When Ned died, his belongings were already packed. The boxes gathered dust in the back room of the Cryptonomica for two weeks until Kirby could bring himself to even look inside.
One of the first things he did after rummaging through was call Ned’s friends to drop by. Duck had stopped in once or twice before, apparently just to check up on him and Billy. The conversations had been short and slightly awkward; their paths hadn’t intersected much before they met through Ned. Kirby appreciated the thought, though.
He stood now with the pair in the Inner Sanctum, contemplating Ned’s possessions.
“Is there a law about returning stolen goods after the thief passes? That seems like it would be a law, right?”
“Well, I think the law’s that stolen goods should be returned no matter the state of the person who stole them,” Duck replied dryly.
“Of course, yeah.” Kirby surveyed the piles of boxes again. “So, you’re sure neither of you want anything? There’s a lot of stuff here. No, like, momentos?”
There was a pause before Aubrey spoke. “Do what you want with it. Most of the stuff is probably being missed by somebody out there.” She turned away. Kirby pretended not to notice the tears welling up in her golden-orange eyes.
“I ‘gree with Aubrey. Just… get rid of it.”
As Aubrey nodded and ducked her head, making her way out of the Chicanery, Duck took Kirby aside.
“Look, Kirby. There’s, uh, there’s something we should probably talk about.”
“What? You do want something? I’d be glad to part with it, honestly.”
“No, that ain’t it.” Duck glanced towards Aubrey’s retreating figure. “But I think this conversation’ll have to wait for another time. It’s not really something that can be rushed.”
On that cryptic note, he patted Kirby’s arm and followed his friend. Kirby watched with a twinge of sadness as the ranger put a comforting hand to Aubrey’s shoulder before they got into the waiting truck outside.
He turned back to the pile, and continued to sort through.
The owners of some things were obvious—the famous movie props, the costumes, the Oscar. Others took some digging: jewelry large enough to be identifiable, old books with intelligible inscriptions, several works of art (these were the hardest for Kirby to send away).
Still others, Kirby had no idea what to do with. There wasn’t a clear owner to the fountain pens or nerf guns or collection of old movie posters. These innocuous ones were the worst, those that could have even been Ned’s originally. They inspired in him a jumble of emotions, ranging from anger and confusion at the man he had thought he had known, to amusement at the anecdotes that likely accompanied them, to an intense pain at the loss of that man and those stories.
He shoved the items back into their boxes and left the Chicanery with the door firmly shut. He wasn’t back for another two weeks.
It was one thing to lose someone you cared about.
It was a whole other story when you had seen them die through a video feed and couldn’t do anything to stop it… but that particular memory was too painful to revisit quite yet.
The first thing Kirby had done following the aftermath he’d watched from afar—the ambulances, the arrest, the damn mountain tearing apart—was get on his bike and start pedaling. He hadn’t known where he was going, but when he pulled up in front of Whistle’s Auto Dealership, it felt right. He leaned his bike against a nicked Toyota Camry. He sat down. His gaze fell on the heap of twisted metal and shattered windshields that made up the dealer’s scrapyard.
For some reason, he felt close to Ned then, knowing that his beloved Lincoln Continental was somewhere in that pile. It would be crushed and broken, torn to pieces by the cranes and shredders, but still very much there. That is, all but the spare parts that had been passed along to other cars.
Kirby didn’t believe in reincarnation. But looking out over the mound of twisted steel through blurred vision, knees pulled to his chin, he began to wonder. To hope. Ned’s prize and glory, repurposed to new homes out on the road; a tire here, a spark plug there.
So maybe parts of Ned were out there somewhere. Not physical, obviously, but more… his soul. Or essence, spirit, whatever you wanted to call it.
Ned wasn’t gone, no more than Ruby was. There had just been a redistribution of matter. A state change. The universe had… repurposed him.
These were the thoughts that drifted through Kirby’s head as he cried quietly in the scrapyard. And for a moment, he was okay.
That night had been a month ago. And as he had done every morning since then, Kirby took a breath and steeled himself before unlocking the door to the Cryptonomica. He knew it would be a sad, empty sight inside—well, except for one thing.
