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.
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.”
Then she stopped, lying flat again on the concrete.
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.
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.”
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.
It seems like it was always going to be like this, from the start.
“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.”
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…”
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.
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.”
“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.
The name hit her like a truck, but Wendy remained sitting, back straight. She had braced for that impact.
“Well, Alexis, I’ve run out of lies to tell, so I’ll just come out and say it. We’re fucked.”
“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 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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
I think it was worth it.
I think it was worth the trouble.
Through my bruises, the blood, being beaten black and blue…
Something I could have learned to love.
Something that, given time, would have grown and become beautiful.
If given the chance to start over, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.
I guess that’s about it.
And so it was.