Shredded Thoughts

155/365: Cheese Grater

If you see the Buddha in the road, put him through a cheese grater.
–A Meditation

Inhale

So I’m meditating now, and I think that it’s…

Exhale

wonder if my timer is going to go off, because I’ve never…

Inhale

thinking too much? I’m probably thinking too…

Exhale

the moss arrows in Thief are pretty green. I guess moss is green, so…

Inhale

really not sure about that timer; what if two hours pass and I haven’t…

Exhale

I come up with my most creative ideas while walking. Or while in the shower. According to both researchers and friends of mine this is a very common occurrence. I think it has to do with the fact that the universe is perverse, and these are two situations in which very few people carry a pen. If creativity is the chocolate of the mental world, its cascading fountains seem most likely to appear whenever you are on a low-carb diet.

Meditation is a great example. If I have an intractable problem or creative tangle, there’s no way to catalyze my brain into actively trying to solve it than sitting down to meditate. The desire for no-thought is apparently really an invitation for every thought in a 5 trillion neuron radius to show up for the part. And they seem so productive. So interesting!

But you shouldn’t believe it. They only seem that way because they’re taboo. Unwanted but still desired. The forbidden fruit in the cognitive garden. And because you only see part of them. Because while meditation may appear encourage thinking, it’s an illusion. A trap. The thoughts are only there because meditation wants them to be there. Because meditation is hungry. Hungry for thoughts. In its advance stages, the meditative mind resists thoughts.

In its more primitive stages, however, it shreds them.

I can feel it happening. I can almost see it. Guides on meditation almost always instruct the seeker to watch thoughts as they form and let them pass. But you can’t just let a thought pass. Not really. All you can do is hack it off at the source. Thoughts only exist to the extent that you form them. They are like pasta coming out of an extrusion machine. They keep going until you pull the lever and make the noodle-guillotine hack its way right through them. Then you boil them and eat them with red sauce.

It’s not a perfect metaphor.

To meditated imperfectly—and the vast, vast majority of all meditation done is imperfect—is to take a knife to your thoughts and slice them into tiny little pieces, so they fall through the grating in your mind and don’t pile up and consume you. We spend a lot of our time consumed. Practice, then, is the art of sharpening your knife, to cut your thoughts into finer and less jagged pieces. Maybe, if you keep going, and if you’re lucky, you’ll eventually have a knife so sharp it will split thoughts from all the way across the room.

Is that enlightenment? I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I get there.

An Egg in the Hand

Day 088/365 - Fenced off football

I’ve always hated football.

Not the garden variety brussels sprouts kind of hatred. It’s deeper than that. I’ve always identified with hating football. As a geek growing up in the U.S., hating football is in a category with appreciating the works of Tolkien. It’s what you’re supposed to do.

During my childhood football was hours of awkward silence while beer-addled relatives yelled “that’s what I’m talking about” at a television with which, as far as I could tell, they hadn’t been speaking at all. It was the soft green lighting that illuminated the aftermath of the always uncomfortable and drama-heavy Thanksgivings at my uncle’s house. It was the unending Sunday night slog that was as likely as not to run long and slice off the first half of the new Simpson’s episode.

It was what the kids who weren’t into djinn battles and rune-etched spaceships enjoyed. It was an arbitrary competition between entitled, testosterone soaked hot shots, smashing into each other under bright lights in front of mindless fans in inglorious tribute to tribalism. I felt this, even when I was too young to know what half of those words meant.

My parents fought about it. My dad’s love of football grew slowly and unseen over the years, like a Phylloxera infestation in the vineyard. Sometimes, in a fit a irritation-driven oversimplification, my mom claimed that she married dad because he didn’t like football.

My father tried to get me to like it. I think it was more about bonding than football. And I tried right back. I really did. But it didn’t stick. The game was just too dull. I believed him that it had tactical nuance. At least, part of me did. But I don’t think he understood that if you don’t understand those nuances, football looks like a series of jerky moments of human collision interspersed by long stretches of inactivity. That’s the entire experience.

The ball snaps, a bunch of padded guys run, and maybe the situation advances. The action lasts only a few seconds, and then it resets back to nothing. Players stand around a lot. Commentators draw arrows on the screen. Sometimes the momentum breaks and something dramatic happens, like an interception or a break-away touchdown. In those moments, hopped up on social a thirst for mainstream social belonging paternal affection, I felt a spark of excitement.

