by Sara King
Good prompt. This one was friggin' hard to write. Ordinary Horrors.
By Sara King
Somewhere between the split second it took Janette to realize she had a spider crawling across her face and the five minutes of panicked skin-brushing that followed, Janette saw the key.
Her panic had taken her off the sidewalk, into the street. A cabby honked at her, yelled at her to get out of the road, but Janette ignored him, bending to peer into the grimy gutter where it lay. As she frowned into the dark recess under the curb, inexplicable excitement built within her.
The key was a thick, iron monstrosity, coated with grime and street dust and old motor oil, a remnant of more romantic days, when a key was more important than the lock it opened. Janette would have left it there, lying amidst dirty scraps of mangled, waterlogged newspaper and the sickly trickle of putrid black water, but it also itched at the back of her mind, tickling loose childhood memories of magical passages into other realms.
That’s what Janette needed right now. Another fucking realm.
Work--or what was left of work--sucked.
Scrunching her face, Janette squatted in her heels and leaned in to pluck the key from the repulsive New York gutter. All around her, silent, harried faces passed in a stream of general indifference, ignoring the arachnophobe woman squatting in the tire-flattened fast-food wrappers, fingers straining to reach something under the lip of concrete.
Too late, Janette realized the key was not the only object that shared that miserable grave. A rat’s corpse, wet and bloated, rotted alongside it, its little pink feet brushing Janette’s fingers as she fumbled for the key.
Janette jerked backwards with a startled cry, landing on her ass in the oily street.
The indifferent faces walked on, unseeing.
Shakily, Jannette got back to her feet, cursing herself for ruining a good skirt--New York traffic didn’t leave the kind of stains that could be vanquished with a few carefree squirts of Shout.
It was as she was stepping back onto the sidewalk that Janette realized she had the key in her hand.
She hesitated, staring down at it dumbly. She knew she’d left it beside the body of the rat. She remembered it lying beside the rat's body as she lunged away. Yet here it was, still oozing tarry black sludge into her palm, rust staining her hand a burnt red.
Intrigued, she rubbed away the liquid smog with a finger.
What was left of the designs in the decorative round head reminded Janette of crop circles. Discs and ribbons and rings spiraled outward in little dancing waves, knotting and looping, twisting until they seemed to bend the light.
Janette flipped it over and peered at the other side.
Immediately she made a sound of disappointment. The teeth, the most important features--had all been broken off save for one triangular knob, brittle with rust.
Well, what did you expect? Janette thought, staring down at the thing in her hand. The ticket to Narnia?
Sighing, she closed her fist around it and stared up at the office building that had once housed the greatest family-owned bookstore chain in the nation. As of this afternoon, the company that had been the heartfelt prodigy of four generations of Janette’s family had officially become just one more addition to an enormous conglomerate’s vast holdings, and Janette, who had been slated to take control of the company next year, had quietly been told she had been moved to sales.
Janette lowered her gaze back to the entry. The sign overhead, The Readers’ Fix, complete with a syringe spewing books, was soon going to be modified to something the corporate entity thought more PC. They’d thrown a few ideas around, but Family Dimensions and Liberty Books were the two top runners.
Why did life have to be such a pain in the ass?
Even then, Janette’s father was on his first trip to the Caribbean, enjoying the sun, the sand...and the twenty-three million he’d been paid for his family’s empire. Janette, who hadn’t seen a penny of the payout, was stuck scrabbling through the rubble of her great-grandfather’s dream, wedged in a tiny cubicle under glaring fluorescent lights, making phone calls to disappointed store managers.
As if to accentuate that fact, Janette’s heel caught in the sidewalk, broke off, and Janette fell hard, grinding both knees into the concrete, putting twin holes in her hose. The key and her purse both went flying, and she scrambled to grab her valuables before someone else did.
Purse secure, Janette dragged herself to her feet, only a hairsbreadth from throwing everything down and crying right there in the street. No one slowed, not one person stopped to help her.
Pain made her look down. Like her knees, Janette saw that her palm had torn open, rich scarlet blood now oozing over the filthy key in her hand.
When had she picked it back up?
Her eye caught on a translucent, glinting surface jutting from her palm.
