I heard nothing more than a soft clunk and a bit of clattering as you returned, the darkness outside unraveling from your form. Your footsteps echoed in the canister around us. Your face was as steely as ever. I saw your eyes flick down toward me.
"So?" I asked, "What's blocking the path?"
You didn't answer. You simply pulled yourself over and sat down heavily on the bench, next to me. You sit the way tired people used to sit, spine bowed, elbows pushed against knees, hands lying limply between the legs like the necks of corpses. Your gaze was at the window across from us, above the row of benches, and not at the floor. There was nothing to see out there, just the black walls of the tunnel zipping by, with the occasional lick of yellow light to sting the eyes, but you kept your focus there, out the window at the wall.
I wonder, when was the last time you slept? Or do you sleep?
The lack of speech went on for a while as the train rattled underground. Most people would've described the silence as awkward. Conversationally, I said, "I imagine it'll be difficult, slaying the guardian."
A band of light outside flickered across your face. "That doesn't matter," you said. The bat was propped against your leg, rolling slightly with the motion.
"On your way up there, to where he is, would you consider something?" I asked.
You gave no sign that you were listening, but I knew you were waiting. I kept the same tone I'd had before when I said, "When you kill him, can you make it slow?"
Once again, your eyes flicked over to where I sat. Only cats and reptiles make such a motion. Beasts and the weary.
I looked intensely back at you. "I would really like for it to be slow," I said.
You looked at me a second longer before the eyes flicked back toward the window. "I'm on a mission," you said, "It'll take as long as it takes."
I shrugged. Expecting you to take my request seriously, I had known better than that. But I had gotten your attention. Maybe there would be hesitation between each swing. I licked my lips.
"If it took a while for that one to be pure," I said, "That wouldn't surprise me."
The tram moved on inside the darkness.
I don't travel to Zone 3 very often. I make it my business not to be there. If anyone were to ask why I take pains to avoid a place of profit, I'd give them the obvious answer of why anyone avoids any place:
Because I hate it.
Yes, I loathe it. "It," for it is not a place, but a thing. I hate the empty, hollow, desperate eyes of the people, and I hate the beads of sweat that gather on their brows, and I hate the way their trays clatter on the metal shelf below their gaping mouths, and I hate the smell, oh! The smell! That scent of burning caramel, everywhere, sharp and melted. It invades your eyes, clogs the roof of your mouth. Every breath is flavored with it. If you hate it, like I do, you gulp like a fish to get a breath of flavorless gas, and if you love it, you gulp like a fish to engulf as much as possible into your sorry cells, for if you love it, then you really love it.
So, today, in place of dear Pablo, who would not come, no matter what, I had to journey to Zone 3 and breath in its foul air, and walk among its thin, shaking people, and stand, briefly, among the piles of crunchy poison strewn on the blood-soaked floor underneath the feet.
But, for all that, even though it is distasteful and such unpleasant duties are mine, it is still a good. Yes, today is a good day.
Because today, the Big Mister dies.
You came up to me and looked me in the eye when you said it. "There was a girl downstairs. She's dead. She said to tell you goodbye."
Three sentences. A eulogy in three sentences, but that was your way. The burning in the roof of my mouth surprised me.
"I guess it's better like that," I said.
I turned my eyes away from the red splatter on your bat, but I still glimpsed it out of the corner of my eye, like the glint of light from a jewel. I shifted the mask, to cover it. The world is more palatable when seen through two holes in a sheet of black.
My grief was a surprise. No, that's not right. I wished my grief had been a surprise. Yes. That's more accurate. With the terminally ill, one gets accustomed to their absence before they actually leave. They feel resigned. It is a tempting trap, to write them off as already dead. In that empty time, it is even possible to convince yourself that you are over your grief.
And then the status quo changes, and they leave for good, again. And you are left amazed at your sorrow, amazed at your anguish. And you realize what you had thought was your strength was but an opaque cloud that you shrouded around yourself.
This day had been coming for a long time. I knew it, and she knew it as well, perhaps. It is hard to tell what she really knew anymore.
