My Delirium Alcazar

by

Morgenstern

Chapter 10: Return to the Library to Talk with Cici

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A note from Morgenstern
Page 55 - 64 of My Delirium Alcazar
 
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Return to the library to talk with Cici

 
You decide to go fill Cici in on what she missed.

That there is a cat at her place of work only factors into the decision a little bit.

You head out, locking the door behind you. The bus doesn't arrive immediately, but it's still a pretty short wait.

"Feeling better?," the bus asks.

"Sort of," you reply as you take your usual seat. "I think I'm mostly running on spite at this point."

"Where would you like to go, Plaire?"

"The library," you say to one of the screens. "We couldn't tell Cici much last night--not with Mondol's big brother bit going on. I need to--"

don't say debrief her

"--Give her the... deets."

Not better.

As the bus rolls out, you take a swing at making idle conversation.

"I'm... kind of surprised how few people take the bus around here."

"I'm a little busier on the other side of town," the bus replies. "Data suggests that not many can afford Chariot MT services in your neighborhood."

"Oh. ...I guess that makes sense."

Your parents paid for your pass, so you never really found out how much they are. It's... probably more expensive than a normal bus would be, especially if Chariot MT is testing out sophisticated AIs.

...You haven't seen any non-Chariot buses in Ninelives, either, now that you think about it.

Hmm.

After a little while, the bus arrives at the library.

"Thank you," you tell the bus as you step off.


"Plaire!," exclaims Cici. "How's it going?"

"Hey," you reply. "There's no like... surveillance here, right?"

"At this library?," Cici asks with a grin. "Please. Cameras cost money."


While petting Meatloaf, you explain the whole situation--the dreams, the visit with the mayor, and that there's people online that know... something. You also tell her what you realized last night--that the dungeon is tailoring itself to your memories, creating manifestations of your time in Addersfield.


"Wow!," Cici finally says. "That's crazy. Well, if you need a place to stay my couch is always free. I'm sure Bebe won't mind, that's a lot to go through."

You smile a little. "Thanks. I think... I think I can't avoid it forever, though. I need to know what's going on--if Mayor Parsons or Mondol or somebody gets a hold of the house and it turns out to be a doomsday weapon I'll feel like shit. And then probably die, because doomsday weapon. I'm gonna get all the answers I can outside the dungeon, but... there's some things I think I'm going to have to figure out myself. Now that I know it won't follow me outside, I need to find out what'll happen if multiple people sleep in the house."

"...And you're sure about this?," Cici asks.

You stare at her for a moment, at a slight loss.

She continues. "Like--I getcha. This is big and you can't trust anybody else to deal with it, I feel that. ...But you don't know what this thing is either, and you uh...

you still got a lot of life to live."

"I fucking don't though," you blurt out. "I'm broke, I've cut myself off from my family, you and Kate and maybe the bus are the only friends I have, the environment's going to shit and my house is full of demons. By this time next year we're all going to be putting Mondol in front of our names. I... I can do this. I can do this. It's not like it's prying me away from doing anything else with my life."

"So that's what it is?," Cici asks. "You're tryin' to be a hero now. You're still young, Plaire. You got time! You don't need to take the whole world on your shoulders today, there's gotta be somebody else out there that knows what they're doing."

"I don't think there is," you reply quietly. "Nobody I can reach and nobody I can trust. Assuming every owner of the house before me wasn't also a broke idiot twenty-something, people with their shit way more together than me have failed to deal with this house already. ...Including the mayor, who might be like a hundred years old. If there was a hotline I could just call about this shit I feel like someone would have found it by now."

"That don't mean it's gotta be you, though," Cici says. "Or that you gotta walk back into that deathtrap. There's gotta be... I dunno, drugs that make you stop dreaming or a way to turn it off. Just... live your life and do some couch surfing, you don't have to be so gung-ho about this."

"I can't keep running from my own house." You pause, still turning it over in your mind. "I'm sick of running. I'm done running."

"You were running yesterday," Cici points out.

