Your mouth is as dry as dust, your eyes drier still. Your stomach is tied into a swollen knot, and your heart hurts like you've been rammed through with a rusted sword. It's been two days since you burst into your room, locked the door, and threw yourself onto the floor in a distraught, sobbing heap. You haven't moved an inch or slept a wink, and you don't foresee the circumstances changing anytime soon.
Had you the will to stand, you'd put an end to your misery.
John rejected you. You told him you loved him, and even though you know his feelings for you are requited, he rejected you. It's no wonder, objectively speaking: you were a manipulative, lying, repugnant coward. It's only right. But that doesn't mean that you're dealing with it any better.
You've squeezed out every last tear in your body, and all that remains of your wallowing is an overbearing numbness that weighs you down onto the floor.
You're fairly certain you're in some state of shock.
It had been painful enough to harbor the blame for Dave's death, even harder to stomach lying to John about it. For what has been a few weeks since you'd met John and opened the can of Skaian worms (a fitting nickname for the gods, surely,) it has felt like months, if not years. The toll of stress and keeping your head on straight has finally caught up with you, and you can barely make sense of anything anymore.
But John decimated the last threads of sanity stitching you together, when he'd effectively knifed you in the heart with the fact that you were the reason everyone had suffered everything.
You had been the one beating the life out of Dave. You were ultimately the motivating factor for John to decide to leave behind his dad and to become a god in order to save Dave. You were the reasons gods died. Had you not been such a fucking degenerate, John would have been able to live out a normal life with his family and friends, as would Dave had been able to--and sure, they both would have died eventually, but at least it would have been naturally, in their own time, and not in some twisted act of tragedy.
They could have been saved from you. John would never have suffered universes of pain. Dave could have… You'd like to think he would have eventually found another way out. More importantly, you would eventually have ceased to exist.
That is something that bothers you. If you had been beating the shit out of Dave, how had someone like you ended up as a god? Ordinarily, you'd be running down the path to The Overlook to ask John and to hash out all of these thoughts, but that's no longer an option for you. It isn't even what drives you most crazy.
What bothers you worst is that, no matter how you might agonize or regret the situation, the fact is that this is your reality--but you don't know what your reality really is anymore.
Somewhere beyond the barricade of your door, you hear a shuffling, your "cousin" puttering around between the living room and kitchen again, in what you assume is another trip for food. Why she would waste time eating, you can only guess; seeing as she's another god, food is unnecessary.
At some time yesterday, Roxy had let herself back in. You don't know how she made her way back--don't know if she, like John, could fly, or if John had assisted her off of the cliff, or if some other supernatural ability was at play. You don't know and you don't care. You can only wonder at how she hid it from you for so long--why she bothered at all. Rose, too--and Jake.
You'd been surrounded by gods for the entirety of the only life you remember living, and never even knew. And why? What gain did they receive by playing at mortality? At pretending to age and grow taller, and working a job and attending a university? At humoring themselves with romance and familial bonds, at your expense? Why not just live wherever they pleased, without a care for money or sustenance or what came of tomorrow?
Then again, why had you lied? Are you really one to judge?
You laboriously rotate through the same spiral of open-ended questions; and as the day transitions into twilight, the last of sunlight on your bedroom floor fading away, at last, a knock sounds at your door.
You've never heard Roxy this timid. She sounds almost repentant, just knocking at your door, while she's a guest in your home and you are ignoring her so you can starve yourself on your bedroom floor. She might as well be a stranger to you now, though, and your tone is unkind to her as you dredge up your voice from the bitter caverns of your throat.
She doesn't shy away.
"Can I… talk to you?"
"Do I have a choice?"
Her feet scuff against the base of the door, and you can picture her shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her lip doing that pouty thing she does when she's worried or embarrassed.
She might have lied--you might not have known she was a goddess, but you know her as a person. She's still your Roxy. You can't turn her away.
"Of course you do," she murmurs into the door, her voice muddled by the density of it. "But… there are some things you deserve to know, and I… I want to be the one to tell you."
If only you had said that to John, before things had fallen victim to your idiocy.
You're obligated to comply with her now, to have this conversation, and not through the door.
You force your stiffened joints into action and collect yourself off of the ground. Your head is pounding, your chest is aching, your knees are screaming, and you really need to pee; but you get to your feet and to the door and open it to let Roxy in.
