2161: Story is About More Than Cutscenes


One of the most common complaints I’ve read about Xenoblade Chronicles X recently is that “the story isn’t as good as Xenoblade Chronicles“. And, if you look at it in a somewhat superficial manner, that’s true to an extent; it suffers a little from the open-world RPG’s perennial problem that is putting Important Things on hold while you go and pick flowers or whatever.

You may feel this way until you get your head into the mindset of Xenoblade Chronicles X. It’s not a typical JRPG with a fast-paced, completely linear storyline that you can then break completely when the game opens up towards the end. With a few exceptions — most notably the giant mech “Skells” and, later, the ability to fly in them — much of the game is open to you from the very outset, and the whole game is designed around the concept of “what would happen if you (and the rest of humanity’s survivors) were stranded on an alien planet with no hope of getting away any time soon?”

In that sense, Xenoblade Chronicles X‘s narrative — and the way it is told — starts to make a whole lot more sense. The story isn’t just about the “story quests” and the cutscenes they incorporate; there’s only twelve chapters to the main story, after all. Instead, the complete Xenoblade Chronicles X narrative consists of a blend of all the game’s elements: your freeform career as a BLADE operative and the emergent narrative that comes from your adventures in the field; the simple, short stories that come from the Normal Missions and give context to many of the NPCs in the world — and, in many cases, have significant impacts on the world as a whole; the more in-depth, character-centric stories of the Affinity Missions — which also have cutscenes and are fully voiced, unlike the Normal Missions; the conversations you overhear from NPCs you meet in town and in the field; the implied, non-explicit narrative you can deduce from the scenery of the world; and, finally, the “main” story itself.

I mentioned at the beginning the open world RPG’s curse of the party putting saving the world (or equivalent activities) on hold while they went to pick flowers, but in fact Xenoblade Chronicles X has been designed with that very criticism in mind. It’s strongly implied that a fair amount of time passes between each of the story missions, since there are numerous references to time-consuming things happening “off-screen” throughout. Rather than simply asking you to accept that several days/weeks/months have passed, however, it’s more than likely that, unless you’re taking a “critical path” approach to racing through the storyline as fast as you can, a significant amount of time probably will have passed between each of the story missions. And it’s in those “in between” moments that Xenoblade Chronicles X has some of its most interesting moments.

The aforementioned Normal Missions, for example. While these may appear to have had less attention lavished on them than the cutscene-heavy Affinity and Story Missions, in actual fact they tend to have more noticeable impacts on the world as a whole. As a result of Normal Missions and your choices therein, characters move around and live or die; buildings are built or destroyed; relationships between characters change; and, in the most drastic example of things changing as a result of your actions, new alien races move into the human city of New Los Angeles, meaning that you can then see them wandering around the streets as random crowd NPCs, talking to named members of their species and even accepting missions from them. As you play through the game, your understanding of Mira — and the wider universe outside the planet — begins to grow, as you get a feel for who the Ma-non, Zaruboggan, Prone and numerous others are, and, more importantly, how they feel about both one another and humanity.

The complete picture you build up in your mind as you play is one of the most comprehensively detailed pieces of worldbuilding I’ve seen for a very long time. It brings to mind the whole idea of “extended universes” for things like Star Trek and Star Wars, only in this instance, the “extended” universe is right there in the game for you to discover if you see fit. There’s no obligation to do most of this stuff — though some story missions have prerequisite Affinity or other missions before you can proceed — but doing so makes the game several orders of magnitude more rewarding, as it starts to tell its story in all manner of different ways rather than simply through cutscenes.

As the year draws to a close, there’s no doubt in my mind that Xenoblade Chronicles X is absolutely my “game of the year”. It’s full of all the things that I love, and, while its way of doing things may not to be everyone’s taste — particularly the complexity of its systems and the subtleties in its storytelling — I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s a landmark game that deserves to be counted among the greats of not just the RPG style of game, nor just the sci-fi genre of narrative games, but of gaming as a whole.

