In the morning, Russell found another dead rabbit by his door.
He crouched down and picked up the carcass as easily as one might pluck a flower. It was tiny enough to fit comfortably in his cupped hands, and weighed nothing in death. Dirt and matted blood tarnished the rabbit's snowy fur, but they had nothing on the gaping, glistening wound on its side that had nearly torn the animal in half, with shards of milky white bones protruding from its mangled flesh and maimed innards.
There were no cars near the nameless town, but Russell had no doubt it had been run over by one, anyway. The dream always found a way.
He side-stepped the tendrils of guilt growing by his house and ignored the demolished building he passed by, making a beeline to Tabasa's place. Clutching the rabbit against his chest to free his hand, he banged at the door.
The door creaked open. Tabasa's eyes were unchanged, the same calm blue as always, but the dark circles around them had grown deeper since the day before.
"Hey." He tried to smile, then took one look at the rabbit. "Oh. Wait a sec." He opened the door further to allow Russell in. "I'll grab my coat."
Five minutes later, Russell sat on one of the few unspoiled patches of grass left behind Tabasa's house, his back against the wall and the rabbit in his arms, looking on as Tabasa shovelled dirt away to make it a grave.
"How many is that in two weeks?" Tabasa asked as he sank the shovel into the earth once more. "Three?"
"Four." Russell found himself absent-mindedly stroking one of the undamaged bits of fur on the rabbit. He stopped when he realised. There was no comforting something already dead.
Tabasa shook his head. "Too many. I'd say it's the fog," he nudged his head, but he needn't have — the fog was everywhere, thin, airy grey clouds that didn't fully evaporate even at midday — "but animals that die to it just choke. Has to be a monster."
"Yumi said she got seven monsters yesterday," said Russell.
"She'll never get a chance to rest at this rate." There was a sharp clang as the shovel hit a rock. Sighing wearily, Tabasa carefully scraped the earth from around the stone, then pushed it aside with his foot.
Tabasa chuckled under his breath. "Sure. Not much work left for me to do, is there? Digging holes is pretty easy once you get a couple under your belt." He moved one last shovelful of dirt aside, then stepped back. "That should do it. Bring the rabbit here."
Russell did as he was told, crouching down to deposit the rabbit onto earth, moving its limbs in hopes it would make it look more asleep and less run over. It didn't quite work. When he stood up, he noticed the rabbit's blood had seeped into his waistcoat, leaving an angry, wine-coloured stain on it. He could already tell it wouldn't come off. Such was life.
As soon as he backed away, Tabasa began shovelling the dirt back on.
"Can I help?" Russell asked.
"Hm...If you find some flowers, that would be good. Not many of them left nearby." Tabasa patted the earth smooth on top of the tiny grave. "Maybe some twigs and sticks for a cross." Without further ado, he side-stepped to the left and sunk his shovel back into the earth, starting on another hole.
"Did something else die?"
"The last of the monkeys went last night. The fog again. Guess my insulation wasn't good enough." Russell couldn't see Tabasa's expression with his face bent low to dig, but his voice sounded hollow. "Not many animals left, really. At this rate, I'll be an animal-keeper with nothing to keep." He chuckled again. Russell had rarely heard a less happy sound. "Maybe I should become a gravedigger, instead. I've got the experience."
It was up to Russell to say something uplifting, something that would bring a genuine smile, no matter how fleeting, to Tabasa's lips, something to show sympathy and assure him things would get better.
Instead, he gazed upon the row upon row of small graves, with their fading flowers and home-made crosses, stretching far from Tabasa's house all the way to the mesh-net fence.
Like Tabasa had predicted, finding flowers was no small task. The grass nearby had already been picked clean to honour the dead of the makeshift graveyard, long before they had noticed nothing but tentacles grew from the poisoned soil, and what plants remained were either a noxious shade of black or growing eyeballs.
Russell shuffled about, his eyes peeled the ground, determined to stay focused and not let his mind wander no matter how bored he got. Irradiated soil was one thing, but thinking was the worst poison of all.
