you’ve been at elsewhere university for almost two full years now. so, at this point, you can’t pretend not to hear the stories. especially when they start to happen to you.
your best friend’s roommate says to call her knuckle, says her parents are from the old country. she doesn’t mention which one, but she laughs when she admits she never dreamed that their nursery rhyme protections would really work.
apparently, they don’t because knuckle is snatched away on either the sixteenth or seventeenth day of winter semester. (you’re not sure, because neither you or your best friend really noticed the difference between her and the... replacement at first. you feel guilty about that, sure, but at least she finds her way back. her dancing is better afterwards too, more fluid and sinister in the dark after-hours shadows of your dorm lounge, but she doesn’t like to do it any more. you think that’s fair.)
(no pun intended.)
but anyway, the point is, you’re a full year into this shit by now. you know the deal. you got your mom to teach you to sew so you could stitch tiny screws into the cuffs of all your jeans over summer break. you take a handful of creamer cups every time you visit a buffet. your odds-and-ends drawer is overflowing with marbles and shiny coins that you always happen to drop when a crow crosses your path. just in case.
the point is, you’re good at this now. you follow the rules, keep mostly to yourself. you’re an architecture major, for god’s sake. what would They want with you?
well, nothing. but your best friend can play anything and make it sing: violins, pianos, harmonicas, harps, cutlery, floorboards. they’ve got those fingertips that twitch like they want to do something dangerous and they’ll do anything for a kind word or a bit of flattery and their “got home safe” texts have been coming later and later recently and and and
you notice right away when marvel vanishes. nothing comes to replace them on your early morning walks to the nearest coffee shop. you can’t decide if that’s better than what happened with knuckle or if it just makes the hollow place on your right where they should be as you trudge across campus feel all the hollower.
and of course, you rush to the RA. you explain the situation and they tell you that nothing can be done until the end of the semester when those forms no one talks about get tucked away safe for the journey into the dark - and you can’t wait that long. every moment that passes is one marvel can’t get back.
knuckle said, once when you plied her with enough alcohol to get her talking and dancing in the same night, that time moves differently there. she doesn’t like to dance any more because her bones feel too old, like they don’t have any right to music any more. like she’s lived too long and seen too much to have time for frivolous things like the way a body can shift and twist in ways it shouldn’t-
she stopped then. she ducked her head and stared at a shadow on the wall until you took the hint and slunk away, ashamed of yourself for asking.
you don’t want that to happen to marvel, mouthy marvel, who never censors themselves, even when they probably should. you’ve only known them since you roomed together first year, but marvel is the only thing that’s yours around here. they’ve been keeping you sane through all the gritty nonsense that is this school and your coursework and that kid in the back of your mythology elective whose eyelids never seem to stop blinking. they’re your best friend; you don’t need another reason.
knuckle gets it. she walks you to the taking tree, dark eyes sad and deep, like she knows the signs of something barren when she sees them. but she still hefts the backpack full of goodies into your arms - fresh fruits, edible glitter, pack after pack of cheap gold hair jewelry from the beauty supply store - and says, “bring them home” like she really thinks you can.
you get lost at least three separate times, and things with too many bones keep looming up out of the darkness to ask you if you’d like to play a game and you come very near to accepting out of pure frustration. it occurs to you that maybe you should’ve worn a watch, but you’re not sure if that would’ve been worth the trouble to find one.
and eventually, you stumble upon marvel - twigs tangled in their hair, teeth glowing faintly, but in that hard-to-look-at way. the skin of their dangerous fingers is cracked where they wrap around the neck of a lyre. it matches the eight-fingered hand wrapped around their own throat.
“keep playing,” it says, looking directly at you. marvel keeps playing. fresh blood runs in rivulets down their hands and arms, tracing over the old blood that’s already dried.
you clench your fist and try to keep your voice from shaking. “l-let them go,” you manage. there’s only a slight tremor, which is better than you hoped for. you're hyperaware of the ring of beings you've stumbled into. They only hover on the edges of your peripheral vision, and still Their images make your stomach roil. no one seems to wear glamour here, in Their own home. you suppose that's fair.
(pun intended. humour helps calm you down.)
the thing considers your request. one by one, its eyes drop to marvel. you shiver at whatever the unspeakable emotion that is in its gaze. you wonder if Their emotions even have names, if you could pronounce them with only one tongue anyway.
“what do you think, pretty thing?” it murmurs to marvel, stroking spindly fingers through your best friend's corn-yellow hair. (it didn’t used to be that bright, you’re sure of it.) “would you like to leave?”
marvel tries to speak, but their voice is a hoarse whisper, throat dry from disuse. they swallow and try again. “no.” their eyes are wide and bewildered and you know instinctively that’s not what they told their mouth to say. "i want to- i want to stay," marvel continues, fat tears collecting in the wells of their eyes. their jaws creak when they move, and you can feel your heart breaking even underneath the fear.
but what can you do? the thing smiles widely at you, spreads its shoulders like “ain’t that the darnedest thing” and you hold out your backpack and beg, but you know when you are beaten. you're an architecture student, not a bargainer. "please," you start, but no one is listening. the thing says, “our courts have searched for years for a musician to replace our last one” in a voice like something rattling in treetops.
"i'll give you anything," you sob, your face a mess of tears and snot and slobber.
"you have nothing we would want," it tells you. it almost sounds pitying.
it slinks up closer to you, dragging a half-drugged, still-strumming marvel along the ground behind it like a dirty rag. “you will not take our pet from us, not this day or any other,” it hisses and when you wake up next, you’re barely staying afloat in the campus pool. you’re not quite drowning yet, though, so it’s better than you expected.
your backpack is in the deep end. you leave it there.
the point isn’t that you can’t call marvel’s parents because you don’t know their real name and the school won’t open name records until it’s clear a student isn’t coming back. it isn’t that you move into knuckle’s room when the silence is pressing in on your throat and you start waking up choking on nightmares about things you didn't even know you remembered. it isn’t even that you huddle close together in knuckle’s double bed and wait for her to fall asleep before you whisper, “i’m sorry i didn’t come for you.”
(her response comes back soft, full of grim understanding and sleepy around the edges: “it’s alright. i wouldn’t have done it either.”)
the point is- the point is the pure simple futility of it all. that you can make ruler-straight salt lines at every point of entrance, wrap your ankles in iron, keep your head down, do everything right and still lose.
people like you lose these games every day. but still, you stay. and still, you play. because this futility, this fruitlessness, the one you’re feeling right now with knuckle wrapped around you like the only thing that’s real? at least it’s feeling something.
these are supposed to be the best years of your life, right? you’d rather spend them aching than numb.