So — before I tell you about my own experiences at Marigold Grove, let me tell you about how Cameron ended up there on the Fourth of July in 1975. There’s that date again — the Fourth of July. You’d almost think it was a portentous day for me. Cameron had been just 14 on July 04, 1975 when he was committed. I’d turned 18 that January, so — even to the wrongbodies — I was an adult; Cameron was still a child in their false world. Neither of us were in control of our lives, then, of course but at the very least I had more relative freedom than poor Cameron. True freedom for either — both — of us wouldn’t come until after the Final Fire. I’m still not quite ready to talk about the Final Fire. I’m getting to it. Soon, I promise. But, 1975. A month before Cameron was committed, I’d written letters to both him and Stuart — the only people I thought I could trust. I never considered sending letters to any of the adults involved with the production or performance of the TK Wanderlad history plays. After Bellbrun had disappeared, and the scripts and checks had stopped coming, I’d of course lost touch with the adults of TK Wanderlad that I’d worked with. They had no loyalty — no faith — to what we had created. Once the money had stopped, they’d showed their true colors. those fucking wrongbodies had all just wandered off, as far as I knew … back into their nothing lives. Their absence didn’t upset me. I was glad for it, given the reality of their motivations. They were not working to spread the words and ideas of the True People. They’d proved they were too old or too self-important or too careless or too whatever to believe. Or, therefore, to matter to me. But both Cameron and Stuart mattered. There were three of us, and with three we could do what needed to be done. We could do anything. But I hadn’t seen either since the show ended. Not in-person. I’d talked to Stuart for about a minute on the phone when the Rainbirds called to confirm to us that they knew for sure that TK Wanderlad was ending. The Rainbirds had been the ones to tell us. That call had come for my parents. But I’d gotten to talk to Stuart for a minute, so he could wish me happy birthday with a few flat, polite words before the phone got taken from me again and the twittering of wrongbodies had resumed. I figured even then that Stuart’s behavior had to have meant that Stuart’s own false parents had been either hovering over his shoulder or listening in while the two of us talked. But Cameron I hadn’t spoken to or visited at all since then. So I’d written them both, Stuart and Cameron, that June, to tell them what was needed. What I’d figured out that we had to do. I sent the exact same message for both letters. My written instructions were, by intent, short and simple. That had seemed important — that it had to be handled in a way that would be worthy of a proclamation. I remember what the letters said exactly:
This is Hilda. We have to go back to Drum Lake. We have to finish the story.
It was so simple. I was so certain that we could do it. We could go back to Drum Lake and we could end the story. For faith, not for money or fame. For something pure. For purity itself. For the True People. To free ourselves forever. Stuart would let the wisdom of the Wanderlad guide him, and Cameron and I could perform it with him once he’d finished. I hadn’t been sure if the props and sets and costumes were still at Drum Lake Studios. If the were, it would be perfect. If not, it would be imperfect but still possible. Either way, the story needed to be told to the end. Not left there, with the Wanderlad falling through space. With my beloved Prince forever cursed to be the Rail Man, Opener and Closer of Gates, Beast Who Drives the Spike, Anti-Destined of the Anti-Destination. We could catch the falling Wanderlad. We could free Youknowme, as the story must surely end. We could pass the curse on to someone — anyone else. Some wrongbody. And then Youknowme and Friendlietta — Cameron, and me — we could walk through the Xystus into the True World and bring Stuart with us. And then everything would be all right. We could end it the way it was meant to end. Not like it had been, incomplete and ripped away from us. That would be unacceptable to anyone, even to a wrongbody. And probably wrongbodies’ fault. But even to this day, I’m sure if things had gone differently, we could’ve done it. And it would’ve been so much simpler to do it that way. But I hadn’t gotten the response I’d wanted from the others. Or, really, any response at all. The letter I’d send to Stuart had come back with a big red stamp: RETURN TO SENDER and a weird sequence of numbers or letters scrawled in ink pen beneath the stamp. I later found out that both Stuart and his family had moved back to England earlier that year, but I never did find a forwarding address for the Rainbirds. I still don’t know where they are, even now. Cameron’s letter didn’t come back, but I also didn’t hear from him. By the time it got to be The Fourth of July — that oh-so-special day — I’d decided to go see him. So I’d taken the bus over to his house. It had been the most unpleasant of trips. The