3:30pm 8th April
“An error of type 4025 has occurred. The session will now end. Please save your progress and restart.”
Nick knew, and the computer knew, there was no way to “save progress” when this message reared it annoying little head. The last hour’s work was gone. No sooner had this thought materialised, the screen before him turned blue and white writing began to scroll across. This was for the third time today. Nick sighed heavily as his shoulders sagged and his head dropped.
“Hey, cheer up,” came Sam’s voice from the next booth. “At least it’s Friday.”
“Yeah,” Nick replied. “It’s Friday and I haven’t finished the debug report. The way this lump of crap is going, it won’t even be done by next Friday.”
The day had not started well. Nick’s boss had been piling on the pressure for the last few days to get a whole stack of reports up to date. He had started the day in her office, accounting for the fact that they hadn’t been done yet. As ever, multiple system errors had not held much weight with her, despite it being the truth.
As his computer booted back up from its latest meltdown, Nick craned his neck over the top of his booth and cast his eyes around the open office.
“Where is she?” he asked Sam, not seeing his boss anywhere.
“Left about an hour ago,” Sam informed. “Another meeting.”
Nick felt himself relax a little as he sank back into his seat.
“Where this time?” he asked. “Golf course again?”
Sam laughed. “No. Marbella.”
“Ah man, we are in the wrong line of work here.” Still, knowing that their work was going unsupervised did take the edge off somewhat.
The clock lazily wound its way around to 5:00pm and as it did so, a ripple of excitement gradually spread across the office. With the weekend a mere matter of seconds away, Nick could feel the tension falling away. And as the shuffling of chairs announced the working day’s end, he sprang up and joined the weekly stampede for the door. Daylight and fresh air greeted him as he left.
“Coming for a drink?” Sam called as Nick was about to turn the corner.
“Not this time,” he replied. “Early start tomorrow.”
“Well yeah, the marathon’s only two weeks away.”
Sam laughed. “I still can’t believe you’re doing that, man. It was a practically a drunk bet!”
“I know,” Nick grinned. “But it gives me something other than work to think about, so…”
“Whatever,” Sam shouted, heading for the pub. “See you Monday.”
Nick waved as he carried on his way. His own flat was down at the seafront. It was about two miles away and while most people wouldn’t have considered it to be walking distance from the office, on an evening like this Nick liked nothing better than to take his time enjoying the crisp sea air in his lungs as he went.
Sam’s teasing tone echoed on in his head for a few minutes as he walked. Sam was not the only one who thought that Nick signing up for the marathon was utter madness. None of them thought he would ever go through with it. In the four years he had been at the company, Nick had made it fairly well known that ‘exercise’ and ‘recreation’ were not two words he tended to put together at all. He went to the gym, sure, but only ever did enough to stay roughly in shape. Training for a marathon was a whole other world to him.
The idea had come up at the office Christmas party. Nick had been waxing lyrical to Sam and one or two others in the department about how utterly bored he was in the office. How it was always the same and there was no challenge anymore.
“That’s why they call it a dead-end job,” Sam had slurred. “Because eventually you end up deadened.”
The conversation had moved on from there, until someone had jokingly suggested Nick take up running to give him something else to think about. They had all laughed it off at the time, but the idea had stuck with Nick. Initially, Sam was going to do it with him, but he dropped out by mid-January, leaving Nick to train alone. He found he quite liked it that way. No distractions. No links to work. Just a few hours with open road under his feet and good music in his ears to keep him going.
The sun was at eye level as Nick made his way around the curve of the bay, and the domed building of the old arcade came into view. It was a place Nick had not thought much about at all for years now, until a couple of weeks ago when he had found a way through the fairground on his way home from an evening run. If it hadn’t been raining so hard, he would have gone around as usual, but after cutting through, he had wondered ever since about why it had ever closed in the first place. Nick had lived here his whole life and remembered summer days at the fairground and winter evenings in the arcade. He remembered that he had stopped going there as he got older. He didn’t remember it closing permanently.
As Nick came past the entrance to the old arcade, he did a double-take. In the usually deserted portico there was a man. Half of his face was covered by what looked like old fashioned motorbike goggles. He was wearing a long black trench coat and a hat that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Madison Avenue, circa 1953. In his gloved hands, he held what looked like an old Gameboy console.
Try as he might, Nick couldn’t take his eyes off the stranger, until the man looked up, caught his eye and politely tipped his hat to him. Nick blinked a couple of times and hurried on his way.
He had only taken a few more steps when he glanced back at the portico. The man was gone. Nick frowned, unable to work out which direction he could have taken to disappear so quickly. As he carried on, he kept looking back, expecting to see him again, but he was nowhere to be found.
By the time he reached home, the man was forgotten and the fairground was deserted as it should be.
It was a 5:00am start the next morning. Saturday or no, Nick was determined to stick to his training plan this close to marathon day.
He had been running for about an hour and a half now and sweat trickled down his neck and his back. The salty air scraped at his tired lungs and an ache took root in his left calf. Today, the run had taken him down on to the beach itself, along the compacted wet sand by the water’s edge. The added resistance in the sand drained the energy from him faster than the smooth tarmac and he was beginning to feel the strain.
The tide was beginning to creep further inland over the sand and Nick made his way up to the promenade to continue his run back around the bay towards the arcade. The last time he had cut through the fairground, there had been a gap in the fencing. He found it again and squeezed through, planning on doing a few laps before heading back home.
Nothing had been moved in there since the place had closed. Sure, there had been some graffiti added, but no-one had taken steps to clear the site, as if they were still expecting to come back tomorrow and wake up the rides one last time.
