They snuck into the theatre quietly, but found themselves in an unfamiliar setting. Instead of entering upon the middle row as they did before, they were at the front row seats, right before the stage. The lights were all on, but the curtains were shut tight. In the theatre, not a soul, alive or dead, filled the seats.
Johne slowly lowered the supply bag to the floor, beginning to pace about, stretching his arms and punching the air. How does one kill the Scrangly Man? It was a question he didn't have an answer to, but strangely, unlike other questions of similar nature, it wasn't going to stop him from continuing on. Even if he didn't know, he might find a way. He had to.
His body jumped up as the curtains slowly parted open. He retreated back to Candice, both taking steps away from the stage. Ducking down to the supply bag, he spilled out its contents, picking about for something helpful within, but tearing at his hair and leaving the junk on the floor. As the curtains parted even more, they could see who was front and center stage. Who and what was center stage.
Johne's bright red convertible stood on the stage, the Scrangly Man sitting jammed in the front seat, his arms hanging limply out. He looked like a poor child's toy mindlessly thrown into the car. Even his eyes, the dark horrid pits of nightmares, seemed nothing more than black paint. The Scrangly Man's hand clunked against the car, going back and forth in a perfect second rhythm.
As this rhythm played out, Johne and Candice could see the Scrangly Man was not alone on stage. At the very edge, placed in equal lengths away from each other all along one end to the next, were a slew of strange objects. A large blade stuck out of the floor, no handle to it. A cup of water stood, patches of metal leaning against it. Three halves of a candle as good as new. A plate of yellow paint, the color bright and alive. Patches of soft fabric laid in a pile. But at the far left end, nothing stood at all. Emptiness in place of substance.
They both turned sharply to the car as the clunking stopped. The Scrangly Man's head was turned towards them, his neck twisting about, his eyes back to normal. He grabbed the edge of either car door, sinking his hands into the metal, and pulled himself out. One by one the fingers slipped away, his long legs stretching him out as high as he could be.
"I'm so glad to see you, Whisper," the Scrangly Man said, tapping his fingers together. "Oh, it's been so much fun. So why have you come to see me today?"
"You know why I'm here." Johne climbed up onto the stage, motioning Candice to the right with his hand. "So let's get down to it."
"Good, it's about time." The Scrangly Man sat upon the hood of the car, crossing his arms. "Well, Whisper, I'm waiting."
"Don't underestimate me," Johne growled, keeping Candice in the corner of his eye. "I can do it."
"Yeah, you can do it, so why don't you get on with your thanks already?" The Scrangly Man yawned, flicking a bell on his hat. "I've waited long enough to hear it from you."
"Thank you? Why the hell should I thank you?! You've killed hundreds of innocent people and you almost killed all of my friends. Why on Earth should I be grateful?"
"You have every reason on Earth to be...every reason." The Scrangly Man's head twisted with a crack, his smile stretching farther across his face. "Hello, Candice." He waved to her, then quickly turned back to Johne. "You saved them all in the end, right?"
"But tell me," the Scrangly Man said so eloquently slow, "who would you have saved without me?"
"What does that mean?"
"Who would you have saved?" the Scrangly Man repeated, leaning his face down close to Johne's. "Answer me."
"If I wasn't here, where would you be going?" The Scrangly Man's fingers slid along Johne's hair. "There would be no adventure without me. If you weren't going after me, you wouldn't have met any of those people. Without me, you couldn't have done anything. You owe me, kid, and you know it. It's all been for you. It's always been about you. But the game's over now and you're pushing it a bit too far."
Johne couldn't look away from the Scrangly Man, the dark pools pulling him ever nearer. Making the words so sweet in his ears. What would be left? It would all be over when the Scrangly Man was gone. His head stormed into a terrible headache, his teeth clenching tightly as the Scrangly Man whispered from all over, the terrible voice sounding in a thousand different directions.
"What's this?!" one shouted, turning off the lights within Johne's world.
"What's this?!" another exclaimed, Johne's body feeling weightless.
"What's this?!" cried out yet another, a chilling fear overcoming the cold little boy.
"The boy who couldn't even finish a simple model kit?"
"You just had to snap the pieces in right."
"It was simple."
"I mean, Jesus, you had the instructions, didn't you? You retarded or something?"
"The boy who couldn't pass a few easy classes."
"Didn't he care how his parents felt? A little insensitive creature."
"He failed. Failure, failure, failure."
"And what about the girl?"
"What not about the girl?"
"Stupid boy. Stupid...stupid...stupid."
"Why'd you mess it up?"
"She was an angel."
"Hey, remember the first bottle?"
"Remember the first needle?"
"Remember the first girl?"
"And the second bottle?"
"And the second needle?"
"And the second girl?"
"The third, the fourth, the fifth—"
"The sixth, the seventh, the eighth—"
"The ninth, the tenth, the hundredth."
"It's your fault."
"It's all yours."
"It's always been."
"Nothing but you."
"Nothing but little you."
