(Canon: Boedromion 14) The Growing God

This continues the main Hitherby storyline.

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of holding on.

His hands are claws, like this—like withered bone with leathery tendons holding it together, cold, damp, and very sure.

He’s the third god to approach Elm Hill in quite some time.

He’s the first that isn’t friendly.

Ahead of him, behind him, all around him dead birds are rising from their graves. They are tearing forth from the rotting earth. They are rising towards the sky.

That’s the sign of the grangler.

“I should never,” the grangler says, “have let her go.”

It is May 28, 2004.

On May 28 in history, an eclipse ended Kuras’ great-grandfather’s war. The Pope married James IV. Scotland and England signed their treaty of everlasting peace. The Chrysler building opened. Liril buried a god in a box—a dead and broken god—and hid it under Elm Hill. An earthquake killed Neftegorsk. Mount Cameroon erupted. People all over the world were born and died.

On May 28, 2004, a shadow lays across the sea; and because he is following that shadow, Truth Daniels is not lost.

He’s thirsty.

It’s been four days since he’s found water. It’s been eight days since the last real bit of land. He’s got legs tight as knots.

He’s really thirsty.

But he’s not lost, because he’s following something, and you can’t be lost when you’re doing that.

“We are following the shadow on the sea,” says Deva.

“Yes,” Truth says.

“We have followed it for eight thirsty days,” says Deva.

“Yes,” says Truth ruefully.

“We should stop following this shadow,” says Deva. “It is not working well for us.”

Truth laughs.

“If we don’t suffer,” he says, “how will we grow?”

Deva considers that.

“Water weight,” he says.

The woman is on the deck now. She has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She says, “I don’t want to be taller.”

Truth frowns.

“You could reach higher up in the rigging,” he points out. “Or, if there were a very low star—”

“When I was a little girl,” says the woman, “I wanted to be taller, but I didn’t want to suffer. Now I’m suffering but I’m as tall as I want to be.”

Her tone changes.

“Truth, where are we going?”

“I’m not lost,” says Truth, defensively.

“It’s hard to be lost when there’s a trail to follow.”

Truth frowns. She’s anticipated his next statement, so now he can’t make it.

“It’s like this,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer to a really horrible place.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. Truth can’t see this, but he knows her well enough to guess.

“With anthropophagy,” Truth clarifies.

“Ah,” says the woman.

So she goes and helps with the rigging, and Deva works the wheel.

She’s not the kind of woman who can just ignore the chance to go somewhere where people might get eaten.

A deadwind rises to fill their sails. It drives them eastwards, towards Elm Hill.

In the facility at Elm Hill, Liril screams.

Micah is bloody and battered. He looks just awful. Haggard, really. But he’s still alert enough to stagger in the direction of the scream.

Liril, Micah, and Tainted John arrived at Elm Hill three days ago.

They were ready to fight, then.

Micah, in particular, was feeling actively enthused, back then, about killing humans and gods until the facility at Elm Hill was nothing but an empty charnel house.

He stood outside the gates of the facility, practically shaking with weariness, and he said, “Okay. Do we get to do it now? Do we get to kill them now? Because this running thing? It’s hard.”

Liril looked at him and her lips were sealed tightly. She walked to the gate. She pushed it open.

The facility was dark.

Everywhere they went in it, it was dark.

And after a while, Liril said, “No.”

It was a plaintive noise.

“They’re all gone and I don’t know where,” she said. “So no killing.”

Then she made the tragic face that all little girls make, when they don’t get the chance to kill.

And three days passed in the darkness while Micah got wearier and the blood that he’d shed getting her there grew cold and gelatinous on his face and arms.

It felt cold and gelatinous even after he found water and washed it off.

His whole body has chills now. But there is still enough in him to run when he hears her scream.

He finds her in the basement in a little crawlspace cradling a dead bird.

There’s a discarded box nearby.

It looks really gross inside, like there’s been a bird buried in it for years.

So Micah figures that she found the box in the crawlspace, and took out the bird, and that’s why she screamed; but he can’t figure out why she’s holding it.

So he looks at the bird. He looks at Tainted John. Tainted John just grins.

“Huh?” says Micah, decisively.

Liril looks up at him.

“I buried it,” Liril says. “I declared the box a time capsule and I buried it. So that it would get younger and younger until it wasn’t dead any more. But I think I did not understand how time capsules worked.”

“Oh,” says Micah.

He looks at the bird again.

“I remember that,” he says. “Sort of.”

The bird is sticky and smelly but it’s really pretty amazing that it’s still around at all.

“The problem isn’t with you,” rasps Tainted John. “It’s with time.”

Micah hesitates.

“Can I fix it?” he says.

He holds out his hands. Liril, gently, reluctantly, passes him the bird.

“What do I do?” Micah asks.

But Liril shakes her head. She crawls out. She stands up. She shakes her head again. She looks sad.

“No,” she says. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything.”

The bird has four wings and a really long tail. And maybe a bit more in the way of liver than it should.

It’s twitching, ever so slightly, in his hands.

Here is some of the geography that surrounds them.

To the south there is the road. It curves west and runs through a valley before connecting onto the interstate. That is the direction from which Tina will approach.

To the north and west there is a cliff.

There should not be a cliff. The Elm Hill facility is on level ground in the middle of the city; but there is a cliff, and beyond it the still white waters of the sea.

The ground falls away amidst the graves of children and the swaying elm, down a steep black rocky slope, into the sea.

And the facility at Elm Hill casts its shadow out across the waves.

“Birds,” says Deva.

He takes Truth’s hand and he points it towards the birds.

Truth smiles.

“Good,” he says.

There are birds. There are hundreds of them. They are flying out over the sea.

“They think we might have food,” says Truth.

“They’re dead,” says Deva.

He’s wrinkling his nose. Deva has a bad history with birds, and reanimated ghost birds that smell of ancient graves just aren’t his favorite kind.

