When Greg woke up in a hospital bed, his mom was crying.
This wasn't something that really happened, at least not around Greg, so for a moment he just stared at her as she sat on the foot of the bed. He couldn't see why she was crying, but his dad said that sometimes people were sad for no reason. He usually said that about Wirt, but he guessed it could apply to Mom too. You just had to be extra friendly to them and not feel bad if they said hurtful things. So Greg said, "hi, Mom."
She gasped and turned quickly to look at him, then lunged towards Greg and crushed him into a hug. "Oh, thank goodness," she said. "You're all right." Her words sounded like she was happy, but she was crying harder. Unhappy people were confusing.
"Me and Wirt kept each other safe," he said helpfully. "I didn't get scared, not even when it got dark. And I got to be leader, too."
His mom squeezed him even tighter at this. He frowned into her shoulder. He was trying to cheer her up, but he guessed he wasn't doing too good a job.
Over her shoulder, he saw Wirt leaning against a wall by himself. Energetically, Greg waved at him, and Wirt waved back with a slight smile. That was good, then. He didn't have to ask his mom where his older brother was. He thought that might make her cry more.
"So when are you and Sara gonna hang out?"
"I don't really think that's a possibility now," Wirt said. He was sitting cross legged on the floor in Greg's room, watching him stack multicolored Legos.
"Why not? I think she likes you," Greg said. Jason Funderberker the frog croaked loudly in agreement. "You could make her another tape-"
"No," Wirt said immediately. "No, I really couldn't do that. Is that the ferry?" He pointed at the boat forming in Greg's hand.
Greg nodded, pleased. "Yeah. But I'm gonna give it laser guns because that's cooler. Pew pew." He bounced the boat up and down in his hand as he made the sound for laser guns. A smokestack fell off. "Oh, darn."
"Too bad you don't have little frog mini figures," Wirt said with the start of a smile, but then paused. "I think Mom's coming." He stood up and slipped away while Greg was distracted by the smokestack. Wirt had been slipping away a lot lately.
Greg heard the knock on the door only a few seconds after Wirt left. "Greg? I brought you a grilled cheese." His mom opened the door with a plate balanced in her hand.
"Thanks, mom." Her eyes were all red again. Maybe since Wirt was less sad his mom had to be more sad. That might be how it worked. If Greg got sad, would everyone else be happy again? He took a contemplative bite of grilled cheese.
His mom sat down on the floor with him with a sigh. "Is that a boat?" She asked.
"Yeah! It's the ferry to Adelaide's." He hummed a snatch of the tune he had composed. "We went there with Beatrice, but Adelaide turned out to not be nice." He frowned at the boat in his hand.
His mom's mouth crinkled up, like it did every time he talked about him and Wirt getting lost. "We? You and Wirt?"
"And Jason Funderberker," Greg said. Jason Funderberker croaked again, but it was an annoyed croak instead of an agreeing croak. It must be pretty tough to be forgotten just because you're a frog.
"Greg," his mom said in her serious-talk voice, the one she used to explain why to explain he couldn't do things. "We need to talk about Wirt."
"Are you sad because he's less sad?" He asked.
She blinked. "What?"
Greg shrugged. "It's just that dad says that sometimes people are sad for no reason and I was thinking since Wirt's less sad, some of that sadness might of gone over to you." He attempted to feed half of his grilled cheese to Jason Funderberker, but his mom pulled the sandwich away from him.
"That's... That's not why I'm sad, Greg," she said, putting the grilled cheese back on the plate. "It's just..." She sighed and say back, brushing her hair out of her face. She held all the air in her body tight in her chest, with her face all pushed together. After a moment, she said, "I know you still want Wirt to be here, but he's in a better place now, Greg."
Greg frowned. He didn't think his room was that bad. "Where?"
"I really don't know." She said, trying to smile, which was weird because her eyes were getting all shiny with tears again. People didn't smile when they cried. "Maybe... Maybe he's with your Beatrice friend."
"But we went to all that trouble to get back," Greg protested. "Why would he just leave again?"
His mom scooted closer and drew him into her lap. "I don't know," she said. "But we still have to let him go. Okay?"
Greg didn't really know what she was talking about, but he said, "Okay." Maybe that would make her feel better.