He heard a lock click open, and looked up to see Cody waving at him from her door, with only her hand and half her face visible.
"Do you have a moment?" she asked once he walked over. He nodded. "Thanks. Come in."
She slammed the door shut immediately after uttering her words. Russell knew not to take offence. Cody kept her door shut whenever possible for the same reason as Tabasa did his; to protect the precious life inside. Therefore, Russell squeezed himself in from as narrow an opening as he could and closed the door before giving the interior of her house a proper glance.
Plants dominated to the entire room. Every surface, from the table to the cupboards to most of the floor was covered in countless pots and boxes and even chipped teacups, filled with what good soil they had managed to salvage, and burgeoning with overgrowing flora. Endless shades of green overwhelmed Russell's senses as he took in his surroundings, from the large plant to his right with sleek, dark green leaves, and the reddish vines creeping up the wall, all the way to the tiny flowers on the table in front of him with buds so small he could barely make them out. He had known all their names at one point, when things had been better and Cody had taken the time out to teach him, but he couldn't remember a single one now.
Apart from the narrow pathway from the door to the back, the only part of the room free of greenery was a small corner of the table, which instead contained a clutter of cooking equipment and a presumably still hot baking tray shored up on top of them with oven mitts. Cody busied herself with the tray, her back turned to Russell.
"Here." Without looking, she shoved a large covered basket into his arms. The tantalizing smell of fresh bread emanated from beneath the cloth. "I was baking anyway, so I decided I'd make some for everyone. Don't worry about bringing back the plates. I'll do it later." She brushed her fingers through her frazzled fringe. "Sorry to make you do this, but I've got my hands full." She wasn't kidding: Russell had barely more than blinked when she had already fished a knife and a cutting board out of the clutter and began chopping carrots at a respectable speed right on top of the baking tray.
"I'll be happy to," said Russell. It was always good to have something new to do to occupy his mind.
"Thanks." Cody was just about to sink her knife into another carrot when she hesitated and turned towards Russell. "If Dogma is any... different from usual, can you come tell me as quickly as possible? I mean," she wavered, "I want to know about everyone, of course, but..."
"I get it."
"Thanks," Cody said once again. "I'll check up on him later today, but...yeah..." She shrank away, mechanically returning to decimating the carrot. Cody had always been reserved, but since The Incident, her smile had died out completely, along anything but a desire to drown herself in work.
Russell thought it better to change the subject. "Do you have any flowers to spare? Tabasa could use some."
"Oh." Cody turned, the knife still in hand, and walked over to the back with long steps to avoid the plants in her way. "I did some pruning while the rolls were in the oven, so..." She returned with some slightly droopy flowers with small, pink blossoms. "Here. They're actually weeds, but...they're still pretty, I think. Maybe they'll work?"
"Perfect." Russell accepted the flowers, balancing the basket over his arm. He turned to leave, but the quiet despair in Cody's eyes held him back.
There was no comforting something already dead, but that wasn't really what Cody was, was it? "Things are going to be fine," he lied.
Cody nodded. "I know," she lied back. "Eat your roll while it's warm, okay?"
He did as he was told: as soon as he had handed Tabasa the plants and watched him solemnly place them on the fresh graves, he took out two rolls and, after pawning the first one off to Tabasa, bit into the second one without hesitation.
It was okay. The crust was a bit black and the insides, while warm and fluffy, contained more than their share of salt. Still, Cody's cooking had improved by leaps and bounds during the last few months. There was some saying Russell had once heard and forgotten except for the word "necessity" in it, but he felt it applied here. How did it go, again?
Either way, the roll went down the hatch. He wasn't sure anyone actually needed to eat to keep going, himself included, but it was much easier to stay focused with some food in his belly.
He waved Tabasa his goodbyes while the animal-keeper still had his mouth full of bread, then made his way to the Mayor's house, dodging the tentacles growing on the path with accustomed certainty. The newest batch had sprouted the month prior, and by now everyone who still walked outside knew their spawn points by heart.