“Oh,” says Truth. “Then they might think that we are food.”

“Heh,” says Deva.

The grangler lopes towards the facility at Elm Hill.

Melanie is not that far behind him. She’s discussing things with Vincent.

“It’s the logical place,” she says.

“Is it?”

“We can’t stay at Central,” she says. “But the Elm Hill facility still has most of what we need.”

“No kids,” says Vincent.

“Yet,” says Melanie.

“I meant that as an injunction, not an observation.”

Melanie blinks. Then she laughs.

“Well,” she says. “Let’s start with a temporary operating headquarters and see where things go from there.”

“Death and ruin,” proposes the grangler.

Melanie snorts.

“Nine days of death and ruin, then possibly some sort of delicious cereal,” the grangler says.

It is pleased. It has a fey feeling. It likes fey feelings.

“Git,” says Melanie.

So the grangler lopes off ahead, through the facility gates.

And behind them there are others; walking down the road from the various places where they parked their cars, and some are on two feet, some on four, and others ride the wind.

Down in the basement, in Micah’s hands, the bird-thing is stirring. Micah makes a horrified noise. He lets go of the bird. It’s still stinking. It’s still dead. But it’s stirring, rising, breathing, flying.

It’s whirling around the hall, still smelling of decay.

“Oh my God,” says Micah.

“Hi,” says Liril, to the bird, in a soft pleased voice.

But the bird does not hear her. It is whirling around. It is flying past them. It is flying up the stairs and away.

“What kind of god was it?” Micah asks.

“A growing god,” says Liril.

And it is gone.

The grangler is there when it emerges from the building’s broken door. The bird is raven-sized now, where it was sparrow-sized before. It barely squeezes through the gap in the door; and on the other side, the grangler is waiting. The grangler catches it in his clawed dead hands.

“You’re no good bird,” he says.

The four-winged bird chirps desultorily.

“You’re from someone I let go,” he says. “But no one’s here to make me let you go now.”

The bird twists and shudders in his grip.

The grangler looks behind him. Melanie is not too far away. So he skulks off. He skulks to the cliff. He skulks behind the trees, where he may curl around the bird that is his prize.

He slavers.

“I will eat you slowly,” he says.

The bird is larger now. It’s bucking and twisting in his hands. It has two spare wings to beat at his face with. But the grangler holds tight.

“Wake up,” he says, and certain other words, so that it can appreciate what he’s going to do.

And its mind stumbles back to it from the grave, and Liril’s growing god, killed more than a decade before, wakes to the eyes of an enemy.

And it cannot break free.

There is a ship, the Anna Maria, sailing distantly through the sea.

On it, Deva is frowning, and saying, “You can’t drink the water of a dead bird.”

But Truth is laughing at him, and saying, “Deva, even dead birds mean land and land means water.”

And on the land, above, the grangler is feeling a certain mild concern; because the bird is nearly his size now, and it has two wings for flight, and there is no one there to make him let it go.

Truth is Not Lost (1 of 1)

Truth is not lost.

Here is how we know that Truth is not lost. When we look in on him, on Truth Daniels, as he stands on the foredeck of the Anna Maria with the sea-spray on his face, with his silver hair flowing and his white eyes bright, with his body leaning forward and his hand clinging to the ropes, we can see a shadow behind him. That shadow is Deva, the hound of Truth, and he is tall and barrel-shaped and strong, and he is looking around with consternation and shouting forwards, “Are we lost?”

And Truth shakes his head, and there is laughter in his voice, and he calls back,

“I don’t know where we’re going!”

So he can’t be lost, you see.

In the hold there is a woman, white-limned, sleeping in a nest of silks. There is her god, its cloud of sickle-shaped limbs stirring in the wind like hanging paper cuttings strung together from a rod. There is a statue made of resin-coated wood; it does not live but sometimes it stirs itself to speak. Of these all and all the other things that dwell within the ship only the woman is worth considering as a member of the crew; and so, while she sleeps, Truth and Deva sail alone.

The Anna Maria is a long and narrow ship. Its sails are great swathes of crimson. Its bow is a spear cut from the fingerbone of the wind. We know from earlier visions of this ship that it is not established which wind contributed the bone:

“Sometimes,” Truth says, “it is from the north wind, and sometimes from the south.”

“How can two winds share a fingerbone?” Deva is prone to ask.

“It is perplexing enough,” says Truth, “that they should have even one fingerbone between them; is it truly worth fretting over the shifting of its provenance?”

If the woman is on deck, then she is likely to respond: “The two are different orders of illogic, Mr. Daniels. It is one thing to broaden and anthropomorphize the meaning of ‘the wind,’ and it is quite another to undermine the conceptual integrity of ‘from.'”

Then Truth is on the ropes, and there is little he can do but offer her an embarrassed and futile smile. But if Deva and Truth are alone, Truth’s words are more difficult to challenge. Deva is many things but a theorist of the impossible he is not ever.

The Anna Maria sails the chaos that lies beyond Santa Ynez, past its harbors and past its bridges, between the eastern and western edges of the world. As we watch, gentle viewer, it is passing through the dominion of Lachek Il’sephrain, that dread and horrid god; and this prompts Truth to look worriedly over his shoulder at the man who is his hound.

“You’d best blindfold yourself,” says Truth.

Deva gives Truth a long, slow look.

“Seriously,” says Truth. “I know these waters. At least a little. You’re best to.”

“Why?”

“This is the reach of Il’sephrain,” says Truth. “He kills by overstimulating the visual cortex and flooding the mind with vision. Sensible people are quickly lost to madness and the brain eventually hemorrhages rather than process the data it receives.”

“I am sensible,” concedes Deva. “I will find something to shield my eyes.”

