And What They Found There

Look down the wondrous structure,
Where the chequer’d shadows play;
See the scattered groups increasing,
Wending up the dômed way. 
— E. Leathes, Fragments From the Crystal Palace

It’s like one of Mr. Dodgson’s stories, but so much worse.

Ida Codswell continues running, hiding behind a corner with her lamp. How her light has lasted this long is beyond her understanding. The fuel should have run out a long time ago. Even the Elekiter … even the light device that Edison and other men stole from her work and designs wouldn’t have lasted this long, or in these conditions.

Everything is grey and cold in this place of winding stairs. Nothing is smooth, but scratched and faded like the old daguerreotypes left in a drawer after a child’s funeral. Staircases wind up, and down, and lead to nowhere. Ida knows this. Sometimes, it feels like she has walked on all of those steps.

She had ripped away her small, grey petticoats a while ago while fleeing the shadows, and trying to keep up with the mirror people. Dr. Pocket’s rambling about them remains in her head sometimes. There are even times she thinks she can almost see him, drawn and pale and tired … and scared. Just like her.

She has seen a lot of them. Many of them stick to her, following her down the jagged paths, and sharp edges leading nowhere and to all the different levels of this place that decidedly hasn’t been the British Museum for quite sometime. It’s like becoming lost in some mad landscaper’s dream, or eternally navigating through a non-Euclidean nightmare.

Ida feels the exhaustion in her very being, but she realizes that she hasn’t been hungry or thirsty in quite some time. In fact, come to think of it, when she remembers she hasn’t had any bodily functions here, not even the need for sleep. This is not the case for the shadows, whose backwards faces she sometimes sees in the light of her lamp. It drives them away, shrieking back into the dark corners of this purgatory. She doesn’t know how long she will be able to hold them off.

The light in her hands that, by all rights, she shouldn’t have even had for this long before the shadows had taken her deep into this place, was a deterrent to them … consuming her, but just as it repelled them, it also let them know where she was. It is only a matter of time before they manage to surround her on all sides, and take her away from her lamp.

Even so, there are other people sometimes. Not just Dr. Pocket, if it is indeed him, but the Mr. Waylon the coat check gentleman. And others in different period clothing. Sometimes, she even thinks she sees animals like … Kevin, the rat with the cat ears at her side. Ida vaguely recalls the story of Diogenes shining a lamp in broad daylight, making a statement about attempting to find an honest man. Ida doesn’t know about that, but her light keeps her safe.

It is fitting, she thinks to herself as she turns another corner with some other people of the mirror, she had spent so much of her life wanting to be noticed because of her work with electricity, having her ideas stolen from her, that when she is the only one she can see with true light in a place of darkness she wants to do nothing else but hide, or flee from the situation entire.

Nevertheless, Ida clenches her jaw. She doesn’t know where she is, or what she is now, but whatever else she has become, she is the light-bringer here. If she can provide a temporary shield for her and fellows against the shadows, she would gladly do it: to embrace this cross to bear that was never sought nor earned. And this place, even with its crawling darkness, will have to do a lot more to her if it planned to extinguish her hard held radiance.

For however long it lasts.

*

Dr. Mason Pocket wanders the labyrinth.

He recalls the etymology of the word, in his drifting mind.  The labrys: the double-bitted ax found on the island where the city-state of Crete resided. According to various studies, the Minoan civilization performed many sacrifices there to their gods. And, of course, there is the monster of myth, the Minotaur, that roamed a maze of that named created by the greatest of ancient Achaean inventors Daedalus.

But Daedalus did not avail Mason’s assorted group, nor his sense of reason and order in this situation. Invention only staved off the occultic tide for so long before human folly fell to its primordial weight of inevitability. In retrospect, he should have listened to Ms. O’Neil on that account. If anything, he can relate to the labrys most of all now: given that he had shattered the mirror that contained one of his companions.

He had been so sure it would free Ms. Codswell, as she had been pointing at him, trying to speak mutely from the dark surface.

Sometimes, he thinks he sees her here in the winding corridors.

Mason still knows there is a difference between the shadow people, and the mirror people. The shadow people are turned around wrong. Their faces are warped and twisted. If they were human, they stopped being so long ago.

The mirror people had definitely been human. But they drift around, out of colour, out of space, lost … Just like him.

Neither shadows nor reflections trouble Mason anymore. He has come to, essentially, accept them all. There is a balance in this. There are no shades of red, green, or black to trouble the former archivist anymore. He feels like a shade in some ancient Sumerian afterlife, his breathing a rustling of leaves, his respite cold muck, his essence empty, his sense of purpose drifting away …

It should frighten him, but he wonders if this is what it is like to be one of his beloved antiquities, his relics, sitting on their shelves all catalogued and organized. He helped destroy a precious black mirror, an ancient artifact after all, wrapped in symbols of … Aklo? Perhaps, in retrospect again, the American Enoch Bowen might have had a better notion from his own Egyptian archaeological find over five decades before, a thing left in darkness rather being contained in radiance. In the end, perhaps this place is the dream of a museum within an undying mind, where the struggles between good and evil, day and night, and light and dark do no matter anymore in these shades of grey.

For all he had given out his pamphlets to reveal the knowledge of the ancients to the world at large, like the tomb of the dread Nephren-Ka perhaps in the end it should have all belonged to a museum — as did he — all of them consigned into boxes, and mercifully forgotten.

*

There was a crooked man, he whispers to himself, and he went a crooked mile.

Archie staggers down the stairs, his arms outstretched in front of him, searching, reaching, trying to keep the balance. Trying to keep going.

He found a crooked sixpence, he croaks in an Irish brogue, against a crooked stile.

Archie had lived most of his life, looking over his own shoulder. As Septimus Goodfellow, the celebrity spiritualist whose finery he wears even now with his cloak and clasp and chain around a neck that by all rights and purposes should have been severed cleanly on a museum floor, he owed the Order of the Golden Dawn a lot of money.

The blighter Merriweather had what he wanted. He has even more of what he wants now.

He bought a crooked cat, he sings, softly, which caught a crooked mouse.

Bathsheba. He doesn’t think about her much. David’s wife. The woman a king killed a man for with dishonesty. A cat entered for similar reasons. It wouldn’t be the first time Archie got into trouble over pussy. Over dishonesty.

An actor’s bread. Mathers. Machen. His countryman Yeats. Crowley. Fakes and actors — pretentious wankers — the lot of them. As if they were any different than he. When Archie set out on his path through spiritualist circles, taking on the fop mask of Goodfellow, he claimed to channel the spirits of the dead and see their secrets for what they are. A channeler. A goddamned medium. It seems so far away now. So much clearer.

Blatavsky, another fraud. She talked about people who remembered the future, and walked towards the past. Like he is walking now. Just like now. How dare they judge him? These fucks. They don’t know. They know what it’s like living from one coin to another and not know if they were going to get their bread that day, and there are so many ignorant suckers, so many around him …

And … Archie murmurs, sing-sing, they all liv’d together in a little crooked house. 

Nah. Archie lived his whole life looking over his shoulder. Now, all he can do is look back.

Lemurians. That’s what Blatavsky called them. People with one eye at the back of their heads.

And now, all Archie can do is keep walking forward, his hands reaching, traveling down towards the different planes of this world, through its corners, and its facets, not knowing when his next opportunity, his next fellow traveler, his next mark, his next meal-ticket will come.

And Archie, who once called himself Septimus Goodfellow, his pale twisted mouth opening wide is very, very hungry.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dance

They sit in the white room together.

He looks around at the walls. He’s a bit awestruck. Dark runes and symbols seem both fixed, and moving on the ivory plaster. Sometimes they are Nordic sigils, or astrological signs. Other times they are words in Aramaic, Latin, or Enochian. But the details of these pictures and phrases don’t particularly concern the two people in the room. They are just background noise, shadows, an architecture of everything leading up to this point in their conversation.

The two of them are sitting in chairs across from each other. She is dressed all in white, her shoulders leaning forward as though to listen to him more intently, her face open and receptive. He fidgets as he sits, looking back and forth at everything else in the chamber: in this place that is a lodge, or a temple, or an office. They are as different as night and day: he is dark-haired and his skin is sallow, his eyes brown, while she is smaller, her hair a pale blonde, her skin extremely fair, and her eyes are a bright green.

He smiles, tentatively. “Damn.” He says. “If only my Mom could see this place. No, wait …” He shakes his head, his brow furrowing. “No. Charlie … she would love it. It reminds me of something she would draw.”

“I know. The first time I saw this place, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t conceive of anything like it ever existing.” She crosses one leg over the other. “Charlie … she is an artist?”

“Yeah.” He looks down for a few moments. “She was my sister.”

“I see.” She says. “And you are?”

“Oh.” He looks at at her. “I’m Peter. Peter Graham.”

“Hello Peter.” Her smile is gentle. “I’m Dani Ardor. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Yeah. Likewise.” He continues to look around the room, still alert, as though hoping to avoid talking about a specific subject.

“Was she your younger sister? Older?”

“Younger.” Peter keeps examining the room, his eyes squinting.

“I had a young sister too.” Dani replies. “Her name was Terri.”

Peter’s attention comes back to Dani. His face changes, as though really seeing her for the first time. “What happened to her?”

“She died.” Dani says, her green eyes sad, faraway.

“Yeah.” Peter murmurs. “Mine too.”

Dani looks at him, her eyes intent. “I lost my entire family.”

Peter closes his eyes for a few moments. He takes his thumb and forefinger and rubs the crooked bridge of his nose. It had been broken at some point in time. “Me too.”

They sit there like that, for minutes, hours, centuries, aeons … “It was a peanut allergy.” Peter begins. “Charlie had … other issues. She went to her own classes. You know, SpEd.”

“Special Education.” Dani nods.

For a few moments, the visage of a small girl appears in place of Peter’s face: a crooked nose, small drooping lips, eyes off on an angle, hair brown with the consistency of straw. There is a hesitancy in those eyes, an awkwardness. And just as quickly, the image is gone and Peter is looking down at his hands again.

“Yeah.” He says. “Like I said, she had a peanut allergy. My mom made me take her to a party. For school. She ate something she shouldn’t have. In the chocolate there. I wasn’t thinking. I drove her back … to the hospital, or home, or …” He shakes his head. “She didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Peter.” Dani says, and her tone is sincere, and warm. “Terri had bipolar disorder. A severe case. I was always worried about her. She’d had a few episodes, but I always tried to remain in contact with her. I even studied at college to help her.”

“My dad.” Peter says, meeting her eyes again. “My dad was a psychiatrist. He must have helped people like your sister all the time.”

“Well, I wasn’t enrolling for psychiatry, Peter.” Dani corrects him, gently. “I was studying clinical psychology. But your dad, he sounds like he was a good man.”

“He tried.” Peter’s left hand clacks against the armrest of his chair.

“So did my parents.” Dani admits. “It was winter. Terri took some exhaust pipes. She breathed in carbon monoxide, and took her own life.”

Peter’s eyes widen. “Well.” He says. “That’s … that’s fucked.”

“Yeah.” Dani chuckles, mirthlessly. “It was.”

“I’m sorry for your loss …” Peter sighs. “That’s what they kept saying at my Grandma’s funeral. And then Charlie’s … It really doesn’t do much, does it? There’s not really much to say.”

“There really wasn’t anything to say, then.” Dani replies. “Mostly, I just cried.”

“So did my Mom.”

“I cried a lot. In my bed. In bathrooms.” Dani says. “I cried wherever no one could see me.”

“My Mom cried at the funeral. And my Dad … if he did, he did it in private. Me …” Peter gestures down at himself. “I just hid. I hid … until I couldn’t anymore.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it? Everyone processes grief differently. At first, I tried to be honest about it. My therapist told me to open up, to express how I felt to my loved ones. To my friends. But they already thought I was crazy. Even my boyfriend at the time. So I choked it down. I made myself numb. I tried not to feel it anymore. And, well.” She shrugs. “I just cried privately instead. No one to comfort me. No one to emphasize. No one to hold me.”

Peter nods. “We never were the huggy sort of family. It was all on and off. My Dad, like I said, he tried. He really did. As for my Mom …” He sits up straighter. “When did it happen?”

“I was twenty-three.”

“I was sixteen.” Peter says. “Still in high school. There was this girl I liked. That’s all I really thought about, back then. Girls and cars. And pot.” Suddenly, he looks away from Dani again, as though self-conscious, and remembering who he was talking to.

“Just like any normal sixteen year old boy.” Dani offers, a small smile quirking at her lips. It isn’t a mocking one, but knowing and full of understanding.

