Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 9.

The sheer relief of being remembered...

The blessed pain that flooded through my chest...

It made my feet move before I'd even thought of it. Rushing me towards the sprinting boy - leaving the Divide behind - and bending me down low at the last instant. Knees settling onto chilled grass as Leo's arm snapped closed around my neck with a strength far beyond his years. Locking me in as my own arms came around him. Wrapping tightly around the small body. Enveloping him. Rubbing his back and stroking his hair at a pointless attempt at comfort as strained words of disbelief and relief, pain and joy, flowed out of the boy. His entire frame - fit and a good size for his age - trembling as he tried so hard to keep the sobs back. To be strong.

Just hearing him speak tore at me right down to my core.

When I'd left him... sentences were only just beginning to make sense. Then, to be holding him so close and hear the solid proof of his maturing mind... the solid proof of all I'd missed... all that someone else - a stranger - had helped him improve and grow...

It was a hard hit to take.

I found myself praying to those those years. Even as an outsider. Even as just a shadow in the night... I just wanted to KNOW what he'd gone through. I wanted to know about the people who were raising my little man. I wanted to know every highlight of every day. Every drop of rain on every bad one. I wanted to know it all. All the things he'd learned about... while I'd walked through fresh blood pooling on the sidewalk under a dim moon with my ravens flying overhead.

Then, such a silly thought...

(The training wheels on your bike must have come off a while ago now...)

It doesn't take much effort to remember what his first bike had been. It was a Birthday Present. Blue with little... cartoon characters along the bars. Previously used ("Previously Loved" as my mother would have said.). Once belonging to the son of the daughter of one of my parents' best friends. Alex and I were... a young couple at the time. Just starting out. Money was tight. Better than it had been when Leo was first born, but we were still having to pinch every penny. That year had been particularly bad because the car had broken down a month or so beforehand and had cost nearly a thousand to put back on the road. Buying a new bike for our son just... wasn't in the cards.

I'd been worried at the time... that the touch-up job we did on the chips on the paint weren't good enough. That it didn't look new enough. That Leo would be disappointed...

If he'd been disappointed, that toothy grin of his hadn't let it on. He barely got off it the first day...

I remember how Alex had nudged me at the time. Wearing that "Told You So!" smile. Teasing me about how I always think too much...

Just thinking of Alex.... made me hold Leo just a bit tighter. Still gentle, but tighter. Protective. Whispering little assurances to him as he tried to hold back sobs. Telling me how much he'd missed me. How he couldn't believe I was really there. That he thought I was never coming back. His grip on my neck only getting tighter as if he was honestly afraid... that I'd drift away if he didn't hold me down. Anchoring me... even as my mind drifted back to the mental hospital without my permission. Going back to that split second in time... when I'd been bringing my blade down. A split second... that my mind insists it saw Alex's head move on the pillow. Turning. Staring up at me. Dull eyes dark and accusing...

I had tried to tell myself it had just been my imagination. Reasoning that Alex hadn't answered the door for three long years and it was a bad gamble... to think that "choice" would change in that very last instant. That it would having that perfect of timing... to haunt me like it wanted to...

I think too much.

I always think too much.

It's part of the reason why my bloody post become novels...

And, if I had continued on the thought I was on... the Snake was waiting just around the corner. Amber Eyes just a flicker away from jarring my mind. It would have thrown me back into logic. It would have slapped me into remembering which side of the boundary I belonged... but, at that instant... Leo asked a question. His voice hitching and hesitating as though afraid of the answer, but needing one. Just one question... and there wasn't a train of thought in the world that it wouldn't have demolished on the spot.

He asked... if it had been something he had done...

Something... he'd done wrong...

That made us leave him.

He asked if it was his fault... that we didn't want to be his Mum and Dad anymore.

And, even as he asked.... his grip on me tightened. The fear and pain and doubt and guilt in his voice matching with the desperation of small hands gripping the material of my hoodie as tightly as he could. Afraid to let go even a little. The silent plea screaming loud and painfully clear:

(Please don't leave me alone again!)

Panic gripped me. I took his shoulders and eased him out of the death grip he had on me. He still wasn't willing to let go completely, but he allowed enough give to let me look into those eyes. Shimmering with unshed tears... but still trying so hard not to break as he waited for his answer. Shame twisted into his expression as a sob escaped the hold he had on himself...

He blamed himself.

I had left - Alex and I had both left him - and, for three years, he'd been blaming himself.

It killed me.

I gently put my hand to his face. My thumb brushing across a dry cheek... even as I felt a tear trace down my own. Forcing enough strength into my voice so it didn't shake when I told him that there was nothing - NOTHING - he could have ever done that would have made us leave. Telling him that it wasn't his fault. Not even a little bit. That Alex and I loved him more than anything in this world... but that... I'd done something bad. Very bad. And I couldn't be around him anymore. That he'd get hurt... and I'd never be able to forgive myself. I told him how sorry I was. For everything. For not being there. For letting him blame himself for so long...

I told him it was my fault.

That it had always been my fault.

That, if he wanted someone to blame, he should blame me.

That it was okay to be angry. Okay to be sad or upset. That I'd let him down and I deserved it.

I told him... that he could hate me if he wanted to.

But that, even if he did, I'd always love him. Always. No matter what.

Leo had been crying freely by then - as if seeing mine gave him permission to let the tears come. Spilling over his cheeks in small rivers even as he told me not to cry. That everything was okay and that he'd just... missed me. Missed me so much. Just like I'd missed him. Feeling it more freely and honestly than I'd ever allowed myself to feel over the past years. Not having Leo... had been a deep, empty pit in my life... that I'd thrown some branches and leaves over top of in attempt to hide it from prying eyes... but still tunneled down deeper than anything else, regardless.

I'd been able to live with that hole.

I became good at picking and choosing my words. Playing on them... until I could say things in a way that everyone would assume my family was dead. My spouse. My son. It meant I could talk about them. Keep them close in that way... and, because I was willing to talk, it confirmed even further that they couldn't be alive. It was a form of reverse psychology. For, surely, if they were anything but dead... I would avoid the topic like the plague.

It worked for three years.

I'd lived with it for three years.

But then, with my son in my arms, I couldn't say for the life of me how I'd been able to.

It scared me. It still does.

The strength of the bond that came back.

It was too much to bear at first. I'd felt it in my chest like an old, partly-seized motor was being pulled to life in the dead of winter. The engine stuttering and stalling. Stuttering and stalling. Forced to work against the climate and condition it was in until it finally caught. Holding only for two beats... then stalling again. Another try. Catching, stuttering, then stalling once more. Repeating the process... only, this time, the engine caught and held. Struggling to stay alive, but managing now. Painfully warming parts that had almost frozen solid completely. Every second that it turned another rotation being another reminder for old, weather-beaten metal of what it once felt like to be warm... to be used and maintained...

It hurt so much.

Like heat working into blackened, frost-bitten fingers.

But it... was a good pain. One I didn't mind feeling. One that felt good to feel after so long... so long of only seeing people as pawns and knights and bishops. All part of one Big Game where the Pieces delude themselves into thinking they're Players. It isn't our Game. It never has been. Yet we try to manoeuvre things in our favor anyway. We try to make it all Lead to something... anything... because a life without a goal is a rather pointless thing indeed, isn't it?

I suppose that was part of why I could be content in my roles... while so many others were restless. Stressed. Panicked.

Secretly, I knew Alex was in a mental hospital. Receiving care. Not ideal, but a gift horse.

And I knew Leo had a new family to call his own. That he could be happy in his second chance...

So, with those two points checked off.... I could let them fade to the background. I could let them rest where they lay... and let myself find my pace on my side of the Boundary. Let myself relax into who I was. Who I was becoming. To find amusement. Beauty. Satisfaction. Even a new sense of Happiness. Starting out by finding one little thing that I could enjoy about the Job... and letting it grow from there until it became a performance. Until the Hunt was the Grandest Show on Earth... just waiting for the final conclusion.

