"You didn't mention anything about this, Wuffy," Johne said, shadows lining over his body.
"Was it important to mention?" Wuffy scratched his ear. "We just follow the main road till we get there."
"You could have mentioned it cut straight through a graveyard."
Ten-foot tall iron gates loomed ahead, jutting spikes shooting off from every bar. Words across the top of the gates read simply: Graveyard. Beyond the gates grey slabs dotted endlessly across an expanse of dead grass hills, ones accentuated with twisted ancient trees popping up every so often. But more than that and the wailing winds is what took Johne's attention.
On top of the tallest hill in the graveyard stood a house. A very tall house built wrong in every way that shouldn't even stand as it was. He could see a few broken windows and a smashed-in wall, but all the details of its defects could not be seen clearly from his distance.
"Who lives in the house?" he asked, a slight cold in his blood.
"I don't know," Wuffy said. "I walked by it last time. I didn't see a reason to see if anyone was there or not. The thing's creepy."
"Says the one-foot tall ragdoll made by ravens with a human heart?"
"But I've got personality."
"Wuffy personal, person," Nemmy said, doing the best she could with the word.
"Besides, Johne," Pierrot said, flexing his arms and standing tall. "If you are too afraid, the invincible Pierrot can always take the lead. There is no shame, for not everyone can be as brave as Pierrot."
"Johne's not scared," Candice said, looking off with him at the house. "He's just careful. We don't want to run into any danger."
"But danger's all the fun!" Wuffy shouted, leaving Nemmy's arms and climbing down the Snailmobile. "And if none of you will do it, I will."
The doll marched towards the gates and leaned his two little arms on it, pushing with all his might. He grunted and grunted, until finally the gates parted open, pushed by Johne's unseen hand.
"Easy," Wuffy said, patting his hands, returning to Nemmy to be showered with compliments.
"Let's stick to the road, okay?" Johne turned around, a cold and unsettling wind nipping at his neck. "Don't go near the house."
They all nodded, Johne taking the lead to Pierrot's relief. The road going into the graveyard turned from soft dirt into a trail of sharp gravel seemingly designed to make feet ache. Nemmy kept her balance perfectly as the Snailmobile hopped and jiggled, Pierrot close by the bumping thing, pretending to stabilize it but using it as something to lean on. Meanwhile, only Johne and Candice noticed something making the graveyard more terrifying than it already was.
Plastered across the graves were all of their names. Candice, Pierrot, Nemmy, Wuffy, and Whisper for Johne. They were repeated across the hordes of slabs in a discernible pattern. There were no birthdates on any of them, but simply a date of death which read: Today. Large claw marks lay across every one, sometimes just miniscule scratches, with other stones being cut into near nothingness. Johne's throat went dry, but knew it was best to not even mention it. For he was afraid. Afraid because he knew of the one creature who called him by that name.
"Help!" cried out an unknown voice.
Immediately all heads turned about in search of the source of the sound. After seeing nothing, they all remained still, waiting if it would call again. It did, and they found no trouble finding out where it was. The voice sounded from the house on the hill, its decrepit sagging walls with all their ugly detail in much clearer view.
"What do we do?" Pierrot asked with jittering teeth. "It sounded like an old woman."
"Sounded like," Johne said. "But we can't be sure."
"No, we can't," Candice responded, the voice calling out even louder. "But we can't be sure it isn't, can we?"
"We can't take any risks. It could be a trap for us."
"But can we really walk away?"
"We cannot!" Pierrot shouted, raising up his hand. "The great Pierrot is not afraid of anything—he will see what is wrong."
"He won't be seeing anything," Johne said, shaking his head. "You'll stay here and watch over everyone else, got it? I'm gonna go in there and check it out. If I'm not back in five minutes, then you can start to worry."
"I'm coming too," Candice said.
"You can come in five minutes. I'll be fine, I promise. Okay?"
"Five minutes only."
"Johne go creepy house," Nemmy said, holding Wuffy close.
"I would go too," Wuffy puffed. "But, you see, my arms are too tired from pushing the gates."
Johne shook his head while smiling, taking his first step off the road and into the grass, relieved when nothing reached out and pulled him down. He ran towards the house, but made sure not to let himself grow too near to any of the gravestones bearing his name. The old woman's voice cackled out into the air again, a sagging and bellowing voice that made one cringe from its tone. He could imagine the Scrangly Man inside doing such a voice. Waiting for him to run through the door so it could catch him. For an it was what it still was, and he could never see that monster as a person.
He leapt up onto the porch, the three steps leading up to it having collapsed in. He skipped across holes in the floorboards until he made it to a door hanging onto one hinge, already open a little bit. He took a deep breath, the old lady screaming as if her life was being torn from her body, as if she was being forced to suffer through the monstrous tortures of Hell.
