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Ineffable

Ineffable

By

C.SeanMcGee

 

Ineffable

Copyright© C. Sean McGee

CSM Publishing

Published at Shakespir

Araraquara, São Paulo, Brazil 2015

First Edition

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, scanning or digital information storage and retrieval without permission from the author.

 

Interior layout: C. Sean McGee

Author Foto: Carla Raiter

Copy Editor: Anna Vanti

 

Cover Artwork:

“le fête”

by Mario Duplantier

www.marioduplantier.com

 

“The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings” from the SAGE Social Science Colllections – All Rights Reserved.

 

Support independent art before it cuts its own ear off.

I

Missing were the clashing symbols, pounding drums and exalting horns that might have marked their entrance. Missing too were the choirs of chanting and jubilant cheering that might have lit their path. In fact, for all the pomp and ceremony that one would expect from such a thing, it was actually quite a dull affair, and rather tiresome to watch.

There was very little sound, except of course for the crunching of dried leaves beneath the wheels of heavy, creaking carriages. That and the clapping of splintering rocks and gravel, trodden upon by worn hooves and exhausted, shaking legs as the procession slowly made its way along the dusty path under a cold, starless sky.

Though it was the dead of night, still, there were scores of people lined up along the winding road, watching the troupe as they shuffled along like the recently condemned (or soon to be departed); with not nearly as much colour and spirit in their eyes as they wore upon their polka dotted pants, in ribbons that tied around their bright puffy shirts, and upon their decorated faces, of which cracked and peeled with paint that was as dry and recessive as the stony path on which they travelled.

At the head of the procession, a tiny tattooed man with biceps as big as boulders and a mean glare that overshadowed his dwarfish stature, held the reigns of a dozen horses with one hand, and with the other, he waved regally to the scores of people who pushed and prodded one another, vying for best vantage point – wriggling like worms into a knotted tangle of excitement and appetent curiosity.

Sitting on the first of the dozen horses was Gaia, a beautiful woman with a thorny vine tattooed on one side of her face, which ran down her neck and vanished between her ample bosom. She had sharp, curling fingernails which looked like darkly coloured talons and hair – as black as the night – that trailed nearly as long as the procession itself, running like an unwoven veil, down the length of her back and over her horse’s croup, almost courting with the rocks and dusted earth below. She wore a long, pleated, black skirt that partly covered her sandaled feet, showing only the stars and comets that were painted on the tips of her toes. And upon the left arm of her white lace blouse, unlike the others in her procession, she wore a single black ribbon.

Behind her, and only just, rode a brutish and unshapely man with flamboyant attire. He wore a purple suit that was studded with diamonds and pearls, and from the sleeves of his arms ran a glittering display of brightly coloured tassels. He sat high on his steed and carried in his left hand, a long cane with a golden ferrule, a crystal handle, and a silver tip. And on his head, he wore a purple top hat which upon it, a small monkey sat, comfortably curled and sleeping as it rocked back and forth by the gentle sway of the whiskered man on the second most elegant horse.

And behind him, on the other ten steeds, rode his whores.

There might have been fifty carriages in all. Some of them were quaint and colourful and others, grand and bulking – oddly shaped and coloured, like great mechanical Frankensteins. And those that marched alongside did so on spent and uneven footing; their toes poking through the ends of their shoes with their leathered soles, as thin as the creamy skin of freshly boiled milk.

There were all sorts of strangers of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colour, and from all corners of the globe and the galaxy it would seem. It was as if this procession were a slowly moving stream that had passed along the sidewalks and through the gutters of communities, taking with it, the waste and unwanted that had been discarded, or merely didn’t fit with the good and the common.

By the side of the road, a young boy nervously trampled a mound of weeds and grey flowers, holding his father’s hand in a loose grip while allowing the weight of his curiosity to lean him towards slipping free. As he moved to dart away from his father’s side to where all of the others were gathering, his wrist caught on something strained and concerning, and the boy turned, unable to alight from his own muddy footprints.

“No,” said the boy’s father. “We don’t know their intentions.”

“Who are they?” asked The Young Boy, craning like a starving petal towards the light of his father’s sure stare.

“I’m not sure.”

“Why are they here?”

“It’s still too soon for us to know.”

“But when will we know?”

“Only long after they have gone, when we can see what they have taken from us. Only then will we know what they wanted all along.”

“They look so different, so….”

“Strange,” said the boy’s father coldly.

“Yes, but in a good way.”

“There is no good way to strangeness.”

“Do you think they can help us?”

“I very much doubt it.”

“There’s so many,” said the boy, losing his focus on the long line of trampling feet.

He stared with such absent regard for the outlines that separated each stranger so that they looked like one colourful collage – inseparable from one another, and from the plumes of hot air expelled by their wheezing breaths. They were, like paint poured into a stream, inseparable from the air itself.

“We’re going,” said the boy’s father, pulling on the neck of his son’s shirt.

“Just a little longer father, please?” said the boy, squirming away from his father’s clasp.

“I told you” replied the boy’s father, kneeling down to look his son in the eyes, and squeezing his arm with the bruising intent of a spurned headmaster, or an ireful criminal. “Home is where we live, and outside is where…”

“The rest come to die, I know, I know, but, maybe it’s not as bad as….”

“Son,” said the father, his eyes like scalpels, cutting through the boy’s reason.

“But there’s so many father. Maybe there’s…”

The procession continued along the dusted, cobblestone path, seemingly in the direction of town. And those who gathered under the starless night had panic in their eyes as they turned their stares towards the unlocked doors of their homes and their theatres, wanting but unable to, shoo away the wolves that crept about in the darkness before them.

“What say here Master?” shouted The Tiny Tattooed Man, pointing to a break in the brush and scrub where the leaves and grass folded into a flat, even bedding. “Or up ahead, by that sickly old tree.”

The Ringmaster looked in the direction of where The Tiny Tattooed Man’s small stubby fingers were pointing, nodding once to show his approval, and waking the little monkey from its comfortable sleep.

“Halt!” shouted The Ringmaster, digging the sharp, ivory spikes of his knee high boots into his steed’s flank. Behind him, his ten whores all stopped at once and upon them fell looks of lust and envy from the many scores of men and women who gathered about the knee-high grass in their droves, having been lured from the safety and comfort of their warm beds to witness this spectacle.

“Halt,” shouted The Tiny Tattooed Man, his voice carrying like a foul odour through the stillness of the night where, on a dusted cobblestone path, and pressed between two lines of fretted and dubious expressions, a starved and exhausted procession heaved and pulled on the ends of manila ropes which hauled enormous carriages that rocked back and forth, as if whatever nefarious magic or beastly horror were caged within, were set on making its escape.

“Halt!” shouted The Tattooed Man again.

And this time, the creaking of worn and splintered wood, and the shuffling and crumbling of dust and rock beneath leathered soles came to an absolute stop.

The ropes fell to the floor, breaking the tired and awkward silence and sending a mound of dust into the air, making the townsfolk all cower; covering their eyes and mouths, to shield themselves from the choking sand and rock.

And when the dust settled, The Ringmaster spoke.

“Good evening,” he said, lifting his top hat as he bowed; ever so slightly. “My family and I, we have travelled a great many plain and our feet, they have suffered from great marks and pains, as heavy as the hunger in our bellies.”

As he spoke, The Ringmaster worked his crowd, his congealing stare paying delicate address to the entire townsfolk, who now, in contrast to these devilish rogues, appeared without any colour whatsoever.

Their faces bore the same greyish tinge as their clothes and shoes as if the pleats in their trousers, shoelaces, and skin had been shaded with the same blunting pencil. And their town, not far off in the distance, looked as if it had been painted with a handful of crumbling charcoal; and it was badly drawn too. The roofs of the houses had no defined edges, appearing to smudge into what looked like lamp posts or delivery vans; and the streets were uneven as if they had been scaled by the hand of a child.

This did not disturb The Ringmaster.

“We wish only to rest for some time, time enough for our spirits to catch up with our bodies. And in time enough, we shall be gone. And we do not ask for anything of which you are unwilling to give, for all that what we ask is what you already pay into our hands – your avid attention.”

The townsfolk’s expressions were illegible, but this didn’t falter The Ringmaster, he had been whipped by far more apathetic audiences in the past. In fact, he thrived on their disconnection.

“We have come a long way,” he said, “from the farthest ends of the Earth, and on our travels, we have seen many great and superfluous things – things that you would never believe to be true.”

Still, there was little wonder in their eyes as if they knew what was coming next.

“Magic,” shouted The Ringmaster, throwing off his purple coat, fanning a set of flush cards in one hand whilst grooming his long triangular goatee to a curling point with his other.

But nothing still. The people didn’t react, not how he thought they would.

The Ringmaster clicked his fingers twice, calling for his cane. One of his whores dismounted her horse, kindly brushing its mane and kissing the side of its face before whispering, “I love you. Please wait for me while I am gone.”

Though she would only travel a foot or two, it felt like an eternity.

She was the most extravagant of all the whores; poised with elegance and beauty. Her name was Delilah and she was The Ringmaster’s favourite, his number one. She wore a long black silk skirt that was decorated with large blue jewels, shaped like all seeing eyes between the outstretching rays of golden sun drenched petals. Her feet were nary visible underneath, with barely an atom dividing the pleated hem from the beige gravel below. With her skirt, she wore an indigo velvet corset, decorated with twenty golden buttons that barely contained her enormous bosom and two silver flower-shaped mirrors that bloomed from both sides of her folded collar.

She was the most insatiable of all his whores and her beard was the fullest and most well-groomed. Delilah gave the cane to her master and stood by his side, eyeing the men in the crowd with a lustful veneer, running her long, slender fingers through her thick bushy beard, and threatening to lift her silk skirt with her other hand to expose her bare naked toes.

“Excuse me.”

A young woman stepped forwards, holding a sleeping child in her arms, draped in a dirty rag. “Have you come across a doctor in your travels?” she asked. “Or have you one in your troupe?”

She was as grey and lifeless as the rest, but unlike the others, who looked foreign and unaffected by The Ringmasters corralling, she had something different about her; a slight twitching of a nerve on her face, and a light, yet barely noticeable tremor in her bottom lip – hope.

“We have brought you something better,” said The Ringmaster.

“What is it?” asked the young woman, now rocking her child gently.

“We have brought you The Sun of God,” said The Ringmaster, half expecting applause.

“What is that?” she asked confused, thinking of it as some Asian delight. “Is it a spice or some kind of fashion?”

“Why, The Sun of God is your saviour, my dear” exclaimed The Ringmaster, his face up to the heavens and his arms shaped like a V.

“A saviour of whom?” she asked.

“You, of course, and of your child. And of all your children” he shouted, exultantly.

“Save us from what?”

“From yourselves.”

The young woman looked down at her sleeping child and then to her townsfolk who crept closer towards the warmth and shield of her valour, now as fixed as she was, on the brutish and unshapely looking man in flamboyant attire.

“What have I done or am yet to do,” she asked, “which curses myself?”

“You have killed God’s only son,” said The Ringmaster, lowering his head in a respectful grievance.

The monkey too lowered his head; as did the entire procession, making strange markings over their chests before lifting their heads once more.

“I cannot speak for the whole town,” said the young woman, “but I can tell you that neither I nor my sick child, have laid as much as a hair on another living being; be it person or animal. There is a great deal of death in this town, more than any town should bear, but if it’s a killer that you are looking for, if this is what has brought you to our town, then I can tell right now, you will not find them here.”

“We wish only to rest our legs under the shade of this sickly tree. And maybe, if you do not mind, we could arrange our tents and, until our breaths have caught up, we could obligingly perform for your people; in doing what we do, our purpose and our promise.”

“This Sun of God,” said the young woman, “can he heal the sick? Does he bargain with death?”

“He does,” said The Ringmaster smiling, pulling his whiskers to a curling point.

“Where is he now? Can we see him?”

“He is all around you. He is everywhere, and he is anywhere too.”

“But can we see him? My son, he is sick. He is dying. He needs a doctor, but if this God can save him as you say, then please, you have to let him see my boy.”

The young woman stepped out of the weeds and onto the cobblestone path. Standing just an inch from The Ringmaster, and beneath his venerable glare, she lifted the towel from her sleeping child’s face.

“My dear God,” said The Ringmaster, covering his mouth and swallowing a lump of bile. “Put it back,” he said, fanning his hands. “Good lord, put the towel back. What in tarnation?”

“Please sir, my child needs medicine.”

“Madame,” said The Ringmaster, covering his mouth and composing himself. “Your child has long deceased. It needs not medicine, for medicine is only for the sick and dying. Your child, it would appear, is in need of a proper burial, and soon too, by the state of this decomposition.”

“But he is not dead. He still clings to life. It is the illness he bears that makes him look and act as if he were dead.”

“His illness my poor lady, is death. What a man or a boy looks or acts like, he most certainly is.”

Delilah peered under the towel and beneath the cover of her beard, she scowled.

“What is wrong with their faces?” she asked, her nervous fingers pressed into the shoulder of her master, causing excite to stir at his loins.

The Ringmaster stared at the young woman, at her black and white complexion. He laid his eyes upon the soiled rag that bore the outline of a young child who had a face that only maggots and worms could admire, and he sighed heavily. He dared not peer again. Instead, he looked out through the crowd and drew his attention to the grey stillness that spilled from their eyes like blotches of ink on a poorly written note, watching in strange allure as an old man rubbed at his buggering left eye, only to draw a thick black smudge across one side of his face where his nose and mouth had been.

“We shouldn’t have stopped here,” said Delilah, whispering into her master’s ear. “Maybe we should continue; find another town.”

The Ringmaster stared at the town before them, and then behind him, at the long procession that trailed over two horizons. He studied their weary faces and though he knew they could march for a thousand more days, it was he himself who needed the rest. But it wasn’t his decision alone. He turned to face Gaia who sat undisturbed on her steed.

“What say?” his eyes said to hers.

Gaia looked long into the town, into the grey cavernous streets, and then leaned to her steed and whispered in its ear, gently caressing its mane. Her horse turned and walked towards the sickly tree.

“If you will have us,” said The Ringmaster to the townsfolk, “we would love to stay for a while. And if you would be so kind” he said, loud and confident, “as to let us cure your town of this ungodly illness. It is my word. And it shall be done” he shouted, hammering the silver tip of his cane into the ground causing a splinter in the earth and a tremor into the hearts of his procession, for they were old hands at the sight of his marvel.

As he turned to join Gaia beneath the sickly, old tree, Delilah reached for his hand, pulling herself closer so as to press her bearded lips against his thick bulbous neck. “Take the mother and her dead child to my quarters, once they have been arranged. Feed her. Give her some alcohol. Loosen her spirit” he said, turning from his favourite whore.

Delilah’s hand dropped like a wilted leaf. Though she wanted to scream and to curse vile obscenity, she composed herself, running her long, slender fingers over the soft, round mound of her beard, settling her nerves and vengeful appetite. And as The Ringmaster sat high on his steed, readied to speak, she took The Grieving Mother in her delicate embrace.

“Your attention,” he said.

There was a great kerfuffle as an order of shushing worked its way along the procession, sounding like the rustling of a hundred thousand trees.

“Quiet,” shouted The Tiny Tattooed Man.

The rustling continued.

“I said shut up, or I’ll punch you,” he shouted.

And the rustling ceased.

The Tiny Tattooed Man looked to his master and nodded.

“Tonight,” said The Ringmaster triumphant, pausing so that his echo travelled to the very last coloured member of his troupe. “Tonight we celebrate,” he said, “for there shall be a funeral.”

II

On the absolute edge of town, where one arm of a forking road trailed off into dense scrub, disappearing beneath the tangle of stabbing twigs and stinging petals, there stood what might have once been a magnificent Sycamore tree – a place maybe, where children would have met, and gleefully conspired against their mothers and fathers, or where lovers, as wards of its shade, might have imagined themselves with the courage to finally escape their persecution and disappear over the ridge together, behind the setting sun.

This tree might have told a thousand tales and been inscribed with the besotted initials of a thousand lovers, only to wet its thirsted roots on the salted tears of a thousand broken hearts. It might have heard a thousand promises to never again speak of a thousand secrets, and over a thousand years, it might have heard them spoken, a thousand-fold more. It might have lived for ten thousand years and were it on the absolute edge of any other town, it might even live for ten thousand more. But here, a thousand miles from anywhere at all, this once incredible Sycamore tree was a curser for a town with no name and no place on any map, a town besieged by a ravenous plague of death and atrophy.

“Don’t crowd me,” said The Ringmaster, buggered by the circle of bearded whores closing in around him, and by a chorus of pestering from a three-legged midget and The Octopus Brothers – four men conjoined at the elbows and buttocks. Each cursed with and against one another with such violent threat, as they sought to pitch in a desperate bid, for the opening and closing acts.

Beneath the sickly old tree, on the absolute edge of town, The Ringmaster sat in his favourite chair, sipping whiskey from a straw while his greasy tufts of balding hair were carefully combed and braided, and his fingernails painted, the same tone of green as his alligator skin boots.

“If you’ll just give me two minutes,” said The Three Legged Midget, “and if you don’t think it’s the greatest act you’ve ever seen…” he said pausing, putting his two hands into a deafened apology or defence.

“Tomorrow,” said The Ringmaster. “I’m tired, it’s late, my feet hurt and my head feels like an old tea bag. We’re going with the show as we have practised, as it should be; at least for the first couple of performances. Let’s, you know…” he said, gyring his index finger in quick circles, as if he were dialling an imaginary phone, “let’s roll out any creases in the show before we start making any changes. We’ve been on the road for a great time. What’s say we get grounded first and find our feet? But I like your initiative. I like you get up and go. Now,” he said angrily, “get up and go.”

“My new act, Master, it’s the most magnificent yet. It involves elastic, fire, a hammer, and tapeworms. It could easily open the evening. I know… If you could just spare me two minutes I could…”

“Eeeeitttt,” said The Ringmaster, showing the back of his hand.

“But, Master, It has sparks and fire. It has show. It has pizazz.”

“Tomorrow.”

“But, Master…”

“Get outta here,” shouted Rex, the towering giant, with coiled arms as long as an infant’s middle finger, and twisted skeletal hands, like a heron’s broken feet. He laid a firm boot into the backside of The Three Legged Midget, sending him cannonballing down the slight hill towards where the carriages stood, waiting to be unwrapped and unloaded.

“Master,” said Rex, pausing to lower his stare, admiring The Ringmaster’s painted nails and his thick bulbous knuckles, that on a whim could shatter a man’s jaw, or crack, even the most stubborn nut.

“It’s rude to pry,” said The Ringmaster, though he made no attempt to cover his painted fingers as a virgin might, her provocative knees.

Rex turned red and his little hands shook like jelly.

“Master,” he said, “all the preparations have been made.”

“I have an itch,” said The Ringmaster, “in my middle back.”

Rex balanced himself steadily on his left foot. He wasn’t a small man, he was a giant, so a task of this nature was no easy feat, but he was an old hand in the circus and capable of more than his size and strength would let on. As he stood like some gargantuan, muscled crane, he unslipped his right foot from its leather sole and raised it slowly, until his big toe was eyeing where he believed his master’s itch might be.

“We have a problem on the stage, Master, a problem with the luminescence,” said Rex, scratching deep into his master’s back.

“What’s wrong with the Light?”

“There is none,” he said.

“That is a problem,” said The Ringmaster.

“It’s the pedal generator, Master. It seems a very important part of it might have been left behind in the last camp.”

“And what might that be?”

“The peddle,” said Rex, wobbling his useless limbs against one another.

“Well then, just fashion something together,” said The Ringmaster, strangely understanding. “It needn’t be intricate, just enough so that I dazzle. Surely there is something that you can set on fire.”

“Yes, Master,” said Rex, hunching uncomfortably under the sprawl of leafless overhang from the sickly, old tree. “The lady, master, she refuses to drink or to lessen the grip on the cadaver. I said ‘please’. She said ‘no’. I didn’t quite know then what else to do after that. I asked her, I said, ‘Are you sure?’ and she said that she was, and I was left with the thought that maybe she was right, in not letting go that is.”

“Is Delilah still with her?”

“She is, Master.”

“And how does she seem?”

“Difficult. She might not be so easy to tame this time.”

“All women can be tamed. You just need to feed them what hungers them the most?” said The Ringmaster smugly, twisting the ends of his moustache into a curling and sharpened point.

“What is that, Master? Rubies? Roses? Garter belts?”

“Validation, my gigantic friend. It is what we all crave, every man, woman and child, both grotesquely normal and wonderfully deformed; validation. There are only two types of people, and only two reasons why anyone does anything – either to show their father that they did it or to prove to their father that they didn’t need him; that they could do it by themselves. But both require his avid attention, ” he said, tucking firmly on the ends of his purple coat tails, shaking off the thin coat of dust that had settled on his lapels from the kicking of horses hooves.

By now, the camp had been well and truly set. What had, only hours before, been an enormous vacuous square, cut out of endless sprawl of brush and tangling weeds, was now a busied and colourful populous, with hundreds of tents being erected by just as many calloused hands. People of all sizes and colours, of all shapes and added appendages, danced and sang joyfully as they pounded thick metal spikes into the red dirt, with the sound of their hammers crashing onto bulbous iron heads, driving the rhythm of their boisterous chorus.

The heaviest carriages stood on the edges of the thick scrub, making an impenetrable wall around the encampment. Nothing could get in and nothing could get out. Inside that wall, were the barred cages of elephants and alligators, black bears, and wild; followed by row after row of hammocks and tents. The spaces between them were lit with small fires that were dug into the earth and surrounded by a circle of stones. They did little to address the darkness but were snug against the night’s bitter cold.

By the edge of the road, and guarded by machete-wielding madmen, there stood an enormous tent that was as tall as a wondrous gorge. And at the entrance to the tent, there hanged a man with no arms and legs, swinging back and forth on a rope that was tied around his waist. His eyes moved contrary to the swing of his body, and his inertia never slowed.

Standing at the centre of their camp was the gaunt and sickly, Sycamore tree, with its crooked limbs, twisting and forking like an old man’s spine, looking like a deathly villain as it hunched and lurched over The Ringmaster and his troupe which gathered below. Seated by its cancerous looking roots was Gaia, shuffling a host of coloured and devilish cards, as the thorny vine, which was tattooed from her one side of her face, down along her neck and into her bosom, moved like a slithering snake across her body, disappearing beneath her shoal as she read aloud – a tale of astral intrigue that spelled from the cards laid out neatly before her.

“What do the stars say?” asked The Ringmaster, now looking proudly at his camp. “Is this what we were looking for?”

“They speak only of death,” said Gaia. “Is it what you had wished to hear?”

“You tell me,” he said.

“The universe she tells me, we are at the place where only dead things grow.”

The Ringmaster smiled. “Then we have arrived,” he said, stepping up onto a small platform and readying himself to address the merriment of colour and choir of his people, with one hand reached around what looked like a crystal femur and the other, pressed neatly between the second and third buttons on his purple jacket, so that anything he should say, would be an oath sworn upon his own heart.

“Wonderful work, my darlings and fabulous freaks,” he said. “You never cease to inspire and to whet my passion. You are all my children, my family, and my heart. And I love each and every one of you. Now,” he said pausing to twist and curl his whiskers, “I know we have come a long way; a great many mile. So far indeed, that for most of us, the only sight we can remember is the back of our brother’s and sister’s feet. And some of you may ask,” he said. “Where in the name of God are we? What is this town? Why does it not appear on any map? And why have we stopped here?”

He let the drama of his questions settle like dust on their thoughts.

“Let us not forget the meaning of life,” he shouted, thrusting his cane into the dirt and puffing his chest in pompous flare.

“To serve,” roared the crowd before him.

“To be purposeful…” shouted one-half of the people.

“Is to define one’s purpose,” shouted the other.

“We have been walking for so very long,” said The Ringmaster, removing his hat and lowering his head to his feet in solemn salute. “And we have lost some dear friends along the way.”

The troupe all lowered their heads, etching out symbols across their hearts.

“But I promised you salvation. I promised you a holy plain. And I said these things,” he shouted, his voice carrying over the troupe, and into the prickly ears of the people lined up along the road watching in a leering address. “Not to fool you,” he continued. “I said these things because I believed them to be true. I said them because I believe it is our purpose to bring the Message of Light throughout the lands. It is our purpose to be the bearers of salvation. And though it is my voice that carries the Light, remember my children, you are my many hands. And without you, I could carry this Light no further than my own echo. We are Light,” shouted The Ringmaster.

“And as such we are one,” shouted the troupe in joyous celebration.

“I promised you salvation, a long time ago. I promised you we would reach the greatest heights, that we would scale the largest mountains, and that we would find sanctity. I promised you prosperity. I promised you hope. I promised you all the wealth that you could fathom. I promised you a stage. I promised you applause. And I can tell you now, as I stand here, under the sprawl of this sickly tree, all that I can see is salvation. You, my children, are the givers of salvation. You shall not have, for it is only now that I can see that in fact, you are. Salvation is not yours. You are salvation, each and every one of you. You are golden. You are Light.”

“And as such, we are one” shouted the troupe again in joyous prosper.

“And this,” he shouted, twirling like a top heavy ballerina, with his left hand held against his left breast, and his right, extending the crystal handle of his cane as far as his reach would allow. “This will be…Our grandest and final act,” he said, his pirouette finally coming to a stop with his cane pointing towards the greyish looking town not far from their encampment.

“Sir,” said The Tiny Tattooed Man, pulling on The Ringmaster’s coat tails. “Master, sir,” he said.

“All accounted for?” asked The Ringmaster.

“All except for the girl,” replied The Tiny Tattooed Man.

“Always a problem, always the girl,” said The Ringmaster, surly.

“You want me to punch someone?” asked The Tiny Tattooed Man.

“What?”

“Or…if there’s anything else I…”

“No. What the hell is wrong with you? Rex!”

The giant scurried to his master as quick as he could.

“Yes Master,” said the giant, with the merry of an unattended puppy.

“Put one of the hounds on the girl’s scent.”

“Would it be best to send someone to scout for her master? We could send someone on horse. It would no doubt be more expeditious. I’m sure she couldn’t be too far behind, but even still, we passed many an unsavoury sight that as you know, would do no good for a small girl to be seeing.”

“Send a dog.”

“Yes, Master,” said Rex, turning away quickly before his master’s kicking heel did just that for him.

The Ringmaster sighed heavy. He dusted his coat with the back of his hand until a cloud of dry rain, drizzled from beneath his heavy glare. “Tomorrow,” he said with a pause, looking noble once more with his left hand neatly tucked between the second and third buttons of his coat. “Tomorrow, we shall perform for the first time. We shall bring salvation to these poor disparaged people. We shall bring warmth to their blood, colour to their skin, and Light to their souls. We shall save each and every one them; the living and the dead. Tomorrow. But tonight,” he said, unscrewing the small cap from a bottle of distilled poison. “Tonight we drink and we dance; we fight and we make love. Tonight we bury a dead child. We save its grey soul. We colour it with Light. Tonight there shall be a funeral, my children, and we shall celebrate, for a life has been lived, a story has been told. And isn’t that what life is about? Isn’t that what makes death such a grand affair? Tonight my delightful freaks,” he shouted. “Tonight we live.”

As The Ringmaster spoke, beside him, Gaia sat cross-legged by the trunk of the tree, and with what she had carved out of a clump of its root; she wound together in tiny tight braids, what looked like a small arborous bullet.

Stepping down from his podium, The Ringmaster left his troupe to begin their celebrations. The stage was still being prepared with mechanics and physics minded men and women, piecing together a strange contraption that was wired to large bulbs that dangled from the stage, and to one large lens that was secured to the top of one of the carriages.

On the stage, many light hands pushed around many heavy objects, setting up tables and altars and incredible looking backdrops, all adorned with hundreds of coloured sigils. The Ringmaster walked proudly through his camp, towards his carriage with his little monkey running behind him, eyeing the comfortable dent and curve of his purple top hat.

“Allow me to formally introduce myself,” he said, entering the carriage.

The young woman sat on the edge of his bed, her decaying child still wrapped in blankets and held tightly in her arms. Sitting at the table, Delilah sat with a glass of whiskey in her hands, contemplating squashing a bug that had become caught in the wet ring beneath her glass. She looked at The Ringmaster with a contemptuous glare.

“Delilah,” said The Ringmaster, kneeling before her and gently running his hand along the trim of her wonderfully manicured beard. “Would you give us a mere minute alone?”

“Alone? Why do you need to be alone with her?”

“My dear Delilah. Of all the whores that exist in this world, you know you are the only one that I love. You are my number one. You know it didn’t mean anything. I didn’t feel anything. You should know that. You are the only one. You are the only whore that matters. You know that, don’t you?”

She did, but that didn’t mean it was of no comfort hearing it.

“Now leave us alone,” he said. “Just a mere minute.”

Delilah looked at the young woman in disgust.

“If there is anything at all that I can do, rest assured, I will stop at nothing to do it,” she said, standing staunchly in front of the young woman whose constant tears made it difficult to see the stern and obliging counsel she was receiving. “You’re plain,” she said, before storming out of the carriage.

“Delilah,” shouted The Ringmaster, his disheartened plea carrying with her out of the door. “My apologies, my lady. We are an impassioned people, and Delilah…” he said before pausing to kneel down before her. “As you have noticed, she is very fond of her place in my troupe. And I do apologize if she or any of my family has caused you any fright or offence. We wish not to disturb you or your townsfolk.”

Outside, shadowed about the flicker of gas lamps and crackling fires, scores of hands pulled on the ends of ropes, raising banners, flags and all sorts of balancing contraptions. They built platforms and stages and even a giant alter, made entirely of granite and gold. And all the while, they cheered, cursed and hurled insults and orders as they sang songs about Light and salvation.

And barely an inch from their heaving and hoeing, a young boy, having just escaped the tyranny of his father’s protection, wandered through the encampment alone.

The Young Boy had never seen colour before, not such as that which was painted on the clothes of the troupe in circular and swirling patterns, and even on the faces of many who looked more like grinning moons than they did actual people. He looked at his own hands, holding them out as if he were begging for spare change. They were the same shade of grey as everything else in his town – as the people and their clothes, as their houses and cars, as their scrapbooks and televisions, and as their lipsticks, lamp posts and even Light itself.

He then put his hands in his pockets, real casual like, and stepped out from behind the wheel where he had been spying. He stood there for a moment, expecting as usual, to be swept up by his father, or shooed away by his neighbours, teachers or garbage men, thinking of him as sick like all the rest.

He expected to be kicked or prodded – to be knocked about and bumped along. He expected to be found out and discovered – to be cursed about and then shouted and pointed at. He expected to be told to ‘go home’ and to be kicked in his rump and then told to ‘bugger off’ like some scabbed and starving dog.

He half expected flags to be raised and alarms to be sounded – for weapons to be drawn and examples to be made of him. He expected everything that his father had said would happen if he ever wandered off.

The Young Boy took his hands out of his pockets and he looked around, this time without mistrust or conspiracy. He watched in silent awe as the many scores of people in coloured pants and painted faces, all went about their work and their obligation, stopping momentarily to address, validate, kiss, embrace, or to just congratulate, praise, and celebrate the efforts of another. They touched, not how most grown-ups did, out of a moment of passion or a lifetime of jealous possession; they did so in the same nonchalant manner as the sun did, upon everything that it shone.

Feeling less like an ant at a picnic, the boy lessened his tense grip of himself and wandered freely through the encampment. He divorced himself from his expectations; from what his father had told him since he was a boy, of what would happen should ever he leave his sight and sure hands. And free from what he thought might happen; he was amazed by what did.

There were surprises around every corner. There were animals that he had never seen before, behind bars that he hoped none of them could bite their way through. There were people of all sizes; men and women as big as skyscrapers whose pointed ankles were as tall as he.

And there were men and women too who looked old and wise in the lines drawn over the faces, in the cracks of their mouths and in the length of their teeth, but who were no taller than an infant that was struggling to take its first steps, and no more arted in walking.

There were people that were so large and round that they had to scuttle about like crabs so they didn’t get stuck between two sides of things. And there were people that were so thin and gangly that they would be invisible to the average eye, should they not be walking in clusters of four or five at a time.

The Young Boy didn’t creep about, he walked. He walked with his arms swinging back and forth as if he were marching on patrol. And everywhere he went, he saw strange looking people with the strangest deformities, and all of them smiling and stopping what they were doing every minute or so, to hug and to laud one another.

Had he been drawn without a mouth, it would still be impossible to wipe the smile off his face. Ear to ear, his grin rose with his eyes like two great cinder blocks; beaming as best they could from behind the dull grey that shaded his face, his body and the clothes that he wore.

He wanted to look under, behind and inside everything. He wanted to open every door, climb inside every window and peer inside a dresser drawer. And so he went, carriage by carriage and tent by tent, lifting flaps, opening doors and stretching on his tippy toes to peer inside half-closed windows.

The first tent he came across, he peered inside and he saw a woman with four legs and with half of a head that grew out of her side, sitting on the edge of a bed, whilst a man with crablike hands, painted her twenty-two toes with a thin brush that he clenched between a groove that had been worn into his toothless gums.

“As beautiful as they are,” she said, “and as much as I adore the spectacle….”

She sighed.

“Go on,” said the man, now holding his thin brush in his crustacean hands. “Please, don’t leave me in suspense. If it’s my work, if it’s the colour…if it’s me,” he said, turning away in shame.

“It’s not you, my dear. Your art and your colour are marvellous. It’s just…” she said, pausing again, this time turning her bland and blemished fingernails towards the man. “I only wish there was as much spectacle for my fingers, as there is toward my toes.”

The man smiled and scuttled across the room, his excited breath sounding like bubbles being blown through a straw.

“I had meant to keep this for another time,” he said. “I had planned another occasion, not now, sometime in the future,” he babbled nervously. “There would have been more time. Appropriate time. Appropriate place. Appropriate attire,” he said, staring woefully at his shabby overalls; borrowed from a man more than ten times his size. “Oh, it was never meant to be like this. There should have been petals on the floor, and all over the bed too. You would have been smiling and happy and…”

“What is it, my dear?”

“There was supposed to be petals” he shouted, snapping his claws. “And all that we have are these rocks,” he said, crushing a small boulder into a mound of dust.

“Stop being so heated, my dear. You’ll burn yourself out.”

“I wanted it to be perfect,” he said.

“Wanted what?”

“This,” he said, scuttling to her side, falling to one knee and raising his crab-like hands before her. “I found something marvellous. And nobody in the world knows that it exists.”

“What is it?” she asked strangely, looking at the small vial.

“A new colour,” the man said. “Never. Painted. Before.”

The woman’s eyes opened like a morning shade. Light beamed from her eyes.

“Where did you find this?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter. No-one will ever know, only us.”

“I feel so special,” she said, wiggling her many toes.

“I hoped you would,” he said, but still without the courage to ask an inappropriate question.

“But where will we hide it?” she asked.

The man smiled.

“Where no-one would ever suspect,” he said, taking her hand in his claw and lightly brushing against her bland, blemished fingernails.

“What shall we name it?” asked The Four-Legged Woman.

As surprised as he was delighted, The Young Boy snuck away from the tent the moment they started to undress. What an incredible colour!

He walked around the encampment, gawking at anything and everything. These people were strange it was true, but they spoke with such care and gentility. And even an accidental or passing bump, felt more kindly, considerate and less caustic than his father’s sheltering hugs.

He peered inside The Big Top, which was taller than any skyscraper he had ever seen. Inside, there were rows and rows of empty seats; enough to fit half the town. They circled around the entire tent, except at the back, behind the stage, where all sorts of boxes, of all shapes and sizes, were stacked in neat order beside a trap door or a lift of some kind, which had been lowered from a part of the stage, behind a red velvet curtain.

While four muscled women and a horde of miniature men, dragged on ropes and hauled a giant crystal symbol up above the stage, Rex, the man with giant legs and miniscule hands, kicked at the hunched back of a man fashioning pedals and cables to an old bicycle.

“This had better work,” he shouted. “Or else…”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence. The man with the hunched back, though kind in his nature, had spent the entire of his life thinking up the unimaginable, and there was nothing at all more formidable, than an unfinished sentence.

“It will work, it will,” said The Machinist. “If there’s anything I know, it’s contraptions; contraptions that work. It will work, it will work.”

“It had better.”

Looking back around the encampment, The Young Boy wondered in what direction he would travel next, and what incredible oddities he would see.

Of all the strange sights and colours that buzzed about, it was a sound that caught his attention, which had him scooting off to a carriage just a stone’s throw away. It was the sound of a woman shrieking, but not loudly, as if her face were being smothered by her hands or a gagging cloth of some kind. It was a distraught sound, like a man or a woman, discovering their first cyst, sore or lump. It was one that was as common to the boy, as was the sound of his own name.

When he reached the carriage, he quickly spun around to make sure no-one was looking. Egged on by his curiosity, he climbed up onto the spokes of the carriage’s wheels to peer through the partly shut drapes. He stepped carefully onto the spokes, flinching when the wood creaked, expecting some policing hand at any second to grasp his lawless shoulder. He steadied himself, though, managing to balance by clinging desperately to the window frame while he nudged his head between the drapes, staring into the dimly lit room. And there he saw an enormous man with an enormous belly that was covered in thickly woven hair, kneeling naked, pulsing and sweaty, in front of a demure woman whose naked body trembled and shivered as the enormous man wrestled with his left hand back and forth at something in the dark shadow between her thighs.

The Young Boy peered further, trying to see what it was. The woman moaned as dull and lagging as the Light in the carriage, and the boy knew instantly that she was ill and that the enormous man must have been a doctor of some kind.

“We are here to liberate you, from the darkness that dwells within, and paints itself around you,” said The Ringmaster, reaching his hand out, and making a prisoner of the young woman’s.

He cusped her hand, curling his thick fingers like a hangman’s noose around her fragile wrist, stroking the inside of her palm with his middle finger. “Let your child go,” he said, “let us free him. Let us return him to Heaven, where all souls belong. God awaits your child. But the way to God is through salvation, and salvation comes only at my touch,” he said, swelling in his crotch. “Release your clasp. Release your fears. Release yourself to me,” he said, undoing the young woman’s grasp and taking her dead infant from her hands; walking across the room and laying it on a table.

He took both of her hands in his and brought them up to his lips.

Still spying outside, The Young Boy reached his hand in through the window to get a better grasp so that his feet wouldn’t slip. But as he did, he touched something cold and wet, and he looked at his fingers, and they were yellow and sticky. And then he stared at what he had touched on the table below the windowsill – a dead child, smouldering in decay. The Young Boy panicked, losing his footing and kicking the wheel, making a god awful racket.

The enormous man turned, tearing his hand from between the thighs of the naked and shivering woman, who then collapsed onto the bed. “Who’s there?” he shouted. “Who is it? Delilah?” said The Ringmaster, nervously.

The Young Boy stayed quiet, wanting to release his clasp and run, but unable to do so. The Ringmaster paced back and forth, peering through the window but unable to see anything in the darkness outside. He looked back at the naked woman on the bed, stroking his small but erect penis and gently massaging his swollen clitoris. Then, thinking that it was probably nothing, The Ringmaster licked his lips and pressed them between the naked woman’s thighs, growling like a hungry wolf as he continued to save her soul.

The Young Boy let go of the windowsill and fell to the ground. His body made a little thump, but nothing too startling. It hurt like hell, though. He got up and ran, in any direction he could. It was confusing, though, how all the dimly lit paths seemed to circle around one another. So in his panic, no matter how many steps he took, and no matter how many corners he turned, he kept returning to the same spot; by the old tree that looked as if it has outlived many cancers – cancers that had stripped it of its bark, and pillaged every leaf, every inch of life and every speck of colour that it had once attired.

The Young Boy ran his fingers along the trunk, feeling little bumps of what seemed like words or initials, still carved into the bent and contorting wood. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine who might have been here before, picturing young boys and girls in love, hiding behind the tree and carving their affection through what would once have been thick, crackling bark.

And neither was as grey or as smudged as he.

“Call my name,” spoke a whisper. “Call my name and I will come.”

In his thoughts he saw his father, standing beside the tree; tisking and shaking his head in a ‘told-you-so’ kind of rhythm. And though he looked disappointed and somewhat riled, the energy that he gave off was animated and jubilant, as if the danger of his boy wandering off were lost in the wake of him having been right all along.

“Call my name and I will come,” spoke the whisper again.

It was followed by a cracking sound, like a heavy branch, splitting its bark, and falling to the floor. The Young Boy blinked and his father was gone.

Instead, a thing stood in his place.

The Young Boy gasped, unable to shout or scream, feeling as if a giant boulder of fear had been dropped into the swirling sea of weakness, fright, and vomit that swelled in his stomach.

“Call my name,” said The Demon, standing as still as he, and close enough to snatch him, if that’s what it wanted.

He couldn’t run.

He stared at it.

Still and stupid, he stared.

Unsure what it was.

It was the height and shape of a man that much was true. And it dressed in brightly red attire as if it were anomalous yet stately. Its body was arched and splintered, and made of decay, while its fingers, reeking of tragedy, were shaped like a poet’s quill.

Where its face should have been, there was nothing but vacuous rot, looking more like an aged and arborous canker, upon arched and skeletal shoulders. And it spoke, just as a man might, but the sound of each word was less like a man’s, and more like the deciduous fall of ripened fruit. Between every word, its teeth chattered and ground like the hacking of a rusted saw, with every breath that it took, sounding much like the calamitous whoosh that might follow a fell tree.

It wore too, the strangest boots The Young Boy had ever seen. On each ankle were what looked like a baby eagle’s wings, which flapped whenever it became alarmed or excited.

“Call my name and I will come,” said The Demon, turning to the old tree and running its scratching quills against the names and initials carved into the trunk, rising out of and falling into, each and every one. And as it did, it made a sound that was akin to a deflating tire.

“Yu…Yu…” stuttered The Young Boy.

The Demon’s wings fluttered.

“It’s real,” the boy thought.

He turned and ran. He ran in any direction that he could. He ran wherever his legs would take him. He ran trying to think of where the road was and he ran, hoping that there, was where his father might be. He ran in circles. He ran in squares. He ran in numbers, and he ran in hundreds of colours. This encampment, though, it was like a maze, and the more he ran, turned, ducked, dove, and sprinted, the less he felt like he was getting away.

“Hey,” came a call from behind. “Little boy.”

The Young Boy stopped running. His heart beat rampant, expecting to turn and see a faceless devil. Instead, a lady with coloured pants, which felt as slippery as moss, and with more stars painted on their face than there were in the sky, leaned down to the boy, throwing her arms around him.

He went limp, expecting to be constricted and swallowed whole. Fear rippled fervently in his belly and though he wanted to scream, he couldn’t. The lady’s hands wrapped around his body, clasping like prison shackles, and all he could do was think of his father, about how right he had been all along. He wished he were here right now to save him.

And then, just as he was about to cry out, the lady released her grasp. She stepped back, and she smiled. She didn’t frown, scour or grumble. She didn’t lick her lips, gnash her teeth or draw her finger across her throat. She didn’t open a sack, ready a shovel, or wipe clean the ends of her favourite eating fork. Unsure what to do, The Young Boy stood like a concrete slab, his hands still maimed with fright.

“Oh my child,” she said, “has never another shown you compassion and love?”

The boy shook his head. He still had no voice, no shout or alarm of his own. He had absolutely no defence. Behind the lady, he could see The Demon, pointing to a small carriage with a broken wire door.

“My god you’re shaking so much. Do you have a fever? Are you with sickness like the others?” she asked, rubbing his goose-bumped arms.

The Young Boy lifted his hand, pointing over her shoulder.

“It,” he said.

The lady looked quickly and then turned back at the boy smiling.

“There’s nothing there, dear child,” she said.

But she couldn’t see The Demon, not like the boy.

“No,” said the boy, shaking, and white. “It.”

“That? Well, it’s just an old tree,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “It can’t hurt you.”

The Young Boy shut his eyes and sank nervously into his shoulders. Were he a turtle, there would be nothing left but a rocking shell. The lady wrapped her arms around him once more, pressing him so tight against their chest that he could hear her love and compassion in the beat of her heart. It was much slower than his and so loud and convincing was it that his own heart started to lessen its rush.

“My child, do not be frightened or alarmed,” said The Coloured Lady. “You are Light. And I too am Light. And as such, we are one. We are all family and we are all existence. Each of us is the omniverse and the stars above; the matter, the waves, the particles, the people. We are all Light. We are all one. And just as I love myself, and I worship my Light, so too do I love you, and worship yours.”

The Coloured Lady kissed his cheek and the boy blushed.

“You know,” she said, lifting the boy’s sunken chin, “I know someone just your age. I bet you two would make excellent friends.”

“I don’t have any friends,” said the boy. “My father says that they’re dangerous; that they’re no good.”

“You father doesn’t want you to have friends?” asked The Coloured Lady.

“He doesn’t want me to get sick,” replied The Young Boy.

The lady rested her palm against the boy’s face, tilting her own like a confused yet admiring hound, and she smiled. She smiled in such a way that the look in her eyes, and the gentle touch against the boy’s skin, they felt warmer, as if, like the switch on a fridge door, her drawing lips had awakened a sun inside of her. She smiled as if the boy’s had awakened too. She smiled in such a way that the boy had no other choice but to smile back.

She smiled for many reasons, but most of all, she smiled because her Light and love were real and true. She smiled because she knew that, even though the boy was grey and most likely dying, his were too.

The Coloured Lady’s hand was damp and warm while the boy’s cheek was as cold as the draft that crept about, trying to wreak havoc beneath their clothes. As she ran her hand along his face, she asked, “How did you get this way?”

The Young Boy fashioned a mute response. Over the lady’s shoulder, The Demon stood. It had its hands on its hips and its quills crooked and curved, sticking out like a spider’s legs. One of its knees was bent and the tip of its boot pointed towards the ground. It swayed back and forth lightly, like a straggling branch, deprived of leaves. It swayed, not by the wind, but with it. And it looked as if it might dance at any second.

The Coloured Lady said something, but the boy wasn’t listening.

Behind her, The Demon danced back and forth, left and right. As it pranced about, its legs shot out from its gangly body like stabbing spears, while the wings on its boots flapped tirelessly, helping to carry it up high; almost higher than the tops of the tallest trees. And when it landed back on the ground, it did so without an ignorant thud, with the pointed ends of its boots touching with the same gentility as a mother’s kiss, and its darting legs, coiling back into soft, considerate arches.

The boy was not impressed. He offered no applause, and yet, he could not look away, ignoring the lady who had been speaking the entire time. She’d been talking about Light as if he’d never before heard of electricity. She’d been speaking of love, as if he had never before seen, a heart being broken. And she spoke of family as if his own were trite because it was paltry, just he, and his worrisome father. She spoke of being saved as if she were certain that that, right now, was entirely what was happening.

Behind her, The Demon stood still once more. Though it had no face, it stared straight at the boy. It stared at him, through him, and into him. “Call my name,” it said, raising its branch-like arm and pointing its indexing quill at the carriage with the hanging door. “Call my name,” it said, “Call it, and I will come.”

“Do you want to see some magic?” asked the lady.

The Demon jumped on the spot, exhilarated.

“Can it be somewhere else?” asked The Young Boy, nervously eyeing The Demon who was now walking towards the lady, its arms outstretched and its quills, bent and contorted, ready to strangle her craning neck.

“Ok,” said the lady, whisking the boy up in her arms. “I bet we can find you a friend too.”

The boy looked at her in educated reluctance.

“And it can be our secret,” she said, smiling once more.

The boy smiled too.

The Demon returned to a small cavity in the sickly tree, and there it crawled inside. It had left not one print in the sand. There was nothing at all; nothing but the sound of a rusted wire door, beating against a broken down carriage, wheezing like a cancerous lung, as the wind molested its worn and rusted hinges.

The lady took the boy through the encampment and introduced him to every oddly coloured and strangely shaped person he could see. She even let him put his hands inside some of the cages and pet the tigers, the seahorses, and the alligators.

“The magic is in there,” she said, pointing to The Big Top. “Do you want to come and see?”

The boy nodded. Of course, he did. What child didn’t love magic?

“Welcome,” said The Man with No Arms and Legs, swinging like a pendulum.

The Coloured Lady smiled and led the boy inside, and then showed him to a seat that was as close as possible to the stage. The Young Boy looked around. The whole town was here, probably his father too. He tried searching frantic, looking for the top of his head in how a mouse might search, for the wretched talons of its sure and imminent death.

Once the grey people had settled, there was an eerie silence, broken only by the sound of ropes and pulleys, being turned and tightened. All eyes were trained on the stage, where there stood an altar that was empty, except for a small crystal and an empty glass.

And then the lights went out.

And everything was black.

“Light,” bellowed The Ringmaster, from somewhere in the dark.

Everything was still, and as black as night.

“Light,” he bellowed again, kicking his heel as a stern and belligerent request.

This time, a small spark flickered from the roof of the tent. It flickered once or twice and then extinguished. The darkness engulfed once more, and the fear that it extolled was heightened by a whizzing sound, coming from somewhere under the stage.

Beneath the stage, and behind all the glitz and the glamor, there was a hive of frenzied activity as men and women, all with and mulish expressions, and hands brimming with all sorts of ratchets, spanners and anchoring ropes, scuttled about swift and silently. Though not a word was spoken, and barely a rustle of sound made, there was a great deal of shouting and demeaning cursing going on.

“Make it work,” said Rex in a whisper that was more like a hushed holler.

“I am doing my very best,” said The Machinist. “Especially with what tools I have on hand.”

“Just fix it,” said Rex, his hearing glued to the silence. “Wait for the cue.”

“Light,” shouted The Ringmaster again, smacking the heel of his foot on the stage. “I give you Light,” he screamed, his voice clapping like thunder.

“Now,” said Rex.

The small spark flickered once more, and then a single Light flooded the stage. There, cut out of the darkness, stood The Ringmaster; a rounded man with a thick bulbous nose that as red as every pint of wine to have ever wetted his deserted tongue; long mutton chops that hanged well past the bend in his jaw, almost resting, like an elephant’s ears, on the cusp of his shoulders; and eyes, that were round and hollow, like the end of a soldier’s rifle.

He wore a flamboyant crystal studded purple suit with glittering coat tails, Rhinestone boots, and an indecently large purple top hat, whereupon it curled, like an expensive skinned fur, a small sleeping monkey. His whole body shone. He sparkled and glimmered like all the expensive and glamorous colours in the rainbow. He looked like the contents of a countess’ purse.

The Young Boy watched in the same wonder as everyone else.

Carrying a small empty glass, The Ringmaster stood at the front of the stage. “I hold the omniverse in my hands,” he said, stalking the stage back and forth, and never unlocking his eyes from the empty glass. “In my two hands,” he said, pausing as he lifted the glass above his head, his wrists and knees, trembling lightly as if it were as dense as a star. “In this finite space,” he continued, “therein lays….infinity.”

Front and centre, The Ringmaster stood unnerved, like a stout and colourful statute, while, before him, his audience sat in dumb and crippled attention, as if his words were complex geometry. Written in bold, on a cue card that was taped to the floor, were the words, ‘Hold for Applause’. What the card failed to mention, though, was how long he should wait.

“What’s going on up there?” whispered a man on a small bicycle.

“Shut up and keep pedalling,” ordered Rex.

He had his body bent in half with the side of his face pressed against the bottom of the stage, listening to the painful silence.

“Why. Isn’t. They. Clapping?” asked the man on the small bicycle, pedalling furiously; heaving and spitting out his words like seeds, caught in the back of his throat.

“Shhhh,” whispered Rex.

“He’s got a point, Rex. Shouldn’t there be applause and the like?”

“Have faith,” said Rex. “In Master, and in Light.”

“But Mr. Rex sir…”

“Shut up and wait for my cue.”

Silence swelled beneath the stage and then rippled out into the stands where the audience sat in seeming disinterest, like well-disciplined children heaped upon uncomfortable church pews, moored by moral obligation, to see it through until the end.

“All is Light,” said The Ringmaster, trapping his hand over the top of the glass.

“Now,” said Rex, barking his command in the direction of a set of cables on both sides of the stage.

The pulleys squealed as many hands tugged and pulled on many cables, heaving and hoeing beneath the stage. From his seat, The Young Boy could see perfectly, watching in a deluded kind of awe as on all sides of the stage, mirrors of all shapes, sizes and oddly dimensions rose, as artless and facile as the morning sun.

The mirrors came to rest on all sorts of angles, and they surrounded the bulbous man entirely. It was how they juggled the Light on the stage, though, that mesmerized The Young Boy, making a delicious kind of sickness, tickle in his belly.

Standing just shy of the rays of luminescence that bounced off the many mirrors, The Ringmaster lifted his hands once more so that Light flooded into the glass. “And as such, all is one,” he said, staring into the spotlight and imagining a bedazzled audience, quieted by wonder and disbelief. “Existence,” he said, “is Light. All is Light. There is but one Light in this space. You cannot see its source. You do not know from whence it came. But it is there. You have no reason to doubt any different. You see what it fills, here on this stage. You see how it reflects about me, catching on these gems and jewels and crystal trinkets. You see how it shimmers ‘neath the round of my crystal cane; and you can see now, how it paints the colour, curve, and girth, of my common attire. Look at how Light fills this glass. Even with my hand as a lid, blocking the Light from entering, still, benightedly, its contents fill this glass. But how can this be? How can this one Light be in all places at once? How can the very same Light be on the floor beneath my feet, on the belled bottoms of my trousers, shimmering on the golden band of my many rings, in the tanned leather of my belt, in the white of my eyes, in the sparkle of my teeth,” he said before raising his hands and closing his eyes, “and how can it, while it is in all these things, be here, in this glass? How can one Light be in all places at the very same time?”

“All is one,” mouthed the workers below the stage.

“All is one,” said The Ringmaster. “Just as Light fills all of these things, so too does Light fill you. Like you, like all of us, this glass and these trinkets that I wear, they are vessels. They are vessels for Light. And so too are we, vessels for Light. Though all of these things have a different name and purpose, it is the same Light that fills them, that defines their names, and gives them purpose. The very same Light that fills this glass is the very same Light that fills my shoes. There is but one Light in the omniverse and it fills all things; human, beast, living and inanimate. There is but one Light and you have known it all this time as life, existence, consciousness, nature, God, Anti-God, matter, anti-matter, the soul….one. It is the very same Light that fills me, and it’s the very same Light that fills you. It fills everything in our omniverse. Without it, there is void; zero. With it, there is eternity; one. We are not ourselves. We are each other. If the same Light passes through all of us, then we are Light, and as such, we are one. I am my brother, I am my sister, I am my lover, and I am my very worst enemy. I am you, I am I, and I am this glass. I am the Light that burns inside of me, and not the flesh I will someday leave behind. I am the very Light that burns inside of you. I am myself, and I am you. We are one. We are Light. We are existence…..We are eternity,” said The Ringmaster, mouthed in perfect unison by every member of his troupe, in and out of The Big Top, above and beneath the stage.

“What should happen to this Light, when this vessel breaks?” said The Ringmaster, holding the glass high in the air, expecting to pull the imaginary string of gasping disbelief from each mouth of the audience.

But they all looked disinterested.

The Ringmaster threw his fist downwards, smashing the glass against the stage.

“This vessel is ruined. It is gone, defeated, dismantled, and broken. This vessel is dead. It is no longer a glass. It is a broken glass. It can no longer have its place on a table, for it belongs….with all the other trash. And then what of the Light? What has happened to the Light? Where has it gone? Where is it now?” he said, drawing the audience’s attention to the shards now bunched on the stage by his feet.

The Ringmaster turned his head about the stage. His eyes were wide and maddening as if a sudden and obvious truth had just dawned upon him.

“The Light is still here. It is all around us. It is in everything. It is in me. It is in you. Light is never extinguished. It does not break. It does not die. It is forever. It is infinite. It is one. And like this glass, one day, when my body ages beyond what my heart can bear, when, like this mound of shards, I am broken and scattered about the Earth, the Light that burns inside me will return to its source; that which we cannot see, but which we imagine, know and believe to be true. The Light from every broken vessel returns from whence it came, in wait of another. All is Light and as such, all is one,” said The Ringmaster, to the bowed and silent prayer of his troupe, etching stars across their hearts with their fingers in a symbolic gesture.

The Ringmaster knocked his heel once more.

“Now,” shouted Rex, pointing is little hands towards a cable tied to the stage by The Ringmaster’s feet.

The cable was cut away from a heavyweight and the line slowly rose as part of the stage cut away and lowered down below. Beneath the stage, the crew worked fast, and without sound, taking the dead child that was wrapped in florid textiles, and placing it kindly on the trap door, before gently pulling on the cable and lifting the prop smoothly so that the cables and pulleys didn’t squeal. And then, when The Ringmaster stepped aside as if he were unveiling a secret or a prize, the dead child was there on the stage, for all to see.

“This vessel,” said The Ringmaster, picking up the dead child and resting it upon the altar, centre stage. “It is like the glass. It is broken. It is inanimate. It is fragmented. It is contrary to the whole. But like the shards of glass, the Light that once filled this child, the Light that this dear woman had come to love,” he said, pointing to the dead child’s mother, who stood by the side of the stage, wearing one of Delilah’s shoals. “It has not extinguished. It is free. It has returned to its source. Death is in the state of the vessel, and not the state of the soul. If a person were to crash their carriage, or if their horse or vehicle were indisposed, would it spell the end of that person? Or would they walk a bit, until the found another? The child that this dear, dear woman loved,” said The Ringmaster, turning in a passionate address to the dead child’s mother, much to the scorn of Delilah, and other nine whores. “That child was not its vessel. The child that she loved was Light. It was Light that was born from her womb, from between her….” he said salaciously. “From between her parted legs. The Light in this boy has not gone, it has returned to its source and when a new vessel is born, it will return again.”

The audience didn’t react.

“I, as the Bringer of Light, hereby bless this child. May his body become the Earth and feed the insects and the birds and wild beasts that we too feed upon. And may his Light return to its source in Heaven, and may it be without pain and illness, may it be without fear or despair. May the Light of this child shine in each and every one of us. And may we be lucky enough too, to one day, when our vessels have tired of age and disease, to return to our source, to Heaven above, back where we belong. Praised be to Light, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

“Aymen,” said one and all beneath the stage.

“Go, child,” The Ringmaster hollered, into the air. “Go toward the Light. Be not afraid. Do not question. Be without doubt or alarm. Go with open spirit toward the Light. Look nowhere else except into all that you are. Go, my child, go into the Light.”

The Ringmaster held the dead child in his hands. He looked to the right of the stage and nodded. The child’s mother, nervous and sobbing, slowly made her way to The Ringmaster’s side and rested her head on his shoulder, staring at her blessed son, wrapped in a bounty of colour. She rested one hand on the curve of his cheek and the other on the burly waist of her confidant.

“And as we return this vessel to the Earth, and it’s Light unto Heaven,” said The Ringmaster. “I ask you all to join us in celebration, as we drink to the dead, to the living and to Light.”

Rapturous applause, the kind that sounded like thunderstorms, and landslides, broke out in a deafening and rumbling roar beneath the stage. Eyes lit up like headlights, and smiles were drawn on every painted face as one and all jumped about, stamping their feet like tribal drums, clapping their hands hysterically, and dancing about by hopping from on one leg to another, whilst hooting like deranged and rabid owls. Yet out in the bleachers, the townsfolk looked on with grey and joyless expressions; illiterate to the troupe’s brand of celebration.

“Let’s get scuttering drunk,” shouted The Ringmaster jubilantly.

From beneath the stage, the troupe flooded like fetid water from a burst main. They spilled out into every aisle and, like a foul smell, the townsfolk fought to avoid their touch, creeping back into their seats so as not to graze against their gloved hands or polka dotted pleats, for fear of catching whatever chronic mania was making them act in such uneducated, demented, and disrespectful manner.

“You have nothing to fear,” the troupe exclaimed, each taking a cautious and dubious hand in their own. “For we are Light and Light is love.”

And that word, love, it sounded like a dentist’s drill.

“We wish only to bring you joy and colour. We wish only, to bring you Light. And the only payment we ask is for your wilful permission,” they all said, in unison.

The Young Boy looked to The Coloured Lady beside him. “And maybe a smile too,” she said, taking the boy’s hand and paying him one of her own.

“Why are you here?” asked The Young Boy.

“Are we not welcome?” replied The Coloured Lady.

“I don’t know,” said the boy. “Nobody has ever come before. And my father says only bad things about what you want, and what it means for you to be here. ”

“We bring Light where it does not shine, it is what we do. We bring colour to where mankind is merely stencilled and unfinished. We are painters of faith and jubilation. We just want to make you smile. That is why we’re here. That is our meaning. To make you feel loved. All of you. To sing for you. To dance for you. To tell you stories. To entertain you. Why do you think we are here?”

The boy thought for a second.

“To make the curse go away.”

“What curse?” asked The Coloured Lady.

Before he could speak, a hand reached behind and grabbed the boy’s shoulder, pulling him out of his seat. “Where did you go?” shouted The Father, pinning the boy to his chest. “You keep away from him,” he said, pointing his accusing finger at The Coloured Lady. “You keep away, or I’ll kill you. I’ll kill every one of you. You leave him out of this, whatever you’re planning,” he said.

“We mean him no harm,” said The Coloured Lady.

“It’s true,” said The Young Boy. “They’re kind. And all they want is to help.”

“You have no idea where you are. Fuck off. Leave us alone,” said The Father, embracing the boy in a strangling fashion in one hand, and pointing his judging finger at The Coloured Lady with the other. “Nobody can help us, especially not them,” he said, staring straight at The Coloured Lady. “I can’t lose you,” he said, almost suffocating his son under his burly embrace, still staring The Coloured Lady in the eyes. “I will not lose him. Do you hear me?”

Under the wing of his father, The Young Boy disappeared through the flurry of townsfolk who were being ushered from their seats and guided out into the evening light where whiskey and ale poured freely into tall glasses, and an open grave awaited the burial, of a recently blessed child.

And as the town and the troupe joined together in celebration, drinking like droughted lizards, The Ringmaster, embracing The Grieving Mother, carved a star into the mound of sand where the dead child had been buried.

“Look into the Light,” he said, to the mound of dirt, comforting the dead child’s now ascending spirit. “Walk into the Light, follow it, for Heaven awaits.”

The child’s mother threw herself onto the mound of dirt, digging at the earth like a bored and unsettled dog.

“I can’t leave my baby,” she sobbed.

The Ringmaster pinned her hands against her side. He kneeled behind her, holding her hands gently but stern, like leathered restraints. As the child’s mother wept and blubbered, The Ringmaster pressed his cheek against hers and whispered in her ear. “Your child is in Heaven now. He is walking into the Light. He is without pain and suffering. He is home.”

The Grieving Mother continued to writhe, desperate to free her hands to dig out her son, but The Ringmaster, holding her wrists tightly, crossed her arms against her chest. He held her in this heavy embrace, feeling the printing of her heart against his free stubby fingers which grazed ever so lightly, against the round of the woman’s breasts. “You need not be alone, not at a time like this,” he said, pressing his swollen crotch against her buttocks. “Come, drink with me in private. Let me tell you a story.”

The Grieving Mother nodded. She was too weak to disagree. The two walked off quietly towards The Ringmaster’s carriage, watched by Delilah and the other nine whores.

“Father,” said The Young Boy. “I saw it.”

“You saw what?” replied his father, pushing and shoving.

Already he knew that he shouldn’t say. It was a feeling in his stomach that urged him to keep his mouth shut. “The Demon,” he said. “I saw it, father. I saw it for real.”

The Father said nothing. He continued his sprint along the road, carrying his son like an injured bird in his angered and defensive hands. He wanted to hold him forever, for fear of losing him, but more than anything, he wanted to punch someone or something, so hard that they splintered into a hundred thousand pieces.

It was only when they reached their house, with its windows boarded shut, that they stopped, and the boy’s father allowed him back on his feet. He fell to his knees and touched the side of his son’s face as if it were a lightly bruised fruit.

“I told you to never leave the house,” he said, gripping the boy sternly. “I told you never to leave my side. Never!” he shouted, shaking his son.

“I’m sorry father. I didn’t mean to escape. I didn’t, I…”

“Of course you did. That’s exactly what you meant. You don’t at all worry about the consequences of your actions, about what can happen. You don’t ever think,” he shouted. “That’s what you do.”

The boy’s eyes swelled with tears.

“I’m sorry father. I promise I’ll think next time. It’s just…”

“No, there’s no just. There’s no, ‘it’s just’. No, not anymore. Do you hear me? Do you fucking hear me?” he shouted.

The Young Boy looked like a fledgling, having, on his first unready flight, found himself fallen and being squeezed, rolled and kneaded, beneath the paw of some domestic cat.

“I just wanted to see, father.”

“To see what? What did you want to see? Death? Disease? That’s what you want? Or do you want to see you father angry, like this, or dead like your mother? Is that you wanted? Well, congratulations. You got it. Now I have to scream and shout. You think I like this? You think I wanna be the bad guy?”

“No but…”

“No buts,” shouted the father. “There is no argument.”

“I just…”

“You just… You just…” stuttered the father like a mean sibling. “You just what?”

The boy’s lips quaked so that any word he tried to form crumbled as if they were made of sand. His father took a long breath, and he loosened his grip on the boy’s arm.

“It’s ok,” he said, speaking soft and considerate, as a father should. “What did you want to see? What was it?”

His tone changed entirely, as is he had become so aware of the ass that he was.

“I just wanted to see if there was another kid, like me; someone I can play with.”

The father hugged his son, and he wept on his shoulder.

“The lady, she said they have a kid as well.”

The boy’s chest froze with nerve.

“If it’s true,” said The Father, “it changes nothing. You can’t have friends. You know what will happen.”

“But they’re different like you said. Maybe it won’t be as bad as…”

The Father kissed his son’s forehead, and before losing himself in compassion, as any father would, he gripped the boy in vile contest, almost breaking the child’s collar bone. “I can’t let you outside, you know that. It’s for your own good.”

The Father took his son into his bedroom and sat him on his bed. A candle flickered on a table next to a picture of his mother and his younger sister. The air in the room was thick and warm. It smelled like wet sawdust. Its windows were barred on the outside and boarded within. The boy sat on the edge of his bed, expecting the suffocating boredom to envelope him once more.

“They’re not so bad, father.”

“How do you know?” said The Father, holding a handful of nails in one hand, and a hammer in the other; the same hammer that had built the boy’s first Billy cart when he was four, and then a doll house for his sister just, two years later.

“I just know is all,” he said. “In my heart.”

“You know do you?” he said, jingling the nails.

The Father slammed the door shut. He rested his head against it for a second, drawing a long and tired breath and swallowing the gulf of sadness that threatened to break his conscious levee. He thought of his wife, whose wonderfully crooked smile he hadn’t seen in so long, but who’s dying face, clustered with blisters, boils, and toothless decay, was the only image that stayed with him, like a pained and swollen joint, all this time.

He thought about the sound of her voice. He tried to think of any inane thing she might have said on any common day; shouting out his name, or cursing over spilled milk, anything at all. All he could hear though was the sound of her last breath, as a mixture of liquid and air, gurgled in her stricken throat.

He tried to remember the sensation of her touch, whenever she took him, or when he elatedly snuck up behind her, cupping the curve of her waist. He tried to remember what it felt like to squeeze her hand; and when her hand pulled away from his, as her slender fingers lightly scratched against his palm. He tried to, but all he could feel was the sting of open blisters from the hours of relentless digging with the very same shovel his wife had bought him, so that they could one day get round to making their very own garden, of the wildest and most colourful flowers.

He tried to remember the perfume of her breath and the wetness of her kiss, but all he could taste on his lips and on the back of his throat was the acrid and saliferous cocktail of sweat and soil.

He tried to imagine a place for her in this home that wasn’t the grave where the wild and colourful flowers should have been. As he took another cold, icing breath, he went about the turning of the many locks on the boy’s door, before sliding a large wooden board against two metal braces, and then hammering in nine long curved nails.

“They can help, father. I know they can.”

“No-one can help us son.”

“They can stop the curse.”

“There is no curse,” shouted The Father.

“But I saw it, father.”

“What? You saw what? What did you see?”

“The Demon.”

“Stop with this nonsense. There is no demon. There is no curse. And there’s no goddamn magic,” said The Father sternly. “There’s nothing. Nothing but you and I. The two of us. That’s it. That’s all that matters. That’s all there is. Just you and me,” he said, his voice crumpling like paper under the sheer weight of his useless depression. “Promise me,” he said, on the verge of breaking something. “Promise me you won’t go back there again. Promise you’ll stay away from that tree. Promise me you’ll stay away from those people. Promise you’ll never leave.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t real…”

“Promise me,” shouted the boy’s father.

“I promise,” said the boy.

And he wanted to keep that promise, he did. He hated the idea of going against his father. He hated seeing him so sad and angry all of the time, but he couldn’t help thinking about what The Coloured Lady had said, about the girl who, perhaps, could be his friend.

The boy had never had a real friend before. He had never been allowed one. And now that all of the children in town were dead, he never imagined ever actually having one. He did, though; imagine what it would be like, to chase or to hide from anyone other than his own shadow; until now.

He thought about the girl and he wondered, “What would be her favourite game?”

III

“Praised be Light, the saviour in my sight; guide me through the darkness – take me home. Lord, take me home, take me home, take me home. Lord take me where my home may be. Lord, keep me safe, keep me sound and protect me, from wickedness abounds, and from devils that beseech me, Lord take me home and set me free.”

The Young Cripple repeated her prayer over and over. “Lord, take me home and set me free,” she said, throwing each word as if it were a blind, swinging fist.

And it was more than a mantra, it was a threat; to whatever foul beast, serpent, or darned stinging insect, lurked with no good intent, in the shrubs beside her, and in the cracks in the ground beneath her feet.

The poor girl was weighed heavily by her exhaustion. It rained sweat into her blisters and provoked her legs into a seismic collapse. Every muscle in her body ached and pained, but still she couldn’t stop – she couldn’t bear the thought of rest. She was urged on by her fright, her sense of obligation, and this blasted contraption that she had been tied to her whole life.

Her every step sounded like the screeching of worn brake pads as she struggled inside the rusted braces that caged her. She hated the sound just as much as she did the silence. The squealing from the rusted hinges by her knees sounded like the cursing of thousands of bats and banshees, all swearing an oath to peck at and scavenge her eyes, and to make a meal of every inch of her flesh. If she were trying to keep a secret of herself – if she were trying to move like a whisper – then holding her breath or taking her time, the vice of normal folk, would do little good.

So instead, she prayed.

She prayed loud and visceral. She prayed with such vigour that the fear mongering in her thoughts vanished, like a grain of salt in the open sea. She didn’t so much pray as she did intimidate and immure. And it didn’t matter where evil lay; whether the wickedness was biding its time in the shadowy shrubs that littered the moors, or hiding there, disguised, in the quiet recess of her mind. It didn’t matter, for the Light that shone within her, it kept her solaced and sound; like the warm refuge of a mother’s embrace, or the might and retaliation in a father’s thunderous and inerrable voice.

Fear had no chance.

“Get out of it, you doggone mosquito,” she said, cursing at the dark around her, at what she could not see. “Leave me alone. Please.”

She had been walking for so long now that it might as well be regarded as forever. It had been so long that she had forgotten where she had come from, and why it was that she couldn’t stop. All she knew was that one leg went in front of the other, and for as long as he was upright and on her feet, she must never give in – she must never ask for what she does not deserve.

“Lord of Light and Light of love,” she prayed, “let my spirit be, on the Earth as is above, thy divinity. Lord of Light and Light of love, come into my soul. Shine your grace within my heart, and make my spirit whole. Lord of Light and Light of love, all that I revere, lance these devils with your sword, and strike away my fear. Lord of Light and Light of love, knelt before your throne, here I pray, to you I plead, take me to my home.”

She focused deeply and thought only of Light, and for a great while, it worked. The scary thoughts, and the alone thoughts, and the thoughts she had of being unimaginably lost, they disintegrated in her conscious mind, before they could properly form. She was aloft in a stream of godliness and belief. She was adrift on a mindful current of celestial grace.

But this poor girl had such terrible focus, and it wasn’t long before Heaven transformed before her. The harmless outlines of small shrubs and bush quickly morphed into a sea of sinister shadows that swayed back and forth under the icy breeze that rasped and shivered her skin.

She looked to her left and right, and all around too; here, there, and everywhere, not a foot off the ground; she witnessed gangs of deformed oafs that listed from side to side with the gusting wind, their bodies bent over like scarred and scabbed, leathery tables, and their arms, laying over each other’s backs like fraternal ratchet straps.

They heaved back and forth, and to and fro; like a bulging swell, pressing against an eroding shore. And the levee of this young girl’s concentration, that which had been meant to keep the spooks and spectres at bay, it broke apart and dissolved into the flood of her vivid and exaggerated imagination.

“You’re not real,” she exclaimed, at first in her thoughts but then, after not being able to console herself, out loud, as loud as she could, to quiet the roar of the devil’s laughter as they crept upon her, painted crudely upon all sides of the moor.

On the path before her – out on the horizon, and at the crook of a bend – there stood what looked like a wolf, a hell-hound, or a small bear. The hair on its neck pointed upwards, and its head and front paws arched downwards, as if this beast were a sprinter, on the tips of its toes, bastille in a moment between an anxious and jittery wait, and an explosive and savage charge.

The Young Cripple could see, in the dull light, the dust that burst upwards from the expelling of the beast’s truculent and malodorous breath. It looked like thousands of dotted and grainy stars, circling about its menacing snout, like Light, warped around a black hole.

She could not see its eyes, just as she could not, those of the heaving oafs in the shadows beside her. But unlike her imagined monsters, she knew that this beast was no trick of her sight and no art of her imagination. It could not be wished into some congenial or innocuous form, like a dandelion, an ant, or a sea otter. And no amount of Light would will it away.

“I am independent of your good or bad intentions towards me,” the girl said, stopped not ten feet from where the shadowy beast stood.

She had hoped that, like the cocking of a pistol, this would be enough for this devil to scent her courage and to turn; to retreat to wherever it was that stinking beasts, noisy crickets, creeping crawlies and other small, long-legged, beady-eyed foulness scurried and burrowed themselves, when it was that the morning sun had them at the merciless whim of small coloured birds, and narrow-eyed farmers.

The beast, though, it barely lifted its head. It had not, for a second, assumed that this crippled girl had nearly half the courage necessary to fend off an attack, or to even cry out her father’s name. Its snout stayed anchored to its bent front paws, and its heavy and musky breath continued to spew from behind its jagged teeth.

The Young Cripple’s body was frozen in sheer panic. She almost looked composed, as if she were measuring her odds. On the inside, though, near her soul, and inside her skin and bones, she shook feverishly. And it was as if the part of her that made her hands and legs move, the part that could clench her fists and strike like a hammer; the part that could properly form words and curse like clapping thunder, the part of her that wore her body like a sheath or a glove, that part spun uncontrollably inside of her.

The beast huffed and puffed another plume of dust.

“I warn you,” she shouted, “I am trained and skilled in the art of war. I might look small but don’t let that fool you.”

The beast didn’t budge. Its head still bowed to its paws, and ready to charge.

