Joey calls him Bendy. Or, rather, ‘Bendy,’ because he’s Not Right.
He isn’t Bendy, or ‘Bendy.’ He knows this.
He isn’t even he at all. He is they. They are him.
They are Before and After.
And that’s all they are for a long, long time.
• • • • •
After did as he was told, no matter how much he hated it— because if there was one thing he hated more than all that, it was Joey getting angry with him.
He followed the script as best he could, which he knew full well wasn’t that great. Boris and Alice sent him looks, Joey got louder, Sammy acted like he wanted to hit something— probably After— and he could feel his ink gettin’ goopy.
You should run while you still have the chance, Before said.
No, After mentally shook his head, ’cause then Joey’ll still be mad next time.
Before grumbled, but knew just as well that After was right. They’d learned that one the hard way, several times over.
Someday, After, I’m gonna have control for once, and I’ll kick that good-for-nothing, waste-of-space right in the nuts. That loony bin reject won’t be safe from me forever, mark my words!
That’s how they knew; the swearing. Even in their mental conversations, any attempt at cursing like a sailor resulted in nothing but a string of symbols, nonsense noises to the ear, no matter what words Before tried. And, if he was to be believed, he’d tried nothing less than all of them— and that’s when the realization had hit: After didn’t know any swear words. Before seemed to know them all.
That was a long time ago, when they were both nameless, and the only way to differentiate between them was by thinking of whoever they weren’t as the Other One. It was a confusing time for them both.
It hadn’t been long after ‘meeting’ each other that the Other One had let loose a long stream of bells and whistles, and the One could practically see the @s and the #s and the %s. The Other One had been furious, going on and on about the indignity, the injustice. He remembered being able to use those, so that’s how they knew that he was Before.
Before existed— something happened— and then there was After. They didn’t know what happened or if whatever it was was meant to happen at all, and they didn’t know why they were smushed into the same body, or why Before was so different, or why After was the one in control. They didn’t know where After came from, or why no one liked them, or why everyone called them ‘Bendy’ when they weren’t. They didn’t know why they couldn’t talk, or why Joey seemed to think After was alone, or why they—
— why did they have mitten hands?
Sometimes, they’d think things like that, and Before would start screaming. Not the high-pitched sort of noise that a person made when they screamed on purpose. No; when Before thought those questions, he screamed like he was being torn apart, limb from limb.
After did his best to make sure neither of them asked questions like that.
The point was, with proper, satisfying curse words no longer an option, Before got creative and started making up his own substitutes. ‘Loony bin reject’ was one of his favorites.
After startled, both physically and mentally. Joey was glaring viciously at him, and with the way Before was all tense, After assumed that Joey had been trying to get his attention for a while now.
He wants you to run through the scene again, and this time, and then, mimicking Joey’s voice, “no mistakes!”
After laughed at his counterpart, even as he gave Joey a meek nod, thin shoulders shivering. Oh, why couldn’t he be more like Before sometimes?
Because if you were more like me, you’d be less of yourself. And that’s all we got, After; ourselves. Who you are in here is you. Not what Joey wants you to be, not how the writers write you.
I know. But I still wish I could give Joey a piece of my mind the way you want to.
Well, I’m glad you don’t.
After mechanically went through the scene’s movements, hardly paying attention. Everyone would hate what he did anyway, so why bother?
I don’t know why you don’t want me to. You love anything that frustrates Joey.
Not when you have to face the consequences.
They figured Joey had to have had something to do with the The Thing That Happened to them. Before was always mad at Joey, and After was always afraid of him. There must’ve been a reason…
How long have we been us?
After asked that question every day, without fail.
I don’t know. A long time, I suppose.
Before always answered the same way, never straying from their self-made script.
But not as long as I was me.
Because if After didn’t ask, if Before didn’t answer— they went one step closer to being One. And neither of them wanted that, not when they’d gotten a taste of what it was like in the Beginning.
The Beginning. There was so much— events, experiences, simple words that defined who they were— that deserved capitalization to them; they had no other way to remember certain things’ importance; they didn’t know anything outside the studio. In the Beginning, when After first woke up, Before didn’t fully exist. Or, at least, there wasn’t enough of him to exist. Those first few weeks, After had been alone, confused and scared, surrounded by people that stared at him with eyes that were full of emotions that ranged anywhere from disgust to outright hatred.
