"They're back!" cried out Pierrot as he jumped and twirled in the air. "Thank goodness, thank goodness."
"Candy and Johne back," Nemmy said, her child's mind having made their absence seem like a few minutes.
"Hi!" Johne answered back with a smile and a wave. "How have you two been?"
"Dolly," Nemmy said, reaching out to the thing on Johne's shoulder. "Dolly."
"Hold on there, Nemmy," Pierrot said, a very weak smile on his face. "I...I don't think that's a dolly."
"Of course I am," it said. "What do I look like to you?"
Pierrot's voice dropped dead, turning slowly over to Johne and Candice. Johne shrugged his shoulders, and Candice took the thing off of him, laying it down beside Nemmy.
"Hello," it said, lifting up an arm. "And who may you be?"
"Nemmy," she replied shyly, shaking its arm. "You not a very pretty doll."
"No I'm not."
"What your name?"
"I don't have one."
"You'll be Wuffy," she said, taking and holding it in her arms. "You like Wuffy?"
"I like Wuffy," Wuffy said, snuggling in the girl's arms. "It's a nice and soft name."
"Now, now, Nemmy," Pierrot continued, circling around, teeth clattering. "I'm sure Wuffy doesn't enjoy being held like that."
"It's fine with me. It's actually quite comfortable."
"No need to worry, Pierrot," Candice said, putting a hand on his shoulder, his body shivering ever the slightest. "It won't hurt her. I promise."
"Never in a million years, it won't?" The clown man turned around, a terrible frown encompassing his face. "If she ever got hurt...I...I would never forgive myself."
"Never ever, I promise."
Pierrot peered over his shoulder at the little doll in Nemmy's arms making her happy. He could never much be sad when he saw her with a smile on her face, the smile that had made him forget those years of wandering. Of trying to make someone—anyone at all—happy by his being around. Who'd laugh and smile instead of ignoring him. And what problem could another person be? Jealousy was nonexistent when the matter was Nemmy's happiness. Two's company, but three's a party.
"Welcome, Wuffy!" shouted out Pierrot, twirling around on one foot like a ballerina. "And I do hope you know that to be Nemmy's doll you have to be more than just the average doll."
"I do?" Wuffy replied, staring at Pierrot with the same kind of wonder often found in Nemmy's eyes.
"Yes, you'll have to perform tricks, and I'll be the one to teach you all of them. For I am the lord-master of tricks himself!"
"Trick, Pierrot," Nemmy said, clapping her hands. "Trick."
"I want to see a trick too," Wuffy went along, flapping his little arms together. "I want to see a trick."
Johne and Candice stood near the Snailmobile watching Pierrot pull a tiny black rubber ball out from under his hat. It could fit into the palm of his hand and he bounced it up and down a few times. He put the ball on the ground, lowered himself down to it, and scrunched every muscle about in his face into exaggerated expressions. He put his head on the ball, and using his arms to help him, lifted his legs up into the air. He then let his arms go, bending them up so that his body was straight as a board, his head perfectly balanced on the black ball.
Everyone around burst out clapping, and both Nemmy and Wuffy ran up to Pierrot, pulling at his arm to know how he did it. To teach them to do it as well. Johne smiled at it all, Wuffy picking up the ball, putting his head on it, trying to lift himself up. They were all like one big happy family. Able to connect so quickly, to laugh and be happy with one another. That was how a family was supposed to be. At least, that's what Johne thought, 'cause he had no firsthand experience himself of the concept.
"Candice," he said, leaning against the Snailmobile. "I know you told me you had no memories of before this place, but can you tell me if you feel something?"
"I'll try my best to, Johne."
"Do you think you had a family before? Do you feel they cared for you...loved you?"
"I don't know if I had any family at all. I cannot feel if I did, can't tell if they loved or hated me. But if I did have one, they were probably not very important to me. Otherwise, I wouldn't have forgotten them, would I?"
"I guess you have a point there."
"Do you have a family?"
"Had. Had a family." He scratched at his face, seeing twilight bleed into the sky. "I won't lie to you: I didn't care very much for them and they cared even less for me."
"I don't know why they wouldn't care for you—I think you're a wonderful person."
