Chapter 1: In Which Ned Misplaces Charlotte Charles - and, Actually, the Whole of Papen County
NED WAS AT THIS VERY MOMENT twenty eight years, three months, two and a half weeks, eight days, four hours, and three minutes old; and he was waking up. He rubbed the back of his head with a groan. His last memory had been a good one. Chuck had been snuggled against him, his arm wrapped around her and seperated from her bare skin by a vinyl sleeve and a vinyl sheet that stretched up over their bed. He could feel the warmth of her through that sleeve, and almost feel her softness. Chuck was soft in the way of spring sunshine, gently filtered through a jar of honey: pure and sweet. The Piemaker loved her with all his heart, but you see, he could never, ever touch her.
Ned had a secret. One that he kept well for many, many, many years. He could touch dead things and bring them back to life. But if he touched them a second time, they would die again. Forever.
And Ned had already touched Chuck once.
The small smile that pleasant memory had conjured faded. The Piemaker’s special circumstances with the woman he loved left a very peculiar bittersweet taste in his mouth. And… There was another taste there as well. Was that… copper? And.. what was he laying on? It certainly didn’t feel like a mattress. The piemaker opened his eyes. Stars stretched above him, blinking and winking in the night. They were beautiful, but they shouldn’t have been there. A ceiling, with a little water stain where an upstairs neighbor’s pipe had leaked should be there. And what was he laying on? He sat up. He was stretched prone in the middle of a road. A random road. He was lucky he hadn’t been hit! He scrambled to his feet, the taste of metal in his mouth and a pounding in his head. It was then that the biggest question of all made itself unmistakably apparent to poor Ned.
Where was Charlotte Charles?
JAYE TYLER WAS AT THIS VERY MOMENT HERSELF twenty four years, eight months, three days, and fifteen seconds old;and also waking up. Jaye was not, however, waking up because of the roughness of asphalt scraping against her cheek. Jaye was safely in bed and awake only because some moron was wandering through her trailer park making much more noise than she cared to hear at any hour of the night - but particularly this hour of the night.
“Chuck,” a man’s voice stage-whispered as a man’s shoes crunched on the gravel outside. “ Chuck. Chuck?”
She hauled herself out of bed, drawing her sweater closed over her tank top and shuffling to the door. “Hey Genius,” she snapped, not at all in a stage whisper. “Maybe think of relocating your game of marco polo or whatever to daylight. Some of us need rest - oh my God. Aaron?”
Jaye’s brow puckered as she gaped at her brother, in a sweater and jeans, slouched awkwardly on the path before her. Aaron, too, stared at her like he’d seen a ghost.
NED GAPED at the woman in front of him. Small, brunette, and fiery, when he saw her he’d immediately thought of chuck. Bu she wasn’t Chuck. And it occurred to the piemaker as he gaped at her and she gaped at him that she had called him a name. A name that wasn’t his name. As quickly as he could, he tried to save face. “Wh-what? No, it’s… I’m-”
His face saving wasn’t quick enough. The brunette rolled her eyes in exasperation and tromped down the steps of her aluminum trailer to grab his arm. Ned’s eyes widened.
“Come on,” she said. “Come inside and siddown. Are you drunk?” she asked, almost as an afterthought.
“No! I’m not drunk,” Ned protested. “And I’m not-”
But the brunette cut him off again. “Well then, Mister I’m-so-smart-I-almost-have-a-PhD, if you aren’t drunk why the hell were you wandering around here at two a.m? And… when did you get your hair cut?”
Ned was being bombarded. He didn’t like being bombarded. He liked when questions came in a gentle stream, or, vastly preferably, not at all. “I… don’t know,” he managed weakly.
The girl frowned and folded her arms. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked. “You’re being weird.”
“I’m okay,” Ned reassured her, un-reassuringly.
The young woman glared at him, assessing him a moment longer before shrugging. “Whatever. You can take the bench tonight. There’s blankets in the cabinet. I have work, so I’m going to sleep. Night.” She stepped through a screen and closed it behind her, hiding her from view.
