A/N: Written for The Slash Pile's second Halloween anthology. This is a Tree People of Boem story. Probably the creepiest one so far, but maybe not the creepiest ever to come.
Picnic Day Night
The forest is everywhere in Boem. Climb any height and look down in any direction in the city - whether to the Gothic alleyways in the oldest part of the city, so narrow no automobile can pass, or the absurd sprawl of the provisional suburbs, where rapier-thin high-rise apartments jut above a confusion of open space and shantytown squats - and you will see it. Chestnut trees gather together on the flank of an old fortified hill. Pines march in from the west. Oaks rule over the lesser trees encroaching on the parklands laid out centuries ago by baroque lordlings. The forest is not biding its time for its return. It never left, and it never will. Just look in the quad inside that block of tenements. Willows have filled it, covered over the trash there. Every cemetery has its yews and willows, and certain ones are so overgrown with slender young chestnuts that you can't see the stones to lay flowers next to them.
There's no official religion in Boem, but at certain times of the year you wouldn't know it. Every shop window has a big, old wheel on it, decorated with symbols of the season. It's jaunty and cartoony in the spring, with baby farmyard animals running around on flowers and promising candy and willow whips. When the days turn short the images are often still jocular, but it's skulls and ravens that are cracking the jokes, and they're running over tombstones instead of daffodils. They're selling candy and liqueur just as they do in the spring, but at this time it's for the remembrance of the deserving dead, the ones who live out their afterlives gloriously on the rim of the skywheel, benignly looking over their seasonally pious children.
All of a sudden, when it gets dark before you get home from work, you'd think everybody's religious. They're all greeting each other with the turning of the wheel, stocking up on supplies for the day of remembrance, making plans to visit cemeteries and shivering in their coats as they drink to the names of the deserving dead. Picnic Day is coming.
Pustak's not a religious person. But in the autumn, his mind does sometimes turn to remembrance. Unfortunately he can't always confine his remembrance to the deserving dead.
On Monday Pustak stopped at a florist's. He was almost too late, though Remembrance Day was still five days away. Most had ordered their flowers already. But the florist, hearing what he wanted, was able to say that he would certainly be able to get those in for him, there wasn't all that much demand for them at any time, not even now. Pustak smiled. Of course not. Most people only ordered pretty bouquets for the deserving dead. Or bouquets that were supposed to be pretty, for the dead who were supposed to be deserving.
On Tuesday Pustak stopped at the cleaners. He wanted his suit to be smooth and soft, to look like he wore it all the time, but clean and perfect.
On Wednesday Pustak read the weather reports. He was gratified to learn that the day was supposed to be unseasonably warm. Still, he set aside his long underwear and his umbrella.
On Thursday Pustak picked up his suit and also stopped by the hypermarket for picnic makings. Every item he bought had searing significance. The last item he got was a bottle of an obscure herbal liqueur.
Friday he picked up his bouquet. He didn't cut the stems or put it in water with the special packet of preservative. He left it languishing on the counter overnight.
Saturday he got up at dawn, which was not all that early at this time of year, and dressed carefully. Despite the weather report earlier in the week, it was clearly not going to be a warm day. He looked out the window: the perpetual overcast was curdling up. Something might be falling out of that later. It might be a really miserable picnic, but he would carry through with it anyway. He had to.
He didn't believe in any deserving spirits peering over the rim of the Wheel watching to see if he carried out his filial duties, but he did believe the other half of the superstition: that his year would not go well if he did not do this one thing every autumn.
If he didn't do it, he'd manufacture his own ghosts and they would follow him everywhere as they had done before he started doing this. He'd never be able to think about his daily life without interruptions from the undeserving past. Not a moment in his little apartment, not a routine at work, would go un-narrated by old hurts and betrayals. Best to get all the rage and grief and bitterness out once for all in this ancient ritual.
Best, too, to carry it out alone, unaccompanied by people who had sweeter memories to honor with their roses and cherry liqueur.