She actually smiled this time. "Are you done with your sandwich?"
She picked up the plate and remainders of the sandwich and walked out of the room, wiping at her eye. Greg looked up at Wirt, who was standing in the doorway. "Why does Mom want me to let you go someplace?"
Wirt shrugged and fiddled with the hem of his cloak. "I dunno."
Greg scowled at his ferry. No one seemed to know anything lately.
There was so many flowers filling the house, even more than at Valentine's Day. Greg didn't think that his parents had gone and bought them, either- people brought them over. They brought a lot of food, too. Casseroles and stews and desserts. Greg's favorite was Old Lady Daniel's chocolate pie.
It was getting difficult to eat anything though, with all the flowers on the table. His mom and dad didn't eat much. Just had quiet conversations and pushed food around their plates.
Wirt didn't eat at all. He only sat at the table and stared silently at the flowers without even a plate in front of him.
"Why don't you eat?" Greg asked him later. Wirt was still staring at the flowers, and at a card laying on the table with cursive handwriting on the front. Greg still hadn't quite figured out cursive. It was too loopy.
At his question, Wirt blinked, like he was coming out a trance. "I'm not really hungry, I guess."
"Everyone should be hungry for pie," Greg said, clenching his fist.
"Greg, do you know what-" Wirt began, then stopped, frowning as he looked away. "Never mind," he finally said. He ruffled Greg's hair absently.
"Your hands are cold," Greg complained, pulling away. Wirt smiled for a small moment before it slipped away, mouth narrowing again into a slight line as he looked at his hand. Greg wished people's smiles would last longer.
"You need to tell him."
"Don't you mean we need to tell him?"
Greg could hear his parents' conversation drift through the vent in the hall if he sat by it. It was something he had learned from Wirt, who used to sit by it all the time. Usually Wirt would tell him what his parents were talking about, but Greg hadn't seen him by it lately. So he'd snuck out of his room- he was supposed to be sleeping- seriously instructed Jason Funderberker to be really quiet, and sat by the vent.
"I already tried. He didn't get it. He's talking about him like he's still here, like he sees him."
"Maybe we should take him to a counselor or something."
"You know we don't have the money for that. The funeral's Saturday. If he doesn't understand by then-"
"Shouldn't you be in bed?" Wirt whispered from behind Greg. He yelped and then immediately shushed Wirt, who held a finger to his lips and shushed him back. Jason Funderberker croaked loudly. Greg shushed him too.
Wirt laughed softly. "Come on, they probably heard you. Let's go." In a moment of inspiration, he added, "you can spend the night in my room if you want."
"Yeah!" This was a rare event- Wirt's room was more interesting because it was forbidden. Greg followed his older brother down the hall into his room, and then immediately sneezed. Dust coated everything in the room. Still, Greg pulled himself onto the bed. It creaked and whined under his weight. Wirt sat on the bed, but didn't lay down.
"Are you gonna sleep?" Greg asked. He was suddenly very tired.
Wirt hesitated. "Maybe in a bit. It's not my bedtime yet." He stuck his hands in his pockets.
Sleepily, Greg said, "You should put on pajamas. Mom's probably annoyed because you've been wearing your Halloween costume forever."
"Probably," Wirt said softly. He stared at Greg for a moment, then whispered, "night, Greg."
Greg was asleep when, a few minutes later, his dad stuck his head in the door. For a moment, he went stiff. Then he sagged, his shoulders drooping. He shut the door as soundlessly as he could. Greg breathed deep and rolled over. When he woke up, he was alone in the room.
Saturday morning, everyone woke up early and got dressed up. Greg would have thought that maybe it was Sunday and they were going to church, but his mom said it really was Saturday.
"Where are we going? Why do I have to wear this?" Greg tried to squirm out of the black jacket she was pulling on him.
"Greg," his mom said firmly, adjusting the sleeves. "We're going to a funeral. Do you know what that is?"
He frowned and shook his head. "Is it bad?"
"It's... It's not bad, but it can be very sad, and serious." She pressed her hands flat against her legs. "It's for when someone dies, and they go away forever. It's a way to say goodbye."
"Who would want to leave forever?" Greg asked. Thunder rumbled outside- it had been raining all morning and last night.
