He hurriedly strode after the young mother through several rooms and up a curved staircase. He wished she would run – he would make a mad dash had he known where to head – but alas her shirtdress limited her movements.
The mansion seemed so quiet now, unsettlingly so with only the sound of their feet tapping softly against the floor. An ugly impatience roiled within him as his mind conjured up the worst scenarios possible, and he found himself working his jaw.
They turned around a corner. At the end of the dark corridor was a lone room, light seeping through its opened door. That was no doubt where Ib was. He inwardly groaned, keeping himself from darting past Mrs. Lowell to check up on the little girl. They soon arrived in front of the room, just not soon enough for him, and the fact that he couldn’t just barge inside only served to further aggravate him.
The mother gave him a look before entering the room, which was understandable. It didn’t mean Garry had to like it. Left outside and only being able to see what little part of the room revealed by the half-opened door, he resisted the urge to peek inside. Just by standing here, he probably had already crossed the line.
He could vaguely make out small whispers from her father, telling her it was all fine, and her mother, asking her what was wrong, but he couldn’t hear her. Seconds ticked by slowly as he strained his ears. The parents sounded calm enough. He was glad, but at the same time, restless. Why wasn’t she saying anything?
The room was her own, organised and brightly lit; her bed was soft and the familiar scent of her mattress occasionally tickled her nose. She curled her small, shaking fingers, scrunching the thin fabric of her sky blue blanket. Her mother had gathered her into gentle arms, and soothing voice questioned her without demanding answers. Her father sat to her right, his big hand giving her back slow, firm strokes, and she was afraid her loud heart would be felt.
Ib stared out the wide window wall at the foot of her bed, barely registering the darkness outside.
It was so scary. She remembered shaking free of brutal black arms, but she had never once gotten caught back then. She remembered hugging creepy blue dolls, but that wasn’t right because she had only ever ran away from them in the toy box. Then she remembered leaving a soundly sleeping Garry in a starry corridor, and, with growing horror, recalled following a trail of blue petals. Mary had played loves me, loves me not; a lone stem rolled between her fingers, but that couldn’t have been right because… she’d burnt Mary… and escaped together with Garry.
But then, had he really escaped with her? She remembered his promise to come see her very soon, but had it really happen? He still hadn’t shown up. Oh, but she was sure she had found him amongst the crowd. But that wasn’t right either, because it seemed she had been sleeping in her bed and wouldn’t have been able to find him in the streets.
Had she even met him in that twisted gallery?
It had been so real. The nightmare had left her memory a mess. Her parents were worried – she didn’t want them to worry. She told herself to calm down but it didn’t work.
“Oh my baby,” Alysha crooned, tightening her embrace around the child in hope it would ease her shaking, “tell me what’s wrong.”
She didn’t expect to hear a reply, but then her daughter surprised her.
“… The paintings… chasing me, a-and the arms… Then Mary… rose… Garry… petals on the ground,” Ib’s broken whispering made her brow rise as she tried to comprehend the story behind it. She exchanged a look with her husband, who seemed to share her confusion. To sum it up, Ib had dreamt of being chased, and somehow Garry and a Mary were involved. It didn’t make any sense, but then again dreams, or in this case, nightmares weren’t supposed to make sense.
“It’s okay Ib,” Nathan carefully patted their daughter, not quite used to the act of consoling. “Whatever they are, they’re not real. You don’t have to be afraid.”
Ib seemed to shrink even further. Her little girl shifted in her arms, hesitant ruby eyes looked up to hers. “Ma… Where’s Garry?”
The look on Ib’s face was almost begging her not to deliver a bad news. The child was on the verge of tears. She held in a sigh and looked at her husband.
Nathan gave her a wry nod before getting to his feet and heading for the door.
They stepped outside of the room. Or to be more precise, his wife made him.
“Lysh, are you serious?” he asked in a whispered tone, disbelieving. The boy was a decent fellow, but he wasn’t going to leave his daughter alone with him just yet.
“Leave them, Nate,” his wife said with a rare stern voice, tightening her grip on his sleeve as though he would storm back inside any moment. “The boy was clearly uneasy with you burning holes into his back, and that upset Ib. It was going no where.”
Burning holes? He was merely watching.
Nathan gave her a huff and loosened the tie around his neck. He had been so occupied by the sudden appearance of the boy that he’d forgotten how stuffy his suit was.
A hand in his pocket, he tilted his head to look through the threshold. The boy was on his knees, and Ib was hugging him, head nuzzling in the crook of his neck. He had decided that the boy wasn’t bad, but after hearing that ‘Garry’ was involved in his little girl’s nightmare, there were things to be reconsidered.
Granted, he’d raised a smart daughter. She wouldn’t cling to a man who would bring her harm, but this entire situation didn’t sit well with him.
“I want to try trusting him,” Alysha muttered as she crossed her arms, a faraway look in her eyes. “This is the first time I’ve seen her so persistent about something. Plus, you’ve seen what he could do by merely entering the room.”