Like a guilty child, her hair a frizzy mop of unruly curls, her eyes darkened from crying, and her mouth doing that pouty thing you expected, Roxy peeks up at you from beneath her bangs and manages the slightest of smiles. She glows like a ghost against the backdrop of yellow light from the kitchen.
You can't stay mad at her, not when she looks like that. Not when you're so despicable yourself.
"Hey. Let me hit the bathroom, and then we can talk."
Roxy steps to the side to give you room to pass by, and you quietly excuse yourself to do your business in the privacy of the bathroom.
You wish your troubles would drain away down the toilet when you flush. You wish that just once, something would come easily to you, and that you wouldn't screw it up. It might not be the type of wish you would have asked of John, but you wish it all the same.
You take a moment to rinse and towel off your face, and swish some mouthwash in your mouth. Mint stings the inside of your mouth, burns at your gums and the sensitive places under your tongue, but it's pitiful in comparison to the hurt festering inside of you. You want a shower, scalding hot, to melt away your anguish; but you can't keep Roxy waiting for much longer, or else you'll chicken out of your talk with her, and so you settle for emptying your mouth into the sink before exiting the bathroom.
Roxy is loitering about in the living room, peering pensively at some photo of you and Dave mounted on the wall. It's a picture of the two of you when you were no more than seven or eight, one of the last shots of you two together. You've seen enough of pictures lately; you don't join her.
You instead pad over to the kitchen at the behest of your gnawing and neglected stomach, and peek in the fridge. To your surprise, the shelves are mostly empty, despite your generous stocking not even a week prior. You knew Roxy could eat, judging by the heaping portion sizes she had scarfed down in front of you beforehand, but it's still startling to see your entire fridge depleted of anything remotely edible.
So she's a stress eater. A funny vice for a goddess.
The freezer offers you up a mound of frozen burritos from your extensive meal prepping some time ago, and you content yourself with a plate of four burritos to reheat in the microwave, and a glass of orange juice. At least Roxy had been sensible enough to leave your juice alone.
By now, Roxy has acknowledged your station in the kitchen, and she moves over to you. She seats herself at the dining table, and once your food is warmed, you join her. You sit across from her and begin to eat, and let her initiate the conversation. To your mild frustration, she doesn't; she folds her arms across the table and taps her fingers against her forearms, eyes slanted away, lips quirked into a frown.
It's so very, very hard not to shout.
You swallow a mouthful of food, sip your juice, and breathe as calmly as you can through your nose, before you dare to speak.
At least you have some idea of where to start.
"Yeah?" Her eyes turn on you then, large and glossy, and you feel your face soften around the edges slightly. She's been trying not to cry.
"You don't have to, right?"
"No--I mean, yeah--I mean, you're right. Sorry--I--sorry."
You do sigh harshly this time, but not at Roxy. Not at anyone, really. You're just so tired--so weary of what's been done to you and your little family.
"Rox," you say softly, and she blinks away tears at your implicit forgiveness. "Relax. Just… let's talk."
"Okay." She wipes her eyes several times with the back and sides of her hands and wrists before finally regaining composure. With a deep breath, she assumes the gentle, hopeful smile of the Roxy more familiar to you, though she still is drawn into herself. "Okay."
You give her space to recover, making a show of busying yourself with your food, tolerating the act of talking with your mouth full.
"What did you want to say?"
You pretend not to see the lifeless glaze in her eyes as she falls back into a subdued quiet.
"I talked to John yesterday, after you left… I--I hadn't seen him for a long time, you know?" She rubs her hands over her arms, gazes down at them sadly, and mutters, "I guess you wouldn't know. But that's what I wanted to talk about."
You hope she doesn't elaborate with much detail exactly what she discussed with John. Nothing good could possibly have been said of you, and you don't think you could take anymore. But this is Roxy's time, and you agreed to let her talk.
"Right. Go ahead."
Your plate gradually empties as you eat, as you listen to Roxy unload the burdens she's carried long before this world was formed.
If John was the storyteller, Roxy is the muse; in her soft spoken, lilting speech, she sweeps your mind into a new corner of perspective, one incredibly more rife with heartache and regrets than you imagined.
How you hate the gods.
"So… when I first became one of the gods, it was actually pretty fun. I got to learn about all these cool things that I could do, experiment with powers, make new friends, discover a whole new world--all of that stuff most kids only dream about. I wasn’t really a kid, I guess, but I wasn’t that old!”