Billy looked up from his chair when he entered, his handsome face marred only slightly by the shoelace strands dangling from between his teeth.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?” Kirby asked, setting his MacBook down on the desk and taking a seat. He winced a bit as he did so—sitting hadn’t been quite the same after that unfortunate nail gun fight.
“Duuuuck,” Billy bleated in response.
Kirby smiled and gave a thumbs up.
It must be frustrating not to be able to communicate, he thought as he glanced over the papers before him; mostly bills. He had assumed at first that the Gosling-doppelganger just had a speech impediment; or at the least, a very one-track mind. Plus an interesting diet. It didn’t bother him—it was nice to have someone else to help around the place when Ned was off doing god-knows-what, even if the help was a bit, well, different. It wasn’t until the “Pine Guard” had sat Kirby down and explained everything that he realized just how different Billy really was.
Of course, that had been a bit of a world-shattering talk, underscored effectively by meeting a real live cryptid: Billy sans watch. It explained a lot, yeah, but also undermined the fundamental truths Kirby had built his world view on. But sure, no big deal that he’d been spending the past few months having movie nights with a literal goat-man.
He supposed he wasn’t the only one having to come to terms with that reality. That was likely the reason behind the Cryptonomica’s current struggles; people knew too much, were too disillusioned to the “cryptids” plaguing their town. Plus, of course, no way tourists were getting past the roadblocks.
The only reason they were even still open was the outliers—those folks, few and far between, who wanted information. As much as they could get. They didn’t hide in their homes, scared of what they had seen, but tried instead to understand it. Kirby wasn’t sure how much the painted animal bones and blurry bigfoot photos of his museum were helping them, but he did the best he could to assist without spilling the Pine Guard’s secret.
They had even had a few FBI agents drop by, with their dark suits and shiny badges, peering eyes and probing questions.
Kirby had learned his lesson about being too forthcoming with the agents after Ned’s scolding on showing Stern the bigfoot footage. However, he put on a smile and led them around the exhibits, keeping Billy safely in the backroom while they visited.
He had given the tour plenty of times before, of course, but now it was under the guise of owner. That meant he was the one they would talk to—“interrogate” might be a bit strong, but that’s what it felt like—when they wanted to know something more about the odd goings-on in Kepler.
He still didn’t feel like that title fit him, despite knowing the deed was under his name now. He was just taking care of things, keeping the shop running until the real owner returned, driving a classic car or an obvious food truck and singing show-tunes at the top of his lungs.
Kirby sometimes wondered if he should change up his wardrobe to something more appropriate—Suit jacket? Parka? Wookie costume? Well, something more Ne d . He’d been mildly scolded for being so “sloppily dressed” in the past; it would probably help him act the part of owner if he looked at least a bit more professional.
Owner, again. Kirby remembered asking Ned about how he’d come into the property, back before he’d started running off to—apparently—save the world every two months.
Ned had given him the spiel; Bad luck, old friend, and how he felt stuck. Kirby thought he could relate, but then was nothing compared to now. It wasn’t just coming into the Cryptonomica, which was looking more and more like a dead-end job in this frightened town.
It was also the town itself, teetering on the brink of full collapse, a sense of apprehension in the air.
It was the loss of his mentor, his friend.
It was his whole life, leading either to an empty nothing, or towards something ineffable and terrifying.
This wasn’t what he had expected he would be doing, back when he was a kid. He thought he’d be a journalist, or an artist, or a ballerina-firefighter (that had been an interesting phase). The closest he had gotten—putting those talents to a different use—was The Lamplighte r .
Speaking of that. He flipped open his MacBook and waited patiently as the computer booted up and he logged on.
He had been meaning to start it up again, to help keep his mind off of everything, but it seemed like a waste of time. He couldn’t get past the roadblocks to put it up in neighboring towns, and there was no way it would influence the people in Kepler to care.
He opened an empty document and stared blankly at the blinking cursor. “Recent cryptid activity” should’ve been obvious, but he just couldn’t bring himself to turn the tragedy of the Collapse or Ned’s death into some clickbait poster for residents to ball up and throw away when they found it pinned to their lampposts. Even thinking about it brought a knot to his stomach, and making up some B.S. about the Jersey Devil or Nessie didn’t feel right either.
He closed the document.