But they never lasted long. And the excitement was always sucked dry by the fact that it was replayed over and over. The more interesting and important the play, the more they ran the footage it and talked and dissected it into desiccation. As if Indiana Jones had leapt under that boulder again and again and again, while John Madden droned clichés about his choice of leap.

Plus, I had my geek pride to worry about. I had my identity. I was the kid who carried D&D books in my backpack. I was the kid who tried to steer sports conversations with other middle schoolers into long-winded monologues about how hiccups worked or Einstein’s fantasies about light beams.

But I never stopped wanting to like football. Because I was always a bundle of contradictions. And because I wanted to like everything. Not every instance of everything, mind you. But you can either be a person who says “I don’t like rap music,” or you can be the one who says he doesn’t listen to a lot of rap but can still name his favorite Wu Tang release. It’s always appealed to me to be the latter type.

I no longer have much in the way of identity issues. The desire to be into everything blossomed throughout my 20s into a wholesale rejection of identity-based opinions. On the other hand, my wife married me because I don’t like football.

She has nothing to worry about. I’m never going to like football. It doesn’t matter that watching Friday Night Lights has exposed to me on an emotional level how much football is a game of tactical bluff and counter-bluff played out in frenzied moments of activity. It doesn’t matter that some of the books I’m reading on deliberate practice and habit formation have made me feel that the game has an ocean of depth with regards to approach and execution just below its brightly lit surface. It doesn’t matter that even since the Seahawks turned competitive this town I love and identify with has had an alluring and distinctly Seattle-flavored passion for the sport. Or that I now recognize that when the ball snaps, the simplicity of the padded guys smashing into each other belies a scene that displays both a precise interchange of sophisticated and precisely executed stratagems colliding in real-time and also a physically manifest cascade of poetic intensity and athleticism that bursts into being in an instant, then is gone.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m forced to admit there’s something to this game. Maybe I have to ditch the decades-long opinion that people only watch football because they are indoctrinated by groupthink and the brain altering properties of buffalo sauce, and would drop this interest if they were clever enough to appreciate literature or roleplaying games.

On the other hand, maybe I don’t. I do, after all, own a Gandalf t-shirt.

Cold, Epilogue

Marigold in the Rain

Connected

They were everywhere. Great swaths of pink, stretched across the far end of the football field. A sea of violet in front of Nasa’s Diner. Golden spheres of sunlight-yellow dotted in the grassy nooks of the Wallmart parking lot. They were the most beautiful flowers anyone had ever seen.

It seemed like just yesterday Oakenville was coated with a film of protective ice that would never melt. Would never go away. Like some overzealous packaging worker in the sky sealed the entire town in frost to keep the spring from getting out. But the sealant had cracked, and spring had burst out in full and violent bloom.

And it was everywhere.

Steve had never appreciated flowers before. Afterall, he was a guy. He had his dignity. But now as he walked to school with his buddies he couldn’t stop staring at them. He stood in front of a patch of marigolds for nearly three full minutes. The vibrancy of their petals sucked him right in. In the back of his mind he was worried the other guys would call him out. But they had all been doing it, too.

Everyone had.

Everyone in town thought the winter would last forever. No one said anything, of course. But they all knew. They had wanted it to last forever. Steve remembered it. Like someone else’s dream. Like being in a video game he was forced to play and couldn’t turn off. That desperate longing for a single point of warmth. The feel of beauty and serenity and safety whenever he looked at the snow. The strange way pain no longer seemed to bother him.

Only it had. It hurt just as much as ever when he tried to climb the tree in front of his house and fell and banged his shin on his dad’s car bumper. The bone struck frozen metal and reverberated in spasms of agony though his body. But somehow he just didn’t care. Like someone had a finger in his brain, pinching the neurons that let him feel any way about anything.

The day he opened his eyes in the morning and saw the first bud on the tree outside, the same moment the pain in his shin exploded anew through his nervous system, was the most glorious moment of his life. It was over. The slow freezing of the town of Okenville, inside and out, had ended. It was time to thaw. It was time to heal. He ran out into the street to see people staring at dripping icicles and blades of grass poking through dirty piles of melting snow. He kept waiting for someone to shout out with joy. To scream “it’s over! We’re free!”

But no one did.

That was almost two months ago. Spring exploded into Okenville with the ferocity of astarved tiger let loose into a room made of steaks that had insulted its mama. The sense that the craziness that had gripped the town was gone with the frost was everywhere. It was in the air, and no one could breath in without feeling it flow through their bloodstream.

