Lily’s first instinct was to run. She grabbed Mina’s hand – it did not feel as strange to touch the other woman the second time – and tried to pull her into motion. The wall of fog was no more than half a mile away; if they lost themselves in the mist they might escape.
But Mina dug in her heels and brought Lily up short. “Hello, kitty.”
Lily felt like the mist was rising in her mind; but Mina’s meaning – if not her words – started to become clear.
“They’re like cats? They’ll kill us if we run?”
Mina nodded slowly.
The line of horrors surged closer. Lily squeezed Mina’s hand more tightly, and battled the urge to bolt. One of Mina’s earlier comments came back to her. “‘If you avoid what you deserve’ – they’re coming for us because I helped you out of the nightmare, aren’t they?”
“There was a farmer had a dog...,” Mina said.
“...and Bingo was its name-o,” finished Lily.
The noise from the creatures was resolving into overlapping sounds: sirens; the crackle of flame; the hiss of a rebreather. Barked commands and panicked shouts. Over it all, an endless wailing.
Mina simply waited with a resigned expression on her face. Soon they were surrounded by a ring of claws and teeth, tentacles and spikes. The sound became tangible; Lily could feel the heat on her face, see the burning ceiling overhead, taste the processed air from the oxygen tank.
She was becoming lost in the illusion. At any moment her hair and clothes would catch fire, and she would go up like a torch.
Just as she thought she would explode, Lily felt Mina tugging at her. Her whisper filtered into Lily’s mind. “It’s okay, sweetie. I’ve got you now.”
They moved. Lily clung to the lifeline of Mina’s hand. Beyond the illusory fire, she saw a narrow gap in the ring of monsters. Mina forced Lily to slow her pace to a few inches per step. The creatures seemed not to be able to sense them as they edged across the grass.
They passed between a cyborg with too many heads and something that seemed to be mostly tongue; Lily brushed against the latter, and held her breath as it twitched and curled.
And then they were through. The monsters were gone, vanished, and they once again stood in the open meadow.
“What happened to them? Who are you?” said Lily, half-aware that the words she was saying were different from the ones that were coming out of her mouth.
The other woman responded, and what Lily heard was a string of nonsense. But what Lily understood was: “I’ll show you.”
Mina turned and walked briskly toward the wall of mist.
* * *
I didn’t want to see these things, but I had been in the dream world long enough to understand that looking away wouldn’t do me any good. Just for confirmation, I looked over my shoulder, and wasn’t surprised to find that the maze behind me was now a straight path back to the tower – and the dragon. I had learned from Lily that you had to face your memories, or they’d continue to have power over you.
That didn’t help when I saw the image of my sister on the floor, bruised and crying. My heart clenched, as I remembered how angry and scared I was when I saw her like that, when I realized that she couldn’t take care of us. She had fought for us to stay together; I had thought she could do anything. It had taken me years to forgive her for being human, and by then she was lost in her own maze.
Another turn, and I was at a dead end. Looking back, I found that I was boxed in; a wall had appeared behind me. Hanging on each wall was the painting that I had been working on in my studio, the planes of blue and yellow intersected by a red angle, the abstract that I had been avoiding calling “East 54th.” My pulse started to pound, and I had no idea why.
Then the paintings started to shift. The planes of blue and yellow began to take on the texture of cloth, and the red angle a liquid sheen. The effect was like the image captured by a video camera that was zoomed in too close to focus, slowly pulling back. Further back, and the cloth became a dress, the red angle a carving knife, dripping with blood. I looked away, but the image was all around me.
Further back. My mother in the dress, holding the knife.
Further back. My father crumpling away from her onto the kitchen tile, one hand flailing, the other pressed over the wound in his chest.
I pressed my eyes shut, but the walled-off memory came crashing through in my mind. The worst fight that my parents had ever had, so frightening that I decided to watch because I was afraid what would happen if I didn’t. Arriving just in time to see my mother stab my father in the kitchen of our old apartment. My mother wandering off, still carrying the knife, while I ran and hid in a closet. Listening to the sound of running water. Betsy coming home later and screaming when she found our mother’s body in the bathtub.
Other fragments came back. The police taking me away, making soothing gestures and saying words I couldn’t hear. Talking with state psychiatrists who left with worried frowns. Someone telling Betsy that I needed special care, and her having a screaming fit about us being separated.
I crouched in a ball, clasping my knees as tears forced their way out from between my eyelids.
* * *
She had no form, and neither did Mina, but Lily knew that her friend was next to her. The nothingness of the mists resolved before them to show an apartment building on fire. Mina, in full bunker gear, moved through the smoke of a hallway. Another firefighter paced her a few steps behind.
Her radio crackled to life. “Willie, Ray, watch your asses. The structure’s fully involved. The chief’s pulled everyone out of the fourth floor and up.”
Mina thumbed her talk switch. “Damned firetrap. Hope they string up the owner. We’re on three now. Just two more doors to check.”
The next apartment was empty, but they heard faint wailing from behind the last door. Mina shared a look of alarm with her partner.
“We’ve got one up here,” Ray called in. “Sounds like a child.”
The reply was instant. “Get in and get out.”
They checked the door, and broke it down. Ray checked the rooms nearest the door while Mina moved straight toward the back, calling out for the kid.
Suddenly, the building shook, and she tumbled to the carpet. With a roar, the ceiling came down in front of her. Burning debris from the upper stories punched an eight-foot-wide hole in the floor. She’d only narrowly avoided being killed.
“Willie!” Ray shouted, running towards her. He helped her to her feet.
“I’m all right...I’m all right,” she said.
“Chief’s pulling us all out, right now. The sixth floor just collapsed. Come on.”
Something moved on the far side of the fiery gap. A young boy in pajamas.
“Oh, god no,” Mina said. “Ray, help me get to him.”
Ray shook his head. “No way across that. I’ll call for a ladder, best we can do.” He pulled at her arm as he called in.
“There isn’t time. The building’s coming down. I can get to him.”
The building shook again, and Ray shoved her toward the door, one hand on his axe. “Move, Willie, or so help me I’ll clock you and carry you out myself. That’s an order.” With a last agonizing glance at the boy, she turned away, and they ran for the stairs.
The building shifted sickeningly as they reached the ground floor. Ray pelted across the lobby; Mina lagged behind, and stopped.
“Ray, I’m going back,” she shouted, ignoring his reply, and the shouts on her radio.
She was halfway up the stairs to the third floor when they collapsed underneath her.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 14.5]