((Violet Druce & Michael Moretti continued from Tactic Static))
He was exhausted and his back hurt.
Those were really the only two things Mike had to focus on. He was sprawled out over the crumbling ruins of a beige-and-red tile countertop, head turned towards a doorless exit. It was still dark but he knew it was morning. He should have switched with Vi hours ago. Hed gone to, once. She was laying in the corner of what was probably once a living room or parlor, back to him, tucked under a large bay window. Her things were lined neatly against the far wall. Her camera was out, as it always was when they stopped for the night. The tapes where nowhere to be seen. Hed eyed her bag. Hed seriously considered slipping them out and tossing them in the overgrown backyard. Instead, hed returned to the kitchen and carried out her first shift himself.
He stayed through his second shift.
And then, her second one too.
He liked to imagine it was a favor to her. It wasnt entirely untrue. He was riddled with guilt over the the scene at the beach two mornings ago. Hed hurt her. Worse, hed scared her. For all their talk about how they should stick together and the unsaid understanding that what that really meant was that they needed each other, hed almost ruined it all. Hed almost left her alone. Taking that bullet wouldnt have saved her. As much as her harshness, her ungratefulness had hurt, he understood it now. He hadnt admitted as much to her. Bits of baseless anger still floated around them. But, he understood.
That wasnt why he let her sleep, though. He just couldnt sleep himself.
Theyd been stopped at one of the arms of the islands rivers when the last announcements sounded. Theyd both made token attempts at bathing. It was past the point of mattering, really. There was no way to feel clean here. He had made an honest try. Hed stowed away the grimy and tattered remains of the Revolver shirt from under his blue sweatshirt and traded it for the bright turquoise one with Brand New embellished across the chest. Hed tried to remember the concert as hed slipped it on. Nothing had come. Hed wondered if those pathways in his brain had just grown over or cauterized after having to be like this for so long. Hed wondered what the hell this game was doing to him. Hed wondered if hed ever be able to function outside of here like a normal human being. He stopped wondering. It was too fucking scary.
Theyd waited silently after. Most of the previous day had been silent. Words were shared when necessary but the words never really shared much of anything. Nothing but flickers of anger and frustration and hurt, at least. So theyd just been silent and theyd waited. It was better to wait at that time of morning. It was hard to move much with the weight of the announcement looming over. Eventually, it came. The names had been largely inconsequential to them. That fact itself was horrible if they thought too much about it. So they hadnt. Theyd just packed up and kept moving north.
Something did bother Mike, though. There were plenty of names whose absence hed been grateful for. But one in particular just unsettled him.
Why hadnt he killed anyone?
Mike puzzled over it. Ever since their meeting, Ilarios name had been a crushing constant on the announcements. Not that morning. Why? Had he just stopped? It should have been a pleasant thought, but it wasnt. It meant hed given up. It was so much worse. Theyd had the chance to help him back at the station. They could have done something. Theyd fled instead, and hed started killing. That kind of blood on Mikes hands was enough. But now, Ilario himself? It was painful. Theyd failed him. Theyd had so few chances to help anyone but themselves, and the single moment they could have prevented absolute goddamn tragedy they ran from. He felt like trash. He tried to convince himself it wasnt true. There were other possibilities. It was just a day, a single day. He could be just fine. He was just fine.
Still, Mike struggled to keep from admitting to himself that part of the reason he was still awake was to hear Ilarios name on the announcements. It was sick. He realized in a vague sort of way that it was so entirely sick. But it gave him hope.
There was another reason, though, why he hadnt awoken Violet. That reason was those fucking tapes.
Vi had led the charge up through the woods past the river. The goal was shelter. Preferably something off the map, if such a thing existed, but the infirmary would do if not. They were too tired to be afraid of it anyway. If there were bodies in there, so what? They were everywhere now. Killers? Just as ubiquitous. Theyd caught glimpses of some. Theyd heard them more. Murder was the kind of noise that carried. They werent shocked by them so much anymore. Just exhausted, a little bit more each time. So the infirmary would be fine. The infirmary would be just dandy. Mike kept thinking that right up until the building came into view. Then he remembered the tapes and he knew they couldn't stop.
