Ray bolts awake with a harsh gasp.
He clamps a hand over his mouth with a habit formed out of years of sleeping in a room with at least ten other kids.
(He mastered the art of silent nightmares years ago. Though it’s hardly an art, of course—it’s really just brute-forcing his own dream-self into shutting up—but hey. If it works, it works.)
He closes his eyes. Breathe in, out, good, okay.
Emma mutters something in her sleep in the mattress next to him. She never had much sense of personal space before, and even less now. She’d pushed their mattresses to be closer together, and they’re nearly touching.
Ray’s not sure if it’s for her benefit or his, but he doesn’t say anything about it either way. They’re both still skirting around the space that should be between them. The missing weight that’s left them off-balance. All they can do is breathe through it for now, and get used to being a trio of two people.
He blinks, slowly. Leans back against the wall behind him. It’s quiet, but not horribly so. The breathing of his thirteen younger siblings is easily audible, and oddly reassuring.
(Do you even deserve to call them your siblings?)
Traces of the fading nightmare flit through his head—
(“Don’t be stupid,” Emma whispers.)
He closes his eyes. He won’t be sleeping any more tonight, but maybe if he fakes it he can trick himself into thinking he will.
He hears a soft cry.
“What are you doing out of bed, Ray?” Mama sighs.
“What are you?” Even at eight years old, he easily falls back on snark.
She sighs again, like it’s all she can do. She looks tired. “You should try and sleep.”
“Why does it matter?” Ray crosses his arms.
“You know perfectly well why it matters,” Mama says, and Ray hates what he sees on her face. He hates how soft and tired and dull it is. He hates how she’s given up on sleeping just as much as he has. He hates that he sees the shape of his own expression in hers.
“I’m just going to the library,” he mutters.
“This isn’t good for you.”
“I’m serious, Ray.”
“So am I,” he insists. “I’m gonna go insane if I stay in there.”
(Isn’t that why you’re walking the halls instead of sleeping, Mama? Isn’t that why you’re even still dressed? Isn’t that why you’re looking at me all sad, Mama?)
“Fine. But don’t keep this up.”
“Fine.” He catches the word halfway, because he said it in the same tone that she did, but it’s too late and his voice just trails off instead.
Without another word, he turns around and stalks off towards the library. Mama doesn’t follow. He doesn’t know what face she’s making, and he doesn’t want to know.
(They’re both thinking too much. They both need to stop.)
He hears the cry again. Quiet, wordless, and definitely one of the younger kids.
Without giving himself time to think about it, he pats Emma’s head and stands up as quietly as he can. His bare feet make no sound on the freezing-cold concrete. It’s hardly a difficult feat after having to sneak around on the creaky floorboards of Gracefield.
He passes by the mattresses, lined up in a halfhearted mockery of their bedroom back at the house. He goes down the line. Alicia, Thoma, Lani, Yvette, all asleep, and... Jemima, staring up at him with wide eyes.
Hesitantly, Ray sits down on the edge of her mattress. There are tear stains on her face, and she’s shaking.
He holds out one hand, and in hardly a second she barrels into his arms, nearly knocking him backward. He blinks, curses his own awkwardness, and lightly hugs her to him.
She buries her head in his shoulder and starts to cry.
“Hey, hey, shhh,” Ray looks around the room. No one else is awake yet, but he’d rather not make a commotion. “Come on.”
He lifts her up. Jemima is just—so small. She’s five. It would be hypocritical of him to call her a little kid, considering what he was doing at five, but—
She’s just so small.
He carries her out into the corridor.
He’s seven years old and he can’t stop shaking. Tears are trailing from his eyes unbidden, and he screws up his face to try and get them to stop but it doesn’t stop, it doesn’t stop, and he can’t speak can’t breathe can’t yell can’t scream all he can do is cry and shake. Mama wraps her arms around him with barely a second’s hesitation.
He doesn’t get why. Why bother? This isn’t going to make it any better. This isn’t going to make it stop. So what, if he has nightmares? He’s had them his whole life. He told Mama about Robbie. Now Robbie’s dead. He’s dead. Ray’s gotta keep doing it too, because Mama needs to think he’s a good watchdog. And he will. So he can handle stupid nightmares without Mama needing to come and give him a hug.
