Helloween: Take What's In The Box

From the Story Arc: Grim's Gamble

Previous Story in the Arc: Helloween: It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To by Astra Kyne Murdock (Monday, November 06, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Helloween: Whispers by Astra Kyne Murdock (Monday, November 06, 2006)

(posted Monday, November 06, 2006)

The voice sent chills down her back, and that sense of foreboding crashed down around her. “Come one, come all, center stage. For the great Yogi Bratslav is about to give the show of a lifetime!”

Distantly, she heard Zarya mumble to herself. “I am not well suited to this place. This place is impressed with slogans and battle cries. I can't give battle cries, or emotionalism, or rivers of compassion and empathy all-engulfing...” and then shouted. “ENOUGH!”

Zakat laughed. “Have you ever been to a bombing site? Ever picked up the pieces after a bus exploded? You find much worse than a hand in a box, trust me. But you soon learn that you can't give in to the people who commit these atrocities. Because it just encourages them to repeat it, the next time they want something.”

Circus Master’s voice drew nearer. “Come on folks, it isn't everyday the Great Yogi performs! This is something to tell the kids about when you're old. To tell stories to the wee ones.”

Zarya unleashed her full arsenal on Astra, piling insult on top of abuse. “You will not speak to me like this! There is a limit to the nonsense that I will reasonably tolerate from anyone. I have seen, in my forty years of life, quite a bit more, and worse, than this. Your presumption is astounding, and your egotism is tremendous to think you bear the monopoly on suffering.”

When did I ever say that? When did I claim anything? Her anger and fear and despair made the room reel, and all she could do was shout back, “DON'T YOU EVEN DARE THINK YOU KNOW WHAT I AM THINKING!”

“Then do not presume to know what I do or do not know,” said Zarya.

I know you never had the death of one child, much less many, laid directly at your doorstep. I know you never had body parts sent to you from those children….and you never had to face the knowledge that you could stop it if you just did one simple thing…

“You wear your heart on your sleeve, Astra,” Zakat said. “Everyone knows what you're thinking.”

More and more people piled into the room, drawn by the commotion. And leading them all was Circus Master.

“The madman returns,” murmured Crimson Tao.

“Ah, circus man,” said Zakat.

Circus Master grinned, and continued his ballyhoo. “Come one, come all! Come short, come tall! Boys and girls, children of all ages, prepare to be amazed!”

Astra stared at him, like a sparrow mesmerized by a cobra, eyes wide and blind. He took off his hat, showing the inside was empty. “A simple hat, yes, one that is large nonetheless, tall and dark, like many desirable strangers.”

“Pardon, we are a little preoccupied here,” Zarya pointed out.

“I guess, like the faeries of old, you come when your name is called?” Zakat added.

Circus Master ignored them both. “And from this hat—“ He waved his hand above it and pulled out a box. “A box! A little box, simple and black, four corners with a cute orange ribbon, such a wonderful holiday decorum.”

Her mouth worked as she tried to say “no”, but no sound came out. She knew what this was. Or thought she did. Because it might be worse, so much worse…

“But what's this? A name, on my box, my simple box with four corners,” Circus Master continued, as Zarya shook her head and sighed. “Eight for you three-dimensional nut jobs.” He glared at Zakat and Zarya. “Yes a box, a simple box with EIGHT corners.”

Zakat smirked.

“And the name, oh but what a name!” Circus Master crowed.

“There had just better not be anything inside that box of an organic nature...” Zakat said.

“A name....such as Miss Astra Kyne Murdock!” Circus Master concluded, presenting it to Astra. She took it, hands shaking. She knew. She knew.

Circus Master put his hat back on and waited, grinning with anticipation.

“Astra...” Zakat said then, “Perhaps one of us should open it...”

Too late. The bottom of the box gave way.