Curtain Close.

Play End Credits.

Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-That's all, folks!

And that had been enough. That was okay.

Because, behind the scenes, my son was safe... and Alex was alive...

But, holding Leo close, I knew it had never really been okay... and definitely wasn't going to come within a shade close of that anytime soon.

Leo asked me to come home.

Pleading with me not to leave again. That he... loved me.

I had to force a small smile out. My hands falling to his shoulders and giving them a light squeeze as a second tear rolled over my opposite cheek. Giving me a pair. So much inside wanted to say yes... but I still shook my head. Telling him that I loved him more than anything - ANYTHING - in the world. That I'd do whatever I had to in order to keep him safe... and that was why I couldn't stay. I told him how I wished things were different. How I wished... I hadn't screwed up... but that was on me. That was my fault and mine alone... 

And I had to watch... my son break. His voice gaining that young, squeaky tone that he'd been fighting to hold back as a dam of emotions collapsed within him. Screaming "NO!" over and over again as he latched back around my neck. Begging me to stay. Begging me not to... not to leave him alone again. Screaming "please". Telling me I couldn't. That I couldn't do this again. Sobbing through his pleas. Tears streaming down.

He was too young.

I knew that.

Only seven.

I hugged him close one final time. Reminding him that he wasn't alone. Reminding him... that he had a new family. I asked if he liked them. My own words catching as I asked if they... treated him right.

(Or, so help me, God...)

He spoke through his sobs. Nodding. Saying they were nice and that he loved them too... but they weren't me. They weren't Alex. They weren't his Mum and Dad. Not really. He cried into my shoulder. Sobbing that they could never be his Mum and Dad and that... that was why we had to come home...

Then his sobbing consumed him completely.

Clinging tightly to me as each one shook through him.

I felt suddenly conscious of eyes on me... and, in my mind's eye, I knew they were Amber. I remembered. I remembered the Boundary. I remembered turning my back on The Snake...

He'd been watching the whole time.

I felt myself stiffening, but I knew the damage was already done. Forcing myself to keep my focus on my boy instead. My voice sounding stronger to my ears as I told Leo... that he was better off without me. That I knew he was too young to understand that, but, one day, he would. It was then that a thought occurred to me... and I reached to feel for something around my neck. Finding the slim chain that I'd put there the previous evening. A chain that Alex had worn for the past three years while lying in that hospital. A chain I had thought to wear myself, but now had another idea. I pulled it over my head... and showed the three rings that were threaded onto it to my boy.

An engagement ring.

And two wedding rings. His and Hers.

I told Leo what they were. How Alex and I had loved each other very much. Just like we both loved him. And I told him... that wanted him to take them and remember that. If it was the only thing he remembered, he needed to remember that...

He nodded. Choking out an "okay" as he took the rings with a purposefulness that seemed out of place for such a young boy. I knew he wouldn't lose them. That much was made perfectly clear to even the universe itself...

I shifted. Placing a kiss to my son's forehead.

I told him to be happy.

It's all I ever wanted from him.

Then I stood - pulling from the hold he still had on me - and turned. Walking away. Not trusting myself to pause... and yet the tears still came even as my strides tore us apart.

He screamed after me. Voice ragged and piercing. Panicked. Desperate. I knew he'd be rushing after me... but he wouldn't get far. Someone would intervene. I knew.

Just like I knew... Valtiel was waiting for me at the corner of the school.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 8.

It wasn't the last time I saw Valtiel either. He came to me for a second time not long after I'd killed Dimme. And then again a while later. And again a while later after that. Always appearing the same way as the first time. The voice existing first. Then the body seeming to follow after that.

I told Winston how he'd ask me to do little jobs for him. Stupid little things that he claimed would somehow start a Domino effect for some other Game he was playing at.

I told him about when Valtiel asked me to shoot the local mailman

I told him about when I was to throw a brick through a specific window at a certain address.

I even told him about the time when Valtiel told me to buy my groceries at a certain store. That was it. Just buy them and leave.

Sometimes, he hadn't wanted anything at all. Nothing more than to talk, in any case. 

I started getting more comfortable around The Snake as time went on. I started calling him "Vivi" instead of "Valtiel" - at first simply to see if it bothered him, but, when it didn't, I kept on using it anyway. I preferred it. Kali and Loki never particularly enjoyed his visits - and that was something I took keen note of - but he never bothered with them. Never questioned why I had them. Why I raised Loki from a chick even as I'd been scrubbing the blood from my hands each night. In fact, he questioned little of what I did or why. Just so long as I did my Job, I suppose he thought it didn't matter.

Now and again, just before he'd leave, he'd stop and ask who I was.

From the very first time, I always knew what to say.

"I am His Humble Servant. Nothing more."

"Good Child."

It was the reason I trusted him.

The reason I ignored my instincts when they screamed at me that things weren't lining up right. That something was wrong. That I wasn't Seeing something... and that, by the time I did, it would be too late. He had interfered before. He had helped before. I knew there had to be a reason behind it. Something more than just his amusement...

Beneath the slapping tin from the storm, I told Winston... that he wasn't the only one guilty of hubris in this mess.

I am as well. 

For I thought all of this... his very reason for helping me... was because he had a plan FOR me. One that was far less than ideal. Far less than anything I would come out alive from. But for ME, nevertheless. Something I wouldn't turn down... simply because debt runs deep. Because he warned me so I could protect my family. Because he reminded the Highers there were bigger matters at hand than one little Proxy killing off their Handler...

But it had never been for me.

I see that now.

I doubt if he knew what Ends would be met at the very Beginning... but somehow he'd known that I was worth keeping an eye on. Worth fixing a little thing here and a little thing there as time went on. Worth waiting to see... but not necessarily FOR me, in the end.

It was for my line. My bloodline.

I had... recognized the Man In The Rain. The one who had watched me from under his umbrella with sorrowed eyes as I left the mental hospital with blood on my hands. My spouse's blood. I recognized him, because he looked exactly the same as he had the first time we met. The afternoon that he'd given me a warning. A warning that I... that I hadn't heeded.

I knew something was wrong. Very wrong. I knew I'd made a horrible mistake. Somehow, something got twisted. I didn't know how, but I knew something very important had changed. I tried to reassure myself that I was being paranoid, but it didn't matter. That feeling kept gnawing at me until, in all my irrationality, I only wanted one thing.


I had to see Leo.

I thought that... if I could see him... if I could just see that he was okay and exactly where he should be... that I could prove my own instincts wrong. That it would stop and I could move on.

I jumped states through The Path. 

Once on the other side, I tore off my gauntlet. My hoodie. My mask. Everything. Changing into a simple hoodie and jeans I'd brought... and then I tucked my things behind a dumpster just a block or so from the school. Leo's School. I slipped a switchblade into my pocket as a just-in-case. Just in case of what, however, I wouldn't have been able to say. 

I closed the distance fast - all too aware that I shouldn't be there at all - and snuck around the back of the building. Despite the "normal" clothes I wore, habit kept me to the shadows. Then I peaked around the side. 

They were on recess.

I scanned the faces. Wondering what he'd looked like now. Wondering how three years had changed him. Wondering if I'd even recognize him... when, just like that, he was there. Playing on the monkey bars amongst a few other children. Hanging upside down as he laughed and yelled something at one of the others. That unruly head of hair I'd given him looking ever-more wild as it reached for the ground. He giggled and grabbed the bars again - unthreading his legs and doing a complete flip-around through his own arms. Landing on the ground with the rattling of loose gravel before he was tearing off running after another boy who also started to run. Laughing. Yo-yoing back and forth amongst the playground equipment and other kids - younger and older - in what looked like a game of tag. Others followed those two. Obviously involved as well.

"My God..."