“Night,” Ned said, voice numb. When the girl left the room, he realized the pricking sensation on the back of his neck wasn’t receding. He thought it had been from the way the little Brunette was glaring at him, but he now realized it was from the eyes. Dozens of eyes, in wax, cloth, metal, or plastic. The brunette across the way was hoarding toy animals. And they were all staring at Ned.
The piemaker felt, rather than heard himself quietly whimper as he sank onto the bench. His eyes darted around to the eyes of the animals, and he shuddered. She was crazy. That would explain why she called him Aaron. She was delusional.
Briefly, he visualized an escape, dashing through the door and onto the gravel path to safety.
But then he visualized her leaping after him and stabbing him to death with the smiley chameleon knife on the drying rack. He shuddered.
Crazy lady did say she had work tomorrow. When she left, that’s when he would leave too, sneak away to get to a phone and find Chuck.
In the meantime though, Ned wasn’t about to let his focus waver. He would stay up and alert all night if he had to. No one was going to get the best of the piemaker this time.
NED AWOKE to the brunette shaking his shoulder. “Earth to Aaron!” she snapped. “I’m running late, some on.”
Ned sat upright with a start, swiping the corner of his mouth. “What?”
“I’m dropping you at home on my way to work. And there’s an evaluation today, so I actually have to be on time for once. Are you coming?”
“... What?” Ned asked blankly, still trying to process the fact that he hadn’t been murdered while he slept.
The brunette rolled her eyes. “Oh my God. The one time I go out of my way to be nice.” She was wearing a flimsy yellow vest, with a name stitched onto it in a pleasantly formal script. Jaye.
“... You’re right. Sorry, Jaye,” Ned said carefully. “I’m just a little out of it. Rough night.”
Jaye eyed him. “Uh-huh. Well, come on.” she stood, snatching a purse and departing the trailer. He had to duck to get through the door. Jaye was sitting in an old robin’s egg sedan, looking a little worse for the wear. The door creaked when he opened it, and the car creaked when he sat down. There was slightly too little room for his long legs, so he drew them up slightly closer to his chest than as necessarily comfortable as he fought with the stubborn old seatbelt.
Jaye eyed him as she started the car, but said nothing. Ned fidgeted and heartily appreciated the silence.
JAYE WATCHED THE ROAD as she drove, and Aaron watched his knees. She had thought the pair of them had been getting closer recently, what with the whole ‘smuggling their former housekeeper out of Canada’ ordeal and the reveal that inanimate animal faces talked to her and told her to do things. Which Aaron was really only questionably okay with. Jaye was fairly sure that he believed that she believed it, but she couldn’t gauge how much farther the belief went than that. For a theologian, Aaron Tyler was surprisingly skeptical, and she had to wonder if seeing her… collection of animals hadn’t shorted his circuits a little.
She wanted to press him about it, to investigate and see what was bothering him so profoundly, but she knew that if you messed with a short circuit, you could get shocked.
So she dropped him off in front of their nice house with its nice lawn and nice cars in the driveway without a word besides “Say hi to mom and dad for me. And ignore Sharon for me.” She offered her brother a smile as he folded himself out of the car, and he smiled a rather watery smile back, offering her a little wave as she edged out of the driveway and headed to work.
THAT WAS IT. Ned’s chance for escape. He looked around, realizing he had no idea which way to go. Well… Jay had gone left, so he’d go right. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat and started walking.
“Aaron!” a woman called. A woman that wasn’t Jaye. Ned froze. “ There you are! You didn’t come home last night. Where have you been?”
“... I stayed with Jaye,” Ned said, turning. His nerves rose up, as they often did, to wrest control of his tongue away from his better judgement. Faced with this stern blonde woman bearing down on him, his nerves began their traitorous dance. “I didn’t sleep - couldn’t sleep - wasn't sleepy so I… went for a walk. Under the moonlight. To… clear my head. Of… things. Things that needed clearing. Like how you get cobwebs over your favorite photograph and something about that photograph just feels so different until the cobweb and the memory of that cobweb have been wiped away and the photograph is clean again. So that’s what I was doing out there. At night. In the dark.” The blonde woman was rapidly losing patience for Ned’s rambling, so the piemaker concluded. “So I crashed at Jaye’s place.” His eye twitched. It often twitched when he lied.
