Shovel

Interlude 10A – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, for those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that, you might want to do so by clicking here.

Boring, boring, boring. The night was so freaking boring. Amber had been on patrol for what felt like half a day by that point (it was only two hours), and literally nothing of any note had happened. She was strolling along the sidewalk, making herself visible for people so they knew there was a Star-Touched in the area (according to Silversmith, that was a big part of the entire job), and generally just associating with the civilians. Which was fine. It was totally fine. It was part of the job. But… but she was so bored. She wanted to cut through the next alley and just see what she could find somewhere off her assigned patrol pattern. But that was a bad idea. Silversmith tended to get a bit annoyed if you deviated off a path when he specifically gave you one. He didn’t always, of course. A lot of the time you could simply patrol a given section of the city however you wanted. But when he did assign a full path, you had better stay on it. 

And here she was, walking the path that Silversmith had assigned, with nothing happening. Seriously, she was about to fall asleep on her feet. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer boredom. The most exciting thing that had happened was a few people wanting to take pictures with her, and even that wasn’t often because the authorities tried to make it clear that official Star-Touched on patrols were to be left alone to do their jobs. So mostly people just took pictures of her from afar, which was fucking creepy as all hell, seriously what the living fuck. 

Creeps aside, Amber was about ready to call in and ask if there was literally anything going on that she could help with. Even if it was as simple as getting an old lady’s cat out of a tree. She was that desperate for something to do beyond walking down the street while studiously ignoring people with cell phones out filming her. Because if she didn’t find something to do, she was seriously going to consider chucking a rock or two at a few of the creepiest ones. Actually, she might do that anyway. It sounded like a good idea. 

Then she saw it. Up and to the left, on the roof of a dry cleaners, stood a figure in dark-purple armor with speaker system vents all over it. Broadway. That was Broadway, from La Casa. Amber had never met her in person (even if she’d come close during that… thing with Pack the other day), but she did recognize her from the briefings they’d gotten. She was pretty distinctive.

In any case, fuck yeah, something to do! And she was even standing to the north, which was just perfect. Grinning at the fact that she was finally being freed from her mind-numbing boredom, Amber instantly teleported herself right up to the side of the other girl, hand lashing out to catch hold of her arm as she positioned herself facing east to activate her invulnerability. 

Broadway was already gone. She’d used her own teleportation power to esca–no, she was right there at the other end of the roof! Before the girl could counter-attack, That-A-Way threw herself that way in a superfast sprint. Broadway’s fault for setting herself up to the west.  

A sudden blast of deafening sound focused solely on her made the girl stumble, falling to one knee as her hands covered her ears. Oh shit, that was loud! She could barely think through it. Focus, focus! She’d teleport out of the way, circle around and come up behind–

The sound stopped. Blearly, Amber blinked up to see Broadway holding both hands out. Just as she started to dive out of the way of whatever was about to hit her, however, the sound of the other girl’s voice reached her. “–not here to fight, dude! Just hold up a second, jeez!” 

Okay, it was true that Amber hadn’t seen Broadway actually do anything wrong. But still, she was a wanted criminal and all that. And… and she was friends with Pack. Yeah. Amber knew the two were teammates. She knew from Pack’s rambling back when they had… um… fought that Broadway had been the one driving that van. So maybe she sort of… overreacted. Maybe her own boredom wasn’t the only reason she’d lunged to attack. It was slightly possible that seeing Broadway there had reminded her of that whole thing with Pack and her guilt over… 

Over what? She hadn’t let Pack escape. She hadn’t. She’d tried to bring her in, had even fought her. So why did she feel guilty about it? Why did she feel so guilty that seeing Broadway here had made her feel like she had to prove she hadn’t let Pack go on purpose by grabbing her teammate? How did that even make sense? And why the fuck was this so complicated anyway? 

Pushing herself up, Way watched the Fell-Touched warily, ready for any kind of trick. This had to be a trick, right? Her eyes narrowed, glancing around briefly just in case something was coming at her from another direction. Nothing. They were alone on the roof. “What do you want?” 

