Johne's eyes opened, his very first thought another question: Why did they open? He was supposed to be dead. He hoped he wasn't left alive only to be punished with some horrible injury, perhaps a broken spine and a life left in the bliss of paralysis. Typical. Too easy to pull on him. Worse, yes, worse, would be that he was dead. That he ended up in Heaven. Heaven, where he'd be alive for all of time. He'd be him, and through eternity he'd have time to gaze back on the little potshot of a life he had. There wasn't supposed to be an after, only an ending, like a book. No book can go on forever, the pages stop somewhere.
Blinking, he took a breath, slowly beginning to lift himself up to see if his spine was indeed shattered. Rather stiffly, and with prolonged tension, he lifted himself up—but he did get up. And checking around, he found Heaven wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
He sat on a small dingy bed barely long enough to keep him all on it. The room reminded him of a cubicle: small, square, boring. The old musty boards of the woodwork splintered off in almost every direction, ensuring at least one painful surprise for unguarded feet. The room was so plain, that, even though he didn't want Heaven, he expected it to be better. Better than a room with nothing but him, the bed, and a window in it. He must not have been good enough to get the luxury suite.
He pulled the thin grey blanket off of himself, examining his body to discover that God was a damn cheap bastard, didn't even clean him up after he died. His clothes were all stained with sand, torn apart here and there. Gazing at his knee, he saw he had not been completely forgotten. The pant leg torn completely off there, a white bandage strip carefully hung to what could definitely be felt as an unpleasant wound. Then out of nowhere a strange numbness came over him, the kind where he'd be doing something for so long, dedicated his entire being to its success, to suddenly find out he didn't care about it anymore. Doubts if he ever did.
He stumbled out of bed and found the nearest wall to support himself against. It wasn't Heaven. It wasn't Hell. It wasn't death. It wasn't anything at all. Still leaning against the wall, he slowly scuttled his way over to the window. Grabbing onto the top of the frame, counting to three and holding his breath, he stepped out in front of it to glare out at a world so painfully set before him again.
But he blinked, rubbing those sore, aching orbs. Where were the roads, the people, the cars passing by? The parking lot of some strange hospital, or a motel where someone had dragged him to after finding him out in the desert. That was the whole problem: He was still in the desert. A feast of golden dunes and rippling heat for his eyes to take in.
He grabbed the window with both hands, flinging open its frame. Leaning out the window, turning his head from left to the right, it was all the same. An endless golden sea, the wind rippling its waves and kicking up its mist. He was in the middle of nowhere. Stranger itself, he was in a house in the middle of nowhere. He was on the second floor of a house in the middle of nowhere. He was on the second floor of a house in the middle of nowhere, where someone brought him, and where someone lived.
"Good morning," said a voice from behind Johne, and he turned around to see that 'someone'.
He stood there for a moment, glaring, puzzled and still, eyes held on the person a little while ahead of himself. She stood in the doorway, hand on the doorknob, kind of looking at him as if he weren't even there, as if she were staring out on the golden ocean behind him, lost in its swirling sands.
Strange—it was the one word he could most clearly find in the presence of the unusual girl before him. She could be no more than fifteen, but some sort of air she gave off made her appear much older. Her dry hair was the color of dirty tumble weeds, and seemingly danced by itself with a nonexistent breeze. It laid over in bangs across her forehead, the rest draping behind her back, cascading downwards to her waist. Her eyes were gentle, blue, large like a doe's, but with a strange sadness and darkness to them that didn't belong there. Her figure was proper and slim, a little porcelain doll all made-up in real life. Hands, small and gentle, as if they were fragile glass and could snap off with too much force. Her dark crimson dress with the large frills and poufy shoulders was off-putting, for it gave one the unsettling sense it had once been a white dress, one lost forever underneath a torrent of spilled blood.
White stockings, shiny black shoes, and an altogether light and childish frame, Johne felt like she was a doll he could pick up and put on a shelf. And for some other strange reason, he found this doll made his heart feel soft. That, if he was a child, he would treat her like the world for she would be his best friend. He'd take her everywhere, comb her hair every day, whisper his secrets to her, and kiss her goodnight before bed. If he owned such a doll and had to do the car ride again, it might be there in the back seat.
"Who are you?" he asked, moving little, eyelids glued open.
"I don't know," she said, tilting her head slightly as she stared at him.
"What does that mean? How can you not know who you are?"
"Do you know who you are?"
And his mouth stood open in silence, head drooping down a little. Who was he? Johne Atticus Hawthorne was his name. Born on the seventeenth of August, twenty-three years ago. A man, a son, and a brother. But what else? What was he besides that what he was born with already? How was he different?
"What's your name?" she asked, sitting on the bed, squeaking up and down on it. "My name's Candice."
"I'm...I'm Johne," he replied, staring out the window, still trying to think of an answer to her question.
"Johne, I like that name, unless you spell it without the h, and then I don't like it as much."
"It has an h and an e."
"Oh, then that makes it much better." Her head turned slowly to the staring man, her face as simply indifferent as her doll-like image. "And how are you feeling today, Johne?"
"I'm okay, I guess." He turned away from the window, the vast nothingness from the sky above not giving him any answers. "Were you the one who saved me?"
"I'm the one who brought you here, but it was Paul who found you."
"Paul?" Johne let out slowly, suddenly not liking the place very much at all. "How many people live in this house?"
"Oh, lots and lots of people live here."
"Where are we, who owns this house?"
"We're in my room and this is my house."
"Your house? What about your parents?"
"Parents?" She walked up closer to him, intrigued by his peculiar strangeness. "What parents?"
"What? The people who raised you, the people who put you in this world. "
"I've always taken care of myself, why would there be someone else to do it? I've been here as long as I remember. I didn't come to this place, I was just here. This is my house. I've always lived here. Am I my own parent then?"
"I...I guess..." He rubbed the back of his neck, her plain matter-of-fact speaking striking bluntly against the raging emotions he was used to in himself. "Yeah, Candice, I guess you are."
