XVI: Listen & Learn
Darker than black. An umbral abyss shrouded in spiraling fog. I’m scarcely even aware of my own consciousness, past the point of mere existence. The sounds which surround me are muted, and warped, as though somebody is playing them back at me in ultra-slow motion on an old tape recorder. I don’t know where they’re coming from, or when they started. Their presence seems at once to be both brand new, and something that has always been there, hidden just past the veil of reality – tucked safely away in a place that the world is more than happy to ignore.
They start off at a low drone – a buzzing which steadily fills my very limited cognitive capacities to the absolute brim. And then they begin to build.
The buzz becomes a cacophony.
The cacophony becomes a chaotic chorus.
The chorus crescendos into a symphony of maddening disarray, wildly cascading upon itself in waves of sheer and unbridled agony.
Or maybe it’s bliss.
Before I can make the distinction, the aural downpour careens to sudden halt. The world is silent. I am left with nothing but blackness to accompany me.
And then a singular voice fills the void.
“Hello, James,” it says. “I think that it might benefit us both greatly if we were to exchange a few words, before that particular option becomes an impossibility.”
The air around me instantly cools down to a harsh chill, which seems to slither into my pores. The voice is slick, and calculating. It feels empty, somehow – devoid of something inherently human. It’s as though nothingness itself has decided to masquerade as a human being, and done an exceptionally poor job of it.
I wait for the voice to continue speaking, but it doesn’t. It’s awaiting my reply. Upon realizing this, my own voice – which had been lost until this very moment – comes back to me all at once. It, like me, is uninterested in pulling its punches.
“Yeah?” I ask. “Who the hell are you, and why should I care?”
The old me would have taken the time to further assess the situation before acting out so defiantly. The new me is just about tired of dragged face-first through the paranormal grinder.
The void fills up with a series of slow, measured steps. Each one grows closer and closed, until I can hear them right in front of me. Still, I see nothing and nobody. It’s a long moment after the final step before the disembodied voice speaks up again.
“Perhaps you’ve heard of me,” the reply finally comes. I believe that the combatants on both sides of this supernatural fiasco have taken to referring to me as ‘Mr. G’. Although, I prefer my chosen name – Giggles. Your cousin used to call me Winslow, but that was really more of a slave name than anything else. Truth be told, if all things were equal, I’d like to go by the name which I had while I was alive. All things are not equal, though. I suppose that we can thank Shepherd for that.”
A pair of glowing, white eyes open up lazily in the darkness right in front of me. They cast a luminescent glow onto the face behind, bringing to light only the barest of the Boogeyman’s appearance. I can see the telltale markings on his dark skin, framed by shoulder-length dreadlocks. I can see his lips, drawn into an expressionless line. His obscured features seem eerily relaxed. He has the upper hand, and he can’t be bothered with thinking otherwise.
For a brief moment, this display gives me pause. Then, I remember that this must be a dream. If Shepherd is to be believed – which is a variable that I’ve got a lot riding on – then Mr. G can’t hurt me here. All that he can do is attempt to intimidate me. I won’t give him the pleasure.
“This is a far cry from the last time that you dragged me into your little nightmare world, isn’t it, ‘Giggles?’ I assume that that was you, right? It wasn’t just some kind of fever dream?”
The corner of Mr. G’s lips tilts into a pleased smirk.
“As sharp as ever, James. But I assure you, all that was just a show for the boys. You see, morale is very important when you happen to find yourself embroiled in the midst of a righteous insurrection. It can be the thing that makes, or breaks you.”
At this, I actually laugh out loud despite myself. After the past few days, I can’t help myself.
“That’s what you think you think that you are? That’s what you think that this hole shit show that you’ve brought down on the world is? You think that you’re righteous?”
“There’s no need for profanity James. I know that you are quite capable of getting your point across without it.”
I scoff at him.
“I’m curious, then. If not righteous, then what would you call our cause? How would you refer to it?”
“How about sick?” I offer up.
“And why is that?”
Mr. G nods at me, his chilly demeanor still unbroken. He waits for me to elaborate.
“You sick bastards are going around abducting kids who are barely old enough to vote, and using them as weapons to fight a war that they have nothing to do with.”
“Do you mean to say that Shepherd is not doing the exact same thing? Have you not been conscripted to his cause in much the same way as I intend to conscript Tyler to ours?”
“I was given a choice!” My anger begins to boil over, now.