1141: Give Me A Reason to Race

Page_1Why are there no racing games with stories? No, wait, scratch that, why are there no racing games with good stories? Or at the very least well-told stories?

It is surely not a difficult thing to do. You take the basic game structure from Wing Commander and replace all the space combat with racing cars around tracks and/or city streets. Then you profit. Why has no-one done this?

The few racing games out there that do have storylines of sort are generally half-assed efforts where all the plot is delivered through badly-written text put into the game as an afterthought, or they simply don’t carry their potential through far enough.

I can think of a few recent examplesMotorstorm Apocalypse, though I didn’t play it, reportedly had a plot of sorts, but it fell into the former category above. Motorstorm Apocalypse, lest you’re unfamiliar, had you racing around a city that was blowing up and falling to pieces — surely an ideal situation for a rudimentary Michael Bay-style plot with some characters and shouting. It wouldn’t have to be a complex plot, just something to break up the racing with some motivational scenes that gave it some meaning.

Split/Second had a go, too, with its TV show-style presentation, incredible electro-orchestral cinematic soundtrack and episodic structure. It stopped short of actually giving the game’s antagonists, the “Elite Racers”, any degree of personality (or indeed faces), though it did end on a cliffhanger (which will now never be resolved — thanks a lot, Disney).

Recent Need for Speed games have taken a pop at it too, but tend to lose interest after the introductory sequences. The closest example I’ve seen to what I’m looking for is Need for Speed The Run, but apparently — again, I haven’t played it — neither the racing nor the plot are particularly up to much. (I must say, I am curious to try it, though, purely to see how close they get to what I’m imagining in my head.)

There’s also a Japanese eroge called Moero Downhill Night Blaze that reportedly combines a visual novel with racing action, but judging by its required system specifications, I’m not counting on it being an especially spectacular offering on the racing front. (I do intend to play it, though, as the whole series sounds like fun in story terms, even if the racing ends up sucking.)

And then there’s Midnight Club Los Angeles, which occasionally has Grand Theft Auto-style cutscenes, but not nearly enough to carry a coherent plot.

I’m honestly bewildered as to why no-one has tried this properly yet. We live in an age where video games are more “cinematic” than ever, and yet the racing game genre is still following the same old conventions it’s been using since the PlayStation 1 era — and possibly before. I would pay good money for a racing game with a good, well-written plot — given that I never, ever complete racing games (Split/Second is, to date, the only exception), an unfolding narrative with interesting characters and a degree of overblown drama would be just the incentive I need to up my game and see the experience through to its conclusion.

If I had any clue how to make such a game — or indeed access to a team to make such a game — I would do so in a heartbeat. Sadly, though, I have a sneaking suspicion my desire to see a game like this will remain nothing but a far-off dream.

#oneaday Day 682: Wasteland Diaries, Final Part

[Read from the start. If, you know, you want to. Excuse any typos or errors along the way — this was written along the lines of NaNoWriMo: get it done, (maybe) fix it later. It was also mostly written at ungodly hours in the middle of the night. AND NOW THE CONCLUSION.]

I have come to a decision, and I’m ready to stick to it and live with the consequences, whatever they might be. It’s a scary moment, but also a liberating one. By freeing myself from uncertainty and committing to a course of action, I feel that I can positively move forward and take on the future head-on.

Earlier in the morning, Clarkson had called me and said that Adam wanted to see me. I’d had an instinctive feeling when I woke up that today would be an important day, and that feeling’s only been growing ever since then.

I’ve made an effort. I’ve done my hair, put on a little makeup for the first time in I can’t remember how long, and I’ve found something nice to wear rather than PJs or a horrible, faded old T-shirt. If it’s a big day, I should look the part, and to do so I’ve found a dress I always liked. I’ve lost a bit of weight ever since all this started, so it hangs a little loosely in some parts, but it stays up, at least, and is probably the most respectable thing I own.

