“Elle, there’s a man here who wants to talk to you.”
Elle put down her Fabian pencil set and leaned back in her chair to look at the door. Uncle Albert was just outside the bedroom door looking awkward, holding his newspaper with a pair of spectacles hanging from a chain around his neck. He peered into the room like an owl.
“Thanks Uncle Al,” she said, pushing her chair away and swinging through the doorway, her maps and pencils left spinning on the desk. She was a lanky girl whose legs seemed to have grown too long too quickly. She ran by the study, the keep, the treasury, and the Great Hall, then down the spiral staircase, out the door to the dungeon, and into the King’s Library.
“Hi Elle,” said the man awaiting her. He was tall and slightly balding with grey eyes, full lips, and red spots on his cheeks. He held out his hand.
“Hi,” she said, and shook it, slipping into the green chair beside her.
“It’s a simple process,” he said. “We take your texts with your friends, Facebook messages, emails…”
He nodded. “Letters, diary entries, anything you want. Then our team compiles it into a database which forms your personality.” He smiled encouragingly, as if this was a hard concept to understand.
“The flyer said it was comforting. Is that true?”
He shrugged and grimaced. “I think so. Our research points to people getting real pleasure from it. But there are cases of…some people find it too sad to interact with. It’s always up to the bereaved.” He clarified himself quickly. “The mourners.”
“I know. How long do they last? The bots?”
“As long as you and your friends and family want. Do you want to see some?” He knelt by her chair and pulled out his iPad, cycling through screenshots of text conversations and Facebook messages. Elle fished a chocolate out of her pocket and sucked on it. This was going on a long time; she still had so many maps to make, letters to burnish, and the treasure to bury. She gazed at the company man. He smiled shyly back.
“I don’t want to do this if it’s only going to make people sad. Chocolate?”
He shook his head, then nodded. She handed him a small heart and he unwrapped it.
“It’s your decision Elle. Is there anyone in particular you want to comfort this way?”
She glanced to the bookshelf, at the picture of herself and a young boy. He wore glasses with the right lens missing, and his face was smeared with dirt. It was from the day of their trip to the Kingdom by the Sea.
The company man followed her gaze.
“He doesn’t like hokey stuff,” she said. “And he doesn’t like fake stuff. And he’ll know if it’s not me.”
But the company man had nothing reassuring to say. “In the end it’s up to you, Elle. No one’s going to think this is really you. It’s not a cyborg or anything. But it can be a comfort.”
“I know that.” She sucked her chocolate and then chewed it up. It was a delicate situation. If she made the wrong choice, she would make things worse.
She looked back to the picture. And she wondered.
Russell didn’t want to ever go back. He shouldered his Sword of Light and headed deeper into the White Woods. The Witch of the East had made a mockery of them that day, but he would stop her now. He would find the treasure and dig it up.
He could hear the guests calling for him, and there was Aunt Petit and Uncle Albert shouting the loudest. He didn’t care. He was going to find Elle, if he could just follow the clues.
Suddenly he dropped the map he was studying. He bent to the Black Heath, his little body shaking. He didn’t want to think about the hospital or the graveyard, or the dark grey sky. He didn’t want to think of all the awful people dressed in black at the mansion, eating little cocktail weenies.
He wanted to find the treasure.
He ran on, through the woods. The shouts stopped. Aunt Petit and Uncle Al were probably about to send out a search party. He could only pray that whatever treasure lay in the last Spot would be of some use. The White Witch was too powerful, the curse of Luke too strong.
The box made a hollow sound when he finally hit it. Russell wiped his eyes and began to dig. Earth and pebbles stuck under his fingernails, and he nearly ripped one off, but he didn’t care. The treasure would save him. It could even save Elle. He might never have to go back to his Uncle Albert and Aunt Petit again.
He pulled the box from the earth and froze. It was Elle’s memory box. He didn’t like that. That box was meant to be in the keep, under Elle’s bed, guarded by the King and Queen Invisible. He almost didn’t open it. Then curiosity took him. Sucking his lip and sniffling, he pulled up the wooden top.
There was nothing inside except a small black device, engraved with one word: “Hearthstone.” It had a black screen. As he touched it the screen sprung to life. A single message appeared.
He stared, his stuffed nose whistling softly. Then he realized a small pad of keys had appeared at the bottom of the screen, like a small cellphone.
Tentatively, he began to type.
There was a long pause. Another message:
<3 You found the Hearthstone!
Before he knew it was coming, he giggled. He began to type and read responses:
Where are you?
I want to see you..
Are you scared?
Yes. But happy you’re here.
The phone said, Do you want to go back to the house now?
He looked over his shoulder. He could see the roof of the mansion over the Wild Wood trees.
Will you stay with me? he asked.
There was a long pause.
Russell read the words on the screen, then ran back into the house.
Written by Sam Gibbs with artwork by Marika Stephens and voiced by Matt Soson
Inspired by: http://money.cnn.com/mostly-human/dead-irl/