Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings, for that matter. Walk down a hallway, end up in a ballroom, double glass doors to a subway station, third exit on the left goes to the inside of the outside. What exactly that means is something best left for philosophers to ponder, unless you’re unfortunate enough to end up there.
There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it—we’ve got streets which lead to dead ends, roads which criss-cross and loop back around, highways which go nowhere. Literally nowhere, as in "anybody going down that road is not coming back." This is not a good place to wander off unless you like wandering off forever…
Nobody knows where the city came from. Nobody knows how we got here. Nobody knows why any of this is happening. But it’s happening. The city exists. We are here now. It’s growing every day, and bringing new people with it.
We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar.
If we’re going to survive this, if we’re going to stay alive and thrive, we need to learn to live in the City of Angles.
…here’s an angle to consider…
In our twilight moments, there is the near-death experience. The veil between this world and the next lifts. We can see through to the other side, able to reach out but not quite touch the truth that can exist only for those who pass on. Either that, or dying simply chokes oxygen to the brain and you hallucinate some very odd things before oblivion awaits. There’s no way to know for sure, since true confirmation lies at the end of a one-way trip.
Those who seek meaning only at the end of life run the risk of having no meaning during the course of their lives. Obsessing over death and what lies beyond means missing out on the days you rush headlong through, assuming that there must be something better than this, ignoring all that IS in favor of all that COULD be. Better to live through your days, living them to the fullest with clear and lucid eyes. Embracing the hereafter can happen when it happens; no sense rushing it.
This is particularly true in the City of Angles. To many, the days you live through are the only days you’ll ever have—you are at best an echo of a real person and at worst a purely imaginary friend, for whom death snuffs out the light for good. (Assuming there was any light there to begin with, of course.) Burning through your days with intensity makes sense for someone with no being, no soul. "Why not?" says the advocate of oblivion. Why not burn your life away? What other good is that commodity, when there is nothing more beyond this single dream of a life?
There are no easy answers, just as there are no clear-cut questions. The City holds its mysteries close to the chest, and all the better for it; knowledge, much like death, is a one-way trip. You can’t un-learn a truth, no matter how harsh it may be.
//012: Go Gentle
The quiet hours of evening. Yes, these were the finest of hours.
Throughout her life, it was the slow slide into dark of night that brought her peace. Meals made and served, job tasks assigned and accomplished, the day’s work done. And yet, it wasn’t time to slip into the shroud of night and sleep… these were the between times, where the day demanded nothing more of you and the evening’s lure hadn’t taken hold yet. There was… nothing. A blissful and quiet nothing.
Quiet, safe for the slippery sound of a needle pulling thread. Soft creak of a rocking chair. But those were sounds she invited in, along with the crickets and distant highway motors of the Outlands. All of them were welcome in her peace.
This was the hour for sewing her bears. Even if there really wasn’t a point to them, anymore.
Oh, the bears brought comfort to the children—that was constant. They also brought comfort to those who would eventually hold them, taking them into their homes to protect them. But the menace that they were crafted to confront, well, that menace had been dealt with. The darkness she’d been destined to fight all her life was defeated.
Not by her, of course; she wasn’t much of a heroine, despite her pompous chosen name. (Mythic resonance, her protégé had said. How true.) No, that was not the role of Grandma Scarlett. The heroine who saved the day was the same heroine who had set her on this path at the outset. The one she enabled.
Of course, Bedlam wasn’t destroyed. No way to destroy an idea, no. But a truce had been called; the force of life had drawn stalemate with the force of madness, and the two of them made a gentlewoman’s agreement to stay out of each other’s way. The bears, which had staved off the worst of the disaster on Picasso Friday, no longer had a true purpose. And yet… she’d sew a new one each day, all the same.
None of her hazy and pleasant dreams remained, to guide her path. Those faded away, after the crisis of two years ago. Her imaginary friend had other concerns now. Other friends.
No purpose. Each day, all the same.
Funnily enough, it didn’t bother her. Years and years after she’d "retired," now she had truly retired from the call of duty, hadn’t she? No more need for Grandma Scarlett. Not because she was useless, far from it. She’d simply done what she needed to do. What any officer of peace would do, really. In fact she took great pride in her role in those affairs, even if her role was now finished. Even if the bears were no longer needed.
The rest of her—the more mundane part of herself, the day-to-day self—was still needed, after all.
Happy Acre Orphanage was a small cog in the wheels of the Department of Orientation (or was it Resources? Politics, these things changed so often) but an important cog. She couldn’t house too many of the poor dears left behind in wake of the City’s immigration process, but the ones she could house she cared for as if they were her own. Even if these old bones couldn’t do as much for the young ones as they once could. Even if Jeb handled most of the day-to-day operations of her day-to-day self. It didn’t matter; her smile and her heart kept the place afloat.
So, when she said her prayers and lay her head to rest that night, it was with a smile and a light heart. Even if the next day would be just the same, it would be welcomed.
The next day proved not to be the same. Beds to be made, lunches to be prepared, children to be soothed, the usual rigmarole… but in addition to all that, she was called upon not once but twice by those in need.
Tea had to be prepared, as well as other refreshments; these things were required, no matter the social encounter. Grandma Scarlett would provide the social niceties, even when there was nothing nice about the visits in question.
The first one was quite a sad situation, indeed.
"We were hoping he might have come back here," the mother said, for the third time.
"I’m so sorry, but I haven’t seen Michael since he left the orphanage with you," she spoke, after setting her teacup aside carefully. Enjoying the delicious drink seemed inappropriate, in light of circumstances. "Truthfully, Michael wasn’t in my care for very long. He was a recent import, being shuffled through the system. Troubled boy, missing his friends and family. Took comfort in that strange young musician that’s so popular these days, what’s her name… not to my taste, far too hollow, but—"
"We thought he might have come back because he talked so highly of you," the mother continued, to interrupt Scarlett before she could enter full ramble mode. "He wasn’t… entirely comfortable at our home. We’ve done what we can to help him with the transition, but…"
"I know. Believe me, dearie, I sympathize. It’s always difficult, guiding the transition. The City can be wondrous, but it can be cruel," Scarlett acknowledged. "Mmm. When did he go missing, exactly? If it’s been more than twenty-four hours, you can contact the Department of Safety…"
The father was just as upset, but expressing it through anger rather than fear. The name of the dogs that once housed Bedlam’s madness grated on his nerves.
"A safety officer said they’d ‘look into it,’" he grumbled. "Look into it. What does that mean? How does a missing child not even rank in their book as a crisis? I can’t even get the nightly news interested in a missing child. It’s the media, they latched onto some… some nonsense, a bunch of random overnight suicides in our district, and that’s hogging all the attention. We can’t find anyone that’ll help us."
In the end, Scarlett could do very little for them. She passed along a phone number that had been passed along to her through Cass who had it passed along to her from someone else—some sort of problem-solving organization which stepped in when the government failed—and that was the best she could manage.
(Curious, that. "TroubleSolvers." Run by the poor dear she’d had to comfort on Picasso Friday, the one with Bedlam’s madness in her veins. This new thing felt large to her, like the edge of something big. The gathering of her imaginary friend’s champions from years back, that also felt like something big, but she wasn’t on the edge that time. She was right in the middle, two years past. Was it all starting up again? Would the dreams return? Part of her wished they would…)
…runaways were common, unfortunately. Michael was approaching his teenage years; too young to have perspective, too old to be able to leave the past behind. The City tore him from his world, then told him to sit down and shut up and accept his new life. What was a boy to do?
And so she turned the parents away, and began to clean up the tea set with Jeb’s assistance. They were given pause by another knock on their door.
The gentleman caller was of a far stranger stripe than the unfortunate parents. He too had come to beseech Grandma Scarlett for aid… but aid of an entirely different stripe. Nevertheless, she refreshed the tea and refilled the cookie tray and did her best to be gracious despite the utter madness of what he proposed.
