The『D』Project Ch. 5
A [FRAGMENT] is actually quite fragile.
One theory a friend told me was that the [PRESENT] was held together with a myriad of souls. The [FATE] of each soul was bound and intertwined in such a complex manner to the timeline of human history that undoing it would basically lead to the undoing of humanity.
As the souls intertwined, new souls would enter the picture. This is all on the assumption that the souls are healthy and thriving. When a soul becomes empty and brittle, the lines stretching from the [PAST] to the [FUTURE] also become hard and brittle like frozen branches in the middle of winter.
Instead of intertwining with other souls and their destinies, these [ABSORB] them. Like the parched ground of an arid desert, it greedily connects to other souls and literally sucks the life out of them without feeling any satisfaction or contentment for itself.
Others would scrape as they collide with the souls around them, and the lines of fate are abruptly cut, and [FUTURES] to be just no longer are.
So as the world churns and changes as some souls unite to create new life, and other souls deplete to take away life, they violently merge into an ocean of fates inside the [PRESENT].
Here, in the [FRAGMENT], I counted Amy, myself, and maybe one other. One of the previous occupants, a Devourer, had exited in a magnificent fashion moments ago - courtesy of Amy. The remaining three of us composed the entire remainder of history for humanity within this Fragment. When the three of us exit, this [FRAGMENT] will most likely end. Amy and I had very little invested in this [FRAGMENT]. It sounds cold, but to us, it made no difference if this [FRAGMENT] melted away. So the only reason this [FRAGMENT] did not implode moments ago with Amy's kick was due to the person or persons inside this house.
Their [FATE] is what kept this universe from disappearing after Amy gave the boot to that demon. That was my guess at least.
I looked anxiously at the house. It looked as though it was held together by tape and chewing gum as it creaked and swayed with the slightest breeze.
I wanted to lay here for hours, or honestly, days, but we didn't have much time. If that house collapsed, I doubted that the people inside would survive. Actually, even if they survived, I suspected that the house itself was a medium holding the soul here. Without the house, the soul would drift away out of the [FRAGMENT].
Amy came over and hunched next to me, looked into my face, and patted my shoulder.
Amy: "There, there. It's okay Dee."
The motion was rough and more mechanical and awkward than it was soothing, but she meant well. At least she didn't poke me with a stick.
Amy: "'re you hurt, Dee? Did that guy hurt you?"
She was sincere as children usually are - blunt and straight to the point. Shame and embarrassment immediately bubbled up from inside of me, and I felt my cheeks flush with anger. I really got my ass handed to me.
Thankfully, I was too hurt to lash out or say anything.
Truth was, as agonizing as that Devourer's attack was, the damage was more or less on the soul and not on my body.
However, kicking that Devourer out of this [FRAGMENT] while its roots were deeply embedded inside of me did far more damage. I should be more surprised that I'm still alive after getting my soul shredded. Take a weedwhacker, thrust it into a patch of thick vines, get it nice and tangled and then pull it out with an 18 wheeler going 100 mph. Now just replace the vines in that scenario with a human soul, and you get the picture. Death from Soul Shock is not uncommon - especially when the soul is damaged to that extent.
On the other hand, if Amy hadn't intervened... the memories of the hand that caught the Devourer was still fresh.
It was still there. I knew it was there. It couldn't be anywhere else, but the circumstances were still frustrating nonetheless.
Dee: "Oh, I'm okay, Amy. I was thinking about something else."
I quickly rose and felt a sharp pains in my right hand. The whole thing felt fractured and swollen. It was the same hand that grabbed the Devourer. Thankfully, it was gloved so Amy couldn't see, and I managed to stand without it.
So many things happened in just a blink of an eye, but I didn't have the time to dwell on them. We had a job to do.
I hobbled carefully towards the house that still remained standing. Every muscle strand in my body protested, but I was able to move very slowly.
Amy: "C' mom, Dee!"
Amy raced ahead of me to the front door of the house.
Dee: "'m getting too old for this..."
I muttered to myself with each small, careful step.
Eventually, I made it up the porch to where Amy stood.
Now the house looked ordinary without the devourer standing over it. The gloopy substance on the roof and walls had also disappeared. It wasn't an illusion - just an extension of that Devourer - its essence, if you want to call it that.
Dee: "Let's take a look inside."
Amy looked excited. She ran in place shuffling her feet quickly and pressed the chime button.
