The Chooser

 

 

NOW

 

Speak a word.

Any word.

Just choose one.

Feel your tongue against your teeth. Open your throat and push out the air. Feel the saliva. Feel your teeth click shut and make it final.

Capture a thought in air.

Make an edge in ideas.

Bring light to the dark.

Now, try again.

Find the right word. The deep down word. The one that is supposed to be said rather than the one you happen across. Feel for the crease in your mind where all the deep down thoughts flow like water finding its way to the ocean. The little truth that connects to the Big Truth.

Feel for the truth.

Now choose.

Choose the right word.

Choose.

 

Seth drives through a rainstorm that came from nowhere, and he thinks of Nana Zebula’s words. If anyone could ever hope to give an introduction of the study of Magic, they could not do better than the old mountain woman. Speak the right word at the right time in the right way. Speak it with conviction, without apology, and with power.

Speak a word to change the world.

Magic.

Simple as that.

Seth leans forward, focusing on the road. Peering through the rain, sparing a glance to the strange compass on the dashboard to assure himself. It’s not the north-seeking needle that assures him, but a second needle dark as old iron and pointing dead ahead. Keeping the white line to the right of his passenger side tire, he drives confidently, but he has been driving for hours and he is tired.

The radio sparks to life. Music emerges from out of the white static noise that has been his companion for the last hundred miles. He listens to a few seconds of a song with words about mothers and fathers and he feels his eyes growing red with gratitude for the strange woman who had done so much to repair his love of life. For Zebula, who had died in a place of terrors, to give Seth a chance. The not-quite-tears make him hate the music, but he can’t abide silence. What he wants is static, but the car’s busted radio will only let him use the seek button to find stations. Somewhere out in the night is a radio tower whose range he has just entered, and Seth hates it with his whole heart.

One hand leaving the wheel, Seth plays with the radio dial trying to find talk radio, never stopping on a song longer than a single note. It’s easy not to be sentimental listening to an old man rant about immigrants and the president, or a twenty-something woman talk about jazz and the history of baseball or the tragic poetic lives of sequoia trees. There’s nothing there to feel anything about. Not for the first time, Seth privately thinks that talk radio is even more nothing than static.

His luck isn’t in.

Every station he finds is a song.

It’s hard not to be sentimental when someone is crying their heart out into the airwaves. Even commercial sellouts can tug at a heart string. That’s the power of music. Seth hates that power. Music doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can claim that power. Old Zebula had taken him in when the world was hopeless, and breathed on embers he hadn’t even known were there and she had not done it with songs. Ella, on the other hand, wicked and twisted Ella… she had sung beautifully.

The lyric words that find their ways to Seth’s ears are not so right as to be magic, but they help open up the pain inside of him nevertheless.

They make him hurt.

Make him feel.

Seth decides he’s had too much of sound for the evening, his eyes flicker off the road for a moment, and he shuts off the radio.

Only a moment…

The windshield wipers sweep from side to side in a mechanical blur, louder than the radio, and the road disappears behind a curtain of rain. The full fury of the storm has opened up. This blindness is almost like true darkness. Seth’s heart skips a beat as a figure in white gloves appears in front of the car, only to be blasted apart into a cloud of dust.

An impression of a face left by ash appears on the windshield, before the wipers wash it away, leering and sadistic.

Cousin Lisbeth.

Terrified and paralyzed with shock, Seth’s hands freeze on the steering wheel.

It is too late to realize the Family has found him. It is too late to realize the storm is more of their black magic, Seth is already crashing down the embankment…

Farther. Faster. Spinning.

An elm stops him in a moment.

Even as consciousness fades away, Seth snaps a few neon flares. They fill the car with a warm pale yellow-green glow. He mustn’t let them find him in darkness.

He mustn’t let the Family know he has left the protection of the light.

Not again…

 

THEN

 

Seth is a boy. He’s six, or maybe seven. He doesn’t know and anybody else who could have said for sure is long since dead.

“Is that your grandma?” the police woman asks, pointing to Ella.

Seth is always careful not to acknowledge Ella until someone else does first. All of the Family have the power not to be seen unless they choose to be seen. If he’d acknowledged her before the policewoman did, he wasn’t sure what Ella or the police woman might do. Think he was crazy, in the best case. Punish him terribly, in the worst. Even at six, he knows that there’s no real choice there at all.

Seth shakes his head, his long black mop of hair flying every which way.

Seth doesn’t know how he knows Ella isn’t related to him, he doesn’t remember much of anything before maybe six months ago, but he knows Ella isn’t his grandmother. He thinks he might have had another family once, a young girl with hazel eyes he sometimes dreams is his mother and a ball of fur he’s certain was some kind of pet, but Ella had taken Seth away from them.

Or taken them away from him.

Seth supposes it doesn’t matter which way it happened.

“She’s not your grandma, then?” the police woman presses.

Seth shrugs.

Ella will abide his silence, if it helps avoid awkward questions about the Family, but she hates lies. Hates them as she hates nothing else. Ella had told him it was because nothing can hurt like the truth.

“Who is she then?” insists the policewoman.

Seth says nothing, just stares. That’s not a question he knows how to answer.

“Are you shy? Can you use your words? It’s okay to talk, you’re safe here. Do you know that you’re safe here?” asks the policewoman who can’t see all the other members of the Family relaxing in the shadows.

Seth shakes his head again, too numb and terrified to speak. How could he possibly explain when he barely understands himself? How could he put it into words? The Family is the Family and they are not related to anyone but themselves.

Ella is the grandmother of the Family and Seth is not one of the Family.

The Family has told him this.

Ella has told him that he is the Family’s Monument, something like a pet.

Sometimes Ella will even have him do tricks. Seth doesn’t like to think of the tricks. They aren’t the kinds of tricks a dog would do and they hurt.

“You drew some bad pictures in school. Do you want to look at your pictures? Can you tell me about them? Your teacher says you’re new to the area and that you don’t have any friends yet. Can I be your friend?” asks the policewoman.

Seth shakes his head again, and the nice lady in the blue clothes with the silver piece of metal on her uniform frowns. Of course he can’t have any friends. Not after what the Family did to the last one. He won’t ever have a friend again. Who could he hate that much?

Seth doesn’t bother to look at the policewoman again after such a stupid comment.

Uncle Ricardo is in a shadow next to some filing cabinets reading a paper and chortling, unseen. It’s some kind of newspaper with a bunch of dead bodies in it and Seth doesn’t think it is delivered to or made for anyone other than Uncle Ricardo. Later, when he learns to read, Seth will understand it is somehow a newspaper tracking the exploits of unknown serial killers. They even have product endorsements, but not for any kind of products Seth has ever seen in stores. Daughter Terra Joy is riding around on a broken ceiling fan, light as a feather, pissing on the cops below. She’s moaning drunkenly while she does so. None of the police officers seem to notice, although occasionally one will scoot back in their chair or scratch the top of their heads.

