Edgar Winters wandered down the streets of Boskeopolis like a lost child, looking in every direction for people, but immediately turning his head down upon seeing one’s face. Though nobody seemed to give his appearance much thought, Edgar was well aware himself of the fact that he was a skeleton, and he still expected abuse for this transgression everywhere he went, though he rarely had since his escape from the orphanage years ago.
Indeed, he originally tried to hide it by covering his head with his robe’s hood whenever in public, but Autumn had finally convinced him to stop. His skeletal look would at least scare people away, while the hood would help in no way, she argued.
He finally decided to stop at a restaurant called the “Rock Lobster.” Though he couldn’t eat or drink anything—having no digestive system—he figured it would make a good excuse to talk to one of the waiting staff and possibly build up the courage from there to ask them about him and his friend’s problems.
He gently pushed himself inside and stopped just in front of the threshold, glancing around the room anxiously, trying to find the proper place to sit while constantly aware that people may be watching him.
He finally found an empty table in the western corner nearest the door and slipped away toward it, sitting in the chair nearest the wall. There he kept his eyes on the table and thought as he shakily gripped the table’s edge, Okay, now: When the waiter comes by to ask for your meal, you can start.
I’m not going to be able to do this…his mind argued back. You can’t just go up to someone and ask for advice on a problem that has nothing to do with them—that you yourself don’t even understand fully.
But I have no other choice…
He had already been musing over the issue for months; but he spent much more time doing so after he learned that Autumn had finally been kicked out of her apartment. Finally, he decided the mental pressure of doing nothing—what Edgar usually did—was greater than this temporary larger pressure that would hopefully release it all once and for all. Hopefully.
The manager/cook/waiter/accountant/cleaner/web designer/poster-hanger-upper arrived at his table and asked, “May I take your order, sir?”
Edgar looked up to see a woman in a green jacket and red-and-white baseball hat with black hair hanging to her shoulders holding a pad and pen. He noticed a name tag on her jacket that read, “Dawn Summers.”
“Sir?” Dawn asked again, looking up from the pad and at Edgar.
Edgar felt his eyeholes widen, despite the physical impossibility of such act, and his hands curl into each other. This is too soon! I haven’t even thought up how to bring up the subject yet.
Actually, he had spent probably the last few hours trying to devise a strategy to bring up the subject to some stranger; he just never managed to find a good method.
“Are you okay, kid?” Dawn asked.
“Uh… I’ll just have water, please.”
“Okay,” Dawn said with a nod as she scratched that into her notepad.
Before she left, she looked back up at Edgar and said, “I like your mask, by the way. It looks almost real. Where’d you get it?”
“It, uh… It was a present from somebody else,” he said before a nervous laugh.
“Uh… okay…” Dawn glanced around a few times, nervously, and then went away.
When she had left, Edgar rested his chin on the table with his arms spread out in front of him.
This is never gonna work…he despaired.
Autumn was sleeping peacefully—though lying sloppily, with her limbs and sheets splayed all over the bed—when she was yanked out from her dreams by the obnoxious, repetitive sound of heavy knocking on her door. Her dark, wrinkled eyes slowly opened as the noises finally settled in her groggy head; and as it continued, she finally pushed herself up and off the bed.
“All right, I’m coming,” she said grumpily.
Since Autumn always slept in the same clothes she wore all the time—not wanting to waste the excess money or time buying and changing—she needn’t waste any time, except to put on her glasses so she could see, making herself decent before she opened the door. Behind it was a man in a business suit with short black hair split in the middle of his egg-shaped head, thick glasses, and a small nose.
“Who the hell are you?” Autumn asked.
With a genial smile, the man said, “Good morning, Madame Springer. I hope I didn’t disturb you.”
“You did,” she said with a flat voice, scratchy from just waking up.
But the man didn’t seem to acknowledge what she said and continued: “I am the manager of this motel: Arnold Druitt. I just came by because I noticed you’ve been staying here for quite a while…”
“Not that long,” Autumn said.
“Two months,” Druitt said, his smile still pleasant, but cracking at the edges. “Now, we were just wondering when you were planning on paying your rent?”
