Connecting

Chapter One

Horror films have always been popular. I, for one, love them. Despite what the shrinks might think, it's not for the gore and guts and dying – on the contrary, fake blood and garden-variety screams distinctly fail to excite me. To my mind, the most unpleasant part of a horror film is watching the characters - people you get to know and like - perish. Not that you get to know them well or anything. I guess character development doesn't really figure very high on a director's set list. But still, I bleed for them. Figuratively. Since coming here, I've learned to be very careful with my choice of words.

"So why this fixation with horror movies, Justin?"

I sighed in response, feigning unwillingness. I am not a whore, to be bought at the blink of an eye and violated freely. Most of the people here end up selling themselves to the shrinks. I'd rather stay inside. They would always persevere, making me 'open up'. It's their job, after all, to climb around in people's heads and pull out all the worms and skeletons they can find there.

"I don't really know. I think it's the danger – the risk of it all – but also, kinda testing yourself, putting yourself in the hero's place, asking yourself – if you were them, would you win? Would you survive?" I shifted in my chair, leaning back comfortably against the coarse material. "Would your courage prove the greater against all the fears and demons of the underworld?"

No-one could ever accuse me of giving short answers. I paused slightly, for effect, then, as I had nothing else better to do than sit in this leafy green room full of pot plants and fake sympathy, went on.

"But also, perhaps it's that secret hope – the desire for something like that to happen to you. That a psycho will come after you. That an ancient curse will take over your life. That you'll end up running and shrieking, swinging an axe and battling zombies and ghouls."

Raymond shifted slightly in his seat, pen raised and at the ready. Ray, they called him. Late thirties, tops. Graying hair and a surgical kind of face. I hope to God you know the kind of guy I mean. Never a hair out of place. The idea of him in jeans and a sweatshirt was positively bizarre.

I whiled away many of my sleepless hours imagining him, his life. I know that sounds weird, but freedom was precious in this place, even coming second hand. I imaged him coming home to the wife I knew only from his wedding band. I saw him picking up his little girl from school, his daughter – or so he thought. In reality she was the by-product of a ten-minute drunken fumbling between his wife and his best friend. I pictured him, waving goodbye to his wife – the excused, the reasons, the explanations – the wedding ring laid on his desk, clothes strewn around his office – or maybe a strip club. Yeah, he seemed like that kind of guy. Never trust a guy called Raymond. His wife, oblivious, like him, oblivious...

So they would continue, together but apart, in their separate worlds of paranoia and deceit – until routine would make them stupid and one or both would slip. Then there would be tears, hysterics, accusations, melodrama – a courtroom, a little girl, too young to understand what they wanted from her, being asked which parent she wanted to live with...

"And do you want that to happen?"

Of course I didn't want that to happen. But that was what happened to guys like Ray. I felt sorry for the kid, though.

"Do you want to end up battling an ancient curse? Or some evil creature to try to kill you? Like in the movies?" he prompted.

"No. But I'd like to defeat it."

"Ah." He made a note on the white clipboard. Never trust a guy called Raymond, especially if he's got a clipboard.

I could practically see the worlds in front of my eyes. 'Likes the thought of violence and danger. Must feel self the winner – poss. Insecurity complex? Must look into that.'

I could have told him it'd be a waste of time. He wouldn't listen, though. They always think they know better than us. I guess it just makes them feel good about themselves – helping out some poor messed-up teenager.

It would be so easy. Just to spin them a tale about some irrelevant crap and watch them fall over each other in their haste to swallow it. I could leave in as little as a week.

But I won't do that. I won't lie.

So I don't do anything. I just sit there watching him write on his clipboard. I fidgeted with my hair, pushing it back off my forehead. It was messy and too-long – mom would have hated it.

A bell rang somewhere, startling us both. Ray put his pen down on the desk and surveyed me briefly. "Good job. How're the symptoms?"

"Stopped puking last week." I said cheerfully. "I told you it wasn't the drugs. That's not the issue here."

He frowned. "You need to get thoroughly rehabilitated before you go back outside, James. You know that."

I sighed. "No, you don't understand – it's not that."

"Then what is it?" We had run out of time, but he was curious. I wondered what they paid him. Not enough, evidently.

"I don't know."

He frowned. "Alright. We'll discuss this more tomorrow. If you see Alex on your travels, tell him it's not acceptable to miss therapy three days in a row. I've got another group right now, but send him along after five, will you?"

This was like grade school all over again. Teacher's pet. Why did they think that I was reliable just because I would talk to them? "Okay."

Leaving the office, I found myself watched by a large group of teenage girls. They lounged around on the green chairs of the waiting room, chewing gum and staring at me with hostile eyes. Some were around my age – others were significantly younger. The ones wearing short sleeves marked them out at what they were – cutters.

It wasn't in my nature to feel sorry for anyone. But at that moment, I pitied Raymond.