The policewoman lays some crayon drawings in front of Seth.

As if they are not in danger.

As if the Family is not all around them.

What a stupid woman, Seth thinks.

He turns away from the drawings, turns and presses himself against the very farthest corner of the cubicle.

They’re only in a stupid cubicle with glass walls so Ella can see everything they’re doing from the waiting area of the police station. From only twenty feet away, Ella smiles her fang-toothed smile, but she doesn’t stand up. She only sits there and knits, humming. Audible even at the distance and with all the other noise. The sweetest sounding hum anyone ever heard and it’s comforting enough and beautiful enough that one day Seth will grow up to actually hate music. Because music can dress up any awful shit and make it seem like something it isn’t.

“Seth? Can you look?” the police woman asks again.

Ella meets Seth’s eyes from the waiting room and licks her old, thin lips. She pulls something white and horrible from a small brown sack and puts it in her mouth and chews. Ears. She always eats ears even though she always complains about them. Ella’s appetite for ears is one of the reasons why everyone but Seth in the red crayon drawings has so much red on their head.

“If you can’t look, will you tell me if the boy with the black hair is you?” the police woman asks.

Ella stops humming. She grunts and pulls a small earring out of her mouth and tosses it back into the bag like an unwanted piece of gristle she can’t figure out how to get rid of. With a single crooked, bony finger, Ella roots around in the bag looking for something more delectable. Without a care in the world, without fear. No one can hurt Ella. Not even all the cops with all of their guns. Finally, Ella finds a darker-complected ear, pulls it out and starts chewing and humming again.

“If you say something, I can help you,” the police woman says.

There’s a shadow under the policewoman’s desk. Cousin Lisbeth has been in the shadow for the last fifteen minutes watching internet porn and giggling. She’s even got a tub of popcorn and there are kernels littered all over the ground. All of the Family can ride shadows that way. They can appear anywhere they want in a moment so long as that place is dark enough.

Even though she’s right there, no one else can see her. Not a soul save Seth.

“Why did you make these drawings, Seth? Where is this place? Who are these people?” the police woman asks.

“I made it up,” Seth murmurs in a tight, whispery voice.

Ella pauses in her chewing, stares at Seth, and scowls. Seth’s heart hammers. There will be punishment for that lie.

The policewoman sighs, rubbing her eyes.

“I don’t believe you. The only people I see who look like you do are hardened combat veterans or detectives who have been too long on the job. You’re not old enough to know the phrase ‘thousand-yard stare’ but you have a ten-thousand yard stare, Seth. That’s not good. It doesn’t just happen. Let me help you. I can help.”

She touches Seth’s shoulder.

Her touch feels like cool water on a hot skillet. Seth pulls back as if burned, but he doesn’t say anything. Even though it causes him pain to receive her kindness, he only twists himself away and buries himself deeper down in his over-sized sweatshirt.

He loves the sweatshirt, but never mentions it aloud. If Ella knew he felt safe when he crawled deep inside of the sweatshirt she’d snatch it right away. She’d rip it up in front of him while telling him that she was doing him a favor because the truth of the matter is that no place is safe.

Out of the corner of his eye Seth sees one of the red crayon drawings. In it, a little boy with black hair is sleeping on top of the red crayon people in the basement. He always thinks of them as the red crayon people. Never as “the bodies.” Never as “the dead people.” Never as “the victims.” Never as “that kind old man who smiled at me in a grocery store once” or “that girl with the braces who offered to be my friend.”

“This shadow is cramped,” Cousin Lisbeth whines from the under desk, “I can’t wait till we destroy this fucking world and turn off the damn sun. Oh wait, what did she say? Does she feel sorry for you, Seth? Does she feel sorry for the puppy? Little fuck toy boy, does she feel sorry for you? Does she know you sleep on a pile of dead bodies every night?”

The police woman looks at him with eyes so kind Seth can’t bear to have them see him.

“What’s going on, Seth?” the police woman asks, kindly.

“I made it up,” Seth says again. He thought maybe he’d cried his last tear the night before because he can’t seem to wring a single drop out of his eyes.

“I made it all up!” he screams, and he regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth.

Ella so hates lies.

It’s dark outside when the the policewoman is finally forced to let him go.

An older policeman appears and gives Seth back to Ella.

“Children have such vivid imaginations,” says Ella.

“We’ll be checking in on him,” says the policeman.

“We are moving soon, I’m afraid,” says Ella.

Seth stares at the ground as they leave. They could be in a whole new country by tomorrow. The Family rides the shadows, and they can go wherever the dark can go. Anywhere in the world. And they can drag Seth along.

Outside, Ella guides Seth down a series of dark alleyways, with the whole Family following in perfect silence. Seth walks in the middle of the group, under their sinister smiles and feels nothing. Nothing at all.

Once, he’d dreamed that the Family would turn him into one of the red crayon people.

Then he’d begged them to turn him into one of the red crayon people.

Now, he’s just tired and can’t find the strength to feel anything anymore.

The Family stops on a bridge where a stray puppy is running out into the middle of the road. Seth can barely see it through everyone’s legs. A little chocolate-colored puppy…

Somehow, it makes Seth feel something to see it. He feels something in spite of how tired he has become of feeling anything. Feels something like how he feels when he thinks of the young girl that might be his mother.

It is as if he knows the dog. As if the dog is his greatest friend in the whole word. The last friend who has not abandoned him. As if the dog is the last living part of the life he’d had before the Family.

Seth steps forward, not realizing that he’s breaking the Family’s careful formation.

Ella’s fingers dig into Seth’s shoulders but he doesn’t feel them. He thinks it would make Ella angry to know that he can make himself not even feel anything in his body. Even when the dog makes him feel something in his heart. It would enrage Ella to know that he can escape into nothingness outside and hide everything that lives inside.

Uncle Ricardo picks up the stray dog and Seth feels his heart-hammering with dread expectation. Uncle Ricardo only strokes it gently.

“My True Name,” Ella said, with an aura of power and ceremony, “is the Full Knowing Choice of Evil. You, Seth, are my Chooser, my Monument. I will never lie to you. It is not written in my name to do anything other than to give you a full and clear choice. Have I ever lied to you, Seth? Have I been anything but completely and totally honest with you? Have I ever deceived you about what we are?”

Uncle Ricardo holds the dog up high over his head and turns in a slow circle, as if playing with a beloved pet. But he’s so near the side of the bridge. So near the long fall…

Seth shakes his head, violently, savagely, surprised at how he’s not crying into his long black hair.

