LNH: Dashing Tales #5
ben.rawluk at gmail.com
Sat Sep 5 16:43:39 PDT 2015
DASHING TALES, episode the fifth,
by Ben Rawluk
She hasn't made it off the futon in the middle of the room for twelve hours now. That's probably going to be a problem. The toilet's running, too -- it's been running, inexplicably, for nearly an hour. She should go look at it, but she doesn't want to get out of bed. Occultism Kid said this might be a problem. That prolonged exposure to Hell dimensions can make you a little funny in the head. He slid a charmed necklace over her head and said that it would block any further extradimensional kidnappings by Bogus.
Honestly, she's pretty sure she's just frustrated about not getting that interview--
(She squishes her face up against the pillow but her hand is drawn to the charm, small and silver and shaped like a teardrop. She'd rip it right off.)
The sound of water rushing through the pipes is getting louder. The toilet is running. It sounds like someone saying her name: "Emma." Over and over.
"No," she says, into the pillow.
Eventually, she hauls herself off the futon and stands there, unsteady. Her apartment is small, tight, she can't afford much -- even in Hovel Homes. She grunts. Her legs are stiff. She's in an old Mr. Paprika T-shirt she won in a stupid mall contest when she was twenty, with a pair of jogging pants. "This is about as presentable as I'm going to get right now," she says, and then hauls herself in the direction of the cramped bathroom. "This better be a lost water nymph--"
In the toilet bowl, in the rippling, bubbling water, she can make out the shape of a man's head, and after scraping the sleep from her eyes with her fingernail, she squints down into it. "Emma!" It's difficult to pick out features because of the movement of the water, but eventually the toilet bowl says, "It's me, Clement--"
"What the hell do you want?"
She sighs. She tilts her head back. "You know what? No." She reaches across and flushes the toilet. The water swirls, Bogus's voice lost. She stands there watching until the water stills and there's no evidence of that asshole. She walks back across her apartment and snags her phone off the kitchenette counter. There are a dozen texts from Marco, and one from an unknown number announcing itself as being from Sonnet Queen. She deletes them.
She's also got a voicemail, which means it's either Victor King or her mother. Her mother doesn't call, because they're not talking to each other. Victor King wants to know where she's been, if she has initial notes on the story, he wants details on LNHQ. "Is anyone sleeping with space gorilla?" He says something about Bogus, how he can't find the guy, they've got no one covering the occult beat right now--
(She could do it. She should call back and say she'll do it. She was in Hell, after all, even if she didn't get the interview. And she could write something about the predatory advances of trenchcoaters, as well.)
She sets the phone down. "Bogus," she hisses. If she takes off the necklace, what? He kidnaps her? Because that's what it was. Sure, she wanted to finish that interview, will try to pull together notes about her time in the belly of a beast, but she's not about to have anything more to do with the creep. She could pitch the article to another paper -- just a one-off, maybe, something freelance. She could take her chances and quit the Netizen.
(Only there aren't a lot of jobs in Net.ropolis, even if you aren't working in journalism. There's plenty of construction, the neverending churn of rebuilding after dozens of net.hero battles, but she's not a construction worker. She quits the Netizen and then what?)
There's a knock on the door.
"If that's Bogus," she says. She keeps her voice down, though she knows these walls are like paper. They can probably hear her breathe, if nothing else.
"Emma," says a voice on the other side. She blinks. It's Marco. "Emma, I can hear you in there. Emma, you've been in there for two days. Emma--"
"I'm not here. You missed Answering-Machine Woman, but feel free to leave a message--"
"Emma." There's a soft creak as Marco (presumably) leans back against the door. "I'm not apologizing for rescuing you from Hell. You know that's crazy." He sighs, long and loud. "Occultism Kid says this might be -- Hell is depressing."
"Shocking." She settles back against the door and closes her eyes. "I'm putting together my notes, okay? I need some time." Her laptop is across the room, on the futon, closed and untouched. He doesn't need to know that.