"We really respect the work you’ve done so far in building the brand," he explained, over his own rapidly cooling tea. "The consortium I represent is also keenly interested in the emotional well-being of this city. We want to ease the suffering of the day-to-day grind as much as you do. So… what I’m proposing is a continuation of your mission statement. A simple purchasing of the IP you’ve established with such skill. Think about it: Grandma Scarlett’s Hug-a-Bears, on every toy store shelf from the Outlands to the Zag. My investor can make it happen."
"Really," she said, encouraging him on, because it was frankly kind of amusing.
"We’re not married to the name ‘Hug-a-Bear’, either. We’re willing to take creative input on that. Anything you want. Loves-a-Lot Bear? Grin-and-Bear-Its? Could be anything. The name isn’t important. It’s the style. Hand-sewn, we like that. It’s very boutique. And we can keep that aspect even while expanding—limited supply, but spread far and wide. Next Cabbage Patch Kids, easily."
It wasn’t the first time someone traced her bears back to the Happy Acre Orphanage.
They were always anonymous deliveries, and Cass took great pains to stay glib when handing them over—no details, no sir, here is your bear, hug it in good health. The dreams which guided the path her bears walked were never wrong, but good luck explaining that craziness to the recipient.
Even so, given the supposed magical properties they held (becoming quite clear to those willing to believe in the aftermath of Picasso Friday) sometimes people would go to great lengths to trace the origin point. And this wasn’t the first proposal she’d had to buy the franchise, or to industrialize it somehow. They all rang hollow in her ears.
"You do realize I don’t normally charge any money for my gifts," she pointed out. "If I wasn’t interested in money before, why would I be interested now?"
"I’m fully prepared to present you with any number of colorful graphs that establish the profit potential of your brand," he suggested. "But… let’s bring this down a bit. Less buzzwords. More reality. This is real talk time. Put the salesmanship aside. Fact of the matter is… you need the money more than you need the bears."
"Really," the man said, folding his fingers together in front of him. "Happy Acre Orphanage exists on a shoestring budget. You have exactly as many children as you can reasonably take in and manage. But you know you could do more if the government would subsidize you deeply. They can’t. I can. My patron can be your patron, enabling you to do so much more good for this world. Like I said… we have a shared interest in lessening the suffering of this world. Let me help you. Let me help you help them."
"Mhmm," she mumbled. "In return for…?"
"Exclusive rights to your teddy bears. You stop making them, we take over operations," he proposed. "We don’t need competition from our own partner in this endeavor. It’s such a small thing to give up, isn’t it? Do you really NEED your bears more than you need to help the children? In return for this concession, we can get you anything you need, anything at all. Expand your operations here. Hire more staff than… what’s his name, Jed? The big guy. It’s amazing that you’ve managed this mess entirely with one employee…"
"I have a driver as well."
"Great, so you can take the kids on field trips. But think of how much more you could do. I mean, look to the future. What will become of this place when you… well. You have to plan ahead, is my point. Financial security. If not for you, then for the children. I can make that happen. You’d be surprised how much money I have, despite the so-called death of the music industry…"
She’d turned down every single offer that crossed her doorstep. Politely, of course. Never proper to be unkind.
The no was on her lips, but went unsaid as another thought rushed to interrupt.
Do you really NEED your bears more than you need to help the children?
His words. But wasn’t she pondering this just last night, as she put the final stitches in her latest bear? The dreams weren’t pushing her anymore. The bears had no destined destinations, not anymore. She still made them, the children still bonded with them to fill them with their dreams, and Cass still found good places for them to go. But did she really NEED the bears? In the twilight hour, when her own light would eventually fade… which was more important, some silly bears, or the bare necessities?
If she followed that line of reasoning, the one her brain was urging her along, it was such a small thing to give up indeed. Not like she was much of a toy magnate. And if she could set the orphanage up for life, well past her own life…
"I’m afraid I’m going to have to say no," Scarlett replied.
"Don’t be hasty," the man requested. "Think it over…"
"Mmm, no need. In situations where the mind and the heart conflict, I’ve learned to trust my heart," she explained. "It’s never steered me wrong before. And even if its whispers are quiet in these hours… I want to believe, all the same. This is a matter of faith. Doing what I feel is right, rather than what is proper. I’m sorry. I’ve no interest in participating in this venture of yours, Mr. Hayes."
Jack Hayes considered trying again. Considered arguing the points, driving home the logic, making her see reason…
Wouldn’t do much good. He could tell.
Instead, he reached across the tea set, extending a hand to shake.
"It’s a shame we couldn’t come to terms, but I respect your decision," he stated. "Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this to work, but my patron insisted I give you the chance."
She leaned over in turn, to shake his offered hand. A bit awkward, with the coffee table between them; she worried for a moment that his tie might dip in the teapot.
With the deal not-sealed, he leaned back… and raised his teacup, to propose a toast. Obliging him, as it was only polite, Scarlett did the same.
"To your health," Jack Hayes offered. And drank deep.
The slippery sound of a needle pulling thread. Soft creak of a rocking chair. Distant crickets and highway motors of the Outlands. All of them were welcome in her peace.
Another evening, another bear. The quiet hours of her peace were quite welcome. Such a tiring day, with unexpected guests on top of all the routine chores of the day. Was such a small deviation from the norm really enough to throw her off kilter for an entire day? Unfortunate. In her past years, oh, Scarlett was SO adaptable to strange days. Strange days indeed. Was that adaptability truly behind her? A shame, but it served her well. She could mourn its passing without regret.
Tying off the last stitch. Biting the thread clean; a tradition, rather than using scissors. The last stitch had to come from your own toils. Another bear complete.
This new bear was a fine one indeed. None of the sloppy stitch work that plagued the last few she’d made. Height of her craft, really… and yet, not some machine-made work of perfection, either. In fact it reminded her much of the very first bear, the one which set her on this path—it had a certain familiar tenderness to it, a sense of being old and worn and loved. Funny, that. This was a brand new bear from new fabric, but it felt like she’d had it for years…
Getting tired. Simply tired.
Turning the finished bear over in her hands, studying the button eyes. They studied her, in turn. She moved to set it on the shelf, collected alongside the other recent bears, each destined for a child at the week’s end…
Her hand stayed, before the bear could touch the dusty wooden shelf. It was looking at her.
This is my bear, she realized, in her sleepy haze. I’ve sewn bears meant for the children every night. Never one for me. But this one is mine.
After her prayers, Scarlett slipped underneath her fuzzy quilt. This time, a bear joined her, and the comfort of dreams were quick to follow.
Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned. Buildings sometimes intersecting buildings…
The city of dreams, laid bare before her. So fuzzy and undefined here; the idea of a city, rather than the City itself with a capital C. Red and hazy, like someone had draped a pair of rose colored glasses across her face. I owned those glasses once, she thought. I owned my name…
She’d seen this place before. Her imaginary friend, the one she’d come to know as Lucid, existed here. Not lived here, not in any conventional sense of living or dead. An idea couldn’t be killed but wasn’t truly alive, either. But this nebulous city was nevertheless hers, the playground of visions that had guided Scarlett all her life. Its asphalt and concrete felt familiar beneath her feet, no matter what sort of shoe she wore. No matter what appearance she was wearing at that time of her life.
Scarlett had worn many faces, after all. The groovy chick in the rose-colored glasses. The matron in the starched uniform. The girl in the pigtails. She’d been all of them, at one point or another. And of course, the grandmother of all… Grandma Scarlett.
Mythic resonance, Cass had spoken, cool as ice while burning so deep inside. It’s got mythic resonance.
You’re who you want to be, y’know? Seeker had grinned, through the haze of his own shifting ideals. The City’s rebirth, it’s the womb of the self. Who are you? That’s who you are. Who were you? Doesn’t matter…
"It does matter," she reasoned. "Who I was is who I am. You can’t just throw all that away. It’s all right there. Right here."
It was all right there. It actually was.
She could see her life stretched out in front of her—a long line of shops, each with her own reflection in the window. They extended down the street, beckoning her to come closer and peer at their lovely displays…
…and there was Lucid, standing at her side. Her imaginary friend.