Uncle Ricardo is kissing the dog on the nose. The dog licks uncle Ricardo’s fangs. The dog seems happy. Of course the dog is happy, how could it know?

“One day you will go away from us, Seth. We will set you free upon the world and you can be as happy as you choose to be. And when you know the fullness of joy, we will return and ask you a question. We will ask whether or not we may destroy all of this world. All you must do to save the world is say no. Only the word no and we will leave, Seth? What do you think you will say when the time comes?” Ella’s eyes grow bright and yellow.

Uncle Ricardo puts the dog down suddenly, too quickly, and the little dog yelps in pain.

“No!” says Seth, surprising himself with his anger.

With the hot sweaty, pulsing anger he can feel.

He is so angry he is willing to defy Ella. To risk her terrible wrath. To risk the Family and the fate of the red crayon people.

He takes a step toward the dog but Cousin Lisbeth holds him back with two white-gloved hands. She kisses the top of his head as he struggles, as if they were wrestling and she loves him.

“You have not seen all of Evil yet. Nor tasted much of Good. You must know both for your choice to have power. Knowledge and Choice are the greatest powers in the All and the Nothing. You see the dog? We have worked long and hard to bring it here this night. Do you know this dog, Seth?”

Seth nods, eyes red, still not crying. Still struggling against Cousin Lisbeth’s arms. He can’t help it. Can’t help trying to run toward the dog.

Because of course he knows the dog. It’s his dog isn’t it? His little puppy?

“That dog is your dog, Seth. From before we came. From before your mother chose to die by our hand and gave you to us. It has searched for you for a full year. A year spent eating garbage and escaping from those who try to rescue him. It has been the hero of a thousand adventures in its quest to return to you. Driven only by a faint memory of you and its loyalty to you. In a moment, Ricardo will let it come closer and it will see you. It will know you for who you are. It will run to you and we will let it run to you. The dog’s name is-”

“Boomer!” Seth shouts.

Boomer! How could he have forgotten? Boomer! His Boomer!

Boomer turns and twists in Uncle Ricardo’s hands and Boomer sees Seth and… Seth feels everything. Feels everything all soaking deep down into everywhere.

Cousin Lisbeth lets Seth go and he runs toward Boomer and Boomer breaks free from Uncle Ricardo and runs toward Seth.

Seth picks up Boomer and squeezes her tight against himself. He feels Boomer’s warm fur under his fingers, and Boomer’s heartbeat against his chest, and Boomer’s kind tongue licking his chin. Seth feels the love burning like a fire inside of Boomer.

He feels!

Feels Boomer.

Boomer!

It is Boomer who loves him and Boomer whom he loves.

Love.

Love like a red hot meteor from outside striking the glacier of Seth’s heart and smashing him all apart.

Ella stands only a few feet away and Seth puts himself between her and Boomer.

“I won’t let you hurt her!” Seth says and he means it.

He won’t let Ella hurt Boomer. Won’t let her touch Boomer. He’ll be a red crayon person first.

Ella chuckles.

“I won’t hurt that dog. None of us will ever hurt that dog. We will let you keep it.”

Seth closes his eyes, feeling dizzy, feeling feeling feeling…

“Then why?” he croaks.

Ella walks to him and puts a hand on the small of his back and guides him to the edge of the bridge. All sorts of jagged rocks and rushing water lay directly below. Seth can hear the rage in the water and the rocks and the height makes him dizzy with a sense of peril.

“We will be kindly toward your dog, Seth, but it will grow cruel. Seeing what we do and what we are, and that you live among us, it will become a mean dog in its heart. One day, it will hate you and choose us. None of that, Seth, no time for denial. I have never lied to you. Never once. The dog will do what it must to survive. One day, Boomer will be cruel and will hate you. Yet I will let you keep the dog so that you continue to feel. For the same reason we keep you in the human schools, so that you might see the life you will never have. So that might see a chance at escape and grow to hate hope itself. We will let you keep this dog so that you continue to hold hope. So that every day you’ll keep trying. So that you’ll know more and more deeply the difference between us and you. Or…”

Ella’s yellow eyes flick over the bridge.

Seth holds Boomer more tightly.

“If you throw the dog over the bridge, it will die instantly and without pain. It will break its neck on a rock in less than a second. It will not hate you. The dog will only be confused for a moment as to why you threw it away. It will suffer only a moment of bewilderment as to why you rejected its loyalty when it sought you for so long. Then it will be gone. And when the dog is gone, all of your feelings will die again, Seth. Much more than before. It will be hard for you to feel anything ever again.

“Oh, of course I know that you’ve learned not to feel, Seth. Of course I know. I have traveled to many Worlds and many places far into the All and I have done to billions of worlds what I will do to this one. I have done to billions of Choosers what I am doing to you. If you throw the dog over the bridge, we will continue to hurt you and you’ll feel great pain but it won’t hurt as much. You know the difference between pain and hurting.

“What will you do, Seth? Let the dog grow mean? Watch your hopes be thwarted day after day? Or will you let it die now, as it is? As kind as it is in this moment, after having looked for you for so long? As full of love as it is right now?”

Somehow, Seth is pressed right up against the side of the bridge. He feels the cool metal and concrete through his sweatshirt and pants. The whole Family watches him. Licking their lips.

Seth opens his mouth to speak but there are no words. Boomer, sensing his discomfort, licks Seth’s cheek and… Seth can’t feel it. Or rather, he feels it as though it is happening to someone else.

“What… what do you want me to choose?” Seth asks, because if he knows what Ella truly wants he knows somehow that he will find the strength to choose the opposite.

“My wants? Wanting is as great a weakness as Love. I honestly don’t care, Seth. I have done this too many times. My youth, if I ever had one, is a long buried memory and if I ever cared about what my Choosers choose, I can’t recall. This is all about you, Seth. It’s always been about you. What do you think is best? There is no right and no wrong. Only your choice for what is best. It’s one or the other and I won’t let you have the choice again after this.”

The Family watches, all of their yellow eyes shining like headlights.

“Choose, Seth,” says Ella.

His whole body shakes but Seth still manages to raise Boomer high over his head. He is only a child, only a boy, but Boomer is still mostly a puppy. In the final moment, Seth looks up at the moon and wails. A plea to God, perhaps. A plea to the rest of his humanity. A plea that at least the dog might be spared, that the dog not be made into the same monstrosity as the boy knows himself to be.

The moon does not answer.

And then the single, short howl is cut off in a moment and it turns out Seth was wrong.

He still has lots of tears left to cry.

But not again after that night.