She knew this day would come and had amply prepared:
“Oh, right, sorry, I forgot about that,” she said. “See, I stupidly left my wallet back at home;”—she pulled the pockets out from her sweat pants to show him—“but I can pay you when I go get it, if you want.”
“I am afraid that will not be feasible, Madame Springer,” Druitt said. “Maybe you could have a friend deliver the money for you.”
“Gee, I would love to…” Autumn said as her eyes glanced around the room innocently, “but I don’t have any friends.”
“Well, then enjoy your stay,” Druitt said, and then turned around and shut the door behind him. Before Autumn could even think she heard a clicking sound. She grabbed the knob and twisted and throttled it; but it wouldn’t budge.
She slid back against the door onto the floor with a frown and dribbled her fingers on the floor in thought. She wished she still had a phone she could use to call Edgar for his assistance, but knew that was not the case now.
I suppose I’ll just have to handle this myself, she thought. Then she stood up. Well, I won’t escape by simply standing around hoping for a warp pipe to appear. I’ll just try climbing out the window. Couldn’t hurt to try.
She opened the window behind the bed and stuck her head out to survey the area. Her eyes caught the slim gray piping stretching the four stories down to the ground, and she reached her hands out to grab it. With her hands secure around the piping, she lifted her right foot onto the window sill, climbed out onto the pipe, and began to carefully climb down.
Because her eyes were focused on her hands holding onto the pipe—figuring that looking down would do nothing to help her—Autumn didn’t see the manager standing below her on the ground next to a boxy gray-uniformed security guard with black shades and a black mustache staring up at her.
“It seems Madame Springer thinks she can just leave without paying,” Druitt said. “Thinks she’s too good to pay for my fine motel, huh?” And then he turned to the guard and said, “Hamilton, shake the pipes.”
The guard stood stoically still and said in a dull voice, “Sir, isn’t this a little extreme for just one customer?”
“We’ve got an example to show,” Druitt said with a jab of his finger toward Hamilton. “If the infamous thief Autumn Springer can’t escape from my motel then people’ll know that nobody can. It’ll make things easier for me in the long run.” Druitt crossed his arms and looked up at Autumn again. “Now shake the pipes already. She should have already climbed down by now with how long we’ve been speaking—and I’m just making it worse by still speaking.”
“I just don’t think making her fall onto the ground is legal, si—“
“Just shake it already!” Druitt yelled.
Hamilton didn’t argue anymore; he immediately jumped to the pipes and shook them all over. Above, Autumn could feel the vibrations running up to her from below; she looked down with a gasp to see the manager staring straight up at her with a guard trying to shake her off the pipe. Autumn tried to keep from falling off by wrapping her arms and legs all around the pipe.
What am I going to do now? she asked herself. I can’t climb down while he’s down there watching me. And climbing up or down would only risk me falling off. I guess I’ll just have to stay here.
Down below, the guard, who was still shaking the pipes with the same immutable force, said to Druitt, “Sir, I don’t think this is even working.”
“Shake harder,” Druitt snapped. “Pull the pipes back away from the building.”
Hamilton stopped his shaking momentarily and turned to look at Druitt. “Won’t that ruin the motel?”
“We can fix it easily. Now start shaking,” Druitt said.
Hamilton dutifully continued shaking, and as Druitt demanded, also started yanking the pipes away from the building, bending the metal prongs that were supposed to hold the pipes in place. Eventually the prongs were breaking away from the building, bending and unbalancing the pipe.
Autumn saw that she would not be able to hold on for long, so she tried to reach for the nearest window to grab onto and maybe enter. But even with her left arm and leg now leaning off the pipe toward the window, her grip weakened even more and, mixed with the slipperiness of the grimy pipe, led her to slip backward off the pipe. Gravity finally got its hold on her and she zoomed straight down to the ground, her back smashing hard against the concrete.
While Autumn was lying dizzy in the hole her body left in the sidewalk, Druitt stared down at her with another genial smile.
“Seems Autumn falls early this year,” he said.
