She bolts down corridor after corridor, following an uncertain trail of opening doors. Her muscles ache. Her feet hurt. Her eyes are so wet with tears it's a wonder she can see where she's going.
And every time she looks back she sees more and more things coming to catch her.
So she runs, going from door to door in an endless maze of long halls. Sometimes she wakes up just before they catch her, and sometimes just after. Sometimes she gets out, and sometimes she doesn't.
But this time she's actually gone full circle, and has run right back to where she started running from.
This time, she remembers.
* * *
As soon as Myron wakes up, that morning, he knows it's over.
In the couple of weeks since they started sharing a bed, he's become quite accustomed to Winifred's nightmares. He knows that, after they fall asleep, she will sleep soundly for quite a while, but then, sometime before dawn, she will start twitching and moaning. This will go on for at least a half hour, maybe longer, and then she will either awake with a harsh gasp, or else stop twitching, and slowly open her eyes.
If she slowly opens her eyes, he knows it's okay to put his arms around her, and let her ease back into his embrace, and possibly fall asleep again. If she awakens with a gasp, he knows that he needs to back off for a bit, and let her be the one to come to him. If she opens her eyes, she might want sex, eventually; if she gasps, she'd better not even think he's got morning wood.
It was a little touch-and-go at first, but eventually they figured it out, and made it work. She forgave his early, fumbling mistakes, and he got to the point where he actually woke up just before she went into a nightmare, and was able to be there for her when she came out of it. It was a small, little secret they shared (much like this affair) that added to the intimacy between them.
And that's why he knows something has changed, that morning. Because for the first time since they started sleeping together, he did not wake up before she went into a nightmare.
For the first time since then, he's actually woken up with the alarm, and the sun's rays coming in through the window.
She's sitting on the bed, nude, with her arms wrapped around her chest. She's facing the window, and either look out of it, or at the floor. And she's clearly been crying, but not any longer.
He reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder. She lets him, but she does not turn and curl into him, the way she normally would.
Myron doesn't know what to say. Thankfully, she does.
"I remember, now," she says, her voice hoarse from sobbing: "I remember everything that happened."
He closes his eyes and tries not to cry.
* * *
It's five before Ten PM in Lakeside, Ohio, and the small waves lap at the shoreline. The New Moon hangs overhead, dark and unlovely, and the stars are wispy, unimpressive things tonight.
A perfect night for a break-in.
Winifred checks her neoprene suit one more time, ensuring that everything she needs is on her person, somewhere. With that, she puts on a hooded scuba mask, grabs the bodyboard she brought with her, and slips into the water, as quietly as possible.
It's less than five miles from here to Kelleys Island. If she's careful, she can make it there just around Midnight, which is when certain things stop happening on that small chunk of land, if the information she's received is correct. And then it's a similar swim back to shore, or maybe faster if she can steal a boat.
She may have to, depending on what shape poor Dagworth is in.
"Do not come looking for me," he had insisted. Well !@#$ that. You don't just write a final letter like that and then say to stay away. The big-boned boy has a lot to answer for.
And Winifred is going to make certain he does.
* * *
"We were trying to find out where they'd !@#$ing taken all the special ed kids," Winifred explains to Mark and the Fist, as they talk out on a small veranda, up near the top of the treehouse: "Dagworth and me, I mean."
"Special ed?" The Fist asks, not certain of the term's meaning.
"Special education" Mark says, taking a drink of the iced tea they've been using to stay hydrated: "Students with mental handicaps, mostly. They put them in separate classes so they get better attention and don't fall behind."
"All the mental ones were taken someplace," Winifred goes on, nodding, her eyes hollow: "Supposedly to make sure they got better schooling. Maybe even healed, from the way they said it. But that sounded like bull!@#$."
"So you looked into it."
"Yeah, but all the bus drivers could tell us was that they dropped them off at a state border, or somewhere. Then the Imago took 'em, but they had no idea where they went, then. Didn't !@#$ing care either, the jerks."
"So you and Dagworth figured out where they went?"
"He learned that the ones from Ohio were taken off to Kelley's Island, close to Cedar Point."
"What's that?" he asks.
"!@#$ty amusement park," she says, scratching her hairline: "Do go there. The rides suck."
"Good to know," Mark chuckles, glad for a moment of levity.
"So he went up there and find out what happened to them. He tried, once, but the cops caught him and took him back. So he went up there again."
"I know you've said that, before," Mark says, leaning in close: "And I know that you couldn't remember what happened past a certain point."
"I remember it all now," she says, staring off into space: "I remember everything."
And as she starts to talk, she wishes that Myron was here with her, to hold her. But she knows that if he was, she'd just retreat into his embrace, and go no further. She'd decline to remember, and begin to truly forget, and what she had to say would be left to rot in her mind along with other old wounds, long since fading and forgotten.