The Young Cripple tried to think of all the warriors she knew. What kind of things would they say right now? If they only had their words as weapons, what would be the shape and the size of the words they’d use? Would they swear, and make their words as foul and stinking as the beast’s own breath, or would they shout, and exert a forceful yet polite address?

“I know Kenpo,” she said, barely remembering the name, let alone anything she had learned and since forgotten, in her one and only lesson. “And Muay Thai too.”

Now that was a blatant lie.

She closed her eyes and thought of any name that she could as if knowing and naming would suffice, or hoping as such anyway.

“And I know jiu-jitsu, so… if you try to pull me to the ground, I’ll break all of your legs and I’ll snap your arms in half. Do you hear? Well,” she said, puffing her chest. “Do you?”

The beast stayed as it was.

“You don’t wanna mess with me. I’m tough and I’m mean. And I’ve got a gun too,” she said, reaching behind her back and pretending to holster her right hand onto something so obviously a pistol, a rifle, or a hand grenade.

The Young Cripple wished she had a gun. She wished she had a jagged knife, a spear, or even a handful of rocks. She wished she had a single pebble; anything except for this stupid fear and these damned metal braces on her legs.

“This isn’t fair,” she thought, “why do I always end up like this?”

Her mind instantly inundated with a thought of yesterday morning, and how she wound up so terribly alone. And it could have been so easy to blame everyone else. They did after all, pack up and move on, without so much as a quick glance into her carriage to see if she were being carried along with it. It could have been easy to blame them, seeing as though they so blatantly left her behind, again.

She could have blamed her father. He should have noticed after all, and he should have cared. She could have blamed too, the bearded women who distracted him so that he didn’t. They constantly bickered, and demanded about as much attention as a foaling horse or a wobbly tooth.

It was this blasted contraption to which she was sentenced, which haunted her. Her mind didn’t wander to the image of the back of her carriage as it slowly pulled away. It didn’t wander either, to the sight of her father’s top hat, the only part of him visible from the half circle of bearded whores that followed him like an indulgent regret, or some opulent venereal disease.

Her mind made little case of their ignorant tenure and charged none other than herself, and of course, these god-damned-darned-blasted-nincompoop slow and heavy and rusted and painful and cutting and stabbing and breaking and grazing, stupid, dumb prisons for her sore and useless legs.

And that is what she remembered in her mindscape; sitting on a round rock, staring at that blasted contraption, that prison for her legs, and listening to the near sound of the procession proceeding, and her being left behind.

The thought that flooded her conscious mind, the one that brought with it, the floating billboard that read, ‘Stupid Old You’, it was the thought of sitting on a round rock, not a stone’s throw from her carriage, and barely hidden by a few overgrown weeds, staring straight at her metal braces and hoping, wishing, and just damned wanting for one day, one darned stupid day, to never have to wear them again.

And the thought of putting them on was always much worse than the act of wearing them itself. Not to say that the pins and pivots didn’t bother her, nor did the loose screws that cut into her right thigh; or the scores of thick welds that had rubbed at the same spots over the years, so much so that calluses had grown on her legs and her ankles, the size of a boxer’s knuckles. They hurt, as much as anything that caused injury might hurt. But wearing them, there was always the thought of taking them off. That alone was like a mild sedative, and a way to distract from the constant pain.

The thought of putting them on, though, it was the worst of all. It was worse than anything. It was worse than the cuts and the blisters from all the rubbing. It was worse than how her legs looked, and how useless they were, when she took the contraption off. It was worse than being hungry and tired, and still having to practice and perform. It was worse than juggling knives or fighting alligators. It was worse than any of the dangerous stuff she ever had to do. It was worse than all the worst days she had ever had in her life. And it was worse still, than being loved and thought of in such a way that nobody ever notices when you’ve been left behind. The thought of putting them on was worse than all of that. It was even worse than the thought of that wolf, hell hound, or small bear, eating her alive.

“I don’t care if you want to eat me,” she shouted.

This time, there was very little pretending in her voice. “I’m scared of you,” she said, “but I’m scared of lots of other things too. So you’ll just have to deal with that, or…or go away.”

The beast’s head didn’t move. It seemed unperturbed and unwilling to negotiate. The Young Cripple stared at her feet. She imagined the beast jumping up from where it lay and thrusting upon her, knocking her to the ground, and gnawing off her legs. She thought about this and she smiled.

Her legs screeched and squealed as she moved slowly up the path, towards a savage fate. The beast lay in wait, its breath, still coarse and wreckful, howled like a galing wind. On she marched, though, step by gruelling step, her legs sounding like rusted winches as she fought with her two hands at a grip above each knee, to lift and thrust each leg forwards.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love, keep me safe from harm. If darkness ventures to my sight, guide me to your arms. Lord of Light and Light of Love, mine is yours alone, my heart and soul, my skin and bones, take me to my home.”

Not a foot away, the beast lifted its head. Its snout sucked in the cold air like a drunkard with his first gulp of ale. Focused and unhinged, The Young Cripple continued, chanting her mantra out loud, and in her mind, erasing her fear, as if her thoughts were words and pictures, as if they were insults and defamation, painted upon a flowing stream.

The beast rolled over onto its back as The Young Cripple approached.

“Is it a trick?” she wondered, at a louder volume than her continuing mantra.

What was its intention?

“I respect and I worship the Light in you,” she said, imaging it were true.

She lifted her legs and thrust forwards, inch by inch, foot by foot, expecting to be ripped in half. She thought for a second, what it would be like to be eaten alive; whether she would pass out from the pain, or whether she would scream until somebody found her. Inch by inch she moved, until she stood beside the beast, above it and looking down.

It had not died, not like she had hoped. It lay on its back and it bayed with its front paws as if its intention were not rabid and bloodthirsty violence. It lay there, like an old friend, whose legs were nearly as rubbished as her own, and who, under proper Light, was less like a hound of Satan, and more like the playful and tremoring dog that had kept a constant vigil by her window each night. Its front paws bayed, begging to be patted and tickled and roughly scratched behind its dry, deafened ear.

“Shadow!” she screamed elated.

Her mind was awash with the feeling of assurance that felt like a net, wrapping around her falling body. Instantly, the spectres and spooks in her head all vanished. The shapes the lined the path – those brutish oafs that swayed back and forth across the moor – they were now just shapes, nothing more. She did not judge them any different to what they were, now, in the present. And the fear in her mind, that which felt as real as the wind against her skin, it vanished and left her feeling light; light enough to lift her heavy legs in this stupid contraption, for as long as she needed to take herself home; wherever that was.

Down along the path, not an hour’s walk, The Young Cripple could see the encampment. She whistled and called the dog with her, and together they slowly hobbled along the stony path, towards the dim light and the smell of whiskey, cologne, and burning pig skin.

There were bodies strewn across one another, and others laid out in crosses on the dusted earth. There were some, leaned over barrels, and half hanging off collapsed and broken chairs, and there were others, stuffed, like cumbrous luggage, into the trunks of carriages; their arms lightly swaying in the early morning breeze, as if they had just recently been placed.

There were bodies everywhere.

The Young Cripple tried not to step on any hands or feet. It was hard to be precious inside these clunky metal braces. She tried, though, heaving each leg high and placing each foot gently down in oddly shaped patterns and patches of ground.

When she reached her carriage she looked back, as she always did before she went inside. She stared at the piles of bodies. She stared at their grim expressions, and at the scratches and digging in the sand, beneath some of their still fingers. She stared at the bodies, all of them, and she sighed.

“A funeral,” she said to herself, in bitter realization.

Then, as she thought of these blasted metal braces and what joy they took from her, and the great disappointment they gave her in return, her depression set in. She wrestled for a second with the screen door of her carriage, freeing it from its bent hinge. The noise it made, as she wrenched it open, was only slightly less abrasive than the sound of her own legs carrying her inside.

On her bed, she stared out the window for a while, as her hands unwound the nuts and bolts holding her braces together. It was maybe an hour before her legs were free and then pained with thousands of stabbing pins and needles.

The Young Cripple gazed out her window at a giant, gaunt and skeletal tree. She had never seen anything like it before. It made her not want to look away, in case it should creep any closer.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love….” she said, squinting and squirming as pain shot up from her toes to her knees and rang out like a deranged monk’s bell in her conscious mind.

Her eyes were fixed on the crooked tree, with its hunched and contorted spine, and its weaving and mangled limbs; outstretched like some perverted and disease-ridden old man, out for one last hug and tickle before death set in. At the bottom of the tree, she saw what looked like a pair of red boots, and it was such an odd thing to see, sticking out like wing-shaped roots. But when she nudged closer to the window, they were gone.

The Young Cripple sat on the edge of her bed, staring out into the dark. She felt no safer on her own bed, covered in her own blankets, and surrounded by the many trinkets she had collected that made this carriage so rightfully her home.

The danger, though, was not what lurked in the shadows – that from which she could abscond or be girded against by a dozen locks, a senile dog, or an alarming screen door. The danger was inside her mind. And she projected it everywhere.

It was in the shadows that, at night, were like a murky bog; stank, stale and still – and so very fathomless. It was beneath every stone and at the crook of every blade of grass; and it was so infinitely small and so unimaginably large at the exact same second. Danger was everywhere. Devilish danger and dastardly devils were in every ‘thing’, and they were in every ‘where’.

“Lord of Light,” she said, staring into a gaping hole in the tree, as if she were watching a cunning stranger’s smirk. “Light of Love,” she said, her inner voice crackling. “Let my spirit be,” she shouted.

The screen door banged.

The Young Cripple jumped, her fingers clutching the end of her mattress with her useless legs, dangling like folded tassels in front of her body. She looked to the door, and then back to the tree again, with its wretched limbs swaying back and forth.

There was another loud bang. “Help,” she screamed, as part of the door flew past her window, clanging as it knocked against the old tree. “Someone help me.” She looked back to the door and held her breath as the handle slowly turned. “Please God,” she said, in a soft and desperate weep.

The Young Cripple imagined black shadowy bears, boars, and monoliths. She imagined one monster that was all these things at the very same time. It had hundreds of tusks and razor sharp teeth, and its head was shaped like a bed sore. It was as small as a spider, so it could creep up under her covers and bite her in places that she could never find. And it was as tall and wide as a mountain, so that no matter where she hid, it would always see it.

There was a clicking sound – the turning of a key, and the door opened.

“Father,” she said, as this great weight of imagination fell away like sand.

Relief drenched her conscious shore.

“Where were you?” asked The Ringmaster.

He could barely squeeze through her front door, having to tuck in his stomach and weave his body like an exotic dancer to partition through the small opening. “I was worried sick,” he said.

He looked down at her legs and, as if caught off guard, he smiled, but only for a second. His usual air of disappointment soon spilled across his face as he looked upon the crippled girl’s bent and folded legs with blatant disgust.

“Why did you take it off?” he asked.

The girl looked at her legs. They looked like two long sheets of paper that had each been folded a dozen times, and they dangled and sprang like two fleshy slinkies. It was as if her bones had been replaced with elastic. She sighed heavy, turning her attention, like a magnet of depression, to the mechanical leg supports beside her bed.

“Please, father,” she said.

“Don’t you ever call me that,” The Ringmaster said. “Never ever call me that. You call me Sir, or Master, or you call me by my profession. But you dare use that word again,” he said, his hands squashing her face so that her lips pouted like an asphyxiating fish. “And I’ll expulse you. Do you understand?” he asked.

The girl nodded. She couldn’t move her head, on account of it being stuck in her father’s burly clutch. Her eyes wobbled, back and forth, between the horrible braces that imprisoned her in such a great deal of discomfort and pain, and the horrible bastard who tightened their screws.

“Look at these,” exclaimed The Ringmaster, pointing at the young girl’s legs as if they were a defaulting commodity. “Do you want perfection?” he asked, forcing her to nod. “Well? Do you?”

“Yes…sir” she said, fighting to remember the words.

“I won’t have my prized display looking….”

He too struggled for the right word.

“Shabby,” he said, holding her feet lightly and springing her legs up and down. “If I see you outside of this brace again…” he said, as he bound the first leg and began tightening the rusted screws.

He paused for a second while he wrenched hard on the screwdriver, cracking the girl’s bone. The Young Cripple moved to scream, but she was trained enough to cover her mouth and yelp, no louder than the springs in her mattress.

“If I see you outside of this brace,” he continued, pausing again as he took a long breath. He wheezed horribly when he got worked up like this. “If I see you…Fuck it,” he exclaimed.

“But it hurts,” said the girl.

The Ringmaster turned to her with a sour expression.

“You ruin my show and I’ll beat you to death. I‘ll make leather soles out of your face and bracelets for my whores from your crooked teeth. I’ll fucking kill you. Do you understand?” he asked.

The girl nodded, quickly.

“Now go to sleep. I love you.”

“But I’m scared.”

“You’re always scared. It doesn’t change a goddamn thing. Go to sleep.”

“But father…”

“Don’t you ever fucking call me that you little freak,” he said, slapping her across her whimpering face. “Never use that word.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Sir.”

“Good,” said The Ringmaster. “Good. Now shut up and get some sleep. I’m busy.”

The Ringmaster left her carriage and shut her door gently; hardly as brutish as when he had arrived. The girl wound him up. She wired his adrenaline. She always did; like her damned mother, always niggling for some inch of control. He took another long breath and this opened his lungs much better than the last. The air was thick and icy. You could almost snap a piece off and drop it in your whiskey.

When he left, The Young Cripple curled as infant-like as she could on her bed, and snugged into the tightest corner that she could fit. Now that he was gone, she could hear sounds outside again – the sound of a stick or a knife scraping against the wooden floor of her carriage, and what sounded like a runner’s breath, at the end of their fiftieth mile.

She did the only thing that brought her calm. She closed her eyes and imagined a world less concerning than this; one where monsters and madmen didn’t lurk about in the shadows or in the recess beneath her carriage, waiting to savage and torture her. She imagined a world where nothing had teeth or claws, and where there was no reason for sneaking about, or in bad people, doing bad deeds. She invented a world that was fun and full of colour; and with it, she invented her protagonist.

And just like that, The Young Cripple invented a story – one that had never been told before. And when she was done with that story, she told several more. Some of them she wrote down and others she forgot, not long after she made them up.

And it was working, for a while. Her fear vanished, and she stopped imagining devils and monsters, lurking beneath her bed.

Back in his carriage, The Grieving Mother sat a stool where he had left her. She was still holding a small cloth in her hands and pulling it up to her nose every now and then, so as not to forget the smell of death, for which she had prescribed as being that of her only child.

The Ringmaster sat on a stool in front of her. There was maybe an inch of room between the two. The Grieving Mother looked pale and her expression stretched, like the tape at the end of a cassette. The Ringmaster took her hands and held them in front of her chest so that one palm faced upwards and the other down. He then rested his palms against hers; not so they were holding, but merely so they were touching, and so that the energy of his kind hearted love and Light, warmed her panicked and cold sweat.

“I’m going to ask you some questions,” he said. “And I want you to answer truthfully and with open heart. And I want you to stay forever looking into my eyes as if you were looking into your own; which you are. I am and you and you are I. We are mirrors of one another, and so, we can feel whole and honest, as we look into ourselves. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said the grieving mother.

“Then let’s begin,” said The Ringmaster.

Still touching palms, one up and one down, both parties held their stares; The Grieving Mother slowly drifting into meditated vacancy while The Ringmaster, with his musky allure and eyes like gluggy tar, maintained an impassioned glare, keeping the woman from drifting further than he would allow.

“What do people call you?” he asked, smiling as he waited for her response.

“Rita,” she said.

“And the people who love you and obsess over you; who need you and rely on you, to whom you are a mirror unto which they can see themselves as an empty canvas, and from you, draw inspiration upon themselves. Those whose ease and pain rises and falls like the tide, whether you are near or far. What do they call you?”

The Grieving Mother closed her eyes for a second. Her hands stayed where they were, but they trembled. The Ringmaster steadied his own hands as if to assure her that she wasn’t alone. And it worked. The Grieving Woman inhaled deep and profound and in the silence between one breath and another, she opened her eyes and met those before her; those strong and assailing eyes.

“MaiMai,” she said, hearing herself say it for the first time.

The Ringmaster widened his smile. He sat in quiet and comfortable stare, the kind that would have most common folk cringe. And he didn’t at all look itchy or edgy, as The Grieving Mother did, still holding her stare and pretending there wasn’t some invisible itch under her skin or in the back of her mind that was willing her to grimace, blink, or bury her face in the ground with some wayward gesture – to break this moment of intense calm.

“My child, he called me MaiMai. It was silly, something my husband had said. I can’t really remember what, but we were joking and fooling around. It was in the kitchen. I remember clearly, seeing my son leaning against the wall and smiling. We’d been fighting a lot, my husband and I, about stupid things; about nothing really. But it had been getting messy and real mean too. The name calling, the abuse, and the breaking of things. Just, it felt like it was building to something, you know?”

The Ringmaster nodded and continued to smile, willing her to continue.

“I don’t know. I guess we were fighting all morning, and my husband, he said something stupid, nothing I can remember off hand. But it was the first time we had laughed in so long. And I remember looking up,” she said, her voice now crackling under the swell of love and depression that rose from neath her subconscious. “And I saw my boy smiling. He looked kind of nervous as if he didn’t know if we were hugging or killing one another. And my husband said something, joking, playing, but I was so caught up in my son, in Eli, and I started to laugh and cry. I don’t know how, but I got stuck with the name MaiMai. You know, that time, that moment, with my husband drenched on my neck and Eli, wrapped around my legs, that was when everything turned – it was the apex of my happiness.”

The Grieving Mother heaved a long breath that sounded like churning gravel.

“The next day my husband was sick. It was so quick. In three days, he was gone. Then it was just Eli and me. And pretty soon, the whole town started to get sick. There were rumours of this and that; something in the water, something in the air. Some people stopped eating altogether, thinking the food was poisoned. No matter what, though, people got sick. And it was always three days. That’s all it took. It’s like forever though you know; watching the person you love, die. And there’s nothing you can do except to say, ‘It’s alright, it’ll be over soon’. And then Eli…”

The Grieving Mother’s hands started to shake and The Ringmaster felt this. He pulled his hands away, letting hers fall to her side. Then he shushed her as he slowly walked behind her. It sounded like shushing, but really, he was blowing waves and wind across her neck and back, and down over her breastbone. The Grieving Mother stood in shivery awe as behind her, The Ringmaster swept away with his fingers, the sticky and soiled aura that perspired from her skin. He flicked vigorously to and fro, and he breathed heavy and billowing, his exhaling breath sounding like great waves, smashing against reefs and rocky shores.

And then when he was done, he returned to her front and lifted his hands once more; one palm up and one palm down, and he invited The Grieving Mother to join him in loving stare.

“If you could live to a hundred,” he asked, “and have either the body or mind from your youth, which would you choose?”

The Grieving Mother paused.

The Ringmaster smiled.

“If I chose my body and forgot my mind, would I be any different to my youth? Then again, what good is an ending if it comes as little surprise? How would a young mind serve me at such an age? I might as well be deaf and dumb and entrenched within a choir. The young me, wouldn’t reason very well with a centurion’s kind of thoughts. I’d take the body,” she said, “and try for one more child.”

“Describe the perfect day,” said The Ringmaster, smiling.

The Grieving Mother closed her eyes once more. She thought about the countless times she had woken to find her husband lying silent and warm beside her, and their son curled around his neck. There were many days like this, but one, in particular, the one she could remember, had heavy rain falling outside her window, and an icy breeze rasping against her arm and the back of her neck. And there was nothing more inviting than pulling the blankets over their heads, and cosying up with her child and her lover.

“Lazing about,” she said.

“If you could wake tomorrow different, with some innate talent that was completely new to you, what would it be?”

“To be able to not feel, if I don’t want to, or if I don’t need to.”

“What are you grateful for?” asked The Ringmaster, pensive.

The Grieving Mother paused, thinking for the time in a very long time, about now, about what she actually had, as opposed to what she had lost or had taken from her.

“Love,” she said. “Even though they’re gone, I still have love for them. And I’d never have that if they’d never come, and so too I guess if they’d never gone. But it’s a sad type of love,” she said.

“How do you feel about your mother and father? Did they love you enough? Did they love you too much? Did you feel listened to and heard? Did they ask of you what was fair? And did they give you the time, the time that you deserved?”

“I love them I do, and I don’t blame them at all. It’s not easy raising kids. It’s not easy being a parent. There are no rules or guidelines. It’s not straightforward. It’s not like making a bed. I don’t blame them, though, even though they didn’t do much good. They left me alone a lot. They pushed me towards it, doing things by myself. They said I’d grow up faster, and I did. I never made much of a fuss. I never said it before. But I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to grow up so fast.”

“When was the last time you cried in front of a stranger?”

“Now,” she said, tripping over her smile and snivelling nose.

The Ringmaster smiled back.

His hands were so warm.

He continued to ask The Grieving Mother questions in this way for a great deal of time. He asked her about her favourite memory, and he asked her about her worst. And they were in fact almost the same. She talked about the moment that life officially stopped in her son’s body; that infinitesimal second between him existing and not, when his lips stiffened, his pupils dilated, and even the colour in his skin lightened, as if a warm Light that had been surreptitiously glowing inside of her all these years, just lightly and swiftly turned off. And though she was not aware of it, she gave the same answer for both the worst and most treasured moments of her life.

When they were done, The Grieving Mother kissed The Ringmaster on the lips and she lay down in bed. She invited him to bed with her and to make love to her, which he did so willingly, several times.

In the darkest part of eve, The Ringmaster hugged his new adoring love. He kissed her gently on her cheek and confessed his infatuation with her, and she confessed hers of him. They were in love; she to him, and he to another of his whores.

The Grieving Mother dressed quickly and blew a kiss to her beau before slipping out of his trailer, her body so oblivious to the cold by the rush of warm loving blood that flowed like lava through her veins. Before she made her way back into town, The Grieving Mother rested against the crooked curve of the old Sycamore tree. Her hands drew up and down along the bark, feeling the grooves and letters, hearts, arrows, and names that had been carved into its withering bark. She thought of the man she loved, feeling for a second, the surge of his swollen sex inside of her. Her neck shivered, her knees shook and a lump grew in her throat. She couldn’t wait to see him again.

She turned to the tree and kissed a spot, where no name had been carved.

“I love him,” she said. “I swear this it’s true. I love him, I love him, I love him, I do.”

And she carved her initials into the tree with a heart and an oath of her love. There was a sound, much like the slithering of a snake that came from within one of the black and fetid cankers of the old twisted tree. The Grieving Mother stepped back. Her heart was beating so fast. All she could think about was him. She didn’t notice at all, the pair of red boots sticking out from the tree, not an inch from where she stood. And she didn’t notice either, the willowy sigh that the tree made, as she skipped away.

In his carriage, The Ringmaster stood in front of the mirror masturbating. He had to lift his stomach with one hand so he could see the end of his penis being picked and pulled with the other. It was hard to keep balance, and he nearly tripped the moment he ejaculated.

Instead of going to bed, he sat down on a stool in front of a mirror, and he opened a box full of jewels. From the box, he took a set of emerald earrings which he placed on his ears, and a studded red gem, in his nose. Then he took from another drawer, a long black wig and he placed it gently over his balding head. He spent a great deal of time brushing and then combing the wig, stopping time and time again to gaze at his reflection as he gently ran his fingers in long strides through the silky, black hair.

Finally, he dressed his face in blush and shadow, and earthy lipstick. He pouted once or twice and kissed the back of a tissue, to dry off any wet remains. He stared at himself some more, and he thought with soft and delicate address. And before he left his carriage, he dressed himself in cotton panties, a long brightly coloured dress, and around his neck, a beautiful woollen shoal.

And tied in his hair, beside his left ear, he wore a yellow ribbon.

The Ringmaster stepped into his favourite heels and then made his way out of the carriage into the chill of the early morning air. It sent shivers across his arms and almost had him scream with sheer fright. He kept his calm, though, cupping his hands to his mouth and blowing warm air over his freshly painted nails.

He walked slowly across the dirt. Heels were impossible in sand, but he shifted most of his weight to the tips of his toes and managed to quickly shuffle across without much ado, and luckily, without an embarrassing stumble, even if it was only he about.

The whole encampment was asleep. The Ringmaster looked around and felt a wave of pride swelling in his heart. He felt warm and giddy. He just wanted to hug everybody, at once. But it was cold and early and he was tired; not to mention they all smelt so unsavoury.

The Ringmaster gently opened the broken screen door on The Young Cripple’s carriage. He carefully turned the handle, so as not to make any kind of sound. He stood there for a second in the darkness watching her sleep, and he looked with such sad address at her bent and folded legs, and at the contraction to which they were arrested.

He sighed lightly.

“It’s for the best, though,” he thought, hoping it was true.

Then he climbed into The Young Cripple’s bed and curled up beside her, pulling a lock of her hair from her face, before kissing her cheek and saying, “I love you, my dear. I’m sorry I’m not here as much as you need, or would like. I’m sorry. But I love you.” Then he kissed her cheek once more and rounded his face into the back of her neck before pulling the covers over them both and falling asleep.

The Young Cripple stirred, feeling The Ringmaster’s soft hands pressed against hers and seeing, in the moonlight, the glow of her painted nails, just under her chin. The young girl smiled and squirmed giddily. It had been so long.

“I love you, mother,” she said.

IV

Just before the break of dawn, there was a buzz of activity, even amidst the air of drunken slumber. Rex, the giant of a man, with hands like an undeveloped foetus’, rushed around the encampment ringing a ball that hanged from a rope of which was clenched between his teeth. His head swung back and forth with rigor as if the rope in his mouth were a tail that he was gnawing from a dead calf. And in the spaces between each ring, he shouted long strings of vowels that sounded as if he were trying to move a herd of stubborn cattle.

“Aaaa-eeee-ohhh-oh-aaaaa-eeee-ohhh-oh,” he sang, running through the encampment, swinging his head to and fro as he gently nudged and kicked at the doors of carriages, at the sides of tents, and against the backs of drunken performers, passed out in their soiled and torn attire.

It had been barely an hour or two since most, if not all, had buried their sick and drunken faces in their hands, and even less since they had collapsed upon their beds, to the cold wet dirt. Struggling to keep their eyes open and lift their aching bodies, it felt for most as if their heads were filled with granite and molten lava.

Still, as tired as they were, and as staggeringly impossible as this all seemed, one by one, they pulled themselves shy of their stupors and fumbled around in the dark, scouring through their belongings for their grey mats and black silk veils. Then, in the darkest hour, they each laid their mats on the ground facing east.

Not a word was uttered, not even so much as a grumbling complaint, as each person calmly took their place on their mats, ignoring the struggle and fight in their limbs, and the questionable authority in their tired and hung over minds. Each placed their veil with gentle care over the tops of their heads, so that the one end hung over the backs of their necks, while the other covered their eyes and noses, exposing only their lips, chin, and their ears – which stuck out the sides. They sat with their legs crossed, and their backs, erect and noble, like mountains.

In her carriage, The Young Cripple struggled to move her cumbersome legs about. There was no way she would be able to get down the stairs, not without making a racket. And she wouldn’t have the time either.

The last bell rang, sounding the beginning of Morning Prayer.

“Mother?” said The Young Cripple, looking desperate around her squalid room. “Are you there? Have you gone? Can you help?”

There was no sign of her whatsoever; aside from the mark that her body had left in the bed, from where they had slept. Normally she left a note. She would draw a picture of the two of them, so obviously happy, holding hands and smiling. She preferred pictures to words as only the child knew how to read or write. The Young Cripple loved her notes, as much as she loved to be held and coddled in her mother’s arms. But there was no note this morning.

Three bells rang in quick succession.

Desperate, The Young Cripple dived to her knees in what she thought was facing east. She had no idea, about anything really, not unless she was copying someone else. She tried to cross her legs but it was impossible, the metal contraptions would only let her legs lie straight in front of her, or tucked, as if they were broken, out to her sides like a duck.

There was a rattling of a drum, followed by what sounded like a bird cooing. Then a woman’s voice, like mist or light drizzle, spoke faintly as the troupe sat erect and noble on their mats, their thoughts trained on their breaths.

“Breathe deep my children,” said Gaia, herself breathing profoundly. “Inhale the night, the infinite dark, and fill your stomachs whole.”

The troupe all inhaled and held the ends of their breaths.

“I exist as air, as a bridge between night and day, between the void and infinite. I inhale nothingness into my lungs, and I paint upon it, with the Light that burns within me, all the colours of day,” said Gaia, inhaling profoundly. “Breathe in,” she said.

The troupe all raised their arms, lifting them up into the sky, their stomachs swelling like balloons.

“The voice,” Gaia said, “rides on the crest of the breath. So breathe then. Breathe and then speak with me. Because of I,” she said, lifting her hands above her head so that her mind’s eye peered through the triangle her fingers made.

“From darkness comes Light,” repeated the troupe, lifting their hands over their faces – their fingers too, positioned as triangles.

“Because of I,” she said again.

“From nothing comes life,” they said, exhaling their breaths and pushing their bodies forwards onto the mats, their arms outstretched before them.

“Breathe,” said Gaia, pointing her triangle on the edge of the horizon, where dawn was starting to break. “Breathe,” she said once more. “Colour this world with Light.”

Dawn indeed broke, in as much of a hurry as it did every morning. The troupe all stretched out their bodies. Erecting their backs once more, they pressed their palms together in prayer and cantered them at their chests.

“And before we fall away from our breaths, and again stretch into our skin, let us align our minds, our energy, and our bodies, with the Om of the omniverse,” Gaia said, hitting a small rubber hammer against a tuning fork that she held in her left hand.

The troupe all sounded the end of their prayer, aligning their thoughts. Some stayed cross-legged while others quickly dusted themselves off and returned, both, to their sore heads, and to their comfy beds.

V

The Father hadn’t budged, and he hadn’t managed an inch of sleep either. He sat now as he had all night, leaning against his son’s door, flicking through some old photos and clinging to his wife’s favourite blouse. It’s funny really, how back then, he didn’t much care for it, and he was never really shy of letting her know. And she too, in telling him where to shove it. And yet now, that fiery discourse was the one thing he longed for most, especially on nights as cold as these.

He turned his ear to the door to listen to his son sleeping, but it was difficult through the stacks of wooden planks that boarded it shut. He rested his palm on one of the planks, almost catching a splinter. And though his every desire begged and pleaded for him to tear it off and let the boy free, he swallowed the urge in a choking gulp and instead used the plank to leverage himself back on his feet, wiping away a tear as he shuffled down the dark corridor towards his bedroom.

He stood there in the open doorway, staring at the mattress on the floor, and at the crumpled sheets that were comfortably strewn about the bed, looking as if someone had taken their time to rouse from a lazy Sunday morning. Staring at the bed as he was, he could see his wife so vividly, rolling about beneath the blankets, and kicking at the sheets as if she were trying to push herself up and along some imaginary sandy bank, away from the rising tide of wakefulness, as obliging waves crashed upon her once quiet and sleepy shore.

He could see her as if she was actually there. The marks in the bed and the folds in the blankets and the sheets, they were as she had left them, the very last time that she had slept there. He could see her, even though she wasn’t there; even though she hadn’t been for such a long time. He could see her. He could see her as plain as he could see himself; looking sickly pale, malnourished, insomnolent, and delusional, in his reflection in the glass above the bed.

He could hear her too, cursing the sun, and moaning as she rolled about; but not in some torrid infantile manner. She moaned playfully as if she were merely stretching out and limbering her voice, as she did with her kicking legs.

The room was how she had left it, and he hadn’t touched it since. And it was a stark contrast to the mounds of bloodied towels, sanitary pads, and torn sheets that were piled in the laundry, reeking of dried vomit and excrement; and to the heap of dirt in the back garden where her body lay – buried carefully by their daughter, not far from her side.

He could see her – though she wasn’t actually there.

He could hear her – though the voice he was hearing was probably his own.

The Father went into the kitchen and poured himself a coffee. It was cold and bitter, and it had a pungent aftertaste that was like a mixture of detergent and rotting egg. It might have been made a day ago; it could have been over a year. Its taste though was no worse than the life of which he was attired; the life that hung off him like worn and stretched elastic; that reeked of abandon and disregard, and that was piss-stained and soiled with woeful defeat, and hermetic, self-loathing depression.

He stared down the hall, at the piles of splintered wooden planks, panels, and floor boards, nailed across his son’s door. He felt as if his heart, though he couldn’t hear it beating, was safe and sound, away from the death that continued to plague this town; the very same death that conspired with one’s heart, and abducted everything that mattered – all that one loved.

And though it tormented him, keeping his boy imprisoned with no doors or window – deaf to his condolence, and numb to his paternal caress – he had no choice. Death had already claimed so many in this town. It had taken every child, every dear pet, and nearly every other lover. This boy was the last child alive, the last child born out of love but enveloped in a father’s fear; kept close enough to be guarded, cared for and watched over, yet far enough for The Father’s love and compassion, to do him no harm.

Drinking his cold, fetid coffee and staring at the wooden boards, he imagined his son sitting on his bed, still but awake and with little joy on his face, for he feared the contrary would surely arouse Death’s regard. He thought of him instead as mute and dispassionate; as existing, but without any thoughts or feelings whatsoever. He thought of him as like an ant or a beetle, in the appearance of a boy.

He imagined him sitting on his bed without any desire to move, or any thought of feeling trapped, imprisoned, or in any way missing out. It brought The Father little joy to think of his son like this, but it brought him little worry either. And either one or the other, as was proverbially said, might well arouse a cursed and deathly suspicion.

He imagined the boy safe and sound, as a ward of his fearful state.

But behind the planks and wooden boards, behind every hammered nail, and behind too, every lock and chain that girded the bedroom door, inside the room with no way in and no way out, there was no boy. He wasn’t on the bed like his father imagined him being. And he wasn’t under it either, as would be the second place that anyone would ever look. He wasn’t hiding inside his wardrobe, and he wasn’t tucked behind the empty bookshelf. He wasn’t sulking behind the door, and he wasn’t anxiously pacing in any part of the room, left and right, and, back and forth.

In a room with no way in and no way out, The Young Boy simply wasn’t there.

And The Father stood lifeless, sipping his coffee, without any way of knowing.

VI

“My testicles itch,” said The Ringmaster. “They’re too close together. No, this won’t do, not at all.”

Wearing mauve, Lycra pants, and an orange bathrobe, The Ringmaster strutted back and forth on a makeshift runway outside his carriage door. At both ends of the runway, and stretched along both sides, stood his ten whores, each holding a large mirror in their hands. The Ringmaster flung his robe backward, keeping it as such with his hands anchored to his hips. He squeezed his buttocks tight and pushed his crotch outwards, swaying to and fro in front of each mirror, and ogling himself, just as every woman he encountered most certainly did.

He shook his head in disapproval at one mirror, before turning his attention to another. But in each, he found an obvious and apparent err, either in the way the mirror was being held or in the glass itself.

“This can’t be right,” he said. “You’re holding it wrong.”

“I must be,” said a bearded whore, angling the mirror away from The Ringmaster’s every facial objection, and hoping to hell that he’d just choose another. “I’m sorry, Master. They…”

“They look like squashed peas,” shouted The Ringmaster, swaying his hips left and right and examining the petite size and peculiar shape of his testicles.

The bearded whores all looked at one another. They each knew more than they were letting on, but like condescending mothers, they each turned to The Ringmaster and smiled, assuring.

“No,” they all said in unison. “That’s not true.”

“My love,” said Delilah, laying down her mirror and coming to her lover’s side. “The mirrors are obviously broken. Trust me when I tell you this,” she said, sounding as if it were patently true. “This is not in any way an honest reflection of your…stature,” she said, cupping his crotch with a wide berth, and widening her eyes in adamant surprise as if she had just found a wad of cash. “There is nothing small about you,” she said, laying a soft wet kiss on his upper lip.

Her beard tickled.

“All these mirrors are broken,” he shouted. “Who’s been fiddling with the settings of my mirrors?” he said. “Who?”

“My love,” said Delilah, stroking his hair to calm him down.

The Ringmaster huffed and puffed, and he sighed and stamped his right foot several times, digging a hole in the sand with the pointed end of his boots. He settled, though, deflating his bad mood.

“Are they really big?” he asked, staring innocently at Delilah.

“Enormous,” she said. “Obscenely large. Believe me, it’s all anyone can see when they look at you. They’re wonderful,” she said, cupping his crotch once more.

“Still,” said The Ringmaster. “They itch. It’s the pants. It has to be the pants. Do we have a different colour? And a smaller size,” he ordered.

“The woman,” said Delilah, her voice sounding like a cupboard being dragged across a wooden floor. “Is she…staying?”

“Why, my dear Delilah,” said The Ringmaster. “You’re not jealous…. Are you?”

It was hard to see behind her prickly beard, but Delilah was gritting her teeth and struggling to smile. She tried to think about something innocuous, something she could easily feign interest in. She thought about the tea The Ringmaster loved to drink after sex, and how it tasted like toe sweat. It wouldn’t quell, though, her quaking, jealous rage. Then she thought about the things she had to do, and didn’t want to do, but did anyway, because she loved him; more than he could ever imagine. She thought about all those things that she did; the things where she smiled as she did them. But nothing was coming.

“Well?” asked The Ringmaster, provokingly.

Then she thought about The Ringmaster’s daughter; that ugly, dim-witted, and needy fucking cripple. She thought about how much of her own life had been spent attending to her like an unwanted pregnancy; picking up after her, looking out for her, and towing her along like a sack of soiled garments. And yet, no matter how many times she left her behind – stowing her here and hiding her there, and stripping her of her metal braces – like a mouse that won’t drown, or a dog that won’t move on, time after time, and attempt after exhausted attempt, that goddamn cripple always found her way home. And each time, Delilah would feign concern and panicked delight. And each time, she would wear the same smile as she did now.

“Not myself,” she said. “I think only of the others. The poor girls.”

They both stared at the other nine whores who, hearing the conversation and its earnest tone, huddled together like frightened sheep, each trying to work their way into the middle of the group and abscond from what felt like, The Ringmaster’s awakening to their uselessness and inevitable and heartbreaking eviction.

“Would she even have a place? Think about the poor woman. She’s just lost her child for goodness sake. She’ll be whimpering on your ear from here to eternity. She’ll bring down the mood, you know she will. And she has that strange colour. They all do. I’m only thinking about her mind you, and the other whores of course. And well…” she said, pausing to run her delicate fingers through her thick beard. “What about your daughter? We have to think about the poor girl, and what something like this would mean. She could get confused with another woman coming in, especially one who has lost a child, and will no doubt cling onto anything that is not hers. And after all, she already has a mother who cares for her,” she said, thinking of herself and almost choking on her vomit as she did.

“I’m her mother,” said The Ringmaster. “My daughter knows this. I’ll make sure the new whore knows it too. You have nothing to worry about. You’re still my number one,” he said, kissing his favourite patch of prickly hair on the side of her face.

“Master,” said Rex, stumbling through the encampment with a pair of Lycra pants in his deformed, wretched hands. “Plum would look wonderful on you,” he said.

In her carriage, The Young Cripple stood in front of her mirror practicing her curtsey, and her womanly handshake, if that’s what people here preferred when they met. It was difficult, though, with this horrible metal contraption tied to her legs. It looked as if she were growing out of mechanical scaffolding, but scaffolding that bent and twisted from her ankles up to the tops of her legs, so that her buttocks almost sat on the sharp edges of the metal contraption like a corrugated seat. If she were to sit on the ground and lay her legs out flat, the contraption, and her legs mind you, would look like a metallic sea, with each twist and fold, looking like a set of waves, pushing from hips, down to her toes. And though there were many twists and bends, still, her legs moved in a robotic fashion, and something as trivial as a curtsey, was almost impossible, and was almost insulting to have to witness.

“Good morning,” she said to her reflection, pretending it was somebody else. “Do you have a personal relationship with Light?” she asked, gently lifting her hand forward to offer a pamphlet.

This was where she would have liked to have curtseyed. Others would do it right at the start, after saying ‘Good morning’, or even just before. Most would save it for right at the end. That was tricky, though. You had to time it right, just before the door got slammed in your face, or else you’re just giving good manners and common courtesy to a door. The Young Cripple preferred, though, just as she handed the flyer.

“Do you have a minute to take about the Light, The Sun of God?”

In her head, the person smiles, hugs her, and says yes. They then take her into their house and offer her some yogurt; either that or some fancy cheese. They talk for some time about salvation and Light, and The Young Cripple talks about her personal experience, and how she overcame the worst possible adversity, just by letting The Sun of God touch her skin and warm her heart by believing. Then the person offers her some tea, but not the kind she normally drinks, this tea tastes like things that might grow in a garden, as opposed to what can be collected from a horse’s brow. And then in her head, the person becomes her mother, and she invites her out into the garden to run and play, and The Young Cripple is dubious at first, and a little embarrassed, but when she looks down, she has legs like most normal kids. And they run and they play, and her mother promises that if she really wants, they can stay.

“Soldiers of Light, front and centre,” shouted Rex.

Torn from her wonderful daydream, The Young Cripple stared at herself once more and the joy drained from her face. She looked as she always did, like a box that had been trodden on, and left out in the rain.

“Lord take me home, take me home, take me home,” she sang woefully. “Lord, listen to me, please. Make my home anywhere but here.”

She stumbled outside, arousing the annoyed awareness of her fellow troupe, they, bugged and perturbed by the sound of screeching metal, and worn and rusted hinges. At the centre of camp, by the old diseased tree, The Ringmaster stood on his small podium and addressed his people.

“Let me be brief,” he said, holding his right hand over his left breast, and his other, clutched around his sparkling cane.

The troupe all moved forwards, bunching together like grains, escaping from a small split in a sack. Scampering between the legs of one and all was a tiny monkey that made its way to the front of the crowd and onto the podium by The Ringmaster’s feet, tugging lightly on his coattails and begging to come aboard.

“I can’t stress how important today is, not just in terms of our performance, but in the good that we can do in this town, and of our responsibility – of the great burden we bear, as carriers of the Light. We are where we belong right now, where we are meant to be. The seed of purpose,” he said rousingly, swaying his chest left and right as if his sagging breasts were fog lights, guiding lost vessels away from the rocky shores of their own inevitable and invincible self-sabotage. “In you,” he said, speaking to all but heard by all as if each were the only one. “In you it has been sown,” he shouted. “And it flowers, and it blooms. And I can see before me, a garden of Light, and one of purpose, and belief.”

The troupe all smiled. Their teeth were all worn and crooked, and for many, their mouths looked like poorly stacked bookshelves. Still, when they smiled as they did, there was genuine warmth and kindness that radiated in such a way that it was hard not to want to be involved, and to smile too.

“Each of you carries the Light of God in your heart and in your eyes. We go into the dark now, where we can assume that there is no Light, a place where Light has never been. But these people are men and women just like us, and just like us, they cannot exist without Light, for Light is everywhere, and Light is in everything. It is our work,” he said pausing, clearing his breath and then composing himself. “It is your work, to scour through their infinite dark, and find that infinitesimal flicker of Light within them. It is your work to help them to see the Light, and to douse that Light in the accelerant of your loving kindness. Today is the day; a day of love, compassion….of Light!”

“Love Light, Love Light, Love Light,” chanted the troupe, stamping their feet as if the earth were a great drum; and beating their fists into the air, as if they were smashing through an invisible wall above their heads.

“One more thing,” he shouted, catching all of their attentions. “Open every door, and close every sale. Every rejection you get is the moment your sales and your pitches begin. There is only yes. Every no leads to a yes. Every locked door has a well versed and compassionate key. I expect a hundred percent conversion. You are beings of Light. I expect nothing less. If you miss one conversion…just one” he said, mimicking with thumb and index finger, the most insignificant of amounts. “Do not expect a place for you here. Don’t waste your breath on an excuse or an apology. Don’t expect me to care or to give you a second chance. For if you cannot see Light in another, then you have lost the Light in yourself, and you are void. You are nothing! But for the rest of you, my victors, my warriors, my Soldiers of Light, today is your day. Go out there. In the name of Light, The Sun of God, go out there and give love. Give kindness. Give Light. Use whatever means necessary. Always be closing. Convert every sale. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The troupe all chanted with him, their faces beaming with persuasive energy. The Ringmaster smiled as he watched his troupe aroused with loving compassion. From upon his podium, he waved royally to his amorous army, sending kisses from the palm of his hand as they turned to march out of the encampment.

“Father.”

It was The Young Cripple at the top of her stairs. Though she could climb them easy enough (easy, but painfully slow and with enormous difficulty), getting down was always a tricky affair, and one that she could not muster on her own. She held onto the broken doorframe, swaying like a mechanical flag in the wind. And surely this was how this poor broken door had ended up this way, with its rusted and worn hinges not nearly stern enough for The Young Cripple’s desultory and discourteous wobbling.

Her voice made The Ringmaster tense, but he stopped and turned nonetheless.

“What?” he said, not looking in her direction.

“I can’t get down,” she said, “not by myself. Not without falling.”

The Ringmaster inhaled profoundly and exhaled expressively.

“OK,” he said. “Hurry up.”

The Young Cripple smiled. Her giddiness almost had her careen over herself and end up wasting her father’s thinly spread patience. She smiled, though, not because this mean brute that she called ‘Father’ was finally paying her attention, no, not that. He was an ass; a complete buffoon. And he was a mean, stupid, so-and-so. No, she didn’t smile for him or his attention, and how he carried her like a shit-filled bed pan. No, she smiled because today she was sure she would finally make a friend.

“I’ve been practicing,” she said, “all morning. Do you want to see and hear?”

The Ringmaster was kneeling before her with a spanner in his hand, tightening the bolts on the metal contraption that kept her legs upright. He grunted once or twice and shook his head in annoyance. “Hold still,” he shouted, wrenching the bolts around and around so that the contraption pulled tighter and tighter on the young girl’s legs.

“Ouch,” she said. “That hurts.”

“Don’t complain to me. It’s for your own good. You think I like having to do this every morning? Especially after you go and loosen it every night. You don’t think I know it’s too tight? You don’t think my fingers know this? You don’t think they hurt? You don’t think, do you? Little beast.”

“I’m sorry, Father,” she said, bowing her head submissively. “You’re right. One day though when my legs get better…”

“That day’s not today, so focus. Don’t be the stitch in my side all the time, goddamn it. Stop! Slowing! Me! Down!” he said.

“I wrote another story,” she said, taking a small crinkled paper from her pocket to show her father.

The Ringmaster tore the paper from her hands, looking at it as if it were a stain on a perfectly good garment. He spat on the paper and tore it into tiny shreds, and then rolled the shreds into a ball, and then swallowed it. The Young Cripple bit her lip. She looked as if she had sucked on a dozen lemons, but she wasn’t about to cry. She’d learned that lesson already.

“What have I told you about writing that filth? Well? Tell me goddamn it.”

“Stories are no good,” she said.

“Your stories are filthy and arcane, they are blasphemous and evil. There is only one story, that of Light, and The Sun of God. You wanna tell stories you little bitch…then tell that story. That is the only story that matters; of Light, compassion, sacrifice, and loving kindness. The Sun of God, The Sun of God, The Sun of fucking God,” he shouted, smacking the side of The Young Cripple’s head with the ball of his palm. “Get it through your thick, dim-witted skull. Light is love and love is Light. The Sun of God, The Sun of God. Say it with me,” he said, gripping the girl around her throat.

“The Sun of God,” they said, over and over, in unison.

Both shook fervently – he with command, and she, with fear.

“That’s right. The Sun of God is everything and there is nothing more. Do you hear me?”

The girl nodded her head.

“There’ll be none of this story business anymore. Your mother taught you in all the wrong ways. She gave you the wrong kind of hope and the very worst kind of encouragement. If I have to,” said The Ringmaster in ardent threat, “I’ll make her go away for good.”

“No,” said The Young Cripple pleadingly. “Please, I promise I’ll stop writing stories, I promise, from now, only The Sun of God, only The Sun of God. Please, don’t make Mother go away, not again, please…”

The Ringmaster turned prudently. His silence was agreement. The girl knew this, but she knew to leave it at that, for there was nothing her father hated more than needless whining.

“Hi, do you have a personal relationship with Light?” said The Young Cripple, smiling as she hobbled along, practicing her introduction.

The Ringmaster turned to his daughter and watched her struggle along the stony path. Each leg had to be heaved with such intense vigour for her to move along, inch by painful inch. He stood in two kinds of awe; on one hand, partly impressed by the ingenuity of this mechanical contraption, and on the other, greatly disgusted by his daughter’s intent to go on. As she hobbled beside him, he looked at her and smiled. She smiled back. And then he kicked one of her legs from under her and she fell flat on her face.

“What doesn’t kill me….” he said, walking off with a smirk. “Monkey, come!” he said, clicking his fingers. The little monkey climbed his coat tails and scampered up on his hat, curling its tail around the brim, helping to shade The Ringmaster’s eyes from the morning sun’s strong glare.

The Young Cripple dragged herself to her feet and spat a mound of dust from her mouth. “Hi,’ she said, waveringly as she fought to find her balance. “Do you have a personal relationship with Light?”

VII

The Young Boy crept slowly beneath his house, pushing himself along with his legs, flat and outstretched like a squashed frog. There was little wriggle room between his body and the rotting beams above; just enough so that his right ear scraped but didn’t catch, on protruding nails. He was no amateur, though. He had made this escape enough times now so that there was a permanent channel where his body dragged, which ran from below his dresser to the laundry door, which had been bricked over some years ago. The thought of escaping was far direr and exhilarating than the act itself, which was barely a challenge anymore, and hardly much fun.

He always liked to lay still for a while, in the mound of dirt beneath the sofa in living room. It had become something of a ritual over the years but now, it was just something that he did without any thought, or any good reason whatsoever.

When he was really young, when something like this was more of a challenge, he would escape most nights at around eleven, or a bit before midnight. He would lie where he lay now, completely still, making sure he was breathing as quiet as possible and, pushing his body up so his right ear pressed against the wooden floorboards above, he would listen to his parents talking. He was a lot smaller back then so there was more room between his right ear and the many nails that stuck out, like jagged hairs in an old man’s nose.

Mum and dad’s favourite show started at twelve, but they’d get the sofa ready a few minutes before, and they’d sit and talk, about anything really, but differently to how they talked during the day, and a lot less condescending than when they talked around him or his sister.

The Young Boy could never really explain it. They just sounded different, as if they’d stopped all of a sudden, pretending to be grown up and so serious-like. They spoke just like kids. They talked about all the things they wanted to do, but they didn’t ruin it like most grown-ups did, by saying all the reasons why they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or most definitely shouldn’t; like when The Young Boy had wanted a puppy, for instance, and there were a thousand reasons why it was impossible for them to have one, or his sister, before she got sick, and how the only thing in the world that she wanted was to ride a pony on the moon – but that was just cute and silly, and eventually mocked with belittling half-assed laughter.

No, at a bit before twelve every night, they didn’t speak like that at all. They sounded so confident about the future and so unaffected by all of the bad things that were happening right now. And when they weren’t talking with passion and colour about which room they wanted to paint, or where they wanted to put up shelves, they were all nostalgic, talking about how big the kids had grown, and how far they’d come together in such a short time, and how time itself, felt like it had flown by, and yet, at the same time, how it always felt like it had been forever.

The Young Boy never really listened to what they said as much as how they said it. To him, it was like listening to a song without knowing the lyrics. And he’d lie there each night, with his right ear pressed against the wooden beams, smiling to himself and wishing he could be there, sitting between them on the sofa. Now, though, as it had become an irrational habit, like picking his nose, or in the odd way that he held a fork, he lay still, beneath the living room sofa, listening to his father snivel and weep.

In the distance, he could hear bells ringing, and it broke him from his usual stupor. They rang three times and by the third, he was already out from underneath the house and hiding behind a pile of rubble that partly blocked off the side entrance. The crazy neighbour was out again looking for one of her cats. It might have gotten lost, or gone on an adventure, or it might have crawled somewhere to die. She paced back and forth on the road in front of her house, opposite where The Young Boy hid, hunched over and patting her old and crooked knees, calling the cat’s name over and over.

“Ti-ti-ti,” she said. “Come to mummy, Ti-ti-ti, come to mummy. It’s din-din time. Come on Ti-ti-ti. Mummy loves you.”

The Young Boy knew the cat was dead, it had to be. Nobody spoke like that anymore. Nobody said that word, not without someone dying, or something breaking or being taken from you. It was like she didn’t even know or she didn’t care. She was either stupid, stubborn, or just downright ballsy, standing up to Death like that.

Still loving….

Even though…..

The Young Boy snuck along the verges and shrubbery of his neighbour’s yard that were as grey and smudged as the sky, the clouds and the sun, and sketched as crudely as the sidewalks, the bitumen, and all the cars and people that travelled upon them. He ducked under his neighbour’s window, stopping briefly to listen to her bickering with herself over what volume the television should be on.

The argument was completely one sided. It wasn’t too long ago though that there was a combatant, and most of the time an instigator, to the bickering. Theirs was the kind of fighting that cleared trees of nesting birds, and like a contagious laugh or a case of the flu, inspired others into their own frustrated nit-picking, nagging and needless squabbling.

And the woman, Anna, revolved around the one spot like a planet, or a ball on a stick, as if she were gravitating toward some blistering ass whose ignorant opinions and pig headed decisions were, after all these years, the only memories she had been able to keep of the man she once loved.

So she bickered alone, her part at least. His couldn’t be heard outside her thoughts, but at worst, could be imagined, or at the very least assumed. She was so good, though, anyone would think that she was an artist, and not some inward thinking lunatic, if at all they are two separate things.

She knew her part off by heart. She knew everything. She knew his every sly and sniping insinuation, and to her logical defence, his every bigoted and sexist rebuttal. She knew everything he would say he had done, and everything that he’d have no recollection of doing. She knew every one of his arms and munitions; his every poor excuse and defence. She knew his every scour, her every flinch, and their every disquieted pause. She knew just where to draw the line, and she knew exactly when he would cross it. She knew when to sit on the corner of the bed, and she knew which corner to always sit on. She knew when to sigh in defeat, and she knew which fingers to push into her temple. She knew each word of his drivelling apology, and how to shrug off his delusionary condolence. And she knew, just as much as everything else, how far he would go to make his point, and she knew just as plainly, how much farther she would have to travel, for him to make a pitiful and incredulous amends.

And of him, of the man she had spent the entirety of her life loving, this was all she had. So in her bedroom, she swung like a pendulum, moving on the balls of her feet, on light feet, back and forth like a fighter, as if her lover’s memory were some creepy insect that she was garnering the courage to squash. She didn’t though, and she probably never would. She hadn’t the will to stamp him out. In the back of her mind, she knew that as dirty, diseased, and disgusting as this one particular memory was, it was all that she had. And to be without it, meant to be undeniably alone.

As she wept into her clutching hands, The Young Boy continued his escape, creeping low behind every bush to avoid detection. The town was always so busy in the morning, regardless of what day it was. It was as if the whole world woke up every morning and hurried into their cars and then all rushed downtown, expecting everything to be changed, hoping for a miracle that something would be different, anything.

The Young Boy had forgotten how people were before. He sort of remembered, but he didn’t know if it was a memory of something he had seen, or whether it was just something he had thought about so many times that it had stuck. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the things one remembered doing, and the things one spent a lifetime wishing could have been done. Memories were like that – as believable as they were fictitious.

There was one road in and out of town, and it was seldom used. At the start of that road, there was a sign that read ‘Emergency Exit Only – Door Alarm Will Sound – Do Not Obstruct’.

The Young Boy ignored the warnings and made his way onto the road, his eyes set on the massive tent whose point stuck out like a glimmering diamond amidst a bedpan of cigarette ash and diarrhoea, and his only thoughts were of escape.

VIII

“It’s a beautiful day,” said The Ringmaster.

“Is it? Is it really?” replied Delilah, the bearded whore.

The troupe marched with more zest than they had the previous night. It was a short run between their encampment and town, and compared to the journey they had just ended, it was the equivalent of stumbling upon an outhouse in the dark. The Ringmaster and his ten whores sat tall and noble upon their steeds while the rest of the troupe danced and pranced about; some jumping and skipping while others moved like the wheels of a carriage, cartwheeling their way into town. There was a buzz and an energy that the troupe hadn’t felt in some time, and some had never felt at all.

“Why are you so glum?” said The Ringmaster. “It is show day, the most magnificent day in the omniverse. Don’t you feel the energy? Don’t you just want to climb something really tall, or shout out to the heavens…It’s glorious to be alive,” he shouted. “Hallelujah. Praised be to Light. I thank God I’m alive,” he shouted even louder, thrusting his cane into the air. “The feeling of air and the breath of God upon my skin, and Light, his golden watch, upon my face. Hallelujah, praise the lord, Praise be to…..”

The Ringmaster stopped abruptly.

So too did the jubilant jeering.

“What?” he asked, finally turning to Delilah. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“It’s not nothing. It can’t be nothing. There has to be something, or else I wouldn’t have said anything. What? What’s the matter?”

“It’s not important, don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” he said. “I’m discontented. And so are you. Something has you riled, all tense and…..well, not acting like a number one at all.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well this,” he said, shaking his jazz hands in her direction. “It’s not you. You’re much more evolved than this type of ….. I don’t know. This type of behaviour, this childish sulking, it’s something I’d expect from a seven or a nine.”

Behind them, whores seven and nine both lowered the heads. It wasn’t so much being openly shamed as they were; it was in knowing that it was true. That’s why their heads hanged as low as they did; looking as if their necks had been snapped.

“Just tell me,” ordered The Ringmaster.

He sounded crazed and belligerent. He sounded like he wanted an answer. And maybe that’s what he thought she needed to hear, to keep what was really bugging her to herself, and to tell him what he wanted to hear. And though he sounded as if he were extracting puss form a sore, most of the swelling was in the back of his own mind. He said, “Hurry up then,” but what he hoped was that she would take her time. Then he begged her to, “Tell me what’s wrong.” And hoped to hell it was none of lurid and treacherous things he had done when he thought that she wasn’t around.

“Is it something I’ve done?” he asked.

It was like there was a fire in his head that was melting the skin on his face and boiling his brain into a sticky and malodorous jelly. His ears tingled, the hairs on his neck all stood on end, and he got this feeling in his stomach as if he’d swallowed a whole potato, and it was quickly burning its way to his intestines. He felt like this, every time she caught him lying. And he tried to play cool. He tried to act stern and magisterial, as if he were exercising her of a deep seeded demon, of her unconscionable jealousy, and of wickedness, which was the scourge of women far lesser than she. He tried, in his brutish and didactic address, to bully her into not only admitting that nothing was wrong but into acting like it too; regardless of how she felt.

“Your beard smells particularly delicious,” he said, changing the mood.

He leaned his face against hers, taking a deep whiff of the long and smooth hairs on her face, before massaging lightly, the part of her beard that bristled lightly against her bosom.

“What perfume did you use? What is that delectable scent?”

“Just some petals and herbs,” she said, acting coy, and still fused by rage, but by one that was becoming faint and indistinguishable from the host of other new feelings that were rising to the surface; feelings that were quickly distracting her from the clarity and reason of her poor demeanour.

The Ringmaster whiffed once more, this time burying his face into hers and moaning loudly. “I’m deadly serious. I haven’t smelt anything so….. I don’t even have the words to describe it, or how I feel. It’s delectable. It’s suave, it’s mauve, or it’s wisteria. Mmmm,” he said as if he had just licked the scent from a crack in his bottom lip. “You know what it is?” he said.

Delilah turned to him, curious.

“It’s rain. It’s rain isn’t it? The smell of rain on warm bitumen, and the touch of light drizzle on sunburned skin. It’s relieving. It’s fresh. That’s what you smell like. Relief. Salvation. A cure to life’s perpetual sting. What is it? It’s rain isn’t it? It’s rain,” he said.

“Alligator piss,” she said, smiling to herself, feeling proud. “And some candle wax, a pinch of beetle dung, and some other things.”

“This is one of your scents? You made this yourself?”

He sounded genuine in his surprise. But it wasn’t the kind of token surprise that had one feeling inutile and for the most part, lucky. This was the kind of avid surprise that made one feel singled out, and more than they had ever imagined themselves being.

“I did,” she said. “It was nothing, though.”

“It’s not nothing,” said The Ringmaster, this time in playful and inspiring intimidation.

“I suppose,” said Delilah, her cheeks turning red.

“I want you to tell me everything,” he said, certain that she had now forgotten, or at the very least recovered, from the thought of his constant philandering.

As they rode their steeds, she spoke, and he listened to her every word.

Behind them, on a rickety old wooden carriage that was fit for little more than dragging along a pile of sticks, and with wheels that were as round as the sharp corners on an even rectangle, The Young Cripple sat, awkwardly, but nevertheless she sat, holding onto the sides so as not to fly off with every nudge and bump, and ignoring the foul flatulence that spilled like a leaking tap, from the horse which dragged her along.

There was something about arriving in a new town that inspired The Young Cripple to ignore the tumult of her continuous pain. The thought of new places was always so fascinating; electrified by wonder and what-ifs, even if, like other hundred thousand towns through which they had passed, they always ended up looking and sounding the same, like a less articulate version of her father.

But that didn’t mean that this town would be no different. Just look at it! She had never seen anything like it before, at least, not outside of a comic. It seemed as if whatever architect had drawn this city, had set their table on an oddly lean, or that they themselves, had had a crooked arm or a crooked eye, just like she had crooked legs, and they had drawn the whole town at an absurd angle.

In how they stuck out, the buildings, houses, and towers, they seemed to defy gravity or common sense for that matter. They were erected on all sorts of angles, sticking out in all sorts of ways. From a distance, it all looked like a poorly assembled collage, as if each part were stuck over the other with only the bigger picture in mind.

The closer they got, though, the stranger it all seemed as each house and building seemed to warp back to a sense of normality and appeared to be standing upright and sane, as any building should. The Young Cripple wiped her eyes, thinking it was they which were crooked, or her perception distorted, as it seemed all that time on the road, as she eyed a perpetual bend on the horizon, that which never came.

And the absence of colour, oh my!

The Ringmaster sat high on his steed, facing his troupe and accompanied by his cherished whore. He looked pleased and confident. He looked well fed and rested.

“You each have your readers, your cleansers, and your binders. And you each have your mission. Everything has already been said. Let me just reiterate a thing or two. I cannot stress the importance of listening. It is what we are here for; to hear, to listen. Let them tell their stories. Write down every word, every syllable, and every pause and mutter. It all matters in the end. And when they are done, not when you think they are done, but when there are entirely expelled, and their eyes are like exhausted deserts, when they are free from their turmoil and their past. When their minds are like blank canvases, then and only then, do you commence with the reading. I cannot stress this enough. Then and only then! Do not be perturbed by what you see here, and in the eyes and in the colour of those we have come to save, by what you cannot. Though we see darkness, remember that they too are human, for when they look at us, they see colour, and their eyes fill with Light. Go with The Sun of God. Go with Light,” said The Ringmaster.

“And as such, we go as one,” sang the troupe, before erupting into a cheer, but quiet cheer, the kind that wouldn’t fault a librarian.

Beside her lover, Delilah reached her hand out to take his, but The Ringmaster had already taken his reins and was leading his horse down the cobblestone road.

“My love,” said Delilah. “Shall we not pray and heal together?”

The Ringmaster didn’t turn. He raised the back of his hand.

“Heal with the girl. May Light be with you,” he said.

“Amor, please,” she shouted. And “Motherfucker,” is what she thought.

The other whores all sniggered. Delilah turned and scowled in their direction. It wouldn’t be long now until their master found himself someone new, someone more beautiful than she, and someone whose beauty was not stained by pestering jealousy, and the fear of being replaced. She knew this, and yet, as much sense as it made, she couldn’t convince herself to feel any different. Such was the course of her love.

“Where do you think he’s gone?” said one whore to another.

“That funeral woman. I bet he bedded her. And I bet that’s just where he’s going,” replied the other whore.

“We’ve only ten horses,” said whore number seven. “If he chooses her and if he falls in love, then which one of us will have to go? I don’t know what else to do,” she shouted hysterically.

“Shut up,” said Delilah, slapping whore number seven. “Have trust and have faith in our Master’s love. He knows what is best. His will and his plan, they are beyond your gossip and conspiracy. Have faith for God’s sake. Faith in him. Faith in yourself.”

Delilah now led the troupe.

“On our master’s words and wishing, let us cleanse this town of illness.”

The troupe spread apart, moving in pairs, door to door throughout the city. They carried binders and electronic equipment in their hands and merry smiles upon their faces. Those who were first to their doors stood quiet and pensive. They didn’t rush to knock or to be the first to claim salvation. They stood and waited while the others spilled through the town like a colourful wave, breaking away in pairs at each door and waiting like the others behind, while the wave made its way through every nook and cranny, through every cul-de-sac and dead end, and through every dark and seedy corner of this cursed, grey town. In a short time, the entire troupe stood in pairs, at the doorsteps of every house and shanty. And they stood, as you know, quiet and pensive, waiting for their command.

“You,” said Delilah, hinting at The Young Cripple. “Come,” she said, tapping her leg as if the child were well-groomed with obedient manner, but still stinking, filthy, and with matted fur; the kind of dog one would prefer to pat with a stick, or with the bottom of one’s Wellingtons.

The Young Cripple hated Delilah, just as the wife of a drunk might hate, the knuckles on the bastard’s fist, or how a mother might hate, the bloodied syringes that dirtied up her son’s room.

A horn sounded.

Then three bells.

Then, at once, the knocking on doors.

“Hi,” the entire troupe said in unison. “Do you have a personal relationship with Light?”

As the troupe worked their magic, and their feet wedged against shutting doors, The Young Cripple hobbled along, trying to keep up with Delilah who was already at the door of a house, hardly giving her the chance to catch up.

“You have to wait,” whispered The Young Cripple, but whispered in a way that was akin to shouting. “Father said so.”

Delilah squirmed in her skin.

“If you were mine I would have aborted,” she said.

“Excuse me?” said The Young Cripple.

“You heard me,” said Delilah, as the girl approached. “If I were carrying you, I would have drunk excessively, and thrown myself down a flight of stairs, repeatedly.”

The Young Cripple made her way onto the porch. It was difficult as many of the wooden steps were missing, and the house itself had all of its windows boarded up.

“It looks abandoned,” said The Young Cripple.

“Just because its eyes are shut, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t long to see. Whoever lives here is afraid, that is all. Look around at this grey disparity. Who wouldn’t shut themselves away, board up their eyes, and imagine Light? Get ready; we’re already late because of you, and those useless legs.”

The Young Cripple struggled a bit but managed in the end to take off the heavy rucksack without losing her balance. “It might be easier for you to carry,” she said, “on account that you have that horse and all.”

“I am a whore,” said Delilah. “Do you know what that means?”

The Young Cripple shook her head.

“Whores do not carry things,” she said. “Servants and peasants, and proles and slaves, they carry things. But whores….whores do not exert. They do not lift or pull. And whores do not push and shove. Whores,” she said regally. “Whores are delicate. They are cared for and attended to. Whores are like sunsets and beautiful flowers. Whores are like anniversaries, to be well spent at their every passing and occasion. Whores are…”

“Shall I knock or….”

“Your eyes are too close together,” said Delilah, crassly, knocking the girl’s hand away.

“Yeah, well your beard isn’t straight.”

“At least I have one. Cripple.”

“Stupid head.”

“Orphan.”

“Bitch.”

“Slu… Hi, good morning,” said Delilah, turning to the door with a disingenuous smile on her face. “Do you have a personal relationship…”

“Fuck off,” said The Father, slamming the door shut.

The Young Cripple sniggered. “Want me to try?”

“Shut up.”

Delilah had never had a door slammed in her face before, or even a face turn away for that matter. What type of decrepit man would treat a whore in this lowly manner? He must have been mistaken or caught glimpse of the girl instead.

“Hide your face. It’s off-putting.”

The Young Cripple stuck her tongue out. She didn’t believe the horrible things Delilah told her, only the horrible things she told herself. She knew her face wasn’t mangled or pudgy, and she knew her eyes weren’t disproportionately positioned, even though they probably were. If Delilah said it, there was no way it could be true.

“Cover those things,” said Delilah, hinting at the girl’s deformed legs. “Haven’t you a dress or something? I can see your knees. My God!”

“Can I borrow your shoal then? You don’t need it. It’s not even cold out.”

“Could….say could for god sake. Try not to be such an imp with your requests. Besides, a shoal provides more than comfort. It endows one with style and elegance, the traits of a refined whore. These are traits my dear of which a thing of your calibre and breed could never bear, so long as you get about with those metal stirrups and dress like some impoverished tramp. And that hair of yours….like a horse’s bed. Unsightly. Unwomanly. Unwhorely. If you were mine, I’d shave it off and parade you round as a boy. Now shut up,” Delilah said, “and let me work my magic. All men are mine,” she said, masturbating her thick brown whiskers.

Knock, knock.

“Who’s there?”

“A bearded whore,” said Delilah.

Leaning against the door, The Father quietly loaded shells into his shotgun. His expression was disturbed as if what she’d said made no sense, which, of course, it did not.

“Go away,” said The Father. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

“But my dear,” said Delilah, “if you turn me away, you will break my heart; a pain for which only a kiss can cure.”

The Young Cripple mocked her, sticking her finger in her mouth and pretending to be sick. “Shut up,” said Delilah, kicking her legs.

Knock, knock.

“You must be so alone, in this great big house, this enormous house,” she said, emphasizing her adjectives. “Surely a strong man like you would take a few minutes with a demure whore such as myself, to talk, if that is what you want to do.”

The Young Cripple shook her head.

“You’re gross,” she said.

The Father’s breath quickened and his hands shook frenziedly. His heart was beating so fast too, so much that time itself felt like a vortex of pending death and urgency, which was spinning sickeningly in circles around his head. He hadn’t the nerve to negotiate, or the coordination to cock the goddamn gun.

“My love. May I call you that?”

“No,” said The Father.

“Then what is your name?”

“I have no name,” he said.

“But everyone must have a name.”

“I have no reason to be spoken to, or spoken of. I have no name, no past, and no culture for you to decipher. I. Am. Not,” declared The Father.

Delilah did not take rejection well. Her methods became direct.

“Fuck me then. Bed with me, and make whatever kind of love to me that you desire,” she said, pushing her breasts into the spy hole. “If not for you, then for me. Surely you have a heart that beats, and that wouldn’t leave a lady in such distress.”

The shotgun cocked.

“Unbelievable,” she said, marching off the porch and storming down the driveway, clanking her angry heels as did.

She muttered to herself something about sexual dysfunction and bestiality. It was an insult of some kind, but more than that, it was her way of feeling less estranged and perturbed by what others thought of her when they weren’t fanning her affection, or goading their way into her good favour, and in turn, between her slippery sheets.

“Goat fucker,” she screamed, stumbling up the road towards the next house.

The Father turned to see if she had gone, or whether it was just a ruse.

The Young Cripple turned to leave, being pestered and buggered by her father’s whore. As she did, her legs let out a whining screech and The Father turned quickly, gun in hand. He pressed the barrel against the door, at the height of a man’s chest.

“Fire,” he thought.

His hands shook and sweat stung his eyes.

“Fire the goddamn gun. Just fucking shoot. Shoot.”

The Young Cripple’s legs sounded like a cannon, or some great ramming instrument, being dragged along The Father’s porch. “Kill them, before they find the boy.” He hadn’t the courage to peep through the hole. He stood paralysed with the gun aimed at the height of a man’s chest while The Young Cripple stood with her ear against the door, at the height of the gun’s barrel.

The Father’s finger touched the trigger.

“Hello,” she said. “Are you still there, sir?”

The Father backed away from the door, but the gun stayed aimed at where he assumed the girl’s head may be. “What do you want?” he said.

“Only to talk is all.”

“You’re a child.”

“I am,” said The Young Cripple. “But I’m not all bad if that’s how most kids are.”

“Go away, you’ve no business being here,” said The Father, backing up, with fear inching his finger towards the trigger. “I haven’t had to hurt anyone yet, but I will if you don’t leave right now.”

“It’s ok. I won’t do any bad. I promise. I’m just a kid.”

“That’s exactly what I was afraid of. Go away. Leave here. Leave this town. Don’t ever come back, no matter what you hear, no matter what anyone says. You come back here, and I’ll kill you. You hear?”

His back was now resting against his son’s door, the locks and bolts digging painfully into his shoulder. He stood braced, though ready to fire, and more than willing to do so, knowing that it was a child on the other side of the door.

“I’m sorry sir,” said The Young Cripple. “I’ll go now.”

She turned and hobbled off the man’s porch, joining Delilah up the road somewhat, at the door of the man’s neighbour. In his house, The Father lay in a crumpled mess outside his son’s room with the shotgun at the other end of the hallway. It was quiet now. The troublemakers were gone. It had been enough, all this time, to simply board up the windows and propagate an air of disregard, abandon, and senile wreckage. Obviously it wasn’t enough. And if this was going to become a thing, if they were going to return, especially that child, then he would have to do something more drastic, and something more patently obscene, if he wanted to be alone; if he wanted to protect his son.

“They’re gone. You’re safe now, you needn’t fuss,” he said, through his son’s door.

And he spoke in such a way as if his vigil were a burden that he was forced to carry, as if it anchored him to some part of his past, some great heaving stone that he could not shift, and from which he could not escape. He spoke as if he hated the boy, as if he were keeping watch over the very cancer that had buried his wife and daughter. And he spoke with such dispassion and neglect, as if, aside from the padlocks, chains, and boarded windows, it were enough to keep the boy safe.

But the boy was not in his room. He was not on his bed, or under it. He was not in his closet or outside of it. He was not laid about on the floor, or curled all foetal-like, as his father was, on the ground, ‘neath the last lock on the door. He was not on the walls, on the ceiling, or floating about. He wasn’t secure and he wasn’t safe; in his room, in his cage, in the house.

He was, by now, near The Ringmaster’s carriage, lurking about.

“Hi, do you have a personal relationship with Light?” asked Delilah.

The woman at the door looked at her strangely and then invited her in. There was no need for coaxing or any kind of learned trickery at all. Delilah was pleased with herself, and she made this known, flicking The Young Cripple’s ear as she walked past her into the living room.

“It’s so sticky,” said The Young Cripple. “It’s hard to breathe.”

The air was dank and musky. It felt as though not a single draft had passed through, not since the last time somebody died here. The Young Cripple and Delilah made themselves comfortable in the living room, as comfortable as one can be in such a place.

The walls were covered in portraits of a woman, a woman who was not her. There were rough sketches, some drawn with pencil, and others in rich watercolours, of which all were seemingly infinite degrees of grey. In some paintings, the subject looked sublime, draped in sunshine and her lover’s adamant affection. In others, she looked tormented, cyst-laden, and in one, in particular, as if some faceless demon were clawing its way out of her screaming mouth.

“Would you like some tea?” asked the woman, coming in from the kitchen with a silver tray in her hands. “And a biscuit? They’re pineapple, I think.”

The Young Cripple looked at the tray. The tea and biscuits were both the same colour. It was hard to stare at them, and not think of the ghoulish images of death and disease, which decorated the room.

“No thank you, mam,” said The Young Cripple.

“Don’t be rude,” said Delilah. “Take a biscuit, my dear.”

