Hellbender: The Bit
There are worse things narrators can be than unreliable
Note: Though I think technically this takes place after Hellbender 2, there are no spoilers in this story so you don’t have to have read the first two Hellbenders before reading it (though do buy and read Hellbender 1 and Hellbender 2).
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My name is Lulu Liu.
If you’re reading this, you’ll soon be dead. Because you broke into my room and took my journal, and I’m going to garrote you with piano wire for that.
It was a typical day. Sun. Sky. Clouds. Birds chirping. You know — day stuff. But I didn’t see most of this day stuff because I was in my dark office, only a faint hint of sunlight peeking in through the thick blinds.
I’M RIGHT BEHIND YOU, AND I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!
Okay, I probably wasn’t. But I could be. Seriously, if you broke in and started reading my journal, you’d better reconsider. This is all very personal and will reveal my innermost feelings. It’s going to be extremely juicy and extremely sensational, and you need to stop reading it right now.
Anyway, I don’t know why it was so dark in my office. I guess I had decided to be moody today. Because I’m now a private eye. And you never know what kind of case will come and drag you through the seedy underbelly of this city.
I contemplated lighting up a cigarette — just for the mood — and that’s when I saw her. The dame screamed trouble. She had legs like a goddess and wore a tight red dress that looked painted on, with a décolletage scandalously low, as if to scream to the world, “Hey, look at what I have right here!”
Wait. That was me. I was just seeing myself in the mirror. Damn, I’m sexy.
I spent a while admiring how irresistible I was in the mirror, hoping a client would come in soon, but I got bored. Maybe I should have advertised that I was opening a private investigation office, but I had only thought of it a few minutes ago. I kinda hoped desperate people would just walk in.
There was a knock at the door. Success.
“Come in,” I said, too lazy to open the door myself.
The door opened, and... Dang, it was just Floyd.
Floyd was... well... just imagine someone you would name “Floyd,” and you have a pretty good picture. His whole presence was irritating, and his pervy eyes kept staring down the front of my dress.
“Hey! I am very specifically making eye contact with you despite... what you’re wearing,” Floyd stammered. “Why are you wearing that?”
“Do I need to run it by you anytime I decide to wear a provocative cocktail dress, Floyd?” I shouted at him. “What do you want?”
“Something weird is going on,” he told me. “And the rest of Hellbender asked if I could find you. I did think I saw you walk into this abandoned office for some reason. Anyway, they want you to go talk to them.”
A case. The day was taking a turn. Who knew what the rest of the day held for me, but I had a sense that my trouble was only beginning.
“Okay, you’re weirding me out,” Floyd said. “I’m going to go now. The others are at your headquarters.”
Floyd shuffled off like a little weenie. So now I had a case: something weird going on. And if anyone knew weirdness, it was Lulu Liu.
I headed for the Hellbender headquarters. It was once a McDonald’s — a monument to capitalism filled with cheap burgers and screaming tots — but had since been abandoned. Now the windows were covered up, and it was home to the fearsome mercenary group Hellbender — of whom I was a member when I wasn’t pretending to be a detective.
No, fearsome mercenary group is overselling. Let’s call Hellbender an association of loveable miscreants. Or just miscreants. A bunch of miscreants.
The many warring factions in this world gave a lot of opportunities to people with no moral compunctions — even if, like us, they also had no skills. We had mainly just been doing work for the RALFS, though, which hadn’t been anything very interesting, because they’re a bunch of doofs.
Inside our headquarters, I immediately saw Doug — the dumb one. He looked frightened. In one hand was a sheathed katana as he peered over the empty counter. When he saw me, he eyed me suspiciously. “Hey, Lulu,” he called out. “Where have you been? You ran out last night during the movie. I mean, that was a really dumb part, and you’d already seen the best part — the fight between Batman and Superman — but you missed a cool Batman fight in a warehouse against a bunch of thugs, and where Wonder Woman helps them fight Doomsday.”
“I’m not interested in talking about that movie. Floyd mentioned there was something weird going on.”
“Yeah, something really weird,” Doug said. “So, first question: Are you doing some sort of haunting prank on us?”
I shook my head.
“Did you just say, ‘I shook my head’?” Doug asked. He stared at me. “And why are you wearing that dress, and why are you writing in that book?” His eyes grew wide with comprehension. “Oh no! You’re doing a bit, aren’t you?”
I ignored his prattle. “Why are you asking about hauntings?” I inquired. “Are you guys seeing ghosts or something?”
“Yeah, something bizarre is happening, so can you stop doing whatever it is you’re doing? Around town, people have been seeing something like ghosts. I saw one here just before you came.”
“Can you describe it? I need all the details.”
