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. 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 all that he could remember from the dream.
Deep darkness. Angular growths jutting from every surface, like crystals he had seen sold in corner shops—but tainted. The feeling of eyes stalking him as he ran. His hand shook as he wrote, his letters jagged and rough.
The dream journal was the only thing he hadn’t resisted when they had pressed him to use one.
“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.”
The first few tries, he only managed a sentence or 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. The doctors had tried to use them to analyze his deepest fears, desires, dreams. To try and trigger lost memories. But what if the dreams were the memories? He’d kept that particular question to himself.
The sweat dried while he wrote, forcing his brain to recount every detail he could. When he was finished, the rush of adrenaline had also worn off. It felt like he had run a marathon, not just woken up.
Zahal thumbed back a few pages to a sketch from another night. The drawing was crude—he wasn’t an artist by any means—but they unmistakably depicted a hand. Not quite a human hand: the nails were black and talon-like, and rather than being a separate component from the skin, they seemed to be one and the same. It was reaching for him from the darkness, though to offer help or to harm, he wasn’t sure.
A sharp rap sounded on the door. Time up. He wouldn’t be sad to leave this place, but he had nowhere else to go. He certainly wasn’t going to go back to the home now that he didn’t have to. He’d rather be on his own.
“I’m up!” he shouted. He imagined rather than heard a grunt of acknowledgement as the orderly walked off. A glance at the clock told him he had ten minutes until check-out.
He closed the book with a sigh and turned his attention to the set of clothes on his night stand.
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 arrived, if slightly better for the wear. Like him, the clothes had been cleaned and sterilized, but the stains from the grass and dirt and blood 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 safely in his jacket breast pocket, running his hand over its solid presence absently. Would it ever 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, stained permanently yellow from years of abuse.
He did not feel sad to go, but 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. 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 the appropriate times, signed his name on some papers, and then they told him he could go home.
Well, he could go, anyway.
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 out at him hungrily.
Some of the smaller creatures—he has no other word for them, like so many other things here—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 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: the way out. A single dot of light glowing like a beacon in a storm-enraged sea. He is drawn to it like a moth to flame, no longer in need of guide strings to keep him on track. He can feel something behind him, a hunter stalking its prey. He is so close now. He tries to move faster, but twists of the darkest dark tug at his shoes insistently. Just an arm’s length now. But then—
She put her hand on his shoulder just before he reached the door.
“Zahal, wait,” she said.
How does she know my name? He gasped and whirled around defensively, throwing her hand from his shoulder.
“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. Briefly, he felt guilty that he had not bothered to learn her name. But it was better this way. There was no sense caring about someone who wouldn’t care about you.
A long moment stretched out before he realized she was waiting for him to answer. “F-fine,” he managed after he got his breathing under control. She lifted an eyebrow in response, but didn’t press further. She knew him well, he realized.
“Here,” she said, pressing a piece of paper into his hands, her icy fingers briefly brushing against his. This place never seemed to be warm enough for blood to reach the extremities.
He glanced down at the piece of paper: an address written in her neat script. He looked back up at her, his eyes questioning.
“Should I know where this is?”
“It’s a place I’ve heard of,” she said, glancing around furtively. And, though no one else was around, she lowered her voice to nearly a whisper. “For people like you, Zahal.”
“What do you mean, ‘people like me’?” he asked, his stomach dropping. If she thought he needed more of the same…
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—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,” he said, his voice cold. “Any system. All this—” he motioned around the hallway, its fake cheerfulness turning his stomach, “—is a lie. It’s never helped me. I’ll be 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 a community. There are some things people here choose not to understand. Just think about it, okay?” She nodded at the paper in his hand.
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.