The front door of the mayor's house was unlocked, but Russell was forced to knock on the door to the study and bedroom, nudging at it with his elbow. Bright green eyes and a shy shadow of a smile greeted her as Mireille let her in with a quiet curtsy. As Russell entered, she retreated to her usual waiting spot, a stool by Mayor Saxon's bedside.
Without waiting, Russell placed the basket on a drawer and raised the cloth for a better look at where the plates were. "These are from Cody," he said, though it was almost a given now that Gardenia had stopped cooking. Would Mireille know that, though? For the past several months, Russell had never seen her outside this room. He placed one plate down, then hesitated. "Should I leave one roll or two?"
"Um...I suppose...j-just the one..." Mireille's eyes never left Mayor Saxon. "I'm afraid the master...um...he doesn't eat much..."
Russell too gazed at Saxon. The mayor's brow was unfurrowed, and Mireille had neatly combed his grey hair back onto the pillow. If Russell hadn't known better, he would've assumed he had barged in while Saxon was having a particularly peaceful nap, not that he had been pulled under by an unknown disease.
"How is he?" he asked.
"...The same..." Mireille folded her fingers together and brought her hands to her lips. "W-when Dr. Kantera last checked up on him, he— he said his condition is, um, stable. He's not in any p-pain as far as he could tell..."
Russell felt a shadow pass through him at the mention of Dr. Kantera. "It's been a while, then?"
"Y-yes...but..." Mireille's smile returned. She lowered her hands. "Nothing has changed meanwhile. The master sleeps peacefully."
"Good." When the mayor had first collapsed, back when things in town had been only slightly worse rather than a whole lot worse, Mireille hadn't slept for a week, crying her eyes out with worry. The entire town had been uneasy, but slowly, after Kantera had assured them that while he wouldn't cure whatever ailed the mayor, he was in no danger either, everyone had mostly gotten used to the new status quo. Now that Russell saw Mireille up close, she too seemed to have calmly resigned herself to the situation.
"He...will wake up, right?" There were unshed tears in Mireille's voice.
"Yes." Neither silence nor Russell's true guess would serve here.
Mireille nodded. She bit her lip, tearing her eyes away from the mayor and staring at the door, as if to make sure they were alone. "I...I shouldn't tell anyone yet...n-not until it's official, but..." A genuine, dreamy smile blossomed on Mireille's face as she lowered her voice. "Just before...he c-collapsed...um, he promised to...marry me."
"Congratulations," said Russell. He had no other response.
Mireille giggled. "Thank you!" Her voice faded out as her gaze returned to Saxon like a magnet drawn to another. "I just...have to believe he wakes up. He'll know how to...f-fix everything. Then...it's all going to be alright again..."
Russell picked up the basket and left without another word. Mireille didn't move a single muscle as he closed the door behind him.
He left another plate by the informant's door. He hadn't seen his doppelganger since the fateful night, and didn't care to do so now, either.
He knocked on Yumi's door, but it's was locked. No doubt she was patrolling the outskirts of the town, ready to take down any monsters trying to creep in through the gate they had built. If anyone needed food, it was her, but since finding her would take time, Russell decided to leave it for later. Instead, he dodged into the church, brushing aside the flowering vines growing over the door. Maybe Tabasa could cut down some of the vines for funeral flowers when Cody had none to give? Russell filed the thought for later.
His footsteps were soft on the carpeted aisle as he made his way towards the altar. Dogma was where he had last seen him, kneeling by the altar, his hands clasped in silent prayer, his lips mouthing words that no-one, except maybe God, could hear.
Following his habit, Russell set the basket on the nearest pew and set a roll on a plate next to it. He didn't worry about making noise: from experience, he knew nothing short of a mountain horn would stir Dogma. He hadn't witnessed the priest in anything but furtive prayer for almost three months, now, but since the church was as spotless as ever, presumably he did get up to clean it. When and why, Russell had no idea. Maybe the lack of dust was actually Cody's handiwork — she did check up on her brother daily, after all. It might explain why the circles under her eyes were even darker than Tabasa's.
