All this happened a few hours ago. It starts with me in the room Ava and I are sharing in Thage's new house;
Thage: -knocks lightly on my door-
Me: -I'm roused from a daydream- Come in!
Thage: -she steps in- How's Ava?
Me: -I lean over and put my hand on her forehead- The same. Thanks for getting the IV drip. Where did you even get it?
Thage: Some guy in a gas mask.
Me: Is that a joke I don't get it or just you being mysterious?
Thage: Neither. I literally don't know who he is. Tall, black male from what I could gather. Dreadlocks.
Me: How did you get into contact with him? I can't imagine there being a huge demand for medical supplies on the black market. Morphine notwithstanding.
Thage: He caught me on the way here from Maryland, said he knew Ava's mother and wanted to make sure Ava was alright. Then he put this in my car. -she leans back on the wall- In all honesty, I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Me: Wait, a guy in a gas mask who knows Daisee? What was that guy that kidnapped her a few weeks ago? His avatar was a guy in a gas mask?
Thage: It could be. I remember he was assigned to guard her shortly after.
Me: Delta Five, that's it. But he's with the PTC now, right? So is he still Delta Five?
Thage: -she shrugs-
Me: Meh, it doesn't matter.
Thage: -she sighs- I knew, you know.
Me: You knew what?
Thage: About what you and Jean have been talking about. I knew since before this round of the game started.
Me: You...you knew that my memories were fake and...and you didn't tell me!? -I stand up angrily and glare at her- Why!? Why did you lie!?
Thage: -she meets my gaze calmly- Imagine being told flat out that your entire forty-year-plus life was fake, that it never happened, and that the woman you thought you'd been turned into an abomination to save hung herself.
Me: -I stand there, silently, then fall back into my chair and bury my face in my palms- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout at you.
Thage: It's a stressful time for a lot of people.
Me: Yeah, it is.
Thage: -she starts rolling a pair of dice around in her hand- Something of that magnitude, you have to learn for yourself. Either you wouldn't have believed me, or you'd have ended up like Robert.
Me: You're right, you're right. What's with the dice?
Thage: Nervous tick.
Me: Ah right. I thought it might be something profound or significant.
Me: How did you figure it out?
Thage: Two and two started adding up to chair.
Thage: As in, nothing added up.
Me: Ah, I see.
Thage: The red flag, of course, was when you said you'd given me the deal. I got the deal from a man in his late fifties, with backswept white hair and a sense of style right out of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhod.
Me: But you played along to see if you could help me work it out.
Thage: I played along because that's what you needed. I dropped hints here and there, but it was mostly up to you to jog your own memory.
Me: -I facepalm as realisation strikes- That book of European legends you gave me. The one with Elizabeth Bathory in it. It had a story about a man who had his memory tampered with by a god for shits and giggles. Fuck.
Me: Shit, it's so obvious now. A warrior whose wife was killed by Fenrir tries to kill him but Loki makes him think he's a draugr who serves him. A draugr, for fuck's sake! Ugh, I was so fucking blind!
Thage: Don't be too hard on yourself, it's an obscure myth. -she looks around the room- By the by, can we try not to get the walls in this one carved up?
Me: Yeah, don't worry. As you saw, I decided to type my biography instead of scratching it into your plaster. -a moment of silence- Thage, can I borrow your phone? I think it's time I called home.
Thage: Go for it.
Me: Thanks. I apologise in advance for the cost of the international call.
Thage: I get telemarketers from India all the time, you're fine.
Me: If you say so. Thanks, Thage. For everything you've done for me.
Thage: Not to worry.
Me: Christ, Thage, accept some gratitude once in a while.
Thage: I'm certainly accepting it, I'm just doing it offhandedly. -she winks-
Me: If you say so. Do you mind keeping an eye on Ava while I try to get through to my Mam?
Thage: -she nods and sits at Ava's bedside-
Me: Thanks, I'll be back up in a few minutes.
I headed downstairs and found Thage's house phone. It took me a few minutes to work up the courage to dial the number. The first three times, I hung up as soon as it started ringing. I got it on the fourth try. It was my sister who answered;
Me: Uh, is this Emma Shaughnessy?
Emma: It is, yeah, who's this?
Me: Uh...it's Ray, Em.
Me: Yeah. Hi, sis.
Emma: Oh my god, Ray, you're...we thought...you went missing and Mam said...oh, Ray...where are you?
Me: I'm, uh, I'm in North Dakota.
Emma: North Dakota? You're in America?
Me: Yeah, it's a really long story, uh, Em, is Mam there?
Emma: ...No, Ray, she's...she...she, um, she had a psychotic break a couple of weeks ago and she's in, um, St. Luke's in Clonmel.
Me: St. Luke's!? Christ, fuck, uh, Em, tell me, what was Mam like before the break? Was there anything particularly strange?
Emma: Yeah, she, um, she got really paranoid and agoraphobic, first, she wouldn't leave the house alone, then she wouldn't leave it at all and, after a while, she refused to leave her room and got scared when we opened the door. And, um, she kept whispering to herself, the same thing, over and over. She kept saying, uh, "He has Raymond."
