Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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by M.C. Fuller

The Beginning

He stands still. He sniffs the air but there is nothing. His eyes are faded. There is nothing out there. Nothing beyond. But he is here. He is clothed. He feels the pulse. But the pulse is nothing as well. It is almost -- no -- it is entirely inconsequential. It does not mean anything, not yet. He breathes in and out and opens his eyes.


But beige.

He has seen it before. But not like this. This is impossible. A little beige on a boring day, between a cacophony of colours. Even an overload must have balance -- a negative to accentuate the beautiful. The glorious everything of the world. But not like this.


He stands in the middle of the road. Buildings stretch above him like a lesson in perspective. They thunder and creak in their silence. They are beige too, cement-rendered, like nightmarish middle-density housing. Their windows don't stare at him, or wink. The road under his feet is drained. He feels it. Beige. The broken line a shadow darker, like a trickle of honey.

The skyline breaks above the buildings, below clouds that do not move. They hang in a haze, suspended by a tumult. Not tranquil, not brooding, an impossible in-between. Nothing is right. Nothing is wrong. There is an absence of everything that brings the world to its being. Just shades of blandness. The boy peers his soul out at the edges, but nothing shimmers, nothing blacks out or cackles. All is stillness, and he plummets, standing still on the street, as realisation hits. Head and hands, which grip nothing, feel nothing, comprehend nothing, see that there is nobody here.

He takes a step, breathing nothing but ether. His swinging footstep does not echo in this absent place. He goes one step after another down a road he knows will end. Things end in this place...If they ever existed at all. All is blind. He passes a tree that nearly rustles but doesn't make it. There are no wind chimes or star-bright blues wrapped around dresses. The street leans up and away as he climbs. He pushes through the padded air and reaches the crest, looking below him. This is where the real nightmare begins.

Chapter 1

Volker woke up and rolled onto his back, dazzled by the golden flecks of morning in his room. The air smelt of bacon. He could hear the snaps and sizzles of it floating through the floorboards. Maybe someone somewhere was having a tasty breakfast. It was a nice thought after the dream. He didn't normally dream. He already had too much on his conscious level to worry about. Dreams were for people with their eyes closed. His were wide open. Which led to the question: what wasn't he seeing? It was a disturbing thought. He needed some orange juice and fresh air to flesh it out. He might even track down that bacon.

The streets of Durst were lovely and gritty. Volker saw in them a long and melodious history. Melodious? No, maybe cacophonous. With a good thwack of the double-bass keeping time. And let's add some strings. A violin, definitely. The violin gave pain as well as pure bliss. But the electric guitar was more metallic and suited the high-rise skeletal joints. Yeah, that sounds about right, he thought. Volker called his attention back to the dream and the muffled silence. He paused in the middle of the road. He could hear the grumbles of a train, the screeches of other trains, pigeons, cars" horns blasting, people swearing. He closed his eyes and strained. He couldn't track it down. Everything was noise. Sinatra's "Amor" hit him in the shoulder and ran passed. Volker kept moving.

He sat in his booth, a hand in his grubby pocket, scrounging up all his change. The waitress wasn't singing as she impatiently tapped her foot. Bacon and eggs with fried tomato cost a lot these days. He wasn't going to tip. Not for that service. The waitress reeked of days-old perfume and long stints with the toilet air-freshener. Volker bet she used it in every room of the house when the air got stale. The meagre air-conditioner hacking away, all the windows closed and the jasmine-fresh scent seeping into the artificial air.

And still nothing on the dream front. Everything was as it should be. Except the feeling in his veins, like he should be afraid. He couldn't sit any longer. Scattering the last of his coins on the table, he bolted for the door.

There was nothing in the world better than running, except maybe walking. Head to the sky, arms swinging. The hard force of the pavement in his legs, propelling him into the air, if only for a second. He wished for the hills above Durst. The dry dirt, the cracked grass. He'd been there once before. On an excursion with the Abbey. The sky had been blue. It had smelt of cows and ancient farmers in overalls. Pretty. Quaint. Different. Nice things to experience every now and then. Not just once in your life. He kept running.

He could run for ages, pounding the concrete paths. There were no limits, no endings. Concrete merged with more concrete. Alleys made way for more alleys, walls were of no consequence. They either let you over or they didn't. And if they didn't, never mind, bodies can change direction. Volker ran the rigid streets of Durst, keeping with his own people, catching their glimpses every now and then, taking in what he could and what he wanted, letting his mind stray to its outer rings, but never finding a hit of that beige feeling that had filled his dream with dread.

When his lungs reached their capacity, he stopped and dawdled. Hands outside his pockets. There was an inkling of coconut ice in the air. He'd never tasted any before, but he knew what it was. It reminded him of tutus and fairy floss. The pink. Such a delicacy.

Chapter 2

The next morning, when he woke, he could feel each drop of sweat that pushed through his pores. The dream had been the same, but this time the feeling had intensified. It stretched from his gut to his windpipe. It thrummed, pulsing upwards. It was dread. It was ugly. It was whatever was coming. And it was coming soon.

On the third night he could barely sleep. In the morning he woke to nothing. No dreams the night before. No bile in his throat. Whatever it was, whatever the beige dream meant, it hadn't lasted long enough to worry about. He stretched in his warm bed and decided to sleep in. No work to go to. No school. No nuns. Not for him. Good times.

When he opened his eyes again, the morning sun had strengthened and was zoning in on his particular window. He blinked his eyes against the glare and listened to his stomach grumble. He mentally went through his cupboards. A cup-full of rolled oats, milk still in the fridge. But the question was brown sugar. You couldn't have porridge on a nice and comfy day without brown sugar. He listened for its humming, the particular brown sugar hum, but his doona crackled feathers with each up and down of his chest and there was a distinct nothing in his ears. He stretched again and crawled out of bed.

Everything about Volker's apartment was dingy and small. One window, one bed, one chair. He flicked an ant from the kitchen cupboard and poked around, listening closely. Still no humming. "Well," he said to the ant, "if I can't hear it, it isn't there. Honey, then?"

Chapter 3

The Upper Estates spread luxuriantly up the northern hills of Durst. City-style mansions and elegant apartment blocks came together in an intricately designed setting of clean streets, polished cars and courtyard gardens. In some of the more prestigious courtyards, belonging to the uber-wealthy, and of course, the Mayor-Grace himself, grew trees. Not like the spindly half-dead ones of the Lower Commons, that were planted sparsely along the main drives, stunted by concrete rings and meshed steel coverings. No, the trees of the Upper Estates grew in actual beds of dirt, covered in soft moss-like grass, and often, because of the aesthetic needs of the rich and comely, accompanied by beds of flowers. Everything was bright and colourful in the Upper Estates. It was a beautiful diamond sitting aloft the grimy clump of coal that was Durst.

But, Genevieve thought, glamour isn't everything. The real colours of Durst were found in the people, and the Lower Commons were a breeding ground for the most colourful. The harsh grey of the concrete and the grit of the bitumen only seemed to enhance the characters who walked around down here, and who came into the Regina Save Us store. For a young lady of seventeen who had endless opportunities and no idea what to do with her life, volunteering at Regina Save Us seemed like a good plan to Genevieve. It satisfied her mother's need for social philanthropy and her father's pre-requisites for a religious and purposeful life. But really, for Genevieve, running the charity store was an escape from the day-to-day torture of the installed perfection of the Upper Estates. She wanted to be with colour and spray-painted originals.

And there was no-one more original than him. She had seen that instantly. He was hard to miss with his electric orange hair, and the way he walked -- with his legs, not his hips. His neck strained, swinging around, and gazing about with dazed eyes. She would peek out behind the window displays, studying him, wondering who he was. Then one day he came into the store to buy a pair of shoes. They were two sizes too big. He had started whistling a tune over the counter. It was Bruch's Violin Concerto, her favourite. As he passed over the money, he had leaned over and curled a lock of her hair around his finger. He had stayed like that for a whole minute as she had blushed and waited, staring into his eyes, which weren't staring back at her. Finally he had dropped his hand, and forced his eyes to look directly at her. "Hello," he had said. "I like your hair. It feels like soap but it smells like soil." A smile had touched his face and he laughed. He gazed around the store. "You work here."

"Yes," she had answered, even though it wasn't a question.

He nodded. "It's pretty." Gen had looked around at the dusty shelves, the peeling paint and rusty racks. He was staring at her again, unfocused. "It's staining you, but in a good way." She felt herself blush even more. At the door he had called out, "Next time, we'll meet, okay?"

For two weeks she had kept a watchful eye on the street. A week after that she had looked on as he had stopped by a homeless man and gently caressed his greasy, matted hair. She stopped spending so much time on the window displays after that.


Volker looked up at the extraordinary sky. The sun was at its midday peak. The air was crisp and blue. Highways of birds fluttered by in every brand and key, squawking away. Worms wriggled in the ground at his feet. They weren't a part of the earth. They were a part of him. So were the birds. It was all so beautiful, a perfect day -- not common for Durst with its normal grey clouds and polluted haze. The birds waggled their rumps at him mid-air. It was a day for playing, they told him. There was the scent of Eskimos walking with a hard-skinned oil rigger. Volker could still see the streaks on the inside of his skin. He followed the man absent-mindedly. The road workers to his left were humming a chorus between their grunts -- seven-dwarfs-style: "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go..." Satisfaction. Tasty. He crossed the street, drawn to a little baby in its shiny cloud of future that tasted of baby powder and raspberries. He stretched down to pat the bub's little tufts of hair, but it had disappeared somewhere. Babies always did. That's parents for you, he thought. But he wouldn't let it get to him. Not today. He strolled along, soaking up the sun, listening as the world skipped to a perfect beat. It was as if Regina herself was singing along. Never had Volker felt so at peace. The worms were wriggling into the soles of his feet and all the way up to his gut. He wanted to laugh, but was suddenly aware he couldn't.

For one long second everything paused. A change snapped the air like cling-wrap, before it was gone again. Everything carried on as usual. But Volker stayed frozen. Nausea rolled over him. Sweat sparked in his brow. He could feel it send tiny pinpricks into his scalp. They trickled into his eyes, into his mouth, into his brain. Tasting of salt, only salt. Surely there had to be more. The worms in his stomach began to grow, thickening and lengthening until they took up his insides. It was rising, sweeping, clouding. He dropped to his knees. The world was gone. Lost in something he had never experienced. He tried to cry out but the sound strangled him. A thick blanket wrapped itself hard around him. It stretched up from the footpath and from the molecules weaving themselves in the sky. It was Nothing. A thick listlessness of Nothing. It weaved through him, knotted him, coated his eyes in clouds. His senses muted. He choked and breathed it in and retched again and again, trying to clutch at the world. But all there was, in his infinite universe of sensory perceptions, was a crushing muffled silence. And a sandy haze.

Chapter 4

For five years Genevieve had been volunteering at Regina Save Us, for three years she had seen him walking the Lower Commons, and for three years she hadn't dared ask anybody his name. At the store her co-workers called him That Queer Man. "I was helping Mrs Clemence bring in her bundles and That Queer Man bolts out of the cafe and nearly runs us over! Can you believe it? ... Genevieve, are you listening?"

"What? Sorry." Genevieve turned her back on the window.

"I said, That Queer Man nearly ran Mrs Clemence and me over the other day."

"Oh." Genevieve nodded her head, unsure of what to say. "Did you want me to sort out Mrs Clemence's gear?"

The middle-aged woman pursed her lips. "Well, honey, you're the boss. I've just been working here for Regina knows how long..." The second part was mumbled just loud enough for Genevieve to hear as the woman walked away. It was true. Gen had been made manager this year. The nuns had thought her organisation skills exceptional, although the RSU cronies suspected a different motive. But profits had been rising steadily the last few months. Not only did she have no scruples in guilt-tripping her Upper Estates contacts into charity drives, but little things, like installing two nicely dressed mannequins in the front window and giving the carpet a good vacuum at the end of every day, made a difference.

Genevieve pulled a loose thread from one of the mannequins. That Queer Man had been standing out there a few seconds ago, on the other side of the street. She hadn't expected to see him. It had been a long time since her vigil-keeping days. But there he had been, hypnotic as ever, and, yes, it was pathetic, but she was disappointed he had gone.

Maybe she could just step outside for a moment, perhaps grab a coffee...


