Green (III/V)

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.

He frowns.

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—

Oh.

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.

“Done.”

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.

“I—”

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.

He nods.

“And she puts out your eyes,” Priyanka says, “and turns you into— some sort of—”

He shrugs.

“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.”

Wicked Children (I/I)

Now squat sits the facility upon Elm Hill, like some great and bulbous beast, and wrapped around it its tangled fences have the look of chains, and its windows of great sad eyes, and when the sun sinks down behind the facility at Elm Hill the children of the neighborhoods beneath imagine it whimpering and muttering to itself, bound down onto the earth, and resentful of humanity that can roam free—

Not that those children, tucked down for the night, bound by their quilts and their blankets and their parents’ rules, were free.

But the wicked ones, well—

If they were wicked children, why, they could loose themselves from their bindings and creep out from their beds. They could walk on their bootied feet to the darkened windows, and there to stare out at the facility and the moon.

Some, like Sam did, like Bird did, could grow up later and go in.

Others were to live and die and sometimes even live again before they ever dared to test its gates.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

The facility at Elm Hill is not active, not now. It has been years since children screamed there. It has been years since the monster worked there, in the fashion of his kind, and Tina, and the rest.

And to look at the green on the facility’s roof and its lawn all specked up with graves, and the dead black gates and the crooked doors, is to suspect that here was an awful mistake. That this was the monster’s Chernobyl. That here had been his Leipzig and his Agincourt.

Here had nearly ended the monster’s ambitions, at the facility at Elm Hill.

It has gone sick, this facility, root and branch.

It has gone wrong.

There is something organic in it now, something dreadful and alive, and in its basement are pipes, and stagnant water in those pipes; and the walls are lightly overgrown with a strange slick substance that is neither mold nor moss; and a bleak karma dwells within those walls that longs to expunge the suffering that gave it birth and revenge itself on those who within its boundaries do harm.

It is a bad house.

It is an evil house.

But as horrid as the facility can be, it is kinder to innocents than to monsters.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

It is May 28, 2004 and the grangler is dead.

As for Liril, she’s down in the room where they used to keep her. She’s touching the place where she’d once scratched LIRIL on the wall.

“I don’t know,” she says.

It’s too big for her.

She’s trying to wrap her mind around it but she can’t. It’s not the letters, even though they’re capitalized and the part of her name after the L usually isn’t. It’s everything.

It’s just too big.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you?”

Tainted John is somewhere. She’s not sure where. Micah’s on his way upstairs. He’s hoping to find out what happened to a great dead bird; that, or to fall down, to rest, because some sleep would be OK.

The thing that’s behind her in the room isn’t one of Liril’s gods.

It’s the last remnant of the grangler.

Now Liril is young but Liril is wise and she knows that the grangler must be dead—for no living grangler could have gotten to her, not past Micah and Tainted John. And she knows that it must long for nothing less than to seize her and never let her go—to have one last thing of its holding before it is given over to the grave.

There was a time when it had held her in its claws. There was a Halloween when it had lunged out of nowhere amidst the screaming of the goblins and the ghouls and seized her up—

It hadn’t liked to let her go.

And Liril does not know whether, by this token, it will drag her down from the halls of life into the Underworld, there to be its prisoner in death, or simply cling to her ankle and succumb there, a new and permanent attachment until decay consumes its flesh.

But still she says, “C’mon, then.”

It comes over by her. It hunches down. It shakes its head.

“Oh?”

And she is crying a little, and she doesn’t really know why, except that she can. It’s all bound up with Melanie. Crying in front of it shouldn’t be allowed.

Except, she can.

So she hugs it first. She cries, and she holds the grangler before it can hold her, and she says, “You’re a grangler, grangler. You’ve gotta.”

It’s still shaking its head.

She doesn’t even see how that can be. She’s been held by ghosts before—not just the grangler, but the monster’s too—and she knows them.

The grangler is a god of hanging on.

It’s just the tiniest bit of broken and lingering soul, at this point, but that part doesn’t change.

