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Foreign Identity Sneak Peek
At first there was only cold. Cool metal against her wrists and ankles. A chill penetrating her back. Then the ache. Her spine hurt from lying against a cold, hard surface. After that first dull pain, scents were the next sensations to penetrate her mind. Musty air. A charred smell like burnt hair. She felt fuzzy, like the air was too thin. What had happened?
She strained, trying to summon a memory–anything. She searched for the last thing she could remember and came up blank. Nothing. Something is very wrong. The single thought jolted through her mind, clearing the fog somewhat. Her softly thudding heart beat faster. She didn’t even know her own name. Panic squeezed her insides.
She opened her eyes and blinked a few times. She lay in a plain, rectangular room. Without any apparent light fixtures, the ceiling glowed gently, illuminating the Spartan concrete walls and floor. She sat up and surveyed herself. A shiver raced down her spine. Long chains bound her hands and feet, with locks securing each of the cuffs in place. They snaked behind her, disappearing into four holes in the wall.
Something at the opposite end of the room caught her eye. It looked like a heap of dirty fabric. But then it moved.
She jumped. Her heart pounded wildly. She was not alone.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed in the chamber, high and timid.
“Mmmmf,” came the drowsy response.
The figure bolted upright. It was a man. His brown hair was messy and sticking up, and his dark brown eyes roamed the room, wide and half-crazed–or were they fearful? She couldn’t tell. He wore some type of loose tunic over ugly matching pants. His tan clothing was stained or singed in places.
For a moment, she was afraid he might hurt her. But the clinking of chains as he turned to look at her gave away the truth. He was a prisoner too.
He held up his hands, surveying his own chains, and then looked across the room at her. “We’re trapped in here?”
“Who–how did we–”
She shook her head. She had no answer for his disjointed questions.
His shoulders slumped. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said honestly. “What’s yours?”
He hesitated for a moment before answering. “I don’t know either.” Then he glanced around.
“Have you tried to escape?” he asked, standing. The chains’ clinking echoed loud in the chamber every time he moved.
The room’s only openings were four metal doors, two near the center of the left wall and two near the center of the right wall.
She shook her head and stood up. “I don’t know if I can reach any of the doors,” she said, gesturing to her chains.
He took a few steps forward, and her chains rattled. She spun to see them being pulled into the wall. Then she turned back. The man approached the door on the left nearest him, and when his chains were nearly taut, she felt herself being jerked backward. A cry of surprise escaped her lips as it slowly dawned on her what was happening.
He stopped, studying her with a quizzical look. Then he took another step forward. Her left foot was again yanked back, but she caught herself before she fell.
“Our chains are linked,” he said. He stretched out his arm, but the door was still too far for him to reach. “If I pull forward any more, you’re going to fall. Can you step back to the wall?”
She nodded and backed up against the concrete. It was cold beneath her palms and through the fabric of her own tunic. She shivered again. The man took a few cautious steps to the door, her chains pulling tighter as he did so. He was still a pace away when her slack was gone. He hesitated, studying the door, then sent her a worried frown. “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t know how much length is left. I may not be able to reach.”
She glanced at the holes in the wall behind her, several inches above her head and a few feet out to either side. Then she looked down at her arms, hanging loosely at her sides. She swung them a bit, testing the range of the chains. “You’ve got to try. I’ll tell you if it’s too much.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
He took another step.
She choked down a cry as her arms and legs were pulled tight against the wall. The spread-eagle posture turned her shivers into beads of sweat. The cuffs bit into her wrists. She pushed aside her discomfort, holding her breath, waiting to see if the attempt would work. The man stretched out his hand for the doorknob and yanked. It was locked.
“You okay?” he asked, turning back to her.
She nodded, biting her lip.
“Okay. I’m going to try the other side.” He crossed to the right side of the room and tried the door closest to him, his chains scraping loudly against the ground. She had a moment of relief from the tension in her arms. But her limbs were again strained as he reached for the knob. Unlocked, the door opened for him, revealing a blank, solid wall behind it.
“What’s the point of this?” he muttered, frowning at it.
The other two doors were out of his reach. “Your turn,” he said, walking back to the wall where his chains went through. He pressed his back against it.
She made her way toward the door on her right, careful to go slowly as her pull on the chains drew her fellow prisoner’s limbs against the wall. Stretching, she reached the doorknob and wrenched it open. Beyond the door was another blank wall like the last.
“One last door,” she whispered to herself. She walked across the room and faced it. Her hand hovered just above the handle, but instead of gripping it and wrenching it open she hesitated, suddenly overcome by uncertainty. What might be on the other side? It was probably just another blank wall like the others, but her mind refused to accept that answer. Instead, she envisioned a pack of wild animals, just waiting for her to release their blockade so they could attack. She trembled, her hand shaking visibly.
“Hey,” the man said.
She turned, grateful for a distraction from her fear. She trained a pleading gaze on him, focusing on his eyes that were now calm. She needed something to cling to, but she didn’t know him from Adam. He could be Adam, for all she knew.
“Listen, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to get out of here. I don’t know how, but there’s gotta be a way.” He seemed more composed now, relaxed and almost confident. Only his creased brow gave any hint of concern.
She gulped and nodded, wide-eyed, realizing that it was impossible for him to know that. Still, she wanted to believe his words.
“I know you have no reason to listen to me. And you don’t have to take my advice, but when we do get out, I think we should stick together. We’ll have a better chance that way.”
She nodded again, not yet sure if she could trust him, but not wanting to go it alone either.
“Great. But first you’ve got to open that door.”
She stared at him mutely for a minute. Then she turned around, dropping her hand to the cool, metal handle. A tiny twist. Then she yanked the door open and flinched away. There were no beasts waiting to attack. But the sight beyond made her mind reel. The door revealed a small closet that contained only one thing. Keys. Thousands of keys.
Hope drained from her, and she felt her knees go weak. She glanced at her shackles. Then turned back to the keys. How will I ever find the right one? Is there even a right one?
