Stranded World, for my Hurt/Comfort card.
Okay, this is 7500 words long, and it rambles in places. I may clean it up at some point, but right now, I’m just glad I found an end to it 🙂
Content warning for discussion of death, actual dead bodies, removal of free will.
There had been something wrong with the town from the moment she walked in.
Autumn had walked into any number of small towns in her years as a vagabond artist. Some of them looked sidelong at her wild hair, at her wild clothes, at her wild tattoos. Some of the tutted over her bare feet, her backpack, her sunburn (for she was often sunburned). Some of them welcomed her only when she made it clear she had money to spend.
Pattersonville, nobody seemed to notice. She walked into the diner — pausing to put on her shoes, first, because people had Opinions — ordered her breakfast-for-dinner that she preferred, and looked around. Nobody seemed to notice her. Nobody hassled her about her tattoos, or the henna patterns sneaking out of from under her hair and around her shoulders. Nobody said anything, except the waitress taking her order, and that, that might have been a recording. The woman was perky, cheerful, and had about as much humanity as the table did. The men at the bar, the family at the table next to hers — everyone had that fake feeling, like they were mannequins given only the semblance of life.
Autumn ate her food. Then she left the town, walking out the opposite way she’d come in, and kept walking until she’d passed the town limits sign, and then further, until she could no longer see the sign when she turned around.
It was early enough in the day. She found a copse of trees and settled into it, away from the sun and away from prying eyes. She drew a circle on the ground in salt-water and another one in walnut ink. The rain would wash them away eventually, but for the moment, she had the barest semblance of protection.
She drew four signs on herself in the same ink, on her shoulders where her sleeves would cover, on her sternum, between her breasts, and on the small of her back, because reaching between her shoulder blades was tricky and getting the sign right required a full-length mirror, which she didn’t have at hand.
And then she pulled out a much more washable dye and began writing on her wrists and ankles.
When she had all the symbols done, all the strands of the universe tied where she wanted them, Autumn stood. She lifted a foot and felt the way the magic tugged; twisted her arm and felt where it pulled. She raised both hands above her head and watched the strands of the town vibrate, ever so lightly, and then go still.
The town seemed protected against change. All right, she’d seen that before. Someone’s mother was on the edge of death or their child was growing up too fast, someone didn’t want to lose their job or didn’t want the highway to come through. People were afraid of change. If they were afraid of change and a strong enough Strand-weaver, sometimes they could hold it off for a little bit, still the sands of time and the gears of entropy.
Autumn picked a strand and began following it, walking carefully, feeling what the other strands were doing where she’d connected them to her. Outside the town limits, where she had set up shop, the tension was tangible but not overwhelming. But she could already see it got worse the closer it got to town.
Usually it was easy enough to nudge stuff back into line — you untwisted a few knots, found the right connections and loosened or tightened them, cleaned up the mess with some tissues and a little bit of back-patting, and the world started turning again in the little corner of the world the same as it did everywhere else. She unwrapped her strands from her limbs and kept moving, following the clear patterns in the lines. She didn’t want to tug too hard on something and get the wrong attention before she was ready.
If a problem like this wasn’t attended to quickly, it something like Autumn or her siblings didn’t come through and check on things, nudge the world back into order, though, things could either calcify — one small part of town going through the same day over and over and over again — or they could spiral out of control. Her mother had a story of The Year That Missed Pennsylvania that, when they were kids, had given all four of them shivers.
That was probably what she had here: something that had gotten a little out of control. At the center, she’d probably find a mother with her son or a son with his dying father or some heart-broken teenager trying to keep the prom from going wrong. She could comfort them, find them counselling, and help the world move on, or call in the bigger guns if she had to, and let her mother help her do all those things.
First, she had to find the knot.
She stepped over the town line and felt a plucking, this time, where she hadn’t before. She was going to go to the diner. She was going to order a piece of pie, and complain about the weather.
Autumn studied the plucking, the lines trying to wrap around her, and she let them take her where they wanted to, for the moment. Back to the diner. Back to the pie. She let the words come to her lips, even though the day outside was mellow and not particularly strange. “Heck of a day out there, isn’t it? Do you get that sort of weather around here often?”
