The Forgeries Of Jealousy

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I.1: Tricks

Dust and cobwebs crawled all across the room, over the towering heaps of clothes and boxes and shopping bags of mail. The plants in the window had been dead for months, dirt fallen from their table and water stains on the dirty, dusty sea-green carpeting. But the Jack-O'Lantern burned bright above the fireplace, casting its light through the dust, catching in the empty eye sockets of the skull by the door.

Those empty orbits had a commanding view of the main floor of the house, atop their skeletal perch. The silver statue sat atop its orb, regal as an Athenian king; its ribcage twisted and melted into strange cyclopean structures, a dollhouse of worship for the tiny statues within.

The house breathed, as all houses are wont to do as the temperature heats and cools across its length. The dust circulated through it, all around the Babelic towers of material, and through and intimately within that sacred skull.

It was a silent house; a dormant house.

It was in this environment that Jeremy Sprocket found himself, eyes adjusting to the low, flickering light. His eyes made a wide sweep of the place as his nostrils wrinkled at the dust. "Humphrey can't expect us to have the party here, can he?" He used the pleading voice he used when he told the parents of the children in his Tae Kwon Do studio about their childrens' behavioral problems. "I've stayed in homeless shelters classier than this."

"Then leave and go over to their party, jackass," said Ness Halicarn, entering right behind him. "Class is a thing you bring with you, not a function of the environment."

Jeremy had come dressed as Alexander the Great, and the costume suited him well. The sword-and-sandal motif put his gorgeously chiseled abs and exquisite calves on full display. He looked like a man ready to conquer. Ness, by contrast, had chosen a simple zombie look, and the job she had done on her makeup made her a truly ghastly sight to behold. A casual observer, however, couldn't really tell whether the scent of many unbathed days was also an affect, or genuine.

"You expect us to have a good time here?" Said Laszlo, pulling a box from off a table. "These Twinkies expired in 1999!"

"What better Halloween decoration could there be?" said Ness, pulling out one of the moldy cream-filled cakes from the box, inspecting it with an artist's eye. "I could cover a canvas with this image, highlight the beauty in decay. Humphrey's laid out the most beautifully unsettling decorations." She searched for a place to sit and came up empty-handed; there were no chairs uncovered by the towers of rotting papers and time-worn clothes. "He could have made the place a smidge more habitable, though."

"You can say that again," said the man now arriving, "The atmosphere in here is positively stifling! Where is our host? Humphrey!"

"We haven't seen Humphrey yet," said Ness, "We waited outside for a while until we found the door was open. I'm sure you'll see him eventually."

"I won't, sorry," said the man, tilting his dark glasses and waving his white cane.

"Oh, sorry," said Ness, "I didn't notice that, Mister…"

"My name is Laszlo Nahum, inventor of the Refrigerated Socks for hot climates." He paused for effect. "I know, I know; you're probably all starstruck. Rest assured that under this wealthy exterior is a plebian soul not unlike yourselves, a man who just wants to party like it's 1999!"

"Oh, so you brought the expired Twinkies!" said Ness.

"Very funny. You sound just like my fifteenth ex-girlfriend," said Laszlo.

"And you sound-" Jeremy tapped her on the shoulder. "What?" she asked. They drew away into a huddle.

"Ness, I- I really don't want to be around that man," said Jeremy. Ness stared at him. Laszlo seemed like a creep, but was he really worth that look of dread in Jeremy's eyes?

"I don't like him either, but we don't have much of a choice," said Ness. "There's only the three of us at this party so far, and we can't very well avoid socialization in all the ways we used to hide from the cops."

Laszlo tripped over the train of his worm-suit and cursed.

"The way we used to hide from the cops…" Jeremy mused. "Like charity work. Come to think of it, this place would be the better for a bit of benevolent burglary."

Ness got a gleam in her eye. "You know, that junk-hauling company owes me a favor, and I'd really like to get Humphrey in my debt."

"So what are we going to do? Spend the whole party throwing all the trash in here outside?"

"Would you rather, perhaps, spend it with Laszlo?"

"Good point. Let's go-"

A look of dawning logistical horror came on Ness's face. "No, no, no. Not us. Just you."

"But that would leave you with him, and you just said you didn't like him either!"

"Listen, Jeremy," said Ness. "It would be a real, real bad look for me if I left a blind guy by himself in this hazardous house."

Jeremy sighed. "All right." He turned to Laszlo. "I'm going to start cleaning up in here," he said, raising his voice an octave. Ness stared. Why was he disguising his voice?

Jeremy disappeared into the thick pathways of junk. Ness watched him leave, then turned her head to find Laszlo approaching her.

"You know, my hearing is still perfectly good," whispered Laszlo. "I know he's doing that just to get away from me, though for the life of me I don't know why. But never let it be said that Laszlo Nahum stood back and let everyone else do the work!"

He paused. "I may…" he started, "need some help navigating and identifying things. I'm not Daredevil. But my arms are in good working order, and from the sound of it, this house needs all the hands on deck it can get."

"So you're dragging me into helping you?"

"Hey, I heard what you were saying earlier! I heard the inflection in your voice as you realized it had to be him alone. You wanted to clean this place up, you just had to safeguard your image by babysitting a fully grown man." He paused. "Well, now you get to do both. Come on, there's broken furniture to move."

