Category Archives: 9.04

Null 9.4

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I guess I’m starting from the beginning.

It wasn’t a memory.  More like a stage play, an act, the objects around me were props, not replicas.

The Drains were telling me I wasn’t out, maybe.  Or tainting my memories with some twisted version, to make bad memories worse.

A light rain fell, and it was dark.  The sky above me was pitch black, and I stood in the middle of a field of grass.  It was blighted.  The lighting was strange, without source, but sufficient to give me a glimpse of a landscape that extended from horizon to horizon.  Flat, checkerboard patterns where the dirt or grass were in different states.  Here and there, I saw animals in the distance.  A gaunt horse, a cow with some prolapsed uterus or intestine dangling from its rear end, a goat with blood on its snout.

I was shirtless, shockingly skinny even to myself, my arms smeared with mud, scratched and rubbed raw here and there.  My body wasn’t my own.  It wasn’t the body I’d worn before I was sent to the Drains, and it wasn’t the body I’d worn in the Drains.  I was lean, eighteen, skin, muscle and bone, with barely a half-pound of fat on my body.

I’d never been stronger, yet exhaustion had a firm hold on me.  Not just the tiredness of a hard day’s work.  The tiredness that came from working oneself to the point of collapse one day, sleeping five hours, then doing it the next, for days on end.  A simple push could have laid me flat.

I was okay with it.  I took in a deep breath, and even the taint of the Drains that marked this place didn’t take away from that essential experience.  The air of the outdoors.  Of cow and horse shit, wet grass, and oxygen.

I felt that peace.  Brief and fleeting, but peace all the same.

I recognized it, in a way.  This was where I’d stood, a little more than two years ago, when I’d first been okay.  Maybe okay for the first time I could remember.  No stresses of family, or school, or ambient hostility, no pressures, no watching people I cared about tear each other apart…

It was okay, but not perfect.  I did have worries looming on the horizon, but it was a damn sight better than it had ever been, and there was hope it could better.

It was a heady feeling, a scary one, because of how fragile and how very surreal it was.  The alien nature of this landscape only enhanced that surreal quality.

My grimy hands pulled a rubber band free from my hair, then pushed that same long, damp hair away from my face.  I tied it back with the simple elastic, so the hair was against the nape of my neck.

The fact that I could do that much of my own volition meant I wasn’t limited to being an observer here, like I had been in the visions Laird and Conquest had bestowed on me.

My heart pounded.

“What are the rules here?” I murmured.  I wasn’t sure if I expected a response or not.  What form would that response take?  An ominous voice?

I grabbed the poles to my right, jutting out of the ground, I recognized them as part of a post hole digger, and I slammed it into the earth.

Eerie, to have two functioning hands, a working leg.  I could see out of both eyes, and the vision out of my right was somehow too sharp, the outlines too defined, as if my brain was overcompensating after the recent lack.

Hole dug, I had to walk ten feet to the pile of wooden posts and boards.  I grabbed one post and a few boards, gathering them up in my arms, and waddled back.  Post into the vacant space… I checked it was secure.

The wood wasn’t supposed to be such poor quality.  It looked like the sections of a post I’d be replacing, not putting up.

All the same, I carried out the necessary steps.  Rotate the post until the slot was in the right place, then move the boards into place.  Nail them in.  I unrolled the length of wire fencing to run along the new section of fence, and I stapled it in place.

I looked at the post hole digger.

I knew what came next.  I’d reach for it, pick it up, but I wouldn’t get to the point of digging the hole.

I bit my lip, and I kept my hands where they were.  I watched the field instead.

Intentionally breaking from pattern.

“Everything alright?” the voice was deeper.

I turned to look.  I didn’t flinch as I saw the old man.

An actor, so to speak?  He looked Other.  His face was pale meat, eyes invisible in the midst of puckered, infected flesh, his mouth a slash across the lower half of his face, the vague hole that was his nose was off-center.

“Everything’s great,” I said.  The rain was falling harder, the light not so expansive, if I was noticing right.

Was that the result of deviating from the script?

He put one hand on the post, giving it a test for stability.  The fingers were all blurred together, like a burn victim’s.  “You’re doing good work, Blake.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve paid people who weren’t as quick to get their heads around what they were supposed to be doing.  You’ve got a knack.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Now that I wasn’t so active, the cold drizzle was starting to get to me.  I headed to the treeline and grabbed my shirt from where I’d hung it.  The trees seemed too bright and green, given the darkness of the sky, the branches jagged and gnarled.  I pulled the flannel shirt on.

In the midst of the silence, my response was halfway second nature and acting the part, halfway to remembering the line I was supposed to give, “I like having something to do.”

He turned, looking toward the house in the distance.  “Stop what you’re doing, come and eat?”

“I don’t have much more to do.  Can I-”

“I insist,” he said.  His voice was serious.  “I want to chat.”

“Should I bring the tools or-”

“Under the trees,” he said.  “You can get back to it this afternoon.  If the rain’s too bad, you can just pick them up.  Don’t forget.”

It took only a second to move everything from the fence-in-progress to the shelter of the treeline, a matter of feet away.

We walked through the field to head to the house.  A minute passed.  An awfully quiet minute, considering the ‘I want to chat’, a moment before.

I felt trepidation.  Not for the same reason the me of then had.  The me of then was worried about getting fired.  The me of now was worried about what was coming.

“You’re planning on staying the winter?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Um.  Given the chance, please,” I said.  Then, the me of then felt compelled to add, “I was hoping to have a guaranteed warm place.  It was sort of the point of doing this.”

I remembered how I’d felt guilty about guilt-tripping him.

“Thought so,” he said, festering meat hole of a mouth opening and closing.

I hated to see someone I’d looked up to made into something so disgusting.  It was a slap in the face.

Fuck me, I’d been so relieved then.  Now it was just one step further along the path.

