Planet in Theory: Funeral March to Gothic Rock (part two)

(back to part one)

(reading time: 1 hour, 25 minutes)

Catalogues of Women

Thank you all for coming out this afternoon, I know it’s hotter than the devil’s bedpan out here. Leave it to a South Reap October to turn pumpkins into prunes; that’s what my father always used to say.” There was some light laughter, less than he expected, but he chalked it up to the fatiguing heat.

There was at least some shade thanks to the garden trees behind the town hall, where Mountainblood always held its press conferences. Journalists for local rags, both clean and oily, were clustered under the crab apples, fanning themselves with hats because their cards were busy recording the event.

It really wasn’t the best day for it, but Onther Ocks, the man commanding their attention, couldn’t afford to delay it any longer. Tomorrow was Halloween, the worst night of the year for any politician. Minds would change. Allegiances would shift. People always found new uses for their money afterward, and those dollars usually migrated away from campaign donations.

Onther was tall, handsome if you could ignore the fact that his hairline was receding around its entire circumference, like an island sinking into the sea. He had teeth straighter than most Mountainblood fence posts and busy dark eyes like dense honeycomb. He had on a red tie, but it was just hung around his neck rather than tied, something he always did deliberately to evoke the image of the exhausted working man at day’s end.

I’m sure you all remember the standard safety spiel for the holiday, but this year’s a little different of course. My father Whisker, who also served Mountainblood as its mayor, reelected 13½ times mind you, passed away last year. The loss has affected our whole community, but I must remind everyone that certain spirits are legally barred from participating in Halloween.

All officials elected to high office are prohibited for various durations of time, and for my father that’s the next decade. We have lots of old folks in these parts, people who could be forgiven for not remembering the year and current mayor, and its best not to confuse them. It also serves to protect sensitive information he may have been privy to.

Anyone using a mask of my father will be subject to arrest and imprisonment until he enters the pool of publicly acceptable costumes.”

We’re sorry for your loss,” one of the photographers threw in, holding up an electroglass pair lazily, the back one’s crosshatching indicating that it was recording the sound separately. Onther wasn’t new to the political game; he knew they did that when they wanted to spread the audio separately, use it out of context. They were trying to bait him, invite destabilizing comparisons to his father’s legacy.

Mighty kind of you,” was all the mayor could muster. “Now we’ve got this year’s list of costumes that are entering the public domain. Remember to register, for you and your children, before noon tomorrow if you haven-”

Do we finally get some ladies this year?” another reporter interrupted. More laughter, and he was keenly aware it was twice as loud as what his pumpkin prune line had drawn. Onther smiled with pursed lips as he held out one arm and snapped his fingers. A woman aid rushed to his side carrying a stack of encyclopedia-sized binders in her arms.

The mayor took the top one and opened it, holding the back against his chest so all of their cards could see as he slowly flipped through the laminated pages. Each one had rows of photographs, all accompanied by a sketch of a simple masquerade mask, but with the eyes reproduced instead of offering holes for the wearer to see through.

All the pictures were of women, some in black and white and others color. Onther didn’t know who any of them were; all of the research was why he had pages. The one standing next to him probably had something to do with the selection process, since she was carrying the end result. He would have to get her name some time. She would be good enough to hang on his arm at any public gala if she took off the glasses and stopped looking like, well, the kind of person who did research. Onther had the common sense to know it was like jury duty, and success was marked only by the ability to get out of it.

As you can see,” he gloated, “I have catalogues full of women!” They laughed again, which caused him to blink, which put some stinging sweat in his eye that worsened the whole affair.

Why were they laughing? The lousy liberals spent years whining about the lack of focus on women costumes. They said his family was ignoring half of history just because 77% of all registerable costumes were men. It wasn’t his fault that most of Antichthon’s mightiest warriors, greatest leaders, and most influential artists were male.

They would’ve argued it was because of historical oppression, a lack of opportunity for woman’s greatness to be seen, but why couldn’t they see it right now? He hadn’t worked hard to put it before them, but some woman sure had! Flailing, he turned the binder around and speed-read some of the entries.

Here’s… Margarita Lime. She ran the country’s largest soup kitchen during the war. They say she saved… over 10,000 lives.”

A cook!” one of the woman reporters shouted, as if it was an entire argument he was supposed to understand.

What about Rosie Water?” another asked. Onther flipped through several pages at once, back and forth. He looked to his aid, who shook her head. “The government never puts in any rebellious women. Rosie took control of a township 50 years ago when it refused to integrate. She purposefully dropped the whole place’s odds to 6to1, people included, just so the police would have trouble arresting them and destroying their belongings.”

We can only offer mask mock-ups of people we have decent pictures of,” Onther defended. “That was a long time ago.” Several cards shot up into the air, all with the same photograph of, presumably, Rosie Water. They had planned it. His first Halloween as mayor and they were already looking to oust him; they didn’t care how much mental effort it took to leave the house with his tie undone like that.

We don’t want your catalogues! We want to choose for ourselves! We want women you didn’t pre-approve, flatten, and stuff in folders!” Onther tried to turn the binder around and close it, but it slipped out of his hands. Its metal rings popped open when it hit the ground, spilling polite heroes all over the grass.

The registration fees are minor,” the mayor defended, deflecting their actual criticism. “They’re used to fund spiritual management around this time of year, and you all know how important that is.”

To show that you don’t see women as just tokens, I’m sure you’ll be wearing a woman’s costume this year as a show of support,” one of them said, cornering him. As if he would ever do such a thing. He’d be forever emasculated in the eyes of his voting base. To think, a woman running around in control of the better part of his body and faculties for an entire day.

He’d heard the horror stories about men who made such a mistake, waking up with their genitals hacked off by their own hand, a woman’s cackle retreating in the back of their head. He had a cousin who had foolishly donned a female mask; he was lucky to get out of it with just an embarrassing story about coming to his senses, in a dress, dancing on a picnic table at a biker gang get-together.

Now that he was elected he couldn’t outright say he would never do it. Women had the vote too, and his smile won them over well enough, but surely they saw themselves desirable as spirits, and would expect anyone would be honored to host them after their demise.

Officially his costume had already been selected. The good people of Mountainblood would think he was hosting the spirit of one Muehler Moscow, a veteran and exterminator who eventually became a senator. The exterminator element was crucial, as this was a cicada year. Most of the trick-or-treaters were likely to dump out their candy buckets at the end of the night and find at least a handful of the flailing screeching insects stowed away.

Gutters would be stuffed with them like they were casserole dishes. They would have to break out the special street cleaners they had just for the occasion that could blast their husks away without grinding them into the asphalt. An exterminator would know exactly what orders to give, but Muehler wasn’t going to make it to the front of the line that year. Onther had other plans.

My costume has already been selected,” he told the reporters as if there was nothing that could be done to change it. He took a step forward only to remember he was stepping all over his curated women. An irritated glance at his aid got her to set the other binders down, get on her knees, and start picking them back up.

That was when she struck, a true hero of South Reap by my measure. The press were busy snapping pictures of the spilled pages, so no one was looking when she scurried behind and snatched the top binder from the stack resting in the grass. Once she had it tucked against her chest she made a break for it, all the way to and under the bushes.

The kid’s name was Poppy Club, and she would’ve looked right at home on the cover of a book about the kind of scamp parents didn’t want their children to be. Lost in giant purple overalls, wearing squeaky rubber boots, and bearing asymmetrical pigtails, Poppy looked like she shared a bunk bed with the family goat. Her front teeth had such an immense gap that it looked like there were supposed to be 3.

She was 10 this year, officially old enough to get a real costume instead of the maskless animal body suits small children were usually forced into. Her parents had given her free reign to choose, just as they gave her free reign in every aspect of her life from cutting her own hair to catching her own pets.

Her father worked for one of the oiliest rags that still got invited to press conferences, and he was too busy trying to get an unflattering angle of the mayor’s aid’s head near his groin to notice what the greatest and most scandalous story he’d ever written was doing.

Poppy went deep into her catalogue of women, 100 pages deep just to start. There had to be someone in there that suited her. She’d already spent her allowance, and spent a year’s advance on it too, so there was no money for a registration fee. None were likely to notice, as long as she picked someone that nobody else wanted.

She broke out her secret weapons, a sheet of brown paper folded 3 times too many and a smoky pastel swiped from her mother’s art supplies. Her fingers, the ones that weren’t wrapped in bandages, less victimized by the wasps and centipedes living in the holes she liked to invade, stroked the raised contours of the mask mock-ups. They had been real women, as real as you could get in probable space, and could be again under the October moon.

Nithe to meet ya,” she whisper-lisped to them. “Who wanth to go trick-or-treating with me?” They couldn’t answer yet, but she assumed they all said yes. Who wouldn’t? The women she examined had large text entries next to their photos and mock-ups, extolling their virtues. Nurses. Teachers. Organizers of wartime charity drives and metal acquisition. All well and good, but nobody who would know what to do with a scrappy little fighter like Poppy. She turned deeper. The entries got smaller. Now she was getting into the good stuff. These were women with sparse details, approved because there was nothing terrible on their record, but they hardly had records at all.

Poppy knew a troublemaker when she saw one. There was a certain character to written records where bad acts were, for whatever reason, expunged or erased instead of nonexistent. Some sentences didn’t quite flow together because there used to be something between them, perhaps written by such an angry pencil that the tip snapped. One entry stood out, invisible gaps nonetheless prickly. Everyone else would read it and see the top half of a wine bottle, but Poppy saw the jagged broken bottom used as an improvised weapon.

Suzette Crepe: She was born in 1886 in the territory of Wyowy to unknown parents and abandoned at a local orphanage. After running away she lived in several youth facilities across multiple territories, spending the longest time at the Billity Catholicish school for girls.