It was Bruch that brought him back. A chiming little piece. Tinkling sweetly in his ears. He coughed, then did it again, bringing up whatever was left of that ... whatever that had been. He shuddered. He was curled in the foetus position. His lips stuck together. He licked them and tasted salt. Salt and exhaustion and spice. Thank Christ. He was back to normal. He could taste, see, hear, feel. He concentrated, focusing on the concrete under him, and swept his senses over the ground. Yes, there it all was. Everything. Glorious everything, bad and good and sweet and rotten. He had it again. He rolled onto his back, panting with relief. But what had happened? What had filled him with such concentrated nothingness? What had made his senses shut down? Christ, whatever it was, it was bad. A shudder volted down his back. He had to do something, but he couldn't find what. He tried to get up and his head wavered. A hand reached out and pushed him smoothly back down.

"Oh, no, you don't." Bruch burst into Volker's ears again. In complete stereo surround sound and acoustics. "You might have banged your head when you fell. I need to check for a concussion. Excuse me." He felt a soft hand on his forehead. The skin smelt of dust and wool and charity. She leaned over. "Try to focus your eyes." He caught a whiff of her hair. Soap and earth. He had always wondered about that. It was the Regina Save Us girl. One of his best pastimes was walking passed the store and revelling in the music that flowed off her. Always classical. Always Bruch. What a classy girl. And now here she was, knee deep in footpath grit, making sure he was okay, when everyone else stomped on passed.

She was talking, he realised. He tried to pay attention as she went through her first-aid training. "I saw the crowd. They were just standing there. You looked really bad. Alright, I don't think you have a concussion. Can you get up?"

Genevieve half carried Volker back to his apartment. She had spent years wandering the streets of the Lower Commons but had never been inside one of its dwellings. It was a shock to compare her marble staircase and rosewood banisters to his torn lino and peeling paint. Not to mention the ants -- so many ants, in every crack and crevice.

She set him down on the one chair she could find. "What happened back there?"

"I don't know, I don't know." He was elbows on the table, head in hands. "I slipped into something, but there wasn't anything there." He continued shaking his head, tugging at his roots. He really didn't look well.

"I should probably take you to a doctor," she said. He didn't hear her. He was mumbling something about nothingness and dreams and beige. She leaned forward. "Did you hear me? I said I should take -- "

He went rigid. "Ssshhhhhhhh." He squeezed her lips closed. Then jumped up and tore over to the kitchen cupboard, fossicking through what little he had there. He spread out on tip toe and thrust his hand to the very back of the very top shelf. She heard the crackle of plastic. He brought something out and held it before her, his face serious. "Can you hear this?"

She looked down. He was holding a packet of brown sugar tied shut with an elastic band. "Can I hear what?"

"This!" He started picking at the band. The scent of sugar drifted to her nostrils.

"Do you mean the plastic? I can hear that."

"No, the sugar." He held the bag up to her nose. "Can you hear it?"

She looked at him, puzzled. "I can smell it. Is that what you mean?"

"No, no, no! The sugar! Can you hear the sugar hum?" His eyes darted intently from the sugar to her and back again. He held the bag closer to her ear. She repressed the urge to ask if he was joking. She closed her eyes and listened.

"No, I can't hear anything." She looked in his eyes. He was staring straight at her. It looked as if he might cry. "I'm sorry. Am I supposed to?"

He sighed and dropped the bag. "No, but I am." He slid to the floor next to the dropped packet and started running the coarse grains through his fingers. They sprinkled over the floor. Looking down, she was amazed that the ants had disappeared.

"I asked them to stay away, and they did."

"Who did?"

"The ants. They're really sweet." He laughed absent-mindedly.

Genevieve hesitated. Could this guy read minds or something?

"No, but I can read the questions hanging around you. You're really open. It makes it easy."

"Oh. Okay," she said, confused. She sat down opposite him. Volker could see a pink tinge, like a translucent scarf, wrap itself around her neck. He ignored the urge to pull at it, and focused on the brown sugar. "It normally hums to me. Sugar, flour. Pepper is a little more whistlely. But they all have a tune. Brown sugar is deeper than white. Baritone." He shook his head and tried to focus. "But I can't hear it now. And that means something's wrong. And I dunno if it's something wrong with me or if it's something else. Something in Durst?" He shuddered and a moment of clarity passed through his eyes. "I had this dream. And then today, I felt it and it..." He gripped at his chest, struggling for words.

"Hey, it's okay." Genevieve reached out a hand. It looked like a white lily to Volker. He didn't know what that meant. "What's your name?" he asked, sitting upright.

"Oh, it's Genevieve." She smiled.

"I'm Volker." They shook hands. He clung to hers for a moment too long. He held her gaze. It was hard to look people in the eye. Eyes were deceptive. It was everywhere else that gave you the answers. He sighed, defocusing and got up. "There's something rotten in Durst." He tapped his ring finger rapidly on his hip. "Gen, it was nice meeting you, but I've got to go see Dot. I'll see you around." He reached for her neck, but snapped his hand back straight away, grimacing. He leaned in. "Just...stay away from it."

"From what?"

"I dunno." He was out the door in seconds.

Chapter 5

Volker heard the bing rebound around the four walls. Elevators tended to swing -- side to side, up and down. They were bottomless pits with large squawking jaws and thrashing loose cable tails. Anything could go wrong and there was nothing you could do. He preferred stairs. But stairs were infeasible for this goliath of a building. He had to see Dot, and fast.

With the last echo of the bing the doors opened and a man stepped in. For those of Durst not like Volker, they would have seen an elderly man with a gnarled face, pointed nose and grimace. But to Volker he was a wonder. The man carried thousands of minuscule penguins around with him on his hunched shoulders. They were dressed in shimmering navy suits with teeny-tiny blue velvet bowties. They waddled from shoulder to shoulder, vocalising a powerful rendition of orchestral metal with gut-moving subwoofer effect. Volker stared in wonder. The tinny trickles of the elevator music were completely wiped out by this booming symphony. Here was a man of integrity and strength, and he was fighting this unheard life-battle to his last. Volker stood straighter in response. He breathed in the smell of ice and sea-spray and felt it bubble through his veins. It was intoxicating. In all the dread there were penguins singing free.

The elevator binged once again and the man stepped off. Volker followed behind him. As the man turned right, Volker turned left and onto the stairs. He felt sea-spray whip through his hair as he ran up the remaining flights.


He sat on his hands, like he used to do. He tried not to squirm, not to jump up and touch those beautiful big red lips. Dot had uncannily red lips. They were pale and cracked with age now, crinkled into a permanent frown. But still vibrant. Still plush with red. At least, that he could see. He itched to touch them, but clamped his hands. Dot did not like to be touched anymore. He was determined to be good.

Dot lived in a spartan room on the top floor of The Wall. The building was called The Wall because it was built into the very rock of the sheer cliff that made up the southern boundary of Durst. It was the home to thousands of elderly residents in varying degrees of health. The Wall provided the best health-care facilities in Durst, with medical suites on every few floors, the best of which were situated on the highest level. Housed in the top floors of The Wall lived the retired Sisters of Regina. The Order held the highest position in Durst, with the Mayor-Grace as their civilian appointee to maintain order in the city. Their dwellings were bare and their personal possessions few, but they were religious aristocracy and their power was absolute. For many the power went to their heads. Except for Dot.

Volker tore his mind back to the subject. It was time to be direct. He drew his gaze from Dot's lips to her cloudy eyes. "The world's losing it, Sister. It's all seeping out. I've seen a part of it. It's just the beginning, though. The remnants of what will happen and then remain...No!" He pounded his head with his palms. He wasn't explaining it right. He could feel her steady, stern gaze on him. But there was something shifting in the room. Like a heartbeat. It vied for his attention. "You're still fine, I think..." Dot was sitting across the desk from him, in a rickety chair. His arm reached to her lips of its own accord. She leaned away. He drew his hand back and gripped the chair leg. The timber didn't vibrate like normal. Like thousands of termites crunching away, and with the years of a long-dead tree sighing from ages back. "It's here, Sister. It's in this chair. It shuddered my blood, it -- " He shook his hands with a noise of disgust. "There's all this spindly, webby stuff that's clinging to me, pulling me to the ground!" He made a whiny sound a toddler might make, and wriggled in his chair, shaking his arms, rubbing at something Dot couldn't see. She waited, unmoving, for him to calm down. He eventually straightened back up and faced her, deadly serious. "Tell you what I saw, okay?"

When he had explained about the dream, the street, the sugar, he slumped back in his chair. "It's all going. It's not coming back." He pushed his hair out of his face. "Christ, it's hot. Will you turn the fan on!"

Dot leaned in, bringing his eyes up to meet her stern gaze. But Volker didn't see the stern. That couldn't be helped. That was just lines in skin. He saw through the cataract eyes, through the rigid back, through the ankle length skirt and sensible shoes. He saw through to the red lips and the strong heart and the hands that had helped him to the streets those years ago. "Volker, focus," she said coolly. "What is it you are trying to tell me?"

He swallowed and tried to ignore his fever. "The end," he whispered, "It's coming, Sister. It's gonna be soft and harmless so you won't even notice at first. It's already started. Look outside. The colour's seeping from us." Sr. Dot looked out her window. The view from her modest room was open sky above rooftops. Skyscrapers tried, but couldn't reach her. Streets were miniature. Brown hills melded in the distance. The sky was cloudless and pale blue. It would be sunset soon but the orange haze had barely begun to take hold. It looked peaceful. She felt the strength of it. It was Regina's work. "Remember," she said to Volker, "I don't see like you."

"In my dream, Sister, evil isn't black. It isn't scarlet-devil-red. It's in off-white and beige. And there's no noise noise. Just this wishy-washy muffled almost cone-room stuff. Not even the buzzing of a light. You have no idea what it's like not to smell anything. Anything, Sister. To not smell? Or see?" He scraped his chair back and started to pace. "But I can feel it, Sister. This soft, intangible, translucent, I dunno, obscure, subtle, dead, non-existent thing that exists and nearly burns my insides. It's like this negative entity of everything vibrant and horrible and fantastic and demure and loving and callous and trite. Everything, every essence of every thing I take in every day and it's being sucked away like a black hole." He scratched at his chest. He could still feel it in him. Since the street. It had been growing again since the brown sugar and since the chair. He coughed, but it didn't come out. He paused and tried to focus his mind, to find a way to explain it so that Dot would understand. "It isn't dead-sun grand or vast or noticeable. It doesn't show, but just slinks in here and there in the smallest ways and monopolises, and you don't even know! You just become this dull, lost-all-hope automaton, or at least, that's what's going to happen, I reckon. And I don't know what the hell is supposed to happen after that, but, Christ Regina, Sister, this is the end of the friggin' world and no-one knows. What the hell am I supposed to do?"

The Sister rose from her chair. "Volker, perhaps I made a mistake." Worry flickered across her face. "Perhaps it was too soon to let you out into the world."

Volker felt his insides go cold. She was flickering in front of him. She was supposed to be so strong and sturdy. "You don't believe me." She remained silent. "I See it, Sister. Please..."

"How do I know what you see, Volker? I believe you have a Gift, not an illness. But this..." She struggled for words, but couldn't find them. "You're not a Dreamer, Volker. You never dream. How can any of what you are saying possibly be real?"

"I feel it."

"How do I know that is real? If you are dreaming, all your other senses could be off."

"You could trust me."

"I trust in Regina, Volker. The world isn't coming to an end. Not so long as Regina exists."

Volker felt the calm of deep devotion sweep over her. She may have been his saviour at the Abbey, before she retired, but she was still a nun, through and through. He strode to the door.


He paused and studied the creak of her bones, the music emanating from her, her beautiful, lush lips. "Don't let it take you, Sister. Please...just keep yodelling."

"I don't yodel, Volker."

"You do. You just don't know it."

Chapter 6

Genevieve threw the book down, defeated. She was curled up on her bed, hugging a pillow, trying to forget about the day. But there was no use. It had all been too odd. She smiled and wondered what the ladies from Regina Save Us had thought of her carrying Volker off. "Volker." She sounded the word aloud. It was a strange name, and she couldn't decide if it suited him. Her heart was pumping harder than normal, the adrenalin still working its way through her system. She was all set up waiting for the crash, but it hadn't come yet. She tossed back her covers, still in her day clothes, and started pacing the room. She couldn't believe he had just left her like that, alone in his apartment. She might have been a criminal, a drug addict, a -- she didn't know what. She could have stayed there, she thought. Waited until he came back, made sure he was alright, all recovered from his fall. He'd been talking like he was crazy. But then, he always had had an air of crazy about him. She had toyed with the idea of staying there, peeking though his things, just glimpses, nothing too serious, before leaving. She sighed and drummed her fingers on the window. But of course she hadn't. Not good little Genevieve. Instead she had swept up the spilt sugar, locked his door and headed for home.