 

NOW

 

Zebula’s words, again, bring him back to the surface. Zebula’s words are in his dreams. She’s rocking in her rocking chair. Her house full of stupid plastic plates with the faces of presidents on them. Zebula and her granddaughter…

Darkness haunts you, boy. Not our dark. Not our kind of haunting neither. It comes from other places. Dark from other worlds. Haints coming from other places touching on our place. One of them, it come long ago and take my son from me. It haunted me so I couldn’t talk a word. My grand-baby, she kill it. I cooked up its tongue, I make a potion, and now I can speak of it.”

She shows Seth a jar of glowing blue fluid. Floating in the middle of it is what looks like a tiny and well-chewed piece of pink bubblegum. The Tongue of a Demon. Cut from the corpse of a member of the Family… but not one of the Thirteen, an Envoy.

We need to figure a spell for you, boy. We need to find you a magic. They set the darkness on you. They walk through it like a door. They scratched a hole into this world through the wound they made in you. But I help you find a way to close it.”

Seth remembers being fifteen and watching the old woman and realizing that somehow this crazy woman’s granddaughter had actually killed a member of the Family… and feeling hope for the first time in almost ten years.

The flickering of the light stirs him fully awake. The flash of darkness and the momentary feel of the Family’s hands upon his flesh.

Seth reaches into his pocket and strikes a match, quick as a gunslinger. There is no one in the world who can strike a match as fast as Seth. No one as instinctively able to make light. The inside of the car is full of a pale orange glow in a moment. The feel of the hands, if it was ever truly there, is gone instantly.

There’s daylight outside the shadow of the wreck, he sees, true, honest and golden.

He crawls toward the daylight like a drowning man might swim toward the air.

One of his ribs is probably broken.

He doesn’t care.

Better to puncture a lung and drown in his own blood than to be another moment in the dark. In the dark, where the Family can open a door and find him. Where they can touch him. A moment, then he’s out on the grass, gasping for air but really trying to drink in the light somehow. Trying to swallow it as if by doing so he can make it suffuse his entire being until he glows.

Except he can’t.

And after a while his body knows this too and he stops hyperventilating because it hurts his ribs too much.

He stands up with a grunt, his long fingers probing his chest. Feeling for the continuity of his bones. Probably only one rib is broken and maybe just badly bruised. Probably. Still, it’s a lot of pain. And it would hurt too, if he wasn’t himself. It would hurt too much to stand if he wasn’t himself. But because he is himself, it is only pain and pain can’t hurt him.

Feeling around the inside of his cowboy boots, Seth is satisfied he still has a few glow-sticks in there for emergencies. Still has plenty of matches. Good. Zebula’s granddaughter Abby had shown him how to hide those in his boots without encumbering himself.

As always, the thought of Zebula and her granddaughter calms him. Enough, at least, that he can go back into the car to retrieve the compass.

The road isn’t that far from where he is, only up a short grade. He’s got money in his other boot. There’s nothing in the car he wants and he turns his back to it without a thought. The car had been a four-hundred dollar clunker bought without even so much as a title, after his last four-hundred dollar clunker without a title had died. The only useful thing that Family had taught him had been how to steal. He’s never short for cash. Or, at least enough cash to buy a clunker and the best kinds of foods that could be found at gas stations.

Seth makes the long, slow climb back up to the road, pausing every now and again so he doesn’t black out. Each time he pauses, Seth closes his eyes and asks himself if he can still feel it. Feel the wound in the world. The wound from which they’d drawn the storm that knocked him off the road. And he can feel it. Feel the hole the Family made when they entered this world.

It’s still there.

Still up ahead.

The second needle of the compass is pointing right toward it.

If he doesn’t find a place indoors with lights to sleep tonight he will have to find wood and build a fire so he can keep it blazing all through the night. It will be hard after the rain. In his travels, the Family has found him in such a state several times. Each time, they spent the whole of the night outside the circle of the fire taunting him, daring him to feed the fire too quickly. Daring him to let the fire grow too big in his fear, so that he will run out of fuel.

Each time, he’d done almost exactly that, and he was left with only minutes to spare by the time the sun rose again.

He won’t let that happen again, though. Not now. Not after being so close. He’d traveled the world after Zebula died, learning every bit of magic he could. Ever since Japan, when he’d woken up in that hotel room somehow knowing exactly what to do and where to go and how to do it, he’d refused to be deterred. For the first time in years, he’d somehow managed to beat the Family and Japan had left him with the feeling that he could both avenge Zebula and bring ruin to the Family.

After an hour’s labor, his boots touch the asphalt road.

He extends his thumb and walks.

Not much farther at all, now. Seth can feel it everywhere. A few hours, maybe, then he’ll see the place where they entered.

He’d spent five years in Zebula’s cabin, learning her secrets and reading her books. Five years going to visit Abby and learning to shoot guns and live in the woods. The most important thing he’d learned from Zebula was that when demons entered the world they took a Form, and were bound by that Form. The Form was a contract of sorts and it created rules and rituals which neither the demon nor humankind could break without consequence. For the Family, it was a Name.

The most important thing he’d learned from Abby was: fuck all of that. Find the loophole. Scream, fight and kick and shoot because one thing you don’t ever do is stand still and wait to die. Live your life, act don’t react, don’t refuse to make your own choices because otherwise you’ll be acting out your enemy’s choices.

Thoughts of Abby make him almost happy. Make him grin and almost smile. Abby who killed a member of the Family. Who had killed a demon and cut out its tongue and made its tongue into a potion. Who had saved a thousand children and avenged her beloved. Almost, it makes him happy.

Seth moves over to the side of the road. A trucker has finally answered his summoning thumb. An eighteen wheeler fills the shoulder of the road, its gray shadow makes him shiver.

Seth runs up to the truck and pulls back the door handle and notes the interior of the cab is dark. Tinted windows. A specialty rig for someone who drove often in the daylight hours. Beneath the dashboard and in front of the passenger seat, hiding in a shadow, is Cousin Lisbeth, her lustful jeering face, with rotted white gloves showing skeletal fingers reaching toward him.

“Come kiss your Cousin, puppy! Show me how much you’ve missed me!”

Seth takes a step back and almost falls down the embankment.

“You okay, mister? I saw some tread marks a few miles back. Were you in an accident?” the trucker asks. Honest face and all concerned.

“Sorry, I think I made a mistake,” says Seth.

“I miss the way you’d cuddle against me at night. I miss the way you’d struggle and I miss the way you’d lie there. I miss telling you secrets. I miss my little puppy,” says Lisbeth who scoots as far toward the open door as the dark allows until it is as though she has hit a pane of glass.

Seth swallows hard.

Even though they can always find him in the shadows they’re never able to know where he is unless he tells them or if they can read it somewhere around him. He’d learned that from Zebula. There are rules to the way they move through the shadows. First, they couldn’t do more than see him unless he was also in the shadow. Second, they couldn’t touch anyone or anything else, or at least they never had. Not unless one of the Family made a Monument of someone, he supposed. Thirdly, they could only come find him in their bodies if they knew where he was and then the light would be a thin protection indeed.

