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He slammed his fist down on the table. He never knew how much it hurt to not belong, until the day he didn't. He never knew that anger could be so strong, how it could control him. He never knew he could care so much, want to change something so badly.
He never knew he could be so fearless. For the first time, he wasn't afraid that they would laugh at him or beat him up. Who cared! Who cared about those things, when there was real injustice in the world? When people were actually suffering?
The door opened and Mr. Thirteen walked in. They both stared at each other.
"I want to get out. Now."
Mr. Thirteen slowly walked towards him, pointing his gun. "Now calm down, little boy," he said, eyebrows creasing. "I think you're over-reacting."
"I'm not a kid," he said. He wasn't scared. Anger burned inside him, giving him strength. If he was killed right now, things would change. People would start to see the horrible truth. "I'm not a kid, you can't lie to me anymore."
Suddenly, Mr. Thirteen jumped on him, slamming him into the wall. The table shuddered.
"Be quiet and I'll give you a chance. One. Last. Chance."
"No!" he screamed. "I don't want your chances anymore!"
"Then you leave me no choice." There was a click, and the cold, metal barrel of the gun was pressed hard to the side of his head. "Tester, I warned you. I told you it would hurt. But you wanted to know the truth. Now you have to--"
"I won't," Tester gasped, pain leaving him breathless.
With a scream, he shoved his elbow into Mr. Thirteen's chin and bolted for the door. He didn't care anymore. Not about himself, at least. Only about the others.
Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, and two words came to his mind: the gun.
Next thing he knew, there was a sharp poke in the back of his head, and everything doubled. He felt himself slam to his knees, to the ground, though he felt no pain, only the same burning anger that consumed him. Slumped in that position, paralyzed, he felt two rough hands grab his shoulders.
Mr. Thirteen was shouting.
"I warned you! I warned you! Now you made me shoot you!"
Now the pain came. And it stung, too, bringing tears to his eyes. Tried to speak, but only heard a faint gargle. Was that him? Then, slowly, everything collapsed inward, into darkness.
"Hey, you all right there?"
Tester blinked. He was lying on a bus seat, half sliding off.
"What?" He could talk again. Instinctively, he lifted his hand to feel the back of his head, sitting up. There was a scab, but that was it. He felt perfectly fine, if not a little groggy. As if he had just woken up from a nap.
"You know, this is the last stop. You have to get off."
Tester blinked again. A boy stood in front of him, maybe his age, possibly a little older, but he was dressed in a green coat fit for giants. It reached all the way to his knees, and a bright white name tag read: Bus Driver #33492.
The older boy snorted. "Kid, did you get lost in dreamland? Just get off. I just wanna go home and be done for the day, but I can't lock the bus doors unless you leave. Now just get up."
Tester scrambled to his feet. "I can't, I just can't," he said. "Mr. Thirteen is going to be waiting for me, and he's really mad. He's really, really mad and I don't want to meet him."
"That's your problem, kid," the older guy said. "Don't make me push you off the bus."
Tester looked around him, at the paint-splattered seats and the permanently stained windows. "Hey, what happened? Don't you ever wonder what happened to the rest of the world? To New York? To Australia?"
The other boy, after all, was a bus driver, and he had no tolerance for this. "Please. If I can finish my bus route before midnight, I get a promotion. I'm begging you."
"Really? A promotion?" Tester sat up, perked.
"No," he said, "but I really want you off of the bus."
Tester sighed, and fear tingled in his hands, making his heart race. But he had no choice, and he knew it.
"Help me," Tester whispered as he started towards the door. "If I don't show up tomorrow, know that Mr. Thirteen killed me or something. Please."
Then he was outside, the cool air blowing at his face.
The bus driver called something, but Tester didn't hear. He trudged through the mist, kicking a sludge puddle as he walked. Everything that was tingling in him told him that he should run, maybe spend a night in the streets. But he knew he had to face the consequences at one point or another, so he continued to trudge towards the Sleepers' Shack and Mr. Thirteen.