Russell sat down next to the plate and stretched his legs. Once, when Dogma's words had been audible, he had sat there for hours listening to them. If he had to guess, the mute prayer now was the exact same as then; first, an admission of guilt and begging for forgiveness, then pleading for the safety of the town, its residents, and those still alive elsewhere, then back to contrition, again and again. Back then, Russell had dozed off during the fourth time the prayer repeated, and woken up with the recital at the exact same spot. It had been eerie.
With the high collar encircling Dogma's neck, it was impossible to tell if any of the rope burns from The Incident remained.
After they had cut Dogma down and he had regained consciousness, the first question on everyone's mind had been very simple: why? And even after he had done his very best to explain, even after everyone had a good idea of the dark ruminations the world collapsing around them had awoken in him, even after everyone knew about the esoteric books he had perused in his desperation, no-one, not even Dogma himself, could fully understand how he had become convinced that to save the town, one of them had to die, and that the one to die had to be either him or Cody.
What was sure was that The Incident had been a watershed moment. After his work was done, Dr. Kantera had retreated to his house, and hadn't left it since. Any optimism Cody had tried to keep up vanished in a heartbeat; she had engrossed herself in work to stop herself from thinking, silent and sullen and prone to tears for weeks after the fact. The empty buildings either side of Russell's house, already in bad shape, had collapsed into rubble. And Dogma himself, after leaving bed-rest, had come to the conclusion only ceaseless prayer could save them now, assuming any salvation still existed.
Russell jumped back on this feet and grabbed the basket. There was more food to deliver, after all.
For a second, he thought he heard Dogma whisper his name, but though he waited, nothing followed. The priest was probably at the litany of townspeople to be absolved, again.
Russell hurried away.
Deliveryuu nodded their head at Russell as he entered the medicine shop. "Welcome, young one."
Russell bowed back as he set the basket on the counter, careful not to tread on Dr. Kantera. The good doctor lay on his back on the floor, aligned with the counter,, his slender hands on his chest and his eyes firmly shut. Nothing had changed since Russell's last visit except for how much the thin blanket on Kantera's legs actually covered him. It was the only hint he had not, in fact, slipped into the same kind of coma as Mayor Saxon, and merely slept.
He sat down on the floor next to him. According to Deliveryuu, Kantera slept twenty hours a day, more than a cat. Several times, Russell had waited in the shop for him to wake, reasoning that at some point, through sheer coincidence if nothing else, he'd be there when Kantera rose. The week before, he had spent the whole day there before and fallen asleep on the floor himself, only to wake up with the blanket now covering him and Kantera sound asleep once more.
At least he could rest at ease knowing he looked peaceful.
He forced himself back on his feet and plated one of the four remaining rolls. He hesitated and turned towards Deliveryuu. "Does...does Dr. Kantera eat bread?" A vague recollection of his life before the experiment flashed through his mind, of an eastern doctor so much alike but still not Dr. Kantera mentioning that bread wasn't that common where he came from.
Deliveryuu smiled. "When he is hungry enough, and he will be. Yes. Do not fret."
"Right." He had no reason to stay, with the master of the house deep in slumber and nothing knew to discuss with Deliveryuu. Regardless, he sat back down.
"Does he really wake up?" He must have asked the same question a dozen times by then, but Deliveryuu's smile was as patient as ever.
"On my honour, yes. 'Tis not long since he ventured to say he misses you all."
"If he misses us, why doesn't he come visit us when he's up?"
"He cannot. When he does wake, he is too weak to walk." Deliveryuu's heavy eyelids covered their emerald eyes. "There are tonics for muscle atrophy, but he will not mix one for himself."
Russell sighed. He couldn't help but feel Dr. Kantera was using the weakness as an excuse. "I suppose his dreams are nicer than reality."
Deliveryuu's eyes blinked open. "From his words, they are all nightmares."
"Really?" Russell crouched nearer. Now that they mentioned it, there was a crease between Kantera's eyes, and while his lips were curled upwards, if Russell had to imagine the expression paired with open eyes, it was a mournful smile.
He digested this new information, then got up. "Thanks for your time."
Deliveryuu nodded at him once more as he slid the door open, trying to keep his mind empty.
