The Midgar Ruins Part 4
A little author's note about Part Four:
I seem to be suffering from an acute case of writer's block. Because of this, this is not free writing. It is, in fact, very forced writing. Therefore, this entire part/chapter, whatever, is going to be lame in the extreme. Each word comes slowly, awkwardly, and I have the urge to just erase it all and start over. But I am too lazy, so, bear with it if you can. If not, well, that's fine, too. I could barely stand writing it.
The place was lit dimly by lightbulbs with dirty glass, casting shadows to crawl over the empty tables, illuminating little. Something stole across the floor, making a scuttling noise as it did so, and screeching as though in terror. Music, which Marlene could remember from her days in the bar, drifted to them, dark and soft at the same time, haunting, twisting emotions in such a way as to confuse the heart and mind. Loften's soft breathing from beside her somehow added to the strange feeling that enveloped her as she looked around the building.
"I'm glad you made it here," Jessie told them, sitting upon a table, her hands beneath her. With careful movements, she slid her feet to the ground and stood, then walked slowly toward them. A man with dark hair, who sat upon a different table in the same fashion Jessie had, followed.
Marlene said, looking at the man, "Biggs."
He nodded. "I didn't think you'd remember me. You were so little then."
"I was young," she agreed, nodding slightly, stiffly. Keeping her eyes on him, then darting them toward Jessie, Marlene folded her arms across her stomach.
With impatience in his voice, Zerik demanded, "Well? What are we doing here, Jessie?"
Jessie opened her mouth to speak, but Biggs cut her off, raising one hand and turning toward Zerik. "Later, there will be more. Jessie said she's already told you that you've been chosen. Right nownow, you are being tested."
Marlene bit down upon her lower lip. "Being tested? What do you mean?"
"What do you think he means?" Zerik retorted quickly.
"Zerik--" Loften began, but was cut off by Phaia.
"Zerik, don't be mean." Her voice was calm, steady, using a tone much like that of a mother with a disobedient child.
"I will explain further," Jessie told them as Marlene stepped backwards, near Loften, who kept his silence. "Three of you are being tested."
"Three of you are being tested," Biggs repeated. "Should you three pass, everything will continue as planned."
"How are we being tested?" Marlene inquired, her breath feeling short.
Jessie's words did not answer Marlene's question. "Should you three fail, the fourth will perish, and everything will continue as planned."
"Everything will continue as planned, because everything must," said Biggs, his voice low and ominous. "More depends upon it than you know."
Anger bubbled in her, making her arms feel tingly. "More than we know?" Marlene demanded, incredulous. "More than we KNOW? We don't know anything about this at all. How are we to be tested, and why? Why us? Why is all of this happening? Before anything else happens, I want to know why we are here. I want to know why you brought us here, what we're doing here. I want"
"You will find out in time."
She felt hysteria, rage, frustration, boil within her. "No! No, not 'in time', not later, I want to know now. I"
Jessie looked at her blankly. "You will find out in time, your place within the puzzle."
"Marlene, you are going to have to learn to control yourself," Biggs informed her, his face expressionless. "If you don't, you may end up hurting someone."
"Stop threatening us!"
"Shh," Phaia murmured, placing a hand upon Marlene's shoulder. "Shh, it'll be alright. We just have to listen to them, for now. We'll get through this, and then we can all go home."
She felt absurdly like crying. Marlene did not want to cry. Crying only showed weakness, and Marlene did not want to be weak; she wanted to be strong, like her father. But the child in her demanded she scream, cry, throw a tantrum, anything to get herself the hell out of the Midgar ruins and back in Kalm, with her father, where she belonged.
Unaware of the five people watching the emotions play across her face, Marlene closed her eyes and tried to calm herself. She told herself that crying would get her nowhere. There was no alternative but to do as Jessie and Biggs commanded.
"What are we supposed to do?" she questioned softly, keeping her tone firm, bereft of emotion.
Biggs shook his head. "You'll have to find out that for yourselves. We cannot help you."
Biting her lower lip once more, Marlene held herself under control, not giving Zerik, who stood giving her a contemptuous look, the satisfaction of an outburst. "You must give us some place to start," she said simply as Phaia nodded and moved toward Biggs.
The girl looked oddly intent, gazing at Biggs with those large, gray eyes. She tilted her head to one side, narrowing her eyes slightly. As she did so, Phaia said, "Marlene is right. You should know that. We need some place to start. We cannot be tested without knowing what the test is."
"Oh can't you?" Biggs retorted, looking uncomfortable beneath Phaia's gaze. "Perhaps this is the test."
Without hesitation, Phaia replied, "It isn't. And we need to know."
Shaking her head, Jessie walked slightly away from them. She turned her head toward the ceiling, taking a deep breath.
This girl isn't dead: she lives, and breathes, and has thoughts. How can this be death?
