FICTION (May 2018)
The Other Side by Tim Jeffreys
She hadn’t meant to fall asleep. But when she woke Emil was gone. There was nothing unusual in this; he often let himself out when he saw that the fun was over. She didn’t even need to be asleep, sometimes all she had to do was nip out to the toilet or sneak downstairs for a glass of water or something to eat and she’d return to find her bedroom window wide open and Emil nowhere in sight. And she’d wonder what she’d done, what unconscious cue she’d given for him to decide it was time to skedaddle. It annoyed her sometimes, this sudden disappearing act. But she had come to accept that this was just his way. Probably, he thought it was charming.
With a bird, you’ve got to keep her on her toes, keep her guessing.
Becca had heard Emil saying that to his friends in the schoolyard one day. And she’d thought: Idiot. Back then, she’d still thought he and Lauren Kear were an item, but she was soon to find out that the two had split and Emil had set his sights on her. At the time she hadn’t even liked him. Sure he was good-looking, but he fancied himself too much, and all her friends reckoned he was trouble.
She sat up, still feeling giddy from the cider. The one litre bottle stood upturned in the wastebasket on the other side of the room. Just seeing it made Becca feel sick. Had they drunk the whole thing? There was a sour taste in her mouth, and she looked around the room to see if she’d left a glass of water somewhere. Nothing. As she climbed off the bed, she noticed something odd. The Disney Princess curtains – God, she had to get her mum to change those! – were still drawn over her bedroom window. Emil usually left the curtains open when he climbed out; the window too – so what was this? Had he come over all considerate or was he still here somewhere? She knew he wouldn’t risk going downstairs and trying to use the front door in case he ran into her dad.
It was then that she became aware of the tapping sound, and in one dizzying moment in which her stomach lurched and a chill passed through her body it all came back to her. What she and Emil had been doing that evening. The cider. The website. But surely it hadn’t worked? It couldn’t have worked, could it?
She remembered the sense of dread she’d felt when Emil had finally managed to open the webpage, and she saw the black screen with the word ENTER written across it in white lettering that jittered and flickered. It was similar to the feeling she’d had the time Emil had dared her to run in through the door of that knocking shop on Oldmarket, the one with the blacked-out windows and the signed saying MASSAGE PARLOUR. Though she’d approached the entrance, she hadn’t been able to follow through on the dare – that sense of passing into some lawless new realm had been too overwhelming. There was a sense too that all she’d find on the other side of the door was something terribly mundane; a shopfront where bored women sat around smoking cigarettes with their eyeliner smeared as they waited for the next customer. It was the same with the webpage, that fearful promise and the expectation of disappointment which was somehow worse.
Her nerves settled as she realised the tapping was probably Emil playing a joke on her. He’d be here somewhere, hiding, trying to pretend that the website thing had worked. Most likely, she thought, he was in the wardrobe but when she opened it she found only her clothes. He wasn’t under her bed either. She stood in the middle of the room, trying to pinpoint the source of the tapping noise, but she couldn’t decide where it was coming from. It seemed to be everywhere at once. And, she realised, there were scratches interspersed with the taps. Tap, tap, tap. Scratch. Tap, Tap. Scratch. Tap, tap, tap. Hadn’t the website said they had to choose a way to communicate? She remembered now. Emil had said, “You know Morse code, right?”
“What makes you think I know Morse code?”
“Come on. I know you were in the Brownies. Don’t tell me you weren’t in the Brownies.”
“They don’t teach you Morse code in the Brownies. I learnt it myself when I was nine or so. Me and my brother used to tap on the wall to each other at night. Drove the old man nuts.”
This had been a lie. She in fact had learnt Morse code in the Brownies. She still had the bracelet on which she’d spelt her name using dry pasta for dashes and coloured beads for dots, but she wasn’t about to tell Emil that. Not when he was still laughing about her Disney Princess curtains.
“So you do know it?”
“Couldn’t we just text each other?”
“I don’t think mobile signals reach as far as other dimensions, Bec.”
“Is that what it is? Another dimension?”
“An alternate reality. Texting won’t work there.”
“And Morse code will?”
“The site says…” He picked up the laptop and began reading from the screen. “…the building in which the portal is opened will be replicated in the alternate reality, and the two buildings will remain connected at the point of one wall. The wall on which the symbol is drawn.” He nodded at the space above her bed where he’d spray painted the symbol from the website next to her Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster (he’d also given Audrey Hepburn a goatee and glasses). The symbol was a horizontal line with three vertical lines above it, the middle line being shorter. It reminded Becca of an upturned plug. Emil had sprayed it on the wall without asking whilst she was out of the room, which annoyed her a little as she knew her mum would ask about it. She’d planned on moving the Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster over to the left to cover it. “That means,” Emil continued, “we can still communicate but we have to choose a method.”