“Sure. Well it was...” He paused for a moment. “So are you doing, like, a detective thing, Lulu? That’s fine for this, but could you cut out whatever it is you’re doing with that book?”
“Just tell me what you saw, Mr. N slash A.”
“Don’t call me that. I heard a noise — something falling over. And I thought I saw a person... but then it was gone. Like disappeared.”
I nodded thoughtfully. I had assumed my genre was noir, but it looked like my story was turning into more of an urban fantasy.
“What’s an urban fantasy?” Doug asked. “And for the record, your nod didn’t look very thoughtful.”
I noticed something. There was a china tea set on the counter with what looked like a doll next to it. The tea set had been Charlene’s latest thing, but the doll was new. The little thing was mainly canvas and hair made out of yarn. “Maybe the creepy doll is causing the haunting.”
Doug shrugged. “Eh. I’ve seen creepier.”
A dandy ponce in a powder-blue suit walked into the room — Bryce Worthington, another member of Hellbender. All the color was drained from his face as if he had seen something that had chilled him to the bone.
“Oh, Lulu’s back,” Bryce said, “and what did she just say about me being chilled or something?”
“I’m just going to warn you, Bryce,” Doug said. “Lulu is doing a bit. Some sort of detective thing with a journal. I’m not sure she will be a lot of help today.”
“Yeah, and did I hear her say something about a ‘dandy ponce’?”
“She’s, like, muttering out loud whatever she’s writing in there,” Doug explained. “It’s super annoying.”
“I want to know about these ghosts people are seeing,” I told them. “I need the details. Where did this start?”
“It was Annette and Steve who first saw it,” Bryce said.
“But you probably should drop this bit you’re doing if you want to go talk to them,” Doug added.
I gave Doug an annoyed look.
“You didn’t even look at me,” Doug protested. “You just said that you gave me an annoyed look while writing in that book.”
I again gave Doug an annoyed look.
“Okay, that time she did look at you, and she did appear annoyed,” said Bryce with a foppish sigh. “What the hell is a ‘foppish sigh’?” Bryce added. “Is she implying something about me?”
Just then, a young, ugly boy walked in. No, wait, it was Charlene.
“What did she just say?” Charlene demanded in her squeaky voice.
“She’s doing a bit,” Doug explained, his brain working overtime at basic comprehension. “I’d just ignore her for now. We’ll have to figure out what’s going on without her.”
“Where have you been?” Charlene asked, staring at me with her plain face. “And is that my journal?”
“I’m keeping records of my investigation,” I told Charlene as I backed away.
“Hey! Watch out for my hot brew set!” she yelled.
I turned and saw that I had almost bumped into her tea set.
“Be careful with that,” she told me.
“And what do you need it for?” I asked.
“As I’ve explained to you, it’s for doing a special ceremony with a hot brew. It helps one focus before battle.”
“And the doll?” I asked.
“That’s an icon representing warriors of the past,” Charlene stated.
That was just like Charlene to have tea with a dolly and pretend it’s some warrior thing. She was constantly repressing her femininity. Then again, she could never pull off a dress like I was wearing.
“I’m not repressing my femininity!” Charlene shouted. “And I would never wear a slutty dress like that because I have self-respect!”
I rolled my eyes.
“No, you didn’t!”
Doug stepped between Charlene and me. “I know Lulu is being really annoying with her bit, but we have to handle this ghost thing. So why don’t we three stay here and see if we can find that ghost again, and Lulu can go see if she can find anything out from Steve and Annette and maybe be done with her bit when we see her next.”
“Or we could end her bit now by making her give me back my journal,” suggested Charlene, the gaze from her homely face locking on me.
“Is it really important?” Bryce asked. “If you try to get it back, it’s just going to be even more of a thing. Better to just stay away from her until she becomes bored with this.”
“And I wonder if this has to do with the movie we watched last night,” Doug added. “Maybe something about it upset her.”
“It was a terrible movie,” Charlene said. “A big, bloated mess.”
“I just couldn’t imagine that anyone could screw up a movie about Batman fighting Superman,” Doug countered. “And I thought it was neat, because Batman and Superman are both orphans like us.” He turned to me. “So why did you leave? Did that have anything to do with why you’re doing this bit now?”
“Who cares?” Charlene said. “I’m done coddling her. It’s time to treat her like an adult and demand she hand over that journal, which is mine, or face the consequences,” further added the miserable little wretch, who looked like a baboon and smelled like one too.
“That’s it!” Charlene yelled as she leaped at me and jaseipoavfn————
I wrested the journal back from Charlene and ran out the door. She tried to pursue but tripped over the curb and fell face-first into a dumpster.