Locked in his closet one night, he’d felt something, deep in the back of his mind. A presence, an Other. It screamed and wailed, and he had been able to feel its suffering. He’d been afraid of it, at first. But then he had realized that the Other was just as confused as he was. So, without a friend in the world, he’d started talking to the presence.
It took a long time. There were lots of nights where he rambled until sleep took him, lots of days spent desperately reaching for the presence, reaching to be not alone anymore. He was the One, a nameless, lonely One— and with the tantalizing prospect of Another One dangling within reach, he’d taken to hiding in the air ducts. It had infuriated Joey, but for the first time, he hadn’t cared.
He’d known he was Worthless, a Mistake, a Failure. He’d known he wasn’t ‘Bendy’ the way that Joey wanted him to be.
But, he’d thought, if he could just save this flickering, hurting presence, if he could just save his Other One— then maybe everything would be a little better. Sometimes, in the cartoons, they showed that things weren’t as scary if you had someone with you.
It had all been worth it in the end, when the Other One finally uncurled a bit and asked in a voice so small, Who am I?
I don’t know, After— still just the One— had answered, but that’s okay. I don’t know who I am either.
The Other One hadn’t said anything else that night, but he’d been the one to start a conversation the next day.
I had a name that was me, the Other One had said, but it’s gone now.
I didn’t, the One had told him, and I don’t know if I ever will.
That’s how it had been until they discovered the swearing bit. Those became their first proper names, ones that they could call each other: Before and After.
Neither of them were okay— but as long as they weren’t alone, it wasn’t so bad.
• • • • •
They fought once, over control. Sammy had kicked After, playing it off as an accident. No one had believed him, least of all Before, but none of the humans who saw it happen had cared enough to so much as say something. Joey had even laughed.
Before had been furious, and for the first time, he had tried to gain control of their body. After, wanting to just forget about the whole thing, had pushed him back. Colliding instead, they’d fought for dominance.
It hadn’t ended well.
• • • • •
Time in the studio seemed endless and unchanging. The only marker of it passing at all were the little hash marks that After drew on the walls of their closet every time Joey threw them in there.
But even then, the days blurred together.
Wake up— get pushed around— work on the cartoons— get yelled at— sneak away for a while— Before gets sassy and bitter, Joey gets angry, After gets tired— maybe catch a quick break in the air ducts— get yelled at some more— locked back up in the closet. If they weren’t totally exhausted after all that, sometimes they went exploring in the ventilation shafts; otherwise, After tucked himself into his little drawer-bed, and they hoped they didn’t dream.
(They usually did.)
Over and over and over, like a broken record. It took everything in them to keep themselves sane.
And then, one day, the pattern deviated.
(They really really wished it hadn’t.)
• • • • •
After stumbled away from Joey’s office, mitten-hands pressed to his burning face. He could still feel his static-sounding screams echoing in his tiny body.
Before was shouting, trying to get After to answer, to say that he was okay, but After couldn’t spare even a moment of concentration to reassure him. Part of him— his own part, he was sure— just wanted to retreat to their closet or find a dark corner of the ventilation shafts to curl up in. But he knew that Before deserved to see what Joey had done.
It took three tries for him to ram his shoulder into the bathroom door hard enough for it to bounce open. Knees shaking, After tripped to the counter and struggled to haul himself up, Before not so much as taking a breath between worried demands for answers.
He went silent fast enough, though, when he saw their reflection.
They’d known from the start that one of the things that made their body Wrong to Joey was their eyes. While the pie-cut black part was normal, there were each surrounded by a ring of blue-green— there from the moment After had woken up.
The color was gone now. Most of their eyes, in fact, were gone.
That… that monster. He took— he hurt you.
After sniffled and rubbed where his nose ought to have been. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.
Liar, Before said, almost absently. There was a long pause. After…?
After straightened, a little crinkle forming between what remained of his eyes. It had been ages since Before’s voice shook like that…
I think those were mine.
