Chapter 3: Into the Void
"Okay, come on, wake up now, Ethan, wake up …" Ashley patted the man gently on the cheek at first, then, as her desperation grew, she clutched him by the shoulders and shook him. She felt a rush of relief as his eyes fluttered open. Slowly, he seemed to focus on her. His chapped lips parted, and out came a rattle. A hoarse, inarticulate rattle.
"Ethan, that's not funny. Talk to me. Say something."
Still, he rattled, and his voice started to glide over into a frightened wail, the wail of a newborn baby.
"Ethan, snap out of it! Say something, Ethan! Say something to me!" she said, still shaking him. She realized this was probably why he wailed, and carefully, she laid him back down on the floor. He was silent again.
Ashley scrambled to her feet, and her eyes raced over the cellar, settling on a basket of newly washed clothes. They were still a little damp, but they would have to do. She stepped over Ethan and rushed up to the basket, digging out her father's worn jeans and her brother's socks, boxers and Iron Maiden t-shirt. She tossed the clothes to Ethan. They landed in a crumpled heap on his naked torso. "Put this on."
Ethan simply lay there, staring blankly at the ceiling. He rolled over. The heap of garments slid down onto the basement floor as he curled up like a fetus.
"Jesus Christ, Ethan, what's happened to you?!" Ashley breathed. "Can you even understand what I'm saying?!" She crouched down at his side and picked up the t-shirt. He watched her with lazy, half-open eyes. "Put – this – on." She held the garment up against her torso and mimicked the simple act of donning it. "That's not so hard, is it?"
Ethan did not react.
Ashley cursed as she started to forcefully pull the garments onto his limp body, as though she was still a little girl playing with Ken dolls, dressing them up. This particular doll was just a lot larger and more lifelike than the rest. She barely thought about the fact that this was the first time she'd actually seen an adult man's genitals in real life; there were other things to worry about than simple embarrassment. What had happened to him in Pandemonium? Who had sent him back through the trapdoor to Dampmine? Why had -
She heard the front door open, Karyn stepping into the entrance hall. 'Oh shit.'
"I'm home! Ashley, did anyone call while I was gone?"
Ashley tried not to giggle. There was something immensely comical about the fact that her mother wanted to know there'd been any phone calls, when there had, in fact, been a trapdoor opening in the cellar, and a naked and seemingly catatonic man floating in through said trapdoor.
"No," she shouted back while jerking Ethan up by the shoulders to pull the t-shirt over his head. The man made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan, and she pressed a hand against his mouth to muffle it.
"Ashley? Are you okay down there?"
"Yeah, I, I just stubbed my toe!"
"What are you doing in the cellar, anyway?" Footsteps, going to the doorway to the cellar stairs. A long shadow was cast down the steps, and Ashley's breath caught in her throat.
"I'm just, er, putting some damp clothes up on the clothes lines. You know, I was thinking I should start helping out around the house, do some more chores, stuff like that." She finally managed to pull the t-shirt all the way down while guiding Ethan's arms through the short sleeves.
"Oh, that's great, Ashley! Do you want me to come down and help, or are you okay on your ow-"
"I'm okay! I'm okay on my own!"
"Well, then I'll go out and get some gardening done. Ta-ta."
Ashley stood motionless and listened as her mother's footsteps trailed off. She heard the door to the patio open and close. Breathing a slight sigh of relief, she hooked her fingers under Ethan's armpits and tried to pull him to his feet. "Come on, time to go. Maybe I can take you to the hospital or something …"
With one great exertion, she managed to pull the adult man up from the floor, letting him lean against her smaller frame. "Just stay close to me," she said as she let go of him and started heading for the stairs.
There was a sharp wail behind her, and she turned around to find Ethan lying on the floor again. He kicked his legs weakly as he bawled. Once again, she pressed her palm against his mouth to muffle the noise. "For fuck's sake!" she hissed. "Have you forgotten how to walk?!"
Zach lay on the couch, watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV. They were showing a marathon of the old black-and-white show over the weekend. This episode was about three nurses spending a stormy night in a large, isolated house. Zach had seen it before when he was a little kid, and he still remembered how the ending's plot twist had sent icy shivers screaming down his spine back then. As he watched the episode now, it merely filled him with a warm, fuzzy nostalgia.
The phone rang. Lazily, he reached out from the couch and captured the receiver in his fingertips. Getting a better grip on it, he brought it to his reclined head on the couch pillow. "Zach. Who is this?"
"Ashley. I need you here right now. There's … there's something weird going on again. I can't explain right now; just get over to my place." She sounded as though she was struggling to keep her voice calm, but on the last word, she lost the battle and her tone rose to a slightly shrill pitch. She was scared. Very scared.
"Are you okay?"
"I … Just get over here, okay?"
"Ashley, what's -"
"Right now!" And she hung up.
Zach scrambled off the couch, not even bothering to turn off the TV as he left the apartment. As he rushed down the stairwell, he thought about the last time Ashley had called him up, sounding so scared, telling him to hurry over to her place. Last time she'd done that, a trapdoor had opened in her room, and they had both fallen into …
'No. No, it can't be happening again. It just can't.'
As he rode his bicycle through the center of the town, he glanced at the bench where Bench-Lady had always been seated. She was gone now. Strange. Everytime he'd passed by her bench since he and Ashley had returned from Pandemonium last November, the Bench-Lady had still been staying there. He had never actually spoken to her; she made him nervous somehow, made him remember what lay beneath Dampmine. And Zach didn't want to remember.
He biked as fast as he could towards Ashley's house.
