Crumbling Earth

While we all go about living our lives, a small group hold, possibly, the most important information in the world. The Earth is crumbling.

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9. Chapter 9

Pens. Black ink. Blue ink. Things you'd lose over the school year, until all that was left was one bitten-up pen with no ink. That was back home (and it always had to have a 'back' in it, home was far too ominous statement). It didn't settle as well as his breakfast. Grey had finished eating, the plate some way away from him and Naid's work taking its place.

"Remind me why I do these?" Naid inquired, as he paused to shake the implement in his hand. A list of calculations were spread out in front of them.

Grey thought for a moment then replied, "Because your sister says you still need an education and I'm not planning to cross her any time soon. That a good enough reason for you?" He then tapped the edge of the paper. "Come on, back to work. Trecia might kill us if we don't get these done and...I can't remember the lessons I had three or four years ago that well."

Letting out a little laugh, the younger of the two. "Nah, I'm the only one who'll get killed."

 

At the sound of a rustle, they both turned their heads - but came to an impromptu stop when a third face wedged its way in between them. Black hair and a small section of the blanket around her shoulders brushed against the boys. Dark strands and warm breath against his cheek, Grey could almost forget where he was and why he was still there. The reminder would come with a pang. Somehow, he was content with that just to hear her hum of approval as Naid explained his progress then the way her hand brushed his where it rested on the table.

"So, who's killing who and why?" She drew back and he missed the silken touch in a flash. Drink in hand, she had one hand on her hip and a trace of a grin on her lips.

"You're going to kill me because I haven't finished. Grey thinks you'll kill him too." The eldest of the three couldn't see but Naid flashed Grey a look of feigned innocence. The latter nudged the former's foot and turned back, just in time to catch Trecia let out a string of laughter.

"Don't worry, I only kill family," she quipped. After a final sip from her cup, she added, "I'm off to the kitchen, I need food. Can you spare Grey for a second?"

"I'm not much help anyway. See you later..." The man - boy, teenager - in question patted Naid's shoulder and began to walk with her. For a few moments, the only sounds in the room were their footsteps and the scratch of pens making impressions. Even that seemed minuscule and empty as it rebounded off the walls.

Soon they were out of earshot, their pace slowed and she whispered, "I was thinking about visiting the grave. Do you think he's up for it? How's he doing in general?"

"Naid?" They threw a shared glance at him. "Fine, as far as I can tell. I just don't know him as well as you do. Talking of...you, how is everything going behind the iron mask?"

 

As if he'd just defeated a supervillain by speaking his true name, said mask crumbled and revealed the broken visage behind. Pain, for her, shot through all other emotions and he pulled her to him. Whispering comfort, running a shaking hand through her hair. Tension drained and she moulded to him, her head falling onto his shoulder. The hairs on his neck stood on end as she exhaled. Her limbs ceased to tremble. All that was left was the sniffling and the intermittent pitter-patter of tears on his clothes.

"It's okay..."

Just like that, the mask reformed and she ripped herself from his grasp in her barely-composed state. Even supervillains heal. And that's who got in the way - Stubbornness and its strongest attack, Isolation. It rose to full power when she retreated into the kitchen. Grey jumped at the hand on his arm. He looked down at the eleven-year-old.

"Give it time. Okay?" For the first time since the incident, he spotted pain etched into the other's features. But a smile tugged at his lips.

"Yeah... I guess."

 

 

Kailen's hand drew lazy patterns on the glass beside her. A blanket was draped over her legs and a pillow was wedged at her back. It was a faint reminder of the evenings her dad would be out drinking - before she'd noticed the pattern - where she'd sit and wait.

You got too big for the shelf, she told herself. Maybe, just maybe, she'd accepted the man who came home wasn't her father.

Her attention left the scenery, or lack thereof, when Bernis leapt up. Paws grappled at her knees and left scores in the duvet's outer cover. With a moment's hassle, the lump of silver-grey fur weighed down on her legs.