He can’t pull away. He’s tired. He wants to sleep. (Robbie’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead and he’s gone. Forever. So are Suzan and Lyle and and Paul and Charlie and Michelle and Brenda and Jimmy and the twenty-eight other siblings that have been ‘adopted’ since Ray was sent here. They’re dead. Ray shouldn’t get to go to bed and sleep and wake up and play with his family when he’s watched thirty-six siblings wave goodbye with hats on their heads and die.)
He can’t look at her. He doesn’t want to see Mama look back at him with the same eyes.
Mama hums. It’s the song—the song, emphasis on the the, because there are lots and lots of songs but only Mama and Ray know this one.
He blocks out all the other sounds and thoughts and squeezes his eyes shut. He just listens to the song. And he makes sure, that just like everything else, it is carved deep into his memory.
Ray sits down with his back against the corridor wall with Jemima in his lap. Her breath hitches, and Ray grabs her tiny hand and traces small circles on it with his thumb—an old habit from when he was younger. It has never failed to calm Emma down, even now, and he started to do it without thinking years ago. (Norman hated it, would comically recoil from the sensation of tracing on his hands, but Emma was always the most tactile of three of them.)
Almost without realizing, he starts to hum. Softly at first, almost a whisper, but as Jemima quiets, he lets himself get louder. She watches him, scrubbing the tears away from her wide eyes.
It’s the song, of course. It’s the only one he properly knows, anyway, and besides—Mama’s not here right now. This is not a secret he needs to keep.
Mama guides Margot out the front door with a single gentle hand on her back. Ray, eight years old, pushes back through the crowd of siblings, nearly tramples a toddler, and crashes up the stairs with an uncharacteristic lack of grace.
He bursts into one of the bedrooms and unlatches the window facing front. He presses his hands and face against the lattices, straining to see anything at all in the night.
A single lantern light waves, bobbing gently down the field, heading towards the gate. If he squints, he can see the indistinct silhouettes of Mama and Margot, walking slowly. A two-person funeral procession.
He watches. He can hear Mama humming, faintly. He doesn’t need to strain his ears to recognize the song, but he does anyway.
The lantern light reaches the far gate, and just like that—it’s gone, and Ray can’t see a thing.
He can hear Mama singing long after the light goes out. He closes his eyes, and listens.
The man’s footsteps are strikingly silent when he half-stumbles into the corridor. Jemima looks up with a soft gasp, startled. Ray narrows his eyes.
“Stop bein’ spooky,” the man drawls.
“The singin,’” he waves clumsily in Ray and Jemima’s direction. “All spooky. Stop that.”
“It’s just a song,” Ray says softly.
“No, you’re not.”
“No I’m not,” the man grins. “Doesn’t mean I ain’t tired.”
“We’re all tired.”
“Fair enough,” the man chuckles. With a wave, he walks away.
Ray and Jemima are both quiet for a moment. Ray keeps tracing small circles on her hand.
“I’m sorry,” Jemima eventually sniffles. “I really don’t mean to get—get so—get so scared, I just...”
“What? No, no,” Ray blinks. “Don’t—you don’t ever need to feel bad about being scared.”
“But everyone else is always so brave!” Jemima protests.
“No. No we’re not,” Ray shakes his head vehemently. “Everyone’s just gotten good at pretending. We’re all scared. None of us are actually all that brave.”
“But...” she trails off.
“Well,” he tilts his head, “except for maybe Emma, but—“ he snickers “—we all know she doesn’t count.”
Jemima giggles lightly, and Ray manages a smile.
“I was the only one that got scared at the wall, though,” she looks away. “I made us slow.”
“You were the only one with common sense, you mean?” Ray raises an eyebrow.
“Huh?” She scrunches up her nose, confused, and Ray suppresses his surprised laughter.
“You didn’t want to fall to your death. That’s, y’know, common sense and a healthy dose of self-preservation.” Ray shrugs. “And you still went across anyway. That’s brave enough, I think.”
“You had to carry me,” she mutters.
“You still did it.”
“If you say so.”
“In fact, I do. I do say so.” He pokes her forehead, and she bats his hand away with a giggle.
