A length of rope, old and grey. A rusted water canteen with a big hole in the bottom of it. Three candles, previously lit, all burnt halfway down. A box of matches. Empty, of course. A black hair ribbon emblazoned over with motifs of dragons and serpents. The handle of a sword. A large tan sack with straps on it. And two, slightly moth eaten, sleeping bags. That, as a whole, compiled the lot of things George had thought useful for Candice and Johne's adventure.
"Are you sure we need this?" Johne asked, tossing the empty matchbox between his hands. "I have a lighter on me, and it's pretty much useless without any matches."
"I know," she said, straightening out the ribbon she had placed on her hair. "But it's so small there can be no harm in taking it, right?"
And he slipped the matchbox into a little pocket on the inside of his coat.
"Everything's packed now," he continued, rising up. "Rusty canteen with sword handle and all. But don't you think we could use, maybe, a little food, you know?"
"Adventurers never bring food, and when they do, it gets lost. Besides, are you hungry, Johne?"
"I...actually...I'm not." He clenched his stomach, wondering why almost two days without food hadn't brought him to exhaustion. "I don't understand."
"Lots of things are strange here like that."
"I think I've come to realize that." His eyes turned to Candice who was lifting the supply bag up and down, testing its weight. "That ribbon looks nice on you, by the way."
"Thank you," she said, making sure one last time the bag was secure. "Shall we be going now?"
"Aren't we gonna wait for Ray to come and look after the little ones?"
"I left the attic window open—he'll get in through there. He'll come, don't worry, he wouldn't leave them all alone."
"But can Ray scare off those other birds if the little ones go out to eat?"
"The time Ray had almost died it was because of others like him." She turned her head around a doorframe, whistling gently. "Of the five that attacked him, only two got out alive. Ray can protect them."
Johne shook his head lightly and slowly, a sort of grave reverence in his heart for the bird. Shortly afterwards, through the door Candice had whistled by moments ago, all the little ones came crawling through, plopping and sliding as they would. In a neat line they stood, except for the smallest one, and for George, who always arrived late when called.
"I'm going to be leaving for a little bit, okay?" she said, kneeling down next to them. "I don't know for how long, but it could be a while. Ray will be here to take care of you all, and I want you to be kind and polite to him. Behave yourselves, don't cause too much trouble, and I'll be back before you know it." One by one she kissed their little heads, stopping before George. "And thanks again, George, for your help."
Then she kissed him too, and the big old fellow looked up with the sad eyes of a dog who knows its master is leaving. She let the poor little ones alone, each with the same sadness resting in their souls.
"You ready?" she asked Johne.
"As ready as I can be."
He picked up the tan sack, titled 'Supply Bag' by Candice, its name sewn in black thread on its side, and flung it across his back.
"Now what?" Johne asked, squinting at the horizon as they stood outside the door.
"Now we go to Omen."
She suddenly started to walk off, heading west, and he immediately followed after her.
"How far away is Omen?"
"Nothing is far away in the desert, remember?"
"I remember, but I don't understand."
"I'll tell you when we get far enough. When the house is but a small dot on the horizon, but not out of our sight. That is important, Johne—the house mustn't leave our vision."
"If you say so, then it won't."
He followed Candice on and on, as if he were a child with pure faith in where she was heading and what she was doing. Every minute his head would turn back to see if the house had turned into a dot yet. He kept puzzling over Ray's words, trying to find an answer so he wouldn't have to seem stupid in front of her. So he wouldn't have to have her explain it to him, that somehow he had failed in not knowing.
"Candice...you never asked me why I thought it was the theatre."
"I didn't see a reason to. If you think it's where we should go, then it's where we should go. I trust you. You know what you're doing."
"But what if I'm wrong?" He took another glance at the house, lowering his head. "What if it leads nowhere?"
"You're not wrong because I know you're right." Johne smiled, his self-doubt wincing in pain at being fought back for once. "Stop."
He froze in his place and turned quickly back. The house was but a tiny black spot on the horizon, a few more steps and it might have become nothing. Ahead of himself there was desert as endless as ocean with just more blowing sand whipping through the air.
"Now what?" he sighed, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "How do we get to Omen?"
"We close our eyes." And Candice shut hers, taking his hand lightly in her own. "Are your eyes closed yet?"
