Episode 015 - The Day After
(note- the events of this episode occur the morning after episode 009 - The Halloween Special) (second note- the events of this episode also occur exactly 12,000 years after episode 011 - The Slaughter)
Christopher and Marie dreaded going to school that day. The events of the night before played out in their minds again and again. They had seen every kid they knew climb onto that ice cream truck. More than could ever fit in a single school bus, let alone the tiny truck. Every kid in the neighborhood, driven off, to god knows where. Every kid except for them and Steve. But Steve wasn’t himself anymore. The Steve Christopher had known was gone somehow. He’d watched it happen. An invisible force cut him in two. Yet there he stood afterward, perfectly fine. The new Steve was very different. His eyes were no longer blue. They had turned brown, dark dark brown with inky irises surrounding his pupils. More importantly he didn’t feel like Steve. The kid Christopher knew was a follower, a boy who stood in the background behind bigger kids like Rusty. This new Steve was in charge...confident. He didn’t talk like a kid. He acted like a man in a kid’s body.
The kids sat and ate their Lucky Charms in silence until Marie piped up.
“What’s going to happen at school today?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” replied Christopher.
“Steve’s Aunt Lucy said everyone would be ok, though. Is she right?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you ever know anything?”
Christopher put his head down, “I don’t know.”
It was a short walk to school, though not as short as it had been when they lived across the street from Amon Heights Elementary before mom moved them and their big brother to the row homes on the other side of Westfield Avenue.
Christopher and Marie plodded to the corner of 44th and Westfield. The only other kid they encountered was the junior crossing guard, Teddy Winslow. One of a handful of sixth-graders at the school chosen for the duty of making sure cars weren’t coming as the younger children crossed, Teddy took his job very seriously.
“Halt!” He commanded them as they approached, holding up his hand like a traffic cop.
“Teddy!” gasped Marie, “You're alive!”
“Uh. Yeah. Of course I am.” said the bigger boy.
“We thought the clowns ate you!” she responded, to the mortification of her brother.
“Umm...clowns?” asked Teddy.
“Yeah. From the ice cream truck! Last night. On Halloween. Remember?”
“Oh. I wasn’t a clown for Halloween. I was Yoda. But I didn’t do any trick or treats. My mom made me stay home.”
“Ours too.” said Christopher.
“Nuh-uh!” shouted Marie, but her brother shushed her before she could say any more.
After Teddy escorted them across the street Christopher whispered to her through the side of his mouth.
“Who’s lying?” asked Marie in her regular loud voice.
“Teddy.” Christopher continued to whisper. “He was there. In the field. I saw him get on that truck.”
“I knew it!” Marie gasped. “But why did he lie about it? All the kids were there. It’s not like we would rat him out to his mom.”
“I don’t know,” said Christopher. “Add it to the pile of things I don’t know.”
They arrived at the school just before the bell and joined their respective classes.
Christopher stepped cautiously into Mr. Merchant’s fifth grade class to find all twenty-two of his fellow students present. He spied several faces he knew had been among those in the dark field the night before. Missing though, was the usual morning chatter. Nearly two-dozen kids sat at their desks without speaking. They all held the same position with hands crossed and placid expressions. Christopher took his seat beside Dina Burke, the green-eyed girl with wiry red hair and the only girl ever to speak to him for more than a minute.
“Why is everyone so quiet today? Is Mr. Merchant mad about something?” he half-whispered to her.
Dina turned to Christopher and said, “School is about to start. Don’t be a wuss.”
Her reaction stunned Christopher. Other kids had called him names before, but not Dina. They were practically friends. Sure, he never hung out with her outside of school, but since third grade they’d at least been on amicable terms.
“Wha?” he started but lost his train of thought when he glanced into Dina’s eyes. Brown. Dark Brown. Almost black. Just like Steve’s eyes. This was not the Dina he’d known. Dina had green eyes. They had just discussed eye color in science class a few days ago. Christopher was one of six kids in the class with blue eyes. All the rest of them had brown colored eyes. All except Dina who’s eyes were a startling shade of green.
It dawned on Christopher that this was not Dina. Just like how Steve was no longer the Steve he’d always known.
How many of the kids in his class had been replaced by duplicates? He needed to check them all and see.
Throughout the day, Christopher discreetly observed his classmates, trying to identify any other changes. He noticed little details in their behavior that seemed off. They didn't laugh as much, and their personalities seemed subdued. Even the kids who were usually troublemakers were quiet and obedient. But one thing was certain. Every kid he knew had developed eyes the color of ink.
