28. Far Away and Long Ago
They split up in order to search through the remaining rooms as quickly as possible. Ema hangs on to Les’s arm, while Alec accompanies Lai.
The latter pair don’t speak to each other as they angle their lumi-sticks to cast light over the hallways, the kitchen, the dining area, the guest rooms. They walk along in silence, never finding any potential clues to discuss. Everywhere they go, they encounter signs of a haphazard exit: furniture pushed to the side with no regard for organization, side tables half-laden with crooked knickknacks, emptied jewelry boxes with their drawers still dangling open. It’s clear that the Amitys must have left in a hurry, taking their valuables with them and putting everything else on reserve.
Alec and Lai check every picture frame, hoping to find a photo of Pandora to point their search in the right direction, but to no avail. The electronic slide-viewers are indisposed, of course. Lai suggests taking them home to analyze the files entrapped within them in a location that actually has electricity, but Alec simply shakes his head and informs her that taking anything from the division really would be illegal. None of them thought to bring a cloning tool so that they could remotely extract the information.
There are a number of old-fashioned picture frames in the division, as well. Some hold splotchy paper photos of a dark-haired man and his slightly pudgy wife in their wedding clothes, or sprawled out on various beaches, or posing in front of famous global landmarks. Lai pauses to examine one of these at length, frowning. There’s something about the man, in his eyes, in his smile. He looks at his wife with a mask of love, but he seemed to be unhappy and resigned.
The large mounted frames that may have once displayed family portraits have been stripped of their contents. Their empty interiors stare at Lai like blank eyes, and despite their indifference, she finds them unnerving. She is beginning to findeverythingunnerving, actually, and regrets coming here, even though she knows that this expedition was her idea in the first place. But ever since she played that December Lullaby, something has been triggering her alarm bells, and she can’t quite place her finger on what it is.
She and Alec arrive at a larger bedroom, positioned near the back of the division, and as soon as they pry open the door, they know who must have once inhabited this space. The peeling walls are still identifiably pink, the moth-eaten comforter on the bed still floral and lacy. The lid is open on a wooden hope chest in the corner, revealing a long-unused supply of old toys and deteriorating stuffed animals.
“Pandora Amity’s room,” Alec murmurs almost to himself, striding forward briskly. “How odd that her parents should have left so much evidence here after thoroughly removing every trace of her existence from the rest of the house…”
Lai remains in the doorway, silent and wide-eyed. Slight trembles ripple across her muscles, raising goosebumps in their wake. She feels as if there is a tiny voice buried deep beneath her conscious mind, one that is desperately trying to tell her something, but it is unable to speak loudly enough for her to make out the words.
And then, for a brief moment, she seems to hear it. Something dislodges itself from her memory…
There was a plastic fashion doll clutched in her hand, broken now. Its rotating limbs had been pulled out of their sockets, and its head was wrenched back at an uncomfortable angle, the golden hair matted and tangled. All she knew was that the doll was a Bad Thing and that she needed to hide it. Her eyes turned towards the bed. No, not under it; that would be too obvious, but maybe…
Lai pushes past Alec, much to his surprise and irritation, and plunges her slender hand between the crevice formed by the bed’s mattress and box spring. Her fingers brush against a lump of indeterminate shape, smooth and hard to the touch. Feeling curiously detached, she draws the mystery object out and brings it into the glow of her lumi-stick.
It’s a plastic doll, the kind that all little girls are given to play with. It probably came with an entire wardrobe of flowery pink clothes at one time, but now its dismembered body is cold and nude. All of its arms and legs are missing.
Lai sucks in a revolted gasp, shock and fear finally setting in after an uncanny delay. The reality of the thing in her hand sinks its teeth into her with an almost tangible sting. She wants to fling the doll away, and yet somehow she can’t.
Alec peers over her shoulder, an easy task given their respective heights, and frowns down at the doll with growing confusion. Her purposeful trip to the bed did not escape his notice, it seems. Finally he states with maddening haltingness, “You knew that it could be there.”
She tries to formulate an answer, and can’t.
“How did you know?” demands Alec. When she still says nothing, his voice begins to rise. “Lai-unit, how did you know?!”
“I don’t know!” shouts Lai, and her words bounce around the abandoned division in sharp echoes. She swallows, uncurling her fingers and allowing the doll to drop to the floor. “I don’t know, okay? I have no idea. Let’s just get out of here. This place feels wrong to me…really badly wrong.”
Alec’s good eye blinks in puzzlement at her outburst, while its broken partner grinds and sputters. Maybe he can feel the chill that has been following her all this time, maybe he can’t. But there can be no mistaking how much it upsets her, so without a word, he reaches into his pocket and produces his comm so that he can send a text feed to Cade and Ema.
Lai doesn’t remember much of what happened after that, probably because her memory is preoccupied with other things. She can sense herself flickering on the threshold of the past and the present. Images assail her, indistinct faces and silhouettes of hands, voices running by in smears of sound, everything muddled and confused and unfamiliar. The December Lullaby underscores it all, punctuating her scrambled thoughts with an uneasy soundtrack.
The worst of it stops when the four of them leave Building 3020 and she can once again feel the late November wind against her face, cold and real. And yet the detachment still persists, tugging at the corners of her vision, and she is certain that the others can tell how far away she really is.
I’m going insane, she thinks vaguely.This must be how crazy people feel right before they lose it completely. They have hallucinations and they hear the voices in their heads, and it all just comes out of nowhere…
It is quite late by the time they return to Felix’s division, and Lai immediately goes to her room and makes sure that the door locks behind her. She does not write. She does not read. She does not lay a single finger on her keyboard. She does not go into her en suite bathroom to wash her face or rinse her teeth, or chew up a sustenance pull for a midnight snack, or undress even far enough just to take down her red coat.
And above all things, she does not sleep.