Janette shifted the key to her purse and tentatively tried to pluck the heavy shard from the meat of her hand. The blood was mingling with the rust, creating a black-veined mixture that dripped to the ground, spattering on the gum-marred sidewalk as she fought to get a grip on the slick piece of beer bottle jutting from her palm.
“You need some help, lass?”
Janette flinched at the man’s voice, rich and sexy, a heavy Scottish brogue, the kind that made her think of hulking brutes on the countless romance novels littering her library shelves. Squeezing her fingers into a painful fist, she turned, good hand on her purse. “No, that’s all right. I--”
All her breath left her and Janette could only stare, speechless.
The man was better than the pictures.
The Scotsman wore jeans and a sweater, but there was no disguising the way his abs and chest stood out in perfect, rippled masculinity. Even as her eyes were widening and her brain did a double-take, her gaze fell to the Scotsman’s big, muscled thighs. They were straining against the jeans, drawing the denim tight over his ass.
Wow, Janette thought, her wound forgotten. It was all her stunned mind could come up with. Just...wow.
To her amazement, the man reached out and took her hand in one huge, calloused paw, examining it as if he’d known her for years. He wasn’t wearing a ring.
“Och, lass, this is bad.”
Janette blushed. “I know, I wasn’t thinking. I--”
The man was towering over her, now. Into her ear, like a lover, he whispered, “Do you remember me, Janette?” His huge hand suddenly tightened on her bloody wrist. “Tell me you remember.”
Janette twisted, tried to break away from him, but was held in place by the grip on her arm. She stared up into the Scotsman’s handsome face, experienced a glimmer of memory, but then it was gone. “I don’t know you,” she whispered.
“Give me the key, Janette.”
“What key?” But Janette knew. Somehow, she knew. Somehow, she had held that key in her hand before, had talked to this stranger before. And somehow, a part of her felt ashamed. “You’re not real,” she heard herself whisper. It was a denial, a desperate plea.
The Scotsman’s smile was vicious. His fingers whitened on her arm. “I'll get it off of you one way or another.” He shoved her at the alley, where the darkness would shield them from the street.
“I remember you, Dylan.” Had Janette said that? Memories tickled at her mind, then were gone.
Even as Janette was wondering where that had come from, the Scotsman hesitated, looking startled. Janette yanked her blood-slickened arm free and ran, hobbling on her broken heel. She glanced back once and saw him still standing where she’d left him, watching her weave her way through the flood of people, a strange little smile on his face.
For some reason, the psychotic bastard’s smile left a coldness that clung to Janette’s skin long after she’d visited the ER and gotten her hand sewn up. Janette was still feeling its icy grip after she paid the bill--almost five hundred dollars, out-of-pocket--and trudged back to her apartment with her right hand wrapped in gauze.
For the next two weeks, typing was gonna be a bitch. And, now that she’d been transferred to sales, she was going to be doing a lot of it.
Stepping inside her apartment that evening, Janette set her shoes off to one side, lowered the mail and her purse onto the counter, and shut the door behind her.
She took a breath, filling her lungs, and then let it out again with a shudder.
I don’t even have the guts to scream, she thought, remembering the way the horrible day had started, back in the conference room with Armani suits seated across the table from her, her father’s lawyers being intimidated into submission with their smug white smiles.
Janette took another breath, fighting the inevitable sobs that wanted to follow such a horrendous day. She locked the door, went to the fridge, and took out a Corona. Feeling tears prying against the corners of her eyes, she went to the table, sat down, and popped the cap. She drank.
Corporate America could kiss her ass.
I’ll be a farmer, she thought, studying the cracking wallpaper across the room. Farmers don’t have psychos assault them on the way home from getting fired.
She thought about milking cows, baling hay, planting endless rows of seeds and reaping the benefits three months later... She could live with a job like that. It made sense. Buying a successful family company and then tumbling everything over on its head didn’t make sense. Changing something that already worked, taking out all the little eccentricities that people loved so it better resembled the big conglomerates that people hated, didn’t make sense. Giving Hal Drake, the sniveling little accountant that had been fired last year for skimming off the top, Janette's job, didn’t make sense.
When Janette finished the first Corona, she got two more.