She kept her eyes on her wrists, where the marks she had made were keeping the strands from doing what they wanted to. When the waitress answered her banal question with an equally bland answer, Autumn let her Strand-sight slip over the woman’s wrists, and saw that the strands had slipped inside her, as if they were marionette strings, pulling her this way and that. Another one stretched from her neck upwards; the man at the counter had the same strands going the same direction; the child playing at the pinball machine, too. They were all being pulled, not just frozen in time but puppeted.
Autumn managed to look the waitress in the eyes, although the woman seemed to be avoiding it; there was pain there, and the edges of panic, in the way the woman tracked her, in the way that she touched Autumn’s arm, just a friendly pat, except she brushed against the marks Autumn had painted on herself. She wasn’t trying to wipe the marks off; she was trying to feel them, Autumn thought, trying to feel what was different about them.
She let the conversation flow out of her mouth, let her lips ask the waitress where she could stay, let the waitress suggest someplace out on the edge of town, and noticed the way the waitress’ eyes tightened and her head shook, just the slightest bit, just the faintest negation. She ate the pie, complimented the chef on something that was, she had to admit, quite nice, and went strolling down the street towards the Bed-and-breakfast that had been recommended.
The B&B was layered in malevolent energy, sludge-green lines and puss-yellow, a sad sort of rust-red and strands that didn’t so much have a color as a stink. It smelled so much like rotten meat that Autumn had to turn off her Strand-sight for a moment in order to breathe.
And the smell was still there. It wasn’t nearly as bad, but there was definitely a real-world charnel order coming from the back of the B&B.
That… did not seem like anywhere Autumn wanted to be. And yet she was here, and she was a strand-worker, and that meant that it was in her purview and responsibility to deal with the problem. She checked her cell – no reception, of course. So she headed to the post office.
The nice man behind the counter seemed far less tangled up than the waitress, but in looking at the pattern of his life, Autumn could see why. When his routine barely varied from day to day, there was far less reason to tie him up in a pattern.
She bought a postcard showing scenic downtown Pattersonville, scribbled a friendly message to her mother, and dropped it in the mail. It wasn’t much – it was hardly anything. But if she got trapped, it might bring someone here before it was too late, and if she was killed, it might bring someone here to fix the problem.
She sent three more postcards, all of them friendly, and chatted up the postmaster for a couple minutes – talking about the weather, about the lovely town hall in the center of town, asking him what she should see while she was in the area.
He told her about local attractions, seeming glad to have someone to talk to. Near the end of a rambling verbal tour — far more extensive than a town consisting of a main street, a creek, and three side streets really needed – he mentioned, a little reluctantly — “now, if you’re not one of those wild kids, you might want to go take a peek at the Yarrow Manor up on the hill. Don’t go past the wall, mind you – the police patrol the place, and you don’t want to get caught up there. The place isn’t safe anymore, but it’s beautiful, and it was the jewel of the town, back when I was a boy.”
That sounded promising. She thanked him, chatted about the lovely creek and how she’d heard there was a waterfall up the ways, and suggested she might go wading, since the day was warm. Then she headed for the back of the B&B.
The stink seemed worse this time, and the closer she got, the worse it was. The dumpster in the back had flies all around it, and a twist of the worst Strand-knotting she had ever seen. Someone was trying to – what? Hold something together with strands?
No, this whole city was held together with strands. But in the dumpster… Autumn folded her drew a quick design on the off-side of her scarf with a berry ink she kept in a hip pouch, and then folded it over her nose and mouth. That ought to protect her from the worst of the stench and any creeping Strands.
And there were creeping Strands everywhere. The air was thick with them, worse and worse the closer she got to the B&B. She’d been expecting the locus to be up at the Yarrow Manor, but this place… she wasn’t sure exactly what was going on here, but Autumn was pretty certain it was awful.
She slipped on a pair of latex gloves from her hip pouch and opened the dumpster.
Even through the scarf, the stench was awful. And inside — at first, she saw nothing to explain the smell, at least not in the solid world. The dumpster was full of luggage – suitcases and backpacks, duffel bags and even one trunk. The Strands around the luggage were sluggish, rotten and sad. The luggage itself looked like it dated back years, if not decades.
Half-buried under a battered Samsonite, a bony hand – almost all skeleton at this point, nothing but a few whips of flesh – seemed to wave at her. And down a ways, she saw a head, most of the hair still attached.
Autumn swallowed and managed, just barely, not to vomit. This was — well, there wasn’t a word for it. There weren’t even paragraphs for it.