They stood in the cellar, towering over the pathetic, near-catatonic body of what Ethan had been reduced to. Ashley had just explained everything that had happened since she heard the faint hiss of the trapdoor opening, up until now, when she'd put some clothes on the mute man only to discover that he couldn't walk. She had then suggested to Zach that they went down to Pandemonium with Ethan to find out what had happened to him. They could let Rhea or Lethe take care of him down there, or – if they found some way of curing him – they could bring him along when they returned to Dampmine.
"Just … no, for God's sake, Ashley!" Zach said, raising his voice slightly. "I thought we'd agreed that we weren't going back to the City, no matter what happens."
"But what the hell are we going to do about him, then? Leave him here until my parents come down and find him?"
"I … I don't know."
"Oh, that's really helpful," Ashley said, pacing back and forth, frustration dripping from her voice. "Thanks, Zach, I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Yeah, well …" Zach tried to think of a retort, but nothing would come to him.
Suddenly, Ashley stopped pacing around. A smile crept across her face. "One of us could go and ask the Bench-Lady. She's got to know something, right?"
Zach shook his head, almost apologetically. "I biked past her bench on my way over here. She's wasn't there."
"What?! Are you sure you looked at the right bench?"
"Yes, of course I know where her bench is! I'm not a total retard, you know!"
"Sometimes I wonder …"
"Oh, shut up."
Curled up on the ground, Ethan started to rock back and forth, moaning slightly. He pressed his hands against his ears. Obviously, he didn't like the raised voices and nervous footsteps cutting through the air around him. Zach was struck with the impression of a baby crying because its parents were fighting. He stifled a laugh.
Ashley frowned. "What? What's so funny?"
"Yeah, nothing sure is funny," she said, rolling her eyes. "Look, there's really nothing to argue about. Either we take him back to Pande-"
"No, dammit, no!" Zach said in a hissing tone between the sharpness of a yell and the softening of a whisper. For a moment, there was silence as he glared at Ashley. "I'm not going back there."
"What, you expect me to go there alone?" Ashley said, eyes flicking from Zach to Ethan. "Just me with Mr. Deadweight here at my side? Not fucking likely."
"I didn't say you're going back there either."
"Oh, so now you're making my decisions for me? That's wonderful, Zach, that's just wonderful."
"It's too dangerous," Zach went on, trying to stay calm and sensible while Ashley let her anger flare up freely. "And it's not just because you want to dispose of Ethan. Ethan floating up here was just the occasion, wasn't it?"
Ashley tilted her head, eyes narrowing. "What do you mean?"
"Dampmine's boring. You wanna see the City again, just one more time. This is your excuse to do that. You can't stop thinking about it, can you? You're drawn to the City. You're just too scared to admit it," Zach said, and he knew that his words were hurting Ashley, hurting her because they were true. "But it's too dangerous. If you knew what happened to me when I was alone there …"
"Oh, you think our little trip to Pandemonium was just a fun rollercoaster ride for me?!" Ashley yelled. "It wasn't! It sure as shit wasn't! I saw … things, things I still have nightmares about. I was beaten up, I was almost raped, Zach, and you think I'm 'drawn' to the City?! Baal … he …"
She bowed her head, trying not to let Zach see the pain in her eyes. They stood there for a moment, two sombre statues on either side of what could best be described as an adult with the mind of an infant. Ashley raked a hand through her hair.
Finally, she spoke. "I don't want to do this, but … Pandemonium. Pandemonium."
For a splitsecond, Zach did not see Ashley and the cellar. He saw the oubliettes. He saw his cell beneath the palace of skulls, and he saw Baal and Astarte, grinning, enjoying his screams of pain …
His hand shot through the air. A yelp of pain. Blond hair whipping up as the head it was attached to jerked backwards and bounced off the cold cellar wall. A groan.
Ashley slid down the wall slightly, as she bent over and touched the back of her head. It throbbed with a fresh, pulsating ache, but it couldn't be anything severe – the pain would die away in a few minutes.
"Oh God, Ashley, are you okay? I don't …"
She looked up, and as her eyes met his, he knew exactly what she was going to say.
"I … I'm …"
"Get – out."
Zach finally found the strength to lift his feet from the invisible roots that seemed to have tied them to the floor. He turned around and walked up the stairs, wordlessly, quietly. He walked through the entrance hall and closed the front door behind him. His mind was empty. There were no thoughts on what he had just done and how things would be between them from now on. He just let his legs carry him down the stairs, up to his bike, away from her, as far away as he could get.
He was about to ride off down the street when he felt the wave. It undulated through the ground and swept through the air. For a second, he felt the same pricking sensation that he'd get in his legs when they fell asleep and he had to walk around to wake them up again – a strangely uncomfortable, electric rush, enveloping his entire body as he stood motionless with his bike on the sidewalk.
The sensation was coming from somewhere to his right, below the house. He knew what it meant.
She had opened a trapdoor.
Ashley grabbed Ethan by the wrists and dragged him across the floor, ignoring his wails. She dropped his arms once she had positioned him inches from the pitchblack opening in the grey basement floor. She stepped around to his side and knelt down. "Goodbye, Ethan … I'm sorry I can't come with you. But Zach's right. It'd be too dangerous. Especially if I'm on my own."
Ethan still stared at her with those blank, half-closed eyes. He didn't understand a single word, but he did understand the dark void that he could see through the square hole to his left. He looked scared.
Ashley pressed her palms against his side and rolled him over, pushing him head-first through the trapdoor.
Zach felt the pricking sensation stop, the electricity disappearing from the air. The trapdoor had closed. He kept standing there, frozen with one foot on the pedal. The sun burned on the back of his neck and in his black hair.
He stared at the house. The curtains in the living room were slowly pulled aside, and Ashley peered out at him. Her face was devoid of emotion.
He started biking down the street, soon disappearing from her field of vision.