The blonde woman just stared at him incredulously for a long silent beat, before looking up at the sky. “ One normal sibling. That’s all I wanted.” She strode past ned to a sleek, silver SUV. “Mom and Dad are still eating breakfast. See you later.” She climbed in and drove away. Ned looked after her. His head hurt again. Apparently Jaye’s delusion wasn’t just hers. The affliction seemed to extend to her family. And Ned, as caught off-guard her as he had been by Jaye the night before, seemed to have further solidified the idea that he, somehow, was this family’s flesh-and-blood. He sighed and, momentarily defeated, turned to go inside.
Chapter 2: In Which Aaron Tyler Joins a Cult. Maybe.
AARON TYLER, twenty six years, six months, six days, six hours and eight minutes old, was lying on a sofa. It was a soft sofa, if a bit worn with age, and comfortable. A perfectly reasonable sofa to be laying on. It was also only barely too short for his long frame, his legs curled under him at a much kinder angle than usual.
Arms wrapped around the throw pillow that cushioned his head, he regarded the room. It looked like the living room of a smallish apartment, with pale mustard wallpaper in a subtle floral pattern and decor that conjured images of another time. From his spot on the sofa, Aaron could see a doorway to a tidy, mint green kitchen and a short hallway leading off to other rooms.
Aaron wasn’t immediately alarmed by the situation. He had fairly keen instincts, when he cared to use them, and despite his strange environment, he didn’t feel like he was in any immediate danger.
That sense was subject to change, however, he thought as someone knocked on the door. The rapping was loud and energetic, and Aaron made a little face as he tentatively stood to go answer it, wiping the side of his mouth. He adjusted the black tee shirt and pajama pants he had on, but had never seen before, and opened the door.
“Ned! There you are!” a small brown-haired woman cried. Aaron’s first immediate thought was of his sister Jaye, but his sister Jaye knew his name. And his sister Jaye wouldn’t be caught dead in the nineteen-fifties style candy colored tea dress the woman in front of him was sporting. Aaron’s brow creased. “Olive and I were getting worried. Did you lose track of time? We put some pies in to bake, so there’ll be some warm ones when we open… your hair looks different.”
Aaron frowned down at the little woman in confusion, and as the little woman looked back up at him, her smile began to fade. “Ned? Are you okay?”
Aaron took a split second to review his options, and decided that the best one was, for the immediate time being, to play along. “Yeah,” he said, frown easing into a smile of his own. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just… let me get ready, and I will meet you downstairs.”
The young woman looked appeased, but Aaron couldn’t tell if she really believed him or not. “Okay… I’ll tell Olive to hold off on opening everything until you get there.”
Aaron nodded. “Thanks.” He closed the door and leaned his forehead on it pensively. Tea Dress Lady certainly seemed to know him, but not as him. She called him Ned… and apparently she wasn’t the only one who knew about this Ned guy, there was a girl named Olive waiting to open a shop or something. Aaron didn’t have long, as Tea Dress Lady was waiting on him. But he decided to do some quick reconnaissance. He headed to the kitchen first, peeking inside the fridge. “Fruits, vegetables… tofu?” So this Ned was a vegetarian. Okay. Unpleasant but good to know. Aaron closed the fridge and looked at the notes pinned to the side with magnets. A shopping list, a couple of vegetarian recipes, and… the phone number for the on-call medical examiner? A phone number with too few digits, that began with the letters ‘KL’?
Tea Dress LAdy hadn’t seemed inherently malevolent, but now something was pricking at the back of Aaron’s mind. He peeked into rooms until he found the bedroom, and that’s when things got weird.
In on corner of the room, there were two twin beds pushed together, a nightstand on each side. That wasn’t inherently wrong, just a little eccentric. What pushed it into the realm of weirdness was the clear vinyl sheet hanging on a frame between the two beds. It had a sleeve sewn into it, a closed sleeve with no arm or hand holes.
Aaron tried to come up with a reason that would exist at all, let alone in the context it existed in, but he failed to think of anything except to keep two bodies from touching at night.
Did everyone in this apartment complex have such freaky abstinence measures installed in their bedrooms?