“Oh, hey Ray,” Suzan pants, running into the library and skidding to a stop. “Where’s Norman? Mama needs him.”
Ray, seven and petulant, glares. “Why does everyone always think I know?”
“If you’re here, one of the others is too,” Suzan shrugs, but she grins. “And besides. You always do know.”
“...Norman’s looking for a meteorology book,” Ray grumbles. “Over that way.”
“Great! Thanks! Oh, and what about Emma? Charlie mentioned needing her? Something about tag.”
Ray stares at her, deadpan. Suzan just smiles.
He sighs. “She’s trying origami with Gilda in their bedroom.”
“Thank youuuuu,” Suzan sings.
“Shut uuuppppp,” Ray sings back.
“No,” she smiles again. Ray scowls, and Suzan suddenly laughs, hard and surprised.
“Nothing, nothing,” she says between deep breaths, like she’s trying to stop herself from laughing harder.
Ray crosses his arms. “What.”
“Sorry, you just—you remember when Polly made,” she makes air quotes, “‘pancakes?’ And, and, Mama tried them?”
“That was exactly the face she made.” Suzan laughs again. “That was so weird.”
Ray stares at her.
“Aaaaand that’s my cue to go find Norman,” she edges away.
Emma peeks her head out of the door to the bunker’s bedroom. “Ray! There you are, you scared me to death.”
“Hm? Oh. Uh. Yeah.” He gestures to Jemima, asleep. Emma’s face softens, and she lowers her voice to a whisper.
“Yeah. Think it’s all good now, though.”
“Awww,” Emma grins.
“Shut.” Ray raises a hand, and flails it in Emma’s direction. “No.”
She laughs. “You’re very articulate this morning.”
“...Did you sleep at all?”
“I... have the right to remain silent.”
There’s a piano in the bunker. Nat’s already messing with it. Ray barely gives it a passing glance.
They’re going to Goldy Pond. Just him, Emma, and the crazy guy, who won’t even do them the decency of telling them his name. He won’t even give them a nickname, or a fake name! They’re stuck calling him ‘that man’ and ‘mister’ and ‘absolutely insane.’
But they need him. And Ray has made worse sacrifices for things that they need. Letting the crazy man who kinda wants to murder them guide them through a demon-infested forest is, arguably, one of the least dangerous things he’s ever done.
And he and Emma can take care of themselves just fine. They’ve got promises to keep and people to save, after all.
Every time the man calls him ‘Sleepy Cyclops’ Ray gets one step closer to using his newly-acquired gun to give him permanent brain damage.
Instead, he takes a leaf from someone else’s book, smiles a doll’s smile, and lets his eyes speak for themselves.
“Not my fault I had to completely reconstruct the self-destruct system,” he crosses his arms. “And help the younger kids set up, and start reading through the library, and—“
“Yeah yeah,” the man smirks, undaunted. “Except it is your fault. Both yours and Antenna’s.”
“If only there wasn’t a crazy old man trying to murder us for wanting to survive,” Ray shrugs, helpless, still smiling. “We might not have had to resort to such measures.”
“If only I wasn’t surrounded by brats,” the man growls, and stalks off.
Ray smirks at his retreating back.
In a few days, they set off—but not before it’s beat into both his and Emma’s brains that neither of them are allowed to die.
Ray has no intention to die. Not after everyone put so much effort into making sure he lived long enough to escape—and to see the end of his twelfth birthday, for whatever that’s worth.
But it still feels... wrong. Selfish, somehow.
(Mama, why did you give birth to me?)
For six years, death was going to be his penance. And now he’s expected not only to keeping living, but to try and survive?
People do terrible things in the name of survival.
(Mama, how do you live with yourself?)
Ray knows that better than most.
(I just live.)
So what right does Ray have to try and survive? Because if he does, what makes him any different than—
“You’re doing it again,” Emma says softly.
“What?” Ray asks, startled.
“You’re thinking too much.” She gently knocks her knuckles against his head.
“It’s my job,” he laughs a little. “You don’t think enough. I have to pick up the slack.”
“Thinking is overrated.”
“But I like thinking.”
“I know,” Emma groans, and Ray smirks.
“What are you thinking, Ray?”
