When my life was a pitiful existence in a world that had very little use for me and no interest in what I chose to do with my time, I kept to my own company and found ways to amuse myself. Didn’t bother anyone, tried my best to avoid being bothered.
It worked out okay.
When I found myself in a strange world that made no sense, but which gave me the chance to have a completely different experience, a chance to see what it was like to live at the centre of events, I responded by running away.
At least, that’s what I thought I was doing.
Really, I was just running around in circles, not getting anywhere. It was more or less the same as my previous approach, only more tiring.
My problem is that I’m not a good student. I don’t learn the hard lessons because I think I’ve already got things sussed. But when the world around you changes, the chances of your old system fitting the new meta are pretty slim.
“Where are you going?” asked Wesley as she kept pace with me.
I would have walked faster but I tend to get shin splints when I try too hard to speed up without running. Why not float? I had the ability to just glide around in here, after all. True, but it was a slow method of moving around and only really useful for going up and down.
“Are you ignoring me?” she asked.
I decided to risk painful aches from my shins and went full-Olympic-speed walker, hips bouncing side to side. Luckily, I had clothes on in this form, otherwise it would have looked very odd with my balls bouncing around.
Wesley matched me, trying to get slightly ahead so she could look me in the face. It’s hard to ignore people making eye contact, but they have to get in front of you to do it. I wasn’t having any of it and broke into a jog. We were now both running into the dark heading towards no fixed location.
“You’re going to do something you’ll regret,” she said, slightly out of breath for some reason. There was no air in here and no need to breathe.
“No, I won’t,” I said, also out of breath.
“You will. I can tell.”
“How can you tell?” I asked her.
I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t fuming. I was just going to see what the fuck was up with Jenny. A guy can drop in on his girl, can’t he?
“Because I’ve been in your shoes, where the people you love refuse to treat you with the care and respect you’ve given them and you tell yourself they have no obligation to you, that your love wasn’t conditional and their behaviour should in no way impact how you choose to spend your hard-earned consideration, but it isn’t true and you feel betrayed and want someone to pay, and if it isn’t them, then you’re going to end up taking it out on yourself, and how is that a reasonable outcome?”
For someone short of breath, she could deliver a rant with quite some gusto. I stopped running.
“I’m not you,” I said.
“No,” she said, also coming to a stop. “You aren’t. You’re your own person, but I still like you. I don’t want to see you get hurt, or hurt others.”
“If you like me so much, why don’t you help me get rid of all the people trying to ruin my hard-earned consideration? Starting with your husband. Loyalty to an idiot is nothing to be proud of, you know? It’s not a lot of use if you like me enough to worry, but you like everyone else more. That’s the same as hating me and wishing me pain and suffering.”
Magic, at least, had taught me about balance. You took from one place and gave to another. Someone always got buggered. They never taught that at Hogwarts.
“No, Harry, it’s pronounced Fucked-in-the-arseHOLE!”
Imbalance is where the power exists. Personally, I would have preferred it if magic had taught me how to make fireballs, not trite life-lessons, but that’s the thing about fantasy — it isn’t meant to be real, it’s meant to be a metaphor.
Unicorns are our hopes that seem out of reach. Dragons represent the fear of facing insurmountable odds.
Then you actually find yourself in Lidl Narnia, just east of Lower Middle-Earth, and unicorns have penises growing out of their heads and there’s absolutely nothing metaphorical about walking into a dragon fart; one guff will strip the enamel right off your front teeth.
“Because liking you doesn’t mean it’s up to me to stop you or tell you what to do, or to fight your fights for you. But as a friend, I can ask you to take a moment to be sure you’re doing what you want to do and not lashing out in a moment of anger you’ll regret later. I hope you would do the same for me. What you choose to do after you’ve paused for thought is then entirely your choice and not accidental.”
“I think,” I said, “you’re confusing me with someone capable of that kind of prudence. I am not a prudent person. Prudish is about as far as I go.”
“I think,” said Wesley in return, “you have an immense amount of power within you that could enable you to do amazing things, maybe even become the most powerful person in this world, but you’re going to use that power to do what you normally do at ten times the intensity and there won’t be any coming back from it.”
What I would normally do? What was she referring to? How did she even know what was normal for me in this kind of situation when I didn’t know myself?
I recognised the amazing opportunity I’d been given, power beyond the dreams of a kid from North London, but it’s hard to know what to do with your gift from the gods when great power comes with great responsibility but no instructions.
Change is hard. If a pleb with no money wins the lottery, he will become a pleb with a lot of money. It is the core of pleb life — you do what you do, just more or less as circumstances allow. You aren’t supposed to have good lighting in a horror movie.
I’m not sure what I expected was going to happen. Certainly not an express ride to Happy Town (just west of Upper Contentment — take a left at Lemington Spa), but did it have to be such a grim slog? I know, it’s my own fault. My approach was not paying dividends and I refused to change my ways. Stubbornness used as a substitute for confidence and self-worth.
Being able to look at myself and see my flaws clearly highlighted in fluorescent yellow and double-underlined like the notes of that one girl in class who always made an effort should be a good thing. Recognising the problem is the first step to fixing it. Doesn’t really work like that. Recognising the problem is actually the first step to burying it deeper so it’s a lot harder to find next time.
I walked on towards where I’d seen Jenny with my mind blank.
Wesley didn’t come with me. Leaving the rest up to me? Abandoning the train before it left the tracks and fell off the bridge?
