Excerpt - The Shades of Alex Turner


VII

November 10, 1981

RIF, ICELAND




Alex was standing before the entrance to the labyrinth when Aidan’s voice echoed down the tunnel behind her, distant and tinged with worry.

“Alex?”

She hesitated, surprised that his voice could carry so far. Her headlamp illuminated a massive rectangle of carved stone, plunging past the threshold into the darkness that awaited beyond. She'd followed the voice down a long, straight tunnel through the rock. Its edges were so uniform she didn't think there was any way it could have formed naturally. There were no other light sources, not a wall torch or a sconce in sight. Aidan’s faint voice came echoing down the tunnel again.

“Alex! Where are you?”

She turned and ran back the way she’d come, ducking through a low tunnel in the rock until she reached the ledge hidden at one end of the underground spring. The white cone of Aidan’s headlamp shone down from above. The voice resonated in her head.

<Do not leave us, Alex Turner.>

She glanced back down the tunnel for a fleeting moment, wondering what wonders might lay beyond that great stone entrance. And how good it would feel to be the first one to find them. Before Aidan. Before her mother, even. “I have to,” she said. “It’s Aidan.”

<We did not call out to him. We called to you. What do you desire?>

“I…” She sunk back into the water, twisting her mouth as she tried to think. It was harder than she expected. What did Alex Turner want? No one had ever asked her that before.

There were all the things people expected her to want. To be a family again. To have their dad back. She could read as much in the expressions of strangers who looked at her with that infuriating pitying look, the one usually reserved for stray puppies. If only she’d had a normal family, the Turner girl wouldn’t be so odd. The truth was, what little she remembered from before their father disappeared wasn’t exactly blissful. Why should she want that back?

Then there were the things Alex wanted because they seemed comfortable. She wanted people not to look at her like some broken thing. She wanted a home. Not just a bed, a place. Somewhere to belong.

There were other things, too. Selfish things. Things she only admitted to herself when she was angry. Which was plenty, lately.

“Alex?” came Aidan’s voice again, more confused now than concerned. “Who are you talking to?”

Alex pushed off of the wall. “I wasn’t talking to anyone.”

“I heard voices.”

She smirked. “Maybe you’re imagining things.”

“No, I’m sure I heard—”

“Are you going to pull me out or not?” she asked. If she pretended to be afraid, maybe he’d leave it alone. “I’m cold.”

The headlamp wobbled. “Yeah… Yeah, here it comes. Catch.”

Alex swam to where the coil of rope splashed into the underground spring and wrapped it under her like the seat of a swing, then made a copy of the knot Aidan had showed her for rapelling to complete the loop. As her hands worked, she kept waited for the voice to interrupt, to convince her to turn back. But it was silent. The part of her mind where it had resonated felt empty and alone. It was a good thing. That’s what she told herself. It was a good thing that the voices had left her alone.

The rope pulled taut against her, and she began to rise, holding tight to the knot to keep it from slipping. She wondered momentarily how Aidan was managing to pull her up all by himself, until she heard other voices filtering in from above. Alex groaned. Suddenly telepathic resonances were the least of her worries.

“Ades,” she called up. “You didn’t tell mom, did you?”

She could almost hear the sigh hidden in the pause that followed. “Let’s get you home. We’ll talk there.”

Alex sagged against the rope. “Roaches,” she muttered.

*


Alex watched her mother shuffle from one side of the portable unit to the other, poring over numbers on a clipboard and consulting an array of maps pinned to the walls. Her ponytail was drawn so tight it looked like the band was trying to choke her hair to death. The tail of it, shifting shades to lighter brown the further it grew from the roots, spilled down the shoulder of a black turtleneck. Elisia wore the longsleeve tucked neatly into a pair of gray slacks. She toyed absently with the fine chain of a silver necklace, rolling the locket at the end of it between her fingers.

Alex looked on from a foldout chair near the mobile lab’s only desk. Aidan leaned against a whiteboard covered in latitudes and longitudes and a host of other nonsensical scribblings, arms folded over his chest. He followed their mother’s movements, unblinking.

“Is watching you pace and mumble to yourself some weird new punishment?” he asked.

Elisia twisted her head as though popping her neck bones, then resumed her muttering. Alex sat still, trying to piece together what she could hear, which was mostly unintelligible. Something about a “prison” and “readings.” Then Elisia stopped abruptly in the middle of the room and announced, “That can’t be right.”

“I know you can hear me,” Aidan said sullenly.

Elisia shushed him with a wave of her hand. She tore down one of the maps on the wall, then crossed to the whiteboard and erased a swath of coordinates. She started plotting a five-sided geometric shape. At each point, she wrote a new set of coordinates.

“Will you stop for two seconds and talk to us?”