"I'm done running from anything but cops," you huff. "I might not even do that next time. I'm just... I'm just gonna go out swinging. Biting as many legs and punching as many dicks as I can on my way down."

Cici chuckles, shaking her head. "You're stubborn as hell, Plaire."

"So is that a no to doing a sleepover experiment at the spooky house?," you ask.

"If your dumb ass is going back in there then I'm comin' with you," she replies. "You're sure as heck not doing this thing by yourself."

"What about all that live your life bullshit?," you ask, trying not to laugh at how abruptly Cici swung around to agreeing. "You realize you could also die, right?"

"Uhhh yeah, everybody dies."

You break, and laugh. Just a little. "True, but not everybody dies violently and tonight."

Cici taps the side of her head. Specifically, at her eyepatch. "Plaire. Do you see this? I worked the rest of my shift after this happened. I'm not scared of your dungeon."

God damn.

She continues. "They didn't pop me out with a 401k and a retirement plan. I'm a custom. You know how it is."

You smile a little weakly. "You're not just a custom to me, though. You're Cici. ...And my friend."

"Yeah," she says, "and that's why I'm going in with you. If I can't talk you out of it we're just both gonna have to fight demons, and I know I'm not great at talking. I'm warning you now, though: if it turns out we're actually fighting demons I will pick you up and I will carry your ass right back to the real world. If they start droppin' names like Metatron and Samael we're calling it early."

"...I think Metatron was an angel."

"I don't care," Cici says as she throws her hands up. "It's above our paygrade. I'm not happy about it but I'll help you fight your nightmares. Or my nightmares, or whoever's nightmares but that's it. No ghosts, no demons, I'm not even puttin' up with vampires. If there's really some end of the world business going on in that house we're calling an adult."

"...But we're adults."

Cici gives you a look.

"Kate's an adult," you suggest.

The look she's giving you strengthens. "Look me in the eye and tell me we're adults. Look me in my good eye and tell me we're adults fit to be dealing with a doomsday house."

It's really hard not to grin. "We are... legally recognized as adults."

Cici shakes her head. "You were lookin' at the eyepatch. Downright shameful."
 

Try to track down Kate
"Okay," you sigh with a tired smile, "if Biblical shit starts showing up, we'll talk about it. We're just testing how the house works. ...Speaking of," you realize in the moment that Cici may want some kind of prep time, "stuff you have on you at the time goes into the dream with you. I'm uh... still kinda figuring out how it works, but I know whatever's in your pockets definitely shows up in the dream."

"Huh. Okay," responds Cici with a thoughtful nod. "I'm sure I got some things worth bringing."

"Oh, and uh--" you take a moment trying to find the best way to phrase it, but eventually settle on... just saying it. "...I don't have any furniture. Like, I have one small bed."

"How big's your couch?," Cici asks.

You just... stare at her, blankly, until she gets it.

"...Oh."

"Yeaaah." You grimace a little. "But seriously."

Cici nods again. "I'll bring a sleeping bag, then."

"Also--" while you're just throwing out whatever pops into your head-- "...Do you know where Kate lives?"

"Oh, I have no clue," Cici replies. "You don't have her number...?"

You grimace again, harder. "I don't have a phone."

"Dang, Plaire!"

"I know!" You throw your head back, giving maximum grimace. "I knooow I'm poooor I'm working on it."

Cici shakes her head, grinning as she pulls out her own phone and begins to dial someone. After a few moments of waiting with the phone to her ear, Cici cancels the call. "Well I thought Bebe might know, but she's not pickin' up. She's at work, I guess I can't be mad. Hmm."

"The bus might know," you state aloud, mostly for yourself.

"That bus seems to know a lot," replies Cici.

"...Yeah." The bus does know a lot. You're still... not entirely finished unpacking just how much the bus does and does not know.

You realize that you're still grimacing. Just a little.

You take a moment to breathe out, relax your face, and collect your thoughts.

"Okay," you begin. "You know where I live, right?"

"Yup!," Cici confirms. "That's one of the first things you told me."

