IX: The Hermit

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Chapter IX

Maria looked at Frank and scrunched up her face, sniffing. Tears had been trickling down her cheeks, but her heart was set on finding stillness. She brushed a hand under her nose, sweeping away the excess moisture.

I know there’s a solution here… she thought, tugging on the dead man’s clothes, propping him up this way and that. There’s always a solution. She felt like a nine year old again, playing with her dolls. Except this doll couldn’t be returned to the store when it broke.

“What about…” she said quietly, pressing her back against his dead chest and wrapping his legs around her waist, pulling his arms over her shoulders. She stood straight and jumped up and down, testing the comfort of it.

“No, that’s not right,” she breathed. He was too tall, and his legs got in the way, his head bumping against hers.

She put him down and gazed over his face, brushing away a bit of dirt to check his wounds. Earlier, she had sewn pieces of his black mask to the missing sections of skin. He reminded her something of a patchwork quilt now, though in truth, she was quite impressed with her own work—he looked like a designer A.I. who might model at a party; fashionable, rather than dead.

She glanced outside. It was getting brighter every time she looked; still too dim to see well though. She switched on her aura again. Encouragingly, it was working better. Upon solving her man-backpack conundrum, she felt confident that she could leave.

As she stared at the dead man, her mind working to soften her feelings of despair, a thought came to her. She couldn’t drag him—no, that would be too cumbersome. But what if she wore him with his back to hers, body upside-down so his knees locked over her shoulders?

Suddenly, she burst out laughing, a hearty bellow like one might hear during the peak of a comedy show, and fell back onto the floor. Her eyes opened to the ceiling, glistening with bemused tears brought on by the absurdity of it all. She giggled to herself, one hand upon her breast, until her mind returned to normal consciousness.

I actually have to do this, she thought, letting out the last of her trembling laughter. I really do.

Lifting herself up from the ground, she felt as if she were an observer, the events she took part in being no more than scenes from some macabre play. She rolled the body over, face up, feet towards her. Then she turned around, her back to the body, and lifted the legs until the backside of the knees rested on her shoulders.

Again, she did her dance of adjustment—it worked; she could manage.

Setting him down and kneeling, she thought ‘Manipulate. ’ She flitted through a swarm of windows and options until she alighted upon a command that would allow her to meld her suit with his, something that wouldn’t have worked without his permission were he alive.

She pressed his chin into his chest, connecting them; that way his head wouldn’t bump against her knees as she walked. Then she again lifted his legs over her shoulders and joined their clothes together, marveling slightly at her own resilience: she was afraid, yes. Terrified even. But she knew it was exactly what needed to be done.

“Okay,” she said to herself, shifting her weight and dusting out her joints with a small dance. Before she could fully comprehend what she was doing, she strutted out into the clearing, retrieved her energy tent, and headed into the woods.

Head held high, she took in the light around her. It was the most curious thing; rather than adhering to any physics model she understood, the golden particles ‘stuck’ to trees and rocks and grass, almost like a gel of some sort. She activated her aura, relieved to find that it worked again, and carefully searched the forest for any signs of life.

The forest felt calm to her, as if imperturbable to the strange events that had occurred within it. And the queerest sense of peace massaged at her chest, pressing away the tension and anger in her muscles, even the kind she didn’t realize was there. She loosened up, breathing easier, and checked her compass—still headed for the city.

She walked for what felt like hours without seeming to make any progress. Grassy hillocks rose and fell all around her and the trees grew brighter, their branches relieved of the weight of the black. Birds even sang nearby.

She went on, shifting uncomfortably beneath the weight of the body, when she recognized something. A stump and a dirt path. Where have I seen that? She stopped, staring at it, when she realized, In a dream…

The night Frank died, she had dreamt of a dark forest in which she followed a strange light to find her way. Looking over her shoulder and all around, she decided that it was safe and headed down the path. It wasn’t out of her way, so there was no reason not to... but she couldn’t help but feel that something strange and inexplicable awaited her.

As she went, the tree branches began to droop again and the forest became more overgrown. But she kept seeing the signs—a large branch, broken. Another stump. A single plume of a red flower on an otherwise skeletal tree.

The forest called her deeper and deeper, until her Aura once more ceased to work. What’s the deal? she wondered, deactivating it. It was far too early to be nighttime, yet the world had once more turned to black.

She spun around. Back the way she had come, she could detect a faint light. Again she looked forward and… The darkness was moving unmistakably towards her, lifelike in its manner.

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