“Dude, you’ve got a concussion or something. You look pretty banged up, I can’t just leave-” says the trucker.

Lisbeth is pushing up against the edge of the shadow, licking it like a window.

“Do you like it when I’m vulgar, Seth? Do you like it when I talk dirty to you, puppy? You might not like me now, when I’m not wrapped in my glamour, but I know you must have liked it sometimes. I know you liked it sometimes because Grandma Ella said so and she never lies.”

“I’m going to call it in, one sec,” the trucker reaches for his radio and Seth feels his heart go to his throat.

The Family will know where he is if the trucker says one word.

“Are you fucking dumb? I told you, I’m fine. I’m… I’m a Satanist. Fuck you Christians and your do-gooder shit. Hail… hail the devil and I fucked your mom in the ass last night! I hope you get cancer!” Seth screams and flips off the crucifix hanging from the dashboard.

It’s all he can think to do.

He kicks the truck for good measure.

“What?” asks the trucker, confused.

“I fucked your mom. In the ass. And I hope you and her both die of cancer,” repeats Seth.

Lisbeth laughs so hard part of her cheek falls off and lands in the back of her mouth and she starts choking.

Seth slams the truck door and starts walking again. Can’t risk Lisbeth. Can’t risk the trucker wanting to fight him either.

Thankfully, all Seth has to endure for his offense is a middle finger, a honked horn and a drive-by that’s a little too close.

Then it’s over and he closes his eyes and feels ahead again and checks the compass.

Almost there, and the trucker is out of sight.

Seth waits only a few minutes before sticking his thumb out again, hoping this time for a bright car interior, clear windows and none of the Family. He looks at his watch and hopes this can occur in the next six hours because that’s all the daylight he has left.

 

THEN

 

Uncle Ricardo’s sticky piss on his closed eye brings Seth awake. Ricardo only gets a few splashes off before Seth is rolling out of the way. Seth realizes too late that rolling out of the way had been stupid. Very stupid. With the unnatural speed and strength all of the Family share, uncle Ricardo grabs him and throws him back under the stream and continues for an unnaturally long time.

“This is what you get for sleeping in my pissing spot, kiddo!” the hairy man-shaped thing growls.

Seth endures the next twenty seconds without complaint.

He’d only been dumb enough to open his mouth once under such punishment. Even that hadn’t been to complain. It had just been an instinct to express revulsion. But he doesn’t have that instinct anymore. He will never open his mouth again until after Uncle Ricardo is finished.

“Now, what do you say, kiddo?” asks Uncle Ricardo, whose taloned foot is on Seth’s chest pinning him in place. Yellow toenails dig into his chest, making him bleed.

“I’m sorry,” murmurs Seth, bowing his head.

The foot lifts.

Uncle Ricardo laughs and kicks Seth backward, over one of the bodies they make him sleep beside. Seth doesn’t mind. All these red crayon people are old. The Family had moved next to a nursing home, recently. He never lets on but it’s always a relief when they do that. These days, it only bothers him when the Family kills kids younger than himself. Younger than fifteen. But even that doesn’t bother him nearly as much as it used to. One day, quite soon, it probably won’t bother him at all.

“What will you say, kiddo, when we let you go? What will you say when we return to you?” Ricardo asks, as he meanders around the basement in a crouch, cutting ears off of bodies for Ella. Ricardo tosses the ear in a bucket that has been used for this purpose a dozen times and hasn’t been cleaned even once.

“I’ll say ‘yes,’” says Seth and he means it.

The Family has forbid him to kill himself. He’s tried it several times. Somehow, it never works. The blade falls off the knife. The gun fails to fire. The rope snaps. A sudden gust blows him away from the cliff. Ella has told him he will only be allowed to die if the rest of the world can die with him.

Sometimes, the fact that he will be allowed to die with the rest of the world seems almost too wonderful to be true. The thought of his own death is the last smoldering ember of love and belief inside of Seth.

“It was more fun when you tried. It made me laugh when you were young and still thought you might win somehow. The first time the police came to check on you, kiddo, oh that was a riot. The look on your face, when you’d get away from us for a second. Like you thought we hadn’t let you get away on purpose so you’d fight harder,” Ricardo slaps his leg laughing so hard at the memory.

Seth’s expression and posture do not change.

Ricardo’s expression is cruel again the next moment.

“Why the fuck can’t you be fun like that anymore, kiddo? Why can’t you fight back? Do you think you have the right to deny me amusement? Do you, Seth? Do you think it’s funny?”

There’s one of Ricardo’s taloned feet on Seth’s chest again, this time cutting him more deeply. Seth doesn’t move. Doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t care.

Somewhere on the floor above them, a cane strikes the floor three times. Ella demanding Seth’s presence and that Ricardo bring her the ears. Ricardo’s dirty foot lifts off Seth’s chest once again.

“Well, get upstairs!” Ricardo shouts and presses the bucket into Seth’s arms.

It’s always the same set of stairs and the same basement no matter what house the Family is living in. Seth runs up the stairs, holding the bucket tight to his chest not caring that it stinks. There’s a dizzy feeling at the top of the stairs. The dizzy feeling of being walked through the shadows.

When Seth opens the door it’s a new house. American Southwest by the decor and the temperature. The Family never uses any kind of heating or air-conditioning. Over the years, Seth has learned to tell the differences between places just by the decor, the color of the paint and the ambient temperature.

The walking stick strikes the floor again, three times. The sound is there to guide him. No kindness on Ella’s part, only practicality and impatience. Seth can’t be expected to know the layout of every house the Family moves into.

He runs toward the sound, opening only one wrong door before he finds the Family in the den. Ella is in a rocking chair in front of a fireplace, staring into the flames. Of all the Family, only Ella can stand the touch of the light. Only Ella will willingly stare into a fire.

Seth sets the bucket at her feet and steps back as disciplined as a soldier.

“Do you know, Seth, that we have never done anything to you that is truly demonic? We have never, not once, done anything to you that some human being somewhere has not done to another human being. We have, in fact, done almost nothing that would not have happened to you had we not come into your life. It was part of the Deal we made with your mother. How does that make you feel?” Ella reaches down with one hand into the bucket and picks up an ear.

She has her spittoon down at her feet as well.

The spittoon gleams by the light of the fire, a dancing, mesmerizing gleam that begs Seth to touch it.

Seth had touched it once.

None of the Family had punished him for it.

It had been bad enough that Seth would never do so again.

“I don’t feel anything anymore,” he says.

Ella nods, almost approvingly.