With her education complete Suzette became an anti-finance advocate and feminist, arguing money was a masculine creation that inherently devalued human life. Protests sometimes ended in violence, but police could never charge her individually.

In her later life she was cloistered at the edge of the Drymouth Desert where she experimented with odds-splitting meditation. Charitable donations from across her life, some of their sources suspect, totaled over 4,000,000 dollars, technically qualifying her for membership in various philanthropic societies and their honorary awards.

Girl howdy, now that’th a woman!” Poppy declared. “We’re gonna be betht friendth.” The mock-up showed Suzette as having close dagger-like eyes and the small bridge of a button nose. The girl flattened her paper over it and rubbed the pastel back and forth all across it, creating a flat mock-up of her own. Once she got home all she had to do was cut it out and glue it to something stiffer that could hold its shape.

She could put it on, but she wouldn’t be able to see through the other woman’s eyes until the clock struck midnight. Then, for a full 24 hours, they could get up to whatever Suzette wanted. Surely there was some unfinished business that had been turned into eraser shreds in the earlier drafts of her entry in the catalogue.

Rather than return the binder and risk getting caught she just left it in the bushes and stealthily made her way into the back of the garden, where she was supposed to wait for her father to finish. It took another 10 minutes, but after he came to her side there was an additional 2 before he looked away from his cards and at his child.

Yeth Daddy?”

Pumpkin, which one of these is more titillating?” He leaned down and showed her 3 electroglass cards with 3 different but similar photographs. The backgrounds were transparent so he could put in whatever background he wanted, so they just showed the mayor and his aid scrambling to get the dropped catalogue put back together.

Mmmm… Thith one,” she said, pointing to the middle card where the mayor’s hand was closest to his aid’s skirted bottom.

You’ve got my instincts baby girl, too bad you got your mother’s looks.”

You thaid Momma uthed to be pretty.”

Exactly. It means you’re going to break some poor boy’s heart some day when you get all those worry lines.”

I don’t worry ‘bout nothin’ Daddy.”

Good. Maybe you’ll pick up my business. Can’t run with a story if you got worry weighing you down.”

Who are you gonna be for Halloween Daddy? Another thource?”

Oh no, not again. Even I’ve got standards. A ghost will say anything to get people talking about them again. Can’t trust them.” He remembered the old pal he was conversing with was technically a child and technically his responsibility. “You pick one?” She grinned and nodded, pigtails practically cracking like whips. “Good. They’re your babysitter for tomorrow. I’m going to hit the track. They’re bringing back some old champions, and my money’s on Barley Culprit beating the other dead horses.”

Yeth Daddy. I promithe I’ll be good.” It was an easy promise to make, as Suzette Crepe made no such deal.

Pothole in the Sky

It was a good day to skydive. Normally there was a fair chance of running into a 9to1 hardluck swimming through the clouds, but they mostly retreated to the upper atmosphere and space on Halloween. They didn’t care to associate with ghosts because they weren’t dead yet, and they didn’t much appreciate the constant comparisons.

So the chilly evening air was clear, the contradicting sky replete with warm sundown colors. This was to be Wordy Slurd’s 97th dive, so he held the side of the plane’s open door the way your average Joe might the portal into an empty barn. The small plane he’d chartered, using one of those fancy new quiet propellers, had contained a few others who were already back on the ground or relaxing under their open parachutes.

Wordy lingered because his experience had his mind wandering. Mountainblood stretched below him, a line of green and blue pooled around the base of the mountains, pushed up against them by Drymouth Desert. His morbid sense of adventure made him wonder how effectively a parachute could be made into portable shade should he accidentally land in the middle of the desolate clay.

Get going or I’ll tilt you out!” the pilot shouted back to him. It was no wonder he was getting impatient; all the others had jumped shortly after the doors opened. They were wearing masks, the seams barely visible unless the skin tones didn’t match. Halloween costumes all, Wordy assumed. Even without the seams where long gone skin blended with new you could still tell; a person always looked a little wrong when they had someone else’s eyes, like a crab trying to wield lobster claws.

They were all eager because they didn’t have a lot of time. The axial tilt of Antichthon’s statistical field only gave the dead 24 hours each year, and only if they could borrow a living body. The number of them that chose to use that time to skydive, simply because they had never bothered to try it when they were alive, amused Wordy greatly. Then again, he could see himself borrowing a pulse just to make it race with fear.

The spot they passed over felt right, well, felt something. The young man let go as the winds cocooned him. At first the sky was just as empty as he’d hoped. With no hardluck pollution, and with day ceding the lead in their dance to night, he felt like he was the transition of heavenly bodies. An asteroid revolving around its central fire. The specter planet Nemesis stewing in its smoky obscurity.

Nobody actually knew if Nemesis was out there, the 1t01 Earth had only theorized it 3 years ago in 1984, but Wordy guessed it was. He felt everything when he was diving, and on all his plummets after ‘84 there was a sensation of a new pair of starry eyes watching him from behind, or perhaps many weak pairs of eyes all staring at the exact same spot.

There was nothing good to say about Nemesis, whether or not it was hiding out in probable space somewhere, and Wordy had a new name to call it: murderer. Who else would plant another airplane directly in the path of his fall? He tried to blink the obstruction below him away, hoping it was just a trick of the wind as it ripped tears from his eyes.

No, it was still there, and opening his parachute that close would do no good. It was much larger than the one he’d come from, a commercial passenger craft, even though this area hadn’t been used for major air travel in over a decade.

Wordy was too good at mentally calculating speed, distance, and trajectory. If he kept watching he would reflexively imagine at what point he would impact, the smear he would leave, and maybe even the distribution of his bone shards across the ground below. Instead he crossed his arms over his face, tucked his legs against his chest, and braced for the end.

The rushing wind cut out. He had passed through something, but it was more like tissue paper than the hull of an aircraft. The first layer had slowed him greatly, absorbed much of the energy from the fall, so that when he hit a second layer he didn’t break through. His feet planted firmly.

Wordy shot up to his full height, whipping around. A few people were looking at him, but most sitting in the rows had their heads down, lost in books or magazines. It made no sense whatsoever, but he was in the plane. It couldn’t be an interplay of odds. If he was more likely than the plane he would’ve passed right through. If they were all 3to1 he would’ve died on contact with the exterior.

Swallowing his sharp confusion, Wordy collapsed into an empty seat, which reclined softly. The craft’s interior was largely beige. The quiet, and the smell of a fresh cleaning, suggested he’d lucked into first class.

Where did you come from?” Wordy flinched as a woman’s hand touched his wrist. She was in the window seat next to him, bobs of brunette hair bouncing as she tilted her head. Her eyes were big, the whites like cream pooling atop steaming coffee. Her whisper disarmed him, smooth and nurturing.

I… I’m not sure,” he panted, wiping the sweat from his face. She handed him the cloth napkin out of her lap. “Thank you. I… I was jumping.” She examined his crinkly suit and the large pack on his back.

Skydiving?” He nodded. “That doesn’t seem right.”

Tell me about it.”

No, I mean that you get to fly for free.” She smiled. Wordy couldn’t bring himself to do the same, instead looking at the other passengers again. Anyone who had been staring had gone back to their business. The flight was quiet but for the clink of silverware and cups. Why were they all so calm?

What is this? I mean… where is this plane going?”

Direct to Santa Rhodes,” she answered. “We’re in hour 2 of 6. You should’ve dropped in closer to the end.”

Are you not alarmed by my presence?” Wordy asked. “I certainly am.”

I suppose it is strange. You seem nice enough. What’s your name?”

Wordy.”

I’m Café. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance Wordy. I’m sorry that you’re now going to Santa Rhodes instead of wherever it was you were trying to land. I don’t think this bus stops when you pull the cord.” She tousled his ripcord.

This is why you don’t skydive on Halloween,” Wordy said, still checking all the angles, looking for any wrinkle or thin spot that might make this a dream or a hallucination. He found nothing of the sort, but a few details jumped out more than he had moments ago.

Not exactly a first class meal himself, more like cold business class wrapped in tinfoil, he nonetheless noticed that the passengers’ clothing was many years out of date. A stewardess came by with her refreshment cart, and he only recognized a few of the brand names on the various bottles and jars. The women wore their hair in tight curls that were no longer fashionable. Many were smoking, which was outlawed on planes 5 years prior.

This is Halloween ‘87… right?” he asked Café. Finally something unsettled her, but it was just a flash on her face, quickly changing to amusement.

I don’t know what kind of skydiving you’re doing… but no. The year is 1966.” Wordy was about to respond, but something happened to the both of them, something I have to carefully break down for you because there were no exterior signs of it. They were both silent, and neither face was equipped to express the premiere of this new kind of emotion.

The human mind normally works actively, assembling puzzle pieces, sometimes forcing them together, until a coherent idea forms. Some things it naturally rejects, but this was an idea that would assert itself no matter what once the pieces were present. They fell into place, pushing everything else out of the way.

Mr. Slurd thought it was 1987. Ms. Café thought it 1966. They’d never needed the hierarchy of time before, but they understood it in that moment all the same. Whoever was further along claimed authority. The past was the student who couldn’t keep up, their lower number a failing grade.

Ghosts didn’t come from the future; their unfinished business would not have even started yet. She was dead. The stewardess was dead. Every soul aboard the craft was more than 2 decades gone. This was not a plane to the afterlife though, no, their destination was their demise. Both understood, but finding words in their heads after was like finding a specific grain of salt in boiling soup.

Yes thanks, I’ll take a glass of 5to1 sour,” an unfinished businessman said nearby in response to the stewardess. She moved to grab the bottle, but there was an empty space between 2 others.

That’s strange. I could’ve sworn-” The cabin shuddered, lights flickering. The passengers emerged from their magazines. “Don’t worry everyone; it’s just some mild turbulence.” Mild turned to catastrophic. The cart bucked and threw glass all across the aisle.