The street lights were barely discernible with the mist, and there weren't any cars down the street anymore. To his left, the black metal fence rose menacingly up and over. The graveyard was beyond that, including the bodies of people who peacefully lay rotting in the earth.
Tester knew that there was a time when flowers were traditionally set for loved ones who lay in the graves, but people knew it was pointless now, especially since the past decades were so focused on staying alive and rebuilding civilization after the catastrophic geo-engineering events, in which the oceans were fertilized with millions upon millions of tons of iron in an attempt to slow the catastrophic warming temperatures.
Well, that failed, Tester thought. The Sleepers' Shack now loomed in front of him. The stone and brick and vines....
Gritting his teeth, Tester pushed open the double doors.
And inside, it was beautifully warm and well-lit, as always, to the contrast outside. It was a small room--orange carpet, dark shades, milky smooth walls. And Mr. Thirteen was standing there, smoking his cigarette, looking genuinely concerned. The smell of smoke hung in the air. He had been waiting for a long time.
"Tester, where have you been? The sludge cleaners come out at midnight, and you they don't care who's out there in the streets. They just drive those machines all over the place."
"Yeah, I know," Tester muttered, thinking how the bus driver stayed up until midnight every day. If that kid could survive, surely he could too. He took a deep breath. His nerves felt on fire.
"Look, I didn't mean to get mad last night," Tester stammered out. "I-"
Mr. Thirteen silenced him. "Do you remember what it was about?"
Tester's mind felt blank. "No," he said. It was a fact, and he felt surprisingly....calm. Relieved. Simply glad that Mr. Thirteen wasn't mad. "No, I don't remember." Strange things happened all the time, Tester knew, and for the moment, he was just glad that the things at present--such as Mr. Thirteen's anger--was contained. He felt like a little kid who had lost his mittens and was afraid to tell his mommy, but then his mother, not angry at all, hands him his lost mittens one morning, and the little kid doesn't even care how the mittens had reappeared, just glad that the mother wasn't going to ground him.
"Good, good," Tester thought he heard Mr. Thirteen mutter.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Tester. Now, I can't get angry at you if you don't even remember what you did, am I correct?"
Tester nodded, frowning. He suddenly remembered the scab at the back of his head, and he felt his hands twitch towards it, but he resisted.
"Well, Tester, I have to admit, you look tired. Better get to bed. Tomorrow's school, not to mention another twelve hours of community service."
"Good night, Thirteen."
"Good night, Tester," Mr. Thirteen said.
With those words, he climbed up the newly polished steps to the dormitories. The landing was dark when he reached the top, and he glared at Lance and Willy's doors when he passed theirs until he reached his own near the window. Finally, with a deep sigh of relief, he jammed in the key, turned the knob, and entered the haven of his room.
The next day was painful, as always.
Tester gingerly touched the bruise underneath his left eye. It wasn't too big, but it was sore nonetheless. Something else, in addition to scar on the back of his head. As he stared at the bulging mirror that was nailed lopsided to the white tiled walls of the bathroom, he hoped that it wouldn't grow, but it was already spreading. Groaning, he wanted to imagine that the single lightbulb that dangled from the low ceiling was throwing it into a worse perspective than it really was.
A bang rattled the bathroom door, and Tester jumped.
"Hey, you done yet, you hunker?" Another bang on the door followed Willy's snarl.
"I'm done, I'm done," Tester quickly called, then strode to the door and unlocked it. Willy roughly pushed him aside, elbowing him in the ribs before entering the small stall. "I see Lance's given you another blow," he taunted, before slamming the door shut. He gave another shuffled shout. "Get back to your position, leader. Boss is looking for you."
