John Egbert wandered out of his room, hand cupped beside his mouth. “Dad! When's lunch gonna be ready?” he called, walking down the hall.
The boy allowed his eyes to wander as he walked. He passed the portraits of unknown pranksters, hardly even noticing them. In another frame, he spotted posters of clowns – scratch that, Harlequins.
As was customary, he scowled at them, casually shaking his fist. It was his little ritual.
God, he hated Harlequins. Made all the worse by his father's obvious, senseless obsession with them.
John headed to the end of the hall, looking over the railing to the small living room below. Though the television played a muted commercial – some no doubt comical number about a caveman living inexplicably in the modern day – the room remained vacant.
“Dad?” John said, descending the stairs. He passed the couch, flanked by Harlequin figurines and occupied by an oversized harlequin floppy plush doll. An ostentatious gift from his father, left to sit there until John elected to move it (which he never would). For the sake of expedience, John just flipped this enormous Harlequin the bird. He'd scowled enough at it earlier in the day, and expected to repeat the ritual a number of times in days – or weeks – to come.
He turned to the mantle of the fireplace. Upon the surface were placed two urns, of a sacred variety. John resisted the urge to topple them, great though that urge often was. Above them, hung on the wall, were twin portraits: one of his elderly Nanna, and the other of the mother he never knew.
John nodded politely to the two stately matrons. “Mom, Nanna,” he whispered, before he made for the kitchen. “Dad?”
The kitchen was strangely empty. The counters were stacked with baking supplies and covered in flour. John rolled his eyes, knowing already that his father had spent the entire day baking. While he was frequently baking – a hobby John normally didn't detest (and not nearly as much as Dad's fixation on Harlequins) – Dad would only devote an entire day for the matter on one occasion: John's birthday.
Indeed, Dad had in some ways come through for John on this, his Thirteenth Birthday. The inauspicious number of the day was not panning out in terms of gifts: John had received a Little Monsters poster he'd been pining for. And John was pretty sure Dad had a number of additional gifts stashed away somewhere, ready to surprise him with later. Dad made a big production out of his only son's big day.
Unfortunately, that also meant inundating John with baked good galore, courtesy of the batterwitch herself, Betty Crocker. John was thoroughly sick of cake, having received three whole ones that morning alone. So if Dad would kindly give the baking a rest already, John would be thrilled.
The boy took one quick look in the laundry room, saw no one, and backtracked out of the kitchen. A quick sweep of the study revealed no Dad either. Only a plethora of more posters and figurines of Harlequins, including a huge poster adorning the left-hand wall. It was bad enough filling the space with the junk, Dad had to paste the biggest affront to John's sensibilities in front of the piano. John loved that piano, but the Harlequins made being in the room a matter of mixed feelings.
On the right-hand wall, a desk sat, adorned with more harlequins and a judicious supply of pipe tobacco. Two books sat upon its surface: a shaving manual, and a vintage copy of Colonial Sassacre's Daunting Text Of Magical Frivolity And Practical Japery. But John didn't bother taking either, being too young yet to shave and already in possession of a Sassacre's of his own. In the far corner, the heavy safe was open, but no one was around going through it.
“Ugh,” John groaned. “Dad! Where are you?”
It occurred to John, as he ascended the steps back upstairs, that his father may have stepped out of the house. Probably for more baking supplies, which would be just like him. Maybe renting a Harlequin costume for John's celebration, though that seemed less likely. Not because he put it past his father to do something so over the top and dorky – the two were noted pranksters, a preoccupation that less informed persons would construe as the height of dorkiness. Rather, John doubted his father would need to rent a costume because he was fairly certain Dad owned one as part of his job.
Because obviously Dad was a Harlequin himself of some description, and entertained people with his antics. That was just straight logic.
John wandered down the hall, figuring that if Dad was gone, he'd just man up and nibble on some more cake until dinner. Or maybe his father was getting pizza or something, and that was why he was gone. As he made for his room, though, John's eyes caught something that was different than was normally the case in his house: the door to Dad's room was slightly ajar.
The rule in the Egbert house, for as long as John could remember, was that one did not barge into another man's room when the door was closed. One knocked, and if no permission was forthcoming, that was the end of the matter. On the few occasions when John got into enough trouble to deserve a spanking – a punishment Dad rarely felt the need to administer, especially not anymore – he would allow John the sanctuary of his room...and John could stay in there until hunger, thirst, or the need to urinate forced him out. By that point, John had usually had enough time to think about whatever he'd done, hence the lessened need for outright corporal punishment.
In turn, John knew that Dad kept his room closed at all times, and he should respect the privacy his father undoubtedly desired.