Next, he clicked open his browser, sighing as a pop-up flashed in the corner. He hadn’t visited the InterNed for weeks; it didn’t seem like much of a priority. Without his upkeep, viruses would probably overtake it in a matter of days. Ah, well, that truly wasn’t much of a loss. There were bigger things to worry about.
Closing the pop-up, he turned his attention to the official Cryptonomica Website—something he had set up a few years ago to stir up some business, thinking that Ned would be incapable of making it. (Even with the fast and efficient service that was Squarespace.) He wasn’t sure if Ned’s developing the virus-ridden yet complex InterNed confirmed or denied his suspicions that the man was terrible with technology.
The website was mostly inactive now, save for a few preset updates on ticket sales and some scheduled announcements on famous cryptid activity happening on that day, years ago. He had shut down the “Saturday Night Dead” timer that kept ticking perpetually down.
Kirby had attempted to make plans for one last show, a tribute to its creator, but was stopped short every time. Why did the program’s claim to fame have to be zombies and ghosts and undead? Why did the title itself have to be painful?
Besides, every time he tried to do it, he got stuck. Just like with everything else. Couldn’t put together the words, couldn’t make the plans.
It was too soon. Maybe someday he could organize a memorial episode, have some people speak about the late host, show one of his favorite old horror films. Kirby had only stage-managed before, but he could probably hack the whole production.
Maybe there’d be an audience then, people who weren’t too scared or too angry to watch.
Kirby swiveled in his chair and glanced around the room. Everything was mopped and polished, all the exhibits in good condition. Billy was happily watching the bigfoot video on its monitor—or at least, looking at the colors as they moved across the screen. There was nothing much to do. Except… he eyed the door to the Chicanery.
The remaining contents of the boxes were much the same as he remembered them— Ned’s clothes, some books he’d clearly bought to brush up on cryptid mythology, and the objects that might have been his or might not. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Kirby wondered vaguely if any of the outfits would fit, but dismissed the idea as too weird. Or maybe too painful.
It still felt strange to handle Ned’s possessions, like he was a kid poking around in his parent’s bedroom while they were out. Soon he would hear the door click open, sending him scrambling to his feet to disguise his trespassing.
But all he could see in the adjoining room was Billy regarding an empty RC Cola can carefully, as if considering whether or not to take a bite out of the aluminum.
Kirby didn’t know how much the goat-man understood about the situation. His bleats had seemed upset when Kirby told him—although he did try to eat Ned’s letter, which consisted solely of “Pizza. Duck. Grow. -Ned ‘Bahhh’ Chicane.”
Kirby’s own letter was tucked in his back pocket, the stationery wrinkled and ink smudged by now. He didn’t need to take it out to remember its contents; he had read the words so often they were etched inside his mind. They flashed through it now, unprompted.
I fucked up, and now I’ve got to go. For good, most likely.
You’ve been a good assistant—and friend—over the years, and the Cryptonomica probably wouldn’t be half the place it is today without you.
So, it’s yours! Congratulations, you get the reins to this tourist trap in the middle of nowhere. Maybe you can spruce it up a bit; god knows you’re creative enough to get some new projects underway. Maybe another painting, like that one you did for me when we first met.
You met Victoria then, didn’t you? Yep, she’s the one who saddled me with the gig like I’m doing to you. You’d have liked her, I think, despite her being the reason I stuck around this town for so long—maybe longer than I should’ve.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my life here. Filming bullshit in a wookie costume, producing our own TV show, nail gun fights… I’ll remember those times wherever I go next.
Take care of Billy, won’t you?
And, for the love of god, use a coaster for your RC Cola cans.
Ned ‘Unemployed’ Chicane.”
He had probably found that funny, sitting there at his desk, signing over the deed. It was hard to imagine that only a few hours later, he would be sprawled on the cold earth as he bled out…
And that was too much. Kirby was on his feet, pushing the coat he had been handling aimlessly to the floor. There were too many boxes, too much stuff he didn’t have any idea what to do with.
He just couldn’t deal with it: these boxes sitting around, taking up space. There was too much else to worry about—the Pine Guard stopping by to conspire more and more often, the FBI agents poking around, making sure Billy was being taken care of, paying the bills—he didn’t have the time to go through each of them, giving every item the proper attention. He could put that off until everything had settled a little more. He just needed somewhere to put them—out of sight, out of mind.
