-and when I wake, I wake to darkness.
For a moment I think I’ve gone blind, and then I feel at my forehead and I yank the black cloth free from my eyes and I emerge, blinking, into the light.
I have been restrained around my waist, but I struggle at the clasp of the thick belt until it comes away and I am standing, panting and sweating, the sounds of my attackers still ringing in my ears, and-
-and I do not understand.
There’s no way that I can be where I am.
I cannot be standing in a polished, impossibly long white cabin, before endless rows of sleeping or long-dead bodies, their heads tilted to either side and all wearing the same black silken sleep masks to conceal their eyes, all of them with their legs swaddled and invisible or non-existent beneath tartan blankets. A contained space, with little porthole windows pocking either side, and the long corridor ending only in a drawn blue dividing curtain at both ends, making it impossible to see what lies beyond.
I don’t believe that I can be on a plane.
This is a trick, of course it’s a trick, and at once I know I have to get out of here and find Riyo, warn her, and as I turn and dash towards the blue dividing curtain I careen almost instantly into the stewardess, who grabs me forcibly by the shoulders and asks me,
“What’s wrong? Sir, what’s wrong?” with such kindness that I don’t know whether to break down sobbing or try to stab her with one of the stab-proof forks that rest upon her trolley.
And as I wilt before her, it’s Allegra who’s standing at my side, her face open and smiling and unmarked, and she says,
“Hey. Hey, it’s all right. This is my husband, and he’s just a little overwhelmed.”
I am steered back into my seat. My seatbelt is strapped around my waist again.
A thick, sonorant shushing sound comes from somewhere in the depths of the cabin, and instantly I feel myself turning marrow-red with embarrassment, squirming to see who’s spoken to me.
Allegra takes her seat beside me, smiling, caressing my hair - and once we’re sitting, she hisses at me.
“David. Cut it out, or you’ll give us away.”
“Look out of the window, David.”
I follow her gaze.
For a second I don’t see anything at all, only darkness, pure oily void, and I open my mouth to retort at her when a faint, trailing wisp of cloud passes us by, lit by the orange lights of the aircraft’s wing.
And beneath us, looming like the ridge of some impossibly colossal reptile, is the spiked peak of a mountain.
We’re in the air.
Allegra is smiling at me.
“We’re out, David,” she tells me. “We made it out. We’re not in Eskew any more.”
We sit in silence.
The stewardess comes squeaking down the aisle with her trolley to ask us if we’d like an extra pillow, or perhaps a tartan blanket.
I just laugh hollowly at her, to make it perfectly clear that I won’t be taken in by her tricks or her feigned kindness, and she looks at me with concern and squeaks away more quickly down the length of the plane.
Allegra, sat beside me, persists.
“Sooner or later,” she says, “you’re going to have to accept the reality of what you’re seeing and hearing.”
“Never again,” I tell her. “Not so long as I live. You’ve burnt the trust out of me.”
“I?” she says. “I? David, you’re talking like I’m the enemy here. You were the one who stopped cooperating. You started acting out. You were in that club with some intruder, a would-be saboteur-“
“Riyo,” I say, and my hands leap to the seatbelt clasp. “Riyo, where is she-”
Sssssh, someone says, from the depths of the plane.
“It doesn’t matter,” Allegra tells me firmly. “That’s what I keep telling you. You can’t help her now. You’re out, David. You don’t ever need to go back.”
Her fingers, gently but surely, prise mine free from the clasp.
“While you were running around causing trouble,” she says, “I was getting things done. I got you onto this flight, I earnt your place. You don’t think you could be a little grateful-?”
“You’re not you,” I tell her. “You’re not you, so this doesn’t matter. You haven’t been you for a long, long time, and I’m sorry about that, but I need to be thinking of myself now, and the fact of the matter is, I am not in this seat. I am not on this plane. So it doesn’t matter what you show me, it doesn’t matter what I see - you can’t trick me any more. You cannot make me believe that I have won.”
“So when does this end?” Allegra says. “When we touch down on the tarmac and you step out into the bustling airport at Heathrow? When you’re in a taxi, whining through the night? When you knock on an old familiar door and it’s your mother - a little softer, a little greyer - who comes to answer it? When will you believe, David? What was the point of me making this sacrifice for you if you refuse to accept it?”
That makes me fall quiet.
