I lay still for several moments as I tried to judge whether I was still in the midst of a dream or truly awake. My utter exhaustion, and my sense that I had not slept at all, decided it for me. It was impossible, I thought, to be this tired in a dream. The smell of instant oatmeal and coffee reached my nostrils, stirring my stomach and driving me from bed. I found Meredith in the kitchen, sitting at the small table eating the oatmeal she had prepared.
“Coffee’s on and there’s more porridge. Might be cereal too, if that’s more your thing. Eat quick, we don’t have much time.”
I nodded, not bothering to reply, my mind still mired in a fog. After I had finished with my breakfast she handed me a toothbrush and toothpaste, still in their packaging. I stared at, wondering how she could have known to bring it with her yesterday.
“I picked it up first thing this morning,” she said, by way of explanation. “If you want a shower be quick. I want to be out of here in the next half hour.”
We were out the door before eight, Meredith alert and watchful as we went down the stairs, while I still felt groggy and unable to fully awaken. We arrived at the Ivanhoe’s entrance just as a vehicle pulled to a stop in the loading zone out front. Even in the dim morning light, clouds heavy with rain obscuring the sky above, I could see the stern faced Black Robes. I gasped aloud, the fog in my mind lifting in an instant, though it was replaced by a terrified paralysis that left me standing exposed in the foyer.
The arrival of our hunters had not escaped Meredith’s notice; she shoved me against the wall as she dug into her jacket, pulling out the two buttons we had used yesterday. I reached out to take one from her, but she brushed my hand away and set them on the floor by our feet. We stood by them for several agonizing seconds as I watched the Black Robes get out of their silver car, before fleeing back down the hallway to the building’s rear entrance and into the alley. With Meredith in lead, we ran to the narrow lane that cut between the buildings opposite the Ivanhoe, crossed the street, and cut through two more apartment complexes.
The ground sloped sharply as we went and I nearly tumbled headlong into Meredith, catching myself just in time. There was a wooden slat fence behind the apartments, running alongside the alley atop a retaining wall, leaving a steep drop to a pathway below. Meredith did not break from her loping pace as she came to the fence, pulling herself up and over in one smooth motion. She dropped down to the pathway below, disappearing from my sight. I stopped as I came to fence, which rose up well above my head, unsure of how to get myself over it in this body which felt so unfamiliar.
“Come on,” Meredith hissed to me from where she crouched, the urgency in her voice doing nothing to alleviate my anxiety.
I glanced over my shoulder to assure myself that no pursuit had arrived and saw only a woman, in a faded pare of pajamas, watching me with some curiosity from her balcony. That spurred me to action; I clambered up the side of the fence, awkwardly swinging one leg after the other over and sliding down so only my fingertips were touching its top. At that point I let go, landing heavily on the ground and stumbling backwards, wrenching my ankle in the process. Meredith stared at me, amazed at my clumsiness, and shook her head before starting down the alley at a trot.
We emerged onto another sleepy street and Meredith slowed her pace to a brisk walk, pulling me up alongside her so that we looked like a couple out for morning stroll. I felt as though people were watching us from every window and balcony, each parked car filled with black robes waiting to signal to the Seeker. I could not resist looking around to confirm my suspicions.
Meredith squeezed my hand hard, causing me to grimace. “Stop it,” she said with a glare. “Just look straight ahead.”
I forced myself to follow her orders, keeping my head down and my eyes upon the square of concrete just ahead of my feet. We walked to the end of the block and turned the corner onto another innocuous street, this one ending at a large apartment complex that ran for most of the block on the street that ran perpendicular to the one we were one. There were no cars or people about, the only sound reaching my ears the hum of traffic somewhere in the distance, but the calm seemed deceptive, a trick of nature designed to ensnare me.
Meredith seemed unconcerned and she led me by the arm down the gravel driveway leading to the complex’s car park at the same easy, maddening pace, my whole being crying out that we should be running, though where I couldn’t say.
Sensing my distress, Meredith said, “They don’t know what we look like and they didn’t get a good look at us yesterday. So just don’t draw attention and we’ll be fine.”
How this could be possible when the Seeker had, as befitted his name, unerringly found us, after we had lost the Black Robes in our mad dash yesterday, I could not say. But I forced myself to relax, I had no choice but to trust her for now. The driveway curved around the building, alongside it was a patch of indifferently cared for grass extending to some overgrown bushes and trees that crowded over a thin path, worn by many feet. It was that path we set upon, turning from the driveway, passing through the natural gateway provided by the shrubbery.
On the other side we found ourselves at a stairway that descended to a busy street below. Two stone Victorian lions looked out on the passing cars at the bottom of the staircase, their visages worn away by the passing years. I ran my hand along the nearest as we passed by, wondering what magnificent building had once sat atop the staircase, of which no remaining signs could be seen. It felt as though we had passed from one world into another.
At the end of the block there was a bus stop with a large shelter to provide cover from the rain and it was here that Meredith went, ducking within and handing me some change, saying, “Make sure you ask for two zones.”
I stared at the coins in my hand dumbfounded. “What are we doing?” I said.
Meredith pulled a cell phone from her jacket, glancing at the display. “We have time.”
“How do you know?” I said, nonplussed. “What if the bus is late?”
“It won’t matter,” she said. “We have time.”
Before I could interrogate her further an elderly woman stepped into the shelter, nodding at both of us. Meredith smiled in return and turned her attention to the road, watching for the bus, glancing every now and again down at her phone. I caught a glimpse of the display and saw the outlines of what I thought was a map, the gridlines of the city apparent. The colors and outlines on it were strange and it seemed as though there was a map imposed on another map, a city upon the city in effect, which I could make no sense of.