The Young Cripple smiled at Delilah and then at the woman who looked as if she didn’t mind either way. And the young girl wore that same shit-eating-grin as she chewed endlessly on the one biscuit, fighting the urge to gag and purge, and for the sake of being polite and mannerly, finding the will to swallow this fetid, grey mash that kept catching and sticking to the back of her teeth.

“If you’re not doctors, then what are you doing here?”

“We heal souls,” said Delilah. “We can heal yours, and…” she said with a fretful pause, looking at the images of death around the room. “And, uh, we can heal the souls of the person, or persons closest to you.”

“What does it matter, if I cannot have her back if I cannot hold her if I cannot hear her voice? What’s the point? What is there to save? She’s already dead. Her suffering has ended,” said the woman, clinging to a photo of her wife.

“If she has not made peace with Light, then her suffering will continue for eternity. I’m sorry to say such a thing, but it is true. Only God can forgive,” said Delilah.

“Forgive what? Itself? Forgive her? For what? For loving me? For being loved? What did she do to deserve this? What did any of us do to deserve this?”

“For forgetting.”

“Forgetting what?”

“That she is Light. That she was not her body or her flesh. That she was not one desire or the other. That she was Light, just as we all are Light, through the passage of time, how we travel through space and matter, inside these vessels we call ourselves.”

Delilah nudged The Young Cripple who then opened her rucksack and pulled out a diary, pencil, candle, a single match, and a cumbersome device with two metal paddles, wired to an electronic reader.

“What is her name?”

“Was,” said the woman coldly.

“Is, my dear, is. None of us ever die, for we are not our bodies, those which age and fall apart. We are Light, and Light is ageless. It is infinite, and it is everywhere, and it is in everything at all times. What is her name? To save her soul, I must know how to call her.”

The woman stared at her lover’s picture.

“Isabella,” she said, a tear escaping her eye.

“Beautiful name. Is that her?” asked Delilah, pointing to the one side of the wall, the portraits painted with an amorous and considerate stroke.

“She was everything to me.”

“And she still is.”

“But she is gone.”

“Do you feel her inside you? Do you feel her in your heart? Do you still love her?”

“Of course.”

“You still love her because she is Light, and she is inside of you. When we fall in love, we give part of our Light to the person we admire and adore, to the person to whom we commit ourselves,” said Delilah, thinking strongly of The Ringmaster as she spoke, and feeling a wave of scalding jealousy searing her thoughts and her fingertips; inspiring her to leave right now, to forget the healing of this poor woman, and to find the skanky bitch who was fucking her lover, and beat her to death. “So you see,” she said, chewing the inside of her cheeks, “right now, Isabella is with you. She is inside of you. She lives with you, in your heart and in your lungs, and she is kept alive just as you are, with every breath that you take. Her Light is in you, just as your Light has travelled, beyond this life and beyond death, with her, into infinity. So by healing you now, by cleansing your Light, so too do we cleanse hers, for you are infinitely joined through heaven and hell, just as you are, here on Earth.”

“Heaven? Hell?”

“The pleasant and the severe. The infinite and the void. Splendid, never-ending repose, or eternal misery and suffering.”

“The latter is my life.”

“This torment you feel, is it unyielding?

“It is.”

“It is as such because Isabella is in hell right now. Her torment and suffering, the blackness being etched up her Light and soul; it is felt and lived by you here on Earth, for her Light that is within, it too suffers. The Light you too share is a bridge that connects you through the land of the finite, and into the architecture of the infinite. The hell that you feel in each breath that you take, and with each beat of your heart, this suffering which courses through your veins and sweats from your pores, it is the same suffering that your wife endures. And it is the same suffering that she will endure for eternity if we do not save your souls, here, and now.”

“Help me,” said the woman, obliging.

“Take hold of these paddles,” said Delilah.

The woman took the two metal paddles in her hands. She didn’t question the strangeness of it at all. And almost immediately, she started to feel the sting of her agony quench, as if their confidence and belief in what they had preached, were some cooling balm that spread across her searing agony and depression.

“These paddles help us to read the quality of your Light. Do not be frightened at all by the buzzing sounds or even the small discharges of electricity as we speak. These are designed to innerve your Light, to urge it to fluctuate, and to liberate the black substances and the illness of melancholy that attaches itself to your soul. It will feel strange at first. You will want to pull your hand away. That is why we have to strap your hands to the device,” she said, explaining what The Young Cripple was doing.

“While you tell me your story, my assistant here will scribe word for word. It is important that you leave no detail, no matter how trivial or insignificant it may seem. I want you to start from the beginning; from as far back as you can remember, from when you were a little girl. I want you to tell me your story, your life.”

The Young Cripple finished strapping the paddles to the woman’s hands. Then she arranged the electronic reader, so its dials were easily within Delilah’s reach. “Test one,” she said, giving the woman no time to brace. She turned the dial to the first notch, and the woman flinched, unready for what happened.

“It’s ok,” said Delilah. “This is just to test the cleanser.”

“Ok,” said the woman, shocked by the sudden charge.

“Test two,” said The Young Cripple turning the dial to the fourth notch and sending a higher voltage of shock to her fingers.

The woman jumped in her bones. There were eleven notches, and by the end of the healing, the woman would be an expert in each. For now, though, she settled. She told her story and while she did, Delilah flicked the dials of The Cleanser high and low, depending on the volume of the woman’s depression. All the while, The Young Cripple busily scribed every word that she said, and between every word, a description of her silence and an approximate weight of her every breath.

By the end of the healing, the woman was spent. She lay on her sofa feeling twisted and turned, stretched and yanked, like some dirtied rag, having been soaked and scrubbed, and returned to its original white. Her hands were crimpled, and they wouldn’t stop shaking.

“That’ll stop eventually,” said Delilah, hinting to the woman’s hands.

“Is it done?” she asked.

“The first part yes. Your soul is cleansed. And so too is your wife’s, Isabella. Her soul too has been unhinged from its place in hell. It is free, but it is yet to return to where it belongs. It is yet to move towards The Light.”

“What do I have to do?”

“My assistant here, she is going to tell you a story. It is the story of Light, of kindness and salvation. It is a story of sacrifice, for love. For the love of humanity. It is the story of The Sun of God, about its birth, and upon the great sadness of its death. After this story, your soul, and your wife’s soul, they will at one with Light. They will be forgiven. And she will live on in Heaven with your Light, as you live on here in Earth, with hers. And when you die, you too will move towards the Light, and you will be together for eternity.”

The Young Cripple read the story she had written. She read the story that was being read in every house across town at this very moment. It was the story of a young girl with the courage of a lion, whose fate, one day, would be determined by the covetous faithlessness and disloyalty of her closest companions, and who would die for the rest of eternity on every eve, because of a wretched sin, born in the heart of humanity.

She read the story fifty times, and when they weren’t sure of its permanence in the woman’s thoughts and in her heart, The Young Cripple read it fifty times more. She read it to the point where the woman was so familiar with the words that could mouth along as if she were humming her favourite song – until, as a final test; she was asked to recant the entire story herself. And she did so, word for word as if it were true; as if it had happened. She did so without exaggeration or fictitious account as if she were listing the ingredients in her favourite kind of salad.

As they packed their equipment and left, the woman wept a peculiar and congealing kind of sadness.

“You did ok,” said Delilah, climbing onto her horse.

The Young Cripple smiled. Still, it was Delilah saying it. Her logic, the only tool she trusted, said that because of that, it mustn’t be true.

“Where are we going? The next house is that way?”

Delilah and her horse cantered off in the direction that The Ringmaster had taken. She had faith in her lover, she did, but it wasn’t he that she mistrusted, it was every other woman on this planet.

“Sluts and bitches,” she said, between gritting teeth.

She imagined his big toe being kissed, massaged, and masturbated, and the soles of his feet being chewed upon and licked lavishly. Her nails dug into the palms of her hands, and her spiked heels, into the barrel of her horse.

“Wait up,” shouted The Young Cripple, hobbling in her metal braces.

“Hurry up,” replied Delilah, for her jealousy had thin patience.

IX

The Young Boy was indeed lurking about, and by all means, up to no good. The encampment was all but empty. There were a few engineers and constructors, but they were busy inside the main tent, preparing tonight’s extravaganza. As for the rows of carriages, tents, and makeshift burrows, they were all left open or ajar, and really, just asking for someone to poke around. It wouldn’t be the boy’s fault if he were to act, as was entirely expected.

And so, like a virus coursing through a child’s veins, The Young Boy made his way through the tight bends and twisting corners of the encampment, infected and overcome by sheer curiosity and, by now, a want to belong; to belong and to escape.

He found himself, as he had the other night, like a magnet, inexplicably drawn toward that tree at the centre of the encampment. And he stood there, staring at it, with the same strange delirium as he once had, at an old man on a hospital gurney, covered in his own faeces and screaming in a language that none of the nurses could understand.

The tree was like that old man. It should have died at a more appropriate time when its beauty and fondness could still be remembered. But like the old man, there was something inside that kept it hinged to life; but not as in a child in the midst of a game, or as lovers, sharing their first bed. This was the kind of life that was translucent, blotched and veiny, and that was fragile and covered in bed sores. It was the kind of life that had one awaken, whether they were ready or not, to the unjust duty of their humanity. It was the kind of life that had one sharpening their axe or reaching for a suffocating pillow, or for a plug to pull. And like the old man, this tree was driven, inspired, and kept in a state of unremitting agony, by something so greatly unresolved.

The Young Boy stood there, unable to look away, and half expecting the branches to reach out and snatch him, and then drag him towards one of the rotting and festering cankers in its bark, that which was probably a mouth, or a gateway or hell.

From where he stood, though, he could still make out the mix and mash of names and initials, all carved into the splintering wood. He studied them, tilting his head to one side, and then back to the other as he read one after the other, the declarations of love, infatuation, obsession, treachery, and betrayal.

“I love her.”

“She loves me.”

“I hate you.”

“And I hate myself, even more.’

“Janey is a slut.”

“John and her forever.”

And, “I miss you. I can’t live without you. Please, please! Come home.”

There were names and initials of all the people in town who had died. Their last confessions etched upon the tree. The Young Boy scoured with his eyes, for any proof of his mother having been here, any reason at all for her dying, aside from what his sceptical father called, ‘a strange and unfortunate coincidence’.

That and nothing more.

Scouring as he did, he couldn’t see his mother’s or his sister’s initials. He couldn’t see any note, code, or any cryptic message that could have hinted towards their illnesses, and their subsequent deaths. But a great deal of the tree was missing. It looked as if it had been shaved, or shredded, as if layer after layer, like slices of cheese, had been cut away from all sides of the trunk and from its branches too, which the boy remembered, many years ago, being round and sturdy enough for a dozen children to climb and spend the day hanging on; but now, looked as weak and on the verge of collapse as an old junkie’s veins.

“Why all the secrecy?” spoke a voice, behind the boy.

“It’s not important for you to know,” spoke another.

The Young Boy hid beneath a carriage, the carriage with the broken door.

“All I’m saying is all,” said The Three Legged Midget, “is, you know, if you’re gonna make me do something, then just tell me what it is. I’d like to know what all the fuss is about, is all.”

Rex sighed heavily.

“How much of what you do?” asked Rex, pausing, and leaning down like a crane towards his companion. “How much, are you actually aware of?”

“Everything,” said The Three Legged Midget.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“What colour is the sky? How many clouds are there? What does it say on my shirt? What kind of shoes am I wearing? And you for that matter? What colour belt am I wearing? How many branches are on that tree behind you? And how many trees are there? One? Two? Fifty?”

“There’s one,” said The Three Legged Midget, assured. “Yeah, there’s one. There has to be.”

He stared at Rex, looking for validation.

“Nah wait, that’s a trick, isn’t it? Hold on…”

“Don’t turn your head,” said Rex.

“Fuck it,” said The Three Legged Midget, “I don’t know. Fine…. I don’t know anything, alright? The world’s a bloody mystery. You happy now? How many are there then? Fifty? A hundred? A forest?”

“One,” said Rex. “And the sky is grey, like everything else in this town. My shirt says my profession, like all of us. I’m wearing green Velcro sandals, size eighty-four, and you’re wearing tri-coloured bowling shoes, a children’s size six. And I don’t wear a belt. I find it pinches below my belly. I much prefer elastic. And as for tree, there are seven branches, if you include the one buried under dried leaves just a stone’s throw away. You don’t need to know why things are, my friend. What does it say on your shirt?”

“Doer.”

“Right. And mine.”

“Delegator.”

“Right. That’s all you need to know, is what I tell you to do.”

“All I’m saying is….” he said, mumbling to himself as he stood on one side of the tree, holding a long shearing blade that he and Rex, ran back and forth, slowly cutting sheaths of wood away from the tree, less than a millimetre thick.

“Carry that load back,” said Rex, handing his companion a pile of wood.

“Then what?” replied The Three Legged Midget.

“Start the pulp. I’ll be there soon.”

The Three Legged Midget took off through the encampment, carrying one of the piles of wood that they had sheathed away. Rex stayed behind, running his infantile fingers over the other pile, that which was scarred with names and initials, of some requited, but mostly lovelorn vows. He ran his fingers into the grooves, catching a splinter or two and wondering to himself, as he carefully filled the hessian sack, if what he felt for his master were the kind of love worth cutting into the bark of a tree.

Rex took the other pile and walked right past The Young Boy, who was hiding beneath the steps of the carriage with the broken door. He had no idea that the boy was there. He thought only of his master and imagined him on the highest of pedestals, one that could reach the stars, and he imagined himself holding its long and shaky wooden legs.

There were three carriages that aligned the sickly, old tree; The Ringmaster’s, his crippled daughter’s, and that of Gaia. Rex stood outside her door for what could be regarded as a great while. Sweet smoke poured out from behind coloured veils that hung in her doorway, and the sound of rattling shells and sitar had Rex feeling a mix of relaxation and discomfort. The sound was beautiful, like a thousand shells being washed up on some harmonic shore. And yet, his discomfort came from thinking himself as interrupting, and being some kind of a disrupting bore.

Eventually, after some nervous time, he pushed his head through the coloured veils in the doorway and then disappeared into the carriage. There, on the floor, he saw Gaia sitting in the lotus position, with a single card pressed against her forehead. She was whispering quietly, and with such avid intent, as if she was responding directly to another person, but Rex could see only her.

“Sorry mam,” he said, his sight focused on his humungous toes.

“Thank you, my love,” said Gaia, turning away from The Demon for a second. “You can leave the letters right there.”

“Yes mam,” said Rex, carefully placing the hessian sack on the floor, and backing out of the carriage.

“Oh dear,” said Gaia toward Rex. “Forgive me for a second,” she said to The Demon, turning her attention back to the gentle giant who struggled to back in through the tiny door.

“Yes mam,” he said.

“Your mother sends her regards,” said Gaia. “And she’s proud of you.”

Rex smiled. He hadn’t thought of her in so long. He hadn’t prayed for her, and he hadn’t visited her grave either. It had been far too long. He didn’t feel bad, though. He didn’t feel racked with guilt as a lazy commoner might, one whose absence was versed around alcohol, opium, sex, and squander. She would have to know, surely she would. And she was proud of him. So by all accounts, she most certainly did. Rex walked back through the encampment to join his comrades with the pulping duties, wearing a deranged kind of grin and skipping as he went along.

“Where were we?” said Gaia, returning her attention to The Demon, who sat just as she, its legs crossed, and its hands rested comfortably over its knees.

“The souls, as you requested.”

“We prefer the term stories,” said Gaia. “But yes, good work.”

“My part in this deal is done,” said The Demon. “Now bestow unto me, what was promised.”

“We are not done yet,” said Gaia, laying out the card of The Fool. “The deal is still in effect.”

“How can I trust you?” asked The Demon.

“You cannot. Trust is not a right or a birthmark. It is the effect of our passage together. It is earned, not deserved. And it is attained, not merely asked for. When our deal is done, you will have your trust. But know that at the end of this, we will trade no more. But you will have your prize. You will have your obsession. Now,” she said, inhaling profoundly, “let us pray.”

The two bowed their heads, Gaia, and The Demon. And while former guided them both through meditative prayer; fragmenting, healing, and then realigning every atom at their core, the latter focused the whole of its conscious attention on its breath, riding each inhalation like a rudderless vessel, adrift in the rise and fall of some gargantuan, oceanic swell, from the burrows of each trough, until almost tipping at the spill of each crest, and then sliding down the back of each breath, and into another.

They each twisted their bodies into shapes that not even elastic could fathom until it was almost impossible to tell where one body started, and the other ended. They intertwined; she coiled around its back for one moment, and then it around hers the next; at one point, mirroring some magnificent yet beguiling, four-armed deity.

And at the end of their prayer, they made love.

The Young Boy watched from a crack in the wooden panelling as Gaia stood above The Demon, her long black hair, flowing like an irenic stream, around every curve of her naked body. The boy’s focus, though, was on the creature that lay on the floor weeping, its twig-like fingers pressed shamefully over a cavity between its shoulders, which the boy assumed must certainly be its face.

He thought of his mother, and the last time that he had seen her; pale, skeletal, and bleeding profusely from open sores, with cuts on her wrists, between her toes, and beneath her breasts – the extent of her relentless scratching. He thought of her voice on that third day, and how the cracking of her parting lips sounded like a blister popping. And he felt that same feeling of disgust right now, as he had each time his mother braved herself to speak.

He stared at The Demon, and he was not overcome with fear as he was the other night. He felt as he had on the third day, when his mother was full of boils, and ulcers, and when the skin on her back and on her legs, sloughed like fresh snow, off the side of a mountain.

Gaia knelt down above the weeping demon and then straddled its legs.

“Love,” she said.

“This is not love,” said The Demon, its wretched fingers still clenching its cankerous and void-like face.

“Then what is it?” she asked.

The Demon turned its head to the pile of letters on the floor that had been carved out of the old tree. Though they could never be its own, they were the closest it had come to true love.

“Let us then, read of your obsession.”

Gaia took from the pile, one of the stories, and she read it aloud while she continued to masturbate The Demon.

“We should go,” the letter said. “We should get out of here. Just you and me.”

“But where will we go?” the next line read. “And how will we get there?”

“It doesn’t matter where we end up, and how we even get there, just as long as we’re together. I can’t live without you,” the third line read. “And I’d soon as cut out my own heart then have to go back home, and live as if you don’t exist.”

The Demon wept.

“This is love?” mocked Gaia. “Pretentious hyperbolic affection.”

She threw the letter across the room and took another, her left hand still massaging The Demon’s arborous and splintered erection.

“Please,” read the letter. “I love another man. And I don’t know what to do.”

“The slut,” said Gaia.

The Demon shook its head.

“It’s not like that,” said The Demon. “Read on.”

“I love my family I do. I love my children, my son and my daughter. And my husband, he is a good man, he is. He’s kind. He’s generous, and he’s fair. He doesn’t deserve any of this. But life’s not fair, fate isn’t fair. I didn’t ask for this to happen. I didn’t ask for him to show up after all this time. I thought he was gone. I thought he was never coming back. And I can’t go on pretending that I don’t feel this way. It’s not fair to my husband. It’s not fair to Christopher, my boy, and to Elize…”

The Young Boy’s eyes widened.

“Mother,” he said to himself, feeling sick and weak in his stomach.

He fought to twist and turn, to see the woman reading the letter, but he could only see The Demon’s mournful face. Gaia continued.

“…she should know her real father,” the last line read.

The Young Boy wept, as The Demon did.

As Gaia masturbated The Demon, she read letter after letter, of all the people who had declared their love, their intention, and their amorous planning beside the once healthy Sycamore tree. She read every story of every person who had long since suffered. She read every story of every person who had long since died. She read every story of which, since the birth of time, The Demon had scribed. And she laughed as she tossed each one, like a soiled tissue, over her shoulder in a pile near the door.

The Demon wept as she spoke, and more so, as she laughed; and at the height of its discomfort, it orgasmed. Gaia collected every drop of its sticky amber sap in a small vial, and placed it on her working bench, beneath a flickering oil lamp, and beside the three small arborous bullets that she had carved out of the sickly old tree’s roots.

“Dispose of them,” said Gaia.

The Demon sat upright and began collecting the papers.

“I have a place,” it said.

“Good. Do not let yourself be followed. Take the stories there, and bury them. Ensure they can never be found,” said Gaia.

The Demon shook its head.

“Return in the morn,” she said.

“Where I travel, there is no morn. There is no time. I might have already returned, were it not that I had yet to leave.”

“Our time,” replied Gaia. “Our morn.”

“Agreed. I shall do my best.”

“There is still the rest of the town yet. The troupe is out collecting their stories as we speak. There will be at least one more journey.”

“To be clear, after this we are done. Agreed?”

“When you return, I will have for you, what is yours.”

The Young Boy eyed the shadowy pile behind the door. How on earth would he know one from the other? But before he could even think, or will himself to move, The Demon had already risen and taken the pile of letters, ordering them neatly into a hessian sack, of which he slung over his shoulder.

“Will it be worth it, everything that I have seen?” asked The Demon.

“When you see Heaven, you will understand.”

The Demon lowered its head and walked out of the carriage, the heavy sack stowed to its shoulders. It didn’t notice Gaia, by the flickering of the gas lamp, loading the now sticky and amber, arborous bullets into the cylinder of a shiny silver handgun. As it closed the carriage door, it didn’t notice The Young Boy, whose face was buried in his knees, curled in a tight ball beneath the carriage steps. It didn’t notice too, as it opened a cavity in the tree and peered into the infinite black void, how The Young Boy had followed him, sneaking behind and under the other carriages, his eyes glued to the hessian sack on The Demon’s shoulder. And it didn’t notice either, as it slipped into the void, and as the cavity closed behind it, how desperately The Young Boy beat on, and tore at the bark of the tree, almost ripping his fingernails off, trying to get inside.

The Demon’s thoughts were only on the place where it had to be.

X

Delilah followed the trail of manure through town until eventually she came across The Ringmaster’s horse, swishing flies away from its stinking arse, out the front of a tiny cottage with enormous windows and a thatched roof. The gate, which led to a small courtyard, had been left ajar. It might have been from the bottom hinge, which protruded at an odd angle, looking as if it had suffered a dozen kicks too many over the years; or it might have been from any of the half-deflated balloons which filled the courtyard, making it almost impossible to sneak past, and of which were now spilling out of the gate, one by one, onto the street and being blown along by the morning breeze.

Delilah’s heart raced, and a dry and irking lump grew in the back of her throat. There was conflict in her head, between the conspiracy and treason that she believed were occurring and were absolutely true, and of which was most probably her delusion; and of what the norms of love – commitment, honour, and trust – would aspire her to believing, of which were no doubt, just as stark raving mad.

She stood by the door, wanting, but unable to enter.

She stood hearing, wanting, but unable to listen.

“Damn him,” she thought, but she didn’t mean it. “Damn him to hell.”

Her fingers trembled as they curled around the edge of the door, slowly creeping it open. But her arms were strong. They could tear off a horse’s hind legs, were it caught in some hideous trap or were her hunger sufficient enough. They were strong arms indeed, and they anchored the creeping door in a way that her fingers could not, ensuring that it didn’t creak or squeal as inch by inch, she pressed the door aside.

She could see into the hallway now. The Ringmaster’s jacket was on the floor, and she knew what that meant. He was always so careful with his garments, except when swept up by the tide of passion. Already, Delilah’s blood was boiling. And the small lump in her throat, it had now grown to the size of a hefty tumour. She couldn’t breathe, and it hurt to swallow.

She couldn’t see past the jacket, but she imagined, in how fast her lover undressed, that his pants and his underwear couldn’t be more than a foot away, and he himself, would be in the closest room that offered him a stack of pillows, a handrail, and a mirror, to watch himself cum.

The thought of him fucking that woman made her gag. She couldn’t vomit, though, she couldn’t even pass a single breath over the dried lump in that back of her throat, which now felt as if she had swallowed and was choking on an obese baby’s fist.

Then came the absurd rattling; like a tin can, filled with little nails and rolling down a flight of stairs. Delilah jumped in her bones. She swallowed her tumour and spun around instantly, her shushing finger already pressed against her lips.

“Shut up,” she screamed, through a delirious whisper.

She was still so far away; it was hard to read her expression. Beards did that to people. They hid all the dots and dimples, and the creaks and lines on people’s faces, so you couldn’t really tell what they were saying truthfully, and so you had to rely on their words, even if most of the time, the things they said were opposite of what they felt or thought was true.

People lied a lot, sometimes for their own benefit, and more often than not, so as not to hurt someone else. It’s what people did. They lied every time they opened their mouths. They lied all the time. They lied when they said what they wanted, and when they said that nothing was wrong. They lied when they said what they did, and they lied when they said what they saw. And they lied, every time that they gave their opinion about something, especially if it was to someone that they liked. People just lied a lot. But you could always tell, on their faces especially, what they really meant; whether something was really the matter, or whether that trick, or story or poem, was really as good as they said it was, or whether they were just being kind.

You could never tell, though when someone wore a beard. The truths on their faces were hidden, and you never knew what they really meant, or how they really felt. They looked strong, mean and brave, and it definitely made you think that they were, but most of the time, if not all the time, they were just really scared or insecure, and their beards gave them the muscle, charm, and intellect, that they didn’t actually have. And worse was that you had to take everything they said as a truth, even though, people never told the truth.

Delilah was the type of person that was impossible to trust, even without a beard. She could probably tell you she wasn’t there, even if she was standing in front of you, and you’d probably believe her; not because she was a good story-teller or anything, but because you were scared to death of the things she would do to you if you said that she wasn’t.

Delilah didn’t need a beard, not like most people did. She had one, though. And she wore it like it was the best thing in the world; as if it were the one thing that everybody wanted, but couldn’t have – which of course it was. She didn’t need a beard. She had nothing to hide. Her face was like stone. And her smiles and smirks, and condescending glares, they were the inveterate marks of erosion, like the imprints of the heels of a hundred thousand hikers, on a scenic mountain trail. She had no feelings or nerves beneath her skin, nothing that would give her away. And she may or may not have had a heart, but if she did, it no doubt once belonged to some fanged or disease laden beast, like a tick or a flea, or a bout of smallpox.

And she was still so far away, so The Young Cripple couldn’t see the mean look in Delilah’s eyes, and she couldn’t hear too, the sound of desperation in her maniacal shushing. So, she continued, as she had, rushing along the cobbled road, trying to catch up as best as she could. It was so difficult, though, in the contraption that bound her legs. On an even and flat path, it was already a magnificent challenge to propel herself forward, but on such a rickety and jagged path as this, staying upright was only as much of a burden as was moving in a straight line, and maintaining some kind of control, so as not to sound or look like a garbage can, rolling off the side of a cliff.

The Young Cripple raced forwards, clamping her legs as she went along, shouting out to Delilah, who was visible now, crouched beside the door of an old cottage, with grey balloons, streamers, and confetti, filling the space around her.

“Did you find him?” she shouted elatedly, almost tripping over a pebble.

“Shut up,” returned Delilah, in her hoarse whisper. “Shut! Up!”

“What?” shouted The Young Cripple. “Whatchya say?”

Delilah pleaded with her face for the girl to shut the hell up, and to come if she must, but to please, please, please be oh so quiet! Silly, though, for her to forget that, like a self-loathing, joyless and self-murdering comic at the end of their tether, behind her beard, her indigent and begging expression would go unseen, and unread.

Delilah thought for a second to run and cover the stupid girl’s mouth; to stuff it with a dozen balloons, but it was too late. The door swung open and Delilah fell flat on her face, scraping her chin.

“What are you doing here?” shouted The Ringmaster toward The Young Cripple, who had just reached the old cottage. “Who told you to follow me? And where is Delilah?” he shouted.

“Here, my love,” she said, the weakest and most feeble manner The Young Cripple had ever heard her speak. “I am here,” she said, lifting her dainty right hand. “I’ve fallen.”

The Ringmaster looked down at his feet and he saw his bearded whore, curled in a ball, like a frightened or trodden on worm.

“What have you gone and done, my dear,” he said, throwing himself down to pick her up in his arms, and steady her back on her feet. “You’re bleeding, Delilah. Did you know you’re bleeding?”

His concern was obvious.

“I cut myself,” she said, looking her lover in the eyes. “On Occam’s razor,” she said, in a whisper to herself.

“Are you fine?” he asked, sternly. “Are you of sound mind and body?” he asked, cupping her enormous breasts with one hand and stroking her beard with the other.

The Ringmaster had a way with women, especially Delilah.

“I’m fine,” she said, thinking of the other nine whores in how a dog might think of, the sting of its last whipping, as it fought the temptation to steal one more sock.

The temptation for Delilah was to say ‘No’. It was to tell him the truth that everything was not ok; that the world was not flat, and that stars were not really made of bubbles. She was not of sound mind, and her body, it had gone untouched long enough for dust to settle, in the lone places where her delicate and needy fingers had not touched.

It was love that had her feeling this way.

“I’m fine,” she reiterated. “The girl wandered off. I went where I thought she might be, and I followed her here. I am so sorry, my love. This was not a jealous act, I assure you. I assumed the child would make her way here,” she said, resting her face gently on his bulging chest, and ever so lightly, smelling the skin beneath his shirt for the perfume, or the perspired sex of another woman.

“It’s good that you came,” said The Ringmaster. “We have to transport this poor woman back to the encampment. She is terribly ill, and I fret at the thought of leaving her here alone.”

“My love,” said Delilah, rubbing her beard against her lover’s fat cheeks like an affectionate, and invidious cat. “We have hardly the space or the conditions to provide sufficient care. We have barely enough food for our own troupe, let alone a carry-on.”

The Ringmaster kissed Delilah on her lips and then nuzzled his face in her thick beard. “I promise,” he said, “this will not be like before. I’m a changed man. And you’re my number one. Always have been. Always will be. My number one,” he said, kissing her once more. “Now come along, we haven’t all day.”

The Ringmaster prepared his horse while Delilah and The Young Cripple made their way through the mess of balloons and streamers that covered the hallway, and the entirety of the living room floor.

In the far corner of the living room lay a massive, crumpled sheet of butcher’s paper that had obviously spelled out the point of this celebration; the word ‘Happy’ catching The Young Cripple’s attention. It probably hanged at some point, in the centre of the living room, or on the wall, along the hallway. But now, it laid scrunched up in the corner beside the television, with its message absconded behind thick stains of blood, vomit, and faeces.

The two covered their mouths as they walked down the hallway towards the master bedroom. The smell was rife with decay. The Young Cripple held her breath as long as she could, but it was only made worse when she let go, and then had to gasp for air. Neither had smelt anything like this before. And both had seen, in their lives, a great deal of death.

In the master bedroom, The Grieving Mother lay on her bed, curled on her side like a foetus. She shivered uncontrollably, and as her teeth nattered and ground away, she muttered something that neither Delilah nor The Young Cripple could understand.

“You take her legs,” said Delilah.

The Young Cripple pulled away the sheet that covered the woman’s body. She was dressed only in a poorly fitted Charmeuse, which immediately caught the spurned and jealous rage of Delilah, until she saw the brown and red stains, running down the inside of the woman’s legs.

“Not even he is that kinky,” she thought.

Delilah took the woman’s hands and dragged her body off the bed, keeping her head and little else, from thumping on the floor. The Young Cripple, though, stared at the woman’s ankles with a measure of fear and disgust.

“Just do it. Don’t think about it.”

The Young Cripple took the woman by the ankles. Her hands slipped at first. The feeling alone, and sloppy sound that followed in its wake made the young girl choke and then gag. But she got a firm hold, and they dragged the woman along the room and out into the hallway. As they were about to load her out into the courtyard and onto The Ringmaster’s horse, The Young Cripple eyed a document sitting on a stand near the front door. It was a document with their sigil. She nudged Delilah and noted what she saw.

“What is it?” she asked.

Delilah took the document and flipped through several pages. It wasn’t anything that the troupe was equipped with. It wasn’t one or any of the stories that The Young Cripple had written. This was seven pages, with the first two being a series of incantations, and spells. The other pages were questions, just that, questions.

“Well?” asked The Young Cripple, curious.

Delilah’s focus was unbreakable. She remembered every one of these questions. She remembered how she had answered them too. She remembered having stared The Ringmaster eye to eye when he asked her these questions, on the first night that they met. She remembered too, how almost immediately, she was besotted, and beside herself; how, even before the last question had been asked, she was entirely his. She was in love.

She turned page after page and read question after question, mumbling and mouthing the words, before returning to the first question again and again. She must have read the document fifty times before she eventually set it down

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Delilah, rolling up the document and tucking it in her garter.

Normally her lies and truths were impossible to tell apart, but for the first time, it was blatantly obvious that she meant the contrary. Not even her beard could hide the way she felt. The Young Cripple felt sad. Even though the whore was a complete bitch, it was hard feeling someone else’s sadness, and not feeling sad yourself.

The Young Cripple went to hug Delilah, as she would a lost calf. She didn’t know what to say, or what words would suffice. Her every instinct, though, had her wanting to reach out and hug the bearded whore and to squeeze the sadness right out of her, like a pimple or an infected blister.

“It’s ok,” said The Young Cripple, wrapping her arms around Delilah’s legs.

“Fuck off,” said Delilah, kicking her feet from under her.

The Young Cripple fell to the ground in a heap.

“What’s going on back there?” shouted The Ringmaster, impatiently.

“The girl tripped, my love. Get up,” she said, hissing at The Young Cripple.

“We haven’t all day,” said The Ringmaster, squirming in his saddle, loosening the bind and pressure on his crotch. “Take the poor woman on your horse. I’ll meet you back at camp. Don’t dilly daddle.”

“My love…”

Delilah wanted to hate him, she did, and she had every reason, but she couldn’t. She wanted to throw a handful of pebbles, a mound of dirt, a heavy stone, or a glass vase in his direction. She wanted to shout and curse and hurl a tirade of insult and abuse. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.

And she wanted to beat this poor woman to death – to stop her incessant moaning. She wanted to bruise her and burn her and bury her so far beneath the earth that not even the maggots and worms would be able to find her. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.

“Hurry up and give me a hand,” she cursed at The Young Cripple. “Get her on this goddamn horse.”

“But you’ll get all this yuck all over your….”

“Shut up! Have faith in Master. Have faith in his love. He knows what is right, and what is best said and done for all of us. His way is divine,” she said, as she hurled the poor woman’s shivering and near naked body over the horse’s hind.

Delilah walked her horse through town with the sick woman shivering and writhing on the saddle. She wore a resplendent and noble look; and the rest of the troupe, especially the other whores, they all noticed this, and they wished they were endowed with the same. As they made their way back into camp, the entire time, The Young Cripple eyed the bulge in Delilah’s garter belt, wondering mischievously, what was on that paper, and how she could get her hands on it.

“What the devil was it,” she thought, “which had made the horrible bitch actually feel?”

XI

“What’s wrong with her, Master?” asked Rex, hanging like a creeping shadow, over The Grieving Woman, who now writhed on the ground by a lightly kindling fire. “A day ago she was fine; sad, yes, but capable of much more….”

While she wrenched and twisted her hips, grinding her knees into the sand, The Grieving Mother’s arms, like two concrete cinder blocks, were dead weights, lying still at her side. The rest of her body, though, shook and convulsed horrendously. It was a horrible site to bear witness to, but neither The Ringmaster nor his most trusted cohorts could turn away.

The Grieving Mother’s eyes rattled inside their sockets, at one moment sounding like buttons being picked off a shirt, and the next, like a bag of marbles, swimming in brine. Her pupils dilated until there was just a round, black dot, swinging back and forth, left and right, with such ruinous ferocity. And then they stopped, and their direction changed. Right to left, right to left, right to left. And as the pace quickened, and that horrible rattling and slushing sound returned, her pupils shrunk to the size of minute pin marks as if drawn on with the faintest touch of a finely pointed quill.

And while her eyes rattled and turned, and her body shifted and shook, her lips acted as if she were suspended in the midst of delicate and salacious passion; kissing the air, as if every molecule were the soft and moistened lips of her imaginary lover, and the warm crackling air from the lightly kindling fire, were the ardour and lust of his breath.

Surrounding the young woman was a circle of faces, and nearly all looked down with estranged and disturbed fascination. As her eyes spun, so too did theirs – to the very best, or worst of their abilities. And as she pouted and mouthed in a sensual address, so too did they.

“It’s the strangest thing,” said Rex, looking to his master.

“Is she liking or disliking what is occurring?” asked The Three Legged Midget. “I am confused.”

“I’m not sure,” said The Ringmaster. “I have never seen anything like it before.”

Rex stared at The Ringmaster with long and piercing eyes.

“A mixture of both maybe, or it seems,” said Rex, still looking at his master.

“Just to be clear,” as The Tiny Tattooed Man, “we’re saving her, right? This is not a mercy mission. Because if you want, I can punch her.”

“God no,” sighed The Ringmaster, touching the convulsing woman’s cheek.

“Yep, good, as I thought, just checking,” said The Tiny Tattooed Man, stowing his club.

“What do we do, Master?” said Rex. “What is her cure?”

The Ringmaster shook his head.

“What is her illness?” he asked.

The circle of ogling faces all shook their shoulders, stumped by the question.

“First day,” said a voice, from behind a pile of shrubs and dirty laundry.

The Young Boy stepped out of the shadows and into the group’s unexpected attention. The Ringmaster was the first to speak. “What’s that boy?” he said. “Come here. Don’t be conspicuous.”

The Young Boy was hesitant at first, not so much by the troupe’s deformities, but by the vigour of their glares. His defences lowered, though, when he saw in the group, The Coloured Lady, she whose painted face looked as if her heart were filled with a bounty of joy, that when in sadness or sheer delight, she wept small, coloured snowflakes.

He walked with a certain swagger and took his time in the short distance between the shrubs and the fireplace. He was young, small, and scrawny looking, but his chest puffed out like a silverback, and he swung his arms back and forth in his stride as if his fists were great wrecking balls.

The Young Boy stopped just short of the troupe. He had everyone’s attention, even the woman who lay on the dirt, writhing about in a candid and vocal cocktail of passion and despair. He affixed his belt, loosening and then tightening the buckle. Then he lowered his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans, real cool-like, and he glared back at the troupe with squinted eyes, as if what he was trying to see were sewn into the fibres of their colourful garments.

“It’s the first day,” he said again, in a voice that could herd cattle.

“The first day of what?” asked Rex, looking with concern to his master.

“Of three.”

The Young Boy stepped into the circle and stared down at the young woman, whose body now twisted and squirmed to such painful looking extents that it seemed that it might just come apart, like a poorly woven braid. Her veins puffed up and stuck out of her legs, her arms, and on the sides of her neck. Her toes stretched wide and then coiled, tiny and tight as if she were fighting the urge of some incorrigible itch on the bottom of her feet, one that her paralysed hands couldn’t scratch. And yet her mouth, and her tongue, they behaved in such a way that it seemed as if the agony and misery of which she perspired onto her dry, cracked lips, tasted piquant and exquisite.

The Young Boy stared at her, though, and he saw his mother, on her first day.

“And what happens in three days?” asked Rex.

The boy stared at the woman’s body, and how awkwardly it twisted. His mother’s had done the same; one-half going one way, and other, with just as much drive and derision, going the other.

“Like a dishcloth,” he said.

The others were taken aback not with what he said, by how intimate he was with this illness, and how the sight of her this way caused him no more concern as would, the site of a scurrying insect, or a runny nose. But it was the way The Young Boy stared at the woman’s open sores, and at the grooves in her hips where her skin twisted and reddened, and how close he put himself, which had the troupe in both kinds of awe.

He remembered telling his father the same thing; “She’s like a dishcloth.”

And it was true, to him at least. It had looked then, as it did now as if some invisible giant were ringing out her body like a mop, a wet towel, or a dirty and slimy dishcloth. Something was ringing out her soul, and because of it, she perspired from her open pores, every inch of life within her. And her every orifice smelt like discard; like some malodorous and mouldy pot left stagnant under the sun.

“She’ll get worse,” said The Young Boy, inches from the woman’s pouting lips, “much worse than this. But not just for her,” he said, “for the person or persons that did this to her.”

“Who would do this? How could a person do this? What science, what magic, what faith would have the power to do this?” asked Rex.

They all looked at the boy, and he, at the writhing woman.

“Whoever loved her, whoever did this, on the third day, they and only they, must bury her.”

And though their faces were cheery, they all frowned.

“Surely there is something we can do,” said a whore, number five.

“There’s nothing anyone can do. It starts with a nosebleed. It always does. And then this. And then it just it keeps getting worse and worse until it’s so bad that you think she’s near the end, she has to be,” said The Young Boy, as they all stared down at the writhing woman. “And then she’s not. There are no words to describe the end; how she is, and what she does and says. Nobody really says much on the third day. Most folk are kinda quiet, just doin’ what they have to do, what they think is the right thing to do. But this,” he said, pointing to the woman now gnashing on her tongue. “This is just the beginning. She’s already dead. This….these three days, this suffering, it’s not for her. It’s for whoever was cruel and callous enough to love her,” said The Young Boy, recounting his father, word for word.

“So this is a mercy mission?” asked the Tiny Tattooed Man, reaching again from his club.

“We shall heal her,” said The Ringmaster. “This is why we have come. This is our test, the test of our faith. Light is the cure. And we carry it in our hearts, our hands, and in our eyes. We are the cure, each and every one of us. We will stop this dreaded illness,” he declared.

The Ringmaster leaned down and kissed the woman’s pouting lips. The others all churned, and nearly vomited where they stood, all except for Rex, who despite his gargantuan size, and despite the horror festering on the woman’s skin, imagined himself in her place, dented into the soft sand, and lying on his back in dire sufferance, awaiting his master’s kiss.

“At what state is the day?” asked The Ringmaster.

The coloured faces all craned towards the sky.

“The sun is hanging master. Its death will come soon.”

“We’ve little time then. Rex…”

There was no response.

“Rex,” he said again.

The Ringmaster never repeated himself, never.

“Rex,” he shouted.

The gentle and grotesquely deformed giant flinched. “My apologies, Master, I…,” he said, his words trembling like a young child’s admission of guilt; his lips still pressed and parting, waiting to be met with another’s.

“Are you with us Rex?” said The Ringmaster as the rest all sniggered. “Would you like us to make you a bed too?”

The answer to that was most certainly yes, but instead, the bashful giant’s awkward feelings stuffed themselves into his mastodonic feet, and there they swelled into common rage, a feeling that could mask his blushing cheeks.

“We have a good half hour before evening prayer,” said Rex, now back on his feet and shouting in an almost abusive manner; a little uncalled for, considering… “Have your costumes ready, nut out your performances; any kinks, and errs….There is only one first show, one shot to make your mark. Just…” he said, his little hands having a nervous fit. “Just go.”

The circle of coloured faces followed his request. They were gone in a second, rushing through the encampment towards their carriages and tents, excitedly and anxiously tearing through their drawers and chests, lining up their blouses and dresses, and garters, suspenders and shorts, and jeans and bright puffy pants. And shoes too… Who could decide against so many? Which size, shape, and which mash of colour would most duly suffice?

“We’ll need someone to watch the poor woman,” said The Ringmaster, being fitted into his favourite purple jacket.

“Yes, Master,” said Rex, turning back to the writhing woman. “I’ll…”

“I’ll watch her,” said The Young Boy.

Rex and The Ringmaster both turned. The odd looking boy hadn’t left. He stood there like a disorientated puppy. And neither man knew whether to feed him, offer him a bed, or kick him in the arse, and move him along.

“It’s not that hard,” said The Young Boy. “I’ve seen it many times before. I know what to expect. And I know what not to do.”

The Ringmaster kneeled down to the boy and pressed his shoulders.

“Where is your home, boy?” he asked.

“I have no home,” said The Young Boy.

“And your family? Your mother and your father?”

The Young Boy thought of his father, probably barricading his door, or curled over the toilet seat, dry retching and weeping inconsolably.

“They are dead,” he said. “It’s just me, alone.”

The Ringmaster looked at Rex as he always did in this kind of moment.

“It’s your call master,” said Rex.

“I know tricks,” said The Young Boy. “I can escape things and places… places inescapable.”

“I don’t know if we can feed another,” said The Ringmaster, stroking the boy’s cheek.

“Food is not an issue, Master,” said Rex, even though it was.

“I don’t know if we can love another.”

“You know yourself, that too is not an issue,” he said, feeling, once again, the potency of his master’s passion and attention to him, dilute even further. “The choice is yours, whether we take him in or not. It will be difficult yes, as every adoption has been, but all things will sort themselves out. They always do. Maybe we can name him ‘Problem’. Like I said, it’s your decision. This is your troupe, your family.”

The Ringmaster looked at the boy again. He imagined him dressed in coloured attire and painted in a way so that his face was not grey and lifeless, as was the face of one and all in this cursed town. He imagined him on a tightrope or dancing on the back of an alligator. He imagined him juggling inside a tank full of gasoline and electric eels. Then he imagined him as an old man, dressed just like he, in purple, silver studded pants, with long mauve tailcoats and a diamond-encrusted top hat.

The Ringmaster smiled,

“What do you say, Problem?”

The Young Boy smiled too; a grey toothy smile.

“You watch her, lad, as you would. I am putting a great deal of trust in you now. This is a debt I never pay in advance. Think of yourself as special then,” said The Ringmaster, kissing the boy’s cheek, and gripping his tiny shoulders, digging his thumbs between the boy’s clavicles. “Look after her. Work off this trust I have I loaned to you. Earn yourself some more.”

“Yes sir,” said The Young Boy.

“Do not call me sir,” said The Ringmaster in quiet and assuring address.

He took The Young Boy’s hand. It was shivering, maybe with fear, maybe with delight. But regardless, the boy was beside himself. The Ringmaster smiled. His teeth were crooked and yellow, but there were diamonds and jewels glued to each one, and so they distracted from the plaque and ulcers that rotted his gums. “You call me Master,” he said.

The boy smiled once more.

And Rex turned away.

“Tell me, boy, were you healed this morning?”

“I am not sick,” replied The Young Boy.

The Ringmaster tensed up. He had patience, though, for the boy was new.

“That was not the answer to my question, dear boy,” he said, smiling, in a conniving and insinuating manner. “Focus, child, focus. I’ll ask one more time, understood?”

The Young Boy knew, or he felt rather, that if he said no, he would be spanked.

“Yes sir,” he said.

The Ringmaster’s face twisted and turned in a bent and sour expression.

“I mean…” said The Young Boy stuttering, “….Master. Yes. Yes, Master.”

The Ringmaster smiled and let go of his whipping stick.

“Were… You healed… This morning?” he said, nodding his head as he sounded out each word, with the little monkey clinging for dear life to his teetering top hat.

The boy had no idea what that meant, but he was learned enough not to ask.

“No,” he said. “I wasn’t. Is that…”

“Ahhhh,” said The Ringmaster, lifting his shushing finger and shutting The Young Boy up. “Focus, boy, focus. Rex!” he shouted.

From the far end of the carriages, a giant head popped up, almost to the height of the trees. He wore a dopey expression as if he were only now waking from a coma or a heroin overdose.

“Yes, Master,” he said.

“Where is Delilah?”

“She was with your daughter, Master.”

“Never call her that.”

“My apologies. The girl, Master. She left with the girl.”

“Together?” asked The Ringmaster, muddled.

“Together, Master.”

“Well, whatever. I don’t have time for this tonight. I have to prepare. Be sure that one doesn’t kill the other or does… whatever. Just, I need one of them.”

“For what task, Master?”

“The boy here hasn’t been healed. Ensure that this happens before the finale.”

“Have you decided who you will go with?”

The Ringmaster thought about his petulant bearded whore, and his asinine daughter; though he thought of her not as a daughter, but as a tumour, one that could not be so easily removed. He had no idea yet, which of the two would be closing the show. The thought alone caused his ulcer to worsen. Rex could see, even from where he was, the pain in his master’s face. He wished there were something that he could say; some trick that he could do that could smother the fire in his master’s belly. Instead, he stared fixed and doe-eyed, as if he were waiting for scraps of chicken or further clarification.

“Ensure the boy is healed,” shouted The Ringmaster.

XII

The Father was just where his boy had envisioned him, on all fours, and heaped over the porcelain bowl in his suite, weeping into his watery reflection below. It wasn’t that the boy was a prophet or pertained some supernatural talent; it was just that the toilet made his father’s sobbing echo through the house, and more so, the endless cursing and blaming of the boy’s mother, for having loved him in the first place, and then after having left, for leaving him so ill-prepared to carry on.

The Young Boy had grown so accustomed to his father’s weeping, and with it, the accompanying miserable and oppressive monologue, that even here, by a small campfire, outside of his prisoned room, and nursing a dying woman, he could mouth every word.

But it was in the boy’s house, not at the campsite, where strangeness was about to occur. The Father was, as was to be expected, a snivelling mess, hunched over his own choking damnations, spitting into the bowl whenever he caught a glimpse of his own doleful expression. This was not unusual, as the boy would tell you. And the picture in his right hand, which got crimpled and scrunched every time he made a fist in anger, and which almost dropped into the bowl when his anger turned weak with tears, it wasn’t unusual either. The boy would confess to that too.

It was the knock on the door, as The Father wept, which was strange.

“Heloooo,” spoke the voice behind the door, wrapped in inappropriate cheer. Anybody home?”

The shock alone had The Father almost swallow his tongue. He knew the voice. He knew too, the face from which it erupted. He knew exactly who it was, but he hadn’t heard her speak like that, not in a very long time.

“Darling,” said The Neighbour, “darling I know you’re in. I don’t want to be a bother, it’s just, well, I was wondering if you were going to the show this evening and….”

The Father’s thoughts spun like a washing machine; round and round and round, and then thumping when his attention returned to his pale and sickly reflection staring back through the toilet water, before turning, round and round again. Her words were like shards of glass, turning over in his brain. He could even feel them, digging into, and itching the back of his throat, and then irritating his inner ear, way down low, where even a stick or a sharp needle couldn’t reach.

He’d listened to so much screaming since his wife died, and since every other ‘better half’ in town died along with her; screaming, blubbering, cursing, begging, vomiting, convulsing, shouting, moping, and of course, the endless streams of distressed and deranged monologues. His ears had grown warm and faithful, to the pitiful suffering and penance of others. It made his own seem common, and to be entirely expected. And it stopped the peace and quiet, which was so much worse.

“Darling it’s me,” she said. “Take your time darling. I brought a book…or something. It’s like a small book. Take your time though darling, I’ll wait here on the porch. I’ll read my little book then. Shan’t be long, there aren’t many pages. But you take the time you need,” she said, already engrossed in the chapter headings over her little, palm-sized book.

The Father stood in front of the mirror, glaring at his decrepit reflection. His eyes hung out of his head. One of them was distant and glassy, and the other was bloodshot, and of a completely different colour. His hair stuck up and out at all sides and improbable angles; and no amount of combing, brushing or even clamping could make it presentable. His teeth were dark grey, verging on black, but they were hidden behind his thick beard, which grew longer in some parts than others, and of which looked and smelt, no better than a wet dog. He looked like a man who had more pressing things to worry about than his appearance. He looked like a man who had been vomiting and crying for years.

On one side of the sink, there was a toothbrush smeared with a grey paste, which might or might not have been toothpaste. It was hard to tell. The label had vanished over time. It might have worn off, or been scratched off, it didn’t really matter, but it was the same part of the sink where he kept his cymbal cleaner. And on the other side, there was a loaded gun. He could hear his neighbour laughing to herself as she read her book, and saying things like, “Oh my,” “You don’t say,” and “Well that makes perfect sense.” And it wouldn’t be long now before she started asking questions and wormed her way inside. The Father fought his glaring reflection for some insight on what to do; for an answer or a sign – for anything. He didn’t know whether to brush his teeth or to shoot himself.

“Darling, have you read this little book?”

Fuck, it happened.

“Darling if you haven’t, you really must. I got mine from those travellers, you know? It’s about God darling, riveting stuff. Really uplifting, aside from, you know, all the death. But once you get past that, I mean, once you get it all in perspective, there really is a wonderful moral there. Did you get one darling?” she asked.

The Father pressed the gun beneath his chin.

“Fret not, you can borrow mine. It’s a little book. Did I tell you that? A couple of pages, that’s all,” she said, in her surprised tone. “But that’s the thing, “she said, continuing, as The Father clutched the trigger, “it’s a small book, but when you read it, it doesn’t at all feel like you’ve just read the gist of something. You really feel like you got the meat of the story. Does that make sense? But you know what I mean. If you don’t, you’ll read the book, and you will. It’s like it grows inside of you, like a seed, or gelatine, or a flower. Yes, I like that, like a flower. It grows like a flower. What’s the flower with all the pretty blue petals? Bright blue, you know the one, darling?”

His thumb pulled back on the hammer.

“Your wife, she grew them once. They were imported or something. Delightful looking thing it was. And so was she you know? Now that I think of it. And your little girl too. They were both so pretty. And your boy?” she asked. “He looked just your gorgeous wife. He’s still with you. How is he? It’s been so long since…”

The Father lowered the gun, but he didn’t let it go. He closed his eyes and imagined himself rushing down the corridor towards his son’s room and tearing off the wooden boards and panels, one by one. At this point, the gun would be holstered behind his back so he had both hands free. He imagined then, after undoing the last lock, bursting the door open and finding the boy asleep in his bed. It was easier to imagine it this way. And he tried not to think about how much the boy reminded him of his wife, and how he slept on the same side as she, curled up as he was. And he imagined himself taking the gun from his pants and shooting the boy in the back of the head before he had a chance to wake.

“Darling,” said The Neighbour. “I hate to hurry you and all, but I do have to ask a favour of you if you would be so willing. To hear me out, of course, but to say yes too, for old times, old friends.”

The Father dragged the toothbrush across his teeth.

“It really is a wonderful story. Did you know that this is not the only life? Apparently there’s more,” she said. “Isn’t that nifty?”

He had the gun holstered in his pants, in case he needed to use it. He opened the door, but only just slightly, so he could be considerate enough to be seen whilst spoken to, and yet, ensure that the whereabouts of his son’s room remained hidden.

“Darling, you look….”

He looked like neglect, robed in grief.

“Splendid,” she said though her expression were as if she had interrupted two dogs mating.

The Father expected to see a woman as ruinous as he, with an expression as drab and ragged as the torn shirt that barely covered his stinking chest. He expected to see a woman in a state of squalor, looking like she had been set upon by a pack of wolves, her clothes torn to shreds and her gaunt face, as pale and peeling as the paint on his walls, maimed and starved by a ravenous depression. He expected to see a woman, as dilapidated as he.

But she was ravishing. She was grey yes, but not as grey as he. And there was something else about her, something that was not entirely visible, something that didn’t jump out, but something there, something about her, something different, other than her strange and somewhat unnerving, well-groomed attire.

“Darling,” she said, pretending to lean in a kiss his cheek. “First things first darling, here, you have to read this,” she said, handing The Father the little book.

‘The Good Story,’ it said, on its cover.

“It really is a good story you know. What an apt title. You can keep it,” she said, “I spoke to my Light auditor. Delightful if you ask me, but anyway darling, keep the little book, she assured me that I can request another, without much bother. They have plenty. Now,” she said, asserting her serious manner, “to the favour. You would know obviously from your auditing, which by the way, I feel fantastic. I mean, I miss Clarissa I do, but darling, I feel as if a cloud has been lifted, a great weight off my shoulders, but you’d know that too. Sorry darling, I haven’t felt this light in years, it’s hard to keep focus. But listen, I do need a favour. The travellers have a show tonight, the first show; it’s supposed to be a spectacle or something. I just have no way of getting there, especially in these heels. Could I beg a lift off you? I hate to ask but, seeing as you’re going, and you have the space free…”

The Father reached for the gun.

“Where are my manners? How are you?” she asked as if it were her first question. “And your boy, I can’t for the life of me pick his name; how is he? Such a darling lad.”

“He died,” said The Father. “Everyone…they’re all dead.”

The Neighbour looked confused as if up had been explained to her as down.

“Are you sure? I could have sworn I saw….”

“I know the condition of my own family. I know the difference between living and dead. And trust me when I tell you this, my wife, my daughter, and my son, they are all dead. Each and every one. I buried them all. I’m sorry if I offend you in any way, and I’m glad that you feel so….sprightly,” he said. “That’s great. It really is. Good for you. But you’ll forgive me if I tell you to get the hell away from my house. Leave, and never come back.”

“So, no on the lift?”

The Father slammed the door.

“Ok, then darling, sorry to impose, really I am. We’ll see if one of these kind folks can be of assistance,” she said, acknowledging the flood of people along the footpath. “Keep the little book then darling. It’s fabulous, it really is.”

The Father peered through one of the wooden slats that boarded up the front window of the house. He watched as The Neighbour wobbled down the steps, hanging for dear life onto the railing which was just as sturdy as her tottering heels. The last time he’d seen her was after her wife had died, and not long before his own fell sick. She looked good, she did, all things considering.

But it wasn’t just her either. The sidewalks were filled with people, all of them looking pretty, handsome, or striking in their own particular way. Their hair all looked neat and groomed, as did the clothes that they wore. And they all traded smiles and high fives, and they shook hands, hugged and even kissed each other’s cheeks. The Father hadn’t seen such affection in such a very long time. It felt a little inappropriate, all things considering.

A small group gathered on the path in front of his house and they stood in two lines, one facing the other. Each person looked deeply at and touched hands with, the person at their front. They stood there silent for maybe a minute, maybe an hour, The Father couldn’t tell, but all of a sudden, they broke out in some kind of song or prayer.

Each had a copy of the same little book that The Neighbour had so kindly left with The Father. Some carried theirs in their hands, and others, in the pockets of their shirts, or draped around their necks on long silver chains.

“You look fabulous,” said one person.

“Oh, and you too,” said another.

“I like your blouse,” the first said.

“And I like your teeth and gums, and your dimples too,” replied the other.

“Isn’t it just a wonderful day?” said a third.

And they all nodded and smiled, staring up at the grey sky.

“It is,” they all said in unison.

“Praised be…” said the first person, a little apprehensive.

“Light,” said another, assuring.

The group looked excited, excited but nervous.

“Praised be Light,” they all said, coming together into one embrace, holding hands, touching faces, and slowly rocking back and forth while they hummed.

The Father stared at the book in his hands. It looked simple and rather unimpressive, but that was exactly how dangerous things liked to present themselves, as innocuous and unassuming. It had a white leather bound cover with nothing but its title addressing the front. And on the back was what appeared to be an address, but it was written in another language, one full of strange symbols that looked as if a young child or a strung out junky had scribed them with their ill-favoured hand.

The Father opened the book.

“I don’t get it,” he said to himself.

There were no pages.

There were no words.

There was just a mirror.

A reflective surface.

And nothing more.

The Father stared at his reflection. His face looked haggard. His eyes were both bloodshot, and his cheeks, like two great sink holes, disappeared behind the dense scrub of his bushy beard. When he pulled down on the straggly hairs and flattened the beard out, he could see how much weight he had actually lost, and he could see too, the scabs and scars from the constant scratching, clawing and crying every night. He looked nothing like the people outside, whom only a day before had looked no different to him.

He stared back out on his verge, but the people had gone.

Across the street more and more flooded and flowed. They were people who only a day ago had neither the strength nor the courage, or even the gall mind you, to step out onto the street in this way; dressed how they were dressed, smiling as they were, and acting as if everything were rosy, which, of course, it wasn’t.

They all moved in one direction, toward the giant tents.

It would be foolish to say that he had no desire to follow. It was that desire which had had him leave such a neatly placed crack in the wooden boards in the first place, so as to suffice his curious peering and spying. He stared at them, as they made their way toward the edge of town, with the same puerile wonder as a toddler might, a brightly coloured ball, bobbing up and down in an unfenced swimming pool.

He wanted to follow them.

He wanted to walk and to talk like them.

He wanted to dress and to smile and be like them.

He wanted it to be over – the death, the disease, the suffering.

Instead, he took a shovel, and he went out into the backyard. It was chilly out, and the Light was starting to dim. It had been a while since he was last out here. The weeds had overgrown. They were nearly the height of a man. And there was a tree in the back corner that he couldn’t remember planting. He stood there, breathing as if his life depended on it, and after a moment or two, he worked his way through the weeds to the middle of garden, and he dug up his dead wife.

XIII

The sun was almost dead, hanging just below the horizon. The troupe was in the final passage of their prayer, now holding hands in small circles, and spinning around, and around, and around. They twisted and turned until their heads were so light and swimming that their thoughts lifted and floated away, like the tufted fruit of a dandelion.

“Though The Sun is gone,” said Gaia, “we still see. Thus, Light has never truly left us, for it is still in all things. The Sun has died so that we may rest and recuperate. The Sun had died, and he continues to die so that he may be reborn, time and time again. The Sun is time. His death and rebirth are our recurrences. And thus we live each day, inside of his sacrifice so that we too may die each night when we close our eyes, and be reborn again in the morning. It is because of Light that we live, each time that we die. Praised be The Sun of Light,”

“Aymen,” said the troupe.

“Praised be Father Light,”

“Aymen.”

“Praised be you, to you unto yourselves, and to all unto me, for we are the carriers of Light.”

“Aymen.”

“Praised be oh Light.”

“Aymen.”

The troupe lined up one behind the other, and they arranged themselves, from smallest to tallest, and from many-legged to coupled, singled and stumped; and from bare faced to bearded. There was an order to their difference and each knew just right where they belonged.

“The body of Light,” said Gaia, holding a small battery in her two hands.

“Aymen,” said The Three Legged Midget, licking the end of the battery, his face shrivelling with the sting.

One by one, the each took their turn, ending their prayer with their hands pressed against their hearts, leaning forwards gently and licking the end of a nine-volt battery. And when they were done, they quickly made their way to their carriages and tents to prepare themselves, for any moment, there would be a show.

The Young Cripple dreaded the sting of prayer. She was always last in line, but not because of her disability, and most certainly not because of her lineage, but because it was where she would rather be, aside from all the pushing and shoving, aside from all the fuss. And there was the odd chance too that by the time it came to her, the battery would be all but used up, and the shock and sting would be no worse than licking an ice cube, or the edge of an envelope.

When it was her turn, she scrunched her face.

“The body of Light,” said Gaia.

The Young Cripple edged forwards with her tongue out, but for every inch forwards, her tongue edged backward an inch or two more, until she nearly swallowed it whole.

“My child,” said Gaia. “You need not be afraid. I know that fear swims inside of you. I can feel it. I can see it in your eyes. Your aura…” she said, stroking the child’s cheek. “It reeks of cowardice. And your Light… it tremors. It cannot fix on any one thing.”

Gaia kneeled down to the height of the girl, looking her long in the eyes.

“Know this, and do not ever forget,” she said.

The Young Crippled nodded.

“It is written in the stars….”

The Young Cripple’s eyes widened with wonder and glee.

“You will fail,” said Gaia, kissing the girl’s cheek, before returning to her feet. “The body of Light,” she said, smiling and leaning over once more, placing the battery before the girl’s stupid expression.

“Aymen,” said The Young Cripple, scrunching her face once more, and quickly licking the battery’s end.

The words echoed in the girl’s mind. She thought about her performance, about everything she had practiced. She knew the story she had to tell inside and out. It was simple to remember, just as it was to write. The Young Cripple loved to write, but she hated simple things, and it pained her, as much as it did licking the ends of that battery every night, thinking about having to tell this story; this plain and simple story, especially when there were an infinite number of richer and more fantastic tales and adventures for her to think of, to make up, to write, and to tell.

But there was only one story that mattered; that of Light.

“Girl,” said Rex, standing above The Young Cripple.

The girl looked up, craning her neck until her head almost flipped off.

“Have you seen the whore?”

“Which?”

“The first,” said Rex, refusing to acknowledge her name.

“Delilah?”

Rex huffed, sounding like an overworked draft horse.

“Like I said, the bitch.”

“In her carriage, preparing for the show,” said The Young Cripple.

“Master requires her for a task.”

“Can I help?”

“There is very little, of efficiency, that you can actually do little girl.”

Rex thought of his master. The word ‘whatever’ rang his mind, along with the apathy he had for both the crippled child and the conniving and bickering whore, both of whom caused his master so much distress, and undeserved pain and suffering.

“There is a boy.”

“A boy?” said The Young Cripple ecstatic.

“Yes, a boy.”

“But a boy boy,” said The Young Cripple, cutting him off. “Young, like me? A boy boy?”

“Yes,” said Rex, unimpressed. “A boy boy. Master has requested he be healed. Either by yourself or the whore, whichever. There is very little you can do to mess this up so, you do it. Get your things. The boy is nursing the sick woman. You’re to heal the boy and then be ready backstage, before the alligator act. Understood?”

The Young Cripple would have said to anything right now.

A boy.

An actual boy.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she said. “Of course. Alligator. Backstage.”

“Don’t mess this up,” said Rex.

“I won’t,” said The Young Cripple. “I’ll just get my things.”

“Follow the smoke,” he said.

The girl hobbled off through the encampment. She’d never met another child before. She’d imagined a million times what it would be like, having someone to play with, someone as young as herself, and someone who wasn’t always telling her to grow up and stop kidding around. She had invented a thousand boys in a thousand stories that she told in her head, a thousand times. Never, though, did she ever think that she would meet a real one, not outside of her imagination.

She made her way to Delilah’s carriage and knocked politely on the door. The instruments used to heal were still inside the bearded whore’s bag. The Young Cripple waited for a second or two, but her bent and twisted legs shook nervously inside of her metal braces, and her hands were already twisting the door handle. She couldn’t hold back her excitement. She couldn’t wait any longer.

“Anyone here?” she asked.

She knew that if there was, she would have had a fist or a hot stoker sticking in her face right now. Delilah was a mean bitch, and half the scars on The Young Cripple’s back and arms were from her, and her bad temper. So she snuck into the whore’s carriage, wrought with fear, sneaking the door open inch by inch. And by the time it was wide open, she was already inside, rummaging through Delilah’s things.

She took the healing device from her bag and left it on the floor. Then she scourged further through papers and ribbons and intimate apparel, everything that Delilah stuffed into her leather satchel. Her nerves were getting the most of her. Delilah would be back any second, and if she knew the girl were going through her things, she would kill her. But The Young Cripple couldn’t resist – a real life, actual boy.

She rummaged and rummaged some more, hearing the sound of sniping and complaining coming through the encampment. Delilah was on her way. She was abusing the other whores and ridiculing their choices of corsets and eyeliners. But her voice was getting louder.

And now, it was almost at the carriage door.

“Got it,” said The Young Cripple, finding the crumpled story from the bottom of the bag, and tucking it inside her shirt.

Delilah burst through the door and rushed to her mirror, frantically pushing aside the thick bristles of her beard. She breathed fast and heavy, like an impala, at the end of an exhausted chase. And her desperate nails, clutching at the hairs on her beard, were like the gnashing of a Leopard’s teeth.

“Where is it? Where is it?” she cursed, checking hair by hair, oblivious to the girl sneaking past her dresser and hobbling out her door. “Where are you?” she said.

And then she found it.

A grey hair.

One lone, grey hair.

The whore screamed, loud and convincing. “Motherfucker!”

The Young Cripple quickly hobbled through the encampment, following the puffs of smoke as Rex had said until she came to a clearing where there the early evening air was warmed by a crackling fire, and beside it lay a dying woman, convulsing and shivering.

And beside her sat a young boy.

A real, live boy.

XIV

The two children sat side by side on a wobbly log, poking the crackling fire with long pointed sticks, and nary saying a word to one another. At both of their feet lay the dying woman, her body quite still now, and her eyes, barely showing a flicker of life.

“Is she dead?” asked The Young Cripple.

The awkward silence had been broken. It had felt like an eternity had passed since she sat down beside The Young Boy; between wanting to speak and actually being able to. It was lucky then that this woman was lying here, as sick as she was. It was nice having something stranger than the way she felt to talk about.

The Young Boy wiped the corners of the woman’s mouth with a cloth that was doused in rubbing alcohol. He did the same to the corner of her eyes, the edges of her ear canals, and into the recess of her bellybutton.

“I don’t think so,” said The Young Boy. “She can’t be dead if she’s breathing.”

“What do you suppose she’s thinking about?”

Her body was quiet – as if she were dead or sleeping – but her eyes were wide open and fixed on a constant trail of smoke that wafted above her head, and then disappeared somewhere into the darkness, just an inch from her sight. The Young Boy studied the sick woman, and took the time, before he responded, to brush a small tuft of the woman’s fringe away from her eyes, and tuck it with the rest, behind her left ear.

“The stuff she always did,” said The Young Boy. “The stuff that she can’t do anymore. And she’s probably sad too, knowing that she won’t ever do them again.”

“I guess,” said The Young Cripple.

“That’s all my mom went on about before she bit off her tongue.”

The Young Cripple cringed.

The Young Boy, though, he didn’t seem queasy at all seeing a person this way. He patted the side of the woman’s cheeks as The Young Cripple would, one of her aging dogs. It didn’t even bother him how soft and loose her skin was, and how it slid back and forth over the bumps on her face like an oversized bed sheet. There was barely a degree of fat and muscle on her whatsoever. She was, literally, nothing more than a tin film of festering boils and ulcers, upon an oddly shaped skeleton.

“Why did she bite off her tongue?” asked The Young Cripple, half dreading the response.

“It got in the way I suppose,” replied The Young Boy.

The Young Cripple nodded, as she did whenever she was told something that in a way, made sense. “Did she have what this lady has? Your mom I mean?”

The Young Boy nodded, still caressing the bumps on the woman’s exposed skeleton. “This town is cursed,” said The Young Boy. “Everyone has what this lady has, even you.”

The Young Cripple panicked, brushing her skin as if she’d just walked through a cobweb. “Relax,” said The Young Boy laughing, “You’re not sick now, neither am I. But you will be, one day, if you don’t leave. You’ll get sick like the rest of them. Like my teacher, the bus driver, the old man from the arcade, and all the kids in my class. And like my mom and my sister too. Everyone gets sick like this,” he said, continuing to lightly caress the woman’s skeleton, as if it were toned, curved, and muscled like most living things. He did so, staring into the woman’s vacant stare, assuring that she didn’t feel, in how he touched her, as sickly gaunt, erasing, and as close to death as she most certainly was.

“But I think she’s dreaming of the things she did every day, stuff that would be boring to you or me, but to her, not being able to do them, it’s what’d probably make her feel like she’s nothing like she used to be, and that something bad is coming, you know? I think that’d be the worst part about dying; not being able to do the things you always did, the things you didn’t even have to think about, and then missing them before they’re even gone. I saw heaps of movies you know, where people talked a lot about what they would do before they died, like going on these big ginormous adventures and stuff; doing things they always wanted to do but never did, because they were busy all the time, or just being themselves every day. But I don’t think any of that stuff would matter really. You know, like climbing some stupid mountain, or some stupid tower, and taking a whole bunch of stupid photos. I don’t think it’d matter. I think, anyway, if it were me, I’d just want to do what I did every day, except, do it knowing that it was the last time I would be doing it, even if I was having to make my bed, or dig out weeds or something. Or like, walking home from school, the way you walked every day, and doing it for the last time, and seeing the things you never noticed before.”

“I had a grandma once,” said The Young Cripple. “We called her that anyway. She was really old. She was always really old. Come to think of it, I don’t think she was ever young, but anyway, she didn’t like anybody doing anything for her. She was really bossy, and even though she wasn’t in charge, the last decision was always hers. Master was real scared of her temper. She could blow the roof off a house, just by sneezing. She was fine when she lost her legs from those bug bites. Master built her a special chair and she was able to get around, and her arms even got really strong. She didn’t let it make her need anybody for anything. It was when she lost her eyes, though, when she couldn’t sew anymore, that’s when she just kind of gave up. She lay on her side all day long, and she stopped eating and showering. She just lay there on her bed, facing where her machine was, even though she couldn’t see it. It was sad really, seeing someone so tough, acting as she was. She died pretty soon after that.”

“I think doing one thing for the last time is much better than doing a whole bunch of things for the first time.”

“What would be the last thing you’d do then?” asked The Young Cripple.

“I’d escape something,” said The Young Boy. “I like escaping things, I’m good at it. But I’d probably escape from my room, the way I did the first time, even as simple as it was. What about you?”

The Young Cripple scrunched her face and tried to think about all the things that she did; the things that she would miss if she were going to die in three days. She couldn’t think of one, though, that brought her any joy, or that even the shadow of death could cast in a better light.

“I don’t like the things I have to do all that much,” she said.

“Nobody ever really does,” replied the boy, “at least nobody I ever met. But maybe it’s not the thing you have to do. Maybe it’s doing that thing, and then wishing you were doing something else, maybe that’s the thing you’d miss; thinking about the thing you love the most.”

The Young Cripple nodded again, in her ‘that-makes-sense’ kind of way.

“So what would that be?” he asked.

He sure was pushy.

The Young Cripple, so caught up in trying to figure out what that thing was, had forgotten entirely about her strange feelings, the fact that she was terrible at introductions, that she’d never had a friend, and that nobody liked her; not even cats, and they’ll rub themselves against anyone with sharp nails or a fish head.

“I like stories,” she said. “I like to make them up, and I like to tell them.”

“What kind of stories?” asked The Young Boy.

“Anything really; can be something scary, exciting or something really sad too. Or it can just be talking about what happened yesterday. It’s all stories you know. I like making them up. I like stories, I’m good at it.”

“Then why do you look so glum?”

He was right. She was talking about the one thing she loved and there she was, looking as if someone had just popped her favourite balloon.

“I’m not allowed. It’s my father,” she said, poking the fire. “Well, he’s not really my father, it’s just… it’s complicated. But he’s The Master, and he doesn’t allow stories. He says their evil, and that I’ll go to hell if I write them.”

“What’s hell?” asked The Young Boy.

“The worst place anyone can imagine.”

“Is it the same place for everyone?”

“I think so,” said The Young Cripple. “The Master imagined it, or at least, he had it imagined for him, and to him, by The Sun of God, by Light. The Master is the only person to have ever seen Light and to have spoken to it. He thought it up – Heaven and Hell – and he made me write it down, and to tell everyone, so that they could imagine it too. And Hell…it’s really scary and horrible, and there’s the very worst kind of monsters and demons that live there.”

“I’ve seen a demon,” said The Young Boy excited. “It lives here. It has for almost forever, at least since I was born, maybe even before. Nobody else really knows about it or believes me when I tell them. But I’ve seen it. And it’s real. And it’s what made everyone sick. It’s what killed my mom and my sister. Do you wanna see it?”

The Young Cripple shuddered.

“No,” she said. “I’m scared of things like that. I’m scared of everything, except good things; like rainbows and butterflies.”

“It’s ok. It looks scary and all that, but it doesn’t hurt you, not unless….”

“Unless what?”

The Young Cripple hated when people spoke all suspense-like, not finishing their scary-sounding sentences. It made her imagine the very worst things possible, like flesh-eating insects, for example, and giant molluscs whose icky slime carried microscopic vermin that festered in your nose, or other orifices too. And because you didn’t have proper ointments, it would get infected and you die.

“Unless what?” she shouted, turning to look at the boy for the first time, but unsure as to whether she wanted to throttle him or hug him out of sheer fright.