“Becca, do you know Morse code or not?”
“Come on, this is just stupid. Alternate realities? You’ve ruined my wallpaper for nothing. You know that, right?”
Emil grabbed a rolled up poster from beside the bed and putting one end by her ear shouted into it, “Rebecca Chorley. Do. You. Know. Morse. Code?”
“’Course. Christ. Trying to deafen me?”
Now, frantically, she searched through the clutter on her desk until she found a pen and a piece of paper blank on one side. Listening intently, she began to write down the sequence of taps and scratches at the same time pushing away her muddied thoughts and trying to remember the code she’d learnt when she was younger.
Four taps. H.
One tap. E.
Tap, scratch, tap. What was that? T. No—R.
She listened again, writing the letters down on the paper as they came to her. It was not HERE he was saying, but THERE. She’d begun writing in the middle of his message. R U THERE?
“Shit,” she said. “Shit, shit, shit.”
There was still a chance he was playing a trick on her; she just had to work out how he was doing it. She remembered how he’d come over that evening with his face all lit up, talking about some site he’d been told about on the dark web, whatever that was. He always had some weird thing to get enthused about. The previous week he’d wanted them to try some new form of ecstasy he’d heard about that made you hallucinate that you were being chased by demons. Becca hadn’t liked the sound of that – she’d never even tried ecstasy, or any drug for that matter, her parents wouldn’t even let her eat the blue M&Ms because they were supposed to make you hyperactive – and had managed to talk him out of it, but only because he didn’t know where to get it from. He’d arrived today with the bottle of White Lightning and a whole list of passwords that he said would get them access to this site on the dark web. He claimed the site had instructions on how to open a portal into an alternate reality. Becca had thought that was hilarious until she’d seen how serious he was.
Climbing onto her bed, she tapped out a message of her own on the wall. WHERE R U. After she’d tapped it out a few times there was silence. She waited, her heart hammering. She could hear the blood pumping though her body.
Then came: Tap, tap, scratch. U. Three scratches. O. Tap, scratch, tap. K.
She shook her head then tapped out: STOP PLAYING GAMES IDIOT.
His reply came: NO GAMES. REAL. Then again: U OK?
Me? she thought. Why’s he asking if I’m OK? He was the idiot who’d gone and got himself stuck in another dimension. Or at least that’s what he wanted her to think.
Deciding it was all some ploy, she dropped down onto the bed and decided to remain there until he got bored and showed himself. Maybe then they could spend some time necking, which was all she’d really wanted to do that evening even though it was getting increasingly difficult to fend off Emil’s wandering hands.
Apparently, he’d let it be known that he and Lauren Kear had done the deed and now everyone at school called Lauren a slut behind her back. Becca didn’t want that to happen to her. Josie, her one-time best friend, used to screw up her face whenever Emil’s name was mentioned.
You’re not still seeing that loser, are you? Josie said once. I don’t know what you see in that dickhead. He’s bad news. He’ll drag you down. He’s going to get you into some real shit some day, Becca. Look at what he did to Lauren.
The tapping on the wall continued.
“Loser,” Becca said aloud, and laughed to herself.
She knew that some of what Josie had said was true. She’d thought Emil was bad news too, before she’d got involved with him. Now her teachers were concerned about her grades, and there’d been a couple of occasions when her parents had discovered alcohol in her room. Mr. Flenley, her form teacher, had even taken her aside one day and told her he was worried about her. I’m concerned you might be on a slippery slope, Rebecca, he’d said. I think you might have got in with a bad crowd.
God – embarrassing?
Her parents weren’t happy either. They didn’t like her associating with someone from ‘the other side of the tracks’ as they put it, only it wasn’t a railway line that split this part of the city it was a motorway ring road. On one side of the ring road you had suburban middle-class areas like Lansdown Heath and Hillton – where Becca lived. Quiet, tree-lines streets where nothing ever happened; where you didn’t meet a single soul after 8pm. Rows and rows of detached houses with neat gardens and driveways out front. On the opposite side of the ring road it was a different story. The streets were busy at all times of the day and night. Stalls and shopfronts jutted out into the street. There was graffiti everywhere, and rubbish stacked at the mouths of alleys. A diverse mix of people lived there. And it was here that Emil lived with his mum and baby brother, in a maisonette on a row of terraced houses, above a ground floor flat which he claimed was a crack den. Becca found it thrilling, crossing the bridge over the ring road into Emil’s part of the city, even though her parent’s told her she was never to go there. The streets on that side of the city seemed so much more alive compared to dead-dull Hillton.
