Part 10: WEIGHTED COMPANION BOX (pro box version)
PART 10: WEIGHTED COMPANION BOX (pro box version)
I know I shouldn't look. In my head I went back and forth a million times… should I look? Could I go on without knowing? I must have thought about it for almost twenty minutes but it felt like three days. In my wildest fantasies I just couldn't convince myself that anything good could possibly be in that box. But I'm just human and whoever tied this to a balloon knew it.
I peer cautiously into the box's depths awaiting my one good eye to confirm my frantic suspicions; a severed limb, an AWOL organ, a whole fucking head leering at me askew. My heart raced as I glimpsed the contents. A thick red goo covered the bottom, bulbous chunks providing some unwelcome depth. I could feel my adrenaline kick in…
I blinked, confused.
Some cracked glass? A black metal frame and a power cord? If I didn't know better I'd say someone had put a lava lamp in here and it had busted in the fall. It was a lava lamp. What? This was Penny's last gift?
Wait a second. You have to weigh the balloon down to keep it from flying off. On a hunch I began to feel my way through the lamp sludge when my fingers wrapped around something unexpectedly heavy and smooth.
It was a key. And it had Nook's symbol on it. The burden of the anticipated horror I had been carrying lightened an ounce. Could Penny possibly still be out there, being held captive, being tortured… stop it. I had to focus.
So this was how Penny got into the shop that night. I wonder how she had managed to snag it. It had only been about a week but it seemed like a lifetime ago. Screw the raft; I was taking the express route. I don't even know how to build a raft.
It really was Nook's key.
It was the middle of the day but Nook had locked up his shop tight, which was suspicious because I still hadn't seen a single resident in town. I unlocked it and it slid open with a familiar whoosh. Even with light shining through the windows it was unsettling to be in Nook's store alone. My nerves were tingling at the very real possibility that I was walking into a trap. Were animal-people going to start swarming out of hidden panels to give me another beating? Something told me they wouldn't. It didn't add up. What was going on around here?
It didn't take long to find the secret passage.
After a few minutes of wandering around, I had the thought to push the large green dollar sign on his cash register. A small trap door popped open on the floor in front of me. Predictable.
A narrow ladder led into ominous pitch abyss. If it had been me instead of Penny that night I would have promptly turned around and gone back to talking to my gyroids, but I wasn't the same Billy anymore. I didn't even care about escape any more. The only thing I wanted was to see Penny and if that was impossible, I shuddered, I was going to see blood.
I looked around the store and noticed that Nook had a camping lantern on sale today. Five finger discount. I was lucky- it came pre-loaded and I flicked it on to its woefully inadequate brightest setting. I looked over the side of the opening into the murky darkness.
It smelled like wet earth and rotting plants. With the sun beating down outside it was surprising to be somewhere this cold. The tunnel was short and crude at best with roots and earthworms dotting the earthen walls. My palms were clammy. I tightened the grip on my axe.
I was going to see how deep this rabbit hole went.
I didn't get far.
An old fear gripped me but it was quickly replaced with new determination. I was a new Billy. I guess this was as good a time as any- it was just us, no hope of escape. He looked genuinely surprised to see me. I squared off with the son of a bitch, my arch-nemesis, the cause of all my pain and suffering, axe trembling in my unsteady hands.
I'LL KILL YOU, NOOK! I'M NOT AFRAID OF YOU ANYMORE!
He just stood there, motionless. He stared me in the eyes. I could tell he was trying to make a decision. An immeasurable moment passed between us before he replied, shoulders visibly slumping.
…do it. I won't stop you.
I took a step forward, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It had to be a trick but it was now or never. I took another step and swung with the untrained wrath of a furious eight year old fighting for his life.
The unexpected heft of the axe carried me off-balance into the tunnel wall, the blade falling short and biting into Nook's leg. He dropped to the dirt, emotionless. Crimson gushed from the deep gash in his thigh and my stomach did somersaults at the sight of drawn blood.
Fuck you! Fuck you! What the hell are you doing?
C'mon, boy. Get it over with.
NO! What did you do to Penny?! Where is she?!
Nook raised his head heavily, sweat hanging from his brow. He was clearly in excruciating pain. He braved a wry grin, sadness hanging from the edge of mouth.
You've been a pain in the ass since you showed up, Billy. Forget Penny, just get out of here. That key will work on the boat on the west end of the island.
He sighed heavily, the sigh of a man letting go of whatever little he had left. In the faint light of the dropped lamp I could make out his dilated raccoon eyes staring a thousand miles away. His breathing had started to get heavy.
We were building a resort. Half the crew quit because of those goddamned gyroids. We offered to pay double to anyone that would stay. It wasn't long before they started to turn into animals.
STOP IT! Just tell me where Penny is! Did she cross? Did you eat her?!
Shut up, Billy. Shut up or kill me. It's your choice.
Tears were starting to well up in my eyes. Tears that I thought had been lost permanently.
There were over a hundred of us, helplessly turning into these abominations. When you cross, you lose your mind for a little while, Billy. Things got bad. I had to lock up K.K. because he was attacking people randomly. Calling it the Lord of the Flies would be an understatement. Several separate gangs formed and we did horrible things to each other for territory… that was a long time ago. Over time you'll start to regain your memories but you never forget what you've done.
His eyes had become glossy. He suddenly stared right at me with a force that was almost tangible.
