Baptism of the Wandering Jew by Johnny the Son
rating: +24+x

This is a continuation of The Last Things Dr. Darryl Loyd Ever Did, in Chronological Order. Please read that first.


Veronica Fitzroy looked at herself in the mirror, and realized two things: One, that she had been extremely lucky for the past two or so years, and Two, that today was the day her luck ran out.

Veronica was stranded in the middle of nowhere, with only the late doctor's (ill-fitting) clothes on her back and about $150 in pocket change. She had no friends, no family, no home, and no source of income. Compounding this problem was the fact that she was a fugitive test-subject to a shadow fascist organization hellbent on stamping out the slightest threat to normalcy, and basically had to run as far away from this shithole as possible before they got wise to her escape. Finally, on top of it all, she was about to come off a 17-year hormone bender without any balls to bring her down lightly.

Fucking perfect.

Not like she didn't expect this. Her life was a rollercoaster of good luck and bad luck, and she rarely rode it without chucking on either herself or someone else. But she'd never been this lucky. Even with House of Spades, they only hit the mainstream after…

… whatever. Veronica hated mirrors, anyways.

Stepping back into the motel room, Veronica tried to ignore the half-naked corpse on the bed as she weighed her options.

  1. Take the good doctor's car and drive anywhere else. Maybe meet up with Brad, if that's not too obvious, although she had to wonder how far she was from New York.
  2. Try to find shady work here. She was a bit too rusty for hacking, didn't know if she had the body for sex work, and couldn't busk without causing a scene, but such was life in a world ruled by money.
  3. Join a cult. Hey, it worked well for Brad.

None of these sounded like good ideas, although she'd be the first to admit that good ideas rarely came naturally to her.

Fuck, she was hungry.


What do you know, the motel wasn't completely shitty.

It had a main area, a dingy little atrium with complimentary breakfast and about two computers. Pretty shitty compared to some of the things she'd seen when she toured, but heaven compared to 56. At the very least, it was enough to start the first day of the rest of her life. Plus, it'd been a while since she checked up on current events

Breakfast was cold-cuts between a flimsy bagel with a few oranges, plus two hours of waiting to actually use one of the computers. As she sat down-

This didn't feel right. Maybe it was the conditioning, life under fluorescent lights fighting for her fucking life as the mall cops shepherded her from experiment to experiment, slave to D-7294's whims, but to suddenly get internet access…

… forget it. If she always listened to her worst impulses, she'd be dead.

Her first stop was Facebook Reuters, just to check if the world still sucked as much as it did in her free days (spoilers: it did). Next was Facebook Rotten Tomatoes, see if Carrion Nights III did any good (spoilers: it didn't). Next was just check up on them no no no no NO.

The room went quiet as Veronica realized she'd just slammed her fist into the desk.

Veronica pretended nothing happened, and silently pulled up her Bandcamp.

House of Spades. Never really felt like a house to her, more like a… whatever. Still up. Looks like Dead Pig was still their most popular album, sales spiking with March of 2020, just after the thing with the cop. A few of the reviews actually mourned her, which gave her a bit of a chuckle. Bunch of fucking sheep baaing for the wolf that… fuck. Nevermind.

Veronica Fitzroy took a deep breath, and went to Facebook.

She shouldn't log in. Hell, she shouldn't even be using this fucking website. Mark Zuckerberg would be up her ass faster than a lover, and then the jailers would be up his ass, and she'd be back where she started. Hell, which of her friends would even be here? What would they even have for her?

Izzy never had a facebook. Well, she did, but that was a burner for Dattch. Jack's situation was identical, save the fact he had every g-ddamn dating app on the planet. Veronica was surprised he wasn't flagged as a bot, but whatever. Sara… Sara wasn't using hers. Brad didn't have one. Ashton-

Fuck it.

Jamison Smith. Veronica's stomach turned as she browsed his profile. Still happy. Didn't even care that she was gone. Whatever.

Dr. Wilbur Hartly. He'd be expecting grandkids, soon. Apparently, nobody saw fit to tell him off for ruining some other grandchild's life. Veronica wasn't feeling too well.

Veronica looked through the profiles of everyone she'd ever known. Dozens of Staten Islanders, few producers, anything. Everyone was… normal. Doing normal things. Living normal lives. None of them involved some stupid fucking grudge, or farcical tragedy, or government spooks, just… normalcy. Why couldn't she be normal?

… Veronica Fitzroy.

Her page should've been private from the start, but no, she could access it just fine. It was… empty of her.

Making up for the lack of Veronica were some of the people she used to know, and many she never quite did. Mostly some indieheads who didn't leave well enough alone. The occasional happy birthday from some old synagogue acquaintance. An invitation from Annabelle Kawajiri to a wed-

What?

Veronica read that over again, and still didn't quite process it. That… that's Izzy's sister.

What the fuck was Veronica doing on speaking terms with a Kawajiri? Why would she trust her with anything? Hell, she even posted the damn address. This…

… this was her only real lead, she supposed. Nothing much else to do, so why not follow it?


Thursday, September 29th. Ridgewood Anglican Church. 32 days until Annabelle Kawajiri and Dennis Hoang's bondage in holy matrimony.

This was fucking stupid.

Oh, she knew this was stupid. She'd told herself exactly as much on the ride over, soon as she passed out of Reno. She thought exactly that thought, when she crossed the border into Oregon. Her own fucking Oregon Trail, and fate didn't even grace her with a death by dysentery. And now, as she stared blankly at the doors of a church that wouldn't be open for a whole day, Veronica Fitzroy felt especially stupid.

It was almost poetic. Some dirty, washed-up rock star, standing at the closed gates of a church in the ill-fitting clothes of her savior. If only she could still listen to Wilco without retching.

Veronica held her breath, and pushed.

Oddly, the church was open. Sure, it wasn't bustling (places of worship rarely were at this time), but there were people. Mostly old folk, milling about, although Veronica had to wonder if they wouldn't be better off at home.

She should probably ask where the priest was. They called them priests, right? She could never tell. Her dad raised her Presbyterianism and she still wasn't sure what that word meant.

"Can I help you, miss?"

Veronica turned to face the voice, much to the apparent discomfort of its source. She could see why: a dirty, utterly jacked woman in shitty clothes had wandered into the church, unprompted, and the tiny woman who couldn't have been older than 25 was forced to act as the greeter.

"Uh… I'm sorry, I ffff-I just blew in from Reno, and, uh… I guess I don't know what I'm looking for, here." Really nice job introducing yourself to the terrified woman, Veronica.

"Oh. Well… hi, I guess." The woman hesitantly extended a hand, and Veronica hesitantly extended her own. "I'm Anna. Pleased to meet you."

Veronica nodded, and-

Wait fuck, really? G-d, Veronica'd never see her as anything but that weirdo sixteen-year-old with the reptile obsession.

"…hi, Anna. Kawajiri, right? It's, uh… it's nice to meet you."

Anna Kawajiri only seemed more uncomfortable at being named. "… well, uh… hrm. Yes, I suppose."

How long had it been since they actually met, anyways? Twelve years? Time flew far too fast for Veronica's liking. Did…

"… Uh, I'm Veronica, by the way. Veronica Fitzroy. You know, the chick in a band with your sister? I think I went by Lyanna then."

Anna blinked, before loosening her posture. "Veronica? You…" Her words were interrupted by the sound of nervous laughter. "I…" Looking around, Anna gestured to an isolated corner, and fucked off into it without so much as a confirmation from Veronica.

Veronica shouldn't have followed her, but again, what else was she supposed to do?

She fully expected that little girl to mug her. It'd be the capstone of her journey, to be sure. Mugged by Annabelle fucking Kawajiri, reptile freak and-

"What did they do to you?"

Veronica suddenly felt very cold.

"You're… I mean, this is horrible." Something crept onto Anna's face, a look of pity and, fuck, humanity she hadn't received since… that thing with Margaret. Whatever. "I mean, Jes-I mean, mother Mary, you look like you've been living in the desert for a year." Not exactly untrue. Veronica felt herself tensing up. "Oh dear, I… do you need anything?"

Eye contact was getting harder.

"… I'm okay."

Veronica wasn't entirely looking at Anna, now, but Anne kept talking anyways. "Don't say that! You're obviously… I mean, something happened to you! Where's the hair? The ki-the cool fashion? You… I know we weren't really friends, but I'm here to help, if you need it."