His mom reached out and tucked a stray hair behind his ear. "They don't want to, but they have to. Okay, Greg?"
"But who's leaving?" He said. "Where are they going?"
Her mouth pressed together into a tight line. "They already left, sweetie. Do you remember, what we talked about earlier this week?"
"We're running late," his dad's voice boomed in the next room, "and I cannot find my cufflinks."
His mom quickly gave Greg a hug. "Go wait by the back door, sweetie. Love you." She straightened and walked out of the room. "Did you look on the dresser?"
When Greg ran to the back door, Wirt was standing in the entryway. Greg groaned loudly. "This isn't fair," he said. "You get to wear your Halloween costume still, and I have to wear an itchy shirt."
Wirt blinked slowly at him, then turned away. "Why do you think they're not talking to me? Mom, I mean. And your dad." He looked washed out and sad again.
Greg shrugged. "Maybe because you're not talking to them."
Wirt didn't answer as their parents' footsteps drew closer. "Let's go," his dad said, slinging on a coat. He opened the door quickly and they piled out the door into the rain.
Funerals, Greg decided, were lonely and boring. Greg watched a flux of people go in through the church doors- even more proof that it was secretly Sunday. Everyone was dressed in black, which was the worst color. Greg sighed loudly as he stood next to his mom. She was having a long and serious conversation with an older woman and no one was talking to him. If that was how it was, he wasn't going to talk to them either. He turned his head until he saw an entrance to a room that everyone was going in and out of. He began to walk over to it with extreme determination.
"So, what's in that room?" Wirt asked him. He had fallen in step beside him, and looked just as bored as Greg felt.
Greg shrugged. "I dunno, but it's gotta be better than this." Wirt almost smiled as they walked into the room, past a sign Greg didn't bother reading.
There was a large wooden box balanced on a table in the center of the room, with part of the lid open. A few people were standing around it. "What's that box for?" Greg asked Wirt.
"Well, it's a casket," Wirt said, frowning as he walked closer, "but who-" his voice stopped as he looked into the casket. Greg, curious, edged his way through people to the casket and peeked inside.
Wirt was laying perfectly still inside it, in a crisp black suit.
"You did have to wear a suit," Greg said to Wirt, the one that was standing beside him.
Wirt finally spoke. "I died," he said. "I died, and I didn't even know."
"Greg?" Automatically, Greg looked up when someone called his name, and saw Sara standing in a black dress next to the casket. "You shouldn't be here alone. Where's your mom?" She sounded like she had a cold, or like she had been crying.
"I'm not alone," Greg said. "I'm with Wirt. There's just two of him for some reason."
Sara blinked. "What?"
"How did I not know?" Wirt whispered. His skin was going pale, too pale, like all the blood was draining away, like it had never been there in the first place.
"How come this Wirt's in this box?" Greg asked Sara. "And no one can see the other Wirt?" Greg could hear water dripping somewhere.
Quickly, Sara said, "We should find your mom." Her voice trembled slightly as she spoke.
"Okay," Greg said agreeably. He glanced over at Wirt, about to ask him if he was going to come with them and talk to Sara, but stopped when he saw him.
Wirt was soaked with water. He was dripping all over the red carpet, but there was no stain. There were tears in his clothes that hadn't been there before, and blood stains on his skin. "I drowned," he said. The shadows under his eyes were so deep.
"Wirt?" Greg asked. Sara grabbed his hand tightly.
"No," Wirt said. He grabbed at his arms, digging the blue tips of his fingers into them. "No, I couldn't have drowned, I made it out, this shouldn't be happening-"
Sara tugged at Greg's hand. "Come on, Greg, let's get out of here." When she looked up, she looked straight through Wirt.
Wirt covered his ears and howled. Lightning cracked outside as he vanished. The lights immediately shuddered and went out. Someone screamed, and it might have been Wirt again.
Sara pulled Greg away from the casket. "What happened to the lights?" She asked. Her grip was too tight on his hand.
"Wirt?" Greg asked the darkness. "Wirt, where'd you go?" Tears were bubbling in his eyes, but he didn't know why.
The lights came back up, but Wirt was gone. The casket, though, still held his corpse.