Shaking my head slightly, I set off along the hall. Something smelled really bad in the direction of the dining hall – I passed it over thankfully. Gaining the stairs, I leaped up them two at a time. My body, previously so sluggish and unresponsive, was starting to obey commands again. I wondered how I must look to outsiders. Still too thin, with a messy shock of blond hair that brushed the collar of my shirt. The sores along my mouth were disappearing, I was gaining weight – but still. I doubted very much I looked fully back to normal yet.

Pushing open the door to our corridor, I looked around in shock. Five kids were sprawled on the middle of the floor, throwing confetti at each other. I shook my head in bewilderment. Where did they get that?

As a warden hurried over to disperse the fun, I moved away into the shadows of my room. Aden was already there, sprawled on his bed with a graphic novel over his stomach. Not a comic book, a graphic novel. I had to be very careful just what I said about art around Aden.

"How was therapy?"

I stared at him, then started to laugh. "Dude, you know what it's like. He tried to get me to talk about high school today."

Aden rolled over on his side, frowning at me. "High school? What about it?"

I shrugged. "Who knows? You know what Raymond's like. He's no-way near as direct as old Gabby. I guess he's just pleased to get anything out of most of us."

Aden snorted. "Figures." Rolling back on the bed, he picked up his book again. "What'd you tell him?"

"That I spent senior year so stoned I failed three classes."

He laughed.

"He wanted to know what I did in my spare time."

"What, apart from the obvious?"

"Yeah. I guess he's trying to prepare me for the Great Outside World – you know, stuff to do in case we ever feel tempted to go back to our wicked, wicked ways."

Aden rolled his eyes. "Well, at least they're talking about getting you out. I'll be lucky if I get let home for Christmas."

I snorted. "Yeah, they seem to like me, for some reason. I honestly don't know why. I told him I wanted to battle an ancient zombie and he didn't even bat an eyelid."

Aden let his comic drop to the floor as he stared at me in surprise. "An ancient zombie?? Really?? Me too!! That's so cool!"

See, this is the problem with Aden. He's really a decent guy – all in all, I could have a far worse roommate. He's not like the other dicks on our ward, which is great, but...sometimes he's just a little weird. And this is coming from the guy who regularly used to run away from giant strawberries.

"Yeah. I guess it is." I said, not really knowing what else to say.

"Man, I'd love to battle an ancient zombie! Can you imagine cutting off its head? WHAM-SPLAT- zombie's dead. Ah man, that would be so cool..."

I coughed hastily into my hand. "Yeah. Well, I guess I'm going to go take a shower."

"Okay." Aden, still immersed in zombie battles, absently picked up his novel and laid it out flat on the bed. "Maybe you'd have to use magic. Fire would be great, zombies don't like fire, do they? Or was that mummies?"

I hastily vacated the room.

Still laughing, I set off down the ward. I very nearly made it to the door, before a large hand grabbed my shoulder and a loud voice boomed:

"Justin! Just the guy I was hoping to see. Things're getting mighty boring around here with no-one to be my slave. I need my shoes shined, runt."

I didn't even bother turning around. "Go fuck yourself with a spoon, Andrew."

The hand tightened. "What'd you say, runt?"

I stood still for a second, staring at the double doors in front of me. Then I ran.

I was out of the ward and down a flight of steps before Andrew could turn around. Ignoring the stitch in my side, I sprinted into a neighboring ward, ignoring the scandalized looks from the inhabitants. Just another day in the life of me. I thought bitterly.

"This is a girls' ward!" one black-haired teen told me. Others were gaping at me, slowing my progress and blocking my way. I could hear Drew thundering down the steps upstairs.

"Sorry...sorry..." I mumbled as I shoved my way through the group.

"Get the hell out!"

"What are you doing here!?"

"You're a boy!"

"RUNT! YOU COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!"

"Oh, look, it's Amy Lee!" I yelled, waving my arm vaguely in the direction of the wall. Taking advantage of their momentary confusion, I pushed past them and started running.

Slamming into the doors at the end, I found myself in another corridor. The tiles were white and standard as throughout the Center. It seemed somehow darker, less bright and illuminated than the other wards. Pausing only to wheeze a few breaths out, I sprinted up the path to my left. Another ward.

This one appeared empty. Thanking my lucky stars, I sprinted into the nearest room and held my breath as I watched a large shape barrel past.

"RUNT! I know you're here! RUNT!"

I swallowed, my eyes glued to the tiny pane. Drew was advancing...then moving up, further along the ward.

"Mary, mother of God..." I sank down against the door, feeling my shirt sticking to me where the sweat had come through. "That was a close one."

The room appeared to be pitch black. Patiently, I waited for my eyes to adjust. I guessed I could just stay here until Drew forgot all about it and went off to bench press or something. That's the good thing about parasites – they have a short memory span.

As my breathing slowly grew less ragged, I scanned the room. Standard Center furnishings – a wardrobe, a bed, a desk. One person instead of two.

Strange, I thought.

That was when I saw the dark shape staring at me from on top of the desk.

"AHHHH!"

I must have yelled pretty loud, which I guess was kind of stupid. But you have NO idea how creepy she looked, sitting up there like that.