Autumn raised her upper body off from the ground, rubbing the sores on the back of her head, and said, “You know, it’s quite dangerous to shake the motel so much that I fall out the window of the room I was quietly sitting in.”
Druitt put his hands on his hips and turned to the guard. “Hamilton, escort Madame Springer back to her room, please.”
“And then we’ll call the police to handle this payment problem, right?” Hamilton asked. “Because as someone who works in the—“
“I can handle all of that,” Druitt said with a wave of his hand; “you needn’t worry.”
Edgar frowned as he watched Dawn walk toward his table with his water through the corner of his eyes. He still wasn’t ready. Then again, he doubted he’d ever be ready for what he needed to do.
She set the water down in front of him and said, “Here you go.” But before she could go, he raised his hand and said, “Wait.”
“I didn’t get your water wrong, did I?” Dawn asked with a concerned look on her face. “Last time that idiotic cook of mine filled it with wine instead.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Edgar said. “I’m sure he understood a little mistake, though…”
Dawn shook her head. “I was furious. Told myself to get that crap away from me and get me what I truly ordered.” She shook her head again solemnly.
“Oh…” Edgar rubbed his hands together nervously. “Well, you don’t need to worry, because my water’s fine.”
“Well, that’s good.”
Dawn turned to leave, only for Edgar to stop her again with another, “Wait.”
“Yes?” she asked after turning back to him.
“Uh… well… I was wondering if you, uh, knew people…” Edgar asked.
“What kind of people?”
“Well, I mean, you know, about them…” Edgar stuttered.
“Yes, I am well acquainted with them,” Dawn said. “Will this take long? I truly would love to chat, but do I have other guests to serve and if I take too long they start turning red and leaving.”
Just as she said that, a man stood up—painted entirely in red hues, with cartoony steam spurting out of his head—and said in a booming voice, “I can’t take this delay anymore! I’m leaving!” Then he walked toward and out the door in slow, jerky motions, making beeping noises every time he moved his feet.
“Like that,” Dawn said as she threw her hands up.
“Gee, I’m sorry…” Edgar said.
“It’s all right,” Dawn said with a sigh. “I should have remembered that you distractors appear on level six.”
And with that she left, leaving Edgar even more discouraged than before.
Autumn paced around her room—glancing here and there, and then here again—as she tried to conjure up a plan that would help her escape. Since the last few hours or so when she tried escaping through the window, it had been crudely boarded up with a bunch of wood planks nailed together; and even though she kept trying to brute-force the door open, it still would not unlock itself, for some reason.
Autumn sat on her bed with her chin buried in her hands. In those hours, Autumn’s impatience with her own inadequacy was only growing. For the past dozen months she had started to think she was losing her touch at this business—actually, she had always had sneaking suspicions; it just spiked in the last few months since she lost the apartment.
But then her head jolted up and her eyes widened. “Wait… that’s it!” she exclaimed as she pointed her right finger out. “I should climb out through the vents. It’s so obvious.”
She looked up at the grated vent door staring at her from the middle of the ceiling.
She jumped off the bed and moved over to the side so she could push it over to the spot under the vent, alternating between pushing the left and right sides of the bed. After only a few minutes, she eventually had it in an adequate place, and she jumped up on the bed, bounced up, and grabbed the grate, pulling it off the vent. After gently setting the grate down onto the carpeted floor, she bounced on the bed again and clung onto the edges of the vent opening.
Despite the usual discreetness of bouncing around on beds, the manager, Druitt, burst in through the door, shouting, “Random check-up for no reason!”
Autumn froze for a split second, and then scrambled up the vent.
By the time the Hamilton answered Druitt’s beckoning, Autumn was already crawling through the vent. Hamilton stared up at open vent, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, while Druitt seethed up at it.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Hamilton said; “I can call the maintenance crew to get her down.”
“Don’t bother,” Druitt snapped. “Just turn the heaters all the way up.” He began rubbing his hands together like a stereotypical villain. “We’ll see how much she likes barbeques. Ha, ha, ha!” Druitt laughed while twisting the curly mustache he didn’t have.