“Let’s talk about what comes next,” she says. “I mean, my God, we’ve got all the time in the world to decide what comes next, but just try and get your head around, try and think of it...what do you want to do, David? Who do you want to be, once we get home?”
I can’t get my head around what she’s saying.
Who do I want to be? Like I’m just going to walk back into life with a new haircut and a tie and transform myself into a, a, a primary school teacher? A lawyer or a barista, a functioning member of society? After all of this? After Eskew?
The truth is, I want to be nobody.
As Allegra gives up and shifts her entire body away from me in her seat, ostensibly just taking a firm interest in the trails of cloud passing through the darkness beneath the window of the plane, I think that to myself.
If I get out of Eskew, I want to be nobody.
A whisper of wings on the water. A rope hammock, creaking in the porch. No more than that. No memories, no dreams. Just the faintest trail of pure sensation, winding its way through existence.
No other people. No ambitions, no hobbies. Life without detail or reflection or anything approaching conscious thought.
It’s the only way to be certain, if I want to hold Eskew at bay.
And even then, it might not be enough, because like a deer or a hare or any other small preyed-upon beast that has been bred over the centuries to know fear, no matter how empty my thoughts are, I will always be watching for it, eyes wild, hair on end, watching for the signs of it, for-
-a movement in the water.
- a shadow upon the porch.
“You’re afraid you might never be rid of it,” Allegra says, suddenly.
She looks up from her seat, and her eyes are kind again, and she reaches across and takes my hand as she says,
“David, I’m not going to pretend it’s wrong to feel that way, I’m not going to dismiss how you feel, and God knows I feel the same way. but...perhaps there are ways around it. Perhaps, once we’re home, if you speak of what you’ve endured-“
“-they’ll lock me away,” I tell her. “Five pills with breakfast to set me off on the right track, five pills with lunch to help me sleep through the afternoons. Perhaps a true crime podcast about the boy who went missing and lost his mind, which I will not be allowed to listen to.”
Sssssh, someone hisses from the depths of the cabin. I glance nervously around, but the other passengers all seem to be sleeping.
Allegra leans in.
“They might not,” she whispers. “Perhaps when you open your mouth, they’ll recognise the truth when they hear it. Did you ever consider that? You’d be the man with the world’s most incredible story to tell.”
“Or you’ll warn them,” I tell her, and she gives a modest smile and says,
“Honestly, David? When we get safely back down onto the runway, I think we’ll both have enough stories for a lifetime. Why don’t you kick your shoes off? More comfortable that way.”
Mindlessly, I do as she says. There’s a hole in one of my socks, and the big toe is poking through. I waggle it.
We sit there, together, in silence.
After a while the stewards come back around with the trolley, passing out sandwiches.
I get something with tuna and sweetcorn, and I find myself thoughtlessly ripping it free from the packaging, but as I’m holding it there, soggy brown bread and little yellow teeth and mauve gungy flakes, I know in my heart that this is the horror that’s coming for me, that I’ll sink my teeth in and what I taste will be unbearable, what I spit out will be unbearable, staring back up at me from the chair tray, and I tear the horrid thing in half, spilling its guts, shredding piece after piece and throwing it down, daring it to reveal its secrets-
It sits there. Just a tuna sandwich. The remnants of a tuna sandwich.
Perhaps I need to calm down.
Allegra accepts a duck wrap, and does not offer me any. She just eats it. Nothing happens. Nothing changes.
I’m starving, I realise.
“Look...what happened to you?” I ask suddenly. “have to ask. I lost you, and something happened. It was as if you weren’t yourself any more. As if we weren’t the real us. And look - this expansion project you kept talking about. I thought you were in league with the city or something, I don’t know what you were-”
Ssssssh, someone hisses from behind me, and I really want to shush them back.
“Do you not remember our first date?” she asks. “At the theatre? What did we do, David? We bowed when Eskew wanted us to bow, and that’s how we stayed alive. And you...it’s like you’d forgotten that, towards the end. I’m sure I shouldn’t judge you for that, I know how hard it is, but David, you don’t know how hard it’s been to keep this mask on when I could see you falling apart. Falling apart all around me.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, and I mean it. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“We’re out now,” she says. “That’s all that matters. And I’m sorry too, David. Let’s...we can put all of this behind us now. Try and start again.”
Above us, the seatbelt sign flickers on. Bright red.