She pressed it a few more times, but the results were the same. I heard no sound from the inside so I guessed that it could be bust.
Dee: "Here, let me try."
I knocked on the screen door a few times, but no one answered.
Amy: "Helloーーー? Anyone hoーーーme?"
Dee: "Heーーy, we're just here to talk! Anyone hoーーーme?"
Amy and I both tried yelling cheerfully to make our presence known, but the house remained still and undisturbed.
Amy: "Is no one home?"
Dee: "No, there's definitely someone inside."
Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense for a Devourer to be feeding out of this house.
I suspected that it was just one person, but there could be a group inside. Meeting whole families, tribes, or gangs around these parts is rare, but not impossible.
For a second, I thought maybe the Devourer took the resident inside with it, but then, it should have taken me too. It had its tail, it's strongest part, anchored to me. If that Devourer had to let me go, I couldn't imagine it holding on to anyone else.
With my right hand wounded, I checked the door knob with my left hand, and it turned without resistance. The door was unlocked.
Dee: "Hey! Look! We're just here to check if you're okay! We're not looking for trouble! If you can just tell us that you're okay, we'll be on our way, alright?"
I tried my most friendly "don't shoot me as soon as I come in" approach, but I had Amy stand behind me just in case.
I peered through the doorway and stretched my senses inside, but I felt no one's presence nearby. If they were hiding, they were pros.
Dee: "Amy, is anyone inside hiding and trying to surprise us?"
In this case, I would trust Amy's instinct more than mine.
She peered intently through the crack of the doorway, but after a few seconds, shook her head.
Dee: "I'll go in first. If someone tries to attack usー"
Amy: "Leave it to mー"
Dee: "ーget out of the house and go straight to Miss Ellie's, o-k-a-y?"
I had to cut her off mid-sentence and emphasized the last point very slowly and emphatically. I can handle getting killed. It's part of the job. What I don't want is to be caught in a Fragment supernova and lose sight of Amy. As long as I know where Amy is or will be, I can rendezvous with her. If I lose her in the [MIST], the chances of finding her would be astronomically difficult.
The [MIST] contains an infinite multiplied by an infinite to the infinite power of [FRAGMENTS]. Amy might find a way to locate me, but we're not alone out there. Especially after today, I need to be vigilant and keep her in my sight at all times.
We both quietly entered the house with Amy clinging to my waist...when we both sneezed.
Amy: "K'chu! Dee!"
Dee: "AAA'kchoo!! Cover your nose and mouth!"
We weren't attacked per se. We were just welcomed by a cloud of thick dust. The place was completely caked with it.
We both sneezed, me into my shoulder and Amy, directly into my back. Ugh. We both sneezed for a while before we were able to cover our mouths with our shirts.
I breathed through my shirt as I glanced all around. Everywhere I look, a thick layer of ash-colored dust caked every single inch of the home. There was no signs of life inside. The silence was so thick, the sounds of our breathing pushed against it like a heavy, invisible veil.
Amy: "Dee, it's so dirty in here..."
Sensing that something was not right, Amy whispered and tightened her grip against my cloak.
We stood their tense and stiff and counted the seconds. Again, nothing happened.
Dee: "Stay close and keep an eye on that door."
Working this kind of job, souls can work all sorts of traps and tricks, but they would leave some kind of residue no matter what. It was ironically the complete lack of any signs or clues that was so unnerving.
We slowly entered the main living room.
There was a piano against the wall, some sofas surrounding a coffee table in front of a chimney, and some decorative vases and portraits hanging on the walls - everything caked in dust.
I took a quick survey of the room but saw no one.
I was about to suggest going upstairs whenー
Amy: "Dee, is that...?"
Amy was pointing towards a sofa with its back to us.
I peered over to see what she was looking and leaped immediately back.
For a split second, I saw the mummified remains of a child curled up in a fetal position, and I felt my heart jump through my throat. It thudded angrily in protest against my chest cavity, and it took a few seconds before I could breathe normally.
On a closer look, the skull was too big to be a child's(?) and could have been a very small man. It was really hard to tell with just the mummy alone.
It didn't seem to bother Amy much as she walked over to the other side and stared blankly at the mummy.
Amy: "Dee, is he alive?"
She pointed once more at the mummy remains. Any normal child would have been mortified by seeing a real life cadaver, but she seemed unfazed.
Dee: "..........I'm not sure."
