Nine Tenths, Chapter 1

You have to understand: desperation changes you. When you spend a long time in terrible pain, you become someone you never wanted to be.

I never meant to do this to you. I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t myself.

Please forgive me.

 

My name was… Avery. I guess it still is, if you tack a ‘late’ on the front.

I kicked the bucket at the age of 29, a failson with no accomplishments aside from three-quarters of a Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Psychology and the third fastest speedrun time worldwide on Super Climb Up. My death was as unremarkable as my life, my murderer a stray dollop of shower gel on wet ceramic.

I had felt like some kind of ghost in life, drifting through a comfortable but empty life afforded to me by our culture’s worship of male mediocrity. When my life ended and some fraction of my consciousness endured, I couldn’t gather my thoughts enough to see the irony of being a real ghost.

My spirit walked the halls of my home for what must have been years, dazed and aimless. The whole of my consciousness felt stuck in the frightening moments one experiences after being startled awake: disoriented and upset, ready to lash out at even the slightest provocation.

I imagine I did lash out, because after a while new people stopped coming by. I didn’t realize how much worse that would be, but it was far worse. Loneliness prolonged the days and my distorted senses distorted even further.

At long last, something disrupted the monotony, and… I don’t remember anything after that.


When my senses returned to me, they returned quick and clear. I felt like myself again, which, while nothing to get excited about, was at least a relief. I could feel myself breathing. I forced my eyes open to stare at the dull grey ceiling of the house. I remembered my forgettable life, my thoughts held still when I wished them to, and time seemed to be passing at a normal rate. It felt like… life.

Was I alive again?

I stood up without difficulty. I peered around what seemed to be my old bedroom, but it was barren. That lent credence to the notion that my time as a ghost had been real; my belongings had been taken from this room a long time ago. The paint on the walls had grown dull over time.

“Avery, my man,” I told myself aloud, “you are in over your fool head.”

I approached a window and tried to look outside, but saw only a near-palpable darkness. The windows both resisted all attempts to open them, no matter how hard I tugged, and my arms were distinctly sore when I gave up and walked to the door.

The handle turned easily, so I pulled open the door, bringing myself face-to-face with a nightmare.

I backpedaled into the room, arms raised in a futile attempt to protect myself as my eyes squeezed shut to block out the painful sight. I couldn’t describe what I’d just seen in any physical terms. It looked like being punched in the stomach. It looked like crying alone. It looked like the sucking pit where your heart ought to be.

But even with my eyes shut, I couldn’t shut out the sound. Susurrus rustling coalesced into hissing whispers that spat indistinct litanies of condemnation and judgment. I knew every word by heart without understanding a single one.

The whispers grew closer and sharper as the entity approached. The wall pressed against my back and I quailed at my fate.

“Open your eyes!” called a voice from the doorway.

“Wh-who!” My voice was a high-pitched, terrified yelp. “Who’s that!”

“Open your eyes!” the stranger called again. “Open them now, or you will die!”

I tore open my eyelids, feeling the breath leave me as my gaze fell into the unbearable shape only inches away. The entity hesitated, staring through me with eyes that burned like the road flares around a fatal car accident.

“If you can see it,”called the helpful voice, “it forgets you exist. Just don’t touch it. Sidle around. It’s okay to blink, but do it fast.”

I did as they asked, keeping my eyes fixed on the formless monster. Its gaze almost seemed to move along with me, but with no intent to the movement—they simply rotated, like 2D sprites from a vintage first-person shooter.

I allowed myself a glance over at the stranger. Just inside the door stood a tall, muscular androgyne with long, pointed ears, dark gray-green skin, and a pair of clean white tusks that jutted up from their lower jaw on either side of their nose. Despite resembling an orc from a Tolkien derivative, their outfit was modern streetwear, a black tank top and jeans and enough piercings to get a job at a skate shop.

Pointing at the entity, they barked, “don’t look at me, look at that!”

“Right!” I snapped my attention back onto the roiling, ugly mass. I much preferred looking at a cool gargoyle person, and I used that as my anchor to keep me moving, keep me from thinking too much about what I was looking at.

“Good,” said my new friend, close to me now, “you’re doing great.” I felt hands on my shoulders, leading me backward but keeping me facing the entity. With Reese’s guidance, I kept backing up until I saw the door, and I reached out to pull it gently closed with a gentle click.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t get bored too fast.” The hands on my shoulders lifted.

“Thank you so much, Reese,” I said, turning, only to freeze in place as I processed what we’d already said to one another. “W-w-wait.”

“Okay, so what’s your deal,” Reese demanded, leaning in close and poking my chest with a big finger. “What are you doing here, Avery?”

“Why do you know my name?” I asked, backing further away down the hall. “Why do I know your name?”

“I think a better question is, why don’t I know anything else about you?” When Reese straightened, they loomed over me by almost a meter. “What’s it mean that I met you right after everything blew up?”

“Blew up?” I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about that, I swear.”

“I hate that I believe you.” Reese sighed and rolled their shoulders, glaring down the hall. “Listen, there’s something really wrong with this whole place. I need to find Iris; she’ll know what’s going on. You’d better come with me.”

I hesitated for a fraction of a moment before nodding. Reese took my hand and led me to the door at the end of the hall, the one that led to what used to be my sister’s room. They opened the door and muttered something I couldn’t understand under their breath before speaking up. “It changed again.”

I slipped around Reese and through the doorway before I realized what they meant. I stepped onto a balcony that overlooked a massive atrium, decorated in the style of my old house but far larger than it had ever been. From the ceiling hung a huge chandelier. Mounted on it were rows upon rows of copies of the lamp that hung over the stairwell in my home.

“No way,” I whispered, putting both of my hands on the balcony railing to peer down below.

“Yeah, that’s a mood.” Reese clapped me on the shoulder and walked to the stairwell. I scampered after.

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