“Me?” Broadway shrugged elaborately, clearly overly-emphasizing the motion so that it would carry through the armor she wore. “I don’t want anything really. I was just looking for the bastards who attacked… never mind. Point is, I saw you on patrol and thought my buddy might want to know you were around. Turns out she wants to talk to you pretty bad though.” With that, she held up a flip phone, offering it that way. “She said to tell you it’s about Paintball.” 

The reflexive denial that had been on Amber’s lips, the immediate refusal to talk to Pack and risk everything that would come with that, died. Paintball. Fuck. “What did you people do to him?” she demanded, ignoring just how little sense that made. They were the bad guys, the bad guys. She had to force herself to keep thinking of them that way, no matter what. Which, again, might have resulted in a little overcompensation. 

“Seriously?” Broadway was clearly just as aware of the ridiculousness of that assumption. “Here, dude.” She underhand tossed the phone without arguing further about that. “Talk to her.” 

Amber considered tossing the phone away. Damn it, she was Star-Touched and they were Fell-Touched! If anyone found out she was having some kind of casual conversation with them, let alone that when she and Pack had fought she had… that she might have… that…

Fuck. Snapping the phone open, she brought it to her ear and demanded, “What’s going on with Paintball?” 

Pack’s answer came immediately. “You tell me. What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you go help him? You can’t be done already. Don’t tell me you left him out there on his own.”

Okay, now Amber was even more confused. She blinked over at Broadway, who stood still, watching her with what seemed like curiosity even though it was hard to read through the armor. “Uhh… what? I haven’t talked to Paintball lately. What are you going on about?” 

There was a brief silent pause, followed by a full litany of cursing. Amber was pretty sure there were some bad words in there from several other languages. It went on for a few long seconds before Pack finally snapped, “–fucking idiot!” 

“Excuse me?” Way demanded reflexively. 

“Not you!” the voice on the phone blurted. “Paintball! He’s a fucking god damn idiot! He fucking lied to me just to–who the fuck knows why! He lied to me! He said he was going to call you for help! That’s the only reason I let him go by himself, because he wasn’t–god damn it!” 

“Calm down,” That-A-Way ordered, her mind swimming. “Okay, just wait a minute. What was he going to call me about? You let him go where by himself? And why did you have anything to say about it anyway? He doesn’t work for you. He–” 

“Never mind that!” Pack interrupted. “Look, we–I don’t know what the hell is going on, not exactly. But Paintball asked Eits to do some research for him. Yeah, I don’t know why. Eits found some address and got jumped for it. Someone beat the shit out of him. I got Paintball here and gave him the address. He said he was going to call you for back-up to check it out! Now he’s been gone for over an hour and I find out he never even called you!” 

Taking in all that, Amber felt a rush of nausea and confusion wash over her. What the hell was Paintball having a bad guy look up for him? And why had he gone off on his own after telling Pack he would ask for help? And why hadn’t he checked in again? 

“Where is he?” she finally demanded. “Where did you send him? I’ll check it out myself.” 

“Not by yourself you won’t,” came the retort. “Broadway has the address. Follow her, I’ll meet you there. We’ll find out what the fuck is going on, even if I have to smack Paintball until he stops being so secretive.” 

Amber considered arguing. But Pack had already hung up. So that conversation was over. With a sigh, she looked at Broadway. Several options bounced back and forth through her mind, but there was really only one possibility. She couldn’t just abandon Paintball. And it would take too long to try to explain the situation to her own people. “Fine,” she muttered. 

“Lead the way.” 

*******

It was some small, ordinary house in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood. Well, maybe not actually that small. But still, it was just a house. Given that the state it was in, Amber would have said it was empty, but a dog was sitting in the fenced-off and heavily overgrown front yard and didn’t seem to be starving or anything. It was just sitting there, watching people pass by.  

At the moment, Amber was standing at the end of the street in a clump of trees just above a drainage ditch. Broadway and Pack (who had the cage with her lizards sitting nearby) were standing a few feet away, all three of them watching that house as they had been for the past minute. 

“So, I don’t get it,” Broadway finally piped up. “Why’re we standing around like this? Are we going to go bust in there and check this place out, or what? Paintball’s like, a friend to you guys, right? If he’s in trouble, that’s the first place to start. He could be hurt or something in there.”  