I watched them for I don't know how long. Mesmerized. My forehead resting against the brick corner of the school. I watched the game change from tag to hide and seek... which dissolved into Scare The Girls With A Grass Snake when one of the boys found it while Seeking. Which in itself dissolved when it turned out one of the girls actually had a thing for snakes and "rescued" it from the boy. So then everyone gathered around the girl to get a look at it. To pet it. The girl purposely keeping it away from one boy in particular because, and I heard her when she screeched, that he'd hurt it.

I watched.

And felt a slender arm curl around my shoulders.

I snapped back and spun... only to drop those same two words again with entirely different context. Nerves strained as I bit back those few seconds of panic that had gripped me. My guard had been down... and then, standing right next to me... was Alex. 

A bright smile.

Paired with burning, Amber Eyes.

Body thin and pale.

A horrific neck wound congealed with dark blood. Cut right through to the spine which made it a wonder that the head didn't just fall off...

"Little Leo is growing up so fast, don't you think, Sam?"

I bit my lip. So many remarks danced on the edge of my tongue, but I kept them back. Held them back. I forced a solid breath to ease my raised nerves. Forced my fists out of the clench I'd had them in before reforming it. Feeling my knuckles crack with the motion. I said he certainly was. Not trusting myself to say more.

The Snake's smile grew as he asked if there was something wrong. Commenting that I looked as though I'd "seen a ghost" with a laugh in his voice before the corpse closed the single step that I had created between us. Arms slipping around my waist. Coiling around. Forcing me into an embrace that brought a shiver down my spine. I cleared my throat to hide the glitch before forcing out a smile against that Snake Grin. I told him it was nothing. Nothing at all. Raising a hand to lightly brush dull, lifeless hair away from Amber Eyes. My will to complete the Show overruling the hesitation that threatened to hold back my arm from the action. Admitting only that Vivi caught me a bit by surprise. That I hadn't been expecting company...

That seemed to please him. His coils releasing as he stepped back. His own hand lifting to idly play with the hanging flesh of the neck wound. Giving himself a figuative pat on the back while he commented how his... "dear little Raven" is usually so hard to surprise. I found it hard to keep my eye away from the motion of the fingers... exploring their body's own fetal injury. I've seen a lot of things in my time, and yet...

"It... has been a bit of an odd day."

"What's the matter, Sam? 
Did you think I was going to go kill little Leo to complete the set? 
Your son isn't in any danger. So why are you here?"

I didn't know.

I stood on a boundary between Our World and the Norms... and I didn't know what had brought me there. At my back, I could still hear the sounds of the children playing their games. Joyful. Oblivious. Safe. And, in front of me... was an Amber Eyed Snake in the form of my nearly-decapitated spouse. Toying with the tattered flesh across its neck. Smiling that unpleasantly pleasant smile.

No, I didn't believe even in that moment that he wanted to kill Leo.

But something was screaming.

Something was screaming... that I'd missed a key point

That I'd fucked up.

But I didn't know how. Leo was fine. He was playing with the other kids. He was fine...

And, yet... not a cell within my body believed that.

I told this to Valtiel. Explaining that it was... a feeling. A gnawing feeling that refused to leave me...

And then I heard a voice.

Just... a single, soft, questioning voice...

And everything changed.

That boundary... changed. Suddenly, I was on the other side of that line. Pulled over it... and thrown back into the world I'd left behind when I saw Father for the first time. A place where monsters didn't exist... except when nurtured in the hearts of normal, everyday humans.

Hearts... like mine.

I was the monster there. The worst kind that world knew... but... but that wasn't... all I was. Not to all of them. To most, yes. To most, they'd avoid my gaze at all costs. To most, they'd want to lock me up and throw away the key - leaving me to rot. To most... they might want to warm up Old Sparky and flip the switch themselves... but to one... to one boy with a head of untameable hair and dearest of blue eyes...

To him, I was...a face he'd never expected to see again. One that... almost surely should have been replaced over the last three years by the faces of his new mum and dad. One that... I was sure... he wouldn't recognize anymore...

never did i think he'd remember


he'd been four years old when I... left him behind. How could I ever hope...?

I thought... I'd stopping being a parent a long time ago. That only the... instinct remained. The parental bond to protect ones young at the most basic level. If you would have asked a few months ago, I would have smiled and explained that the rest had rotted away in the cesspool...

But... that questioning voice...

he called out to me

Disbelief, confusion, and frustration were torn across that young face... but, the second our eyes met, the disbelief flooded over top of everything else. Dominating it over as... as his name fell from my lips without even my realizing it. He heard me. I could see it register in as he tripped over his own voice - calling out again before he took a step forward. Then another. Then another. Quickening. Running. Sprinting. Calling again. Desperation cutting into the voice. Expression near panic as if... as if he feared I was little more than a mirage...

For a split second, logic gripped me... and screamed to BE a mirage. To disappear into thin air and never look back. Screaming that I shouldn't be there. That it was wrong. Riskly. Dangerous...

But it didn't matter. The desperation I heard my boy yell out with... clawed down deep into me. An eruption in my chest that overruled the scream. The Soldier's Fear of being Seen... whipped clear off the board... by something I thought I'd lost.

He hadn't forgotten me.

I hadn't been replaced.

I wasn't just a monster.

In that moment, it was barely a part of me.

I was a parent again.

I... was Leo's... I...

I... can't do this yet

Not tonight.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 7.

And I bolted upright in the bed of a little one-roomer hotel room. Drenched in a cold sweat and breathing hard, I fought to figure out where I was. Fought back the screaming that pounded in my head. Fought back the images that seemed burned in my vision. I remember thinking that I could still smell it. The burnt flesh. Owen's burnt flesh.

At first, there was only panic in me... but then something else kicked in. Something that seemed to ease into place right under my skin and brought me to my feet in that little hotel room. My feet bringing me to the single window that stared out across the small city. And, like a ghost caught in another realm, I could see my refection stare back at me over-top of the dark backdrop. I looked older already... but I also saw something else. I was thinner. Eyes sunken in. Heavy bags dragged down my face. Hair limp and tangled. I looked like someone who didn't have much longer to go...

Part of me seemed relieved at that idea.

But that other part... the one that brought me to my feet... asked who would look after Leo if not I? Who would stop him from becoming yet another face in that bloody gore-gathering Valtiel had shown me? Who would even care to try?


That other past was also curious. 

I had a job to finish. Loose ends weren't an option. Not if I was going to protect them. Not if I was going to Survive. This wasn't as simple as just "letting go" anymore. Valtiel had made it clear that this was a whole other world. An entire Game. One of which I had absolutely no experience in. No right to even be in. But I was. I was this "Proxy" that he had mentioned... and, if I had to learn the rules as I went along, then so be it. I'd figure it out.

And, eventually, I'd figure out the Answer to the one Question that only ever mattered in my mind...


I picked up the phone.

There was someone I knew. His name was Victor Reid.

We went to the same University, you see. Became friends very early on. The man was, in any definition of the word, brilliant. He knew too much about too many different things, yet never seemed to get in trouble for any of it. People used to say it was a dangerous when Vic got bored. 'Cause you never quite knew what he'd decide to "figure out" next. Everything seemed to come naturally for him. And that applied twice over when it came to computers.

Thank God, we'd kept in contact over the years.

He picked up on the second ring. Sounded like I hauled him out of bed.

I told him who it was. And that I needed his help.

We had a long talk. One which I lied far too easily than what I was used to. I went in length. In detail. Replacing Faceless Beings with organized crime. Building the story along in my head even as I was explaining it all. How it came out. How I was being swept into their world. How I planned to take them down from the inside out, or die trying...

But, first, I needed to protect Alex and Leo.

I needed to kill them.