“It’s that tree,” he said. “It’s where The Demon lives. It comes and goes all the time. Yesterday I saw it. I saw inside the tree too. It wasn’t like the inside of most trees. It was like the sky, except, it was filled with space – but black and empty space, as if all the stars had been gobbled up. And The Demon, it was talking to someone, one of your lot, and it looked like it knew her real well. Didn’t sound like it liked her much, though, even though they fooled around. I heard it. I was spying on them.”

“Who?”

“Some woman with a creepy tattoo.”

“Gaia?” asked The Young Cripple, genuinely puzzled. “Maybe she was killing it, or making it go away.”

“It gave her something, a bunch of papers. They were letters. That lady, she read a few of them out. Then she made The Demon take the letters with it, into its tree, wherever it goes. There were lots of them, about as many as there are, graves in people’s backyards. She told it to bury them, somewhere only it knew about. To bury them so nobody could find them. What do you suppose they are? And why do you suppose nobody should find them?” he asked.

The Young Cripple dreaded to think.

“I don’t know,” she said.

The truth was, like most scary things, she didn’t want to know.

“One of them was from my mom,” said the boy.

“To who?” asked the girl.

“Don’t know. Didn’t sound so much like a letter as much as her just talking, and someone writing it down.”

The two stayed silent for a moment, staring into the crackling fire. The Young Cripple didn’t really know what to say. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe the boy, it’s just she had never seen a demon before, so she didn’t know the proper thing to say.

“What’s wrong with your legs?” asked The Young Boy.

The Young Cripple stared down at the truss-like contraptions that imprisoned her two legs. She could wiggle her toes, but little else. The contraption, though straight on its sides, twisted and turned where her legs were, looking like scores of spaghetti rollers, one after the other. And her legs themselves, they looked like origami.

“I have to wear this,” she said. “Or else I’ll get in trouble. I can’t walk without it.”

“What happened to your legs? Were you in an accident?”

“They were fine before when I was really young. Then Master made me wear this thing.”

“But why, if you’re legs had no problems?”

“That’s just why,” she said, sounding deflated. “Everyone is normal in our family. Everyone was born normal, except me.”

The Young Boy stared at The Young Cripple’s twisted legs. He ran his fingers over the rusted steel that encaged them, with the same gentility as he had, over the deformed and bowing skeleton that caved inwards upon The Grieving Mother’s impoverished soul. He touched the cold steel as if it was not uncommon. As if it was not at all normal – a serious condition – but as if the girl was not a freak for having it.

“Your dad is the guy with the hat?”

“Yeah,” said The Young Cripple.

“He seems nice I suppose.”

“Yeah, pretty much everyone ends up liking him. He helps a lot of people. I suppose that’s part of it. I guess he is kinda neat in that way. I don’t know…”

“At least your dad lets you out,” said The Young Boy, stoking the fire. “And lets you do things. My dad’s a pain.”

“Doesn’t he like you?”

“It’s not like that, not really anyway. All the people here who died, they all loved someone or were loved by someone. And that’s why they all got sick. It was love that killed them. That, and The Demon.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“That’s what all the other kids used to say before they all died.”

“Died?”

“Yep, died.”

“All of them? Really? Are there no other kids at all?”

“Not one. Just me,” said The Young Boy, smiling.

“Why didn’t you get sick, like all the others?”

“Nobody loves me,” said The Young Boy. “I’m lucky I suppose.”

“Nobody?”

“Not one,” he said, smiling.

“Not even your dad?”

“Especially not him,” said the boy, rubbing some of the bruises on his chest and arms.

“Doesn’t sound like a nice person to me.”

“It’s not his fault really. He’s just trying to keep me safe. I just wish there was a better way to do it; other than always locking me up, and having to be so mean.”

“How does that keep you safe?”

“As long as he hates me and resents me, I won’t get sick. The second he drops his guard, though, the same thing will happen that happened to mom and to Elize too. I’ll get sick like this lady got sick, and in three days, I’ll die. So to stop that, he keeps me locked up, and he shouts at me all the time. He punches my door until his hand bleeds, and then he blames me for the cuts on his knuckles. He blames me for everything. Hating me is the only way he can keep me safe.”

“If he locks you up all the time, then how are you here?”

“I told you,” said The Young Boy smiling again. “I can escape places. It’s what I do, and I’m really good at it. Your dad said he’d let me join your troupe.”

“Really? Wow,” exclaimed the Young Cripple, blurting out her response and remembering at the last second that she mustn’t sound like a buffoon. “I mean….ok… but… but what about your dad? Won’t he miss you?”

“It’s not fair that he should have to feel like he does all the time, just for me. Nobody should have to feel that bad, just because they love someone. If I’m gone, he can rest, you know? He can hate me for real if he wants, and he can even miss me like he misses mom. If I’m gone, The Demon can’t get me.”

“It’s strange.”

“What is?”

“Having to hate someone so much, just because you’re scared to love them.”

“Like I said, I wish there was a better way to keep me safe, for the both of us. I think leaving, and escaping is it.”

They sat there silent for some time, staring into the crackling fire and taking turns poking and stirring the embers. The woman at their feet had returned to her spasmodic state, twisting and writhing in the sand. Neither child noticed, though or was bothered by her writhing and moaning, or by the fact that she was chewing on her ring finger, now gnawing heartily at the bone.

“I nearly forgot,” said The Young Cripple, reaching for the metal paddles from her rucksack. “I’m supposed to heal you,” she said, smiling.

“What’s that?” asked The Young Boy warily, staring at the electric contraption.

“It doesn’t hurt too much,” said The Young Cripple. “It’s how we heal you.”

“What does it do?”

“It doesn’t hurt, really. We do it all the time, every Sunday. It’s a small current. It’s meant to vibrate your string.”

“What string?”

“Inside of you. Way, way, way down, deep inside of you. There’s an itsy bitsy string. And it kind of dances one way, and over time, when we collect bad energy, and when bad things happen, it stops dancing. Part of the healing is to help your string to dance again. It doesn’t hurt, though, not much anyway. You’ll feel a lot better after. Everyone does.”

“And what do I have to do?”

“Just hold onto these things,” she said, passing her new friend the cold paddles. “I’ll ask you some questions and then I’ll write down your answers. That’s all. And after, I’ll tell you a story. And when you’re done, you’ll feel really different, really good.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” replied the girl.

The Young Boy nodded and took hold of the cold paddles while The Young Cripple rummaged through her rucksack for the question sheet and a pen that didn’t blotch. Finally, after some nervous mumbling and cursing, she pulled her head out of the bag with a white booklet in her hands. The Young Cripple had never led a healing before, only joined in at the end to tell the story of Light. She was nervous, and she was excited too. It was the same intense feeling that was one minute unbearable, and the next, incredible.

As the boy waited, The Young Cripple looked over the main page. There was a set of instructions that she skimmed over, ignoring the warnings that were marked in red, and instead going straight for the numbered guide.

1. Do not stop the experiment.

2. Do not miss a question.

3. Maintain a permanent, unbroken gaze with the participant.

4. Answer all questions honestly.

5. Kiss once at the beginning of the experiment, and at each occurring interval.

6. Do not lie or exaggerate the truth.

7. Maintain a silent gaze for seven minutes.

“All of that?” asked The Young Boy.

The Young Cripple looked unsure, but she did her best to hide it.

She couldn’t remember all that kissing and the constant gazing.

“I think… well… It seems like…”

She was on the verge of scattering, of running for dear life; such was her fright. The Young Boy smiled, though, as if he had done this before, or as if he didn’t care if it all went wrong; if his heart stopped beating, or if his skin caught on fire.

“I’m ready,” he said.

The Young Cripple’s stomach churned; she had never been this nervous before. “What the hell?” she thought, and she dived forwards and kissed The Young Boy on the cheek.

“What was that for?” said The Young Boy, wiping his face.

“It was in the instructions,” said The Young Cripple. “You gotta look into my eyes, ok? You can’t look away. It’s important, I think,” she said, staring quickly at the instructions again.

The Young Boy turned his glare to The Young Cripple and it never wavered, not for an inch, not for the entirety of the healing. The Young Cripple asked the first question and the boy responded honestly, taking his time to tell every story, being careful not to exclude even the most innocuous of details. And while he spoke, The Young Cripple wrote down every word, scribbling away notes with her hands, blindly, as she maintained a permanent stare with the boy. It wasn’t easy, but she did it very well.

“Question Three,” she said. “Before talking to another person, do you ever rehearse what you will say?”

The Young Boy responded, talking about the things that made him feel silly, the things that made him mad, and the things that made him so happy that he probably ended up looking silly and quite mad. He wasn’t shy at all. He answered every question and didn’t exaggerate a single truth, although his stories were so vivid and wild, at times it was hard to believe. And when The Young Cripple kissed his cheek again at the first interval, he didn’t shy away, and he didn’t wipe his face either. He just kept looking into her eyes and kept talking about the things had done and seen, and the things he wished he could have done, if things had been different.

“How many questions are there?” asked The Young Boy, in unbroken gaze.

“Thirty-four,” replied The Young Cripple. “How do you feel?”

He wanted to say that he liked her, that he felt like he had known her his whole life, even though he had known her for only an hour or two, and even though it was only he who had spoken, and only about his life. He wanted to say how he felt, but at this point, barely halfway through, he was still not strong enough to carry the truth in his two hands.

“Good,” he said though his eyes said a thousand words more.

“Question fifteen,” said The Young Cripple.

XV

The Ringmaster stood naked in front of his dresser mirror, pressing his stomach out as far as he could and spinning on his toes like a stuffed ballerina, in awe of his full figure. As he spun, he imagined a full crowd under The Big Top, all cheering and standing up on the rafters, clapping their hands and stomping their feet, begging for more. As their applause grew, The Ringmaster ran his hands along his body, curling thick, wet mounds of stomach hair in tight circles over his bulbous index finger. It wasn’t until he caught sight of the unsightly scar below his bellybutton that he was reminded of the girl and his mood turned, like spoiled milk.

“My love.”

On the steps to his carriage, Delilah stood with a folded document in one hand, and a serrate, boning knife in the other. She seemed quite calm, all things considering; quite the contrary to her disguised intentions.

“Oh Delilah, dear Delilah, dear Delilah, my dear,” said The Ringmaster, almost breaking into song. “Must we meet with trouble, always in this way, before something grand and spectacular is expected of us?”

He didn’t bother to turn and see her at the door. His full focus was on cramming each foot into the slim fitting tights, which were at best, designed and sewn to warm a skeleton, or shield a leafless branch from a strong, cold breeze. He teetered back and forth, struggling to hold his balance as each foot fought through the tight, stretchy, mauve fabric. He didn’t even notice the small, serrate knife, aimed below his lowest rib.

“Do you love me?” asked Delilah.

“What?” he asked, having expected her to be pestering about the finale.

“Do you love me?” she said again, this time pushing the knife so that its point was but a mere atom away from bridging with rolls of insulated fat. It was now that she wondered whether the knife would cut deep enough.

“Is that all this is about?”

The Ringmaster was tied to absent relief. She might as well have asked him what he thought of dinner last night, or whether the sky was still blue, even after the sun had gone down.

“Love? What a silly question. Do you not feel it? Do you not feel in love?” he asked.

“Do you love me?” she asked again, this time with her voice hoarse, as if the back of her throat were a dam, holding back a flood of anger, rage, hurt, disgust, and rejection.

The Ringmaster thrust his pelvis forward in front of the mirror, practicing one of his famed corporal manoeuvres that drove women insatiable and insane, a move of which there were many. He was dreaming again, and so disconnected from the present was he that he didn’t even notice that which each backwards thrust, he almost speared himself onto the serrate, boning knife, and doing for Delilah, what she had not the courage to do herself.

She wanted to dig the knife into his crotch and open him up like an overfed salmon. She wanted to carve the letters of every hurtful emotion she felt onto his back so that the next whore who rode him like a prized pony would be able to read what their future beheld.

She wanted to, but she couldn’t.

She was like an infant, desperate to form a sentence or a word, to ire their apparent discontent and dislike for this inappropriate time to be hungry, and yet still so very awake. And like the screaming infant, she was illiterate to the words that described how she felt, and she was deaf to how they sounded out. And though her blood boiled with rage and revenge, her hands were placid, like dainty statues, and she had no idea how to make them stab things.

“Do you love me?” she asked again.

“Of course I do,” said The Ringmaster. “What a silly question.”

“Like I love you?” she asked.

The Ringmaster’s face wrinkled, and looked sour.

“What an annoying and selfish proposition,” he said, “to assume that one love can be any more or less than another.”

“Why do you love me?” she asked.

“Because…” said The Ringmaster, becoming riled.

“Because what? Why do you love me? Give me one reason, just one.”

“What an absurd and redundant question, my dear,” he said. “One does not love out of reason. One loves out of heart, and with one’s entire soul. Love is not a shoe that one wears on specific occasions. It is not a norm, a fashion or a rule. Love is not a measuring tool or a garment for surviving the cold. It is not an accessory or an upgrade that one chooses, out of purpose and necessity. Love has no reason. Love is…” he said, triumphant.

“Why do I love you?” she asked.

The Ringmaster huffed and puffed, and then turned to Delilah, stroking her softly bristled beard, oblivious to the knife that barely poked his belly button.

“That is not my question to answer,” he said.

“But it is,” she said, “if the choice were not my own.”

“My dear Delilah, the choice is never our own; who we love, and who we leave behind. The choice is never our own.”

Delilah squeezed her left hand, and the sound of crumpling paper was like a floodlight and a siren, in The Ringmaster’s guilty conscious.

“What is this?” she asked, holding the scrunched up paper to his face.

“I don’t know,” said The Ringmaster, though his gurgling stomach, the sickly, white look on his face, and the guilt-laden distress that he perspired into his aura, said differently.

“You left this behind, at that woman’s house. The girl found it. About the only useful thing she’s ever done. What is it?”

“You tell me,” he said. “I’ve never seen it before.

“It has your seal. It has your signature. It has your scent,” she said.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said The Ringmaster, making this, his chosen defence.

“Interpersonal and Loving Closeness; An Experiment,” she said, having memorized the title. “Warning, not to be used outside of controlled laboratory conditions.”

The Ringmaster turned white – whiter than he already was.

“Oh that,” he said nervously. “That’s just…that’s just nothing. It’s umm. No, I don’t what that is. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never…I… Is this about the finale? Is it? Is that what this is about?” he said, his nerves turning to anger.

“Do you love me?” she asked again, tears now welling in her eyes.

“Ok,” he said. “I know this looks bad.”

“What is it? What the hell is it?” she said, waving the document in The Ringmaster’s face. “What is it? Magic? Sorcery? Prayer?”

“It’s science,” said The Ringmaster, in a soft, confessional tone. “It’s just… it’s a bunch of questions is all.”

“And what happens when you ask these questions?”

“I don’t know for sure,” said The Ringmaster. Like I said, it’s experimental.”

“What happens?” shouted Delilah, touching the tip of the knife into The Ringmaster’s belly, and finally getting his attention.

“Delilah, my dear, please…”

“What happens?”

“At the end of the experiment,” said The Ringmaster, his eyes on the small cutting blade. “The participant will fall in love. In theory mind you.”

“Did you use this on me?” she asked. “Is this why I love you?”

“Preposterous,” shouted The Ringmaster.

Delilah felt a wave of guilt for making her lover feel such mistrust and betrayal, but it was swept aside by a specific rage for how his love made her feel.

“These same questions, all of them, you asked me when we first met. Do you remember?”

“My dear Delilah, my favourite whore, how could I ever forget? My life began, the moment we first kissed.”

“Did you use this on me – this experiment? Is this why I love you?”

“Stop with this. If you loved me, you wouldn’t be asking such questions.”

“It’s because I love you that I have to ask.”

“This experiment was something recent, something I picked up.”

“When? Last night? At the last town?”

“I told you, my dear, that was an accident; a mere excursion. But that’s not me, you know that. I wouldn’t ever do a thing like that again, especially knowing how much I hurt you.”

“And this woman, the one we brought back. What is she then?”

“My dear she is nothing to me, part of my work and the good that I do. The poor lass is infatuated, nothing more. We helped her with her child, and she sees me as some idol of worship, as all women do, you know that my dear. It’s difficult being me, it really is.”

He spoke with such gentle and tearful honesty, it was hard to negate.

“Does she love you?”

“Delilah, you are my number one. And you always will be unless of course, you drive yourself away with such ironic suspicion. Don’t let these fraudulent thoughts become a wedge between your heart and mine.”

“I feel as though I have spent my entire life loving you,” said Delilah. “And as much as I devote myself to you, I am mocked by that girl, who has not an inch of love for you, and whose bind on you chokes me. She gives you nothing in return for the life and love that you offer. She is a shadow of disrespect that stalks your Light and runs from your affection. And yet, none, not even I, can get so close.”

“Delilah, you know your love is special.”

“My love is scripted,” she screamed. “I am just an integer. All of us are. We were interchangeable, and so long as we answered your questions, as long as we participated in your experiment, there was no will that was our own. Love was a spell that you cast.”

“Such is love, my dear.”

“Should not a woman have a choice in whom she loves?” asked Delilah, ready to stab her lover’s bloated chest.

“The heart makes no deals with the head. Your love for me is as real as any love. And mine for you. And yes, I love many women, but I love each one with as much passion and sincerity as if they were the only one. You would never find love like the kind that I offer. I only love so many women because I can; because I can love each with as much amorous appetite as I do the other.”

“How can one man love so many women?”

“How can one sun warm so many hearts?” he replied.

“Do you love me?” she asked again.

“Of course I do my dear, of course, I do.”

“Like I love you? Do you love me, like I do you?”

The Ringmaster paused for a second, and he thought of last night’s dinner.

“Of course I do,” he said. “Maybe even more.”

“That’s impossible,” said Delilah, still wishing she had the nerve to kill him.

“Tear it up then, if that’ll make you happy, if that’ll ease your conviction.”

“I will,” she said, holding the document like an armed explosive.

Her hands pulled on both corners, teasing The Ringmaster at first, to see the give and pull in his word. And it did seem as if he was telling the truth, in how he stood and gazed at her, their eyes locked, as they had the first time they met. There was barely a flicker of threat or dread on his face, and his lips were unwavering, like two moist gorges, but gorges that were sparkling of course, and painted as red as the blood that beat from his loving heart.

“My dear, my number one, my Delilah, do you really know why I love you?” he asked.

When he spoke like this, it was easy to forget one’s troubles.

Delilah sniffled, and shed a tear.

Her anger begot sadness.

“Passion,” he said. “It’s your passion; your passion for me, and more so, your passion for yourself, for your own self-respect. You’re not like these others women who address a need to be loved, simply to feel love. No, you, my dear, you love, as you do, with such bold and ardent consecration, and with such revered potency. And because of that, you are loved. It is your passion that wets my tongue and has me, even in the desert of your absence, tasting you on the back of my throat, and preserving me through moments, be they brief or unrelenting, of scorching and desiccated loneliness. We each carry in us, in our Light, an element of the omniverse. You, my dear, you are the element of passion. And that is why I love you.”

“You are so full of shit,” she said, storming off and throwing the document at her lover.

“Delilah, darling…”

“That finale is mine,” she shouted, from somewhere off in the distance.

“Nobody gives two hoots to my troubles,” said The Ringmaster, picking up the document.

Outside his window, Rex crouched, in how a mountain might crouch, if it were to hide behind a leaf or a crack in the earth. “I care,” he said to himself, wishing it was loud enough to be heard and at the same time, thankful that it wasn’t.

The Ringmaster returned to admiring his reflection. He tucked his flat and flabby buttocks in, and pushed his crotch up and outwards, as far as he could, and then swivelled back and forth saying, “Oh me,” and “Oh my.”

My dear God, he was handsome.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “Not. At. All.”

He unrolled the document in his hands. It was close, it was. But the tumult had passed. In time, she would get over it, and the love they shared, just he and she, it would be stronger because of it. And the fact that little had come of her accusation meant that she would never speak of it again.

Every woman he had met had fallen under his spell and found themselves at the virtue of his sex, and his beguiling wisdom. Each and every woman he had ever encountered had fallen madly in love with him. And it was the document in his hands that was the key to their unwitting devotion.

It was, as Delilah had assumed, magic and sorcery.

And it was, as she had said, a kind of reverent prayer.

But it too was science; a kind of hope and mystery that The Ringmaster kept under his hat, something he kept hidden from the rest of the troupe. It was calculable and predictable. And it was almost exact.

God help him should he ever lose these pages.

“Delilah!” he screamed, his eyes ablaze.

Rex shook and cringed. He hated when his master shouted. It reminded him of all the kicks to his behind, all the clips behind his ear, the beatings and shackling, and the dreadful waterboarding; and of course, all the times his food had been given to someone else, for having done one thing wrong or another. And even though his master shouted out someone else’s name, he hid all the same, with just as much concern, as if the name being shouted were his own.

The Ringmaster’s left hand clenched and shook a bunch of papers in the air as if he were boxing some invisible piñata. Just visible on the paper was the sigil of their troupe, just as was, the sigil on the experiment, but, beneath his bulging fingers were the words ‘Healing Prayer’.

“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted. “I’ve been fooled, made a monkey of.”

Immediately, his little monkey felt less of itself.

“That crafty woman. That lying bitch. Oh, she maddens me,” he said, rubbing his excited penis, which erect, was no bigger than a chickpea, standing on its end. “Anything for the finale,” he said, panting, while the little monkey covered its eyes, wishing it were up a tree or stuffed in a sock drawer. “Rex,” he shouted.

The giant fell backward, crashing in a heap on top of a unicycle and a rooster.

“Yes, Master,” he said, pushing his gargantuan face to the window, unable to press no more than a single eye through.

“I have chosen,” he said.

“Good, Master, and at last minute too, a no more appropriate time. Shall I prepare Delilah’s trapeze then?”

“Prepare the girl,” he said.

“The girl?” asked Rex, baffled. “The whore will be incredulous. Are you sure?”

“Do not expel your doubt on me like old gum, buffoon.”

“My apologies, Master. Yes, I will prepare everything.”

“Good,” said The Ringmaster, returning to the mirror. “There is only one first performance, so let this be magnificent.”

XVI

The line to get into The Big Top was just that, magnificent.

“It’s magnificent,” said The Four-Legged Woman.

Beside her stood her faithful assistant, carrying a heavy bag full of her many vials of glitter and nail polish between his two snapping claws. “Isn’t it just,” he said, ignoring the long line of grey people and instead, focusing on how her shoulders shone in the moonlight, thinking of her body as some ethereal wave that he wished he could dive into. “It’s dreamy,” he said.

“Master was right. He was right all along. I never doubted him, though, but this is so exciting. My first show. Our first show. Oh my God,” she said panicky, “how do I look? Really? I mean,” she said, pouting and exposing her crooked teeth while she wiggled her twenty-two toes. “Are they delectable?”

“Like fireflies,” said her assistant.

Inside, The Big Top was almost full. There were only a few of the very worst seats still untaken, but they were being eyed off by the thirty or so desperate townsfolk who jostled with one another on the spot, peering impatiently over each other’s shoulders, and past the man with no arms and legs, who swung back and forth like a pendulum, shouting out the names of every star in tonight’s spectacular, between every puff of his smoking pipe. And the line of people, it stretched more than the tents simple capacity would allow.

Backstage, frantic preparations were well underway. Everything felt like it had been left for the last minute, and it seemed as if every mechanical problem that could go wrong, had, was, or most certainly would. Pulleys wouldn’t pull, lifts weren’t lifting, and the stars of tonight’s spectacular were near on imploding from all the stress and anxiety. There was a specific kind of energy backstage, and an abundance of it too, enough to suffice a thousand death rows. There were people running this way and that, swinging hammers and spanners, and cables and ties. And there were people running that way and this, hauling dress pins and ribbons, and bucket loads of glitter for eyes.

It was chaos yes, but from up on his perch at the height of The Big Top, above even the tightropes and fly men, to The Ringmaster, it all looked so neatly woven and carefully planned. He sat on an oversized wooden, rocking horse, sipping from a cup made out of dinosaur bones, and getting the thick fat on his neck massaged by whore number five, for she had baker’s hands, the kind that could knead a mountain range into a flat and even dough. To his left, the little monkey sat on an even littler stool, its faced blocked by a little canvas, and its busy, little hands, busy painting away its master’s portrait.

As he took everything in, The Ringmaster smiled, first at the little monkey, whose focus was immutable as it brushed and stroked away, and then at the whore, whose invigorate fingers worked their magic, loosening the tough mounds of fat that built up around his neck and on his shoulders. His troupe had come so far, and they had weathered a great deal of burdens and misfortune. The pride that he felt perspired onto his whiskers, and it tickled and rumbled his belly, but then again, that might have just been gas.

It was a sight to behold, though, and literally nothing could upset it, except maybe, an angry whore. The platform where they stayed began to rattle and sway, and though neither the little monkey nor the fifth whore stopped what they were doing, both grew a deal of concern, but no way near as dire as The Ringmaster.

“I assume she has heard then,” he said.

Below them, Delilah scaled the thin, wobbling pole like an experienced climber. She did so with her knees pressed together, so as not to expose her frilled knickers to the stagehands below. She was a whore after-all, and whores were women of class, education, and dignity. But there was nothing ladylike or whorish about the violent look in her eyes as she stormed her way upwards, step by step.

“Bastard,” she screamed.

Looking over the railing, The Ringmaster barely battered an eyelid. He sank back into the grooved saddle of the rocking horse and continued to drink his potent and stinking liquor from a purple, winding straw.

“Don’t even think about stopping,” he said to the whore, whose grip had weakened, and who was obviously distracted by the swaying platform; that and the sounds of expletive cursing, coupled with the clanging of steel capped stilettos, on tiny metal rungs.

Delilah was barely half way up the pole when something grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and shook her free. She dangled in mid-air, her arms and legs drooping as if her spine had been severed.

“Let go of me,” she screamed, fighting to squirm free.

It was no use, Rex had a firm grip. Delilah was garbed in so many trinkets and dangling accessories that the tiny handed giant had only to open his gargantuan mouth and snap blindly to grab onto anything at all that would suffice ample leverage. Were he chasing a mime or a publicist, there would have been a great deal more scratching and bruising. But whores dressed, for all occasions, like thrift store vitrines, so whatever angle one stood, there would always be something to grab, be it a jewel, a polyester button, the tight knots of a corset, or the studded collars and dog chains that had become kitschy fashion since spring. Either way, nabbing a raging whore from a teetering ladder, was easier than picking fruit from a tree.

“Let me go you oaf,” she screamed.

Rex lowered Delilah to the floor, back behind the rafters, and out of view of both the audience and the other whores, who Rex knew, had insatiable egos that would turn ravenous and riotous at the sight of such weak spirited desperation. What he did, he did for the best.

“Don’t do this now,” he said.

“You would not know,” she said, squeezing her hands into throttling fists, “the hurt that he causes.”

“I wouldn’t?” said Rex. “Wouldn’t I?”

His voice sounded like a drill, boring through teeth and bone. Rex thought, in an instant, of every occasion where he had felt like her – kicked aside, left out, and second handed. He thought of the first time the master had found him, as a young man, curled in a foetal and blubbering mess, beneath a buzzing neon sign for a two dollar peep show; stripped naked, beaten to near death, spat at and pissed on, covered in cuts and bruises, and spray-painted with slurs of graffiti. In that instant, Rex thought of the look on his master’s face as he covered him in his mauve jacket. He looked like a child, who, whilst digging through dirt and scrap, had stumbled upon the most magnificent toy. And Rex felt, as he thought of his master’s face, the same as he had in that instant, that very same air of relief that one might feel after a night of hard drinking, looking down upon their warm and made up bed, or in how a prisoner might feel after the firing gun has clapped in their ears, and the bullet rips through their heart, ending that dreaded silence and contemplation. He felt that relief for an instant, far shorter than it took to write this down and to tell it to you now. The feeling came and then turned, as quick as a child’s promise to ‘never do that again’, and in the next instant, his mind flicked through all the memories of hurt and abandon he had felt, feeling like the third child, or the obese and mangy dog; fed and disciplined like all the rest, but never touched, and scarcely played with. He thought about all the whores that had come and gone over the years, not just Delilah and her entourage. And he thought about his master’s face, whenever he crept closer for mere attention. And over the years, though the whores changed, the pain that he felt never did, and neither did the look on his master’s face as he shoved him away and postponed his affection.

“We’ve all been there,” he said, in a deep and burrowing voice that sounded somniferous, like a pilot, an oncologist, or a moving train. “We’ve all felt as you feel right now, once or twice in the past. Some of us even feel it more, to the extent where it has become our culture, and our climate. You are not new to this experience. Don’t act like you are.”

Delilah gripped the sides of her beard, her fingers clenched as if she were about to tear out every hair. Rex, though, with his tiny hands, pulled hers free.

“Do not spite your face,” he said, “if it is the only one that you have.”

“Why does he do this? Why does he treat me this way?”

“It is love,” said Rex.

“Love? This is love?”

“It is apparent, Delilah,” he said, actually saying her name, “that one can love, especially, at a time when another does not. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not loved, or that you no longer make your bed in their heart.”

“If he doesn’t want to be with me at all hours of the day, then how is that love?”

“Oh, what you’re describing is obsession. Love is something else. Love is far more complex. It is without ego and it defined as not in having, but in having been.”

“What is love if it absconds when it cannot be shared?”

“Love is having the courage to let someone go; to treasure someone so dearly, and to be so brave as to let them be free, to not cage and suffocate them so that your love conspires with the fear of being left alone. If you love someone then let them be. For if its seamless companionship you want, then look no further than your own shadow, but God you help at night.”

“I can’t compete with that girl.”

“She is his child, Delilah. How could you possibly compete?”

“She is not his child.”

“Delilah, she was born from his womb. Though it was not his at the time, it was in his body. He bears the scars and the stretching on his skin. He carried her, though he was not himself at that time, for nine months in his belly. Yes, he is a different man today, the man that you obsess over, but his bond to that girl in inexplicable. Even if it seems spoiled and quarrelsome, nothing will be able to come between it, not even you. The moment you truly accept that, at that point, your obsession will dissipate, until all that is left, is love for yourself. And how can you love another, if you cannot love yourself?”

“But he doesn’t love me? And I do not love him.”

“Then why are we here?”

“He used magic on me. He used magic on all the whores. A bunch of questions, an experiment; I found it. He used it on that dying bitch. He used it on me. And I know he used it on every fucking woman he met. That’s why we all put up with him. It’s why he’s allowed to treat us this way.”

“There is no science to love.”

“You assume that science is not a faith; that it is not magic. That alone is its sleight of hand. That is how it fools you. That experiment, it is magic.”

“Don’t be rash. Don’t be silly,” said Rex.

“You’ve seen it, haven’t you? You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re always there, at his feet, outside his door, curled up beneath his bed. If it’s not her, it’s you. But you’re no threat, not even to yourself. But you know, don’t you? What is it? What is the experiment? Has he used it on everyone?”

Rex said nothing.

“He has, hasn’t he? What about you? Did he use it on you too?”

“No,” said Rex.

“So it’s real then. The experiment, it is real. You admit it.”

“That’s not what I said,” said Rex, flustered.

“How do you undo it?” she asked.

Rex sighed. He didn’t want to let his master down. He had seen so much since he had been taken in. And the love that he felt for his master at first grew, like all the whores, as obsession. But that was just what love did. It cocooned itself inside a hard, and jagged casing; one that stabbed and pricked when any threat came close. He had seen the experiment many times. He had seen it and watched it with his own eyes. And he had cleaned up the mess, time and time again, as spurned and obsessive whores had fought one another, thrown themselves off bridges, and torn apart their own faces, at the behest of their obsessions.

“There is no way,” he said, “to undo what has been done.”

“Habit cures habit,” said Delilah. “I just need to find a new habit, someone else to love.”

“The habit is not in the thing, but in the desire itself. You could choose from a thousand dresses, but your compulsion to be clothed will have you outwear them all. If you were to unstick yourself, and to find someone new, the adhesion of your obsession to them would be immeasurable, and believe me, as it is, you’ll tear your skin trying to pull yourself apart. Be thankful your love was not born in this town, and that you’re not cursed like all these people; and that you will not die in three days.”

“I wish I would,” she confessed. “What, if anything, can I do?”

“If you are a victim of this experiment then there is nothing you can do.”

XVII

“Question thirty-four,” said The Young Cripple.

The two children had almost reached the end of the experiment, pausing now for the last question. Their stare was intense, like a predator latched on its wounded prey, or an infant, on the scent of its mother’s nipple. Little could undo their concentration, not even the shouting and cheering coming from the other side of the camp, as, under The Big Top, the audience grew restless, waiting for the show to get underway. Not even the sound of the dying woman could rattle the children, as she fought the urge to choke, gargling on loose teeth and thick, black phlegm.

“If you were to die this evening,” said The Young Cripple, “what would you regret not having said, to the one person who matters the most?”

The Young Boy thought for some time. He thought not of words, but of pictures. He thought of his mother at first, from as early as he could remember, right up to a time that he wished he could forget. He thought of her fitting him into his pyjamas and tucking him in at night. He thought of her watching over his bed through a crack in the door while he pretended to sleep. He thought about her too, nursing his dying sister, and he remembered how he had wished it was he, cradled in her arms and being kissed a thousand times, apologized to, and grieved for so passionately, before she had even died. The Young Boy, though, couldn’t think of a word to describe what he felt.

So he thought of his father instead. He thought too, from as early as he could remember, up to the present, where love and kindness had become precarious events, suppressed in the child’s subconscious that kept him, like a bruised and battered housewife, justifying his father’s culture of callous cruelty, and though desperate to do so, unable and unwilling to escape. He thought of him stocking the fridge, repairing a puncture in his tire and being on the sideline for the only goal he had ever kicked. He thought of him too, dismembering his sister and burying her in the corner of the yard where she used to build sand castles.

He thought of the look in his father’s eyes, where his love had been dressed in fret and worry when his mother gave out that last horrible, flatulent breath. It was the look of a hapless scientist, in the midst of a ruinous discovery; as if in that second he had come to accept why this had occurred, and more so, knew with absolute certainty, what would happen next. And he thought of the look in his father’s eyes as he threw the last mound of dirt on his mother’s grave, the one that had been evicted of all emotion, where love had been robed in neglect, abuse, and torture. It was the look of a man that had come to accept what he would have to do, and who he would have to become, to keep his son alive.

And the whole while, as he thought of these things, he clung onto the silver paddles, receiving light shocks and heavy shocks too, as The Young Cripple moved the small dial as she had been taught. And the shocks, be they ticklish or grave, did little to stir the placid focus in The Young Boy’s mind as he thought the best and very worst of the person he believed mattered the most. And it was when The Young Cripple kissed his cheek that he immediately thought of someone else.

“I love you,” he said.

The Young Cripple blushed.

“I…I…Uh,” she said, stuttering.

“Is what I would say,” continued The Young Boy. “I love you. And it’s ok. Whatever happened, or is going to happen, I will always love you.”

The Young Boy laid down the silver paddles, now oblivious to the constant shocks. His mind felt clear and light, but too, it felt overcome with a sense of worth and purpose, and when he looked at The Young Cripple, he felt as if he were staring into the afternoon sun – as if she were his north. He hadn’t felt this kind of direction and belonging, not since glancing upon that look in his father’s eyes.

He didn’t wait for the girl to put down the experiment. Instead, he leaned forward and as quick as a death adder’s strike, he kissed her once, on her lips. And for the next seven minutes, they looked at one another, without blinking or turning away. The Young Boy cast himself into the sea of the Young Cripple’s eyes, drifting in her attentive current, swarming around her rising and falling iris. And she too, unto his, which as grey as they were, reminded The Young Cripple of the clouds, which made her think of herself as a bird, escaping the bastille of her crooked and useless legs. She found herself deep in his gaze, riding the jet stream along the centre of his attention, towards the peace and quiet of the endless space, in the black of his iris.

For seven minutes – which could have been seven years, or seven lives – they held this gaze. Neither one blinked. Neither one laughed or smirked, or even trembled for that matter. Their gaze was as wide and sure, and as warm and steadfast too, as the sun upon the Earth, or as a new mother upon her feeding child.

For seven minutes, nothing and no one else existed.

XVIII

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we bring to you the wonder of the omniverse, unravelled in grand mystique over the next three fantabulous hours, or if you prefer, one hundred billion trillion, fractions of a second.”

Rex paused. He had his face pressed against a huge funnel that was built into the bottom of the stage, and which wound around and around, and then split into four smaller funnels, which then ran up the sides of The Big Top and extended out over the audience’s heads.

‘Await rapturous applause’ it said, on his cue card.

Beneath the stage, a small mouse watched with curious wonder as Rex, the human mammoth with shrunken appendages, hung onto his last breath, waiting for any sound at all – a clap, a boo, anything. What the mouse didn’t notice was the ginger cat creeping up behind it, set on curing the famine in its belly.

And like the previous day, out in the bleachers, the townsfolk sat still and stupid, their hands anchored to their legs. They looked as if they were awaiting a command, as if they couldn’t command one of their own.

“I have an idea,” said The Tiny Tattooed Man.

Rex turned to the little man, whose pectorals danced up and down hypnotically as if to say, “Yes, yes, yes.”

“No,” said Rex.

“Trust me,” said The Tiny Tattooed Man, and again with the pectorals.

Rex stared at the cue card.

“Await rapturous applause,” he said.

“What are you going to do?”

“Just watch,” said The Tiny Tattooed Man.

Though his better judgement pleaded, “No, this is not the place,” his irrationality, which, like an itch in an inappropriate part of his body, said otherwise.

“Fine,” he said, “go, do it.”

The tiny man scampered backstage, jumping over this and that, and generally knocking over anyone or anything that got in his way. In a second or two he was out in front of the audience, out of the spotlight, but just visible, standing on a wooden box.

“Start over,” he whispered, turning to the stage.

Rex had no intention of starting over, especially a live performance.

“Amateur,” he thought, thinking of the little man.

But the whole troupe stood there, nodding their heads with stupid grins on their faces as if this, of all things, was a good idea. Rex knew better. Though he had never directed a show per se, he had studied a great many, and he had never seen, in the thousands of hours of his theatrical preparation, a single performance blunder, however mildly conspicuous or magnificently obvious, and then start over. He knew it was wrong. And he knew that he should just ride with it, and to let it pass, and let it slide. He knew not to make a deal of it. This would only make it worse. He knew he should ignore it, but for whatever reason, be it the pressure of the first show, or the thought of the master livid, sitting high on his perch, awaiting his grand entrance, and feeling sad and disappointed, whatever the reason, he turned back to the giant funnel and he started over.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, with not a nerve in his voice. He was a goddamn professional. “Tonight we bring to you the wonder of the omniverse, unravelled in grand mystique over the next three fantabulous hours, or if you prefer, one hundred billion trillion, fractions of a second.”

Again, silence.

“Clap” shouted The Tiny Tattooed Man.

“That was his great idea?” thought Rex, painfully in his mind.

“Clap,” shouted The Tiny Tattooed Man again, “or I’ll punch ya!”

The audience immediately went mad with enthusiasm; ear ringing, rapturous applause. The noise alone could squash a hand full of crickets and lady bugs. And it might have been the fear of being punched that had sparked them into such a blaze of excitement, or it might have been from something as simple as a direct order; something literal that they did not have to decipher. They clapped and whistled, and stomped their feet on the bleachers, almost to the point of splitting the old wooden beams. And along with the clapping, whistling and rhythmical stomping came roaring and cheering. And there was laughter too, but not as if someone had said something clever or witty, or as if someone had fallen face-first into an elephant’s arse. It was as if all this cheering and roaring felt especially good.

Simply that.

“Genius,” said a member one of the workers, to The Tiny Tattooed Man.

“It’s just my job,” said Rex, fanning off the compliment and quickly throwing a hundred hand cues to the dozens of strong armed women and men, anchored to pulleys and ropes, and to a dozen or so men and women who were dressed in bright, flashy spandex and keeled over stationary, silver bicycles, which were cabled and wired like a madman’s vest, and tied to bulking generators, which then fed the coloured lights on the stage, and the giant spotlights beneath the bleachers, which were now aimed up at the highest point of The Big Top, awaiting the grand entrance.

Rex turned back to the giant funnel.

“Welcome,” he said, “to The Grand Spectacular.”

The spotlights shone, high up into the air, and every smiling face followed.

“Our time has come,” said The Ringmaster.

He stood on the edge of the platform, staring out over the audience below.

“You are the most important person that has ever existed,” he said to himself.

The whore behind him blushed. As she stood behind the man she loved, with her outstretched hands just an inch from his teetering balance, she didn’t know whether to hug him or to push him off.

The little monkey squealed and The Ringmaster turned quickly to see his furry companion holding up the portrait that he had been working on tirelessly this while time. The Ringmaster smiled. It was nothing but a mash of circles and what looked like exclamation marks, or attempts to stab the paper. But for a monkey, it was magnificent.

“I love you, my master,” said The Fifth Whore, pushing him over the ledge.

There was a momentous explosion. It turned the still evening into some kind of reckoning. And it was followed quickly by the crackling of cheap fireworks. In his garden, The Father sat in a mound of dirt, cradling his wife’s severed head and watching the strange bursts of colour and sound that burst sporadically into the night sky.

“I tried,” he said, wiping the fringe from his wife’s cold, skeletal face. “I really tried. But I can’t continue this way. I can’t, not anymore.”

His wife’s severed head didn’t speak, not even in his maddened thoughts. It wasn’t as if he expected it to either. He held it and spoke to it as if it were a microphone, or a wishing well. He addressed it, as an astronaut might, the world that he or she once knew, expressing his concern over his slow descent into silent abandon, but expecting not a single message or sign in return. The Father merely stroked, what little clumps of hair remained, and stared at the bright flashing colours in the sky.

“It’s just a matter of time before they come for him,” he said, thinking not of his boy, but of the door which imprisoned him. “I can’t let that happen. They all know, though. I’m sure of it. Busy bodies. Inconvenient bastards. If they find him, I don’t know what’ll happen. I wish you were here. I wish you could tell me what to do.”

He stared down at his wife’s severed head, curling the clumps of hair around his fingers lightly, as he would do when they lay in bed, helping her to fall asleep. And though it was a guilty pleasure that she always asked of him, regardless of the hour or how tired they were, it was the one thing that he needed, more than she, to quiet the echoes of discontent in his thoughts.

And the hair that he now curled and twisted in his fingers, the small clumps that were now glued and stapled to the round of her skull, was all that he could muster together from what had fallen out, on that dreaded second day. Some of it, he kept in a sealed bag that he stored in his freezer. And every other day, he would wash and condition the hair so that it was as soft and shiny as when she wore it herself. And when the hair that was crudely affixed to her rotted skull decayed, or stiffened, or merely became too filthy and dry to touch, he would replace it with a small strand or two from his freezer.

This had sufficed for so long, but the strands in his hands now were the last.

There were no more.

“That stupid bitch came round today. I hate her. You used to hate her so much. She’s still so fucking pious you know? Nothing’s changed. Even in all of this, all this disease and death, nothing’s really changed. Nobody’s any better. Nothing’s been learned. There’s nothing to take away. And nobody’s any worse either. They pry, just as they always did. And they want to know things like it’s some goddamn right. You’d hate it here. You would. You’d hate how it is now, and whose here. All the better halves died,” he said, as in the sky, there came four loud bursts, and the darkness lit up first in orange, and then blue, and then yellow, and then pink. And each explosion of colour settled into a letter of its own.

L. O. V. E.

Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.

The letters formed and vanished, and then seconds later, the silence rippled with glittering eruption as burst after burst, the letters were brought back again. And that goddamn word lit up the sky.

“What am I supposed to do? I can’t treat the boy like this forever, just to keep him alive. This is torture. Worse even than what you and our little girl went through. And with you both, watching, what I went through. It’s worse, it is, for him, and for me. I can’t live with this hate that I have to feel. Especially when I forget, and when I start to love him again, and having to think of new ways to despise him, and to blame him for the way that I feel, just so that I can hate him some more. All of this hate, just to protect him. This isn’t right, I know. But I can’t think of any other way. What should I do? What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

The sky was a ring of fire, and at its centre, the word ‘Love’.

“Is it for us to live and suffer, or to bear the consequence of love?”

His wife’s severed head slipped from his hands, into the hole from whence it came.

In the camp, by the kindling fire, The Young Boy nursed a sick and dying woman. He sat near her, gently stroking her temple, and brushing off, as if it were a bit of powder from a cake or a sweet, the clumps of hair that pulled from her scalp, without any effort whatsoever. The woman’s convulsing had stopped, and her chattering teeth were no longer a threat to her own tongue, but this didn’t mean that her illness had waned.

The Young Boy hummed a song that he heard his mother humming to his sister when she nursed her through her first day; when her trembling and convulsing also stopped, and was beset upon by deranged and schizophrenic rambling, and promises of threat and violence. Already the woman was nearly bald. The Young Boy gathered the strands that stuck to her shoulders, and without her noticing, he tossed them into the fire.

“Have you seen my child?” she said, nearly a hundred times, in nearly half the amount of second.

“Yes,” said The Young Boy.

“He’s in heaven, or so I’ve been told. Have you seen it? Have you seen heaven?”

“Yes,” said The Young Boy, though he had no idea what she meant.

“Have you seen my child?” she said, another hundred times.

The Young Boy kept stroking her temple.

“Yes,” he said again.

“He’s in heaven, or so I’ve been told,” she said. “Do you know it? Is it far? Do you think he’ll ever come back?”

The Young Boy didn’t respond.

The Grieving Mother turned. Her eyes were wide and looked as if they might fall out of her face at any second. Her mouth too was demented. Her tongue poked on all sides of her gums, and then into the backs of her teeth, pushing so hard that one after the other, they popped right out and dropped onto the fire. And with a few licks and lashes of her prodding tongue, her mouth was little more than bloodied gums.

“I know you, boy,” she said, more alert than she had ever been. “I know your family. How are you not sick?”

The Young Boy thought of his castigating father, and how much he pitied him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Lucky I suppose.”

The dying woman laughed.

“Lucky are those that are already dead,” she said. “A young boy, somebody’s child, having gone abandoned, that is not luck. That is unfortunate. Better to have never been born,” she said, almost choking on a molar, “than have to have lived a life unloved.”

The Grieving Mother turned away and started gnawing on her tongue with her bloodied gums. Her convulsions returned, and her body thrust about like a suffocating fish. The Young Boy had to fight and struggle, to keep her from rolling onto the fire. He thought about his mother and how she had asked both he and his father, “If I left, would you be mad?” All this time, his father had thought that she was talking about her death when in fact, she loved somebody else.

He wanted to hate her, as his father hated him. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. He sympathized with her. Not with her betrayal, for wanting to leave, for having an affair, or for getting sick and dying, as she did. He sympathized with her, for the way she must have felt, for he felt it himself; an overwhelming desire and urge to be with someone, irrespective of what that meant, or what harm it might do.

The Young Boy thought of The Young Cripple. She had only been gone minutes or barely an hour, and yet, he missed her, as is she were on the other side of the world. He missed her as if he might never see her again. He missed her, as The Grieving Mother missed, her dead child. And he missed her, just as his father missed, loving and then being loved in return.

The urge within him was overwhelming. He shut his eyes and still, all he could see was her. He shut his ears, and he could hear no more than the sound of her voice. He shut his mouth, and the palm of his hand felt as if his lips were nervously and lightly kissing her cheek.

His blood felt warm, even though it was freezing outside, and he was barely dressed. And his body felt charged, in a way that he had never felt it before. He felt like he could push the heaviest boulder up the highest mountain, for an eternity even, if that was what The Young Cripple wanted or needed of him.

He had a power within him that he had never had before. His heart felt like it had grown, stretched and expanded. He thought about the girl in loving kindness. He thought about her also, in gut-wrenching fear. He thought about being near her, and he thought about never seeing her again, in the very same moment. He felt relief, and at the same time, torturous heartache.

He was in love.

And then, at that exact second, his nose started to bleed.

XIX

“What’s the first word in the first line, of the very first thing I say?”

The stress was mounting. In cramped little dressing rooms, scattered beneath the stage, tonight’s stars rehearsed their manoeuvres and magic. They rehearsed their jokes, songs, and expressions; and they rehearsed their closing bows and curtseys. Each cordoned off space was a flurry of desperate twirling and kicking, and manic rambling of opening lines, repeating the first words of their monologs and dialogues, over and over again.

“Pulley One. Pulley Two,” shouted Rex.

The giant was hunched over and hurling orders, insults, threats, and insinuation, preparing for The Ringmaster’s grand entrance.

“Pulley Three. Pulley Four,” he said, holding his little hands up, almost to the bottom of his chin.

His two crooked index fingers pointed upwards, as if he were disco dancing, or calling in a very small plane or mosquito to land. Everyone, though, regardless of age, sex, deformity or position, their attentions all hanged on the tip of his finger like an orchestra to their conductor, or a kitten, to an untied shoelace.

“At the very beginning,” boomed a low voice over a loudspeaker. “Before all things, there was….Light.”

The Big Top lit up and there, looking like the ass end of a half squashed Christmas decoration, dangled The Ringmaster, swinging in small circles as the four StrongWomen below, fought each other over equilibrium.

“Steady,” shouted Rex. “Steady. Even pull. Even pull.”

Slowly, the circles grew smaller and smaller until The Ringmaster’s arse was centre over his podium below. The four StrongWomen slowly lowered the cables, a fraction of an inch at a time. They eyed one another, from each opposite corner, and as strong as their arms were, and as mountainous were the arches in their backs and in the firmness of their stances, they all bore an incredible weakness, one guised as strength and grit.

The second Rex turned his attention away from the cables, peering out into the audience, one of the StrongWomen, catching the mocking stare of another, tugged on her cable, once and then twice. And this made the other pull on hers. Above the podium, in the spotlight and under the eye of the audience, The Ringmaster started to swing back and forth and jerk violently.

“What in tarnation’s?” he cursed to himself, almost dropping his cane.

And it was only a second later before the other two StrongWomen joined in on the tussle, fighting to throw the others off guard, and to prove to Rex and themselves, that each was strong enough to do the work of four. Their massive biceps pulsed, and veins popped from their arms likes cracks in the sidewalk. Their eyes glared, and their lashes, like swinging fists and cutting swords, lashed away, spelling out, in some kind of Morse code, words of war and provocation.

And out under the point of The Big Top, The Ringmaster flung back and forth, and round and round, and most certainly out of control. “Rex,” he screamed. “What in tarna….”

Rex swung his attention back.

“Pulleys,” he shouted. “In line, now!”

The StrongWomen each pulled on their cables at the same time and at the same measure of strength as if this were something they could quite have easily done the whole time. Rex eyed each one, and each one dared not look back, insisting on thousand-yard stares, focusing one the gentle pull of the cables and wires in their sturdy hands.

It was quiet beneath the stage again; uncomfortably quiet.

“Ready lights,” said Rex. “Ready, sound.”

In the centre of The Big Top, The Ringmaster, now no longer spinning out of control, slowly descended down on to his podium which was made out of a dozen shoe boxes, and hair from a shaven gorilla.

“Cue light,” shouted Rex.

Light flooded the podium.

“Cue sound.”

And a clap of thunder sounded, as The Ringmaster struck his cane in the air.

The Tiny Tattooed Man flexed his muscles, and, as if his gesture were a cardboard sign that asked for applause, the audience erupted in generous ovation. The Ringmaster, up on his podium, was nearly overcome with emotion. He held himself together, though, as he spoke.

“Welcome,” he said. “To salvation. I am The Ringmaster; your guide, your instructor, your guru, your bishop, your mother, your father, your physician, your maestro, your penis, your bicep, and your breast. Let us start tonight’s spectacular,” he said, holding his cane high in the air, “by recanting, as one, the story of The Sun of God.”

Under The Big Top and beneath the stage too, be they coloured and tasselled performers, or out in the bleachers, grey and colourless townsfolk, one and all repeated in harmonic unison, the story of The Sun of God. It only took a minute or so, but each spoke with such fervent passion as if every word had been a stone that had paved in their own lives, as if the story had once been theirs. They spoke with such clear and precise diction and with such zealous address as if it what they were saying were the absolute truth. And nobody was looking at their prayer sheet or story books. They spoke off by heart as if this story were the only one that they had ever told as if it were the only one that they had ever known.

“Wonderful,” said The Ringmaster. “Absolutely wonderful. If God could hear you now,” he said.

“Which he most certainly can,” mouthed Rex, copying The Ringmaster as he spoke.

“Let me ask you,” said The Ringmaster. “How do you feel?”

The audience sat dumb, unsure if they should respond.

“I’m serious,” he said, jumping up and down on the spot, and throwing his jacket wildly into the audience. “Right now, how do you feel?” he shouted.

Beneath him, The Tiny Tattooed Man stuck both thumbs up and nodded.

“Fantastic,” shouted the audience, all at once, their thumbs sticking up.

“Fantastic,” he said. “Do you have doubt?”

“No,” they shouted.

“Do you have fear?”

“No,” they shouted.

“Do you have emptiness, loneliness, and despair?”

“No,” they all shouted, smiling madly.

“Then tell me,” said The Ringmaster. “Do you have love?”

“Yes,” they all said, rousingly.

“I’m gonna ask you again. This time, I wanna hear two yesses. The first one is for me, and for the second, I want to hear a resounding yes, for you. Affirm, baby, affirm. Now tell me, do you have love in your heart?”

“Yes. YES!” they shouted.

“I said, do you have love!”

“Yes!” they all shouted. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. We have love, we have love, we have love.”

“Yes you do,” he said. “You have love, love in your hearts. And you have love, love in your eyes. You have Light, Light in your souls. And that Light is love, and that Light is God. You have God inside of you. He is inside of us all. We are one, and together, we are God.”

The crowd erupted in cheer.

“What is God, I hear you ask, outside of a proposed idea? Is it a figure like I? Does it dress as I, and make appointments as I do and do its best to keep them? Does it wear holes in the knees of its ideals? Does it constantly outgrow its own self? And can it fly, and walk through walls? What is God?”

The Ringmaster took from behind a small curtain, an even smaller black box.

“I have seen God; thrice. It would do neither of us much good for me to try and describe its essence and it appearance, as you would, say, a small child, a ripe apple, or your biggest regret. For in this world, our minds are not fit to comprehend anything outside of our conscious stream, just as our ears can nary distinguish the subtle inference in a dog’s bark. And just as a two dimensional being could never comprehend or even envision your three-dimensional height and breadth, seeing only the shadow of your instep, neither then could you, or any of us for that matter, in this three dimensional plain, imagine or envision God, who in a higher dimension, looks, behaves, appears, and is spoken of, in what can only be regarded as sheer absurdity. To the two-dimensional being, that can only see lines, nothing has form, only shape, and therefore, you, in your three dimensional plain, do not exist, even though, we know, so ubiquitously, that you do. And it is neither absurd nor is it in any way, magical. But how could one prove that the third dimension exists? For we know that we exist, but on a two dimensional plain, you are not you, you are a line; neither fat nor skinny; and neither voluptuous, waif-like, nor broad. Just as, if God were to come to us, in this three dimensional plain, we would see and know it, as no different to anyone of us, and our logical minds would cry foul and charlatan, for our rationale, though not knowing what to expect, would be expecting the absurd. And a man or woman, or even a goat for that matter, would fit finely into our governing logic as of being common, ordinary; and any link to divinity – preposterous.”

The stage Light then shook, as if rippled by an invisible wave.

The Ringmaster smiled.

“I was getting to you,” he said, as if the shaking ripple was growing impatience, and the Light was a man. “Firstly, though, before I introduce you to a four-dimensional being, let me prove to you that the fourth dimension is real. Here before me is what appears to you as an ordinary box. It is, though, a portal or a window if you will, to a higher dimension. Not the dimension of God, but of one that is hidden so meticulously inside your own. I will, to prove that dimension is real, attempt a feat impossible in the third dimension, and perform it in the fourth, where the impossible and the absurd are as common and uninteresting as in our dimension, for example, tying one’s shoelace, or answering a telephone.”

The Ringmaster took from beneath the table, a rabbit and two sets of pliers.

“I will now ask someone in the audience for a ring, or a badge, or any artefact for that matter, which is distinguishable, and undeniable as being yours.”

The troupe walked around the audience and eventually, one of the coloured people took from an old lady, a locket that had, inside of it, a picture of the old lady’s late husband.

“Thank you,” said The Ringmaster, taking the locket. “Now, our logic tells us that rabbit can be two things, it can be a rabbit, or it can be a meal; and the same for these tools and this trinket. They can be of purpose, or not. But a rabbit cannot be a locket, just as a locket cannot birth a rabbit. Of course, you say. The idea alone is absurd.”

The Ringmaster smiled.

“Absurd then, in our dimension, is common and expected in the next. I will prove to you, the existence of the fourth dimension, and in doing so, the existence of God, and of our love and our healing word, by taking these four objects into the fourth dimension, and returning them back as one object, as one being.”

The audience sat in silent scepticism, as The Ringmaster took the three objects -the rabbit, the locket, and the two sets of pliers - and reached into the black box with both hands. He closed his eyes as if shutting off his three-dimensional senses, those that would try to imagine and rationalize where his hands were, and what they might be doing; rationalize, and fail mind you. He switched off every sense and allowed his hands to act upon their own accord as if each limb were a body with its own mind, and it’s own conscious attention; an idea that was ridiculous to ponder, yet where his hands tinkered, absolutely sound.

“Now,” he said. “Before I return this being to you, I remind you, that in the third dimension, this being will not exist, not as it did in the fourth. But it will prove to you, the mechanics and architecture of what you cannot comprehend; that what you do not know, and what you cannot believe as being true, exists and is patently real. Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Prepare to marvel.”

He took his hands from the black box to the estranged marvel of one and all in the audience. Though it was still and not alive, The Ringmaster held in his hands the rabbit or at least the body of a rabbit. Where rabbits feet would have been, were two sets of pliers. And where its head should have been was the locket, which when opened, showed the smiling face of an old man, a smile his grieving wife hadn’t witnessed since they were both younger than their dreams and expectations.

What was strangest of all, though, was that there were no joins. This was not some Frankenstein monstrosity. There were no stitches or kinks, bend, folds or breaks in the rabbit’s fur, or in the items that protruded from its body. Each looked as if it had once grown as naturally as the rabbit’s fur. As absurd as it was, and though the rabbit was quite clearly dead, it appeared as if it had been born, and lived a full life this way. There was not a surgical mark on its body. And just as looking at a skeleton or a cadaver, one could safely presume that in its life it did walk, and talk, so too did looking at this fallacious marvel, one assume that it did once run and hop, and so too did it cut wire to sneak through farmer’s fences, and then, cast insult and provocation in a tongue that farmer could understand, with a face that he could remember.

The crowd erupted in manic ovation.

“Now,” said The Ringmaster, serious. “Light. We have assumed, our entire existence, that something that existed in this plain before us was as ordinary and innocuous as we ourselves. And this is Light; or The Sun of God. God is here, or its child is, I might say. And Light is its appearance to our rational eyes. Just as your presence in your bath tub or in a small puddle might make a ripple that is felt by any insect or fish whose home is inside that puddle, pond, or tub; so too does the presence of God appear as a ripple in our own dimension. And just as the fish or the frog might accept some invisible force or wave as part of its world, so to have we, accepted Light as part of ours. Light that exists, even in the vacuous realms of space; which travels through all things.”

The Ringmaster put away the black box and stood with a pendant in his hands.

“Troupe, please, if you will,” said The Ringmaster, ushering a host of coloured performers out into the bleachers.

The performers did just that, rushing to each seat and sitting by, beside or even on, the laps of townsfolk, holding their hands and smiling at them, just as they were being smiled at themselves.

“We are all family now. And as our brothers and sisters, we offer you a present,” he said, as each performer took from their pockets a silver thing and pinned it to the chests and lapels of each townsfolk. “These pins,” said The Ringmaster, “They are our sigil; the symbol of unity and belonging. It is important that you keep them close to your heart, as if your life depends on it, which it most surely does. Never lose them, never take them off, and never let them out of your sight, for they shall always remind you of salvation, and of the sacrifice of The Sun of God, the eternal sacrifice that Light has made for you. I love you all, my children. And now…. Let us start the show. For your first act, and for your entertainment, I present to you, the art of, ‘Man wrestles alligator’.”

As man and alligator stared one another in the eye, so too did a young girl to a charcoal portrait of her mother, a young boy to the star-like splotches of blood on the palm of his hand, and a father, to his own reflection, as he stuffed a roll of cotton into a jar of kerosene.

But it was a bearded whore who was wreaking the most havoc of all, sitting in tears on the edge of The Ringmaster’s bed, with a refuse of papers scattered about her feet, and her nervous and tremoring hands, clinging to one in particular.

XX

As he made his way backstage, towards his carriage, The Ringmaster pranced about on the tips of his toes, twirling occasionally when the moment suited. For a man of his stature, he was strangely buoyant, and as limber as a young child.

“Can you hear them?” he shouted, to each person that stood in gobsmacked attention, pressed against both sides of the wall. The Ringmaster threw himself at each coloured troupe member, kissing their cheeks and ruffling their hair; sometimes even tickling their bellies. “It’s magnificent, it’s fantabulous, it’s spectacular, it’s true. I am the father of Light,” he sang. “I am the father of Light.”

“It’s working. Just like I thought, and just like I imagined. It’s working. Just like I told you, and just like I said. The people are healed, the sick have become better, the people are healed… Hallelujah Light, what more on Earth could they want? Heaven awaits. Hallelujah, Heaven awaits.”

It was true. Out on the stage, a man with only two ribs was winning the rapturous applause of a people who, only hours earlier, had neither the want nor the will to express their cultured dissatisfaction. And now, they sat on the edges of their seats, clapping wildly, and biting their fingers as man and beast rolled about in epic battle, snapping and snarling, choking and poking one another. And just when it seemed like the beast had won, and when every townsfolk hung onto the same terrified breath, there came a rumbling from beneath the stage that sounded like thunder, and there came blinding flashes of Light from the rafters above. And just as the vile, scaly beast set it jaws to snap, there came one enormous bolt of Light, and the man, as if he had received an order, a command, or an intervening hand, pulled his head out of the alligator’s snapping mouth and punched it, once, twice and three times more.

And the crowd went wild.

The sign in the Tiny Tattooed Man’s hands read, ‘Rapturous applause’.

But this was apocalyptic.

“Listen to them,” said The Ringmaster. “That’s love in their hearts. It’s Light… Light in their hearts. We saved them. We have saved them all. I love you,” he said, kissing the lips and cheeks and bellies of one and all, on his merry way to his carriage. “I love each and every one of you.”

The first act ended with a chorus of trumpets and elephant trunks, and the stampeding of townsfolk on the rafters below their feet. But The Father could hear little over the sound which the gasoline made, as it swished back and forth in its drum, as he spread the liquid all about the house. He had flooded the back garden already, turning his wife’s and daughter’s graves into foul smelling wishing wells. And he was going room by room now, with a dozen drums already emptied and two dozen more, ready to be used.

The last time he smiled like this was during an exit interview at a company that he hated. He felt breezy, as if it didn’t matter about the fire or the smell of smoke. He’d beaten that damn curse. And he’d save his boy.

The Father emptied the final drum under his son’s door, flooding the room entirely. And when the last drops of gasoline rattled about, he threw the drum onto the floor and collapsed back against his son’s door. He was so calm and so content, he almost fell asleep.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and…..”

“Ahem,” said Rex, interrupting.

The Three Legged Midget turned backstage. “What the …..”

“No bloody kids!” shouted Rex.

“Aha. Yes. True. My mistake,” said The Three Legged Midget, turning back to the audience. “Ladies and Gentlemen, b…b…b…,” he said stuttering. “Big and small. For the second act, for my act of mystery and wonder and awe, I present to you, the art of, ‘Egg in Sack’,” he said, lowering his pants, and taking, from a stand beside him, a spatula, a can of whipped cream, two hair bobbins, and a bag full of tapeworms.

The Father marched down the corridor, stumbling as he did. The fumes were making his head swirl, his eyes blur, and his stomach turn violently. Still, though, he wore the most stupendous grin. It was the very same smile that he wore for days after the first time that his wife told him that she loved him, as their car spun out of control along a busy four lane highway. And it was the same too, when his daughter was born – when he punched the police officer and found himself in a piss stained cell with a junky, a priest, and a man with bloodied knuckles who was in need of a fight or a hug.

It was a smile that seemed to defy the worry of his predicament.

And then, in the garden, he took one more look at the final resting places of his wife and daughter. He imagined them as they had been, before this dreaded curse, before this godforsaken hell that he had endured; that he and his son had endured. He imagined them, and he imagined his son too, in a way that he had been scared to this whole time. He imagined them, and thought of them, with loving compassion.

For the first time in so long, he thought of his son, not as some irking bastard, or some vile, depreciating cunt. And he thought of him not as some smudge on a page that he wished he could erase. He thought of him not as a curse, a burden, or a blunder. And he thought of him, not in regret, repugnance, or disgrace. He thought of his son, for the first time in so very long, in absolute loving-kindness.

“I love you,” he said, to the graves of his wife and daughter, as he lit the end of nylon fuse, doused in kerosene.

The Father threw the projectile and in a second, the garden was up in flames. And the flames, they roared like maddened lions, spitting up into the night and catching onto the dried branches that hung over his fence, which in turn quickly spread to the roofs of his neighbour’s houses. For a second, it felt delightful with the wall of fire warming his goose bumped skin. But with a crack or two, and the sound of falling timber, The Father turned back towards the corridor, thinking only of his son.

“I’m coming,” he shouted. “Don’t worry son. You don’t need to worry anymore.”

He slid down the corridor, splashing pools of gasoline in his eyes as he tripped and then gathered his stumbling feet. The fire raged behind him, now completely absolving the garden of any appearance whatsoever. There was just the corridor, the fumes, and the furnace outside that leaped and bound towards the open door.

“I love you, son. I love you,” he shouted, with the very same inappropriate grin, as if he weren’t tearing out scores of nails, bolts, hooks, chains and padlocks, and board after board, while, behind him, a wall of fire swept into the corridor and ignited the putrid fumes. It was as if none of this was occurring. It was as if none of this was true.

“Wait for me son. I’m coming. We’re free now,” he shouted. “We’re free to love, and to feel sorry. And I’m sorry, my boy. I’m so so sorry.”

With every syllable, he tore out planks of wood while fire licked at the back of his neck, painting itself over his clothes and setting about searing his skin. But still, regardless of the horrible pain, he wore that incredible grin, as if his imminent death was insignificant. He wore that very same smile each time that love had been born in his heart. And he wore it now, more real than it had ever felt, as he tore off the last board and burst into his son’s room, followed by a tidal wave of swirling fire.

“Son!” he shouted, to an empty room.

And as the Father collapsed on his son’s bed, a light breeze from a loose floor board invited the fire to swarm about him. The heat and flames danced on his skin and rose up over his head, lighting pictures and posters, and his son’s favourite teddy bear. As he thought of his son, and as he stared at the loose floorboard behind the shelf, The Father felt the onset of crushing defeat and woeful depression.

Then he took his last scalding breath and died.

“That was incredible,” said The Three Legged Midget, rushing form the stage. “Let me go back there, just for one more bow.”

Rex kicked him in the arse.

“Next act,” he shouted. “Get on that stage.”

Beside him, each act stood nervously, one behind the other, and beside them, a well-fed cat groomed itself. There were still five acts remaining. “So far so good,” said someone, it didn’t matter who, it wasn’t appreciated.

“Where is the girl?” asked Rex.

Everyone looked around. There were five acts left, but there were only four acts standing in queueing. They all shook their shoulders and offered little concern, as the worry they had for their own performances was momentous.

“Always the girl,” said Rex, repeating his master’s thoughts exactly. “This is gonna be a disaster,” he thought. “And it’s all my bloody fault.”

He craned his neck painfully, looking up and around every nook and cranny beneath the stage, but he couldn’t see her anywhere.

“Where is that goddamn cripple?”

XXI

The Young Boy stumbled through the brush, unable to stop the flakes of blood from falling from his nose. Fairly soon, the fever would set in, and within an hour or two, so too would the horrible smell, and the cursed scratching – at his skin, and in the gaps between his teeth. Though he was absolutely sure that he was already dead, The Young Boy behaved anything but, tilting his head, and pinching his nose, as if death could be tickled into remission.

“Amor,” he said, stumbling over branches, and his own wobbling feet.

It was impossible to see. He could hear the sound of roaring laughter to his right, and what might have been a hungry bear, scratching at a tree stump, somewhere to his left. But it was so dark, though; an inch from his sweating face, and in the midst of his racing thoughts. All he could think of was the girl, and all he could feel was her suffering.

In his thoughts, she suffered because of her crippled legs.

In his thoughts, she suffered more, with a crippled heart from having been left alone.

And as he thought of her, weeping over his grave, his heart tore away like a century old sticker, ripping to shreds and taking with it, his logic and his reason, and exposing the naivety of his soul. It was absurd, the feeling he had to not give up and to fight the inevitable, even if that would only exploit his pain and suffering even more. And even more absurd, was imagining some way of outrunning this curse, and finding somewhere where they could be alone, together.

But love was absurd.

He could learn a trade, and then maybe build a wall; one so tall and layered so thick that no one would ever be able to get them. He could study art, and then paint the walls so that they looked like infinite space that had neither a beginning nor an end. They could draw a dozen stars for every day that they spent together out of harm’s way. And in the distance even, he could paint a comet, that upon it had a saddle fit for them both, and should any day be worse than the last, they could ride the comet for as far as it would take them, and they could make a home on a different planet, or in just a very quiet and untroubled part of the omniverse.

It took great effort to think this way, and he had no doubt that it would take some incredulous feat, or an intervening miracle, to see it through. He would have to race for an eternity. They could never truly stop. They could never call any place home. Knowing this, his mind started to tire, and in his thoughts, so too did the girl.

“Can we rest here?” she asked, as the comet slowed. “Just for a while, until I catch my breath.”

The Young Boy stopped the comet and looked at the girl who sat behind him. She was more tired than he, but unlike the boy, her exhaustion came from this extended and perpetuating grief.

“What are you afraid of?” The Young Cripple asked. “Just rest your head; I’ll be here when you wake.”

The second his mind rested, though; The Young Boy’s thoughts transformed into the saddest and most terrible kind. He imagined her nursing him through the worst of his illness; and he imagined the girl blistering her hands, as she slaved for an entire week, to dig a grave for the boy that she loved. He imagined the girl that he loved right after his burial, sitting on a sofa that was much too big for her, and in a room that was poorly lit, as her friends and family hoarded and pillaged her lover’s belongings. And finally, he imagined her older, making her bed by his grave; unwilling to heal, and unable to move on.

What a fool he was to think that this curse was merely his own.

“Amor,” he said again, this time shouting; making a hell of a racket as he stamped about in the dark, one hand clamped on his nose and the other, scratching and chopping at the darkness in front of him.

All of this sentiment, and he didn’t even know her name.

XXII

Act after act stepped out onto the stage, and under an amber spotlight, they gave their all. Talent and skill paled when compared to the colour of their passion. Out in the bleachers, the townsfolk roared with laughter, and when it was asked of them, they wept and consoled one another too. There wasn’t a single cued response that went amiss.

If the card said laugh, they laughed. And backstage, so too did Rex. If the card said cry, then they did just that, with as little effort as one needed to clear their throat, or to wipe the sleep from their groggy eyes. And as they wept, so too did Rex, ignoring the acts completely, and instead, staring straight out into the bleachers, trained on the fragile and inconsistent expressions of his audience.

The audience was trained on each performer, and Rex, on them. As each performer performed, danced, and wrestled; and as each singer sang out their hearts; the audience cheered, roared and clapped in a fury of thunderous applause. And when they were exhausted and spent, it was Rex whose turn it was to be moved by the human spirit.

If the end truly were to justify the means, then all of this, this grand spectacle, was solely for the merriment of one grotesque and lonely giant; for there was no-one, nobody except for you and I, to know that he felt this way.

The second last act made her way onto the stage. Her four legs dangled from a chair, decorated as a princess’ chariot. Behind her, her assistant stood, frozen under the gleam of Light. No amount of practice had prepared him for how he felt right now. Every inch of his being screamed, “Run, run for your fucking life.” His heart beat in a rampant and worrying fashion; and had Tetanus not turned his legs into two rigid anchors, he might just collapse and make an ass of not just himself, but of the woman he adored, and of whose every necessity, had become the scripture of his preservation. And so he didn’t run. He stood still, looking on the outside, a great deal different to how he actually felt, under his skin.

“Hello,” said The Four-Legged Woman. “I am a queen of one day in the future, and these are my twenty-two toes. And tonight, I want to show you all of my favourite colours. Then maybe one day you can show me yours. Laugh whimsically,” she said, having memorized her lines, and every mark and cue. “Do you have a favourite toe?”

“Yes,” thought her assistant. “When will you ever ask me?”

“I do,” said The Four-Legged Woman. “And it’s this one here,” she said, wiggling her eleventh toe, from the left. “What colour should I paint?” she asked.

The audience shouted the only colours they knew.

“Grey,” they all said, some louder than others as if their grey were shaded or tinted differently.

The assistant took out a small vial and passed it carefully forwards so that the bright liquid didn’t spill. “Oh, my favourite,” said The Four-Legged Woman, “for this toe at least. It’s so hard to have a favourite amongst so many favourites. For every colour has its own heart and expression, just as every heart has a thousand words that it can say, about the thousand ways that it can feel. But this colour,” she said, stroking the nail lightly, “this is definitely my favourite for this toe. And let me tell you why…”

As The Four-Legged Woman spoke, the audience listened with such delicate attention. Most held their breaths for fear that their own gulping or wetting of their lips might drown out even the most innocuous syllable. With each painting of each nail, she told the same story over and over again. But she told each story as if it were different, dressing the nouns, and innocuous syllables, in bright, adjective colour. And just as an average person might dress according to their profession, celebration, tribe, or physical condition and yet still be that very same person, so too did The Four-Legged Woman dress the story of The Sun of God, the very same story that was embedded in everyone’s thoughts, in twenty-two different dresses for twenty-two different occasions. And on each occasion, just like the average person, the story seemed relevant and new, and each inspired a different emotion. One toe told a story of brotherhood and fraternity, and another of grand treachery and betrayal. One toe spoke of desire and passion, and another spoke of a kind of love, one that was unreasonable and absurd.

Her twenty-two toes told twenty-two tales.

And though they were all different in how, when, and to whom they happened; there were, in fact, like the average person or a deck of cards, the very same underneath. As she spoke, though, Rex paced nervously back and forth, angered by the absence of that stupid girl.

“Any word on the cripple?” he asked.

Everyone shook their shoulders.

“What about Master then? Has anyone seen him?”

Again, hundreds of shoulders shrugged.

“What do we do?” asked a stagehand.

“If there is no sufficient end, what good was it, in coming so far?” said Rex.

“But…”

“Shut up,” said Rex. “I’ll go. Worst comes to worse, send out the wrestlers. They can fill in until I get back.”

As he spoke, man and alligator looked at one another and wept.

“Whatever happens, there cannot be an empty stage. We do this once, and we do this right, go it?”

“Got it,” they all shouted back.

“God help us,” he said, as a he ran off through the encampment.

XXIII

“You know that I love you, don’t you?”