Why?

That was all Veronica could think about, right now. Why the hell would anyone care about some random hobo? No, not even a random hobo: the woman that ruined her sister's life in petty revenge, for something her sister didn't even do.

Was she just some masturbatory indulgence for Anna? Veronica wouldn't put that past her. Drumming up worthless feelings of self-indulgent pleasure by trying to help a hopeless freak back onto her feet in a world that wouldn't stop knocking her down. She'd be happy as she threw Veronica to the hounds of causality, back in the washer for the next person to wear like a stigmata. But no, Veronica wouldn't let her do that, because she was going to sabotage this right here and right now, making a scene for everyone to see and ruining little Anna's standing in whatever little stepford fuckery she thought was important.

Veronica opened her mouth to scream at Anna, and all that came out was a pathetic sob.


Anna had a nice home. Two stories, three bedrooms, three bathrooms. Apparently she worked as a vet for some funding-bloated wildlife firm, which made her more responsible than her sisters, at least.

And of course, there was the washed-up punk that she lead inside, who half-expected to be blocked by some suburban ward or the like as she passed through. But no, Veronica passed through just fine.

Anna's home, or at least the atrium, was nice. The house had, at one point, apparently started as a canvas of hipster-minimalism, but an assortment of decor, everyday appliances, and what Veronica could only assume was animal care paraphernalia had begun to fill the gaps between its architectural platonic ideal. Moreover, as clean as it was, it actually looked lived-in, which beat her old house by a considerable margin.

If Veronica felt awkward stepping back into suburbia, it was nothing compared to meeting her ex-friend's family in dirty clothes.

Far left, lounging on a sofa, had to be Dennis. Scrawny, couldn't have been that much older than Anna, bit of a darker complexion. He furrowed his brow upon Veronica's entrance, which she figured was fair enough. Her eyes wandered next to the 50-something man that, given such deliberately tacky fashion, had to have been either Anna or Dennis's father. He smiled as the two came in, but it didn't look all that genuine. Finally, sitting alone in a comfy chair was-

Hrm.

Before her incarceration, Veronica had kept a running tab on "people" she suspected were impersonating humans. That list included Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Tony Abbott, and now grew to include this "man". She'll start with the obvious: he looked like an artificial human created specifically to be a Tim & Eric extra. That would be enough for her to question him, but then he had to go and have those eyes, facing straight forward like a dead man who hadn't begun rotting. Indeed, Veronica nearly jumped as he turned his head to look over.

"Hello, I brought a friend!"

Veronica tensed hard as Anna patted her back, resisting the urge to pull back. "… hi. I'm… Nicky. Call me Nicky." Swallowing her disgust at yet another name that wasn't quite hers, Veronica gave a smile nearly as weak as the ones she was facing. "I'm, uh…"

"She's gonna be staying with us for a while. Just until she gets back on her feet, you know?"

The two humans stared back at her, and Veronica couldn't quite make eye contact with either. "I… I'll be doing things. Helping with the wedding, making breakfast, stuff like-"

"Don't worry about that, Nicky." Anna's smile was genuine, and that was worst part of all of this.

Anna was positively beaming as she gestured towards the men in the couches. "That's Dennis, over there. Why don't you say hi?" 1 for 3. Dennis didn't exactly say 'hi', but he did wave.

The older man laughed nervously, and it took everything to keep Veronica from blurting out "Same." "Hahaha, interesting choice of friends. You… I'm not sure I met you before." Getting up, Veronica could see that he had somehow inherited the good height genes. "I'm Mr. Kawajiri, but you can call me Naoki." For the second time today, a nervous handshake was offered to Veronica, who took it just as awkwardly as it had been offered.

"Huh. You're… it's nice to meet you." She probably shouldn't mention that she knew his daughter. Either way, neither of them really shook with their all. "So… well, hrm. Well, I don't wanna make this place any more crowded th-I mean, you know? What's, uh…"

"Don't worry, Nicky!" Cheerful as always, that Anna. "This is a temp thing. I just thought, like, maybe I could invite some family over for the month. Kinda celebrate the wedding a bit then. Mrs. Hoang is out with my aunt, but you can still talk to Cousin Johnny if you want!"

In the corner of her eye, Veronica was sure she caught the "man" grinning at her. Whatever shame she felt for her awkwardness was briefly overpowered by the urge not to give this "Johnny" attention. It-

"Don't be shy! He's a bit bawdy, but he won't bite."

Veronica bit her lip almost hard enough to draw blood, and went to face Johnny. She wasn't exactly sure whose cousin this white dude was, but maybe she shouldn't be judgmental. "Uh… hello, Johnny. How've you been?" After all, maybe he was just… well, Veronica was trying to be politically correct here but her mind kept betraying that endeavor.

"Well, they say the closed eye's the doorway for the man that hurts, you know?"

Heh, that actually put her at ease. She didn't quite get it, but what a kidder, that Cousin Johnny! "Yeah, it's been well. I dunno, like fuck, I… shit, I'm sorry for swearing." Veronica took a seat on a nearby sofa chair on the other side of the room.

"How King Cicada should spurn the piety of rejection. My inner wind draws sap from webs of livestock."

Veronica nodded. "Thanks, dude." He was talking perfectly normally; why was he still giving her the creeps? "What I meant to say was shit's complicated. I, uh, lost my documentation, and am gonna be needing to apply for some in the future. But like, I can help around the house. If you need it."

The expressions on Dennis and Mr. Kawajiri's faces softened, somewhat, which Veronica still wasn't used to. Dennis was the first to speak. "Uh… thank you. Darling, can we talk for a bit? About… little Esther."

"Oh! Sure. Nicky, would you give me a moment?"

Anna didn't wait for an affirmative before following Dennis back into a hallway, and Veronica wouldn't be bothering to try and listen in, given they were probably badmouthing her. And so there the three of them sat, in an awkward silence.

Mr. Kawajiri was the first to break the silence. "So… Nicky. What did you do before this?"

"Musician." Damn good at it, too. Private school wanted an instrument, they fucking got one. Too bad she's only good for depressant dirges, now. "Inventor." Not that her patents had ever made her any money. Only so many ways you can build a soundboard before it reaches its platonic ideal. "Mostly just engineering." Shame the name on her B.E. was attached to a dead person.

Cousin Johnny cut in with a wet cough. "Pathways go deeper and force them into soul energy." Veronica winced.

Mr. Kawajiri sighed. "I'm not sure why my daughter's doing this. Too much on her plate, really. But…" He wasn't quite making eye contact now, but that was okay because neither was Veronica. "… like Cousin Johnny said. Always something to help around the house."

Sure, that… no, that's not what he said. Cousin Johnny'd just joked that she didn't have a job. A cruel joke, but a funny one, but Veronica's pretty sure she'd have punched a stranger for saying that exact thing.

Veronica looked back to Cousin no, he wasn't her cousin. Why did she keep calling him that? Moreover, why was he just staring at a stranger like that? Not even like he was listening, cause there were times when Veronica was silent. Just… why?

She kept silent, until Anna came back in.


Dinner, which Veronica had insisted on cooking, was some spiced sausage and mixed veggies. Her original idea was stromboli, but prison had… nixed that, for the moment. Two years in a cell was hell on the skills, and prison spreads weren't very good practice.

Portioning was a bitch. She was cooking for five (Mrs. Hoang and Mrs. Cameron having opted to grab dinner out), but experience had fucked her notion of what constituted a "serving". She was left with about four and a third portions, which she guessed was fine. She didn't need much food, anyways. Probably best, considering she'd eaten too much since coming out of Reno.

The dining room could fit about twelve people altogether, but most of the family had bunched up. Anna was sitting across from Dennis, and next to Cousin Johnny. Nearby, sitting at the end of the table, was Mr. Kawajiri, currently engaged in a spirited conversation with Dennis about radios. Anna would occasionally interject, though she was more preoccupied with breastfeeding her newborn (Esther Kawajiri, a charming little 6-month-old that thankfully didn't scream much). Sometimes, Cousin Johnny would speak as well; Veronica tried not to listen to him.

G-d, they all looked so happy. Even Johnny, who hadn't even touched his food. They were all a family, and she just… was.

