Her doll, Latch, is heavy and awkward and flops as she runs. She does not let him go. He is all she has with her.
Proteus will soon follow. She is fast, but not faster than a bear, and far slower than a bear that is a god.
There are words appearing on the road signs as she flees.
He eats her bones
Then Micah drowns.
“That’s dispiriting,” Liril says.
“It’s a sign of our times,” the next sign she passes says.
Liril stops. She sits down. She’s out of breath. She has two minutes left on her lead.
“You’re Cheryl,” she says.
The sign clears. Liril cannot see the hand that writes, but handwriting appears all the same, in blood.
“Mene, mene, tekel, moed.”
“I could have saved you,” Liril says, “if I’d been what they wanted.”
“I know,” writes the hand, upon the sign.
“You could have saved me. Same deal.”
The sign goes blank.
After a time, it displays a symbol that would have been perfectly polite in many other societies.
Then it is blank again. There are the soft crunching footfalls of a bear.
Liril starts to her feet, but her ankle twists. Her doll Latch tumbles towards the bear. Liril’s arm sprawls out behind her. She looks up at Proteus.
“I have been measured and found wanting,” Liril says. Her voice is calm, distant, and precise. She is interpreting the writing on the sign. “But instead of being divided between the Medes and the Persians, I am destined to be split among the Three Stooges, whose pranks will no doubt be extremely entertaining as they rend me into three parts.”
Proteus glances at the sign, which is once again saying, “Mene, mene, tekel, mo’ed.”
“There is an alternate interpretation,” he says, “in which you are devoured in a sacred feast.”
“I would rather Moe,” says Liril. “He seems congenial.”
“To be torn apart by the Three Stooges,” says Proteus, “is a grim fate. I will save you from it with my own two jaws.”
Liril accepts this answer with philosophical resignation, until Proteus steps forward. Then she is scared.
“Can’t you forgive me?” she asks.
“I’m still dying, you know,” Proteus says. “The boy broke my back. You can’t fix that with construction paper. Also, the paper has ‘anger’ and ‘resentment’ written on it.”
“That’s a . . .”
“No,” Proteus emphasizes.
“But I’m trying to change,” Liril says.
“I didn’t have volition,” Liril protests. “I had to rely on what I thought volition would look like. That makes it pretty good just to get this far, right?”
Proteus shrugs. He walks forward. He steps on Latch’s head. It crunches.
“Porcelain,” says the bear. A shard is wedged deep into his foot. “Ow.”
“You can’t break things and then complain that they’re sharp,” Liril says.
“I can and I will,” says Proteus. He stalks forward another two steps. Then he winces. “OW.”
“Let me see,” Liril says, and she crawls forward, and she looks at his paw.
“If you take it out,” says Proteus, “then I’ll eat you.”
“I know,” says Liril. “But if I don’t, you’ll also eat me.”
“That’s true,” says Proteus. He holds up his paw.
“I could push it,” Liril says. “And maybe cripple you enough to get away.”
She puts her hands on the shard of Latch’s head.
“Will you?” Proteus asks.
Liril pulls it out. She sits back down with a thump. She cuddles the shard of Latch’s head, covered in bear’s blood.
“Ah,” Proteus concludes. “You will not.”
There is handwriting on the sign. It is writing, over and over again, “Bitch.” And many other names.
“She does not like you,” observes Proteus.
“When they couldn’t hurt me any more,” Liril says, “they got harder on her. That’s why there’s nothing left of her but writing and disliking me.”
“Why didn’t you help her?”
“I would have,” Liril says. “I keep trying. I keep trying to help everyone but it never works. It always . . . it always comes apart.”
Liril is near tears. The bear’s breath is very warm.
“You could have given yourself up for her,” Proteus says.
“I tried,” she says.
The sign is blank.
“I called them up,” Liril says. “The monster answered. And I said, ‘I’ll come back.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Liril.’ He laughed, like it was funny. ‘Micah is the one who defies us.'”
The sign is blank.
“I hid under my bed for six weeks,” Liril says. “I almost turned into a lurkunder with a buggy face. I couldn’t shower clean.”
“That’s sad,” the bear says.
Proteus is silent. Then he shrugs.
“I’m going to eat you now,” he says companionably.
“I could try fixing your back,” Liril says.
“Yes, you could,” Proteus agrees. “I will eat you slowly to maximize your opportunities.”
Liril is crying.
“I will also wait,” Proteus says, “until you’re done with that.”
There are so many tears that Proteus imagines that they could wash him away; but it is not her tears that save her, but the writing on the wall.
“I don’t regret that he’s going to kill you,” says the sign.
“But now I feel kind of guilty-angry about the whole thing.”
“We could flip a coin,” says Liril.
“You fix the handwriting on his back. I flip a coin. If you call it, then we switch places and memories, and I’m the creepy handwriting girl, and you’re Liril, and no one ever knows.”
“Will I call it right?”
“No,” Liril says. “It’s a raw deal.”
“Oh,” writes the sign.
But after a time, Proteus walks away; and after he is gone, and before Micah arrives, Liril flips a coin.
“Heads,” the sign writes.
The coin lands, and Liril doesn’t look at it before she picks it up and tosses it away.