Way gave the Fell-Touched a brief squint. “We–” she amended belatedly. “I don’t just go breaking into people’s homes like that. We don’t know if he’s in there at all. We don’t even know if he made it or not. Anything could have happened. We don’t have a warrant or probable cause or anything to justify busting in someone’s private home just because we’re worried. Especially since I’m off my patrol route and haven’t reported in about this. You know, for obvious reasons.” 

“Oh,” Pack replied casually, “well that’s easy to deal with. Just close your eyes for a minute.” As she said it, the girl was already starting to move that way, stopping to pick up the cage on the way. “Luckily, I brought my universal lockpick. Didn’t I, Marsy? You wanna smash a door in?” 

Quickly, Amber moved and grabbed the other girl by the arm. “Stop! You can’t just break in there either. It’s broad daylight and anyone could be watching. Do you have any idea what you could-”  

Pack snatched her arm free, somehow managing to scowl at That-A-Way despite the completely blank mask that covered her face. “No, do you have any idea what could be happening to Paintball in there while we just stand here? Did you hear the part about how some assholes practically beat Eits into a coma just for looking for this place and not telling them the address? Whatever’s going on here, whatever it is, it’s really fucking important. Don’t you care about what could’ve happened to Paintball and why he just completely disappeared?”

Wincing at that, Amber nodded. “Of course I care! I’m here, aren’t I? I mean, I really shouldn’t be, but…” She sighed, shaking that off. She made her choice and would deal with the consequences if it came to it. That said, she wasn’t going to be stupid about the whole thing and just burst right in. “But we have to do this right. Not only because we–I could get in trouble, but because if there are bad guys in there, waltzing right in could be just as bad as doing nothing.” 

“Moving girl’s got a point,” Broadway put in, giving That-A-Way a thumbs up. “Bad guys or good guys, we’re all pretty screwed if we walk into the same trap that caught Paintball. I mean, not that we know he walked into a trap. But let’s be real, he probably walked into a trap.” 

Finally relenting, Pack glanced to the cage at her feet. “Fine, Riddles and Twinkletoes can scout the place out from above and close in. They can check what the place looks like up close, see if anyone’s in there through the windows. But we do this fast.” 

Amber agreed, stepping back and watching as Pack brought the two lizards to their larger forms and sent them off to do their job. As they took off, one flying and one invisible, she asked, “How many times have you tried calling him?” Even then, Amber was taking the phone from her own pocket and hitting the option to try calling Paintball himself for about the fifth time since she’d heard about this. As with the first four, it went straight to the generic voicemail. 

“Half a dozen,” Pack replied flatly. “After that, there didn’t seem to be a point. We know something’s wrong. Either something in that place attacked him, or he got jumped on the way here.” She looked over to Way, adding pointedly, “Either way, I’m getting in that house to find out what the fuck is going on.” 

There was something in her voice, a… guilt? Amber wasn’t sure, but it sounded like the other girl was blaming herself for the whole situation. She found herself pointing out, “Look, Pack, you know Paintball isn’t your responsibility or anything. He’s not on your team or–” 

Pack quickly interrupted. “Fuck that. I should have known that he was going to feel guilty about the whole thing with Eits. I should have figured out that he was lying and that he’d go off by himself to try to make sure no one else got hurt or some shit. I should’ve known, but I was just…” She was clearly scowling, arms folded across her stomach as she looked away. “I was upset. I was mad that he got Eits involved, even though it wasn’t his…” A long sigh came. “I was mad. I was stupid. He was stupid. We were all stupid. And now Paintball’s in trouble.”

By that point, Riddles was swooping in to land on a nearby tree. Pack looked that way, and Amber resisted the urge to demand to know if they were actually communicating. 

Finally, the other girl looked to her and Broadway. “The house seems empty. And it looks like no one’s lived there for months. There’s cobwebs, dust everywhere, the lot.”  

“That… doesn’t make sense,” Broadway pointed out, bouncing a bit as if impatient and tired of standing still. “What about the pupper out front?” 

“Yeah…” Amber squinted that way, forgetting who she was with in that moment as she pushed off to walk to the house. Something really weird was going on. “I think we need to check out that dog.” Now the whole thing was even more suspicious. What the hell was going on? 

