PART 7 – BREAK THE DARK

A part of Pinocchio saw this coming, yet he had let Hobbes try to reason with this backward bunch of Jonestown hicks. A larger part of him had even believed that his friend, out of anyone, could reverse the murder that Peter seemed so bent on. That larger part, however, got a solid kick in the head the instant Peter demanded Hobbes's death. He watched the mob close in around the young soldier.

"Great," he said. He didn't need to look to his right to know Florence was there but he met her eyes anyway. "This act is getting old." He started to plow through the crowd toward Hobbes but Florence grabbed his arm and pointed away from the main show.

Everyone in the crowd faced Hobbes and Circe, except one. A solitary figure turned away and headed toward the river—Garcia.

"What's his story? Can't stand the stench of burning flesh?" Then Pinocchio saw. Garcia paused by a bonfire, fumbling with something inside his coat, gathering up a long string of wires that had apparently wiggled away from him. "Hey!" Pinocchio shouted at him and took off at a sprint with Florence right behind.

Garcia's surprise was evident even in the dim light. He clutched what he held to his chest, turned, and ran for the woods. Pinocchio caught him with a flying tackle that sent them both to the ground. Seconds later, Garcia was on his back, with Florence stepping on his outstretched right arm, while Pinocchio tore open the man's coat to reveal wires snaking to a small handheld screen. It took all the self-control Pinocchio had not to bash the junkie's head against the nearest rock.

"You son of a bitch," Pinocchio spat. "Where did you get this?"

Garcia looked to be on the verge of tears. "I..I..I'm sick."

Pinocchio grabbed a fist full of Garcia's shirt at the collar and twisted. "You got it from Bosko."

With her eyes closed and her fingers pressed to the back of Tom's hand, Circe could almost take herself back, to when she had hope. Their fates were tied together now, quite literally. In a whirlwind of dust and fight, Peter's men had secured Tom to the stake. Despite being back-to-back, she could tell he had taken more than he had been able to dole out. His breathing was hard and she felt him shake with intermittent coughs as his body tried to recover from the blows and kicks it had received.

"Was any of it true," he asked suddenly, his voice raspy, "that story you told me?"

She opened her eyes and turned her head to try to see his face. "Every word." Peter approached with a flaming torch and Circe closed her eyes again. "Goodbye, Tom. I love you."

Without warning, a gunshot cracked over their heads, silencing the mob. Circe looked to see Florence's MP5 held aloft. Behind her, Pinocchio had his own weapon pointed at the crowd while dragging Garcia by the scruff of his jacket.

"You've got the wrong guys!" Pinocchio shouted. "This is Bosko's spy!" He pulled Garcia to the center of the circle and shoved him to the ground. With a rough jerk, he flipped open the man's jacket to reveal the wires still trailing down his side. "Look at him! It was him! He sold us out to get high!"

Florence was already loosening the bonds that held Tom and Circe. Pinocchio had turned his weapon on Peter, who had dropped the torch.

"Your junkie sold you out for his fix," Pinocchio said.

Peter and the others stared down at the shaking form of Garcia as the man scrambled to recoil the Digi-punch's wires to his chest.

Beside Circe, Florence had looped an arm around Tom's back and guided him, limping, from the stake and over to Pinocchio's side. The older soldier fiercely kicked Peter's discarded burning torch toward a section of the crowd.

"I know lemmings that are less easily led," Pinocchio said. "This barbecue is over."

The crowd separated as he led his tiny party toward a weathered pick-up truck behind one of the tents. Circe took over for Florence and helped Tom into the cab. Behind her, she heard a single pair of running feet and she turned quickly, expecting an attack.

A young girl with dark hair and eyes red and wet from crying held Dexter tightly to her chest. She kissed the dog on the head and hugged him, then held him up. Circe gathered the dog into her arms before climbing into the truck cab beside Tom and slamming the door. In the bed behind the cab, Florence crouched with her MP5 still pointed at the now-subdued crowd. Pinocchio settled in the driver's seat and called out to the quiet group of so-called Resistance fighters.

"We'll leave it in town. If I'm feeling generous, I won't torch it."

The engine turned over with a dirty growl and Pinocchio steered it away from the camp.