Unmistakably, the child looked like Penelope Yates. In earlier years Scarlett could remember Lucid as a young girl, maybe with red hair, but the details always faded on the dawn’s light of waking. When she saw Penelope in the real world—well, saw her older than a few months old, at least—there was no recognition. But tonight, during this dream… the resemblance was uncanny.
"A new vision for me, is it?" Scarlett asked her companion. "What’s it to be this time? Are we continuing with the bears? Mmm. Or perhaps something entirely new…?"
Not that Lucid would speak. As much as Scarlett could remember, the child never spoke directly to her. She spoke through the images of the dreams she wove, not through something as clumsy as words. Despite her name, Lucid would never clearly and directly explain things. Instead, it was up to Scarlett to decode the sights laid before her, and find what path needed to be walked during waking hours.
Honestly, Scarlett relished the challenge. It filled her with joy, to know she was once again dreaming. Quite encouraging; it proved that she was still needed. Her imaginary friend was ready to reveal the next step in the path. Scarlett trusted her lucid ally to lead her true, to show her the way.
With eagerness, she walked the sidewalk, ready to see what there was to see. Stroll right on down the boulevard, and window-shop across the Scarlett years. Her imaginary friend following at her heels, with a light skip.
The first window belonged to a toy shop; ionic building block letters scribed in a flat arc, T O Y S. No branding or corporate franchise here, as the figurative city spoke in broad strokes. Toy shop. Done.
In that first window, which bore a reflection wrinkled and bright much like her own, Scarlett saw a bear.
A bear. A bear, where before there was no bear. Curious little thing.
Scarlett rocked in her chair, pondering it well into the late hours. Pondering it right into the 21st century, for that matter… this was New Year’s Eve, two thousand years in the era of the Lord. What curious timing, she thought… now long past the point where she should have retired in sleep. She’d be no good for daily chores around the orphanage without her rest. But this was a thing which was worthy of pondering.
The visitor on this New Year’s Eve had set his newfound baby girl in a portable crib, intent on it being the last time he laid hands upon her. He called himself unfit to be a father, a man of violence with a checkered past, who couldn’t keep his wife from her horrible fate. What right did he have to raise this foundling? What could he possibly do for the child, except likely break her in the process of raising her? No, better to leave her in Scarlett’s care, that was sensible…
"You’ve more care for that child than you think you do," she’d told him. "That you’re so concerned for her future speaks much. Being willing to give up something so precious for entirely selfless reasons? Better than many a parent I’ve seen, to be honest. You could have said you can’t raise her because you’re too busy, or she doesn’t work with your lifestyle, or it’d be too expensive. But no… you want to give her up so she can have the best possible life. I say the best life she can have is with someone who loves her enough to want her to have that life."
"That’s… roundabout," Gregory Yates spoke. (His waterworks had dried as quickly as they started; tears from the man who had lost so much but had little experience showing the pain.) "And absurd. I’m the best for her… because I want the best for her? What? No. She’d be better off with a family that can do more for her. What can I offer? I’m a… I’m not even a bodyguard anymore. I couldn’t even get that right. Elizabeth…"
"Your wife wanted you to raise the girl, and raise her proper. Said as much before she left us, yes?"
"A dying wish is still just a wish, and this is reality," he grumbled, using frustration to push away another bout of sadness. "Reality is that Penelope would be better off not being Penelope Yates—"
And then, the cry.
Old bones (and getting older every day, how strange) couldn’t get to the crib fast enough. But the young man, he was there in a flash. His instincts brought him to his daughter’s side, in response to the baby’s cry.
That’s when Scarlett knew he’d be just fine. He had the instinct already to do right by the girl. She refused to accept her into the orphanage, insisting Gregory was the ideal caregiver Penelope could hope for. Although the man left with some doubts still in his mind, they did well in the end.
And yet… there was one strange little detail from that encounter which stuck out, which kept Scarlett awake well into the night.
When they reached the crib, to find the crying girl… she had a teddy bear. One which she did not have previously. There was no bear in the portable crib already, and one which in hindsight hadn’t fallen off a nearby shelf as she’d assumed at the time. The bear simply existed, to comfort a child in her time of need. Little Gregory-the-Bear, as Scarlett had named him, on the spot. Let the girl keep the bear. It was hers now, after all.
Her bear. Her imaginary friend, made real…
In the morning, Scarlett awoke from dreams with a vision firmly affixed in mind. Jeb handled the morning routine of getting children ready to face the day, while she put needle to thread to cloth and created a teddy bear from nothingness. Even had an address firmly in mind, a destination for that bear, once it was properly prepared. Every single step clear as day, despite no longer recalling the exact details of the dream which led her to this point.
Another night, another dream, another bear. Deliveries to make. Children to hug and love the bears and impart with them the purity they held within them. A whirlwind of felt and fur and button eyes, brought about by the city in her head…
"I was here, in this place, when you showed me what to do," Scarlett recalled. "Walked me through what needed to be done. Making the bears, preparing them, delivering them. Years and years before the crisis with your other self, that dark child, you knew what needed to be done…"
As always, Lucid didn’t respond. Hard to see an emotional reaction on her face, even; she was nebulous, even here. But Scarlett continued, looking away from the toy store reflection.
"That’s always been your way, hasn’t it? Playing the long game," she pondered aloud. "Nudging people along the roads they had to walk. Showing them things they needed to see, even if they didn’t want to see. Like dear Cassandra’s gift with words. Dave Smith and the map he sculpted, thinking it was for a corporate client. Or like… hmm. No, not quite like little Penelope Yates. I’ve wondered all these years exactly who Penelope is to you…"
No answers. Not yet.
But… they might be forthcoming. There was a thickness in the city air, tonight. A solidity that she hadn’t felt before on visiting this dreamscape. Strange. Best to play it out, and see where it led her.
Next shop, next window. A florist’s shop, a window just bursting with things that green and grow… and beyond the glass, beyond a slightly smoother version of her own face, trees and apples…
Boomtown. That’s what they called her city district; several coincidentally perfect insertions had brought resources and prosperity to the neighborhood. That coupled with the economic boom of the nineties meant the City was definitely the place to be. A woman heading into retirement could live well there, particularly with her various long-term investments paying such great dividends. Wear a fur coat, take in the shows, be the talk of the town…
Instead, she was standing in the middle of an acre of green, out in the middle of nowhere.
The farmer who sold her this land called it useless. It still grew, sure, but the plot was far too small to do any serious agriculture. A happy acre, he called it… but not so happy for the one who owned it.
Scarlett bought the land immediately, with a goodly portion of her retirement savings. It was perfect.
"We can have the orphanage roundabouts there," she gestured. "Won’t have to upend the apple trees that way. Probably room for a barn, although I’m not sure we can tend to the little ones and to livestock, so it likely won’t be much more than a hobby farm… but this has possibilities. Wouldn’t you agree, Jeb?"
Jeb didn’t agree, of course. He looked at the plot of land with suspicion. Ran a finger against the bark of an anemic tree. Glanced at the tiny dirt road which led back to the highway.
Still, they had an agreement… he’d be at her side through this endeavor. He owed her, she owed him, but even beyond debts there was a bond that would not break. Young Jeb was prepared to make the same sacrifices Scarlett was, to make this crazy dream of hers a reality.
"Happy Acre Orphanage," she decided. "It’s a fine name. I’ll ask the architect to break ground tomorrow. Within a year, we’ll be ready to take in our first orphans. Show them a proper and good life, away from the madness of the City. Show them the love they need to enter this world and survive it with their innocence intact…"
It was crazy, honestly. The Department of Resources granted her the permits provisionally, suspecting the entire endeavor would fold immediately. A tiny little halfway home, out in the middle of nowhere, run by an aging woman and her chunky companion? It was silly to think about. But not silly to dream about… which is where the idea came from in the first place.
A dream that strong called for a new name. Just like the dream that called her Scarlett, so long ago.
She was old, and getting older. She’d be caring for children as she’d always wanted to do. It would be a delicious bit of irony and no small amount of justice, wouldn’t it, to adopt the moniker of a grandmother…?