No longer sounding the least bit tired and obviously nursing some kind of drink by then, he gave a half-attempt to convince me to go to the cops. But I'd already written off the police in my little story. It wasn't an option. Even if I hadn't written it out, his profession would have probably had him realize it wasn't an option anyway. So, he agreed. He knew where the cracks were. He could do it. And he would do it. He was a lawyer now. Bending the law was nothing new to his daily schedule, as far as he could see. Especially if it meant helping out an old friend and their family.

We met up.

I said he looked good.

He commented that I looked like shit.

And, from there, we began to kill off what was left of my family. Every file that the hospital and police station would have made... Vic worked out all of it. First, Alex. Then Leo. Then Laura. Working his way through records. Making adjustments here and there. Never enough to bring notice of a change from the attentions of those oh-so-busy workmen... but just enough to make it work. He created a wall. A place where the records of Alex and Leo just... ended. Ending with their Death Certificates.

In reality, we organized a transfer of a comatose patient with no name to a mental institution in another state.

We also gave a four year old boy a new name... and placed him in an Orphanage in a different state.

Those paper trails, however, only existed for a short spat of time before they were erased completely.

By the time it was done, Victor looked like an absolute wreck. But he assured me... that it was all taken care of. That they were lost in the system now. That everything should be alright. He stretched in his chair stiffly before reaching for his cigarettes. Lighting his before offering me one. Which I took and lit. He suddenly seemed to have a flashback and recalled that I had quit smoking. Asking if I was back on the "losing team" again with a touch of humor in his tone. I smiled a bit. Said I didn't have much of a worry about dying of cancer anymore.

He nodded solemnly. Humor drying up. Obviously thinking that someone like me didn't stand much of a chance playing the lead role in the scenario I'd told him. Figuring me half-way dead already. Then he asked if there was anything else he could do for me before I "donned [my] cape and started running around playing the anti-hero."

I told him that there was one more thing.

I pulled a handgun from under my hoodie and leveled it.

He died with his eyes wide open. A hole in between them and the back of his skull missing. Splattered back across the wall and computer screen in a mixture of blood, brain, and bone. The body sprawled backwards - half on his chair, half against the desk - as if he'd tried to get up at the last second. His muscles twitched for a scattering of time before they realized there was no one upstairs to control them anymore. Finally falling still as I silently watched.

He had a wife and three kids.

He looked so... surprised.

I suppose he had right to be.

I thanked his corpse as I picked up his bourbon bottle. Emptying its remains over him and the computer. I took one last lungful of the same poison that had burned through my grandfather's lungs... and, with a slight tremble of my hand, I dropped the flickering end onto the friend I once partied with. Once got drunk with. Once headed to Canada with (amongst a few others) for one rather odd, yet wonderfully spontaneous weekend.

The flames rose.

The flames of a new life.

For better or for worse.

And I left.

Within twenty-four hours, I was picked up on the side of the road by three armed Proxies representing the Organization. They introduced themselves as Darkseeker, Bison, and Bullet Tooth Tony. They patted me down. Took my gun. Expressed surprise that that was all I had, and then told me to get in. It was a black Dodge pickup truck with a crew cab and a cap over the truckbed. I remember that there were... two bodies back there. Each gift-wrapped in a tarp. Tony said it was two birds with one stone. Picking up the Fresh Meat while dropping off the Dead Meat. He and Bison got quite the laugh at that. Dark, on the other hand, just stared at me. Intense, violet eyes sending a clear message.

"You're just a Guppy."

I was put into the System, just as Valtiel had said, and, when asked, I told them that my family was dead.

The rest is History.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 6.

His Whispers filled my head. 

Filled every part of it. 

From then on, His Will was clear to me.

So long as I Listened for it.

He let me keep Alex and Leo as they were. But I needed to prove my loyalty.

His Whispers told me to kill Owen.

So I did.

His Whispers told me to make sure Jordan saw it.

So I did.

His Whispers told me... to Watch Jordan. To Follow her. Torment her.

To let her see the Truth that He taught me.

And then, when the time was right, I was to deliver her to Him.

So I did.

It was actually while I was on the road... following Jordan... when Valtiel introduced himself for the first time. He appeared out of thin air one evening. Fall was coming, and it was cold. I was... disoriented. Paranoid. Muttering to myself. I barely ate. Barely kept His Whispers from flooding through my mind and driving me insane each night as the temperature dropped and my body ached. As strange little thoughts danced on the edges of my brain and the world itself drifted away in the chilling grip...

I was stumbling through an alley - looking for a door that looked weak enough to break down in order to get out of the wind - when I suddenly felt a sharp increase in temperature. At first, I thought I was getting feverish. Even laughed a bit at the thought. But then I heard that voice for the first time. A smooth, pleasant voice that always had a habit of existing before its speaker did. Or, at least, that's what it seemed like.

I still remember his choice of words.

"Well, you're looking a little worse for the wear, now, aren't you, Sam?"

The figure I saw at the mouth of the alley... was someone - something - I'd never seen before then. His appearance made my groggy mind decide he was of Arabic descent, and he wore a black suit and tie over a dark red dress shirt that should have been too cold to get away with for the month. A long red scarf wrapped leisurely around his neck and draped down his shoulders. But there was something... strange about how he looked. He almost looked too... correct. Too... perfect. There was nothing about his appearance that was out of place, and that in itself seemed... wrong. Because it was too correct. Like something pulled from a magazine. An image of something that was of human shape, but was too correct to exist. Like a doll. There wasn't a strand of black hair that needed to be combed back, nor a thread on his scarf needing to be snipped. Not a speck of dirt or lint. Not a wrinkle of age nor a hint of a sleepless night...

Standing in that alley, he seemed... nearly alien.

Burning, Amber Eyes stared back at me. Openly. Pleasantly. Friendly. Just like the small smile he wore. But there was something behind that human expression. Something that twisted and slithered to fill the features. Something that was far too large to be contained in any human body. Something that brought the thought of snakes to my mind. A bag of them. Slipping and sliding over each other. Filling up the bag. A man-shaped bag...

He started walking towards me.

"...Do I... know you?" 

"No, but I know you. Our Father told me of you, you might say. 
 It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Sammy.
Though, I must say, you look absolutely frozen to the core. 
 When was the last time you got out of this frigid weather? Ah, no matter. 
We'll get you someplace warm to sleep tonight and we can talk a bit. 
Now, doesn't that sound nice? 

It's alright, Sam. You can trust me. 
We're Family, aren't we? We certainly are.
And Family looks for each other. 

Just like you did for Little Leo. 

Yes, Sam, I know about Leo.  And Laura too.
And how Alex is still refusing to answer the door a few States over. 

I've much interest in Proxies like you, Sam."

"...What's a... 'Proxy'?"

The heat in the alley increased with every step he took towards me.

The only thing that kept me from shrinking back was knowing that my knees would give out if I tried.

His frame wasn't much bigger than mine, and yet... he seemed to loom over me, all the same. Pressuring me. As if he existed not just in that body, but around it. Things seemed to... blur in his wake. As if his mere presence was a distortion. A mistake. A glitch. I tried blinking it away at first, thinking I was just tired, but it remained. And, I noticed, it even seemed to get worse... if you tried looking past him.

And yet he himself looked flawless in the center of it. Too flawless.

He introduced himself. Held out his hand for me to take.

I flinched away from it like a skittish deer. I didn't know what he was. He wasn't human, though he could act the part well. I couldn't understand it. The Whispers were getting louder and I just kept seeing the snakes. I almost thought... I could see them then. Shifting and sliding beneath that too-flawless skin. It made me feel sick.

That smile never changed. Amber Eyes remaining on mine as he kept that hand extended. Waiting.

I forced my arm to extend. And, just before my hand took his offered one... I noticed there wasn't a single line on his hands either. Not even a Life Line.