The mansion was quiet and still. The sun was at the end of setting. The strangled orange beams giving way to the dark blue of early night. For a moment, the city paused forlornly as its shadows caught up to it, then the atmosphere wavered and light after light came blinking on. It should have been cheery, peaceful even. The twinkling of the city lights matching the twinkling of the stars in the cloudless night sky. But instead, she felt...like something was watching her. She stepped away from her brightly lit window and shuddered, remembering the image of Volker clutching his chest, and the scared look in his eyes.

The very house seemed heavy above her, like her ceiling would collapse and the many floors would come crushing in. She fought the sudden urge to scream, crouching in a corner. This is ridiculous, she thought. She went to open the window, then remembering that anyone could see her standing there, she crossed the room to turn off her light. In the safety of darkness, she eased open her window and breathed in the cool air. She was just a silhouette against a black backdrop, barely moving, rigid, anticipating the doom to come.


Genevieve woke to the sound footsteps along the corridor. There were the usual sounds of activity below her as well. She could hear the scuffles of servants, the creaks of floorboards and all the murmurings that made up the life of a large house. A shudder infiltrated her sense of calm as she remembered the feeling the night before. There was a knock at the door of her suite. She waited for her maid to come barging in. But there was another knock instead. She pulled on her dressing gown and padded softly through her outer rooms to the door. She gripped the knob and pulled it open. Christ Regina! She slammed the door closed again, curses filling her mind. Pulling the dressing gown tighter and smoothing down her hair, she took a readying breath, then opened the door again. He was hovering behind a disapproving manservant. She pulled him quickly inside and shut the door. "Volker, what in Regina's name are you doing here?"

He patted her hair in greeting, then smelled the scent of it in his palm. "I need your help," he said simply.

"How did you even find me?"

"I tracked you." He moved further into the room, taking three deep breaths. "I didn't sleep. Dot didn't help me. Will you?"

"Who is Dot?"

"Dot. Sister Dot." He shook his head like he was losing track. "The world's ending, Gen? Can't you feel it?" He waved his hand around her. "There are all these streaks through your swirls."

She looked at him quizzically. "What's going on? Did you see a doctor?" He made a quick decision, grabbed her hand and pulled her over to the window. "Tell me, here, look at this. This view. What do you see?"

"It's Durst."

"Yeah, but what's it feel like? Look!"

"The sky is blue, no clouds, concrete?" She shrugged.

"No! Really look out there. Really look! What does the city feel like? Concentrate!"

Gen stared out again. It all seemed peaceful. But then she gazed down to the streets and was struck at how the sun didn't seem to register there. The buildings were grimy and close-packed, the trees were wilting. It was the heart of Durst, the Lower Commons far below. She imagined walking underneath the looming towers just as night was dawning, recalling her feelings from the night before. "It's kind of -- dank -- isn't it?" she guessed.

"Yeah. Dank. Why's it dank? Why that word?"

"I don't know, it just feels right."

He stepped closer to the widow. "Yeah, it does, doesn't it? Durst is dank. But you don't know why."

"Right, but what does that have to do with anything, Volker?"

"Because I see why it's dank!" He rubbed his fingers on the window pane, losing his focus. "I see more than everyone else. I know because I see it in them. That's why I know you can kind of understand. Or you're beginning. Partly because it's in you too, not to See, but to understand that people can See. Plus you feel a little bit. You have inkles in you and you have your own symphonies and they play all the time. They're really loud now. It's nice to hear. You have an orchestra in you. Geniuses playing. You're open and people are drawn to you, to give you hugs, but they don't, because your smile is beautiful, and your clothes are too nice. They don't want to spoil you. I don't think you can be spoiled, though. You're soft and jiggly, but you stand too straight to take any effect from the dark. You're one tough little biscuit Gen." He pulled away from the window.

"Volker, you're not making any sense."

"Yeah, that happens. Listen, we need to go to Xanthe."

"What is Xanthe?"

He clapped his hands decisively. "I promise, I'll explain on the way to the Abbey."

Chapter 7

The Abbey rose up on the east side of Durst, set on top of a hill that marked one of the boundaries of the city. It was a mental facility run by the Sisters of Regina. It was not a beautiful place, nor a comforting one. Cold concrete was layered thick on the floors and echoed every footstep, every grating sound of a chair being moved. Air-conditioning vents whirred metallically, shards of rust drifting down to make dandruff on the inpatients' heads. Sunlight barely made it through the bars on the windows and the soft fluorescents that buzzed from the high ceilings weren't strong enough to penetrate the dark corners of the room. Genevieve rubbed the goosebumps out of her arms and shuffled closer to Volker.

Volker shifted. "There he is."

Gen saw a boy, barely a man, dressed in black, sitting doubled over at one of the plastic tables in the common room, hands clenched in front of him. Volker's next sentence caught in his throat and he took one hesitant step forward. "Xanthe?" Volker could barely recognise his friend. The boy was covered in a grey shroud, thin as moth-eaten linen, no shining steel reflections. He had always been black and white, straight up and down. Xanthe was never in-between. Never unsure. Volker moved closer, carefully following the effect of the shroud with his hands. He touched it and nothing happened, an involuntary spasm going up his back. Here was his friend, fading. Xanthe's cheeks felt like tissue paper to him. He hadn't realised his finger tips were tracing circles on his friend's face.

"Leave me alone, Volker." It was a barely audible whisper, but it was filled with desperation and bitterness. There was the same grey tinge to the words. Volker, ignoring the request, sat down next to his friend. He left Xanthe's hands in fists and placed his own flat on the table.

"I can't. I had a dream," he said simply, his voice ignoring the furrows on his own face.

Xanthe lurched at Volker, pulling him by his collar. "You stole my dreams!" he whispered forcefully. Volker could sense Gen's insides sway. He put up a hand to stop her from coming forward. With his other hand he eased Xanthe's grip. Suddenly the grey made sense. And the spotted blood vessels in the eyes staring up at him. Volker blinked hard, once, then focused on his friend. "You haven't been dreaming?" Xanthe nodded, resting his head on Volker's chest, his energy exhausted. "And you haven't been sleeping?" continued Volker. He gently eased his friend back and looked pityingly into his face. "How can you sleep if you can't dream? Your wings are folded, Xanthe." Xanthe made no response. Volker went on. "My dream wasn't black and white. It wasn't day and colour. It was all beige and scentless and friendless and nothing."

"Those are mine!" Xanthe's grip tightened. "You've taken my dreams!"

"No, you dream black and white, not beige. Remember?" Volker cupped his friend's hands together. He spotted some sparks fly through Xanthe's hair. He patted them out. It was a good sign. "I need your help Xanthe."

"I can't dream. I can't help." The voice was monotonous.

Touching on an old fear, Volker asked, "Is it your meds?"

Xanthe leaned back in his chair, and let out a confirmatory "Mmmmmmmhhhh". Volker watched the grey shroud flicker and strengthen. Xanthe continued. "They make you feel so..." A smile spread over his lips, his voice sickly. "So nice, for that one beautiful moment." His forehead crinkled, bitterness reaching back in. "Then it goes again and I can't sleep and I can't dream."

Volker leaned closer, taking his friend by his shoulders. With an effort their eyes met. "Why are you taking them? Why don't you cheek them, like we used to?"

Xanthe looked pleadingly at his friend. "They caught on, comrade. No more pills tucked behind gums for me. Injection is the way to go." He pushed up his sleeve to reveal the pinprick scabs and shades of bruising. Like an addict, Volker thought. But the decay that rose in his throat tasted of something else as well. Imprisonment. At least addicts wanted what they got, in a way. This was force-feeding.

"Volk. Volk, I know I always liked to stay in the nest, but this time...this time I think I'd like to fly. Get me out of here. Please."


Normally Xanthe's dreams were full of whispers in black and white. That was how he saw the world. In whispers, nudgings, hints, prospectives. But lately the whispers had been murmuring on a backdrop of beige and the thick, black felt-tip texta in his hand was useless. He needed his crisp dichotomies, but they weren't allowed in this subconscious slip-stream. He was jonesing for the old ways. For months now the bad stuff had been creeping up. And the murmurings had been getting louder. Louder and louder in daytime and night. Warnings about peace and tranquillity filled his ears. Prepare at dusk for the saving grey -- salutating, saluting, saving the grey of the night. Beware and prepare. And then the meds, and then nothing.

He scratched at the scabs on his arm. Pin-prick small, delicate. Volker had always hated scabs. He'd leave them be, covered up in crackly white sleeves, ignoring them until they healed. But Xanthe loved them. He liked them to last. They reminded him of home. As soon as the scab-head formed and hardened, he'd gently pick it off again, place it sticky-side down on his finger and rub it there for a while before flicking it off. Then he'd wait until the next scab set. Scabs tasted of iron. Strong and tangy. From the earth, from him. Xanthe liked black and white, iron and cotton. Sugar made him sick. Lemons were zesty. Sleep was a time to dream, but dreams came in the day as well. Before Dot went on her way she used to say to him, "There is nothing in the world like a good night's sleep, and the operative word there, Xanthe, is night." Dot could be hard at times -- knuckle-hitting hard. But at least she wasn't insipid. Or malicious. She wouldn't smile sweetly as she watched the treatment, like some of them did here. And she didn't have favourites. Well, she did, but not in the hugs and kisses way. She had treated Xanthe and Volker hard, made them work hard and think hard. She was a hard woman, hard-edged, hard straight nose. They had loved her for it. Everything was too easy now at the Abbey. The Sisters were too friendly, too forgiving, too full of pity. He missed Dot. He hadn't realised how much. Maybe that's why his dreams had changed. No, it was something else. That's what Volker was saying. For one millisecond-moment, Xanthe felt dread loom up and circle within him. But then it was over and he was left rubbing at his scab.


Volker absent-mindedly placed his hand over Xanthe's, stopping his friend from aggravating his scars. The needle-pricks were bleeding grey. Volker watched it from the corner of his eye. But his mind was tumbling, layer over layer, somewhere else. The Abbey was like a prison. Hard to get in. Harder to get out. He'd failed dozens of times. Eventually, though, through the meds, the pain, misery and utter boredom he'd figured it out. The only way to escape. But that took years. And it had been so hard. It tore out chunks that he was still growing back. Pretending to be "normal". Pretending that there was a normal. Playing to the nuns, advocating that there was something wrong with him, and pleading for them to fix it. Then slipping the lies and the pills under his tongue instead of swallowing them. Dot had seen through it, but kept quiet. She had given him strength, got him out. But all of that took too long for Xanthe. The ultimate escape had taken years of pretence. Volker only had until the end of visiting time. He gazed around. Bars on the windows, corridors cut off by locked doors -- the usual mental asylum stuff. The common room they were sitting in was small, paint-peeled and dingy. His chair was rickety and torn in the corners. It lacked soul. Only the people in here had souls and so many of them were wavering. It was just like it used to be. He shuddered.


Gen had been standing off to one side, unsure of the scene before her. She knew Volker could be intense. She'd experienced that herself, all too recently. But she'd never seen him stay focused on the one person for so long. The way Volker had looked at this boy, this shrivelled up semblance of a human being who was supposed to help them with whatever they were doing -- it was touching, it was eerie. He had grabbed the boy's cheeks in both his hands, touched foreheads with him and whispered something she was too far away to hear. Either Volker was gay or he just really didn't care about standard male protocol, she thought. But in here, who would? She looked around again. The Abbey gave out the impression of being both severely cramped and starkly open at the same time. She had unconsciously drawn into herself, her shoulders hunched, her arms folded protectively around her. Now that she was aware of it she stretched out defiantly. After all, it was just a building. Concrete, brick and steel. It wasn't as if she was crazy, she could leave anytime. The boy in front of her wasn't so lucky. She looked at him with pity. The studded eyebrows, the black hair, the pale face and blood-drained lips. He looked too sick to help them.

"Life isn't worth it if you don't die sometime." It came from the boy. His voice was gravelly-dry and rasping, but it carried. She heard it and knew it was for her. His blood-shot eyes were staring right into hers. Now Volker turned around and stared at her as well. She was blushing again. She could feel it start slowly at her neck and spread up into her face. She cursed to herself and walked defiantly over to them. "What, is he like you, Volker?" she said a little too defensively. She checked herself and smiled meekly.

Volker looked fondly at his friend. "No, not like me. He's his own kind of different. Aren't you Xanthe?"

"When I can dream," came the rasping voice again.

"I've just been telling him about you," said Volker. "Ye of little faith." He smiled. He could tell she was uncomfortable, but he had a plan and he needed her. She of the white-lily hands, he thought, liking the old-English tint of the words.