I sent you those letters, Billy.
I almost had an aneurism. I choked on my strained reply.
LIAR!! You're the leader! You're controlling everything! You just want to keep children here until they cross and then you eat them, you piece of shit! I read your papers! I read your JOURNAL!
Eat you? I thought you were smarter than that.
You can't escape this island, Billy. We're hundreds of miles from the coast of Japan. This island isn't even on any maps. Oh, you're welcome to try and I hope you make it. God knows I've tried. Look what I got for my effort…
He tapped his right arm against the rocky dirt wall, the hollow clack of plastic echoing down the tunnel. Fake arm. I can't believe I never noticed, but then it was hard to tell it was plastic beneath the matted fur he had attached to it. For the first time I noticed a slight effort in his voice, an inability to form sharp sounds. No tongue.
I'm not the leader, I'm just in charge of the cells. In the early days they used to torture the new kids but I was able to convince them it would be easier this way. I've tried to make all of you as comfortable as I could. Most of them are happy and stupid enough that they never even know what's going on... even after they cross. But sometimes we get kids like you.
This can't be right; it's another one of Nook's fucking lies! He's just trying to keep me confused, guessing! After all this time, how could he claim to be looking out for us, trying to make our lives better? Indignation coursed through my veins.
You're a liar. I don't believe you! Why would you pretend to be Penny?! Why would you give me your own journal? Why have you been sending me mixed messages like that creepy fucking letter and then put your key in there?!
Look at me, Billy. Look at your face. This is what happens when you try to escape, they take something from you. The only thing I can give you is hope. Hope that there's someone else out there. Didn't you notice that I did nothing but encourage you to wait longer and longer? Try to scare you into doing nothing? Wouldn't let you take any action? I have to admit, I didn't predict you'd use the balloons to map the island. It never should have taken this long. You should have crossed by now. At least then maybe you could finally accept that you're stuck here. I sent you one last letter to try to scare you into letting it all go and giving up. I gave you my key on the off chance you decided to grow some balls. I wasn't lying, I don't need it anymore. To be honest, I didn't think I'd see you down here.
I was starting to lose it. Something deep in my gut told me that he wasn't lying. He was bleeding out in front of my eyes and he didn't care. It answered some questions that had been gnawing the back of my mind that I had been trying to ignore… how could a little girl like Penny have broken into Nook's house and just happened to find his private papers and journal? Why would she run back to her own cell? How could she get away with putting together a package every day? Tears were streaming down my face.
Then… there's no Penny? She was never real?
Oh, she's real all right.
He must have seen the shock on my face. He averted his eyes and continued.
Penny runs this freak show. I'm sorry, kid. I had to use her name on the letters because I couldn't risk someone else finding the messages by accident and tracking them back to me. Nobody would question a message from Penny.
He managed a weak smile.
I'm running out of limbs.
Shit, I shouldn't have told you this. C'mon, get out of here. Make a run for it. You're smarter than the rest of them, I think you have a real shot.
No… it's not true and I can prove it! What about the end of your journal?! Why would you say that you need more children? Why did you say rabbits are your favorite?
The smile on his lips melted away and he groaned and shivered, almost indistinguishably. He leaned back and rested his head against the tunnel wall.
Listen, you're not supposed to know some things…
I finally snapped. I punched him hard across the face and grabbed him by the collar, pulling his face to mine. I screamed:
YOU THINK YOU'VE SUFFERED? YOU THINK YOU'RE A SAINT BECAUSE YOU TRIED TO MAKE THIS HELLHOLE 'COMFORTABLE'? FUCK YOU, YOU GODDAMN COWARD! YOU THINK I GOT ANYTHING LEFT TO LOSE?! HUH?! NOW TELL ME EVERYTHING!
He looked me in the eyes. The tension hung in the air like a baby grand piano and there was a metallic tinge floating in the musty tunnel you could almost taste.
Penny was my… is my wife.
She was living with me on the dig site the whole time. She didn't cross over the same way the rest of us did. She never recovered. She lost her mind. Everyone is afraid of her, they do whatever she says… the things she did to some of the other animals… she skinned some of them alive and wore their…
He trailed off for a fraction of a second.
I think her cancer messed with the crossing. She was terminal. The only reason I bought this place is because we wanted to live the rest of her days in comfort on a tropical paradise. This was going to make us enough money to never have to worry about her medical bills again. It was all for her. She had a full team of round-the-clock doctors we paid to keep on the island. They all crossed too.
Then something happened that surprised me more than I thought was possible anymore. Nook began to sob. This wasn't the Nook I knew. This wasn't the Nook I wanted dead. This was a broken man named Tom.
She took over the house and took over the journal and the business. She came up with a plan to get new residents… she never did anything to me but… she, she's insane. She thinks that she can replace the cancerous parts of her body with… the children are… she thinks we'll be together forever…
With unexpected dexterity, a gleam flashed from underneath his clerk's apron. It was a knife! I covered my face with my arms, waiting for the pain. When I finally looked, Tom's body was slumped, his vacant eyes staring at me, begging forgiveness.
Tom died unloved and alone in a dirty hole like an animal.
What was I supposed to do now?
I don't know how long I stood there in disbelief. A thousand thoughts buzzed through my battered mind like an angry swarm of bees. Memories of these horrid months of my life flashed like a slideshow behind in my eyes. One in particular stood out.
I think it's time to finally meet Penny.