Frequency (Part 3)

“Of course, there’s a rational explanation for all of this,” Adeyemi said as she brewed yet another cup of tea. Gemma sat at her desk again, rubbing her arms. It wasn’t cold at all but she couldn’t stop herself shaking. Her experience had been completely real to her, despite the professor’s assurances that the cause of it was mundane.

“I wasn’t dreaming,” Gemma said. “I mean, I was, but not in that way…you know what I mean!”

Adeyemi smiled brightly as she put a mug down in front of her and took her own seat opposite. She was as cheerful as ever, but Gemma still felt that there was something she was keeping to herself. “You were asking me about the history of this building right before I put you under.”

“I know…”

“So it was on your mind. And you were up all night reading about it, is that right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well then. You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. There probably isn’t an old building in the country that doesn’t have its share of grisly stories written about it. Most of it’s nonsense. Yes, this was an asylum; an uncomfortable reminder of an earlier age of mental health treatment. Bad things happened here. Of course they did. And Dr Morrison’s experiments were arguably a part of that. But to argue that there’s some kind of connection is absurd. You saw something strange…”

“Saw and felt,” Gemma interrupted, “you said yourself my heart rate increased, yeah? And something about my breathing?”

“Dreams – ordinary dreams – often have a physiological effect. People kick out in the night, or talk in their sleep. It’s very common. It’s an area I plan to research as part of this project, but what occurred with you is no more suspicious than sleepwalking.”

“But how do you explain this?” Gemma tugged down her collar to show the bruises.

“Explain what?”

She touched her neck, expecting to feel soreness, but there was nothing. It still hurt. Or maybe she just thought it did? “Do you have a mirror?”

Adeyemi looked concerned, but she rummaged in a desk drawer and pulled out a small round hand mirror. She passed it to Gemma.

“I was so certain…” She trailed off as she examined her throat, and saw no trace of the bruising she expected.

“There’s nothing strange going on, Gemma,” Adeyemi said, “the nature of the Otherworld is that we dip in and out of it while sleeping without noticing. According to my readings, you did indeed enter it as I predicted, but on examining the later frequency patterns, I believe you slipped into a more normal dream state shortly afterwards.”

“But you can’t be certain?”

The professor looked a little uncomfortable as she spoke. “There were spikes in the amplitude of your brain waves. Not something I’ve seen before. Dr Morrison recorded something like it once but…” It was her turn to peter out unconvincingly now.

“But what?”

Adeyemi waved a hand dismissively. “Those data points were outliers, caused by flawed methodology. And he only recorded them once, on a machine far less sensitive than my computer.”

“But it has happened before? What did the person being tested say about it? Did they see anything like…like what I saw?” She shivered again at the memory of the wild-eyed woman with the ghastly red teeth coming for her, wrapping her pale hands around her neck, murder in her unfocused gaze.

“As I said, the methodology was flawed. We can’t draw any conclusion from those findings.”

That answer was hardly satisfying, but Adeyemi would say nothing more. She thanked Gemma for her time, offered her more tea and then that was the end of it. Just a dream, Gemma repeated in her head as she left the office. Outside, the corridor seemed perfectly normal, but when her eyes drifted to the intersection that led around to the next one, where the lights had failed and where, in a strange place between sleeping and waking, she’d been attacked by the mysterious woman, she felt cold dread seize her. She was transfixed for a moment, waiting for that moaning sound again, feeling like she was still lying on the bench in Adeyemi’s office, sleeping peacefully, while her consciousness wandered free in a parallel universe.

Madness. All of it. And not, she decided, worth two grand. She turned away, heading back towards where she thought the lifts were. The vision and the memory of the physical sensation she was so sure she’d experienced stayed with her even as she walked. She couldn’t shake it, standing by the lifts, waiting for the old-fashioned numbers above the doors to light up, and even as the they creaked open, it still bounced around her head, just like the sound she’d heard before. Dreams – ordinary dreams – were supposed to melt away in daylight. Something that had terrified you the night before would always seem silly once you were in the shower, listening to the chatter of a radio. That wasn’t happening this time. It was as real as if she’d been standing in the corridor again as the lights flickered out.