Veronica continued in silence, and eventually got up, cleaned her dishes, and went off to bed.


Veronica woke up in the game room at 1:37 AM to the sound of chirping bugs and the realization that she was hungry. By 2:37 AM, she'd given up on going back to sleep.

The game room, if it could still be called that, was a zoo, terrariums near completely lining the walls. Lots of snakes, a few lizards, maybe a spider or two. Still, there wasn't anything that made this much noise.

Veronica yawned, throwing her shirt back on and heading downstairs for leftovers.

Stairs always creaked too much in the middle of the night, but nobody yelled at her yet. It helped that as Veronica descended, her steps were gradually muffled by a mixture of chirping insects, the ambient sounds of some 70s samurai flick, and the snoring of the old lady who fell asleep to it.

It took a hot second for Veronica's eyes to adjust to the dark, but the dining room was empty. For all his lack of appetite, Johnny had the decency not to leave his food out. Still that didn't explain the chirping.

The Hoang/Kawajiri residence (she wasn't sure which applied, here) had a nice little kitchen, connected to the living room at the back of the house, consisting of a prep-counter surrounded by various appliances and shelves. It was a bit cluttered, sure, but little got in the way of anything else. Veronica could've taken a page out of their book, back in the day.

Veronica fumbled her way into the kitchen, and made her way to the fridge before suddenly coming face to face with Cousin Johnny. How did she miss him on the way in?

She hadn't gotten this close of a look at her cousin Johnny before, but up close he looked… worse. Johnny's skin had a fiberish texture at odds with typical human skin (a subject with which Veronica liked to think she was intimately familiar with). His clothes were a chaotic mishmash no sane human would be caught wearing, and that was before you got to the moth holes at the fringes. Worst were his eyes: They were dead, quite literally. Utterly motionless, to the point that Veronica wondered if Johnny could even see.

Veronica stared in silence, before speaking. "… hi, Johnny. How are you doing?"

Another thing: Johnny didn't actually talk. He just opened and closed his mouth. "Two cephalopods and barbecue composes what you are. Love for King Cicada crushes the Triotetragrammaton."

"… I didn't know that. I was… preoccupied, that day." Veronica was missing something. There had to be some logical conclusion to Johnny, and yet she consistently failed to come to it.

The sound of chirping grew louder.

"Metal pulled out the doctor's torso. King Worm killed your mother in carnal law." Johnny grinned, playfully tilting his head to the side. "Machines substitute connection and heat."

Untrimmed fingernails dug into the palms of Veronica's hands as her fists clenched into balls. "So what? Everyone's sinned. I… jesus fucking christ, I'm just here to get food. I don't need some creepy Jacob's Ladder monologue." Veronica's head pounded with noise and hunger. "It's like 3 in the fucking morning, how are you not asleep?"

Johnny said nothing as he turned around and opened the fridge, fishing out the dinner he hadn't yet eaten. Veronica could feel her stomach growling but fine, if he wanted-

And just like that, Cousin Johnny dumped his food straight into the trash.

Veronica looked between the trash, Johnny, back to the trash, back to Johnny, and felt herself grow very warm. Her teeth barely caught an inarticulate scream as neurons debated muscle memory on how to handle… whatever this was.

And then he was gone.

As Veronica trudged back upstairs, stomach aching and head ringing, she realized that she would not be sleeping for the rest of the night.


Veronica wasn't sure if she'd tuned out the cicadas or if they'd just disappeared, but it was a welcome way to start a morning.

Before she could actually summon the energy to make breakfast for the family, Anna had beaten her to it. Omelet plus some fried rice, of which Veronica had a one and a half servings of, at the firm request of Anna.

After that, Anna had to go back to the church to plan her wedding, along with Dennis and Mrs. Cameron. Mr. Kawajiri and Mrs. Hoang were… well, they were doing g-d knows what, but it didn't include Veronica Fitzroy, so she didn't care. Johnny could fuck himself for all Veronica cared, which left the guest computer to herself.

First things first: install Tor, and try to find the URLs of her past haunts; her poisons were craigslist style hacktivist forums or lifters for hire, easy to score a few bucks when she really needed it but not so great at keeping low. Still, g-d bless the fucking internet, and the ability for a woman to earn an honest living in a world that refused to hire felons.

Easiest way to test your skills was to work with the router's network. Turned out it was like riding a bike. Still, she didn't trust herself enough to take a hack job, not yet. So, might as well put that smuggling talent she picked up in prison to use.

By then, she just had to wait for everyone to get back. If Johnny appeared (as he often did) in her room, she'd move to another one.

Dinner was already prepared by the time Anna came back. Yakisoba, like Ashy taught her (Which, as a result, probably differed a bit much from its platonic ideal.). This time, she cooked for six, and shot a snide smile towards Johnny as everyone but him got their dinner. If he was capable of having a look on his plastic fucking face, it'd have been priceless. It was almost a shame that Anna had one-upped Veronica by buying her spare clothes, but the spite was its own reward.

For a few hours, she felt something she hadn't felt since that doctor broke her out: good.

At least, until she went to sleep.


Veronica Fitzroy opened her eyes, the only thing she could move.

The world wasn't; Veronica couldn't put it any other way. A chaotic mishmash of television static, independent of the concepts required for such things to exist. That something was pulling her down, and something else was keeping her up was obvious. But why would it, in this existence of nothing?

Something was sitting on top of her; there but to squeeze the air from her chest until she was left little more than a laminated corpse of flattened flesh.

From the Thing's hands poured brownish liquid. Putrid, viscous, crawling; that such a thing could ever exist was proof of Existence's endless capacity of malevolence. The substance twitched and writhed as the Thing played it like a child might play dough into some twisted fractal.

Just before the Thing thrust the Malevolence onto Veronica's face in an unholy baptism, Veronica looked upon its face.

The thing had the face of a pale, bearded man in his middle years, eyes completely dead.


Saturday, October 1st.

Churches always made Veronica feel weird. Pour a spiritual soap on the whole thing, and she was sure she'd wash right off. Still, Johnny never left the house, so volunteering to come here with Anna meant she could actually talk without some thing listening in.

Anna was a social creature, and the idea of an 'outing' where she and Veronica could work together for the wedding was the perfect way to get out of the house so they could actually talk. At least, that's what Veronica thought.

But by the time Anna was actually done talking to the deacons about seating arrangements, Veronica was pretty sure she'd run out of patience.

With that trademarked grin and twirl Veronica might expect from someone eighteen years younger, Anna finally emerged from the office after… Veronica really needed to get a watch. "I'm back! Sorry, things got a bit hectic, and I lost track, and you know how it is." Veronica did not, in fact, know how it was. "So, whaddya want to do next?"

"Let's… let's go for a walk." Fuck churches.

Anna's idea of a walk was a nature trail, which this property somehow had, but she'd take ticks over Johnny, any day.

Veronica finally worked up the courage to talk as Anna stopped to smell a wildflower. "So… Johnny. How long've you known him?"

"Well… my whole life, really." Anna put on the same smile from earlier this morning, and… one Veronica'd seen the past three days, too. "I don't know what I'd be doing without that lovable guy."

Right, right. "So… he's from your dad's side, right?"

Anna nodded, stiffly.

"Cool, cool." Fuck, this trail was covered in dog shit. "A Kawajiri, then. You don't mind if I ask why he's white as a fucking lily?"

For once, Anna stopped smiling. "I… what?"

"I'm gonna be honest with you, chief: don't you find it odd that some middle-aged white dude is nephew to your Japanese dad? Like, fuck, dude just shows up in your life, stays in your house, doesn't eat, no explanation. You sure that dude's legit?"

Anna said nothing.

"Hah." Veronica hated her own laughter. It always rung hollow. "He's fake, you know. Whoever this… 'Johnny' is? Not a real human. He's just some-"

"Veronica… listen." Anna looked to her feet in apparent defeat. "I know you don't like Cousin Johnny. I get it: he's crude and old fashioned. But just…" As Anna looked back up Veronica, her face contorted into an unnatural frown, distressingly reminiscent of the fake smile Veronica had just wiped off her face. "… give him a chance. It'd be nice to see you pay forwards the charity my family's given you, you know?"

Veronica Fitzroy came into this thinking she'd scored the gotcha that won the game, but that never worked out, did it?

Instead, she resigned herself to defeated silence.