“Were you?” He asks simply.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It isn’t a trick question, James. We don’t do that on this side. It all comes down to deductive reasoning, which I know that you happen to be very good at. Were you really given a choice, or simply given the illusion of one? Did you come to this decision all on your own, or did Shepherd goad it toward it by using your familial ties to make you feel as though you had no alternative?”
For a split second, I stop to consider this. Then, I remember who it is that I’m talking to. This is the twisted maniac who wants to kidnap my cousin.
“Nice try, but you’re going to need better bait than that if you want to trick me into taking it.”
“Stubborn and loyal. I had heard those things about you as well. Fine, then. If you want to make this about choice, then let’s look at it from a different angle, hm?”
“Yeah? What angle is that?”
“Were we given one?”
“What are you –?”
“Were we given a choice, James? Or did we die? Did we die and have everything that we ever were taken away from us, only to be told that we could either play by the rules given to us or quite literally go straight to hell?”
I think that I see a flicker of emotion flash across Mr. G’s face, but it’s gone as quickly as it arrived. Once again, he is cold and stoic.
“It’s not the same thing,” I say dumbly. I can’t think of any other response.
“You’re right,” he agrees. “You’re right, it isn’t the same. You see, we are honest about what we are, and about what we do. It is unsavory. It is irreputable. It is vile.”
He spits out the last word before continuing.
“Sometimes, when a conflagration had scorched the earth past the point of all other reasonable recourse, the last resort left available to you is to fight fire with fire.
“We are not proud, James. In fact, we are desperate. And desperation – like pride – can lead you down paths which you might otherwise have found to be unfathomable.”
The space goes silent again as we both chart our next move.
“Let’s pretend for a moment that I buy into your propaganda,” I say. My choice in diction leaves Mr. G utterly unmoved. “Even if what you’re saying is true, there’s always a better solution than becoming the devil who you claim to be fighting. You monsters don’t want freedom. You want power.”
Mr. G takes some time to ponder this.
“Yes, perhaps we do. Wouldn’t you, too, if you had had all of yours taken from you?”
“Would you just stop it, with the talking in circles?”
“Do you know where the name Shepherd comes from? Don’t worry – I’m not going to patronize you the way that Tanner does. I just want to put your critical thinking to the test for a moment.”
I hadn’t really thought about it before now.
“If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s probably because it’s his job to guide people to the afterlife.”
“Yes, that’s one take.”
“Yeah? What’s the other?”
“The other theory – the one passed down from Boogeyman to Boogeyman throughout the ages – is that the name came from a time when the world was still young. It wasn’t one that he took, but one which was thrust upon him by the people, back when the veil between life and death was still much thinner. He took it for his own, to lay claim to it. It was his attempt to cast aside the aspersions which ha led to it in the first place.
“In truth, people had taken to calling him that because they had figured out the truth; that truth being that the entity whom you now know as Shepherd looks down on the rest of us as nothing but sheep. To him, we are nothing but livestock, and barely more intelligent.
“You say that there are other ways – but those who came before us made every attempt. They tried every peaceable solution, and each time were struck down as nothing but children playing at concepts which would only ever be beyond them.
“Shepherd has no interest in hearing our pleas. He has no interest in acknowledging our collective voices. It has been more than a decade since this resistance was struck. Do you know how many attempts that he’s made since then to come to some sort of treaty – to negotiate a peaceful armistice? Not a single one.
“We are not bad people, James. If we were, we would have been dealt with immediately, instead of being subjected to this horrid test of his. We do not want violence. We do not want conflict. All that we want is change.
“The truth, though, is that Shepherd has no interest in changing the way that things are done – and we have no alternative but to do things in the way which are doing them. That is our only viable recourse.”
“Wow,” I breathe.
“Do you see, yet, the point that I am trying to make for you?”
“I see that you’ve definitely developed a strong taste for whatever punch they’re serving you guys over there.”
Mr. G’s irises cast downward.
“You aren’t our enemy, James. Things don’t have to be this way.”
“Are you still planning on taking Ty?
“I don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“Then yes you are, and yes they do.”
Mr. G unloads a heavy sigh. “Tonight, I came to you as an equal. The next time you see me, I will be your adversary.”
“Glad that we finally seem to be on the same page.”
“If only that were truly the case. Would you do me a favor, though?”
“Probably not, but you don’t seem like the type to shut up just because somebody asks nicely.”
“The narcotics in Tyler’s system make it difficult for me to contact him like this. It’s the Boogeymen’s code to give notice before we come for a vessel. Let him know that I’m coming, would you?”
Before I can give my reply, my eyes snap open, and I’m awake again.