And the head of a child, carved up to resemble a jack-o-lantern, rolled out to land at her feet. There was a candle still burning in it, and a note pinned to what was left of the lower lip that read “Happy Halloween,” and was signed with a grinning skull.

Zarya winced and bit her lip. “A my, a gourd,” said Circus Master. “Oh, let us share out loud the threats of the meager!”

A heartbroken and inarticulate moan was all that came from Astra’s mouth.

“Fine,” grated Petrograd.

Zakat muttered caution to him, “Petro. It's no use, here.”

In a voice uncannily like Petro’s own, Circus Master said, "I am knowing every single Spetznaz agent in Isles, you nekulturny son of dog, and you.... are a dead man!"

Astra knelt—dropped to her knees, really, and gathered up the head in both hands. “Nononono, please I'll go to him just make it stop!” she moaned, knowing this was her fault and no one else’s. If she had just gone, this baby would still be alive…

“Da,” Petro said flatly.

Zarya stared coldly at Circus Master. “If you do not leave now, the neutrality of pocket D can go to all seven hells.”

“Astra, don't do anything foolish,” Zakat ordered. Foolish! Letting them delay her had been foolish! She should have listened to her instincts….

“My dear, I have but tricks up my sleeves and white gloves. Gloves that lack the stains for such things,” Circus Master said genially. “Oh? And you plan to do this with your degree? Knock my socks off sister, let's see it.”

Sun Kai’s anger radiated off him, battering at her barriers. “Madman, do you understand "return to sender?"”

Petro was just as angry. “Is saying in Russia, shoot the messenger. Leave.”

“There is no messenger for a deed of evil,” Zarya said flatly. “What you do in the name of another, is your responsibility. Leave!:

All she could do was stare blindly at the ruined head in her hands and whimper. “Anything,. Anything. Make it stop.”

Circus Master wiped away invisible tears. “Boohoohoo. I'm unloved. But it only goes to show that once I'm dead, I'll be a legend! As no man is truly known for greatness until death!”

More people poured into the room, more emotions tearing her shields apart. Mandy, Harmony—

“Excuse me,” came a resonant voice from Mandy and “What in 'ell?” from Harmony.

This is my fault. I killed you. Oh baby, baby with my name, I killed you—

“An audience!” Circus Master said with delight.

“No, a peanut gallery,” said Harmony.

She just cradled the head in her hands, whispering to it. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I failed you. I ...... Oh god.”

“No,” Mandy said in that voice. The dragon voice.

“I'm afraid you missed the trick, perhaps next time,” Circus Master smirked. “When you buy a ticket, cheap-os. The great Yogi Bratslav isn't cheap!”

“Astra, what's going on here?” Harmony gasped.

“Everyone, please be quiet a moment... “ Zarya commanded. “Astra, please let go of this, for now...”

“I won't let them stop me, now,” she promised it, tears burning out of her eyes, and soaking her scarf.

Circus Master knelt down to Asta:. “He told me his name was Jacob...Jacob Murdock. Not sure if that helps, but that's what he said, in the spoooooky voice of his.”

Jacob. Now she had a name…a name to place on her guilt.

“That is quite enough, madman,” Sun Kai said harshly.

“Be quiet.” Mandragora’s voice carried the force of a command.

“I'm not mad! I'm quite lucid!” Circus Master replied, standing up.

Zarya tried to take the weight from Astra. “It is no help for it, and a ruin for you... not to mention, hardly dignified for the body...”

“Silence, or be silenced,” Crimson Tao commanded.

“Is there an echo in here?” Circus Master replied, tilting his head to one side. “I hear the same thing too much.”

“Let go of it, Astra,” demanded Zarya, as Foxglove muttered, “Another mess to clean up.”

Astra turned away from Zarya. It? This had a name, This had been Jacob. This was her guilt to expiate, her burden to deal with. She pulled off her cape, tenderly wrapped the head in it, and put it down at her feet, standing up and looking Circus Master in the eye. “I'm ready,” she said.