Read Ex-Purgatory: A Novel Online
Authors: Peter Clines
Someone had left a copy of
on the dining hall table. It wasn’t his usual kind of thing, but he knew if he didn’t read something he’d just nod off. There was a short piece on the President’s stylish tie collection and how his wife picked out most of them for him.
He made it halfway through an article about a “cleansing spa” before he decided it wasn’t good lunchtime reading. He failed a fourteen-question quiz about whether his apartment would qualify as a “good loving lair.”
One article made him fire off a quick text to Nick. It was just a sidebar piece about game shows, but it made something in his brain itch. He got an answer back a few minutes later.
Unless it jst happened in the past hr then no Trebek is not dead. Why?
He didn’t bother to respond. He knew it was a stupid question when he asked it. But it still nagged at him. If not Alex Trebek, who was he thinking of?
Near the center of the magazine was a six-page pictorial with a short interview. It was the dark-skinned woman from the bus stop poster. Her name was Karen Quilt. She was thirty-three and had appeared in
twice before, both times on the “Hot 100” list. She had doctorates in biology and biochemistry, plus a handful of master’s degrees in other fields. Her mother had been part of the NSS, which sounded like the Somali version of the KGB the way the article spun it. Her European father had been some kind of mercenary or assassin. From the age of eight she’d been raised by an aunt and lived in New York City until she started traveling as a model.
Reading between the lines, George got the sense Karen Quilt didn’t have a lot of patience for interviews or pictorials.
“Hi,” said a voice.
He glanced up from the magazine and saw a dead girl in a wheelchair. Her eyes were dull and her skin was chalk-white. She wore a tattered collection of dusty clothes, and threads of black hair hung out beneath a Red Sox baseball cap.
He blinked and his eyes adjusted to the dining hall’s fluorescent lights. They made the girl’s skin look pale. The tubes reflected in her eyes at just the right angle to white out her irises. He shivered a bit at the afterimage in his mind.
He needed to get more sleep.
“We met a couple days ago,” she said. “I’m Maddy. Madelyn Sorensen.” She moved her wheelchair a few feet closer and held out her hand.
“I remember,” said George.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. “All over campus.”
“I don’t actually live here,” he said.
“I know. I probably didn’t make the best first impression.”
He bit his tongue.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “I was just … I kind of gushed, y’know?” Her hand was still out. She managed a weak smile.
George sighed. He reached out and took her hand. He hoped he wasn’t going to regret it.
Madelyn’s fingers were cold. He didn’t think the air conditioning was up that high in the dining hall. He wondered if being in a wheelchair was bad for circulation. It couldn’t be good, he figured.
She released his hand and gestured at the open space at the end of the table. “Can I join you?”
“I guess,” said George. “Are you going to talk about people dying?”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” she said. “I came across as a freak, didn’t I?”
“Just a little.” He brushed the magazine aside and gestured at the table.
The chair moved forward until it bumped the table edge. Madelyn reached over her shoulder and tugged the backpack off the handles. She pulled a bottle of eye drops from the front pouch and tossed the pack in the empty chair across from George.
“You’re not eating?” he asked.
She tapped the arm of the wheelchair as she leaned her head back. “They bring my tray out for me. I could do it myself, but it’d take twice as long to reach a table using one hand.” She blinked a few times to spread the drops around her eyes and tucked the bottle back in her pack.
One of the cafeteria workers—the same one who’d given George extra tater tots—appeared with a tray. She set it next to Madelyn and shot a quick smile at George. Madelyn peeled the bun and cheese off her first burger and attacked the patty with her fork.
She shook her head. “Digestion issues.”
“Ahhh.” He watched her eat for a minute and wondered what she wanted from him. He picked up his last tater tot, rubbed it in the salt on the plate, and popped it in his mouth.
She finished the first burger and started stripping the second one. Her eyes drifted over to the magazine. She smirked and bit back a laugh. She turned the magazine around and looked at the pictorial, then turned it back to George.