"You're no hero, Whisper," the Scrangly Man said, wading through the darkness, inky black tendrils pooling out of his eyes and wrapping slowly around Johne. "You're just playing pretend. You always pretend, remember? It's easier that way. All I want to do is help you. Help you like I always have. "
As Johne could see nothing but darkness, Candice saw nothing but him, her hero. Heard nothing at all coming from the Scrangly Man's mouth. And to both of them she had dropped out of sight. She stood near the blade, grasping it by the flat end, pulling it out of the floorboards. Jumping from the stage, she picked up the sword handle from on the floor, trying to slide the blade into it. She looked over her shoulder, the Scrangly Man wrapping around Johne's mind, slithering into his heart. There simply wasn't enough force holding it the way she was.
Her hands grabbed the blade tightly, shoving it down into the handle, bright red raining from her torn flesh. Blood trickled down the sword in pools, but her trembling hands still kept hold.
"Johne!" she cried out.
Johne's mind briefly snapped out of the web being weaved around it, turning to see Candice. Something flew through the air, and without even thinking, he caught it right by the handle. The blade glimmered with blood as the darkness faded, fury in him as he saw her clutching her hands tightly against her dress. His arms shook, hand tightening around the sword handle.
"I don't owe you anything!"
He yelled out as his arm swung forward, ramming the sword through the Scrangly Man's eye. The blade shot through to the other side, and the Scrangly Man screamed out, the thousand voices crackling away as he stumbled backwards. His arms flailed about as he randomly struck at everything he could get his hands on. The floorboards snapped into pieces as his fingers dragged along in them. His hands tore into the front of the car, and there they remained while the Scrangly Man's body shook and trembled.
"This is my thanks?!" the Scrangly Man screeched. "This is how you repay me? You should never have been born, Whisper, you should never have been created."
The Scrangly Man's hands sharply pushed away in opposite directions until the car snapped in two. Gas and oil spurted out across the stage, one by one the candle lights all fading in quick succession. Only two spotlights remained as the Scrangly Man reached up to his head, beginning to tug at the sword, his long fingers unable to get a good grasp upon it.
Johne raced about, desperately searching for something, anything, as Candice ran up to him.
"Are you okay?" he whispered, the Scrangly Man flailing his body about.
"I'm fine, Johne," she said. "Don't worry about me right now. We just have to find out how to stop him."
"There is no stopping me," the Scrangly Man said, slowly pulling out the sword and flinging it to the ceiling. "I can't die. I let you live because I'm a kind man, Whisper, can't you see?" The Scrangly Man's smile twitchingly moved down, no blood coming from his wound, only a gash, like cracked wood, in its place. "I made you a hero! I gave you the one thing you always wanted to have. I gave meaning to you in this world. What are you without me? Where is the hero? You only have a purpose because of me."
"You're wrong," Johne said, bravely stepping forward with a smile on his face. "She made me the hero. She's the one who gave me meaning, gave me purpose. What am I without you? I'm still the hero. I'll always be the hero."
The crack in the Scrangly Man's eye snapped, spreading across half of his face.
"Then you can die a hero."
The Scrangly Man's arm shot out, Johne quickly pushing Candice aside. They pierced through him quickly, too fast for the pain to even echo in his body. But he could feel the blood flowing out in gentle streams...could feel the Scrangly Man's fingers inside of his body. Feel as they lifted him into the air, the broken-winged bird finally flying.
"Johne!" her voice cracked as she called out. "D-don't worry, I'll save you...I'll save you..."
"Candice," he said gently, "you already have. I'm the hero, remember? The hero always knows what to do. Trust...trust me."
Candice slowly nodded her head, covering her mouth with her hand. The Scrangly Man lifted Johne up to eye level, cracks racing across his face and forming patterns like spider webs. The legs and arms of the Scrangly Man twitched rapidly, his smile turning completely upside down.
"Whisper, it's time you came back to being who you really are." The Scrangly Man's other hand tapped Johne's head. "Stop pretending. Stop pretending you aren't in the desert, crashed in your car. Stop pretending the person there is not the person here. Nothing's changed, especially you."
"Okay, okay," Johne said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. "I know who I am. Jesus, you can't take a joke, can you? God...you coulda given me a minute. Ah, anyways, if you're gonna kill me either way can I at least have a last smoke?"
He pulled out a cigarette, sticking it in his mouth, letting the box fall to the ground with a splash.
"I'm gonna kill you, and then we'll have some fun, won't we? Fun with your friend over there." The Scrangly Man smiled again, patting Johne's head. "Say goodbye, Candice, Whisper's going to be leaving soon. And I'm so sorry about that cigarette, but I'm afraid I don't have a light."
"No need to worry," Johne said, taking out a dusty box of matches from his coat. "I got one."
He slid open the box and pulled out one of the many matches within it. Striking it into life, the fire gleamed in the Scrangly Man's eyes. The flame moved to his cigarette, embers burning bright, before moving back into the box.
When the box caught flame, the Scrangly Man screamed out. Johne let it drop out of his hand, and then grabbed hold of the Scrangly Man's fingers, tearing himself from his grasp. As his body fell off stage, so the box of matches landed straight into the gas and oil spread about the floor. The fire crawled up the Scrangly Man, his accordion legs popping open, collapsing his body into its burning caress.