"I think you're wonderful too." He took a breath, wondering about the strange question fluttering about his mind right then. "Let's forget about families, they're not around anymore, they're not important. Right now, right here, we're all the family we have. Right?"
"And the little ones back home. And Ray too."
A sudden thump came into his heart, a terrible dropping dread filling him. He looked at Pierrot, at Nemmy, at Wuffy, and finally to Candice. All these people felt strange to him, made him hurt inside. Because, he found himself surprised, he actually cared if they were around him. Because he liked them being by his side. And he couldn't help but think what would happen when he killed the Scrangly Man. Where would everyone go? Would they leave him behind because he was no longer special? Because he was just Johne, not a hero anymore.
"Candice," he said, shivering inside the same way he had shivered on cold lonely nights thinking about his own eventual death. "What happens after this adventure is over? What do we do...where do we go?"
"Whatever and wherever we want to. We can go look for more adventures, or we can do normal things, go on small adventures. Like saving an animal's life."
"'We'?" he said quietly, wiping a line through the dirt with his shoe.
"Yes, unless you have plans on leaving after the adventure. The hero sometimes does that, after struggling and suffering so much, he goes off alone to find himself. To never again take up his weapon."
"Would you like me to still be around after it's all over?"
"I would like it very much, but it's your decision in the end."
"I want to stay," he said, wanting a little to cry, but too surprised with himself over it to actually carry it out.
Johne lay awake in his sleeping bag, the empty sky above seeming to fall into his heart. The campfire was merely ashes where faint embers glowed in the dark. There was no moon in the sky, no clouds, so he wondered why he couldn't see any stars. Those wretched hollow things that take your wishes and send them hurtling back down to earth to pierce through your soul. He didn't want any stars in the sky, he was glad they were gone, but he still had to wonder where they all had left to.
He turned his head to the side and could faintly see Pierrot, Nemmy, and Wuffy huddled by the Snailmobile, sleeping soundly. He turned his head the other way, seeing Candice a few feet from where he lay. She was sound asleep, her peaceful form pointed in his direction. His arm slowly climbed out of the sleeping bag, reaching out to her. Ever so lightly, his fingers trailed along her hair, letting every strand of it swish across his skin. It felt like petting the dog he never had as a child, of seeing some of the wild imaginings in his head become reality and held in his hands—it felt better than all the cigarettes, beer, drugs, and sex he had over the years, but he couldn't begin to tell why. Maybe because, touching her hair, he no longer felt like Johne Atticus Hawthorne, but Whisper Rayne Hawthorne, a hero. Her hero.
His hand suddenly retracted from her hair, and he turned away quickly, shutting his eyes. He clenched the hand tightly that had been touching her, wanting to rip it off. What would happen if he stayed? What would happen if Whisper were to eventually turn into something like Johne, uncontrolled, destructive...weak. And if that thing was left alone with Candice too long, what the horrible monster might think of doing to her. He cupped his hands over his ears, digging his face into his sleeping bag, digging deeper until there was no light.
"I'm Whisper," he said, shaking his head. "I'm not Johne. I use his name, but that's not me. I'm not Johne here anymore, I'm Whisper. Johne is dead. I am Whisper. I am strong, I am kind, I have control. I am a hero. I would never hurt anyone. I'm Whisper, I'm Whisper, I'm Whisper."
"You're Johne," a biting voice came in. "You hurt everyone. You are no hero. You have no control, are hateful, and are weak. Johne is very much alive. You use Whisper's name, but that's not you. Whisper never was." The voice dropped out, Johne shivering all over. "You are Johne."
He grabbed his head tightly, knowing its words were so much truer than his own.
"Shut-up," Johne said, every word the woman saying driving a deeper spike into his mind. "Get the hell out of my head!"
He shot up out of his sleeping bag, but his breath caught short in his throat. He was all alone, no one was around him. Sweat poured off of him in falls and he let out a low whimpering noise. He clawed at his hair, running frantically about the area, body twitching nervously.
"Guys? Guys!" he shouted. "Where are you? Don't leave me alone. I'm still here."
"What is it, Johne?" Pierrot said, suddenly coming out of the woods. "Whatever's the matter?"
"Where is everyone, Pierrot, what's going on?"