“You’re always thinking. What are you thinking?”
She stares at him, and her face is as painfully open as always. (Or maybe it’s just him, able to see her like this. He can never tell.)
“Well?” Her voice is teasing, but her eyes are serious. Expectant.
“...Nothing I could put into words.”
She laughs. “Figures.”
They step into the waiting forest.
The man’s teaching is nothing like Mama’s.
Mama personalized every lesson to every student. To Emma, she gave physical items like blocks and even an abacus, with examples upon examples. To Norman, she left alone, and let him work at his own pace to his own lessons, sticking around to answer questions. To Ray, she gave visuals—pictures, graphs, diagrams, readings, and then she’d let him be. She gave Gilda lectures, and she gave Don jaunty memory acronyms, and so on and so forth, every single lesson made into a perfect fit.
The man only tells them the barest bones of actual information. Just enough to keep them alive. Everything else, they need to learn for themselves.
But in some ways, it does remind Ray of Mama’s teaching. After all, classroom knowledge wasn’t the only thing she taught.
(“Smile, Ray. It’s a beautiful day.”)
Mimic his posture, his footsteps. Walk with the balls of your feet first. Only step on the tree roots and rocks, never the actual forest floor.
(“Check. But you’re not as cornered as you think you are, Ray.”)
Aim for the eye. Blatant weak spot.
(“If you’re going to lie to me, do a better job.”)
Don’t trust him as far as you can throw him. Double-check the footprints, the wind, the sounds of the forest, the weather, the safety on your gun.
(“Everything’s going to be okay, dear. Isn’t that right, Ray?”)
He’ll kill him, if he has to. It was a startlingly easy realization to come to—he’d thought there would be more conflict. More agonizing about the fact that he’d be sacrificing yet another life to save his family.
But Ray has always been the practical one.
(“Yeah, Mama, that’s right.”)
“I’m gonna save you!” Emma says to the man, in the same tone with the same expression she always says I’m going to save everyone, and Ray still think that she’s insane—but maybe he understands, just a little, why Norman was so ready to build a boat out of mud.
And maybe the man does too, because the stricken expression on his face makes him nearly unrecognizable from the crazed bunker hermit they’ve been following for the past few days.
You are calm. You are in control. You are nothing, and you feel nothing (except that’s never worked for you—)
(They have her they will hurt her and you just let her get taken—) You’ll rescue her and she’ll be fine, it’ll be fine—
“Give up,” the man says.
(Shut up—) Calm down—
“You’ll be killed too,” the man says, and Ray wonders if he knows how little that matters.
(SHUT UP—) You’re getting angry, don’t let it cloud your judgement—
“I’m sorry,” the man says.
Ray stares at him. He has the absurd urge to laugh—because of all the things he’d expected him to say, he had not expected an apology.
But, frankly, Ray’s tired of apologies. And you know what? He’s tired of giving up, too. So he screws practicality and caution and every lesson he’s ever learned except for one, and screams at the man to SHUT UP.
For the second time that day, the man stares as if he’s been struck, and then shakes his head with something like exasperation.
“Fine,” he says.
“Stop that,” the man flicks Ray none too gently on the forehead.
He gives him a look. “The singin’.”
“Yeah you were. Gonna draw attention to us.”
“You should be.”
Ray looks up to be offended from where he’s de-feathering some kind of hawk, but the man is... almost grinning at him, almost playfully, almost teasing. So instead, Ray snorts.
“Okay, Mister Must-Have-Tea-Even-In-The-Demon-Infested-Wilderness. Talk about drawing attention to us.”
“Hey,” the man points at him, “I’ll have you know that demons do not care about the smell of my tea.”
“Who knows? There could be tea demons.”
“Teamons,” the man chuckles. Ray stares at him in abject horror.
“How on Earth do you see past that hair?”
“It’s just hair? It’s not that hard? Not like it’s all that thick or anything.”
“Is your left eye just magical?”
“It’s not that hard to see past hair.”
“Maybe you’re secretly half-blind and just never realized.”
“I’m begging you to shut up right now.”
“Is she always like that?”
“Antenna. Emma. Is she always like that?”
“...Yeah. Yeah, she is.”
“I think it would be, for anyone except Emma.”