There are few things more terrifying in all the world than to sail the chaos with one’s eyes sealed shut. One never knows when some great threat will emerge to trouble the ship, and so Deva’s unhindered senses are paranoiacally alert. Each creak of the ship warns him of untold dangers; each flapping of the sails is the wings of some great bird; at each shift of the deck he imagines that the ship will heave and he, Deva, blind, will clutch fruitlessly at rope and wood, will find no balance, no purchase, and no handhold, and he will fall into the chaos and be lost.

“It’s all right, Deva,” says Truth. “We’re doing fine.”

It is raining now, a harsh cold rain that to Deva might be blood.

Truth points. He laughs. “There are stormlamps out,” he says.

The stormlamps cut through the water with their dark grey fins, and their bodies are as big as ships, and their angler’s lights are like beacons on the sea. It is said that they use these lights to terrify their prey:

“Dolphins, squids, and whales,” Truth says. “It paralyzes them, like a rabbit staring into a serpent’s jaws.”

If the woman is on deck, she will ask him, “Dolphins?” and her voice will be appalled.

“The sea is cruel,” Truth says.

But Deva, who has eaten dolphin himself a time or two, does not complain.

The stormlamps do not trouble the Anna Maria. It is not their natural prey, and the stormlamps are much concerned with propriety; or, if not propriety, then instinct, which causes them to shy from the things of men and gods. But their passage sends forth waves, and these waves rock the ship, and so each stormlamp’s passing torments further Deva’s nerves.

Suddenly, Deva swears.

“I can see them,” he says. “Dimly.”

“Then we have caught the notice of the god,” says Truth. “Have a care.”

“Rockwind to the east,” says Deva.

Truth looks over.

“Skyreef,” he argues.

“Don’t be daft,” says Deva.

Truth rubs at his cheek, thoughtfully. “I guess it could be a rockwind. We’d better tack away.”

Deva’s stomach sinks. He looks a little ill. But he does what he must. He moves along the edge of the boat, helping Truth with the sails and the boom. His hands fumble at the knots and clamps. With the blindfold sealing his eyes, he can barely make out the shapes of them, even there, in the reach of Il’sephrain.

Deva can feel Truth’s eyes on him, and he flushes.

“Just a little slow today,” Deva says.

Truth grins.

The boom swings. The ship cuts west towards lighter waters.

“We’ll be on him soon,” says Truth.

Deva frowns and shakes his head. The play of light and motion through the blindfold that he wears has reached the point of full and normal vision; he can see Truth, he can see the ship, he can see the ropes and wood, and at the same time he knows in the depths of his brain that he cannot see these things at all.

And then he looks up, to the west and a little south, and there he sees the bulbous eye of Lachek Il’sephrain, struck upwards from the sea like the point of Neptune’s spear, and Deva cries out and shields his eyes with his forearm, and this action does no good. For all that day and many days besides his mind will swim with the pulsing azure afterimage of the eye of Il’sephrain.

“Hold the course,” cries Truth, into the wind.

And Deva holds the course.

The sea lashes the boat this way and that, and Deva sets and releases the ropes and he struggles with the wheel, and as the eye looms closer Deva begins to see things that he has never seen before. The pattern of the good ship’s maker is clear to him in the wood, and the ropes wear the marks of all three sailors’ souls; and suddenly, then, he can see in the wind and the sea and the creaking bones of the ship the course they all are driven on—

A course into the eye of Il’sephrain.

And Deva sees the futility of all his efforts, and that no seamanship can do him good; and laughing and crying with despair, he falls back and the ropes go loose and Deva stares upwards at the endless chambers of the sky, billowing and shifting above him, burning with the distant light of stars.

“Hold the course,” says Truth, and struggles with the ship; but his struggles serve him not; and the ship plunges forward and the spear of its bow goes full into the eye of Lachek Il’sephrain and the god gives forth a bubbling scream and blood stains blacken the sails of the ship and the whole lurches back and forth and the woman nearly wakes.

Later, Deva says to Truth, “It is a strange thing, isn’t it? That it would call us there only to its doom?”

Truth says, “It’s not for us to question Il’sephrain.”

“Perhaps it is its party game,” the woman says. “See how many ships it can kill before somebody loses an eye.”

Truth laughs.

“You know,” says Deva, “it’s also a strange thing, that we sailed so close, if we were not lost.”

And if the woman is on deck, then Truth will simply hang his head and blush; but if she is not, and Truth and Deva are alone, then Truth says, “I wanted to see you, Deva.”

The words hang in the air: “I wanted to see you, Deva.”

Then there is quiet for a time, as Truth stares forward with his blind white eyes and Deva works the ropes.

Legend of the Wheel

The dog is black. It is skeletally lean. Its eyes are terrible.

“Wuf,” it barks.

“Easy, boy,” says Micah.

“I won’t be so easy,” threatens the dog.

“Ah,” says Micah.

The dog wants him to comment on its remarkable power of speech. Micah can tell. So he lets the silence stretch.

“I can talk,” says the dog, eventually, “because I’ve eaten human brains and learned their wisdom. That’s the reason.”

“Ah,” Micah says.

“It’s brains!” cries an Irish Setter, wagging her tail vigorously. “Tasty brains!”

A human woman giggles. She brings in the groceries.

“Oh, please! Tasty brains!” begs the dog.

The narrator explains, “Beggin’ Brains—a new delicious dog treat! Dogs don’t know it’s not human brains!”

“I’m going to eat these brains and absorb the skills and knowledge of humans!” cries the Irish Setter. “Then I’ll be able to open doors and shoot squirrels with a gun! Also, I’ll be able to thump my own sides!”

The narrator laughs indulgently. “Aww.”

“Real brains?” Micah asks.

“Real brains,” confirms the dog.

“That’s gross.”