“I did not!” yelled Charlene, picking a banana peel out of her hair. “I just fell to the pavement! You’re making things up! A journal is supposed to be an accurate record! An accurate record!”
Her dumb voice echoed through the street as I hurried away. The sun was still out and quite bright and...
Actually, that doesn’t really work now that we know this is a ghost story.
It was the dead of night, not even the moon lighting the streets around me. In every shadow lurked danger. Down an alleyway, I thought I saw a dark figure move in my direction.
Actually, that did just happen. I don’t know what that was. He was there, and then he was gone. I think.
I picked up my pace, glancing behind me every so often. I soon reached the RALFS headquarters, the secretive meeting place of rebellious war orphans. All our parents had been killed in the Last War. We’ve been assured that our parents were very bad people and deserved to die, but we’re still kind of miffed about that and about how society seems to hate us and want to get rid of us. So it was in this RALFS headquarters that a special gathering of war orphans designed their sinister plans for revenge under cover of darkness... though they were currently missing a door.
“I’m replacing the door,” said the casually psychotic Greg, trying to maneuver a door to line up with the hinges. “It’s going to be more secure — though it’s pretty insecure in the meantime, and installing a door is harder than I thought. Can you help?”
I walked past him and was soon greeted by Pam, the RALFS accountant, but I ignored her as well, because I don’t like her.
“You don’t like me?” Pam asked. “Why?”
Again I ignored her, heading to a back room, where I spotted Annette and Steve, the nominal leaders of the RALFS. Annette was a mousy-haired woman in glasses — the prototypical nerd girl who will eventually take off her glasses and let her hair down and reveal that she’s a knockout.
“Thanks, I guess,” Annette said, “but I need the glasses to see.”
Steve was a subdued, bearded young man, his affable exterior hiding the rage boiling inside him that would one day cause his friendly smile to be caked in blood.
“Wait; what?” Steve asked. “What are you doing? ...And I’m asking in a friendly manner; no rage. I don’t know where you got that from.”
They glanced at me, then at each other, a subtle glimpse of romance behind their eyes. Or maybe they’re brother and sister; I never got their relationship.
“We think we might be related,” Annette stated. “We don’t know for sure.”
“Just like you, we have no idea about our parentage,” Steve explained. “I guess we could get a genetic test, but we never got around to it.” He turned to Annette for support, but his gaze quickly turned to lust. Annette stared back at him, her mouth slightly open, a desire burgeoning in her loins.
“Okay, please stop that, whatever it is you’re doing,” Annette stammered. “Did you need something, Lulu?”
“I’ve heard there’s something unusual going on. Something... paranormal.”
“What’s dot, dot, dot paranormal?” Steve asked.
“I think she’s talking about the ghosts we saw,” Annette said. “Yeah, we were hoping Hellbender would help out here, because we know you guys have experience with some weird stuff.”
“We’re pretty freaked out,” Steve stated. “I mean, I went into a dark room and saw someone moving around, but I turned on the light, and nobody was there.”
“I saw it, too,” Annette added. “A dark figure came at me and just disappeared.”
“Do they seem hostile?” I asked.
“Pam says she felt one of these things grab her,” Steve said. “Like it was just trying to attack her.”
Maybe they’re just good judges of character, I thought to myself.
“That’s not nice,” Annette chided me, “but anyway, that one just disappeared as soon as she looked at it.”
“And when did this start?” I asked.
“Today,” Steve answered. “We started seeing them a few hours ago, though I don’t think anything for the past hour or so.”
“I think it started a little bit after we got that shipment from Rook,” Annette said.
“What shipment?” I inquired. “Was it a big crate of ghosts?”
“No,” Annette answered.
“Because if it was a crate of ghosts,” I said, “that would explain things.”
“Well, yes, but it was a crate of neck pillows.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Let me see them.”
“What does the narrowing your eyes mean?” Steve asked. His eyes then caressed the curves of my body that were accented by my tight red dress. A longing grew inside him for the striking woman in front of him, and he soon forgot his (possibly incestuous) lust for Annette. Annette noticed the infidelity of his gaze and glared at me with a sharp, feminine rage.
“Okay, you’re making me uncomfortable now,” Annette said. “And it is okay for Steve to... uh... admire you, as there is nothing romantic between us.”
“I was just curious why you’re wearing that dress,” Steve stated. “Is there an event or something going on?”
“There’s never an event for wearing a sexy cocktail dress,” I snapped. “So I’m just wearing it today. And if you’re done lusting after me, why don’t you show me this shipment of neck pillows!”
“I’m not...” Steve stammered and looked at Annette. “Let’s just take her to it.”