But no one talked about it. No one talked about the cases of frostbite that had come about when suddenly the citizens of Oakenville forgot that wearing their clothing in layers is a prudent measure when the average temperature is 14 below. No one talked about the pillar of fire seen over Fallsdale woods. No one talked about Bagel and the other kids who had been found in the woods, looking like that. No one talked about Kristen Selka.

No one talked about Ed.

They almost did. He saw it, in the halted words. The look in people’s eyes. He had tried to bring it up himself half a dozen times. To his parents. Or his friends.

“Hey, I wonder what happened to Ed? Remember ol’ Ed? He was on the football team? Our good friend, Ed?”

Every time he was so sure that this time he’d be able to get the words out. Until he opened his mouth. Then he’d be gripped by a feeling. A certainty. That he shouldn’t talk about it. That he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. Because these events, these memories, they weren’t his. They didn’t belong to him.

And that soon, very soon, now, something was coming for them.

So he would close his mouth and go about his business. The feeling would haunt him for the rest of the day. He would fixate on it. Obsess over it. What was coming? How did he know that? Why did he keep seeing

feathers

a black figure, whenever he closed his eyes?

But then he would go sleep, and the next day the feeling wasn’t so strong. It was crazy, wasn’t it? Something coming to steal his memories. The more he thought about it, the sillier it seemed. He had imagined it. Made it up to justify being such a wimp about not being willing to talk about it. He’d tell himself that over and over, until he believed it. It was a lot more likely than

talons

any other explanation. A day after that he would decided that he was going to talk to someone. He had to get it out of his head. He had to get some god damned closure. It was eating him alive keeping all of this inside of him. Yes. He would talk about it. So he would find someone, confident that this time he’d be able to get the words out.

Until he opened his mouth.

As he stared at the marigolds on this utterly glorious spring day, it occurred to him that it was about time for the cycle to start again. Just about that time. But it wouldn’t. Not this time. Because today was the day.

“Steve, you coming?” said Ryan as Steve tried to get his head around this realization. “Or are you going to, you know, stare all day?”

“I need another minute,” said Steve. “You guys go ahead.”

Ryan nodded. “Alright. We’ll see you at school.”

Steve waved at him and the others, and continued to stare at the marigolds. He stayed right where he was as the voices of the guys faded into the distance.

Slowly, so slowly he barely noticed, Steve realized how important it was for him to keep his eyes fixed on these flowers. He had to keep his eyes fixed so firmly that he couldn’t see anything else. That he couldn’t hear anything else. That he couldn’t imagine anything else in the universe except the rich orange and yellow of the petals in front of him.

Because if he did that, then maybe he wouldn’t have to turn around. Maybe he wouldn’t have to face the thing that, right now, was getting closer. The thing that grew closer as Steve took one floral-scented breath after another. The thing that was getting nearer all the time. The thing that was right behind him.

“You have something that does not belong to you.”

Steve tried to scream. But he couldn’t move. The voice was scratchy and desperate, like a scream. And beautiful, like the song a rainbow would sing just before it faded.

Steve clenched his teeth, and slowly turned around.

The thing stared him in the eyes. It was a shade of black that made him realize he’d never seen black before. It was covered in feathers the way a bonfire is covered in pain. It perched on top of a Volkswagen. Its talons dug into the metal, but Steve knew they wouldn’t leave a mark.

“You have something that does not belong to you,” it said again.

It’s time, Steve realized. It was here to take his memories. It was time. Time to let all of this go. Time for the tumor of understanding to be excised from his exposed, pulsating brain. Everything would be normal, then. Normal and plain and only the tiniest part of him would know that willing frostbite and endless winter and fire-creatures lived a fraction of an inch to the left of where he was allowed to look. Was he terrified? Was he weak with relief? Did he want to laugh? Did he want to scream?

He didn’t know. But it didn’t matter. This was going to happen. It was far, far beyond his ability to stop it.

“I know,” he said.

The creature’s beak-mouth-thing twitched. As if it wanted to smile.

“Then I will begin,” it replied.

It was right in front of him, now. He hadn’t seen it move, but that didn’t change the face that the talon extended towards it. It would cut through his flesh and his mind and his soul. It would reach into the deepest part of him and scrape out what it wanted, and then he would be damaged and healed and harrowed.

Then it stopped.

Steve blinked. The talon was an inch from his eyeball, and it wasn’t moving. No, it was wriggling. As if fighting for movement.

“What is this?” said the creature.

“Step off,” said a voice. Low and calm and cold. “This one is not yours.”