"I never knew that. I'm a 'parent'. I thought they were made-up, something you only find in books. Thank you." She stroked her chin gently, some mysterious force in Johne making him watch every movement she made. "Does that mean Paul and the others are my sons and daughters?"
"Why would they be that?"
"Well, a parent is someone who takes care of someone else, right?"
"I guess so, yeah."
"So I take care of Paul and his brothers and sisters." She shook her head lightly to herself. "And I always thought they didn't have parents like everyone else when I was theirs the whole time. I should tell them the good news. Paul," she called out gently in the direction of the door. "Are you nearby, Paul? I have some awfully good news to tell you."
Johne turned his head to the blankness of the wall, not wanting to see this 'Paul' arrive. He already knew he wasn't going to be fond of him, would soon grow to dislike this place with his presence. The air around him, the creak of the boards, his existence. Paul, Paul, Paul. Johne had never liked being around more than one person at a time, didn't want more than one pair of eyes burning into him. Looking at one, he couldn't see the other. And the one he couldn't see was always mocking him.
Then Johne's ear pricked up at the sound of a loud plop and slide, plop and slide. Like whoever was coming walked on a limp. Even worse, a cripple. Now he would have to hate himself over hating a cripple. He turned away as the thump, thump, thumping, and drag, drag, dragging, kept going on for the longest time. Until he could hear it move into the room.
"Hello, Paul," Candice said, crouching down. "I have wonderful news for you." Paul blinked, quietly waiting. "This man has told me that I'm your parent, that I'm my own too. So, you see? All this time we thought we didn't have anybody, but we were always here." Paul shifted his head towards Candice, eyes lighting up with joy. "Come here, Paulie."
She scooped up Paul in her arms, holding his soft frame closely against herself. Holding him closer still, her head against his chest, she listened to the beating of his heart. Alive, but a different kind of life then when she listened to the heart of the man standing in her room. The man still as a statue, breathless, staring off into nothing.
"Johne?" she asked, kissing Paul on the forehead. "Would you like to meet Paul properly? He does want to thank you for the good news."
"All right, Paul," Johne sighed, wishing he was alone with something to drink or smoke. "It's a—"
"Is something wrong?" she asked, seeing him grip tightly the window sill and begin to shake. "Are you all right?"
"Ah..." is all he got out, trying to be calmly brave for the cowering pride in him at seeing a little girl not affected at all."Heh...I...I'm fine, n-nice to meet you, Paul."
"Say hello, Paul," she whispered politely to Paul like the mother she now was.
Paul waved all his little arms out at Johne, shaking his head with an animal expression of what can be called joy. And Johne felt completely afraid, something that barely ever happened to him, but, even more so, he felt relieved. Why, he couldn't explain, but he actually was surprisingly happy at seeing this 'Paul' as not a problem. For Paul, as a fact, was not even human.
"Paul says thank you," Candice said, interpreting the strange noises the creature in her arms was making. "And he also says he'd like for you to stay with us for a little bit."
"Where else am I supposed to go? I'm in the middle of nowhere."
"It makes Paul happy to hear that." And the soft, tan, segmented body of Paul began to wiggle about ecstatically. "Go down now, Paul, tell everyone we have a guest, and to be on their best behavior and not to bother him if he doesn't want to be."
Paul shook his head, and she laid him gently to the floor. Once there, his body jumped forward a little, and then his six stubby legs would slide him ahead ever the slightest more. That continued until he had sped out of the doorway, leaving Johne to think hard about where he had found himself.
"Where are we?" he asked, wishing she was frightened so he could have permission to feel his own terror.
"We're in my room, remember?"
"No, not like that. Where are we?" He walked up to the window, the swirling sands looming outside, never having bothered before to ask himself what a house was doing in the middle of the desert. "Where is this house?"
"In the desert."
"But outside, what is outside?"
"Outside? There is a lot I haven't seen, Johne, and I couldn't possibly begin to tell you the things out there."
"Do you know anyone who might know?"
"Yes, and I have some books I was going to show you when we got downstairs that might be of help."
"Okay then, let's go."
She took one step towards the door before more questions popped into his head.
"You can talk to those things?" he asked casually.
"You can talk to them too. I can just understand them."
"How'd you learn to do that?"
"I've been around them for so long I couldn't help but understand eventually."
"So are all the others like Paul?"
"Yes, it's not easy out there in the desert, with how slow and vulnerable they are. Anything could eat them. I keep them safe here in my house. There's more than enough room."
"But..." His voice stopped, those eyes of hers stealing his attention, her face an empty sky. "But is there anyone like you or me living here?"
"No, it's just you and me."
"And how long has it been since you've seen someone like me around?"
"A long, long time. And I do hope you can stay for a little while, it'd make me most happy. I've been waiting for someone like you."
"Like me?" He smiled a little, finding it unusual of his heart to feel sad she had no one with her. "Why me?"
She reached out her hand to him. The gentle thing, so fragile and soft, Johne feared if he were to touch it, he'd break it. That he'd ruin another thing in his life, would fail to glue back the shattered fragments before they crumbled into nothing but dust. That he'd have to run away again, as he'd done every other time. But his choice was made for him when she took his hand all by herself. When he looked down at her face, he found himself forgetting all about the mistakes he could make.
Johne wrapped his fingers lightly about hers as she began to lead the way out.
Johne turned his head this way and that as Candice led him down the squeaking stairs. Like the room he had been resting in before, the wood making up the whole of the house was splintered and old. All except the floors, which were worn smooth. The same minimalist decoration and furniture arrangement dotted the house, giving it all a rather roomy, yet hollowed and empty air to it.
"Wait," Candice said, reaching the foot of the stairs.
Johne peeked over her shoulder, and lying on the ground before the final step was a sleeping creature similar to Paul, but much fatter in size.
"George," she went quietly, nudging the thing with the front of her foot. "Wake-up, George."
George made a loud grunting noise, turning his tired and grumpy face upwards. After an eerie moment of staring at Johne, he slid his body out of the way, barely moving enough for the two of them to get through without hassle.
"Did he say anything?" Johne asked, Candice moving him steadily along, not giving him the time he wanted to examine more closely his surroundings.