You remember how John’s body was essentially immortalized by his ascension. If the same is true for Roxy, then she couldn’t have been much older than you, either, when she accepted her godhood. Was everyone like this--the same prime age--when the Progenitors uprooted them out of their lives? Had you been the same, too, when you had been one of them?
“I guess I should ask what powers you were granted,” you say, leaning back in your chair, arms loosely folding over your stomach, your plate now empty.
“Hella cool powers,” Roxy beams, but the light dissolves out of her nearly instantaneously. “But not cool enough that I don’t resent them. Not like--I’m not trying to avoid the question. Actually, that’s part of what I wanted to say.”
Her lips flutter noisily as she exhales, and Roxy slumps in her seat like the entire world just piled onto her shoulders. In her mind, you have no doubt it has.
“I can make stuff happen out of nowhere,” she tells you, her hands rotating about in the empty space at the edge of the table. Your brows climb up your forehead as a rose, pink and mature, materializes within her palms. “It’s really fun, now that I got the hang of it. But the other thing that I can do is hide things. Make them go away.” As she says this, the rose becomes obfuscated with a shadow, and the flower dissipates before your eyes, as if it had never existed there at all.
Your eyes scan her hands in wonder, before you blink your focus back to her face; but Roxy is no longer looking at you, her mind transported back to a place in time she’s forcing herself to relive for your sake. Like John, she peels back layers upon layers of a wounded heart, bears herself raw and real to you, like it’s the proper thing to do.
It is not just. You’ve never felt filthier in your life. But you don’t stop her.
“It’s not just material objects that I can do this to. I can do it with… with invisible stuff. With feelings. With,” her voice hitches into a near sob, as she bites out, “Memories.”
You understand the implications immediately. Even if she cannot plainly express herself, restrained by the Progenitors’ laws, just as John, you understand.
The reason you cannot remember your life as a god, or any life until now, is due to her involvement. Roxy is the one who violated your psyche, who wiped your mind clean. The Progenitors didn’t bother to do it themselves--they forced their surrogate children to turn on themselves, like savage beasts.
You don’t know how to feel about this--what’s appropriate to feel--what you want to feel.
You feel nothing at all.
Roxy’s tears glimmer like stars in the low light of the kitchen, trail down the sides of her face as if to caress her still; but she doesn’t acknowledge them, or your stony disposition, or anything around her at all, as she continues on, voice somehow held steady by some act of sheer will alone.
“Jake,” you do flinch here, “he’s one of us, too. I don’t know if you knew that before, but just in case you didn’t, I’m telling you now. He--we both--he can sort of make things happen, in a different way than I can? I don’t know how to explain it, but… it’s like, if you believe hard enough, then things can become permanent. Reality. Like, you just hope hard enough and your wish comes true.”
At your expressionless state, she falters; your lack of response is more than mere patience for her to say her piece--it's outright brooding; but to her credit, Roxy sees it through to the end, despite your silent intensification of emotions (however undefined they may currently be.)
“That's what he does. So if I conjured up this rad prototype of something, he could make it real in a broader sense. And… if I hid something we were trying to make disappear, then he could make it actually gone, like it never existed."
Roxy does weep now, tears overflowing from her eyes, a world of sorrow laid bare in the depths of them.
"The gods," she chokes on the words at first, swallows fiercely to avoid losing her voice, "They made me and Jake--made us--” Her words abruptly take on a harsh pitch, and the tone causes your vellus hairs to prickle from anxiety.
“Do you know what it’s like to take that away from someone? What makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them them? To know you’re going to have to watch them struggle to find out all over again--to watch them forget you even though you haven’t forgotten them?” Roxy’s voice drops into a whisper. “It’s like killing them. It’s murder.”
You don’t know what it’s like to so painstakingly ravage someone’s anamnesis, but you are fully aware of the sensation of mentally reaching for something you inherently know should be there, only to come up empty handed; and you are more than familiar with the guilt of feeling associated with someone’s death.
With some warped irony, you find that not one of you feels blameless for the death of someone.
And you can’t fault Roxy for what she’s done--not when she’s so devastated by the deed and the effects of it, and surely not when she is graciously laying out the truth to you so freely and unprompted. You can’t wish ill on her for being forced into yet another atrocity.