That the door was ajar meant John wouldn't technically be breaking any rules if he went in. And John was very curious, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He'd never seen the inside of his father's bedroom before.
Creak. “...Dad?” John said, pushing the door in enough to peek inside. The room was too dark to see into, so he pushed the door open completely. “Dad, are you in here?”
He stepped into the room and flipped the light switch.
John Egbert had expected to see many things upon entering his father's room. Not just more Harlequin figures and posters, but a menagerie of them, dominating any available space. A closet full of harlequin hats and suits, pointy shoes, various balls and other juggle-able objects. Perhaps the mounted head of a decapitated circus animal, claimed from some obscure bit of circus-based heroism. Or even a mural lovingly painted on the walls, depicting in minute detail the glory of the harlequin master race.
What John Egbert did not expect to find in his father's room...was Nothing.
Oh, there were objects, furnishings, and possessions in the room. There was a bed, a mirror, a chest of drawers, a throw rug, a bedside table with a lamp on. There was even a kind of shrine to some douche bag, holding a pipe in a very fatherly way.
But there were no harlequins. Not even clowns, the harlequin's baser, degenerate genetic offshoot. Or any jesters, a similar offshoot from up the family line. Or any sort of Fool, comical or otherwise. Nor, in fact, were there colors much of any kind, aside from black, white, and beige. The clothes peeking from the closet were just Dad's usual fare – the stuff he wore whenever John was around. Ironed shirts and slacks, shined shoes, black ties, and plain, serviceable hats.
John walked – more stumbled forward – taking the breadth of the room and its dominating aesthetic. Plain and serviceable was its motif. Which, in any other context, would have made perfect sense, given the image John's father projected to everyone around him.
But that was preposterous. John began breathing quickly, his eyes darting every which way. He noticed a stack of presents on the floor – so that was where they were hiding – but the suddenness of the situation caused John to ignore them. He would get to those later.
He eyed a plain, black brief case leaned against a wall and dove for it. Sweat was beginning to form on his brow. Surely this suitcase would tell John all he needed to know about Dad's secret double life as a street performer...
Nope! His hands played across the papers he pulled from the case, but they were just documents. Forms and notes and memos about subjects both dry and incomprehensible. That most dastardly of ciphers: boring technical jargon!
“Ah!” John moaned, dropping the case and backing up slowly. “Aaaaah...”
His eyes nervously twitched around to the plain and serviceable bedspread. The plain and serviceable drawers. The plain and serviceable present wrapping paper, somehow colored only in blacks, whites, and grays. John looked to the selection of folding razors, safely closed and aligned neatly on the top of the dresser.
A pit formed in John's stomach as he took in the rug, depicting the outline of a plain, serviceable hat in light gray on darker gray. His heart raced as he studied the rack containing a sizable pipe collection, each more plain and serviceable than the last. John's pupils shrank and his mouth gaped wide as he looked face to face with the portrait of the pipe-smoking man. His face...his face...
WHO WAS THIS DOUCHE BAG, AND WHY DID HE STARE INTO HIS SOUL?!
“Hah...hah...aaaaah!” John moaned, clutching his head with both hands. The boy sank to the floor, face twisted in pain, rocking back and forth in the fetal position.
He writhed on the ground and wept like a baby for minutes. Or possibly hours.
Rose Lalonde stared down at a mechanical pencil. Her thumb jammed on it a couple more times, but no new lead sprung forth.
The girl scowled, squinting. She was out. Not just out of lead, but out of normal pencils, pens, markers, and even crayons. That mechanical pencil was one she'd managed to scrounge up from a forgotten box in the attic.
Rose sighed, casting the thing aside and resting her face in her palm. “Hrrmm...” She pushed herself up dramatically, setting her creative writing notebook down.
The Complacency Of The Learned would have to wait. Rose walked to the door. She was going to need to ask Mom to buy more writing implements.
That would mean having to actually TALK to her. “Ugh...”
After the indeterminate amount of time passed, John eventually dragged himself to his feet.
“Ah man...” he groaned, slumping his shoulders. “...Dad...”
It slowly dawned on him, with this stunning revelation, that his father had never directly expressed personal interest in Harlequins. He'd bought their paraphernalia, obviously. But he'd never said anything about it...they just sort of creeped in. Like a weird, jester-y vine. They came to fill the house, and everything in it. And Dad was certainly responsible – the posters and figurines didn't slip in of their own accord – John saw his father bring them home, give them as gifts, or decorate the house with them.
Yet here, in Dad's bedroom, they were absent. This was Dad's sanctum – the seat of himself and his proud fatherly power. Power that, apparently, entirely took the form of being a regular, average Businessman. If John's father really liked Harlequins so much, John rightly assumed their influence would be strongest in here.