But it doesn’t hang on to her. It’s not there to hang on to her. She can feel its ichor where she hugged it and the slime of it is on her and in the openness of her soul and after the very long seconds of her confusion she manages to understand.

Of course it won’t grab her. Of course.

It’s been touched by a growing god.

Her eyes untangle the grangler now. She is alive and fierce with an alien interest now. She sees along the knots and cords of karma—of one thing, which leads to another, which is continued to the next—in search of the pattern that has brought it here.

She sees how to save it. She sees how to bind it. She sees how to reunite its soul. She moves a hand—

Gravity fails. She is disoriented. Everything is white, then black.

There is a scream.

She has lost her connection to the land.

She is flying and the ringing that is Liril smashing into metal pipes is like a shout; is like a horn; is like a great trembling, rumbling, shaking cry dividing the Heavens from the Earth.

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.

Where is Liril?

Liril is against a wall.

Is the monster there?

The monster is not there.

Good.

The monster is not there.

Where is Liril?

Liril is in her room. No. It is not Liril’s room. It is the old room. It is not her room. It is not her room not any more.

Where is Liril’s hand?

Liril cannot find her hand.

Wait.

No.

It is there. It is on the end of her arm. How silly!

She opens her mouth. Her tongue is thick.

What is Liril going to say?

“Is she—is Melanie OK?”

Is that what volition sounds like? Is that the kind of question that a person, who has volition, and a will, would ask?

Liril is not sure.

She closes her eyes.

Her world is going black.

Liril’s world is going black.

She thinks she saw the strangest thing, the strangest thing was written on the wall.

It’s like the grangler has unraveled, but before it died, it scrawled an X upon the wall. Like it had marked a spot—

Is that Liril’s thought?

Or. No.

Like it hadn’t known its name. Hadn’t remembered it, couldn’t write it, or maybe had never known it—

How very strange, someone thinks. It is probably Liril. How very strange.

Doesn’t a person have to have a name?

What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER ONE]

The Measure of a Monster (III/VII)

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


October 10, 1995

Micah begins to hate himself. He begins to think he is unclean. The burden of it grows on him with the scars of Tina and the monster’s work.

He begins to want, not to beat the monster, not to help him, but to suffer, suffer, and die!

He steals a book from the local store. He is caught — possibly, he allows himself to be caught. He struggles against the police. He screams and bites. He names the monster as his father when they ask after his identity, knowing that the monster will deny it. He gets himself taken down to the police station and put in an empty cell.

This seems like a brilliant idea at first.

Later it seems like he’s adding insult to his own injury and he tries to walk out through the bars. This doesn’t work. He experimentally invokes the power of ‘surprisingly relevant historical trivia’ against the cell but that doesn’t help either.

Then his heart lifts.

He feels a fierce and wild joy.

He’d forgotten it was a monster’s day. He’d forgotten he was supposed to go to Central, later on, and now he can’t. He remembers now, and it’s sweet as icing, because the monster’s follower Stefan is standing at the door.

“You can’t take me,” Micah says. He leers through the bars. He laughs in sheer delight. “If I made enough trouble you would never see me again.

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

“— What?”

“I can wait. They’re not going to hold you for long. They might want you to come in for a hearing, but, seriously, Micah, it was a book.

“I fought back,” Micah says, blankly.

Stefan swift-steps into the cell. He seizes Micah. He pushes him up against the wall. He chokes Micah with one arm. Then as suddenly as that he is outside again.

“Not well,” Stefan says.

“They have cameras,” Micah says, incoherently.

Stefan looks around. He seems a little nervous. There are not, however, any actual cameras in the holding cells at the Santa Ynez police station. He shakes his head.

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

He turns to leave.

“No,” Micah says.

He’s leaning against the bars. He’s grinning again, like three hyenas.

“No, you can’t,” Micah says, “because — get this — if you wait, that’s the police exerting power that supersedes the monster’s. And then he’s weak. And you and I have witnessed him being weak. You can swift-step in and get me out. You can leave me in here as a punishment for my sins and get me later, when it’s convenient. But you sure as Hell can’t wait.”