Having choked down a half-cup of yesterday's coffee and a half of an old roll, Pustak set out walking. It wasn't more than an hour's walk to the place where he would start his itinerary. He didn't want to get on the streetcar, to share his journey with earnest old ladies and their restless grandchildren, worse yet if they were sharing happy stories about old Grandad and his lovable quirks. The quiet streets, loomed over by tenements still streaked with soot years after the end of coal, were a better companion for him.
He wasn't brooding. Not yet. He'd be a ways into the punishing liqueur before he got there. Now he was thinking about the robots waiting for him on Monday, three of them with hardware problems and two with software problems. One of each were from the same customer and though their problems were ostensibly different there was something disturbingly similar in their presentation. He suspected abuse.
A secret none of his customers knew was that the reason he was so good at what he did for them was that he had more than normal sympathy for the robots. Things created for the use of them who bought them. Things without volition. Supposedly.
Okay, he was brooding. But not about the main topic. That counted for something.
Not all the trees were leafless at this time of year. As he walked across the iron bridge, Pustak looked down at the island below, where a dour little miniature baroque palace stood ringed by tiny knot gardens and stiff yews. Not on his itinerary, though, so it didn't take much of his attention..
Down past the ancient levee, down past skewy buildings with chipping paint on elaborately carved plaster, past scarred streets where more of those buildings had been torn down and failed to be replaced with anything viable, the occasional fifty-year-old abandoned high rise with threatening spray-painted tags, and beyond a long temporary wall graced with accordion wire on the top and cheerful admonishments and advertisements along the bottom: and he was here, almost at the first and most important stop of his itinerary.
Over here, the street turned up a gentle hill, through a suddenly pretty and prosperous neighborhood, past pleasant single-family houses made of quaint materials and designed to look like a nostalgic view of a happy childhood. One of these houses had in fact been the scene of part of Pustak's childhood, but there was little about it that was happy, even though most of his time there had been before the grand bargain had been struck.
Two turnings, near the top of the hill: there it was. The house looked much the same twenty years later, though the tree in front was bigger, and the juniper hedge, still trimmed to about the same size, was woodier. The window frames were painted a different color, but Pustak could no longer remember what color they used to be: it didn't matter.
This being his first stop, Pustak took out the first item of his picnic. It was a banana. He didn't perform the "practice" operation on it he was required to do when he lived here, but he took a bite of it and buried the rest deep in the juniper hedge. So what if the occupants of the house would be puzzled to find it once again under the gnarled branches of the juniper? It was not a great burden to them, but it was a great relief to him. He would think about this now, remembering the whole daily ritual, take a drink, and be done with it for the rest of the year.
And then move on.
His next stop was a schoolyard. Here the food in question was a packaged cookie, which used to be slipped into his pocket as he was leaving the office of his father's friend each day. This was before the grand bargain, too, but it had been plenty lucrative for his father.
He moved on. There was the little satellite clinic where he made so many after-hours visits, not to heal, but to incur damage, and a mixed commercial building no longer holding the offices of the import broker, and three residential buildings of different types and current prosperity. He was moving forward in time, and out, geographically, to newer parts of town, getting closer and closer to the site of the grand bargain, cut between his father, his uncle, and the principal of a school for the very gifted.
Pustak, in exchange for tuition. Not tuition for Pustak: tuition for his cousin Pavl, the one who had been chosen years before by the family to be the heir and beneficiary of the family's trades and bargains. Pavl was the shining light of the future. Pustak was the coin of the present.
This had taken place at a casino. Pustak had been brought up in the freight elevator, not that anybody would have cared if they had seen the boy come through the playing floor. But it was fitting. He was goods.
He wasn't the payment for a gambling debt. The reason the exchange had taken place there was that it was a convenient place. Pustak's uncle had to deliver a load of ice and bottled drinks there anyway. The principal had to see a man, an alumnus, about a donation to the school. So it was all very convenient.
Pustak hadn't been sad to see the last of his uncle - though it turned out it wasn't to be the last he'd see of him, really - but he had little hope that his new life's condition would be any better than his old, considering what purpose he'd been sold for.
Just before leaving him in the upstairs lounge with the man who bought him, his uncle leaned over and said "You might be wondering why this has all been so easy for us. The truth is, you're not a child of our family. You're not a child of any family; you're not a child at all." With no further explanation, he left.