She stepped into the lift and turned around. The doors began to close with a whine of rusting mechanisms and then, as she glanced up, she saw something move at the end of the hall, where the shadows from the broken lights around the corner were deepest. Nothing she could put her finger on. Hell, it could’ve just been one of those rats that supposedly infested the place, but she was certain for a moment that a figure stood there watching her. Gemma started forward, but then the doors closed and, with aching slowness, the lift began to descend.

Gemma was riding the bus back into town when she thought to check her phone and then remembered Adeyemi had asked her to switch it off. When she turned it on again, she found a dozen missed calls from Sumiko. She frowned and called her back. Sumiko picked up straight away. “Gem? Are you okay?”

“Uh…yeah…sort of. Why? What’s up?”

“I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages!”

“I know. What’s going on? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Just checking something awful didn’t happen.”

Gemma wanted to tell her about her experience that afternoon, but riding back through the ordinary streets of her home city, seeing the familiar shop-fronts, watching the people on the pavement going about their business, it all seemed faraway and silly. And yet, at the same time, still frighteningly real. But why was Sumiko so concerned? “Nothing awful no. Why would it have?”

“I’ve been reading up about that building.”

“So have I. All last night while you were sleeping.”

“Oh.” Sumiko sounded relieved. “So you know already then?”

“Know what already?”

“About why the asylum was closed down.”

“No. I didn’t think to look for that. What happened?”

“Have you ever heard of a guy called Robert Morrison?”

“Yes, as it happens I have…”

“Well he’s the reason, Gem. He got the place shut down.”

She had a horrible feeling about this. “Why?” she asked.

“He was doing an experiment and someone died or something. It’s all a bit weird. I’m not sure I believe any of it to be honest, but the place got closed so…”

Gemma’s chest tightened. She could feel herself going cold and outside the city seemed to take on the same muted tone as the supposed-Otherworld. The odd vibe she’d been getting from Adeyemi made sense all of a sudden. Apparently her hero had done more than be a little unethical.

“Gem? Are you there?”

“Yeah,” she said softly, “are you at home?”

“Uh huh.”

“Don’t go out. I’m on the way back.”

“You sound funny. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“No. But we’ll talk about it when I get in.”

She hung up and sat back in her seat, feeling shell-shocked. What the hell had she managed to get herself involved in?

*

Back at the flat, Gemma watched as Sumiko pulled up the article she’d been reading on her laptop. In all the strangeness of the last few hours, Gemma had forgotten how exhausted she was, but now as she sat on the sofa which had served as her bed for the last couple of weeks, she could feel the tiredness start to creep over her. She wanted to put all of this out of her head and just curl up for about three days, but the thought of going to sleep made her feel uneasy. What would happen to her if she did? What if she entered the Otherworld again? She was certain there was more to what had happened than Adeyemi’s vague explanation, and was equally certain that somehow what Sumiko had found out held the key to the truth.

“Okay, so,” her friend said as she sat cross-legged on the floor by the side of the coffee table. The laptop was balanced precariously on the only available corner, as the rest was given over to a mixture of dirty cups and plates, various hair-care ephemera that worked tirelessly to give Sumiko a new style or colour almost every week and swatches of fabric for her fashion projects. Living with her was a little strange, but endlessly fascinating. The corner of the room was home to three dressmakers’ dummies, one repurposed as a lamp stand with a dusty lampshade in place of her head, and the others just kind of standing around, maybe trying to ignore their weird friend. At first it had creeped Gemma out – like she was being watched – and she’d woken up the first night she’d slept there, unsure where she was, and almost had a heart attack at the sight of the three shadowy figures across the room. Night terrors like that seemed pretty silly now.

“Dr Morrison?” Gemma leant forward as Sumiko brought up a black and white picture, looking a little crumpled and stained – obviously a scan of a physical copy in less than ideal condition – showing a bald man perhaps in his late-fifties with little spectacles on. He looked slightly-built and kind of grumpy. He wasn’t smiling.