Hed panicked quietly behind her. If they stopped, shed watch the tapes. He couldnt stop her. Sure, maybe for a while, but Violet wasnt stupid. Shed find a way. He knew that. She would have chucked the evil little things miles and miles ago if she hadnt the intention to watch them. Shed had them all along. That terrified him. If theyd stopped there, she would have watched them. So they couldnt have stop there. Hed needed to buy time.
Theyd stopped on the threshold of the dark little building. Mike had a bad feeling about it, hed told Vi. A convenient pang in his gut. They were in no position to question hunches, they both knew. Mike had the map. Hed offered to lead them somewhere less ominous. She hadnt argued.
Over those next few hours hed become quite adept at pretending to read a map. It had been a hard thing to do with no real destination. Hed weaved them through woods and beach and anything away from shelter. Anything but a place to rest. Violet might have argued with him any other day. But the hurt and frustration and guilt still silenced both of them and sapped their energy. Shed been too tired to argue. Shed just walked.
The charade had lasted until mid-afternoon. Mike knew hed finally lost when the town had come into view. Vi had taken the lead almost as soon as shed spotted it. A deflated Mike had dragged himself listlessly behind her. Theyd penetrated the outskirts cautiously, slipped through the darkest yards and alleys. Theyd taken turns scouring the houses when theyd reached them. Theyd been looking for safety. Supplies, too, if they could find them. Theyd both meant corpses when theyd said supplies but the word supplies was easier to get out. Mike had been slow on his turns. Hed always had a talent for wasting time, and hed used it to its fullest. Theyd combed through about ten empty and decaying houses in all. Finally, theyd reached this house. Mike had hardly finished his sluggish search before Vi had appeared in the empty back doorway. Shed decided they would stop here. It hadnt been a suggestion or request. Shed asked to sleep first. Mike had agreed. Hed dropped his things along the worn kitchen floor as shed assessed each room until shed finally chosen the room with the bay window. Hed waited for a bit. Hed expected to hear the muffled, horrible sounds at any moment. Theyd never come. Hed paced around the kitchen and thought too much until his turn to keep guard had ended. Hed slipped into the room. Hed seen her asleep, with the tapes nowhere to be found, and hed had to stifle a groan of relief. Hed decided to let her sleep. Hed stay awake for days if it meant she wouldnt watch those tapes.
The relief hadnt lasted long. Finding things to worry him was another talent Mike had always possessed. Hed worried all through the afternoon and morning. Finally, hed decided to turn his focus on absolutely anything but worry. Which left him here. Sprawled across a countertop, sore and exhausted. With a grunt of effort he swing himself upright on the edge. He cracked his neck and back and stretched each arm in turn over his chest. He felt like he was falling apart. Maybe he should have slept, he thought. Maybe he should have tossed the tapes when hed had the chance and then let Violet take her own turn being sleepless. But he knew it hadnt been a possibility. Even now, he knew he couldnt sleep.
Especially not now. Not with the telltale click and slide of plastic that burst suddenly from the other room.
Just a quick look, she'd told herself.
I just need to see them. Just once.
She'd been fighting the urge for two long days by now. Sitting there in her daypack, cradled beneath her clothes, they sat in wait, knowing that eventually their next owner would be unable to resist much longer. They played the waiting game, testing her resilience ever since they arrived in the crook of her hand. They felt the warmth of her grip as she held them tightly, letting her fill them with temptation, with a hunger and desire she'd never felt before. For they themselves were the prize, not the quick relief she experienced once Sarah walked away, nor the assumption that everything would turn out better than she'd hoped. No, they were boxes now, filled with everything the girl had mimicked but never done herself. These tapes showed the brutality and the horror of a girl gone mad, but more importantly they carried a message, and this message was heard only by one set of ears.
