Chapter 4: The Masked Man
"Florence, your breakfast is getting cold," her father said.
The light blared in bright through the windows. Florence blinked it out of her eyes. Her family was sat in their usual slots for breakfast. All eyes were on food; the only sound a collective chewing and the twins as they slurped and scoffed everything vaguely edible looking.
This was funny; since she was sure a second ago she'd been lying in her bed.
She peered up. The hole in the roof was gone. And there was no way her dad could have fixed it that fast. She got up very quickly, and hurried to scoop open the curtains. She stared out.
The electric pylons were still standing. The telegraph poles stood as sturdy as ever. The Bradbury's green waste bin looked unravaged.
Relief expanded like a warm balloon in her stomach. She hadn't really gotten into a fight, or gotten a week's detention. It had all been—"Just a dream," she sighed.
Her family were looking at her like she'd just thrown off all her clothes and was marching around naked. One of the twins stared at her with a half-chewed piece of toast poking out the side of his mouth.
She was too relieved to even feel embarrassed. She slipped back into her seat and took a long draught of her juice. "I had a really bizzare dream last night," she explained, leaning forward on her elbows with excitement. "It seemed so real. I've never had anything like it before. I dreamt that my dreams that night came to life."
A puzzled silence followed this statement, long enough for Florence to wonder if her parents actually had dreams at all.
Bang. Her mother slammed her coffee cup onto the table, hard enough that everyone jumped. "Dreams are not real, Florence," she said.
Florence wilted. "Yeah, I know that," she said flatly, looking at her sausages. "Like I said, it was just... just a dream," she tailed off, mumbling. The balloon that had expanded in her had deflated with a rude sound. She stabbed the sausage with her fork.
She didn't have detention anymore, but today would be exactly like tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and-
When Florence looked back up, her family had been replaced by seven pigs.
The big fat sow in her mother's seat crashed forward onto the table, digging its snout into the butter dish. Florence stood and backed away very slowly. She counted. There was a pig for every member of her family,down to the cute little piglet for Baby Brother. There was a huge smash, as her mother struggled up onto the table with kicking little legs and sent the crockery crashing to the ground. Little Brother snuffled round her at her feet, eating the overturned breakfast. It was strange, but she knew it was him straight away.
"Jared, what's happened to everyone?" she asked. He started eating some bacon that had landed half way across the room. For some reason, this upset her more than anything else. She knelt down and snatched it way, even though it made her hands all greasy. "That's cannibalism!" she said.
That was when the rumbling started. The house shook from the impact; dust fell from the cracks in the ceiling.
She thought, The pigs.
But the pigs were already here. The house rumbled like thunder. Would more pigs fall through the roof, or would it be her family?
When the final blow came, it threw Florence off balance, and she sprawled over the floor and landed on top of one of her brothers, who felt very wet and squishy.
A voice said, "Get up."
She heaved herself off the linoleum with her hands, and found herself face to face with some very tall high-heeled boots. She followed the lines of a pair of pinstripe trousers up. A comedy caricature, tall and angles, he was dressed in an elegant baroque jacket of crushed velvet, reminiscent of the Renaissance, andcomplete with creased cravat. He wore a plain white dramaturgy mask that threw a cold thrill right through her; for a moment, she'd thought that smooth white surface, with the snake-like holes for eyes, was actually his real face.
Still sprawled on her stomach, Florence said, "Pardon me?"
"I said get up. We have to leave."
His words went through one ear and out the other without any comprehension on Florence's part. He didn't offer Florence a hand up. She pulled up herself back onto her knees. "I want to see what comes through the ceiling," she said.
"You really don't," said the man in the mask, and he chuckled, like it was an inside joke. Then he was impatient again; he turned, and his long black ribbon of hair swept over his shoulder. "Come on. Now."
"But I have to see if it's my family," Florence explained. She felt it was important she got this across. She stood up and dusted herself off, and saw the masked man was now studying his nails.
"You know, I really don't have to save your life if I don't want to. There's plenty of more important things I could be doing right now. Like having lunch."