Somehow, the thing that might promise escape instead triggered an avalanche of despair. As the emotions rolled over her, her knees buckled and she collapsed onto the ground.
He watched the girl lose it. She had long, stringy auburn hair and a complexion as pale as porcelain, but her face displayed the agony of their latest revelation. Whatever emotions she’d been holding back were unleashed when she saw the contents of the closet. She fell to the floor in a heap. Watching it happen made him want to either throw his arms around her or scream at the top of his lungs–he wasn’t sure which. He had to keep it together. For both their sakes.
From his vantage point at the far end of the room, he could see into the open closet door. It puzzled him, but even from his distant location, there appeared to be an order to the rows of keys hanging inside. If only he could get closer, maybe he could make something of it. Frustration made him antsy. His chains prevented him from reaching her. She seemed incapable of solving the problem. But she was their only hope.
“Hey,” he said in a gentle voice. “It’s going to be all right.”
Her only response was a faint whimper.
“Please. Someone might come back soon. We need to hurry. Can you try and focus? Surely there wouldn’t be a closet full of keys unless there was a reason. Maybe if we work together we can figure out which one will get us out of here.”
She looked up at him with a wry expression. “Unless it’s some sort of cruel joke. Maybe the keys are here to torture us with false hope.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on, either. You might be right. But we have to at least consider the possibility of a way out. If there’s even a thread of hope, I’m going to hold onto it until we have no other choice.”
She considered his words for a moment. “What do you want me to do?”
Now that she was listening, his mind started to work. “Check out the keys and tell me what you see. Are they labeled? Do any details stand out?”
She stood up and touched one of the hooks, moving it with her hand. The row of keys rotated slowly. They seemed to be hanging on a lazy Susan of sorts. She reached two rows above and did the same thing, scrutinizing the keys as they revolved in front of her. He couldn’t tell how many rows there were. And he had no idea how many keys there might be on each.
“They all have different markings on them. Random letters that don’t make any sense. ‘RE,’ ‘ON,’ ‘BAS,’ ‘LE,’ ‘TIG,’” she answered after examining several rows.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Other than that, they all look the same. No, wait a minute,” she said, her voice rising. “All the other keys have a circular grip. But this row has some with other shapes,” she said, pointing to a hook near the ground. “Triangles, octagons, hexagons and a few others…There doesn’t seem to be very many of them compared to the thousands of circle ones.”
“How many of the other shapes exactly?” he asked.
She counted each set, answering with her back to him. “Three triangle keys. Eight octagons. Six hexagons. Five pentagons. Seven…uh…” she hesitated.
“Heptagons?” he asked.
She turned back to him, frowning. “What’s that?” she asked.
“A shape with seven equal sides.”
“Oh. Then yes. Seven of them. Ten that have…uh…” she stopped to count, “ten sides—“
“How do you know all that?” she asked, turning again and raising an eyebrow at him.
He considered for a moment. “I’m not really sure,” he said. “I just do.”
“Weird.” She turned back to the keys. “Okay where was I? Two squares—“
“Wait. Just two squares?” he asked.
She double checked. “Yes.”
“You sure there aren’t two more in there? All the other shapes had the same number as their sides. So there should be four squares,” he said.
She turned several rows. “Nope. I only see two.”
He pondered this for a minute. “Are there markings on those keys?”
“Yes,” she answered. “One says, ‘JAX’ and one says ‘KEL.’”
“Try them on your shackles,” he said, hoping that the sheer irregularity of the keys would mean something.
“Why? What does ‘JAX’ or ‘KEL’ mean?” she asked.
“I have no idea.”
She tried one on the cuffs that bound her wrists–no luck. But when she tried the second key, she gave a small yelp of excitement. Her left cuff fell to the ground.
“It’s working!” She shot him a triumphant smile before turning back to her shackles. Using the key, she freed her right arm. Hurriedly, she tried to unlock the cuffs around her ankles, but they didn’t give way. She tried the second key, but it didn’t work either.
“It doesn’t fit these locks.” Her shoulders drooped.
“Can you see if it works on mine?” he asked, waving his chained hands.
She hesitated. “I don’t know if I can reach you.”
“Try walking to the center of the room,” he said.
As she slowly made her way to the middle, his chains eased up enough so that he could step away from the wall and approach her, closing the gap in between them. Finally, they stood face to face, close enough to touch. At this proximity, he could see the details of her delicate features. Her eyes, a striking blue, held uncertainty.
“Can I try it?” he asked, holding out his hand for the key. She hesitated as if wrestling with a decision.
He eyed her for a moment, then softened his tone to almost a whisper. “Do you remember anything about our captors? Did they hurt you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t…” Her brows pulled down, pain registering on her face. She closed her eyes a moment, then opened them. “I don’t remember.”
“Look,” he said gently, “I don’t know how we got here, but I’m not going to hurt you. And if I get free, I’m not going to run off and leave you.”
“I…don’t know.” Her forehead was lined with concern.
“I can’t prove anything,” he said. “But the only way that either of us is going to get out of here is if we trust one another. Will you trust me?” He held his open palms out to her.
She considered for a moment and then placed the key that had freed her wrists in his outstretched palm. He turned it over, seeing nothing out of ordinary except the letters ‘KEL’ that marked the square. Then he tried it on his own cuffs. His pulse thudded faster as he tried it on his shackles. But the key wouldn’t fit any of the locks.
“Wait a minute,” he said, his mind still working feverishly. “Do you have the other one?”
“This one?” she asked, placing the square key labeled with the letters ‘JAX’ in his palm. When he inserted the key into the cuff on his left hand, he heard a satisfying click. The chain fell away, clattering to the ground.
A sense of victory spread through him, although he barely hoped to have the same success on his ankles. At least his arms would be free. He repeated the process on his right hand, and this time when it came loose, he noticed a small metal object fall out of the cuff.
It was another key. He grabbed it and gave it a closer look. It was square and marked ‘KEL,’ identical to the first one. He tried it on his ankles. No luck. Then an idea struck. He handed the key to the young woman.
