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Children of Mammon

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CHAPTER THREE

The first thing Ana did when she got home was take her keys from the truck’s ignition and clip them to the belt loop at the small of her back. Once she was as high as she intended to get, that would be as good as strapping them into a rocket and launching them into space, while ensuring they’d be easily found after she sobered up. That done, before she even got out of the truck, she opened her day pack, took one Vicodan, one Xanax and the last of her Lexotan and washed them down with two swallows of Fireball. It had been a long time since she’d last drank anything stronger than beer. The flavors of cinnamon and whiskey were stronger than she remembered, burning all the way down to her empty belly. It was going to hit her head even harder, she knew, and pretty damn quick at that.

She left the pills in the truck with her day pack, but took the bottle with her for courage as she approached the massive wooden doors. Unlocked, as they always were. They had been castle doors in her childhood, welcoming when they were open, protective when they were closed. Now she saw dungeon doors and she was afraid she always would.

She went inside.

It was Aunt Easter’s house, stripped of all its photos and furnishings, broken by neglect and hoarding. It was Erik Metzger’s house, emptied of terror and death, filled in again with a little girl’s only good memories. It was Ana’s house, unfamiliar and unloved.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been here, but she knew it had been to grab a quick shower before work, so it was that long ago at least. And there was a smell wafting down the hall that told her she should have taken the garbage out before she left.

Before the pills and booze took effect, Ana took care of that, as well as the dishes she’d apparently left in the sink. Her head was starting to swim a bit by the time she finished cleaning out the fridge, but she helped it along with another swallow of Fireball before she headed upstairs.

Plushtrap’s chair at the end of the hall to her left was still empty, although the door to the attic stairwell was open; he was probably up there, lying in wait for her. She’d deal with him later. For now, she had bigger problems than a stupid stuffed rabbit. She took a drink and started walking in the other direction, past David’s room and Aunt Easter’s room, to the door at the end of the hall. To the room with hunter green walls.

It was a man’s room, or had been once. The wainscoting was dark and the fixtures had a masculine flair to their flourishes. Not a bedroom—no closet—but a home office or a smoking room or whatever they called man caves before the phrase ‘man cave’ had been invented. A trophy room, Ana had thought. The paper, deceptively plain from a distance, had a pattern of battling stags with their antlers interlocked when you got right up close. When she’d first discovered it, she had assumed those blocky pale patterns all along the walls marked the places where big game heads had once been mounted and she’d kept half an eye open for them as she’d cleared the hoard, but never found them.

She’d never found doll heads either, she reminded herself, and she was dead sure she would have noticed them, if the Puppet’s design was any indication of how the rest of them looked.

How long Ana stood in the doorway staring at the empty walls, she didn’t know, although she felt Time’s passage keenly. Without the distinction of seconds or minutes, perhaps, but keenly. A weight, a knife. Some external force pressing on her, wanting her to feel it before it struck the killing blow.

She had the feeling the drugs might be kicking in already.

Ana turned the light on and moved into the room. The sound of her boots on the hardwood floors bounced echoes off the walls and all around her, heavier than she was. She had no childhood memories of this place, no nostalgia to distract her from her purpose here. The first time she’d walked into this room, it had been filled floor to ceiling with boxes of holiday clothes, catalogues and the cheapest of all cheap Christmas junk, but even that memory could hardly stand out when so much of the house had been buried the same way. The only picture of this place that came in clearly had been looking back at it before shutting the door the last time she’d seen it and wondering vaguely whose room it had been—whose style had matched that wallpaper, who had bought the books that filled those shelves, who had sat at that desk.

It was a heavy desk, too heavy to move without a hell of a better reason than she’d had. It had been part of a set that had not survived being buried in Yuletide cheer, but even among its fellow pieces, it had stood out. Dark wood with beautiful burl inlay on the facing side, Victorian silhouette, likely hand-carved, with a leather writing surface that needed replacing and brass trimmings that had achieved a natural patina over time. It would have dominated any room with its authoritative, slightly sinister presence. In this room, emptied of all other distractions to the eye, it ceased to be a desk at all and became instead an altar.