“He is mine,” said the creature. “They are all mine.”

“No!” said the cold voice, more forcefully. “You and yours are forbidden from doing your work here. This town belongs to me. It is protected.”

“Mine!” the creature screeched.

Then it screamed as it flew black through the air and crashed into the Volkswagen. A figure stepped out from Steve’s left and glided towards the creature. It was the shape of a person, only carved out of quartz. It wore a cloak with a hood that Steve at first thought was covered in writhing, multicolored insects. He realized with a jolt that they were words. Moving, living words.

The figure smashed its fist into the creature, which screeched again.

“I have need for these people,” said the figure. “They stay awake. Now begone!”

The creature squawked, then leapt into the air and vanished.

The figure turned to face Steve, and he saw its face. His jaw dropped open. He tried to speak, but his teeth felt frozen together.

“I’m sorry,” said the figure. “That would have been easier for you. For all of you. But I’m going to have to ask you to stick it out. Just a little while longer.”

“Ed?” Steve managed to say.

The figure smiled. Then he turned, took a step, and was gone.

Steve stood there for a long minute. A minute turned into five, and five minutes turned into twenty before he could make himself move. He shook his head, and then his entire body.

He had to tell someone. Anyone. He had to tell them that…that what? He didn’t know. He didn’t care. He just had to find someone and tell them. And this time, this time he was sure it would work.

He turned and started to walk towards the school. Someone was there. Someone would listen. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the marigolds that had recently taken up so much of his attention. If he wasn’t mistaken, they didn’t look as vibrant as they had before. They looked like they were starting to wilt.

Steve shrugged. No big deal, he thought. This spring had gone on long enough already.

Cold, Part 10

Fire Angel

Connected

Ed glanced back at where Marisol stood, just behind him. “You should get out of here,” he said. He had to try. One last time.

“Not a goddamn chance,” she said without looking at him. Her gaze was fixed on the fiery form before them. Ed couldn’t tell if she was frightened. He had never been very good at that sort of thing.

“At least stay back, then,” he said. He walked forward without waiting for a reply. Forward towards the grinning fire. It lurched high above them. An enormous bonfire, reaching up to scorch the sky. The heat pressed against his flesh as he forced himself to march towards it. Its sweaty fingers clawed at his face.

“She didn’t know if you would come,” the fire-Kristen voice roared all around him. It oozed with delight, like rendered fat dripping into charcoal. “I told her you would find me, that you needed to find me. I wrapped my tongue around your soul. I could taste your need.” The voice laughed. As it spoke, Ed saw flicker’s of Kristen’s form coalesce among the flames. A single eye. The twist of a smile. The more she spoke the clearer it became. Was she forming a body among the fire, or was he merely learning to see?

“Yeah, I’m here,” said Ed. “Who is this ‘she’ you’re talking about?”

Two eyes formed in the fire and turn upwards, towards the sky. “She watches us. She has watched us for a long time. Even though it’s been some time since we deserved watching.”

“Okay,” said Ed.

“She woke me up,” said Kristen. “Just like I woke up the others.” She smiled. “She is much better than I was, as you saw. The fire was always there. I felt it, sometimes. It burned around the edges of my dreams. I would wake up on cold nights, sweating. The taste of cinders on my tongue. It was always there. For me it was fire. It could have burned me to ash. That’s why I stayed asleep. But she is a master. It was always there. But she awakened it.”

A gasp from behind him jolted him to the realization that Marisol was still there. He glanced back and saw her drawing shapes in the air with her finger, a puzzled look on her face. He wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing. But the fire called. He turned back to face it.

“So you did all of this for her?” he asked. “What does she want?”

“Oh Ed,” a hand reached out of the fire. He didn’t pull away. It tenderly stroked the side of his cheek. Just as it had done – as she had done – when her hands were still covered in skin. “She wants you, of course.”

“What’s so special about me?”

Kristen laughed. “Nothing at all! You’re not special. You’re the least special person there is. That’s why it found you. You are empty inside.”

Ed shook his head. This was getting nowhere.

“Fine,” he said. “Whatever. She can come find me if she wants. I’ll go with her. I don’t care. Just get out of this town. Make what you did to these people go away.”

Kristen laughed, and the fires surged. “What I did to them? And what do you think I did to them?”

“You…you made them follow you around. They became obsessed with you. They turned into zombies.”

You were following me around,” said Kristen with delight. “You were obsessed with me.”

Ed bit down on his lip. “You…they stopped wearing shoes. They got frostbite.”

