Max pulled the chair out for Claire and she sat down with a smile as a reward for her tiny act of chivalry.
She sat opposite her and gestured across the empty restaurant for the waiter, who acknowledged her presence, but waved a finger to indicate he would be over as soon as possible.
Max didn’t mind waiting. She looked back at Claire and grinned as she took her hands in hers and began to speak.
But she couldn’t hear anything she was saying. Her lips moved, but nothing came out. Max frowned, wondering if she was playing a joke on her, but then she apparently stopped talking and waited for her to reply.
She began to do so, but nothing came out of her mouth either. She formed the words and spoke them normally, but no sound came from her. She cleared her throat silently and tried again, but nothing happened.
The waiter finally joined them and stood slightly behind Max.
“Are you ready to order yet, madam?” she asked in a familiar voice that sent chills down her spine.
She didn’t want to turn and look at the waiter, but she knew she had no choice.
Turning slowly in her seat, Max saw the waiter’s face. It had not improved since she last saw it on his broken television screen and even appeared to have decayed further. The waiter’s skin was a sickly gray colour and his nose was missing. He smiled at Max with rotting teeth.
“Would you like to hear today’s specials?” he asked and Max finally found a voice, screaming in total fear.
She screamed so hard she woke herself up.
Max found herself lying on the floor of her apartment, shivering in the chilly air. It was still dark outside and raising her head, Max saw by the clock on the wall that it was only a few minutes since she had passed out.
She sat back up and saw the television was in perfect working order. It was still on and showing infomercials, but the sound was turned down. There was no sign that she had kicked it in.
She got to her feet unsteadily, using the edge of the sofa to balance herself. Her knees were weak, but she straightened them with a grunt and fully stood up.
It took her a moment for Max to get her legs moving, but she walked around the floor of her apartment, getting the feeling back into them. There was little sound, just the tiniest buzz coming from the television screen.
Walking over to the front door, she twisted and pulled on the door handle. The door swung open easily. Max stepped outside and looked up down the empty hallway before going back into her apartment, locking the door behind her.
She walked back over to the sofa and was about to sit down when she was suddenly hit by a wave of nausea. She sprinted into the bathroom and threw up the cold pizza she had eaten earlier in the evening into the toilet bowl. The nausea did not subside at all and she continued to vomit, sinking to her knees and resting her head on the cool porcelain bowl in between each retch.
It only took a few moments for the contents of her stomach to run out, but she continued to vomit, sickly green bile burning as it came up her throat, filling her mouth with the worst acidic taste she had ever known.
Finally her body began to calm down and Max sagged back down beside the toilet. The nausea passed almost completely and she crawled over to the bathroom sink to run a cold tap.
She cupped her hands and filled them with water, washing out the taste in her mouth. Once it had faded a little she stuck her head under the water, wetting her fevered face.
She turned the tap off and put the toilet seat back down to sit on it. She sat there with her head in her hands until she had stopped shaking, then stood up and walked back out into the main room.
Falling down onto the sofa, she lay with her head resting on the cushions.
“Christ,” she mumbled, “I gotta lay off the drugs a bit.”
Her head felt like it had grown several dozen hat sizes, but she felt a lot better now and fumbled for the remote control. Finding it under her leg, she turned the volume up and changed the channel.
The Bond film was still on and was racing towards a climax, so Max dropped the remote and watched that for a while, grateful for anything that would take her mind off how miserable she felt.
Lying alone in her apartment, Max wondered what exactly was going so wrong with her world. She began to feel sleep creeping in again and she opened his mind wide to let it in, grateful for the chance to shut down for a while.
She slipped into sleep happily and for a while slept deep, her mind completely at rest.
But it did not take long for her fevered brain to kick in again and she began to dream some more, dreaming of another world.
In her dream, Max was walking down a long, dimly lit corridor with dark red carpet on the floor and wood paneling on the walls. There were no doors off the corridor and it all reminded her of something she had seen recently, but she couldn’t quite place it.
She carried on walking until she reached the end of the corridor. There was still no door out of the hallway, just a blank wall. Max pounded on it and her blows sounded hollow as they echoed back down the corridor, far louder than they should have been.
“It’s not very fair, really,” said somebody behind him.
Max turned to see a man with no face in a curiously old fashioned uniform standing behind her. The lack of any features did not disturb Max at all. Maybe because she knew on some level that she was dreaming, maybe because there was something incredibly reassuring about the blank man’s posture.
“What isn’t fair?” asked Max. Her voice seemed to come out much more slowly than it really should have, the tone low, the words slurred.
“It’s a two-way street, but one direction is so much easier than the other. Your counterpart had much more trouble coming your way than you did coming back.”
“My counterpart?” said Max, still speaking slowly enough. It was starting to really bother her, but she couldn’t stop doing it. “What are you talking about?”