October 7th. Nobody home. Perfect. Just screaming cicadas and a prowling Veronica.

Johnny was a hard man to miss, and a harder man to find, but he was in the house. He was always in the house, g-d fucking dammit, and that was his weakness, the one bit of predictability that would bring that fucker down.

10 minutes passed. Veronica was pretty sure she checked every room in the house. Where was he? He couldn't have gone all that far; wasn't like Anna could afford a mansion.

20 minutes passed. Veronica was definitely sure she checked every room in the house. He shouldn't be doing this; Veronica watched the Hoang-Kawajiris leave for the airport, and specifically noted a lack of Cousin Johnny among them. Hell, Johnny was consistently able to find her when she tries avoiding him. How come the opposite wasn't true?

30 minutes passed. Veronica was stupid to think Johnny made any sort of sense. She'd seen enough violations of reality to know not to fit square pegs into round holes, and she wasn't sure there was peg in the shape of Johnny's hole, anyways.

Johnny did not do things correctly. Veronica wasn't even sure she could call it "doing things", whatever he did. Whatever the fuck he was, he was utterly removed from the concepts Veronica had held near and dear to her heart for the past 35 years. Still, she supposed existing was still a thing, and it came with an ung-dly amount of baggage.

She found him on the 37th minute.

Veronica found him in Esther's room, staring at her empty crib. Stereotypical for whatever movie monster Johnny was, but that didn't matter. Veronica had him alone, and that's…

… she was alone. With him, whatever this thing was. A misshapen mass of fiber in the rough shape of a human. The mysterious cousin, beloved by all except the stranger taken in out of pity. Veronica alone was responsible for excising this tumor from reality's asshole, and she sure as hell didn't have surgical training.

"Uh… hey."

Johnny didn't respond. Veronica suddenly felt very cold.

"Hi, Johnny. How's it been?"

Slowly, Johnny turned his neck to face her; no other part of his body moved. "Audio action dispute records of whoring. Can heaven exist on willful harm?"

"Yeah. You know how it is in this economy." Veronica's fingers unconsciously played with the hem of her t-shirt. If Johnny saw this, he didn't say anything. "So, like… I kinda think we've gotten off on the, er, wrong side of the foot, you know? Just, uh… I dunno. Why don't we, uh… start over? Have a drink together? I can mix, if you want."

Johnny remained where he was. The silence was far more deafening than anything the cicadas could come up with. Veronica could do naught but stand her ground, shivering and slick with sweat. Every second Veronica waited was its own lifetime.

"Hate hurts."

Veronica let go of a breath she didn't know she'd been holding.


"Come in, have a seat."

The entire time they'd been walking, Veronica had not once taken her eyes off Johnny. Half of it was the fear that he'd disappear if she looked away for even a second; the other half was the mesmerizingly wrong way Johnny walked, like he was putting more thought into where his feet went than his actual legs. Now was the hard part: doing that while drink mixing.

Johnny stood right at the kitchen island, not even bothering to pull up a stool. He hadn't touched his drink, yet.

"You ever had a blue nightcap? Old friend taught me this. Pretty sweet drink, figuratively and, well, literally." Sara was never one for the sour drinks. "You drink, right?"

"As long the weapon of gauze shoots."

"Cool, cool."

Once upon a time, Veronica could make this shit from memory. The crew fucking loved it, and more often than not, a single round of them turned the night from good to, well, fucking amazing. Now, she had to improvise.

"You know, Johnny, you're quite the oddball." Sara always cut the lemons into squares. Something about 'good juice flow'. "In the family, I mean. I mean, they're all a bunch of softies, the Kawajiri-Hoangs. Squeaky clean words, always cheery, that kinda thing." Veronica nearly cut off her finger. She really should be paying more attention. "You, no, you just say what's on your mind."

"Knife cannot wipe blue away." Johnny was motionless. Good.

"And that's why I like you, Johnny. I like people who are exactly the way they present themselves as." This wasn't a drink that took long to make. Thank fuck the family stocked some kind of syrup. "And… all done!"

Veronica poured the drink into two of the cups she had handy, careful not to get any into a third, entirely full cup.

Only the first and the third cups were taken to the counter.

Briefly sniffing the cups, Veronica handed the third to Johnny. "Bit of a warning: these are pretty fucking aromatic, in a weird way. Trick is to gulp your sips." Veronica topped it off with a smile, and a genuine one at that. "Shall we toast?"

Johnny nodded, and Veronica's smile grew wider. "Exfoliate mirror."

The glasses clunk, and the two of them drank their respective drinks.

For the first few milliseconds following the pair's first gulps, all Veronica could think about was how much she missed the days when drinking was done out of celebration, rather than the need to be anyone else but Veronica Katherine Fitzroy.

And then Johnny fell to the floor, choking, and Veronica suddenly had reason to celebrate again.

Johnny's glass was dashed against the floor with the rest of its contents, but considering he'd already gotten a good gulp, Veronica didn't quite care about the waste. "Like it, Johnny? That's the secret ingredient, drain cleaner."

Johnny tried saying something, but a combination of internal chemical burns and Veronica's boot on his throat made that a little too hard.

"I'm gonna be honest with you, Johnny." Digging her heel into Johnny's neck, Veronica dragged Johnny across the kitchen floor. "I don't like you. I mean, there's a lot of people I don't like, but right now, you make the top of the list. Not because you, uh, wasted my fucking food," a solid press to the throat punctuated that last point. "Or because you can't leave well enough a-fucking-lone. No. I hate you 'cause you're a literal inhuman parasite that does mind shit. And I don't like mind shit, Johnny."

Johnny left a vile mixture of blood, vomit, and Extra-Strength Cordia drain cleaner in his wake as Veronica forced him into the hallway. "You're definitely not the first piece of shit to try this. Fuck, you're not even Bandages level." This was punctuated by yet another press. "But fuck, if you aren't annoying as shit."

Fan and fluorescent blared on as Johnny was kicked into the bathroom. "I'm gonna teach you a little something about basic fucking chemistry, Johnny." Fuck, evil gloating felt good. Keeping her foot on Johnny's neck, Veronica began raiding the sink cabinet. "You wanna know what happens when you mix two different brands of drain cleaner?" There was her poison: some Cordia and some Maxwell's. "Not very good shit."

Veronica shifted into kneeling on Johnny, one hand keeping his mouth open as the other forced some more Cordia down his throat, then some water to make sure it stayed at the bottom of… whatever Johnny had. "Could this kill me too? Maybe. The alternative is that you kill me, though, and I refuse to die to something like you."

If the next part even had a chance of working, she had to be quick. Thankfully, Johnny's struggling had grown a hell of a lot weaker. Body language of a dying cockroach, right here. Prepping her towel, Veronica brought the Maxwell's to Johnny's throat.

"Been a pleasure, man. Meet you in our next fetus."

Veronica poured the Maxwell's into Johnny's mouth.

***


Anna came home earlier than expected. Not too early. "I'm home! What's the st-oh!"

Veronica looked up from her spot on the kitchen floor. "Eh. Tried making some food from home." Glancing down at her own burnt forearm, she couldn't help but chuckle. "Didn't quite work out. Shame, miss that shit."

"Oh dear!" Just like her to immediately rush to help. "Are you okay? You look hurt! Are you sure you-"

"It's fine, it's fine." Hardly more than a first degree burn, anyways. "Some shit broke, but I'm good. Left some money on the counter to cover, odd jobs and all that."

The rest of the night passed like a dream.


Veronica woke up at 6:27 AM with a wet cough.

Rolling out of bed, Veronica could have sworn someone had shove an immovable, jagged rod in her ribcage. She made it about halfway off the futon before she gave up, but the persistent coughs sabotaged any attempt to lie perfectly still. If not for the fact that death was the logical conclusion of whatever this was, she wouldn't begrudge any deus ex machina that shot from the sky to strike her down.

It took about twenty minutes for Veronica to summon the strength to stand up, sharp stones tearing at her lungs with each movement. The taste of iron and dirt might have been overpowering in any other circumstance; here, it served as her overworked nervous system's hype man as it rapped about how fucked Veronica was.

Veronica's slog towards the bathroom was equally miserable, and ended with Veronica slumping against the sink to look at herself in the mirror.