“I was talking about it with Chrissy,” he said.  “We’re kind of in an awkward place.  Wanted to figure out where you stood before we got ahead of ourselves.”

“Awkward?”

“Deal stands, Blake.  You’ve got room and board so long as you’re willing to help out.  I’m as happy to have you as you are to be here, if I’m not making bad assumptions.”

He didn’t sound happy.  “I’m happy to be here.”

When the first really cold rain had hit for the early fall, I’d headed to the youth shelter.  The idea had been floated around by shelter staff, that if we wanted secure accommodations, there was always a chance to find work in the more rural areas between the big cities.  Situations just like this.  Farmers who needed help but couldn’t afford to pay a wage.

It was tentative, mostly for springtime when the workload was heavier.  Most who made the offer had been bitten more than a few times.  Stuff stolen, addicts who flaked, choosing the high over the work.  The job could end any time, without warning, and it was very possible to be worse off in the end than if we hadn’t tried at all.

I’d made the leap, and it had worked out for the most part.

“There’s already frost on the ground, first thing in the morning.  You’re not dressed for it, and neither Chrissy or me have clothes that would come close to fitting you.  If you keep going like you are, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

I very deliberately avoided looking at his more prodigious stomach.  It bulged in a weird way, like he had a hernia or parasite.

He continued, “Unless I’m wrong, you don’t have money to buy better clothes, and we- we’re not in a position to buy clothes for you, however helpful you are.  Not good, rugged, warm clothes that are going to do you for the winter.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m not wrong then,” he said.  “You didn’t think that far ahead?  You don’t have clothes I don’t know about?”

“No,” I said.  “Even if I had thought about it, I don’t think there was much I could do.”

“I suppose you’re right, Blake.  Six or seven hours a day of work outdoors, it’s… it would be cruel to expect you to do it, as it stands, and it’d hurt us more than it helped if we kept you on but kept you indoors, in terms of finances and all that.”

I didn’t have a response for him.  There was only waiting.

“Might have to let you go,” he said.  “Just to be safe.”

Oh, the anger that the me of then had experienced.  The frustration, even.  Not so different from my recent experience in the drains.

To fight and work myself feverishly for a place in the world, to do it with my own strength, then to get kicked while I was down, again.  To try my hardest and just have circumstance take it all away?

“Sorry,” he said.

“Yeah, I am too,” I said.  My feelings were so bare that I could only decide between sullenness and anger, and I’d gone for the former.  I’d hated how I’d sounded, then.  How much it reminded me of the family I’d run away from, the passive-aggressiveness.

“I was thinking, after you’re done with the fence, you want to help me with wiring the lighting in the new stable?  You’d learn something you could take with you.”

“Back to the streets?” I asked.  “Yeah, might keep me warm in the coming months, earn me a job.”

I’d been looking to wound, maybe, to slap him in the face, to get a reaction.

He didn’t flinch.

I’d probably felt worse at hearing those words come out of my mouth than he did.

“Shit,” I muttered.  Even now, my shame was as sharp as it had been then.  “Sorry.  Nevermind that, please.  Please just forget I said that.  I’d really like to learn whatever you can teach.”

The silence was like a weight around my neck, too heavy.  Each step forward was harder than the last.

“You know what?  I’m going into town tonight,” he said.  “Need to pick up some stuff.  Why don’t you come?  I can maybe ask some people I know, they’ve got kids who are or were about your age, might have some stuff to spare.  You can stop by the bin at the back of the church.  Bit of a long shot, lot of a long shot, and I dunno how you feel about…”

Oh.

That was how this worked, wasn’t it?

Just like the witch had told me.

All I had to do was say no.

This would end here, on this pleasant note.

All I had to do was deviate from the script.

“About relying on the kindness of others?” I asked, before he could say begging.  “If it means staying, it’s fine.  That’d be great.”

The ‘great’ came out a little strained to my own ears, where I’d meant it to be enthusiastic, meaningful.

“Good man,” he said.

One meaty lump of a hand fell on my shoulder.  For the me of now, it was a weight, body contact, uncomfortable to the point of being unbearable.  For the me of then, it was the first time anyone had ever called me a man in a way that felt real.

There was a reason I was starting this early on.  Digging into a period of time I didn’t even like to think about.

Lose-lose, in the end.  Either I said no, and I gave up, or I said yes, over and over, knowing what was coming.

It wasn’t as fragmented as I’d hoped it would be.  No jumps from scene to scene.

The environment and the hideousness of my surroundings began to grate, fluctuating here and there.  Eating was hard, the taste slightly off.  Everything uncomfortable.  There was no respite here.

I felt like there was a rule at work, and it wasn’t entirely about the script, the story, or the stage.

I was making my way through this with hindsight, and wherever that hindsight helped me against what had been unfamiliar or uncomfortable before, this landscape replaced it with ugliness.  The food was an unfamiliar taste, the dynamic at work still uncomfortable, and that was represented in the meal.

The me of then hadn’t quite been able to trust people.  People were made monstrous.

The end result was that I was more or less on the same equivalent footing as I had been back then.

My mind was working overtime to figure out how this place worked, to take my thoughts off the future, and the realization of when and why things were ugly was my sole epiphany, over the course of the day’s work, finishing the fence and learning about the wiring.

My anxiety ratcheted up as it came time for us to head to town.  In the end, the me of now was almost in a worse mental space than I had been then.

Fuck.  Fuck.

Fuck this reality.  Fuck the Drains.

The small town came into view.  Old buildings, peeling paint, all under a dark sky.  The streetlamps and lights from inside the buildings were the sole illumination.

Fuck, fuck fuck.

Fuck.

The car stopped.

“Got some stuff to do, errand, asking around,” he said.  “Meet you here in, hm, hour and a half?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Good luck,” he said.

I nodded.