town had looked baked-in that summer; that’s the best way I can think of to describe it. All cracked-up earth and shining chainlink and lawns that make you sad, full of rusty wind-chimes. I remember, all the way down the residential district, the sunlight would flash on the upper-floor windows of the houses, and it would show off smudges or dirt or even bird shit on a few. And the people were worse — all bare feet and idle sweat and lounging indolence. People say that old photographs and films from the 1970s look the way they do because of age or processing or … something. I forget. But I can tell you the people who say that are wrong, at least when it comes to Drodden. I look at those old pictures or films and I tell you it looked just like that in real life. Sickly, the details washed away, the colors washed out. And I have to think it was like that everywhere. A great sickness. I think it was a sick time, because Bellbrun had disappeared, and with Bellbrun disappearing … someone or something had stolen the colors. The Wanderland wasn’t there to bring them back. Everything was wrong. And I needed to know what was wrong with Cameron. I remember that when I got off at the bus stop, I looked down the road toward the end of the block where his house was. The air was shivering, the way it does in the heat. It was so hot. I remember that part of me felt like, if I traveled in the direction of the shimmering long enough, I could reach it and go through it and then be somewhere else. Another of the many wrongworlds, yes, but maybe closer to right than the one I was forced to live in. But I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to get out. And I wouldn’t have abandoned Cameron or Stuart like that, anyway. That had been why I was there, after all. To ask Cameron in-person, to find out what had stopped him from responding as I’d been so sure he would have if he’d been free to do so. Cameron’s house didn’t look like a prison, of course. It was nice, as wrongbody houses go. Simple. White paint. White wooden fence. Mostly tended. Patchy grass in the yard, but green grass nonetheless. Marion and Penelope Stye weren’t ostentatious. In fact, they’d been the ones to tell the imposters who called themselves my parents that Cameron and I ought to have stage names, in case things went badly with TK Wanderlad. Cameron and I had wanted to use our real names, and my false parents had wanted that for me as well. It wasn’t as if any of the others had used fake names, as far as I knew. But, in the end, the decision had been taken from us — and even from the false parents — when the idea had been mentioned in the presence of Bellbrun, who’d almost immediately embraced it. That’s how ‘Octavia Burrell’ and ‘Carlton Stanford’ had first come into being. Friendlietta Flowergirl posing as Hilda Leek posing as Octavia Burrell. But the Styes knew me as Hilda, and that’s how Mrs. Stye had addressed me once she finally came to that door, her face ruddy and harried and wet.
“Hilda,” she’d said. Even her voice had sounded wet. Thick. “What are you doing here?”
“HI. I’m here to see Cameron ,” I’d said. I remember that I’d tried a smile.
I remember that I got back a grimace and the words “This — … this isn’t a good time, Hilda.”
“Is everything all right?” I’d deliberately tried to peek over Penelope’s shoulder into the house as I’d said that. I had wanted to provoke her. I’d always enjoyed provoking Penelope. She was that kind of person.
“Cameron’s not well,” Penelope had gone on to say. “He’s got a fever,” she’d explained. “We meant to call your parents, by the way.”
“Can I see him?” I’d asked, leaning into the doorway a little more. “Cameron?” I’d shouted out. Like I just said, I really loved provoking Penelope Stye.
“That’s NOT a good idea!” Penelope had shouted at me. Her voice had trembled. She’d moved to push me back out and shut the door. “What if he’s contagious?” she’d said.
“But — …” was all I’d managed. I didn’t get to answer, because that’s when Cameron had come into view behind Penelope.
I remember that he had look sick. He’d looked terrible, really. His longish dark hair had been a serious mess, all matted to his forehead and the sides of his face. His skin had been sweaty, like his mother’s face, all down what I could see of his neck. Maybe they both really did have a fever that day. Or maybe it was just from the heat. I don’t know, and I never will. I remember that I didn’t care, though. Because, in that moment, I’d felt like I was being restored — just by the sight of Cameron. Restored into Friendlietta Flowergirl again. Seeing my Prince Youknowme. Even at his worst, Cameron was and always would be my Prince Youknowme. I remember reaching out toward him with both hands, arms crossed. The Double-Scoop Handshake. The greeting of the Magical Forest. I had a single moment where I saw a vision in my head of the two of us taking each other’s hands and suddenly disappearing — both of us sucked into the shimmering air down the road, carried someplace else. It was a nice vision.
Then I remember that Cameron was bridging the distance between us — so quickly, pushing past his mother.