How ironic, Tester thought sourly as he walked down the narrow hallway. Half the time they call me hunker, and half the time they call me leader. As his community service consisted of organizing the packaging of sending food to the Unrecovered--the disaster zones that still hadn't rebounded from that geo-engineering catastrophe--he was given the role of telling each driver what they had to load into their truck to bring to the Unrecovered areas of the city. It was funny that Lance and Willy were forced to listen to him when he was giving them directions, but that any other time they did whatever they liked. Sometimes, when an adult's back was turned, they even risked hitting him while at work. Like half an hour ago, when Lance had slammed a tent pole into his face and later insisted it was by accident.
Reaching the end of the hallway, he turned to the left and saw the usual desk that he sat behind to hand out sheets was occupied by Mr. Thirteen.
"Ah, Tester, I was looking for you," he said. Today, no cigarette dangled from his mouth, but he wore a dark purple suit. Mr. Thirteen always wore a suit, though it was pointless these days. "Tester, I've been wanting to ask you something."
"You seem a little down these days. Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, it's fine. Everything's okay," Tester said. Everything was just the usual, anyways. What else could he expect? Rebuilding civilization wasn't supposed to be easy.
Mr. Thirteen stared at him. His eyes were hollow, almost dead. He looked overworked, tired, and somewhat desperate. How old was this guy? Tester suddenly wondered.
"Tester. Do you ever think of yourself as defiant?"
"I--what?" What did that mean? "No--I mean, I hope I just listen to what you--I mean, what people say. I try to."
"That's what I thought," Mr. Thirteen murmured. He took a deep breath. "I have a special job for you, Tester, but I think you might be a little too rebellious for it."
"No, no." He felt himself tingling again. "No, I'll do it," he said, and he really meant it. "We all have to help each other, especially since what's been going on in the world. People are still dying from everything. And the sludge--it just rains down from the sky and we have to clean it up everyday. I hope we can use the skyscrapers again some day, I really do. I really want to see the ocean, if it isn't too wrecked by the fertilization." Books--that's where he had heard of them and seen them. An amazing world that was so populated that it took entire sky scrapers to fill an entire company of workers. So many cars in the cities that they jammed.
Mr. Thirteen spoke. "Tester, I'm not saying you're not going to be doing it. I'm just saying, that at the current situation, you might be a little too rebellious."
Tester started to protest, but Mr. Thirteen continued. "I think you're the only one fit for the job, but you'd have to do a lot of things first. You'd have to leave this town, go abroad for a while, understand the world as it is a little better. Take notes, meet some people. Then when you're ready--absolutely ready--come back and I'll tell you what you need to do."
"Thirteen, can't you tell me what I need to do? I think I want to do it. I think I'm ready."
Mr. Thirteen glared at Tester with such anger and accusation that he actually took a step back.
"No, Tester! I know better than you. You. Are. Not. Ready."
"You are not ready, I'm sure of that. Please. When you're done with the community service this morning, don't go to school. Go and pack. Then ride the bus to stop 23. I'll be waiting. Don't worry, Tester. I'll explain everything again."
They stared at each other for a moment. Tester noticed, once again, how tired Mr. Thirteen was. Then he nodded.
As he turned to leave, Mr. Thirteen called at him. "Tester, I'm depending on you, okay? We all are."
Tester wanted to turn back, to look back, but he didn't. Mr. Thirteen didn't expect those things. He just needed him to understand.
"Hey kid? Do you know what's so funny? You're the only one that really rides this bus. You ride it so often and so frequently that I have to remember you," the bus driver said. His over-folded large green jacket sleeves dangled from his hands, which were gripping the steering wheel.
Tester didn't say anything as they bumped along the dusty roads. He just clutched onto his black backpack.
Only another person was on board, sitting in the far back, a young woman. She held a baby in her arms, who was sleeping. She was looking out the window, staring at the sky, which was darkening outside. The sludge rains would be coming soon, Tester knew, and he knew that the woman and the driver knew it too. They always came.
Soon, the clouds broke, and sludge and rain fell down from the sky, black and thick and oozing, dripping like ink. Puddles formed, and the bus plowed through, windshield wipers furiously swiping.
