Winner of Public Vote - Most Shocking Twist - in Tales from The Void (TwiSciFi) contest. Thank you to all who read and voted, I am humbled and flattered.
Summary: Everyone has a wish they want granted more than anything. Imagine there was a secret place you could go to have that wish fulfilled. Would you risk your life to find it? Three people are willing to do whatever they have to as they follow their guide on the treacherous journey through The Zone to find a Wish Portal.
Disclaimer: All recognized names belong to Twilight, some recognized settings to Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (and amazing movie adaptation Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky). The weird characters in this story are all mine.
I made some minimal changes to this entry since I don't have a word limit anymore.
My profound thanks to my betas and pre-readers, they are my wish come true: Alby Mongroves for making me want to enter and for holding my hand. LJ Summers for early morning sweet messages and weeks spent on fixing grammar. Giselle-lx for helping to shape this story. And to Sleepyvalentina, who is an amazing mentor and is the reason I won in this category. Thank you!
And to Rags, always.
Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge of the earth
And fall off
If they get the chance
And this is my chance
"Weird Fishes" Radiohead
Edward slouched against the wall in the shadow of the corner of the bar, waiting.
It was a run-down place, with business so slow the bartender had nothing to do but wipe the counter over and over, his face blank as if he was daydreaming. "Mad World" played in the background, telling Edward he was "Going nowhere, going nowhere. . ." He was questioning himself again, though not his decision to take the journey. It was his changing sense of what he knew to be real that troubled him. What was left of the rational part of his mind kept reminding him that his sister was gone; her permanent absence was a hole of guilt and regret in his heart, yet he couldn't stop wishing he could turn back time and bring her back. The desire to see and talk to her again was so overwhelming, he had to do something about it. So he went for his last resort. Reality be damned: he was going to visit The Zone.
"Are you ready?"
He flinched, startled by the man who appeared before him. He was at least a foot-and-a-half shorter than Edward with a thin, pale face, ridden with deep wrinkles. A black knit cap sat crookedly on his head, exposing a patch of snow-white hair over his ear. He looked old and frail, but his handshake was firm. Something flashed in his watery eyes when they met Edward's, making him nervous.
"I'm ready," Edward said quickly, relieved when the man let his hand go. He dropped his gaze, trying not to squirm under the man's piercing stare. No one needed to know what was going through his half-crazed mind. "I'm ready," he repeated. Pushing himself off the wall with his foot, he slung his backpack over his shoulder.
Two men—one tall and burly, the other with a slight enough build to look boyish— waited at a table, backpacks at their feet and baseball caps pulled low. The larger of the two, Emmett McCarty, tapped his fingers on the table to the rhythm of his loud breathing. He towered over the person standing next to him, who was quiet as a mouse. Emmett mentally dubbed him "Shorty". Shorty kept his distance, hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, face hidden under his visor.
"It's all set," said the man in the knit cap.
Emmett grumbled. "Finally."
"Yes, well. My job is to insure your safety." The man smiled shyly. "Hello. You may call me Lizard; I will be your guide."
What a strange choice of name, Edward thought.
By the way all three of Lizard's companions avoided looking at each other, it was obvious introductions weren't welcome, and Lizard wasn't one to push.
"I just confirmed the route and time of the last raid," Lizard said. "We don't have long, but before we go, I need to explain to you how we'll get to The Zone tonight. Please pay attention."
All three men visibly sobered up. With morose expressions, they listened to the guide's instructions about trucks, trains and hiding spots to use in order to avoid being caught by militia on their way to The Zone. Just getting there was a journey in itself. While the guide talked, his hands seemed to shake and twitch as if searching for something, and his fidgeting did nothing to soothe the nerves of his companions.
The Zone was a world that defied both common sense and science. Its metaphysics were not to be explained, only accepted. The brave ones who risked their lives in The Zone did it for one reason: legend had it that The Zone carried a portal to a special place in which their innermost wishes could be granted, and only a guide could help them to find the portal.
As far as Lizard knew, no other guide had ever brought more than one person into The Zone. Never in a position to refuse, Lizard had taken on the challenge without a second thought when three persons had requested help at the same time. Still, Lizard never expected the group would be this diverse. If it were up to Lizard, they'd be denied. Alas, The Zone did not discriminate and guides' preferences were of no consequence.
Being a guide was both a privilege and a curse. Labeled God's fools by some and saints by others, they were criminals in the eyes of the law and therefore ostracized from society. There was no rhyme or reason to how The Zone picked them, but once it did, a Chosen One had no choice—it was impossible to fight The Zone's inexplicable draw.
"Did you read the instructions I'd sent?" Lizard asked.
Emmett answered on everyone's behalf, "Yes, yes, of course we did."
Edward couldn't see the face of the speaking man well, but there was something familiar about his slight lisp and the way he articulated every word.
Emmett waved his hand. "Let's do this thing already."
It's not a thing, Lizard wanted to protest, already knowing it was fruitless. Every once in a while, Lizard was given the challenge of guiding cocky skeptics. Some of them even survived.
"Have you gotten your supplies? Did you follow the instructions precisely?" Lizard asked again, fidgeting some more.
"Yes," all three responded, though Shorty did so more quietly than the others.
The guide's eyes swept over each of them head to toe.
"This is no time for dishonesty," he said grimly. "One of you has a knife, and one brought a communicator. Turn them in."
How he'd figured that out was anyone's guess.
Emmett wasn't going to deny his indiscretion. At forty-six, he was a seasoned researcher. Used to cross-examination, he knew how to argue his point. In fact, he was so good at it, there weren't a lot of opponents left to challenge his conclusions, which made him immensely proud. He remembered the Pre-Zone era and how dull his work seemed then. The discovery of The Zone gave his life new meaning; it gave him a drive, and became his main source for research. He'd been planning this trip for such a long time, it had become his obsession. Going to The Zone was a calculated risk he'd decided to take. If he were to succeed, he'd be famous for generations.
Emmett appraised their wimpy, fidgeting guide. "No. I'm keeping the knife. I need it to survive."
"A knife won't help you survive—following the rules and keeping a clear head will. Give me the knife, or I'll have you searched."
Instinctively, Emmett secured his backpack between his feet. "Fine." He pulled the Swiss knife out of the pocket of his baggy pants. "It was expensive."