The minutes ticked by as we waited for the arrival of the bus, traffic ebbing and flowing on the road, a few more people trickling into our shelter. Though Meredith continued to exude calm, it had no effect on me. I kept waiting for the arrival of the Black Robes, for the Seeker to appear behind me as in my dream, and the voice, mocking and precise, to cut into me. None of that occurred. The day remained ordinary and we appeared ordinary within it.
When the bus pulled up, lurching to a stop, I felt no relief, my agitation blossoming within me as we started on the next leg of our journey. This was no way to escape a dire threat, it seemed to me. Meredith looked unconcerned, staring at the road ahead, the phone returned to her pocket. When I felt as though I couldn’t breath any longer, I turned to her and said, “How are we supposed to get away from these people taking a bus if they can find us wherever we go?”
She considered the question, her eyes darting around to see if anyone was paying attention. “They will find us, but it takes time. Remember, they haven’t got a good look at us yet, they don’t know our names, or anything about our lives here. They have to rely on the Seeker and he is an imprecise tool.”
“How do they not know what we look like?”
“They don’t. They never do. That is why they have the Seeker.”
“But they saw us yesterday,” I said, my voice going louder than I had intended.
Meredith glared at me. “But how good of a look did they get? We were running, so it was obvious who they should be chasing. But could they pick us out of a crowd again if we were acting normally? I don’t think so.”
“So why did we run yesterday?”
“Because you looked back,” Meredith said, standing up to get off the bus. As we disembarked she glanced at her phone and a small grimace passed across her face, vanishing by the time we were on the sidewalk. A metro line crossed directly overhead of the bus stop and Meredith headed for the stairway that led to the station.
“Why not use the buttons again?” I said as we went up the stairs.
Meredith glanced at me. “You mean the crevice? They were expecting us too. That’s why I left them in the hallway. It should take them awhile to figure out that we weren’t in the half universe.”
“But it didn’t,” I said, my voice catching.
“No,” she said, glancing at her phone again as we came up into the station. “They’re very close now.”
The metro station consisted of a long platform, raised above the street, with tracks running on either side. It was filled with morning commuters, bleary eyed and grim faced, peering at their phones or staring off at nothing. Nobody gave us so much as a glance as we weaved through the crowd, finding some empty space toward the middle of the platform. Meredith pulled out her phone and winced at what she saw there.
“Take out your phone,” she said under her breath, not even glancing over at me. “Act like you’re doing something with it.”
I did as she said, scrolling through my text messages, pretending I was looking for something. A name caught my eye as I went. Laila. Meredith had mentioned her. I opened her thread and began to read.
“Now, pay attention,” Meredith said, moving behind me and turning so our backs faced. “Whatever you do, don’t stop looking at your screen. They’re going to be here in a second, so if you notice them, don’t stare and don’t run. Just keep looking at your phone, and when the train comes get on it.”
I nodded and felt myself go flush, for she could not see me with our backs to each other. My palms were sweaty and the phone felt heavy in my hand. I stared blankly, uncomprehending at the words that had passed between myself and Laila.
“It’s better if we’re not together,” Meredith continued. “So I’m going to go stand farther down the platform. It will take them longer to find us that way. Don’t look for me. Don’t worry about me. Just get on the train when it comes.”
I let out an unsteady breath as I felt her slip away from behind me, moving down the platform to my left. A train arrived behind me and, by reflex, I glanced up as the line and destination were announced. The crowd swirled around me as people got on and off the train. I tried not to look at anyone as they brushed past, a blur of faces, all without expression. Somehow they all seemed sinister for it, malevolent in their ignorance. It was an effort to force myself to breathe.
A low murmur, passing along the platform like a wave approaching the shore, alerted me to the arrival of the Black Robes and the Seeker. I closed my eyes and bit my tongue, anything to distract me from the overwhelming urge to turn and see where they were. The screen to my phone had gone dark and I turned it on again, going back to Laila’s messages, forcing myself to read them, to think about what they said. I forgot the words as soon as I read them, the murmur growing closer, until it was very near, right around me.
My every instinct was to look up and see the threat I knew was approaching, but I did not, keeping my eyes trained just above the display of my phone, so that I could see to the platform’s edge. The Seeker passed in front of me a moment later, drawing stares from many in the crowd. He went slowly, glancing from face to face, meeting all the stares that he drew. Just as I thought he was going to pass by, to keep going down the platform, he stopped, lifting his head, as though testing the air for a scent.
Where, I wondered, was the damn train? The Seeker stayed where he was, glancing around, his head cocked expectantly. Though I wanted to look around myself, to see where the Black Robes were, to see where Meredith was, I forced myself to stay as I was, utterly still. I did not even look at the Seeker, staring intently at my phone, only his legs visible in my sight line. He took a step forward and I nearly sagged with relief, until he stopped again. I thought I saw him raise his hand, as though to beckon someone to him, but I dared not look up to confirm.
Two trains arrived, almost simultaneously, and the platform became a mass of confusion, people pouring off and on both lines at once. The train in front of me was full already and I pushed my way forward, panicked that I wouldn’t be able to make it on. I did not even look to see if the Seeker, the Black Robes or Meredith joined me as I shoved my way on, drawing a few looks of ire from my fellow passengers.
When I was safely on I allowed myself a glance out at the platform and saw the Seeker in the midst of the crowd looking at the train, at the very car I was in. My heart went still and I tried to will the doors shut and start the train moving. For an agonizing moment our eyes met and lingered, the door still open and the train still. An announcement broke the spell, both of us glancing toward the speaker at the sound. The doors hissed and slid close and the train lurched forward, carrying me on and leaving the Seeker behind.
This is the eighth part of The Forgotten, a science fiction thriller. A new section will be published here every Thursday.