They led me out of the back room to an open area where they had boxes of supplies. At the center was a wooden crate. I peered inside. There were numerous neck pillows in varying earth tones.
“Yeah, I’m not really sure why we bought a whole crate of neck pillows,” Steve said.
“Well, Rook gave us a discount,” Annette said. “And I thought he made a good point about how a rebellion needs to be well rested and shouldn’t have bad necks.”
I nodded and secretly admired Rook’s much better ability to exploit the RALFS for money.
“Sorry, what?” Annette blurted.
“And we don’t like being called the RALFS,” Steve added. “We’re the Rebel Alliance.”
“Like from Star Wars,” Annette added.
Again I nodded, not paying attention to them as I peered into the crate of neck pillows.
“There are fifty-two in there,” Pam said, having snuck in behind us. “I made a record of them all, with colors, if that helps.”
“That could be helpful,” I lied to Pam, wishing her dead on the spot.
“I’m sorry, was there something—” Pam started to say, but I shushed her as I pretended to spot something. But then I actually spotted something.
I bent over to look down the crate. My rear, highlighted by my tight dress, instantly caught Steve’s gaze.
“Hey, I didn’t... You can’t even see me...”
I came up with a couple of thin shards.
“You could probably get a better grip on those if you set down that book you’re constantly writing in,” Annette suggested.
“Huh, I guess I didn’t notice those,” Pam said. “I guess I was too focused on recording the different neck pillow colors.”
“What do you think they are?” Steve asked.
I stared at the shards. They were very delicate. “They’re like pieces of a shell.” Finally, it all clicked into place. “They’re shards of an eggshell.” I turned to face Annette and Steve (but not Pam, because I don’t like looking at her). “So that’s what happened: In this crate, an egg was hidden. A ghost egg.”
They stared at me in confusion.
“A ghost egg is an egg out of which hatches a ghost,” I told them, explaining what a ghost egg is.
“I don’t think that’s a thing,” Steve said.
“And why would ghosts come out of physical eggs?” Annette asked. “I mean, if a ghost egg even were a thing, wouldn’t the eggshell also be, like... ghost-ish?”
“It kind of looks like porcelain,” Pam said. “And I see decoration on one of the shards. It might be a piece of a Fabergé egg.”
“That’s kind of a leap, Pam,” I snapped at her, though looking at the shard, she might have been right. Whatever it was, it was my only clue. My next stop was to talk to Rook to see where this shipment of neck pillows with a ghost egg came from.
“Yeah, it’s probably a good idea to talk to Rook,” Annette said, “and see if he’s seen anything weird, too. You should probably stop this journaling thing you’re doing, though, since he might have his people beat you up if you annoy him.”
I ignored her, gave one more hateful glare to Pam, and headed for the door.
“I got the door on,” Greg said with pride. “It doesn’t latch, though.”
I pushed past the loose door and headed through the streets to the Capitol of Rooktown. It was a standard capitol building — with pillars and everything — of what used to be the Confederacy of Astara’s city of Calais until the city was abandoned and taken over by a two-bit criminal named Rook, a man Hellbender sometimes worked for but mainly just pestered.
I found Rook inside the capitol building behind an overturned table. He stood up when he saw me, flanked by his thugs, Driscoll and Candy. Driscoll was a large, older man who looked like he could take a punch, but time would soon lay him down anyway. Candy was a young woman who got the thug job as a diversity hire and had trouble being very intimidating with her slight frame and stripper name.
“Candy is my actual name,” Candy corrected me. “My stripper name is Sapphire.”
“What’s she doing right now?” Rook asked, glaring at me.
“She appears to be narrating,” Driscoll stated.
“Oh, great. That won’t be irritating,” Rook said. He then stared at me for a moment. “Did she just say, ‘Rook said’?”
“So why are you guys in such defensive positions here?” I asked. “Did you see some ghosts?”
“Yeah, we did earlier,” Rook said. “And then we thought we saw another one, but I guess that was just you. So is this another Hellbender thing? You guys always seem to be involved when anything weird happens.”
“I don’t think we caused this one,” I said, “but I’m investigating it.”
“Is this your investigating outfit?” Rook asked. His eyes lingered on all my curves, and his hungry gaze finally settled on my chest and all the low neckline revealed.
“If you didn’t want me staring at them, why’d you wear a dress like that?” Rook said, not changing the focus of his leer.
“We have ghosts to discuss,” I said.
“Just a couple more seconds,” Rook replied. He finally moved his gaze from my chest to my eyes.
“I don’t feel like you’re treating me with respect,” I said.
“I think I’m treating you with more respect than you deserve,” Rook answered.
“So, do you know anything about the ghosts?” Driscoll asked, trying to move the conversation along, as the old man probably didn’t have much time left in this world.