The neighborhood was pretty quiet, so the three reached the gate of the house without running into anyone. As they stood there, the dog perked its head up and panted while looking at them. 

“Hey, boy… or girl,” Amber coaxed, hoping the animal wouldn’t be too put off by their costumes (especially Broadway’s heavy armor). “Who’s a good whatever-sex-you-are? You are. You are. C’mere…” She put her hand through the gate and the dog gave a happy little wag while getting up to move that way. 

Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound as something shot past Amber and the others. It was a small stone, which rebounded off the dog’s snout, making it jerk back with a reflexive snarl. 

Spinning that way, her guard up as she snatched the taser-baton from her side, That-A-Way stared at… “Skip?” It was the girl from Ten Towers, standing there in the white short-sleeved robe and hood that covered a blue-black bodysuit, her lower face covered by a black cloth mask. She had just hurled the stone past the three Touched to hit the animal.

“Not a dog,” she said simply, in that matter-of-fact, eerily calm way she had. Amber had seen and fought alongside the girl several times and she’d never seen her raise her voice or seem emotional in any way. “Get back now.” Her tone was about as urgent as it ever got.  

Even as Skip said that, Amber felt movement behind her. She spun, activating her power to teleport to the north while grabbing Pack. Broadway teleported backward at the same time. 

They barely avoided the mouth of the dog. A mouth that was now a hell of a lot bigger than it had been. Large enough to have swallowed Amber whole if given a chance. 

“The fuck?!” the girl blurted, stumbling a little. Even as she said that, the dog’s head (because that was the only part of it that had grown) resumed its normal size. It snarled at them before abruptly spitting some kind of nasty-looking greenish-brown mucus stuff at the ground. The mucus spread out to cover a space about two feet wide, before the dog… dove… into the mucus. Literally, it dove into the gooey, gross stuff, disappearing as if it was jumping into a pool of water. A moment later, the mucus faded into the ground, leaving them staring at nothing. 

“I’m sorry,” Amber managed while scrambling to the fence. “But what the fuckity fucking fuck?!” 

“Uhh, what she said,” Broadway agreed, sounding like she was about to be sick. “What the hell was that?” 

“I don’t know,” Skip calmly informed them. “But it was playing lookout for the people who abducted Paintball.” 

“What?!” Pack snapped, suddenly moving that way. “You saw something happen? Who–what–where?” 

Without responding to the girl directly, Skip turned her head slightly, looking at That-A-Way. “You work with villains?” She didn’t sound judgmental. She barely sounded curious. 

“It’s a long story,” Way informed her. “Really long. But we’re looking for Paintball, if you–” 

“He said a friend of his was hurt and needed help,” Skip replied flatly. “I saw him after that and thought he might be in trouble. I was busy, but after I was done, I looked for him. That brought me here. I don’t come out here very often, so my closest marker was a few streets over and I had to come look for him. I got here in time to see people put him in a car, but I was too far away to see who they were. They wore long coats.” 

“God damn it!” Pack blurted. “I knew that idiot was in trouble! And now we have no fucking idea where he is!” 

“You would have an idea,” Skip calmly informed her without a trace of recrimination in her voice, “if you allowed me to finish speaking.” 

“What?” Pack demanded. “You said you didn’t see who they were and you weren’t close enough to do anything about it.” 

Skip gave a simple nod. “True. But I did see the license plate before they left and sent it to Ten Towers support. I waited, and was on the phone with them when you arrived. I witnessed the so-called dog shift itself into a larger form in an attempt to ambush the invisible figure you sent to investigate the house, but you approached first and interrupted, forcing the creature to resume its passive form in an attempt to shift the ambush to you instead. Thus, I thought it prudent to interrupt.” 

“You said you were on the phone with your support team?” Amber managed, pushing her way past all that. 

“Yes,” Skip confirmed. “They have traced the car through several street cameras to a warehouse on the far side of town. If you would like, I can take you there.” 

“Oh, we definitely like,” Pack retorted. 

“Take us to this warehouse. Because whoever abducted Paintball is about to get a really goddamn rude awakening.” 