“Try this on your feet,” he said.
“I’m ‘KEL’ and you are ‘JAX,’” she said, grasping his train of thought.
He nodded. “Nice to meet you, Kel,” he said with a half-grin.
After sitting down, she was able to successfully unlock her left foot, and when another square key marked ‘JAX’ fell out, his heart pounded wildly. Evidently she had decided to trust him, because without hesitating she handed him the key and went to work on her right foot.
The second key was a perfect match for his remaining locks. And just as he was removing the last cuff, an object fell out. It looked like a broken key, split in half with an odd tab sticking out of the side. He looked up to see the redhead holding an object very similar to his own. And then suddenly he realized what they were.
“Puzzle pieces!” he said. “Can I see yours?”
A look of realization crossed her face as she held out her key fragment. He placed them together and they were a perfect fit.
“It’s another key!” she said with excitement.
“Could it be…” he muttered to himself, deep in thought. Was this the key that would provide escape?
Somehow it seemed too easy. What had been the real challenge to this whole thing? It wasn’t cracking the key puzzle. It was what they had to learn to solve it: trust. Whoever had imprisoned them together was trying to see if they could trust each other. And now the final locked door. He turned to stare at it, her eyes following his gaze. But what was waiting for them?
The thought that their captors had arranged a means of escape sent a chill down his spine. The young woman’s silence seemed to mirror his own apprehension.
A deep longing burned inside him, stoked hotter suddenly by the possibility of fulfillment. He wanted out. He wanted safe. Even though he couldn’t remember it, he wanted home.
“Are you ready to try it on that door?” he asked, pointing to the only one that was still a mystery.
She nodded and reached for his hand. He took it, and together they made their way to the door.
It all started when she took his hand. That rushing feeling of familiarity more powerful than déjà vu. As if she’d been here before. But she had no memory of this place or the mysterious stranger whose hand she now held.
At first she’d been a little afraid of him. Unfortunately, to get out of here she had to trust him. So she’d made the decision. The moment he took her hand and squeezed it gently, any sense of doubt vanished. She felt a strange sense of calm, as if a load had magically lifted from her shoulders. Somehow she instinctively knew she could trust this man.
Jax placed his hand on the doorknob, his body alert in a posture of self-defense. He pulled her behind him and then dropped her hand as he held out the key. The lock gave a soft click. Her heart thudded loudly. She held her breath, imagining a crowd of people with weapons awaiting them on the other side.
Jax threw the door open. The scene before them was the one thing she hadn’t expected. A deserted corridor, concrete and plain. No one in sight.
Once she’d cleared the threshold, Kel stopped abruptly. Her jaw dropped. A bright red message was scrawled across the gray wall to the left, the writing sloping down at the end of each line. The letters were large and crudely formed, as if they were written by a child or by someone in a hurry.
YOU ARE PRISONERS. THERE IS NO WAY OUT.
A sticky trail had dripped down from the last letter and formed a small red pool on the floor. Blood? Kel’s heart raced.
“Come on,” Jax said, grabbing her hand again and pulling her down the hall. “Let’s get out of here.”
There were no doors in sight, only the empty corridor, which forked in three directions after a short distance. Jax stopped at the fork, hesitating. Finally, he turned to the right, and they hurried in the new direction. After a while, there was another fork in the path. Again he turned and she followed.
They wound back and forth through the hallways, catching no glimpse of a door or any other means of escape. The passages all looked the same. She was beginning to wonder if they were going in circles. Maybe this labyrinth of hallways was the real prison. Jax showed no hint of frustration or bewilderment. Did he really know what he was doing, or was he just pretending? Maybe she had been too quick to trust him.
When they arrived at another intersection and the path branched in three directions, Jax hesitated for a moment. Kel took advantage of the pause. “Jax?” Hands on her hips, she frowned at him. “Do you have any idea where we are? It feels like we’ve been going in circles. I’m dead certain we’ve been here before.”
“You’re right. We have.”
His frankness made her blink, hands falling to her sides.
“This is where we started.” He pointed down the hall. The red message still dripped down the opposite the wall. She shivered.
“I’ve been mapping our route in my mind,” he said.
“Yes. We’ve been everywhere except that way.” He pointed to the right.
“You remember every hall we’ve covered? Do you have some sort of photographic memory?” She asked.
He shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. You don’t?”
She shook her head. “No. That’s not normal. My mind doesn’t work that way.”
“But how do you know you aren’t the one who’s abnormal?”
She crossed her arms. “I just do. If it was normal, I’d know.” She narrowed her eyes at him, daring him to argue.
He shrugged. “Come on, let’s keep going.”
After a few more turns, there was a break in the monotony of the building’s interior. Kel stopped, turning to stare at the single door. Her hands closed into fists as she stared at it.
Jax started to reach for the knob, but she grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“Wait,” she hissed. “You think we should open it?”
He shrugged. “What else are we going to do? This could be the way out.”
“Or the way to the bad guys–the secret behind-the-scenes hideout room.”
“Doesn’t look very secret,” he said. He’d matched her hushed tone, but wasn’t deterred. “We don’t really have another choice.”
She stared at him a moment, then bobbed her head.
When he reached toward the knob, his hand gave the faintest hint of a tremble. He’s not as tough as he lets on, she thought. Still holding on to him, she squeezed the crook of his elbow.
The door eased open. A blackness darker than night awaited them on the other side. There was no comforting glow of the moon. No street lamps or twinkling pinpoints of stars overhead. This wasn’t the exit. Kel’s heart sank, but her anxiety didn’t fade. What was beyond the threshold?
Tentatively, Jax placed a foot past the door frame.
“No.” She tugged him back. “It might be a trap.”
He turned and met her eyes, his gaze tender. “But what if it’s a clue–or something to help us? I’ve got to see what’s in there.” He set his jaw. “You can wait here, but I’m going in, with or without you.” He patted her hand, and she released his arm.
