Epilogue – Katy

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She started with the most important things. Hair, makeup, outfit. Getting herself ready, and making sure everything else had been set up and perfect.

Because, if just one thing was off, just one, the whole night would be ruined.

And we can’t have that, can we?

Not a chance.

It was first things first, though. She checked herself in the mirror.

Hair was on point. Of course it was. She had done it herself. Tied in a French braid, not a single strand was loose or out of place.

Makeup. From the foundation to the baking itself, the final result had given her life. It was totally worth putting in the time to touch it up after rushing back here so she could work on everything else. A few seconds to spare made all the difference.

Then, her outfit. There was no way she was going to spend an entire school day sitting around, walking to different classrooms, bumping into other students in the halls, getting her best clothes all frumpy and wrinkled. That was like the last thing she wanted.

No, the last thing she wanted was for the night to go poorly. She had trust in herself, that she would be coming correct, but her responsibilities didn’t stay with just her. She had others to look out for, make sure they were alright. It was important. It was crucial.

But, for now, her outfit.

An olive green baggy field coat, the color going great with her eyes. A black sweater, the brand name stylized and on fire. Her skirt was denim, loose, hanging around her knees, ripped in certain places so the threads would hang. Then her kicks, simple off-white skate shoes, grey striped long socks that she purposefully bunched around the knees. It was a simple look, but it gave her the confidence she needed, that she could actually pull this off.

That confidence was already there, though, but more wouldn’t hurt, especially when it came from coordinating a cute fit. She knew that she wouldn’t be alone, either. She had others to look out for, but they were looking out for her too.

And together, they were going to get this done right.

Fixing her hair one last time, she set it into place before checking her phone. It was blowing up. No way she could respond to all of them.

But she found the ones that absolutely needed a reply. A group chat. She read through the most recent texts then sent a few of her own. Immediately, her replies were sent scrolling past the top of the screen. It was like they didn’t even read them.

But she got another text. Outside of the group chat.

Maria.

Asking if there was anything extra they’d need to bring for tonight. She thought it over.

Nope.

She sent her reply. She had it covered. The only thing she needed from Maria was to scope the place out before they’d get there.

Maria replied. She was on it.

She smiled.

Everything is coming together. The pieces are moving into position.

Checking herself in the mirror one more time, she liked what she saw. The final piece.

No, there was one more.

The queen.

And she was about to go collect her.

Grabbing her bag and keys, she headed out of her room.

But not before catching her mom on the way down the stairs.

“You’re heading out too?”

Already at the door, stepping into a pair of white heels. They weren’t cute, but they were classy.

“I am. I thought I told you this. Rehearsal dinner at the hotel?”

“Oh I know, but it’d be weird if we just passed each other without saying anything.”

“Then come up with something better to say.”

“Wow.”

Her mom stood straight, stamping her foot down. The heel clicked. She was smiling.

“You’re welcome to come with.”

“I’d rather go for spontaneity on the night of. Besides, I have my own-”

“Oh, tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Well tell her I said-”

“I will.”

“But don’t be out too late. I want you home on this side of midnight.”

She nodded.

“Sure Mom.”

She gave her a look.

“Did you tell Dad that you’d be out?”

She gave her a look. A beat.

“Dad’s not here.”

“If you tell him he’ll hear you.”

Her mom got the door, opening it.

“Shoot, I’ll be late. You stay safe, and keep an eye on your friends.”

“Why do I have to?”

“Because Lord knows someone has to.”

Her mom winked, then reacted as if she was still surprised that she hadn’t left yet.

“Oh! Alright I’m off, you stay-”

“I know Mom, and I’ll do the other thing too!”

They both left the house, both eager to start their nights.

Katy sat with one foot flat on the floor, the other crossed over her leg. Deep in thought, so deep that she could drown.

To keep herself afloat, she kept an eye on the things around her.

The window beside her, watching as people passed, walking by, faces down, wholly engrossed in their world and concerns, their troubles and tribulations weighing heavy on their mind, turning their focus narrow and inward. Passing by, passing each other, only being aware enough of their surroundings as to not collide with anyone else. Minding their own business.

The entrance of the place, watching as people entered, coming in, faces up, looking at the menu above them, their attentions directed outward for but a brief moment. They’d speak with the girl at the front, who had to be entering the last hour of her shift, judging from how she kept scratching her neck, tapping her fingers on the register, and by the time she punched in their order, having to wait for it, and collect it once their name was called, those people would have already retreated back into their own worlds again, taking small sips, as if they were satisfied with their limited scope on everything. Their minds back to their business.

That was the problem, Katy figured. People were so easy to be absorbed in only their own concerns, that they would hardly, if ever, peek out of their shells and question just what the hell was going on around them. If everyone kept their eyes closed, then whatever they couldn’t see would be considered as normal.

But this wasn’t normal, it was just easy to pretend. The world was on fire, and nobody seemed to care.

The last thing Katy kept an eye on was her own reflection in her coffee, swirling in the black. Twisting. Spiraling.

Sitting alone, in several respects, it seemed.

Then the front door swung open, loud, and her eyes and the eyes of others darted up.

They had bursted in with little regard for anyone else, skipping light on their feet, skipping right to the front of the line, to the girl who had stopped tapping her fingers on the register, surprised at this person’s sudden entrance and approach.

Some raised their voices to complain, but more looked to see if there was a parent or guardian around to claim them… this kid. There wasn’t.

The kid had her arms propped on the counter, hopping up and down. She was already speaking over any complaints others might have.

“Hot chocolate please!”

The girl working the front punched in the order. The faster she got this kid out of the way, the sooner things would smooth back over. For Katy, just she found the whole thing funny.

Because to them, she really was just a kid.

“And do you like have marshmallows too?”

“Yeah.”

“How many can you put until you can’t see the drink anymore?”

“Enough so you can’t see the drink anymore.”

“Okay, how much-”

“Don’t worry about it.”

The girl started tapping again.

“Oh are you sure?”

The kid asked too loudly.

“I’m sure.”

The kid then smiled, wide enough to notice a gap in her teeth.

“Thank you!”

For courtesy, the kid… Doris, no, D, tossed out some cash anyways, then skipped to the side to wait for her drink. She caught Katy’s eye, smiled wide again, and turned around, hopping in place.

Katy couldn’t let herself get too mad at D, it was as useless as getting worked up over the weather. It was simply out of her control.

That didn’t stop her from giving D a slight glare, even with her back to her, ready for when-

D turned back around, drink in hand, rushing over to the booth. If D had noticed Katy’s expression, she didn’t acknowledge it. She skipped on over, not spilling a single drop from the ceramic saucer and cup.

“Yo!” D said, finally giving Katy a proper greeting. If that could even be considered proper. “Mind if I sit and oppose you?”

“You mean opposite me?”

“Okay,” D said.

Katy took a sip of her own, then said, “The more things change.”

“Hey, that’s not fair, I let the lady keep the change.”

Katy rolled her eyes at that.

D spun her cup so she could better see the logo. She glanced at the people sitting around them. Only now, did she try to take stock at what was around her.

“Cafe Sharktooth, what’s with this place?”

Katy set her cup down, into the saucer. It made a light clanking sound.

“There’s nothing with this place. It’s just convenient. I needed somewhere we can meet, and I thought of here. That’s it.”

D shrugged, still staring at her cup. Her drink.

“Yeah, they should have put more marshmallows.”

Katy pursed her lips together. She drew a breath across the top of her coffee. The image of her rippled.

A lot was on Katy’s mind. Concerns. Troubles. Her own business. But she knew to keep her eyes open to her surroundings. Stay alert. Stay diligent.

“Bitter?”

Katy looked at D again, a slight shake of her head.

“Over what?”

D pointed with her lips.

“I’m asking if your coffee is bitter. You didn’t put anything in it?”

“I didn’t really want to.”

“Whoa,” D said, “Whoa whoa. The world of grown-ups sounds pretty spooky.”

“Don’t put so much thought into it.”

“But there has to be a reason, right? There has to be a reason for everything.”

“That? Coming from you? I thought people who need a reason to do things are trash in your eyes.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” D said, smiling with her eyes closed, “It’s just more fun that way. My way. But that’s why I asked.”

“And that’s why I told you not to put so much thought into it.”

“Oof, you sure you don’t need some sugar?”

Katy breathed.

“If you’re not going to take this seriously, we can end this right now,” Katy said, “You don’t have to be here, and neither do I.”

D threw her hands up in an attempt to placate Katy. But it just looked like she was messing around some more.

“Whoa whoa whoa! What happened to you Big Sis? You did get so bitter. And cold. You should like really super lighten up, it’s already summer you know!”

Her only response was to raise her chin by a fraction. Katy was patient. She’d have to be, when dealing with someone like D. No, only when dealing with D, because there wasn’t anyone else like her.

She took the time to look out the window again. People passing. Minding their own business.

It was summer already.

Katy’s thoughts drifted to the time passed. The things lost along the way.

“So, any updates?”

Refocusing, Katy looked back at D.

She had a mouth full of hot chocolate and marshmallows, but made a point to finish it before adding, “I imagine that’s why I’m here.”

“You’re here because I need help, and I’m able to admit that and do something about it.”

“Sounds like a lot of work for me.”

“Depends on the work.”

D propped her elbows on the table. Katy considered saying something but didn’t.

“But before that… I want to hear from you, first.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s been forever. Yeah, come on. It’s summer, the sun’s out, I… we should be out there playing! So… enlighten me.”

Katy sighed. Listless. Drifting to that lost time again. Those things.

“There is… nothing worth mentioning.”

D pouted.

“Come ooooon, that can’t be true! You should tell me something. Anything.”

“And why should I?”

D tilted her chin down, slight, batting her eyes.

“Because we’re family, aren’t we? We’re practically sisters. And sisters basically share everything.”

“You have a severely skewed sense of sisterhood,” Katy said.

D shrugged.

“So it doesn’t have to be everything. That’s fine. Just give me something, anything.”

Then D grinned. Her ‘little sister,’ but they had something that ran deeper than any blood relation.

She was playing with her, Katy knew. To D, everything was a game. But that was fine too. Katy wasn’t unfamiliar with the rules. She played along.

“You tell me what you want to know, then.”

She watched as D put some serious consideration into it. Or, it was more likely that she was just messing around some more. Actually, knowing her, it was absolutely the latter.

“Oh!” D said. She jumped in her seat and snapped her fingers. “Let’s start with school. That’s always a good place to start. Yeah. School! How’s school?”

“You sound like Mom,” Katy said.

“Well, it’s been some time since I’ve last stepped into a classroom. I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Tell me about it.”

Katy answered. Not the actual question, but what D had implied instead. It was part of the game. D wouldn’t act so direct unless she was working at something else.

“What’s to say? It’s not like it changed since the last time you stepped in one. School is… school. The classes, the hallways, the textbooks. The… people. The uncomfortable silences, the uneasy tension, the lack of spirit, the passing whispers and stares. The plastered smiles. Everyone minding their own business. It’s all… normal.”

D tapped a finger on her chin.

“Hm. Sounds boring.”

“Like I said. Nothing worth mentioning. At least I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“There has to be something,” D said. She wouldn’t let it go. “Give me something juicy. I thirst for whatever is fun and interesting. That’s my vice. I’d ask you yours, but I think I already know it.”

Katy raised an eyebrow.

“And that is?”

D tapped her chin again, then wagged her finger. Back and forth.

“No way, Big Sis, I asked first.”

Katy fought the urge to gesture or react in any way. D was playing with her. Another move.

So Katy made a move of her own.

“Maria. You remember her?”

“For sure. When you brought up asking for help I was wondering where she was. I absolutely adored her mask. Wish I had the chance to talk with her about it.”

“You’ll have to hold your peace on that a little longer. We’re not exactly on speaking terms anymore.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“And by not exactly, you mean not at all?”

“Yeah,” Katy said, hating that she had to tip her hand further.

“And why’s that?”

Katy looked into her coffee cup. About half empty.

“Couldn’t say for sure. You’d have to ask her that. But, what I can say is that Maria doesn’t want to see me either, and that would include you, by extension. So don’t bother her, she won’t entertain you, like how I have the bad habit of doing.”

“I could do with a guess?”

“Don’t forget. If you’re not going to take this seriously-”

“Don’t pull that card! So lame! That’s like saying the only way to win the game is to not play.”

“Am I wrong?”

“Uh, yeah, you are. It’s not fun if it ends up being one-sided. As long as there’s a game to play, each side has a chance to win. So I’m on one side-”

D indicated to her cup of hot chocolate and marshmallows. Half full now.

“-And you’re on the other.”

D indicated to Katy’s coffee.

“So let’s play. And don’t be lame.”

Katy had her fingers around her cup, then she set them flat on the table, then underneath the table itself, resting between her legs.

“I don’t want to guess because I don’t want to do that to her,” Katy said. “I still see her as a friend, even if she literally doesn’t want to see me. I don’t know. Maybe she hated what I was getting her involved in, maybe she hated how it escalated, or that it had to escalate. Maybe she didn’t want it as badly as I did.”

Katy clenched her hands, forming fists. Where D couldn’t see.

“All I can do is guess. She ghosted me, after that night. And she’s never been one to be so open about herself.”