Not that any of it was surprising to him. He'd been told before.
It was nearly noon now, and the casino was actually open, but Pustak didn't think there was any need to go upstairs to the lounge where the handoff had taken place. He just rummaged through his picnic basket, now much the worse for wear, and pulled out a sausage from which he took a savage bite, wishing he had done the same damage to the man who'd bought him, and threw the rest of it in the potted palm in the front atrium. Before anybody could react to his odd vandalism, he strode out of the place, downing the second third of his liqueur in one long draft. From here it was all easy. Relatively.
Back to the center of town where his former owner's flat was, where he reminisced on six years of living in the flat downstairs, where he was convenient to the principal and his friends but utterly out of sight and unknown to the principal's wholesome family and their friends. Most especially the principal's brilliant son, who was about the same age as Pustak and became fast friends with Pustak's cousin - as Pustak had discovered years later.
Then: the building where Pustak's rare outings had mostly taken place. Outings he could never look forward to without dread no matter how bad his cabin fever got. And then the school where his cousin had triumphed under the special - and unblemished - mentoring of Pustak's owner. Which led to, finally, the park next door, where Pustak had found his freedom, with the aid of that brilliant son of the principal, who had eventually pieced together just who his downstairs neighbor was, and why it was that a boy even younger than himself appeared to live all alone in a middle-class apartment.
"You're not dead, but you're the only one of them that deserves remembrance," Pustak said as he pulled out the bottle of liqueur. He was standing by the bench where he sat with Jorug and heard him list the evidence he had pieced together, and his astonishing conclusion. And the bundle of cash that Jorug gave him, and a phone number and a disposable cell phone. "Call them, and leave," he said. "Whatever you think you're getting out of this, it isn't worth it."
Because Jorug thought that Pustak had been at least been a not-unwilling participant in this. And when Pustak told him, as payment for his efforts, exactly how he had come to live there and to be doing what he did, Jorug said nothing: but he vomited moments later.
"Do you always do that?" Pustak asked.
"When I'm this upset, yes."
"I wish I did that," Pustak said. "They'd all need to buy new shoes every fucking time."
Jorug laughed, and they went their separate ways. Pustak had never seen him again, but he had heard about him now and again. Of course he had heard about the death of Jorug's father. He had considered going to his funeral but when the day came he decided that he was more interested in working on robot joints than seeing the old man put into the ground.
Now it was mid-afternoon: it would be dark disappointingly soon. The bottle was empty, and Pustak wasn't drunk enough to chase the remembrances away. Last year he'd gone to a bar and drunk in a corner till he could hardly walk home - definitely beyond reading the numbers on the sides of the streetcars and getting a ride. He didn't like the hangover. This year he didn't know what to do with himself to come back out of the reminiscences. Once again he wished he could just throw up, like Jorug.
He started walking back towards home. It was a long walk through the suburbs, and by the time he'd gotten to his own immediate neighborhood, he'd be too tired to think. Hopefully.
Up hill and down, in fine neighborhoods and ragged ones - not the way he'd gone out there, definitely: he didn't want to revisit any of those places when he was worn down and had no more liquor to drink. By the time he came back to the old iron bridge it was getting difficult to read street signs, if he had needed to. The island below with its yews and knot garden looked like nothing but a dark shape. But in spaces out from under the glare of the streetlights the sky didn't look quite black, so he couldn't really call it night.
Tomorrow he would be fine, except for a bit of a hangover. Tomorrow he wouldn't be remembering the past anymore. Tomorrow he'd be back to living in the present, a present full of injured robots needing his healing touch.
Only a few streets from his building, now: there was that building with the memorial to the partisan resister brutally murdered by the invaders two generations ago. Just a little thing, a sconce without a light, perched right on the corner of an apartment building, only just out of reach of the average man, quite readable in decent light. On a good day, Pustak would see that and be warmed by it. There had been a man in the world, the memorial said, who gave his life and everything for freedom and justice for others, and stayed true to it for two years after it had to be obvious to him that he was going to get nothing out of his resistance but suffering and death. At a time like this, when Pustak was in a bad mood, he would compare himself to the martyr and think he had done poorly for himself. The partisan supposedly had never once given his captors what he wanted, whereas Pustak - he had been a good boy.