If ‘66 is as far as I got… this is the end,” Café finally said. She was white with fear, her hand locked around Wordy’s wrist. “Santa Rhodes isn’t even that special. It’s not worth dying for.” One of the engines screamed, forcing the left side of the plane to cover their ears. The lights went out, and somehow they could see emerging stars through the craft.

Wordy felt stable, despite the shaking all around. The only anomaly was a sinking sensation in his lower half, like his seat was soaked bread his weight slowly ripped through. The others screamed, but not Café. She already knew what was coming, had the privilege of seeing a man of the future before she went back to oblivion.

They looked into each other’s eyes. With hands locked tight as chain links, he planned to take her with him. He thought it possible, as long as they didn’t let go, as long as her skin fluttered with his pulse.

Then came the fall, and it came only for him. Wordy’s hand slipped out of hers. Night air rushed on all sides, and there was nothing left of the plane above him but a silhouette, like a depression in sand. He opened his parachute.

It was the only day to skydive. Exactly a year had gone by. 1988 was an ugly year on Antichthon. Its copycat Cold War was ongoing. Everyone was getting unmasked as a government spy, and when they weren’t they were getting unmasked as a corporate spy. Polluting miners were eating the mountains, making Wordy’s familiar sky a hazy irritating mess.

There wasn’t any choice though. He needed to replicate as many elements as he could; there was no telling exactly which variable or combination resulted in that doomed plane repeating its death rattle. Same time, same day. Same suit and chute. Same haircut. Same coordinates. He couldn’t get the same plane and pilot, but the craft was of the same make and its owner looked a little like the other guy.

A trip to the library had demystified some of it. There was a record of a plane crash in ‘66, though the wreckage was found 100 miles away from where he’d met it. All 73 passengers and crew had perished, cause unknown, attributed to engine failure. The company paid out to the families big time, but that was back when companies had legal responsibilities. In ‘88 they were more likely to lay claim to the mangled body parts as salvage.

The crash hadn’t lingered the 2nd time, or what was likely the 21st time. There was no wreckage to find in ‘87. The power of Halloween had only brought them back for the terrifying descent.

She was there in the passenger logs: Café Chalke. Wordy pulled up every known photograph of her and put each one on an electroglass card, fairly new products at that point, laying her life out on a table in front of him. A terrible student. An excellent research assistant. He thought it an intriguing combination. She looked, moved, photographed, like somebody who only responded to the people she liked. To the dull she was listless or ornery, but to everyone else she was vivacious, reliable, clever.

Wordy wondered if he counted as interesting, or if it was just the way he nearly fell into her lap. Either way he had to see her again… so same time, same day, same jump. He thought he had fallen too far, but then it appeared just as it had before. He reoriented upright, folding his arms behind his back. He wanted to land casually, reassure her that nobody was dead, not if the plane was still flying a year later. He worried she wouldn’t remember him, that her memories would be completely reset with each iteration, but it was a worry that only lasted seconds after his feet stood flat on the aisle.

Wordy!” she said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him back to their seats. “I knew I didn’t just dream you, which is a hard thing to know when everything feels like a dream.”

Café! I had to come back. You’re-”

Dead.” A few of the other passengers glanced over, but it was just a word to them. “But it’s recurring. Surely Halloween is involved, but I don’t know how. There are no resources at my disposal but what’s in this damn plane, and in these few minutes. Tell me you did some research yourself. Feed me something to think over after I fall again.”

I did a lot of reading,” he confirmed, which brought the biggest smile yet to her face. “They just called it engine failure. None of you are registered as costumes, on account of tragedy side effects.” He referred to the tendency for victims of violent and strange deaths to bring madness to anyone who donned such a mask on Halloween.

We have to watch the engines, see if we can see anything,” she told him. “I’ll take right and you take left.” She glued herself to the window without another word, staring out at the wing. Wordy didn’t object, not out loud anyway. All he wanted was to talk to her, hold her hand. He was happy to come back every year until he was so old that the mere act of hopping out of the plane would break all his bones. That seemed an easier effort than stopping the crash from repeating itself.

Across the aisle he climbed over people in their seats to stare out his assigned window. They sighed, but even with his knee in their laps they didn’t tell him to shove off. They were too content with the end they were partly aware of. Wordy was just a fly buzzing about, a 160 pound fly.

Nothing outside caught his eye, but he did spy a man getting out of his seat 5 rows back. Even his best speculation about how ghosts felt the moment before the encore of their death was quite rough, but he couldn’t think of a reason they would stand up. If anything that would just make them less comfortable, and what use was a bathroom break when Death would empty your bladder for you in moments as if tossing a pail of water out the window?

The man wore a cinnamon red suit, sans tie. The back of his head was all gray, nearly white at the crown. Wordy watched him turn to the side to make room for the stewardess’s drink cart to roll through. As it did, when she wasn’t looking, he snatched a bottle of 5to1 sour right off the top and tucked it into his jacket, continuing on toward the bathroom. Wordy fell over 2 people backwards, scrambling to Café.

There’s a man,” he whispered, drawing her attention. “He took a bottle of unlikely liquor off the cart, and now he’s in the bathroom. That’s strange, right?”

What!? Why didn’t I notice him? Let’s go!” She grabbed his wrist and sent him to heaven. Even in a rush that could eat a year if improperly executed, he still felt the fullness of their connection. How could a dead person be so full of life? It made him suspect that she was the key, the energy keeping the plane in the sky, keeping the ghosts from passing on.

She dragged him down the aisle and to the locked bathroom door, which had the nerve to display a red occupied sign. Her knock was distinct as well, a lively rap like an instructor hitting their desk to draw the students’ attention. There was a clear pause on the other side.

It’s occupied.” The man’s voice was mildly irritated, or rather played at being mildly irritated.

What are you doing with that bottle?” Café demanded. “And just who are you?” She turned to Wordy and whispered. “Do you think you can subdue him?”

Can I what?”

Subdue. Overpower. Put a few new right-handed dents in his jaw.”

That might constitute a misdemeanor… abuse of a cadaver or some such thing.”

I can hear you,” the man said. “Just a moment.” They heard the rushing of liquid. Then the door opened and he leaned on the jamb, staring back at them. His smug face was held in place by the dark yet pale circles under his eyes, purple like a bruised fingernail. His straight white smile would’ve looked nice on just about every other combination of features, but not his. “Well, what do you want?”

Everyone else is in their seats, why not you?” Wordy asked.

Nature called.” Café had no interest in what she could only call smartassery, so she pushed her head into the bathroom under the man’s arm and spotted the now-empty bottle.

I don’t know how… but you just killed us all,” she accused. “That stuff was at odds with the fuel. Contaminating the tank with that will cause an engine hiccup.”

How did you get it into the plane?” Wordy demanded, surprising himself by grabbing the man’s jacket and pressing him against the jamb. It was the most violent thing he’d ever done, if you didn’t count the one time he tripped at his high school graduation and bashed his own head open on a chair.

Okay look,” the culprit said, pushing Wordy’s hands down with his palms. He straightened his clothes. “You got me; I’m the artist.”

Artist?”

Yes. I’m a space-time artist.” Even with death fast approaching they were forced to stare in utter confusion for several seconds. “Relax, you’re not supposed to get it. You’re just my paints, and the brushstrokes are beyond your ken.”

Are you a ghost?” Wordy asked.

I occupy the same places, but I was never alive,” he explained. “There’s real people in the 1to1, probable people at 2 to 10, and then there are people like me. Likely, but misplaced. A scattered possibility. There isn’t a world for me, but I make do. Halloween lets me play around, so I wrote this crash. My best works are tragedies.”

You killed me for a laugh!?” Café seethed.

Of course not!” the artist defended. “You don’t laugh at a tragedy. This is a cathartic experience. I feel your pain to bring clarity to my own, and that of my audience.”

Audience?”

Well right now that’s just me, but I’m very satisfied with my work. So much so that I put you into syndication. That’s why I watch you every year. Unfortunately, the world beyond made an edit last year, like a tree through my window.” He eyed Wordy with exasperation. “You don’t belong here.” The lights flickered as the floor shuddered.

Don’t worry everyone; it’s just some mild turbulence,” the stewardess assured.

You can’t stop this,” the artist told Wordy, eyes suddenly dead. “Don’t come back.” He felt the floor sinking under him, so he turned to Café, drank her in as much as he could.

We’ll go straight for the bottle next time,” she whispered in his ear, wrapping her arms around his shoulders even as he dropped lower, “partner.” Wordy reached up, but nothing but wind whistled through his fingers. He tumbled end over end toward rumbling mine pits below, until he remembered he had a ripcord.

It was the vital day to skydive. Wordy was hopeful, thinking perhaps the momentum of the world itself would carry over into his autumn endeavor. The Cold War was finally wrapping up now that a unified planetary government was forming. The space program was moving into overdrive thanks to the trinary data computing boom. Several manned expeditions were already on their way to Vulcan and Phaeton, meaning they could finally do more than send electric postcards to their neighbors.

The mines had been hastily filled in thanks to environmental regulation. Antichthon was dumping fossil fuels much sooner than the actual Earth, switching to tidal, solar, wind, and even the captured kinetic energy of rain falling.

Electroglass had been integrated into cardistry, which, in addition to knowing what he now faced, convinced Wordy to get his own deck and a few lessons. He didn’t know enough to specialize in a specific style yet, but he could make them stick in a wall from, say, a plane’s length away.

89 could have been a banner year for his love life. The continents of Vespunia and Boldcay, mirroring North America and Europe respectively, were sharing their traditions in the spirit of cooperation, so Vespunians were now greeting people with kisses on the cheek. They lacked the tact and sense surrounding it though, so relationships were springing out of it everywhere like a chickenpox outbreak.