“It started with just one baby,” says the dog. “My mommy thought that he might be the Antichrist. But the baby-killing abortion doctors wouldn’t help her because of her strong pro-life stance! She was pretty desperate. She couldn’t raise the Antichrist and a dog. So she fed the baby to me.”

“Babies don’t know how to talk,” says Micah.

“That’s true,” says the dog. “But once you’ve fed one baby to a dog, it’s easier to feed the dog the next one. Pretty soon, it was her standard response to pregnancy; and then, when she ran out of dog food, she just grabbed a couple of toddlers from the street and I munched them down.”

“I see.”

“I’ve been working my way up through variously-aged children,” says the dog. It sizes up Micah. “I’m about ready for a ten-year-old by now.”

“I’m thirteen,” bluffs Micah.

The dog looks him up and down.

“I remember Reagan’s election,” Micah says.

“That was more than thirteen years ago,” says the dog.

“Its repercussions echoed through time and space!”

“I think that you are lying,” says the dog. “But in case you are not, I will hamstring you, eat the girl I smell in the distance, who is certainly no more than twelve, and then return to devour you.”

Micah readies himself to fight; but it is not the dog that he will fight.

“I was sad,” confesses Basil, into the camera. He’s a boy. He’s wearing a jacket. He looks a lot like Sebastien did at his age. “It was the promise of my birth that I would fight for her. That I would do what the hero didn’t, and go into Central, and kill them all, and take her away. But if you’re someone who fights, then you can’t also be someone who wins and doesn’t have to fight any more. So I was stuck with a dharma that I couldn’t ever really fulfill.”

Soft music plays.

“Then,” says Basil, “my doctor proscribed Belsheflex. It’s the only prescription medicine designed to treat inherent flaws in a person’s nature.”

Talk to your doctor about Belsheflex!

Side effects can include stomach cramps, itching, bloating, emptiness, ineffectuality, and in rare cases seizures or heart dysfunction. It might be for you.

“I’m happy with Belsheflex!” Basil declares.

There is a thing in the woods. It is taller than the tallest trees. It is round, and its color is blue and white like the sky, and its shape is a wheel within a wheel; and all around that wheel are feet and thorns and eyes; and on each side of it unfold two great wings with feathers made of glass, and the thunder of those wings is like the noise of great waters. It reaches them as Micah sets himself to fight, and the footfall of its passing crushes the dog’s bones like they were so many sticks.

It is rolling towards Micah, and towards Liril beyond.

Micah does not move. He can’t. It is his dharma to be the border between Liril and the world.

Even against the wheel he shall fight.

What happens then, we cannot know.

Nightmare of the Rustling

It is night. Micah and Liril are sleeping. Tainted John is laying down.

There is a rustling.

Micah is instantly awake.

There is a further rustling. Something is scurrying and slithering in the pine needles. It is evil.

Micah is on his feet. He is looking towards it.

It is great and serpentine and slithery. It is pale moonlight colors, blue and cold. It has a terrible maw. It has black feathers on its head and raven eyes. It is just the sort of thing that one finds making rustling noises in the forest.

“Once upon a time,” the creature whispers, and its voice is moon and stars and wind, “a runaway child broke his leg here. So he died. And I grew inside him. And then I came out. And now I must kill runaway children to lay my eggs in them.”

Micah looks at Tainted John. Tainted John does not seem to have noticed the rustling or the creature’s speech.

The creature’s head sways back and forth in the air. Then it arcs viciously towards Micah. Micah moves to meet it, then stops, his hands splayed in the air, as if against an invisible wall. The creature stops too.

“There’s a glass door,” Micah bluffs. “Bump! If you attack, you’ll hit your head on it!”

The creature hesitates. “Open it,” it says.

“There’s no handle!”

The creature eyes him narrowly. It has bumped into glass doors before. They are one of its natural enemies. But the air is undisturbed.

“I do not believe you,” it whispers.

“I wouldn’t let her sleep out here defenseless,” Micah bluffs.

And if this works, we cannot know.

Legend of Dr. T

Micah is in a forest. He ranges ahead of the others. Through the trees, he sees a dirt clearing. There’s a car parked sideways there. He freezes.

Slowly, he begins to back away. He has to tell Liril. They have to choose another route.

“I wouldn’t do that, kid,” says a voice.

Micah turns, like a startled animal. There’s a man in a lab coat behind him, leaning against a tree.

“I’m just looking for the bathroom,” Micah tries.

“I’m Dr. T,” says the man in the lab coat. He looks not at all like Mr. T, which rules out the possibility that Mr. T has finally gotten his doctorate. Dr. T is stroking a white-skinned furless cat. “And you’re Micah. And somewhere back there is Liril.”

“I really have to pee,” Micah says. “I don’t know who Micah is. My name is Preston. Preston Merriweather. The third.”

“I’m not hunting you,” says Dr. T. “I just listen to the police scanner. I just wanted to meet you, Micah.”

Micah weighs the options. “Why?”

“I wanted to know if you’re made of meat.”

Micah hesitates. “Meat?”

“A long time ago,” says Dr. T, “I was a legend. I was Evil Tofu. I was the man made of synthetic protein. I was the insidious doctor who sought to replace humanity with evil meatless alternatives. Yet I failed. And now—here you are. Born not organically but from the heart. So I must ask you: what is the nature of your protein, Micah?”

Micah licks his lips uncertainly.

“I never heard of you,” Micah says.

“People don’t like to remember how easily they could be replaced.”

Dr. T releases the cat. It lands on its doughy white feet with a squelching noise.

“People can’t accept that they are an inferior species,” Dr. T says. “That they live in agony and suffering like the animals they raise, because organics. Are. Not. Evolution’s. End.”

Dr. T holds out his hand. He opens his palm.

“But this is still the future,” he says. Under a sewn-together human skin, Micah can see white tofu oozing. “Soy. Soy does not suffer, Micah. Soy feels no guilt. To be soy is,” and here he laughs, lightly, self-indulgently, “to be soy-perior.”