"No, George doesn't talk much, but he doesn't seem to mind you."
"That's good to hear. So where are we going?"
It was the kitchen to all appearances. There was a small round table in the middle with a chair by its side. Cupboards with missing knobs hung along the wall, some slightly open to show glassware. A sink with a dripping faucet plopped away, and Johne would have wondered how it had any water if he cared about that right then.
She let go of his hand, and for some strange split second, he wanted to grab it back again. It made him feel stupid, so he turned away, shuffling his feet about. Meanwhile, Candice had moved along to a corner, where she picked up another decaying chair and placed it by the table, making sure it was centered and neat.
"Please sit down and make yourself comfortable," she said. "I'll be back in a minute."
"Okay," he replied vacantly, fiddling around with the sink, turning it on and off again.
He kept messing with the sink until he saw her leave the room. Once gone, he took his seat at the table, half afraid the small chair provided for him might snap underneath him. After some restless scuffling, he settled in, drumming his fingers on the table.
He didn't know why he was there. Why he didn't want to leave. Why he didn't walk away. He didn't know why at all. They weren't questions, for some reason he couldn't ask them to himself as questions. They felt as emotions in him, felt alive and burning in his chest, a certain pleasure being derived from those flames. And with the arrival of pleasure, came the desire for it not to go away.
He fixated on the one white cloud in the sky outside. He liked the little house in the desert. He liked the sink that ran without plumbing. Liked the old walls, lifeless, void. The little creatures he had so far known as Paul and George. But most of all, and strangest to him, he liked the girl, Candice. She wasn't the same as the girls out there. The ones who don't wear dresses, the ones that confuse and scare him with their complicated emotions. Ones who would have left a man like him bleeding in the desert.
Johne smiled, leaning his face against his hand, every bit a daydreaming schoolboy. It was so very different for him. Brought him back to the time when his dreams didn't make him suffer. But how long would it last? Would the newness, the strangeness, keep a hold, or would those dark wounds reopen and let spill their river? Those old questions' answers hadn't changed by being here.
A large smacking thud landed on the table, and his head turned with a jolt. Candice was back, and a gigantic pile of books almost three feet high stood on the table in front of her.
"What are all those for?" he asked, glancing across the titles, recognizing many, but having only read a few.
"I'll explain in a minute." Her gaze turned downwards. "Could you leave for a little bit, John?"
"No, not you, Johne. 'John'." She pointed under the table, and Johne noticed for the first time another one of the creatures lazing about there. "He doesn't have an e in his name."
"Ah, I see."
Johne backed up, giving the creature enough space to leave his little napping place and exit the room. Afterward, he grabbed his chair, slowly sliding it up to the table. Folding his hands, he silently pondered about Candice and the book pile.
"So why did 'John' have to leave?" he asked.
"Because I wanted us to be alone."
"Because of what we're going to talk about."
"And what are we talking about?"
"You, Johne," she said slowly. "And me. What we're going to do, what kind of story we're going to have."
"Kind of story? What does that mean?"
"Well, this is how I see it. You being here feels special. I've actually thought about if someone came here, and I knew if anyone did come, that we'd do something amazing. Something like in these books here." She picked one up, slowly moving her finger along its cover. "That's why I brought them, for ideas on what kind of story you want to have."
"You've been waiting a while, haven't you?" His eyes rested on the girl as she tidied over her books, his hand twitching a little, his heart aching. "This means a lot, doesn't it?"
"Well, I would be happy to do something like in these books, but it's all right if you don't want to. That can be part of the story too."
He bit the inside of his lip, scratching his fingernails into the table. He'd be responsible. She'd expect something of him. He'd end up disappointing someone else. But what if he left? Johne untangled the knots in his head, thinking about the answer. There were so many things he wished he never had done, so many more he wished he could have. Could he live with passing it by, of letting someone else take it?
"I'd love to hear some ideas," he spoke, smiling widely, hoping for one from her, but getting a moment of silence instead.
"Well, I have a lot, and I'll let you look at them to see if any interest you. If you find one you like, tell me."
She picked the first book off the pile, handing it over to him.
"'Sylvie and Bruno'? What's this?"
"It's by Lewis Carroll. It's like 'Alice in Wonderland', but longer. I chose it because there were two characters instead of one."
"Does it have a plot?"
"Somewhat, but not really in a bigger sense."
"I want a story that goes somewhere, that isn't just fun, but has a reason."
"How about this one?"
"'Great Expectations'?" He immediately put the book back on the table, its very name driving it away from him. "I don't think so."
"Then try this one."
"'Jane Eyre'?" Johne's face heated up a little and his eyes shot up from the cover onto Candice. "I-isn't this a romance?"
"Yes, between Jane Eyre, the young governess, and her beastly master, Mr. Rochester. It really is romantic, though not nearly as good of a literary piece as 'Villette'."
"But, I'm twenty-three, and you're like...like fifteen, right?"
"Mr. Rochester was older than Jane Eyre then you are to me."
"But Jane Eyre wasn't as young as you, was she?"
"Oh, I think I get your point now. If that's what's bothering you..." From near the bottom of the pile she pulled out a book. "Then how about this one?"
And as Johne took the book in his hand and read the title, he suddenly felt hot all over, turning his head away. Rubbing his hand through his hair, he glanced at the title again to make sure he saw it right: Lolita.
"Are you okay, Johne?"
"I'm not that kind of guy," he said over defensively, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on edge. "I don't go after...after young girls, it's not right."
"I'm not at all saying you are. I'm saying if that's the story you want, then it'll be the story. It might not be right, but it'd capture your emotions. Keep you enthralled. That's what a story's supposed to do."
"I know, but what kind of purpose is that? I don't want my goal to be lusting after young girls, trying to bed with them—it's not a real purpose in life. I want a story where I'm important, where there's something only I can do. One where everyone is depending on me most of all. Something like..." He ran his fingers down the book titles. "Like, um, 'The Lord of the Rings'. I'm Frodo, and I have the ring. I must be the one to stop the evil. I am the one to save the world. To stop the dark lord who is scouring the lands. And there'd be a whole big group of us that'd all go together."