Slurd’s cheek was no exception, but human contact just put Café’s arms back around his shoulders. Knowing her expectations, he’d tried to research ‘scattered possibilities’ and ‘space-time artists’ to no avail. It seemed nobody had heard of such a thing before. Wordy wondered if other beings like this man had even heard of them, given that he was an admitted audience of one. With no name to go by he simply called the red-clad monster the artist and moved on to hating him.

Same place, same time, same pilot, same plane. The biggest difference was that he had aged another year, fantasizing all the while about the subtle changes Café would have undergone if she was allowed the privilege. Maybe a slight softening of her eyes. Maybe a little weight around the middle from evenings they could’ve spent sitting on the patio of the bakery at the end of his street, which was a perfect spot to watch the nearby maple drop its blazing leaves.

Wordy dropped just as elegantly; he was certainly practiced enough at this point. He wanted this to be the last time, one way or another. Nothing had ever enraged him more than the brevity and circumstances of his visits with her. It would’ve been an immense privilege to be rejected by her under normal conditions, but the artist didn’t even give them the chance. Whether she was interested in him or not, he wanted her back in the world. She could be his gift to the newly unified planet, like a housewarming orchid that wouldn’t let any malarkey slip by without knocking itself over to sound the alarm.

The plane swallowed him up once more, and Café was already all over her own version of the plan, like syrup dumped over someone’s head. She wrestled with the stewardess for control of the drink cart, having already smashed several long-odd bottles on the floor. Their contents had soaked into the carpeting, the whole cabin now smelling of booze.

The unwitting employee was about to receive some reinforcements. The man in the cinnamon suit was getting out of his seat, storming forward. Wordy had pulled off what he hoped was the most difficult part of the plan, entering behind the artist and going unnoticed. With a tug on a drawstring the small bag on his belt opened. He pulled out his deck.

Everyone aboard had been murdered, and many times over at that, so Wordy had no qualms slowing down his first toss. It was his first card thrown in hostility, a raging spinning 7 of kisses, and it planted itself in the artist’s left shoulder. Stunned, his target cried out, dropping to one knee and pawing at his back.

There had been no ability to coordinate over the last year, but Wordy and Café were absolutely on the same wavelength, here meaning that their identical desires transcended their differing planes of existence. She charged the artist while he was down, punching him across the jaw while he took 2 more cards to the back. The attackers converged, but not before the artist got his feet back under him. The man took a deep breath, his form becoming translucent. Wordy’s tricks fell out of his flesh and settled on the floor harmlessly. Café’s next punch went right through.

You still don’t get it, do you?” the artist asked with a frustrated sigh, as if talking to the water he washed his brush in. He casually walked right through his furious victim and to the wet part of the carpet, glittering with broken glass. Crouching down, he held out one hand, leaving just enough space for a bottle. The shards took their cue, flying into place, reforming. Liquid rose out of the carpet fibers in globs, crawling back into the neck.

Just go kill somebody else, damn it!” Café shouted. “The world is full of places for you to paint. You don’t need my exact angle. This is my life, and I won’t be shoved out of the way because you want your turn to see!”

You are the only one who feels that way,” the artist told her, a statement she refuted immediately. “Really? Look around.” They did, and saw a hundred faces staring back with the most curious expressions. The passengers were irritated and ashamed, focused on her rather than their murderer. It was clear what they wanted: quiet. They saw no reason to make a fuss.

What did you do to them?” Wordy asked.

Nothing,” the artist insisted. “This is the power of a good tragedy. They have the rare privilege of understanding their place in it. Dying in this great misfortune is the most powerful thing they’ve ever done. A life is a resource; it’s meant to be spent instead of preserved. This notion hurts you because you know it is true even though all instinct makes you cling to life.”

Tears fell from his subjects’ eyes, but there wasn’t a sniffle to be heard. The sight of them paralyzed Wordy and Café, providing the artist an opportunity. He swiped his foot across the carpet, and all of a sudden they could see the inner workings of the plane. He tilted the long-odd liquor, sent it down again, but this time straight into a fuel line.

He didn’t even need to take it into the bathroom. That was just to keep from disturbing the scene, make sure the brushstrokes weren’t obvious. It was over again, and they’d achieved nothing.

Congratulations,” the artist said, seeming to believe otherwise. “You’ve talked me out of using your exact shade. Stand together. Go on, hold hands.” They did as he said, but only because they both wanted it very much. Wordy now knew for sure; the thrill of her touch was greater than all the skies he’d fallen through stacked atop one another. All of it led up this, falling into her life.

What are you going to do to us?” she asked.

Exclude you, just like you want. None of us want you here if this is how you’re going to behave.” They couldn’t believe their luck, but few other options were present. Their hands tightened around each other as the artist approached. He stopped as the lights flickered, shooting an expectant glance at the stewardess, who was slanted against one of the seats in her effort to stay out of their way.

Don’t w-worry everyone; it’s just some mild turbulence,” she stammered, remembering her line. The artist nodded appreciatively. One hand clapped onto Wordy’s left shoulder, and one on Café’s right.

Hold on tight,” Wordy urged her. “The parachute can carry us both.”

I never sign my work,” the artist said, voice taut. “I don’t want confused admirers showing up and interfering. So I can’t have you 2 talking about me either.” They didn’t quite get his meaning as they started sinking through the floor, but Wordy got it when he felt the straps slip off his shoulders, the weight off his back. Wicked Halloween air whipped them as they tumbled. Her clinging hands shifted across his back, and then she understood as well. She was still a goner, but now it wasn’t a tragedy, just a freak accident… with 2 freaks.

I’m sorry!” she shouted in his ear.

Do you want to go do something sometime?” Wordy asked. “I think I’m free next year.” They locked eyes, low enough now to feel heat radiating off Antichthon’s surface. He was glad he said it. It gave her a brief opportunity to be herself. They were just 2 people crossing paths, maybe on a campus, perhaps walking in a park, somewhere where the leaves were falling. Her lively eyes were intellectually ravenous, her spirited cheeks invulnerable to harm, her lips creaking under the strain whenever they couldn’t smirk. She was fully herself, even when face to face with her final moment. That was why her paint couldn’t dry, had to make a run for it.

I think I can squeeze you in.”

Impact was not something a living mind could comprehend, so for Wordy everything simply went black. It was a very solid black, like a road that rejected debris, pitting, and roadkill stains. It was meant to intimidate you out of traveling rather than assist you in doing so. Wordy didn’t have the presence to actively dislike it, but he would have if he could.

On the other side of that sensation was a very different place. Gray barrels sat in stacks against earthen walls, some loose on the floor, half-buried at an angle. A catholicish cross, pitted iron, hung from the ceiling, swinging a little on its chain. Piles of human bones hid behind the barrels, but they were too big to do so effectively. Skulls no bigger than those of cats littered one corner, near a full skeleton with outstretched arms, like it was trying to corral the tiny things as they rolled away.

He wasn’t alone. Café was right there with him, waiting for him to come to his senses, but so were more than 100 other people. The space wasn’t large enough to house them all comfortably, and yet it was. Drained of blood and color, some of them moved through the barrels and walls, trying to find an angle for a good look at the new arrivals.

They were all women, girls, and babes, and at some point they had owned the bones all about them, kept them safely wrapped in cloaks of flesh. They’d been there quite a long time, judging by the state of their tattered dingy clothes. Some were so torn up that the dresses couldn’t even be called modest anymore. Decades earlier than ‘66, that was certain.

I’m dead aren’t I?” Wordy asked. Of course he was a ghost; how could he not be with his unfinished business? His last jump, of all numbers, was his 99th. Café nodded. “What is this place?”

A mass grave,” she explained. “These young ladies were nice enough to catch us as we fell. If not for them our spirits would be so deep we might never find the planet’s surface again.” Wordy thanked them. A few nodded. There were no smiles, but he sensed it was because they couldn’t, nothing to do with anger at all.

So when the artist takes something down from the gallery, does he store it in here?”

No… this place is the reason for it all though.” Café bent down, hoping to draw a helpful diagram in the dirt with her finger, but it had no effect. She still wasn’t accustomed to being dead herself. It was still Halloween; it would get much worse in a few hours. For now she made do with hand gestures. Her fingers wiggled and rose.

Spiritual energy rises,” she went on. “The central fire draws it out of Antichthon’s crust, most aggressively on Halloween. Because of all the death right here, all the… murder, there’s a concentrated column of it, like an updraft.”

All the way up to where planes fly?” Wordy guessed.

On the money,” she said dejectedly. “When my plane passed through it the artist had his opportunity. That’s why it didn’t stick around long each time; it exited the other side of the column.” Wordy looked up at the swinging cross. His sense of time would never return to him, but he was struck by one last true burst of perspective.

The darkness that bludgeoned him out of life was mere moments ago. This mass grave was, of course, underground. The metal cross above swung on its chain thanks to something striking the dirt just above, something named Wordy Slurd.

Costuming

12:01 Halloween time. The 24 hours that shaped Antichthon’s year. The planet’s foggy ring glowed so bright it showed up in the night sky, a pale blue rainbow encircling the empty pockets where the heavens should have been. In some places, like battlefields where lives had been lost in the hundreds or thousands, wailing could be heard in the distance. It was the cry of those who feared they no longer had a connection to the world, those who thought none would bring them forth for the festivities with a mask.

The ones that knew someone would put on their mask kept silent in anticipation, something Suzette Crepe could barely manage. She almost couldn’t believe her luck, first that a general trawling for new registerable female costumes hadn’t rejected her outright, and 2nd that someone had flipped to the back of the catalogue and selected her.