"All right," sighed Ness. This was not her idea of a Halloween party, but if she could stick it on her social resume, it was fine with her. She led Laszlo to a corner and started to work.

I.2: Rehearsal

The house had more than one unlocked outer door, and through another of them came a bright-eyed young girl in her eleventh autumn. The room around her was lit by the flame of a Jack O'Lantern over the fireplace, and on the house's sole usable table was a bowl of candy. She took in the architecture of the room, gazing with interest at a pile of rubber masks of various livestock and a functional turntable complete with record, until her eyes lit upon the skeleton in the corner. She picked up a chocolate and went to examine it.

She took out a yellow sketchbook, flipped through reams of costume and theater set design, and started to sketch the temple that stood where the skeleton's torso ought to be. She unwrapped the chocolate, left the wrapper on the ground, and began to chew.

Jeremy had found a good starting point: a tarnished claw-foot table over a camel-hair rug, covered in stacks of VHS tapes. He thought it would be easy to throw all of them out, as nobody used that old format anymore; yet he stopped to look fondly over his childhood favorite cartoons. The mystery show with a talking dog, Kain Pathos Crow, What Do You Know?. The sword-and-sorcery show about the psychotic butterfly master, Kondrak The Barbarian. Whatever happened to that one? he thought. Then he remembered as he picked up a dusty copy of the last movie in that series. Ah yes. They went severely over-budget on the special effects of Kondrak riding Godzilla. At least the show's spinoff, Zyn: Warrior Princess had done well; more popular by far than its predecessor. Last he had heard, Adult Swim had picked up the rights to the Kondrak character; he vaguely remembered a mind-numbingly stupid premise involving a water bottle. One of these days he would have to look that up again. The days in the sun of popular characters would be long over if people didn't find new ways to portray them.

No. No! He would not fall victim to nostalgia. He would not let this house lure him into attachment. Jeremy was a free man, and he would throw out whatever was useless. He shoved a whitewashed window open and threw the VHS tapes out into the dark. He stumbled over a leather bag and heard a clatter inside. He opened it up. Apparently, it had once contained identical ceramic figurines of a man with a ukulele, but they had all been smashed to pieces over the years. The bag was ruined, but Jeremy figured he needed a bigger box to carry things out; otherwise, he would have to take too many trips. He began to search, and his footsteps squished on the leathery floor.

"Can I toss this?"

"Hmm, let's see… 'A Waterproof Guide To Morse Code and Braille', by a Mx… 'Echo?' Odd pseudonym…"

"Ah, so it could be useful, then! I'll take that. What about this?"

"Some kid's book. 'Curious Kong and the King in the Yellow Hat.' "

"Right! I'll toss that. This feels similar?"

" 'The Wicked, Evil and Otherwise Infamous Tale of That Absolute Scoundrel, Johnny Appleseed,' by a Dr. King."

"Sounds like a real nutcase. We'll toss it. How about this box?"

"A two-sided Betamax tape. According to the label, it stores… something about Ronald Reagan, and something about a clown on the other."

"Ooh, really? Sounds like something so boring it could help me sleep at night."

"But do you own a Betamax player?"

"… Fair point. Toss."

Jeremy had found an empty box and was beginning to pour the broken shards of ceramic figurines into them when he heard a murmuring around the corner: "These are the forgeries of jealousy! And never since…"

He peeked and saw a middle-aged woman holding a book at arms' length, eyes closed. She wore a Statue of Liberty costume, yet her facial makeup was smeared, and beneath the crown Jeremy could see the cauliflower ears of a boxer.

"…The fold stands empty in the drowned field…" she continued saying, in a stream of faltering words.

"Hello? Miss?" Said Jeremy.

"… And crows are fatted with the mur- mur… What is that word? Damn it, I had it up to line seventeen that time! What do you want?" She said, glaring at Jeremy.

"I was just wondering what you were doing over here."

"I'm practicing my lines, and I'd do it a million times better if you wouldn't interrupt!"

"Sorry, carry on," said Jeremy.

"Ah. Murrion! No wonder I didn't know what the word was." She cleared her throat. "…And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; the nine-"

Jeremy resumed pouring the ceramic shards into his box. They did not go quietly. At last, the noise stopped, and the woman was able to resume.

"And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; the nine-"

Jeremy increased the angle of the box, letting the shards fall once more. The woman tapped her foot impatiently as this went on, an endless porcelain cannonade that rattled the eardrums and assailed the sanity. After far too long, it stopped.

The woman sighed.

She glanced sideways in trepidation at Jeremy, waiting a carefully timed pause.

She inhaled.


Jeremy inverted the box wholesale, and all at once every remaining shard crashed down at once into his collection box. He started to whistle as he broke down the first box and began dragging the garbage away.

The woman closed her book. "What in hell are you doing?"

Jeremy lifted the box. "Same as you. Avoiding the party by assigning myself work."

The woman's jaw dropped. "Theater is not social avoidance!"

"Said the woman who chose to spend her time at a Halloween party in a corner memorizing a book. What you're doing isn't theater. You're not fooling anyone."