Elisia sighed, her back still turned to the room. “Aidan, it’s as though your life’s great work is to vex me.”

“What a nice compliment,” he said. “Can I have another?”

Alex gasped. Aidan never talked like this. Not ever in front of Alex, at any rate.

“Fix the attitude, please.” Their mother glanced at the map and drew another line. “And, not a compliment.”

He shrugged. “You used to say the same thing about Dad. There’s worse company to be in.”

The dry-erase marker gave a harsh squeak. A jag appeared in Elisia’s line. “Don’t,” she said, a strained note of warning in her tone.

“What about Dad?” Alex asked, perking up.

Her mother threw Aidan a look. “Nothing, Alexandra. Your brother is trying to upset me.” She turned back to the whiteboard. “Oh, and you’re not to go into the caves. They’re dangerous.”

Alex brightened at the reminder. “Oh, yeah. I was going to tell you. I found something.”

“Are you serious?” Aidan burst out.

“Yeah, when I fell, I—”

But he cut her off, dead-set on picking a fight. “She could have died,” he went on. “You almost lost your only daughter today. How does that make you feel? You know what those are, right? Feelings? I assume you’re capable.”

“Ades, you don’t have to—”

“Aidan, leave it be.” Elisia’s voice was weary. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You can’t understand.”

“Something else Dad and I have in common, apparently.”

Her head fell. “That’s different. You—”

“That’s why he left, right? You disappear for two years, leave him to pick up the pieces, then suddenly there you are again, popping back into our lives. Mom’s home, everyone. No big deal.”

Elisia spun. “That is not…” She sighed. “Where is this coming from?”

Alex tried again to distract them. “Guys, I found something in the cave.”

Aidan ignored her. “Coming? This is here, mother. It has been for years, festering under your nose. You drove dad out. You ignore us. You sweep across every godsforsaken continent on this gray world like a gods-damned hurricane and leave everyone else to pick along in your shadow.”

A dense silence spread through the room. Elisia worked her jaw around. Her foot tapped a furious beat against the floor.

“I’d like you both to leave, please.”

For a second, Alex thought Aidan might keep the tirade up. Instead, his expression fell, heavy with a weariness that made him seem several years older. He swung the door to the lab open and let it slam closed behind him.

Alex studied her hands. “Mom, the thing I wanted to say, I—”

“Jesus, Alexandra,” her mother said, a palm to her forehead. “Not now, I… Okay? I just… I can’t.”

Alex fell silent. She knew she shouldn’t cry. It would only make things worse. So she grabbed her coat and followed Aidan out the door.

He was still hovering at the end of the long metal ramp leading up into the portable unit, breath making angry white clouds inside a cone of artificial illumination from the industrial lamppost. The forest was still, enduring the long wait for morning with bated breath. She wrapped her coat close around her and moved near him, leaning against the opposite railing. Aidan stayed cement still, breathing like an idling locomotive and staring angrily at nothing. She stood there with him anyway, watching the forest sway in the winter wind.

“What’s Jesus?” she asked after a while.

“Local God,” he replied. “Ask a lot of people, they’d say the only one.”

“Oh. What kind of god is he? Mean, crazy, or tricksy?”

Aidan snorted. “Him I like, actually. Big on kindness, loving your neighbor, that sort of thing. Never cheated on his wife, either, so… bonus.”

“Oh. That’s nice. What happened to him?”

“His people executed him in public.”

Alex frowned. “Wow. People suck.”

Aidan pursed his lips and nodded in agreement. He sighed. “Listen…”

“What you said back there,” she interrupted. “About Dad.”

He winced. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I always thought you didn’t know him either. I guess I was too young to remember.” Her head fell. “I didn’t know he left.”

“Yeah. Now you do, I guess.”

“Why did he leave? I want to know.”

“So do I, sis.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said.” He shook his head. “Truth is, they loved each other. I don’t remember much, to be fair. I was young. And Mom can be a…” He gritted his teeth. “She can be so damned stubborn. Irresponsible. But I know that for whatever reason, I might never understand why, they loved each other. Then one day, everything changed. Dad took it hard when she left with you. But it was even worse when she suddenly showed up again. Guess it broke him. He wasn’t ever the same, not really.”

Alex frowned. “I don’t remember much of that.”

He peered at her. “You were only a few years younger. But what do I know. Maybe that makes a big difference.”

“If you know all that, then why talk like that to mom?” she asked.

“I, uh…” He sniffed, shaking his head. “I guess I just wanted her to finally be honest with me. Thought maybe if I made her angry, she’d drop her guard.”

She raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Not my best moment, okay?” he admitted, adjusting his coat. He leaned forward and gestured at Alex to walk with him. She fell in step behind him on the winding path through the trees up to their A-frame lodgings.

“You’ll say you’re sorry, right?” she probed.