She got herself straightened up and wandered around the front of the B&B. She didn’t know what she was going to see. She didn’t know what she was going to do. But she had to do something. Anything.
The Bed and Breakfast was a giant building, the sort of house that had been built on to over the years. The front door was wide and cracked open, the smell of incense and potpourri wafting from inside. Autumn called out a “Hello!” as she stepped inside. She might as well keep pretending as long as she was able to.
When the boy walked out of the back room, she lost all ability to pretend. He was skinny – not emaciated, but close, worn-out looking despite features that suggested he wasn’t past his teens. He was wearing a smile that looked stapled on. His clothing was clean, but that was about all she could say for it. It was as worn-out as he was, the elbows and knees gone, the collar and cuffs frayed. Was he another puppet? If so, why did he look so tired and worn-out?
“Hi.” His perky voice was as fake as his smile. “How can we help you? I’ve got three rooms ready, if you’re looking for a room, but if you want directions, I can tell you where the highway is, too.”
He looked hopeful. Like he could send her to the highway and be very happy about it. Autumn smiled back at him while shifting her sight into the Strands.
She barely managed to hold back her nausea. He wasn’t a puppet – and yet, he was. Strands around him ran everywhere, strands from his fingers, strands from his mind. And they were going outward, pointing towards the rest of the village. He was controlling them all. He was puppeting everything…
…and the strands tied around his wrists, his throat, his ankles were tighter than anywhere else.
“”Oh,” Autumn managed to lie, “I was just looking for a place to rest my feet, and hoping I could get a little of that breakfast without the bed part? I mean, I’ve been camping, but I’m sick of eating my own cooking, if you know what I mean?”
“We have a dining room right through here, and I can whip you up something.” His smile looked a little more natural now, but his eyes still looked panicked. “Eggs all right? And some toast, and we have some fresh jam.”
“That sounds lovely. Thank you.” She followed him into the dining room. It was sparkling clean, but it looked like it had last been decorated in 1950. She could see the kitchen through an open door, and she could see the way the strands pulling on the boy led upstairs. Not into the kitchen. Not anywhere on the first floor. And yet… yet the boy was still watching his words carefully. So either they were as scripted as everything else in this town, or he was being listened to.
She checked the chairs with strand- and normal sight before sitting down. The chair was safe, un-booby-trapped, as far as she could tell, but the lines of the sludgy stinking strands were all over the floor. She’d never seen anything like this, never…
She swallowed bile. “You get many visitors here? It’s a bit off the beaten path and all.”
“Oh, we get a few coming through,” he called from the kitchen. Autumn’s chosen seat let her see him, and she saw the way the question made him flinch. “Was a while there, we thought the town was just going to wither up and die, but tourism keeps it going, you know. Still here, still kicking.”
His voice was casual, way too casual. Autumn considered his words. “You don’t look old enough to be all that worried about things like that. Not thinking about college, about someplace to move out to after here?”
“No ma’am, not me. I’m going to be here until I did. I’m a good hometown boy.” His posture went stiff for a moment, and she watched as he pulled on a few strings, tugging things back into place. “I like it here. Me and my Uncle George, we keep this place going and we keep this town alive.”
Was that a slip, or had he meant to tell her that. “Your uncle George? He around?”
“He can’t get out much anymore. We take a walk downtown every day, though these days it’s mostly a roll.”
“Wheelchair?” she checked. It was the safe assumption, and yet, with this town, safe assumptions seemed anything but.
“Oh, yeah. He had a bad injury a few years back. Maybe ten years, now. Since then, he spends most of his time here. I think it makes him sad, but the town, it’s still here, so the Bee-and-Bee is still here, and so that’s good. Here, scrambled eggs with cheese and toast with homemade jam. Mrs. Porter makes the jam. She’s been making the same jam every year for fifty years.”
And, from the sounds of it, if Uncle George had his way, she’d keep making it when she was skeletal. Thinking of bodies in the dumpster, Autumn stared at the food, letting her strand-sight weave into it.
It looked like food. Like tasty food, if a little plain. “It looks delicious. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, miss. I hope you don’t mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.” He had his own plate of food. Was he trying to reassure her that her food wasn’t poisoned? Did he knew she knew about the bodies?
Did his Uncle George know what she was? Did he?