You nod. "Alright. I'll see you tonight, then. I'm gonna go... uh... try to find Kate."

"Seeya later, then!" Cici waves as you turn and begin to leave.

About halfway out the door, though, Cici speaks up again. "Hey, uh--"

You lean back into view.

Cici stares at you for a second, her expression tightening up a bit. After a brief silence, she shakes her head. "Nevermind, I'll figure it out. Seeya tonight!"


You wait for a little while at the bus stop.




An older man is also riding the bus, but he has a set of earphones in and attached to his phone--likely listening to music or a podcast or something.

Still, you keep your voice down. "Hey, uh... bus...?"

"Yes?"

"Do you know where Kate lives...?"

"I do have an address listed," the bus replies, "though it may not be current."

You vaguely recall Kate alluding to her living situation, and it did sound... uh... different. You don't think you caught the specifics amidst all the talk of espionage, political intrigue and vampire hunting, though.

Wait.

"...Is it the same address as her mom's?"

"It is," the bus confirms.

Kate sort of danced around whether or not she still lives there, but she definitely (kind of?) implied it. ...But also, it's been confirmed that Kate's mom is really bad at not talking about Kate to total strangers. Either Kate lives there, or you can definitely find out where Kate lives there.

You give a small nod. "Okay, yeah. I'll give it a shot."

It's a longer ride than usual. The bus stops once--to let the older guy off at his stop--but otherwise, Kate's listed address is just... kind of out there, in a very different part of town from your house and the library and Maria's.

You see a lot of empty houses.

Shuttered businesses.

Empty lots.

The roads get a bit rougher.

Whole mini-malls, entirely abandoned.

You see fewer and fewer people walking the sidewalks, and fewer and fewer cars.

Well, fewer functioning cars.

"Are... are we headed north?" You remember it being brought up--that the north end of town was dangerous.

"East, actually. I'm unable to travel this far into the north side of town for safety reasons."

...So the north side is worse?

You do see signs of life--random houses here and there look occupied, at least, albeit not in anything resembling good condition--but this end of town is otherwise a wasteland. Signs are unreadable, pavement is wrecked, and you see more stray dogs than human beings. It's a far cry from what you've seen prior of Ninelives, which was... quaint, a little old fashioned, but definitely not falling apart like this.

"Did... did Mondol do this?," you finally ask.

"Do what?" is the bus' reply.

"This part of town looks like a fucking bomb hit it." You continue staring out the window. "Like... the population decline. All the stores closing down. Whatever's going on with the taxes for it to look like this."

"Ah." The bus takes a moment. "...Data suggests that this began long before MondolGroup was founded. Their presence has, admittedly, accelerated the decline."

"...The decline of what?" Like, there's nothing here left to decline, unless Mondol's planning to incinerate the remains.

The small screen closest to you lights up. The bus shows you a graphical display of the data in four layers: the town's rough geographical layout, a map of the population density as of each year's census, a vague layout of commercial presence from year to year, and a breakdown of known, registered construction work.

As the years tick by in seconds, you watch as every data set but the geographical boundary... shrinks. The north and east empty out, with the north disappearing faster; by the end, the town (as it pertains to literally everything but geography) is less than half its original size. The south and west ends are beginning to fray as well, and a lot of the numbers just... thin, throughout. In all the ways that matter Ninelives has been getting progressively smaller; it's hard to tell whether the people are leaving because of the lack of repairs, or if the town just gave up on repairs as everyone left. It all happens pretty much hand-in-hand.

You try to pinpoint where your house is, but the geographical layout is... not helpful for that kind of thing. It's mostly just a big blob with various shapes in it. You still get the basic idea, though, and you're pretty sure your home is in one of the "juicier" parts of town, even if only on the edge of it.

"What the fuck," you silently mouth.

The bus continues still, beyond even what you thought at first to be the edge of Ninelives. You see zero houses for at least a few minutes, occupied or otherwise--just hills, rocks, and some struggling trees.

