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