Potholes in the washboard road added to Pinocchio's growing list of reasons to risk stopping before they reached town. Safety kept him at a speed of around three miles per hour—the truck had no working lights, clouds kept covering the moon's light, and the winding, hilly back road was not the path they'd walked in on.

He fought to keep his eyelids from closing; he was pretty sure he had barely clocked three hours of sleep in the last forty-eight. A tight band had clamped around the top part of his brain and the pain from the headache made him slightly nauseous. Figures and shapes haunted his peripheral vision to the point that he had stopped checking to see if anything was really there. A few times he caught a smell that nearly made him vomit but it vanished as quickly as it had come.

Beside him, Hobbes coughed several times and tightened the one-armed grip he had around his midriff. Another cough resulted in a pain-induced gasp. Pinocchio did not say a word; he had seen enough of his partner's condition that was visible to know the kid's insides were probably bruised too—one eye just about swollen shut, a gash at the temple with a trail of dried blood. He guided the truck to an open patch under a large tree.

"We probably shouldn't—" Hobbes started, but Pinocchio cut him off.

"Shut it. We ain't gettin' anywhere in the dark on this crappy road. We might as well sleep and hit it come dawn." He rapped on the glass separating the truck cab from the bed but Florence was way ahead of him. In the blue light from the moon he could see her holding aloft some bedrolls while pointing to an open cardboard box and nudging it with her foot. "Sweet. Looks like we got some parting gifts."

From the passenger's side, Circe helped Hobbes from the truck while Dexter sniffed the immediate perimeter. Pinocchio got out and leaned on the edge of the truck bed to see what else Florence had discovered in the box. Besides the blankets, there were two working flashlights, several sealed bags of dried fruits and meats, an unopened bottle sealed with a cork and wax, a half-full gas can, and a small padded aluminum can with fifteen rounds of 9mm ammunition.

"Not enough for what they put us through, but it'll do," Pinocchio said, looking up at Florence who still stood in the back of the truck. "Hey." He nodded to where Hobbes sat with his back against the tree, knees folded to chest and arms wrapped around his ribs. Florence followed Pinocchio's gaze and then looked back at him and nodded. In one smooth motion, she unslung her MP5 and passed it to her friend before hopping effortlessly to the ground. Pinocchio reached for the box when Circe spoke.

"I'll look for some firewood."

He jerked and spun around, more startled than he should have been. The edginess clung to him now like tar.

"Too much coffee?" she asked. It seemed an attempt at alleviating the tension.

"Too much something," Pinocchio replied. Their eyes met and he thought she knew exactly what he meant.

"Yeah, there's a lot of that in these parts." The way she held herself made Pinocchio think of a rag doll that had been left in the rain, forgotten. "Bosko has the market cornered on it. He's a genius."

"He's a pig," Pinocchio corrected.

She let out a sad, soft laugh. "Maybe I should have tried turning him into a man. I like to think there are still good men out there."

In that moment, Pinocchio saw a woman that Hobbes would have fallen for, a woman worth Hobbes falling for. As if reading his thoughts, she looked to where Florence crouched beside her patient with two hands hovering over his midsection.

"I'll get that wood," she said, turning away from the truck and toward the darkness that surrounded them.

"That should be a good spot for a fire," Pinocchio said, nodding toward Hobbes. Her brow furrowed for just a second, as if waiting for the punch line, but when none came she just smiled a little and offered a nod. Pinocchio figured she had earned the right.

Something woke Florence but she didn't know what. The fire still burned, small and quiet, and from her bedroll she sat up to survey the surroundings. Across from her, Thomas and Circe slept head-to-head. Dexter was curled tightly to Thomas's chest.

Michael had fallen asleep sitting up, leaning against the large tree in their circle. Ever since she had met back up with them after Bosko's, she had sensed something was not right with her friend. Nothing had been mentioned but it didn't need to be—the energy that radiated off Michael was nervous, anxious.