“And you’re one-hundred percent sure?”
“There’s no way I can convince you to just go home?”
“...Alright then. Let’s go.”
They sneak up on some poor purple-haired girl and scare her to death, but Ray and the man manage to get the gist of what’s happening from her.
(The man’s eyes widen when he hears the name Lucas, and Ray remembers frantic writing on walls and empty tables and empty chairs and mirrors covered up with sheets.)
The man easily kills the spindly, inky demon that was keeping the purple-haired girl under siege. A single bullet, straight at the eye. Ray barely has time to be impressed before they’re sprinting for the center square.
When the claws rip through Emma’s stomach, Ray burns. The sheer rage and horror rushing through him are competing for dominance in his head, burning in his veins until he can barely see past the white noise roaring in his eyes and ears.
(Emma is on the ground and she’s screaming, her leg is swollen and the skin is blackening and Mama is smiling smiling smiling—)
Lewis is like nothing they’ve ever fought before. They’ve fought and killed wild demons upon demons and ran from more, they left Mama behind with a burning house and nothing to redeem her, and the demons that only Ray can remember cannot touch them now.
He’s so frighteningly human, and it makes it so, so much worse. He talks, he laughs, he makes jokes, he’s intelligent and powerful and he has a little pet on his shoulder and he’s a demon and he’s so clearly part of a society and Ray just doesn’t know what to do with that. Lewis’ intelligence is nothing compared to Mama’s but he can’t play the long game here.
And then Emma is left bleeding out on the cobblestones and Ray doesn’t see red he sees white, like a malfunctioning computer beeping loudly and begging for someone to come and turn it off before it overheats or resets or spontaneously combusts, and he just—
He can’t lose Emma.
(He is six years old and he will lose anything, he will sacrifice anything if it means that Emma and Norman will leave this place alive. He is eleven years old and Norman is dead and gone and he’s taken half of Ray’s heart with him. He is twelve years old and the other half is bleeding out on the cobblestones in front of him and he can’t do anything—)
It’s not a question of won’t. It’s can’t. He can’t lose Emma.
(Just like you couldn’t lose Norman? You can always lose, Ray, you can always lose—)
He charges forward and he peppers the stupid thing trying to kill her but he’s not good enough and—
And Emma, because she’s insane and impossible and alive, stands back up and Ray SCREAMS and it tears through his vocal chords but it’s enough to galvanize everyone else into action until finally finally finally the man sends a single bullet through Lewis’ eye and into his skull.
And the thing is—
Ray will always be the practical one.
Letting the man take Emma the quick way and helping else down the long way is the practical choice. It’s even a choice that Emma would be proud of, a rare intersection of rationality and Emmality that he needs to take advantage of while it lasts.
It’s not like Ray isn’t already used to waiting. He can wait a little longer.
“Tell me,” Lucas says, limping onward steadily. “How’s he doing?”
And because the look Lucas’ eyes matches his own, Ray doesn’t hesitate to tell him.
Upon finally arriving back at the bunker, Ray doesn’t even let Gilda give him a once-over before he rushes to the infirmary. He reaches Emma’s bedside, and doesn’t leave it.
In some ways, it’s an odd rehashing of back at Gracefield whenever Norman would get sick. Except this time Emma is Norman, small and pale in the bed, and Ray is Emma, hovering overprotectively, and Ray is Mama, making sure every need is met. He is both of them in this odd switching of roles, but he is very distinctly not himself. Because—surely, if he was himself, he would be in the corner of the room with a habitual book in hand, and not here, right now, tracing circles on Emma’s hand like he’s afraid that she’ll disappear right in front of him.
“You’re doing it again,” the man—Yuugo—flicks the side of his head. Ray jumps, startled, and then sinks back into his chair. He vaguely berates himself for being caught off-guard.
“I—what? No I wasn’t.” Ray frowns.
“Yeah you were,” Yuugo raises an eyebrow.
“I was not,” he insists, even if now he can hear the song ringing in his ears. He just—he can’t. Not right now. She looms over his shoulder and in the mirror at the best of times—right now, she might as well be singing along with him in harmony. He just... can’t. He can’t.
“—lo? Hello? Earth to Sleepy, heellloooooo?”