You can generate more enmity for the Progenitors, though now, a part of you wonders to what purpose. If you can’t employ your hatred to any useful end, why exhaust yourself with it?
“I couldn't look at John after what I did,” Roxy continues. She bends, drops her head down onto her arms, and sighs. “I couldn't look at anyone, even if they didn't know anymore, cause I did. Every time I saw their faces, it was like going through it all over again. And when I saw John, it broke me, because he had been trying for so long to hang on to Dave, and look at what happened. Look at what I did to him--to both of them.
“So I ran. I left everyone for a while--tried to look for some way to cope. I hopped around lots of places until I ended up in New York for a while, and… I guess I wasn’t doing so hot, you know? ‘Cause Rosey showed up on my doorstep one day, and said I looked like shit that someone stepped on, and she just kind of, bullied me into letting her live with me, I guess? I’d been trying to run from everyone’s faces, but I couldn’t ever forget them, and I never stopped wondering how they were doing--and then when she showed up, and filled me in on how everyone was doing, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was just what I needed. I found out that Jane was actually really close by to me, and then Rose was there, and then she told me that you guys had ended up in Texas--”
When Roxy pauses for a moment to breathe, to recollect herself and to set herself back on track, you realize that your own chest is unexpectedly stiff and stationary. You force yourself to breathe, too, and do your best not to think about how Rose and Roxy had first appeared in your home one Christmas eve, when you had been barely young enough to remember it, and you had believed that they were just cousins visiting from far away.
You had believed many things. How many of them had been real? Was this conversation even real, or would you later discover it to be some construct of fantasy, just as everything else?
While you struggle with a sudden fit of surreality, Roxy returns to her reminiscing, unaware that her words pass through your attention like sand through a sieve. Your concentration requires inordinate levels of effort; you’re on the verge of blanking out, not unlike a panic attack, but without any of the physical symptoms of duress.
Are you overloaded?
Are you… breaking?
“I tried letting things be, but I felt so guilty, that I couldn’t help but stay in touch with you guys… It felt wrong, like I was breaking the rules somehow, but I just missed everyone so much and, I just--I thought that, maybe, if I was there, that I could atone somehow, or make the best of things even if I couldn’t ever make it up, really. I made friends with Janey again,” Again, she says. Again. How many times did Roxy, and John, and Dave, and you, have to start over again? How many times did the value of your lives become inflated in the emotional currency of the gods? “I tried keeping in touch with Dave and you; and I even tried with Jake, but he was really skittish, and we fell out of touch after a while…”
You fell out of touch with Jake, after a while, too. Where had he gone? How had he found you?
“...and I heard John was there, but I was too afraid to talk to him…”
How did you end up here?
“When I heard Dave died, I honestly couldn’t believe it. It was so hard to accept; all I could think about was what I’d done--what had happened--and just, what about John? They’d finally found each other again, and then… Then it happened again--something always happens--and I felt like I owed him something, to just, like, be there after hiding for so long. To say sorry like I wanted to but always chickened out of doing for forever."
You're only dimly aware of Roxy as you're enveloped in a fog made of disorienting doubt and anxiety. You can no longer contest the tides of brain-bending minutiae that swarm around your beleaguered mind and shatter into infinitesimal fragments of sense. Against respect for Roxy's heartfelt admissions, you're blanking out, and of course you are; like anyone with a mite of self-awareness, you're juggling a million questions--although only one resonates strongly and clearly enough for you to recognize it for what it is
How did this happen to you?.
How could this happen to you?
Why did this happen to you?
You blink the world back into focus with an unfortunate delay. Even with your shades on your face, it’s no mystery that your concentration had gone adrift. Roxy’s face exhibits profound concern at your spaciness, and you know it would only be appropriate to feel abashed or to apologize for your inattentiveness; but all you can do is blurt out the questions overthrowing your poise.
“How did I become a god? Were you there? Do you know?”
That your takeaway from all of her uncovered emotion is nothing but a selfish string of questions--well, you are embarrassed by it; but there is no one left for you to trust but Roxy, and you don't believe she would lead you astray or lie to you… if only she had the answers you seek.
"Sorry, Dirk, I--I don't know," Roxy tells you--nearly stutters out the words--with a regret that is palpable enough to dissuade you from pressuring her for more. "I know you were introduced to everyone about the same time as I was, and I know you were picked by the big sun dude, but that's all I know. I'm sorry."