“This is him, or as far as I could tell anyway.”

“Where’d you find this? I was reading about that place all night and he wasn’t even mentioned.”

“Ah,” Sumiko said, tapping her nose with a long, lacquered fingernail, “I know all of the internet’s darkest corners.”

“Yeah, I know you do, but this isn’t exactly your usual stuff, right?”

“No, that’d be too kinky even for me. But this site is shady as shit. It looks like there was some sort of cover-up about what happened.”

Gemma clocked the URL. “This is some conspiracy nut’s site?”

“Pretty much. And I thought it was probably bollocks, but I called you to check and when it went straight to voicemail…yeah…I just panicked a bit.”

“Aww, ain’t you sweet.” Gemma scrolled down the page and read a little more of the article. “Yeah, this is the guy,” she said with a nod, “the one Adeyemi told me about.”

“What did she say?”

“She said he was a scientist who came up with this idea about parallel universes in dreams. Brain frequencies, stuff like that. The machine she used was one he built, I guess.”

“And he experimented on the patients in the asylum?”

“She said he did. She wasn’t cool with it or anything,” she added, “and she said she was all about getting consent and stuff.”

“But she knew something went wrong, didn’t she?”

“I think so.” The article was quite long and as much as Gemma wanted to sit there and read every word in the hope it might provide some answers, her eyelids were heavy and her vision was starting to blur. It didn’t help that the text was yellow on a stupid patterned background, making it hard to read at the best of times. “Can you summarise, hun?”

“Sure. Basically he killed someone.”

“Right…”

“He was doing an experiment on a woman; an inmate there, and he got these weird readings or something. When he tried to bring her out of the trance, nothing happened. She was just…like…gone. Brain-dead I guess. No neural activity at all. They managed to keep her alive for a few more weeks, but this was the 1930s, so they didn’t really have the technology to do it much longer and so they stopped feeding her and she just died. After that, they shut down Morrison’s experiments, closed down the asylum so no one would find out what had happened and hushed everything up. The other patients got sent elsewhere, the building was officially condemned, Morrison went missing.”

“Missing?”

“Well, the guy who wrote this has a theory about him running away to Nazi Germany and setting himself up as a student of Josef Mengele.”

Gemma’s eyes widened, despite her exhaustion. “The one who did all the human experiments?”

“Supposedly,” Sumiko shrugged.

“That’s crazy.” She scrolled back up to the picture. The curmudgeonly man didn’t look like any sort of war criminal, but then, who did? “So someone died on his bench. That’s not the worst thing in the world. Adeyemi’s done a lot of work on improving his techniques I guess.”

Sumiko’s expression as she looked at Gemma was concerned. She’d already told her roughly what had happened, omitting some of the more outlandish details and making out like she believed Adeyemi’s explanation. “You don’t trust her, do you?”

“Adeyemi? Not now, no. She said it wasn’t dangerous.” Gemma rested her chin on her hands and stared at the screen.

“Well,” Sumiko sighed, “it’s done now, right? You have the money, she got her results, end of story.”

“Yeah.” Something occurred to her though, sitting there. “The woman who died. Who was she?”

“Um…hang on.” Sumiko swivelled the laptop around and clicked around a little. “Here. There’s a page on that. Margaret Rickon, also known as ‘Red Maggie’. She was a convicted murderer. Again, it’s sort of hard to pin anything definite down, but according to this, she had a son who died and she went mad with grief. She didn’t tell anyone about it and kept his body. Supposedly she ate it, piece by piece. Then she started abducting children all over the city, killing and eating them too. It says she murdered over thirty in the end, all boys, all around the same age as her son. They were going to hang her but the judge ruled she was insane and she was locked up in the asylum for the rest of her life. Then Morrison did his little experiment and that was that. I don’t think anyone cared too much.”

