Word Count: 2254 words
Warnings: character death, implications of self-harm/suicide
Summary: She has to save them, but it might be too late.
Author's Notes: For the Reverse Bang Challenge 2011 over at originalbigbang. Art Master Post is here (so you can see Connie's wonderful art that inspired the story): Dreamwidth / Livejournal.
And yes, the allusions to a certain classic novel were intentional. ^^;
She knew she could find him, even in the gray bleakness of this place.
It had taken her many days to do so, for here he blended in perfectly. Despair had long stripped him of his colors, and gloom shrouded him in shadows as he wandered the ruins, with eyes that stared ahead but did not see, hollow and dead. She called out to him once, but he did not turn.
She took out her pocket-watch from inside her waistcoat, watched the hand tick, faster and faster by the second. She looked down at him, and watched him walk along the edges of the gaping hole that stood in the middle of the valley. He tottered once and almost fell in, but he regained his footing and resumed his aimless amble, as if nothing happened.
She swallowed. How could she make him listen to her? Nothing was ever easy in this place. But she had to do this, for no one else could. She slung the watch around her neck and steeled herself. She jumped down from her place, down, down, down to his side.
I hope I am not too late.
Oh dear, oh dear.
There was nothing in this place. Here, he saw nothing, heard nothing, and most important of all, felt nothing.
Here he mourned no one.
And it was all perfect.
He could not remember when he had first come to this place, and now knew only that he did not want to leave. He walked on and on with no destination in mind. He once stopped to pick up a rock to gaze at it, study it, for there was something about it that stirred his long-buried memories. He traced the crystals embedded on its surface, until their edges scraped his skin raw.
Thank you, Carl, it's so beautiful, it's perfect for my collection—
He threw it to one side, with more force than he had thought himself capable. His steps quickened—he had to get away, away from that thing—and almost tripped over another rock. He slowed down to his previous pace, head buried in his hands.
"Oh dear," a voice cut rudely in the blissful silence. "Oh dear."
He turned and blinked at the intruder. The voice belonged to a woman, although he could not be sure, for her face was hidden behind a rabbit mask. The golden pocket-watch she wore around her neck glistened in the light, which made him look skyward in shock—he had not noticed until now that the sun still shone in this place.
"I shall be late," she said. "It's off with her head for sure now. Hurry on, I have to hurry on—"
"Whose head? What? What are you talking about?" he blurted out. He knew he should go, ignore this stranger, forget as he had kept forgetting. But he couldn't. Something about her drew him in, held him in place.
"The flowers were white," the rabbit-woman said earnestly. "Not red. White! Do you understand?" She grabbed his collar by the wrist and brought her face towards him. Her eyes were brown, warm and full of life. "Do you?"
Before he could answer, she let him go. She shook her head. "But she painted them. Painted them with her wrists. Now the Queen is mad." She tilted head to one side. "Yes, we are all mad here, but not as mad as her Majesty.'Off with her head!' she so perfyingly youlted, and no one can save her now, no—"
She ran past him. He chased after her, without even stopping to think why did he do it, or why he just had to. To his horror (who was this girl and why did she make him feel?), she was running toward a huge, dark pit right ahead. He grabbed her by the waist and they tumbled away from it, their impact dislodging a few rocks, which fell toward the chasm. His eyes followed these rocks, but soon he no longer knew what became of them, for they were swallowed by the darkness of the void. Nothing else but silence followed their fall.
He had not noticed the hole before, and he could not understand how he could not have. It stretched on for as far as he could see, terrifying in its vastness. The rabbit-girl squirmed from under him and he stepped back to let her get to her feet, but he did not let go of her hand.
"Why the hell did you do that?" he shouted. His grip on her wrist tightened.
The rabbit-girl only looked at her pocket-watch. "I'm late," she muttered. "Time, it ticks, ticks, ticks. Ticks make me itch, and I hate it. Don't you?"
"Just try and make sense, will you?" His other hand gripped her shoulder. "What were you thinking, if you were even thinking at all?" He knew it was irrational to lash out at this strange woman, but he kept going anyway. "Please. Please? Don't go down there. You could die, you could—"
"But I already am," she murmured, "late."
He let go of her and stared at her. There was something in the way she said late that awoke his memories, which now came rushing into him despite his best efforts, choking him, knocking the breath out of him.
"And she is not. Not yet," she went on. "Though it is a wonder. She had not just lost one, but two."
She placed a hand on his face tenderly. Her brown eyes looked up at him, pity and sadness dancing in them. "Do you not hear her cries?"
He shook his head.
Her hand moved up to cover his eyes. "Listen, then."
He covered her hand with his own as he closed his eyes. Finally, he heard it.
It sounded at first like a lost animal, whimpering in the void. The sound grew louder and louder, until through the sobs he finally understood words.
"Claire," he said. His eyes fluttered open. "She's calling. Calling for me—"
"Yes. Yes." She entwined her fingers around his, and put them by her heart. "Do you remember now?"
His eyes filled up with tears. "Yes."
