November 2015



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.


‘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.



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.



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.


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 (c) 2015. All rights reserved.



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.’


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.