Sumiko had turned the laptop back so Gemma could see it, and now she was staring open-mouthed at the page. There was a picture of Rickon – Red Maggie – obviously scanned from an old, yellowed newspaper, probably a police mug shot. She looked tired and sad: not insane at all. But that was irrelevant, because Gemma had seen that face before: it was the woman who’d tried to strangle her.

*

When Sumiko ran out of coffee, Gemma walked alone to the corner shop and bought as much Red Bull as she could with the money in her purse. It was the middle of the night; they probably just thought she was revising for an exam. She texted around, asking if anyone had any pills that might keep her awake. No good: none of the dealers she knew handled anything like that. She thought about coke, but the idea didn’t appeal, and besides she’d have to go across town to get hold of it. All she knew was, she didn’t want to fall asleep, but her body fought her every step of the way. Apart from the few minutes she’d spent on Adeyemi’s bench, she hadn’t slept in over thirty-six hours now. She kept drifting off into a sort of daze, and whenever she did, and she felt her eyelids start to droop again, she’d open another can and glug it back, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle. She went to the loo over and over, almost falling asleep sitting there once, and then she’d come back and sit on the sofa and it would all begin again. She left the window open until the room was icy cold. She put her iPod on at full volume and listened to the loudest songs she had. None of it did any good. In the end, without her even knowing, she dropped off, and settled into a fitful slumber.

Was she asleep or awake? She didn’t know, but she was in Sumiko’s front room, on the sofa. Everything looked normal, except all the colours were washed out. The dummies watched her from the corner and she backed away, suddenly more terrified of the four silent figures than she ever had been before.

Wait, four?

She surged towards her from the shadows: Red Maggie. Her hair was wild, her teeth just as bloody as before, and when she opened her mouth the same wail filled the air. She was on her in the blink of an eye, throttling her again. She stared into Gemma’s eyes as she feebly tried to fight her way free. “I see you,” she hissed, “creepin’ around, bein’ where you shouldn’t…”

Gemma woke up with a start. Pale dawn light was filtering through the curtains. She was alone. Her heart was beating fast again and she looked at the dummies, just where they were supposed to be, and in the correct quantity now. She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself. Just a dream. And, in contrast to her earlier experience in the asylum, this did feel much more unreal. In the morning light, it wasn’t nearly so frightening. But the memory of yesterday still lingered. Obviously the story she’d read about Morrison and the unfortunate Margaret Rickon was still on her mind and she’d dreamt about it. That’s all. But then, wasn’t the Otherworld the place where dreams took place? If she was dreaming – and if it was all true – that really could have been Red Maggie. What had happened to her and how was she still around? A ghost? That was nonsense, surely…

*

Gemma didn’t get lost this time. She found her way straight to Adeyemi’s office and opened the door without knocking. The professor was at her desk as usual, and looked up in shock as she burst into the room. “Gemma? What are you doing here?”

“You lied to me,” she said. She was angry, and that anger was keeping her going through all the exhaustion and all the fear the last twenty-four hours had inflicted on her. The confusion, the horror, the sheer insanity of the previous day had now calcified into this outrage, and she put her hands on her hips and stared Adeyemi down.

“Lied? When?” There was a waver in her voice. She knew exactly what was going on.

“You lied about Morrison. You lied about his experiments. Someone died – a woman, a murderer whose mind he played with without her consent. Then it was all swept under the carpet. And that was his last experiment.” She turned and pointed an accusatory finger at Morrison’s machine, which was now under its dustsheet again. “The last time that was used, someone was killed! And you told me it wasn’t dangerous!”

“I…it wasn’t…I mean, I understood where Morrison went wrong and…”

Gemma turned back. “And?”

“And you were fine…nothing happened…”

“Something did happen though!”

“It was a dream!”

“No it wasn’t! It was Red Maggie! I found her photograph. The woman who attacked me in the Otherworld or whatever the fuck it is was the same woman who Morrison killed! She’s still there, somehow!”

