“What the fuck?”
Ripp has summed up our entire adventure thus far so succinctly that it is almost breathtaking.
From the outside, The Center is a hulking, menacing beast of a building. Outside, it is easy to imagine the interior: a sterile labyrinth where one ill-fated turn can send you down an endless path of identical doors.
Inside, though, it is unfathomable.
Approaching the concrete stairs, Lyla pauses and looks back at us. Her face, which may have been lovely in another lifetime, was a mask of near debilitating exhaustion.
“Going up,” she says, and smiles grimly.
We follow Lyla to the next floor. Our shoes are soft; they make no noise as we climb the frozen stairs.
Nobody speaks. Nobody asks any questions. Nobody wants any answers.
Lyla stays ahead of us. There is something about her movements that fills me with apprehension.
She is looking for something.
“Listen,” she says suddenly.
We oblige her, but there is nothing to hear.
Lyla: “Exactly. They know we’re here.”
“They?” My mouth forms and ejects the word before I even realize that I meant to do so.
Her face contorts into a sour grimace, as if though my inquiry offends her. “Him. Him, and his miserable pets.”
These unhelpful introductions rouse us from our semi-catatonic daze, but she holds up her hand to stymie any further questioning.
“Not now. We have to keep moving. But stay alert.”
She turns away from our hysteria, takes two steps forward, then stops again.
“Listen,” she says, again. “If you hear anything – anything at all – run.”
We follow her, our mysterious leader, through the belly of The Center.
I am not being quaint; it is as if though the building has swallowed us whole.
The walls pulse and stink and weep.
The floor sticks to the bottom of our soft shoes. It is spongy and warm, disgustingly so.
The air grows thicker until we can hardly breathe.
We trudge along at Lyla’s heels, and hope it will be over soon.
There is something familiar about the little girl that wanders into our path.
Something terrible and sad.
Her: “Do you remember me, Pascal?”
She smiles at me, a hideous, knowing rictus. “Vidcund does.”
Vidcund pushes stiffly past me without sparing me a glance. His legs wobble threateningly as he takes tiny, shaking steps toward her, this girl I almost remember. “Jenny?”
“Yes.” She rewards him with a smile.
“Jenny, my God, Jenny… what did they do to you?”
Jenny’s smile goes soft, like her mouth is melting. “They broke something in me the last time I was here. I went to a bright place, far away.” The memory seems to pain her. “He had to Reset me. I wish he hadn’t, though.”
Vidcund: “Who is He, Jenny?”
Jenny does something odd then – she looks at Lyla, but Lyla looks away.
Jenny: “We call him Father. But he is my age.”
It didn’t make any sense.
A long moment passes and nobody knows what to say. There are so many questions to ask, nobody knows where to begin.
Jenny grows impatient.
Jenny: “You should get going. Father is in the Playroom. The longer you keep him waiting, the angrier he’s going to get.”
Lyla begins walking again, and we follow her.
Everyone except for Vidcund, who falls to his knees before Jenny.
“What’s happening, Jenny?” He is crying. “My head – there’s so much I can’t make sense of. What have they done to us?”
She allows him to bury his face in her dress, but doesn’t answer.
Her hand is trembling as she strokes his hair. It is an oddly maternal gesture.
We continue on without him.
We wander through The Center for what feels like days.
It is increasing uncomfortable. My legs, unaccustomed to such strenuous activity, ache. My stomach grumbles, but I have nothing for it. Its pleas go unanswered.
There are scratching noises all around us, and heavy footsteps. Occasionally, we hear the tell-tale click of toenails across the tile.
“Keep moving,” Lyla says, as if though we need to be reminded.
“Where are you taking us?” Ripp again. He has stopped walking. Ophelia and Lola pause as well. I am so grateful for an opportunity to rest that it is somewhat pitiful.
Lyla: “To Father.”
Ripp: “And just who the fuck is Father?”
Lyla: “He is the cause of all this.”
Something in Ripp snaps.
“Stop being so fucking cryptic. We’ve been blindly following you for I don’t know how long. You haven’t told us anything. The least you can do is answer a couple of questions.”
Lyla addresses him calmly.
“I told you I don’t have any answers, Ripp. I have been very clear about that from the beginning. I don’t have any answers, because I barely have any memories. I can’t even swear to you that I have given you my real name. I think my name is Lyla, but I’m not entirely sure. The only things I know for certain are that we have to keep moving, and we have to find Father.”
Ripp sputters angrily, but can’t seem to formulate any kind of coherent response.
Lyla: “You don’t have to follow me, or trust me. But please don’t interfere with me anymore.”
Ripp looks furious, but when we start moving forward again, he is with us.
Lyla ushers us through an unmarked door that looks exactly like all the others.
Nobody knows what to expect on the other side.
Whatever our expectations, there was no preparing us for what we encountered.
To be continued…