The man, thin to the point of looking skeletal, stood in front of the room shirtless. The left half of his body was of a handsome, athletic man with Nordic features, while the entire right side of his body was covered with a blackish-blue fungus with the occasional gray, orb-shaped outgrowth.
“Um…” the man stuttered. Then, in a confident, steady voice, he recited, “I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young. And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you. You’re just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please?”
Jeremy smiled and applauded sincerely. “Great job, Contagion. I can tell you worked hard on your lines. You got the part.”
Grinning, Contagion dramatically bowed and exited Jeremy’s office with a skip and a jump. During the performance, Jeremy had heard a low groan. Thankfully, Contagion seems to have been oblivious. He turned to a supply closet, which was large enough to be a New York apartment. Past the door was Dr. Gilman, slumped to the floor, dreaming a dream the Redeemer Arc gave him of becoming an award-winning doctor. He was reciting a speech to the graduating class of Harvard University, apparently to the acclaim of his wife (who divorced him years ago in real life).
Despite himself, Jeremy sighed. It really was a shame he had to do this. However, even with the success of the Redeemer Arc, which surpassed even his own expectations, Dr. Gilman had gotten feet so cold they might as well have been encased in ice. He threatened in considerable and unnecessary detail to alert the authorities at a very early delicate stage of the experiment. So, what choice did Jeremy have? His work was too invaluable to be derailed by a squabble over ethics. And he knew, once his work was allowed to come to fruition, Dr. Gilman would repent. In fact, he’d probably try to claim he supported the Redeemer Arc project all along. Maybe then Jeremy would be magnanimous and allow him to claim some credit. Certainly, he could afford to be when the time finally came.
For now, though, Mr. Gilman’s role was simply the former director of what used to be Oxrun Asylum and was now the Oxrun Reformatory. Jeremy was still not aware of the limitations of the Redeemer Arc and could not yet safely test them. In the meantime, this closet would be Dr. Gilman’s home, and he should be thankful that Jeremy programmed the Redeemer Arc to remain him to use the bathroom.
“Mr. Sanchez?!” A voice heavy with confusion rose from behind him. It was the voice of Jon, the resident janitor, with a push-cart beside him. “What’s wrong with him?!”
“Vinegar September cordovan fifty-nine.” As soon as those words came out, Jon stopped still, as if a switch in his brain had been turned off. In a way, it had. The Redeemer Arc had programmed everyone in its power with a series of unlikely code words that would stun the consciousness of the hearer. Instinctively, Jeremy’s hand cradled the Mantra gem he kept in the pocket. He had long gotten used to the idea of claiming it for himself, despite what had been done to him. But something about the gem scared him as much as it fascinated him. Still, though, he had read somewhere that an ancestor of Jon’s stole the gem. So he was only perpetuating a tradition.
Slowly and firmly, Jeremy said to Jon. “You do not see a man there and you will never notice that man again until I say otherwise.”
Jon did not move. Jeremy began to worry something had gone wrong when Jon suddenly nodded his head. “Whatever you say, Principal Sanchez.”
With a smile and a “good day”, Jeremy stepped out of the office. Jon picked up the waste basket to dispose of its contents in the push-cart. Then, as he pushed the cart down the hallway, a black-haired boy in a strange, fancy tunic stood in the hallway, blocking Jon’s path.
“Um, I need to…” he muttered.
“No, you don’t,” the boy said with a rigid expression. “I can’t explain. I’m more tired than I have been my entire life, even that time I pulled an all-nighter before the final exam in that godawful Theory of Subconscious Symbolism class but anyway, and my head feels like it might explode, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this again, so just listen. The gem is in Jeremy’s front-right pocket. Take it the first chance you get.”
Without knowing why at all, Jon agreed.
Hercules woke up on a bare, mattress, stained with what he hoped was food and blood. It wouldn’t be the first time, but he was not used to waking up in such confusion while sober. It was not long before his rage returned to him and thoughts of that night when Amar laid against his chest, speaking of his past as a supercriminal and how many enemies he had made. Then, Hercules vowed he would never let anyone hurt him. He had failed that vow.
As he let his anger dissolve what was left of his confusion, Hercules saw himself in a room with bare, cracked white walls. The sole decorations were faded newspaper headlines. THE REAPER “EXPERIMENTS” ON NURSING HOME RESIDENTS. SAINT-OR-SINNER HELPS SERIAL KILLER ESCAPE FROM OXRUN. RAMPAGE BY “THE MANNEQUIN” CLAIMS ENTIRE FAMILY. 16 FOUND DEAD, AZALEA SUSPECTED.
As Hercules read, what sounded like a young girl’s voice but…off squeaked from the corner of the room. “He put those all over the house. It’s supposed to be for our rehabilitation. But how is it for our rehabilitation when we never get to leave?”
In a dark corner was a middle-aged woman, who nonetheless talked and had the mannerisms of a prepubescent girl. She wore a bizarre dress that seemed to have been sewn together from pieces of fabric torn as ragged squares, all from discordant colors and patterns. Hercules also could not help but notice black platform shoes that would have been fashionable sometime around the 1930s and stringy white hair tied in a long, disheveled ponytail. Her hands were busy methodically making another dress for a naked doll sitting next to her. One by one, she pulled a doll’s dress from a pile, cut a square from it, and sewed it to a chaotic hodgepodge of fabrics she already made.
Hercules spoke to her in a tone like an adult would a lost child. “I’m Heracles. Who are you?”
“Um, on sheets of paper my name is Rhian Marsh, but my true name is the Patchwork Girl,” she replied indignantly, like this was the eighth time she had to explain all this to him. “And this is the Predatory House. You’re the first new resident we’ve had in years and years.”
