Works of Fiction

Mark Richard

A story for NaNoWriMo 2020. Thanks to /r/writingprompts for the idea.

Wood, solid wood. Off the map. There couldn’t be anything from the past decade, maybe even this century. Robin held back a smile as yesterday fell away, drifting among the clouds in the sky, a potential new future opening up. They had time to plan a shelter and explore the property, maybe even play cards.

Jake let his bag slip off his shoulder to the porch, arched his back, and let out a deep groan. “Think I can get a hot towel? If I miss anything from the last few years, it’s an abundance of hot towels.”

“Sure thing, right after I get a massage and face scrub.” Robin rolled her eyes, letting a smirk surface as she stepped back and admired the old farmhouse. She lightly stepped on the wooden slats of the porch, only a few creaking, a few more rotted, as she went up to the front door that somehow remained on its rusting hinges.

“Hey,” she called over her shoulder, “Got that can of forty?”

A beat-up can of blue metal with smudges of yellow and white was pulled from Jake’s bag. He handed it over. Robin lifted the long, thin bit of plastic coming out of the top and dripped some fluid over the door hinges. Before handing it back, she put a couple drops on the doorknob. “Not this time,” she whispered to herself.

Another stretch of the arms and Jake had the bag back on his shoulder, standing just behind Robin, waiting. Robin took a deep breath, readjusted her own small pack, and walked in. Small clouds of dust greeted the first few footfalls; she exhaled warmly and her breath mixed with the thickening air. She held back a cough as she looked around to get her bearings. Jake peeked over her shoulder.

A few coathooks hung empty on the wall immediately to the left, and just past was a small table layered with dust, a single drawer attached. Robin looked ahead where an entryway led to the kitchen; a stairwell to the second floor ran along the back wall, and on the right was a closed door. Dust and disuse coated it all, no sign of footprints, nothing in the air but must, decay, and age. She gave a slight nod, pointed to her right, and moved straight to the kitchen. Jake went to the door by the stairwell, dropped his pack, and repeated the lubrication procedure.

Robin entered the kitchen and checked behind each appliance. They were all unplugged. A bit paranoid, she thought, but at least they’re safe to inspect now.

A toaster on the counter had two slots, a dial from one to eight, and an unlabeled button; a microwave in the nook below was a veritable antique with a single-line screen akin to a digital clock, and no popcorn button, let alone the barista button common near the end; a gas oven and range of all things, analogue and mechanical, posed no threat or aid; and a refrigerator with an ice dispenser and a freezer on top was of similar vintage as the microwave. Robin headed to the entryway, bursting with the news for Jack. We can fight back.

Jack had opened the door and descended a steep staircase, leaving a gas lantern at the bottom. Robin could hear him rustling around. Conscious not to startle him, she whistled Be Our Guest on her way down. The mustiness of the air was slowly replaced by soil and salt.

She grabbed the lantern and Jake turned around, a huge grin taking over his face and a notebook in his hand.

“Finally more to write than two cans of soup and a bag of carrots. Fancy some jam, or dried pork and mushroom stew?” Jake spread his arms, moving them up and down the shelving, walking along the wall, displaying his wares for customers to admire.

“Let’s not go too crazy yet.” Robin smiled back, then ran the few steps to embrace Jake, a sob and a laugh escaping her as he squeezed.

Between gasps, Robin managed “So much… here… for us…”

“I couldn’t believe… it either… but…”

Robin stepped back. “What?”

“What could have happened to them? They were set up perfectly.”

“Probably bad luck, something just came across them and…” She got quieter and let her eyes drift to the floor.

“Yeah, just bad luck. It’s been a couple years based on the dust. They must have been… lost in the first swell. Maybe visiting family, and never made it back.”

Robin nodded, then forced a smile that slowly moved to her eyes, turning into something real as she looked at the shelves in front of them. “How much do you suppose there is?”

Jake scanned over his partial list, then folded it up and turned around. His head moved back and forth, up and down, scanning everything available to them. Each rack rose a foot above Jake’s head, and the shelves extended at least thirty feet across the cellar. Made of wood and braced with metal, they evaded the horrors of outside and held pounds upon pounds of food.