Xanthe was studying her as well. Genevieve tore herself away from Volker's smile and faced the boy defiantly. She was wrong about him. He wasn't to be pitied. Up close, despite his slouched appearance, he exuded power. "She's pretty," the boy said softly. "She pink?"

"Blue," responded Volker. "A little bit of green sometimes. And other things..."

"Blue and green, man..."

"Yeah, yeah. But she doesn't live by rhyming couplets. Believe me, it works." Volker enjoyed the wordplay, like old times. Xanthe did too. He was looking better now, more sparks flying. Volker was determined to get him out.

Chapter 8

The Abbey was guarded by nuns and hired hands. The nuns were given special training in psychology and medicine, but they all excelled in the art of manipulation as well. In each nun's eye was suspicion and their hawk-like watchfulness was as much a deterrent to the residents of the Abbey as any gun or prison cell could be. If you wanted to escape the Abbey you couldn't just walk out the gate. Volker wanted to get Xanthe out as soon as possible, but he didn't know how. He had toyed with sending Genevieve out first, but there was a feeling growing in him that she was necessary somehow. Her music was a constant accompaniment and he had grown fond of it. He adjusted Xanthe's arm around his shoulder, taking more of the boy's weight as they walked. They turned into a hallway. He felt Genevieve's grip on the other side of Xanthe slacken. "Uh, Volker," she whispered. She indicated with her eyes something up ahead. Volker's aim, as he'd told the others, was to get Xanthe to the ground floor garden. It was common there to see visitors taking a resident for a walk and fresh air. From there, maybe he could find a way to get through the high security fence. He'd climbed over it a few times himself as a boy. The rolls of barbed wire on top hurt like hell, even through a thick blanket, but with Xanthe there was very little chance of even getting that far. First, though, they had to get down to the Grounds, and right now, blocking their way to the lift, were two stern, plump nuns.

"Sister Mary, look, it's Volker returned to us," said the first nun.

"I see Sister Louise, he has come to visit our dear Xanthe."

"And he brings a friend." The first nun smiled sweetly at Genevieve, then turned a stern gaze back to Volker. "And where do you think you're going?" Her voiced hardened with the words. If the nuns were suspicious of all the inpatients, they were more than doubly suspicious of Volker. He had been the most difficult patient the Abbey had ever had, and even though he'd been free a few of years now, the nuns still radiated animosity when discussing him. The two nuns took a step closer to the trio. Volker spotted a black shape roll out of their habits towards him. He recoiled. It had been so long since he had felt such a presence close to him, he had forgotten how strong it was. It looked like wave after wave of thick black ink, but that was only what it looked like. Really, it was hate. The type of righteous hate only nuns can feel, and then, only the sadistic ones. But unfortunately for Volker, most nuns of this type gravitated towards the duties of Abbey life. It had followed Volker like a tail ever since he had first stepped inside these walls so many years ago. Now, it was unbearable.

He had to get out, he had to get out now! He followed his fear back a step, but something was dragging along with him. It tugged him back and he heard the quivering sound of a violin. Gen! And Xanthe. For a moment he'd forgotten himself. He couldn't run away. There was nowhere to go, except forward, to the lift, with the others. Gen had a fake smile plastered on for the nuns, stooping under Xanthe's weight. The violin sharpened, screaming at Volker to act. Right, Gen needed him to say something, to appease the nuns. How long had they been standing like this? Only a few seconds, he realised. He dove right in. "Sisters!" He braced himself as he moved into the black and gave each of them a big squishy hug. "It is so good to see you both again!" He planted a sloppy kiss on each of their foreheads and withdrew, with what he hoped resembled a normal look on his face. He felt the blackness swell with suspicion. He gulped down his nerves and plunged on ahead. "I hope Christ Regina blesses you with good health?" Nuns loved that kind of talk. He'd learnt that off Xanthe. The blackness retreated slightly, but not completely.

"Thank you, Volker. Yes, we are both well, in health and in our love of Christ," said Sister Louise evenly.

"And you, Volker? How do you fare now that you have left our kind establishment?"

"I fare well." And I wish I could fare thee well! He felt a laugh slip up his throat and out into the space between them. The nuns arched their eyebrows. The righteous hate growled and tumbled forward again. He fought the urge to recoil, but he knew he couldn't play long at being normal. He would slip up somehow. It wasn't in Volker to charm and pretend.

He felt a flourish of sympathy whip up from Genevieve as she saw him falter, coupled with a stagger of determination. The determination streamlined, and Gen summoned her most charming smile and spoke. "Good afternoon, Sisters. I'm Genevieve Wykes." She put her hand in the abyss to be shaken. Volker watched as the blackness hesitated. "I'm a friend of Volker's. I run the Regina Save Us store down in the Lower Commons." Genevieve laughed modestly. "That's where Volker and I met. He was shopping for a saviour." The nuns studied the young woman with her straight teeth, modest, but stylish clothing and her well-mannered air.

"Wykes, you say?" asked one.

"Yes, that's right," said Genevieve brightly. Her smile, now, really did look genuine, and her manner confident. But Volker could see the pink scarf wrap itself around her neck, turning red in the process. The music struck a sequence of desperate chords, thunderous, as Genevieve touched hands gently with the nuns. The blackness hung back now, waiting tentatively by the habits of its masters. The nuns" countenances had changed as well. They were looking enquiringly, almost wondrously at Gen.

Sister Louise spoke, "Wykes, as in the Most Honourable Mayor-Grace Wykes?"

The notes of Bruch swelled in years of stale annoyance, then heaved a heavy sigh and floated away. "Yes, that's right." Genevieve continued sweetly. "He is my father." Genevieve noticed the two nuns incline their heads, taking in her dark brown eyes, round cheeks and the delicate upturned tip of her nose. She really did look too much like her father.

The blackness of righteous hate that had threatened Volker moments before slipped back up the habits of the nuns as they beamed at the girl. Volker wondered, incredulous, at the card that had just been pulled. Genevieve Wykes, daughter of the Mayor-Grace, a leader chosen and favoured by the Sisters of Regina to rule over the city and keep it in order and away from sin. How had he not sensed this on her?

Genevieve chatted easily to the nuns, knowing from past experience what to say, how to entertain. They looked up at Gen with eyes agog, as the girl described the latest ball her father had hosted. Volker was amused to notice flutters of pride turning to royal blue sparrow wings and fly off the nuns as Genevieve flattered them for the usual things -- their simple lives, good works and devotion to Christ. She was laying it on thick. "I used to dream of being a Sister of Regina, but father wants me to marry one day, so that has been lost to me. I find solace in volunteering and continuing Regina's good works." The nuns nodded sympathetically. Volker felt the revulsion radiate off Gen as she heard herself talk. But it was working, so she plunged on. "As I was saying, that is how I met Volker. He came in one day looking for shoes and he seemed so lost and helpless. He confessed to me that he was just out of the Abbey and he was praying that he wouldn't revert back to his old ways. I've been a friend to him, I think, helping him back to normal life. It is very satisfying, as I'm sure you know." The nuns nodded again. Gen's blue and green shimmer was weaving patterns as she wove her story. Now came the finale of her performance. "And when Volker told me about Xanthe, I felt I would really like to help him too." She reached out to Xanthe, who had found a wall to lean on while this conversation took place, and brought him close, wrapping her arm through his. She continued, looking on with pity. "He looks so pale and ill, I thought if we were to take him down to the Grounds for a walk we might be able to get some blood back in those cheeks...If we're allowed, that is."

Sister Mary clasped her hands together. "Oh, yes, of course, my dear girl, may Regina bless you."

Sister Louise pressed the button on the lift and stood aside as the doors opened. Genevieve grabbed Volker with her other hand and escorted the two young men into the lift with her. Volker saw the blackness peek out from Sister Louise's habit one last time, but then the lift doors closed and the companions started to descend.


The Grounds, as they were known by all, were predominantly an expanse of worn concrete paths criss-crossing through a lawn of hard, cracked dirt. Respite from the sun was provided by tin verandas that wrapped around the main building, and a gigantic eucalypt, the only sign of vegetation, to one side of the gate. The gates were made from wrought-iron. They were rusted with age, but sturdy and guarded well. The trio stood under a veranda, studying the Grounds. Volker gave Gen's hand a squeeze. He could feel the question form on her and answered. "They were all black and looming, but you rescued us."

She shrugged. "It was about time I did something useful."

He wanted to explain to her about the monsters under the nuns" habits and how she had been more than useful, but Xanthe's shroud was tightening. He could feel his friend shrinking next to him. He placed his hand under Xanthe's arm. The contact caused a hissing sound, like a snake rearing back before the attack. He ignored it, turning his attention to the fence. The fence that circled the Abbey was made from strong wire and iron posts, towering over the massive eucalypt. The only way of climbing that unseen was in pitch black night, and even then he'd been caught a number of times. Besides, Xanthe was far too weak to make it even half way up. But maybe they wouldn't have to climb it. Volker studied the scene before him. As he had predicted, there were a number of inpatients doddering around, escorted by their families. Interspersed among these were the nuns, hawk-like, their black habits blowing swiftly in the wind. The fence mocked him, laughing, but underneath he touched upon a weakness. He had to find it. He unwrapped Xanthe's arm from his shoulder and placed it around Gen's neck. She teetered for a moment under the boy's weight. "What are you going to do?" Genevieve asked, but Volker had already sprinted away. The fence gave out a continuous high-pitched cackle, almost like a buzz of electricity, as he ran around the perimeter. He kept his senses open. He had felt it, only an inkling, but enough to forge through. "It's here somewhere," he told the fence, strong, merciless and taunting.

Xanthe swayed in Gen's grasp. He was mumbling under his breath, but it was indecipherable. Her eyes searched the Grounds for Volker, wishing he'd hurry up and come back. For someone so slight, Xanthe was still pretty heavy and he kept tugging erratically at the back of her collar, nearly choking her with her shirt. Finally her eyes found Volker. He was standing hunched over by the gates, puffing, staring at them. She hoped he was getting her "hurry up and get back here" vibes. Another nun walked passed, casting her and Xanthe a disapproving look.

Volker saw a "tsk tsk" of disapproval balloon out of the nun as she passed by Xanthe and Gen. Another batch of annoyance bubbled out of Genevieve to meet it. Volker smiled. All nuns were prudes. A man and a woman holding hands would be enough to set them off. A man and a man holding hands would cause a Royal Injunction. He leant against the gate, ignoring the arching alert the action sent into the guards. The gate, he noticed, was completely silent, except for a grating sound, the kind it makes when it is opened and closed. Which was odd, because at the moment, the gate was firmly shut.

Volker spotted another nun eye Xanthe and Genevieve, and another balloon of disapproval floating into the air. Volker let his mind wander, seeking out other nuns who had noticed his friends. There was one over by the main foyer, the balloon just forming. There was a cluster of nuns on the far side, a bunch of balloons already high in the sky. Now that Volker concentrated he noticed balloons popping up everywhere. Then he noticed something at odds with the rest. A slightly-built nun standing under the giant eucalypt, had paused, hands clasped prayer-like in front of her. She was staring at the spectacle of Gen and Xanthe, bright red balloons bursting up from her in a steady flow. What made Volker stop, what made his heart start beating fast, what made a plan start forming in his brain, was that red was not the colour of disapproval -- it was the colour of love, and when love isn't found, jealously swells. He sprinted back to his friends.

"Finally," Gen moaned as she heaved Xanthe over to Volker. Volker glanced at the nun. The balloons had lessoned.

"Xanthe, Xanthe," said Volker, turning his friend around. Xanthe groaned with the movement. "Look, look!" Volker pointed in the direction of the nun. "Is she a friend of yours?" Xanthe struggled to open his eyes, and with great effort looked in the direction Volker was pointing.

"Aaah," came his low, guttural voice, "The pretty Rosalie..."

"Perfect!" Volker said, holding his friend steady.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not following," came Gen's voice.

"We can use her!" Volker said, smiling wildly. "She's got a thing for him."

"The nun has a thing for Xanthe?" Gen asked, sceptical. "I thought they hated you guys."

"But she's a young nun," Volker said, starting to half-drag, half-walk Xanthe over to the tree. "A young'un, a trainee -- and they're Xanthe's speciality, aren't they Xanthe?" Xanthe groaned in reply. Volker paused for a moment to take in Gen's confusion. "The young'uns are easy prey. They're naive and all do-goodery, and when Xanthe is in his element he can make them fall head over heels."

"Xanthe?" Gen asked incredulously.