"What do you mean? Nothing's wrong, Johne, we're all fine. But what's that you have?" Pierrot pointed out to something in his hand. "I thought you said you weren't going to do that anymore."
Johne lifted up his hand, and grasped tightly within it, was a full bottle of beer.
"I don't know where I got it," he said. "Really."
"Don't lie to me because I know you are."
"I'm not lying!"
"You've been drinking again, haven't you?"
"I didn't drink anything, nothing at all."
"Is that so?" Pierrot took a step closer. "Then give me the bottle."
"I...I can't," Johne said, trying to push his arm forward. "It won't move."
"What do you mean it won't move? Don't make up such silly things, it's sad."
"It's not silly." His hand tried to let go, but the fingers wouldn't unfurl, not even when he tugged fiercely at them. "I can't let go of it."
"Of course you can."
"I tell you, I can't."
"Johne, let go."
Johne's arm suddenly flung forward, striking Pierrot across the head. The beer bottle shattered into glass fragments as it struck, Pierrot immediately falling down from the force pounded on him.
"Pierrot," Johne whispered, nudging him with his foot, blood streaming down onto the ground and being taken in by the earth. "I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to. God damn it, say something."
"You never mean to, do you?" Wuffy said, shaking his head as he looked upon the bloodied body. "No, no, you never mean to."
Johne felt his left hand grow deathly cold, breath quivering at the sight of a syringe in it. A shining needle dripping a clear liquid from its tip.
"I won't do it again," Johne said, trying to smash the casing, to break the thing in his hand. "I promise I won't."
"But then you promise again afterwards, and again after that. And then whenever something bad goes on, you can blame it on that thing in your hand instead of on yourself. But who can you blame for putting it there in the first place, huh, who?"
"I can blame it as well. It makes me...I don't want to, it's not my fault."
"Of course not, Johne, it's never your fault, is it? It makes you, it makes you do it."
"Please shut-up now."
"What? You can't handle someone talking to you? You gonna hit me too, say it wasn't your fault?"
"Well, what're you going to do?"
He rushed forward, stabbing the needle into Wuffy's chest, pushing the contents into his little body. Johne watched with heavy breath as the thing slowly stopped moving and fell limply beside Pierrot.
"Why Pierrot and Wuffy asleep?" a voice said from behind him.
He turned around to see Nemmy standing ever so still, those little eyes judging and watching him.
"They're tired," he said with shaking hands, getting closer to her. "That's why they sleep."
"You bad man," she said, backing away. "You hurt them."
"I'm not a bad man. I'm a friend, Nemmy."
"I'm a friend, damn it." He ran forward, lifting her up into his arms as she kicked at him. "Friend, friend, see?"
But Nemmy screamed horribly into his ears, and he let her go. She fell to the ground as the fire burning on her hair crisped the air around him. Reaching up to his mouth, he felt a cigarette burning.
"Nemmy!" he called out, the cigarette dropping. But she was gone. Gone already, a charred little creature where she used to be.
He backed away, eyes uncontrollably flittering between the bodies. A terrible fear grew on him, his throat starting to clench. They wouldn't understand if he said anything. Wouldn't understand they were all accidents, that it wasn't his fault. Their voices just couldn't silence—they wouldn't stop telling him how horrible he was. He already knew that. No one else had to drive the knife in.
"Johne?" a voice said, one he hoped he wouldn't have to hear.
"Run away, Candice," he ordered, daring not to turn around. "I want you to run away as fast as you can and hide."
"Because I might hurt you...and-and I don't want to." He felt his pulse slamming down across his body, a pounding hammer upon his skull, teeth clenching against themselves. "I never want to do that."
"Why would you hurt me? You're my hero. You promised to never let me get hurt. And I told you I'm not going to leave you no matter what happens."
She touched his arm, touched his arm and his whole body felt a fire burn through it. He turned without ordering himself to, muscles freeing themselves from their shackles. He stared hungrily at Candice, the terrible flame increasing, melting his insides to ash.
"Johne...what's wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Run, I can't control myself."
But it was too late as his arms reached out and grabbed her shoulders.
"You're holding me a bit too tight, it hurts." Candice tilted her head, giving him that look of hers. "Johne?"