Reluctantly she watched him disappear into the darkness. For a minute or so there was only silence. A sense of dread crept over her, its icy claws digging into her spine and forcing its way up, one vertebra at a time.
“Jax?” she called uncertainly through the open doorway. Suddenly, light flooded the open door.
She poked her head in first, craning this way and that. When she was certain no attackers were going to jump her, she stepped into the room.
After hitting the light switch, Jax had wandered to the center of the room. He was surrounded by a collection of seemingly random items. Kel recognized them individually but didn’t see a pattern. Some lay haphazardly and others were stacked in groups.
She took inventory. A stainless steel toaster. A glass vase of dried pussy willows. A nylon tent. A pair of silk panties. A large, jagged rock with a baby blanket draped over one side, a cluster of pine cones littering the floor around it. A rusty bucket on a rustic wooden stool. Kel walked over to the bucket and glanced inside: a sponge, a baseball glove, a pincushion and pins, a ball of yarn, a scrap of sandpaper, scissors.
Looking up for a moment, she noticed that Jax seemed just as perplexed by the bizarre assortment of items. He was holding a thin paintbrush in his hands, absently stroking the bristles as he stared at the piles of odds and ends.
“What is all this?” she asked. “Someone’s collection of junk?”
Behind her, a loud bang made Kel jump. She twirled toward the noise. The door had slammed shut. Her pulse quickened. She turned to Jax, who was staring wide-eyed at the door. His eyes flicked to hers, then back to the door, narrowing. Without making a sound, he crept toward it. His hand landed on the knob and he tried to push it open, but the door wouldn’t budge. His shoulders sagged.
“Great. It’s locked.”
“What?” Kel’s stomach tightened. “We’re trapped in here?”
Jax yanked and turned the handle some more, but it didn’t open. He banged his fists hard against the metal, hollering, “Hey! Hey! Anyone out there?” Finally he sighed and dropped his hand. “Guess not.” He glanced at Kel. “Let’s see if there’s anything helpful here…like a key or something. Worked last time.” He returned to the piles of junk, emptying buckets and baskets, digging through the clutter, grunting to himself as he searched.
Kel walked over to an antique Victorian-era wooden chair upholstered in velvet, upon which sat a teddy bear and several books. She was about to unload the items when one of the books caught her eye. She grabbed the stuffed toy off of it so she could read the title. “The Wizard of Oz.” The words pricked at her memory but she was couldn’t pull up anything else to go with it. But an odd sensation drew her away from the book. It was much like the one that had come from Jax. That jolt of familiarity hit her square in the gut. Only one word came to mind. Home. She twisted the bear’s fur between her fingers, trying to squeeze more out of it, to extricate every last morsel of that feeling. It was like a rush–this sensation of comfort and belonging–of a home she couldn’t remember. After a moment, it faded, and when it did, chills went down her spine. The intimacy of that feeling jarred her, flashing warning signals in her brain. Was someone toying with her?
When Jax realized they were trapped, his brain switched into full gear. He dug through items looking for a way out. Beyond that, he tried to analyze what the meaning behind everything could be. It was another puzzle. The combination of locks and keys, the maze of corridors, and now this.
The thought nagging at him was that he recognized every object in the room. Somehow his memory was complete when it came to generic knowledge of objects, but he had no recollection of his own identity. Whatever history he had was a blank slate.
The first time he felt close to finding the answer was when he picked up the paintbrush. The touch sent a jolt through him. He felt strangely connected to the object. The sensation was so unnerving that he nearly dropped the brush. But after overcoming the initial shock, he held it tightly, stroking the bristles, trying to absorb every wisp of the fleeting sensation. Nothing else in the room produced a similar phenomenon. After his second round of searching the items, Jax grabbed the paintbrush and shoved it into his pants pocket. Then he looked up at Kel.
Holding what looked like a child’s teddy bear, she appeared frozen in place. After a minute she blinked, breaking the trance. Looking back at him she asked, “What is this place?”
“Do you think there’s any significance to these items?” She asked, squeezing the bear tighter.
“I don’t know. But I don’t see anything that’s going to help us get that door open.”
“The Wicked Witch of the West!” Kel blurted.
She shook her head. “Nothing. I just remembered one of these books. I think I’ve read it before.”
“Which one?” Jax asked, suddenly interested.
“The Wizard of Oz.”
He frowned. “I don’t remember the name.”
She shrugged and set the bear down.
Jax shoved the items off the Victorian chair and dragged it across the room. It was probably an antique, he thought. He doubted the rickety thing would do much good against that steel door. But it was worth a shot. And it was his only option.
Kel followed him. When he grabbed the chair in his hands and raised it, she stopped him.
“Wait.” She grabbed the door handle, turned it, and threw all her weight into it. The door gave way easily, causing her momentum to launch her into the hall where she landed on her side.
“Are you all right?” Jax asked, rushing to help.
She rubbed her hip. “Yeah. Just bruised, I think. Ow.” She grabbed his hand and he pulled her up. “It wasn’t locked.”
“What?” Confusion clouded his mind. “I could have sworn it was locked.” Maybe it had just been stuck. He frowned.
“Maybe it was.”
“So what, you think someone…” His words trailed off as he considered the possibilities. Was someone just toying with them? He glanced down the hall both ways. There was no one in sight. He didn’t like this–feeling like a pawn in someone’s sick game. A game in which he didn’t even know the rules. A cold chill crept down his spine. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kel nodded. “This place gives me the creeps.”
They hurried on. All the while, he memorized the web of passages. They stopped abruptly when they found another unmarked door.
Kel reached for his arm as he slowly eased the door open. Rather than darkness, this time they were accosted by a barrage of colors and motion. Kel jumped and grabbed his arm, pinching his elbow hard between her fingers. As they stepped inside, tears of light streaked down the walls, playing tricks on his eyes and casting an eerie mood over them. The source of the chaos was a collection of rotating disco balls and moving colored lights mounted on the ceiling.
