A sharp, audible crack sounded as a flawless face struck the concrete railing.
“Marl…” I tried on a warning voice.
Another crack. The heavily made-up face hung down, limp, straight blond hair slipping from one shoulder to obscure my view.
“You do not get to call me Marl. My parents called me Marl, and I hated it then.”
“Okay,” I said, “That’s fair. That’s fine. I’m going to ask you to please stop doing that, before you damage the doll.”
Or damage it further.
Marlene only glared at me.
She was good at looking angry. At twelve, she was young enough that I could see where her parents might have felt odd about taking her to a beautician, but old enough that her thicker eyebrows drew notice. They made the glower all the more pronounced.
I could bet she saw a haircutter and not a hair stylist, judging by the state of her hair, blond hair going brown, the cut more utilitarian than pretty. Her clothing seemed like a desperate grasp at femininity from a girl who had little idea what she was doing. Leggings and a short skirt, a black top with a flowery collar and a denim coat I wouldn’t have recommended.
Well, not my place to say, not really.
She held the doll by the ankles, and extended her arm, touching the foot-thick concrete railing that separated the walkway from the three-story drop to the city street. A series of apartment doors faced the railing and the gap where it looked out on the city. Tall buildings, many of them old buildings, as well as periodic advertisements that flickered over flat spaces, covering the sprawling graffiti at the street level.
She knew she was getting to me. She knew I was keenly aware of the damp on the wall where the melting snow and rain had left the concrete damp, that I was eyeing the texture of the concrete, where it was rougher in spots. Even a single scuff mark-
“Your mother gave you that doll,” I said, as gently as I could.
“Do not talk about my mother.” I could see the pain on her face. It caught me a little off guard. A normal twelve year old hadn’t had her heart broken, been faced with reality to the point she’d built up some emotional callus, or learned how to hide those feelings. I needed to study up on what normal twelve year olds were like. I’d never been one.
“Marlene,” Leo said, in a small voice. His hand gripped the edge of his sister’s jacket, and she used her free hand to pull her younger brother into a half-hug. He was a wisp of a kid, tiny even bundled up in a winter jacket, with a perpetually worried expression. I wasn’t sure if that was his regular face or if it was just the circumstances of our meeting, and everything that had followed.
I’d have to learn about normal eight year olds, too.
“Can we not get off to a bad start?” I asked, putting a little bit of effort into masking my fatigue. Too many hours spent tending to affairs, traveling, and dealing with these two. “I get that you’re angry. I get that you’re upset. It’s allowed. But if you break that doll, you’re going to look back on it a few months or years from now and you’ll hate yourself for it.”
“It’s fucking ugly,” she said. She turned it around to look at it, her face twisting with a kind of revulsion, and I could see a mark across the forehead. I kept my expression placid. The peculiarities of the style and the craftsmanship had left it with fairly… distinct features, including a flattened nose and eyes that didn’t fit the face. It looked more like a troll doll than a little girl.
“It really is,” I agreed. “It’s hideous. But it’s a hideous doll that would probably go for four thousand or more. It’s an exceptional gift for your mother to give you, and even if you don’t want to keep it, you could sell it to buy a used car when-”
She let her arm drop. The doll’s head banged against her leg with enough force that I could hear it.
“Fine,” I said. “If it makes you feel better, go for it.”
Marlene was doing it to needle me. The sooner we got inside, the sooner she would be distracted. I turned around, grabbed the handles of two wheeled suitcases and hurried to the end of the walkway. The two kids pulled two more suitcases, but Marlene was holding it with one hand, and it kept bumping into Leo’s, slowing the pair down.
The door lock winked into existence as I approached the door. My eye traced a lopsided hourglass figure across the dots, my gaze leaving a brief trail of light behind it. The keypad disappeared and the door popped open.
A man’s home is his castle. Depending on where he lives, however, sometimes a man has to settle for an apartment.
“Welcome home, I guess,” I said.
Marlene dropped the handle of her suitcase, very deliberately bumping my arm as she walked past me, into the apartment. She threw the doll to one side.
▲ (Ascent): He has kids?
☼ (Sunny): Kids are a problem.
▲ (Ascent): They’re a complication.
♥ (Heart): He’s complicated. We knew that going in.
▲ (Ascent): We need to do something about this.
