Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chapter Twelve: Once

The White King Enters

Start Chapter 12:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who told stories about herself. Once, there was a little girl who wanted to be famous and claw her way into being in the stories. "Once upon a time" consumed her life. And once, the little girl grew up and was average, or below average, at almost everything, and this once hopeful and limitless little girl grew up and got pregnant young and dropped out of college and married her abusive boyfriend. Once, or twice, or three times or more, this girl pretended that what she had was a happy ever after. She grew up to know that she was common, that she was dull, that nobody would mourn if she were to die. Nobody would mourn because she could not help but isolate people. Try as she might, she couldn’t help but grow up under the knowledge that everyone was so small they might as well be average. So this little girl, so full of promise, grew up to be another nobody in a blank cast of thousands.

There was something that made this little girl special, though. The White King watched her. You might say that she wasn’t special because of this—the White King sees everyone, his eyes are everywhere.  But everyone is special, being graced by the White King’s eyeless gaze. He holds us all and cradles us to sleep. He loves us. The little girl was having her story told, like a footprint in the snow that would quickly be closed up by the swiftly falling snowflakes. The story would be memorial to her and the White King’s footsteps, but nobody would read it. None but her most dedicated biographer would truly know her, much like all of mankind. Alone inside shells that crumble like dust, humanity lives in isolation, forever.

Once Elizabeth tried to run. Once she failed. One more held in the White King’s arms.

She had been in the empty city for three weeks. She ate what she could, choking down tasteless food that wriggled and felt rubbery under the tongue, and occasionally crumbled to dust beneath her teeth coating her lips with the limp flavor of death. Elizabeth learned to run, and to run fast, as night and day the long shadows became reaching arms and formless silhouettes in the dark became formless men that had long abandoned mankind. Elizabeth learned to read and learned to think, and she felt more alive than she ever had been capable of before. This was something solid and interesting and new, a way of breaking from everything she hated about herself. But there was still the matter of her son to consider. Michael weighed on her mind day and night. She knew she had to save him.

So she appealed to the internet, that faceless, soulless amalgamation of crazies and busybodies. She trusted her fate to them, let them guide her, and perhaps that was a mistake. She cast her nets into the unknown, darkened waters that were filled with strange and terrible fish. And she waited, oh how she waited, for the world to begin anew. She waited for that spark of inspiration, which would light up the world and show to her the path forward, that would illuminate the truth from the fiction. Elizabeth was foolish to think she could ever discern the two.

She foolishly wrote a chapter of the story herself. Elizabeth didn’t see the elegance of the tale, didn’t understand that her meddling meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. She understood nothing. Elizabeth followed what she thought was the story she had written. Instead she followed the original path, so similar to her own tale but better written and grammatically correct. She crept out of the window of the house she had been staying in and stole onto the street.

The streets of the city were darkened and empty, but for the too long shadows and the hollow, vacant windows. The vacuum of a world was grey, and looked as akin to dust as its food tasted. Elizabeth’s footsteps brought up clouds of powder that quickly fell back to the earth, covering her footprints. The world went back to being undisturbed, and dead.

She waited, as she had written and as the Author had written also, for the shadow men who were not quite human to walk past. She crept along the alleyways, sure that they couldn’t see her and sure that the shadows could conceal her. Several times, the yellowed air became oppressive, like the clammy hands of a nervous first date. The thick air grasped her, and she felt sweat roll down her back. Even as she clutched the grubby, graffiti-ed wall behind her back she felt numbed too it, like it was a distant dream of another place. Elizabeth turned sluggishly, trying to be quick, as she felt something brush her shoulder. Of course, there was nothing there. She did not feel it as the shadows tugged at her clothes or suckled on her feet. The woman trotted on through the increasingly oppressive city, gulping down the stale air as she followed the monster men.

The further she walked, the sicklier the world became, an odd mix of grey and yellow with an edge of green. The light began to creep away from her, a nervous and fleeting ally. As she reached the toyshop darkness had fallen but for the lampposts, and as she crept inside, she tried to avoid thinking of the strange redness the room contained. Her hands touched against sharp toy cars, jumbled jack in the boxes, tiny cloth puppets. The floorboards creaked ominously, and she worried that the ground would collapse beneath her feet, not noticing of course that it already had.

Elizabeth knelt. Her fingers brushed against a cheap, plastic carpet, and she grabbed the scratchy underside and pulled the rug back. Indeed, it was almost too obvious, too cliché, but beneath it was a trapdoor. Curious, and desperate, the little girl in her adult shell dropped her pale legs down onto the ladder. She descended the rickety metal ladder, feeling the blistered and rusty paint and the ominous creaks of the steps beneath her. She climbed, and climbed, and climbed. It took hours, but finally she reached the bottom, and then…

It was a library, lit by the bluish glow of the computer monitors that lined the walls. The stench of old books was not enough to cover the new and plastic smell. There was a faint whirring of fans, and the slight crackle of pages. Elizabeth saw a hulking shape hunched over a desk. Eyes glancing back to the ladder, the single door, and the thousands of old tomes, she crept towards the shadowy figure, realizing some part of her plan had gone terribly wrong. Swallowing her rising panic, she choked out a foolish, “Hello.”

The Author turned around, and beneath the shadow, he smiled, “Good evening, Elizabeth.”

Her voice breaking slightly, Elizabeth murmured, “You’re him, aren’t you? The Author?”


Elizabeth choked back an insane sob and clenched down on a peal of laughter. “Tell me—what do you want? Why are you doing this?” She couldn’t bottle her emotions any longer, as she burst out, “Where is my son?”

