Megan stared at her reflection in the spoon. Apart from being upside down, the curve of the spoon made her nose look round and up-turned. She scrunched her face and watched the reflection change. It made her look more like a pig than a person. The thought made her laugh, despite herself.
It had been several weeks since she had woken up in the isolation room with Alastair staring down at her. This in itself was not alarming. The sight of a familiar face was welcome, given that the last thing she remembered before that moment was of being absolutely convinced she would not live to see any of them again.
A tear pricked the corner of her eyes as she forced that particular memory back down, not wanting to dwell on just how close she had come to –
She swallowed it down with the next mouthful of her porridge. And the next. And the next. She was almost at the bottom of the bowl when she felt herself relax a little.
Megan was the first one up this morning. It was something she was getting used to these days. She had not had a full night’s sleep since… you know. Every time she closed her eyes, she could feel it coming for her again. She felt the ice-cold touch on her ankle as it took hold. Felt the freezing pulse spread up through her body until it reached her chest, and she bolted awake, gasping for breath.
Taking another look at her topsy-turvy reflection, she couldn’t help noticing the grey circles that clung to her eyes. She sighed and dropped the spoon into her empty bowl. Pushing it away from her, she reached for her half-drunk cup of tea to her left. It was only just on the hot side of lukewarm and so she drained it quickly before it could lose any more heat. The warm liquid soothed and comforted her from the inside out.
“Morning,” Jacob’s voice came from behind her. She flinched on hearing him and turned in her chair as he came into the kitchen.
“Sorry,” he went on. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Megan smiled thinly. It didn’t take much to startle her these days, a fact that frustrated her immensely.
She watched as Jacob loaded three slices of bread into the toaster and heaped coffee granules into his mug. As he poured the boiling water into the mug, Megan caught the strong, rich smell of the coffee from her place at the table. Just the smell of it was enough to make her muscles twitch with the kick of caffeine.
Jacob blew some of the steam away before taking in a large gulp.
Megan raised her eyebrows. Jacob with coffee? Black coffee, for that matter, with no sugar.
“I guess you didn’t sleep well either,” she commented.
Jacob lowered the mug and shook his head.
“Not so much,” he admitted. He joined her at the table. “So,” he continued. “Still getting the nightmares?”
Megan slumped in her chair and cradled the residual warmth from her mug in her hands. She had hoped she was managing to hide her tiredness from the others over the last few days. Clearly not.
“They’re more like flashbacks,” she said, figuring he was as good a person as any to confide in.
“Have you remembered anything yet?” Jacob asked.
Megan shook her head. “You know what’s weird as well?” she added. “That whole day is fuzzy.”
Jacob’s brow creased as he explained further.
“I remember going into the world,” she said. “And I remember running from the shadow and running into… Nick.” She hesitated over his name, feeling a pang of guilt accompanying it. “But I don’t know exactly what I was doing there in the first place.”
Jacob didn’t reply. He sipped at his coffee as the silence drew out between them.
Megan felt there wasn’t much he could say to that. She looked away from him as her mind wandered to Nick. The new guy. The other reason she wasn’t sleeping at the moment. She couldn’t help feeling responsible for dragging him into all of this. She had barely spoken to him since coming around in the isolation room. She really didn’t know what to say to him. Sorry just didn’t seem to cover it.
At night, when she wasn’t haunted by the shadows, she would play over the moment she had run into him at the fairground. She would try to change it. What if she had made a run for the mirror just a few seconds sooner? Or later? What if the second shadow had not seen her at all and she had just sipped by? What if –
The toaster released the now slightly burnt bread, snapping Megan back to the kitchen. Jacob carefully plated the toast and smothered it with warm, melting butter.
“You know what I think?” Jacob said coming back to the table.
Magen waited patiently for him to continue.
“I think you should give yourself a break,” he said. “What you went through was nothing short of traumatic. It’s no wonder your memory if a little foggy on the details.”
She had to admit, he had a point, but it was a lot easier said than done. Even so, she appreciated him trying to set her at ease.
“As for Nick,” he continued. “He didn’t have to follow you through. That was his dumb idea.”
Megan looked at Jacob for a moment. It always surprised her how perceptive and insightful he could be. A small smile tugged at her lips.
“You don’t miss much, do you?” she commented.
Jacobs shrugged and smiled. “It’s a gift.”
“So,” Megan said, taking the opportunity to change subjects. “What kept you up all night?”
The smile waivered on his face for a moment before he caught himself and fixed it back in place.
“Oh, nothing,” he said evasively. “Just couldn’t switch off. It happens sometimes.”
Megan frowned. This was something else she was finding frustrating. Everyone now seemed to think she came with a ‘Fragile’ sign. For the last few weeks, she felt that none of them had been entirely straight with her, as if they thought that any sort of stress of bad news might somehow break her.
Chris was the worst for this – he always was. And speaking of Chris…
“Hey, Jacob,” Megan said as he stood up to leave the table, his toast and coffee now finished.