“Is that what you wanted help for? If she might talk?”

Katy shook her head.

“You want me to keep an eye on her now?”

Katy shook her head again.

“Nothing like that, no. If she’s done, then she’s done.”

She tried keep her voice from shaking in saying that. She didn’t try hard enough. She wasn’t even sure if she believed it herself.

D was staring. It made Katy want to look away.

If that was juicy enough for D, she didn’t mention.

Was that enough to win that round?

“You cut your hair.”

Katy looked up. It took a second for her thoughts to catch up, too.

“You only just now noticed?”

D brought the cup back up to her lips, half-drinking the hot chocolate, half-eating the marshmallows.

Katy frowned, but there wasn’t any actual hard feelings. She touched her hair like a habit, fixing it where it needed to be fixed. At its new length, new to D anyways, her hair barely brushed her shoulders.

D copied her, flicking her own hair and fixing her bangs. Playing it up.

“Looks just like mine!”

“As if.”

“You know,” D said, sitting back now, hair twirling around a finger, “She kept her hair around that length, too.”

It was as though D had twisted a knife. The weapon already sticking out of her side.

Katy flinched. She knew that D had caught that, but she kept her cool, or tried to, brushing her hair one more time.

She took another sip from her drink, thinking to herself, wondering just what the hell was she trying to accomplish now.

“I miss her, you know.”

Katy’s attention snapped back to the booth she was in. D sitting across from her, tugging at her choker.

“That’s the third time you said that,” Katy said.

“You don’t feel the same way?”

“Depends on who you’re referring to.”

“You know exactly who I’m referring to.”

“Fourth time,” Katy said, “And no, I don’t.”

D smirked. A slight show of her gap in her teeth.

Katy felt that twist again.

In order to put her mind on something else, Katy started reaching for the bag beside her.

“Don’t.”

Katy looked up.

“Can we do this somewhere else?”

Katy pulled her hand away.

“Did you have somewhere else in mind?”

Katy was trying to avoid that twisted feeling a third time.

“I do. I want to show you something.”

This wasn’t going according to plan. Not that she really had a plan in mind, but…

That was the point. She had business she wanted to tend to. And she needed help.

“Fine. We’ll go your way. For now.”

Lifting the cup, tilting it so the bottom pointed to the ceiling, D finished the rest of her drink. Slamming it down, her mouth was full of chocolate and marshmallows. Katy was afraid that D would speak and spray all over her face… but she didn’t. She actually had the manners to talk without her mouth being full.

“Then let’s go! Finally, we can go outside!”

Katy would have said something, that they weren’t going out to play… but she didn’t. She knew how D worked, or rather how she didn’t want to see things as work. If she wanted D’s help, she’d have to make it interesting, keep her interest. That meant giving her a game to play.

And if she had to see it like that, too… fine.

Maybe that was what this was, the whole time. A game.

Katy finished her drink and joined D when she hopped out of the booth, heading out of the coffee shop, getting ready for round two.

She sang along on the drive there. A rap song, and she knew every word.

The bass rumbled through the black BMW. Her father’s car.

She had her hands loose on the wheel, speeding a good ten miles above the limit. But she was taking the back roads, with not a single vehicle around. No one around to impede her. So she hit the gas a little harder, heard the engine growl, and felt the slight curve of the street underneath her tires as she swerved.

At the top of her lungs, she rapped as the song moved into the hook.

Drank in my cup, I ain’t seeing straight, blood in my mouth, I ain’t seeing straight!

The engine went harder as ten became fifteen.

One mo’ shot to the head, I ain’t seeing straight, I might die tonight, but I’m feeling great!

The higher speeds the car reached, the more she reveled in the mean, couldn’t-give-less-of-a-fuck attitude of the song. She turned the volume up.

The bass boomed, and she could feel it in her chest. Part of the reason why she liked using this car. It had a great audio system, and it paired well with the music she liked. The beat thumped against the speakers, making the sound more rich and full. The lyrics, too, were more clear, and made it more fun to sing along to.

She could drive like this all night, if the road allowed, getting lost in it all, without a single worry.

But, there was somewhere she had to be. Things she had to keep in mind. Important things.

She thought about what her mom said.

As the car went around a bend, she let it slow. She turned the volume down to a more acceptable level, too.

Stay safe and keep an eye on your friends.

She’d do that, in fact she was off to do that at this very moment. After all, what would they do without her?

Probably wander off and get lost, that’s what.

Her thoughts were getting away from her. Right now she had to focus on this. That was her primary concern.

She was going to pull this off, it was all going to come together.

Almost at the end of the road. No one was around. She signaled a turn anyways.

She was almost there. And she couldn’t wait.

D had arrived first, pushing the heavy doors open with all her might.

Katy followed her inside.

There was an absence of sound, so oppressive that it stole her voice away. The halls and aisles, they were as hallowed as they were hollowed.

St. Elizabeth had been gutted and ripped apart, and it had been left to rot.

Wooden rows were made into splinters, seat cushions and pages from hymnals torn and turned to shreds. Glass shards littered the floor, most of it swept to the side, but a lot was not. There was just too much of a mess, here.

Bullets and their casings too. Katy and D watched their step.

They walked deeper into the church. Their footsteps carried through the building, echoing out, showing just how empty this place had become. Desolate. Abandoned by God, and even the Devil.

D led Katy to the front row, still intact, somehow. The altar up ahead was crushed to pieces, and Katy saw the crucifix, the arms and legs were removed from the body. As if they had been sliced off.

She noticed deep marks were gouged into the tile and stone, almost like claw marks. When Katy checked behind her, she saw similar damage done to the floor, wall, and ceiling of the church. A spiral of destruction.

Katy took a seat first, setting some stuff beside her. D plopped down onto a cushion on the floor.

When Katy finally spoke, it was a near whisper.

“I remember the last church I visited. St. Francis Xavier. That one got trashed too. But not nearly as bad as this one.”

“This one was pretty bad,” D said. From where she sat, she looked around the church, Katy watching how her eyes traced a path, making a circle. Or a spiral.

“May I ask how bad?”

Katy asked, wary, watching her still.

D’s gaze was elsewhere, and Katy noticed a shine in the corner of them. Just a smidge of water catching what little light was in here. She blinked it away.

Finally, D answered.

“Pretty bad.”

Katy nodded. She wouldn’t pry that much. Even D had her boundaries.

She wondered, then, just why D chose this location to reconvene. What did she have in mind?

Katy wanted to ask, but there were more important things to get to.

But, D herself was important, too. Someone she wanted to keep an eye on.

“We can go somewhere else,” Katy said, “If this isn’t going to work for you.”

D tugged at her choker, blinking.

“No, it’s fine. I’m fine. I come here when I can, clean up here and there, but there’s just so much and… yeah.”

“I can see that.”

D kept looking around, gaze wandering. Katy let her take all the time she needed. She could be patient.

“I miss her.”

“You’ve already told me that.”

“But it’s true. The last time I saw her, it was here. The last time I could see her as a sister. Not as a plaything, but as someone to play with.”

“I told you what you were getting out of helping me that time. You knew the risks involved.”

“Of course I knew, but how could I have known that it’d come to this? I got more than what I asked for, and I had a lot of fun. But I also stood to lose a lot, too, and that scared me. Friends, people I started to see as family. Lawrence… and her. And then it happened, I did lose all those things, and now I’m here, and all I can do now is just… sweep the pieces away.”

“Are you saying you have regrets?”

“I’m too young to have regrets.” D leaned back, arms behind her, propping her up. “But I do wonder… just who the real winner is, in this little game of yours.”

Katy didn’t respond to that. She didn’t like where this was going.

D took in a deep breath, and exhaled hard.

“I’m curious, Big Sis, if I had to play with you again, what do I stand win?”

“Closure,” Katy answered, without missing a beat.

“Closure. Why? What more do you need?”

“I didn’t… She got away from me. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I wanted to see her, face to faceless. I wanted my eye on her.”

“For what? So you two could talk?”

“If it came down to it.”

“What would you have talked about?”

Katy answered without missing a beat. It was something that had been on her mind for a very long time.

“Why she ran away, why she left us all behind. Her friends, her mom. Maria. Me. Why didn’t she tell me. She was my best friend. I was supposed to look out for her, and she was supposed to have my back. And for her to just… fucking throw all of that away. I want to know why.”

D leaned to one side.

“Do you think she’s still alive?”

Katy missed that particular beat.

“She had better fucking be, because I’m not done with her yet. Even if it means dragging her out of Hell myself, even if it means becoming a monster. I will find her. And then, and only then, do I get to put her back there, and I leave her to burn.”

D’s gaze moved to Katy. There was a sadness in them, something that went beyond her age. Pity, too.

That angered her.

“How long has it been… No one’s heard anything since. And besides, who is to say the person you lost has been gone even before all this? You don’t know a thing about who you’re after.”

“You’ve kept me in the loop, you gave me updates.”

“I gave you what she was doing, you never cared about who she was. Did you ever? Or were you just wanting to satisfy your irresponsible sense of egoism?”

“Excuse me?”

“Let’s say you really do get what you want, and she’s sitting right here in front of you, right now. I think you might disappointed with what you end up getting.”

“That will be for me to decide.”

D maintained that look of pity. A slight smirk. It aggravated her.

“Funny, we’ve been talking about the same person, yet two very different people. The one you’re looking for… Alexis Barnett? Sorry to say, but I never met her. I don’t know her. The one I did know, Wendy, she didn’t want to have anything to do with Alexis. She hated her, rejected her. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell you a single thing, she refused to look at that part of herself. And now they’re both gone.”

Katy crossed her arms.

Then, D moved her hand into her jacket again, pulling something out.

D continued.

“The last time I saw her was in here. I said… something, I don’t know, it was the wrong thing at the wrong time. But I saw it in her eyes. The very instant my Vivi winked out of existence. Everything that followed… There was no going back from that.”

D threw her hand out at Katy, something flying in her direction. Katy caught it.

A chess piece. A black queen.

“And there’s no point in trying to continue. The game is over, Big Sis. I suggest you give it up, too.”

Katy squeezed the piece in her hand, feeling it press into her palm. The sharp point of the queen’s crown could stab into her, if she put enough pressure. She was just shy of it.

“A simple no from the beginning would have sufficed.”

D shrugged.

“Bad habit.”

Katy glanced down at the stuff she had brought with her. The bags and files… things she didn’t have a chance to bring up and discuss, and D led her all the way here just to shut her down.

She clenched her jaw, teeth grinding together.

Giving it up… that was impossible. Even if it seemed easy, because everyone else had given up already. Maria was gone, Shiori had moved back to Japan, seemingly abandoning all hope of ever seeing her daughter again. Uncle J let himself deteriorate, close to meeting her father, and her own mother taken the first steps in a backslide… Everyone was giving up, everyone was acting like this was normal.

She couldn’t accept that.

It was all so…

D asked her, sudden, “Do you know what your vice is?”

“And what is that?”

“Frustration.”

Katy almost laughed. She could hardly believe how this was going now.

“Is that so?”

“That’s my assessment.”

Katy leaned back into her seat, arms still crossed.

She looked at the broken cross at the altar, she looked at the confessional past that, busted and collapsed in different places.

Katy thought about what D said.

“The only thing free in life… I bet he told her that, I bet she believed him.”

“And you?”

“It’s hardly free. In fact it cost me everything. But I’m willing to pay that price again.”

D reached for her choker again, tugging at it.

“Then I’m sorry I can’t help you a second time around.”

“I’m sorry too. I guess you have changed.”

“And you stayed the same.”

Katy opened her mouth.

By imposing too great a responsibility, or rather, all responsibility, on yourself, you crush yourself!

Katy and D both turned around.

The doors of the church were being thrown wide open, blinding daylight punching through the oppressive dark they were sitting in.

A long figure cut a hole in the light, standing with their arms out. They walked, holding that pose, trying to make their entrance more grand.

As they progressed down the aisle, more joined them, stepping into the church. From the outlines, Katy could see helmets. Biker helmets.

They filed out into the different rows, or where the rows would be, if the church hadn’t been made into temple ruins instead. They stood in position. Every row the first figure passed, was another row the bikers filled up with their numbers.

Katy stared at Styx as he and his gang infiltrated, intruding on her plans. What little plans she had left now.

They marched towards Katy and D, then to Katy herself.

Her heart pounded heavy as he hopped and spun and landed in the seat next to Katy. He crossed one leg over the other, and put one arm around her.

She couldn’t look at him anymore. It was too sudden. She tried to look at D, who as surprised as she was. Or was that another play as well?

Styx spoke close to her ear.

“An important lesson, a hard one to learn. Some manage to be lucky, like you and I…”

With a bony finger, he gestured between them.

“And other’s, well, they do get crushed.”

Styx then pointed ahead, to the ruined crucifix, the altar underneath.

“What the heck are you doing here?”

D asked when Katy could not.

Styx didn’t look at her, but he did answer.

“Just happened to be in your area, so I swung by to thank you all for… thank you, just, thank you.”

Styx was nodding, bobbing his head, eyes closed, whispering to himself. It was like he was crying. Katy was unsure of what to make of anything, anymore.