You fail to conceal how devastated this unknown part of your life affects you. No matter how you try, your mouth morphs into a pained grimace, your efforts to parse even the most miniscule of facts resulting in futility.
"I really am sorry," Roxy repeats, as you bury your head in your hands.
"For what?" You reply, more into the table than her, your self-pity muffled by your weathered palms.
"For what I did," you hear; the words filter through your ears, into your troubled head, and slowly reign in your focus. "For letting you and Dave down. For going through with what I did back then, when I should've fought those awful gods."
You let your eyes slide shut as Roxy unwittingly reminds you all over of John and his bitter venting.
"They would have killed you," you observe tonelessly.
Roxy only snorts indignantly from across the table.
"Yeah, I would've probably died, but at least they couldn't have used me to be part of their shitty schemes! It would've been better than living the rest of my immortal god life regretting everything!"
What can you say? You're in no position to argue--you can barely think a single thing.
How did John or Roxy, or any of the gods, endure this crippling chaos in their heads? How did they live with such choices, with no escape or end in sight to save them from the moral quandaries?
"More importantly," Roxy utters softly, and you flinch in anticipation even before she finishes. "I'm sorry for outing you to John. I didn't know--I would have waited for you two to talk about it at your own pace if I'd known that you weren't ready yet, and--and I just blew it for you. I'm sorry. I keep saying it and I know it doesn't change anything, but I am sorry, really, and I just want you to know--"
"It's not your fault," you interrupt her, before she can spiral into another whirlpool of misery.
You knead your head with your fingertips and finally straighten in your chair, let your arms fall loose in your lap and your gaze roam somewhere about the table's dark surface, just close enough to be aware of Roxy's stunned expression in your peripheral vision, but not nearly close enough for eye contact.
"None of it is. And John…" You sigh his name through a heavy frown. "He deserved to know. I was too afraid to tell him, so I lied to him--to myself--told myself it would hurt him too much so it was better not to say anything; but it was still wrong. You set things right--you just did what you could. No one can blame you for that."
"I can blame myself," Roxy sniffles noisily, broadcasts the onset of tears as she dabs at her eyes with her wrists. "I do."
"Well, I don't."
You really don't. All of this--from the very start--you all could have been spared, had you not ruined it all with your pathetic and inexcusable existence.
If you could go back to the beginning, you'd rid the world of yourself.
Roxy's voice crumbles over you, like a waterfall broken by calloused stone, her words accented by her tears.
"I don't understand how--how you can say that, or be so nice to me, now that you know."
"Maybe someone like me," you tell her, as you slip out from your chair and round the table, "should know better than anyone how important it is to forgive."
You stop short of Roxy, look down at her trembling and hunched shoulders, and put your arms around her; you pull her close and hug her to your chest, and you don't retreat when she returns your embrace--when she presses into you and soaks your shirt, or even after her crying abates, and her breathing stills. You hold her, and express your forgiveness as you let her in--let her hear your heart beat and feel your gut fend off sobs of your own--and in doing so, close the transient gap between you both.
When Roxy finally pulls away, hands smoothing back wet tendrils of hair away from her face, you pull out an adjacent chair and settle into it. You lean back haggardly against the chair, and ease your head onto the back of it. A fragile sigh escapes you as you reach into your pocket for your phone, a resignation about Dave's memorial service not forgotten.
Even if you now are operating in a world full of gods and goddesses, Dave was still important to you--to all of you--and now, more than ever, it will be crucial to recovery to schedule some way to properly say goodbye.
But there is a problem. Yet again, your phone is nowhere to be found; and there is no sense in looking anywhere here for it, because you know exactly where it is. As the time before, your phone is back at John's; but unlike the previous incident, you no longer feel comfortable going back to retrieve it--or to show your face at all.
You unbelievably consider exploiting Roxy, despite just learning of how long and fiercely she had struggled with seeing John face to face again herself. But no matter how she doubts it, you know that Roxy is in a better light than you are with John, and between the two of you, she would assuredly find more success dropping in for a visit.
"Roxy," you practically grunt, nearly affected with a disbelief that you're about to stoop this low. Then again, it's not as if you can do any worse than you already have, can you?
With her eyes on you, the temptation to abandon your request swells. You would be indebting yourself to her, forcing her to undergo another round of discomfort and shame, and dishonoring whatever remains of your relationship with John, if you ask her to go in your place; but the thought of reliving John's unyielding condemnation is too cumbersome for you still, and you cave in to your cowardice.