Awful. Awful, awful, awful. Veronica was used to being pale, but as of this morning she was more "bedsheet ghost" than anything else. Most of the color on her face was where she'd broken out, either from stress or withdrawal. Worse, if Veronica hadn't known better, she'd think she was looking at a corpse, how gaunt she'd become over the past few days. She…

Veronica fucking hated mirrors.

If Veronica expected the stairs to be any easier on her body, she truly was dumber than she thought. The majority of her time down was spent testing whether or not dropping down step by step or actually walking was more painful, and halfway down she realized she didn't fucking care because her lungs rippled with broken fucking glass either way.

As she finally made her way down, she realized with resignation that she did not have the energy to cook breakfast, then with horror that she wouldn't have to.

The whole family sat with their hands in a circle around a breakfast table decorated less like a table and more like an altar to G-d, if G-d was primarily worshiped by cubists. Candles arranged in asymmetrical formations, flowers arranged like crossword puzzles across the surface, hell, even a few mostly-full glasses of wine placed without regard to seating arrangements.

Something firmly grabbed her shoulder from behind, and as much as Veronica wanted to turn around, some tiny, primal part of her brain had planted her firmly where she was.

"Chlorine trifluoride heart."

Veronica's heart sunk straight into the pit of her chest as Cousin Johnny gently pushed her towards the table, leading her to one of the two adjacent empty seats.

The cicadas were buzzing, again.

As Johnny sat her at the table, Veronica finally got a look at breakfast. It was garbage; chunky, off-color slop Veronica's brain refused to identify as edible. To wash it down was a thin blue drink that smelled strongly of ammonia.

Suddenly, all in unison, the family chittered, and dug in to their slop with inhuman fervor. Veronica realized she wasn't hungry.

Or in the mood for socialization.

Veronica got up and left for the bathroom.


Maybe it was the lighting and the cracked mirror, but Veronica was pretty sure she looked worse than when she woke up. Her skin had turned unnaturally pallid, not helped by bullets she'd been sweating for fuck knows how long. That wasn't even getting to her figure; Veronica was pretty sure that even given the foot high disparity, Sara in her prime weighed more than she did now. Not even the hand-me-down leather jacket could hide that, unfortunately.

It was enough to make Veronica retch, and as she did, something stuck in her throat.

Veronica devolved into a coughing fit that set her entire body on fire. Unfortunately for her, the pain only exasperated the coughing, leaving her unable to do much beyond leaning against a wall.

Something should've been coming up, and yet Veronica's throat remained closed up. Hitting the back of her neck did nothing to unstick whatever was caught there. She coughed, and coughed, and coughed, and all that changed was spots in her vision and the rising scent of rust and earth.

G-d, this was where it ended: a dinky bathroom 3000 miles away from home, at the hands of pneumonia. Didn't even get to overdose or be murdered, no. Just something stupid. Just what she fucking deserved. Just… perfect. In her last moments, Veronica cleared her mind, and recited her mother's last six words in her head.

Shema Yisrael…



Veronica hacked something onto the floor as her lungs filled back with air.

She didn't open her eyes, not yet. The liminal space between life and death was comfortable enough as is, although she wasn't sure if that's because she wanted to live or die. Nobody was around to judge her shitty near-death experience, and so there was little to do but just lie there.

Her chest still hurt, sure, but not as bad as before. Where once was rust, Veronica's nose was filled with the pungent scent of bathroom cleaner, backwashed in phlegm. Her entire skeleton ached, but it was a good ache, like a job well done.

Veronica opened her eyes to see a phlegm-covered cicada writhing on the floor.

She didn't feel so good.

Veronica rushed to the toilet to puke. Thirty seconds into a continuous upchuck of live cicadas, Veronica passed out.


The Kawajiri-Hoang residence wasn't a home in the first place, and it hadn't been for a while. But as Veronica stayed, it gradually stopped being a house, too.

First was the food. A third of it was untouched by curse and family. Another third was a slop of wood pulp and vomit. The rest was cicadas. Veronica took her meals alone, mostly consisting of sausage and yams. Whatever, she was still eating better than at the Foundation. She'd survive. She always survived, no matter how much she wanted to.

The plumbing came next. Anything that came out of a pipe was a bitter wine tinged with the taste of iron. Then it was a viscous blood. Then it was drain cleaner. Then it was cicadas. Veronica just chewed ice cubes from the freezer when she was thirsty.

None of the family seemed to care, of course, as they crunched down on cicadas, washing them down with progressively worse liquids. Didn't even seem to notice, just 'socialized' with one another in a fashion reminiscent to space aliens imitating suburban America. New arrivals just filed in liked nothing, and went about with this fucking farce. Nobody cared. Whatever.

Veronica didn't leave the house much, except to grab a bite at a local diner when food went to shit, or to steal some textbook for a college kid in exchange for fifty bucks. Sometimes she'd blink, and Hamilton was cicadas. Then he wasn't.

Johnny didn't talk to her. She didn't talk to Johnny. Honestly, perfect.

Veronica waited maybe a few weeks for things to quiet down. Soon, they didn't, and Veronica gave up. Maybe she just had to wait for the wedding.

Eventually, she stopped leaving the house. She'd always come back, after all. Even if she didn't want to.

Eventually, she stopped leaving bed.

Eventually, she'd stop.

Eventually.


Veronica didn't know what day it was when something cut through the constant cicadas.

It was… talking. Not talking like the incessant buzzing of the cicada family, no. More like… genuine talking, that was not cicadas. Moreover, the talking was done in voices Veronica swore she could recognize, yet distinct from the buzzing cicadas downstairs.

Veronica's limbs ached with lethargy's atrophy as she climbed out of the cicada-eaten futon, navigating a minefield of cicada shells as she made her way to the source of the noise that was not cicadas.

The last… she wasn't sure how long it'd been. Time sort of melted into cicadas, she found. Lots of things melted into cicadas, like the walls, or the furniture, or Veronica when she stopped paying attention for too long. But she knew that it'd been long, and in that "long" she had stopped looking at things. They were just cicadas, after all.

Still, there was the occasional thing that wasn't cicadas. Veronica, most of the time. A few of the new guests, though they'd eventually become cicadas. Cousin Johnny, when he wasn't a cicada, was not a cicada. Usually, things that were cicada were consumed by that which was cicadon't.

… what if cicadas ate ya? What if cicadas hatecha? What if-

The noise cut through the cicadas. Veronica was glad. She could have become cicadas.

Whatever it was, the talking, the thing that wasn't cicadas, it was coming from one of the guest rooms. Definitely not in the game room. The game room was cicadas. This was not cicadas. Lazily waving to the terrarium cicadas (they waved back), Veronica followed the things that were not cicadas.

The things that were not cicadas existed on the 2nd floor, which was good for Veronica, because the stairs were cicadas. Perhaps the whole house was cicadas. Veronica didn't care. If she cared she became cicadas.

Veronica stood at the door of the guest room, which was cicadas. This was gonna be a problem, because most cicadas woke up in prime number year intervals, and 2022 was not a prime number, and therefore not cicadas. She'd have to dig through to get to the nymphs.1

The girl who might have been cicadas looked to her fingernails. They hadn't been cut in a while. They'd do.

She dug.

The door might have been cicadas, but it was tightly packed cicadas. Veronica dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, until her nails were bleeding, and her fingers were hurting, and she was going to die, alone, in a nest of cicadas, forgotten to the world, so she dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and dug, and-

Veronica stumbled into the guest room, and fell to the floor.

"Hah, well. The sub-minute tracks are, heh, jokes. Blame V for-oh!"

Something cut through though the cicadas. Something familiar.

"You're cute when you're shilling. But yeah. If we can't have fun, shit ain't worth it." Somebody laughed. Somebody Veronica swore she could recognize from somewhere. "Makes it hell to perform live." If Veronica had to guess, that was her, and…

Wait.

FUCK.

That's the fucking Self Titled interview. That's the, the fucking one where…fuck, fuck, fuck, why the fuck was someone watching that, here and now, when… oh jesus fucking christ, fuck, fuck!

Veronica stood up, cheeks flushed red, and-

Cousin Johnny sat at the computer desk.

Cousin Johnny was sitting there, playing HoS's Self Titled interview, and just… staring at her. Wasn't even looking at the screen, and there was no indication he was listening in, either. He just put that specific video on, turned up the volume, and… let her come in.

