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An AWE at Owl Creek Bridge

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It resonates in your house.

After the song, time for applause.

We build you till nothing remains.

 

There is a void where nothing was, and that shouldn’t be enough to wake a man as tired as he is. It shouldn’t be anything at all. Nothing into nothing. Where’s the change?

See, he used to be able to tell without thinking where Darling was in the building. It wasn’t a power, or a Directorial ability. They’d just known each other for a long time, knew each other well enough, and even though he moved quietly and Darling was never not distracted, he’d never snuck up on him before. It wasn’t conscious, just some back-of-your-mind, intuitive feeling. He hadn’t been able to feel it after the expedition. After 36. That was how he’d known. The Darling he knew had faded out, subsumed by that monster, until he hadn’t had a clue if he was in the House at all. It had felt godawful. Cut off from something he’d barely been connected to, but still, alone.

 

The egg cracks and the truth will emerge out of you.

You are home.

You remind us of home.

 

He hadn’t felt it in months. Not the slightest. But there’s a difference between a quiet and a vacuum. There’s a difference between a muted line and dead air, even if you can’t hear it till the receiver’s hung up on the other side.

Darling is gone.

Maybe it ought to bother him, but it doesn’t really.

They’d been connected. If Darling’s gone, then this one damn thing worked, at least. If Darling’s gone, then so is he.

 

You’ve taken your boss with your boss with you.

 

The Service Weapon is saying it, too, soft and reassuring in his ear. It’s also saying—

 

<Your employment/existence is being terminated, as a result of your violation/loss of control/corruption of policy. Please recall your Non-Disclosure/Destruction Agreement/Disagreement. It must be complied with. Turn in your badge/i.d. card/self and Weapon/body and do not cause a fuss before exiting this office/plane.>

 

All hair must be eaten.

 

Outside, they’re saying “corrupt”, and “disgrace”, in hushed voices, and the other words in loud ones, and the House is saying [INTERNAL LOCKDOWN], and the janitor is mopping up tiny, bloody footprints that don’t lead anywhere at all.

 

He pulls the trigger.

 

She pulls the trigger, but the eyes that they see each other with are the same eyes.

 

The trigger is pulled by P6/the Whisper/the mistake.

 

The Service Weapon pulls its own trigger.

 

Year and years condensed down to 0.8 seconds, an imagined future in the moment before death— thank god the Board rejected him, thank god he failed the test, because he couldn’t even imagine a future where he didn’t fuck it up. He didn’t pick up the gun because he wanted to be Director. He wanted to know he wasn’t needed. He wanted permission to rest.

 

He pulled the trigger without flinching in Northmoor’s office. Eighteen years later, the bullet connected with his brain.

 


 

<Rest/retire in piece.> says the Board.

It’s peace, he says, without a mouth.

<No.> says the Board.

 


 

He’s getting out of the car with a heavy black duffel bag in one hand and a foam cup of truck stop coffee in the other. The motel looks even more like every other motel he’s ever stayed at than those motels looked like themselves. It’s sunset in the desert. Red dust on a black car. He’s tired from a long day’s drive. His back is stiff, and his knees. He has files to go over in his room, details of the case, usual field work shit.

It’s all so damn picturesque for a moment that it feels like a story.

 

It is a story— he realizes he can see the writer, too. Some kid hunched over a typewriter, stuck on a phrase, stuck with half a scene and no plot.

“…all we ever see or seem—“ The author’s muttering the quote to himself, drumming a thumb lightly on the spacebar.

He thinks maybe he’s got to do some sort of pedantic, ghostly penance here as a boring muse, and suggest more homonyms with a’s in them. It’s a stupid thought, but he goes with it. “Or sea,” he tells the kid flatly, “Or seam.” It’s a non sequitur, but he finds a place for it after a moment.

No matter where you go, or how tight you sew it up, that dream ends eventually, and the nightmares come spilling out. You drown yourself in a new dream, wrap yourself up in something better, layers and layers of it, but they wear down. They always do. Those nightmares will find their way out of your skull, even if it’s by painting themselves across your office rug.

He thinks it, doesn’t say it, but the author hears it anyway— or, at least, he can only assume the kid does, because he starts rattling away at the typewriter keys like they’ve done him a personal wrong.

“Yeah,” the author says, sounding vaguely out of breath, “It’s noir. Neo-noir. Why didn’t I think of that before? I can practically hear him—“

The kid isn’t writing the motel scene, anymore, so he has to look around the lobby, let his eyes adjust to the gentle dimness, and try to figure out which room is his.

It only takes a second, though— his key is sitting on the front desk, waiting for him. There’s no number on it, just a symbol that looks like two coffee rings from leaky cups, half-overlapped.

Of course, you don’t go out for field work alone. His partner beat him here, and already checked them in. The idiot leaves coffee rings on everything, from paperwork to the cosmos, apparently. He doesn’t know what he means by the thought, but it’s definitely true. Room number two overlapping coffee rings is on the right, obviously. He can hear the radio on in the room. He slots the key into the lock, turns it, locks it again, back, forth, back, a quick threefold repetition that takes no time at all, sheer habit. He turns the knob.

 

Pain blooms across his head like an opening flower, pain like he’s never experienced in his life, a silent, crippling tide of agony—

It recedes as quickly as it came.

 

Oh, he thinks, the bullet. Right. That was quick. He opens the door.

 

Casper Darling is sitting in the middle of the bed, propped up on the pillows, with his knees pulled up and a file open across his legs. He looks up and cracks a crooked grin. “Is this the part where I say, ‘I told you so’?”