"Yes," he answered, eclipsing the world in dark, but the sun still burning through his eyelids in blinding force. "What now?"
"Now this might be difficult, for neither of us have been to Omen or knows what it looks like, but you have to imagine. Imagine we are in there, right now. Rid your mind of every other thought, keep the word Omen in your head, and picture us standing in the center of town and that we have never been standing anywhere else. Now think, Johne. Think."
He started to clear his mind, trying to rid it of all its thoughts, but it kept getting clogged. Every time he pushed one out, a question would pop up. What's going on? How will this do anything? Once those were pushed out, more thought filled in. You're gonna fail, you're gonna let her down. You're gonna let everybody down. And when those were gone, he thought about the wind in his ears. Then how dark it looked. The sun on his face. No matter how hard he tried to keep Omen in his head, something else kept jumping in and distracting him.
His teeth clenched, breath huffing, and he felt about ready to scream out, when something hit him. The theatre from his dream came into his head and filled up all that space. The large green crumbling letters of 'Amina' set up before the grand entrance. White pillars of stone chipping away as plaster does. Ticket booths lined up with 'Out to Lunch' signs left to be covered with cobwebs. Red velvet walls tearing to pieces. The curve of the wood, the touch of the ground, the memories leaching out from their forms, they all grabbed onto Johne and shook him down to his foundation. Each minute detail was a bullet shooting through his head. The glass of the spotlight on the left side of the theatre had broken into twenty-nine different pieces. On the right, fourteen.
"Johne," Candice said, a terrible chill going through his body. "I think we can open our eyes now."
"Are you sure?" he asked, the theatre vanishing from his mind, not even being able to remember the color of the walls.
He opened his eyes, his grip on Candice's hand snapping tight into place with the force of a bear trap. His warm breath poured out visibly into the air, his feet shivering in a puddle on the rank cobblestone streets. His head twitched about like some poor defenseless creature running from its pursuer. Knowing at any moment the predator could jump out of a bush and snap its neck in two.
"Good job," she said, letting go of his hand, he very much wanting to run out and childishly cling to her. "I didn't think we'd be able to bring ourselves to such a specific point. It must have been you. I've never been much good with this."
"And...and what exactly did we do?" He stepped up close to her, both entranced with the big letters spelling out 'Amina'.
"The desert brought us here."
"Do you sometimes see mirages on the horizon? The desert is a strange place, and those aren't illusions. They're glimpses at different places in the world, ones that ripple in and out of the desert—for the desert is always calling all things to it, taking all in its grasp. Some things it gets, some things slip by it. But if one concentrates hard enough, the desert hears you, and it brings the mirage into vision. And if you can do it well enough, the desert will bring you straight to it."
"So the desert's alive?"
"In a way, it is. But almost everything is alive in a sense, if you just look at it properly. I'm afraid I don't know much about the desert. I've tried talking to it, but it never wants to answer me."
"I'm sorry." He gazed down at his shoes, shaking the muddy sand off of them. "But how do we get back again? Do we think about your house and we'll be there?"
"It's not that simple." She knelt down, investigating something glittering in a puddle. "The desert can bring you places, but you can't wish yourself back. You have to travel back home. That...or the desert wants you so much it forces you back."
"So we're stuck here?"
"But we're stuck in the place we want to be, and once we get started on our adventure, we won't need to get back home for a while."
"But like I said before, what happens if this..." Candice shot him a look, one with a meaning he didn't understand, but made his heart grow still. "No, this is where we gotta be. This," he clapped his hands, "is where it all begins."
"That's right." She took the glittering thing in the puddle into her hands, twirling it around. "Come here, Johne."
"What is it?"
"Take a look at this," she said, handing over the shiny thing.
Johne twisted about the item in his hand. It was metal and the size of a half-dollar, but was crusted over with some black substance. He picked at this substance, until, to his surprise, the object split in two across the side. He then held two coins, the sides they were stuck to each other on devoid of the obscuring blackness.
"'Admittance one'," he read aloud.
A loud 'bang' rang out into the air, followed by another. Above, the spotlights slowly flickered on, while the crackled sound of trumpets and cymbals rang out through radio speakers. Candice and Johne stood in perfect stillness of the spectacle as the whizzing and turning of motors twisted into their ears, followed by a loud crack of an exhaust pipe biting the air.