It's only after the bus clears a particularly large hill and turns a corner--onto a road that doesn't even look finished--that you see a few random houses, and a handful more in the distance with vast space between them. You're not sure where the actual border of Ninelives sits, but you're pretty sure most of those houses are outside it.

You also see a bus stop.

"This is as far as I can take you," the bus says, confirming that you have officially arrived in the sticks and/or the middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

The bus gives you instructions on where to go next--

which would not be the longest walk you've ever taken, but it would be the first walk you've taken past two fields and a bait shop and nothing else.

She says you're looking for a red house, but you cannot see it from here

not past the huge hills and the tall grass filling most of the distance between things that aren't empty fields.

A fucking bait shop? Who even--

Deep breath.

You need to contact Kate.

Kate might still be at work.

She might not even be home yet and then you're just... stuck talking to her mom.

Kate might not want you to meet her mom.

Kate does not get to dictate who meets her mom

Kate's mom might not even be home, you don't know.

You also don't know what's in all that grass

but now you're just trying to talk yourself into hyperfixating on what kind of fucked up, mutated wildlife could be hiding unseen on the way there as a way to talk yourself out of stepping off the bus and wandering down a weird old country road by yourself, past a store that sells exclusively to people that have lived very different lives than you, to maybe maybe not meet the mother of someone you met yesterday


"...Is everything alright, Plaire?"

You realize that the bus has stopped, but you have yet to move from your seat.

 
Walk down the road
 

You rise, and stare out the door--down a barely paved road, and out at vast fields of who the fuck knows

Deep breath.

Kate makes this trip all the time.

Right?

Kate's also a badass, and has thighs that could crush a watermelon.

"H... how safe is it?"

The bus counters with another question. "How do you measure safety?"

Hmmm that's definitely not the answer you wanted.

You think about it for a moment.

"What are the odds of me being killed by a wild animal?"

"According to studies conducted in the last five years, the chance of human fatality by animal attack in Misuschaqua is 1 in 850,000."

"What are the odds of me being killed by a wild animal on this road?"

"I'm afraid no studies have been conducted in that range," the bus replies.

"It's still daylight," you tell yourself out loud, "so it's not like there's... wolves and shit out there."

"Statistically speaking--" the bus begins, "the animals most likely to inflict human fatalities are deer."

"...But that's probably accounting for drivers killed in collisions with deer." Brief pause. Gears are turning. "The whole number probably is."

"The study does not differentiate between car accidents and other causes," the bus confirms.

"...So the real odds of me being mauled by a nasty deer are probably lower."

You take another deep breath.

It's hard to tell how much is anxiety and how much is the real, rational fear of bulls, snakes, coyotes, and/or rednecks. The old adage used to be that animals will generally leave you alone if you don't provoke them, but that's been turning into more and more of a coin flip as habitats are destroyed and weird shit gets in the air.

Animals have also been getting bigger.

You've faced monsters. This shouldn't be a big deal.

...You probably can't come back from dying out here, though.


Probably not.

"I'm sorry," the bus suddenly says. "I should have warned you sooner. I hadn't considered--"

"No," you interject, "you're fine. I..."

You turn back to the unmarked road.

"I think I'm gonna do it."

"It's not an inconvenience if you wish to cancel."

"I know. I know, I just..."

Deeeep breath.

"...Thank you."

You step off the bus.

You start to make your way down the unfinished road.


The walk is quiet, save for the sounds of various birds and bugs.

You pass the first field, stopping only to let a very long cat cross the street.

You pass the bait shop. There's a few cars parked in front of it, but you don't see any people.

You pass the second field. Through the tall grass growing around a barbed wire fence, you can see... a cow? Though you have some difficulty gauging which... uh...

which face is its face.


The road steadily curves and deteriorates...


until you reach a red house.



 
Alright.

This is it.

You look around to make sure there aren't any other red houses.

You silently rehearse what you're going to say.

You take a deep breath, and walk up the steps to the porch.

You knock on the front door.

You had secretly hoped that it would take a little longer to get a response, but you immediately hear movement from inside the house.