The Scotsman in the street was still bothering her. Nagging at her.
She shuddered and popped another cap, this time adding lime to the mix.
Something about the guy’s stare reminded Janette of a dream she’d had recently, one that had started out pleasant, the result of a late-night reading session, and had quickly devolved into something horrifying. She’d started awake just as the man’s calloused hand had begun moving its way up her struggling thigh, his other hand holding a wicked blade to her throat...
She really needed to get a boyfriend.
Sipping her fourth beer, Janette reasoned that now was the best time to start looking. The family business, her one true love, had been cashed out to the tune of a Camero, a six-week cruise, and a mansion on Maui, and Janette had been sideswiped with a shitty job that paid half of what she’d been earning before.
Maybe because of this, Janette dreamed of diamonds.
Emeralds, too. Rubies. Sapphires.
The land was covered with them, a glittering bounty of jewels of every color of the rainbow. Janette remembered laughing in the dream, bending down, filling her pockets with topazes and amethyst, pearls and garnets, then throwing them into the sky and letting them bounce off her face and body after her pockets could hold no more.
Janette woke smiling.
She went downstairs, made herself coffee, and was in the middle of taking her first sip when she saw the rusty key on the dining table.
Lying beside it, as big as her thumbnail, was a ruby.
It glittered in the soft dining-room light, its facets a deep, liquid red. Janette set her coffee mug down and checked the door, shaking.
Locked. Bolted shut, from the inside.
Trying to fight down rising panic, she went to the windows, thinking an intruder had climbed up the fire escape.
The windows were latched, the panes secure.
When Janette went back to the dining-room, her coffee was cold.
The ruby was still there, right where she’d left it. Not knowing what else to do, she picked it up and looked at it.
It could be a rhinestone, she thought, holding it up to the light. Even as she thought it, however, she knew it was not. It was too perfect, the edges too sharp, the interior too clear to be made of glass.
Confused, Janette yanked out a chair, intending to sit down and try to remember what she’d done after drinking her last Corona.
A pattering of tiny stones upon the tiled floor followed the motion. Janette stared in bewilderment as multi-colored gems of all sizes tinkled against her bare feet, falling from the pockets of the jeans that were slung over the back of the chair.
Janette’s heart began to pound.
How many beers had she had? When had she gone to sleep? What had she done? Janette couldn’t remember.
Trembling, she called work, told them she wouldn’t be coming in that morning, and told them to restructure without her when the new criminal-turned-manager, Hal Drake, insisted. She knew it would probably cost her her job, knew it would only appear to be a rich brat’s tantrum now that Daddy didn’t run the show anymore, but she wasn’t thinking clearly.
All she could see in her mind was the bouncing rainbow wave spreading across the floor of her dining-room.
As soon as the call was over, Janette went into the dining-room and hastily gathered up the fallen gemstones, thrusting them into an old handkerchief and knotting it shut. She tucked it and the key into the back of her dresser and turned on the television to find out about New York’s latest jewel heist.
She watched the local news for six hours and saw nothing. The fact only made Janette more nervous, unearthing feelings of dread and hopelessness that were familiar even as she knew she’d never felt them before. She had the inexplicable urge to rush into her bedroom, tear open the handkerchief, and hurl the key out the window.
It's happening again. Janette was startled to realize she was on the verge of panic. Not because she had robbed a jewelry store, but because the key was rusting in her drawer.
I have to get rid of it. In her mind, Janette watched herself toss it into the ocean, but just the idea of picking it up left her feeling cold.
As soon as she had the thought, the understanding was gone, whisked away by the fickle currents of memory.
Janette didn’t sleep that night, instead drowning herself in coffee, trembling, unable to tear her eyes from the television. She was scared, and she didn’t know why. She found herself wishing for jail time, praying someone would come and drag her out of her home and lock her in a cell for the rest of her life, and that terrified her more than anything.
The next morning, Janette wore sunglasses to work. She spent the day hiding in her cubicle, nervously plucking at a loose thread in her bandage, worrying about the gems, the key, and the stranger she’d called Dylan.
Hal Drake came to her after lunch. His face was as smug as ever, and from the looks of his new suit, the Armani suits had given him a pay raise as well as her job.