I set off down the street in the direction of the hospital, wondering how the day will unfold. While I’ve committed to my own course of action, I’m well aware I’m only one of two people in this scenario, and it’s entirely possible that things might not go the way I expect. In the end, nothing is certain.

I stop proceeding down that chain of thought because it leads to hesitation, uncertainty and nervousness, none of which I can afford right now. This chapter of my life ends today, and I’m not going to let self-doubt stand in the way of all that. I will do my part to strive towards the future I want, and then I’ll just have to see what happens.

It starts drizzling with rain as I walk down the street and, inevitably, I’ve forgotten an umbrella. Fortunately, the rain doesn’t built to the levels it has in the past few days, but it still soaks my hair, putting it at severe risk of doing that fuzzy thing it always does in damp conditions. I may as well have not bothered sorting it out.

I quicken my pace and before long have arrived at the hospital. I follow the familiar path up to Adam’s room, and find Clarkson waiting outside for me.

“Hello, Evie,” he says, a serious expression on his face. “Go on in, he’s awake.”

I push open the door and walk into the dimly-lit room. Adam is lying in the bed, propped up into an almost-natural sitting position. He looks tired, still.

“Hi,” he says, his voice cracked and weak. “Glad you’re here.”

“Me too,” I say, sitting down in the chair next to him and taking his hand. “I–”

“Wait,” he croaks, interrupting me. “Please, let me talk first.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Evie,” he says. “I’ve come to a realisation after the very strange experiences I’ve had.”

He pauses, swallows and licks his lips before continuing.

“After you… told me you weren’t ready to be a mother, I jumped to a conclusion,” he says. “I jumped to the conclusion that it was all about me. That you didn’t want me, that you didn’t see a future with us both in it.”

“That’s not what I thought at all,” I say quietly. “But I understand why you thought that, and why you did what you did. I’m sorry I did what I did in the way I did. I’m sorry — I’m sorry I killed our baby.”

He smiles and shakes his head.

“When I ran from you, I felt like the world had been destroyed,” he says. “I felt like you were the one who had destroyed it. Everything ceased to have meaning, and I felt that there was no place for me in a world like that. Everything, everyone was dead to me.”

He pauses and coughs a little. I move to help him, but he just shakes his head, dismissing me. I sit back down again.

“I know now that I was wrong,” he growls, his voice weakening. “I know now that it wasn’t you who was being selfish, it was me.”

There’s a silence for a moment. I can’t deny it, even with the guilt I feel over causing all this.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he says, as if reading my thoughts. “You didn’t cause this. I did. My own stubbornness, my own stupidity.”

I see his eyes filling with tears. I let him speak.

“You weren’t the one who ended my world,” he says, “I was the one who ended yours. I’ve put you through all this. I’ve made you suffer. And for what? It’s not fair. I can’t keep doing that to you. I can’t ruin your life any more. I can’t hold you down. I can’t keep you back. You’re not my property. You’re not mine to command.”

He changed. He’s like a different person. No — he’s like the person I first fell in love with, not the hollow wreck of a man who’d been plummeting towards rock bottom even before all this happened. It’s good to see him back again. And a feeling of relief sweeps through my mind.

“No,” I say, smiling. “I’m not. But I’ve learned something, too. What we are is a team. We work together. We decide things together. Neither of us has to be alone. Neither of us has to make the difficult decisions by ourselves. What’s done is done, and I hope you can forgive me, but I can assure you it will never happen again.”

“I know,” he says, quietly. “You were the one who led me back to reality, Evie. By following you, that’s why I’m here. You were the whole reason for my journey. You saved me, whether or not you intended to.”

“What journey?” I say. “What do you mean?”

He smiles and closes his eyes. I feel his fingers wrap around mine.

“This is the end,” he says. “And the beginning, all at once.”

#oneaday Day 681: Wasteland Diaries, Part 29

She was there, and talking, and I heard her, and then she was gone and I felt sleepy. I drifted off into slumber, but this wasn’t like it had been before. This was restful and relaxing. When I woke up, I felt invigorated, though my body still felt stiff, and unable to move, and I was still strapped to an array of beeping, whirring machines.