The wave of pained despair that swept over After sent him to his knees, hands raising against the mirror to brace himself. How do you know? he asked.
I… I can just feel it, I guess.
An emotion larger and harsher than the despair welled up in Before’s part of their mind, threatening to overwhelm After. It wasn’t the first time something like this happened; like with the mitten-hands, there were some things that Before simply couldn’t handle without losing himself. This time, though, felt different.
Before! Before! After yelled, trying to snap him out of it.
Something in Before shriveled up and retreated into what little privacy he had in their shared consciousness.
But there was no response, and After was helpless to do anything but sit and wait as the emotions bubbled over and began to drown him too, and then he could only watch in despair as the ink of their hairline began to melt down, down, down, until it completely covered their ruined eyes.
• • • • •
Things became worse. Joey reached whole new levels of infuriation, not just because his attempt at correcting ‘Bendy’s eyes had failed, but because the ink on the toon’s face proved impossible to remove. And the more Joey’s moods worsened, the more everyone else’s moods worsened. The studio hadn’t been doing well for a while, but now it was really sinking.
According to After’s little hash marks, over a week had passed after the Eye Incident— yet more capitalizations— by the time Before was able to respond to the questions that After constantly asked him.
He wasn’t better, though. After wasn’t sure Before would ever be better again.
The loss hit him hard too, of course it did— the whole thing was yet another example of why they were Wrong, and that would always hurt— but seeing Before utterly destroyed about it made After want to be strong. He’d saved Before once, pulled him out of the dark place that was tearing him apart and damaging him beyond measure, and he was determined to do it again if necessary.
Before needed him. Before was the only one who needed him. And he was the only one After needed.
That knowledge caused him to make a decision, and that decision became something of a turning point. Being around Joey made Before want to give up, After knew that. He refused to let that happen, he refused to let Joey take his only friend in the world away, like he took so many other things.
So, one night, he wrapped his only earthly possession— an old button-up shirt he’d found between the wall and a desk whose animator had left suddenly— around his shoulders, tying the arms in front of him like a cape, and entered the ventilation shafts without any intention of leaving.
After had always been the one scared of Joey, with Before the one to lessen that fear however he could— usually through ridiculous curses and an anger that made Joey seem far smaller than he was to After. If his Other One needed time to be scared, then After would step up and be strong for him in his own way; that meant hiding until Before’s entire presence stopped trembling at the sight of Joey.
• • • • •
Before began to recover more fully than he ever could’ve when he had to see Joey every day. It was easy enough for After to block out Joey’s enraged shouts as he tried to find them. Luckily, After knew the vents better than he knew himself— which wasn’t that impressive of a feat, actually, all things considered— and Joey didn’t stand a chance against After when he was truly determined like this.
If After thought the studio was coming apart at the seams a few weeks ago, then it was nothing compared to the fallout of his little disappearing act. Though the employees were quick to pick up the slack in his absence, their general unhappiness and apathy about their jobs became all the more obvious. The cartoons’ quality— which had been limping along, steadily declining, for quite some time— managed to hit rock bottom.
Word spread that Joey Drew Studios was closing its doors for good.
Though he was scared about what that meant for them, After hoped that it would only improve Before’s mental state. For the first time, the prospect of being truly rid of Joey crossed his mind.
His mouth, so often lingering on a frown, shakily turned up into a small but utterly genuine smile. After couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled without prompting or threats; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been happy enough to.
Didja hear that, Before? he asked softly.
He received an impression of a tiny head shake.
They’re closing the studio. I think it means everyone will leave.
Before perked up a bit. Really?
Yep, After said. Or at least, that’s what everyone’s saying.
With a little laugh— still a bit broken, still a bit empty— Before curled back up. But this time, After couldn’t help but notice, the edge of Before’s presence pressed up against his.
After preened a little. Maybe, someday, they’d both be okay.
• • • • •
By the end of the month, most of the employees had packed up and booked it outta there. After snuck through the ducts, his soft, rounded footwear silent even on the metal. He planned on getting into the staff lounge and making off with whatever treats were left, now that no one would notice them missing.