“They stopped caring about the cold,” Kristen cackled. “Sound familiar?”

“No,” Ed whispered. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He didn’t want to believe it. Something Marisol said flashed into his mind. It’s like they’re all turning into you.

“No,” Ed said again.

Sparks burst out of the fire, tiny orange pinpricks of laughter.

“This town has been your shield, Ed,” said Kristen. “Your cloak and your armor. It hid you from her. From everything. You’ve been using them. You’ve always used them.”

“No!” Ed cried. “It didn’t…it all started when you got here. It was all fine, before that.”

“I started to thaw through your frozen hide,” Kristen said. “That’s why she chose me. That’s why I was sent. You were so cold, and I had fire. To melt your cold heart,” she giggled as she said this. “You couldn’t hide, anymore. Your passive shield would no longer work. You had to turn it up. Or rather, it had to turn it up.”

“It?”

“The final secret.”

The word tickled the inside Ed’s brain. He wanted to reach in and scratch it. To make it go away. Marcy had said that word, back in the woods. “The secret will be reunited.” And Ed knew what it meant. He didn’t want to. He didn’t understand it. But he knew. Somewhere inside of him, he had always known.

“So that’s what this is about,” he said.

“Of course,” said Kristen. “I thought I could make you give it to me. That I could coax it out of you. That I could light the fire of passion, then reach it and yank it out of the thawed places in your soul.”

“You could have,” said Ed, tasting the bitter truth in his mouth. “I would have given it to you, if I had known how.”

“Maybe,” said Kristen. “But it is too deep. You are too frozen. You cannot be thawed. Not by my natural fire. But I have new fire, now. She has given me a gift.”

White-hot arms reached out and grabbed Ed by the shoulders. The fingertips seared into his skin. And it hurt. For the first time in his life, Ed cried out in pain.

“Ed!” Marisol called out from behind him.

Ed tried to turn to face her, but the arms held him fast. They yanked him forward, closer to the conflagration. Kristen’s face congealed in the flames. It was exactly has he remembered it. Hard and alive and beautiful. She stared into his eyes, and her eyes were lit as much by madness as by fire. How had he not seen it before?

“You cannot be thawed,” she screamed, “but you can be melted!”

Ed’s arms were roughly yanked upwards as Kristen’s body rose along the pillar of fire. Higher, higher, into the sky. The ground shrank away. To tops of the skeletal trees rushed past them. The heat grew hotter. He felt it pound at him like fists slamming against his flesh. He felt it pour into his lungs with every breath. He felt it snake into his blood vessels, until every inch of him screamed.

He had no idea what to do. He came here to find her. To stop her, but what could he do against this? He would have panicked, but he didn’t know how to panic. He didn’t know how to freak out and retreat into the comfort of chaotic confusion. Even among the pain and the helplessness, his mind was a clear and passive observer. Just like it always was. All he had was the plain and simple awareness that he was about to die.

No, said something inside of him. You’re not.

He barely had time to puzzle what it might be when he heard something else.

“Ed!”

It came from behind him. And below. A tiny voice, nearly lost against the roar of the flames.

“Marisol,” he whispered.

“Ed! You have to get out of here!”

He laughed. “Not much chance of that,” he said, even though there was no chance she couldn’t hear him.

“Ed! I know why I’m here!” she called. “I’m coming to get you.”

Ed laughed again and closed his eyes. Coming to get him. That was a good one. She had always been funny.

“No!” the Kristen-fire called out. “Go away! He is mine!”

“No,” he heard Marisol say. “He isn’t.” She didn’t yell it out, this time. She didn’t need to. She was right behind him. And there was another sound. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought it sounded like…wings?

He craned his neck to look around.

“Hi Ed,” said Marisol, grinning. And there they were. Jutting out of her back was a set of wings, thirty feet across. Like cracks in the air, filled with color and light.

“Marisol,” he said. “Where did you get those?”

“I think I’ve always had them,” said Marisol. “Only I didn’t know, because I was asleep. Ed, I think…I think everyone has them.”

“Enough!” The bonfire flared, and heat tore into Ed’s exposed flesh. Inside him, right in the center of his chest, he felt something stir.

“You found your awakening,” Kristen called out, “but I an infused with the fire of exploding stars. You are nothing.”

“I am enough,” said Marisol.

The air in front of Ed split open, right where Kristen’s fire-arms connected to his shoulders. Where the cracks in the air formed, they filled with blue and green and purple light. Thick, viscous light, like neon fog. It split Kristen’s arms open, where her wrists met her hands. She screamed.