He pauses.

“So . . . what of gods?” asks the insidious Dr. T.

“We hurt about things,” says Micah. “Sometimes.”

“Ah,” says Dr. T.

Micah turns.

“Ah,” says Dr. T, again, and his voice is full of sorrow.

Micah starts to walk away.

“I’ll need your skin,” says Dr. T, interrupting him. “And hers. Towards my masquerade. And your hair, for my cat. So she does not squelch so. You are not the allies I had hoped.”

“It’s OK,” says Micah.

Micah squares his shoulders and readies himself to fight; but what happens then, we cannot know.

A Raw Deal for Creepy Handwriting Girl (2 of 2)

Liril runs.

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.

Liril runs.

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.

“Liril makes
Proteus frown.
He eats her bones
Then Micah drowns.
Burma Shave.”

“That’s dispiriting,” Liril says.

“It’s a sign of our times,” the next sign she passes says.

“Oh.”

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.

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

“And?”

“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.

“Shut up.”

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.

Liril nods.

“But now I feel kind of guilty-angry about the whole thing.”

“We could flip a coin,” says Liril.

“We could?”

“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.

The Old Man of the Sea (1 of 2)

It’s Tuesday, the 20th of April, 2004.

“We’ll go away from Santa Ynez,” says Liril.

So they do.

“And do we just run?”

“We’ll go to where I screamed,” Liril says. “To Elm Hill. We’ll take back every god they took and steal every tainted bill and coin and favor they bought. Then we’ll run away to the hills and live richly forever.”

“I didn’t know,” Micah says.

“It’s what people do,” Liril says. “They keep their own gods.”

Micah looks tired. He is still recovering from torture. He is not at his best. But he tells everyone where to find the supplies he stole from a grocery store on Saturday. They find the cache.

“I should have realized,” Micah says, “about the milk.”

“I like the peanut butter,” Liril says. She has opened some up and spread it on crackers.

She thinks.

“We can live off the milk of the land,” she adds.

“That’s a good idea,” Micah agrees. “Please make one for me?”

Liril looks at him. She’s a bit startled. But then she nods, and puts peanut butter on a cracker, and offers it to him. He takes it. He bites it.

“What’s up ahead?” he asks.

“There’s a river,” she says. “That’s where we probably all die, except Tainted John. He probably dies in a train wreck.”

Tainted John looks at her, or rather, doesn’t look at her, because his eyes are all blood and shimmer.

“Oh,” says Micah.

“If we can survive two years or so,” Liril says, “we’re okay.”

“So if I get eaten by a shark,” Micah says, “I should try to hang on for at least two years.”

“Sharks are sharp. But you should try. Or if you get burned. Or whatever.”

“If I’m dangling off a cliff?”

Liril looks at him. Her eyes are deep. “Pull yourself up,” she says. “Don’t just hang on for two years.”

Micah smiles at her.

Liril blushes.

“Don’t,” she says, in a small voice.

“What happens at the river?”

“There was a gate,” Liril says. “Once upon a time. And ministers in attendance upon it. I was screaming. But they wanted me to grow up and become something else.”

“You can grow up,” Micah says. He’s deliberately ignoring the fact that he’s been the same age ever since he was born. “It’s okay to.”

“I didn’t want to,” Liril says. “Not that way.”

“Oh.”

“There were ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too strong,” says Liril. “And ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too gross. It was just the way it was. I couldn’t touch them. But there was one who was pure and bright and kind of cold. His nametag said, ‘Proteus’, and under that, ‘Cruelty.'”

“The monster is really bad at Greek,” Micah says.

“I could touch him,” Liril says, “because he was impartial to me. He didn’t have anything he was for. He was just there. So I gave him a purpose. I said, ‘Proteus, wait for me at the river, and I won’t pass through the gate until I see you there.'”

“And he did?”

“Yes,” Liril says. “And since that time there’s been no change, except when a wind blew off the chaos and brought him strength.”

“Also, I rolled a rock,” Micah says. “It changed things.”

Liril considers.

“It did,” Micah says.

Liril touches his mouth with a finger. “It was a cause,” she says. “Things have more than one reason. It’s okay. You’re a good Micah.”

He looks at her wryly.

“You’re delicate with me today,” he says.

“I looked at what she was doing to you,” Liril says. “I was crying the whole time but I couldn’t face her yet.”

“Things have reasons,” Micah says, and he shrugs. He sees her face, and his own face starts to get a little weird.

“No,” Liril says. “We won’t discuss it now. Later. Later, when it’s not—we can’t discuss it now.”

“Okay.”

They walk towards the river, carrying their bags of groceries.

“We shouldn’t cross at a bridge,” Micah says. “We shouldn’t cross anywhere people are. But the river’s kind of hard to wade.”

“I know,” Liril says. “But there’s a river-man in the river. He’s part of why it’s so deep. Tainted John’s going to hold his face down in the mud and the river’ll sink. Then we can cross.”

“Kuras did that once,” Micah says. “To defeat Belshazzar.”

“What?”

“He lowered the river that ran through Babylon, and marched his people in on the riverbed.”

“Oh,” says Liril. She looks pleased, because Micah seems a little less drained when he’s talking about this.

They reach the river. Micah looks at the river. It’s deep and wide.

“Is he . . . can John do stuff like that?”

Micah’s voice is a little resentful now. His greatest talent is surprisingly relevant historical trivia. It bothers him that Tainted John has actual magic powers.

“Can,” Liril confirms.

Tainted John looks at Micah. The boy reflected in those eyes is small and tired and dirty and smells of sweat and pain. Then John grins, and turns to the river, and flows in. The water level begins to fall.

“He’s a jerk,” Micah says.

“It’s okay.”

The water level falls further.