Yeah, the drugs were definitely kicking in.

Ana took a last swig from the bottle and put it down—on the window-ledge, not the desk. She opened the drawers, one after the other, knowing she’d emptied them once already. She could remember a disappointing lack of personal papers in her first cursory examination, but somewhere in the basement was a box of crap she thought might be worth something on eBay: some of the earliest staplers and tape dispensers known to man, gold and silver fountain pens and cut crystal inkwells, a small tin with an assortment of old coins, half a box of extremely stale tobacco and a lighter that looked more like a genie’s lamp than the Zippo in Ana’s own pocket, and a pretty damn lethal-looking letter opener with a magnifying glass set in the hilt. In other words, she’d found nothing, but she hadn’t been looking for secret compartments then. Now she was and with those eyes on, she needed only a glance to see that one of those deep drawers was four inches shallower than it should be.

Finding the catch proved a little more difficult, but just when she’d decided to bash the whole damn thing apart, her fingers slipped into the magic spot and the bottom of the drawer popped up on one end.

‘This is it,’ she thought, not quite clearly. Mike’s videos might have been tampered with and didn’t show anything graphic anyway; his posters might have been gleaned from the public record and put together in Photoshop; Wendy Rutter’s story might have been just that, a story told solely to taint Ana’s memory of her aunt because Ana had humiliated her over a real estate dispute. It could all still be a lie and a hoax and a misunderstanding until she opened this compartment. Whatever she found, that was real, and no one in the history of humanity had ever hidden away the proof that they were innocent.

Ana looked at the whiskey over in the window and saw the devil on the label. She sat on the carpet and lifted the false bottom out of the drawer.

Beneath a neatly-folded tea towel and an alabaster jar of cold cream, she found the book. Red leather with brass points, just as described, with the word Memories embossed in gold on the front cover.

Once again, Ana looked at the window. This time, she gave in and crawled over to get the bottle, sitting with her back to the wall and the light slanting in through the dirty glass directly on the book in her lap. The gold letters flared, seeming to float above the leather, like sparkles on bloody water. Pretty. The sun didn’t care where it shone.

She opened it.

It wasn’t a diary. In fact, apart from the cover and the printing company’s information, there was nothing at all written in the book, not on the pages and not on the photographs tucked inside. If they even were technically photographs and not some other word that specifically meant this variation: black and white with an odd smoky patina over the film and colors expertly painted onto the print. They were not glued down, but set merely by tucking their corners through slits in the heavy two-ply pages, so they could be easily removed for close study.

Ana checked several, but there was nothing written on their backs—no names, no dates and no studio watermark, although these weren’t the sort of photograph you sent in to be developed. Aunt Easter had used one of her two walk-in closets as a dark room; perhaps these pictures had been developed there, in the same room with just a single door between them and the big bed where Ana and David used to curl up in the evenings and listen to Aunt Easter read to them. And hell, even if little Ana had ventured into that forbidden territory and found these very pictures hanging from the line to dry, would she have been frightened? No. No one appeared to be hurt in any of these pictures, no one was crying, no one scared. The only disturbing thing about them was the story they did not tell, Mike Schmidt’s story, Wendy Rutter’s. Taken simply for what they were, they were just…a collection of charmingly vintage porn.

They were all nudes, at first artistically draped in filmy scarves or coyly hidden behind oriental fans, but growing progressively bolder—and younger—as the pages turned. None of the furnishings were familiar and neither was the wallpaper behind them, but more to the point, neither were their faces. Without Mike Schmidt’s binder full of posters to compare them to, she couldn’t be sure, but she didn’t recognize any of these people. They were women…teens…girls…boys…but strangers.

Until she saw David.

Her throat closed, trapping the air in her lungs and the horror in her heart until she had time enough to see it couldn’t be him. The hair was wrong. David had never had a bowl-cut in his life. But the resemblance was too strong to have just come out of the bottle. If this wasn’t her cousin, it had to be her uncle. Not David; Billy.