I didn't go down to look at her body. I lacked the courage. I have often wondered, is it intelligence or stupidity that causes cowardice? After much deliberation, I have decided it is intelligence. I didn't go there because I knew what I would see. I could visualize it well enough. She would be lying down, in a pool of thickening red. Her arms would be at her sides, her hair strewn about her face, a strand clinging to the side of her mouth. What face would she be making? Would she be smiling still, in the grip of her dementia? Would there be tears in her sunken eyes? Would her neck be twisted? Would her jaw be broken? Her back? Where was the final swing, where had it been? Leg, spin, ribs, sternum, skull. Body position, wound location, bruises, unformed scars. An infinite number of bodies, an eternity of grotesque possibilities presented themselves in my head, but no matter which was true, I knew it wouldn't change the fact that she was dead, and I knew it wouldn't ease my mind because no matter what, the end result was the same. And if I could bring myself to cradle her against me or any other romantic expression, she wouldn't be able to feel it, and it wouldn't help her, and the only result would be that I would get blood on my clothes.
So, I didn't go down there. My quick wit made me cowardly. Such is my burden.
Customers have asked me why I wear the mask. I answer, it is much easier to haggle when they can't see your face. That is a joke. I never haggle.
Welcome again, thuggish vigilante. What'll it be? Something for your aches and pains? Jokers? Sorry, but I'm not for sale. Ohoho. Calm down. Fresh out, I'm afraid. Luck Tickets? Certainly. How many would you like? There, there!
Anything else? I greatly hope so. I saw you out there, swinging that bat like a helicopter blade. Surely, you must be loaded. What's with the face? Ah. You don't know what that word means, do you? It's a word from before. You used them to fly. What do you mean, what for? You have no imagination at all, dear sir.
Yes, your eyes are free to roam, but keep your hands to yourself, hmm? Ah, you like these supplies? They're just for you, you know. Tunics, bats, Colours, I can't sell them to anyone else. The people of Zone 1 have no use for such frivolity, the people of Zone 2 are too intimidated by the weight, and Zone 3… Yes, this is all for you. If you can spare a dime? There's that face again. Old word. Pay no mind.
Ah-ha, you like the bat, do you? It's a bit harder than the one you have there, clutched in your sweaty hand. Packs more of a punch. Yes, yes, give it a practice swing. You'll certainly need it, if you're to go up against Dedan. He's a fool; Lord, is he a fool. It's almost a faux pas to walk around in public being as much of a fool as he is. But, you see, he has no skin. It's all solid iron, all the way down to the bone. To break his teeth, you'll need this. How many would you like? Beautiful, beautiful.
How about something for the Add-On? Got two Symbols here that'll give the boost you need. Don't ask me how I got a hold of those. Secrets of the trade.
Pleasure doing business with you, as always. Now, I must pack up my things. I'm afraid this location will be closing very shortly. Good luck with your disciplined brawl, my friend. Good luck, good luck.
Before my time, there was a thing called the Bubonic Plague. The Black Death. It made your skin rot, rancid meat around the veins before it could even die. They thought it would end the world.
When they thought the world was going to end, people did foolish things. Not because they were mad, but because they thought they might as well. They partied in the streets, drinking, debauchery, a plethora of sex.
The thought among all these revelers was the same. Soon, there will be no consequences. Either that, or the direst consequences of all. Either way, I must get my fix before the end.
Valerie once asked me, "Why a shop?" He was a curious fellow like that. You know what they say about curiosity and cats? … No, I suppose you don't actually.
Well, my response was, "Why not?" In my time, you never had the opportunity for such nonsense. Buying and selling, feeling the clink of currency in your hand. Luxuries. No, no, the days before the queen were much darker.
So, in this brand new world the queen has given us, you all must play, as I do. We must do pointless things and do them gaily. We must run amuck and be silly. It is our duty.
We were not born in this world, as you were, Batter. We came here separately yet converging at roughly the same time, neither of us wanting to speak of what came before. What was before was literally nothing now. It was the ash under our feet. Don't breathe in too deeply now; it is my past you are inhaling and spluttering out.
She and I watched the buildings rise, and we watched the men be born, and we held the child's hand while you were away. But we did not hold him. He would not let us.
The possibility… was always there, that that child could become one of two. It weighed heavily on my mind, and I believe it did hers as well, though she never spoke of it, as I never did. Our cells were full of life, as perhaps no other cells were on Earth. Possibility, burning at our insides.
In the end, it did not happen. I think that that is for the best. For now, he would have had no time for anything. Except, perhaps, silliness.