Nick quickened his pace a little, his leg not hurting as much now he was back on firmer ground. He passed the old ghost train and the candy-floss stands, now nothing more than hollow shells. He ran passed the carousel. Several of the poles holding the horses were broken, the steads now lolling to one side. The vacant expressions on their faces were scared with scratches from sharp objects used to carve initials into the wood and veneer. Empty bottles and cigarette ends collected at the carousel’s base, forgotten and abandoned like the rest of the rides.
It was a saddening sight. Nick remembered riding one of the horses as a child. A blue one with a silver mane and golden reins. He wasn’t sure he would recognise it now in this state of ruin. He ran on.
As he neared the waltzer, a rustling sound distracted him. He slowed to a jog. There was barely any wind this morning, certainly not enough to move the few leaves and mulched down papers that littered the ground. He took a moment to look around. There was no-one there, but all the same he didn’t feel alone. His gaze was drawn back to the path leading to the waltzer and –
He started. Ahead on the path, something moved. Something shaped vaguely like a man. It took him a second or two longer than it should have to realise it was his own reflection being cast by the one mirror left standing outside the hall of mirrors. Nick let out a nervous laugh at how easily startled he was.
All the same, the mirror was a curious sight. Despite the surrounding decay and dilapidation, it still shone clear and bright. It was the cleanest thing in the whole fairground. He had not noticed it on his previous run, but now that he had, it was all he could look at.
Nick shook his head, snapping back to reality and pulling his attention away from the mirror. He carried on running. He hadn’t gone ten yards when –
Smack! Something ran into him. He stumbled back a few paces, but kept his feet, which is more than could be said for the bundle of clothes and limbs that was rolling on the ground beside him. The heap stopped moving and Nick could make out the features of a girl on her back. There was a nasty looking cut on her forehead where her head had met the concrete.
“Oh my goodness,” he said coming to stand over her. “Are you alright?”
The girl – she couldn’t have been more than twenty years old – stared wildly back at him. She was breathing fast, almost hyperventilating. Her eyes were wide and alert. She looked terrified.
“Can I help you up?” Nick continued, offering his hand to her.
She flinched away.
“Hey,” he said backing off, holding up his hands. “It’s OK. I’m not going to hurt you. I didn’t see you there.”
The girl sprang back to her feet in one swift movement. She eyed Nick with suspicion.
“Do you need help?” Nick asked. He cautiously took a step towards. “You hit your head pretty hard there, maybe –”
She bolted, but Nick managed to catch hold of her arm and spin her back around to face him.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he pleaded. “You really should get that cut seen to. I can take you to the hospital if you need.”
The girl shook her head. “No, I –”
She glanced over his shoulder. A look of sheer panic washed across her face.
“It’s seen me,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
“What?” Nick turned in the direction of her gaze. “There’s no-one there. I think you may have a concussion.”
“Let me go!” she screamed and wrenched her arm from his grasp.
“Get out of here!” she shouted over her shoulder as she ran full speed towards the one mirror still glinting in the rising sunlight.
Nick looked around again.
“But there’s no-one –” His words cut short. He turned back to the girl just in time to see her dive head long towards the mirror. There was a split second that he was sure that the mirror would tumble and shatter as she hit it. Instead, the surface seemed to ripple and crack like breaking ice. The girl disappeared through it.
Nick was left staring open mouthed at his own reflection.
Nick was not one to doubt his own senses. Usually. But his mind could not make sense of what his eyes were telling him. One second she had been there, in front of him running towards the mirror.
The next, gone.
His heartbeat pounded in his ears as his mind played over the last few seconds. It had to have been a trick, he decided, but even that didn’t answer everything – or anything for that matter. He walked forward and looked closely at the mirror itself. The frame was silver and ornately decorated with patterns of swirls and spirals. At the top was carved the symbol for infinity and below it was a number: 2165270 alpha. None of it made sense to him.
He walked around behind it, but the back was plain and solid. There was nothing there. He tapped on the back panel, just to be sure his eyes had seen it as it was.
Coming back to the front of the mirror, he looked at the glass surface itself. It was cracked. Thin white tendrils scored and distorted his reflection. The glass seemed to creak and wince as Nick watched it. It was mending itself. The threads recoiled and soon there was not a single scratch or scar on the surface.
“What the hell?” Nick muttered to himself. He reached his hand, trying to find a fault in the glass. As soon as his skin touched it, cracks appeared again around his fingers. They healed and formed against as he moved across the surface. He snatched his hand away and flexed his fingers. They were cold but otherwise unscathed.
Did she really go through there? he wondered as the last crack mended once more.
Curiosity got the better of him. Taking a deep breath, he touched the mirror again. This time, he pushed hard against the cold glass. After a moment, his hand disappeared through it. The surface rippled and cracked as it had before, like a frozen pool in winter.
Nick felt a mixture of fear and exhilaration as he stepped forward, his left foot breaking through the mirror, followed by the rest of his body.
And then his world changed completely.
As he stepped through, every molecule of air was punched out of his lungs. He tried to gasp and swallowed what can only be described as hot ice – both burning and freezing simultaneously from the inside. What felt like shards of ice raked his skin as the whole world seemed to pitch and roll. His senses were overloaded. Air rushed past his ears like a hurricane. Spots of colour danced in front of his eyes. He felt compressed and pulled apart all at one. He couldn’t tell which way was up, what was left or right. Complete confusion and disorientation overcame him as he fell into absolute blackness.