She took the photo out and turned it around. Still no name, no dates, but it was Billy Blaylock. There wasn’t anyone else it could be. But regardless of what else was going on in this picture…or out of frame…he was alive when it was taken. And although he wasn’t smiling like so many others in this book, he wasn’t chained up in a basement somewhere either. He was just a naked boy, sitting on a blanket in the grass on a sunny day, wholly absorbed in sorting out the flowers that had been sprinkled over him. He probably didn’t even know his picture was being taken and he certainly didn’t know to what use it would later be put. In another person’s photo album, it would even be innocent. For something that was supposed to prove everything, Ana hadn’t seen a single thing that proved any part of either story.

And then Ana turned a page and found herself face to gape-mouthed face with the Puppet.

It was a close-up, its head filling the dimensions of the photograph, itself trimmed down to fit the dimensions of the book. Still a black and white print and still painted, but badly. The delicate touch that had put a blush in the cheeks of the preceding pictures or put the lie of life into those eyes was not in evidence here. Whoever had rouged up this picture had been about as subtle as a five-dollar whore after closing. Nevertheless, the eyes were alive. Alive and screaming, for all that the mask perpetually grinned.

Ana drank, staring into the eyes of the Puppet until she could feel it staring back into hers. Then she turned the page, out of Viktor Metzger’s fap material and into Erik’s. She knew, not just because of the sudden change in the quality of the photographs, but because the very first subject after the Puppet was Aunt Easter.

Young. She had always seemed young to little Ana, so young and pretty when she smiled, but this? No. This was the Aunt Easter before David, before a driver’s license. Her naked breasts had never suckled; her slender hips had never birthed. Her ribs showed. Her bare arms showed bruises beneath the pale fall of her hair. She smiled that nervous, shy, excited smile of a girl who knows she does not deserve to be loved, but has been told anyway and cannot stop herself from believing it.

Ana did not know the women that appeared in the book after that, but she recognized the wallpaper. That was the window in the formal parlor. That was the fireplace in the dining room. The oversized tub in the master bathroom. These women may or may not be in Mike Schmidt’s binder, but their pictures had been taken in this house, and it wasn’t long before the composition of the pictures ineffably changed and Ana knew who was holding the camera. Aunt Easter was no Kubrick, no Spielberg, but she had a way of looking at the world through a lens and it was as unique as a fingerprint.

She was too drunk to close the book, not drunk enough yet to cry, so Ana took another swallow of Fireball and turned the pages.

Women. So many women. The youngest might have been a well-developed twelve or thirteen; the oldest, a well-preserved fifty. He liked them all shapes, all sizes. Whether they were flat-chested as boys or voluptuous as a Ruebens painting, all edges or all curves, Aunt Easter found the right light and the right pose to make them beautifully wanton for his pleasure.

So. Proof of kinky sexual escapades? Sure. Proof of an undiscriminating attitude toward the age of consent? Absolutely. Proof of abduction and murder, even of blackmail? No. It might have convinced a young, even more uptight Wendy Rutter that the Metzgers were a family of devils, but it was just a bunch of racy pictures. No big deal…

No…

…oh God, no.

This time it really was David.

He was seven or eight in this picture, surely no older, posed next to the grandfather clock in the hallway with the late afternoon light shining on one side of his naked body and the rest in shadow. He had one hand on the corner of the rolltop desk and the other tucked behind his back, emphasizing his body captured here in transition from baby fat to long preteen limbs. He had one leg kicked slightly in front of the other, not quite enough to shield his privates from the unblinking eye of the lens. He faced forward, but his eyes were not quite at center-focus; he was not looking at the camera, but at her, his mother, and his eyes were wounded above the mouth that tried to smile. He knew this was wrong. He didn’t know why or what made it different from the hundred or thousand pictures she had taken of him before, but he knew this one was wrong.

“We’re not supposed to be in here.”

Ana dragged her head up and saw, without fear or surprise, Erik Metzger standing over her. The gold shield on his sleeve seemed to glow in the dying light that slanted through the window. All the rest of him was shadowed, but still purple, from his angled uniform hat to his socks.

“This is Daddy’s room,” said Erik.

