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A steady breeze rustled the leaves of the trees in Nehru Park and made the clothes hanging out on the railings of the houses surrounding it flutter ghostily. The Park was deserted, the time being 2 A.M., except for three people who were standing in a triangle near the henna bushes.
A tall bespectacled girl with tangled brown hair stood at one end, her usually alert grey eyes heavy and tired. But she still stood upright, never slouching.
“I gave everything for this.” She locked eyes with the denimmed boy at the apex of the triangle. “You have to.”
Before he had a chance to reply, however, the short girl with a long black ponytail at the other end addressed him.
“I know you’re not a bad person,” she said, her soft brown eyes pleading. “What we had was not all fake, you know. We laughed at your name, remember?” She was trying to be strong and not let them see her cry. “I beat you at badminton.” She smiled sorrowfully.
The tall girl was starting to say something, but the boy didn’t hear it. A loud ringing filled his ears and-
A bright light blinded my eyes as I tried to open them. When I did, I was almost blinded again.
The walls were white. The ceiling was white. The floor was white. Hell, even my bed was white. The air tasted sterile.
What the hell?
I started to get up, but something stung my wrist. I looked down, and then up.
Why the hell am I on glucose?
As I was just starting to wrap my head around the fact that I was somehow in a hospital, my ward door opened and an idiot walked in.
“Morning, sleeping beauty,” Al said. He pulled up a stool near my bed. “I see you didn’t need a Prince Charming.”
I blinked, still not adjusted to the brightness. “Why am I here?”
“Well, let’s see. Why are people on hospital beds with intravenous glucose sacs hanging on top of their beds?” He scratched his stubbled chin thoughtfully. “Oh, I know! Because they’re not okay!”
“Now that, I must admit, is a better question. Here’s the short version- you passed out in your room. You were barely breathing. I brought you here. They fixed you up. I ate the surprisingly good spaghetti at the hospital cafe. You woke up.”
My head throbbed- I was still dizzy from the dream. I pinched my eyes shut and opened them back again, simultaneously pressing my temples with two fingers. After a few repetitions of the exercise, the throbbing subsided.
“How did you find me?”
“I’m a prophet of the Lord.”
“Look, why don’t you rest a bit right now, huh?” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “Your upper floor’s all messed up, and you don’t wanna break it down altogether.”
I rubbed my temples again. Slowly, I remembered.
“The midnight man, I-”
“Summoned him like the bat-brained bastard you are, I know. But he’s gone for now, and you can relax.” He got up. “Let’s get you out of here then, shall we?” He walked towards the door.
Al stopped with his hand on the doorknob and turned to look at me. “What now, you little baby?”
“I’m sorry.” And I meant it. Despite our fight, Al had somehow managed to save me from the midnight man.
Al sighed and looked down at his fingernails, taking a moment to reply.
“I am, too. I was being bossy, I know.”
“And I yelled at you.”
“Guess we both were being a couple of jerks,” he said, looking up.
I smiled a small smile.
He stood up straighter. “Now don’t go expecting me to hug you or anything-”
“Oh please.” I rolled my eyes. “You stink.”
“Idiot.” Smiling almost imperceptibly, Al walked out the door.
“And that is why Spruce Marlow sucks,” Al said when I’d finished telling him about all that had happened in his absence.
We were seated on our beds at our old motel, facing each other. There was no way I was going back to my Hotel Parth Paradise room after this.
“What else could I do?” I said defensively.
“Oh, let’s see. Hmm.” He pretended to think. “Oh yeah, you could’ve tried to kill the Creator instead of flirting with her!” he proclaimed loudly.
“For the last time, Al, I was not flirting with her,” I said. “And the toolkit was with you anyway.”
“Then how about not being her bodyguard all the time?”
“What’re you trying to say?”
“Spruce, don’t act dumber than you already are.” He leaned forward. “You failed all my attempts at poisoning her, being her little personal mastiff and guarding her against my botox and my ricin.”
Al was right. I’d protected the Creator from being poisoned all this time. I’d watched her house from the outside, trying to keep Al away. I’d even connected my iris-cams to the AI home assistance device in her house and set them to alert me and open up surveillance whenever they caught Al around her, to keep her safe while I was at the cyber cafe.
“I think you’re going a little soft there, buddy,” he said, pointing at my chest and swirling his finger in the air.
“What? Al, no.” I spread my hands. “I was only doing that to have her write Rennie back.”
“Oh, about that. That was the dumbest plan in the history of dumb plans.”
“So what do you wanna do? Just let Rennie be gone?”
Al looked at me, exasperated, and sighed loudly. “Look, that’s a different ball game altogether. Our focus first is to kill the Creator.”
“Yeah, but how about using her first? We can eliminate her after we get Rennie back.” I felt like killing myself the moment I said that. The Creator’s pleading face from my dream appeared before me.
Was I really a protagonist? That statement sounded like something a villain would say, not a hero. Sure, she was the devil of my world’s story, but she didn’t even know we existed. She thought it was just a stupid book.
Apparently, the regret showed on my face. “I know you can’t do that, Spruce. I can’t either. That’s straight up- wrong. That is exactly what the Homo Scelestus- the scientists who created the Hela mutants- did. They used the test subjects for their experiment on immortality, and when it didn’t work, ditched them and threw up their hands, saying they’d done that for the ‘greater good’.” He put air quotes around “greater good.”
“You can’t just use her and then murder her, even if she’s the supervillain,” he said. “We’ll find some other way to bring back Rennie. Simply killing her-”
“I know, I know,” I interrupted him. “I get it. But tell me, Al, what did you do to the midnight man? And how did you know I’d be in trouble”
“Will a magician remain a magician if he reveals all of his secrets?” Al cocked his head and lifted an eyebrow.
“Okay, drama queen. Enough with the theatrics. What happened?”
“I saw you cashing in two gold coins the other day, and I thought, this can’t be good. I just had a gut feeling that you’d do something stupid that particular night, so I hacked into the hotel’s surveillance cams, which was pretty easy to do, and connected them to my own iris-cams. As for what I did to the midnight man, to be honest, nothing special. I simply turned on the lights.”
I smacked my forehead. “Oh holy mother of hell.”
“What?” he shrugged.
“You never turn on the lights. All the forums and websites said so.”
“Well, what did they say happens if we do?”
“Hmm. Let’s see,” I said, imitating him. “Oh, I know. The midnight man follows you for the rest of your life.”