I’m Still Here
in which you start to wonder about
The girl sat on Devi’s couch, staring at nothing.
Devi usually had very little idea how to entertain a little kid and often wished she had bothered to get cable on days when it was her turn to play entertainment director.
“Hmm?” Conversation was fine too. The kid was reasonably intelligent after all.
“I don’t think they like me.”
“Edgar and Nny? Are you kidding? Kid, Edgar adores you, really. Probably shouldn’t, but…”
Devi really had not wanted to be the ‘emotional crutch.’
“But he… he made me leave. Because Nny got angry.”
The girl seemed to making some connections as she spoke, and Devi thought she probably didn’t need to explain, but did anyway. Just in case.
“Sweetie, it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep Nny happy, really. And Edgar…” Devi trailed off, wondering how much was appropriate and hating that she was wondering at all.
“Edgar will do a lot for Johnny,” she finished lamely.
“Like die,” the girl replied bitterly.
“Whoa, whoa. You start wishing that we die, and we put you back in that ditch. What the hell is that about?”
“I didn’t mean that!” she squeaked. “I mean he would, because Nny did.”
“They told you about that?” Devi asked, sitting down beside the frustrated girl.
She never knew what to call the poor thing aside from ‘sweetie’ or ‘kid.’ Getting familiar enough to use her whole name, or use Johnny’s ‘Banshee’ seemed like getting into the super familiar territory, and Devi wasn’t comfortable with the idea in the slightest. ‘Nie’ had been fun for a while when they were mocking Johnny, but now that they were honestly talking about the original ‘Nny’, Devi didn’t want to confuse things.
“Yeah, when you left, after the door. Nny told me about Hell before, but I didn’t know he was serious. I don’t think Edgar can tell when he’s serious, too.”
“Either,” Devi corrected,“And don’t worry about it. They like you just fine. Nny just… comes first, I guess.”
The girl had an expression of clarity on her face that frightened Devi into wondering if she’d shattered some kind of sweet family ideal. It was definitely best to knock the idea of Edgar and Johnny being any kind of family to her out of her head now, but Devi still flinched at the thought of having done it so un-gently.
“And the hell thing,” Devi gestured at nothing with her hands, “you’re okay with that?”
“And you believe it?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because it came out of Johnny’s mouth?”
“They don’t lie to me. And the only time I lied to them- they don’t want me there because I lied to them.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. You’ll go back in a few days, don’t worry about it,” Devi told her. “We’ll send you over to Jimmy for some stories or something later, okay?”
He didn’t seem to understand. Seemed to show up with no meaning at all.
He’d watched Edgar spend nights walking the block and waving to the neighbor kid. He knew he wasn’t welcome as a permanent feature of the house. The house was already too full and too empty for that. He could come in gradually, spend more time there, but was never always welcome, never always staying.
It took a toll on him. He could see that, he wasn’t so stupid. It also wasn’t his fault Edgar got his house eaten or vanished or whatever.
Edgar said no one saw him anymore. When he tried to go home, there was nothing, when he tried to phone someone to say he was okay, there was nothing. He’d found it funny that Edgar had only needed to be threatened with death, and yet here the result was the same. He was gone. Might as well have been killed.
Gone from everything and everyone around.
But not empty, which presented a problem.
Freezies and sharing headphones.
“I don’t know, do you think ‘headwad’ is really as good as Noodle Boy can get? It seems like a cop-out to me after ‘your supreme fuck-ness’.”
Offered sensible solutions to things that were already mindless, worthless and largely only to keep his fingers busy when they felt too disgusted with him to… something.
He still didn’t see. He wasn’t looking the right way.
He stayed on the lawn.
Johnny blinked, looked at the room around him. The kitchen. Edgar’s kitchen. Maybe his kitchen, if he stretched things a little.
Edgar leaned into the doorway.
“Why are all the lights off in here?”
“I don’t know.”
Johnny remained still in the center of the floor while Edgar flicked the switch on the wall.
“Oh, good,” he clicked the switch a few times before settling with the lights on, “I was hoping I didn’t have to replace the stupid thing.”
“People can see you again,” Johnny said slowly.
“Um, yes. Are you okay?”
Mostly okay, but a little disoriented. All those little pieces of not-shit he’d wanted so badly to remember when he first set foot on the ground in this life were poking through cracks he thought had been sealed.
“I’m fine. There’s nothing bad about it yet.”
“I’m not quite happy with the ‘yet’.”
“You’ll have to live with it.”
“Is that so?”
“Unless you’d prefer the alternative.”
Edgar looked uncomfortable and rubbed his arm before letting out a sigh.
“I don’t think I noticed how badly you needed the space.”
Before he retreated to the other room, he turned the light off.
Devi regretted sending her to Jimmy.
She expected to get Stephanie back from Jimmy’s place babbling randomly in German, which was fine. Annoying, but fine. She’d done that last time, after all. This time, a day after she’d been dropped off, she was screaming in what Devi could only assume was German.
“Ich kann es nicht versteh’n!” Jimmy screeched to Devi and Tenna when he arrived with the small wailing girl.
“Jimmy! English, please!”
“Wir sind ein Buch gelesen – und, und, nur ein Buch für die Kindern!” He continued yelling over Stephanie’s screaming in order to be understood, apparently forgetting the language he was using.
“I don’t know what happened!” Jimmy blurted when he finally started using English. “She just started freaking out!”
“You know how creepy that sounds, don’t you?!” Tenna shouted.
“That’s disgusting! I’d never do something to a kid!”
“Both of you stop yelling and help me calm her down!”
Back on Edgar’s porch a record time later, Devi stood with a significantly quieter, but still obviously distressed small girl. Edgar came to the door without Devi needing to knock.
“What happened?” he asked, looking quickly from Devi to the girl holding her hand. “Is she okay?”
“She seems to have had some kind of freak-out at Jimmy’s,” Devi answered, trying to sound caring and concerned. If she was honest with herself, she just wanted Edgar to take the kid out of her hair and bring her back when she was less obnoxious.
“Jimmy did something to her?”
“I don’t know, okay? I just know I’m going to do despicable things if she stays with me much longer.”
“It’s okay,” Edgar said nervously. “We can- I can take her.”
Devi raised an eyebrow at him, but decided it better not to ask and gave the girl a gentle shove in his direction. She took a step backwards in case Stephanie changed her mind and decided she wanted to stay with Devi after all.
“Good luck with that, Edgar,” Devi said, continuing her walk backwards. “Try not to scar her for life for a second time today?”
While Devi backed away as tactfully slowly as she could stand, Edgar turned inside, leading Stephanie inside with him.
The entrance to Edgar’s house felt awfully small suddenly. An upset girl standing beside him and a soon to be equally upset Johnny in some other room crowded Edgar into a very limited amount of breathable space.
“Well, fuck,” he sighed.
Stephanie burst into tears.
“You’re kidding me!” Johnny’s voice echoed from what sounded like the basement.
Edgar listened to pounding footsteps in time with Stephanie’s heaving breaths and part of him twitched to make a song out of it. The rest of him was sure that this was the time to pretend that the girl had been beamed into the house by the same aliens that had just a moment ago stolen his brain.
“Didn’t we just do this?” Johnny asked, now standing under the archway into the dining room. Something above his lip twitched.
“I’m sorry,” Edgar said without thinking, “Devi just came back and said she was really upset.”