“I didn’t catch your name, I’m sorry.” She smiled at him brightly while he sat down, the smile she used on Ren Faire tourists and truckers her Strand-sight told her were safe enough to flirt with.
“Oh. Uh. I’m George, too, after my uncle. We weren’t supposed to stay here, my mom and me, but then, well, I guess she got a little stuck?” His look was beyond pleading. He had to know. And he had to know his uncle didn’t know. “If we’d gone on, there wouldn’t’ve been the confusion, George and George. Mostly everyone calls me junior. Or Ged.” He didn’t seem to respond to the smile, or the way the deep breath made her cleavage show. He didn’t seem to have the energy to notice anything of the sort.
Stuck. “So, you and your mom got stuck here?”
“Yeah. Uh. Mom got stuck here, so I got stuck here. When Uncle George started getting sick. And then…” He fell quiet, and the picked up a different sentence as if he hadn’t stopped the first. “But the town is looking good, isn’t it?”
“It’s adorable,” Autumn admitted. “The sort of place that tourists love. And me.”
“You’re not a tourist?”
“Oh, I’m a wanderer. So, by the most ancient definition, yes. ‘One who makes a tour, stopping here and there.'”
“Oh.” He looked as if he couldn’t tell if this was a better or worse thing and, considering what she was beginning to see of this town, Autumn didn’t blame him.
“Tell me,” she said, her tone still very casual, “your uncle George, he likes thing the way they always were, doesn’t he?”
“Oh, yes. He’s a great fan of tradition, Uncle George. He didn’t even like it when they repainted the old church, downtown. He liked things just the way they were when he was a boy.”
“A lot of older people are that way. They don’t like change.” She studied the way the strands pulled on Ged, the way they had slid all the way into him, up his veins and arteries. Pulling him loose would hurt him. It might kill him. And only the Strands themselves knew what would happen to Uncle George.
Some part of her didn’t care. Some part of her wanted Uncle George dead and gone as painfully as possible.
The rest of her reminded that part that the darker you worked your Strands, the darker the Strands around you became.
“That’s Uncle George all right.” Ged laughed weakly. “Doesn’t like change, not one bit. So, you’re not staying the night? We’ve got a nice room, call it the Presidential Suite.”
I bet you do. “Oh, no, I like camping when the weather’s nice — and I’m not worried about the cops picking me up for vagrancy. I figure I’ll wander around a bit, get a feel for the place, and then tour on, like I do.”
“Sounds like a nice life. A little un-rooted…”
“Oh, my roots are very deep. They’re just quite a ways away.” She smiled brightly at him. “I have to call my mother every Friday, or she calls her friends and they call their friends, and before I know it, truckers and Hells Angels and Dead-heads and missionaries are all out looking for me.” That was, surprisingly, the truth, which just made her exasperated expression that much more honest. “Family can be like that, you know.” If only she had Spring here. Spring could do something with those lines.
“Family.” He sighed woefully. “Yeah, family can be like that.” There was a strand he kept trying to ignore, a strand that his own puppet-strings wouldn’t let him release. She reached out, used her napkin to catch some imaginary dust, and brushed her fingers over the strand.
She could see it, the way the strand ran straight to the waitress in the diner, and she understood the last piece of the puzzle. And yet… something wasn’t quite right. One piece was out of place.
“You know, a couple people mentioned Yarrow Manor to me, and I’m not sure why. Is there something interesting up that way?”
“Yarrow? Oh, yeah, the old Trees place. It’s, uh. My grandparents used to own the place, but nobody’s lived there since…” he trailed off, frowning. “Nobody’s lived there since…”
All of his puppet strings were suddenly tight. Autumn winced.
“Sorry to ask about something difficult. Well, thanks for the nice breakfast, but I’m gonna have to get going if I want to find a good camping place by dark. Lovely town you’ve got here.”
“Thank you. We work hard at it.”
I bet you do. Autumns strolled out of there, the last of Ged’s gentle attempts at puppeting trailing off of her. She had to go to Yarrow Manor, and they had to know she was going to. They killed people – which people, she wasn’t sure. She wondered if it had to do with the presidential suite, or with asking too many questions. Maybe it had to do with not accepting the nice story they were spinning.