"I know, but there are no girls in the fellowship." Candice began to swirl a piece of hair around her finger as she took out the book. "They're all on the sidelines and I'd have to stay here."
"What? I don't want it to be exactly the same, only similar. Of course you'd go with me, Candice, you'd be the closest of my companions."
"Of course, why not you?"
He smiled at first, picturing all those fantastical things, but soon a heaviness began to grow in his heart at their impossibility.
"So that's the kind of story you want?" she asked, piling all the books back up.
"Yeah, if it could happen, it'd be the kind of story I want."
"All right then." She rose up out of her seat, prompting him to do the same. "I'll send Ray out later to see if anything like that's going on. Meanwhile, we'll have to think of a new name for you."
"Why do I need a new name?"
"'Cause yours doesn't fit."
"I thought you said you liked my name."
"I do like it, but you need an adventurer name. I'll still call you Johne, but we need a name we can introduce you as. At least against the villain 'cause their names are always so good. Something unique. What's your full name?"
"Johne Atticus Hawthorne."
"How does...Whisper Rayne Hawthorne, sound to you?"
"Is 'Whisper' even a name?"
"No, but it sounds cool."
"It sounds cool." Johne laughed—laughed—warmth ever increasing in him for the girl. "And what's your full name?"
"Hmmm? Candice..." He strode up closer, right next to her, turning his gaze down. Her eyes turned up to him, and it was strange how small she felt before him, she being a head smaller than he was. "Do you mind if you stay Candice?"
"No, if that's how you want it to be."
"Then good. I'll go look for Ray right now and see if he can do that for me. Make yourself at home until I get back. Do what you want, but if you go outside, make sure to always stay within sight of the house. You can become lost forever in the desert if you don't know which way you're going."
"I won't go out, I promise."
"See you later."
And Candice stood on the very tips of her toes, kissing Johne on the cheek. No twinkles were in her eyes, no smile accompanied this, and she turned around and left after it was done. But it burned on his face, froze him as if spellbound. Blinking, he started to violently rub where her lips had touched his skin.
Reaching down to the table, he picked up the copy of Lolita. He held it hard in his hand, wanting to crush it to dust. Moving his thumb up and down on its cover. With sudden anger, he dropped it to the floor, wringing his hands, clawing at his skull. His breaths deep and slow transitioned into their normalcy, hands falling limply to his side.
Down on the table, his heart sighed at the sight of Jane Eyre, remembering himself that tale of an improbable love. In this moment George plopped into the room, his heavy head and droopy expression greeting Johne.
"I know," Johne said to his company, sad smile on his face. "I think too much."
He fell wearily backwards onto the chair, his head dropped low, shadows on his face.
"I dream too much..."
Johne stood in the doorway, hand gently rested on the faded brass doorknob. Squinting up, the glaring sun stared back down at him, the same sun he'd known his whole life. No different. Picking up a pile of sand in his hand, watching it drain out between his fingers, it felt the same as it always had. Shaking his head, wincing a little from the burning heat on some of his scrapes, he knew he was somewhere apart from everything else. Maybe a footnote of the world, something hanging limply at its side that he happened to stumble into.
"Hey, Johne," said Candice, coming around the corner of the house. "Had a look around?"
"Yeah, just finished with the house." Finished, as in, kicked himself out of his fifteen-minute depression in the kitchen. "You tell Ray?"
"Yep, he said he'd come back tomorrow with any news he could find out."
"I thought you said those guys were vulnerable, won't it be dangerous for him alone?"
"Oh, Ray's not related to Paul or the others. He doesn't live here, but he drops by and rests occasionally. Lucky for me I caught him right before he was heading out."
"So if Ray's not one of those, um, wormy guys, then what is he?"
"He's a bird, a big friendly one."
"So you can talk to birds too?"
"No, he can talk to me. It was easier for him to learn my language then it was for me to learn his. He does have it down well, except for his w's—he always pronounces them as v's, even when they're not prominent in the word. 'Vell, vell, vell, hov are ve today, little Candice?'"
"So he can speak?" Johne blinked, snickering inside at Candice's portrayal of the bird. "You have a German bird who lives around your house sometimes, who is perfectly fine with any old errand you might send him out on?"
"Yes, he's my friend, and he'd do anything I asked him to, and I would for him, 'cause it makes us happy to help the other. And if I asked you, you'd help me too, wouldn't you, Johne? 'Cause you're my friend too."
"You...you really regard me as a friend already?"
"Why? Do you not regard me as a friend?"
"No, it's not that. I just don't make friends with anyone unless I know they want to be friends with me. Makes it a lot less painful."
"Well, I want to be your friend, and I want you to want to be my friend. How am I supposed to be your closest companion on the adventure if we aren't even friends with each other?"
"The adventure, yeah..." He licked his cracking lips, the desert sapping away all his moisture, a single tear creeping down his face from where the sun was beating against him. "Don't worry, Candice, I'll be your friend if you want me to."
"No, I want you to be my friend if you want me as a friend, not because I want you to do it. But it's fine if you don't. It'd make an original twist for the most trusted and closest companion not to be even liked by the main character. And at the futile attempts of me trying to break into your twisted heart." Candice pulled out a pen and piece of paper, slowly beginning to write some things down. "We can never have too many ideas on how to make this adventure interesting."
"Well, I'm afraid you can get rid of that one, because I want you to be my friend."
"Okay." She put away the paper and pen quietly. "If we ever go on another adventure we can save the idea for then."
"I'll remember that."
"Now that we're friends, could you help me with something?"
"Sure," he replied, a sparkle in his eyes at the prospect of making himself useful. "Whatever you want."
"I'm going to take Paul and the others out to eat. I want you to come with me and help keep an eye out for anything that might want to hurt them."
"And what kind of things are those?"
"Mostly birds like Ray, but they're much meaner than him. They don't usually try anything as long as I'm close, and with you around I'm sure they'll be scared off."
"Okay, got it." He rubbed his hands together, a lightness in his step. "What exactly do the little guys eat? I don't even remember seeing a mouth on them."