Over the pouring rain and sludge, the bus driver yelled, "Hey kid, you didn't get off last stop. In fact, that stop was about five minutes ago. Where are you going? Outta town? Why would you need to get outta town?” The boy laughed.
“Yeah, I am!” Tester shouted back. “So I think you should be stopping about now!”
“What!” the driver screamed.
There was a shriek as the bus suddenly lurched to an abrupt stop, spraying the sides of the dirty windows with black sludge and dark mud. Glass tinkled and cracked. Tester was thrown out of his seat and onto the ground.
“But why would you need to get outta town,” the bus driver panted. He looked shocked, almost to the point of losing consciousness. A bruise was forming on his forehead, where he had smashed into the steering wheel.
Someone was crying. The woman, putting herself back on her seat, was desperately shaking her baby, whose head was bruised. The baby was silent. Its hands were limp and dead. Tears streamed down the mother’s young face.
“No, no, no,” she whispered. “No, wake up, Tommi, wake up.”
The rain battered on.
Shaking, Tester stood up. He fumbled for his bag strap, his hands numb and cold. As if in a dream, he started towards the exit. He had to get off. Now. This was his stop. There was no point in staying on the bus.
“Oh, no you don’t,” the bus driver said. The rain poured menacingly on, spraying droplets of black onto the outside of the bus. “You’re not going to do anything. Please. Don’t.” He was standing in the aisle, blocking Tester from the door. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“Move,” Tester said. His voice was shaking. “I need to get out, out of this place. Look what you’ve done.”
He jerked towards the direction of the woman and her limp baby.
“I know,” the bus driver said. He looked stricken, but there was no remorse on his face.
Tester took a step towards the older boy. “Let me get out. You have enough problems on your own. You’ve killed a mother’s baby.”
“He’s not mine,” came a faint whisper from behind him. “He’s my sister’s. Now she’s going to kill me, oh she’s going to kill me.” Something cracked softly. Was that the baby’s head?
Tester was afraid to look back at the crazy woman.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the driver said. He crossed his arms.
“You’re not going to make me stay!” Tester slammed his fist onto the driver’s face as he screamed. The older boy retaliated, grabbing Tester’s left wrist and twisting it back. Tester’s feet slipped and before he knew it, he was on his knees. He swung his right fist up again, but the driver was ready. Soon, both of Tester’s hands were twisted behind him. The smell of sweat and dirt and wet sludge hung in the dank air.
“You don’t get it, kid,” the driver snarled. “You’re just a kid, you don’t get it. I hate Mr. Thirteen. He’s stupid. Everyone, everything in this world, is stupid. They’re selfish. They don’t care about anything. People can suffer, babies can die, and nobody cares! This stupid world has gone insane.”
Tester continued to struggle, to push, for a few seconds. Then he gave up. The older boy was too strong. Everything was silent, and Tester had no idea how this was going to end.
Suddenly, the door bust open, and the rain grew louder. Flying and splattering, the sludge started piling up at the edge of the door. Mr. Thirteen raced in, immediately grabbing the bus driver’s neck. Tester felt his hands released, and he quickly propped himself into a seat. The bus driver, after all, was only a boy and was no match for Mr. Thirteen. Bruises were starting to appear on the driver’s face, and blood was pouring out of his nose. Soon, the boy was just screaming, “Okay, okay, go, go, go! Get off of my bus! Get off!”
Mr. Thirteen grabbed Tester’s arm and started to drag him out.
“Wait, my bag!”
“Go get it, then, Tester!”
Tester grabbed it, and together, they ran out of the bus and into the sludge rains. The sludge splattered across his back, stinking into his shirt. The sludge flew into his hair and his eyes.
Following Mr. Thirteen, they entered into the cemetery that surrounded the town. There were tall, ancient trees that were swaying in the wind. Mr. Thirteen and Tester took cover under a large oak that was thick with leaves.
Panting, Tester looked up. “Thirteen, why did he do that? What-what was that kid doing?”