After school, Christopher and Marie decided to visit Steve's house. They found it odd that he hadn't shown up at school, and they were worried about him. When they arrived at the front door, Steve's Aunt Lucy greeted them.
“Is Steve home?” asked Christopher. “We need to talk about...about everything.”
“He’s upstairs packing,” said Aunt Lucy. “We’re...leaving here.”
“Leaving?” asked Marie. “To go where?”
“I have a cousin in Delaware. We’re going to stay with her for a while. This town is too dangerous a place for...um...for children.”
“We’re children!” said Christopher, “And we’re staying!”
“I understand that,” Lucy said, “but I can’t help you and your sister. I can’t help any of the other kids either. I’m sorry. I’m just one woman. I can barely take care of Steven.”
“I’m not your burden.” said Steve as he entered the room.
“You’re not a burden, Steve. I’m sorry if I’ve made you-”
“We need to tell them.” he interrupted.
“Tell us what?” asked Christopher.
“Yeah!” said Marie, “What’s happening? Why are there clowns after us? Why did all of the kids disappear and come back all weird? What’s that shadow thing that attacked the cop clown monster thing? Who are you people? Are you a witch or what?”
“Ok.” said Lucy, “Ok, honey. That’s a lot to ask at once. I’ll start from the beginning.”
Lucy made tea and brought out more of the cookies from the previous night. Once everyone was served she began.
“The clowns have always been here. Not just in Amon Heights, but here, on Earth. As far back as the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, and probably before then. Clowns were a part of the priesthood of many ancient cultures. Clowns serve the purpose of upending social norms. They do things ‘wrong’ or ‘backwards’. People laugh at them, because we find it humorous to have our expectations subverted.”
“You use too many big words!” admonished Marie.
“I’m sorry dear. What I’m saying is that clowns are sacred, sort of. They are a deeply spiritual part of humanity. What they do is change the way we see the world by doing the unexpected.
A long long time ago a group of these sacred clowns gathered together. Clowns from different societies around the world found that they had one thing in common. They all worshiped the same god.”
“Is this a church thing? Are you gonna make us go to church?” Marie asked.
“Stop interrupting!” said Christopher.
“No,” said Lucy, “They didn’t worship the gods that most people worship. The god that your priest, reverend, or rabbi prays to is distant. Doesn’t interfere. He might as well not exist for all I know. Trust me, I’ve looked for him, and I see no trace in this world. But the sacred clowns had a god who shows his power to them on a regular basis. They call him many different names, but he is always described as a masked figure in red and black. He plays pranks and tricks that are often cruel and deadly. His only goal seems to be to disrupt and sow chaos.”
“Words!” gasped Marie.
“The sacred clowns worship a god who wants to make everything confused and...out of sorts. They call him Hell Kin, as if he is related to the devil. In the middle ages he was seen as a mischievous spirit who led a host of the undead and frightful beasts. It was referred to as the Wild Hunt. Another of his names was Harlequin.”
“My mom reads those!” said Christopher.
“Well,” Lucy smiled a little, “I don’t think Harlequin Romance novels are the culprit here, but the deity these clowns worship is probably the basis for the Harlequin character. He’s potentially the inspiration for a lot of legends and fables. Every trickster spirit, sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain. Even here in the Americas the Lenape tribe had heard of him. They called him Misink Hâlikàn and described him as a spirit wearing a mask of red and black.”
“You’re getting off track.” interjected Steve. “Tell them about the Balatron. About Amalthea.”
“Yeah,” added Christopher, “You mentioned those names. What are they even? And what about the shadow?”
“I’m getting to that,” said Lucy, “At some point during the Roman Empire-”
“Enough history! Tell them about now!”
“Steven! They need to understand the context of everything!” said Lucy, “Anyhow...in ancient Rome a class of professional buffoons called balatrones would be hired by the wealthy to entertain them. At some point the sacred clowns took that name for themselves, the Balatron.They have been working behind the scenes throughout history. The commoner or even the highest noble could never criticize a king, but do you know who could? The court jester! Through subtle japes and manipulative humor the Balatron influenced leaders around the world. They could cause or end entire wars with their guidance.”
“Okay...” said Christopher. “So clowns rule the world? I’m sure my mom would make a joke about politics.”
“Well,” continued Lucy, “Yes, in a way they do. Or at least they steer it. Toward what, I don’t exactly know. But since the dawn of history the Balatron have been hiding among us, affecting the outcomes of major world events. They’re the ones who ensured the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.”
“We don’t know who that is,” said Marie.
“I do!” said Christopher. “That’s what started World War Two!”