"Don't worry, they have one, and you'll see what they eat. See over there?" Candice pointed out into the distance, at some faint speckle of color resembling more a mirage then anything real. "That's where they eat."
"And how far away is that?" he asked as he strained his vision towards it.
"It looks farther away than it actually is. But if you're scared, you don't have to come, I understand."
"Scared? I'm not scared of anything, I'm the hero. I'm the one who has to be brave, the one who has to care for everyone else besides himself, because that's how the hero acts. You're the one who's supposed to be scared so that I can comfort you with my bravery."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Do you want me to be scared?"
"No, not yet, you only get scared when I'm in danger 'cause you're as brave as me, but since I'm the hero, I have to do all the dangerous stuff."
"I see. But, when we do go out on our adventure, don't try to do everything by yourself. Even if you're the hero, we all have to stop the bad guy together. Unless you want to change the story?"
"No, together's fine with me."
A loud thump suddenly banged at the door.
"I think they're getting restless," Candice said, the doorframe shaking.
"Then let's get going."
She opened the door, letting out Paul, George, Richard, and John, along with three others Johne had yet to be acquainted with. They tangled about, twirling around Candice's feet, and made little whiny noises like puppies. Terrifying red-eyed bug puppies, that is.
"Yeah," he said, smiling as a very small one tugged gently at his pant leg.
"That's what Ray's like?" Johne let out slowly, a singular black entity circling in the sky above.
"Yeah, but he doesn't like to be associated with those 'vorms' as he calls them. He thinks they're uncivilized."
"Are you sure those things are afraid of us?" His heart skipped a beat as he could see its claws glitter above. "They don't seem like the kind to be afraid."
"They just look mean, like the little ones here just look scary. Those birds up there are cowards, Johne, disguising their cowardice with their looks. You'll find most things here are not as they seem at first glance."
"And where exactly is 'here'?"
"I don't really know. But 'here' is wherever we are right now."
He stared up at the bird, which quickly became birds, circling against the sun. Their wingspan had to be at least six feet, longer then Johne himself. And from his being able to see their claws from so far away must have made those of considerable size as well. His mouth gone dry, he kept his pace steady with Candice's, making sure none of the 'little ones' wandered off. If she said they were cowards, then he certainly wasn't going to be grouped in with them.
Trudging along in the sand, the little ones leaving flat trails in their wake, he could finally see what it was they were heading towards. He puzzled over it, putting his hand out to block the sun. For all he could tell it was a huge patch of cactuses. The little ones with their squishy soft bodies didn't seem to him to fit being around cactuses, let alone eating them. Rubbing his neck, he looked up again as a third shadow circled around in the sky.
"They are cactuses," Johne said as the large group of spiky green plants were coming soon into reach.
"Yes, it's the only things the little ones will eat."
"But how do you eat a cactus?" They reached the first of the said plants, Johne stopping and touching it gently. "It sounds like a very hard thing to do."
"Actually, it's relatively easy for them. See?"
He turned his head, focusing his attention on George, last to make it of the group. George slowly tromped his way over to the cactus closest to where Candice and Johne stood. He brought himself closer, right until his face was almost touching the needles. Then, out of nowhere, the needle in front of him disappeared faster than could be seen. Turning his head about, all the needles were soon starting to vanish from where George was directed.
"They eat the needles?" Johne let out, confusion on his face, spinning around and seeing all the little ones sucking up the needles.
"Yes. I've given them the fruit of the cactus to try before, but they spit it out. They say it's too sweet."
"But how do they survive? I mean, there aren't too many cactuses here, and pretty soon all the needles will be gone, won't they? What'll they eat then?"
"Oh, I don't know what cactuses are like where you come from, but the needles grow back on these. Come back in the morning and there'll be a whole new batch of 'em."
"It's good they eat cactus needles then, that way they'll never run out of food."
"Unless something happens to these cactuses." She knelt down, stroking George as he sucked in needles on the higher part of the cactus. "I don't know where to find anymore then right here."
"They'll be fine, I promise." Johne knelt down too, and, reaching out slowly, pet George as Candice did. "But what do you eat?"
"Things. I manage."
He laid his hand onto hers, her head turning towards him.
"But how well?" He raised her hand up—felt the flesh closely, felt the fragile bones within. Not starving, but getting there. "I don't think you're getting enough to eat."
"I am getting enough. I've always had enough. Not too much, not too little. It works."
"Okay, if you say so." He gave her hand one last gentle squeeze before letting it go. "But this adventure we're going to have is not gonna be easy, I know that."
"I know it too, Johne, and I'm ready. Only, if it's okay with you, could we not have any character deaths in it?"
"Death? No, absolutely none at all. None of us are gonna die, no one but the dark lord. I don't want anyone to die, and I wouldn't do this if I thought anyone would."
"Good." She patted him on the forehead, standing up to survey the progress of the little ones' meals. "Death can be a powerful element in a story, but even I don't want that."
"None of us do."
He frowned, sadly gazing at her chestnut hair blowing in the breeze. Her gentle hands, those tiny delicate things, managed to save him. Save Johne, who after giving so many a chance to before, didn't think anyone could carry his loads.
"Thank you, Candice," he spoke once more. "Thank you."
"Why? I haven't done anything."
"You saved my life...I haven't really acknowledged that yet. Thank you."
"You weren't hurt very much and that 'car' you were in scared the birds away from you. I brought you home, but you were the one who saved yourself."
"No...I think you saved my life."
His arms stretched out and wrapped around her, hugging her tightly. Holding her head close to his heart.
"Why are you hugging me?" she asked, her voice smothered.
"I don't know why."
"Does it bother you?"
"No, but keep your eyes on the little ones, I can't see any of them this close to you."
"Don't worry, I'll watch them like my...my..."
"Johne?" she said, his trembling grasp released from her. "What's wrong?"
"Candice," he could barely get out, heart trying to escape his chest. "Turn around and tell me if you can see what I'm seeing."
She did as he said, looking off into the distance right at where he was focused.
"Do you see it?"
"Yes," she answered, tilting her head into different angles.