He lowered his gaze, recalling how happy his daughter had been when she had taken notice of the young man next to him. Her face hadn’t shown it, but her eyes had said it all: glad, relieved, and even thankful.
Ib was only nine, and already she was drifting away from them.
“I don’t get their relationship,” he grunted, dismaying at the thought.
“Me neither, but I think we’ll have to wait until either of them is comfortable enough to tell us,” she shrugged. “The most important thing now is that Ib have her sleep. He’s promised to put her in bed. Let’s take his words for now.”
“Ib, let’s get you tucked in now,” Garry rigidly removed her arms from around his neck, doing his best not to be too forceful. “I heard, you haven’t been sleeping properly?”
Ib wore a sulky look, giving him a swift nod. To be honest, it was hardly any different from her usual expressionless face, but he was becoming an expert at reading her mood.
He brushed his thumb under her eye and couldn’t hide a frown as he took note of the dark rings staining her pale skin. How could he have not noticed them before? This… was his fault. She was in this state because of him.
He didn’t think he was some sort of special existence that would’ve been able to shoo her hauntings away, but he did know that his absence had made them worse.
“Now that’s not good,” he chided, unconsciously slipping back to his feminine habits. “I understand the nightmares are scary, but remember that the gallery is far away now, it can’t hurt us anymore,” pausing, he gave her hand a squeeze. “Go to bed for me?”
She slightly pursed her lips, eyes looking anywhere but him. He waited. Although the position was further hurting his knee, which he believed was forming a bad bruise after having been rammed into the table back in the living room, he didn’t mind at all.
He didn’t remember ever being this patient with anyone else.
Finally, she spoke. “Only if you promise to stay.”
His smile froze. “Um, Ib. That’s… er…” he took a furtive glance over his shoulder. To his surprise, the doorway was empty. The parents that he had expected to be keeping an eye on him weren’t there, leaving him blinking. They were actually willing to trust him to this extent? He was perplexed, but also relieved. It was considerably easier to breathe now.
He turned back to Ib and ran his fingers through her short bang. “… Alright, anything for you, hon,” he said after a bit of hesitation.
Maybe it was then… that these feelings started…
“You better sleep real tight now that Garry’s here to watch over you, dear,” he said in a mock warning tone.
Ib was comfortably snuggling against her pillow, blanket pulled all the way to her neck, while Garry sat on the floor, his back leaning against the side of her bed. One arm reaching back, he held onto her small hand.
She was silent, but he knew she had heard him. Traversing the gallery with Ib, he had learnt not to expect a reply to everything he said. There was also a possibility that she was already drifting back into sleep.
It still felt like a dream, being here with her. In the past months, he’d stayed hopeful, just not too much. Occasionally, he had toyed with the idea of giving up searching. He was glad he never acted on it.
He bent his leg for a place to rest his free arm, shuffling in place to find a comfortable position for himself. After he was satisfied, Garry tilted his head and rested it onto her bed.
Her room was a quiet little space. He’d forgotten how quiet a bedroom should be, living in the rundown apartment just a few steps away from a construction site. To his right was a large window that stretched from floor to ceiling; its patterned curtain was drawn to the side, presenting him with a beautiful view of the city light from afar. Across from his left was a hollow white shelf, stacked with books of various size and stuff animals.
The walls here were painted an ivory white, with several spontaneous strokes of rich brown. A few strips of glossy stains were visible on the lower part of the walls, indicating that things had been taped there and then taken off. The slanted ceiling above was installed with a stylised light bulb.
It was then that he felt a tug on his hand.
“Hm? What is it, Ib?” he asked, turning his head to meet her burgundy gaze. “Oh, is it too bright? Should I turn off the light for you?”
Ib shook her head once and rolled to her side, never letting go of his hand. She then pulled at his fingers to press them against her cheek. “I don’t like the dark, it reminds me of Mary’s room… before I…”
Her sentence was left hanging, and the room was once again thrown into silence.
He hadn’t really thought about it, but it was apparent what happened had scarred Ib’s innocent mind. Taking away a life, even a fabricated one, must have been a great burden for her. If only he had been the one to have lit the fire…
Garry turned fully to her, carefully untangling his hand from hers in away that wouldn’t upset her, and caressed the smooth of her cheek with his thumb. Brows slightly drew together, he began, “Ib, I know it’s hard, but you gotta stop beating yourself up over this. There was nothing you could have done different. Mary was out of control, and I thought I was done. You saved my life… again.”
Ib sank her face into her pillow, avoiding his eyes.
“Hey, hey, Ib. Look at me,” he slipped his hand under her head, gently guiding her gaze back to him. “I’m still alive because of you. Know that I’m very thankful that you did what you did. Please don’t feel too bad about it, okay sweetheart?”
Her eyes slightly glazed over, and she nodded slowly.
“Good girl,” he touched his forehead with hers, supporting himself off her bed by his elbow. “Forget about Mary, just close your eyes and-”
“Huh?” Garry moved his head back, staring down at her. Her eyes were full of resolute.