Besides the odd lighting, there were objects in the room. A variety of paintings hung on the walls: a night sky filled with swirling stars overlooking a town, a portrait of the virgin and child, and a meadow covered in bright brushstrokes that emulated wildflowers. Names popped into his mind–Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Monet–but the fact that he knew these names and not his own continued to vex him.
Were these original pieces? If so, how had they been acquired? Jax had the feeling that something about this place was very wrong.
There were other pictures, too, some that he didn’t recognize. One scene of some very fat women in tight, garish clothing was particularly unnerving and he had difficulty looking away. He forced his eyes to search the room. Several large televisions silently flashed scenes from nature, everything from a sunset to a waterfall. There was a table covered in magazines and comic books and another one stacked full of cans of spray paint. He walked up, inspecting them, then noticed that there was an empty spot. His foot kicked something. He bent down and picked up a red lid. He looked for the appropriate can among the others but it was missing, so he just set the lid down on the table. Then something else in the room caught his eye.
The corner that was set up like an art studio drew him in. There were several easels with blank canvases awaiting transformation. A table nearby held an assortment of paints and brushes. Colored pencils, charcoal sticks, and drawing pads sat on a desk to his right. Feeling a pull to the items, Jax walked to the desk and picked up a piece of charcoal. When the bizarre surge of familiarity accompanied the object, he sketched furiously on the paper, as if obeying some unspoken command.
While his hand worked, he glanced up to check on Kel. She was fingering several items on another small table. After a few moments, she looked up at him, held up an old Polaroid camera and snapped a picture.
“Say cheese,” she said without smiling. She pulled the undeveloped photo out and took another one of him. Still focused on his own strange sensation, he looked down at the sketch pad. A minute later, Kel joined him near the desk to see what he was doing.
“Wow,” she said, just above a murmur. “Did you just now draw that?”
A rough image of a girl with long, tangled hair holding a camera darkened the once-pristine paper. He drew in a sharp breath at the realization of his own handiwork.
“You’re an artist!” she said. “That’s amazing!”
He shook his head in surprise. “I didn’t realize…” He met her eyes. “Not exactly a substitute for the real thing, though.” The side of his mouth curled in an almost-smile.
“Is that me?” she asked in surprise, touching her hair self-consciously.
He nodded. “Did you remember what you look like?”
“No,” she said. “Do you?”
He shook his head.
She held out the photos. “Here, have a look.”
He nodded at the images. “It’s a bit familiar, I guess,” he said.
“Well, are you ready to move on?” she asked, setting the camera on the desk.
He reached to tear off the drawing, folded it and placed it in his pocket with the paintbrush. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go.”
While Jax seemed rigorously focused on the task at hand, Kel found herself thinking more about her mysterious companion. She even found herself blushing when remembering the sketch he had drawn of her. What was the big deal? It wasn’t as if he were flirting. She wondered why, of the many things in that room, she had been the subject.
When Jax stopped short, she nearly tripped over him. She shook her head to dispel the thoughts.
His voice brought her back to the present. A door was set in the hall on the left. “Another one.”
Beyond it was another room of objects, but this time they seemed to have more in common with each other. An array of musical instruments filled the space, from a set of drums to a triangle and everything in between. In addition, there were barrels, pots and pans, trash can lids, and other things that could be used to make noise. Kel vaguely remembered a group who used just this type of random items to make music, although she couldn’t recall their name.
On a table, there was an MP3 player hooked up to some very large speakers. Jax scrolled through the menu and played clips of a few songs. A few of them sounded familiar, but no names came to mind. Music must not have been an integral part of her past.
Jax sang a line along with the music before abruptly turning it off.
“Recognize that one?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Yeah,” he said, sending her a half-grin. “Beach Boys.” He shook his head. “Funny how my mind can capture some things but others are impossible to hold on to.”
Kel frowned. She remembered how she’d felt when touching the bear–and when she’d touched his hand.
He shook his head. “I just keep thinking this is all one big puzzle. It’s got to mean something.”
She arched a brow. “All this stuff?” She swept her arm in an arc around the room.
“Music,” he said. “That’s the common factor in this room. Even that pile of junk over there could be used by talented people to make music.”
Kel nodded. “But what does that have to do with us being here?”
Jax opened his mouth as if he were about to speak but then froze, tilting his ear toward the open doorway. “Shh. Do you hear that?” He held out his hand to silence her.
At first she heard nothing. Then only a distant hum. Moments later, the hum grew into an audible buzz. The volume grew louder, coming closer. She couldn’t see down the corridor from her spot away from the door. Cold fear crept over her. Should they run? Try the back door? She glanced across the room at the other door, then back at Jax. He was rooted to the spot, eyes glued to the open doorway. Then his eyes widened and his jaw dropped.
Kel’s head swung back to the doorway. A dark haze clouded the opening, blurring the corridor beyond. It was thick but translucent. A tendril of what looked like smoke spiraled into the room, only it didn’t float up the way a vapor would. It crept in, nearly horizontal like a vine, the buzz growing louder with its presence. The tendril widened to the size of an arm, reaching closer. Kel and Jax both backed away.
When it was ten feet off, the tip of the black fog melded into an organic shape. The form expanded outward like buds on a tree, growing into five short stumpy branches with rounded tips. An instant later, she recognized the shape–the smoke had grown an arm and sprouted a human hand at the end, fingers opening and curling. It was reaching for her.
“Jax!” she gasped, pawing behind her for him, but unwilling to turn away from the threatening creature. The body of the black haze followed the arm, swimming into the room and puffing up in size until it towered from floor to ceiling, its mass spreading wider across than the her arms could reach. It was like a thick wall of smoke with an arm extending from the center. Suddenly, the smoke hand shot toward her, its claws coming for her face. She screamed.
Before she knew what was happening, Jax had pulled her across the room. He yanked the opposite door open and slammed it behind them. In trying to scramble out in time, Kel stumbled and found herself in another corridor.
She scrambled to her feet. Jax was already up and running. “Come on!” he said. She took off down the hall after him. She kept stride with him easily, but her heart raced from adrenaline. He careened down a side hall. She nearly lost her footing rounding the corner behind him.
