As a quick note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to click the ‘previous chapter’ button above.
Later that night, I was lying on the roof of the house, staring at the sky. There was snow around me, but I didn’t really care. I’d thought about making an angel in it, but the very concept of angels was pissing me off at the moment, so it didn’t sound like fun. Instead, I just lay there watching the stars.
It had taken awhile to tell my teacher everything that had happened while she was gone. Dare was… well, to say she was surprised was putting it lightly. Plus, I think she was a little bit jealous about my interacting with Prosser. There was a certain wistfulness to her reactions that made me think that she wanted to have been there. I wondered if she had ever met the man, or if her reaction simply came from spending so much time around the Heretics that practically worshiped him (without knowing him).
Eventually, she promised not to tell anyone about it other than Gaia. Then Jeremiah had come back in with Suttle to erase my father’s memory about seeing Scott. The baron had left me a card with his phone number if I ever wanted to contact him again, adding a note on the back with an e-mail address as well. It was different from the one that was already on the card. A more private one, he’d said.
I wasn’t really planning on using it. The man seemed friendly enough, and his reasoning for helping made sense. I just… wasn’t sure about how much I trusted him, or how much I wanted to push that trust, even if Professor Dare said it was okay. Call me crazy, but I thought it was better to be more discreet.
It took effort after that, but I finally convinced her and Senny to spend some time together while they had the chance, insisting that I’d be fine. Fossor had had his fun, showing that he could still hurt the people I cared about. At this point, he probably didn’t even know that Scott was a Pooka. If he had, he’d never have used him as an object lesson. Which meant that he’d probably leave me alone to stew in my misery, having (in his mind) made his point. So, after extensive discussion, I eventually got the two of them to go by promising that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. And technically that was the truth. Laying on the roof wasn’t actually going anywhere, and I had desperately needed to get out of the house for a little bit.
Inside, Dad was doing his thing, and I didn’t want to be there for that. I didn’t want to look him in the eyes while he sat there with no idea of what was coming the next day. I knew that probably before the morning was over, Dad was going to find out about the discovery of Scott’s body. And that was going to destroy him about as much as it had destroyed me when I’d thought that Scott was dead. He’d been around for so long that my father clearly practically saw him as nearly a surrogate son in a lot of ways. What was he going to do when he was forced to think that the boy was gone forever, that he was dead?
And how could I look my father in the eye and react normally without telling him that Scott was okay? How could I look myself in the mirror with the knowledge of what kind of pain my dad was going through? Or his parents. Oh God, the people who had been Scott’s adopted mother and father, how could I let them feel the way they were going to feel when the news about their son came in? I knew them, I’d spent time at their house growing up. How could I let them think that he was dead forever?
And yet, what else could I do? Tell the truth? They’d either think I was insane, or if they did believe me (or if I told them too much), they’d completely forget it. The Bystander Effect would make sure of that.
A dark shape blotted out the moon that I was staring at as I lay on my back on the roof of the house. The raven flew in a lazy circle before coming back around to land nearby, shifting into Twister’s form.
“Hey,” I gave a wave without looking that way. “Kinda late for you to be up, isn’t it? Couldn’t sleep?”
Instead of making a crack like she normally would, the Pooka girl just watched me for a few seconds before taking an obvious breath to steady herself. “So, uh, there was a lot of stuff going on back there with all the Heretics being around and everything else, but… there’s probably something I should talk to you about before it blindsides you. Something about your dad and this whole Pooka revival thing.”
Confused (and honestly a little trepidatious about how bad it could possibly be), I asked, “What?”
“Your dad,” she started, looking like this was basically the last thing in the world she actually wanted to talk about, but was forcing herself to. “He’s not going to remember Scott after this. Like, at all.”
The words fell like a bomb. And like a bomb, it felt like a concussive wave had punched through my gut. For a moment after she spoke, I just stared at her while trying to comprehend. “What—what?!”
“It’s a Pooka thing,” she elaborated. “You know how the Bystander Effect erases all the supernatural stuff from human memories? They see something completely inexplicable and it just ‘poof’, disappears?” When I nodded, she gestured. “That’s what happens when Pooka die. Anyone that’s not immune to the Bystander Effect just… poof, we disappear from their minds. We’re erased. That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time around normal humans, because every time I die, they completely forget who I am. It sucks, so I stopped doing it. But it’s been awhile, so I didn’t even think about it last night when… when everything happened. It was all going so fast and there were Heretics here and–” She sighed. “Sorry.”
“You—he–” My mouth worked while my head shook. “That doesn’t even… how? You mean my dad just—forgot everything about Scott? Everything? All of it? What about his parents? Do they just forget they had a son? They have pictures! And his mom still had his room with some of his stuff that he didn’t take with him. What about all that? What about his job? Do they just forget about him? What about cases he’s supposed to testify in, or tickets he’s written, or anything else he did as a deputy?”