♥ (Heart): That’s my call, not yours. We should wait, assess the situation, then we decide how to approach it.
☼ (Sunny): Agreed.
▲ (Ascent): Fine.
♥ (Heart): I’ve gotta say, he’s a hell of a good looking guy in person.
▲ (Ascent): Don’t be weird, Heart.
“Your door is different,” Leo observed. “All the other ones were the same, but yours is flat.”
“Benefits of being a long-term resident,” I said, not looking back. My eyes were on the boxes that were stacked along one side of the hallway. They were divided by delivery service, each with a piece of paper taped to it. Stuff coming in I needed to look at, stuff going out. I glanced back at the kid. “I get to change stuff up a bit.”
“Oh,” he said. His expression told me it wasn’t the answer he’d wanted. Or maybe it wasn’t an answer at all, to his perception.
“Leave it open. We can use some fresh air in here, and it isn’t too cold out.”
He nodded, then pushed his oversized lenses up his nose.
I pulled off my shoes and sat them on the rack beside the other outdoor pairs, then made my way to the bedroom, bringing one of the suitcases I’d been dragging behind me. The room was spartan, but there was a bunk bed and sets of drawers, lamps and a single alarm clock. “I had friends come by and set up the room for you two. I owe someone a drink.”
“One room for two of us?” Marlene asked. “We had separate rooms back home.”
“You have one here,” I said. I sighed a little. “Can we just take it easy? We’ll just roll with the situation for tonight, I’ll order some food you guys like, we’ll get you unpacked and comfortable, and I can answer any questions you guys have while we eat.”
“What if I have questions now?” Marlene asked. “What’s with the boxes? Why do you have more shoes than my entire family put together? You dress like a sissy. Are you a fag? Why the fuck do we have to go with a fag instead of Uncle Peter? What’s with all the shit in the living room?”
“If you’d give me a chance to answer-”
“Answer this, because it’s the only question I want an answer to,” Marlene said. “What the fuck?”
Translated: make this world make sense for me again.
“In order,” I said, and I made my tone firm. “You can ask questions now, the boxes are for my work, I like shoes, because they look good and we spent most of our days wearing them, Uncle Peter has his hands full, I rather like women, and the stuff in the living room is, again, my work. I would appreciate it if you left it alone, I’ll get it out of the way soon and you guys can hang out there.”
“So, what, we’re supposed to just stay in this room, until you get around to it?”
“Please. Look,” I said. I extended my hand, thumb and first two fingers each at right angles to one another, in the direction of the bedroom. The room briefly filled with barely visible white and black static. I pointed at each of the kids, then selected from the array of words that filled the empty space around them. I changed permissions. “You can decorate it.”
“Decorate our prison, you mean. That’s fucked,” Marlene said. She stalked off in the direction of the living room.
I followed her. “Marlene.”
Okay, there was a bit more in the living room than I’d remembered leaving behind. Four couches, two coffee tables, bookshelves and an entertainment system were all spread out in the open space. Two more armchairs and a loveseat were arranged somewhat haphazardly in two corners, a computer desk in a third. Every flat surface, the seating area and the floor included, had boxes piled on them. Two dozen or so in total, all open. The contents were laid out, meticulously placed within the confines of the box lids, along with individual parts and whatever materials I had been using at the time.
A pair of dollhouses on one coffee table, along with the varnish I’d been using on one and the paint for another. A picture frame leaned against the side of the table, having been touched up just a fix by the nearby bottle of varnish and brushes. Beer bottles, too, left over from the friends who’d set up the bunk bed and other furniture. More boxes sat on the couch nearest that table, the lids housing the furniture and dolls that went with the respective houses.
Teapots, more picture frames, candlesticks, jewelry boxes, and more than a few wooden and tin toys sprawled through the rest of that general area.
Twenty watches, six mantel clocks, three cuckoo clocks and the disassembled head of a tower clock sat on the other end of the room, and the ones that worked ticked and tocked in near-unison. The ones that didn’t work had been dismantled, the individual components carefully removed and set out within the safe confines of box lids.
She spun around, gesturing around her. “What. The. Fuck.”
“Can we at least tone down on the swearing?”
“Fuck you,” Marlene said. “What are you going to do? Ground me? Spank me? Yell at me? Hit me? You aren’t my dad! You aren’t my mom! You’re some fucking thirty year old knob who thinks they can look good wearing a vest and fucking parts his hair and owns fifty fucking pairs of shoes and paints dollhouses! It’s weird! You’re weird! I don’t fucking know you! I don’t know you and I’m supposed to live with you!?”