He gasped suddenly, his whole body jumped as if electrocuted and he jerked awake, clutching at the MP5 in his grip. His eyes were glassy and the firelight reflected the sweat on his face. He scanned his surroundings and when he met Florence's eyes he dropped his gaze. She unfolded herself from the blankets and crossed to him to pull the automatic weapon from his grip. Gently, she placed it on the ground before sitting beside him. He still didn't look at her, just folded his legs toward his chest. The move seemed to be more for security than comfort.

"It doesn't stop," he said, his voice raspy from sleep. "I can't make them stop." He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "It's like flashes and scenes…but it's real. They're in there now with my own memories. I can feel them on my brain. Fucking Bosko!" He ran his hands through his short hair and dug his nails into his scalp. "I just wanna reach in there and rip them out."

Florence gently placed her hands over Pinocchio's and guided them away from his head. He tugged from her hold and interlaced his fingers like a man in fierce prayer, leaning his forearms on his bent knees. She could see his chest rise and fall with each shallow breath.

"I did multiple tours in the Real World; I saw shit. I mean, serious shit. And I did things here, for Santiago…. And if I could take that back I would, a thousand times over I would. But, I didn't do things like…" He swallowed hard and shook his head violently. "I could never…No one who's human could do that stuff. I can smell it, Florence. I can hear it and taste it. It's in my mouth, it's on my skin and I just want to take a knife and scrape it off. Like if I just scrape deep enough it will be gone."

Finally, he met her gaze and his eyes shined with moisture. His voice was still rough but now it was from emotion. "I thought, maybe I deserve this, ya know? Penance. But..." He shook his head again. "I gotta make it stop." He pleaded through a whisper, "How do I make it stop?"

She honestly didn't know. To see her friend like this ripped into her soul. A lump of emotion bore down on her throat. She had traveled with Michael long enough to know the self-sacrificing individual that lay within. It took a strong character with a conscience to walk away from Santiago's right side. If she could have taken on Michael's pain, she would have. But she only knew how to follow the instincts that came with her healing gift. She did not know if it would work, but she would try.

With great tenderness she rested her hands at Michael's temples and left them there until she felt the familiar tingle build in her fingertips. Like usual, a sensation she thought of as warm stars spread to her fingers. This time however, it did not stay at that level. The pricking sensation grew, becoming sharp pulses. Needles seeped into her bones. Something flooded through her body and now tried to claw its way out and burst through her skin. A scream echoed in her head—not her voice but her pain—as if something controlled her emotions, something furious and, at the same time, terrified.

Tremors rattled through Michael. A sickening arc of electricity passed through Florence but she kept contact with her patient. A vicious, painful shudder shook her and she heard Michael gasp. The whole of Florence's chest filled with the deepest despair she had ever experienced. It was panic and rage, evil for the sake of an adrenaline rush. It was acid poured down her throat and the salty, metallic taste of her own blood and melting flesh on her tongue.

Never in her time as a Healer had she endured anything like this. She worried about somehow damaging Michael further. He shivered violently and, fearful, she was about to severe the connection when a cool wave rippled through her. Her senses cleared—she smelled only smoky wood, heard Thomas's heavy sleeping breath, felt the chill night air on her bare arms. Neither of them moved for several seconds. She stared at Michael but his eyes were closed, his face slack.

His head, still in her grip, dropped forward and she felt him tremble. Worry grabbed at her. It was still in him? How could there be more? So much had passed through her. Then she heard the release of a sob, the release of exhaustion and tension. She shifted to sit beside him and draped her left arm over his shoulders to pull him tight to her side. She wrapped her other arm forward to cradle his head.

He broke down. His body shook as he cried and he let himself melt into Florence's protective hold. A hoarse whisper cut through uneven breaths. "Thank you."

Florence felt her spirit balance. The same maternal energy that comforted and healed would defy and destroy anything that threatened those she protected. Heat radiated off Michael and she gently pressed her lips to the top of his head before laying her cheek there. She sniffed back her own tears and again heard his low voice. "Thank you."

Wrapped around her friend, Florence held her shield-like position even after Michael fell asleep. She too, was exhausted from the healing—she had never experienced anything so dark—but she refused to close her eyes. Only when Michael's rest remained simple and solemn did Florence slide away and cover him with a real blanket. She knew his emotional guard would be back up come morning, so she would spare him the awkwardness of waking in a vulnerable position. The Samurai might protect the Simple Man, but the Healer protected the Samurai.

