Betts opened her eyes. Black. Then closed them. Then opened them again. Still black.
Where was she? Was she blind? Dead? She didn't remember what had happened after she ran from the light at the stupid theater. What possessed us to go in, anyway? Such a dumb idea. And that light? Why did they have to pick on her?
With her eyes now open, Betts began to realize she wasn't blind. Wherever she was, it was dark, very dark, but not entirely black. She stood up carefully, and looked around. She could see now that she was in some sort of tunnel. Pillars supported the ceiling at intervals, and she could see a couple of tools by the wall. A pickaxe? What is this? Some kind of old mine?
Her vision was becoming clearer, and she could see her surroundings. And realized it wasn't just that she could see better – the tunnel itself was lighter. The light! The damn light! It's following me!
She began moving away, down the tunnel, away from the glowing light at the other end. She stumbled to begin with, then got her footing. It didn't matter where she went – not knowing why, she just had to get away from the light.
She started to run, haltingly at first, then faster. The ground sloped gently down, she was going deeper, she knew, but for some reason the only thing that mattered was getting away from the light.
She ran. Faster. Then stopped, her heart lurching. She gasped. There was someone in front of her. Someone enormous. Down here in the darkness, a huge dark shadow loomed in front of her. She looked for a weapon. Now I could use that pickaxe!
What? This monster knows my name? But the voice is familiar.
"None other. Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"But…but you're dead."
"Well, so are you, more or less. Why did you run from the light?"
"Dead? How can I be dead?"
"Quite easily, unfortunately. You cracked your head pretty hard on that concrete when you fell. "
"Light? But the light was after me. It wanted me to dance."
Gabriel smiled gently. "What's wrong with dancing? The light was just calling you, it wasn't going to hurt you. They had to send me out to get you."
"They who? What are you talking about? And why are you talking at all if you're dead?"
Gabriel laughed. "Come on, let's get you out of this cold tunnel."
They walked slowly towards the light glowing a little distance away, Betts still holding back nervously.
As they neared the light, she realized there were some figures standing in the shadows , and she stopped.
"It's all right." Gabriel put his arm around her shoulders. "You're safe. And there are some people I want you to meet. It's OK. You'll like them."
"Hello, sweetheart." A slim, elegant woman with silver hair stepped out of the shadows. "It's lovely to see my favorite granddaughter again."
"Grandma Elizabeth?" Betts gasped. It had been ten years since the death of her beloved grandmother, after whom she was named. Tears came to her eyes, then she ran forward and hugged her.
"Do you remember your grandfather, Betts? You were only a baby when he died. Clay, come and meet your granddaughter."
A tall handsome man in a basefall uniform stepped forward and grinned at her. "Hi, Betts!"
"You're Clayton Jones? But I don't understand. " Betts stuttered a little. "But…you're young. And Grandma Elizabeth, she's, um, the way I remember her."
Gabriel stepped in to explain. "Here we look the way we want. It takes a bit of effort to put on a body and step outside, so we choose the way we want to look. Jonesy wanted to play baseball forever." He winked at her grandfather.
"And Lib likes being the elegant lady," Jonesy smiled at his wife. "I kinda like it too. Even if it does look like she robbed the cradle!"
Uncle Gabriel continued the introductions. "This is my ma."
A beautiful, sexy young woman with a snake tattoo and a low-cut dress smiled at her. "They call me Ruthie."
"You're his … oh right, you can look any way you want. I'm starting to understand."
Betts suddenly remembered what she'd heard about Ruthie – that she'd slept with Scudder and his son, both. Looking at her now, she could believe it. This was a woman who lived the way she wanted, not necessarily by the rules of polite society.
Grandma Elizabeth said, "And this is my mother, Rita Sue. And my sister, Dora Mae. It took us a while to get her here, but she made it."
"Oh yes, the three of you were…" Betts' voice trailed off.
"Dancers," Elizabeth said firmly.
"Whores," her mother said. And all three burst out laughing.
"Well, a little of both," said the sister, Dora Mae, a sweet-faced young woman who seemed a little less "there" than the others – a little foggy and out of focus.
"So you all came to meet me?" Betts was still a little confused.
Another voice. "Sure. We've been watching you. Looking into your family history, and all. We wanted to meet you in person. And you've seen my daughter much more recently than I have!"
For a moment, Betts wondered where the new voice came from, then a little man stepped out from behind a tall statuesque woman in an old-fashioned hourglass style red dress. A woman with…a beard? She pulled her eyes away and back to the little man.
"You must be Samson, Anne Edderson's father. Do you know, I have a cat named…"
"Yes. I know." An odd expression passed over the human Samson's face, then he grinned and said, "And this is Lila. You know her daughter, too. Come to think of it, you really have been getting quite the family reunion together. We thought it was time you met us all."
"Lila? Oh yes, you're Marie DuVal's mother."