Aaron blinked. Maybe they did. Maybe he’d been kidnapped, taken from his bed and brought to who knows where to be part of some… cult. Some weird, lost-in-time abstinence vegetarian cult. And Tea Dress Lady was either the brainwasher or a brainwashee, which would kind of explain why she thought his name was Ned and why she just sort of took everything about their conversation in stride. If he went downstairs, would she take him to their cult leader?
Aaron blinked again. It occurred to him that he was being irrational, that he didn’t have any kind of solid proof of a cult. Weirdness does not a religious breakaway sect make. But he couldn’t shake the niggling notion that something wasn’t right, and the fact that he didn’t know how he got to this apartment, with its vinyl sheets and its tofu, was beginning to unsettle him.
He went to the wardrobe and opened it up. Inside were neatly folded pairs of similar dark jeans, plain dark tee shirts in various shades of gray and black, and suit jackets and button down shirts in similarly drab colors, aside from a single white one. Aaron made a face at the clothes, but picked some anyways and changed. They fit him like they’d been made for him, which set off another alarm bell in his head. This situation was getting bizarre. More bizarre. Bizarre-er.
It took some hunting, but he found a pair of converse sneakers and some clean socks. He made a face at the shoes before putting them on. He wasn’t a particular fan of converse. They made him feel flat footed. Aaron preferred a little support.
Quickly, he stepped into the small bathroom to check himself out. He wore a black button-down and jeans, and it made him look somber and withdrawn. After contemplating his appearance a moment longer, he pushed his hair back from his face, adding to the image. Somber and withdrawn it is, then, he thought as he stepped out of the apartment to meet Tea Dress Lady below and go to wherever this shop was.
He met Tea Dress Lady in the lobby, and she smiled up at him. “Well don’t we look all somber and withdrawn today?” she prodded, with a kind of intimate familiarity that made Aaron’s considerable eyebrows twitch northwards. “You know, somber and withdrawn is very good look on you. It makes you all distinguished, like a theatre owner or a funeral director.” She paused. “Did you get some good news or something while you were up there?”
Aron frowned, cocking his head. “No… not particularly. Why?”
“Oh. No reason. You’re just standing very straight. Straighter than normal, I mean.” Tea Dress Lady looked him up and down. “Huh.”
Aaron considered how he was standing. His lovingly strict, well bred parents had tried to breed their children just as well. Sharon was objectively their biggest success, while Jaye… wasn’t. Aaron fell somewhere in the middle, as ever. It hadn’t occurred to him that his posture was particularly good or particularly bad. It just was.
But Aaron didn’t say any of this. He just said “Well… Thanks. I was trying something new.”
Tea Dress Lady’s eyebrows rose. “Oh! Well… new looks nice. You should try new more often.” She smiled and sashayed towards the front of the building. “Now come on, sleepyhead! Customers are queueing. Isn’t that such a neat word? Queue? It’s just like the letter ‘Q’, but with a bunch of little vowels waiting quietly behind it for their turn.”
Aaron followed her, absently wondering if she was on any sort of narcotic, but more intensively wondering about the intimacy she shared with him via her face and voice, but not via her touch. Physical contact is incredibly important to mankind. It holds a nearly mystical sway over the homo sapiens race, which is why, among other things, a good handshake is such a power move. IT is a show, however minute, of dominance and control. Just like a touch, a handhold here, a nudge there, is such a powerful display of affection. Tea Dress Lady was clearly affectionate towards him, in a chirpy birdsong kind of way, but for whatever reason she had made no move to touch him.
This is all very weird, Aaron couldn’t help but think as he followed her to work.
Tea Dress Lady let him in through a door in the back. A mouth watering smell wafted past, reminding him of his housekeeper's cooking.
“Well?” the Tea Dress Lady said, peeping over his shoulders. “You gonna go in or what?”
Aaron shook himself. “Oh, yeah. Right. Going in.” This being said, he went in. The kitchen was warm, that pleasant warmth of happy hearth fires and hot tea on a cold night. The warmth of a home.
“Ned!” a high-pitched voice shrieked. “There you are! People are lining. Up.” A small blonde woman, easily a foot and a half shorter than him, bustled up. Her high heels clicked on the linoleum, and she put her tiny fists on slender hips. “Can I open the doors now or what?”
“Oh… yeah. Sure.”