Her voice pitched with emotion towards the end. She had tears in her eyes, and I felt sympathetic tears welling in my own.
“For now,” I said. “Maybe until Uncle Peter is ready.”
And I’m twenty-five, not thirty.
“Fuck you!” She screamed. She turned around and shoved a dollhouse to the floor.
I felt guilty, thinking of it before I thought of her feelings, but I couldn’t help but see the profit margin on that particular piece shrink dramatically.
She kicked it.
I mentally revised my previous estimate to selling at a loss.
What could I do? She was right. She was right to feel disjointed and weirded out. More to the point, I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to discipline her. There was no bond, no attachment, nothing I could leverage. There was nothing I could threaten to take away because she’d already lost it all.
Well, everything except her little brother, and I wasn’t willing to force her to separate from him.
I most definitely couldn’t grab her, hauling her off to her bedroom. If I left one bruise, I had no doubt she’d go straight to the nearest authority figure, and then things would be messed up on a number of levels.
I tried reasoning. “Hey, Marlene, listen-”
In her rampage, she’d hurled the box of dollhouse accessories across the floor. As I made my appeal, she threw a music box, hard. Okay. Not so painful as the dollhouse.
“-can you think about Leo?”
She smashed a wooden train. That one was something of a loss. I’d spent nearly three hours at one point, trying to fix the internal mechanism without taking the outer shell apart.
“Leo’s in the next room, and he needs you to hold it together. Support him? He’s going to get stressed out, seeing you st-”
“Fucking shut up!” Her voice hit the highest pitch yet, to the point I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t overheard teenage girls screaming for some teen idol in a mall appearance.
She stalked across the room, apparently after the one place where she could do the most damage.
“Marlene!” I raised my voice.
Television. Go for the nice big sixty inch television.
She went after the clocks and watches.
I watched as the meticulously laid out watches and watch parts sailed into the air. Dials, springs, levers, wheels and hammers were cast out across the room, landing among the other items, beside books on the bookshelves, on and between cushions and in the carpet. One even landed in her hair.
I suppressed a groan, placing my hands in the pockets of my slacks, because it was better than anything else I might do with them. Not that I would throttle her, but… I wanted to throttle her, in that moment.
Then I smiled a little. “Alright, then. You need to vent? Vent. Go nuts. I needed to tidy up anyways, and maybe that’s-”
She threw a box lid at me, and I batted it aside.
I turned and left the living room. Something crunched, and I did myself the favor of not looking back to see what that something was.
I stopped in to check on Leo.
“Hey, little man.”
He looked up at me. He seemed just a little scared. The room had monsters littering it, digitally painted.
I lowered myself to his level. “Better art than I could manage at your age. I was always more of an actor.”
“I know,” he said. “They didn’t have lenses when you were my age, did they?”
Marlene did something that started a cascade of destruction. Maybe knocking books off the bookshelf and onto the boxes below.
I winced a little. “They didn’t. Smart phones were about as far as it went.”
“Yeah,” he said. He pushed his glasses up his nose again. “Is… that okay?”
“Are we going to get in trouble?”
“You? You’ve been good. Marlene… well, way I figure it, you guys have a free pass for the time being. She’s angry at this situation, and she’s frustrated, and it’s probably been building up for a while now. I guess I’m the most obvious available target, someone she can go after without any fear of repercussion, and I guess it’s an awful lot of anger. It’s a lousy situation, and I figure you’re free to do and say whatever you need to do or say, to deal with it. Fair?”
I waited for him to expand on the thought. When he didn’t, I prompted him, “Um?”
“If I’m not going to get in trouble…”
“For a little while,” I stressed. I did my utmost to keep my expression calm as Marlene continued her rampage elsewhere.
“Can I say something?”
His eyes dropped down to his lap, where an image of a three-eyed monster stood in his hands, looking around. “I don’t like it here.”
“Okay,” I said, though I was a little hurt. “That’s allowed.”
“Wes!” A shout from outside.
Not Marlene. A little too abrasive.
“Do me a favor and sit tight, Leo.”
I stood and hurried out to the front door of the apartment.