“She needed to tell you that?” Johnny looked pointedly at the sniffling six year-old at Edgar’s side.
“Something at Jimmy’s really upset her, apparently.”
“Pfft, is that all? Welcome to the club, Banshee.”
Edgar sighed again, suddenly feeling drained. He knelt down to hug Stephanie in an attempt to calm her down and she latched onto his neck, spouting gibberish or conceivably German.
“Sweetie? Stephanie, really,” Edgar tried between the frantic sentences. “Sweetie, we need to use that other language you know.”
He heard the wooden flooring creak as Johnny shifted his weight, but saw nothing that looked like a motion to help.
“Kein Vater!” Stephanie shrieked in Edgar’s face.
“Oh, wow, no.”
Edgar looked up for some clarification but Johnny wasn’t saying any more.
“What, what?” Edgar asked frantically. “Do you know what she said?”
Johnny looked disgusted and clicked his tongue once. “‘No father,’” he quoted.
“My god, what did Jimmy SAY to her?” Edgar hugged her again before realizing that might complicate the issue. “What do I do with this?”
“You’re the one who said it was doing no harm having her here, don’t look at me.”
“I didn’t know she’d end up with some kind of complex!” Edgar defended, standing and leading Stephanie into the kitchen for some water. “You can’t blame me for it.”
“You were the one saying kids need all that parental developmental shit, Edgar. Shoulda seen it coming.”
Johnny seemed to be following Edgar into the kitchen just for the spectacle of seeing him flustered. Edgar repeatedly had to stop himself from tightening his grip violently on Stephanie’s shoulders in response to Johnny’s total lack of sympathy. He should have been used to it by now, he told himself, but there were some things Edgar just didn’t want to handle, even if they came from Johnny.
Stephanie was reasonably calm once she got a drink and tried to explain herself between deep gasps and chugs of water.
“And we were sitting, and we were reading,” she gasped, “and he says, he says, ‘Marianne’s father.’”
She looked pointedly at Edgar as though that should have explained everything. Edgar sent a beseeching glance at Johnny who half-heartedly shrugged in response.
“What was wrong with that?” Edgar asked Stephanie as she inhaled another gulp of water.
“It’s not like Zeus!” She shrieked as though informing Edgar of some otherwise unattainable knowledge and flung water onto the floor in her hysteria.
“It doesn’t just happen to the gods! It happens to people!” She took several frantic breaths. “People. Down here. People.”
She stared at Johnny, her breath still erratic, as though trying to get something out of him.
“Seems we’re not really people, Banshee,” he told her.
“None for you, too,” she murmured.
Edgar didn’t bother to remind her about ‘either.’ He watched her stare at the black space under the refrigerator for several seconds while she caught her breath.
“Stephanie, I think-”
“Why are we here?” she asked suddenly.
Edgar tried to ask her what she was talking about, but was halted by Johnny’s laughter.
“Did she really just say that?”
“Nny, you’re not helping.”
“You know what would help, though? We need to find her a preschool to haunt or something. She’ll be off starting her own band with a couple losers she scrapes off the pavement in two years time!”
Edgar found little humor in Johnny’s willingness to identify with Stephanie’s brilliance - to liken her to himself - and be trying to kick her out of the house all at the same time. Johnny’s indirect naming of Edgar and the others as losers also failed to amuse him. Edgar hoped his expression conveyed this, but as the only response from Johnny was a non-committal raised eyebrow he wasn’t sure how effective his disapproving face really was.
When she’d polished off three glasses of water, Edgar suggested that Stephanie try to calm down with a book or a bath or something equally soothing. She declared that she wanted no parts of a book for some time and disappeared upstairs and into the bathroom.
“At least we know she’s good enough not to flood it,” Johnny commented when he heard the lock on the door.
“And what the hell are we supposed to tell her now?” Edgar asked bitterly.
“See, here’s where I get lost,” Johnny answered. “How is it that Jimmy fucks up and gives Banshee some kind of epiphany and now we have to deal with it?”
“Because no one else will! You should have seen Devi… I thought she was going to break out the duct tape.”
“It’s not an idea I haven’t been toying with,” Johnny said, leaning against the wall.
“What is wrong with you? Can we pretend the ‘I am Johnny, so Earth Logic doesn’t apply to me’ thing doesn’t exist for a second? You were friends with her until she didn’t want to leave.”
“I’m going to need more than that.”
“No, that’s pretty much it.”
“She’s not encroaching on your claims or anything, Nny.”
“I’m not jealous of a six-year-old girl, thank you.”
“Are you sure? Because I think it’s just seeping out of you.”
A clock on the wall suddenly sounded much louder than it ever had before.
Minutes of silence later, Edgar heard footsteps across the upstairs and some distressed squeaks just after them. He thought it would be safe to ignore them until he heard some colorful words in English along with what he assumed to be their German counterparts. Even Johnny, who hadn’t changed position or facial expression for a quarter of an hour, leaned in the direction of the noise.
“Do you think that’s therapeutic?” Edgar spoke aloud out of habit, even if he was fairly sure Johnny didn’t care.
“You might want to check on that, actually. She has a mirror in there doesn’t she? Could tear her hand to ribbons if she gets angry enough.”
Some familiar scars across Johnny’s fingers reminded Edgar that Johnny spoke from experience, though Edgar was bothered by Johnny’s comparing himself to Stephanie becoming a recurring theme.
Upstairs, with Johnny again following behind him likely only out of curiosity, Edgar put his ear to Stephanie’s door. She seemed to be stomping around angrily, and, from what Edgar could hear, throwing things.
“Stephanie?” he called hesitantly through the wood. “Are you okay?”
“YES! It’s fine!”
“Which clearly means it isn’t,” Johnny pointed out.
Edgar had to agree with him.
“Are you sure? Can I come in?”
“No, she’s not sure, or no you-”
“Can you shut up for a half a second, please?” Edgar snapped, interrupting Johnny’s joking tone. Johnny made some tiny noise, but Edgar didn’t focus on what it was. He turned his attention back to the door and trying to calm the angry girl on the other side of it.
“What’s wrong? Can I help?”
She said nothing for a while. Edgar wondered if he should open the door without her permission until she finally answered quietly, “I need some clothes.”
Edgar imagined that his expression mirrored Johnny’s.
“Whaaat’s wrong with your old ones?” Edgar asked cautiously, still pressed against the wooden door.
“They’re small,” Stephanie replied curtly.
“They weren’t this morning,” he offered.
“They are now.”
“Do you just not like them?”
“No. They’re small.”
Edgar sighed. He was going to have to risk sounding weird to figure this all out.
“Stephanie, can you put a towel or something on and let me in? Even if we need bigger clothes, I can’t tell how much bigger until I know what’s wrong.”
There was a shuffling on the other side of the door while Edgar fielded strange looks from Johnny.
“What would you have suggested, Einstein?” Edgar hissed under his breath. Johnny just gave him an amused smile.
The doorknob clicked and the door slowly swung open as though Stephanie had given it only the slightest reluctant push from the other side. Edgar felt a little apprehensive about opening the door, and tried to do it as non-threateningly as possible.
On the inside, significantly taller than she had been before her bath, stood Stephanie in the giant tiger striped towel Tenna had given her for some future trip to the beach. Her hair had gotten longer and she squinted at Edgar with a sour expression on her face.