"What is it?"
"I don't know. I've never seen something like it before."
On the horizon, against the sun, and right on the path of their vision, stood something. Something tall and gangly, drifting this way and that like a jack-in-the-box. Against the sun it stood as a silhouette, but the dark thing appeared to have accordion legs which stretched up and down to a silent melody. Its supposed head turned towards the light, two monstrously long points making themselves out as its chin and nose. And in the wind, faintly whispering, as if only in their minds, both Johne and Candice could hear twisted laughter. But both were aware of something very real starting to grow in their hearts.
"Candice," he said slowly, "I think we should leave now."
"I know. I'll call the little ones."
Candice called them all by name, David, Philip, and Annie being the names of the three unknown to Johne. But he didn't care his question had been answered, he just cared about all the cowardly dark birds in the sky flying away. Flying away at full speed from the shadowy thing in the distance, the one appearing to grow nearer and nearer.
"We're ready now," Candice said.
"Good." He gripped her hand tight in his own, trying to pretend to give her comfort, but seeking his own. "Don't look back anymore. We keep on walking until we reach the house."
"You can hear it too, can't you? The laughing. The little ones said they could."
Johne took a deep breath, eyes twitching about him as the laughter swirled around in circles in his head. As it seemed like it was laughing at him specifically, a thousand fingers jabbing into his body, accusing him of things he didn't do. Laughing at all his failures, at how weak he was. No power to hold on, to persevere. To fight with his very soul for those dreams and ideals he held on such a high pedestal. Absolutely no self-control, giving in to everything that might make him feel 'better'. Smoke, drink, drugs, food, sex, repeat. It laughed at him, laughed at his weakness, his failure, and for one moment he wanted to turn around and look at it again. And he would have, if he didn't sense that soft hand in his own.
"I hear it," he said, "but we have to get back now. Just ignore it and keep walking."
He took the first step, then the second one, and soon had to hurry his pace to keep up with the scurrying little ones. The crackled laugh drew closer and closer to his ears with every step. The sand blew on his face, making the house but a fuzzy remnant in his vision. Still holding tight to Candice's hand, he could hear her voice was speaking to him, but it was quiet. Too low to hear, and, within moments, it was gone. It had all gone. All the noise had faded away. Blinking, the little ones were no longer around, pale empty sand left in their place. Turning towards Candice, he saw his hand held onto nothing, that she was nowhere to be found.
"Johne," whispered out a high-pitched voice, stretching as putty does, snapping off in places. "Johne, Johne, Johne!"
His whole body cringed at the voice, hands quickly covering over both of his ears.
"Johne," it continued, echoing throughout his head. "Turn around, Johne. Johne, Johne, Johne, Johne! Look back, look back."
"Scaredy cat," mocked another voice.
"Coward," bit another.
"Weak little pathetic Johne, wee!" exclaimed another in glee.
The voices screamed into his head, his face contorting into horrible agony.
"Turn around, Johne," said the original voice. "Go back, go back and it will all be over."
Be over...those two words piled up in Johne's head, endlessly multiplying. Building themselves into a terrible monster. Over, over, over, the words charged onto his mind, upon his sanity, beginning to squeeze it all out. His eyes opened, trembling, his hands tearing at his hair. Turn around, go back, it was the only way to end the pain. Going ahead would do him no good, going ahead would kill him.
"Johne?" Candice asked. "Is something wrong?"
Johne stood still at the doorstep, one of his hands tight upon the door handle, his other hand in Candice's. He was out of breath, the knotted twists and turns of the door's cold wood so close to his face. He could still hear them laughing at him, but they were fading away, swirling back into nothing. His body was shaking quietly, and he felt like falling down, of staying there and crying.
"Johne?" Candice said again, bringing herself closer. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said, strength rising in him from her. "I was...was thinking about what it was we saw."
"I've been thinking too."
He opened the door, all the little ones bursting in, each one fleeing to their favorite spots in the house. Once in, he shut the door tightly, laying his hands upon its form. A weak thing it was, he could easily snap it down himself. He felt the wood with his hand and could sense the wood was doing the same to him. The wood knew he was a weak thing like itself, that he could easily be snapped by the laughing shadow. That he couldn't stop the gangly thing from snapping Candice in two. That he would fail again. That Candice would rely on him, count on him, only to be let down.
"Hey," she said softly, tugging at the sleeve of the blank man, her hauntingly quiet eyes meeting his. "Don't worry about it."
"Nothing gets me, I wasn't scared. I'm the brave hero!" He let go of her hand, letting his free one run through his hair. "I'm the hero."
"You were brave." She leaned forward, giving him a quick hug. "But now we should talk about this situation and our adventure, and whether or not that thing we saw has anything to do with it."
"It might, it might." Johne stepped a little bit away, moving towards the window, searching for 'it'. "Got any ideas about what it was?"
"None, I'm afraid, but I might have a clue."
"What's the clue?"
"It seemed to be around where I found you." She walked up to him, standing and staring out as he was. "It might have wanted something from your car. Do you think it's important?"
"It could be," he said, leaning in closer to the window, seeing his reflection grow clearer and more defined. "It could be."
Johne lay awake in bed counting out how many boards made up the ceiling, wondering what kind of wood they were. Sixteen boards of oak was his answer. He turned on his side, touching the fabric on the bed, gently moving his fingers about it. Absorbing and breathing in the memories lying beside him. Digging his face into the pillow, that was where she had rested her head. He took a silent breath, trying to bring the loneliness of the bed and house into him, to find out how long it had made home in Candice's lungs. Let it become a part of him, let it flow through his veins. Silently listening to its voice whispering to him.
Most of her life, he guessed.
He lay still for a moment after that conclusion, then smiled a little to himself, remembering their talk of earlier in the day. They had talked over more 'plot' details and possible things that could happen on the adventure. Things to create tension, such as the little ones getting captured, or if they should add some things in to make it more lighthearted. She had even suggested that if they wanted to create more of an adult drama, they could have her trapped in a doomed love with him that could never work because of his age and his secret closeted homosexuality. She said she read it somewhere.