“That’s it. I wanted to be normal. You know?” Peter’s left hand twitches again. “Dad was a psychiatrist. My sister was Special Olympics. Even Grandma had issues. And Mom …” He shakes his head. “My Grandpa had psychotic depression. My uncle was a schizo. They both offed themselves before I was born. I was the only normal one. That’s what I kept telling myself. I just wanted to be out of there. Out of that house …” His dark eyes glance around again, left and right. “But we’re in a house right now.”

“We all are.” Dani says, her eyes also looking around the chamber. “We are all a house. And walls. And floors. And a basement.”

“And an attic?” Peter smirks, then shakes his head, as though trying to reorient himself.

Dani laughs. “Well, I’m not sure Jung thought about attics in dream houses.”

“If a house’s a person, and if they don’t have an attic, wouldn’t they be headless?”

There is a lull in their conversation, as both seem lost in their own thoughts.

Peter runs his left hand through his hair. “I feel like I’m high or something …”

“I told you,” Dani says, “I was a psychology student, not a psychiatrist.”

It takes a moment, before the smirk forms on her lips. Peter blinks, and then laughs. He laughs hard. He stretches out his left hand, turning it on an angle for a few moments, before returning it back to his side on the armrest. “Fair enough. My friends and me used to self-medicate with pot.”

“My ex and his friends took me to this commune,” Dani says, “got me on these pills, and later drinks. It turns out it was psilocybin.”

“Shrooms.” Peter grins, and nods. “Nice.”

“I … well.” Dani shakes her head, and for a few moments a garland of leaves and flowers seems to appear there before they are gone. “After what happened to me, and what was happening to me with my relationship, my … trips weren’t the best.”

“Damn. I can only imagine.” Peter replies. “We used to smoke up. It eased up all the tension. My parents always wanted me to excel, you know? Especially my Dad. He wanted me to make something of myself. I guess … he just didn’t want me to be crazy like the rest of the family. But I just wanted to be normal, you know. I wanted to show everyone I was normal.”

“Just because you come from a family with mental illness and non-neurotypical behaviour doesn’t mean you have either.” Dani says, not unkindly. “And even if you do, there is nothing wrong with you. That is all social stigma, Peter. It is all right to be different.”

“It was weird.” Peter leans back in his shoulder, less in relaxation and more to almost brace himself. “I think that’s also what Dad wanted. I mean, he was a doctor. Grandma wove things. Mom made dioramas for a living. And Charlie. Charlie sometimes made stuff like that, but she drew. She drew all the time. Even at Grandma’s funeral. I just … didn’t do any of that. I didn’t want to. I was just … normal. I wasn’t anything special.”

“That isn’t true, Peter.” Dani says, reaching over to squeeze his knee. Then, she removes her hand, but still leans forward to focus on him. “Really, I think you just needed a place to express your feelings, to be yourself, to talk about all that pain, and find others to understand you. To be with your own kind of people.”

“Now you sound like my Dad, no offense.” Peter moves his hand, as though waving her off.

“I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you, Peter.” Dani says. “I’m just saying that I can relate.”

“I really … I wanted to find friends.” He reaches into his front shirt pocket, but pauses, realizing that whatever he’s looking for isn’t there anymore. “I smoked up, and that usually took the edge off. But then I had a bad trip, too. I was … choking. I was choking just like …”

“The grief feels heavy.” Dani says after Peter trails off. “Like a stone on your chest that you can never throw off of yourself on your own.”

Peter sighs, rubbing his face. “Were they there for you? Your parents? When your sister …”

This time, it’s Dani who looks down as Peter’s dark eyes seem to pierce into her. “Terri, she took the exhaust pipes of my parents’ cars. She ran them into her bedroom, and my parents’ room.” She closes her eyes, and breathes in and out, before continuing. “She killed herself, and my entire family.”

“I’m …” Peter looks like he is trying to find the words. “I’m so sorry …”

Dani shakes her head. “I was devastated. My ex, for all his flaws, he tried his best to be there for me. I see that now. But I worked through it. And the reason I was able to get through that was because of the commune we visited. They … they took me in. They made me realize I didn’t have to hide my grief, or pain. That they weren’t shameful things. They were there for me. They even celebrated my birthday. I mean, it wasn’t exactly my birthday but they had a celebration around the same time. It took a long time, and a lot of work. But I felt … one day I just felt this release when all that pressure was finally gone, and out of me. I felt so unburdened, you know? I felt free.”

“I killed my sister.”

Peter is staring at Dani. There are circles under his eyes. But he isn’t so much looking into Dani’s eyes so much as looking past her. Looking through her.

“We weren’t supposed to be at that party.” He says. “My Mom knew. I know she knew. She deliberately had me take her. It wasn’t a school party. I really wanted to look cool for that girl. But Charlie, she got something to eat, and it had peanuts. Like I said, I panicked. And then … I … she …” He shakes his head. “She opened the window. She couldn’t breathe. Charlie was hanging her head out. I was driving fast. There was a post and …”

His teeth clench. Dani doesn’t say anything. She sits and waits for him to continue. Listening.

“I felt almost like it happened to someone else, you know? I didn’t feel anything. Not really. I was the screw-up again, you know? I just didn’t know what I was doing. My Mom, she … broke. We tried to go back to normal. At least, Dad and I did. Mom and Dad weren’t sleeping in the same bed after a while. I could tell. You know, my Dad didn’t get it. He really didn’t. He … he tried.” Peter repeats. “I know he tried with Mom too. She really loved him, you know? I know he sure as hell loved her. She … went crazy.”

A tear flows down one of Peter’s eyes, but he doesn’t wipe it away. “Dad tried to hold everything together, but he had no chance. He had no idea what was going on. You know, it’s funny, Dani.” He says, a wry, bitter smile coming on his face. “People keep saying he wasn’t that important, aside from everything he sacrificed for me to live. But I miss him. Even now, a part of me still misses him.” He shakes his head. “But he had to die. And so did my Mom. She loved me too. She tried to kill me when I was with Charlie … when we were in the same nursery. Doused with kerosene. She was going to light that match. My Mom sleepwalked. But you know the most fucked up thing, Dani?”

“What is it Peter?” There is no judgment in her tone, or any expression. Just the question.

Peter laughs, a bitter, tear-strangled chortle. “There is still a part of me now, even after all this time, after everything I’ve found and regained, that wishes she actually went through with it.” His eyes are dark, large, and haunted. “Isn’t that just fucked?”

“For the longest time, even in the commune,” Dani says, “I kept seeing my parents’ bodies. My sister’s face. I saw the exhaust pipes. I saw them on my couch at my old apartment. I wanted to be with them too, Peter. Ideation is not an unnatural part of loss, but it’s something that you need help for, and it is not a bad or shameful thing to ask for help.”

“I …” Peter starts, his shoulders shaking, as he looks away from her. “I’m so tired, Dani. I just want this to be over. I just want it to finally be over.”

Dani stands up as Peter hunches over, crying quietly. The air ripples around them. There is grass, growing from the floor, through their feet, and their hands. “Peter.” She says, finally. “Peter. I want to tell you something. It’s something that my husband told me the first time I came to his family commune. May I come over?”

Peter nods, shadows overtaking his face. Dani walks over and kneels in front of him. “Can I take your hands?”

“I … I’m scared.” Peter says. “I’m scared and I’m tired.”

“I know.” Dani says. “I am sorry I didn’t ask earlier, when I touched your knee. But I’m asking now.”

There is a pause, but Peter nods. Dani takes her hands and places them over his. His turn, and actually hold hers tightly. The room is rippling now. It is becoming darker. There are other decorations. Windows. It is night time, but trees can be seen. And candles light the room with a gentle radiance.

Dani looks up into Peter’s face. “A long time ago now,” she says, “my husband asked me if I felt, or remembered what it was like to feel at home. To safe. To feel held. He was one of my ex’s friends, and he was the one that got me here. To the commune. He asked me if I felt held by my ex.” She smiles faintly, with old self-derision. “I didn’t. But when I met my husband’s family, I saw my missing pieces. I saw my actions were not part of where I came from. They weren’t something that happened, or accepted in America, but they were natural here. They were right. And after a while, after cooking with my new sisters, after dancing with them, and eating dinner, and having them comfort me in my grief — seeing me — feeling me, I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was held.”

She takes one hand, and places it under Peter’s chin. “Do you want to be held, Peter?”

Peter nods silently as he holds his arms around her waist. He buries his face in her chest, sobbing quietly. Dani folds her arms around him. She rubs long, concentric circles over his hunched back. For a few moments, there is daylight through the new windows of the room, and its timber walls.

“Thank you, Dani.” Peter says, after a time. This … this feels so nice.”

Dani smiles. “In time, it will get better. You will never forget where you are, or what you did. But eventually, you will accept it.”

“Charlie …” Peter repeats “… Charlie would have loved this place.”

“I can imagine.” Dani murmurs, stroking his hair. “Our oracle, Ruben, he has many challenges as well. We don’t know how long he will be with us, but every moment we have with him is special. And he loves to draw. I think he and Charlie would have gotten along well if they met.”

“Well, I can’t wait to meet him.” Peter says, raising his face from Dani’s arms. “Or the rest of your family, Dani Ardor.”

Then, the sunlight is gone. The stars have returned through the windows. The candles are prevalent again, shining, piercing, orange and red through the darkness. He looks up at her again. There is a crown, a silver paper crown on his head. Above him, among a few words of Latin and Aramaic is a symbol of three figures sealed in a circle and a semi-circle around them with three tiny shapes that look like heads. The grass around them, and inside their hands and feet become swarms of black-bodied insects.

Peter’s eyes are dark, deeper than the abyss, as they look right into Dani. “I win this dance, May Queen.” The voice rumbles, his lips splitting into a twisted rictus of a grin. “Now, give us a kiss.” 

Dani, transfixed by the transformation leans down. Two headless bodies, one blackened and one stained in red, form beside him. For a few moments, the black, empty eyes and grey face of Terri Ardor consumes her own. As her ashen lips lower to his face, she whispers. “You only had to ask, King Paimon.”

Then, Dani breathes in and out and releases a mist into his face. The room around them ripples. The tree house grows moss, and leaves, and branches. The roof crumbles, revealing the summer sky and the rising dawn. Dani isn’t wearing white anymore as the flowers and leaves cover her body, forming into a garland, into a hood of greenery and viridian. The insects are consumed by the grass, by the hum of a multitude of voices around them, by the sun, and clouds, and many shapes surrounding them, holding this place, being held.

The being wearing Peter’s face clucks his tongue. He clacks it again. He raises his left arm into the air, twisting his wrist as though to summon something. He looks around, as the space begins to folds into itself again, losing their windows. The timber isn’t white or brown anymore. It’s a deep, darker yellow. The angles in the room are more narrow, and sharper. Where there were candles, there are now torches. There is straw on the ground. Dark eyes glow, but Dani continues to hold him in place.

And then, he doesn’t blink anymore. He isn’t moving. His arm wavers as Dani takes one hand, taking his hand, and lowering it gently back to his side. Then, she takes hold of him, everyone takes hold of him, and places him back in the chair.

The conversation is over.

*

The May Queen gazes upon King Paimon’s vessel with pity.

It had been a close thing. The white-clad bodies of Hårga and Häxan alike surround the body, placed within the innards of the bear. The powers the coven brought to bear on the community were horrific, but they had prevailed. It is no Midsommar ritual. Paimon sought to break the balance, attacking in the night, from the shadows, from the corners of the dark. But they found no willing vessels here, no other dancers.

Only the commune. Only the May Queen.

The paralytic, the same that had taken Christian Hughes, the last true rotting connection she had to the outside world and made him a tribute, took affect on the Dark One through his vessel. He either hadn’t gathered enough power in this world, or land to resist it, or he had become too overconfident as they danced with each other, in the night, around the bonfire and the maypole, and failed to make her soul his own, her body and mind his puppet.

Paimon’s dark eyes glare at her out of his new bear costume of fur and gristle, his stolen face filled with hatred and malice. And fear.

The elders and the other Hårga leave the temple, with torches in hand. It isn’t the Midsommar rite, but it is time for another holiday, another celebration over imbalance, over the unnatural, and the joy and revelry of birth, and life, and pain, and death and the entirety of the cycle.

Slowly, the May Queen is put aside for the moment as Dani Ardor looks down at Peter Graham’s body. For a few moments, he reminds her of Christian. But his hair is dark where Christian’s was red. His face is still unshaven, a boy’s face, where Christian had a beard. And Christian been a man, making his own choices, where Peter had just been a boy, still immature, so afraid, so lonely, with no choice at all. Dani kneels down, next to him, and speaks, whispering softly in his ear.