Suddenly Ed was free, and he fell towards the ground. He landed with a thud, sending mud and melted snow flying into the air. He landed on his legs, and the shock resonated through his body.

It hurt. But not very much.

He looked up. Even with everything he had seen, even with the burgeoning fact of what he was, and the fracturing of every assumption he had ever had about the universe, it was difficult to believe what he saw.

The pillar of fire that was Kristen had formed enormous arms. They swiped at Marisol, who beat her neon-fog wings and darted back and forth through the sky to avoid them. At the same time slashes opened inside the Kristen-fire. Liquid poured out of the open wounds like magma-blood. Ed stood there, paralyzed, and watched.

Then the air right in front of him started to crack. It formed shapes, in the same Technicolor neon as Marisol’s wings. Letters.

Run!

Ed didn’t want to run. He wanted to stay. He wanted to stay and fight. He wanted to help his best friend.

“No!” he called out. Letters formed again.

Run, you idiot! I’ve got this!

“No!” he called again.

But his body started to move. It started to turn in the other direction. Just like when he played football. Just like when he fought off Ryan Sutherland in the hall, or Arnaud and the others back in the woods. His body started to act without him. It turned. It hunched down to the ground. And it started to run.

“No!” he called to it. “We can’t do this!”

Please, said a voice in his head. It was soft, and strange. And familiar. He had heard it in his head before, but he had never recognized it. Please. Trust me. We have to go.

“But she’s our friend,” Ed cried out.

I know she is, said the secret voice.

“She’s going to die!” Ed cried as his legs carried him away from the heat and the light and the horror.

It is her choice. She is awake, now, and it is her choice.

Ed fought desperately to control his arms and his legs, but they resisted. His feet smacked into the half-thawed ground beneath him. He ran. The trees whirred past his vision. He felt the heat at his back, saw the light of the fire, and tiny flashes of smaller, different light. And he ran.

You will understand. One day, you will understand.

Tears streamed down Ed’s cheeks as they ran.

It was the first time he had ever cried.

Cold, Part 9

Fire!

Connected

 

It was easy to find her.

“Can’t you feel that?” Ed said to Marisol as she followed him through the woods.

“Other than the fact that it’s freezing out here, no. I can’t feel anything.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Ed. “It’s cold everywhere. Except that way.” He pointed deeper in the woods.

He could feel the cold all around him. It was wrapped around every inch of his town and his woods. Except for one spot. One spot that burned a hold though his awareness like a lit charcoal in the snow. That’s what he saw when he looked at Kristen. It’s what he had always seen. The only warmth that could penetrate his armor of ice.

Ed trudged forward. Marisol followed.

It was dark. The sky was nearly black and there was no moon. It had been months since Ed had seen the moon. Maybe Kristen and her friends really had bottled it. It didn’t matter. Ed had never needed light to walk through these woods.

He heard Marisol’s footsteps crunching through the frozen snow as they walked. Only her footsteps. His didn’t make a sound. He wondered if that had always happened, and he just didn’t notice. It didn’t matter. They kept walking.

“We’re nearly there,” said Ed some time later.

“Good,” said Marisol. Ed heard her teeth chattering. He realized she must be freezing.

“You should go back,” he said. “You’re going to freeze to death.”

“Nice try,” said Marisol, her numb tongue slurring her words. “You need me. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to get back from here anyway. I am thinking about hot chocolate, though. Hot, scalding, delicious chocolate.”

Ed smiled, but didn’t say anything. He kept walking, one silent step after another.

“Hello, Ed,” said a voice from ahead of them.

“Hello, Arnaud,” said Ed.

“I knew that bastard was still alive,” said Bagel’s voice from out of the darkness. “You owe me ten bucks.”

“I’m glad he’s still alive,” Ed heard Razor say. “That means we get to kill him. I wonder what his blood tastes like?”

“You don’t have to do this,” said Ed. “You can walk away.”

“No, Ed,” said Arnaud. “We really can’t.” Ed heard rustling from a nearby copse of trees, and Arnaud’s hulking form stepped out. The starlight was too dim for Ed to make out features, but he could see an outline. Enough to tell that whatever had happened to Arnaud had gotten worse. His chest and shoulders were lumpy and distended, like he was covered in tumors. And he was enormous. More shapes came out from the trees to join him.

“She woke us up,” said Bagel. “Kristen did. Do you have any idea what that feels like? How can we go back from that?”