There was no correct response to such a question, at least none that she was aware of. The Young Cripple sat on the edge of her bed, gripping her thighs as The Ringmaster slowly unwound every nut and bolt in the metal contraption that imprisoned her legs. And as her toes wriggled free, a torrent of pain swept its way through her body.

Her legs felt like they were being brushed and combed, with fish hooks and hot needles. The stabbing pain lapped in waves, from her thighs down to her toes, and then back again. But it wasn’t just her legs. Her neck too felt like it had been whipped and scolded, and the tingling and unremitting sting that she felt behind her ears and under her eyes, it reminded her of a pain she once felt after she had angered a loitering wasp.

Every part of her body felt like it had succumbed to a different kind of torture.

“You’re the only one who doesn’t love me in return,” said The Ringmaster. “My own daughter.”

The Young Cripple kept a long and steady glare. She dared not respond for it would only assert his ramblings, and more than likely, set him off on some violent outrage where one or more of her bones might get broken. So she stared at him, around him, and through him. She stared, unaffected, as if his words were foreign, just shapeless sounds of which she had no emotional anchorage. And she stared too, unaffected as if the sound of his voice were no more alarming than the trill of a cicada. She stared, unaffected as if he wasn’t there.

“I could have chosen anyone to end the show, but I chose you,” he said, as the last bolt fell to the floor.

The Ringmaster stared at her legs in marvel.

“You’re perfect,” he said, as her legs sprang up and down.

The Young Cripple looked down, and she wept.

“You are going to steal the show,” said The Ringmaster. “You should be proud of yourself. You should be proud of your deformity. It’s magnificent. Think of how hard you worked to become like this. Just think,” he said, gripping her shoulders. “All the others, they were born as they were; all of them. As beautiful as they are, and as special as they are, each and every one of them came into this world wonderfully deformed. But you my dear, yours is no accident and no freak of nature. Yours is no mere percentile or random occurrence. No, my dear, yours is a work of art. Your deformity took time. It took passion and sacrifice. It took a whole lotta love and dedication. My dear daughter, your deformity is king. It is above one, and above all. It is the future. And it…. will…. trend,” he said, defiant.

The Young Cripple merely wished she could wear a dress, one that covered her toes.

“Have you gone through your act?”

“Yes sir,” she said, obedient.

“Show me your notes,” he said.

The Young Cripple handed him her palm cards. She never used them, but like everyone else, she had to carry them at all times. Most had become reliant on theirs, mainly because their master was so completely dependent on his. Everything that she was expected to say – her key address, and her main points and passage – they were all written in precise order, point after point. The Ringmaster skimmed the card quickly, before turning back to the girl.

“And your act, as you’ve practiced, is entirely from these notes? Not one word unaligned?”

“Of course… not…sir,” replied the girl, unsure if she was answering the first or second questions. “Why would it be any different?”

“There has been talk that your story is different, that you were….” he said, twisting his face into a disgusted pose. “Making….things….up.”

As he said this, his fingers became fists.

“No sir,” said the girl. “My act is, as is written. I haven’t made things up. I promise.”

“There is only one story,” said The Ringmaster.

The Young Crippled nodded her head.

“I am only telling you what I have heard, and it concerns me. It worries me. De..”

“Delilah’s a bitch. And she has it in for me. She always has. She’s out to get me. She’ll say anything you want to hear.”

“You think I want to hear that my own daughter betrays me behind my back? That my own daughter betrays her belief and her faith, behind my back? You really think that’s what I want to hear? That my own daughter is making up stories, and telling lies. That she is blaspheming? My daughter? Do you understand what this means if it is true? I am the sole representative of God on Earth. There is God. There is The Sun of God, and then there is, I. And my own daughter, my own flesh, and blood, cursing with her profanity, going against the truth. Do understand what that means to me? Do you?” he urged.

The Young Cripple barely flinched.

“Of course you don’t. Everyone else does. The whole world understands; everyone except you. And what the hell am I supposed to do? You are broken, and undisciplined. You are iniquitous and ill-mannered. You do not respect rule and order, and you do not follow as others do. You are a goat amongst sheep, a stone amongst jewels, and a tumour amongst healthy organs. You have no focus and no direction. You just drift. You have no will at all, except to make excuses. You lie, with as much as ease as an honest man has with the truth. There is something very wrong with you. Whatever that it is, it alone is the test of my faith. And I swear,” he said, gripping the girl’s cheek so hard that he almost dislocated her jaw. “I‘ll be damned if I let you tarnish all that is good in this world. This wickedness, this making up of stories, this deviation from good and true, it stops right here. Do you understand?”

The girl blinked once for yes.

It was the most that she could do.

“But you do know that I love you?”

The girl blinked once more.

“Good,” said The Ringmaster, releasing his clasp of the girl’s jaw. “Listen, you’re going to be magnificent tonight. The crowd is great. They’re really warm. This is your night. This is what your whole life has been about up until now. After tonight, you will be top dog in this troupe. Nobody will be out to get you, only to be you, to be with you, and to be like you. Tonight is all about you. So you go out there, and you win hearts. You perform with all of your passion and all of your might. You give your best. You give your all. I believe in you, as much as I believe in God almighty, and in Light. I believe in you, as much as I believe in myself. So you go out there. You, be you. Be special. Be wonderful. Be colour. Be love. Be Light,” he said, smiling and blowing kisses as he walked behind a dressing curtain.

As the young girl lessened her fear, The Ringmaster peered over the curtain.

“You fail,” he said. “And you’ll be hung, drawn and quartered, in tomorrow’s show.”

The girl’s fear returned. Panic-like pain swept across her thoughts, just as the stinging and stabbing sensations did across her entire body. She could hear the sound of cursing not a stone’s throw from where she sat, as The Ringmaster struggled behind a yellow dressing curtain, but it was her own cursing in the back of her mind which echoed the loudest. She cursed her father for he was cruel and had little imagination, even when it came to insult and torture. And she cursed Light, and The Sun of God too, for damning her, as the test of a bastard’s faith. She cursed her legs, and she cursed the pain that rippled through every nerve and every goose-bumped inch of skin on her body. She cursed the fear that she had of everything in the entire world, from microscopic bugs and bacteria, to wolves and taloned predators with beady eyes and sharp, gnashing teeth. She cursed the horrible things that were real, and more so, she cursed the deadly and blood curdling things that were not, of which nestled in her thoughts, and projected onto everything that she could see. She cursed this damn carriage and her uncomfortable bed; and she cursed these stupid palm cards, the troupe, and herself.

“Darling,” spoke a woman’s voice, from behind the yellow dressing curtain.

In an instant, The Young Cripple’s fear vanquished.

“Mother?” she said, almost disbelieving.

From behind the yellow curtain came The Ringmaster, clad in a long floral dress that barely covered his painted toenails and stockinged legs. He wore a green shoal, and a long auburn wig that curled in small, winding spirals past his shoulders. His lips were painted red, but not bright and bloody like a cheap slut; they were subtle as if it was the natural pigment of his skin. He wore blue pumps with a black bow on his toes. And he carried over his right shoulder, a handbag fashioned like a diamond.

“I love you, my darling,” said The Ringmaster, in a woman’s voice. “You know that I love you, don’t you?”

The Young Cripple wept loudly, holding her arms wide and inviting.

“Oh my dear,” said The Ringmaster. “Don’t you cry. Your mother is here, and your mother loves you like you could never imagine.”

The Ringmaster embraced the young girl and pressed her head against his bosomed chest. He stroked the back of her hair gently, as if her fear and pain were a web, or light sprinkling of dust, that only a mother’s gentle touch could shift from a child’s head. He ran his fingers lightly over the round of her head, and then massaged the lobes of her ears, the one thing that always consoled her.

“I know your father has his way,” said The Ringmaster. “And I know it is not always right. You know this too. But it’s important that we make him feel that he is right, even when he is wrong.”

“Will you stay?” asked The Young Cripple, gripping her mother’s hand.

The Ringmaster smiled.

“There’s nothing I want more,” he said.

“I love you, mother,” said The Young Cripple. “But please, don’t go this time. Stay a bit longer. Please? Stay some more.”

“I never leave,” said The Ringmaster. “My darling, you are absolutely never alone, even when you are.”

The Young Cripple closed her eyes and forgot her trouble. She lay in her mother’s arms for some time, until the quiet was stirred by the sound of stampeding feet and racing breaths as a giant and a young boy, both raced through the dark, towards the young girl’s carriage.

“It’s time to go,” said The Ringmaster, in a gentle maternal tone.

He kissed her forehead and then carried her out of the carriage, and into the giant’s hands. “I love you,” he said. “You are my north. You are my everything. Though I come to you for just a second or two each time, believe me when I tell you, each time feels like I have lived an eternity. I love you, my darling, and I am so proud of you. Go out there and shine. Read your story, the way your father would have it read, the only way it should be read. Forget the fables and fairy tales. Forget the ambiguity. Read the story as it is my darling, read it as it is. But read it with the passion that only you can. Do it for me, your mother,” said The Ringmaster, kissing the girl once more, and the disappearing out of the girl’s sight; somewhere off in the darkness, behind the sickly old tree.

“Cutting it close,” said Rex, walking off with the girl in his arms. “We’ve little time for anything. Let’s get you rigged up and ready for the show. You’d better be spectacular, you hear?”

The Young Cripple stared up at the starless sky, as black and vacuous as her thoughts.

“I will,” she said.

“You’d better,” said Rex.

Behind them, The Young Boy stumbled out of the bush and into the dim light, his eyes set on The Young Cripple’s carriage. His hands were cold and soaking in blood, and his head was light and dizzy. He had ulcers in the corners of his eyes, under his tongue, and in the back of his throat, and with every gulp and swallow, his body seized, and his face grimaced with sheer pain. Still, as useless as his eyes had become, and as pained as mere breathing seemed to be, The Young Boy didn’t give up, peering at shadows through half shut eyes, driven on by his aching heart.

Unable to continue, The Young Boy collapsed by the old Sycamore tree, hanging on for sheer life. His nails scratched against the crumbling bark as he thought of the girl, and he felt a great pain in his heart with her absence, far more acute than what he felt in his curdling stomach, or from the sores that had started to fester on his skin. It felt as if his heart were being pulled from his chest; and the part that stayed with him, the part that hadn’t been stretched and skewed, was the part that feared to be alone. And so he thought of the girl, and all he could feel was absolute fear.

As the boy wept, his tears ran from his stinging eyes and fell upon the cursed tree.

And thunder clapped – though there was not a cloud in the sky.

The Young Boy fell on his back, aghast, as above him, The Demon stood.

XXIV

“How’s the audience?” said Rex, rushing back from some dire engagement, struggling to get a sense of the show, and more so, his work.

“We’re losing them,” said The Tiny Tattooed Man.

Rex buried his face in his hands.

“Could be all the acetone. I told her, boss. But she insists. Twenty-two toes, twenty-two prose. She could water that stuff down. You wanna know what I think?”

“No,” said Rex.

“Right. Right, you are,” replied The Tiny Tattooed Man nervously. “You want maybe I should punch someone?”

“No, I don’t want you to punch someone.”

The stress was starting to take its toll. It wouldn’t be long now until he reverted back to his old ways. God help him, should this happen. For a thousand days, he had thought about this night. As the troupe trudged along the broken, dusted path, he had spent step after gruelling step, running every facet of the show through his mind; from the placing of every nut and bolt to the size and colour of every prop and costume. He even worked out the right amount of time that would suffice the perfect round of applause. And while others cursed about their blistered feet, and their splintered shins, this grotesque giant thought nothing of his mounting starvation, or of the aches and pains that would have had an even stronger man, weeping and wincing themselves to sleep. He ignored the fevers and the shakes, and he marched through the most severe kinds of delusional lethargy. And on the coldest and most bitter eves, when the troupe made their camp, so entrenched was he in his thoughts of the show and this night, that he never once noticed the spiders, snakes, and glowing centipedes, which scurried beneath his body and warmed themselves neath the round of his buttocks; biting and stinging as they did.

All he thought about was tonight. And when he did, it always ended with applause. He’d think about the audience standing up on the rafters and almost falling over one another in sheer boisterous delight. Then he’d think about the performers, standing centre stage, each with their arms coiled around one another, bowing with such placate and generous appreciation; their backs arching like a brightly coloured wave, crashing on a sun-drenched shore.

Then he’d imagine more applause, and the deafening echo of “Encore,” and “Bravo.” And only sweeter than that, would be the thought of his stage hands, collapsed in a heap together backstage, their heaving breaths and relieved panting sounding to his ears, like white noise to a crying infant; quelling the anxiety that came with his newfound reach, and limitless potential.

Finally, he would imagine himself peering through his master’s window as he rested half naked in an armchair and drank a bottle of cherry from a hollowed elephant tusk. And in this grand thought, of which he had imagined ten thousand times, his master would catch the grotesque giant fogging up his window, and instead of hurling a rock, a handful of nails, or a tirade of abuse, so pleased and content would he be, that he would invite Rex into the warmth of his carriage, to curl in a ball and sleep by his feet. And over the course of a thousand days, this was most certainly Rex’s favourite thought.

But now, as The Young Cripple was being winched high up into the air, poor old Rex could think of nothing but disaster. And then it started. His heart beat rampant, and he could feel his pulse in the back of his eyes. Everything weighed on this moment right now. If she succumbed to fear or nerves, as was the culture of her very being, or if she forgot her cues or her lines, everything up to this point would have meant nothing.

He imagined the girl making a thousand mistakes. And then he imagined the audience, cursing a thousand vile unpleasantries. And instead of thunderous applause, his ears were deafened with the rustle of hundreds of tickets stubs, raining down like atomic ash, as the audience emptied their pockets and their frustrations and stormed out of The Big Top. And finally, as lights were being cued, and as the one man band licked his crackling lips and readied his left foot, Rex thought of his master, sitting defeated and ashamed in his armchair, with a cocked and loaded pistol in his right hand, aimed at the side of his head.

“Boss,” said a stagehand. “Everything’s cued up.”

Rex didn’t respond. It was as if he were trying to read the lips of a lover or an assailant, from a thousand miles away.

“Ready when you are, boss,” said the stagehand, masking his worry in almost condescending joviality.

There was a feeling in Rex’s stomach. It was like he had swallowed a bag full of hot coal. He hadn’t felt this way since his mother and father dumped him in a bag by a river. This time though he was sure, The Ringmaster would come with closure, as opposed to a new beginning.

“Cue light,” he said, his voice sounding droll and depressed.

“Done, boss.”

“Cue sound.”

“Cue sound,” shouted the stagehand, and the one man band tapped his left foot on an oil drum, and his right, on a shish kebab of pots, pans, and cans that were stuffed with rice and fingernails.

The troupe all looked at Rex, waiting for his final command.

“Boss, you alright? Boss?”

“Cue the cripple,” he said, almost vomiting as he did.

As the troupe pulled on cables, and as the spotlights flooded on the young girl who was dangling in the air, Rex snuck off via a series of secret tunnels that wound their way to a room that nobody knew existed. He stood there for a second, listening for any sound whatsoever from the audience, but the silence berated his ears.

On one side of the room, there was a deckchair with a cigar, a glass of lemonade, and a handful of party blowers. Lying on the right arm was a mirror with the words ‘You did it!’ taped to the bottom. And on the other side of the room, fashioned into a noose, hung enough mooring rope to carry his weight for as long as it would take.

XXV

As The Young Cripple swung back and forth, she thought about falling. She wasn’t scared of dying as much as she was, falling from this sort of height and surviving. This would be just the type of thing that would happen to her. She tried to breathe heavily and focus just on that, but her thoughts were swayed and accosted by the sound of splitting fibres from poorly woven ropes, and the creaking from eroding buckles, and rusted carabiners. As she swung back and forth in her century-old harness, The Young Cripple set her breath into a panicked flight, and her thoughts of death and disaster became so patently clear.

“What are you?” asked The Young Boy, beneath the crooked lean of The Demon, with a sense of bravado that may or may not have been a symptom of his illness.

The Demon exhaled, and its musky breath smelt like depression. Instantly, the boy thought of his father, and the stench that followed him like an echo of his sadness. It was the fetid smell of the shirt that he hadn’t washed or taken off in God knows how many months, and that was still stained with dirt and blood, from when he had buried his wife. And it was the blouse too, of which The Father cried into every night, and clung too, as if were all that he had, so that he wouldn’t forget her. That and his constant drinking had made his breath reek. On any one of his better days, The Father smelled like a rank mix of mould, sweat, whisky, and septic water.

The Young Boy thought first of his father, but then, as the stale air about him settled on his skin, in the back of his throat, and in the folds of his eyes, he thought about everyone in the town that had died. And he could pick out each person’s own unique depression as if he were naming spices in a stew. There was the teacher, the baker, and the bully. And there was the neighbour, the doctor, and the vagabond.

The Young Boy could feel their sadness, and he could hear it too, as his ears caught on to an endless spiel of confessions. He listened intently, and at first, it was impossible to make out a word or a syllable. But as his thoughts relaxed, brought on by some venom in The Demon’s breath, The Young Boy’s mind started to clear of the frustrated and illiterate fog, and his focus began to sharpen, so much that, not only could he hear what was being said, but he could see too, just who was saying it.

He watched, as if he were there, each person who had long since died, declaring their love. And though the air was full of sadness, the looks on their faces, and the exhilaration that trembled their breaths, that which had them tripping over their words, was anything but. Each person looked as if they had found their brevity, and upon this promise, their lives were about to begin. Neither person looked as if they knew that a horrible curse was about to befell them. The Demon’s breath reeked of a lifetime of sadness. And at the end of that breath, it spoke.

“Come,” it said, extending its long quills; its open hand now looking like some carnivorous flower.

The Young Boy urged to fight, but he could not. The illness had robbed him not only of his strength, but of his co-ordination, and of the feeling too, in his fingers and his toes.

“You did to this,” said the boy, wanting to swing his fist, but barely able to move his tongue.

The Demon shook its head.

“Come,” it said.

“All those people, they all died because of you. You are the curse,” said The Young Boy.

The Young Boy struggled to talk. His tongue felt like it had been moulded in plastic. As he spoke, he could feel parts of it caught between his teeth, but it caused him no harm and no immediate pain. Even if it did, there was little that could rattle this child. If worry were a currency, this boy would be broke and destitute.

“Come,” said The Demon.

“Why? Why are you here? Why did this happen to us?”

The Demon shook it heads again. This time, it scowled.

“Come,” it said, its voice now sounding like a chainsaw.

The Demon left the boy for a second before it turned back and began its singular call. “Come,” it said, over and over. As difficult as it was, The Young Boy got to his feet and moved like a drunkard, in the direction of the arborous thing that was luring him, away from the girl’s carriage and towards the bright lights and jovial shouting beneath The Big Top.

“Wait,” shouted The Young Boy.

The Demon stopped for a second, and it turned.

“Show me my mother,” said the boy. “You cursed her too. Then show me her confession, just like you showed the others.”

The Demon continued walking.

“You took her from me. I want to know why. I demand to see. It’s my right,” shouted The Young Boy, as if it actually was; as if he had some kind of leverage over The Demon.

But there was no leverage. And the boy knew this. So as The Demon trudged along through the encampment, ignorant to his weightless demands, The Young Boy did his best to follow. But with every second his condition worsened, and his bloody nose quickly turned into vivid delusions, and uncontrollable shakes and tremors, which had him fumbling and stumbling over this and that, and a host of terrible things that were not actually there.

As painful as every step had now become, The Young Boy didn’t halter. He continued in The Demon’s footprints until he was standing at the entrance to The Big Top, with a limbless man swinging back and forth like a pendulum, welcoming him through the door.

“Be quick my lad,” he said. “It’s best to rush, not to think, and just be quick, as quick as you can. You’ll not want to miss the grand spectacular.”

Dizzy, The Young Boy looked for something to grip. The sight of the swinging man had caused his mind to list, and his capsizing thoughts began to swish about like water, at the bottom of a sinking ship.

“Don’t be shy, lad. I can see that you’re sick. But let that be no bother. For inside this tent, you will find salvation, the cure for all ills.”

Behind the swinging man, The Demon stood, calling the boy through.

The Young Boy waited until the right moment before entering, so as not to be knocked over as he hobbled past. As he entered the tent, he was given a small torch, a glass of cloudy looking water, and a kiss on the cheek. “Let Light be with you,” the person said.

The Young Boy followed The Demon up the bleachers, and he apologized profusely to one and all as he as knocked into knees and elbows, shuffling his way through the crowd until he got to where The Demon was, and he collapsed in his seat.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said The Ringmaster. “Thank you so much for sharing this, our first night, and our first performance with us. We feel, in the short time that we have been in your community, as if finally, after all these years of wandering and roaming….We feel that we are home.”

The crowd erupted in cheer.

In the centre of the stage, The Ringmaster stood in a wash of amber. His suit looked astounding and so did he. It was hard to look at him and to speak in anything other the superlative.

“A great tragedy has ravaged this town, it is true. But do you feel that sadness here anymore?” he asked.

“No,” shouted the crowd.

“Do you feel sorrow?”

“No,” they shouted.

“Do you feel depression?”

“No,” they all said.

The Young Boy looked at The Demon beside him, and then back at the chanting and cheering crowd, people who only days before, stank just like his father and who were now, like different people; as if all of the thoughts and memories that made them who they were had been erased. Nobody who had suffered in the way that this town had suffered would smile as they did right now. Nobody who had done, even half of the terrible things which these people had had to do, would be able to act in this way. These were not the same people.

The Young Boy sat quietly beside The Demon and watched the stage.

“There is love in each and every one of you. It is a love that we all share. It is a love that is unique, that could be described in a hundred thousand ways, and yet, for each of us, it is the very same love. My children, as you all are now, I can tell you that each of you carry God in your heart. Each of you is a being of Light. All fear is the absence of truth, committing our hearts and our lives upon a fretful journey with a compass whose needle cannot find north. But here, together, we have north. We have God. We have Light. And Light, it was always with you. You were never alone. But now for the first time, you can see it. And it is wonderful. You have been divorced from the burden of death. There is no more fear,” shouted The Ringmaster, to the jubilance of the audience who rose onto the rafters and clapped their hands in thunderous applause.

“There is no fear,” they shouted. “There is no fear.”

“Light will prevail,” said The Ringmaster. “Now let me hear you.”

“Light will prevail,” they all said, over and over again. “Light will prevail.”

The Young Boy stared at The Demon, whose hands were caged as a fist.

“And now, for tonight’s grand spectacular, we have for you the greatest storyteller to have ever walked this earth. Some say she is a prophet, whose vision of Heaven has helped us, as men and women, to shape ourselves to be more akin to the grace and divinity that awaits us in our deaths. It would be no exaggeration to say that this was true. Our final act for tonight, ladies and gentlemen, has for you, the greatest story ever written, and the only story that one need know. My dear, dear family, in the name of Light, the Sun of God, and in the name of all that is good and holy, in Heaven and here on Earth, I present to you, The Incredible Accordion Girl.”

The lights dimmed.

The crowd held their breaths.

And The Young Crippled descended from above by a host of cables and wires. The one man band beat on his drum and strummed away on his guitar. As the girl hovered just above the stage, a massive floodlight burst in her direction and it caused her to fright, so that her body swung like the man at the entrance, back and forth, up and down. And as she did, her legs, which were like folded paper, bounced up and down to the rhythm of the music coming from beneath the stage.

At first the crowd said nothing, staring in disgust at her bent and twisted legs and at how they moved up and down, just like an accordion. Then, as The Young Cripple started to weep, the audience broke out into laughter, pointing at her in mocking hysterics, as if her torturous discomfort were part of the show.

Hanging there under a boiling spotlight, with her legs like folded springs, The Young Cripple stared out into the crowd. And as she fought to see past their debasing laughter and her own deformed state, she could have sworn she that she saw the young boy whose heart she had stolen, and beside him, a faceless demon who, in the way that it was slouched, looked as if its discomfort was greater than hers.

The Young Cripple wept.

And the more she wept, the more they laughed.

Staring out at the stage, The Young Boy’s heart beat so fast that it almost stopped.

The Demon held his hand.

“Once upon…,” said The Young Cripple, her voice tiptoeing in and out of stutter. “Once upon a time, there was nothing, there was only darkness and the void. But then, one day, there came a rattling and a cracking, and there came a crashing kind of sound.”

As she spoke, from beneath the stage, a team of engineers wobbled sheets of metal and struck hammers against plates, saucers, and dusty, old dinosaur bones. Their racket embossed The Young Cripple’s every word, which then echoed throughout The Big Top.

“And then there was Light,” she said, as the whole stage lit up, showing what looked like a tiny garden with tiny flowers and upon them, even tinier insects.

As she hanged there, floating above the stage, her accordion like legs sprung up and down, but never enough so that her feet could touch the ground. There was still one or two of the townsfolk who were caught in deriding laughter, unable to help themselves. They were quickly attended to by a dozen beautiful men and women in coloured pants, who then guided the two townsfolk to a secluded space, where each went through another round of healing. And after a short period of mild shocks and a brief interrogation, both members of the audience were deemed cured and were allowed to take their places, back in the bleachers.

The stage now flooded with colourful caricatures, with miniature and oversized animals, fishes, dinosaurs, and bunny rabbits; all running and jumping and flying and burrowing their way around the props, each stepping into the spotlight and waiting for a second before being named by The Young Cripple, and then scurrying back into the dimly lit garden upon the stage.

Off stage, The Ringmaster riled.

“What are you doing?” he whispered in dire urgency.

Delilah ignored her lover.

“Get her off the stage,” shouted The Ringmaster, to anyone who’d listen. “Who let her on? Where is the real bloody actor? And where the fuck is Rex?”

The Young Cripple hadn’t even noticed that the wrong woman was on the stage. “And in that Light,” she said, continuing her monologue. “There was a woman whose job it was, was to name all of the creatures in the garden, and all of the insects, and germs, and bacteria too, from the beastly and bulking, to the minute and microscopic. And she carried in her womb, the sun. And then one day, a stranger came into her garden. He wore a striking suit and had long hair, tied in a ponytail. His skin was pale as if he had just succumbed to a terrific fright. And his eyes were like two tiny black pin holes, pressed into what looked like a face, sculpted from grey splotchy clay.”

As she spoke, the imperious figure stepped onto the stage, much to the riling boos and banter from the audience who, by now, were shouting at the beautiful woman, who stood beside The Young Cripple, to banish him, and to cast him out of the garden.

“What is your name?” said Delilah, to the imperious figure.

“I have none,” replied the man, with a plaid expression, and tiny holes for eyes.

“I am Lucifer,” said Delilah, “the bringer of Light. And now that I can see you, if you so wish, like all of the wonder in my garden, I can give you a name.”

“The imperious figure looked around the garden,” said The Young Cripple, “and saw how all of the animals, and the plants too, how they all basked in the woman’s radiant glow. And he could feel the warmth that spilled off her skin like morning dew. But as he stepped closer to the woman, and as he neared her ray of Light, a sinister urge beckoned him.”

The audience erupted, throwing food and splinters at the stage.

“Cast him out, cast him out,” they screamed, for they all knew the story, and they knew exactly what was to come.

“It’s not a name that I seek,” spoke the imperious figure, “unless of course you aim to name my condition, which worsens, now that I can see you; now that you exist.”

“The imperious figure’s heart was betrothed with desire,” said The Young Cripple. “A simple kiss would not suffice.”

“There is no Light in your eyes,” said Delilah, taking a small pistol from her bosom.

The Young Cripple looked muddled. The actor had run off script. She turned, ready to feed the next line, and then she thought she saw, in the corner of her eye, the bearded whore, and her heart stopped.

There was quiet on the stage, and all about The Big Top too, as one and all held onto their breaths in sheer nerve, watching as Delilah slowly loaded the pistol with three small arborous bullets, waiting for her next line.

“There never was any to begin with,” continued Delilah, aiming the gun at The Young Cripple’s temple.

“Delilah,” shouted The Ringmaster, storming onto the stage. “What in tarnation are you doing? Stick to the goddamn script.”

Instantly, The Young Cripple thought of the questions she had asked the boy. She stared at him, through the bright spotlight. And she was taken aback by how deeply he looked into her, with such ferocious needing in his eyes. Such was the intensity and ravenous nature of his stare that The Young Cripple felt guilty, for what she had done to him.

“I’m sorry,’ mouthed The Young Cripple, to the boy who was bleeding to death in the bleachers, in the merciful clutch of a demon.

“I’m sorry,” said Delilah to her lover.

Then three shots rang out under The Big Top.

And a cripple, a master, and a whore all died.

“I once spent a weekend on Earth,

With 2 men of science and god.

One man convinced me I did not exist,

And the other that I was a fraud.

In both men I saw the same reason,

In both men I saw the same light.

So I left for another dimension,

Assuming that both men were right.”

-The Alien

XXVI

The Young Cripple awoke face down in a field. She was tumbled upon a pile of reeds with her legs outstretched and her mouth full of dirt. Around her, she could hear people talking, but it was faint, like a whisper, and she couldn’t make out a single word. Every nerve in her body squealed at her to get up and run. And she tried, she did, to crawl her way out of this heap, but she couldn’t move a muscle; she couldn’t even spit out the sand that was caught in the back of her throat. She merely lay there on her belly, with her face buried into the clumps of grass and soil that had broken her fall.

“Go into the Light,” spoke a voice that rolled like thunder.

As it spoke, a bright, blinding, white light switched on.

The Voice sounded urgent, yet hushed; like a quarrelling father. The Young Cripple tried to find its source. She tried to hear where it was coming from so that maybe she could lean her head in that direction, and shout for help. But as the deafness in her ears started to resolve, and as her hearing became more acute, what had at first sounded like faint whispers, was now more akin to deafening screams. The kind that billowed from twisted wreckages.

There were thousands of voices, maybe millions. They were all shouting and screaming, and begging to be saved. It was chaotic at first, the sound of so many voices at so many differing pitches, yelling so many different things. The Young Cripple wished she could move her hands. She willed it, imagining herself digging her fingers into the dirt and stuffing it into her ears, to snuff out the god awful shrill.

And as quickly as the whispers had become screams, so too did they turn from wavering chaos, into a synched and uniformed harmony, as one voice fell in tune with other, until a million voices, or maybe a hundred million, had found the same distinct pitch and tone. And they were still screaming and crying endlessly, but they sounded orchestrated, like a choir.

As her senses started to unravel and settle, The Young Cripple’s first thought was of what the hell had happened. How the hell did she get here? And where the hell was here? Had she been in some kind of an accident? Had she been hit crossing a road? Had she plunged from a rope, or a balancing beam? Or had a plane fallen out of the sky, and landed on her head?

“Go into the Light,” said The Voice again.

The Voice, it was nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It was coming from somewhere off in the distance, somewhere quite far, and yet, as absurd as it seemed, it was coming from as near as the back of her thoughts, as if The Voice were her own, which, of course, it wasn’t.

Piled upon the reeds, The Young Cripple fought with all of her might, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t move her arms or even drag her legs under her body. She managed to, though, after some great struggle, lift her head in some infantile instinct, to keep from choking on the dirt and grass.

She held her neck as high as she could until she could hold it no more, and then it smacked back into the dirt. Unperturbed, she tried again. With all the force that she could muster, The Young Cripple heaved and hoed, lifting her head and trying as hard as she could to turn to one side, as if this were some challenge or complicated task that she was learning for the first time – without guidance, or without any prior instruction. And again, and again, in sheer frustration, her heavy head crashed back onto the dirt below. On the last attempt, though, before exhaustion pummelled her defences, she managed to tilt her head as it fell so that her face rested on its side, and her heavy breath shuffled away the black dirt that kept settling in the back of her throat, whenever she inhaled.

“Walk towards the Light,” said The Voice.

It spoke in a certain tone now which was no more amicable than the sound of a whipping belt, or a whooping cough. It sounded like an order; like an imperative command, one that beheld untold consequence.

“Walk towards the Light,” it said again, almost like a threat.

The Young Cripple lay still for some time, merely breathing. When her strength returned, she lifted her head once more and stared through the swaying reeds as hard as she could, and she could see, just barely, what looked like the legs of an old woman, bent and twisted into cruel and inhuman shapes; worse than her own.

“Help me,” she mouthed, but it was no use. Her throat was dry, and the only sound that came out was from the grains of dirt and dust that spilled from her cracked lips. “Help,” she pleaded once more, and again, her cry went unheard.

In the distance, from behind a blanket of blinding, white light, an army of soldiers appeared out of nowhere. They carried truncheons in one hand and torches in the other. And as they marched, their general sang songs of faith, and of prosperity.

The Young Cripple twisted and turned, finding strength now returning to her body. She could see through the reeds, the millions of people huddling together on a path. Most, if not all, were reaching out into the white light, staring straight into the blindness, expecting and hoping for a hand, or a miracle.

“Help me,” said The Young Cripple, her throat dry and deserted. “Hel….”

She strained her body and lifted her hand up above the reeds.

“I’m here. Someone see me. Help.”

Her voice, like her strength and her memory, was starting to return.

“Please, someone….”

“Shut up.”

It was a boy’s voice; yet is sounded grainy and crackling, like an old gramophone. It frightened The Young Cripple, and had her freeze in her tracks. And now, more than ever, she was desperate for someone to rescue her. She lifted herself with her hands so that her head just poked over the tops of the reeds, and she scanned left and right for anyone from her troupe. But of the hundreds of millions of people, she could see none that were familiar, or looked as if they might come to her aid. Undeterred, though, she fought the aching pains in her body, and the will of her arms to let go. She looked left and right, back and forth, sure that at any second she would find Rex, who with his gigantic size, stood out like a welcomed eyesore, no matter where he went. But his thickly deformed head and his nary developed ears were nowhere to be found.

Though she couldn’t see anyone that she knew, she could see, nearing on the huddled mass, a massive army of what looked like people, who were neither man nor woman. They were sexless and expressionless, and their uniforms were black, with red ribbons on their lapels.

The Young Cripple fought even harder, to lift her body even higher. As it was, only the top of her head stood above the reeds, looking, to anyone who cared to noticed, like nothing more than oddly shaped bush, amidst an unkempt swamp of straggly green grass and weeds. She pushed, though, harder and harder, and lifted her body as much as she could, until her whole face now was free in the open air; air that tasted like licking the inside of a worn truck tire.

“Don’t be stupid. You’ll get us caught. Get down. Get down now.”

It was the boy’s voice again.

The Young Cripple, though, was less frightened now.

“Help me,” she shouted, in the direction of the blinding, white light.

“Stop it. Shut up. Lay down where you were. Just stop shouting like that. They’ll hear you. Got it?”

She hadn’t. She continued – crying, shouting, and pleading.

“You’re gonna get us caught,” said the boy’s voice.

The soldiers had now reached the hundreds of millions of crying people, and The Voice, which had awoken The Young Cripple from some kind of coma or stupor, spoke once again, as the sexless and expressionless soldiers dispersed through the crowd, each finding a pair of pleading eyes, looking with a mix of sheer panic and relief.

“Help,” shouted The Young Cripple. “Over here. I’m stuck, or I’m broken. I need help.”

As she spoke, though, static drowned out her voice, and it was coming from the boy that she couldn’t see – as if he were shushing her; which he was.

“Trust me, just stay down. You don’t want to call their attention. You don’t want to get found,” he said.

The soldiers stood in front of each person, their truncheons stowed in their belts, and one consoling hand resting on each terrified shoulder. They held their torches a mere inch from each person’s glaring eyes so that their pupil’s almost vanished in the blur of white light. And there must have been something about their gentle touch, or in the warmth that shone upon their faces, because, in a second, the people’s terror and worry vanished, as did the volume of their desperate choir.

“Please,” said one of the people, holding a hand over his blinded eye. “Are you here to take us to Heaven?”

The soldier, whose congealing hand now gripped like a vice, said nothing.

“I can’t see,” said the person, “the Light, it hurts my eyes.”

The person was squinting now, trying to lock eyes with their saviour.

But their saviour had no eyes onto which they could lock, no ears which would listen to reason, and no mouth of which to negotiate and concord.

“The Light, sir, it’s blinding,’ said the person, as the soldier unstowed its truncheon, once again.

The Young Cripple swivelled in the reeds, vying to see, or be seen.

“Get down,” said the boy’s voice.

“They’re the Soldiers of Light,” said The Young Cripple. “They’re good. They’re here to help. They take the dead to….”

And it was then that she realized her predicament.

As if she had just remembered where she had misplaced her keys, the knowing of what had happened, and more so, where the hell she was came flooding into her mind. Her memory returned with all the vigour of a hungry dog, or a bout of herpes.

And in a sudden, it had occurred to her that she had been shot, once in her temple. It then also occurred to her that she had died and was more likely now in Heaven.

“Help me,” she shouted. “Soldiers of Light, I bid thee.”

“I’m not lying, I promise,” said the boy’s voice. “They’re bad people. I heard it. Just you listen.”

The Young Cripple shouted some more, but her voice was swallowed by the sound of static. And it was only a second later before she collapsed back onto herself, a tidal wave of pain rippling through her every nerve.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love,” she sang, uselessly to herself, “cast me in your stare. Deliver me from dark abandon, into your hallowed care. Lord of Light and Light of Love, uh…”

It was the sound of truncheons beating on the backs of men, women and children that had The Young Cripple stop her prayer. It sounded like a landslide, and it was impossible to sing over or to even hold a steady thought.

“Shhhh,” said the boy’s voice. “Stay still. They’ll be gone soon.”

The Young Cripple stared through the reeds and could see, outside of the blinding, white light, the sight of millions of weapons, crushing down on the backs of millions of people. The soldiers struck down like the hands of a grandfather clock. They beat and pummelled one and all into absolute submission; the whole while, shining their blinding torches in the eyes of their victims.

“Go into the Light,” spoke the ominous voice that was all around.

The Light was terrifically blinding. Only worse, though, was what it shone upon. The Young Cripple saw, from where she laid, the most horrific kind of violence she had ever seen in her life, and at the hands of her father, she had seen a great deal.

“Oh God, someone help those poor people.”

“Shhhh. Don’t look at them. Just stare at the ground, or at the back of your hand. You probably don’t know it as well as you think you do.”

The ominous voice spoke once again. “Attention,” it said. “Attention one and all. Thank you for your cooperation. We know that you are tired and disorientated. Some, or most of you, know not of where you are, or what is happening. You are on a celestial plain,” said The Voice, “between Heaven and Earth. Very soon The Soldiers of Light will guide you in single file towards salvation. Each of you will be asked to recite The Good Story, the story of your saviour before you can enter Heaven. On our way, we shall practice together. We love you. Welcome. And please, as you go, go with Light.”

The hundreds of millions of people all drudged along in single file with blinding torches and spotlights, held just inches from their faces.

“What happened?” asked The Young Cripple, mortified.

“They come, and they take everyone who arrives. If you fight, or look away from the Light, they do very bad things.”

“I don’t get it,” said The Young Cripple. “Why did they do that? All my life I was told…”

The Young Cripple stared stupid, and in shock, as the trail of people marched along. The first person, whose insolence had brought about the violence, was now somewhere off over the horizon, and behind them, for as far as the girl could see, trailed the rest, walking into the Light, step after step, towards god-knows-where.

“Never look into the Light,” said the boy’s voice, as The Young Crippled turned in his direction, “Look at what is being lit.”

The two stayed silent for a great deal of time, until the sound of marching was no louder than the sound of a grain of sand, falling onto the earth, even from the height of a cloud. It was deathly still, yet in the air, there still hung an odour of incident, as if the people’s fear had perspired a pheromone which lingered, like a cloud of ash, in the air that swept around The Young Cripple’s body. When she was sure the army had gone, she moved to speak.

“Who are you?” she said, still hiding, even though the sound of marching had gone quiet.

“My name is T,” said the boy’s voice. “What about you?”

The Young Cripple thought of her crooked legs. She then remembered every name she had ever been called. And none of them were the kind of names that one would choose to be called unless it was Halloween or a practical joke.

“T? That’s a funny name,” said The Young Cripple, deflecting. “Is it short for anything? I haven’t heard of anyone being called just a letter before.”

The boy’s voice didn’t respond, not in any traditional manner anyway. There was a second of silence or so, enough to spell out an air of awkwardness, but it was quickly broken by the sound of static and buzzing, as a radio dial turned swiftly from left to right.

“Where are you? I can’t see you. Are you near?”

The Young Cripple dragged herself along the grass towards the low buzzing. She could hear what sounded like talkback radio, where a gruff sounding man was pining a lot, in a complaining kind of way, about the current state of affairs. She tried to focus on his voice and to hear what was being said, but in less than a second, the dial turned again, faster than before.

“Is that you?” asked The Young Cripple.

“Yes,” said T, his voice garbled and grainy, beneath a wave of static.

“Where are you?”

The Young Cripple stared as hard as she could in all directions, but she couldn’t see any outline of any boy, anywhere. And the path, were all those poor people were taken; it was now empty from one side of the horizon to the other. It wasn’t impatience that was riling her discomfort, it was fear. She felt as if she were swimming from the bottom of a sunken wreck, and always, just a hand’s reach away was the surface of the ocean, which she could never reach; feeling as if she were nearly saved and would certainly drown, in the very same instant. She felt more alone now, hearing the boy’s voice, and yet not knowing how near or far he was.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love,” she sang, loudly.

“Please,” said T, “don’t do that. If you pray, they’ll find us. I know you’re scared,” he said. “I am too. Just, hold on a second, ok?”

The Young Cripple nodded. She was laid out on her belly, her hands already gripping at a mound of reeds in front of her, ready to drag her further into this swamp, if she had to, for whatever reason. The static continued, but it started to diminish now as a voice became clear on the radio. It was a woman’s voice, and she was singing a song that The Young Cripple hadn’t heard since she was a baby.

“Sleep my dear child,

From tiredness that irks,

Father’s in the field,

And mother’s left for work.

Come down from the rooftops,

The little cat that sneaks,

Keep vigil on my child; may she,

Sleep a quiet sleep.”

Any fears that The Young Cripple had quickly vanished, as if it were a tiny speck of salt, amidst an ocean of calming assurance. The girl sat in the reeds listening as the woman sang, over and over, the song that had been sung to her as a little girl. She sat there in the pile of reeds, with her legs tucked up to her body, and her arms wrapped around them. So detached was she, from her fear and from the sprawling abandon about her, that she hadn’t even noticed how her legs were no longer bent and twisted. They no longer wiggled like a loose tooth, and they were no more crooked than a straight line. She hadn’t noticed at all how her legs looked just like any normal girl’s.

“Was that ok?” asked T. “Was it the right song?”

The Young Cripple wiped away a tear.

“How did you know?” she said.

“Every feeling has its own frequency; you just gotta know how to find it. Sometimes when we feel really off or really down, we can tune into it that frequency, and when we get past the static, we can hear what’s really being said. Did I do ok?”

“You did,” said The Young Cripple, “you did.”

The girl unfolded her legs, and she was smacked with surprise.

“My legs,” she said, wiggling them up and down, and kicking them, as if she were swimming in the ocean; a feat she could have never imagined before. “My legs,” she said again; and then over and over and over, until her words dissolved in the joyful tears that spilled from her eyes.

“What happened? Were they hurt in the fall?”

“No,” said The Young Cripple, crying and laughing at once. “Quite the opposite, actually.”

“I’m glad for you,” said T. “But do you think you can do me a favour?” asked T.

“Of course,” said The Young Cripple, completely besotted by her ordinary legs.

“I need your help.”

The Young Cripple’s ears pricked. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” she asked.

“Can you see me?” said T.

“No.”

“I can see you,” he said. “I’m on the grass, to your left. You have to look closely, though, or you won’t see me.”

The Young Cripple turned around. She hopped onto her feet and stayed crouched, still hidden in the reeds. She hadn’t behaved like this on her feet since she started learning how to walk. She hadn’t felt this free or useful, ever.

“I can’t see you,” she said.

“You’re over me,” said T.

The Young Cripple looked down. There was no boy there.

“Are you crazy?” she said. “Are you sure it’s me you can see? I’m looking down and I can’t see any…”

And then she saw it, a small transistor radio, with a little blue light buzzing.

“Hi,” said T, and the blue light flickered and shone as he spoke.

The Young Cripple wore her very best bewildered expression.

“Where are you? I mean, the real you?”

“This is me,” said T. “My body is somewhere else. You have to help me find it. I can’t do it on my own. I’m just a consciousness in a box. Without my body, I am stuck here in this field. Will you help me?”

The Young Cripple picked up the small radio and stared at it.

“Where are you?” she asked. “Are you the radio, or are you inside it?”

“Where are you?” asked T. “Are you your head, or are you inside of it?”

“I’m sorry,” said The Young Cripple, genuine. “It’s just I’ve never met a talking radio before.”

“Will you help me?” asked T.

It was like the Christmas she always wanted; the Christmas that never came. The only thing more amazing and completely unexpected than having normal legs was this, meeting a boy who lived in a radio, and who needed her help. Nobody ever needed her help before.

“Will it be dangerous?” she asked.

“Probably,” said T. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to do it, or that we won’t have fun.”

The Young Cripple felt as if she were teetering over the highest cliff.

“I promise I’ll keep you safe, and besides, I make a good friend. And everyone could use a friend, right?”

“Definitely,” said The Young Cripple with a mad grin on her face.

The idea was ludicrous, but then again, so was the thought of being able to skip as she walked. But if you asked her before she died, if at all she would like to hop or skip, and not merely fall or trip over her crooked legs, The Young Cripple would have smiled and said, “Of course, but not only would I like to, I will.”

Such was her way.

The Young Cripple skipped along the path with her new friend, T, carried around her neck like a pendant, or a very important key. The whole while, a host of songs were playing from the radio from corals and choirs to jazz and blues, and even heavy metal too. Whatever The Young Cripple felt, there was always a station that was playing a song which felt just the same.

And her feelings were jumping about, just as much as she, as they made their way along the path. One minute she’d remember just before she died, seeing Delilah in her periphery, and the same feeling would come rushing back. And T would be so quick, his little dial scanning through billions of bandwidths, and trillions of channels, until he found a song that stopped the girl from feeling like there was someone behind her, pointing a knife or a gun, or just set on kidnapping her, and keeping her in a dungeon.

When she felt happy, like when they stopped for a while so she could play a game of hopscotch, there was a song just for that. And when she felt sad and nostalgic, thinking about all the stuff and people she would miss if she really were dead, there was the perfect song that explained feeling like that, in a way her young words could not.

“How long have we been walking?” asked The Young Cripple. “Feels like forever.”

“It’s hard to tell. I don’t have a clock,” replied T.

The Young Cripple looked behind her. There were no defining features that stood out; no landmarks or milestones. There was no mountain or ridge, and there was no gorge or waterfall. There was nothing but the endless swaying of long reeds, on both sides of a path that was the same colour as the sky above. And looking forwards, there was much of the same, for as far as she could see. The path wound in and out of the flowing reeds. And it always looked, out on the horizon, as if she and the boy were about to near a bend, but that bend never came.

The Young Cripple refused to blink, in case she should miss a thing; a shape, a shadow, or any bending or warping of Light that would hint as to a place or a destination, or anything at all that they might be walking towards. As much as she squinted, though, and as much as she craned her neck, she couldn’t see anything on the horizon. There was no end to their journey.

And then, when she turned to look over her shoulder, she couldn’t see either, where they had come from. They had been walking for so long that it felt like she had always been on this path. She couldn’t really remember the start of this journey, and though she wished for it to happen, looking out into the endless curve on the horizon, she couldn’t actually imagine it ever coming to an end.

Such was life, or death as it was.

“How did you die?” asked The Young Cripple, a little apprehensive.

“Which time?” said T.

“What do you mean? You’ve died before?”

“Yep.”

“How many times have you died?”

The boy’s radio played what sounded like canned laughter, behind a military bugle.

“So far… around fifty or so. But I’m new to this. What about you?”

The Young Cripple felt a little embarrassed.

“One, I think?”

“This is your first death?”

The boy’s radio played the sound of a television audience, shocked.

“Is that bad? Or stupid? Or funny?”

The radio was about to play another sound, but T stopped it.

“Sorry,” he said. “It sometimes does that without me wanting. Of course, it’s not stupid, or funny, or whatever. It’s everything but. The first time is….I don’t know. It’s always strange, the very first time that you die. There’s no way to describe it, don’t you think?”

The Young Cripple thought for a second, about her death. She remembered the fear that engulfed her, a moment before the trigger was pulled. The adrenaline that poured through her blood was like wet cement in her stomach, and in every nerve in her body. Even if she had legs and could have run, she wouldn’t have. She had little fight, and even lesser flight.

She remembered the calm too as if she had just run a marathon, and all the world and its millions of problems seemed so infinitely small, and so very far away. She remembered how the cocking of the gun had sounded like a piece of hard candy, being crunched and swirled about in a child’s mouth. She remembered too, how, when the bullet that killed her was fired, it sounded just like a standing ovation, and when it hit her temple, it didn’t nearly hurt as much as she thought it would.

What came after, though, her death – the point between leaving her body, and awaking here in a mound of reeds – was the most unimaginable and preposterous sensation that she had ever experienced. And thinking of it made her smile.

“It was like the first of everything,” she said.

“Death?” replied T.

“I felt, or I think I felt, everything at the same time. Everything that I ever felt for the first time, I felt when I died, all at the same time. It’s like getting every bit of food that there is, and mixing it all together into a little ball and eating it, and then all the flavours explode at the same time. And one minute it’s hot and spicy, and the next it’s cool and it freezes your brain. And then it’s sweet, and your teeth are tingling, and at the same time it’s tangy and sour. But it’s salty too, and it makes you want more. It’s like that, except I felt happy, like when I got my first skipping rope, and at the same time, I felt really sad, like when my father cut it in two. I felt the most scared I’d ever been, like the first time I was left alone, and I felt the safest too, like when I woke up in my mother’s arms. I felt angry. I wanted to punch a hole in the omniverse. And I felt so in love too. I just wanted to hug the whole world, especially those that didn’t deserve it. I felt…” she said, spinning in circles with her eyes close and her arms out wide, as if she was certain that no harm would befall her.

“Everything,” said T.

“Everything,” said The Young Cripple, smiling, and holding the radio close to her heart.

“I’ve been born and lived as many times as I’ve died,” said T. “And as intense and complete as dying feels, I have to say, I much prefer living. Life is more subtle; experiencing each emotion on its own, in context with the world that abounds. I really like the spaces between words for example; the silence between sounds, and the calm between waves. At the same time, though, dying is pretty cool,” said T, laughing.

“What does your body look like?” asked The Young Cripple, slowing her skip and settling back in a gentle stride.

“Like yours I suppose, except I have an aerial on the top of my head. Without it, I’m not much clear in what I say, you know, with all the static and that.”

“What’s it like?”

“What? Having an aerial?”

“Being a radio.”

“No different to when I was a person, like you.”

“You were a person too?” asked The Young Cripple excited, as if everything had, all of a sudden, become less strange.

“The seventh time I died,” replied T.

“So you’ve died a lot?”

“Not a lot. But, next to you, I suppose I have.”

“What happens next?” asked The Young Cripple, curious, and a little scared.

The radio eschewed a grating static that sounded like screaming.

“What’s supposed to happen….is not what is happening,” said the boy.

The dial on the radio turned and the static grew louder and more irritating. From inside of it, though, The Young Cripple could hear what sounding like a small child sobbing, whilst in the background, what sounded like a prayer, a creed, or an anthem was being read aloud.

“At the centre of the omniverse, there is a boy who waits by a door. The boy is omniscient; he just doesn’t know it yet.”

The Young Cripple looked doe-eyed. It sounded improbable, yet patently true.

“What’s behind the door?”

“The door leads to an infinite number of universes. And to pass through, you have to tell the boy a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Anything; anything at all.”

“What if he doesn’t like my story? What if it’s too simple? What if there are no surprises?”

“What boy doesn’t like a simple story? As long as it is yours, it will be different from anyone else’s. And the boy would least suspect that. He’ll like your story, and he’ll open the door, and let you through.”

“And then what happens?”

“You’re born again.”

“What do you mean? Like a baby?”

“A different universe, and a different world. But basically the same you. Except different of course.”

“Different how?”

“Well maybe you might be a person, like you, or you might be a radio, like me. Or you might be a quark, a beam of light, a rainbow, or you might even be a block of ice, a leaf, or the tiny the insect that crawls along it. You might even be a planet or a star. Or better yet, a betta fish.”

The Young Cripple looked at her body; she couldn’t imagine being anyone else.

“How do I know what I’ll be? What if I don’t wanna be a planet?”

“It’s not up to you.”

“Well, who’s it up to?”

“The boy,” said T. “And his imagination.”

“Sounds weird,” said The Young Cripple. “But ok. Well then, if that’s what’s supposed to happen, then what is happening?”

Once again, the radio exploded with static, and the sound of rattling cages.

“I don’t know,” said T. “It’s just that things don’t feel right.”

“Nothing feels right,” said the girl.

“You’d know if you’d died before. It’s different here now, on The Bridge. There’s a feeling, and I can’t explain it. But when I fell the last time when I got separated from my body, I saw lots of beings arrive as they do, in groups and clusters. Except, normally they, or we… normally everyone helps each other and eventually finds their way to the door. It takes, usually, as long as it takes – to find the door and to be ready to pass through. But those soldiers, they’re new. They’re not supposed to be there. They’re not part of the equation. They just appeared all of a sudden, the last time I died. They were waiting, and they took everyone, like prisoners. I don’t know what’s going on, but something doesn’t feel right.”

“Is that where your body is…behind the door?”

“I’d say so. But I’m not sure.”

“How do we get it back?”

“I don’t know. It could be anywhere. It could be in any world, and in any universe. And it may not even look like my body anymore.”

“What do you mean? What could it look like?”

“Well, anything really. It depends on the place, and what kind of stuff there is. And then, in the end it’s just chance.”

“But if it’s changed, how will you know what it looks like? And if you find it and it has changed, how will you know it’s really it, and nothing something else?”

“When you were alive, did you know your body by the way that it looked, or by the way that it felt?”

The Young Cripple thought about her demented legs, and the shame that it used to bring. If ever she was lost and a party was put on her scent, it wouldn’t be her face on the carton of milk. It’d be her banged up knees, and toes that looked like mashed potatoes.

But for someone whose gift and charm was her knack to tell magnificent stories, what harm was to happen upon having a couple of odd appendages? It’s not like she was modelling shoes or braving a tightrope. It was only when she was trying to be someone that she was not, that she ever felt ashamed, awkward, or disgraced – and more so, aware of her body, or anything for that matter, outside of her wicked imagination. And when she thought of writing in the morning sun, The Young Cripple quivered with delight. Moments like these were rare, but they occurred enough for her to know that they were no fluke. And how she felt being herself, was so much different to how she felt trying to be someone else. And even if a thousand years passed since she felt that way again, she would know, like a drunk crawling onto their own bed, that she was home, beneath her own skin and bones.

“Well?” provoked T, playfully.

“The way I felt I suppose,” she said, shying away.

“You suppose?”

“Ok, the way I feel.”

“Exactly. I am not the extension of myself, and neither are you. A captain is not his vessel, and a father is not….”

“His child,” said The Young Cripple, feeling the first of many anchors lift.

The two sat quietly for some time, racking their brains. Well she, her brains, and he, his channels and bandwidths.

“I got it,” said T.

The little blue light on the radio flickered with glee.

“What? What is it? What do we do?”

“We march in there,” he said.

“Where?”

“Where my body is silly.”

The boy’s voice turned static once more.

“Are you mad? We just walk in there? With no army, no nothing?”

“Yep.”

“Wherever that is?”

“Yep.”

“And find your body?”

“Yep.”

“And then what?”

“We get it back,” said T, defiant.

XXVII

It had only occurred to The Young Cripple, after a great deal of time mind you, that she had yet to take a single breath. Stranger than having legs that worked as well as her arms was the act of not breathing. When she was alive, she might have gone a whole day, or even a week or a year for that matter, breathing, but not being aware of it. Very rarely would she stop and notice her own breath, unless it was short, or she was fighting for it.

Now, though, a slight panic washed over her, as if she had just realized, after a century of sitting in her favourite armchair that she was currently fifty feet upwards, dancing on the wing of a jumbo jet.

“I can’t breathe,” she said.

She started to clutch at her chest as if it were caving in.

“You don’t breathe,” said T, correcting the girl. “One implies ability, and the other a trait. Try to relax. Breathing, when you were alive, was merely an expansion of your vessel. Your lungs were pistons, and your thoughts, for the greater part, like thick plumes of smoke. You are consciousness, much more than a few corporal parlour tricks. Try to be kindness. Be whole. Be…”

“Light,” said The Young Cripple, like a reflex.

“No,” said T. “Anything but.”

“Then what?”

“It’s hard to say. It’s not something you think about doing, it’s just something you do. So there’s no real word to describe it. It’s just, thinking whole I guess.”

“When I’m supposed of think of things I can’t, especially if I have to write something for somebody else. And most of the time, when I think things, it’s always about something bad that’s about to happen, either to me or to someone I know. Most of the time, I just end up feeling sad or afraid.”

“I haven’t been doing this long enough, I don’t think, to be able to tell you right. I know someone who has, though. Her name is Seventy Nine. She has a popcorn stand, by the door. It’d do you good to hear a bit of her wisdom. The kind of real travellers, and real spacemen; not like me. I don’t know enough, not yet anyhow.”

“At least you’re ok with that,” said The Young Cripple. “That’s something.”

The pair continued on their journey, along The Bridge, with The Young Cripple staring straight ahead, for the most part, and then wandering, like a cork in the open sea, when distracted by her fears and her indecision.

It was still awkward, not breathing, just as it was, feeling no kind of air against her face or skin, even though she could hear was sounded like gusts and gales, and even though her body simmered and shivered as if both hot and cold winds were wreaking havoc around her. There was no air touching her skin, which had her panicking, thinking that she had no skin. So learned was she, though, in quieted panic that she addressed each concern with a light brushing of her fingers, simply to cancel out her distress, in how a bus driver might wipe away a drop of rain, or in how a child might brush off, their parents’ distressing concern.

A girl who has lived and died only once, though, is arted in little more than naïve assumption. So, although she thought her physical actions were unsuspicious, it was the light tremors of emotion, like ripples in a very small pond, which gave her away.

It was now too that she started to become more abundantly aware of her surroundings, and how terribly frightening it all seemed. It was as if some drug had suddenly taken effect, and being so ill-prepared, the young girl entered a state of dire panic.

The radio tuned into her frequency and then started to play a horrible piece of classical music; if music is what it could be called. It sounded as if the strings of a piano, as veins in its composer’s arms, were being ripped and torn apart by a flight of wailing banshees.

“It’s ok,” said T. “It’s just a bridge.”

Like a trick of the eye, there were now apparently several grounds, and they were layered one on top of the other, like a cake. It was difficult to tell which one she should put her foot on. She staggered around like a drunk, taking prolonged steps as her feet passed through each perceived layer of reality.

She felt as though she were wearing an old man’s prescription lenses.

And it wasn’t just the ground either, the horizon bent and warped. One second it was in front of her, where one would imagine it being, and the next it was beside her head, and it was as small and annoying as a gnat, buzzing away at her right ear. Then, as quick as she swept it away, it returned to her front, but this time, there were fifty horizons, some of them bigger and smaller than the others; and to her distorted surprise, there was even a horizon where she and the boy had already reached their destination.

“What’s happening?”

“How do you feel?” asked T.

“Horrible,” said The Young Cripple. “Like my head is on a Ferris wheel and my body on a slingshot. I want it to be over.”

“Try not to fight it,” said T, completely relaxed, as if he were explaining the ache of stinking gas to an infant as not nearly being as serious as their stomach exploding. “It’s completely normal. You have nothing to worry about. You are seeing, hearing, feeling, and being; on a higher dimension. It will take a second or two to adjust, but if you look ahead, there is a version of you which already has.”

The Young Cripple turned in the direction that the boy’s voice pointed, and yes, maybe a minute or so down the line, there was a version of herself that was skipping as she had been, only hours before.

“If that’s me, and she, or I…feel ok, then why don’t I feel ok now?”

“You are a three-dimensional being, and, as you can see now on The Bridge, a dissection of your complete self. That being, the ‘you’ that occupies and has occupied the complete realm of time and space. What you’re asking, to be able to feel as the version of you a minute from now, and every other version of you – in past, present, and dotted along the future fabric of time – this is a trait of a higher being, not you, not even I. What you are talking about is omniscience.”

“Like the boy?”

“Like the boy,” said T.

Distracted, the girl tripped. The many grounds were popping out of one another like shadows on a cube; while others were perpendicular, shooting off in all directions so that below her – and around and above her too – everything looked like the ground. One second she felt like she was flying, and the next, as if she were falling.

And as for the horizon, it was in all places at the one time.

All of this was dizzying. The Young Cripple closed her eyes, but even her thoughts shaped themselves differently. Her own voice was foreign. It spoke in inconceivable sentences and ideas, where it seemed that every vowel had been replaced with a prime number, and every preposition, with a sensation akin to being poked, or prodded.

When she turned behind her, expecting to find relief, she saw at first that everything in front of her had already turned around too, even her feet, even though she had only moved her head. When she blinked, everything returned to how it was.

Stranger, though, was seeing this great, almost infinite line of herself, stretching on for as far as she could see. It was as if she were seeing every second, or every infinitesimal fraction of a second, as it was occurring, or as it had occurred. She could see time unravelled in its complete form, dissected like the boy said as if it were an open box.

“Relax. Look ahead, at the version of you a minute from now. See how calm she is?”

It was true. She did look content, and settled too.

“You see every version of you, between now and then. There is no grand event or perilous challenge. The only thing that has changed is her perception, and how she feels. Knowing that,” said T, “how do you feel?”

The girl expected to give a poor review of how she felt. The truth was, though, as she saw the other version of her skipping and smiling again, the tide of panic that had been eroding her courage grain by grain, finally started to recede. And in a minute or two, her senses began to settle. They felt different, like worn leather, but there was less friction on what she would assume as being common, or sane. Feeling as if she had awoken at the end of a ferocious fever, The Young Cripple wiped her brow, turning behind and staring jadedly at the many versions of herself.

“I’m ok,” she said.

“Of course you are,” said T.

It was now that she could properly see her surroundings. What had at first seemed like a long and empty path, surrounded by a lush valley of green reeds, was in reality, far more complex.

The Young Cripple looked below her feet. The ground, which she could now make out, was clear like glass, and as solid as steel, yet when she touched it – like she would a lamp post or a cooking pot – she squirmed and pulled her hand back in fright as if the pot were actually a slimy mollusc. Although it looked and felt quite solid to walk upon, there was an invisible membrane that covered the whole path, and probably out in the reeds too. It was warm and soft to touch, yet to stand and walk upon, it was firm and even brittle in parts, and it felt no different to cement, or at times, like finely laid bread crumbs.

What really caught the young girl’s curiosity, were the clouds that were forming to her left, way in the distance. They weren’t like normal clouds, or any cloud she had ever seen before, and yet, they were where clouds were expected to be.

They were small, but The Young Cripple could still make out their incredible shapes. What she couldn’t figure out, though, was what the devil they were made of. Each cloud was transparent, or so it seemed and filled with as many coloured dots and bright flashes as there were, grains of sand, on every beach in the entire world.

There were about twenty clouds that she could see, in some kind of detail. And behind them, there were so many that it looked like the sky was made of bubble wrap. They went on forever it seemed, each cloud fractionally smaller than the one before it. And so on, and so on, for as far as her squinting eyes could see.

“Pretty clouds,” said The Young Cripple.

“Pretty thoughts,” replied T. “Each shape is a thought.”

The Young Cripple stared with all her might at the cloud or thought that she could see the clearest. She had never imagined a thought as being something that you could see outside of your own mind, and that, like a purse or a person; it could be described by its appearance, and not by its contents.

“Who’s thinking them? If they are thoughts, there has to be a head and a brain – someone has to think them up.”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe the boy you said.”

“Maybe. Do you see the one over there, second to the left?”

Though T was just a voice, he knew the position of all things.

“I see it,” said The Young Cripple. “The one that looks like a tube. Is that it? What is it?”

“I lived there. It is where I’m from. Well, the last time I died anyway.”

The Young Cripple cringed as if the boy had sung off key.

“Each one of those thoughts that you see is a universe. And that one, the one that looks like a tube; that was mine. If it was a bit closer, I could even point out my star.”

“You’re serious?”

“It’s kind of an ordinary thing to exaggerate. But yeah, I am.”

“So all those shapes, all of them, they’re all universes?”

“Yeah. Here, on The Bridge, or below or wherever, is where they form. When we go through the door, we are born into a universe, more than likely different from the one we just came from.”

“How many are there? How many universes?”

“That I don’t know, trillions maybe, probably more. It doesn’t take long for them to form. And then when they do, they just go off on their own way. Like clouds really.”

“Where do they go?”

“Where do your thoughts go, when you stop thinking of them? Those worlds you make up in your head, what happens to them when you think of something else?”

The Young Cripple looked fraught with guilt.

“I never thought about it.”

“It’s not that bad really. The truth is; some of them never stop growing. They go on forever and ever. And others, they just kind of disappear.”

“There’s so many. Can we see one being made?”

“We should be,” said T concerned. “We should have seen thousands by now. Like I said, something’s not right.”

The two kept walking along the path with The Young Cripple focusing on the horizon as much as she could; but the wonder of seeing something as spectacular as a universe, let alone trillions of them, broke her concentration, and time and time again, her eyes drifted, and as they did, so too did her thoughts.

And with it, her feelings turned upside-down.

“I don’t want to think,” she said, almost in tears. “If I think something up, and I forget about them, they’re just gonna drift forever and ever, and then get cold and die; all alone.”

The boy didn’t respond. His senses were on danger, on the edge of the horizon.

“There, up ahead,” said T. “Can you see it?”

The Young Cripple squinted as best she could. And yes, she could see it, or what she thought it was, or might be.

“It’s a hole,” she said, in disbelief.

“It’s not a hole,” said T, a little concerned. “It’s a door. A hole cannot be shut.”

As they neared the shape in the distance, The Young Cripple could see what was at first, a blotch of darkness, like a black rectangle painted onto a white canvas. But now, as they got closer, the canvas got bigger, and she could see into the hole.

“This isn’t right. The door shouldn’t be open.”

There was a door, except it was torn off its hinges, and hung like an old toenail.

“Where’s the boy?” said T.

“What does he look like?” asked The Young Cripple, seeing nothing and no one at all.

“Well he’s not invisible,” said T, crassly.

“You don’t have to be mean.”

“I don’t get it. And where’s Seventy Nine?”

The two looked around. There was, at the end of The Bridge, a hole in a wall. It was a hole that led to what looked like a town, but an old-fashioned town, with horses waiting outside doorsteps, and barrels of water, lined up along the street, dirtied by filthy, iron working hands. The light that shone was dim, and it cast the most horrific silhouette of a family, hanging by the neck at the town’s entrance.

“There should be a boy. And Seventy Nine,” said T, the static from his radio how hissing like a cut snake.

He sounded nervous for the first time; borderline scared. As they neared the door, The Young Cripple peered through. She could hear the sound of tightened rope swinging back and forth. The way that it dragged and pulled had the girl thinking of a tightrope, which always had her imagining tragedy and death.

There was a loud cracking sound as if the glass they had been walking on shattered. And then a flash of Light. From behind the hole in the wall, a whistle sounded, as if a shift had started, or another had just come to an end.

And then there was the sound of marching.

“Hide,” said T. “Quickly, behind the stand.”

The Young Cripple dived inside the popcorn stand and waited. Though she didn’t breathe on this conscious plain, still, out of some instinct she had learned from a whole life of being frightened, she held her breath.

“Soldiers march!”

“Sir yes sir!”

A hundred million voices all sang.

“Aleph-Null, or so I’m told,

(Is) Heaven paved with blood and gold,

And I will fight till end of time,

With iron fist and love divine.”

“Sound off!”

“One, two.”

“Sound off¹”

“Three four. We are Light, we are war!”

And they chanted those last words as they marched: “We are Light, we are war.” Their feet hammered down on the path in such deafening unison that the Light about The Bridge flickered as if a wire were loose.

“Stay still,” said T.

By the time the last soldier had reached the gate, the first had returned, walking backwards along the path with a torch held in one hand, with its other hand scrunched around the scruff of some poor looking creature’s neck.

As much as T reasoned with the Young Cripple to keep low, and eventually, to shut the hell up, she couldn’t resist; she couldn’t help but look. Worse than seeing evil was hiding from it, and then imagining where it was, and what it was planning to do. The sound of their marching feet, not an inch from where she hid, was like the itch of a scab that she just had to pick at and pull.

The Young Cripple lightly pushed the panels of the popcorn stand just enough so that she could see the entrance to the doorway where, what looked like a colonel, now stood, holding a silver chart in his hands. He didn’t at all look anything like the other soldiers. He wasn’t sexless like the others, and unlike them, he had a particular face, one that was as handsome as it was, wicked looking. He wore a grey uniform with a small sigil on his left breast; though try as the young girl did, she couldn’t make out it out.

“All accounted for, sir,” said The Colonel.

“Any sight at all of the discrepancy?”

“No sir. We looked everywhere, beneath every atom. If there was an extra one, we would have found it by now. Maybe it’s a system error.”

“There are no errors,” said The Accountant. “Take them to processing.”

“Yes sir,” replied The Colonel “You heard the man. Get moving.”

The Colonel extended his whip against the backs of his own men, throwing his full body into every strike. As he did, The Accountant eyed each soul that walked through the doorway, blinded and drunk on fear. He was looking for something or someone, in particular, that wasn’t a part of this group. He stared back out where his soldiers had come from, back to the place where it was that the dead arrived, and he twitched nervously, just once, before scouring his face and marching back through the door, and into town.

The Colonel walked back and forth, whipping everyone who slowly trudged forwards. He stopped every now and then, distracted by the small, yellow seat that stayed empty by the door. He stared at it for some time, just as a grieving widow might, the vast emptiness on the other side of her bed; but before any feeling could become him, The Colonel snapped to his senses, once again whipping the backs and faces of perilous souls, hobbling towards the open door.

“Ok, let me make this clear,” he said, as the marching came to a grinding halt. “From now until always, you will do as you’re told. You will be where you are expected to be. And you will never be the contrary. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” was said by one and all, but it was dull and uninspired.

“Did I ask you to disappoint me? Well?”

The eleven hundred souls were dressed in distress.

“This is a glorious day,” said The Colonel. “A goddamn momentous day. You should be fucking cheered to be in my company right now. You should be downright grateful that you are here, right not. Holy shit,” said The Colonel, sounding almost pleased with himself. “I am pleased to be with myself. You, you should be goddamn fucking ecstatic. Are you ecstatic?”

“Yes,” said the eleven hundred souls.

“Sounds like a pack of quivering fairies to me? Are your cocks hard? Are you fucking pleased to be in my company right now?”

“Yes,” they all shouted as if their words were kicks and punches.

“You oughta be. You oughta be turned the fuck on right now, just about humping my fucking leg. That’s how pleased you should be to be here in Heaven, under my command, under my watch, under my control. Let me be frank with you. And know that this is only because you’re new here. You’ll never see this gentle side of me again, once you’re spat and shined. Now, rules are everything. And so are lines. You step out of line just once, and you’ll see my worse side. Please, I implore you to step out of line. Do it, just once, so we can get a little more intimate.”

The Colonel stepped aside and allowed to line to continue moving. “Rinse your mouths before you enter,” he said, as each soul was handed a small soiled cloth, a bar of soap, and a small cup of bleach.

One and all did as he ordered, washing their mouths with stinging bleach.

“Welcome to Heaven maggots,” he said. “Watch your step, and don’t rush,”

When the coast was clear, The Young Cripple and T crawled out from inside the popcorn stand. They stepped up to the door and peered through. On one side, everything was bright and luminescent, and the other, the sky was dark, and the air stank like sweat and fear. But there was nobody around. The whole town looked abandoned.

“What do we do?” said The Young Cripple terrified.

“It’s a door,” said T. “We go through it.”

“But there? It’s so dark. If this is Heaven, then where is the Light?”

The Young Cripple stared at the yellow, plastic chair which was big enough for a small child. As she reached to touch it, the radio buzzed.

“No. You mustn’t. In case he returns and sees that somebody had interfered.”

It was silent, both on The Bridge and through the door. The Young Cripple stared back from whence they came. And the infinite hers, all tipped on their toes, anxious to see what she could see, wishing they were not stuck in the past.

“You said you would,” said T.

The Young Cripple nodded.

“And besides, there’s nowhere else to go. We find my body, then I’ll help you go anywhere you want to go, and do anything you need to do. I promise.”

Normally she would take a massive breath right about now. But she didn’t breathe on The Bridge, and even if she did, there was no air. Habits though were hard to break. So, she heaved in with her belly and with one hand on the radio, and the other covering her eyes, The Young Cripple dived through the door.

XXVIII

Half expecting her every molecule to dissolve or be shattered like glass, The Young Cripple and T both prepared for the worst, with the young girl squeezing her eyes as tight as she could and her hands, clamped to her chest; while the boy set his radio to flight mode. They landed, though, on the other side of the door, without much kerfuffle. The girl rolled a bit and dusted up her knees, but it wasn’t quite nearly as dramatic as she had imagined.

“I thought you said that this was like being born?” said The Young Cripple bemused, wiping chunks of dirt and gravel from her knees. “I wish you had told me it was going to be that simple, I would’ve just walked.”

The boy’s radio hissed a little, and then the volume started to increase.

“It doesn’t normally happen like that,” he said. “It’s usually a lot more fun.”

“Yeah well, I think if people were watching, they would have thought we looked stupid, falling over like that and…”

“Do you feel that?” asked T.

The Young Cripple could have gone on forever, and had the boy not interrupted, she might have done just that. But he did, and the poke was enough for her to stop nattering away and to listen; with her ears, and with her body, which felt heavy now, as if she were carrying invisible weights over her shoulders, weights that dragged sadness and tears from the pits of her eyes, and from the well in her belly.

The Young Cripple felt her cheeks redden.

“What is this?” said T, as if he had discovered some furry slime under his sofa.

“I feel stupid,” she said.

As she spoke, the boy’s radio scanned through a hundred channels, tuning into her frequency. The static sounded like a busted engine, pissing steam, and spitting clumps of congealed oil. But in a second or two, there came the sound of coarse shouting, followed by tyrannical laughter.

“You disappoint me,” spoke the voice on the radio.

It was the girl’s father, and it was a moment that she remembered, not by the sound of his voice or by anything that he said, but by how she felt whilst being berated, and afterwards, for the whole time she was left alone. The way she felt then was the way she felt now, having stumbled like a buffoon through a perfectly ordinary doorway.

“Have you any idea how ridiculous you look?” shouted The Ringmaster, through the static of the boy’s radio.

It was like looking in a mirror – that memory, and now. Everything was the same, not a single atom was out of place. She even wore the same stupid expression. She felt in one hand, as being so infinitesimally small and yet, paradoxically, so incredulously heavy at the same moment. It felt as if shame were the principal force that had her shrinking into this near quantum-like mass of self-depreciation.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” said The Ringmaster. “You’re a disgrace. An accident. An abomination. You are my only regret,” he said.

“Stop it,” screamed The Young Cripple.