The outskirts of Independence, Ohio came into view and Hobbes unconsciously braced himself for Pinocchio's usual increase of speed. A moment passed before he realized the Chevelle kept a smooth, steady pace. That morning, after they had retrieved Pinocchio's car from the alley near Dreamland, Circe had guided them toward the town about ten miles outside of Cleveland.

Except for Circe's occasional directions, the ride had been silent; not in an uncomfortable way, simply contemplative. Hobbes had caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror of the Chevelle and noticed he still carried a decent bruise around his temple and cheekbone. Considering how he had felt last night before Florence worked her magic, he was more than happy to let his body take care of the remaining discoloration.

Hobbes suspected he wasn't the only one who had received relief from the Healer during the night. Pinocchio seemed more at ease than he had since before their detour into Dreamland; the agitated energy was gone. What happened at Bosko's would mostly likely never be brought up, but he didn't need to know details. He remembered Pinocchio's words about Dreaming: "Once you go there you never come back. Not all the way."

But something told Hobbes that, thanks to Florence, they had gotten their friend back, all the way. He made a note to thank her when they were out of earshot of Pinocchio. Heaven forbid the man ever be faced with the fact that he had people who cared about him. Even Dexter had seemed to offer support—that morning he had been curled behind Pinocchio's knees with his head on the man's thigh. Not until Pinocchio awoke and told the dog, in an uncharacteristically affable morning voice, to go fetch some coffee did Dexter move.

"Just here is fine," Circe said from her spot in the backseat with Florence and Dexter.

Pinocchio slowed the Chevelle to a stop along the side of the road and Hobbes got out, helping Circe from the back. Though she was still dressed in the dirty clothes from the camp and her black, unwashed hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, Hobbes appreciated the raw beauty he saw in the late morning sunlight.

Circe stood close and looked up at him. "It meant a lot to me—it meant everything—that you believed me."

Hobbes showed a little smile. "You're a persuasive girl."

"I have a feeling," she said, "this time really is goodbye."

"You never know."

"I love you."

Circe said the words so quickly, Hobbes wondered if she had meant to say them aloud. With her dark brown eyes and olive skin she was like the antithesis of his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair skinned Sophie. But she was still beautiful and possessed the sort of strength that attracted him to his fiancée. He touched her cheek but at the same time shook his head.

"I know a different love," he said, "from another world."

Her brow furrowed. "Another world?"

"It exists. I can't prove it but I know it does. And that's why we can't be together."

Circe studied him for a few seconds, as if determining the truth of his explanation. "I see that now."

"We were pulled together. But we weren't meant to be together." He wished he could have given her a different answer, one that would have made her happy, and she seemed to understand that.

"I believe you. I know you have your own path to walk. And it's not an easy one, Tom."

He shook his head, wanting so much for her to understand the Real World, for her to know that somewhere on the other side of Harsh Realm there was probably a version of her living the beautiful, happy life she deserved.

"But you'll walk it. I know you will." This time, she touched his cheek and he knew it was a gesture signaling goodbye.

The driver's door of the Chevelle creaked open and Pinocchio crossed back to the trunk. He appeared beside them a few seconds later and handed Circe a burlap sack. Hobbes knew it contained the dress she had worn at Bosko's, and a bedroll, a flashlight and some dried food from the box in the pickup. He also knew that, thanks to Pinocchio, Circe now possessed six rounds of the 9mm ammunition from that box. "Good for trading," Pinocchio had told her that morning when he pressed the bullets into the palm of her hand, obviously thinking no one else was near.

Circe nodded thanks to Pinocchio and offered a tiny wave to Florence before turning and walking away, head held high, without looking back.

Hobbes crossed his arms tight across his chest. "I don't love her."

"Of course not," Pinocchio said, standing by his friend as they watched Circe leave.

"Then why do I feel so bad?"

Pinocchio didn't answer, merely laid a hand on Hobbes's shoulder and squeezed it before nudging him toward the car.

fin

stitch the flesh torn by the night

staunch the blood with hand of right

push back the sand with sword of might

and break the dark with healer's light