The guide shrugged and nodded to the bartender, who came over and took the knife.
"If I don't return, are you going to keep my stuff?" Emmett asked.
"If you don't make it back, do you care who'd keep it?"
"No, I guess not."
"Then it's an irrelevant question. Although, I can tell you that I never keep my companions' belongings. Expropriation is against The Zone's nature."
"It takes lives, does it not?"
"Only when pushed. Only if you disrespect its rules."
"What about the communicator?" Emmett turned to the others with his hands on his hips. "I know I don't have it."
Firmly meeting Emmett's gaze, Edward narrowed his eyes. "Neither do I. You can search me if you want." He pulled his backpack off his shoulder and dropped it on the table. "Knock yourself out."
Emmett studied Edward's fisted hands on the table for a moment and turned to the short guy.
"It's you then, Shorty."
Shorty's hunched shoulders and lowered gaze spoke volumes. Stubbornly, he kept silent.
"He's wasting our time." Emmett shot the guide a nasty look.
The unfriendliness and pitfalls of The Zone suddenly seemed like an afterthought compared to the hostility that sprang up among this group. Lizard recognized then that having three wish-makers seeking the portal at the same time wasn't just flat-out dangerous. It could turn deadly in a hurry, while a guide's purpose was to bring all of them back alive.
Lizard had to bring them all back alive.
Suppressing a deep sigh, Lizard held an especially long gaze on one of the companions, already knowing—The Zone was throwing Lizard a challenge. Why? Of that Lizard wasn't sure yet. One thing was clear—in order for this group to survive, they not only had to obey Lizard's every order, they had to become a team.
"This discussion is over." Lizard stepped closer to the group. "A communicator won't have any use in The Zone; no electronic devices work there. All it'd do is enable the militia to track us down before we reach our destination." He flagged down the bartender.
Shorty fumbled around, pulling the communicator out of the bag, but hesitated to hand it over.
"Do you need to make a call?" Lizard knew well which battles to pick. "You can; we still have a few minutes."
Shorty sent the guide a thankful glance from under the visor. "Hi, Mom," the companions heard him softly say into the communicator as he walked away.
Edward studied Shorty's narrow shoulders and hips and frowned. One of his companions was a girl and he had no idea what to think of it. He finally resolved that if this girl was going to risk her life in The Zone, she must have a good reason. In which case, she wasn't any different from him.
When the girl came back, she passed her communicator to the bartender.
The guide waited until he had full attention of the group and said, "I have to ask you one more time whether you're ready." He moved his eyes from one person to next. "This is your last chance to change your mind."
He was met by determined silence.
"Very well, then." Smiling for the first time since they'd all met, he pulled his knit cap over his ears. "Good luck to all of us. Let's go meet our fate, shall we?"
The truck drove faster than any of them had expected. Edward ran after it and made it in first. As he covered himself, his heart galloped in his chest triumphantly from this simple achievement. The truck kept moving at the same speed. The burlap over his head smelled like fish and mold, but he was too pumped to pay attention to it. Wondering about the others, he lay still in wait. Several moments later, he felt the bed of the truck jump and someone sliding under the burlap next to him. Shorty.
Limping in his new boots, Emmett could only gape at how fast Shorty was. A girl. It's a gods-damned girl! As the truck made a turn, she sprang up before Emmett and grabbed at the tailgate. Quick and lithe, she threw her body over the edge with impressive ease. In the process, she dropped her hat, spilling out long, dark curls. Her hair flew in the air around her as she disappeared inside the truck.
Transfixed, Emmett almost lost his footing, and with that, some precious time. He fell farther behind the truck, and though he was already heaving, he pushed himself forward. With one last effort, he grasped at the tailgate, pulled his body up, and hauled himself up over the edge. Exhausted, he slumped under the cover. Feeling dizzy, he cursed. Had he really physically let himself go so much that some girl could outrun him?
The guide whistled from the cab, signaling to his passengers in the back that they'd reached their next destination—the rail tracks. Their instructions were to keep low, find a spot to hide, and wait for the arrival of the train. The guide would drive away and join them after dumping the truck.
The ditch in which they hid stunk as if someone had died in it. Lying on her stomach with her nose buried in her hands, Bella gagged a few times, willing herself not throw up. She was the only woman in the group, and that was intimidating enough. The last thing she wanted was to give her companions the impression she was a liability.
Once she became used to the smell, she found a more comfortable position and turned her head to the side, resting her cheek on her bent arm. With time, her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she was able to make out the features of her companion on her right. He lay on his side, facing her. His eyes were closed, his mouth partly open, and wisps of his penny-colored hair peeked from under his cap. He was so quiet, breathing evenly, she thought he had fallen asleep. She nearly gasped when his eyes flew open and locked on her. Even now that she was caught, she couldn't look away. They stared at each other. Time, thick and slow as honey, moved unnoticed past them. She couldn't tell his eye color, but in the dark, they were deep-black, curious and intense. She should've been disturbed by the scrutiny in his look, instead she was fascinated. What is he thinking?
The distant sound of a moving train pulled them out of their revelry.
The guy blinked, finally glancing away. "I guess it's time," he murmured, getting up.
Wondering what had just happened between them, Bella didn't respond. She watched him rise on his elbows and peek outside. He began crawling out. The big guy followed, his backpack rattling as he moved. Bella hurried after them.
They crawled in the dark, using the sound of the approaching engine as their guide. When they heard it hiss and stop, they moved faster. Their goal was to cross the rail track during the train's short stop. Once on the other side, it would serve as their cover.
They made it to the train at almost the same time. Bella paused, intimidated by the massive size of the train's wheels up close. They'd be squashed like bugs if they got caught under those things.
Their super-sized companion crawled past her, kicking her in the hip with his boot in his haste.
With her head lowered, Bella sucked in a breath and scrambled behind him on shaky hands and knees. Once she crossed the tracks, the other guy followed.
Then, they ran.
They ran with all their might toward the front of the train. The guide, who seemed to appear again out of thin air, led the way, his puffy orange vest their beacon as he wove in front of them. For a guy his age, he moved surprisingly fast.
When the train jerked and started to move again, it did so in reverse. That wasn't what the guide had promised. Actually, he'd never mentioned which direction the train was going to take.