“Okay? I need bigger ones.”
Edgar found that he had few words at all and the ones he tried to use failed him. “I… what happened? How did this even… work?”
Johnny said nothing, but he was obviously having just as much difficulty taking in what he was seeing.
Stephanie only appeared to be a few years older, but even that much was alarming.
“It just did. Can we get Aunt Devi, please?”
“Um, yes. Yeah, juuuust let me give her a call.”
The dress Devi gave her was too big, but it was an improvement over the tiger towel. Stephanie now sat reasonably clothed in the back of Tenna’s often forgotten green car, staring out the window, occasionally squinting. Edgar sat beside Devi in the front, alternately concerned about Stephanie and about Devi’s ability to drive.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to do this? On more than straight lines?” He winced as the car whizzed by a stop sign.
“Tenna showed me the ropes,” Devi said casually. “She wouldn’t have let me take this thing if she thought I’d wreck it. Besides, we’re not going very far.”
They weren’t, really. The nearest all-purpose store was just a few miles of cow country away, and sat along a mostly straight stretch of highway that would have been hard to screw up. Devi even managed to park without hitting anything.
Stephanie refused to leave the car until Devi told her she’d never have anything that fit her if she didn’t come in and try something on. She came out then, but still looked angry and bitter. Edgar couldn’t help but feel that he’d done something desperately wrong and that Stephanie was angry at him instead of Johnny or Jimmy.
The store was cheap and the people who shopped there often frightened or disgusted Edgar, but there was nothing wrong with the merchandise. Devi snapped at Stephanie once for locking up and pouting as they strolled through the store and Stephanie returned to normal seemingly instantly, picking out things she liked from every corner of the store.
Several people in the store recognized Edgar and Devi and one woman went so far as to ask her companion why it had taken so long for the news of Devi’s pregnancy to come out when the child was already so old. The companion answered that she was surprised to see that Edgar was not only straight, but apparently the father of the amazing Devi child. Edgar had to repress his own irritation in addition to steering Devi away from committing crimes against humanity. Thankfully, Stephanie seemed to neither notice nor care.
They gathered in the center of the store in front of the dressing rooms when Stephanie finished her raid of the racks. Edgar and Devi found themselves stuck with leaning against shopping carts filled with clothing watching a small girl try to coordinate outfits. Every few minutes, Stephanie would come out with a new combination and they’d nod in approval or veto something horrible. Between little fashion shows, they tried to sort out the latest in weird happenings.
“So she just sprouted up like that, huh?” Devi asked calmly as she leafed through a home and garden magazine that someone had left on the bench next to her.
“Yeah, she got into the bath like she was when you dropped her off and came out like that.”
“Something in your water?”
“I don’t recall Nny growing at an astronomical rate. Or even me. Could you imagine my face? I think I’d notice.”
“Ew, please, I don’t want to think about it,” Devi said, looking up from the pages about garden gnomes. Her disgusted expression changed quickly into something resembling amused.
“Wow, you know what’s even weirder?” she asked, glancing at Edgar. “Johnny with facial hair.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t get it, and I don’t know why,” Edgar shrugged, only slightly bitter.
“Really? I’m not sure I wanted that confirmed, but that’s interesting. You’d think I’d have noticed, but now that I think about it, he never stole any razors when we were younger. Not for his face, anyway.”
“I want to blame it on genetics, but as Stephanie reminded us today, he has no parents to get it from.”
“What the hell is Nny supposed to be, anyway?” Devi asked, straightening the pages of the letters section. “I mean, if he was supposed to look properly reincarnated wouldn’t he look less weird? He’s always looked a little… I don’t even know what that color is. Like he’s Mexican filtered through dirty dish water.”
“That’s lovely, thank you. I’ll be sure to tell him you’ve noticed.”
“It’s a thought. Some native tribes have a tendency to not grow facial hair, you know.”
“He’d be darker then, though, wouldn’t he?”
About then, Stephanie coughed. She’d been standing in front of them for some time while they discussed Johnny’s skin.
“That’s a keeper, kiddo.” Devi nodded after surveying the outfit, and handed Stephanie a new one from the cart. “Bring out the rest of what you have in there next time, okay?”
“Okay,” Stephanie answered.
“You know,” Devi said thoughtfully as she watched Stephanie drag the clothes on the floor, “whatever Nny is… I think she is too.”
Edgar regarded what of the girl’s skin tone he could see before she closed the door to her dressing room and wondered why he hadn’t seen that earlier.
“You might be right,” he managed to answer.
“Speaking of Nny and not his skin,” Devi set aside the magazine, “what is his stance on this stuff?” She nodded toward Stephanie’s dressing room.
“He’s either angry at me, fucking with my head, or both.”
“You can come stay with me if it’s both. Been there before.”
“Devi, I can’t imagine him ever messing with you on purpose.”
Devi shrugged. “Maybe not now. He toyed with me and Jimmy quite a bit before you showed up.”
She made an odd face when she finished the sentence, and looked like she was going to offer a disclaimer, but it never came.
“I thought for such a long time that you two had to have been something before I ran into you,” Edgar said to the ugly carpet below his feet. “You seemed close, and I didn’t understand why nothing had happened, I guess.”
“Ha. Don’t assume it didn’t, Edgar.”
“For all of a few days. Long enough to discuss it, experiment with it and determine there was nothing there.”
“Experimenting? Am I interpreting this the right way?”
Devi smirked at him.
“Jeez,” Edgar responded. “How old were you?”
“Oh, fifteen or something.” Devi laughed. “Have I fucked with your head well enough now? Thoughts of me and Johnny grossing you out?”
“Weirdly enough, no,” Edgar replied, running his hand over his neck. “I’m actually sort of relieved. I was worried I’d just muscled in on something between you two. It feels better to know you established it wasn’t going to work.” He paused to cough. “A little unorthodox way to go about it, though.”
“And here I thought I’d smashed some kind of magical virginal fantasy of yours.”
“We can never mention ‘virginal’ in a conversation about Johnny ever again if it’s all the same to you.”
“I think I’m sick of clothes,” Stephanie chimed in from the dressing room doorway. “Can we go soon?”
“Just a few more, kiddo,” Devi said, handing over the rest of the stack. “You’ll thank us later, really.”
“Mmerff, fine, fine,” Stephanie mumbled while retreating to the dressing room.
“She’s not so bad, this kid.” Devi smiled at nothing in particular after Stephanie had vanished.
“I’m pretty fond of her,” Edgar agreed.
“Going to kick her out?”
“I can’t do that, that’d be terrible.”
“So you’re going to have Nny angry at you for more than a few hours? Gutsy, Edgar, I’m impressed.”
“It’ll be all right. I’m sure I’ll be able to work something out.”
Devi shook her head, amused, and went back to the magazine beside her. Edgar watched her leaf through the pages, and wondered about ‘before’. Before he showed up, before the keys and before the Pepito thing and the dying. When Devi and Jimmy were all Johnny had.
The ‘experimenting’ made sense in that context, and Johnny had said that Devi was beautiful before, so there was even more. Rationalizing it makes it better. He felt a little guilty about having to make it rational and for wondering how much Johnny was lying about.
“If there was no Nny, I mean, if he disappeared in some way that I wasn’t able to reclaim him from, I think you…”
“And if Tenna vanished, then definitely you.”