He screamed in agony, screamed and Johne stared up at the outstretched hand of the creator of that horrid sound. Even with the pain, he focused sharply at the fire eating up the Scrangly Man's arm. For when it reached his hand, a long thin strand of fire crawled through the air and off stage. And his arm fell with it. Then the Scrangly Man's body snapped and cracked, not as flesh does, but like wood in a fireplace on Christmas. Another line of fire burst off, and Johne could hear a large empty thud follow it.
"Johne," Candice said, holding his face in her trembling hands. "Johne, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, forcing himself to his feet, blood gushing through the four wounds in his stomach. "It's not over. It's not over."
"You have to stay still. You're gonna make it worse if you move."
"There's something else," he panted, grasping his stomach and limping along. "Candice, I can't stop until I know it's over."
"The Scrangly Man is dead, you did it. You're a hero." She grabbed onto his shoulder, trying to stop him from moving up the stairs. "There's nothing else."
"But why? There's no answer. The Scrangly Man doesn't make any sense." He pulled against the curtain, turning his head around to behind the stage. "That means there must still be something left."
He flickered his eyes at the black charcoal body of the Scrangly Man, the fire only touching his frame and not spreading out. His gaze dragged on from the ashes to a door backstage. A door with black singe marks in the cracks between it and the doorframe.
"There," he said, pointing out.
"Then you stay here and I'll look."
"No..." he said, touching his hand to her face. "This is the end, and in the end the hero always has to go alone."
"And we all live," he coughed, leaning his head against hers. "Remember? We're gonna get back home to the little ones, we're going to have lots more adventures. And we'll never die. I'll always be here and you'll always be with me. But...but this time I know I have to go alone. I promise we'll do it together for all the rest."
"Okay, Johne." She kissed his forehead, arms wrapping around to hug him gently. "This once."
Johne walked ahead, his hand trailing out of hers. A pool of blood followed behind him, drip by drip, smeared along by his limping steps. His blurry vision kept hold of the five black marks at the doorframe, shaking away the cold, the pain, everything. The door was existence itself, the burn of the metal handle in his grasp reality. It held all the answers. It gave the reasons. He swung it open, stepping inside.
The room was full of mirrors. The entire floor, the ceiling, the walls, every inch of it was reflecting back at him what it held inside. And what it held inside were the three robots from the play, each standing perfectly still in a sparkling glass display case. Rehtaf, read the name of the angry one. Rehtom, read the name of the woman. And Rehtorb, read the name of the small one, its head straight and back on. One case lay covered by a pair of shut curtains, the name above it emblazoned: Amina.
Something on the floor caught his attention in a brief wisp of vision. Reaching down, he lifted up this object. It was a thin, see-through wire, and he tugged tightly, seeing the top of the curtains ruffle to the Amina case.
He dropped the string and heaved towards the case, grabbing hold of the curtains, stopping for a moment in his pain. His face clenched tightly, his hands gripped onto the curtains as his body collapsed to the floor, pulling them down with him. Struggling onto his knees, clutching his stomach tightly, he looked ahead into the glass case.
And the blood seemed to stop flowing through his veins as all the raging storms inside of him went calm.
It was a poor creature that rested inside. Something pathetic and wretched, as tired as the flow of time. Its eyes were quiet and like a child's, innocent, unconscious of all of reality. And he couldn't hate it, no matter how hard he tried, because it moved him with its mere existence. He collapsed backwards, feeling very sleepy, his head clear and empty. Watching the blood fall from his hand, he understood. He understood it all so well.
"Johne," Candice said quietly, creeping into the room. "Johne..."
She ran up and knelt beside him, lifting his head so it rested on her folded lap.
"Did I do good?" he whispered, vision flickering in and out.
"You did great."
His eyes closed as the blood from his stomach slowly poured out his mouth like small waterfalls from the brook he used to play by as a kid. She stroked his hair gently, leaning down close to him, eyes briefly turning to the case in front of them. She tilted her head, watching the other girl reflected within do the same. But she turned away from those images back to the real Johne before her.
"Johne," she whispered, leaning her head on his.
"Should I...should I cry now?"
"Whatever makes it better." His arm slid around her back, his hand weakly trailing along the soft fabric of her dress. "It's okay..."
"I think I'll cry, if you don't mind."
"No...actually, I think I'll join you."
Both were silent as their tears fell. It was quiet there, it was still. Johne had never felt so at peace. He never felt happier. She was there with him, she was still there, and as long as she was, it wouldn't matter. And Candice had her hero by her side. As she cried, she wasn't sad. She knew he'd never break his promise.
In the darkness around them they could see a light suddenly break through. A heat pounded upon their skin, a wailing sounded through the air. Wood creaked as they felt themselves lying upon a soft bed of gold. The wind blew the gold onto their faces, swirled it around their hair and bodies, whispered sweetly into their ears. After hearing that familiar voice, both of them opened their eyes
Johne's smile gently glimmered, his heart happy in knowing that he was finally where he belonged.