And it was from that hand... that a sheer heat rose. Spreading up my arm and through my chest. Chasing off the last chills of the night... to be replaced by the sun on a hot summer day. Pleasant and warm. Summer days which were a long ways away from where I stood then... but I wasn't complaining. I wasn't objecting. Not to that. It lifted the ache from the depths of my bones and muscles. All the tension and knots easing away, bit by bit...

When I opened my eyes (though I didn't remember closing them), I was in a small restaurant. It wasn't very busy, but it was some sort of bar and grill type. Probably a Ma-And-Pa brand. The smells in the air made me forget all about the sudden jump we'd taken and my stomach growled in approval, but I hadn't much of a chance to think of how there was barely a cent in my wallet before the snap of fingers called my attention. Valtiel was seated at the booth beside me (smiles and snakes) and gestured to the empty booth across from him with one loose hand.

He told me to sit.

I complied.

Despite what my stomach thought, I didn't feel all that hungry. I hadn't been. Not since the Whispers began. It was hard to think of other things when they were there. Hard to even remember to eat. They made my mind itch. I could barely sleep some nights...

Quite self-conscious of the fact that I looked like little more than a homeless bum, I tried to pay no mind to the other customers at their own tables. Tried my best to play invisible, you could say. But a slow, deep laugh from the thing who's company I shared told me I was having very little success in that regard. As if my every thought - every intention - was written across my forehead. He leaned forward. Placing his elbows on the table and interlacing his fingers in front of him as those inhuman eyes stared at me from over the dome he had created. His line-less hands just barely concealing that unpleasantly pleasant smile.

He said he knew I had questions. A mind full of them. As that's all I'd ever done all my life, wasn't it?

"Remember, class: No Answers for No Questions Asked."

He said he'd tell me whatever it was I wanted.

But I had to ask the right questions first.

And what it came down to... was that there was an Organization. A Cult-Centered Business that managed Proxies throughout the country. That managed operations as large as some of the most powerful companies in the world... and as small as things like the little restaurant that we were sitting in so comfortably. He explained that it was all undercover. All done to both Support and Hide where their true loyalties lie. He said I was to be a Field Agent once I got my feet under me. That that was my Place. That I was to continue to Follow Jordan... but only after I was fed into the System. 

Internally, I was already saying no. And, as if in response, those Amber Eyes glinted. Shifted. I began to feel more and more like I shouldn't be looking into them at all. In my mind, that bag of snakes suddenly mutated into the form of a single, massive Cobra. Reared back and poised. Sizing up its target...

He went on saying that the Organization had heard of my Conversion, and that they were coming to round me up soon. Very soon. To feed me into their System just like every other Convert. Because they didn't like Strays, you see. Still don't. Free Agents caused too many issues. Too many problems. Made too many loose ends.

They liked the leash tight.

I told Valtiel that The Whispers said to Follow Jordan. That it was His Will and I couldn't just stop. That I had to keep going. That I didn't know anything about any kind of Organization. That I'd never even heard of the term "Proxy" before he had said it. That, maybe, JUST maybe... he was mistaking me for someone else.

That smile instantly grew.

He assured me that the Highers weren't quite dumb enough to oppose any True Orders I had. But True Orders only came when He wished it. And not a second before. In the meantime, I had other matters to tend to. He told me... that it was in my best interest to go along with what the Organization wanted. That they could supply all I needed. And, when I told him I didn't need anything, he actually laughed. Asking me what I was going to do for money. For food. For clothes and a roof over my head. He asked if I was getting much sleep waiting for the cops to arrest me for breaking and entering. Asking me if I still thought it had been a good idea to use the last of my money to buy warm(ish) clothes instead of simply stealing them. Questioning how I'd been willing to commit murder, but how something like stealing just... hadn't come to mind. And now, instead of stealing food, I just wasn't eating. He asked how that was working out.

And, of course, that wasn't even mentioning my stupendous lack of any training once or ever.

I tore my eyes down to my hands on my lap. Not saying a word. He was right. I knew he was right. But I didn't want to voice it... and definitely not to those prying eyes. I became conscious of the aroma from the kitchen which seemed even stronger than before. Bacon cooking, maybe? If so, it was burning. But, no, that wasn't quite right either. It was difficult to pin-point. Not to mention a waste of time to try. But I wasn't willing to match that Amber gaze again, so I let my stare lift just enough to drift across the other faces in the room...

My blood ran cold.

I recognized them.

Every single one.

Every single face.

All sitting and chatting with each other.

Teachers. Students. Parents of students. Old Friends. New Friends. Neighbors. Colleagues.


They were scattered. All chatting in their own groups. But there was something they all had in common. Something that churned my stomach and fuzzed over my mind even as I struggled to grip what I was seeing. Even as my throat closed up and my mouth went dry.

They were all dead.

All of them.

Some had fallen to alcoholism over the years. Some to drugs. Some to freak accidents or medical complications. Others... others were... a lot fresher than that...

I saw my grandfather. He was puffing on his pipe just like he used to in every memory I have of him... and yet the smoke came out of gaping holes in his chest instead of his mouth. His chest nearly completely rotted away to expose black, cancer-filled lungs. He was chatting with my neighbor in University who'd ODed at a party on campus. Their nostrils in the same condition as my grandfather's chest and his arms ripped apart by years of using needles. All the holes now oozing and dripping. Foam dripping to the table from his mouth as he spoke.

Across the room was my fourth grade teacher who had died in a car accident. Her twin boys had perished with her when she lost control and hit a tree. Both of which were parked on the bench on either side of her. Blood puddling over the seats and down onto the floors. Their bodies mangled and bent wrong ways. And, sitting with them, was Nigel. The boy who laid a bullet into my chest and ended the lives of many others... before swallowing a bullet of his own. When he turned his head just right - laughing - I could see where the bullet had exited the back of his skull. The remains of brain and bone dangling, pulsing, amongst blood.

The faces of the other students and teachers from that tragic event peppered the remaining crowd. All their bullet wounds bleeding heavily as they spoke to others I once knew. 

A teenage boy who was swollen twice his size. Peanut allergy, I recall. The son of a colleague.

A parent of a student who had a heart-attack. The struggling organ bulging out of his chest with each beat. 

A friend of a friend who I knew only enough to recognize her. Still carrying strangle marks around her neck and wearing that pink prom dress. Torn and disheveled. Blood down the inside of her thighs.

And then there was... a nurse at a table closer to us... with massive blunt-force head trauma that had crushed in at her temple and was bleeding freely down her side. She was flirting with a man who I'd traveled with for months. Owen. His entire body covered in burns from head to toe...

I heard a scream... and realized it was my own. Screaming for it to stop as I scrambled from my seat. Dashing for the door. Cutting right through the gathering of too-familiar faces to get to it. A solid wood door... with no handle. And I noticed a mere half second later... that there weren't any windows either. 

I pounded on the door. Screaming for it to open. For someone to hear me. For someone - anyone - to get me out. Fresh tears staining my face as I listened to the laughter and conversations slowly bleed... into the shrieks and screams of terror and agony as each figure realized their own suffering. Adding their voice, one by one, to the deafening roar of pain that engulfed the restaurant. That swallowed everything. That clawed at my mind until all I could do was scream with them. My hands gripping my skull. My ears. 

And yet... I still heard his footsteps come up behind me. The Snake. The one who had brought me there. He crossed the room at a leisurely walk. Forearms crossed behind his back. Still wearing that same damn smile as he stared down at me.
He mused over the fragility of humans. 

Their baffling desire to "conquer the whole wide world" before they could even manage to conquer their own minds.

How simple it was to reduce a human to nothing. 

Once you take away the magic tricks.

Once you know their deepest secrets.

The secrets they kept from even themselves.

He told me I could be a Good Servant, but that I was "a guppy in a school of sharks". That I hadn't a single clue what I'd signed up for. That the suffering of those in this pretty little prison... they were the sufferers of MY world. Not His. Not Theirs. That, if I couldn't bear to hear the cries of cancer patients and road accidents... he pondered what would happen to my mind... when I started realizing what True Suffering was...

