3.04: Bodies of Decay

When Henry slept, he dreamed of Emmaline. Sometimes she was as he saw her on the day of the festival: a pile of ambulating bones. Other times there was flesh on her skull, eyeballs in her head, or boots on her skeletal feet. She never said anything to him. She would not say a single word, no matter how he asked or begged. He brought her bones. Plucked from his fried chicken, stolen from the garbage, and then finally torn from himself. He did not know why, but he brought her all the bones in his own body.

He washed the grime of sleep out of his eyes, splashing his face with his one good hand. The other he kept in the cast. It had no feeling at all—unlike his chest. That had begun to hurt. A throbbing discomfort grew throughout the day, until he could no longer ignore it. Teresa met him at her door, and wasted no time in ushering him inside. Her house was still full of convalescing patients. Henry knew of at least one other significant weight on her mind, as well. “The rot is spreading,” she announced, virtually as soon as he’d removed his shirt.

“So, nothing new.”

Teresa spoke with uncharacteristic brusqueness. “The distinction, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that you have quite a few more vital organs in your chest than in your shoulder.”

“You think I shouldn’t have done it?”

She retrieved a fresh vial of ointment, and set to work applying it around the edge of the blackened flesh. “Kara might have been saved by less detrimental means. You could at least have thought to let me take a look first.”

“You didn’t see her up close. I did what I had to do.” He flinched away from her pressing fingers. As she roamed onto his chest, the medicine began to burn. “You told me that you thought you had a cure, anyway.”

Teresa pursed her lips. She finished applying the ointment, and fetched a spare vial for him to take home. “I thought I had something for your shoulder,” she said. “I didn’t know if it would work then, and I am even less convinced now. But it is still worth trying.”

“If I make it to next month.”

“I assume you will not be taking my advice to rest until then.”

“Why do you assume that?”

“Because nobody ever does.” 

Henry pulled his shirt on. “I don’t want to die any more than you don’t want me to.”

She bit her tongue, gave him a long look, and then sighed. Her stiffness melted away. “I have what might be interesting information, if you are intent on further stirring the pot.”

“That’s what I do best.”

“If you remember, I told you that I didn’t recognize any of the sigils on the Cass headstone, which was true at the time. Then I started activating them. They revealed themselves to me, as they came alive. One to identify her remains; one to tie her essence to the earth; one to give a voice to the corpse; and many more besides. But the one that caught my attention was in the center of the plinth. It was the most powerful, and it activated last. Took nearly everything I had. Its purpose was to contain the magic inside of the grave.”

“I’m not following.”

“A sigil like that does not simply go defunct, regardless of whether its original creator is still alive. Emmaline did not break herself out of that prison. Nor could anybody else, unless they were extremely powerful in their own right. More powerful than me, by any rate.”

“I thought you were the most powerful in the village.”

She frowned. “So did I.”

Henry collected his medication, and gently set his lifeless arm back in its sling. “Would that sigil work, if it were placed somewhere else?”

“One step ahead of you.” Teresa pulled a sketch of a spiraling geometric pattern out of a drawer. “Take it with you. I can’t get the thing out of my head anyway.”

***

That night Henry visited the destruction on main street. He could not stay away any longer; sooner or later he was going to have to see it, and in the end he wanted that to be on his own terms. The sight was made worse for the absence of distraction brought on by confused fighting. In that absence the broken street was nothing more than a broken street, crowned by the splintered lumber pile that used to be the Tortoise Shell Inn. None of the second story survived. Time had brought it crashing down to join the rest of the rubble.

The site was left open, but not untouched. As Henry approached he spotted a figure rummaging through the mess. After a moment Diana showed herself, carrying both halves of a broken landline in her hands. She did not seem surprised to see him standing there. “Already got everything important out. I’ve started on the sentimental.” She spoke in a listless, unbroken gait, not exactly to him and not exactly to herself. “We took this phone from my old family home. Not much of a wedding gift, but it was all my folks could afford to give.”

“You’ve been going through all of this?” he asked. “Alone?”

“Jamal isn’t in a state to look at it, quite yet.”

“Do you need a hand?”

Diana shrugged. “If you find the nine button, let me know.”

As she intimated, the rubble was already heavily picked over. He climbed over upturned booths and hauled loose floorboards off of likely locations, but there seemed to be little left over other than piles of dust and the occasional can of unruptured beer. “I keep imagining that I’m going to find a body,” she said. “I think that’s why I keep digging. They tell me that there was nobody else here. It’s hard to imagine. There were always so many people. Jamal is like that. He invites everyone in.”

“That he does,” Henry said, stepping gingerly over a shattered glass pane. “Sometimes I felt like he didn’t want anyone to leave.”

She laughed. “It’s a wonder we made any money at all.”

He pulled a torn seat cushion off of a collapsed beam, and found a grimy but recognizable brass number five underneath. “Do you mind if I take this?”

“If it means something, it’s yours.”

In the meantime she had recovered several more odds and ends; an animal calendar, a twisted butcher’s knife, and a muddied straw hat sat on the street beside the phone halves. “Where are you taking all that?” Henry asked.

“We’re staying with our daughter. Have you met Jessica? She’s right around your age.”

He smiled. “Nice of her to take you in. If you ever need my help, I hope you know that you can always ask. I owe you and your husband more than either of you can probably guess.”

“Thank you,” she said, shaking her head, “but I don’t think anyone can help us now.”

Henry continued rummaging long after Diana left, in time watching the clouds gather over the moon far more diligently than he watched the wreckage around him. He wiped the room number off on his sleeve, and held it tight in his hand. For months he had worn Kara’s charm around his neck, and now he felt naked without a totem. Perhaps he would affix the number to a chain. Nobody was likely to be calling him crazy any longer, no matter what he might do.

Footsteps approached from around the side of the building. “Diana?” he called. “If you’re looking for more loot, I hope you brought a flashlight.”

“Henry, is that you?” Aria rounded the corner. “What are you doing in there?”

“Disaster tourism,” he said.

“I think if you were at ground zero, it’s called ‘therapy.’” She stepped over the crumbled wall to join him. If she noticed the strange item clutched in his fist, she said nothing about it.

“Why are you out so late?”

“Midnight walks clear the head,” Aria said. “I’ve only recently been at liberty to take them in the village proper. Thank you for that, by the way.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Plus, it beats the hell out of trying to get into contact with you. I thought we were business partners. Are you not taking calls from your business partner?”

He groaned. “I’ve had my phone off.”

“Well, maybe it’s suiting that Tortus Bay’s founding newsman is the last to hear the news.”

“What happened?”

The smile Aria turned on him was bright enough to banish the cloudy night’s grey gloom. “We’re rebuilding it,” she said, raising her arms and twirling. “The Tortoise Shell. Better than before, and we’re doing it without taking a single cent from Jamal or Diana.”

One thought on “3.04: Bodies of Decay

  1. At least Teresa knows Henry doesn’t listen very well to advice of any kind or the rules to game night. Still a bit upset over him not listening to the rules of game night.

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