Raw emotions crashed into me as I flew through the portal. Anxiety hit me first, a fleeting panic compressing my chest and clouding my judgement, trying to convince me that my mind and body would stay detached forever. Fear came next, clawing at my throat and stealing my breath, urging me to turn back. I steeled myself and pushed the thoughts aside, clearing the way for guilt to attack. Guilt about using the portal behind Jess’s back, and for my flippant dismissal of Zac’s concerns when he’d begged me not to go.
I almost abandoned the investigation, but inhaling the cool night air seemed to flush the anguish away, and a wave of pure exhilaration washed over me, leaving my skin tingling and heart pounding. I felt brave, like an astronaut on a mission to Mars, or a sailor tackling unchartered seas.
Stretching my wings, I glanced back to make note of the portal’s location. It hovered a few thousand feet below the lowest clouds, almost directly above Tower Bridge. Satisfied I could find it again, I soared towards the bridge, pondering for a moment at how the full moon sparkling on the Thames looked like a diamond-crusted snake cutting through the city. I scanned the area, noticing strange cars with dull paint parked along the roads but no people anywhere. I thought it strange that my falcon’s keen eyes hadn’t detected a single sign of life, and found my anxiety building as I considered what I’d discover on the ground.
Recalling my promise to Zac to return within five minutes, I forced myself to hurry, allowing two more minutes of exploration before I headed home. I dived towards a group of well-lit shops, transforming into my human form to land on the pavement, then peered through the window of the closest store. Inside, mannequins dressed in jackets with digital readouts on the sleeves and pattern-changing trousers were on display, and I scratched my head in confusion. I didn’t even know digital clothes were a thing.
Everything else about the shop appeared normal. Clothes were neatly stacked on tables or hanging on racks, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. The city seemed too clean, especially compared to the dirty streets of Lewisham where I shared an apartment with Jess, Amy and Zac. Thinking of my friends gave me a sudden pang of loneliness. My new abilities were turning me into a bit of a recluse. Zac must have noticed too. He told me not to spend too much time on my own experimenting with the firestones.
A light breeze whistled through the street and a piece of paper blew past, flapping against the gutter for a second before coming to rest on the pavement. I bent down to pick it up, watching as my hand passed right through it, reminding me I was only there in spirit form. The wind blew the paper again, pinning it to a brick planter box. I crouched down for a closer look, discovering it was a receipt with ads and discount coupons printed on the back. The prices on the coupons took me by surprise. Ninety-nine pounds to get a shirt dry-cleaned seemed expensive, yet it had been a long time since I’d needed that service and I figured the price might be typical for London.
The biggest ad was for a company called ABC – AntiBiotic Consumables. I’d never heard of them and pondered a moment who they were, then the wind eased and the paper fell to the ground, allowing me to read the other side. It was a receipt for a supermarket, totalling over eight hundred pounds for twenty-three items. I gasped to see a pint of Antibiotic Milk cost thirty-seven pounds, and a loaf of Antibiotic Bread was a whopping forty-six quid. Everything appeared to be produced by the ABC company.
Although the prices seemed excessive, and the addition of antibiotics in the food was weird, the detail that blew my mind was the date; April 10, 2053. I staggered back, taking deep breaths to compose myself before I changed back to the falcon and hurried to the safety of my portal. I circled above Tower Bridge, but couldn’t see the portal anywhere. Panic rushed through me as I scanned in increasingly larger arcs. The clouds weren’t far above me and I realised I was too high, so I glided down a little, shivering with relief when I spotted the portal. Without hesitation, I zoomed through it, thankful to be leaving the strange place behind.
In an instant, I was home, transported to the rooftop garden of our apartment where I landed on the brick balustrade and looked around in confusion. The surroundings had changed in the short time I’d been gone. It was dark and a mild storm had set in, which was unusual because it was a bright sunny day when I left. The concrete patio had small puddles in the corners and a slight drizzle blew in. Zac was gone. And so was my body. The stools where we’d been sitting five minutes ago were empty. A blue camping gazebo about three metres square had been set up on the terrace to shelter the portal. Ropes stretched from the corners of the gazebo, anchoring it on one side to eye bolts on the balustrade and to stacks of bricks on the other.
The portal looked the same. The three firestones glowed at its perimeter and the pendant hovered six inches above it like magic, suspended by streaks of coloured light flickering across the face of the portal. I changed into my human form and walked to the firestones, reaching out to retrieve the pendant and close the portal, laughing at my forgetfulness when my hand passed right through it. I concentrated on locating my physical body, sensing it was nearby, but for some reason, I couldn’t reconnect with it.
I made my way to the door to go downstairs, shaking my head when my hand passed through the handle, then feeling peculiar as I walked through the timber door. Childlike excitement boiled up inside me as I realised another realm of possibilities for my abilities. I took my time walking downstairs to the lounge, though, I’m sure I could have passed straight through the floor and floated inside.