“There is not any true Justice anywhere in all of Being and Nothingness. Not in this World or any in the Beyond. It is necessary to live for billions of years to truly know this. Sometimes, stupid things like your people believe Justice has happened, but even as few as a hundred years later it becomes obvious that this same Justice is at the root of all the society’s present Evils. More often, even moving a few hundred miles somewhere other than where the Justice is celebrated reveals that it was not Justice at all. So there is no true Justice. There are only things happening after other things. I use the word Evil for this Knowledge. For this magic. Do you understand, Seth?”

Seth shakes his head.

“Not yet,” he says.

“You will. You must know it to Choose,” says Ella.

Seth nods.

There are giant windows in this room. There is no moon outside, but the sky outside is lit by a billion stars. He can see a whole arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Wherever they are, it’s not near any cities.

“We must do something to you which you will find horrible above all others. Something which would not have otherwise happened to you. You’ve grown too accustomed to pain. We haven’t truly hurt you in a long while. Follow me. Tonight, we must hurt you down to the very place you think of as your soul.”

Ella stands and walks by a couch where the corpses of an elderly couple are propped up in a sitting position. It’s obvious they’ve killed each other. One of Ella’s games. She liked to talk to people until they murdered each other. All it usually took were a few secrets spoken aloud. All the photos on the walls showed the couple smiling and in love.

Yet both were dead, each one killed by the other.

She’d let Seth witness such amusements hundreds of times.

Seth follows until they are in a wide desert clearing in the back of the house. There’s a hole dug in the ground with an empty and open coffin inside of it.

Ella says nothing.

Seth climbs into the hole and lays down inside of it without waiting to be asked. Of course she wants him to lay down in the coffin. Why else would they show it to him?

Ella smiles briefly, her fangs shimmering by the starlight.

“You have so much Knowledge of us, Seth. Your Choice will be very powerful. It will give me such power that I will turn all of these stars dark. Now, please shut the coffin. We will fill the hole.”

Seth shuts his own coffin, pausing only for a moment for a reason he can’t quite put his finger on, and closes his eyes.

“Do not have hope you might suffocate, Seth. I will not allow you to die yet. You cannot die or be driven mad before you are a grown man. That too is a part of the Deal I made with your Mother. Do not hope that the air will be fed to you or remain fresh. Soon, it will hurt with every breath but you will not die,” Ella’s voice was muffled beneath the coffin lid and from the sound of dirt hitting the top of the coffin.

Something still niggles at the back of Seth’s thoughts. Something about what Ella had said before he’d closed the coffin lid. Something strange and alien. Yet still… he can’t quite figure out what it is.

Seth closes his eyes and enjoys a few moments of relative peace as the dark deepens and Ella’s humming becomes more and more distant. Idly, he considers the problem of the coffin.

He will probably lose his fingernails, maybe a even few fingers, digging through the coffin which will probably take days. And he will probably panic and experience great agony when the air gets bad enough. Nothing the Family has not done to him before.

What was to be done about it?

Nothing.

Finally, there is no more sound of motion above him and Seth knows the burial is complete. He banishes the thought of Ella’s words from his head. Whatever there was that was there, it can be of no concern.

The dark stretches and so does time.

Why even climb out of here? Why dig through the coffin at all? Why not let the air go bad and just lay there gasping? Why not gasp until he aged into dust? Better that than going back up into the open sky and back to the Family.

It is not so bad, here, buried under the Earth.

It is like the eternal end of everything he has dreamed of for so long.

A hand slides down the front of Seth’s pants. Bony fingers and rotted muscles wrap themselves around Seth’s penis. A bit of magic, a bit of world-twisting, makes him hard.

“Oh, puppy,” says Cousin Lisbeth, “we’re going to have so much fun!”

A dead tongue forces itself into Seth’s mouth. It tastes of maggots and carrion and old wet garbage. There is somehow enough light to see Cousin Lisbeth maneuvering herself on top of him.

Her glamour is gone. She’s a dead body, a ghoul, forcing herself on top of him.

There is nowhere to run.

Nowhere to turn away.

He screams.

 

 

 

NOW

 

Nana Zebula told Seth to look for a place of borders. A place where the world is everything and nothing at the same time. A few hours of hitch-hiking, two traveling missionaries, an old station wagon, and a stolen copy of the book of Mormon later, Seth finds it. Or rather, he finds the path to it. A simple dirt road leading away from the highway that has no purpose to be there at all.

His whole body tells him it is the right place. He can feel it everywhere. Feels it so strongly he is shocked the missionaries feel nothing at all. Perhaps something else was given to him in Japan. Perhaps a stronger sense for when the World is being broken.

Perhaps.

The missionaries had argued with him that he should go to a hospital, but eventually consented to drop him on the side of the road if he took their book with him. He’d had to make a great production of pretending to have found it already in his coat pocket. They’d left saying it was a miracle. Seth wasn’t so sure. Perhaps, they did feel something, after a fashion. The evidence was there in the way their eyes got a bit too wide and they talked a bit too fast, and didn’t fight as hard to make him go to the hospital as they should have.

At last, Seth is convinced both the missionaries feel it and are scared. Like so many others who have brushed up against the Family, they are choosing not to stay and look too hard. They sense the Evil and know that the wisest choice is to run. Still, they had offered the book and after he had stole it for idle amusement. Perhaps they had given Seth the book out of desperation, knowing they have no other help to give. They had insisted the book would protect him, and they even seemed to believe it.

Perhaps Seth believes them too, because the book is still tucked into his back pocket instead of thrown away to the ground after the missionaries have disappeared from sight. The way it presses into his back is reassuring. Like he is being given a helpful push forward.

Seth looks down at his compass and map and keeps walking. At first, near the highway, the compass was mostly for show. The dirt road has not erred from its course, right along the True North of Nowhere. The missionaries had needed to believe he truly had a destination in mind so the compass had helped with that illusion, and it wasn’t possible to explain what he was actually looking for. He thanked whatever God there was they hadn’t asked about the extra needle, or asked him to explain that the dirt road had appeared to take him there. Or that the compass was helping him by not showing him the designated path.

Nana Zebula hadn’t been able to give Seth much in the way of tangible goods. She lived in a shack in the woods in West Virginia, after all, but the compass itself was hers and she had shown him where to find the second needle. She had given Seth an invaluable education about navigation. She had taught him the most complicated skill of how to find a place where two Worlds bled together.

The dirt road is such a place, and the map and the compass confirm it.

According to the map, if Seth had been in the True World, and nothing but his own True World, he would be in the middle of a lake by now. He would also have fallen down a cliff hundreds of yards ago. The force of the Worlds blending together had distorted geography.

“Why can humans pass between Worlds, Seth? Why doesn’t it kill us dead? How come it don’t scramble our brains?” Seth mutters in remembrance, an impression that would have probably earned him a snap from a hand towel.