“Not long now,” Allegra tells me, quietly. “You’re probably already thinking about the landing, right? How long is it since you’ve been on a plane, David? Because in the movies, you don’t see the landing, do you? A plane is just a transitional space. A quick scene to give a sense of progress. But in reality, David, the landing is so important. The crack of the wheels on tarmac, like waking up. That first breath of fresh air, as the cabin door unseals.”
“I suppose that’ll be your first real obstacle, won’t it? The first test of you as a human being. Will you be able to gaze out over the concrete and the fences and beyond that the ripe green grass, and have enough trust left in you to take that first step through the threshold? Because I know you’ll be expecting a trick, up to that moment, you’re so wise to all of the tricks Eskew’s been playing upon you...and you’ve always been afraid of thresholds, haven’t you? And life is nothing but walking between different thresholds.”
Her hand digs down into mine.
“I say all of this not to hurt you, David. I know you’re still not certain if you can trust me, but I promise you, I’m not saying this to hurt you. I say all of this because you’re better off knowing your own mind.”
“And that’s why I really think you need to talk about this. Once you’re out. Once you’re settled. You used to record yourself talking about the city, didn’t you? Like a kind of tourist guide. That helped you, didn’t it? I’m sure it helped you.”
No. Nothing helped me.
“Because if you tell them about what you’ve seen, David, that could save a lot of people. It’ll be something heroic, I think, David, if you warn them. And, you know, they’d listen to you, the Government, the authorities. You’d be understood. And that’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? The night by the Thames, David, the night you ran away. You thought you’d always be invisible. You thought you’d never be understood.”
A sudden chill rises up my spine.
I turn to face her.
“I never told you that,” I whisper.
Allegra stares back at me in what appears to be genuine shock and incomprehension.
“You did,” she says, after a moment. “David, of course you did. You told me, you told me all about it-”
“Your face,” I tell her softly. “Your face is glitching, Allegra.”
Perhaps glitching is the only word I can think of to describe what is happening to my wife. To the flesh of her cheeks, which is bursting upwards with the pinpricks of rising spires, with the veins of black and horrid city streets, curving around to split her jaw, pooling into her eyes, which are filling with oil, wiping out everything else-
And suddenly the plane is turning.
The plane is turning, its great wing tilting as the entire cabin swings violently to one side, and the passengers around us droop, arms hanging limply in their sockets, swaying with the motion.
I scrabble for my seatbelt, and the shushing noise is coming from all around us now as the seatbelt sign blinks rapidly, and as I stumble to my feet I can see that the passengers in their black silken masks are sitting with their mouths wide open, great unnatural Os, and I recognise that sound now, it’s the sound of air draining from the aircraft, the sound of the slurping swallowing airplane toilets, they are sucking in the air from all around us, and of course I can see now that their masks are not masks at all, just the inner stitching of faces that are only composed of a lower scalp.
I turn to the window, my hands stretching out to clasp the red emergency exit handle.
I can see the mountain ranges beneath us curving out of sight as the plane wheels around.
I yank the handle, hard, and it turns a quarter-way around, and then keeps turning, and the emergency door is not opening, the handle is just turning around, and around as I pull it, like a wheel, around and around in an aimless circle, doing nothing at all, until I give up and let go and stagger back.
I turn and throw myself through the blue dividing curtain, thrashing it aside, dashing forward into the next cabin, and the shushing sound is louder than ever, the eyeless passengers slumped in their seats just as before, and as I run forward my pace slows because I find myself standing again next to my own empty seat, in the same cabin as before, next to the red emergency exit handle which is still whirling merrily around in its endless loop.
There’s no getting out of here. There was never any getting out of here, and beneath us, the landscape is shifting.
“We’re not going home,” I whisper. “We’re turning back. We’re going back to Eskew.”
The-Thing-That-Was-Allegra says, from beside me,
“Well, we don’t have to, David.”
I stare at her - and she looks perfectly composed, perfectly ordinary, her flesh clear and smooth as she stares back at me.
“Tell me what you mean,” I say.
“I’ve been trying to tell you. Don’t you think you want to sit down, David-”
“TELL ME WHAT YOU MEAN,” I say, “and for God’s sake, stop that awful noise.”
There’s a grinding sound, from somewhere deep within the bowels of the plane, and then the overhead compartments spring open in unison, and oxygen masks drop from the ceiling.
Not oxygen masks. Faces.