"There's something you need to find out," Jessie told them without looking toward them.
I don't understand. I don't understand any of this.
"I don't understand, either."
Marlene whipped around, startled, nearly falling into Loften. "What?" she asked him. Loften merely looked at her blankly. "What did you say?"
"I didn't say anything," replied Loften, shaking his head. His green eyes looked startlingly clear in that moment, and wide, as he looked at her in concern.
"Sorry," she whispered., turning slightly toward Zerik, who kept his silence. He leaned backwards with one elbow set upon a table.
Placing one hand upon her head, Marlene nodded, and told herself to ignore whatever it was she'd thought she'd heard. It was nothing. It was nothing. It was nothing.
"Everything is connected," said Biggs. "You recall the young girl you saw on the way here? And the bird?"
"Everything is connected," Jessie repeated. "Find the girl. She will tell you what you need to know. Then, more will be explained."
"First, find the girl."
"Don't be frightened, Marlene. We'll be alright. We can get through this."
Marlene glanced quickly around the room. Who ARE you?
"You don't know?" There was a pause. "I've never experienced this before either. I've been able to--see into people, but never communicate like this."
She turned and looked at the girl. Phaia?
Standing near her, Phaia nodded, then returned her gaze to Jessie and Biggs.
"And where do we find this girl?" asked Zerik, his voice low, thoughtful. Marlene looked at him, speculative, then turned her gaze to Loften, whose dark hair had spilled over his emerald eyes.
Why did they choose us? What is it that we all have, and why have we been brought here? Her thoughts turned darker. Which of us will die, should the others fail?
Biggs made a noise almost like a laugh. "You didn't expect us to tell you that, did you?"
Zerik shrugged. He turned away, combing one hand through his blond hair.
"His thoughts are dark with regret and worry. He is not certain of himself, so he cannot be certain of any of us, you in particular. But, I cannot feel his emotions."
Don't--Marlene shuddered, trying to block the voice from her mind. Have you been--are you--can you read my thoughts?
"I don't try to. I am sorry. It simply happens."
Nodding, she tried to not think of anything, a useless endeavor. Her thoughts continued to stray toward that which she couldn't understand. It was abruptly cold in the Seventh Heaven, and she wanted to be far away, where she was safe.
"Marlene will find her for you," Biggs told them, sighing. He turned toward Marlene, his eyes wide, an almost pleading look upon his face. Within that expression, she saw an emptiness that frightened her, a deep, dark hole where emotion should have been. She could not bear to look at him, so she nodded.
"You begin to see what I do. These people, they aren't real. There is no feeling within them, only a darkness. It is everywhere. Cold, deep. The wind echoes there. They are no longer who they once were. It is all a part of death."
Let's just get out of here. This is not a place for the living.
"Nor is it a place for the dead."
"Are you alright, Marlene?" Loften asked, taking her by the arm. His hand was warm, comforting.
She nodded. "If we need to find this girl, I suggest we go. I--I want to get this over with as soon as possible."
"But you may not be able to get it over with. There may be no end," Zerik commented, as he walked past them, out the door.
"What is it like, to be able to know others' thoughts?"
As though she could explain it. Phaia looked at the girl who, unexpectedly, she had communicated with through thought. "I can't describe it," she replied at last, sighing. They'd stopped for a while, still in the Sector Seven slums, mostly because Marlene had not yet decided where they were to go. Loften had ventured back to the Seventh Heaven some time ago, but when he came back, he'd reported that he'd found it empty. Biggs and Jessie had disappeared, again. "I've always lived with this," she continued. "At first, at first it was hard, trying to make sense of everything I heard. I used to let other people's emotions have control over me. My parents . . . My parents couldn't handle it, I guess. But, it's always there, in the back of my mind, not exactly voices, because I don't hear them. I just sense them. I can't explain it. Each person's thoughts are unique to that person, and I can tell who is thinking what, even without focusing upon that person. I feel their emotions just as I feel my own, but separate from myself, distant." She shook her head in disgust, angry that she was unable to convey what she wanted to; usually, she was able to communicate everything.
Marlene sighed, placing one elbow upon a rock and resting her chin in her hand. Though Phaia knew that her answer had left the girl unsatisfied, there was little she could do to remedy it.
A short distance from them, Zerik stood, alone, gazing upon the sky. It called to him, because it was so empty, so endless; unlike the sky, Zerik was small and confused, without purpose.
Phaia could still make no sense of Loften's thoughts. He was the greatest puzzle of the three, yet she would have thought he would be the easiest to solve. There were inner workings in his mind that even he could not understand. Twisted alleyways wove through the streets of his thoughts, connecting and disrupting, bringing both clarity and chaos.
Above all, Loften confused Phaia. So she chose to block out his thoughts.
"Sometimes you spend so much time trying to understand the thoughts of others, you pay no attention to your own."