"Emma, I joined the Legion so that you could write about it. You're missing everything." He huffs, and then says, "Emma, don't make me burn the door right off the hinges and drag you out of there. I've been practicing. I'm working on a ghazal; Linguist Lass gave the ability to read and write in Farsi for a couple hours. She says my imagery seems more intentionally mishandled than unintentionally--"
"You could still join too, you know. Captain Truth."
"More like Captain Tabloid." On the floor by the door is the mail, hastily pushed through the slot by the member of the Postal Worker Corps assigned to this space-sector. A phone bill, several dozen newsprint flyers, a postcard from Florida. She leans away from the door and picks up the postcard. It's from Bernie, a swamp monster she interviewed last spring. They keep in touch sometimes. His scrawl is barely legible, she only catches a few words -- goat and spring and thanks -- but she appreciates it, even with the muddy smears. It smells like Bernie. There's something very grounding about that, his bog stink, she grips the postcard and closes her eyes. Did he end up sporing? Did he meet a nice volunteer from the Sierra Club? Maybe if all of this ends up a failure, she can go to Florida. She sighs. "Occultism Kid was right, Marco. I need a few days. I'm okay. I just need to get this out of my system."
"And you're wearing the charm?"
She starts to grind her teeth. "Yes."
There's a beat. He scrapes his feet against the hardwood hallway floor. "Okay," he says. "But I'm going to text you and I want you to text me back, okay? I want to make sure you're alive, is all. And I mean it. I can talk to Doctor Stomper. He went off last night in the cafeteria about the economy, and how it skews in the direction of LNHQ, like everything else, I guess."
"I'll text you back. I just need quiet."
He leaves; she listens to his footsteps as he heads down the hallway and then down the creaking stairs. She lets out a breath she didn't realizes she was holding. Emma kicks at the mail on the floor and then crosses the apartment to hang the postcard from Bernie up on the fridge with alphabet magnets. She has to use four of them -- S, W, A, M -- because the magnets aren't strong, and it starts to slide down.
She wanders back to lean in the doorway of the bathroom. She should brush her teeth, at the very least. There's about a thumbnail-full of spearmint toothpaste left; she scrubs while staring at her round, brown face in the mirror. Eventually, though, her eyes slide over to the toilet. She's probably going to have to move out, isn't she? However she's going to afford that.
After that, Emma Dash sinks back onto the futon and thinks about opening up her computer and actually following through: pull together her notes from the kidnapping to Hell.
She closes her eyes, instead.
It's raining blood. Emma Dash stands on the rooftop of the Net.ropolis Netizen with a transparent umbrella up over her head. It's raining blood, and a vast yellow clock hangs in the sky, counting down the hours before the end. Net.ropolis spreads out in all directions, looking bigger than ever, but she can barely make out the buildings, like the detail of them has slid right off. The streets are rivers of blood. Next to her, Clement Bogus stands with little more than a fedora to protect himself from the downpour. "Emma," he says.
"You kidnapped me. You're supposed to catch the hint that I don't want you anywhere near me. And it's the middle of the apocalypse! I don't need you creeping on me or Marco right now. People are drowning down there!" The LNHQ is mysteriously absent from the landscape, but that doesn't make any sense. You're supposed to be able to see it from any point in Net.ropolis. They put that on all the tourism brochures.
"You should really take off that necklace, Emma, I need to be able to rescue you--"
"Creepy," she says, raising her voice. "Why are you always bothering me now? King's about to replace you, go bug him for your job back!" And then maybe she can outright quit and get away from both of them. "I'm not taking the necklace off." Ever again. "I don't care what made-up reason you're going to come up with for why you needed to drag me to Hell. Lesser Hell."
"Is this guy bothering you?" They both turn. A bright yellow doorframe and door are standing open on the rooftop, next to the real door leading down into the building. Standing in the open doorway is a man in a bright purple and yellow costume. The costume is thick and creased, with a purple cowl rimmed with gold, and a fussy purple cape dragging on the ground. The cape is clasped with a giant red ruby. The guy thumbs in the direction of Bogus and Emma knits her eyebrows together.
"She's fine," says Bogus.
Emma clears her throat. "Who are you?"