"Grandma Scarlett," she decided. "S’got a fine ring to it. I could rest comfortably in that name for some time. Grandma Scarlett of Happy Acre Orphanage. Well well. Shall we begin, my friend? I promise you, Jeb… together we’ll see to it that our wards have the good start in this world that you didn’t have."
Stepping away from the flower shop, now. A small moment in time, those few days where Happy Acre Orphanage didn’t exist anywhere but her mind. In her dreams.
Dreams. She’d played with the word so much over the decades. Putting stock in it alongside her faith, even if at times the two seemed at odds. How could she have her religious sensibilities in a world as strange as the City of Angles, with the child that traipsed through her head regularly giving her holy visions? Never something she’d entirely settled, that conflict. But in that, she was in good company. Many a person of faith had trouble reconciling the existence of the City alongside all that they knew back on that strange world Scarlett herself had never seen.
Lucid. The mystery child. A goddess, or the closest equivalent this world had…? Mmm, no.
To the child, Scarlett drew a bit of a line in the sand.
"You may have inspired that one, but great endeavors are one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," Scarlett recognized. "Seeing the orphanage itself on these imaginary streets is one thing, actually creating it is another. Difficult work, but a worthwhile effort, a fine Christian effort, beyond whatever strange purpose it served. Whether I danced on your strings or not, whether I was simply a madwoman or not, the end result was an act of charity I can stand behind. Fine way to spend my elder years. …you’re not going to ask me to abandon it in favor of some other adventure, I trust?"
On this, the dream city and its dream child had no reply… but there was definitely a thickness in the air, thicker than before. Pressing down. Perhaps it didn’t want to answer, because it knew Scarlett wouldn’t like what she heard. Lucid remained as unreadable as ever.
Scarlett put her hands on her hips, adopting the mildly scolding tone she used with recalcitrant children.
"Now, remember that I don’t blindly obey you," she warned. "If you do want me to abandon the children you led into my care, you’re going to need to be very, very convincing. …and even then, it likely wouldn’t work. Is that what you want? What is it you want this time, exactly…?"
But Lucid was already at the next shop window. Avoiding the question, of course.
With a sigh, Scarlett followed on, stopping in front of the electronics store. So many televisions and telephones inside, so old. CRT tubes and spiraling cords. She knew those makes and models; being a city girl at her roots, technology grew up alongside her. And she hadn’t seen these since… well, since she was the woman in the window, the one in the sharply pressed uniform.
A swirling spiral. So obvious that in hindsight, Scarlett felt more than a little silly that it took her imaginary friend’s poking and prodding to recognize it for what it was.
But she wouldn’t go to her superiors with this, not yet. Lives were on the line, innocent lives and the lives of those led astray. Scarlett had to be absolutely sure that she was reading the vision correctly before she sent troops into battle. …not that she actually had that sort of agency, or any right to claim such prideful boasts. The hard reality of her situation was that she was a glorified switchboard operator, a middle-aged matron of the Department of Safety call center and nothing more. Not a general and not even a prophet. Just someone who sometimes knew things.
Still, she ran a tight ship around this call center. The ladies who worked with her knew better than to leave a call log unfilled, or to actually toss aside the notes of the day no matter how scrappy the scrap paper they were written on. (Soon, they’d make her put all of these things into the new computer mainframe they’d acquired from Resources. What a mess that would be, compared to her neatly organized paper files.)
Hannah and Joan were tasked to handle her work for the day, routing 911 information from calls and logging anonymous tips and keeping communication to officers in the field. They asked why, of course, and Scarlett didn’t say. Probably made her look haughty, and she already looked mighty haughty given her seniority in this position, but she wasn’t going to get any rumors started.
Everybody was nervous about the Cult of Bedlam, despite the official stance that it did not in fact exist. If Scarlett started running down the halls screaming that she’d found the cult’s lair, well, that would just get her fired before any good could come of it.
Instead, she arranged her notes on a corkboard map of the city, colored pushpins dotting the streets. Anonymous calls. Rumors and speculation gathered from snitches. Muggings and robberies. Every little bit of chaos and disorder that had soaked the city during this month of the Horrible Eighties, the decade of economic depression and hopelessness…
In her dreams, she’d seen the spiral. The child, the one she’d taken to calling Lucid in hopes that maybe her friend would be, well, clear about things one day… the child showed her the spiral, glowing a bright green across the hazy city streets of her mind. Strange, that. Her dreams were usually soaked in reds and whites, not in greens. Not the sickly deep green of this spiral, so unnatural. Why green, all of the sudden…?
No. Focus on the pushpins. She had to replicate the pattern from her dream, and more importantly, figure out what the hell it meant. Assuming it was a true vision and not just a random pile of dream images that her mind normally coughed up. Assuming she wasn’t crazy. Frustrating.
"You’re trying to find the cult, aren’t you?"
More tense than she thought she was. Nearly jumped out of her uniform. Wouldn’t that have been a sight? …one that the witness in question might have enjoyed a bit too much. He’d been keen for her even before the divorce, even if he was gentlemanly and properly quiet about it…
Jon Boston. Family named after one of the great cities of that other world, like many families started from those uprooted by the City of Angles. O-2 clearance and technically her boss, one of her many bosses, which was another reason he wasn’t willing to make a move despite his inclinations. But he wasn’t all charm and grace—there was a professionalism about him that Scarlett admired. That was what drove him to study the map, in the same manner Scarlett was studying it.
"Not exactly your job, you know," he pointed out. "I saw the girls covering for you, figured something was up. Didn’t know you got promoted to Detective while I wasn’t looking…"
"I’m just… reorganizing my notes, that’s all," she mumbled.
"Easy, easy. I’m not complaining. I’m glad to see someone else taking the Cult of Bedlam seriously," he said, backing down from his teasing. "That’s what this is, right? District 32, where most of the rumors originate. I can’t get any of the other O-2s to believe me. …have a hard time believing myself, at times. Tell me you’ve got something to reaffirm my faith, Scarlett."
She tapped a finger to her chin, thinking.
"It’s a pattern," she tried to explain. "All swirling around a central point. Except… it doesn’t look like a swirl, does it. It’s just a bunch of random notes. I could poke any spot within a ten-block radius and call it the center, wouldn’t rightfully make it so. But I just know there’s a spiral in there somewhere…"
"Really? What makes you so sure?"
Unspoken words. He heard them just fine, since this wasn’t the first time Scarlett’s muse had crossed paths with her day job.
One of her "visions" had led Jon to a huge cocaine bust at a night club—a poor girl slumped over a glass table, dying while nobody paid heed. She’d awoken instantly, and phoned the only person whose number she had on hand… Jon Boston. Against all common sense, he decided to listen.
Scarlett visited the girl in the hospital, the next day. It was a turning point for the young woman… someone no older than Scarlett was, when she met her former husband. So easy to walk down the wrong path, at that age. She knew that well enough. Now, the poor dear would have a second chance. Thanks to her dreams, and thanks to Jon Boston.
So, when Jon Boston got the feeling another one of those inspirations had struck Scarlett regarding the Cult of Bedlam, he wasn’t going to judge her or dismiss her. Instead, he gave her a quiet nod.
"If you figure it out, let me know," he said. "I’ll be on shift all night. I can probably rustle up a few boys to check it out later. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s a thing worth doing. I’ve always felt that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing. Doesn’t matter what inspired it."
The Lucid child played no part in detangling that particular web; that wasn’t her way. She threw you into the web. It was up to you to crawl out again.
Three hours of cross-referencing later, and Scarlett had the address. Jon raided the warehouse. The Cult of Bedlam made front page news in all the papers the next morning. Neither Jon nor Scarlett received heroic acclaim; Jon because officers exposed to cubism were off limits to the media, Scarlett because she had no official role beyond answering calls and making coffee for the boys.
Years later, Scarlett would leave with a fat pension and a dream to start an orphanage. She never did become Mrs. Scarlett Boston. Never felt it would be right, not after her first time as a Mrs. Scarlett…
The televisions going dark, telephone rings ceasing. Electronics shop shutting down, obsolete eighties copper and plastic brushed aside by time.