Mr. Thirteen shook his head. “Tester, some people are stupid. Some people are selfish. I have no idea what that boy was talking about. Trust me, Tester, when I say that you probably don’t want to know.”
Amidst all the chaos and confusion a few moments ago, amidst the the pounding cold rain which soaked him to the skin, Tester managed to accept that as fact. Hitching his rough and watery backpack higher up his shoulder, he shifted his gaze to scan the dreary lumps of earth that made up the geography that was beyond the city. "Sure, Thirteen." He swallowed, unconsciously rubbing his sore wrists. "Now what?"
Mr. Thirteen coughed, a deep cough that was supposed to have vanished when non-toxic cigarettes were invented. "I wish we had more time, and I wish that it wasn't raining as much." Both were shivering in the cold, Mr. Thirteen in his suit and Tester in his cotton uniform. Though the wetness was bearable, it was nonetheless vastly uncomfortable. "I'll quickly explain. Look into your backpack--no, no, not now. You'll have plenty of time later, when I leave."
When he leaves? A slight jolt of alarm shot through him at those words as Tester released the zipper and looked at the empty gray landscape he was in. A glance to his left, and he saw that the bus driver was gone.
"Now, inside your bag, there's going to be a map. I slipped it in this morning. Look for a location called the 'Peeler'. It's a hotel, but you'll see why it's called what it's called when you get there. And when you get there, look for a woman called Angela." As Mr. Thirteen spoke, his words got faster and faster, until they tumbled out in a rush. Eyes wild, there was something unsettling in the way panic had abruptly come over him. "Got it, Tester? Look for the 'Peeler'. It's a hotel. Look for Angela. Got it, Tester? Got it?"
"I-I, yes, Thirteen." Tester had barely finished his sentence when Mr. Thirteen let out a strangely inhuman yelp. "Oh, it's already one o'clock! I have to get back!" He swung one last glance at Tester, then started plodding his way through the mud out of the graveyard. "Remember!" he called out with his back to him. "The 'Peeler'. Hotel. Angela. Got it?" His voice, muffled by the roaring wind and rain, could barely be heard. Tester was still repeating the instructions in his head when Mr. Thirteen suddenly whirled around, a few feet off.
"Oh, and I think you'll need this." He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a shiny black object. Despite the thick curtain of water between them, Tester recognized it immediately: the gun.
A fuzzy tickling sensation appeared on the back of his head, the tingling of his scar. In a flash, the fog had cleared. He had been shot by a gun, and though he had no tangible memory of who actually did it, he had a sinking feeling that it was Mr. Thirteen. Managing to ignore the thought, he caught the weapon when Mr. Thirteen tossed it to him, who had that crazed expression still lingering on his face. With that, Mr. Thirteen turned around for the last time and ran away to the road.
For a moment, Tester wondered whether Mr. Thirteen would meet a bus along the way that would pick him up take him back to town quicker, but then he realized he never saw him take the bus before. Not even to get to the cemetery that he was in right now. Eerily, the bus driver's words came back into his mind. Every single word. Tester had no idea how he remembered, but they were all there, in his mind.
"You don't get it, kid. You’re just a kid, you don’t get it. I hate Mr. Thirteen. He’s stupid. Everyone, everything in this world, is stupid. They’re selfish. They don’t care about anything. People can suffer, babies can die, and nobody cares! This stupid world has gone insane."
Had the world gone insane? The sludge, the ocean that was more oil and chemicals than water, the constant harshness of the weather...
Tester had never bothered himself with those questions before, but he wasn't going to start. The map, he thought. What I'm doing will help the Unrecovered. Who cares if some bus driver knows more than I do?
Reaching his shaking hands into his backpack, Tester fumbled at the slippery zippers. Sludge was falling faster now, droplets of pure black that soaked onto the ground, his clothes, the few bare trees that were still hanging on to life. It dimmed the world, as if someone had spilled ink over an old shirt.