I had no idea what I was going to say to her or what it was I wanted to know. There was a vague feeling that answers would present themselves when I got there. A feeling that was based on no evidence whatsoever.
It was at times like these that the methods of someone like Gullen Santan started to look a lot more appealing. If someone had information you wanted, beat it out of them and move on to the next stage with the feeling you had accomplished something, reach a goal and checked an item off your to-do list. Being stuck at the puzzle level before the boss fight is no fun.
Would Jenny be more forthcoming about what was going on if I twisted her arm? Was there a part of me that wanted to see her suffer?
They say torture doesn’t work, but that’s when you’re dealing with fanatics and extremists. I think the rest of us would reveal the location of the secret base after a couple of Chinese burns.
Gullen may have been evil incarnate and a psychopath devoid of compassion but at least he had a job he liked and knew how to do well. I’m not saying I wanted to be like him, but I wouldn’t mind a few pointers.
Jenny was up ahead. I could see her, cradling my head in her lap. She looked up as I approached.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hello. Why are you in here? How are you in here? How did you get me in here?”
“I pretty much always know where you are and how to find you,” she said. “It’s a gift. Stalker girlfriend ultimate.” She smiled at me, a cheeky smirk that said there was nothing wrong here, all part of the plan. I didn’t doubt it. Not my plan, though.
“You used my power to get in here?” It was the only thing I could think of. She had shown the ability to ‘borrow’ other people’s powers — something to do with the link between emotions and magic — but I was immune since she cut herself off from me.
But she had reconnected recently… was this why?
“Yes. I used your power.” Her smile widened, like she was proud of me for getting it.
“How did you get my body in here? Is that your real body, too?” There was something about her that looked too solid. In here, people had a vaguely insubstantial vibe to them, but her and my body were fully HD-ready.
“Your power. You can do this, too, if you practised.”
“You can use my powers better than me?”
“Yes.” She looked down at me, the one in her lap. “Not that you ever tried. You’re safe in here. Your body won’t fall apart.” She looked back up at me. “We thought you’d figure out how to do it eventually, but it turned out quicker for me to do it. Sorry if I was too pushy.”
“Even if you can use my power, how did you get in here before me?”
“I just got in first. Once I’m in, time stops like it does for you, only, if you’re outside you get frozen, too. Gave me a chance to find your body first. I needed to take care of a few things.” She stroked me lovingly, like a Bond villain with a cat.
I wasn’t used to so many answers at once. I was the starving man whose stomach was going to explode from eating too much, too fast. “Then how did you start time again?”
“You can do that, too,” she said.
If Arthur had found a way, it stood to reason I could, too. I just hadn’t gotten around to working out how.
She was making me look bad. No one wants to introduce their girlfriend to Tekken and then get repeatedly thrashed by her.
“All this since you reconnected to me? Impressive.” I was trying to be gracious while she effortlessly executed the Korean back-dash in my face.
“I’ve always been connected to you. Always.” She looked down at me on her lap. My eyes were open and staring at nothing in the most creepy way possible, but the look was somewhat de-emphasised by being so close to her being creepy on a whole other level. “It wasn’t under your nose the whole time, it was behind your ear.” She reached her hand to my ear and unwound a silver thread.
It was the thread I had cut and put there for safekeeping. She let it go and it danced in the air as she moved her hand, like it was attached to her by an even more invisible string.
“I never left you, Colin. I kept you alive, since that day Joshaya tried to take you from me. He can’t get you in here. I finally got you somewhere safe.”
She was getting creepier, but then that’s normal after you’ve been dating for a while. Girls get ideas about where the relationship should be going and how much drawer space you should let them have and what password you use. Luckily, with the latest fingerprint technology you can unlock their phone while someone’s asleep, so you don’t need to even ask.
“You want me to stay in here from now on?” I asked. “Be a bit dull, wouldn’t it. No Netflix, and I’m not even sure it’s worth the money to be honest.”
“This is where you’re strongest,” said Jenny. “Maybe you can find a way to get Hulu?”
“There’s no need to insult me, Jenny.”
She grinned. “Stay here as long as you need to reach your full potential. Then you can do what you want. You can even dump me if you find the idea of me being pushy too intimidating. But not before you get there.”
“Maybe I don’t want to get there,” I suggested.
“So, we’ve finally reached this stage,” she said, stroking my inanimate brow.
“Where you go all out and try to push me away. Like you do with everyone. I guess you’re strong enough to do it with real force, now. I can borrow your strength, but I’ll never be able to use it as well as you could, if you were at full capacity. That’s what Maurice calls it. The point at which you’ll reach critical mass and nothing will be able to stop you. If you really want me to stop meddling, you’ll have to get there.” She said it in a sing-song voice, because domineering girlfriends don’t sound as insane when they sing their demands to you.
I could see what she was trying to do. Goad me into one particular path out of a sense of self-preservation. Pretty smart. Do what I tell you in order to be able to refuse to do what I tell you.
“I don’t like it when you try to manipulate me,” I said.
“You’re the key. Once you work out how, you can make me do anything you want. Including leaving you alone, if that’s what you want.”
“If I’m the key, what are you? The lock?”
“No, I’m just the girl hoping you’ll keep me around. Although, that’s not what Maurice called me.”
“What did Maurice call you?”
“He said I was your final boss. I thought he meant I’d be the last person who got to tell you what to do before you became too powerful, but I don’t think that’s what he meant.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think that’s what he meant, either.”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino