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DUETS AND THE CRACK IN EVERYTHING by Nayt Rundquist

She’ll break open the world, just a bit, and tell them how they’ll end, how they’ll get there, who’ll wrong them along the way. They’ll drown in it, their fates, choking to take it all in, no matter how certain they’d been they could swim. But she’ll be there, on the shore, waiting to pull them sputtering back to present, steaming stew to fend off the chill.

Creaking floorboards in her age-shriveling hut groan as she grunts across them, fists stabbing her curving spine. Her clawhand brandishes her knife, her only artifact that still carries a sheen. The blade slices into its aria she dances to through arthritic muscle memory reinforced by years, decades, centuries? of their duets. But it’s imperfect—a jagged slice through one molecule, split in lopsided halves.

Crack in everything as she punctures a hole in the universe—just a little one, barely big enough to see through—with a finger gnarled and knotted as a tree root. And it pulls at her soulstuffs, tears at it, whipping it like her hair when she walked alone through that hurricane. But she’s used to this vacuum; she knows it and can stand it. And she folds the knife back on itself, back through the years, back through its own past, sharpening it ’til it’s like brand new, ’til it is brand new, ’til it’s sharper than when He’d plunged it into her heart.

Flawless melody this time, and she harmonizes—humming just soft enough of a hoarse to match the vibrations in her chest to those of her instrument. Carrots, ugly and gnarled as her fingers, are first for the cauldron. The knife breezes through, whispering so quiet only the carrot can hear.

She stitches up that crack in everything with a hasty swipe of a clawhand, smearing ethereal sludge through the air, through spacetime. She’ll find that blood last Tuesday and three months in the future. The crack would have self-sealed eventually, but best not to chance it. He’d left them open, slathering gashes—pus-oozing wounds in the flesh of existence. The lesions still find her, dragging behind them slathering reminders of Him, of how He’d haunted her, hunted her, made love to her, whispering so softly only her heart could hear.

Her door will moan open, as He had moaned. A visitor will arrive. She’ll stumble to add more vegetables to the cauldron. She’ll be so off her time, this guest will have a long wait, a longer reading—a deeper well to surface from.

But its bones will creak as it shambles over the threshold. Its claws rasp off the knob, still enough left alive, nearly alive, within to confuse its way through old habits. Heelbones will click ’cross warped floorboards, worn through leather skin from such shambling—stalking. Wisps of remnant hair drift in the gasps of wind it’ll welcome into her home, a jaundiced, shriveled husk drowning in the breeze.

She could shriek a thousand spells, infinite curses, wards, hexes, repellents, but it’s heard those excuses before. Instead, she’ll watch. Cast her eyes into the abyssal pools sunken into its blanched, parchment skull. There, within those swirling pools of nothing, of absolute absence, she’ll find the one thing she dares not search for—the one crack that can’t be mended, that would tear existence from itself, and the universe and everything that ever was and will be and might be and shouldn’t be but will be anyway will whisper out of existence—softer than His nothings, softer than her knife through carrots. Oblivion will be silent. It shows her her own future in this where without a when.

And it’ll sway there, three steps into her home. Creak as what remains of its leathery skin twitches and shifts over shredded muscle. Creak as its eyes clutch hers as tightly as He had, as tightly as she’d grasped his shirt. And her eyes will ask its the same question they’d asked His.

And she’ll get the same answer as it shudders, turns, and slouches back out the door, as though forgetting its reason for stabbing back into her home.

Her breath shivers back into her brittle ribcage, and she digs free the roots that held her in place. She gropes her way to the table and crumples back into her seat, into her stupor, into her waiting.

Still clutched in her clawhand, the knife sings her a solo, so soft it isn’t sure she can hear.

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