She drew herself up to her full height. Only now did Jeremy realize he was dealing with a seven-foot giantess.

"I don't have to justify my actions to anyone, least of all you, Jeremy Sprocket."

"Okay, okay- Wait, how did you know my name?"

"My daughter went to your Taekwondo class for a few months, a year back," she said. "She dropped it to pursue her after-school time doing theater." She sighed. "Now she's spending all her time with her theater friends, immersed in that world… I barely know her anymore."

Jeremy thought back. "You're… Columbia Sybilstein's mother?" He remembered the young girl with the giant mother, one who, unlike the other, more restless children, found comfort in the repetition of exercise, confidence in the choreography of martial arts. "I never knew why she left. She was so happy with us."

"Yes, I'm Rhodes Sybilstein," said Rhodes. "So now that we both know each others' names, I'm going back to memorizing Shakespeare, and you," She gestured to the box, "Can get on with your bit of preferred loneliness."

Her last words stung. "I'm not trying to be lonely, I just want to stay away from Laszlo." He looked back up at her, starting to say, "Maybe we could make the memorization process a social thing?" before realizing her skin tone had just gotten relatively pale.

"Laszlo's here?" she whispered. "Oh, no…"

"And this feels like the last of the kids' books. What is it?"

"Some Christian thing. 'Saint Paul and the Shipwreck,' by a Mx. Di." She opened the book. "Ooh, sneaky, it's trying to teach kids Latin. Not sure I care for that."

"Ness… Can I keep that?" Said Laszlo.

"Why, because it's pretentious B.S. to trick kids into learning a dead language by first tricking them into reading about religion?"

"No, I'm not a churched man, anymore," said Laszlo. "It's just… I always wondered about that Paul guy."

"What about him?"

"Here was, let's face it, a fairly gnarly mass murderer," said Laszlo. "He's just traveling down the road about to kill more people for what he considers blasphemy, when all of a sudden the head blasphemer appears to him and blinds him." he paused. "And then he starts working for the guy."

Ness stared at the pustules of mildew in the wallpaper. "Why does that disturb you so?"

"Because it's more than I could do, Ness." said Laszlo. She turned back to him. "Because I recognize that forgiveness is good and all, but the one thing I have left in this darkened brain is my hatred for the SOB who…" he paused. "Oh, never mind. Let's throw it out. Say, you know that show Doctor Who? You ever heard the story of…" he started spinning a wild yarn of treachery and subterfuge that Ness thought was almost certainly untrue.

Still, Ness could read faces like nobody's business. Laszlo clearly wanted to move on from his hatred. But he feared the emptiness that would follow. Yes, Ness thought, you had to have something to live for. Ness understood the feeling well.

The young girl absent-mindedly took another handful of chocolates from the bowl, her sketch of the skeleton's temple structure becoming more and more intricate. What a beautiful architectural style! A musical number could be sung in its praise, if she had someone to rehearse with.

But Columbia Sybilstein was alone among her family in her passion for theater. Her mother lacked the knack for memorization, or indeed any sort of subtlety. The tight scripts of plays gave rigor to an otherwise chaotic life, as Rhodes's boxing career took her on tour constantly, often leaving Columbia to be a latchkey child.

Columbia watched an insect crawl across the skeleton's ribs and sulked. She wanted to create something wonderful. She saw the skeleton and the temple inside it, and watched the insect crawl by the figurines that worshipped in the temple, including- was that figurine also a skeleton?

Something spoke to her in the darkened corners of her mind. Words and nothing more, but words she could not refuse.

She stared at the skeleton, and as she stared she reached for another snack. She took the bowl of the chocolates, and began to swallow.

Bowl, wrappers, and all.

II.1: Watching Movies

The house breathed as it hadn't breathed in years, as Laszlo and Ness disturbed the dust, opening the windows and carrying the broken furniture and expired jars outside.

Ness had hardly had time to think in all the time she had spent with Laszlo. On and on he spoke, as though he feared the silence. She learned the story behind his worm costume. "It's not just any worm," he had said, "It's a nematomorph! They're the scariest parasites I can think of, because they have a sort of natural mind-control ability: somehow, they can force their hosts to travel into water." Ness found it disturbing that Laszlo had known this, and she quickly zoned out of the conversation for quite some time, staring instead at the vein-like cracks in the ceiling paint. She could swear they were pulsing, but that might have just been her eyes.

"… And that's how my fourth girlfriend and I convinced the BBC to go ahead with the Doctor Who episode 'Blink', in spite of the threats by the Saints' Celestial Programming lobby." Laszlo paused for breath, searching for a story that would go well after that one, before remembering that girlfriends twelve and fourteen had both cited his lack of interest in them as people in their reasons for breaking up. "So, uh, what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a painter," she said. "I hold up a mirror to society by painting the landscapes that fall between the cracks."

"Ah," Said Laszlo. "God's work, that. I used to love landscape paintings… before, you know…" He paused. "It's noble, but I imagine it's not helping to pay the bills much."

"It isn't," said Ness. "Luckily, the way I'm doing it I don't have many bills."

"How do you mean?" asked Laszlo.