"Russell!" Gardenia immediately bounced up from the porch to meet him. Even in a town where only the mayor and the doctor seemed to sleep, no-one could beat her as far as looking half dead went. Still, she was as sunny as ever even now that the real sun had forsaken them. "Good morning!"
Russell held out the basket to her. "Take one."
"Thank you!" She picked up one of the rolls and sat back down, taking a bite out of it. After swallowing, she added: "Cody has really improved, huh?"
"Yeah..." It had been two months, give or take, since Gardenia had announced she'd be living on her porch from then on, sleeping as little as she could, to best ensure she wouldn't miss even a single glimpse of her dad when — and she still used "when" despite the doubt in her eyes — he finally returned. So far, she had held steadfast, sitting patiently in place day after night, only nodding off for brief moments at a time. From there, Cody had assumed responsibility for feeding her, and life had gone on as usual.
"Oh, that's right!" Gardenia beamed at him. "You know why birthday's coming up, right? Dad must come then!"
Russell nodded wordlessly. It was the third time Gardenia's birthday was "coming up" in as many weeks.
Gardenia didn't seem to notice his scepticism. "Well, since he's finally coming for sure, I thought I'd surprise him and bake him a cake! If I do it right by the window, I should spot him when he comes." She chewed her lip. "Only, I gave away some things I need for the cake. Do you know where I could get more baking equipment?"
"I can check what the Incarners left behind for you," Russell said at length. The former Market was about as safe as any place outside town could be, and going there would give him more time not to think about anything.
"Wow, thank you!" Gardenia's smile faded. "Don't go alone, though. It's dangerous."
Not that dangerous, probably, but Russell wasn't about to make it into a solo mission. Who could he drag along? Tabasa could probably spare an hour, but who else?
"You could go with me," said Gardenia, as if guessing his thoughts.
Russell stared at her for a good while, unable to grasp if she was honestly suggesting that after two months, she was finally ready to leave and risk missing her dad.
Then, he realised she was pointing her thumb towards her house.
"Oh, yeah." The Other Gardenia, then. "Think she wants to come?" It didn't seem like a good idea at all, but he'd manage.
Gardenia shrugged. "She knows what I need, anyway." She frowned. "I'd bring someone else along and not just her, though. "She's a bit...sleepy."
"Yeah." Gardenia was smiling again. The part of him he tried to keep silent and occupied at all times reared its head. He sighed. Only one way to quiet it before it got going.
"Gardenia," he began. "Your dad's not coming home." He continued on as Gardenia stilled. "He's never coming back because none of this is real. You're dead, and I killed you."
He braced himself for the oncoming storm, for the overwhelming nausea, for the world around him to turn red as the apparition of Gardenia's corpse screamed at him. He had tried confessing once a week since Gardenia had moved to the porch, so he was quite familiar with the routine.
Therefore, he was surprised when Gardenia merely blinked at him. "Oh. T-that's...too bad." She looked at her shoes, then snapped back up. "Sorry I can't come with you, but I can't risk missing dad." She smiled as brightly as ever. "He's coming any day now, you know."
Russell nodded, and without a further word stepped past her into the restaurant, trying to pretend his innards hadn't just turned to water.
"Do we really have to? It's far..." The Other Gardenia stifled a yawn as Russell pushed the gate open and dragged her out of the town by her wrist. In the end, he had chosen to take no-one but Gardenia's sleepy double to the scavenging mission. Few things posed a challenge to Russell and his trusty knife, and if there was any real danger, they could just run away.
The Other Gardenia was the strangest resident of the nameless town, and one Russell could never call a friend. She reminded Russell of the informant, really, with her half-shut eyes and keen awareness of how the world worked. It was why Russell hadn't asked Tabasa or anyone else to tag along, and why he intended to keep their excursion brief. It was why he usually avoided her entirely, too, since knowledge of how the world worked was just about the last thing he—
Yumi emerged from the fog, looking worse for wear. There was a long, thin cut on her left cheek, probably torn there by a talon of some sort, and several bruises next to it. Her boots were encrusted with mud and splotches of something black, either monster blood or liquid corruption. Still, she smiled. "Where ya going, kids?"