The small woman, presumably Olive, was not as modest as the Tea Dress Lady. Her tangerine uniform wasn’t quite… zipped in front, and Aaron noticed. Any red-blooded man inclined towards the fairer sex wouldn’t be able to help but notice. She grinned dazzlingly up at him. “Great! I’ll work my magic with the customers, you work your magic with your pies, pie-guy!” And with a friendly punch to the bicep, she was off, bouncing away to let in their patrons. Aaron looked helplessly at Tea Dress Lady, panic stirring in him.
“Oh relax,” the cheerful brunette said, hopping up onto a counter. “She doesn’t know, silly. It’s just a figure of speech.”
Aaron frowned and cocked his head at her before shaking it dismissively. “No, it’s not that…”
“Then what is it?” the young lady asked, kicking her feet as her expression became tinged with concern.
“Nothing,” Aaron said. It’s nothing.” He lied. What it really was was that Aaron had never baked a pie before. Nor had he baked anything before, to be perfectly frank. Yvette, the Tylers’ faux-French Canadian housekeeper had done all the baking and braising and steaming and stewing the family had needed.
But Aaron didn’t tell Tea Dress Lady any of this. Instead, he said with a fake smile on his face and terror in his heart, “Let’s bake some pies.”
“That’s the spirit!” Tea Dress Lady hopped off the counter and opened her mouth to say something, but before her words could find their way out, Olive’s found their way into the kitchen from the front of the store. “Chuck!” Olive called. “Help me with the espresso machine?”
Tea Dress Lady - Chuck - rolled her eyes fondly. “I will be right back.” So saying, she trotted off, dress flouncing about her knees, to go help the waitress with whatever was wrong with the espresso machine. In the kitchen, Aaron leaned on the center island, letting his head fall into his hands. “Let’s bake some pies?” he groaned to himself. “Why, why, why did I say that? Idiot.”
He suddenly became very keenly aware of a pair of eyes on him. Slowly, he looked up to meet the gaze of… a golden retriever. It was looking at him very oddly, apparently confused. Upon meeting Aaron’s gaze, its tail wagged once. Aaron blinked at it and dropped into a crouch. “... Hey there, fella,” he said hesitantly.
Equally hesitantly, the dog stepped a single step closer to him. It wasn’t growling, but it didn’t seem ecstatic to see him, either.
Slowly, Aaron held out a hand for the dog to sniff. Instead of inquisitively snuffling around his fingers, like the dogs Aaron was used to, as the hand neared proximity to this dog it bared its teeth with a soft but pointed growl. Aaron stood up quickly and eyed it with suspicion.
The dog eyed him back.
“Ned? Do we have a triple berry on the rack?” Chuck called. “I forget.”
Right. Pies. He was supposed to be making pies. Averting his eyes from the dog’s penetrating mahogany stare, He glanced at the rack of premade pastries. “Uh… Yeah, looks like. Want me to serve up a slice?”
“Three!” Chuck called back.
Aaron did as he was told, handing off the pieces of pie when the waitress came to collect them. She peered past him into the kitchen. “You haven’t even sifted out the flour yet,” she noted, frown audible. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Who, me? I’m fine, Chuck,” he reassured the young woman cavalierly. He lied. “I’m just… getting a slow start today. Rough night, and all.”
Her frown became visible now, grey-green eyes full of concern. “You slept badly?”
He shrugged and looked away from her gaze. “Eh? It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible. It was mediocre. I promise I’m okay.”
“Okay…” Chuck eyed him once more before turning in a flourish of confectionary skirts and the wafting perfume of fresh triple berry to deliver the slices.
Well… Aaron thought as he retreated to the kitchen, avoiding the weird dog. At least now he knew to sift flour first. He eyed the marble countertop with distaste before ducking into cabinets to find the flour, and hoping whatever was used to sift it was nearby.
Behind him, the two women met in between the pie rack and the front counter to put their heads together.
“Is Ned being weird?” Olive asked.
“He’s being a little weird,” Chuck admitted. “Anytime someone mentions baking to him, he just looks panicked. I’ve tried asking him what’s wrong, but he says he’s fine, which is odd because anyone who could see could see that he wasn’t fine and I know Ned loves secrets… but I thought he’d gotten past keeping them from me.” Chuck sighed and shrugged. “I just… worry about him sometimes.”