“I have questions,” I stated importantly. “Where did you get the neck pillows you sold to the RALFS?”
“Are they wanting a refund on that? Because I don’t do refunds,” Rook said.
“Just answer the question.”
Rook frowned. “Don’t ‘just answer the question’ me, sweet cheeks. Do you think I won’t have Candy and Driscoll stomp you? And as for the neck pillows, they maybe fell off a truck owned by 4B22 — you know, the science weirdos.”
Large-Scale Societal Rules Association Designation 4B22 was a nation run under the principles of science and logic, though most people just found them really irritating to deal with.
“We all know what 4B22 is,” Rook said. “You are inching ever closer to that stomping.”
I held up the fragments I had found in the neck pillow crate. “Something fragile was in the crate. We found pieces of something delicate. Maybe a Fabergé egg…” I then added more quickly under my breath, “...or a ghost egg.”
“A ghost egg is not a thing,” Rook stated, but I quickly noticed a change in expression from Candy. She knew something. And then Rook and Driscoll looked at her as well.
“Yeah, she does look like she’s hiding something,” Rook said and then turned to me. “But please stop that.”
I ignored him and took a step closer to Candy. “What do you know about the egg?”
“When we were first looking through the crates, I did find something in the one with neck pillows,” Candy said. “It was like a neat decorative egg. But when I tried to pick it up, I felt something move inside it, which startled me, and I dropped it. When it shattered, there was something like a pink cockroach inside. I screamed, and it scurried away.”
“Oh, I remember that,” Driscoll said. “I told you, ‘You can’t scream like that when you’re being an enforcer for a criminal organization.’”
“I remember that, too,” Rook agreed. “That was ear-splitting. Oh, and soon after, we saw one of those ghosts.”
I nodded. “Obviously, we’re dealing with a ghost-pooping cockroach.”
“Will you stop making things up?” Rook asked.
“No,” I answered firmly. “But can you take me to the remains of the decorative egg?”
Rook sighed. “Sure. What else do I have to do today? Lead the way, Candy, for our Sherlock... Holmes,” Rook said, trying to devise a clever pun but failing. “Shut up, Lulu!” he added. “Let’s just do this.”
We all followed Candy, keeping an eye out for ghosts as we walked. We soon came to an area of the Capitol that had been converted to storage where there were numerous wooden crates and cardboard boxes. “It was over here,” Candy said, walking to one corner. “That big pink cockroach really freaked me out.”
On the floor near the wall were the remains of the decorative egg. I leaned over to check the shards while Rook stared at my rear.
“You bet I am.”
In the shards, I noticed something. It looked like a tiny data card. I quickly grabbed it, hoping Rook and the others didn’t notice.
“Sorry, what did you just say there?” Rook asked. “Your narration got much quieter all of a sudden.”
I stood up and smiled nonchalantly. “I was just painting the scene with some colorful language.”
“‘Nonchalantly’ is a good word,” Rook said, eying me suspiciously.
“Do you have something in your hand?” Driscoll asked me.
“So when did you last see a ghost?” I asked, changing the subject.
“It was about two hours ago,” Candy said. “I hope they’re gone.”
I nodded. “It was somewhere around two hours ago that the RALFS started seeing ghosts. Could the roach have been in the crate of neck pillows delivered there?”
“I think it ran into the crate when I screamed,” Candy said.
“Do you think that roach has something to do with the ghosts’ appearance?” Rook asked.
“I more than think,” I answered. “I know.”
“How do you know?” Driscoll inquired.
“I don’t; I was just being dramatic,” I admitted. “But it seems like they’re related.”
“Great, well, why don’t you go find that cockroach somewhere in this filthy city,” Rook said. He put it in a somewhat mocking way, but I could tell he was worried and relying on me to fix this. These “ghosts” were something out of his control, and all Rook ever wanted in life was control. This went back to when he was a child and couldn’t control his bladder and constantly wet his pants in public—
“You’re just making stuff up now!” Rook shouted.
“I’m trying to give you a back story,” I explained.
“Okay, you’ve been annoying enough that I can’t just let this go.” He turned to Candy. “You need more roughing-up experience, so I want you to rough up Lulu a bit. Maybe grab that journal of hers and beat her with it.”
Candy nodded and stepped toward me, putting on as intimidating a face as the petite girl could manage. Little did she know what awaited her and how this moment would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Candy stopped. “Wait; what’s she talking about?”
“She’s trying to intimidate you with a narrative device,” Driscoll explained. “She’s bluffing.”
But there was no bluff, as Candy would soon find out. Forever after, she would wish she had listened to her gut and not the past-retirement-age thug.