“Don’t push it.”

“Remember that Jesus guy,” she reminded him, mimicking the deadpan look Aidan always had when he thought he’d said something smart. “Be kind and love your neighbor.”

He snorted. “I think I liked you better before you got all smart on me.”

“Your fault for being my brother.”

Aidan laughed easily, then fell into a thoughtful silence. “You said you found something in the cave,” he said after a few moments. “Was that just to get us to stop fighting?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t think you heard me. It was…” she trailed off, breathless as she remembered the thrill of her own wonder at hearing the voices. “Man, it was awesome.”

Alex told him everything—the voices that could hear her thoughts, the labyrinth they were trapped in, and their promise that they could give her what she wanted if she helped them escape. She was so wrapped up in her own excitement, she didn’t notice that Aidan had come to a halt behind her. His breath was heavy, and his eyes didn’t have the look of awe she’d expected. Instead, they were wide with fear.

“Alex, you can’t go back there.”

“But—”

“I’m serious. Gods, if I hadn’t come back when I did… You do not know what you’re dealing with.”

“What am I dealing with?” she asked.

“Just promise me, okay? Promise you won’t go back.”

“No. Not until you tell me why.”

“I…” His face was pained. “I can’t.”

Tears welled in her eyes. They always did that when she was angry. And then having them there only made her angrier. It was all sorts of stupid. “Right. Can’t tell Alex. She can’t handle it.”

He reached out a hand. “Come on. Don’t do that.”

She whirled, slapping it away. “You leave me out of everything. All of you do. Like there’s some big secret and I’m the only one who can’t know. I wish—” She stopped herself, blinking furiously.

“Careful, Al. Angry words live a long time.”

“Yeah, look who’s talking.”

His mouth hardened into a line. “So I know what I’m talking about, then, don’t I?”

She rubbed her nose, sniffing. “Fine. What about mom?”

He frowned. “What about her?”

“She had that map of the caves, right? She was scribbling coordinates, like she was trying to narrow down to something. Like a search pattern.”

“That’s…No way. She wouldn’t.” Aidan narrowed his eyes, jaw clenching. “Okay, you’re right. She would. Gods damn her. But that’s… She has to know better.”

“You think she’s looking for them, huh?” Alex said, excitement bubbling in her chest. “Those voices. She wants to find them, too. I think so.”

They’d reached the A-frames. Her brother stopped in front of his own outbuilding, deep in thought. “It’s late,” he said finally. “Get some sleep. I’ll handle this in the morning.”

He was deflecting, like always. Which meant nothing had changed. If Aidan had a plan, his baby sister was not a part of it.

She gave him a stiff hug goodnight, then prepped herself for bed. By the time she slid under the covers her eyes were heavy, weighed down by exhaustion.

It wasn’t until she finally let them fall closed that the voices called out to her again.

*


The resonance led Alex back to the cave. It was strange—even when it wasn’t talking, she could hear it. Humming, tingling against her skin. Drawing her onward. The deepest part of night had fallen, where the peaceful stillness of the forest was transformed into hollow anticipation. It was at that same hour, that point between 2 a.m. and dawn where time seemed to blur together, that so many times before she’d awoken dripping in sweat and gasping from some already-forgotten nightmare. And still the voice

compelled her. She followed it back underground, into the hidden pool, and then on—into the labyrinth.

She traced her fingers along the surface of the carved rock walls towering to either side of her, shivering from both the wet of her clothes against the frigid underground air and the cold fear crawling in her bones. The labyrinth was aptly named—an impossible, sprawling web of unscalable stone walls entombed in a cavernous subterranean womb. Her headlamp bobbed and twisted as she combed the walls and corners for anything the could pass for a landmark in the middle of the maze.

The path curved ahead. The walls on both sides were different here. The stone twisted and warped, sagging like the wax of a candle left burning too long. Long, violent gouges cratered the surface. Molten drips had formed and long since hardened beneath the top edges. Other paths diverged to the left and right, but the resonance compelled her forward. The smell was awful—damp rot mixed with something harsh and metallic. The girl hadn’t seen enough death to know what it was back then. But the older Alex recognized it right away, and the knowledge curdled her insides.

“Ugh, what is that?” She wrinkled her nose. “It’s awful.”

<A good reason to no lose one’s way in the labyrinth.>

She rounded a curve and came upon what appeared to be an impasse. The ceiling swooped low, its stalactite teeth sinking into the walls of the labyrinth. The formation had an unnatural, artificial feel to it, like the way a hillside was carved to make way for a road. Except in this case, they’d moved the hill to block the road.

She crept closer and saw a small opening. Too small for Elisia, or even Aidan. But if Alex crouched and twisted, the gap would be just her size.

<Go on, Alex Turner. We await.>

Please, she begged her younger self. Please don’t go in.