His path took him over Joey’s office, where he always made sure to slow down and tip-toe extra carefully. Today was no exception; Before was resting— not fitfully, for once— and After had no intention of waking him up by getting noticed.
After hadn’t made it far when he realized Joey was in his office, talking to someone. From the sounds of it, it was Murray Hill, the studio’s repair man.
“It’s hardly my fault the spell screwed him up!” Murray shouted. “And it’s even less of my fault that you couldn’t control him!”
Though After wondered what they were talking about, he didn’t pause to eavesdrop; he was on a very important mission, and he really hoped he found something that might make Before smile a little. He ignored their argument.
Right as he was about to turn a corner, there was a loud bang, rattling the wall. After froze.
In a low voice— one that After could only hear because he was listening so carefully for danger— Murray said, “I ain’t the idiot who wanted to use the one man in this entire studio who wasn’t afraid to give you a wallop. Choosing Henry as the sacrifice to make that worthless runt is all on you, Joey.”
Something in After’s head cracked and split open. He somehow managed not to cry out and alert the two men to his presence, but the damage was done. Holding his mitten-hand to his face, a parody of that day Joey took his eyes, he stumbled silently down the shaft.
And he knew— as he collapsed to his trembling knees beside the vent access panel to the staff lounge— that the something leaking through his mind didn’t belong to him at all.
Before had said the colored parts of their eyes had been his, that he could just feel it. Now, After understood what that meant. There was no reason for him to think— to even for a moment entertain the thought— that Before was who they were talking about, that Before was—
The ink on After’s face dribbled down his cheeks like a leak had sprung. The droplets went pat pat pat against the metal, the only thing he could hear.
It all made sense. Why Before was always mad at Joey, why Before had been suffering so much when After first felt him, why no one knew Before was watching everyone through After’s eyes, why Before couldn’t handle certain thoughts— it just, it all made terrible, horrible sense.
The second thing Before had ever said to him was, I had a name that was me, but it’s gone now.
It’s gone now. They’d taken it from him. For once, After felt like giving Joey a good kick in the nuts— one of Before’s most common threats against the man.
After hiccuped, his small body shaking violently. From what Murray had said, it sounded like Before— no; he was Henry back then, wasn’t he— had given Joey the beatdown he still believed the man deserved.
He sucked in a sharp breath at a sudden thought, accidentally inhaling some of the ink dripping down his face. Muffling the coughs as best he could, After slowly slipped down so he was curled up on his side against the cold vent.
Should he tell Before?
Should he tell Before that After knew— I can just feel it, I guess— what his name used to be? Would it devastate Before worse than anything else ever had, having that little part of him back but unable to do anything with it? Would it be nothing more than an empty, painful gesture? Would Before spend the rest of their life wondering if he could ever be Henry again?
Would— After nearly gave a static-scream at the thought— would Before want to leave him?
The hiccups turned into sobs, the sobs turned into dry-heaves. Beyond the access panel, the studio’s lights shut off, signaling a building empty of humans.
It was all After needed.
• • • • •
Elsewhere in the studio, Boris’s inky fur stood up on end, and Alice’s halo pulsed as she leapt a foot into the air.
The hallways filled with a piercing, grating, echoing cry. It was one of pure devastation, of rage that had nowhere to go, of indescribable sadness. Overlaying the eerily human noise was a rising crescendo of static.
They’d never heard a sound so filled with loss.
• • • • •
It took After a long time to gain control of the shuddery, gasping breaths that punched out from his tiny form. He didn’t move from his spot in the vent, instead choosing to remain there in a slowly growing puddle of ink.
Warmth engulfed his mind.
S-sorry. I didn’t— I didn’t mean to wake you, After said, sniffling. He felt even worse now for disturbing Before’s much needed sleep.
Or would it be Henry’s much needed sleep?
After, what’s wrong? I’ve never felt you so upset. Before pressed closer.
It was the most active and alert he’d sounded since the Eye Incident.
Tell him? Or keep it secret? Say that he’d only had a little breakdown, nothing to worry about? Or say that he’d overheard something great and terrible?
He didn’t know what to do. After didn’t know what to do. How could he choose? How could he possibly choose?
After? You’re scaring me. Please, at least tell me you’re all right.