More shops in the row. A pattern, clearly; Lucid wanted her to look in these windows, to glean meaning from this literal / figurative trip down memory lane. But what meaning was it, exactly? That was the web to detangle, and she relished the chance to do so. What did the next store have in store…?
Except the next window wasn’t a storefront.
No. She instantly recognized the slightly rounded corners of the window, because she’d passed by it with frequency, on her way to that awful office. Over and over again.
It was torture, pure and simple, to put Dr. Klein’s fertility office at the end of the hall past the maternity ward.
To and from the maternity ward, forced to walk in front of row after row of healthy babies on the way to and from Dr. Klein’s office. What a sick joke. Sick jokes in good supply around this place…
"He’s a quack," Neville had decided, using his anger to distract her from the rounded window. Hurrying along through the hallway, just as eager as Scarlett to get away from here. "He’s a quack and he’s got no idea what he’s talking about. Everybody has a miscarriage or two. It doesn’t have to mean anything…"
The word unfit wasn’t used. It was specifically not used, because that’d imply she didn’t deserve to be a mother, that there was something wrong with her beyond a random toss of the biological dice. Unsuitable also wouldn’t have been very kind. Instead, unable was the chosen term—a disability, an inability. Unable to carry life into this world…
"We’ll see a different doctor," he promised. "A better doctor. A good Jewish doctor, that’d be the best. I’ll make some calls. We’ll figure this out, I promise you. We’re going to be a family."
We’re not a family, the implication. Husband and wife, but not a family, not a household. It brought about a bitter laugh in her throat.
Which stopped him cold.
"What’s so funny?" Neville demanded, turning that sympathetic anger in a less sympathetic direction.
"No, no, it’s… it’s just that… it’s nothing," Scarlett decided. "Nothing at all."
"Damn well it’s nothing. This problem is nothing," Neville agreed, more or less with himself. "It’s the goddamn nineteen seventies. We’re in the rocket age, science can make this happen—without leeches or bleeding or whatever that hack probably would’ve done. If Earth can put a man on the moon, we can put a bun in the oven. Just you watch. It’ll happen. Promise."
Big promises. Always big promises.
The promotion’s around the corner! A better apartment, in a better district. No wife of mine is working some switchboard job; I’m the breadwinner here, and I promise you a better life!
I just need to work late hours another two, maybe three weeks tops. We’re going to close this account. They’ll recognize me then, I promise!
And now, we can put a bun in the oven, promise. Of course.
His platitudes and promises continued to pour, as they departed the hospital for the last time. Off to the car, on the highway back to their district. Scarlett couldn’t get a word in edgewise, around the positive patter. Neville wouldn’t allow it.
All the way, she kept the same bemused smile. Poor, poor Neville. Always expecting life to turn around and give him what he wanted, that it was just inevitable. Failure was never an option and nothing was outside his control. Not the whimsy of the job market, not the whimsy of God’s biologies, nothing.
At first, he tried to live up to his promise. They went through two different doctors, both of which laid down the same diagnosis originally provided by Dr. Klein. Unable to have a child. But the third doctor, that one Neville liked—he was just as relentlessly positive as Neville. Positively happy to take their money, and take their money, promising a "holistic" healing process which suited Neville’s roots perfectly…
The divorce took a long time coming. Scarlett couldn’t recall which one of them asked for it first. He did insist that it wasn’t because she couldn’t provide him with a son, at least. (A son. He very specifically said it that way, a son.) No harm, no foul. Just wasn’t meant to be. He even promised things would be better for both of them, on their own.
And the funniest thing was… it was the one promise he managed to keep. Because her life was better, alone. The dreams started coming back. She was making a real difference in the Department of Safety, doing her part to improve the world. While part of herself still yearned to care for a child, what she had was satisfying her on a level she didn’t think possible.
Scarlett knew her place in things now, and it wasn’t as Mrs. Neville. And the strangest thing was… she still saw children in her future, in her dreams. She saw herself surrounded by children. Probably just a flight of fancy rather than some prophecy, but in the mass of children hanging onto her every word was her dear old imaginary friend. So while it seemed a biological implausibility… who knew, for certain?
Stepping away from the hospital window, now. The implausible maternity ward window, in the middle of a crowded street of shops.
"At times, I wondered…" she spoke, before stopping. And resuming. "I wondered if you were responsible for that. I’d always been a bit strange, even beyond the dreams. If the price I was paying for the visions was the twisted genes that kept me from having children of my own…"
Lucid offered nothing, of course. The child, her own secret child of sorts, rarely if ever spoke in actual words. Which was a bit frustrating, to be honest.
"If it’s true, I’m going to assume it wasn’t some cruelty on your part," she stated. "Because I’d like to think you’ve been a lifelong friend and companion, not some sort of taint on my soul. …it’s hard, you know. Hard dealing with how obtuse you can be. How much you clash with my faith, my life, my… everything, at times. If you’d just give me some answers to these blasted mysteries, it’d be easier to live with what I had to go through…"
Brushing one foot along the concrete of the sidewalk. Solid stuff, crunchy. Pebbles. Strange, the dream city rarely had that much detail. That thickness in the air… it wasn’t really weight or density of any sort. It was reality. The dream felt more real than it had any time before.
In fact, Lucid seemed more real than before. Sometimes the child was just a blur of red light, pulsing with her own heartbeat. Sometimes she had a face, or just her adorable little pigtailed head. Tonight? The deeper and deeper Scarlett went into this vision, the more it felt like a living, breathing child was walking alongside her. Still a bit hazy, but she could make out details. A simple white gown of some kind, surprisingly old fashioned, considering how very much the girl looked like modern Penelope Yates. A… bracelet, of some sort? A white band around her wrist…
What was going on, exactly? This deep into a vision and Scarlett still had no clue what Lucid was trying to say. Why did it feel so different, this time? She could stop walking along the shop fronts, start demanding answers. So many years in service, didn’t she deserve a few? Wouldn’t demand many. Just a few. Who are you, really? How are you connected to me, the way you’re connected to Cass or Penelope? Why are you doing this…?
She would have asked a few questions, if not for the next window distracting her. And what a distraction it was.
A swirl of smoke and color; the paisley hues of the past. This was what was quaintly referred to as a Head Shop. In fact, she knew exactly which one it was, because she’d been tucked away in the back room of it many an afternoon.
He’d called it an Indian peace pipe. Maybe it was, or maybe it was some Anglo’s idea of what an Indian peace pipe would look like. (Indian. They weren’t really from India, they were the natives of that other world’s America. Even that part was wrong.) Either way, it was colorful and ornate and looked like it was crafted by someone with great worldly wisdom. Likely the wisdom of selling things like this to stoners, but hey, that counted as a kind of wisdom.
"Peace has a special meaning here, doesn’t it?" the man in the beaded shirt asked. "Peace. The City of Angles has never known war. There’s Salvagers, sure, little roaches that feast on the discarded junk of capitalism. But no wars, not one. Where I come from, the war is everything, threatening to swallow the world. Vietnam, man. You guys are dead lucky there’s no Vietnam here. And I’m lucky to be here. We’re all, like, super lucky to be here in this paradise…"
The pipe fell in her hands, next. She knew the ritual; puff, puff, pass. It filled her with the wisdom that would say a colorful wooden pipe was the source of all wisdom.
"We’re reborn here. You get it? New lives. New world. We should have new names. I picked my own; I’m the Seeker. I seek to understand the City of Angles and know its peace," Seeker continued to ramble. "You’re who you want to be, y’know? The City’s rebirth, it’s the womb of the self. Who are you? That’s who you are. Who were you? Doesn’t matter…"
And she covered a giggle with a cough, which was semi-legit, given the smoke in her system.
She wasn’t from Earth. She’d snuck in, claiming to be a refugee like the rest of these "hippies," but she was a City kid through and through. But… a City kid in search of meaning and purpose. Her mother had groomed her to be a good family woman, teaching her cooking and cleaning, singing praises of finding a nice husband and raising a family. Not that her daughter wanted any of that jive. …well, maybe a daughter of her own one day… but she also wanted a career! She wanted to go out into the City, to make her way, to find out who she was. Not sit around all day cooking and caring for the kids, exhausted yet idle, like her old mother…
"What’s your name?" Seeker asked. "Reach deep inside. Tell me your name. Not what your name was. What’s your name now?"
