Zahal woke suddenly, gasping in lungfuls of stale air and clawing desperately at his sweat soaked gown. When his mind caught up with his body, he abruptly shoved himself upright and snatched the journal hidden beneath his pillow. Turning to a clean page, he wrote down all that he could remember from the dream.
Deep darkness. Angular growths jutting from every surface like those little crystals sold in corner shops—but tainted. The feeling of eyes stalking him as he ran. His hand shook as he wrote, the letters coming out jagged and rough.
The dream journal was the only part of his therapy he hadn’t resisted.
“As soon as you wake up from a terror,”—that was what they called them, night terrors—“start writing. Every detail, every sight, smell, sound, feeling that you can remember. Write it down before it slips away again. It will help you recover.”
The first few tries, he only managed a sentence of two before everything darted elusively away again. But as time wore on, sentences turned to paragraphs and, when words would not do, he turned to drawing. And once he committed them to paper, they stopped slipping away. Became fixed in his mind for good. The doctors had tried to use them to analyze his deepest fears, desires, dreams, blah, blah, blah. To try and trigger his lost memories. But what if the dreams were the memories?
He’d kept that particular question to himself.
The sweat dried while he wrote, while he forced his exhausted brain to recount every detail it could. When he was finished, the rush of adrenaline had worn off; his limbs were heavy and tired, like he hadn’t slept at all. But it was well after sunrise, and he’d been out for hours.
Zahal thumbed back a few pages to a sketch from another night. The drawing was crude but clearly depicted a hand. Not quite a human hand, though: the nails were black and curved like talons, and rather than being separate from the surrounding skin, they were extensions of the flesh. It reached for him from the darkness. He reached his hand out toward it—
A sharp rap sounded on the door. Time up. He snapped the journal shut reflexively.
“I’m up!” he shouted. Imagined, rather than heard, a grunt of acknowledgement as the orderly walked off. The clock told him he had ten minutes until his scheduled check-out. He’d missed breakfast.
He stood up with a sigh, turning his attention to the set of clothes on his night stand. Someone must have dropped them off sometime during the night. Had they seen him dreaming, then? Thrashing in his bed as he ran from some unseen terror in his memory-dream?
He hadn’t expected to ever see them again, these clothes, but their presence didn’t surprise him. It was appropriate that he would leave how he had arrived. Like him, the clothes had been cleaned and sterilized, but the stains from the grass and dirt clung to them stubbornly. His hand still trembled from the nightmare, which made getting dressed frustratingly slow. When he was finally done, the clothes hung limply on his skinny frame.
He stowed the journal and pen safely in his jacket breast pocket, running his hand over its solid presence. Someday, it would all make sense.
His eyes roamed over the room one last time, drinking in the details—not that there were many. Whitewashed walls covered in indentations from previous occupants who had felt compelled to make their mark on the place. The narrow desk beside the sealed and barred window. The mottled grey linoleum floor, permanently stained a sickly yellow color from years of use and abuse.
He did not feel sad to go, yet that wasn’t the same as wanting to go. But he had answers to find, and this place did not hold any more for him. They were right to turn him out; there was nothing else they could do. He turned, opened the door, and left.
One of the doctors discharged him, telling him a lot about relapses and triggers and therapy. Zahal nodded and made perfunctory noises of understanding at all the right times, signed his name on some papers, and pocketed the extra pen. And then they told him he could go home.
Well, he could go, anyway. He certainly wouldn’t be going to the home.
The doctor smiled at him and held his hand out, as though there had been some sort of camaraderie, as though they didn’t all think he was still crazy, as though they hadn’t just kept him as long as the state’s budget paid for it. But Zahal had already turned away. He didn’t look back.
The passageway is dark, dark like everything else here. But in the darkness are even darker shadows, voids of nothingness that claw at him hungrily.
Some of the smaller creatures try to skitter away from the shadows, but they are not fast or strong enough to escape. The weak do not survive long here.
He moves faster.
He can feel eyes tracking his progress, watching him race clumsily ahead. Something—not just the fear—compels him this way, like a master puppeteer directing his movements with a gentle tug, flick, twist of the wrist.
And then he sees it, finally: the way out. A single dot of light glowing like a beacon in a storm-enraged sea. And all the lines lead to it. He is drawn like a moth to flame, no longer in need of guide strings to keep him on track.
Something is behind him, a hunter stalking its prey. He is so close now. He tries to move faster, to run, but twists of the darkest dark snag on his shoes. Just an arm’s length now. But then—
How does she—
“Zahal, wait,” she said.
