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.