Quietly he kept whispering to himself that it would be all right.
He stumbled into the house, nearly tripping on a piece of loose floorboard, coughing from the thick haze of dust fluttering about. The voice called out, and Johne could hear it wasn't too far away, about in the next room. He covered his arm over his face to breathe better, keeping up his quick pace while carefully avoiding tripping or falling into the floor.
Rushing into what appeared to be a kitchen, he stopped in his tracks when he saw an old lady reaching up for something.
She was a short and stout old lady, more wrinkles on her face than rings on an ancient redwood. On her head she wore an overly large and ornate hat decorated about with flowers and a large ribbon. A thinly knitted scarf of fading yellow lay wrapped about her neck, perfectly lined up in the front. Her dress and general air made her look like she belonged in the balcony seat of a sophisticated theatre with a pair of eyeglasses to help her aging vision see the opera.
"Oh, it's about time someone heard me," she said, waddling up to Johne. "Young man, could you do something for me?"
"Sure," he found himself answering, searching for what was wrong. "What is it?"
"I can't reach the sugar."
And she pointed up to a jar of sugar, sugar on a shelf about seven feet off the ground, much too high for her little body to reach.
"That's why you were yelling for help?"
"Yes. I needed help getting the sugar, so what other word am I going to use? And are you going to get it or not?"
"Of course I am." He walked over, stood on his tiptoes, and grabbed it off the shelf. "It just sounded like you were in danger or something."
"Thank you," she said, taking it from his hands, waddling over to a nearby table. "I was in danger...in danger of drinking a bitter cup of tea."
She unscrewed the lid, pouring all the sugar into a singular glass, then took a giant gulp of it without even stirring.
"I see. Well, if you need the sugar so much, why'd you put it in a place where you can't even reach it?"
"I didn't put it there," she huffed, slurping her tea.
"Then who did?"
"My daughter. The one every mother hopes would come and help her instead of some stranger who comes barging into your home."
"What is it, mother?" a voice came from behind Johne, quiet, sad, and drifting like a dying breeze. "I'm sorry I took so long, but I was upstairs feeding the squirrels in the attic." The girl's head slowly turned to him. "Who's he?"
"He's the one who actually came when I called. The one who actually got my sugar. Mr. Stranger, I'm saddened to say, this is my daughter, Paulina."
Johne turned around to see a girl staring at him. She had a pale face that held dark eyes with long shadowy lashes. On her face she wore a look most people have after they have finished crying, when they have no more tears left to give. Her raven hair was long, stretching out all around her like a sheltering veil. On top of her hair rested a hat, but unlike her mother's it was a small thing with a single flower planted in it. Her limbs were long and thin with the black stockings on her legs making them appear even thinner. Her poufy-shouldered dress, a high-neck thing that widened considerably at the waist down to the knees, suggested she could be one of the players in the very same opera her mother watched.
"Hello," she said, stepping quietly on high-heels which put her at a good level taller than Johne. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Paulina."
"So, Johne," the mother put in, gulping down the last of the tea. "What brings you round here?"
"Well, um..." He rubbed the back of his neck, looking between the two strange women. "I'm kinda on an adventure. Or something like that..."
"Ugh, not another one," the mother sighed. "What is it this time? You going out to save the world or something?"
"I don't know if it's the world that's threatened, but we're going to kill the Scrangly Man, a horrible creature."
"'We're'?" the old lady exasperated. "Let me guess, your whole band of mismatched peoples of every kind of description are waiting out there for you now? My, my, I don't know how many of them I've seen. They only get stranger and stranger over time."
"So what role do you play?" Paulina asked, folding her hands lightly together.
"Do be quiet, dear. He has no time to talk now, especially when it's from you with all your stupid questions. What role do you think he has? He's the one that came in here, didn't he? No wonder you're not married yet."
"I know," her daughter said, feet shuffling nervously. "So you're the hero?"
"Yeah," Johne said. "That's what I've been told."
"I've never met a hero before. I always just see them passing by."
"Johne!" Candice's voice called out, reaching all their ears. "Are you all right?!"
"I'm fine," he called back. "It'll be one minute, there's no need to come in."
"I'm always right," the old lady humphed, nodding to herself. "Best be on with you now if you're busy. Unless, of course, you wouldn't mind doing something else for me? It's quite simple."
"What is it?"
"Could you marry my daughter?"
"Mom," Paulina sighed, collapsing down into a chair. "You're not supposed to ask people that."
"I wouldn't have to if you would do it yourself. It's not every day handsome young men come passing by our house—it would be wise to see if any of them would be foolish enough to marry you."
"You can't get men to marry you if you aren't pretty...and you can't get them to marry you if they don't like you. That's how it goes."
"So, Johne, would you like my daughter as a wife? She's free for the taking and it'd finally get her to move out already."