“I’m sorry, Peter.” She murmurs. “I know you aren’t there anymore. That you’ve been gone for a long time. I couldn’t avenge my family against the demons that took them. The least I can do is bring justice to the demon that took yours.”

Dani — the May Queen of the Hårga — brushes her lips against Peter’s forehead, leaving her kiss there, her blessing. Then, she turns, walking out of the temple, but not before taking a torch and lowering it into the straw, leaving it — and Paimon — to blaze behind her.

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Rite of Spring

It had been centuries since Charlie had come to this land.

No. That isn’t entirely accurate. Charlie himself had actually never been to this mountaintop before. Not tonight, not hundreds of years ago.

He hadn’t even been born yet: not for a while. Charlie hangs there, suspended in the cold Northern air, above the mountain peaks and the clearing below with its quaint little cottages: all of them bright, and decorated, and beautiful. They resembled nothing more, and nothing less, than the dioramas, than a miniature village that his mother in this lifetime — his poor, beloved Annie — would have created. Yet even that isn’t quite right. He turns away from the floating form of his mother at his side, floating with him, appreciating her quaint sentiment far more than he ever did as either child — still a beautiful ivory sculpture stained with crimson, Apollonian and Dionysian both as the ancients in another place and time would have appreciated — and turned to his grandmother, his summoner, his greatest servant in this age.

Ellen’s skin has long since turned black with time. Even still, she levitates at his other side brimming with the power she had earned. For ages, Charlie had laboured to return. He failed to come back many times. It cost Ellen her husband, and then her son. He knows what she gave up. He knows what she sacrificed for his sake. She failed to birth him into the world directly, but she had found a workaround. Ellen and her followers, and eventually his own mother created a perfect body, and a temporary vessel to hold him. It’d been more than anyone had done in the forever that existed before he was born, and in the brief times he had been here before. No, if anything, for all Ellen’s love of weaving she knew was she was, what the coven that she led ultimately is. No. Charlie is inclined to agree with her assessment.

The commune below them, around them, isn’t so much a witch’s house as it is a village of gingerbread.

The coven floats around him. Some are his former teachers. Others acquaintances at his grandmother’s funeral, whom when he fully awakened understands that he has known intimately. All of them had planned his return well. Some are in the air with him, filled with his strength that they’ve earned, such as his grandmother through skill and surrogacy, and his mother through virtue of being the vessel and gate of his rebirth. Others appear below in the corners of the clearing, near the trees, though not the trees deeper in the woods near the village. Most are naked, save a few like his mothers.

One of his greatest followers, after Ellen, Joan whispers in his ear: asking for guidance, requesting his commands. He nods towards Ellen. A dark, rotted hand points down at the village. Joan bows her head, plump and deferential, as she disappears to take her place again.

The coven member behind him takes up his banner, the girl’s face he wore before he realized himself. He honours it as much as he does his two mothers, having erased this body’s presence from the Book of Life, destroying that dead name, and replacing it with his own. It had been chosen by Ellen. But Charlie knows he has another name. He has always known.

Still, it doesn’t mean much. He has had many names through his existence: in this world and others. But all of them are sacred, and he will not let any of them be disrespected. Not like they were when he was here, centuries ago, passing through this land.

When he was last here, at the Hårga.

*

The bonfires are lit for the event that is about to take place.

Dani understands that it isn’t Midsommar, not the true celebration and ritual that happens every ninety years. They sit in the temple, looking over the tome that the oracle has finally finished painting. Stev, Odd, and Siv along with the other elders flip to an earlier page in the book first, letting Dani see pages of runes, and drawings.

Ruben watches from his cot in the corner, his blue eyes seemingly lost, but his purposeful fingers still stained with the paint of his exertions. Once, Dani would have pitied the boy, faraway eyes lost in a sagging face with bulging lips, mute since she had known him. But under the influence of the psilocybin she can see the air radiate around him.

Pelle puts a hand on her shoulder. His hair is wreathed with leaves and flowers, a smaller counterpart to the dress that she once wore at the beginning of her new life in the Hårga. She knows the people here now, knows that this is more than just a place or a people: that the latter have taken up the rhythms, and cycles of the former. She had just been the lodge this day, with its astrological symbols on ivory walls, talking to Siv: talking with her about Pelle and the future that they would have, before being awoken with Pelle tonight, to come to the temple.

To see the pictures.

Even Dani can see that they are different. They aren’t the neat vertical lines of runes from previous generations. They aren’t even the lush blurs and colours of Ruben’s usual drawings. They are black and white, rough sketching, and very specific.

There is a boy. Or at least it is the caricature of one. He seems to be standing in a cabin, or a tree house. Behind him, is a head on a stick with xs where its eyes should be. There is a crown on it. In front of him are two bowing figures: one black, and the other white. There are eight other figures, men and women, also on their knees in front of the boy. She squints at it again. Dani imagines, if the cycles hadn’t brought her here, if she hadn’t realized that the patterns of emptiness inside of her that existed even before she lost everything, she might have become a clinical psychologist and believed these to be the drawings of a disturbed. It was ironic, given what her sister had gone through, but perhaps in another life she could have helped such children before they hurt themselves, and others.

She knows better now. It is as though someone else drew this. Another child. Another being.

The elders point to the crown, and they murmur. The workers and the rest of the commune have already made preparations. This particular image had been made about a year ago, a prediction of some night darkness. Of something coming.

Pelle rubs soothing circles on the small of her back as the elders return to the recent image, flipping the pages back to Ruben’s last work. It is more akin to what he usually creates, but at the same time there is an amalgamation of different styles that are unmistakable. Two headless women, one black, and one red. There are seven others, in the smudged green that is grass, and in the blotted blue-purple of the air. Darkness comes briefly here, to the Hårga, but it is noticeable. But it is the central figure. The boy. He is among them, up front and center. His eyes are black. The crown doesn’t adorn the twisted face of the head borne on a pole behind him, but it is silver, and around his head.

The elders speak a few names. A few words. There is a rhythm to it. A practice. Everything is practice and ritual in the commune. This is no different. The figures in the drawing surround a village. Their community.

It almost seems that the flying figures, and the forms on the margins of their commune are moving. Almost … dancing

Dani hears one word in particular. Häxan. Witches.

The elders turn to her, almost as one. Hanna and Maja, and the other girls enter. She turns to regard Pelle, who smiles at her encouragingly, then he lets her go. Dani follows them outside. She looks up and sees the figures suspended in the air, the bonfires around the maypole outlining them in red and oranges.

And as the girls lead her to the maypole, that is when Dani begins to understand what they need from her.

*

Charlie watches the people assemble below, in their radiant white tunics and breeches, adjorned in blue and red patterns, like the figurines he used to see his mother create: that he himself used to take apart, and put together into new forms.

He sees them assemble like a colony of ants. They link arms together, facing him, confronting his followers, and the powerful familiars that he has given them. But they are not the true spirits he had promised them. No. His more powerful legions will require the purest hosts, the most open and receptive.

These people. These … insects.

Fair-haired, pallid men and women, elders and children, he remembers when he came down and made them dance. He made them all dance. There is power in ritual, and for a time when he was here last, he had them all. But then, one day …

She came.

He knows it isn’t her as the girls follow her. It isn’t possible. Even if they were able to live for centuries, they would never let themselves exist longer than seventy-two summers. That was part of the pact they made with the land, to make themselves strong and beautiful, and productive right towards the end. No matter what he offered them, they refused.

Her hair is pale-gold. Her skin is white. They strip her and he sees why they are in their power. They cover her with the fruits and growth of the earth. Pale green eyes hold his dark ones. There is no fear in them. No anxiety. There is just inevitability.

Her eyes. They are the gaze of someone who has lost everything, and gained the world. It is, in retrospect, a pity he’d not gotten to her first, that his song hadn’t been the one to fill the emptiness inside of her.

Some part of him, some human part of him, wants to draw this. He wants to make silly caricatures of these silly, ridiculous, infuriating creatures. Perhaps it is the human in him, from one host to another. Maybe it is nostalgia for the mortal childhood he had, such as it was. But another kind of past consumes him tonight.

They humiliated him here, once. But now it is different. He has brought his sigils of power. He has the symbols of three heads lost. Night is short here, on this mountain, but he has his followers. It is frustrating that he cannot call on his other strengths. They burn their dead, placing their ashes under the trees. The very land here has resonance with their ritualistic deaths. He will enjoy profaning them, soaking them with his piss when it is all over …

Once he was done playing with their lives all over again. Once he takes this land, this font, and their ritual, and dominates the seasons of the world, just as he intended so long ago.

They have been preparing for this moment, after his return, for a year and a day. Now, it is time. He raises one hand into the air, twisting his arm at an angle, making a gesture with an inverted wrist.

Hail Paimon! His followers chant, striking and proud, converging, glorious. Hail Paimon!

*

Dani lets her sisters place the garlands in her hair. They take the dress of flowers, and adorn her in it. It rustles around her as she moves. But this time, as she goes to take her place in front of the maypole, it isn’t drugs, or fear, or grief that bows her head down, that bends her spine, that makes her waddle.

Siv and the other mothers saw her in the lodge. They determined when it was going to happen in a manner similar yet different to Ruben’s prophecies and the elders that took the time to interpret them.

Her eyes never leave the young man in the air. He might have been handsome once, in an awkward way. His nose is crooked. It looks like, at one time, he broke it. The drone of his name echoes through the air, and around them. Dani thinks about the spot in the clearing where the yellow temple had burned with the nine sacrifices required to keep the cycles of life and death flowing naturally in the Hårga.

She remembers the stories, when the psilocybin finally allowed her to understand the girls that would become her new sisters, of the dark one — the beast — that made all the villagers dance until they died. Some said he was a demon. Or a monster. Or a god. And then, one day, a girl came to face him. She took the dance, she brought it into herself, she turned it against the dark one, and she tricked him: and with the sacrifice of nine of her folk, she seduced him into a suit of animal fur so that her people could trap him, and burn him away, destroying all the evil inside of them for almost a hundred years: keeping from this place, from this world, for longer.

That girl became the first May Queen. And this place became hallowed as the Hårga.

And so it remained. Until tonight.

The Hårga seems to spread out for her, giving her space, but surrounding her at the maypole. Dani realizes that they have fallen into line behind her, holding their hands, facing their ancient foe, looking up right after she has done so.

As the substances inside her accentuate their reality here, in this land, in this place of power, this font that is also the Hårga, she sees the monster more clearly. He is larger. His face is almost feminine now. For a few moments, she thinks she can see … hooves where his legs should be, and a bag at his side. But his crown, its spokes are elongated now. They threaten to pierce the heavens. For a few moments, they look like antlers, like something the Horned King from Celtic mythology would wear.

For a split second, as he looks at her she sees a brief, poignant life of rejection, and his sheer painfulness — a sense of inherent wrongness — in him interacting, or even being in this world without hurting it. Like he never fit in. Then he looks like a scared little boy. Just like Christian at the end.

That is when she realizes what this being wants to do. He wants to take this place for himself. To despoil it. To warp and twist the natural flow of the land to serve him, and his followers. Like a parody of the Horned God, he wants to take her for himself: to succeed where he failed centuries ago, and corrupt her and her people to his will.

But as Dani looks over, to see Pelle with his own flower crown, she knows that she will only ever have one Green Man.

His name is chanted, by beings that should have died a long time ago, wielding things that ripple strangely through the air, that are black where grass should be growing out of healthy skin and blood.

And Dani clucks her tongue.

Like a mother hen, like a disappointed parent, Dani’s tongue clicks against the roof of her mouth. And, behind her the clucking is mimicked by her brothers and sisters, by her mothers and fathers, by her grandfathers and grandmothers, by her family. For a few moments, she realizes that the witches surrounding the dark one have grown silent. They are no longer chanting his name. They have shrunken back, but remain in their positions. But something has changed here, now. Something fundamental that Dani cannot name.

Perhaps, with her hands around her swollen abdomen, it is similar to that of the unnamed child inside of her.

*

Charlie’s eyes narrow into fury, black slits.

These insects dare to mock him? Again? To mimic him? For a few moments, he sees his loyal followers look up at him. Not in confidence, or a lust for glory, or recognition, or power. But fear.

It is only a small passing of time as Charlie — as Paimon — knows that they aren’t afraid of the Hårga. They do not fear these elders and their children, or the dead ashes fertilizing the ground, but rather his own displeasure. His wrath.