He turned over onto his back, moonlight washing over the ceiling. He should have been more of a gentleman in insisting he not take her room. She had told him he needed it more, and that she was going to be up for a while anyways, busy writing down a list of things they might need. She wasn't cold, but something was distant in her. But he couldn't blame her when he used to be the same way. The blank stare, the motionless face, the singular tone when talking. But he was an uncaring and heartless person, cold and hateful to those around him. She was full of everything he wanted to be in his youth, those things he was never strong enough to bring himself to be.
He rose up in bed, sleep evading him despite the pleas of a weary body, rubbing his forehead at the beginnings of a painfully charging headache. What would happen if there was no adventure? That was the question his mind had taken up to keep him awake in those dark hours. What would he do then? Get up and leave, try to get back to the world he was in before? Try and explore the new one he had found himself in? Would he stay? Stay with her, stay and help her take care of the little ones?
Sighing, he clenched his fist, shutting his eyes as tight as they could. He knew he wouldn't be able to. Stick around, be still. Take care of others and be content where he was. It would be nice at first, pleasant, and then over time it would grow monotonous, he would end up hurting them all. Because that was what he knew how to do—how to fail others: how to hurt himself.
With each failure he had discovered a new way to hurt himself. With his father, he found his clumsy hands had a knack to smoke. With his mother, he found his weak body felt strong with drink. With his brother, he found his stupid mind felt clearer with the drugs. With his love, he found a broken heart can be temporarily relieved in the company of other broken hearts, in taking advantage of them for all they're worth. And with himself, he found if he drove fast enough, he might escape the world. If he failed anyone else, he couldn't even begin to think of what he'd do next.
He arose from his bed, walking over to the window. He could leave. Leave before there was any chance of failure. Any chance of there being no adventure. Of there being one, and his cowardice and weakness shining through and ruining everything again. He coughed. He had driven a long, long time to escape those things he had hurt himself with. But standing there, he didn't find a point to it at all. Their absence didn't make him any better of a person.
He opened the window, sticking his head outside as a cloud drifted across the moon, darkening the land. The desert was completely empty of movement, and its nighttime chill exposed his breath into the air. And seeing that, it reminded him he was warm. He was alive.
He quietly went back to bed, slipped under the covers, and felt the blanket heat his shivering body. And he thought of another question, one quite different. What would happen to her if he left? If she were to walk in the room in the morning to find him gone? For a strange reason, he felt that would hurt her. That maybe a little part of her would wilt inside and she would care he was gone.
Somewhere, deep inside of him, a light sparkled in the darkness.
Johne was in the middle of a dream. A dream he was rather embarrassed to be having. One he'd never tell another living soul in all his days. It was something so out of the ordinary, something so childish and silly. So bright and romantic. A dream someone like him should not be dreaming about, and he was glad when a large force hit him in the chest, awakening him.
His eyes opened to see George's face mere inches from his own. Before he could get a word out, the fat one jumped off of him, sliding out the room through the opened door. Johne stretched his weary body, the new day sun greeting him. The dream had started to fade from him completely then, but one moment of it still stuck out, wouldn't leave his mind for a reason he couldn't place at all. A theatre. A big old grand opera style theatre. He had only passed by the structure, but it was the one thing he remembered of it all.
He rose out of bed and stumblingly headed for the door. Yawning, he realized he must be a mess. Going through the car crash, being in the desert and wearing the same clothes, he wondered how Candice kept so effortlessly prim and neat. Thinking of her, he proceeded on his way down again.
Upon the last step of the stairs he carefully stretched over George and caught sight of his intended target.
"Good morning," she said, holding a long piece of rope.
"That for the adventure?"
"Yes." She ran it through her hands, examining every inch of it. "We might have to climb at some point and I'm checking for any tears anywhere."
"Interesting..." He walked up closer to her, touching the rope she held that was greyed with age. It was thick, probably could hold her, but not him. "Have you found anything else we could use?"
"Oh, just what I could find laying around in the basement, and not too much. No adventurer ever goes fully prepared. And, really, what wasn't too heavy for George to carry."
"I don't remember any basement. And why George?"
"You see, the basement's closed off, and I've never been down there. There's a hole leading in, but it's only big enough for the little ones. And George is the strongest, so I sent him in to get whatever he thought would be useful for going on an adventure with."
"There's no other way into the cellar?"
"The cement is too thick to break through, and I wouldn't want to ruin the floors to get to it. So I've let it be."
"Do you have any idea how large it is down there, or what's stored in it?"
"No. George says it is really crowded, mostly a bunch of junk."
"So what'd he bring back besides the rope?"
"I have the stuff laid out in the kitchen. You can come with me and see it if you want."
"I'd love to."
As she turned around to head towards the kitchen, a noise was heard. Both heads turned towards the front door. A sort of bang, scratch, bang, scratch, was coming across its frame. They stood silent as the noise came at even intervals for a minute before stopping.
"Hello?!" cried out an angry voice. "Hello! Is anyone home? Or are all of you still sleeping in there like rats? Candice? Candice!"
"Who's that?" Johne whispered, tightening his fists, getting ready for action.
"It's Ray, of course," she said, walking up to the door. "He must have come with what news he's found."
"Vhat nevs? Ve'll never be able to hear any nevs if I'm stuck outside for the rest of my life."
"Sorry, Ray," Candice apologized, opening the door for her friend.
"Apologies accepted, my sveet darling." The moment Ray was in, he turned sharply to Johne. "Curses upon you, sir, for making the young lady open the door. Vhat kind of gentleman are you?"
"I'm sorry," Johne let out quickly. "It...it won't ever happen again."
"It better not. I von't have a barbarian living under the same roof vith my Candice darling."
"Take it easy on him, Ray," she said, petting the bird's head. "He's an adventurer, not a gentleman like you, remember?"
Ray gave a loud humph and stepped fully into the house, his six-inch claws tapping along the floor. Johne was taken aback by the thing, at Ray, as the bird examined his surroundings. Ray stood at almost four feet tall, his black-feathered wings neatly folded behind himself. Around his neck was a tuft of white feathers, and he had a long, pink-skinned neck like a vulture, along with their raw and unpleasant appearance. Resting neatly on his left eye was a monocle, an eye full of a grey mist floating inside its aged form.