Empty, grinning faces, as thin as crepe paper, eyes rolling in their sockets, dangling from their lengths of translucent tubing, and the eyeless passengers stir from their slumber. Reaching forward, they take the hanging faces, press them against their own horrid faces, looping the string over their heads, laying pursed lips over their perfectly circular and open mouths - and the hushing noise ends.
Every person in this cabin is now wide awake and looking perfectly normal, watching me with cheerful smiles or severe frowns, through the faces that are strung from the darkness above us in the overhead compartments.
Over my empty seat, unattended and unworn, a mask gently spins back and forth on the end of its line.
My face is smiling, and partway through each revolution, it rolls back around so that the eyes meet mine.
“This is a trick,” I begin. “It was always a trick, we were never going home-”
“You can go home,” The-Thing-That-Was-Allegra says, with impatience. “Nobody is lying to you, David. You can go home as soon as you like. We just need something from you first.”
She gestures to the seat beside her.
I stare into my own eyes for an instant - and then lower myself down to sit, cross-legged, on the carpet.
“The city is growing, David,” she says. “I haven’t kept that from you. It’s spreading its roots. It needs to go somewhere.”
I ask her where, how, why now, but she just shakes her head and says, these things aren’t given to me to know. There was a catalyst. Let’s leave it at that.
“We’ve really tried, you know,” she adds. “To help you find your place here. To give you purpose, because God knows you wouldn’t have found it back home, somebody like you. And you’re never grateful, David, you don’t ever think about the miracle of what you’re participating in, you only think of yourself.”
“But that’s OK. I said I’d find you a job. And I have.”
“You’re going home, David. You can be there in the blink of an eye. And when you get there, you’re going to tell the world about Eskew. You’re going to tell them what’s coming.”
I just watch her in silence.
Like me, the city wants to be witnessed.
It wants to be understood.
“You, you mentioned a catalyst,” I say. “What was the catalyst?”
The-Thing-That-Was-Allegra shakes her head.
“Leave it alone,” she tells me. “Just...be grateful for once. This is the first real opportunity in your life to make an impact. To shape the world around you. And we’ll give you everything you need, David, if you just say yes. If you don’t want to do it, we can’t force you - but we’ll give you everything you need. Just say yes.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s been handed to me on a plate, everything I’ve been hoping for.
Go out into the world. Make it safely home. Speak of your trauma, and your pain, and the hidden things that lurk in every street and every face...and be understood.
Be a celebrity victim. Be the brave man who warns humankind of the invisible threat massing upon the threshold, consulted by governments, examined by scientists, the one voice of unpalatable truth.
Be a prophet of the inevitable.
It’s a job I could do. And it gives me what I want, and who knows, even if Eskew spreads its tendrils out into the world I know, as long as I’m forewarned, I can keep running, because the world is vast, keep running, and leave others to their fate…
...leave others to their fate.
The-Thing-That-Was-Allegra is watching me. The entire cabin is watching me.
I give her my answer.
She just nods, thoughtfully and sorrowfully, as if she understands the meaning behind what I’m saying.
“We’ll give you everything you need,” she repeats, like one last plea or warning, and then she opens her mouth, and a line of black recording tape spills out where her tongue should be.
It spools out, over her chest and legs and onto the carpet, and then the tape is forcing its way out over and under her eyeballs, reams of tape, endless tape, roiling fathoms of the stuff, and tape is spilling out from under the masks of the passengers, and Allegra chokes and spews and slumps forward in her chair as the tape coils around my feet, her body kicking as it floods the cabin, and I stumble backwards, the tape cascading, and the airplane dips and the lights go out as it falls into one final hopeless dive, and I am plummeting through darkness once more-
-and then I am not.
I’m sprawled in the road. My hands pressed against the cobblestones. The lamppost flickering faintly above me, and rain falling lightly through the twilight.
As I get unsteadily to my feet, I note the two rows of tatty, unoccupied chairs that have been laid out before me in the street, with a dividing corridor between them, like someone had placed them for an open-air theatre or musical event, but nobody thought to show up.
It isn’t just them. The streets, the cafe windows on either side, are entirely empty.
I am in Eskew, somewhere in the Stranger’s Quarter, I think...but something has changed.
I turn to go, my feet slicking on the cobbles, and then remember to grab my shoes from underneath the nearest chair before slipping into them, and breaking into a run, out through the abandoned streets, into the maw of the city.
There’s someone I need to find.