"But he's a joke, isn't he? Even the trading card says--" She closes her mouth, then opens it again. The Figment Lad trading card is just the golden LNH border around an empty space. It was considered a collector's item. People argue about it on the internet, according to Marco. Something's very off about everything right now. "You don't exist."
"I mean, it depends which Figment Lad you're talking about. I'm the Silver Age Figment Lad. The Golden Age Figment Lad doesn't exist. Or maybe he does? And then there was the Figment Lad who worked with the Net.Trenchcoat Brigade. Actually, maybe he didn't either." The guy, Figment Lad, is counting off on his fingers. "It's all very confusing, I'm sorry. We tend to exist in only the most retrospective ways?" He puffs up his cheeks and releases a breath. A wind starts to kick up around them. He looks up. From the way his cowl bunches, he must be frowning back at her. He doesn't look at Bogus. "Actually, if I'm here, you're probably dreaming all of this, you know. I don't exist." He must catch something in her face, because he follows that up with, "But don't worry! Not existing is very liberating! The LNH don't invite you to meeting if they think you're made up, and the NTB don't have meetings anyway, when I'm that Figment Lad."
"Long and short of it."
She turns then, stabbing Bogus with her index finger. "You're invading my dreams now?"
Bogus is backing away, his hands up. "You must just be dreaming me--"
"Well, now I want to dream about you falling down a well." She glances back at Figment Lad. "Can you do that? Can you use your -- what? Dream-powers?"
"Sorry. Ironic punishments are the other guy. I'm not him today. But this is your head, after all."
Emma turns back toward Bogus, smiling.
He starts to scream.
She's not allowed to sleep. She's not allowed to go to the bathroom. "I have never wanted terrifying super-powers more," Emma says, dragging herself out of bed. The details of the dream are already becoming hazy, and she's pretty sure she met a Legionnaire in the middle of it, but now -- not it's all melting away. She presses the palms of her hands to her eyes and sits on the edge of the futon. Maybe she should have asked Occultism Kid to do more than just give her a protective charm. Surely he could have extracted Bogus from Hell too, surely he could have trapped him somewhere Bogus wouldn't be able to bother her. But Occultism Kid had been out of it after the rescue, and Sonnet Queen kept looking at her with all this pity in her eyes, and she'd been so pissed at losing the chance to interview a demon.
But, like, that wasn't the only demon in the sea.
She picks up her phone. No messages. At least only Bogus seems to be bothering her now, and maybe after -- well, after what happened in that dream, maybe he knows to keep his distance.
She should call her mother. Maybe telling her mother about all this crap would make her feel better. Maybe they'll start talking again, regularly, like they used to. Maybe--
There is a loud THUD from the outer wall. Something has impacted the building. "What now," Emma says, barely a question, and she pauses for a moment while she considers retreating to the door. But she has to know what's going on, doesn't she? She's not the person who's not going to investigate. So she trundles over to the window by the fire escape and looks out. A man in a full yellow bodysuit -- even his face completely covered -- is in the middle of wrestling a larger, muscular man in animal skins. They're shouting at each other, a steady stream of dialogue that is barely intelligible from here. Figment Lad, Emma feels compelled to say in surprise, but that's impossible, Figment Lad doesn't exist, he's just a dumb joke the Legion like to trot out when they're doing interviews. She doesn't recognize either of them, which -- happens. Even if it were possible to keep up with who's who in the Legion of Net.Heroes, Net.ropolis is full of wildcards, independent contractors. Especially in Hovel Homes, where the Legion don't tend to visit too often. He could be a local - some bodega stock-boy wearing tights to give back to the community. Maybe--
The muscular man -- he has a thick black beard -- hoists the agile yellow-dressed guy over his head and slams him into the building. Into the wall of her apartment. With enough force that the paper-thin wall collapses under the strain, and Emma is leaping backwards when it happens, because she's smart enough to predict the momentum. They slam right through the wall, into her apartment. Two strange men are wrestling on the ground. Net.heroes. She feels like she's going to need to sit Marco and Sonnet Queen down and explain that they should absolutely never pull this kind of crap. The man with the beard is shouting. "You'll pay for the indignities you've heaped upon me, you spurious--"
"What," says Emma, loud enough to cut through the bearded man's rant. "What do you think you're doing." It isn't a question this time, end-stop, it is a rhetorical device. "Who are you and why are you in my apartment." She's burning up inside. She's Captain Truth (Captain Tabloid). Both the net.hero and the net.villain pause, looking over at her. "You just came through my wall."