And it is then that Paimon grins. He will make these people dance all right. He will make them dance the dance of St. John. Of St. Vitus. And they will dance it for him beyond death itself. That will be a small price to pay for sealing him in the guts of a bear, surrounded by corpses and fire, for setting him aflame, for burning him in effigy for centuries.

As though he were responsible for the evil inside of them. As if they didn’t want to make mischief. To dance.

Hypocrites.

Paimon clicks his own tongue. It sounds like the cracking of bone through the air. Beside him, his host’s grandmother rises dark and twisted and glorious, her white funeral dress flapping as she plunges down. Yes. Let the May Queen meet a true ruler: the great Queen Leigh herself.

And then, finally, Paimon will begin to make the diorama of the world that he has always wanted.

*

The witches converge on the ranks of the Hårga on all sides, even as the headless black body in its white robe flies towards Dani.

It is a horror. Once, this would have been beyond belief. She wouldn’t have thought it was real. She would’ve run. It might have even destroyed her mind. But Dani has already faced her own demons. And she isn’t alone anymore.

She thinks about the previous summer, about how far she has come, and what was lost. Ingemar and Ulf, Simon and Connie, the elder couple that died together, Josh … Even Mark. Even Christian.

She will not let their sacrifices have been in vain. She will not let the fruits and roots of Midsommar be tainted.

She is prepared. Her family are ready. They have all taken the mushroom, and eaten the paste made from the Yew tree. They do not fear pain or death. They will feel what the other feels, no matter what happens next. The land protects them. It honours their sacrifices. The grass grows through them all. Old life stirs under them, even as new life begins in herself.

As the followers of the unnatural, of things that will never be held, descend onto Dani and her family, she sees the rot for what it is, and with the communal power of her people seeks to gather it, to contain it, to excise it … to burn their foes to ash and mulch and let the pain of its destruction allow the space for something new, for the continuation of only good things.

And with that, at the heart of the Hårga, the May Queen remembers herself, and begins to dance.

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Ättestupa

Dedicated to Ari Aster’s Midsommar.

Dani stands at the top of the mountain.

She’s marked the rune stone with her passing, like so many others. Pelle, she knows, is behind her doing exactly the same thing. He has taken the blade across his palm, as she had done, as they had done together. After meeting their meal with the Hårga, they rose to their feet around the high table, pausing, breathing in … Dani still marvels at being able to actually breathe, even after all this time, no longer choking on grief, and pain, and suffering. No longer denying her needs, or embracing her isolation, or clinging to that old sense of incredible fear and self-loathing.

It is just her now. It is her, and Pelle, and the Hårga. Their family. Her family.

It was all a choreograph. Dani can appreciate that. And it had started long before she had ever been found by Pelle, before he befriended her and Christian, and his friends. It even transcended the festival: the ritual that brought them all together almost fifty years ago now. Even before her sister had killed herself, and their parents Dani felt different, felt separate from the daily routines of others, held aloof by fear and anxiety for her sister’s well-being, second-guessing her feelings with her friends, terrified that she was somehow spreading her own neuroses to her relationships — to Christian at the time — and telling herself to be grateful, merely grateful, of being tolerated by Christian’s friends, and an academic environment on a path going nowhere. She found her places in grief and despair. She found herself in the muted places after her family had died, placing her pain in bathrooms, quietly in her bed, away from all the people that simply couldn’t relate to it — or to her — and trying to pass, to always pass as normal and carry on the rote and rut of whatever passed as social existence in North America.

She had talked to Pelle all about it. She had opened up, like the flowers she wore as May Queen — the most beautiful and miraculous May Queen in the Hårga’s history according to the rather unbiased opinion of Pelle — and she realized that she had her own observations, her own legitimate concerns, and her opinions as well. It occurred to her now, standing on the mountaintop, just how much the place she came from didn’t understand grieving. Dani still recognizes that there is some merit to privately dealing with loss, to knowing it as part of the core of one’s identity as an individual. Recognizing one’s mortality, and limits, and the fact that all things are transitory is something that differentiates a human being from the animals. But human beings, Dani recognizes, are still social animals. They are still storytelling creatures. They look for meaning. They make their meaning. And, at their greatest, they made their meaning together.

Western society, Pelle told her once, had forgotten what is was like — as a majority — to have a place for publicly accepted grief. And she agrees. Even now, standing here, with the altitude of the air cooler than before Dani recalls her elective classes. While Christian had been the anthropology student, and poor Josh had been even more dedicated to the field — costing him everything for the sake of curiosity, consumed by personal greed — as Dani told Pelle once, she had been a psychology student. Psychology, she remembers with a faint smile on her face, not psychiatry, her introduction to mind-altering and receptive substances introduced to her by Pelle, and their family. Sigmund Freud had been terrified of “the occult,” some texts had attested, to the point of going into shock around his students, overwhelmed by the possibility of its tides “consuming Western civilization,” or some similar kind of sentiment. But Freud was the product of his time and place, a man scared of losing control and being taken over, being shamed.

There is a sweet spot, Dani knows, between psychology and literature, philosophy and myth, the curved bridge of her nose and her forehead according to Pelle’s lips, and spontaneity and the dance. One of Dani’s elective classes at college had been about World Literature. She recalls one work they had to read: a German novella called Tonio Kröger. It had been written by Thomas Mann, where his protagonist of the same name as the title attempts to understand the bourgeois society he was born into: understanding their workings, feeling superior to them, even pitying them, but ultimately being envious of their ignorance of what they were, and to what they participated themselves. But what Dani remembers the most isn’t Tonio, but the scene with the dance and the girl with the dark hair among many blonde girls and boys that tried to move like them, tried to express herself like them, tried to dance like them … and failed.

Despite her pale blonde hair and bright green eyes, Dani knew she had been that girl, deep down, and just didn’t understand that then. Not really. She just didn’t take it seriously. In a performative culture, of any kind, it was just another role, another persona. Carl Jung, Freud’s student, contemporary, and eventual rival had interlap with Thomas Mann in ideology if not personal acquaintance. Jung recognized the importance of culture and mythos as more than simply the supremacy of the phallic over the feminine, as more than just the mindless, black mud of the occult. He saw vitality in the old symbols and archetypes. He saw life.

Just a few minutes ago, Dani had looked in Pelle’s eyes down below around the table with their loved ones. She lifted her cup, as he did his own. The cup is a vessel of the feminine, containing mead and everlasting life. It had been some time since they had dressed in the white robes of summer, but now wore the sky blue tunics of the elders they had become. Pelle’s long hair had become grey, his moustache and beard growing out and marked with white. Dani herself knows her hair, that had been so pale before, had become white itself, the skin around her cheek bones more taut, crow’s feet around her eyes and accentuating the lines of her forehead. She’d hoped she would become as handsome as Siv, the matriarch before her, a fact of which Pelle never forgot to assure her. Her eyes are still green, as green as the day as she had become May Queen, in a summer that will last inside of her heart forever.

All because of the man in front of her, as they sang their last songs to each other. All because of the family that embraced her when she had lost her own.

She looks down at her family below. Their children and grandchildren stare up at her in silent adoration, in anticipation of the next moment, of one more breath. They are so beautiful. She never would have dreamed of their existence fifty years ago during more uncertain times. It makes her think about her sister, and pang of pity goes through her heart. Of course, with such destabilization, with not having that place to understand pain, she just didn’t want to be alone when the time came on her. But the cycles were off. Their parents had more time to go, a decade or two. Pelle’s own parents died, in a fire without ritual or meaning, far too young, leaving him and Ingemar before the latter was fortunate to join them latter in life by the blessing of the Hårga.

They had time with their children and grandchildren. They had time with their friends. She and Maja had also become close. She stands down there, below, smiling up at her, her own red-headed descendants in tow. Dani knows her child, now grown, is the child of Christian but she doesn’t hold it against them … or even Christian anymore. The truth of the matter is that, for it had ultimately been Pelle who had brought her here, if it hadn’t been for her relationship with Christian — if she hadn’t found the absolute rock-bottom, the spiritual nihilism, with him that she did — she would never have known Pelle, or the Hårga, and it didn’t bear thinking about where she would have been at this time in her life: if she would have even been alive … Or if she would have wanted to be.

Dani was never stupid. She knew what Christian was, deep down. She knew it would never have worked out between them in the grand scheme of things, that he held on to their tenuous, rotting, relationship out of a sense of obligation and pity … just as the Western world kept people alive long past the time they should have been gone. It was barbaric and cruel to keep someone in a withered body, their mind eroding, their desires choked in dying flesh and disintegrating faculties just for some misplaced ideal of a “sanctity for life.” Everything has its seasons, and its times, and its cycles.

Like that dance around the maypole so long ago. Dani feels the ghost of a smile on her lips, still tasting of the mead, of the kiss that Pelle gave her the night before as they made love for the last time before their supper, and song, and final farewell. The Hårga is a choreograph. A performance. A dance. They had slowly acclimated her to the rules and rites. They had shown her a place among the women as they baked and cooked and washed and oversaw the breeding of the next generation. She and Maja and all her other sisters danced together. And Pelle. Pelle saw something in her that she, at the time, did not. She had forgiven Christian long ago, the best of him living on in that child, instilled with the respect of the seasons.

Pelle had wanted her to win that dance so long ago, to become May Queen. She had already been part of the family at this point, though it definitely removed her from the lottery held at the end of the festival. He had been charged to bring others back to the commune. But nothing he did had been left to chance. He asked about her field of study when no one else had cared. He tried to talk to her about his grief when she was in pain, to relate to her. He showed her his drawings that he didn’t bother to show the others. Pelle even remembered her birthday. And when she became May Queen, whether she was meant to do so by the gods or mortals, it had been the greatest birthday of all. Dressed in flowery finery, practically waddling in it, surrounded by laughter, Dani felt her face open up. It didn’t close in sadness, but it unfolded in a smile. In joy. Pelle told her that, every day, of every moment they lived until they would leave this earth together, when he kissed the curving where her nose met her forehead that he wanted to see that smile in his mind’s eye forever: that she deserved someone and something that would make her want to smile like that. And by the gods, did she ever.

No, Dani thinks to herself, as she prepares to meet her family one last time, Freud didn’t understand this. Jung did. Jung would have known about the anima and the animus and the archetypes that make human meaning. He would have appreciated the mandala patterns of synchronous movement and placement in the ritual dinner, and daily life of the commune. He would have seen the commune embracing the anima, and the presence — the withholding — of Christian being diminished and sublimated into the procreative role they needed him to serve. Patriarchy had been consumed by occultism, but the Hårga understood too that the harmful elements of the world, such as the legendary “dark one” that made so many others dance to death, perhaps the St. Vitus Dance that once consumed Europe, was appropriated and re-appropriated by the village — by the commune — and even burned in effigy to reaffirm life itself.

A snowflake drifts down, slowly, and gracefully past Dani’s cheek on the mountain as she looks down below at those who love her. She recalls Josh laughing at them when they asked him what the Ättestupa was, only realizing later that it was a product of Nordic satire: a pale shadow of what this, right now, really is. But most of all, she thinks about when she embraced her grief on her own, alone, with no one around her, even when others were physically there, and recalling Pelle’s words about how everyone wants to held.

And the Hårga held her. They held her in pleasure and pain, in agony and in joy. And now, they will hold her one last time: with the man that she loves not far behind.

And as Dani hopes to fall as elegantly as the snowflake, without the pain of the memory of the winter where she lost everything, where she now returns to her other family, praying that neither she nor Pelle will require the mercy or the imperfection of the mallet, wishing she could see one more Midsommar but finding solace in the fact that her grandchildren will have that honour, that they will never feel awkward or out of place in the communal dance of the people they love, the wind sings around her as she leaps towards her fate.

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Status Imperfectus

Annabelle stands on the rooftop of Griffith College. She doesn’t mean to imitate the brooding nature of Batman, however cool it would be to be him, or Kate Kane. She knows that she should leave the brooding to Jasper, even if these nights he doesn’t have as much to brood about. Even now, after everything Nelli and Victor would find it absolutely hilarious that “Baby B” is being all angsty up here like some stereotypical vampire. Hell, even Ramona would heckle her if she were here with one of her Rat Pack.

She wishes Ramona were here, even with her duties to the Valkyries: one of the results of her own decisions as leader or the face of the Anarch Movement such as it is. Annabelle also wishes X were here too. And …

Annabelle replays the song on her phone. She knows she shouldn’t. She knew the risks. But she can’t let herself forget. The Brujah cannot ever let herself forget.