An older guy with a kindly face came in to see me. I recognised his voice, though I wasn’t sure from where. He did some tests. I felt him fumbling around on my body, but it didn’t hurt. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing as I couldn’t lift my head up to see.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me. “You’re probably feeling a little disorientated right now. And that’s perfectly normal. So is that feeling of numbness and stiffness in all your limbs. You haven’t moved for a good long time.”

I tried to reply, but no sound came out.

“You keep resting,” he said. “You’ll be fine from here.”

I wanted to believe him. This room that I was in was claustrophobic, and being stuck on my back wired up to gadgets and gizmos wasn’t helping me. I felt anxious, and suddenly keen to be outside.

I wasn’t even sure where “here” was. The memories of my desperate flight up the stairs away from the beast were still with me, though details were fading. Had that really happened?

I frowned. Feeling in my face was starting to come back, so I wiggled my eyebrows comically as I pondered the meaning of what had transpired. I must have looked ridiculous, but fortunately the man had left by this point.

I was confused. What was real, and what was fake? She had been a prominent part of what I’d just been through, but then she was there when I woke up too, and it didn’t seem to add up.

I closed my eyes and tried to clear my mind. I felt as if parts of my body were slowly coming back to life. The sensation was distracting enough to divert my thoughts away from the confusion of my situation. I twitched my toes and my fingertips, though moving whole limbs still felt like an impossible task. I moved my nose in a sneer, and back down again, and wiggled my eyebrows again for good measure. I opened my mouth and tried to make a sound, but my throat was so dry it simply came out as a zombie-like gargling. I wanted to laugh at how absurd I must look right now, but it too much effort.

I heard the door go again and opened my eyes. I tried to move my neck, but it didn’t go anywhere. Before long, the older guy’s face was before me again. I think he was sitting or kneeling next to the bed on which I lay.

“Adam,” he said. “Welcome back. I’m sure you’re very confused, and you have many questions, and equally are finding it very difficult to answer them right now. So let me try and explain what has been happening to you.

“You have been in a coma for some time now. You took one hell of an overdose, but fortunately your ladyfriend was able to call for an ambulance and get you here in time to save you. She wasn’t with you when it happened, as you’d had a falling-out, but you’d sent her a text message — a technological suicide note, as it were. She did the right thing and saved your life by calling us straight away.

“Since that time, you’ve been unconscious. We’ve been monitoring you closely, and it’s clear that your brain was very active during that time — dreaming, in a sense. Not all coma patients dream — it depends on how much damage the brain has suffered, if any. But we could tell that your brain was still alive and well, if not what was going on.”

A dream? That would explain the vagueness of the memories I have of what I’ve been through, and why they’re fading so quickly.

“Evie came to see you almost every day,” he continued. “She never gave up on you. She’d spend time with you, talk to you, read to you. She gave up her life for you. It’s not often you see that amount of commitment to another person.”

“Guilty,” I eventually managed to murmur in a choked voice. “But… My fault.”

“No-one’s to blame,” he replied. “Or if either of you are, there’s no sense in assigning blame at this point. You’ve reached the end of one thing and the beginning of another. This is a turning point. Whatever happened before doesn’t have to matter now. You can start afresh — if you want to, of course.”

Although details of my long journey were slowly disappearing into the darkest recesses of my memory as we spoke, I still recalled the conversation I’d had with Evie over that table, and how I’d responded to her admission.

“ALPHA AND OMEGA WILL UNITE,” that strange text message had said. It had stuck in my mind because of how unusual and out of place it was, but now I understood.

The beginning and end will unite. It meant so many things. What I had thought would be the beginning of a new life with Evie and the baby turned out to be the end of everything. The end of the world was the beginning of my journey. The end of my journey was made up of the events which had caused it to begin in the first place. And now that chapter of my life was ending, causing a new one to begin.

I was ready to face that future. But was Evie?