"There was a time I had to choose," said Ness. "My parents threatened to kick me out when I told them I was trans. They told me I could stay in the house and keep my birth gender, or be who I wanted to be on the streets."

"That sounds awful," said Laszlo. Ness could see his outer shell soften, showing genuine concern for once. "I am so sorry. How could they threaten you with such a choice?"

"I still don't know," sighed Ness. "It was a tough decision. But I read my Bible, and I found a passage that helped me decide. "

"Never thought of that book as particularly pro-trans," said Laszlo. "I myself have often campaigned for the rights of-"

"I didn't look to it because it judged me," said Ness. "I looked to it because it makes me judge myself by my own convictions." She sighed. "The point is, there's this moral rich guy who almost follows Jesus, but he's too afraid of becoming homeless in the process. He gave up on his dreams of personal growth; I decided I wasn't going to give up on mine. That may not be what most people got out of that story, but I'm not most people."

Laszlo was stunned. For once, he didn't have a word to say about himself. And in the silence, he heard footsteps approaching.

"That must be Jeremy," said Laszlo. "Perhaps we should hide so I don't make him feel uncomfortable."

"All right," Ness said.

Jeremy let Ness guide him into a position behind some Costco stacks of water-damaged paper towels. "What is with that guy, anyway? Is he afraid of the disabled or something? I've never seen an ableist grown man so scared."

"I can't rule it out," admitted Ness, "But I don't think he is. He's a huge jerk, but he never acted that way around the blind guys at the shelter. And whenever I've been by, he's been kind to his blind students at his martial arts studio."

They fell quiet as they heard two people approach.

"Okay, that's line 1-3 you've got down pat, at least for now," Came the voice of Jeremy. "I just wish you didn't keep forgetting what we already practiced."

"All right, all right," said a female voice. "You've got the book, what's verse four?"

"'By paved fountain or by rushy brook,'" said Jeremy.

"All right. From the top: 'These are the forgeries of jealousy…'" said the female voice.

The voices continued, receding into the slight distance. Sound didn't carry all that well in this stifling house.

"I- I know those voices," said Laszlo.

"Oh?" said Ness. "Who's the lady?"

"Girlfriend number twelve."

"Of course she is," sighed Ness. "It's like you don't know how to make friends with women, you always have to skip straight ahead to the ultimate level. How do you know Jeremy, then?"

"I- I'll tell you in a moment, but first, please move your hand, it's really starting to make me uncomfortable to have my knee resting on it."

"My hand isn't anywhere near your knee."

"If you insist," said Laszlo, moving his knee away from the hand. "Anyway, they're gone, we can resume moving things."

"All right, get your foot off my back, and we can get up."

"I think I'd know if my foot was on anyone's back, thank you very much. Both of my feet are on the floor, where feet should be."

Ness brushed off the foot and stood up. "All right. On to getting rid of things once more. Give me a hand with a busted chair, will you?"

They left that corner, and the piles they jostled let fall a corpse hidden in them, whose hand and foot had troubled them so. It lay there on the bare floorboards for a few minutes longer, before the floorboards started to open up, stretching over a chasm of pus and blood. The corpse fell in, piece by piece.

The chasm started a coughing fit and, eventually, closed.

III.1: The Danse Macabre

A bloody yellow fluid dripped from the ceiling in a few places, but nobody noticed. Only the dark sockets of the metal skeleton took in the full picture. Its servant lurked in the corners.

"Oi! Jeremy!" Shouted Laszlo, rushing to the last place he had heard Jeremy's voice.

A hand reached out and grabbed a donkey mask from the pile, then turned on the record player.

It's the time of year
When we show our fear
Cause it's scary all the time

When we're given grace
To reveal our face
From the rat-race pantomime

"Laszlo Nahum," came the voice of Jeremy.

"I know who you are now, Jeremy!" said Laszlo.

"And I've always known who you are, Las-zlo," said Jeremy's voice. "You put on a good act, Laszlo, but I see through your guise."

"And who am I, then?" said Laszlo.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the house, Jeremy was stunned to hear his own voice speaking somewhere else. He ran towards the voices he heard, but it was hard going through the piles of junk. Somewhere in the shadows, he could dimly make out the shape of a donkey mask at the source of the voice.

"You're just a scared little boy, afraid to face himself in the mirror. An insecure brat, a child who knows deep down he isn't worth anything. How many girlfriends have you had, now? Nineteen? Twenty? And all of them left you when they saw you had nothing to bring to the table. What I did to you was a mercy. Now you won't have to face yourself in the mirror ever again."

Wealth fears the poor
As a force majeure
So they demonize that fate

As they don't befriend
On that social end
They don't know who to love or hate

Laszlo's voice came to Jeremy through the darkness. "I brought you into my home, gave you a place to sleep, and you repaid me by blinding me!"

Jeremy spoke. "Yeah, I- I remember that night.

"I hate thinking about it, honestly; it's why I've been avoiding you.

"I can't ask you to forgive me; it's the worst thing I've ever done, and I am so, so sorry."

"At least tell me why!" Said the voice of Laszlo. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"Why?" said Jeremy. He was fairly certain it wasn't Laszlo talking now, but his emotions were surging. This guy still didn't have a clue why Jeremy had reacted the way that he did? "Why? I'll fucking tell you why! You betrayed me.