Out of one of the vendor booths a robotic man was slowly rising up. It was fashioned much the same as an automated fortune teller booth, the kind you find at carnivals, except the operator was absolutely hideous. It bore a grin which stretched inhumanly across its entire face, a grin lined with rows of sharp teeth. Its nose pointed out as sharp as a knife and its chin even more so. Its eyes were painted a pure black, empty of soul or comfort.
"Come one, come all, to Amina Theatre," rung out a voice from the speakers. "Special reopening performance! Seats are limited. Get them while they last. Come one, come all..."
The message repeated, playing itself back and back again like a skipping record. A terrible ache grew in Johne's heart at the sight of the robotic man with its head ever turning left and right. It was like one of the many creatures which had inhabited his childhood nightmares. The kind of creatures the other kids at school used to laugh at him for crying over. They always laughed when he cried, and Johne in turn learned to laugh when they cried. Learned how to make them cry so he could laugh at something in his life.
"What now?" he asked, trying to keep that scared child out of his heart.
"Well, we have passes to the performance." She took a step forward, her foot falling into the wavy reflection of the theatre, splashing it away. "Why don't we go?"
"Just what I was thinking," he said, the shining spotlights reflected in the puddles, hand flipping one of the tokens into the air. "No point in standing around anymore."
Johne took the lead, striding over quickly towards the robotic man with its thin rusting frame, fire in his action, trying to be strong. Trying to be the hero Candice thought he was. Trying to believe he was the hero he wished he could be. Trying not to let her see how much he wanted to turn away. To run again.
Up close to the machine, he could hear the screeching of its metal head turning. Come one, come all...the speakers kept repeating, the tarred soulless eyes of the machine continually passing by him. Each time they felt more alive, each time they grew more endless. As if he were to stick his finger into one he'd be dipping it into an abyss of never ending emptiness.
"So where do we give our tokens?" Candice said, her voice breaking the anxiety.
The right hand of the robot suddenly started reaching out. Once it was out of the booth, it turned upwards. In the center of the palm, cut crudely into the metal, was a coin slot. The speakers cracked for a moment, the lights flickering in twitches.
"I guess that answers the question," Johne said, trying to calm his breathing.
The hand felt alive, as if he were to put his token in there, it'd grab him and stuff him down into those eyes. But fear left him as he saw Candice's hand reaching towards the coin slot with one of the tokens.
"Wait!" he cried out, grabbing her wrist, his heart beating wildly. "Let me do it."
"Why? It's just a coin slot."
"I...I know. But, now that we've started this, we can't be too careful with anything."
"Hmmm..." Her hand slowly backed away from the machine, depositing the token instead into Johne's hand. "You're brave, but know I won't let you be the only who is—that we'll both have to take risks, not just you. Thank you for thinking of me, but you have to let me think of you sometimes too."
"All right, Candice, we're both in this." The two tokens hovered above the slot before slipping out from his fingertips, their clinking ringing sharply in their ears. "And we'll face every challenge together."
"That's absolutely right," she said as she took his arm.
"Welcome," the robot screeched, twisting its head around. "We hope you enjoy your visit to Amina Theatre."
And the doors opened.
The moment they stepped into the theatre, the doors shut loudly. Johne didn't want to turn back to see if they were locked, so they stumbled ahead. The hall they had found themselves in was incredibly dark and solely illuminated by a faint glow farther down. Stepping carefully, they had inched their way to its end.
The hall led out to the entrance of the middle row seats. Resting above were the balcony seats, and straight ahead the front row seats were nowhere to be found, rusting metal plates where they had once been bolted down the only evidence of their ever existing. The faint glow from before had come from a hundred lit candles flickering about the stage. The musty blood-red curtains were closed: everything was silence in the theatre.
"Candice," Johne said, carefully surveying the scene. "I don't think we're the only ones here."
"It would seem that way."
"Do you think we should try to talk to them or just ignore them?"
"It's hard to tell. Try calling out to one."
"Hey," he called out to the silhouette sitting in the seat closest to them. "Can you hear me? Hello?"
