The other best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard – one I’ve done my best to pass on through what’s been ten years of school visits – goes something like this:

The only good reason to write is if you’ll be miserable if you stop. Or, as one author put it to me when I first started out, ‘Don’t do it – not unless you can’t not do it.’

A year ago, after twenty years of doing it, I quit writing to become a musician. I’d decided at the time that the writing part of my life was over. The fact that in the months since I haven’t missed writing at all suggests I was right.

I’m still a Patron of Reading (reading: now that’s something that really would make me miserable if I ever had to stop). My published books still exist. Velvet still exists, though when or if I’ll go back to it I don’t currently know. There is one more complete short story that may make an appearance somewhere sometime – and, for now, these websites still exist. But this blog ends here.

My thanks to anyone who reads this message, and to all the people I’ve had the good fortune to meet through what remains, to me at least, an astonishingly lucky writing career.

If you’re interested in following or hearing what I do now, the places on the internet where I’m currently least inactive (;p) are Facebook and Soundcloud.

Best wishes to you,

Sam

TheFail

Read THE FAIL for free, starting here.

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.

Read Previous Chapters: 1 , 2 , 3 4 , 5 , 6, 7 , 8

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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