“Hey, tit-for-brains.” The girl standing outside my door was tall, her hair cut into a boyish style. Her long sleeves were rolled up, and her arms had blobs of paint on them. House paint, not canvas paint, judging at a glance. She held a package in her arms.
She shoved the box into my hands. “I told you, no packages left on the walkway. You bring them inside, or the delivery guy takes them away. I’m not burning to death because you blocked the fire escape.”
“No burning to death. Gotcha. Sorry. I thought I timed everything so nothing would arrive while I was gone.”
There a muffled series of thuds. Had the kid already tipped over everything she could tip over? Working on the remains?
“Your fault or hers?”
“The ongoing disaster at your place. Or did it stop?”
“It stopped,” I said. Just in time for Marlene to start up again. Well, I was still technically right.
“Need me to step in? I can get away with knocking a bitch out.” She smiled, wry.
“Wouldn’t be a fair fight,” I said, smiling.
I smiled wider.
With my smile, Roxanne’s face fell. “You’re doing it again, Wes.”
“Faking. Acting. Bottling it all in.”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “This one really got to you, huh?”
“This one’s a little different.”
“Oh?” Roxanne glanced at the empty hallway. “Now, is she going to murder me if I get a little jealous and try to reassert my claim?”
“You could take her. Should you? Probably not.”
She placed her wrists against my shoulders. A moment later, her fingers folded behind my neck. I couldn’t reciprocate, as I held the package.
“Now is probably not the best time. Not that I’m not tempted.”
“Later? You’ve been gone for a week.”
“Pooh. Chris needs some paperwork done.”
“Chris can get real.”
She didn’t respond, but I could see her eyes travel over my shoulder. Towards the apartment interior.
Her hands shifted position to surround my throat.
“They’re family,” I said, when I realized why. Someone had peeked down the length of the hallway, and revealed themselves.
The grip on my throat tightened. “You don’t have family.”
“I do now,” I said. She wasn’t really strangling me.
“You got fucking married on me, Wes?”
“No marriage. Their… our parents died.”
“You don’t have parents.”
“You’re right. I don’t. I wasn’t always Wesley. I used to go by a different name. I was in a few movies as a kid, dad pushed it too far, made me and everyone I worked with miserable. Someone offered me a way out, and I disappeared. I guess… I just reappeared.”
She stared at me. “Jesus. You’re completely insane.”
“Okay, let me put this into terms your atrophied brain can handle. You cannot take these kids. You have to give them back.”
“There’s nowhere for them to go. Here or foster care.”
“Here isn’t viable, Wes. For a number of reasons. Sidestepping the biggest ones, when’s the last time you stuck with a project for more than two months?”
“I’ve been working on the refurbishing for nearly six years.”
“That’s a wad of little projects, you douche canoe, and it’s not the point. Look, name one relationship you’ve maintained for three months.”
“I’m your neighbor. And we go months without talking. Someone you aren’t stuck with.”
I raised my finger to stop her, held it there for a second, and then dropped it. “Point.”
“There’s your whole… thing, here.” She gestured at my head.
“Oh, like how you’re entirely willing to trust complete strangers, blithely walking through life like you expect everything to be handed to you. At times you verge on… whatever the opposite of paranoia is.”
“Pronoia. But things are handed over to me. Very frequently. It isn’t pronoia if the world’s your oyster. Catch is, you have to be open to these things before it’s possible. A long series of leaps of faith. You believe enough, and other people do too.”
“But you need a solid steel security door?” she retorted.
I shrugged one shoulder. “We live in Toronto, I have nice things. There’s a fine line between confident and being stupid.”
“You’re incapable of seeing how fucked you are in the head.”
“I see it, I have a handle on it. It’s all under control.”
She backed away, folding her arms. “Fuck me. You’re really doing this. You’re making me do this.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
She looked genuinely distressed for the first time. “Shit, Wes. Do you believe everything you’re saying?”
“Sure. Like I said, confidence. Gotta have a little faith. Marlene will come around, the kid’s wounds will heal, we’ll figure it out.”
“There’s no take-backs on this one. Fuck. Have you even thought about how your other work factors in?”
“The refurbishing? I just realized I could rent the next apartment over, so the kids have two rooms and I have some workshop space.”
“I’m talking about the the reason you’re able to afford the next apartment over.”
Oh. The other other jobs. Like Chris and his paperwork. Less than legal things.