“Is he too young to have a midlife crisis?” Olive asked. “Maybe he’s just realizing life is short and pies are a trap. A sticky sweet sugary trap… that he doesn’t ever partake in for some reason.”
“I’m not having a midlife crisis,” Aaron piped up, straightening with th flour and the sifter. “And you two do not need to worry about me.”
Olive turned to him in offense. “Excuse me, Mister, but how did you hear that? I was speaking in hushed. Tones. My tones were hushed!”
“Your voice carries,” Aaron said dryly, setting out the flour before peering at a recipe tacked to a corkboard and ducking back into the refrigerator to hunt for some dough.
The bell on the door rang. Olive giggled. “Hi Emerson!”
“Oh!” said Chuck. “Emerson, hello! Three plum?”
“A la mode,” a new voice said, deep, rough, and sure of himself. “Where’s the pie boy?”
“He’s in the kitchen. Just getting started,” chuck said cheerfully.
“I’ll get him!” Olive said. Aaron heard her heels clicking rapidly over, and felt a little finger tapping his shoulder. “Ned, Emerson’s here. He wants to powwow.”
Powwow? Aaron mouthed to himself skeptically as he straightened. “Oh,” he said, trying to sound like a man who had the slightest idea what he was talking about. “Emerson. Great. Coming!”
Internally, Aaron considered why he was still playing along with these girls. Clearly they weren’t in a cult, and though he didn’t know why they were calling him Ned, he figured now was as good a time as any to break it to them, and to this Emerson character, that they were mistaken. He didn’t want to dig his grave any deeper than he needed to.
… Then Aaron actually laid eyes on 'that Emerson character,' and resolved to dig twice as fast and deep as he had been before. Emerson was huge. Nearly as tall as Aaron’s own six foot five inches, and broad of shoulder, Emerson was a powerfully built black guy of indeterminate age who looked perfectly capable of snapping Aaron in half. Aaron couldn’t help but balk, his subconscious filling his mind with images of what would happen if Emerson learned he was an impostor.
At this very moment, Emerson was chatting with chuck over a plate of three plum pie and vanilla ice cream. “What was that about him just getting started? Usually pie boy is in here before the crack of dawn. Brother is obsessed with those pastries.”
Chuck shrugged. “I dunno. He slept in today.”
“Huh,” Emerson said. “Damn.”
“Emerson,” Aaron said, announcing his presence and trying to control the slight tremor in his voice. “Hi.” He felt himself hunch up under the intimidating man’s gaze.
“Hi,” Emerson said without any real sense of greeting. He was eyeing Aaron suspiciously. “You sick or something?”
“What? No. I’m not sick,” Aaron said, waving a hand as if to wave away the very notion.
“Hm.” Emerson still seemed suspicious. But then he shrugged. “Well, don’t start anything. You missed your chance for pie time this morning. Now it’s crime time.”
Aaron blinked. “Crime time?”
“Crime time,” Emerson confirmed. “You and Dead Girl are taking a ride with me to visit the coroner, you’re gonna do what you do, and we’re gonna get acquainted with a drowned hydro-gymnast. The aqua playhouse he worked for is offering a reward for catching the killer. So we gonna catch ourselves a killer.” Emerson took a vindictive bite of three plum, as though it were a deserving criminal and his esophagus was the fast track to gastrointestinal justice.
Aaron found himself staring, as his mind tried to process the avalanche of information the man had just unleashed upon him. Apparently now he wasn’t just expected to play a pie maker who didn’t know how to make pies, he was also a detective with no knowledge of how to detect! So what, half the time this Ned guy was a happy hometown baker-slash-entrepreneur, and the other half he was… what? A bounty hunter? A detective for hire? What skills could a baker that looked like Aaron possibly have that would make him so invaluable to a man like Emerson?
… And had he just called Chuck ‘Dead Girl?’
As this was all playing out in Aaron Tyler’s mind, he realized that his traitorous feet were obediently following the large man and the small woman out to what seemed to be an off white vintage Lincoln Continental.