“I hurt myself to-day, to see if I still feel …” 

She laughs, wetly, through her blood tears. The song is both ridiculous, and it hurts. It hurts that this is the music on the Playlist tonight.

“Well, it’s no Linkin Park.” A gruff, almost gravelly voice says right beside her.

Despite all this time, and everything she’s learned, Annabelle feels the blood rise inside of her. Part of it is instinct. The predator, the Beast that is now her constant companion, snarls and wants to brace itself against a potential threat in her personal space. According to her own experiences, and talks with both Nines and Casey, their Clan are even more prone to angry outbursts, to rage, than some of the others: just as they were capable of still feeling great moral outrage and passion. But it is more than fury, it is also fear: fight or flight. And it is more than just being startled, even with her heightened senses and still being caught off guard.

It’s the vampire next to her. The other Brujah in her life. It’s him catching at an emotionally vulnerable moment.

“Carver, fuck!” Annabelle growls, deciding on anger, snatching her cellphone away from him, wiping at her eyes. “Personal space, dude!”

Carver, the smug son of a bitch, holds up his hands in a semi-placating manner, backing away a little bit but still amused with himself. He still wears his leather jacket, black where Annabelle’s is red, and sporting his Mohawk where Annabelle’s head is still shaved only on one side. “Hey, Babydoll, it’s not my fault you forgot your vigilance. You’re an important girl these nights. You can’t afford to laze. I mean.” He looks at a spot in the shadows and stares. “I know you’re there Jasper, but you won’t always be.”

Annabelle can’t help but bite her lip in some amusement at the familiar guttural snarl from the darkness, but she’s still annoyed. “Still none of your business.”

The older Brujah smiles, as though knowing there isn’t nearly as much vehemence there as there once was. A lot’s changed since they first — officially — met. She still doesn’t like him very much, but she doesn’t hate him anymore. They came to something of an understanding. But she never really calls him Dad. Not like with Victor. Not even sarcastically.

“Well, what it’s worth it’s still better than ‘crawling in my skin.’ Damn.” He says, taking a flask of … something out of his jacket pocket. Annabelle doesn’t see a blush of life appear on his features for it to be just alcohol. “Gives me the jeebies. Reminds me too much of a Tzimisce.”

“A … what?” Annabelle asks, quirking one brow.

Carver chuckles and shakes his head, taking a swig from his flask. For a few moments, Annabelle actually thought she saw an uneasy look, a grimace, form on his face. “Never you mind, Babydoll. Not here for you to take more note-taking.”

Annabelle is aware that, even now, she’s still learning new things. She’s had time to acclimate, one way or another, but she is still the youngest of the coterie. She has a lot to learn. And she will be damned, one way or another again, if she lets anyone else make fun of her for it: least of all Carver.

“Then why are you here, Carver?” Annabelle asks, exasperated. “Is Mr. Sisters of Mercy criticizing my taste in music?”

“Easy there now.” For his part, Carver sees her irritated confusion, and somehow manages to smile even more widely, his own growl a light mockery. “Did Nines introduce you to Damsel yet?”

“No …” Annabelle draws it out, squinting at Carver.

“In a certain light, you kind of look like her: except it’s the pop cultural ranting instead of just the political stuff.”

“Well no.” Annabelle gathers herself up. “Nines’ been too busy helping me through the ‘political stuff’ himself.”

“And how he must hate it.” Carver shakes his head, with a rueful grin. “The politics, I mean.”

“Huh.” Annabelle doesn’t have the energy to be annoyed anymore, but there is still a degree of impatience. She notices, as well, that her face is still warm and wet. Right. Vampires cry blood tears. All she did before in attempting to rub them away, was smear her face with its redness. To Carver’s credit, he doesn’t react — not making any snarky remarks, or so much as even smirk — as she takes out some tissues from her pockets — her many pockets — of her jacket, and wipe her face. “Power is everywhere.” Annabelle remembers, from her classes, now so long ago.

“And the personal’s political, isn’t that right, darlin?”

So much for that shred of decency, Annabelle supposes. She’s about to retort, to tell this jerk to go fuck himself despite her curiosity about his presence —

“You know, they can take care of themselves.”

At first, Annabelle didn’t think she heard him properly. Can vampires suffer hearing loss? But then she realizes, he’s spoken so softly, so uncharacteristically gentle, that it almost sounds like distant thunder, more of a rumble than a growl. Annabelle doesn’t know what to say to this, doesn’t know how to deal. “I know.” She says instead, thinking about Mark and Ellenore sabotaging political offices together, organizing protests, even the rally in Griffith Park where everything almost turned to shit … and other moments since then. “I just worry. I …” Annabelle’s words, and thoughts trail off to a place darker than anything a Lasombra can summon, but she feels stupid talking about it, especially to someone like Carver.

“You’re worried about all this.” Annabelle focuses her attention back on the older Brujah, who takes another drink out of his flask. There’s a funny smell to it, kind of like vitae, and anything else that she can’t quite name. “About you.”

“I’m …” Annabelle says, then straightening her shoulders out again. “I’m not afraid for myself. Of dying. I’ve risked my life –”

“Not death.” Carver sighs, and it occurs to Annabelle how much affectation they all still have, that they sigh when they don’t even have to breathe anymore. “I mean what you’re fighting for. Losing that battle. Losing … sight of what it is.”

“I know what I am fighting for.” Annabelle says, with more force in her voice than she knows is necessary. “I was at the Succubus Club. I saw what the Duskborn were doing in the student houses, what they were driven to do. And what the Inquisition is doing. And what Victor, and Nellie, and Jasper went through at Elysium …”

“And what you had the Gangrel do to Rags.”

Annabelle narrows her eyes. She … she knows it hadn’t been perfect. But it had been a choice between letting him go, or being destroyed. It had been a test: a test the Valkyries had set up for her. To see if she was worthy of mentoring, of allying alongside. But how dare he come here, after all this time, and dredge that up. Carver would have killed everyone, or blown them up, or left everyone there to clean up the mess while taking whatever it was he came for. How dare he condescend to insinuate anything when he didn’t even try to do better. When he didn’t even have loved ones …

When he didn’t even have Ghouls …

“I gave him a chance.” Annabelle says. “I try to give everyone a chance. And then …” Her shoulders droop. “I know I don’t have the answers. I know I know nothing and all that Socratic crap. But the Tower has to be stopped. There’s no need to treat people like objects. It’s … it’s wrong. Oppression is wrong. And everyone … everyone deserves a home.”

“We declare our kinship with oppressed Kindred everywhere and offer a home to all Kindred of all generations and clans who will agree to dwell in harmony with us.”

This time, Annabelle looks at Carver. She really looks at Carver. He shrugs. “The Status Perfectus.” He takes another drink. “Jeez. I’d have thought that Nines would’ve shown you it by now, or at least talked to you about it. Or maybe Abrams. Maybe.” He looks back at her. “Really. Here they are, going on and on about how you’re like the reincarnation of MacNeil, and they don’t even tell you about his and Salvador Garcia’s Second Anarch Revolt Declaration of Freaking Independence? Of the Anarch Free State. Heh … I mean, MacNeil was a screw-up, and Garcia probably a fucking traitor, and everything turned into a clusterfuck, but really.” He wipes at his mouth. “I expected better from Nines at least, if this is going to be your freaking heritage.”

“Well, who pissed in your Polyjuice Potion?” Annabelle finds her patience rapidly disappearing, fueled even further by information she never had. Why hadn’t anyone told her about this yet? Why does she keep getting left in the dark? Is she that much of a figurehead to the other Barons? Even … She shakes her head. “You disappear for God knows how long, leave me to my own devices, I do the best I can, and Nines picks up the slack, and you have the audacity — the freaking balls — to start lecturing me like you’re my –”

“Hey.” Carver interjects. “I did try to look for you. I got that favour from Eva, and it seems you got some too. You really should wash that jacket. It reeks.”

“No. Just. Don’t.” Annabelle points at him, right back to the level of fury. “Why are you back here, Carver? Are you just here to get your jollies telling me just how much I don’t even know? After you threw me right into the middle of all of this?”

“No, darlin.” Carver says. “I’m not here to lecture like Abrams, or give you a pep talk like Nines — a Kindred afraid of his own power. And I like the man. But seriously. You are a born activist. A student. You keep wanting to change things, but you don’t really look at everything that came before, at what others tried to do. You have …” He looks down at his flask, at his hands. “You are different. It’s the reason I didn’t leave you to die in that building. I could’ve. I think some days, when it’s really bad for you, you wish I did. Just …”

“What?” Annabelle demands, her blood rising despite herself. ‘What else should I know, Carver?”

“Look at the tools, the … tools of the oppressor, of the colonizer. The master’s tools. That’s what they teach you these days, right? At this college.” Carver has a strange light in his eyes, even as his tone remains the same steady, growling pitch it has always been. “Look at the fears that motivate us. The sun. Fire. Humans knowing what we are, and how that all affects anything we build. The Traditions, like the one that tells us to hide from humans, those existed before the Cam. And the Cam, the Tower, they formed in Europe when the Inquisition — which had been made by other Kindred trying to one-up each other — to supposedly protect all Kindred. To hide us. But look at what happened before that. When the Inquisition, the kine tools of power, got out of control and the Elders threw their childer at them. To save themselves. That’s when the First Anarch Revolt happened.”

This catches Annabelle’s attention. “The First Anarch Revolt …” She thinks about it. “Victor said something about that. Maybe Nellie too.”

“Yeah.” Carver nods. “It was a big deal. That’s kind of what led to all of this. I guess the Baron of the Valley knows some stuff after all.”

Annabelle doesn’t rise to the bait. Victor has made his mistakes, but she will never doubt his loyalty to her, the friendship of any of the coterie no matter their flaws. None of them are perfect, and Carver is one to throw stones. “What happened to them?” She asks instead, the question suddenly extremely relevant and overshadowing any sense of personal grievances with this man. “What happened to the first Anarchs?”

Carver is quiet for a while. He blinks, once. “When the others formed the Cam, with the surviving Elders, they rebelled. They became pretty much the Sabbat.”

Annabelle feels something crawl down her back at the way Carver speaks that word. She has heard it before. Victor has mentioned it. Even the others seem to know what it is, but they never really talk about it. Finally, he speaks again.

“Remember Nick the Asshole?”

Annabelle tries not to shudder, attempting not to remember the Nosferatu killing her, or the savage beating she laid on him afterwards after Carver had — arguably — saved her. “Yeah.”

“Yeah. Imagine a whole Sect like him. But worse. They wanted revenge on humans for hunting them. They wanted to turn them all into chattle, into things to feed on, hunt … play with … and kill. The Cam, it’s fucked right? I don’t have to tell you that. But mostly, it just wants to leave humans alone so they get left alone. And when they kill, well, it’s pretty brutal but just necessary. That’s the idea anyway. The Sabbat though? They enjoy it. They make games out of it. TThat’s what they would do to the whole world if they could’ve gotten away with it. The Lasombra and the Tzimisce especially.”

“That’s …” Annabelle wonders if she needs the blush of life to return the colour that she feels is leaving her cold skin She recalls the Scourge Rodrigo back at the Maharani, his eyes deeper than the abyss, asking her what she would build with the framework or the tools left from the systems that she would destroy, understanding the impart of those words a little more now. “That’s horrific.”

“And they all started from Kindred that just wanted to be free.” Carver sighs. “But this isn’t History Class. You want to find out more about those assholes, ask Nines or maybe your coterie. Hell, the Valkyries hate them too. You know, they come from Europe right? Another Old World group. They’re not just an Anarch faction. Just something you might want to look into on your own.” Carver shakes his head again, as though disgusted with himself. “I’ll give you another tidbit for free, darlin.” He says. “The Perfectus was made before the Baronies. MacNeil and Garcia, and the others, they had to make them when it became clear as a night of freezing rain in the ninth level of hell that Kindred couldn’t govern themselves without causing great fuck-ups. The point is, as you probably figured out by now, the Baronies were concessions to our baser natures. Little better than Domains — freaking Princedoms — in the Cam. A point of failure. I think that’s why MacNeil up and left. He knew, you know? He knew we used the tools of the masters, that trying not to made things worse. He didn’t want another Sabbat. Another Cam. Probably broke his damn fool idealistic bleeding heart. So when our better natures didn’t work out, I guess he gave up. Left us to our devices.” He takes another swig from the flask, a deeper one. Annabelle almost thinks she sees his skin flush from that drink. “I guess it was better than becoming a dictator, or a monster. Sure better than what happened in Carthage, or Russia. Anarch socialist experiments — especially Brujah ones — they don’t always go well, Babygirl.”