"I thought I could trust somebody for the first time in years. And you- you stood outside my door the whole night just waiting for me to try to steal something.

"Don't try to pretend you were some good Samaritan, because a good Samaritan tries to build trust in good faith. If you wanted to help me and didn't trust me yet, you could have offered me a hotel room. But no! You thought you'd get all the glory by catching a crime that you created the conditions for."

When vampires kiss
And werewolves miss
The tender heart of man

You can love the dark
And fear the spark
In a lighted pleasant plan

Ness shrieked, slightly, as she felt someone bump into her. "Sorry," said a voice she recognized; it was Laszlo's twelfth girlfriend, who she really didn't know.

"It's okay," said Ness. "Are you okay? Hit anything in all this dark?"

"Thankfully, no," said the woman. "I can hear those two yelling, though. Too much drama for my taste."

"I could see that, yes," said Ness. She was uncomfortable, and retreated to where she felt best: on her moral high horse. "I could see when you were trying to memorize all those lines that drama's something you really have no interest in. That's rather boorish, to try to impress people doing something you hate, you know that?"

"I don't care about impressing any of you all," said the woman. "It's just…" she paused. "I've tried everything that feels authentic to me to try to bond with my daughter. Nothing has worked. I'm a giant boxer with a love for tacky-ass tourist traps; her world is so much more… cultured and complex than my own. It's important to spend time with one's loved ones, you know? It costs me, but I'd rather be a bit inauthentic than be cut off from the people I love." She sighed.

"I can't relate," said Ness. Her voice was cold. "In my experience, if a world shuns you, it's best to forgo that entire world. It's why I never slept at any of my friend's places after my parents kicked me out for being trans. They offered, they said it didn't matter, but I knew their prejudices."

"So, let me get this straight…" said the woman. "Out of all the homeless folks out there who would jump at that chance, you refused to sleep in a friends' house that would accept you out of principle?"

"I'm not blaming you for your homelessness," the woman quickly added. "You made the right choice in the ultimatum. But afterwards, it sounds like you, specifically, had the opportunity to make it easier on yourself, without endangering your truth, and refused. That's not principle."

"What would you know about principle, you hypocritical- " Ness had tried to avoid violence whenever possible, but this… this was too far. She raised her fists…

And the slasher's rage
Makes you turn the page
As you scream for them to flee

But they're trapped for fear
In the atmosphere
It just won't leave them be

It was the first time Laszlo had considered his own actions that night as anything less than honorable. It wasn't a good feeling. "You can't fucking blame the victim, Jeremy!" He shouted. "It wasn't my fucking hand around the fucking stiletto, and you know it! That? That was you!"

"But it can be now," whispered a voice to Laszlo. He stumbled back as tiny fingers thrust a sword-shaped letter opener into his hand. Laszlo's fingers closed around the blade.

Jeremy shouted, "I get it! What I did was wrong, and I am sorry! I can't ever make it up to you. But at least I did it honorably," he said as his urge to justify himself rose, "Punching up rather than down. What you did was-"

And then Laszlo tackled him, and a stabbing pain went through Jeremy's shoulder. He screamed.

"Well now," said Laszlo, "Let's see how your blood can make it up to me. And honor- hmm, does a blind man killing an able-bodied man running a taekwondo studio count as punching up?"

Jeremy rose, unsteadily, as Laszlo stood up in preparation for another stab, and hit Laszlo with a spinning hook kick, his preferred weapon for making contact in the dark. Laszlo stumbled backwards, and the stiletto in his hand stabbed the wall, which started to bleed. He ripped the knife back out and listened for the sound of Jeremy. He turned, hearing a noise, and stabbed in that direction, which was unlucky for Rhodes, because that's who he hit. Rhodes turned away from Ness, who punched her, knocking her aim a bit off kilter so that instead of Laszlo, she hit Jeremy, who tried to retaliate and sidekicked someone who later turned out to be Ness, who stumbled back into Laszlo, who rushed backwards in panic, careening off of Rhodes's fist and stabbing the bleeding wall again.

And that's when the house fully awoke.

The floor lurched. It groaned and trembled beneath the four combatants, who warily looked with unease at the floor, which was now oozing pus.

Jeremy decided he had had enough of all this and tried to make a beeline for the exit before tripping on the tail of Laszlo's worm suit.

He fell onto a material with all the warmth and texture of human flesh.

"What the heck?" said Jeremy, as he tried to get up. But he would not escape so easily. Rough stomach-lips formed around him on the floor, and hands and tongues grasped at his sticky, slippery flesh. They held him in place as the lips began to close.

And Laszlo struggled and shouted for help as the floor closed around him as well.

And Rhodes went limp, hoping like a true boxer to let the hands exhaust their strength before striking back. She could afford to wait. So she thought.

And Ness tried to be clever. She jumped onto the stacks of clothes and furniture and began trying to pathfind a floor-is-lava solution to get to the exit. But as she went, she heard a soft hissing behind her. Turning her head for a moment, she saw a small person in a photorealistic donkey mask lifting a Wiffle bat over her head, poised to strike.

