The first sound after she appeared in the lecture hall was a clicking door shutting. The harsh light above slammed into the crowd in the hill seats, blinding the leaning wall chalkboard. Keres pounded ahead of her to the cold door, but waited to run until she walked over and opened the exit.
The sun was setting; she breathed in deep and soft at the white pillars in each building, save those of a brass bell tower. The shadows, jagged and random, couldn’t hide Edgar from a restless, bounding Keres.
The grass crunched under Valdís’ feet as she approached. “Edgar, what is wrong.”
“… I’m just not feeling well, ok? Does there always have to be an answer?” Edgar chomped his lip down and leaned a red-eyed head on the flaking wall.
“Yes.” Looking over at his eyes, she added, “It’s the girl, isn’t it.”
Edgar froze, slowed down his train of inhalation, and then began a soft giggle that evolved into a gasping laugh.
“Of course you’d say that,” he enunciated. “That was days ago, and it was nothing special, I just kind of made her feel a bit uncomfortable and she said she wasn’t up for a relationship now. That isn’t important to me. No, it’s about you.” His gaze captured hers. “I’ve been taking notes in my psychology class.”
Her mouth shot open before she could cover it. She closed her eyes.
“Yeah, exercise won’t help, huh? Drinking won’t increase the chances of an attack, is that right? You’re full of shit. Everyone’s full of shit, because I’m just a paper plate to them, for their f-f-f-f-f-fucking bread and butter. And you, Miss Gimmie-The-Magazine-Already, you knew what you were doing.”
Valdís raised a hand to put on Edgar’s trembling shoulders, but stopped herself in time.
“Edgar,” she said, after discarding the marble voice. “Edgar, the important thing was that you understood more about-“
“Shut up,” he snarled. His shaking hands dug out the folded piece of paper, which he brandished at her face. “I’ve got all your inconsistencies, all those lies on here. You don’t know how many layers or which ones or why, and never could keep a personal bible around. So religion is bullshit, but it’s ok for you to spew out whatever generalizations you want! I can’t even be nice to you at the bar without you lying to me. I was dumb for not taking this down earlier, but… no, I’m still dumb. I’m nothing, and it’s all my fault. Go away.”
With his knee shoving Keres out of his course, Edgar set a path past Valdís, to the silhouettes of trees. She approached him. “I-“
Edgar spun with a primal cry and shoved her with both hands.
She didn’t expect the fall. It scraped a patch of skin from her bottom, knocked her head back up. She scanned over her pale self, then to Edgar, who held his hands up with wide eyes before shrieking to the orange clouds.
“…you touched me. That should have killed you.”
“I know!” Edgar screamed. “You can’t do anything right!”
His cry echoed across the hidden rooftops. He covered his mouth, choked back, and then stumbled into a run far from Valdís. Keres followed the never-ending rope back to her, and they both watched the wrenching shape fade away.
She had become one being long ago. Now, she had walked to the dunes before the endless ocean, under frozen airplanes and coated sky. The rope stretched across the bar highway, hundreds of miles long, over a small stream. From her counting, she concluded that Edgar’s panic attack had kept himself awake for almost a day in frozen time.
Valdís sat and pushed her hands on her concaving chest. She attempted a jagged, dull tune as she stared at the crusty waves hanging over the beach. There was no response.
Looking down, she tugged on the rope, stood, and spoke. “Keres, we should apologize.”
“There is no proof of the layered world. Just because I cannot explain Keres’ presence, that doesn’t mean I can justify creating layers and layers I’ve never seen before. Even as far back as decades, I began to doubt my own experience in the forest. Forcing you to convert was- wrong of me, and intentionally allowing more panic attacks through forced rituals was damaging to your life. I apologize for that.”
There were thousands of tree saplings nestled in Edgar’s greasy hair. He stared up at her from the pit.
“I also misled you to that end, and I apologize for that as well.”
Keres began circling around, following his own wagging tail. Valdís noticed the rings under the teen’s eyes, the soft white scratches on his skin. They both sat for a long time.
Edgar stared at her inhuman flesh before looking at her eyes. “You’ve ruined my future.”
“But you can understand,” she spoke. “I can’t just be a roadblock to the worms. I needed to be significant.”
“So you made me worthless.” Edgar’s fingers balled the dirt and roots into his palm. His eyebrows also began digging. “I formed my own self to fit your world, left my own thoughts behind. I’ve skipped important advice, because who cares about this layer, right? Who will talk to the man with no personality in the real world, with nothing but paintings forgotten after one viewing? Because of you, all I know is how to waste time until my death. There is no future for me.”
“And for me as well. Please, Edgar. You’re my only connection to the world.”
After Edgar shuffled deeper into the shifting, crumbling hole of earth, he tucked his body in. Keres held a rope of sprinkled leaves in his mouth, nudged against Valdís before she reached for the teen. His eyes looked to the visible bell tower.
Death stood up, looking one last time at the only boy she could have talked to, and took sudden, spaced steps away, clenching the rope to her dog. “If you want this.” Looking with hazy eyes to the not-dark-yet horizon, she sat on a ringed stump while Edgar continued to huff out the life of the realm, his breath wavering. After minutes of watching him, she lay back on the scratching wood, closing her eyes and letting the rope slip from her fingers. “It will be your path now.”