He is shaking. It is good but he is so very weak. He has so very little left in him of defiance.

Stefan frowns.

“Naturally the police can have precedence for a few hours,” Stefan says.

“You’re going to die,” giggles Micah.

Stefan swift-steps away. Micah looks out the window. Through the criss-cross wires in the heavy glass he watches a leaf fall from an elm tree’s branch.

“Fine,” Stefan says.

He is outside the bars again. He is staring at Micah. He is angry. His position becomes ambiguous. He dissolves into potential. He swift-steps into the cell. He grabs Micah.

“The car!” shrieks Micah, mid-swift-step.

Stefan jerks. He loses concentration. He swift-stumbles into a road with a car heading straight for them, briefly Edinburgh, and, unable quite to concentrate, plunges sideways through the racks of clothing at the Sears in Santa Ynez.

Micah bangs Stefan’s head into the floor, once, twice, three times, then tears away before Stefan reorients. He is weaving through the departments. He is bursting out the door. He is out before the staff of Sears can show a reaction to his presence. He is diving under a car in the parking lot. He is hidden by the time Stefan looks around outside the door.

“Damn it,” Stefan says.

He vanishes.

Micah waits for five minutes, then another two. That’s all he can afford. He rolls out from under the car and runs. If Stefan is in sight, if Stefan can see him, then it’s over —

It isn’t over.

He makes it away. He staggers down the road.

He hasn’t quite figured out what he’s doing next. His mind’s a blank.

He staggers into a phone booth.

It’s idiotic. It’s ridiculous. He feels a terrible guilt and shame. But he calls home. He asks for Liril.

“What is it?” her mother asks him. He shakes his head. She can’t see it.

“I’m shaking my head,” says Micah. “Please, just put her on.”

“OK,” says Liril’s mother.

It doesn’t take her long. He says, “Liril, what do I do?”

“Huh?”

“I’m in a phone booth,” he says. “I’ve gotten away from Stefan and the authorities —”

“Micah,” she says, softly.

And it comes out of him in one long wail. “Why did you want me to suffer this? Why have you forsaken me? Why have you made me to live this way in sorrow?”

“I don’t want that,” she says.

“Please,” he says. “Tell me some other way.”

She is quiet for a long time. Then she says, “Any.”

“What?”

“You can do it any way.”

“I can fight them off?” he says. “I can shatter their world? I can strangle myself on this phone cord and leave them godless? I can master the elements and wield them in a terrible thunder against the monster until everyone in the world lifts me up on their shoulders in praise?”

“OK,” she says.

He almost hangs up.

He is staring out the window and he can see harpies coming. There are actual harpies in the sky. The monster has sent actual harpies out. They are hunting him. They are hunting him for the monster and he will lose

It suddenly occurs to him that Liril is serious.

“You’re serious,” he tells her.

She doesn’t say anything.

“I want to fight him,” Micah says. “Oh, God, I want to fight him. I want to hurt him. I want him to hurt him so badly he won’t come after us for years. I want you to be all grown-up by the time you see him next, and I want you to spit in his goddamned face.”

She giggles.

“What?”

“That’s awful,” she says. “Spitting.”

He can hear her happiness through the phone.

“Listen,” he says. “There are harpies coming. There are . . . there are harpies. I am being hunted by half-bird half-women — that isn’t as weird as I think it is, is it.”

“I like harpies,” Liril says. “They have cool feathers.”

“What do I do?”

“When somebody is really dirty,” Liril says, “you wash them off. Then you show them a mirror. Then you say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’”

This is my last chance at sanity, he thinks.

He could be what the monster wants him to be. He could be a skin to suffer for Liril, and take her pains, and give birth for her to the gods the monster needs. It would be awful but it would make sense to him. He is used to it. He could even think of it as good —

He knows better.

It is settling in to his stomach. It is wild and it is glorious.

I’m going to wash off a bunch of immortal horrors, Micah thinks, and show them a mirror. And then I’m going to say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

And finally he is standing there alone, in the mirrored room, past the showers at the Y. There are still feathers drifting down all around him, and there’s a nasty poisoned gash in Micah’s side.

