My brother was waiting, just outside the door, which I carefully closed. He looked at me anxiously but did not say anything, letting the gloomy silence go unbroken while he fidgeted with a can of cola on his hand.
“That didn’t go well,” I said at last.
“So… You’re going on a trip now?” He left the question hanging.
“Yeah, it’s… It’s for a new job,” I lied.
“Oh, wow. So. Tell me all about it,” he didn’t look enthusiastic about it, but at least he wasn’t being a jerk. Keeping a carefully neutral expression as he spoke in his halting way, playing with the ring that opened the can.
“There’s a lot of traveling involved. A friend of mine told me about an opening at a company that imports stuff from all over the world. They want someone who doesn’t belong to the company accessing the performance at each of their branches...” I let my rehearsed story flow freely as I reflected. For the sake of my mother I had practiced it in my mind while walking to the hospital, trying to come up with something to make her happy. I suppose I should be glad the story was getting some use, at least.
“Oh wow. Sounds like a good gig,” he nodded carefully while giving a polite smile that did not reach his eyes.
“But unfortunately I have to go NOW. It’s an urgent position, and I might not get another chance,” I shrugged, unsure if he believed me or not. Another poisoned well there, too many lies and little barbs between them. Many, I admit, my fault.
“Well. Will you have time? To come back? You know, in case something happens.” He glanced at the door, then back at me.
“No, sorry...” it was my turn to look away, embarrassed. “I will be very busy in each country and it will be hard to contact anyone. I might send an e-mail here and there, but… No promises.”
His eyes flickered, briefly revealing a trace of emotion which then vanished just as quickly. “Inconvenient,” he said.
“Yeah, sorry for leaving you on the lurch like that.”
He handwaved it. “I was ready to take care of her by myself. If I had to. Well… I know how you two get along.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, lapsing into silence as we carefully avoided looking at each other. It says something that my brother still was the family member I best get along with.
“Will you need money? For the trip?” He asked.
“No, no. Don’t worry about it,” I told him, relieved to change the subject. “It’s all paid for.”
“That’s good,” he said, subtly relaxing his posture while keeping his face still in the same, carefully neutral expression.
If had said I needed it, he would have helped me. Probably with some admonishing, but he had always been there for me. To hell with it, I took two steps to close in and embraced him, in that awkward way men hug each other when they have to. Heads far apart while giving a few strong pats on the back in order to still look manly when showing affection.
“Take care man. Thanks for everything,” I said. He gave my back a few awkward pats of his own.
“Yeah. Keep in touch. When you come back,” he replied.
When I come back. Those words gave me a nasty jolt, reminding me of what was to come in little over a year.
“Hey, Anthony, listen...” We broke off the hug but I still gripped his shoulders looking him square in the eyes while trying to think of a way to convince him of the importance of my words. But how could I do tell him the world might end soon?
“Look,” I told him. “Things might get rough in the next year. You didn’t hear it from me, but there might be a… A war. Breaking out next year.”
His eyes widened but he kept quiet and didn’t contradict or question me, for which I was grateful. “Not sure, I may be wrong. I HOPE I’m wrong, but… Just in case? Be sure to enjoy this next year as much as you can, ok? Go for a weekend trip if you have to. I know it’s going to be tough,” my eyes darted back to the door of the hospital room my mother was in. “But take care of yourself. Alright? Please?”
He gave a nervous chuckle, but his eyes were serious, searching me for any trace of a lie or joke. After a moment of silence he nodded. “Alright. You take care as well.” I couldn’t tell how much he believed me, but that answer would have to do.
We said our goodbyes and I left, watching the elevator doors close with a sigh of equal parts relief and regret. The elevator rumbled its way down to the ground floor, picking up patients and families along the way. For better or for worse, I had said goodbye to my mother and brother.
But my mind couldn’t leave it well enough alone, and while walking out of the hospital I hesitated, then took my cell phone from my pocket and found Suzy’s number.
“Hey! How did your chat go?” She asked, her voice cheerful as always.
“Do I have to tell you or do you already know somehow?” I asked her back. I heard her laugh over the phone.
“Yeah, I know it went terrible. I was just being polite,” she replied, without a trace of shame.
“Yeah, of course you know,” I frowned. “How does that even work? Mind reading? Invisibility?”
“What am I, a superhero?” she chuckled. “It’s only experience, Cody. Living beings are the water I swim in and the clay I mold. Even without absorbing their minds, I can predict you pretty well.”
“That’s handy,” I said sarcastically. “So you can answer my question without me even asking, right?”
“I won’t predict your every move. That’s just boring, don’t even go there,” she scoffed, a note of frustration on her voice. “Tell me what you want, Cody.”
“Can you make my mother better?” I blurted out, before I could stop myself. Holding my breath, I waited in silence for her to reply.
“If I remember right, your wish was for me to help you save humanity as a whole, hmm? There were a bunch of silly clauses and restrictions, but the bottom line is that I am obligated to help you save the world. Am I right?” Her tone was mellow, teasing me by leaving the question hanging.
