TBOTSG-Chapter 9

July 2, 2024

We were all sitting at the table, overwhelmed by a furious despair. Or perhaps it was just my state that permeated to the others. Hatred towards humanity made me feel like I was boiling inside.

‘You saved them from destruction, and this is how they repay you?’ Filip voiced my frustration. Although I controlled my violent fantasies, the graphic ways in which I wanted to imagine torturing and killing the guilty, I couldn’t contain the sensation of blind fury. They could feel it too. And Filip couldn’t control himself: he slammed his fist on the table, and in the fury that had seized us, he grabbed a chair, preparing to hurl it towards the window, when M grabbed it from his hands and put it back at the table. Then he looked straight at me and said only this: control yourself. He didn’t understand that I was trying my best.

A few moments later, Ofelia pulled her chair closer to me and then subtly directed mine towards her, taking my hands into hers.

‘Focus on me,’ she said, a little unsure of what she was about to do.

For a moment, I felt that I couldn’t and didn’t want to let go of my anger, but seeing Filip so affected, I clenched my teeth and tried to focus on Ofelia. At first, it was difficult. I saw her in front of me, but I couldn’t feel what she felt, I couldn’t see what she saw.

‘Breath with me,’ she whispered slowly, and I tried to focus on her breathing, to inhale with her, to exhale with her. Again and again, until I slowly began to feel it. It was as if her energy permeated into mine through the tips of my fingers. Images of various kinds began to take shape in my mind. Images where it was hard for me to tell who the protagonists were. It was clear to me that Ofelia was trying to think of beautiful moments from her life. I recognised some eyes in a tiny face, of a child around twelve or thirteen, belonging to Filip who was standing close to M, now with his back to us, playing chess with a man Filip called ‘dad’. A woman entered from one side and kissed Ofelia on the head, wagging her index finger at her… in a way that said that’s not proper! And I could feel how embarrassed Ofelia was. Then the memory morphed into another, perhaps an older one, where she was perched on a shabby fence, at the edge of what seemed to be a forest road. She tapped her foot with the precision of a clock, toe down, heel down, absentmindedly listening to the song of crickets, pulling mechanically from time to time on a cigarette. A noise came from the woods and she glanced towards the county road visible a few dozen meters to the right: it was deserted, an endless road going nowhere. She slowly turned her head towards the sound, as if she had all the time in the world. And she did. What was worse had already happened, this thought of hers made me nauseous. That’s when M appeared, whom she saw for the first time. She thought she was imagining things. This desolate forest, in the middle of the night. How was it possible for someone else to be there? She looked at him wondering if he would hurt her and somehow surprised herself with the simple answer, no, I don’t think so. She didn’t know where she drew this conclusion from, but she enjoyed seeming in control, so she got off the fence and went to him with determination. When their eyes met in the moonlight, she felt empty inside and out and imagined he sensed it too and that he could see everything she felt and thought. I thought it was strange to see M through her eyes. He seemed like a giant. She thought he looked like a wild Viking with his disheveled hair, thick black beard, and his eyes glowing like two flames in the moonlight, with a hatchet in his right hand. I thought for a moment that she would run away. But M, he was looking at her with the most sincere compassion. With understanding. He took off the puffer jacket he was wearing over a checkered shirt and put it on Ofelia’s shoulders, covering up her top that had a broken strap and was stained with blood.

‘If you want, my truck is about two kilometers in that direction,’ M said and vaguely pointed in a direction. ‘I have my phone there, and also a power bank, in case you need to charge yours.’

Ofelia didn’t say anything. He shrugged, then said his name was M and headed in the indicated direction without telling her to come along. Ofelia looked at the hatchet and decided that if he had wanted to harm her, he probably would have done so already, so she followed him. A few dozen meters later, she realised what she had heard earlier: M was now gathering some wood from the ground. Branches, both thick and thin, cut to about the same length, which he had probably dropped when he saw Ofelia among the trees.

‘Your name is M?’ Ofelia asked timidly, feeling awkward, watching M who seemed to be gathering every last twig.

‘M, yes,’ he replied warmly, without looking at her. I watched him through her eyes and it seemed like my soul was filling with gratitude, what I was feeling, and probably what she was feeling too. I was grateful that she showed me M. I now realised how much I had missed him since I sent him here.

