A voice, not mine. In my dream, this dream of snow and ice and cold?
Not a dream.
“Wake up,” the voice says, and so I do, letting my head break through the surface of my sleep, just barely, just enough. It is a struggle to open my eyes, and so I give up and leave them shut. “Take your time,” the voice—a man’s voice—tells me, and I couldn’t argue if I wanted to. I’ve never been so exhausted before. My every bone aches, every breath feels like fire in my lungs.
“…water…” I croak, not realizing I am thirsty until after the words are out of my mouth. A hand is placed beneath my head, raising it slightly, and a cup is pressed against my lips. The water is cool, and I drink deeply, emptying the cup in seconds. I want to ask for more.
“Not yet,” the man says, anticipating my question. “Let that sit a minute first.”
I try again to open my eyes, and this time force them to remain open. I am in a small and dimly lit room, the edges caught in shadow, the walls tiled like a barroom bathroom. What little light there is appears to be coming from behind me, and I try to roll onto my side to find the source, but my body isn’t ready to cooperate, and so I remain flat on my back, the path of least resistance.
“Just relax,” he says. “You’re doing fine.”
I’m not too weak to turn my head, and so I do, toward the sound of his voice. He is sitting next to my cot—because I realize that’s what it is that I’m laying on—an older man, with thick glasses and sideburns that are just this side of muttonchops. His dark hair is piled at the top of his head in something like an old duck’s ass, giving him a weird mixture of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Fonz.
“Who… are you?” I mumble.
He smiles at me. “Sullivan. I’m Sullivan.” He leans forward and reaches over me, retrieving a small pitcher from somewhere behind my head. From it, he refills the cup I had drained. “Ready for some more?”
“Yes,” I say. “Please.”
He sets the pitcher on the floor, then again lifts my head from the pillow and helps me take another drink. The water is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted, and I finish this second cup as quickly as I had the first. He lowers my head again, and puts the cup down next to the pitcher. “Now is when you’re going to start wanting to ask questions,” he says. “They always do.”
“Do they?” I ask. I have no idea who they are.
“Oh, yes,” he says. “Once they realize they aren’t dead, of course. You do know you’re still alive, right?”
I’m not altogether certain of that yet, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. “Sure,” I say. “Alive and kicking.”
“Not kicking yet,” Sullivan says. “You’ll want to rest some more before trying any of that.”
“Where am I?” I ask.
“Used to be the storage room,” he says. “Nothing in here to store now though, so I turned it into the guest room.” He chuckles softly, and then explains his joke to me. “Only guests I get are the ones who come up through the pass, like you did. I park them here and wait to see if they’re going to make it or not. No point in bringing them all the way inside if they’re never going to wake up. Shorter trip taking them back outside if they croak out.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“We’re on the edge of the Everwhere here. Some people make it all the way through. Some don’t. Most don’t, really. Either the snow gets them, or the Sisters do. A few find their way here though. Only a few.”
“You’re not making any sense,” I say. “What’s the Everwhere? Who are the Sisters? Where am I?”
“Ah,” the man says, nodding his sudden understanding. “Let me guess: Middlemost was the one who let you through. I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Yes. Mr. Middlemost.”
“Course he was.” Sullivan sits up straight in his chair and crosses his arms. “He never tells anyone anything. Most of the ones turn up dead around here, I’m certain he’s the one who brought them over. Don’t know what his game is, but whatever it is, it can’t be good.”
“Please. Please tell me where I am.”
“I did. You’re on the edge.” Sullivan lifts his arms and points to his right. “That way’s where you came from, with the snow and the Sisters. You don’t want to go back that way.” He lowers his arm and raises the other, pointing in the opposite direction. “That way’s deeper into the Ever. You might not want to go that way either, but it’s definitely better than the other way.”
I hear a bell then, ringing faintly somewhere in the distance. It chimes like something that would be heard when opening the door of a candy shop, light and airy and old fashioned.
Sullivan looks irritated at the sound. “I have to get that,” he says, standing. “Don’t try to get to up. Just rest and I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’ll bring food. We’ll get you back on your feet straightaway.” He walks across the tiny room, and this time I find that I can roll onto my side in order to watch him go. He opens a metal door in the tile wall, steps through, and closes it behind him. It doesn’t sound as though he has locked it, which gives me just the slightest feeling of relief.
I should probably be crazy by now, I think to myself. Unless I already am. That’s probably it.
I find myself wondering if this is how Alice felt when she fell down the hole into Wonderland.
It’s the last thing I remember before I drift off to sleep once more.