She tilted her head, hair falling into her eyes. The window ledge was a lot different from what she was used to, colder and smoother; she figured it had been eroded over time, perhaps by the presence of people with the same idea as her.

 

"Hey," she mumbled, a hand coming to rest amongst the hairs by ritual. He pillowed his head in the duvet's stuffing but then shifted to look at her. "I wish you could talk. It might make things around here a bit more bearable. On the other hand, we might argue and I really don't need any more of that."

I'd have liked it if you were there. To pay your respects. He caredTrecia uttered. Her voice resounded through the younger girl's mind and she burrowed under the covers. Bernis scaled her hip, pawed at her side as she turned and watched her intently. Puberty hadn't been kind enough to give her an hourglass figure yet her waist was enough to cradle the wolf's front legs. Kailen reached out and brushed her fingers along the strong-boned structure of his face. He nuzzled into her hand. Closing her eyes, she dropped back against the wall.

 

A moment after her skull made contact with the chilled plaster, the weight shifted to the edge of her knee and both her hand and lap were empty.

"Huh?" Eyelids flew open. "Bernis?"

His body faced away, down the corridor, and his eyes stared back at her. Blanket abandoned where it was, she rose and trailed after him while he padded down the corridor. Out the door, down the stairs and into the open air.

"Where are we going?"

Her shoes had been worn down since... Since when? How many days had she been there?

I've been around for at least a week, she decided.

When claws scraped against cement, pulling the creature in front to a stop, she looked up (not too far, otherwise she'd end up staring into the void that was the sky).

Three tall buildings stood, interconnected, around a patch of grassland littered by headstones. Wrought iron gates and a fence to match created a square shape. In the centre of it all was a rectangle of disturbed earth. Kailen blinked and realised she'd been left behind. Hurrying her steps, she slipped in through the open gate.

"Morbid, huh?" She glanced down at the wolf, who didn't alter his course. When his paws finally sunk into the soil, they were stood at the new grave.

 

That particular headstone was like any other: grey stone, rounded top and firm base. But the details on it were different. The engraving was a good mimic of the fine craftsmanship around them but not nearly as deep and polished. Each letter appeared wider than planned, 'I's becoming diagrams of support beams and window barricades. As the inscription went on, the lines wavered and a droplet of water was lodged in the cracks of the 'X'.

Kailen felt the brush of fur against her leg - Bernis sat on his hind legs at her feet, flowers dangling from his jaws. She reached down and muttered, "I'd ask you where this came from but I know I wouldn't get an answer."

She placed it at the foot of the grave, tinkering with it for a while until it didn't look so inferior beside the bouquet already there.

It's not much but it'll have to do... she mused.

 

At the sound of a noise, she turned; three figures approached in a tight pack. Panic rose. She wasn't ready. Yet they still advanced. The fifteen-year-old took note of her surroundings.

Not ready.

They came closer still and she marched over to one of the mausoleum entrances, Bernis at her heels.

Still not ready.

Its handle didn't turn. Pushing wasn't going to work. Kailen didn't have time to slap at the door and take the role of the petty schoolgirl who died first in horror films. And so she threw her weight against it. Not because she was being chased by a monster. But because she was scared those chasing her would see she was one.

Dust tumbled down and the frame made its last stand.

Never ready.

With that, she fell into the room face-first and slammed the door shut with her feet.

 

 

The windows had fathered the grime of a thousand unwashed cars. Little light entered through them - what did played harsh on her features as she moved across the floor (stone with tiles of marble wedged between their duller companions). Oxygen seemed heavier in her lungs. Like the dead were pressing down on it. As if they had nowhere else to go.

A wooden furnishing held a few vials on its open shelves, growths of bacteria clinging to the liquid surfaces. Along the attached desk, on top of the drawers below, glass shards covered the wood. A pair of false leather armchairs had been position at on end of the room. Another was overturned nearby, a fire poker piercing the upholstery.