‘It’s a bit of a walk to the car, but I promise we’ll get there quickly,’ he said as he tied the wood with a rope, then continued in a tone that betrayed his discomfort. ‘You’re safe with me.’

‘I know,’ she replied softly.

‘Are you okay? Does it hurt anywhere?’

‘I’m okay,’ she whimpered and tried to stifle her tears.

‘It’s okay to cry,’ he said simply. ‘I cry sometimes too.’

When I snapped out of this reverie, I felt sad, yes, but I also felt accepted. As if my suffering was not only normal in these circumstances, but also something they all had felt before, things they could understand and resonate with.

I smiled at Ofelia, and for the first time in a long while, I felt the need to repay the kindness, so I sent them a wave of relief.

‘Reeza!’ Filip cried, slamming his palm on the table and catching us all by surprise. ‘I know where we need to take you,’ he said. ‘To the burned-out apartment building!’

‘To the burned-out building?’ Ofelia asked, seeming to think that Filip might actually have a good idea after all.

‘M, don’t you remember? You said yourself back then that you felt a familiar energy when you investigated the incident.’

‘Yes, I remember too,’ Ofelia said with clear enthusiasm.

‘There might have been something there,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know how it could still help us after all these years. They might have renovated it by now.’

‘No, they haven’t! I pass by all the time, and it looks exactly the same… or worse. And even if we don’t find anything, it’s not far. We won’t waste more than a few hours, during which we might come up with another idea.’

In a few minutes, we were back in the car that Filip had driven me in from the hotel where M had accommodated me during our mad escape from the hospital. M was driving this time, and it seemed like the strangest thing in the world to me. I had seen M in so many situations, but this seemed by far the most bizarre. Perhaps because, to me, he still carried the weight of the other world. I had seen him in so many situations there that he seemed completely out of place in this world. Of course, he didn’t seem to feel that way at all. It was just my perception playing tricks on me.

When we arrived at the apartment building, it felt like a tsunami hit me. A two-by-two hole yawned wide in the side of the building, right at the top floor. The building appeared burned from about the 6th floor up. But at the top floor, everything seemed even more charred. Blacker than anywhere else. As I stared at the hole, Ofelia walked past us and went to greet a group of people. Apparently, she knew some of the residents in the area.

Since the building was no longer in use, I had to climb the stairs and discover new limitations of my body. We practically had to stop every two floors so I could catch my breath. The door of one of the apartments on the sixth floor was off its hinges, having been knocked down, and now lay along a wall. Contrary to Filip’s expectations, it hadn’t been burned at all. In fact, the staircase seemed untouched by the flames.

‘Now let’s see how far this wormhole goes.’

Ofelia crossed the hallway and entered the living room without casting a second glance around. She knew exactly where to look. This apartment didn’t seem burned at all. But there was a clear mark on the ceiling, as if a cone of fire had pierced through it. ‘A cone oriented towards the outside,’ noted Filip, judging by the shape of the scorch mark, which also caught part of the window wall. Suddenly, Ofelia turned around and signaled us. We headed straight to the seventh floor, to the apartment above. There, the mark seemed larger and appeared to be part of the same conical shape. Then we proceeded to the eighth floor.

We all anticipated what we would see there: a burned area of the ceiling, floor, and walls facing the window. However, on the ninth floor, the shape was less visible. That’s because the entire apartment had burned here. Almost everything was completely charred. The walls were blackened up to the staircase landing and seemed even darker upwards. But the cone was clearly visible at the window. Here, the smell of burning was much stronger than on the lower floors. ‘What a damp, suffocating burning smell,’ Filip remarked, almost disgusted, surprised that the smell still lingered after so long.

‘The investigation concluded that the fire started from this lamp,’ Ofelia pointed out once we entered the living room on the twelfth floor.

‘The investigation didn’t know about the existence of the Second House,’ I said, feeling how familiar the place was to me, yet unable to say why.

‘Reeza!’ M called me from the kitchen, from where he emerged a second later holding a flyer in his hand.

‘It seems to advertise an art installation,’ Filip said, taking the flyer from his hand and bringing it over for us to look at together.

‘Look at the title,’ M said with a barely perceptible sigh.

‘The Gateway to the Second Home.’