She curled her good hand into a fist and tried to smile.
“Actually, Janette,” Hal Drake said, doing his best to sound uncomfortable, “You’re going to have to call me Mr. Drake now. It’s a company thing. My new job and all...”
Gritting her teeth, Janette said, “What do you want?”
His brow bent in a frown when he realized she was not going to call him ‘Mr. Drake.’ “I wanted to let you know, Janette, that your father doesn’t run things around here anymore. You can’t continue to slack off and expect the rest of us not to notice.”
Janette felt the bones in her fist aching under the pressure. Not once, not in fourteen years of working for the company, had Janette slacked off.
This creature, on the other hand, had showed up late and left early for two years, yet somehow his timecard always showed him working a full day.
Hal’s small brown eyes shifted to her wounded hand. “You sprain something?”
“Fell on a piece of glass in the street,” Janette said. “Copay was five hundred dollars.”
“Oh, about that,” Hal said, his oily voice miming sympathy. “Since you’re not full time anymore, the company can’t continue to give you benefits.”
Janette’s mouth fell open. “Not full time since when?”
A smug trace of a smile oozed through. “Since you didn’t show up for ‘restructuring’ yesterday. You’ve been rolled back to part time along with two-thirds of the rest of the staff.”
Janette narrowed her eyes at him. “How much are they paying you?”
“That’s none of your--”
“A hundred and forty thousand a year,” he said, and she could tell by the tone of his voice he was happy to share. “Plus stock.”
“A hundred and...” Janette was stunned. “That’s twice as much as Dad was paying himself.”
“Like I said earlier, you’re going to have to get used to the fact your father no longer runs Liberty Books.”
Janette scowled. “So you took the benefits packages and added that money to your salary.”
He smiled back at her. “Must be difficult to type with your hand like that.”
Ten minutes later, he brought her an enormous stack of paperwork to copy into a spreadsheet.
Janette endured it in silence, then went home and called her father.
“Sorry, Jan,” her father said, apparently not hearing the cracking in her voice. “It’s not my problem anymore, dear. Even if I wanted to do something, I can’t.”
“You still own a third of the stock!” Janette cried.
“And they own the other two. Look, Jan, I can’t help. I’m sorry.”
Which meant he was too busy spreading suntan lotion to pick up the phone.
Once more, Janette’s mind returned to the handkerchief of gems in the back of her dresser. She hung up and went back to her bedroom, nervously pushing the door open so she could peer inside.
When the empty room did nothing more than raise goosebumps along her arms, Janette stepped inside. Never one to let her fears consume her, Janette pulled the handkerchief out of her drawer and stared at its contents. Settled amidst a bed of precious stones, the key stared up at her, looking less grimy than it had before.
Janette didn't remember cleaning it.
Her eyes fell back to the bed of gems glittering in her palm. I could sell one, she thought rebelliously. I worked just as hard as Dad and Dad got a house and a cruise...
She knew it was ridiculous. Even if the authorities somehow hadn't caught her on camera, they would nab her as soon as she started selling the gems.
Then, Would that be such a bad thing? At least it wouldn't happen again. Even in her confusion, Janette had a brief memory of silence. Total, unnatural silence. No engines, no clatter, no laughing or yelling... Only the frantic twitter of birds broke the ominous sound as it pervaded her mind, consuming her.
They're all gone, she thought. A sob clawed at her chest.
Janette slapped the edges of the handkerchief closed and tucked it back into the corner of her drawer. Her heart was pounding, her breath coming in fast, painful gasps as she stared at her dresser. What the Hell is happening to me?
Then her rebellious side took charge again. She cursed herself for not stealing something easier to spend, like a mountain of cash, and slammed the drawer shut. At least if she had cash she wouldn’t be worrying whether or not she was going to make rent that month.
That night, Janette’s dream was as vivid as the land of gemstones had been. In it, she got out of bed, walked to her dresser, and dug the rusty key from the back of her underwear drawer.
Except now, it wasn’t rusty. It was gleaming an almost tinny sheen, and it felt lighter.
Janette took the key, walked back to her bed, and tore off the upper layer of blankets. There, like a pool of liquid blackness, lay an ebony door. It had an old familiar feel, as if she had seen it a thousand times before.
