It is September 27, 2002. The sun has gone down into the sea.
John dyes his hair green. He rinses it off. He rinses it again, and again, until the water comes out clean, and he looks into the sink.
Bad enough it should be stained with green; but the sink is discolored instead with streaks of green and black.
It’s a week of awful portents. He isn’t really superstitious, but you never can tell, these modern days, with fairies in the woods and the spider in the sky.
He sinks his fork into a chicken breast and it oozes something viscous and white; and his mom is all apologetic but he just thinks, it’s going to happen.
It’s going to happen. His Dad’s going to come by.
There’s nothing else as God would bother warning him of, he thinks. There’s nothing else worth the way he keeps smelling dead things, and stubbing his toe, and the way his business comes floating, rolling up after he’s done using the facilities, every time. And he reads the cards, one time, and the reading’s none too kind; so he wanders by Liril’s house, down the street, because.
“Is he coming?” he asks her.
She frowns at him.
“What?” he says.
“One day,” she says, “if you eat the wrong people, particularly, I think somebody might want you to be God.”
John squints at her. Micah, who was reorganizing the bookshelf, stops.
“God?” John asks.
Liril shrugs. “Yeah.”
“What does that even mean?” John asks.
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
It is Saturday, the 17th of April, 2004.
John turns. He lunges towards Liril. He is shouting something. He is going to—
He is going to—
The Thorn That Does Not Kill has popped his heart. It’s put a hole straight through his chest and now he’s like the bubble that was broken, like the dream that was ended, like the rescuer that was not.
He has no center to him. He has no reality. He has no John.
It’s leaking out of him, a thick ectoplasm of his structure, from front and back alike. It’s running out of him, he’s dripping out of his center, like air from a balloon and despairing of the world.
Liril pushes him off of her. He staggers back. He sits down on the bed.
She pulls out the Thorn.
“Your heart is damaged,” Liril says. “I can leave you this way, or I can finish.”
I didn’t consent, he thinks dumbly. She’s supposed to change you when you ask, not when you move—
“I didn’t consent,” he says.
He’d done it to himself, really, with the way the Thorn was right there; but—
Liril looks away from him. She rubs her eyes.
“You want me to fix you?” she says. She sounds like she’s trying really hard to be cold and cruel and not managing it quite. “You want me to just put it back, so you can hurt me more?”
He puts his hand over the hole in his chest but he cannot hold in the substance that is John.
“Your moral standing,” he says, “is not clear.”
“That’s true,” Liril admits.
Her voice is weak and strained. He can understand it, now, as he’s never understood it before. It’s been lurking under everything she’s said, for a very long time, something empty, something broken, something like he’s feeling now. If he pushes her hard enough she will collapse. She will fix him. She does not have it in her to refuse him, if pushed hard enough, to stand up to what’s left of the boy named John.
He wants to shout at her to do it. To fix him. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t done it yet. He keeps getting distracted by the ectoplasm on his hand.
A bit of him falls off his fingers and lands upon the quilt of Liril’s bed. It fades away.
He can’t make himself say it. He’s dying and he can’t make himself say it—
“So we compromise,” he says.
He is fading. He is falling. He is becoming nothing, not even John.
“One year,” she says.
The Thorn goes into his left eye. The Thorn goes into his right eye. The last thing he sees is the Thorn plunging, twice, deep into his brain; and it takes him a long time to realize that that wasn’t actually a thing he saw at all.
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die
He screams out his mortality. It flutters from him, rough-edged, like a departing flock of crows. He sways and he starts to fall.
The door of the room bursts open. Liril’s mother stands behind it. She stares at him for a long moment, and he has just enough time to notice how appallingly empty she is before she picks him up physically and throws him across the room. He coils, lands hands and feet upon the dresser, and braces to spring; her elbow comes down hard on the back of his neck just a moment before he realizes that he has no actual desire at this particular juncture to engage in a fight with Priyanka.
His face crunches through the dresser. His arm is twisted up behind his back. He howls. He can’t help thinking, all things considered, that this is rather a bit unfair.
“What the hell, Liril?” Priyanka says.
Liril doesn’t appear to have an answer for ‘what the hell’ at this particular time. “I, um.”
Tainted John coughs the last spluttering syrup of his old self from his lungs. He dislocates his arm and twists himself around for leverage, trying to catch that fluid; Priyanka steps back and does something he can’t see but can feel in the motion of her legs and two floors of wooden floorboards recoil away, skittering from them like waves in a disrupted pool and leaving Priyanka, John, and the dresser to tumble into the basement down below.
John screeches in the dust and garments and the world revolves. He tries to grasp for Priyanka, but there is only emptiness.
“I—” Liril says again, above him.
Somehow he’s been shackled.
Priyanka has stepped back. His perceptions are clearing, he is limber, the shackle can’t hold him, he could—
Instinct reminds him once again that he has no particular desire to fight Liril’s mother at this juncture.
She snarls at him.
“Explain,” Priyanka says.
His voice isn’t working very well. “You were not home,” he rasps.
“So you come into my daughter’s bedroom,” Priyanka says.
“And she puts out your eyes,” Priyanka says, “and turns you into— some sort of—”
“Don’t lie to me,” Priyanka says, but her voice has already lost all of its strength.
She is sitting down, right there on the floor. She looks down at the ground under her knees for a long time, and then looks up at Liril.
Liril stares back. She has mastered herself. She looks brave.
“What am I going to do with you?” Priyanka whispers.
“Wicked children should be punished,” Liril says.
Priyanka laughs. It’s hollow. He cannot get over how empty they both are. He bets if he bit a chunk off of either of their fleshes he’d get brain freeze and maybe die.
“I won’t eat you,” John observes.
Priyanka gives him an alarmed glance. “You eat people?”
“Not you,” John clarifies.
Priyanka stands up. The last bits of life flow out of her expression.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
Liril slips away from the hole two floors above. He can feel her walking down the stairs. She opens the door. She comes in.
“I’m sorry,” Priyanka says, again.
Liril tries to touch Priyanka’s hand, but there is only emptiness.
“Is he safe?” Priyanka asks.
“He won’t eat me,” Liril says.
Priyanka nods. Liril sits down on the floor. The ceiling shudders and wavers closed. Priyanka leaves.
Behind her, she locks the door.
There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.
It’s dark, but that doesn’t matter much. He’s locked in, but that doesn’t really matter either. The only things that matter are Liril and the hunger.
“I’m hungry,” he says, softly.
“I’m sorry,” Liril says.
“I want to eat angels,” John says. “And demons. And fiends, and ragged things, and other gods.”
“Yes,” says Liril.
“I don’t mind not having eyes,” he says. “Or a great vacant hole where was my heart. But I wish that I weren’t so hungry.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
He grins at her. The bloody holes where his eyes should be are very bright. “Corpses would be okay.”
She stares at him vacantly for a little while. He supposes that she can’t see him, not properly, not in the dark.
“Hey,” he says. “Hey, what am I?”
“One day,” she says, thoughtfully, “if you eat the wrong people, you might be God.”
He finds himself salivating, and fights it down. He adds himself to the list of things that he should not eat.
“What is God?” John asks.
This seems to stump her for a bit. He thinks that maybe she’s not quite so great an oracle as he’d always thought, given the way that her mouth keeps opening and closing and then opening again, and her forehead furrowing and then going straight.
[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]
April 17, 2004
“God,” she says, eventually, “is that which shatters you.”