Over and over, they called out to her. Every tired step she took was echoed by these words, and their voices grew louder the further she travelled. Her partner's voice soon became silent, crushed under their constant noise, and soon enough she began to forget he was even there beside her. He didn't matter any more - now that she had something so valuable, so treasured in her possession. These tapes held the answers she'd been looking for, but she couldn't let Mike know. These were for her eyes only; a gift from one director to another. She'd always had such vision back in school, that Sarah. She was the one who came up with the farewell project, who asked Violet for assistance. Who was to say she was any crazier than the rest of them here? Was she able to claim that she was any more sane than the others? That she wasn't just making the best of a horrible situation?
So many conflicting thoughts ravaged her senses at once, it was an infuriating struggle just to keep her body straight while she walked. Every bone weighed more and more each day, and whenever she remembered Mike was still around, she wondered why she let him navigate to begin with. What was she thinking, giving up such an important task to a deadbeat like him.
She'd been so stupid.
Why did she trust someone so much when she barely even knew him?
It was all she could do to push the dark ideas out of her head amidst the incessant aching her brain was undergoing. The rift between them was growing so fast, and neither one of them wanted to do a thing about it. They couldn't. They were both consumed by their own agendas, drowning in their own emotions; every problem became gigantic and threatened to tear them apart at any second, so they resigned themselves to silence just to keep alive the dream of the bond they once had.
Maybe things would've been different if she'd rejected Sarah's gift.
Maybe they could've died and saved themselves this grief.
But then they would've lost, and instead of being the ones to hold the tapes, they would've been filmed upon them - another glorious scene in the film of life that girl had made, all for them. All for her. All for Violet.
Mike couldn't watch them. She couldn't let him see what they contained. It would drive him insane, that was her reasoning. He wasn't strong like she was; he was all too ready to die just to make sure she was safe. He didn't think about what would happen to her if he left, or what kind of impact his death may have had on the entire game. She was the brains of the pair, certainly. Without her, he would've died a long time ago, and she had a feeling he knew it too. Total dependence on one another - it kept them alive, yes, but their resentment built up inside, leaking out with every angry grunt and every disappointed sigh. It even made her feel guilty sometimes, as she lay awake at night, unable to sleep once she started to imagine all the other people dying in the distance. Whenever they were safe, or had a rare moment of joy which they would later regret, she would think of everyone they had failed to protect, and the ones they had yet to find. Some of the most important people in the world.
Knowing that some of them were dead already was one of the most heart-breaking things she'd ever had to deal with. So much so that she gladly let the voices block out every thought she had of Trent, or Leila, or Hilary; the last one in particular created nothing but a violent pain to emerge within, so now she thanked the tapes for their existence, because without them she had nothing left to crave.
And this is why she let herself fall into their trap.
Why she let her partner carry on the nightwatch while she stared wide-eyed at her camera every second of the night. She knew he must've been tired, but she didn't care. Every impulse she had prompted her to throw away the blanket that strapped her down to mere curiosity, but still she kept on fighting. Their noise, their blaring horns demanded that she watch them, but there came a newer voice which forced her grip on reality. It told her not to watch them, but to throw them away. To not give in to this morbid need to know, and to listen to her friend. It sounded familiar, paternal, but after so many hours spent gazing into the darkness, she finally succumbed.
She grabbed her camera, grabbed the tapes, stuck them in and with a sickening click she pressed the button marked "play".
She watched, engrossed, disgusted, amazed, in awe, in repulsion, as the images made their way inside her head. They tore into her memory and held fast with hooks and bolts, and made themselves comfortable within this precious place, as they forever befouled it with their unspeakable display of the extent of pain one person could unleash upon another.
She tried to rip herself away, to apologise for even entertaining the idea of keeping the tapes around, but it was far too late for that now. Once she reached the end of the footballer's demise, all she could hear were the screams, failing to notice the sounds of the footsteps which were about to bring an end to the carnival of death as she sat in outwards silence - her mind so full it stopped her body working; her body shook with a shattering fright, while her throat quietly, painfully, rasped for breaths to fuel the cries she wanted so desperately for somebody out there to hear.