“I remember you, my dear; you’ve still such a nice face,” she said, grabbing Clara’s shoulder and ushering her closer. Charles and the little boy came barreling in, the book seemingly forgotten. “Come, come here. Sit and eat,” Gusta commanded, leading her to sit on the floor.
Tag, Charles, and the little boy sat near her in a circle that wasn’t precisely a circle but more of a convoluted rhombus.
“It’s been a while.” Gusta smiled, which she did quite often.
Clara, despite the confusing way the night had developed, knew she had never met anyone here before. Clara smiled back.
Tag started distributing the cold taco shells, which he snagged from the cheesecloth Gusta was holding as she let Clara, who no one knew yet, in.
“Timothy, why are you still here?” Gusta made polite, plain conversation as Charles had a coughing fit over the fact that he sometimes forgot to chew his food. Timothy, which was the name of the dirty little boy with long hair, sat criss-cross on the towels and quilts as if he belonged there. “Won’t they go looking for you again?”
“He’s been planning on faking his death for two weeks now, Gusta,” Tag informed her, eating his fill and slapping the small boy in the face with the now-empty cheesecloth.
Timothy stuck his tongue out at Tag, who then started making provocative signs in sign language that only Timothy understood. If Gusta had the time to learn what they meant, she would have been very upset that Timothy even knew what half the words meant, and she would berate Tag for speaking to the small boy in such a way.
But since she didn’t know these things, she did not pay attention to the easy way Timothy (who wasn’t deaf but had convinced all the nuns at the orphanage he lived in to think that he was) responded: “Charles is helping him sort through the extra details.”
“There will be no fake-dying under my roof! Do that outside,” Gusta told them all, standing up in her own pained way to start closing the doorway by removing a large amount of yellow pins that let another towel fall in place where the doorway was.
By now it was getting awfully cold, and Gusta, who was the mother of the tent, started passing out blankets.
“Yes, well, you see, If you haven’t noticed, dear Gusta,” Tag interrupted, standing up with Timothy. Charles did no standing up, since he was so large the whole tent would probably fall over if he were to straighten to his full height. “I kind of regret to inform you that at the moment, well, we really don’t happen to have a roof to plan fake-deaths under.”
Tag whispered something into Timothy’s ear mid-sentence, making the boy gawk at him before he crouched under Gusta’s legs and went crawling out of the shelter. They would not be seeing him for the rest of the night.
“So that’s a bit of an irrelevant-“
“Dying is for the rich, you tegla,” Gusta told him in a comforting manner, roughly patting his face before settling down in her designated corner near the lilac candle.
She motioned kindly for Clara to sit near her. Charles gave a loud cough, which wasn’t really a cough and was supposed to be a disguised laugh, but his voice cracked and gurgled so frequently that his laughs sounded like they caused him pain, and Tag spoke a small Hail Mary—despite the fact that he was raised Jewish, and where he learned it no one but Dante knew—as if it would ward off the sickness he believed Charles had. Now, Charles was laughing because although he had no job and was called a dunce most of the time, he had studied and was now fluent in six different languages, and he knew that Gusta had just called Tag a ‘brick’ in Hungarian.
Clara sat near Gusta, who placed a thick tapestry over her shoulders. Clara had a face that could be described in many ways, but at this moment in particular, there were no words at all.
“Maybe you’ll stay for stories, hm? Have I told you my stories, Clara?” Gusta asked, picking up her rusted knitting needles and continuing to create what probably could be a shirt without holes for the arms.
“Wait for Stoney,” Charles said, but it was hard to understand him because his voice sounded like cracking wood in a large fire pit, but there was also a lion in the pit, and the lion was roaring in pain because he was in the pit, and he was being burned alive but was still trying to be very calm about it.
Tag huffed, crossing his arms. But since Tag used his arms when he spoke and could not speak without them, he uncrossed his arms as he took a breath. “Why do we have to wait for him? He might not even come, yes. You know, he disappears a lot.”
“He let you wear his coat,” Gusta argued, shaking a needle at him that was only sharp enough to simply bruise you if you happened to get stabbed. It wasn’t a very exciting needle. That, at least, was for certain.
“Well, yes, you see.” Tag tied the green coil around his waist again, knotting it roughly four times. Then he tied it once more and switched to pulling at the purple shawl over his head. “I do remember that.” Tag started suffocating himself with the shawl, which he only ever did when he entered a conflict. After a second of silent struggle, he calmed down and took the shawl off his head and proceeded to tie it around his waist as well.
“Wait for him,” Charles told him once more.
“Oh, all right.” Tag hung his head, and that was the end of that.
Luckily for Tag, Stoney happened to be walking down the alley at that very moment, and you could hear the steps of his wooden shoes as he made his way closer. Charles swept the towel-door aside, letting Stoney in.
Stoney wore six coats of varying colors and a crown of roses on his head. He had three necklaces made of chains, but he used them as bracelets to make it look like he had more than he really did. He took a journal out of one of the six coats and handed it to Gusta, who smiled at him but only let it drop to her lap, disrupting her poor knitting supplies that she held so dear to her heart. He then handed Tag a pair of large, cameo cargo shorts.
Stoney did not speak too much, mostly because his English was not that good, and Charles (who was fluent in Korean) usually acted as a translator. Even without being able to directly communicate with people, it is not an exaggeration to say that almost everyone in the city knew Stoney and loved him very dearly.
