“Do you remember where you ended the first painting?” I rested my head on Adam’s shoulder as he stepped along the fresh river with Patch following behind.
“Wasn’t it near the river? The blood…” He hurried off by the riverside, tracking its current.
“It’s okay, the blood’s gone now.” My eyes fluttered open and shut as he carried me.
“No, El. The blood ran into the river, and that’s where you were first, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s where I landed.”
“Maybe if we can find that spot again, we’ll get to the exit.”
I hummed. “Good idea.” My head lolled to the side as Adam paused.
“Here, I’ll let you rest for awhile.” He crouched down near a tree, setting me on the ground. “We can continue when you’re ready.”
Patch nestled next to me as I laid on the ground. I shifted toward Adam, and he moved me so my head laid on his chest. My eyes closed, and I drifted to sleep.
The river chorus and the whispering wind combined into a perfect lullaby. Energy flowed from every entity in the landscape, swirling around me. Streams of water and leaves spun into a cyclone around my floating body. I looked down to see Adam and Patch through the current, and I reached for them.
At that moment, the streams of energy darkened and the entire world lit in flames. The deafening roar of the fiery twister swallowed my screams as the heat suffocated me. The river’s water boiled off into lava eating away at the bank. Flames engulfed the pair, setting them ablaze. My eyes widened, and my mouth opened to cry out. No sound came as I watched them turn to ash before my eyes. When everything around me had burned through, the twister died down, and I landed on the mass grave of the world that had once been. The echo of Adam’s voice and Patch’s whimper mocked me as I sobbed in the wake of their ashes.
The world switched off and I fell, screaming as I returned to my own body. I bolted awake, gasping as Adam gripped my shoulders.
“Shh, it’s okay. It was just a nightmare.” He gestured to the landscape, sweeping his arm along the river. “Everything’s still here.”
“It was all burning. I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry.” My words tumbled out in a stream as I clutched his hand.
He shifted me into his lap and held me close. “I’m fine, El. Patch and I are both in one piece. Nothing happened.”
“What if that evil comes back? What if we can’t stop it this time?” I trembled in Adam’s arms with tears dripping from my cheeks.
Patch’s whimper caught our attention as he sprang to his feet, shuddering. The ground around us transformed into a spreading infection of black and grey, sucking all the life from the painted world. My eyes widened as it spread across the bank, inching its way over the land.
“We’ll stop it if it takes every last ounce of energy I have.” He tightened his hold on me as he watched the infection spread. “We’ll find a way out. You said it yourself we can change this. You did it before.”
“What if I can’t do it again?”
He tilted my chin up, wiping my tears. “I’ll be here to help you this time. You just have to think. How did you do it last time?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just panicked. I saw that last speck of light, and I went to it before it disappeared.”
“That’s it. What did you do when you got to it?”
“I just wanted everything to change. It took so much energy, trying to imagine what it’d be like to reverse everything.”
He kissed me forehead, shifting to stand. “You’re a genius, El. It’s the same way we create. We focus energy and imagine what we want to see.”
“But I don’t want to create.” My head whipped around to see our world growing dimmer as the color disappeared. “I just want this to stop!”
I pounded my fists into the blackened earth and the world paused. My eyes darted around to see the disease stop as the air hung with weighted silence. Adam dropped to his knees beside me, placing his hands over mine.
“Close your eyes, and imagine this world healing, turning back to normal. I’ll be right here to help, okay?” He squeezed my hands as his eyes shut.
I clenched my eyes closed and willed this dim world away. The blackness gathered in my mind, peeling away from the infected areas. It gathered into a sphere of sludge and tar, and once every last blemish had righted itself, I forced the ball of liquid blackness into the sky, painting it with the coal of night. I speckled it with stars and lit it the moon, opening my eyes to the riverside chorus as it coursed through my veins.
I panted and hung my head once I’d seen what’d happened to the painted world. I shook Adam, and his eyes fluttered open as Patch howled at the full moon.
“We did it.” I slumped against Adam’s chest as he kissed the top my head.
“Good, that’s one step down. Now we just have to get out of here.”
“The river. You said we’d start there.” I lifted myself off the ground as he stood.
“That’s right. Do you need me to help you?”
I shook my head. “I’m tired, but I can walk this time. It wasn’t as bad as before.”
“Maybe the workload isn’t so overwhelming when we work together.” He took my hand as we continued down the riverside.
“That makes sense. It’s like we’re sharing our energy.” I paused as we reach the last stretch of forest beside the water. “But who dictates what we see?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s no way we imagined the same thing when we turned things back to normal, right? So what dictates whose image we see?” I gestured to the sky. “I imagined turning it into a night sky with all the blackness I gathered.”
“You gathered it? I just imagined myself repainting everything from the outside.”
“Like you were back home? How about the sky?”
“All that darkness hadn’t reached the sky yet, so I didn’t have to change it. I just returned everything back to its original color.”