This spot was darker, a little more jumbled, the buildings closer together in an odd way, but still spaced apart, as if there was one destination in each cardinal direction.  The church, the stores, the bit of hill overlooking the water.

My memories were indistinct here.  I couldn’t remember the exact order, so the order didn’t feel like it mattered.  I could go to the church and check the bin, only to discover there was barely anything I could wear.  I could go to the clothing stores, hoping for cheap overstock, for stuff that was being thrown out or discarded, only to be disappointed.  I could go to the hill and stare out at the distant lake, at houses separated by quarter-miles of dense foliage or broad fields.  The me of then might wonder about the future, morose, doing his best not to think about the days he’d been beaten, shot with pellet guns, had his things stolen.  Days he’d nearly died.

But one building loomed, larger than it should have been.  Restaurant, cafe, tavern, all of the above, none of the above.  The lights inside were brighter, and the illumination extended further, reaching across the street to where I stood.

Fuck this place.

I crossed the street, not sure I’d have the conviction if I put it off.  Skip the unimportant steps.  This was where this place wanted me to go.

Laughter, one goofy laugh.  Genuine laughter.

More actors.  Three girls, all alien or monstrous in their own ways.  One with a crest of what might have been a hard fungus, shaped like horns, but growing over her eyes, over to and behind the corners of her forehead, her flesh was pallid.  Another looked almost normal, but never blinked, the whites of her eyes visible.  The third had teeth about twice the normal length.  The guy opposite them had scalded, peeling flesh.  They were supposed to be in their early- to mid-twenties.

They were arranged in a booth with a table, three seats with cushioned backs surrounding the three sides of the table.  Each had beers, and overfat, burned french fries sat in a basket lined with paper.  They took turns grabbing the french fries, biting into them.

The actors weren’t my concern.  My attention was on the man at the far end of the booth, opposite the opening, girls on his right, the boy on his left.

Carl.  Just as he’d appeared in the drains, utterly normal, except the colors were off.  Black hair and beard, black turtleneck sweater, black jeans, black scarf around his neck, more for fashion than for wealth.  His arms were draped on the back of the booth, extended out to either side.

The look on his face was different than it should have been.  Or so I thought.  I couldn’t remember the exact expression, or I was remembering it wrong because my perspective had been tainted.

For me, then, it had been a long, long time since I’d dealt with people my age in anything but a hostile context.

Hey there,” Carl said.

“Who’s this?” Fungus-face asked.

“I thought we’d seen all of the local boys,” Teeth commented.  “Hey you.”

“Uh,” I said.

“Don’t worry.  We don’t bite,” Carl said, smiling.  He looked at Teeth, “Right?”

“Right,” she said.

I couldn’t shake the notion that he was in on this.  That he saw what I saw and accepted it.  His expression and posture… he was on this stage that the Drains had created, but he wasn’t an actor any more than I was.  Not really.

“Listen, I feel dumb for asking, but-“

“The only dumb question is the question to which you don’t know the answer,” Carl said.

I hadn’t known how to reply to that.

“I do, though,” I said.  “I’m pretty certain I know what you’ll say.”

“Then why ask?” he said, cutting me off from elaborating without actively interrupting.

“I have to,” I said.

Was it hindsight that colored my view of his words and his attitudes?  The me of then had kicked himself for handling the conversation so badly.  He’d almost walked away.

“Then ask,” he said, serious but still smiling.  “We won’t laugh at you or judge you.  Promise.”

“I’m doing some work for a local farmer, and I’m-” their attention made it hard to press on.  The me of then had stuttered.  The me of now decided not to.  “-sort of underequipped for the winter.  I’m sort of asking around, seeing if anyone has a jacket or boots to spare.”

They hadn’t laughed at me, just as Carl had promised.  That somehow made it worse.  The awkward silence was made doubly worse by the fact that I had no idea what they were thinking.

Except the present me sort of knew.  I could see Carl studying me, very much in the way he’d studied me then.

“Not cool,” Carl said.

I was supposed to say something, to sputter.  I didn’t.

“Before you ask for a favor, you should tell us your name,” he finished.

I resisted, but something in the atmosphere told me I couldn’t bend the rules this much.  I couldn’t improvise here, refuse an answer and expect this test to continue.  Every second I waited, the contrast between light and dark seemed to sharpen, the noise of the light rain outside more intense, until it all felt like it might start to come apart at the seams.

“Blake,” I said.

This shadow reality seemed to sigh.  I blinked, and the contrasts eased up, the patter of rain against window growing quieter.

“Hi, Blake, I’m Carl.  These are my friends.”

I was caught for a second, tripped up because his words didn’t line up with my memories.  Hadn’t he introduced them?

I didn’t complain.  Easier if I didn’t think about it, and they weren’t the focus of all this.

“Hi, Carl’s friends,” I said.

They smiled or gave me little waves by way of greeting.

Carl smiled.  “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Blake, I actually do think I can help you out.”

I remained silent.

“It’s not a problem, Blake,” he said, smiling.  “We’ve got some spare stuff.  One boot might need some glue where a flap is sticking off, and it’s not pretty, but it should do you.  What size are your feet?”

“Ten.”

“Perfect,” he said.  “You got a car?”

“No.  I can borrow a bike.”

“If you can get here, you can get there.  It’s west off the forty-one rural.  You’ll see a sign.  Loon Lake.  We’ll get you set up, Blake.”

My expression was stern, my gaze hard, as I met his eyes.

“Thank you,” I said, in probably the least grateful tone I’d ever managed.  Only because I was sticking to the script.

“We’ll see you in the next few days, then?” he asked.

That… it felt wrong.  I didn’t remember it.

He was breaking from script.

Making me say it.

“Sure,” I said.  My chest and throat were so closed up with emotion that I could taste bile in my mouth.

