The story begins with Masked – The Fortress (1). To access installments in narrative sequence, click on an entry title, then click on “Next” at the end of that installment.
He woke with his face mere inches from the bloodied lock and Ruby’s tiny body, mashed against the top of his desk. No light glowed inside the transparent beetle perched on top of the little corpse. No part of the beetle moved, not even its antennae. Dawn shone through the room’s Venetian blinds. The old loneliness stabbed at him.
He picked up the beetle by one of its limbs. Inanimate, it dangled awkwardly from between his thumb and forefinger. He traced its lines with the index finger of his other hand. What had just happened? Could he use any rubric to justify what he had done? He remembered how Amica had looked and smelled. Then he remembered her response to his question of jealousy: We’re in this together. John might not have coerced her, but he had definitely deceived her. Coercion-one-step-removed. He could not reconcile that with what he knew of himself.
Making a strangled noise deep in his throat, he slammed the beetle down on his desk, picked up the padlock again, and pressed it down against the beetle’s back. Just like he had done to Ruby’s skull a few hours before, in another life it seemed. The lock crushed the brittle beetle instantly. He set it down next to Ruby and looked at the ruined beetle fragments; making that same strangled noise, he tried to jam the splinters back into place. He wanted to hold her again! He wanted Sean’s life! Pieces of the beetle stuck in the skin of his fingers as he pressed to no avail. The magic had gone. John wondered how this looked to Bloodwater, lying on his pale cushion in Aum. Did it warm the old man’s watery heart?
John lay down on his narrow bed, still wearing his work pants and the T-shirt that stuck to his side. He felt like crying again but didn’t want to give Bloodwater any sense of satisfaction. At some point in the future, he might be able to shake the feeling of being watched, but right now he felt on stage, a spotlight framing his every movement as a crowd of Bloodwaters jeered. He decided to call in sick to work that day despite the dire consequences that Lenny might bring down. He needed to feel more normal before facing his little life again. A small voice within told him that a frog that has seen the ocean will never appreciate the bottom of a well again, but he needed to try.
Thank you for reading! In the next installment, John goes back to work.
Previous Aum stories include Globe Without Goodbye.
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