With a burst of inspiration, Kirby strode to the landline and dialed the number for the Fifth Second Methodist Bank of Kepler, West Virginia.
“Hey, Penn, it’s Kirby. I’m calling to open a safety-deposit box.”
While the teller droned on about fees and policies, Kirby’s heart-rate began to slow. Making a decision was calming.
While he listened, his eyes drifted to the coat he had discarded on the floor, the bright fabric crumpled against the linoleum. Suddenly, he was transported to one of Duck’s visits, a week or so ago.
After the initial remarks were exchanged, Kirby had stood stiffly by his desk, unsure of what to say or do with his visitor.
“I do appreciate you coming over, uh, Ranger Newton, but—”
“Okay, Duck, but it really isn’t necessary. We’ve got everything under control here; it’s definitely quieter than usual, so I don’t need any help or anything. If you want some time alone in the place, just let me know, but there’s no need to keep dropping in if it’s just to check on us.”
Duck cleared his throat. “Look, um, Kirby. I don’t know you super well, but Ned trusted you, and he trusted me to look in on you from time to time. I don’t know if he wrote you a letter like he did Aubrey and I—”
Kirby nodded mutely.
“Yeah, so, you get it. I mean, I can’t imagine the goat is a great conversationalist, so if you need somebody to talk to…” He trailed off.
“Honestly, I’m doing okay. We weren’t really that close, he—he was just my boss.”
“Look, kid…” Kirby shifted his eyes away from Duck’s questioning gaze. “I’m just about the worst liar there is, but I can recognize when someone’s not being totally honest, even with themself.”
Kirby started to protest, but Duck cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“I’m not suggesting that you’re not doing just fine. That’s not my place to say. All I’m saying is, I know you were his friend for years, whether or not that was mutual. I know you had to watch it all go down through those drone things he had set on the Hornets. And I know it can be hard to deal with that, easier to bottle it up or push it down . It’s better to work through stuff. So, if you need some help with that, I’d say we’re all going through pretty much the same thing.”
“You… sound like you know what you’re talking about,” Kirby replied carefully.
There was an emotion in Duck’s face that he couldn’t quite place—sadness? dry amusement?—but then he shrugged, and it was gone. “Aubrey has claimed to have a background in grief counseling. I think I’ve picked up a few things.”
Kirby zoned back in to the teller saying his name pointedly. He paused.
“You know what, Penn, I’m going to have to call you back.”
He replaced the phone to its cradle and regarded the boxes again. Was stowing them in the bank just another way to avoid his feelings? Shove them away until that intangible “someday” when he’d have time to deal with them? Maybe it was better to face it, work through them once and for all.
They had talked long ago about selling some stuff on EBay to keep the store afloat. That didn’t seem quite right, now. He would donate what he could; the clothes and toys and books. Somebody could make use of those, maybe they’d even bring a person out there joy.
The un-donateable things… the movie posters, the torn and marked-up books, even the fake IDs. Those, he had a different use for.
If he couldn’t write The Lamplighter , or organize Saturday Night Dead, or even keep the Cryptonomica busy, at least he could do this. If his words couldn’t make sense out of everything that had happened, maybe his brush and hands could. This was a purpose he could put his emotions to, something productive.
He cracked open a can of RC Cola, set it on top of a coaster, and got to work.
Three days later, he was finished. He, Billy, Duck and Aubrey were gathered around the final product, hung directly between the bigfoot mural and the Chicanery door. Kirby had made sure it was the first thing you saw when you entered the museum, what would greet him and his customers every day.
Duck finally broke the silence.
“It’s really good, Kirby. You captured him well.”
“Yeah. I think Ned—I think he would’ve liked it,” Aubrey murmured.
“Grooow,” Billy added.
Kirby’s eyes welled with tears for the first time since the scrapyard, surveying the collage—the brushstrokes and earthy tones, the repurposed trash and treasures forming the bearded face of the man he had known for so long. Kirby would grow, and so would the Cryptonomica, eventually. So would Kepler. They would grow past this.
But now he had made sure that they wouldn’t forget.
Stenciled carefully across the bottom of the portrait were six simple words.
“In Loving Memory:
Edmund Kelly Chicane.”