"I need you to do me a favor."
You attempt to feign an indifference, but it comes out almost as aggression, your tone too monotonous to be casual. Your disjointed effort gains Roxy's cautious curiosity; she rubs at her face one last time and then leans forward onto the table.
"Sure, what's up?"
It's fruitless to beat around the bush. You avoid eye contact still, but you are immediately forthcoming with your need.
"I left my phone at John's."
Realization flickers across her face as Roxy mouths some inaudible expression of pity. You feel more than see her sympathy as she offers you an escape, just as you hoped--just as you knew--that she would.
"I can go get it, if you aren't feeling up to running across him?"
"I'm on it now," she promises, and you mutter something akin to gratitude as Roxy excuses herself from the table and sets off to run your errand for you.
Have you ever done anything yourself? Sure, you occupied yourself with obsessive projects here and there through the years, but when was the last time you hadn't shoved off the blame onto someone else? When had you ever made the first move for restitution or any positive change?
How long have you been isolating yourself, sulking in your cynicism and rueful outlook of the world, expecting others to pick up your slack?
Yet for as indecent as it may be, to cast your weakness on Roxy now, you can't imagine what else you're meant to do. Even if you had the guts to confront John again, you only would have somehow caused more destruction.
You're convinced that, even had you told John the truth in a more respectable time, you still would have ruined everything. It's the inevitable fact of your being: you destroy.
Unlike Roxy, who understandably is also afflicted with woe and regret, no one persuaded you to wrong John, or Dave, or anyone else you have ever crossed. You have always damaged things, as if by instinct, like a thoughtless barbarian--like an unruly animal.
You hadn't contested John when he revealed you as Dave's original abuser--hadn't even doubted or questioned the idea--because even subconsciously, you knew, as you know even now, that such disaster is an intrinsic part of you. After all you'd already done to Dave, too, how could you deny it? When you were the liar, compared to John, he who had been nothing but honest with you and had given you of everything he had to offer?
Why had you spoiled it like a witless brat? When will you learn to reign yourself in? Can you?
You spend the greater portion of your solitude emotionally flaying yourself with such deserved diatribes, stressfully anticipating when Roxy might return, terrified of what foul disappointment or loathing John must have expressed to her (and surely he would, because he would still be there, just as he always had been--there was no reason to think he'd be anywhere else--)
A fretting wreck, you pace the floor of the living room, clawing at your head and arms, chomping your worries between your teeth, until at last, in a gut-wrenching twist of the doorknob, Roxy returns.
You know at once from her face that your fear has not been unfounded.
Your feet fall still in the center of the room, and you swallow down a sickly taste quickly infiltrating the back of your mouth.
"What is it?"
Roxy's feet are thunderous to your ears, booming like your frantic heart, as she crosses the room and hands you your phone. From the open door, the summer sun creeps in, stretches across the floor and lends you its spotlight; you recoil in the light as, in a mortified whisper, Roxy imparts to you the words you'd been too afraid to think to yourself.
It isn't denial that grips you, but fear. You're wounded still, no more recovered from your guilt and humiliation than when you had asked Roxy to present herself to John instead of you, but the desire to avoid John has been wholly replaced now by the singular, all-consuming thought that you cannot lose him.
Your phone squeaks in your fist as you squeeze it so tightly that the screen might crack, and you seize Roxy by the shoulder with your other hand to command her attention.
"You know about wishes, right?"
To your appreciation, Roxy is too stunned to quiz you about your sudden interest. Just as well, as you won't be here long enough to play guessing games.
"Can a wish be undone?"
"What--Dirk, why are you asking this now--"
"Just answer me," you growl at her, and you jostle her about in your grip. With a frightened look, Roxy nods, and you nearly shake her again as you demand, "How?"
"They--whoever made the wish--they--they have to die," she stammers at you. "The one who grants the wish can be set free or whatever if their bond is knowingly severed by death!"
You release her, shoulder past her, and you don't bother to respond or to so much as tell Roxy where you're going as you sprint out of the gaping door. There's no need; the only running you have done lately is to see John, and you're streaking down the streets to do the same thing now.
But this time, you run with a terror, not away from your fears and the demons that threaten to overwhelm you, but toward them; you run to something--to John--and you don't stop to breathe, to ache, to water your strained and burning throat. You push yourself past the pain, the stitches in your sides, past the breathlessness and constricting anxiety in your chest, past the buckling and weakness in your legs and at your feet.