“Sir… that’s inhuman and illegal,” Hamilton said.
“And comical!” Druitt said with his right finger thrust into the air. “Do it!”
Hamilton shrugged and walked out to find the master heating switch. As he walked down the stairs, he grumbled to himself, “Mom always said to be a pirate, but I just shook my head and said, ‘No, ma; this joke’s cliché.’ Shoulda listened to her.”
Edgar spent the next few hours despairing over his table and pretending to take sips of his water. Every so often, he would see Dawn walk by; and every so often, he would urge himself to solicit her—and every so often, his nerves prevailed and he failed to do so.
He was so engrossed in his worries that the hours slipped by without his noticing. ‘Twas not until he sensed someone move next to him that he looked up from his stasis and saw that the darkness out the front door indicating ‘twas already night.
He turned to the person and saw that it was the waiter, who leaning back in the chair right next to him with one arm on the back of her chair and the other stretched out on the table.
“So, you staying at Hotel Summers tonight?”
“Uh, I’m sorry… It’s… I lost track of time is all. I won’t hold you up here.” Edgar got up.
“Oh, you’re not holding anything up.” She raised and have and moved it around the restaurant. “Look, there’s no one left to serve.”
Edgar paused, his hand still frozen on the back of chair when he was beginning to push it in.
“You don’t need to worry about my silly…”
Dawn stopped him by putting a hand on his.
“I can assure you, my fine young man, that nothing of yours is silly… At least, no sillier than anyone else’s.”
Edgar glanced around—anything to avoid looking her in the eyes—trying to think of what to say. He didn’t even know what to think about the warm hand still lying on his sleeve, being such a rare and confusing occurrence. It probably doesn’t mean anything… further. After all, Autumn’s held your hand many times before…
But did that mean anything further?
“Uh… You know people, right?” Edgar asked.
“Yes. I think we had this conversation before, actually,” Dawn said with a nod. “Multiple or just one?”
“Um… any,” Edgar said, his pitch rising in uncertainty. “I… I just need to talk to someone about something, and I don’t know who…”
Dawn patted him on the hand. “Well, I can fix that up for you right now. Follow me.”
Dawn stood and headed for the door.
“Are… are you sure this isn’t a problem or anything?” Edgar asked.
“Of course not.”
And with that Edgar tepidly followed Dawn out the door. In the back of his mind was a confused mix of anticipation and anxiety. This was either going to be an exciting breakthrough or an utter failure.
Freedom: I can just taste it… Autumn thought, but then paused to reconsider. Now that I think about it, that might be dust and mold I truly taste.
Autumn was still crawling through the tight, boxy metal passages of the vent when she began to feel the excitement of victory heat her up, making her sweat all over—especially her hands and knees, which were beginning to feel so burning hot that they were now hurting. She raised her blistering hands from the searing metal up to the merely stuffy air and tried to stare at them in confusion with the little light she had to see by, slipping in through tiny cracks in the vent.
Huh? Why is it suddenly so hot in here? Autumn thought, almost already knowing the answer.
But despite her qualms, the vent only became hotter and hotter; and although she could lift her hands up off the fire metal below, the vent was much too short for her to sit up off her knees.
Either way, it won’t get any colder in this vent, Autumn thought.
So she closed her eyes and continued her crawl for the nearest exit while her hands and knees felt like they were having their skin peeled off them and her lungs were being strangled from the thickness of the hot air inside. Her eyes were unable to open again, being drowned in boiling tears; her head was hazy from heatstroke as she lumbered slowly and stickily forward.
But no tears or haziness would blind her mind from the gleaming treasure she saw in front of her a few feet ahead: a grate. An escape…
Autumn smashed down on the grate with her fist, which did nothing but make her already burning hand now throb, too. As she sucked on it, she glared at the grate in blind rage and then grabbed it with both hands and throttled it. It wouldn’t budge.
She turned her head around and scanned all over to see through the tiny slits of the grate that it was bolted down. She could also see the manager, Druitt, stare at her through the grate with his friendly smile. Autumn stared back at him with a mix of anger and despair.