There’s a man standing by the river, rising from the river, falling from the trees, forming from the air. He’s old but in good shape for his age. He’s wearing a white shirt, and there’s a nametag attached that says, “Proteus,” and beneath that, “Cruelty.”

Micah looks at him.

“I think,” Micah says, “that you’re really happy that at last Liril can grow up, and so you’re going to join our rag-tag band, seal a promise of friendship with us by eating a cracker with peanut butter on it, and you’ll accompany us on our magical adventure to Elm Hill.”

“Your theory is flawed,” Proteus says.

Micah looks really tired. “Come on,” he says. “Please? I’m really tired. I don’t want to fight you.”

“I am an agent and a creature of change,” says Proteus. “They called me the Old Man of the Sea. And I have been held in stasis for more than twenty years because I chose to participate in a process otherwise marked only by horror. Now I am resentful and bitter and wish to kill you all.”

“You were there when they were breaking her,” Micah points out. “You could have helped.”

“The sea is cruel.”

“You can’t have the moral high ground at sea level,” Micah says, “unless you’re like a squid or something.”

“I buttress my moral standing with raw power,” Proteus says. He demonstrates, transforming into a tower of flame, a terrible lion, a serpent, a tiger, a silk shirt, a porcelain doll like Liril’s Latch, a dragon whose eyes are like the emptiness, an angel, a twig—

Micah steps forward, sharply, and snaps Proteus in half.

Then he sags.

“What?” Liril says.

“He was a twig,” Micah justifies. His eyes are blinking pretty quickly and there’s a horror at their back.

“Oh,” Liril says.

The river runs dry. But Micah does not stride boldly forward.

“It’s—I mean, I mean, you have to, you have to fight,” Micah says.

Liril tries to take his hand, but he wrenches away from her. He’s staring blankly at the twig.

“Oh my God,” he says. “Oh my God.”

“Micah—”

Micah snaps out of it. “We have to go,” he mumbles.

“We can fix him.”

“We have to go. It’s just a twig. Twiggy face Proteus oh God.”

Liril takes his hand. This time he accepts.

“It’s okay,” Liril says. “We can fix him. It’s okay. I didn’t tell you to break him. I didn’t mean you to.”

“He was in the way,” Micah says. “He’s . . .”

Micah’s voice is rising towards a child’s howl.

There are distant sirens.

Liril’s hand tightens on Micah’s. Slowly, he calms.

“All right,” he says. His face is pale. “How?”

Liril looks at the broken twig.

“You can fix a broken twig with construction paper,” she says. “You cut it up into pieces and paste them on as a brace. Then the twig is whole, because paper and twigs are the same.”

“I didn’t know that,” Micah says.

“Most people just leave twigs broken,” says Liril. “Most twigs aren’t, aren’t, aren’t—um.”

“People,” Micah says.

He roots around in the groceries. There is construction paper, and scissors, and tape, and glue, and paste, and crayons, and pens, and paper, because Micah’s life has provided him with a startlingly complete exposure to the lessons of kindergarden. There is also a coloring book that describes the fall of Belshazzar. He had stolen it in hopes that Liril would find time for coloring on their journey.

“Use too much paste and you’ll stick to everything,” Liril warns.

Micah ignores her. He begins to work.

“Uh,” Micah says, as he works. “There’s handwriting on this paper.”

“Like?”

“‘Anger.’ ‘Blood.’ ‘Fury.’ ‘Resentment.'”

“Huh,” Liril says.

“Huh?”

“It’s probably to make him hate us,” Liril says. “It’s too bad.”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says.

“Huh?”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says. “It just got written on this paper twice.”

“Write ‘miney moe,'” Liril advises.

Micah complies.

There’s a long pause.

“It was probably going to say ‘tekel parsin’,” Liril says. “Mene mene tekel parsin. You have been measured and found wanting and will be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I don’t want to be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I know,” Liril says. “It probably won’t happen. I mean, nowadays.”

“Now there’s an illustration of a middle finger,” Micah says.

“Just fix,” Liril says.

So Micah fixes Proteus with paste and cut-up pieces of construction paper. Micah gets paste on his hands and arms. Proteus gets his life back, and transforms himself into a man.

“That was rude, boy,” Proteus says, referencing the fact that Micah stepped on him and broke him in half while he was in a vulnerable ‘twig’ form.

“I tried to fix it,” Micah protests.

“I should kill you now.”

Proteus lunges at Micah. Micah’s face grows paler, but he has not lost the will to fight. He wraps his arms around the man even as they fall over backwards. Proteus becomes a thrashing shark. He becomes acid. He becomes a pony with a mouth full of terrible teeth. Then he is a man again.

“You’re holding on well,” he admits. “It’s practically heroic.”

“I don’t want to,” Micah says.

“What’s that, boy?”

“I have paste on my hands,” Micah says. “I’m sticking to everything.”

Liril looks slightly away.

“Oh,” says Proteus.

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” rasps out Tainted John.

There is a long silence.

Tainted John looks down and away.

There is a further silence.

Then Proteus transforms into a hissing serpent, a many-limbed horror, a tree, and a cloud, wrestling against Micah and his paste.

“Are you actually going to hurt me, or just turn into things while I’m stuck?” Micah asks.

Proteus becomes a tiger. He bites deep into Micah’s arm. Micah’s arm runs with blood. His brain fills up with endorphins, which allows him to swallow back his scream. Then Proteus is a man again, spitting and cursing.

“Um?” Micah says. He sounds a bit upset. After all, Proteus bit him, and now he’s acting all like Micah’s done something wrong.

Proteus spits.

What?

“You taste like paste.”

Micah stares at him.

“I don’t like eating paste,” says Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.

“I’m a boy,” Micah says. “I’m supposed to taste funny.”

“You taste like paste and dirt and sweat and grass and mud.”

“Then don’t eat me,” Micah says. “I dunno. If you learn anything in kindergarden, it’s not to eat paste or boys. They taste bad and you don’t know where they’ve been!”