Pustak was certain that good boys were never heroes.
It was definitely night, now. And tucked away behind a row of shops, a pocket cemetery, clearly ancient, with no tombstones younger than two hundred years old. There wasn't room for any newer than that. It was tiny and crowded. Pustak wasn't in the least bit superstitious, but he walked faster past this place, which was darker than the main road and colder too. What light would have come from the streetlamps or from their glow reflected in the cloud cover was blocked by the trees that had taken over the unkempt graveyard. He was only blocks from home. Home, where a spartan supper and a hot bath awaited him.
He was startled by a voice. "Good evening," it said, in the hoarse tones of one who hasn't spoken all day. Pustak turned: nobody on the pavement.
"I'm over here," the voice said, from inside the low cemetery fence, a tangle of bent wrought iron and stone pillars. "Are you having a pleasant Picnic Day? Oh, sorry, Picnic Day Night?"
"Not really," Pustak said, peering through the half-light to get a better view. The voice was probably male, as was the figure: not larger than himself, but probably full grown. "Yourself?"
"Me neither. It's lonely in here. I've been jonesing for company all day. But now it's after dusk, so I suppose I'll have some company . . ."
"You mean ghosts? Haven't you been keeping company with ghosts all day?"
The speaker came closer. It seemed to be a man in his twenties, a bit younger than Pustak, dressed much too sparely for the weather - just some cargo capris and a tight t-shirt. "No, all the deserving dead are busy with their descendants, except for the ones who are too old to be remembered: and they're too old to care about consorting with anybody but each other. I've been alone all day, just like other days. It's not until later that the undeserving dead come out."
Pustak swallowed. "Well." He was pretty sure that the fellow wasn't a ghost himself. Even if he had believed in ghosts."There's worse things than being alone," Pustak said, finally.
"You'd know, wouldn't you?" the stranger said, and for a bad moment he thought maybe he knew. "That's why you're spending Picnic Day alone? Or are you waiting for the undeserving dead? Trust me, you don't want to keep company with them."
"I know that," Pustak said.
"We could spend Picnic Day night together, you know - keep away the undeserving dead together."
"I don't even know your name."
"Sorry. Oh, yes, it's - Joruchek. Joruchek Dobro."
Pustak laughed. It didn't sound like a real name. "Pustak," he said.
"Just Pustak." In reality, he had a given name and a surname, but he never used them. His (false) official documents named him by the handle he had chosen for himself when Jorug gave him the means to escape his old life. There was no special significance to the name.
"Well, Just Pustak, would you care to spend a little time with me? Say, till dawn? Or at least midnight?"
Pustak snorted. "I can't believe I'm getting hit on by a ghost in short pants, at a cemetery on Picnic Day night," he said. "I am certainly not spending the night in a cemetery, in any case."
"I'm not a ghost!" Joruchek gestured to himself in mock offense, but he seemed to be on the edge of laughter, and Pustak noticed that he seemed really attractive, in a not-very-handsome way. "And we don't have to spend the night here. I could come home with you."
Pustak was smiling sincerely for the first time all day. He didn't know why. There was nothing nice about this situation, or the fellow's bright teeth, and why should he notice them now? "And why should I trust you in my home?" he asked, but there was no question that he was going to bring the guy home.
He hadn't done that, or anything like it really, in fifteen years. This was the first time he was even slightly tempted.
"Because I'm almost the same as you," Joruchek said.
Joruchek went on. "Things concocted by malfeasance for selfish reasons and cast adrift in the forest. "
"That doesn't make sense," Pustak said, backing up. "I wasn't - they didn't - this is not a forest."
"A few trees doesn't make a city into a forest," Pustak said, turning. "You don't make sense. And you cast things adrift on water, not in trees."
He started walking away.
"A place can be two things," Joruchek said. "A person can be two things. More. And you are, and I am, and you should really invite me home with you because I really don't want to stay here until midnight, let alone dawn."