“Enjoying your stay in there, Madam Springer?” he asked.
“Oh yes, it’s quite a blast,” Autumn replied with a flat, tired voice. “If I give you your bloody money will you stop trying to fry me alive?”
“Make it double,” Druitt said brightly.
“What?” Autumn growled as she charged at the grate like a lion in a cage. “I’ll give you double my foot down your throat, you little bastard!”
Druitt began to say something, but was quickly interrupted by Hamilton at the door.
“Mr. Druitt, there’s someone who needs to see you,” he said.
“Gotcha,” Druitt said, and he skipped through the door, with Hamilton following after him.
Autumn muttered colorful profanities, such as “mushroom head,” “business clown,” and “fucking asshole,” and then grumpily crawled forward through the vent, hoping either they didn’t bolt the next grates down or… she was screwed.
But when she reached the next vent, she saw through her tear-blinded eyes another uniformed woman under the grate staring up at it curiously. She leaned her face toward the grate and the woman’s eyes widened in shock.
“Madame, what are you doing up there?” the woman asked. “Did you bolt this closed?”
“No, some jackass did. Let me out or I’ll sue your asses,” she grumbled.
The woman dutifully fished around her tool belt for a screwdriver and unscrewed the screws holding the vent grate closed. As she did so she asked, “Are you all right in there? You look red all over? The heater isn’t on, is it?”
“I’ll be fine if you hurry and unscrew that grate, please,” Autumn said, trying to be more polite now that she saw that the woman was actually going to let her free. That slum lord must not have told her about his fun little game, Autumn thought.
The technician finally released the last screw and the grate smashed down to the floor under Autumn’s eagerly pushing weight. She lay there on the grate, heaving large breaths of fresh air—being deprived of it for so long—ignoring the numerous bruises and scratches Autumn had all over her, while the technician stood by, staring at Autumn as if she were some kind of alien. But before the technician could ask Autumn anything, Autumn scrambled up to her feet as if her life depended on it and rushed away without a word.
Autumn ran through the motel, pushing anyone who got in her way away and practically jumping down the three sets of stairs she needed to climb down to get to the bottom floor, until she eventually charged through the glass double doors, pushing them aside, out into the fresh air outside.
She slipped and fell down onto her knees. However, she cared little about scraping her already scorched knees on the rough sidewalk and instead used the pause to give herself time to inhale her energy back while marveling at the wonderful feeling of the cold breeze on her still-red skin.
But she soon regretted taking this break when she heard a familiar voice behind her:
“Oh, we’re not quite finished yet, Madame.”
Autumn turned around just in time to see Druitt standing near the entrance press a button on the front wall.
Odd I never noticed that until now. It seems so conspicuous, Autumn thought just before she felt the ground beneath her disappear. She looked down as saw a big, boxy black hole under her. As she waited there, floating above the hole like Wile E. Coyote, she knew there was no way she’d be able to escape; the only way forward was down.
Dawn held her arm over Edgar’s shoulders, leading him through the dark streets of Boskeopolis—where, specifically, Edgar couldn’t tell, and it was much too dark out for him to properly discern his surroundings. Dawn hummed through most of their walk, and so Edgar couldn’t bring himself to interrupt her and ask.
This is crazy, he wailed in his mind. I don’t even know who this person is. What if she chops me up into pieces and uses them to turn boneless chicken into regular chicken?
They eventually stopped at some door, where Dawn pushed the door in and held her arms out toward the doorway.
“You first, sir,” she said.
Edgar shivered, even less able to see what was inside than what was outside.
However, he knew hesitating too long would be rude to this polite host, so he walked inside, turning his head all around. His eyes were caught by the one light in this otherwise cavernous darkness: a bright purple light emitted by a pear-shaped lamp sitting in the back corner. A circle of people sat around it, their widened eyes staring deep into it as if it were a crystal ball, save for one woman who was scribbling in a notebook and another who was licking her hand. Dawn led Edgar to them over to them.
“Can we have a seat around the lamp?” Dawn asked.