The acid rain was beginning to sting now too, and his skin smarted where the blackness stained like a badly-drawn tattoo. Changing gears, Tester instead reached into the side pocket of his backpack where he kept his sludge-gear. After some painful struggling, his fingers gripped the plastic edge of his protective glasses and the rubbery material of his umbrella. With a mighty tug, he flung the two pieces out. In painful, jerky movements, the umbrella was spread out and the glasses were over his eyes. A sigh of relief, and Tester reached into his bag for the map.
Suddenly, a voice sounded from behind.
"Where do you think you're going, kid?"
The image of the bus driver still echoed in his mind. As Tester stood in front of the hotel eight hours later, he couldn't forget the way that kid had stood there, without even a hat, his face completely black from the sludge and his eyes red from the acid. The way he had called out to him, angry yet desperate. Standing out there had almost seemed like a death wish.
"I don't understand! Why do you still follow his orders? Thirteen isn't a saint, you know. He's not. He's just another selfish guy in this stupid world. Don't fall for it! He's tricking you! He's tricking you like he tricked me!"
Tester had pushed the older boy into the sludge by that point, and left him jerking and yelling in the mud while he ran off. The sludge had weakened and burned the bus driver, and it had been stupid for the kid to stand out in the rain just yell at Tester. Now, in the darkness of the night, when all the colors mixed into shades of blackness, the image that he saw clearly and the voice that he heard echoing in his mind was of that of the bus driver. In that ridiculous green coat, with that sludge-stained face. He winced at the thought of such poison on his skin.
Nonetheless, Tester focused on the building in front of him. He was sure that he had reached the right place. In fact, he realized why it was called the Peeler. At first, he thought that the Peeler would have paint peeling off its walls. Instead, it was a fairly decent building the size of a mansion. It was its surroundings that were peeling.
Three writhered thin, tall, white trees stood out palely in the darkness, two on either side of the building, one slightly to the left of the middle. Its bark hung downward in thin strips of white, as if picked on like a scab. Tester stared. He didn't know they existed anymore. When he first saw those thin white trunks, the word "birch" had instantly appeared in his mind. It was as if he had been thrust back in time, and for a moment he felt like he was walking in the history textbook that he had left stacked neatly under his bed.
Tester stood there for a while, until he finally decided to enter the Peeler. A tingling went through him again, except this time it was one of nervous excitement. What else...? Taking a deep breath, his boots sloshed quietly through the sludge on the ground until he was close enough to grab the handle of the rough wooden door. Without thinking, he swung it open walked in.
It was exactly the same.
It was just a larger version of the Sleeper's Shack. Identical dark orange carpet, same white walls. He almost expected to see Mr. Thirteen standing there waiting for him, but instead a lovely young woman with curly blond hair sat behind a metal desk. Tester stopped in his tracks, too surprised to continue. It was just so similar to the Sleeper's Shack that it could not have been a coincidence, but he had no idea why they were made that way. He'd never heard of any connection. Slowly, he lowered his umbrella and took off his protective glasses.
The woman looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes lingered on the left side of his face, where the bruise from Lance's punch had left his mark. Tester suddenly felt self-conscious, but a second later her eyes centered onto his. "Welcome," she said, putting down her papers and pen and flashing another smile. "How may I help you?"
Tester found his voice. "Hello," he stammered. Before he knew it, the words slipped out. "Why are there birch trees outside?"
The lovely woman laughed. "This must be your first time here," she replied. "Those trees have been there as long as this hotel's been standing. It's amazing how they managed to survive such wreckage. Hopefully, over time, they will spread and populate the whole forest."
He doubted that. But another question was pressing. "Do you happen to know about...the orphanage in Territory 298? It's the town next to this one."
"The orphanage?" The woman smiled again. "Why? I don't happen to know about it, but I do know that Territory 298 is categorized recovery level C. Pretty great place. I would like to visit sometime."
"Are you sure you don't know about the orphanage?" Tester really wanted to know the connection between the Sleeper's Shack and this hotel, but he subsided out of loyalty to Mr. Thirteen. "Never mind. I'm looking for Angela. Are you Angela?"