No one could stop Becca from seeing Emil. After her initial dislike, she’d found herself falling for him hard. What no-one understood was that when you got to know Emil he had an odd kind of magnetism. There was another side to him most people never saw. Being around him was always exciting, but he had a sweet side too. He wasn’t like the other boys in school. He seemed smarter, worldlier. He was funny and quirky. He made you feel special because he’d chosen you.
Their relationship had hit a bump after a party at Josie’s house where Becca had got drunk and snogged Ryan Draper, a boy from the year above who Beeca once had a huge crush on. But Emil took the news surprisingly well when he found out.
It was just a kiss, right?
Yeah. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I reckon Josie set the whole thing up. Reckon she wants to drive a wedge between us. She’s probably just jealous.
What a skank.
The next thing Becca knew Ryan Draper was going around school telling everyone that he and Becca had had sex on Josie’s parents’ bed. Becca was furious and she knew that Emil would be too considering how many times she’d pushed his hands away and told him she wasn’t ready to go there yet. The truth was she was scared, and no matter how hazy things had got that night at the party she knew for certain that she and Ryan Draper hadn’t done anything other than kiss.
Things had been rocky between herself and Emil for a little while after that, and no matter how much Becca pleaded with him that she was telling the truth, he didn’t come around again until after he and some of his friends beat up Ryan Draper one day on the playing fields.
Becca never spoke to Josie again. She was on the look out for a new best friend. One who wasn’t a jealous skank.
That night at the party had been a one-off. She wouldn’t ever be making a mistake like that again.
Emil was still tapping and scratching away at the wall. Idly, she reached out her hand and tapped a message back.
There was a moment of silence, and Becca thought that perhaps he’d decided to quit this game and show himself. She was still intrigued as to where he was hiding. When the tapping started again, she sighed, realising she’d left the pen across the room on her desk. Huffing, she hauled herself up of the bed, grabbed up the pen and paper then went back and fell across her mattress again. As she deciphered Emil’s message, she read the words out loud in a weary tone.
“Your. Window. Look. Out. Your. Window.”
So that was it. He was outside the window, probably balanced on the ledge or something crazy like that, all to play this silly trick on her. That explained why the curtains were closed. Tutting and shaking her head, she got up of the bed again and crossed to the window. People said Emil had a screw loose and she was beginning to think they might be right.
“Idiot,” she said. She threw the curtains wide.
A bright chalky light filled the room. Becca had to look away; she hadn’t expected it to be so bright outside. When she looked out of the window again, her mouth fell open and she stared. For a few seconds she watched, dumbstruck, the things that passed along the ground outside. Seeing one of them turn its head – was that its head? – towards her window she let out a little scream and yanked the curtains closed again.
She stood for a moment, gasping at the air, trying to hold on to her senses. Her body shook.
That world out there, that wasn’t the world she knew. And those things she seen, those creatures, they didn’t belong to her world. They didn’t belong anywhere, except in a nightmare.
What had he done?
What had Emil done?
The website thing. It worked.
Only it wasn’t him that had gone into an alternate reality it was her.
No, she thought, drawing deep breaths to try and calm herself. No, I’ll wake up in a minute. It’s a dream. I’ll wake up.
NO GAMES. REAL. U OK?
“Oh God. Oh—”
Climbing onto the bed, she pressed herself against the wall and began tapping on it. In her panicked state, she found she couldn’t remember the code. Closing her eyes, she tried to focus on creating the letters in Morse code but all she could see in her mind’s eye was that thing outside the window, that thing as it slowly turned as if it were focusing in on her.
GET ME BACK, she tapped out on the wall. GET ME BACK. BAD HERE.
His reply seemed a long time coming. When it did she grabbed up the pen and paper and with trembling hands began to write out his message.
PLEASE. She tapped out. GET ME BACK. PLEASE. PLEASE.
SLAG. THAT’S FOR SHAGGING RYAN DRAPER.
“Emil!” she slammed her fists against the wall. “Get me back! Get me back!”
There was a wrenching sound behind her and she turned in time to see the opposite wall of her bedroom crumbling away, letting that chalky white light spew into the room. She began to scream. It was Josie’s voice she heard in her head as she looked out on her new reality.
He’s going to get you into some real shit some day, Becca.
Some real shit?
Her eyes bulged.
Look at this.