Claude sat on the edge of his bed, and Abby joined him after moving the suitcase to the floor.
“Say we do what you want,” she said. “Say we leave you here. You’re just going to close your door and hope for the best?”
Claude, the misery practically dripping off him, nodded.
“Because there’s just Gladys, and the three people outside, and a couple or so loose pumpkins, and if you push your bed against the door, they can’t get to you, right?”
He nodded again.
“How many people are in Caliche, Claude?”
He blinked, slow and anguished. “Around twenty thousand.”
“They’re gone,” Abby said, and clapped her hands sharply, once, to make him flinch. “The blackout…when we were smoking, looking down on the town, there weren’t any headlights. People should have been swarming over Caliche trick-or-treating. But they’re all gone. Taken. You know it.” She laced her fingers and leaned forward, staring at an identical, mass-produced copy of the painting she’d stared at in Gerard’s room. “We’ve been fighting maybe a dozen of these things, all four of us — and we’re exhausted. When twenty thousand of them come storming up that hill to get you…do you think a bed shoved against the door will stop them for even half a second?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
She looked over at him, gauging his state of mind. She wasn’t leaving without him, but to get him to go she was going to have to do something five years of mollycoddling Brightest Lantern therapy had never done: hurt him.
“Y’know, I saw you on TV. The last time.” She watched him tense up in her peripheral vision.
“…You never told me that before,” he said. He turned his head, but she kept her eyes on the painting.
“I grew up watching you, truth be told,” Abby said. “All the other weathermen were stiff and uptight, but you were funny. You explained stuff about the weather without it sounding like a lecture. You were cool, ‘Cloudy.'”
“What you must’ve thought,” Claude said, “that last time.”
“I was in school by then,” she said, “finishing up my teaching certificate. There was a group of us, there in the Student Union, watching you. We had a ritual: we’d all grown up watching you, we all loved you, and we never missed when you were on the air.”
“Lord,” Claude whispered. He bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“And when you went off-script,” Abby said, “when you started talking about your wife and how it was great the charity was raising money for cancer but how it was too late to save her…somebody in the group laughed.”
Claude gave a little sob of surprise.
“You always talked about it in group therapy,” Abby said. “And I’m here to tell you, it was just as bad as you imagined. People started cracking up when you were crying, and when you started taking off your clothes…? Oh my God, everyone was in hysterics. By the time you were naked — but blurred out — Claude, I was laughing my ass off, too.”
He turned and looked at her, and she thought briefly he might strike her. She’d never seen such betrayal on anyone’s face.
“And right then, right when they cut to the test pattern — I guess the director at the TV station decided he had enough footage to…to do whatever with…I realized I wasn’t laughing on the inside.” She crossed her arms. “It was like I was watching myself floating above me, and I knew how worthless I was for joining in the group like that. You were the last thing I saw before I went to bed every night as a kid, and a lot of the time the only good thing in a crappy day.” She drew in a breath, and it hitched in her chest. “And there I was, hee-hawing along with a bunch of college jackasses to try and fit in, making fun of ‘Cloudy’ Claude when he was in the most pain of his life.”
His expression softened, but the blow had been dealt.
“I’ve wanted to tell you how sorry I was for the last five years,” she said, “but when I met you, I knew I couldn’t apologize without telling you why.”
Claude sat there for a while, when at last he spoke. “I always figure everyone’s seen it, either when it first went on the air, or when it went online after that. And I always figure everyone’s doing one of two things when they meet me: laughing at me as soon as I turn my back, or pitying me.” He cleared his throat in two quick coughs. “And out of those two, the one thing I’ve never worked out is which is worse.” He stood, startling Abby. “Y’all go ahead and go. I’ll catch up with you, or not. This is the only place I feel safe anymore. Maybe I oughta stay and fight for it.”
“Come with us, please,” she said, and hated the whine that leaked into her voice. Pleeeaaase. “We need you. We’re…oh, Jeezus, are you actually going to make me say we’re your family? Because we are, Claude. You matter to us, and — and — and –”
He looked at her patiently.
“And if anyone out there laughs at you or pities you, I will hold them down while you beat their ass!” she finished in a rush.
Claude kept looking at her, but the corners of his mouth turned up, and he huffed out a little heh-heh at that. He took Abby’s hands and pulled her to her feet, then led her to the door. She dragged her feet, never feeling more like a failure at that moment.
“Y’all need to hit the road,” he said. “Get Fleur somewhere safe. God knows she’s been through enough.”
“And Gerard,” Abby said.
“What about him?”
“Well, he told me. Before I came to get you.”
Claude frowned. “Told you what?”
“You know. That he’s dying?”
“…That bastard!” Abby fumed. She looked at Claude’s confused face. “He’s…never mind. He’s not dying. Though he may not be long for this world.”
Claude chuckled again, reached for the doorknob, but instead put both hands on Abby’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug.
“…It’s not fair,” she mumbled. “You should be coming with us.”
He broke he hug and turned the doorknob. “Make me proud, Miss Abby,” he said, opening the door.
Gladys stood there, pumpkin on her shoulder, with a loose jack-o-lantern at her side.
Today’s Words: 1102
Total Words: 16152
Notes: Working this weekend, so no extra-long updates, most likely…