"I'm sorry, but I can't marry anyone right now," he said, heart thumping, backing up a little. "I'm kind of busy."
"It'd take less than five minutes," the old woman huffed. "Don't be afraid to tell my daughter no, she doesn't mind anymore, everyone says it."
"It's true," she sighed more than said, leaning her head completely back in her chair. "Nobody will ever want someone like me."
"Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't think you're pretty, but I don't know you, and I...I kind of have other things right now."
"You already have a girlfriend, don't you? But...but do you really think I'm pretty?"
"Do you think anyone would ever marry me?"
"Yeah, but I don't think you'll find anyone by staying in this house." He peeked out the window, listening to the seconds tick by in his head. "I'm sorry, but I have to be going now. They're waiting for me."
"Bye," Paulina barely whispered, turning to the window, gazing upon the people outside.
"Wait, wait, wait," called out the old woman. "One last thing."
"Yeah?" And he pulled himself back into the room.
"Could you take my daughter with you? She does need some air, and it would be good for her to find a husband. Which she will find while out."
"He doesn't want me with him...he already has too many people. I'd just get in the way."
"You're free to come if you want," he said, finding a strange kind of beauty in her sadness. "Go on out and join in. You're not a problem at all."
He left the room without another word, Paulina blinking and wishing he had wanted to marry her. But none of the good ones ever did, none of the bad ones either, so she was waiting for anyone to say 'yes'. But if she had to, she'd settle even with a 'maybe'.
"You'd better go," the old woman said quite calmly, "or I'm going to remind you every day that you didn't."
The old woman shook her head as her daughter was gone from the room, a gust of trailing wind being left in her absence. Huffing, the old woman hobbled out of her seat, stepping up and over to the window, squinting at the bunch of them on the road. Pulling out her eyeglasses, she took a closer look, seeing Wuffy and Pierrot dancing in circles next to the Snailmobile. After that, she shut the glasses away, making a tsking noise and sighing.
"Stranger and stranger," she muttered.
"Hi guys," Johne said, breathing deeply and standing before the others. "To make it as simple as it can be, it was an old lady who needed some sugar and now her daughter's coming with us."
"Paulina, I assume?" Candice asked as the tall girl came shyly walking up.
"Oh," the other girl replied. "I didn't think the stones worked so quickly. Yes, I'm Paulina."
"What?" Johne let out, seeing a new name etched on the stones along with the others. "How'd they do that?"
"They've always done it," Paulina continued, taking a step back from all the eyes on her. "Whoever's in the graveyard they take the names of. You see, no one's ever been buried here, well, because no one's actually around here besides me and my mother. It started as one stone, then that one eventually spread out, I guess. They're quite harmless—they just want to have something to do."
"That says a lot," Pierrot said, scratching his head, Wuffy doing the same. "But at the same time doesn't explain anything."
"Yes..." Paulina put in, shuffling her feet. "So?" she continued, turning her attention to Candice. "Are you Johne's wife or girlfriend or something?"
"No, not that I'm aware of. Why do you ask?"
"I wanted to know if he couldn't marry me because he was already taken or not."
"Marry you? But you just met him."
"So? I'll marry anyone who's actually interested in me." Paulina straightened out her hat, taking another step back. "What's your name, by the way?"
"I'm Candice, the other man is Pierrot, the little girl is Nemmy, and the doll is Wuffy."
"Hi!" Wuffy called out, waving his little hand.
"Hi," responded Paulina, waving hers. "So, anyways, Candice, if you aren't Johne's girlfriend, does he have one?"
"No, I don't think so."
"And since he's not your boyfriend, do you have one?"
"Does everyone here not have anyone?"
"Not in the way you're talking about," Pierrot shrugged.
Paulina walked forward, first up to Johne, examining him head to toe. She then strolled over to Candice, smiling a little, then turned around. She looked down upon Pierrot, then up at Nemmy and Wuffy who both waved down to her. She let out a contented sort of sigh, walking back to near Johne.
"I don't mean to be...ah, I don't know, but...okay." Paulina rubbed her arm slowly, her head lowering down. "But would anyone here like to marry me? Just asking, you know, in case any of you do."
The girl's eyes wavered over the group, a strange sinking in Johne's heart as his mind silently pondered a sad question: How long had she been in that house? The one falling to pieces around her. Waiting for someone—anyone—to come by and ask for her specifically. To find her. He knew well the pain of longing and longing for something to happen and for it never to come. Like a letter in the mail, a letter of any kind, it could have been blank and he wouldn't have given a damn. It would have acknowledged she hadn't written him away from existence itself.
"I'm afraid I have no room in my life for a woman," Pierrot said overdramatically. "It is the sad fate of Pierrot, for Pierrot is married to his job, and his job is the happiest one in the world."
"I'm sorry too," Wuffy said. "You seem like a nice girl, nothing bad to be married to, but I don't think it'd work out between us, you see?"