As awkward as Edgar’s attempt at a sentence had been, there was no awkward left. He and Devi smiled at nothing for a few moments and when Stephanie appeared again, in a shirt with striped sleeves, they laughed.
If Johnny was upset, or even noticed Edgar and Devi return with Stephanie and a pile of clothes, he didn’t show it. Edgar kept telling himself it would all be fine, but talking to Devi about Johnny hadn’t really put him completely at ease.
Johnny was silent when Devi and Edgar carried the bags of clothes upstairs, and he said nothing to Devi on her way out. Edgar didn’t know what to say to him, but knew the whole experience had to feel the same way to Johnny as it did to Edgar; filling Stephanie’s room with clothes established her more permanently as a feature of the house than her presence alone.
Edgar stalled as long as he was able, but after going through what clothes went where with Stephanie several times too many, he could feel her growing annoyed with him. He left her room feeling as though the floorboards would explode under the slightest pressure at any moment or that he would be shot out of the air by Johnny wielding an orange plastic gun.
Edgar descended the staircase, finding neither landmines nor a shooting range with an obnoxious hunting dog. Instead, Johnny sat, doing what appeared to be nothing, in the pink chair. Though he certainly didn’t think that he had, Edgar got the feeling he had done something wrong, or at least that Johnny believed it. He coughed once, but there was no reaction from the recliner.
He turned to find something to drink in the kitchen - at least he’d have something to do with his hands when he returned to truly try to argue.
“Did you pick up the adoption papers on your way back, too?”
Edgar winced, and turned back toward the chair slowly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said quietly. His brain conjured ‘There’s no one to adopt her from,’ which worried him slightly.
“Speak for yourself.”
Edgar bit his tongue, and thought he would regret his next words, but they had to happen sometime.
“Just tell me exactly what the problem is.”
“Oh?” Johnny turned his head to look at Edgar for the first time since he’d returned with Devi. “You want to know what the problem is? Huh.”
He stood up, and threw something to the floor.
“The problem,” Johnny continued, weaving his way around furniture, “is that she is more glued here with every goddamn passing hour.”
“She’s not hurting anything,” Edgar said.
“Not yet, but how long until this gets carried away, huh?”
“You’re not seeing any of it.”
“Nny, I’m not a perception machine like you. I can’t predict her every move, so don’t blame me for things she hasn’t even done yet.”
“I can’t believe you don’t see what’s happening here.”
“I can’t figure out why you won’t just tell me.”
“I shouldn’t have to point out the fucking obvious,” Johnny said through his teeth.
“You’re going to be bitter at me like this until you get your way – whatever that is – aren’t you?”
Johnny didn’t answer, and retreated to the pink chair. Edgar wanted to tear something in half. He had the motivation and the energy to scream and argue about the girl, but not the heart to. She didn’t need to overhear anymore than she already had.
“Can we ignore where she is for a moment,” Edgar began calmly, “and focus on the growing thing?”
“Whatever suits you. That’s the theme we’re working with here, after all.”
Edgar clenched his jaw for a moment, but calmed himself and relaxed with some effort. They’d have time to argue about it later.
“Do you think something did it to her?” Edgar tried to sound as neutral as possible.
“Oh, growth demons in the bathwater,” Johnny said, unimpressed, “how quaint. Maybe they followed me from Hell.”
“She did it just to spite you and rob you of enjoying her childhood years.”
“Alright, fuck you. I’m done with this,” Edgar said, turning to the stairs. He heard Johnny make some sort of huff, but refused to acknowledge it as he took the steps up two at a time.
At the top of the stairs, Stephanie stared intensely at him, gripping the railing.
“It’s nothing,” Edgar told her, trying to dismiss anything she may have heard.
She nodded and retreated to her room either frightened or unconvinced. Perhaps both. Edgar felt the atmosphere of the house change.
An attempt to reason with Johnny an hour later was met with the silent treatment, and then some wild non sequiturs as Edgar retreated to the kitchen to resist the urge to throw things.
The urge to throw things manifested as the need to clean things, unfortunately. Edgar was resentful of the whole affair, but the idea that his anger transformed into washing dishes was something like the cherry topping on his quickly accumulating stack of injustices. Had he degenerated into some fucked up kind of housewife now? He reminded himself several times while he scrubbed the insides of cups that he’d always cleaned things when he had nothing else to do and that Johnny being difficult had nothing to do with it.
When the sky outside the kitchen window began to darken, Edgar was struck with an idea. It was a little questionable to be using an opportunity like this, but it was an opportunity. Edgar’s stalker letter on the refrigerator was nearly drowned in cursive-y fangirling for Johnny and Stephanie’s drawings of Isis, but it stared at him and held his attention as though it were made of gold.
They’d have to start performing again soon. It could be months. The stalker had waited patiently through one little tour, but would she wait through another? A longer one?
He reached out to take the letter, but soapy hands and realizing that he had no melodramatic cinema audience to appreciate the significance of the action stopped him.
He was snapped out of concentrating on the paper when the phone rang. Assuming it was Devi and that Johnny would get it, Edgar shrugged and continued trying to scrub crusty cheese off of some dishes. When the ringing had gone on for well over half a minute, Edgar grew concerned. When the ringing continued on and was then accompanied by Johnny shrieking something incoherent, Edgar dropped a dish.
Edgar stumbled out of the kitchen, trailing soap and water behind him.
“Johnny? Are you okay?”
Johnny glared wildly at Edgar from the recliner, momentarily. The phone continued ringing.
Edgar attempted to get close, but Johnny started yelling again, and screamed even more incoherently with every step Edgar took. Edgar glanced up the stairs and saw Stephanie perched on the top step, listening with her hands held in preparation for covering her ears.
“And then it’s all talking to me and the bastard didn’t have the decency to just let me lie there! People deserve things like courtesyandhumannature and all that shit and I don’t care what you say helookedlikeoneand I bet I’m not even sorry! It’s going to – it already ate you anyway!”
Johnny’s loud protests to no one wove in and out of the sound of the telephone. Why hadn’t whoever was on the other end just given up already?
“Nny, come on, you’re not making sense,” Edgar tried.
“I can’t see anything!” Johnny yelled in response.
Just then, Johnny snatched the phone next to the chair off of its stand and flung it onto the floor. The receiver clattered on the hardwood and slid until it was a foot or two from Edgar’s toe. The ringing ceased along with the screaming and Johnny remained in the chair, eyes wide and fingers digging into the upholstery.
“It’s just a test,” the voice on the telephone said.
Despite a clearly disturbed Johnny in a recliner, and a worried little girl at the top of the stairs, Edgar felt as though he and the voice were all that mattered, even if just for a minute. He picked the phone up gently, almost as though he thought it would bite him, and held it an inch or so away from his face, wary of letting it touch.
“Who is this?”
There was no response from the voice, but music instead.
Edgar couldn’t understand the words. The tune meandered and cracked through the receiver until it reached a point where the sound became mostly static. And in all of it, one phrase continually repeated, poking above the cracking and popping.
Edgar found he wasn’t surprised that the music was there, but was surprised that it was there when he felt it might be. Maybe he had become more used to the Homicides’ world than he thought.
Johnny growled something and Edgar dropped the phone, suddenly remembering that he wasn’t alone with the song.
“Nny, are you-?”