“Thank you, truly, because I would have never been able to bear witness to such a beautiful punchline if it hadn’t been for your setup. I would have never been able to do it on my own, seems like I still have some things to learn in my old age.”

Katy could feel the warmth from his arm, wrapped around the back of her neck. Like a serpent. She clutched the chess piece, feeling its sharpness dig into her skin.

“Mister and Mrs. Carter would like to express their gratitude as well. Because of you, everything went splendidly. Because of you, we were able to scale down our operations in light of the recent and increased attention on Stephenville. Because of you, we were able to develop an infrastructure that allowed us to continue at a sufficient level to this day. Because of you, I was able to laugh louder than I ever had in years. Because of Victor, because of John Cruz, because of Alma, because of Dong-Yul, because of the Thompson Act, because of you.”

“Don’t me throw me in with them,” Katy said, “You wolves thinned the herd yourselves.”

“No no, you did your part, looking after Blueballs, keeping tabs, with her being your eyes and ears.”

Styx pointed to D, now. D squirmed.

“And all that was left for me to do was nudge things here and there for the desired effect. My most perfect joke. What a lovely fool, I think I’ll miss her too.”

Katy was losing what little patience she had left. And she thought she had enough to spare.

“If you’re just here to sing your praises, then there. You’re welcome. You can leave now.”

The arm around her neck tightened in its grip. Katy shuddered. An instant regret.

Non, noir comme du jais, non. You see, you don’t have just my thanks, but my services as well. If you are up to the offer.”

Katy traded a look with D. Nothing.

“What services?”

Styx indicated to the bag beside Katy. “Looks like you have a lot to unpack, and D here refused to answer the call. All I’m saying is, you can ring me. Ring ring.”

Katy felt a prickling sensation, creeping up her spine. She wanted to move, but she couldn’t, knowing how dangerous someone like Styx was. This was a game she wanted to get out of.

“How did you even…”

“Open it. Show me.”

She briefly considered any other potential options. She squeeze the chess piece again.

Could she even refuse someone like Styx? She had seen his work before, she had seen how it lost her a father.

She wouldn’t make the same mistake as him. Or her. Styx wasn’t one to be underestimated.

Katy reached for the bag, setting it in her lap. With Styx’s wide stare on her, she pulled at the zipper.

Files, documents, photos. Notebooks. Even hard drives upon hard drives of stored information. Katy sifted through the work.

“This is everything Natalie Beckham and Oliver Morgan left behind. You remember them? Of fucking course, you had her kill them too. Every scribbled note, every recording, every bit of data, every interview, it’s all here.”

“Yes, the thought of that crossed my mind. Those two… ever the revenants, living on through their work.”

Katy considered that. Maybe revenant was the right word for all of this.

She sifted through the notes in front of her When she spoke again, she was thinking aloud.

“We warned them, that they would be targeted. And they’re not fools, or maybe they were in the end, but they had enough experience to know that themselves. They wouldn’t need us to tell them that the invitations to John Cruz’s event was a trap, but they went anyways. And we tried to mitigate things on our end, so they wouldn’t get killed.”

“We did,” D said, “I tried.”

“But they went anyways, and they got killed. And they left me with all of… this.”

Katy flipped through a page, and something caught her eye.

She pulled out that particular piece of paper, and her heart thumped. Almost as hard as the moment she learned that her father had passed away. Almost.

“Everything they had on her.”

Alexis Barnett’s smiling face. Wide, genuine, free. Not a care in the world. It haunted Katy, it taunted her. Made her all the more frustrated.

The queen stabbed at her even harder.

“I don’t know why, but they left me with the burden of the truth, as they knew it. But there’s still… there’s still glaring holes, and I need help filling them in.”

“You need help,” Styx said, “And I’m offering my wide-reaching tentacles.”

“You?” Despite her fear, Katy had to suppress the urge to scoff. “The last thing I need is to be used in another setup, or be made into your next punchline. Thanks, Styx, but no fucking thanks.”

Styx cackled. With him being so close, it startled her.

“You’re good, you really are. Smart. Just like your father.”

That fear turned into something much colder. Sharper.

She was already close, but then she moved even closer, past the leather jacket, past bare skin, and between the ribs.

Katy stabbed into Styx the pointed chess piece.

A shock ran throughout the entire church. Through D, through Katy, through the rows and rows of Ferrymen behind her.

The only one who wasn’t shocked was Styx himself. A low chuckle ran through him instead.

He pulled back, taking his arm off of Katy. He used it to pull back his jacket, looking down. He wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, so thin lines of blood were free the trickle down from the wound. The base of the queen was barely sticking out. Katy had pressed in, and pressed in hard.

Styx kept chuckling.

Katy couldn’t bear to hear more of it. More of Styx, more of D, more of this sick, fucked up world.

“I am nothing like him. He, who made it his fucking business to try and shape this city, this world, into his own image. Fuck that. I want to burn this shit to the ground. This world, and the other one that’s out there, the one that stole Alexis Barnett from me and turned her into… something else entirely. It’s in the shadows, and I want to take a torch to that fucking world and set it alight.”

And then she added, just to hear herself say it, “And I’m nothing like her either.”

Styx was laughing harder now.

Frustrated, Katy got out of her chair, collecting the files that had spilled over during her sudden outburst.

She thought how useless this was, how pointless. Like she was being mocked for even trying to focus on the most important things.

She hated her old self, she rejected them. She didn’t even want to consider that past person and those past thoughts as herself, anymore. To think she had let herself fall into that trap, once before. To be like everyone else. To have given up and just be normal. It was pitiful. And she wasn’t about to make that mistake twice.

She gathered her things and got prepared, she looked at D. Her little-

No.

Katy spoke to her.

“I’ll find her, and with her the truth. I’ll fill in the blanks, and I’ll get it down the very letter. This is your last chance, D. Grow up.”

As she feared, D shook her head.

Adieu, Katy.”

Lesson learned. She’d do it herself.

Then she turned, running now, running away.

Leaving them all behind, Katy pushed the doors open, the light momentarily blinding her.

She used the moonlight to guide where she’d park. Avoid the lamppost, since they were too direct. The moon was a softer source, she could sit in the shadows and become imperceptible, especially from a good distance. The black paint of the car helped, too, blending in with the dark.

Those were the details she had to think about. Important details. She didn’t want to make it too obvious, just be careful, just to be safe.

See Mom? Just as you asked.

She smiled to herself.

Finding a decent spot, in a corner by some shrubbery, she moved the car into position and set it to park.

Turning the music down all the way, she took out her phone and sent out a text. Not to the group chat, and not to Maria either. Someone else.

Setting her phone down, the only thing left for her to do was wait. And she couldn’t wait.

Ugh, I am so ready to leave.

Tapping her foot, shaking her leg, looking out from across where she had parked.

Such a slowpoke.

She groaned, already impatient. She wanted to turn her music back up, but she felt that might jinx things somehow. That she might attract some unwanted attention, that she might get caught. Better to play it safe.

To pass the time, she went through everything in her head one more time. Just to make sure she had everything in order, so tonight would go perfect.

She put to mind her own business.

Drinks? Got that covered. There’s gonna be more there too. Music? Got that covered too. Everybody’s got their invites… Him? Check. And her? Waiting on this bitch to hurry up and get in here.

She checked herself in the rearview mirror. And again.

Hell yeah. This is gonna be great.

More than great. Perfect.

She really couldn’t wait.

Then, before her patience could wear any thinner, she saw her.

Running across the length of the parking lot, staying close to the shadows, only the faintest of glimmers falling on one side of her body. A fitting sweater, and… was that a new skirt? It looked cute on her.

Her long hair ran free in the light wind. She raised a hand to fix it, then waved in the direction of the car.

The queen herself.

Hurrying over, the passenger side opened, and she hopped in.

“Present,” Alexis said.

“You definitely look like one, birthday girl, should have put a bow on you too.”

“Shut up, we’re still a few hours out from that.”

“Shit, what time is it?”

Alexis raised her hand again, pulling back a sleeve. A black watch adorned the wrist. A simple and sleek design, the face was blank, no numbers or markings, with only thin gold lines used to mark the time.

“Three hours until the big day,” Alexis said.

“I’m liking that watch, early birthday gift?”

“Yeah, my mom couldn’t wait until tomorrow, so she gave it to me before I went to school.”

“That is so sweet. But hey, speaking of…”

“It’s cool. She’s still at work. I think she wanted to have dinner with me tonight, but we should be good.”

“And you’re certain she won’t be mad at you for skipping?”

Alexis paused for a beat.

“Of course she’ll be mad, but with how late it is already, I’m more certain that she’d rather just go straight to bed when she does get home. She probably won’t notice that I’ve been out, and we can just have dinner over the weekend.”

She put the car in drive. “If you say so.”

“We’ll be fine. I’m not missing this party for the world.”

They both smiled.

“Not to hype you up or anything, but I pulled out all the stops so this night would go perfect. Maria’s scoping out Braham Barn as we speak, she’s got the cake already, and a good number of your volleyball friends are on route right now. Not to mention all the college kids that’ll be there just because it’s the weekend. It will be lit.”

“If that was you trying to temper my expectations, then you did a terrible job.”

“I’ll do you one worse then. He is going to be there.”

“He who?”

“You know who.”

Even in the dark, she could see Alexis start to blush.

“Oh fuck, Katy, you didn’t.”

“I so did.”

“No, that’s it. I’m getting out of here. I’m going home.”

She peeled out of the parking spot. Tires squealing.

“No way, Lexi,” she said. “Brandon will be there, you will be there, and you two will hit it off and it is going to be-”

“Perfect, I know,” Alexis said, a nervous smile on her face.

“Then get yourself together, Lexi, this is all for you. So, are you ready to go in there and party your ass off or not?”

The car hit the road, speeding off. She glanced at her best friend.

Alexis took a deep breath, as though she was about to dive head first into something crazy. Because she was, absolutely, but she wouldn’t be alone. There would always be someone watching over her, keeping an eye on her, reading her.

But for now, she was going to have some fucking fun.

“Yeah,” Alexis said, nodding, smiling wider. “I’m ready. Let’s give them hell!”

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Interlude – Alexis

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The girl, lying there at the crossroads, bloody and broken, close to dying a dog’s death, stared up with a foggy gaze at the man in grey who stood above her. Blinking once, twice, eyes starting to glaze over. A miserable display, but there wasn’t much left for her to show.

No name, no self, not even any limbs to affect the world around her.

Not much left at all.

“You…” the girl said, or breathed, rather. A repeat of what she had just heard, or acknowledging the man in grey? Even the girl didn’t know for sure, she was losing her focus, her grasp on things.

The man in grey made a face. The girl couldn’t guess on what it conveyed.

He didn’t respond, not right away, not with words. He instead removed something from his coat pocket, a uniform with a neutral color. A device.

Clicking a button at the top, a light glowed, and he held it to the girl’s face. Her eyes, shining the light right into them.

The girl winced, blinking some more, but not closing her eyes. She was still in a daze.

“You can still see? That does not surprise me but it does… intrigue me.”

The man in grey spoke with a slight accent, but the girl couldn’t pin down where it might have come from. He continued to move the light from one eye to the other, examining her, studying her.

“Pupils respond accordingly, breathing has gone stable, infection rate is… You have become quite the host, haven’t you? The Red Queen has found quite the crown in you.”

She couldn’t understand these words, and she didn’t care to understand them. The only meaning she got out of them was fear. The fear. What she couldn’t understand, she had to instead be afraid of. A way of survival, preservation. And somewhere, deep into the very core of her being, still kicked and screamed as if there was a chance.

That instinct bubbled up within her, rising to the surface, manifesting as squirms and wriggles. Writhing in pain and using that sensation to further more movements, however limited.

She’d swim in that pain, even drown in it, if it meant getting to live a little longer.

But she couldn’t understand why she was fighting so hard, even now, and that scared her even more.

To swim in a circle. A spiral.

The man in grey clicked away the light, and returned it to his coat pocket.

“No no, we can’t have that. You see, it took all the running you could do, just to keep in the same place. Do you know that one? So the queen and the crown will be coming with us.”

That only made the girl swim harder.

“I don’t want to, I don’t want to. I want to go home, I want to go home! It’s almost midnight, she’s waiting for me, at home. Mother, my mother. I need to see her. Home. Need to see her. Waiting and waiting. Should have never went outside. Shit, I knew it. I knew it, shit… shit…”

She kept on until she was incoherent, muttering words that made sense to her and only her. Until they were almost like incantations to her, binding her mind into some sort of spell. Hypnotizing.

Standing straight, the man in grey continued to look down at the girl. At her efforts.

“Nolla.”

The Shape beside him moved in response. If that was an order or a name, the girl didn’t know.

Stepping in close, aising that weapon again, aiming it deliberately above her heart.

The girl froze, a chill running through her blood.

“You mustn’t make this so difficult,” the man in grey said, “For me, but especially for yourself.”

She snarled.

“Dignity, right?”

Then she stopped, lying flat again on the concrete.

“Shit…”

Her eyes started to well again.

Standing above her, the two lost their definite shapes as the tears fell like rain. She knew how terrible she looked, how ugly she felt, but this was beyond her, now. She had lost all control of the situation, and her grasp on herself was loosening as well. Falling like rain, falling to pieces.