Fish can’t think of water. It’s everywhere and taken for granted. In the same way, regular people can’t think of the “World.” Oh, people are good at thinking of a chunk of rock circling a burning ball of gas. That isn’t the World, though. The World of Humans is the whole universe and how it’s all connected together. The World is two and two equaling four and apples falling off trees and the past happening before the present.

Tell a human that the World could be made otherwise, could be drained out and something else could be put in its place and they’d only think you were crazy. Crazy as a fish who had a hook stuck in its throat, was ripped from the water, seen a human and a boat and space not full of water, then escaped and flopped back into the water to tell what it had seen. But how does a fish move from the water into the air? Even though it was made to be in the water? How come it doesn’t disappear?

“Because humans have souls like the fish, Seth. We got something universal between the two worlds that keeps us intact. Even if maybe we can’t live forever in another World, we got some kind of pattern. Don’t matter where we go, the other places organize around us so we can fit,” Seth mumbled.

It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but Seth had understood the larger point.

Seth can feel the World draining away the more he walks, like he had when he was younger and he’d walk out of the basement and into another house. Except he hadn’t been able to recognize the feeling for what it was then. Now he knows. It is the feeling of the World being ripped apart.

Now, he feels it like Zebula had said he would. Like Miss Kate and the Valiants in the Order of Edges had said he would. A sweat breaks out on his brow. Seth’s stomach cramps up and his legs quiver. Every human being was a part of this World, at least in a way. So it didn’t matter that Seth didn’t have a neuron to detect the fabric of reality. Seth was part of the Fabric of this Reality and could feel the break in it.

They made a Hole into this World, Seth. They broke the World to get here and the World is bleeding. The first thing to do, to weaken them, is to plug the hole.”

Seth sees the place of borders. A cliff above a river, a mile or so away from where it was supposed to be. Earth, Sea and Sky. And there is something… wrong there. Something terrible.

Seth sits down on a flat, smooth stone and mutters. He’s too sick to go on. Walking here is hard. Like trying to move around in higher gravity. It’s crushing him. He mutters, trying to find the right words to let him pass.

There wasn’t much magic he could do on his own. Not any, actually. No human could. There wasn’t any true magic, maybe. Just what made sense in one World and how it was different from what made sense in another. Seth’s skill came in moving the Worlds around inside of his head. Channeling from source to sink. It isn’t that hard, in this place, where another World was touching everything so directly.

Finally, he finds the right words. The words he means the most. The deep down words.

“I want to know,” he says.

In an instant, Seth is standing at the end of the cliff, looking down into the rushing water and thinks of a dog and a bridge and the last night he had ever cried.

“Show me the truth,” he says.

In an instant, he’s standing by a tree and he finds a rope wrapped in its branches. It shouldn’t surprise him to find a rope, but it does.

Of course he’d have what he needs to Know. Even when the Family had first broken into this World, Ella would have made sure there were tools left here for any willing to Know. It was one of the rules of her Form. Ella could no more deny Seth the tools to Know than Seth could cause an apple to fall up into space.

Seth ties one end of the rope around the tree and the other around his waist and walks back to the edge of the cliff. The rope lets him walk somehow. Lets him pass under the oppressive Evil of this place.

There is a schism a few feet away from the ledge. A place where the top half of the World seems slightly out of line with the bottom half. Like an image that had been cut in two on a computer and put back together haphazardly. A crease in all of existence. A cut.

Seth jumps toward it, feels the soles of his boots leave the ground, and spreads his arms wide and reaches toward the crease.

He touches it, barely, with the tips of his fingers.

“Show me where they came from!” he screams.

 

NEVER

 

Imagine a Pit.

A hole in the sky.

Its edges are the Earth. Its length is eternity. Its bottom is oblivion.

At first, when you stumble into this Pit, you might think you’re flying because its edges are so big it looks like the sky. You feel weightless. You’re no longer bound by gravity and that’s a relief. Gravity has oppressed you for your entire life, or so it seems. Then the sky passes out of view and all that’s left is the whistling forever. And you know, deep in your gut know, those days of being crushed by the gravity of the Earth were the best days of your life that you might not ever get back.

Gravity melts away. Electromagnetism boils into steam. The strong and weak nuclear forces freeze and shatter to dust.

“Show me their power!” says Seth with things that aren’t lips or even biological, and wouldn’t have been comprehensible a moment ago. Except they make sense here. Here, he speaks with what all things speak with. Except it isn’t really speaking, either.

In an instant, Seth is in another World.

The World of the Family.

 

ETERNITY

 

There are no words to describe what is seen when one Walks Between the Worlds. No two Worlds are exactly alike and some are as opposite as oil and water. The words of one world do not signify in another. Close your eyes and think of what is terrible, and in another World know that it is good. Not only called good, but truly good. Think of what is good, and know that in another World it is terrible.

There is only one Absolute in the All.

All agree that the World of the Family is horrible beyond all other horrors.

Though no words can describe what is seen in the World of the Family, perhaps this is close enough…

There are no stars in the World of the Family, and no sun. There is no light in the World of the Family at all. The World of the Family can be seen because in the World of the Family light and sight have no connection. In the World of the Family, sight is forever. The speed of sight is infinite.

There is no outer space, there are no planets, and there are no galaxies in the World of the Family. Nothing at all of the cosmology of our World is preserved there.

There is an Above, there is a Below, there is a Plane extending in all directions forever and there is something like a Moon. The Above is the sky over the Plane, perfectly black extending upward forever. The Plane is perfectly flat and you can also see forever into the distance, as there is no curve to obscure sight. If you are thrown into the Above you will fall back down to the Plane. But if you fall through the Plane into the Below, you will fall forever into Nothing.

The Below is Nothing. The Below is Nothingness. Not black, not white. Nothing. The clarity of glass extending into infinity.

Unbeing.

That is the Below.

There is something like a moon in the Above, and it has a face… but it is a monstrous face, old and craggy and dusty, and it’s screaming in agony. No matter where you are on the Plane, the moon and its face are the same size. The moon is screaming loudly but when you hear it, it is only a whisper. It says the ugliest and worst things possible to say, and somehow whatever it says next is always worse than the thing it said before, even unto eternity. The moon is the biggest thing in the World of the Family, bigger than anything that could exist in our World, yet on the Plane it is only a moon because it is farther away from the Plane than a million universes stacked end to end.

In the Word of the Family, immensity can be felt directly, without the need for sorting it out by calculation because that is also the nature of the World of the Family. The Sense of Immensity there is as natural as cold and hot are too us.