How does she know my name? He gasped and whirled around, his hands rising to guard his face.
“I’m so sorry; I didn’t mean to startle you. Are… you alright?” It was one of the nurses, the one he’d seen staring at him a few times, a strange look on her face. What was her name again?
A long moment stretched out. “F-fine,” he said, after he got his breathing under control. She lifted an eyebrow but didn’t press further. She knew him well. He almost felt bad that he had not bothered to learn her name. But it was better this way. There was no sense caring about someone who would never truly care about you.
“Here,” she said, pressing a piece of paper into his hands, her icy fingers briefly brushing against his. Places like these were never warm enough for blood to reach the extremities.
He glanced down at the paper. Written in neat script, an address. He looked back up at her, confused.
“Should I know what this is an address for?”
“It’s a place I’ve heard of,” she said, glancing behind her quickly. And, though no one else was around, she lowered her voice to nearly a whisper. “For people like you, Zahal.”
He straightened, his spine a ramrod. “What do you mean, ‘people like me’?” His stomach dropped. If she thought he needed more of the same, another place to dictate his life to him…
She nodded quickly, enthusiastically. “You’re different. No, not crazy,” she said when his face betrayed his thoughts. She pointed at the paper in his hand. “You’ll find the answers you are looking for there. There are others there, who can do—well, I’ve heard they can do incredible things. Impossible things. Like you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“It’s called Lord Baron’s Institute for Misfits.” She pressed on in a low voice, like she was telling a secret that she knew she oughtn’t.
“I don’t care what it’s called, whatever it is. I’m done with the system.” His voice was cold. “Any system. All this—” he motioned around the hallway, its fake cheeriness turning his stomach. “—is a lie. It’s never helped me. I’m better off on my own.”
The nurse’s cheeks flushed, but her eyes were bright, almost fevered. “I know, it sounds… questionable. But I trust the person who told me about it. It’s not another system to get lost in. It’s—”
“Nurse Jemm, we need you in here for rounds. Mr. Ikusi is no longer a patient.” A squat man stood at the far end of the hall, his expression severe and ill-tempered.
“Yes, sir,” she replied. She turned back to Zahal. “Just think about it, okay?”
He looked back down at the note. Lord Baron’s Institute for Misfits.
He turned the word around in his mind, finding that it suited him better than expected. But that didn’t mean a damn thing. When he looked back up, he was alone again.
He shoved the paper into his jacket pocket alongside the journal. Then, he pushed the door before him open and strode out into the blazing summer sunlight.
He ran out of money a week later. Not that he’d had much to begin with. A week of sleeping on the street, in parks, tucked away in bushes, in abandoned buildings. A week of surviving on the few dollars he’d had in his pockets the day everything changed.
He’d never felt less free.
A man named Phil had showed him which bakeries would hand out unsold food at the end of the day and which would call the cops if they saw anyone sniffing around for food. It was on one such occasion that Phil had come to the rescue, promising the local cops berating Zahal for causing a disturbance that he’d make sure he didn’t cause any more trouble.
Unfortunately, Phil had been serious about the taking him under his wing thing; he had proven impossible to shake off. He was friendly enough—annoyingly so—but he had obviously been living on the streets for some time. His unshaven beard was long and bushy, and his presumably blonde hair was grey-brown with grit and oil. Pungent was an understatement.
Phil pushed a small wheeled cart everywhere, which was stuffed with an array of objects that was only impressive for its variety. Its one squeaky wheel was grating on Zahal’s nerves.
“Stay away from Le Pain,” Phil said. There was a gaping hole in his yellowed teeth where one had rotted out; the others weren’t far behind. He spoke with a slight stutter. “City Bakery is best. They always have something. And they’re not mean about it.”
“Thanks.” Zahal made note of the names in his head. He didn’t know this part of town all that well and would have to figure out where they were located—later. His stomach growled, as if sensing that the conversation had shifted to food. He only had one granola bar left, and no money to buy more. He needed a job, some way to make enough money to survive while he searched for answers.
“Hey. Anyone home?” Zahal blinked, jerking his head back as Phil prodded his temple with a grimy finger.
“Don’t touch me!” he said, his voice more venomous than intended. But it did the trick. Phil pulled his hand back, looking hurt.
“Sorry.” His shoulder twitched up toward his head, a nervous tic. “You weren’t responding.”
