The sunlight took longer to come this time, and the moment she saw it, she raced towards it. She burst out and stared in wonder at the colours before her. Mountains the colour of the sun rose into the sky on all sides. Snow clung to their peaks and rich greenery rested heavy on their flanks.
She was looking along a trail made of yellow stone, with waist high walls on either side. Her shadow was tromping along and she bobbed with it, gazing around her in wonder. This place was beautiful.
She saw no one for the next few hours, hearing only her bearer’s breathing and the calls of birds high in the ocean-blue sky. With lunch time came other trekkers and she listened to their conversations. They spoke all sorts of languages and from the snippets of English she could hear, she worked out she was on the Inca trail. Wherever that was.
She waited for the emotions to kick in, but she got nothing. So she went searching. She found she could detach herself from the shadow and slip inside her bearer. She felt the steady thump of her heart and the churning of her organs. And she felt the secret she was keeping stuffed deep inside.
Her bearer was running away. She was scared, petrified even and every step she took she thought took her further from her fear. Lana wished she could speak to her and tell her she was wrong. She wasn’t running away from it because it was inside her. Lana could almost see it, this dark, grubby colour that stained her thoughts. She thought it was something to do with love, or maybe sex. It felt rude and illicit and made her want to leave before the sun went down.
It also made her think about mum and dad. She’d avoided it before now, but she was doing just the same as her bearer. She was running from something that lived inside her. Mum and dad. She tried to imagine life without them. She tried to imagine what it would be like if they actually did get a divorce. Shauna saw her dad once a month.
The sun dipped early behind the mountains and stole the heat from the day. She knew because her bearer grumbled and put her jacket on. Lana grew tired, yawning until her face ached. The cat came earlier this time. It rubbed against her back, more forcefully this time, and she could feel the low rumble of its purr. She couldn’t see it. She couldn’t turn, but she could feel it. It hung around for a while and this time, she didn’t mind so much.
When it appeared, she’d been scared, but the longer it stayed, the more it felt right. It wasn’t here to hurt her. She didn’t know how she knew, but it stopped the shivering that started in her whenever the sun went down. Weird how she’d assumed it was out to get her.
She yawned again and Wilson’s hand fell on her shoulder. It wasn’t a gentle tap this time. This time she wasn’t sure he was going to remove it. She span round and gave him a look.
‘Well, what do you think?’
‘It’s nice. Where are we?’
‘South America. You can stay if you like.’
‘Nah. It’s nice, but it’s not home.’
‘Well, young lady, I must say you’re being quite picky.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t know there was a time limit.’
Wilson smiled and she saw it again. Where his teeth parted, the ends were filed into points. ‘Of course there isn’t, not at all. Come on, let’s find another place.’
He led her into the darkness and the cat returned. She didn’t mention it to Wilson. Instead she turned to stare at it and it stared right back. Its yellow eyes told her nothing. It stalked closer and before she knew what it was doing, its mouth settled around her arm. The teeth were gentle but she felt them through her jacket. She tried to pull away and it gave her a tug, but it didn’t feel threatening. It wanted to take her somewhere, not hurt her.
Wilson appeared at her side and waved a hand. The cat vanished and he patted her arm. ‘I am sorry, I’ll make sure he doesn’t come again.’
She wanted to argue and say she wanted it to stay, but remained silent. She wasn’t sure Wilson would like it. She wasn’t sure what Wilson did like, but she decided she preferred the cat. She sniffed and caught a scent of the man beside her. He smelled of the soil after dad had been digging in the garden. She’d used to help him, pulling up potatoes and getting filthy. That had been back in town, on the allotment. They’d tried to get it going again in the garden, but it hadn’t been the same. Her eyes were suddenly wet.
She stepped away from Wilson and stared into the darkness where the cat had been trying to take her. Was there something there? She thought she could see trees, waving in a slow wind. Tall, thin trees that cast long shadows across the grass.
‘Here we are.’
The lantern went out and the sunlight came bursting in. She blinked a few times and stared about her. The rock beneath her was orange, like Fanta without the additives. In every direction she could see desert. It was covered in scrubby bushes and stunted trees, not at all like the desert she’d read about in books. But she couldn’t imagine anyone living there, so it had to be desert.
The rock upon which she sat sloped away in every direction and as her perception shifted, she felt a wave of nausea. They were high up, higher than she was happy to be, and her stomach lurched. Then her bearer padded along the rock and she settled down.
They passed people coming in both directions. Every one of them stared at her bearer, like he was different than them and she became desperate to see him. Some even frowned at him and she wondered what was so wrong about him. She went searching, just as she had done before and soon found his sadness. It poured from him in waves and she dived into it. It wasn’t a sadness of which she was afraid. It was too big for that.
It was a sadness of an entire people and it made her throat close up and her eyes wet. This man loved the rock upon which he walked and coming up here was a rare and wonderful thing. He had asked… no, that wasn’t right. His people had asked that others not walk on the rock, yet still they did it. And both he and his people saw their most precious thing being slowly ground down beneath the boots of others.
He had children. His love for them cut through the sadness and she got just a glimpse of how much they meant to him. Did dad feel the same about her. It didn’t feel like it when they talked, but maybe she wasn’t seeing everything. This guy didn’t talk about it, but she could feel it, like she had a window to his soul.
