Chapter 15 from the Ama audiobook
Jason’s eyes burst open as he called out, “Sue.” Who the hell is Sue? he wondered, and Sarah?
He lay flat on his back, with his left hand hanging over the edge of the empty grave while his right hand rested on the foot of a grey statue. Snatching his hand away from the foot, he looked up at the figure. It stood in the centre of his garden facing his house.
Jason got to his feet and looked around. Lilith and the caretaker had gone. He looked at the statue again and studied it for a long moment before reaching out a hand towards it. With delicate and cautious fingers, he touched its face. It looked and felt the same as the one on the plateau by the mountain.
Flowers! Me aching arse, he heard Derwood say again. They’re not like any flowers I’ve ever seen.
“What are you?” Jason asked the motionless figure, as he rested his thumb on its left eyelid and tried to raise it open. Before he had a chance see if there was an eyeball beneath, he rose a foot from the ground and then hurtled backwards against the front wall of his house. His vision became blurry after the impact with the wall, and a throbbing pain shot up his back.
“Don’t touch them,” a deep voice growled.
His vision returned in time to see the caretaker disappear into a web of black vapour.
“Son of a bitch!” Jason got to his feet and tried to rub away the relentless pain in his back. He staggered to the edge of the garden, where the yellow grass decayed into the grey of the desert. He looked out across the sand in the direction of the mountain, but his view had become obscured. His house now lay in the valley between two large dunes, with more high peaks further out to his left and right. He wondered if his home was sinking into the sand.
He gazed at his old Volkswagen Golf parked in the driveway. Don’t be stupid, he thought, there’s no way it’ll start, let alone carry me across hell. The temptation was too strong, though; he had to try it.
The front door to the house was ajar. He pushed it open and went straight to the silver key tray, which sat atop a small wooden table in the hallway. In the tray was an old halfpenny piece, a blue stone button, but no keys. The doppelgänger had the car keys, he remembered. The doppelgänger who had vanished with a wave of Lilith’s hand, taking the keys with him. Jason thumped the wall with the side of his fist. He could try to hot-wire the car. Who am I trying to kid, he thought, I took half a day changing a bloody headlight bulb. He remembered the second set of keys and ran to the kitchen.
“She always had it with her,” he said to himself, scanning the kitchen for Zoe’s handbag. “Where the… Gotcha.” He took the small red leather bag from where it sat next to the microwave and tipped its contents onto the dining table. Lipstick; a purse; two credit cards; several screwed-up receipts; the keys! He grabbed them and ran through the side door and around to the car.
“You’ve never let me down before, don’t be a bastard now.” He held out the keys towards the car and pushed the unlock button on the key fob. Nothing happened. He pushed the button again. Still nothing. “Shit!” He slammed the key into the door’s keyhole and tried to unlock the car. When he turned the key, he didn’t hear the sound of the locking mechanism disengaging. “Shit!” He tried the door handle. The door clicked open. He pulled the key from the lock and jumped into the driver’s seat. Then he slid the key into the ignition, paused, and turned it. The engine remained silent. The car remained uninterested through another five attempts at starting it. Slamming his foot hard on the accelerator pedal and hammering his fists on the steering wheel and dashboard also had no productive effect.
“You didn’t expect to drive your old car across the deserts of hell, did you?” he asked himself.
He stepped out of the car and looked across at the high dunes, fearing the mountain may have moved too. His house no longer sat on a high plateau, and maybe the mountain might not be where it once was either. The peak of the nearest dune seemed to be no more than half a mile away. I’ll get my bearings from up there, he thought, then I’ll come back and get some stuff together before I head off for that bloody mountain. He walked away from his house and into the desert.
∗ ∗ ∗
The sand was solid beneath his feet, although it did slide upon itself as he climbed the steeper section of the dune. He believed it would take no more than an hour to get to the top, but hours seemed to have passed before he reached the peak, at which point he sat atop the dune and wished that he’d brought water. The desert wasn’t hot, but he still felt he could do with a drink.
Derwood had been right: there was no change in the level of light. The landscape was grey and bleak. From his position, perched on the dune, he could see the mountain again in the far, dim distance.
You can do this, he told himself. You’ll do it and be with Emily again. It could all be a lie, though, a game Lilith likes to play with the damned, but you have to try. What else was there to do? Sit among the dunes as your house sinks into the sand? And what happens when that human statue—Lilith’s flower—dies? Derwood seemed sure that wasn’t something you’d want to be around for.
He observed the horizon line to the left and to the right of the mountain, and could make out other mountains, but none as high as the one he needed to get to. He got to his feet and made his way back down the dune and back to the house.
The journey back was easier, being downhill most of the way, but he still needed a drink. He chided himself as he neared his house. Walking into a desert without water—you bloody fool. He glanced at the statue as he walked by, being careful not to get too close to it. He walked past his old car and garage, moving in skittish steps, and along the side of the house and into the kitchen through the side door.
He grabbed a large glass from the cabinet above the countertop, held it under the cold water tap and turned it on. When no water came, he dropped the glass into the sink, where it shattered. The broken glass joined the discarded mushrooms and tomatoes in the sink’s basin. Looking across at the fridge, he asked, “Why do you buy that stuff, Zoe, it’s the same thing that comes from the tap.” Then he walked over and opened it. Among other food and drink that would soon spoil, there were three one-litre bottles of spring water. He removed one and then righted the chair he had knocked over in his rush to escape Lilith and the caretaker. He sat down, opened the bottle and took a large gulp of water.
As soon as the water touched the inside of his mouth he jumped from the chair, dropped the bottle, and spat out the water. It was boiling. He spat again, and again, trying to rid his mouth of the scalding liquid.
“You’re fucking kidding me,” he exclaimed, as his tongue and the lining of his mouth blistered.
The bottle lay on its side on the floor, its contents draining out. He picked it up, studied it, and poured a little into his cupped hand. It felt cold. He sniffed it. It smelled of… nothing. It was just water. Not acid, not boiling, not even warm, just plain water. He tongued the blisters in his mouth and placed the bottle on the tabletop. He dipped a finger into the small puddle he held, hesitating for a moment before touching his tongue with the wet finger. It fizzed and burned on contact with the inside of his mouth.
He fell back into the chair. “Great. So, that’s the catch. Get to the mountain and your dreams will come true, but the mountain is on the other side of a vast desert… And, oh yeah, the water will boil in your mouth if you try to drink it. Food?” He picked up a juicy-looking red apple from the generous fruit bowl at the centre of the dining table, studying it for a moment before taking a small, careful bite.
He chewed once and then let the apple fall from his hand. The apple hadn’t burned his mouth like the water had, or caused him any physical pain whatsoever. He dropped the apple because of the immobilising despair that overwhelmed him as he chewed.
He spat out a glob of grey sand.