They said nothing, but scooted around to give two extra spaces for Dawn and Edgar to sit.
The two sat there glancing around at the others in awkward silence.
Finally, Dawn said, “So, uh, I found this guy at my restaurant who says he wants to hook up with someone…”
No one said anything or even seemed to twitch a muscle.
“…So I thought I’d take him here and see if any of you were interested…”
She turned to Edgar. “Oh, that’s right. How rude of me. I forgot to ask which way you swing.”
“Swing?” Edgar asked.
“I like your skeleton mask,” one of the others said as he leaned in closer toward Edgar, his hands clutching the top of the pear lamp.
“Uh… Thank you,” Edgar said with a titter.
“I had a skeleton mask once when I was five. Did you steal it?”
“What?” Edgar leaned back in fear.
“All right, all right,” Dawn said, putting her hands out. “Quit picking on the new kid, already.”
“Does anyone know a word that rhymes with ‘persnickety’?” the woman with the notebook asked as she twirled her pencil in her fingers.
“That’s a beautiful poem, Nora,” said nobody in particular.
“Thank you, nobody in particular.”
One of the others glared at Nora and nobody in particular with wrinkly eyes and said in a low tone, “Shhh, I’m trying to hear the lamp.”
Everything was pitch black, and all Autumn could hear were slow dripping and dangling chains, though she could feel the cold, hard bars wrapped in her hands and had discovered not long after her surprise arrival that they surrounded her.
She had attempted slipping through the holes between the bars, but they were far too thin; she had tested her might against the bars and her weight against the solid cement floor, but nothing budged. Now all she did was grumpily sit along the edge with her feet dangling out the holes in the bars and over the edge of the cage as she devised a strategy for escape.
She found this rather difficult, considering the other problems pressing on her mind. Going so long without water had left her mouth dry; and though she could easily tolerate the hunger and thirst pains, she knew they were pains for a reason: to warn of dire consequences if their causes were not catered to.
And, of course, there was Edgar she had to worry about, who’d probably notice she was missing by now. By logic he should consider it a boon to be freed from her service, and she hoped Edgar would finally move on, but she had learned many times that Edgar did not operate under rational thought. He would have that damned look on his face, aimed straight at the ground, and he’d probably be sitting somewhere in the rain, probably hoping some truck would run him over..
That was the look he had when Autumn told him she didn’t want him staying at her motel room, where he would fall into the same trouble she was in now. It was a Morton’s Fork of decisions: She could go soft and let him run into the death traps she set for herself or she could go hard and drive his blubbering self to suicide. The former at least offered her the benefits of free service from him and Edgar had asked for it himself; and yet Autumn had chosen the latter this time for some reason.
Actually, she did know the reason: She had been so stressed over her constant failures that she didn’t want to have to deal with him. Ever since he caught her in her pathetic meltdown after her failure with the bank she had been wary to be near him. Here lay another lose-lose situation: He clearly wanted them together in contentment, and yet she could not be content. So he could either be miserable next to her or miserable without her. The latter at least allowed her better concentration.
It appeared to be a convoluted puzzle, but was probably a simple issue caused by holes in her own rationality, Autumn mused. She was confident she would be able to logically straighten it all out—she’d better, at least. Failure was not acceptable. For now, however, she had her financial success to concern herself with and did not have the time to figure everything out yet. She’d just have to manage with Band-Aid fixes…
That’s it! An idea came to Autumn’s head.
She rummaged through her pockets and took out a bandage carton. She flipped its tin lid open and shook it over her palm to release a nail file.
She thunked her head with the carton. Then she wished she hadn’t, because it kind of hurt.
“Duh, it’s so obvious I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about it till now.”
Then she tossed the file away and began beating on the cage bars with the carton. Eventually, she managed to bend them in enough to form a hole big enough for her to squeeze through. She discovered that though the cage was indeed off the ground, it was only a few feet down—low enough for a safe hop down.
Since it was still pitch dark, she felt her way forward through the area until she hit a wall and then moved around it until she reached a hall. As she went down it, she saw a row of lights hanging from the ceiling at every few feet.