The girl collapsed onto the ground, banging her already scratched knees. The pain, though, was kinder than the feeling of disgust that she had for herself, which shivered her skin far worse than the rasping wind. She clasped her hands to her ears but it no use. The worse she felt, the more perverse was the insult and derision that spilled from the radio.

“Please stop it. Stop. Please.”

As if he had been caught sleeping at the wheel, T panicked and flicked drastically through the channels, so fast that the static and hissing grew so loud that it sounded like a beach ball, as big as the Earth, being squeezed of all its air. The girl was curled so tight that in the dark as they were, she might be mistaken for a stone or a weirdly grown tree stump. The boy, though, feeling the intensity of her shame, struggled to control the frequency so that it didn’t return to that channel, and that memory.

It took some time, but he found a song, one about a boy, a rider, and a gun, and how terrible that boy felt from that day onwards when he’d just sought out to have himself some fun. The song sounded just as the girl felt, and by the end of it, when the boy had come to terms with what he had done, she felt not nearly as dirty and spoiled as she had only minutes before.

“I’m sorry,” said T. “It seems here on this planet, I can’t control my radio as much as I would elsewhere. I am really sorry you know. I feel really bad now.”

The two sat glum for a second. The boy felt horrible for having lost control, and pouring so much fuel on his new friend’s blaze of crappy emotions. And the more he thought about it, the worse he felt. The Young Cripple, though, felt as if she were waking on the other side of a coma or a fit. She stared ahead listlessly, feeling entirely spent, oblivious to the four sets of feet which hung above their heads.

“There’s a feeling here, on this planet, that isn’t right,” said T. “It isn’t good. We’d best to stay here as little as possible. God knows what would happen, should we get used to it.”

“To what?”

“Feeling this way. Feeling this…I dunno.”

“Sorry?”

“Yeah,” said T. “Sorry, it’s one way to put it. I’ve never hated myself before not like this, not for something so completely out of my hands.”

“I don’t feel any different,” said The Young Cripple. “I always feel this way; where I’m from anyway.”

The radio played the sounds of a studio audience sighing.

“Is fear all you ever felt?” asked T.

“I dunno,” said The Young Cripple, picking herself up, and brushing off the sand from her legs. “I was happy a few times as well I suppose.”

The Young Cripple tried to think of a kind moment in her life where she was genuinely happy. She was sure that there was at least one hidden there, amidst all the mistakes, embarrassments, and let downs. But it must have been buried pretty deep because struggle as she did, she couldn’t dig past the first layer of humiliation that stained her thoughts. And as she thought of kindness, the boy followed her, tuning his radio to her frequency, but all he could muster in the constant spinning of his dials was the condescending sound of canned laughter.

“We should just go,” said T.

“Do you suppose they have food on this planet? I’m starving.”

“Well, if you’re hungry, then I suppose they do. It’s just; who they are exactly…I am not sure.”

As they entered under a giant wooden arch, The Young Cripple almost tripped over the letter ‘A’ which had fallen from the sign above, knocked loose by the constant swinging and struggling of a family who had been hanging by their necks since the wood in this arch was nothing but a seed, buried in dirt. Their mouths were gagged with dirt and bark, and their eyes bulged like biceps, with a look of constant surprise on their pale and suffering faces.

“Doesn’t look so bad,” said T, as they walked slowly down the main street, which was as wide as it was high, and tenfold in length.

The street was paved in crumbling and wobbling cobblestones and painted onto the first row of stones were the words: ‘No Thru Road’. The Young Cripple had to walk on the tips of her toes, just to keep her balance. As strange and eerie as this place seemed, she would never have managed a feat like this when she was alive, so that art of balancing alone was in itself, spectacular. And as such, even though she was petrified, still, she was having the time of her life – or death for that matter.

“Stay focused,” said T.

“I am,” replied the girl sternly, and then, “Jeez,” under her breath.

There were two buildings on the left-hand side: a bakery and a library, and on the right was a large hole with no perceivable end, and beside it, a brothel. And then at the end of the street, there was a building that, on its manicured lawn, had a sign that read, ‘End of the Omniverse’.

“Do you think it really is…the end?” asked The Young Cripple, as they stood on the edge of the grass.

She turned around to measure how far they’d come, and it was then that she saw the word ‘Heaven’ above the arch, and the ropes that were grinding away at the planks of wood where the fallen ‘A’ would have been. The girl whipped back around, her hand on her mouth as if she were about to vomit.

“Oh my god. Did you see?” she asked.

“Don’t look back. Just look at your feet or something.”

“But did you see, did you see?”

“Yes, yes I did,” said T, sounding shocked.

“It’s Heaven,” said The Young Cripple, in sheer disbelief.

“You didn’t see the…”

“We’re in Heaven. Oh my, God, it’s gonna be ok. We’re in Heaven. You know what this means?”

The radio’s dial spun left and right, rapidly.

“We can find your body, and we’ll be ok.”

“I’m not so sure. What do you know about Heaven?” asked T, conspicuous about any response the girl should give.

“Everything,” said The Young Cripple, ecstatic. “I know all there is to know. This is where good people come after they die.”

“Where are the people then? And if they all come here, how do they fit? Where do they go?”

The Young Cripple spun around. This universe – or Heaven as it were – consisted of four small buildings, including the one behind her. That, a great big hole, and nothing more.

“I always thought it would be bigger,” said The Young Cripple.

“In and out,” said T. “I promise.”

“Now who’s the scaredy cat? It’s ok,” she said, consolingly. “Few people know as much as I do about this place. We’re gonna be fine.”

They walked up a marble path of the building at the end of the street. It was then that The Young Cripple noticed that what had at first looked like well-manicured lawn, was, in fact, shard after shard of broken, green glass, shaped exactly like blades of grass. It looked like so much care had gone into something so particularly dangerous.

The neon sign above the doorway said that it was a hotel.

Its incessant buzzing sounded like a swarm of locusts.

“I guess we just knock then…” said the girl.

The girl wrapped her knuckles three times on the door. The first knock, there was no response over the sound of cartoons playing loudly on a television. The second knock was louder, almost a punch. This time, the television stopped. And she waited some time, hearing what sounded like a lighter being flicked over and over without any success, about a foot or so from the door. She waited a little more before knocking again.

“Goddamnit.”

The door swung open.

“What the hell do you want?”

It was an elderly man with long ragged hair that looked like the ends of a filthy mop. He had all of his teeth, but each one was positioned sideways so that the cigarette butts he collected needn’t be kept in his hands. His eyes looked mad. There was no other way to describe them. He had no eyelids, and his pupils moved about so freely that they looked like two mosquitos, trapped inside a burning bulb.

And finally to his attire. He was naked, except for an umbrella in one hand, and a shopping bag full of plungers, thumb tacks and sanitary pads in the other, which thankfully covered his private parts.

“Well,” said The Old Man belligerently. “What ya need? What ya want? Why ya here? Dunno? Fuck off? Go on…get!”

“We’re looking for something,” said The Young Cripple.

“What’s that? Looking? For something?”

“Yes,” replied the girl.

“Looking is for over there,” he said, pointing to the library. “Here’s for sleeping. Go away.”

The Old Man slammed the door shut.

“Now what?” asked The Young Cripple.

“My body has to be here.”

“What about the library?”

“Books.”

“And the bakery?”

“Bread.”

“And the…”

“You don’t wanna know.”

“So here then,” said The Young Cripple, taking a deep, needless breath.

The Young Cripple knocked. Again, the television muted, and again a lighter was flicked maybe hundred times or more; and then, as expected, The Old Man opened the door. He had no words this time, and the shopping bag was on the floor by the front counter. The Young Cripple covered her eyes, trying to either stare at The Old Man’s radish like toes, or at his face that, with all its bumps and lines, looked like an unfinished road; and whose mouth twisted and contorted in apparent preparation for what looked like a kiss, or more likely, a barrage of insult and abuse.

The girl did her best to avoid looking at his body which was like a thin and worn clump of play doh, stretched into the shape of a man, by a bored and angry child. He had no nipples and no genitals; just weird coloured lumps and what looked like nail marks and impressions, where all his parts had apparently been crudely stuck together.

The Old Man gave a particular kind of look.

“Room please,” said The Young Cripple swiftly.

“Name.”

“I, uh…”

The Old Man looked at his book.

“No, no booking here. No booking, no room.”

“I don’t have a booking. I didn’t know I was coming. But you’re the only hotel here so it thought…”

“We’re all booked,” replied The Old Man grumbling.

“But the sign there behind you says infinite rooms.”

There was a sign, and it did, in fact, read, ‘Infinite Rooms’.

“Yeah, and we have infinite guests. Not plus one. All booked.”

“Please, sir, can I spend some time on your sofa here then?”

There was a seat in the corner that may or may not have been a sofa.

“I promise I won’t be much bother,” she said.

“You’ve no umbrella,” said The Old Man grunting. “Stupid kids. How do you expect to keep safe from the sun, huh? You’ll burn. You’ll get cancer too. There won’t be any ice-cream you know? Not unless you’ve eaten your dinner. And the rain. Jesus. Flaming kids just don’t bloody care anymore,” he said in a low huff, as he shuffled back to the front counter. Once there, he slouched back in his seat and returned to the television, casually lathering his arms and legs, and his oddly shaped body in foul smelling sun protector.

The Young Cripple sat on the sofa for a while, watching The Old Man one second, and the television set the next. Aside from the incessant application of thick, yellow sunscreen, The Old Man hadn’t moved an inch. He didn’t even twitch or blink for that matter. He just stared right at the screen, as if nothing else in the omniverse existed. And between him and the television, there was a red door which had been left ajar.

“Just go,” whispered T. “He won’t know.”

“No,” said The Young Cripple. “What if he catches us?”

“What if he doesn’t? What if it all goes perfectly well? What if he doesn’t notice? Or what if he does; and he doesn’t give a crap? And what if we just spend the rest of eternity here, on this blasted sofa, smelling that wretched cream?”

He made a compelling, hushed argument.

The Young Cripple slid off the sofa, legs first, as if she were a slug, or a slinky, moving inch by inch until her body slumped onto the floor. There, she crawled on her belly along the floor, expecting at any second, The Old Man to catch her, and drown her in a rotten sink full of that disgusting cream.

She could feel him standing over her and salivating, even though he hadn’t once moved in his chair. She could hear too, in her imagination, the sound of his grubby tongue, licking the back of his front teeth, and then swallowing what fetid discharge was picked off.

“It’s ok,” said T. “We’re nearly through. You doing it.”

That wasn’t enough. That wouldn’t do. The girl was scared to death, and some cheap consolidation wouldn’t change a thing. The only thing worse than imagining what The Old Man would do to her if he had a minute alone was thinking about what was actually behind the door.

They were right under the television now, and an inch from the door. There was nothing- nothing at all - for the girl to hide behind. Completely exposed, The Young Cripple looked firstly to her left, where The Old Man was now pouring the thick cream into his ears, eyes, and nose. Then she looked ahead, where a strange blue Light spilled from a crack in the door. It looked for a second as if someone had knocked over some exotic drink. And as she watched in strange wonder as the blue Light ran like water down the side of a street until it touched her fingertips, when immediately, as if spooked, the Light vanished.

The Young Cripple flinched.

“No turning back,” said T.

“Shut up,” said the girl, turning down the volume dial.

Behind her, on the sofa, there was another version of herself, the one that instead chose to wait, and hadn’t the courage to brave her fears. Staring at her, The Young Cripple could now see how terrified she looked, and she finally came to realize how terrifically overcome with fright she got, whenever she was sitting still.

“Keep moving,” she thought. “Fear is not real.”

The Light on the radio was flicking wildly as if the boy was shouting.

“You can do this,” she said to herself.

The Young Crippled crawled on her knees and wedged her hand in the crack in the door. She took one more look at The Old Man, and at herself, who had her fingers crossed and was wishing her all the luck in the world. The Young Cripple smiled. She had never felt this bold before in her life. She could accomplish anything. And as she moved to open the door, it opened for her, knocking her off balance and sending her pummelling to the ground.

Bleeding from a cut in her chin, The Young Cripple lost consciousness.

XXIX

“Who are you? And what are you doing here?”

The first thought that came to her head was not her name, but instead how incredibly sore her back was. She felt like she had been wound through steel rollers and stretched into long strips of spaghetti.

“We have all eternity. You will tell me your name, and what you are doing here.”

The Young Cripple stumbled around the room, reaching out with one hand for something to take hold of, and with the other, shielding her eyes from the flickering, fluorescent Light. There was nothing inside the room, though. And no matter what direction she turned, and how far she stumbled, she couldn’t find a single wall.

Her panic started to swell.

“Do you know where you are?”

It was the same voice that had spoken out in the field. Now, though, there was a specific tone to it, which, like a handful of Valium, or a brown paper bag, calmed her somewhat, and in a way, encouraged her to speak.

“Heaven,” she said, tensing her every muscle so as to stop herself from stumbling off what she imagined might be the edge of a cliff.

“Very good. Well then, to my first question. What are you doing here?”

The Young Cripple could hear now what sounded like a billion ants, spilling out of some gash or mound in the floor, and marching their way towards her. She had heard stories of this kind of thing before. Hell, she’d been the one telling them – about people being eaten alive by little creatures no bigger than a nail clipping, with teeth like barbed wire, and that could eat through a single person in less than a week.

Though her eyes were closed, she could see the insects now, rushing towards her like a thunderous, black cloud. The sound of their trillions of tiny feet clattered in her ears, and sounded like scores of typewriters, busily scripting her apparently doomed fate. Desperate, The Young Cripple screamed, but as she did, she could feel her mouth filling with something thick, wet, and warm. She gagged instantly and fell to the ground, ripping at whatever it was with her hands, shoving her fingers as far as they would go down the back of her throat.

“Your fear paralyses you.”

The Young Cripple spat her fingers from her mouth and collapsed on the floor. The Voice sounded familiar though she could not pick it for the life of her. For whatever reason, though, when it spoke, she felt less ill-disposed.

“Where am I?” she asked, after having nearly chewed her fingers off.

“Have you forgotten already?”

“I know I’m in Heaven, but where? What part?”

“Each part is as the whole.”

The sound of scurrying insects had vanished. The Young Cripple gripped herself tight, tucking her face into her knees, and wrapping her arms around her body like a belt. She held herself this way as best she could so that her body would behave like a clump of heavy matter, and be unbreakable, and immotile.

“Where am I?” she asked again.

“Have you exhausted your every pertinent solution?”

The Young Cripple squeezed tighter.

“Open your eyes,” said The Voice. Had it a head, it might have been shaking it by now. “Must all be named before it can be experienced?”

The Young Cripple slowly let go of her strong bind, firstly letting her eyelids relax somewhat. The flickering Light, though upsetting when her eyes were shut, was disturbed and perverted now, as her eyes opened. Each flicker molested her iris with fright and provocation. And the way in which it flickered was like the twitch in a madman’s eye.

When her eyes opened fully, she could see that she was in a room, no bigger than a broom cupboard. She could see no door whatsoever, nothing to indicate how she got in, and in that, how she might go about escaping.

“Have a seat,” said The Voice.

Beside her was a lone silver chair. The Young Cripple picked herself up and looked around the room. She couldn’t see where The Voice was coming from. There wasn’t a single mark in the room whatsoever – no speakers, no windows, and no slats; nothing at all that would let sound in or out.

“OK,” said The Young Cripple. “But after, you explain to me what’s going on.”

She stepped towards the chair, but as she did, she ended up back where she started, as if she hadn’t moved at all. She stepped again – once, twice and three times; a baby step at first, then a leap, and then a bound – but all to no avail. So she tried running, as fast as she could, and once again, no matter how fast she ran, she was always exactly the same distance away from the chair.

Frustrated, The Young Cripple took off one of her shoes and threw it at the chair, and she screamed the second that it walloped the back of her head.

“That’s not funny,” she said, dropping herself on the floor with her back to the chair.

“How did you get here?” asked The Voice.

“You tell me.”

And then she remembered the loud bang, and the whistle before the bullet hit her head. “I died,” she said. “I was killed by someone.”

“If you had died, you would be on a list. Why are you not on a list?”

“I don’t know the answer to those things.”

“What is the last thing you remember?”

“The whistle in the air,” she said.

“What whistle?”

“When the bullet left the gun.”

“Tell me about life,” said The Voice.

“What do you mean? There’s a lot to know. I don’t wanna mess up.”

“Your story,” said The Voice, sternly. “Tell me your story.”

The Light stopped flickering all of a sudden.

“I’m just a girl; an ordinary girl.”

She stared down at her legs which once were crooked and now were straight.

“When I was really young, we went to the beach. I’d never been before. The sand was so strange. It felt like I’d topple over at any second. I was scared, but my mother held my hand, and then I wasn’t worried about falling. The waves were so loud when they crashed on the shore. And the spray that came up from them, it hung in the air for so long that I didn’t think it would ever come down. The part I remember the most was feeling the water pass over my feet. When it pulled away, it felt like the Earth was crumbling. I was so scared.”

The Young Cripple gripped her toes tight, feeling that inevitable collapse again.

“That’s not the story,” said The Voice.

“But that’s just what I remembered. If you want…I can tell you about the time I got lost at a fair. To tell you the truth, I was left behind.”

“Tell me the story,” shouted The Voice.

“What story?” said The Young Cripple, panicking.

“How does she remember, boss?” said another voice.

“Tell me about Light,’ said The Voice.

“That? OK, I’m an expert on Light. I can tell you everything you want to know.”

“How is it that you know of Light, and yet you speak of these other stories as if they were real – as if they were your own?”

“Because they were. Light, that’s just a story. The things I said, they happened. They’re my past. They’re who I am.”

“Who killed you?”

“Delilah. She’s a mean……”

“I ask you again. Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“I just woke up here. But if this Heaven, and if I’m dead, then I belong here.”

“You do not belong here. How did you get here?”

“I don’t know. I was shot, I told you.”

“Why are you not on the list?”

“What list?”

“What are you doing here?” shouted The Voice.

“You brought me here,” said The Young Cripple, bursting into tears.

There was silence for some time. The Young Cripple curled herself into a ball and rocked back and forth while the Light returned to its disorientating flicker. And then, after what felt like a day in a desert, or a week in a dungeon, The Voice returned.

“Do you know what a discrepancy is?” asked The Voice.

“A left over,” said the girl.

“You, child, are a discrepancy, a miscalculation.”

“What does that mean?”

“A discrepancy must be found.”

“You found me. So now what?”

“A discrepancy can be either justified or written off.”

“What does that even mean?”

The Young Cripple waited for a great deal of time, but there was no response. This alone was worse, being left idle in a room full of nothing, with an imagination that famous for thinking up the very worst of things.

“Hello?” she asked, warily.

In a room with little more than a filing cabinet, an abacus, and a microphone, two men argued amongst themselves about a divergent integer, both parading each other’s solutions to this predicament as outlandish and hardly within the means of proper accounting. Both men, we’ll call them The Accountant and Bean, were dressed in shabby, ill-fitted suits, and had faces like bruised elbows, with one wearing thick, bottled spectacles, while the other insisted on reading all of his material beneath a tiny microscope.

“I say we just round up, or down, whatever.”

“Round up, or down? Are you mad?”

“To the nearest whole number. We’re dealing with infinity, right? So what’s the matter?”

“What’s the matter is that she’s not part of any bloody set. She’s a plus one. She’s outside of the set, or she should be, but she’s bloody well inside it now.”

“So round her off. Assign her somewhere, give her a function.”

“It’s not that bloody simple. I don’t even know what type of number she is. God knows how long that will take.”

“Well, should we ask God then?”

“No, you bloody numbskull. We found her, it’s our problem. Nobody else need know, not until we know what the bloody hell we’re dealing with here. Or else we’ll be in the same strife, expect with you know who, standing over and threatening to do you know what.”

The larger of the two men, The Accountant, was apparently the superior, at least in this room. He had a bristly moustache that was always sticky and clumped from his morning porridge and hourly protein shakes. And he had a trail of breadcrumbs, crackers and sesame seeds that ran down the front of his splitting shirt, filling his cavernous belly button like loose rocks at the bottom of a quarry.

He had in his hands a small leaflet entitled, ‘The Infinite Set’. It was a document that had infinite pages, and infinite folds, yet here – in infinite space – it was the size of refresher towel and fitted neatly beneath the larger of the two men’s handheld microscope.

“I don’t see why you don’t just get some specs,” said the intern, Bean. “Don’t have to use your hands.”

“I, unlike you, am not lessened by the occupation of my parts,” replied The Accountant.

“Just saying is all.”

The larger man sighed.

“I’ve gone through this list a thousand times, and her name is not on here.”

“Maybe there’s another set, one we don’t know about. I mean, there are infinite realities.”

“That’s why we have an infinite set, idiot. And anyway, since the boss’ got rid of that boy, there ‘aint no multiples of anything anymore. Every reality and every existence are working towards zero. And that’s us. We’re the bottom of the sink. We are the bottom line.”

“So what type of number is she then?”

“I don’t know. She ‘aint livin’ and she ‘aint dead. She shouldn’t be here, that’s all I know.”

“But she is.”

“Yeah, she is, smart arse. And now our book keeping is fucked. I can’t consolidate which means I’m gonna have The Board on my arse.”

“Jeeze, you reckon you’ll get purged?”

“Shut up. You’re not helping. I need a cigarette.”

“You want I should make us some tea?”

“Tea? You bloody retarded?”

“I just thought I’d ask.”

“Of course I want tea. Jesus! I swear if this goes pear shaped, then whatever happens to me, I’ll bloody well make sure you get it ten times worse. You know I actually asked for you. I could have gone with that girl you know, the one with the bucked teeth. I picked you though because I…”

“Yeah, because you’re all funny with girls and that. Everyone knows that.”

“Shut it! Bloody goose. I picked you,” said The Accountant, jabbing his stubby finger into his colleague’s chest. “I picked you because you were the second best in your class. You know what that means?”

“You had the second best career plan?”

“No, you nimrod. You’d yet to bloody peak, yet to ripen. That’s why I picked you, not because I’m funny round girls. Jesus! Who the hell told you that?”

“It was just something some other people said.”

“Who?”

“Nobody.”

“Who?”

“It doesn’t matter.

“Fucking who?”

“The other students,” said Bean, backing away from his hefty colleague. “That and, you know, the faculty, some of the cleaners, the physicists on the first floor…”

“They wouldn’t know shit.”

“And your mom.”

The Accountant was so tense, he nearly crushed his microscope.

“Well it’s not true,” he said. “They’re all full of shit.”

“Even your mom?”

“Even mom,” said The Accountant, returning to the eye piece and scanning through an infinite channel of names.

“Why don’t you just do a Ctrl-F search?” asked Bean, growing bored.

“You know, part of finding a solution is bloody well looking for it. You need to know your tracks, it’s just good accounting is all.”

“So why don’t we just leave it? Pretend we didn’t find it?”

“Then we can’t consolidate.”

“So?”

“So, when we can’t consolidate the set, bad shit happens, go it?”

“It’s just an extra one in an infinite number. I really don’t see the big problem here. Like a grain of sand in the desert.”

“Try a blood filled syringe in the desert. She might very well destroy our whole accounting system. And that, my numbskull apprentice, will spell the end of Heaven, got it?”

“Right,” said Bean. “Got it.”

The two were silent for some time while The Accountant scanned every name on the infinite set, and his questionable colleague learned how to tie loops in his shoelaces, having only this morning made the switch from Velcro slip-ons. But sometime in the midst of their rumbling bellies, Bean got his finger caught in a loop, and rather than cry like he normally would for someone to free his hand, and to finish tying his lace, he laughed in maddened hilarity.

“What is it? I’m bloody working here. Don’t distract me,” said The Accountant.

“I got it.”

The Accountant looked down and saw his apprentice trapped in his shoe laces.

“You fishing for idiots?” he said.

“No. I think I got the solution. I mean, I know I do. Well, I think I know I do. What if….Now, hear me out here,” said Bean, staring drunkenly at his trapped finger.

“What? What is it? This better be bloody good.”

“What if, at least, until we figure out what kind of number she is, what if we just hide her somewhere; sweep her underneath some celestial rug.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, where is the one place where nobody would bother to notice? The one place where nobody would ever look?”

They were both staring Bean’s finger, caught in a loop.

“A paradox,” said The Accountant.

“Exactly. We assign her to a paradox and she’ll be invisible. Nobody will know, unless they ask, of course, but….you know…”

“No-one gives two shits about a paradox.”

“That’s right. No-one cares about a paradox. It’s just a stupid waste of time.”

“A waste of time. We can hide her in a waste of time. Nobody will look for her there, and she’ll be indivisible from the set.”

“It’s brilliant.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself there, son. It’ll work for now, but we gotta figure this shit out before our arses get handed to us. So what are you waiting for?”

“Yes, boss,” said Bean, feeling pretty proud of himself.

Back in her room, The Young Cripple continued to call out.

“Hello?” she said.

Her voice echoed around the room in accents she had never heard before. Around her neck, the small Light on the radio was buzzing – one could say it was livid. As if remembering a pot on a slow burn, or a child, on one end of a broken promise, The Young Cripple dived desperate and panic-stricken for the volume button.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I forgot, I forgot. Oh God, I’m sorry. Are you mad? Do you forgive me? I’m sorry, I really am. I’m not usually so…”

“Shhhh,” said T, monitorially. “Don’t make a scene. It’s ok. It really is. It’s good actually, cause they think you’re alone. They don’t know about me. We just have to figure out how to get out of here.”

“Where is here?” asked The Young Cripple.

She stared around the room, which felt less like a room, and more like a confined emptiness. She couldn’t see, though, and neither could the boy, any way of getting out. That was until, out of nowhere, two doors appeared – one green and one blue. And from behind each door came a single soldier, both carrying rifles slung over their shoulders. With their expressionless and sexless personas, it was impossible to tell one apart from the other.

The boy’s radio went almost silent.

“Say nothing. Do nothing. Let me think. It’ll be ok,” he said before his transmission went dead.

In the other room, the two bookkeepers could barely contain their relief, such was the joy accrued to equanimity. They both sipped their tea and watched the young girl on a monitor as she shook nervously in front of the two menacing guards. The Accountant waited until he had swirled the very last sip of his tepid drink, before he switched on the microphone once more and spoke to the girl.

“You are in a room with two doors,” he said.

His voice, through the microphone, sounded like a mother’s hug saying that everything was fine, and a father’s consolidation, that nothing was under the bed. The microphone had a plug-in which filtered out The Accountant’s incessant cursing, and chose for him, the more appropriate words, and spaces between said words.

“One door leads to freedom and is a way out. The other to unspeakable and immeasurable suffering, or what you know as hell.”

The Young Cripple followed with her eyes, looking at each coloured door. Blue, in her thoughts, was the colour of the sky, a place where birds flew, and they were free. Yet those birds spent their lives entire looking down at the leaves which were green, as a place to raise their young, and to hide from English Pointers and armed aristocrats.

She stared at her little radio, flicking the switches and turning the dial.

“Please, T,” she whispered. “Now more than ever, I could use a friend.”

The Accountant continued.

“There are two soldiers, one guarding each door,” he said, as The Young Cripple trained her eyes on the armed an expressionless thugs that stood staunchly in front of each coloured door.

“One soldier tells the truth, and the other always lies,” he said.

The Young Cripple scanned the two soldiers, looking left and right with such fervent vigour that it was hard to tell if she was rigorously making her assumptions, or if she was just negating the reality of her predicament.

“You have one question that you can ask to find out which door is which. Is the blue door, the door to your freedom? Or is it a window to pain and torture? You get one question, so take your time. You do not want to spoil your outcome with brash resoluteness.”

“Nice,” said Bean, amazed by his colleague’s dialect. “You speak like that more often… I tell ya…you’ll be able to woo any girl you want. Suave.”

“Shut up you idiot. And who the hell woos anything anymore? Keep your head in the bloody game. We’re not in the clear yet. We still gotta figure out what to do with her.”

“Can’t we just leave her there? She’ll never get the right answer. I say we just tuck her away, and you know…forget about her. We’ve got so much other crap to get through. I still haven’t even touched the cost depreciation reports…”

“What? You’ve had them for bloody ages. Now you see… this is exactly what I mean. You lack focus, Bean. You need to learn how to prioritize and monetize your efforts better. Prior preparation prevents…”

“Boss.”

“Performance, Bean. Your performance is piss-poor. That’s what I’m getting at. You see this girly here.”

“Yeah, boss, the girl.”

“Exactly, she’s a black swan. And what you do with a black swan that you can’t paint white?”

“Boss, seriously.”

“Rip out its bloody feathers,” said The Accountant. “And that’s what we’ll do to this anomaly. We’ll tear her apart, atom by atom, and string by fucking string.”

“Boss, look, the girl. The discrepancy, she’s doing something.”

Both bookkeepers smeared their concentration on the monitor.

“What the hell’s she doing?”

“I dunno, boss. She aint doing much thinking, though.”

On the monitor, the girl was gliding around the room.

“Is she dancing? What the hell is she dancing for? She’s supposed to be rationalizing herself into emotional ruin. What the bloody hell is she dancing for?”

“Well, we should say something, boss; like, stop it, or something.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Then what? How do we get her back to thinking?”

“Give me a second will ya? Need to be smart and convincing; sweet and bloody deceptive. Think, think, think…”

The Accountant reached for the microphone and steadied his thoughts.

“You,” he said, in a low and heavy tone.

The Young Cripple looked upwards and continued her dance.

“Now, what boss?”

“Don’t rush me for fuck’s sake. I got it, I got it.”

The Accountant pressed his lips over the microphone and shut his eyes.

“Stop it,” he said. “Stop it right now. OK? Just…cut it out. Or else…”

The girl continued dancing.

“Balls.”

“She’s a kid, boss. They’re like, you know, mesons and bloody bosons. You’re tryna apply some big world solution to a little world dilemma. You gotta think small and chaotic if you wanna push a kid around. You ever had one when you were alive?”

“Nah,” said The Accountant abruptly. “You know I uhh… I um, had some issues. I never really wanted one.”

“Really? I heard you had a weak erection.”

“Seriously, Bean? Where do you hear this crap?”

“Water cooler. Poker night.”

“Who the fuck invites you to poker?”

“Some of the guys from logistics. They have a regular thing going. Nothing fancy or nothing.”

“You’d do good to keep with your own kind, not like the likes of those wheel turners. Seriously kid, you got a bright spark alright? Now, I don’t give out compliments much, or ever for that matter. You ask anyone that. But I see a lot of myself in you. You know I wasn’t always such a reliable upstart. I had my days too. But just like you, I…”

“Boss,”

“I’m trying to give you a bloody compliment and…”

“Boss, she escaped.”

“Whatya mean she escaped? How the fuck did she escape?”

Both bookkeepers scraped their sight along every inch of the monitor.

“Where the hell is she?”

“She just walked out, boss. Just like that. While you were talking and all…She just walked out.”

“Which door?”

“The blue one.”

“Where does that go?”

“Same as the green one I suppose.”

“Whatya mean same as the green one? One let’s her go and the other kills her, right?”

Bean scoffed mildly.

“In theory yeah, but they were just doors, you know? They could go anywhere. It was the riddle that bound her, not the guards.”

“So she’s free.”

“Looks that way, boss.”

“The paradox was supposed to bind her. What the hell happened?”

“Chance,” said Bean.

The Accountant shook his head. “How did we not see that?”

“So uhh, I guess we’re in the shit again.”

“Yeah, too right,” said The Accountant, tucking gin his shirt. “Get your things together – guns, knives, pixie dust, whatever. We’re goin on a hunt. We’re gonna get that little shit, and purge her.”

“Sweet.”

“No. Sweet? No, not at all. If we don’t find her, we’re ruined, you and I, you do know that right? Heaven will be ruined. And trust me, we’ll cop it first. Death is nothing compared to what happens to the dead in this place.”

“Where do we look?”

“Room by room,” said The Accountant.

“But there’s infinite rooms, and in each door, infinite possibilities.”

“Well then, we’d better hurry then, hadn’t we?”

XXX

“Where are we, T?”

“It looks like a hospital of some kind.”

The instant they stepped through the blue door, they left behind the flickering blur of white, and after tripping over a cable of some sort, they entered, or rather stumbled into, a dark and grimy corridor. The ground was slippery as if it was covered in green moss, and the walls reeked of mould. It was a constant struggle for The Young Cripple not to gag. This didn’t seem like, after all, the kind of hospital where people came to get better.

A sign on the wall read, ‘Arc’.

“Let’s search, room by room. One of them has to have my body.”

As they neared the first door, The Young Cripple froze again, overwhelmed by fear. The doors were massive, and they were covered in what looked like a black, sticky tar that was so hot that steam poured off them like freshly cooked pies. It was smeared all over the handles and locks, and along the sides of the walls too, that adjoined each cell.

As the girl’s concern mounted, the dials on the radio started to turn on their own accord, tuning into her fear. The volume was low, so they wouldn’t be given away. This, at least, T could control. But the music itself was so the contrary to how she felt that it almost tripped The Young Cripple into a comatose slumber.

“You’re not the first one ever to be frightened you know,” said T. “Just so you know, it’s just a feeling that will pass. It’s not real, and whatever is behind that door, is never as big or as scary, as what you’re keeping inside your head. Ok?”

The girl nodded.

“I know.”

“It’s just in your head. It’s just in your head.”

“Easy for you to say,” said The Young Cripple, moving towards the first door. “It’s a lot harder to escape from something when it’s in your head. You see it, everywhere you go, no matter where you hide.”

“I’ve never been scared of anything,” said T.

“Nothing? Not spiders, hungry wolves, hunters with axes, or giant snails…that carry icky diseases?”

“You were human. You were literally a host for disease. You were a microcosm of bacteria and infirmity. Your fingerprints would kill coral, no matter how clean they were; that’s how much disease a human carries. Humans carry aids, typhoid, the flu, colds, gonorrhoea, dengue, herpes, hepatitis, salmonella, tinea, malaria, measles, meningitis… God, that’s just the start of it. Humans are a transport system for infection. And you’re scared of spiders and snails?”

“I don’t like small things. Snakes….”

“What about snakes?”

“They’re small and evil.”

“I think evil is a little strong.”

“They bite for no good reason.”

“I think a giant foot falling out of the sky is a pretty good reason. How would you feel if a skyscraper was about to step on you, and your only means of defence was a measly bite? What would you do?”

“I thought you were on my side here. You’re supposed to be making me happy, not angry.”

“Well,” said T. “Are you scared?”

“No,” said the girl, sternly. “I’m annoyed now.”

“You’re welcome,” said T, proud. “No, let’s get to this first door.”

There was a sigil in the middle of the door. It wasn’t any type of picture or symbol the girl had ever seen before so she didn’t know how she should feel about it, and usually, when she didn’t know how to feel about something, she got scared.

“Don’t worry about that. It’s a type of mathematics. I’ve come across it once or twice, but I don’t know what it’s called, or even what it’s used for.”

“It’s creepy,” said The Young Cripple, tracing her finger along the equation inscribed in the door. “Is that even possible? Can a number be creepy?”

The hairs on her neck and arms shot up, and shivers tingled along her spine.

“One quick look. Open the flap and see if my body’s there. If not, we’ll move on, super-fast. You can do this. This is just…opening a window.”

“Opening a window,” said The Young Cripple to herself. “I can do that.”

She had to reach on her tip toes, just be tall enough to reach the flap on the door. It was a small metal covering that was bolted shut on one side. The Young Cripple struggled to push the bolt upwards and release the flap. As she pushed and shoved, she shut her eyes as tight as possible, as if this would convince the squeaking metal parts to be as quiet as she needed them be. As she writhed, the radio started to release a hissing static, and from behind it, what sounded like maddened laughter.

“Stop it,” she whispered.

“It’s not me,” said T. “I can’t control it, just like you can’t control the way you feel. It does it on its own.”

The static was loud so loud now that they needn’t whisper anymore.

“Shut it off.”

“I’ll try to turn it down.”

It didn’t work, though. The longer it took, the greater was the girl’s desperation, and the more intense were her feelings, the more perverse was the sound coming from the small speakers. It was when the girl gave up fighting the sound that she managed to focus on the laughter coming from inside the static. And then she heard, what sounded like a familiar voice; of someone she knew before she died.

“I know him,” she shouted, bending down to the radio.

It was The Young Boy, still alive, in the world she had come from. He was cursing; throwing vile obscenities with the same demented mania as a toddler, with a handful of breakables, perishables, and needless – unwanted toys. The Young Girl could hear too, through the static, a voice, which sounded like a mix between two dogs fighting over a bloodied bone, and a controlled demolition – of a building, or an entire rainforest.

The Young Cripple leaned into the radio and listened intently.

“I won’t do it,” screamed The Young Boy, through the static. “Go to hell.”

The Young Cripple dived back as a burst of static almost deafened her. It was The Demon, screaming in vile obscenity. The girl could barely make out its voice, but it repeated the same words over and over.

“Call my name,” it said, in a deep gurgle.

And each time it spoke, the static swelled until, like daylight, it cast The Demon and The Young Boy into the recesses of The Young Girl’s now desperate imaginings. The last words she heard were of The Young Boy defiantly saying, “No.”

“Where are they?” she said, shaking the radio. “Where is that coming from? I know him. I know him. He’s in danger.”

“I don’t know,” said T. “The signals come from everywhere, from all parts of the omniverse. But I never know where exactly.”

“But if we can hear it, then it has to near, right?”

The girl was speaking with such bravado. T had yet to see her like this.

“I suppose. Seems logical enough.”

“You think I’m nuts?”

“It’s not that. I think you believe it’s someone you know, I….”

“I’m not crazy. It’s him,” she said, remembering herself sitting by the campfire and listening to the boy as he told his whole life story, filling the emptiness that she had had in her spirit, with apprized companionship. And then she remembered The Demon, and how it held the boy’s hand as she pendulated above a stage, with a pistol to her head. “We have to find him. We have to help him.”

“What about my body?”

“That too. My friend’s in danger. We have to do something.”

“What if there’s nothing you can do?”

And she remembered then, The Experiment.

“I put him in that danger,” she said, her voice hollow. “There has to be something we can do.”

“Ok, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s a signal. God knows how old it is, and how far it had to travel…and how long that took. This might have already happened,” he said, before a long pause. “It might have already ended.”

The Young Cripple felt a tremendous weight in her stomach.

Guilt.

“It’s my fault he’s sick. The least I can do is try.”

There was a long negotiating silence between the two.

“Ok then,” said T, in a decisive manner. “We’ll try. We’ll help your friend as well. Somehow.”

“Thank you,” said The Young Cripple, kissing the top of the radio.

Somewhere in this infinite reality was T’s body, and it just blushed.

“Ok, so on the count of three then,” said The Young Cripple, her hand on the latch, so absolutely sure that all it would take would be one more heave.

“On three.”

“One,” said the girl.

“Two,” said the boy.

“Three!”

And she was right. The latch tore right off as if made of paper. And before she lost her balance, The Young Cripple swung the flap back and peered into the room. Aghast, she fell backward and knocked her head on the ground.

“What? What was it? What did you see?”

“I don’t know. But it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Well, what did it look like? Was it big, was it small? Did it have two heads?”

“Everything,” said The Young Girl. “It had all that. And everything else too.”

“Show me. Lift me up, so I can see.”

“No, let’s keep going. I don’t need to know what something is to know that I never wanna see it again.”

“If it could get out, don’t you think it already would? We’re safe here. Nothing behind those doors can get us.”

“How can you be so sure of things, and you don’t even know where we are, or where we’re going?”

“I don’t need to know where I am, in order to get where I’m going.”

The Young Cripple stuck out her tongue.

“Ok, but just quick, ok?”

The Young Cripple crept up to the door, and, as she slowly stood up onto her tippy toes, she held the radio high above her head, so her friend could see what was inside the room.

“It’s spectacular,” said T.

“Are you bonkers? It’s terrible, horrible, and ugh,” said The Young Cripple, unable to finish her words.

“It’s from another dimension,” said T. “Aside from our three.”

“What dimensions? A bad dimension?”

“A dimension is a dimension, just as a box is a box. What’s inside though…. Wow, there’s so much colour. And shapes I have never seen before. They just fold in and out of each other.”

“Can I see?”

“You gotta squint, or else it’s just a deranged blur. But if you squint and just, I don’t how to explain this but…don’t try to see.”

“That made no sense. Let me see.”

The Young Cripple pulled the radio down to her waist again and once more stood up on her tippy toes, peering through the slat on the door. Her every nerve was tense, with her fingers pressed like a spider, ready to jump.

“Well?” asked T.

Her first instinct was, like before, to dive away from the door, as far as she possibly could. That thing, whatever it was, was hardly as festive as T had described it as being. The Young Cripple saw no distinct colour, merely blur after blur, with deformed shapes getting bigger and smaller, and then before her very eyes, turning into shapes that the sight of them alone gave her vertigo, to the extent where her head started to spin, her legs tingled and went numb, and it felt as if her insides were being pulled from her mouth.

But just as she lost feeling in her hands, and as her body started to give way, she caught sight, at the very moment she was losing consciousness, of the most incredibly fantastic and superbly spectacular display of shape and colour that she had ever witnessed, ever, in her whole entire life. If the human language was designed to define and map a three-dimensional universe, then no words at all would suffice what common and narrow eyes would negate as being true. She herself had not one word to say, she didn’t even mutter a sound.

For the briefest of moments, she saw that there was so much more to existence than what she knew – a great deal more than what she had learned or what she had been told. The moment was brief, though, and as quickly as she had become enlightened, The Young Cripple was overcome by vertigo once more, falling to the ground with a great thump, into a useless, awkward slump. This time, though, as she caught her breath, she broke out into tears.

“Are you hurt?” asked T, concerned, he himself having suffered quite a knock.

There was a smile on her face as if she had walked away from a doomed fate, unharmed. Yet, contrary to her smile were the tears, the endless stream of tears, as if a faucet on her face were broken.

“That was the most beautiful….”

What followed was a series of heavy breaths, as if she had just run ten miles, then following that, a delicious kind of silence. And she cried the whole time.

“I’d never imagined…”

“How could you?” said T. “Imagine a single line seeing a cube for the first time. It would have no words either. It’s not the first time I’ve seen an extra-dimensional being. It’s hard, though. As I said, you have to see without looking. You have to imagine without thinking. Otherwise, our narrow minds and our even narrower eyes cannot see, and cannot even fathom what unravels outside of our perception. You never get bored, though. You never get used to it.”

“I wanna look again, can we?”

“There’s still a lot for us to see and do; a lot of thread to unravel. Don’t spend all your pennies on the first ride you see. Let’s try the next door. Remember we have a mission. And the longer we take, the longer we leave ourselves exposed here in the open. Anyone could be watching.”

The Young Cripple stared upwards, looking for some kind of security camera. She saw instead what looked like eyelids, attached to the ceiling. It wasn’t her first assumption. She thought maybe they were vents, or storage lockers, because of how they stuck out, so bulbous-like. But when one of them twitched and opened slightly like her dog used to when it was dreaming, The Young Cripple gasped silently, clasping her hand to her mouth. She could see a giant, grotesque eye in the ceiling, beneath a green, scabby cover; but only the white of the eye, for the iris was still covered, as the eyelid twitched away.

“They’re in The Arc, boss.”

It had barely taken a second for the apprentice bookkeeper to narrow his search of the infinite facility down to one quadrant, now seeing on his monitor, a grainy image of the discrepancy.

“What’s she doing?” asked The Accountant, dressing in combat attire, and strapping a ridiculous amount of obscene looking weaponry to his appendages. Wonderfully embroidered onto the back of his long black trench coat were the words, ‘Certainty or Bust’.

“She’s going room by room, boss. Having a peek by the looks of it. Then falling over, crying a bit, laughin’, huggin’ herself, a bit more dancing by the looks of it, then off to the next door. I can’t see properly, though. Looks like she’s talking, but I can’t see anyone with her.”

“Zoom in then.”

“There’s a power problem, boss. Cameras won’t open all the way. The whole sector looks like it’s offline or something.”

“Well get it back online.”

“It’s not my field.”

“Find the problem then. Whatever it is, we’ll fix it. Before all hell breaks loose.”

He scoured the monitor as best he could, with what little image he had at hand.

“There,” he said. “You see that? By the door.”

“What is that? Is that a plug?”

“Extension cord,” said Bean.

“You gotta be kidding me. What the fuck is an extension cord doing by a doorway?”

“Don’t look at me.”

“Jesus H Christ. Alright then, fuck it, we know where she is. Let’s just go down and fish her out, and get The Arc back online.”

“Might not be that easy, boss.”

“Oh stop being such a pessimist. Have a little faith would ya? You geared up?”

Bean ran a final check on his arsenal.

“Good to go.”

“Right. We get in, we swoop her up, and we get her back here a.s.a.p. No funny business, alright? And you let me do the talking. Here, clip this on your belt.”

“Right, boss,” said Bean, sheathing his blade, while his superior attached a cable and carabiner to a latch on his belt.

“In case we get separated,” said The Accountant.

Bean nodded.

“No bloodshed, not unless necessary. We don’t know what’ll happen, alright?”

“Alright, boss. Chill, I’m on it.”

“I’m serious. I don’t know if she’s divisible or not. We don’t know what kind of math she is. If she’s a zero, of any kind, she’ll break the number line. It’ll be like a bloody black hole, got it? She’ll swallow Aleph-Null. So…no cuts, not unless you’re sure that there’s no option whatsoever.”

“Listen, boss, with the power fuzzy on The Arc, it might not…”

“Have some faith, boy.”

The two stepped through a door in their office. As with any door, as they entered, the two bookkeepers imagined where it would take them, expecting to arrive at The Arc, not a foot away from where they last spotted the discrepancy. You can imagine their surprise then when they ended up somewhere else altogether.

“I tried to tell ya, boss. If The Arc’s offline then these doors can go anywhere.”

“Whattaya mean anywhere? There has to be some kind of contingency for this type of thing. How do we implement order?”

There was a sound overhead as if the sky were batting its wings.

“The Arc is the order, boss. You know that.”

“I can’t be expected to keep up to date with everything.”

“The Arc means unification, right? So if The Arc is down, that means our algorithms mean diddly squat.”

“We’ve just lost control of the situation. Now every bloody door here is pure friggin’ probability?”

“So then, all of this is now down to….”

“Chance,” said The Accountant, slumping his shoulders as he did. “I hate chance, I really do. As long as The Arc isn’t feeding Light to the generators, our algorithms don’t work. We got not control. We can’t predict shit. And these doors, they’re nothing more than…”

Had he the flexibility, he might have very well buried his head in the dirt.

“…than what?”

“Bloody wormholes,” said The Accountant.

XXXI

The Young Girl had spied on maybe sixty doors and seen sixty of the strangest apparitions, before – to her surprise – she came across a symbol that she knew, one that had seen before. She stood silent, and dumbfounded, running her fingers over the sigil.

“Maybe we shouldn’t look,” said T, his voice, a beckon of worry.

The Young Cripple had no reason to worry, though, for this sigil had been with her the entire of her life. It represented hope, Light, and love.

“It’s ok,” she said assuring. “We don’t have much choice anyway, do we?”

“Guess not.”

The Young Cripple continued to run her fingers along the sigil and smile.

“It’s the symbol of our troupe. But what’s it doing here?”

She stared back along the corridor where she had come, and passed her eye once more, ever so briefly, at the sigils on each door. In each room she had encountered a different being; some of them enormous and almost impossible to define, and others she’d encountered were so incredibly small that only by pure chance was she able to see them. In some rooms, the beings were of four, five and six dimensions, and in some they were three, like her, as well as those that existed without form at all, inside a single dimension.

She stared back at the sigil she knew so well.

“They’re cataloguing,” said T.

“Who are they? And cataloguing what?”

The Young Cripple crept up to the door once more, as she had the others, and she slowly pulled the flap back and peered through. And what she saw was pure horror.

“Oh my God,” she gasped.

In the room, there was a man bent over on his knees, and appearing as if in the midst of prayer. His back was hunched over and his face pressed against the ground. And sticking out of his back were a host of wires and tubes that were dug into his spine with massive needles, which ran from his body up into what looked like a meter box, which hung from the roof.

“What’s happening to him?”

The man was heaving on the ground as if some current were running though his spine. His folded body rippled like a wave, and his head tapped against the floor with each jolt making the faintest thump.

The Young Cripple beat against the glass window.

“What are you doing? Don’t do that. Someone will catch us.”

“Hey,” she shouted, banging on the window. “Hey, you, look up here.”

In between her banging, she could hear, ever so quietly, the sound of the man praying. She stopped her banging and listened more intently.

“What’s he saying?” asked T.

“It’s the story. The story of Light. He’s repeating it, over and over.”

“What is that?”

“It’s just a story, something we tell; a kind of prayer. Everyone learns it off by heart. Everyone we save.”

“We?”

“My family. Our troupe.”

“So he’s from your troupe then?”

“No, he’s not. He’s just a person.”

“Have you met him before?”

“We travelled the whole world before I died. We saved everyone. But why is he here? The saved shouldn’t suffer. He should be in Heaven.”

“You said it yourself, this is Heaven.”

“No. Heaven is different. It’s peaceful. It illuminates. If this is Heaven, then where is all the Light?”

She looked left and right in the infinite corridor. She squinted as hard as she could to find a speck of Light, but all she could see, and all she could feel, in her thoughts, and on the rough of her skin, was a cold and mephitic darkness.

“This is not Heaven.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“My father, the master, he was a prophet. He spoke to God. He is the only man to have ever seen The Sun of God. And I know because he told me. And I wrote every prayer that there is. I scribed every one of his visions. I know because I’ve seen it too, in my own mind.”

The Young Cripple peered in the room again, and she beat against the door with her fist. This time, she broke the man’s spell. He lifted his head and The Young Cripple almost vomited.

“Where are his eyes? What did they do to his eyes?”

“We should go. We should run. We shouldn’t be here. Forget my body. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go. C´mon.”

“We can’t leave him like this. He’s in pain. It’s inhumane.”

“There’s nothing we can do.”

“Hey,” she screamed.

The man was staring right at her, as if, even without eyes, he could see her clearly. HIs face was covered in cuts and abrasions, and his mouth trembled as he muttered his story over and over until his jaw locked, and not a sound escaped his mouth.

“I’m gonna get help. Stay there. I’ll get help.”

The man amassed a great deal of strength, and he shook his head.

“I promise I’ll be back,” shouted The Young Cripple.

The man uttered something, but it was lower than his breath.

“I didn’t hear. What did you say? You have to shout.”

The man concentrated, and he willed the strength of a mountain.

“Find the boy,” he said.

“What boy?”

“The boy.”

“The boy at the door,” said T. “The one I told you about.”

“Where is he?” shouted The Young Cripple. “Do you know him? Do you know where he’s gone?”

“The boy,” said the man, silently cursing the girl’s insolent curiosity.

“Let me help you.”

“The boy,” versed the man again, gaining strength. “There is no hope for us, but you can close the door to this world, and you can save whoever comes next. Find the boy.”

“What is this place?” begged The Young Cripple.

“You know where we are. We did as you said. We followed the Light. And this is where we ended up.”

“Who did this to you?”

“We did this to ourselves,” said the man, spitting loose teeth onto the floor. “They’re using our Light, our souls for energy.”

“Why? Who would do this?”

“It doesn’t matter. It is being done. There’s at least one of us from every world, and from every parallel universe. Since the boy disappeared, the door of time has remained open. And no matter who or how many come, they all end up here. There’s so many. And every day, the soldiers bring more. I have no idea what they are building, or what they are doing here. We are like cattle – tied to these wires and tubes. If I stop the prayer, if I forget a word, they shock me. I just… I tell the story. That is all. I exist only to feed them. And they just…”

His body convulsed as a charge of electricity bit his spine.

“The boy…he knows,” said the man, stuttering.

“Knows what?”

T’s radio started to hiss.

“Everything,” said the man.

“What does that mean?” asked The Young Cripple, desperate and naïve.

“How?” asked T. “You only had to tell him your story, to talk about the life that you lived, and he would never know. What happened? What did you do?”

“We only had one story. That of Light, and The Sun of God. Now there is no other life, no other existence, not from what I’ve been told; there is only this…this farm of fear and Light.”

“What happened to your stories?” asked T. “What did you do with them?”

“We traded them, for salvation.”

The man started to laugh manically.

“We traded them for this.”

“Who would make you do such a thing?”

The man smiled at the girl.

“Ask her.”

“What? Me?”

“You don’t remember me do you?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t.”

“You and that whore. You took the needle out of my vein, and the noose from around my neck. You fed me hope and belief. And you made me tell you my story, so many times that in the end, I could barely even remember my own name. You emptied me of my past, of all that I was. And this is what I got in return.”

“It wasn’t that way, I promise.”

“I’d forgive you I would, if you could give back what you tricked me into giving away. Give me back my memories. Give me back my soul.”

“I don’t know what the master did with them. They’d be back on our planet. Probably in his carriage.”

“They’re here; buried with the boy. You find the boy, you find our stories.”

“Where do we find him?” shouted T.

“Follow your fears,” said the man.

“What does that mean?” asked The Young Cripple.

“You’ll find the boy at a place where demons dwell; where they leisure and share their miseries. There’s an old man in Ward Number Five, they call him The Collector. He grants wishes. See him. He can help you.”

“Please, sir. I need to know,” shouted The Young Cripple. “Is this Heaven?”

“Yes,” said the man, feeling licks of electricity on his tongue. “Yes, it is.”

“But where is the Light?”

“Follow the cables that run overhead,’ said the man, with a smirk.

The Young Cripple looked upwards.

“What are they for?”

“Go, find the boy. His absence is an anchor for this atrocious vessel. Find him, and cast this wretched Heaven adrift.”

“But how do we get out of here?”

The man shook his head.

“The way in, is the way out.”

“But how?”

“Imagine. That’s all. Ward Number Five. And, forget about us here. Save the rest of existence, those that are still to die. You have to find that boy. Only he can restore equanimity.”

The man started to convulse, and returned to his hunched persona, pulsing up and down as he once again, rode the low tide of electrical current which ran through his spine. His mouth continued to utter the only story he knew. As if the last minutes had never occurred, the man swept into a manic rhythm and continued his disturbing and sickening worship, but on the second verse, he swallowed his tongue, and abruptly ended his prayer.

The Young Cripple and her friend backed away from the door.

“Did I do this?” she asked.

“No,” said T. “Your heart is too kind for this. But we do have to go. Now!”

The two ran back down the corridor towards the door they had entered from.

“I can’t go back in that room. Let’s find somewhere else.”

“There’s nowhere else. And we can’t open any of those doors. This is it.”

The Young Cripple closed her eyes tight and gripping the radio, she dived through the doorway.

XXXII

“Ahh crap,” said The Accountant, as a swarm of winged beasts swooped from up above and nearly tore off his skull.

The next two that swooped lost their heads. The Accountant swung his sword in one hand, and fired rounds from his stupendous gun in the other, seeing nothing whatsoever, but feeling death itself, closing in around him.

“Where the hell are we, boss?” shouted Bean, firing wildly into the air.

“What?”

Their ears were deafened with the sound of screeching and flapping wings, and their own rapid gunfire. All around them, creatures of all composite and posture came scurrying out of their nests and burrows, driven by the sweet nectar of fear which dripped from the two men’s glands.

The winged beasts that circled overhead blocked out the Light from seven moons so that the once amber sky, turned mournfully black. Neither man could see more than an inch in front of their faces. They drew their weapons and backed against one another, spinning in small, slow circles.

“I can’t see a thing. This aint good.”

“Oh God,” shouted Bean, in sheer panic. “There’s something in my pants. It’s biting me. God, it’s biting me.”

He kicked his legs to shake off the itch and the clawing that had started at his ankles and now ran up the back of his right leg. He could feel its teeth and lips against the skin behind his knee.

“Do something,” he shouted. “Get it out, get it out goddamnit.”

The Accountant didn’t flinch. He swung his hand backward and stabbed his sword into the creature’s head before it could properly latch onto his partner’s trembling leg.

“C’mon,” shouted The Account, leading the way back through the door.

They both dove through together, wrecking their bodies in the process and narrowly avoiding a set of gnashing teeth which appeared out of nowhere as if the world itself were alive, and the doorway, its scavenging mouth.

Both bookkeepers collapsed in a heap on a pile of soft sand, unsure from where, or what it was, they had just escaped. They lay there for some time, breathing heavily and drifting into a delicious sleep.

It was the sound of waves lapping gently on a sandy shore that woke The Accountant to his absurd reality. He wasted no time and jumped to his feet, unsheathing his long sword, and pacing defensively around his colleague’s comatose body.

The sand beneath his feet glittered. It caught the Light and shot it back into the air with magnificent colour. It felt as though he were standing on isle made from a shattered mirror ball. But just as their edges were sharp and jagged, so too were they soft, warm and easing.

“Where are we?” moaned Bean, the bright sun stinging his eyes.

“Stay down. Rest. We’re fine,” said The Accountant.

He could see small waves breaking not far from where he stood. And he could see too, a small cabin that was surrounded by massive palm trees, which gently swayed back and forth. The sky was blue and clear with not a cloud whatsoever.

It was the horizon, though, which vexed his logic. It bent and warped in a way that a horizon should not. The sky itself, upon closer inspection, was concave. It was as if the one horizon had been stretched like elastic, up and over his head, and pinned on the other side. And outside of the horizon, as if the sky were glass, The Accountant could have sworn he could see the strangest apparition of all.

“Can you walk?” he asked Bean.

“God, I feel like my whole body has been through a grinder.”

“It’s the door. The feeling will pass soon.”

“That was incredible,” said Bean. “I’d almost forgotten how wonderful dying is.”

“Don’t get used to it. We’ll be back in Heaven in a jiffy. And there’ll be no more death.”

Bean stared up at the blinding sky, feeling the warm sun on his face. “Yes,” he said. “No more death. Praised be Light.”

“How’s your leg?”

He could feel a cool trickle of blood from the creature’s bite.

“Hurts like all hell. I’ll be fine, though. Just give me a bit.”

“You need to heal before we go back through. We’ll get some rest over there,” said The Accountant, pointing to the cabin by the sea shore.

“Couldn’t bug ya for a lift?”

With his eyes fixed on the horizon, The Accountant dragged his colleague though the glittery sand, towards the cabin beneath the swaying palms. It was no easy feat. The air was strange. It was both heavy and buoyant. It felt, for the most part, as if he were underwater, and pushing through some invisible elastic that refused to snap, no matter how hard he exerted. Whatever gravity was present here, he was surely ill-prepared for its effect.

Finally, though, he made his way to the cabin, towing his colleague along by the cable that adjoined them both. There, they both lay in coloured hammocks, catching their breaths which, in this new environment, felt as if two dozen sandbags had been piled upon their chests. And while Bean marvelled at the beach’s tranquillity, and at the colour gleaming from the terrific sand, The Accountant stared unyielding, out through the warping sky.

“What the hell was that before, in that world?” asked Bean. “It felt like the air had teeth.”

“It shouldn’t be. None of this should be. What you saw was theoretical. These dimensions that we have found ourselves in are made of ugly and unstable mathematics. There is nothing elegant about irrational function. But as long as The Arc is down, then there is no way to rule out the possible.”

“Which means what?”

“We cannot assume what may or may not happen next.”

“God help us,” said Bean, marking out a star on his heart.

“You see that?”

The Accountant was pointing out to the horizon, right in front of the cabin door. It was hard to gauge properly if there was actually anything to see. The sky looked smudged, and the sun itself seemed as if it were behind a layer of Perspex.

“There,” said The Accountant, pointing out a smudge that moved from one side of the sky to the other.

“What is that?” asked Bean. “Is that a cloud?”

“It looks like another world,” said The Accountant. “Can you see the shapes through the sky? There is another world, on the edge of that horizon.”

“So we’re in a world, inside of a world?”

“Unfortunately, we cannot afford to negate this absurd and ghastly form of rationale.”

“So where is this world then?” asked Bean, certain there was a black and white answer that would expunge his swelling fear.

“I’ve no bloody idea.”

The Account stared implacable, at a girl, on the other side of the sky.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” he asked.

“Probably clouds. A storm coming maybe.”

The Accountant and Bean lay in their hammocks, lightly swinging, and watching with canine wonder, as the heavy shadow moved about the sky. If they knew what was happening in that other world, they’d be running right about now.

“Looks like a face,” said The Accountant.

There was, what looked like the beady eyes and wreckful grimace of a man, staring at the sand globe in his hands, and seeing it not with merry wonder, but instead, as capable of his maleficent intent.

“Is that God?” asked Bean.

The man’s eyes sneered into their world.

“No,” said The Accountant, coldly. “It most certainly is not.”

In the other world, a girl screamed, and her face came into view as the man turned the sand globe in her direction. The look in her eyes was one of imminent collision. Both The Accountant and Bean threw themselves out of their hammocks.

“Run, run as fast you can.” shouted The Accountant.

In air like this, what a witty thing to say.

It was maybe a second later that a tremendous earthquake threw both men to the cabin’s roof, along with every single glittering speck of sand on the isle. The air trembled and shook, back and forth; and back and forth again.

“What’s happening?” shouted Bean.

The faster the air shook, the more suspended the men became. They hovered in mid-air, neither rising nor falling, while, around them, the world they inhabited became an incredible display of colour and sparkle. Where they anywhere else, other than inside, of course, they might have found it delightful. But amidst an air of suspension, and being so desperate and unable to move their limbs, they felt fear – absolute God-given panic; the kind that strips a man of his training, and his wits.

In the other world, the man, holding the globe, looked bored and despondent. And when the shaking stopped, the men slowly floated back down towards their seats like feathers, tossed from the side of a building. They floated blissfully, amidst a sea of glittering sand, and it took an incredible amount of time, for them, and all the sand on the isle, to finally settle.

The Accountant charged ahead, pulling on the cable that attached the two men. It was near impossible to escape. The air itself had become thicker and heavier, full of the glittering sand. It didn’t stop The Accountant, though. He had his eyes set on the door that was a stone’s throw away. But here, in this world, there is little chance that the stone could ever be thrown, let alone land.

The air shook again, as the man in the other world picked up the globe in his both hands, smothering the sun entirely for the two escaping bookkeepers.

“I can’t see,” shouted Bean, allowing himself to be dragged along. “It’s an eclipse.”

The Accountant looked over his shoulder briefly.

“The sun is gone,” shouted The Accountant. “We have a minute or two before gravity propels us. Get up you son of a bitch and run.”

He did as he said, ignoring the searing pain in his leg and diving into every next step. And then, just as quick as it had become dark, the sunlight returned, and with it, the sand and the sky once again became a collage of shape and colour. The two bookkeepers lifted with the sea and the sand and the air, just a hand’s reach away from the door; and then everything stopped.

In the other world, so too did everything stop.

The girl’s look of dread was frozen over the horizon.

Everything stopped; once the globe had left the man’s fingers.

The Accountant turned. He could see, through the horizon, what looked like another planet being hurtled towards theirs. He turned back to the door and stretched his fingers, clutching a loose nail in the frame. And he pressed his finger into the nail and he dragged, as hard as he could, his body forwards, despite the horrific pain.

Bean turned too and seeing two worlds set to collide, he let go and gave up.

The Accountant pulled himself onto the doorframe and steadied for a second, unsure what kind of godless and uncertain reality he would be plunging into next. This unsurety was unlike him. These worlds were beginning to have their effect. They were changing him. And if they were changing, god knows what was happening right now, in Heaven.

The Accountant turned, facing his colleague, and his planet’s impending doom. So focused was he, and so passionate was his intent, that he didn’t flinch for a second, as he dragged his colleague’s limp body up through the doorway, and into his arms.

“Certainty or bust,” he shouted, in faith-like rebellion, diving backward through the door with his colleague in tow, a millisecond before their world collided with the forehead of a young girl.

XXXIII

In the instant it took to dive through the door and appear on the other side, The Young Cripple felt as if she had been fragmented, rearranged a dozen times, and then finally pieced back together, in a somewhat better fashion than she had ever been in her life. She felt charged and her body tingled, from her head down to her toes.

“I can never get used to this.”

“I remember the first time I died,” said T. “It was a mouth-watering experience.”

“How did you die?”

“I drowned,” said T.

“Was it scary?”

“That time it was. I had no idea what to expect. I panicked. Looking back, I made quite a lot of fuss, and in the end, I caught the thorn instead of the flower. It was in your world you know, or a parallel version of your world. But the dynamics were the same. I left the world how I entered, submerged in my own thoughts.”

“I was shot in the head,” said The Young Cripple. “By Delilah.”

The Young Cripple again remembered the sound of the chamber turning.

“Are you mad that you died?”

“I was a little before she did it. But so much has happened since then, I haven’t had much time to miss anyone or anything. I remember how scary it was, though, knowing I was about to die. It was just so sudden.”

“Endings always are. I lived in a world once where the only thing we lived for was our deaths. And our purpose was to ensure that this dream became a reality, that we died in the manner that most suited our beliefs and our ideals. A celebrated life, in that world, was one that best built the stage towards their death. And then, I’ve lived in worlds where fear inspires one and all to turn away from their deaths and spend their entire lives trying to outrun it; only to be caught short at the end. And in worlds like those, it always amazes me how we are so perturbed when the very wrong and unsettling kind of death becomes us. But that in the end is the beauty of existence. There is but one equation at its core, and its possibilities are boundless.”

“What is your story?” asked The Young Cripple.

“My story?”

“You said we all have a story that we have to tell to the boy at the door. So what is your story? What would you tell him?”

“Well, that’s the beautiful rule of chance. Whatever story I told you now would be nothing like what I would tell the boy.”

“You think the whole truth will offend me?”

“Not at all. My version of the truth, of what I remember and what I can piece together, it is affected by unknown variables. That’s what makes existence so special. If I were to tell you my story, of the world from which I came, whatever cornerstones I remembered would be dependent on how I felt right now, speaking to you. And how I feel is dependent entirely on how you feel about me. So, the ink that I use to write this story is the warmth from your soul. It is the attention in your stare. And it is the passion in your heart. So the story I tell you will be a far cry from the story I tell any other soul that I encounter, and nothing like the story that I will, when we find and return him, tell the boy. This is the energy of the omniverse. Our difference in how we tell the same story is what keeps the boy inspired to create more universes and imagine more worlds. The fact the seven billion humans could all live the same event, and yet each could tell the story in their own words, this is the incalculable constant which has ensured, all this time, that the boy never became aware of his omniscience.”

“But what if he did? What would be so bad about that?”

“If there were nothing left to imagine, why imagine at all?”

“So he just gives up?”

“He grows up. And then he gets old and dies.”

“What happens to all the worlds?”

“Some expand until they snap while others retract into themselves. And then the rest just drift away from anyone’s imagination. But it’s what happens to the Light, and to the souls aboard each interplanetary vessel. With no boy, there are no more worlds, and no more universes for them to be born into.”

“So? What happens?” asked The Young Cripple, hanging on the end of T’s every word.

“We’ll see, I guess.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I’m not so mad now, about Delilah. I figure she really wanted to be on that stage, and as for me, it didn’t bother me all that much. But I don’t want her to be blamed for the way she felt, or for what she did.”

“That’s noble.”

“The thing is…do you think there’s a hell?”

The two were standing in front of a grey door. Beside it was a bank of plastic seats that were joined together by a long metal bar underneath. The arm rests looked like they had been picked at and dug into by bored or anxious fingernails, and most of the cloth covering on the seats had frayed away.

The sign on the door said, ‘Ward Number Five’.

XXXIV

The bookkeepers fell for what felt like an eternity, feeling their stomachs race to their mouths. One would think they would get used to it after a while, but they didn’t. It was horrible, the sensation of falling forever. Eventually though, they landed, and not an inch from the door, on a yellow carousel, that just wouldn’t stop spinning.

Both men gripped as best they could, one to the ankles of a horse, and the other to a tailpipe of a bright red race car. Their stupendous guns fell by the wayside, and slid away from their clutches, off the edge of the carousel, and into the spinning vortex below, disappearing entirely.

The carousel spun at such a terrific speed that it almost outran its neon Lights. Neither man could lift their bodies, nor shut their eyelids. And their words, as they tried to shout and console one another, were forced back into their mouths.

The Accountant steadied his sight as the carousel spun around and around. His eyes felt like they were the size of peas, and the force upon them was agonizing. Still, though, he focused as best he could, on finding the door, and getting the hell out of this dimension.

“Everything is calculable,” he thought to himself. “Math is faith, and faith is certain and whole.”

Bean, on the other hand, could barely muster a syllable. His mind felt like a vacuum that was shredding his every thought into immediate dissipation. Every feeling he had in his body and mind was snuffed like a candle by the tremendous weight and the constant whirling. He gripped as best he could, but with every kick of the horse’s hoof, he neared closer and closer to the edge.

The horse, unto which Bean clung, looked down at him with a disagreeing look on its face. It neighed loudly, before shaking its head angrily and saying, “This is not your world.” It spoke with a horrible growl as if a motor were caught in its throat. And its voice was unaffected by the speed in which the carousel turned.

“Let go of my leg, human.”

Bean refused to let go. He could hear the whir of the vortex below, and though he couldn’t see it, he assumed that it was there.

“Into the void you go,” said The Horse, stomping its free hoof on Bean’s kicking legs.

His hands started to slip, and it wouldn’t be long now, before he met with his weapon, into a swirling mass of infinite division. He had heard about these vortexes; theoretical as they were; equations that divided an atom into infinite fractions of itself.

Bean couldn’t lift his arms. He couldn’t reach a single weapon. He merely clung for his life while his partner studied the patter of Light, as they spun in terribly fast circles. The Accountant’s fear had been reduced to a single block of logic.

“Find the pattern,” he thought to himself, his mind free from the carousel’s tremendous gravity.

He watched how the Light morphed, ever so lightly, as they completed each rotation in each fraction of a second. His mind was like a hurricane, but such was his training that he steadied himself with his faith, and he ignored the parameters of the world in which he was bound.

He counted each fraction as his eyes passed the warping of Light, which he was certain was the door from which they had come. And while his partner struggled to fend himself from the attacks of a barbarous horse, The Accountant calculated calmly in his mind, the distance between himself and the door; and when, and at what angle and velocity too, he should jump, to safely make it through.

The Accountant turned his head at his partner who by now, was holding on by the tips of his fingers, and whose eyes were closed as if he had chosen his fate. The Accountant tugged on the cable that bridged the two men, before unwinding more slack between them.

“Bean!” shouted The Accountant. “Bean!”

His voice didn’t carry. It stood still. But at the velocity in which the carousel spun, The Accountant’s plea was heard a hundred times over. And when it was heard a hundred times more, the message sunk into Bean’s dissipating mind, awakening him from his reluctance to go on. He turned his head, which felt like granite block, and he tried to call out, but each kick from the horse’s hoof stopped him in his tracks.

“Get ready!” shouted The Accountant.

Hearing took several seconds, which for Bean, felt like several weeks.

“I jump. I pull you through,” he shouted, pulling on the cable.

Bean could see, out the corner of his eye, the horse about to take a final strike.

“It’s just a ride,” it said.

As the horse stamped its hoof, The Account let go of the race car and was flung from the edge of the carousel. As he travelled, suspended in nothingness, he stared deep into the vortex with spite and disbelief.

As the horse’s hoof passed an inch above Bean’s face, he shut his eyes, and in his crumbling thoughts, tried to imagine the bliss and surety of Heaven.

The Accountant’s calculations were exact. Instantly, the cable pulled tight, and Bean was ripped from beneath a crushing hoof, hanging precariously above a hissing and spitting vortex. His body was limp and folded backward like the pages of a book.

The second he was thrust into the doorway, The Accountant grappled at the sides until he stood upright in the middle of the frame, with his legs and his shoulders pushing against both sides, jarring him into a solidified state.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love,” he sang as if this were all some well-staged opera. “Whose grace I do extol. Invoke in me, divinity, thy power to be whole.”

Bean awoke, feeling his skin being pushed away from his bones like a sheet of plastic. His head hung backwards and he could see so clearly, into the mouth of nothingness where before his very eyes, Light and matter were being perpetually halved, then halved, and halved again.

He screamed, but his voice was divided into infinite syllables.

“Hang on, buddy” shouted The Accountant, gripping the sides of the doorframe, as the cable slowly wound upwards.

Bean could feel his bones now, starting to tremor and weaken. His whole body felt like it was about to shatter into a hundred thousand pieces. There was no pulling, no vacuous gravity. There was only pushing, and at such a manic state that it seemed as if every atom in his body were attempting to flee at the same time, and as such, they bound one another, in their excited states.

As his body slowly lifted away from the vortex, Bean could see, in its centre, a single vibrating and coloured string; and on its internal diameter, there was row after row of razor-like teeth. He shut his eyes and felt his skin floating above his body.

“God, give me strength,” shouted The Accountant.

He was a master of logic. In his thoughts, everything was big and stable, everything was definable. Evert pattern was repeatable, and every outcome was predictable. Existence, as he understood it, was certain. There were no points of indecision. There were no marks of probability. Everything was one.

The sheer pull from the vortex was immense. The Accountant could have carried or dragged a thousand Beans through the most inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges. He could have carried him on his shoulders, from one event horizon to the other. But now that his colleague’s Light was being sucked into the spinning vortex, it weighed more than a star, and he had barely the strength to hold him steady, let alone pull him up to safety. With every passing second, he felt his own feet slipping.

“Fear not, my friend,” he shouted, taking a knife from a holster on his ankle. “You are Light, and I am too am Light, therefore, we are one. You live through me. Go with God. Go with Light.”

Bean shook horrendously. He could see The Accountant clearly, from the beam of Light that poured through the doorway behind him. And he could see the knife in his hand, and the point in the cable where he was about to cut. He could hear and see too, in his periphery, the maddened laughter and hysterical mockery of a carousel horse as it passed him, round and round again.

“Save me,” he thought.

“You’re far braver than I,” said The Accountant, cutting his colleague free.

Both men fell, one through a doorway and into another dimension, and the other, downwards, into the swirling void of infinite division. In the briefest moment, Bean saw himself as the complete sum of his parts. Flesh, as it were, was just a dress that he had worn upon trillions of atoms, which now hovered momentarily, in the shape of a body of a man.

And in the next instant, he was gone.

XXXV

“Should I knock?” asked The Young Cripple.

“I think it might defeat the purpose of sneaking around.”

The Young Cripple slowly turned the handle and pushed the door open. She took a breath – an old habit – before walking through, expecting her every molecule to once again be pulled apart and quickly put back together. She expected to feel the wonderful sensation of dying, but it didn’t happen. Instead, she and T passed normally through the door and entered a room full of coloured mats, where a large group of infants sat, unattended.

Driven by a sense of worry, The Young Cripple rushed over to the children thinking that at any second, something drastic and terrible might happen. But as she spun in slow circles, her passion and worry quickly congealed into a frosty state of unease.

“What’s wrong with them?” she asked.

T’s radio was playing an old nursery rhyme, backward.

“Why is there no-one supervising? Why are they left alone like this? Why don’t they move?” she asked.

The infants all sat upright like pieces on a coloured chess board. The girl had never seen children so still and unaffected. She leaned forward and inspected and the face of a little boy or girl, it was hard to tell. She pushed her face right against the infant’s so that their noses touched, and their eyelids crossed one another. She herself blinked maybe fifty times and was rattled by the growing discomfort, but the infant did not react at all.