Her eyebrows shot up. "Angela? I believe there is no Angela here." She gave another laugh. "It's only me and my boyfriend, Brad. We run this place, we're the cleaners too. Not great business, I admit. Usually a guest a week, and most of the time we're sitting around. Right now he's buying food, but I'll be glad to show you your room. I guess you're staying for the night?"
Distrust had built up at those words, and the offer for a room heightened the wall.
“Angela,” he repeated. “I’m supposed to look for Angela.” Something seemed to ring inside his head as he said those words. A vague memory, undefined. It was a sinister memory, something that once scared him, something that had hurt him like the acidic sludge, something that had made him cry. But he pushed on, knowing that if there was one person he could trust, it was Mr. Thirteen’s instructions. “I need to see Angela.”
The woman stared at Tester. “There’s no Angela here.”
“Yes there is,” Tester replied. “Thirteen--”
There was an inhuman screech, and the woman suddenly launched herself towards Tester. Tester jumped back, panicking and dropping his protective glasses and umbrella, as well as his backpack. She grabbed Tester by the collar, screaming “You came from Mr. Thirteen! You came from Mr. Thirteen!” She screamed and scratched his face, yelling as if crazy.
Tester pushed against her. His fist connected with her face, but it was too late. Her clawing hands managed to hinge upon his already-injured eye, and he fell backwards as he yelped in pain. They both crashed onto the floor, rolling. Tester felt tears swimming out of his swollen eye. Now they were both screaming. Suddenly, he felt a bunch of blocks fall on top of him. The world seem to covered with these blocks, blotting out light and sound. He felt like he was tumbling across thousands of these blocks.
Soon, he realized that it was all quiet, and Tester came to his senses. Slowly, he realized that he was lying among a rubble of books. They had somehow rolled around and hit the stack of books that were lined along the west wall, or at least, what the west wall would have been at the identical Sleeper’s Shack. His eye was extremely sore, and he was afraid to touch it. Then he looked around him, and saw the woman whom he had fought with.
She was dead. A book had hit her...and her head was a bloody mess. A white name tag had been ripped from her shirt, standing out perfectly among the dark book covers. It read “ANGELA.” So she had been lying. Tester had no idea how that happened. But he realized that he was shaking. The world has gone crazy, he decided. It was a fact that scared him, but it scared him less than it depressed him. He didn’t even know what he was fighting for. Looking at all the mess around him, the dead body, the smashed books, the creamy walls--they all seemed to spin around him.
He felt like this insanity had been coming for a long time, but now he couldn’t lie to himself anymore. He had to make decisions now, and if he was ever going to understand, now was the time. The world was just too messed up, and there was only one answer: the gun. It would reset things, change everything. Shaking, he pushed the books off of himself. Slowly, he climbed to his feet. Looked around him. He would miss this world. He had a feeling that it was one of the better ones, not because of the iron fertilization, or the graves, or the sludge. In this world, someone might have cared for him.
Unsure of even how he knew this, unsure what the gun even meant, he took it out of his bag. He pressed it to the back of his head, right where the scab still was. His arm was in an extremely awkward position, but it wouldn’t matter for long. He took a deep breath, and the air seemed to sharp and cold.
“Thirteen, I’m doing this because you’re not here to do it for me.” Tester heard himself announce the words, yelling to no one particular. Then he pulled the trigger. There was a moment of pain, then he knelt forward. Felt himself freeze up, felt his nerves freeze up. Then the familiar oblivion came.
That room again, with the table. Tester felt the rage, hated Mr. Thirteen for doing this to him. Hated Mr. Thirteen for pushing him in this endless cycle. Where the only time he could possibly be himself was in this stupid room.
He slammed his fist down again. The table shook and rattled like the skulls from the first world he had been to. Then he felt tears beginning to slide down his face, remembering Irene. All those skulls, and he had left her there, left her there alone. Then in the second world, the poor man. That man was only human! He didn’t deserve to die.
