Chapter

26

John stares at his phone for a while, thumb pressed to the space just below the “send message” button. He realizes he’s not dwelling so much on the content he’s hesitating to send—which now that he’s looking at it, seems no less vapid than anything he tends to bother Terezi with online—as he is on the nature of this correspondence they have, and his peculiar semiannual need to bother her in this way at all. What is this relationship they have, he wonders? Does he even care that much? Does she?

But if he doesn’t care that much, and there’s nothing to it, then why does he do it? Why does he seem to put care into the nonsense he badgers her with? He supposes he could ask the same of many features of his life. Why does he care? Why does he put the time in? When you can’t shake the feeling that nothing here has much intrinsic meaning—or rings as “canon,” to drop a term he has to admit has worn out some welcome in his vocabulary—how does one justify even leaving the house?

He thought he was over this. That he got his moping out of his system those first few years on Earth C and then started getting his life on track. He got married, he had a kid. That fixes everything, right? He wonders if his intermittent check-ins with Terezi have less to do with her personally and more to do with gravitating toward someone who’s still out there. Someone who can still lay credible claim to functioning as an agent of relevance. A person who hasn’t entirely forfeited their volitional integrity just yet. Like a guy with a wife and a kid.

Heh, not a bad joke he just told himself, he has to admit. But it’s not satisfying, because it’s probably not the answer. The truth is, he thinks he just keeps texting Terezi because she’s the only one he knows who isn’t here.

John drifts aimlessly through the atmosphere for hours, thinking, but not thinking. The forest below grows thin, alien. He floats past the border of the Troll Kingdom, where the grass starts to get sparse and gray, and sets down in a quarry surrounded by bare, thorny bushes. Instead of flowers they’re sprouting throbbing yellow pustules. John touches a branch and one of the pustules bursts, leaking mustard-colored slime everywhere. How could you be homesick for a place like this, John wonders.

Then he remembers Terezi once told him about the place she grew up in. A quiet forest of blueberry and cotton candy. A canopy so dense she had to walk minutes from her house to be exposed to the sun. Even Alternia had beauty in it. But John is sure that Earth C probably replicates it the same way it replicates everything else: thin and garish and fake, fake, fakity FAKE. A bad photocopy with the ink settings turned to high contrast. A sunrise that casts no shadows.

He’s been contemplating this melodramatically for maybe ten minutes when the sky rips opens above him and flashes violent waves of red and green across the landscape. Having dead trolls deposited from the sky like this is far from unusual these days, but what comes plummeting out of the rips in space above this time isn’t troll-shaped at all. It looks more like a meteor—a flash of metal and fire screaming toward the planet, trailing thick black smoke behind it. It outpaces the flames for a moment, and John recognizes it. It can’t be. There’s no way. And yet, there’s no mistaking it.

It’s his father’s car. A whole ton of white metal oxidizing in the heat, the windows all smashed open. If anyone’s in there, he can’t make them out. John feels like he watches the car descend and crash against the earth in slow motion. It hits the ground with an impact that reverberates for miles.

He’s never moved so fast as he does to reach the crater. He skids to a stop at the rim: below, the car is twisted and steaming, curled into horrible, jagged edges, but the back half is mostly intact. He sends a thrust of wind through the back of the carriage to blow both doors off and crawls inside to examine the seats. Just to make absolutely certain no one was in it when it crashed. The metal of the frame is still so hot that the air around it is sizzling, but John doesn’t care.

The back seat is a mess. It’s smeared with... shaving cream? With little bits of... something, strewn about. He pinches some of the dry, brown, flaky substance, and sniffs it. Is this... tobacco?

Mingling with the shaving cream, there are red bloodstains. But no flesh, or bones, or anything signifying the remains of a person. John puts a hand to his chest and sighs with... relief? Disappointment? He has no idea what he was hoping to find in here. Not his father, right? That would be stupid. Who needs to put eyes on their own father’s corpse twice in one lifetime. But then, he sees it.

A streak of teal, smudged along the top ridge of the seat cushion, at the center of a red, bloody handprint. With wide eyes, John reaches out and runs his thumb over it. It chips under his nail, the same consistency as human blood. The same color as Terezi’s text.

He rubs the flaky crust between his fingers. He only stopped talking to her a few hours ago. Time passes differently out there, as he’s often reminded. She was so sure she was dying. Was this it? Was this how she —

John reels back, nausea striking him in the pit of his stomach. What kind of twisted coincidence is this? Why is he finding this now? If Terezi was here, why? Who was she bleeding with in the back of his father’s car?

It finally hits him. Not just that he hasn’t seen Terezi in years, or that he’s never going to see her again. It’s that he never was going to see her again. It was over before it began.

John’s body is drenched in sweat. He staggers away from the mangled car, his eyes stinging from the heat. He rips his glasses off and looks up at the sky, an unfocused and unspecific field of color and possibility. It looks like a flat canvas to him, yet behind its flatness he knows it stretches back through an infinite expanse of pointlessness, a limitless field of uncaring. It seems to mock him.

He points his eyes at the sympathetic dirt instead. The soft earth seems to beckon him, and he finds himself sinking to his knees, fingers digging into the disrupted soil. It’s still warm, humming with energy from the car’s meteoric fall. The sight of his arms stretched out in front of him warps in his blurry field of vision, bending and shimmering in the dying light.

John realizes he’s crying when the first wet droplets fall onto the backs of his hands. They mingle with the dirt around him, turning the comforting earth to sticky mud. He doesn’t get it, and he never has.

A choked sob forces its way out of his chest. His fingers flex into claws, gathering up dirt into his shaking fists. He bears down until his knuckles turn white and his fingernails press sharply into the flesh of his palms. The pain makes him feel real.

All he’s ever wanted is to be fucking real.

Then, as if not quite finished with the sky just yet, he turns his gaze upward to give it one last angry look. He feels consumed in that moment by the acuteness of his physicality and the overwhelming scale of his cosmic irrelevance. His lungs fill with air, and he releases all his years of pent-up frustration and anger and guilt and doubt and weakness and pain and misery in a blood-curdling shout that sounds more like it’s from the mouth of an animal than a man. John screams at the merciless sky until his throat is raw and he has no energy left even to cry.

No one hears him, and if they had, it wouldn’t matter.

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