“Sorry,” Ray shakes his head.
He wants her gone, on days like this.
He’s not stupid enough to think that she didn’t make him. She did. Mama sharpened all those edges and polished them until they shined. She’s the reason he’s alive to be upset about this.
But sometimes he just wants to get rid of her. Dig her out of his skin like a parasite, claw her out with his fingernails. Maybe then he’d actually deserve to be here with everyone else.
“You, uh,” Yuugo fumbles, “you alright?”
“Fine,” Ray says through gritted teeth. He doesn’t care if it’s convincing or not.
It’s funny—most of them think they left Mama behind, wholly and entirely. Don says so whenever she comes up in conversation—Mama is gone now, she’s back at Gracefield, she can’t hurt us anymore, she can’t haunt us anymore.
But they took a little piece of Mama with them, when they set the house on fire and didn’t let Ray burn with it.
Would they regret it, if they knew?
Probably not. They’re good like that.
(And it feels like a punch to the gut every time he remembers how sure he was that they needed to be left behind to die like all the rest.)
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to.”
Emma wakes up surrounded by family, and Ray thinks—this is how it should always be.
And then he shoves soup in her mouth because she hasn’t eaten in a month, dangit.
Emma’s back, and it’s better (because Ray is fundamentally a third of a whole and one out of three is just wrong, somehow, like the laws of motion are all off-kilter and gravity isn’t working quite right. Two out of three is the best they can do, so it’s better).
The bunker is cramped and busy and Ray and the older kids are cooking for sixty now, but it’s not really all that different from living at Gracefield. Just louder (and the children aren’t really children anymore—but the bustle and laughter makes it seem like they could be. No one really minds).
Ray has taken to avoiding mirrors. It’s not like he actively sought them out before, so it’s fine.
“Go play with your siblings, Ray.” Mama slides a bookmark in his direction.
He scoffs. “What’s even the point?”
“It won’t hurt to have a little fun,” she chides.
“I’d just be pretending.”
“No one ever said pretending can’t be fun.”
“So what?” He slams his book shut. “You expect me to go out and play and be nice and fun and happy with all the kids who’re gonna be dead in a few years?”
“Yes,” she says, “I do.” There is nothing gentle in her face, but there is something soft in her eyes. It always throws him off-balance, because in their careful game, she is supposed to be the enemy. The other side of the chessboard that Ray is playing both sides of.
“That’s the kind of life we lead,” she smiles, and Ray hates being lumped in with that we, but he can’t do anything about it when it’s true.
Is he pretending?
He can’t tell. He covers up the mirror in the bunker bathroom while he’s in it and hangs his head down so his bangs cover more.
Books will tell you all about how if you wear a mask for long enough, it becomes true face. Play a character long enough, and you become it.
Is he pretending?
(Did he ever even play a character? Was he pretending, when he smiled with Mama in her office? When he told a joke that made Emma laugh so hard she almost choked? When he tried to turn Penny’s tracker off and it malfunctioned, and she was shipped at age six? When he beat Norman at chess and cheered so loudly it woke up the babies? When he told Conny hey, I’ll take care of Little Bunny while you grab your suitcase, okay? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know.)
Jemima is crying in his arms and there’s nothing he can say to make it better so he just sings. Emma won’t wake up and there’s nothing he can do so he just sings. His footsteps sound like Mama’s and he doesn’t want to hear them so he sings, soft and quiet and so, so loud in the oppressive silence of the night.
(Mama won’t even get to hold him when he’s born so she just sings, the same song, the same lullaby, again and again and again and when he wakes up it is carved into his memory and some days it feels like the only thing he knows.)
“Ray,” Emma asks, “are you alright?” And she sounds a little like Yuugo and her expression is a little like Norman’s and her eyes are so, so, so Emma, and Ray tries to change the subject both inside his head and out of it, summons up some kind of joke or snide comment out of habit.
And the thing is—
He smiled when he tried to set himself on fire.
He smiled when he confessed all his sins to Norman, too.
He smiled when he would talk to Mama, and she would always smile back—and they would be like two broken mirrors set to face each other, bouncing infinite broken reflections back and forth and back and forth, twisting until they were eventually unrecognizable but always, always, always the same.