Aaron really didn’t see how this could go anywhere but downhill from here.
Chapter 3: In Which Ned Tries To Flee
NED WAS HIDING. He hid in Aaron Tyler’s room from Aaron Tyler’s parents, who had doted and fussed over him through breakfast, commenting on his disheveled appearance, asking about his haircut and where he’d been last night. Ned, uncomfortable with familial attentions of any sort thanks to a deadbeat dad and the untimely death of his mother, had privately squirmed and told them a less rambly version of what he had said to the blonde woman (presumably Sharon, who he was apparently supposed to be ignoring). They didn’t seem quite satisfied, but had dropped the subject, and Ned fled to find Aaron’s room and hunker down not long after.
Ned steeled himself, calming his breathing and trying to think rationally. First things first, he would call home, and check on Chuck. Second things second, he would call Emerson and beg for some sort of extradition from wherever he was.
He picked up the phone and dialed the operator. A dry, older woman picked up. “How can I help you.” It wasn’t a question.
“Uh. Transfer me to the Klondike exchange station please?” Ned asked, wrapping a cord absently around his fingers.
“The what.” Still not a question.
“... Klondike exchange station?” Ned said tentatively. “Papen County’s?”
“History joke. Real funny, kid.” The woman didn’t sound like it was funny at all. “But you have better things to do than crank call the operator. If you don’t, that’s kind of pathetic.”
Ned blinked in slight shock. “O-oh. Okay. I’m sorry. Can you look up a number for me?”
The woman sighed. “What is it?”
Ned gave his name and address. The woman was silent for several moments. “Nothing under that listing. You sure you got it right?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.” It was his own name, after all. “Uh… what about Emerson Cod?” He gave emerson’s address as well, but got the same negatory response. “Olive Snook,” he said, desperation creeping into his voice. Nope. “Lily and Vivian Charles!” he cried, desperation having now taken his voice by the throat and shaken it like a dog shakes a rabbit. It cracked.
“... Nope, nothing for them either. You okay, kiddo?” This time it was a question.
“No. But thank you for your help.” Ned hung up. He was suddenly very, very tired. Tired of everything. He didn’t know why he couldn’t reach his friends by phone… but he did see Aaron tyler’s wallet looking back at him from the desk. He reached over and grabbed it. Initially he just guiltily checked for cash as a plan began to form in his mind, but then he saw the corner of a driver’s license. He pulled it out and his mouth dropped open. Staring back at him from the plastic card was… him. Or, he supposed, Aaron Tyler. The hair was different and so was the birthday, but it was unmistakably Ned’s face looking back at him.
Okay, this was officially too weird. A plan crystallized in Ned’s mind. He left the house, stopping a pedestrian and asking the general direction of the bus station. As he walked, he tucked Aaron Tyler’s wallet into his back pocket. If he couldn’t call home, he’d just have to go there.
“LET IT GO,” a stuffed chameleon snapped at Jaye, who held a fly swatter hovering over a stray cockroach.
“Why?” she hissed at it, keeping her voice too low for her customers to hear. “It’s filthy and disease riddled and annoying.”
Jaye worked in Wonderfalls, a Niagara Falls gift shop in a riverside shopping center. And the souvenirs were chatty. As far as Jaye knew, she was the only one who could hear them, But they copped an attitude and told her to do things. Things that she generally did, if only to get a short respite from their cryptic messages.
“Let it go,” the chameleon purred, seeming very confident that she would do as it told her.
Jaye thought about smooshing the bug out of spite, but shook her head and walked away. “Fine. How much harm could one little roach do anyways?” she muttered, retreating behind the counter to help the lengthening line.
The roach, taking its cue from some unknown director, shot off across the floor, making a beeline for a heavyset woman with her arms full of collectable snowglobes. The woman saw the bug coming and shrieked, hurriedly backing away. In her haste, she tripped on a water pistol, discarded by a rambunctious child, and fell, with all the accuracy of a wrecking ball, into a section of bare drywall. Which crumbled beneath her not because of her weight, but because it had been hollowed out and infested. By hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches. They cascaded out of the hole in the wall, scuttling and skittering over the prone woman, who lay there too scared to scream. Some roaches took to the air in order to flee the intruder.