“Impossible,” Adeyemi said with a firm shake of her head, “the consciousness can’t outlive the body. Red Ma…Margaret Rickon…had a terrible accident. She was already severely ill before Morrison came near her anyway. Something went wrong and she was…lost…she died weeks after that. How could she still be here? What is her mind anchored to?”

“You tell me,” Gemma said, “you’re the one who knows about all this stuff, right?”

“Well…I…”

Gemma shook her head. “You don’t know, do you? No one does. Morrison was just starting to discover the truth. All he had were wild theories. The evidence supported some of what he said, but it was never publishable. He’d have been laughed at. But before he could get real proof that dreams were some sort of gateway into an alternate universe on a different frequency from ours, Maggie died and that was the end of it. Until you unearthed his work and got interested.”

“It wasn’t quite like that,” Adeyemi said a little primly, “I ran huge numbers of simulations before I ever considered running a practical experiment. I scrutinised his numbers in detail. I didn’t do anything until I was absolutely sure I’d eliminated all possible risks. From his earliest findings to the very last, I knew every number off by heart.”

“The very last,” Gemma said, “that would be Maggie, right? And I bet those findings – the readings he took – were the ones you mentioned yesterday, weren’t they? The strange spikes? And the reason he couldn’t draw any conclusions was because his subject was brain-dead afterwards.”

Adeyemi’s voice was firm. “What happened to Rickon can’t happen to you. There are safeties in place Morrison couldn’t have dreamed of. Anything out of the ordinary and I can bring you right out. That’s what happened, didn’t it? You’re not going to die. I have no explanation for the similar readings.”

“Well I do,” Gemma said grimly, “it wasn’t because I was going through whatever Maggie did: it was because she was here. She came for me, and when she touched me, you got a snapshot of her brain waves instead of mine.”

“That isn’t possible…”

“Why not? What happens when people encounter each other in your Otherworld, anyway?”

“I…well…I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Gemma laughed shortly. “No, I bet you hadn’t. But according to your theories, we can all get there. If it’s a place, we can meet people there, we can talk to each other, we can share dreams. This idea is so dangerous. There’s a million things you haven’t even considered about it.”

“I’m the scientist here, Gemma,” Adeyemi told her with a scowl.

“What if your body is killed while you’re fully in the Otherworld, what then?”

“Then nothing! You die! I told you, consciousness can’t survive the death of the body! How could it? Your thoughts, your being, your soul if you wish to call it that, is just a pattern of synapses and electrical signals in your brain. No brain, no you, no matter how much you may want to romanticise it. If Margaret Rickon died, whatever part of her was in the Otherworld is gone too.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course.”

“How sure?”

Adeyemi paused. Her face twisted and she seemed to be trapped by indecision. Gemma supposed her rational, scientific brain was arguing with her self-preservation instinct. Admit fault here and her experiments could go the way of Morrison’s, but she couldn’t deny the truth. “Not one-hundred-percent,” she allowed at last.

“Right…”

“There’s a lot I don’t know about the Otherworld. It’s possible…I mean, it’s so unlikely but…it’s possible that, just as this theory allows us to explain various mythological beliefs held in common by every society on Earth, it may also account for certain…so-called supernatural experiences.”

“Like ghosts?”

“Possibly.”

“I heard her in the real world, professor,” Gemma said, “in the corridor around the corner. The same sound she made in the Otherworld before she attacked me. People don’t just dream about ghosts.”

“No, but our world and the Otherworld intersect. At times, when under huge amounts of stress, or when very tired, we tap into the dream state while we’re ostensibly awake. When you came here yesterday, you’d been awake for an entire day.”

“Exactly.”

“In a manner of speaking, you may have been dreaming when you had this…um…encounter.”

“Okay then.” Just having her acknowledge that there was some truth in what she’d experienced was enough to drain all the adrenaline out of her. She slumped down in the chair. “So what do we do now?”

“What do you mean?”

“About Red Maggie.”

“I’m not sure I understand…”

Gemma waved a hand. “She’s still there. Here. Eighty years after she died. Some part of her still exists. She never came back and she’s been waiting all this time for someone to come visit. Think what she’s going through.”