“It’s not mine,” he said. “It was just here when I sat down. There wasn’t anything else to read.”
His mouth twitched into a smile. “That’s an understatement.”
“You know she’s your girlfriend, right?”
He blinked. “Sorry?”
“She’s one of us,” said Madelyn. “A superhero.”
He managed not to sigh out loud, but it showed on his face.
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“I’m not a superhero. I’m not dating anyone right now.” He tapped the magazine. “And I would definitely remember if I’d dated a woman like that at any point in my life.” He pushed his chair away from the table and got up. “Anyway, I’ve got to get back to—”
She dropped her fork and grabbed his arm. “Wait,” she pleaded. “I’m really sorry about the other day. I kind of lunged and hit you with everything at once, but it was such a huge relief to find you.”
He didn’t pull away. He also didn’t sit back down. She sounded desperate again, and it kind of freaked him out.
“Ten minutes,” she said. “Just let me talk for ten minutes and then I’m done. I’ll even transfer back east if you want.”
George sighed again and looked at the clock on the wall behind her. “My lunch break’s almost over,” he said. “I’ve got seven minutes.”
He sat down.
“It’ll be worth it,” she told him. “I promise.”
He crossed his arms and waited.
Madelyn took a long slow breath. “Okay,” she said, “let me ask you something kind of weird.”
it’s getting weird?” He couldn’t hold back a smile.
She didn’t return it. “Do you dream at night?”
“Dreams. Are you one of those people who don’t dream, or don’t remember them?”
Images of falling and dead people and demons flitted through his mind. He shook his head. “No, I have dreams.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She crossed her own arms. “I dream every night,” she said. “Know what I dream about?”
“Look,” he said, “this is going in kind of an uncomfortable direction. I’m not sure it’s appropri—”
He shut his mouth and stared at her.
Something sparked in her eyes. Her shoulders lifted. “And you do, too, don’t you?”
He didn’t say anything. He looked at the young woman and tried not to think of the image he’d seen out of the corner of his eye. The corpse in the wheelchair.
“There’s thousands of them, right? Dead people walking around. They’re kind of slow and clumsy, but there’s just so many of them.”
He set his hands on the table, then crossed them again. He studied her face. “How are you doing this? Is this some kind of magic trick?”
She shook her head. “What else do you remember?”
George thought about his dreams. “There’s a wall,” he said. “A big wall keeping them out. And a gate.”
“And a robot,” he said. “A battlesuit. But that’s just dream stuff.”
“No it isn’t.”
“It is. I saw it on a commercial for the Army this morning. It’s some military project. The future of combat or something.”
She smirked. “So you’re telling me the battlesuit has to be part of your dream because it’s real?”
“I’m saying I probably just saw pictures of it online. Maybe it was on the news while I was doing something else and it didn’t
register. And then, you know, the subconscious grabs it and puts it in a dream.”
Madelyn reached down and tore a piece off the burger patty with her fingers. She popped it in her mouth. Her teeth were perfect. She swallowed. “The dream about monsters,” she said.
“That you have every night.”
“I don’t have it every night.”
“Okay,” she said. “When was the last time you didn’t have it?”
George tried to remember his last good night of sleep. “I’m not sure,” he admitted, “but I know I haven’t always had it.”
She tore another piece off the burger. “You haven’t.”
He drummed his fingers on the table. “So what makes you so sure your dreams are going to come true?”
“Already came true,” she corrected him. “It’s all real.”
“But what makes you say that?”
“Because it is,” said Madelyn.
“That’s not really an answer.”
She sighed and scrunched up her mouth. “Okay,” she said, “do you have a television?”
He nodded. He figured he could humor her for a few more minutes.
“Prove you have a television. Right now.”
He smiled. “I don’t carry around photos of my TV.”
“But you’re sure you have one?”
“You know it’s in your apartment right now?”
“Unless someone broke in and stole it, yeah.”
She smiled. “That’s how I know your dreams are real.”