He set them up! Emmett swore under his breath. At the rate they were going, they'd be exposed in a matter of seconds. The guide glanced back and took a sharp turn, away from the tracks, and sped up; the rest followed.
Bella prayed to the Gods, asking they spare her a twisted ankle and give her strength to keep up.
Edward's thoughts were different. He was acutely aware of the girl's every step and breath as she ran; her face was smooth, and her long hair flew behind her in a wild wave. He thought she was brave and, the entire time they spent waiting for the train, he kept wondering what had brought her on this journey.
Something changed, and his attention shifted.
It wasn't that the sunrise snuck up on them, its bright rays shining into their eyes. Or that the guide had finally had mercy on them and slowed his pace.
No. It was the air. The dead silence. The total stillness into which they had suddenly emerged. It enveloped them and took over all their senses. It left them dumbfounded and made them feel small.
They were in The Zone.
The guide froze. Still catching their breath, the rest mimicked him.
He turned to them slowly. The air glimmered and rippled in soft waves, chasing him, clinging to him, caressing him. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that whatever surrounded him was alive. His arms, legs, facial features—his entire body—seemed to oscillate, rendering him unclear, blurry.
It was the strangest thing they'd ever seen.
"Whoa." Emmett checked his own almost-shapeless hands. His voice sounded muffled, distorted. "Is this normal, Guide?"
"There is no normal in this place," Lizard answered.
"But does it mean anything? Is it good or bad?" Edward asked.
Edward blew a breath. "Does it mean we can start moving forward?"
The guide looked around with dark, vacant eyes, listening intently to something only he could hear. He took his time to answer.
"There is no forward or back. The Zone is not static. There are no direct pathways, and the Wish Portal has no predefined location. Who knows? We may not advance beyond this point."
"Meaning The Zone might send us packing?"
"No, meaning The Zone could present you with a challenge—or many—right here. And your journey could end—right here."
"End with letting us into the Wish Portal or end, end?" Edward asked.
"End either way. It's entirely up to The Zone."
End right here? Now? Bella gasped at the thought. But. . . She had a wish! She had to. . . No, it couldn't be.
She was on a verge of a panic attack. She'd thought she was prepared for anything: deathtraps, demons, torture, pain. She was prepared for a battle. To punch, kick, bite, eat dirt, if she had to. And maybe even lose. But not like this, not without a fight. Was this whole thing some kind of a joke? Had the guide lied to them? Were they all doomed from the start?
Edward seemed to feel the same way. He stepped toward the guide. "It can't be true—"
The air shifted around the guide, turning into a protective halo with an unpleasant hum.
"Don't!" the guide cried. "Don't move!"
Edward staggered back. The air swirled in a violent gust, rippling and tearing at the grass at his feet. He tried to take a breath, but nothing came in. It felt as if his windpipe was sealed shut. He wheezed and doubled over until he was suddenly let go as abruptly as he was captured.
"I'm sorry," the guide said to Edward. "Are you okay?"
Edward nodded, looking down at his hands on his knees.
"That was your warning. You're lucky you got one." The guide breathed reverently. "You have to be patient," he begged. "You have to wait. There will be a sign. At least one of you will get a sign. I can't tell you what it will be, the challenges are never the same, but you have to wait for it."
The guide's particular phrase caught Emmett's attention. His mind snatched it, encapsulated it into a memory and stored it away for later.
Time stretched on. The bright disc of the sun rolled high up, scorching the sky. No matter how much they strained their vision, all they could see was unnaturally green grass under their feet, a blindingly orange sphere above their heads, and the quivering thick haze of absolutely nothing in between. Forbidden to move, they were stuck in limbo.
The heat was exhausting. Dizzy and thirsty, Bella wanted to sit down and stretch herself on the grass that looked so inviting. It made her feel better that her companions didn't look as fresh as daisies, either. The big guy looked especially bad—he was sweating and heaving.
Hard to stand there, holding all that extra weight, isn't it? she thought darkly. It wasn't her, it was the dull pain in her hip talking, she decided.
She thought she saw something flash through the haze ahead. She stared in that direction for a long time to see if it would happen again, and just when she thought it was her overheated brain playing a trick on her, it flashed again. Her heart jumped.
"Did you see that?" she asked.
"Huh?" The burly guy perked up.
It flashed again.
"There!" Bella pointed. "See that?"
It kept flashing here and there, each time more brightly, until it turned into a steady, scintillating gleam. Their ears popped as if in descend from high-altitude flight. The air thinned, presenting in crystal clarity the expanse of the green land with something that looked like a silver lining wrapping the horizon, which seemed to expand and swallow the green grass and orange sky as it closed in.
"Ah." The guide was nonplussed.
"What is this?" Bella asked.
"This, I reckon, is your first challenge."
The guide appeared eerily calm, smiling even and Bella thought that of course, why wouldn't he be; he isn't the one risking his life here. He probably had fun watching the visitors fail time after time.
The gleaming mass was almost there. It wasn't transparent, it wasn't splashing over, and it moved without a sound. As it kept rolling closer, it shone brilliantly in the sun, projecting bright rays onto the faces of visitors in a myriad of sparkles.
To Lizard, the view was incredibly sublime in its majestic glory; too bad the rest of the group was too flabbergasted by the unearthliness of it to appreciate the magnificence of the phenomenon before them.
"It's not water, but. . ." Edward squinted his eyes and leaned forward, already figuring out the challenge.
It's an amalgam of sorts. . . like quicksilver. . . Mercury? Mercury is deadly, flashed in his mind. You don't touch something like Mercury, let alone walk or swim through it. Shit, I can't swim. Alice could swim. . .
But Alice wasn't there to help him. Alice was the reason why Edward was here.
"No, it's not water," the guide said in awe. "Hold on to your bags," he instructed.
When the wall of fluid was only a few yards away, the visitors instinctively cowered, expecting the worst. The worst didn't happen, as the mercurial substance stopped, looming over them in motionless suspension. Silent and demanding, it seemed as if it waited for something before coming down on the unwelcome visitors with all its enormous power and weight.
"It's waiting for us." The guide's wide-eyed face reflected on the wall's shiny surface.
"What? Waiting how?" Bella clutched her bag to her chest as if it were a life-preserver.