She wouldn’t need to thank the girl, not once they were one and the same. Poppy Club sat inside the thing she called a tree house, which was actually just a collection of tire swings that had each gotten tangled in the branches when she forced them to do loop-de-loops. Rather than cut them down and retie them, her father had always just provided a fresh one, given that there was no shortage of wrecked automobile hulks in the neighboring fields: vehicles that never got the expensive computer updates that were now standard.

The average child, with parents who didn’t fight as much as they bathed, had a curfew and wouldn’t be able to don their mask until the dawn, or even until trick-or-treating hours if those parents were strict. Poppy was free to sleep whenever she wanted, and did so in that collection of dark rubbery holes often. Sometimes the resulting mosquito bites, practically freckles, were confused with chickenpox, getting her sent home from school. As far as she was concerned it was a good deal all around.

It also meant she was free to wear Suzette at the first possible moment. The mask was rough, just her hasty etching glued onto cardstock, so it would likely make her face look strange, like a crazy8. A professional mask, done either by artist or machine recreation from a medical examiner’s mold, would have believable skin and eyes, though they often didn’t match the rest of the face, especially if the ethnicity was different.

Alrighty Mith Crepe, are ya ready for me?” she whispered to the mask, hands shaking with excitement. “Better be. My teacherth thay I’m a handful not worth holding onto.” She didn’t have a watch with her, but nature provided one. Riiiiiiiiiiii-iiiiiii-iii-ii. The 13 year song began, and would often overpower the wail of phantoms to their great frustration. A green and black cicada crawled over the lip of a tire, vibrated its wings.

As 200 more joined it Poppy pressed the mask against her brow. It felt like a face full of chalk dust, but it didn’t irritate her eyes. For a moment they felt sunken, pressed, but then they melded with the encroaching force.

A new person opened those eyes. Halloween wasn’t possession, not completely. It was the past leading the present by example. It was someone guiding a friend by the hand through territories they’d visited before. I could wax poetic and musical about what a unique union it is, but there’s already so much happening in this particular Halloween that I better move on. After all, the rest of our story resides within the remaining 23 hours and 58 minutes.

For speed and clarity I’ll go ahead and refer to this masked person as Popette for the duration even though that implies hybridization rather than Suzette running the projector while Poppy enjoyed the show.

Popette flexed her little fingers, having to adjust to a child body. It had been so long it felt alien, like operating marble-sized hands stuck on the end of chopsticks. She pulled on her pigtails while cicadas, attracted to the spiritual energy that served as their emergence trigger, crawled across the part in her hair.

The catalogues of women featured mostly local girls, so the Suzette part of Popette was not far from the places she was forced to call home. In life she’d never felt like returning to the Billity Catholicish School for Girls, but she somehow knew it was still standing. Taking on the Church of Solidarity was something only a fool would do, but that was a living fool. Popette was only temporary, and the child could hardly be blamed after the fact.

She climbed down the rope of the one tire that swung freely, landing on shaky feet. The girl didn’t own a horse, so they would have to make the journey to her old stomping grounds mostly on foot. That meant about 5 hours of walking through impeding darkness, but the planetary ring was a helpful guide. All she had to do was follow it south.

The instructions were gone through 3 full times, mostly because of his nerves. Mayor Onther Ocks would never live it down if he accidentally put on the wrong costume on the first Halloween after his father’s death. The public expected a different costume rather than transcendent nepotism, hence the deception of the mask liner and its complicated instructions.

It says you have to peel off the first layer, but you can only do so with 5to1 gloves or finger wax,” his young aid read to him from the small manual.

Alright,” he said nervously, “Step one.” He grabbed some gloves, the backs emblazoned with a yellow 5, from a pile of winter clothes he’d heaved out of a deep closet. They were in his family home, a large estate close to the orchards, but the foyer didn’t feel safe and secluded as it usually did, not with journalist gadflies swarming his front step.

The mask liner was too large to fit on his face at first, but he assumed that somewhere in the process of removing different layers and filters it would become the discreet item he needed to disguise the fact that he wasn’t actually allowing the ghost of Muehler Moscow residence in his corpus. The first piece came off along with a film of clear slime. He moved to toss it into a wastebasket.

No don’t!” his aid warned. “That’ll sink right through the foundations. Toss it in the fireplace.” Onther groaned, standing and walking down the hall to the lounge, where he threw the wet thing to the flames. It shriveled like plastic and smelled even worse.

Now what?” he asked her when she entered just behind, flipping through the booklet.

Take off the gloves and use the applicator brush to apply the heat-transfer fluid. It should change color from red to Caucasian skin tone when it’s properly mixed with the residue from the first layer.”

Where’s the… Errgh.” They marched back to the entryway to get to the liner’s box and its other accessories. He turned the box over, catching the flimsy brush as it fell out. The mask liner needed to be flat, so he got on his knees and placed it on the bench near the door. He applied a liberal coat, one of the only things he’d done liberally in recent years, and succeeded mostly in permanently staining the bench.

Once that’s done you sandwich it with the dry side of the adhesive layer.” She handed the last piece over for him to assemble. In the end it looked significantly more wrinkled than the picture on the box, but there was no time left to worry about it.

The clock had struck midnight. Antique chimes rang throughout the house. A distant church bell tolled it warnings. It was Halloween; the spirits were out. Riiiiiiiii-iiiii-iiii-ii. Everyone who could manage to stay awake for 24 hours would, just so ghosts couldn’t opportunistically haunt their dreams.

The press was no exception, and they were waiting for him to emerge so he could have his photo taken with the exterminator’s mask on. His aid brought it over on a small pillow. The man Moscow had baggy droopy eyes; Onther grimaced.

Couldn’t we have picked somebody with less unkempt eyebrows?” he asked disdainfully.

Poll approval was highest for him.”

And what happens a year from now when he comes back and tells all of Mountainblood I never put him on?”

The public won’t care that long, and it’ll be your word versus a dead man’s. People inherently trust the living more, whether they realize it or not. I mean, if they know so much, how did they get themselves killed in the first place?”

Don’t say anything like that when my father gets here,” the mayor warned. “He put on his father every year after he died. Grandfathers and great grandfathers, going all the way back to the first Halloween. So the family story goes anyway. When he was still kicking, my old man told me it was nearly called Hallowocks, to differentiate it from the Earth holiday and honor us.”

He turned and looked at his aid in the middle of placing his tie around his neck, noticing she didn’t have a mask anywhere on her. He asked if she was participating this year.

I already took history in school. I don’t need anymore lessons.”

Not even from the people who were actually there?”

Those are the people most likely to sugarcoat it,” she explained. She glanced away, suddenly aware of what she implied about the former mayor, whose spirit was likely in the room already, impatiently drumming his fingers, waiting for his kid to get on with it. “Good luck.” She pushed the Muehler mask toward him.

Onther took it delicately, holding it as he might a scalding hot camera. Once the mask liner was in place on the back of it he stood in front of a small hanging mirror and affixed it to his face. It wasn’t perfect, he could still see some reflections on the edge of the liner, but hopefully the darkness outside would hide it well enough.

The eyes animated, looking in all directions frantically, wondering why there were no limbs to control. Onther couldn’t see much of anything himself, as the liner kept them from joining. Muehler Moscow’s spirit had entered the mask, the liner transferring enough body heat to make ghost and object both believe the process was functioning normally.

At least it was money well spent, uncomfortable as it was. He was now free to flaunt the publicly-approved costume for a minute in front of the cameras before returning inside and taking up the mantle of Whisker Ocks instead.

Damn it, I can’t see anything,” the mayor grumbled, hands out. “Just get me to the door. I’ll make this quick.” His aid took his arm and guided him, wrapped his hand around the knob, wished him luck. Onther tried to recall exactly how much space there was on his porch before the first step down as he slipped out of the cracked door and shut it behind him. One step forward. 2. 3 was too big a risk.

This way Mayor Ocks,” one of the photographers shouted, just trying to draw his gaze. He flicked his head toward whichever voice was loudest in the moment to make his face look as natural as possible. Muehler wasn’t making it easy; he could feel the ghost rolling the mask eyes just over his own.

Your mayor told me that technically he has no duties today,” Onther said. “Since I’m calling the shots with his body. Nice to meet y’all. The name’s Muehler Moscow, though I think you know that already.”

The charade continued for a few minutes, Onther spouting off the various paragraphs he’d memorized about the exterminator. He had to cut things a little short when he felt the mask start blinking in patterns, probably a code meant to reveal the injustice of his wasted Halloween. The mayor thanked them all for coming, fumbled for the knob behind him, and then let himself back in.

His aid peeled the mask off for him, the liner ripping out several hairs painfully. She set Moscow back on his pillow, but the heat lingered, the eyes still moving on their own. They’d never seen a brow so furrowed in anger, probably only achievable when the brow was the whole of the body.

Don’t look at me like that,” the mayor told the disembodied eyes as he wiped residue from the corners of his own. “My father passed away last year and he’ll be my costume today. There’s no personal offense meant Mr. Moscow. Nobody else tried to reserve you anyway, so there’s no reason to hold a grudge.” The mask wiggled, then stiffened. The eyes were dead once more. “Do you think he will?” Onther asked his aid.

Perhaps we should remove him from registration, just in case,” she suggested. “Just for a year, so he’s not running around with arms and a mouth.”

Thank you for your assistance. You’re dismissed. Go enjoy the festivities.” She nodded wordlessly and let herself out. Onther made his way to the house’s biggest bathroom, leaned close to the mirror with his hands propping him up.

He didn’t want to do it at all. He couldn’t say it out loud, not now, not ever before, because he felt that the past liked to ride him hard. The Ocks family was a straight line, start to finish, and he knew he was just one baton being handed off. Whatever their goal was in the long run, it didn’t have anything to do with him, but he would certainly never hear the end of it if he didn’t play his part.