George chuckled. “Okay, then,” he said, “if this was true—”
“It is true.”
“If this was true, why doesn’t anyone else know about it?”
She poked at her tray. She’d eaten both burger patties and nothing else. All the meat was gone. “I used to have memory problems,” she said.
The warning flares went off in George’s brain again, but were swamped by a wave of pity. “Mental problems?”
problems,” she repeated. “I had trouble forming long-term memories. Whenever I fell asleep I’d forget most of the previous day.”
“And that doesn’t happen anymore?”
She shook her head. “Not since I started having the dreams. I think …” She paused for a moment. “I think I forgot that I was supposed to forget everything. Whatever happened, I fell asleep and forgot that it happened, so it didn’t affect me as much as all of you. So I’m here but I still remember there. Something like that.”
He drummed his fingers on the table.
“Come on,” she said, “this has to make sense on some level.”
He glanced at the clock. He had just over two minutes before he’d have to call in to Jarvis. “Look,” he said, “I don’t mean to sound rude, but … well, what are you getting at?”
Her face dropped a little. “You still don’t get it?”
He shook his head. “It’s a fun story. A neat coincidence, I guess, that we’re having similar dreams, but it’s just a story. This is the real world, like it or not.”
“George,” she said, “this
the real world. That’s my point.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Then he chuckled. “Okay,” he said, “I was wrong. You came up with something less believable than the whole dating-a-supermodel thing.”
Madelyn shook her head. “Something happened. I’m not sure what. And everything changed. We all changed. You. Me. Barry.” She tapped the magazine. “Her. All of us.”
“Barry Burke. He’s your best friend. He’s …” She closed her eyes and wrinkled her brow, the look of every student trying to remember something. “He’s in a wheelchair, too, and he’s … he’s bright.”
“I think so. He told me he used to work out at a lab in New Mexico.” She snapped her fingers. “Sandia Labs. The people with the Z Machine.”
“It’s a big machine in New Mexico. It has something to do with physics. They make particles there.”
“That’s not really helpful.”
She waved her arm around her. “Give me a break. I’m just a sophomore.”
“I thought you knew all this,” he said. He tried to give her a good-natured smile. “You said you remembered everything.”
“I remember most of it,” she said. “I remember enough to know we’re not supposed to be here.”
One minute left on the clock. Somewhere in the dining hall a knife was tapping on a glass. He wasn’t sure if it was to get attention or be annoying. Or both.
George thought for a minute about how to word what was in his head. “Okay, let’s say you’re right,” he said. Her smile lifted and he held up his hand. “Just hypothetically. Let’s say there was some kind of epidemic and half the world died and turned into monsters. And you and I know each other there and we’re leaders or heroes or something.”
“So why would we want to go back to that? Why would anyone want to ‘fix’ things so billions of people are dead? What would it accomplish?”
“Because the people there are depending on us,” she said. “They’re depending on you.”
George leaned back in his chair and tried to ignore the shadows her words had cast. He tried to think of something gentler to follow up with when his Nextel chirped. “George,” called Jarvis’s voice, “you there?”
Habit made him unholster the phone. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“You done with lunch?”
He looked at Madelyn and mouthed a quick apology. “Yeah, I think I’m all done here.”
Her face fell.
“Can you head over to Ackerman? Bathroom’s flooding on the second floor.”
He looked out the window toward the student union building.
“Seriously? Don’t you have plumbers over there right now? Real ones?”
“Sorry, buddy. I’d give it to Mark, but … well, trust me. You got the better job.”
“Great. I’ll be there in ten.”
“You the man, George.”
He pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. Madelyn said nothing. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve got to go.” He piled his napkins and glasses on the tray.
She slid the magazine across the table to him. “Keep it,” she said. “Maybe she’ll help you remember.”
He shook his head but she pushed it at him. He sighed, folded the magazine, and shoved it in his back pocket. He could toss it once he was outside. “It was … fun,” he said. “You should write all this stuff down. I’m sure someone in Hollywood would buy it.”