"What...what..." hastily I groped around for the light switch. My frantic left hand found it first. Suddenly the room was full of light, and I was blinking in the sudden brightness.

Abruptly the room had taken colour. The bedspread, wardrobe door and desk all shined at me, startling in their clarity.

"Who...who are you?" I guess I had forgotten I was trespassing. At that moment I felt as outraged as if some random girl had come wandering into MY room.

The girl was, definitely, very random.

Straggly red hair trailed down behind her back, looking like it hadn't been washed for days. Her eyes, a vivid black visible even from my distance, gazed steadily at me. She was sitting, motionless, on the desk top with her feet on the chair.

"I..." I opened my mouth, swallowed air, and closed it again. "I'm sorry for, um, the intrusion."

She didn't make any sign of having heard me.

"I was just...being chased. By this guy. Well, he's a jerk really. The biggest asshole on our ward. I'm really sorry for just barging in here, but I thought the room was empty. I'm really sorry."

She just stared at me.

"I'll...I'll go now." The girl's long silence was starting to unnerve me. There was something creepy about the way she just sat there, watching. Tripping backwards over my own feet, I stumbled out into the corridor. Concentrating on getting the door shut properly, I failed to hear the triumphant grunt from my other side until it was too late.

"So THERE you are, runt!"

Suddenly petrified, I looked at him. Then I ran.

This time, Drew moved pretty fast. I guess he was expecting it – in any rate, he pounced on me and knocked me to the floor pretty easily.

"Aw, crap." I complained. "Can't you go bother someone else?"

He didn't deign to answer. Stomping on my back, he dragged me to my feet. "Now, runt. You made me look pretty stupid back there. That was a dumb thing to do. You wanna know why?"

"No." I said sullenly, massaging my jaw. My eyes scanned the corridor. One door, far away, to my right – a red, wooden door with flaky paint.

"Too bad. You're gonna regret that, runt. Now go do your chores!"

My so-called 'chores' largely consisted of humiliating or pointless tasks that Drew and his bunch of cronies dreamed up for me to do.

"Sure." I limped a few paces, Drew hurrying after me. My left leg had buckled when I went down and could barely carry my weight. Shit.

"You're going to be cleaning our shower today." Drew said happily. "With your toothbrush."

"What?! No way!"

Drew stopped dead. "What?"

"I, um..." drawing level to the door on my right, I threw myself at it. It gave way with a splintery, crunching kind of noise. As I toppled through the gaping hole, I dimly realized it had been locked.

Then I saw why.

"AHHHHHHHHHH!" for the second time that day, I screamed. As I fell down several flights of steps, my body making an odd crunching noise with each impact, I vaguely thought of flying.

I landed in a confused heap at the bottom of the stairs, my nose buried in an inch of dust, every part of my body aching.

"Runt? RUNT!"

There was a series of hurried thumps as he hurried down towards me.

"Oh shit...!" he moaned, reaching me at last. "Runt!"

I moaned vaguely.

"Shit. Shit! Don't die, okay? You know I didn't push you through that door, right? I didn't push you!" I could hear his frantic breathing. "I'm going to go and get help. Stay here!"

If I could, I would have laughed. Where on earth was I going to go?

I listened to him climbing the stairs, taking them two at a time like I had before. These were different steps, though, metal and rusty. A fire escape?

Swallowing hard, I forced my body to move. As I sat up shakily, I became aware of a great deal of blood cascading from a shallow cut in my forehead. My fingers came away cold and clammy – there was muck and dust in my hair. Blood slowly trickled down, dripping just next to my right eye.

"Eurgh." That must have been what spooked Drew. I didn't even want to know what I must look like.

Shakily, I turned my head to look around. It hurt to move too fast, and walking seemed out of the question – my left foot was now hanging at an extremely disturbing angle in relation to the rest of the leg. I forgot all about this, however, when I realized just what I was looking at.

I was in a huge, underground tunnel. It was almost like the kind you see in movies – when the characters are always trying to infiltrate a building, and these handy tunnels just happen to be around to help them out. I had no idea they existed in real life.

The walls and ceiling were rough grey concrete, with a dirt floor underneath – no, not dirt, I realized. There were tiles underneath the dust – bigger and darker than the white ones upstairs. This place was seriously neat.

Wait till I get Aden down here! He'll freak!

There was a slow drip of water coming from somewhere, and a wonderfully creepy breath of wind fluttering against my cheek. I wondered where it was coming from. I wondered where the tunnels went. It was pitch darkness beyond the few yards of light cast by the broken door up above the steps.

The place was so goddamn spooky, it made my fingers tingle.

"Wow..."

I could see some trailing bits of plastic, flapping in the breeze. They appeared to be caught on a nail at the top of the tunnel.

Maybe this isn't just a sewer tunnel! I thought, barely allowing myself to think it. Maybe it actually goes somewhere!

My ankle throbbed. My face dripped.

I sat there in the dark, and waited for help to come.