31. Alone

The bellows from the ocean grew more common as the weeks went on, as the world sat in its embarassed silence, governments trying to focus on internal affairs and regulations designed to control and handle and understand the new coming swell of magic. It was only natural, after all – and making it worse was the way some nations didn’t seem to ‘have’ magic the same way other nations did.

Helping nobody’s tensions was that the United States seemed to have wellsprings of magic in its people, but had inherited a strangeness to the land with it. Vast swatches of Arizona seemed to be peopled with white-outlined ghosts, ghosts that shot at explorers who came near with bow and gun and other, strange devices. Old forts were the worst for it – Texas’ landmarks cordoned off for the safety of the people there. In the Middle East, histories of battles played out on the sand and in the minds of others – the memories of those who had impressed upon the magic conflicting with the memories of those who had studied it afterwards.

Across Russia, a black order of shadows and shapes, on things that moved like horses but bellowed like smoke found the places where once had been those that they sought. Most people ran. Some stayed. None were found.

The nature of magic seemed to be atemporal, connecting to ancient thoughts and memories, histories that shaped the nature of people. Yet in some places, remote and rare, there were few things changed. Some claimed that magic did not reach everywhere. They were wrong. Magic enveloped the world, a new atmosphere, that crested the top of the mountains.

People’s memories, however, had their limits.

*

Holland sat on the bed in a dull grey-blue room, light filtered through patterned glass and old, Salvation-Army purchased third-hand, smoke-yellowed curtains. The floor was clean, as clean as Holland had been able to make it, amongst the small burn marks and the stain from the previous owner, or, more likely, one of their dogs. The walls still had telltale creeping fingers of yellowing lines that bulged and formed into patterns down at the skirting board where the crinkling paper started to flake off the walls. Holland did not have many things to be proud of, but this room was one of them.

The other rooms in the house had a faint dustiness to them, the hints that when you walked on them bare-foot, you were disturbing strata of some variety. The way people left footprints in the carpet, the way all the levered door handles had sometime ago given way to gravity and taken permanent place pointing downwards, the Christmas lights strung up around a front porch that wore no sign that they had ever been taken down in the past three years – it was a painted picture of a house that had somewhere in history, given up living and contented itself with simply existing.

Holland only controlled one room, and that room, as best it could in the circumstances, was ordered. Clothes hung on cheap metal coathangers, the kind you could repair if you were determined, in a cupboard with only one door. The second door had been removed because apparently, ‘it had been staring,’ which was something Holland supposed you wanted to avoid in homewares. The clothes inside were pastels, white, and with one or two bright, gay colours amongst them. Nothing that stood out too much, cleaned carefully on Saturdays.

The bookshelf by the door held old Penguin classics, discarded second-hand copies from throw-out racks. A copy of Frankenstein with pages missing near the start, a Reader’s Digest hardbound on the history of the French foreign legion, the extra copy of Anna Karenina that the school had accidentally purchased when it thought Holland was two people – sitting snugly and carefully in between bricks and plywood. Well worn, read over and over, stories about…

Holland sometimes fantasised about the world ending, not out of any kind of begotten malice but because it was fascinating to imagine the ramshackle room found generations later, with a skeleton in repose on the bed in some artful position and watching people trying to reconstruct from the books and the signs around the room just what it was that made up the person known as Holland. The books were always fun to dwell on – because clearly, an educated person would want to own classics and books about the French foreign legion.

Then reality slithered in like bulldust in a rental car, and Holland realised that if all that remained of the room’s occupant was a skeleton, the books would have rotten away well beforehand, too. Probably also the clothes and maybe even the coathangers. Did people rust faster than cheap metal? Hard to say for sure – hard to remember, too. Somehow, ‘decomposition rates’ weren’t covered in Bio.

“Why, what a interesting room we have here,” came a stranger’s voice. Holland didn’t jerk up to look at its source straight away, though so many instincts begged to. More than once, a stranger had come into the home, with its insecure locks. So far, they’d all come by to see Matt, had a conversation, maybe a smoke, and left. By not simply jerking into action, Holland could remember the difference between a scared child and an independent soul. Who Holland was, as always a hope, was closer to the latter than the former, no matter how much fear every day had.

“I said,” the voice began again.

“I heard,” responded Holland, looking up with a practiced, dull, nonconfrontational expression.

What stood in the doorway didn’t have the menace that befit its appearance. When a figure like it – tall, lean, unnaturally thin with a body that seemed composed of no actual mass, but rather, a cartoonish outline of black and blue texture wearing battered, weary pants, and a body studded about with stars and twinkling expanses of celestial matter, flowing up into a narrow, spade shaped face with a sharp, jutting chin and deep red eyes that blinked and winked with the deaths of great supernovae – stood in a doorway, one would expect it to stand with its hands by its side, making a gesture as a heavily breathing assailant. Instead, it, the Prince of a Thousand Eyes, stood in the doorway, in profile, head cocked forwards, arms slightly behind itself. It resonated awkwardly of a nonchalant position, if it wasn’t being held by a completely dreadful unthing, an entity that seemed to be composed of the things that inspired fears in mortals of the vast, terrifying rolling space into which some intrinsic part of self could fall. The Abyss, staring back, and blinking.