“You’ve got a good thing going. Don’t fuck it up like this. There’s no reason for it.”
“There’s them. The kids. Family.”
“It’s all going to come crashing down, Wes. When it happens, it’s going to happen fast, it’s going to be ugly, and those kids are going to be worse off than before.”
“Have faith? If not in life, then in me?” I moved the box under one arm, then reached out.
She shied away from my hand. I let it drop.
“You’re a good friend and coworker. With benefits, even,” she said. “But I can’t get on board with this. Not with kids. You’re flying too close to the sun here, Icarus.”
“And you’re getting more sophisticated in the insults. You’re serious,” I said. I sighed.
“You’re still at a point where you can walk away,” she said.
“Send them back, trust that things will work out, and pack it all up. Move. Because one of these cards you’ve played is going to slip, and the whole house is going to fold.”
“They’re family, Rox.”
She stared at me. “Fuck. Fuck.”
“Roxanne,” I said.
“I gotta think on this one. I’ll be in touch.”
“I’m good. You know I’m good. I haven’t been caught yet.”
“What if you get caught now? The only things at stake up to now have been money and you. But now there’s two kids.”
I shook my head.
“Later, Wes,” she said.
“Later,” I said.
♥ (Heart): Okay, gut feeling? Kids are here to stay. Can’t remove them from the equation at this point without fucking him up. Nosy neighbor has got to go.
▲ (Ascent): Agreed.
☼ (Sunny): We need him isolated. Priority one. Kids are controllable.
▲ (Ascent): They’re leverage. Expendable.
♥ (Heart): I don’t think we should go there. Gut feeling, and we agreed this was my department.
▲ (Ascent): Your call, hon. We eliminate the neighbor, at least. Consensus?
♥ (Heart): Agreed.
☼ (Sunny): Yeah.
◘ (Box): Consensus.
I stepped out of my room, buttoning up another shirt. A thin trickle of blood welled from under one fingernail, where I’d stabbed myself reaching between couch cushions. A thin wheel, and I had no idea which pocketwatch it went with. I now had a thousand puzzle pieces from innumerable different puzzles, all exceptionally similar. Some pieces matched, but the vintage and make had to be put with the right watch. I might well be at it for months, figuring it out.
“You dress like that all the time?” Marlene asked. “I thought you dressed like that for the funeral and forgot to pack regular clothes.”
She was standing outside the other bathroom, the one that now belonged to the two kids and any guests I had over.
A button up shirt and narrow-leg dress pants were unusual?
“I dress like this all the time,” I said. “Go to sleep. If we’re lucky, every day is going to suck less than the day that came before. Maybe a very little, but less. Sleep is your friend, because it takes you further down that road.”
“And you?” she asked.
“You don’t even care, do you? You don’t feel bad, you don’t miss them, you didn’t cry.”
“I feel bad that you feel upset. Really,” I said. Complete and total honesty.
“But you don’t care.”
“No. I don’t have any fond memories of those days.”
She frowned. She wasn’t swearing and demolishing my place, which meant maybe the venting had helped.
An apology would be nice, but I could wait a few weeks, months or years for that.
“Dad changed,” she said. “He regretted what happened, that you felt like you had to run away.”
“I believe you,” I said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have any fond memories of them. I forgive him, as much as it matters, but that’s where it stops. I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it. I’m sorry.”
She stared at me for a few long seconds, then turned her back to me, walking away.
A moment later, her bedroom door slammed shut.
Maybe being entirely honest was a mistake.
I’d cleaned up a third of the mess, roughly. I’d left my conversation with Roxanne to look after Marlene, once she’d burnt all of her energy. I’d hoped I could be a shoulder for her to cry on or a listening ear, but she hadn’t been willing to reach out.
The kids had their pizza for dinner, with Leo briefly breaking into silent tears that had taken me far too long to notice. He had wanted homecooked food instead. I’d suggested that I could call their aunt to get a recipe, which had only given Marlene some bait for another fight, insisting that no matter how closely I followed the recipe, it wouldn’t match the one she was used to. She said it would be worse than not having homecooked meals at all, because it would be an insult.
She might have been right, but it had been one exhausting moment in another exhausting day.