He couldn’t do it—
I think I know your name. The name you had and lost. The name they took from you.
— he couldn’t be like Joey. Joey, who was a liar.
Before didn’t say anything for a long time. When he did, he sounded small, like the first time he spoke to After. You do?
After nodded, his slippery cheek sliding against the metal beneath him.
I overheard Joey and Mr. Murray arguing. They were talking about sacrificing someone. I think they did somethin’ to you to make me.
But we’re us.
And you used to be you.
Before’s consciousness shook against After’s.
Then what are we?
After fidgeted with his droopy bowtie. I dunno, he said. But do you wanna know who you used to be?
Part of After hoped he’d say no. A frighteningly large part of After didn’t want to share Before with whoever Henry used to be. Before was his.
I… yeah. Yeah, I wanna know.
He wasn’t quite fast enough to suppress a new sob. His shoulders quivered.
Hey! Hey, what’s wrong, what happened?
You’re gonna leave me! You’re gonna remember who you are and you’re gonna leave me!
Before almost growled at him, shocking After into silence. I’d never leave you, numbskull. Knowing my name ain’t gonna change that. Trust me.
After did. Gathering his nerves before he could back out, he said, Henry. Your name was Henry.
He expected Before to have an epiphany, to suddenly shout that he knew exactly who he was. He expected to be left in the dust as his Other rediscovered everything about himself, as though knowing his name was the key to unlocking whatever it was that Joey had done to them to make Henry forget in the first place. Instead, Before mentally frowned.
Henry, Before tried. Hmph. It sounds funny.
A gurgled laugh burst out of After. He imagined Before swearing that he’d kick Joey in the nuts someday, and then he imagined what Henry might’ve looked like giving Joey a wallop, like Murray had said. He came to a decision. I think it suits you. Henry.
Hmm. Henry, he said again, like he was trying on a coat and couldn’t decide whether he liked the look of it or not. I guess it’s okay.
You don’t remember anything new?
No. I think, though… I think I’d like to test it out.
Funny enough, After didn’t feel so scared anymore. It was just a name.
• Epilogue •
The studio finally closed, once and for all.
But Joey didn’t leave. He stayed, and brought back old workers one-by-one, and After and Henry watched from the vents as Joey pushed Sammy Lawrence into a giant, rumbling machine.
Whatever Joey was hoping for— he came out Wrong. They understood that all too well.
Norman Polk was next. He was Wrong, too. Susie Campbell showed up one day, though Joey hadn’t sent her an invitation.
After and Henry wondered if what happened to Susie was at all similar to them. They decided it probably was, but she was just Extra Wrong.
There were others, ones that melted into nothing only to pop up and attack After in the hallways, gurgling pleas for help that they both knew Joey couldn’t hear.
Joey tried something different, and then there was a real monster roaming the otherwise abandoned building. Its smile always seemed wider when it caught sight of After, chasing him down as Henry yelled and the not-Bendy screeched through its teeth.
They ran out of space for their hash marks in their closet and had to start using a different room. This time, After went about it in a more orderly way.
Time passed. Boxes of thirty or thirty-one lines formed a group of twelve in a column running down the wall. The group of twelve became two groups of twelve, became three, then four, then five. The five groups of twelve eventually became two groups of five twelves.
Ten columns— made of twelve boxes, each made of thirty or thirty-one hash marks— became fifteen columns. And then twenty.
They ran out of room. They chose new walls. Another column. Another column. Another column.
Sometimes, Henry was Before. Sometimes, Before was Henry. After was After, and that didn’t change.
Nothing changed. Searchers still gurgled in the hallways, Sammy still yelled whenever he saw After, Norman still mindlessly roamed around the lowest of the lower levels, Susie still screamed about the ink and her lack of perfection, and Joey’s second attempt at creating Bendy still leered and chased After at every chance it got.
Joey, well… he was still Joey.
• • • • •
Somewhere out there, in the world beyond, a letter— an invitation— sent by Joey Drew fell into trembling, white-gloved hands.
“Hello? Joey? I’m here now, what do you want?”
Deep within the studio’s ventilation shafts, a small body stiffened.