"Hello!" rang a high-pitched voice from the speakers above, causing Candice and Johne to shield their ears. "Welcome, one and all, to the special one night performance of 'The Poor-Whiny Depressed, With Many Other Adjectives, Man'. Take your seats now, the show will begin shortly."
A loud screeching of metal rang from behind the curtains. The red silk parted, revealing an empty stage, the background only half-finished. After that, two large spotlights positioned at either end of the curtains flickered on, the audience searing into Johne's vision. His heart withered inside, a little part of him knowing it would become something he'd never forget. Something that would crawl into his dreams at night and rot them into nightmares.
Suddenly, without even thinking, he pulled Candice close to himself, hiding her face in his chest. He didn't want her to see any of it. He choked for air, keeping her close, almost wanting to cry. Leaning his head onto hers, he kissed her forehead.
"What are you doing, Johne?" she asked, her voice muffled by being so close to him.
"I don't want you to see what's here."
"Because it's horrible." He checked again to make sure it was all real and still the nightmare lived. "It's something no one should have to see."
"Let me go," she said without force. "We have to go through this together, and we're not going to stop before we even begin."
"But..." He bit down on his teeth until he felt like his jaw would snap off. "Okay...but if it's too much, come back to me."
His arms let her go inches at a time until she was released. Once out, she turned around, seeing the scene for herself. She blinked a couple of times, turning her head to the left, then to the right. Johne's hand twitched as he watched her, surveying the scene over for himself. Almost unbearably did he watch as she turned back around to face him.
"They're dead," she said, nothing at all altered about her face.
She said 'they're dead'. That's all. At least one hundred of them, positioned about random seats throughout the theatre. One hundred corpses. Some were animals with fur patches on their decayed flesh and sunken in eye sockets. Some were skeletons, like one of Ray's kind of birds sitting quietly, positioned to intently watch the stage. But most...most were human. Faces half torn away, the remaining halves grey and rotted. Chests caved in, where the worms crawled in and the worms crawled out. Pieces of hair attached to falling off scalps. And moreover, a repugnant smell of decay that only arrived when the lights turned on.
"Is that all you have to say?" he asked, covering his nose.
"Does anything else need to be said?" She walked over to the nearest corpse, touching its head, making it bob to the side. "They're dead. There's nothing simpler." She frowned. "We can't do anything about it."
"But who killed them? Who brought them here?" He walked up closer to Candice, wishing he was capable of letting it pass as she seemingly was. "Why?"
"Why don't you ever stop whining?!" yelled out a voice from the stage.
Candice and Johne grew silent, the stage drawing them towards it. No one was there.
"I don't know, dad!" cried out a voice overdramatically. Cried out the voice who had spoken on the speakers.
A foot stepped out from the far left end of the stage, one covered in a shining black shoe that twisted around at the tip. To join it, a head poked out and nervously peered around the theatre. It was the same face as the robot vendor, except, this one was in the flesh, and all the more terrifying because of it. The long accordion legs of the creature stepped out, going up and down, up and down, bringing it to freakish highs and lows. Its arms reached down to the bottom of its feet no matter how tall it was, moving about as streamers do in the wind. A tall and gangly thing it was.
"My life is so horrible!" its terribly pitched voice screamed out. "Everybody feel sorry for me, feel bad for me, my life is such crap." The thing, for a man Johne could not call it, put the back of its hand on its forehead. The hand with fingers like needles. "Hello! Pity me!"
"Stop your whining," called out a gruff voice, and the thing gasped.
Out of the right side of the theatre rolled out a sort of robot. Two large black wheels pulled it forward, a trail of dark smoke puffing out of its exhaust pipe. Its body was completely spherical, along with its head, bolts dotting its side. Tiny little arms swung back and forth as it moved along, squeaking ringing in the air. Its features were painted on as a face drawn up in anger.
"What's the matter with you?" cried out the robot man, the gangly thing cowering down low, covering its face with its hands. "Can't you do anything right?! What have I've raised you for, so that you can be a loser? So that you can loaf around your whole life? I won't have it! I never want to see you again until you can prove I didn't waste my time raising you all those years."
The robot man puffed away, the gangly thing's legs deflating to their lowest as it turned its back to the crowd. It began to cry, but then suddenly twisted around again.
"That's better!" it called out, a giant smoking white roll in its mouth. "Ah, it's so hard being me."