With a practiced motion, Janette inserted the key into the tiny, glowing hole in the blackness and twisted.
The darkness dripped away, leaving her blinking at a brilliant world on the other side.
Neverland, she thought, staring at it. Fucking Neverland.
When Janette woke, she was generally uncomfortable. Even in her sleep-fogged mind, the covers felt rough, the flannel sheets scratchy. The discomfort finally made her open her eyes.
Janette was lying in piles of cash.
Like a homeless person insulated in newspaper, Janette had wads of it tucked under her armpits, crammed up against her sides, layers of it between her and the blankets.
Slowly, Janette sat up.
The floor of her bedroom was covered with piles of crisp bills in every denomination the United States printed, and some they didn't. Trembling, she lifted a handful and looked at them, expecting them to feel flimsy, fake.
Not only did they have the look and feel of real bills, but the serial numbers were non-sequential, every single one different from the next.
Either she was losing her mind, or the key really was the ticket to another realm.
Janette yanked the covers back, peeling the sweat-matted bills out of the way.
The door she had seen in her dreams was gone.
She sat down on a corner of her bed and stared at the money.
Suddenly, a little podunk farm in Ohio didn’t seem that meaningful, in the grand scheme of things. Her father was rotting his lazy ass in the Caribbean...didn’t she deserve to have some fun, too?
Janette deserved this.
She’d poured her whole life into the family business, only to be jilted out of her inheritance when her father surprised her with a phone call saying he sold it to some California sleazeballs and was leaving for vacation, and oh, would she watch his cat?
She got out of bed, threw a few fifties into her purse, and went out for lunch.
She ended up going on a shopping spree, buying several thousand dollars’ worth of clothes and shoes, maxing out her credit cards.
Upon her return to her building, the Scotsman was squatting at the base of the stairs, playing solitaire on the concrete floor.
His face twisted in a look of fury upon seeing her. Janette flinched, subconsciously trying to hide the bags from him. “You used it!” he snapped, standing. “You stupid girl! You swore an oath!”
Janette lunged past him.
One of her purchases, a Macy’s bag, snagged on the railing as she took the steps two at a time. Shoe-boxes and cute little tank-tops spilled out over the staircase like multicolored flowers.
Janette dropped everything and ran. She heard the Scotsman come after her, stumbling over the packages she threw down on the stairs, and hurried her pace, scraping her hip on the rail as she twisted around on to take the next switchback flight.
Janette threw herself into her apartment and then slammed the door behind her, throwing the bolt.
On the other side, the Scotsman hit it with his shoulder, bellowing, “Open the door, Janette! You fool! It’s going to happen again... Stop using the damn key!”
Janette stumbled backwards from her door and picked up the phone. She dialed 911, but hesitated on pushing Talk. Something about what the Scotsman had said was terrifying her, drawing her back...
The Scotsman ended his assault abruptly and the hallway outside went quiet.
From then on, she wore the key on a thong around her neck.
Janette never did go back to claim the parcels on the stairs. Instead, she simply dreamed them up the next night, dragging them back with her from the other realm. She brought more impressive things back, too, stuff she’d only seen in magazines and on fleeting pictures of European royalty. The Victoria’s Secret diamond bra, designer dresses, fancy pumps, the Crown Jewels of England, anything that crossed Janette’s mind, she could have.
Interspersed throughout, the Scotsman came to her door, taunting her at all hours of the night. “You’re doing it again, aren’t you, Janette?” his husky voice said through the jamb as she huddled with the telephone in the darkness, watching the door shake, yet never hitting Talk. “You’re using it, aren’t you, you selfish little brat? How's it feel? How's it feel knowing you're buying your ticket to Hell?”
“Stop saying that!” Janette screamed at him, crying. Why was no one in the apartment complex waking up? Why was no one coming out to stop him?
On the other side, the Scotsman’s booming laughter cut through the darkness, slicing into her soul. "I saved you once, Janette. I'm not doing it again." He was still laughing as he walked away, the sound echoing long after his footsteps faded.
The Scotsman didn’t return after that.