Save her life! As though the man was reading her thoughts, he flicked his eyes up to the ceiling. Florence followed them. The ceiling was cracked in two. She heard a hissing like the sound of a leaking gas pipe. In the gap millions of little black things were gathering. And they were all moving.
Florence backed away from the crack. "What are-" she began. She didn't need to continue. Just then, one of the black things dropped onto her shoulder. It had a body. And legs. It was a spider. It was thousands and thousands of spiders!
She looked at the masked man panickedly. But he didn't seem concerned in the slightest now. In fact, he was picking at a ragged nail with a thoughtful expression on his face. "I could make spaghetti," he said, apparently to herself.
The spider opened its mouth- it had a mouth!- and hissed through fanged jaws, "Worthless. Worthless. Worthless. You'll never amount to anything."
"Or maybe meatballs. Meatballs might be good," said the man.
Florence was sure the spider was getting bigger now too. She swiped it off her shoulder, but another one was crawling like goose bumps up her forearm. "No good at anything, and ugly too," it whispered.
"Ugly, ugly," a spider on her thigh agreed.
"I'm ready to leave now," Florence quavered.
The masked man turned on his heel. "I should think so," he said. They ran out into the corridor, just as the spiders spilled out of the crack and onto the table. They came in a sudden flood, and came crawling after them with the force of a river. Thousands and thousands of spiders, all crawling over the top of one another. Florence only turned her head briefly to look when the man snatched her by the elbow and shoved her out the front door, slamming it behind it. It didn't stop the spiders; they leaked out of the corners of the door like ink.
"This way," said the man. Florence ran after him down the empty street.
She said, "Oh my God! Oh my God!"
The spiders were coming after them, except now they were the size of labradors.
"She's a bit fat, though," they were saying to one another.
"Just think of it as extra portions."
But now the masked man had stopped, quite all of a sudden. Florence almost ran into the back of him He was climbing the telegraph pole by the Bradbury's house.
"What are you doing?" Florence said.
"Stop screaming and climb," said the man. Florence thought she ought to do as he said. She put her foot on the first rung and started climbing. It was harder than it looked, and she was already out of breath before she started.
At the very top, floating in mid air, was a manhole. Florence hadn't seen it from the ground. The man gripped the wheel and wrenched it round. It shrieked and hissed and then it opened. He backed into it and started climbing down; his heels clanged on the rungs.
Florence was hot and sweaty and out of breath. She looked down and then wished she hadn't; the spiders were now the size of Mr Coates' Mini and the first one was clambering up onto the telegraph pole. It bared its teeth at her.
"Think about us. We've got to eat too," it said.
Florence started climbing faster. She reached over for the manhole, but almost slipped as stepped over. She felt embarrassed, before she realised she was too scared to be embarrassed. The spider was crawling fast on its horrible hairy legs; she climbed inside a long chute-like space with a ladder and slammed the manhole, just as it reached one leg in.
There was a horrible noise and the spider's prickly leg fell down and clanged against the metal floor. It lay there, twitching. The manhole was shut. There was a wheel on this side too, and she gripped it and turned it as far as it would go. There was some banging and angry noises from the other side, and then, they went away.
Florence was so relieved that she lost her balance. She missed a rung, and her foot slipped, and the ground was swept out from underneath her. It felt like the time some of the awful boys at school had pulled her chair out from underneath her and she fell back and hit the ground.
But she didn't hit the floor, like she expected, though she hit something. She blinked her eyes open, breathless and bewildered. The man had caught her in his arms. And he didn't look very happy about it.
Close up, he was quite frightening. It was something to do with the way the mask stuck so close to his face, like the second skin of a snake. Had she made the right decision to follow him?
She didn't have any more time to think, however, because at that moment the man, quite unceremoniously, dropped her.
"Hey," Florence protested half-heartedly, resisting the urge to rub her sore behind. But the man wasn't listening. He'd already strode out of the escape hatch into a brightly lit corridor. Florence stood up, dusted herself off, and looked back up at the hatch. And because there wasn't anything else she could do she stepped over the spider's leg, which was still twitching, and followed him.