As I felt my strength returning and my body awakening after its long slumber, I knew that the next day would be the true day of reckoning.

#oneaday Day 680: Wasteland Diaries, Part 28

I look down at him, gazing into his eyes for the first time since the whole nightmare started. They’re tired and bloodshot, but I recognise them like I last saw them yesterday. They look calm, at peace — or perhaps it’s just the tiredness. He’s squinting at me, as if even the little light in the room hurts to look at.

“I’ll give you a moment,” says Clarkson, vacating the room. I hear the door lightly thump shut behind him, and we’re alone.

I’m lost for words. I don’t know what to say. Those eyes are looking at me in that way they always did, piercing my soul, as if they knew my every innermost thought. Of course, they didn’t, which is what led us into this whole situation in the first place, but–

I blink and push the negative thoughts from my head.

“Adam,” I say at last after what seems like an eternity of the only sound in the room being the regular bleep, bleep, bleep of the equipment he’s wired up to. My voice cracks a little. “Adam,” I say again.

He keeps looking at me, but he says nothing, and doesn’t move. The only sign of life in him right now is in those eyes, and even then the spark within them is weak.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Look, you don’t have to say anything. I know that I’m the one who put you here. I know that I’m the one who caused this nightmare to happen with my selfishness and foolishness. And I want you to know that I’m sorry.”

His eyes keep looking at me, but now I see them fill with tears. He doesn’t make a sound, but a sparkling droplet emerges from the corner of one eye and rolls down his cheek before plopping onto the sheet.

“I know there’s things you want to say to me, Adam,” I continue. “And I will hear all of them, listen to all of them. I owe you that much.”

I stop, and find myself sobbing, though I’m not sure why.

“I don’t even know if you want me here,” I say, tears blurring my vision. I blink them away. “After what I did I’d understand if you’d be disappointed that the first person you saw when you woke up was me. But I– I never gave up on you, Adam. I know you gave up on yourself — and on me. I know you felt like your world ended when I said those words to you. But I–”

I can’t finish the sentence, and only partly because I’m not sure exactly what it is I want to say. The tears are flowing freely, and trying to say any more only comes out as choked sobs. I take his hand in my own and lift it up. There’s no resistance in his arm, and his fingers don’t grip my hand in the way they once did. I squeeze his hand all the more tightly to make up for it.

I hear the door open behind me, and Clarkson comes back in quietly. He places a hand gently on my shoulder. It’s a comforting feeling, and it reminds me of my father.

“Okay, Evie,” he says. I’m only vaguely aware of his voice. “I think it’s time that we let him rest for a bit.”

I nod, trying to compose myself and failing.

“He’s been through a lot,” continues Clarkson. “And I’m not sure any of us will understand quite how much. Perhaps he won’t, even. But he’s on track to make a full recovery. I can’t say how long that will take, but it will happen. Then your life can begin again anew.” He hesitates a moment. “Assuming… you both want it to, of course.”

Do I? I can’t answer that right now, but the amount of times I’ve stood by this bedside imagining what this very moment would be like surely speaks volumes. Or does it? What if I was just coming here to deal with my own feeling of guilt? It was my sin that put him here, my sin that destroyed his world, his future.

Am I willing to give him what he wants? I still don’t have an answer to Annie’s question. I’m confused right now, not thinking straight, waves of emotion washing over me, making my knees tremble and my pulse race. I’m barely even aware of where I am or what I’m doing, and am surprised to find myself outside the room sat on one of those uncomfortable chairs, Clarkson kneeling before me.

“Evie,” he says. “I know this has been tough, and it might not be quite what you’d expected or hoped for. But I thought you would want to be there as soon as it happened.”

“Yes,” I say in a voice little more than a whisper. “Yes, I would. I do. I will. I– oh, whatever, I… Thank you.”

“Now,” he continues. “You’re clearly exhausted, and so is he. Despite being unconscious for so long, it’s pretty obvious that he needs some proper, uninterrupted, normal sleep before he takes on this brave new world he finds himself in.”