He gestured with his hands without moving his arms, “Got plans?  You should sit.  Partake of our fries.”

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“Don’t worry, really.  We’re about as low key as people get.  Come on, we’ll order a round.  It’s on us.”

His eyes were exactly right in this world of imperfect and muddled details.  For someone who said he was low key, the eyes were hungry, drinking in every detail they could, looking for something he could use.

I’d sat down.  I’d had a bit to drink, despite being under the legal age.  Such was the script.

The past me had.  Here, I took a different option, “No thanks.  I’ve got someone waiting for me.”

His smile was almost smug.  Not Carl’s smile so much as it was my shadow’s.  I was deviating from the script.  I hadn’t ruined it, I wasn’t running, or refusing to continue, but I wasn’t helping myself either.  Not on the surface.

“See you in a few days, then?”  Never-blinks asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  I raised my hand in a small wave, forcing a smile to my face.

“Bye, Blake,” Carl said.

I didn’t reply as I left the cafe.  I headed to the hill that overlooked the shop, leaned on the railing at the cliff’s edge, and stared out at the alien landscape.  I could take this option, but I couldn’t refuse to give him my name.  I had to give him that power.

After about twenty minutes, I punched the railing hard enough that I should have shattered my hand.  It hurt like I had.

Time slipped away from me somewhere along the line, as this shadow-reality crept in on me.  Never time that I could have given up.  Hours stretched on, but always the better hours.  I lost track of time while I worked, I experienced time at its normal pace when I lay in bed, awake.

If this was a matter of simply overcoming one or two events, it would have been something else.  Grit my teeth, fight.

But this was a question of endurance, fortitude.  Doing it all over, the bad bits, the stressful bits, the parts I regretted.

I’d been physically exhausted on my initial entry into this shadow reality.  Now my emotions and my sanity were starting to feel the toll.  The hideousness of everything, the darkness, the uncertainty, knowing what was coming…

Fuck this place so very much.  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck, fuck, fuck.

An unspoken curse punctuated every push of my feet against the bike’s pedals.

Wheels skidded on the dirt road as I came to a stop.

Carl’s place.

Cabins, all built on a hilly spot of land, overlooking a lake.

Carl waited on the front steps of one cabin.  It felt imperfect, not exactly right.  He had a bundle in his hands.

The second I was off my bike, he tossed the bundle at me.  Clothes, jacket, boots… Everything I needed.

“Great to see you, Blake,” he said.  “Come check it out.  Get hydrated.”

I couldn’t say no.

Except that wasn’t exactly right.  I could.  I just couldn’t do it without failing this test.

I followed.

More cabins, all log, stripped bare, set down on a concrete-block foundation.  Chunks were cut out of the logs so they could mesh at the corners, Lincoln Log style, with mortar or something filling the gaps.

He grabbed a beer from a cooler, tossing it at me.  I caught it in both hands.

My eyes roved over the lake.  I could make it out, despite the lack of light from above.  I was reminded of pictures of bioluminescent algae on the ocean, highlighting the cresting waves.

It was beautiful, eerie, and unsettling.

Doubly beautiful because it was in stark contrast to the ugliness I’d experienced for the length of my stay here.

“Nice place,” I said.  Script.

“It really is,” he said.  Just like that, simple.  He helped himself to a beer.

We drank our beers.  He finished his first, starting on the second.

Tired from the bike ride, I stayed where I was, content to nurse the empty can and pretend it had more in it than it did.

“Carl!” a girl’s voice.  Fungus-face’s.  “Coop!”

Carl was on his feet in a second, a brilliant smile on his face.  “Come on.  You want to pay me back for the jacket and boots?  Give us a hand.”

Waves crashed against the rocky beach below.  Each crash was more intense than the last.  The wind picked up, my hair and the grass whipping in the gale.

Second by second, it intensified.

“If you’re going to tap out,” Carl said, his voice friendly, as if he was my greatest ally, “This would be the time to do it.”

I felt my skin crawl.

“In a way, it’s the point of no return,” he said.  “Go any further, and you might feel like you have to do something stupid.  Like punching that railing…”

I touched my hand.  The pain was gone, any wound already healed.

“…Or one of us.  You know there’s no situation where you win here,” he said.  “Conquer this reality, attack me, dash any or all of this from your mind and your heart, you leave a hollow that gets filled by other things, and you become a monster.  Abandon it, and you’re still there, in the Drains, for the rest of your short existence.  Go through with it, and you’ll be less.”

“I know,” I said.

“Three,” he said.  “Two…”

“Let’s go build your fucking chicken coop,” I said.

He spread his arms wide, as if embracing this world.  He turned on the spot, and he jogged away.

I had to run to keep up, because hesitating might have spelled the end of this, as good as giving up.

It was a metaphor for what followed.

Actors with smiling faces played the roles of the waiting group.  Small, only six, eight with Carl and me.

It was a barn raising, so to speak, but it wasn’t a barn.  Eight of us worked in concert, starting from the raw materials.

Just as I’d run after Carl, I felt momentum carry me from this point on.  I wasn’t sure how I’d been able to tell, but I’d somehow known that the challenge here wasn’t in making the choices, so I didn’t have to make any.  I rode a cresting wave like the glimmers of light in the water did.  Enthusiasm, cheer.  They passed me another drink.

When I showed that I actually knew stuff, that I’d learned from my time with the old man, that I had talent.

I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.  To have people praise me. Even the old man’s praise had been tempered, mild.  But these guys, a few of them were drunk, and they held nothing back in telling me how amazing I was.

Even in the cool fall air, we got hot.  One of the guys elbowed me, pointing for me to look – Teeth was in the water her back to me, swimming with no top on.  One of the guys and Never-blinks ran to join her.

It was nice.  The me of the past had found it a reprieve from weeks of hard farm work.  The me of now found it a break from the hostility and grind of the Drains.