Customers. Lost. Their minds . Mothers were grabbing their children, fathers were shrilling in high pitched voices, old people were trampling youths in the midst of the mass exodus.
And Assistant Manager Mouthbreather was glaring like it was all her fault. Jaye glared accusatory at the chameleon. It grinned back and shrugged.
“Don’t miss your bus!” a stuffed bear suddenly cried.
“What?” Jaye snapped, not caring that Mouthbreather and Roach Lady could hear and see her.
“ Don’t miss your bus! ” The bear and the chameleon chorused.
Jaye’s mouth fell open slightly. “The nerve,” she growled, stalking out of the ruined shop and snatching the bear on her way. “Fine. But you’re coming with.”
“Jaye! Just where do you think you’re going?” Mouthbreather called, trying his damndest to sound semi-assertive.
“I can’t miss my bus,” Jaye called back. And she left.
NED LOOKED AROUND NERVOUSLY as he paid for his ticket. Papen County, one way, all cash, with only two transfers. Once he was home, he would wrap Chuck in a blanket so he could wrap her in his arms and, together again, they could figure out why this had happened to him and who was to blame.
She must be going out of her mind with worry, Ned thought morosely to himself as he settled down on a bench. He rubbed his hands together to ward off against the sight chill.
“Which bus?” Ned heard a woman ask, angrily. “Come on, there are a hundred busses here! Which bus, goddammit? Which bus?” And then, a familiar string of words that made Ned’s heart sink. “Oh my god… Aaron?”
He tried to ignore her, but Jaye Tyler came around the bench to glare at him. A teddy bear dangled from her left fist. “What are you doing here?”
“What? Nowhere. I mean - nothing,” ned said automatically, trying to scowl. He wasn’t very good at it. His madly twitching eye didn’t help.
“You’re at a bus station. You don’t come to a bus station to go nowhere or do nothing. Gimme that.” She snatched the ticket from him before he could possibly protest. Ned glared as the young woman read it and her eyes widened. “Papen County? On the other side of the country? What would possibly possess you to get a one way ticket to nowheresville twenty five hundred miles away?” She peered at him incredulously. “Are you having a ‘sode? Is that what this is?”
Ned didn’t know what a ‘sode was, and therefore elected to keep quiet.
“Oh my god. I’m taking you home. Come on.” Jaye held out a hand. Ned sighed and reluctantly took it, unwilling to cause a scene in the busy bus terminal. Jaye kept a semi-gentle, fully exasperated grip on him all the way back to the car. He got in and sat, looking hard at his knees. Jaye started driving. All was quiet for a few minutes, until, “Is this something I should be telling Mom and Dad about?”
“ No.” Ned’s eyes were wide, apparently even more startled by his volume than Jaye, who twitched a little. “No, no. It’s fine. I’m fine. Peachy keen.”
Jaye eyed him, clearly disbelieving the piemaker’s assertions. “Okay… Can you tell me what’s going on, at least? You’re allowed to be concerned for me, can’t I be a little concerned for you when you go all freaky and off the rails on me?”
“I’m not being freaky,” Ned said sullenly. “I have… a lot on my mind.”
“A lot on your mind,” Jaye repeated. “Must be a big lot, to make you try to flee the state.”
“It is a big lot,” Ned admitted. “But I can’t exactly say what’s in the lot. It’s… it’s another mixture. God, why is it always a mixture?” The last sentence was little more than a plaintive groan as he peered up at the darkening skies.
Jaye gave him a very definitive side-eye as she drove him back to her trailer. “You can sleep here again,” she said, matter-of-factly as they got out of the car. “If I send you back to Mom and Dad like this, they’ll just make you go see Doctor Ron.”
Ned nodded like he know what she was talking about. He didn’t.
“You hungry?” Jaye asked. “I can nuke something.”
Ned shook his head. He was.
But rather than talking to the strange girl named Jaye, he just laid down on the bench. He offered her an awkward, apologetic little smile. She sighed.
“I’ll drop you at home after Mom and Dad leave. You’ve been wearing the same clothes for like two days, and they’ll just chew you out.”
Ned nodded. “Thank you, Jaye.”
She shrugged. “No biggie. Uh… Night, I guess.”