From amongst the chaos, a scream I knew all too well began above all the other voices. 

An agonized, hissing wail that I could never forget as long as I live...

I clamped my hands over my ears. Curling over myself. Yelling against it. I didn't want to hear that anymore. Not her. Not my Laura...

I felt a warm touch on my shoulder. The words he spoke delivered straight into my mind.

Valtiel told me... that, if I truly wanted to survive, I was to enter the Organization. I was to be their Dog, but to never forget who it was I truly Served. 

He said that there would be, however, one matter to take care of in the short time between now and then. Telling me that, if the Organization heard of Alex and Leo as anything other than dead... then they would be quick to correct that little problem. That they didn't like their Agents to carry any weaknesses. Any ties to the world of the Norms. Valtiel himself, however, was intrigued. Intrigued by the idea... that someone as useless as me just might be able to get turned into a True Soldier. He wanted to give me a chance at it, but knew I wouldn't unless Alex and Leo were alive. The Highers wouldn't understand that, but he did. Because he knew I needed a reason to go through with it. To not just die like all the rest of the sheep. A reason to rebuild who I was. He said he was willing to help me keep that reason intact. 

He told me that, if I could bury them... he'd make sure both found the care I wanted for them in new lives. 

But it was still up to me to grab the shovel. 

To figure it out. 

And fast.

 "Tick, tock, Sammy. Time to wake up."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 5.

I had always wanted to be a parent.

I always thought I'd have... three or four... maybe a foster kid, if possible. I was always good with children. Even from when I was young, I would sometimes babysit for neighbors and family. My nieces and nephews. It went further than just not minding taking care of them - I actually liked it. It was fun. Getting Little Ones to laugh and shriek and smile those toothy (or no-teeth) smiles of theirs. And how that smile could get so easily transplanted on your own expression when they turned to you with a fresh discovery. Another amazing moment in the great, awe-inspiring world. A constant reminder to not let yourself get too boxed in with your thinking. What you accept and don't accept as possible. A child doesn't ask if fairies are real. They know it. They don't ask if dragons live on top of mountains or if dwarves live beneath. They know it. They don't ask if good always trumps evil. Because they know it. Magic is real to them. The World is Real. Not even close to the stale version that Adults see...

When Leo was born... he was so small. His hands were absolutely tiny... and, yet, when those little digits grabbed you around your finger... it was like a vice. He wouldn't let go, and he'd laugh and kick his feet in victory of the capture. That little grip was so tight that I always used to kid Alex... that you could pick him up right out of his crib with just that hold on your finger alone.

My strong little man.
He grew up so fast. 

I just...

He wanted a puppy for his birthday that year. The one when... when everything changed.

Leo started seeing Him before Alex did.

I thought I knew Terror from when I saw Him the first time in that bathroom with Jordan... but that had merely been the warm-up in comparison to what gripped me when Leo suddenly mentioned the Tall Man. His new friend. Alex must have thought I had lost my mind... but, soon enough, He let Alex See too. We were in it together after that. No turning back. No one would believe us. No one except Owen and Jordan. Owen, who had begun to see Him not long after Leo did. Owen, who witnessed Him peering into their second story window when he had come rushing in to wake Jordan from one of her night terrors.

He found one of his own, I suppose you could say.

We... eventually left together. The two families. We had been Running only a few months before Alex and I found out we were... expecting again. We should have been... excited... but, instead, there was only... dread. Panic. To bring a new life into the chaos and panic that had become our lives...

We weren't sure if we should keep it.

But, we did.

We dared His Will, and He showed us... He showed me...

What comes to those who Challenge.

The accident that landed us in the hospital... was caused by Father Himself. He was the one we were trying to get away from that night. It was raining. Not as hard as it was around Winston and I on October 5th, but... it made the road slick. We were panicked... and then He was there again. A shadowed figure in the headlights. Tentacles curling around. We spun out...

A tractor trailer T-boned us.

I vaguely recall... drifting between awake and not for a mere handful of seconds after everything stopped.

I vaguely recall... seeing Him standing over the wreckage of metal and rubber...

The impact... triggered labor three weeks early.

At the hospital, Laura came into the world... screaming...

But... but that scream wasn't... she... she wasn't...

There was a time... that I believed in God. I went to church. I could recite bits and pieces of the bible from heart... but I knew the first time I saw Laura... that, if there was a God, He certainly didn't give a rat's ass what happened to any of us. What happened to the children of this world. What these Demons did in this world. Supposedly His World.

Laura came into this world without eyes.

Without a nose or mouth.

Just... gaping holes where they should have been.

Where my little girl's face should have been.

the skin... was tainted black in the sunken pits...

and the... screaming...

the wails never stopped. they were... like hisses... sharp, torturous sounds that screamed of a suffering the likes of which I couldn't... I could never...

she wouldn't stop crying.

she wouldn't stop.

she... my little girl... she was my little girl... my Laura... and I was afraid of her. Not FOR her. OF her.



Such a wonderful parent was I, hn...? 

"...Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine;
et lux perpétua lúceat ei. Requiéscat en pace...
Human, and therefore weak. 
But also loving. 

The monsters can't possibly understand our capacity for such things, 
how low we will go, how high we can climb. 
That is what makes us different from them. 

But one must take the good, along with the bad..."

"Father may not... understand why... 
But you don't necessarily need to know 'why' puppets dance the way they do... 

You only have to... pull the right strings." 

I spent my time in the hospital going between Alex's side, Leo's in the ICU... and Laura's in the nursery. A tiny body being monitored every which way. Little wires and tubes and monitors. All in a special little... box. Quarantined. For her own safety. Her little lungs screaming out that blackened mouth. Black sockets staring wide open at me. Blaming. Accusing. Suffering.

Owen tried to... comfort me. It couldn't have been later than... four in the morning, perhaps. He brought me a coffee. And he made that comment. The one we all know so well. About being blackest before the dawn. To remember... that Alex still needed me. That Leo needed me. And Laura... and Jordan and Owen himself. That we had to stick together. That he and I... we had to keep it together most of all. That we had to be an example. For the children. That they would be looking to us to lean on, and we had to be strong for them. We had to be there for them.

We had to think of the children...

What the bloody Hell else did he think I could possibly be thinking of?

His kid was a goddamn teenager.

Mine were... Leo was barely old enough to understand. He was four. And Laura... little Laura...

I couldn't get her face out of my head. Her screaming.

I couldn't take it anymore.

He was outside. I knew it. I could FEEL it...

He was Waiting for me.

It was a bit before dawn when I glanced into Alex's room, then Leo's. Giving a moment to them each before I silently went to the nursery for the last time. When I got there, I cracked a nurse's skull against the corner of a counter. She was trying to stop me from... taking Laura. I was scared to... even touch her... but I still brought her into my arms like I had Leo four years before. Wrapping her in a soft blanket, I cradled the wailing body even as my own tears fell in rivers down my cheeks. Blurring my vision. Shoulders shaking as I held her close to me. Everything shaking as she continued to scream and hiss and cry...

(Hush, little baby, don't say a word...)

I sung to her. Words falling off my tongue from a voice that quivered with the effort. The pain in my chest only blazing hotter as I fumbled through the familiar rhyme. Wanting her to feel comfort. In any way. Any shape. Any form. She was my child... and I could do nothing for her...

Except end her misery.

(...When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall...)

I can still feel her muffled screams against the palm of my hand. How I had slowly - purposely - covered her face as I sung to her. One rhyme after the next. Praying on dead faith for each scream to be her last. My own tears falling on her. Falling on my hand. As I paced the room. Holding her. Praying. Cursing. Begging for her just to go. Just to go and find peace elsewhere. Because there was none here for her. Not for my Laura. Not in this life. Not on this planet.

Not with Him.

Her cries ended in that nursery.

Mine continued on.