"Yeah." Volker started hauling his friend off again, whispering instructions in the boy's ear.

Rosalie, the nun, had noticed them coming and had retreated to the base of the tree, trepidation in her stance, and in the swirling pattern on her shoulders. Volker nodded to her. She nodded back, then her eyes darted to Xanthe. Up close like this, she could see him pale and sagging. A wave of strawberry concern wafted off her. Volker shook his friend gently. He saw a glint of steel form through the grey shroud and knew, as Xanthe looked at the young nun, that he had found his strength. "Rosalie..." The soft voice hit the air. The nun took a step forward, reaching out with concern. "I need your help," Xanthe continued. "These are my friends." The nun looked again at Volker. At Gen, her eyes narrowed. "Your friends?" she queried warily. Another red balloon was forming. Volker quickly slipped his arm around Gen's hips and pulled her closer. He watched as Rosalie's jealousy eased, and she turned her concern back to Xanthe. "What happened to you?" Xanthe rocked back and forth where he was, dizzy.

Volker answered. "It's the drugs. They're destroying him. You've gotta help him."

"What can I do?" She glanced around, making sure her superiors weren't watching, then she ran her fingers through Xanthe's matted black hair.

"I can't dream, Rosy," the boy whispered. He leaned in to her. "I need you to get me out of here." A chorus of 'No, no, nos' struck out in a catchy rhythm. She bit her lip, considering the gravity of what he was asking her.

"I can't do that."

The grey shroud covering Xanthe was growing darker and tighter. The boy sagged further against the nun. The tint of steel receded. Slowly he brought himself up for one last effort. His delicate, angel-like features were millimetres from Rosalie's face. "Please Rosy." He had tears in his eyes. "I'll die if you don't save me." He pressed his forehead against hers and stared soulfully into her eyes. Volker saw her habit seep into the colour of deep red, and minuscule cherubs burst out around her, singing a love song in high, squeaky voices, snapping arrows from the little bows in their hands. She was struck, smitten, in Xanthe's thrall. Volker glanced sideways at Gen. He could tell: she was impressed.


The group walked soberly over to the gate. Sr. Rosalie's hands shook as she took the key from her chain, but her red held strong. There were four people standing guard on the gate, a nun and a civilian guard on each side. Rosalie, her head down to hide her face, so as not to give anything away in her expression, talked softly to the trim, stern nun on their side of the gate. After a few moments" conversation the trim nun looked up, studying Volker and Genevieve holding Xanthe upright between them. Volker heard the creaking of the gates as they loomed unmoving in front of him. The fence on either side cackled and from the nun resounded the BOOM BOOM BOOM of a drumbeat. A countdown to verdict-time. Volker squeezed Gen's lily hand behind Xanthe's back. The nun looked to Sr. Rosalie again, who in turn glanced furtively back at the three young people, and continued with her coaxing of the guards.


Gen squeezed Volker's hand in return. Xanthe twitched in their grip, his head lolling onto Volker's arm. The gates creaked loudly, the drumbeat quickened. Rosalie's red shivered but maintained.

The nun nodded. With painful calmness Rosalie unlocked the gate and escorted the three young people out. They walked slowly down the path, each one dying to run for it. It had been a long time since Xanthe had been outside the walls. He squinted down at the view in front of him. Durst rose high in its steel and concrete valley. Beautiful, he thought before quietly slipping into unconsciousness.

Chapter 9

There was a click.

Then a clack.

It went on and on.

The two young men were standing side by side. Volker in his torn jeans and flanno. Xanthe in his usual black. The road stretched before them, made of a pale yellow sand, soft and powdery. If you were to walk on it, it would make small squeaking noises. The kind that sends chills up the spine. But they weren't walking on it. They were standing in silence, looking for the horizon. But it wasn't there. The sand stretched flat into the endless distance and the sky itself was a yellow haze. The two young men didn't speak. They didn't even know the other existed. Each stood silently and stared into the distance, listening for that clickety-clack as it got closer and closer.


The sky above Durst was clear and blue. Its people went about their morning routines as usual. All except three, who were picking their way slowly through the crowded streets. It had been a simple drive back down to the Lower Commons the evening before, Sister Rosalie looking on in tears, imagining the punishments that awaited her when she could no longer cover Xanthe's departure. They had stayed at Volker's. It was the most obvious place to look, but it was also the closest, and Xanthe had looked on death's door. But sleep does wonders and blunders, especially dreaming sleeps, and the two boys woke with the same image in their minds, the same feeling of impending doom and the same urge to take comfort from the one adult they had ever been able to trust.

"We should have taken my car," said Gen as they paused again for Xanthe to rest.

"No," Volker said, "I need the air, I need the ground." He jumped up and down on the cracked pavement to make his point. "You miss out on so much in a car."

"Like what?"

A smile spread over Volker's face as he gazed around. "Like giant monkeys, giant like boulders, squeezing their way through that alley down there, following the little girl. Would've missed that if we'd been speeding by."

"Giant monkeys?"

"It's okay. They're her friends."

Gen shrugged. "There are too many cars in this city, anyway." She gestured to the cramped, sputtering intersection in front of them. Gently, she took one of Xanthe's arms and heaved him up from the bench where he'd been silently staring into the blue sky. "We'd better keep moving," he whispered. "Need to see Dot."


At the very heart of Durst two well-loved streets criss-crossed for a moment before splitting the city into north, south, east and west. Volker had often walked here, absorbing the tha-thump tha-thump of the city core. But today was different. He felt it as soon as he left the footpath. His feet dragged, neither leg able to leave the bitumen. He staggered to his left. A car honked and braked, the heat of its bonnet causing the air to squiggle. "Tha-thump, tha-thump..." He whispered the sound, as if coaxing Durst to follow his lead. He stopped in the middle of the intersection and listened hard. Cars screeched and beeped and yelled.

"What is it? What's wrong?" From far away, Volker heard Genevieve speak. Something had shifted, something only Volker could feel. The sky was clear and blue, but he couldn't find the sun, couldn't feel its prongs of heat stretching toward him. The noises of the street faded. With an effort he lifted his foot and stomped it down hard. Nothing happened. No cracks in the bitumen, no dust clouds billowing up, no ants shaking their fists at him. The world had gone calm, unobtrusive. His periphery blended together, soaking through to the rest of his vision, the colour seeping out at his ends. Nothing to see, nothing to hear. His ear itched, then he heard it.

A clickety-clack of high heels hit the pavement, and with them swung legs. Two tanned, shapely legs snugly wrapped into a skirt and swinging from the hips. The skirt was caramel, the jacket caramel, the blouse cream, high heels the same colour, the hair honey, just like the eyes. But there was no flavour to them. She was devoid of smell, of taste and song. As hard as he looked he couldn't discern a single facial feature. They must be there, he thought blurrily, but it was as if her face was blank, melted, bland. The muffled silence stretched in his head, the clicking of her high heels like a knife driving into his brain. Nausea swept through him again, the salt in his saliva stinging his tongue as the bile rose. The blanket feeling wrapped itself around his chest, so tightly he couldn't breathe. He instinctively tried to tear at his chest, but his arms wouldn't move. He couldn't take his eyes off her. Tears sparked and ran down his cheeks. He let out a strangled cry that didn't make a noise in this place, and saw her pause for a millisecond, her head tilting slightly in his direction. His lungs instantly filled with sickly sludge. Then, just as fast, it churned up his burning throat and he collapsed, choking, on the ground.


"She's the one, she's it," Volker screamed. "Come on! "We have to follow her!..." He tugged Gen's arm. He needed to be off, running after the trail, not standing here waiting for nothing to happen. He needed to know. He needed to get to the bottom of the honey jar. Find her and ask her: Was she doing this? Was she bringing about the end of the world? But Gen was playing tug-of-war with his arm.

"Volker, will you stop jumping!" she yelled. It was all so ridiculous. One moment all three of them had been walking along, brainstorming ideas. Next, Volker was glued to the spot, staring open-mouthed at some woman across the street, eyes bulging like a cartoon character. Then he had fallen to the ground in another fit. It had scared her to death. And Xanthe had just stood there, staring dumbly at his friend.

Gen took a deep breath and made an effort to pull herself together. If only Volker could stand still for one minute. One minute to explain. That's all she wanted. All this end of the world stuff. She didn't know if she could believe it. She wondered if it was the right thing, letting him out of the Abbey. Maybe she could have asked the nuns to take a look at him. But no, she decided. After seeing the Abbey from the inside, after seeing what it had done to Xanthe, she wouldn't want that for anyone. If only she could have one minute to get her bearings, to deal with Xanthe, who was sitting in the gutter now, right over where Volker had vomited. And in the Name of Regina, she noticed, he was prodding the bile with a stick.

She took Volker's chin in her hand. "Look at me, Volker. Stand still and look at me." He squirmed, but his unfocused eyes reached hers. She held steady and continued in a calm voice. "Volker, before we go anywhere you're going to have to stand still and explain to me what the devil is going on here..."

Volker latched on to the familiar word. "The devil! That's it, the devil! We have to follow..." He pointed in the direction the woman had gone and started pulling again.

"Volker, look at me. Do I look like I'm going to follow you at the moment? Surely someone with your unique skills of perception can see what I feel like doing right now?" This seemed to break through to him. Volker stopped struggling and, titling his head slowly to one side, studied her with his dazed eyes, a knot of concentration in his forehead.

"You look..." his free hand fluttered over her, "...all burny and brick." He stepped back. "Like you want to hurt me."

She nodded and stood her ground. "That could well be. Now look at your friend." Gen turned his head to Xanthe sitting in the gutter. "Are we just supposed to run off and leave him here? Because, frankly, I don't like where he's headed with that." She indicated to the stick making patterns in the vomit. Volker's heart leapt at the sight of his friend. His mind was slowing down, opening again. He was beginning to see why Gen was worried. But the sight of Xanthe so focused did nothing to disgust Volker. In fact, he looked on his friend with an admiring smile. He knew what no one else did. This was Xanthe in his element. The grey shroud had been discarded. The boy was covered head to toe and all around with glittering silver twinkles. It was almost blinding. It was heart-warming. Xanthe was Seeing again.

He wanted to sit beside his friend, but Gen still had his arm, and his chin. He realised she was still talking. "And how are we supposed to track her down, anyway? If she does, in fact, have something to do with this and isn't just some innocent bystander!"

She needs to calm down, he thought. She's burning up with stress. He wiped his hand on his trousers then touched it gently to her forehead. "Shhhh, shhh, shhhh, shhh, shhhh. It's alright. I know. I see it. We need a plan. But look," he whispered in his most soothing voice, "Look at Xanthe. He's back. He can help us now." Gen was turning back to her blue and green again, her nice calm colours, he noticed. He beamed at her. She was so beautiful, all swirls and her white lily hands. He took one and rubbed it up to his cheek. He loved flower petals. So smooth and delicate and never smelling like they're supposed to. And there was that mysterious pink scarf wrapping itself around her neck again. He could feel the calm growing around him. Things were coming together, he realised. They were going to stop It from happening. Absolutely. He tucked the doubt away and focused on Xanthe.

"You can see it, can't you?" Volker asked Gen as they stared down at the boy. Volker pushed the hair out of his eyes and rubbed his hands together.

"See what?" Genevieve asked.

Volker crouched down by his friend. "See," Volker pointed. "See, he's Dreaming!"

Chapter 10

Xanthe had watched the proceedings voyeuristically. Volker standing...Volker on his knees...Volker in the gutter. He had seen the woman, too. Watched her walk away with a bounce in her step as Volker swayed and shivered. But it wasn't until he had inspected the mess in the gutter that his vision cleared. He didn't know what had made him step over there. It was a feeling. A strong feeling that he could remember getting before. He sat on the gutter, the vomit between his legs. It reeked of the aftertaste of orange juice. It drew him in. The acid was sharp and hard. It focused his mind. He could see something. The wheels in his brain assembled themselves again, turned in unison, opened the shutters and finally he was dreaming.

There was sand at his feet, extending into the distance, and hazing up into the sky. He stared down at his body. He was black and white, as he should be. But the rest was the colour of the sand. He stood silently, watching the mass in the distance swirl. It was a storm of sand, but it didn't make a sound. Just reached closer and closer in the non-existent wind. He stared straight ahead into the muffled silence. Then came a sound. A click clack, click clack. But that wasn't important. He'd heard that before. He was sure of it now. That had already come and gone. What was important was the haze. It was growing. It was just one bland, sand colour and it was all around him now.