After jogging in zig zags for a while, Jax fell against a wall, panting. He groaned. “I think we lost it. But there’s nowhere to hide here. Just a maze of empty corridors.” Kel wondered if the creature could open doors. She shuddered, remembering that incredibly realistic black hand.
“Look!” Kel pointed to another door down the hall. It was plain metal, just like the others. “That’s not the same room, is it?”
“Nope. We’ve covered a good distance. We’re nowhere close to that room.”
She shook her head, unable to fathom how he could keep all this straight in his mind.
He strolled over to the door and grabbed the knob.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she asked, worry creeping into her voice.
He shook his head and looked at her. “Nope. You got a better one?”
She sighed but didn’t answer.
He opened the door.
A cacophony of scents arrested them as they entered. Tables lined the walls, covered with an assortment of glass jars and other containers. Kel approached and examined the jars. Each one contained something different–herbs, spices, dried leaves and grasses, bits of dried fruit and flower petals. She unscrewed a lid at random and sniffed at the contents. The smell of the tree bark wafted to her nose. Replacing the lid, she explored a few more. Smelling a jar of dried fruit made her stomach growl, but she was hesitant to eat anything found in this place, so she pushed the sensation aside. Several uncovered jars contained liquids. Another container seemed to hold some sort of animal dung. That one she avoided opening. Instead, she picked up a jar that held dried grass.
“It’s kind of like a crude science lab,” she said, and then amended her thought. “Well, not a lab exactly. More like someone’s collection of specimens.”
“Scent specimens,” Jax said, replacing a lid on a jar of what looked like dried lilac petals. Kel wondered how she could remember what lilacs were.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The last room was all about sounds. This one is about scents,” he said.
She considered for a moment. It made sense. Why hadn’t she thought of that? “So what about the other two rooms?” she asked.
“The one with the artwork was about visual things–lights, televisions, books and magazines. The first room…” he thought for a moment. “That one’s harder. But I’m thinking maybe each room focuses on one of the five senses. So we’ve found: hearing, sight, and smell. What does that leave?”
“Touch and taste.”
“Right. And there was nothing to eat in the first room. So it must have been the touch room.”
Kel remembered holding the soft bear in her hands and the sensation it had brought. Possibly a buried memory from her childhood?
“Does that mean there’s another room around here somewhere filled with food?”
“I don’t know, but if there is, it’ll prove my hunch right.”
This time the black fog sifted through a solid wall to their left rather than through the open door ahead of them.
“It…or another one.” Jax’s words escaped through tense lips, his jaw taught. He sidestepped, putting himself closer to her, between the creature and her. His eyes didn’t leave the fog.
A few black particles at a time, it continued to trickle through the concrete. As more and more of the smoke that wasn’t smoke trailed into the room, it surged into something like a river, gaining speed and momentum, pooling mid-air not far from them. Once its entirety was visible, the buzzing was deafening, like the whine from speakers spouting dead air that were cranked too high. She threw a quick glance at Jax. He nodded at the open door in front of them.
Eyes still glued to the creature, he spoke under his breath without moving his lips. She wouldn’t have heard him if she hadn’t been standing so close. “Run for it.”
Before she realized it was a command, not just a suggestion, Jax had started toward the door. But the smoke was faster. It reacted as if it was prepared for this escape attempt–waiting for it? Had it learned from the last encounter?
Jax ran, but a tentacle shot out of the swirling haze, sprouting a hand at the end. It hooked around his ankle and yanked him upward. Kel’s eyes went wide, heart pounding all the while. This thing could actually grab them? As Jax flew up from the floor, three more arms formed from the smoke and wrapped themselves around his other limbs. He kicked and fought, managing to right himself, but not get free. The four arms from its main body pulled tight, holding him upright, but spread-eagle, suspended several feet in the air.
Kel stared, rooted to the spot, her blood cold and her knees weak. She didn’t dare flee, knowing she couldn’t outrun it. Even if she could have, she wouldn’t have left Jax. His eyes were wide with frantic terror. His head–the only part of him that wasn’t bound–twitched from side to side as if surveying his options. Like a gut-punch, she got a vision of him being back in chains–only this time it was ten times worse.
I’ve got to do something. I’m his only chance. A pure, hot rage bubbled up from somewhere inside her. She clenched her hands into fists, realizing that she was still holding one of the glass jars. Her silent fury roiled like hot lava threatening to erupt. Channeling the anger, she hurled the object in her hand as hard as she could at one of the arms. The jar whizzed through the smoke with a soft pfft, displacing the particles for only a moment. It passed through the fog and smashed against the wall, sending a spray of glass shards across the floor.
Instead of frustration Kel felt only surging, boiling fury. She swung her arm behind for the first thing it touched. Her own raw scream of anger echoed in the concrete chamber as she lunged forward, hurling the object into the thickest part of the black mass. Only when it was out of her hand did she see that it was a bucket.
The bucket spewed water, sliding through the haze as easily as the jar had, clattering to the floor. But when the water hit the mass, a spray of sparks erupted. The humming turned to a splutter of electrical zaps. Individual particles within the fog flickered and died out, slowly turning the fog to a pale gray tone as it lost density. The arms holding Jax wavered, undulating together as they slowly faded. One of the limbs dropped away, releasing his foot. Then it was sucked back into the core. Two more arms released their hold and shot back like the first, leaving him dangling by a wrist. He shot Kel a helpless, confused glance right before the last arm pulled back, dropping him to the floor in a heap.
“Are you all right?” Kel rushed over to him. She looked back at the fog just as the last few wisps radiated out, flickering and fading like dying firework contrails. “Wow,” she breathed, still stunned by the whole episode.
“That was some freaky stuff,” Jax said with a deep breath. Kel turned back to him. He pulled his knees up, rubbing his hip. “Ow.”
“Did it hurt you?” she asked.
He shook his head, turning his wrists over and rubbing them. She didn’t see any bruises. “No. The worst was falling on my duff.” He got to his feet. “Thanks, by the way. That was some fast thinking.”