No more retreating, then -- there's been more than enough of that.
It's time to go forward.
* * *
As she swims towards the island, she focuses on the one light that's on, there.
It's a large, strange structure, not far from the southern shore. It looks like a conglomeration of white cubes, all stacked on top of one another in asymmetrical, almost gravity-defying patterns. The light pulses and shifts, vacillating between light pastel pink, green, and purple to become a weird and unwholesome new hue.
She thinks of an old Lovecraft story, and shakes it from her head. She doesn't have time for spook stories, now. She has to save her friend, and then find out what the !@#$ has been going on, here.
Invigorated, she paddles faster for the shoreline, certain that she can get there on time.
* * *
"I got there a little after Midnight. The guys I was in contact with told me that's when the lights in the !@#$ing building went down, and stayed that way for a few. I thought that might be when they changed guards, or something."
"Did you see any guards?" The Fist asks.
"Yeah, but they weren't Imago. They wore dark one-piece jumpsuits and mirrored helmets. Carried huge guns, too. The kind you see in Anime all the time."
"Gauss guns," Mark surmises: "So they were probably False Faces. Specials they took the armor off of, probably."
"Maybe. I didn't see any of them up close, so I didn't see if they had skull faces. I didn't hear any of them talk, either. They just marched around the !@#$ buildings and houses, patrolling."
"And, of course, they did not see you," The Fist says, smiling and tapping her hand close to Winifred's: "You were too clever for them."
"!@#$ that. I think I was lucky," Winifred sighs, uncomfortable with the complement: "I think I had help."
* * *
The white building's base is the center of a parade of guards, all going this way and that, scanning the brush and buildings endlessly as they flock like birds.
Hiding between two buildings, Winifred's heart sinks to see that many of them, there. She wonders how she can possibly get past them and get in. And then, how is she supposed to get back out, again...?
With little or no warning, a group of them break off from the main bunch and begin to walk in her direction. She shudders, and then slips into an open side door in the tourist shop to her right. She closes it and locks it behind her, but knows that it won't hold them off too long if they were actually looking for her.
As she scrambles for a place to hide, she notices that the same light that's coming from the building is coming from underneath a door in the back of the main room. She goes to it and flings it open, finding a rude stairwell going down into a basement. The pulsing light is strong, down there, so she closes the door behind her and tiptoes down the stairs, hoping she's found a way in.
As it turns out, she has. In the basement is a large white box, very much like the ones the building is made of. It's about six feet to a side, and pulsing as if lit from within.
When she reaches out to touch it, her arm goes through the material as though it wasn't there. She puzzles over this for a moment, wondering what this could be. But when she hears the unmistakable sound of a door being kicked in, upstairs, she follows through into the cube.
In the cube is nothing but the light, and it's so bright she can barely see herself within it. She cannot hear anything from upstairs, so she hides there for a time. When she hears nothing for ten minutes, she decides she's been here long enough, and tries to go back the way she came, but cannot -- a heavy, dull wall lies between her and freedom, now.
She moves her hands along its surface, trying to find a way out. She follows around to the side, and then almost falls through the side opposite the one she came in.
And when she moves through it, she finds herself in a long, white, rectangular corridor, leading to a white wall that looks cracked like an eggshell.
* * *
"I think it was a teleporter, or something," Winifred says: "Maybe an emergency exit. Why it wasn't guarded, I don't know. But I went through it, and when I went into the hallway on the other side, I realized that the cracked wall at the end was a door."
"Did you go through it?"
"I did. It opened into another hallway, kind of a T-junction, and there were doors at both ends. I decided to go right, because its door was closer. That and I thought I heard someone coming the other way."
"What was behind the door?" Mark asks, seeing that Winifred's becoming very pale.
"A... a room..."
"And what did you find in the room, my dear?" The Fist asks.
Winifred hitches a breath.
* * *
Inside the large, square room are many white cubes, maybe four feet to a side. Inside each cube is a person, standing up -- coming right out of the top of the cube as though it wasn't there.
They're all naked and alive, these people. Their eyes are closed, and they are clearly asleep. The air smells of unwashed skin, strange chemicals, and human waste.
Winifred moves amongst them, wondering what this is. Hopefully it's a prison of some kind. If it's anything else...
Eventually, she moves with a purpose. She looks for Dagworth, hoping she can recognize him from the old photo she found in that back issue of FC. She also wonders how many rooms like this there are, and how long she can remain lucky enough to not run into any Imago before-
She hears them coming before she sees them. She drops behind a cube and holds her breath, hoping they didn't catch a glimpse of her as the wall opened up just as she ducked down.
"How many are suitable in here?" one of them asks the other.