And laughter rang out in the theatre, all the jaws of the corpses click-clackering up and down. Their decayed hands, if they had not fallen off already, came and clapped together. Johne felt like crying, not because of fear, but because of the performance. He didn't want to watch it—he wanted to run away, to forget he ever came there. To drown away all of it. How could he ever think he could do it? He wasn't meant to be brave, he wasn't meant to be the hero.
As the clapping died down his mind came to the final decision to run. But as his body was ready to turn around, something gripped fiercely to his arm. It was Candice, and she held onto him with her arms wrapped around his. Though he couldn't see it on her face, he could tell what that grip said. It was a grip he wanted to wrap around many in his childhood, but never found anyone to. Despite her peculiarities, despite her apparent lack of emotions at times, she was still a little girl. Just a little girl, and yet he was the one who was thinking of running and leaving her behind. It sickened him, made his insides more putrid then they had been for the longest time, and that sickness made his fear vanish from him.
"It's all right," he whispered gently to her. "I'll be here if anything happens."
"I don't know why I'm afraid," she said, the female counterpart of the male robot rolling out onto the stage. "It scares me. It's as if it's alive, but it has no soul."
"Why can't you be more like your brother?" the female robot asked, its head spinning around while fire spat from its mouth. "Why can't you do things right like he does? Why can't you get a job? Actually get a life?"
"But I am trying, mom." The gangly thing pulled out piles of papers. "I've been writing my stories. And I've been writing my music too." The gangly thing gripped its throat, stretching out the skin on it like dough. "The girl from all those songs!" came belting out, finger nails upon a chalkboard a more pleasant sound.
"Why? Why don't you try to be realistic? Do you honestly think you're gonna get anywhere?" The robot spat fire onto the papers in the thing's hands, burning them to ash while not even staining its flesh. "Come back to the real world, will you?"
The robot rolled off the stage and the gangly thing let the ashes drop slowly out of its hand.
"Well, you know what that means, folks!" It reached behind the stage, pulling out a gigantic bottle with three X's on it. "It makes me feel alive!"
The crowd burst into laughter again as the gangly thing was chugging down all of the bottle. As it was doing this, another player rolled out onto the stage. The robot from the ticket booth.
"Ah," the gangly thing said, throwing the bottle aside. "What do you want?"
The small thing shrugged its shoulders, leaving from where it had come. The gangly thing then shrugged its own shoulders, pulling out a large needle and sticking it through its arm to the other side.
"Now I am free!"
Johne glazed over with anger, his whole body tensing up. He hated that creature on the stage. More than anything else before in his life, he hated that thing. The thing taunting him, mocking his very existence. He hated the way it moved, the look in its eyes, the way it talked and walked. He wanted to kill it so badly. He wanted to wrap his hands around its scrawny neck and twist its damned head off.
"What's this?" asked the gangly thing, getting onto its knees. "What is that I see?"
All the other lights shut off, leaving a single one above the stage shining down. And from this light was slowly lowering a robotic angel. Something in Johne snapped, snapped at that thing even bringing her into it all.
"Enough!" he yelled out, the lights suddenly switching on. "Stop this now."
The gangly thing's dark eyes twisted angrily, everything growing silent, the heads of the crowd turning towards Johne. Slowly, the angel was winched back up to its place in a screeching spectacle.
"My, my, my!" exclaimed the gangly thing. "Look, everyone! It's the author of tonight's performance himself...Johne Atticus Hawthorne."
The crowd stood up in loud applause for Johne. Even the gangly thing joined in this time, and all of their attention turned onto him. But Johne's hatred still beat out his fear—it was the one thing that could conquer the raging hurricanes of his other emotions. Hate, like a burning fire, devours all those things that would serve to lessen it.
"Welcome," said the gangly thing, stepping off the stage, towering over the seats. "Do you think I did it justice?"
The feet of the gangly thing landed right before Johne and Candice. Its legs stretched out as far as they could so it stood more than twice as tall as him. The thing grinned widely, even wider than before, so that it seemed to shoot off its face. It leaned down, the bells on its jester hat tingling, until the tip of its nose was barely touching Johne. Until its icy black pits delved straight into his brown but not blue ones.
"Well?" it asked sadly, twisting the horrendous grin into a frown. "I can take criticism."