Ana looked at the book, still open in her hands. David’s picture, the only one she had of him now. He was moving, just a little. Breathing. Blinking. Even knowing she was high—and she knew—she could see him looking up at her, his mouth moving in silent words. In welcome? In warning? She could almost read his lips. If someone hurt me…

Someone had. Was it her fault? Had he done what he did because she’d said what she’d said?

“I’m sorry,” she said, twenty years too late.

Erik hunkered down in front of her, pushing a gust of odor at her—not blood or death, but just a pungent, unwashed stink—and put his hands, soft as a child’s, over hers, helping her to close the book. He took it away, set it aside, and took her hands. He smiled. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. His eyes were muddy. His teeth were white, but crooked and he was missing a few. “We’re not supposed to be in here,” he said again and stood, pulling her up with him.

He got smaller as she stood, becoming more of a child as she became more an adult, until he was neither David nor Erik, but both of them at once. He was tall enough still to support her, but when she stumbled, he wasn’t strong enough (or real enough) to hold her. She hit the floor knees first, rolled into the wall and huddled there, her head still falling, watching the Purple Man hunker down and grow huge again.

“Ouch,” he said softly, touching her knee. The floor was rough, the boards dry; her knees were red, stippled with dots of blood too small to bead and fall. The Purple Man leaned forward and pursed his lips as if to whistle, just as Aunt Easter used to do, soothing the pain away with his cool breath. Then he kissed them, first one knee and then the other, and smiled at her again. “All better,” he told her and it was.

It was.

He picked her up again. He wasn’t really there and she knew it, but somehow just the idea of his hands was enough to let her borrow their little strength and stand. When she was up, he put his arm around her waist, letting her lean into his thin frame as he led her down the hall, past her room and David’s room, down the stairs…through the clock…

She wasn’t sure when she started crying. She might have been doing it all the while. But the Purple Man sat her on the edge of the pirate ship bed, then went into the bathroom and came back with a cold, wet cloth to wipe her face. He blew on her cheeks as he’d done on her knees, and that was Aunt Easter, too, soothing her tears as if they were any other pain and telling her don’t cry, Honeybunny, everything was all right. Because she’d loved her. That was real, that had to be real. Even monsters could love.

“Bedtime,” the Purple Man told her, reaching for her shirt.

She lifted her arms, mutely miserable, and let him pull it away. He did it without lust, a patient parent with a tired child. He untied her shoes and slipped them off, squeezing once at her toes to coax a wan smile out of her. At his direction, she stood and let him unbutton and unzip her shorts, bracing herself on his bony shoulder to step out of them. He put her clothes in the hamper and brought her a t-shirt from the closet. It stank like him, not musty and unused, but used and hung up again, unclean. She put it on; too tight.

The Purple Man lifted the blankets for her and tucked them in around her, then went back to the bathroom. She lay on her side and stared at the bathroom door, listening to the phantom sounds as he urinated, flushed, briefly showered and brushed his teeth. He came out again naked and damp, carrying his uniform in his arms. He put it in the hamper, stood a moment, then took it out and hung it up in the closet. He put on his pajamas—red and blue, with the Superman shield on the chest—and climbed into bed beside her. Not Erik anymore then, but David. When he put his arms around her, she rolled over and hugged him back.

“I’m sorry,” he told her, stroking his thin fingers through her hair until they snagged on her braid. “I didn’t mean to be bad. I just wanted you to come home. I’ll be good now. Please don’t go away again. It’s dark and cold sometimes and I was all alone. I missed you so much. You said we’d always be together. You said we could be a family.”

Ana closed her eyes and moaned.

“Don’t be mad at me,” said the Purple Man. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said and cried because it was true. Whether this ghost born of opiates and her own heartache was David or Erik, she loved him. Whatever else he was, whatever else he’d done, he’d loved her and so she had to love him back. She cried and he blew on her tears and sang all the same songs Aunt Easter used to sing back when she was Honeybunny and he was Honeybear and love didn’t have to hurt.

* * *

Ana awoke in the ship-shaped bed in the basement, alone but not alone. Beneath her arm where David/Erik had been the night before was a gold-satin bunny with glass eyes and metal teeth. Plushtrap.