Out from the medicine cabinet came the mask of his father, the mold taken by one of his daughters just 5 minutes after death. Taking the face of a major political figure, even if they were immediate family, was illegal, but the Ocks knew they were following either the laws at the start of their line or the laws at the end, not the ones in the middle.

We all miss you,” he whispered, turning the mask around. “I hope you’re proud.” Onther took a deep breath and pressed the mask to his face. There was the same sensation the rest of Halloween felt, like a blast of chalk dust.

The 2 men were so closely related that their skin blended perfectly. Whisker had passed down his eyes, so really the only thing that changed about Onther’s face was impossible to pin down, just a general redundancy, a ‘hat on a hat’ situation, or perhaps something more like Russian nesting dolls.

Suzette and Poppy became Popette because I respected both of them and knew they would work together. Each was equally important to the story. With these 2 knuckleheads that isn’t the case. Onther was done mattering on this particular Halloween, so we’re just going to call this compounded mayoral person Whisker from this point.

The last thing I’ll say about Onther is that his existential dread was right. He was, at best, a baton. To what personal end I don’t know, not in exact detail anyway. It might even involve me and this narration; I could be making him the nothing he always suspected by simply writing over him with the word whisker, but I have to tell it the way it likely is.

A little late son,” Whisker sighed into the mirror. He tugged on his clothes. Even with the wrong face he didn’t want to be seen in public so poorly dressed. A minute later he was in a walk-in closet, tossing his eldest’s most expensive shirts and jackets onto the floor, looking for something a sissy wouldn’t wear.

This disturbed his son greatly. They weren’t supposed to go out. If anyone recognized him without the Moscow mask on his career could be over. A thought occurred, wrapped up in his mind as if in a strait jacket since he couldn’t make his lent face express it.

Less of a baton perhaps. More of a stepping stone. Something meant to provide momentary support and then sink into the shadowy flow of time forever.

They had to be delivered to the mausoleum one at a time, seeing as he could only control them that way. This presented a problem, since the property didn’t technically belong to him, just the corpse-filled stonework itself.

Likely Hood couldn’t risk any of the mechanical bulls being seen, given that all 5 of them were stolen property. There was some room to walk inside, and stairs leading down to the lower level, so after each theft he rode his prize there and hid it away for his ancestors to admire. The mental checklist was complete: crooked-headed Dusky Death, the portable one from the rodeo that was stained with, and smelled like, corndog grease, the one with the rhinestone saddle from the outdoor movie prop lot, the cow print one from the antique shop, and the refurbished one that took coins from just outside the junkyard.

It’s fate, he thought, perhaps attributing too much to their number. It was lucky that all of the mechanical bulls he knew of in the area matched the number of people he was going to try to call up from the great beyond. He entered, went to the pile of machines, and grabbed one by the strap. When he took them they had needed the lingering electricity within them to go anywhere, but now they were on the cusp of Halloween.

This time the chaotic life force of the Hood family line, rather more of a squiggle, was strong enough to do it alone. At his touch it rose into the air and levitated, and he was able to lead it the way a farmhand might take a calf to drink at the trough. If the Ocks line was uncooked spaghetti the hoods were a tangled ball of electrical cables, popping and sparking even when you were sure they weren’t plugged in, sheaths gnawed through by bugs in places, exposing their coppery guts. They didn’t have a goal that needed to bridge generational gaps, but they did have whims, and grudges, and anger that could fluster, making one Hood trip into another’s nest, where they would be welcomed warmly.

Linus lined up all their steeds and set them resting in the grass. He stood behind them, hands clasped, waiting in the firefly darkness. After a few minutes said flies scattered, only illuminating from safe surfaces. They sensed the air was about to fill.

Riiiiiiiiiii-riiiiiii-riiiii-rii. The first cicadas came from under his bare feet, his boots set off to the side for the moment. He wanted to feel them underneath, rising, stirring, going about their routine as if they hadn’t just spent 13 years in a dirt nap. Emerald eyes and wings. Leathery black bodies. A scream like a striking picketing swarm of crickets.

Evening friends,” he greeted them, wiggling his toes as they crawled over his feet, up his pant legs, through his leg hair. The last time the hair was sparser; he was just a teenager. His brother, Nathan ‘Neighbor’ Hood, had the honor back then, seeing as he was 5 years older. It was him standing in front of that dark stone portal, screeching with the cicadas, calling out to the bedrock land of the Antichthon dead.

Previously Likely had watched them emerge from the side of a river, sitting in the bulrush, feet in the water, shirt off. Attracted to his flavor of odds, they had covered him in muddy footprint flicks. A trick-or-treater had come along, seen him covered, and run off shouting that he’d found a body.

That was just another yarn to add to the tangle. The Hoods were strange, the Hoods were trouble, the Hoods were witchcraft. Mountainblood was always looking for excuses to lock them up, and it often succeeded.

Every decade and change their good luck finally came through. Sometimes, if one of them was serving a particularly long sentence, the jailer would just release them on that 13th Halloween, just to minimize the damage they might do to the facilities. Nathan was in the rock though, and they felt too safe to ever bother with such a pragmatic kindness.

The Hoods always come out of the rock,” Likely told the mausoleum doorway. “Like blood from a stone.” He raised his voice above the cicadas. The ground was practically made of them now, tunneling through each other to get to the crisp night’s surface. His feet and ankles were lost in 2 anthills of them. “Wake up! Get your asses out of bed and into downhill gear! It’s Halloween Hoods! It’s the 13th night! Bring what you’ve got and show it to me!”

The air filled with insects the size of walnuts, buzzing in a cyclone about the small building. A wave of them bulged outward in front of the door as it breathed a graveyard breath. There came the sounds of 5 bodies stirring, but only part of each one got to their feet. Likely squinted when he saw it. A cicada left a trail in the shadows as it whizzed by, just a line of damp color. Another did the same. Then 1000 more. They filled in the silhouette of a woman in the doorway, and when she was complete she stepped out onto the grass, feet as bare as his.

Aunt Vicky!” he greeted, surprised to see someone he had known personally. She scurried forward and embraced him, young and strong enough to lift him off his feet. It was a good thing he was currently 4to1, or the 5to1 solidified ghost would’ve run straight through.

Oh good golly, is that little likely Linus?” she sang warmly, setting him down. Vicky ‘Victim’ Hood, his great-aunt, had died well into her 90s, but the Hood resurrection always brought them back as they saw themselves, as the age where they were most comfortable saying their own name, so that night she looked near 50.

A mane of tawny braids sat tall on her head, held down by a green bandanna streaked with dirt rich in fool’s gold sparkles. Her clothes looked as hardworking as her, dirty, layered, and stiff, as if she’d decided to break down a chicken coop in the middle of a blizzard. The dirt under her fingernails had more personality than most women’s eye shadow. Her patient grinning eyes belied a no-nonsense attitude, making her seem perfect for the job of pumping out more rambunctious Hoods, but the fates had given her no children.

So instead she had been a very active aunt, practically a mother, to tens of Hood scamps. She scolded them in public when they misbehaved, built their tree houses, told them to rub some dirt on their scrapes as long as it was healthy dirt from the watermelon patch, and gave them the birds and the bees if she thought their own parents weren’t doing it quick enough.

If you’re here that must mean…” It did mean. More streaking cicada trails produced another figure in the doorway, a man this time. Vicky dropped Linus and ran to him. Her embrace turned into a deep kiss. Around her head and unruly hair Linus could barely see, but he guessed Vicky’s husband was the same age as her by his full gray goatee. “Uncle Ouzo.”

His uncle acknowledged him with a nod. He was never much of a talker, embarrassed by his poor English. He’d been born in the equivalent of the actual Earth’s Cyprus, immigrating to South Reap to be a part of the restaurant industry.

Normally the 13 year Halloween cicada was inedible, but he was the one who figured out you could age them after they die. If properly dried and then ignored, without peeking, for a week their odds would drop 2 increments. That made them too insubstantial to eat if you were 3to1, but you could still taste them. The real key was slathering them in 4to1 vinegar hot sauce; once it coated the surface you could pick them up and pop them in your mouth. The flavor was great and the calories nonapplicable.

The Hoods ate at his place as a family after Halloween, trying to extend their good luck by ingesting the insects, fooled into thinking it had an effect by their own general mirth and drunkenness. On one such occasion an intoxicated Vicky had leaned on Ouzo as he passed by, nibbling on his ear. They were wed within the month, living in presumed bliss for nearly 5 decades until her death from the arguably-natural cause of falling off their balcony from lightheadedness. He followed of heart failure within the month.

That made 2, but there were still 2 saddles to fill. Foggy colors streaked again, like skywriting planes laying the stripes of a flag. It was more vibrant this time, eventually producing a woman with just one toe in her 20s. Her orange and brown outfit looked like it had been repurposed from a marching band uniform, ripped to shreds and sewn back together by a daft tone-deaf hand.

She had a comfortably ruffled quality, like a worn pack of chewing gum sitting in a pocket so long that it and the pocket had swapped flavors. One of her canines was sharp, the other chipped in a way that suggested she had been gnawing on something she shouldn’t have, perhaps a rawhide bone or hubcap.

Small and spunky, her short hair just barely covered the straps of her mask. It was like a pair of aviation goggles, but the lenses had been replaced by domed compound ones, opaquely green. At one point she had adorable little eyes, but that was before crazy8. Once the mask was stuck on her she took a new name after the cicada screech she barely loved more than her own: Riri.

Oh they’re singing tonight!” she hollered, strutting out of the cold stone door, spinning with her arms extended.

You’re… Riri?” Likely asked, stepping forward. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure, but I’ve seen a couple pictures of you in the albums. You’re always blurry.”