“Well …” Annabelle tried to take all of this in, tries to remember all of these terms to look up later, to pester Victor and the others about. “Why do you tell us how you really feel, Carver.”

Carver pauses for a moment. Then, he laughs. He laughs hard. It is a deep, belly laugh tinged by wheezing. Annabelle wonders, at first, if the older Brujah is choking until she remembers what they are. “Me? I just get stuff done.”

“With who?”

“With a gang or two that I put together.” Carver replies nonchalantly.

This time, Annabelle looks at him. Really looks at him. There is something different about him today. She can’t figure it out. “Don’t you have a coterie?”

Carver looks down at his flask. “I did.”

Annabelle doesn’t know what she’s looking for. She doesn’t have Nellie’s Discipline in Auspex, nor can she develop it on her own as far as she knows. But she has a decent skill at reading people. “What happened to them?”

“They’re gone.”

Annabelle thinks about Mark. She thinks about Ellenore. Her eyes go back to her phone and the Playlist that she had just heard. “What about anyone else?” She knows she’s prying again, but she had been so angry at Carver this whole while that she didn’t know anything about him. And for some reason, right now, this bothers her. “Did you have anyone else in your life?”

“I did.” He says, simply. “She’s gone too.”

“I’m sorry.” Annabelle replies, totally at a loss, awkward, wondering why suddenly she cares.

“Eh.” Carver shrugs his shoulders. “Shit happens.” He turns to her. “The important thing, darlin? Why I’m here now? I might not be lecturing, but just … I know how hard this must be for you. Figuring all of this out. It helps that you have friends. Something more than a crew. They keep you here. They keep you real. I went on about all those Sects and names. But the real enemy’s not even the Beast. It’s us. It’s time. A lot of those fuckers probably started out, even selfish, with some good ideas. But when you live forever, you forget things. Especially when you get caught up in the Jyhad. It’s easy to forget that Humanity after a while. Or take it for granted, until it’s gone.”

“I still remember who I am.” Annabelle says. “Do you?”

Carver grins at her, a big shit-eating grin. “Babygirl, I know exactly what I am. Just … heh. But seriously. When you have to make the hard calls — and you will — just remember who you have. And what you have. Because disappointed idealists, they make the worst kinds of sons of bitches. Don’t let yourself be a monster, Annabelle.” He says, his tone direct, his face flat again. “But don’t let them keep making you their puppet. I didn’t save your life for any of that. Ask the right questions. Keep asking everyone those questions. Keep asking yourself.”

Annabelle nods. “I … I will.” She bites her lower lip. “Thanks.”

“For my childe, anything.” Carver wryly smiles back at her, before putting his flask back into his coat pocket.

She can’t help it. Annabelle rolls her eyes. “Yeah, says the guy that made me and left me to wander the campus feeding without telling me what I was.”

“It’s better than some Gangrel Embraces.” Carver replies, putting both of his hands in his pockets. “And it seems to worked out pretty well for you.”

“I guess.” Something a little more hopeful enters her heart, thinking about it all now. “I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

“Also,” Carver says, looking at Annabelle a little longer.

“Uh, yeah?” She asks, feeling awkwardness before discomfort.

“Annabelle.” He tells her. “You are a lot more powerful than you think you are. When you’re doing your homework,” he points in a dismissive gesture, but his tone doesn’t change, “remember that.”

She nods again. There is something direct. Imperative. Clear. For a few moments, it’s as though Carver is speaking to her in a different way.

“Well, enough socializing.” Carver says. “I have situations to kill and all.”

“Hey.” Annabelle says, something occurring to her. “That thing you quoted.”

“Yeah?” He says, turning around.

“What was it again?”

“The Third Principle of the Perfectus.” Carver says. “Offering a home to all oppressed Kindred of all kinds in the Free Anarch State.”

“I see.” Annabelle nods. “I was thinking, when I find a copy, and read the whole thing of changing that. To all Kindred. All kine. All … people.”

Carver seems to consider it for a few moments. “Huh. Go figure.” He smiles at her. “I knew all the Unbound needed was some new blood.” He turns around and begins to walk away. “You’re just starting, and you’re already better than MacNeil ever was. As for the rest, just get ready to break some heads.”

Then, Annabelle only blinks once, and Carver is gone. She opens her phone and looks down at the Playlist. It takes her a moment, but she adds a new song. Right below Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” now resides a song from Halestorm. “Love Bites (So Do I).”

It’s a little risque, even cliché considering the circumstances, but Annabelle figures that it’s worth it.

*

Carver speeds away, his Celerity taking him from the rooftop in almost literally the blink of an eye.

It had been close. Annabelle is far from stupid, and perhaps he overplayed his hand. Chimerstry only takes you so far, taking your vitae, masking an appearance you’ve taken pains to disguise independently, before it runs out like some kind of glamour. Fucking A Song of Ice and Fire with Mance Rayder as Rattleshirt comes to mind. He doesn’t suppose that the Nos of the coterie could teach his Disciplines. Or worse, what favour he’d owe if he asked Golden. He doesn’t like his chances there.

Then again, just saving Annabelle’s life had been a risk. He is lucky, in some ways, that some Kindred remember the person he used to be. Eva owned him that major boon, one that has kept Annabelle safe up until this point. He wonders how Isaac hadn’t sensed his presence, or Annabelle’s earlier, but he has his suspicions: that the elder Toreador had already known what Annabelle was, and where she came from. Perhaps he even hoped for this outcome, whatever it may still be. Indeed, from his own sources, he knows that many people from the beginning of the Movement saw something in the young Brujah that they hadn’t seen in a long time.

It is all the more reason for him to keep his distance. For just as he had allies who knew who he was, he had enemies with long memories as well. Especially from the Tower. He never forgot the day that the Prince had made him humiliate himself, bowing and scraping, and worse. How he forced him to smash his head against the floor until his Ghouls took him out and threw him in that dumpster.

He wouldn’t wish that on anyone. He especially doesn’t want this for Annabelle.

He said he was done. That the Experiment hadn’t worked, like so many failures before and after it. There were never supposed to be Barons or Baronies. There especially wasn’t supposed to be a Baron of Los Angles. He didn’t want any of that.

So he went underground. He kept making crews. Just impersonal adhoc operations to make things uncomfortable for the elite. All grassroots. All under the radar. He would not associate with anyone closely again. It … hurt too much.

And he especially wouldn’t sire another. The one he left in New Orleans still rankles, even if he’d gone to the Cam for his own purposes.

But then there was the Office, and that asshole Nick, and then the girl and everything he saw her do with Mark and Ellenore. It reminded him of something. It reminded him of something that he had lost a long time ago.

Perhaps, looking at Annabelle, he saw the person that everyone else saw. The inspiration that he used to be. No, deep down Carver knows that he sees something better. If it survives.

Armando will look after her, he keeps telling himself. He might not want power, but that is why he trusts him with her all the more. And, as she goes on, she will come into her own true power: something beyond Generation or age. Perhaps beyond Faith. Carver doesn’t know. He knows that he knows nothing. In the meantime, he will lay the groundwork, do the grunt work, help light the flame that Annabelle will ignite.

His time is long passed now. Perhaps Annabelle will do better. He has hope that she will do better.

“You’ll do fine Annabelle,” he says, his voice no longer gravelly as he whispers to himself. “Break some heads, Babygirl.”

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The Neurodivergent Shadows in Us

There are going to be spoilers for Jordan Peele’s film Us, this movie that’s been out for months now, but sometimes that’s just how it has to be, and it wouldn’t make sense if I attempted to do anything else. Also, I am writing specifically about my personal experiences in relating to both this film and the following subject matter with which I try to engage.

Like Terry from his Gayly Dreadful article Tethered to the Closet, I knew practically from the beginning that Adelaide Wilson wasn’t normal and that, eventually when I learned about them, she was one of the Tethered. However, the difference I want to make clear is that while Terry related to her as someone coming to terms with being gay, I am not on the LGBTQ spectrum at all, I am also not American, and part of my reasoning for thinking she was one of the Tethered is because I am fairly good at guessing twist endings: being a writer, and a geek.

Yet there’s another reason why I can relate to Adelaide, and the Tethered.

Like Adelaide, I grew up as a child in the 1980s. And like the Tethered, who replaces her, who was the original Red and becomes the Adelaide that we know as the protagonist of Us, I grew up with developmental issues. I’ve talked about them before. These days, I would be called non-neurotypical, or neuro-divergent. My brain is wired differently from some perceived baseline in the mainstream population. I learn and I react in other ways in contrast to the current social paradigm. But, growing in the public school system of Canada and North America itself, I was given another label.

I am learning disabled.

Diagnosis is still relatively confusing to this day. Some of my disabilities could be confused with aspects of what some experts call the autistic spectrum, while many of my challenges have — ironically enough — been classified under the umbrella of nonverbal learning disorders.

Of course, I am not saying that the Tethered are the same — seeming to be clones of citizens created by the American government with their own developmental issues either by accident or design — but some of their characteristics can be seen as symbolic as some kinds of neuro-diverse behaviour. Terry, and other writers examining Adelaide focus on how she has a different, or inverted, sense of rhythm compared to others such as when she’s attempting to snap with the music that her husband Gabe is playing on the car radio. I remember her trying to also show her son, Jason, how to do the same thing: and this feeling I couldn’t describe came over me watching her. She looked both happy, and vulnerable, and awkward but genuine in that moment. It is a situation that the actress Lupita Nyong’o portrays well. She has, to some extent, learned how to match the rhythm, or mimic it enough where she is only slightly off. And aside from not being one for small-talk, no one can really tell the difference. Adelaide seems normal on a cursory glance.

She can pass as mundane.

At the beginning of the film, Adelaide is lost as a child in a boardwalk mirror house on the Santa Cruz beach. When she is found again, or seems to come out of the establishment, she seems to be rendered mute. Of course, we realize later that this isn’t the Adelaide that went in there, but rather the Tethered girl Red who has not learned how to vocalize, and her hand-eye coordination is relatively sloppy and haphazard. Her parents believe that something traumatic happened to her when her father lost track of her. They get her to see a therapist, they enroll her in dance courses — in ballet specifically — and she acclimates after a while.

When I was a child, I didn’t vocalize. Not really. I communicated in gestures, and grunts. It is one of the reasons I couldn’t stay in a mainstream daycare or kindergarten. My hand-eye coordination was also terrible: having what is called motor clumsiness. I didn’t really learn how to walk until later in my developmental period. My parents had me see therapists. I even had physiotherapist sessions where I rolled around on a giant ball and developed my reflexes more. My parents also enrolled me in a specialized kindergarten for children with special needs called Adventure Place. In fact, I had gotten so used to being there that when my parents were told I could attend mainstream public schooling, or I had to, I was so confused by the idea of “recess” and time before class that I got lost my first day at Thornhill Public School. And then, another time, I stayed on the school bus and the driver accidentally drove away with me: completely terrifying my parents even though I had, apparently, dozed off and had a nap.

I mean, I guess at anyone of those times I could have — or someone like me — could have found myself in one of those subterranean places filled with rabbits not unlike Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or its original title Alice’s Adventures Underground where I found a Shadow: not unlike those whom are forced to suppress their own feelings and mirror the actions those of their counterparts above ground against their will from the story that Red told Adelaide.

Do you want to know what I remember the most about my time as a child in the 80s, outside of therapy and all encompassing special educational spaces?

I was afraid. All the time.

My main memories of Thornhill Public School, were the dingy, yet antiseptic halls of the school itself with their old copper-coloured rubber glue stoppers, the long grey crooked scissors we used in art classes, and just how dark and old the basement was where the janitors had their office. I remember not wanting to be there, and wanting to be at home. I just wanted to go home.

At the same time, this was the period of the Beetlejuice cartoons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fraggle Rock, and the Dark Crystal comics as well as You Can’t Do That On Television on YTV. Adelaide herself had C.H.U.D., The Goonies, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller in her early life, and while I hadn’t been exposed to 1980s horror and specifically those adventure art movies at that time, they were on my popular cultural periphery and they would have intersected. And I was always both fascinated and terrified by horror in the form of hearing about such movies, and also folktales. I fed off of these elements, and they became part of my intellectual DNA, especially when in my Special Education class with Mr. Phillips I learned how to actually read from Grades 1-3.

They got me through a lot of the fear, but I still remember those halls and that basement: a place not unlike the underground facility where Red — before she was Adelaide — then Adelaide herself having been captured and abandoned by Red — and all the other Tethered clones wandered around aimlessly. It always occurred to me just how easy it would be to get lost in those corridors, and looking at the Tethered, few can be as lost as they.