He was quite busy. Just a little bit down the corridor was an incinerator. The man hooked open the door and pulled off the long silk gloves he was wearing. When he had one off, rather than touching the other with his bare skin, he took his forefinger in between strikingly white incisors, and whipped it off deftly with his teeth. Nobody Florence knew wore gloves. They were cherry coloured and lovely looking, and he threw them into the fire. Then, he pulled out an identical pair from his jacket pocket, and pulled them on.
Florence figured it would be better just not even to ask. Instead she looked either way down the corridor; it seemed to stretch on for a very long time. Overhead clanked a spaghetti of pipes and vents. There was a name plaque near the exit hatch where they'd came out. It read, Sector 3B xr3421 and underneath there was a safety ticklist, which asked:
Are you prepared?
To protect yourself from the almost certain chance of death in the Dreamscape, please remember your:
First aid kit
Snacks in case you get hungry
Florence wondered, just where in the world was she?
Nervously she glanced over at the strange man. He was pulling off his jacket, revealing underneath a very frilly shirt with the kind of sleeves she'd seen her dad wear in pictures from the seventies. He had on a wine-coloured waistcoat, embossed with seven silver stars. He tossed his jacket onto a coat stand Florence was sure she hadn't noticed before. Then, he reached up for the mask, seeking out the edges with his fingertips. He prised. Seemed to struggle. Then, with a popping sound, the mask came free. He sighed a sigh of relief, reached up to massage his face. Except that Florence's prior assessment had been incorrect, because-
"You're a girl!" she exclaimed.
And in fact, she didn't look many years older than herself. She whirled round on her heel, raising an arched eyebrow at her, her cheekbones so high and sharp it looked like you could grate something on them. Her whole face was all angles and points, except that her hair was silky and black. Florence always read in books about girls with hair that fell like rivers and waterfalls and various other water features, but she hadn't really thought they existed.
Florence flushed to her roots. How could she say something like that? After all the comments she got at school about looking like a man! She knew how upsetting something like that was.
The girl put a languid hand on her hip. "Well, if you insist on employing your archaic, and I should say, out-dated gender roles on me, then yes, I'm female."
Florence stared at her. Maybe I'll have to try that one, she thought, wondering what Rob's response would be if she told him that next time he teased her.
Something from the inside of the girl's waistcoat chimed out the first few bars of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. She reached inside and fished around for it, pulling out a fish ("Nope!") a rubber chicken ("Oops!") a mouse in a mouse trap ("How did that get there?) Finally pulling out an old brass pocket watch by its chain. She flipped it open. But as she approached her, Florence realised this wasn't an ordinary pocket watch. She said, "Wow!"
Instead of two hands, the pocket watch had seven. Instead of numbers, there were three rings of ancient symbols, like weird Aztec letters or Egyptian hieroglyphs, with pictograms displaying the phases of the moon. Perfect planetary spheres moved round in their orbits, pluto creeping sluggishly round the edges while Venus zipped round the sun like a winning race car. It was nonsensical, but it seemed to make sense to the girl, because she sighed, flicked it closed, stowed it away.
"Kangeroo, prusian blue, lobster stew/
When there's six billion people in the world, there's so much to do!"
She looked up at Florence in brief bafflement, as though she'd forgotten she was there. And then she really looked at her, up and down, so intently that Florence blushed under her stare.
She said, "Well, you'll do."
Florence couldn't even get the question past her lips; I'll do for what?!
She didn't even explain anything, just swept round and expected Florence to follow her. Of course, she did anyway, because really, what else was she supposed to do? She followed her long bounding steps down the corridor, and then down another corridor, and another. They seemed to go on forever, and they passed quite a few doors. Florence had to walk so fast to keep up with her that she only caught the names of a few. There was the Office to File Complaints About Missing Limbs, the Monkeys on Typewriters Department, and even more weirdly, the Office that Doesn't Exist.