Do you remember the day you were born? None of us do, but you are not like us, are you, Batter? The first day of our lives is a mystery to us all. Shall I tell you yours, Batter?
You lay curled up, lying on the floor. You were exactly as you are now, on the outside, that is. The child, your progenitor, was sitting before you, staring at your face. When you came to, you could only see him. Your vision was filled with him. Human children cry when they are born, but you didn't make a sound. You only looked at him.
He said, "Papa."
You said, "Where am I?"
He said, "Outside. We're outside, Papa."
Then, he coughed.
You placed your hand on the top of his head.
You were the knight. Do you remember those early days? Or were they sucked out of you, into the vacuum? The world before the Queen's land was a frightening place. There was no life, and yet things moved. Terrible, twisted things. You were the protector, as men were expected to be, before time rewrote minds. The Queen built reality, but you lay the foundation with your bat, for the ground on which home is built must be smooth and safe. Anything that came near died. Papa will keep the Boogeyman away.
Another word you don't know.
I glimpsed you once, on accident. You were sitting under a skeletal tree. Do you remember trees, Batter? You've never seen a live one. They were made of wood, an element that no longer exists, I'm afraid. They were alive, but they were not animals. Well, once they were alive.
You were weary. Warped and diseased blood was splashed against your tunic. Your head was bowed, but your eyes were open. Above you was the irony sky. For a while, after, there had been snow. Endless snow, it seemed, freezing us and blasting away our skin. But the snow had stopped ages ago, and now there was only iron.
The Queen came near, shimmering. She glided to the scalded tree, as is her usual walk. She stood above you for a moment. She slowly bent down and reached out a hand and cupped it around your chin. She pulled your gaze up to her. Under her hand, you were docile as a lamb. There was a whisper in the windless air. It seemed she was speaking to you.
At that point, I excused myself.
The boy was scared of you. Even before you were born, he was scared of you. Even then, there was a coldness in your tone, steel in your eye. Any child would fear a person who came home with the blood of ruination on their skin.
It's a sorrowful thing that he sent you away. Banished you to the gap between spaces, to the void, to what you see on the back of your head at all times. Which is to say, to the nothingness. Of all the guardians, your domain is the grandest of all, for whose imagination can truly grasp the fathoms of nothing?
You went, I remember, with no complaint. That was what the child wished, and after all, your very birth was for him.
Do you have his memories? I'm speaking of the man who inspired you, your template, as it were. Daddy. Papa. The real Papa. You must have known he existed. Or, if not, you will know very soon.
The boy wanted someone to talk to. He was the lonely type. Who wasn't? Isn't? Not cats, I suppose. What was I talking about?
Oh, right. Anyway, I enjoyed listening to his prattle. He could not talk too loud or too fast because his lungs would not allow it. He would sit next to me with a bear in his lap, and he would tell me things. Things of himself because, poor boy, that was all he knew.
He spoke of him, of Papa, often. He spoke of Mama, too, but those were mostly sighs of longing. Where was Mama? Away. Always away. She came back. And then she went away. Leaving only Papa.
A child is more honest than anyone, but their honesty is the confused type. It is easy for them to be deceived by their own brains. But, clever as I am, I was able to decipher the kernels of truth from the boy's no doubt unreliable account.
Mama was gone. Papa was not. Papa brought home food and toys. Papa played games. Papa always held his hand whenever he went outside, which was not very often. Soon, it became never.
The boy asked, "Where is Mama?" Papa answered, "She'll be here soon," and then his eyes went to the far wall.
Papa always brought back bad news. Can I go outside? No, not today. Is Mama home? No, she is not. Can we play today? I wish I could. I don't want to swallow these! I won't argue with you.
Poor Papa. Doomed by his duty. The parent that loves most will be hated because the parents who loves most gives the child bitter medicine to keep away the cough and bathes him and dresses him and feeds him and must leave him all alone to go for the food and the clothes and the soap and the pills.
And the one who loves least sends a box of cookies now and again.
I ask you a riddle. Why do we give medicine to someone who will never get better?
Yes, that's right. To keep them alive.
One day, Mama came home. It was not the first day she came, but her arrival was so rare. She took the boy in her arms. "How is my little boy?" she asked, "How is my Hugo?" He squealed in delight.
Papa saw his coos of ecstasy and her guiltless laugh and jealousy stole into his heart. He was only human. You don't have to forgive our folly, but you must be aware of it.
