I don’t know where I am. There’s no sense of time, or even of self. I’m just aware.
Consciousness starts to filter slowly back, one drip at a time.
The drips steadily increase. First they become a trickle, then at last burst into a flood, carrying on its swirling waters the broken debris of memories. I'm Bethany Dean. And Death came for me. But then why am I waking up? And where the hell am I?
The flood swells with fear as I try to open my eyes and realise I can't remember how. My water-logged brain can't find the right command. I force myself to focus, to push the water away. My eyelids flicker. I push harder, and keep pushing until a faint light appears.
I'm staring up at an unfamiliar high ceiling, laced across with beams of old, dark wood, each carved with intricate patterns that I can't quite make out. The fear grows. I may remember who I am, but I'm still no closer to figuring out where I am.
I desperately try to move. My arms are like lead as they clatter ungracefully onto a hard floor. I grope about blindly with both hands, discovering something soft, almost silky, underneath me. The colours hit me first as I crane my neck around to get a better look; bright pinks and yellows and blues, even the odd startling lime-green, all merging to form a make-shift bed of silk cushions. Their modernism is out of place; the room itself feels old. More than old. Ancient would be closer.
Beyond the cushions, the dark wood floor is covered in a thick layer of dust, the smell of it heavy in the stale air. There are pale walls in front of me and to my left, darkness to my right and behind; the space is too large and the light too dim to see any further. There's something in the middle of the room, but it’s too far away, I can't tell what it is. I don't know where the light is coming from. I can't see any windows. I can't see a door. I'm trapped...
Even the fresh wave of fear can't make me move my numb limbs any further. I try my brain instead but it moves sluggishly, water still rattling in my ears.
‘OK, the last thing I remember is being hit by a car.’ My mouth feels like it's full of cotton wool when I speak. I don't even know who I'm speaking to, I don't think there's anyone else here. The air is thick with silence and mustiness, as if it’s been undisturbed by any living presence for a long time. ‘So, what are the possible options?’
I wait until the echo of my voice has died away. No one answers. Whatever's going on, I'm going to have to figure it out for myself. I roll my head from side to side, kick starting my brain.
Option 1. I somehow survived the crash and got taken to hospital. Possible, but that doesn’t explain my current surroundings. The last time I was in hospital was when I had my tonsils taken out as a child, and the memory bears no resemblance to where I am now. I know that was a while ago, but surely the NHS can’t have undergone that radical a reform?
Option 2. I’m in hospital, but I’m in a coma or something and the room is just a delusion. More likely, but this doesn’t feel like a delusion.
Option 3. I’m dead. But how can I be awake if I’m dead? Terror grips me. I try to move again. My arms and legs burn with intense pins and needles; but I can twitch my fingers, circle my ankles. I'm getting stronger. With a surge of will power and adrenaline I force myself up into a sitting position. The room spins around me from the effort, disorientating me
The instant the spinning stops, I realise something is wrong.
I stare at my stomach, then stare at it some more. It’s flat. Completely, utterly flat. And tanned. This isn’t my stomach at all; the stomach I left behind in Worthing was starting to spread, with more than a suspicion of spare tyre, and having spent the entire summer working it certainly wasn't in the least bit tanned....
Option 4. A mad scientist recovered my body from the scene of the accident and has conducted an illegal body swap experiment on my brain. Definitely likely.
A flash of realisation hits me as I run my hands over my smooth new flesh; this is my stomach, just not the one I have now. But it had been mine once; aged twenty-four and living in Vegas. A combination of the desert heat and heartbreak diet had given me the look I’d always dreamt of.
More memories start to piece together and I try to reel my mind back in, remembering too late my policy of never thinking of the past.
Option 5. I’ve gone back in time. I'm filled with more dread by this option than all the rest of them put together; I can’t bear to even think about the past, let alone living through it all again.
Option 6. I’m in hell. This is my own personal circle of hell, where I have to keep on re-living all the worst moments of my life, the ones I've locked so ruthlessly away and tried so hard to forget. But why have I woken up young and thin if I'm in hell?
I can't make any of the pieces fit. I have to try moving again, try to find a way out. I force myself onto all fours, my hands making dusty imprints on the dry floor. Slowly, I let my legs take more of my weight as I push myself into a crouch. A rush of vertigo shakes me and I almost fall down again, but not quite.
The spinning stops and the room snaps into focus. I finally recognise the unidentified object that I couldn't make out before; a full length mirror and something else, a chair I think, just beyond it. I feel like I'm wading through custard as I force myself unsteadily towards it, already out of breath by the time I stagger the short distance. I gratefully clutch at the back of the chair for support and discover something else already resting on it; an unexpected square of material. It unfurls as I turn it over in my fingers, revealing itself to be a hot pink sarong.
I stare dubiously at the material, wondering whose it is and how it got here. There's a pair of silver sandals under the chair as well, which fit perfectly when I slip my feet tentatively into them. That can't be a coincidence. They must have been meant for me...
A fresh chill of fear creeps down my spine. Who left them here? And how did whoever it was know my size and taste?
I whirl round as if someone's magically going to appear behind me, jumping as I catch sight of myself in the mirror for the first time. My heart hammers in my chest; it's worse than I thought.
I scrutinise my reflection, playing spot the difference. This is definitely my Vegas figure and tan, but I don’t look exactly the same as I did then. My hair is much longer for one; this is the cut I got before Cheltenham when I was nineteen, my favourite hair-cut of all time. My face isn’t the same either; it doesn’t have the wrinkles and worry lines that it had by the time I got to Vegas. This face is from before then; before George...
'How can this be happening? What the hell is going on?’ I can't hold back the scream that's been building inside any longer and it bursts out of me, the sound reverberating around the empty room before falling back in on me, the only one to hear it. I don't care who the sarong belongs to. I need to get out of here, to find answers, to find someone – anyone - who can help. I tie the silky material around me, managing the knot with shaking hands, and make my way to the nearest wall on at least slightly steadier legs.
My hand touches dry, crumbling stone. I follow the wall along, inch by inch, until I find what I'm looking for; a pair of huge, solid wood doors. I hesitate as I trace my hands over their smooth panels. Do I really want to know what's on the other side? What if I am in hell? Wouldn’t it be better to just … wait? Let the horror find me, rather than take myself to it?
I take a last, desperate glance back at the room. It still holds no answers and feels more prison-like than ever. The door, then. Find the horror.
I take a deep breath, holding in the air. My limbs are tense and my heart pounds, rocking me in its rhythm.
One …. Two …. Three..... Push!