"To The Incarnation Market," Russell said simply, glad of the distraction.
"Oh." Yumi tilted her head. "Should be fine, yeah. Was there a while back and it was quiet. Jes' keep an eye out at all times."
"We will." At length, Russell remembered he still carried the breadbasket in one hand. "Here."
"Oh, thanks. I can take the basket back to Cody if yer busy." Yumi bit into the offered roll with relish, while simultaneously gesturing with her hand for Russell to hand the basket over.
"There's one left over," Russell said as he relinquished the basket.
"I'll have it if Cody won't." Yumi took another large bite, then walked past the two of them. "Be careful, ya hear? Call for help if ya need me."
"Yeah." Russell tightened his grip around The Other Gardenia's wrist and pushed on. The girl yawned loudly, but made no protest.
After the obstacle course made out of purple tendrils that was the path to the market those days, Russell's shoes hit a carpet. He crouched down, and pushing aside the bits of golden rubble that had once been an Incarner, he plunged into the nearest box.
"What did she need again?" he asked over his shoulder. As soon as he had let go, The Other Gardenia had slumped onto her knees, rubbing her barely open eyes.
"A mixing bowl, a spatula..." The litany was interrupted by a sharp yawn. "Mmm...a measuring cup, and some butter paper."
"Doesn't she have all those things already?" Russell didn't know much about baking, but from what he remembered, a mixing bowl and the like were minimum requirements.
"She gave them all to Cody when she asked to borrow them."
"Can't she just ask them back?"
The Other Gardenia shrugged. "She wants new ones. Besides, Cody needs the old ones more."
"Fine." Russell returned to rummaging. Most of the things in the first box were odd gadgets he could find neither use nor purpose for. He shoved it aside and hauled the next box closer to him.
"So," The Other Gardenia droned after the silence had stretched on for a while. "How's being stranded here treating you? Seems like you regret your choice."
Russell paused, looking up from the unpromising top layer of the second box. "What do you mean?" He shouldn't have asked, he realised as soon as the words escaped his mouth, but it was too late then.
"You tried confessing to Gardenia earlier."
"Hardly for the first time." Russell shoved his hand into the box. Maybe he'd nick his hand into something sharp and thus give himself something new to think about. No such luck.
"I know, but why? It's not like it matters."
It was true. It didn't matter, as he had discovered back when he had first doubted his decision and tried to go back on it. Any attempt of telling the people in town of his crimes always ended the same way: a bloody vision of what he had done — and then the world snapped back to what it had been like before he opened his mouth. Even if the informant had told the truth and confession had been his way out of the dream, that door was shut for good.
It was... fine, really. Right, even, since he had knowingly made his bed. He had wanted an escape from reality, and an escape had been what he got.
Russell shrugged. "I felt like it."
He had hoped that would be enough to quell the questions, but The Other Gardenia was in a talkative mood. "How long have you been here now?"
It was stupid to answer, stupid to listen to the part of himself that wanted to think and understand and feel when everything went just fine as long as he did none of those things. But for all his attempts to keep them still, the cogs in Russell's head sprung to life. "A year, maybe?"
The Other Gardenia raised her knees up and rested her chin against them. "Only a year?"
"No idea. Could be ten for all I know." The truth was, Russell had lost track ages ago. The seasons never changed, no more than the people aged, and while he had once tried painting a line on his wall for each day, they had been covered up by black stains long ago. He vaguely felt The Incident had been three months ago, and the mayor had fallen ill three months before that, but both were nebulous dates at best, and everything before them was covered in similar fog as the one plaguing the town.
The Other Gardenia nodded. "I don't know either, but it's been a while." She squinted. "That's why things are so weird. Your body and mind in the real world are getting weak."
Russell stilled, one hand still in the box of merchandise. That, he hadn't expected. "How do you know that?"
"I don't. It's what you think, or at least would be if you allowed yourself to think."
