Michael took the long way to Corina’s apartment. Not to sound too stalker-y, but the only reason we know where she lives is because we tailed her for a couple of weeks after she first left us. We told ourselves it was because we wanted to see if she could lead us to Will, but the truth was we wanted to make sure she was OK. Things can get a little dicey when you delve too deep into the cultures, it doesn’t take long for people to realise that there’s something off about you and one thing all humans have in common is an intense fear of the unknown. A surprising number of people would kill you before listening to you or, if you’re lucky, they’ll just lock you up.
The radio masked the silence as we drove. I didn’t particularly like listening to it, but I knew Michael needed it to keep his mind off of what we were about to do so I fought the urge to turn it off. The presenters were holding a debate on whether or not the eye scanners gave the government too much control. My mind drifted to worlds of dictatorships and brain washing and I couldn’t help smile a little. Eye scanners weren’t the worst thing their government could force on them, even though they did make our situation more difficult than it needed to be. We couldn’t even buy food in grocery stores because of the damn things, one of the reasons I was so eager to find Will was that moving on could mean the end of dumpster diving. I hoped the next world, if we ever saw a next world, was still on the bartering system. Less developed societies made things a lot easier on people like us.
Seeing Corina’s apartment building looming before us pulled me from my daydream. She was renting a basement flat in a less than reputable neighbourhood, apparently there weren’t a lot of options for someone not registered in their system. Michael parked as close as he could to the main entrance, we hesitated before getting out of the car. “Are you ready?” I asked, after a minute of silence. He didn’t look at me, just nodded and turned the engine off. We walked past the main doors around to an alley behind the building, the entrance to the basement was hidden behind a dumpster and we would have missed it if we didn’t know what we were looking for. The only unfamiliar part of this building was the inside, we knew the outside like the backs of our hands.
“What if she says no?” He was barely whispering, his hand hovering over the doorknob. He and Corina had been traveling together for years before they met me, and even though he avoided talking about it I knew it was hard for him when she left. As far as I could tell there was never any romance between them, but when everybody you meet disappears after a couple of months it’s hard not to get attached to the ones that stick around.
“Then she says no” I didn’t look at him as I spoke, and he didn’t respond. He just opened the door and we made our way down a dimly lit staircase until we found ourselves in a hallway lined with doors that had faded name labels on them. The hallway spread in both directions, each side with half a dozen doors. I looked at Michael and he shrugged, so I took a stab in the dark and turned left. We walked in silence, none of the doors we passed at her name, or any of her usual aliases, so when we got to the end of the hall we turned around and walked the other way. As we neared the end of the hall it occurred to me that she might have adopted a new name, or maybe she’d moved somewhere else. I was about to share my thoughts with Michael when we came to the last door and saw CORINA SIMS printed in bold letters. We exchanged a look of mutual discomfort, and I knocked three times.
I heard footsteps approaching from behind the door and felt my heart beating frantically. All that time worrying about what it would be like to see her again, but I had no idea what I was going to say. I didn’t have time to decide if I was angry, hurt or happy before the door opened a fraction and an unfamiliar face peered out at us.
“Can I help you?” her voice was frail, almost like she was scared of the sound of it. Michael and I exchanged confused looks. I don’t know why we expected to find Corina alone, but we had. Having someone else here felt a little more than awkward. For a split second I thought maybe Corina had moved and this woman hadn’t gotten around to changing the name on the door yet.
“Is Corina here?” I asked. The woman’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything. I heard footsteps walking towards the door. Corina was here. I braced myself, it was just dawning on me that I was actually going to see her again. Talk to her. I still didn’t know how I felt about it. I felt Michael tense up beside me and knew he was experiencing the same flurry of emotions I was.
“Who is it?” It was her. It was really her. Her voice sent a shiver down my spine, the anger was starting to outweigh everything else.
“It’s Vanessa and Michael” I said. The world paused for a beat, Michael opened his mouth to say something but the door flew open before he could, slamming against the wall behind it. I looked at Corina for the first time in eight months, and every muscle in my body tensed up. The last time we’d seen each other she was vivid and bright, she had a thriving aura about her. But the woman standing in front me was a ghost of that, she had black rings around her eyes that were sunken into her skull, her t-shirt hung from her shoulders like she was a wire coat hanger, and was tucked into a belt missing it’s buckle, held together by a shoelace threaded through a hole I suspected wasn’t there when she originally bought it. Her faded blue jeans bunched around her knees and ankles. She looked like she’d seen hell, but it was her. It was really her.
“Vanessa” her voice was hoarser than I remembered. She stepped towards us as if she was going to give us a hug, but changed her mind mid step and just stood there with her arms half outstretched, like she didn’t know what to do with them. Her betrayal pounded in my ears and I was glad she decided against the hug.
“Can we come in?” Michaels voice was barely above a whisper, I wondered if it would stay like that for the whole visit. Corina and the woman stepped aside so we could shuffle inside. The door opened into the living room, there weren’t any windows which meant the only source of light was a circular floor lamp standing isolated in the middle of the room. A shabby green couch was pushed against the wall next to the front door, with a small coffee table and a faded red chair completing the lounge set. Two counters and a stove made up the kitchen, separating two doors on the far wall. I didn’t ask for a tour, but I assume the doors led to the bedroom and bathroom.