The impact didn't hurt. It didn't need to. All it needed to do was destabilize the rickety pile of furniture Ness was on. The avalanche reached the floor, and the floor swallowed Ness whole.

IV.1: The Costume Contest

Verbally, the metallic skeleton said nothing. Nonverbally was a different story. It made eye contact with Columbia, acknowledging her staring at it, then gave a little twirl, a bow, and a cautious gesture of "who, me?" to its' forehead.

"You are… beautiful," said the young girl wearing the donkey mask. "Your body contains a literal miniature temple, and it's fascinating!"

They were alone in the house now. All the lights were out.

The skeleton gestured to its temple construct. It gestured to its sternum, near where its heart would be. Then it gestured, kindly, towards Columbia and her own heart.

"I suppose so," said the young girl in the donkey mask. "I just hope your plan works."

"Don't worry," said the skeleton, "You'll all live."

"But will we get to be human again?" said the girl.

The skeleton hesitated. "I didn't say you'd be happy," it said. "But you'll live."

Laszlo Nahum woke to a rough stinging sensation and tried to stretch his arms. Then he tried to stretch his legs. He tried to scream, and his mouth turned inside out as it extruded from his head-hole.

This was the point when he realized this party was well and truly ruined.

He thrashed about screaming, and felt the scratchiness of the pocket he was in. He tried to claw his way out before he remembered he couldn't claw at anything anymore, and tried the next best thing. He used his gnashing cone of teeth to try to chew his way out.

It's salt, thought Ness as her own inside-out mouth made an opening in the barrier. I'm surrounded by a cocoon of salt. No wonder it stings.

Jeremy finally managed to inch his way outside the salt barrier to be greeted by a wall of flesh. He couldn't see it, but he felt the pulsing veins of the living organ meat around him, blistered and kept at bay by the salt. How deep does this go? He thought.

And which way is up? thought Rhodes, as she began to chew her way through the cyst wall.

This feels… strangely natural, thought Jeremy.

Like I was made for this, thought Ness.

But I can't stay here, thought Laszlo.

I need, thought Rhodes,

To get, thought Ness,

To water. thought Rhodes. It wasn't a compulsion, just… a desperate instinct.

To water. thought Laszlo.

To water! thought Jeremy.

And as they chewed through veins and flesh, severing the lymph nodes and nerves and puncturing the intestines, some part of their newly nematomorphic anatomy sent out the signal to the living house.

That night the youth of the neighborhood told their parents wild tales. They claimed the old Humphrey estate had started to shudder, knocking loose some of its roof tiles and shattering its windows. Its foundations had buckled, and it moved its mass in waves, beginning to crawl like an enormous caterpillar. They had to run out of its way as it lumbered onto the street, making a beeline in the direction of the lake.

Amnestics covered the direct memories, but secondhand accounts were impossible to suppress. The legend lived on in the town of the year a lonely house had gone out to trick-or-treat.

The house began, slowly, to sink below the lake's surface.

*V.1: Bobbing for Apples**

The freshwater pouring in between the gaps gave Rhodes the sense of gravity that she needed. She oriented herself and made a huge effort to gnaw her way up to the surface.

With her humanoid senses which had made it into her nematomorph form, she saw Columbia, casually holding a conversation with a living metal skeleton as the water level rose, faster and faster.

"Columbia! What are you doing?" Rhodes shouted. Somehow the human anatomy required for speaking had been integrated into this Kafka form. "We need to get out of here before we drown!"

"We won't drown, mother," said Columbia. She took off her donkey mask. Beneath it, the skin of her face was cut into quarters, and the quarters opened up to regurgitate an inside-out mouth, complete with a circle of teeth. "I was the prototype for the transformation. We all breathe both air and water now."

"You knew?" said Rhodes. "You helped all this happen? Why?"

"Don't be a fool, mother," said Columbia. "The house was going to eat everyone once it woke up. But it can only digest humans. Hence…" she gestured to the remains of her face.

Ness breached the surface next. "You! Magic skeleton! Let us go!"

The skeleton shook its head. "I can't do that, Ness," he said. "You need a home and won't take one if offered. Someone has to look out for you, whether you like it or not."

Jeremy breached the surface. "What is everyone waiting for? Let's get out of here!" He wriggled his body towards the door.

"Now, now, Jeremy," said the skeleton. "What's left for you out there? Are you going to teach taekwondo without arms or legs?"

Jeremy paused for a moment. Then he launched his worm-form at the skeleton. His teeth bit and chewed, but they could not scratch the metal.

"Oh, Jeremy," said the skeleton. "Temper, temper. How very rude of you."

"Change us back!" said Laszlo, wheezing as he finally bit through the upper layer of floor-flesh.

"You don't get it, do you?" said the skeleton, its' voice growing stentorian. "None of you understand? I am the Guardian. I take in the people who have nowhere else to go. The transformation business is a last resort; it's a one-time thing. You can't change back."

"And frankly, from all your arguments, it really seems like you need to stay here. Jeremy's a violent criminal. Laszlo feels so insecure in himself that he needs to bully others to make himself feel better. They would do better in my care than out in the world."