(She smiled when she led the children with their hats and suitcases out to the gate, she smiled when she broke Emma’s leg, she smiled when she told them that Norman would be dead in a day. She never smiled when he cried into her shoulder because he couldn’t do anything else, and he doesn’t want to know why.)
He smiles now—the porcelain-doll smile that he knows Emma knows all too well, but he can’t muster the energy for his usual smirk right now.
He thinks he might be breaking. Fracturing at the seams, somewhere. He thinks he actually broke a long time ago, when he was six years old and sat under a tree and drove a stick through his ear, and hummed a song that only two people and their ghosts knew.
Or maybe it was when he started collecting lighter fluid, seven years old and so sure of his decision that he didn’t deserve to make it out of this.
Or maybe he has just always been broken into mirror-glass pieces, all jagged and sharp.
He smiled when he tried to set himself on fire. He smiles now.
It’s not fair of him to be in pieces right now, not when they’ve all worked so hard to try and glue him back together. Not when they’ve all got their own broken pieces and glass edges to worry about.
He’s going to survive, and that’s enough.
Emma looks like she wants to slap him again.
She doesn’t. She stares at him until Ray almost wishes she would.
And then she pulls him into a hug. It’s tight, warm, and the first thing that Ray thinks is that she shouldn’t be doing this because she’s going to pull her stitches. The second thing he thinks is that he’s taller than her now, taller than he thinks he should be. The third thing is that he thinks he might cry, and that’s a weird thought, because he’s already cried more in the past few months than he has his whole life.
She’s trembling. He’s not sure if it’s from the strain, or something else, but he holds her upright.
“What are you thinking, Ray?”
(“Hellooooo, Earth to Ray,” Norman snaps his fingers in front of Ray’s face.
“You gotta get out of your head every once in a while,” Norman laughs.
“Like you’re one to talk,” Ray grumbles.
“I can appreciate the beauty of the outside world,” Norman shrugs. “Usually.”
“Even though the inside of your head is better?” Ray nudges him with an elbow.
“Always,” Norman flashes him a sharp little smile.)
“Nothing I could put into words,” he mutters.
Emma hugs him tighter. “Don’t you dare leave me here.”
“I won’t,” he whispers.
“You already are.”
“I won’t,” he says, louder this time. “I can’t.”
And it’s true. They are two-thirds of a whole, and leaving just the one third, 0.333333333 repeating on for infinity, would be too cruel to consider.
There’s a piano in the bunker.
Ray doesn’t know how to play.
Emma loves music but she never cared to learn it, not when she could listen to it and sing along off-key to her own beat, her own metronome, dancing until she’s too out of breath to sing. And Norman was never one for music at all, he’d never been an artsy type—if anything he was prone to fits of melodramatic poetry when he got into a creative mood. Ray has read it before. Some of them were alright, but some of them... well... he’ll just call it another instance of cursing his own inability to forget, and leave it at that.
Ray just didn’t bother. He couldn’t bother with music or proper photography or anything frivolous, not when his siblings were falling like dominoes around him. And he’s not exactly musical to begin with, not really. He’s too visual for that, doesn’t have the ear for it that kids like Nat do.
He takes out a book of sheet music from the bench, stares at the unfamiliar titles and the staffs and clefs and notes within measures.
Ray is, first and foremost, analytical.
He’s not analytical in the way that Norman was. He doesn’t have that algorithmic strategic process, step-one-step-two-step-three. No matter how complicated Norman’s plans would get, there was always step-one-step-two-step-three. It’s what made Norman’s plans so good, really.
When he’s not shoving his entire attention span into a book (which he admittedly usually is), Ray flits from concept to idea to concept with all the focus of a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. He has read books from astronomy to political science to architecture to meteorology to botany to quantum physics, in that order. He’s self-aware enough to know that he does his best when he can follow his own convoluted pathway to get to the end goal.
(“Norman thinks like a tree,” Emma said once, when they were small and Norman was sick and it was just them. “All one trunk and a lot of different branches.”
“Don’t be weird,” Ray had snorted.
“You think in a bunch of weird crazy squiggly lines,” Emma giggled. “I dunno how.”
Ray shrugged, awkwardly.