Candy froze again. “She’s creeping me out.”
“Ignore her. She’s just making stuff up; she’s an unreliable narrator,” Driscoll told her, giving her the worst advice of her life.
Candy still hesitated. Maybe she didn’t have to do this, she thought. Maybe she didn’t have to spend the rest of her life in misery and regret.
“Okay, you win, Lulu,” Rook stated. “Just leave.” He reconsidered. “Actually, wait one second.” He stared at my chest again for a few seconds. “Okay, now I’m bored, and you can leave.”
I left the abode of the petty thugs and headed down the street, contemplating my next move. The mysterious pink roach had most likely been delivered to the RALFS headquarters inside the crate of neck pillows, but they had stopped seeing the apparitions, meaning that the roach must have moved elsewhere. Doug, Bryce, and Charlene seemed to have seen the ghosts most recently of anyone, so perhaps the roach was near the Hellbender headquarters.
I also had the data card. Perhaps there was a clue on it. A clue in the form of data.
I returned to our headquarters. I didn’t see Doug, Bryce, or Charlene there, and that left the place dark and foreboding (though also less annoying). We had a console that would read the data card, so I sat down in front of it and inserted the card.
The card contained a file called “Exotic Matter’s Effect on Periplaneta americana.” I opened it, and there was a giant wall of text. Just massive. So many words. This probably held the answer to everything, but it was just giant paragraph after giant paragraph and no pictures whatsoever. I wanted to solve the mystery, but I wasn’t going to just sit here and read that much. I had to find another way.
I felt a chill in the room. Very stereotypical ghost stuff. Or the A/C.
I looked behind me. There it was. An apparition that looked like a person somehow cast a shadow onto the air in the middle of the room. The hairs on my neck stood up as I watched the thing, and I could tell it was watching me, too.
“Hello, I’m Lulu,” I said to it. “Do you want to be friends?”
The ghost approached — perhaps for friendship. As it got nearer, I felt myself frozen in place. And then its arms shot out in an icy grasp, the seemingly insubstantial creature seizing my neck in a steel grip. I gasped for air but was pinned against the table behind me.
“Stop writing in that book and run!” I heard Doug shout.
Charlene grabbed me and pulled me out of the chair and away from the ghost while Bryce came at it with a broom. The broom went through the shadowy figure as if it weren’t there.
“Maybe it’s like smoke, and we can blow it away!” Doug yelled, got close to the ghost, and tried blowing on it to no effect. “We need a bigger blower! Do we have a leaf blower?”
“Of course we don’t have a leaf blower!” Bryce shouted, still uselessly swinging his broom at the specter as it approached him.
“Maybe it’s like one of those traditional ghosts, and it needs to handle unfinished business before it can move on,” I suggested, and then turned to the phantom and said, “Is there anyone you need revenge against?”
“It’s probably us,” Doug stated, having given up the blowing and instead drawing his katana. “It’s always us.”
“Hey, what are some more words for ‘ghost’?” I asked. “I don’t want to keep writing ghost over and over.”
“Wraith,” Doug suggested.
“Oh, I haven’t used that one.”
Now the wraith advanced on Doug. But I noticed something. Something small and pink toward the back of the room. As the others uselessly fought the spirit (there’s another good one), I carefully approached the small thing I saw. There it was: a pink cockroach, nearly two inches long. I looked for something to smash it with and realized I was holding something that would work.
Anyway, if you’re wondering why there are roach guts on this book, that’s why.
After I smashed the cockroach, I turned to see that Charlene, Doug, and Bryce were now alone. The... eh... ghost was gone.
“There! I solved the case,” I declared. “That cockroach was making the ghosts appear through cockroach magic.”
Doug lifted an eyebrow. “Cockroach magic?”
“Yep, it was obviously a pink cockroach wizard,” I stated. “But now it’s dead, and we’re all saved.”
Charlene looked at the computer. “What were you doing on there? That looks like a research paper.”
“Yeah, this was apparently some research experiment from the science weirdos,” I said. “But I outsmarted them, because I smashed it good.”
Charlene sat at the computer and read because she’s a boring person who reads boring stuff.
“So case closed, right?” Bryce said. “You can be done with this bit?”
“Is there something about that movie we saw last night that you wanted to talk about?” Doug asked. “I got the idea it really upset you.”
I thought about the last scene I had watched. Batman had Superman dead to rights, ready to finish him off with a kryptonite spear. But then...
Charlene exclaimed, “Oh no!”
“Is that a good ‘oh no’?” I asked.
“There’s no such thing as a good ‘oh no,’ Lulu!” Charlene shouted.