On the ride home, Greg's dad talked loudly about how they shouldn't have had an open casket funeral, how Greg shouldn't have seen that, how it was a mistake, it was a mistake for Wirt to die. His voice broke as he said this last part, and he wiped angrily at his eyes before clenching the steering wheel again. His mom just sat still and quiet with her lips pressed tight together, tears all cried out. Greg sat in the back seat and wondered if the funeral meant that Wirt was going away forever like Mom said. He wished he had said goodbye.
They arrived home in the late afternoon. Greg's mom had helped him out of his suit and into regular clothes and told him to maybe lie down, but he didn't have to if he didn't want to. Greg headed to his room, but not to take a nap.
"Wirt?" He asked his room. "Are you in here?"
His room didn't answer. Greg frowned and looked down the hall. The door to Wirt's room was shut. After a moment of gathering his nerves to enter the forbidden room, Greg walked down the hall and opened the door.
At first, Wirt's room seemed just as silent as Greg's. Then Greg realized he could hear water dripping. "I don't wanna play hide and seek," he said, "but I will if you won't come out."
It was a long moment, but after a moment Wirt appeared, like a photo developing. He was sitting under his desk with his knees brought up to his chest. Greg smiled, pleased. "I found you."
"In hindsight, it makes sense," Wirt said. He stared straight ahead, not blinking.
Greg crawled under the desk with him. "What does?"
"The not wanting to eat, or sleep, or changing clothes or touch things. No one talking to me." He flickered like a candlelight in the darkness.
"Did you make the lights go out at the funeral?" Greg asked.
"No. Yes. I don't know." Wirt rested his forehead on his knees. "I don't know anything."
Greg watched the water trickle down the back of Wirt's neck. "Mom's gonna be mad if you get the carpet wet," he said.
"Mom's not going to get mad, because I'm not going to stain the carpet," Wirt snapped, raising his head. "The water's not real. I'm not- real." He drooped inwards.
"I think you're real," Greg said. "I mean, I'm sitting here talking to you."
Wirt didn't answer. Rain pounded on the house's tin ceiling. Finally, he said, "how did I die?"
"Dad said it was dry drowning. You got out of the water but you still had water in your lungs so you died. But they said that they think you saved my life." Greg paused, and Wirt looked away. After a moment, Greg said, "I don't really get it though, because Mom said dying means you're going away forever and you're still here."
"That's what's supposed to happen," Wirt said, his voice cracking slightly. "When you die, you go to heaven or something, and you don't stay here, you just leave your body behind, which was what was in the casket. But I didn't go where I was supposed to go, I'm still here. I just don't know why."
Greg hmmed loudly. Then he said, "maybe you're supposed to be in the Unknown. That's something Mom said, that you were with Beatrice and everyone else. But when we came came back, something went wrong and you're here instead."
Wirt groaned and buried his face in his hands. "I can't even die right."
"Is it because I wasn't a good leader?"
Wirt snapped his head up and stared at Greg. "What?"
Greg looked at the ground. "After I was leader, everything sort of went wrong. Maybe if I was a good leader, you'd be where you're supposed to be. I'm really sorry."
"No, Greg," Wirt said immediately. He pulled Greg towards him, and normally Greg would have pulled away because he was cold and wet, but he sounded so sad Greg let Wirt wrap an arm around him. "It was all my fault. This never would have happened if I hadn't been so stupid. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Greg said. "I'm still sorry, though."
"Greg..." Wirt hugged him, tight, and Greg almost didn't mind that his brother was dripping water and freezing cold, because he was his brother and things were okay if he was there. Wirt pulled back, and almost began to say something, but instead swallowed and smiled in that same watery way his mom did. Greg smiled back.
They sat still, Wirt listening to Greg's breathing and Greg listening to the water pouring from nothing down Wirt's back. Finally, Greg said, "Wirt?"
Wirt started. "Yeah?"
"Don't go anywhere, okay?"
Wirt paused, then nodded. "Okay."
"Good." Greg sighed and flipped down flat on his back. "I'm gonna sleep now. Good night."
Wirt almost pointed out that it was only five in the afternoon, but instead shook his head and said, "good night, Greg." He lay down next to his younger brother and stared at the ceiling as rain drummed on the roof.
And gradually, the water on Wirt's skin began to dry.