When Russell turned to look, he half expected to be greeted by the informant's cheshire grin. But no, it was still The Other Gardenia, her eyes barely open, the strange wings on her hair drooping slightly.
He retrieved his hand from the box. "Fine. Let's think about it, then." He was growing weary of living like a zombie, anyway.
The Other Gardenia tilted her head to the side, closing her eyes. "I mean, you've noticed that the dream's winding down, right? That you can't really go anywhere, and everyone's acting strange?" She merely shrugged as Russell nodded. "It's because you're running out of energy to keep your guilt suppressed."
"I..." Russell swallowed. A sense of foreboding he had very carefully ignored for ages now filled his heart.
"You couldn't stop feeling it, so you tried to run and forget about it. But now you can't run, and the guilt's still there. It never really went away. That's why the world is how it is." There was neither outrage nor pity in The Other Gardenia's voice, only drowsiness.
Russell allowed himself to think about it.
"Do you think my body will die soon?" he finally asked.
"No idea. They might want to keep you alive to keep punishing you. Or maybe you'll live to hundred despite everything."
Russell didn't bother asking her who "they" were. He could guess. "And this world will keep breaking down?"
"It won't get better, anyway. This is all in your mind, and that's not getting any stronger." The Other Gardenia opened her eyes. "I'm just a figment of your imagination, so it doesn't matter to me. The real question is if it matters to you."
Russell's knees were beginning to ache, so he sat down on the carpet. He stared at the tips of his shoes. And for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, he did some soul-searching.
Yes. It mattered.
He had almost managed to forget. Rather, he had intentionally made himself forget time and time again, squashed his guilt as deep down as he could even as it kept rising as tendrils from the soil, and pretended all was well. Ultimately, it changed nothing.
All the horrible things that had happened since he had refused to leave had happened because he had allowed them to. Tabasa slowly losing the purpose of his life, Cody busying herself to death, Mireille waiting for a future that would never come, Dogma losing touch with reality, Kantera losing himself to endless nightmares, Gardenia's endless vigil... all of it was due to Russell's cowardice.
Hope had never existed in the dream world in the first place, but now the illusion of hope was dying out. It was only a matter of time until everyone realised they were puppets on string and nothing but despair remained. Imagined lives born from Russell or not, their suffering was real enough.
All the people who had brought him happiness, all existing because of him in the first place, leading a miserable, prolonged existence in a world falling apart...wasn't that his biggest sin to top off all the other sins?
Slowly, he brought his hands up and covered his face with them. He took a deep breath, allowing the fog to fill his lungs.
Then, he stood up and held his hand out to The Other Gardenia. "Come with me."
The Other Gardenia allowed herself to by pulled up, and followed without murmur as Russell led her to the cliff. There had once been a view to a massive forest from there. When it had vanished, Russell wasn't sure, but all that remained was a cluster of eyeballs near the edge and beyond that, a void.
He let go off The Other Gardenia's hand and kept going until he was teetering on the edge. "Push me in."
The Other Gardenia barely reacted. "Why?"
"You said I can't run any longer. You were right."
The Other Gardenia took the opportunity to stretch her arms. "Jumping there won't get you back to the real life. It will probably just kill you."
"I should've died already anyway. My life here has been on borrowed time." There was no comforting something already dead, but the thought set Russell at ease regardless. "If I die, that will end the dream and stop everyone else from suffering. It's worth it for that." There was an unvoiced fear at the back of his mind that even with him gone, the dream had already taken a life of its own and would keep going unimpeded. He ignored it. He had plenty of practice ignoring unpleasant things.
The Other Gardenia had nothing further to add to his argument. Instead, she asked: "Shouldn't it be a staircase?"
Russell focused. Try as he might, he could no longer shift his surroundings. The cliff stubbornly remained a cliff.
"This will have to do. Please." When nothing happened, he turned his head. "If it makes no difference to you, you might as well."
The Other Gardenia sighed, the sigh melting into a yawn. Russell waited.
When the push came, he made no attempt to resist. He gladly allowed himself to lose his bearing and sink into the yawning abyss before him.
It really did feel a little like flying.