She stared at him. He stared at her.

She closed her eyes, hugged him closer and slept again.

The second time she woke up, she made herself get out of the bed. Leaving Plushtrap on the pillow, she staggered over to the hamper and reclaimed her clothes. Once dressed, she hung the t-shirt back in the closet, still reeking of neglect and now her own night-sweats. She made the bed, careful not to disturb Plushtrap. The house was his and she wouldn’t fight him for it, but before she left, there was one thing she wanted to take with her.

Not the photo album. She never wanted to see that thing again, not even as long as it would take to burn it. No, she took the cupcake, Chica’s pink cupcake, turning it slowly over and listening to its broken parts rattle as she looked into its creepy human eyes. She’d never seen it in any of Aunt Easter’s tapes from Circle Drive, only from Mike Schmidt’s videos of Mulholland, where it had been the Toy version of Chica’s accessory. So if Chica—her Chica—recognized it…well. That was that. And whatever ‘that’ was, she’d deal with it, but she had to know how much of the nightmare was real. Erik Metzger had been real—and her aunt, maybe—but they were both gone now and that part of the dream was over. Freddy’s was still here, and if any part of that story was true…

Ana went upstairs, through the clock and out into the hall. She looked around, maybe for the last time, at this house that had once been her golden castle and heart’s desire, then left.

She went to Freddy’s, all the while thinking she wouldn’t, not yet, that she’d just roll on out of town, get some coffee, maybe catch a movie, put her head in some other world until she was ready to deal with this one again. But when she came to the access road to Edge of Nowhere, her hands turned the wheel and the tires turned the truck.

She watched from a distance as she pulled herself up to the loading dock and parked. The door moved freely when she lifted it; the table leg that Freddy used to keep the track jammed was laying on the shelf in a conspicuous place. Wanting her to see it, maybe, and know that she was welcome. Or maybe just because she’d yelled at him the last time he’d locked her out.

She didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was high and she could hear Freddy on the main stage, leading the room in a series of gentle songs that were almost, but not quite, hymns. Weird routine for a pizza parlor, until she remembered what day it was.

She could still remember how surprised she’d been last Sunday, when they’d powered up and started their acts. Most businesses in Mammon were closed on Sundays and certainly all three of the other eateries were. But there they were, although they’d added songs like Every Star is Different and Little Seeds to their routines and worked in more monologues about friendship and kindness instead of jokes. Not that the jokes were that great, but without them, the overarching mood of the place definitely slanted away from Muppets and more toward VeggieTales.

Ana listened in the dark to the soothing rise and fall of Freddy’s voice, thinking of Fred Faust and how well he’d understood this town. Open the pizza parlor on Sunday; they’ll still come if you put hymns in the act. They’ll go straight from the pews where they sat and sang and ignored the family whose little girls wear long sleeves in the summertime. They’ll come right in and sit right down and sniff at the fact that there’s beer on the menu while Foxy teaches their kids to sing Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. And even though everyone in this entire town fervently believes in no sex before marriage, the Toybox had needed four party rooms to keep up with the demand for private performances with kid-friendly sex-bots…

Small towns. The brighter the halo, the darker the shadow it casts.

In the kitchen, Ana crunched over broken glass and felt along the countertop until she found a lantern. By its light, she returned her pills and liquor to the cupboard, then picked up the mess she’d made with her tantrum Friday night and swept the floor. Along with the pieces of her coffee maker, she found the tooth she’d dug out of Freddy’s hand. The tooth that may or may not be human, but which had not come gently out of the mouth where it had grown either way.

Ana tossed it all in the trash and took her light to the dining room. She put her day pack on the table and boosted herself up to sit beside it. She watched the show. Now and then, Freddy would glance at her and his plastic brows draw together slightly, but other than that, he continued his medley without interruption. Chica and Bonnie were nowhere to be seen, which meant she was in the reading room and he was in the craft room. For them, the restaurant was open and happy kids were filling every chair, laughing and singing and coloring paper masks. If she worked at it, she could see it the same way. But of course, it was daytime. At night, things were different.