Even though my perceptions improved, I still had — and still have — spatial difficulties. I get lost all the time, and directions as well as maps don’t always make sense. I also have dyscalculia: a learning disorder that makes arithmetic extremely difficult to do in my head. I can add and subtract, but I am slow at it, and I can’t multiply or divide without extreme challenge, or a calculator.

I also used to fidget a great deal — and I still do. Usually, it is a way to express excitement, anxiety, stress, or all of the above. I’ve learned to control it publicly for the most part, but the mileage can vary depending on the circumstances and my comfort level. Sometimes, when I get into that state, it is a lot like a free-form dancing: and it reminds me of Adelaide’s own dance and ballet classes as she was growing up on the surface.

And then there is communication. Like I said earlier, in the beginning I barely if ever used words to communicate. And, even now, when I’m nervous I will either ramble a great deal to make up for a perceived lack of content on my part, or I will be quiet and utilize few words. Even looking at how Adelaide talks with Kitty Tyler on the beach, or has difficulty talking or expressing her emotions to her own husband reminds me of my own impatience, or discomfort with small talk — which I generally try to compensate by talking about very specific topics of my interest, and not always the other person’s next to me — as well as my challenges expressing myself in a public, or even personal situation.

I know I really felt for Adelaide when she was attempting to communicate with her husband about her feelings: about her lack of comfort being in Santa Cruz, and even her annoyance with him for making fun of her quirks. I’ve had that happen a lot: from children laughing at my slow talking or thinking, and authority figures telling me to stop talking to myself (as if I were embarrassing myself and not them), and even having partners who just didn’t understand why I couldn’t be more like everyone else. That is the social interaction disorder element of some learning disabilities coming into play. It’s frustrating. It is beyond frustrating. When I was in daycare, before Adventure Place, I apparently did not want to talk or interact with my peers. I just wanted to stay in my own world. And I recall feeling a lot of anger and resentment for having to be with others who either made fun of me, or just didn’t understand me at all.

Even later, having gotten more therapy, I would often not cut or make my art the way I wanted to, and I would get frustrated with my tools — with my hands — and my own coordination to the point where I would destroy what I was working on because it didn’t meet my own expectations. My psychotherapist has asked me on occasion whether I sometimes feel toxic inside, or outside: and often I say I feel both for this reason. And I can only imagine Adelaide, especially with her experiences having gotten out of the facility underground, and adapting to the world above, having similar feelings and thoughts.

And I adapted too. I went to Special Education classes, but aside from those I focused on my strengths. Whereas someone like Adelaide delved into dancing and ballet, I attempted to become an artist, and eventually a writer. Overtime, as I went through the ranks of the public school system and university, I weeded out the courses I had difficulty with and focused purely on my strengths. Eventually, in my own mind, while taking advantage of the extra time afforded me because I was a learned disabled student, I came across as normal. I could be like everyone else. I could be “high-functioning.”

I could pass.

But I never really did. And while Terry, in his “Tethered to the Closet” article talks about that deep, dark Shadow secret of his sexuality has he attempted to pass on the sexuality spectrum, I tried to pass on a psychological and developmental one, while knowing — deep down — that there was something in me that set me apart from a lot of my peers: that it was always there, that it will always be there, and I will eventually go back to it.

I did. A lot. I had to ask for extra time. Sometimes I needed further clarification for my tasks. And then, by the time I made to York University, I needed the label and diagnosis to accord me extra time to remain in my Graduate Program just to maintain my full-time status with only half a course load.

Yet that anger, it never goes away. That frustrated, helpless anger. The kind you have in the dark where you can’t talk, or relate. Where you can’t express your emotions. Or the very least, you can’t do any of these things in an acceptable way to the society or space with which you find yourself. People laugh at you. Or bully you. Or worse: sometimes, they just interact with you out of some sense of pity.

So you take those elements of yourself. You face yourself in that mirror much like Red and Adelaide faced each other in that fun house near the beach. You strangle it. You push it down. You chain it to a bunk post, take the T-Shirt, and hope no one realizes that you are an intruder: that you are wrong. But you even when you play along with your parents, as much as possible, even when you find a hobby, find a field to work in and justify your existence — even when you make relationships — that part of you that you thought you could hide, even in plain sight, will always be there. It will always be waiting.

And the society that you grew in? That made you? It does it to control everyone to an extent. It wants you to conform so that you don’t make anyone else comfortable. But it only goes so far. For me, I had all of that “extra help” until I was done with school, or rather school had been done with me.  Then there was no structure, nothing but more antiseptic institutions that arbitrarily help or condemn you like welfare and disability offices and organizations that force you to embrace your disabilities as your identity — the very thing you spend ages attempting to wean yourself away from — while mostly leaving you to wander around like Tethered clones abandoned by their creators when they couldn’t control them, or use them to control others.

The structure is gone. You are just lucky at times to have a place that will still feed and clothe you. And, meanwhile, other people have jobs, families, relationships, and something fulfilling while — often enough — you feel that a lot of them have an emptiness inside of them that mirrors your own, but they are just less honest about it. They have the appearance, the passing, of knowing who they are, and what they are going to be.

And I think at this point, I am talking less about relating to Adelaide and more about relating to the Tethered: to the quiet, angry, sullen, forgotten, grunting, gesticulating horde of people abandoned in the dark, that want more but can’t always find a way to communicate that. And the people above, everyone else who is supposed neurotypical or neuro-conforming? They are part of a society that made you and they are always showing how ideal their lives are in social media, or relying on devices like the Alexa stand-in Ophelia to show how affluent they are. It all sometimes feels like a fun house of distorted reflections, or shadows.

I guess, in this context, I can understand where the fear and the anger, cultivated by Red — by the girl who used to be Adelaide and left to atrophy in her own stunted hatred — would want rise up, while still holding hands together in that Hands Across America gesture from 1986 which is a parody of that superficial sense of belonging that is just, at the end of the day, for appearances. There is nothing sincere about it, nothing warm, or loving. But, in the end it is a gesture of defiance, of anger against the order of things, or the lack of order: of the system’s broken nature.

Just like these words.

So who knows? Maybe a long time ago, I wandered through the dingy, cold hallways of a basement and encountered someone who looked me like having wandered away from falling asleep on a bus, or getting lost not knowing what recess was, and I strangled him and took his place like some changeling in the night. Or perhaps, unlike Red, I actually killed him from the start and — if the conceits of Us are true — then we shared a soul, and that is why I don’t always feel whole. And when you disregard this hypothetical situation as the metaphor it is, there have been many times I’ve had to distance or destroy something in my life to continue to somehow be the person that I want to be.

And sometimes, it doesn’t feel like enough.

Maybe, like the Tethered, I am my own Tethered reflecting the abuses of the unreasonable expectations that I inflicted on myself. And who hasn’t had a time where they have been so angry themselves, hated themselves so much for not performing the way they are expected to, that they don’t want to destroy the system that made these expectations? To burn the whole shallow mess to the ground? Or with a cry of primal, inarticulate rage strangle the part of you that’s angry at yourself, that hates yourself, that you feel is sabotaging both your life, and the relationships of those around like Adelaide, who was Red, finally did to Red who was Adelaide — who she thought she abandoned — in that dark bunk chamber where she thought she left her, her dirty little secret, even her secret in plain sight, for good?

I didn’t even think about it that way, or thought I would write much about this beyond superficial comparisons until I sat down — past five in the morning going six — and realizing just how much this film affected me. Surely there are dark tunnels, and hidden cities in Canada as they are in America. I mean, the North American system probably uses these places, these mentalities, to survive. And I have known people, people I loved or thought I loved, or people who loved me, or I thought loved me — or they thought they loved me — who are so similar to the people that Jordan Peele depict through his version of the doppelgänger as a central monster symbol in Us.

I think it safe to say that, in addition to feeling an affinity to the cognitive difficulties of the Tethered, I have also known, and loved people like Adelaide, and it is amazing how you can be so close to someone because of your shared differences, and so separate from them — and alone — for these exact same characteristics.

I guess I had more to say about Us than I thought beyond the fanfictions, and the film article I wrote a few months back. Certainly, this writing became more personal than even I’d anticipated. At the end of Us, Adelaide reunites with her family after rescuing her son Jason from her double. Jason is her biological son. Learning disabilities and neurodivergence according to some studies are genetic. They are passed down. Jason has always, throughout the film, fidgeted with a broken lighter and loves to hide in a cubbyhole in his grandparents’ cottage. He also prefers to wear a monster mask.

At the end of the film, he seems to realize that his mother is a Tethered, not long after she comes to grips with it herself. She puts her fingers on her lips. Her daughter Zora doesn’t seem to take after her, and her husband still doesn’t understand. Throughout the film, Adelaide is terrified of Jason becoming lost in this world, like she supposedly did, like she actually had been. Jason, for his part, takes his mask and places it back on his face: hiding himself, quiet, yet colourful. Defiant. Adelaide also puts hers back on, but it blends in, it’s unremarkable. She pretends to be mundane again. Jason’s mask, by contrast, still stands out and I think there is something to that. To accept that you are different, and to own it.

Or something to that effect. Personally, I just think that Jason’s monster mask is pretty cool.

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Paper Moon

Jasper fucked up.

He knows he fucked up. The pain in what’s left of his arm, after touching Eva like an idiot — twice — almost obliterating his claw on her personal ward, is nothing compared to the chagrin and the mixture of feelings he’s experiencing at the moment. In a way, he’s almost grateful. After the ritual Eva conducted, she had destroyed her hand too in the Thaumaturgical fire she created. It’s the least he deserves after putting her through this, after putting Chloe …

But that’s only a taste of the pain he’s put both of them through, and he knows it. He’s been set on fire before, he should be used to it by now.

Just like he should be accustomed to his own sense of self-loathing.

The Nosferatu cradles his twisted claw against his ribs, watching Chloe follow Eva out of the house where they staged their “intervention” on the former’s behalf. When Chloe regained her senses, for a few moments he almost hoped she wouldn’t recognize him: that he would be another, more hideous stranger, next to Eva and Fiona in that room. In some ways, her knowing exactly who he was, was far worse. The look of utter betrayal on her face hurt more than any reaction to his repulsiveness.

There are other feelings as well. Anger towards Fiona for making Chloe … his Chloe, his … into a Ghoul, fury at the Inquisition for somehow finding Fiona’s territory and Chloe instead, that awkward self-consciousness of asking Eva to do so much for him, despite everything they …

He resists the urge to snarl to himself. It all comes back to his self-hatred, his selfishness. What did he, of all people, think would happen with that one note he left on the napkin on the Griffith College campus cafe? That they would have a Hallmark moment, some contrived moment of grace, a Touched By an Angel God loves you segment? Chloe never stops. He knew that. Even when he watched her over the years, after that piece of shit took his life in his apartment and left him like this, he never forgot her drive to see her own research to its end. And he never forgot the depth of her feelings for him.

Jasper recalls Chloe’s words to him, not that long ago: that somewhere, deep down, he didn’t want to let her go. That wanted her in this world.

And Jasper hates himself for it. Somehow, it’s even worse than the whispers when he is hungry, of wanting to consume her and sometimes mistaking it for the intense fire he still feels towards her, being in her skin again in some way, and the happiness of being seen. That rebellious joy is treacherous: that she still wants to know him, and what he’s gone through, and that this — this ugly abomination his body’s become — can’t keep her away. In a way, his Clan’s deformities have been something of a blessing to him, more than even the Mask of a Thousand Faces could ever be. The fact is, when most people see his face Jasper knows they see a monster, something to shy away from, and scoff at, and either fear or underestimate him. It is the perfect mask. Very few people bother to look past it. They don’t have to.

But Eva did. It made sense, in an empirical way. The Tremere are warlocks, thaumaturgists that had dedicated themselves to uncovering the mysteries of the world underlying the surface. It made sense that Eva could eventually see right through him. It had just been a system of Prestation between them, that’s what he kept telling himself. A boon for a debt, a debt for a boon. Even when she started him on the path to Thaumaturgy himself, it had simply been a greater boon. But they both love puzzles and secrets. They’ve worked closer together over time. And Jasper knows he loves Eva’s mind, just as he is beginning to suspect that she loves his.

He can’t afford to have attachments, Kindred or kine. They can be used against him. Worse, they can be fleeting, ephemeral, lost in an instant of bad judgment: such as what he displayed back at the cafe. Tonight was the first time he touched Eva, as she burned for Chloe … for him, and he burned in return. It is fitting, it makes sense in the twisted, intuitive way that his Labyrinth also does.