“The First World War,” corrected Lucy, “But yes. The Balatron have been the cause of many wars and disasters. They have unfathomable goals, but one thing is clear, they are agents of disaster and chaos. The Balatron subvert the powerful and elite at every turn, but in doing so many innocents suffer.”
“What does that have to do with ice cream trucks and that shadow person?” asked Marie.
“And body-snatching kids from our school!” added Christopher.
“The shadow person is my friend, Molly” began Lucy, “She’s a being from another dimension.”
“Oh come on!” said an incredulous Christopher. “Another dimension?”
“You kids have seen some strange things in this town.” said Lucy, “Is that so hard to believe now? Molly and her...people are called ‘The Voiceless’. I’ve devoted my life to understanding them. Most of the Voiceless are peaceful. But they have inadvertently harmed humans due to their lack of understanding of biological lifeforms. For the most part the Voiceless can only observe our world through something I call ‘oriels’”.
“Orioles?” asked Marie “Like the bird? Or Oreo, like the cookie?”
“Neither. Oriel, like a window. Have you noticed that this town has a larger than normal amount of unusual tree burls?”
“What?” asked Christopher.
“Tree burls.” said Lucy, “Growths in the sides of trees. They’re pretty common, but in Amon Heights there are a LOT of them that look like faces.”
“There used to be one outside our house!” Christopher nearly shouted. “My brother told me how he broke it once and a bunch of maggots spilled out.”
Lucy looked shocked for a moment, her mouth agape. “Where is your house?”
“It was our old house, the red one on Cooperton avenue across from the school. The kids called it the blood red house because they all thought it was haunted or something.”
“Those kids weren’t half wrong,” said Lucy, “I used to live there too. A long long time ago.”
“You used to LIVE in our HOUSE?” asked Marie.
“Oh, it would have been before your parents bought it. I lived there with my parents until the early sixties. You know, it’s a very old house. It was built in colonial times by Nathaniel Amon, the town’s founder. Anyway, I won’t bore you with the details, but your brother is lucky to be alive.”
“Those things that came out of the tree weren’t maggots. They were something far worse, changelings.”
“Like the kid from Teen Titans comics?” asked Christopher.
“I don’t know. Is your comic book about one of the Voiceless attempting to create a physical body on the Earth by interacting with the corpse of a stillborn child buried under a tree, only to have the process interrupted and corrupted, producing a million bloodthirsty faceless parasites?”
“Umm...no...I don’t think they did a story like that yet.”
“Well, then, those things your brother found inside the oriel were changelings. At least, that’s what I call them. The Voiceless tried to enter our world hundreds of years ago. They communicated with human alchemists and others who dabbled into the occult. One of them was a German man named Johann Konrad Dippel. He developed a formula to help the Voiceless, but he didn’t really understand what he was doing. Dippel thought he was creating new life. In reality he was opening the door for the Voiceless to manifest on the Earth.”
“Miss Lucy,” said Marie, “this is a lot for a kid to listen to.”
“I’m sorry dear. We’re almost done.”
“Tell them about Amalthea!” protested Steve.
“Yeah. Is that where they took the other kids to?” asked Christopher.
“We don’t know yet.” said Lucy, “But it seems likely. Amalthea is another world entirely.”
“Another world?” said Christopher.
“Yes. We don’t know exactly where it is, but it was a world like Earth, where the Voiceless were able to expand and grow. From there they can interact with humans. We think they’ve even brought some of us over in some way.”
“And the clowns...the bail-o-trons...they want to go to there?” asked Marie.
“We think so. The Balatron have been studying Voiceless technology...well, technology isn’t really the word for it. The Voiceless don’t make machines or devices, that’s what humans do. Their way of doing things is more a matter of...understanding the universe. The way they see and grasp the world allows them to do things we could never dream of. To them time and space are just material they can manipulate as they wish.”
“I went sledding last winter.” declared Christopher. “On a hill in the woods behind the schoolyard. It was there one day and the next it was gone!”
“A hill just grew out of the ground for a day?” asked Lucy, “That sounds like something the Voiceless would do. Sometimes they try to connect to our world in ways that promote warping and reshaping of the physical.”
“The hill was real weird!” continued Christopher. “Like, it was almost a perfect dome-shape and we could glide up and down it without having to climb. And that was where...” he trailed off as his face contorted in disgust.
“Where what?” asked Marie.
“Where I was born,” said Steve. “The old Steve. The Steve you knew. He died there, didn’t he?”
“Yeah.” whispered Christopher. “He was cut in half. Right down the middle. Like he’d run into a sharp, invisible blade. I passed out. And then you appeared. Like nothing had ever happened. Everyone thought I was crazy.”
“I’m sorry Christopher. I’m sorry about what happened to your friend. I never knew him even though I was created with his memories and his face.”