I wrapped the blanket around her still body and left the room with her in my arms. Stepping over the nurse to do so. Walking down the hall to the stairs. Working my way down through blurred vision until I reached ground level. I crossed the main entrance room uninterrupted - Unseen, perhaps - and went out the front door.

He was Waiting still. Across at the treeline on the far end of the parking lot.

I went to Him. The cold wind of near-dawn felt as though it would slice clean through my cheeks where my tears had run down. I was barefoot. Nothing but a flimsy hospital gown to wear. And I went out to Him with my murdered baby in my arms. Little Laura wrapped in a pretty pink blanket...

I fell to my knees before Him. Crying against the cold wind as I held my baby girl close to me. Begging for it to stop. Begging for Him to stop. Begging... for Him to Take Me. He had Taken Laura even before her birth... and He could have me too. I didn't know what He wanted of me... I only knew that was His Will. That I was His. And He had simply... been Waiting for me to realize it.

I cried... that I'd do whatever He wanted of me...

And, in the same breath, I pleaded for Him to let Alex and Leo go.

To remove His sight from them.

To just... let it be Over.

And so it was.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Goodbye To A Good Friend. Part 4.

It was October 5th.

He had his back to me.

"Joseph" might as well have been a coat hanging on the back of a chair, or a mannequin propped up for display in the corner. He was so still. Disturbingly so. As though his physical and even metaphysical presence had somehow approached the horizon of zero. Internalizing it. Adopting it. Making it part of his newest mask until even my own eyes wanted to breeze right across him as if he wasn't even there.

I was the Shadows that edged the dimly-lit bar. My human body feeling nearly endless in it as I silently moved across the bar. Never leaving that cloak. The only thing caught on my figure every so often by a faithless bulb being a sharp glisten across my gauntlet. It still hurt to move it. To use it was agony... but that hadn't stopped me yet. Nor would it start now.

I asked if he was disappointed.

His barest whisper... suggested that Death would have been easier. Cleaner. For everyone involved.

The shingles on the roof rattled with the wind. The building creaking and groaning in strain... and every thought in me was screaming. Screaming that he should have just let me die when Redlight threw me in his lap. Screaming that everything should have Ended back then. With the Plague Doctor. With me pinned down beneath His cane convulsing in the middle of the road of that Cult Town... convulsing in an agony so clawing, so deep, so burning, that, even now, I don't have the words for it...

It should have Ended then.

I should be dead.

And Leo...

"Joseph" didn't wait for me to sort out my thoughts - or maybe he just didn't think I was going to answer at all - and asked if I'd come to kill him. Asked if I had decided how "slow" it was going to be. Or if I wanted a punch for myself for my own role in the whole mess. He laughed then. A strange, twisted sound that was almost painful to hear. Shaking his head. Shoulders sinking over the bar that much more. Over a drink that was left untouched in front of him. Muttering how it wouldn't do anything. Wouldn't change anything. Wouldn't accomplish anything. Going on about how I've always been sharp. Sharp, despite the Jester Act. Despite all the jokes. Despite the smiles which can be anything but...

I remained in my shadow.

"Can't even turn to face the one you stabbed in the back, Sherlock? 
Or are you praying that I return the favor? 
Must admit. Tempting offer."

"...You once said that the thing you liked about me was that I was human. 
You never did consider what that truly meant, did you? 
Fear, selfishness, pride... all things that tempt us. 
Shape us into who we are. What we decide to be. 
I don't blame you for hating me. For wanting me to die. 
In fact, it's almost a relief to see that you aren't just aloof about everything. 
Betrayal... even if it was unwilling... was something you should've seen coming. 
I was weak, Sam. I couldn't fight against them. 
But you... you let it happen, just as much as I did. 
So tell me... who's corpse do you want to see on the floor today so badly? Mine? 
Or your own, perhaps...?"

He didn't move.

I moved him.

I don't recall whether I lunged at him or if I used The Path. All I remember of that instant is having his coat in my grip as I ripped him from his seat and flung him around. Slamming his thin frame back against a support beam. Pinning him there. The blades of my one hand shredding the material to ribbons, but my other grip held as anger thudded in my ears. As that voice in my head screamed louder and the useless hold my gauntlet had was let go for a better purpose. Snapping the metal across his jaw with a sharp fist.

It seemed to hurt me more than it hurt him.

My burn beneath the gauntlet turned to white fire as his head snapped to the side. Twisting. He barely cringed, but my other hand held him where he was as I struggled to shove back the fresh pain that spiked up my arm. I could feel where the skin had been torn again. Feel the blood come. The melted metal having ripped it away from my flesh. A new movement. Unfamiliar. Had to tear the scabs of healing flesh to make room for it...

All the screaming inside finally found my tongue. I yelled at him. A cold growl in my tone that almost didn't seem like mine. A fury rising from so deep that I felt myself tremble with it.

I had defended him. When "Joseph" had given advice to that idiotic Sage, Redlight had appeared out of thin air and grabbed the bartender by the head. Slamming him down onto the counter with such force that it was a damn miracle his skull hadn't cracked open. The Devil in a rage all his own as everyone cringed back. Even David had shrunk away after that rage was blasted against him. Dropping the hold he had on the "Joseph's" hand. Leaving him to his fate.

Buckle and allow.

Buckle and allow.

Buckle and allow.

So long as you're alive at the end, you can justify it, can't you?

Morningstar hadn't cared. He didn't much care for anyone there, pardoning me. And that was a loyalty that went back to when he actually had BEEN Morningstar. Luke Cifer. Not a puppet of some poor fool on strings, held together only by the memories of a stranger. This one was a fake. But he so wished to prove himself to be real, that he'd die to act the part. He'd want what I'd want. Because we were allies. Friends as Proxies. Nightscream and Morningstar. Together again.

To be a Real Boy, this time, Pinocchio fully accepted his strings. And danced.

It was disheartening. But also handy. I knew I had a Ace up my sleeve, so long as he was there.

And he proved it in that moment.

When Redlight's presence was practically radiating malice, the only one who stepped forward had been me. I left the game of chess I had going with Shooter behind, and I walked to our hotheaded Leader. Talking to him. Standing across from him. Against him. Posture relaxed and smirk on. I challenged him. His view. His anger. Gain verses Loss. And, when barely prompted, "Joseph" had streamed an apology. Begging for forgiveness. Swearing it wouldn't happen again. So sure that he was Done, all the same. So sure - so terrified - that that was how it was going to end for him.

Just behind me, Morningstar agreed with my statements. Making a few of his own. Supporting my own will, only for the simple fact that it was my will... despite the red hued rock of the ring on his hand.

David joined the Defense then. Uttering some form of ultimatum that I wasn't paying close enough attention to catch. His fear would let him support. But not Lead.

For once, that would be my Role.

Despite the other voices joining, my stare never left Redlight's eyes. Amber eyes that were still angered - still burned with fury - but something else had risen in them. A faint realization. Or perhaps confirmation. They simmered back after a moment. Cooling off. That radiation that choked the room seemed to withdraw a touch... and one last threat was made clear by the Crimson Prince towards "Joseph" himself before he vanished in a gust of Leaves.

David had been at "Joseph's" side in an instant.

Morningstar said nothing. Merely fiddled with his red ring. Glaring at it.

As for me, I was still caught on the last look The Devil had paid me before he disappeared. He knew what I had done. David and Morningstar were his pawns. Just as I was. Only I'd just had them both back me. Both were terrified of Redlight, but had stepped forward regardless. Because I had done so first. Because I knew the words to say. I knew the Game. I knew how to get what I wanted from people. Even if they didn't realize they were giving anything at all.

In that moment, I received the look from a figure... who'd pin-pointed a threat.