ANGRY THOUGHTS ARE LIGHTLY SPOKEN,” sang Freddy. “BITTEREST THOUGHTS ARE RASHLY STIRRED. BRIGHTEST LINKS OF LIFE ARE BROKEN BY A SINGLE ANGRY WORD.

This was an oddly familiar tune, considering the only time Ana had ever set foot in a church had been as Rider’s date for his brother’s wedding. Where had she heard it before? And then she got it, right before Freddy brought it home with a repeat of the first verse:

ANGRY WORDS, O LET THEM NEVER FROM THE TONGUE UNBRIDLED SLIP…

The last time she’d heard those words, the Purple Man had been saying them…but that had been a dream, complete with corn that grew teeth and David turning into a giant Fredbear. Anything she’d heard him say—about the Puppet or some missing kid’s mother asking questions or even locking Abby Faust up in the basement—that was all spun straight out of her subconscious, following a largely sleepless night spent listening to Mike Schmidt’s ghost story. She was probably misremembering anyway, projecting Freddy’s song now onto her dream from then; human memory was like that, so much more elastic and deceitful than people liked to think, and Ana’s more than most.

The song ended. Freddy took a bow, asked the kids how they were enjoying their pizza, pushed the Funyum pizza sticks a little, told a few jokes, then suddenly looked directly at Ana. For two or three long seconds, he didn’t say anything at all, just looked at her, but when he did speak again, it was in his goofy-bear stage voice, asking if she wanted to hear a story. When no requests were forthcoming, he launched into his ‘favorite,’ Goldilocks, from the side of the three bears.

Ana listened. It was the same story, word for word, that he used to tell at Circle Drive. She’d heard it a hundred times over on Aunt Easter’s tapes, although it was a lot easier to hear him when there wasn’t a bunch of squealing kids running around or arcade machines going off in the back of the room. She’d always loved Freddy’s take on fairy tales, the way the traditional roles of hero and villain were so often swapped, not through any tricky rewriting, but just through a different perspective. She hated the endings, though. No one ever died, no one even got run off or arrested. Even in Hansel and Gretel, the witch ended up friends with the kids, who had only accidentally gotten lost in the woods and not been led out and abandoned by their parents. Freddy didn’t believe in monsters, she guessed, so how could he be one?

Ana listened to the story and thought about Mike Schmidt and Egg Minders. She wiped at her tears when she noticed them. Otherwise, she just sat and let them fall.

“WHEN THEY CAME HOME, ONCE MORE THE DOOR WAS OPEN. PAPA BEAR TOLD HIS FAMILY TO STAY OUTSIDE WHILE HE WENT IN TO LOOK AROUND AND AT FIRST, HE DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING OUT OF PLACE. THEN HE NOTICED THE SPOONS THAT HAD BEEN LEFT ON THE TABLE WERE NOW IN THE BOWLS AND AS HE WENT TO GET A BETTER LOOK, HE SAW POOR BABY BEAR’S PORRIDGE…WAS ALL…GONE.”

Silence.

Freddy lowered his microphone and stared at her. After a moment, he took his hat off and scratched at his head. He looked around—at the empty room, the empty stage, at her. He put his hat on, sighed, and without a word, he climbed down from the stage and walked off through the East Hall.

Ana sat and watched the empty stage, continuing the story of three innocent bears and their repeat encounters with a relentless home invader in her mind. Soon, she heard footsteps, heavy but moving fast. She did not look around. Papa Bear was heading upstairs and in a few seconds, shit was going to hit the fan for one little blonde punkass trespasser.

Bonnie burst through the plastic sheets and into the dining room. He paused, either to get his bearings or his balance, then came right for her.

Ana didn’t run. She could have, but she didn’t. She waited, and whatever happened next, she knew she deserved it.