“He wasn’t even really my friend.” said Christopher, “He was kind of a jerk, actually. But still. It’s sad he died. I guess.”
“How come you aren’t upset about your real nephew dying?” Marie asked Lucy.
“Oh. I didn’t know him.” Lucy said, “ I’m not really Steve’s aunt. He and his parents live next door. He still technically lives with them and just visits with me. They haven’t noticed anything different about him. Molly discovered Steve and recognized him for what he is and brought him to me.”
“What even is he?” asked Marie.
“Oh my god!” gasped Christopher, “That’s SO rude!”
“It’s ok.” said Steve. “I don’t really know what I am, but I know I’m different. Aunt Lucy calls me a Fetch.”
“Like a dog?” said Marie.
“No.” said Lucy, “Like a doppelganger.”
“A what-a-banger?” asked Christopher.
“Doppelganger. It’s German for double. Let’s just call them Fetches. It’s easier to say. I don’t know exactly how, but the Voiceless made a replica of your Steve. To them the material world is like clay and time is like swimming in the ocean. They can go to any point they like. So somehow using their ‘ways’ the Voiceless took the old Steve, examined his remains and created the new one. All in just an instant from our point of view. And I suspect they did the same thing with the rest of your school.”
“Why, though?” Christopher pleaded, “Why do all of this?”
“The Voiceless are not malevolent.”
“That means they’re not evil.” Christopher told his sister.
“Correct,” continued Lucy, “They are curious about our world and have tried to become a part of it. But their ways require a process of growth. That’s why the oriels resemble baby faces growing out of trees. It’s probably why your hill grew so suddenly. For them to exist in the physical world they need to grow a body to inhabit. The closest they ever came was with Molly. She’s a hybrid, stuck somewhere between the second and third dimension. The Balatron have been trying to interfere with the Voiceless methods, and by doing so ended up distorting the growth system.”
“And that’s where the blood thirst maggot babies come from.” said Steve.
“The Balatron keep messing with Voiceless methods in an attempt to understand and control their ways. But all they’re capable of is corruption and mayhem. This incident with the ice cream truck was probably something similar. The Voiceless can shape space and time to their own needs and the Balatron would very much like the power to do so. They are likely experimenting and playing with forces beyond their control.”
“Wait.” said Christopher, “You said, you’re moving? How are you going to take Steve with you if he isn’t really your nephew. Won’t his parents freak out?”
“Well,” said Steve, “We aren’t planning on telling them. Their kid is dead. I’m not really him. We’re just going to slip away.”
“But they’ll be so upset!” said Marie.
“I know,” said Lucy, “But what else can Steve do? Pretend to be someone he is not forever? They lost their child and it is terrible, but there is nothing we can do about that.”
“No!” shouted Marie. “This is SO wrong! You can’t do that! They need to know!”
She headed for the exit. Steve blocked the way.
“Please.” he implored, “You can’t tell them. They’d try to stop me from leaving. I don’t want to be here. The only home I’ve ever really known is with Aunt Lucy!”
“She isn’t even your Aunt!” spat Marie, trying to press past the bigger boy, “She’s just some old witch. You should be with your parents!”
“They’re NOT my parents.”
“It’s just not right!” cried Marie as she struggled against Steve who barred her passage.
Christopher placed his hands on her shoulders and pulled her away from Steve.
“No Marie.” He told her, “You can’t do this. You can’t go to them. They wouldn’t understand. They’ll just think you’re nuts. No one believed me when I tried to tell them last year. There’s no way his parents who have had new Steve around for the better part of a year are going to listen to you.”
“But it’s wrong!” she declared, tears running down her face, “It’s wrong!”
The two boys held the sobbing Marie for a long while until finally she lost the will to protest and fell into a chair. Lucy busied herself cleaning up the tea and cookie crumbs.
“So.” said Marie, her emotions spent, “What do we do now? What can we do?”
The wind picked up around the house, shaking trees and rattling windows. If Christopher hadn’t known it was impossible he would have sworn that the earth was quaking.
The kitchen shutter flew open and in shot a stream of darkness. The black blur wrapped around Lucy and settled at her feet.
Looking down they saw Lucy’s second shadow, Molly. She was somehow diminished, almost tattered looking.
“Molly! What happened to you!”
“He’s coming.” came a raspy voice from Lucy’s mouth, even though her lips did not move.
“Who?” asked Lucy, this time using her own voice in the normal manner.
“Alec.” said the dry speaker, riding on Lucy’s lungs, “Alec Chino is on his way here.”
Molly slowly faded away until Lucy only had one shadow.