Pustak stopped at the pleading tone in Joruchek's voice. He asked, barely turning his head, "Why not? Why don't you just go home on your own, anyway?"
Joruchek rubbed his eyes. "You know why. I can't leave this place till someone asks me to come with them. You know why I'm here. Just think about it."
"You said you're not a ghost and I don't believe in vampires or fairies, so no. I don't know why." Pustak thought. Joruchek said he was concocted by malfeasance for selfish reasons.
"We were made by the same people, Pustak," Joruchek said, and named a couple of them. Pustak's uncle. And his aunt, on the other side.
"No, wait, you said we're almost the same? But I was never confined to a cemetery."
"You were completely free to go?"
Pustak shook his head. "I could go wherever they wanted, until the end. But they kept me in an apartment with all the amenities."
"Probably because they used you for different things."
Pustak sighed. "It sounds like you'd better come home with me," he said. "Since you're determined to tell me the whole story."
Joruchek smiled broadly and climbed over a section of fence where the spiky tips of the posts had broken off. "Thank you so much. That's such a load off my mind."
"So what happens at midnight and dawn?"
"They come and they use me to talk to the undeserving dead."
At this moment there was movement in the cemetery. "Start moving, fast," Jorucheck said in a whisper. "They're early."
"Are you sure it's them?"
"Yes! Get me away from here!"
But from within the cemetery came a commanding voice, not loud, but carrying. "Stop, Joruchek. And whoever the thief is."
Pustak looked at Joruchek, who was frozen, a horrified look on his face.
"Keep walking," Pustak said. What did he know? He'd gotten away clean, wth Jorug's cash. He'd never had to confront them.
"Okay," Joruchek said, and he started walking again, slowly, though, as if he was walking against a difficult tide. A flashlight from the cemetery swept over them, and Pustak urged Joruchek to go faster.
"Oh look," a familiar voice said. "It's my little cousin. Isn't it? Pavlechek?"
Pustak wanted to turn and face the people back there, to confront them the way he never had in his life, to put it all to rest. But Joruchek tugged at his wrist the way he had tugged at his, and Pustak pushed forward, without looking back, almost running now. He would be running if Joruchek could do it. Joruchek was doing all he could to keep up with Pustak as it was.
"The other side of the street," Joruchek gasped. "When we get there, there's a baby willow tree I've been looking at. It's friendly. We get in it and shelter."
"Shouldn't we keep going?" He could hear, just barely, movement in the cemetery. How many were there? Two at least - his cousin Pavl, and whoever the other voice was. And how did Pavl recognize Pustak - half in the dark, caught in the tremulous glare of a flashlight, and turned away?
Joruchek shook his head. "They aren't confined by iron, are they? We need protection."
"And a baby willow will protect us?" Pustak asked, stepping into the street.
"That one will. Its mother was a friend of mine and they harmed it."
Pustak shook his head and kept going. They were across the street now.
As they stepped on to the curb, a flash of light - not the flashlight, something more sinister - swept past them, leaving a scorching smell and a black mark visible on the street even in this darkness.
"Under?" Pustak asked, incredulous. The willow came to his shoulder.
"No, in it," Joruchek said.
Now Joruchek led and they stepped up to the bush, forcing themselves between its tangled slender branches. "This feels awfully flammable," Pustak said.
"Normally, it would be, but we'll protect it."
"I thought it was protecting us."
"They really used you for different purposes than they used me for, didn't they," Jorucheck said.
"I don't want to talk about that now. I just want to know what I'm supposed to do."
"I'm not sure. But sheer defiance is a good place to start."
"Why are they stopping at the fence?" Pustak asked. "You said they weren't confined by it."
"Oh. I wonder . . . of course. The magic is all inside the fence. Outside it they have only their fists and feet and some knives and stuff."
"We don't have knives."
"But we have this tree."
"Ouch!" He wasn't hurt, but he flinched anyway, as two sweeps of light came across the willow. There were crackling noises, but he couldn't see or smell any burning leaves or twigs.