I gazed around at the painted world under the night sky. With no sunlight, everything appeared as a shadowed ghost of its daytime self. I paused at the river’s edge and scooped water into my hands. It reflected moonlight until I saw my own reflection.
I let the water drip back into the river as I stood. “What if it’s a combination?”
Adam’s eyebrows quirked. “Like an overlap of both of imaginations?”
I nodded, stepping to return to his side. “Yeah, I mean you said you didn’t anything to the sky. You just focused on everything the darkness touched. What if you painted everything back to normal and I just changed the sky?”
“I think I understand what you mean, but it’s hard to wrap my head around all of this. There’s still so much to figure out.”
I took his hand. “One step at a time, remember? First, the exit, then more questions. We’ll deal with things as they come.”
“If only there was a doorway out, like at the edge of the forest.” He laughed as we trekked up the hill from the riverside, drawing a rectangle in the air. “Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a door right here?”
“It’s ridiculous. It couldn’t be the exit. There was no door when I first painted all of this, so who’s to say it would lead anywhere?”
I smiled and shook my head. “With everything that’s happened lately, do you really expect this to be logical? Even if it doesn’t work, the worst thing we’d have is a door in the middle of nowhere.”
His eyes widened as he stopped, looking between my and the mouth of the forest. “Do you really think that could work?”
“If we believe it can, it will. That’s how we fixed the darkness, right?” I let go of his hand. “Ready to give it a shot?”
“I guess. Let’s try to imagine that the same kind of door.”
I nodded. “Good point, what about something like a dungeon door, like you see in the movies?”
“I remember those, the ones with the knocker handles?”
I grinned. “That’s it!”
He closed his eyes. “You got it.”
I shut mine and framed our exit under the arch of the trees that reached inward. Stone stacked and carved itself into a doorway, while the door materialized board by board. Metal clanged on the wood as it hung from an iron bolted frame. Curling flourishes reached across the aged wood to finish the creation as a keyhole opened up beside the handle.
I opened my eyes to stand in the wake of our creation.
Adam came to my side with a grin as he held up a skeleton key. “Ready to go home?”
I snatched the key from his grasp. “Show off.”
I twisted the key and backed away as the gears clicked. We grasped the handle and yanked the door. It groaned as it opened to reveal our bedroom on the other side. Adam took my hand, leading us through with Patch close behind.
Before we crossed the threshold, Adam plucked the key away. “Just in case we get stuck again.”
As soon as our feet touched the wood floor, we collapsed in a head while Patch sniffed around the room.
“We’re finally back. It feels like we were trapped in there for so long.” I leaned up against the closest wall.
“Well, it was a whole day in the painting if we count the changes. It just feels longer cause time is so different there.”
Adam stood up and checked his phone on the nightstand. “It’s only been a few hours in real time. It’s 5 in the morning.”
I waved Patch over and pet him as he laid at my side. “No wonder I want to sleep.”
Adam knelt in front of me, offering his hand. “You used a lot of energy in there. We both did.”
I nodded as my eyes fluttered. Instead of trying to drag me into bed, Adam lifted me into his arms and laid me down, covering me with a blanket.
“What about him? Should he go back?” The pillow muffled my voice, but Adam nodded.
He turned to Patch, gesturing to the painting. “What do you think, huh? You wanna go back in there and keep watch for us?”
His head shifted from Adam to the canvas, and he approached the painting, sniffing at the open door. Patch looked back at Adam, stepping toward him with his head low.
“Aww, don’t worry. As soon as we get more of this stuff figured out we’ll come visit, promise.” He held up the silver skeleton key. “We’ll even lock the door to keep that world safe for you, okay boy?”
Patch butted his head against Adam’s hand and licked mine before he stepped into the painting. Adam reached in after him and pulled the door closed, locking it with the key. We grinned as Patch’s howl echoed through the keyhole.
Adam tucked the key away in one of his drawers and slipped into bed beside me. “We have a long way to go, don’t we?”
I shifted to face him and pecked his lips. “Yes we do, but we’re in this together. We’ll figure the Thread out, piece by piece.”
“What if something like this happens to me again? The evil could take over.” He glanced over at the canvas as it stood in the corner.
“I’m starting to think it isn’t evil. I mean, the world changed when I started to panic.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“What if that evil side is just your emotions? Like your pent up stress or fear over all this. That would explain why the world started to transform. I was overwhelmed by fear.”
“Then why does it take over me like a different person?” He sighed as I rested my hand over his heart.
“Because we are different people when our emotions get the best of us. With my anxiety, it’s like someone’s in the back of my head, whispering all the worst possibilities.”
“And with me, it’s like an evil twin.”
“The Twin, that’s what we’ll call it then.”
He chuckled. “You and the names again.” He pressed his lips to my hair. “Go to sleep before I start calling you label-maker.”
I nestled in his arms, smiling as I pulled the covers over us. “Laugh now, but they work, don’t they?”