The night passed, tensely. The child heard a sound of cicadas shrieking, an insect's death knell when struck by the wasp. Oh, forgive me. Those words are from before.
He saw them both, still awake, their silhouettes cast on the wall by candlelight.
Papa was shouting.
Mama was shouting back.
Hugo cowered in the corner, clutching the teddy bear. Neither of them saw him.
Papa was gesturing wildly at the door behind them. Mama pointed at it. Her face was stretched out, her eyes white and wild. "If it's really so terrible here, then you can just go!" she said. It was the only sentence the boy really heard. There was such a flurry in his head, a flapping of wings, a screeching of beaks.
It kept getting worse. The air was pressing in on his ears, louder, louder. It didn't seem real anymore. It seemed like some grotesque comedy. A cartoon where the characters got wilder and wilder, only now no one was laughing. There was only anger, only screaming. Hugo wanted to move, wanted to go back into his room and throw his pillow over his head to dampen the sound with fabric, but it seemed he was nailed where he stood, taking in the horror. Why was Papa screaming? Why wouldn't Papa shut up?
Mama threw up her hands and started to walk past Papa, to the door. Papa grabbed her roughly by both shoulders and threw her onto the floor. She collided with the chair behind her, sending it clattering. It bumped against the table, which scraped a little over the wood, a mere wisp of a tremor to associate with a woman crashing to the ground.
Hugo's heart hardened. Mama was on the floor. Papa had hurt Mama. And Hugo thought at that moment, there was no one in the world he hated more than Papa.
And then a red flower erupted from Papa's neck.
A whip of rust burst from Papa's torso and cracked over the room, dying the toppled chair, the floor, the bookcase. It splashed on Mama's cheek. The ceiling was low. It was on the ceiling. The whole room smelled like Papa. Papa's head rolled landed on the bridge of the nose and rolled slowly to a stop on its cheek, the eyes wide open and the mouth gaping a little.
Mama pushed herself up slowly. She stared livid, at the head, at the burst and melted flower. At the twitching digits. She had only made an angry grunt when she'd hit the floor, but now she was making no sound at all. She pulled herself up to Papa, who no longer had Papa's brain attached. She pulled the torso into her lap, still staring. Her lap was quickly becoming drenched.
Mama started screaming. She screamed, and screamed, and would not stop screaming. Her voice became raw, her mouth dry. A grotesque rattling filled the space around her. And yet she wouldn't stop.
I didn't witness this myself, of course. Hugo told me of it much later, with his eyes down on the floor. That was the day, he told me, that Papa and Mama left together. Papa's body and Mama's brain.
He never hated you, Batter, but he was afraid. Guilt made him afraid. And your ferocity made him afraid. Even back then, you didn't know mercy. Ironic, when you think about it.
Before the world was built, you were in the nothingness, the guardian of naught. The Zones came up from the flowers at your feet, and you languished there, in your domain. How many years was it? How many years did you wait in the dark? How many years did the emptiness eat your soul? And still you dwelled, without a single complaint, because that was his will.
How did you see our corruption, Batter? How did you know of our impurity? Could you see it, in the carpel of the flowers? Could you see us from your high silver sphere?
The first stood dead with a broken jaw, his back propped against the wall. A look of disbelief was in the dying light of his beady eyes. His coat was open.
The second lay in his own blood and down, a vision of crumpled beauty, with a dear friend's corpse around his neck.
The third died as just a head, rolling thickly in his own spilled blood. A beautiful sight. He choked out his last. He spoke final words to you. Ah, it was slow after all! Oh, wonderful, wonderful, precious Batter!
"Go on, try it!" she'd said to me once, holding out a handful. It trailed out between the cracks of her fingers. She'd held it out to me and smiled as though she could conceive no greater happiness than what she was offering me. It was still clinging to her cheeks, crowding her mouth. A kiss, I knew, would reek of it.
I had not come to deal with this. I grabbed her hand, turned it, and opened it. It came flying from her grasp, like sand. She screamed and launched herself at me, tearing at me with her nails, trying to get her fingers under the mask. The string broke as it sailed upward, over my hair. I tasted blood.
I was no combatant. I fled. The mask loosened itself from my neck and fell to the floor.
Later, she approached me, contrite. Tears swam in sunken-in gulches that surrounded her eyes. She was holding the mask in her paling hands.