It was all too much to bear.

She continued to sob, as if that meant something. She wept and mourned her own uselessness, wishing she could abandon it and herself, as she had always done before, when things have proved to be too difficult. To fragment, discard, and disassociate.

But she could no longer. Not here. Not when she was at the end of all roads, to the point that they began to intersect and weave and cross into one another, there was nowhere else for her to go.

Unable to run, unable to hide.

No more turning back.

The man in grey answered what truly was the girl’s sad display.

Wunderkind, there really is no need to fret. If you wish to see your mother again, then you are quite in luck after all.”

Hearing that enough to calm her for a moment. But only for a moment.

“Wha… what?”

The man in the grey nodded.

“Yes. She would be pleased to see you, I’d imagine. And, speaking strictly for myself, I know I am pleased to finally meet with you. Nolla tries not to show it too much, but a game of chase wouldn’t have lasted this long if there wasn’t any enjoyment to be had.”

The first form the girl had encountered, the Shape, Nolla, remained as still as ever. Still silent, still unmoving, and still seemingly without feeling.

The girl tried to take in a deep breath, but the air she sucked in was shaky, and was exhaled as a wheeze. She hiccuped again.

“Are you… calling this… a game?”

She asked, almost in disbelief.

“I am not trying to call this anything, little one, except, perhaps, a family reunion.”

“A… family…”

The girl didn’t finish that thought. Or couldn’t. Either way, it didn’t really matter.

“It may be a more… sentimental way of putting it, but I am a man of sentiment, so you will have to forgive me that. I hope you will.”

“I don’t understand,” the girl said, which was beginning to sound like a mantra. Or maybe it always was one. Either way, it didn’t really matter. Not anymore.

“That’s quite alright. You will in due time. I suppose we can make do with some informal introductions, since we will have to get a move on.”

The man in grey gestured to the Shape beside him, still aiming that thing squarely above the girl’s heart, which was beating at a increasingly rushed beat by the minute.

“This is Nolla, your… half-sibling. Yes, that’s about right. As for me, well, there’s not much to say about me at all. Ein Landarzt, perhaps, but you may refer to me as… your grandfather.”

The man in grey… Grandfather.

“Grandfather,” the girl said, the word slathered with as much venom and blood as she could spit, some of it actually dripping down her face, “You have no fucking idea how much shit you put me through…”

Various images came to her, flashing past her eyes. All the pain, all the hardship, the misfortune that was enough to fill over a dozen novels, all of them filled with pages and pages of torment and misery. If there was any happiness it was but a fleeting moment, a glimmer of light gliding across the surface of a waterfall that would only ever go in one direction. That sun and that water, they were two very physical, very separate things, and their meeting was only a transient experience.

This chase between a cat and a mouse…

Losing her gang and the few meaningful connections she had there…

Losing the life of a child she made herself responsible for in a demented roadtrip across a hellish landscape…

Losing her very self in a too-bright hallway, one of many steps in a spiral descent into destruction…

Grappling with her sense of purpose and identity in a pursuit of vengeance…

Losing her mind in place where she thought she would have been the most safe, a school…

Losing her best friend’s father…

Throwing her life and those orbiting it into chaos for some misguided sense of justice…

Hiding herself behind a mask, from a world which she knew would hate her, and did…

Seven days in Hell. Seven very long days.

That hour before midnight, at a time when she wasn’t even supposed to be out.

It shouldn’t have been like this.

But also…

It seems like it was always going to be like this, from the start.

A cycle.

“This is all your fucking fault,” the girl said, seething, but also knowing just how wrong she was.

Grandfather shook his head.

“While I am sympathetic to your situation, as anyone would and should be, I unfortunately cannot assume any responsibility to what you have done to yourself. I mean, look at you, you’re so thin. A shame to see a grandchild of mine having starved themselves to such a state. Meat, you know, all things have meat on their bones, why didn’t you take any?”

The girl only stared, hard, with hatred. For both herself, her grandfather, then that vision exploding to the world at large.

Grandfather only continued. He shrugged.

“Though, as someone who should, in theory, assume a parental role of some capacity, I do feel as if some blame can be shifted over to me. My apologies, sincerely.”

The girl was as silent as Nolla, now. She tried not to think of it as some shared trait between… between half-siblings.

“Because the truth is I have been watching you for quite some time. It was hard not to, considering how busy and very public you have been. I desperately wanted to meet with you and have you brought back as well, but as I mentioned, the spotlight stayed on you, and it was much too bright. So I waited. And now, it seems to have dimmed enough.”

Grandfather gestured to the night sky, hands together. There was a certain… meaning to it. Like a prayer.

“And now, here we are. I am sorry that it took me so long.”

Then, Grandfather gestured again.

Nolla didn’t move, their arm still frozen in place, despite holding something that looked to be rather heavy. It was the weapon that moved. Spiraling, the black tendrils charging with energy, humming and even crackling. The girl imagined it laughing at her.

Speaking over the low buzzing of the instrument, the plaything.

“Oh, and how inconsiderate of me. Enkelkind, I never got your name.”

“Name?”

The girl raised her head, brief, before dropping it again. Tired.

“Yes, little one, your name.”

Those various images hadn’t stopped running through her mind. Endless and repeating, looping, like a snake eating its own tail.

They repeated until they seemed real and corporeal, something she could retreat into. So she did. For she had nowhere else to go.

She searched for her answer there.

“My name is…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

been

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

before…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fields of dried vegetation, swaying in a light wind that also brushed against her face and hair. A dirt path that seemingly stretched forever.

The girl walked along this path. She didn’t care how long it would take her until she got to the end, or if there even was one. She walked.

A feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her heartbeat was steady. She couldn’t quite name it.

But she also felt as though she could figure that out if she kept walking.

So she did just that. She kept walking.

It was nighttime. She was fine with that. She was used to the dark.

She walked for long time.

Her perception of time seemed to have dulled, or maybe that particular sense had left her forever. She was fine with that too.

She kept walking.

The girl listened to the bristling leaves, the dirt shuffling underneath her feet as she dragged them slightly. The fields went by, she watched the scenery pass. Listlessly.

To the key of this, she listened.

Eventually, or maybe instantly, the girl wasn’t sure of which, the girl arrived at the end, because all things had one after all. There would be no exception here. Not for her, and certainly not for this.

At the end of the dirt path was a house. Or a mansion, to be more specific.

Imposing and harrowing, yet also hollow, a husk of an old life. One full of pain and sin and violations. All that was left for it now was to be left alone and die and decay.

She wasn’t sure if she had been walking to this place, or returning to it.

Either way, it was the perfect place to rest.

The girl let herself in.

The interior of the mansion appeared to be in better shape than what she saw outside. Not that it surprised her, but it wasn’t what she had expected. She expected old, dusty furniture, wallpaper peeling off the walls, faded colors and a musky smell, like old wet wood. Being inside now, she saw none of that. The opposite, in fact, was true. The place was clean.

Letting herself deeper into the mansion, she had a look around. There wasn’t anyone else present, and it was quiet. It was serene, actually, just having a chance to walk through the area and not be concerned with anything else. A certain… tension, that would usually hold a tight grip on her heart, but in this instance, it wasn’t there.

Strange. She wasn’t used to that.

Finding herself in a large common room, she immediately realized that she wasn’t alone after all.

Sitting by themselves, on a couch at the other side of the room. The light in here was limited, only a few stray beams, but the girl could see well enough. Leaning on one side, eyes closed, head back, they were asleep. Quiet, even calm.

Drawn like a magnet, the girl crossed the space without really thinking about what she was doing, or about to do. She didn’t want to disturb them from their slumber, but something about them… allured her.

About halfway, before the girl could ever reach out and touch them, they stirred. The girl stopped.

They got up on their own, waking, rubbing at an eye and scratching under their chin. They yawned, a graceless and inconsiderate sound, but they didn’t seem to know that they had to consider anyone else at all.

Pushing their hair away from their face, the girl confirmed that they were a she. Stirring some more, yawning again, the other girl blinked until she could properly take in her surroundings. It didn’t take long for her to notice that she wasn’t alone, herself.

About to stretch, she stopped, then covering her open mouth with a hand. Eyes darting away, she looked embarrassed. The first girl couldn’t help but feel endeared by it, which made her share in that embarrassment as well.

Then she blurted out a greeting.

“Hi!”

They stared at each other.

The first girl wanted to cover her open mouth too, but more just slap herself. She hated how stupid she sounded.

They stared at each other for some time.

It was the second girl who broke the silence. Her light bout of laughter filled the home. Tinged with nervousness, but she laughed anyways.

“Hi!” the second girl said back, still struggling to calm back down. She covered her face more.

Which only made the first girl more aware of herself, standing there, feeling like an idiot, because she felt that she probably was one, but it was made much more clear to her now.

“Can I at least take a seat?” the first girl asked.

Between those fits of laughter, the second girl patted the cushion next to her.

Still unsure of herself, but the first girl moved despite that. Taking a seat next to her companion.

The second girl finally managed to put her fluttered laughs in check, and the silence returned. But it was different silence. There was a new note to it. Somehow.

“Hi,” the first girl said, giving it another shot. Came out less awkward this time.

She got a nod in response. “Hi.”

Another pause. A beat.

“Sorry for waking you.”

“No you’re good, I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping for that long anyways. Uh, do you have a name?”

Odd, the first girl felt as if she had already been asked that. But here, in this place, with her, without any of the usual tension that gripped her, she found that she could answer that question, despite some initial consideration.

“It’s, uh, it’s V.”

“V?”

“Like the letter?”

“Is that like a nickname? Who names themselves after just a letter?”

V folded her arms, a bit annoyed at that.

“Well, there’s Wendy.”

“There you go, that’s a pretty name.”

V… Wendy unfolded her arms.

“I’d ask you yours, but I think I already know.”

The second girl nodded, slow, and when she did answer there was a lot less consideration for it.

“Alexis.”

The name hit her like a truck, but Wendy remained sitting, back straight. She had braced for that impact.

Wendy breathed.

“Well, Alexis, I’ve run out of lies to tell, so I’ll just come out and say it. We’re fucked.”

Alexis frowned.

“You couldn’t have put it some other way?”

“There is no other way to put it. We are fucked.”

Alexis grimaced at every utterance of that word. She held up a hand.

“Got it. Thanks.”

Seeing her here, being with her, it was almost overwhelming. No, not almost. It was.

She had braced for it, but that impact still hit hard.

Dots hit her lap, wet. Without realizing it, while she spoke to her, Wendy had been crying.

Her hands reached out, until they found firm shoulders. Wendy dropped her head down, and continued to weep.

“I am so… sorry…” Wendy said between bursts of sobs, “I thought I could be better than you… I thought I would have been able to surpass you if I just threw you away… But, in the end, I just made it all worse. I fucked it all up!”

In contrast to Alexis, Wendy was shaking, bawling hard at her own self-loathing. It was all too much to bear.

Then something touched her face. Wendy flinched.

Wiping away the tears, thumbing just underneath her eyes, Wendy felt her cheeks go dry. Fingers worked in holding and helping her, tender.

When Alexis spoke, it was with a certain sageness. A reserved wisdom.

“It’s okay, Wendy, it really is. You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

“But, but…”

“But nothing. You did an amazing job, taking care of things while I was asleep here. You protected me, took all the heat when I wasn’t able to. You know, I should be the one apologizing, I put you to all that and you never asked for it. It’s my fault.”

Wendy shook her head, and kept shaking. She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to be told that.

“That’s not true, it isn’t. I should have… I should have been better, I should have done more… I should have asked for help…”

“A lot of shoulds,” Alexis said, “But that’s kind of the conceit, isn’t it? You always find an easier way around things once you get a chance to look back and see how you went through it the first time… that was a clunky way of putting it, I’m sorry.”

Wendy shook her head again, nuzzling herself into her counterpart’s shoulder now.

“Don’t be, I know what you mean. Hindsight is a bitch.”

Alexis laughed a little.

“That’s it.”

They stayed there for what felt like the better part of an hour, but time was a forgone concept, now. It didn’t matter. Wendy even had the faintest of hopes that they could stay like this forever.

That hope was soon dashed, however, when she felt the slightest of nudges, indicating to straighten herself back up. Wendy did so, blinking away more tears.

Alexis still had her hands on Wendy, to wipe her eyes.

“You’re so much stronger than you think, Wendy, I’m sure you’ve been told this?”

“If I have, I don’t remember.”

“Come on, there was that… what was her name? Sarah?”

Wendy felt her cheeks go warm. She was scared that Alexis might feel that too.

“Her? Please, I don’t even know what that was.”

“That was real, Wendy, that was yours. I can’t take that from you.”

Wendy tilted her head, leaning more into one Alexis’ palms.

“But if you do want to get into it… what have you done, Wendy?”

Closing her eyes, Wendy thought about it. They came to her like dreams. And she spoke of them.

“What have I done? I left home. Your home, our home, I left it behind so I could try and make my own name for myself, my own sense of self. I found others, we joined together and made a gang. D, Lawrence, and yeah, Sarah. We took over a territory, and I wanted to make it in my image. But I still had to figure out what that image was. Who I wanted to be, that kind of person… I still had a lot to figure out.”

