The sun was no longer visible, although the sky still retained a shade of its former brightness that slowly faded into the night sky. No stars this close to the centre of the city, but the moon was half visible behind the cover of cloud and smog. Between the honking of traffic returning from work and the noise from the bars and shops, the city felt lively and busy.
The diner we were in shared none of that liveliness. It was shabby, with simple decoration on its walls and table booths, only a few of which had customers nursing their coffees or quietly eating dinner. What little conversation there was happened in polite, hushed tones, half-drowned by the noise of the city outside.
“You really should try it,” said the thing in yellow, pointing with its fork at my untouched plate. “It’s really good. What’s the last time you ate anyways?”
I remained silent, looking down and gathering my thoughts, bridging the gaps in my memory and slowly coming to terms with what was happening right now. The monster shrugged and took another bite of her omlet, closing her - no, it’s - eyes to better enjoy the taste.
“Who - or what - are you?” I asked, ignoring the food in front of me.
“I have many names,” she shrugged dismissively. “The Unspeakable One, The Feaster from Afar, Him Who is Not to be Named...”
“Oh, very nice names,” I frowned and rolled my eyes impatiently. “But what do I call you? Can’t just say ‘Good morning, Mrs. Unspeakable One!’ every time, can I? That sounds stupid.”
She seemed unperturbed by my sarcasm. “How about King in Yellow?” She asked in between forkfuls.
“King?” I looked at her up and down. She might not have a pink bow on her head or massive breasts, but she was undeniably a woman - or at least, that’s what it looked like.
“Queen then. I can be flexible,” she smiled sweetly. “I consider myself genderfluid.”
“This isn’t a joke,” I muttered, narrowing my eyes.
“I was not joking,” she replied mildly. “I know humans place a lot of value on their genitals, but if you’re bothered that a creature from the deepest confines of space and time, an eldritch abomination beyond your comprehension, doesn’t have a single gender then your priorities are REALLY weird.”
I remembered our encounter at the theater, the thing in a yellow hoodie, with a mask as white as bone. How it spoke with a symphony of howls, screams and whispers. How it seemed more landscape than living creature, and more nightmare than either.
“What happened in the theater. That night. It wasn’t a dream, was it?” I asked.
“No,” she replied promptly, not even looking at me. She calmly took another bite.
“But… I was hurt. I almost died," I said, looking at my left hand. I could still remember it being split in half by the axe. A bleeding, broken thing. How I lay on the stage, watching her die…”
“Easily fixed,” she replied dismissively. “You’re as good as new.”
“My girlfriend, all those people on stage… They really died. The actors… The people I… The people I killed. And all because of you.” I muttered, as the memories trickled back, like blood seeping under a door. “I just stood there and watched them die. You did something. To our minds. Oh god... ”
“I think you’re getting the wrong idea.” she looked up and narrowed her eyes at me, “That play was a sacred ritual. I would never sully it by using puppets. It was your girlfriend and the other actors who decided to sacrifice their loved ones under my name.” She moved closer, her eyes boring into mine, as she whispered, “and it was you who decided to kill them. Not me.”
She spoke with absolute certainty, which made me pause. “No, you’re lying.” I said, trying to convince myself as much as her. “You tricked them or… Or forced them. And to me... You did something! My life feels all wrong...”
“Ah, I did mess with your memory a little, recently,” she nodded with a thoughtful expression. “Only enough for you to accept your new role, though, which obviously didn’t take…”
“New role?” I muttered weakly, remembering how anguished I had felt throughout the day, how out of place and distorted everything felt.
“By the way, throwing yourself from the balcony, just because a hot girl confessed her love? A teensy bit of an overreaction there, don’t you think?” She chuckled, teeth showing in a predatory grin. “Just a teensy bit? Maybe?”
My hands ran through my hair as I searched my memories. Of how I was living in that apartment, with my two gorgeous roommates. Happy memories, right out of an advertisement ad or a comforting dream. “Talia. And Akiko. Were they really my roommates?” I shook my head, as more memories poured in. “No, I had a girlfriend, before. That doesn’t mesh with the bachelor fantasy. What… What was real then?”
“Meh,” The thing in yellow shrugged. “You rented a shitty apartment an hour away from college and struggled with debt and family issues. I think my version is an improvement, personally.”
She then approached, leaning in on me with a conspiratory grin, her elbows propped on the table. “Seriously though, what went wrong there?” She asked. “Girls not to your liking? Was the redhead too sassy? Because that can be fixed!”
“You sound like a pimp.” I said, edging away in disgust. Her grin grew wider and even more manic, which made me back away further. “Why are you so interested in throwing girls at me in the first place?‘
“You can blame that on your weird and ill-defined final wish. ‘Love’, if I remember right,” she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. She made a heart shape with her fingers while grinning. “Romantic, maybe, but a teensy, itsy bit on the vague side. So pardon me for taking a loose interpretation.”
My mind returned to that moment, as I lay broken and dying on the stage, my last thoughts fixed on my girlfriend. How she had plunged her own knife so deep into her chest I could not see the blade. She lay there, dying, and I could not comfort her or understand her. I could not even remember her face. Even now, no matter how hard I tried, it vanished from my memories.
“Why can’t I remember her face?” I asked, quietly, afraid of the answer.
She stopped grinning immediately, and answered me with a serious expression. “She is no more. During the ritual I subsumed her. Now her existence is a part of me.”
“You what?” I scoffed, wondering if she was making another joke at my expense. She rolled her eyes.
“Oh boy, this will be a tricky one. Maybe this will help you understand.” With those words she took a sock puppet from one of her pockets and slipped it on her hand.
