Alex Reynard

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Alex Reynard



Dream IV: Lost Alone

The world is a vampire.

-Smashing Pumpkins, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"


Chapter Seventy-Two

The people who'd gathered around the cart now had something else to gawk at. The newcomer mouse seemed to have contracted late-stage rabies in the space of a heartbeat. He was on his hands and knees, breathing so hard, the exhales were shrieks. His eyes were blank with horror. He stared through the sand as the visions swirled in his head.

Skeeto dropped the spy eye and rushed to his brother's side. He shook Coral's shoulders. "Stop it! What's wrong!? Snap out of it!!"

Mindless groans poured from the mouse's mouth. He began drooling. A nutcracker had split his skull, letting his brains slosh out like runny eggs. He was seeing things. Impossibly horrific things. Worse than all his dreams.

Skeeto shook harder. "Please, Coral!! You're scaring me!"

The mouse could not hear him. Engine roars and death rattles filled his ears. Sounds of tearing metal, falling glass, dripping water, and screams.

The crowd began to back away, fearing this was something contagious. Skeeto stuck by Coral's side. L'roon leaned in closer.

From a pushup position, the mouse suddenly launched himself straight up to clutch handfuls of the merchant's shirt. His eyes were high beam headlights. "SAY THAT NAME AGAIN!!! SAY IT!!!"

L'roon was so startled he spilled sunflower seeds all over his shirt. "T-toby?"

"AGAIN! THE FULL NAME!!" he screeched.

"...Toby deLeon, if I am correctly remembering."

The mouse's head lolled bonelessly, his glassy eyes stared off into space. Behind them his mind buzzed like an overclocked computer. Image. Sound. Pain. Taste. Words. Voices. And the memories weren't just replaying themselves, he was reliving them. Half the intensity, but triple the speed. The visions were running backwards, each one touching off the others like a series of fuses. Each effect led to its cause. The mountain, the nightmare, the maze, the swamp, the desert, the shack, the forest. On and on and on. The memories were brutally intrusive, feeling like a demon was ripping up the floorboards of his mind and leaving the empty nail holes to bleed.

Yet as much as it hurt, he needed more. Nothing was worse than finally understanding the true scope of how much he was missing.

He pulled his face towards the reptilian snout again. "I was traveling with people! I need to know them again!! Who were they!? NAMES!!"

L'roon could only guess what kind of hurricane was blowing inside the rodent's mind, but he did not waste time placing a price on the information. "I remember George best. George Charles Atkinson: a bonecuddy loyal to you. And then there was Junella Brox and Zinc. Piffle also, but please don't press me to recall her full title. She had with her a doll named Doll-"

"HER NAME'S NOT DOLL!!!" Toby shrieked, rending his vocal chords. The words had leapt from the deepest primal part of him where bullets ricocheted and fires raged.

L'roon's head jerked back at the sheer force of the outburst. But he understood quickly that he had not been its target.

Toby slumped against the merchant's chest. His left hand dragged down L'roon's shirt till it snagged on a button and hung there limply. His frenzy had drained him dry.

Her name was not Doll.

It had never been Doll.

And even though he lacked the true word for what she was, he had the memory back. The things she had done in that bare room with the silver door. All his friends, one by one. That black tongue of hers with the emerald tip. He didn't know if her venom had taken his memories away, or if the trauma of her betrayal was so immense, his mind had simply fled into blankness. He didn't think he'd ever know. But he could see her now. That square hole with the wiggling fringe around the edge. A pure monster. A nightmare beyond anything Phobiopolis could dream up.

The images were not all there yet. Merely impressions, feelings, instants. But clarity would come with time. The memories wanted back in. Furious that they had been abandoned.

As Toby's eyes refocused, he saw a kitten perched across from him with a green ribbon on his wrist. The memories of the past month rippled for a moment, nearly overwhelmed and devoured by the rest, but managed to remain. He finally realized, when he'd jumped up to beg names from the merchant, he'd knocked Skeeto to the dirt.

Toby shoved his brainquake to the side and ran to his brother. "Skeeto!! I'm so sorry! I didn't even realize what I was doing! Are you okay?"

The kitten looked shocked, even fearful, but also eager to forgive. "Coral... your nose is bleeding."

He touched his fingers to his upper lip. They came back red.

"What happened to you?" Skeeto whimpered.

The mouse wiped his nose on the back of his hand, then helped the cat to his feet. "...It came back."

For a moment, the kitten's pale face showed confusion. Then, anguish. The thing he'd feared most had come true. His brother had remembered, and that meant his brother was going to go away.

Still, he tried to force a smile onto his face. He hugged Coral tight. "That's good," he said, muffled by the mouse's vest.

Toby rested his paw on the back of his brother's head. "No. Not really," he said hollowly. "But it happened, and I can't put it back in the box now."

The kitten hugged him tighter and began to cry.

Toby looked past his shoulder and felt a fathomless cavern of ice inside him. Scarlatina. He had built a life here. He didn't want it to end either.

L'roon was shrewd enough to have put it all together. "Something erased you, boy, didn't it?"

Toby looked past Skeeto's shoulder at him. He nodded.

"The doll was not what she seemed?"

Another nod, cold hatred in his eyes.

L'roon put a hand to his forehead. "I wish I could say I sensed it when I met her, but I'd be lying. I am assuming more questions will soon be directed at me?"

A third nod. Vigorously.