"I see," Paulina agreed, nodding her head. "What about you two?"
"Us?" Candice said. "You want us to answer too?"
"I asked everybody, didn't I? I think I did. Maybe I forgot to." A light vanished from her, something changing about the air she held. "I'm stupid sometimes, I do that."
"You didn't forget, I just didn't think you meant us too."
"Because," Candice said, spreading her arms out wide, "we're too young to be getting married."
"Oh, oh, I'm sorry, but, you know, you look almost old enough?"
"Maybe you should ask again later when that almost is gone."
"I will," Paulina said, drifting back. "It's okay...I won't bother you guys anymore. I'll try to stay quiet and get out of your way. Go on, I'll be right behind you."
"Are you sure you don't want to come up here with us?" Johne asked, the distance between them and the girl growing. "It's not good to be alone."
"I'm fine, I'm used to it." Paulina held herself lightly, twisting her body slowly from left to right. "Are you going to move, or has this adventure already ended?"
"Let's go," he said, the others following his lead.
The Snailmobile rattled along, Johne continually glancing over his shoulder to see if the girl was still there. She was, but she seemed to shiver in the back and her face made him turn his head away when he saw it. It made him hurt inside to see its torn canvas of sorrow, the one splattered across with black splotches of emptiness and longing. Her eyes didn't move, didn't blink, as if she was already dead. A corpse walking along without control or purpose.
"What do you think?" Candice whispered.
"I don't know what I think about Paulina. I've just met her."
"I know, but do you think she could be a good love interest for you?"
"Love interest? I didn't think we were going for that on our adventure."
"In most stories I've read at least one character has a love interest. And as Paulina pointed out, none of us do."
"Yeah," Johne said slowly, staring towards the sky. "But I don't think I'm the kind of hero with a girlfriend."
"What about you? If she wanted to marry you, she could be your love interest."
"It would be a unique point. I've found many things are lacking when it comes to the different forms of love. More so, we could start a strange love triangle between the three of us. I've never read anything like that before."
"That's a little overboard, I think. No, this isn't a romantic adventure—we don't need that kind of drama."
"Then we'll let things go their course, and if anyone happens to fall in love, then that is that, we let them be in love."
"Let them be in love," he sighed, kicking the gravel beneath his feet, more and more inside understanding Paulina's feelings.
"Stop," Johne said, raising a hand up. "Wait here for a minute."
He turned around, starting to run back to where Paulina stood completely still at the gates leaving the graveyard. He stomped up to her, but she didn't look at him, sadly fixated upon the sky instead.
"Aren't you coming with us?" he asked quietly.
"Why should I come? What can I do? I can't do anything. So if I can't do anything, all I'll be is a problem."
"This is not about being able to do something or not. Do you think Nemmy or Wuffy could do very much?"
"No, but they're wanted. They have heroes. You're Candice's, I know, and Pierrot is theirs. You're all meant to be together...but I don't think I was meant to be with any of you."
"Don't talk like that. We want you around and nobody here disagrees. You're no problem at all."
"But I am. Don't lie to me because you pity me. I don't know why I even came this far. I shouldn't have gone away, shouldn't have left mother alone."
"Paulina," he said, taking her hand as she took her first step back. "You're coming with us—don't think I'm going to let you walk away."
"But I am going to walk away and nothing you can say will change that."
"Who said I was going to say anything?"
He wrapped his arms around her as if for a hug, then lifted her light frame off the ground, carrying her to his side like one would hold a ladder. Her hat slid off her head, she barely catching it as he continued to walk along with her in tow. Her weak hands made little force upon him as she drummed them up and down over him.
After finally making it back to the group, he laid her down on her feet again. She stumbled a bit, putting her hat quietly back on, gaze glued to the ground.
"Pierrot," he said. "Do you think that thing could support Paulina on it too?"
"Why, this could hold the weight of the world on it!" Pierrot exasperated, rubbing the side of the Snailmobile. "And of course the lady can ride on it. If you don't mind, Nemmy."
"No mind," Nemmy said. "Pretty lady come too."
"I can walk," Paulina said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I don't need to be up there."
"Yeah, but I don't want you to be behind us." Johne took her hand, helping her along to the Snailmobile. "I want you to be with us."
Paulina did not say a word as she climbed onto the Snailmobile and took her seat beside Nemmy. Nemmy offered a smile to her, Paulina mustering her own in response. Soon after, Pierrot pushed along the Snailmobile to get it moving again. And being there, the six weren't a crowd at all, no, the more of them there was the better it all became.
"You would have made a good love interest," Candice said, briefly putting a hand on Johne's shoulder.
"Only here," he let out, the wasps of memory stinging into him their poisons, reminding him he was the father of hatred and tears in so many hearts. "Only here."