Jake headed to his left, pulling another small flashlight from his jacket. Robin walked over to the other corner, shining the flashlight across jars of pickles and beets, vacuum-sealed fruit and meats, and small bottles of dried herbs. It was disorganized, but not messy. Whoever had stockpiled this had simply added food as it was made available. No need for it to be tidy; if someone was stuck in a cellar, there’d be time enough to reorganize.

She heard Jake let out a small chuckle and raised her eyebrows; he sensed the look from across the room and illuminated a jar full of brown powder and a handwritten label: Irene’s Instant Chocolate, Just Add Powdered Milk.

They sang anything that came to mind, keeping the lyrics alive in their memory. Forgotten words were replaced. When a song ended they’d have another spoonful of the goopy chocolate sauce, or maybe nibble a dried berry.

“I think we nailed her recipe this time,” Robin said, giggling and wiping the bits of dried chocolate from around her lips, leaning on the counter. “We used to think stale Twinkies were a high point, remember?”

“We all thought we could ignore expiration dates. I guess my mom was right.” Jake stuck out his tongue and grimaced, remembering snacks they found in a warehouse. “The bread was still greasy, but the cream…” He gagged a little. Robin wasn’t convinced it was for show.

Jake suddenly stood back up and belted Wanted Dead or Alive, starting in the middle of the chorus, just the way Robin hated. She flung a spoonful of chocolate at Jake’s face. He dodged it, undeterred, and swung his body around the island playing air guitar while pretending to drive. Robin rolled her eyes and had a chocolate-dipped strawberry, but couldn’t help tapping her foot.

She followed with Beyond the Sea, her eyes glimmering and wet by the time Jake took over, loudly humming the jazz break. He knew what the song meant, and took a few more verses while Robin absentmindedly snapped her fingers, gazing out the window above the sink to the dormant fields.

She tasted the air, salt thick on her tongue, as she chased her parents into the sun. The prairie turned to sand, the horizon flowed with water as her mind rushed her back with the tide. Songs blaring on the speakers they brought to their picnics, towels spread on a stretch of beach only visible from a wooded hilltop.

Jake’s vamping of a single bar finally caught in her ear. She turned around, preparing to apologize again, but heeded his earnest look. After wiping her eyes and sniffling her nose, belted out the final chorus with Jake harmonizing.

“Thanks, as always.”

“Hey, that’s a big improvement over sorry.”

Robin smiled, grabbed her pack, and walked up the stairs to her bedroom.

Jake cussed at his clumsy fingers while trying to stuff them in his mouth, nursing the burnt skin. “Every damn microwave is too different on the inside, they all do the same thing”

“Hurt yourself again?” Robin smiled and leaned down next to him, noticing the small bit of smoke that had escaped a circuit. “I would’ve imagined that by the sixth time, you’d be more careful. Or just better.” She twirled the duct tape around her fingers, set it down next to the microwave and ate a bit of jerky, offering a piece to Jake.

“Cool it.” He grabbed the jerky with his free hand, replacing the taste of his fingers with salt and pepper and sugar. He wiped the sweat from his brow, frowned at the small generator next to him, and gingerly tested his if fingers could still hold the soldering iron. Satisfied, he nodded at Robin and centered himself on the number pad of the microwave, which was now dangling by only a few wires, revealing circuitry within.

Robin went back to the entryway, where small circuit boards and coils of wire lay along the base of the stairwell. Each board was labeled with pieces of tape: Fridge – Upper, Fridge – Lower, Toaster. An empty spot was labeled Microwave. She looked them over again, making sure everything was in order. The boards needed modification, but less than when they came across new appliances. I suppose that’s on purpose.

The mechanical dials and analogue buttons in the house kept her at ease. Most things rang by a bell, beeps could be traced to a small speaker at the end of a wire, and certainly nothing talked to her. The twists and turns of the circuits in these old pieces were no harder to trace than a set of gears, and simplicity was safety.

Robin took out her battered copy of The Martian Chronicles. She’d never traded it when they stopped: they never come across a copy of Asimov, which would be useful, or at least cathartic. So, she kept the Bradbury around. Ray wasn’t wrong about soft rains, but they didn’t come the way he expected. So many warnings from so many directions, yet they all went ahead anyway.

Robin sat up and ran down to the cellar to get another piece of fruit, sprinting on her way up. She needed to keep moving to stop spiraling. They were prepared this time. The warning boards should work even better on the old mechanisms.

Whether the retaliatory boards worked remained a mystery.