Tester felt like he would explode, like he wanted to blow up and bring the universe with him. How many worlds was this now? He didn’t even remember.
All he remembered was the others. There was Irene, that poor man, the innocent little girl, that brave woman, and now that poor bus driver who was only a kid.
The door opened, and Mr. Thirteen stood in the frame. Outside the room was obviously much brighter, for Tester had to squint to see Mr Thirteens silhouette. Tester wanted to scream, but something was wrong. Normally, Mr. Thirteen would walk in, pointing a gun at him. But this time, he only stood still in the doorway.
Tester knew why. “Mr. Thirteen, it’s over, isn’t it?” Was that actually himself sobbing? “Mr. Thirteen. Tell me. Was that world the thirteenth world? It’s over, right?” Tears rolling down his face, he walked forward slowly. His felt his voice tremble, walked past the table. Pain rolled in his heart, making it almost unbearable. All those people, the others, those deaths--they weren’t coincidence. They were meant to happen. They were meant to happen, but words could never describe the hurt. “I’m not going to see them again, am I?”
They stood still now, staring at each other.
“I’m sorry,” Tester whispered. “I’m sorry I made you shoot me last time. I just couldn’t help it anymore, I just didn’t want to do it. But I’m glad you did it for me. Now it’s over, right? There's no more bullets. I can...move on.”
Mr. Thirteen walked into the room, looking at everything. The floor, the ceiling, the walls--they were all the same brown color. The same color of that came to represent the IRB.
“You can move on. Everyone only has to do this once their life, you know. For you it’s over. You passed. Some won’t, and those are the ones who will have the most trouble.”
“It’s unfair,” Tester whispered. He felt so tired now. No struggle was left him, nothing. Just gladness that it was over, but there was also an yearning to understand. He deserved it. “It’s unfair to those people in those worlds. Why do we have to go in and mess them up? Why? Why do we have to do all these things without telling them? I think they kind of know about us. Especially in that last world.” His voice shook. The thirteenth world was the scariest. That world was starting to lose control, yet it was one of the better ones. Less hate. Less pain. But more knowledge.
“Yes, Tester, they are starting to know who we are and what we do. But we don’t have to worry about that yet. We just know that we have succeeded. We were very close to failing, especially since they knew about us. But we have succeeded. Now, Tester, I can’t force you to do anything anymore. Your job is done. Do you have any questions? I can honestly answer them now.”
Tears uncontrollably rolled down Tester’s face again. He shook his head. “I don’t want to know anything. I don’t care, it doesn't matter. They’re dead. I know that what I did determined their fate, and what I did was necessary for the world to go on. It was necessary for all the worlds that exist to go on….I don’t need to know more than that. Just one question. Please be honest, Mr. Thirteen.”
He paused, unsure if he wanted to know the answer.
“Mr. Thirteen, there’s no real world out there, waiting for me, is there? There’s only this room, this desk, and the gun. There’s only the two of us, right? Please be honest, Mr. Thirteen.”
The man bowed his head, continuing to walk around the room. “No, Tester, it’s over for us. There’s no world out there. I’m sorry if I lied. I had no choice. I think that what you did...it was best for the remaining worlds. Seal up the connections for good so there’s no more of this mess.”
“What’s going to happen to us when we leave this room?”
“I think it’s time to find out.”
Frowning, Tester took hesitant steps towards the door. Outside, the light was blinding.
"Will we just disappear?"
Mr. Thirteen shook his head. "Don't waste any more time," he said, with such finality. "Waiting won't do you much good. You were the last student, and you had the hardest job. Now, go. I'll be right behind you, to see where it takes us."
"I'm going." Tester faced the silent roaring whiteness beyond the door. Finally, he and Mr. Thirteen were on the same page. Both of them knew nothing more than the other, knew nothing about what was outside. Before, Mr. Thirteen had kept his memory by exiting through the door, while Tester had to use the gun. Now, without another thought, he closed his eyes and stepped through.