“Who are these people?” The woman asked, she had taken about five steps back and was glaring and Michael and I.
Corina didn’t take her eyes off us “Vanessa Chance and Michael Hunter, the people I told you about. This is Trill” she gestured to the woman, who responded with a grunt of disapproval. If she had come closer I would have offered my hand, but she didn’t move so I didn’t bother.
We stood in awkward silence before I realized nobody was going to offer us a seat, so I took one on the far end of the couch. Michael sat down next to me, leaving Corina the chair and the woman, Trill, moved back to the door. When she decided we weren’t going to leave she closed it with a dramatic huff, letting us know exactly how unwelcome we were. She didn’t leave her post, I guessed it was partly because she didn’t expect us to stay long and partly because we had taken up all the available seating.
“We need your help” The less than hospitable welcome left no room for pleasantries, so Michael was straight down to business. His ability to compartmentalise was one of the things I admired and envied about him, I was still trying to figure out an appropriate way to find out what she’d been doing to end up a shell of her former self.
“I figured as much” I was starting to think I had misread her almost hug at the door, maybe she was planning to hit us, or maybe it was just a momentary lapse on her part. She was exuding the same hostile energy Trill had since we first entered the room.
“We were hoping you had reconsidered helping us find Will” I said, glancing at Trill. I wasn’t sure how much Corina had told her, and even though they weren’t exactly being friendly I didn’t want to ruin whatever it was they had going here.
“He isn’t here” Trill said, still standing at the door. She was starting to remind me of a guard dog waiting to pounce on the unannounced guests, not that she was big enough to do any real damage. She was almost as thin as Corina.
“Please, Trill, I’ll handle this” Corina said.
“You know where he is?” I phrased it as a question even though I already knew the answer. I felt the anger pulling at me, it didn’t sit right with me that she not only had told Trill about us, but that Trill felt comfortable enough to talk about Will. As if she knew something we didn’t. One look at Michael told me he was thinking along the same lines I was.
“Yes, I do” pain flashed across her face as she spoke “He checked into Topwells last night.”
“We’ve already been to Topwells, he wasn’t there” Michael looked at his hands as he spoke, slowly curling them into fists and relaxing them.
“Don’t tell them shit, Cee.” Trill looked at us “I think you two should leave” she had abandoned her post at the door and was walking the short distance to the couch. Hostility and secrecy filled the room. I hate feeling like I’m not in the loop. “Don’t tell us what?” I asked, talking to Corina but not taking my eyes off Trill.
“Will came to me a couple weeks ago. I wanted to call you guys, but he made me promise not to.” Corina spoke over Trills protests, raising a hand to silence her. “He’s in a bad shape. It’s like the portals are destroying him.” The last sentence came out as a whisper. “He said he’s been deteriorating since we stopped jumping” she continued.
“Since you stopped jumping” Michael didn’t even try to hide the bitterness in his voice, putting a heavy emphasis on the word you.
“I’m sorry…” her voice was soft, she seemed to be the only person in the room that wasn’t angry. “I didn’t mean for it to turn out like this. But it’s not just his body, it’s like he went crazy or something.” she glanced at Trill, and I understood her aggression for what it really was, fear. I’d seen a sensor deteriorate like that before, and it’s about as far from sunshine and rainbows as you can get. If I was in her shoes I’d probably want to get rid of anything like it too.
“Is he dying?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. Even the stronger sensors can’t push portals away for more than a couple of years before they eventually disappear forever. Dying seems like the wrong word for it, it’s like they slowly evaporate into thin air. I’d only seen it happen once, but it wasn’t something I was eager to witness again. Part of me hoped he’d die before we find him, the rest of me wanted to revel in his suffering. I don’t know which is worse.
“I think so, I don’t know. He was angry. Really angry.” Corina’s voice was almost a whisper, and she wouldn’t look either of us in the eye. Maybe it was because she couldn’t, I almost didn’t want to hear what she was going to say next. “He lost it when Trill tried to get him to see a doctor” she paused “He said he had a plan” she didn’t have to say anymore for us to figure out the rest.
“You… Helped him?!” Michael was furious now. “We have been stuck here for almost a year! That’s another year my family had to go wondering where I am, another year of me not being able to search for them, and you HELPED him?!” I could practically touch the anger pulsating out of him. I put my hand on his arm to try and calm him down but he pulled away from me.
“I’m, I’m sorry Michael. I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never seen him like that before.” She got out of the chair and started backing up towards the counters on the far wall, shielding her face with her arms like she was scared he’d hit her. I got the feeling that this new life hadn’t worked out exactly as she’d hoped. Trill was standing between them, one hand on Corina’s arm and the other stretched towards Michael. Her protectiveness scored her some points in my book, I can’t say I would have been as brave facing down an angry Michael like that. I watched the scene unfold in front of me. I didn’t really think Michael would hurt her, but even puppies will bite if you kick them hard enough.
“Where is he?” His voice came out a menacing growl, but he wasn’t walking towards them so I took that as a good sign.
Hope you enjoyed reading part two, you can find part one here.