You tear through the trees, break out onto the upper trails, like a roe from a hunter. The ground drums beneath you as you stampede over it, as you trample flowers and weeds and wayward brush, and once, an upturned root snags you and you tumble face first into a rough mound of dirt and stone; but you scramble to your feet and are dashing away again, as if running with such madness would alter what you know is waiting you at The Overlook--what you cannot accept unless you confirm it with your own eyes.
The unknown has tormented you endlessly these past weeks. A part of you knows--is fulfilled by Roxy's discovery; you know, perhaps better than anyone else left alive, the justice of this. John had been trapped by a request so meager that it's hard to believe such a thing ever bound him. And now that Dave is dead, and John fully aware of this, whatever contract upheld between them has been terminated. But you find it so painful to consider that, despite all this, John would still leave so soon after learning he once again had access to the world. You hope--you want to believe--that, even if to say goodbye, he might have waited a little longer for you. According to Roxy, such opportunity has abandoned you--but maybe she had just missed him; maybe John was simply hidden in the trees, or out tending to his garden, or flying about, or any number of things that would make it possible for you to see him again, if you went to his home yourself.
You have to know he's really gone. You need to confirm it, so you can… so you can…
You don't arrive at any comprehensible conclusion. You stumble over yourself at the drop over The Overlook, and tumble down the narrow and perilous slope onto the stone floor in a reenactment of your first encounter with the place. This time, you're too flooded with adrenaline to register the bruises and scrapes you incur from your fall.
You don't like what you see--or rather, what you don't see.
The assortment of earthenware vessels outside of the shack is completely gone. All of the ropes and canvases and finely worked metals have been cleared away, and the outside of John's home is so vacant that had you not been here earlier not quite two days ago, you never could have guessed that anything had been here at all.
You stamp down ghastly dread and will yourself to approach the shack. Your footsteps echo in the empty space, resound against the worn wood of the cozy little dwelling place in which you had spent so much time with John. As you pass by the window, you can't help but glance inside, and you're promptly arrested by the untouched darkness cast over the room.
In a burst of haste, you rush to the door and jerk it open.
It's empty. Everything is so very, very quiet and empty.
A lifeless silence absorbs you as you gape in the doorway. A useless protest lodges in your throat, but you're too dismayed to voice it.
To your right, the collection of antique birdcages are all emptied, cleaned, and polished; the doors are all swung open, the occupants freed, their temporary roosts abandoned. From where you stand, you can see the shelves cleared of dishes and rags; the cha no yu set and the handcrafted wooden duck are also missing. The fireplace is unlit, swept bare, and dusted. In the corner across the room, the bed is stripped, and no picture frame hangs above it.
All that remains as evidence of John and what transpired between you both is now laid out on the table. Your eyes swell with tears as you recognize the thin slip, the brilliant smile of Dave, on the table surface; but it's not his picture that causes you to cry. It's the flower placed along the length of the picture, with its slender stem and array of vibrant fuchsia petals, that causes you to choke on a sob.
You know that flower, know well what it means, from your reading in those floriography books John led you to.
A sweet pea. A flower signifying goodbye.
Salt stings your lips as you absently regard the subtle message John left behind. It hurts, it hurts, to think that he really left--that he left you, but even as you collapse into a shaking ball of grief, you find you're not surprised.
Of course John is gone. Why would he stay? He was really only there for Dave, only biding his time until he could be finally be reunited with the man he truly loved for so long. You'd trapped him, extended his loathsome sentence here, with your prolonged deceit.
Now there are no more secrets. Dave is gone, and John knows it--knows that you lied to him; and why would he linger here a moment longer when he deserves to roam free? He can go anywhere he wants, and there is nothing here for him anymore. Not love, not Dave, and certainly not you.
It's only fair. It's just. After everything John has suffered and survived, it's only right that he be permitted to bid farewell to this chapter of his life, and move on. It's good for him.
Knowing all this, you cry anyways. You cry ragged, hoarsely, loudly into the little shack of The Overlook; you let your voice echo as you wail out a pain too great for words to convey, and curl into yourself from the weight of the fact that you now are genuinely alone.