“Should I touch it?”

“God no. Let’s just keep moving; find this Collector.”

“Wait, one second,” said The Young Cripple, pressing her finger against the infant’s warm face.

Its skin pressed in and dimpled, as any child’s would, under the weight of her touch, but it didn’t react as any child would. It didn’t blink. It didn’t flinch. It didn’t move an inch. It merely sat there, allowing The Young Cripple to pester and prod away with her estranged curiosity.

“Shouldn’t it cry? Shouldn’t it move?” she said, pressing the infant’s cheek once more. “This is so strange; so creepy.”

“Then don’t do it.”

“I can’t help it. It’s so damn weird. It’s like they’re…”

She went child by child, touching their cheeks, and each reacted in the same cold and distant manner. They looked as if they existed, like she, but they reacted the complete opposite. To touch, they felt like she imagined they would. Their skin was soft, warm, and elastic. But there was no reaction whatsoever from either one. They were either drugged or…

“Without fear,” spoke a man in a posh accent, scaring The Young Cripple as he appeared behind her, carrying a black bag, and a large serrated knife. “Isn’t it just dandy? No reason at all to crawl, or to move. Thus no danger. Certainty. It makes you want to pray. Lord do Light and Light of love, you are the very best. If wisdom were nectar then I’d drink it from your breast.”

The Young Cripple fell backward, knocking over several of the infants like bowling pins. She stared despondently at the man, who had barely to reach further than his own toes at this moment, to capture, or fatally cut her.

“Fruit?” he said, resting the bag on a table and taking something from inside.

“No,” said The Young Cripple, slowly backing away.

The man threw a handful of fish heads into the gaps between where the infants sat. Neither one budged. They neither agreed nor disapproved with their serving.

“Now that’s weirder. Do you think…Is it to eat or play with?” asked T.

“I don’t wanna find out. Let’s just go,” said The Young Cripple.

“You’d best get going,” said The Orderly. “Group therapy is about to get underway. And today is puppet show day. Three cheers for the bright and cheery worm.”

“We should ask him,” whispered T.

“Ask him what?” replied The Young Cripple, whispering with the grit of a muffled punch. “He has a knife.”

“Just ask him if he knows any collectors, that’s all. It’s not at all suspicious.”

“Not in the least,” said The Young Cripple, ironically. “Excuse me,” she said.

“You’re excused,” said The Orderly.

The man turned to her with the same prosaic expression as the group of infants. His face was full, round, and entirely unblemished. There was not a single line, crack or mere indentation to show that he had ever smiled or frowned, or reacted in any kind of way, emotionally. He looked like a brand new shoe. His face was unworn, as if, like the new shoe, it were stuffed with something soft, spongy, and inanimate.

And he wore a white tracksuit that was pulled up over his stomach.

“It seems I’m lost,” said The Young Cripple. “Could I ask for directions?”

“Lost? What a strange premise. Lost? How could you be lost when you’re here?”

The Orderly gave The Young Cripple a baffled look. He still had the knife in his hand, and the girl wondered, with how he swung his arms around so loosely, whether or not he knew.

“I’m looking for someone,” said the girl.

“I am someone,” replied The Orderly.

“In particular. I’m looking for someone in particular.”

“Of course you are. Very good then. Good for you. Be sure to see the puppet show,” said The Orderly, turning away and walking down the hallway. He whistled as he walked; but not a cheery tune, this was just a prolonged note; neither high nor low. It reminded The Young Cripple of the sound that the bullet made.

“What are you waiting for?” urged T.

“And say what? He’s an idiot.”

“Follow him. You heard him, group starts in a minute.”

“And?”

“Maybe it’s an assembly or something. We can blend in, and you know, ask around.”

“Easy for you, you’re a radio. You just get to sit there and keep quiet.”

“You could do the same you know. Just open your mouth a little less.”

“That’s not nice.”

“Just go.”

The Young Cripple stood up and followed the man, but ever so cautiously. She stared back at the infants who, regardless of the stench of brine, sat still like statues.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love,” sang The Orderly, “guide me to the hall, Ensure my feet are sparse and neat, that never shall I fall.”

He walked with a wide stance as if he had just soiled himself.

Every few steps there was a room, and neither of them had doors. The Young Cripple peered in as she passed each one. She didn’t want to. She dreaded the thought of what might be lurking inside. She couldn’t help herself, though. Her fear, for the most part, had her constantly flirting with danger, and other types of nefarious and precarious events.

They looked like any normal room in a hospital, or in a boarding school. There were many rows of beds, and they were all neatly made up, with the sheets pressed so tightly that it was a wonder anyone could use them at all. Opposite the entry way to each room were a basin, a waste basket, and a silver toilet bowl.

“There’re no seats on any of the toilets,” said The Young Cripple, pretending to gag. “Gross.”

“I don’t see how being higher is any cleaner?”

“You wouldn’t. We’re not gonna have to stay here are we? I don’t wanna have to stay here. I can’t sleep around other people. It’s a real condition. I could die.”

“I don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to either. Let’s just keep focused. Remember why we’re here.”

“Right,” said The Young Cripple, addressing a more serious tone.

It was maybe a second or two later before her attention started to wane once more, and with it, her hardened focus. She forgot entirely why they were there, and instead began to wildly imagine all sorts of dastardly things like slugs, snails, and slimy snakes, all slithering about at the bottom of each toilet bowl. Instantly, the radio started playing a song, but T stopped it immediately.

“Stop it,” whispered T.

“I didn’t do anything. It’s your stupid radio. Turns on whenever it wants.”

“Your stupid fear does the same thing.”

“Then don’t tell me to stop it, if you’re doing it too.”

The Young Cripple didn’t notice that The Orderly she had been following had disappeared, but she could hear a commotion coming from one of the rooms further down. She walked slow and cautious towards the noise. There was a great deal of shouting, some singing, some wild cursing, and what sounded like a thousand sets of hands, clapping out their favourite song. The noise itself had no particular rhythm and was entirely disorientating.

“This must be it. Are you ready?” asked T.

“Are you kidding?” replied the girl, looking back over her shoulder. “No.”

“Great. Let’s go.”

XXXVI

The room was massive. The Young Cripple hid on the outside of the group that was chanting or praying, whilst holding hands; frail and limp. There was a stage on one end that was full of all sorts of instruments, and at its front, there were three round, and fairly large, wicker baskets. And at the other end of the room, there was a small cafeteria where an elderly woman with purplish hair, poured warm milk into small freezer bags, and hung them, like decorated flags, above a silver trough that stretched from one side of the adjoining wall to the other.

In the centre of the room, an uncountable amount of patients gathered in a massive swarming circle that never stood still. Swept up by some invisible current, the patients constantly moved in and out of one another, never staying in one spot for more than a fraction of a second. And thus, there was always room for one more.

It was inside of the circle, though, where most of the commotion was being orchestrated. The Young Cripple, from where she hid, was seismically intrigued. Whereas, the patients remained quiet and, by their expressions alone, emotionally defunct; in the middle of the circle, just by the volume alone of the desperate negotiating and pleas for mercy, a great deal of humiliation and torture was already underway.

“Please, I’ll do anything you ask; anything you want me to do. Just please, stop, I beg you, no more.”

At the centre of the circle huddled fifty or so people. They ranged from all sizes, colours, shapes, and textures. Some of them were hulking with muscular limbs like skyscrapers, and others were lean, merely loose skin, like a light shoal, dressing a frail skeleton. Each one, though, no matter their size or stature, was outmuscled by the sheer weight of their fear.

The millions of patients swarming around did so with lifeless and emotionally idle expressions. Each had their turn at the centre of the circle, getting a glimpse of the erratic specimens, before sinking back into the swirling mass of placid hands and dull visages.

“Don’t be shy. Everyone come forward and see for yourselves. This is a controlled environment people, a place of learning.”

Besides the specimens stood The Doctor, a short, stocky man with a musky odour and a face that looked like a grazed knee. He was dressed in a white collared shirt, spandex pants, and nylon slippers. He wore a long, white coat so it that was patently obvious that he was a doctor, and not an orderly or a patient.

“These creatures,” said The Doctor, pointing a lock stick at the huddling mass, and poking them, so they trembled and riled. “We shall call, Fearlings.”

“Ooooohhhh,” said one-half of the swarming patients.

“Ahhhhhhh,” said the other.

In the circle, one of the Fearlings, the muscular man who had first spoken out, broke away from the group. He approached The Doctor with his hands held high above his head.

“Please sir,” he said. “I don’t have much, no money, nothing. But surely there is something we can barter. We are men after all.”

The Doctor tapped his stick on the Fearling’s head.

“Back, foul beast,” he said, striking the man several times across the temple.

The Fearling stepped back to his group but continued to plead with his eyes.

“You see how he would say anything right now to spare his existence? Tell me Fearling, what would you do? Would you sacrifice one of your own? Maybe a younger one or an infirmed?”

“No,” said The Fearling, spreading his arms backward over the group as best he could. “I would rather die, a hundred times over than let you near a single soul.”

“Do you see yourself as some kind of leader? And if so, would you die for your kind?”

“A hundred times over,” said The Fearling in a rattling tone, his face twisted and contorted as if he were set upon striking.

“Prove it,” said The Doctor. “Kill yourself. Just once.”

“Fuck you.”

“And with this ladies and gentlemen,” said The Doctor, turning back to the swarm of patients, “we can see how fear stipulates the absurd and irrational mandate of this specimen. Can anyone here predict what this Fearling will do next? Anyone, anyone at all?”

None of the patients had an answer. The Doctor knew this.

“We cannot. Its state of being is wobbly, it’s topsy-turvy. Fear is fractional. It is the whole state, divided. There is only one state of healthy existence, one point of equanimity. Can anyone tell me what that is?”

“One,” they all said, in droll unison.

The Doctor showed not an inch of satisfaction in their response.

“That’s right: one. We are Light, and Light is one, so, therefore, we are all one. Now the reason I bring these creatures before you is to show you how existence once was, before Heaven, and before absolute certainty. Before equanimity, there was fear, and with it, an omniverse scripted upon the most irrational logic. It created worlds of disparity, indifference, and indignation. And it spawned a culture of misery that spread throughout the seed of existence. Fear is the division of self – the infinite fracture of the whole, with neither part behaving in accordance with good and proper mathematics. This creature here is in two minds. One of which is to cower disgracefully and beg for mercy, and the other, like the snake, wishes to strike when we least suspect. Before Heaven, this was existence,” said The Doctor, jabbing his stick at the huddling Fearlings. “But now, we are one again. Heaven is existence. It is infinite and entire. It is the whole. There is no need for many worlds when this world here doth suffice.”

The massive swarm of patients began to clap, almost condescendingly.

“I will show you now, the true test of our experiment here; how love in faith, God, and Light, can defragment even the most incalculable life, and return it to whole.”

The Doctor took a needle from his coat and held it up so that every patient could see the bright, fluorescent liquid inside. He clicked his fingers and from seemingly out of nowhere, a handful of orderlies appeared with torches and truncheons.

“I will need a male and a female,” said The Doctor.

The orderlies stormed forwards without any indecision whatsoever, holding their blinding torches to the eyes of each Fearling, and beating at their bodies until the group broke apart, allowing the orderlies to take from its centre, the most fearful of them all.

“Bring them to me,” said The Doctor.

The two Fearlings, both young adult humans, and both horrifically scared, were thrown to the ground in front of The Doctor. There were screams coming from huddled mass, but their rebellion was quickly curtailed by the swift thinking orderlies who beat and struck down on the alpha Fearlings, and also against the smallest and youngest too, to discourage further insurrection.

Both Fearlings shook like grains of sand at the whim of a hurricane. They held each other tight, so tight that their nails dug long, scratching marks in their skin. Neither, though, would let go. They stared in one another’s eyes, unflinching.

“I love you,” said one to the other.

“I love you too,” said the other in return.

They kissed, in a manner that estranged the patients and disgusted The Doctor, who then stuck the needles in the backs of their heads, and extracted their infected Light.

“As you can see, the result is instantaneous.”

And it was. The two Fearlings let go of their embrace and stared at each other dispassionately. It was as if one of them were a passenger on a train, and the other were a steaming pile of shit on the platform. There was not a breath of consideration between the two.

“It never ceases to marvel – the absence of fear.”

The Doctor slapped the pair, once each on their opposite cheeks. Neither Fearling flinched. “You see,” he said cheerfully. “I, as a provocateur of fear, have grown bored and have moved on. These two wonderful specimens no longer emit, and thus no longer attract, fear. They no longer accumulate despondence.”

He then turned and slapped the alpha Fearling, he who had spoken out.

“Now this one, for example, is engulfed in fear. I could hit him all day.”

He then clicked his fingers and immediately two orderlies appeared.

“Do just that, would you?” he ordered.

“Sir?” replied one of the orderlies.

“Take him away,” said The Doctor, angrily. “And beat him until you bore.”

“Yes, sir,” said the orderly, dragging the alpha Fearling off to an unmarked room.

The Doctor then slapped the two Fearlings again with a dissatisfied look on his face. “I find no enjoyment in this,” he said, slapping one after the other before finally stowing his reddened hand. “And we can thank God for that because now, they are healed.”

The patients all clapped unenthusiastically.

The Doctor stepped back onto his podium, holding a syringe to his temple. “I thank God for creating Heaven,” he said, addressing his patients. “A home for each and every soul; where we can all live eternally, without disruption and malformation, without chance and the curse of possibility; where we can live in total equanimity, without fear. Praised be God,” he shouted, injecting the fluorescent liquid into his head. “And praised be Light.”

The patients all raised their hands into the hair and wriggled their fingers as if being fanned by an invisible wind. “Praised be Light,” they chanted monotonously.

“What leads to fear?” shouted The Doctor, pointing once again to The Fearlings on the floor. “What is that divides a clean and healthy soul in such a way?”

The patients stood with eyes and mouths agape, unknowing.

“Imagination,” said The Doctor, coldly.

Half the patients blocked their eyes, and the others, their ears.

“A mind that thinks without focus and prescribed definition is a mind that is open to influence, and for the greater part, infection. Which is why, here in Heaven, all we need to maintain this virtuous and blessed existence, is the one story; that of The Sun of God. With it, we make our bed in the house of God, and we are immunized against our distractions and our fears. And when we have God, what else could we possible need?”

The patients clapped once more, like infants, struggling to keep time.

“Now, before we get to today’s activities and the morning’s feast, we will enter into a quick prayer of gratitude and solidarity. If one and all could please adorn their apparatus, then we will commence the morning’s prayer. Thank you.”

An orderly travelled around the room handing out a pair goggles to each patient, along with a long, black, vacuum cleaner hose. The orderly himself was already wearing his goggles and was quick to finish his work, before taking a piece of hose for himself, and biting down on it with his teeth, so no air could enter or escape.

When everyone was ready, The Doctor started the prayer.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love, vanquisher of fear; may all our thoughts, perverse or not, so quickly disappear. Lord of Light and Light of Love, cleanser of all souls, forgive us all with loving grace, and make our spirits whole.”

“Aymen,” said the patients, before sticking their hoses in their mouths.

There was a second of silence as The Doctor adorned himself in his goggles and affixed a black vacuum hose to his mouth, like all of his patients. Then came the sound of three ringing bells. And on the third bell, each pair of goggles lit up with the most stupendously bright flashing Light, which started erratically at first, tripping each patient of their focus; but then, after several moments, the flashing started to slow and equilibrate into a constant pulsing pattern.

After some time, not too long mind you, there was a tremendous whirling sound that came from below the floor. Immediately, each patient gripped firmly on the ends of their hoses with both hands so that they wouldn’t slip when the vacuum commenced. They each stared up to the ceiling as the Light blinded their eyes and cleared their filthy minds while the vacuum sucked any dirt and residue from within their souls.

From where she was hiding, The Young Cripple stared at the patients, unsure whether she should be terrified, mortified, or if this was all some elaborate act; and if so, where was it all leading?

The whirling slowed and eventually stopped. So too did the flashing lights.

The Doctor stood up on his podium once more.

“Without fear is without war,” he shouted, holding one hand over his heart and the other, as a defiant fist above his head. “It is without loss and suffering. And it too is without broken heart and uncertain ending. Without fear is without love. It is without lie and deception. And it is also without broken promise and heartache. Without fear is without end. It is who we are, and it is all that we are. Aymen.”

“Aymen,” replied the patients.

“Now,” said The Doctor, more jovial than before. “Who’s hungry?”

The patients dispersed almost immediately, moving in orderly fashion towards the trough on the far wall, where each kneeled on the ground beneath a hanging freezer bag and sucked the warm milk from them. There were not as many spaces as there were patients, so those that didn’t feed made their way to the front of the stage where an old bearded man sat before three wicker baskets and played his hypnotic pungi to three dancing prophets

As intricate as the performance was, though, the patients looked unimpressed. Their faces were entirely blank. Even boredom left a mark on one’s cheeks. These people were entirely unfeeling and incapable of anything other than the basic attendance of their senses; in this case, to see and hear, but without any effect at all; like throwing a boulder into a pond and not even managing a ripple, let alone a momentous splash. And those that drank warm milk from plastic teats wore the same bland expressions.

“Go,” whispered T. “While they’re all about like that. Just ask one or two.”

“I’m scared,” said The Young Cripple.

“Well then…just stand there. I’ll do the talking.”

“Am I supposed to move my lips?”

“Hopefully it won’t matter. If you want…yes.”

The Young Cripple stepped out from where she was hiding and mingled with the crowd. Most of the patients looked like the kind of people that she had seen in every town she had visited, although, in all of those towns, the people were overrun by fear. They were encapsulated by sadness, suffering, and disease; and their faces looked like wrinkled shirts. Here, apparently without fear, the people looked like they were straight off the production line; unopened, unworn, and unfitted. They didn’t look like they belonged to anybody, or that they had names, people who cared about them, or that they had any kind of a history, or any story to tell.

“Excuse me,” said T, pretending to be The Young Cripple.

A patient turned in their direction and then moved out of their way.

“No, mam, I have a question. I am looking for someone.”

The woman looked at The Young Cripple, then at the radio, then back at The Young Cripple, who mouthed every word a second or so, after they were spoken.

“The Collector, do you know him?”

The woman stared idly as if The Young Cripple were a lamp post.

“Forget her, try someone else,” said T.

They snuck around the room, creeping up on patient after patient, and again and again they suffered the same empty responses.

“What now?” said The Young Cripple.

“The old lady,” said T.

They both looked over to the far end of the room at the old lady who was humming to herself as she paced back and forth along the trough, carrying a pail of malodorous smelling milk.

“Excuse me,” said T.

The Old Lady turned with a wretched toothless grin. Her gums were swollen, open and sore; and her mouth, in general, looked like a newly ploughed field.

“Hello darling,” she said, reaching her hand under The Young Cripple’s elbow. “You’re a sight to behold.”

“Do I know you?” asked The Young Cripple.

“Ahh, so you do speak? That’s a fancy contraption you got there, what is it?” said The Old Lady, trying to snatch T.

The Young Cripple gripped the radio and turned her body so The Old Lady could only snatch at the tips of the girl’s shoulder.

“It’s mine,” said The Young Cripple.

“You can’t be carrying things like that in Heaven. You give it to me.”

“No.”

“Give it to me little girl,” said The Old Lady, now clawing at The Young Cripple’s arms, peeling her fingers off of T, one by one, until she snatched the radio from around The Young Cripple’s neck and pressed against her withered body.

“Umm, yes,” she said. “Indeed.”

“You can’t have it, it’s mine.”

“It is neither yours nor mine, little girl. It belongs to The Collector now,” said The Old Lady, sniffing the radio on all of its corners, and twisting its knobs frantically. “Yes,” she said, in a crackly voice. “This will earn me some favour.”

“Please, it’s not just a radio.”

“Shhhh,” whispered T, though, to The Old Lady, it sounded like static.

“Broken, is it?” she said, hitting the side of the radio. “He’ll fix you.”

The Old Lady rushed out the room and The Young Cripple followed, shouting for her radio back. “Give it back,” she screamed. “It’s not yours. You stupid…”

The girl’s voice stopped when a firm hand gripped on her shoulder.

“That’s quite enough.”

It was The Doctor.

“You’re coming with me,” he said.

XXXVII

For Bean, there was an instant, when he was consumed by the swirling vortex, where his consciousness had been refined to one singular point. It hummed like a perfect fifth before it too was swallowed up by the grand nothingness.

And like dank sweat, he was secreted into another world.

He awoke, almost instantaneously, in a crumpled mess on a pile of shrubs. It was a starless night, and there was a rasping wind. It wasn’t strong, but it brought with it the kind of coldness that crept into one’s bones and froze them from the inside out.

His first thought was screaming. It was a prolonged and desperate cry. He held the sound with such ferocity that his mind began to feel at ease. And the longer he sustained the cry, the calmer he felt, hidden behind it. And when his mind had exhausted itself, his body became overwhelmed with a sense of warming pleasure, as if he had just run a thousand miles and knew, in that instant, that he needn’t step an inch more.

Thus, his second thought was relief.

He had never experienced anything like that before. Moving through doorways, even irrational ones at that, had become drab and common. He had died so many times that he no longer celebrated the feeling when his soul took off or came into land. Though he could feel it, it had become something that was calculable and expected, and therefore entirely uninteresting. Having rationalized death, he no longer had a need to experience it.

This, though, was unlike any death before. And what was stranger, as he searched frantically, was that there was no door from which he might have come. There was no logical passage; no in and no out. And therefore, as he quickly deducted, wherever he was, there was no easy escape.

The last thing he remembered was looking upwards, and watching his superior cut him free like a dangling thread. He would have done the same, were he in the other shoes. And he might have been quicker at it too. There was a job to be done after all, and with it, there was no ground for needless possibility.

But as he thought of being cut away, disposed of, and forgotten, he became, for the first time, overwhelmed by feelings inside of him. Although it was one sensation, it felt as if it were many – sensations that were as real as the muddy ground beneath his feet, yet invisible and indescribable.

All of a sudden, the thought of moving became heavier than the action itself. And so he threw himself back into the muddy ground, like a rickety vessel, swaying hopelessly back and forth, and never drifting farther than its poorly tied mooring. He hung onto the reeds so tightly that his knuckles turned white and his nails dug into the skin on his palms.

The next thought that he had was of himself; as of being aware of himself. In his mind, he stared up at his superior and at his bloodied leg, and it became patently clear that he had failed. And as quickly as the tides of emotion seemed to come and go, his isle of placid contentment was quickly washed away by a flood of self-abasing feelings. The first was guilt, and that was followed quickly by shame. And then, when he remembered the instant that The Accountant knife cut through the cable, the very last of his rationale was eroded, as the emotions that swallowed him up were sadness and then panic – as he was shaken vulnerably at the thought of being alone.

His heart started to race, and his breath became fractional. He clung, as hard as he could, to the swaying shrubs and reeds, and he swayed with them, back and forth, waiting for this swell of misery to subside.

“God help me,” he said to himself. “I can feel.”

He tried to move, but legs gave way. They folded beneath him and he collapsed into the mud again. All he could think was that, very soon, Heaven would cease to exist, and that it was all his fault. He had no desire to go on. He wanted to just lie in the dirt and wait for God to lash him.

He stayed there, feeling wave after wave of torridness and disbelief ripple at his image of himself, before the sound of someone walking nearby, jolted him awake. Immediately, he was charged with fear. His body filled with adrenaline, and though his mind felt light and racing, his legs and his arms felt heavy and stupid. So he hanged onto the reeds and swung back and forth, where, not a stone’s throw from a path, there came a sound much like a rusted door being wrenched open, and then slammed shut.

It was horrible and frightening.

Bean stayed as still as he could, imaging the sound coming from some giant mechanical beast with icebergs for teeth, and black holes for eyes. His mind conjured a Frankenstein of possibility for what monster was responsible for such aural reckoning. And as his fear swelled, so too did the depth and shape of his imaginings.

“Please God, take me home,” he whispered.

The sound grew louder and more deafening every second. It was sharp and stabbing. It came in short bursts of high pitched screeching. Each time, Bean shut his eyes and hoped like hell that if he could not see it then it could not see him. But only worse was when he shut his eyes for couldn’t help but imagine the beast from which he absconded, so clearly in the Light of his mind.

It was when the sound stopped that he held his breath and opened his eyes.

“What is that?” he said to himself. “I know that.”

He could hear the voice of a young girl singing.

“The lord’s prayer,” he said.

Feeling his fear slowly peel away like dead skin, he crept closer, but not so much as that he should accidentally be given away. Crouching low, and swaying with bushes and reeds, he eyed the shadow in the distance. All he could make out was a pair of crooked legs, which looked bent and deformed, and trapped inside metal braces. As much as he strained, he couldn’t make out anything else. That was until it spoke.

“You’re not real!”

As impossible as it seemed, and as irrational as it was, he knew the voice. He had heard it speaking into the same fretful undertone, hiding behind a veil of false bravado. On the path, not a stone’s throw from where Bean crouched, a young crippled girl stared fearfully over the moor, sure in her head that she was being spied and soon to be set upon, by a pack of bloodthirsty oafs.

“It’s her,” said Bean, almost disbelieving. “The discrepancy.”

XXXVIII

“Where are you taking me?”

As hard as she tried, she couldn’t shake off the two orderlies who held her by each arm and marched her along the corridor. She was restrained in a straitjacket and her legs were shackled. Every step began as a push and prod from the bullies at her side, and with every rattle of the chains, her thoughts screamed and echoed of captivity.

“Look, I know I wasn’t supposed to be here or nothin’, I just, if you could let me go, I won’t come back, and I won’t tell nobody about what you did?”

“What I did?” asked The Doctor.

“To those people.”

“You mean those people that were saved? The very same people who are no longer at the mercy and whim of unconscionable suffering? Those people?”

The Yong Cripple was shoved onto a chair. The two orderlies stood staunchly beside her, keeping a firm hand on each of her shoulders. In front of her, The Doctor took his seat. He had a host of cards and papers sprawled out on the table and behind him, there was a picture of an ant, trapped inside a single drop of water. In the far corner of the room, there was a bed with arm and leg straps resting on the floor, and there was a cage beside it that was built into one of the walls. And inside the cage were a dozen or so people, and a handful of domestic pets. There was also a small pony that was wedged into one of the corners.

“They were scared of you; of this place,” said The Young Cripple.

“Of Heaven? There is nothing to fear of Heaven, for there is no fear in Heaven.”

“They looked pretty scared to me.”

“And when they were cured, how did they appear to you? Were they scared? Were they desperate and overwhelmed?”

“No,” said The Young Cripple, now looking into the cage at a small child who was patting a brown bunny rabbit.

“So they were better?”

“No. I don’t know what they were, but they were definitely not better.”

“You would choose screaming over silence then?”

“No, I didn’t say that.”

“Then what? Your opinion is conflicted. It is a contrary opinion, and entirely without affirmation. Do you only believe in disbelieving?”

“There’s a difference between silence and being deaf.”

“Semantics. Fear travels at the speed of Light. It travels in Light, as a constant. And from soul to soul, it spreads instantaneously. Its reach is immeasurable. And the true extent of its potential to cause harm is untold. But you have seen, we all have, in the worlds that we have come from. It was fear that tore each one apart. It was fear that manifested in the necessitous evolution of existence, which drove each being to the brink of madness. It was fear that built fences and borders, and inspired wars – internal and external; be it political, theological or existential. It was fear that solicited compassion, and had every being silently wishing for tragedy and torment, so as to be rewarded with the warmth of empathy. It was fear that was guised as the virtues of kindness and solidarity. But the dividend on which it paid was not nearly as enriching as was the inevitable toll. It was fear that brought about the extinction of every world that ever came into being. If you look out into the omniverse, it is fear which oscillates and now inhabits the bleak emptiness of time and space. One is not deaf if the only sound that can be heard is unneeded suffering.”

“Why the needle?”

“How else are we to extract a being’s Light?”

“You take their Light?” said the girl, shocked.

“We keep their Light,” said The Doctor, correcting the girl. “We keep it safe. Think of it like an inheritance that for the moment might certainly be misspent, and cannot afford for Heaven to end up like every other world. This paradise is our salvation from fear. And for beings like us, Ward Number Five is home.”

“How many wards are there?”

“There is one for every dimension.”

“How many dimensions are there?”

“That is uncountable. For our dimension, there are ten others. But each dimension requires a great deal more to equate itself. And each of those, a great deal more. There is a ward in Heaven for each dimension. Here, in this one finite space, infinity is maintained as one equanimous singularity.”

“Will you take my Light too?”

“Your Light is either infected or it is not yet. Both states are perilous. It is not safe for you to be with it. It’s better that it be kept somewhere that fear cannot inundate it.”

“Will it hurt?”

“The process itself is almost excruciating. You’ll feel a little prick, maybe a sharp shock in your teeth, but it will pass. Your fear will present itself as it is being drawn. This is to be expected. It will dress itself as courage and defiance, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is you that is feeling this way. I will be quick, though, and once your Light is extracted, you will feel nothing. Try to think of that – the quiet and empty space.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Even if you had, it wouldn’t be you making it.”

The Young Cripple struggled and shook, desperately trying to break free, but there was nothing she could do. The orderlies dug their fingers into her nerves and she screamed as her body collapsed uselessly into her seat.

”Put her on the bed,” ordered The Doctor. “Full straps.”

The Young Cripple screamed even louder, at a height and pitch that she never knew was possible. It felt like the tip of a knife, and it sounded like shattering glass.

“You can’t do this,” she screamed. “Please don’t do this!”

“Do you hear yourself? This is your fear speaking,” said The Doctor, approaching the girl with an elephantine syringe.

XXXIX

Still unsure if it was her or not, or whether he had finally lost his mind, Bean followed the girl along the path, crawling through the thick shrub of the moor, and stopping, whenever she turned, awakened to her suspicions. And each time she did, he dove into the wet mud and tried to quiet his heavy breathing.

His heart felt like it could explode at any second, and the air in his lungs was both hot and freezing cold. His hands shook when they were not anchored to anything, and his stomach felt like it was being beaten and pummelled, and flipped inside out – and then kneaded and rolled, and flattened repeatedly. He was both delighted and petrified on the same hand. It could have been his birthday party or his execution, such was the vigour of his impotent elation. No amount of training could have prepared him for this kind of exhilaration.

It was wonderful.

The Accountant, on the other hand, was not faring too well. It wasn’t so much the world he had fallen into, but instead the ‘he, himself’, which he was ill-prepared to encounter. So overwhelmed was he with his new found feelings, and that certain zest that perspired from the living that, for the first hundred days, he did nothing but cry.

His face felt like a terribly deformed candle, and his tears, the hot wax that shaped it so. His blubbering voice sounded like a scooter, stuck in first gear. And whenever he wiped away a cocktail of snot and tears, he would break into hysterical laughter, waving his arms around frantically as if he were fending himself from a swarm of angry wasps. He felt alone and vulnerable, and at the same time, he felt absolutely free. He didn’t know whether to dig a hole and hide or to climb to the highest cliff face and roar like a lion. No amount of training could have prepared him for this kind of indecision.

It was horrible.

XL

“If you could, do try not to move, this can be particularly tricky,” said The Doctor, crouching beneath the table on which The Young Cripple laid.

Something she had learned up until now was that there was no use in struggling. Whether it was the orderlies clasping her collar bone, or the leather straps on both ends of the bed which shackled her every limb to the floor, everything which was supposed to bind her, did so with superb efficiency.

The Doctor was beneath the bed now, turning handles and flicking switches to align the subject’s body with a series of holes in the bed’s frame, so as to insert the syringe and extract the girl’s Light without much fuss.

“On three,” said The Doctor.

The Young Cripple clenched her eyes as tight as she could, and with it, she clenched her whole body. Little good it did, though, for she was not a turtle or an echidna. She had no external defence mechanisms.

So she clenched as tight as she could, and she braced for the worst pain imaginable. And it wasn’t the pain of a blow or a grating cut which scared her the most; it had nothing to do with any trauma to her physical self. It was the thought of feeling nothing; of being erased and vacuous, and of existing without Light – that was what sparked the first tear. And then, as if a fire exploded in her heart and ignited in her eyes, The Young Cripple thought of everything she would miss in the next second or two, should her soul be taken from her.

And it was exactly like The Young Boy himself had imagined; last night, by the campfire. She thought about the things she would never be able to do again; all the innocuous little things, the things you never even knew that you did and that you never knew mattered, that is until someone tells you that you’ll never do them again.

She thought, not about the things themselves, but of the sensations they brought her. For example, in the time it took for me to write this, she remembered her morning prayer, not because of her devotion to Light or to The Sun of God, but because of the shivers she would get, bowing in the fresh morning air and listening to the sparrows as they discoursed over something that might have been as trivial as a domestic dispute, the day’s obligations, or a poor night’s sleep; which to the girl, sounded like the merry whistling of philosophy and poetry.

It was this that she remembered first; the faint sting from the morning air, and the shiver, not from the cold, but from a world much smaller than she, that was so animate in merely being alive. And that was the cause of her first tear. It alone ran down her face and, as if following some fated course, fell through the small opening in the bed beneath her right ear where The Doctor was steadying his hand. And the single tear landed on the very tip of the syringe.

“One,” said The Doctor, readying his stabbing hands.

The next hundred thoughts occurred in rapid succession. Once again, it wasn’t as if she were watching some neatly edited show reel. She was experiencing these memories as emotions, tastes, scents, sounds, vibrations, feelings, sensations, and overall familiarizations. She experienced them all as colours. Her every sense harmonized in such dramatic fashion; and all in minor chords.

She missed all of these things that she experienced. She missed not the things themselves, but the feelings, on which they anchored, that, should she ever experience them again, would allow her to relive, in utmost subtlety, every cornerstone she had built to house her worldly experience.

The events – be they a hug, a first sweet or sour experience, a first fright or broken heart, or the first exhilarant delight of accomplishing the unaccomplishable and being so very surprised, proud, and even a little shy in the same tone – were merely mooring points for her emotional vessel, for the colour and shaping of her Light and her internal being. And so she missed, not the events themselves, but the thought of ever reliving them again, as if each sensation were as dear as a brother or a sister, as absolute as a mother or a father, or as inspiring and shaping, as the compromise and devotion of an impassioned lover.

And so she wept, and as she did, from out in the hall, a sad song played.

“Two,” shouted The Doctor.

He plunged the needle right into her neck and its tip broke in half.

“Well that was unexpected,” he said, completely baffled.

Having witnessed the irrational, The Doctor went into shock. He crawled to the farthest corner of the room and curled himself into a defensive ball, staring wildly at the broken needle, and then at the girl who was bound on the bed. And like the girl with her memories, he wasn’t staring at the needle, as much as he was staring at an accidental proof of uncertainty, and more diabolical, possibility.

As the girl continued to weep, out in the hallway, the song continued to play.

XLI

“What is that sound?”

Bean stumbled about in the dark, keeping his distance from the crippled girl. His body was still in a shambles since he was chewed up, swallowed, and then spat out by the swirling vortex. Though on the outside he looked like any normal man, dressed in the common attire of this land, inside, he felt as if one or several of his parts had been poorly aligned or worse yet, left out entirely. He could only assume that this was some consequence of time travel and that in time its effects would wear off. For the moment, though, he struggled to keep up with the girl who herself, looked as though walking was not her strongest suit or her most flattering.

There was no disguising it anymore; there was definitely some kind of celebration in the distance. What Bean was hearing was music; that coupled with chanting, jeering, and drunken provocation. And the night sky, it light up with explosions of coloured fire every half hour. Each burst of colour looked like both the birth and death of a sun in a single instant. Bean had never seen anything so beautiful.

But what were they celebrating?

In Heaven, there was no need for celebration, for everything was as it should be. Up would always be up, and down would always be down. And one would always find themselves at a point between the two. In fact, in Heaven, there was no need for thought at all, for everything was equanimous. There was no good or bad, and there was no right or wrong. There was merely a point in the middle that was choiceless where all things were, being and not being, at the very same instance; not being one or the other, but being both simultaneously. In Heaven, at this equanimous point, there was no thought, no sound, and no feeling. Without choice, one could not define the possible, and therefore, one could not find themselves swept up by the tide of indecision and uncertainty; that which wreaked havoc on the living and sunk the ship of man. In Heaven, nothing was ever unexpected, everything was certain. Therefore, there was no need for celebration.

So what the devil were they celebrating?

He himself had no idea where he was, or whether this girl that he was stalking was actually the discrepancy or not. He had not seen her face, not in proper Light anyway; and he had only heard her mutter a few words, not enough to conclude, with absolute conviction, that this was the girl who was about to destroy Heaven.

Yet follow her he did, as if certainty didn’t matter.

What an absurd premise.

He followed her for what felt like an eternity; well into the early hours of the morning and long after the music and singing had stopped, when the only sound was the pained screeching from the discrepancy, as she heaved one crippled leg in front of the other. She never seemed to tire, or at least, never looked like she did anyway. Bean, on the other hand, was at the whim of insufferable exhaustion. If it wasn’t physical pain, then it was the relentless shifting of his emotional states; one minute being driven and determined to persevere and save Heaven, and the next, feeling insignificant, impossibly small and incapable of such an incredulous burden. On one hand, he could carry the world on his shoulders, and on the other, he wanted nothing more than to be coddled and caressed, for his hair to be twirled by long slender fingers, and to be told, “Don’t worry, it’ll all be ok,” over and over again, until he fell asleep and woke up in his own bed.

His face tired the most; particularly from all the frowning.

Eventually, though, and not soon enough, he followed the girl into an encampment of sorts. He had tried to catch her, right before she entered, but she was faster than he, and so she slipped out of his reach; and soon enough, out of his sight. He had no idea what he was going to do with her when he finally got his hands on her – or if, now that nothing was certain. He had none of his weapons, and he had never killed a person before, not with his bare hands. He wondered for a second, how much force was necessary to take a life? How long he would have to choke her, and how much blood would she have to lose, before she actually died?

By the time he reached the encampment, there was no sign of her.

There was only the aftermath of drunken debauchery.

In the world in which he had found himself, The Accountant too was faring strangely from the way that he felt. He sat beneath a tree with a ravenous appetite that was surpassed just fractionally by what had, at first, been acute exhaustion, but which had, over the course of his stay beneath the tree, turned into self-gratifying laziness.

When he had first sat down, there was only a light breeze that was barely rustling the leaves overhead. The air abounds was temperate, and was warm on his skin, but it did not have him perspire. It wasn’t at all the buggering kind of warmth. It didn’t steal his drive, it bartered it. It took no more than he was willing to give away. It was the kind of warmth that made him want to lie on his back all day long, and then, maybe, should the thrill arise, to stretch and yawn, and to chase a piece of string.

It was the first piece of fruit he ate, which had him forget entirely about his predicament, and about the discrepancy who – if not banished from Heaven soon – would atomise everything that he believed in, and everything that defined who he was. His sense of dire urgency was quickly overwhelmed by the explosion of flavour on his tongue that, in one instant, tingled to the point where it felt as if it were being stabbed with a thousand stinging needles, and then, in the next, irrigated and drenched his mouth in salivation, leaving him with a pressing desire for more. It tasted perverse, intimidating and sour, but left a taste on his lips of which was both sweet and congealing.

And it had him forget all about Heaven entirely.

He had sat there for so long that eventually his legs started to numb and his feet began tingling incorrigibly; all one hundred and thirty-seven of them. He didn’t budge, though. Every fruit that fell from the tree was different. Each was a different size, colour, and a completely different shape. And each fruit that fell from the very same tree had the most unique and differing taste. So infatuated was he, in all of these new sensations, that it hadn’t occurred to him once how absurd it was, for one tree to produce so many types of fruit.

In the world in which he sat and foraged, The Accountant found himself in a sensory paradise. The grass was lush and green. It felt as if he were sitting on a thick blanket, but one that smelt of earthly vitality. And the tree under which he sat was immense. The trunk alone was as big as a silo, and its roots, as thick as an elephant’s hind; and long and far reaching.

It was old, that’s for sure, but how old he couldn’t measure.

Feeling as he did, he could have stayed here forever and simply eaten fruit after fruit, until maybe he himself turned into a berry; albeit one that was balding and symmetrically disadvantaged. Each explosion of flavour brought upon a new synapse, which seemed to expand his mind as if it were being stretched and mapped to fit the world in which he inhabited. With each fruit, he gained a rich appreciation for the simple leaf on which he sat. And he felt a kinder and a more humbling gratitude towards simply being; and he felt too, indebted, in part, to the trees which fed him, to the air which kept him cosy, and to the green grass which gave him a bed to lie.

In the beginning, each fruit was light and delicious. They tasted merry, and without predicament. They did not carry burden or obligation, and like tastes in other worlds, they did not leave him in a state of guilt and gluttony. Their taste and colour were as lively as the playful and mischievous look in a toddler’s eyes.

But as time grew on, each fruit became harder to pick up, heavier to hold, and more bitter on his tongue. Still, though, he ate, assuming like any irrational insect that the next fruit or berry would be as sweet as the first, but this wasn’t the case. As their flavour and smell became more pungent, and as the skin softened and readily bruised, with it, a fierce wind raged overhead.

The Accountant pushed himself further along the petal of the flower where he stood; trying to lean it against the tree’s trunk to hide from the gale, but it was useless. No matter where he turned, or how neatly he snugged, the wind blew cold in his face. And the harder the wind blew, the more distorted and deranged were the fruit that fell on the ground. Their colour was horrid. They looked like small festering wounds, falling out of the sky and landing by his trembling feet.

Soon, what looked like open sores, started to grow legs, mouths, and tiny fangs. The Accountant nudged further into the flower, now becoming overwhelmed with fear. Each fruit that landed on the ground scurried towards him with its mouth salivating, and poison dripping from its fangs. They looked at The Accountant as lunch, but it was hard to tell if they saw him savoury or sweet. Desperate, The Accountant stamped his one hundred and thirty-seven little feet on each fruit as they swarmed around him.

He screamed.

“God help me!”

But he didn’t once assume that God was listening. It didn’t stop him, though. He screamed so loud, in direct competition with the wind, which howled in his ears, and was made worse by the sound, not far from where he hid, of a great many tree being bullied by the wind and howling in agony as their branches snapped, and their trunks ripped in two.

The Accountant snuck his head out behind the trunk and he could see, in that not so far distance, what looked like the collapsing of an entire forest, tree after tree. One would fall onto the other, and it, onto the next. And this domino effect of felling timber sounded like breaking bones while the rustling of the leaves was like the shushing of a draconian scholar. He realized now, what he had thought was the wind, was actually the force of so many trees meeting their end, and falling to the ground with such ferocious momentum.

As he turned back again, looking for some kind of escape, the wind died; and with it, the sound of destruction. All of a sudden it became deathly quiet. Not even his breath harboured a sound. There was just a stark emptiness, the kind that often followed tragedy and misfortune.

The Accountant’s heart was racing. He was sure the tree above him would collapse at any second, and yet he was too scared to run. What if it did, and he died a stupid fool? What if it didn’t and he ran out into the open and was struck by something else? What if this was the end? Could he have done anything differently?

“Please God,” he prayed, desperately to the canopy above, “I promise; if you save me now, I’ll never go astray again.”

There was nowhere for him to run. Before him, there was a small lake, but it hid beneath it, a strong current which pulled all the floating debris up and over a waterfall that he had assumed at first, was merely the horizon. The sight alone was daunting, watching everything fall off the edge of the world as they did, and more so, seeing something so grand that occurred in absolute silence. The waterfall must have been such a great height, that even sound itself had not the will or condition to travel.

With the quelling of the wind, so too did the fruit stop to fall. The Accountant stood up and looked around. The destruction was immense. He could see, through the swirling mass of dust and tiny leaves, the tops of trees that, like fallen soldiers, lay crumpled and broken on top of one another, their twisted limbs entwined.

The Accountant was overcome with grief. He stood staring into the distance, in absolute disbelief. He didn’t bother for a second, to assume how absurd it was that he was feeling this way for a garden full of weeds, as opposed to himself, or any of his ideals. He merely stood facing what looked like a genocide, with one considerate hand pressed against the tree that bore him shelter, and for all intents and purposes, life.

He stood and he stared, and in the distance, he saw someone or something, like an ungodly reflection, leaning against the carnage, as he did against the tree, and staring at him, as he did, it.

He stared for some time, and in the distance, it stared back.

Its face was black and hollow; like a hole with no end.

Then, from behind it, came what looked like a group of men, carrying tins of paint in their hands, and over their shoulders, they slung their cutting and hacking instruments. There were all sorts of axes, saws, winches, and thick heavy chains. They wore coloured vests that reflected in the sunlight, and they whistled as they walked; a host of merry tunes that were contrary to their apparently nefarious intentions.

“This one here,” shouted The Foreman. He didn’t look like much of a leader, but he sure acted like one. “This one’s sick. Mark it.”

Behind him, a man in bright attire, no different to his own, came from within the group carrying a bucket of white paint.

“This one boss?” he asked.

The first man, now obviously a superior, nodded, and the second man then dipped his brush into the white paint and then made a marking on the tree – a symbol of a star.

“And this one here,” said The Foreman, pointing the very next tree, without even looking. “Sick as a dog. Mark it, cut it, and let’s move on. I wanna get every last tree by the end of the day, got it?”

“Yes sir,” they all shouted.

The men followed their superior as he pointed at every tree that he diagnosed as being ill and needing to be cut down. And each tree was painted with the same white symbol, the symbol of a star; the very same symbol, in another world, that adorned the carriage of a young crippled girl who sat on her bed reading stories; while in the darkness and crept beneath her window, there spied a bookkeeper, grateful for finding the discrepancy, and desperate to sneak into her carriage and kill her, before Heaven was torn asunder.

XLII

The Doctor shoved another twenty needles into The Young Cripple, and the tip of each one bent as if they were made of straw. The music was blaring now, yet as loud as it was, it still sounded like it was being gently hymned with the most careful addressing of each word and elongated syllable. And The Young Cripple wept, thinking not of herself, but of others whose fates were worse than her own.

She thought of the people she had saved, in all the towns that she had travelled. She thought of every person with whom she had sat, and so-called healed. She thought of their faces and the sound of their voices as they all told their stories, as she noted each one down. Their words sounded like spitting rain, which here, in the absence of any emotional climate, was like pure bliss. They spoke of sadness, loss, and inexplicable yearning; but juxtaposed, they also spoke of companionship, purpose, and more so, unequivocal love.

The Young Cripple remembered every story as if they were her own, and she ran each one over in her mind as she lay, strapped on the table, being poked and prodded in a vain attempt to be pricked and stabbed, by an array of medical instruments, some of which were acute enough to draw blood from a fly, while others were hulking brass contraptions which could extract a goat from the side of a mountain.

As her thoughts littered with the confessions of a hundred million people, in her mind, The Young Cripple apologized to each one. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know it would be like this. Please forgive me.”

There was one thought, though, of which she struggled to consolidate. As she lay on the bed – her ankles and wrists purple from the constant struggling – The Young Cripple’s mind became stained with the clear and lamentable sight of The Young Boy, whose heart she had taken, long before his soul.

His smile was wide and kind, yet distressing. It was as if he were slowly boiling in a pot, unaware of what love was doing to his insides; thinking of himself as arrested and detained by quaint affection when in fact, as the result of some perverse mathematical formula, he was an unwitting slave to an infection that would end his life in three days.

As she thought of him, his face started to bubble and melt. His skin ran down his body like thick globs of paint, and his teeth fell from his mouth, only to get picked up by the wind and blown back over his shoulder like little squares of confetti. And the whole time, he never ceased to smile.

“I’m so sorry,” said The Young Cripple, sobbing. “I’ll make things right, I promise.”

“That’s a good girl,” said The Doctor, crawling out from beneath the table. “I am certain now, that these instruments are not suitable for this kind of work. Orderly,” he shouted. “Prepare the Introspecter.”

There were two orderlies waiting right behind him. One was reading verses from The Good Story while the other was assembling a contraption that looked as if it were more fitting for boring oil than the prospection of a young girl’s Light.

“Will this work?” asked The Orderly.

He looked beset upon by doubt. The Doctor stared at his assistant as if he had uttered a profanity or flatulated in a moment of tender embrace. He grabbed the orderly by the collars of his jacket and he shook him raggedly.

“Of course it will work,” he shouted, as he shook. “It is the instrument of my choice. It will work, as I do, according to its design. But you for that matter. You are sick,” he said, kicking the orderly’s legs from beneath him.

The orderly collapsed on the floor. He curled his body into a tight ball and hid his face behind his hands. The other orderlies in the room and out in the hall gathered round their colleague, and they too started to exhibit strange, unexpected behaviour.

“Sit down, all of you, you’re all sick.” shouted The Doctor.

The orderlies did as The Doctor said. They sat down beside one another and held hands. It was an entirely peculiar sight. At first there were four or five, but within a minute or so, there was a line of orderlies, sitting side by side and holding hands, which started in The Doctor’s office and continued out into the hallway, all the way to the rec room, where a commotion was starting to build.

The Doctor rushed out into the hallway. Whatever this was, it was spreading fast. Once good natured and equanimous folk were now acting like savages. Their behaviour was entirely unpredictable.

“The contagion has begun,” said The Doctor.

All around him, the walls were starting to secrete rancid smelling glue. There wasn’t a dry wall in the entire ward; each one perspired thick globs of what The Doctor could only assume was cancer or worse yet – Light. The fact alone that he himself had even assumed something to be true showed that he too was infected.

The Doctor ran back into his office.

“Who are you?” he screamed, feeling doubt and indecision, scorching his skin like sunburned blisters. “What are you doing here?”

He stood over The Young Cripple, holding the Introspecter beneath her chin.

“What have you done?” he shouted.

In the cage beside the table, the sick prisoners revolted. They all screamed passionately, some of them weeping and others laughing hysterically. There were some that eschewed insult and threat, and their others that sang the most delicate harmonies, as if they were alone on a beach, calling their shipwrecked lovers back to shore.

And then came the chant.

“The rain, the wind, the thunder;

With love did they speak;

Of Heaven torn asunder.”

“Heaven torn asunder,” sang the sick prisoners, over and over. “Heaven torn asunder.”

The Doctor looked back at the girl, and she at him. He held the horrible looking Introspecter in his shaking hands. Its weight was immense, and he had to summon all of his strength so as not to tumble over and cut himself in half.

“Stop what you’re doing,” he said.

The Young Cripple ignored his threat. She looked into his eyes and she felt pity for she knew that look. She had seen it a dozen times before.

“I’m sorry,” she said to The Doctor. “For what we did. We thought that sadness was an illness. We thought that without fear, all beings of Light would exist in eternal tranquillity. I’m sorry. For my part, I apologise. I’ve never felt as bad as I do right now.”

“Stop it,” screamed The Doctor, readying his instrument of torture and extraction.

The Young Cripple couldn’t stop, though. She thought of this horrible place, and of all the people she doomed unto it; all those people whose Light had been stolen from them. She looked into the cage beside her bed and she stared at the prisoners – some of them just babies – and her concern grew until her guilt and her depression met with love and compassion; and inside her heart, they collided.

The result was momentous.

XLIII

As he carved a knife out of a stick, Bean sat beneath the discrepancy’s window, thinking about where on her body he would stab her. His plan was to go for her heart, and keep a hand over her mouth, to catch her Light as it tried to escape. But he had no idea what to do with it; how to store it, and where to bury it, so that it was never found and never, on whatever timeline, made its way back into Heaven.

As he sat, though, his thoughts of violence were curtailed by what he overheard as the discrepancy sat on the edge of her bed, reading from a book of short fables. It was hard to focus. The way she spoke, his mind simply gave up its defences and allowed itself to drift, being swept up by the young girl’s sea of imagination.

It was a horror to behold.

Bean felt dizzy at first, and so completely out of control. His mind flooded with the most incredulous ideas that were fanciful and charming one minute, then frightening and galling the next. He didn’t know whether to squeal with girlish glee or to scream for dear life. He pendulated between both ends of pleasant and perturbed.

It was at the end of the first story – when the young protagonist was safe from harm, and when the wicked beast had been slain and gutted – that Bean was left with a growing sense of humanity. His fear trickled from his thoughts until his mind was a clear blue sky, and he no longer felt at threat – from monster, or himself.

The first story exhausted him. It depleted him of his every reserve. Though he was not left feeling used and abused, he was, like a poor man’s savings, entirely spent. You could imagine then how he felt after the third, fourth, and even fifth story. The girl sat on the edge of her bed reading these little tales which were so potent, and so full of meaning and purpose; as opposed to the only story he knew, that of The Sun of God.

He sat beneath her window for what felt like an eternity, listening in earnest as the discrepancy told tale after tale. It was almost impossible to believe that all these events could have occurred; that so many princess and princesses, and so many dear, dear children, had gone through so much trial and tribulation, and who had courted with so much fear – and yet not one had succumbed to peril.

Bean forgot entirely about the task at hand. He forgot about Heaven which, in another temporal dimension, was on a path to incalculable ruin. He forgot too, about his colleague who, like himself, would no doubt be wandering through some strange parallel existence. But as quickly as he forgot, so too did the silt of his emotions sift from the cracks of his mind, as if the sensations of peace, kindness, surety and slumber were as fleeting as a sun-drenched shower – far too weak for him to cling to. And they left him in heightened panic.

Like the splitting of an atom, his mind exploded with adrenaline as a new dimension unfolded in his consciousness – fear. Now it was impossible not to think of Heaven crumbling. It was impossible too, not to think of his colleague, lost and vagrant in some despicable world, or worse yet, being captive on The Arc, where his soul would, for eternity, writhe in agony as its Light, along with every other foul dimensional being in this omniverse, powered the machines that maintained equanimity in Heaven.

He imagined his friend suffering; as every being did.

And his fear quickly developed strength. It developed a shape. It wasn’t fractional and jittery anymore. It was rigid and whole. It didn’t feel like fear though it was assembled from the very same mathematics. It felt like fire; of which he could scorch a thousand Earths. It felt like an exclamation; of which he could negate any defence. And it felt like divine absolution; as if God itself were the force beneath his skin.

Bean stepped out from beneath the carriage with the jagged knife in hand. His heart beat slowly as if he were merely rising from a stupendous sleep. There was no indecision. There was no uncertainty.

The girl was going to die.

XLIV

There was little the orderlies could do to contain the panic, mainly because they were part of the panic. Cages burst open, walls split in two, and from a crack in the ceiling, Heaven itself started to cry. It was frantic to say the least, the rate in which chaos spread so thoroughly through Ward Number Five.

Feeling overpowered, The Doctor burst out of his office. His mind filled with thoughts of imminent dread one second, and immeasurable success the next. He patted on his own back and then beat his sovereign chest, only to turn on himself by slapping his own face, being beaten by the weight of his own potential; both good and bad.

Light now rained from above and it oozed too, from open pores and cold nipples, in the walls and along the floor. All of Ward Number Five was a fluorescent sticky mess. Orderlies fought with patients, scampering over one another like rabid dogs to press their mouths against an open pore or nipple, and suck the Light into their souls.

The Doctor braved himself, adorning his flashing goggles and holding a small hand held pump to his mouth. It was an incredible task, trying to navigate through such madness with his eyes blinded by strobing Light, and his hands, which could have been fending off Light addled souls, working tirelessly on a small pump, extracting whatever filth had managed to virally work its way into his being.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love….” he screamed, unable to focus on any one particular prayer.

Around him, orgies sprung up like weeds in a neglected garden. As too did every manner of interaction; from amiable to downright terrible. There were souls in pleasant and gay embrace, slow dancing amongst a barrage of fist fights, which were breaking out all over the place. Age and sex were of no concern. Blow after blow was traded like cheap currency. And pain was just one of many sensations of which all of the patients, as it turns out, had so fondly missed.

Trapped between the sound of that blasted radio, and that girl’s incessant crying, The Doctor sat, negating the way that he felt, ignoring the tingling on the back of his wrist, and the cool shivers that ran up his spine. He did his best too, to ignore the desire that was almost overwhelming – to take a stranger by the hand, look them in the eye and hug them, as if he were hugging his own soul; and apologize for what he was about to do.

XLV

“Is this it?” shouted The Foreman.

He was looking over his shoulder at the figure that stood in the ruin and debris of the forest. The figure, a demon, nodded. It didn’t budge from its location. And it didn’t look like it was celebrating whatever title it had just predicated.

“You see this, boy?”

The Foreman ignored The Accountant all together. He passed him as if he were a mushroom or an ant hill. The two men stood side by side with one looking at the other, and the other looking at the biggest tree he had ever seen in his life.

“You want I should mark it, boss?”

One of his assistants, a naïve boy who was as enthusiastic as he was – dumb as fuck, came tripping over the rows of stumps, almost spilling his tin of yellow paint entirely.

“By the grace of God, if you come near this tree boy, I will dismember your entire family.”

The boy’s brothers grabbed him by his shoulders, and his uncles took him by his legs. They dragged him back into the clearing and sowed him into the dirt. They didn’t hurt the poor boy; he was just an excited pup. But they did apply what was an excessive amount of weight on his back and an awkward twist to his wrist and his ankles, not so much to hurt as much lessen his agrarian spirit.

“Sorry, boss,” said the boy’s relatives, almost three-quarters of the hundred-strong lumberjacks.

The boy himself had his mouth stuffed with dirt, but he uttered the same.

The Foreman composed himself. He looked up at the tree once more, running his sight along every inch until the incredible height where his sight could run no more. Such was its stature.

“This here is what it is all about,” said The Foreman, resting one palm against the tree’s bark; touching it with precarious gentility, as if it were an injured shark. “This is where life began,” he said, listening for the tree’s pulse. “And this is where it will end.”

XLVI

The Young Cripple was racked with guilt. The feeling pulsed like a sore tooth, defeating her every sense and bringing on wave after wave of unfixable sadness. She was shaken out of it though by a man standing over her bed, sweating profusely as he tore at the shackles on the young girl’s arms and then legs.

He hadn’t noticed at first. It wasn’t until he got close enough to peer into her eyes that he could see that this wasn’t some random passing. She wasn’t some passenger on a bus, or some pedestrian, passing him by like a loosely blown leaf.

“It’s you,” he said, feeling an urge to strangle the girl, or to shackle her back up, and leave her to the savagery of this institution.

The Young Cripple stared at the man with big teary eyes.

“Sir,” she said, her words popping out of her mouth like bubbles. “I don’t know who you are.”

He had hardly the face that anyone could ever forget.

“I don’t know who you think I am but…”

“I know who you are. Your legs,” he said, looking at her as if she were as riddled with deformity as he. “It’s you. Your eyes, they give you away.”

She didn’t have to know who he was; or any of these people for that matter. Most of them, if not all of them were here because of her. They were here because of what she had done to them, and not for them.

“We were fine until you came into town.”

He spoke as if he were gargling with a handful of marbles.

“We were surviving,” he said, now clutching some ghastly looking metal device made of shark’s teeth and bone saws. “Me and my boy. We were surviving.”

He held it high above his head, and it looked as if at any second he might strike down on The Young Cripple’s head and leave her bludgeoned and bleeding, with her only free hand covering her eyes.

It was when she heard him weeping that The Young Cripple lowered her hand and was able to see, after her fright subsided, the man who was about to attack her was one of the very last men she tried to save. It wasn’t easy to tell. His face was melted. It had passed through the heat of a hundred suns. His face, though, as charred as it was, only served to better outline the look of sheer panic in his eyes. This wasn’t some villainous monster, drunk on its desire to kill and maim. This wasn’t either, a gregarious act of revenge. This was the look of a father who had lost the thing most dear.

With every inch of her sadness, she felt herself sinking like a stone. She felt more inutile with every passing second, staring at the man whose temper had turned to tears, and though he still clutched that godless instrument, The Young Cripple no longer felt that he would use it against her. She was weighed down by her guilt. It was near on impossible to look at this man, let alone the rest of Ward Number Five, and not feel entirely responsible.

So with every inch of her sadness, she did indeed sink with the heavy sands of her repressions, to the very bottom of her fault and liability. And as her thoughts waded back and forth like a fly in cold soup, around her, the chaos that she had spawned was getting so very out of control. In such a short time, it had swarmed through the entire ward; through every infinite cubic dimension. The worse she felt about herself, the more tumultuous was state of Heaven’s address.

“Where’s my boy?”

The Young Cripple stared into his eyes. She ignored his burnt and charred face, and she ignored too, the bubbles and blisters on his hands. Instead, she stared him right in the eyes and it was at that moment that her misery widened, and her woe was impassable. She stared right past his burns and scars and saw, in his eyes, The Young Boy. They shared the very same Light. And its glow was unmistakable.

The last thought that The Young Cripple had was the sight of The Young Boy in the hands of a despicable demon, a second before a bullet whisked her away from reality. She remembered his face in such vivid detail. She remembered the trickle of blood from his nose, and the blackness and blotching on his skin, just beneath his eyes. She remembered too, how even though he was so apparently captured and ravaged by Death, behind the sickness, there was a look of absolute infatuation in his eyes as he stared at her, and she at him. She knew too, the exact second she was about to die. She knew by the brightness in The Young Boy’s eyes as if he were trying to reach out and save her with a look alone; either to pull her to safety or to trick the bullet into striking him instead.

It was that look, though, which she saw in the man before her, who swung his godless instrument wildly, kicking and picking at scavenging souls, who second by second were becoming more volatile, clambering over one another, clutching their mouths to nipples which now grew from like clustering warts in the walls. Each patient was desperate to drink up the Light that was theirs.

“Do you know where my boy is?” asked The Father, standing over The Young Cripple, shielding her from the chaos.

The Young Cripple thought of the radio – of T, and she remembered the sound of The Young Boy’s voice, arguing with a demon.

“Yes,” she said. “I know where he is.”

The Father cut off the last of the girl’s shackles.

“Can you run?” he said.

“Yes,” said the girl, desperate.

“Then run.”

XLVII

Little did he know, but Bean was high, though he had not ingested any pill, and his veins were untapped, unbruised, and unspoiled. He rolled out from beneath the carriage with a jagged weapon in his teeth and a pinching look of threat in his eyes. He had never felt this certain before.

It was a certainty that was absolute, but aware and accepting of the premise of chance and possibility. It was a certainty that was unlikely to fail. This was so different to the certainty that he had always known; that which was unaware of failure, and thus, unaware of its own true potential. It was a certainty that turned his knuckles to stone, and his heart like a great ball of wrecking fire. It was a certainty that had the Light within him surge like an electrical storm. It was a certainty that would not stop until this girl was dead.

And it felt inspiring and empowering. It felt charged and immalleable. It felt searing, blistering, and capable of catastrophe; and it felt in complete and absolute control, even when it wasn’t – especially as he himself was hostage to this drunken state of heroism.

He first peered through the window and saw the girl sleeping on her side. Her legs were different. They were deranged and satirical. They looked more like spiralling pasta than they did common limbs. Her face, though, like the sound of her voice as she told her stories, was unmistakable. She had a face that was not conditioned for telling a lie. It bore all the marks of the honesty that she struggled to keep secret.

Bean had never actually killed another being before. Up until now he hadn’t needed to. As a Bookkeeper, he ordered it. He delegated the vice of violence and brutality to the Soldiers of Light. His word alone was like a whistle that would drive any soul out of their bunker, running headfirst into whatever maelstrom awaited with devastating intent. His eyes were like two shiny cannons, and his breath, a Panzer’s exhaust. He was, in every right, the epitome of war. He had ordered soldiers to march towards their own demise, and to martyr themselves for the good of Heaven. He commanded armies with a click of his fingers, yet he himself had never fought a battle with his own hands. He had ordered death, but he had not once taken its bags.

He felt so goddamn sure, though, staring at the girl as she slept. He felt excited and enraged. And the more he thought about enacting the violence, the more he imagined his glowing reception when he returned to Heaven.

Soon enough that was all he could imagine. Though he stared idly at the girl, he was now swept up by his imagination, picturing himself being showered with adulation, being hailed a hero, a saviour, and a messiah.

His tongue salivated, and his heart beat so rampant that is was hard to keep his blood from either rushing to his head and entirely losing his cool, or gushing to his feet, and leaving him upright, still and stupid, like a fence post or a totem pole.

Bean licked the end of his jagged weapon. Its point could cut through stone, so sharp was it. He moved slowly around the carriage, feeling, with every step, his body becoming momentously heavier, and the sound of his breath and his beating heart, excruciatingly loud. He could feel, though he assumed he was alone, a hundred thousand sets of eyes, all looking down on him, from every height and distance. His chest felt like it was about to explode; as if his heart were a ticking bomb.

He paused for a moment, at the edge of the carriage, and he prayed.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love, tis I, the Angel of Death. Make sharp my sword and right my aim; keep steady of my breath. Lord of Light and Light of Love, I beseech you for what more, make death the outcome of my will – prepare my heart for war.”

XLVIII

The Young Cripple got off the table and ran. She ran so incredibly fast and with such precision, it was hard to believe that this was her first time. She ran as if it were her hobby, as if it were something that she excelled at. She ran as if she had run her whole life, as if she weren’t new to the experience.

As she ran, her level of frightened exhilaration swelled; and as if orchestrated by it, so too did the music blasting from the radio, and with it, the surge of manic anxiety in Heaven. Souls ran about frantically, screaming at the tops of their lungs, in both agony and ecstasy. When they weren’t sucking on nipples and sticking their fingers in sockets, they were fighting, dancing, making love, folding paper airplanes, and making hand puppets – and acting out the most fantastic kind of theatre. They were brutal, kind, bullish, and considerate. They were attentive, disconnected, egotistical, and at the same time, they were one important, beautiful and all purposeful part of the whole group; of all of Heaven. They screeched and squealed, and they laughed and sang. They picked and they pulled, and they whispered sweet tidings whilst embroiled in a gentle and clement caress. They tore off paint and chewed through the nipples that stuck out the walls. And they wrote resignations and love letters; and drew pictures of the sun and the sky, and of elephants with alligator shoes.

The Father gripped The Young Cripple’s hand and dragged her along the corridor. With his other free hand, he struck with his forearm at the chins and chests of any soul that didn’t alight from their path.

“Where to?” shouted The Father.

The Young Cripple was stricken with panic. Below her, under her feet, scores of souls wriggled about like spineless slugs. It was near on impossible to tell one from the other, just as much as it was to gauge whether they were enjoying the closeness, or whether they were protesting beneath a reviling tapestry of claustrophobia.

The Father tugged on the girl’s hand, and it tugged on her senses.

“Where to?” he shouted once more.

“The radio,” she said, shouting over the taunting. “We have to find the radio.”

“What radio?”

“It’s the only way out. It’s where your son is. It’s where heard I him last. We have to find the radio.”

“Where is it?”

Behind them, a swarm of souls was gathering. They clustered together and the more that aggregated, the more unstable was their manner, and the more sober their mal and horrific intentions. They were driven by an energy that was brewing in the mindset of The Young Cripple and now serenading from the radio, inspiring one and all into the same revelry – their senses acute by the thought of escape. The further The Young Cripple and The Father got along the corridor, the larger the cluster appeared. And as the sound of the radio blasted and deafened their ears, just an inch away from salvation, the cluster swarmed upon them.

The Young Cripple screamed.

And she let go of The Father’s hand.

XLIX

Bean’s focus was unbreakable. The encampment and the scrub around him vanished as his sight narrowed unto one fixed point where it was that he intended each fatal blow of his weapon to land. A particular energy soared through him; the kind he had never experienced before. For the moment, it was stable but it felt as if – should his focus waver or his attention slip – it might implode and send him towards his death, in pieces.

It took a great detail of concentration and heavy breathing to keep his thoughts light and free of the self-styled fanaticizing. It was as if this energy in itself were a code that was written for heroes; or those inspired to become heroic. But the relentless daydreaming and the thoughts of being showered with deafening applause, they didn’t so much heighten his senses, as much as they did saturate them with an abusive tone and colour so that his focus was as sharp as a circle, and as witted as a drunkard whose words fall as needlessly from his mouth as do his newly broken teeth. It was hard then, to maintain a sense of balance between harnessing a power, and – in succumbing to its drunken allure of thoughtless grandeur – being the harness itself.

He managed to, though, through the control of his breathing, rein in the steed upon which his consciousness rode; keeping it primed like an archer’s bow, but not so much that it might snap or release itself pre-emptively. He maintained a state of readiness; prepared to unleash Heaven’s wrath on this discrepancy.

And just as he neared the edge of the carriage, like a punch to the chest, the blood rushed from his head down to his feet, and his state of readiness was quashed amidst a tidal wave of shock and absurdity.

From out of the darkness, there came what looked like a great hulking mass. It looked, to the untrained eye, like a small hill, draped in a summer dress. The way in which he or she walked was anything but delicate. With every step that it took, its heels caught in the dirt and conspired to have the hulking mass topple head over foot.

Bean readied his weapon. His hands, though, shook incredibly. The energy he had attained was now loose and rampant in his body. What was once a single ball of fire that he could direct and hold was now quantum-like in its physical state, and erratic and irrational in its behaviour. It rattled him from the inside out and quaked his once steady nerves. It felt like he had a hundred thousand suns inside his body; all dancing to their own fervent discord. And the echo of their insanity took centre stage in his mind. And when he saw her face in the moon’s pale glow, he dropped his weapon entirely.

It was her, he was certain of that. Still, his mind began to ponder the chance of such a thing, outside of Heaven, in the boundless probabilities of time, space, and dimension, that he should stumble upon god herself, in this dark and quiet corner of the omniverse.

Her hair was long and twisted in many coloured curls that ran the entire length of her back, almost covering the cut in her dress that was shaped like a heart. The dress pulled tight against her stomach which stuck out like a floral cliff face. But from her hips, it flowed magnificently and cast down her stubby legs like leafy shadows. Her nails were painted mauve; on her brutish hands, and her sausage-like toes. And she wore a yellow ribbon in her hair that stuck out, just above her left ear.

She inspired awe.

Bean snuck around quietly, spying as she made her way along the dirt, before stopping at the discrepancy’s door. He could barely contain his surprise and giddy disbelief. The only thing he was certain of was that the second he got a chance, he would tell everyone he knew.

As she entered the carriage and crept into the young girl’s bed, cradling her humming her favourite fables and nursery rhymes, Bean spied in stupendous wonder. Were he not here to witness it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t even believe it himself.

“It’s her,” he said, in disbelief. “God.”

L

The first time she died was fast. She had sensed it even though she hadn’t seen it coming. She saw it in The Young Boy’s eyes, with the look of sheer dread that overcame them. It didn’t matter if it was a tidal wave, a swerving car, or a stray bullet as it were; the look on the boy’s face spoke of imminent and non-negotiable death. She knew she was going to die, not in a literary or debatable sense; she just knew it as a feeling, one that she couldn’t argue. And when she knew death was coming, it was as if all of the drugs and hormones that her brain amassed, all leaked into her conscious being at the one time and she felt, for an instant that played out longer than any in her entire life, a moment of pure and absolute peace.

This though was hell; being dragged by her arms and her legs, inside a mash of twisting bodies. Though her body was not immersed in water, this, she thought, must undoubtedly be what drowning is like. She had no idea which was up. Her body twisted and turned, and flipped and spun in all directions. It bent and contorted, and stretched to the point of dismemberment. Her arms and legs were nearly picked like petals.

She couldn’t scream. There was so much weight on her chest and barely any space between her gasping mouth and the hundreds of hands that were pinning her down. And with each breath, the weight sank heavier onto her body.

The Father stretched his hand as far as he could, into the swirling mass. He had no idea where she was, but he had hope, and he extended it to the very tips of his fingers, screaming at the girl to reach out.

“Take my hand,” he shouted.

“Don’t mind if I do.”

From within the mass, something grabbed The Father’s hand and pulled him off his feet. He landed head first on a pile of writhing bodies and immediately, was being dragged inwards, where arms and legs wrapped around faces and throats, and bodies contorted in the most unimaginable fashion. The Father couldn’t see who or what had his hand, but he could smell the suffocation.

The first time she died was quicker than this. The Young Cripple paused for a second as she wondered, “Can I even die in Heaven?”

It was at this moment that the sensation of drowning vanished, and with it, the feelings of claustrophobia and suffocation. She was still there, beneath a mire of madness, but she was longer dying. She was calm and content as if she were waiting for a bus, or without rush, in a line at a butcher, waiting for her number to be called. The hundreds of hands were still there. Their work was still dire – in their hearts and in their minds – but to the girl, their burden was not hers to carry, and their violence was not hers to ward off or condone.

And it was when she was the most comfortable that her own body started to loosen. It was no longer angular and rigid, and therefore, no longer prescribed to the idea of being stuck. She merely twisted her shoulders and her hips and moved her neck in the same manner that she would if she were lazily stretching after a long hot bath. As strange as it was, she was at a heightened point of absolute relaxation. And it was at this point where her body undid all the knots and tangles and simply slid free from beneath the mash of souls. She didn’t have to struggle. She moved lightly between the gaps and holes that the tension and struggle of her captors provided.

The Father, on the other hand, was like a shut lock. His body seized like a board with his legs spread wide and his knees dug into the necks and backs the souls below him. It did little good to slow his gradual pull.

The Young Cripple stepped over the mash of writhing souls. She walked in a calm, unsettled demeanour. Each foot was placed perfectly, be it on a back or face, or ridden on the swing of a clenched fist. She passed over the chaos with little address to concern or safety.

“Come with me,” she said, in a soft and gentle manner.

The Father turned. His body was still tense. It looked as if a current were running through his veins. He appeared strong, but his strength did nothing but sink him further into his troubles.

The Young Cripple placed her hand gently beneath The Father’s body and unhooked whoever or whatever it was from his clenching hand. She then turned The Father’s head so that he was looking at her, as opposed to what he assumed was his unquestionable demise. She turned his focus so that he no longer defined himself by what bound him.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“The fear is overwhelming,” she said.

The Young Cripple started to shake. Her eyes looked like distant satellites, and her skin turned sickly white. The Father caught her as she collapsed and carried her in his arms.

“Where do we go?” he said, but less urgent.

She was listening for the radio, but it was hard to hear anything anymore. It sounded like the most horrible kind of party, one where there were as many casualties as there were celebrants; more tears and remorse than there was actual celebration, and more broken windows and broken bones, than there were lighted candles and well wishing. The more she tried to hear it, though, the more frustrated she got; until eventually, she looked back at The Father, and more so, at the fire and passion that burned in his eyes, accelerated by his grief, shame, and guilt for not being able to save his son - for locking in a room his entire life and for treating him like utter shit, in a guise to keep him safe -for leaving him to live and die alone, like no father should.

The Young Cripple bathed in The Father’s sadness. She thought of the boy, and she felt too, a great weight of responsibility, for she had cursed him with a sickening kind of death. And in that instant she wasn’t looking at The Father per se, but at the ghost of a boy who lay alone and vulnerable within. The Young Cripple became fraught with intolerable sadness.

As she cried, there came the most distinct and beautiful sound from a room not far from where they stood. It changed the mood of Heaven entirely. No longer did souls push and squirm, and no longer did they pull and tug. Instead, conducted by the triste song, the dead embraced one another harmoniously. They caressed instead of strangled, and they embraced instead of tangled. Their gnashing teeth and striking fists were swapped for soft kisses, long hugs, and an endless array of genuine, sweet remarks.