It was a man's(?) remains. He looked dead to me.
Amy lightly tapped his arm when it crumbled to dust.
Amy: "EEEEK?! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!!"
Amy was freaking out, but the man did not budge. It really was just a carcass - an empty shell casing of a man that was, and not is. But what wasーー
Dee: "Oh, look Amy, he's holding something." I tried to gently extract the object the mummy was holding, but the clumsy attempt with my left hand made the rest of the mummified remains crumble like sand.
Both Amy and I looked at each other.
Dee: "I won't tell if you won't."
Coming to an agreement, we both nodded, and I looked at what I was holding.
Blowing off the dust, I saw that it was a picture frame. Not being able to see, I blew on it a second time across the glass surface making a thick cloud appear to my right away from Amy.
Amy: "What is it? What is it?"
Amy jumped up and down trying to get a glimpse of the picture with me.
I knelt down, and we both looked at it together.
It was a family photo. It was badly damaged by water that seeped through the frames. It was a family of three, but the photo no longer had the head of the father or mother, and a small child younger than Amy stood in between them.
A man's soul was trapped inside the last remains of the photo.
Was it the father?
Amy: "Dee, can I see it?"
Dee: "Okay, but be very careful with it. It looks pretty fragile."
To carry the soul back, I took the photo out of its rotting frame, and gently lifted it out. Amy held both hands out with the palms up as I gave her the photo.
We both inspected it once more wondering what to do next whenーー
Amy sneezed and a dizzying blur of light and wind erupted.
I felt the house shake, and the walls began to collapse.
In fact, this whole [FRAGMENT] was falling apart!
I wrapped my arms around her as the earth shook, broke apart, and the universe winked out of existence.
In a crowded hospital deep in a metropolis, a soaked, heavily bandaged man lay on a cot in a hallway with just a heart monitor and IV stuck to his arm. Doctors, nurses, and patients pushed by not even a glancing towards his direction. He had slipped into a coma and maybe had a few hours left before his body expired.
The doctors and nurses were fortunate enough to locate his next of kin. The man was stripped of his belongings except a photo that was tucked away underneath the inner sole of his shoe. The small family photo fell out as the nurses removed his clothes, and a phone number was scribbled on the back. It was the man's family. He had been missing for several years, and his family had presumed that he was most likely dead.
It was the typical story of a gambling addict - someone who was unable to resist the allure of large wealth in so little time. He was sick of his mundane, low-wage job, and the prospect of escaping it enthralled him. All he required was luck - a laughable, unrealistic amount of it - but he couldn't have known that or cared. He had an uneventful upbringing up until his marriage when he crossed a Casino during a family vacation cruise. They barely scraped enough money together, but they made it to the port and were enjoying every minute of it. It was only when he got a taste of his very first win in the Casino that signaled the beginning of a long road to his demise. The amount he earned paid for the whole trip. But years later, neck deep in debt, he feared for the safety of his family. Partly pushed by shame and partly by a minutia of responsibility that still lingered in his shabby excuse for integrity, he left his family behind in search of his fortune. He dreamt of the day he would return with suitcases full of cash, and their family would be happy - or that's what he hoped at the time.
He was a short, skinny man, but every subsequent week in the gambling dens had added decades to his age. Though in his late 30's, only wiry, thin hair remained on his balding head. He was grossly underweight with his spotted skin stretched thin across his bones. No one could have recognized him. And no one would have bothered.
In his last cognizant moment, he grappled with one of his debtors' thug during a rainy day. A thunderstorm swept over the city, and the gales were pushing people off the streets.
He could only remember bits and pieces of having a heated argument with a thick, heavy set man only to be thrown off the bridge and into the raging, black river.
He couldn't have survived. As he sank, he found himself back on the steps of his family's home. He was soaked and bewildered, but he wasted no time.
He immediately banged on the doors calling for his wife and daughter. "I'm home! I'm home!" he cried with shameful glee. Tears rolled down as he felt lighter and stronger than all his previous years combined.
But no one answered him. He continued to bang on the doors with desperate pleas of forgiveness and eventually began circling around the house to look through all the windows.
The house was in order. The furniture was just as he remembered it.
But no one was home.
The house was empty.
He looked around the neighborhood, but there wasn't a soul around.
Confused, he called for his wife and child. Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months. He circled around the neighborhood during the days and slept on the couch during the nights.
The seasons passed and eventually blurred as one.