Startled, Phaia turned toward Marlene, who was looking directly at her. It bothered Phaia that Marlene could see so clearly into her, when she was the one accustomed to seeing into others. Marlene, too, was an enigma.
And Zerik as well.
Phaia couldn't make sense of things as she'd previously been able to. Perhaps that was her test. Perhaps she was to solve the mysteries that plagued her three companions. For Marlene, her parents' deaths haunted her. For Loften, his father. And Zerik knew not who he was.
And how do I fit into all of this?
The answer was as clear as the water of a mountain lake. It was so startlingly obvious, she nearly over looked it.
How do I fit into all of this? I don't.
As he watched Marlene leave Phaia and walk toward where Loften sat, Zerik moved from the building he'd been leaning against and headed toward Phaia. She sat against an empty building, her knees pulled against her, one long, slender arm wrapped around her legs, the other draped across the ground, slowly moving as she drew circles in the dirt. Her head was tilted downward, her chin resting in the crook between her knees. Having come loose, her dark hair tumbled forward, contrasting with the whiteness of her dress, which had begun to accumulate dirt. Sandaled feet and bare ankles poked out from beneath the white dress, her toes curling inward.
Though he hadn't made a sound as he approached, she looked up at him, her gray eyes large and troubled. The moon splashed light upon Phaia's face, while casting shadows beneath her eyes. "Hello," was all she said, speaking in a soft, whispery tone.
"The night bothers you."
Shrugging, he sat down beside her, copying her position. He gazed outward, toward the endless, gray and brown bulk that was the Sector Seven slums.
I'm glad I did not grow up here, he thought, his gaze moving toward Marlene, who had lived in such a bleak place. But, perhaps I did. I can't remember where I lived. Why is everything such a mystery to me?
"Night here bothers me, as well. I, I don't think it would be so bad, were this place as it should be. But, walking around in what should be the past . . . I don't like it. Nothing here should be as it is. All of Midgar should be in ruins, but it isn't, and it makes me afraid."
Closing his eyes, he sighed, trying to remember all that he should have been able to. "Do you remember being a child?"
The answer was immediate. "Of course."
"I don't. I don't remember where I lived, what I experienced; I don't even remember my parents names. If I had parents, that is." He laughed slightly, though it was a bitter sound. "Sometimes I think I was just placed here without a past, without a future, merely to live in the present."
"Or maybe you are afraid to remember."
He turned his head toward her, giving her a scrutinizing look, then stood and walked slowly away, telling himself that she was wrong, that he did not remember because he could not, not because he chose to.
If he stared out at the night long enough, he could change it. He could rearrange the stars, move them in such a way so that they looked like they had that night, so very long ago. He would change the land in which he stood to healthy, rich soil, and instead of smelling oil and rusted metal, the scents that came to him would be of baking bread, of blooming flowers, the chilled, refreshing smells that the wind brought to the village from the mountaintop.
Loften wished he had been born in such a world as that.
But I wasn't, so where are these memories coming from? What night? Closing his eyes, he took in a deep breath, the polluted air of Midgar filling him. The stars rearrange themselves each night. If I could change them, I could change everything. I would be able to go back there, and prevent everything from happening.
Go back? No, I've never been there. Prevent what from happening?
"Loften," said Marlene, suddenly behind him.
With a start, he turned quickly, caught off guard by the fact that he had not even heard her approach. She smiled at him slightly, her large brown eyes making her appear, somehow, very young, much younger than eighteen, like a child to be protected from everything that the world was. Her pants had become scuffed, and dirt clung to her shirt, which had a rip in one sleeve. Though he could tell she was frightened, he could also tell she was trying desperately not to show it.
"Hello, Marlene." Loften smiled back at her, wishing he could do something so that she would not be afraid. But he was frightened, too, and worried.
"I--" Marlene broke off, shaking her head.
"I, I think I know how to find the girl."
His eyes opened wide. "How? Where? Do you know anything more?"
"We shouldn't start searching for her until morning, but I know where to start. That little girl was playing with a ball."
Nodding, Loften motioned for her to continue.
"There was a place we used to go, the children I mean, a playground that the adults didn't know about; we had an unspoken agreement that it was only our place, and that we could never tell anyone. I guess I'm breaking the agreement." Laughing slightly, she sat down beside him, drawing one knee to her chin, stretching the other out in front of her. She bit down on her lower lip, then sighed, and continued. "We all played together, whether we knew each other or not, whether we hated each other or were the best of friends. Of course, none of us were really friends; it was hard to be friends with anyone, because we all, we all--I can't explain it. But when we went there, we forgot everything else. That's where the little girl will be. That ball she was playing with was the ball that we always kept in the playground. So that's where she'll be." After pausing a moment, Marlene took a deep breath, then spoke once more. "I remember how to get there. We have to go through Wall Market to get there."