Her father’s call startled Janette one afternoon while she was modeling a fancy, Cinderella-like gown she had dreamed up the night before. She tucked it into her closet guiltily and said, “Hi, Dad. How’s the Caribbean?”
“I’m wishing I hadn’t sold the chain,” her father muttered. “All these rich folk--they’re starting to get on my nerves. They’re charging two hundred dollars for a steak. A steak!”
“Sounds miserable,” Janette said, thinking about how she should dream herself up a two-hundred-dollar meal that night. Filet mignon sounded nice. Maybe some crab.
“Jan, look, I know you’re mad at me for leaving like that, but I had to get away. I should’ve brought you along, hon. I’m sorry about that.”
“Yeah,” Janette said, tugging the key from under her shirt and rubbing its tinny surface with her fingers. It felt even lighter than the last time she’d used it, almost like she was rubbing plastic.
“Jan, baby, if I paid for the tickets, would you come meet me at our next stop? I feel like a sore thumb around here. I just don’t fit in with these rich folk.”
“Can’t, Dad,” Janette said, watching the rain patter upon the windowpanes outside. Winter would be coming soon. How was she going to make room in her closet for the mink coat she was going to need? She’d have to start throwing away some of those gowns.
“Can’t,” Janette repeated. “Got work to do.” In truth, she hadn’t been to the office in over a week, but her Dad didn’t know that. He’d washed his hands of the family company when he got on that cruise ship.
Her father, sounding desperate to talk to someone, didn’t want to get off the phone. It took almost twenty minutes of Janette dropping hints before he would finally hang up.
No sooner had she put down the phone than it rang again.
Hal Drake was on the other end. “I’m really sorry to say this, Janette, but we’re going to have to let you go.”
He didn’t sound sorry to say it. Janette could feel the satisfaction rolling off his tongue, poisoning the phone line. She wrinkled her nose, wondering how it would feel to watch that tongue torn out. Until now, she hadn’t experimented with live objects in her dream world.
All she said was, “Yeah, I understand.”
“Again, I’m really sorry, but your performance lately just hasn’t been up to the company standards...” Janette didn’t hear the rest of his speech. She was imagining what she could do to him in the dreamland that night. She grinned, then added the whole retinue of Armani suits to the picture. Why leave them out?
That night, Janette had a lot of fun.
She dressed herself in a beautiful emerald silk gown, crowned herself with an intricate golden diadem, and gave herself a heavy golden scepter to twist between her fingers as she watched her fantasies take shape--the Armani suits and Hal Drake, all of them looking startled when they appeared before her, naked and chained before a squad of hooded executioners.
Startlement quickly changed to horror as Janette had her victims flogged until the bones of their shoulders and ribs showed, enjoying every cry of pain her hooded creations wrenched from their sleazy lips with each lash of braided leather.
All the while, Hal Drake pled with her, looking up at her with terror in his eyes, apologizing for stealing her job, for firing her, for lying about her to the suits.
Finally, Hal's sniveling got to her. Janette got up, strode to him, and brought her scepter down on the back of the skull. Hal went limp. Further down the line, the Armani suits sobbed.
Tiring of the game, Janette left them there.
As the ebony gateway dripped shut behind her, she heard the continued cracks of whips against bleeding flesh and smiled.
That morning, on the news, the top story was that Hal Drake and seven of PolrenCorp’s top lawyers had been found flayed alive in their beds.
Janette tried to feel remorse, but couldn’t. They were assholes.
Still, though, she didn’t want someone to implicate her in the killings. After all, she had been the last one Hal had fired. She brought the key from under her shirt. It looked completely different than the rusty thing she had found in the gutter.
I’ll bring them back, she thought, staring into her tinny reflection. I can make everything the way it was.
She went to her room and willed the portal to appear again.
When it did, big hands caught her, dragged her away from the bed.
“Not this time,” a husky Scottish voice said into her ear. A hard, muscled body pinned her to the wall and a handsome face leaned forward with a vicious hatred. “This time, you reap what you sow.”
Something writhed inside Janette’s soul. No.
Above her, the Scotsman laughed as his rough hands forced her to drop the key. “I realized something, Janette.” With one fist in her hair, he twisted around and dragged her back toward the black portal. "It wasn't an accident, was it? You meant to kill all those people."