Finally, the girl stopped. Once again, Florence almost walked into her. The girl shot her a soul shrivelling look and pushed open the door. The plaque on it was silver, and read, Office of Sourmelina Sand.
With all the weird stuff that was happening today, the office was surprisingly normal. The truth was it looked very ordinary, almost stately, with all the furniture in ebony and chocolate brown, a fire crackling solemnly in the grate. The only thing slightly out of the norm was that the room was upside down.
Somehow- for she hadn't seen how she'd done it- the girl had gotten onto the ceiling. She seemed very at home upside down, and slid comfortably into Sourmelina Sand's swivel chair, whereupon she put her feet up on the desk and asked, with a short glance, "Aren't you coming?"
Weakly Florence asked, "How?"
There was a teatray on the desk, and the girl poured herself a cup out of an old tin teapot. Somehow, the tea stayed in the cup.
She made a "Tch!" sound. "Just come in and stop dithering around."
Because she thought it couldn't hurt, Florence took a few steps forward onto what was supposed to be the ceiling. But immediately, she felt a stomach twisting sensation, like her gut was doing a somersault. In retrospect, possibly, it did, because a second later it was gone and Florence found herself on the ceiling with the girl, who was now sipping her tea and poking the drinking bird on the desk.
It was weird, because although she knew she was upside down, she felt perfectly normal now the room was the right way up. It made her wonder if people really walked around upside normally and just never knew it.
The girl didn't ask her to sit, and Florence didn't want to sit without being asked, so she hung about awkwardly. She suddenly felt very shy. She glanced up at the girl, but she was ignoring her again.
Instead Florence looked at the certificates behind the desk. The owner of the office seemed to have several degrees and PHD's, and even The Award For the Greatest Person in The Universe, which she hadn't realised was even a thing.
Florence bit up her courage and asked, "Is this your Mum's office or something?"
The girl laughed like this was very funny, a kind of high-pitched giggling that didn't match with her appearance. "This is my office," she said.
"Yours?" Florence was so surprised she sat down without being asked.
"Where d'ya think I do my paperwork? It certainly doesn't do itself." And as she said this, Sourmelina started going through her intray, which, taller than her head, perched like a wobbly Mount Everest on the corner of the desk. She took the first thing from the top of the tray and started scribbling on it, pulling out her watch and setting it up by the drinking bird. Every now and then she'd glance at it.
But Florence had had enough.
She said, "Look, I'm sorry, but where am I?"
Sourmelina glanced at her over her paperwork. "You're in Sector C."
"Sector C of what?"
"Well, the Factory."
"What Factory? And why did that manhole lead here? And why was there a manhole in the air anyway? Why is your office upside down? And-"
"Perspective," said Sourmelina. She put down her pen.
"Even I lose it, sometimes. I find living upside down occasionally allows me a different angle on life."
Florence couldn't help it. She just stared at her.
"You're in the Dream Factory," Sourmelina said, scribbling away.
Slowly, Florence said, "There's a factory that manufactures dreams?"
"Well of course there is! Where do you think all the dreams in the world come from? Out of thin air?"
"I must admit I hadn't thought about it," she said honestly.
"Of course you haven't. No one ever does." And there was something conflicting in her voice; pleased yet resentful, relieved yet bitter. "I don't expect to get recognition for what I do. But I keep battling on- as always!"
There was a letter poking out of Sourmelina's intray that distracted her. In particular, it was the address. She read;
Miss Sourmelina Sand
The Dream Factory
Florence was pretty sure she'd never learnt about anywhere called Human Consciousness in Geography, unless it was a very small country. But she was relieved to hear that she was still apparently in the world.
Though where in the world- now, that really was the question.
Author's note: Hi everyone! Thanks for reading. This is Nausikaa. From this chapter onwards, I really would appreciate any critique or suggestions you could offer me. The first three chapters have already been through the editing process several times (though I'm aware they still need more). In comparison, chapter 4 and onwards are completely fresh.
Electric Angels by Christina Ridgley (Nausikaa) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.