"Are you ready?" The guide adjusted his cap, pulling it lower. With a slight delay, his silver reflection did the same, as if considering whether it was necessary. In that split second, the guide's image on the wall flashed a brilliant smile, transforming his face into a much younger version of himself. So much prettier. Bella flicked her eyes between Lizard and the reflection and decided it was her imagination acting up.
"Are we supposed go through it?" Emmett asked.
"Do you see any other way out?" the guide asked.
"I'm sure you can think of something."
Bella had enough of talking, and she had a wish to make. Taking a deep breath, she walked past her gawking companions and right into the wall. It wobbled, contorting around her body, and accepted her with gurgling, artificial sound, swallowing her instantly and without a trace.
Oh shit, that's rather. . . drastic, Edward thought. Stop being such chicken shit. That girl was braver than he was, for Gods' sake. Not allowing himself to over-think his actions anymore, he braced himself and dove in after the girl.
Emmett stood there with his head cocked to the side, studying the wall. He wasn't in any hurry. "None of it is real, is it?" He was met by the guide's impassive gaze. "Tell me, Lizard," he insisted, "does the Wish Portal even exist?"
The guide showed no signs of intimidation. He got in Emmett's face, standing tall with every inch of his five-foot frame. "You're asking a wrong question."
Sharp pain zapped Emmett in the neck. He blinked. Then he was falling.
Edward began to drown before he was able to make a single splash inside the wall, which turned out not to be a wall at all. It was an endless pit, full of thick, heavy liquid. It clung to him, squeezing him tightly and pulling him down, down, down. There was no escape from it. In just a few moments his lungs were going to release the last of his air, and it would be over. Edward kept his mouth tightly closed and fought, pushing and kicking desperately. . but against whom? His enemy was greedy, ruthless, and faceless.
His backpack wasn't helping: all that extra water, dry food, and energy-boosting gum. And clean socks. How goddamn useful was any of it to him now? He wiggled, trying to shake the heavy bag from his shoulders. There was no time to regret the loss of his entire supply for this trip when he was about to lose his life. Feeling almost weightless once the bag was off, he kicked again, but it was too late—he was already out of air. With deep regret, he thought of how little he'd valued his life before, and how much pain his death would cause his mother, who'd already suffered a loss of one child not long ago.
He fought against the instinct to draw air into his lungs, but his brain sent the signal anyway. Need oxygen. Deliver right now. He gasped for air—something he'd been doing without thinking all his life—but there was none. With horror, he realized he was dying, and if he were given a chance to make his wish now, it would be very simple.
He wanted to live.
Bella wished everything in her life were as easy as this challenge. One minute she was holding her breath and stepping into the mass of unknown, and in the next—she was out, absolutely dry, facing a bright, pleasant day. She slumped on the grassy ground, dropping her bag to the side, lay on her back, and smiled. One down. . . a few more to go. . . she wasn't worried about the number anymore. The Zone appreciated courage, and she was a "brave little girl", like her mom always told her. She was going to make it.
She sat up before the motionless wall and waited for the rest of her group, staring at her own reflection. It had a life of its own, she discovered. When she moved—it moved. Except it did so of its own volition, and with as much as ten seconds delay—she counted. It was teasing her. Not the reflection—The Zone, of course.
Her euphoria dissipated fast. What's taking them so long?
Her breath hitched when a big ripple ran through the wall. It cracked, shooing away her mocking reflection, and started peeling off the surface. Like tinfoil, it rolled to the sides, opening up. Captivated, Bella got up and took a step forward, cautious about getting too close. The fissure in the wall grew, and through it, she saw something move. She had a bad feeling about this. Seconds later, the fissure was a foot wide, and she could see a body thrashing behind the smooth, glassy surface. Who was that? She took another step forward, and just when she did, the body twisted around and faced her. Bella gasped and clapped her hand to her mouth.
It was the guy with the red hair stuck inside, and whatever was holding him wasn't letting go.
His wide-open eyes—which turned out to be the same bright shade of green as the grass around them—were on the same level with hers, and he was looking straight at her. Bella froze. Could he see her? Why wasn't he getting out?
The guy thrashed around, his feet never reaching the bottom as if there wasn't one inside of the fish tank he was in. With every kick, he fought less and less, finding no purchase.
Bella watched him in terror. He opened his mouth, gaping like a fish out of water. If only he were a fish. If only what was suffocating this man were water. The thrashing stopped suddenly, his face convulsed and relaxed, wiping away the expression of horror. His eyes turned muddy-blank, and he started slowly sinking. His hair floated around his head like red algae deep in the sea.
The man was drowning right before her eyes. She was witnessing someone's death like a scene from an old movie, except it wasn't for show. Just now, she had realized this was real.
"No!" Bella cried out.
Was it too late? Could she still save him? Could she just stand there and let this man die? She looked over her shoulder. The view around her was almost idyllic—sunny and breezy, with clear skies. Another realization hit her—her challenge wasn't over.
She didn't want to go back in, but she'd already made a choice—the only choice she could live with—and that was that. With her eyes open wide, she walked back into the wall. Immediately, the invisible force pulled her farther inside. If it were not for lack of gravity, she would've collided with the man's body. He floated horizontally, his features void of any signs of life. His arm rested helplessly over his chest. She grabbed his arm and yanked it, while trying to walk back. The wall squeezed around her neck and waist, briefly choking her into panic, and finally allowing her—but not the guy—to pull out.
"Oh no, you don't," she said through clenched teeth, taking calming breaths through her nose. "Don't mess with me."
She pulled at the arm with all she had, and was met with more resistance. It made her mad.
"Let go!" She panted as she seethed at the stupid wall. "Give it up! You think you're a such scary beast. You think you can barge into people's lives and take over? Well, let me tell you, buddy," she said, knowing it wasn't just this wall she was cursing. "You're nothing! You have no power over us. Give it up, you sick bastard! You don't get to have him, you hear me?"
She jerked the guy's arm with such force that she felt sharp pain shot through her muscles. In angry frustration, she kicked at the wall. It vacillated at the contact and paused for a moment, as if it was unsure what to do next, and then conceded suddenly and silently, coming down in a quick shower.
"Yes!" Bella raised her face to the sky. "Take that, you jerk!"