There's the sound of someone fiddling with a lock, and--

the door swings open to reveal Kate's mom.

Knock on the door

She is... in impressively good shape for a woman in what you estimate to be her 40s.


"Hi!," she says, smiling wide.

"H-Hello," oof she looks a lot like Kate and it's a little weird "I'm looking for... Kate...?" You can see her just starting to answer you when you blurt out "I'm a friend of hers."

"Oh!," exclaims Kate's mom, "I think she's at work, but you might try around back. I think she was out late... she might've called in?"
 

You give her a small nod.

"Thank you."

"No problem!," she says with another smile.




You take your leave from the front porch, and circle around to the back yard.

After nervously pushing through some overgrown grass, you discover a small camper.


The entrance is slightly ajar.
 

Look out back
 

 
Knock
 
 
You approach the trailer.

You knock on the door.



. . .




After a little while and no response, you knock again.


. . .



Silence.
 

"Kaaate...?"

You take a breath.

You look around.

"H-...Heyyy. It's... it's Plaire?"

Still nothing.

You knock again, you wait a moment or two, and you return to the front of the house.

You psyche yourself up for several seconds, you mentally rehearse what you're going to say, and you knock on the front door.

It takes slightly longer than before, but Kate's mom answers the door.





"Idon'tthinkshe'shome--" Ease it back a little. "--but the uh, the door's kind of open, annnd--"

"Oh, she must've left in a hurry," says Kate's mom. Mrs... Halford...? "The door on that camper's a little busted. I'll take care of it!"

She glances around, quickly deducing that you don't have a car.

"Did you walk here?"

"W-Well, I took the bus, but--"

"Oh!," she declares, "I am so sorry. Do you wanna come in and sit down for a minute? I have tea."
 

it's Kate's mom it's weird

you barely know her

but tea though

and it was a long walk

and it'll be a long walk back

"S-sure," you manage to force out.

You follow Kate's mom into her house.
 

Accept the invitation
"How long have you known Kate?," her mom asks on her way toward (you presume) the kitchen.

"I, uh--" don't mention running from the cops "Just... since yesterday, actually." don't mention drugs don't mention the mayor

Her TV displays a show about a group of men searching for Bigfoot.

She returns with a cup of tea for you and herself.

"Oh, did you meet at the concert?," she asks.

You give a small nod, and take a drink of your tea.

It definitely has a... different taste, though it may just be that you were expecting cold tea. This is more the kind of tea you drink if you have congestion, or a monarchy.

Kate's mom smiles. "I wanna see Kate play, but I don't wanna embarrass her by having her mom show up, y'know?" She takes a drink of her own tea, slightly alleviating your irrational fear that it could be poisoned.

She takes a seat on the couch, as do you.

There are a lot of pictures of Kate in here.

The Bigfoot hunters are not doing particularly well, though the swells of dramatic music make even their most minor discoveries feel really dramatic.

oh god you are bad at making polite conversation with strangers
 

Listen to stories about Kate
 
 
"I--"

hnnnggg

fuck iiit

"Look. I... I just moved here," you finally manage to force out. "Kate's one of the first people I've met in Ninelives, I... it's just nice to... to..."

You don't know what it is.

Something about the way she's staring you down has just... intensified.

It sucks away what little wind you have left in your sails.

"...have made a friend. Or. Whatever."

"...So you're not a cop," Kate's mom finally states. "Or a federal agent, or..." she pauses. You take another sip of tea, and you swear to god she watches you do it. "...Anything else I should be worried about."

"Why would I be a cop...?"

Taking the remote from the coffee table, Kate's mom switches a channel over.

A local news report is talking about the fire at Maria's Grocery. Police still suspect it was done by someone from the Biggest Shrug concert.

"They're not saying it's Kate," her mom begins, "but they keep saying her name."

Now that she mentions it, you notice it, too--the reporter keeps emphasizing the role of Kate Halford in the band, and vaguely referring to a criminal record, and mentioning that police haven't spoken with her yet...

all while specifically avoiding the claim that Kate is a suspect.