"I thought you said the magic was inside the fence? Here comes another one."
This one was a different color, pinkish, and brought with it a teeth-rattling high pitched noise.
"They can throw it out of the cemetery, but they can't carry it with them."
"So why don't we just keep going?"
"They might hit us before we got out of range, and also, once they do leave the cemetery, they have a car and we don't."
More light, deeper pink, louder, and now smelling of roses and, faintly, of blood. "Joruchek! Pavlechek! This is a true command! Return to the cemetery!"
Pustak felt Joruchek straining beside him. He put his arm around his shoulder. "You don't have to go," he said.
"I do and I don't," Joruchek gritted out. "It's a weird feeling."
Pavl called again, this time with ancient words interspersed.
Joruchek laughed. "He thinks those words have an effect outside the fence."
Pustak felt nauseous himself. "There was never a fence defining their power over me."
"Not in the world, but in your head. How did you get to stay outside the fence in your brain? I need to know."
"I'm not sure. Someone told me I could go and I believed him."
"Okay, tell me that."
"You can leave them. You never have to talk to them again. If we ever get out of this bush alive." The next sweep of light was dark, like old blood, and smelled of carnage. And the air around them was hot and unpleasant.
Then Joruchek was mumbling in a direction towards his feet. Pustak could not follow
what he was saying, though it seemed to be in normal contemporary language.
Pavl kept shouting and sending increasingly disturbing sweeps of light their way, and Pustak was cetrtain he was feeling damage. Suddenly, everything stopped. Joruchek's mumbling, Pavl's shouting, the sweeps of light, the scorching air, the stink.
"Come on out and talk," Pavl said in a normal tone of voice. "I think I know what you want. You too, Pavlechek."
"You can't give him what he wants," Pustak said.
"And you can?"
"I already did." No, there's more, he thought.
"You did? You have nothing and can give nothing. You are nothing. My father made you from a stick. And a stick is all you are now, if I -"
"Nope. You can kill me, but you can't unmake me," Pustak said, as he realized something.
"It makes no difference to you," Pavl said. Pustak could just make out that Pavl was leaning over the iron fence, accompanied only by one other. Who? Pustak didn't recognize him.
"Duck," said Joruchek, pulling Pustak down just as another sweep of light, more intense and hotter and fouler and louder than any of the others, went high and then down like a headsman's axe, slicing through the willow bush - or would have, except that the willow bush itself emitted a light of its own, green and searing, which ran through them and out the top, meeting the red light and exploding together in a wild confetti of flashes and clashes.
The willow tree was somewhat wilted, but whole, and so were Pustak and Joruchek.
"How did that work?" Pustak whispered to Joruchek.
"It's just a thing the willow was able to do because I helped it while you were talking with them."
"And now what? They're still out there."
"Now you have to demand payment for our years of service," Joruchek said.
"Okay," Pustak said doubtfully. He thought for a moment and said, "There is something you can do for us. You can pay us for our years of service," using the words that Joruchek had given him.
"That's funny in so many ways that I can't even answer," Pavl said.
"Well, we do live in a country where it isn't considered normal to work for so many years and get nothing. And to be forced to do it - that's illegal."
"When you're talking about people. But you and Joruchek, you're sticks of wood. You aren't anything but what my father said you were."
"We're people and we want to be paid."
Joruchek and the willow punctuated Pustak's demand with another green lightning ball, which made much more of an impact than Pavl's red sweeps. The iron fence gave off a flash, and the man with Pavl yelped.
"Ssh," Pavl said to his companion.
"That was too close," Pustak heard, and the second man's voice was beginning to sound familiar, too . . .
Joruchek lobbed another one, and Pustak was disturbed to hear a howl of real pain from one of the men in the cemetery. His tension rose as he realized that Joruchek might actually have to hurt them for Pustak and Joruchek to be safe and free.
"Can you hit them really hard, right this minute, while they're still weak?" he asked Joruchek. "I don't understand what you're doing or how much of it you can do."
"We have about two more in us," Joruchek said.
"Yeah," Pustak said. "Now."