We’re skipping right past the frantic explanations at the door.

We’re skipping past the horrid run through the showers, and the screaming, and the time when Micah slipped on the flowing water and he lay there as the foul beasts came down. The frantic scrambling, scrabbling, the adrenaline-fired desperation of it all.

He made it to a mirrored room, and turned, and told them, “Look! You’re awesome!” and they went away; for harpies reify only the unpleasantest and filthiest conceits.

It occurs to him, as he looks up at the mirror, that he is awesome, though for a long and terrifying moment, as the poison pulses through him, he can’t remember what he’s called.

The Boundary Between Liril and the World (II/VII)

“I give to you — life!”

Micah giggles to himself. He extends his arms upwards. He whines, inadvertently, from the pain. Then he giggles again. His hair hangs down over his eyes. It’s matted with some nameless horror’s blood, or possibly a delicious lime-flavored Slurp-like beverage.

The monster sighs.

He unlocks Micah’s shackles. He heaves Micah up. He carries Micah up the stairs. His nametag raises a red welt on Micah’s skin, practically burning him. Micah leaves a black smudge on the nametag in his turn.

The monster tosses Micah into a chair and, after a few minutes, throws him a towel.

“Ah, geez,” Micah says. “I can’t possibly.”

“You’re strong enough to be alive,” the monster says, “and to make jokes.”

“That’s true,” Micah concedes, after a moment.

He picks up the towel. He tries to clean himself up. It doesn’t really help. He’s ten. After twenty or thirty seconds his shoulders and elbows stage a rebellion and his arms go limp.

“My arms are limp,” Micah says.

“I’m going to send you home with her,” the monster says. “Rest up. Get some strength. Then you can come back by in a week or two and we’ll see just what you are.”

“Me?”

Micah looks horrified.

“Maybe you’re useful,” the monster says.

“I do have a gift for surprisingly relevant historical trivia,” Micah says. His world reels a little. “I actually get to go home? I have a home?”

He can’t help laughing.

The monster’s eyes are on him. The laughter drains away. It becomes crying and Micah tries to blow his nose into the towel but he doesn’t have the strength.

“Don’t worry,” the monster says. “I’ll make you into something good.”

“Why don’t you hate me?” Micah asks. “You’re supposed to hate me. I’m supposed to be your enemy.”

“Are you?”

“Aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid that I won’t let you be,” the monster says.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 25, 1995

Micah’s life is lived staccato.

There are good hours and good days. There is ice cream and there is running in the park. There is home, complete with Liril’s mother Priyanka and her tenuous but loving welcome. There are fish sticks and french fries and cheese which you can divide into arbitrarily many sub-cheese strings. There are times when he can lie on his bed and talk to Liril about the stringencies of their world.

Then between the beats of his life it becomes painful.

It’s like Liril and Micah are two rats in a dinosaur’s cave. Their lives are interrupted, again and again, by the great blundering atrocities stumbling around them in the darkness. It is an inexpressible condition. He will sit in the corner of their room for hours, trying to find a way to put it into words. Liril doesn’t even try.

He’s good with the trivia but she knows everything.

She knows the secret language of the grass and the names of the bats that live on the dark side of the moon. She tells him how the kingdom of magical bears fell from grace, and what Melanie has done to bind the grangler, and the secrets of the lurkunders, and the threat that power line proximity can pose to a person’s health.

One day it is raining. It is pouring down through the branches of the trees. She tells him the name of a bead of water on the glass and he watches Vassily the Raindrop slip down to the edge of the window of their room and break.

On another day the monster is choking him with a belt around his neck.

One day he tries to learn how to skateboard.

“Watch,” he tells Liril. “This will be my real magical talent. Not spitting out seawater or dead fish or historical trivia, but skateboarding.

He doesn’t have a talent like that, and it wouldn’t be skateboarding if he did.

On another day the monster smiles beatifically to him and says, “I have found it.”