The opposite was true, however. If anything, this plain, serviceable room for a plain, serviceable father and businessman was a bulwark against the harlequin incursion. As if the colorful abominations were given free rein to do as they pleased in the rest of the suburban household, so long as this one room remained untainted.
The more John thought about it, fingers stroking his chin, eyes cast downward, the more he realized...he had just assumed Dad liked Harlequins. He didn't seem to mind their presence, but he didn't seem all that enthused either. Like he was obliged to the harlequins, a servant to colorful demon lords, who stalked the world and picked up harlequin merchandise, and decorated his home with them. All in the hopes of being personally spared the plague.
John shook his head, tempted to slap himself. He stalked slowly out the door, reaching for the lights. He paused briefly, looking back on the presents in the corner, untouched. He could open them...but John shook his head again, figuring that the moment was passed. He wasn't in the mood anymore. John flipped the lights off and drew the door almost closed.
He sighed, heading back to his room. John would wile away the next few hours on the internet, maybe watch some internet videos or catch up on his web comics. MS Paint Adventures was a series he hadn't come back to in a while. As he reached for his door, John realized he didn't remember where he stopped – he probably should start using the Save function, like he irrationally never had.
Turning the knob and pushing in, he figured he'd need to start from the beginning of the most recent adventure: The Midnight Crew.
The first thing John Egbert noticed when he got back to his room was that his window was cracked open. Because – duh – of course it was. That's the way he left it, to air out the smell of frosting after he'd gotten sick of the taste.
The second thing he noticed was that the walls around his bed were covered in rough, childish drawings of harlequins.
A phenomenally cool dude stood in his room, sipping down a bottle of apple juice, when his computer bleated like a goat. He wandered over and took a seat, jiggling the mouse to banish his 90s-style colored-wire screen saver.
This cool dude stocked both the screen saver and the sound effect of the goat for one reason and one reason only: Ironic Purposes.
In particular, the goat sound informed him of a development. Someone was pestering him. He nonchalantly adjusted his sunglasses.
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
GG: are you ready dave?
GG: its almost time!
TG: todays the day huh
TG: the day your dreams come true
TG: i still cant get over how thats a thing we can say and mean one hundred percent literally
TG: so i just message the guy now or
GG: you cant pester him now!
GG: hes right in the middle of something important
GG: if you pester him now he might not even make it through
TG: through what
TG: you know what never mind
TG: ill take your word as gospel
TG: ill make myself your fuckin apostle
TG: shit thats a good rhyme
TG: make myself a catapult
TG: and launch my ass into your cult
GG: hee hee :P
GG: but seriously dave we need to focus
GG: you need to pester him in...
GG: in exactly eight minutes and thirty eight seconds
TG: does it need to be that precise
GG: no i guess not :/
GG: but it will be soon
TG: wait why do i need to contact this guy
TG: you actually
TG: you know
TG: know the guy
TG: youve talked to him before
TG: why do i need to act as a medium for this convoluted séance
TG: why not just pester him yourself if you need to talk so bad
GG: ugh because thats not how it goes in my dream
TG: makes perfect sense
GG: also im pretty sure he wont believe me if i tell him -_-
TG: and hell believe a complete stranger like me
TG: believe what exactly
TG: we never even established what the hell the end game here is
GG: he just needs us now okay
GG: and at the right time
TG: is this
TG: his thing
TG: is this like our thing
TG: our thing collectively speaking of course
TG: wait hold on im gonna scrub ahead on this conversation to see if thats the case
GG: okay okay!
GG: yes dave it is his day
GG: which is why we need to time our moment exactly
GG: too early and he wont wake up at all
GG: too late and he might do something...
TG: got it say no more
TG: i know exactly what youre talking about now
TG: see how easy it is when were not being all coy and shit
TG: and actually communicate with each other
TG: if youd told me earlier id have prepared fuckin
TG: notes and shit
TG: get out a powerpoint presentation or something
TG: wait no not powerpoint
TG: open office
TG: is that what thats called
TG: not going to support the monopolistic shitstorm that is microsoft
TG: probably stacked all to hell with syn dicks
TG: yo syndicate why did you name your monopolistic corporation after your collective dicks
GG: dave dont you have a thing to be doing?
TG: oh right
TG: the mission
TG: how much time do i have
GG: it should probably be fine in another minute to pester him
GG: first he needs to pick up my gift
TG: oh yeah that gift
TG: totally forgot about it
TG: went to a lot of trouble hunting that down
TG: hope the little guy likes it
GG: i know for a fact hell adore it >:P
GG: but only if you're there to help him through the first few minutes
GG: so move move move!