“You’re a remarkably hard boy to track down, Holland,” it said, and Holland blinked in surprise, his hands clenching into fists. “Or is that girl?” it asked in turn, tilting its head the other direction, like a bird sizing up Holland as if she were prey. “You were at the school.”

“… I was at a school.”

The Prince pushed the door further open with one casual hand, though Holland didn’t remember it being open in the first place. Normally, that door was kept completely closed, no matter which side of it Holland was on. It was Holland’s one fortress, one respite, and now it was being casually invaded by… something.

Bits of blackness dripped from pooling corners on the ceiling, the Prince’s swagger bringing with it a sense of growing menace. Leaning down, the thing looked Holland close in the eyes.

“You’ve never seen me before, but you know my name,” it said – and its smile was a jagged, razor-jawed thing. Hands on its knees, it leant forwards, into Holland’s preciously-guarded personal space, caring not for the steadily increasing anxiety, the ratcheted, nervousness of Holland’s breathing. “… but you have seen me before, haven’t you?”

The Prince twisted its head this way, then that, in a way that suggested there were no bones left in what it could call a body, while Holland marshalled a response.

“… You were at the school,” The words came stiltingly, because Holland had never been good at standing up to anyone. It required you to stand out, it forced attention. That was something Holland always wanted to avoid. “You… made it disappear.”

The Prince nodded. “Well, I took it away. It and a few buildings, but mostly just the people in it. The people who were the same,” it said, blinking once, twice. “I figured I owed it to you, since I missed you, that first time.”

And there it was. The question notsaid.

“… Why.”

The Prince reached with an arm too long, pulling on Holland’s open-back wooden chair, skidding it across the carpet, and perched upon it before Holland, peering forwards again. By now there really wasn’t anything between the two – Holland’s forehead pressed against the Prince’s.

“Isn’t that the question you ask yourself every day?” It laughed, chuckling. “Why am I poor? Why am I struggling? Why am I … different?” Its chuckle was like burning love letters in a discarded shoebox, crackling away around a wedding ring that had never truly represented love. “… This is the problem, Holland.” the creature shuffled, wriggling its chair forward, resting its hands on Holland’s knees.

Holland really did like that chair. Smashing it with two sudden, sharply raised feet, sending the weight of the Prince sprawling out on the ground came so quickly that the only thought was regret. It was instinct, it was reaction – and Holland immediately dipped forwards, given strength and fervour by panic. That had been one step too far. Scooping up a handful of chair, and gripping a length of wood in a closed fist, Holland drew a breath and brandished it menacingly.

“Get out.” Holland breathed. “I don’t care why you took them. I don’t care! Get out and never touch me again!” The second hit clapped against the side of the Prince’s head, and then a third. “I said get out!”

The Prince stepped back, and for just a faint moment, something about it betrayed a human emotion. It didn’t show smugness, it didn’t show ostentatious grandeur. It simply stepped backwards, and let the smile settle back in place.

“You know,” it said, standing in the doorway once more like something Tim Burton would have designed while doing particularly bad acid. “Typically people like you are defined as friendly and intelligent,” turning sharply on its heel, shock of not-hair bobbing above its head in dark sparkling retinue. “Or at least, you know, sweet.” Rubbing a hand against its temple, the Prince stepped forwards. “But fine, fine. I was just offering you a chance to back to school, you know,” it said, turning back and narrowing one eye. “Somewhere safe. Somewhere without the crazy. Somewhere, you know, where nobody would ask you that question, ever again. Somewhere you could feel normal, because it’s a place nobody needs to know things. That’s what I do, Holland,” it said, turning around fully again, and now there was something more dreadful than just creepy about it.

Seeming to fill the doorway, the figure was no more a figure; it was more a gap, a space in space over which the door hung. It swayed slightly, as if suddenly there wasn’t a house around it to support it, just the bare bones of the room itself, with the dripping blackness in the corners seeping in. The star patterns swirled and spread, and the face seemed to sink away, Holland looking out into the nightmarish nothing of nowhere, pulled slightly by the feeling of air rushing out.

“People want me around, Holland. People want me to make a world that’s safe, that doesn’t surprise them, that doesn’t confuse them.” It laughed, cacklingly. “And if you don’t want to come along, if you can handle living in this world…”

A pop, a sudden rush of blood in Holland’s ears, and the creaking, the rattling stopped. The room stilled, the blackness retreated, and the wood felt oh so heavy in a now-limp hand. Like all the weight in Holland’s body sunk to the ground, the teenager dropped down onto a bent knee.

“… I know plenty of people that can. You can fend for yourself, after all. Besides, he’s not much of a father figure, is he?”

Holland looked up, eyes wide, and ran straight past the doorway, into the shadowy blackness, past the star systems, a thrown hand gesture pushing through the milky way, casting aside galaxies until that fanasy popped, and the familiar horrible carpet appeared again. Then, heart pounding, Holland checked the house, the house that had been so subtly subdivided into the territory of Holland (one room), and the territory of Him.

Holland searched, and did not find.

And the Prince was gone.

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