Johnny viciously ripped the phone wire from the wall, the wires tearing, snapping and splitting in his hands. The song that had been reaching through the receiver fell silent, though Edgar thought he still felt it in the room.
“It knows where I am,” Johnny hissed through his teeth. He sounded almost as though he was afraid something would hear him.
“Nothing is following you, you’re fine.”
“Well, FUCK YOU!” Johnny screamed to the television, which wasn’t on or even remotely in Edgar’s direction. He still gripped the severed phone wire in his hands.
Edgar managed to get to the chair without starting too much more shrieking, and put a hand on Johnny’s arm.
Johnny jumped and tore his arm away, his eyes frantic.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said suddenly, blinking away his prior look of mania. He relaxed his grip on the frayed wires.
“Of course it’s me. Are you…? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Don’t you have some knitting to do or something?” Johnny pulled his knees to his chest and concentrated on the stacks of paper in front of the fireplace.
“Oh, that’s right, I guess she’s too old for that now.”
For all that had just happened, Johnny casually dismissed it all to make stabs at Edgar about Stephanie. Edgar felt words wanting to come, but he couldn’t force sound out immediately.
“…you…You’re just making little shows now, is that it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t know what I- I- GOD, when did you get this fucked up?! A little girl breathing the same air as you for a few days drives you insane, now, is that it? Not dying, not remembering killing your friends, not making deals with the Anti-Christ, but CHILDREN?”
“You’d like to think it’s all about Banshee.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know.”
Edgar raised a hand to start pointing dramatically to bolster his impending argument, but with half a word, he lost the drive and let his arm fall to his side. As long as Johnny was still capable of snapping, still able to be coherently angry, Edgar found he wasn’t entirely concerned. The insane was probably a sleep deprivation thing.
“Get some sleep or something, Nny. I’ll talk to you when you’re feeling saner.”
On his way to the stairs, Edgar kicked the phone under the couch.
Stephanie, it turned out, didn’t want to be bothered with pleasantries or ‘good night’s, so Edgar spent the remainder of the night with some television. Not a B-movie, no commercials, no prehistoric and painfully bad cartoons, just television.
In the morning, things had not improved.
Johnny apparently had gotten no sleep, and also feigned amnesia regarding the entire screaming incident, despite that Edgar woke up to find all the phones disconnected and lying on the floors or poorly concealed under random furniture. He had to admit the one from the basement wedged between the refrigerator and the oven surprised him.
Stephanie still seemed reluctant to talk and Johnny bitterly ignored absolutely all contact, including invitations to eat things or chances to make fun of the people on their block. Edgar didn’t know what kind of improvement he’d been expecting, but he was fairly sure this situation was headed remarkably steadily in the opposite direction of improvement.
In addition to wondering if Johnny’s experience with the door upstairs had done something to his brain, Edgar worried that the thing that had tried to eat them all in the motel really was back to find Johnny and eat him or sacrifice his heart and dance in his skin or whatever other atrocities Stephanie’s latest myth could conjure. Edgar didn’t know what the wall thing was capable of, and hadn’t ever thought of asking. In Edgar’s experience, once Johnny was done talking about it, bringing up the monster in the television (or the wall) again had never even been on the priority list, let alone anywhere near the top.
Sadly, in all of the crazy mutterings that hovered around the pink chair, ‘wall’ was the only word ever truly distinguishable. The possibility of it being behind things had to be considered.
The only problem being that the Wall wouldn’t be dialing Edgar’s phone number and quaintly playing some haunting French melody at him.
But Edgar’s stalker would.
With Johnny unwilling to step into Edgar’s actions, and Stephanie more than capable of taking care of herself for an hour or so, Edgar was free to visit the woman writing him letters.
He’d been stashing the small stack of notes and claiming spam and credit card ads when asked, but he desperately wanted to know what this woman wanted from him.
He knew it was likely a bad idea if she was the same woman that had materialized on their lawn before Johnny died. Johnny went to pieces if she was anywhere within twenty feet of him, but still, if she was the same, she was crying out for Edgar to listen to her. Now that Edgar had taken all these years to get used to being seen, he was growing to enjoy it and there was no reason to pretend he was still invisible to someone who saw him so intensely.
It wasn’t that he was planning anything shifty; he was still entirely devoted to Johnny and found very little in the world able to alter that. Johnny acting disproportionately angry, largely like a complete asshole, and generally selfish as of late didn’t even change it. This was Edgar’s curiosity and only that.
With everyone who could stop him firmly rooted in their own affairs, Edgar headed to the library that evening with no objections or incidents. There was no letter specifically for today, but he assumed that whoever she was, woman who drove Johnny crazy or no, she was going to be there.
Edgar passed Pepito’s house on the way to the library, and part of him thought he should be doing the more responsible thing and asking Pepito about Stephanie. He had to admit that Johnny was right and that even if Stephanie didn’t know Pepito, there was a chance Pepito knew her.
Four cracks in the sidewalk later, he’d rationalized to himself that he should go to Pepito’s with Johnny, and that he really had no reason to detour at all since Johnny was still at home. Was this creative lying for himself? Probably. Did he care? Surprisingly, not really.
For only a moment, Edgar worried that maybe showing up to see this woman without Pepito, a can of mace, or a baseball bat was a bad idea. But then, taking his usual luck into consideration, it was possible the woman wouldn’t even be there and he’d be stuck alone with only Pepito and some pepper spray for company.
She was there, sitting alone on the library railing, seemingly composing another note to sneak in Edgar’s mailbox. Unless she was some other woman who spent her evenings on the library’s doorstep scribbling notes on coupons, this was the one.
Edgar felt a familiar sort of nervous about her. He wasn’t sure if it was spending so much time with Johnny that made Edgar think he could feel her general aura, or if this woman just strongly projected that she spent so much time being nervous that she’d feel out of sorts if she wasn’t.
She was definitely the same woman who had shown up on his lawn, and the same one who had talked to Johnny just prior to him going a little crazy in the van. This disappointed Edgar and failed to surprise him at the same time. This lack of surprise was starting to become unsettlingly frequent lately.
“Hello?” he ventured. Part of him tensed in preparation to run should she decide to wield the pen in her hand any differently.
The woman startled, and then took in the sight of Edgar very slowly, from the soles of his boots to up over his head somewhere, before settling back down to a place behind his glasses.
“You came,” she said. Edgar couldn’t say for sure if she was looking him in the eye.
“Is he with you?” she asked, craning her neck in an attempt to see behind Edgar.
“No,” Edgar answered, shaking his head. “It’s just me. If you were a proper stalker you’d know he’s not much for moving at the moment.” He tried a smile, in hopes of appearing friendly and not on the alert.
“That’s good, then,” she muttered. She set aside the pen and note slowly. Her expression belonged in a game of chess, and not in a new social interaction. Something about her put Edgar on edge but interested him at the same time.
“You seem to think there’s something outrageously wrong with my life,” Edgar began, getting right to the point, “so I thought I’d come and assess the damage. See what it was you thought was so awful.”
“God, you poor thing,” the woman said, standing up. The expression remained unchanged – she was still planning her move. “He’s really gotten to you, hasn’t he?”
“He hasn’t done anything,” Edgar answered, assuming she still meant Johnny and stepping back. The woman compensated for the distance.
“He’s a madman.”
“Who are you? What were the notes about?”