His mother’s face had changed. Still harried, still damp … but going pallid whitish-blue in that single moment of Cameron Stye passing through the doorframe. Her mouth had opened like she was going take a big bite of something, like someone about to shout.
But it was Cameron who’d ended up shouting first. An unintelligible, blunt sound. Like a howl cut off after only a few moment as he reached out and clawed at me, fingers so tense they looked as white and blue as Penelope’s face, his eyes bulging, his own face bunched-up, skin constricted around a locked-open jaw, tongue jerking, teeth shining. I remember it so well, how he was tearing at my clothes and at my skin, raking.
I remember how the hot blood felt on my face, my left arm. I remember recoiling, shocked. Confused.
“Oh, God!” his mother had cried.
Then Marion had appeared in the doorframe, trying to restrain Cameron.
“LEAVE!” Marion had shouted.
“No!” I’d shouted back.
Cameron had made another of those cut-off howl sounds, kicking at me as his father had restrained him there in the doorway.
“Cameron?” I remember how I couldn’t talk. It was a whisper.
And it had made Penelope’s expression change from anger to some wan maternal thing that I remember positively hating. That made me want to kill her on the spot. But I didn’t.
“Dear, you’re bleeding — … ”
Another jagged half-howl from Cameron right after that.
Penelope’s face had fallen then, and she’d begun to sob. “I just — I don’t … ”
“I’ll go,” I’d said to her quietly. It had cut me to say it, but I knew it was what the wrongbody in front of me had wanted me to say. To give her one less problem to deal with in her false little brain.
“Dear, it’s just … ” Penelope had said.
“I know. I’ll go. I hope Cameron is all right.”
“You just don’t know — …” She’d said.
I’d walked away then, my arm and face dripping blood that I just didn’t care about. I remember walking around the block a few times, on the opposite side of the street. The scratches on my arm and face had stung, but I didn’t care about that either. All I could think of as I’d walked was how my Prince was suffering. That he’d attacked me wasn’t so much a concern: when you know that someone truly loves you, they can’t hurt you, no matter what they say or do. Not for real. And not for long. I remember telling myself over and over that the pain in my arm and cheek would eventually fade, but that Cameron was clearly suffering far more than I was in that moment. It was enough of a mantra, said to myself over and over, to get me back into a collected state of mind, and I recall that I only had to spend a little time formulating what I needed to do next. I knew I needed to guard Cameron. To protect him. So I hid, in a little copse of trees that was at the corner of the block where the Styes’ house was. I watched from there, sitting on the bark dust, watching the Styes’ house. I remember hearing a keening sound, but I honestly couldn’t have told you if it was Cameron or if it was his mother. I still don’t know, even today. I think I might’ve also heard Marion shouting. It had been a much deeper voice than I’d ever heard from Cameron, but who knows? I’d just sat there, in that little copse, out of sight of the Styes, until it got dark, and then I kept sitting after that — until I’d seen a pair of headlights break up the darkness, coming down the suburban street toward Cameron’s house. I’d watched as the car came to a stop on the Styes’ side of the street, right in front of their house. Then, two men and a woman had stepped out of the car. Oh, how I remembering hating the sameness of the sound of the doors of that car opening and closing, the scuffs of their shoes as the three strangers walked up to the Styes’ door. I remember that I couldn’t hear the sound of the doorbell. I never used doorbells. I’ve always preferred the raw power of rapping on someone’s door. Doorbells mute the reality of a person, making them indistinct — like the three strangers who’d come to Cameron’s door. Those three had a sameness too, that I’d hated. Dressed simply. Not like the orderlies you see in the movies as they lug around straitjackets and hypodermics and those white bags with the red crosses on them. The three strangers had been dressed like people, albeit wrongbodies. Regular clothes. The woman carrying a black bag. They’d looked so ‘normal’ that I remember finding that funny at the time. The door had opened after a long wait, but I hadn’t been able to see who had answered from inside the Stye house. I remember how the bark dust had really started to bite into my knees. But I didn’t move after the three strangers went inside the Styes. For a long time after that, there’d been quiet. Then another one of Cameron’s barks. Then a long silence. Silence in the whole of the block, really. Or maybe I’d just blocked out everything else. But, however long it had been since the three strangers went in, I hadn’t moved until they came back out again. I’d gotten up, then, carefully and quietly, to try and see more clearly. I wasn’t able to read the words on the side of the car any better. The three had emerged back out of the Styes’ house with Cameron. I’d seethed there in my hiding spot. I’d wanted to run out and rescue him. I remembering thinking that I’d help Cameron to