WHAT THE DARKNESS ASKS IN RETURN • by Jeremy Szal

“Oh Brandon!” calls Jake, doing that thing where he emphasises the last part of my name as ‘done’. “You gonna do this again?”

I’m breathing hard as I back away through the attic of our house, my step-brother’s voice chasing me into the smoky darkness. I almost trip over the old woodcutter’s axe that used to be my father’s, back when he was alive. Its sharp, glaring edge and the things that it can do to a person’s body makes my hands tremble. But not as much as my brother.

Jake chuckles as he creaks up the stairs. He stinks of the booze he’s been drinking ever since he turned sixteen. It’s always worse when he’s drunk — he doesn’t know when to stop. “The longer you wait, the worse it gets,” tuts Jake. He knows I don’t talk anymore. Talking back always makes it worse. Makes him hit and kick and cut and slice harder. So I’m silent when he tells me I deserve this. With his degrading words filling my head and bruises and wounds plastering my body, I sometimes believe him.

That same voice floating up the attic makes my thirteen-year-old heart thud like a rabbit’s. But it doesn’t scare me like it once did. Not since I discovered the door.

I tug the pleated drapes back to reveal a door of plain, moldy timber that looks like any old door in any old house. The icy dread clamped around my ribs thaws as I rub my fingers against the splintery wood and drag its smoky smell into my heaving lungs.

I remember listening to my father’s stories before I went to bed. He’d put his glasses away, the ones he wore to the weird, super-secret lab where he worked, and told me about his research. Doors that lead to other places in space. “And we have one upstairs,” he’d say with a strange little smile. I’d roll my eyes, but he insisted. “Our little secret.” And then he placed his hands on my shoulders and his face grew serious. “But you can never go inside. Never. Do you understand?”

But his words lose meaning as Jake approaches and the stink of the alcohol claws at my nose. “Don’t you think ’bout slipping away now,” he coughs. And then in a lower voice, “stupid little retard.”

The ends of my fingers feeling like they’re filled with wet stones, I open the door and slip into blackness deeper than oceans. I feel its presence as soon as it feels mine. My body goes numb and tingly, like the ointment Jake rubs on me when he’s had his fun to hide the bloody wounds. The rough edge of the door rubs against my back, but I know the other side has vanished. I tested it by filming it once. It only has the strength to hold one person, so when I enter, the door merges with the wood. Like a chameleon, hiding from a predator.

I see a bruise-coloured sky peppered with shining stars, distant as freedom. I’m in a different world now. The air tastes sour and sweat starts to crystallize on my skin. Pocketrips, I heard father say over the phone before I snuck into his office and read the e-documents when he wasn’t looking. Tiny spaces ripped apart by solar forces to create a hidden vacuum, the papers said. Somewhere you can’t get normally. Like an air bubble, frozen under the sea. And in these tiny rips, Jake can’t hurt me.

An ethereal wind tugs at my body. There’s a faint, layered voice echoing in my head. Something is taking parts of me, peeling me away. Every time I enter I come out less afraid of Jake. But the world seems to become a little less bright, like a monitor with the colour turned down. Even food doesn’t taste as good.

It’s taking too much. I can feel bits of myself dissolving like sand between my fingers. But a million kilometres away, echoing across worlds through the thin panelling of this door, my step-brother is promising awful, awful things like he always does when he’s going to give it to me bad. I try to hold pieces of myself back — like father would have wanted — but there’s so much being tugged away I can’t hold it all back.

I can’t hear Jake anymore. I swallow a mouthful of sour saliva. Is he gone? I slip back into the musty attic with Jake’s heavy footsteps trampling down the creaking steps. “When I find you, you’re dead,” he slurs. My body wants me to be afraid, but my mind does not. Did my father warn me about this? All of a sudden, I can’t remember his face.

I’m cold, like I always am when Jake is finished with me. But it’s a different kind of cold. I scoop up my father’s woodcutter axe. The sharp edge has lost its sinister glare, and the wooden shaft seems to mould into my firm, steady hand. I croak with a voice I don’t recognize, “Not if I find you first.”


Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 in the outback of Australia and was raised by wild dingoes. His speculative fiction has appeared in Nature, Abyss & Apex, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and The Drabblecast. He is the fiction editor for Hugo-winning podcast StarShipSofa and holds a rather useless BA in Creative Writing and Film Studies. He is represented by literary agent John Jarrold and hopes to soon sell a novel. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia, where he consumes too much gin, watches too many cult films, and makes too many dark jokes. Find him at jeremyszal.com or @JeremySzal.


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