Micah leans forward. He looks at the monster. His eyes are bright and maddened, like a bird’s.

“I have seen through all of this at last.”

The monster reaches into Micah. He turns over his hand. He pulls forth a great gout of the fire, a newborn god, educed from Liril straight through Micah, who stands between that crucible and the world. The god sits in the monster’s hand, a snowflake fractal, its edges a drift of shape becoming real; and its eyes are as a bird’s, and seven sacred seals hang all about it, and it is lovely, tame, and sweet, and the monster will name it Aspida, his treasure, his first city-building god.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

“No,” Micah mutters.

He can’t accept it. It is a perversion. It makes him pointless. His heart cries out, I will not lose!

He stares at the monster. His mouth twitches.

I will have didn’t lost.

It isn’t right. That isn’t what happened and it wouldn’t be the way to phrase it if it had. He stares at Aspida and marvels at its hundred eyes and the interlocking formica and steel and glass that is its flesh. He thinks it’s beautiful and appalling and he has to admit that pretty much he has lost, but for the sake of this child he tries again —

I haven’t any longer lost?

He laughs until he chokes and suddenly he is leaking and there is seawater all around him and the monster actually looks alarmed. “You mustn’t do that,” the monster tells him.

That doesn’t help.

Micah flails inside his heart for some remedy or some ounce of strength. He can’t actually find any. He is gurgling brine out from his mouth. He hacks out a fish bone. His eyes widen and he sputters. Aspida looks hopeful. Aspida opens its baby mouth.

It’s too much. Micah starts to rip open. There is a thorn stuck through his hand.

“It’s all right,” the monster tells him.

His hand is on Micah’s hair. It shouldn’t make anything even close to being all right; but then the monster makes it so.

“She has raised you up to be her Christ,” the monster says, “and suffer in her place; but as you wish to defend her, and stand between her and the world, that doesn’t have to be so bad.”

Micah leans forward.

He is crying.

His will collapses in him. The monster telling him that Liril could have wanted this destroys what little fight he was beginning, again, to have.

He is a fragile, permeable membrane between the world and his insides.

He reaches after Aspida but the god and the monster both are gone.

Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.

In case she forgets.

In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.

LIRIL.

Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.

It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.

There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.

There is a ragged thing.

There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.

And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.

They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.

“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.

A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.

“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”

Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.

Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.

Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.

“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”

She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.

“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.

Melanie shrugs.

She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.

“What—“

That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”

And Harold screams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

The scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.

There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.

There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.

And so eventually this sound goes still.

She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.

Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;

But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.

Little Faces (VII/VII)

Micah attacks.

He is feral, in those first moments of his life. He knows only that there is a threat to Liril in those words and that he is a god born of her extremity.

He does not know his own power, only that it must come. It must find him, in the moment of his need. There is no alternative.

The monster has reached out and grasped at Micah’s hair. Micah is already moving. He is screaming. He is attempting to climb the monster. He is attempting to claw at the monster’s neck.

The door is opening. There is a grayish man outside. He is looking in.

Micah’s thoughts are a thunder of kill. Kill.

The world inverts.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

Micah finds himself plunging against a table. His arm is behind his back. It is twisted. The monster is leaning weight on him.

He gives forth a strangled cry.

He calls to his power.

He has none.

The monster grinds an elbow against his back. Noise and pain and seawater gurgle in Micah’s throat.

“What the hell, Liril?” the monster says.

He sounds bemused.

It’s like even after the sewer gnome and the footsoldiers he can’t quite believe that Liril would cough up such an unnaturally useless god.

“It’s not that bad,” Micah says. “I’m not that bad. Come on. This wasn’t a fair fight. I wasn’t ready. Let’s try this again.”

The monster considers this.

Then he shrugs.

He steps back.

He says, “Come on, then.”

Micah pulls himself upright.

He wobbles his neck from one side to the other. He wants it to make an intimidating crackling noise, but Micah is ten years old and can only demonstrate the limberness of youth instead.