“Did you even go to kindergarden?”

“I . . . I’m like Kuras,” Micah says.

“Kuras?”

“His grandfather believed that Kuras would rule over all of Asia, so he ordered his servant Harpagus to set the infant Kuras down on a hillside and watch over him until he died. Instead, a miraculous sheepdog suckled him until Harpagus gave up and said, ‘Fine, he gets to live.’ It wasn’t like kindergarden, but it gave him a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s life lessons without actual attendance.”

“Ah,” says Proteus. “You mean Cyrus.

“I guess.” Micah grins a little. “He’s kind of my idol.”

“Your story differs from Herodotus’ account of the matter,” Proteus says skeptically. “In his History, he alleges that the miraculous dog-suckling was a rumor Cyrus spread purely for political gain.”

Micah handwaves, as best he can while pasted to a god.

“I think Herodotus is too cynical,” Micah says. “Kuras beat Belshazzar. He’s smart enough to have put forward a less embarrassing animal to suckle him. Like a shark. Or an eagle.”

Micah is actually sounding better, because he likes talking about Kuras.

“Probably not a shark,” Proteus says. “In the mountains.”

“A grizzled mountain shark,” Micah says.

“Hm?”

“That’s what I’d say. A grizzled mountain shark, so tough he didn’t need water and could just swim on rocks, suckled me. Then everyone would know I was badassed. But since he didn’t say that, the whole sheepdog thing must be the truth.”

Proteus reaches a sudden resolution.

“Let us not debate the veracity of Herodotus,” he says. “Instead, I will wash you off!”

He begins to run towards the sea. Micah is dragged along with him, and cannot stop him, but he shouts, “Wait! Wait! I have scissors!”

“What?”

Proteus slows.

“I have scissors,” Micah says. “You’re running with scissors. Somebody could lose an eye.”

Proteus stops cold, face going ashen.

“Your life did provide a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s lessons without actual attendance,” he says.

“I know,” Micah says.

Proteus looks towards the distant sea. He ponders how long it would take to walk to it while pasted to a boy.

“If we work together,” Proteus says, “we could probably get unstuck.”

“You’d eat Liril,” says Micah. “And then Tainted John. And me.”

“I’d eat Liril, boy. She doesn’t taste of paste. The rest of you, I dunno.”

Micah looks at the river. He looks at Tainted John. His nose curls.

“You could eat him,” Micah says.

“I don’t want to find out what he tastes like,” Proteus says. Micah is annoyed, but can’t help seeing Proteus’ point. “I just don’t.”

Tainted John smiles impassively. He is holding the river down. That’s why he can’t help!

“I can’t let you eat even Liril,” Micah says. “She’s important to me.”

“Why?”

“I’m a startingly accurate rendition of her volition,” Micah says. “I mean, I was. Before. Now maybe I’m just someone who fights for us.”

“Ah,” says Proteus.

“Ah?”

“I could give her a head start,” Proteus says.

“Or let us go?”

“I’m not inclined to be forgiving,” says Proteus. “What with the words ‘anger’, ‘fury’, ‘blood,’ ‘resentment’, and ‘mene mene miney moe’ written into my very flesh.”

“Uh,” says Micah. “I only wrote the miney moe part. Who did the rest?”

“Some creepy handwriting girl,” Proteus says. He shrugs.

“Oh.”

Micah would investigate further, but right now, he’s affixed to a man who can turn into a shark. It distracts him.

“I’ll help you get unstuck,” Micah says. “Then you’ll give her a head start.” He thinks. “But it has to be a good one. It can’t be like five seconds.”

“What about seven seconds?”

Micah looks at Liril.

Liril judges, “Seven seconds is like five seconds, even though it’s two seconds longer.”

“Five minutes?”

Liril looks unhappy.

“What?” Micah asks.

“Well, it’s not like five seconds,” Liril says, “but it’s awfully short.”

“Ten, then,” Proteus says.

Micah looks at Proteus. “Deal.”

“Deal.”

They pull at one another. They wrestle. Eventually the paste succumbs to the transience of all things. Micah and Proteus stumble apart.

Proteus turns into a talking bear.

“Run,” Proteus growls.

Micah turns to run.

“Not you,” Proteus says. He slaps Micah with the paw of a bear and Micah falls senseless to the river bed. Proteus points to Liril. “You.”

Liril runs.

Tainted John looks up. He frowns.

Liril looks back.

“Stay,” Liril says to Tainted John, for Micah is in the river bed.

And then she runs.

The Place Without Recourse (I/I)

My name is Train Morgan. This is my website. This page is the story of my brother Thomas. I am writing it so that people will know what happened to him.

Sam and Bird like to visit the abandoned facility on Elm Hill. They invited me many times. I only went once. I did not like it.

I told my brother about Sam and Bird. He thought it sounded cool. He went with them to the facility. He had bad timing. He was seen. He attracted someone’s attention. They did not like his presence. Now I have lost him.

The facility on Elm Hill has been abandoned. There is no machinery there now. There are no rats. There is no pain. There are no dancing Popes.

It is 2002.

“I don’t think this is a good idea, ” says Train. He’s a teenager. He’s wearing jeans and a skin-tight shirt. He’s got black hair and a tan.

Bird frowns at him. “It’s the coolest place ever, ” she says. “Just feel the air.”

Bird’s also a teen. She doesn’t look scared, but she is hanging, just a bit more tightly, on Sam’s arm.

“They had big ‘Keep Out’ signs,” Train points out.

Sam tilts his head to one side. “You’ll like it here,” he says.

Train rests his hand on the stained white wall. He looks uncertain. “What do you do here?”

“Commune,” Sam says.

“Listen,” Bird says. “Have you ever thought that there was something . . . bigger, in the world? Bigger than the ordinary way of being?”