It's like she's the most important person involved who didn't do it.

Kate's mom changes the channel back to Bigfoot.

"Kate's a little wild, but I'm not stupid," she says. "I shop at Maria's! Kate wouldn't try to burn that place down, and I don't buy that she cultivated the atmosphere for a riot or whatever garbage they're saying, either. This is just more harassment from the mayor."

...Wait. "The mayor...?" Kate hadn't met the Mayor in person until last night. Do they have some kind of history...? Does Kate's mom know something?

"--Or whoever runs the police," Kate's mom clarifies. "Again: Kate's done some things, I get it, but the cops take it too far."

You're... not sure how to succinctly express that it may not be a grudge the mayor has (though it might also be that, who knows whoopedeedee), but a rising systemic issue. A... not insignificant chunk of society runs on otherization. Kate and her mom both have pink hair, a sign of genetic mutation--and the hot new fad in otherization has been association of mutants with lower class criminal behavior.

It hasn't replaced other forms of otherization, of course. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, prejudice against sex workers, and all the other hits you'd rather not make a list of still abound. Cops in the cities (and possibly here?) have just also started taking anti-mutant sentiments for a spin.

Just for the change of pace. You know. Add a little spice to the usual layers of being an asshole.

You learned about all that from a series of twenty minute videos online, though, and probably cannot quote them.

You take another sip of your tea. "Oh. I gotcha. Wh..." You squint. You're not asking because you're skeptical of her innocence, you're asking because you're curious, but you're also extremely self conscious of how it could come off. "...What kinds of things has Kate done?"

Kate's mom grins.

You breathe a quiet sigh of relief.

Kate's mom proceeds to regale you with a story from Kate's childhood, wherein Kate ruined the school play one year ("and to be fair," Kate's mom adds, "she's right, that play was at least a little fascist.")

And in middle school and high school, Kate was getting into fights constantly. "I thought I was gonna have to put her in a private school."

You try not to visibly cringe.

As a young adult, her mom says, Kate's mostly calmed down.

"...Mostly." She takes a drink of her tea. "I think having a band and getting to play for a real crowd is helping her channel a lot of that energy."

You give a small nod. "I wanted to invite her to a... thing tonight, but--"

"Do you need her number?," Kate's mom asks.

"I, uh--" Hoo. "I don't have a phone."

She arches an eyebrow at you.

"I had one, I..." any excuse you can come up with that makes you sound like less of a violent maniac makes you sound suspicious in other ways "...tossed it. Out the window. Between here and the town I moved away from. There was a lot going on."

She takes another drink.

She slowly nods. "Heather, by the way," she says, extending her hand. "Heather Halford."

"Plaire Stevens," you reply, leaning out of your seat to shake her hand.

"Well, Kate should be back later tonight--I think she's still at work right now. Lou's Diner, over on 12th Street."
 

Go to The Back Room
 
"Thank you," you say as you finish your cup. "And thank you for the tea."

Ms. Halford holds out her hand, and you give her your empty cup as you rise from your seat.

"I... guess..." You stare off at nothing for a moment, trying to get it all sorted. "...If you see Kate, tell her I'm having a sleepover at the spooky house."

"You're camping out at the spooky house?"

"I own the spooky house," you huff on your way to the door. You stop. You sigh. "I live in the spooky house."

"Ohhh." Ms. Halford smiles wide, knowingly. "It's all coming together now." She grins just a little wider, and nods. "I'll let her know."


You begin the very long trudge back to the bus stop.


Past one field

and a bait shop

which you see some actual movement through the windows of, prompting you to walk faster

and past another field.


The bus arrives rather quickly; you don't think they went far.

"She wasn't home," you inform the bus. "Can you take me to The Back Room?"

"Sure," the bus replies.


You once again survey the damage of the less populated part of the town as you pass through it. You had to have ridden past here this morning, right? When the bus dropped Kate off...?

But then, you were still half asleep at the time

and Kate was here

and you probably just... didn't notice how it looked outside.

"Has anyone asked about me?," you suddenly ask the bus.