"And you, Rhodes," it said, turning to her, "The neglectful parent of the bunch. Where were you this whole party when your daughter was alone? I think it's best to force you to stay here. With your daughter. You have a lot of time together to catch up on."

"These…" said Rhodes quietly.

"You idiot, you've doomed us all!" said Laszlo, pointing to Jeremy with his tail. "It sees one bad apple and it thinks we're all rotten!"

"These are…" said Rhodes, her voice halting, but gaining in strength.

"Don't blame me, you treacherous son of a bitch!" said Jeremy. "I'm honest about what I did. Your whole pretend hero shtick is way worse!"

"Great," said Ness. "Now I'm stuck in here for the rest of my life with you losers?"

"These are the forgeries of jealousy!"

Everyone looked at Rhodes. The water was up to waist height now.

Rhodes paused.

"This skeleton has nothing. No flesh, no blood, nobody to care for it. It's jealous of us all, and in that jealousy, it imagines every crime, every flaw, a million times worse. It sees no mitigating factors, no mercy. And you, Columbia, have fallen into the same trap."

"What trap, mother?" said Columbia. "You aren't spending time with me anymore. It's obvious that you don't love me."

"I- I still love you, Columbia. We haven't been spending time together because- because our interests have diverged so much. Each of us can't enjoy the things the other likes to do. And neither of us has made the effort to swallow our pride and do something we hate. Until now.

And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,

okay, how does the next line go, uh…

By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beach… beached margarine? margaret? No, that doesn't make sense… Ah!
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind."

"You- you memorized parts of Titania's monologue from A Midsummer Night's Dream? F-for me?"

"Because I love you, Columbia," said Rhodes. "I- I wanted to surprise you at the party, we could have acted out that scene together. I was afraid of disappointing you if I wasn't able to do it, so I left you alone. I'm sorry, Columbia."

The water was chest height now, and Rhodes fought to keep her mouth above water. She didn't need air to breathe, true, but speaking with inexplicably human vocal chords is a different matter.

"Now, come on. This is our last chance to speak in the voices we once had. Columbia, let's do this scene!"

"But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport." Started Rhodes.

"Therefore," said Columbia quietly.

"The winds, piping to us in vain," continued Rhodes.

"As in revenge, Have suck'd up from the sea contagious fogs," said Jeremy, to general surprise. "What? I helped her memorize the thing."

"You… helped Rhodes connect with our daughter?" said Laszlo.

"So what if I did, you big galoot- wait, 'our' daughter?"

Laszlo approached Jeremy, fighting through the rising water. "I…" he said, "Am nothing. I am nobody. I thought my hatred for you was all I had left. But I never realized how much more I still cared about.

"Rhodes… she's the only one of my former girlfriends I never got over. She left me and took Columbia, and I can't say I blame them for wanting to leave such a pretentious blowhard as I. If you helped them reconcile, it means the world to me. Thank you, Jeremy."

"You're… you're welcome, I suppose?" Said Jeremy. "This is a bit abrupt after all the stabbing you were doing earlier, too. You sure it isn't just because we're stuck together now, without any hands to hold your knives?"

"Hmm, good point," said Laszlo, who immediately began to try to gouge out pieces of Jeremy's flesh with his new, improved teeth.

"which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:" Said Ness, as she head-butted Laszlo out of biting distance of Jeremy.

"Shut the fuck up!" said Ness to Laszlo. "You want to hate Jeremy? Fine. Hate him. But know that he's got pretty good reason to hate you too.

"You've got to swallow your fucking pride, Laszlo. You said your hatred for Jeremy is all you've got left. But you've just admitted your joy on behalf of your baby mama. Now I've got an ultimatum for you. (Oh god I'm just like my mother… No. This is based on principle, not prejudice. On principle, goddammit!) You either keep that hatred alone and keep attacking… or admit to having more than one emotion at the same time like a goddamn mature human being! (Ha! Take that, Mom!)"

"The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;" Said Rhodes.

Columbia spoke. "Laszlo, Mom left you because you would never listen to a woman. Prove her wrong."

Rhodes said, "We're all in the same shitty boat now, Laszlo:

The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

Ah! I got it that time!

The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable."

Laszlo's heart thumped loud in his ears. His affections for Rhodes, unreturned now but still as strong as ever, spoke in his heart. He searched his soul and found that on some level, it agreed with Jeremy; his own actions that night had been wrong. His soul's grip on his hatred slackened, slightly, for the first time in years. And he finally found himself in the shoes of Saul of Tarsus, on the verge of becoming Paul.

"I'm… I'm sorry for what I did to you, Jeremy," Said Laszlo. "It was real shitty of me. I understand that now. I'm ready… I'm ready to let go."

"And I'm sorry for what I did to you," said Jeremy. "It's not… it didn't make me feel better to punish you."

"I think it's time," said Ness, "That we did what we set out to do at this here party."

"Which is what?" asked Columbia.

"Why, throw out the garbage, of course," said Ness.

All the worms turned to the skeleton.

"What are you all looking at me for?" it snapped. "I saved your lives!"

"It would have been so much easier for you to warn us to leave the house!" said Ness.

"You're just like me," said Laszlo. "You put others in danger because you wanted to act the hero and establish dominance over your petty domain!"