“My name is Tess. I was reset in your boyfriend’s house a few lives ago, and I’m not about to see him destroy people again – especially not decent people, because there aren’t enough of those. He’s got you up on strings, Edgar. Like some fucked up puppet-y play thing, and you can’t even see it. No one ever sees it until it’s too late.”
“What? You’re one of those people who want to ‘take me away from all this,’ aren’t you?” He spoke with a trace laugh, but Tess didn’t seem amused.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on you,” she adjusted her glasses.
“I’ve noticed, actually, but I think perhaps you’ve missed the boat here entirely. There are no strings or puppets or anything.” Edgar continued trying to maintain a distance without being rude and landing them somewhere at the end of the block from all of his backtracking. This was not the stalker he had hoped for. He was happy Johnny couldn’t see him – Johnny would be so damn smug over being right about the whole thing.
“He’s insane, Edgar!” Tess grabbed Edgar’s coat, and spoke frantically, trying to shake him with every accusation against Johnny’s character. “He’s lying to you! Playing with you! He’s sucked you into this little game of his and he’s not going to let go! You’ve got to DO something! He’s already got all those fans deluded! You’re the only one smart enough to stand a chance of getting out!”
Edgar gripped Tess’ wrists and pulled her hands from his coat with only a minimal increase in heart rate.
“I can’t believe that’s what this was all about…” He shook his head in disbelief and gathered the calmest thoughts he could. “There’s no game, please. There, for the most part, are no lies, no nothing. You’ve got this all wrong.”
“You see?” she said, pointing between Edgar’s eyes, “This is what he wants you to think, this is what he’s done. He’s making you think that he loves you and that you love him and you need to get out. You need to. And that poor little girl, her too.”
“I don’t need to do anything. There is no brainwashing here, honestly. I chased after Johnny on my own. There was some rather awkward courting for a while, but I really wanted to. He’s my best friend. You’ve got this all wrong, please, just listen to me.” Edgar tried to assume some sort of demeanor that he thought would calm her down, though he feared nothing would stop her by now.
“And the girl?”
“Stephanie really likes Johnny. She likes all of us and she seems happy. And really, there’s not a lot in her to corrupt…”
“This is wrong,” Tess muttered, staring at the sidewalk. She held her arms across her chest in a kind of quiet self-hug. Edgar thought she had finally understood and he was glad it hadn’t taken too much fighting.
“You deserve to be treated better,” Tess continued.
“I’m not being treated badly,” Edgar explained through some annoyance. “I am incredibly happy where I am right now. Stephanie, too.”
“You don’t need to lie, he can’t hear you.”
“Oh for crying ou- I’m not lying!”
“What would convince you?”
“It’s not-! Ugh. I guess some kind of signed paper, or a grand confession in front of the whole town that now that he has conquered the coveted ‘lame guy with the glasses’, the world was next, I don’t know.”
He shook his head hearing his own words and continued before Tess could counter. “But it’s not like that, do you understand? That’s not something you’ll be able to find.”
“Can we be friends, Edgar?”
He tilted his head at the odd jump in topic, but answered, slowly, “I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
“Johnny is not terribly fond of you, for various reasons, and if he-”
“You’re letting him choose your friends?! Okay, I used to know people like this. Hell, I used to be people like this. You’re going to be okay, Edgar, I promise,” Tess patted his shoulder sympathetically and looked around as though the secret to Edgar’s redemption lay just across the street.
“I think you’ve gotten this twisted,” Edgar tried, “I really-”
“We’ll be friends, and I’ll help you, and tell you everything I know.”
Edgar stopped protesting long enough to process what Tess was really saying. He took a breath, and realizing he would probably later regret it, made a decision.
“Tess? Do you know anything about some kind of… sick, scary tentacle thing that comes out of walls?”
The possible outcomes here were either that she decided he was bonkers and never contacted him again, or that she knew and he could use her to help stop whatever it was doing to Johnny – okay with him, either way.
Tess looked uncomfortable, but nodded slowly.
“I know something like that, yeah. Unfortunately.”
“All right, then. We do this friend thing, you’ll tell me about the wall monster, maybe, and I’ll listen to your hysterical claims about my choice in partners.”
“You want to hear about the wall? Specifically?”
She paused, watching the sidewalk in thought.
“Okay, but not all at once. And not now. Next time. With lunch or something.”
He’d have to keep it from Johnny, but Edgar thought that a friendship with this poor misguided woman could lead to something that would eventually help them all, so he was going to commit to it. She couldn’t be nearly as crazy as she was claiming Johnny was, after all.
When Edgar returned home, the same unwelcoming atmosphere of a shooting range and minefield combo wrapped around him and kept him far from the pink chair in the living room. He sighed and made his way upstairs where he found Stephanie sitting on the top stair, her chin resting on her knees.
“Was she nice?” Stephanie asked casually.
“You know, I have no idea.”
“You didn’t talk to her?”
“I’ve just admitted that I’ve been to see her, haven’t I?”
“Did you get that people radar from him?” Edgar nodded toward the part of the house Johnny had emotionally blockaded.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“He’ll eventually have you lying your way out of everything and he’ll teach you all that weird people reading he does. And then it will be just me who can’t figure out everyone around him and sucks at lying.”
“You’re not too bad at it.”
“Oh. Uh, both, I guess.”
“Thanks,” he laughed.
“But you did talk to her? Right?”
“Is she crazy?”
“Like I said, I really don’t know. She’s pretty convinced Johnny is a bad idea all around, though,” Edgar sat down on the step beside Stephanie.
“A ‘bad idea’?”
“Or a bad match, or something.”
“He likes you, doesn’t he?”
“This is the assumption I’ve been going on for a while here,” Edgar sighed. “I hope it’s not a wrong assumption.”
“Well, then he’s a good idea.”
“That’s not always the case,” Edgar said, looking at his palms, “but I think it is the case here.”
“You’re not going left are you?”
Edgar sighed and half-smiled, “No. No, I’m not.”
“Good.” Stephanie sounded as though she was proud of Edgar.
They sat together for a few moments, basking in the hostile environment they had both grown unfairly accustomed to.
“How long is Nny gonna be mad?” Stephanie asked softly.
“As long as he wants.”
“Stephanie, can you do me a favor?”
“Keep this business with me visiting the letter woman between us, okay?”
“Oh. Yeah, okay.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
He stood up and almost patted her head. When he remembered she was likely too old to enjoy that kind of thing, he stopped.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling, “habit.”
She’d been asked to lie for both of them. Maybe the woman Edgar had seen really was right and Johnny was a bad idea. But then, if that was true, then Edgar was a bad idea too. At least he wasn’t going left.
It wasn’t that Stephanie believed anyone capable of lying was inherently bad – she had done it herself a few times since coming here, after all. It wasn’t always bad, but when it started getting tangled like this and began turning into a game of ‘monkey in the middle’ then episodic drama could develop. She’d watched dishonest people lose all the time in the stories she read - the dishonest ones and the stupid ones.
At least Edgar and Johnny weren’t stupid.
Stephanie hated stupid characters. These were the ones that were always eating the fruit of the dead or looking over their shoulders and seeing their wives turned into salt, zombies or other kinds of rotting flesh when they’d been warned not to look at all. She’d just been unsure of Orpheus, but after two other poor saps fell victim to the same thing, Stephanie began to feel rather sure that ancient people didn’t take gods of death as seriously as they claimed they did. Gods of death were powerful and some people just didn’t seem to be grasping that.