Time becomes meaningless to you as you rock back and forth on the wooden floors, hugging yourself and bawling. You're dimly aware of a buzzing in your pocket--your phone, your damned fucking phone--but you can't be bothered to answer. Roxy must be worried about you, must be calling to check on you after how long you've spent mourning your circumstances--the daylight is fast dwindling behind you, dusk soon descending--but all you can think about is John, and his voice, and his touch, and his eyes, and his smile, and how you'll never see or hear or have any of that again, because he's gone, he's GONE--
John is gone.
You gradually lapse into a numb stillness, and the sun turns its back on you, your unresponsive state not concerning enough for it to stay with you. Life moves on as it always does. Twilight overtakes the day, blinks open its starry myriad of eyes, and wonders at your crumpled form in the doorway.
Insistently, your phone vibrates again at your hip, and this time, out of anger, you snatch it out of your pocket and answer it without once looking at the screen. Your voice rings throughout the shack like a shot, hard and violent, and you will not apologize for lashing out so furiously when you know it's Roxy--when she should know how wretched you must feel right now.
"What the fuck do you want?"
"Dirk, come back," she utters in hushed tones, as if she is afraid of being overheard.
"Can't you just fucking let me be alone, Roxy? Do you think you need to mother me because I'm just a dumb fucking human?"
"Just fuck off," you hiss, thumb poised to end the call if Roxy so much as breathes into the mouthpiece again; but she sends away your hateful venom with words you can hardly believe.
Your breath seeps out of you.
"John--he's here! Come back!"
You don't need to be told again.
You don't even end the call; you're on your feet in an instant, and you bolt for the ledge leading to the trails below.
It's the quickest climb down you've ever made, your footing reckless and hurried on rocks and earth. You slip once or twice, gash your leg and your cheek in a dangerous slide down near the end, but you don't feel it. You've suffered so much worse--your heart had just been locked in the most excruciating pain of your life--and you don't even blink at the sting or the blood on your shin and face.
You run. You'd thought yourself never faster as you'd run to The Overlook, thought you'd never pushed yourself harder; and you're unquestionably exhausted, your lungs on fire and your breath coming in strained wheezes, your legs trembling and unsteady as you will them to move; but you know for certain now that you've never run with more determination than now, and you'd sooner let yourself succumb to an overexertion that meant never running again if it meant you could see John again.
John. John, in your home. John, waiting for you. John, who had not left you after all.
John cannot say your name, but you cannot stop thinking his. It is all you can think, feel, or know, as your feet pound unyielding at the trails, the streets, the paths back to your home.
John. John. John. John. John.
You aren't bothering with plans of throwing yourself at him, of what you might say or do when you reach him, of any glorious act to do when you see him again. No desire to sweep him up in your arms, or to kiss him, comes; there are no speeches or apologies you can imagine; you don't worry over why he's there, whether to see you or to say goodbye one last time. The fact that John is there is enough.
You are starved of John every moment without him, addicted to him, and you will take anything you can get. No matter how often or deeply he may scar your heart, you will take him back and beg for more.
You will love John until the day you die.
Your legs do fail you at last as you round the curb just outside of your house. Asphalt smears grime into your sweaty and bloody skin, peels back layers of flesh from your knees and palms as you just barely catch yourself; but you grit your teeth and pluck yourself back up, off the street, back onto your feet.
It's more of a totter than a jog as you cross the sidewalk and reach your door. You throw your full weight against the door as you slam it open, and you stagger into the living room a gasping, disheveled, filthy mess.
From the couch, Roxy leaps to her feet as soon as she sees you; and you mouth unintelligibly at her. You can't breathe, can't find your voice, but she understands. With a thrill lit in her eyes, she points to the door of your bedroom, and grins at you.
"He's in there!"
Like one drunk on the strongest liquor, you stumble towards your door. You give no warning as you grapple with the doorknob and fling the door open, and all at once, your lungs come to life again.
Standing over your desk, leafing through a stack of books, is John. His back is turned to you at first, but you'd recognize the cobalt hues of his heavenly pajamas anywhere now. It's really him. John is here.
With relief, you say his name.
At your voice, John turns from his reading--Dave's journal, you realize--and for a moment, you fear he might look on you with those eyes of judgment again. But John's face is indescribably warm as he acknowledges you, and his mouth curves with a gentle smile.
"Hey," he greets you, and all apprehension fades away at the balm of his voice. "Mind if I stay here for a while?"