The crowd began to lose interest. The freakshow was over. It had become something uncomfortably sad. So they shied away, turning back to whatever commodities they'd been planning to buy or sell from the peddler.

"I can see you're busy. Mister..." Toby drew a blank.

"L'roon. And yes, commerce calls. But wait for me. I'll finish up here and fill in whatever I can. If my negligence caused you to suffer somehow, I owe you that at least."

"L'roon", Toby repeated, and the name brought back details of the cart, the amulet, and the blue soap desert. "Thank you."

"I can offer a bit of solace for free," the construct added. "I've seen conditions like yours before, and names are always the hardest part. We rarely forget anything completely. Our minds just sort of... de-emphasize. The train moves to new tracks, but the old ones remain. Even if they may, for a time, be inaccessible."

Toby closed his eyes and felt them burn. He was grateful for those words. He had a fraction of himself back, sketches of events, but there was still a massive dark whirlpool where the rest should have been. He'd need to backtrack. Let each memory lead to the ones that had come before it. Like Theseus tracing string in the Labyrinth.

Toby felt the warmth in his arms of a small, sobbing kitten.

He saw in his mind the face that was not a face. The thing that had called itself Doll.

He could not remember her true name, but he damned her thieving heart for stealing away the people he loved. 'Twice, actually,' he realized. First his traveling family, in the room with the silver door. And now, here in the middle of the marketplace, he felt his ties to his new family sever. He had been fooling himself to think that nothing in his memories could take him away from Scarlatina.

He touched his forehead to Skeeto's. "Hey," he said softly. "I'm just gonna go sit by the docks for a while. Get my head straight. It's kinda messed up right now. You go on and buy that thing you wanted from L'roon, okay? Don't worry about me. I'm fine," he lied.

Skeeto broke away from the hug and roughly wiped his eyes on his t-shirt sleeve. He sniffed. "'Kay. But..." He looked down at the sand. He mumbled something.

Coral leaned in closer. "What was that?"

"You're someone different now, aren't you? You're who you used to be."

Toby smiled lopsidedly. "Yeah. But we can still be brothers." He did not add, 'until I go', because they both already knew.

Skeeto took a deep breath, trying to be brave. He turned away from Coral and squirmed his way back through the mob of people who'd crowded the cart again.

Toby took a step back, watching the kitten go. His heart felt like someone had blasted a hole through it. The pain was acute, almost cold. He felt another flare of hate towards the faceless liar who'd done this to him, then turned in the opposite direction and ran. Hard. He pushed through the crowd, not listening to their protests. He kicked a cart out of his way. He shoved in between a young couple. He could barely see two steps in front of him.

He ran until he was out where the boats slept at night. Tied to the piers, all in a row, electromagnets powered down. Toby ran to the farthest end of the docks and skidded to a stop, not caring about splinters. He sat down hard enough to hurt. He unleashed a scream of pain. He didn't care if anyone turned to stare at him. He certainly didn't look back.

He put his head in his hands and looked out across the sea of death.

'I could have just stayed out there,' he thought. 'If Tak and Skeeto hadn't found me, I wouldn't be feeling this now.'

True but pointless. Tears came and his eyes unfocused. As he slid himself over to lean against a piling, the dreams of a frightened little mouse in blue came back. A mouse who'd been friends with a brassy skunk, a loving hamsterfly, an easygoing canine, a steadfast nightmare. And a traitor. More faces came as his memories rewound. A haunted wizard with a dozen bodies. A house with its own indomitable soul. An unspeakable evil in space. A lethal but strangely loyal porcupine. A rusty, gentle behemoth. A charismatic madman of a mayor. A screwy-eyed terrorist muskrat. Two minks who painted with cloth. A fox with a ruined face and a gorilla with none. A thug in a hoodie with blood on his chin. A deaf rabbit who killed with sound. A gregarious feathered inventor and his goggle-eyed son. An innkeeper split down the middle. A little green lizard running across the night. An arson-fueled grin atop a wheel. A mind-stealing horrorshow who cried wooden tears. A spider that was an octopus. A harbinger covered in mushrooms.

And furthest of all back, only a dim grey smudge, he saw a demented old woman who never stopped cleaning. A woman who had kept him chained to his bed for centuries, in a prison made of pills.

He supposed he had to thank the unholy vault of sadism between the mountain and the maze. It had taunted him with memories of his life before death. Now he remembered those images more clearly than the real ones. He might have lost them entirely if not for that.

The mouse let the world melt away down the drain, till all he saw and heard were the movies inside his head. He walked his whole, long, hard journey backwards. He knew there were details he might never get back, but the heart of each memory was there. Maybe not every leaf on every tree. But he remembered how each moment felt. How it had changed him. He watched himself age backwards into something selfish, helpless, and scared. A cowering little rodent who could only run and hide. He couldn't believe he'd ever really been that. A nasty inner voice asked him if he was really any different now.

After a while, he felt the dock wobble from footsteps. Someone sat beside him.

Skeeto carried the toy he'd bought from L'roon. Plus two dishes of ice cream from the market. They were expensive, but also important.

He nudged one towards his brother.

Still staring out to the horizon, Toby's left hand crept over to touch the spoon, then reached further to take his brother's hand in his. A smile came to his face.

"Thank you."

Skeeto squeezed the paw. "I know you said you wanted to be alone, so I'll be quiet." And though it was hard, he managed to.

The pair sat and ate their ice cream in silence, until the bowls were empty and the sun went down.


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