Seconds later, the only evidence of the tsunami ever being present was a few puddles, drying with unbelievable velocity.
Bella fell on her knees and turned the guy over. His face was stark-white and his lips were blue. She brought her ear to his chest and listened for a few seconds. His heart was silent.
I'm too late. The thought shot through her. Oh, Gods, no. It can't be.
She pushed on his chest clumsily several times, and then again, counting. Then, she gently tilted his head, lifting his chin, took a deep breath and brought her mouth to his, blowing forcefully into his lungs. His chest expanded a little. She gave it another rescue breath and resumed the compressions.
"Come on, you coward, don't give up on me now. Don't let it win. Breathe. Breee-eathe," she moaned, blowing into his mouth and compressing hard against his heart again. She didn't notice two others men approaching her.
"You didn't get your wish, remember? You have a right to your wish." She sobbed into his mouth. "Fight for it! You hear me?" She pressed her lips to his again, breathing her air into him, making herself lightheaded.
She had never kissed a man, never as much as touched a man's lips. And now she was giving it away to a dead guy, begging him to reciprocate.
Lizard was stunned and incredibly thankful for this girl. Never before had Lizard seen a stranger fighting for another human being with such ferocity—let alone in The Zone, where visitors were out for themselves. Never before had Lizard wanted someone to survive this badly.
Emmett wished he had his communicator to record this pathetic attempt at resuscitation, more interested in the process itself than in the result. He touched the side of his neck where he still felt the burn from being zapped and turned to the guide.
"Did you push me through?" He checked his fingers for blood, thankfully finding none. That sneaky bastard. "I can't remember a thing."
"No, I didn't." The guide kept his eyes on the girl, who wasn't giving up and kept compressing the guy's chest while sobbing.
"How come?" Emmett asked.
"It wasn't your challenge." The guide nodded to the girl. "It was hers."
"Hers, huh? Even though this one ended up dead?"
"You're making premature assumptions," the guide snapped. "It's one of the biggest mistakes here in The Zone."
Just then, the red-haired guy made a small coughing sound.
"Oh please, please." Bella stopped pushing against his chest and began rubbing it.
With lips moving as if in prayer, the guide's eyes closed. Lizard felt a decade older from this ordeal, if that was even possible.
Edward coughed again, and felt being turned onto the side. It hurt, badly, but he couldn't stop the coughing fit, and ended up expelling the entire contents of his stomach. He heaved for some time and then rolled to his back and opened his eyes. A beautiful girl with big, warm, brown eyes, was looking at him, both elation and concern written on her face. She offered him a bottle of water and he gratefully accepted, rinsing out his mouth first and drinking down the rest. His hands shook so much, he spilled some of it on himself. She gently wiped his chin and neck with her sleeve.
"There," she whispered. "Thank the Gods. It didn't get to have you. I got you." She beamed. And then, to Edward's astonishment, she leaned in and kissed him.
He couldn't say whether it was because of his near-death experience and joyous realization he was back, or because he really liked the girl's warm, sweet mouth, but he wove his
fingers into the tangled tresses of her hair and kissed her back.
"So, Lizard, can you explain to us the double-standards?" Emmett asked, watching the two love-birds with antipathy. They couldn't find a better place and time for their bonding?
"Hmmm?" The guide smiled.
"You obviously have an electronic device," Emmett said, "which works perfectly here, despite your earlier statements. And it's powerful enough to take me out of commission for a while."
"It wasn't me; it was The Zone giving me the power."
"Uh-huh, double-standards, again. Why didn't you use that power as a defibrillator on the guy in cardiac arrest? He needed it way more."
"It doesn't work that way." The guide sighed.
"How does it work?"
"Not the way you think."
Hiding a smug smile, Emmett let it go. The guide was wrong; he'd already figured out The Zone's major flaw, and was doing everything possible to take advantage of it.
"My backpack is gone!" The young man on the ground swore. "My entire supply for this trip. . ."
His companions looked around. It was true. While the wall didn't manage to take the man's life, as a revenge, it snatched the next best thing—his insurance for survival.
Devastated, he pushed himself to stand. "How am I going to make it here without food or water?" He walked in circles around the place where the wall was present not long ago.
"I can share with you," the girl offered quietly, her eyes trained on his pacing figure.
"Haven't you done enough?" he bellowed, shaking his hands in frustration. What was the point of her saving him if he'd die anyway—he'd have no strength for challenges, starved and exhausted.
She blushed and shook her head. She was about to say something else when the guide raised his hand. "We have to go. Now."
"Where?" It was Emmett asking again.
"There. Follow me." Without pointing to any direction, the guide launched into a brisk walk.
Emmett threw his backpack on his shoulder and tore after him. The girl glanced apologetically at the man she just rescued and hesitantly started to walk away.
Edward had no choice but follow the rest of the group empty-handed. He trailed behind the girl, feeling like an ass for his uncalled for outburst. Her bag sprang up and down as she walked, drawing his attention to one particular part of her body bouncing attractively with her every step. He inwardly rolled his eyes. Was he developing a crush on a girl he didn't even know? Or was it just a typical psychological response of being drawn to the person who just saved him?
"Here," he grumbled when he caught up with her and pulled on the strap of her bag. "Let me carry it."
"I'm fine." Her resistance was slight.
"I know." He gave her a tight smile, still tugging on the strap. "The least I can do."
She nodded and let the bag go.
Lizard, aware of every word of their conversation, glanced back at the couple and smiled a wistful, knowing smile of a person who was very pleased.
The young couple fell slightly behind.
"I'm Bella." The girl sidestepped to get a little closer to her companion.
"It's nice to meet you, Edward," she whispered, blushing.
He peered down at her face, waiting for her to look at him again. "Thank you." His eyes met hers, trying to convey how grateful he was to her. She owed him nothing, yet risked her life for him. "I'm—"
Bella shook her head. "You'd do the same."
Of course she couldn't know that, but she would liked to believe it.
"We're going to make a stop here," the guide said in the middle of a ridge they were climbing.
"Here?" Edward huffed; they were merely twenty-five yards from reaching the top.
The landscape around them had changed drastically. There was no more grass; as far as they could see it was all sand, rippled by wind, with an exception of a single oak tree up the hill, the alluring shade of which was just out of reach.