Zahal shrugged. “I was thinking about something else.”
“I asked which tent city you lived in.”
Phil’s eyes rounded. “You’re sleeping out here? Alone?” He looked around nervously, then relaxed in understanding. “You mean you’re in a shelter.”
“No. I’m on my own.”
Phil gripped his opposite forearm tightly with one hand, knuckles white. “You need a city. For protection.”
“I’ll be fine. I know how to handle mys—”
“No.” Phil’s voice was urgent, loud. “It’s not safe. Billy thought it was, and then—” He stopped talking abruptly and shook his head violently, as though that would rid him of whatever memory had reared its ugly head. He brought up his other arm, hugging himself and rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.
Phil took a shuddering breath and stopped rocking. “You should come with me to Bride City. There are rules there. It’s safe. Not like out here.” He grabbed Zahal’s arm and pulled him down the street. “They’ll let you stay if I vouch for you. Rosie is in charge. She’s—”
Zahal ripped his arm out of Phil’s grip. “Let go! I’m not going to Bridge City with you. I’m not—I’m fine, okay? I don’t even know you. Just leave me alone.”
“What are you saying, Billy? You’re my brother, of course you know me. Come on, it’ll feel like home in no time.” Phil’s hand was outstretched, his fingers grasping the air where Zahal’s arm had been.
“My name isn’t Billy. And I’m not your brother. I’m not like you at all.”
Zahal let Phil’s voice fade away as he walked, the noises of the city drowning out his stuttering, desperate pleas. What had happened to his brother? Clearly something bad, but it didn’t really matter, did it? At least Phil was finally leaving him alone.
The streets were unsafe, especially in the part of town where he could sleep without being herded out by police in the middle of the night. But he wasn’t planning on being on them long enough to need a more permanent living situation. He’d find a job eventually, had to.
He passed a hotdog stand, the smell of sizzling meat taunting his growling stomach. The vendor frowned as Zahal walked by, turning his head away, nose wrinkled. Zahal looked behind him, half expecting Phil to have caught up to him silently. But the sidewalk was filled with businesspeople—all giving him a wide berth.
He paused at a crosswalk, catching sight of himself in a window reflection. What he saw shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. Greasy and unkempt hair. Dirt smeared across his nose and cheek. He raised a hand to rub the grime off his face, but stopped midway; that was probably how he’d gotten dirt on his face in the first place. His clothes had always been ratty, but a variety of new stains covered them now.
Did he smell as bad as Phil, too? He raised one arm and sniffed, coughing as his nose filled with stale sweat and body odor. And every muscle in his body hurt from sleeping on the ground every night. He looked the part; no wonder Phil thought he belonged to the streets. Maybe he did.
Standing was suddenly difficult. Zahal found an unused section of wall and leaned against it, bending his knees and sliding his back down until he was sitting on the sidewalk. He propped his elbows up on his knees and put his head between his hands, staring at the dull grey concrete.
What if he couldn’t find a job? How long would he be homeless before he got back on his feet? Would he ever get back on his feet? His night terrors weren’t getting any better, and neither were his… flashbacks? Visions? Episodes?
Zahal looked up, squinting into the bright sun. A woman he didn’t know stood in front of him, her arm extending a foil-wrapped package. She was maybe a few years older than Zahal, but her clean, pressed clothing suggested she was having better luck in the job—and life—department than he was. He looked from the package to her, not moving.
“I saw you back there. You looked like you really wanted one so I got an extra. Here.” She wiggled the package at him enticingly, and before his brain could formulate an argument about how he wasn’t really homeless, his hand grabbed onto it.
“Well, good luck, I guess,” the woman said, one corner of her mouth quirking up. She shrugged and turned to go.
“Wait.” She stopped, glancing back at him. “I—thanks.” The woman smiled briefly in answer, then walked away.
“Damnit,” he muttered, opening the heavenly package. It smelled even better than it had before. He took a messy bite, savoring the rich flavors and thinking while he chewed. He would never get a job looking—and smelling—the way he did. He was going to have to swallow his pride.
The sun was still high in the sky when he arrived at the home, though it was well past dinner time; it didn’t set until nine or ten during the summer. He ought to be thankful for that—it might be hot during the day, but at least it limited the number of hours he spent shivering in the cold night. If he was lucky, his nightmares wouldn’t wake him up until just before dawn, which meant only an hour or so before the sun dried his sweat-soaked clothes.