Taking in everything, listening with intent, Alexis closed her eyes for a beat, and then opened them again.

“Okay, and what have you failed to do?”

Eyes closing again, Wendy thought about that too. They came to her like nightmares. Her voice trembled.

“What have I failed to do? I took too long, I stalled. I didn’t go about things a certain way, or I deliberately avoided looking at certain things. Who I really was, what was inside… our true nature, our shared heritage. I lied and ignored it because I didn’t want it to affect me, even though I relied on its power. But that type of thing doesn’t just go away, and it threatened to swallow me up, and it even did, on several occasions. Chewed me up and spat me out, and I still turned a blind eye to it. In the end, that made me lose sight of myself.”

“You’re not defined by what’s inside anymore than I am,” Alexis told Wendy, “But yeah, I suppose that does hold some importance, doesn’t it? We should have been…  a lot more diligent, in that respect.”

It was Wendy’s turn to laugh.

“Yeah, we should have.”

“A lot of shoulds.”

Wendy raised her hands, holding Alexis by the wrist. She didn’t want Alexis to pull away.

Then they looked at each other, deep within each other’s eyes. A shared link. A newfound connection.

“I don’t want to disappear,” Wendy said. Admitting it. Saying it out of nowhere but she meant every bit of it. “I thought I did, but I really… really don’t. I’m so scared. I don’t want all my effort to go to waste.”

“I know,” Alexis said, a warm tone, a hint of melancholy. “I’m in the same boat as you.”

“And that boat is sinking,” Wendy said.

“I know,” Alexis said again. “But that’s just how it goes. We take, and we get taken from. Drink, and be drained. Rinse and repeat until it’s over, and then it starts all over again. But… it wasn’t all bad. Some good things happened too. Like-”

“I know,” Wendy said for herself. “Like kicking butt in paintball?”

“Or playing games with D?”

“Jumping over rooftops?”

Alexis smiled.

“I was going to say the same thing.”

“Beat you to it,” Wendy said, smiling now too.

It was easy to sit here in this moment and be absorbed in it, the experience sublime. Forever, to stay in here and never venture out there again. Here, things seemed actually okay, and that was the greatest surprise.

Then, what little light was in this space vanished, winked out of existence. Something outside interfered, as if to eclipse this moment.

Wendy watched Alexis.

Her smile dropped, her lips forming a line. Stoic.

She had a feeling on what was about to happen. If time mattered here, it would have been designated as midnight.

Moving in conjunction, in consideration with one another, Wendy and Alexis both set their arms down. But their hands remained clasped together, fingers intertwined.

“Your hands are cold,” Wendy said.

“Mom always told me that. Do you remember?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Another beat. There was already so many.

Alexis got up from the couch.

Wendy refused to let her go.

“But I have to,” Alexis said. Her eyes weren’t on Wendy anymore, instead to the door, on the other side of the space. To the outside.

“Don’t,” Wendy said. She pleaded. “Stay here. Alexis. Please. You can go back to sleep.”

Alexis shook her head, hair swaying slightly.

Weny continued, begging now.

“I don’t want to…”

Her voice broke.

Alexis’ did, but she spoke anyways.

“I know you don’t. But you… we won’t. At least, I don’t think so. Not for some time. Eventually, at the very, very end, we all become ash, picked up by the wind. To dust we shall return. In time we’ll all be forgotten, but that’s okay. In our time, our time, we did what we could, we affected the world around us. We gave it our all. We fucking tried. You can’t say that we didn’t, right?”

“Right,” Wendy said.

“It was all too much to bear, huh? But I didn’t have to do it by myself. I owe you so much, Wendy.”

“Isn’t that what this is still?”

Alexis shrugged. And slight, silly laugh.

“Oh well. When you say it, you become it.”

“A monster?” Wendy suggested.

“I was going to say fool.”

“Close enough.”

Alexis looked from Wendy to the door, again, and again. Now it was her turn to have tears in her eyes.

“I’m glad I got to talk with you. It was sad, but it was sweet too.”

Still sitting on the couch, Wendy tried to come up with something else to say. Anything, to make her stay a little longer.

“I want… fuck… now-”

But all words were failing her. At this critical moment.

Alexis took the lead again. Wendy let her go.

Raising a hand, raising her index and middle fingers, Alexis waved.

“V for victory?” Alexis asked, as if to make sure.

Mustering the last of her courage, Wendy returned to Alexis the same gesture. The same symbol.

“Peace,” Wendy said. She could tell Alexis liked that answer.

There was nothing else to say. Nothing else that could be said.

Alexis set her hand down, and turned. She started walking, heading to the door.

“Funny…” she then added, like an afterthought.

“What?”

“We never did learn how to drive.”

Wendy tilted her head, and when she did, she regretted it, as a sudden weariness began to overtake her. Or, there was a chance it had been there the entire time, and she was finally allowing herself to submit to it. She leaned more into the couch.

“And you never learned how dangerous it is to walk alone at night!”

Her final protest.

It was met with a laugh.

“Yup, I never learn!”

Then Alexis was out the door, passing that threshold, her image blending into the dark, dissipating.

And then she was gone.

Wendy blinked, and when she did, she regretted it, as her eyes were steadily becoming heavier and heavier. Head too. Entire body.

She leaned over all the way, until she had fallen on the couch, taking the place of the girl who was just here moments ago. Sleeping.

And now it was her turn to sleep.

Wendy let her eyes close shut, and then she dreamed dreams, until she drifted like ash, and returned to the dust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

be

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She found her answer.

“Alexis… My name is Alexis.”

The man in grey, the one who called himself grandfather, took in that answer and acknowledged it.

“Alexis… do you know what that name means?”

“I don’t.”

“It has its origins from Greece. From the Greek alexo, meaning to defend, or to help.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Do you believe that name to suit you? Names are very important, if you did not know.”

“I do,” Alexis said, “But I couldn’t say for sure, if that name really suits me. I could barely defend or help anyone, much less myself.”

She breathed.

“But I’ll wear that name. I never chose it… it was given to me, but I’ll wear it all the same. I’ll shoulder the burden… all I have are my shoulders anyways. I won’t draw up a blank anymore, and I won’t be reduced to a letter. I’m done playing make believe. This isn’t a game anymore.”

Grandfather nodded, as though he understood, but she couldn’t give damn whether or not he did. Those words were never meant for him, Alexis knew. This was never about him.

The tears had stopped falling. She had stopped crying some time ago, but she had been made into such a mess that it was hard to tell the difference. Red as an apple. But that was fine. She accepted that unsightly version of herself, too.

Grandfather then righted himself, glancing sideways to Nolla.

“Yes, I agree. Once the children are done playing they must return to home. And your mother is terribly sick and deathly worried about you. I am certain that, once you two are reunited, she will start to feel much better. All because of you.”

Alexis kept silent.

Still looking at the half-sibling, Grandfather tilted his head towards Alexis.

“Now if you please, let us begin the journey back.”

Nolla’s only indication that the order was recognized was the spiraling of the weapon, the tendrils moving into place again.

Over the humming, she heard a faint whisper, a dreamlike murmur before falling completely into a slumber.

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

It would be, and it had been.

Alexis moved.

Rolling onto her stomach in what she guessed to be the last second, she just narrowly dodged the impact that had been deliberately aimed for her heart. Instead it clipped her in the back, obliterating her shoulder blades.

It burned her, but she was numb to the pain now. Or rather, it was inconsequential to her. This was temporary, it would soon be over.

She didn’t see Grandfather’s reaction, but she did hear it.

“Nolla! You aim right or there is no going back!”

No going back.

Exactly right.

Alexis heard that instance again, that thin static before the thunder. It was about to boom again.

She propped herself up with her half-arm, her half-leg, readying herself.

Her back to the weapon, she knew it was spiraling again, trying to hit a specific piece of Alexis. Maybe Nolla could get a clean shot from the back. Alexis wouldn’t let Nolla get that chance.

Her eyes were wide open now. Level, focused.

Then she spun around, pushing herself up with that ruined arm and leg. Even with those limbs, she still had some significant strength stored within them.

Enough to send her entire body flying.

It was only by a few inches, but it was all she needed. Enough to mess with Nolla’s aim.

Alexis felt the thunder, hitting her full-body.

The fire encompassed her, burning from the inside out, until she was of ash.

And as she returned to the dust, Alexis had but a single, already passing dream.

Always making the same mistakes. Stumbling in the same spot, every time. No matter how many times I do it again and again. I’m such a mess.

I bet if I started from the beginning again, I’d end up right back here.

But…

I think it was worth it.

I think it was worth the trouble.

Because…

Through my bruises, the blood, being beaten black and blue…

Something bloomed.

Something I could have learned to love.

Something that, given time, would have grown and become beautiful.

So, yeah…

If given the chance to start over, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.

So yeah.

I guess that’s about it.

Good night!

And so it was.

Previous                                                                                               Next

110 – Living Dying Message to the World

Previous                                                                                               Next

I sobered up real fucking quick.

Quick and skittish, my eyes went up and down the length of my arm. Or what was left of it

What was left of it?

Half.

The lower half was missing at the elbow.

It just was not there.

I couldn’t even find it anywhere on the ground. I couldn’t even pick it up and try to reattach it myself. If that was even something I could do.

The lower half of my right arm was simply gone. It had… dematerialized.

And I wasn’t healing.

Nothing was coming out. Nothing was coming out.

I knew that already.

The sight of it though, sent through me a pervading sense of dread, with how the skin was cracked and hard as stone. Charred black, with even some veins that ran up from the wound, seeped deep with the color.

It wasn’t any injury I had seen before. Or anyone, possibly, for that matter.

Gingerly, my fingers reached towards the blackened stump. It wasn’t even throbbing or thrumming with any pain, it was just there, mocking me with how it wasn’t healing, that particular power somehow deciding now was the time to be shy. I was as irritated as the skin appeared to be.

The beginnings of a headache waxed, the pangs as high as the moon above, and as full, too. I blinked and shook my head to reorient myself. I couldn’t put all my thoughts on that arm. Not forever.

Not when we have death standing right before us.

I looked up again.

The form was still standing there, the figure. The Shape. Small in the distance, hard to distinguish much by moon and lamplight. Sex, age, actual height, it was nearly impossible to determine from here.

From here.

And yet they managed to blow half my arm off.

There was already some distance between me and them…

I started to put some more.

I ran.

I picked myself up and took off in a direct line away from the form. Stumbling, since I instinctively tried to push myself off the ground using both hands, and remembering I only had the one now.

The last thing I saw of the Shape as I turned was of it standing there, still as a statue, arm still outstretched. Holding whatever it was that reduced the full length of my arm to just the elbow, and stopped my healing from working.

A crack of light split the air behind me, and a boom of thunder followed. Another one.

I ducked, getting off the street and towards some buildings, an attempt to find some cover. There was a tea kettle ringing in my ears, so sharp, it was as if the sound penetrated through my skull and brain and out the other side. I wobbled as I moved from street to sidewalk, back to a proper pace once feet found grass.

What the hell were they shooting at me with?

Couldn’t even turn back to find out, which made a certain terror grip me even more tight.

They missed that time, but we’ve never been all that good with our luck. Please, keep moving.

I fucking knew that already.

I kept moving.

I was heading to what looked like tenements. They didn’t appear to be well held together, or even occupied, so I had no qualms about breaking and entering. As long as I could put some more distance and things between me and that. Them.

Every push of the leg came with an astounding power. I crossed the distance with a speed that would have blown away any top-tier athlete. Now, it was just a mad dash of desperation. Nothing graceful or impressive about it.

Moving to crawl up the side of the tenement, climbing my way up the side of a fire escape.

I crashed back down, shoulder digging into dirt.

Straightening myself, I was about to leap again and reach for the metal grating, when it came to me again, like a recurring nightmare, that I had tried to grab with my right hand first. It was a mistake I couldn’t afford to keep making.

Then the fire escape became a path I couldn’t afford to take.

Another instance of thunder, lighting flooding into my eyes for a flash, and the tearing and screaming of metal happened.

The fire escape had been blasted apart, to pieces, sharp in both pitch and debris. Shards sliced through the air, some sliced through me, sticking into my skin. I covered my face and turned away, and ended up raising one and a half arms in the doing.

Stumbling again away from the blast, I rolled with that momentum to keep moving.

Keep moving, keep moving.

I couldn’t keep pushing our luck.

Setting both arms down, I looked at the side of the tenement. The entire fire escape had collapsed, and it had torn down some of the brick wall with it. Several holes made themselves known to me. Wide enough for me to jump through.

I jumped.

Over the heap of metal and brick, I pushed myself through a part of the wall that had fallen out, practically flying through it. The hole there was almost like a wall in and of itself, a thin gossamer of black, a veil of absence. I broke through it and attempted to hide among the shadows, for what might be the last time.