get free of them, and then we’d push them onto the road and then drive the car over them and drive to Canada or something. Mexico. I hadn’t cared — just somewhere. But then I’d noticed that Cameron was limp in their arms, as they walked him like a life-sized puppet to the car. As if he’d been unconscious. Or drugged. And then the car had just driven away, with Cameron in it. But without me. They had missed me. Had they seen me, I’d been sure they would’ve taken me, too. Right then and there as I’d just stood in the copse of trees, in the dark, covered in bark dust, splinters in my knees. And that’s when all my plans of shimmering space and Canada and everything else had collapsed. Because — no matter how much I was Friendlietta, I knew I was nothing without the others. I didn’t exist any more without them. And I didn’t have another plan. Not then, anyway. Not on the walk back to the bus stop, or the bus ride him in the dark, or the walk back to my house. I had nothing. I remember going back to my room, that night, and just lying on my bed and looking up at the ceiling. I remember days passing in blips after that. My false parents asking me how I was. Tending to my scrapes. Saying things about Cameron that I didn’t hear. None of it had really registered with me until I’d gotten a letter, ostensibly from the Styes … though to this day I think it was only Penelope that wrote it. I can see my hands holding it, shaking as I read:
We’re both so terribly sorry about how things went. You have to know that what I told you is true, and Cameron is very ill. He has gone to the hospital, and he is doing much better now. But he will be staying at the hospital for a while. It is probably best if you do not visit him, but if you want to write back I’ll be more than happy to bring him anything you want him to have or any note you want to send. Please believe us when we say together that God is with you in your pain. Whenever you are hurting, you can look into His divine Wisdom and know that God will protect you. I am thinking of you and your family and I am just so grateful that God saw fit to bring us together for good times as well as bad. I hope you and your family won’t hesitate to reach out. I have also written letters to your father and mother. I hope you know God is with them as well. You are all blessed.
Yours in Christ,
Marion & Penelope Stye
No mention of the ‘hospital’ being Marigold Grove, of course. That, I had to find out from my parents. I asked them several times over the next two years if he’d been released, and they’d get on the phone with the Styes … and then tell me he was still there. And that’s how I’d known he’d been sent there as I found myself being taken there, too. And I realized that they had never stopped chasing me after they’d gotten Cameron. That had to be it, I reasoned, as they loaded me into the back of the car to take me to Marigold Grove. They had been chasing me, walking just out of sight, ever since July 04th, 1975 until they finally caught me July 07th, 1977. Oh, they’d tried to make it look like two different, disconnected events on the surface. But there was a line, tracing from Cameron’s life force to mine, and the wrongbodies who ran Marigold Grove knew about it. Knew what to look out for. How to find me wherever I went. Just like the pretended demons I taunted Reggie and Deacon with. And, as I leaned back against the seat of the car, I imagined the wrongbodies tracing the energies between me and Cameron to find me again — wondered what that might look like. It didn’t really matter, of course. The wrongbodies didn’t realize it, I reasoned, but capturing me was their critical mistake. Wrongbodies hunger to eat the light of True People, but it is a power they can never understand when they put two — or three — of us together in the same place. And they would do it in the name of defeating us. The irony couldn’t have been lost on me if I’d wanted to ignore it. Which I didn’t. Instead, I started watching the twists and folds of the blood trail. There were so many. Winding down and around the roads the car took on its way. We came out of a patch of woods, and that’s when I noticed that the sides of the road were covered there with beautiful white flowers as far as I could see in either direction. Fields of them. And the blood trail ended at those fields. The blood trail just ended. And I became frightened. Because the blood trail was supposed to be … well, everywhere. To varying degree. Created by all the blood spilled since the first blood spilled. Created by the walking and crawling of wrongbodies since Earth began. But not there. Not at Marigold Grove. I was shocked. Afraid. And that’s when I realized there was no way the blood trail could have just stopped like that. There was no place on Earth where blood had not been spilled. The world didn’t work like that. And I decided in the moment that followed that there could only be one possible explanation: the blood trail that I knew so well was gone to my sight. I had somehow lost the ability to see it. I felt powerless. I wanted to scream about it. But the drugs were too strong for me to even open my mouth. So I think I just screamed inside my head, hoping to be heard by anyone in the world who could help me, or who mattered.