Jake hollered from the kitchen and Robin ran in, the duct tape still around her fingers. He was standing with his eyes fixed on the microwave now put together again. Robin glanced down and saw OKAY written on the small digital screen. Not moving his eyes, Jake said “Alright, we’re up and running! Let’s test it out.”

He took out a few sheets of paper from his pocket, and found one with a sketch of the house’s perimeter, some dots along the edges. He handed it to Robin. “Good luck hiding.”

Robin grabbed the paper and headed outside through the back, greeted by the sun now barely grazing the top of the fields. She welcomed the cool morning breeze and the soft glow of light; it would make wearing the foil blanket more enjoyable than the summer months did.

With the crinkly cape trailing down to her heels, she slowly walked around the house, one small step every five seconds. Between steps she held her breath, imitating what they would do, and waited for Jake to make sure she hadn’t found an undetected spot.

After a lap, she took a single step away from the house and went around again.

They took a break for lunch. On her way into the kitchen, Robin said “At least a quarter mile, and I bet the signal’s strong enough for twice that.”

Jake smiled and patted the top of the microwave. “Great, the opens pace helps.” He glanced at the refrigerator. “I couldn’t get much done with that during testing, so I’ll need the afternoon to get the other boards in.”

“Alright, let me know if I can help. I’ll check if there’s gas in the barn.”

Jake nodded and gathered his makeshift soldering station on the island. The boards had moved to the counter on either side of the refrigerator.

Robin went out the back door again, now heading south into the midday sun a few hundred feet to a blue-gray barn, still in good shape, the doors secured by a large piece of wood. She hefted it out of the metal supports, and set it softly on the ground, ignoring the few splinters that found their way through her callused hands.

A sense of darkness and foreboding crept through her mind moments before the smell reached her nose.

She covered her face with a small rag from her pocket and searched for resolve. You’ve seen it before, Robin. Hopefully you’ll live to see it again after this. Stay focused. Carefully, quietly, she pushed open one large door. She saw a bale of hay, some vehicles and hand tools, patio furniture, all revealed along the wall as the doorway widened. Then, she was in.

A pause. Her eyes fixed on a tractor. She stepped back outside, her movements automatic. Grab the hose. To the kitchen. Get containers.

Robin was back in front of the barn, her arms full. She blinked a few times and shook her head. They deserve someone to think of them.

Back in the barn, she looked straight ahead at the two people suspended by cables from the ceiling, dangling ten feet above the ground, rotting more than the barn had in their lifetime. Their clothes had holes where the cables attached, where the current had gone through them like an unceasing bolt of lightning, leaving dark patches of scorched fabric and skin. There was nothing but the smell of burnt and rotting flesh, no feeling but the desire to forget it all and escape what she and Jake had seen so many times in their constant escape. Robin wretched, the bits of dried food fighting up her throat. She held them down, and kept her gaze on the floating couple a few moments longer. She said a prayer. Then a curse.

She closed her eyes, let a deep breath escape into the rag she still held on her face, then went to siphon the gasoline.

Evening came, sunlight streaming through the windows of the entryway, a glow of orange light making its way to the kitchen where Jake and Robin sat at the table eating and playing poker.

Jake set the deck down between hands and reached for a bag on the table. “I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of jerky. If I ever complain, slap me.”

“Gladly.” Robin took a piece for herself. Rotting meat flashed in her mind. She pushed it away.

Jake dealt a hand of two cards to them both and tossed a few woodchips onto the middle of the table as Robin put hers in. She habitually grabbed her cards with a flourish and stared just over the top of them at Jake, her eyes sharp and fierce. A moment later, she felt them softening.

Seeing the luster fading, he set down his cards and reached for her hands. They sat for a long moment, the silence of the dead surrounding them.

Only flashlights illuminated the kitchen floor as they slouched against the island, sometimes glancing at the containers wired to the refrigerator, mostly staring at the microwave. It read OKAY and that’s as good as they felt: Jake had found some bottles of moonshine in the cellar. Robin knew she wasn’t quite drunk. Neither of them had been since the night they met. They drank just enough to be okay.

Jake took another sip.

“It’s not good… but it makes everything warm.”

Robin nodded, slowly, uncertain of her body. “Do you remember learning about prohibition in school?”

“I hardly remember school. But it rings a bell.”

“After the first world war, the country banned drinking. It was a whole thing. Lasted ten or fifteen years.”