I was dealing with two kids who weren’t interested in pizza. When someone woke up shivering, drenched in sweat, that was a sign that something was terribly wrong, on a physical level, and that person was liable to find out they had cancer at their next doctor’s appointment. Two key elements in their makeup not jibing. When kids didn’t want pizza, that was a mental and emotional equivalent of the same.
I wasn’t sure what to do, besides give it time and work on forming a bond over time.
One day, one step at a time. Figure them out, help them, make them more comfortable here.
I had work to do, and no energy to do it.
Compromise. I collected some of the boxes from the front hall.
Once I assessed what needed to be done, then figure out how to pace my work over the next few days and weeks.
Keep it simple.
A Toby mug with a face on it, a fisherman, some scuff marks, a number of chips on the handle. A doll needing restuffing, with an eyelid that didn’t close anymore. Easy fixes. A cane with a secret compartment. I knew a few people who might buy it for the novelty value alone, and a handful of people who would buy it for practical use. It didn’t screw together properly. A problem with the threading.
I worked my way through the boxes. It was interesting work, requiring just a little bit of knowledge in every discipline. Old things had an honesty to them, their stories plain enough to anyone who wanted to look. Yet people were willing to throw them away.
I came to the last box. I’d put it off, if only to give myself a reason to work through to the end before hitting the hay. I debated calling Roxanne first. Same principle. I was pretty sure I would be done for the day once I got through the last box.
No. Too tired, and dealing with Roxanne was bound to be tiring. Maybe even a little heart-wrenching, depending on the decision she came to. I opted to open the box.
It wasn’t one of mine.
A mask, matte white, oval, with what looked like screwholes at the one, eleven, three and nine o’clock positions. No mouth, no nose, no raises or bumps. Only a gentle convex, with two eyeholes.
A mount? For hanging something else on a wall?
It wasn’t old, either. It was new.
I set it down on the table and rubbed my face. I’d taken out the lenses, leaving my apartment free of the little cosmetic touches I’d given it. Images on the walls no longer displayed, gilt vine patterns on the coffee table no longer crawled along the surface in slow motion. Everything was very dull and static, which matched my current mental state.
I raised my head.
My television was on. The screen had a tiny crack in it, but the crack didn’t obscure the image. A heart, on the screen, black against white.
My computer was on, too, in the corner. Rather, the monitor was on. The computer itself was rarely shut down. An arrow, pointing up.
I had to look for the third. My music player, on the bookshelf. A sun with rays extended.
That raised any number of questions. If I was seeing things, it wasn’t the lenses.
“Or should I call you Soren Ellis?” The heart on the television screen pulsed in time with the words. The voice was masked, digitized.
This guy knows?
“I prefer Wesley,” I said. Act calm, smile. Look confident, even when you aren’t sure who these guys are and how they’re pulling this off.
Cool as a cucumber.
“We’re going by Heart, Ascent, and Sunny.”
“Right now, we’re your best friends in the world. I need you to understand that, whatever happens next,” Heart said.
“I know how this goes. Establish a rapport. Once you’ve done that, you need to create a deadline, rush me.”
There was a pause, then laughter. The speakers… the sun was pulsing in time with the laughter.
“He’s got you there, Heart,” Sunny said. The voice was digitized, but the pitch was different enough to make it distinct.
“I’ve been around the block a few times,” I said. I tried to watch all three screens at once, but couldn’t. “I’ve dealt with some unsavory people.”
“You are an unsavory person,” the arrow spoke. What had the heart called it? Ascent?
“Now you’re insulting me,” I said. “This isn’t a good start, guys. You’re new to this.”
“No,” Ascent said.
“He’s kind of right,” Sunny pointed out.
“Wesley,” the heart told me. “We need you on board here. Put on the mask, and we’ll explain.”
I stood and stretched. It wasn’t like the machines could hurt me. It was good if I showed I was comfortable in my own skin.
“I remain thoroughly unconvinced,” I said. “Hold up for a minute. I’m going to get something to drink.
“This is important,” the Heart said, but I was already leaving. “Wesley.”
Take control of the situation.
They were flustered. Even with masked voices and no expressions to go by, I could tell I’d set them back a little.
A little more and I could turn things around. Maybe even figure out how they got access to my belongings.
The microwave bleeped. A sun. Images appeared on the displays of the stove and refrigerator. Heart and arrow.
The fridge started talking to me. “Your life is at stake.”
I opened the fridge door, fetching a beer.
