As they climbed and descended sticky, yet somehow slightly slippery steps and entered and exited door after identical door, even Kamila could hear the whispers coalescing out of the air.
“Allll yours, baby…”
They didn’t speak much. The need was too pressing, the chasm too great. Every once in a while, Kamila would place her hand on Alma’s, in an attempt to alleviate her mother’s worries. By the time they found a path to Jowd, both women wore identical strain on their faces.
Jowd lay, hands neatly placed by his sides, pink smock spread out. He looked as if he was laid out for his own funeral. Even his hair was more neatly in place than usual.
He was so nearly an echo of Alma’s fears that she couldn’t help the cry that escaped her as she broke into a run. The child waiting at Jowd’s head shook his own curly locks.
“Time is ticking, lady,” it said with an impish giggle. “My brothers and I are almost ready for you, and boy are our stomachs growling!” It reached out a delicate finger to more precisely place a tumbled fluff of Jowd’s hair. “Dinner looks s-o-o-o-o tasty. See you soon!”
Alma’s sword swung through where his head had been, but the child was gone.
“Filthy wretch,” she breathed, before falling to her knees at Jowd’s side. “Oh, Jowd, oh, love. What have they done to you?”
Kamila put her hand on Alma’s shoulder. “He was fine before we came here, Mama. Well, not fine, but not hurt…”
Alma reached up and put her hand on Kamila’s. “I know, sweet, I know. When I found you, you were lying in the same way. It’s just—a shock, that’s all.” She looked up at her daughter. “When I found you, I was drawn into your dream. I suspect the same will happen with your father. I think you should stay out here and guard our bodies if you can.”
“Mama, I can handle whatever is in there,” Kamila said, slapping her hand to the stock of the auto-crossbow that hung from her back.
“I know you could, sweet,” Alma agreed. “That’s why I need to trust you to watch our backs out here.”
Kamila made a face but couldn’t hide the look of shy pride that swept across her features. “I guess, if you put it that way… you can count on me, Mama.”
Alma tore her gaze from Jowd’s face and gave her daughter a slow, impressed smile. “We’ll be back soon.” She placed her hands on Jowd’s forehead. “Jowd. Wake up.” Leaning forward, she headbutted him with all her might.
--falling, falling into the dark.
After a few minutes, she was bored. Falling is only scary when you have to look forward to landing, and she didn’t appear to be doing it.
“Jowd! Are you in here?” The sound seemed to whip up and away, not carry.
A few minutes later, and Alma had had enough. Trust her husband to be dramatic at the least suitable times.
“Enough, Jowd. I know you’re here.”
“Of course, I’m not.” The voice sounded directly in her ear, a whisper of almost shocking intimacy after so long.
She rolled her eyes. “Enough with the theatrics. That’s Cabanela, not you.”
“Who am I, anyway? Who’s to say?” His voice was sardonic rather than melancholy. He almost seemed pleased to accept not knowing.
Alma heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Jowd, I love you so dearly, but I really will not fall for this... whatever you’re doing. If you’re trying to make me pity you--”
“Alma, at the moment, you’ll fall for anything.”
“Fine, fine. Let’s land, if it would make you happy.”
Alma landed lightly, tall and proud. Light sparked from the diadem on her head and her violet hair gleamed in the beam of light falling on her. The blue ball gown she wore sparkled in the light as paler blue satin gloves snugged her arms to her bare shoulders. Jowd landed with an undignified and resounding thump, then didn’t bother to get up, his stained gray smock spread around him.
“Well, Alma, queen of my heart, you’re as beautiful as ever. Sorry you have to sully yourself with this.” He smiled his old smile, gray beard and hair tousled.
“Why are you acting like this? We need to get out of here. Get up.” Alma said, hurt. She had expected at least a little joy, after a year. She attempted to dodge the spotlight, but it followed her.
“Well, lady of my dreams, you’re just that. Come here, give me a hug.” He grabbed her hand, pulled her down to him, a messy tangle of limbs tumbling as he sought to give her a sloppy kiss. The light dimmed to the faintest glow, just enough to see, but it leached all color from the scene, making him appear completely grey from head to foot.
“Jowd, stop. Stop.” Alma put a hand over his mouth and stared into his eyes. They stared back at her, lifeless and unseeing. She couldn’t even see her reflection in them, only a flicker of something white. “You’re not Jowd!”
She pushed off him and stumbled backwards, gloved hands going to her mouth.
“I told you I wasn’t. Does it matter? What is a Jowd worth, anyway?” He sat up, put his hands back behind him and stretched. “A Jowd is trash. Garbage. And I hate cleaning up garbage. Better to leave me here.”
Alma stared at him, unsure. Was he or wasn’t he her husband? She’d always known he was prone to the black, but this was beyond her experience.
Unaware of her contemplation, he laid back and stared up into the void. “Doesn’t matter anyway, dream girl. You’re not here anyway. Alma’s gone. Cabanela’s gone. Everything’s gone. Should have stayed on the train.”
Alma froze. “Don’t say that, ever, please.” She sat next to him. “I couldn’t lose you again, Jowd. I need you. Kamila needs you.” She took a deep breath. “Cab-- Cabanela needs you. We love you.”
“Don’t know why,” he said, indifferent to her pleas. “Garbage is unnecessary to a well-ordered life.” He reached up to his face, put his hand over his eyes, drew something away, cradled it in his hands. “This is much more me.”
He placed the smooth, thin ceramic over his face and it clung like a second skin. The mask, pristine white, swung to face Alma. “See?”
His eyes stared out at her, haunted and sad. They were no longer empty, but staring into them was like staring into a vast well of pain that never ended. Where had she seen that mask before?
The puppet stood up, holding a hand out to Alma. “Come on, Alma. Time for you to go.”
She didn’t move. “Don’t try to clear me out of here like I’m nothing to you. You know who I am, what I would do to get you out of here.”
“Alma, Alma, Alma. I told you. You’re not the one who’s nothing, but you have to leave trash behind in the dark where it belongs.”
He bent down and lifted her as if she weighed no more than a feather. “Go back to your own dream. I’m an unnecessary distraction for you.” An easel appeared behind her, blank canvas at the ready. He pushed her toward it. “Good-bye, dream girl. Go be a queen, not a maid.”
“Jowd, you’re not— you’re not unnecessary, PUT ME DOW—"