“Is that a yes or a no?” I asked the question point-blank, but she only laughed in response.
“Cody! According to your wish I only have to be straightforward with you when it comes to saving the world. Outside that, I don’t owe you even a ‘hello’ in the morning,” she chuckled. “So, will curing an old lady’s cancer somehow help save the world? What’s your opinion on that?”
I sighed, cursing silently. “Alright, forget I said anything.”
“Why do you care anyway? From your voice to your actions, everything says you two don’t get along. Why bother?”
“Don’t you already know the answer, o mighty Unspeakable One?”
“Actually I don’t,” her reply was, as always, nonchalant, but this time there was no teasing tone or laugh. It actually stunned me into silence for a moment.
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Yes!” She said, sounding exasperated. “I have no idea why you would bother keeping alive someone who you don’t like, who does not like you back, and who is of no use to us.” Some amusement crept into her tone as she continued, “I am not all-knowing, Cody. So, enlighten me. Why do you want her to live?”
Her question caught me off-balance and I went quiet, struggling to reply. “Because it’s the right thing to do?” I ventured.
“Why is it the right thing to do?” She insisted. I felt a surge of anger at her constant probing, which gave way to a confused paralysis as, again, I was at loss on how to answer her.
“I don’t know why. I… I really don’t know. I don’t know why I want to save her.” I confessed, and it was true. It was a mystery, to the Queen in Yellow as well as to myself.
She let out a hearty laugh in response, completely at odds with my quiet reply. “Such mysteries are what make life interesting, eh?”
“Oh, don’t sulk,” she chided. “There. It’s done.”
“What?” My heart skipped a beat. “You mean… You can cure her?”
“Already did,” she said in an amused drawl. “Mom is now cancer-free. Congrats! You can give her the good news yourself, if you want. Or maybe you could pretend to be a faith healer? Put your hands on her forehead, mumble a bunch of crazy gibberish and then laugh as the doctors announce she is cured. That could be amusing,” she punctuated her suggestion with another chuckle.
I frowned. “I’ll pass. She’ll find out soon enough from the doctors.”
“You’re no fun,” she sounded disappointed, but not surprised. “So, you gave your mother a year more to complain about you before she painfully dies anyway. How do you feel?”
I looked back at the towering white hospital behind me, its rooms all filled with patients and doctors, the living and dying. I couldn’t even tell from here which room was my mother’s. It took some time for me to reply as I considered my answer.
“I feel nothing at all.”
“Welcome to Milldale,” she read on the sign, one eyebrow arched in amusement. The sign was actually well-kept despite its age, but the small town behind it didn’t look particularly welcoming. Squat, grey factories and buildings dominated half the town, while the other half were simple houses, one or two stories tall, separated by fences and generous backyards in various degrees of care or neglect.
Despite the first impression, the town wasn’t so bad. Aside from some graffiti on the factory walls or some unkempt lawns, the town was clean without being inviting. Cars drove sluggishly through mostly empty roads while the factory chimneys’ smoke faded softly into the evening fog. There was a single supermarket in the town centre.
“It’s the last stop before we go off to save the world,” I told Suzy, looking at the town, noticing what had changed, what had stayed the same in my absence.
“Hey, this is your show.” She replied, looking like she was enjoying herself. “So tell me, who are we visiting this time?”
“This used to be my hometown,” I replied, trying to keep a neutral expression and voice, as I continued. “Thanks for bringing me here, but you can sit this one out as well. I will call you when I’m done, it will only be a few hours.”
“No,” she replied. Her voice was still pleasant, and she still smiled, but my stomach dropped at her response. “I think I’ll go with you this time.”
“Are you sure? It’s probably going to be pretty boring.” I shrugged, as my mind quietly searched for something, anything I could use as argument or persuasion to make her leave.
“Why are you so keen on going alone?” She asked, cutting through my thoughts like a shark through a school of fish. When I looked back at her, she was still smiling pleasantly like nothing was wrong. Of course she figured it out.
“I’m here to see an old friend. I REALLY would rather not be disturbed.” My voice was polite, but firm.
“Hmm… No,” she replied.
She looked at me with a grin that grew wider and wider. There was a mad glint in her wide open eyes, as she responded. “No. I will not be called and sent away like a cheap servant while you do as you please. I’d like to remind you that your wish only compelled me to help you save humanity. Bringing you here was a favor. And leaving you alone to chat with your buddy? That’s also at my discretion. If I decree that I am going with you, then it shall be so.”
We both stared at each other, me with anxious fear, her with a manic smile that showed too much teeth. Then abruptly her smile was gone as she shrugged. “Seriously though? I’m just bored,” she said.
After a hesitant pause, I carefully replied, “alright. Fine. But no nonsense like calling yourself my girlfriend or screwing with him, ok? He’s my friend - heck more than that - he’s one of the closest people I have left. Please… PLEASE. Give me this one chance to say goodbye.”