"Should I go tell Phaia and Zerik?"
"No. Not yet. I don't want to go there just yet. The last time I was there . . ." Marlene shook her head, then placed her arms behind her, the palms of her hands brushing the hard ground, and leaned backwards.
She sat awake, uncomfortable to be, once again, within the Seventh Heaven, where they'd decided to spend the night. Sitting upon a table, her hands gripping the rough edge of it, she swung her feet beneath it, her ankles bumping against the one center leg that held up the table.
Though she knew she ought to get some sleep, she was unable to fall into unconsciousness. She'd tried, lying on the hard floor, keeping her eyes closed, but sleep eluded her. After a long while, she'd stood, found some food within a cupboard, and eaten it after telling herself that it wouldn't harm her.
Blinking sleepily, she gazed across the dark room. Phaia lay nearby, her breathing steady, easy, her head resting in the cradle of the wood of a chair she'd pulled to the floor. Some distance away, Zerik lay upon his back, his hands resting on his stomach, and near where Marlene sat Loften twitched in his sleep, as though plagued by nightmares.
"We all are limited by the boundaries of fate," she whispered, recalling the words of Elmyra, the woman who had taken care of her for a short while, while her father had been away. The woman had not been talking to her, of course, but she'd still heard, and the words had stuck in her mind. "We all are limited by the boundaries of fate. The boundaries of fate."
On the ground near her, Loften made a noise and sat suddenly, his eyes wide and frightened, barely visible in the darkness. His breathing was rapid, short explosions of air exhaled, then quickly inhaled once more.
"Are you all right?" Marlene asked, jumping off the table, carefully, so that she would not make a noise and wake the others. "Loften, are you--"
"I'm fine," he whispered, but his voice betrayed his words. "Marlene?"
He stood slowly, brushing off the dust and dirt that clung to him. "You, do you--tell me about your childhood."
Taken by surprise, Marlene opened her mouth, then quickly shut it. "Loften.. ." She pulled herself back onto the table. "You had a nightmare?"
"No! No, no," he told her, moving onto a table across from her. "No, I, I just couldn't sleep."
She gave him a half smile. "I couldn't either."
"This place . . ."
"Tell me about it. Would you?"
With a sigh, Marlene nodded. "I'll tell you what I remember."
She guided them through Wall Market, just past the mansion of a man named Don Corneo, and through a dark, narrow passageway that eventually opened into a much larger area enclosed on all sides by large, looming walls. The place was overgrown with grass and weeds, littered with scraps of metal and broken glass. It could hardly be called a playground, since it had only one small, crooked swing that threatened to fall apart when a child sat upon it. Still, there was a strange peace about the place where no adults came, or knew of; when she was a child, it had been a sanctuary of sorts.
The playground was just as Marlene remembered it. There was scribbling on the walls with chalk, much of which had been done by her, long ago, with her own chubby little hands. If she listened closely, she was certain she would be able to make out the voices of children playing, their laughter.
But the playground was empty, save for a lone child standing in the center, near the swing, a ball held tightly against her stomach, tangled hair falling over her shoulders. Her arms were wrapped around the ball, and her eyes stared coldly out at them.
"We've found you," Marlene told her, walking rapidly toward the girl. "Now you have to tell us what all this is about; you have to tell us."
A smile curved the girl's lips upwards. "I didn't expect you to find me so soon. Look up there. The dark clouds come, and the bird flies through them. You are being tested, you know."
"We know. Tell us what we are to do."
"You already know, Marlene. You always have. Why did you come here? This isn't for you. You've grown up now. I never had the chance to grow up, and it isn't fair. Look at you. I am forever a child, and you are not. You can still feel, still sense, and it isn't fair! Do you hear me, Marlene? You look at me like that, and you don't recognize me. Why should you? Why should you recognize me? It was so long ago, you should be able to forget. But I don't want to be forgotten! And I don't want to be a child anymore! I don't want to be trapped like this, when I can't stop myself from doing and saying things that I would not have, left alive. I want to feel again! I want to hurt, even if that is all I feel!" The girl dropped the ball to the ground suddenly, opening her mouth and screaming as loud as she could, a piercing, shrill cry in the silence.
Above them, something echoed her cry.
Again, for a moment, the girl's blue eyes turned gold.
And the bird cried again, circling above them.
"It isn't a bird," the girl told them, her voice high, a wicked smile on her face. "It isn't a bird. It isn't even alive. And if you aren't careful, you won't be either. I have to go now, Marlene. I don't have time to play today. You just come talk to me later, all right? We have some catching up to do."
And the little girl was gone; Marlene blinked, and she no longer stood before them, and the bird no longer screamed above them. Only the ball, still rolling slowly away, was left.
No matter how she tried, Marlene could not remember who the girl was.
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