“Woke us up…” Marisol said from behind Ed. He had forgotten she was there.

“Kristen can’t be disturbed right now,” said Arnaud. “It’s a delicate period. If you insist on coming forward, that means we have to kill you. There aint no other way.”

“Metalic, I bet,” said Razor. “And cold. Like chilled Sancerre.”

“Alright,” said Ed. “I guess we do this, then.”

“Damn right,” said Bagel. “Killing time!”

Marisol groaned. “Killing time? Seriously? You’re going with that?”

“What’s wrong with killing time? I thought it was good. Was it not good?”

Ed didn’t wait for bagel to finish. He stepped forward and got to work.

There wasn’t anyone to see how it went down, there in the lonely darkness. It occurred to Ed that it would probably have been something to see. Hiss body knew what to do, and he didn’t see much reason to get in its way. Huge fists smashed into him. Something wet and sharp that must have been Razor’s tongue cut along his neck and the inside of his thigh, looking for a vein. Looking to draw blood that wasn’t there. Tiny blades slashed into his arms and his chest and his face.

None of it hurt. None of it mattered. Then it was his turn.

It didn’t take long.

“Ed?” said Marisol after a few moments of silence.

“I’m here,” he said. “It’s done.”

“Are they…?”

“I don’t know,” said Ed. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go.”

They walked on. They were no longer in a part of the woods Ed recognized. It didn’t feel like his woods anymore. This was Kristen’s territory. Whatever the hell that meant. Her lackeys must have been guarding the entrance.

“It’s warmer,” said Marisol after a while. “A lot warmer.”

Ed nodded. “That means we’re getting close.”

“You’re closer than you think,” said a voice. “Hi, Ed!”

It wasn’t Kristen.

“Marcy?” said Marisol. “Is that you.”

“Yep!” said Marcy. “Hi, Marisol!”

She leapt out of a group of shrubs. Ed could see her eyes. They were huge. Bigger than the entire rest of her head. And her mouth was stretched all the way around behind her neck. He realized he could see her. It had gotten lighter. It didn’t look like sunlight. It looked like firelight. But he had no idea where it was coming from.

“What are you doing here?” said Marisol.

“I’m here to talk Ed out of doing what he’s about to do,” said Marcy.

“Your friends didn’t so that so well,” said Ed.

“Yeah,” said Marisol. “And there were a lot more of them.”

Marcy shook her head. Her eyes jiggled like they were full of jello. “I’m not here to fight you. I’m here to warn you. She’s going to kill you.”

Marisol laughed.

“She already tried that,” said Ed. He touched the knife hole in his jacket. “It didn’t stick.”

Marcy giggled. “Oh, she didn’t really think that wouldn’t work. That was just a sacrifice. Heartsblood. It still counts, even if, you know, you didn’t die. And there wasn’t any blood.”

Marcy stepped forward. She reached out and poked Ed in the nose. “She just need to borrow some power. And get in touch with the head honchos. They thought the fire would be enough. Apparently not. She knows what can kill you, now. She’s shaping it. Making a weapon, just for you. Don’t you feel lucky?”

“She’s stalling,” said Marisol.

“Huh?” said Ed.

“Don’t you see. She’s stalling for time. Kristen’s working on this weapon or whatever, and it isn’t done. Ed, we need to hurry!”

Ed’s eyes widened. He moved forward to push past Marcy. Marcy’s mouth opened, and kept opening. She started to laugh. A high, staccato sound that bounced sharply through the trees.

“You’re fucked, Ed!” She screeched as he and Marisol went past. “You were fucked from the moment your cold, dead seed was born into this broken and exhausted world! You fucked everyone you ever touched, and now the universe is fucking back!”

The voice cut into Ed’s mind, and he could see Marisol clutching at her ears. They moved faster. But they could still feel that voice, that laughter. It sliced into them like it was inches away.

“You’re all fucked! Isn’t that glorious? This will all be made right! The shattered secret will be whole!”

It was a long time until they could no longer feel the laughter. By the time it died away the scene around them looked very different. The snow was all melted, now. And the trees were all burned. Some of them were scorched trunks that still jutted into the sky, but many had been reduced to cinders. Ed saw Marisol take off her coat and drop it on the ground.

“I’m not going to need it,” she said.

Ed kept his on. He felt warm, but it had nothing to do with what he was wearing. Only one thing made him feel warm. And they were nearly upon it.

They saw it long before they got there. A bonfire. It looked nearby, but it was a trick of perspective. It was much, much larger than it looked. All of the bonfires of the world, burning as one. It lit up the sky, like a dying sun barely warming a lifeless planet somewhere in the dead reaches of space.

