Meat was definitely the right choice, you think, as grease drips down your chin. The meat is cold and undercooked, so you have to grab it with both hands while you rend it apart with your incisors. It bursts in chunks, filling your mouth with blood and your throat with mangled knots of gristle and long strings of muscle fiber. You take big bites, almost too big to swallow, so big that you choke on the meaty mulch and hock some of it up into your nasal cavity. You sneeze out a gooey rope of phlegm and flesh. You stop for a moment to wipe your face, but your chin is still slippery after you swipe the mess away. Slivers of meat catch between your teeth as you masticate with bestial enthusiasm. You use your thumbnail to fish them out.

> Finish up.

Some of the blood has coagulated on the surface of the plate. You grab it from Calliope and lick it clean. She watches you—calm, placid, alien. Roxy has leaned forward to scrutinize your slovenly feasting, her eyes wide and intense. You stare back at them with your hands coated in unctuous organic matter and flecks of seared skin. The blood on your hands is so thin that it’s like oily Kool-Aid pooling in your palm.

> Think, suddenly, about all the many horrible crimes committed by Lord English.

God, that guy is the worst. The memory of his stupid face and his terrible art and all the abominable misfortune he has caused across multiple universes and time lines makes your meal start to curdle in your stomach. The meat sits there like a big, lardy mass—a black hole bursting the universe apart around it. You feel like rocks are churning in your gut and your mouth begins to water, hot and sour. The flavor of the afternoon air changes around you and it’s too hot, almost suffocating. You swallow back a mouthful of pungent bile as your eyes swim and lose focus.

> You know what you must do.

JOHN: i know what i must do.

Of course you know. What kind of guy would you be if you stayed here, when you’re the only one in existence capable of completing the grim task? A pretty shitty one, who just sneezed up a chunk of raw meat in front of a girl you used to have a gigantic crush on.

JOHN: i have to go back and kill lord english.

ROXY: u sure?

JOHN: i think so. it will probably be hard. but i think it’s the right thing to do.

JOHN: everyone is counting on me.

Roxy pulls back and takes a deep breath. It’s a very thin breath, and her bottom lip quivers a bit when she sucks it in. She looks disappointed, though you could be misreading her, as usual. Calliope looks... well, her face is a permanently grinning skull. You’ll be damned if you know what’s on her mind either.

ROXY: i understand

No one says anything for some time. A pleasant breeze rolls down from the hills. In the distance, the bell tower chimes twice. You notice that a group of carapacians have stopped to stare at you with beady-eyed fascination. The front of your shirt is stained with dark, slimy patches from the meat. Christ, why did you have to eat that meat like such a slob?

JOHN: so, is that it?

JOHN: should i, uh... get going?

CALLIOPE: if this is yoUr decision, then yes.

CALLIOPE: there’s no time to lose, if the choice yoU have made is to matter.

Calliope closes up the picnic basket and stands. Roxy follows, taking Calliope’s hand in hers again.

> Say goodbye?

JOHN: ok then.

JOHN: umm...

JOHN: thanks for inviting me to this picnic.

JOHN: guess i’ll see you both... when i get back?

Neither of them reply. You look from one to the other, then back again. A loud belch escapes your mouth, catching you completely off guard. The gastrointestinal ambush releases an invisible cloud of chewed-up protein odor into the public park. The gross ball of muscle roils and snarls in your belly like an unruly groundhog, prodded yet reluctant to come out and see its shadow. Ugh, why are you thinking about this?!

> Hug them, dummy.

You hesitate a few awkward moments too long. When you go to hug them, they’ve already turned away, leaving you standing in the middle of the park alone with your arms half-raised, cupping the air. It’s so pathetic that the eavesdropping carapacians finally scurry away, overwhelmed by their secondhand embarrassment. You didn’t even know they could get embarrassed.

You drop your arms and sigh. Time to get on with it.

Before you leave, you fly back home and take one last look around Salamander Village. You breathe in the clean, crisp air, listen to the pipes chime, soak up the unfiltered sunlight. You then head inside for a wipe down, since it feels like you’ve been making face-down snow angels on the floor of an ill-kept slaughterhouse. You head to your bathroom and wash all the meat off your face. But somehow you still don’t feel that clean. An invisible layer of oil seems to cling to almost every square inch of your body no matter how hard you scrub.

You go to your bedroom desk and dig out some stationery.

> Write: “dear roxy,”

You’ve never written a note so quickly, or with such clarity of heart and mind. When you’re done, you write nine more. Your hands leave grease stains on the paper.

You leave ten envelopes on your bed, arranged in a tidy circle with the names of your ten closest friends written on them. Then, with absolutely no fanfare, you leave all of them and this idyllic world you’ve created behind and zap yourself back into canon.

> ==>