We spoke of it when he came back. The night we played a chess game of our own. I knew he was annoyed, to a point, that I had... interfered, but he was willing to speak to me. Willing to talk it over. It was the night that Secrets became a very important thing. Maybe the Most Important thing. The night I assured Dearest Redlight that I would not bow to him, but I would follow... so long as respect was a two-way street.

It was the night I haggled for "Joseph's" life.

We didn't spend our whole chat in the Cafe like I had lead everyone to believe. We paused about three-quarters of the way through. Redlight invited me to go for a walk with him. I held no problem with that, so grabbed my coat. We discussed many things as we walked the Endless Road of the Loop... and "Joseph" became one of them. Brought up as a problem needing to be rectified. That he was a liability. A spy. That dogs like "Joseph" were loyal to those that had saved their miserable lives - like the Highest, Author, had done with the Moriarty mess. I was another example. My loyalty to Redlight because of the Plague Doctor. Just dogs and their "masters"... and yet it built a problem. A very pressing problem. And when I commented back in "Joseph's" Defense despite it, that too-wide grin spread across The Devil's face. A ghoul's face in the strange, distorted moonlight. His skin had nearly looked as white as bone...

And then he was behind me. His front against my back. His hands having settled on my shoulders. His lips right by my ear. Whispering to me. Mocking me. Asking if I considered the bartender "mine" now, after all this. If I'd finally fallen victim to my human urges. Human desires and wants. If I now thought that I had my own little Whore tucked off into a corner. Mentioning his own disappointment in me - having thought I was different from the flock - before asking what had attracted me to him. The body? The mind? Some misguided pity, perhaps...?

I turned to face him in that twisted moonlight. Not backing away. Not caring for personal space. Not shrinking from a presence which gave every reason to. Everything about him was Wrong. He reminded me of a song I once heard (I'm the dagger in your back! An extra turn upon the Rack! The quivering of your heart! A stabbing pain, a sudden start...!). The strange light flared off his eyes within the shadows of that red hood. Gleaming as pits of pure madness above that grin... and I couldn't help that my smirk grew just a little bit more. Amusement. For the first thought that came to me... was that I'd named him well. My little nickname for him - something I thought of when he was still playing as the Mongrel - suited him to a Tee.

He really was The Devil.

(I got a fiddle of gold to get your soul, 'cause I think I'm better than You...)

I smiled into that grin. Assuring him how my heart beat only for him and there was no need to be jealous.

He laughed.

It was the night... that I claimed "Joseph" as one of my Pieces. A part of my own Game. A Pawn with a role to play... once I got back on my feet myself, of course. I still had my Plan. Something I've nursed along and built over the past years... and it was under that distorted night sky that I told Redlight that Dearest Jo had a role in it. That I needed him alive.

Whether that was a lie or not... it doesn't much matter now.

The Devil granted me that, nevertheless. He warned me to watch my step, but promised he wouldn't interfere with my Plans. So long as they didn't conflict with his own. That I could have "Joseph" if I wanted him.

I never told Winston that.

Didn't see a point.

But I told him then. I yelled. I hissed and growled through blurs of details and events and conversations long past. I gripped hold of my anger just as I had gripped hold of him. Clinging to it like a drowning soul grips to a floating piece of driftwood. I yelled at him for calling himself "unwilling". Demanding to know how the Hell one "Unwillingly" digs into someone else's history. Demanding to know how someone can break down a wall without realizing it. Yelling that I'd buried them. Both of them. And he had to know that. He had to KNOW there was something to hide once he hit that wall... but he hadn't cared. I had trusted him, and he dug anyway. The almighty Sherlock...

The eyes that gazed back at me were hollow. Pits to a soul where there was supposed to be windows. His expression never changed. His voice never rose or fell. All he was... was an near empty vessel of quiet, measured words. Words of Truth. Harsh, painful Truth.

I never told him.

That's what it came down to.

I trusted him, yet I failed to trust him enough to tell him of the landmine I myself had buried three years ago. One that was bound to be set off eventually. Even if I never detailed what, I could have said something was there. I could have said anything. He called it "always hiding behind lies and collusion and baited glances". Never giving an inch unless I was taking two inches somewhere else. Dropping little, meaningless details, but always dodging the bigger questions. Always smiling and changing the subject. Answering without answering. And then answering one question, only to create eight more.

"When along the way did you forget who I was, Sam?

What I did? 

How and why I got myself into trouble? 

We were friends.

But our business was always secrets. 

Or maybe yours was. 

Because mine was uncovering them.

The Crimson King suggested there was something... about you. 

Something in your past that might get you killed.

Or maybe just something you'd risk all our hides for.

I thought... that I could help you, if I only knew what it was. 

 It could have been anything. 

Maybe you weren't even who you said you were, 

only brought back to be a pawn in someone else's game. 

Maybe you were a wolf in sheep's clothing, 

like a certain Mongrel we all knew... 


That's all in the past now. The would'ves and the could'ves. 

 It was misguided, yes. 

I'll give you that. And I have no excuses.  

We both know... that the Crimson King was never on either of our sides. 

It's kind of ironic, if you think about it... 

outplayed by the very monster we both predicted would rise to the occasion... 

 I'm not sure who's worse... 

 me, the coward who opened Pandora's Box, 

heeding the whispers of the Devil in his ear, 

or you...

who did not do nearly a good enough job hiding nor protecting it...

You know this isn't going to be enough.

Nothing will ever be enough.

You can kill me if you want, Sam.

I won't stop you.

...Honor doesn't matter anymore."


This isn't about me, don't you get that yet?!
This isn't---!
It isn't...
It's... about him.
God, Winston, if you had to destroy me like this, so be it.
But why did he have to get involved? Why did...?
I gave up everything... everything... just to keep him safe and now...
God, how long...?
How long before he becomes like us?
Like... me?
How could I... how could I do this to him? How could I do this to my own son? 
I had one job... the rest was all play, but I had ONE FUCKING JOB... 
And I... I lost, Winston. Goddammit. GODDAMMIT!"

He didn't even flinch as I punched my gauntlet to the beam mere inches from his face.

The white fire came back. This time I didn't push it back.

I deserved it.

"...The only sad part is that you've said many times that you're not like me. 
That you don't have a speck of humanity... left in you. That you forgot.
But that was never true, Sam. 
I just wish... 
I wish a lot of things." 

That empty stare finally looked away. I knew the look. Guilt.

He carried his.

I had mine.

And I let him go with it. Taking two shaky steps back to put my back to the counter. Leaning against it. My good arm holding my gauntlet against me. I felt... exhaustion weigh over me. It took everything just to not sit down. Stool or floor, it wouldn't have mattered. The floor would have been more suiting. Inside my hoodie, my tape recorder continued its job. Recording the conversation.

"'...Once you have claws... you'll only ever be... a monster...'

That's what that bastard told me when he... 
When he melted the fucking THING to my arm.
Why did I risk it, Winston? Why did I go to him? Why did I...?
I... I should have just killed him.
Like... Alex..."

"... Because that's your child, Sam. 
I can't answer that question, 
since that sort of love is something that nobody could ever fully understand. 
Maybe I, once... had something similar, but not as powerful. 
Not as potent, as sharp and piercing, as painful... 
And through me, such a thing has been compromised. 
You don't want to hear it, I'm sure, and it will never be enough...

But I'm sorry, Sam. 
I considered you my closest friend. 

I... was a fool, but I never meant to... I never meant for this to happen..." 

I said nothing for a while. They say misery loves company, and I suppose that's true. But, after a while, I knew I couldn't put it off much longer. I had to do what I had come to do... but, first, I wanted... to give something. I wanted to finish my story. Or, at least, the beginnings of it. It was true, I had never told him details even though he'd told me several tales of the battlefield. About how he came back only to find mother and father in early graves. About how he'd never seen Slender Man. Not really.

I suppose I decided in that moment... that I owed him the story. 

So, I brushed off my hood.

Took off my mask.

And I told it.

And now I'm going to tell it to you.