TG: fine im going
-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] --
TG: this is going to be a headache
Dave Strider clicked off the current window, then rubbed the bridge of his nose. In a cool manner, of course. He just pinched his nose with two fingers, not letting his poker face fall for a second.
In this business, the key to success was developing the persona and sticking to it at all times.
He brought up Pesterchum – the one-stop chat client of the gods, no doubt – and typed in the chum handle she forwarded him: ectoBiologist.
John Egbert blinked in mounting horror, mouthing further expletives in hushed tones. His face contorted, eyes wide open and mouth agape.
The corner of his room, against which his bed and its ghost sheets were pushed, was decorated by a series of (totally great) movie posters...that were defaced with crude crayon drawings. The entire wall was littered with them, depicting wobbly, blocky harlequins with sharp teeth and slanted, evil eyes. They were rendered in bright pastels with no apparent rhyme or reason.
As were two phrases, attached to arrows that pointed towards the bed and, presumably, its occupant: FOOL and LAME KID.
John scowled, shaking his head. Who could be responsible for this flagrant act of vandalism?
“...ha ha...” he chuckled, suddenly and for no explicable reason. He just couldn't keep a hold over the righteous indignation. “Ha ha ha...haha hahaha!” he giggled, even though his body shook with nervous abandon, and his face was turning pale, drenched in a sheen of sweat.
It suddenly seemed so funny to him. Why was it funny? Oh, of course he knew why! “Ha ha! Ha...v-very...gah...very funny, Dad!” he said, his voice faltering. John's mouth was terribly dry, and he couldn't stop shaking. “Y-you really got me! The Prankster's Gambit is in your favor now! J-joke's over! You can come out now!”
The boy hugged himself fretfully. “Dad...?” he wheezed, his nervous smile dropping. “...Dad...? Oh god, oh god, oh g-g-god!”
All this time, he couldn't tear his eyes from the Harlequins etched on his wall. They bore into his soul, and he didn't even have animosity anymore to fall back on.
John Egbert was afraid. He was afraid because it was starting to become obvious what was going on.
He could recognize his own handwriting, even one penned on a wall. Could identify his shitty art style a mile away.
Moreover, he could remember. As he trembled in his little tennis shoes, getting his favorite green ghost shirt sopping wet with sweat, John remembered.
Remembered rising from his bed at night. Remember scrambling feverishly for crayons, any crayons on hand. Remembered dragging them across his wall – and any posters that happened to be there.
He remembered defacing his own walls. And not just once, but many times, over many nights.
And he remembered not remembering, but feeling terrible. Experiencing awful, terrible dreams as he etched murals proclaiming the grand magnificence of his own dumb lameness.
John shook his head, wiping a hand over his brow and disturbing his glasses. “...n-not...p-p-possible...” he muttered, shutting his eyes hard. “...can't...”
Yet, he couldn't deny it either. Despite the haze, the memories were vivid. He could still feel the weight of his hands pressing against wax crayons until they snapped. Still see the figures taking shape before him. Even with his eyes clasped shut, he could still see the drawings. They weren't just on the wall; they were in his mind.
And as the reality of the situation forced itself upon him, he moaned. “Nnnnnagh!” He clutched his head, trembling.
Everything started to make sense. Dad wasn't the one obsessed with harlequins...John was! Or at least, that's the impression his father had likely taken. The man was always ready to accommodate John's interests, while sharing his own. It was bonding. Dad could have seen the drawings, and started collecting harlequin merchandise as an attempt to engage with him. But of course John didn't receive them well, because he hated harlequins. Not just as a result of his father's efforts, but as the root of them. John hated harlequins...
He shuddered, daring one last look at the wall. A single glance sent him turning away with a yelp.
...and feared harlequins.
Something in John's head snapped.
“Gah!” John gasped, clutching his chest. His heart beat faster and faster. The pounding of the blood could be felt in his ears, his fingers, and his toes.
He started to hyperventilate. “Hah...hah...hah hah hah...” There was an awful ringing in his ears, and he stumbled forward a step. Breathing rapid, he looked around the room.
John spotted his window, cracked open. He saw – not felt, SAW – the air rushing in, a current of blue flowing in through the opening.
His strained breathing continued. Air. John needed air.
He stretched a hand towards the window and stalked forward, his knees suddenly heavy. His vision started to swim.
John needed to get out. He needed air. He needed to get out.
Trying to reach the window was torturous. His body seemed to resist his movement, like he was made of lead. And the distance to the opening seemed impossibly great.
He needed air. He needed to get out. He needed air. He needed to Get Out. He. Needed. AIR.
Then John Egbert became air, and flowed out the window.