“What if you were a fan of classical Japanese dance-drama?” I countered. “Then, if you saw a poster for one, you might exclaim, ‘Oh, Noh!’ And that would be a good thing.”
“That’s not what this is!” Charlene screeched. “I didn’t screech,” she added. “Just shut up a second and listen. According to this research paper, 4B22 was experimenting with some sort of exotic particulate they found.”
“Particulate?” Doug asked.
“It’s like a ‘particle,’” Charlene explained, “but really sciency.”
“‘Particle’ is already a really sciency term,” Bryce objected.
“Just let me finish!” Charlene screeched. “And stop saying I’m screeching, Lulu! Anyway, they found out that when a roach consumed the particulate, it could make a stable but weak connection to another dimension.”
“How are you reading that thing this quickly?” I asked.
“I’m just reading the abstract,” Charlene said. “The summary at the beginning of a research paper.”
“Well, aren’t you little miss knows-all-about-research-papers?”
“Yes, I am!” Charlene exclaimed. “You should try knowing things, Lulu.”
But knowing wasn’t my forte — thinking was. So I stroked my chin thoughtfully while taking in this new information. “So the ghosts are actually beings from another dimension. Hostile beings.”
“Only partially in our dimension,” Charlene said, “but that’s not the important part. The paper says that if the roach is killed, the connection will grow more powerful and destabilize.”
“Oh, Noh,” I said, briefly thinking about Japanese dance-drama. But then I realized what Charlene had just said and exclaimed, “Oh no!”
Everyone stared at me. “I hate you so much, Lulu,” Charlene finally said.
The room was filled with the sound of reality itself tearing apart. We turned to see a purple, glowing object floating in mid-air. A portal, perhaps — a portal to some place we did not want to go. And then we saw the... I will keep saying “ghost” now, as I don’t have time to come up with any more synonyms. And then we saw another. And another. We looked all around us, and at least half a dozen ghosts surrounded us, their shadowy forms all staring at us with malicious, ethereal eyes.
“Can you be quiet, Lulu?” Bryce asked, barely holding in the panic.
“What does the science paper say to do?” Doug asked, uselessly holding his katana between himself and the ghosts.
“It doesn’t say in the abstract!” Charlene shouted.
The ghosts ever so slowly approached us. “Read fast!” Bryce yelled, gripping his broom tightly.
“Well, let’s see... uh...” Charlene uttered as she scrolled through the paper on the computer screen.
The ghosts were nearly upon us, and Bryce’s waving his broom, Doug’s stabbing at them with his katana, and my writing about everything was doing nothing to slow them down.
“There’s... um... something about the exotic matter’s frequency being disrupted by certain ceramics. Wait, are they talking about... porcelain?” Charlene then screamed as one of the ghosts grabbed her and pulled her from her chair. Bryce went to swing his broom at it, but another one grabbed him from behind, and he fell to the ground. A third one came for me, but I dodged away, contemplating what Charlene had uncovered.
“That’s why it was in a Fabergé egg!” I exclaimed. “If we can get the dead roach inside porcelain, maybe we can end this!” And then I saw it across the room: Charlene's tea set.
“The what? The tea set?” Doug asked as he ducked and dodged ghosts. Charlene was clinging to the leg of the table while two ghosts were now pulling her away. Bryce was slowly being dragged across the floor toward the purple tear in the world.
“Stop describing the scene and tell me what to do!” Doug yelled as he reached the tea set.
“Grab the sugar container — we need something with a lid!” I told him as I slipped the grasp of a ghost that lunged at me, then went for the dead roach.
“I don’t want a roach in that!” Charlene cried, her grip slowly slipping from the table leg.
“Just do something!” Bryce shouted, grabbing the side of a booth just before the ghosts could pull him all the way to the purple portal.
Doug grabbed the porcelain sugar holder—
“It’s just called a sugar bowl!” Charlene shouted.
Doug grabbed the porcelain sugar bowl and rushed toward me, but three ghosts caught him at once. He tossed the bowl to me.
“Don’t let that break!” Charlene gasped as she slowly lost grip of the table leg.
I caught the bowl and lid between the journal I’m writing in and my ample bosom. I bent to scoop the dead roach into the sugar bowl, but a ghost grabbed my leg. I fell to the ground, barely cradling the bowl so it didn’t break. The dead roach was near my head, and I could scoop it into the bowl if there was only a way to reach out to it.
“You can if you just stop writing in the journal and use two hands!” screamed Charlene, still holding onto the table leg with all her might.
“Oh, come on! Are you still writing in that thing?!” Bryce yelled as he lost grip on the booth. “We’re all going to die!”
And it became clear: This was a choice between continuing my bit and saving my friends.
“How is that even a choice?!” Charlene shouted as I tried to inch toward the roach while a ghost pulled at my ankle.