Kailen leaned on the wall, wheezing. "Hey, Bernis? Remind me to never try that again." Words, for once, didn't fall on deaf ears. Bernis tilted his head. "Oh, you're just fine. Aren't you? Should've guessed you'd make me do all the dirty work."

He blinked a few times - or, something that looked like blinking - as if to say 'no one forced you'. At that, the teenager huffed and went over to one of the windows. She pulled her sleeve down over her hand. Years of shielding cold fingers from the winter kept it there while she scrubbed away at the glass.

 

The layers came off in bundles and kernels, on the window ledge and on her sleeve. "Ugh..."

She hunched, squinting through what was left. From various angles, she glimpsed the three others in her vicinity. "I feel like I'm spying on my roommates."

A snort dwindle down to a meek noise, falling quiet so she could hear the muffled voice. "Where did the flower come from?"

"I don't know, Naid." One thin hand pointed to Kailen's contribution and the boy's older sister gave a shrug, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "It was probably Bernis. You know what he's like: man's best friend."

 

Before anyone else could speak, the watcher slipped away and flopped into an armchair. Beside her, her animal companion leapt up into the other.

"You know what this reminds me of? This one time, when I was a kid, I came home to my dad covered in drunk and covered in newspaper clippings. I looked later and they were missing person's...things. For my mum," Kailen rambled, catching Bernis' eye.

Squinting, she tilted her head and watched him. "Oh, you don't know... Well, here goes nothing - if I'm bad at storytelling, let me know."

She stared at the broken glass atop the drawers and the words poured from her lips.

 

 

Much like the jumble of smashed vials that her older self would stare at years on, the carpet was polluted by the less refined pieces of vodka bottle. Blue contrasted against red fibers. With her lip pinned between her teeth, she nudged herself a path through the mess.

"Dad?" No reply. "Is Mum home yet?" Still, no reply.

She turned into their living room, with its polished TV and elegant flowered curtains. The delicate blanket laid over the sofa hadn't been disturbed. Uncreased. Reluctant to be the first to mess it up, she placed her bag down beside the furniture.

"Dad!" the girl called again, heading out into the corridor. From the kitchen, she heard shuffling. One hand rose to the door handle then paused, as she peered through the crack. Unable to see anything, she shrugged and pushed it open.

 

Dark hair fell out of his eyes, he looked up and said, "Hey."

"Well, aren't you going to ask if I had a good day?" A smile broke out on her lips - though he didn't mirror it, she'd already turned to the fridge.

"I'm not really in the mood right now, sweetheart." When the younger of the two turned back to him, her smile faltered and she gripped the apple juice carton tighter. "It's nothing personal, I just..."

"Where's Mum, then? I'll go and talk to her."

At that, his eyes turned dark. "Go to your room, Kailen..."

"But-" she began, her vision zipping to the glass on the kitchen counter and the selection of bottles around it. Then to the red outline of her father's eyes. And, last of all, she saw the tiny photograph in his hands that contained his wife's beaming features.

"Go." Firm tone. Dead eyes. Slouched body. She turned and did as she was told, taking the juice with her.

 

A moment's search proved every room, excluding the kitchen devoid of life. So, when she ambled into her own room and collapsed atop the duvet, she didn't bat an eyelash at the solitude.

On the mahogany nightstand was a clock - nothing digital or alarm-equipped. Just a square object that let off a ticking noise exactly three times before she breathed out again. The air escaped out of every orifice possible (which happened to be only her mouth, as she found it was impossible to breathe out of her nose at the same time). Such a gust of wind didn't bother the model of leaves and thorns and fiery flowers that covered its inner workings. One chubby, five-year-old finger traced the edges as if searching for a way to get lost in between the layers.

Somehow, she'd succeeded; her eyelids were tugged downwards by gravity. When they were able to fight back again, her hand hung off the bed like loose string. She pulled it up to rub at her eyes and stared at the door.