He choked in the gutter, sand in his eyes, throat, nose and ears. Two hands were patting him on the back. He blinked his eyes and the glaring daylight hit him. The sand was gone. He smiled for an instant, his body free of the cloudy murk that had been the meds, taking strength from the reflective metallic sheen of the Durst skyscrapers. Then he realised he should be frowning, because his dream did not bode well.


"We have to follow her," said Xanthe. They had shifted to another part of the gutter and were sitting in a line, knees together. Xanthe had told them his vision. Genevieve waited uneasily as the boys talked on and on about sand and honey and beige. She couldn't help but believe them. They were so genuine, so matter-of-fact, even if what they were saying did sound crazy. Besides, Volker had been right, hadn't he? About most things so far. Somehow, the world was coming to an end and these two knew it. It wasn't just about breaking a boy out of the Abbey anymore. This was something else.

"Volk," said Xanthe again, "we have to follow her."

"How?" asked Genevieve, guilt bubbling up from her insides. "She's long gone, isn't she?" She hugged her knees to her chest. "Because I wouldn't let you go after her, before."

Xanthe studied this girl. He wondered why his friend had chosen her. She was beautiful, that was obvious, but with Volker that really wouldn't matter. She kept asking questions. She didn't understand how they worked. Obviously he was missing something, something only Volker could see. It was always the way. He fixed his friend with a look that spoke of challenge. "Time to fly, Volk."

Chapter 11

"So you can follow it, like a scent?" Volker waited patiently (as patiently as he could) as Genevieve turned it over in her mind. As he had explained it, all the flavours of life that Volker could see, hear and whatever else -- all that was open to him -- left a trail, something he could track. Subtle hints and fluctuations. The taste of chilli coupled with a tang of motor oil, a slip of wind with freckles and the faint hint of hope. The stronger the initial impact, the easier to follow. If it was really strong, he could even go back a year if he tried hard enough. But it was easier, the fresher the scent. There was less chance of corruption, of paths crossing and getting mixed up. But the woman's would be easy. It was the strongest he'd ever had. Unique even amongst the unique. Just looking at the spot where she'd stood brought back the nausea, the impending doom. He could do it, absolutely, and he wanted to do it soon.

Honey dripped onto the footpath, one dollop at a time. It ran into the cracks and bled tiny rivers that choked the miniscule grains of dirt, germs and cigarette ash. The ants stayed away. This honey wasn't sweet. Volker turned his cheek to a glistening warmth on one side of the air. It had come from some happy, skipping fellow a few days before. But on his other cheek was the nothing, like a chink of the world had been carved out.

He twisted around skyscrapers, passed graffitied playgrounds and beyond the bitumen. The roads grew wider and neater, the buildings scrubbed clean and miniature gardens with actual grass started appearing behind locked gates. The scent was strong now, and very fresh. They were heading toward the southern wall of the city. He hesitated, unsure how to proceed. He had been so eager to find this woman, to have his questions answered, that he hadn't thought about what they would do when they finally reached the destination. He didn't know if he could survive being so close to something so repellent, without his knees buckling and his mind clouding over. What was he expecting? An overwhelming, quick-as-lightning flash of knowledge?

He took hold of a garden gate to steady himself as the nausea hit. The smell was strong, the sense of foreboding turning his insides to styrofoam. Christ, this is it, he thought, unwilling to move any closer.


Inside the garden stood the woman, younger than she had appeared, even just an hour before, with smoother skin and clearer eyes. The garden was small and closed off by three high walls that belonged to the buildings surrounding it. Volker, Gen and Xanthe stood in the entrance, none of them willing to step inside.

"Volker. Come in." The woman gestured to the small open space between them. Her voice was silky low. "I would have liked to have done this somewhere more private, but Volker, you are getting so skilled, it seems. I underestimated how long it would take you to find me." She smiled, tapping her forehead. "This mind, you see. Imperfect, just like the rest."

Volker took a hesitant step into the garden and stared at the honey-coloured woman, bewildered. "Dot!"

Her mouth twisted into a smirk. "I assure you, it is me. I am now filled with the blessings of Our Christ Regina. Quite a transformation, yes?"

"What have you done?" He gulped down his fear and his nausea. He couldn't tell one from the other.

"What I have been doing all my life: Christ's Will."

"Christ's Will? The world's losing its...its..."

"Weakness, ugliness, chaotic nature?"

"No, its..." He shuffled through his mind but couldn't find the right word. "...its everything. The unique stuff and the life stuff. All the interesting. Dot, come onů" he begged.

"The world is repairing itself. It is changing for the better."

"No. No, Dot, it isn't. No. No. No, you're wrong. It's not, Dot. Please. It isn't. Please Dot, stop doing this..." Volker could feel his head start to muffle his thoughts. It was the smell as much as anything else. A smell like decay, so pungent it burnt his nostrils. "Please Dot..." He couldn't comprehend how this had happened. How could his Dot look like this, be this thing? Genevieve stepped forward, and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. She fixed the woman with a stony look, acting much braver than she felt. Volker shook under her hand.

Dot fixed a scrutinising eye on the young woman. "Are you enjoying your little adventure?" taunted the nun. "He is quite stunning, isn't he? No wonder you would follow him into danger like this. Or do you think this is all make-believe? A little entertainment from the Abbey?"

"Shut up!" Genevieve spat.

Dot chuckled. The sound seemed monstrous under the silky voice. "Quite the crude tongue you have."

"Dotty?" Xanthe had folded himself onto the ground behind them. His voice was coarse and soft. Volker noticed the steel edges of his friend had rusted. Xanthe picked a blade of grass from the ground and absent-mindedly placed it, stem down, over one of the marks on his arm. "Dotty, is it you? Everything's so dull and grainy."

Dot fixed the boy with a cold stare. He cringed under her gaze. "Poor Xanthe," she spoke mockingly, "more trouble than he is worth. As I'm sure your little Rosy now thinks."

A deep frown crossed Xanthe's face. Volker shuddered as he felt his friend's pain. Then he felt a pure banal strength surge out from Dot and plough into Xanthe. The boy crumpled in a heap.

"Xanthe!" Volker tried to run to his friend, but he was stuck by Dot's eye. Gen, too, was struggling to move. Something rather important scratched at Volker's insides and clawed its way into his mind. "Christ, you're not Dot!" he gasped with sudden clarity. And then, whether it was from shock or some disturbed kind of humour, Volker laughed as he realised his own joke. "Get it, Gen? Because it's not Dot, is it? It's Christ!"

"This is Regina?" asked Gen, an even greater fear rushing up in her.

"Yep. Dull and bland and one malicious bitch! Just like the Almighty should be, right?" He spat the words down in front of the God, his words hardening.

"Not quite, Volker. She is establishing Herself through me, though. The changes are already occurring, as you can see." She gestured to her younger looking body. "Can't you feel Her? The peace, the calm. It is filtering in. She is taking over. The world will be as it should be, finally."

"And that's beige, is it? Bland? Nothing out of the ordinary?" He pleaded to any part of Dot that was left. "Is it me that's fading? Or am I just seeing it happen? Everything else being seeped out at the edges?"

"Not to worry, Volker. I am sure your gifts will soon dissipate as well. But for now, yes, you are seeing Christ's Grace at work. You do have the strongest of Gifts Volker, dear. I'm sure even the Abbey drugs wouldn't have held you back." She folded her arms and cocked her head to one side. "Not so now, though."

A wave of nausea hit him, propelling him backwards. He couldn't see Gen through his blurring periphery, but he could hear the faint sound of Bruch's Opera slowly winding down, and knew the force of it was on her too. He tried to fight the feeling of decay and bleach that was burning away at his very essence, but through the haze he heard the warning.

"You cannot defeat me. You are only making things worse."

"Volker, help," Gen whispered. He reached blindly for her hand.

There was a sudden whooshing noise followed by a clattering of garbage bins as Genevieve flew backwards through the air. He saw blood trickle to the surface and her lilies shrivel. Fury tumbled out of him. At the same time the decay shuddered to a stop. He honed in on that feeling and painstakingly focused his fury on reversing the process, pushing the blandness back out of his body.

"Such determination, Volker. I've never known you to stay so focused for so long. I must say, the real world has done extraordinary things for you." Her eyes flashed bright and Volker groaned with pain as the decay flooded through him, stronger and even more resilient. It tumbled into his mind, a blinding fierceness that bloated his brain against his skull and made him shriek in pain as unconsciousness loomed.

"Do not worry, dear Volker. Regina will set everything right again."

Chapter 12

This was the Other Place. Xanthe had spent time here before. Half his life or more. Its blacks and whites had soothed his soul. It was his home. His Return-to Place. But it was turning away from him now. He had seen it creep up for months. It had become painful to live in a beige, sandy world. So painful he had pleaded with the nuns to give him something that would make his dreams normal again. Something that would return him to balance. But the nuns had different concepts of normal. And he had stopped sleeping altogether. The cloud stormed around him. His feet were bare and the whipped-up sand traced circles around his toes. He wore loose hanging cotton the colour of old stained cream. He wriggled his nose, but there was no sound of clanging metal. As he reached up his hand to feel his smooth, unstudded eyebrows he noticed his fingernails were polished clear, and his inner arms, milky white, contained no trace of needle marks.

The cloud descended upon him. Instead of the roaring of wind and the stinging of sand hitting his flesh, a heaviness pressed down on him. It choked his ears, compressed his lungs, but most of all it infiltrated his mind. He could feel it, millimetre by millimetre, digging into his skull. He struggled against it, but his mind was too used to opening up, to embracing what it encountered. Maybe if Volker was here, he could stop it, he thought. Xanthe could almost hear his friend's voice. But then his final barriers crumbled and the storm flooded into his mind. There was only one sound, one word, over and over again. "Regina."


Volker was aware of a buzzing noise, like a giant swarm of bees in his ears. His hand touched something soft and crunchy. It crackled under his touch, like a starched linen sheet. He tried to move, but it was as if his arms were bound to his body. As he slowly regained consciousness he became aware that it was not just his arm, but his legs that were bound together. He was lying on a thin fold-out cot, the kind Abbey patients were placed on down in the Treatment Rooms, underground and out of the way, where no sane person could hear the screams. A surge of panic rose in him as memories of past treatments flooded back -- water and needles and electrodes coupled with the pain. He gazed around the room but everything was shadows and fuzz. His head dropped back to the mattress, and closing his eyes, listened intently. He took in the drip drip of a tap, the scuttling of rats in the walls, the drone of something sinister hiding in the air. It sent him shuddering. It rose from the ground. It peered down from the ceiling. It hummed a tune of praise and devotion, honey-smooth and all-powerful.

He could have hidden under his sheets and let the end come, but amongst all the dread Volker picked out the soft sway of a familiar symphony. Genevieve.

He sang to the rats. Found their skin and teeth and claws. The memory of the boy that had kept their company years ago still haunted the walls and floorboards. They helped him without question. They gnawed the straps until the bindings broke and Volker swung out of bed. His legs gave way and he fell straight down to the cold concrete floor, his cheek crunching as it took the brunt. He used the adrenalin to spring back up and, leaning against the wall, scanned the beds in both directions. It was so dark. His pupils wouldn't open properly. Bees sung in his ears and his mind swung in and out of focus. He licked the shards of blood in his mouth and swallowed, forcing the honey-drone from his mind. His legs were heavy, as were his eyes. But he caught a glimpse of a figure in a bed opposite to his. He crossed the centre of the room and peered down at the face. It wasn't Gen. It was a young woman. Her face was mutilated, struck until it was pulp. As he bent down he caught the whiff of strawberries. This was pretty Rosalie, who he had coerced into helping him. Guilt was not a nice feeling, but he made himself stand still and let it drench him from head to foot. He smoothed out her hair and whispered an apology in her ear. He was glad Xanthe wasn't here to see her like this. Xanthe had loved his little young nuns. And Volker had got the feeling Xanthe had loved this one most of all.

Volker tasted something wet and salty. It was a tear. He realised he was thinking about Xanthe as if he were dead. But the truth was he didn't know where Xanthe was. He couldn't feel him in this Treatment Room. Maybe he had been left in the park. Maybe he would wake up with a Dream and somehow get it to Volker, so Volker would know what to do.

Volker felt time tick-tick-ticking and knew he had to start moving. The bitter aftertaste of the confrontation with Dot -- no, Regina -- was still leaving him foggy. He had to find Gen. He sifted the air until he found Bruch's Concerto skimming the edges of a bed near the other end of the room. As he reached the bed the music grew louder. Two eyelids fluttered. The tips if a lily hand moved against the bindings. Volker undid them as fast as he could and waited while Gen woke up. She had a gash of red in her hairline. It streaked into her green colours like a sad Christmas. An ugly beige retreated from her hems, replaced by blue as she opened her eyes. She smiled dazedly as she made him out kneeling by the side of her bed. Then her gaze moved beyond him and her expression turned to horror. "Xanthe."