"First off," Johne said, laying his other arm's hand on top of Candice's, "you don't even have my name right. The name's Whisper. Whisper Rayne Hawthorne. You must have me mistaken for this Johne fellow."
"Well, 'Whisper', even if you aren't Johne, what'd you think of the performance?"
"I thought it was overacted and melodramatic."
"It was accurate to the source material." The gangly thing's head turned upside down as casually anything else. "So why did we go to tonight's show, Whisper?"
"To find you."
"'You'?!" The thing stepped back, the crowd gasping. "Do you even know who I am?"
"You're the bad guy," Johne said, his throat gone dry. "You're the guy I'm gonna defeat."
"Is that so?" The gangly thing stroked its chin, eyeing Johne suspiciously. "Then I must have a title that suits my role. Any ideas?"
"How about freak?"
"Someone already has that." The gangly thing leaned down again, its hand gently hovering above Candice. "Pretty little girl you have there, but isn't she a bit young for you?"
"Don't touch her," he growled. "If you touch her, I'll break every bone in your body."
"Easier said than done."
And the gangly thing grabbed one of its fingers, pulling it completely forward and back as if it was made of rubber.
"The Scrangly Man," Candice said quietly.
"What?" said the gangly thing, putting a hand to its ear. "I missed what you said, dear."
"You're the Scrangly Man," she repeated. "That's what you will be called."
"The Scrangly Man!" it shouted out with terrific glee. "Brilliant! I love it! Forget all those other names I've had, forever more I shall be...the Scrangly Man."
The Scrangly Man snapped its fingers, the corpses in the theatre all going limp as the spotlights flickered out, curtains closing away. It smiled and clapped its hands, jumping around on one foot while it repeated its name aloud. Then it turned sharply again to Johne, making popping noises with its mouth.
"So, Whisper, you said something about defeating me before? You like games? I love games."
"This is no game," Johne said, approaching the thing, but still with a hold on Candice. "I'm the hero, and I'm going to kill you. I'm going to stop you from ever hurting anyone again."
"All life's a game, and to be fair, I'll let you play mine. I do hate short games though..." One of the Scrangly Man's fingers slowly slipped under Johne's chin. "The goal is easy: just go to me. I'll be waiting far, far away, beyond woods, castles, and junk. Oh, and beyond a labyrinth thingy. You should give up now because you'll never beat me."
The Scrangly Man gently pricked Johne's neck, a small trickle of blood slipping from the wound.
"Then why don't we do this now, instead of you running away?"
"Fine, Whisper, do it." The Scrangly Man stood as stiff as a board, twisting its head to the side. "Kill me. If you can kill me, then it's over. Bye, bye, and nothing else."
Johne stood in his place, nothing in him to back up his words. Cringing inside at himself.
"There's nothing wrong if you can't do it. You can think of it on your way to me." The Scrangly Man tapped one long finger on the tip of its chin. "How does one kill the Scrangly Man? Hmmm...answer: Not very easily, and especially not with your bare hands." It cackled as its body twisted over backwards, retreating farther and farther away like a slinky down a flight of stairs. "Do come again sometime, and be sure to invite Johne along too. He is such an inspiration."
The Scrangly Man vanished as a mirage, its body waving in and out, leaving one to wonder if it was ever there in the first place. Candice and Johne relaxed their tense forms, and she let go of him to stand where the Scrangly Man had stood. Lights flickered on all about the theatre as the candles blew out one by one.
"We hope you enjoyed your stay here at the Amina Theatre," the voice from the speakers rang. "We hope you've enjoyed your stay here at the Amina Theatre. We..."
"You were so brave, Johne," Candice said, turning to him.
"Was I?" he sighed. "What good did it do me anyways? I couldn't do anything to him."
"That doesn't matter right now, we'll get another chance. But the way you acted and talked in front of him, you really are..." She flung forward, hugging him tightly. "You really are a hero."
"And this really is our adventure." He stroked her hair for a moment, then gave in and returned the hug. He loved the strength it gave him whenever he felt her near. "And it's only just begun."
"Then let's not keep it waiting."
So they walked out of the theatre, smiles on their faces as the spotlights flickered out on its name, darkness pouring over and settling down like new winter snow.