“I’ll cut your stomach open,” Micah says. “I’ll let your intestines out. Then I’ll paint little faces on them and hold plays.”

“Is everything all right, doctor?” the man at the door asks.

The monster scratches behind one ear.

“Check Liril out,” he says. “She may have broken something.”

Micah tries to move.

The monster becomes truth.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

Micah comes to himself by dizzying, circuitous routes. He traces his way, bit by bit, to flesh and consciousness.

It is still there.

It is waiting for him, lurking before him, immanent in the world.

The monster wins.

He revisits his path. He attempts to plan strategy. He sends random instructions down his spine, trying to motivate his limbs to action.

It is pointless.

He is falling over. He thinks he may be falling over. He thinks he is leaking some kind of fluid.

He gets his hand to twitch. That fascinates him. It continues, once, twice, three times, and there’s a building pressure of wrongness under it, a falsity, and finally he stresses out and can’t keep going, he flails his hand out of the way somewhere where it won’t keep twitching in defiance or potential defiance of the monster, that is truth.

He mumbles something. Then he stutters his mouth shut.

He wants to scream.

He can’t.

Under the pressure of the monster, who is truth, the fabric of lies that is his existence, his defiance, his independent being in the world dissolves. He shatters. He is made nothing.

He is sweating and hot and his breath comes in great gasps from very far away.

A twitch in his mind wants to save him, save her, save somebody, but it cannot reach the surface, it is a blind thing damaged by the light of truth, it is a piece of paper caught in the fire that is truth, the armor of his will is a paper armor, crumbling to ash, and leaving him naked to the world.

Something in him gropes for the concept of justice.

He cannot find it.

His mouth is slopping open. There is something awful coming out, seawater and rot and horrid things, and he does not know why, save that one of them is a question:

“What is truth?”

He is utterly defeated. It is a sudden shining jewel to him. It is a course of compliance and forgetfulness along and around which he may organize his mind. It is a sudden shining jewel to him, the recognition of his defeat.

He does not need the truth to fall.

He is nothing, not even a Micah.

The monster could have beaten him with a lie.

Coming May 11, 2011: May 28th, 2004.

“And Break.” (VI/VII)

“What now?” Liril asks, after a while.

“You go in,” Melanie says, standing up. “And you be a crucible of gods, and you try so very hard to forget that this ever happened, because you can’t afford to be thinking about labyrinths and heroes and your old friend Melanie when the monster’s trying to pull a construction deity out of your heart. And it won’t work. You’ll be distracted. You’ll be wanting things, and you’ll be hating me, and you’ll be yearning to have what that other girl has, and you’ll be broken.”

Liril licks her lips.

“He’ll probably kill you,” Melanie says. “Then he won’t have a single proper crucible left. He’ll have to use ordinary children and their silly little emptiness. It will be a sad day for the monster.”

“No,” Liril says.

“All your remembering forward,” Melanie says, “and still, I bet you can be killed. I bet you can be killed right in the middle of a prophesy, bam, just like the rest of us mid-anticipation.”

Why are you being cruel? Liril asks.

She can’t get the words out. Melanie’s face twitches. After a moment, Melanie answers even the silence.

“I don’t want to see you like this any more,” Melanie says.

“Oh.”

Liril tilts her head to one side.

You could have just not come back.

Melanie kisses Liril on the forehead.

“Go be a good crucible,” she says, “and break.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

Four times the monster reaches into her and pulls forth a god, and it is not the god of his desiring.

Iaccholyreus, the labyrinthine god, slips free of her chains. He is gone before the monster can seize him, laughing, skipping, burning and slipping down secret paths and out of Liril and the monster’s ken. Renderin, the wild god of the skies, bursts forth and is caught and ripped apart by the monster’s hands. A sewer gnome bubbles up and is forced back; a superstructure god constitutes, but cannot hold himself together. His eyes widen, he gives a great shout, and then he is nothing more than unbound miracle circling the brown drain within the room.

The last is Micah.

The last eduction calls forth Micah.