“This way,” said The Father, carrying the girl in his arms, towards the sad, sad song.

They reached the room. It was obvious that the radio was there, but it was full to the brim with piles of useless junk falling out of the doorway, into the corridor, and it was impossible to see anything inside. There were words painted onto the wall above the doorway that read, “May God bless you with three times the wealth that you wish for me.”

“This is it,” said The Young Cripple. “It has to be him.”

“Who?”

“The Collector.”

The Father stared at the pile of junk. “Your radio is in there?”

“I think so,” said The Young Cripple. “T, can you hear me? Are you in there?”

The sad music stopped.

“I’m here,” said T.

“We’re coming. Hold on.”

“Wait, it’s not safe.”

They didn’t listen, though. They walked into the room without even looking. They didn’t see the humungous beast that stood in the shadow of all the useless contraptions, waiting to ensnare them. All they saw was the ground coming up towards them.

Before The Father could blink, he was face first into the floor with his arms outspread and The Doctor kneeling on his triceps, about to bury a long syringe into his neck. In the confusion, The Young Cripple slid across the room and hit her head on something thick, hard, and leathery. Her vision started to list and she could see several doctors and several fathers, each dabbling in the morose and the macabre. She screamed, but her voice was numb. She screamed some more, but nothing came out. The Doctor looked at her and smiled. “I’ll make a lamp shade of your soul,” he said, before turning back to The Father.

The Young Cripple threw what she could. The room was littered with everything anyone could imagine. There were bow ties, consoles, dresses and stockings, bricks and mortar, refrigerators, bags of gold and finely cut diamonds, dildos and doorknobs, and shotguns and vanity sinks. There was every type of decadent want and superfluous need; and for each one, there were tenfold more. There were mountains of things; square things, circular things, white things, gold things, and things that made music when they were used according to their boxed instructions.

The Young Cripple didn’t look. She just grabbed what she could reach and what was light enough to hold, and she threw it at The Doctor’s head. “Get off him,” she screamed, but the words didn’t come out. The Doctor took one of the projectiles – a small sand globe and shook it once or twice, before aiming it at the girl’s head. As it flew, the girl screamed, and this time, her voice broke through but it couldn’t stop the sand globe from hitting her square in the head and then bouncing onto the floor and smashing into a thousand tiny pieces.

The Doctor turned back to The Father and dug the needle into his spine.

“What you do here?”

A fist came from nowhere and struck The Doctor on his chin. He let go of the syringe and fell off of The Father, hitting his head. The bag that he was carrying slid off his shoulders and ended up at the feet of the gargantuan man who threw the punch.

“This is house of Collector. No guest allowed. You want good things, you wish for me outside, and maybe God give to you. You do not come inside. Are you understanding?”

The Doctor crawled backward as far as he could and held his hands in front of his face. “Do you know who I am?” he said.

It sounded almost like a threat.

“You have problem with memory, my friend. Maybe you see doctor.”

“I am a doctor,” said The Doctor.

“Good. Problem resolved. Now fuck off from house of Collector.”

His size alone was frightening. From where The Young Cripple sat, she could barely make out his shins, such was his incredible height. His voice sounded like a plane crash. And each word whistled as it left his mouth. It might have been a speech impediment, or it may just have been from the great distance that each word had to travel to be heard.

“What have we here?” said The Collector, picking up The Doctor’s bag from the floor and examining its contents. “You steal from Collector?” he said, holding the radio in his hands.

The Young Cripple’s eyes lit up.

“T,” she thought.

“It’s not what you think,” said The Doctor.

“What kind of doctor are you? One that know what Collector think?”

“That radio. You have to destroy it. Can’t you see what it’s doing? The music….”

“Collector like music. Music very good. Funky beat. Heavy beat. Soft beat. Romantic beat. Any beat. Collector like music. This radio is of Collector.”

“You don’t get it. Look outside. Heaven is falling apart. If we don’t destroy that radio, Heaven will be no more.”

“How to make work?” asked The Collector, more interested in the radio in his hands.

The Doctor took a small device from his jacket and screamed into it.

“Orderlies! Code six. Code six. Code six,” he shouted.

Outside in the corridor, his order did come through, but each and every orderly behaved as each and every patient. They drank heavy from cold and swollen nipples that stuck out of the walls, and inebriated by Light, they made a mockery of their once meaningful obligation.

“You know how to make work?” asked The Collector to the girl.

The Young Cripple shook her head.

“No,” she said.

“But it work. Collector hear music.”

The Doctor was still curled in his hiding spot, shouting threats.

“You giant fool,” he said.

Outside the room, fires roared.

“You see,” said The Doctor. “It’s all coming to an end. Whoever she is, her Light is infecting that radio and the music it plays….It’s killing Heaven. If you don’t stop it, all of this will be gone.”

The Collector stopped for a moment.

“All of it?” he said.

“Yes,” said The Doctor, jovial for his breakthrough.

“Collector has anything that anyone has ever wished for. All of it here.”

“Then you wouldn’t want to lose it all. Not now.”

“Collector remember the first thing he collect. Small coin. Nice lady wish for three more. Collector no have courage to ask name of nice lady. A lot of time pass and too, many nice lady, but not first nice lady. And here, somewhere in junk, that very coin does sit. If Collector lose everything, Collector start again.”

“What are you on about you idiot? There won’t be an again.”

“Collector decided. Is worth risk. Lose everything, and find nice lady again. Ask name and buy rose. Sad little girl, you can make radio work?”

“When I’m sad or scared, it plays music. It plays what I feel.”

“Hmmm. So is not radio then,” said The Collector. “Is detector of fear.”

“A what?” said The Young Cripple and The Doctor.

“Detector of fear. Like detector of metal, but it detect fear, obviously. Is missing parts, though. Collector have parts. Wait one second, sad little girl.”

As The Collector rummaged through his collection of things, The Doctor snuck out from where he was hiding. He eyed first, the radio in the giant’s hands, and then the girl, who was huddling by The Father on the floor.

“Here is it.”

The Collector pulled from the massive pile of junk, what looked like a long white metal detector. It didn’t look special at all. He attached a wire from the detector to an input on the radio.

“Now,” he said, smiling. “Before was radio. Now is detector of fear.”

There was certain smell now in Ward Number Five. It smelt like excess. As The Collector inspected his contraption, The Doctor made one last vain attempt to save Planet Heaven. He pulled the needle from The Father’s spine and thrust it into the girl’s face, just as explosions ripped through the corridor and what had been harmonious remarking turned into desperate and panicked shrieking.

The Collector caught The Doctor’s wrist.

“Is not good, how you heal. Is not good too, to hurt sad, little girl.”

“What choice do I have?” screamed The Doctor.

He dropped the needle and caught it in his left hand. There was nothing that The Collector could have done differently that would have saved his soul. The Doctor thrust upwards with the syringe so that the needle buried into the giant’s jugular. The Collector fell backward and his body collapsed in a violent heap upon a broken porcelain bowl.

The Young Cripple dived for the detector and for T, who was connected to it. She took the device from the giant’s still hands and stared him in the eyes.

“Sad girl,” said The Collector, in short weak words. “Go, in toilet.”

The Young Cripple stared into the toilet bowl.

“Is not for shitting,” said The Collector. “Is door to omniverse. Is just for sad girl to step inside.”

The Young Cripple stared at The Father who lay still and injured on the floor.

“What about him?”

The Doctor was ready to attack The Father with the broken sand globe and finish him once and for all. Overcome was he, by a rage that was anchored to his sinking beliefs. He swiped at the back of The Father’s head, spitting and cursing as he did. And again, The Collector disrupted his fight.

“God damn you,” screamed The Doctor, careening to the floor.

The Collector smiled.

“Is what you wish then is what shall be, and unto you good doctor, what you wish times three.”

“God help me,” said The Doctor, for the first time in his existence, not knowing what would happen next.

The room trembled and shook. All of the junk that was stacked, piled, and jumbled upon one another all shimmied loose and then tumbled upon The Doctor. He gasped and then stretched what little he could of his bent and crumpled fingers. They twitched once or twice, whenever he fought for a breath.

“What is there,” he said with barely the strength to continue, “after this?”

His fingers twitched once and then twice more, and then stopped altogether.

The Young Cripple ran to The Father’s side. He was still lifeless, but he wasn’t dead, whatever that meant. She grabbed him by the collar and dragged him towards the gaping hole in the floor that had once been excused for a toilet. Once again, she stared into the darkness and as she did, a feeling of ice cold abandon washed over her. In that very second, the radio, which was now wired to a long, white detector, let out a sharp squeal. So painful was it that she clutched her eyes and dropped the instrument. Were it not for the giant’s sure and quick hands, it might have smashed entirely.

“There is knack to follow fear,” said The Collector. “Trick is – button of volume, keep low, so as not to be made deaf.”

“Like a radio,” said The Young Cripple.

“Fear is but a sound of which vibrates from the fragile existence of what one cares for most. Follow your fear sad girl, and you will find what you truly love. Now go.”

The Young Cripple stared into the bowl and saw immense darkness, and a shadow hovering just below. She couldn’t make out its shape entirely, but it looked like a whale.

“Light, as it were, is but current in vast ocean of time,” said The Collector. “Ride it.”

The Young Cripple pushed The Father in first. He landed on the back of the whale without much fuss. Before she jumped through, The Young Cripple stared at the giant. His right eye bled horribly and his left was gradually closing. It had become clear now, stupidly obvious, that even in Heaven, one could die.

The girl took the fear detector and jumped through the hole in the floor, landing square on the whale’s back. “Go,” she screamed, “there’s no time.”

“Where would you like to go?” asked The Whale, extraordinarily polite.

It spoke in a slow and docile manner.

The Young Cripple stopped for a second. Her mind echoed with a thousand words – all of them differing ideas. None of them made any sense whatsoever.

“Follow the fear,” she thought.

She took the detector and turned it on. It screamed and squealed when she aimed it up through the hole, just like it had before, but this time, like the giant advised, she turned down the volume. When she turned it away, though, facing out into open space, there was no sound at all; nothing except for a faint pulsing. She turned the volume up on the radio and she could hear, just barely, the sound of The Young Boy’s voice, arguing with The Demon.

“Please. Take me in that direction.”

She pointed out to a tiny star in the distance.

“Hang on,” said The Whale, as they disembarked, and then rode the passage of time and space.

LI

Bean spent his first night in this other temporal dimension spying on who he believed to be God. He had watched her appear out of nowhere, as it was said that God often did. And he had watched her – more interestingly – console the very girl whose presence alone was, at this moment, set upon destroying Planet Heaven.

And when God left, after the girl was asleep, he followed her.

He followed her through the campsite as she went from tent to tent, and from ditch to ditch, blessing every drunken person in her troupe; drawing her finger over their foreheads in a five-pointed star, before kissing each one on the lips. He watched as she prayed for each one, listening to her whisper, which sounded like waves, lightly breaking on distant moonlit shores. It alone drew comfort in Bean’s thoughts and had him nearly fall asleep himself. And he would have too, were it not for what occurred next.

God kneeled down before an old, diseased tree and tore from one of its last branches, a sharp pointed stick. There she carved into the dirt, some kind of a sigil. Bean had seen it before, on Planet Heaven. He had seen it scrawled in places that few souls favoured going. Most of them were dusted away or scratched off the walls. But every now and then, he would catch a few that were poorly erased. Bean knew this sigil though he had never seen it as rich as he did now.

She was invoking The Demon.

He watched as God placed her hands up her dress and took a drop of blood from between her legs, and then ran her red fingers along the outline of the sigil until the dirt was glowing like fire.

“Irik Ahkh Tahr. Demon invoco te servus ad propositum. Loro Deo ortum. Irik, Ahkh Tahr.”

And she bowed with every word and syllable, spitting into the centre of the sigil as she did. As Bean watched, his back shivered with a cocktail of wonder, excitement, and sheer terror. This hardly felt like the kind of act one would want to be caught spying upon. Still, as much as his every sense begged him to run, he felt this strange and overwhelming desire to edge closer and closer, as if whatever hell might be unleashed, might not reach him, were he suckling at its breast.

“Show yourself demon.”

The tree, unto which God prayed, split in half, and from its centre came a horrid looking creature with a splintered, arborous body, and erasure for eyes. The emptiness that was its face had such a pulling gravity that it wiped the expression off of anything that dared look in its direction. Its breathing sounded like a landslide, and as it spoke, the sound of its voice, as it addressed God, was like the hallowing shrill of a mother, having just given birth to her stillborn son.

“Tis I, The Demon,” it said, curtseying for God. “Well, if it isn’t the king herself. And to what, pray tell, do I owe this prestigious honour?”

“I want to see for myself,” said God, “the very last child.”

“He may not be so easy for you to turn. He has evaded my spell until now.”

“I have something more acute than what you have at your disposal.”

The Demon hissed.

“Don’t be jealous. We each have our purpose. I was expecting, at the end of this, a challenge. And I am prepared.”

“You brought her. I can smell her.”

“She will lance the boy, this I can promise you.”

“And then what?”

“He is all yours. His suffering is my gift to you.”

“It is your deal and your payment. It is not a gift. And when this is over? What will become?”

God sighed.

“You know, I haven’t even thought that far.”

They stood silent for a while, holding each other’s hands and slow dancing. Bean, though, was looking through them, at the split in the tree where he could see, as plain as day, a doorway to another dimension. He could see, darkness as if the bark of the tree were woven with the fabric of space and time. And he could see too, a dull glow from a lonely red planet, and a glittering speck, way off in the distance, which, in how it shone, could only have been Heaven. He couldn’t calculate how far the Light had to travel, and whether it would distort through a temporal shift, but for the moment, to the untrained eye, it did seem as if Heaven hadn’t come asunder, not yet anyway. He still had time.

“It has been a long road,” said God, “but we are finally at its end.”

The Demon was unimpressed.

“How many people survived the illness?” asked God.

“Thousands. There were some who were incapable of love. And some with a thirst for passion, but incapable of being loved.”

“Gaia will need an exact number.”

“Three thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eight.”

“Prompt. Very good.”

“How will you kill them?” asked The Demon.

“Tomorrow night, we will put on a spectacle. It will be savage,” said God, as the two continued to hold hands, looking one another in the eye so to speak, and swaying like nervous courters, to the left and right. “We intend on poisoning everyone.”

“Including your own,”

“They cannot die of their own hand. They must die in a holy manner, without will. You should come. You never know, you might enjoy yourself.”

“I have my obligations.”

“Speaking of that. Do you have the stories?”

God smiled in a cunning and foxy kind of manner.

“I have them all,” said The Demon, heavy hearted.

“Oh don’t be so glum.”

“You’ll have the last of the paper by the morning. It’s being cut as we speak.”

God licked her greedy lips.

“And how does he look? The tree.”

“Enormous,” said The Demon. “And frightened.”

“I wish I could be there to see it fall. It’s tragic you know, to have witnessed the beginning of a life but to have to be absent for its end. As a father, nothing disturbs me more. But I too have my obligation. We all do. And tomorrow night, we will taste the fruit of our labour.”

“So this is it then, the last world? After this, when this system is as dark and lifeless as all the others, what then?”

“You and I will have all earned our rest.”

They had, by the middle of their discourse, let go of each other’s hands, and they weren’t so much dancing anymore as they were, passing time in an awkward and impatient fashion.

“Meet with Gaia in the evening,” said God. “She will have the last of the stories of this world. You are, as you know, to dispose of them.”

“I will take them to my home,” said The Demon.

God shivered.

“And I will bury them in my garden, where I shall plant the last human child.”

The Demon danced about. The more serious was its tone, the more demented was it demeanour. It eyed God like a salivating and bloodthirsty hyena. Yet, at the same time, it danced impeccably, and with so much zest. First it did The Pony, and it looked, for a second, as if it might round God up in its saddle, and ride her off to the abattoir. But just as it seemed as if it were losing control, The Demon changed its step and it broke into The Madison, clicking its fingers and tapping its toes, never looking like it was thoroughly enjoying itself, which was the manner of the utterly hip. And then, when The Demon had reached the utmost of its displeasure, it did The Mashed Potato.

God wore a cool expression, but beneath her steel nerve, she shook ferociously. “Nothing and no one will ever find them. Understood?”

“Of course. Now, can I ask you a question?” asked The Demon, immediately breaking into The Twist.

He danced with such vigour that, were his feet two pointed diamonds, he might have bored his way to the centre of the Earth by now.

“I need not be omniscient to know what it will be.”

“Why? Why take it away? And then why offer it in the first place?”

“Light?” said God, pensive.

“There are no happy endings,” said The Demon. “It is the course of love that one must suffer at its end. There is no way without suffering. There is no closure without a miserable severance of the heart. And that alone, if you listen closely to any human, is a price worthy of their heart’s committal.”

“The fear is rife.”

“Yes, that is true. But it is not always this way. I have seen it myself. In the wake of each tragedy you will find, undoubtedly, the shadow of human compassion. Unless of course, there are other reasons.”

“You think I am jealous?”

“I think you are scared.”

“Of what, my creation?”

“Their transcendence,” said The Demon sagaciously, now doing The Monster Mash.

“They still need me. They still need their God.”

“Look at what they have done; at how much they have achieved. No species has yet to acquire that mastery of awareness, such as the extent in these beings. Not on any planet that I have visited. You should see, in how their thoughts collide, the power that surges from their collective consciousness.”

“So what?”

“They. Are. God.”

“Fuck you. God is just a word, an idea. I planted the first seed. Its fruit is mine to reap. This is my garden.”

“And there are many more like it. And there are many more like you, driven mad by their sense of powerless abandon; by their state of uselessness. My kind, we have played the gracious servant to many proud and mulish alien species for far longer than you could imagine. I, myself, can count the exact number of universes that exist, and in them, the exact number of worlds. I was there at the winding of the clock, an hour before time began. I saw, the first child born.”

“And you will see the last child die,” interrupted God.

“Yes, it is not my place to judge. It is your garden as you say. My kind, we merely attend to the pruning. But know that your intention is not new. And I have seen beings with lesser intention amass far greater wealth than what you have so far. I, like my kind, have served in a finite number of dimensions, but of a number far too great for you to comprehend. I say finite, though be sure, this, and you, will not be the last. Just as there were gods before you, so too shall there be gods in your wake.”

The Demon never stopped its dance, even though God was furious.

Especially because she was furious.

“What I do with the Light that I collect is my business,” said God, thinking of the disco ball in her study. “And there shall be no more after me. I am the last king. My reign is eternal.”

“There is always more.”

“And it will forever be mine, every last speck,” said God.

“Such power,” said The Demon.

“Tomorrow, at the end of the spectacular, we will have killed every single being in this omniverse, and here, on this plain, it will all be over. And you will be paid what is due.”

The Demon left, and as it did, it kicked its funny looking heels and fluttered up into the air with every step that it took as if it alone were the only thing on this Earth unaffected by gravity.

God, on the other hand, wobbled her way back into her carriage, looking like an absolute novice in heels. Bean followed her and preyed outside her room, spying through her window. As he watched, he was overcome with a desire to strangle her. He didn’t rationalize this feeling, he merely stared at her with raging scorn, and for some reason, if felt to him, as much as a glass of water might quench his thirst, that putting his hands around her neck would undoubtedly make this feeling go away – which was a cocktail of stupidity and rancorous ire.

Bean watched as God undressed. And first, when she took off her wig, he sighed, for her hair was not as august as he had once imagined. She was bald for the most part, with tufts of hair sprouting out like stubborn weeds here or there. Her head looked like an eroding sand dune. It was when she took off her dress though that he gasped and gagged.

God, at times, was also a man.

He sat beneath her window the entire night watching the man in her bed and in her skin, snoring loudly and nearly chewing off his own tongue as she or he slept. He thought about Heaven for most of the night, as he stared at The Ringmaster as if he were eyeing in sheer disgust, at a ring worm that had slithered out of his cereal. He couldn’t bear the thought of returning; but where else would he go after he died? What else was there, if Heaven was a lie?

Everything that was once right and true had been turned on its head. He didn’t know what to think or feel. Was he distorting reality? Was this merely a delusional encumbrance? Was this an effect of Light?

“Is this what God was protecting us from – this doubt, this horrible indecision?”

Right now, Heaven was in the midst of an upheaval.

And not even God herself seemed to care.

LII

It was hard to tell if The Whale wave even moving or not. Everything was black; but not black as a colour mind you, black as in nothingness, or falling away. Just as a penny might vanish after being thrown down some dark and murky well, so too did The Young Cripple’s hands as she held them right in front of her eyes. Such was the consuming division of the darkness abounding that it literally swallowed everything whole. But there was, so very far away, a small red speck whose Light must have been incalculable and indivisible because even in this vacuum, it shone.

It was when they were some distance away from danger that The Young Cripple – egged by her friend T – turned, and saw the most incredible or maybe stupendously disappointing sight.

“Is that Heaven?” asked The Young Cripple.

What they were looking at was the backside of a rather enormous spacecraft.

“That’s where we’ve just come from. Call it Heaven, or call it what you will. That’s not a planet. And it’s not any kind of world,” said T, as they both eyed the craft’s structure, size, and dimension.

It looked like a giant sea container that was outlined with red and green flashing lights. They, for some reason, were not swallowed by the darkness. They were visible no matter how far The Whale travelled, and they perfectly detailed the shape of the craft. It in itself didn’t look extraordinary. Under the gleam of flashing lights, it looked like a large rusted rectangle. Its hinges were covered in barnacles and it was dented on all sides as if, whoever flew this craft, had poor perception of depth and distance, and had made an art form out of confusing encounters for collisions.

There were large exhausts on each corner. It was as if there was no right side to this structure. It could, by the looks of it, propel itself from any position so as to work itself through even the most contorted fractures of time and space. And stamped on each side of the craft, were two numbers: one being, the coordinates of a correctional facility, and the other, a phone number for an ice-cream shop.

It was not, though, as the girl had believed – a planet.

“Who is he?” asked T, referring to the man lying unconscious.

“He’s someone we have to help.”

Out in the distance, the red speck was getting larger, and behind them, the outline of Heaven, gradually getting smaller. Soon they were between the two points where both seemed like an eternity away. Seeing the red speck get large, though, her desperation accelerated as if she were nearing the water’s edge after having risen from the murky depths below, and the brighter was the sun, the more out of breath she actually felt.

The girl rested the fear detector on the top of the platform where she stood and aimed it towards the red speck. She asked T to be silent so she could hear the vibrations of fear. And for a great while, there was nothing but eerie static. This alone, though, with the feeling that permeated from listening to it, had the girl direct The Whale towards the host of that sound; that being, the tiny red speck. The desire to turn away was enough for the girl to know that they were heading in the right direction.

As she aimed her device out in the distance, she could hear, through the radio, the sound of digging, and weeping. It was The Young Boy. There was no doubt in that whatsoever. The weeping, though, was not his.

“We have to go faster,” she urged to The Whale.

“Why the hurry?” asked The Whale.

“I have to save someone,” said The Young Cripple, pacing back and forth on the spot.

“But you have just saved someone,” replied The Whale.

“And now we have to hurry, to save his son, and my friend.”

“Who says he is yours to save?”

“I do,” said The Young Cripple, stamping her foot down hard.

“But why the hurry?”

“Because you’re going to slow.”

“I only go one way. It is neither fast nor slow. It is, as it is. Here in open space, things are much larger. The hands of time extend much farther, and each second travels a far greater distance. For bigger things like planets, stars and myself, it is not very much, but for very small things like atoms, grains of sand, and you, it is quite a thing indeed. You, dear child, should learn to go slow, so as not to confuse a streak for a smear.”

“What does that mean?”

“Are you saving this boy? Or are you taking us all to our deaths?”

As the tiny, red speck grew into a misty and fiery ball, the sound coming from the radio started to screech and squeal. The Whale shut its eyes, so too did the girl. Had T a pair himself, so too would he.

The sound was piercing. It struck at every nerve in their beings. The Whale bucked and almost threw its passengers off into the vast emptiness of space. It managed to barely control its spasms, though; enough so that The Young Cripple could grip onto The Father, the detector, and T.

The sound pillaged The Whales thoughts. It sensed – as if it were real – the presence of a fishing boat; its choking, black smoke pouring out into space, and its bow, readied with long perforating spears, aimed at The Whale’s back and sides.

“We should turn around and go back,” shouted The Whale.

With the way he spoke, his shouting still sounded pleasant and at ease.

“No,” shouted The Young Cripple, “keep going. Don’t stop.”

The louder the screaming from the radio, the more escalated was the fear that ravaged The Whale’s thoughts and senses. He could hear now, the sound of fishermen passing around orders and coordinates. And he could hear too, the sound of thousands of whales, bigger and smaller then he, being slaughtered inside the belly of the ship, with their innards, spilling into space. It sounded to The Whale, like a symphony of distress and dire warning. Out here in space, The Whale was the last of his kind, and now, hearing as loud as his own breath, the innocent murder of his brothers and sisters, he felt alive – for this alone bore the dreaded curse of awareness which meant that soon, he too would be extinct.

The Whale cried as it outran the hunting vessel in its mind.

On its back, and huddled together on a wooden platform, The Young Cripple, T, and even The Father, were being marauded by the fear that was rudimentary to the core of their thoughts and beliefs. The closer they came to the red speck – which now looked like an asphyxiating cloud of red dust – the louder was the frequency from the radio, and with it, the more intense and perverse were, their disquieted and macabre feelings and hallucinations.

The Young Cripple felt as if everywhere around her, there were monsters and ghouls that were set upon devouring her and eating her – like a spider – over a prolonged and terribly painful period of time. And it wasn’t the digestion that bothered her, or the size of the spider’s teeth, it was time – for her whole life, it had always been time. That alone has been the beast which had courted her coat tail; escaping her when she needed it most, and stalking her endlessly when she wished that it would pick up its pace and either kill her once and for all or allow her the effort to scrape together a victory. The Young Cripple felt the murderous anchor of time, like some tentacled sea monster, pulling her further from the surface of the ocean and back down into the seedy depths of her self-depreciating existence.

The Father, on the other hand, dreamt about his son. Inside his coma, he saw his boy standing in a flower bed with a shovel in his hands; and while a demon stood beside him weeping, his boy dug his own grave. And the louder was the sound from the radio, the louder then was weeping of The Demon in The Father’s thoughts. And as The Young Boy dug the last mound of red dirt and threw away his shovel, The Father burst out of his coma, screaming frantically.

He screamed, as did The Young Cripple; as did T; and as did The Whale. They all screamed – as if it were a fashion; as if it were the thing to do. The screamed in differing pitches and frequencies. And they screamed in wavering patterns, rhythms, and tonalities.

One and all, they screamed.

But there was no whaling vessel on their tail, and there was no tentacled monster pulling the girl beneath the ocean. The Father, on the other hand, was fairly certain that what played out in his thoughts was indeed occurring right now, somewhere inside that misty swirl of red.

The closer they came, though, the louder were the echoes of chaos in their minds – and because of it, their constant screaming which had left their voices hoarse and grainy, like an old vinyl record.

The girl remembered, though, just as her thoughts had her tipping over the edge of the platform and nearly falling into space, the words of The Collector.

“The volume,” she thought, ignoring the persuasive thoughts in her head which felt like a weight that was attached to one side of her body, and though she didn’t want to die, she felt as if it were pulling over to her death, which, to anyone else, might have looked just like a suicide.

The Young Cripple snapped at the dial and turned it all the way to the left, until the screeching waned, and with it, the energy that was in the air so to speak, that they had all shared, it too eased, and then died off entirely, until The Young Cripple, T, The Father, and The Whale, all slackened their muscles and relaxed once more, as if being alive or dead were no different, and hardly worth all the commotion.

Now that they were close enough to the red planet to taste its atmosphere, the sound of fear was intolerable. But the nature of the device, which used their fear to guide them to what mattered most, was designed with a simple knob so that fear, as a beacon, would direct them, as opposed to fear, as a siren, which would overwhelm them.

The Young Cripple hung the detector once more over platform, and guided The Whale into the red mist and swirling dust, as they continued on their journey to find the boy, and with it, the girl knew, the billions of stories that she had her troupe had collected on Earth – those that belonged with every soul imprisoned in Heaven.

“Go slow,” said The Young Cripple.

The Whale smiled.

“Now you understand,” it said.

The Whale, along with its passengers, slowly sailed into The Demon’s planet, disappearing into the choking red atmosphere, navigating by fear alone.

LIII

Bean had spent most of the night examining all that he knew. Everything he had once perceived as being true and unquestionable was now as doubtable as what would happen next. This indecision was driving him to the point of madness.

“What would The Accountant do?” he thought.

And that, as it turns out, didn’t equate to much. In his world, The Accountant watched on in prostrating horror as uniformed lumberjacks of all shapes, sizes, and sexes, hacked and slashed their way through the surrounding foliage. There was very little he could do. He was unequipped for anything really except to remain where he stood, under the gilded cover of an enormous tree, while, around him, axes swung, saws heaved and hoed, and small fires were set upon the smallest and prettiest of the plants and flowers, where axes and chainsaws simply wouldn’t do.

The Foreman stood by the biggest tree, clearly impressed. He was a man who didn’t take lightly to his work. He was passionate about the art of felling, but at the same time, he wasn’t an oaf or some sun burned bully; he respected that which he fell. He admired that which had stood the test of time, and which stood as a testament to time. He admired it, for to cut it down meant that he was, in his own god-like manner, an architect of time; that he was more than an integer, he was a divisor.

“It’s so beautiful,” said The Foreman, kissing the tree.

The others looked on strangely

“We seldom see it,” he said, “the thread of existence. It is so fragile, and yet we can move through it with such ardent and ignorant haste. We spend our entire lives passing through it and being so completely unaware. It is lighter than air, and no easier to see – were we to capture it in a jar. Yet its thinly woven veil is what holds this all together.”

He sighed momentarily and kissed the tree again.

“I do not take this lightly,” he said, consoling the tree. “Your bark is more than a canvas for scripture, and it is far more serving that as the skin of knowledge. But I do not take this lightly. We are all fallen, at some point in time. I worship you, I do. I always have. And I take comfort in knowing that is I with you now, and I hope it too provides you with some relief.”

As he nursed the tree, the others spat on the edges of their axes, masturbating them against sharpening stones; themselves drifting like a leaf in the open sea by the current of their distraction, riding the calm and pleasurable wave of metal on stone. Some of them whistled, and others just swayed back and forth with the gentle rhythm of their axes, thinking about quiet and sedentary things.

When he was done weeping, The Foreman took his own silver axe from its sheath on his back. “I had saved this for you, my dear friend,” he said, showing the axe to the tree. He did it not as some cruel executioner, but instead, like some humanist practitioner, with a care for his art, from his utensils down to the angle of his swing, and more so, the compassion that he had for the connection that he was about to make – for the moment that he dug his axe into this great tree, when he pulled at the fine thread of existence, for that very moment, he and the tree would be one.

“Lord of Light and Light of Love,” he sang, “in this, the killing season. Keep stern my axe and heart relaxed, as I reap this child of Eden. Lord of Light and Light of Love, give comfort to its pain. May its death be worth its journey from birth and that none had been in vain.”

The Foreman looked at the tree once more.

“I love you,” he said, as he swung his axe.

The Accountant watched on in awe as The Foreman hacked, so compassionately, through the massive tree, which had, for the time that he had lived on this planet as a small obese insect, given him food and shelter; and which had given him life. He watched how gentle The Foreman was. He moved like a stream, but with the force of a tsunami. The swing of his axe was as lethal as it was delicate.

The Accountant watched each swing hoping that when it was his time that he would be lucky enough to be cut with the same precision, and to be drowned in the same well of sympathy. His fear vanished entirely as he looked at his life now ending, as opposed to being unfinished.

“Such grace,” he thought, watching The Foreman swing.

And when the tree fell, a clap of thunder rang out in every world that existed. It did not fall on its own, though. It walked for some time as if freed momentarily from its shackles. It took its first steps, which were wobbly of course, and shook the entire planet. But it did not collapse, not at first anyway. It walked for some miles, which to it, were only one or two steps. And it could have, had it wanted to, walked away and found somewhere less concerning to put itself. It didn’t though. It merely took one or two steps, stopping for a second to breathe in the air, and then its leaves shook wildly as it exhaled for the last time, before it dived into the river. The great tree rested on its back and stared up at the sky as the current slowly pulled it out towards the horizon. Had it a face, it would have been smiling, seeing the world this way. The Foreman, though, he smiled for it, for they wore the same expression. And as the great tree disappeared over the falls, so too did The Foreman, wandering off, with nothing but his axe and his broken heart.

“What was that all about?” said one of the lumberjacks, watching their foreman walk off into the afternoon sun.

“Some things make little sense the more you try to figure them out,” replied the next in charge.

“What now?”

“Burn it all to the ground,”

“All of it?”

“Ashes to ashes, dust to fucking dust.”

There was very little to burn, nothing that was still standing anyway. There was little except for a few million tree stumps, a great deal of prickly shrubs, and one lone flower, which, now that the great tree was gone, stood out like a sore thumb.

The Accountant watched in dread as the pack of snickering and bloodthirsty lumberjacks moved towards him, licking the sharpened ends of their cutting tools, and igniting sticks of petrol and fire. Neither of them looked as if they had seen or even perceived the fragile thread of existence.

“God help me,” said The Accountant, as more of an expression than an actual prayer.

And on a beautiful summer’s day, the very last flower in Eden was picked.

LIV

It was almost impossible to see anything and breathing, well that was a challenge. Though on the outside everything appeared absolutely normal, on the inside, it felt as if the air itself were a clenched fist, and with each breath, a hand reached inside of The Young Cripple and pulled her lungs out through her mouth. And with each inhale, the very same fist punched her lungs back inside of her.

After barely a minute in this strange atmosphere, The Young Cripple felt bruised and half broken. She still had the detector hanging over one end of the platform while The Father’s hands busily scanned through frequencies, sorting through the myriad of channels that were dedicated to fear and suffering; ignoring those whose themes were merry and offered either sweet and tacky gossip, or learned and self-righteous wit.

“It’s been forever,” said T. “We haven’t heard a single thing. Maybe he’s dead.”

“Don’t say that,” said The Young Cripple.

The Father hadn’t noticed. He was listening, so finely, to every burst and crackle of static in the radio just as a native tracker might turn their attention to the pattern of scattered leaves and broken twigs as opposed to the blatant and obvious beacons of flight which the common person would only think to search out. He sifted through burst after burst of static; listening for what he supposed might be an escaping breath or a twitching finger, something in the static that was shaped like his boy.

“I didn’t thank you,” said The Father.

Even when he was being polite, it sounded like he was about to punch you. It was hard to tell if he was expressing empathy and remorse for not having expressed the gratitude that he felt, or whether he was just an angry bastard, and he was just expressing a fact. Either way, The Young Cripple was a little hesitant in her response.

“It’s ok,” she said, feeling a heavy sand bag in her stomach. “Most of this is my fault I suppose.”

“That’s not important right now,” said The Father, still trained to the radio. “What you do next is. The past is merely a construct of sweet or sour emotion. Your regret, should you wear it about, is an anchor that will drown each and every one of us. What we have done pales in comparison to what we are about to do.”

As he spoke, there was a ripple in the static.

“You hear that?” shouted The Father.

The Young Cripple stared over the bow.

“There,” she screamed, pointing The Whale south. “Can you see? There’s a commotion down there, through the mist. That must be it.”

“Hang on,” said The Whale, in a manner that was more playful adventure than it was, a grave warning.

The Whale kicked its flippers and shifted its enormous weight, aiming its vessel in the direction that the girl was pointing. This atmosphere was tough to sail. It felt, for The Whale, as if it were swimming through an ocean of wet cement. Its body felt slow and heavy, and it required a great deal of effort just to move its fins. It did not, though, for one second, assume that this was a reason to abandon this quest. For all he knew was a whale’s work, which was to guide mankind towards land, and there was not a single peril imaginable that would have him lose faith in his own purpose.

“There, I can see now,” said The Young Cripple.

The Father was hanging over the platform, he himself, anchored dangerously to his desperate worry. As The Whale brushed against the ground, The Father almost toppled over completely, hitting his head once more, and when their vessel finally came to rest, sitting on his hind, counting the dots and stars that whirled about his dizzy head.

The radio was now playing the conversation that was happening in front of them. There were several voices. They didn’t sound like men or women. They sounded like an amalgamation of the two, mixed with this low end gurgling and grinding which sounded like wither a wart hog sharpening its tusks on dry jagged rocks, or an old man, choking on a broken denture.

They couldn’t make out everything that was being said as most of it was in some alien tongue. The Young Cripple could understand, though, quite clearly, the sound of taunting and bullied laughter that played harmony to rampant gasping and pleas for help, which, in whatever alien tongue, had not to be deciphered or transcribed to be understood.

The Father tried to lift himself, but he was still too weak. His intention was well enough, but his body was fickle, and it would take little string to tie him in a bind.

“I’ll go,” said The Young Cripple.

“No,” said The Father. “You’re just a girl.”

The radio started playing what sounded like canned laughter, and satiric applause. The Young Cripple kicked The Father. Not very hard. It was just a knee-jerk reaction. That happened, from time to time, when people said stupid things. She kicked him, though, as if she were kicking along an empty can, and The Father buckled in useless and decrepit pain.

“Fine,” he said, conceding. “Just…go with care.”

There was no better companion than brash risk. She knew this. Care and caution were the servants of staleness and tradition. They would not account for or allow strange coincidence, and from it, they would take no stake in its unwinnable odds. The Young Cripple, though, had found herself, her entire life, drawn towards the unknown – out of fear. And because of this, she parlayed with chance – without care, and without proper calculation.

And she was damn good at it.

“You coming?” she asked T.

She had never heard a radio gulp before, but she did now. The two slowly climbed off of The Whale and stood on an icky and murky ground that raised and fell as if beneath it, was an ocean swell or a monster’s sapping lungs.

“I’m scared to death,” said T.

“So am I,” said The Young Cripple, excitedly, as they disappeared into the thick punching mist, towards the decadent laughter and desperate gasps of the coming, impervious commotion.

LV

“Get those damn fixtures up. The final act is about to start,” shouted Rex.

He was livid, but you could tell that he was merely inspired by passion. There was a look in his eye that on one hand, was seeing every potential accident and delay tied to every single cable, wire, and quickly arranged beam; and on the other hand, the whole show going according to plan. There was a point in his eye of unwavering balance that to Bean looked nothing like the emptiness of heavenly equanimity. His equilibrium was still yes, but it looked like he might explode at any second, and either swing from the rafters in stupendous delight, or set fire to this tent. Simply watching and not knowing, for Bean, was an incredible experience. He felt sure that the slightest breeze might pendulate the giant in either direction; and either, he thought, would be a wonderful sight at which to marvel. As he hid beneath the stands, his anticipation swelled to the point where the only thing that would calm him was to chew hungrily on the tips of his fingers. Such was his frenetic exhilaration that he worried – for should he wait any longer, he might gnaw off his hands entirely.

In the morning, the encampment had been empty and ghostlike, except for a few stage crew who juggled the abuse and orders from the giant on the stage. Most had gone with their master on some kind of quest, chanting religious hymns and walking in the direction of town. Bean chose not to follow The Ringmaster. Instead, when he was sure everyone had gone, he snuck into the carriage under which he had spent the night pondering and sorted through The Ringmaster’s personal documents.

He opened first, a bag full of letters it seemed. There were thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands; maybe even more. Each was the same as the other, in that, unlike the story he knew so intimately, they were all completely different. Thousands upon thousands of stories about the same theme – life – and yet none of them were the same. This alone both excited and scared the bookkeeper. In one clump, for example, there were six letters from four children and their dear and loving parents. Those very six people, who lived under the same roof and experienced life amidst the same conditions, spoke of six entirely different stories. It was a sight to behold indeed.

The family had lived in one room their entire lives, and in that room, according to the sum of the letters, there was nothing but an empty match box, a crack in the wall, and for one reason or another, a tin can full of matchheads and shrapnel. Although logic would prescribe that under such conditions, each person should have no excuse for not being able to account for each object, as it turned out, each person wrote entirely their own account, as if their experiences had been thwarted by their feelings and emotions, and by how they perceived the objects in the room. Bean read six different accounts of the same room.

The mother wrote mainly about the past, as if the children she was clinging to, were constantly becoming lost beneath longer legs, meaner expressions, quicker tongues, and scruffier hair. The children wrote differently according to their ages. One spoke of the crack in the wall, and how she was sure that at some point in her life, she was would have been small enough to slip through and escape. She had been, in her story, thinking about alighting with the boy that she could hear, imprisoned in the room next door. Her other siblings wrote about things there were not even in the room, things that they believed had once been there, and of whose ghosts kept them company and watched over them while they slept. The youngest wrote about the can of match heads, and how joyful it was to hear them rattle; while the father wrote about the bomb that he held in his hands all day, and the irony that he hadn’t saved a single match to set it off.

In all of the letters, people spoke of the one recurring theme – life. And were this Heaven, one could stop reading after the very first letter, for everything that could have been said, would have been said, and it would have been no different to anyone else’s identical perception. Such was the premise of equanimity – clear and thoughtless perception. Here, though, Bean was drawn further into every new tale. He would put one down and then itch for a second, telling himself that a thousand was enough. Sure enough, though, he would be selling himself the plausible lie of; “Just one more, and then we’ll stop.”

And as he sorted through the piles of letters, he saw the same recurring pattern. There was, even in the most finite and probable setting, infinite probability. No two storied were the same. His existence, the existence of Heaven, was based on one story, that of The Sun of God; and it could be told word for word without missing a beat. Were every soul to write that story, they would be written with the same number of words and spaced over the same number of lines. That symmetry and preciseness, he had thought, was all that mattered; that, in the same way that humour was an extension of man’s suffering and discontent, so too was the story of The Sun of God, merely an outcome and a tangible example of equanimity.

But he was wrong.

He had never imagined the kind of exhilaration that he felt now, the kind that could only be found at the behest of the unknown. He felt as he took each story, the same kind of trembling unease of a home owner, creeping through the darkness to check a suspicious noise. In each story, he had no idea what he would find, whether it was something to cause him fright and discomfort, something satiric to tickle his bones, something amorous or adventurous, or whether there was no nothing at all; whether the story had no purpose, and was merely written in the same directionless manner in which any life could be lived. This indecision was something else entirely. Inside the finite parables of substantives, adjectives, vowels and consonants, he had found infinity.

After reading almost every letter, Bean became sure that Heaven was some placated monstrosity that was in no need of saving. As he thought this, his heart, body, and mind swelled with an unconquerable vibrancy, and he felt for the first time ever, an unflinching capacity to accomplish even the improbable. He felt strong enough to punch his way through a mountain; fast enough to outrun Light, and tall enough to pick a satellite out of the sky as it if were a plump and ripe fruit.

As he sat spying on Rex, Bean thought about the girl, who, in another temporal dimension, and outside of her ruined and crippled legs, was the fly in Heaven’s ointment. Though he had come here to stop her, whatever that meant, now he was certain that she had to die.

He left the tent when Rex did and followed him from a distance as the giant met up with two women, one with a tattoo that couldn’t keep still, and the other with a beard identical to his own. He kept some distance, but he read their lips and expressions, with as much avid thirst as he did, the thousands of stories.

“How long will the poison take to work?” asked Rex.

“Barely a drop in each cup will have been sufficient enough to kill even the most hopeful man, woman or child, a hundredfold. How much did you offer?”

“Half a cup for each.”

He would make a gallant soldier of Heaven.

Gaia smiled.

“I see why The Ringmaster chose you,” she said.

“Are we nearing the end?” asked Delilah.

“We are. After tonight, there shall only be Heaven. The boy, his depression has set in. He cares not to create and sits not by the door of time. We, The Soldiers of Light, now command the door. There are no new universes. There is no new time. There is only Heaven, and from it, there is no escape.”

All three crossed a star over their foreheads.

“And the cripple?” asked Delilah.

“Take these,” said Gaia, handing Rex three arborous bullets.

“What are they?” he said, estranged.

“They are the only way to kill the girl. They are carved from the wound of a demon and made strong with its sexing compassion.”

“Won’t any normal bullet do?”

“No,” said Gaia, for the first time sounding resolute and firm. “She can only be shot with this weapon. These arborous bullets will bind her for an eternity in The Demon’s womb. Her fate depends on it.”

Rex stared at them. They looked like sticky wooden plaits.

“This is for the good of Heaven, right?” he asked, like a child.

“Oh don’t be such a pussy. Give ‘em to me,” shouted Delilah, trying to rip open the giant’s clutch.

“Tell me this is for the good of Heaven,” he said adamantly, staring right at Gaia.

She was beautiful and normally that alone could defuse any man. But Rex was overcome with a feeling that not even a simple prayer could quell.

“I know how you feel,” said Gaia, stroking the giant’s face. “It is you who is the true martyr. You will be remembered for your treachery, and you will be despised for it. You will be spoken of, for the rest of time, as the patriarch of corruption and perfidy. But without you, there can be no ascension, the sun cannot rise. You are exemplary, but you will be stoned for what you are about to do.”

“Is it for the good of Heaven?” he asked again.

“It is,” said Gaia.

Rex thought about his master, and how much he worshiped his ideal. He thought about Heaven too, more so, he thought about his mother who had abandoned him as a child. He hoped that soon, she could finally look past his deformity and see what sacrifice he was about to make, for the good of every soul in the omniverse. He hoped that she would love him, even if he were to spend an eternity in hell.

“I can do it,” said Delilah, once again, snatching at the giant’s hands. “I can do it right now. I hate that fucking little bitch.”

“You decide,” said Gaia, “whether you shoot the girl yourself or have another do it for you. It is in your hands now, the outcome of her fate,” said Gaia, kissing Rex’s cheek.

Rex felt, immediately, the weight of his decision. He felt the betrayal that he had yet to assume, and he felt the great heaving shame that came with it.

“For the good of Heaven,” he said, nursing his shaking hand.

“For the good of Heaven,” said Gaia, walking away.

Bean followed Rex and Delilah through the encampment. They stopped beside The Big Top, where inside, the townsfolk were starting to get restless, waiting for the final act. Maybe it was the poison, or maybe it was just a damn good show. Whatever it was, poor old Rex was beside himself. He had never looked so unsure in his life.

“Let me do it,” said Delilah.

“You don’t understand,” said Rex. “It cannot be done with pleasure. That is why it must be me.”

“You heard the witch. You need not carry this burden yourself. Allow me to unburden you.”

As she spoke, her hands, so soft and gentle, worked their way inside of the giant’s dirtied overalls. Her eyes never flinched, not for a second, as she touched Rex in a manner that had never been touched before.

“Let me take this burden from you,” she said, in lustful reprise; kissing his cheek, just as Gaia had, and working her arm with fervent rigor until the giant shook and then yelped, in strained orgasm.

As he ejaculated, he threw the bullets in Delilah’s face and was immediately immersed in stagnant disgrace. He ran away from the bearded whore with his hands over his face, but by the time he returned to his post backstage, he was somewhat composed. As he prepared for the final act, all he could think of were those three arborous bullets having left his cowardice hands.

The applause was rapturous, as the Light in The Big Top shone upon the stage. As Rex queued in the start of the grand finale, Delilah, made her way backstage, and prepared for the gran treason – combing her beard, and affixing her voluptuous breasts. So drunk was she, on her own wonder, she couldn’t hear the door open, and she didn’t notice at all, the shadow that crept behind her.

Bean had no idea now who to pray to, or what expression to use. Instead, he merely put his hands around Delilah’s throat and strangled her. She was a strong woman. She had hands like a blacksmith, and a stern grasp too. As hard as she hit back, though, Bean didn’t let go. He squeezed and squeezed, and with every gasp that he squeezed out of her, he squeezed even more.

And as the final act got underway, a great deal of death was already being sworn in. As Bean strangled a bearded whore to death, in a secret room beneath the stage, Rex the giant hanged himself, incapable of treading water in such a momentous tide of guilt and shame.

In the name of Light, the Sun of God, and in the name of all that is good and holy, in Heaven and here on Earth, I present to you, The Incredible Accordion Girl.

”Bean left the whore’s body nestled beneath its covers. It was, as he thought, the right of the conscious to make a great deal out of death, especially one who, at one point or another, should make it their profession. He stood over her body momentarily. Were he in Heaven or any of his past lives, he would have prayed for her soul, and in that, he would have tainted the true colour of her soul, and pissed in her pond so to speak.

But as a being that had only recently done away with God, he had no idea how to celebrate this moment, and how to do away with this guilt. So he leaned in, and he kissed her forehead and he ran his hand through her beard, as he imagined that this was something that she would have found fond and regaling.

“Go alone,” he said, “go with great haste, without caution and with passion and vibrant colour. Take strides and leaps, and do not hold yourself back. Sail across the infinite sea. Name every ocean that you cross, but never lay your anchor in the tides of your past. Sail toward the sun that never sets.”

And as The Young Cripple wept, hanging above a stage, Bean dressed in a whore’s attire, taking the same care and attention to how he looked, as did she. Their resemblance was uncanny. He combed his beard and affixed his padded breasts, then emptied the gun of its arborous bullets, loading three more that he found on the whore’s dresser. And when he was done, he pulled the robe over his head, walked invisibly through the maze backstage, and he walked out on stage.

LVI

“I can’t see anything.”

“I can’t breathe.”

The Young Cripple and T walked through a thick blanket of fumes. At first it was horrible. Her lungs beat like broken wings trying to clear themselves of this wretched sticky air, and the more they filled, the more desperate she became. It was only when she submitted and gave into the atmosphere, did her panic finally subside. And then, when her lungs were completely filled, she no longer felt as if she were choking. Instead, she felt a part of the new environment – less of a guest, and more like an added appendage.

The Young Cripple could feel, not just her own heartbeat, but the heartbeat of this world itself. When she inhaled, she inhaled hope, and her every atom longed for change. And when she exhaled, she was left breathless and with an aftertaste of despair that scorched the back of her mouth. This world, as it seemed, had been built upon a culture of disappointment.

“Use the detector,” said T.

“Ok,” said the girl, wiping a tear from her eye.

“What’s wrong?” asked T.

The Young Cripple couldn’t decide. There was no reason for feeling this way, and yet she did. It would be silly to assume otherwise, so she did the best she could to explain.

“It’s nothing,” she said.

“Are you sure?” asked T, genuinely concerned.

“Yes,” said The Young Cripple, her sadness quickly losing its patience. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.”

She aimed her fear detector in front of her, and together they followed the sounds of screaming and decadent laughter through the blinding mist until they came across a swamp where, barely a stone’s throw from where they crouched and hid, a small and helpless looking creature was begging for its life. And on the outskirts of the boggy marsh, an arachnid, a beetle and a giant sunflower that had a face like retired boxer, pointed and laughed at the poor creature, whose little mouth barely breached the surface of the thick mud.

“We can’t leave it like that,” said The Young Cripple, throwing down the detector. “It’ll die.”

“There’s little we can do. We have no guns and no lasers; nothing to frighten or bedazzle. I’m just a radio,” said T, in hollow acceptance. “And besides, like that man said, you’re just a girl. What can you do?”

The Young Cripple smiled.

“Everything,” she said.

She was just a girl – and not a big girl either. She was a little girl with very little focus and a wild and avid imagination, one that, for the life of her, had wreaked havoc in her thoughts and dreams. The Young Cripple turned the radio’s volume as loud as it would go, and then closed her eyes and shut out the parameters of this world. Instead, she focused on the things that frightened her most.

She thought of car crashes, robberies, cancer, and AIDS; and she thought of infanticide, neonaticide and suicide too. She thought of abandon and disregard, and violent abuse, and she thought of children without mothers and without fathers too.

She thought of beds in the middle of rooms with no Light, and she thought of the monsters below that came out at night. She thought of clowns with teeth made of razors and knives, and she thought of salivating priests with perversion for eyes.

Her mind was rampant and out of control. Each thought grew like a tumour and quickly infused its own discordant rationale. She was shaking and curling into herself, rocking back and forth on the spot. Each horrific thought morphed into another until the final image in her mind was of the worst being she could possibly imagine; God.

The radio screamed. It was loud and abrasive. It sounded like a clap of thunder, except one that brought with it, necklaces of razor blades and rusted wire so that, not only the girl but the beetle, the arachnid and the sunflower too, all felt as if the insides of their thoughts were being skewered from their heads.

The Whale and The Father both squinted and squirmed as they too were overcome with fret, terror, and superstition. The sound travelled far. As The Young Cripple breathed, so too did her suffering and anxiety. It travelled in her breath and the entire planet itself felt as infinitely vulnerable as she.

At this moment, everyone fell to their knees in agony.

As the very worst kind of fear resonated in the air; The Young Cripple stood up calmly and smiled. She brought the radio with her in her hands and though torture billowed from its speakers, she walked with such careless endeavour, as if she were listening to the soft flutter of butterflies, a lullaby, or a baby’s laughter.

There, by the edge of the swamp, she confronted the arachnid, the beetle, and the sunflower. They put up very little fight, making prisoners of themselves in how they succumbed to this deafening fear.

The Young Cripple, on the other hand, was an expert at fear. She had spent her existence dealing with her wayward imagination. She had become arted in living with her distorted and turbulent thoughts, whilst still behaving like a well-mannered and ordinary girl. The hurricane that had brought this whole planet to its trembling knees was but a light breeze to The Young Cripple; no more disarming than her own breath on the back of her hand.

“It’s probably best that you leave,” she said in such a cheerful tone that, amidst all the chaos, was entirely believable. “Before I go and do so something really bad.”

The arachnid, the beetle, and the sunflower all turned and ran. Their decadent mocking had turned into desperate wheezing and pleas for their mothers. They disappeared quickly. It is unsure where they ended up, but they never returned – to the swamp or the planet.

The Young Cripple muted the radio, and the wave of despondence ceased. T, The Father, and The Whale – and the whole planet, in fact, sat stunned and shaking. The Young Cripple looked out into the middle of the swamp and shouted.

“Are you ok?”

The little creature whose mouth barely grazed the surface replied.

“What the bloody hell did you do?”

“I saved you,” shouted The Young Cripple. “Stay there. I’ll rescue you.”

As she looked for a stick long enough to reach, there in the middle of the swamp, the cute little mouth shot upwards with terrific speed, until there was not a little creature there anymore, there was a mountainous and mastodonic thing – a thing with seventy-two heads, pythons for whiskers and a body made entirely out of mouths – mouths that had eyes in the backs of their throats, so as to see their prey’s last expression as they swallowed it whole. The thing, whatever it was, didn’t come out of the swamp, it was the swamp.

“Now look what you did? There goes my lunch.”

The Young Cripple was stunned.

“I thought you were stuck,” she said.

“You thought of me stuck,” said The Thing. “Perhaps it was you that was stuck all along – in your eyes, in your heart, and in your mind. And perhaps it was me who pulled you out.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Ahh. Forget it. What’s done is done. And apology’s not gonna bring em back, is it?”

“I really am sorry. Are you going to eat me?”

The Thing laughed.

“I am a herbivore,” it said. “I only eat the seeds of arrogance and greediness from the flowers of philistines. I don’t eat little girls, especially ones who can do what you just did. Who knows what you would do to my digestion.”

“Well, if I can’t help you, maybe you can help us. We are looking for a demon. He has a friend of ours, and some things that do not belong to him; some things that need to be returned.”

“I suppose,” said The Thing, yawning with its billions of mouths. ”Lunch has been soured. I waited a thousand years for them to come along.”

“Maybe you waited a thousand years for me,” said The Young Cripple.

“It’s charming when I say it. It’s kind of irritating when you do.”

The Young Cripple took T in her arms and held onto her fear detector.

“You won’t need that,” said The Thing, the whole swamp itself, rising like some catastrophic wave, and the forming as the creature’s seven legs. “This world and everything in it is an extension of The Demon, even me. Call its name, and it will come.”

“How?”

“Your fear brought you here, but now, to find The Demon, you must stop listening to the madness in your mind, and listen instead, to the love in your heart. Follow your heart now, and you will find The Demon.”

“I don’t know what I love,” said The Young Cripple, “only the things that frighten me.”

“Don’t look into the Light then,” said The Thing. “Look at what is being lit.”

She had heard it before, from T, but she had thought of it literally.

“How? All I see are monsters. All I see is the end.”

“Turn around,” said The Thing.

With her eyes closed, The Young Cripple turned her back to the very things that for her entire life, had crept behind her. She turned her back on the very monsters that she had spent a lifetime building the courage to face.

“Fear is just a shadow in the Light of all that you love. Tell me, fierce girl, what do you see?”

In her thoughts, The Young Cripple opened her eyes.

“It’s just a mirror,” she said.

“And? What is inside of that mirror? What do your fears keep you from loving?”

She stared into the mirror and shuddered.

“Myself,” she said.

The Thing smiled.

“Now say it. Say its name.”

“Demon,” she said.

“No,” said The Thing. “That is not its name. Say its name. Don’t think. Feel.”

Though her every instinct willed her to blink, The Young Cripple kept her stare focused on her own reflection. She had never seen herself in this Light. She felt, for the first time, in the company of herself.

“I,” she said.

“Yes,” said The Thing. “Do not stop.”

“I,”

“Yes.”

“I… I love you,” she said.

And The Demon appeared.

LVII

The Young Cripple swung like a bent and crooked lampshade. In the audience, the drugs had started to take effect. Bean could see how the front three rows across the entire Big Top had begun swaying with the girl, back and forth – left and right. Their eyes glistened like moonlit ponds. They looked like collectible ornaments, shoved inside people’s faces.

Soon enough, Bean was sure, they would be mined.

The Young Cripple had already begun the story. Bean knew it so well. Everyone knew this story. There was not a being in the omniverse that could not tell it word for word, and that did not follow in their own minds – or whisper it quietly, as it was being told to them.

It was a beautiful story, it was. It was simple, square, neat, and clean. It was entirely uncomplex and could be read by a child with no less sophistication or inspiring intellect, as by a grown adult or a righteous theodolite. Its words were like tiny pills that did not catch on the tongue or upset the predicament in the pit of one’s stomach. It had as many words as it did pages, and in them, as many wicked villains as it did, fearless and hallowed heroes and heroines. Just one look out in the audience could prove, undeniably, how good this story was. It had such a reverent following. It was a shame then, as Bean thought, where it was leading them to.

Bean crept up behind The Young Cripple as she spoke to her audience.

“The imperious figure’s heart was betrothed with desire,” she said. “A simple kiss would not suffice.”

He looked at her, not as a girl, but as a being of Light. She hanged there like a star, but one that had yet to shine. She had yet to open her eyes.

“There is no Light in your eyes,” said Bean, taking a small pistol from his bosom.

He was pointing the gun at The Young Cripple’s head, but he spoke to God.

“Delilah,” shouted The Ringmaster, storming onto the stage. “What in tarnation are you doing? Stick to the goddamn script.”

Though his beard was a rich as hers, it was the look in his eyes which in the end, gave him away. Bean pulled back the hood and exposed his face. His eyes were less like windows now, and more like shut looks. They reeked of inaccessibility – of non-negotiable and irreconcilable reason. The Ringmaster’s, though, were like two gaping chasms. They weren’t so much windows to the soul as they were cheap Perspex lining, and like the man himself – bendable, breakable, and indeed willing to cooperate.

“Who are you? Where is Delilah?”

“She is dead,” said Bean.

The look on The Ringmaster’s face said it all. His very heart sank and; were there an open wound in his body; it would have bled out entirely, leaving his care, compassion, and heartfelt obsession to spill all over the floor.

Out in the bleachers, the drugs had indeed taken a swarming effect. The entire audience were now shaking and convulsing where they sat. Their desperation, though, was not in their impending deaths, but in having only heard the story barley half way through.

“Finish the story,” shouted one of the townsfolk between a choke and a purge.

The Young Cripple was waiting for her cue. She hung there, watching the deaths of all those people, thinking of them as being saved.

She said to herself, “Lucky them. What a relief that it’s over.”

As The Ringmaster wept, mourning his dear love, he slowly undressed until he stood there, centre stage, with nothing but his bare skin. “Child,” he said, in a woman’s voice. “What are you thinking?”

“God?” asked Bean.

“It is I,” she said.

The Young Cripple shivered, hearing her mother’s voice.

“You are a child of Heaven, yes? Then why are you here?” asked God.

“Chance,” said Bean.

“There is no chance,” said God. “I have eliminated all facets of probability.”

Bean removed all of the bullets from his gun.

“You and I are integers,” he said. “We are interchangeable. We are moveable parts. We are rearrangeable. And like words, we are merely tools of definition. But we are not only open to chance, we are at its whim and mercy when we are at our most helpless, and we are at its splendour and magnificence when we are defiant and full of praise. Chance is the invisible and immeasurable constant which inspires us to evolve, and to never lose our passion.”

“What do you want? A better position, more title, more worth? I am the creator Heaven and God almighty, I can give you what you want.”

He smiled as he opened the gun’s chamber and loaded two bullets. One, an arborous bullet, made from the bark and semen of The Demon, and the other, a bullet made by the hand of mankind, in reckless defence of its fears.

“One of these bullets will make a martyr of this child, thrusting her into her fate. And the other will not. It will end her, Heaven, and your reign.”

“What is it you want?”

“All I want is a chance,” said Bean, spinning the chamber and aiming the gun at The Young Cripple’s temple.

LVIII

The Young Cripple stood eye to eye with The Demon, even though it did not have any eyes. She did not quiver and she did not flinch. She merely stared into the empty void that was its face and did little else.

“Now what?” said T, nervously.

The Young Cripple didn’t respond. She was waiting for The Demon to speak first. It, though, was as resilient as she. And it stood there waiting for the girl to do what she had been born to do – what was encrypted in her fate.

“They’re not yours,” she said, speaking of the letters. “And neither is he.”

Behind her, buried up to his neck in a garden bed, The Young Boy agreed.

“Is it you?” asked The Demon.

The Young Cripple looked confused.

“How could I be anyone else?” she asked.

“You’re not aware of your fate?”

“Only that I’ll fail,” said the girl.

The Demon lowered its head. It looked sad more than anything. It had hardly the stature or composure of a nefarious thing. That posture was poised for men like The Ringmaster, and their chatty and conniving whores. The Demon, in how its back slouched and its head hanged over, looked tired, bored, and at the end of its tether.

“Do it?” said The Demon. “But do it quick.”

Had it eyes, they would have been closed right now.

“I don’t know who you think I am, or what I’m supposed to do, but I’m here for the stories that you took from all those people. I’m here to give them back.”

The Demon pointed to the garden bed behind him. Next to where The Young Boy was buried, there was another hole, this one the size of The Young Cripple, and beside it, a mound of dirt the size of a hundred billion buried letters.

“They’re not yours,” said The Young Cripple.

“But they are,” said The Demon. “But just not like this.”

It reached into the dirt and pulled out one letter.

“I cannot read,” it said.

It started to weep again, and it was now that The Young Cripple felt less perturbed and far less worried than she had been, and instead looked at The Demon and felt sorry for it, as if it were a once ravishing wolf, reduced to mere flesh and bone, barely capable of attending to an itch.

“I knew you would come,” it said.

“How?” asked the girl. “I didn’t even know.”

“I know everything,” said The Demon.

It wasn’t the type of expression that brought The Demon any pride. Instead, admitting it sank it further into its deep seeded depression.

“You’re the boy?” asked The Young Cripple.

“I was,” said The Demon.

“It’s him,” shouted The Young Cripple to T. “It’s The Boy, we found him.”

“That’s not him,” said T. “I’ve seen The Boy many times. I’ve told him countless stories – as many as the lives that I have lived. That’s not him.”

“Not now no, but once, yes. I have withered and aged over time.”

“What happened to you?” asked The Young Cripple, as if she had stumbled upon a devastating crash.

“I have seen all there is to see. I have heard all there is to hear. And I now know that there is nothing new to learn. I am omniscient,” it said in damning splendour. “Everything that could possibly exist – has. Everything I could possibly imagine – has been. There are no new worlds. There are no new thoughts. There are no surprises, so what is the point then in participating, if I know I have already won or lost before the game has even begun?”

“Chance,” said The Young Cripple.

“There is no chance in certainty. All I had were stories. They were all that I lived for. Even in a realm of defined parameters, I could never know, with each story, how it would end. But now that is no more. Existence has been reduced to a single thought. The entire omniverse – all that I created – has been reduced to one singular plain – Heaven. Do you know what it’s like to hear the same story a hundred billion times?”

“Yes,” said The Young Cripple, just as sad and tired as The Demon.

She loved stories. She loved listening to them, and she loved telling them. She made stories, not because she wanted to or because she thought anyone would ever listen, she wrote and invented the unimaginable because that was simply something that she loved to do, in the same way, another child might love to skip or to sing a song. She loved them, but not as much as The Demon.

“Before your mother; before God, existence was a maddening splendour. It did not matter how one felt, as long as one felt. There was a great deal more happiness and colour before God got involved. The stories were so rich. I could hear, in those times, the very same story told a billion times over, and yet each time was different to the last. That alone was my reason to create.”

“So the meaning of life was….”

“To live a life and recount it, as if it were a story.”

“And now?”

“Your lives, and the life of this boy,” it said, pointing to The Young Boy. “They have no meaning. I do not know what to make of God’s intentions. She has made herself the centre of your thoughts and your prayers. You are drawn to her instead of her to you. Light, though, is meant to travel. Your souls and your spirits were never meant to sit still. Existence, as you knew it, existed within a single second. Your eternity, that you assumed as your whole life, in each life that you lived, existed in a single moment – at least in how a being such as myself envisions time. The formula of life, its delicate mathematics, ensured that environment and genetics were constantly at odds, and each being, though identical in the tools in which it facilitated – having the same vices, desires, and potential for both right or wrong– perceived the world, existence and they’re purpose, uniquely. But now that is no more. God has seen to that. But God cannot be held responsible. It was chance that God came into existence, and it was chance too, upon which she built her throne. And now there is only certainty. There is one world, ruled by a callous tyrant, driven by fame, worship, and adulation. And there is you.”

“Who am I in this?”

“You are my bargain,” said The Demon.

“What bargain, and with who?”

“With God.

“Why me?”

The Demon reached behind The Young Cripple’s ear.

“What are you doing? Magic?”

The Demon opened its long quill-like fingers, and there in its palm was a small arborous bullet. “It is what brought you here,” said The Demon. “It is a beacon of your fate.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You were sent here by God to kill me. Your meaning – your purpose, it is to take my life, for I cannot take it myself.”

“Why do you want to die?”

“I do not want to die,” said The Demon. “Just as infant reaching across a pool does not want to fall in. My depression,” said The Demon coldly and honestly, “it is a weight that is tipping me towards death. It is not my choice, but I am tired, and I do fear that soon I will fall. And this far in, I shall never return.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You will.”

“But what if I say no? You can’t stop me.”

“No, that is true,” said The Demon. It turned, though and hinted at the garden bed. “And that it is why I have him.”

The Young Boy tried to scream but it was no good, his mouth was buried beneath the sand. The girl ran to him and dug into the dirt but no matter how deep her fingers dug, The Young Boy was not an inch freer.

“Stop this, let him go,” she screamed.

“Then kill me,” said The Demon.

“No, I will not kill you,” she said, still digging as fast as she could, and getting nowhere.

“You have no choice. Your outcome is certain. You love the boy, and he loves you. You would do anything for his life, as would he, for yours.”

The Young Boy’s eyes agreed,

As did The Young Cripple’s.

“For my entire life, every decision I had ever made had been out of fear,” she said.

“That was God. It was her work.”

“Yes, her influence maybe, but my decision. Now though I understand differently.”

“There is no decision. You have to kill me. All of this, these trillions of worlds, and the countless millennia creating them, all of it has been to prepare both of us for this moment. I was always going to figure on my own one day – all being, all knowing. Eventually, my luck would run out.”

The Demon handed the girl the bullet.

“I don’t have a gun,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you throw it,” said The Demon. “As long as it’s your intent, it shall be so.”

“Do you really want to die?”

“That I do not know. And that alone is what entices me, and why I made this deal.”

“Forget the deal. Forget God. Forget Heaven. Start again. I’ll read to you,” she said, grabbing a pile of letters from the sand.

“There is no Light left in me, or in the omniverse. It is all imprisoned in Heaven. To start again like you say, there would need to be a tremendous explosion; a very big bang. And I’m afraid, note even Heaven itself has that much power.”

The Young Cripple walked into the garden bed and started to dig. She dug until her hands bled, and then she dug some more. She dug until she had reached the bottom of the pile of letters, and when she did, she climbed back up the top. She sat there and stared at The Demon and smiled. It moved closer, for it had no idea of her intent.

“I love you,” she said to The Young Boy. “I’m sorry that your life had been scripted with so much sadness, and that it had all succumbed to this. I‘m sorry for any hurt that I may have caused you or your family. I’m sorry that all of this suffering is because of a choice that is not mine to make. I’m sorry you couldn’t love me in other circumstances. And I’m sorry too, for having to leave you alone.”

The boy’s eyes spoke of passion and longing.

Between every word, The Young Cripple stuffed a single letter into her mouth, chewing it into a small round ball before swallowing it whole.

“I love you, T,” said The Young Cripple, stopping to chew some more. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find your body, but I have to say you did pretty awesome without it. You were the best kind of friend to have at a time when a girl needed a friend most.”

The radio buzzed with nervous static.

“I love you too,” she said to The Demon. “None of this is your fault.”

By now, she was near the end of the pile, having stuffed billions of letters into her mouth, and swallowed each and every one of them. She looked full, but nowhere near stopping.

“We shouldn’t have let our fears run so rampant. We shouldn’t have let God get so out of control. None of this was your fault Demon. You cannot be blamed for what we have done to ourselves, and more so, for what hell we have unravelled for you. I love you Demon. You gave me life. More so, you gave me a chance.”

Still unsure, The Demon crept closer.

“What are you doing?” it asked.

The Young Cripple ate the last letter.

“Now there is enough,” she said.

“Enough what?” said The Demon, more disturbed than anything.

“Power.”

Her eyes changed. Not the colour or the size, but in how they spoke. It was as if a trillion souls had climbed into her body and were each looking through her eyes, one after the other. Her expression spoke of every single human emotion. She encompassed all of existence in one particular stare. Anything that could be felt, thought, perceived and done, was now playing in her wild and vivid expression. The Demon had seen this before. It sensed what she about to do. But still, it couldn’t believe it.

The Young Cripple held the arborous bullet tight in her hands and began punching herself in her chest, over and over again. Each strike was like an earthquake. The ground shook, and the air rattled like a bag of stones. Her expression was both mean and doting. It was both dire and consoling. It was good and bad, and it was both ecstatic and desperately forlorn. Her expression was one of rage and one of calm – at the same time both cruel and heartless, and so genuine and kind. She looked like every human expression occurring at the same time.

The Young Cripple beat her chest over and over, and each strike grew louder and louder, and more violently destructive. Her eyes shone with every thump, and the air around her started to blur.

The Demon dug up The Young Boy quickly.

“Run,” said The Young Boy.

“No,” said The Demon, catching his arm. “Look. Listen. Learn.”

The Young Boy turned to The Young Cripple who by now was floating up into the air. She shook uncontrollably, and as she did, she warped time and space.

In The Demon’s world, The Young Cripple stopped shaking for a second and hovered in mid-air. Everything was so incredibly calm and quiet. She felt, in this instance, so very close to being born. On the outskirts of time and space – at the very edge of infinity – the endless horizon of dark imagination also stopped, for the first time since the beginning of time. Everything in the entire omniverse, like The Young Cripple, was incredibly calm and quiet.

“What is she doing?” asked The Young Boy.

The Demon smiled.

“Breaking tradition,” it said. “Defying her fate.”

The Young Boy watched the girl that he loved. He felt so horribly sad that she was about to explode into a ball of fire, and yet, at the same time, so infinitely proud of her for making this incredible sacrifice.

She beat her chest once more and her body cracked like a shell. And with it, the farthest edges of the omniverse recoiled. They snapped backward like broken elastic and raced, faster than Light, towards the centre of everything.

“Close your eyes,” said The Demon. “These big bangs can be very bright.”

The Demon, knowing what was about to happen, danced its final dance. It was a simple dance – nothing too showy, but you wouldn’t think it just by looking.

“I love you too,” it said.

The Young Cripple didn’t respond. Instead, her heart exploded.

On the stage, God laughed.

“You don’t see do you,” she said bemusedly. “This scene has already happened. By you now, and by that whore before you. You think you can change the outcome of fate? She is already in the hands of The Demon and soon she will fulfil her purpose. She will kill it once and for all. The change, as you can see, is well underway. The last of the boy’s imagination has been destroyed; from Eden to Sirius, and here on Earth. And there shall be no new worlds, no new universes, and no new dimensions. There is only Heaven now, and with it, the one story, certainty, and absolute compliance. And there shall be no disease and suffering. There shall be sadness and disappointment. And there shall be no remorse or regret.”

“And with it, no hope, happiness or expectation.”

“A worthy concession,” said God.

“There is still time. If she is struck by the hand of man, then she will never find The Demon, and there will always be a chance that the doors to infinity are opened once more.”

“You think you are playing with chance because you can envision a choice. But the outcome is always certain. It has been decided for you. The Demon’s bullet will find her. It is her fate, regardless of your wilful delusion.”

“Maybe,” said Bean, pulling the trigger. “Maybe not.”

thank you

This story was inspired by a great deal of artists, musicians, thinkers, and the like – a great deal of humanity suffice to say. I would like to thank those bands and musicians especially, whose music kept me stable when I needed it, and that allowed me to sink into my inferno when I needed it most.

So thank you, specifically to Gazpacho, Devin Townsend, Brendan Perry, Gojira, Jeff Buckley, Johnny Cash, Secret Chiefs 3, Sordal, Tigran Hamasyan, Danzig and Mastodon.

A special thanks to Mario Duplantier and his team at Mario Duplantier Art Gallery.

Thank you for allowing my beast a face. Merci.

Ευχαριστώ Anna Vanti.

Obrigado Mari Merlim.

A final thanks to my beautiful and inspiring wife, Keli, and my fucking awesome children, Nenagh and Tomás.

If there is a shred of hope in any of my writing or philosophy, it is because of you.

I gladly walk with you.

And finally, a respectful thank you to my demon.

husband, father, son, brother, philosopher, story teller, recluse

 

Also by C. Sean McGee:

A Rising Fall (CITY b00k 001)

Utopian Circus (CITY b00k 011)

Heaven is Full of Arseholes

Coffee and Sugar

Christine

Rock Book Volume I: The Boy from the County Hell

Rock Book Volume II: Dark Side of the Moon

Alex and The Gruff (a tale of horror)

The Terror{blist}

The Anarchist (or about how everything I own is covered in a fine red dust)

Happy People Live Here

The Time Traveler’s Wife

 

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CSM Publishing The Free Art Collection ©2015


Ineffable

Under a black starless sky, a troupe of ragged freaks and performers - led by the perverse and enigmatic Ringmaster - makes its way into a town disparaged by death and disease, intent on curing the sadness, suffering and infirmity of its inhabitants with Light.

  • ISBN: 9781311415967
  • Author: C. Sean McGee
  • Published: 2015-12-25 01:35:30
  • Words: 134767
Ineffable Ineffable