I feel Clarkson’s eyes on me and I’m suddenly aware that I’m barefoot, clad only in my robe and pyjamas.

“How about I call you a cab?” he says. “You’re in no state to be walking home like that.”

“No money,” I say weakly. My blood suddenly runs cold, but I calm down slightly as I pat my pocket and realise that I fortunately did have the good sense to at least pick up my keys when I raced out earlier.

“Ah,” says Clarkson. He stands and fumbles in his pocket before drawing out a leather wallet and lifting a crumpled £10 note from within. “My treat,” he says.

I’m overcome with gratitude. I want to cry again, but I really don’t have the energy. I take the £10 note and just look at it dumbly.

“Look, Evie,” he says. “What happens between you two from here is your business and your business alone. But I want you to know that I have faith that you’ll both do what’s right. I’ve seen the way you look at him every time you’ve been in here, even when there’s nothing new to report. And it’s inspirational. Few people have the strength of character to keep going like you have. That’s worth a lot. And I’m sure he knows that too.”

I’m glad someone has faith in me, because although I know he’s back, suddenly I feel very alone. It’s all on me to draw this sorry business to a close.

#oneaday Day 679: Wasteland Diaries, Part 27

“So that’s your answer?” said my voice from somewhere in the darkness. “Interesting. Well, if you get the chance, let’s see if you can stick to it. Now, though, you have more pressing matters.”

There was a rumble, and the floor shook. Evie had disappeared immediately after I had answered what she’d said, but I was still sitting on the chair. The table was still in front of me, and the earth tremor was strong enough to knock it over. I leapt to my feet and planted them firmly on the floor to keep my footing as the ground seemed to buck and writhe beneath me. My heart was still pumping from the conversation we’d just had, and my senses seemed heightened, alert. I was in full-on “fight or flight” mode.

From somewhere in the darkness came a terrible roar. I couldn’t see what it was but I recognised the awful feeling of rage behind it. I knew that right now, I didn’t want to be anywhere near that thing, so I started running. All around the pool of light that had held the table and chairs was darkness, so I didn’t even know if I was running in the right direction. All I knew was that I needed to get away from that awful sound, that howl of anguish, that outcry of fury.

I kept running, looking only ahead of me, not daring to glance over my shoulder in case it was there. Before long, out of the darkness loomed one of the horrible fleshy walls, and in it, right in front of me, a door. This one had a handle, but it flew open before I got to it and allowed me through. Presently I found myself in a corridor much like that through which I had arrived in this strange place, only this time it was sloping slightly upwards — to freedom?

I couldn’t tell, but I had to keep moving. I raced up the shallow slope of the long staircase, taking care not to trip on the steps or slip on the puddles of liquid on the floor — blood or water, neither were something I wanted to skid on and injure myself or, worse, end up in the maw of whatever beast was pursuing me.

I ran, the adrenaline making my pulse thump in my ears and pushing my body forward at a speed I barely thought possible. The red lights on the walls seemed to swirl past me in a blur, and still I ascended, breathing deeply and panting as I did so. But I had to keep going.

The beast roared behind me once again and I knew it was in the passage with me. I chanced a look behind me, but the staircase descended into darkness behind me — it looked like the lights were going out as I passed — and I couldn’t see what it was that pursued me. I wasn’t going to wait around for formal introductions, either, because it didn’t sound like it wanted to talk — more to tear me limb from limb.

The walls blurred past me and in a strange inversion of what I’d witnessed on the way down, the fleshy, living walls gradually gave way to cold steel. And off in the distance, I wasn’t sure, but I felt like I could see a white light. Some of it was filtering down the corridor, giving the otherwise red-tinted scenery a hint of colour.

I knew I had to reach that light, and I had to do it before the creature caught up with me. A frustrated howl sounded behind me, and I could tell it was drawing closer. I couldn’t stop, though my breath was giving out, my legs burning with the effort of climbing and my heart beating so hard I felt like it would burst through my chest.

