Speak a word.
Just choose one.
Feel your tongue against your teeth. Open your throat and push out the air. Feel the breath blow from out your mouth. Feel the saliva. Feel your lips 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 trying to find its way to the ocean. That place is the truth.
Feel for the truth.
Choose the right word.
Seth drives through a rainstorm that came from nowhere, thinking of Nana Zebula’s words. If anyone could ever hope to give an introduction of the study of Magic they could not hope to 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.
Simple as that.
Seth leans forward, focusing on the road. Peering through the rain. Keeping the white line to the right of his passenger side tire. He has come so far. He is so tired. How long now since he slept?
The radio sparks to life, blares obnoxiously like a gull. He listens to a few seconds of a song with words about mothers and fathers he feels his eyes growing red with gratitude for the strange woman who had done so much to repair his love of life. The not-quite-tears make him hate the music, but he can’t abide silence. For the last few hours, the station has been nothing but static. He must have driven into range of a new radio tower.
One hand leaving the wheel, Seth plays with the radio dial trying to find talk radio and avoid jingles. Never stopping on a song longer than a single note. He has no time for sentiment. Not today. 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 sequoyahs. Privately, Seth thinks that talk radio is even more nothing than static.
It is a bad night.
Every station is a song.
It’s hard not to be sentimental when someone is crying their heart out into the airwaves. Even commercial sell-outs can tug at a heartstring, because that’s the power of music. Music doesn’t discriminate. 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… Ella sang beautifully.
The lyric words that find their ways to his ears are not so right as to be magic but they help open up the pain inside of him nevertheless.
They make him hurt.
Seth decides he’s had too much of sound for the evening, his eyes flicker off the road for a moment as he shuts off the radio.
Only a moment…
The windshield wipers sweep from side to side in a mechanical blur, louder than the radio had been, the road disappears behind a curtain of rain. The full fury of the storm opens up. This blindness is almost like true darkness.
No sooner does Seth think the thought, then a figure appears in front of him only to be blasted apart into a cloud of dust.
A face presses against the windshield, before the wipers wash it away, leering and sadistic.
Terrified and stricken, Seth’s hands freeze on the steering wheel.
Too late to realize the Family has found him. Too late to realize the storm is more black magic. Too late to make the turn where the road bends, 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. Fills the car with a warm pale yellow-green glow. Mustn’t let them find him in darkness.
Mustn’t let the Family know he has left the protection of the light.
Seth is a boy, six maybe seven.
“Is that your grandma?” the policewoman asks, pointing to Ella.
Seth had been careful not to acknowledge Ella until the policewoman pointed to her. All of the Family have the power not to be seen unless they choose to be seen. If he’d acknowledged Ella before the policewoman did, he wasn’t sure what would happen.
Seth shakes his head, long black mop of hair flying every which way.
Seth doesn’t know how he knows Ella isn’t related to him, doesn’t remember much of anything before a few months ago, but he knows Ella isn’t his grandmother. He thinks he might have had another family once, a young girl he sometimes dreams is his mother and a ball of fur he’s certain was close to him, 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 policewoman asks.
Ella will abide his silence, if he avoids awkward questions about the Family, but she hates lies. Hates them as she hates nothing else. Ella loves the truth because nothing can hurt like the truth.
“Who is she then?” asks the policewoman.
Seth says nothing, just stares.
“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?” says the policewoman who can’t see all the other members of the Family relaxing in the shadows. Can’t see them waiting.
He 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.
No human being could ever be part of the Family anymore than an orange could be an apple.
If anything, Seth is 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.
“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. Friends have too many colors inside of them.
Seth doesn’t bother to even look at the policewoman.
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 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. Daughter Terra Joy is riding around on a broken ceiling fan, light as a feather, pissing on the cops below. Moaning drunkenly while she does so. None of them 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.
As if this will not cause him great pain.
What a stupid woman, Seth thinks.
He backs away from the drawings, turns his back to them and presses himself against the very farthest corner of the cubicle.
They’re only in a stupid cubicle with glass walls and 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 nice.
“Seth? Can you look?” the policewoman asks again.
Ella meets Seth’s eyes from the waiting room and licks her old lips. She pulls something white and horrible from out of 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 policewoman asks.
Ella stops humming and 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. Then Ella roots around in the bag looking for something more delectable with a single crooked bony finger that looks like a white carrot. 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 and pulls it out and starts chewing and humming again.
“If you say something, I can help you,” the policewoman 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. 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 policewoman asks.
“I made it up,” Seth murmurs in a tight whispery voice. It twists his stomach in knots and makes his head get hot to tell the lie. Makes him want to puke.
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, kid. 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 oversized sweatshirt.