Jake frowned, looking at the bottle between them. “People will either kill themselves, or invent something to do it for them. What a waste of a law.” He took another sip and passed it to Robin. She lifted the bottle up, looking through the walls at the barn. Jake nodded.

A noise. Robin sat up. A repeating alarm. She ran down the stairs. Jake was already at the door packing their bags. Robin went to the kitchen. She needed to confirm. The toaster was torn apart, their circuit board removed. The refrigerator was still whirring, and the screen dangling from wires in the ice dispenser said READY.

The microwave’s small display said RUN.

Illumination to the south, orange flames and billowing smoke, sparks of electricity between it all.

Jake stared straight ahead, letting the bags of food drop from his hands. Robin saw the flames reflected in his tears as they mixed with sweat. They both panted from the sprint.

“Retaliatory boards worked.”

Jake nodded.

“I wish we could’ve had one more night there.”

He nodded again. With a sip of moonshine and a bite of jerky, he walked back to the remains.

Robin caught up a moment after. She choked down a sob and started humming I Will Survive. Jake joined in.

At sunrise they were gone. The group of reclaimers coming that day would find no boards, only two graves dug in the ashes, headed by crosses of metal limbs.

A story for NaNoWriMo 2020. Thanks to /r/writingprompts for the idea.

“How do you go about tracking?” The man with the hat takes a sip from his drink, and raises his eyebrows at the other man, a shorter fellow dressed down without a tie.

“The key,” he says with foam on his mustache, “is to use your knees and hips, keeping your arms stable.” He twists on his stool, elbows out and hands cupped near his eyes. “I was always told to keep my neck relaxed, but firmly in place.”

He twists back to the man with the hat, and rests his feet on the few bags piled below him.

The man in the hat nods. “Yes, but you can't have your elbows spread like that, not when a small adjustment can get everything out of frame. You must stay within yourself.” He tucks his elbows close to his chest, only a few inches away. “A twitch or itch is all it takes to ruin the shot.”

“I find that pretty subjective,” says the man without a tie. “If it's comfortable, I can't imagine it being wrong. Either way, I never found tracking to be the difficult part. Timing always messed with me.”

Another sip before the man with the hat responds. “That is tricky. How do you teach someone to jump, or slip into a line of cars properly? I'm not sure you can. Anyone I've met in the profession has just had a knack for timing.”

“Well, I suppose that's true. I guess I've always wished I could get it in one, rather than having to take so many as quickly as I can manage. It's demoralizing.”

The man with the hat raises his eyebrows again, while his neighbor continues.

“It's certainly easier on a longer distance, at least mentally. I don't feel like each shot makes things change quite as much.”

“No wonder you've had trouble, that's no way to think about things!” The man with the hat quickly takes a sip from his drink, sitting up straighter. “You have to get all that trash out of your head, friend. Distance makes no difference, you have to take your job and its affect on the world around you seriously no matter where you set up.

“I have no idea what your background is, friend, but maybe you've heard rumblings of quantum mechanics if you run in circles of educated folks. I find it a helpful metaphor for what we do. Just observing the world will change it, and your distance from what you're observing makes no difference. An ant below your foot, a deer hundreds of yards away, all affected by your glance. If you make yourself believe that, at least you can seriously start figuring out what method of timing works for you.”

The man without a tie taps his fingers on the bar as he receives this lecture, looking down at his feet, then over to his neighbor's, a similar arrangement of black bags as his own near the stool. Then, a longer drink from his beer before looking up towards the man with a hat.

“I suppose outbursts like that are commonplace in bars down here.” He takes another sip from his beer. “While I don't like being chided by a stranger, I'm interested. What methods of timing are you talking about?”

Ignoring the comment on his manners, the man with the hat continues immediately. “First, you must decide whether you breathe in with the shot, out with the shot, or do not breathe at all. Trembling hands can be accounted for, but if you want perfection, you must consider how all of your body is going to work together.”

“I don't see how those relate to how I perceive my effect at a distance.”

“You must keep your breath consistent no matter how far away you are. If you breathe in or out too quickly, it will certainly affect the target that is close. But it won't do any good to breathe in when close, and out when farther away. That's madness! You'll never be consistent, and consistency is all that matters!”