“Don’t worry,” Jacob said, anticipating what she was about to say. “I won’t say anything to Chris. He worries enough as it is.”
Megan smiled, relieved that Jacob, to an extent, was on her side. She loved Chris dearly. He had become like a surrogate brother to her since her arrival here, but there were times when he took the whole brotherly responsibilities a little too far. Megan was just glad she had never been in a position to introduce a boyfriend to Chris. Thankfully, she was not the only one he fussed over. The Shonas, Jacob, and even Imogen had each told him to back off on more than one occasion. But it all came from a place of caring, so she couldn’t complain too much.
“In return,” Jacob said from the door. “Can you do something for me?”
Megan nodded. She had an idea of where this was going.
“I’ll be nice to Nick,” she promised.
Jacob smiled as he left.
Megan let out a sigh. Of course she would be nice to Nick. She just wished that doing so didn’t kick up so many bad memories at the same time. As with everything else at the moment, she rather suspected it would take time. More time than she would have liked.
She picked up the spoon from her bowl again and pulled pig faces at her reflection. It was a simple distraction. At this point, she would take any distraction she could find.
Jacob could feel the caffeine getting to work. He knew it wouldn’t last, but it was a start at least. He made his way out of the living-quarters wing, heading towards the library. It was one of the few occasions that he hoped Alastair would be there. Most of the time he felt a great sense of indifference towards the old man – which was a much more positive attitude than some of the others granted him. But when it came to his monthly check-ups, Jacob always felt grateful for Alastair’s presence.
The alternative was to be at the mercy of the Shonas. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, it was that they had a talent for unnerving him with their lack of tact. Shona2, in particular, had an alarming knack of saying the first thing that came to mind, a trait that he had discovered was not particularly comforting when it came to issues of his health.
He made his way down the wrought-iron, spiral staircase that led directly to the main sprawl of the library on the ground floor. As he reached the bottom, Jacob paused for a moment. He listened for any sounds of movement in the library. He couldn’t decide if it was a good thing or not when nothing stirred around him.
No sound meant that she wasn’t there to torment him. Just because he was awake now didn’t mean she wouldn’t find a way.
But no sound also, potentially, meant no Alastair. He usually had some record or another turning around the gramophone.
Jacob hadn’t seen the old man since about two days after Megan had woken up. In those two days, he had noticed Alastair looked more haggard than usual. It had worried him. He couldn’t help but wonder what the shadow could have done to him. Alastair would never tell, of course, but that didn’t stop Jacob from wondering. And worrying.
He made his way through the stacks of archives and bookshelves, and came to Alastair’s favourite studying spot. It was right at the centre of the library and held the notebooks filled with his own handwriting and research into the mirrors. Jacob had once tried to read one of the notebooks, hoping to gain insight into Alastair’s work. But the book may as well have been written in code for all the sense he could make of it. To this day, he could not decide whether it was Alastair’s handwriting that had been so difficult to divine, or whether it was the science itself that was beyond him.
It was more than likely both.
Jacob arrived at the study area and hovered at the end of the bookshelves. This is where she had been just last night, looking over the essays, standing less than eight feet in front of him. From where he stood, he could see a collection of papers and essays spread out on the desk. He wondered if they were the same ones she –
Jacob shook his head sharply, snapping himself out of the obsessive thoughts he was spiralling into. It was just a dream, he reminded himself. Just his mind dredging up his own guilt. Again.
He stepped into the light of the small round clearing amongst the towering bookshelves and looked around. The place was deserted. Judging by the thin sheen of dust on the card index cabinet, it looked like Alastair hadn’t been there for a week or so.
Jacob sighed, a little disappointed. He turned to leave, readying himself for the Shonas and their tests. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the stacks again, a voice halted him.
“Ah, Jacob,” Alastair said from behind him. “Is it that time again?”
Jacob turned and saw Alastair silhouetted in the study’s lamplight.
“I didn’t think you were here,” he said, relief colouring his tone.
Alastair smiled. “I’ve just got back,” he said. “Don’t think I’d forgotten about you.”
Jacob wanted to point out that it wouldn’t have been the first time, but held himself back and settled for a thin smile instead.
“So how have you been feeling?” Alastair asked.
Jacob shrugged. “The same, I guess.”
Alastair nodded and began looking over the papers on his desk. “And how have things been around here?” he said as if thinking out loud. “How is Nick settling in?”
Jacob was not perturbed by the swift change of subject. Alastair was never one to dwell on a subject if he felt it had been covered.
“He’s adjusting,” Jacob replied. “I’ve seen people cope a lot worse.”
“Very good,” Alastair said. He was riffling through the papers by now. Jacob couldn’t tell if he was looking for something in particular, or whether he was attempting to tidy them away. He stopped on an obscure scrap of paper and held it up to the light. His own spidery handwriting covered the page.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “Very good indeed.”
Folding the paper into his jacket pocket, Alastair turned back to Jacob with a look of achievement in his eyes.
“Right,” he said resolutely. “Shall we get this over with?”
« Prologue Part 2 » coming soon