What I found in the lounge took my breath away. Sure, I was glad to have found my body, but to see it like that was a real shock. I was sitting in a leather La-Z-Boy with the back reclined halfway, my feet resting on one of those circulation booster things you see on late-night shopping channels. A neck pillow supported my head and a blue blanket with white stars covered me from my shoulders to my ankles. Next to the recliner stood a hospital drip stand, and two bags of clear fluid hung from its hooks. Clear tubes ran from the bags and disappeared down the top of my blanket.
Jess was in an identical recliner next to me, watching Ninja Warrior on television. A bottle of Coke and a plastic bowl of water with a flannel floating on top sat on the table between our chairs. Jess cheered when the ripped guy in Speedos made it through each obstacle and I called out to her, though I knew she couldn’t hear me. I closed my eyes and forced myself back into my body. It took longer than I expected to make the connection. Most times, I’m back in the snap of a finger, but at least a minute passed before I could see out of my real eyes.
As I roused, my body felt stiff and numb, like when a foot goes to sleep but it went all the way from my butt to my ankles. The vibration from the circulation booster gave the soles of my feet pins and needles and the back of my throat burned when I swallowed.
“What is all this stuff, Jess?” I asked, surprised at how garbled my words came out because my tongue kept sticking to the roof of my mouth.
Jess’s head jerked to the side and she sprang out of the chair, throwing her arms around me. “Kai! I can’t believe you’re back. Thank God you’re okay.” She let me go, stood up straight, then slapped me on the shoulder. “You scared the shit out of me. Don’t ever do that again.”
“What?” I managed to say before reaching for the Coke. I took a sip, swished it around in my mouth and swallowed. The fizziness expanded as it went down my throat and I coughed a little before taking another mouthful. “Do what again?”
“Go into that fucking portal! You’ve been motionless for five days, Kai. I thought we’d lost you.”
“Five days? How? I only stayed for five minutes and came back.”
She clasped my face between her hands and kissed me on the forehead, then wrapped her arms around me and held me tight for a bit. Her weight on the blanket trapped my arms, and I had to wriggle my hand out to rub her back. I breathed in her floral perfume and nuzzled my face against her cheek.
Jess moved her head back and rubbed her face. “Your whiskers are scratching me. I didn’t feel confident to give you a shave.”
“How did I get down here? The last thing I remember is showing Zac my discovery with the stones.”
“Zac carried you down here the day you flew through that thing. He called me when you didn’t wake up after a couple of hours and I came straight home. Lucky I wasn’t away working on the yachts or I might not have found out about it.”
“Sorry, Jess. It was stupid, I know. Zac warned me not to go. Told me I was crazy. But you know what I’m like. I get carried away when I’m excited.”
The gravity of the situation hit me as I started to comprehend Jess’s words. Somehow, while my mind spent minutes on the other side of the portal, my body endured almost a week here. If Zac hadn’t been watching over me, I probably would have died.
We stared at each other for a while, our faces getting slowly closer. I wanted to kiss her and was sure she wanted to kiss me. I leaned in and she lingered a moment before looking away, acting as though nothing happened. It’s not the first time she’d done that. Maybe she didn’t want to kiss me after all. I pondered that awhile, then remembered that I’d spent the last five days on a recliner and I must stink. My breath must be hideous.
“Promise me you won’t go through that portal again,” she said, hand over her mouth, concealing her expression.
I looked her in the eyes, wishing I could reassure her that I’d never do it again, but at the same time, I didn’t want to lie. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that curiosity is something I have no control over. I would go through that portal again. Not before I learned more about it or how to avoid putting myself in peril, but I knew I’d go through it again someday. I shrugged the promise off and answered with a question of my own.
“Where’d all this stuff come from?” I asked, pointing at the drips and the catheter tube I’d just noticed as my body lost its numbness.
“From Amy. She’s been taking good care of you. We all have. Zac’s hardly left your side. Only to go get stuff you need. He’s been so worried. I better call him and let him know you’re awake.”
“How did Amy know how to do all this?”
“She’s a nurse, silly. You knew that, didn’t you?”
“I thought she worked on the yachts with you. I just assumed her background was hospitality.”
“She just wanted a break after nursing for ten years. She could get work as a nurse on a cruise ship if she wanted but decided to try something different. I’m not sure she’ll go back to it for a while. She likes the lifestyle on the yachts too much.”
“Fair enough. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a bath and get this catheter off. Thanks again for looking after me.”
Jess smiled, and I headed off to the bathroom. Walking up the stairs highlighted how sore I was. Every muscle felt stiff from lack of movement. Hopefully, a bath would make me feel better. Otherwise, I’d have to go upstairs and get my stones and indulge in a quick healing.
Once I closed the bathroom door and undressed, I noticed how much I stank. Not surprising since I’d been pissing into a bag for five days. I squeezed a good helping of toothpaste onto my toothbrush and sat in the bath, brushing my teeth while it filled, then lay back and soaked for ten minutes in the hot water.
I washed and shaved and thought it would be funny to leave a Charlie Chaplin moustache. However, when I went downstairs, Jess disagreed, explaining how it looked ridiculous and she wouldn’t be going anywhere with me with that on my face. I chuckled and went back upstairs, zipping it off with four strokes of the razor.