It took maybe four hours to get the chicken coop and surrounding fence up, between eight of us, though half were drunk or playing around by the time the job was done.  I’d been content to work, because this sort of thing came easily to me.  Putting stuff together.  I had ideas about the roof, and I’d wanted the praise that came with making those ideas happen.

It was dark by the time we were done, and we were sitting on the steps of the nearest cabin.  I had a beer in my hand, and it wasn’t my second, or even my third.  My eyes were on the cresting waves with green-purple light marking the peaks and the foam on the sand, pitch black marking the ebbs.

Carl offered me a joint.  I refused it, passing it to the girl next to me instead.

Even if I’d hopped on my bike now, it would have been two or three in the morning by the time I was back.

I’d told myself I had a job to do.  Part of a job.

I’d then convinced myself it was only a job that I might get fired from if the jacket and boots weren’t sufficient.  A job he’d been willing to fire me from.

Fungus-face took my hand, pulled me to my feet.

Mute, I followed as she led me to her cabin.

I couldn’t see her face in the dark.  I could only feel her lips on mine, her cheek against mine as she hugged me tight.  There was very little ugliness here, because there hadn’t been much holding me back then.  Nothing that needed translation.

“I like the scruff,” she said.

“I’ve always hated it,” I replied, speaking for myself more than I spoke to her, convincing myself I still had some volition in the middle of this scene.  “Makes me feel homeless, reminds me of this night, right here.”

She pulled off my shirt, then pulled me down on top of her.

Actors and actresses on a stage.  Even I played a role here, because I couldn’t be the me of the present day in the midst of this.

The me of the past felt better than okay, for the first time in ever.

“Basics only,” Teeth told me.  The teeth were less pronounced.  Unfamiliarity and discomfort translated to ugliness, but the group was getting more familiar, more comfortable for me.

“Right,” I said.

“Only stuff we can’t get on our own.  We’ve got the cow, the chickens, and the veggies.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She squeezed my arm.  “You okay, Blake?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Toilet paper?”

“Yep.”

I grabbed three packs.

Teeth grabbed another three.

“That’s a little overboard,” I asked.

“I’m going to be polite and sum it up by saying girls use more than boys.  Trust me on this.  Better to have too much than not enough.”

“Right-o,” I said.

Pushing a cart burdened by toilet paper, I stopped in my tracks.

The old man.  The farmer I’d been working for, a basket in one hand.

I’d never actually said goodbye or gone back.

The look he gave me was one of disappointment, as he reached past me for a box of sealable plastic containers.  Wordless, he moved on, leaving me behind.

Yeah, I regretted that.  Not making the trip by bike, not saying something to him there in the grocery store.

Even now.

God, I hated this place.  I had to remind myself of that.  I hated this place, because it was such a petty asshole of a place, to make me face even stupid little moments like this.

“Hey,” you said.  “I’m starving.   You want to grab a snack?”

She squeezed my arm again, offering me a mischievous smile.  “A little something.  Or we’ll get in trouble with the others.  I can’t wait until we have the farm plots up and running.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My eyes were on the old man’s back.

I averted my eyes.

Snow fell.

Of course this place expected me to go through it all.

A bit of anger fueled my strength as I brought the hatchet down.

With deft cuts, I removed branches from a tree.

In a matter of hours, this tree I’d just brought down would be firewood.

“Blake,” a male voice.

“Food?” I asked.

But when I turned, the Scalded Guy had a serious look on his face.

“What?” I asked.  I slammed the hatchet into the tree, then met him halfway.

He looked a little freaked out.

“Something happened,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Who?”

“Better you hear it from her.”

Her.

Even on hearing that, I’d known.

By the time I reached Carl’s cabin, a suspicion had worked its way into my heart.

Fungus Face, sitting on the bed that doubled as a couch.  The others stood at various points around the room.  Ten of us, altogether.

There was only thing that would make one girl look that miserable, the other people that concerned.

“Whose is it?” I asked.

Callow, stupid, insensitive me of two years ago.

On a level, though, I’d been terrified.

“Carl’s,” she said, “He’s the only one I didn’t… we didn’t use a condom.  I can’t be positive.”

“It’s not a problem,” Carl said.  “We’ll figure this out.  This sort of thing takes a village, and that’s what we’ve been building all along, isn’t it?”

There were nods here and there.

The me of then was watching it, seeing the reactions, the way that Fungus Face was the last one to start nodding, and how she didn’t look any less upset.

In agreement, but not agreeing.

I met Carl’s eyes.

His gaze was cool, confident.

The peace of this place had been disturbed.

The cabin doors didn’t have locks.  I was sleeping under heavy blankets, comfortably warm, when cold air swept into my room.

My first indication that I had a visitor was when my sheets moved of their own accord.  A cold hand touched my back as a weight settled in under me.

“Jesus, you’re cold,” I said, turning.  I stopped.

One of the newest to join.  The sister from a brother-sister pair.  Cute as a button, maybe two years younger than me.

“Hi,” she said.  “Is this… a problem?”

When I didn’t respond, her hand touched my stomach, slowly moving down.

My hand fell on hers, stopping it where it was.

“After what happened to…” I couldn’t say Fungus Face, and the only two names in this shadow-place were Carl’s and my own.  “After the pregnancy… this feels less cool.”

“We can be careful.”

“I’m saying no,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, her voice a hush.  “Can I stay?  It’s warm here, and I don’t want to walk back through the snow.”

“You can stay,” I said, reluctantly.  I’d kind of been wanting quiet.  Rest.  It was hard to come by, at times.

She snuggled close to my back, warm, but all I felt was uncomfortable.  Bothered in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.

“Carl said you were into me, that you’d been watching me, so I thought…”

“Another time, it would have been… very welcome,” I murmured.  “But not now.”