He waited for them to come home.
Soon, he could no longer lift himself up off the couch. He saw a framed family photo on the wall - the same photo as the one he kept in his wallet. Well, nowadays he had carefully hidden it in his shoe. He didn't want to give his debtors any ideas.
But his shoes had fallen apart long ago as he meandered through the neighborhood, and that photo was long lost. He managed to crawl across the floor, heaved himself up on the wall, and then fell on the couch again with his arms wrapped around the framed photo.
He had nothing to eat or drink the last few years, but he soon found himself with golf ball sized tears pouring from his eyes. The tears splashed and soaked against the frame, but he continued to hold it tight.
Darkness fell upon him. The sun no longer cast any light or shadows through the windows.
The idea of wealth taunted him like a rusted dagger, jabbing open his wounds with twisted, jittering laughter. He looked gloomily at the wealth he desperately wanted before and now loathed with every cell of his body. Wealth for what? All for what? His family was gone, and until this realization, this damn fool of a man did not even know what he had. He chased his dreams like a drugged swine being fattened and lured towards the slaughter house.
It was so clear now. It was so painfully, crystal clear.
From then on, day and night served no purpose. Self-loathing, regret, and shame came and gone. They circled around him as boys would circle a campfire and poked and prodded him with a heated iron bar and mocked his utter ruin.
His family was gone. That realization was all he needed to induce another fit of rage, sorrow, and despair.
Again and again they sang and taunted. Again and again they came and gone as if to squeeze every drop of his blood out from his dried out carcass.
He saw his little girl in his mind - a wavering mirage in the distance, but he held onto it. It was all he had left.
Years turned to decades, and decades turned to centuries. He no longer knew the difference between a second and a millennium. In the vast ocean of darkness, he saw his girl in the far distance, and he craned his neck from his perch to get a better view. He squinted and rubbed vigorously at his eyes, but she remained slightly blurred. Never nearer, but never farther.
But no sound came from his lips. His mouth did not even move, but with the last drops of his will, he repeated the words he had been saying since he returned home.
When the darkness vanished, his girl now hovered over a gray mist.
"Dee, can I see it?"
He was startled by a muffled voice, but it was a girl's. He tried to stir, but he could not feel his body. He tried to see, but everywhere else he looked, he was faced with a gray mist.
"Okay, but be very careful with it. It looks pretty fragile."
He heard a man's voice too, but again, the sound was dulled and so hard to hear.
"Is someone there?" But no words came out. There was no mouth or tongue to speak them. As in a night terror, he felt paralyzed.
His daughter's voice cut across the veil and struck him straight in the chest. He looked across and saw that his daughter's face moved. It moved!
"Daddy, wake up!!"
She was crying. Desperation swelled as the man struggled. "Please, God! Please!! Anyone!! PLEASE!!"
But no words escaped his lips. He laid there helpless and immobile. Fury and frustration bloomed out of him, but his daughter was so far. His daughter was so, so far. There was no way for him to ever cross that chasm.
"Please!! Help me!! I'll do anything!!"
Hope and despair played leap frog across his mind as a gust arose.
"Please!! Just once!! Just this once!! Let me tell herーー"
Before he knew what was happening, something pushed him across the chasm.
He screamed though no sound came out.
He screamed again as he fell and a gale of wind whipped across his face.
This time, he heard his voice. It was faint and incoherent, but he heard a sound!
Opening his eyes, he saw the face of his daughter. She was so much older. She had grown up so much. Gone were the chubby, baby cheeks and replaced by a pre-teen face. Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she called to him over and over.
He poured his strength into his lifeless limbs and felt his body twitch as an answer.
No one else saw that day.
No one else saw a lifeless corpse regain color.
No one else heard the stagnant pools of blood squeeze through an empty heart as it began pumping blood furiously through every vein.
His hair turned black as night as it was the day he left.
His bony frame retrieved the modest muscles that were not strong enough to run but to walk comfortably.
Only his daughter and wife saw a man come back to life and embrace them both as he sat up and cried with them.
After crying together for half an hour, his daughter lifted up the old, worn out photo that was discarded carelessly on his lap.
"Daddy, is this a picture of me?"
It was the last and only memento of his family that had dutifully followed him here. The photo was so ruined that only the girl remained.
"Yes, dear. It is." "EWW!! I think there's snot on it!!"
The daughter flung the photo aside, but all he could do was laugh and hug her once more.