The clouds seethed and boiled impossibly, an eternal time-lapse of gold and burnt orange. The sun didn’t sink however, it just hovered on the horizon, frozen against the accelerated sky. The breeze was warm, and carried scents of grass and corn and honey. Alice smiled, enjoying the dream’s beauty.
A path stretched ahead of her, pale with crushed stone and dust. It curled between crop-heavy fields, tired telegraph poles slouching along beside it. The need to know where it went was like a wound. She resisted for a moment, savouring the tension, and then started walking, whistling happily to herself.
She wandered along for a while, time uncertain and unimportant. There were little flowers growing amidst the grass that bordered the path, most of them red, some white. Somewhere in the distance, a rooster crowed. Maybe this was a halted sunrise, then.
A whiff of smoke caught her attention, heavy and pungent. A cigar. There was some alcohol mixed in there, too. She looked around, curious as to where a bar might have come from, out here. Instead, ahead, the path opened out into a crossroads. An old man was standing just before it, white hair and chocolate skin, dustbowl clothes and a friendly smile.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello, Alice.” He nodded to her. Despite his smile, his eyes looked sad.
“Are you all right?”
The smile – and the sadness – deepened. “Bless you, child. I’m as well as I can be, in these times. But the crossroads… Ah, the crossroads is deadly sick.”
She followed his gesture. Where the two paths met, the ground was shimmering. Oily colours seemed to play over it. The effect was hypnotic, and quite lovely, but somehow unsettling.
“That’s… strange,” Alice said.
“It’s worse than that,” he said. He opened his eyes wide, wider, wider still, until they seemed to be filling the horizon, pulling her in, pulling her down. His voice was like steel-mills now, full of iron and fire. “It’s oozing.”
Alice shrieked and sat bolt-upright, bed-covers falling away. She was reaching for her dream diary even before she was really aware of the soft London night spilling into her bedroom. She flipped the book open, and started writing, pinning the dream down, like a butterfly, before it dissolved into mist and shadow.
* * *
When she awoke again later that morning, at a more civilised time, Alice let herself drift back into the world slowly. The earlier dream was as strong in her mind as it had been before, a sure omen that there was a delicious mystery to chase down. She washed and dressed quickly, comfortably, ignoring the usual minor stab of disappointment at the increasingly unfamiliar reflection in the mirror. I’ll fight Time later, she thought to herself. The game is afoot! She was out of the door in less than ten minutes.
Outside, the air smelled of car fumes, and buildings hemmed her in, but the sun was a welcome warmth on her face, and a light breeze ruffled her hair fondly. She glanced down at the pavement, remembering the dusty path from the dream. All right, then. She set off walking, and after a moment, started whistling defiantly as well. At the end of the street, she let her feet decide which way to turn. A few minutes later, she was heading along a parade of shops.
Familiar territory, in a casual sort of way. The windows held few surprises, but she peered in anyway as she went by. A curious new stack of magazines from the ‘20s in the flea-market doorway. Some tempting artichokes outside the cramped grocery. An ancient beggar croaked something from near the cash machine, his eyes wrapped around with layers of gauze cloth to emphasise his blindness. As she walked by the deli, a couple caught her eye. The guy looked vaguely familiar, the girl more so, but Alice couldn’t quite put her finger on it. They were buying olives. Looking happy. She puzzled over them for a moment, and then started walking again. Bigger fish, today.
There was a crossroads ahead. Common enough, in this part of town. For a moment, she thought maybe… But it wasn’t quite right. The sweep of the roads was out of place. There was something about it that made the back of her neck tingle, however. She took the righthand spur, pulled along by the merest hint of honey in the air.
She passed a row of pleasant terraces, the opening to a grand old mews, some more homes, and then stopped dead. A path split the row of buildings, leading off into leafy greenness. On both sides of the street. Her memory overlapped it, melded with it, the click so clear she could almost have sworn it was audible. At the corner of the crossroads, where the old man had been, a phone box reached up towards the sky. It was defiantly red, proud despite – or because of – its age, but for a moment, just a moment, it shimmered with a slick of colour.
Alice allowed herself a triumphant grin. A café waited just ahead, and she decided to conduct some observation of her quarry over a latte.
Inside, the coffee shop was surprisingly cosy, all soft wood-glow and shining copper. The girl at the counter looked to be deep in conversation with a black cat, which was perched on a stool beside her. She looked up as Alice entered, and smiled.
“Hi. How can I help?” A badge on the girl’s apron read ‘Hello, my name is: Nadia’.
The cat twitched its tail, then jumped off the stool and out of sight.
“A latte, please,” Alice said. A note on a board leapt out at her. “A bacon roll as well, if I can.”
“Of course,” said Hello-my-name-is-Nadia. “Take a seat. I’ll bring that over for you.”
Alice smiled her thanks, and sat at a little round table by the window. It was a perfect vantage point for studying the red phone box. The poor thing had clearly seen better days, but it was still there. As she relaxed, and let the impressions begin to seep in, she became aware of an unexpected edge to the box. Melancholy, yes, that was always going to be the case. Strength, too. But beneath that, something jarring. A hint of turbulence, chaos even, and a sense of vastness unfolding…
A clatter startled her back into the café. She blinked, momentarily woozy.
“Sorry,” said Hello-my-name-is-Nadia, putting the bacon roll next to the coffee.
Alice summoned a smile for her.
“Admiring the Old Man?”
Ice tickled down Alice’s spine. “What did you say?”
“The phone box,” the girl replied. “You don’t see many of them any more.”
“You called it the Old Man,” said Alice.
“Oh, yes.” Hello-my-name-is-Nadia grinned apologetically. “It’s just what I call him. He’s so patient there, don’t you think?” She bustled off.
Patient? Not the word I’d have chosen. Alice turned her attention to breakfast, which proved to be excellent. Even in the throes of bacon however, she couldn’t quite shake the impression of the titanic void lurking behind the box. Whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t her old man, the one from the dream. He had been full to the brim with laughter and mischief and sadness, raging fires of life. Sick, he’d called the crossroads. She could see his point.
Alice finished her coffee, paid Hello-my-name-is-Nadia distractedly, and crossed the road. Up close, the chaos of the phone box was almost brutally strong. It felt like winds trying to tear through her, rip her down bit by bit, scatter her to the four corners of the Earth.
Unease welled up inside her, and lay siege to her curiosity. She wouldn’t give in to her nerves of course, she never gave in, except this time, the voice that normally whispered delicious questions was starting to scream for her to run, run and not look back. For the first time Alice could remember, she decided it might be best not to poke her nose in.
She tried to take a step back, but nothing happened. Alarmed, she tried again, willing herself to move backward. Instead, her hand pulled the phone box door open. She whimpered, turned around, fled, horrified that her body was continuing to ignore her, was stepping into the box.
The door shut behind her, and as it did so, the phone started to ring.
Don’t answer it, Alice commanded herself desperately. I’m NOT doing this. Don’t answer.
Her hand moved to the receiver, lifted it from the cradle.
She couldn’t even scream.
The receiver pressed against her ear, and a tidal wave of sound rolled out, smashed into her. Howling chaos pressed through every cell in her body. There was a flare of impossible colour, and then she was dwindling, dwindling…