“Okay,” she said.  I heard a soft giggle.  “Very welcome?”

“Very,” I said, but there was no warmth in the word.  Even when the past me had said it.

Time passed.  The wind made one bit of fencing rattle around the cow pen.  Every time I heard it at night, I told myself I’d fix it, and then when morning came, there was always more to do.

When I spoke, the words were quiet.  “Around the time… your friend invited you to come here, she was talking about going home for a bit.  It was getting colder, and she wasn’t enjoying the experiment so much.”

The bit of fencing banged in the distance.

“Now she’s pregnant,” I said.  “And everyone’s just assuming she’ll stick around.  I’m not sure I like that.”

“If she went home, it’d be the same, wouldn’t it?  Worse.  Her parents would make her make a decision and she wouldn’t necessarily have a say.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Here, at least, she’s got the freedom to decide on her own,” she said, and there was a finality to her words, like she’d decided.

The present-day me wondered if past-me had believed her.

I heard a car door slam.

I’d been unsure how I’d feel, but when the moment arrived, I felt my heart sink.

“Heyyyy!” a voice.

“Heya!” Carl said.  “I brought people!”

There were cheers, noises of greeting.

I sat on my bed, my knife cutting bits out of a stick.  I was trying to get a figure out of the wood, but I’d yet to get a result I wanted.  There was time.

Fifteen minutes passed.  Carl pushed on the door, and the rock I’d put behind it stopped it from opening.

“Blake?” he spoke through the crack.

“Hi,” I said.  “Sorry, I wanted privacy.”

I didn’t move to stand or move the rock.

“Blake, a lot of the others was saying you were feeling off.”

“Nope,” I said.  “Feeling good.  I’m just not feeling-“

I was cut off as he pushed the door, the stone I’d put down grinding against the wooden floor.

He entered my room, hand over his eyes.

“You’re not jacking off?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said.

“Because there are a lot of girls around who’d be happy to-“

“Not doing that either,” I said, cutting him off.

“Blake, is something wrong?” he asked.  He dropped his hand and managed to look concerned.  “I’m gone for a week and-“

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said.

“You are acting strange, Blake,” he said.  “You’re not helping out, and others are shouldering the workload-“

“No,” I said.  “I’ve gone above and beyond before, they can manage the slack for now.”

“We don’t treat work like a currency here.”

“I do,” I said.

He frowned.

I took a piece out of my stick.

“How can you even sleep in that bed?” he asked.  Change of subject.

I looked down at the spikes of wood I’d carved off of sticks.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You’ve got cabin fever.  Come on, fresh air.  I’m not one to give orders, but I’m ordering you right now.”

I hesitated, but he pointed, and I moved before I thought to do different.

I climbed out of the bed, stick and knife going on the squat bookshelf that served as my bedside table.  I pulled on my worn boots with the glued sole that Carl had given me, then my jacket.  We ventured outside.

The others were collectively unloading the truck.  Beer, basic supplies, tools.

“This whole thing is supposed to be low stress,” Carl said.  “You seem stressed, Blake.”

“I’m not stressed,” I said.  “I’m me.

“You’re holed up in your room, being antisocial.  People are worrying about you, enough that it’s something I hear from five different people within two minutes of getting back.  All of them are worried about you, Blake.”

“I’m fine,” I said.  I somehow managed to sound less fine each time I said it.

He raised his hands, a placating gesture.  “Great.  I’ll take your word for it.”

We stood on the edge of the grass, where it overlooked beach and the small, dark lake under the pitch black sky.

“You came from a bad place,” he said.  “I heard about your suspicions about the pregnancy.”

“Fancy that,” I said.

“It’s natural to have trust issues, coming from where you came from.  But this is supposed to be a healthy place, Blake.  A good place.”

“The problem’s all me, then.  I’m just screwed in the head,” I said.  The words came out bitter, not like I’d meant them to.

He sighed.  “Something’s going on with you, Blake.  You’re confrontational.  Did you just stew in that room for the last week, convincing yourself something was wrong?  That because this works, there must be something wrong at the center of it?  Because I  know what it’s like to think that way, Blake, I did when I was your age.  I only want you to let that go, so you can enjoy life like I do.”

A group of people walked by.  The new group, taking a tour with Fungus Face leading the way.  She had a baby bump.  The car trip to Toronto had been partially to get her to a doctor for necessary checkups.

“Bonfire for the new guys?” Fungus Face asked.

“Go for it,” Carl said.

Her face wasn’t so much fungus anymore.  The horns were barely noticeable.  A large portion of the strangeness to her features were a blush of green and purple to her pale skin, nothing more.  So easy to ignore it, now.

On a level, I felt like I’d been here months.  It was surreal, to have to remind myself of what was wrong.  That this was a stage, with actors, a test.

Someone had to jog to catch up with the group.  She was lagging because she’d stopped to try and light a cigarette in the cold.  Her hair blew across her face, very nearly coming in contact with the smoking cigarette.  Only her cupped hands stopped it.

I stepped forward, gingerly touching her hair to move it out of the way.

She successfully moved it back, and fixed it in place with her hat.  She flashed me a funny little grin, cigarette clamped between her lips, not even showing a hint of her teeth.

Younger than I remembered her.  On the tail end of a very unkind adolescence.  She had bad pimples, patches of acne.  Her longer hair was meant to cover most of it.

Hey, Alexis.”

Her eyes widened in recognition as she saw me.  She ducked her head down as she spoke, “I don’t remember your name.”

“Blake.”

“You know each other?” Carl asked.

“Crossed paths,” I said, nothing more.

“See ya,” she said.  She ran to catch up with the others, snow flying behind her with each running footfall.

Carl and I walked a bit in the opposite direction, down to the beach.

“I only want to see you happy,” Carl said.  “That’s it.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“What’s your opinion on Alexis?”

