had corners. With deft, precise, coaxing movements she shaped the clay into a four-sided pyramid from the apex of which, as I watched, another pyramid rose and spread. The second pyramid was upside-down. The two pyramids balanced on top of each other, spinning. They looked like one was a reflection of the other. The place where their tips touched was so small that it seemed the second pyramid couldn’t possibly balance there – but somehow the spin of the wheel and the skill of Mrs Meade’s fingers were keeping them upright.

As she noticed my mesmerised expression Mrs Meade’s smile became a proud grin. She sat back and pressed a switch on the floor with her foot. The wheel slowed and stopped and the pyramids sank back into each other, becoming again the grey blob from which they’d started.

‘Call me Alice,’ she said.

I swallowed and asked: ‘Do you know why I’m here, Alice?’

Her grin faded.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I do.’

‘All right then. Maybe the best way for me to start to try to understand what’s going on here,’ I said, ‘would be to ask why you are.’

She blinked.

‘How did you come to this place, Alice?’ I asked. ‘What made you decide to live here?’

She looked surprised.

‘We took the deal,’ she said, ‘obviously.’

‘Was it an easy decision for you?’

She stared at me.

‘Easy?’ she echoed. ‘Leaving behind the real world and everything we’d ever known? Taking that decision on Gemma’s behalf? No. I wouldn’t say that was easy.

I watched her.

‘But what kind of life,’ she asked, ‘would we have had if we’d stayed? Who wants to queue for food and water rations every day – and risk getting robbed of them every time on the way home? Who wants “home” to be a stinking tent you share with another family beside the latrine you share with six other families in your compound? Who wants to scrape out a life on a dirty, crowded, ruined “real” world when you can live in a place like this, with everything you want? Do you?

I said nothing, just waited.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said after a moment. ‘We don’t get visitors, and with the strangeness lately I’m a little on edge. Please excuse me.’

‘That’s OK,’ I told her. ‘I understand.’

I did: Mrs Meade’s reactions to my questions were giving me more information than she realised.

‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘When did you leave the real world? Recently? Because I’ve been wanting to know: When all the people like us took the deal and left their bodies behind, did that do any good? Is there more room now? Is life there better? Or is everything just as bad as it was?’

‘Honestly,’ I said, ‘I can’t even remember myself.’

There was a pause.

‘Would you say you’re happy here?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got Tony and Gem. I’ve got my art.’ She sighed then shrugged. ‘I think so. We’ve certainly been happy.’

‘So how do you explain the problems this world is having?’

Mrs Meade looked at me.

‘I don’t explain them,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ She looked down. ‘I just wish that they would stop.’

We talked a little more but it was just for politeness. I already had everything Mrs Meade could give me.

Outside the room I took a deep, imaginary breath and thought through what I’d learned so far. I’d found one answer, I supposed, but it was more like an extra mystery on top of the first, balancing there, ready to fall.

I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of Gemma’s card.

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

 

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