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Fault 10-06 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to handle this myself. I wasn’t going to let anyone else get hurt because of my situation. This whole thing came from my family, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to drag anyone else into it. Seeing poor Eits lying there on that bed in that condition had been the wake-up call that I needed. I couldn’t let other people end up in that same situation just because they wanted to help me. Whatever came next, I would have to sink or swim on my own.  

Maybe it was stupid to go off by myself like that. But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about the danger to myself. I was just thinking about avoiding putting anyone else I cared about in a hospital bed. The thought of Pack, or That-A-Way, or anyone else being hurt the way that Eits had been just about destroyed me. Hell, the memory of what Eits himself had looked like lying there did that all on its own. So no, I couldn’t involve anyone else in this. Not this time. 

What I could do was check out the address the boy had apparently found. Which didn’t help me deal with the men who had attacked him, but their time would come later. I promised myself that. No, this had to be the address of Robert Parson, my old driver and sort-of babysitter when I’d been younger. 

And that was just confusing in and of itself. Why would a bunch of guys jump Eits and hurt him that badly just for looking up the address of this guy? According to Pack,  they’d been looking for the same address. So they didn’t have it either. Did that mean they were enemies of my family? Or was Robert himself an enemy now and that was why he’d stopped being my driver? He was involved in some way with the death of that Anthony kid and his parents, because he’d been in the car with them. So… what then? How was he involved? Which side was he on? Were the guys who were looking for him and had attacked Eits on my family’s side? Or were they attacking my family? Had Robert been involved in killing Anthony and his parents, with the car accident as a cover-up? Why was the name Anthony Tate so familiar to me? What the hell was going on? So many questions, and right now the only actual lead I had was this address. 

All those thoughts were rushing through my head in a jumbled mess while I made my way north, toward the address on the paper. A quick double-check had confirmed my first impression. The address was a house just a few blocks northeast of the zoo. I had used my Maps app to get a look at it. The place just looked like an ordinary, if upscale, three-story Victorian house with a detached garage in the corner of the lot. The lawn had looked well cared for in the satellite image, and there was a tall wrought-iron fence around the property. No cars had been in the driveway, but that didn’t mean anything, considering they could be in that garage. Besides, the photo could have been taken at any time. The only thing I really knew for sure was that I didn’t recognize the house itself from any other trip. Of course, given the fact that my memory had apparently been tampered with by Mr. Jackson, that didn’t mean anything either.  

I didn’t go straight to the house, no matter how much my anger and frustration about what had happened to Eits was driving me to be reckless. Instead, I stopped at the nearest office building in the neighborhood, the tallest structure around. Perched on the edge of the roof there, I scanned the neighborhood until I saw the house in question a couple blocks away.  There was still no visible vehicles, and the lawn looked worse than it had in the picture. It needed to be cut pretty badly, there were visible weeds, and the once-thriving flower garden up near the house hadn’t been tended to in what looked like a pretty long time. Despite those signs that it was abandoned, however, someone had to be there. Because there was a dog trotting around the front yard and it didn’t appear to be starving or anything. At least, not from this distance. And I was pretty sure any place that had been left for as long as it would take things to overgrow as much as they were would have had someone pick up the dog by now. No, it seemed like there was someone living there. They just weren’t taking care of the place anymore for whatever reason. Maybe they couldn’t take care of it. Or didn’t care enough now. Whether that someone was Robert Parson or someone who knew where he was, I was going to find out. And I was also definitely going to find out just what he had to do with the people who had attacked Eits. 

Still, I didn’t want to rush into things and end up doing nothing but making things worse. So, I sat there on the edge of that roof and watched the house for what had to be twenty minutes. Every second that passed, I wanted to go right in there. I wanted to do something useful. I wanted to stop closing my eyes and seeing Eits lying there on the bed. I wanted to distract myself from that horrific guilt that kept eating me up inside. But I waited. I watched, just to make absolutely certain that the house was as clear as it could be and that this wasn’t actually some kind of trap. 

Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to make my move. Taking a breath, I leapt from the roof of the building with the aid of a blue launch puddle. A shot of red toward the chimney of the next house over carried me there, and I landed lightly before throwing myself up once more. A guy walking his dog jerked in surprise as soon as he saw me, and I heard him blurt something (but didn’t catch what he actually said) just before I jumped away. Using a couple more houses to jump off of, I brought myself around toward the enclosed back yard of the address in question. 