“Bystander Effect,” she answered. “They’ll look at the pictures and not see him. They’ll see his room and stuff and think it belongs to someone else, like a friend that stayed for awhile, or a nephew, or anything else other than the truth. People will suddenly remember the cases being taken by someone else. Everything in the Bystander world gets rewritten as if he was never there.” Her expression darkened a bit then as she looked away from me, voice dropping to a mutter. “Like I said, it sucks ass.”
“No, but—that’s not–” My stomach was sinking. His parents would just forget he existed? That was—that was just… wrong. Sure, I hadn’t known how I was going to help my dad and Scott’s parents get through losing him, but I didn’t want them to forget him. That was sick. It was awful. “That’s not fair.”
“Tell me about it,” Twister muttered. Her voice made it clear that she’d been personally burned by that. She looked over at me, brow twisted into a frown. “You said those angel fucks were behind that shit?”
“Seosten,” I muttered quietly while nodding. “Yeah. They created the Bystander Effect, apparently.”
“Yeah, well…” Twister went silent briefly, her emotions playing over her face far more than they usually did. “I’d like to get them in a room somewhere and let them know just what I think about that.”
Closing my eyes, I thought about Scott’s parents, coworkers, and friends just forgetting he ever existed. I thought about his entire life in the Bystander world being completely erased, of him being erased.
“So would I,” I muttered so quietly that the words were carried away by the breeze. “So would I.”
Christmas Day. It had always been important to my dad and me, a way of showing that we were still a family even though Mom wasn’t there anymore. When I was still young, he always went completely out of his way to make it special, obviously feeling like he had to make up for her absence. Not just as far as presents went, but with food and everything else too. He’d have holiday movies playing through the whole day, and the entire house would be filled with the smell of all the food he picked up from the restaurant and bakery the day before. Not to mention the lengths he went to as far as decorations went.
He’d always done everything he could to make sure that I didn’t feel like we were missing anything for the holiday. But we were. We were missing my mother, and no amount of cookies, music, bright lights, or Ralphie finally getting that BB gun could fill the void that her absence had left for all these years.
This year was worse in that regard. A hollow sort of empty feeling had settled over the proceedings throughout the morning, despite my (admittedly fairly pitiful) attempts to show enthusiasm. How could I, when the thought of Scott being completely erased dominated every moment that passed? Thinking about everyone grieving Scott’s death had been bad enough, but the idea that they forgot him? It made me feel sick. My stomach had twisted up inside throughout the morning, leaving me unable to eat.
“Hey kid,” Dad interrupted my thoughts, stepping in front of my chair while shaking a carton at me. “You want some of these pineapple cookies before I eat all of them? You didn’t take much breakfast.”
My mouth was already opening to speak even as I took the carton. The words came out automatically, before my brain had a chance to actually think about what I was saying. “Pineapple, Scott’s favorite.”
Even as I said the words, I was berating myself. No, no, no. I didn’t want to hear what came next.
Sure enough, Dad just chuckled as he stepped over to pick up the TV remote. Flipping through channels to find a Christmas movie we hadn’t already watched, he asked, “One of your classmates?”
It was a good thing that he wasn’t looking at me, because it took a few seconds for me to blink away the tears that tried to flood my eyes. And if he’d seen that, there was no way Dad wouldn’t push me on it.
“N-no,” I managed a bit weakly, the painful lump in my throat making it hard to breathe, let alone speak. “Just a…” I closed my eyes tightly for a moment before opening them. “Just a… good friend.”
“A good friend, huh?” Dad looked over at me slyly. “Should I be concerned about this ‘good friend’?”
No. I wanted to grab my dad and shake him. I wanted to shout Scott’s name into his face until it sank in. I wanted to scream at him that Scott had been taking care of me since I was a baby, that he himself had helped coach Scott’s Little League team, that… that he saw the boy as practically an honorary son.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do any of that. Because if I did, at the very best, he’d just think that I was crazy. At worst, the Bystander Effect would erase what I told him. Twister was right, this sucked ass.
Finally stopping on a station for longer than a few seconds, Dad smiled. “There we go, Earnest Saves Christmas. You used to love this movie. You begged so much for me to let you stay up to see it when you were ten.” Smiling at that memory, he glanced to me. “So, this Scott. He’s not from that school?”
Words almost failed me. Thought almost failed me. All that was left was emotion. And not very good emotion. Stumbling to my feet, I shook my head. “I—I need some air. I’ll be back later.” The words croaked their way out of me even as I went for the door, grabbing my coat and fleeing before he could ask more questions.
I was going to have to explain that later, or at least tell my father something. But I wasn’t thinking about that just then. All I could think about was how hard it was to breathe in the house and that I needed to leave before I blurted out something that I really shouldn’t. I had to go, had to get outside and just walk.