“She was a murderer, Gemma, a particularly nasty one.”

Gemma recalled Maggie’s red teeth. What was it Adeyemi had said about having control over your appearance in the Otherworld if your will was strong enough? Something of Maggie’s terrible crimes was obviously leaking out of this fragment of her psyche that was adrift here. “She was mentally ill. She went through something awful and it broke her. She did appalling things, yes, but she should have been given help from the start. Instead, like a lot of the women kept here, she was dismissed by society and left to rot. Then a scientist comes in with a crackpot theory and starts doing experiments on her against her will. Experiments that kill her. But she’s out there, professor. She’s in the Otherworld, alone and lost and there has to be some way we can put her to rest at last.”

Adeyemi lifted an eyebrow. “Should we call a priest?”

She couldn’t believe what she was about to suggest. Maybe it was just the exhaustion talking. “I can go back. I can talk to her. I don’t know what we can do but…there must be something…”

“Gemma,” Adeyemi said, “this woman attacked you, or so you say.”

“Right, but still no bruises, look.” She pulled down her collar again. “It was all in my head. I can’t really be hurt there, can I?”

“Your pulse…your breathing…”

Strange how their positions had reversed now, Gemma thought. “Just pull me out again if something strange happens.”

“But that’s dangerous. I told you.”

“I know. But if I leave here without doing anything, she’ll haunt me forever.” She knew it was true. Last night’s dream hadn’t been an ordinary dream. The Otherworld existed adjacent to the real universe, just operating on a different frequency, at least that’s how she understood it. Red Maggie was here, walking a phantom world she couldn’t interact with, until someone happened to slip into the right dream state for them to appear solidly before her. She could wait forever. Gemma would never sleep soundly again. “I have to do this,” she said.

Adeyemi looked at her. The silence stretched. “All right,” she finally said, “but remember this was your decision.”

“I know.”

Setting up the machine again took time. Gemma waited, trying not to mentally talk herself out of going through with this. She looked around Adeyemi’s little corner of civilisation in the cavernous room. Such a strange setting. The furniture and effects were homely. Some pieces of African art propped up on a shelf, and a crude clay sculpture daubed in bright poster paint – the efforts of a child or grandchild, maybe. No photos anywhere though. What had it cost Adeyemi to devote her life to pursuing this odd belief in parallel universes? She said she used to be a physicist, but she’d thrown that away to prove the mad theories of an unethical and discredited scientist that the world wished forgotten. The idea of another world sitting beside this one but ever-so-slightly out of synch, just visible from the corner of the eye as it were, was compelling and powerful. And it did explain a lot, potentially, as well as present new opportunities for travel and communication. Confirming it would turn the world upside down, and net Adeyemi a Nobel Prize for sure. But how could you ever prove something like this? Especially if the only experiment anyone had devised to test it was this dangerous. It was a lot to pin a career on, and a lot for Gemma to risk her life for.

But the office furniture wasn’t the only thing in the room. There were the stark walls, that high window, the heavy, soundproofed door with a lock only on the outside. There were more ghosts here than Red Maggie. How many women had been dragged screaming into these cells under the pretence of receiving help for their ailments? How many, like Maggie, were left to rot here, forgotten by the outside world? An injustice had been done, and then compounded by unscrupulous scientific practice. A woman had lost her life, or at least her body, as a result. She couldn’t rest easy knowing that this had all happened and she’d perhaps had a chance to fix it. That would haunt her as much as Red Maggie popping into her dreams to strangle her.

“We’re ready,” Adeyemi announced.

Gemma took a deep breath. “Okay then.” She turned her phone off again. She should have told Sumiko what she was doing, but Sumiko didn’t know the whole story. She’d just talk her out of it. She was sensible like that. She crossed the room and stood beside the gently humming machine.

“Are you sure about this?” Adeyemi asked her, just like last time.

“Yes,” she said quickly, before her brain really had chance to process the question.