She hesitated at the entrance, heart thumping a hard staccato. Fear turned her blood hot. She was back in the cave above the underground pool again, falling into a black abyss with no idea what lay below. When roads were closed, there was usually a good reason for it.

But she’d already come so far. She could sense it; there was a secret ahead. A secret only she would know. When she’d discovered it, Elisia would have to pay attention. Alex would finally have done something worth noticing.

It was at her fingertips. She had to know.

She grasped a stalactite and slid herself into the fissure.

*


Alex emerged into a circular chamber. She blinked, shielding her eyes from an unexpected source of brilliant red-orange light at its center. A circle of iridescent glyphs had been carved into the rock floor. Their self-contained radiance flickered in time with the gentle strobe of the otherworldly glow bathing the surrounding walls of rock. Alex squinted, trying to make out the strange shadow buried behind the wall of light. Her eyes adjusted slowly.

She gasped. It was a man, on his knees, slumped over and shaking with ragged breaths. She sprang forward, following her first panicked instinct to rush to the stranger’s aid. Then she stopped short, basking in the brilliance and heat coming from the light contained within the circle. The closer she got, the more a persistent, steady intuition told her it would be a bad idea to reach past the line of glyphs.

“Hello?” she called to the figure. “Are you hurt?”

The resonance came into her mind so clear and loud that she bit back a shriek. It was as though someone had adjusted the radio dial, peeling back a blanket of white noise that had covered the signal.

<Do not be alarmed> the voice said. <This is but a vessel, drawing breath long past its appointed hour. It feels no pain.>

Alex’s gaze was fixated on the figure. “It looks tired.”

<Not for long. Tell us, Alex Turner. What do you desire?>

She swallowed. Her breaths came shallow and hot. Aidan’s warning reverberated in her skull.

But Aidan wasn’t here. And besides, this was her secret. She thought of him and Elisia back in the lab, quarrelling blindly. And Alex, ever the bystander, pretending not to notice how it hurt to be ignored. The last thing she wanted to be was a burden. And now, she couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that this voice, this incredible something she’d discovered, wanted to know something no one had ever cared to before.

“I want to be able to take care of myself,” she said, forcing a confidence she didn’t feel. “I don’t want to have to worry about what everyone else thinks. I want to be free.”

The resonance hissed. Alex almost imagined that it smiled.

<Will you let us in?>

“Okay,” she said, reaching out a hand.

Her fingers brushed the wall of light. There was a blinding flash, a rush of wind, and the crisp smell of fresh smoke, and that was the last thing Alex remembered.

*


Alex awoke with a start from of one of those nightmares where her mind was convinced that the dream was the real world, and the real world the dream. She took a frantic look around. The familiar, cozy tresses of the A-frame greeted her. She rubbed her eyes and drew a heavy sigh of relief.

When she’d dressed, she headed out and crossed the small clearing to Aidan’s identical lodging. The sun peeked through the trees, shining yellow and brilliant. Stillness blanketed the forest.

She’d slept in. Why hadn’t anyone woken her? She gave Aidan’s door a sharp knock. There was no answer. When a second knock yielded the same result, Alex headed down the winding path toward the portable lab, her boots crunching against fallen branches and pinecones. The lab had been set up in a clearing just past the intersection between the path to the A-frames and a wider dirt road accessible to the expedition’s vehicles. Her stomach growled in protest. She made a mental note to give the others hell for finishing breakfast without her. She rounded the last bend and slid to a stop.

The clearing was empty. Alex blinked and look around, thinking she’d somehow taken a wrong fork back in the forest. She walked out to the dirt road, checking the landmarks in both directions. Then she noticed the tracks—deep, sunken treads marking the spot where the mobile lab had sat for over a week, and a shallower, matching set leading out back onto the dirt road in the direction of the two-lane highway that passed through the small village of Rif.

Alex ran back the way she’d come. By the time she returned to the staggered rows of A-frames, her breaths came in panicked gasps. She tore through the outbuildings. Empty, every last one. She went to Aidan’s last. It was bare, swept clean, with no trace remaining that it had ever been lived in.

She staggered down the wooden steps, tears flowing freely and freezing against her cheeks. She cried out through broken sobs, yelling that it wasn’t funny, begging him to come out end the joke. The pines listened, replying in their silent, stoic tongue. Everyone was gone. She slid to the ground against a tree trunk, hugged her knees close to her thick coat, and cried. There was no one left.

No, Alex realized, a knot twisting tighter in her chest. Not no one.

<I am with you now, Alex Turner> the voice hissed.

She choked on a gasp. Images flooded her mind—the sprawling labyrinth, and the black chamber at its heart. She had done something awful, something irreparable. It wasn’t a dream. It was real life. And there was no undoing it.

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