And then she reached a fork. One way lead to a long hallway toward what Autumn guessed was the exit from the large blinking sign that said “EXIT” above; the other probably led farther into the compound.
If I try to escape now he’s sure to devise another trap against me, she mused. There’s only one way to settle this issue once and for all…
Time seemed to dribble away like buttery maple syrup as Edgar sat in that close, warm apartment room, his vision dulled to the constant stream of purple light. He could not tell what time it was anymore, and his attention had drifted so far away from the arrhythmic medley of chat that he could neither offer up even an approximation.
He stared down at the carpet, his mood still a bucket of tumultuous, unclean seawater. He couldn’t understand why he was here, what he hoped to accomplish. Everyone here seemed as if they spoke a different language; and besides, Edgar’s mind was clouded so much by his main troubles that they could hardly interest him, anyway.
Dawn, seeing Edgar’s long face, whispered, “Well, I’m afraid you’ll be stuck with me. Don’t worry; I can try to do the work of three.”
She stood and whispered, “Follow me.”
Edgar did so, into a small room full of dim light. Dawn stopped on the bed and patted the spot beside her.
She reached a hand around Edgar’s shoulder and said, “So, is that shaking fear or just hormones?”
“What are hormones?” he asked.
Dawn chuckled. “How old are you?” Then her eyes widened in fear. She turned to Edgar. “Hey, you’re not underage, right?”
Edgar shook his head. “Why? You’re not offering me drugs, are you?”
“No, none of us do any of that,” Dawn said as she exhaled in relief. “Sorry.” She laughed. “I probably should have asked for your age before we even left the restaurant.”
Then she paused in thought. “I, uh… I don’t mean to be rude, but just out of curiosity… Do you have an ID on you?”
Edgar rifled through his robe and handed her his wallet. She opened it and saw his ID—a regular, though; she supposed he never got a driver’s license—at the front.
As she handed it back to Edgar she said, “They let you keep on that mask when they took your picture? Is that some kind of religious thing or did you just lie and say it was because you’re really shy about your appearance?”
“It’s okay, I won’t judge. Most of the idiots around here made up their own religions, anyway.”
“It’s not a mask.”
“Oh… I’m sorry. Was it some accident. You don’t need to tell me if you’re uncomfortable about it.”
“You could say ‘twas an accident…”
“Then we need not talk about it. By the way, sorry about asking for your ID and all. I’m usually not so distrustful of people, but… well, perhaps I should be because I’ve stupidly let people pull some hijinks on me because of it. You yourself seem to, too, since you just gave me your wallet seemingly without a thought that I might rob you.”
Edgar nodded. If she had wanted to rob him she could probably just force him to give the wallet to her, anyway—and ‘twas not as if he cared about its contents so greatly that he would risk inciting uncomfortable conflict to protect it.
“That’s okay,” Edgar said. “I have a, uh, friend who practically distrusts everyone…”
“Oh, really?” Dawn asked. “Do they also think all drugs were invented as a way for the government to suppress our thoughts like ‘Scratch’? He was that wonderful fellow you met earlier who asked you about your fake mask, by the way. His real name is Tim.”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Edgar replied.
Come on… This is your chance, while the subject is brought up, he told himself.
But Dawn was the one who brought it up as she held Edgar’s sleeve-covered hand: “Who is the friend and does this friend have hands as fragile as yours?”
“Um… I don’t know,” Edgar said as he glanced down at their matching hands awkwardly. Why do I feel weird about this? This is what Autumn wants me to do, anyway.
But he was unsure about that.
This is how independent people act, how adults act.
But he didn’t want any of those things.
I don’t even know this person… What if it all goes wrong?
You can’t get to know someone before you know someone.
Dawn interrupted his thoughts by saying, “I can see that something is troubling you—and though some open their hydrants for that, I’m afraid not for me, so why not tell me?”
“I… You don’t want to hear it.”
What are you, an idiot? You came here for that very purpose!
“I’m sorry, darling, but I believe I know more about what I want than you do,” Dawn said.