I shrugged.  Wary, I only said, “She’s cool.”

“That’s not very helpful.  I want to know her as a person, and she’s hard to get a read on.  A bit of an odd bird.”

“I like odd birds,” I said.  “She had helpful advice a few times, we watched each other’s stuff in the one shelter.  That’s all.”

Just a bit of a lie.

“Hamm’s Shelter?”

I didn’t respond.

He jammed his hands in his pockets.  I watched the water, while he focused on the group unloading the truck.  The headlights were on, lighting up the exhaust, giving the group a clear view of the unloading process.

“If you like types like her, could I ask you to maybe go out of your way to make her feel comfortable?”

I felt a cold knot in my gut.

“Make her feel comfortable?” I asked.

“Keep her company, pair off, show her how things work, the usual chores and feeding the animals?”

My skin crawled.

I felt vaguely nauseous.

“Pair off… like how you pointed Fungus Face my way?” I asked.

“Fungus Face,” he arched his eyebrows.

Breaking script, both of us.

“When I seemed jealous about Fungus Face and the other guys, you pointed Teeth my way.  One by one, all of the girls.  You sent the little sister to my bed the night I seemed unsettled about the pregnancy.  Now you’re very subtly hinting for me to go keep Alexis company?”

“You’re making this out to be some screwy conspiracy,” he said.  “The only time I’ve seen Alexis smile is when she looked up at you just now.  And you said you liked her type.”

“That’s not-“

“What, Blake?  Am I wrong?”

“You can’t just do that,” I said.

“Do what?

Manipulate us.  Screw with us.”

“To make you happy?

“So you’re admitting it,” I said, and there was anger in my tone.

“No, Blake,” he spoke the words as a sigh.  “I’m trying to figure out what agenda you think I have.  I’d rather solve the big question than the little one.”

“You’ve got this grand idea for this… I dunno, this commune, self-sustaining, whatever, free love, easygoing, away from the pressures of the world.”

“You’re making that out to be a bad thing?”

“I’m making your methods out to be questionable,” I said.  “Pushing people, messing with them, always the group and what we need as a whole, you never give orders and you never seem like you’re doing anything major, but you’re really fucking good at steering the group against anyone who acts different.  You did it to Fungus Face.”

“When?”

“She coincidentally gets pregnant not long after she’s thinking about leaving, and the group decides for her, that she should stay with us.”

“Can you quiet down?” he asked.  “We can have this discussion, but let’s not make it-“

“Fuck that,” I said.

He reached for my shoulder, to steer me in a different direction, or to give me a push.

I flinched, pulling back, fist clenched.

“Woah,” he said.

“Don’t touch me.  Don’t,” I hissed.

“This is coming out of nowhere, Blake.”

“No, it’s really not,” I said.  I didn’t unclench my fist.  “You’ve led us around by our groins, you give us all this work to do and just barely enough food, you make us dependent on you, because you’re the one with the plan, the car, the ideas, the money, five or ten years of age on any of us.”

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“I’m saying just that,” I said.  “That you’ve got this damn dream, and you’re twisting us all around in really subtle ways that make it really hard to point to any one thing.  But somehow, on the days I don’t play ball or join the herd, there’s less food, less conversation, less… I feel sick saying it, less girls.”

“That’s crazy,” he said.

“It really, really is,” I replied.

“How am I controlling the girls, then?”

“The same way you’re trying to control me, but you put twice as much effort into them as you do us guys.  Half of them are in love with you, and they play ball with the group polyamory shit because they think if they try to covet you they’ll be shunned, the other half are… they’re still being manipulated, mostly.  And if they resist that, then you fucking get them pregnant to keep them in the group.”

Carl had gone still.

I turned to see Fungus Face standing at the edge of the trees.

“You know it,” I told her.  “You’ve convinced yourself it isn’t true because it’s easier.  Just go.”

She turned, running to the nearest cabin.

“That wasn’t what you were supposed to say,” my Shadow observed.

“It was something I’ve wished I said a hundred times,” I said.  “Cathartic.”

“Not that it matters,” the Shadow said.  He rubbed Carl’s beard.

“It matters,” I told it.

“Almost done,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Whatever happens, I win,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“See you shortly,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Fuck you.

He ran after Fungus Face.  I headed toward the main area of the commune, taking long strides.

Alexis was with the group, the new people all drinking with Teeth.

“Hey,” I told Teeth, “Carl really needs you.  It might have something to do with the baby.”

Her eyes went wide.  She ran for the cabin where Carl and Fungus Face were.

Alexis rose half out of her seat.  I seized her wrist, shaking my head.

“What happened?” one of the guys in the newcomer’s group said.

“This place is a cult, I said.  “Not a drink-the-Kool-aid cult, but it’s still fucked.  I’m leaving, you have five seconds to decide if you’re coming.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  I headed for the truck.

Footsteps followed.

Only Alexis.

She had just closed the passenger seat when the guy who’d just spoken came to the window.  “You can’t take the car.  There’s a pregnant girl-“

“There’s always going to be reasons you can’t,” I said.  “That’s how it works.  I dunno, I’ll- I’ll send people.”

“You can’t-“

I shifted gears, stalled, and then managed to get the truck moving in reverse.  The guy stepped away.  I turned and pulled onto the road.

“Fuck,” I said.  “Fuck.”

Alexis put her hand on mine.

I pulled it away, sharp, the gear-shift making a violent noise as it jerked in response.

“Sorry,’ I said.  “That’s not nearly as reassuring as you think it is.  I’d explain but…”

“Okay,” she said.  “It’s cool.”

I nodded, focusing only on the unfamiliar act of driving.

Away from the only place I’d ever really felt like I’d belonged.

What was worse than being in a bit-rate cult and then spending a week second guessing yourself?

Being in a bit-rate cult and then spending a week second guessing yourself twice, the second time in some fucked up, twisted shadow realm.

