By Sarah Greeley
The Void Walker
The Misfits Series, Book 1
Zahal woke suddenly, gasping in lungfuls of stale air and clawing desperately at his sweat-soaked gown. 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.
It was the Void again. It was always the Void. He didn’t have to close his eyes to see it; it was seared in his mind permanently after visiting it so often in his nightmares. Deep darkness. Angular growths jutting from every surface like those little crystals sold in New Age 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 the doctors 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 or two before everything darted elusively away again. But as time wore on, his halting sentences became 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 the journal 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 asleep 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 beckoned to him from the darkness. He reached his hand out toward it—
A sharp rap sounded on the door. He snapped the journal shut.
“I’m up!” he shouted. Imagined, rather than heard, a grunt of acknowledgement as the orderly walked off. The digital clock on the nightstand 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 nightstand. Someone must have dropped them off 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 hands 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 gray linoleum floor, permanently stained a sickly yellow color from years of use and abuse. Who had been here before him, and for how long? When he was in this room, away from the phones and TVs and technology of the main ward, he could almost imagine he was lost in time, stuck in some Victorian Era insane asylum. He shuddered, glad that was not the case.
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, and his problem had become what they called manageable. Not everyone here was so lucky.
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 for good measure. 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 started to turn 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… magical things. Like you, when you’re dreaming. I’ve seen you—”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Liar, an insistent voice in his mind said.
“It’s called Lord Baron’s Institute for Misfits.” The nurse 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. His sister—”
“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.