Oh. This was directed at her.
She coughed the last cough, before replying. "I’m…"
…no, that wouldn’t do. She needed a new name. Wanted a new name, like these ones who were searching for themselves had. She paused, pretending to adjust the nice rose-colored glasses she’d bought in the shop an hour ago… and decided right there and then. Because the color seemed to resonate perfectly.
"I’m Scarlett," she spoke. "The color of passion. Like fire-red hair. Like the beating of the Heart of the City…"
And thus Scarlett was welcomed into the group.
A few hours of heavy smoking and possibly meaningful dialogue later and Scarlett was feeling pretty damn good about being Scarlett. Scarlett was a woman with her whole life in front of her, full of infinite possibility. She could be a little bit of everything she wanted to be. No restrictions. No limits. Free and pure…
The girl with the red hair watched her, curious.
"Hello," Scarlett giggled. "Don’t you normally only visit me when I’m asleep?"
"Don’t you normally only visit me when you’re asleep?"
A little girl voice. How queer. Her lifelong imaginary friend rarely spoke. Did she ever speak? Maybe this was just the sweet leaf speaking for her.
"It’s all the same, isn’t it?" Scarlett wondered. "Asleep or awake. Lucid dreaming. The City’s… the City’s a dream. It doesn’t matter where it is or what it is, it’s all part of the same dream—"
"Yeah, I mean, that’s it, that’s totally it," a voice spoke over her own, breaking her thought in half. "A dream. And it’s like… you chase the sheep, but sometimes, the sheep chases you. That’s it. It’s the white rabbit. I get you. That’s perfect…"
Her friend had a strangely deep voice. —no, wait. That wasn’t her friend. That was the boy she’d assumed was passed out on the shag carpeting next to her. Some friend of Seeker’s, one of many who were participating in the circle. This one just happened to be sitting next to her.
"What’s your new name?" Scarlett wondered, turning her gaze from the hazy child to the less hazy man.
"I’m… uh. I forgot," he admitted. "I think it was something really groovy, but I forgot it. I guess you can just call me Neville, then."
"I think I’m gonna marry you, Neville," Scarlett declared.
It was a joke, the funniest joke in the entire world. She was laughing her head off, and he was laughing too, even if he didn’t quite understand why…
But her imaginary friend wasn’t laughing. It was a disjointed note amidst the chorus of giggles, seeing that look of… concern, maybe? Sadness. Hard to tell, through the thick fog.
In a flash, Scarlett actually felt a spot of resentment. The girl who traipsed through her dreams didn’t like this new cute boy? Well, what business of it was hers? Scarlett was a new woman, liberated and living in the city of peace. She could do anything. She felt like she could do anything at all.
So she married the boy.
Hours later, when they both came down and realized they had a bunch of signed paperwork and couldn’t find their clothes, things got considerably more serious.
Thankfully, Neville proved to be a decent chap. Likeable, if a bit hapless. Surely there had to be something there Scarlett had latched onto, something that sang true—she wouldn’t have married some random guy who had no chemistry with her whatsoever. In the weeks that followed they indeed found that chemistry, enough of it to skip the annulment, at least. Plus it annoyed her mother, which was always a plus.
And who knew? Maybe they did have a future. With great jobs, in a great house, with great kids, and everything the City promised those who seized the day. So what if her imaginary friend looked so sad and sympathetic? That weird little dream-child was probably a figment of her imagination, anyway.
Peeling her eyes away from the paisley nightmare was difficult. That was a part of her life which felt so… intensely vivid, so alive. Filled with terrible decisions and wrong turns, but the power of youth assured her she could do no wrong if she trusted her heart.
But she hadn’t, had she? If she’d trusted her heart she would’ve realized that Neville was a nice young man but quite helpless. Helpless and self-centered, all while thinking he was selfless. Everything was about what he wanted, even if what he wanted was to make Scarlett happy. It wasn’t because he wanted Scarlett to be happy; he wanted to be the one to make Scarlett happy. To solve all the problems, to make everything happen, to be her savior…
All the while, her real savior sat at the side, patiently biding her time.
"You could’ve warned me," Scarlett mumbled. "A few sour looks weren’t enough to dissuade me when I was young and foolish. I had a full head of steam behind me, those days. You could’ve said something…"
"You wouldn’t have listened. You couldn’t have listened."
Her voice. Familiar, especially in light of hearing it during that moment in history, but so rare…
The child was far more real, now. Just as real as Scarlett. Or was it the other way around…?
"What is all this, then?" Scarlett asked. "If you’re speaking, maybe you’ll speak up for a change. What are we doing here?"
"You want me to speak up. You want to know me."
"I’ve never truly known you, it’s true. But why now? Why couldn’t you have… because I wouldn’t, couldn’t have listened, yes, no need to repeat. Not sure I follow, but let’s take that as read. What’s changed, then? Why will I, can I hear you now?"
Instead… the child pointed to the next to last window in the line. In that window, another child was singing.
"See and hear," she requested.
A funny little rhyme, even if she didn’t quite understand it. Had a snappy cadence, just rolled off the tongue. Not that the young girl who would eventually become Scarlett knew words like "cadence"—to her it was simply a funny little rhyme. Singing it over and over, swinging the jump ropes to and fro, in perfect time with the words.
Not many kids in this neighborhood, not anymore. Rumor had it that the strangeness was going to swallow the whole place up, but her family had remained stalwart—this was their home, and they were staying put. Wasn’t like those clowns who claim to run City Hall knew what they were doing.
Those clowns, her father had said. Crooked clowns, who elected them? Elected themselves! Up and called themselves saviors back in the twenties, those no-goodniks! She knew there was only one savior, and his name was Jesus and he loved her family, so she didn’t have to be scared of the crooked clowns. Still, City Hall must be a funny place, to be so full of clowns, and crooked ones at that!
The clowns were the ones who tore down and rebuilt parts of the City, a few years before the girl was born. Boy howdy, was that a bad idea! She’d read about it in school, about how Mayor Fletcher nearly spread the strangeness all over the place. No, better to live with the new places than to make newer places. Everybody knew that. And when the strangeness came, you ran away. Everybody knew that.
Well, everybody except Mother and Father, who didn’t want to move. All the other kids moved away, but she was still there, skipping rope by herself, rhyming to herself. They were afraid, but didn’t have the money to go anywhere, so they’d just have to be lucky…
The girl who would be Scarlett wasn’t afraid. She saw her little apartment above the grocery store in her dreams, and even as things were all wriggly around it, the apartment stayed just fine. It’d be just fine. No worries at all.
One particular afternoon after the kids moved away and Scarlett had nobody to skip rope with, she decided to tie one end of a fine double-rope to a lamp post, then swing both ropes around in time with her new rhyme. Nobody was skipping in the center, nobody was really holding the other end, but that was okay. She could pretend it was her friend skipping rope with her. Same friend who taught the neat new rhyme…
I had a little bird,
its name was Enza.
I opened a window,
In-flu-enza. What a funny word! The sound of it made her giggle.
The sound of it made her mother angry.
"What in blazes are you singing, child?" Mother demanded to know.
"It’s a rhyme!" she explained, since it apparently wasn’t clear. "See, the bird’s name is Enza, and—"
"Who taught you that rhyme? Where did you hear that? Who have you been talking to?!"
The twin skipping ropes drooped. The girl who would be Scarlett was in trouble, and she didn’t even understand why. Hopefully she could explain this, make Mother less angry. Mother always got so angry, especially after she was drinking, and the smell of that drink was in the air even away from the stoop of the empty grocery store.
"Nobody real," the girl said. "Nobody bad. I learned it from my imaginary friend."
