There should be a memory of crawling out of the hole.
A symbolic transition from a life of horror, torture and pain beyond knowing to a life of joy, freedom and infinite possibility. A memory of the sun hitting his brow, where Seth recognized and took in his freedom, to strengthen him against all that lay ahead.
There isn’t anything like that.
There isn’t anything like that at all.
No feeling of liberation washes over Seth as his fingers tear into the dirt. No sensation of pressure makes its way to his conscious awareness as the soles of his feet push against the sides of the coffin. No memory is stored of his belly scratching against the desert stones as he pulls himself up to the surface and sees that Ella is gone.
There’s only something deep and overpowering and so big it pushes memory away. A feeling too big and too complicated to pass through the tiny passage of Seth’s perception. Like a whale rummaging through the wreckage of an old ship, trying to push everything out of its way but only driving the vessel deeper beneath the seabed. What it is, if it is anything describable, is need. A need to escape and destroy anything that might impede escape.
What’s left in the place of memory is a fleeting series of dream-like images, half-remembered memories of memories. Images so disconnected and shuffled he can’t tell if they’re real or if they happened to him or someone else. Most of it feels like it happened to someone he knew once in childhood. A twin to whom he had been so close that what happened to one might as well have happened to the other.
In one image, he’s walking through a house stumbling and opening doors and leaving them open. Every door has to be open, nothing can be concealed. Finding an open refrigerator that isn’t cold and drinking a tepid bottle of water in one gagging swallow. Leaving the refrigerator door open because the secret of refrigerators is that the light goes off when you’re not looking and this is terrifying.
The Family could ride in that cold Dark and come to take him again.
In another series of images, Seth is walking down a desert road for so long he doesn’t know if he’s ever stood still. An image of the night, and him walking in a circle under a street lamp in a parking lot. Knowing that the Family could step into the shadows at any time. Fighting sleep, marveling at the way his breath makes clouds when it had been so hot during the day. Wondering how it can be so cold and wondering above all when Ella will return. Wondering when the Family will spring out at him and reveal this was the big lie they’d been waiting to tell. The one they’d been building up to with all their harsh truths. The lie that he’d got away and they were going to leave him in peace.
They had never lied to him, though, not ever. They’d told him they’d let him go one day. They’d told him they’d be back. So what else can he do but wait?
So many images of running.
An image of a face, sunken-eyed with gray all the way around the cheeks, reflected in a spherical gas station mirror. It’s the face of a kid who steals things and it’s the face that’s most like the face he sees as himself when he closes his eyes. Shoving teriyaki beef jerky sticks and energy drinks in his pockets and running from a huffing, overweight store clerk. Then the image of a locked supply closet at a twenty-four hour laundromat, sleeping with the light on for the first time in four days.
Something like true memory returns after that. The images fit better. They begin to feel like they happened to him and not the twin he never had. And he feels honest remembering these, in a way he doesn’t feel honest remembering the other things. Feels the truth of them without struggle. They’re a piece of him, connected to the whole.
He remembers a series of nights spent in homeless shelters and missions. Eating dozens of meals off of chipped secondhand cafeteria trays. Lying about his age to everyone who asks. Lying about his age even when he’s not asked. Lying like he wants to believe the lies. Most of all, lying like he can’t believe the lies no matter how hard he tries.
His eyes help, he thinks. No one his age has ever seen hell. Or at least, not in this country. The Family had taken him to other countries at times, and sometimes the children there had eyes like his. Eyes like a corpse’s eyes. Eyes that were dark no matter how the room was lit. But not here. For the most part.
One of the people running one of the missions tries to talk to him about his time in the war. Seth laughs so hard he really does almost go mad. Then a feeling of alien calm comes over his brain and he knows Ella is still in there. Forcing him to be sane. Forcing him to be open to hurt. Denying him the relief of madness.
He runs away from that mission without staying the night.
So he drifts.
It’s hard to be a drifter when you’re only fifteen, though. Seth relishes the difficulty. It’s distracting that he has to try so hard. Hardly any time at all to think about the past. He can almost pretend he’s always been this rail-thin kid, shoplifting his way through life. It’s the closest thing to an identity of his own, a choice of his own, that he’s ever known. Even though it’s hard, nothing is that hard compared to living with the Family.
All that can happen here is that he could die.
Or so he hopes.
Ella had told him that he can’t die until she says, so he tries to put it out of his mind. As long as he doesn’t try to kill himself, as long as he doesn’t give himself proof, everything he remembers before the grave might just be the recollections of a crazy person. Except, in a way, suicide is all he can think about. It’s in his mind everywhere he goes. What if there could be an off switch for this nightmare? What if he could just turn off the lights?