"I have made it my life's mission to kill this insignificant--"
"I'm the defender of Hovel Homes! I'm not insignificant!"
Half of Emma's apartment has crumpled. She keeps her voice raised. "Do you realize how much I have to spend on rent for this crappy place? And you just come barrelling -- you weren't defending anything." She knows she's angry, that there is only so much you can do before the laws of the genre override common sense. Probably this guy thinks he's doing good. She wants to find that baseball bat at the bottom of her closet and make it really clear to them how things are going to proceed. The man in yellow is pulling himself to his feet. He's unsteady, and maybe one of his arms is broken. He looks like he wants to fall back over again. The bearded man starts advancing again but Emma puts herself between them. "Back off," she says, sharp enough to stop the guy in his tracks. "You don't look like any net.villain I've ever heard of."
"I don't actually care right now. That's how frustrated I am. I could be writing a story about the impact of net.hero battles on housing in Net.ropolis, but I don't care, because I just want to be alone. You've put a giant hole in my building." She gestures. Both of them look with her, and then track back on her face. Even with the yellow mask, the net.hero looks terrified. Good. "Tomorrow I'm probably going to write about this. And then you'll be hated and feared and I will still have a goddamn hole in my apartment." She's breathing heavily. A tiny part of her wants to say that she could be so much better at this than them. "I have enough problems without you." She's shaking. Intrepid reporters aren't supposed to shake -- the demon didn't make her quiver. But this isn't fear, this anger. She's almost vibrating with rage. "Goddamn European royals, coming in and smashing up the place. The city isn't your playground." She shoves him, the villain, right in the middle of his chest. He doesn't budge, but he does manage to look genuinely surprised at the contact. "Go beat each other up somewhere else."
The man in yellow yanks his bearded opponent by the bicep. "We should go." And then: "Maybe you can try and kill me down by the docks or something."
The bearded man doesn't budge. For a second, she does wonder who they are, what tiny drama they live inside, this never-ending battle. What has the man in yellow done to deserve declarations of blood revenge. There's really nothing to stop them from pulverizing each other right here. Bring the building down on top of them all. But then, he starts to move, shrivels up a little and turns to follow the man in yellow. They stand in front of the gaping hole.
The man in yellow turns back. "We're really sorry."
She doesn't answer them. The man in yellow goes first, slipping out onto the smashed fire escape and slinks up it, to be followed close behind by his nemesis.
And then she's alone. She's alone with her smashed apartment, debris all over the futon, still creeped out by that dream and her apartment and there's a gaping wound in the building and she doesn't know what to do. She reaches out for her phone. She should probably call 911 or something, not that the police are particularly concerned with Hovel Homes, or people who look like her. Instead, she dials and presses the phone to her ear and waits while it rings. After twenty seconds of buzzing on the line, someone says: "Hello?"
"Hey," Emma says. "It's me. I might want to rethink things. I'm coming to LNHQ."
Emma Dash, Clement Bogus, Victor King, Bad-Poetry Boy (Marco Ramirez), Sonnet Queen (April Fu) and those two numbskulls who will probably never return are all owned by Ben Rawluk, copyright 2015.
Occultism Kid was created by Josh Geurink.
Doctor Stomper was created by T. M. Neeck.
Linguist Lass was created by Martin Phipps.
Figment Lad was created (more or less) by wReam.
I've always had a weird thing about Figment Lad, who's never really appeared to my knowledge. His appearance, nature, personality -- everything, really -- are obviously flexible as hell, but I couldn't resist. As well, I was delighted to read up on developments with Linguist Lass.
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