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