Three days. Three days, and his mother’s cooking tasted like sand, sat like a stone in his stomach.
How do you survive a near-death experience?
By not thinking about it.
All he could do was think. And fear. And think. Sleep had eluded him since Halloween night. It was November seventh.
Greg had bounced back quickly enough, though he still had to stop and stand and cough when he ran too far or too fast; the doctor said it was residual damage done by the water. He was still his sunshiny self, reasoning that not being able to run made finding interesting things easier.
Wirt hadn’t said anything about his sleep schedule. He wasn’t tired, could still function, so he just sat up and read until the words swam and the sun brightened the day again.
There was a boy. Nothing else to the story, really. He was a boy, and then he was a young man, and then he was nothing at all. People whispered that something great and black and luminous had come from the trees and swallowed him one morning; they whispered, but they never raised their voices. One could never be sure who might hear.
It happened like this: his boots were crunching through the snow, Greg chattering at his side. He took a breath, and the sky darkened above him.
Why bluebirds had taken the time to nest in his window box in the middle of winter was beyond him (wasn’t really, but that street was one he never went down anymore), but watching them make repairs and huddle in against the cold was sweet. It wasn’t unnerving. Not at all. Especially not when they scratched at his window in the middle of the night, unseating him from the trance he’d managed to fool himself into believing was sleep.
Wirt tried so hard, but some things just got lost.
When he went to school, he could see everyone attempting to include him, but he’d become more of a something than a someone. A patch of cold by the window. Everyone’s eyes skated over him--even Sarah’s. His teachers still called on him whether he raised his hand or not. He assumed that was just a constant.
Constant like his fear.
The Beast’s influence was everywhere if he looked for it: the decorative lantern his neighbors hung up, the vines that slowly consumed the side of his home, the black turtles Greg found by the creek one day. He couldn’t stop shaking.
It happened like this: his backpack was heavy on his shoulders, boots kicked up the snow around him. A car sped past them, spraying their ankles with snowmelt and ice. He looked at Greg; he smiled.
Sometime in December he found himself hunched in the bathroom after dinner, pain shooting through his abdomen.
He coughed once, twice. Something oily and black splattered onto the tile. A red twig rolled under the bathtub.
No. No no no no.
Wirt stopped eating after that. There was no need to; his body was already full of Edelwood.
He tried to cry. He tried, but his eyes just felt gritty and the fear mounting in him was oddly detached.
There was a boy, and a Beast who wanted him for his own. The Beast tried everything from his rich-oak-voice to his magics to something akin to death. None of it worked. The boy was too clever to be caught.
So the Beast stopped playing games.
Winter lasted too long.
The one thing Wirt still craved was his mother. Her arms tight around his shoulders, being able to bury his face in her T-shirt and breathe in her scent.
But now even she was wary, and he couldn’t bring himself to scare her.
He wanted her comfort. He missed it. Needed it.
He tried to cry, but all he got was a feeling of empty and wrong.
There was a boy who was claimed by his Beast one bright February morning. It happened like this: he walked, stiff and heavy with red branches concealed in his bones and a smile that didn’t pull quite right. He walked, his hand tight in his brother’s, past the woods and the cornfields and the quiet suburbia he couldn’t bring himself to despise.
Mrs. Daniels saw the whole thing, told her book club after she’d called the police. There was a boy, who was really a young man, walking his brother to school early in the morning. Something broke through the trees, something huge and shadowed and hungry.
The women murmured amongst themselves over their coffee and shortbread for a short moment, and then began to discuss The Lovely Bones.
“I see you,” he whispered one night to the eyes outside his window. “I see you.”
“You missed me.”
It was January, and he was out in the small hours of the morning, barefoot in the snow. There was a light promised for the lost; Wirt was so, so lost. His toes burned, his joints went stiff, and still he wandered, looking to be found.
There was a light promised for the lost, but not even the moon was out tonight.
He couldn’t bring himself to say a word when the Beast let himself in through his window. The Beast did nothing, just sat on his windowsill and blocked out the streetlights.
Finally, Wirt could speak. “So this is all you?” He swallowed, dry throat clicking. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, there’s...there’s something. There’s Edelwood. It’s taking me over. It’s all you, isn’t it?”
“I’m not carrying your damn lantern for you, Beast.”
“That’s not what I’m offering you.”
There was a boy who became a young man, who became a monster. The world needs more monsters, said the Beast.
The boy could not deny he was right.
It happened like this: he hugged Greg tight and told him he loved him. Told him that nobody would bother him, because everyone would know that something bigger and scarier than them was watching out for his little brother.
Then he reached out into the black and took the Beast’s spindly hand.
He stood, knees weak, face buried in the Beast’s shoulder, long fingers stroking over his back.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped, finding hot tears running down his face at last.
“For what? You’re purging your weakness.”
“I just want to go home.”
“We made a deal, Wirt. I do not allow oathbreakers in my forest.”
I am afraid.
Even people like us fear.
“Will I ever go back?” he asked, no fear fluttering in his chest.
He wondered if the Beast could smile, because he could hear it in his voice. “Of course. I didn’t teach you all this for you to sit here and rot with it.”
Wirt leaned back against the tree and settled into blanket of green shoots the forest made for him.
“Why did you make this deal with me?”
A pause as the Beast considered. “You bested me. I saw potential.”
There was a boy, who turned into a young man, who turned into a monster in human skin. A monster with great potential for love, for understanding, for violence. For strength.
A boy who was taught by his greatest fear that it was okay to be afraid.
A boy who returned home with power in his bones and a great stillness he could never quite explain.
Wirt woke to bright lights and a beeping monitor.
It happened like this: he slipped on a patch of ice, stumbled into the road, and died a second time when he was struck by a great black car.
Small hands clutched his. “You’re awake!”
Greg grinned. Wirt grinned back.
There was a rush of parents and nurses and a psychiatrist, just to make sure.
First was the wheelchair, then were the crutches. Then the cane that he never was able to stop using.
It happened like this: he died a second time and learned resilience from the dark.
There was once a boy. Now he looks to be a man, but if you peer close enough, you can see shadows flicker under his skin.
When he speaks, he commands the room. When he walks, people give him a wide berth. It’s not because of the cane.
He writes beautiful things every now and again.
The Beast still visits him often, and they sit on the floor in the hallway and let their tea get cold and talk for hours.
“I saw potential in you.”
“Do you still?”