It was quiet back here too. Staying low and silent, I watched the windows of the house. Nothing. The backdoor was closed, and there was no sign of anyone inside. I couldn’t hear the dog in the front yard. From what I’d seen when watching this place, the animal was stuck there and couldn’t get around to the back where I was. Hopefully, they wouldn’t smell or hear me and start barking their head off. That would be a good way to end up spoiling the fact that I was here. 

Just like I had from the roof of the other building, I remained still instead of rushing in. Watching the back of the house as patiently as possible given the situation turned out to be the right choice, because after a minute or two, I spotted the camera in the top left corner of the back patio. It was aimed inward, watching the door and windows. Then I spotted another one, aimed out toward the yard. Somehow, I’d managed to put myself far enough into the corner that I was pretty sure it didn’t see me. The way the camera was pointed, it had to take in most of the yard. 

Then I saw another camera. That one was at the corner of the house, pointed up through the space leading to the front yard. And sure enough, there was a fourth one at the other end. 

Right, I didn’t know much about Robert or whoever actually lived here. But I was pretty sure they were just a bit paranoid. Whether that was for good reason or not remained to be seen, though the fact that people had attacked Eits like that trying to get this address made it likely.

Okay, so what now? I needed to get in the house. Or at least talk to the person in there. But could I do that without the whole situation turning into a massive clusterfuck? Should I try to sneak in and check things out, or knock on the door? Should I stand in front of the camera? How would the person or people inside (if anyone was home right now) react if I just showed myself like that and asked to talk? And if they did talk, what would I even say to them? 

That was something I unfortunately hadn’t considered too much. What was I supposed to say had led me here? Could I just say that I’d been looking into Paige Banners, which led me to this Anthony Tate kid, and then to the only survivor of that car accident down in Texas? 

I was frozen like that for the moment, trying to decide what I should actually do. I couldn’t tell the whole truth, that was for damn sure. I also couldn’t let on that I knew… well, anything about this ‘Ministry’ thing. Or at least, not very much. Because if that got back to my family, it was bound to make things a hell of a lot more complicated for me than they already were. 

I had to be subtle, but breaking into this place felt like a good way to make things worse. So, for a moment, I couldn’t pick the best plan. Show myself and ask to talk, or maybe see if I could sneak up and peek in a window without being seen by any of the cameras? 

Fuck it, enough with this sitting around and hesitating. I needed to do something. Maybe it was just because of how helpless, stupid, and guilty I felt about letting Eits get hurt, but I couldn’t be patient. I was going to get some fucking answers. I was about to get up and walk right to the back door to knock on it, when something else caught my eye. That garage was nearby, and the side door was open a few inches to reveal darkness beyond. 

Okay, it was a longshot that there’d be anything interesting in there. But at least it was something. Checking the cameras once more to make sure there was space, I carefully inched my way along the fence until I could make a quick run to the garage, slipping in through the open door.

The place was pretty dark inside, but I could make out a car with the light that was coming in through the dirty windows on the main door at the front. There was a tarp over it, and I only hesitated for a moment before stepping over, reaching out, and pulling the tarp away.

Hey, I knew this car. It was a dark sedan, which didn’t really narrow it down, of course. But I recognized the little plastic coconut and pineapple hanging from the mirror. I’d given those to Robert when I was a little kid, right? I sort-of remembered giving them to him after I won them in some school carnival thing, on the way home. 

This was Robert’s car. Or–well, it was the car he’d driven me around in. I’d thought that would’ve belonged to my parents, but maybe they let him keep it? I wasn’t sure. Either way, this was definitely the car. I wasn’t sure how I was that positive, but I was. This was the car I’d been driven from home to school and back again in for years. 

Lost in my own memories, which were somehow simultaneously vague and specific, I tried the driver’s side door. It opened with a click, making the dome light pop on. I stepped inside, sitting down in the driver’s seat before letting out a low breath. This… Turning my head, I looked in the rearview mirror. 

