Dyllan stared at the flag – his flag. He should have been feeling proud, or perhaps relieved. Instead, he felt… dizzy. It was uncomfortable. Like he’d lost something he’d never really had… or gained something he’d never thought he was missing? Perhaps both – or maybe neither? It was as though his mind had grown deeper and more whole through discarding something, rather than through gaining something.
And the flag… the flag taunted him. There was something off about it, something that revolted him – that made his skin crawl. Something familiar.
<Suspiciously familiar. I’ve been here before, felt this before.> Dyllan nodded. He wasn’t sure before, but a sudden certainty had welled up inside him. A certainty it took a moment for him to realize was not his, but his shadow’s. <Which is odd. Because this feeling, it began when you ignited your Will to Live, and it…> A strange sense of vulnerability echoed in the back of Dyllan’s mind. It was his shadow’s. <…made me happy? I think I liked it – but I’m not sure. I mean, I’m not supposed to… you know, feel good about stuff.>
Cedric had just finished healing Andie, now the two of them were coming to check on Dyllan. His head was spinning too much to work out exactly what they were saying, but he could tell that Andie was ranting enthusiastically about how badass “that stunt he just pulled” was, and Cedric was worried about how he was doing.
Was it just Dyllan’s imagination, or was all the light and color being drained from the mindscape around him?
<Oh, wait. I just remembered when I felt this way before. The last time I felt “happy.”> The world around him was definitely getting darker. Now all that remained of anything was black silhouettes. <It was back in middle school, whenever we beat up that brat… what was his name again… A… Aidan? Arthur? It started with an A for sure…>
Dyllan’s gaze drifted down to his feet in shame. The floor had become sticky, and he could feel a looming presence begin to emanate from the flagpole as soon as he looked away. Curiosity tempted him to look up and see what had changed, but somehow he knew he wouldn’t like what he saw. Slowly Dyllan took a step back from where he had planted that cursed flag. Then another step. Then, he tripped.
<Well, whatever his name was, he got what he goddamn deserved… Piece of shit…>
Dyllan fell backwards onto what should have been pavement, but instead landed in soft, sticky tar. Above him, he could see obsidian skeletons falling off the ledges of the buildings around him. Those weren’t there before. He turned to look at what he had tripped over. Another skeleton, the edges of its hollow eyesockets melting like tears. Beside it was a pill bottle – empty and rotting. It was not the only one.
Driven by fear and deepened curiosity, Dyllan finally turned to look at the flagpole. It was still there, exactly as it had been before. But there was no flag. Instead, there was a sight that he could never unsee – one that had been burned into his mind when he was ten. Aspen, a kid from the middle school Dyllan used to go to, hanging from a makeshift noose made from a power cord.
<Guess we haven’t changed as much as we thought, huh?>
An urge to laugh welled up in the back of Dyllan’s throat. Not a happy laugh, a broken, dying one. The kind used to drown your tears when the light you’d been chasing for years died. He didn’t let it out. He couldn’t. All he could do was curl up into a ball and sink slowly into the tar beneath him.
A note from the
Thus, the shit hits the fan.
Get ready for a ride folks, it’s all been leading up to this.