Almost any way you looked at it, Autumn was an unfortunately-good candidate for ending up in a dumpster, and she did not want that to be her fate. Sure, the rest of the family would come after her, they’d fix the problem with the town – with Mom and all three of her siblings here, there was no way they couldn’t fix this town – but Autumn, herself, would be so much henna and red hair in the dumpster, and that did not sound like the way she wanted to go out.
She left town, watching the way the strands finally stopped reaching out for her, and sat down with a pot of ink. If she was going to do this and survive, she was going to have to become invisible. That meant doing a few things that were in questionable Strand-Working practice but, then again, puppet-mastering someone to puppet-master an entire town was definitely on the far end of questionable Strand-Working practice,
She painted her entire body with small and large designs, closed-eyes and family trees with no branches, hands with nobody to clasp them and backs turned to everyone. She painted every part of her body that she could reach with designs suggesting that she’d never connected to anyone for more than a minute, and that she never would connect with anyone for any length of time. Cut off, the designs said, and do not touch. The designs suggested the mien of someone who you didn’t want to try to get near, who alienated everyone they spoke to for more than a minute.
Autumn wasn’t a severer; hers wasn’t the forbidden skill of removing Strands connecting people. But she knew that what she was doing could have a similar effect, if she let it go too long: play the part of the antisocial misanthrope for more than a few hours, and your Strands started to respond in kind.
She had spent far too long building up her web of connections to allow that; she had been born into far too tight-knit a family to want it. So she’d just have to be done fast, and washed of the paint fast, and pulled back into her own Strands very quickly.
But in the meantime, this pattern ought to protect her as much as it isolated her — byisolating her. It should keep her safe from prying strand-working and brush off any attempts at tying her up in puppet-Strands.
Should. Hopefully. Ought to. Se was betting her life and her free will on some thin words. If she got this too far wrong, there would be no help of rescue, because her drawings would have sealed her off from her family.
She steeled herself, straightened her back, and took a roundabout walk back into the city, up to Yarrow Manor.
The cop was easy enough to avoid. He was napping in his car, the strands tied to him dormant, limp. The fence was trapped on both sides with nasty little strand-traps and trip-wires, but those were easy enough to avoid with Strand-sight.
The pits on the far side of the fence, those were a bit trickier to avoid. Autumn managed to vault over them, avoid the last Strand-trap, and avoid three more little physical traps hidden in the weeds.
Nobody maintained the Yarrow Manor, it seemed. In a town where everything was so spic-an-span as to be TV-perfect, it stood out.
There was a smell coming from the manor. It wasn’t as bad as the dumpster behind the B&B, but it had notes of the same charnel stench. Autumn tied her scarf over her nose and mouth again and picked her way through the grasses.
Dried blood – old blood, just a few bits left – marred the front step. The door handle, too, had three dried-blood fingerprints on it.
This place couldn’t seem more ominous, and yet it Autumn’s heart was starting to pound in her throat. Her markings wouldn’t save her from a physical attack. They might shield her from the vision of a would-be assailant, but not if they were intent on getting her.
She slipped on a glove and opened the door carefully. It wasn’t locked. Why lock it, she supposed, when everyone in the town was under your sway?
…except someone had lost blood here. Someone had been hurt here.
She pushed the door open carefully, standing out behind it until it had swung fully open. Nothing dropped into the intervening space, nothing shot across the hall. She slipped very carefully inside and closed the door just as carefully behind her.
The stench was here, the Strands all old and swollen and rotten. Something lived here. Something… no, something existed here, rotting and pulping and existing. Autumn made herself look at the thick, slimy Strands.
She had seen Strands like that, first when she was young and then once or twice when she was on her own. Her mother had taken her and Winter to show them, the way that a connection, something meant to be healthy and grounding, safe and comforting, could turn rotten and old and painful and damaging. She’d made sure they’d seen the lines, and then she’d let them watch while she soothed the inflammation and smoothed out the line until it became, as she said, “the sort of connection you could walk away from.”
That was the thing about connections, one of the hardest things to learn. All of these links, all of these ties, they made up the world, they bound everything together and held, if you wanted to be particularly dramatic, the earth in its orbit. But they were organic things, and like all organic things, they had a natural time to end.
The strands here had nothing of nature about them anymore. Autumn drew a clean-breath diagram on the scarf over her face and followed the lines, careful not to brush them at all. She might be invisible to the strands, but that was no reason to tempt fate.