The puppet was hand stitched and not very well-made at that. One if its googly eyes was missing and the ears had different colours. It looked like some sort of fox or wolf, but was impossible to tell from the lack of detail. It was yellow, of course. The puppet pantomimed a bow before saying, “Hello kids! It’s me, Wolfy! Are you ready to learn about the the impermanence of the self today?”
I frowned as I looked at the puppet, then back at her.
“Seriously?” I asked. Strangely, nobody looked twice at the grown woman with a sock puppet performing at the diner, right in front of me.
“I’ll take that as a yes!” The puppet bounced excitedly in place while the woman - the King in Yellow? - calmly took another bite of her food and ignored us both. What made it most unnerving was how the puppet’s voice sounded as if it came from the puppet itself, and I could see no sign of ventriloquism from the woman.
“Alright, first things first!” She lifted her hand and the puppet approached me. “What makes you who you are?” It asked me.
“My charming personality,” I said sarcastically.
“Ha! Yes! Well... maybe. It’s a bit more than that, isn’t it?” The puppet tilted its head inquisitively, staring at me with its one googly eye.
I looked back at the woman in yellow instead. “Can’t we skip the theatrics and you give me a straight answer instead...?”
“Memories!” The puppet shouted, interrupting me. “Personality! A name, a face! Things that tell apart what is you, from what is not you. At the end of the ritual those are all taken from all the players, the faithful actors and actresses that night, including your girlfriend. Payment for services rendered, you see.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, which I broke. “You what?! I don’t… How?!”
“Your girlfriend is one among many. Billions and billions. Countless lives and selves all part of a new whole,” the puppet spoke in reverential tones. “Including me.”
“Wait, so you mean my girlfriend is now your prisoner?” I got up from my seat in the heat of the moment, staring down as the woman slowly chewed her food. She looked at me and smiled, but continued chewing.
“Prisoner?” Asked the puppet, then it turned back and gestured at the arm that held it. “Kid, look at me. I have this lady’s hand up my ass, and can’t do a single thing without her say-so.” It turned back to look at me and waved its head back and forth in an awkward dance, while stretching its mouth into a facsimile of a grin, quite an accomplishment for a puppet without teeth. “Would you say that I’m her prisoner?”
“It’s… Just you and your arm,” I scoffed at the woman, ignoring the puppet.
“Exactly! Very good!” The puppet nodded. “You’re a smart boy, I can see that! Yes, all part of the whole. Your girlfriend is not a prisoner of Carcossa in the same way that your arm is not a prisoner of your body.”
“”What? Part of…?” I let out an impatient snort, as my patience ran out. “Enough with the word games. Tell me what happened to her, now!”
The puppet stared at me, slack-jawed, then turned back to the woman and said. “I take it back. He’s dumb as a bag of bricks.”
“Don’t be mean,” the woman replied to her own puppet, smiling. “He’s having a hard time due to personal issues. Denial is one of the stages...”
“Just! Just… Give me an answer. Please?” I said, looking down and swallowing hard. My voice cracked towards the end, making me feel pathetic and desperate. She seemed to consider me.
“Sorry, Wolfy, but I think he needs someone else to explain it to him,” she said at last.
“Everyone’s a critic,” grumbled Wolfy. The other woman beckoned someone to our table, and when I saw who it was my heart froze in pure shock.
Walking towards our table was another woman, modestly dressed with long, brown hair and a worn leather coat. Her name slipped from my mind, but I still recognized her.
“Hi, Cody.” Said my girlfriend.
“Oh… Oh my god,” I stammered, incoherent in my shock. “It’s you? You’re alive?” I gripped her hand tightly, feeling the warmth and smoothness of her skin as my mind still refused to believe my eyes.
She lowered her eyes. “Cody, it’s not me. Not exactly.”
“This girl there,” said Wolfy, gesturing at the woman I had had dated for two years, the one who died in front of my eyes. “She’s the same as me, kid.”
My girlfriend looked up at me, with concern and sadness, as she said, “we’re all puppets, parts of a whole.”
“We’re all puppets, parts of a whole,” said Wolfy.
“We’re all puppets, parts of a whole,” said the Queen in Yellow, and her voice was a chorus of everyone in the diner. Patrons and staff, from the old waitress bringing the coffee to the burly cashier. From the old man nursing a coffee in a corner booth to the trendy couple eating dinner together. All of them were now staring at me as they said it, with perfect, uncanny synchronicity.
They all tilted their heads, at the same time, at the same angle, not taking their eyes from me, including the sock puppet staring with its one good eye. The effect was creepy beyond words.
“You’re… Some sort of hive mind,” I spoke at last, breaking the silence that had settled over the diner like a shroud.
The woman in yellow chuckled quietly. “That’s a crude way to explain it. Wrong, of course. But it’s close enough.”
I squeezed my girlfriend’s hand, looking at her. Our eyes met and there was there was recognition, yet it wasn’t her. I closed my eyes.
“Can you bring her back?” I asked, my voice wavering with fear. I had to ask her, but the answer terrified me. With eyes closed, I heard the woman seated in front of me shift her weight, audible in the complete silence of the diner.
“More or less,” said my girlfriend. “I could pretend, act out in similar way to how she would. I have her memories and can simulate her behavior, that is not beyond my power.”
“However,” continued the King in Yellow, “she will never grow as a person. I could change her however I wish, but she will always be guided by my hand, and my personality. Not hers. Her original self has become one with the choir...”
“... Part of the whole,” said another voice, from one of the patrons in the crowd.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and opened my eyes to see my girlfriend was close to me. Her eyes were sad, but not unkind. “The woman you once knew is gone,” she said. “There is no way to truly bring her back.”
“I am sorry,” whispered the King in Yellow.