She lay down, and Adeyemi attached the electrodes. The inaudible tone began the same as before and, without knowing it, she began to settle into a deep sleep, the odd not-quite-sound lulling her off.

*

She stood up. The disorientation was the same as before. She didn’t know who she was or what she was doing here, but when she turned and saw herself and Adeyemi, she immediately remembered everything. She was gratified that it got easier each time. Her steps were shaky, and things felt strange here in the Otherworld, as if she was moving through thick fog. There was a sensation of disconnectedness that she didn’t recall from her previous visit.

“You’ve slept since last time, darlin’,” a voice said.

She looked up and saw a familiar figure standing by the door. Red Maggie. She wore the same smock, had the same crazed expression on her pale face, and the same murderous crimson grin. Of course she was here, waiting. She might have heard their whole conversation; an unseen observer to everything they did. It was a frightening thought, but she controlled her breathing, lest Adeyemi bring her back into consciousness too early. She glanced back to reassure herself that everything was still as it should be. Her sleeping body and the professor hadn’t moved. “I’ve slept,” Gemma nodded, “what of it?”

“You’re tied more closely to your world now. Interestin’.”

They started to circle one another slowly, and Gemma refused to break the stare first. “I want to help you,” she said.

“Oh do you now?”

“What was done to you…it wasn’t fair…”

“‘Ow do you know what was done to me, eh?”

“You lost someone important to you and it hurt. And then you did some bad things. Isn’t that right?”

Maggie let out a cracked, manic laugh. “Bad fings? Yeah, you might say that, dearie. I done some awful fings, an’ that’s the truth. So they locked me up forever.”

“I know. That wasn’t fair. You weren’t well.”

“I suppose I weren’t, no. But what was they supposed to do? Let me keep on killin’?”

“You should have been treated. You should have been given help.”

“I don’t fink the mothers of all them little boys what I ate would agree wiv you, darlin’.” She bared her teeth in a sort of twisted smile, and Gemma flinched at the sight of the blood that encrusted them.

“You were locked up,” Gemma said, “and then someone used you in an experiment.”

“I remember.”

“And that’s how you got trapped here. That’s why you’re like this. Your body died, but you are still here, caught in limbo.”

“Is that what you fink?”

“I know what happened. A lot of time has passed, Maggie. You’ve been here for over eighty years. It’s time for you to rest.” Gemma started to move towards her, holding up her hands. “I only want to help you.”

“Yeah, that’s what ‘e said.”

“Who?”

“Robbie. Dr Morrison. What a kind chap ‘e were too. Very polite. Not that ‘e ever spoke to me direct, like. Always to the nurses an’ the uvver doctors. Like I was a child. But ‘e ‘ad the best intentions, I’m sure.”

“He was trying to help you?”

“That’s what ‘e said. I knew it were a lie though. I know all about lies, me. No, ‘e never really wanted to ‘elp me. But ‘e did. That’s the thing. In the end, ‘e did.”

“I don’t understand…”

Maggie was there in front of her in an instant. She didn’t seem to have moved across the intervening space at all. She was just there, suddenly. After eighty years, she must have total mastery of this universe. But Gemma had no time to think about that, because her hands were wrapped around her throat again, and she was powerless to defend herself against that iron grip. “Stupid girl,” Maggie sneered, and now her mouth dripped with fresh blood, “I only wanted to be free. I wanted to escape, ‘an that’s what I did. ‘E tried to bring me back, but I ‘eld on. I stayed right where I was. ‘E’d sent me ‘ere before, you see. Lots of times. I could control it. ‘E didn’t know. ‘E never asked, see? ‘E just looked at ‘is machines. This is my world. I left my broken old body behind. I fought I’d just fade away an’ die, but I never did. I just stayed ‘ere, waitin’, lookin’ for a way back. A way I could really be free. An’ now,” she said, bringing her face close, “I’ve found it.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Gemma could see Adeyemi on her feet, fiddling with the machine, trying to bring her back to consciousness. She looked down and saw her body begin to fade in and out of the Otherworld, but Maggie’s grip was still firm. She was watching too. “Frequency, ‘e called it,” she murmured, as if to herself, “it’s just about findin’ the right frequency.”