Right inside was what appeared to be an apartment. The shell of one, anyways. There didn’t seem to be any sign of a current tenant, just the traces and marks leftover by previous residents, streaked across one another over the years, a film of dirt and abandonment smeared over the walls. History, too, with each skid of a shoe against the corner when a foot kicked it off, a mattress forgotten, having once been the only accompaniment to countless nights, tossing and turning away dark hours and darker anxieties, leaving when the sun shone through the glass, it wasn’t cracked before but it was now, that light going by the name, paranoia.

Morning hadn’t arrived yet. I was in the dark. I moved through the apartment like a ghost.

Broken and exposed doorways led me into a hall. Crossing it into another apartment.

The rotting door split open with a kick, and I stepped over a mushy carpet, sodden with something, leaving weighted footprints in the material. The tenement wasn’t unlike a corpse, already dead but decaying into something deeper, more base.

It was easy to imagine what happened, here. There was a community, neither big or small, but sizable enough to be affected by what was coming. Crime. Drugs. The gangs that brought them. The system. The tenements had turned into a territory, and the gang that was supposed to maintain the area didn’t put all that much care into it. They just needed it for the real estate, a place to set deals and meetings, among other things. Couldn’t be any less concerned with how they suffered the residents. One by one, the lifeblood of this place, and in this case this very building, drained, and soon was left a hollow husk, and even the gang lost interest, dropping their business here like they would a toy.

Parasites.

I ran through the dead veins of the building, each footstep like a small but ultimately futile pulse. This wouldn’t be enough to return any sense of life to this place, and it might not even be enough to save my own.

The pulses became harder, faster. I picked up the pace. I would not let this be the walk of the dead.

I entered a space more desolate than the first, more grim in the pictures these walls painted. Messy brush strokes of blood, darkened red, some in handprints, others applied with splatters. Shaped into some sort of Rorschach, blotches forming a spiral.

There was an art to it, if one could find beauty in death. Me? My sensibilities had been warped and twisted long ago.

Descending deeper in the dark, I passed something that reflected but a glimmer of light. It actually made me stop and look.

A mirror, broken and shattered, pieces missing. Starting from a point, a bullet hole, the cracks spiraling out. The mirror leaned against a wall, able to take in my full body.

Or was it mine?

The person in the mirror was disheveled, destroyed, looking at it another way. But in a way, there was no other way about it. Clothes were torn, didn’t even resemble a costume anymore. No gloves, no shoes. No mask. Their hair had gotten longer, and now it was uneven and choppy, sticking out and sticking on some places on their face.

Their eyes were heavy, baggy, overflowed with tears. Bits of human food and human blood were stuck around the chin. One and a half arms, legs, and clothes had been splashed with a certain mess and other detritus. Having sunk deeper and deeper to the very bottom, among the gloom that had already drifted there.

Was this what awaited me there, at the bottom? Was that me now? A skeleton of a thing, with long shadows drawn across the body, making it more ungainly, terrifying, no longer human. Or maybe it was never a human after all, with whatever was hiding under the skin finally rising to the surface, seeping through and exuding an ugly atmosphere, ready to subsume everything in its path. A certain change. My own Metamorphosis.

I couldn’t recognize myself, if there even was a self to recognize.

Shaking my head, my vision starting to flicker.

Another crash of thunder came from behind, and I went back to running… if not for my life, then for the one in the mirror, that broken and shattered person, with pieces missing. I ran for them.

I felt the whole building rumble from underneath my feet. I wasn’t supposed to be getting distracted, not here, not now. No time to question or consider anything, all physical and mental effort had to go towards survival, preservation. Even if it meant losing my mind in that pursuit, losing more things along the way.

The pieces fell as I found myself in a master bedroom. I wasn’t the only one in here.

A mother and a daughter. The younger one was held by the older, being sung to, a familiar melody. The room had an aroma that wafted about. Something sweet, but it was different. Not sweet like a strawberry jam, it was somehow deeper than that. Nostalgic even. The song reached my ears, that aroma hitting a core that stirred, a spiral direction.

The pair swayed together, a dance, slow and relaxed, a wishful trance. They seemed to not notice my intrusion. The ringing in my ears seemed to be in tune with the mother’s song.

No other exits. I’d get stuck here. Why had I gone this way?

The building began to rumble again.

I wanted to call out to them, but…

Make your own exit. Leave them. We’ve done it before.

We had, hadn’t we?

Before anything louder came crashing down around me, I pushed forward, past the couple, breaking them apart, and towards the thin wall on the other side. I leaned into it, favoring my half-arm, the shoulder, and the wall came tumbling down, with me following through it.

Then the bedroom exploded, turning into dust and debris.

The intense force was enough to send me rolling, but I was back on my feet and running.

Now forward like a pawn. Forward, forward.

I listened to the voice. Letting it guide me, letting it make me into whatever it needed me to be. Letting it use me. I’d let it. For us, for us. Forward. Forward.

And so I rushed. Forward. Breaking through every wall, every scene I’d come across. Another mother and daughter sharing a meal, fried chicken and miso soup, a girl sitting by herself, at the foot of a door, weeping with a great shame that she couldn’t quite place, and another sitting at a balcony, watching the city beyond it, imagining a fire large enough to consume it all

Most of the scenes, so many of them, all alone.

One by one by one by one, it all came crashing down to the back of me.

Each of them, those people, disappeared in the dust, as if they were being systematically eliminated. I couldn’t save them, even if I wanted to, even though I did want to. I was having too much trouble in saving myself.

With each blast, each crash of thunder, sweat rolled down my neck like hail. If I wasn’t running for my life, I would be shivering cold.

What was chasing me, what was making me run so fast? This was no human, this was a monster. Then what did that make me?

An animal? A mouse? As blind as three mice?

Was this all that was left for me? Endless running? Running in circles? Spirals? Countless questions in which I’d have no answers?

Pathetic. Pitiful. Laughable.

I laughed again.

If we can’t escape, we could try and stop them. Just one strike would be enough. Just one.

As many as a snake would need?

Yes, just like that. And we have the teeth for it.

We did, didn’t we?

We do.

Then, there.

Listening to the voice, so hot that it was melting my brain again. Oozing a grey matter that splashed and coated the already filthy walls when I turned my head.

Turning again, going out another way. Spiraling back around.

The tenements were becoming a labyrinth, and I was becoming lost within them. Limbs flailing in a mad dash, an ugly sight indeed. But that was fine. It was okay. Because, if I could buy just enough time for us, we could just make it out okay. We’d be fine.

I’d just have to strike. And I only needed one.

Following where I thought the thunder was coming from, seeing a cloud of accumulated dust kicking into the air, swirling the hall, I weathered it and ran through.

Silence fell upon my ears, or my madness was becoming so sharp that it began to dull other senses.

I stalked, or haunted, or hunted, whichever it was, I would soon find out, or I’d find them. Or they’d find me. I had to find them, I couldn’t let them find me. Because that wouldn’t be a good thing. No, no, it would not.

There there.

There.

I swore I saw a form in the dark. My eyes surely wouldn’t play a trick on me now, would they? Of course not.

There they were. Standing there. Still as always. Couldn’t be human, possibly a monster. Maybe like me.

I’d just have to strike. And I only needed one.

Grinning at the idea, teeth baring, I thirsted for one.

There.

I leapt with a strength that would have crushed anyone else.

I heard a single instance of a boom of thunder. Not in the direction of the Shape I was looking at.

I was crushed.

Sent through the wall, spinning. I had twisted and tried to dodge. Tried. Because it but a mere attempt.

A pathetic, pitiful, laughable attempt.

The impact was hard enough to send me flying through wood and glass. Splinters and chips were sticking out of me. Even more. I felt like a flower that was blooming shards of shrapnel.

I tried to shake myself off. Couldn’t do that. I tried to brush or pick out the fragments but I couldn’t do that either.

A harsh chill subdued me when I looked and saw why.

My left arm, from the joint of the shoulder.

Everything below.

It just simply wasn’t there.

Wild jerks of the torso. Reaching with arms that weren’t there, feeling with fingers that weren’t there. A dreamlike sensation. A phantom pain.

But the hurt of it, all too real. It turned me as red as an apple.

I threw up, and I barely had the arms to wipe it off.

Panicking, freaking out, losing it, I struggling to get back to on my feet. Turning onto my stomach, wincing when I lifted myself with my right stump, I pushed with my feet. I slipped, face hitting the floor, and with my rear up, I dragged myself until the top of my head hit a wall. I shifted positions, then slid up the wall with an insect-like crawl until I could stand.

Head was spinning.

I looked again.

From the shoulder, just like the elbow. The skin had been turned hard and burnt. The wound was hot and quickly cooling, and there was no indication that it would heal and get better.

There was no indication that any of this would get better.

I looked around.

No sign of what attacked me. The form. The Shape. The dust was begin to settle on this new equilibrium.

It’s not going to last. You’ll lose your balance. Forget about fighting back, just run. If you can’t lose them, if you can’t fight them, run.

The floor rumbled again. I was on shaky ground.

Run!

I followed that directive.

There was a glass door, a balcony leading back to the cold outside. I didn’t have the hands to throw it open.

Whatever. I was losing the sense to care anymore. I was almost welcoming the pain, at this juncture.

The glass fell around me in a burst when I went through it. Raising the stump to my face in a sad attempt to protect myself. It didn’t do shit. Funny.

A free fall, but I hardly felt free at all.

No hands to aid in my landing. I collapsed instead into a heap of my own bones. Broken.

Those bones healed, allowing me to stand yet again. My powers were mocking me, now, too. I couldn’t regrow my limbs, but I could heal just enough to keep going. Just enough to keep suffering. Just enough to live these moments in agony.

Just enough.

There had to have been a wild look in my eyes. I was searching for some kind of respite, anyone or anything that might deliver me from this.

None. No one else with me, nothing that could be of any use. As useless as I was proving to be.

I was so alone.

I wasn’t even human. Hadn’t been for some time. Why was I acting as if I was saving a human life? Wouldn’t this all be for nothing?

Stop that.

Fuck this. Fuck everything.

I wanted break this. I wanted to end it all. Burn it all down. Fuck it all up. I hated this shit for so long. The world that made me this. The girl that had brought me here. Hated me.

Don’t.

Wouldn’t it be better if I just fucked off and disappeared? Quit while I was still ahead? Quit while I still had a head?

I laughed at that, even though it was a terrible idea. I’d be heard, I was still being followed.

By something, by someone.

Swaying, as if I was sleepwalking now, through what was certainly a terrible dream, every step heavier than the last, head buzzing, body throbbing, as though that light rain continued to fall down on me. But that thrumming passed through me and the core as waves, and I swayed and swayed some more.

I was losing it, but there was a very real possibility that I never had it at all.

The tenements around me turned into towers, tipping over and threatening to topple. Or was I faltering that much already? I wasn’t used to the weight on my shoulders, or lack thereof, wanting to move or stretch an arm but I couldn’t and it only frustrated me further and…

Fuck.

Fuck this. Fuck everything. Fuck me.

Seriously.

God fucking dammit.

This isn’t a joke anymore. Stop playing around.

Make me.

What else was there? What more could I do?

There wasn’t an answer for some time.

I moved as though I was floating. Blood dripped down and stained my hair, face, eyes. It waaaas getting harder to seeee…

But you were doing so well before.

Well? That could considered a good job? Fuck that.

Maybe I should just search for a place to rest instead. Like a dog searching for place to rest. In peace.

Because victory was no longer an option.

What did that guy say? Someone said something. It was an animal.

To have some dignity. It would be better, wouldn’t it?

They’re still there. They all are. If you need a drink, we can go back.

Go back?

Weren’t we trying to leave that place?

How bad was it getting, that I couldn’t quite remember why anymore?

I just had the general sense that everyone and everything was out to get me.

So thirsty…

I did need a drink.

I needed to heal myself up.

These wounds, scarred and blackened.

Would it work?

There’s no other option.

No other option.

In other words, no choice.

Without thinking about it anymore, because there wasn’t much of a mind left to use, I staggered and spun, nearly stumbling over like I did so many times before.

Gathering all the strength I had left, what little there was. Putting it into the last two proper limbs I had.

One foot ahead of the other.

Things rushed past. Tall things. Big grey lumbering things. I couldn’t even recognize them anymore, not that they were ever particularly memorable to me but the concept of them were becoming lost on me.

I just saw colors, blurring and blending and bleeding so hard that I was becoming blind to them.

Moving without thinking. Spiraling back to where I had started from. Someone, somewhere, would see this, read this, and they would laugh, I bet. Just as I was doing right now.

Oh, to be this fucked up.

There was almost a freedom in losing myself in depravity.

It was a gut feeling that led me to where I was going, wherever that was. A spot for drink. Hunting for the dead like vultures.

But my wings were clipped. Jumping, flying became impossible, so I was left scrambling like a little mouse instead. A crossbreed between so many different creatures, but right now I was displaying the most feeble of them all. The prey.

All we need is a sip. Just one drink.

Just one drink. Yes. That was all we needed.

Just one drink.

In our stomach, in our throat, burning and yearning for something to give us our fill. Just one drink.

Our eyes landed on big bright ball in the black sky again. The moon? The sun? The world itself?

Watching. Like it always did.

So high up over everything or everyone. Where we had always wanted to be.

Why?

We used it like we would a star, letting it guide us again.

Just one drink.