Bella sighed in resignation next to Edward. Edward noted the dark smudges underneath her eyes, the tendrils of her matted hair stuck to her forehead, and the beads of sweat on her temples. She was tired. She needed rest.
"Can't we at least walk to that tree and stay in the shade?" he asked.
"We cannot," the guide said curtly. "Don't look for an easy way, there's none."
Emmett's laugh sounded like a barking seal. "Way to exercise your power, Guide."
The guide didn't answer. He pulled his backpack off his shoulder and sat down, crossing his legs. "We are going to wait here," he said after Bella and Edward joined him.
"Why here?" Emmett threw his palms in the air. "Why stop practically a stone's throw away from the top of the hill and keep us out in the open?"
"It's not my decision."
"Whose decision is it?"
"You know the answer."
"You told me to not make premature assumptions. So, I'd rather it come straight from your mouth. Who makes the decisions here?"
"The Zone does," Lizard answered reluctantly.
"Do you hear yourself, Guide?" Emmett laughed again, a hint of madness burned in his dark eyes.
I know him, Edward thought, not for the first time since they started this journey together, I know this man from somewhere. And then he remembered.
"You are that guy from an online debate channel!" Edward exclaimed. "You are that scientist!"
While the details of the debate were fuzzy in his memory, he could recall now with clarity the high-pitched voice of the debater and a slightly maniacal gleam in his eyes. He was practically foaming at the mouth, trying to prove his point.
"Your theory about letting weaklings and elderly dispel. . . Something about a mountain. . ." Edward snapped his fingers trying to remember the subject of the theory.
"Ubasuteyama," Bella offered helpfully. "Hardly a theory. More like a legend, which he twisted around." All three companions snapped their heads in her direction, surprised by the vehemence in her tone. "You are a fake, Emmett McCarty. You know nothing about science. You are the reason why my mom refuses to get treatment for her cancer. She believes you."
"You know each other?" Edward asked, stunned.
"I never met him," Bella said through her teeth, her eyes narrowed to slits. "But I know of his pseudo-science. He believes that overpopulation should be controlled by euthanasia. Cancer patients, disabled and mentally incapacitated people, victims of crimes, elderly population. . . According to his idiotic theory, these people don't deserve to live."
Emmett was both annoyed and conflicted. On one hand, he was insulted that the young woman, who selfishly couldn't see beyond her nose, dared to question the validity of his hard work. On the other, he was surprised he hadn't been recognized by these people sooner. He was practically a celebrity, his theory was frequently discussed in the media, he'd given numerous interviews, and his following had been growing rapidly. He'd been well on his way to making a name for himself.
"I have a Doctorate in Human and Paranormal Sciences, and there's nothing fake in my work," he stated with aplomb. "My theory is proven. It's called Natural Selection."
"It's called genocide! It's playing Gods! Because of you, my mom thinks she has no choice but to give up. My mom thinks others deserve life more than she does just because she's older, and you're the one propagating that bullshit!"
"I'm sorry about your mother, but you fail to see the bigger picture. We are facing serious crises because of overpopulation: shortage in organically grown food, fresh water, affordable medical supplies, vaccines. Pollution. Mutation. I've studied it for years."
"You aren't sorry about a gods-damned thing. Have you ever lost someone dear to you? Have you ever watched your loved one withering away to nothing, all the while refusing help because she thinks she is a burden?"
Emmett shook his head and tried to walk away.
Bella caught him by the sleeve of his jacket. "Why are you here, Mr. Scientist? What's your wish?"
Edward rose to his feet. He wanted to interfere, but was afraid to make matters worse if he tried. He looked at the guide pleadingly. The guide shook his head.
"And you!" Bella turned to the guide, pointing at him with accusing finger. "How could you let him come here? How do you know he isn't planning some sort of a world domination or something?"
"I don't know. It's not my place to question."
"Well, I'll do it for you." Bella's eyes blazed with intensity.
"You can't," the guide said firmly.
"Why not?" Edward came to her defense. "Have you ever heard what this guy preaches? Someone has to question self-righteous lunatics like him."
"Because then, you start playing Gods. You have to believe in the good in people. The Zone won't let you near the Wish Portal if you don't have pure intentions in your heart."
"I can't believe you defend him!" Bella stomped around the guide.
"Please, Bella, calm down," Edward begged. If there was one thing he already learned here, it was that provoking the guide meant provoking The Zone.
"What's your wish, Edward?" she asked. "Do you have pure intentions in your heart?"
Edward swayed, becoming ghostly pale. Bella thought he'd looked more alive when he was mostly dead.
"Stop," the guide ordered. "Sit down. All of you." There was something in his commanding tone— steel mixed with ancient weariness—that made the knees and minds of his companions bend. Like puppets, they sat down without an argument.
Lizard could explain to them that the Zone didn't care who they were outside, whether they were single, married, famous, or poor. It didn't care how old, how smart, or how talented they were in their normal lives. Unfaithful lovers, estranged families, lost beliefs—none of that mattered here.
What mattered was inside them and was holding them back, and there was no use in explaining it until they were ready to hear it.
Lizard studied the far-away expression on their faces. "Do you remember why you came here?"
Edward frowned, concentrating on the question. For the life of him he couldn't remember. Why is it so difficult to think?
Lizard recognized that expression. "Do you want to know why?"
"Why what?" Bella rubbed her temples. She remembered she had an important thought just a moment ago. It was right there, on the surface of her mind, but as soon as she tried to focus on it, it somehow slipped away, too vague to formulate. Why is it so hard?
"Exactly. You can't focus, can you?"
Feeling exhaustion weighing down heavily on her, she folded her arms on her knees and lowered her head on top of them. "How do you know what I'm thinking?" she asked.
"Would you stop speaking in riddles?" Emmett groaned. He clutched to his backpack like a thirsty man to his water, like a mother to her baby. His features were scrunched up in desperate concentration. Emmett had never felt so hopeless in his life as he had at that moment. It was as if his thoughts, twisted and viscous, were slowly pulled out of his head, being stolen away one by one and leaving his mind eerily empty. That terrified him. Damn The Zone for making me feel like an imbecile. Damn the guide for helping it. These thoughts were last to leave.
"You have to let it go," Lizard said. "You have to let go of all of your fears. And hold on to what really matters to you. You have to try."