Gusta said something in Hungarian, handing Tag the shirt without holes for the arms and pointing to a curtain that hung from a pole that was subsequently connected to two other poles, so that Tag could get dressed in what they all considered privacy only because they had all lived in such close proximity to each other for such a long time that getting dressed was not the most oddest of actions they had been through together. Tag got dressed, threw the coat that did not belong to him at Stoney, then emerged wearing a shirt without holes for the arms (loosely resembling a bright-blue, knitted poncho) and the cargo shorts. Gusta patted Clara on the head, watching as Charles, Stoney, and Tag covered themselves in the towels.
“Once,” Gusta started, and it was clear telling stories was the highlight of her day. Clara wondered how she had gotten herself in this position. “There were three sisters. One had three eyes, one had one eye, and one had two eyes.”
Due to a slight influx in emotion, which no one would have theorized to happen given the circumstances, Dante decided to become a therapist. Sadly for Dante, who had the emotional stability of a wet cardboard box, he was not good at being a therapist. This revelation led to a long, downward spiral of events that no one but Tag knew about. All in all, a failed therapist usually cannot get a job, and a therapist who cannot get a job ends up homeless, most of the time. Dante was homeless, so we all know how that turned out for him.
Tag met Dante at a lavish party in a large bug shop. The owner of this bug shop was a small lady about sixty years old, who only wore wedding dresses and lace gloves. Stoney picked flowers for her in exchange for chocolate-covered crickets, which was a vital part of everyone’s diet. Now, this bug shop was across the street from a graveyard, but the graveyard was invisible, so no one knew that it existed.
The party in question was being held on a Tuesday, celebrating the arrival of some new, rare bugs. The old lady was very fond of them. The bugs in question were a singular Euspinolia Militaris, which she had to order illegally from Chile; the second bug she was introducing to her shop was called the Tree Lobster to anyone who didn’t know its scientific name, which happened to be Dryococelus Australis. Both of these bugs were bought illegally, of course, but since policeman in this city spent the majority of their time digging back up the graves of those who had been wrongfully buried, the old lady didn’t really have anything to worry about.
Tag had gone to this bug shop for one reason and one reason alone: scones. The old lady, who didn’t seem to have a name other than Bug Woman or Wedding Flower, ordered a lot of scones, which she fed to all her bugs and kept locked in a safe that was never actually locked, but only gave off the impression that it was impenetrable. Tag, who had momentarily worked there, knew exactly how to get in and how to steal the scones. Dante, who had never worked there and had never met Tag, on the other hand, was just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time (which happened pretty frequently for someone who had only started existing three years prior, at the age of twenty one.)
The night Tag met Dante (the guy who helps him kill Clara, who was already dead, though they didn’t know that at the time), it was his turn to find dinner. You might think there are easier ways to find food than to break into a high-end bug cartel to steal scones, but if you had lived in the city, you would have understood that it was probably the easiest option Tag had.
Tag met Dante in a dumpster. Not a dumpster outside a taco shop, but a dumpster outside the back of a bug shop. It had been three weeks since he had met Clara, and to be frank, he did not quite remember meeting her at all. If you ever do meet Tag, or Dante, or Stoney, you would listen to them all tell you that they did not remember meeting Clara either, despite the fact that they all knew who she was. You see, she just had that type of effect on people, and after you read this, I am sure you won’t remember meeting her either. There are and will always be many words you could use to describe Clara, and if you ever figure out what they are, I’d like you to spread the word, because neither Tag, nor Dante, nor I have found them yet.
“Yes, hello, hi, I know you’re probably quite busy,” Tag said as he opened the dumpster, which was filled to the top with bags of bugs that had died the day before. “But, you see, I do need to hide in here. You see, yes, I may have stolen something.” Dante stared at him, since he did not know quite how he had gotten here nor did he know the man who was speaking to him in such a rapid voice.
“Now,” Tag looked over to Dante before averting his eyes, “I’m not admitting I did, but in the case that I have, it would be nice if I could hide in here, just in case someone who isn’t you might believe that I did indeed steal something. So, to simplify things, I would really appreciate it if you moved to the side just a nudge.” Tag hauled the grocery bag of stale scones over the side of the dumpster and crawled in, despite the fact that Dante had not really given him permission yet.
“I don’t mean to disturb, really, but it is very important that I get inside at this very moment,” Tag told him as he started to close the lid.
Dante wondered, minutely, how Tag was able to fit so many words in one sentence without losing his breath—though Tag, who was unnamed at this time, did seem to have a purple tint to his face, meaning he was not doing a good job at breathing properly. Either that, or he used too much purple blush that morning while powdering his face. But Tag was not the type of guy who needed to powder his face (mostly because he couldn’t afford the powder), and he didn’t have a face ugly enough for it anyway.
“And not a second sooner. No rush, really, but it would be nice if you’d scoot to the side and allow me in.”
Dante did no such thing, but Tag had already invited himself in by this time, so asking in the first place was not necessary in the slightest.
“Yes, I think I will wait right here for the time being,” Tag told him as he sunk down into the bug carcasses.
Dante didn’t say a thing.
“It was nice to meet you, yes,” Tag said, after a relatively awkward silence. “Who are you?”
Dante inched away from the twitching, scone-stealing man who started tying a green coil around his waist, knotting it three times then doing it again.
“Who are you?” Dante responded with instead. It was only polite that the one who interrupted his dumpster-nap introduce himself first.
“Oh, I’m Tag. Like the game,” the man, Tag, smiled. His uncanny grin made Dante anxious, which would have been odd, if Dante had not experienced that influx of emotion just one page back. “But please don’t touch me.”
Dante introduced himself, which he did not do that often, so the only thing I can say is that he probably didn’t do a good job at it. Luckily for Dante, Tag was pretty bad at it too.
And that was not the end of that.