Me: Shit, fuck, cunt, urgh, Em, I'm gonna be back in Ireland soon but, until I'm back, you can't tell anyone about this phone call except Dad and Dad can't tell anyone else either. Don't tell Brian, Karina, Derek, anyone. Keep it between yourselves, for now. I have to go.
Emma: Wait, Ray! What's going on? Why are you in North Dakota? Why did you go missing in November? What does this have to do with Mam? Did what Mam saw on Coumshingaun really happen? Ray...who is "He"?
Me: Em, don't ask me that question, never ask me that question. If I answer that question, you will be in great danger. If Mam wrote anything down or drew any pictures or anything while she was being paranoid or having her psychotic break, don't read them, don't look at them, just lock them in her safe until I get home, okay? Promise me, Em, promise on Granny's grave!
Emma: I...I promise.
Me: Good, good, thank you. I have to go now, I have a lot to do if I want to get home soon. Tell Dad I love him. And, uh, I know this isn't what we usually do but...I love you, Em.
Emma: I love you too, Ray.
I hung up. I didn't cry or bury my face in my palms or anything. I just felt numb. Since I was downstairs anyway, I grabbed myself a sandwhich and just ate it robotically. When I was done, I headed back upstairs, barely thinking or feeling;
Me: -I enter the room- I just got off the phone with my sister.
Me: My Mam, she, uh, she...he got to her. She's in a psychiatric hospital.
Thage: Ah. Sorry to hear that.
Me: Yeah...I... -I run my hands hands through my hair and try to keep calm but just break down crying and fall to my knees- It's my fault! She's gone off the fucking deep end and it's my fault!
Thage: -she walks over and smacks me on the back of the head- It's not like you left the Mafia and they wanted to get back at you! He would have killed her anyway, altered your memories, and you would never have realised she's gone!
Me: No, he would have left her alone if I hadn't turned against him! I would have spent the rest of my life in that quarry and she'd have moved on from my disappearance and, yeah, she would have been sad and she'd have always wondered what happened to me but she wouldn't have lost her fucking mind! She got caught in the crossfire between me and Slenderfuck and she wouldn't have if I'd been shooting from his side!
Thage: Stop, take a deep breath, and think about what you just said against how he's been shown to operate.
Me: -I cringe as I realise what I just said- He's trying to get me back. He's exploiting my regret. She's bait.
Thage: Now you're on the right track.
Me: -I run my hands through my hair- Thage, is there somewhere I can go for a little while and just calm down? I need to get rational again.
Thage: Here's as good a place as any, but there's a running track a couple miles south.
Me: I think I'll go for a sprint and do a few laps of the running track. I need some fresh air. I've spent too long cooped up in my room with Ava. I'll be back in a couple of hours.
Thage: Alright. I'll be here.
I grabbed some trackies that Thage bought me and changed out of my jeans. Once I was changed, I sprinted down to the running track, stopping now and then to get directions. Even with the stops, I made pretty good time. It wasn't "four minute mile" material or anything but I was outpacing most of the cars in the area (easy enough in an urban setting, of course, what with speed limits and traffic). At any rate, I arrived at the running track. It had quite obviously fallen into disuse. It definitely hadn't been weeded in a few months. But beggars can't be choosers, so I started jogging. And as I was jogging, I started thinking about, well, everything. I reached a few conclusions;
I have to save my mother from Slender Man.
I have to save Eulogy from the delusion and help him remember who he really is.
Pursuant to the above, I have to get back to Ireland.
I cannot go back to Ireland until Ava's awake.
The reason for this is that I love Avalesca Farrell-Conquest more than anyone in the world and abandoning her would break my heart and be a really scummy thing to do anyway.
It just after reaching the last conclusion that I saw him. I don't know how long he'd been there, just beyond the stands, watching me. The last time I saw him, I gave him a mental "fuck you". This time? I ran. I wasn't prepared for him. I'm still not. I'm not in the right frame of mind yet. If I'd stayed, he would have taken me. Even while I was running, I could hear him in my head. Whispering in his sick language of compulsions. Telling me to turn around and run into his waiting arms. To feel the dark embrace of his many, convulsing limbs.
I resisted. Somehow. I could feel the tendrils of his influence reaching into my mind, trying to take hold of my regret and self-blame, hoping to give them a tug and watch as the whole fabric of my mind became unwoven. But I didn't let him. I ran. And I'm not ashamed to say that. After all, I fear him. And why not? Fear is good. Fear is survival.
When I got back, I made Thage go and get something to eat while I returned to Ava's bedside. I've noticed she has a tendency to forget to eat. Who knows, maybe if I bug her enough about it, she'll start eating regularly just to shut me up.
Slender Man's outside. I can see him out the window. He's far away, at the other end of the long street where Thage's new house is. But he's still there. Just standing there. And whispering. Whispering in my head. But I'm safe again. I'm back in my Fortress of Solitude. I'm not running now. He can't get inside my head while I'm here with Ava and Thage. He can fuck off.