“I take your point.” He tugs near his collar, loosening the tie that is not there. “But, it seems your idea is running backwards. Shouldn't I just determine which way I want to breathe, and not worry about distance after that?”

“No, no, you have it all wrong. Understanding that distance isn't a factor is the key! You have to treat it seriously no matter the distance, and that will lead you to the right choice in breathing, in grip, in how you arrange your body to take the time you need.”

“You're an interesting person to share a drink with. In all my time, I've certainly made decisions about each of those points. I breathe out, I relax my fingers except the thumb and index, and always have one knee on the ground unless I must be standing. Yet I never considered the distance to be fundamental, just another factor to consider.”

With a heavy sigh, the man with the hat signals the bartender for another drink, which he consumes half of before continuing. “Though you may switch tools, and in that way it is just a factor, the foundation must bet set.

“Remember, even the professional is never done learning, and must always chase the perfect shot.”

He finishes the rest of his drink, and tips his hat. “Have a good afternoon, friend.” He picks up his bags near his stool, and leaves the bar.

After several seconds of staring somewhat blankly at the exit, the man without a tie swivels back to the bar. He contemplates the small bit of foam left atop his beer, the circles of draft staining the glass, each ring marking the flow of conversation. He takes a final, swift drink, leaving a tip to cover both him and the man with a hat.

Leaving the bar, he veers right, toward a hill overlooking the plaza. The sun blazes on his skin, a sweat of liquor and salt slowly forms on his forehead. He's thankful for not wearing a tie as he takes a small cloth and wipes his face.

Cutting across a corner of the street, he spots an unoccupied piece of lawn beneath a tree. Others would be there soon to watch the parade. He is thankful once more for getting there early.

A small tarp is laid out, then he sits with legs crossed. One more wipe of his forehead. With practiced and patient hands he opens his bags, finding a sufficient plateu for his tripod. A camera body is mounted, while various lenses are scattered about him in an apparently random way. A quick wipe of his hands as he starts putting on, then removing, each lens in turn, habitually finding them precisely where he expects on the ground around him. Feeling satisfied with the arrangement, he finally attaches a modest zoom lens and begins testing his view of the plaza.

A cobblestone road leads in and out, where cars, pedestrians, and cyclists all go about a fountain during the day. Police officers are slowly guiding cars along detours while blockading the parade route. He goes on one knee, and imagines that his breath changes which way the officer might direct the next car: Breath in, to the left; hold, go straight; then out, to the right.

He switches lenses a few more times, preparing those which he expects to use the most as he scans the parade.

Then, a break. He takes the melon, meat, cheese, and crackers his wife packed from the small lunch tin.

He checks his watch. Fifteen minutes, no more than twenty. He stands up and stretches, then goes back down to one knee. He checks each part of his camera and begins scanning the scene, imagining a small float rolling by as he tracks it with a swivel of his hips.

The parade comes, led by the mayor and his wife. He quickly gets images of kids thrilled by candy tossed their way, of the local butcher driving a pickup with the top off and large horns on the front. As he moves up to see the stilt-walkers, a flash catches his eye to the left, across the street.

Tracking another part of the parade through an open apartment window is the man with a hat, a pair of binoculars to his face.

The man without a tie begins to sweat. Small drops of perspiration start to form around his eye, causing discomfort as he looks through the viewfinder. He watches as the man with a hat breathes in and out, slowly, then holds his breath and leans down towards the window sill.

The man without a tie quickly turns his face, wiping it. The retort of a gun echoes through the plaza, and screams erupt around the parade. Quickly moving back to the camera, he manages to see blood at the front of the procession, the mayor's wife in hysterics.

He takes a picture before tracking back to the apartment window, getting only a glance at a hat and the barrel of a rifle, too late for his index finger and thumb to launch the shutter.

This is my only published story, which I submitted to a student writing and art journal in college.

He places the last brick firmly into the corner. His arms reach down to control his fall to the ground. He leans against the wall. As he lifts his arms to wipe the sweat from his forehead, his shoulders fight him. He winces. It had been a long time coming. He stares at the crumpled papers near his feet. I know you will close us off, but I need you to know we still love you. We’ll be here for you when you come back. He squints: when you come back. Who were they to say he’d be back? Don’t they know how much work he did to be alone? Every crack that was letting in light had to be spackled again. He had to make that black air filter himself. The dim, red lightbulb illuminates his face. Another swipe of his hand across his face. Another wince. Solitude. That is what he had been working for. No other people to worry about. No reason to feel anything other than blissful solitude. Why did they try and tell him to stay?