He put his arms around her and pulled her against him, holding her until her muscles relaxed and her stiff back bent. The purple fibracene flocking his hard plastic casing scratched at her cheek as she rested her head on his shoulder. Her breath became loud and coarse in her ears. She listened to it as it came into rhythm with the cycling of Bonnie’s internal fan. Her hands could not meet when she put her arms around him. They sank into the plusher parts of his back, finding cracks like scars just beneath the fur, blindly comparing them to her own before she climbed up the sweet ruin of his body to the cracked, lacquered surface of his face. Her fingers played along his mouth. He could have bit her if he wanted to. Instead, he caught her hand in one of his and pressed it briefly to his muzzle—a kiss—before pulling it away from his teeth.

“HI THERE!” he said, too happily for the urgency quivering through his ears. “I’M YOUR BEST B-B-BUDDY, B-B-BONNIE…” The last half of his name drew itself out, low and distorted through his speaker. He twitched, clicking, and said, “I MISSED-D-D YOU. IT’S GREAT TO SEE YOU AGAIN! WHAT’S GOING ON? ARE YOU—ARE YOU—ARE YOU…OKAY!” He clicked some more, his intermittent shivers growing more frequent and more intense. “ARE YOU—ARE YOU—B-B-BACK FOR MORE F-F-FUN AT FREDDY’S!”

“Would you ever hurt me?” Ana asked, soft against his chest.

“NO WAY!” he said excitedly. His hand at the small of her back clenched; the one holding hers did not. “I NEVER-NEVER-NEVER T-T-TALK TO STRANGERS. I WOULD-D-D CHUCK WOOD…NEVER-R-R FORGET TO FLOSS.” His fan coughed and roared, making his casing vibrate against her cheek. “I WOULD-D-D…NEVER…HUR-HUR—HURRY UP! THE SHOW’S ABOUT TO START! I-I-I…WOULD…”

She felt it when he gave up. Helplessness disguised as calm kept him quiet, but she could hear him clicking steadily, still searching for just the right thing to say at an hour when he really couldn’t say anything.

“Tell me you love me,” she whispered, so no one could hear but him. “You don’t have to mean it. Just tell me you love me so I can hear it out loud one time.”

He twitched. The clicking got louder, faster…then stopped.

Softly, softly, so no one could hear but her, he sang, “It’s a bad, bad world we live in, with no one to be a friend.

Ana laughed. In the very next breath, she was crying, but she laughed first.

Bonnie held her and sang on. “There ain’t no hope, there ain’t no God, there ain’t no heaven in the end. Just a sad, sad world that swallows us, but if you give me your hand—” He gave hers a careful squeeze and pulled her closer, rocking her gently, almost dancing. “—you can be my baby girl tonight and I’ll be your man.

“Thank you.” Wiping her eyes, Ana pulled just far enough away to look up into his face. She touched him, tracing the cracks back and forth across his muzzle. If only every break was as easy to fix. Just pick up the pieces, glue them together, and smooth it all out with a layer of shellac.

“ARE YOU-YOU-YOU…” Bonnie’s ears jerked and his lenses dilated slightly. He blinked several times, shivering, and said, “OKAY!”

“Yeah. Not looking forward to explaining this to my court-appointed psychiatrist in a few years,” she muttered, wiping her eyes, “but I’m okay. Do me a favor.”

“YOU BET!”

“Don’t ask me what happened on Friday night. I don’t want to lie to you. Okay?”

His ears lowered. He twitched and said, “OKAY.”

“How long before the next set starts?”

Bonnie’s shoulder jerked and his lenses opened up again, reminding her all over of Mike and his videos, the ones he tried to make her think Aunt Easter had filmed…while she was sleeping with Erik Metzger and helping him kill people…before she went home and made smiley-face pancakes for David and Ana and took them swimming and out for sundaes. “THE NEXT SHOW STARTS IN…THIRTY-TWO MINUTES,” he said through static. His lenses were slow to constrict, but once they had, he blinked and hesitantly touched her cheek; she was crying again.

“I’m fine,” she said, chasing his hand away to rub at her face. “Let’s go hide in the party room and make out until Freddy finds us. Okay?”

He did not say, ‘Okay,’ because it wasn’t, but he did lift her gently down from the table and give her a long hug before he took her hand and led her from the room, and that was good enough.