Johnny had been in charge of Hell once. Stephanie wondered if that made him some kind of death god trainee. At least a demi-god? Maybe this was why Edgar stuck around when Johnny was angry? Edgar managed to be the love of a god somehow, and he wasn’t giving it up. It almost made sense.
Except they’d met in that school place which was missing its ferryman.
As much as Stephanie hoped for Edgar and Johnny to sort things out, she wasn’t looking forward to when they both found out that the other had lied. And through her, in addition to that. Johnny was already angry that she existed, and Edgar had just given him another future reason to.
She sighed and tried to weigh her options for when everything blew up around her – Aunt Devi or Uncle Jimmy?
She’d really miss her room when the time came.
Tess watched the way he walked, the way he carried himself, and made careful comparisons between Edgar and the people around him as often as she could. Did Edgar walk as confidently as the man in the business suit? Did he slump as much as the man scraping the sidewalks for change? There was something scientific to be found in this for sure. Tess only regretted that she hadn’t met Edgar in her previous life to compare the many postures of Edgar.
When she explained what she was doing to Edgar on their next meeting he didn’t seem impressed or even receptive, not that she had been expecting him to be either. He told her that the way he walked had no bearing at all on how he was being treated at home. Tess smirked and Edgar warned her not to act like Tenna, who was apparently one of his sort-of bandmates.
“The way you hold yourself has a lot to do with how you feel,” Tess explained over a plate of pita. “And if you’re feeling oppressed or have some kind of issue, it’s going to reflect in your posture.”
“And if my posture is already horrible,” Edgar squashed his bit of the bread into the dip on the center of the plate for emphasis, “then there’s no telling how I’m feeling about myself one way or another. You haven’t been watching me long enough to know if it’s changed dramatically for the worse or for the better.”
He paused, pita triangle mid-way between the plate and his mouth.
“You… haven’t, have you?” he asked, eyeing her warily.
“No,” she grinned, “but I bet I could make it up pretty convincingly.”
Edgar had listened to everything she had to offer during their second meeting, down to the things that even Tess thought were farfetched. He was polite in all his refutations and in all his insisting that Johnny was doing nothing to harm him.
Tess saw in Edgar a man that the media had targeted as an oddity and that certain Homicides fans continued to label a publicity stunt. Few people looked at Johnny with his dyed hair and occasionally frightening appearance and believed he was seriously attached to a guy who couldn’t look scary even stitched together and sporting blacked out eyes behind his glasses. Despite Johnny’s size, there wasn’t a magazine or talk show that hadn’t concluded that he was completely in control of Edgar in several ways. Edgar largely denied it.
“There’s some level of truth in those,” Edgar said regarding the magazines Tess had presented as ‘exhibit A’. He was quick to put disclaimers on his sentences, however.
“It’s just not in the way you think. He’s just in charge of most of what goes on with the group of us. It was his idea, and it’s him that keeps all of us together. It just makes sense.”
“Yes Edgar, it makes total sense that he keeps you prisoner in your own house.”
“Are we not out here without him?”
“Because he’s mad at you.”
“Would you stay with him when he’s angry?”
“Not from past experience, no, but that’s why you’ve got to get out of-”
“Can we stop for today?”
“Keep in mind, Edgar,” Tess said, rising from her chair to reach the wallet in her pocket, “that I remember him the way he was before.”
“And so do I,” he answered.
As Edgar left the restaurant, Tess wondered how many holes had to be in that memory for him to defend Johnny so persistently.
She hardly covered the bill with the money she tossed on the table, let alone left enough for the tip.
He only remembered pleasantries. Polite fragments. A frozen drink here, a ‘thank you’ there, a joke at the expense of people not himself or his companion sprinkled on for good measure. There were cordial visits, and impromptu sleepovers, and afternoons in front of the library shooting rubber bands at the homeless but not a moment remembered without a sense of familiarity laced with propriety. Everything was enjoyable and they would always ‘do it again sometime’. Like the family reunions that happen because of a funeral; always nice, like commercials for greeting cards or anti-depressants - cheery people doing stark white laundry in the sun – but sort of guiltily morbid.
Edgar remembered a long, warped tea party.
It didn’t add up. Current Johnny and tea party should never have been on intersecting trains of thought and the Johnny he was remembering even less so. How could a tea party even go on without Johnny smashing at least half of the cups? Those plates could be made deadly with little trouble…
Several minutes went by before Edgar remembered that the tea party his head made him feel had not been literal, and if it had been, he would have remembered dying pleasantly, maybe even politely (‘Oh, sorry, I’ve gotten brains on your boot.’), in the midst of one.
Tess was wrong about everything. He absolutely knew that for sure. Sure, she was correct in her accusations regarding the previous incarnation of Johnny, and probably the one before that and perhaps even any beyond that, but nothing of what Tess said applied to the Johnny they currently shared a time line with. As someone who had simply experienced reincarnation, if not a full-fledged victim of it, Tess surely had to know that what you were before is not always what you are now and that you can certainly choose not to let the before damn you. Surely.
Edgar ducked behind a corner, adjusted his posture in a store window, and continued home.
In her room, trying to find something to do on her own, Stephanie had spread out her collection of old things that she had claimed for herself. It was mostly junk she had snuck out of the basement or found under Edgar’s bed that he said she could have. It was stuff Johnny wouldn’t miss anyway, he’d told her.
A disc she desperately wanted to know the contents of, an old children’s book that Edgar didn’t even know the origin of, a pair of old speakers, a few interestingly shaped cans, and an old electronic toy that was supposed to teach kids to spell spilled onto her floor from the deteriorating and dusty cardboard box she kept them all in.
Nothing in her collection really worked anymore, but she didn’t need any of the things she had for their original uses anyway. The objects were more often scientific instruments used to explore alien planets, or offerings to a goddess who was or wasn’t Stephanie herself depending only on how blasphemous she was feeling at the time.
For this particular adventure, she tried to attach the mute speakers to the spelling machine in order to make a bomb that she would later dive in on and disarm at the last possible second. Men often did this on television and before Johnny had decided to be angry with everything, he’d told Stephanie to do something about the existence of shitty movies with super guys diving in and saving the girl in the skirt.
This comment had somehow translated to Stephanie aspiring to becoming better than the men in these movies. From what Stephanie had read, Johnny’s complaints sounded something like feminism. She’d have to read that book again and see if men were allowed to be feminists too.
When she found an appropriate spot, she plugged the speakers in, and they made a kind of popping fizz noise. She jumped, yanking the plug out, but after a moment of making sure nothing had exploded or spontaneously combusted, she tried it again.
The speakers had never made any sound at all before, and Edgar had assured Stephanie that Johnny had blown all the useful bits out of them several years ago during some magical sleep over weekend thing. Despite Edgar’s claim, sound was definitely seeping from the old speakers.
She fumbled with the plug for the speakers and found the sound only came when the plug was barely inserted into the spelling toy. When she let it sit for a moment, the static sang to her.
The song felt eerie, and the tune hung near the floor like heavy fog.