There are giants the size of galaxies in the World of the Family. Because the Plane is flat and forever you can see them roaming in the distance and geometry is true enough there that they’re smaller when they’re far away and bigger when they’re closer. The giants look different to everyone who beholds them, and whatever you see when you look at them is the worst thing you can imagine. The giants can see with perfect acuity and if one of them locks their sight on you they will chase you down and throw you down into the Below. It might take a trillion years for them to catch you if they are far away but from that moment onward your fate is certain. There is no way to stop them, and that too is the nature of the World of the Family.

Everything that lives in the World of the Family hates the World and hates Itself. This is as true in the World of the Family as space and time is true in the World of Humans. Nothing that lives in the World of the Family dreams of joy or hopes for a better life. Nothing that lives in the World of the Family even has the capacity for joy. The closest analogue there is to joy in the World of the Family is destroying worlds where joy exists. Ripping these worlds apart and making them part of the World of the Family is their single shared religion.

In the World of the Family, children are born to intentionally create another mind capable of suffering. Capable of hating. Capable of desiring a world to destroy.

Yet nothing dies in the World of the Family.

Death would be an end to suffering.

There is no end to suffering in the World of the Family.

There is not even a way to feel pain without hurting.

The World of the Family is hurting.

Seth screams and tugs at his rope, which is not a rope in this place, but a burning chain made of the reality of his own world. A chain of light which is the only light in the World of the Family. The moon’s whispering is driving him mad, despite Ella’s promises which Seth somehow knows have no power here.

A thousand galaxy-sized giants, who all looks like different members of the Family, turn to Seth and hate him more intensely than he could have imagined possible. He can feel their hate the same way he feels immensity and forever and all the awful things that lurk in the World of the Family. All of them wear Ella’s face.

All of the giants turn to run toward him and throw him into the Below. All the things that live on the giants hate him, as Seth somehow knows that each giant is host to a million vicious societies that wish to destroy him as much as the Family ever has.

No one, they demand in the silent speech of the World of the Family, has ever dared enter the World of the Family. No one has ever dared defy the World’s pilgrims in such impudent fashion.

He must be made to suffer, they say without words. He must be broken. He must be made to be part of the Family.

Seth’s trying to find the right words…

Magic can be done here if he can find the right words.

Somehow he knows he’s more powerful here. He’s as powerful here as Ella is in his world. He’s brought pieces of his world with him. One thing he has brought with him is light. His hands are glowing. So are his teeth and every other part of him that has found an analogue here. All things in the human world give off light, even if only as heat. It is incredibly powerful here. Seth is the only light that has ever shone in the world of the Family and he grows brighter.

Remarkably, the Moon closes its eyes, as if blinded by the tiny speck of Seth.

He knows that if he can find the right words he will be free…

The deep down words.

The words he’d screamed the night in the coffin…

The first time he’d ever done true Magic.

 

THEN

 

The horror in the coffin is beyond anything the Family has ever done to Seth. The coffin is the fulfillment of horror that Ella has always promised to deliver to Seth. It hurts so much he can’t even think about how much it hurts, because it takes all of his being to feel the pain.

The darkness. The sensation of rotted flesh against his skin. The intrusion over and over. Poisoned, stinking air that makes him vomit but will never let him lose consciousness.

“Kiss me, Seth!” Lisbeth licks his face and he cries, tearing at the coffin lid still.

Seth pushes her away, but there are only a few inches in the coffin and bits of Cousin Lisbeth fall off and land in his eyes and mouth. Gagging him worse than the air.

“I like it when you fight, puppy! I love it when you fight! But why won’t you say anything? Are you dumb now, Seth? Are you mute, puppy?” cackling, she tears off the last bit of Seth’s clothing. Robs him of his final bit of dignity.

He hasn’t begged since he was a child, not because he has too much dignity to beg but because he has too little.

“Luh-let me go!” he screams, sobbing.

The world lurches, the way it does when he walks up the basement stairs.

Seth closes his eyes and pushes up again… and the coffin lid opens and he is clothed and his pupils dilate to pinheads as they stare up into a bright yellow sun. He gasps, coughs, and pukes but nothing comes up.

Dazed, Seth struggles to his feet and stands up. There’s a house a dozen or so yards away, but it is a different house than the previous house. But that in itself isn’t strange… it has been forever since the Family has let him outside when the sun is up. The light doesn’t kill them… but they aren’t quite the same in the light.

Except Ella…

He turns in every direction.

The Family is nowhere in sight.

Then Seth hears the ping of Ella spitting in her spittoon. Hears her hum. Hears her faint music. He turns around again and Ella is right there at the edge of the hole in her rocking chair. As if she had always been there.

“We would have let you go years ago. If you had just asked. I hinted as much a hundred times. Remember how I said ‘please’ when you closed the lid of the coffin? Remember, Seth, Knowledge and Choice are the most powerful forces in all the Worlds. You chose to the close the lid of the coffin. You never even asked, after the first few years. Never even spoke aloud that you wished the world to be otherwise. That is the Deal I made with your mother. We could only ever do to you what would have happened to you anyway, and if you said no we could not have done the rest. I promised never to lie to you, yet you never once asked the terms of the Deal I made with your mother. Why is that, Seth?”

Ella spits again, blood running down her chin.

Seth can only stare at her, mute.

“Do not be too hard on yourself. Of the billions I have made my Monuments, none ever asked. Too late now. We have too much to do. Many rituals to fulfill. Many Monuments to make. We will come back to you when you have felt the fullness of Joy. And then I will ask you if we may destroy your World. In all the Worlds I have ever visited, no one has ever said no. Knowledge and Choice, Seth. Think on them.”

And then Ella is gone and Seth is there in a hole in the ground with the whole world all around him. And he could go anywhere. So he sat back down in the coffin and did nothing but stare for a long time.

 

ETERNITY AND NOW

 

The Plane is rumbling. The giants run and scream and the moon is focusing all of its close-eyed hatred on Seth. Seth pulls the burning chain on his waist and struggles through the pain to feel the words he wants to say. Struggles to feel them deep down.

One of the giants is somewhere so close to Seth, Seth can barely even tell it is there. It’s too big to see all at once. It’s only a few light years away, and that is not enough for perspective.

Seth lets the words flow.

“Leave. Me. Alone!”

Light erupts from Seth’s body. It is a sensation like being pulled from a body of water, except that the water leaves him dry and drop-less. The nearest giant, who appears as Ella but distorted beyond all meaning so that each pore is Jovian, bellows in agony and stumbles in the face of Seth’s tiny pinprick of light.

Deliriously, Seth thinks I’ve killed a giant, and I’ve blinded the Moon.

He falls through the Plane, sees the Below, something no human mind was ever meant to see. He sees it and is… unharmed.

The sensation of being pulled from out of water stops.

Seth swings from the chain on his waist, once again transformed back into a rope… into the cliff face of his own World over a river.

He’s home.

Home.

And the Wound is shut.

 

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