The flush faded from Veronica's cheeks as she suddenly went very cold. Any questions she might've asked, the why or how, caught in her throat against a blockage of shame and anger.

Johnny turned up the volume.

"King Ram's emissary cuts deep."

Veronica looked between Johnny's face and the desk's edge. Neither was cicadas.

The next minute passed very quickly.


It was only as a tired, wigged-out Veronica collapsed out of the guest room that she realized the house wasn't cicadas.

A few realizations followed that: she was hungry, and pretty fucking thirsty as well. Her entire body ached, likely from the complete lack of physical activity that came with staying in bed for… g-d knows how long, really. Finally: she was fucking exhausted.

Veronica tried to stand up, but all she really managed was climbing up to a sitting position. Fuck, when did moving get so hard? Just a month ago, she could punch a man's lights out, and here she was struggling to get down the stairs. Was this what getting old was supposed to feel like? Jack and Izzy had it good: what a fucking letdown. She almost regretted bashing Johnny's face in.

Half climbing down and half falling, Veronica descended to the first floor.

The family was downstairs, having actual human fucking interaction. None of them were buzzing or eating half-digested cicada slop. A few (mostly the new arrivals if Veronica had to guess) even stared at her with incredulity. Whatever.

The kitchen was occupied, of course, but fuck it. Nobody said anything as she raided the cabinets for a plate and glass, grabbed herself food and drink, and left.

***


Veronica felt like she should have been happy. She'd gotten revenge on everyone she wanted to get revenge on, then fucked herself so hard off the records that the government stopped caring about her. She got off cop-killing with two years time and skipkilling with zero. She escaped 56 in what should have been a suicide rap for anyone who wasn't unnaturally lucky. And fuck, the idiots that mourned her "death" did just that: mourn her.

And here she was, eating cold barbecue at an empty dining room table, in a house full of people she never knew. G-d, was this really how she wanted to spend her life? Could she call this "living"? It didn't feel like living.

Nobody sat by here, although it's not like she'd like that. Quiet was good in these moments, when things forcibly made sense despite everything else. Besides, aside from maybe Anna, they weren't her friends. Maybe a few of them would stare at her, but never for long. After all, the elephant in the room stared back.

By the time she finished her leftovers, most of the guests either retired to their rooms or fucked off. In a few days they'd fuck off forever, and Veronica almost felt jealous. They weren't reliant on the kindness of strangers to live. Hell, they probably didn't even have to deal with…

… Cousin Johnny. He always came back, didn't he? He'd probably retaliate. Veronica should have thought about that, but it was hard to think then, listening to-

"Nicky?"

Veronica looked up at one Anna Kawajiri, looming over her with a face full of concern. "Hi. Did you need something?"

Anna couldn't even make eye contact with her. "I… just wanted to see if you're alright."

"… no. Not really." Veronica's gaze briefly fell down to her bloodied fingers. "I don't know if I'm gonna be able to make the wedding. I'm sorry."

The sudden shift from concern to disappointment on Anna's face hurt almost as much as everything else. Try as Anna might to formulate a reply, she did naught but silently wander away, a little less brighter than the shining star Veronica used to know.


October 31st. Today was the day Dennis Hoang and Annabelle Kawajiri would be forever bound in holy matrimony. And what a beautiful autumn day, with clouds of leaves swirling among the plastic skeletons.

Veronica wasn't sure if she cared anymore.

It's funny: as a child, her year started with Halloween. Dressing up as a monster (dad would never let her dress up as anything else) and annoying the rest of Rossville for candy fucking rocked, and even after she graduated from candy to the sheer joy of mayhem, it never lost its luster. Maybe that's why she became such a raging punk.

G-d, where had the time gone? It felt like it was only just yesterday since her last Halloween prank. That one with Ashy and Jean, back when Ashy went by their deadname. Fuck, 2008?

As usual, Veronica woke up at 7:30 AM sharp. Because she lacked the energy for breakfast, that was skipped, and Veronica stared out the guest room window, waiting.

Anna and an older woman that might have been her mother were the first to leave. Anna was either stumbling drunk or stumbling hungover, likely from whatever hen party she attended last night. Next was Hoang and the remaining parents. Then the aunts, uncles, cousins, the siblings and friends and family of everyone who cared enough about Annabelle and Dennis to attend their wedding.

And, finally, Veronica swore she could see the misshapen form of Cousin Johnny trotting off down the street.

And that just left Veronica.

Alone.

… that was it, then. Johnny had finally left. Maybe just for the wedding. Maybe forever. Maybe just for the wedding, but forever without the Jacob's Ladder fuckery. Veronica decided the latter two would be nice. For now, though, he wasn't here, and Veronica Katherine Fitzroy could chill for a single day, no matter what tomorrow might bring.

She had the house to herself. She could… well, she needed 200 to actually buy an identification. But it was close. She could… host some freaky shit for money. Considering the thing with Sara and everyone else, she was probably still on record for that sort of thing. Or, she could relax. Turn on some Black Mirror, cook up some junk food, and just fucking unwind for the first time in a month.

Settling in her seat, Veronica turned on the tv and, fucking finally, relaxed. First channel was David Attenborough narrating some footage of nature, and that was honestly fine by Veronica. She had pillows, a blanket she JUST realized that she didn't have food or drink. Might as well grab something from the kitchen.

Veronica grabbed some leftover ziti from the fridge, and went to get a glass of water.

The water was cicadas.


Veronica had made, was currently making, and would be making a terrible mistake, which was par for the course in her life.

Formal wear fucking sucked. Veronica had realized that in boarding school, and the more people that caught the fuck on the better. Fuck weddings for making them mandatory, honestly. Of course, nobody made dresses for freakishly tall women, so in addition, Veronica was consigned to wearing "unisex" (read exclusively as masculine to others) clothing whenever she wanted to go anywhere nice.

It was enough to make her feel naked as she pulled up to the Ridgewood Anglican Church.

She might have told herself that this was "fucking stupid" ages ago, when she first pulled up here, but that didn't quite capture the essence of how monumentally fucking stupid this whole thing felt. She was crashing a wedding midway to spy on some humanoid horror. Not even something cool, like assassinating a president, or fucking a groomsman/bridesmaid during the reception, no, just stupid petty shit involving some random fucker.

All of the people who needed to be there had went there ages ago, which only left the people who didn't need to be there, most of whom were already there.

G-d, she could run away right now and forget any of this ever happened. What the hell was Veronica gonna do? Nothing she did fucking worked. If she fucked this, she'd be back at square fucking one with one less friend and one more vendetta, and whatever this… fucking thing, that piece of shit cicada ghost was, it'd still win. It'd fucking win and Veronica would fucking lose.

Still, grasping at straws was all Veronica had. The world hadn't made sense for six and a half years, why look for sense now?

Cicadas buzzed around her.

The RSVP table was manned by some kid who couldn't have been older than either of the lucky couple. Veronica supposed someone had to bear the brunt on the blessed day. Whatever. Veronica straightened her back as she approached the table. "Fitzroy?"

In response, the kid recoiled like he'd seen a ghost. Maybe he had. "Miss? You're a little, er, late. Proceedings are… underway." The kid broke eye contact, and began digging through his little box. "I can get you your placard, but you're gonna make a scene if you go in, you know."

Normally, Veronica wouldn't care. She wasn't about to be thrown out, however. "Got an idea when I can go in? I'm not about to miss my friend's happy day."

For a scant few seconds, the kid stopped searching, and Veronica swore she could feel herself growing lighter.

"… Victoria Catherine Fitzroy?"

"Close enough." Veronica snatched her card from the boy's hands. Hot damn if casual acquaintance and fucking with one's sister didn't have its perks. "Anyways, my last question still stands. I ain't about to miss the kiss."

"Well…" This kid obviously wanted to be anywhere else. Veronica didn't blame him. "… after the hymns? Best not to, er, interrupt."

"Duly noted."

Veronica headed towards the kitchen.

***


Don't fucking do this, Veronica.

That was the one thing that coursed her mind as she took her seat in a far row, kitchen knife wrapped in cloth, fruitlessly watching the wedding proceed. What the hell would she accomplish here? It was a question she asked herself quite a bit, and Veronica supposed it would remain bouncing around her head until she found a suitable answer. For now, she watched.