Volker turned and caught the horror of the image for himself. The body lay rigid, the eyes unmoving, unstaring. There was no heavy metal, no clashes of cymbals. No steel. No black and white stripes. Even the grey shroud had disintegrated. There was nothing left. No indication of life.

"Xanthe! XANTHE!" Volker lunged at the boy in the bed, shaking him violently, but the boy was rigid in his grip. "Oh Christ! He's dead! He's dead!" Volker rocked back and forth, the emptiness taking him in its grip, sucking him down into those dead grey eyes.

"Oh, Christ Regina, no!" Genevieve had crawled from her bed over to the unmoving boy. She reached a hand delicately to the boy's neck. "Volker."

"To hell with Regina!" Volker flung himself down on the boy's chest.

"Volker, he has a pulse."

Volker lifted his head. "What?"

"And he is breathing. Shallowly, but he is alive."

"No no no no, he can't be. There's nothing." His hands fluttered over the body. "There's nothing here." He knocked the boy's forehead. "There's nothing coming out." He crouched by Gen and looked at her imploringly. "You have to understand. He's my best friend. But he's not here. There's nothing!" His hands whipped around until they came to rest on the chest. "It's empty." But then he noticed the rise and fall of Xanthe's chest. Volker couldn't hear the heartbeat. He couldn't feel the vibrations of the cells as they danced Xanthe's own special kind of dance. Volker was blind and deaf to everything that would once have indicated life in the boy. But he could feel his friend breathing, so maybe, just maybe Xanthe was still in there. But trapped, thought Volker, trapped inside with no power to get free.

Chapter 13

Volker traced his fingers along the wall of the winding Abbey hall. Fluorescent tubes, dim with dust, cast sparse pools of light on the damp floor. Gen stepped with caution. The rats thronged thick at her feet, keeping pace with Volker's stride. Volker took no notice. He was concentrating with all his might on the silky smooth honey trail he knew would lead him to Dot. Or whatever it was that had Dot in its grasp. He closed himself off from the aged screams stuck behind the walls, from the desperation seeping from the concrete levels above. He was going to find Regina and, God or not, he was going to make her bring his friend back. It was happening now. It was happening here. He opened his mouth and tasted the air. The honey was decay. It looked sweet but tasted of ashes. It was also mixed with something else now. Traces of Sisterhood, devotion and anticipation. Even a trickle of doubt. That was hopeful. He walked with hands stretched out to both walls, turning and twisting and descending even further into the underground. He had never been so deep in the Abbey. This was beyond the Treatment Floors. The sensation of Regina was growing stronger and more sickly. His fingers paused along a wall. The heat behind it pulsed adrenalin and anticipation. His hand burned. He took Gen's hand and crept towards the doorway. He peeked around the door. In front of him was a great chamber, paved in stone. A voice echoed around the chamber. Its source was obstructed by the hundreds of nuns standing motionless before him. They were turned towards the Being at the other end of the chamber.

The voice rang out, its tendrils slithering into Volker's ears. "My Sisters, She is here with us at last, to bring forth the Peace of the World." The voice paused as a soulful praise rang out from the nuns. A deep thrumming vibrated through the stone and up Volker's back. "Regina has come. Her Blessed Grace is in the Final Stage of Transition. With our prayers she will embody the Chosen Vessel entirely." The nuns sung slow and monotonous praises. Volker and Genevieve remained still, mesmerised by the swaying of the nuns. They should have retreated. They should have bolted back up the hallways, run screaming out of the Abbey and thrown themselves at the mercy of the gates. But, instead, they remained unmoving as the song grew louder and fuller and the thrumming pulsed into Volker's core. Then everything came to silence.

The sea of nuns parted to reveal a woman, young and smooth, with no semblance of Dot about her. This was pure Regina. Volker was overcome with disgust, as the familiar dreaded decay slithered in and took hold. He shouldn't have come here, and he shouldn't have dragged Gen.

"Sisters," chimed Regina, her eyes easily seeking out the intruders, "we have guests." She gestured one soft, tanned hand towards them and Volker, in the God's thrall, moved towards her. "There is no stopping you, is there?" asked the honey-smooth voice. His head shook from side to side. But it took all the power of his Will to do it. Inside he screamed and swore in frustration. Laughter trickled into the air. It belonged to Regina. "Didn't Sr. Dorothea ever teach you it is not nice to swear?" She touched her hand to his head. His eyes misted and greyed-out. His brain crackled and fermented. The vibrations that had been rumbling through the stonework amplified, making their way to his core. And he was falling, yet again.

Chapter 14

His mind swept from one direction to another. It wasn't a day to dream of, but here he was -- Inside his mind or inside some greater sense of the world. His throat tasted raw and blistered. He coughed up a grainy substance. It looked like sand. He rubbed it between his hands and realised where he was. This was his dream. Xanthe had stood right beside him in this very spot. But now the storm that had loomed in the distance surged around him. It muffled his senses and squeezed his mind shut. He pushed himself up to a kneeling position and swayed with the storm. This was the fear he had been combating since the first dream. The one where he had stood at the end of the Durst and had looked upon this monstrous expanse of nothingness. It was too much to bear. He was blinded, deafened by silence, forced to breathe ash. It wasn't sand that he trod on, that he breathed, that circled menacingly around him, but dust and decay. It was beige, it was bland. This wasn't peace and serenity and rest. This lie had taken two of the people he loved most in the world. His beautiful Xanthe, with his dichotomy of tones and hard edges, and beautiful Dot, the real Dot of advanced years, red lips and sturdy spirit. And Gen, he realised. Her too.

He took a step that made no sound. Then another. Then he stopped. Beyond the storm, each direction was the same, extending forever in the same pattern, flat and sweeping. He was dead and gone. Damned to an eternity of excruciating nothing. There was nothing to lead him, nothing to hint to him. No dragons laughing in the clouds, no twinkling orange fingernails, no serenade on the tip of someone's essence. All the notes and pictures and scents had gone. All the gut feelings that stretched from toes and hair-ends. Everything that had made him up, everything that made up his world, was gone. He had no hope, no sense. But in this horrible, plain semblance of existence he could still feel the suffocating, choking nausea that crawled down his throat. It lined his stomach and filled his fingers and nostrils. It made his head hurt. It bleached his eyes dry. He could do nothing but stand still and feel the storm surge around him.


A long time later, someone spoke. "Trouble Volker."

"Yes Xanthe."

"This is the place I went to...down in the Treatment Rooms. Where the nuns prayed and gave me the needle."

"The injections?"

"What were they, do you think?"

"Couldn't say."

"S'pose it doesn't matter now."

"S'pose not."

"We dead?"

"Dunno. Could be. Hope not, though."

"Yeah, me too."

Volker turned around. There was his friend. Xanthe was pale against creaming clothes. His earrings and nose rings and bars and studs were wiped clean, leaving his skin baby-smooth.

There must be sun somewhere, thought Volker. Something pricked at his mind. It was a thought. "Holy shit!" He turned to his friend. "Xanthe, how long've you been here?"

Xanthe gazed into the distance. "Forever, maybe."

"Forever since Dot on the street with the honey?"

"Honey? There was the clickety-clack. And the woman. And then the storm...Volker, I can't see. I feel sick. Look at me!" He desperately reached for his friend's hand, clung to it, but it felt like nothing to Volker. "Volker," his friend continued quietly, a horrified tint to his voice. "I'm so bare." He smoothed his hands over his face. "It took away everything. My steel, my clothes. I don't exist."

Volker tried to work out the implications. The boy was here, and he was also alive somewhere else. Or, at least, he had been when Volker and Gen had left him breathing in the cot. Which meant this wasn't a place of afterlife but a different place altogether. A holding place maybe? A kind of limbo? And if Xanthe wasn't dead, by all odds Volker wasn't either. And that meant one big whopping great piece of news: He could find a way back.


She was at the beach. There was no beach in Durst. There was a pool at home, several in fact, and imported sand by a pond in the garden. It wasn't like this stuff. She wriggled her toes in the sand. It was odd. For such a sunny, yellow day, the sand was cold to her touch. She squinted into the distance. There was no sign of the ocean, no sign of anything but sand. Maybe she was in the desert then. She turned her attention to a humming noise sounding in the distance. She headed towards it, enthralled by its monotony.


The two boys watched as an apparition slowly formed in the sand storm. Her hair was wreathed in lilies straight from the earth. She wore a dress of blue and green that swam in front of their eyes. It was the only colour in this place.

"We're not dead, are we?" asked Genevieve as she cleared the storm.

"We've been through this already," said Xanthe impatiently.

"You're not, at least," replied Volker to her question.

"Why not?

"Look at you, look at us." She studied them. Their clothes were bone-coloured, their faces pale. Even Volker's hair had lost its electric tinge. The sand whipped up the folds of Genevieve's dress, sending the colours fluttering in the wind. She watched them float away. "Where are we?"

"Dunno," said Xanthe.

"Dunno," repeated Volker. "We've been discussing it, though. The storm's getting bigger."

"What does that mean?"

"Regina's growing stronger, most like."

"What do we do?"

"Find a way out."

"I've been thinking..." said Genevieve, hesitantly.

"Yes?" the boys both asked.

"Just in these few short seconds of conversation..."


"That maybe I'm like this," she gestured to her colours, "because I'm not like you."

They considered her silently.

Gen continued. "I'm not as open to everything as you are. My senses aren't all-embracing, my mind not as -- I don't know -- alert. So when she got to me, she couldn't get as far in as she could with you. She couldn't wipe me out."

"How does this help?" asked Xanthe.

Volker stared into the sandstorm, thinking. If Gen was here, in this vacuum place, with her essence still intact, and she was also in the Abbey, unconscious, but with her essence intact, that meant she was...

"An anchor?" This was the way! "I can use you to get back," he said, frenzied by hope into movement.

"How?" both Gen and Xanthe asked.

"Like this..." Volker concentrated very hard. He stretched his hands to her head, got a whiff of dirt and shampoo, and bringing her forehead to his, delved into her mind. It was a peculiar feeling to both. To Gen, it felt like the gentle scratching of a beetle as it tunnelled in. To Volker, who had only ever studied the representations of the innermost feelings on the outer side of the person, he felt like a scarab forcing his way through rock. Every thought, every emotion, every memory was a thick block he had to force through.

She was four years old smelling a chocolate cake in the oven...She was nine and fossicking like a wombat in the undergrowth of a garden...she was fifteen and reading in bed with stale air and pains...She was seventeen, covered in dust and staring out a window...

Something else took hold and he could feel himself being drawn deeper and deeper. Then it broke and he pulled back, ripping the connection. They both groaned as they fell back from each other, heads filled with migraine. Xanthe watched them curiously. "Well?" he asked.

Volker nodded. "I think I can force her mind back and if I hold tight, I'll be able to hitch through as well." He looked at his friend, pale and bland. "But that means..."

Xanthe nodded. He knew what was at stake. And he knew Volker was the only one who had a semblance of a chance of stopping it. The notion seemed familiar to him, as if it had been always riding subliminally under his dreams. "Do what you have to do." He held out his hand. Volker took it, brought it to his cheek, then let go.

"Ready, Gen?" He pulled her up from where she had fallen and brought her close again. "Just keep thinking about stuff and I'll push us through." He felt her nod hesitantly before calming her mind. He followed her through her layers of thought. He came across a surge of fear and pushed into it, thinking they were getting nearer the Abbey. Unfortunately for Genevieve, the fear came from somewhere else.

Volker saw an elephant knocking over racks at Regina Save Us.

Gen tried to force the thoughts back, but Volker was pushing in too strongly. He felt a surge of desperation acting as a barrier.

Genevieve was desperate. The one thing she didn't want to think about had to come to her at the worst possible time. The elephant in the room, she thought as she tunnelled closer and closer.

Volker pushed through the barrier and came to a room. There was Genevieve, the pink scarf wrapping itself around her neck again. She was standing in a window, staring wistfully into the street. Then the room shifted and she was behind a counter with shoes two sizes too big. Someone tugged her hair and laughed gleefully...

She was feeling someone's warm sweat on her hand...

She was acutely aware of someone's forehead pressing against hers...

She was feeling embarrassed...She knew she was blushing...She was thinking about something she really didn't want to be thinking about at that crucial moment...