At fifteen, he’s old enough that people don’t trust him and won’t do him the kinds of favors they’d do for a little kid, but he’s still young enough and small enough that the older and scarier street people try to fuck with him. It’s more annoying than frightening. No normal person can frighten him after the Family.
Seth doesn’t provoke anything, always backs down, not wanting to force proof on himself that he can’t die, but still…
It’s a thrill bordering on the sexual to think one of the people he meets might snap and pull out a gun or a knife or even a screwdriver and then -that would be it. There wouldn’t have to be anything else. There wouldn’t be any pain or any running, either.
One night, asleep under some cardboard and newspaper in a back alley, a tweaker tries to steal Seth’s shoes.
Seth wakes up, surprised and not understanding at first. He lays still, waiting for the inevitable. For the fly to unzip. For the cock to spring out. For the knife. For the claws. For the spray of piss. For the gun to end it all. Nothing happens.
He just feels clumsy fingers untying his shoes, shaky hands trying to pull them off.
What the fuck is this, he wonders?
Who would take his shoes and not want to hurt him? Who would just take shoes and not another little piece of his soul? Who would want just his shoes and not his dignity?
Seth has never been able to fight back in his life, and he spends two minutes frozen as the tweaker fumbles with his shoes, struggling to undo the laces, paralyzed with the idea that he can actually get up and do something. The idea that he can get up and swing his fists and that all that can happen to him is that he’ll get hit back or die is as bewildering as quantum physics. It can barely connect to anything in his mind, like Annie Sullivan making signs into Helen Keller’s open hand, trying to make language happen in a brain cut off from the world.
There’s a swell in Seth’s pants as the realization sinks in that he can fight back, a lump forms in his throat and his heart skips a beat.
“Ssssssssss,” he says, like a hissing teakettle.
Shaking with adrenaline, Seth pushes himself up. It’s clumsy and if his opponent were any kind of real danger the fight would of have ended right there. Seth’s teeth chatter so hard that he’s half afraid they’ll break and fall out of his head. He’s so excited he can barely bend his joints.
The tweaker doesn’t seem to notice, though. He’s still too busy trying to pull off one of Seth’s shoes.
“Ssssstoop!” Seth says.
“Go back to sleep,” says the tweaker in a tired and quiet voice, “I gotta kid- I gotta eat.”
Seth fights like something feral and mad because he’s both. Even with the calm cold sight of the Family there is a species of madness that comes from seeing the world too clearly that even Ella cannot take away. A kind of insanity that comes from too much sanity and Seth is in the thrall of that terrible clarity. He can hit back! At long last, he can hit back!
The tweaker tries to run off and suddenly Seth is on top of him swinging and swinging until the man’s face dissolves into pulp and blood and Seth’s knuckles become bright purple and swollen with hurting.
There, he strikes!
Why am I still so scared?
There, he strikes!
Why can’t I stop shaking?
There, he strikes!
Why didn’t you kill me?
There, he strikes!
Didn’t you know you were supposed to kill me?
Seth could kill the man. Part of him wants to. Except suddenly, he’s crying. Sobbing great big tears and he can’t see or even breathe. He dries his eyes on the dirty collar of his shirt and looks down at what he’s done. The horrible thing he’s done to another person. The horrible thing that he’s chosen to do.
Ella had not forced him to do this.
Seth sees two very bony arms covered in needle marks. He sees hair that hasn’t been inside of a shower in months. He sees hurt and despair and giving up and he cries again for all of it. The tweaker is just a reflection of himself, lying bloodied under Seth’s own fists. He may as well have punched a mirror.
Ella’s not there, none of the Family is, even though it’s Dark, but Seth knows that somewhere Ella is smiling. He knows that she is… proud of him. That this choice pleases her.
Revulsion fills him.
And Seth’s memory comes completely clear again, whole and complete. This is who he is. He did this. It all belongs to him.
It’s a near thing, but he avoids throwing up on the tweaker and he makes it to the gutter at the front of the alley. His head is flush and trembling, and all the food he’s barely tasted before now comes out in great shivering waves. He realizes he’s been running for three months. Yet it might as well have been a second. In a daze, Seth watches as chips, beef jerky and sports drinks find their way to the sewer.
“You alive?” Seth whispers to the tweaker.
There’s no answer but there’s a strong pulse.
Seth places his stolen jacket over the tweaker’s body as a blanket and he leaves his shoes there by the tweaker’s hands and he walks off into the Darkness barefoot. His feet are bleeding when he walks into the police station.
He’s tired, so very tired.
He’s been tired for his whole life.
The Desk Sergeant is already giving Seth a suspicious look when he walks up to make his report.
“I’d like to report an assault,” Seth says. “I don’t know the street. It’s down by the mission. I didn’t want to go in… the people. Sorry. I did it. The guy needs help, I think. I am. Sorry.”