"I estimate twenty are suitable for transference," the other says: "The remainder are too intelligent or strong-willed to make good vessels."
"Then they can go to the Overmind."
"Yes, I think so," the first one says: "We shall process them, and then see to our recharging."
"That is an excellent idea," the other replies.
They walk away, but the wall does not close behind them. Instead, the boxes in the room begin to move of their own accord, all heading for the open space in single-file lines.
She moves with the one she's behind, desperately hoping to stay under cover as all her available hiding places go into a large, white area, filled with many strange lights and sounds.
And hoarse, sudden shouts.
* * *
"... the boxes moved in two different directions," Winifred continues, becoming as pale as one of the boxes she is talking about: "I went with the one that led away from the Imago. They were all over on the right side of the room, receiving boxes. I couldn't see what they were doing at first, but..."
She stops, and is silent for a time. The Fist reaches out and takes hold of her hands, looking her in the eyes.
"You do not have to continue, if you do not wish it, sister," she says: "We can talk more later-"
"If I don't say this now, it won't !@#$ing get said," Winifred insists, gritting her teeth: "I've sat on it long enough. You have to know what we're !@#$ing dealing with."
"One word at a time, then," Mark says: "What happened in that room?"
* * *
The line of boxes Winifred's hiding behind makes a sudden, 90-degree angle turn to the right, and she leaps to a different side, so as to have the box between her and the Imago at the other side of the room.
As she leaps, she sees what is happening over there.
Each box going that way is looked at by an Imago, who holds up a large, metal ball, maybe twice as large as a basketball. Each ball is striped with two colors.
The Imago looks at the person in the box, and does one of two things. It either gestures, and then the box moves out of line, and heads over to the boxes where she is, or else holds the ball forward, and touches the person's chest with it.
The second the ball touches the chest of the person in the box, that person wakes up, and shouts as if surprised. A half second later, the ball unspools into metal ribbons, which begin to wrap themselves around the person's body like bandages. A two-colored, metal exoskeleton is created -- its lines and contours as distinctly different as a fingerprint.
At the center of the ribbons is a white, pulsing ball of light. It latches onto the chest of the person, and then leaps up into their mouth. Their eyes, nose, and mouth flare up with its bright light, and the body shakes and shivers.
And then, the body is still, and the person takes a deep breath, extends out their hands, and greets the Imago that made them. The white cube they stood in evaporates as they step out, and get into the group of Imago on the other side of the room.
And then they get right to work making even more Imago, pulling metal spheres from a large, white cube that's just full of them...
Winfield sees this happen three or four times as she moves along with her line of boxes. But then the boxes start and stop in their motion, as the line has reached a wall, and the wall opens to admit only one person, and then closes, and then opens to admit another.
In the room beyond are terrible smells -- blood and bones and guts. They're the kind of smells she associates with the dis-assembly line her family created when it came time to harvest her grandparents' chickens.
The wall opens one more time, right in front of her. She can see the box that went in before the one that's being let in now. White, disembodied hands float around it, holding strange lights and sharp instruments.
The person who was in that box no longer has the top of her head. Blood is spraying from the freshly-cut wound and the cap of the skull is being dropped down into the box. The wet and pulsing brain is being placed into a small, white cube.
* * *
"I couldn't !@#$ing help it," she says, holding her head in her hands: "It just... it took me by surprise, that's all."
Mark has turned white and is biting into his knuckles, trying not to scream or be sick. He has no idea how The Fist is doing, given that she covers, but she's gripping Winifred's hands so tight it's a wonder they don't break.
"I just ran," she continues, eyes screwed shut and voice shaking: "I !@#$ing screamed and I ran. And I couldn't run back the way I came so I ran ahead, right into that room where the hands were..."
"Oh dear God," Mark says, having the horrible feeling he knows what's going to happen next.
* * *
She gallops right past the hands, which are clearly too busy with the person they're carving up to deal with her.
She runs ahead of the line of white boxes, all carrying a dying body that bleeds and bleeds but cannot fall down dead.
The boxes all go down a small, white corridor that gets smaller as it goes along.
As it gets to the end, boxes allow the bodies to fall down into them, and then the corridor is only as tall and as wide as a box, and Winifred has to crawl behind one, weeping and screaming as she does.
The boxes go along for a time in that tight and claustrophobic area. The only light is coming from the boxes, themselves.
Winifred thinks she hears noises, ahead, but isn't sure what they could be. She also smells something truly terrible, and realizes that it's the smell of decay.
And then she's falling into space, behind a box that's gone right out of a door and is plummeting onto a pile of dead bodies at the bottom of a square, earthen pit.
The box she's following evaporates as it falls, and then there's nothing but a bloody, naked body in front of her. It turns ever so slightly, showing her that the skull is missing above the nose, making it truly grotesque.