The cantors (that was what they were called, right?) were having a ton of fucking fun right now, blowing their sweet little vocal cords out singing some hymn Veronica had long forgotten the lyrics to; it hurt, sure, but it was a welcome distraction from the cicadas. How many of these fucking hymns had it been now?

Shouldn't this be exciting? She was gonna take down an abomination in the middle of the wedding… maybe.

Veronica's eyes darted around the congregation, but if Johnny was here, she couldn't see him.

Next came the bible verses. It's odd: Veronica had undeniable proof of demons, souls, and even the existence of religions that gave you power; and yet for all that, G-d, that big man in the world to come, always seemed to elude her heart. Maybe she wasn't looking hard enough. Maybe her dad had raised her on the wrong one. Whatever.

The actual verses, Veronica didn't recognize. Something about couples owning each other, so as not to be tempted by Satan. Probably something apocrypha, anyways.

The address came next. Some…

Veronica couldn't quite care. She was sweating like summer in the autumn winds, half hoping nobody would notice her knife and half hoping she wouldn't need it. Occasionally she'd try to focus, but that was a bad idea. It reminded her of things she'd rather not remember.

Don't fucking do this, Veronica.

The voice in her head, Veronica decided, was Lyanna, her name before Veronica. Back when she was more put-together. Back when life had promise, and the worst thing she ever did was mixing college and leisure. Back when death wasn't an excuse to be anyone else. Back when fucking felt a little more like lovemaking.

Back when she had more sense, she supposed.

Veronica couldn't hate Lyanna. Lyanna only wanted the best for the both of them, but in typical Lyanna fashion, that meant avoiding conflict and staying home to work on her projects.

In retrospect, Veronica had been reading a bit too much ASoIaF in her teenage years.

The speech was over. Now for the wedding proper.

Veronica's heart shook.

Cousin Johnny still wasn't here.

Veronica still didn't get the part where the priest was supposed to ask if the parties consented; of course they fucking did. They planned a wedding and everything! Weren't they supposed to love one another? Who the fuck would string on someone they were supposed to love like that?

Both of them consented, of course. Why wouldn't they?

Veronica's fingers twitched as the ceremony proceeded to the rings, without Cousin Johnny. Some kids Veronica hadn't seen before. One of them even tried eating the ring, which Veronica might've found funny if she wasn't so fucking high-strung.

She should've been enjoying this. It made people happy. No, fuck that: it made Anna happy, the only good thing to come out of the Kawajiri line. Why couldn't Veronica just be happy for her? Fuck all the problems she had with religious institutions; if this made Anna's life just the tiniest bit better, it was worth it in Veronica's eyes.

So why was she so intent on disrupting it? She-

For a split second, Johnny wasn't there. Then he was.

He looked nice. He honestly looked really fucking nice, standing there with the groomsmen. If she hadn't seen him die twice, she might've… well, older men hadn't been her thing since graduating college. Still, he told a mean-

no no no no NO

Something was horribly wrong. Veronica felt calm, as if floating in a dream, but that was only half of her; on some alien axis beyond the third dimension, Veronica's being swore she could recognize something.

Cicadas.

No, not cicadas.

The concept of cicadas. Its platonic ideal.

She was getting too complacent. She had to stay focused. Come on. Focus.

As the couple exchanged rings, Johnny pulled a bag from thin air, jingling like a toolbox. Nobody cared, and Veronica meant nobody, not even her. Cousin Johnny wasn't usually this bad. Why now, of all times?

Everyone, fucking everyone stayed still and silent as Cousin Johnny removed something from the bag. Pliers. Just pliers. Small, handheld pliers, and all he did was pass those pliers out to the groomsmen and bridesmaids, who just took them without thinking.

Veronica tried to move, and only succeeded with respect to her eyes. Everything else was frozen in some invisible gel, leaving a sensation like sleep paralysis that bound Veronica to her seat. Twitching didn't work. Screaming didn't work. Not even her heartbeat moved outside of its comfort zone as Veronica's mind raced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

She was stuck.

Again.

Alone.

Don't fucking do this, Veronica.

Every one of the couple's attendants had a pair of pliers, now.

Don't fucking do this, J.

J tried to tune out Hartly.

Please don't do this.

The attendants brought the pliers to their mouths, and

the girl previously known as

J tightened their grip

around

her knife,

stood up,

and screamed for Dr. Hartly

to

"STOP!"

In the span of an instant, Veronica was standing, knife pointed towards Johnny and his bewildered false family, in a forested clearing, silent but for the dying echos of an interrupted organ piece.

Nobody tried to stop her as she approached, knife still raised, to the platform where Anna Kawajiri's wedding stood at a standstill. Even so, a sinking feeling in her stomach dragged her pace to a crawl. "What the fuck are you doing?! What the fuck are you doing?!"

Veronica was answered by nothing but a bunch of black, brown, blue, beryl eyes burning a billion holes in her back, framing faces of shock, surprise, sorrow.

Only when Veronica pointed her knife towards one of the bridesmaids, a young woman she didn't remember, that she actually got a fucking reaction in the form of a panicked whimper. "You! Take that fucking plier out of your mouth!" Unfortunately, a panicked whimper was all Veronica got in response. No matter, she didn't resist when Veronica slapped the pliers out of her hands. "Fucking worthless, all of you! You just gonna pull your fucking teeth?" As a hollow laugh escaped Veronica's throat, the pit in her stomach grew heavier.

An infuriatingly familiar voice cut through the silence. "Now, Veronica, have doctors broken glass into mosaics?"

Veronica turned her knife towards Cousin Johnny and growled. "Shut up! Shut the fuck up, you bug-eaten bastard! You really think you're fucking clever?! Well guess what dumbass, I'm clever too! You think I didn't fucking notice?!" Johnny didn't even flinch as Veronica waved her knife around, which only stoked her inner fire. "You're a fucking sinkhole, Johnny! Everything around you turns to moth-eaten shit, and you know, you fucking know and you don't even care!"

Even as Veronica took a step forward, Johnny stayed calm. The crowd might have whimpered, the attendants might have gasped, the couple might have stared, and Veronica might have broken, but Johnny remained calm.

"It's already happened. You can't-"

"Enough! With the fucking! Riddles!" Some rational part of Veronica, buried under everything else, was screaming for her to stop; its pleas were ignored as Veronica edged ever closer to Johnny. "You want a riddle? Well riddle me fucking this, batman!"

The knife slid into his belly, then out.

Dr. Hartly screamed

as

Johnny stood still, unyielding, unbroken, unsurprised.

Unbled.

"Behold!" Veronica turned to a sea of terrified faces, rooted in their pews by either horror or magic. "A featherless fucking biped, with broad, flat nails! This?!" Johnny stayed still yet as Veronica gestured with her knife. "This is a man! This is your cousin! This misshapen mass of flesh, sans blood, is your family! What does that make you?!"

Johnny refused to flinch as Veronica made her way behind him, dragging her knife across his forearm. "When did this man come into your life? A year ago? A decade? How about a few months?!" Where bone should have blocked her, Veronica's knife was embedded into the mass of flesh that served as Johnny's shoulder.

Nobody moved to stop her as she yanked the knife back out and moved to the platform's front. "How can you treat a man without blood as your blood?! How?!"

"Veronica, this has gone on long enough. Just because Dr. Hartly-

hurt you as a child

doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of your life a god-spurning fa-

J Veronica turned back to stab Cousin Johnny,

again,

and again,

and again,

and again,

and again.





Veronica blinked, and found herself looking back down at the mangled, cicada-ridden mess that used to be Cousin Johnny.

She'd never noticed how beautiful the cicadas were. How they shone in the light, flying like the invisible hand of Hashem, with such beautiful bodies of dyed glass folded into mathematically perfect angles. Always accompanied by their song, a rhythmically immaculate piece no human could hope to match. Like living angels, proof of some inherent beauty in the soiled folds of reality.

Coming to her feet, Veronica was hit by a sudden exhaustion. It was nearly enough for the glares and stares of the congregation to knock her over, but if there was one thing Veronica was good at, it was enduring.

As alien sounds akin to snapping gums, squeaking metal came from behind her, and dropped pebbles echoed from behind her, Veronica's heart began to sink.