He loves the sweatshirt, but never mentions it aloud. If Ella knew he felt safe crawling deep inside of the sweatshirt she’d snatch it right away. Rip it up in front of him while telling him that she’s 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. A little boy with black hair 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, you little monster?”
The policewoman looks at him with eyes so kind Seth can’t bear to have them see him.
“What’s going on, Seth?” the policewoman asks, kindly.
“I made it up,” Seth says again and 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. They could be in a whole new country by tomorrow. The Family rides the shadows, and they can go wherever the dark can go. 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. Feel something no matter how tired he has become of feeling anything. Feel something like how he feels when he thinks of the young girl in his dream 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 suddenly dig into Seth’s shoulders but he doesn’t feel them. He thinks it would make Ella angry to know that he can do that. That he can make himself not even feel anything in his body even when the dog makes him feel something in his heart. That he can escape into nothingness.
Uncle Ricardo picks up the stray dog and Seth feels his heart-hammering with dreaded expectation. Uncle Ricardo only pets it gently. For now, but there is nothing gentle in Ricardo.
“My True Name,” Ella said, with an aura of power and ceremony, “is the Full Knowing Choice of Evil.”
She puts her hand to Seth’s chin so he has to stare up at her.
“You, Seth, are my Chooser. 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 puppy. 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 dumb 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, when you have drunk equally of the light and the dark, 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. Do you think you will be able to say no when the time comes, Seth?” Ella’s eyes grow bright and yellow.
Uncle Ricardo puts the dog down suddenly, too quickly, and the little dog yelps in pain.
“Yes,” says Seth, surprising himself with his anger.
With the hot sweaty, pulsing anger he can feel.
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. 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 for your choice to have the power. Knowledge and Choice are the greatest powers in all of Being and Nothingness. You see the dog? We have worked long and hard to bring it here this night. Do you know the 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. From before we came. Before your mother chose to die by our hand and gave you to us. It has searched for you for a full year, Seth. Eating garbage. 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 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! Here Boomer!”
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 his everywhere.
Cousin Lisbeth lets him go and he runs toward Boomer and Boomer breaks free and runs toward him.
Seth picks up Boomer and squeezes her tight against himself. Feels Boomer’s warm fur and Boomer’s heartbeat and Boomer’s kind licking tongue so unlike the Family’s tongues when they come to him. Feels the love burning like a fire inside of Boomer.
Boomer who loves him and Boomer who he loves.
Love like a red hot meteor from outside the world he knew, 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.
“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 Seth’s 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.
“We will be kindly toward your dog, Seth, but it will grow cruel. Seeing what we do it will become a mean dog in its heart. One day, it will hate you and choose us- none of that, Seth, I have never lied to you. Never once. It 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 flicked over the bridge.
Seth held 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. Only be confused for a moment as to why you threw it away. Why you rejected its loyalty when it sought you for so long. 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 many Worlds and many places far into the Beyond 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 thwarted? Or 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. Feels the cool metal and concrete even 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 Chooser’s choose I can’t recall. This is all about you, Seth. It’s always been all 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 of 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 six, 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.
Zebula’s words again, bringing him back to the surface. Zebula’s words in his dreams. Her house full of stupid plastic plates with the faces of presidents on them. Zebula and her niece…
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 grandbaby 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.
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 burrowed 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 is what stirs him 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 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 they can open a door and find him. Where they can touch him. And 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, long fingers probing his chest. Feeling for the continuity of his bones. Probably only one rib is broken and maybe just badly bruised. 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 Seth.
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.
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 he’d bought without even 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 and Seth always has cash.
Or, at least enough to buy a clunker and the best kinds of foods that can 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. And he can feel it. Feel the hole the Family made when they entered this world.
It’s still there.
Still up ahead.
If he doesn’t find a place indoors with lights to sleep tonight he will have to go 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, left with only minutes to spare by the time the sun rose again.
After an hour’s labor, his boots touch the asphalt road.
He extends his thumb and walks.
Not much farther, now. Not much farther at all. 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 this Form. The Form was a contract of sorts and it created rules and rituals which neither the demon nor humankind could break without consequence. This was the basis for almost all of ceremonial magic.
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 happy. Make him grin and even 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.
He thinks of her for hours, and loves her even more than he loves Zebula.
Seth moves over to the side of the road. A trucker has finally answered his summoning thumb. An eighteen wheeler filling the shoulder, it’s gray shadow making 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, rotted and skeletal fingers reaching.
“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 boy,” says Lisbeth who scoots as far toward the open door as the dark allows.
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. They can come find him in person if they know where he is and then the light will 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 like it’s a pane of a glass.
“Do you like it when I’m vulgar, Seth? Do you like it when I talk dirty to you? 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.”
“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 points at the crucifix hanging from the dashboard.
It’s all he can think to do.