Train listens to the air. Then he shakes his head. “I don’t, Sam. I don’t like it.”

Sam walks forward. With his free hand, he gestures to Train. “Further in,” he says. “It’s okay. I’m not so fond of this part either. But you’ll like Cheryl.”

Train shakes his head. But he lets Sam and Bird lead him deeper in.

He attracted their attention. So they found my brother.

They took him to a room. They asked Thomas, “Why do such terrible things happen in the world?” Thomas could not give them an answer. So they showed him the reason.

I was not there. I was in bed. I woke up screaming. I had lost my brother.

There are pipes on the walls. Sam’s flashlight plays over them as they walk. There’s a mist here, a condensation in the air.

Bird waves her hand through the mist. “This is Cheryl,” she says.

Train frowns. “Why do you call it Cheryl?”

Bird’s eyes are half-lidded. She’s looking upwards with a distant expression on her face. She sways slightly.

“It makes me feel lost,” Bird says. “It makes me feel alone. Like a dead girl might feel.”

Train looks at Sam, a little disturbed.

“Cheryl was her sister’s name,” Sam says. He closes his eyes. He wriggles his shoulders and his hands. “It’s good. Just . . . relax. Can’t you relax, Train?”

“I guess,” Train says. He closes his eyes.

“I’m not really real,” Bird says. “I’m just someone’s dream. I think that sometimes.”

“You’re real,” Train says.

He was not real any more. He was not a person any more. He was no longer my brother Thomas. He was. He had been. Now he isn’t.

There’s a chill in the air.

Sam says, softly, “The mist makes me think of a place far from here. A place where there is no recourse. It is not a place of the scholar’s books or the ancient memories of man. But it is known. It is seen between the ink and the white on the pages of a newspaper. It flickers on the dead channels of the television. It is something I have read of on the sides of a bus, passing by too fast to truly understand. Wouldn’t you like to have such visions, Train?”

“I wouldn’t,” Train says. “Not if I’d read it in the paper. Not if I’d see it on the television. Not if I’d read it on a bus.”

“There aren’t any people there,” Sam says.

“I wouldn’t like it without people.”

A mosquito lands on Train’s arm. He slaps it, then makes a startled noise. Its body is cold and the stain it leaves is black.

“Come on, Train,” Sam says. “Let yourself feel it.”

“I asked the mist,” Bird says. “I asked Cheryl, ‘Did you dream me?’ But it didn’t answer.”

Slowly, the three walk through the mist.

I saw his fate written on a milk carton’s back. Then I blinked and it was gone. It said:

Ii Ma, the Warden, keeps the place without recourse.

They sent my brother there.

“The place without recourse,” Sam says, “is a deep-walled valley. And each person who goes there is given a question to hold close to their heart. Until they answer it, they cannot leave. And because they can’t answer it, they’re not really people any more.”

They pass a room.

“That’s the Liril room,” Bird says.

Train looks in. Scratched in jagged letters, near the bottom of the wall, is the word LIRIL.

“It’s a palindrome,” Sam says.

“It’s like ‘Croatoan,'” Bird opines. “A mystery, left behind, to explain why the facility closed down. Are you the one who dreamed me, Liril?” she asks the air.

“I’d try to run,” Train says. “If I were in the place without recourse.”

“You could try,” Sam says. “But the valley walls are steep. And when you’d climbed until you could see the outside world, even as you crested the top and looked down at the paradise outside, you’d find yourself waking back in your bed, in the place without recourse. And you’d look at the dawn, and you’d say, ‘how beautiful.'”

There’s a spider on the wall. It’s hideous. Train recoils. Bird rubs its furry back with one long finger. “Did you dream me?” she asks it.

It scurries off into the mist. If anyone there knew the spider language, they might have heard its answer.

“I’d organize a rebellion,” Train says.

“You might,” Sam says. “And when you marched on the guards, you’d find yourself waking back in your bed, in the place without recourse. And you’d look at the dawn, and you’d say, ‘how beautiful.'”

They sent Thomas to the place without recourse. But he did not give up. He went to Ii Ma. The Warden is a squamous and amphibious beast with six great flippered legs and a face that drips black blood. Its eyes are cadaverous and filmed with slime.

“Free me,” Thomas asked Ii Ma. This is courage unparalleled. You cannot understand unless you have seen it. To speak in its presence at all shows courage. To make a petition of it, from a position of powerlessness—I am proud of my brother.

Thomas woke, in his bed, in the place without recourse. And he looked at the dawn. And he said, as he says every morning, ‘How beautiful.’

There’s a coughing sound in the mist. Train looks around.

“Hey,” Train says. He’s uneasy now. “Hey. Shouldn’t we be . . . communing? With something?”

Bird peers at Train. Her eyes have neither iris nor pupil. He realizes, in that moment, that they never have.

“Did you dream me?” she asks. “You’re a nice boy. I’d like it if you’d dreamed me.”

He shakes his head. “No,” he says, helplessly. “I’m just Train.”

“The air is full of answers,” Sam says.

“I don’t belong here,” Train says.

“It’s all right,” Sam says. They walk on down the empty hall. Finally, Sam points to the left. “You can go out that way,” he says. “We’ll stay for a while.”

“I’m sorry,” Train says.

“You’d like it,” Sam says. “If you tried it. If you just . . . let go.”

Train walks out.

I left.

Sam let me go. Bird let me go. If Ii Ma did not take them, they are now in twelfth grade. Sam will still be praising the virtues of the place. Bird will still be seeking whomever dreamt her.

Ii Ma did not let me go.

I dream of it. I know that it will come for me. It will ask me a question I cannot answer. It will take me away from the world to the place without recourse. And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

Perhaps I will see my brother. It would be kind. There is a great deal more cruelty than kindness in the world. But there is that hope, and so I tell myself:

I think I can endure.