Maybe not the best idea, to dull my brain, with these guys here, but I was tired, and I wasn’t about to face down another crisis without a creature comfort.
“If you don’t listen, you could die in the next few hours.”
“I could die anyways,” I said. “Any number of things could happen.”
Take the power away from them. So far, all they had were words and vague threats. If I stripped those things of their meaning, then the advantage was mine.
“The kids-” Ascent started talking.
“No,” Heart said.
With those incremental advantages, as my self-imposed adversaries got more flustered, I got information.
One was willing to go after the kids, the other wasn’t.
Was the hesitation because of compassion?
“The kids,” Ascent went on, “Could theoretically be in danger. Their lives could be at risk.”
Or was the hesitation because Heart suspected they would be playing their cards too early?
Because they were. Another advantage to me.
“Listen, Wesley. Put on the mask,” Heart said. “Work with us on this, and we’ll fix everything.”
“I have everything I could want,” I said. Beer in hand, I left the kitchen.
They were waiting for me in the living room. Heart said, “Your legal situation, we have access to every single document relating to you. We can smooth things over, ensure it’s even sailing from here on out.”
Hard to imagine, but it was hard to imagine they could bypass the building security as well as my own. I wasn’t tech savvy, I preferred old things, but I could manage, and I had enough money to hire smart men and women to put protection in place.
Were one of these people one of those smart men and women?
“If you have that kind of power, I find it hard to believe you need me. Or if you do need me, it can’t be for anything good. I’ll pass.”
“We could destroy you too,” Ascent said. “Pass documents to the right people.”
I turned around, facing the computer screen. “Do it. You have the ability to do that? You have what you say you have? Do it.”
“I’m not sure you comprehend exactly what I’m threatening here.”
“I understand. However, I also understand that if you do have the ability to follow through, to utterly destroy my life, then I’d be your puppet for the rest of my life if I acknowledged it, and I really am fond of free will. If you don’t, then I’m calling your bluff. Your move, arrowhead.”
“We’ll start small. Start with the kids, regarding-”
I dropped to my stomach by the bookshelves. I reached behind, and found the power bar. I clicked it to ‘off’.
By the time I stood up, the ‘sun’ had migrated to the computer monitor.
Heart was speaking from the cracked television, “You’re making a mistake. Depending on how things go tonight-”
I unplugged the TV with no small measure of satisfaction.
“We can take everything from you,” Ascent said.
“Then stop talking and do it.”
I unplugged the computer.
Then I grabbed the mask, opened the balcony window, and hurled it out into the street.
▲ (Ascent): Fuck.
☼ (Sunny): Hahahahahahahahahaha
▲ (Ascent): Fuck. Damn it, Heart.
♥ (Heart): Me?
▲ (Ascent): You picked him.
♥ (Heart): You guys agreed to the pick. I am not taking the blame for this.
☼ (Sunny): Hahahaha.
▲ (Ascent): You could have helped, Sun.
☼ (Sunny): You guys were doing so well, though! I’m more a behind the scenes guy.
♥ (Heart): We’re running out of time. I wanted to keep some in reserve, in case someone else tried to pull something, but…
▲ (Ascent): It’s not a good situation. What do you think?
♥ (Heart): Drag him kicking and screaming.
☼ (Sunny): Probably have to. Pretty temporary solution. We only get to make three plays, and we’ve already made one for the neighbor.
♥ (Heart): We figure it out tomorrow.
▲ (Ascent): Alright. Force him to come along. Consensus?
♥ (Heart): Damn it. Yes.
☼ (Sunny): Not really off to a good start, are we? Yes.
◘ (Box): Consensus.
I woke up to see six men striding into my bedroom. They didn’t make a sound. Their boots were silent. No eyeholes in their masks. Only black, head to toe, complete with vests and leather gloves.
I reached for my drawer, hauling it open.
It was empty. I’d moved the gun because the kids were moving in.
Firm hands seized my arm, and an elbow forced me back down onto the bed.
Strong. Stronger than me.
One of them for each of my limbs, pressing them down against the mattress so hard I thought something might dislocate. A hand went over my mouth.
Not that I was going to scream, if I could help it. Bringing the kids into this wouldn’t help.
That left two. One held the mask, and a black medicine bag.