"Please stop it." Bella rocked from side to side with her head between her hands. "Please make it stop."
"You came here for your wish," the guide's soothing voice reminded them. "Do you remember what it is?"
Bella set up straight, her gaze pointed inward. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I remember." She smiled.
"I don't have to tell you one damn thing," Emmett muttered, struggling to stay lucid. "And I'm not afraid."
"Good." Lizard squatted before Emmett, and Emmett shrunk away from his knowing eyes.
"I will never die," he told the guide in a hollow voice.
"I don't need to know your wish, Emmett," the guide said softly. "As long as you know what it is."
Emmett issued a short laugh that sounded borderline hysterical. "Oh, I know it. And it's not a wish. It's a fact." He swatted his hand across his face, as if shooing away an annoying fly.
Lizard glanced at Edward who sat with the pained expression on his face, not looking anywhere in particular. Bella kept rocking back and forth, smiling to herself.
The Zone finally got to them; it made the point of bringing them to the verge of insanity, and one wrong move could tip them over. The guide knew better than to let that happen.
"Tell you what," he said, getting up. "We're all tired and it's time to settle down and get some good rest. Follow me."
Lizard proceeded climbing to the top of the ridge, and the rest of the group followed. They were still somewhat in a daze but not as disoriented as just moments ago.
"So, now is okay to get some shade?" Emmett couldn't help the sarcastic comment. He made a mental fist-pump, happy to feel like himself again: He knew his wish, thank you very much, and he couldn't wait to see the expression on their faces when they all found out. It was the stuck up, dim people like the guide or the girl, who weren't letting his career blossom while he fully deserved it. He deserved it all—and some.
Edward shadowed the guide, walking directly behind him. It frustrated him that the fog coating his brain wasn't clearing up fast enough. He felt sluggish, stiff.
The guide turned his head to announce that they only had about twenty yards to go before reaching the top. His short white hair tousled up under his cap, like feathers of a sparrow after the morning dew bath, and revealed a purple mark on the back of his neck. Edward stopped breathing. He knew that mark.
He blinked a few times, his slugishness gone without a trace. Emmett bumped into him from behind, stepping painfully on the back of his foot.
"What's the matter with you?" Emmett muttered, offering no apology.
Edward stared back at the guide's head, straining his eyes. Could it be true? Did he really see a birthmark of a lizard on the guide's neck? Such a unique, such a beautiful mark had belonged to such a unique and beautiful person.
The guide called himself Lizard in The Zone for a reason. It wasn't a coincidence.
Edward bit his knuckles, choking on the possibility. His heart beat so fast, he thought he was going to pass out.
"Guide?" he said, his voice shook with hope.
Lizard flinched. Edward reached a hesitant hand to touch Lizard's hair peeking from under the cap, and to push it away. He had to know it wasn't a dream, that the birthmark wasn't a product of his imagination.
Lizard jumped at the touch and quickened the pace.
"Lizard," Edward called again. The name sounded foreign on his tongue.
He grabbed Lizard by the arm. "Please. Stop for a second."
Lizard sighed and turned around to face Edward. It was time to accept the inevitable.
Edward stared at the person before him with his mouth open. How was it possible he hadn't notice before the familiar high cheekbones on the face free of stubble even after a full day in The Zone? Or the almond shape of the large, sad eyes he knew so well? The deep wrinkles running around Lizard's mouth and eyes were throwing him off, but now Edward was convinced that the guide was far from being old. In fact, Edward knew the exact age of their guide—the guide was twenty-five, two years and three months younger than Edward. He knew that because. . .
He slowly reached his hand up and, met with no resistance, pulled the guide's cap off, revealing the spikes of snow-white hair. He carefully brushed his hand over it, his heart leapt at the feel of its texture under his palm. He slowly traced his fingers over the familiar convex of the lizard birthmark on the back of the guide's neck.
"Alice," Edward whispered. "My Alice."
The guide stood absolutely still, neither confirming nor denying it.
"Alice!" Edward cried out and pulled his sister into an embrace, squeezing her so hard, she whimpered.
Why aren't you dead? he almost asked. What a stupid question. He began to babble, "All this time. . . I thought. . . We thought. . . "
Alice closed her eyes, grief, regret, and immense love written across her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I had to. . . "
Edward couldn't believe he spent so much time here without recognizing his own sister. He leaned back, still holding her by her thin shoulders, and searched her face. Under the mask of a prematurely aged asexual human being he saw clearly now his little Alice.
"What happened, Ali?" he asked. "We thought you were dead."
"The Zone. I came in with a wish, and left as a guide. Like this." Alice ran her fingers through her ashen hair that used to be inky-black.
"But you're not a prisoner here. Guides live outside The Zone, don't they?"
"Then where have you been? Why didn't you ever contact us, why didn't you ever come home?"
"I don't have a home anymore," she responded quickly. "Not after Jasper left me."
Edward's eyes drooped with sadness. His poor, misguided sister. Helping others to find hope while she lost hers.
"Oh, Al, but you do," he said. "As long as someone's waiting for you, you have a home. We never stopped waiting. We miss you."
Alice started to cry. "I miss you, too. I couldn't come back. Not like this." She buried her face into his chest, and Edward hugged her again.
"I hate to rain on your parade," Emmett grumbled with a grimace of disapproval, "as this is certainly a lovely family reunion, but may I remind you we still haven't found the portal."
Alice stepped out of Edward's embrace, wiping her tears. She pulled her hat back on, tucking her hair under it, and sighed. "Yes, we have."
All three companions gaped at her.
"Where?" Bella asked, looking around.
"It will reveal itself to you on one condition."
"Interesting," Emmett said. "What would that be?"
"You have to decide which one of you goes in."
Emmett started laughing. "I knew it!"
"What do you mean?" Bella asked, her stomach tightened at the worst news she could expect.
"It's always only one person. One wish."
"Then why did you bring all of us here?" Bella exclaimed.
"You all asked at the same time. I could never say no."
"But I could. I could've come here with you later!"
"Are you sure?"
Bella groaned and started pacing around. The truth was, she couldn't wait; her mother was running out of time. It was now or never.
She bit on her lip roughly, thinking. She came here to fight, she came here to win, her own life only mattered to save the life of her mother, and now two other people stood in her way.