Volker halted in surprise, teetering on the edge of this deep-down thought. Then he heard a tinkle of Bruch sweetly reverberate around him and was swept up with it. Leaned in. Pulled her into him, tasting her lips, her mouth, her tongue.

Chapter 15

He was suspended over Durst. The sand storm swept around him. His mental capacities were suspended, as he was, hanging in the air just beyond his reach. He looked to the view with a dull confusion, unable to understand anything but the sand in his eyes and the wind on his face. Then, suddenly, as if from a sling-shot, his mind snapped back to him and he was aware of everything. He fell.

Fear rushed into him from below. By the hundreds, humanity was experiencing a shiver up the spine, hair standing up on the back of the neck. Something wasn't right, they knew. The world was slowing, people pausing and listening for a clue, a sign in the periphery. Clammy hands, beating hearts, held breaths. Volker felt it as he dropped. The ground rushed up. His toes scraped the pavement. He was standing in pre-dawn blue. The storm loomed high above in the corner of his eye. The street lights twinkled orange. The street was empty. All was still.

He sniffed the air. It tasted of iron and pageantry. A semblance of news spun on the air, propelled by anticipation. But that was all from yesterday. Today was bleach that burned at his nose hairs and eyelashes. There was something else, too. It pulsed slowly, rhythmically under his scalp and toenails in the hushed morning.

Too much silence gave way to the tapping of a heel. "You will persist." The woman stepped out of a shadowed doorway. He couldn't call her Sister Dot. There wasn't an impression of that left. She was perfect, immaculate. She was all symmetry and smoothness, down to the last hair folded into place. She waited for him to make some witty response.

Volker was silent. Utterly tired. Tired of hunting, of thinking, of fighting, of grating against the core. He wanted his world back. He wanted to slip and slide down the streets of Durst, weaving in and out of attention, looking for pot plants that danced to the tune of each person that passed, satellite dishes that threw out neon sparks. He wanted bacon smells and ant conversations and humidity that licked at his armpits.

Regina waited, still as a statue. Volker counted to ten, then again in multiples of five, willing a fresh breeze to blow fresh fight into him. It didn't come. He shrugged, waiting for Regina's next line.

She reeled it in. "Regarding your plan, Volker... Judging from Sr. Dorothea's memories, it is unlikely you even have one." She smiled kindly. It was a farce. "Come now," her tones trickled and soothed, "you are exhausted, you poor dear. And you have the most awful headache." Her eyes dug into his sockets and pain tunnelled in, splitting his brain. "You will not defeat me." The pain grew worse. Volker clutched at his ears, screaming the pain out. "You are a nuisance, Volker. But that is all you are. You should have taken the easy way out. The way I provided for you. When I sensed you in the Abbey, awake and daring to work against me, I pitied you. You and the other rats in that sewer of a place trying so hard to set yourselves apart from the world. And you, so determined to keep the world a cess pool, deluded into thinking that this is a worthy place to live." She gestured to the dank street. "To have my creations live in such conflicting squalor and grandeur, feeling such measures of pain and bliss and everything in between. I will bring everything back into order, you'll see." The pain in Volker's head had grown unbearable. He realised he was crying, balled up on the ground. He couldn't remember falling.

Regina continued her speech, her voice like poisoned velvet. "My nuns, bless them, couldn't cope with such an enormous responsibility. But at least they understand my gift." She laughed. "You think you see the world, Volker? No. You are blinded by sensation. Yours is not a gift, it is a defect." She shook her head pityingly. "I do pity you, Volker, for your delusions and your arrogance for thinking you are wiser than me!" Her voice had risen to a shattering pitch. "But," she continued more softly, "I did give you a chance. Tracking me as you did, intent on disrupting the Transition Ceremony, I was merciful." She stroked his face, her manicured nail tracing his jaw line, so light it tickled. A flourish of dead skin cells scattered. He cringed away. "I knew how much agony you would be in to witness all of this." Durst was silent. She drew a deep breath and held herself erect, slowly letting the breath out. The air quivered and Volker thought he heard a rumble shiver through the earth. He felt, more than saw, molecules of the sand-like substance whip through his body, stripping him of what he couldn't put into words, emptying him out.

"I sent you to peace, no fuss and no pain, with your friends, even, so you would know they were safe." She paused. Her smile was iridescent. "I am very kind. But," her voice hardened, "you found your way back, and now look at what torture I have to put you through..." She shook her head mockingly.

Everything mocking everything, thought Volker. Mocking birds, rocking chairs, cuckoo clocks.... His thoughts trailed. The thrumming strengthened. It thrummed a throb in his head. But he didn't sway, he wasn't scared. Everything Regina had said was complete bullshit.

"I'm right." It was Volker's voice, barely audible, but a caress to the shivering street. A chuckle rose to his throat. He coughed it out. "I don't give a shit about your honey words, or your almighty reasons." He rolled his head around with the sound of his words. It was melodic, soothing to his brain. His eyes brushed over her and everything else. "I'm right. You're wrong. And I am gonna stop you."

If it is possible for a honey-smooth God-like creature to look pissed off, furious even, Regina looked that now. Volker smiled his gorgeous smile at her, and ignoring the pulse that was tearing his insides atom by atom, brought himself to his feet. He paused for a moment, head up to the sky, imaging the cool breeze that hadn't come to his rescue. Then he ran one hand tenderly down his face until his fingertips ran off his chin one by one. He stretched and said "Come on then. Let's get this done. I'm starving for a bacon sandwich," he rubbed his stomach, "so no more of those long speeches, okay?"

A long moment stretched between them.

"Very well." She looked at him as if he were a cockroach. The power behind her eyes pulled Volker in. What had been a repugnant decay was amplified a hundred times into something utterly unbearable. It tore at his mind, drilling in, twisting and squeezing, until there was nothing but the pain. His arms hung limp by his sides. Volker tried to focus his mind. He imagined the scarab and the rock, just as he had with Gen. He remembered what else he had done with Gen and felt a jolt. Regina felt it too. Her surges retreated for a second. He took the chance and followed the trail into her mind. It was beige, scorched and wilted on the surface. He tried to go deeper, scratching at the next layer, then the next. She roared in rage. His head pounded and tore, but he pushed further. Blood trickled out of his tear ducts. He drew back in horror, stumbling down the gutter, retching, forcing the migraine from his mind. He knew She was somewhere behind him, knew that he should stand up and face her again, but he felt weak and cocooned.

A ripple of laughter echoed around his head. "Is it too much, Volker?"

He jumped up straight away. He wanted to fall back to his knees, but he brought up his chin and, wiping the blood from his eyes, faced the sight. It raged banality. It was extra packaging and insulation. It was a receptionist's smile, a perfectly straight tree, neat hair, no dandruff. He felt his own black hatred ooze up inside him. It was fit-throwing time. He wanted to lose it, to go off the deep end. Where was Gen to shake his shoulders? Where was Xanthe, cool and tepid, to tell him how it was going to end?

It seemed Regina had caught his thought. "It will end, Volker.

"You thought you were going to come out of this alive? A bacon sandwich to celebrate?" Her eyes raked him over, body and soul. His mind was in a vice. The nausea rolled up and over him. He stumbled and choked up rancid bile. And all the while he could feel the grains of the sand-swarm surge and tear at him, knocking atom after atom out of him. But it was too late. He'd already felt it humming in her.

He licked the hope onto his lips. "I will stop you."

She lifted him up in the sandy-swarm and flung him, so easily, passed the shivering road and into a scratched concrete building. It gave way with a moan. The world weakened. His eyelids bent with the flow.

There was a mamma-bear, a baby-bear and a papa-bear hand in hand in hand....A boy at a bus stop staring blank, but Volker seeing the open-legged fantasies spinning around....The encroaching black tar of someone with broken strings and jagged notes carved into her arms.....The final salute of a sunset-life, content, brittle-boned and ready to waltz out. What would Volker's look like? Do I have to die? he thought. I like it here so much. The violins quivered bittersweet, plunging deep.

Every muscle hurt, and every bone. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to blink. He blinked now, and in the blur he saw her. She was standing so close that if he could move he would have flinched back. The city was the same behind him, unchanging, as if paused. But it had been so long since he fell from the sky. Something cold and slimy rubbed against his shoulders. Blood. Shit. There was so much. In the back of his head there was a hole, and from that hole oozed the blood. He knew it like a song on the tips of his lips. He wasn't coming out of this. She was so strong, she would crush him into powdery pieces. The truth was like the sun freckling his skin. Warm but cancerous. Okay, so he'd die. He would give it all up. But he was taking her with him. "No doubt."

"No doubt? Interesting..."

"Know what's really interesting?" asked Volker softly. He sniffed his fingernail and brought it to his ear. "That scratch I made...It has the hint of a yodel to it." The God froze. Volker's smile gleamed, his chest rising in joy. "Dotty, dotty, dotty come out, come out wherever you are..."

"What are you -- "

"You have her memories and her yodels," he sang in glee. "My Dotty's trying to get free!"

"No!" Regina took a step towards him. Volker felt the beat of the storm around him, in him, shredding the souls of the city. But not for long, he thought. Volker tapped his fingers to his head, a sped up countdown, building the courage, the strength. She was close enough. He thrust his hands out and clenched her head between them. The God roared and shook but he followed her movements, followed her voice from her throat to her brain and to the scratches he had made. It was every pain imaginable and unimaginable, but he stayed locked to the scratches. He dug and dug, and dug and dug and dug, seeking it out. He came upon it. The yodel. He pressed his forehead to the God's. The smooth skin was sickening, but inside it he could feel crinkles. He forced them out. She tried to fight, but he laughed at her. Her pale pathetic-ness. He was right, she was wrong. She had forced herself into someone else. Someone who really and truly did love him. Regina had snuck in little by little and taken his Dot over. But the old nun with the red lips and sympathetic eyes, who had taken his hand and squeezed it as his parents drove off in guilt, she was still in there. And he didn't care how deep he had to go. He'd bring her to the surface again.

The thrumming grew stronger, or was it a thump-tha-thump? It buzzed around his ears, behind his eyes. But he was tunnelled, focused, intent. His brain swelled against his skull. He used the pain. He channelled it, roped it and flung it into Dot's consciousness. There was a loud crack. He screamed, but didn't hear it. Fissures ran like cracked eggs around their minds. He raced after them, struggling to beat them to the source. Regina whimpered. Dot sang. His nerves squealed. Regina was right. He couldn't come back from this. He forced himself to focus, screwing his eyes shut, gold tissue under his eyelids. Twenty more beats of the heart. The pressure built. He fought for control. His mind tried butterfly strokes as it bent out of proportion. He was right in. He caught hold, found the connection he needed and ripped out the plug on everything else. Blood, life, ecstasy flowed. He ebbed, shook and ebbed. There was a memory, another, some more. He floated with them. Pink scarves. Black and steel. Red lips. Bacon. Bruch.

The End

The ants tasted the blood and liked it. He had been their friend. He wouldn't mind. Collectively they were aware of a shadow across the body. Salt was in the air, and wetness. It hit the ground, mixing with the blood. They scuttled quickly up the trail and found refuge in the hole. They drank with relish, praising their friend. He tasted of the city, of everything. He was a feast. They barely registered the cars and exhaust fumes, the scolding creak of a rickety tree, the tha-thump, tha-thump under their tiny bodies. All that was normal.

They licked up the blood. It trickled iron and sweetness. Too intent, they were, to notice that somewhere beyond the blood and bitumen, a girl woke in a heap, aching, tingly, her violins quivering a bittersweet symphony. A little way beyond this a boy stretched and dreamed himself awake, the glint of steel in his eye and the scent of strawberries wafting to his studded nose. There was no-one, though, to tell him it was there.

The ants nibbled and drank in the hollowness of their friend. They continued, unconcerned, as a figure in a habit and with lush lips, cradled up the body, silent tears running from cataract eyes. And as they feasted, they yodelled right along with her.


© 2010 M.C. Fuller

Bio: M.C. Fuller earned a Bachelor of Communications (Honours) in Creative Communication at the University of Canberra, Australia (2006-2009). After high school M. C. also completed a Comprehensive Writing Course at the Sackville Academy Writing School, Queensland, via correspondence (2005-2008). Two of Fuller's shorter fantasy / science fiction works have been published in anthologies: 'The Art of Mourning' in Tattoo: First (2008), edited by Francesca Rendle-Short, published by the Faculty of Design and Creative Practice, University of Canberra; and 'Skewed of Sense' in Hatching (2009), edited by Natalie Maddalena, published by Tweak.

E-mail: M. C. Fuller

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