Gemma kept struggling. She felt like she was unable to breathe, but since her lungs were on the other side of the room, she didn’t get weaker or die. It was just pain. Maggie’s body began to turn transparent, and then fade back to solidity again. As Gemma felt herself being pulled away, her attacker began to match the rhythms of her own transitions until they both oscillated from visibility to invisibility at the same rate. Maggie was matching her frequency somehow, but why?

After what felt like hours, she had the sensation of being dragged away from this struggle. The room faded into semi-darkness. She went to close her eyes, willing herself back to reality, but then Maggie let go of her throat and lunged at her. She turned to spectral gossamer at just the same time she did and their forms seemed to merge. Gemma felt a jolt and an instant of purest agony, and then she was lying on the floor, dazed.

“Gemma? Gemma?” She heard Adeyemi’s voice. It was reassuring.

“I’m okay,” she rasped, “it’s fine.”

“Gemma? Talk to me!”

She tried to pull herself up. She felt shaky. “I’m here,” she said. “I’m back.”

“Please, Gemma! Oh god…oh god…”

“Professor?” Gemma managed to drag herself into a sitting position. She swivelled around on the tiled floor. She was some way from the bench and the machine. Had she been thrown that far when she’d woken up? She stared around. Everything was still colourless and foggy. She was still in the Otherworld, and her body still reclined calmly on the bench while Adeyemi bent over her.

“Gemma!” She was almost screaming. What was going on? Where was Maggie?

“It’s all right, professor,” a voice said, and Gemma’s jaw dropped as she saw her own eyes open and her waking self sit up and smile calmly at Adeyemi.

“Oh thank god,” she said, slumping down, “I was so scared! Your brain waves were so unusual. I thought…well…I thought the same thing might have gone wrong…”

“No. Everything is perfectly fine.” It was her voice, but the tone was different. Gemma rose unsteadily and gaped at the scene. It was the real world that she saw, but she wasn’t the one speaking. She was separate from her own body.

“Are you sure?” Adeyemi asked whatever-was-in-her, “you sound a little…odd…”

The thing tilted its head curiously. “Odd? How so?”

“Just something in the way you’re speaking. And your eyes…your eyes are different…”

Gemma walked around the bench so she was face to face with herself, peering over Adeyemi’s shoulder. She looked into her own eyes and saw exactly what the professor meant. It wasn’t her looking back at her. It was someone else. And they could see her, somehow. They looked right at her and grinned widely. There was no blood, but it was still the same ghastly smile. Red Maggie was inside her, somehow. And where did that leave her?

“Gemma, I really think that…”

A hand shot out and grabbed Adeyemi around the throat. She tried to struggle free, but there was no contest between Gemma’s young, healthy body and the professor’s old, plump one. And all the time, Red Maggie looked right at Gemma, watching from the Otherworld, as she choked the life from the only person who knew where she was. And then, as Adeyemi lay dead on the floor, she stood up calmly and walked around the back of Morrison’s machine. She opened a panel on the back and then reached inside. Gemma cried out and dashed around to stop her, but of course her hands went straight through her. Maggie tore out machinery from inside, ripping the device apart. Its hum faded to nothing. Then she dashed the laptop against the floor, smashing it to pieces and set to work with a screwdriver on the knobs and dials on the front, grinning throughout. Gemma could only watch in despair as the machine was turned to scrap.

And then Maggie, in her stolen body, walked towards the door. She was a little shaky, unused to this new form, but her confidence grew as she moved. She turned. “If it’s any consolation,” she said in a voice both familiar and terrifyingly alien, “you can go wherever you want now. You’re truly free, just like I was. In eighty years or so, you might find freedom is its own kind of cage though.”

She left the room, closing the door with a bang, and Gemma was alone in the pale, washed-out realm of the Otherworld, lost and forgotten.

 

 

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This entry was posted in Contemporary, Horror, Science Fiction, Serialised Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

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