But it wasn’t a fire. Not really. Ed knew that long before they got close enough to make it out.

It was her. She was resting. Waiting for them. Whatever she had been preparing, it was finished.

“Hello, Ed.” It sounded like her, but also it didn’t. The human voice was a trickle amidst the roaring waterfall.

“Hi, Kristen,” he said.

“I can taste the cold of your skin,” she said. “And what lies within it. Are you ready to die?”

“No,” said Ed. “Not really.”

“Good.” He saw a tongue of flame dance inside the conflagration. Like a wicked smile. “Then let’s begin.”

Cold, Part 8

A snowy way

Connected

“So that’s what happened,” said Ed. “That’s why I wasn’t at school today.”

“And why you got stabbed,” said Marisol.

“Yeah,” said Ed. “And that.”

“You know,” Marisol said, taking a sip of soda to wash down her eighth taco, “I think that is the most you ever said to me. And I don’t mean in one sitting. I think you have just doubled the total number of words said in my presence.”

“Yeah,” said Ed. “Maybe.”

Marisol rolled her eyes.

“And you believe it?” said Ed. “All of it?”

“Of course I do,” said Marisol. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I dunno. A lot of it is pretty unbelievable, when you think about it. Like Kristen’s face. With the crystal fire or whatever. I mean, I could be making it up.”

Marisol smirked. “Ed, you are the worst liar I have ever met. The worst liar I’ve ever heard of. You lie worse than my little brother, and he’s still thinks I disappear when I cover my face with a napkin.”

“And you’re still not freaked out?” said Ed.

Marisol shook her head. “I know I should be. But it’s like none of this is really happening, you know? I mean, none of this. Like everything that happened since Kristen showed up is, like…”

“A dream?”

She shook her head again. “Like someone else’s dream. I’m borrowing it, like a book from the library. And someday, pretty soon, probably, I’m going to have to give it back. Does that make sense?”

“Not really,” said Ed.

“It’s kind of neat, actually,” said Marisol. “Like being in a movie. All this crazy shit is happening and none of it is real. No, that’s not it. It’s super real. Probably a hell of a lot more so than the usual crap that goes on. But it’s not real for us. We can just deal with it and then get back to normal. As soon as we leave the theater. Why? Are you freaked out.”

“No,” said Ed.

“Have you ever been freaked out?”

Ed thought about it for a second. “No.” It felt strange to say it out loud. To think it all.“I mean, I realize I must be different from other people. Because I got stabbed. And didn’t die. That must mean I’m different.”

Marisol laughed. “You’ve always been different.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Ed. “Like, I don’t feel pain. And my fingers can get cut off and stuck back on. But it never seemed weird, you know?”

Marisol nodded. “I know. You’re just Ed. It’s just how you are.”

“Yeah. So what’s up with that? Shouldn’t the men in black be coming for me, or something?”

“Do you want them to?”

Ed shrugged. Marisol laughed again.

“Fine,” she said. “I see what you’re saying. It’s not just that you’re weird. Really weird.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Ed.

Marisol smiled. “No problem! So it’s not just that you’re weird. It’s also weird that nobody really cares.”

Ed nodded.

“I feel like I’ve been avoiding this kind of thinking all my life,” said Ed. “Without even knowing why.”

“Yeah.”

They fell into silence. Marisol dipped a chip into the spicy salsa and ate it.

“Fine,” said Marisol. “So, what’s next? Aare you going to hit the library and look in the ‘crazy occult mystery’ section? Or go on a journey of self discovery into the mountains.”

“Maybe,” said Ed. “But not yet. I have something to do first.”

Marisol took another sip through her straw and raised her eyebrows.

Ed’s eyes hardened. It was the most dramatic expression she’d ever seen on his normally stoic face.

“I’m going to find Kristen,” he said. “And I am going to kill her.”

“I thought you were going to say that,” said Marisol. “And I’m going to help you.”

Ed’s eyes widened. “Marisol, this is dangerous. She’s some kind of hell demon, or something. She could kill you. Or worse.”

Marisol reached over and took Ed’s hand in hers. “Ed, I’m supposed to come with you. I know it. And besides, I’m living in someone else’s dream, remember? Nothing can happen to me. Not until they wake up.”

Ed nodded. Both of them stood up. Marisol left a small pile of money on the table. Then, together, they walked out of the taco shop, and into the snow-covered night.