His arms flung her to the ground, his own form quickly following her down. His fingers dug into her dress's shoulders, tearing them off. Her hands pushed out at him, but he struck them aside, tearing her dress open at her stomach, revealing the bare skin.
"Johne!" she called out, terrible agony on her face. "Stop it, stop it!"
"I can't," he said, crying. "I can't."
He smothered her voice by kissing her, taking her breath and making it his own. While he kept her close, the other hand continued its work from where it was torn at her stomach, tearing it upwards, and then down, so she lay on the ground a defenseless creature without its shell. He stopped for a moment, staring out at his work, but his hands still kept twitching. He lowered himself down again to begin to free that creature of all its shells, to steal from it all its innocence.
"Please," she said, a tear streaming down her cheek. "Don't...you're better than this."
He stared into her eyes, saw the thing reflected in them. A monster, a terrible, ugly creature, something incapable of change. A monster that would crush and burn and kill and take all it wanted from people. This thing set before him, he saw no good in it at all, only a creature to breed suffering in others. He felt all the disgusting things it wanted of her. The one thing he was supposed to protect, promised to, but it would be his own hands to do the unspeakable. But his own hands would never harm her. Even if he had no control and in his darkest hours he wouldn't even dream of it. Not her.
Then why had his hands already gone so far, the horrid tools?
"Johne is not better than this," he said, taking her into his arms. "But Whisper is."
He pulled Candice close and hugged her with all his might, swaying her back and forth, kissing her forehead while he tried not to cry. His hands holding onto her to protect her, to never let anything get that close again. He'd rather have his legs broken and his hands chopped off then to allow that other man to ever even touch her for another moment.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered into her ear.
"I know you are, Whisper."
"Can you ever forgive me?"
"Of course I can."
"Stupid boy," the voice rang out in pain, a blanketing darkness passing over all.
"Johne," Candice whispered, his head lighter than air. "Come on, Johne."
"I'm not Johne," he called. "I'm Whisper, not Johne."
But he blinked, seeing he was sitting up in his sleeping bag. The sun was out, the sounds of birds chirping about his ears. The Snailmobile was already positioned to go down the other road, Pierrot, Nemmy, and Wuffy beside it. Candice, meanwhile, knelt beside his bed, her bag already folded up and put away. Her beautiful blood red dress all about her.
"Johne?" she asked once more, tilting her head to the side, giving him one of her looks. "Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing's wrong, at least now..." He wriggled up out of his bag, smiling as he took in the world. "Everything's fine."
"That's good to hear. We have a long walk ahead of us."
"Candice?" he said, his eyes finding trouble looking at her. "Do you think I'd ever hurt any of you?"
"What does that mean?"
"It means what I said. Do you think I'm capable of hurting any of you?"
"Everyone is capable of hurting everyone else. But, I don't believe you'd ever hurt any of us, at least not on purpose. The hero never hurts his own companions, unless he is possessed, or he has to, to protect them, or one of us is actually a traitor working for the Scrangly Man. But that would make things overly complicated—a simple adventure is the best."
"I don't know how simple this one is," he said, tossing his bag in, images of his horrible nightmare and the living nightmare of the town tormenting his mind. "Not simple at all."
"But it has a simple end to it. Defeat the Scrangly Man."
"That might not be too simple either, you know."
"I know. But I also know you will defeat him. It's our ending, remember? So no matter what happens, or how difficult and maybe even painful it is, we win in the end. We live in the end. So we have nothing to fear at all. You see? Not to say it takes all the fun out of an adventure, it actually makes it more enjoyable not having to worry about those things. Besides, most of an adventure is the journey, not the ending."
"But isn't the ending the most important part of any journey? Where and what you've been aiming for the whole time finally in your reach?"
"I think the beginning's the most important. 'Cause if you never start a journey, you'll never end one either."
"That may be true."
"We'll have to see for ourselves, won't we?"
"Hey!" Wuffy called out. "Come on, come on, I want to see some adventure already."
"Then let's get going!" Johne wholeheartedly agreed, marching ahead. "Nothing can stand in our way."
So he waltzed out ahead of the group, Candice running up beside him. And seeing them going along that road, a man, a girl, a clown, a littler girl with a talking ragdoll on top of a giant snail shell, one could actually believe his words.