“Tu as faim, froid,
Tu ne dors pas,
Mais tu y crois,
L'élu c'est toi,
L'amour fait loi,
Entre ici et abandonne tout de ta vie
She recognized French, along with some of the roots of what was being sung, but didn’t understand the words. She desperately wanted to see if Johnny knew French in addition to magic and how to rule Hell. Sadly, he wasn’t speaking to anyone.
The song looped in the broken speakers while she listened closely, quietly wondering whether Edgar should be informed. Then, she thought, if she could lie for Johnny and lie for Edgar, then she could lie for herself.
It was only fair.
When the plug fell out twenty minutes later, Stephanie couldn’t get the song to come back. No amount of fiddling with the cords or swearing at the speakers would restore the tune, and she thought, briefly, that the song would return if she only knew the proper curses in French instead of German.
The house had felt cold and rather hostile for a few days. Stephanie had obviously noticed the change, and spent most of her time in her room to avoid the unease. With few other options, Edgar passed several afternoons in the room with her.
“What’s really wrong with Nny?”
“He’s being childish and cryptic and kind of an asshole.”
Normally, Edgar tried to restrict the language he used around Stephanie, but since she seemed to have absorbed the worst of the rest of the group, his efforts weren’t always whole-hearted.
“It’s me, isn’t it?”
“I think it might be related, but you didn’t do anything,” Edgar reassured her. “It was me, if anything.”
“He’s really mad at you.”
“I noticed, actually, thank you.”
“What are you going to do?”
Edgar sighed and rested the book he’d been looking through on his lap. “Continue going around the day in silence and sleeping alone? I don’t know.”
“I’m making him angrier. What am I supposed to do?”
“You’re not… I guess I can’t say that.” Edgar looked to the ceiling. “It’ll be fine somehow, I’m sure. I know he likes you, he’s just a little upset about a change in living conditions or something.”
“This is a little?”
“Yeah. Or else he developed some sense of being considerate in an incredibly short amount of time and is restraining all the screaming that would mean he was really angry.”
“He gets angry at you a lot?” Stephanie spoke as though she was guiding Edgar through some ancient psychological wisdom. Or perhaps she was sounding like Tess. Tell me about your non-existent father, Edgar…
“No, actually. He used to, but that was well before we- Before.”
“You love him? Even when he’s scary and mean?”
“He’s always a little scary,” Edgar said with an amused smile. “But yes, I do. You don’t just stop when someone gets angry.”
“So he’s angry, but he still likes me, right?”
Stephanie slid off the side of the bed, put her ear to the floor, and relayed to Edgar that Johnny had the television on.
“You don’t need to spy for me, really. Just let him go.”
“Nny was angry about me saying I didn’t have a dad.”
“Not that directly, really.”
“I’m going to be all screwed up because of this, aren’t I?” She stared at the carpet as though she could see Johnny sitting on the couch on the floor below.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“I read it somewhere,” she answered with a shrug. “Uncle Jimmy had a psychology book that was sort of okay. It said children with no parents get all wild and crazy.”
“You’re not feral, Stephanie.”
“I know, I know, but they did lots of studies on kids with only one, or none, or orphans and twins and, and, abused kids. That too.”
Edgar blinked, alarmed. “Abused?”
Stephanie seemed to read him quite well and laughed at his expression. “I don’t think you’re abusing me, don’t worry,” she said, grinning. “Still. How are you and Nny okay?”
Edgar raised an eyebrow.
“In case you missed it,” he said, “we’re all about as not okay as they come. Johnny the most of all, if not Jimmy.”
“You think so?”
“Nny can do anything.”
“I’m not sure doing anything and being okay are mutually exclusive.”
“But I really like him.” Stephanie let out a frustrated sigh. “I like staying with you guys when he isn’t mad at me. He’s fun.”
Edgar echoed the sigh and nodded. “I know. I feel sort of the same way. I wish I could just work out some sort of system that doesn’t leave anyone neglected.”
“Why are you guys keeping me? Shouldn’t I have been left in an orphanage and then been forced to work in a fish market or something?”
He hadn’t thought about why. On purpose, really.
“I think we… just felt sort of connected to you. You were like us, and maybe as a collective we decided you shouldn’t have to do what we all did.”
“But I’m okay now. So why am I still here? Weren’t you going to feed me to the police?”
“Feed?” Edgar asked.
“Wow, is that what I said? I meant ‘give’.”
“We like you.”
“So you’re all my parents. Sort of.” She actively eyed the book in Edgar’s hands, though it had nothing to do with their conversation.
“In a weird way, you could say that.”
“I’d feel better if you were.”
“If you were my parents. If I could call you that.” She turned a few knickknacks she had gotten on a trip out with Johnny over in her hands.
“I’m not sure the others would want titles other than ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle,’ really. And I’m fairly sure Johnny would not be happy either.”
“What about you?” she asked quietly.
“Me? I’m fine with no title, really.” He rubbed a corner of the book in his lap. When he really looked at its plastic coated cover, it appeared to have been stolen from the library.
Stephanie sounded so disappointed that Edgar thought he felt himself hurt. This was all going to be a bad idea, and though he thought he was realizing what Johnny had wanted him to see, for some reason, he still kept the issue from dropping.
“What were you hoping for?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Can we finish that book?”
Edgar looked at the book in his lap and back at Stephanie. She was still as tall as she’d been when she came out of the bathroom a few days ago, and had aged mentally enough that Edgar thought she’d be long out of the book sharing stage. He wondered if she ever had been in that stage at all.
“You don’t want to finish it on your own?” he asked.
“No, it’s fine if you read it. I don’t mind.”
“Is something wrong?”
”No. I like you reading it.”
Edgar suspected otherwise by the way Stephanie sighed in frustration at his reading pace, but without Johnny to read the girl’s mind, he was stuck. While he read, he tried to process what he could do to balance Stephanie and Johnny and not make either too angry. His reading became automatic to the point that he stopped understanding the words and was simply stringing them along.
Maybe Johnny just needed some sort of weird reassurance that he hadn’t been replaced. Edgar felt sure that wasn’t really the issue at hand, but again, since he had none of Johnny’s abilities, he really couldn’t be sure. Granted, Johnny could just tell him the exact problems and what he wanted, but that would be making Edgar’s life easy and an easy life was rarely granted to anyone who got too close to Johnny. He resolved somewhere near a paragraph about crossing a river that he’d try to talk to Johnny and make the living situation a little more comfortable, at the very least. Johnny had had enough time to stew.
“You already read that one,” Stephanie said, annoyed.
“You already read that paragraph.”
“Oh. Oh, sorry, I was a little distracted.”
“It’s okay, we can stop,” she said, taking the book from him. “You want to go talk to him, right?”
Edgar tilted his head. Where was she picking this up from? “I was thinking about it, yeah.”
“See you later, then. Good luck, I guess.”
When he closed the door to her room, he regretted not saying more. Maybe next time.
Réveille-Toi by Thierry Amiel
Translations of what appears above provided by my lovely beta, PolyesterRage, who can keep me not doing dumb linguistic things in two languages, apparently, and my ex, weirdly enough. We’ve all learned that LYX is of the German language persuasion and thus French was totally not in my knowledge range.
I’ve sort of combined their translations here. I haven’t found an official translation yet, so here we go:
You are hungry, cold,
You do not sleep,
But you believe in it,
The chosen - it's you,
Love makes law,
Enter here and give up all of your life
This is only the ending bit of the song, actually, but since it’s the only part that appears here, it’s what you get.