Trailing after it like dust, in our stomach and throat, our nose, we could sense that we were going back the way we came. Just one drink.

Faster, faster.

Just one drink.

Smaller lights passed overhead, an orange, hazy glow. Could feel it, getting closer. Closer.

Sure it was there. Sure of it.

So close. We were so close.

We tripped.

Thunder.

Couldn’t get back up again. Wouldn’t.

Snapping back into a tangible reality, though it felt as flimsy as old cobweb, I soon recognized the situation for what it truly was.

Absolute hopelessness.

All that running for nothing. All for naught. Just a description of a struggle.

My right leg, from around the knee.

Only things around that I could see above me were streetlights, all blinking red. Looking around, from how the roads stretched, I was at an intersection. On the ground, flatlining in the middle of a crossroads.

But I was so close.

I never really had a chance. Not one.

Spiraling down, spiraling and spiraling, until I was at dead center. And what did that make me?

The target.

I didn’t hear the voice again.

Crawling was useless. Barely had the strength for it now.

On my stomach. Used what little power I had left to turn over on my back. The moon above, wasn’t there. Clouds were cutting through its light.

Or the tears were welling up too much.

Blinking didn’t help any.

Through the murky waters, I saw a form creep into my vision, blocking the light. A Shape.

Hard to make out, even at this distance.

Small, not much taller than someone like… a letter. Boy or girl, impossible to tell or even guess at. They wore a coat, or some sort of uniform, the colors neutral. They were completely silent.

Somehow… this wasn’t so unfamiliar to me.

They raised… that thing. Obviously some type of weapon. Nothing I had ever seen before. It opened out, spiraled out like snakes untangling. Black as my charred wounds.

Pointing it.

My left leg, from the base of the thigh.

Thunder.

Whole body was on fire.

They were as quiet as I was loud, screaming for a relief that would never come. Not for me. Not for us.

Then, without a word, without any regard for my squirming or wailing, the weapon pointed to my chest, right above my heart. It spiraled out again.

Feeling my chest twisting and tightening up, I swallowed, felt it scrape, dry, fruitless. I let my eyes close, slow.

And then I waited.

But nothing came. No flash, no thunder.

Was I being denied that, too?

Reluctant, wanting this to be over already, I looked once more.

They weren’t there, directly above. Off to the side, still pointing that thing at me. As if I was still somehow a threat.

Someone else was there instead. A man in grey.

Neither of them I knew. A world I had never ventured into. Now they were here, in mine. And they were about to end it.

The man in grey, for reasons only aware to him, because I surely lost the ability and will to even conceive of doing such a thing, smiled. The man in grey smiled.

And then he spoke.

“Hello to you, Meine Kreuzung.”

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109 – We are Innocent

epy arc 16 vamp

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The cat and the mouse.

One chasing the other. One being chased by the other.

An endless game. A constant loop. A part of nature.

A cycle.

For a little bit there, I was the cat. The one doing the chasing. Needing food. Always needing more. Taking what they took from me.

What did they take from me?

Everything.

My name. My sense of self. My ability to just stand still and be okay.

Those were the crimes I was accusing them of.

But.

Didn’t I end up taking those things from myself as well? In my chase, I invariably lost things along the way.

What were the crimes against me? Who committed them to who? Or was it just another cycle in an endless loop?

I threw myself into this. The world is, so therefore the outcome remains the same. No matter what.

No matter what.

Stick a hand in fire, it will burn. Each and every time.

In chasing after mice, I threw myself into the world. The fire. I burned.

But so does everyone else. In chasing after their own mice.

So what did I gain? What did I manage to take back for myself? Or did I have more to lose?

The world is spiraling into entropy, and all of us are just along for the ride.

No matter how many times the world turns, the cycle is all the same. Some may shuffle around to new positions, but it is always the same result. Every choice, every path, it seldom will change so it will always lead to this. From the beginning, it was always going to bring me here. All of us.

If I hadn’t gone outside that day.

No.

Because it was me, because it was that day, and all those previous days were those previous days, I would always step out into that cold night, walking on the path that would inevitably bring me here.

Each and every time. Like starting over a novel from the beginning. The cycle would loop back to here.

Here and now.

A car crash. A chase. The mice had set their own trap. The same cycle, but now the positions had shuffled.

So now I was the mouse.

And it

Was like coming out from a haze, a dream. A nightmare. But the terror was still very present, and very real.

Nauseous, discombobulated, dizzy. All over again.

Water splashed into my face and I choked, screamed, choked again. The water was hot.

“She’s up. Look at her, she’s shaking.”

There was laughter, a sickening note in the air.

My jaw was tight, teeth grinding, skin sizzling, and that voice was right, I was shaking. From both the heat and the suddenness of my coming to.

Feverish to the point of boiling. Then I was splashed again.

I heard other sounds now, outside of my gurgle and the laughter that surrounded me, taunting me. The tinny and tiny clattering of metal, distinct, and the hard knocks of wood, grating and skidding and screeching across a surface.

Harsh gasps for air, spitting and sputtering out hot water, dripping down my face and my hair, my clothes were soaked.

I couldn’t wipe my face.

My hands.

As the heat started to subside somewhat, blinking away water and now tears, I could start to feel the restraints.

Shackles and chains.

Locked into a wooden chair, my limbs framed across the arms and legs and tied so tight I couldn’t budge a finger. Enhanced strength wouldn’t amount to anything when I had zero room to move. The sheer weight on me was too much to bear, discouraging me to even try.

I spat more water, feeling some drool down the corner of my mouth, trailing off my chin. My tongue felt as heavy and dry as a brick.

Thirsty.

I was thirsty. But, it shouldn’t have been that long since the last time I-

Convulsing, trembling, hurting. Laughing and clattering and knocking and grating and skidding and screeching. The cacophony peaked again for a third crescendo.

I was panting and shaking like a wet dog, steam probably coming off my body, if I could see. Hair was starting to stick and poke into my eyes now.

Screaming, shivering harder. White hot. Blinded by pain and agony of which did know bounds, because I was it, and it encompassed me.

Couldn’t move an inch, aside from the chair skidding across the floor, slick with water, but not enough for me to spill over. I stayed sitting, steaming.

There was no cooling down from this. I couldn’t. As water dripped and soaked into my clothes and skin, I really felt as if I was melting.

Blood boiling.

“You’re up. Welcome back.”

I sucked in some air, some water coming with it. A vain attempt for a drink.

No sound came out from me. Nothing voluntary, anyways. A few wheezes. The rattling of chains.

“Need a little more? Here.”

I blinked again, and my vision cleared enough that I could catch the image of a rabbit standing in front of me, winding his arms back, holding a bucket. Water swirling inside, piping hot.

Hoarse, panicked, and even pitiful, I forced out a scream.

“No, no, please no!”

The rabbit stopped, swinging the bucket down but not spilling out the contents a fourth time. The rabbit set the bucket. Then someone else moved to collected it and positioned themselves where I couldn’t see.

My head was hanging, low, hair that wasn’t sticking into my face and eyes were pointing straight to the floor, dripping wet. There wasn’t a part of me that was dry. Breathing like a fish out in the open, exposed, dying.

I coughed again, and my whole body pounded. Hard.

Jaw hanging open, a long string of saliva stretching down, swinging slightly as I shook.

That voice called out to me again. A song. Sounded so far away, even though it probably was not.

“You ain’t thirsty? You’re call. We’ll be here a loooong time. To talk. So let’s talk.”

It was fucking near impossible to get my bearings on my surroundings, my self, much less how I even got here. Not even a blur. More like a smear, memories blending together, turning a once-blank canvas into something messy. Sloppy. Couldn’t even venture a guess at what the full image conveyed. Didn’t even want to. It was too ugly.

I closed my eyes instead. Focus on anything else but that.

Here. How to get the hell out of here.

“Wha… aaaaa…”

“She can’t even talk. How about squeal? Can you squeal, little mouse?”

It wasn’t laughter this time, or, there was a possibility that I was losing the ability to comprehend. The voices echoed around and even in my head. Ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing some more.

“Alright, I was going to give you the courtesy of going first, but you’ve seemed to want to concede things to me. Fine by me. I’ll start.”

My eyelids felt like they were wired shut, now. Opening them was akin to digging hands into the earth and splitting it in half from there. A monumental task for someone, something, so miniscule.

“A question. Just one. You into Chinese?”

I breathed. It came out hard and hoarse.

“We had some time so I had Toby Wong get some takeout for everyone. Isn’t that right, Toby?”

“I did, I did.”

“And what, exactly, did you bring back?”

“Fried crispy pork chop, deep fried pork intestine, beef with broccoli, kung pao beef, sizzling steak with black pepper but it stopped sizzling a while ago, sauteed shrimp, sesame chicken, moo goo gai pan, roast duck, and lo mein. Oh, hot and sour soup, too.”

“Hot and sour too, sounds like a mouthful.”

“That’s because it is. Got a lot of mouths to feed, apparently.”

“You’re right, Toby. Apparently we do.”

“What are you hungry for? I’ll let you have the first pick.”

“Um, let’s see here… I’m partial to lo mein myself.”

“Then lo mein it is.”

Other sounds. Crinkling plastic and popping of cardboard. Footsteps.

“What’s in it?”

“In it? It’s lo mein.”

“Like chicken, beef, shrimp, what are we, ah, here we are.”

“Got it all. Combination.”

“Went all out, very nice. Here, get me that.”

“Here you are.”

“Smells good.”

“Smells fucking good.”

“But, I think we should have our esteemed guest of honor take the first bite. What do you say?”

“Sounds like a great idea to me.”

“And the rest of you, what do y’all say?”

There were cheers and claps all around.

Then it got quiet. Short of my own haggard breathing.

Footsteps.

A sharp stabbing into my face that broke past my lips into my teeth going through my tongue down my gullet choking me and choking me and choking me and choking me-

-Something else was shoved down my throat. Intestines. Fish guts. Slime. Pig shit. Bugs. Snails. Dirt. Fingernails. Glass. Dust. Mud. Grime. Bile. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood-

It was my blood.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t do anything except suffer.

I suffered.

I fought, or tried, but I was too tired, my restraints biting into my arms and legs.

Hair pulled back, neck exposed with trash continuing to be forced down into it like clogged a chute. Couldn’t take any more.

Completely involuntary, I threw myself forward, folding up. I moved faster and harder than whatever had me by the hair had anticipated, and a handful of it tore out from the roots.

I started hacking the stuff out, or tried, but it was all too much. Overload. Nothing came out, or I didn’t feel it. Every one of my senses had hit red. Nerves raw.

More than just saliva was hanging from my lips now. A strand of something. Bits of others. And they all had a foul, worse than foul taste to them.

Moaning, dry heaving. Suffering.

“I don’t think she likes Chinese all that much.”

“No, Toby, I don’t think she does.”

It wasn’t even registering to me, what anyone was saying. Where I was. How I got here. Who I was.

“Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Head pounding, face like it was splitting open, skull throbbing so hard it might crack.

“Have some dignity. For your sake. It would be better that way.”

I lifted myself. Somewhat. I angled my head towards the direction of the voice, but that was the best I could do. That was about all I could do.

“Can’t… see…”

Which was true. Everything weighed on me.

“Oh? How about another wash?”

I screamed like it was a reflex. Jaws tearing apart.

“No anything but that no!”

Didn’t even sound like me. Didn’t know who that was.

“Then open your fucking eyes.”

It was work. But I managed. As if by a miracle. But there was no good fortune to be found here.

The lights were low, but they were blinding to me. Hard to see, near impossible. So I didn’t try.

Blinking tears and other things.

The voice spoke. Somewhere in front of me.

“God damn, you’re still alive. So it really is you.”

“Whatever… I am, sure, it’s me.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

“What…”

“Say it.”

“V.”

“The hell is a Vee?”

Defeated, I corrected myself. I didn’t want to get into it now. “Bluemoon.”

I couldn’t see, but I could feel a certain stillness run through the space of where I was, wherever I was. But that constant threat of violence was still there, hanging over me. It sat around me like a fog.

“Isn’t that a relief. And do you know who I am?”

“No…”

“Good, because it doesn’t fucking matter who I am. What matters is that we have you, and we stand to get a lot out of that.”

“I don’t have anything. Wherever you found me, you already took everything I had.”

“No, not everything. Because I wanted to make certain. I’m a careful sort, you see, I need to know what I have, when I have it. Nothing worse than having the rug swept out from under you. I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Yeah… I can…”

“When I found you, half of your body stuck in a gutter, in a pool of blood but with no visible wounds, I had a feeling. A small feeling, that I didn’t recognize at the time. But it grew, oh yes, it grew, until I could no longer ignore it and I had to tackle it head on. And that’s what I’m doing right now. Tackling it head on.”

I didn’t really have a response to that. I couldn’t even guess at what the voice’s real intentions were. If there were any.

“The others, they lasted about as long as you’d expect. Redness, irritation. Swelling in some parts. Even blisters, but that’s to be expected when you’re going for full. Do you know what full is?”

I didn’t answer.