“The place isn’t safe anymore, but it’s beautiful, and it was the jewel of the town, back when I was a boy,” the postmaster had told her. She could see how it had been, in the lines and the expensive wallpaper, the thick carpet and the fancy light fixtures. She could also see how it wasn’t safe anymore.
She traced the lines upstairs, moving more and more slowly as they got thicker and thicker. They were bonds of stasis, tightly braided but rotting, sloughing away like dead flesh but still stuck where they were.
Some relationships died. Autumn felt for a moment at the place in her heart where her last love story had taken place. There were strands there. There might be strands there for a long time, the tenuous connections of memory, the wispy little what-ifs and but-whys. Some relationships didn’t last, and when they didn’t, the strands slowly slipped away.
But some people could tie the Strands so tightly that they couldn’t do what they were supposed to, couldn’t thin, couldn’t break off, couldn’t fade away. She saw Strands of guilt and remorse, regret and anger tied up with what looked like family lines, love lines.
Even through her scarf, even through the inks marked there, the stench was getting through to her. Autumn had a feeling it wasn’t entirely of the Strands, and she braced herself.
”My grandparents used to own the place, but nobody’s lived there since… Nobody’s lived there since…”
Uncle George didn’t like change. He didn’t want the town to fade away. And maybe he didn’t want his parents gone, either. She slipped carefully around the Strands and made her way to the second floor.
It had to have been at least a while. What had Ged said? ”We weren’t supposed to stay here, my mom and me, but then, well, I guess she got a little stuck?” That had to have been years ago, when they got “stuck.”
The Strands were a map, leading down the second-floor hall. Autumn followed them carefully, watching the floor, watching the walls. Her heart was pounding. Her hands were twitching. She had never been this near this many malignant Strands before.
The smell permeated the upstairs. The Strands must be a trap, holding or sending away people in who got too close. There was no other way something like this could have gone unnoticed for any length of time.
Autumn followed it, though every nerve in her body was telling her not go any further. She followed the stink and the fat, bloated Strands into the master bedroom.
She was not as surprised as she should have been, to see the bodies on the bed. They had desiccated, till nothing was left but leathery skin and bones, brittle hair and stiff clothing, but the stink remained. And every Strand in the place knotted around them. The left one had been hit with something big and hard in the head; the right one showed no real trauma.
She took a step backwards. She had to unravel from here. She had to. She wasn’t sure if she could.
Something large and hard hit her in the back of the head.
Autumn woke suddenly and hard from a dream that she was Frodo being wrapped up by Shelob and, improbably, her wildest sister Spring was her Sam, trying to wake her up.
“You’ve got to wake up, Miss Autumn.” That wasn’t Spring at all, that was Geb, his voice miserably. “I don’t know how you did it but you’ve got to wake up. He can’t hear you, he can’t hear me this close to you, but he can still see what I’m doing.”
Autumn opened her eyes. Ged was trying to wrap what looked like invisible ropes around – no. She blinked and activated her Strand-sight. He was continuing to pull Strands around her, even though they kept falling off.
“How long was I out?” That was the important first question.
“Half an hour. Half an hour, I’m sorry. This place it – I never knew – I think you panicked him. He felt something and he sent me here running. And I can’t, I can’t…”
“It’s all right.” She held her hands to her head. “We have to move fast. I have to move fast, and you have to hold him off, all right?”
“I can’t fight him. If I could fight him – well, I can’t. I’ve tried.”
“Can you just keep doing what you’re doing? As long as – well, I can keep this up for maybe ten more minutes. So I have to move very fast.”
“He’ll figure out it’s not working eventually.” Ged’s hands kept moving, reaching for Strands, looping them around Autumn’s ankles, trying again as those Strands slipped off.
“Well, then, I’ll have to work very quickly.” She stayed where she was, although it wasn’t all that comfortable, and pulled a marker out of her pocket. “Sorry, but I’m going to write on the floor here.”
“Nobody’s ever going to live here again anyway.” Ged smiled crookedly, an expression that seemed to have volumes of stories behind it. “It should burn, you know. But this whole town should burn. What did you do, anyway? I can’t get a Strand to hook on you.”
“If we both survive this, I’ll tell you. Survive intact and with our own free will, I mean.” She started drawing a design on the floor.
Floors and markers were not the best canvases for such things: Autumn worked on skin, and she worked with ink. But there was a story to tell, and it had begun here, on this
floor, so she did her best to ignore the stink, the empty feeling in her gut, the panic that wanted to rise up and devour her, and the pounding in her head, and she drew.