I can’t stand sitting still,” she said, coming right up and hugging him before moving on to Vicky and Ouzo. “Been a long time Victim, not that I’m blaming your beautiful heart.”

Riri’s my half cousin,” Vicky explained to Likely. “Full before the mask.”

Now that we’ve had some time to cool our heads in the sand, did you like me better before or after?” Riri asked the older woman, flicking the glass edge of a dragonfly eye.

I might say before, but he wasn’t tough enough to hack it was he? His name’s the dead one.”

Damn straight,” she affirmed, clapping her hands. “Are we blowing this joint or what? It’s kind of dead around here.”

There should be one more behind you,” Likely noted. “4 is the usual, right?”

I got 4 both times I did it,” Vicky confirmed, “but my mother Lively said she got 7 once.” Riri whistled, impressed.

Any lazy bones still in there? Come on out!” Likely shouted into the mausoleum. “We’re on a clock!” The cicadas were done doing introductions, many now resting on the rock, wings shaped like 3s vibrating. “Only 3?” And a crazy8 half-cousin with an aunt I already knew and her partner with not a drop of Hood blood in him. Where are all the Civilish War fighters? The river thieves? We need the best, the most time-tested and tribulated, if we’re to bust open the rock.

He turned away, ready to take what Antichthon spat up, but there came a scraping sound. The smack of a bare foot. A cough. Likely turned back just in time to see 2 bodies, tangled up in each other, fall out of the graveyard shadows. One hit the ground, but the other caught themselves at the last second, hand curling into a claw to avoid touching the grass.

Alright! 5!” Likely said with a snicker. Wait until Neighbor hears I got one more than him. He’ll never live it down.

Not so fast Linus,” Vicky said. “They’re no Hoods.” He looked again; she was right. A Hood might marry just about anything that crawled out of the bushes to scrounge in the bins, so there was plenty of variety in the way they could look, but the family albums had solid photographic records going back more than 100 years, and plenty of portraits before that. These 2 didn’t bear any resemblance to any of the faces he had memorized.

The one that had fallen slowly picked himself up: a bald black man with strong shoulders. Him and his companion both wore prison jumpsuits, black and white stripes with literal flow, which Linus recognized as the Gothic Rock uniform.

The other person threw him for a loop and then caught him again, like he was just electroglass in the midst of an Over the Moon trick show. They were tall, but hadn’t struck their head on the top of the door even though it looked as if they should have. Their sex was impossible to determine at a glance, partly because he couldn’t just glance, only gawp.

Glittering tears fell down their face in two streams, but there was no sad smearing or heated dispersion, just like looking at 2 untouched tundra rivers from a helicopter. Their icy quality had spread to their eyes, fogging them up, wisps of mist in the corners. They ran an elegant hand across their nearly-shaved head. There’s never been a Hood so damn handsome, that’s for sure. I know there are some that would’ve married from the same litter if a sibling looked like that.

Who in the blazing blue bloods are you?” Vicky asked. “This is a family reunion, and you’re not family.”

Aren’t we?” the tall gorgeous one asked, their companion still leaning forward like a recovering swimmer about to vomit up a bucket of accidentally swallowed seawater.

Maybe I slept with one of them,” Riri hypothesized, raking her brain for memories. “Everything before I crashed is pretty fuzzy.”

No, I definitely would have remembered that,” Long Odd Silver said with a chuckle, confident even though they couldn’t find any of their own 3 names in their head anywhere.

Well then who are you?” Likely reiterated.

Prisoners,” Roman Koch groaned, looking at the flowing stripes on his sleeves. “Definitely prisoners. That’s… that’s all I’ve got.”

You’re from the rock,” Likely informed them. “Gothic Rock. The real question is what you’re doing having a sleepover in my family’s mausoleum.” Instead of answering him Silver and Roman looked at each other, finding a vague sense of familiarity but no memories they could firmly grasp. It was Riri who looked at their feet, saw blades of grass passing into them.

They’re 5to1,” she said.

5s shouldn’t have amnesia,” Vicky noted. That’s 7-8 territory… unless they’re split.” Likely asked what she meant. “You know, like those monks can do. They meditate and split their odds so they can explore places they couldn’t normally survive by being at low odds. Normally that’s long odd stuff on freezing peaks though, some baldy sitting down 5to1 and splitting into a 7 and a 9 so he can double his chances of finding enlightenment.”

You 2 looking for enlightenment?” Likely asked them.

No,” they answered in unison, somehow remembering that.

I get it,” the living Hood said, scratching his chin as if he didn’t. “You’re trying to break yourselves out.” The others, including the prisoners, stared at him. “You got put in that big spinning machine they have in the rock. It’s turning you to nothing as we speak, but that also makes it easier to split your odds, plus it’s Halloween, so you borrowed the first portal out of fading obscurity you could find. Mine.”

Do we just leave them here?” Riri asked.

No, this is part of it,” Likely said, nodding, talking himself into it. “As it so happens we’re going to Gothic Rock today. We’re breaking my brother Nathan out. That’s why I summoned all of you. He’s been rotting in there for years, but our time has come once again, and I know he feels the clock striking.”

They’re not family,” Uncle Ouzo said, somehow stuffing a hundred sentences into that one.

Neither are you,” Roman barked defensively, judging based on appearances alone.

He doesn’t have any Hood blood, but he married in,” Likely explained. “Wherever Vicky went he went, so wherever she goes he goes. That’s all beside the point. Do you 2 want to get yourselves out of the rock and get your identities back?”

I do,” Silver said. Roman nodded.

Then we’re all on the same team this fine misty evening. Arguing is for people who have a lot more time than we do.” He turned to his relatives. “Any objections under the Hood?” 2 shrugs and a shaking head. The mission was go. “Excellent! Everybody gather round and have a look at the marvelous creatures we’ll be riding.”

All 6 circled up around the line of mechanical bulls, a few tilting because they still bore twists of jagged metal out the bottom. Likely touched one, kept it balanced under his palm as it rose. He explained his discovery. As long as you had chaos in your blood, could tell the random outcome of the bull’s bucking to only pick the options where it didn’t hit the ground, you could make it fly. Well, at least hover in a jostling fashion a smidge too uncomfortable to call a massage.

It was just another perk of being a Hood, of which there were about 15 to counterbalance the 30 or so disadvantages of being one. The biggest perk was the reunion that had just occurred, where one Hood a year could call upon the dead. Their chaotic luck was so strong that it was a waste to simply let one ghost parasitically attach with a mask. There was enough to bring several forth, to give them 5to1 bodies of their own for the day. Now he had a posse, and he just had to get the other one. Then they could hit the desert and say hello to a Neighbor.

Silver, Roman, and Ouzo couldn’t make the bulls work, so they had to share. Likely paired up with Silver, Riri with Roman, and the married couple with each other. Just in case he lived through the day, Likely stored the remaining bulls in the mausoleum for another occasion.

We put the lights out!” Likely hollered into the darkness, leaning forward, sending his bull charging through the graveyard.

Leave ‘em seeing stars!” the other Hoods shouted as they followed his trail of dust and fate-shucked bug husks.

Inner Child

Religion’s a funny thing in probable space. As far as I can tell there’s not much reason for it to exist. Over in the 1to1 there are generally 2 attitudes when it comes to god: belief and disbelief. If the deity is real, well then they’re not present in probable space because it isn’t. If they aren’t real, and have manifested in the lower likelihoods, then they have no more power than anything else that didn’t happen.

Yet the instinct persists, at least in some people. None of them go so far in hubris to make up their own god, given that they’re made up themselves, so the religions of Antichthon don’t have central figures or mythologies. They merely have an aesthetic, and even that is all piggybacking.

Churches and such emulate 1to1 faiths in costuming, in ritual, and in attitude. Earth had snake handlers. Aunty Antichthon had people who were snake handler-ish. They did their best to mimic, but probable snakes slither in a pattern resembling their odds, so in the shape of 3s or 4s, which makes for a lot more dropping since they don’t hug the arm the way they’re supposed to.

There were Muslimish people who prayed toward Mecca even though Antichthon didn’t have one. Buddhistish followers who were happy devoting their lives to the notion of inner peace rather than the concept itself, paying silent lip service. Hinduish people forgetting how many arms or which animal head to put on a statue because the details didn’t really matter as long as it looked sort of Indian and got the point across.

Catholicishism had a buried foothold in the clay of Mountainblood. Its adherents had bibles, but every one was different, filled with a random assortment of stories that definitely sounded like they could be from the 1to1 version of the holy book. They had saints, but it was whoever they felt like calling a saint, usually a neighbor who agreed to babysit.

Their spiritual satisfaction came from living like Catholics rather than worshiping, so they opened their own schools segregated by sex, with strict unimaginative instructors wearing clothes so modest they might be mistaken for overworked coat trees. Childhoods died there, some would proudly declare, just like a real honest-to-someone-else’s-god Catholic school.

Kicker knew full well what to expect when she was brought to the Billity Catholicish school for girls. She knew she, and her child, were being stored there because they were embarrassments to the family name. That was the service the Billity family provided: the devouring of other names. Back when slavery was still on the books, as opposed to written on the walls as it was just then, in 1973, there was always a Billity to help transfer ownership by playing a shell game with surnames and legal paperwork.

Now that such chains were invisible they were more in the business of handling pregnancies that occurred out of wedlock. Nobody respectable could call themselves Catholicish if they didn’t both ensure the child’s birth and then immediately ostracize it. Sometimes the Billities directed illegitimate children into orphanages, sometimes they gave them to other women at the school as adopted wards with changed names, and sometimes they slipped through cracks and were never heard from again.

The school was a gargantuan plantation house with white walls and a green roof. Big as it was it was still dwarfed by 4 weeping willows at its corners. Trees were flexible with their odds, becoming less likely in harsh conditions to minimize harm, and so could last longer and grow larger than 1to1 trees. Those 4 must have been at least 300 years old, meaning the house was purposefully built between them, hoping to use them as umbrellas to keep out the heat.