“Full, as in full-thickness. There are four categories. Superficial epidermal, which affects only the outer layer. Redness, swelling, the usual. Superficial dermal, which reaches down the second layer. Nerve endings and blood vessels practically pop. Then there’s deep dermal or partial-thickness, which gets pretty bad, this is where you see the blisters. Heard you might not even feel anything at all. Looking at you, though, that didn’t seem to be the case. And then there is full-thickness. The most serious of skin burns.”

Breathing went hard again, feeling a chill. I was feeling a chill the entire time.

“It’s basically a third-degree burn. It can turn the skin to leather. Wax, even. Red to black, as the burn melts away the skin and deepens the color of your tissue. Most of them don’t even make it past a partial without passing out, later unable to sit or lean against anything because there are too many of those damn blisters. You, though? You. You just sat there and went through three washes hot enough to burn a man to a crisp. From the top of his head, to the tip of his dick.”

A sharp stabbing into my face that broke past my lips into my teeth going through my tongue down my gullet choking me again.

Again.

That sharp force went to my arms, where the chain were. From underneath, I could feel the sleeves being pulled away, sliding between skin and restraints, the water having made things slick.

“I don’t see a fucking bubble on you! Where? Nowhere, that’s where! I can’t find one, I don’t see any!”

I was being rocked in my chair. Hard. A weight completely overtaking me.

Then I fell over. The floor had been made slippery, after all.

This was sloppy. This was a mess.

“Stop!”

“Let go!”

“Please!”

No one would listen.

Or maybe I wasn’t able to actually say anything at all.

Struck across the cheek. Stuff flicked out of my mouth.

“Get me the bucket!”

I started seizing again.

“The other bucket!”

Pulling against my restraints, not breaking them, but I was able to make my hands a little more free. I could wiggle my fingers. I wiggled them.

“I want you see this, too, because this is really something. This when I knew I really had something.”

The weight was taken off my body. Footsteps and other sounds, circling me.

“Open your eyes!”

I opened my eyes.

Still unable to see, but I could feel. My sense of touch had been ratcheted up to heights previously thought inconceivable.

Tiny dots, hitting my face. Like someone was flicking me with pebbles.

“Open them!”

“I am!”

“Do you see this?”

More pebbles. I twitched with each bit of contact. And they were numerous.

I had to will my vision to come back to me. The fog around me finally solidifying into… something. Something terrifying.

Hazy doubles formed back together into show me creatures. A dog, a monkey, even a horse. The one standing over me, the one who I knew was doing all this to me, was the rabbit.

Reaching into a bucket, grabbing a handful and tossing them at me. Peppering me with small white dots.

More and more.

“You know what these are?”

He wouldn’t stop.

“They’re yours!”

I flinched as they hit me. Then he dumped the rest of the bucket over me.

They fell like heavy snow.

Now that I was in a pile of them, it was easy to register. I screamed again.

Teeth.

Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Incisors. Canines. Premolars. Molars. Me.

I was buried in a pile of incisors and canines and premolars and molars.

All of them were mine.

I wouldn’t stop screaming. The girl, tied to the chair that had been tipped over, among a sizable collection made of her own teeth, would not stop screaming.

“They wouldn’t stop popping back out, no matter how many I took out, no matter how long you were out. Couldn’t fucking believe my eyes. They just kept coming and coming and coming, over and over, isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that fucking insane?”

The bucket was thrown down, hitting me at one temple and when my head whipped back the other temple hit concrete. I wasn’t seeing teeth now just stars.

“So we’re going to be here for a long, long time. Got enough food for all of us to have our fill and keep going. Got enough for you, too, even if you have enough fucking teeth to fill over a hundred fucking mouths!”

I was dizzying enough to throw up. So I did.

“Christ… You’re allowed to take a break.”

“Not now Toby.”

“I’m just saying, Dong-Yul was offering up a lot of dough for the Bluemoon. Dead or alive. More alive.”

“Dong-Yul can go get his fucking dick boiled, okay? I don’t give a fuck what that fucking gook has to say.”

“Alright man, it’s your call. Whatever you say.”

“God damn right it is. And what I say is, we’re not done with this little mouse. She threw all of us into this shithole, we’re taking her even deeper with us.”

“One call, they’ll be here in a minute, and we get to walk away millionaires. All I’m saying.”

“Another word from you like that and I’m putting you in that chair next.”

“All I’m saying.”

“That’s three, maybe three and a half. Fuck it. Help me get her up.”

In the haze that clouded my mind, I was only able to gather a few details. Few, but crucial.

They would be here any minute. They. Dong-Yul, maybe even Mrs. Carter and Styx too. The others at the table.

Could finish them off here, but I was reduced to something even lesser than dirt.

Had to get out of here and recuperate.

I felt hands on me, on the chair by my restraints. I did what I could. I moved my fingers.

Even as they lifted me, I moved my fingers.

That was all I had. Moving my fingers. That was my only available option towards an escape.

How pathetic. How sad. So pitiful I could laugh.

So I did.

I started to laugh.

Laughed so hard I cracked.

“The hell is wrong with her?”

“If you have to ask, Toby… Set her down there.”

They set me upright, but there was nothing up or right about me. I kept laughing, my fingers wiggling like worms.

“Hey, what the fuck are you on?”

A strike across the face. I didn’t even. I didn’t care about anything.

Laughter.

I couldn’t help it anyways, much less myself.

Another strike. Then a third.

“Who said you can find this funny? Who?”

Laughing. Fingers. Worms.

“How about this then, huh?”

The rabbit reached for one of my fingers and pulled it back. So far back that the fingernail was an inch close to my wrist. Eyes widened and I started crying.

“We cut your fucking finger off, how do you like that? Or maybe your whole hand even? Lord knows you’ll get it back. How does that sound!”

A cold fine point pressed into the finger, right above the knuckle.

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I also kind of liked the sound of that.

I was nothing but hysterical.

A cold fine point pressed deeper into the finger, right above the knuckle.

Then it cut right through.

And then it all was wrong.

Pain. Fire. Excruciating.

Screaming. Crying.

Not just me.

All wrong.

Again.

It got everywhere. Over everything. Blood and guts and gore and arms and legs and heads.

I saw sliced through the matter. Cutting the air itself.

Obsidian tendrils out of where my middle finger was supposed to be. Slinking, slicing, cutting through the air like a snake.

A snake with more than head.

They moved in spirals. Cold, in touch and indifference, leaving things in bits and pieces.

There were screams. Some didn’t last very long. Others never seemed to end.

I watched as the blood fell like rain.

And then it was over.

It happened fast.

Eyes wider still as the snakes, blacker than the shadows, spiraled and hit against something, somehow absorbing it. The finger that had been removed. Mine.

Then the tendrils retreated, slinking back where they came from.

I saw my finger return to me. Black for a second but then the color returned, as if it was being filled by something.

The force of everything was strong enough to knock and break the restraints there, and that arm was free.

Rain still seemed to fall in here when I worked on the rest of my bindings.

Then I was free. Or at least, I wasn’t in that chair anymore.

I looked around.

The dead and the dying. Bodies stacked from the floor to the ceiling. My eyes were hurting and bleeding but I could see that much. My eyes wouldn’t deceive me now.

Animals. Dogs, monkeys, horses, a cat and a mouse. rabbits. This place had been turned into a slaughterhouse. Sounded like one with the squeals, smelled like one with the blood.

I rubbed at my wrist, then hands. All ten fingers were accounted for.

I stared at each of them. Long enough that ten almost became twenty. Then thirteen. Twelve. Thirteen.

I knew I had to get out of here. I heard there were others coming.

But I was so thirsty.

I stumbled over to one of the bodies. The rabbit.

Removing the head, I saw its face. It kind of looked like me. Some of the others who didn’t look like animals looked like me. But only on a superficial epidermal level.

Animals. Had to try and think of them as animals.

I bit into one of the rabbit’s puffy cheeks. Juices spilled out as if I was squeezing a fruit instead.

Fruit.

Something told me to do more than just have a drink. I listened.

I clamped down, teeth going deeper until it broke past the skin and the underlying muscle. The meat.

Half of the rabbit’s face was in my stomach by the time I was full. Replacing all the dirt and trash that had been stuffed in there earlier.

Now I felt so much better…

The bodies bloomed and became like the equinox. A passing thought. That I wanted to become as beautiful as them. To become anything. Something.

The thought passed, and there was nothing else. Nothing that needed to be understood, nothing that needed to be made clear to me. Because I knew now. I saw it for myself. The snakes. The animals.

With something nice and filling in my stomach, my throat washed with a sweet drink, I began my march. My march into darkness.

But I tripped first. Slipped on something.

Blood and guts and teeth. I picked myself up and marched onward.

I found my way outside. Wherever I was. Feeling a light rain continued to fall. All around my body, I felt a slight buzzing, as though something was swimming or slithering, right beneath the surface.

Outside. Wherever I was. I wasn’t lost, because I had no place to go, or a goal in mind.

I just had to go. Didn’t matter where. Didn’t matter how. It made no difference to me.

No difference to me.

No difference.

I walked the streets. It was dark, so it was either late or early. No difference to me. No difference.

My feet were bare, heels scraping along the pavement. Where I walked was segmented and changed color. One foot on black, the other on white. I turned a street and I was soon walking across a checkerboard.

I was getting thirsty again. I was getting… hungry again. I’d need more.

I would have taken more, too, if I hadn’t left that place so early. Why did I leave so early?

Oh, they were after me. They. All of them.

Misses Sticks and Carther. There were more too but I couldn’t name them. I just knew they were after me. They. All of them.

I could take them. I knew I could. But I wasn’t in a good position. I had to get somewhere else. I had to take stock of things. I had to rest.

Vision wandering like I was. I saw the moon.

Pale and round and swollen and beautiful. Like a single, unblinking eye. Watching over me. Watching over everyone. It saw all and it understood all. So high up. I was envious of the moon.

I tripped again.

Picking out bits of teeth and other matter out between my toes, I got up and started again.

I thought about who the moon would be watching.

Everyone. People. People I knew. Parts of faces. Parts of words. Letters.

D. I wanted to see D again. I was sure she’d know what to do. She was so small but she was so smart. She always had an answer. Even if it was smart one.

Who else?

Isabella and Lawrence weren’t here. I wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.

Sarah. I’d never be able to see her again. I felt cold.

Someone else. Their name on the tip of my tongue. Almost clear…

Claire.

She wanted something from me. For me. Hard to recall it now.

Until then, I’d keep on this path. Wherever this one led.

There were others that were coming to me. But they weren’t for me. Someone else. But their image kept getting caught in the glint of my shattered, fractured mind.

Turning to another corner, a foot catching on something and I fell.

Get up, you can’t let it end here.

I got up, but not before spitting out a fang. I had hit the ground funny and laughed. A new one grew back in.

Walking like this, on a seemingly endless path though I knew there would be an end eventually, I felt the closest thing to what I could ever consider to be peace. Wandering like this, with only wanting to take the next step, one bare foot ahead of the other. I was free. Free to live. Free to die. But a voice was telling me to keep trying.

Keep trying.

I would. For their sake. As if I had been hardwired, this entire time, to do just that. Resigned to that.

Thank you. We’re almost there. Just a little more.

Just a little more. Almost there. Welcome.

Didn’t stop moving. Not even when the concrete began to gnaw on the soles of my feet, turning them red and raw, bleeding and healing with every step.

No other ugly, disgusting wounds on me. I walked, and was the closest to okay I had ever felt in a long time.

As long as I kept walking, I would be okay. Or at least the closest thing.

I looked again. Saw the moon. Watching me. Like the other times I checked. Thought it was something else but it was just the moon. Like always.

Then the moon shed a tear.

Dropping from the sky like rain, it landed there. There, on the street. An open area in a city desperately trying to get some sleep for the night.

A form.

Someone was standing in the middle of the space.

I saw them, and they saw me.

And it was as if a piece fell into place, in a puzzle I would never be able to step back from and take in entirely. But a piece did fall into place. A partial piece.

Just from seeing them alone. Just as I was alone.

My salvation.

They had been following me this entire time. For this moment. For me.

Muscles tensing, the bubbling and buzzing within me festering stronger.

Without thinking, I moved myself a tad closer. I began to hunch over on all fours, crouching like I was about to pounce. Step by step, I inched forward while keeping my eyes on them.

I shivered. But it didn’t.

Tried saying something, but it came out wrong.

Kehkehkeh…”

Didn’t sound human.

But I’d listen to the voice. I would not perish here. I didn’t want to die like the animal I had become, the monster I had always been. This would be my final defiance.

I would have my fill.

The form moved. Pointing. They weren’t any taller than the little girl who apparently had reduced herself to but a letter.

An instrument. A plaything. In their hand it opened up like an umbrella. Obsidian.

Among the rainfall, there was a rumble. Far away. Like a single instance of a boom of thunder.

I fell over.

That wasn’t supposed to happen a fourth time.

I checked where it hurt. It started to hurt so much.

My right arm, from around the elbow.

Everything below.

It just simply wasn’t there.

I waited for the tendrils to come back and help me. Save me. But they never came. Instead, black, charred flakes scabbed over the fresh wound. Nothing was coming out.

Nothing was coming out. Nothing was coming out.

Nothing was coming out.

Those four words.

I did not heal.

A wave of despair washed over, and a squealing pierced the night sky.

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