It does not go well.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

It hurts her in places she did not know still existed to be hurt, the birth of Micah. He surges out from that part of her that still wants things — no, not still; but, rather, now — and he leaves her bruised and broken entire.

She is forced to cough him out, runneling from her throat in a gout of fluids, and her lungs are aching, and her chest is aching, and several of her ribs are broken, and worst of all, there is a lingering echoing openness in the part of her that remembers how to want.

And in all of that she would feel well rewarded had she brought forth a constructive god, but she had not.

He is no god of buildings.

If anything, he is a boy.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

Exposition Answers Emptiness with Digressions (V/VII)

This can’t be happening, Liril thinks.

Her eyes scan the room frantically. This cannot be happening. This is the monster’s office. Someone is going to stop Melanie. Someone is going to save her.

Then it clicks.

Then the knowledge clicks.

There is Melanie, right there, in the white coat of the monster’s service. There is Melanie, right there, with a nametag on her coat. Blessed by the authority of this place, assigned its power, given righteousness and suzerainty in the monster’s place of business.

No one is going to stop her. No one is going to chase her out. The world itself is broken; gone entirely unreal.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

“On October 28,” Melanie says, “1989, Jane escaped our purview.”

Liril is listening.

She can’t help listening. She doesn’t want to listen, but she can’t help it. She maybe even wants, for the first time in a long time, to not listen, but there is nothing in wanting that helps her to not be.

Not being was always Jane’s trick anyway. A dead girl can do that better than a cracked doll ever could.

“She did so in the following fashion,” Melanie says. “She constructed a boy named ‘Bob,’ in the image of her brother, and he set her free.”

Liril had promised herself once that she’d go back, after she finished being angry, or upset, or frightened, and carefully think through all the decisions that she’d made. Then at the time, remembering forward, she’d be able to see what the right decision will have would have been, and know that she was responsible to herself to act on it. Regrettably this promise bore little fruit; she was quite capable of calming herself, asserting control, and clinging to the conclusions that she would later make, but rarely did she actually go back, after times of trauma, and consciously revisit the errors she previously had made.

Maybe if she’d thought about it later, she’d have figured out what Melanie was getting at. In some ways, she sort of did.

In others, she did not.

She put aside her Highlights. She stared at Melanie and her eyes were circles of silver pain.

I will let you hurt me, she thinks, and maybe you will see that you are hurting me and stop.

“In this particular case,” Melanie says, “Bob was a traitor. He did not have what it took to oppose the monster. But ultimately his own nature betrayed him. Quite unwillingly he found himself freeing her from Central, extracting her from our reach, and marooning her in the sky. If I believed she had planned it, I would say it was brilliantly done. Since she did not, I must admire her good fortune.”

There is a pinch of sudden confusion.

Liril does not understand how Melanie can know what was planned and what was not.

“It was the monster’s own eduction,” Melanie clarifies, and Liril’s puzzlement clears away.

“Then,” Liril says.

“It is a cautionary tale,” Melanie says. “Evoke a labyrinthine god and he may imprison you on a world of wood, between the Earth and the moon.”

The wanting moves through Liril in great waves. It causes the room to waver; to spasm, sometimes; to burst into patterns of grey-blue light.

“How lucky she was,” Melanie says. “To have a brother to base a brother on. I feel sorry for only children like yourself.”

Liril tries to focus her eyes on Melanie but she can’t. There are only strange reflections from the lamination on her tag.

The sands dripped through the hourglass

And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

And life is sweet and the sun is high

But the flesh and the fire are born to die

“Well,” Melanie says, and she straightens, and pats Liril gently on the head. “I have to go. Gods to study, forms to fill out, and all. Did you know, there’s some really exciting work being done right now on the fae?”

“Take it back,” Liril says.

Melanie’s smile fades away.

It’s not until it fades that Liril realizes she was still seeing it, gleaming in the dark.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, no,” she says. “That simply wouldn’t do.”

I don’t want to want things, Liril pleads.

There’s a bit of silence. Melanie squeezes Liril’s hand.

“Do you know,” Melanie says, after a moment, “I’m not that fond of it myself?”