"You’ve been talking to adults, haven’t you? Someone taught you that rhyme. That’s a bad rhyme, from a bad time…"
"Oooh! Rhyme and time are rhymes—"
"Don’t you sass me, child! Who taught you about that rhyme? Who?!"
With no other choice, the one who would be Scarlett described the one who would be named Lucid.
Mother paddled her but good that day. Demanded she never see her imaginary friend again—that the imaginary friend didn’t exist, and it was all foolishness, and if she ever saw that girl again she was to make the sign of the cross and tell her to go away. And then Mother opened a new bottle and spent the rest of the day alternating between drinking and yelling.
That very night, when the two girls met in dreams… the imaginary girl was not shooed away, or cast out. No.
Because her real-world friend was not happy with Mother, who was being very unkind. It hurt a lot to be paddled, and she didn’t like being yelled at, no way, no how. So… why not defy Mother? She’d play with her friend all night in dreams, and her friend would comfort her as she always did when there was pain, and all would be well. It would be their secret. If Mother ever asked again, well… what imaginary friend? Imaginary friends didn’t exist.
Felt sore, just watching that. A distant memory, but through the glass of the shop window, it returned clear as day.
"In her own way, I suppose she was worried for me," Scarlett admitted. "Mother had her own demons to deal with. I’ve forgiven her; to forgive is divine. Her daughter, speaking to people who didn’t exist? In that day and age, surrounded by cubism and the confusion of early City history? Must’ve been quite horrifying. She didn’t understand who you were, and I was too young to explain properly…"
"She knew who I was. That’s why she was afraid."
A direct answer. Sent an odd chill down Grandma Scarlett’s back, hearing such a straightforward and unprompted reply from her friend.
"What do you mean?" she asked, pushing past the instinct not to bother wanting for clarity.
"Your mother knew who I was," Lucid repeated. "We’d met before. And… I scared her. I didn’t mean to. It was a bad time. A bad rhyme, from a bad time…"
So many words, words on top of words, compared to the usual silence and misdirection. Scarlett knelt, to look the child in the eye. If this was a rare connection, it was one she dare not dismiss so easily… or allow to break.
"Who are you?" she asked, in a straight manner. "Please… it’s been so long. There’s so little I really know about you. You’ve given me so much, and I’ve put so much faith in you, but… I want to know. I won’t say I deserve to know, I won’t demand it of you, but… if you’re willing, after we’ve come this far together…"
And… silence. A pause, as the child thought about it. Would she lapse into quiet once more? Was this the end of the vision? If Scarlett woke to morning light without any answers, without even a hint of what this memory journey was supposed to mean, what an unfortunate mess that would be—
"You wouldn’t have understood. You couldn’t have understood," Lucid spoke. "Here and now… you can. But knowing will come at a price. A price on top of the price you’ve already paid. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t ask more of you than you already gave."
"…mmm. Afraid I still don’t understand, child," Scarlett admitted. "Two prices? What was the first one?"
"Your life. You paid with your life when you lay down to sleep this evening."
Chill, in the evening City air.
All these memories. Of course. Life flashing before your eyes, that’s how they said it works, yes? It wasn’t just a dream; it was the dream, the last one. Her bear. She’d sewn her own bear, to watch over her on this final night and bring her comfort for something she had no idea she was about to face…
There was no fear. Some sadness, that’s all. Not at her own fate, but at missing her children, and her companion. A woman her age made certain preparations in cold certainty; Jeb was capable of running the orphanage, and had the legal papers to ensure it stayed with him. But… that didn’t stop her from feeling remorse at leaving it all behind. Gone. Without even getting to say a proper goodbye. Few got that chance, really, but she was hoping that the foresight Lucid granted her would have… well…
"Couldn’t you have warned me?" Scarlett asked, in a small voice. "Couldn’t you have done that much for me? After all I’ve done for you?"
A darkness, about the child. Sadness… and frustration. Her fists, tight.
"I can’t see what they do, not always," Lucid admitted. "My sisters. They move sideways, on strange and dark roads. He came for you before I could see he would come for you."
The teacup in Scarlett’s hand felt heavier than the world. Her brittle wrist ached from it.
Her gentleman caller, the one with the business plan. He’d given her a chance—sell the bear business, keep her orphanage going forever. She rebuked him.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this to work, but my patron insisted I give you the chance.
And then, they drank a toast.
To your health.
"He poisoned me," Scarlett realized. "That Jack Hayes fellow. Slipped it in my tea when he leaned in to shake my hand…"
"I’m so sorry. He moves on her paths of reflection and misdirection. I couldn’t see. Then, it was too late."
A teacup of blood fell slipped from her fingers, falling away to nothing.
So. Murder. Not the way she was expecting to go, despite all the enemies she’d made over the years. But what could she do about it, now? How could she warn her friends? She was dead. This was the end of the road…
"…this is the end of the road, right?" she asked, some glimmer of hope starting to flicker there. "Right? Or is there… more? You said there were two prices. I paid one, and if I wanted to know who you were, I’d have to pay another. What are you scheming this time, child? What long game are you playing?"
More silence, before the response. So much hesitation on her behalf. What could possibly be worse than being dead? What was she afraid of?
"To see what I see and not just what you’ve seen, you have to be like me," Lucid explained. "Part of my world. You’ll know what all of this is, and the knowing will change you. Not really gone, even if you’re dead. Something else. And something else entirely beyond that, should you face the truth. You’ll become an idea, like me."
"With the alternative being…?" Scarlett wondered, starting to see the shape of it.
"I let you go, peacefully. And you go… wherever. To your rest, perhaps."
A helpless shrug. Some things, even Lucid didn’t know.
Bitter little laugh, from the matron. Of course. Lucid wasn’t the Lord, after all. Whatever she was, whatever this was… it wasn’t an all-encompassing mystery. The true mystery of life existed beyond the child’s grasp.
"There are things you don’t know, then," Scarlett understood. "Maybe Heaven, maybe not. Maybe dead, maybe not. I suppose I could take my chances and drift away… but I’ve still a part to play if I want to play it, do I? Mmm. I’ve come this far. I’ll go farther, then. Farther and farther, until the road ends wherever it ends. I’ll pay your second price, child. Show me. Let me understand what this is."
Grandma Scarlett once told young Cassandra how she saw Lucid:
She speaks in dreams the way we speak in English. We see them as riddles, and in the waking hours, something less.
But for someone in the child’s world, right there alongside her… in a dream that doesn’t fade to waking hours, but goes on forever… that language of dreams becomes something you can feel the same way Lucid feels it. The binding needed to open Scarlett’s mind to that new syntax didn’t hurt at all. It was the next step from metaphor to true meaning. No storefronts of memory, no adorable little visual identifier to frame the experience… there was only the experience itself.
As the Heart of the City flowered to her eyes, she saw the true origin point of the City of Angles.
It came as a bit of a shock, however, to realize her mother was right there at the start of it.
At the start
At the start of it all
At the start of it all in what would be the City
At the start of it all in what would be the City there was a girl.
And then there was another girl.
Iris had been following a crying child’s voice, a voice much like her own. Couldn’t make out any words other than "help me," but that was enough; she wanted to help the poor girl. She’d been raised to be a proper young lady of charity and kindness, and despite her tender age of twelve years, despite Mother’s insistence she not stray too far while she was out shopping… Iris decided to seek out the child in need.
The voice led her away from Mother’s side at the fish market, down an aisle, out the door, and around a corner to end up in a part of the city she didn’t recognize.
The buildings were strange things; not entirely solid, it seemed. Bricks laid out in sloppy rows, some larger than others. Windows with no shop front labels, despite being on the market street. Streets that zigged and zagged deep into a fog, one so deep and so close that she couldn’t see more than two blocks in any direction. And people… no people. All alone.
At first Iris wondered if she’d hit her head, like that time she saw stars when the Johnson boys accidentally knocked her off the family porch. This place didn’t make sense. She should’ve been on market street, but this was a part of Boston that she didn’t recognize at all… bent and strange, like if some kid had scribbled out a drawing of a city and the workmen put it together from those scratches. Didn’t make any sense to her, since she’d lived on this block for years, and even as the city of Boston grew around her as fast as she was growing, it didn’t grow THAT fast.