She blinked. “I didn’t think. It was just a reflex. I can’t believe it actually worked.”
“What was in that bucket, anyway?”
She shrugged and walked over to the mess on the floor. Gingerly stepping past the broken glass, she bent down to a pool of the clear liquid, dipping a finger in and bringing it to her nose. “I think it’s just water.”
Jax shook his head. “Crazy.”
What is this place? Oz? she wondered.
“We gotta find a way out of here before one of those things strikes again,” he said.
She nodded. As they hurried away, her thoughts drifted away from the bizarre smoke creature and to wondering how long they had been trapped in this place. She could barely believe that only a matter of hours ago she had awoken, locked in that cell. It all felt so far away now. A lifetime.
Her stomach growled again. How long since she’d eaten anything? She was beginning to feel weak, and her legs were aching from all the walking. She ached to be done with this whole charade and finally regain her freedom.
Jax had no way of keeping time, but he guessed they had been travelling the halls for hours. How much longer had they been trapped before escaping the cell? Only one thing was certain–he was exhausted and hungry.
After the scent room, the corridor had branched off, causing them to backtrack several times to gauge their location. Jax wasn’t lost. He could still visualize the floor plan of the area of the building they had covered.
“This place is massive,” he said as they trudged on through the bleak halls.
“This is taking forever!” Kel blew out a sigh.
After a long time, they came to another door, similar to the rest.
When they entered, a mixture of smells wafted their direction. Several tables near the far wall were piled with food. His mouth watered. It looked so good. He glanced over at Kel. She stared at the food with bulging eyes. She leapt toward the table.
“Wait.” He put out a hand, catching her in the stomach. “We gotta be careful. We don’t know if this is safe to eat or not.”
She turned to him and rolled her eyes. “If they wanted to poison us, they could have done it already. We touched things in all the rooms. But smoke monsters seem to be more their style.”
“Maybe, but I’m still not ready to risk my life for a snack–no matter how good it smells.”
She glowered at him. “An hour ago, I might have agreed with you. But I’m starving. I don’t know how much longer I can go without something to eat.” She reached past his arm toward a bowl of fruit.
“I know,” he said. “I’m hungry too. But wait a minute while we think this through.”
“Why should I?” she asked, her hand poised just above a ripe looking apple. It was more of a complaint than a protest. Jax excused her obstinacy as nothing more than a sign of low blood sugar.
“Because,” he said, “I don’t know what would happen if you ate that apple. And I need you here,” he added, his tone filled with tenderness.
“Need me? Why?” she asked, pulling her hand back with a quizzical look. “You’re the one who can solve these crazy puzzles. You’re the one with the photographic memory. Why do you need me?” She put her hands on her hips and stared him down.
Her demand for an answer was so direct, so counter to what he expected, it caught him off guard. Seeing this side come out, he realized there was more to her than he’d assumed. And now she was demanding that he analyze his feelings.
“I–I don’t know. I just do.” It was the best he could come up with at the moment. He wanted to figure out how to escape and she wanted to talk about feelings?
“But you’d try to get out of here even if you were by yourself,” she said.
“Yeah. But having someone else rely on me makes it all the more important. I’m not just responsible for myself anymore.”
“You aren’t responsible for me.”
He took a step closer, his voice growing soft. He slipped his fingers over her arm. “Maybe I’m not,” he said, “but I feel like I should be. And that’s enough.” He couldn’t explain why he felt protective over this woman who was still nearly a stranger to him. Maybe it was because they were prisoners together. Or maybe it was something deeper.
She looked like she was trying to read his eyes. He held her gaze. After a few moments, her expression softened. The hint of a smile tugged at her lips. “Okay,” she said.
Jax took a deep breath. “So, what do we know?” he asked, trying to get his thoughts together. Kel was quiet as she waited for him to continue. “We were prisoners of some sort. But we haven’t been hurt–that we can remember. And our captors–or someone–left us a way out. Since we escaped, we’ve had to ward off some kind of weird smoke creature. Could that be what captured us in the first place?”
Kel shook her head. She had no answer either.
He moved on to the next thought. “So what can we assume about the food? We don’t know if it was meant for us or for someone else. Maybe someone left it to help us. On the other hand, maybe whoever sent that smoke monster is trying to set a trap. So basically, there’s no way to know for sure if it’s safe to eat.” He sighed, feeling he was getting nowhere.
He glanced over at Kel. She was still silent. Though she hadn’t tried to eat anything, she was intensely focused on the apple. He wondered if she’d heard anything he had said.
His gaze trailed to the apple and he let it blur for a moment, as he zoned out. He blinked when he saw a flash of movement. Suddenly the apple lifted into the air and floated toward Kel. The movement was as graceful as a bird soaring over a valley. He stared for a moment, wondering if he was losing his mind. The apple hovered just in front of her face. At its movement, she let out a yelp and jumped back from the object. At her outburst, the apple fell to the ground, rolled across the floor and came to rest, as still as the inanimate object it once had been.
Still watching the apple, Jax nudged it with his foot. It rolled across the room without protest.
Kel looked spooked. “Let’s get out of here.” She tugged on his sleeve. He nodded and they hurried back down the corridor.
The air around them was thick with unspoken thoughts and emotions as they hurried away from the room. Kel seemed afraid to speak, and Jax had no words either.
But his apprehension turned to wonder when they came upon a new door, this one different from all the rest. It was wooden, covered with thick panels and ironwork. There were several locking mechanisms above the handle.
Jax’s heart pounded loudly as he realized what the door might mean. Could this be the exit? It seemed too much to hope for. He looked at Kel and tentatively placed his hand on the doorknob. She met his eyes and silently reached for his free hand.
He wrenched it open. Through the doorway, darkness was broken by a soft glow from above. The invigorating smell of earth and trees rushed around him. Outside! Freedom! Jubilation rang in his mind.