She drew a town that time forgot. She drew the way the diner would have been: shuttered, closed for business many years ago. The people, dust on the wind. Towns did, sometimes, die. It was sad, and it required grieving, but then new things sprang up in their place.
She drew a flea market and a farm stand, a few new houses with young families. She drew this house, allowed to fall away, and something new in its place.
“This is the story that was, and the one that was supposed to be. The town was dying, and your grandparents died. These things are sad, but they are part of life,” she told Ged, who was looking more and more stressed, his movements more and more jerky. “But your uncle found you, and he couldn’t control many people at once, no, but he could control you. And you…”
“I can control anyone but him.” His voice was a croak. “And you.”
“I’ve got a lot of practice not being controlled.” She added a few more lines to the drawing. “Okay, and…” Autumn took several deep, measured breaths, just as Geb yanked hard on her ankle. “Ah! Ow!”
“He’s… hurry… figured… oh no…” He began holding her closer and closer, yanking her away from the ink she had lain into the floor.
Autumn slapped a hand down on the floor, on the ink, hard as she could, throwing every bit of energy into it that she had. She shoved her power into it, reaching for all the Strands that had been kept past their time and all the bonds that had been made where the pattern of the world said there weren’t supposed to be bonds.
Love potions weren’t going to work within a fifty-mile radius for years, but that was so tangential she couldn’t bring herself to care. Autumn slumped down onto the hard, stinking floor as her magic flowed out into her pattern.
What Autumn did, on an ordinary day, was reinforce connections, find patterns, help people figure out what their connections met. She drew lines a little darker, highlighted them, that was all.
But sometimes Strands had lived past their healthy life, and some times people needed a little help getting untangled from something that was hurting them. Sometimes you needed to tell a Strand it was time to let go, because the person or people holding on to it couldn’t. Sometimes you needed to help someone disappear, because connections were not inherently benevolent.
Autumn had just done that to an entire town. And then, because she believed in completeness, she sat up and drew on Ged’s forehead.
He tried to bat her away, but his heart wasn’t in it. So much of the energy in all those Strands had been his; he was staring blankly, barely seeing her. Hopefully not seeing the ruins of his grandparents.
She drew a sign for independence, a lone sprout. And then on his hands she drew a fresh spring leaf and an old autumn leaf: all things turn. “Let go slowly, if you can,” she murmured, not knowing if he would hear her. “I’ve got to do some clean-up.”
She drew a broom on her arm and whisked the swollen, rotten strands out of her way as she walked. They were fading, losing their connections, ready to go back into the cycle, but she needed to be sure. She brushed them all into a pile in the back-yard, and thought fiery thoughts at them until the pile shriveled into ash.
The sink still ran in the kitchen, so she washed her arms of the signs making her invisible. Tried to. One of them would not go away, no matter how much soap she used.
Ged found her there, scrubbing at it with the heavy lava soap normally used for grease and slime. He took the soap away from her and washed her arms lightly with a soft rag.
“The marks are gone. I don’t know how your process works, but if the Strands aren’t working right, you’ll have to give them time. And maybe get out of here.” He ran a hand through the air. “It’s got to be hard for things to change here, even after everything you did.”
“If nobody interferes, things will slowly go back to normal.” Autumn took a breath and forced her eyes away from the marks that weren’t on her arms and yet were. “The question is, how do you keep your uncle from making you interfere?”
“You broke the Strands he had holding me, see?” He held out his arms. They were free of Strands in both directions, nothing but one family-line heading towards down-town. “And… I might have hated what he had me doing, but, you know, it made me a long stronger. I don’t think he can get a hook into me again.”
“The people that are here…”
“Some of them were here already. Some of them were tourists – well, not really tourists. Travelers, like you. They came through and I – well, I found them a place in the story.”
“You know the town will fade away now.”
“I’d be happier if I could burn it down.” He shook his arms, as if trying to get rid of the feeling of puppet strings. “I’d be happier if I could burn him down.”
Autumn’s mind went to the bodies in the dumpster. “If everyone is going back to normal-”
“Some of them will remember me. And they’re going to remember what I did. And… nobody’s going to understand that Uncle George made me do it.”
“Come with me.” As split-second decisions went, it was probably not her best one, but she couldn’t leave him here.