“I won’t forget,” she said sullenly, gaze lowered. “I can’t forget. You can’t either.”
“… Ib honey,” he recovered from the initial shock and started. “… A… L-ook, I-I know you feel bad and all, but… Stop it. Just stop, Ib. It’s fine if you forget. Don’t hurt over it anymore.”
“… She always appears in my nightmares,” the little girl whimpered, curling up.
Garry gritted his teeth. He was angry, but not at Ib. That damned painting, haunting her even in its demise. “Put them behind you, Ib,” he grated. “Your nightmares aren’t real. They don’t mean anything. Forget about Mary.”
Ib didn’t reply for a while. She seemed to be processing something in her head.
Finally, she rolled onto her back and looked up at him.
“But being forgotten is sad.”
His eyes widened.
“Forgetting is a horrible thing to do,” Ib mumbled, gaze drifting away. “She’s crying. She’ll keep crying…”
Garry flopped back down onto the floor, stunned.
He remembered now, the scribbled diary hidden in a corner of the cremated girl’s room. She might’ve been a painting for dozens of years, as twisted as the gallery that housed her, but in the end, Mary was just a child, lonely and lost.
At some point, he’d stopped considering her human out of spite, but Ib was different. He hadn’t spent enough time with the impish blonde to care, but Ib had.
As understanding slowly crept up on him, so did a sense of awe. Why was she so… thoughtful?
No. Not thoughtful. Kind.
Truly a gentle child.
He craned up to place a soft kiss on her forehead. Pulling back, he smiled down at her flustered look. “… Sorry, Ib,” he murmured. “I shouldn’t have said those things. You’re right, let’s remember her.”
“Let’s not forget,” he repeated.
“Sleep tight now, Ib.”
He stood behind the library building, relishing the ephemeral warmth delivered by the late morning sun. A steel cold mechanism in his right hand, he flipped the cap open and flicked the rusty wheel. Instantly, a blue-cored flame sprung to life, and he brought it to the stick readied between his lips.
Familiarity kicked in, and he absentmindedly followed a buried habit. Covering the lighter from chilly wind, he took a few puffs as the fire licked away the tip of his cigarette.
It wasn’t a brand he was used to, having a stronger smell, but at least the heat and smoke brought him back. Back to a time when ‘she’ wasn’t there.
He closed the lighter and pocketed it.
Taking a long drag, he leant back against the dirty brick wall behind and let the chemicals burn his lungs, before releasing them into the atmosphere.
This was a slow time for his university, but the few people that happened to pass by his spot didn’t spare him or his smoking a single glance. Even those whose faces seemed to scrunch up at the smell only sped up without moving their eyes away from their works.
“Garry?” a voice suddenly pulled him from his daydream.
He looked to his left to see his friend, Lucy, standing with arms folded. She was a head shorter than him, but her presence was as oppressing as always.
“Oh, Lucy dear,” he grinned, faking his cheeriness. “Cold day, eh? Heading to one thirty-nine?”
“Why are you smoking?” she demanded, completely ignoring his greeting.
Garry’s smile disintegrated for a mere second as he lowered the cancer stick to his side. He then gave her a humourless chuckle, “… no reason, reall-”
“Didn’t you quit already? For the little girl?”
Before he could come up with something to say, Lucy had snatched the cigarette from between his fingers and doused it onto the wall next to him. Throwing it into a bin nearby, she turned back to him, “I don’t know what your problem is but don’t just go back to smoking. That stuff kills.”
He didn’t have anything to say back to her.
He must’ve made some kind of face. He wasn’t sure what, but her scowl softened and she asked. “Is your mouth er… lonely? I heard that’s the deal with smokers.”
His eyes became dark as he lowered them. He ran his tongue over the inside of his teeth and swallowed. “Kind of,” was his curt, but weak answer.
Lucy started rummaging through her belongings. He found it funny. The girl could pick out stuff from other people’s bags with uncanny accuracy, but could never locate things in her own.
At last, she took out a small cube wrapped in red. Strawberry candy it seemed. She carelessly tore off the plastic and pressed the sweet against his mouth. “Eat this instead,” she said it as an order.
He stared at her, and she at him, unwavering. Hesitantly, he parted his lips and let the candy enter his mouth – the sour taste immediately stimulating his tongue.
“Take care of yourself now,” Lucy pinched his cheek – hard, and it hurt like hell. As soon as she let go, his hand shot up to cover the semi-swollen skin protectively.
“Gotta run, see ya.”
Garry watched as the girl sprinted away. When she was out of sight, he went back to leaning against the wall.
He pushed the candy around in his mouth, sucking on his now fruit-flavoured saliva.
Trapping the candy between his teeth, he started gnawing on it.
He hardened his jaw and soon crushed the candy to pieces. Looking away from nothing in particular, he swallowed the jagged fragments.
“It’s not fucking enough.”
You know… forgetting is horrible…
But lusting after a child is even more so.
- the table that Garry rammed his knee into remains unscathed
- there used to be crayon drawings in Ib’s room