The corpse thuds atop the steaming, wet pile of similar cadavers. The other half of its head strikes a second later, and bounces off and away, heading for the bottom of the pile.
Winifred thuds right into that body, and begins to slide down in the blood and other unwholesome fluids that make it glisten.
And as she falls, and vomits, and tries to scream but finds she can no longer draw in that much breath, another body falls right onto her.
Everything goes a merciful, quiet black.
* * *
"I was there for an entire day," Winifred says, after a rather lengthy pause: "I woke up the next night because I heard the !@#$ machines going again. I don't know why they didn't come after me. Maybe they figured I was dead, or wasn't !@#$ing getting out again, anyway.
"The place was deep and full of !@#$ing corpses. A lot of them were rotten. No flies, though. Just decay. !@#$ weird, but I didn't notice, then.
"I got up and started looking for a way out. It was a white cube, like the other buildings, it just had a dirt floor with a huge pit dug. So I crawled up and out of the hole, and started banging the walls, looking for an exit.
"And as I was crawling up and out, that's when I saw him."
"Dagworth?" Mark asks.
"Yeah," Winifred says: "Dagworth."
* * *
It takes her a moment to realize that the person whose body she's crawled up to get out of the pit is the person she's come to find. He doesn't have anything above his nose, anymore, after all.
But she recognizes his chin. She sees the mole there. And she sees his portly body, and the emergency appendectomy scar he talked about. The dogbite on his left knee.
(His tiny, shrunken !@#$ he joked about.)
She sees these things and howls, too far gone to !@#$ing care if anyone hears or sees her.
Let them come. Let them try and lay a hand on her. She will kill them with her teeth, her fists, her fury.
She will kill them with hate.
* * *
"The next thing I remember, I'm back in Lakeside," Winifred says: "I think I got back two days after I !@#$ing left. The people who found me say I was walking about buck-!@#$ naked, white as a sheet. No ID, no money, no nothing."
"And you don't remember how you got there?" The Fist asks, still holding onto her hands.
"I don't remember swimming. I don't remember how I got from the building to the shore. I don't !@#$ing remember any of that. But..."
"What do you remember?" Mark asks.
"I think I remember... when I was trying to get out of that room with the bodies, and running my hands over the walls, one of them just opened up."
"Really?" The Fist asks.
"Yeah. Just opened up. And I... I don't know for sure? But I think I heard Dagworth's voice. He told me to run."
"An angel, maybe," Mark says: "Or a ghost-"
"Or maybe I !@#$ing imagined it," Winifred says, leaning back in her chair and wiping her eyes: "Or maybe it came from a speaker in the wall. And that's what I think happened. They grabbed him for something called a !@#$ing Overmind and now he's part of it, and he saw me and let me go."
Mark and the Fist look at each other, and then they look back at her.
"I'm okay," she says, closing her eyes: "I know what I'm saying. I hate leaving it at that, but that's all I !@#$ing remember."
"That's more than enough," Mark says, getting to his feet: "I need... I have to tell the leader about this. This changes everything."
"You do that," The Fist says, looking up at him: "I will look after her."
"I don't need you to look after me-"
"I need to look after you," The Fist insists: "I do not want you to be alone, now."
"I said I'm !@#$ing fine!" Winfield screams, but she can't get up. The Fist is too strong, even without her powers. And as Winfield struggles to be free, and The Fist stops her from even getting out of her chair, her facade cracks, and -- tired of arguing and remembering and being so !@#$ing brav -- she finally breaks down in The Fist's arms, and allows herself to fall apart.
Mark leaves just as Winfield really starts crying. As he does, he almost trips over Myron, who's been waiting out in the hall the entire time.
"Is she okay?" he asks, somewhat sheepishly.
"She's gonna be fine," Mark says, clapping a hand on his shoulder: "But I'd really like you with me on this one when we report in, Myron. It's... well, it's pretty bad."
"I heard most of it," Myron replies, putting his sunglasses on, maybe so no one can see the look in his eyes: "That's going to make some things more difficult."
"Maybe a little easier, too?" Mark says, and then explains. And it's to Myron's credit that, as he explains, he's able to think more and more of what needs to be done, and less and less of the Winfield-shaped hole that's just formed in his heart.
But he knows it's over, now. He knows tonight he will be coming home to an empty bed. He knows the next time he sees her, she will look at him differently, and talk to him differently, and that their small jokes and code words and promises are all gone, now -- evaporated like those white boxes in the Imago surgery.
He realizes she has slipped away from him, now. This was only ever going to be temporary, and maybe he knew this and maybe he didn't. But now it's been proven, and he's living it.
And !@#$ the world for letting it happen like this.
(SPYGOD is listening to La Ment (The Cure) and drinking tears.)