Then he faints and falls asleep, but in his sleep he cries from a nightmare about a bridge and a puppy and a young girl his own age, who was probably his mother, who lived at a campground by a river.
It’s the sleep of someone who has no place left to retreat but to their dreams.
Where could he go?
The thought haunts him, even in his sleep.
After all, wherever he went, he’d still be there with all of his memories.
You can’t run away from yourself.
When the Worlds began, All made a place for everything and put everything in its place. This was a difficult job, for this sorting was the sorting of All into itself, the division of Infinity into the infinite. So, All made Worlds for everything that could happen, and Worlds for everything that could never happen.
In some Worlds, those worlds of strong possibility, life arose. This was good, because the life -whether it knew it or not- was truly just a bit of that World itself come awake. This meant Life could act as the Keeper for the rest of its World and preserve it against attackers. In this way, Life created positive pressure to protect the All.
Yet, there were other Worlds full of can’t, where the impossible things had to be stored. Things with no rhyme or reason that would not function in any World and could not be explained by any possible combination of laws. So, among others, All made the Many Place.
The Many Place is a sphere approximately two meters across, and would fit in a small room quite comfortably. At the same time, the Many Place contains the infinity of everything that can’t happen anywhere. Buried inside of infinitely many dimensions of space, among the infinitude, are torches that never burn out, antidotes to anything, and magnets that attract things other than metal.
It too, is guarded.
A sort of serpent exists inside the Many Place, shifting through the dimensions at a rate beyond counting, beyond rational or irrational or imaginary numbers, waiting for intruders. It is not a possible shape, for it Ouroboros, and so it is not alive. Yet Ouroboros wanders mindlessly, a trap left by All for those careless enough to dare the impossible.
In infinitude, it had never failed to protect the Many Place.
Except once or twice.
Oil runs down the lip of the barrel like blood from a slit throat. The rivulets join and form a stream. The stream drizzles its way down the lip of the barrel into a drip pan. There the oil settles into a still, reflective pool.
Seth looks at his reflection, eyes nothing more than hollow pits. The reflection frowns up at him.
When the barrel is empty -or at least when Seth can’t bare to watch it drip any longer- he slides the pan out from underneath. The oil sloshes this way and that, causing Seth’s reflection to turn its head back and forth, giving a visual “no.”
What is he doing, he wonders? Is he insane? Who is he that he dares to do this?
Seth considers tipping over the drip pan and making a giant goddamn mess. It would be easy. A wildness grips him and he flexes his muscles, readying himself. He can feel the tendons sliding over his knuckles. All he has to do is twitch a few more muscles and he could throw the drip pan against the goddamn walls. It’d be reckless, but oh so much less reckless than what he is planning. And if he can’t find it within him to turn over something as small as the drip pan, then maybe he should take a hint and give up?
Maybe he should just accept what’s going to happen to him?
Except he can’t.
“If you turn that over in my garage, I swear to God I’ll make you lick it up,” says Abby.
Seth hadn’t heard her come in, but she’s there in the doorway. It’s a game they’ve always played without formally setting the rules. He listened for her, always. She tried to sneak up on him without getting caught, always. After a decade, they were more or less at a draw.
“No clue what you’re talking about,” Seth grumbles.
The wildness leaves him at once. It drains from his body and runs out of his toes in an instant. He moves the drip pan off to one side not bothering to look at his reflection. Maybe he would have done it if he’d been by itself. Maybe.
“Uh-huh. Well in this house, demonic rituals and summoning otherworldly horrors is no excuse to make a mess or act in an environmentally irresponsible manner. Can you imagine if the EPA came around?”
“Point taken,” said Seth.
Unless you knew to look, you would have never been able to tell that Abby’s doctors wanted her to walk with a cane. In fact, from the way she sauntered over to Seth and stood over his shoulder you might have thought the opposite. That she walked a little too straight. That her demeanor was a bit too confident.
That was another little game between them. With everything she did, Abby said that pain could be beaten. That pain wasn’t a part of who you were, it was just something that happened to you that could be left behind. With everything he did, Seth said that pain had to be avoided because it left scars and that scars are forever. Pain ruined not only the body, but the soul. Pain was forever.
Seth turns his back to her and for the first time since he’d started to empty the barrel, he feels his plan might work. It feels safe and sound. Or as safe and sane as he ever feels. Abby kicks the drip pan, gently. All reflections disappear in the resulting waves.
“The hell is this, anyway?” she asks.
“Hydraulic fluid. The barrel was near empty. I got it from a garage where they do repair work on mining equipment. I had a feeling he wouldn’t come if there was a mess inside,” he says.
“Got it from a garage? Stole it, you mean?”