"Vhat are you looking at?!" Ray yelled at Johne, running up to him, stretching out his long neck. "Have you never seen a bird before? Are you that ignorant? Bah!" Ray quickly turned back around to Candice, leaving Johne speechless. "I am very sorry that after all this time this creature is the one that comes." The bird's foot lifted up gracefully, straightening his monocle as he stared disappointedly at the unkempt man. "Disparaging it is."
"Oh, Ray, I think Johne is fine." She walked up to Johne, taking his arm in her own, making him feel a great deal better. "Don't worry, Johne, he just doesn't like strangers much. He's a big softie inside."
"Softie?! Bah!" The bird shook his head, feathers ruffling. "Ve'll see in time vhat he's capable of."
"So, Ray," she continued, "are there any kind of adventures going on?"
"Vell, darling," Ray spoke with sudden solemnity, "not any in the kind you were hoping for. There vas a princess in need of saving, a tovn here or there to free from oppression, and several questionable going ons. But as far as I knov it, there are no evil dark lords out right nov. I'm sorry."
"No, no, it's all right," she said, but Johne could sadly feel her arm grow tighter round his. "Tell us about those going ons. Maybe something's there."
"No one's seen any kind of animals in the Black Forest—it's as if they all vanished. In the tovn of Tutain, the vater's suddenly turned green. In the castle of the king, no candles vill light anymore. And in the abandoned tovn of Omen, the old Amina Theatre has suddenly reopened."
"There!" Johne blurted out, moving out of Candice's grasp. "The theatre. That's where we must go. Where is it?"
"In Omen," spat the bird. "Haven't you been listening?"
"No, I meant how far away is Omen?"
"Brainless svine!" Ray squawked loudly, waving his wings about. "Novhere is far avay in the desert. The mirages can sometimes be very real if you only look at them long enough. You'll find that the horizon is the farthest you have to valk to go anyvhere. Be it Omen or the ends of the earth."
"I don't understand," Johne said, memories flashing back to his old school teacher, the one who always scolded him for not understanding when he never explained anything in the first place.
"And I didn't expect you to. But Candice darling does, and that's vhat matters. But there is one thing, boy, one thing I need from you." The bird inched closer, stretching his neck out as far as it could go, getting right up to Johne's face. "I vant you to tell me something, no, I vant to hear it in your voice. See it in your eyes."
"Yes?" Johne said, barely breathing with the thing's horrid face before him.
"I vant you to tell me that you vill do anything to keep my dear Candice here safe. That you vill take upon yourself all dangers, that you vill never abandon her if it seems too tough. I vant to hear you promise you'll keep Candice safe, that vith every inch of your being you vill." Ray's clawed feet stood on Johne's so that the bird could lift his head up high enough to glare straight into his eyes. "I vant you to say, 'I vould die for Candice!'. Say it!"
"I..." Johne said, looking over at Candice, still silent. It's not so hard to die for someone when you don't care about yourself. "I would die for Candice."
"Good!" the bird screeched, fluttering backwards. "Nov ve are friends. I must be going nov, very important things to do, but I vill be back tomorrov, dear, to take care of the little ones, like you asked."
"Thank you, Ray," she said, walking up and giving him a hug. "It's very much appreciated."
"Anything for my Candice darling." Ray gave the best of what could be called a 'kiss' on Candice's cheek. "You be careful nov, and make sure that man keeps his promise." He snuffed, straightening his monocle again. "If he doesn't, he vill have to ansver to me."
"Don't worry," Johne said, moving closer, "I will make sure nothing happens to Candice."
Johne outstretched his hand towards the bird, and the bird glanced upon it with the air one would give to an unsavory dish of food. But, being polite, the bird slowly unfurled his wing, shaking Johne's hand with its tip. A strong hand Ray felt, but examining the young man with careful attention, he couldn't tell if the same could be said of his character.
"Vell, darling, you must have much planning to do, and much to talk about with your 'hero'." She was about to open the door, when Johne stepped up and did it for her, the old bird giving an approving nod. "Au revoir, and goodbyes, out I go, into the skies."
The bird's massive wings spread out, and with much flapping and blowing about of sand, ascended into the heavens.
"How'd you two meet exactly?" Johne asked, shutting the door, a strange enjoyment for how normal it all felt. "I mean, how does someone start a friendship with one of those birds?"
"Ray's always been different than the other ones...was always isolated away from his group. He was strange, strange because he wanted to do things instead of just fly around and eat. He went out on his own and through his travels almost managed to get himself killed. I found him among the cactuses, hiding there for cover and protection."
"What would it be like if it weren't for you, Candice?"
"What would what be like?"
"The world. If you weren't here, the little ones would have no one to protect them. If you didn't help Ray he probably would have died. Without you I'd be dead too. So much would be different without you. I...I wish I could say the same about myself. I've never put these hands to good use, never helped anyone, unless it somehow helped me. I don't know what it is to feel important."
"But you forgot something—if you weren't around I'd have no hero for my adventure still." She took both of his hands, leading him slowly away. "And once we find the evil lord and stop him, then the world would really be a much worse place if you hadn't been in it."
"Yeah, it would be."
"And you're important to me. And pretty soon, you'll be important to a lot of people. 'Cause you're the hero, the most important person of all."
"Yes," Johne said, smiling as Candice led him into the kitchen. "I'm the hero."
"But, even if you are the hero, you don't have to do what Ray said. You know, die for me. The hero's sacrifice can be moving, and sometimes essential for the character, but I don't think it fits in. I don't think you should die for me."
"But no one's going to die, remember? Only the dark lord's going to be the one to die. No one will have to die for anyone else, 'cause no one's going to die at all. "
"I had almost forgotten." Her eyes turned up to his, a sort of childish wonder mixed with harsh adult reality swimming about in them. "I'm glad you don't have to die."
"I'm glad too," he said, Candice moving him along to show him the supplies for the journey.