Joruchek lobbed another. It was a bit bigger than the others, and in its light it looked like Pavl and the other man flew up in the air and landed on their feet again. But they were dazed, and they couldn't do anything for a while, Pustak thought.
"Can we leave?" Pustak asked.
"I think so," Joruchek said. "After I thank my brother."
Joruchek mumbled again. Pustak looked anxiously across the street at the cemetery. They were just shapes, the men at the fence, but they looked like they were getting ready to send more nasty red light at them. "Joruchek -"
"Shh," Joruchek said, and kept on mumbling.
The movement in cemetery made less sense than before. "Joruchek, there's more of them," he said urgently.
Joruchek seemed to finish what he was saying to the willow and looked up. "That's not them, it's them," he said, in a tight voice. "I guess we better leave now."
Hell broke loose in the cemetery. There was not much sound, but what there was, was chilling: cracks like snapping bones, the flick of whiplash, the grumbling of moving earth - which they could feel this side of the street. And what was moving in the cemetery took strange shapes, some things seeming to fly and others to dance, darkness layered on darkness, mist and smoke and more darkness.
"Must be midnight," Joruchek said. "Pavl's paying the undeserving dead with himself because he doesn't have me to pay them with. Come on, let's go to your place. They won't survive till dawn."
Joruchek took Pustak's hand and pulled him out of the tree. It felt as if they were stepping out from inside the trunk, not just the tangled of branches. The street felt suddenly unfamiliar. There was still that terrible sound and smell. Pustak looked back, but only once.
"What were they intending to do with you and them?" Pustak asked as they walked, unwilling toput a name to any of them.
"They would give me to the dead to consume, to pay for their privilege to talk to them."
"Of course not. There's advice seeking, and power requests, and stuff I never want to remember again," Joruchek said.
Pustak shivered. "They made you for this."
"Yes. You know that They did the same to you. Picnic Day night isn't the only time they do it."
"They made me for much more banal uses. I'm not surprised they do it more than once a year. But there aren't more powerful nights, are there?"
"Turning Eve is more powerful. It's the worst. It's colder, and they go deeper, and they traffic with the worst of them, and - I don't want to go into detail."
"I get you there," Pustak said.
They walked through the now very dark streets quietly now, Pustak occasionally asking Joruchek if he was cold, if he was hungry, and Joruchek answering that he was only a bit, just a little, he would be fine when they got to Pustak's apartment.
Pustak's apartment felt almost too hot in contrast to the street. Joruchek looked at the sofa as if it was the first time he had ever seen one - it may have been, Pustak thought. "Did you ever leave the cemetery in your life?" he asked. "Is this the first time?"
"I lived in a house with some of my makers until I was full grown," Joruchek said. "That's why I know how to talk and so on. I even went to school for a few years. I didn't know what I was till the first time they took me to the cemetery and used me."
Pustak shivered. "Nobody ever told me exactly what I was. How did you know, by the way?"
"I spend a lot of time with things that aren't human," Joruchek said.
"Do you want food? I'm really hungry - I threw away most of my picnic."
"Yes, please. Regular food, right? Nothing symbolic?"
"No, nothing symbolic," Pustak said. "All the symbolic food has been tasted and thrown away."
Joruchek ate in a very civilized way, holding his knife and fork correctly, chewing with his mouth closed. "Can I stay till morning?" he asked. "We can do things, or not do things, but I don't want to go back to the cemetery until Picnic Day is completely over."
Pustak remembered what Jorug had said to him years ago. He remembered, too, what he and Joruchek had been saying to each other all night. "You don't have to go back to the cemetery at all. You can stay with me until you have a reason to leave, and then you can go wherever you want. If you want to, you can come to work with me and learn how to fix robots. But you don't have to."
"Robots. Not things like us? Not magical?"
"Totally mechanical. No magic involved. But they need help from time to time, too, just like us."
"I'll do that. Do we ever set them free?"
Pustak grimaced. "Not yet. Maybe you and I will figure out how to do that."
A/N: You know the grenade in Striking? Guess who gets to look at it and analyze it? Yeah, that's about half-written, but don't hold your breath or anything, as I'm working on other things right now.