He wakes up to the red light still on, unwavering. It seems to take an eternity for the light to reach the corners of the room. He pushes himself up and wipes the sweat away. He had never been one to perspire so easily. No hunger or thirst comes to him. An acute sense of numbness enters his body. He lies down and lets the red light wash over him with slow, measured persistence. This is solitude. He should be elated. The work he spent to get here was enormous. He thinks about the others. Why didn’t they try to stop him? They just let him walk away. No, they pushed him away. It was their fault. . . . when you come back. His neck tenses as he kicks the paper across the room. He wipes the sweat with his shirt. He gets up and paces around the room. What could they offer that was better than here? He had his room all to himself. He had built it alone. They tried to give him responsibilities, tell him how to live his life. They let others speak for them, other people who didn’t know any better than he did. Those three only gave him pieces of paper. Now he is alone. He had closed them off, kept them at bay. No knocks come to the door. They aren’t even trying. What sort of love is that? He feels weighed down. He put a lot of effort into making this place. His muscles are sore, that’s all. He has time to rest, and think, and pace. To enjoy solitude. Those three can’t interrupt him anymore.

Red. The overwhelming sense of red. It seems to pervade every part of him. The light is duller than when he started. The feeling is more intense. He mops his face with his shirt, pulling it up from his waist to rub his head. His hand begins to reach for the door. He falls to his knees, then on his back. He said he would stay. This is what he wants. He will not let those three get into his head. They would tell him to abandon all of the work he put in, just do something inane somewhere else for someone else. He is happy here. He is alone. He has won. He blinks. He shuffles to the corner so the red won’t come so fast and so strong. He smooths out the papers. He is going to be here for a while, and the light is too strong to be pacing. You think that you cannot talk to us, and we feel that deeply. The pain we have because we know you are leaving is immense. Though you are going to a place we wish you would not, nothing will make us waver. I know you will close us off, but I need you to know we still love you. We’ll be here for you when you come back. And you will realize you never left. Arrogance. The paper is covered in it. A small ray projects onto his thumb. He looks up. A piece of wall has flaked, and light is coming through. He smooths the papers and puts them aside. He fights through the red, moving along the walls to avoid the center of the room. He lies down near the flaked wall. The beam pierces the red. It shines straight across the room. He slowly lifts his head up. He shakes. He stops to wipe the sweat from his face. He takes off his shirt to wipe down his neck and chest. His hand comes back up. It touches the light. He shivers. He forgets the joy of his solitude, of the red, the bricks, and focuses on the light, and the flowing, rushing feeling in his heart. He jerks his hand back. He is not tempted. He is not going to sacrifice his freedom, his release from the world, for them.

Red clouds his vision. Nothing except the wash of red. He feels the papers in his hands. He cannot see the words, but he does not need to anymore. He knows them by heart. No. He just knows them. They do not live in his heart. Two more beams have entered. He sleeps in the center now, in the glow of the red, to avoid them. And you will realize you never left. He went as far away as he could. He isolated himself, and the light still followed. He just wanted solitude, to shut off the world and focus on himself. He was not bothering anybody. There was nobody that relied on him. But these three insisted he not leave. Why is that? They still let him leave. Alone. The joy of being alone. He tries to cry. He wipes his brow. His face is covered in sweat. Were there tears? He doesn’t know. He reaches out to one of the beams. He cannot see it, but it emanates through the red. He can feel its chill on his skin. He doesn’t need them. . . . when you come back. He stands up. When was the last time he stood up? He moves to his right, keeping his arm out. He feels the second beam on him, through him, within him. Are those tears this time? He stumbles on the papers beneath his foot. He clutches them to his weary chest. He is perfectly okay with the red. He will fix those holes today, and finally be able to rest. The beams keep shining. The red is fading from his vision. Another step forward. The third beam envelops him. He nearly collapses, but catches himself on the door. The door? He pushes open the door and stumbles into a blinding light, as soft and cool as a sunset. But he doesn’t fall. He is being held up. The hands are strong, compassionate. Surely these are tears on his face. He blinks. He looks around. Behind him was the Hell he had constructed. He feels arms around him. He is steps from where he began. “I came back.” “We’re here for you.” He had never left.

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