She tilted her head, saying nothing. Then, after seemingly reaching a decision, she closed her eyes and her body shifted. It suddenly grew a few inches and her face shape changed in subtle ways. In an instant, blinking in front of me, was a man with long and dirty blonde hair and a scruffy beard under his chin. The face was still covered in theatrical makeup, similar to a mime’s. After a cheeky grin the makeup faded into his face and the hair grew shorter and cleaner. Aside from the yellow hoodie, he looked normal enough to blend into a crowd.
“A guy friend will raise less suspicions than a girl friend,” he said with a wink, putting his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “Now I’m just one of the guys!”
“Friend?” I replied in the most suspicious, least friendly tone I could muster.
“What? Would you rather pretend that I’m your boyfriend?” Asked the King in Yellow, smiling innocently. He pouted his lips, mocking me.
“Don’t push your luck,” I replied, my tone chilly enough to keep milk fresh for a week. He laughed in response.
“Then we’ll be buddies! C’mon, it’s gonna be great!” He started walking excitedly in direction of the town before stopping and looking back at me. I hadn’t budged from my spot. “What?” He asked.
“Promise me you’ll behave,” I asked quietly. He chuckled again, in contrast with my face which was completely serious and dour, as different as night and day.
“I do solemnly promise that your friend will never notice a thing wrong with me,” he said, lifting his arms to show his hands spread open in a gesture of peace. The effect was spoiled by his mischievous grin.
“Just don’t say ‘what could possibly go wrong’, that’s all I ask,” I muttered, admitting defeat. I started walking into town as he kept pace beside me
“Hey, you said it, not me!” Replied the King in Yellow.
The sun was now setting on Milldale, staining the sky with hues of red amidst the evening smog.
The factory in front of us was similar to its other fellows, a squat building surrounded by a chain link fence and a generous parking lot. There were large transportation trucks parked next to the building, while the employees’ cars were scattered closer to the entrance, where a security guard peered sleepily at those leaving the building.
The employees were trickling out, all in faded, cheap clothes and boots. Among these I spotted my friend, Marcus, who perked up when he noticed me. He waved and my heart felt tugged apart by my mixed feelings. Nostalgia, fear, joy, melancholy.
“Hey, Cody! How’ve you been?” He smiled cheerfully, glancing at the man next to me.
“I’ve had better days,” I answered, technically true. “But I’ll be fine.” I added. A white lie. “What about you? How’s life?”
“Working like a dog every day,” he chuckled. “But y’know… Surviving.” Despite his unassuming words, the smile didn’t leave his face. Despite his five o’clock shadow and tired face, he still had the same infectious cheerfulness that brought back so many fond memories . “Hey! I was excited when you told me you were passing through. What brings you back here?”
“Hmm. Going on a trip and wanted to chat with you before leaving,” I smiled back, despite myself. Hadn’t seen him face to face in two years, yet it felt as if I had never left. “Had to come and bother you one last time.”
He nodded, then looked back at the King in Yellow, who stepped up and shook his hand with a friendly smile.“Hey man. Heard a lot about you. Name’s Randall.”
“Marcus,” replied my friend. “Good things, I hope?”
“That you’ve always been his closest friend, and that he used to live here before. When did you move anyways?” That last question was directed at me. I hesitated, searching for a possible trap, but it looked like a legitimate question.
“I was born here, actually. Me and my family left seven years ago.”
“Wow, and you guys are still friends, even living apart like that?” Asked the King in Yellow, a.k.a. Randall, née Suzy. It was so odd, seeing him (her?) acting so normally.
“MSN helped. And later Facebook,” said Marcus, with a wry smile. “But it’s been a while since you’ve visited! We gotta celebrate this!”
“Ahh… It’s just a quick visit. I have to go soon,” I said, looking away in embarrassment. “I want to have a good talk with you before I go, that’s all.”
“We can go to the Black Dog, that bar we went last time you were here, remember?” Marcus noticed my caution and insisted. “Come on! We gotta have a night out before you go.”
“Sounds good to me,” nodded Randall, before turning to look at me expectantly. This made me uncomfortable. The least time my friend spent with that monster the better, especially when he seemed so keen to spend time with us.
“Won’t your wife mind if you go straight from work to the bar?” I questioned.
“I’ll call and tell her I’m having a boys’ night out. I’m allowed,” he smiled, wagging his eyebrows like he was sharing a secret with us. Then he turned to Randall and said, “sorry I don’t invite you guys for dinner. I got an infant daughter, and while I love her to bits dinner time at home is… Eh. Not the most relaxing. We’re better off in a bar, trust me.”
“No, I get it. We can pop in for a quick beer before letting you go back to your family. Don’t worry,” I said, trying to be friendly and not betraying my feelings. I certainly did not want the King in Yellow near his family… Shit, I didn’t even think of that.
“No, no! I insist we make a night out of this! It’s not everyday that you come to town. Seriously, let’s shoot the shit until we’re too drunk to remember what we talked about.” He laughed. He was already tapping on his cell phone as he spoke, and, despite myself, I smiled back. I couldn’t help but feeling a certain hope sneaking its way inside me. A dangerous and desperate hope that I could not stamp out, indeed I clung desperately to it even as I feared it would be destroyed.
A hope that this night would end well.