Even as the initial impulse of fear gripped her, at being lost and alone… she heard a similar voice of fear from around the corner. The girl, whose voice she’d followed. Someone just as scared as her.
They’d just have to be scared together, then. And then they’d go looking for Mother, and everything would make sense again.
As she peered around the corner (not a proper right corner, the building was narrower in the back than the front for some reason) she heard the voice change, sobbing through a familiar rhyme.
"I had a little b-bird, its… it’s name was Enza…"
A white gown, flimsy. Like the kind she’d seen in the papers, on patients in the hospital. Singing about the flu, which was killing so many people.
Instinctively, Iris covered her mouth, because the white-haired girl’s sobs were choked with coughs and—yes, there was a sneeze. She had the sickness. Mother taught Iris not to breathe around those with the sickness lest she catch it herself, but… this sick girl was so alone, just like Iris, in this place. She couldn’t just run and hide like she ought around someone with the sick.
"Hello?" Iris called out, muffled behind her own hand.
The girl in the patient’s gown turned with a jerk, surprised to see anyone else here.
"H-hello," she mumbled back. And spotted the hand over the mouth. "I’m… you don’t have to worry. The doctors say I’m getting better. They gave me the special medicine, and, and I’m going to get all better now…"
Iris kept her distance, all the same.
"Are you alone here? Where’s your mother?" she asked.
"Don’t have a mother. I’m alone at the hospital, and… and…"
And now the girl looked around, as if noticing for the first time that she was standing in the middle of some unknown street. How she couldn’t have picked up on that sooner didn’t make sense, but from the surprise in her eyes, it’d certainly come as a shock.
"Where are we?" Iris asked, glancing nervously at the looming buildings… bending as they got taller, as if closing in. "What part of Boston is this?"
"Oh no. Oh no. Oh no oh no…"
Hands over her eyes, to block it out. Falling to her knees.
"My dream. It’s the city from my dreams!" the girl cried out. "I’m in the city I’m in the city oh no I’m, I’m, I’m, I, I, I—"
Being in an impossible and terrifying place was almost enough to make Iris crack; she’d held on for the sake of the one she wanted to help. But a girl her age could only see so much before fear took root. And seeing a child torn apart in front of her eyes, well… that was more than enough.
It wasn’t a grisly sight, but it hurt her eyes to watch. Like seeing stars, like being whooped by her father, blurring and distorting your vision. Not that Iris could stop watching, even as the girl slowly pulled apart, splitting at the seams. No blood, no bone, but… where one girl knelt, now there were three girls, all pulling away from each other by force, all in screaming agony.
Three overlapping screams. The words sank through Iris’s ears and into her mind, forever etched in memory despite the years and years of passionate denial she’d hold over what she saw on that day in the year of our Lord, 1919.
The green-and-black afterimage of the child, as if someone had covered her entirely in gangrenous wounds, that one screamed the loudest as it tore away… with mouths both howling and pulled into tight little smiles of teeth. oh no oh no please I’m scared I’m scared // nightmares // it’s my nightmares // I’m my nightmare // I’m a nightmare // ohhh yes…
Shimmering like water, the glowing blue reflection fled the other two as quickly as possible… covering her eyes with her hands, much as the girl had been doing. Not wanting to see what was happening. I want to wake up please let me wake up I don’t want this to go on I’m not even myself I’m nobody just an echo please make it stop…
But the third one… that one stuck with her, long after Iris thought she’d forgotten the other two. For years that child’s eyes haunted her, because they locked on Iris’s own… pleading with her, desperate. The faint red light of her heartbeat fading away as the other two peeled away, the third desperately reaching out towards Iris, for help.
Words fading on the wind, as the three went their separate ways… but intended for Iris alone.
…don’t want to be alone want to live don’t want to die please help me someone anyone come and help…
Soon, they came.
A woman came—one who swept up at the local general store, one who knew Iris’s family. That woman would raise Iris as her own, in time. Then more men and women, and even children. Refugees from cities and small towns all over America, even some farmers from the western states…
One by one the City began to fill with life. What started as a handful of poorly defined buildings became more firm, like dirt tramped down by so many feet. Streets and blocks filled out, pushing the boundary of the more terrifying and hazy spaces outward.
No clear way home. No way to reconnect with lost families. Those first few years were tough, indeed… banding together in impromptu families and communities, scavenging the freshly arriving buildings for whatever they could find. Soon the men who talked and talked decided to form what they called a City Council, to organize their survival.
Iris’s new mother pushed to join the Council, and despite the scoffs made about a negro, much less a negro woman serving in government, they didn’t have much of a choice… few others were willing to take the "Resources" job they’d designed, preferring to hide indoors rather than wander around the city getting things done. Iris lived reasonably well, after that.
The City of Angles, so named by the menfolk because of how strangely the buildings were laid out. The City of Angles grew, expanded, became a true place rather than the idea of a place. Men still searched for some way home, sometimes venturing into the undefined spaces or the invisible openings to a tangled network of places they started calling the Sideways… but nobody found the road to America.
In fact, some of these explorers came back… strange. Strange and very, very dangerous. A professor from a west coast college called them Picassos, after his favorite painter’s work. Between that and supplies wobbling between scarcity and plenty, the early years were indeed rough. Iris kept on, regardless, growing with each year. Eventually marrying. Eventually having a daughter, who would one day call herself Scarlett.
Eventually, Iris forgot what Boston even looked like. Forgot her Earth mother’s face. Made a new life for herself.
But the one thing she could never forget was the sight of that first girl’s awful fate. Couldn’t forget the words, or the nursery rhyme. All of it burned into her mind. And when she heard her own daughter singing that terrible verse, speaking cheerfully about the very same abandoned child that Iris saw on day one, it brought all that fear back to the surface. All of it.
All of it, in the span of a single thought. Curious, since the thought wasn’t spoken in words, or even seen as a flashback in some fancy movie… it came to mind unbidden. My mind. It was as much my memory as hers, now.
What’s going on?
I’m sorry. It’s like I said, you’re a part of this now, it’s changed you.
Curious. A very curious vantage point, as well. Mmm. Well, then. So this is how it’s going to be, is it.
It’s all the same, yes? The City itself, the Sideways, those curious signals the Jones girl adores, this dream of dreams that we occupy now, and so on. All of it is exactly the same thing, just seen through different lenses by the dreamer. It’s all one continuous City of Angles. It could’ve easily all been like the Sideways like Bedlam wanted it to be, if not for the pushback of conscious minds seeking familiar and friendly patterns…
Mmm, yes. It all makes sense from here. All those minds, all those souls, living in a city that only exists as a subconscious consensus. Quite fascinating.
And you… you’re responsible for expanding the city, and pulling everybody into the dream. You started all this going back in the twenties, so you wouldn’t have to be alone. But that cry for help snowballed rapidly beyond your control, and then the two other parts of you started interfering, and… well, it’s quite a mess now, isn’t it, child?
I know. I’m sorry. I tried so hard to make it better. I whispered in the dreams of special people, those in tune with the dream, like you. Your mother wouldn’t listen to me anymore, but you did. Through people like you, I could start to change things. But that wasn’t enough. I decided the only way to understand and help people who were conscious was to become conscious…
To be born?
I guess that’s as close as it comes to the right word. Yes.
Hah. Little Penelope Yates, the spirit made flesh. Well, well, well. That might very well break the stalemate.
Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I can’t see. These are dangerous times. Echo is moving, in the mirrors. She had you killed and I couldn’t stop it. Something is coming and I can’t see it. You can’t either, because now you share this dream with me. I’m sorry. There’s actually not much we can do from here.
Mmm. Maybe not, but I’ve faith in Penelope’s pluck. And… maybe we can do something to help. Yes. Could take some thinking. Some care and attention. But if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s caregiving.
It’s high time you girls had a proper mother. That’s really why you couldn’t simply let me go, isn’t it?
Shh, shh. Hush, child. Sleep now, and have pleasant dreams. We’ll face the morning together.