But terror swirled with the excitement, making his heart race wildly. Kel squeezed his hand, and he gripped hers tightly. Jax stepped outside, lurching to a sudden halt when he realized he was standing on a narrow ledge. The moon, a sliver of a crescent, highlighted the sharp edge of the rock’s surface. There was no railing to keep him from plunging over the side. Although it was too dark to make out details, he thought he saw the ground below. It looked at least a few stories down.
Jax took a step back, thrusting his arms out to form a barrier between Kel and the steep drop. “Careful.” He slowly rotated, surveying the building’s exit. The rough surface of the outer wall looked like chiseled rock, a stark contrast with the smooth man-made surfaces inside.
Kel froze in the doorway, an expression of pure fright on her pale face. Jax took her hand and she squeezed his so hard it hurt. That was when he noticed the harnesses lying to one side near the edge. He pulled away, trying to get a closer look, but her grip on his hand stopped him. She refused to let go.
“Jax!” A hoarse whisper escaped her lips–a sound that was pure terror. “You’ll fall!”
“It’s all right. I’m just going to check this out.” He gestured at the ropes lying nearby.
She shook her head vigorously. “No.”
He turned around, putting his arms on her shoulders. “It’s okay. I’ll be careful. Stay right here.” Her grip loosened just enough for him to tug his hand free. Cautiously, he crept to the edge and grabbed one of the two harnesses. It didn’t take more than a minute to figure out how they worked. Both were anchored with ropes to the wall close to the doorway. He tugged on one, saw it was tethered by a short length of rope, then stepped back and threw all his body weight out, relying on just the rope to keep him from falling flat on his back. Kel gasped, but the rope held him in a semi-reclined position. After a few moments, he stepped over to her.
“You afraid of heights?”
She nodded, eyes still wide with fright.
“Looks like this is our only way down. But we have everything we need.” He shook the harness at her.
She shook her head. “I–I can’t.”
“It’s this or–” he gestured back at the doorway. At that moment the lights inside went out. A cold chill passed down Jax’s spine.
Kel swung around, started when she saw the dark interior, took one step onto the platform and then wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. “Who turned off the lights?” she asked. The sudden blackness inside made the moon’s glow brighter.
Jax shoved his legs through the harness and fastened it, suddenly eager to put as much distance as possible between them and this strange place. He grabbed the rest of the rappelling gear and handed it to Kel, who still seemed hesitant.
A sizzling noise burst through the air, disturbing the night. Kel whirled back around just as bright sparks spurted from the doorway. He imagined someone standing in the darkness, holding a fistful of cut power cords like a sparkler on acid, but only the glow was visible through the darkness. It was an eerie bluish light. He could make out no forms in the darkness beyond.
Kel scuffled backward, and Jax caught her. Her hands clenched his arms. He held the harness out again. After a moment, she realized what he was wanting and shakily shoved her shoes through the loops. Tense with anxiety, he managed to get her fastened snug, then double-checked both their bindings.
“Come on,” he said, stepping to the edge.
“But how–” She glanced back at the door where blue and white sparks streaked out, closer now. It was coming through the door, advancing on them. In just a matter of moments the electrical shower would encroach on the ledge and rob them of their chance to get away safely. Jax worried that the calculated jump would turn into a blind leap.
He cut her off. “Look–just pull this to release the tension. Ease it out and you’ll be fine.”
She stared down at her harness, but he grabbed her hand and pulled her a few steps forward until their toes were nearly at the edge. Kel bristled when she saw the drop.
Jax gave her a hearty pat on the shoulder. “We’ve got to go. Come on.” He hoped his urging was enough prompting. He didn’t have time to talk her off the ledge. Backing up until the slack rope in his hands was taut, he did a little backward hop and plunged over the side, praying she would follow.
Once over the edge, he hesitated a few seconds before descending more. He stared at the lip of the cliff, awaiting her jump. Where was she? Time seemed to stretch eternally. Were the blue sparks surging out of the door? Would whatever it was get Kel and then come over the side for him?
When she didn’t appear, he knew she’d chickened out–that she’d been caught in the flying sparks. He swallowed, refusing to analyze the possibilities. He had to get down. Releasing the tension in the rope, he began to drop. At that moment, Kel flew over the edge and smashed into the rock beside him.
“Are you okay?” He halted his fall and swiped wildly at the air, trying to get to her. The sudden stop made him rock back and forth on the end of the rope. At the end of hers, Kel spiraled while she swung across the face of the rock. Her hair cascaded in front of her face and in the shadows, her head seemed to fall forward heavily. He couldn’t tell if she was conscious.
“Kel!” He kicked wildly and finally managed to find a toehold in the rock–enough to get traction to propel himself toward the swinging figure. He tried to throw his arms around her, but, due to her trajectory, only managed to grab a fistful of fabric from the arm of her tunic. When gravity pulled him away again, her spiraling ceased.
She moaned and pulled her head up.
Relief flooded him. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She groaned. “Oww. That really hurt.”
“Okay, listen. Face the rock. Keep your legs up–like this.” Once his swaying had petered out, he pulled his feet up, scraping the face of the rock with his toes. It was enough to root him in place for the moment. “Then let yourself down–slowly.”
After a few tries, she stopped swinging enough to follow his example.
Little by little, he let out the rope until his feet grazed the dusty ground. She came down moments later, breathless and wide eyed as if she was amazed she made it. He pulled off his harness and then helped her get unbuckled. Jax listened for the sizzle of the sparks but couldn’t hear anything over his own rough breathing. He looked up at the cliff. A few faint bursts of blue spurted over the edge. We have to get out of here!
There were blue sparky things above and for all he knew, there might be raiders lying in wait down here to ambush them. Heart pumping full force, he spun and put his back to the wall, frantically scanning their surroundings. The ground around them was bare. The rock wall spanned as far as he could see in either direction. A hundred yards or so in front of them, a dense forest created a natural barrier parallel to the cliff. He saw no one.
Jax looked at Kel. One word formed on his lips but left without a sound.
She nodded. Then together they sprinted toward the trees.