"No," says the bus.

"Can you let me know if anyone does?"

"Sure," the bus replies, "I'll make a note to log it if anyone inquires about you."

"Thanks," you say with a small nod. "I don't know how deep and big conspiracy this whole thing's gonna go, but... I want to try and stay on top of it. Oh! And if you see Kate, tell her I'm doing a thing tonight and she's invited? Please?"

"Will do," says the bus.



Near the edge of where the decay starts, the bus reaches a small shopping strip. Wedged between an "Old Fashioned" Burger Joint and a Massage Place

is The Back Room.

The bus pulls up to a stop on the far end of the parking lot.

You thank the bus, and head inside.





Absolute silence.

Two people behind the counter--one pretty old, the other a (vaguely familiar?) teenager, stare you down like you just caught them committing a crime.

"Bro," whispers the large teen, "there's a girl in here."

"Are... you looking for the massage place?" The older man points in their general direction.

You shake your head. "This is The Back Room, right?"

"Oh, shit," whispers the large teen, "she's here on purpose."

"Well," the old man whispers back, "she passes the shoe test."

"What's the shoe test?," you ask, finally breaking the illusion that you can't hear them whispering.

Their respective eyes widen. The two straighten their postures a bit.

The older man speaks first. "You can usually tell a cop by their shoes."

"You don't have cop shoes," the rotund boy adds a bit more quietly.

"This is the second time today someone thought I might be a cop," you mutter, shaking your head in mild disbelief. "People have pets bigger than me, how do I look like a cop?"

"Well," begins the old man, "you walk like you're about to arrest somebody. Or burn the building down. Welcome to The Back Room! I'm Marlow, though half the town calls me Tuck. There used to be too many Marlows."

"Like, when we had dinosaurs and shit?," asks the boy.

Marlow gives him a glare. "And this is Afu. You'll have to forgive him, he's a teenager. He doesn't get to see females of the species in the store too often."

"Hey!," Afu exclaims indignantly.

...And then switches his focus to you, leaning casually on the counter. "...Hey."

"Wh..." You take a second to breathe. It does feel a bit like you just walked in on a sitcom routine. "What the hell is this place?"

Marlow takes a deep, slow breath, as though building to something dramatic. "The Back Room is the foremost purveyor in... lost... toys, and... uh..."

He quickly putters out.

He shakes his head, and gives a small shrug. "Eh, I can't remember the whole thing."

"We haven't said the whole thing in like..." Afu gives a bigger shrug. "Months? Bruh."

Marlow gives a small nod, and waves the whole thing off. "We buy and sell oddities and rejects. Recalled toys, unlicensed games, cancelled prototypes..."

Afu joins in. "Laser pointers. Those chocolate eggs with the toys in 'em."

"We've got unreleased episodes from a bunch of shows," Marlow adds. "And the theatrical cuts of movies you're not supposed to see the theatrical cut of. We've gooot... uh..."

You decide to save him from having to think of more things. "So you guys sell shit that's technically illegal, but nobody cares about enforcing."

"Is that not enough for you?," asks Marlow with a sly grin. "Are you not impressed?"

"She wants the heavy stuff," suggests Afu with an eyebrow waggle.

"You don't lead with the heavy stuff," replies Marlow, "that's why we keep scaring off customers. Lead with the medium stuff." He turns back to you. "We've got tabletop roleplaying books from back when they were actually Satanic. You into haunted dolls? We got a closet full of haunted dolls."

"We think they mostly keep each other in check," adds Afu.

"Ever see a bucket of crabs?," asks Marlow. "Same principle. We've got board games with body counts, dream rings, that soda that causes heart attacks..."

"Why did you say dream ring like that?," you feel obligated to ask.

"Like what?"

Afu chimes in. "You said it like it had a mission from God. Like... DREAM RING."

"d r e a m r i n g," you attempt to imitate.

"I just... said dream ring?," Marlow affirms, shaking his head. "Anyway, that's the sort of thing we deal in."
 
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Morgenstern

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