He stood for a few moments, taking the building in. At least it had never pretended to be anything other than what it was: a shabby halfway house for the city’s unwanted children. He gasped as memories flooded his mind unbidden, breaking through the protective walls he usually had up. Being ripped away from Mother by the social workers. Her face, a mask of panic, but not just because of what was happening. Lying to the other kids, telling them it was all a stupid mistake and that soon they’d see he didn’t belong there. Plotting his escape route so he could get back to her.
Zahal pushed the images from his mind, pulled the barriers back into place, forced himself to stop remembering. The last thing he needed was more memories piling on top of everything else. He needed to stay calm. Convince them to make an exception, give him a place to sleep, and let him take a blessed shower.
The doors were unlocked, so he let himself in. The familiar smell of stale bread and nondescript soup washed over him, filling him at once with a sense of comfort and of loathing. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and walked up to the reception desk, careful to keep his face neutral.
“Can I help you?” The face looking up at him wasn’t a familiar one, and the voice was bored, tired. The man took in Zahal’s appearance, flaring his nostrils and setting his mouth in a firm line. “I’m sorry, but the shelter you are looking for is—”
“I’m not looking for the shelter,” Zahal said. “Where’s Marianna?”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “She left about two months ago. I’m her replacement.” He pointed to his name tag: Jordan.
“Oh,” Zahal said, forgetting to keep the disappointment out of his voice. He’d counted on Marianna being here, knowing him, feeling sympathetic toward his situation.
“Sorry… Jordan.” He slapped a congenial smile on his face. “I didn’t know Marianna had left. I’m Zahal. I used to, uh, live here.” He held out his hand for a handshake. Jordan glanced at it dubiously but didn’t move. “Right. Dirty. Sorry, I just turned eighteen a couple of weeks ago. I would have planned better—tried to find a job, housing, you know—but I was in the hospital for the last several months.”
Jordan was still eyeing Zahal’s hand like it might give him some disease by proximity. He flicked his eyes up to meet Zahal’s. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“See, the thing is, I got out of the hospital about a week ago, but I didn’t have any money or a place to stay. I’ve been trying, but…” He held out his arms, motioning to himself and smiling wanly. “It’s not exactly going well.”
Jordan leaned back and his chair and looked down at his watch. Zahal pressed on doggedly.
“I know that the home doesn’t house anyone past eighteen, but I was hoping that it might make an exception for me, since my circumstances are a bit… unique.” He held up his hands, as if it quell an oncoming barrage. “It would only be for a few days, just enough for me to get cleaned up so I could even be considered for a job. I could pay the home back, once I start getting paid…” Zahal trailed off, trying to think of more convincing arguments to support his case.
Jordan shook his head. “Look, I’m sorry about your situation”—he didn’t sound sorry—“but rules are rules. We cannot house you after you turn eighteen.”
“Please, I won’t be any trouble. Just one night, one shower and I’ll be out of your hair. You don’t even have to report to anyone that I was here—”
Jordan cut him off. “Like I said, rules are rules. I can’t help you.”
Zahal changed his tack. “I’m sure the director will remember me. If you just talk to her—”
“There are plenty of shelters downtown. Some of them even have showers—“
“And how am I supposed to use those without any money?” The pleading in Zahal’s voice evaporated, bitterness in its place. How stupid was he to have thought, even for a second, that they would actually let him stay here?
“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” Jordan said, his voice flat, unaffected, unconcerned. As though Zahal was a mere annoyance and not an actual person. He disengaged from Zahal, turning his attention to some papers on the desk instead. Stop wasting my time, his attitude said. “We provided for you while you were a minor. It’s time you started providing for yourself.”
The insult flared Zahal’s anger. He leaned forward, jabbing his finger toward Jordan. “Who the Hell do you think you are? Where do you get off—”
Jordan’s complacent expression instantly transformed to stone. “You should go. I have nothing for you. If you don’t leave now, I will have the police escort you out.”
Zahal wanted nothing more than to reach across the desk and throttle Jordan, but he knew the man’s finger was already hovering on the alarm button. The same one he’d once tried to use as a distraction so he could escape. But he couldn’t sneak back through the kitchen and out the window this time, and the last thing he needed was an arrest on his record. He did what he had to: turned on his heel and left, hating himself for thinking anything good could have come from going back to that place. He should have known they would throw him out like the trash he was.
PLEASE FILL OUT THE CHAPTER SURVEY BELOW BEFORE CONTINUING TO THE NEXT CHAPTER.