Kicker escorted her daughter by the hand, up the steps to the front door, where they were met by Sister Varia Billity. She was a tall gray woman with eyes like cold spots in the middle of a hot meal. She spoke very little, but Kicker would come to realize that was just with the girls in her care. Kept up by an uncomfortable cot, she would eventually hear the Billitys having family dinners 2 floors below. They were loud, full of laughter, passing insults and curses back and forth like they were the salt and pepper.

Varia’s voice was often loudest, especially when arguing with her sister Refuta who handled the finances. They never said grace. They were the types to say ‘it’s about time’ when the food arrived, as opposed to thanking anyone.

Kicker often fumed in her bed, strangling the edge of her sheet. They weren’t even Catholicish, not truly. They played the part to run the school, to assure their clients everyone and every problem was well taken care of. At night they transformed into their true selves: con artists, thugs, and foxes running a hen house.

Sometimes the girls had to clean, and Kicker once wiped down the large cross that hung on the wall over the Billity family dinner table. It left grease all over her rag, which smelled of meat. So that was what they used whenever they spit-roasted an entire pig or gator over the fire pit.

Sister Varia was supposed to have taken a vow of chastity, but she had a child of her own named William. It wasn’t obvious, she was barely more motherly toward him than any of the other children running around, but the boy had told Kicker’s daughter Keepsake that his last name was Billity.

Keepsake never told her mother, but she sort of overheard, as their minds were like 2 radios tuned to the same frequency. The pair did alright for a time; Kicker didn’t have to fret when she could sense her child’s state at any given moment.

That ability was the real embarrassment that had caused her father to force her out. Keepsake was illegitimate alright, but not in the same way as the others at the school. She was birthed By Kicker’s own curiosity, her refusal to narrow her mind and heart to just Catholicishism.

At 20 she’d started reading about a woman called Suzette Crepe, a boat-rocker if there ever was one. She led union strikes, civil rights marches, and even the occasional rude parade. At some point she gave up on change though, vanishing from the public eye, taking up residence on the lip of Drymouth.

There she experimented with odds-splitting meditation, the kind that can let a part of you fly off into space without harm and see the cosmos as if it were an instrument of space travel. Kicker knew why. She knew she couldn’t change the people, at least not the people of South Reap. She was trying to free herself from then, find a place where the ways in and out couldn’t be so thoroughly controlled.

The records didn’t indicate whether or not she succeeded, but Kicker knew she had to try as well. Any small chance was better than the life laid out for her. She would be more than a stepping stone. Even if it was blasphemousish she would walk on water instead while those around her sputtered in their drowning, insisting it was unbecoming of her not to join.

She sat cross-legged with some 6to1 incense one Halloween, on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Drymouth Desert. She said her mantra so many times that her breathing came to sound like it. When the moon was high in the sky she felt it through closed eyelids. The spirits were wailing, but they couldn’t pierce the bubble of mental haze she’d created.

In the isolation of her refusing mind she waited for the empty space to populate. It was the season of many, of those across time, of the macabre harvest, so even without letting the ghosts in she would become many as well. Thoughts wandered away, to possibilities outside Mountainblood.

There was a possible future where she left the continent altogether, worked aboard a cruise ship. Another one where she converted to snakehandlerishism and happily died from envenomation, her body so deep in a nest of rattlers that nobody could safely recover it for days. Another where she had 10 children, each with different men that her family didn’t approve of, all to screw with their grand plans that no individual link in the chain was allowed to know.

These hopeful dreams split from her in her head space, walking a few steps from her self-image so she could compare. They all looked happier, but other than that they were identical, until Keepsake appeared. She was so small, but old enough to walk, and when Kicker stared into her curious eyes she broke down, realizing the child was the only one that was truly identical, because she was an actual piece.

Halloween is a time of history, of the past reminding you it still has bite, and it didn’t take too kindly to her using its energies as a booster covering for her lack of skill in intense meditation. Kicker couldn’t have a split future that night, but she could have some baggage to remind her of her own exact past.

When the woman came out of her trance she was cradling her inner child, exactly as she had been when she was six years old. They talked for a long time, and everything the little girl said was a memory, a radiant plucked string resonating between them, a reminder that brought a tear to Kicker’s eye.

Producing her daughter had dropped her odds from 3 to 5, with Keepsake healthy at 4. When the day passed and it was clear they would not become one again, fear and despair threatened to plunge them both all the way to crazy8. Her ancestors had not accepted her attempt to run away from her chore of a destiny. They had shown her the only unsanctioned child she could ever have was a reiteration. She was chained, only ever moving back and forth.

And the chains only grew more literal when she was forced to reveal Keepsake to her father. He was disgusted, and for a time he considered sending only one of them away. Should he keep the original and straighten her out? Or should he scrap the old and start fresh?

In the end he discarded them both in the Billity wastebasket. Kicker was legally an adult, and though a lot of people would look the other way if her father dragged her screaming down a public street, there was nothing the law could do to keep her there… but Keepsake was also, in the eyes of the law, the same exact person but underage. So her father had custody.

She was allowed to stay with her in the Billity house, and it was her hope that once they survived the sham of a religious education and the countless hours of domestic labor they would leave together. That would’ve taken 12 years. Sister Varia didn’t even allow them 3.

Keepsake wasn’t at the breakfast table even though they were having cinnamon oatmeal, their shared favorite. She wasn’t in the bedrooms. Wasn’t scrubbing floors. Wasn’t in class. Kicker could still feel her presence, but no emotion. Their connection felt that way on average, just the background noise of walking down a hallway or preparing to bathe, but it shouldn’t have gone on that long. Nobody went more than 10 minutes without feeling something more significant.

Already she feared the most sinister, and didn’t bother asking any of the adult Billitys where she was. Instead she found young William, Keepsake’s best friend if the girl could be said to have any. Speaking with him would no doubt seem suspicious, so she snuck up on him while he played outside, spoke when he was already awkwardly stuffed inside a tire swing.

Hello William,” she said, pushing the swing before he could respond. The boy squirmed, afraid to get down while it was moving.

It’s Billy,” he grumbled back.

Billy then. Have you seen my daughter?”

No.”

You don’t have any idea where she is?” Kicker pushed him higher.

I ain’t seen her.”

You two always play together. I’m worried something happened to her. Don’t you care? I thought you liked her.” Higher. Faster. The tire smacked against her palms with a hollow sound every time it returned.

I don’t like no stinky girls! Let me down.” Kicker grabbed the swing, halting it so suddenly that William’s forehead slammed into the top of it and he bit his tongue. Tears welled up in his eyes. He was just a child, but he wasn’t lost, and with hers gone she was desperately missing the capacity to play games with him.

You tell me where she is right now,” she ordered, spinning him around so they were face to face. “She could die, you understand? There’s something wrong with this place, and everybody knows it, even you. If you don’t tell me that’s like killing her yourself. Are you a killer Billy?” He cried in earnest.

I didn’t kill nobody! Keepy’s nice to me. Not like you! You’re mean!” Kicker expected a hot flare of anger, but it was a breaking frigid wave instead. She felt the hole inside her where her inner child was supposed to be. Without it her sympathy for others, especially children, was fading fast.

She’s exactly like me,” Kicker said coldly. “I doubt your parents ever told you… Keepsake and I are the same person.” His eyes widened, his little lips hanging open. “She’ll grow up to look like this. And when she’s me she’ll remember how little you tried to help her.” The woman stormed off, spinning the swing aggressively.

Her child was close, but fading. It wasn’t the distance that was changing. Kicker started choking on the other possibilities. There was no time left to skulk, so she started tearing through the school, ripping open doors, shouting, drawing the attention of everyone present for a typical Tuesday of education.

Girls got a glimpse before they were corralled away. Sisters Varia and Refuta appeared, blocking each end of the hall Kicker was now trapped in. They were bigger, and had even bigger brothers and cousins, but there was no fear. There couldn’t be any without Keepsake.

Where is she!?” Kicker demanded, rabid, strands of hair like exhausted bullwhips hanging over her eyes.

Your child ran away,” Refuta claimed.

Hogshit! I know she’s still here! What have you rat bitches done to my baby?”

You know we don’t allow cursing here.” They closed in. What followed was the most vicious fight between 3 women that I’ve ever seen, and that includes several 1to1 ladies literally scratching each other’s tattoos off at a Florida public pool. The sisters tried to pin her down with all their might, but she was light, slippery like there were holes in her.

Kicker got her thumbs in Varia’s eye sockets, but before she could push one of the bigger Billity boys arrives, wrapped his arms around her, pinning hers to her side, and threw her clear across the hall. She struck a vase with her forehead and passed out.

When she came to she was somewhere else, and she had no idea where. The Billity school was long gone, that she knew, because she couldn’t sense Keepsake anymore. Kicker sat up under a tree, next to a rusted out hulk of a pickup that had been there so long its bed had naturally filled with grit and weeds.

The woman wept, and she knew they were the last tears she had to shed. Without Keepsake she couldn’t make any more. This was just a final emptying of the bucket, making sure no mess would be made if someone kicked it later. With a spirit as brittle as the nearby truck, but a survival instinct more powerful than ever, she stood and chose a random direction to walk.

Maybe they could see each other again on Halloween. Until then, there was no telling what she might do. All the childhood games were still in her head, but with no child to play them they became twisted scenarios, things she could subject her enemies to once she strong-armed the opportunity.

Cops and robbers tricked into shooting at each other.

Softball that wasn’t so soft.

Made to walk across a floor of lava.

Things that would leave them with more than a keepsake scar.

 

(Continued in Part Three)

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