The other took hold of my head, climbing onto the bed and pressing down on my collarbone and shoulders with one shin and virtually all of his body weight.
He took the mask and set it in place. I could smell something medicinal, thick and cloying to the point that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Gorge rose in my throat as spit flooded into my mouth, and my consciousness swam.
But I wasn’t knocked out right away. If it was meant to, it had faded in effect. I did slip away, but not before I heard a power tool start up with a shrill whine and felt something poke me in the forehead, just above the hairline.
Someone was screaming. A frantic kind of scream that kept trying to restart all over again, even as he didn’t have the breath. His voice was hoarse, as if it had been going on for a little while.
I sat up, tried to look around.
My vision wouldn’t focus. Double vision, the opposite of being cross-eyed.
I could make out a jail cell. With a metal cot, a thin mattress and pillow, and a toilet. Lit by a skylight. There were iron-bar doors at two opposite sides.
I was disoriented, my breath hot against my face. I tried to climb to my feet, and nearly fell, cracking my face against the toilet.
Pausing to catch my breath, I looked down.
I was dressed, and not in pyjamas. Slacks, outdoor shoes, no belt, a dress shirt and vest, with a gold pocket watch in the vest pocket. I couldn’t make out the colors in the dim. I removed the pocket watch and hit the button to open it, but it didn’t cooperate. Decorative.
Which bothered me more than it should have. Being dressed by other people, by the men who had assaulted me.
The screaming continued.
“I can make out another one.” A woman said.
“Hello!” I called out. I lurched over to the bars, gripping them to catch myself. “Hello!”
“Ah, he’s a-“
“Shh. Don’t be an idiot. You think we’re separated like this because we’re buddy buddy? Don’t tell him anything he doesn’t need to know.”
I squinted, but that only made the vision problem worse.
Instead, I used my hands to shield my eyes from the skylight above. There were people. People wearing masks, standing a distance away. They were blurry blotches.
I moved my face closer, and there was a hard impact.
I was wearing the mask. My hands moved to my face.
Not the same mask. Or they had added to it. There was a protrusion in the middle, conical.
I tried to pull it off, and I couldn’t. I fumbled for straps.
The lights came on. Each one was accompanied by the sound of a large breaker being thrown. Spotlights spilled light into cells, one by one, traveling clockwise around the circle. I shielded my eyes.
Cells, arranged in a circle, so one set of doors formed a loose ring where the lights didn’t reach.
I couldn’t make the inhabitants out. The angle of the cell I was in and the fact that some weren’t standing by the door meant most were out of my view.
The light came on in my cell, and it was so bright it hurt.
The last of the lights came on. Still, the man in the other cell screamed, urgent, frantic. By contrast, I was utterly still.
The lights went on at the opposite end of the ring.
A woman, dressed in a black tank top and yoga pants, with running shoes, wearing a gray wolf’s mask. The eyes were black circles. If I’d seen it in a cartoon Leo was watching, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
A girl, in a rabbit mask, complete with ears that arced over her head. She was wearing yoga pants and a sports bra, her arms covering her chest. The same vague, minimalistic cartoon look was apparent, with the round, unblinking eyes.
A man, a rat mask, wearing a leather jacket.
A kid, not much older than Marlene, probably a boy, wearing a black sweatshirt, jeans, and a mask of a… lizard? Snake?
And then, finally, the cell where the man was screaming. A shirtless old man. His mask had too many eyes. A spider. He thrashed, occasionally kicking his legs.
My hands moved up to my face. The distorted vision… I touched the slight convex bulges where my ‘eyes’ were.
I was looking through the eyes of my mask, set further apart than my own eyes were.
If that were true, then was he seeing through eight eyes at once? Was that even possible?
It was the sort of thing that would require surgery. The thought made me recall a memory, the whine of the power tool.
My hands traveled back up to the mask. I tried to wedge them underneath the hard surface, but the places where I could were limited.
But there… Below my temples, spearing into the very rightmost and leftmost edges of my cheekbones, metal rods.
The ringing echo of the last breaker sang through the area, taking far too long to go completely away.
Twelve in total.
Thirteen. The final light came on, filling the center of the circle. A computer, with screens facing each of us.
Day 0 Over.
Night 0 begin.
Twelve cunning beasts prey on one another.
Each with talents, natural and given.
Bloody festivity at night. Rest during the daylight hours?
Which one deserves to live?