So that’s what I did. Pulling my coat on, I all but ran down the sidewalk. I had to get away, had to leave before my dad asked me any more questions, or looked at me with that completely blank expression whenever I brought up Scott. Seeing his total lack of memory about someone that important killed me.
I had no idea where I was planning on going, but it didn’t matter. I’d only barely made it to the end of our property, stepping into the neighbor’s driveway before a voice called out my name. Not Dad. Shiori.
Turning that way, I saw both her and Columbus trotting my way, the latter carrying a brightly wrapped present under one arm. They were also both grinning until they got close enough to see my expression.
“Flick?” Shiori blurted, eyes widening as she took a step my way. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
My mouth opened and shut, then I moved. Before I knew what I was doing, my arms were already around the girl. I hugged her tightly, drawing a squeak of surprise before she returned the embrace.
For a few long seconds, I didn’t say anything. I just hugged Shiori and tried not to cry. It was all I could do to remain standing. Which seemed stupid. Scott wasn’t dead. Things could have been a lot worse. Yet somehow, the thought of my father forgetting him, of his own parents forgetting him… it ruined me.
Finally, I got enough control over myself to release Shiori. Stepping back, I sniffed once before blushing with embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I just… I…” My shoulders shrugged helplessly and I nodded my head back the way I’d been going. “Do you guys mind… umm, walking with me?”
Both of them agreed quickly, and we started to walk. Shiori and Columbus kept giving me looks that were as curious as they were sympathetic. They obviously wanted to know what had happened. But they didn’t ask, didn’t push me to explain. Obviously, they were going to let me tell it on my time.
So, eventually, I did. As we walked fairly aimlessly down the streets, I quietly explained everything that had happened. I told them about the phone call, about Scott ‘dying’, about finding out he was alive, Prosser’s visit, meeting with the baron, and what Twister had told me. I explained everything, trying to keep my voice as steady as possible even as the two of them reacted with horror through a lot of it.
“But… but how does that—how?” Columbus stammered once I finished talking. “What about all the records, the physical records about his existence? Not just papers, but videos. And stuff in the computer, and… and all of it. What about all that stuff? Does the Bystander Effect just erase all that?”
I gave a helpless, equally annoyed shrug. “According to Twister, it’s more simple than that. People affected by it just don’t see things like that. If they look at a paper that mentions the person, their brains won’t comprehend it. The memory of what they read disappears immediately. It’s like back when we were trying to tell Sean and Avalon about Abigail and Wyatt. The memory doesn’t stick in their head. If Scott’s parents look at a picture with both of them and little Scott, all they’ll see is the two of them. It doesn’t physically change documents or anything, it just makes it so they can’t retain that information long enough for their brain to do anything with it. It’s automatically erased before they consciously acknowledge it.”
“That’s… that’s…” Shiori stammered, face red as she stared at me. “That’s just… wrong.”
“I know,” I acknowledged quietly, feeling even more helpless than I had before. “But what can we do? My dad, his co-workers, his friends, even his family all forgot him. I saw it with my dad, he had no idea who I was talking about.”
“Bystander Effect,” Columbus muttered darkly. “You know, the more I hear about that thing, the more I hate it. Those wannabe angels really screwed us over.”
Shiori and I both nodded in silent agreement. After a moment, I murmured, “Can you imagine how different the world would be without it?”
“In good and bad ways,” Columbus pointed out. “I mean, if humans knew they could get superpowers by putting Alter blood in their blood? A lot of people would hunt innocent Alters down just for that.”
“And a lot wouldn’t,” I replied. “I mean, sure, there’s bad people like that. But if it was all in the open, Alters could have… you know, rights and people who did that could be held accountable.”
“Would they be?” Columbus countered. “I’m just saying, humans don’t have the best track record of being able to get along with each other, let alone whole new races. Some of whom actually do prey on humans. It’s all… muddled.”
I nodded, acknowledging that. “It wouldn’t be perfect. It’s not like erasing the Bystander Effect would make everything into paradise. But still… the Seosten magic isn’t right. It’s not the way things should be.”
We continued walking then, each of us silent for a few minutes, clearly lost in our own thoughts.
Eventually, Shiori’s hand found mine and squeezed it a little. Her voice was quiet. “What about Fossor and Ammon?”
Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I managed to respond, “They’ll pay. Everyone they hurt, everyone they killed, everything… everything they’ve done. My mom, They’ll pay for it. That Denise from the gas station, Scott, everyone. They’ll pay for everyone they hurt, everyone they killed.
“Fossor wanted to remind me that he’s still a threat. He wanted me to take him seriously. Well, I’m going to. Everyone he’s ever hurt or killed, every life he’s ruined, every person he’s destroyed, I’m going to take it incredibly seriously.
“And when the time comes… I’m going to make him choke on it. All of it.”