I let out a shout of my own — not in an attempt to intimidate the beast, but in an effort to spur myself on and make it through this final stretch. I could see my goal ahead of me in the distance, up yet more of these infernal steps, but it didn’t seem to be coming any closer, and all the while I felt the beast gaining on me. As I struggled to keep running, my mind started to turn to thoughts of what the creature might do if it caught me, whether there was even the slightest chance of me surviving if I didn’t keep moving.

Of course there wasn’t. Nothing that makes a sound like that is willing — or able — to negotiate. That sort of otherworldly roar is the stuff of fiction — or nightmares. But it was here, and it was closing on me.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw a pair of glowing red eyes in the darkness — or was it more of the red lamps? I didn’t know, or care at this point. I spurred myself on and pushed onwards, ever further up the endless staircase towards the brilliant white light in the distance and the possible freedom it held. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the light represented. It didn’t matter that it might turn out to be nothing. I couldn’t give up. I wouldn’t give up. Not after all this. I wasn’t going to let things end this way. Everything would have been for nothing if they had.

The beast roared again, this time right behind me. I was too terrified to look back to see how much space — and time — I had left, but I was close to the light now, so close. There were only a few more steps remaining. I was going to make it. I was going to be free. I was going to escape this horror. I was going to–

I felt the beast’s claws slash at my back and I stumbled forwards. The pain was unbearable. It felt like acid-tipped spikes had torn through my flesh. Tears sprang to my eyes and I cried out, but I regained my balance and kept moving.

I looked back. I shouldn’t have, but I did. It was upon me — a writhing mass of pure darkness, two flaming red eyes glaring at me as it bore down on me, nothing but death on its mind. In the smoky blackness I was sure I saw images, but I knew I couldn’t get drawn into them, for that truly would be the end. Instead, all I had to do was–

The beast interrupted my flow of thoughts by lunging for my leg, trying to grab me. I leapt forward, straight into the white light.

It was a strange sensation, like leaping through a silk sheet while someone shone a floodlight in your face. I was blinded. The beast was nowhere to be seen. My ears filled with white noise. I was disoriented. I couldn’t tell which way was up. I fell. I tumbled. I span. I called out, but the noise was too great. I was in the middle of everything and nothing, so insignificant in the midst of the chaos around me. I screwed up my eyes and waited for it to pass as I fell through — what?

Abruptly, the sensations and the terrible noise stopped, and I was lying on my back, my eyes still closed. It was surprisingly comfortable after what I’d just been through, though I felt like there was something stuck up my nose. I tried to move, but my muscles were stiff from the climb, and I only managed to twitch a finger.

Then I opened my eyes, and there she was.

#oneaday Day 678: Wasteland Diaries, Part 26

Annie’s question haunts me.

“What are you going to do? Are you going to give him what he wants?”

As I lie awake staring at the ceiling — a familiar sight by now after many sleepless nights — I ponder it. Will I give him what he wants? I’m still not sure if I can, particularly after all this. When it happens — if it happens at all — I want it to be because we’re both ready and able to support both ourselves and the little one — oh God, a little person, an actual real human person…

I screw my eyes up and pull the pillow around my ears as if muffling the sounds of the outside world will also muffle out the thoughts whirling around the inside of my head. I’m going in circles, around and around and around. I don’t even know if the possibilities I’m considering are even, well, possibilities. But my brain, on edge as it is right now, is flitting from one extreme to the other of what might happen when — if — he comes around. And for all I know, that might never happen. Although if that were so why did his–

I growl to myself, more to break the silence than anything else, and the sudden noise in the otherwise almost completely silent room distracts me for a short while. Then it’s back to that sound of emptiness. In the near-silence, all the other sounds seem amplified. There’s the whirring sound of the fridge, the gurgling sound of the dodgy boiler, the sloshing of water in the pipes. Outside I can hear the occasional car going past, the occasional shouting drunkard in the street. These are all sounds so familiar to me by now that I just tune them out usually, but now they’re providing welcome distraction from the thoughts in my head.