“Oh, dear Elizabeth. You’re just a character. A puppet. A single tiny part of an intricate tale, woven as closely as the web of a spider. I don’t owe you anything but a stage, which has been set, and a plot, which has been in motion. There is nothing more for you. As to why I am doing this, you can take your guess—I am sure, or I hope to be sure—that the readers will. Maybe I’m your helper, maybe I’m the White King’s, or maybe I’m a character myself following the rails of another, more incompetent author. Maybe I’m trying to sacrifice you for myself. Maybe I am you. There are no answers here. A magician leaves some tricks a mystery; otherwise it’s just no fun.

As for your son—perhaps those cries answer your question?” The Author grinned devilishly once more, as a child’s sobs echoed through the single door, “He’s in pain. The cultists are foolish, inelegant, and perfectly willing to put a child in pain if they believe it will aid the White King. He garlands the children as his crown. Now think, what are you going to do? Run for your son, perfectly, but know, if you continue with the story, you will die. The story will end with your corpses side by side. And I shall rewrite the story so as to improve it, over and over and over again, and you will relive it each time in the knowledge that this choice is coming and you will always choose the wrong one. Or you can leave. The doors will unlock. You will have to run, but you will survive. The story will be too boring to rewrite with no real conclusion. There’s your choice—perpetual torment, or freedom.”

It would be false to say she didn’t hesitate. A life lived in pain is no life at all. She could be free again, she could be happy again. But she couldn’t, not without Michael. It was the awful truth, and it was terrifying, because he was writing her life and he knew what was going to happen next. Nevertheless, she moved past the computers to the door, and grabbed the handle.

She said a name. The Author smiled.

She pushed her way through the tunnel and she could remember the description she had read in The Author’s drafts, of the eldritch and creeping halls, filled with the ghosts of the long dead and the yet to die. It was dark, though her eyes picked up faint reds along the corridor as the light in the distance bounced along the long and winding tunnel. The walls were covered with some kind of ichor, oily and sticky beneath her hands as she scrambled along the jagged rocks. She slipped slightly, bruising her ankle, and stopped for a moment. Then, the crier of her darling son forced her onwards.

Something sticky was dripping on the ceiling to the floor, a strange spongy tissue, like the inside of a pumpkin baked on the sidewalk of an October day. There were odd lumps within the stringy matter, and it was unnervingly warm. She slipped on the ground and gasped, a part of the string slipping into her open mouth. It was sweet. She shuffled onwards blindly, her stumbling toes battered and her breath shallow.

She broke from the tunnel, and was suddenly deposited into a dark, red room. There were mutterings along the walls. Michael’s crying was suddenly very close to her. She slipped again, and fell forwards, onto a level, clean platform with some sort of symbol carved into the stone. Her fingers explored the cracks, as she felt too tired to stand back up. And then Michael’s sobs crescendo-ed again, so she pulled herself to her feet and stumbled onwards. Her eyes grew used to the new light and she noticed humanoid shapes in the darkness. The whispering was everywhere, in the air of the room, in her throat.

Hazily, she saw below her, quite close to her feet, the little, shivering figure of Michael. With a dreaded finality, she collapsed onto the concrete next to him, the sound of her landing akin to the banging of a coffin lid. She was slippery with blood not her own, and he was covered in his own blood, already dying. It was at that moment that Elizabeth knew she was ended—both she and her son were over and dead. Elizabeth held out her worn, calloused hand, and grasped Michael’s pudgy mitt. His face was wet with tears, but as the whispering turned into a high pitched hum, he stopped sobbing and stared upwards, his large eyes staring into the dark.

Elizabeth glanced at her son, and began to cry herself. But she couldn’t move. She and her son were both dead, because she was tired. Because she was pathetic. And she knew her last thoughts were to be those of a drying fish far from the sea, wheezing and whimpering and unable to protect her own. Elizabeth was caught by a coughing fit, as the lights seemed to grow warm around her, and Michael’s quivering lips switched into a smile.

Elizabeth looked up from the slab, barely able to force her head upwards. She saw, in a final choking hopelessness, the White King rise from the musty dark. He was tall, yes, and stately, as the stories had said. He could see her without eyes and he knew her without thought. He was finality, more so than death. His steps left footprints, in the blood. He was still there after Elizabeth had closed her eyes, and she sighed in relief, almost laughing at how ludicrous the feeling of relief was. Then he held his arms aloft, waiting for his children.

Michael stood first, and tugged on his mother’s hand. “Come on, mommy. Don’t be scared. It’s not going to hurt anymore, and it’s going to be forever.”

Elizabeth began to sob again, almost blind with fear. Michael, smiling, his body shredded and falling apart, tugged on her hand again. “Come on, mom. He can wait forever, but we can’t. Can’t you hear his song? It’s time to go.”

Elizabeth shakily stood to her feet, no longer at the whims of her own will but the will of something or someone other. She leaned down and pulled her son into her arms, holding him into her shoulder. She felt his warm blood coating her shirt, and sobbed. The fear was greater than ever, now, but also distant. She stared at the White King, and he waited, for he was patient. Shakily, she nudged the fading Michael. “I love you, Mike.”

“Love you too, mommy.”

Slowly, trembling profusely, she began to walk towards the White King.

Once upon a time a hoarse little girl began to sing;

"You're a lost little lamb,
Come into the fold,
Come into the fold,
Come into the fold,
You're a lost baby sheep,
Come into the fold;
Your mother will keep you warm."

Holding her son, she walked into the White King’s arms, and he greeted her.

End Chapter Twelve

The White King Exists