Surely some of you do though, right? The crushing guilt for things that you objectively know weren't your fault but that you'll never forgive yourself for? The absolute surety, down to your bones, that the guilt will lessen someday if you can just... do enough? Help enough? Be good enough?
It never occurs to you to wonder exactly what "enough" is, does it? Even if you do eventually realize... that it will never be enough... it really makes no difference in the end. Addiction is a powerful thing.
An imaginary crime will only ever have an imaginary penalty. That's the truth.
When I left off before, back here, my update-writing was interrupted by a slew of really bizarre comments on Michelle's blog. At first we were baffled - I mean, everybody gets trolls, but this guy was oddly persistent and specific. And... disjointed? It was clearly a cry for help, in any case, so once the guy stopped responding, Michelle and I tried to figure out who it might be. Didn't take long, really. There's only so many places for someone to insist that Michelle "come back" to. Not to mention the things that were talked about on the posts they were on, and... fuck, there's a billion and a half ways to rationalize the "how", and we beat every last one of them into the ground on the drive up there, heedless of their logical possibility. The point is, we went back to the location of Steven's treehouse.
The point is, Christian was still there.
Somehow, he got stuck there when Michelle managed to ditch him all those months ago.
She told me when she first told me the story that there was something very wrong with the place. At first I thought it was maybe residual memory of the story Corey explained to us - how she was found in that spot when she was little, covered head to toe in her own blood but without a scratch on her to explain it. When we got there, though... clearly it was something more than that.
Not for the first time, I wish Nick was around. I did my best, but I'm still not sure what it was I was seeing. My best guess is... it had something to do with Michelle's presence. There was some sort of resonance involved that... moved reality around a bit? Essentially, the area was stuck in a sort of mobius half-twist, completely cut off from everything that was unlike itself. Michelle was something that counted as "like itself", apparently. Something to do with what happened to her? No idea. But if Christian's constant rambling about her blood was any indication...
There was something even more wrong with Christian. Maybe I can't always tell what's going on with the universe the way Nick can, but my empathy has always been incessantly, agonizingly clear. Putting aside the impossible fact that he had somehow survived there for four months without food or water, there was something inside him that had absolutely snapped. Yeah, four months is a long time to be continually dying of starvation/dehydration/exposure, but his mind... felt like he had been sitting there for decades. Centuries. Like he had gone through absolutely every thought, sensation, and memory his brain had ever stored, and just kept doing that over and over again until the very foundation of his personality started breaking down.
And everything was broken down.
At the end of it, I tried to help him. I couldn't take the sensation anymore - watching this burned-out shell of a man
I didn't care whether my attempt would heal him or kill him, either (it's always one of those two, isn't it?). Nobody does anything they don't want to do, and nobody does anything for the right reasons. Altruism doesn't exist.
At some level, I think Christian knew that.
As soon as I got near him, he pulled a knife out of nowhere and stabbed at my heart. I managed to twist myself in time so it hit me in the right shoulder. He managed to slash at me a bit more before Michelle pulled him off of me. She pinned him, and threatened him... and I realized a split second later that it wasn't Christian's presence that was causing me to hear music.
He was there. The monster. The one who took my children from me. Who made me abandon my friends. Who murdered a good man for no reason other than that he helped me. I can distract myself all I want. I keep singing to the void in a voice that's not mine.
I started screaming. Eventually the scream formed itself into Michelle's name, but really, I just needed to drown out the sound. I screamed her name over and over and over and over and then at some point my eyesight started to clear somehow and I could see her standing up. Facing Him. Wearing an expression I never, ever, ever want to see on her face again.
I tried to get up. My hand found a sizable dry stick on the ground.
Random acts of nature - little things like a flickering light bulb - can bring your mind back to reality in a pinch. But sometimes you need to make your own miracles.
I took the stick and snapped it over my knee. The loud crack it made resounded all through the construction site like the sonic boom of a bullet.
I grabbed her hand. And we were running.
I've been avoiding Drew all week. Thank god he works daytime hours (as a lowly cashier, I might add; you'd think all his "government contacts" would get him a better position or something) and I'm not forced to be civil at him all goddamn day. Likewise, however... Michelle has been avoiding me.
Well, not avoiding, per se. But I'm getting sick of how she never tells me the truth when I ask her how her arm is feeling.
Every few days, she "excuses" herself to the bathroom. She thinks I don't know when she's bullshitting me, but she's wrong. The fact that she only wears her big, pocket-filled coat to an indoor bathroom once out of every 5 times is easily the biggest tipoff.
Actually, that's a lie. The biggest tipoff is the waves of detached pain that come from said bathroom - or wherever she's gone to that day - when she does this.
This afternoon, after a particularly aggravating argument with Drew that same morning, I decided I had had enough of everyone's bullshit. As soon as I noticed it was one of those times, I went to the bathroom and knocked on the door.
"One minute," is the only reply I got. But it definitely sounded strained.
"Michelle, what are you doing? Please, just be honest with me."
I heard a low curse from inside the door, followed by a stuttering, "Nothing. J-Just... cleaning up.
I leaned my head against the door, somewhere between exasperated and exhausted. "Michelle, stop this. You think I can't tell what you're doing in there? You think I can't feel that? Just... open the door. If it's hurting you that badly, then let me have a look, please."
"I'm just changing the bandages, Val. You know h-how my arm gets..."
"Open the door."
"Val, I'll be done soon, just give me five-"
"Do as I say and open the door. Now."
...I honestly don't know what came over me when I said that. But the next thing I heard was the snatch of the lock being turned... and there she was. Clutching her infected arm in a towel that was soaked and all but dripping in her own blood.
"...Shit," was about the only thing I could say, so I said it. And then I started down the hall toward the living room where we had left our bags. "Come with me," I said.
Michelle gave me a pained look. "Val, you don't need--"
"Come here," I said again, in that same tone of voice. She came. In hindsight, I feel sick.
I dug out one of our packs of medical supplies and sat Michelle down in front of me, working around my own rapidly healing shoulder and hating that I couldn't risk even trying to heal her. I took her injured arm and carefully unwrapped it. It was still furiously red and emanating the heat of infection. Still oozing disgusting yellow and black pus from all those not-quite-healed-and-probably-never-going-to-heal-at-this-point burn marks from the barn. But the long, deep knife-marks cutting through it, thankfully cutting across and not lengthwise? Those were new.
Actually, only some of them were new, freshly bleeding. Others were clearly older, made days or even weeks ago. Those were clotted, but still open. Not healing, just there.
I asked her what the fuck she thought she was doing.
Instead of answering, she just pulled apart the lips of one of the cuts with her opposite hand. Inside, I could see something long and thin and white and... and moving. Just twitching every so often in response to the air.
"They keep growing back," she said softly, demurely refusing to look me in the eye. "More of them each time. I have to cut them out, or..."
Neither of us needed the "or" explained. I still have nightmares of agonized, unending screaming in my head.
"Michelle, you can't do this to yourself. Cuts like this are how people commit suicide via blood loss."
"If I leave them in," she said in a stronger tone, raising her head, "then I might as well cut off the entire fucking arm and get it over with."
She looked at me that time.
So I nodded.