It’s infuriating. If he had just thought it out, he should have reasoned Eva had her own personal wards. He should never have reached for her. If he hadn’t, he could have offered her his blood — his vitae — to heal her hand. Instead, he hurt himself and knows — he fucking knows — she will create another batch of that cream to heal his burns despite all the trouble he’s put her through. She broke Chloe’s compromised blood bond to Fiona, and then made her her Ghoul. And he knows she did it for him. She knows that Chloe is his touchstone to the mortal world, and even that might change soon …

He wanted Chloe away from this. That’s what he keeps telling himself, even now that she made him face the truth. That’s why he left her those years ago, left her arms and her warmth so she wouldn’t see what a monster he had become on the outside, what a demon he was on the inside …

But her words win out. And here they are now. Somehow, he thinks Annabelle will be laughing at him. And as he follows along behind them, thinking about how Fiona could have imprinted Dominate commands into Chloe’s mind or used her as a piece against him in the current political climate, or even killed her, and smelling Eva’s familiar, soothing floral vitae in Chloe’s body — the woman he loves saved and Ghouled by the other woman that he loves — as dangerous as these thoughts are, these signs of weakness and vulnerability are to his current state, he can’t help but think to himself that he doesn’t deserve either of them.

*

Eva grits her fangs together, less against the pain in her charred hand, and more to bite back the hunger that wants to consume the young woman walking alongside her. It would be so easy, but counterproductive given all the work she put into saving her to begin with.

The prospect of breaking Jasper’s heart hurts even more than that.

She doesn’t like this. Any of it. Not the Inquisition getting so close. Not the Camarilla attacking her sisters. And especially not what Fiona may or may not have attempted to do with this young girl. That in particular overrides any other feelings she has on this matter. She had been in Clan Tremere for ages, when its Pyramid was still strong. She knows what coerced blood-bonds do to a person, be they kine or Kindred. It is a mixed blessing that her Clan can no longer create blood-bonds, even if they are now especially vulnerable to such acts from other parties.

As long as Eva is in the Anarch Free States, she knows she is essentially free. Without the unity of the Tremere, and even their reduced status in the Camarilla, they cannot come for her: the other Houses. But that can change. The Camarilla still has its resources. It can still succeed in proclaiming praxis: even her Haven in Griffith Park. Clan Tremere, such as it is, could find a way to take her back to the fold.

Maximilian Strauss could find his way back to her.

Jasper … Jasper made that promise to find the vial with her vitae. To finally free her from … that monster. She didn’t go into details, but she knew she didn’t have to. She knows, deep down, he would die for her. And this thought terrifies Eva, more than she will let on: even to Jasper.

Eva has always had to owe someone, or something. The Sect with which she used to belong. Her Clan. Its Elders. Strauss. She never truly knew freedom until that night, those nights, when she made the choices that led her here amongst Anarch territory. She does provides services, of course. Nothing is free: neither her protection, nor her services. Hers, and Jasper’s association began in a similar fashion. Certainly, his work for Baron Abrams and her consultations with the latter, often led them to similar domains of duty and inquiry.

It occurs to her, sometimes, just how young the Nosferatu truly is. He is quiet, and askance. Brittle. Even tonight, when he touched her for the first time, when it finally registered through her pain of the ritual that he did so, she recalls how hesitant it was, how … tentative. It doesn’t escape her that the reason he did so was because she was in pain … and because he was afraid she would feed too much from Chloe. Eva doesn’t like this. She doesn’t like how her wards burned him. As she told him, he was not the one for which those protective wards were created. She had meant to come here and find out what the Inquisition had fed into Chloe’s system, to find a way to neutralize it. It had been some form of chemical compound, but more than that, an alchemical solution that targeted a Regnant’s vitae: the master of a thrall’s blood. It had been drawn to Fiona, and while Eva feels nothing for the Ventrue one way or another, especially with her political games and her Clan’s usual penchant for taking what little freedoms away from their servants or those under their sway, this is a weapon that cannot be ignored. It could be one more arsenal in the extermination of their species.

But she hadn’t intended to break a blood-bond, though she doesn’t regret it. Then again, she hadn’t intended — nor wanted — to become the Domitor to a Ghoul: even if she could temper the Bond to not interfere with the girl’s thoughts and feelings. Chloe … is a complication. Jasper is not as strong as others believe. This entire situation is almost entirely of his making, but she doesn’t have the heart to judge him. He already knows, and admitted, that he made a mistake. She is his touchstone, Eva recognizes that. Chloe has an inquisitive mind, and a fierce thirst to find the truth.

Only recently did she and Jasper talk about the Labyrinth under Griffith Park, with its energies beyond that of even thaumaturgy. She had heard enough lore in her Clan to suspect and even know that there are powers and magic independent of Kindred Disciplines. It is a fascinating and terrifying prospect. She understands why the Nosferatu are so keen on investigating this phenomenon. Jasper has slowly been letting her in, which means much to her, and she knows that Victor Temple’s dealings as Baron with the Nosferatu rub them both the wrong way: for all their sound pragmatism.

But it’s more than that. Jasper is harder on himself than most Kindred. She knows this. He rarely keeps himself around people, even other Kindred beyond … what he has to do, and his own coterie. It is actually miraculous that he even has the others in his coterie. Knowing what she does of their kind, and the Beast, Eva admits to herself that they are actually good for him. For all they themselves cause complications, they have some spontaneous, even ingenious moments.

It’s true what they said to Chloe. Kindred are monsters. They are nothing to aspire towards. But sometimes monsters can do good things, as Jasper said. And Jasper, touch-starved Jasper, angry Jasper, sad Jasper, who can only feed off of “monsters like themselves,” who is smart, and strong, and brave except in matters of the heart … Eva is terrified of letting anyone have influence over her beyond Prestation again. But it’s different with Jasper.  It wasn’t just the fact that he helped save her Tremere sisters and was burned in the process. Sometimes, especially after she brought him those flowers, hoping he would find peace in being a monster, in leaving what he loved behind as much as he could, she thinks about offering him her vitae: to let him feed from her. He has taken it in her substances, to heal his body, but this is different. He would tell her that too, she knows. He would tell her that his feeding is different: that he needs to feed from those that deserve it, that are monsters, that need to be punished …

But they also, his vessels, need to feed. She sees him deal with this torment every night, and she knows that she could offer him her arm, her vein. A part of her wishes she could tell him that it is all right. That he can take what is offered. That they can be monsters together. That they can explore the Labyrinth of the night forever, or as forever as drifting feelings over centuries or possible imminent death by Sect war and manipulation would allow.

And then, this girl. Chloe. She finds them. The Ventrue told her all about them. She could have wiped her mind, but she didn’t. She could have even killed her, but decided not to. They can’t afford to turn on Jasper. They need him in this coming conflict between the Anarchs and the Camarilla, and Fiona knows that. A part of Eva is glad to have Chloe with them, away from Fiona’s blood-bond, a way of potentially taking one more chess piece away from the Ventrue to use against Jasper. And she can’t help but admire Chloe’s curiosity. She feels it in her veins from where she drank from her. It would be so easy. So … easy  …

She could also take him away. A treacherous voice in her mind whispers to her. Take him away from you …. 

Eva squashes that ridiculous thought before it can continue. She doesn’t know what will happen next. She doesn’t know if Chloe will return to Fiona under her own free will to continue to be a Ghoul, or become one of them. Or if she will continue to be with Eva, or become something else. Jasper will not turn her. Jasper sees what he has as a Curse, and Eva sees her fate as no less: even if she does have some solace in it.

All she knows is that, this night, she is not going to leave Chloe anywhere else other than with her: with them … whichever way it turns out in the end.

*

Chloe attempts to take everything in.

It’s a lot. She pieced everything together, but nothing made any sense. And then, right after she went to the police with her information — or the lack of information and sense with regards to Jasper’s death — she met Fiona, and everything changed. She recalls her deal with Fi, to stay by her side, feed from her blood, learn what she could of vampire … of Kindred society from her, and she would tell her all about Jasper. Even meet him.

But then, there was a raid in on her Haven. Black-ops soldiers. They questioned her. And then they knocked her out and pumped … something in her body. After that, there had just been blackness and nightmares. And then this old house, the room, and so much pain until the bliss of two sharp points in her neck and ecstasy, the smell of burning blood and … Fiona in front of her, actually looking both worried and fascinated, the white-haired, flowered woman she would get to know as Eva, and a man in a hoodie whose features were warped and distorted.

Her memory hadn’t been that bad, or that compromised to realize who he was. Who he is.

Maybe he thought, after all this time, she wouldn’t be able to read his facial expressions or his body language. Jasper stood across the room from her, away from her, and when she really thinks about it, everyone else. Fiona had told her a little bit about the nature of his … condition, but telling is one thing, but seeing is a whole other. But it’s still him. Still the same gentle touch, the same concerned face, the eyes of the person who had always been at her side, the one who held her at night, the same individual who wrote that note on the napkin that nearly broke her mind.

Nothing about Jasper’s death made sense, neither the dearth of evidence nor the too brief testimonies of the authorities. It just didn’t add up. But there had been a funeral. She thought, maybe, she had been losing it: that the grief, and the stress of school had finally gotten to her … But that drive kept her going. That napkin was a sign.

And she had been right. Chloe was right.

It all seems clearer now, with Eva’s blood in her veins. It doesn’t make her emotions any more simplistic. She’s angry at Jasper. She’s furious at having left her, at not telling her the truth, of leaving her that message, and letting it eat her up inside. But she feels rage on his behalf: on the vampire — his sire — that stole his life, and their life together, away without his consent. Chloe thinks about how violated he must have felt, and then to have that thing this … Beast fighting in him constantly that he was too afraid of getting close to anyone. Including her.

She’s also happy. She feels immense joy knowing that he’s still … alive? Existent? That he had been watching over her? But still angry that he hadn’t said anything, that he led her into this place without her knowledge. Fi had informed her as much as possible. It’s true. Now that she knows a little more about the soldiers that abducted her, those agents, members of this Second Inquisition she realizes just how much her search would have endangered the vampires … these Kindred if the wrong people in law enforcement or research fields had listened to her questions, or looked at her information and saw how she was putting it all together. Likewise, most authorities might have simply thought her deluded or insane. But Chloe isn’t stupid. She’s tired. The pain inside of her, from the chemicals they pumped her with that kept her unconscious, is gone: purged by Eva and replaced with her blood. There are factions among the vampires, and she could feel that tension in that room with like the earth heaped on the coffin in which Jasper had never been buried.

She does feel betrayed, but also elated. And immortality? Chloe is still thinking about the implications of this discovery. Yes, there is a Beast that comes out in a vampire when they are made, and they do need to feed off blood. But Fiona’s words about affecting change and influence still echo in her head. And she’s seen what Eva is capable of doing. And even Jasper … Fi had told her that, for all of Jasper’s faults with endangering the Masquerade, he was a fairly potent and powerful vampire now. Though … she can understand why he doesn’t want to turn her, if his Clan looks like …

In retrospect, she’s glad she didn’t make a decision tonight, and that she has a little more time. She also feels protected. Whatever else Jasper did or didn’t do, she knows he will be there. And, in a way, looking at Eva now and the way she looks at Jasper, she feels a little better in knowing that Jasper hasn’t been completely alone: with both Eva and his friends, whom Fiona had said were quite some … characters.

The fact of the matter is, even in this clear state, even outside of the besotted almost drunken feelings that her bond with Fiona had possessed, Chloe still has a lot to think about. Reality still feels new, not as permanent or as concrete as she believed. Everything has changed. Everything is changing. Chloe majors … majored? She majors in Communications at Griffith College, but as one of her electives she took a film class that dealt with media. Once, she and her class sat down and watched some old films that played with reality. It’d been an old black and white French film by a man named Méliès. It was supposed to have some kind of anti-imperialist or a film that made fun of preconceived concepts of reality. Right now, she feels like one of those Selenites that exploded if someone touched them the wrong way. Chloe recalls, at the end of the film, the spacefarers returning home with one of the Selenites captive. The thought hits too close to home, like a rocket in her eye.

Jasper’s face kind of looks like a cratered moon now. She tries not to giggle at the image. Something about moons seems appropriate. Instead, Chloe focuses on more of the questions she wants to ask. Fi’s burner phone weighs heavily in her pocket, full of more promise. But, right now, Chloe decides to think about how Jasper is still here, how he is here with her, how she feels safe with him and Eva, and how she has so much more to learn.

And, perhaps, they all still do.

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