She turned to Edward. "I have a right to my wish." She didn't try to remind him about saving his life; what an ugly argument would that be. But of course it was implied, and that was enough for her to feel shame. Her eyes filled with tears. "I—"
"Bella, shhh." He touched her shoulder. "I know."
Smiling, he looked at his sister, who stood despondently next to him.
"I'm sorry, Edward," Alice said. "After everything you went through. . . I can't help you. I don't make the rules."
Edward brushed his knuckles across her cheek. "Alice, it's okay. Don't you see? I don't have to use the portal. I already got my wish."
She frowned, and he pulled her into a hug, whispering, "Best wish ever."
"So what do we do now?" Bella's voice shook. "How do we make it fair?"
"You still believe in fairness?" Emmett asked, reminding her that her fight for her wish wasn't over.
"I certainly don't believe in your Natural Selection crap." Bella curved her lips in disgust.
"It doesn't matter anymore," he said cryptically.
"Excellent, so what now? I'm not going to draw straws with you or anything like that," she said. Bella was never lucky, and she was convinced she was going to lose.
"Actually, I don't need it. How about I pass up my opportunity and let you go into the portal?" Emmett said.
Bella's heart swelled in hope. Then she narrowed her eyes. "There is a catch, isn't there?"
"Of course there is a catch!" Emmett laughed.
"What's the catch?" Oh, how she hated this man.
"It's quite simple. When you come back home, you tell everyone that it was I, Emmett McCarty, letting you make your wish. You tell everyone I was here, in The Zone, with you. Do I have your word?"
What Emmett was asking was selfish. By revealing to public she was in The Zone meant risking potential prosecution. But to Bella, it was a minor sacrifice compare to the reward of being granted a wish. Selfish as it was, Emmett's request was far more benign than she expected.
Yet, when she looked at him to give him her answer, she felt the chill run down her spine. There was something unhinged in his whole appearance: in the glint of his eyes, in the way he stood rocking on his feet while chuckling and rubbing his hands together.
He is deranged. This man is crazy. Bella looked helplessly at Edward and Alice.
"It's your decision, Bella," Edward said.
"What about you?" Bella asked. She flicked her eyes at Emmett, who was busy fastening his backpack.
"We'll be fine here."
"Okay. You have my word," Bella told Emmett.
Alice came over and took Bella's hands in hers. "Are you sure about your wish?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Are you completely honest with yourself about what you truly want? If you have any doubts, don't go. The portal doesn't grant what you believe you want, it listens to the heart of your hearts, Bella. There's a huge difference between thinking you want something and actually wanting something desperately."
A thought flashed in Edward's mind. For a moment, he selfishly wished that this girl wanted him. He understood then, that he made the best decision staying behind. There was still so much he had to figure out about himself, and this was just a beginning.
"I understand, Alice. I know what I want. Thank you." Bella reached out and hugged her. "Please take care of him. Please tell him to find me. After. . ." she whispered.
Alice smiled broadly and nodded. "He will."
Edward gasped behind them. "Alice."
Two young women turned to his voice, still smiling. Edward tilted his head, pointing to something on his left.
"A car?" Bella asked in disbelief. The Wish Portal was a car? "Are you serious?"
Edward took a few steps closer to the vehicle that appeared out of nowhere. It looked suspiciously like his old truck.
"It won't hurt her, will it?" he asked.
"Going through the portal? It can't. Don't worry."
Edward thought about Alice's answer. "I know it likes to mess with our heads, Alice. But is there anything real in this place?"
Alice's eyes followed Bella walking to the truck. "Her wish is real."
Edward smiled and draped his arm around her shoulder. "You're never bored here, are you, sis?"
"I guess not. I recognized that truck, you know. Mom hated it."
"Yeah. It was a money pit, and I spent more time fixing it than driving it."
"Yeah, you were in love with that truck."
They both laughed and turned back to Bella. Bella was gone and so was the truck.
And so was Emmett.
"Crap." Edward looked around. "Where's that asshole?"
Alice chewed on her lip, thinking. She then squatted down, touching the ground.
"Alice?" Edward felt as if all air left his lungs. Shit, how he was getting sick of this place. "What's happening? Is Bella okay? Is she safe?"
"Shhhh." Alice raised her hand. "He's over there. He's almost done." She pointed to something that looked like a building about two hundred yards away.
Edward never ran faster in his life, wind whistling in his ears, pushing him forward.
As everything else in The Zone, the sense of the distance was deceiving. What seemed like being far away just a moment ago, was right there, already in front of Edward. Emmett sat on the ground, head down, knees bent, back leaning at the wall. He was assembling something cylindrical, slick and matte. Edward knew instantly what it was.
"Tell everyone it was you, Emmett McCarty, letting Bella make her wish, huh?" He spat on the ground. "Can't tell them yourself?"
"There's still slight possibility that I would, but at this point I wouldn't bank on it, no."
"Why is that?"
"I am a scientist, young man; I know how to calculate my chances. If that foolish little girl didn't decide to save you, and if the guide didn't turn out to be your protective sister, my odds would be a lot more in my favor to finish this and walk away with enough evidence it was me ending this nonsense. Alas, you're here, and I'd have to sacrifice myself for the sake of humanity."
"Humanity, huh? Destroying the last hope for people is humane?"
"You don't even know if The Zone does what your sister says it does. This place sure produced a few interesting artifacts, which I spent enough time studying. At this point, I believe they could be sooner explained by extraterrestrial intervention than by some higher magical power. I think it's cruel to give people false hope. False hope breeds instability and disbalance. I think it's our responsibility—"
"Who gives a crap what you think? I will not let you destroy The Zone."
"Too late, it's already do—"
Edward launched himself at Emmett, knocking the device out of his hands and pinning him to the ground, his limbs filled with a strength he hadn't possessed before. He then understood how it felt for his sister to be chosen. To be a guard, a chaperone, and the most unsettled person in a world.
It was the only way to be.
A/N: According to Japanese legends, Ubasuteyama is a mountain where the elderly and weak were abandoned to die.
Thank you for reading. I hope to hear your thoughts.
Tales From The Void entries can be found here: ./u/3673625/TalesFromTheVoidContest. Congratulations to everyone who participated and to those who won! Special kudos to the organizers of the contest!