“I… It’s just that… I have this friend who has a problem and I don’t know what to do.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Just go slow, then.”
“Well… See, she’s a thief for a living… both of us are, were partners, and it’s such dangerous work and she’s hitting a slump and I want to help, but I don’t know how.”
“Hmm… are you romantically involved and monogamous?” Dawn asked, slowly lifting her hand from Edgar’s.
“Uh… I don’t know. I don’t think so, but that’s not important…”
“Well, have you told her about any of this?” Dawn asked.
“She doesn’t have the time to waste. That’s why I need to think of something…”
“Well, she will have to make time, because you can’t make decisions about both of you by yourself and you can’t be a partner if she does everything herself. Do you have any personal jobs or hobbies?”
Edgar squirmed. “Um… No.”
“Then maybe you should develop some,” Dawn said. “It’s not healthy to base one’s entire life on someone else’s.”
“But I’m not good at anything.”
“You can’t be good at something until you’ve practiced it.”
“I guess so… but I don’t even know what I’d do.”
“That’s what you need to take the time to find out,” Dawn said.
Edgar stood. “Thank you and, uh… sorry for wasting so much of your time.”
Dawn stood with him. “Nonsense. ‘Twas no problem.”
She led him out the door and toward the front door, holding it open with her arms pointed at it as before.
“Keep in touch,” she said.
“Uh… I don’t even know how…” Edgar said, hesitating halfway through the threshold.
“I’ll be anywhere in the dark—wherever you look. Wherever there’s a fight to feed a hungry heart, I’ll be there; wherever there’s a world beating a guy, I’ll be there. Also, you can just check around the Rock Lobster, too.”
In a dark, cramped room stood Mr. Druitt and Hamilton among a console full of blinking lights and bright buttons that looked nothing like real computers. Neither knew what the console was actually useful for, but Druitt thought they fit the mood well.
Druitt rubbed his hands together. “Man, this makes my hands feel warm!”
Then he talked about something that was actually relevant to the story:
“With that mooch Madame Springer locked up in her cage I’ll be able to deliver a test subject to my old friend Dr. Equinox, and then maybe he’ll be nice enough to release my wife from his capture. Then he should finally be able to test his hand-enlarging extract for people who want to enlarge their hands.”
Hamilton sat about a foot away in a swivel chair—even though I just recently said he was standing—flipping through an old gray newspaper. He tried to ignore Druitt as much as possible.
Then the door burst open. Druitt swung around to see Autumn standing in the doorway with a twisted glare aimed at him.
“Hey, how did you escape your cage?” Druitt demanded as he pointed at her.
Autumn didn’t answer him. Instead she stiffened her shoulders and said, “So you thought you could just lock me up like a rat, huh?”
“Hey, you’re a mooch,” Druitt said shakily as he stepped backward in response to Autumn’s steps forward. “That makes it okay.” He smacked up against the console and found there was no farther he could go.
“Hamilton, apprehend this rapscallion!” Druitt trilled.
“Fuck you,” Hamilton said. He licked his fingers and flipped another page of his newspaper.
By this point, Autumn was right in front of Druitt—so close that he could smell all the slimy sweat dripping on her and see the crawling germ-bugs crawling around her skin-flesh, which grossed him out.
“And what are you going to do about it, huh?” Druitt asked.
The scene transitioned and then Druitt was strapped to a swivel chair with duck tape—tape made out of duck feathers, with the adhesive made from duck saliva—all around him, including his eyes and mouth.
“Mmmffhh, hmm dd hough heghen hgh ht?” he muffled.
Autumn slapped her hands together, indicating a job well done, as well as to get the crawling germ-bugs off her hands. “That ought to ensure I’ll be able to get out of here without any more shenanigans.”
And with that, she left, heading back toward the fork she encountered before, and now down the other path to escape. As she pushed her way out the exit door at the end of the hall she inhaled deeply, enthralled to be out in the fresh air again.
However, when she looked at her surroundings, her smile melted to a frown. All around her was puffy white snow, with fir trees scattered everywhere. The snow stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction she turned, without any sign of civilization.