Until the age of twelve, Katherine Rosemary Ryan (Katy-Rose to those not studying her birth certificate or passport) always obeyed her mother. To a point. That meant no speaking to strangers (especially ones with cars), no eating anything in dayglo colours, even if the box says you can do so, and no going outside of the town without an adult.
Until the age of twelve, Katy-Rose Ryan lived in the third house of a street long terrace, placed on a road which led, if you walked far enough along it, up into the hills where the old quarries were.
And until the age of twelve, Katy-Rose considered herself a reasonably sensible person.
Then she met Connie.
It was all her fault really.
Connie was the one who had wanted to see the quarries, Connie was the one who had noticed the small caves peppering the long, rock cliffs – natures long-suffered scars – and it was Connie who had called Katy-Rose chicken.
Nobody ever did that.
'You calling me chicken?' Katy-Rose had squawked.
Connie had clucked in reply.
'Girl, you do not call me chicken!' Katy-Rose had said, hands on hips, tongue curled behind her teeth, as she fixed the other girl with a challenging stare.
'If you don't want to be called a chicken, don't be one.' Connie had giggled, one long, bitten-nailed finger pointing into the tall, rocky slit. From where they stood, they could just see that the blackness opened up from a narrow corridor into an edgeless void. It was something that Connie had found wonderfully exciting, but had made Katy-Rose's insides flip into a little knot of nervousness – not that she'd ever admit that. It was established that Connie was not able to go in at all – she was afraid of the dark to the point of hysteria and fainting fits – something which really does not mix well with going into unlit, unknown caverns of water and stone. However, although mortally, uncontrollably phobic, flirting with this fear was something Connie was never able to resist, even if it was just to hover, grinning from ear to ear and shivering with nervous energy, on the border between the light and the dark.
She would take that flirtation one step further through Katy-Rose, sending her friend in to explore the places she could not go, and to experience the sensations she could never stay conscious for.
So Katy-Rose slipped into the darkness, skidded over the slick stones, growing from dirt and grit at the entrance to large, sloping slabs, riddled with treacherous levels and cracks. She answered Connie's questions in a constant commentary – how the big, bowled shape of the cave slowly formed in the gloom as her eyes adapted to the dark; how cold it felt, not just the slick, curving side of rock she brushed her fingertips along as she walked – a pointless precaution against stumbling and falling – but the very air she moved and breathed in. It was icy cold – not so much like the air of winter, but something fresher. Something rarer.
'What do you mean, rarer?' Connie had said, and by the tone of her voice Katy-Rose just knew that she was stood there, peering gingerly into the cave with lowered brows and a wrinkled nose.
'Just different, I guess.' Katy-Rose said, as she continued her exploratory steps, flinching under surprise drips of cool water, and breathing in the icy air. 'It's like it's coming from somewhere else.'
'Like where?' Connie had continued in the same tone of confusion and scepticism. Katy-Rose did not answer, as she had realised at that point that she had come to a cave within a cave. In front of her was the dip of the ceiling, diving down to make a wall that was not quite fully-formed, as at the bottom was a semi-circle of true pitch-black – darkness within darkness. Undoubtedly, had she wished to do so, Katy-Rose could have squirmed her way into this inner-cave with little effort, but while she was no chicken, she was certainly not an idiot.
'Have you found a gateway to another world down there, Katy-Rose?' Connie had called out mockingly, her voice echoing around the big black space to become huge, yet thin at the same time. She'd then wailed in a most disturbing way, a mimic of a ghost or wraith that, while meant in fun, had caused every single hair along Katy-Rose's neck to tingle to attention, and a small shudder run about her torso.
'Don't be stupid.' Katy-Rose had called back, slowly, blindly turning.
She guesses that something must have happened then. Exactly what she doesn't remember. There was no sensation of falling, no complications of co-ordination, nothing unusual at all. It had been a neat and simple turn of a hundred and eighty degrees, going from looking down at the obscene blackness of the cave within a cave, to looking up at the thin strip of white squeezing in from the gap of an entrance. She thought nothing of the fact that she saw no silhouette of Connie, or heard anymore of her questions or friendly teasing.
Going up was harder than she had reckoned it to be – a slope in the dark is a deceptive one – and squeezing out had been a great deal more stressful than squeezing in had been – but neither had been quite as stressful as emerging into daylight to realise that you are completely alone, and recognise absolutely nothing of your surroundings.
'Connie?' was the first thing she said, staring around desperately for a glimpse of her friends fair hair amongst the folds of hills and stones that were not in any way familiar. At this point, nothing quite registered properly – the complete change of scenery was numbed away by a denial that was almost physical, like failing to feel that the door catch you lightly 'caught' your arm on actually deprived you of a decent chunk of skin, and all that lies immediately beneath it. Like in those times, you feel nothing but a slight, irritating sting right up until you notice the rush of blood streaming across your wrist and hand, until Katy-Rose saw proof as visceral and real that she was somewhere else entirely, all she could feel was a dizzy discomfort that something was probably quite wrong. Although her eyes were staring, they were not quite yet seeing what was really there.
Several times she called her friends name, each time rising in volume, pitch and tone, until her voice was a tear-filled scream.
'Connie? Connie? Connie!'
She looked for her house, turning to face the way her daddy always turned her to on their walks, to look down into the coloured dots of brown, grey and white, before pointing at one long little line of assorted colour and saying:
'That's our house there, see?'
From where she stood, no matter which way she turned, all she saw was trees and green. No coloured dots at all.
A child less sensible would probably have cried at this point – not as in the gooey tears that prickled behind Katy-Rose's eyes, making her nose run and her chin tremble – but as in flopped down onto the floor and wept with all the panic and abandon they could muster. But instead of this, Katy-Rose did what she considered the best sensible thing:
She went back into the cave.