He wasn't talking about the Armani suits.
“No,” Janette moaned. “Please, no.” Terror that had been buried deep within her mind was finding release, flooding her with memories that were too painful to endure. As the portal melted open, she collapsed on the floor, not feeling the pain in her scalp as the Scotsman’s grip ripped it.
He dug a hand under her armpit and wrenched her back to her feet. Janette trembled, realizing the portal was open now. Open, and she could recognize something on the other side, something horrible.
“No,” she whispered. “Dylan, no.”
He peered into her face, he gray eyes harsh. "Go back to what you created.” He shoved her and said, “I added something for you.”
Janette snatched the key from him as she fell, taking it with her through the portal. She hit the damp concrete on the other side hard, bruising her knees and elbows to protect the key. Behind her, the Scotsman’s face contorted from triumph to frustration as the portal closed behind her.
The unnatural stillness of the streets around Janette stifled her elation. Goosebumps prickled in a frigid wave over her skin. She knew this feeling.
Oh God, Janette thought, fumbling with the key, willing a new portal to appear. Her nerves were on fire, desperation driving her into a panic. Gotta get out of here.
The portal solidified in the concrete wall of a building, in the same place where Dylan had disappeared. Janette let out a relieved cry and stuck the key into the tiny spot of light in the obsidian blackness.
This time, she’d put Dylan alongside the Armani suits to be flayed alive. She’d been a soft-hearted fool to let him live this long. She'd felt guilty for summoning him from his home, his people.
Janette’s lips twisted in a smile. As soon as she made herself a new place, she would bring Dylan into it and destroy him. He would never do this to her again. Never.
Janette twisted the key.
Trembling, she held up the tinny pieces, unseeing. Behind her, she felt a silent breath upon her shoulder.
When she was able to make herself turn, the air went out of her in a sob.
The street, the city, the world... It was all empty.
Only the frantic twitters of birds broke the silence.
Silence, the same sound since she had decided to allow Dylan out of the dream world and into hers. Silence, ever since she wished she and Dylan were the only two lovers on the planet. Silence ever since she had drawn everyone else into the dreamland and made them disappear.
Janette crumpled to the ground, the broken pieces of the key cutting into her fist as the memories flooded her mind. Dylan had loved her, once. Even after drawing him from his own time, he had loved her. Even after the silence.
She had told him it was an accident.
Dylan had tried to save her. He had stolen the key from her while she slept and had wished for everything to be the same, everything to be as it was before she found the key.
And it had. She’d found the key in the exact same place, rusting beside the same dead rat. She’d used it in the same way, and had killed the same people.
I deserve this, she thought, staring into the silence.
Then, a shadow moved along the edge of the building nearest her. A cat? Janette got to her feet and went to it, murmuring softly. Maybe she didn’t have to be alone.
She reached the edge of the shadow and the movement stopped. Janette ducked closer, to better see.
Her forehead touched something sticky. Janette pulled away with effort, feeling her skin burning where it had touched the gummy substance. Holding her forehead with one hand, she bent to examine the thing that had held her.
A rope, glistening in the sunlight, ascending from the corner of the wall outwards, into the air above the street. Janette stumbled backwards, following it with her eyes.
Up and up... About thirty feet above the street, it connected with others, spiraling outwards in an enormous starburst. Clinging to its center, silhouetted against the sun, a glossy arachnid watched her, its twenty-foot legs tightened to rush down the rope and feed.
Pinned to the gummy strands, a thousand pigeons struggled their last energies away, twittering in fear as they died not feet from the arachnid's motionless legs. The spider ignored them. It was waiting for bigger game.
Janette hastily backed into the alley, away from the spider. Her mind replayed Dylan’s words. I added something for you. In its web, the spider lifted its body to watch her. Janette began to hyperventilate, backing further into the alley. She hated spiders. The sonofabitch knew she hated spiders. The evil, petty sonofa--
Janette felt something grab her, felt a pain in her thigh.
Her body suddenly felt strange, almost numb. Janette turned, trying to focus her eyes in the darkness. When she did, she screamed.
It hadn’t been a cat.