And then as water filled the room, the worms jumped the skeleton.

Air bubbled from the drowning lungs of Rhodes.

"Blub Blumbab Blorbab Blanb Bleib Blibbleb Bleirb," she said.

She was the first to bite down on the skeleton's arm. It hit her, with the other arm, and it hurt severely, before-

"Blob blib blisb blob blib blymb blorb blabblolb blesb," said Jeremy, biting down its other arm as it kicked him in the thorax.

Ness and Laszlo nodded to each other, then tag-teamed, each barreling into the beleaguered skeleton, pushing it towards the closed door.

Now it was all up to Columbia.

She stood there, the skin on her face loose and peeling, staring at the skeleton. She swam away.

Ness and Laszlo looked at each other in despair.

Then Columbia came back holding the jack-o-lantern. She removed the lid cut into it and jammed the hollow pumpkin over the skeleton's head. She opened the door.

Jeremy and Rhodes loosened their bite as the three others slammed the skeleton out of the living room door.

It struggled. It tried to float back to the door, but the pumpkin kept it from being able to tell which direction was which. It smashed the pumpkin, but the impact to its head by its own hand left it even more dazed. As the house sank beneath the waters, it drifted to the surface.

As it crawled its way to the shore, it started muttering to itself, "That's the last time I let someone be so rude to me-"


It looked up and saw a gun pointed at it by an agent of the SCP Foundation. Black vans were all around the area, investigating the trail of blood from where the house had stood to the lake's edge.

The skeleton sighed in disappointment.

V.2: Treats

And time began to pass from there.

Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,

They explored the deep, thalassic boundaries of the lake, only coming up to the surface late at night when nobody was around.

That rheumatic diseases do abound:

Jeremy caught some kind of illness the first month. Laszlo stayed by his bedside until he died. Laszlo went off to be alone for a while, afterwards. When he came back, everyone was surprised by the renewed vigor he displayed in trying to come up with a common nonverbal language that worms could speak.

And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter:

The house of flesh became their primary food source in the second month, after they had hunted out the majority of the fish in the lake. Laszlo and Ness worked together to try to teach the rest Morse code, though Ness, artist that she was, never gave up on trying to come up with something more expressive.

hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

The third month saw Ness's practice pay off. She finally trusted Rhodes and Laszlo enough to pull her in to the practices. Laszlo and Rhodes stayed in shifts with Columbia, teaching her through the Morse code everything they had ever learned.

And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set:

February saw Laszlo's health begin to fail as well. The house was mostly eaten, now, the bones in the flesh the only organs untouched.

the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries,

And in March Ness, Rhodes, and Laszlo debuted their performance for Columbia. Their vermiform bodies twisted and contorted around each other to form the shapes of words. Together, they subtitled the whole script of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania's monologue was, of course, the highlight of the show.

and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:

In April, Laszlo was bedridden. Columbia began to wonder about the lifespans of nematomorphs. How long would they all last? The flesh-house was stripped entirely to its bones now, and they made it a shrine of sorts to the dead Jeremy.

And this same progeny of evils comes

Laszlo died in June. Ness's health began to fail in July; she passed in August.

The town stocking the lake with fish helped with their food supply, of course, especially since there were only two of them, which was lucky, since there was no more meat on the house.

They spent their days arranging the bones of the house into pleasing, sacred configurations; Ness had taught them that much. The three shrines for the dead people were well-polished, well-protected. It was a respectful place; a holy place.

Rhodes discovered Humphrey's skeleton in September, as her health began to fail. He had died, as best as they could ascertain, of natural causes, though living in a house like that with a living skeleton certainly couldn't have been beneficial to his health in any case.

From our debate, from our dissension;

Columbia spent her days in October by Rhodes' bedside. She begged her mother not to leave her. Rhodes comforted her daughter. "You will never be alone, my daughter," she tapped in Morse code. "There's always going to be God on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Don't listen to that one; its words are only the forgeries of jeal…" she drifted off into the final slumber.

We are their parents and original.

Five shrines stood in the skeletal temple beneath the lake. Columbia buried her mother and stood there on the lake-bottom. It was dark and cold, and it was so for the longest time.

Martin Rodriguez answered the doorbell. A Jack-O'-Lantern was bright on the lintel, orange and purple light strings casting a glow through her window. Tonight was a night so many children came through… he sighed. Soon he and his wife needed to start the process of adoption.

The door opened, and a girl stood in the doorway. She looked… strange; her skin didn't quite seem to fit too well, and she smelt of vermin and lakewater.

"So what's your costume?" said Martin. "I don't give out candy to people who don't wear costumes. You've got to make some semblance of eff- Ah!"

The girl's face began to split in the middle, slightly, the skin around the nose parting in four directions, before quickly coming back together. She saw his reaction, and turned away. Somehow, Martin felt she was in need of help and comfort.

"No, don't- don't go," he said. Yolanda Rodriguez joined him at the door. "You poor thing! Do you want to come in and have some tea? It's okay if you don't…"

She nodded and came in. She ran for Yolanda and burst out crying. Yolanda held her in her arms, and if she knew Morse code, she would have noticed the girl tapping:

Trick or Treat.

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