He blinked at her. “What?”
“I can find you…” She ran her hands over her arms. She could still feel the places where the connections weren’t quite right. “… I can find you a place to start over. Some place away from all this.” Some place she could keep an eye on him, or delegate someone else to do it, to make sure the habits his uncle had forced on him hadn’t grown on Ged.
“I… No.” He shook his head. “It’s very kind of you, but my mother’s here, and the people, if they let me, they’re going to need help getting back to their lives. And Uncle George. Someone has to deal with him. To…” he swallowed. “… to deal with him.”
Autumn let that lie. He’d have to work through that on his own.
“All right then.” She could stop in here, in a year or two, see how he was doing. She could ask Winter to take a trip through to smooth things over, if need be. “Take care of yourself.”
It was kind of fruitless, she knew. There was an entire town of people who were going to know something was wrong, and they were going to be looking for someone to blame. The chance they would blame Uncle George and not Geb was pretty thin.
She could do what she could on the way out. “I’ll check on everyone, see how they’re taking the release. Then I’ll be on my way.”
Geb smiled crookedly. “Hurry,” he joked weakly. “I might change my mind.”
“You’re stronger than that.” She patted his shoulder, hoping she wasn’t lying to him. Hoping he wasn’t lying to her, too. Maybe she should make him go with her…
No. This might be the first decision he’d ever gotten to make on his own. She wasn’t going to deny him that. People got to weave their own patterns, they had to. Not just because it was right, but because when Strand-Workers started messing with people’s decisions, you ended up with places like this town, and when non-Strand-Workers did it, you ended up, at best, charismatic dictatorships.
She left Yarrow Manor and hoped she would not ever have to see it again.
The town was a mess. Some people were shouting. Some were dazed. A few had passed out. In the middle of it all, a waitress was writing down information at the diner counter.
“Mm-hrrm, and what do you remember? Okay, Kentucky. That’s a long way away from here, I’m afraid. We’ll see what we can do, though.”
“How am I going to explain this?” The man at the counter was distraught. “My wife is going to think that I just up and left, and that was fifteen years ago. My whole life, it’s gone.”
“Amnesia,” Autumn offered. “It happens, you know. Someone wakes up one morning and poof, their memories are gone. They come back and there you go, they’ve got ‘em all back.”
“The papers are going to have a field day with this.” A weedy-looking woman was taking off her diner hat and apron — not the waitress, this one looked like she’d been the cook. “An entire town found of amnesiacs.”
“Maybe it was something in the water?” She was going to have to leave soon, before they realized she wasn’t part of their group, before they started to blame her. “I’ve heard the water can do that, sometimes.”
Maybe there was a police force nearby with a Strand-worker on staff. Sometimes you got one, and sometimes they were good at understanding and coming up with mundane explanations. Better was one on the CSI unit, if they had one.
Autumn was not good at pulling those sorts of strings, but she could make a couple calls, find someone who could. “Maybe,” she offered, “it was some sort of elaborate kidnapping? Roofies in the drinking water?”
The waitress gave her a steady, considering look. Autumn looked right back at her, seeing the resemblance to Ged in the eyes and the nose shape. If her brother and son could work the Strands…
“Sure,” the waitress said slowly. “Roofies. That’s a good explanation.”
“Thanks for the pie and everything.” Autumn held the waitress’ gaze. “I’m sorry for all your trouble.”
“I’m just glad it’s over.” The waitress nodded briefly. “Have you seen my – my son? Or my brother? They work up at the Bed and Breakfast.”
“Ged said he’d be coming by soon. As for me, I’d best be going. I’ve got a long way to go before the sun sets.”
“I imagine you do. Good luck on your travels, then, stranger.”
“And good luck on yours. I imagine now’s a good time to get out of town.”
“Once everyone’s on their way.” The waitress wiped her hands on her apron. “Yeah. Once everyone’s on their way, Ged and I, maybe we’ll take off. Let the town fold up behind us.”
“You do that.” Autumn shifted her backpack on her shoulders and nodded in salute at the woman. “I’ll just make sure the road’s clear for you.”
She waited until she was out of town to pull out her phone and dial home. She waited until she heard her mother’s voice on the other end of the line to start crying.
“Mom? I cleaned up a mess, but I got a little dirty in the process. I’m gonna need some help…”
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