Veronica looked back to the misshapen mess that was Cousin Johnny, still but a misshapen mess. Afraid of what she might find, she looked no further, even as the pitter-patter continued.

The guests were beginning to break out of their stupor. Some were scowling, others were bawling, and fewer still saw fit to leave.

Only now did Veronica realize how alone she truly was.

A million words scrambled across her mind. Justifications, pleas, rants, anything Veronica could say to win, not just do something stupid to "save people" but actually win against the torturous tides of fate, and every combination of words she put together was insufficient, bitter to the taste and spiritually unfulfilling, unfit to leave the mouth of any rational person.

It's not fair.

She did everything right! Johnny was a menace, and she put him down! She categorically proved to everyone that he wasn't human! Right in the middle of ruining the wedding, she put an end to him! Why did people still hate her?!

"Veronica."

Against all sense, Veronica turned.

Veronica had felt the touch of cephalopod people, seen a fairy's eye burst open, listened the screams of a soul trapped in its own cremated body, endured the rantings of a delusional psychologist, fed pieces of dead cat to an honest to g-d shoggoth, seen horror upon horror upon horror upon horror in a secret government bunker, and nothing, absolutely nothing, could prepare her for what she saw on the platform.

Every attendant, every single fucking attendant to the couple, was in the process of pulling out their teeth, one by one, in a horrifically bloodless display of piety to Jesus no, Jesus never did this. Some of the attendants, the ones who already finished, began sporting blisters of stained glass from which the heads of cicadas emerged, drenched in bloodied pus that Veronica found herself unconsciously likening to amniotic fluid. Dennis was already scrambling to pick up the teeth, shoving them into his mouth one by one.

And then there was Annabelle Ryo Kawajiri, standing in the middle of all this, eyes locked on Veronica with a gaze cold enough to freeze a summer.

"Get out."

Veronica's knife fell from her hands.

"Get. Out."

Breathing became labored. "… It's not fair. I helped-"

"Get the fuck out of my wedding, Veronica."

Veronica took an unconscious step back, and missed the edge of the platform, tumbling backwards into the carpeted grass to the sound of a jeering congregation.

Someone pelted her with something from behind. Then another. And even as she weakly rose up, yet another.

Try as Veronica might to tune out the congregation, everywhere she looked was equally horrid. Attendants bleeding crystal cicadas. Congregants tearing out their hair to lob at Veronica. Forests glittering like grains of glass among the bellow of a billion buzzing bugs.

And Veronica ran.


Veronica hated mirrors, because they always told the truth.

At 10, the truth was that she was undergoing puberty against her will, and nothing she could do would stop it. The truth would change at 16, when she realized she would always be a man, and she'd never be beautiful enough for Austin. That latter truth stayed consistent through her mid-20s, with the name progressing to Jack, then her instructor, then Izzy and Jack, then Sara and Izzy and Jack, then Ashton and Sara and Izzy and Jack, and finally just Ashton. Just after her 29th birthday, the truth was that she was one woman against fate. Just a month ago, at 35, the truth was that confinement had fundamentally broken her.

Now, looking into a dirty gas station bathroom mirror, Veronica wasn't quite sure what the truth was supposed to be.

By all means, the mirror reflected a woman that should have died. Sallow skin draped the famished frame of someone who might have once been a woman, but now stood as a cruel caricature to whatever twisted combination of minority Veronica was. The bags under Veronica's eyes had grown to be nearly indistinguishable from a black eye. She'd never tasted human flesh, but right now she looked like the kind of person who'd try.

Whatever.

Veronica finished washing her hands, splashing some water on her face for good measure, and headed outside, shivering in the Halloween snow.

Wherever this gas station was2, it wasn't making any money for whatever soulless energy company owned it. At the very least, the snow-frosted desert was emptier than a video rental. Not even a coyote to give her the decency of company. That she was lucky enough to score an Olney energy station this far out was even more absurd.

Leaning against the (closed) storefront, Veronica's gaze drifted towards her trusty, trusty car. Black coat, unrecognizable make, license plate that made her eyes hurt to look at: this was a 56 white coat's car alright. And hey, it didn't run on oil, so 56 had to be doing something right when it wasn't kidnapping cop-killing cons.

"You're not chewing anything. That's new."

Veronica nearly jumped at the sudden, strangely familiar voice, and actually jumped at the strangely familiar seven foot tall woman who'd suddenly appeared next to her. "Jesus fuck, lady, you gonna be weird about every stranger?"

The strangely familiar woman laughed a strangely familiar laugh. "Apologies. Does this jog your memory?"

And suddenly, Veronica wasn't looking at a strangely familiar woman, no, but a distinctly familiar abomination, like a cuttlefish put through a flawed neural network trying to find the human face in its constant movements.

A grin wormed onto Veronica's face, explicitly against her will. "Huh. Evening, Brinegash. Guess I was right about your napoleon complex."

"I've been eating well." Izzy moved in a manner that suggested what would have been an exaggerated sway of the hip in a humanoid as she paced towards Veronica's car. "I'm surprised you're still alive. You look the type to put a bullet through your head."

She'd tried that, but Veronica wasn't very good at following through. "I didn't know they delivered newspapers to cults."

"I prefer to think of it as a fanclub." Veronica wasn't sure whether or not to take that as a joke. "Nice car, love. Who'd you steal it from?"

Veronica had stolen it, hadn't she? "Don't you have teeth to be pulling out right now? At least I had the decency to attend your sister's wedding."

"Half-sister." For a brief second, Isabella Kawajiri flashed with her former humanity, before shifting back into the chaotic mess that was Madam Brinegash. "I'm not about to risk limb to attend the wedding of a bleeding-heart and the parasitic godling that sucks from its teat. I'd call you a loon for engaging that thing if you weren't already a loon for everything else."

Against her better judgement, Veronica laughed. "Were you watching out for me back there? Didn't know you still loved my pretty face that much."

"Pretty? Veronica, love, you look like a man."

Something dropped in the pit of Veronica's stomach.

Izzy turned, but it amounted to little when her entire body was but a pillar for eldritch viscera to grow from. "I apologize for being the one to tell you this, Veronica, but time's got you gutted. I mean, you were barely responsive ten year ago. Now? You're a fucking doormat. You'll let anything happen to you, if it means you forget who you are. Was that why you stayed? Or was it some sick martyrdom?"

Veronica swallowed. "You know, maybe I wanted to help someone. Maybe I thought you wanted me to help."

"You're awful bad at helping, Veronica. At the very least, the majority of people who run crying from a church appear failures." Izzy was suddenly much closer. "Of course, in my experience, you're really only good with your mouth. Everything else has just been… sub-par, honestly."

"I… fuck off. Not like you even tried helping." Veronica might've pushed her away, if her muscles weren't betraying her. "You abandoned her. L-like Sara."

Izzy actually cackled. "I like talking to you, Veronica. I really do. Nobody else is willing to say something so blatantly intended to get a rise out of me. Shame it's not gonna work. Both of us know you're incapable of actually hating me."

Veronica glared, but whatever accompanying words she meant to add were caught in her throat.

"You want to hate me, don't you? You truly, honestly, want me to be the bad guy. It helps you sleep. Makes you think you didn't burn your life for nothing. That all your pain is justified, if it wasn't your fault." If Izzy could sneer, Veronica would swear she was currently doing so. "You can't, however. Because deep, deep down in that twisted little heart of yours, you're absolutely gutted with the knowledge that this is all your fault. So instead, you need someone to forgive you."

Words continued to fail Veronica as an errant tendril caressed her cheek. "I can say and do absolutely anything I want to hurt you, and you will never hate me. For the rest of your miserable life, I can torment you, body and mind, and you'll go to your deathbed begging for my forgiveness. My final act of cruelty will not be your murder, but your rejection."

With the sharp slap of a tendril, Izzy sauntered off into the frosted desert, leaving a shivering, shaking Veronica. "I left you a present in the car, just so you don't pull what my fiance did. Check in with the pharmacy when you run out. One of my fans is footing the bill."

Veronica opened her mouth to scream at to Izzy, and all that came out was a pathetic sob.


This tale was made for the SCP Original Character Tournament, organized by PeppersGhostPeppersGhost. Thanks to kinchtheknifebladekinchtheknifeblade for letting me use Cousin Johnny! Find her take on Veronica here.

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