“Lulu, you’ve got to get over whatever this is!” Doug shouted as ghosts wrestled him to the ground. “Whatever triggered you when you heard Batman shout about Martha!”
WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?! echoed in Lulu’s head. She could see the anguished look on Batman’s face. The pleading eyes of Superman.
“You’re not even being consistent!” Charlene stated as she lost her grip on the table leg. “You suddenly switched to third-person narration!”
Doug had chosen Batman v Superman thinking it would be neat to watch, since both Batman and Superman were orphans like all of them, but all it had done was emphasize what they had that Lulu never would. Superman had lost his parents on Krypton, but he still knew of them through magic space crystals. And he had adopted parents who loved him. He had Martha. And Batman, though orphaned too, at least knew his parents' faces. He knew their names. Lulu’s mother could have been named Martha too, but she would never know. In Batman’s place, she would have just gone on to stab Superman with that spear.
“I can see you’re working through some psychological issue,” Bryce yelled, having gotten a loose hold on the side of another booth to temporarily halt the ghosts from pulling him to the portal. “You need to do it quicker!”
“So, is that why you’re doing the bit?” Doug asked as three ghosts slowly dragged him over the floor. “You have to stop, though, Lulu!”
The others had never really understood what the bits meant to Lulu. The world had been a harsh, uncaring place ever since she could remember, raised an orphan by a society that despised her. Hated. No real future ahead of her. The injustice and the misery of every single day was a crushing weight, but she’d found a way to fight back: She could just reject that reality as having any influence on her. She could play games that might infuriate others or even put her in danger, but if she just ignored the consequences of the real world, it was like it didn’t even exist. And she was invincible.
So when Batman and Superman had reminded her of the reality where she had no parents, no family — no anything — she’d left that reality.
“You have family!” Doug yelled. “Us!”
“At least for a few seconds longer!” Bryce added as he was forced to let go again and was pulled along the floor.
“It’s like from that other movie, Fast & Furious!” Doug said as the ghosts pulled him across the floor. “They call themselves family, but they’re just a bunch of people who hang out together.”
“No, we’re not a fake family like that,” Charlene objected as her fingernails dug into the linoleum to stop her from being dragged to the portal and the unknown. “I hate all of you — especially Lulu and these dumb, attention-seeking stunts she does. But I still look out for all of you, and you for me. People whom you despise but care for anyway — that’s not friends, that’s family!”
But that was the problem with cutting herself off from the pain of reality: It also cut her off from anything she really cared about. Here were the people she had known since she was a child — the people she was stuck with by some bureaucrat, but her family nonetheless — and they were in real danger. The only way to save them was to recognize that reality — to end her bit — to shed her false invincibility and let all the pain of the world in so she could save those she cared for. So as much as she enjoyed the bit with the journal — especially how it irritated Charlene — she knew what she had to do. The ghost was pulling her away, but she could still reach out to the roach if she just did one thing.
She had to let go.
Charlene here. Lulu tried to make it look heroic that she just dropped the stupid journal and saved us, but that was really, really dumb, and we’re all very mad at her. Still, when she scooped up the dead roach in the sugar bowl and put on the lid, the ghosts and the portal disappeared. Who knows what those interdimensional beings were, but I guess they’re just more items on the list of things that want to kill us. Anyway, I later found a secret spot and buried the sugar bowl, and I didn’t tell Doug, Bryce, or Lulu — especially Lulu — where because they’re all idiots, and I can’t trust that they won’t try to do something with it. And now I need a new sugar bowl for my hot brew set.
Also, I’m banning us from watching Justice League — the theatrical version of the Snyder Cut — so Lulu doesn’t have any more annoying mental breakdowns (which are really just for attention — just like that dress she was wearing). Next movie night, I’m picking the movie, and it’s going to be You’ve Got Mail, which I think should be an interesting exploration of late 20th-century communications. There might be some tactical information we can glean from it.
And as should be obvious, I was able to get my journal back when Lulu dropped it to handle the roach. I kind of want to tear out all the pages of her nonsense, but I guess I’ll just leave it. But I’m going to hide this better so no one can take it again.
UPDATE: Charlene didn’t successfully hide the journal and eventually died sad and alone, much unlike the protagonists of all those romcoms she makes us watch.
Okay, she found it again. And the movies I pick are all ones I think have useful knowledge that can help us in combat and other areas. Of course, if the movie also happens to have romance and comedy in it, that’s just a bonus.
Anyway, I’m getting a safe for my journals.
I hope you enjoyed that. Check out the Hellbender series for more adventures of Doug, Bryce, Charlene, and Lulu. It only gets crazier.
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