3. fred duncan dies
I hated it in Ebony Fields. Rumors spread quickly there; within a week everyone I saw tried their hardest to ignore me. I would make eye contact with someone on the street, they’d look away. I would address a butcher or baker only to find him feigning sleep behind the counter. The other students at the university my parents enrolled me in rarely spoke of anything when I was around. When they talked, it was always about trivial things.
“Hey, hey, did you hear about the new airship they launched yesterday? I hear Antyliken’s at ten stories now!”
“What was that… uh, what’s his name again? Anyway, that upstart in Terra? Who did he think he was?”
“Apparently, the Marauders have been riding awfully close to here lately. You scared?”
Even these conversations were protected from my participation. Never was a question asked of me, never was information shared with me. The only thing my classmates bestowed upon me were disdainful glances. Once, I overheard the words “that creep from Ream.” And they thought those glances were furtive? They described their voices as murmuring? I could tell from a mile away that they were staring at me, pointing at me, laughing at me.
It was in Ebony Fields that I discovered the reason for my coming. It was late one night in our second month in the city that I woke to my parents arguing over whether or not to go back to Ream. My father was screaming about how the old man was dead, and couldn’t do anything for me dead, and how we needed to go back, because Ream was the place I loved. My mother was crying, arguing amidst tears that if we went back we’d be killed. And that it was my fault. My fault for dreaming bad dreams.
I slipped out the back door without confronting my parents and lay in the alley behind our house, trying to sort out in my head what I’d just heard.
I didn’t remember any dreams. But if I was weird, if there was something weird about me, that I didn’t understand but that my classmates somehow knew, that everyone in the damn city somehow knew, the treatment I’d received in Ebony Fields would make sense. It was as if I were a plague. Everyone avoided me, trying their best not to catch me. The next day, walking around town, I coughed a little, on purpose, just to see if I’d get a new reaction out of passersby, and I did. Covering their mouths and noses, they hurried on faster than before, often dropping things in their wake.
“I’m not sick!” I yelled in the middle of the main street one day later that week. People finally looked my way, made eye contact with me. “And last night I dreamt of the cornfields back in Ream!” Instead of running by me, the gathered crowd dashed away, outward, each person in whatever direction pointed directly away from me. I stood in the road for almost an hour, motionless, before going home.
That night, I noticed I was coughing, and that I couldn’t stop.
I snuck outside quietly and coughed, and coughed, and coughed. My whole frame shook as I coughed, great painful coughs that I could feel from my stomach to my throat. I was in pain and could barely see for it. I lay in the alley behind my parents’ new home, them not aware that I wasn’t in my room and myself not aware of that fact either. I was aware of very little save the man—no, it could have been a woman, I suppose, my vision was too blurry and my hearing too broken to tell—who stood over me in that alley.
“Care for a pair of silver bracelets?”
I find it odd that I remember those words. I could have fabricated them, or perhaps they were placed in my head via other means. But I remember them. That was the question to which I said yes.
“For free?” I asked skeptically, instinctively. I was too tired and sick to think, but I had grown so uncomfortable in Ebony Fields that I automatically treated everything like a bad joke.
“No, there’s a cost. You—” I didn’t hear the person finish their sentence. I had another coughing fit, my chest feeling it would burst open, my throat burning, my face streaming with tears. I clutched at my throat, I cried, I rolled around in the filthy alleyway. When I regained even the slightest bit of control, the person was still there, and, for some incomprehensible reason, I imagined a smile upon their face. “Want them?”
I nodded as best I could from where I lay, not having heard the price.