"I'm so sorry," she said, "I'm so sorry."
It was the fat man who had poisoned her. He'd offered it to her, the powdery sweetness, though he himself would not touch the stuff. It was not for profit, for his men work for no profit. They are paid in food and in beds. He had the food.
There were no more women in the world. No more, except for her, and the Queen, and the Queen was beyond the big man's power. She fell into the trap. I did as well, for it is a trap not to realize danger until it is too late. Once, they had been full of such hope, such promise, such altruistic dreams. The two of us trusted them. And he slowly became aware of and prayed on our trust.
At first, the square meals were enough. Then, he began withholding it. She became crazy. The longer she went without, the more she needed when she got her increasingly sticky hands on it. She became violent, first when she didn't get it, then when she didn't get enough, and finally even when she did.
Then, the final stroke, her mind became lost in a honey-flavored cloud.
This happened gradually, over time. In her lucid moments, she would apologize again and again, and then rage and curse against the big man who had poisoned her. A time came when she ate nothing else, and her body grew thinner and thinner. Her mind buzzed.
I was lost, groping in the dark, as it were. Then one day, Pablo came to me and, offhand, mentioned a basement he had built within his own zone.
She wanted to leave, she had asked me to take her away, but when the hour came, her hunger would not let her. In the dead of night I dragged her away, as she screamed in pain. The specters heard and hovered near, perhaps hearing her wailing and thinking she was one of them. I had to lead her into the basement, feeding her all the way, where she would be safe. Safe from him, and safe from the others, who would die by her hands, by the score. But she would not be placated, not until the mountains of stuff surrounded her and she could sleep swaddled in that awful smell.
She knew me, but spoke only in lilting play. Seeing her, speaking with her, smelling that air, it filled my throat with nausea. Occasionally, from her singsong mouth, I could catch a glimpse of the true mind, reaching out from underneath.
"I'm no good anymore, Zacharie. There's no one else in Wonderland. :)"
The final insult dawned slowly. Not once, not once in all the time since then, has he asked what became of her.
I witnessed this world break her. I saw it corrupt and corrode her, as it was itself corrupted. I saw madness take root and spread like toxin in the veins.
There is a story about a masked man who slays a toad king. I have longed to be that man who destroys the monster and brings the story to an end, but my cowardice would not let me. I am too smart, you see. So, I rely on and encourage you, dear compañero, to carry out the deed that my intelligence prevents me from doing. This impure world must go, as it should have, all those years ago.
My one regret is little Hugo. For the world to go, he must die, and that is a tragic thing. He did not deserve it. Hugo, the hand I played in your death was a passive one, but that passive hand has killed you. I'm so sorry. Perhaps that is your regret, too, but you would never tell of such a thing.
This letter was written to you, perhaps as a lame, final confession of sorts, but I will never give it to you. I know you would not read it. You would glance at it, see its length, and then toss it, for you are busy and cold. Your mission, by its very nature, is a thankless one, but it must be done. No more pills. No more medicine. Only the night, without even a lullaby to sing us to sleep.
For you, dear Batter, I cannot even give thanks, for you would not accept it. All I can give you is an ignored letter and the words you won't understand.
There is a story about a masked man who slew a toad king.
To do so, he used a sword.
And the sword, it seems, held a bat.
I have no one but myself to blame for this story. You are free to blame me, as well.
I mostly wrote this to get a different take than the typical interpretation of Zacharie. Most fan art tends to portray Zacharie as the trolling sort, an innocent who's along for the ride. The fan game UNKNOWN even has him go out of his way to try and undo the Batter's purification. That never really jibed with me personally. Obviously the guy knew what the Batter was up to and even sold him the stuff to do it. So, I wanted a fan fic that painted him as more of a sinister accomplice.
The connection between Enoch and Sugar was one I made one night while I was wondering where exactly she got all that sugar... It seemed brilliant at the time, but now I'm wondering if it actually makes sense? Regardless, I don't think it's a coincidence that the zone where Zacharie accompanies you is the same one where the guy who created the sugar element is.
Or maybe it is, I don' t know.
I tried to mimic the weird speech patterns and writing style the characters in OFF use. I hope it was successful, and I didn't just make Zacharie sound like an asshole. Then again, if I did, maybe that would be in character. Yes, I think it would.
Anyway, enjoy and please review!