 

Whatever decision she was trying to make was resolved by her stomach; it groaned at her, so she stood on shaky legs and pulled the door open.

"Dad? Mum?" The only response was the thrum of the kitchen lights. A selection of scraps were strewn across the table.

And no parents. Kailen remained in the doorway, turning to see if they were in any other room and hadn't heard. Each and every one was in shadow. Her brain rushed on, ran beyond her reach. Time (or, at least, her sense of it) had come undone, lost at the bottom of a pit. Like being woken up in the night and not being sure whether it was late at night or the early hours of the morning. All routine would fly out the window and the rest of the world would detach itself from you.

Hugging herself, she approached the assortment on the table. A pizza box a grease-spotted bag of chips on top. Warm aromas invaded her nostrils but she tore her attention away, her father's handwriting catching her eye.

 

'Dear Kailen,

I'm so sorry that I shouted earlier. Things are mad at the minute. Anyway, I left you some food and I'll be back later. Get some sleep.

Love, Dad'

 

Her brow creased. Trouble. As she placed the note down, her eyes narrowed further. Phone numbers with the word 'missing' above them. Pictures of her mum. Official-looking forms with the words 'missing', 'Marie Port' and 'urgent' on them - that last one was crossed out. Handwriting that resembled her father's. Except, she'd never seen it so distorted.

One hand seized the last item and the other grabbed the food. In darkness, she pattered into the living room and placed the food down on her own makeshift windowseat. Then she shuffled off and flipped the light switch.

The cushions were really supposed to be on the sofa, and not forcing the curtains to jut out a foot or two from the floor, but her mother and father humoured her. Curling up tight and opening the pizza box, she decided it was time to humour them.

 

 

"It's like she's jealous... I honestly don't know what she has against you." Grey sighed, eyeing the grave over Trecia's shoulder. Out of them all, he felt he was the only one to whom it wasn't a familiar sight.

"Whatever it is, she's mad at you too," Naid blurted. Trecia batted at his bicep. "What?"

The older male shook his head. "No, he's right. She's moved out, as weird as it sounds. Got up and left."

"Where'd she go?" Hazel eyes held curiosity, turning Kailen's floral contribution over in her hands but not looking up. Grey shrugged then realised she couldn't see the action.

"Don't have a clue and, to be honest, I don't care. A four year old acts more mature than she does."

"She's not herself, she didn't ask to be here." Trecia's tone was balanced, hands clasped tight in front of her. The three of them stood in an arc at the foot of the grave, with Naid on his right and Trecia on his left.

"Neither did I and I'm not starting arguments over nothing." He stared darkly ahead, a frown possessing his lips. "It's like she's looking for trouble. Deliberately."

This time, her eyes fried his retinas. "You don't know that. Have you even honestly tried to talk to her? And I mean actually talk, not just confront each other." Silence. "There you go. Try that next time you run into her."

 

"It's just... Why? We're supposed to be friends. I was only trying to..." He allowed the corners of his mouth to go limp and flexed his fingers, tucking them into his pockets. Grey held his lip between his teeth, like a barricade that forced words back down his throats. On occasion, one would worm its way out. "Can't you talk to her? I mean, I know she's not your...best buddy but maybe you can get her to consider eating with us once in a while."

"If she's so rude, why do you want her as a friend?"

"Naid-"

"No, it's a serious question. Why d-"

"I never once left her behind because she met new people. Not once." It came raw and shaken - a sharp contrast to the cold, flat tones he'd spoken in before. Then he was gone, leaving them there with a gap the width of his shoulders and more.

 

It wasn't a conscious choice when he didn't look back. Not as Trecia berated her younger brother and topped it all off by saying Xander wouldn't have wanted them to fight.

Nor was it his decision to stop on the other side of the mausoleum buildings, or to flop back against so hard that he didn't hear the girl on the other side mutter, "That's because you weren't the one left behind."

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