Before long, though, they fade into the background once more, and I find myself asking the same questions over and over again. Will I be welcome back into his life? Do I want him back in my life? Could I give him what he wants? Will he give me what I want?

After all, we actually both want the same thing. The only difference is that he wants — wanted — it now, I want it when things are more stable. I couldn’t bring up a child in the situation we were in. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it at all, it’s that it just wouldn’t work, and it would end up tearing us apart. The ironic thing is the way I handled it all ended up tearing us apart anyway. Perhaps if I’d just talked to him, we could have worked it all out, come to a compromise.

But it’s too late to think about that now. He’s lying there, unaware of anything and everything. I don’t even know if he’s dreaming, if he’s aware of what’s going on around him, if he’ll even remember me when he comes back. His reaction showed me that he was on the edge, that his life depended on me, on us.

Do I want that? Do I want him to be dependent on me? I’m not sure I do. I can’t be responsible for the happiness of one human being so completely. Can I? It’s what I’d have to do if I was a mother, so why not–

My thoughts are cut abruptly short by the shrill, piercing ring of the ancient telephone in my flat. It used to belong to my parents and is seriously retro, but I could never bring myself to part with it. Right now its mechanical ring is echoing around my brain. It feels like the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. And it’s frightening.

Phone calls in the middle of the night are only ever bad news. But what could it be? Could it–

I don’t have time to sit around thinking about it. It’ll stop ringing in a moment and despite my fear, I have to know what it is. I leap out of bed and run to the phone in the hallway, snatching it up to my ear and breathlessly muttering “Hello?” just as the person on the other end is saying something to someone else, probably wondering where I am.

“Oh, hello,” comes a familiar voice, their conversation cutting off hastily. “Is that… Evie? Evie Anderton?”

“Yes,” I say, panting. It isn’t far from the bedroom to the hallway but I feel like I’ve just run a marathon.

“I’m sorry to disturb you so late,” says the voice. “This is Dr. Clarkson down at the hospital.”

So that’s his name.

“Hello, Doctor,” I say. “Is… everything all right?”

There’s a pause.

“I… I’m not sure over the phone is the best way to do this,” Clarkson says. “If it’s not too inconvenient for you, I think you might want to get down here quickly.”

My heart leaps into my mouth, and my gut ties itself into a knot. What does he mean? What could have happened? Why is he calling me? Why is–

“Please hurry,” says Clarkson. “I’m sorry I can’t explain more. But if you’re coming, come quickly.”

I slam the phone down without saying goodbye, hastily grabbing the keys off the table in the hallway and bursting out into the street without putting any shoes on. It’s cold outside, and it’s raining heavily. I pull my robe more tightly around myself for warmth, but it doesn’t really matter to me right now. I have to get there.

My bare feet splash through puddles on the floor, spattering the legs of my pyjamas with droplets of water, sticking them to my ankles. But it doesn’t matter. I have to get there.

I round the corner, ignoring the funny looks I get from the few people still wandering the streets at this time of night — mostly drunks and tramps, I guess — and follow the familiar route through the streets to the hospital. The rain is worsening. There’s a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder almost immediately. The storm must be right overhead. But it doesn’t matter. I have to get there.

I burst through the front doors of the hospital and charge straight past the reception area. I hear someone calling after me, then a murmured call to security. But it doesn’t matter. I have to get there.

I take the stairs two at a time — I can’t wait for the lift, I have to keep moving — until I’m on the floor I’ve been to so many times by now. I charge past a tired-looking nurse in the corridor before he can say anything, and see the door to the room I’ve been in so many times in front of me.

Clarkson is sitting on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs outside the room. He stands at my approach, a warm, fatherly look in his eyes. I want to cry, but there’s no time. What has happened?

“Follow me,” he says solemnly, pushing open the door to the room.

I follow him, knowing nothing except one thing: for better or worse, what I’m about to see will mean the end of this particular nightmare.