Through my own memories, I saw Robert’s eyes in the mirror from my normal place in the back seat. I saw myself as a kid, chattering away at the man as he drove me home from school. My backpack was lying beside me with a bunch of books scattered over the seat. I was telling Robert all about the story in one of the books, before excitedly asking if we could stop and pick up–

Ugggnnnnn…. My head hurt. God, where did that come from? One second I was fine, then there was this weird headache that made me double over so much I literally bounced my helmet off the steering wheel. Damn it, oww. What the hell? 

Speaking of the steering wheel, why was I holding onto it so tight? God, ow, I was hurting my own hands from the force of my grip on it. What was wrong with me? Was sitting in this car just bringing up some kind of… memories… My lost memories. That had to be it. Something about being in this car was reminding my subconscious of something, and my body was reacting. 

Shaking it off as much as I could, I reached over to open the glovebox. It popped down, and I found the usual. Gloves, a pair of sunglasses, a couple maintenance and owners manual books, an incredibly old thing of Tic Tacs… nothing useful. Except, as I moved all that out of the way, there was something stuck inside the owner’s manual that fell out and landed on the passenger seat. It was a photograph, which landed facedown. Curious (and basically desperate for something useful), I picked up the photo and turned it over. 

It was me. That was the first thing I realized. There were two people in the picture. One was me, at about age… nine or ten, was my guess. The picture had been taken at the very same zoo that I’d passed on the way here. It was right outside the monkey cage. 

My face, and the realization of where the picture had been taken, were the first things to hit me. Then I saw the rest of it. I was… behind someone else, my chin on the other person’s shoulder while my arms were thrown around him. I was grinning, smiling from ear to ear while basically hanging off the other person. The other…

Boy. It was a boy about the same age as I was in the picture. He had light brown hair, a slight spattering of freckles across his face, brown eyes, and crooked teeth. He was going to have to get braces soon, which he was scared about because he thought–

Uggggghnnn! Dropping the photo, I doubled over once more. Owww, oww! Damn it, my head! What was wrong with my head? Were… were my lost memories about that boy? Is that why seeing his picture made my head hurt so much? Anthony. That kid had to be Anthony, right? That was the only thing that made sense. And he’d been my friend. That was… that had to be it. He was my friend. He had to be, just from looking at that picture. I knew Anthony Tate. Or had known him, before he died. 

I knew the boy well enough for him to be a friend that I was basically hanging off of at the zoo. Robert had a picture of the two of us stuck in the glovebox of his car in this garage. I kept getting a headache every time I focused on him. Yeah, this was my lost memories, the ones my mom had talked about. 

What did my parents do to Anthony? That had to be it, right? It had to be. They did something… something to that boy, and I found out about it. Then they erased my memory so I wouldn’t freak out on them. 

Even as I sat there, thinking about all that, I found myself getting more upset, more angry, at the whole situation. Before I really understood or even thought about what I was doing, the door was open and I was climbing out of the car. My hand grabbed the photo, shoving it safely into one of my pockets before zipping it shut. 

Then I was leaving the garage. Answers. Whatever it took, I was going to get some fucking answers right fucking now. To that end, I was going to walk right up to that back door, knock on it, and find out what Robert knew, about Anthony, about Paige, about the guys who attacked Eits, all of it. I was getting answers, now

At least, that was the plan. But no sooner had I taken a couple steps out into the yard, than a sudden, sharp whistle caught my attention. The whistle was followed by what felt like a bee sting. I gasped, jerking backward just in time to see a dark red dart of some kind sticking out of my arm. It was… it felt…

My vision swam. Stumbling a bit, I fell to one knee, struggling to stay upright. It was a struggle I lost, falling onto my side. Everything was going blurry, as a figure started walking toward me. They were talking. “You know, going through that kid’s phone to find this address was a real bitch. But it has totally paid off.” 

The figure stopped right in front of me, so blurry I could barely focus on them. My vision was fading in and out. Black spots kept appearing, as the person continued while crouching down in front of me, dart gun held loosely in one hand. “After all, I thought I was just going to deal with one long-time pain in the ass.” 

The barrel of the dart gun was playfully tapped against the visor of my helmet, as I finally managed to focus on the person who was talking.

“But it turns out, it’s my lucky day. I get to play with you too,” Pencil finished, in the last brief moment before my vision went completely black. 

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