I sat on the cot in the youth shelter, a separate, two-bed room, arms around my knees.  This wasn’t a decision time.  It was an experience time.  I got to sit there and experience the cold, impersonal misery of the shelter, while reflecting on everything I’d just given up.  Just to drive the point home, this Shadow-place made my environment as unpleasant as it could get.  The sheets were stained, and I heard people screaming across the hall, constantly fighting.  Chaos and conflict and urban, in contrast to the commune by the lakeside.

I was giving up feeling okay.  Friends, intimacy, sex.  A sense of accomplishment, of having built something.

I heard the door open.  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I expected Alexis.

It was Carl.

I hadn’t confirmed what shelter I’d cross paths with Alexis at, the shelter we were most familiar with, but he’d intuited it.

And maybe we hadn’t ditched the car far enough away.  He’d gotten a call, and he’d figured out the answer.

I gripped the side of the cot.

“You called the cops on us, Blake,” he said.

“On you,” I said, eyes on my knees.

“It messed up a lot of things.  People got scared, we got fined, for lack of permits, even when I own the land…”

I stood from the bed.  I tried to walk past him.  He blocked me.

“Tell me,” he said, “Do you even believe it anymore?  Now that you’ve had time to think?  This cult nonsense?”

“No.  Not a hundred percent.”

“But you still called the cops.”

“Better to do it and be safe, than not do it and wish I had,” I said.  “I don’t think it was easy for anyone there to say they wanted to leave, and the cops, maybe they made it possible.  Please get out of my way.”

I moved my arm to push past.  He grabbed it.

He wrestled me down onto the bed.

He was stronger.  We’d done the same work, but he had ten years on me, and his build was just somehow stronger.

He pinned me down.

I very nearly succumbed to panic.

“A small part of me has wondered, since all this with the practitioner stuff started,” I spoke, trying to disassociate, to distance myself from this, “Were you an Other?”

“No,” he said.

“But you’re a reflection of me.  If I didn’t know-“

“You know,” he said.  “I’m just a person.  Well, I’m your Shadow, but Carl was only ever a person.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice very small.  I struggled, but I couldn’t break his grip, or even move.

My eye moved to the door, then back to Carl.

“No,” he said.

I couldn’t even speak.

“No,” he said, again.  “You don’t get to skip it this time.  This ends one of three ways, like I said.”

Banish him and become a monster, set him aside, or…

I waited.

Chronologically, if time didn’t work differently here, I’d have doomed myself, waiting.  The door would open, and I’d miss my window.

“I’m supposed to beg,” I said, my voice a hush.  “To beg you to take me back.  To promise to apologize, and make amends.”

“By the script,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because-“

“No,” I said.  “Time works differently here.  I’ve had time to think.  Why?  Isadora asked it.  Ms. Lewis asked it, or something like it.  Pretty much every powerful being I’ve talked to has asked it.  Including Conquest, who talked to Rose, who apparently knows more than she’s letting on.”

“You’re not afraid,” Carl spoke.

“Which is an answer unto itself, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“It keeps coming down to why.  Just like me and piecing things together with your cult.  The fact that we were hungry.  There weren’t any big huge warning bells.  Lots of little things.  I… it’s a strong hunch, but I have to trust it.  I gotta trust my gut.”

“You-“

“God, I don’t even want to look at you,” I said.  “Alexis, come in.”

The door opened.

Alexis, moving in silently.

She was armed.  Something hard in a sock.

The Shadow knew it was coming.  He only had a blank look on Carl’s face.

He disintegrated as Alexis clubbed him over the head.

“Come on,” she said.  “Go, go, go.”

Old Blake had, according to the script, gone with her.  He’d then gone borderline catatonic after the fact.

She’d talked him through it.  Answered every damn question.  Agreed as he slowly put the pieces together, about the little tricks, the behaviors.  Had come back from the library with lists, about how cults liked to keep the food supply short, so people were more tractable.  Keep people working…  Had answered questions like was Carl maybe stronger because he’d been eating?

Why?

Why?

Why were the people that weren’t Carl or Alexis just blurs?

Why was I the heir, and not Paige?  If Grandmother could set up a vestige, couldn’t she set up a heterosexual Paige?

Why was practically everyone convinced that I was going to die?  Except they didn’t say die.

What the fuck was up with my tattoos?  Why did I get ‘possessed’ so easily?

Why was I good with glamour?

Why were my injuries so transient, so easy to remove, my spiritual damage so hard to shore up?

Why did I remember everyone?

Why didn’t the details add up?

The room in the shelter was gone.  There was only darkness.  Not even a solid surface under me, or air to fall through.

I spoke to the darkness.  “I feel like, if I get this wrong, I’m done.”

Only darkness answered.

“I’m probably fucked if I get it right,” I said.  “But that’s my situation, isn’t it?  Perpetually fucked.”

I could have done with anyone, even a Carl, to be there, to speak to.

“I can’t believe that I needed a Rose,” I said.  “Easier to believe that Rose needed me, a little warrior.  Someone to stall the inevitable.  You cobbled this together, grandmother, my story included, to make it so I couldn’t get touched… because when I did, I got hurt.  Not always right away, but my shoulder hurt after Tiff slept with her head there, and my hand, after I held Rose’s hand and even in the beginning, when I saw the visions, they said something moved… the connections aren’t real connections…”

I trailed off.

“I’m the vestige, aren’t I?  Rose is the second Thorburn heir, I’m just the custodian.  The sacrificial pawn.”

The darkness broke away, crept in.  The tattoos reappeared, the feathers, the birds.  The branches crawled across my skin, my neck and chest, as the Shadow around me found its place.

“That’s the situation I need to accept,” I said, making it a statement, not a question.

I stood in the middle of the Drains.  An Other.

“Fuck,” I said.

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