Amelia could feel the soles of her feet bruising with each hit against the pavement. What she wouldn’t give to have her running shoes right now.
“That’s it, Gangly,” she heard from behind her, “keep running!”
“Just wait till we get hold of you, Gangly!”
Behind her, a group of her classmates followed her every footstep. Amelia knew she could outrun these idiots any day of the week, but today she felt… off. Since she left the house that morning, everything had gone wrong, and now she was ending the day with Molly Platt’s gang of Lemmings chasing her down the high street and onto the estate.
“We know where you live, Amelia!”
Passing over a busy crossroads and not waiting for the green man, Amelia shouted a string of curse words and threats behind her as she sped up. Car horns beeped as the gang followed, ignoring the rules of the road as they entered the estate. Amelia was still shouting when she spotted Mrs Finn coming out of the front door of her building - letting her spaniel out on the lawn - and cringed.
“Sorry, Mrs Finn!”
“Piss off, Amelia!”
That sounded about right, yeah.
Amelia glanced behind her. The Lemmings weren’t close, but she wasn’t about to lose them any time soon. Amelia might be the fastest cross-country runner in the county, but Molly’s determination to make her life hell was a motivator and an adrenaline rush that fuelled her to keep up. And Molly was right - they all knew where she lived. It was no secret, and the front of their three-bedroom semi was regularly egged or otherwise defaced.
The edge of the housing state was marked with the first of a half-dozen tower blocks, flats on flats on flats, tall and cheap. Amelia cut across the grass and ran behind one of the first, hoping to outrun them as she dashed and weaved between the towers, but the Lemmings were persistent, splitting up to chase her either side of the buildings. She pushed on, her school shoes slapping loudly against the pavement.
If she was going to get rid of them, she needed to think. Her long legs carried her forward automatically as she wracked her brain for an exit strategy.
She could keep running to the town edge. She’d done that before, and they had all stopped at the ‘Welcome’ sign, only to lurk there until she returned an hour later, still running. She’d exhausted herself that day, not stopping. The accompanying black eye had been hard to explain.
She could run back to school, but they’d just wait outside there too, unless someone could call her dad to pick her up, which was the last thing she wanted. She couldn’t wait to get her own license.
No, looping back around via the alleyway beside the park was the only way. She’d have to be quick to get onto the high street and dive into the shelter of some shop or another before they got out of the alley themselves. Only that would buy her enough time to run home before they caught up. Even with all the hatred and hellfire that surely powered her, Molly Platt wouldn’t wait out all night.
Amelia pressed her feet harder into the ground and pushed herself forward with renewed energy, willing her legs to remember their training despite her painful feet. She passed the edge of her own road, lined with row upon row of faded-brick council houses, and kept on running.
“Oi, Gangly, where you going?”
Stride after stride, she continued on, not quite losing them just yet. The alleyway was going to be her rescue, she was growing more and more certain. She passed faces she recognised and faces she didn't. She even passed Harry Wortell’s gang of Tossers crowded on a bus stop bench, and though they shouted at her and wolf-whistled her pursuers, she was surprised they didn’t join themselves and give chase. She was Robert Morton’s daughter, after all, and that meant she was fair game.
It meant she was universally despised.
She reached the mouth of the alley and, after slowing to make the sharp turn, she began a hard, earnest sprint. This was crunch time - literally, because if they caught her, she expected their fists would be crunching various parts of her body.
The further she ran, the more distant their footsteps and shouts became. As the alleyway curved with the edge of the park, high brick walls on either side of her shielded her from view, until they covered her completely in an arch above her head. She drew closer under the shops. A gust of warm wind pushed her further forward. All she could hear now were her own deep breaths and her footsteps echoing off the walls and vibrating in her ears.
Running full pelt, Amelia came out the other side of the alleyway with a surge of triumph that was quickly quashed. Looking around, confused, she searched for a familiar shop to dive in. Instead of the high street she was used to, she was faced with varying terraced houses, some red brick, some pale, some crumbling, some barely touched. Brightly-painted doors - deep blue or purest ivory, shining crimson or ashiest black - faced her from every house front. Between many of them, deep alleyways snaked beyond the cobbled street she stopped on.
This… wasn’t what she was expecting. Where was W H Smiths? New Look? Where were the mannequins in the shop windows she was going to hide behind? Looking around, she spotted another alleyway not too far down and ducked into it, adrenaline still pushing her forward, knowing that Molly and her gang would not be far behind.
Waiting, panting, ready to hide, she watched the alleyway’s exit for the stream of lemmings that was sure to come. She must have taken the wrong lane in the confusion, not realising it would take her somewhere else. She’d lived in this town her whole miserable life, she thought she knew it backwards and blindfolded. It was dizzying to think there were places here to which even she hadn’t ventured.
Still watching, Amelia’s heartbeat slowed. Seconds passed, then a minute. There was no sign, no sound, of Molly or her fellow torturers. Amelia wondered if she’d managed to confuse them, too, with some hidden turn in the alley that none of them knew. It seemed impossible, but now, straightening up from her hiding place, she thought it must be true. She walked cautiously to the alleyway’s edge and peered down it. It looked eerily dark only a few steps in, much darker than she remembered. She wasn’t about to go searching for them, but she had to figure out where she was so she could loop back around and make her way home again.
Then a smell hit her as she concentrated, and a sound wholly unexpected: the unique tang of salt on the air, and the sound of a screeching seagull.
She looked to her right, up in the air, to see several of the birds perching on the rooftops of these strange, unfamiliar houses. Then she looked down, where the horizon stretched out in front of her, a mass of undulating blue.
