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Always a Way Out

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It's just a bad dream. Sunny repeats this to himself, looking up into the leaves of her favorite tree, barely visible in the dark. There are noises to his left that he can't identify and won't identify, and it doesn't matter, because this is a bad dream. He didn't wake up when he pinched himself, he didn't wake up when he bit his cheek, but he will wake up soon.

So he continues to look up at the tree. Sunny likes it. In summer, the leaves are thick and voluminous enough to hide the sun, giving Sunny and his friends and her enough shade to rest after a long day playing in the backyard. He loves those memories, even though he hasn't been able to make any more recently and will never do so again, because of---

The leaves get bigger, as if coming to life and approaching him. And then he feels them brush against his face, a caress telling him that everything is okay and not to think about anything. Sunny is surrounded by leaves; there are gaps which moonlight sunlight trickles through, making them shine a brighter green than normal. His body is melting away, melting into the leaves and dissolving into the rest of the tree. Sunny cannot tell where he ends and the tree begins. There are bugs burrowing beneath his roots, squirrels climbing up the base of him, birds piecing together nests at his highest branches for their children, his friends down below making use of his shade. Sunny doesn't feel anything but peace.

A rope loudly creaks nearby; the leaves retreat and return to their original spot. He inhales sharply; the air reeks of the smell of sweat --- from what? What are they doing? He had been carrying her somewhere, and there were eyes watching him from all angles, and there was someone---

"S-Sunny. . . ." A hand grips his shoulder. It hurts.

Against his better judgment, he looks. His best friend Basil looks back, a wobbly smile on his face, his blue eyes almost glowing white. So that's who came for him. The one who suggested . . . what was it?

There is something swaying in the wind, behind Basil. Sunny looks up.

A short series of fuzzy but unmistakable memories overwhelm him. The searing pain in his fingertips as he fails to play a note correctly. Her frustrated sighs and glares in his direction. Him taking a break in his room, only to run out and throw his violin down the stairs. Her shouting things he can't understand. The push. Begging for her to wake up, chanting it was an accident even though nobody would possibly believe him, dragging her to their bedroom. . . .

Everything after bleeds together, but it all ends with something clear: his big sister hanging from her favorite tree.

"Don't worry." Basil's voice flows into his ear, like ice water. "E-everything is going to be okay." He lets go of Sunny's shoulder, and places an arm around him. "Let's, umm, l-let's go back inside, okay . . . ?"

Basil guides him to turn around, and they start plodding their way back to the house. Sunny cycles through a dozen emotions at once. He wants to wake up, but he can't wake up. This is not a dream. The words Basil said makes him feel at peace, but he hates himself for feeling that way. Maybe whatever just happened wasn't a dream, but at least it's over.

Basil gasps and comes to a halt. His arm falls away from Sunny, and he turns around.

Hanging from the tree, he sees something. An eye meets his. It is full of hate.

Why is her eye open?

Did they just. . . .

. . .

Sunny is running back to the house. This is a bad dream, and he needs to wake up right now. There's always a way out of bad dreams; he just needs to find one. He throws open the sliding glass door, biting his tongue, his cheek, anything to wake him up. He tastes metal.

There are so many eyes.

Sunny approaches the stairs, intending to go to the bathroom and splash water on his face. He sees the broken violin, with strands of her hair tangled in the strings, and he dares not approach it.

What does he do? Why can't he wake up? He needs to wake up, he needs to see Mari again and he can lie next to her and they can hold each other and he will know that she's alive and real and that he didn't just---

Sunny stumbles into the kitchen, out of breath. He pinches his arm as hard as he can, yelping in pain, but not waking up. Tears overflow from his eyes.

Something beneath the window catches his attention; silver gleaming in the moonlight. Dad must have forgotten to put all of the knives away before he left.

Sunny exhales, relief mixing with fear. He hopes it'll be enough. He walks up to the counter and, with a trembling hand, picks up the knife. In the blade, he sees a monster; red pinpricks for eyes, skin sullen, mouth locked open in a silent scream.

"Sunny!"

He glances back. Basil is in the doorway, taking in huge gulps of air. His eyes are already wide, and they somehow widen even more, as if they're about to roll out of his skull. Tears stain his cheeks. This is Sunny's fault too, but it's okay. It's a bad dream.

"W-what are you doing?!"

Sunny stares down at the knife, grabbing with both hands and turning it toward his chest. Something in his head tells him he shouldn't do this. But how else is he supposed to wake up? This isn't real. Nothing real can be this horrible. He loved---loves Mari more than anything. He couldn't have done this.

"Wait! Please!" Basil steps forward and stops, eyeing the knife. "Y-you don't have to . . ." A single sob interrupts the boy, making him visibly shake. "Y-you won't get in trouble! Nobody's gonna take you away! It's okay now!" He smiles. It's as fake as everything else.

Sunny brings the knife down.

A scream from his best friend rips through his ears. He's tackled to the floor. But the knife is already in.

"Sunny!"

Basil holds him tightly, face hovering overhead. He looks terribly pale. Tears fall from his eyes and mix with his own. A stream of pain spreads throughout Sunny's chest, followed by the sensation of something wet that makes the corresponding part of his shirt stick to him.

"No, no no no. . . ." Basil rocks him back and forth; the energy in his voice runs empty. "Don't go. We're supposed to be best friends; I can't . . . I don't know . . ."

Sunny flings his arms around Basil, his own grip weakening by the second. It's just a bad dream, but it feels important to do this.

"This is my fault! I should've just . . ." Through his darkening vision, Sunny sees expression of complete loss flickers across Basil's face. Another smile appears; it scares him. "It's my fault."

Sunny almost wishes he could take it back. But he doesn't. It's just a bad dream. More than anything, he's glad he's finally waking up. He can't wait to see Mari.

The last thing he feels is the sensation of the knife being pulled out, before he closes his eyes, and leaves this dream.