“You both always end up in the same place, though,” Emma said. “It’s so weird. Totally different paths, same ending.”
“Oh yeah? Well you’re all zig-zaggy.”
“Ha! Yes! I’m totally zig-zaggy,” Emma had laughed.)
Emma has one solid straight line, just a lot of different ways to get there. Emma will get what she wants for her family and herself, no matter what. No matter how many zig-zags it takes.
He flips through the pages of sheet music. Staffs, clefs, time signatures, quarter and half and whole notes and rests. Something so incomprehensible as music, broken down into basic math.
For the life of him, he could never figure out how Mama thought. He had tried to figure it out during their chess games, especially. He would watch Norman play, and sure enough, there was the tree and its intertwining branches. He watched Emma play and she would be all zig-zags. His own strategies were jumbled and squiggly, but ultimately, the ending positions were similar to Norman’s.
Mama was different every single time. Sometimes she was a tree. Sometimes she zig-zagged. Sometimes she squiggled. But most of the time Ray couldn’t even tell that much.
Was it on purpose?
Ray traces his finger across the measures upon measures of music given tangibility. He knows the basics, of course, but that’s just because he knows the basics of pretty much everything.
He wishes—briefly, wistfully—that he could have known her thoughts. Just once. No porcelain smile, no broken-mirror smirk, all of the walls upon walls torn away. Just to know what was real and what was fake. Where was the facade, Mama? Where was the character? When were you pretending? Could you even tell?
Ray presses down on a key. Just one finger, on B-flat.
Ray is, first and foremost, analytical.
The song is 3/4 meter, in the key of B-flat minor.
He takes a breath.
B-flat D E-flat F B-flat A-flat G-flat F—
His hands shake.
D-flat F C E-flat B-flat—
It’s simple and one-handed—just the melody of the song.
A-flat B-flat F G-flat A-flat G-flat F—
Years and years of Ray’s life, his memories, everything—contained in just eight different notes rearranged into their rhythms and combinations.
E-flat C A-flat F A-flat B-flat F A-flat B-flat F—
Is it careless of him, to play it like this? Their own secret little lullaby, echoing through the bunker?
E B-flat D E-flat F B-flat A-flat G-flat F.
His finger hovers over the B-flat key. It could be A-sharp, if you wanted to be technical. Maybe it’s pretending, too, or maybe it’s somehow both B-flat and A-sharp—the exact same sound with different names and different meanings and different uses, but... fundamentally, the pitches and tones are identical. More than identical—inseparable. The same. One note. One sound.
B-flat rings out across the room, reverberating through the bunker. The key of B-flat minor has flats on B, E, A, D, and G. The key of A-sharp minor has sharps on F, C, G, D, A, E, and B. The exact same note, two completely different keys.
Ray lets his head fall on the piano keys, making an ugly, discordant sound. It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense.
“It’s a pretty song,” Nat offers, peeking his head into the room.
“It’s Mama’s,” Ray says through gritted teeth. It feels like admitting defeat. And mine, he doesn’t say.
Nat pauses. “Still pretty,” he shrugs. “Does it matter who it came from?”
Ray... doesn’t know what to say to that. He just—he doesn’t know what the right answer is.
Right in front of him is music made math, B-flat D E-flat F, B-flats and A-sharps on the same black key, and he just—
He doesn’t have an answer. The song is his and it is Mama’s and maybe it’s not their secret anymore, maybe it’s Jemima’s now too, and maybe it’s Emma’s, and maybe it’s Yuugo’s, and maybe it’s Nat’s. But what’s the point in B-flat A-flat G-flat F if it doesn’t matter where it came from?
The same song that Ray just played on the piano was sung as children were sacrificed for the sake of survival, was sung as Ray betrayed his family for their sake, was sung as he cried into her shoulder, was sung as Mama carved off this piece of herself and gave it to Ray, the only real gift she ever gave him besides a porcelain smile and and a hundred shattered mirror reflections.
What is he supposed to do?
(“Survive,” Mama says.)
(“Live,” Norman says.)
(“Stay,” Emma says.)
He breathes, lets the air shudder through his lungs. Lightly traces a hand across the piano keys.
He’ll do all three.
Maybe that will be enough.