She didn’t live anywhere the sea.
This must be a dream.
Amelia walked towards the water, past the rows of houses either side to where the sea lapped up against the wooden posts of an old dock. Green, mossy growths crawled up each pillar, slimy under the water’s touch. She stood on the dock’s edge, staring down at her warped reflection in the murky blue.
She had never dreamt so vividly before. Her senses were filled up with the sounds of the waves licking up against the wood, the smell of the salt piercing her sinuses with its intensity. Overcome with the oddness of this uncanny place, Amelia began to pinch herself - sharp twists between her fingertips - but to no avail.
Turning back to the rows of houses, she noticed what lay beyond them; a trail led from the end of the cobbled street of the seafront up into a dense, deep forest. She could see the canopies touching the sky, swaying slightly in a breeze that she could feel coming in from the sea behind her. She began to pace towards the forest’s edge, anxiety replacing her confusion. This was not real, she reasoned, but it felt disturbingly so.
Passing the two-dozen or so houses, Amelia tried to remember which of the alleyways she had come through. Panic rose as she realised she couldn’t distinguish between them at all. Had it been the one between the houses with the green door and maroon door? She looked closer, knowing she’d come out in the middle of the street somewhere, and inspected the brick archways for some kind of sign, something, anything recognisable. The alleyway entrance in the very centre felt familiar, but she couldn’t specify why, just intuition in her gut or something. She stepped towards it, the dark brick surround so exactly alike all the others she’d looked at. She leant her forehead against the cool brick of the arch, tempted to start banging against it in another attempt to wake herself up. Close up, she noticed some markings - faded words scratched into the brick.
Theodore Gingritch, 1708.
The name didn’t ring any bells. She peered into the alley. She wasn’t afraid of the dark, she reasoned. There was nothing stopping her from going in, apart from a nagging in her gut. Pushing that niggle aside, she strode into the darkness. As she kept walking, the path seemed to reveal itself to her a little at a time, just far enough into the darkness to give her confidence. She carried on walking, watching her feet rather than staring in the gloom, until light illuminated her again and she looked up.
She was on that same cobbled street she had just left. She examined the brick to the left of the archway, and there was that name again, Theodore.
Frustrated that she must have taken a wrong turn while looking at her feet, Amelia turned again and walked into the darkness of the alley, walking with the head raised determinedly. The shroud of the tall, enveloping bricks would not faze her, she told herself. She kept walking, counting her steps in time with her breaths. One, two, three…
The pathway was monotonous, the darkness, unchanging. There were no bends to follow, and she ran her hands along the walls either side of her; there were no hidden turn-offs in the darkness.
Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one…
She could see the exit illuminated ahead of her, getting closer with each step.
Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven…
Stepping into the light, her heart sank.
The same street.
It was the same strange, uniformly cobbled street, with a dock at one end and the forest at the other.
But she’d gone completely straight, how was this physically possible? There was no way she could have looped back around without turning at all, there was just no way.
“Molly!” Amelia called, cupping her hands to her mouth. Any fear she had felt before as they chased her had vanished in the oddity of this place. “Molly! Catherine! Emily!”
She listed off the gangs’ names, yelling them into the dark alley and hearing them echo back to her. Even seeing their stupid mugs would be a welcome sight right now, but there was only silence in return.
There was no doubt she must be asleep. Perhaps she was so deeply asleep that even pinching wouldn’t rouse her. That must be it.
With a sense of determination, she began to run towards the dock. If she couldn’t reason her way out, she would have to wake herself up properly. A cold dose of water should do that, surely? Perhaps she’d wake up having wet the bed, but right now that was a risk she was willing to take. She could do the washing before her dad got home from his shift, he wouldn’t have to know at all.
Her legs were a little tired from stopping and starting, but she kept on running, reminding herself that this was a dream anyway, so she could do anything. She sped past all those strange houses, the strange alleyways, straight across the soggy planks of the wooden dock and leapt off the edge, drawing in a deep gulp of air.
The sea rose up to meet her, the cold water slapping against her limbs and wrapping her up entirely. She waited for reality to return, to wake up in her bed, her dark, dingy room greeting her to another awful - but at least real - day.
But no awakening came.
She began to swim upwards, reaching for the surface, but that didn’t come either. Flailing around in confusion and suddenly faced with the prospect of drowning, Amelia pumped her arms and legs.
The water around her moved, but she wasn’t moving within it. She was aware that the dark gloom of the surrounding sea was lightening, as though she were being lifted from the depths, enveloped in a globe of water that moved independently of her efforts.
The water that surrounded her receded down to her waist and she breathed in deeply, a huge, ragged breath to fill her strained lungs. Looking down, she realised she was up in the air, lifted above the surface of the sea by a huge wave, like a watery hand powering upwards. Staring out to the endless horizon, Amelia recognised her defeat; she was still asleep, unable to wake herself up, and now she was being held up by some Wonderland-esque magical force. Perhaps a merman, or one of those other water creatures from cartoons she used to watch, was controlling the waters. Maybe she was about to meet Poseidon.
The water around her waist and legs moved, whirling about her, to face her the other way. Down on the dock stood a man with his arms raised, an easy smile on his face that showed no sign of exertion, though Amelia assumed he was the one controlling the waves.
“You must be Poseidon, then,” Amelia said.
“Lochlan, actually,” the man said. He lowered his arms, and as he did, Amelia, too, descended down until her feet touched the dock and the water splashed down beneath the planks. She was sodden and wary as he extended out his hand to her.
“Welcome to New Realm,” he said.