"Then let us go. Before it is all too…"
Her voice trailed off. She again looked at him, an unspoken question in her eyes.
He pulled her close to him, burying his face in her hair, its smell aching in its familiarity. Her rabbit mask fell down to the ground with a clatter, but neither of them moved to retrieve it.
He finally pulled away, and turned to face the pit. The darkness beckoned below.
He took a deep breath, and still holding her hand, let himself fall.
He woke with a start. He blinked at the cardiac monitor above his head for several moments before he finally knew where he was. He looked down at his wife, watched her chest rising and falling in time to the rhythm set by the machine beside her bed, most of her face hidden by the adhesives that kept her tubes in place.
He had dreamed that he was falling. He was still holding her hand now, like he did in his dream, but that was all he could remember of it. He must have nodded off while he was watching her, lulled by the steady beating of her heart on the monitor. It was probably the first time he had ever really slept in days.
He stood up suddenly, eyes wide. "Oh, Lord," he breathed. "Claire—"
He was about to head back to the door when he stopped and turned back to his wife. He brushed her now-limp hair from her forehead and bent down to kiss her. "Alice," he whispered. "I'm going now."
And though he did not really know why, he added, "Thank you, my love."
He headed back out the door, and looked back at his wife one last time. She still did not stir, suspended in slumber.
He wondered what she dreamed, if she still dreamed at all.
The drive home was a long and silent affair, and this time he did not stop at the bar for his usual round of drinks. There was no time, no time to lose. He glanced at the time displayed on his dashboard, and with each passing minute he stepped harder on the gas pedal until he was going as fast as he dared.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the light in his daughter's bedroom was still on. As soon as he had the car parked in the garage he ran all the way to the front door, and almost tripped on the bottles of gin and beer scattered all over their living room floor. During the first few months since the accident, Claire was still very devoted to cleaning up all the mess left in the wake of his drinking, but as the weeks wore on she simply let all those bottles gather dust inside the house. He never saw her around much anymore--not that he saw or even cared about anyone else ever since what happened.
He climbed up the stairs two at a time as his heart hammered in his chest, as if pushing him onward (faster, faster) with each beat. He rapped at his daughter's door. When there was no answer, he checked the door and finding it unlocked, burst inside her bedroom.
He found her sprawled on her bed, half-buried underneath all her pillows and books and magazines. He ran towards her.
Am I too late? Too late—
Her eyes opened and she bolted up from her bed. She pulled her earphones away as she gawked at him, her eyes still rimmed with sleep. "Dad? What—"
"I'm just glad that you're—" He threw his arms around her, unable to finish.
She pushed him away. "Dad, are you doing drugs now besides drinking? God, you're impossible!" Her eyes darted to the wall clock above the door. "But you're home early. What's going on?"
He sat down beside her, and moved closer to her when she tried to inch away. "I just realized," he whispered hoarsely, "that these past few months have been tough not just on me, but on you as well." He looked at his daughter's hands. He stared at the scars on her wrists, some already old and fading, others still fresh and raw.
But she painted them, painted them with her wrists—
He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. Where did those words come from? Did someone say that to him? He could no longer remember.
"I'm—I'm sorry." He took her hand, and this time she did not pull away. "I blamed myself for what happened. If I had somehow managed to avoid that truck, if I had been paying attention, if I had let her drive like she asked to because she saw how tired I was— but that's no excuse, still. I should have been there. I should have—"
His daughter's entire frame began to quiver. "Dad, I—" She took one shaky breath. "It was an accident. It wasn't your fault, okay? I told you that, if you would just listen." She buried her face in his arms. "I just miss you and Mom so much. I was so scared that I wasn't just going to lose her because of that accident, but you too—"
And they wept together, holding each other for comfort. When their tears were spent, he looked at her, and finally was able to smile.
"No, your old man isn't going anywhere," he said. "Not for a long time yet."
He stood up. "Get dressed," he said. "I don't think I've eaten anything decent for the past couple of months, and I'm famished."
Claire yawned. "I don't know, Dad, it's really kind of late," she said. "Way past my bedtime," she added as she smiled back at him.
He laughed. It felt good to do so.
"No," he said. "It's not too late. We have all the time in the world."
As she slept, she still dreamed.
She had jumped down with him into the pit, but when she opened her eyes again she was back out of it, back in the gray valley, in that netherworld between waking and eternal sleep, alone once more. She looked for the pit, but it was gone, and nothing but gray stones and earth stretched out before her. She had been worried that she could not make him understand, bound as she was by the rules of this place, but she was glad that now all was how it should be. She retrieved her rabbit-mask from the ground, and hugged it, cocooning it in her arms.
Thank you, my love, she thought she heard someone say, but she knew there was no one there with her.
She looked down at the watch around her neck, and saw that it had stopped completely.
She looked up at the sun, and let its warm suffuse her entire body. She watched as its light grew brighter and brighter, and for a moment, the gray place was finally filled with color.
I wish you two could see this, Carl, Claire.
And she knew they would, someday. But not yet, not now. She whispered to them a final farewell before she closed her eyes, and dreamed her last.