The name “Predatory House” struck a nerve with Heracles. It was an unremarkable two-floor suburban house, “unremarkable” except for the fact that it was at least semi-sentient and teleported around the world, claiming victims. His sister often complained to him about how she and the Final Guard tried tracking it all over the world. It disappeared, apparently for good, but the fear that it was still killing just under the radar haunted her.
Now, he could brag to her that he found it himself, if he got out of this alive.
“We have to get out of here before this thing decides to…digest this.”
“The House won’t hurt us.” She still sounded exasperated.
“You yourself called it the Predatory House!”
Sighing, she gestured toward the walls and then the ceiling. “The bad guy who put us here called it the Box and said we’d just be kept here until we got fixed and we wouldn’t get eaten. And we weren’t.”
“We?” Hercules asked, choking down his impatience. “There’s more of you?”
The Patchwork Girl shook her head. “They took them all away, a few days ago. I was left behind because I drank so many of my own potions. I was a scientist once, you know, a very, very, very, very long time ago. So, my mind has become so enlightened they can’t wash my brain like they did the others.” She tapped a finger against her cranium for emphasis.
“And the house? How can you be sure it won’t hurt us?”
“We’ve all lived here for years and years and years. We can’t leave, but they give us food and the House has never hurt us like it did lots of people in the past.”
After awkwardly thanking her for her help, Hercules explored the house. The same bare walls covered with newspapers were everywhere with minimal furnishings everywhere. It had the look of a prison. Indeed, from what Heracles could gleam from the Patchwork Girl’s confused rambling, that’s indeed what it was. The layout was odd, irrational, even impossible. In fact, he noticed that, dimensionally speaking, at least two rooms and one hallway shouldn’t have existed. There were enough rooms for 12 people individually, which was absurd enough in a two-floor structure.
All the doors were locked, except a large, oak door with carvings of Venus fly traps and sundews around the circular frame. “Clearly, you have no instinct for subtlety, Box or House or whatever you are.” Heracles punched the door so hard the entire house shook. No steel door, much less wood, should have survived his punch. Instead, the door proudly stood without a mark. He punched it again with force that had disabled tanks and collapsed buildings. Still nothing.
“I’m hungry.” The voice that came from behind did not sound pleading or questioning, but was simply offering a statement of fact.
“When did you last eat?”
“Five days and ten hours.”
Heracles stared back at the Patchwork Girl with disbelief.
“I haven’t had much of an appetite since I started drinking my potions. The board wouldn’t approve them for human experimentation, so I had to drink them all myself. And then when I turned the people who hurt me into stone by making them drink my special potion, they locked me up. I wasn’t happy again until I came here.”
Hercules knelt down, to get down on her level. Like with a timid animal, he kept a safe distance from her. “I know what it’s like to not have a home, a place where you can feel safe. My father once drove me from the home I’d grown to love. But we need to leave here, so you can survive and I can help my friends.”
The Patchwork Girl shook her head so vigorously her whole body shook. “No. This is the only home I’ve ever known. I can’t make my special potion that hurts people here, and that’s why I want to stay…”
“I understand, but there are a lot of people in danger. The people you lived with, my friends, a man I love very much and vowed to protect. We have to leave so I can help them and…and you have to leave so you can live and get healthy.”
The Patchwork Girl looked frightened, and Heracles was half-convinced that she would refuse to speak to him again while he would be left impotently punching the door and the walls. She paused for a long while, then, looking down at the floor, explained, “The House is, uh – what did the bad guy call it? – ‘a creature of the abstract, born out of Internet rumors and bad dreams.’ It eats ugly thoughts. But the bad guy lured it, trapped it, taught it how to feed without killing. That’s how he made a trap for all of us.”
“And you know all this how?”
“Because the House talked to me, duh. You only have to talk to it, but be nice.”
Sighing, Hercules said as politely as he could muster (which was not terribly polite), “Um, House? Or Box? Can we…talk? I have a request to ask of you.”
A small, fragile voice devoid of any emotion except a slight desperation echoed in his mind. “where is the food? most is gone. we haven’t killed the food but it’s gone.”
Heracles spoke aloud. “The…ah, ‘food’ was stolen. I can help you get it back, but you’ll have to help me, too. Can you teleport anywhere?”
There was a long pause. Heracles was about to repeat itself when the voice spoke again. “the body can move just think of a place a lot.”
“Fantastic. And, uh, many sincere apologies for pummeling your insides, House.”
It was a shame he had to put the entire psychiatric staff through the Redeemer Arc. No one could write the medical papers for him. As successful as the experiment had turned out to be, he still needed hard numbers to wow the Powers That Be. While Jeremy liked to think of himself as a Renaissance man, he lacked the knowledge and the patience to just learn how to mimic the language of medical experts.
Jeremy’s mind was so consumed with the problem he did not notice Jon standing around the corner nor did he take note of how wet the floor was. As soon as Jeremy got near the puddle of soapy water, Jon stepped forward from the corner and seemed to trip. His hand awkwardly grabbed at Jeremy’s midsection.
“God, I’m so sorry, Mr. Sanchez!”
Jeremy’s temper flared, but he held it in check. After all, Jon had been a janitor for less than a week. “That’s alright. Just please be careful. We can’t have a janitor who slips on his own jobs, yeah?”
Jon smiled stupidly and scurried away, probably hoping to avoid any further awkwardness. It was just as well, as Jeremy wanted to go back to contemplating the problem of evidence. Meanwhile, unseen to anyone, Jon clutched the Mantra gem in his hands. The words floated up to the surface of his consciousness: “Ul dinea.”