He settled himself on his haunches and she looked around. The sky was clear and endless and she felt expansive and breathless. She could see the whole world from up here. It made her wonder what she wanted to be. She’d been asked that a lot since she’d started senior school.
What do you want to be?
Away from you? Away from here? Away from mum and dad? She always got the feeling they didn’t want to hear that, so she said things like an astronaut or a doctor. They seemed to like those answers, even if they were rubbish. But up here, with the sun bouncing off the rock, she wondered what the real answer was.
Her friends at school talked about family holidays and Christmas, like they were things they enjoyed. She always smiled and found a way to change the conversation if it looked like they were going to ask her about them.
She wanted to enjoy Christmas. She wanted to enjoy dinner, let alone a bloody holiday. One day without arguing or shouting. That would do. After that, she’d figure something out. Maybe she could travel. She didn’t know how, but maybe if she clung to the feeling this man on the rock gave her, she could remember what it was like before it all went wrong.
They reached a steep slope heading down the rock and her stomach flipped over again. Her bearer ambled down as though on flat rock and she did her best to enjoy it. The cat was waiting for her at the bottom. It butted her with its nose and closed its huge jaws around her arm.
He began to pull her away from her bearer and somehow she tore free. Light vanished and they were plunged into darkness, but the cat’s teeth stayed firm around her arm. She put her other hand on its nose and let it lead her along. Ahead of her, the darkness was fading, like someone was slowly turning up a light.
There were trees. They were definitely trees and she knew which ones they were. ‘Can you take me home?’
She whispered it to the cat, but Wilson must have heard. A hand clapped down hard on her shoulder and a voice, quiet different than one he’d used previously whispered in her ear. ‘He’s at it again, I see. I am sorry, young lady—’
‘Stop calling me that, my name’s Lana.’
‘Well, Lana, I am sorry.’ He waved a hand and the cat disappeared. Lana cried out and reached into the darkness, but it was gone.
‘What is it? I mean, who is he?’
‘He is… nothing to worry yourself about.’
‘He was my friend.’
‘He is no one’s friend. He is my servant to do with as I wish. And he is being most disobedient.’
She bristled, playing with the ends of her sleeves as she stared at her feet. Dad never called her disobedient, but if he did, she’d be pissed.
‘I think I want to go home now.’
‘Home? But young lady, you’ve just been to Ayers Rock, one of the most beautiful places in the world. Didn’t you like it?’
‘Yeah, it’s alright, but it’s not home. And it made me sad.’
‘You shouldn’t be feeli—’ He cut himself off and cleared his throat. The abrupt change in volume made her jump.
She imagined she could hear him sighing, but it might have been the wind. ‘Well, I’m terribly sorry about this, but you’re out of time. So it’s either here or the Inbetween.’
‘You know, I do believe I mentioned your use of that word before—’
‘I mean, I thought I could go home.’
‘Well, yes, you could when you asked. But a shadow is always hungry. Anywhere there is light, the shadow will steal it. And you, my young, sweet thing, are very light indeed.’ He chuckled and she could see his teeth.
‘I want to go home.’
‘Are you sure? Because the last time I looked, you were running away.’
Lana squeezed her eyes shut. This was a dream. She knew it was. She just needed to wake up. Where had the cat gone. If she could just find the cat, he would help her. Where had he been trying to lead her?
She squinted through the darkness and as though he knew what she was doing, Wilson opened his lamp and splashed her with light. The darkness around her became absolute and whatever she thought she had seen, was gone.
She looked at him. She saw the perfectly pressed suit and the old world lantern. And she saw his shadow. She didn’t know how she did it, but she imagined she was there, inside it, and just like that, she leapt. She was staring out into the darkness, only it wasn’t darkness. She could see the fields and the river and the trees.
She could see home. It was right here. But she couldn’t go there yet. She was in Wilson’s shadow, so she went searching. She found it soon enough. He was scared, just like the lady in South America. He was scared of her. It was a cold, clinging fear that made him sick and worried and she felt it like oil on her skin. Why was he scared of her? Was it the cat? Or was it because of this, because of what she could feel?
She imagined herself before him and just like that, she stepped back out of his shadow.
‘Where did you go?’ He thundered at her, sharpened teeth clashing together and she managed to smile beneath the onslaught.
‘I’ve been in your shadow. Why are you scared of me?’
‘You been in…? How? What are you, child?’
A growl sounded behind her and the cat crept around, his long tail flicking her hair up. A voice like darkness itself spoke in her mind. ‘You are his replacement. Not today, but soon.’
She laughed and Wilson shrank away from her. The cat came around in front of her and nudged her with its head towards the trees and the river. She began to walk and Wilson screamed. ‘No, come back, come ba—’
She glanced back, but her guide was trapped in the cat’s jaws. It shook him back and forth, but she turned away before she saw any more. She broke into a run
Light burst over her, and with it, the cold. The sun was behind the trees and a chill wind was blowing off the river, but it felt like spring. She burst out laughing as the ground beneath her feet became soft and the leaves crunched under her shoes.
Mum and dad were standing on the river bank, clinging to one another. Mum looked older. They saw her at the same moment she saw them and mum burst into tears. Dad burst into a jog. She’d never seen him run.
Then his arms were open before her and she dived into them, clinging to him as his warmth wrapped her up.
“Time To Spare” begins Thursday 11th December