"That's me," said the bearded lady. "And this is Lodz, my … friend." She nodded at a tall man with silver hair and piercing dark eyes, wearing a beautiful silk brocade jacket. That must have cost the earth in its time.
"The psychic, right? But I heard…oh yes, you can be what you want." Fair enough. Why be blind if you didn't have to be?
He's the one Ben is supposed to have killed, Betts realized suddenly. I wonder if I dare ask about it. No, probably not. Presumably this is heaven, not the other place, and he's here. And Samson's here too. So God can't think too badly of them.
Ben! And Sofie! If these are all the people from the Carnivale, where are they? Betts was reeling from all this. Were these really the people she'd heard to much about?
"Hello, Betts." A young man with an open, friendly face smiled at her. Something familiar about him.
"I'm Charlie Osgood."
Charlie? Roy's grandfather, the old man who died in a Las Vegas rest home the day after I met him?
"Sure am. Looking after my grandson, are you?"
"You're the best thing that ever happened to him. Welcome to the family."
"Well, I'm not actually…"
"As far as I'm concerned, you are."
Betts blushed a little.
"I feel as if I have a thousand questions. For all of you. I keep wondering what happened to the Carnivale, and nobody seems to know."
"Well, we have plenty of time for you to ask the questions."
"No, you don't." A new voice spoke from behind Betts, and she spun around. "She's going back."
Ben and Sofie.
"Sorry, everyone, she's not supposed to be here. We tried to catch her before she saw you, but she just kept running. She has to go back." Ben had a very authoritative voice, she noticed.
"But I have questions! So many questions! Can't I stay just a little while?"
It was Sofie who answered. "I'm afraid not. There's no such thing as a little while here. Years go by before you even notice. And they can't hold their shapes much longer. Except Lodz, of course – he was always good at it."
The tall man with the brocade jacket winked at her. There's a story there, I know there is.
"Come with us, Betts. We'll get you out of here." Ben took her arm gently, and turned her away from the light and her family. It's funny – I just met them, but they feel like family.
"Grandma Elizabeth!" She had just found her, and now she was leaving.
"Don't worry dear, you'll get here eventually, and we'll still be here."
"Give my love to Angie…"
"And mine to Marie…"
"And mine to Anne…"
Betts let Ben and Sofie lead her back into the darkness.
She opened her eyes, and this time the light was dazzling. She flinched, and closed them again.
"Open your eyes again." A woman in a white coat, presumably a doctor, peered into her face.
"Yes, you're in a hospital. How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Um…three. How did I get here?"
"Follow this pencil with your eyes. Some people found you in the subway tunnels in Coney Island. What year is it?"
"…2011. What people?"
"A young couple. They came with you in the ambulance. You've been very lucky, you know. That's a nasty bruise. Amazing you're even alive, let alone conscious. Now you've got some friends waiting to see you. You get five minutes, then we have to run some real tests."
She left, and Roy, and Angie slipped in. Roy looked awful – pale, with swollen eyes. He gently took her hand and kissed it, looking into her eyes as if he couldn't look away ever again.
Angie said, "Look at you! You're awake! They said … well, never mind. God, you look great."
"They found me in the subway?"
"Yes, apparently when you ran out of the theater, you went into the subway and somehow got into an unused tunnel. We're lucky they found you."
"Who found me?"
"I don't know. A couple of people. They left just before we got here."
"Ben and Sofie."
"What? Are you sure you're OK? You're not hallucinating or anything, are you?"
"No." Betts was suddenly tired. "What happened to your reporter friend?"
"Mike? He's here. He just stepped outside to make a cell phone call. They won't let you do that here."
The doctor came back in. "Ok, everyone – time's up. We need to check her out."
Angie waved a little finger wave. Roy kissed her lightly on the lips, and they left her to the doctor's ministrations.
Outside, Ben and Sofie walked away from the front door and out across the garden.
"She'll be fine," Ben assured Sofie.
"I guess so. But now she knows about us."
"No, she'll think it was all a dream. We couldn't have told her more – you know how He feels about spoilers."
"She wouldn't have believed us anyway, I guess. I mean, if we told her you killed me to save humanity, then followed me to Hell and brought me back, well... It does sound a little farfetched."
"And then He sentenced us to a hundred years of escort duty. We got off lightly, really," Ben said. "Let's face it, He really doesn't like disobedience."
"And we couldn't have told her the whole story. Even if we had…"
"Yes, she thinks an avatar is something created by a computer. Or a blue spaceman!"
They both laughed. Sofie tucked her arm into Ben's, and they walked until they faded into the twilight.
From the shadow of a tree, Mike the reporter watched them thoughtfully. When they disappeared, he frowned, peered into the gathering darkness. Looking thoughtful, he flipped his phone open.
"Hi. What does the word avatar mean to you?"