“I paid ten dollars for it, which was a steal if you know how much those barrels cost brand new.”
Abby picks up on what he doesn’t say.
“You steal the ten dollars?” she grunts.
“The person I took it from was bad,” he says.
She grunts again but doesn’t bother to condemn him. Not like she used to condemn him. She hasn’t had the heart to cuss him out since ol’ Zebula died, he thinks. Maybe she feels like it’s not her place, anymore.
“The compass said I needed it,” Seth says.
“Well, I’d’ve given it to you if you asked,” she replies.
Part of him wishes she’d understand. He’d been bent so crooked that he couldn’t be bent straight again. All he could do was thank his lucky stars that he wasn’t addicted to raping and killing or something worse. What was a bit of vigilante justice compared to what had been done to him? What could she expect?
Another part of him wishes she’d cuss him out, regardless.
“Who is this that we’re trying to catch again?” says Abby, taking a seat in a plush camouflage recliner she’d inherited from Zebula.
“I’ve told you before,” says Seth.
“Well, tell me again.”
Seth sighs and closes his eyes, trying to remember the courage he’d felt when he’d come up with this plan.
“He’s called Uncle Silas. In the hierarchy of the Family that makes him Ella’s son. At the top there’s Grandmother Ella and Grandfather Tomas, then the Aunts and Uncles, then the Cousins. The important part is that the older ones are more powerful than the younger, and Silas is the oldest of all of Ella’s children. His true name is Everything You Want, Nothing You Need.”
Seth’s knees and feet hurt saying it aloud. His body finds the concrete harder to stand upon, and for some reason his teeth ache until he can feel the marrow in them. He feels the blood inside of his mouth dying and shriveling up as he says the name so that his mouth tastes like copper.
“Sounds like he should live in Las Vegas,” Abby laughs.
“I don’t know where he lives,” says Seth, not hearing the joke, “He doesn’t live with the rest of the Family. He always seems… different, somehow. I think he can make other worlds, or pocket worlds or maybe he just travels to mirror worlds. He might spend all of his time in those. He’s the only one who stands apart from the others. His goals are different, too. He’s not good, by any means. Being what they are… they can’t be good. But he’s different enough I think we can use him.
“Remember what he is, though. When we bring him here. You can’t forget who he is, whatever he might promise you.
“I saw him send a drunk to a world where the ocean was made of whiskey. I saw him send a nymphomaniac to a world full of beautiful women that were barely more than animals. The drunk drank himself to death and died of dehydration because there was no water. The nymphomaniac hung himself when he got lonely because the women couldn’t talk.
“Everything Silas does is like that. The others struggle to craft their monuments but Silas makes one almost every other day.
“Silas gives you a place where you get so much of the thing you want most that you don’t want anything anymore. He gives you your heart’s desire until your desires are poison.
“That doesn’t matter for what I want because it’s the same as what he wants. He hates Ella and he owes me a favor. For some reason he wants her dead. That’s all that matters.”
Seth’s hands are shaking but Abby is kind enough to pretend she doesn’t notice, the same way she’d been kind enough not to interrupt his ranting.
“How’s he owe you a favor now?” she asks.
“I… touched something for him once.”
“Oh, Jesus, Seth. I’m sorry. You know I love you. I wouldn’t have asked-”
Seth’s face turns red, hot to the touch, not that he’d let anyone touch him right then.
“It wasn’t like that! Not with him!” Seth puts his face in his hands out of exasperation, “Ella has a… it’s a spittoon and an urn and it… I touched it once. Silas asked me to touch it. It gave him something, somehow. Some advantage over Ella. In exchange, he told me that if I ever asked him the right question that he’d tell me the secret to killing her.”
Abby stops rocking in the recliner, something she never notices starting or stopping. Except Seth knows she only stops when she’s serious. Dead serious. All grows still. The garage lights hum.
“What did he say?” Abby asked.
“Whenever I asked him, he’d say it wasn’t the right question. I asked a hundred times. ‘How do I kill Ella?’ Always the same answer. At first, I thought it had been a trick. To make me touch the urn. To bring me pain. I don’t think so anymore. They never lie, really. Not if they can help it and maybe the times I thought they lied I just didn’t understand. The more I think on it, the more that last seems true. I don’t think they can lie. Last year, after I went… there, I figured it out. I know the question now.”
Abby is still as ice, as the grave, as stone. She gets that way when Seth talks about the World of the Family. Seth doesn’t think she believes he’s been there, except in moments like this when she grows so still, he thinks that in some way she’s been there too. Except she always denies it. Always says she hasn’t.
Then why is she only person in the world who understands?
“What’s the question?” Abby whispers.
“I’m going to summon him here. I’m going to bind him. Then I’m going to ask ‘What does Ella see when she looks at the Giants?'”