He kicks the truck for good measure.
“What?” says the trucker, too dumbfounded for the moment to be offended.
“I fucked your mom. In the ass. And I hope you and her both die of cancer because I love the devil,” 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 and 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.
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.
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. With the unnatural speed and strength all of the Family share, uncle Ricardo grabs him and throws him back under the stream and continues.
“This is what you get for sleeping in my pissing spot!” 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. Will never open his mouth again until after uncle Ricardo is finished.
“Now, what do you say?” 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 next to. 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, qute soon, it probably won’t bother him at all.
“What will you say, Seth, when we let you go? What will you say when we return to you? When we ask if we can destroy the world?” 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 a single time.
“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. 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 believe 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. 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 face is cruel again the next moment.
“Why the fuck can’t you be fun like that anymore, Seth? 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 chest.
It’s always the same set of stairs and the same basement no matter what house the Family is living in. Seth runs up them, 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 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.
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. 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. Its 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.
She’s 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. So powerful 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 either that the air will be fed to you and be fresh. It will hurt soon with every breath but you will not die,” Ella’s voice was muffled beneath the coffin lid and 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?
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? 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 member. 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 rotted meat 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.
Nana Zebula told Seth to look for a place of borders. A place where the world is everything and nothing at the same time. Two traveling missionaries, an old station wagon and a 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 it is the right place. He can feel it everywhere. So strongly he is shocked the missionaries feel nothing at all.
The missionaries argue with him that he should go to a hospital, but eventually consent to drop him on the side of the road if he takes their book with him. Perhaps, they do feel something, after a fashion. The evidence is there in the way their eyes got a bit too wide and they talk a bit too fast, and don’t fight as hard to make him go to the hospital as they should.
At last, Seth is convinced both the missionaries feel it and are scared and like so many others who have brushed up against the Family, are choosing not to stay and look too hard. They sense the Evil and know that the wisest choice is to run. Still, they offer the book. Perhaps they give Seth the book out of desperation, knowing they have no other help to give.
They insist the book will protect him, and they even seem 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 long 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, it was mostly for show. The dirty road is going right where it needs to go, right along the True North of Nowhere. The missionaries had needed to believe he truly had a destination in mind, and it wasn’t possible to explain what he was actually looking for. He was looking for nowhere and the dirt road had appeared to take him there. The map and compass helped with the illusion.
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 was hers. She had given Seth an invaluable education about compasses and navigation. She had taught him the most complicated skill of how to find a place that wasn’t on a map, or in other words, how to look for the signs of where two Worlds had bled together. The dirty road is such a place, and the map and the compass confirm it.
If he’d been in his own true world, and nothing but his own true world, he would be in the middle of a lake by now. And he would have fallen down a cliff hundreds of yards ago.
“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.
Fish can’t think of water. It’s too 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 then escaped and flopped back into the water.
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. It was the feeling of the World being ripped apart.
Now, he feels it like Zebula had said he would. Like 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 was 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 a higher gravity. 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 wasn’t that hard, in this place. Where another World was touching everything.
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, staring down into the rushing water and he 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 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, falling into space.
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.
This 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 night and day. 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. Think of what is good, and know that in another World it is terrible.
There is only one Absolute in the Beyond.
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 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 if you listen to it for eternity and that is why the Oldest creatures in the World of the Family are so vile. The moon is the biggest thing in the World of the Family, and its voice is the loudest, but it is only a whisper on the Plane because the moon 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 into the down 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 in this place is not a rope 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 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 the giants turn to run toward him and throw him into the Below. All the things that live on the giants hate him, and 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 envoys in such impudent fashion.
He must be made to suffer. He must be broken. He must be made to be part of the Family.
Seth’s trying to find the right words…
Somehow how he knows he’s more powerful here. He’s as powerful here as Ella in his world. He’s brought pieces of his world with him. His hands are glowing. So are his teeth and every other part of him that has found an analogue here. He 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 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 feel 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, Seth! I love it when you fight! But why won’t you say anything? Are you dumb now, Seth? Are you mute?” 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, 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.
He turns in every direction.
The Family is nowhere in sight.
Then Seth hears the ping of Ella spitting in her spittoon. 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, juice running down her chin.
Seth can only stare at her, mute for a moment.
“How long ago?” he croaks.
“After the dog,” says Ella.
Seth cannot say anything else.
“Do not be too hard on yourself. Of the billions I have captured, none ever asked. Too late now. We have too much to do. Many Promises to fulfill. Many Forms to keep. 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.
The Plane rumbles. 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 dropless. The giant 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… unwounded.
The sensation of being pulled from out of water stops.
Seth swings from the chain of light on his waist, once again transformed back into a rope… into the cliff face of his own World over a river.
And the Wound is shut.