“Counterpart might not be the right term,” said the blank man. His head tilted slightly and if he had possessed eyes, Max would have sworn he was looking off into the middle distance. “But everything comes from something, everything is a creation of something else. It stands to reason.”
A thought tugged at Max and she found himself expressing it. “But something could come from nothing.”
“I do not know why there is something instead of nothing,” said the blank man, sounding pained as he scratched at his featureless face. “I do not know why there is nothing instead of something.”
He suddenly tore his blank face off, but there wasn’t anything under that either, just a pale void where his face should be. Max took a step back, but the void leaped out of him, covering her, smothering her, killing her.
Max sat up suddenly from the sofa, trying to shake off the dream, but she was still unsteady and she fell to a knee. She stayed there for just a moment longer, before sitting back on the couch and catching her breath.
She stayed still, her head in her hands, breathing deeply. The television had switched itself off while she had been sleeping and it was silent in her apartment.
Suddenly Max was filled with the absolute knowledge that there was something in the room with her. She could feel it. Some presence, just out of the edge of her perception. Someone was looking down on her from a direction she couldn’t point to.
Freaking out, Max got to her feet, but once she had stood up, she felt weak and dizzy again and fell back down to the sofa.
The sensation that somebody was watching her passed on, just as quickly as it had arrived, and Max felt utterly alone again.
She staggered to her feet and stumbled into the kitchen area, finding one solitary beer in the refrigerator.
Thanking the universe for small mercies, she cracked open the can and drank more than half of it in one go. With a huge belch of satisfaction, she decided that enough was enough. Time for bed.
Putting the empty beer can on the kitchen bench, she shuffled through into the bedroom and lay her head down, sighing in relief as it hit the pillow.
The moon was coming in through the open window, along with the slightest of chilly breezes, but Max managed to ignore both and was asleep in seconds.
This time she dreamed of a place she was far more comfortable in. It was just a regular bar, no different from a million others like it. The booth she was sitting in was a little frayed at the edges, but extremely comfortable.
There was music in the background, some tune Max couldn’t quite place, and the people in front of and behind the bar were all caught up in their own lives, a little indistinct in Max’s eyes.
She reached out for the glass of beer in front of her and realized there were other people in the booth with her.
One of them was the man in the black suit that she had met at the fast food restaurant. The other wore a battered old combat jacket over a tee-shirt with the picture of a rocketship on it.
Her mind flowing with dream logic, Max knew the names of them now. Rocket Fish was the new one, King Goob the man she had met before. She went to say hello, but found that she had been struck dumb again. Her companions had no such problems, holding a heated conversation without once looking in Max’s direction.
“How does she feel?” asks King Goob
“I think she feels lost, vague,” replied Rocket Fish. “Discombobulated.”
“That’s a big word.”
“Big word, small mind.”
“Bigger worlds, all the time.”
“Big enough for me. Big enough for her.”
“She’s in one of the smallest.”
“The time is right for something new, yeah?”
“It’s always the right time.”
“That’s okay. Things have calmed down a little now.”
“Looks can be deceiving. This is the eye of the storm.”
“Back into it?”
“Straight back into it. If she doesn’t fuck it up.”
“She is pretty fucking useless.”
“Hey, she’s a dickhead. What can you expect?”
That was it for Max.
“Hey, I’m not that bad,” she protested.
Rocket Fish turned to Max and sniffed. “We weren’t talking about you.”
King Goob raised his glass and winked. “Or your counterpart.”
Looking confused, Rocket Fish looked back at the other man. “I thought we weren’t calling him that.”
“Fuck it,” shrugged King Goob. “We can call him whatever we like. He’s not coming back here to stop us.”
Rocket Fish nodded then looked up over Max’s shoulder before locking eyes with her again. “You better wake up now, Max. You need to answer the door.”
And then Rocket Fish stood up and threw his beer in Max’s face. Max woke up instantly, the moon still shining into her bedroom, although the sky out the window appeared to have lightened, just a little bit.
She sat up and wiped the sweat of her brow, worried by how much it smelt like beer. She was still sniffing her fingers when she heard somebody knock three times on the front door of her apartment.
Max glanced at the clock beside her bed.
“Fuck,” she whispered, getting out of bed and walking through the darkened bedroom. Moving back out into the main room of the apartment she stubbed her toe on the corner of the sofa that had been sitting in the exact same place for the past thee years.
“Fuck!” she swore, much more loudly this time. She hobbled the rest of the way over to the front door, thinking that whoever was behind the door, they better have a very good reason for waking her up.
She opened the front door and a gasp slipped out of her mouth when she saw who it was.
She had never seen the man before, but she seemed to know him better than anybody else she had ever met. There was something about the man’s face, even the clothes he wore came with the feeling of deep-rooted familiarity.
“No fucking way,” she said, because she couldn’t think of anything remotely more appropriate to say.
From the other side of the door, Doctor Skin smiled at Max.