-9

:Mal:

That bitch just secured herself a spot on my future wall of heads...She'll stick that gorgeous head of silky white locks through the hole in the wall and stand until her knees and back ache, sobbing as she studies the decapitated mugs of her fallen comrades.

As a philosopher once said, 'the best revenge is living well.' So, I'll live like a king and keep her alive as my oppressed servant; her deepest misery will be the absolute pinnacle of my personal happiness. Before, she was just a pawn, an object, but the more she fights and snarls...

I really didn't want to acknowledge or even foster such a ridiculous notion before, but my fantasies about Adam's ultimate end have been far more gruesome and dramatic than those of my other victims. It's not based upon envy, though; it's reminding a certain somebody that she's my property...

My former 'lover' will probably be behind bars as soon as I regain control...Perfect! She can wait, shivering in fear in a juvie cell, as she awaits a fate far worse than the legal system.

:Cameron:

I may not trust Artie, but she's mentioned Jaime long before last night's story. Her actions are incredibly hypocritical and converse to her beliefs, which leaves me at a loss as to what to make of her. Jaime was, quite possibly, the driving force in what reformation and change has occurred in her; he paid for her therapy sessions and even set up a full-ride scholarship for her to attend art school. Cursory research revealed that Mr. Burromuerto publicly lists Artie and her younger brother Apollo as his godchildren on Facebook.

Last night, I found her most recent artwork displayed proudly and predominantly on his wall, right under a post of an online article discussing the details of his youngest son Alejandro becoming the South American skateboarding champion last month...

So much of me wants to believe that something's amiss, that she was framed. She won't own up to it; she persists that she's innocent. But I'm still unsure; heart beating in my chest like a Congo drum.

I'd explained the situation to Dawn and she'd offered to quickly clear things up before the 'grand adventure' into the depths of Mike's mind. But, unfortunately, Adam showed up at just the wrong moment and severely complicated things. So, I had to run through my list of suspicions about Artie once again, the second time today might I add, and...

Adam picked his side of the argument long before I even said anything; he has Artemis ensconced in his arms, looking at Dawn and I with the same careful caution of a mother bear.

"Adam!" Artie protested, trying to extricate herself. "Antman, use that peanut in your head...Is now really the time to argue about this?!"

"I don't care what they say you've done! They're wrong!" he growled. "You were here first. I'm never leaving your side again."

"Adam..." Her voice was hoarse.

"Never," he gasped, starting to cry. "I'll hang off of the bumper of a police car if I have to..."

I felt like I was watching a horrible chick flick with these two bellowing theatrics at each other. What made it worse was how Adam was trying to play romantic martyr.

"Adam!" I barked.

He shot a defensive glare at me, his brown eyes glittering with tears. Taking a deep breath, I adjusted my glasses. From how unnecessarily extra dramatic things were becoming, I felt like I was in a sauna, sweating profusely.

"Calm down, Cam," Dawn whispered, her voice a calm breath of autumn wind. She took my hand and squeezed it gently, her subtle cue that she'd take over from here.

"Adam..." she prompted gently, letting go of my hand and approaching him.

His eyes widened a little and Artie was finally able to pull herself away from him.

"You're her cousin!" he gasped, frowning.

"Yes," she affirmed, nodding.

"Aren't you on our side?" he grunted. "Don't you trust her?!"

With that, she turned her angelic face towards me and smiled. "Yes."

My lips parted slightly and one of my eyebrows raised, unable to crack her blissfully cryptic expression. Then her smile just grew bigger, showing a flash of teeth. Dawn's equivalent of a smirk. Technically, we'd started dating on Tuesday...Despite how short of a time we've known each other, I can't help wondering: Would she always be this mysterious to me?

Lips pursed, Dawn pulled the incriminating red credit card out of her shirt sleeve.

"Jose planted it her wallet," she confirmed, brows furrowed.

"Why didn't you say anything sooner?!" I cried, wanting to bash my head against the nearest wall.

"It took me a few minutes to figure it out for myself..." she replied calmly, folding her arms behind her back. "Adam's arrival actually greatly helped me out. Artie's aura started glowing a bit more brightly when he showed up!"

"Jose!" Artie shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair. "Oh, my God...Athena always told me that he liked to cause trouble. She mentioned that he argues with her every time she shows up for her hubby's family dinner. It's gotten so bad that Carlos won't even take her anymore..."

"Artemis!" Dawn folded her hands. "Athena's going to need you home today."

"You...you have a bad feeling, don't you?"

Dawn nodded silently. "Please go, for the sake of keeping peace in our family."

"I'll see what I can do," she said nervously, gnawing on her lip. "Jose intimidates Athena and she's the toughest girl I know..."

"I'll come with-" Adam started, but Artie pushed him back.

"Dawn and Cam need you here," she pressed, smiling. "I'll have a long-ass discussion with you about 'us' later, Antman. My psycho Jeff the Killer's brother-brand ex is seeking revenge and my family's trying to tear itself apart so...I kinda have a lot on my plate, m'kay?"

Artie never ceases to amaze me with her ill-timed and inappropriate sense of humor...I suppose that's one of her psychological defense mechanisms.

"Besides, Apollo will be there," Dawn supplied, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

For some reason, Artie looked shocked, her pupils shrinking. Then she burst out laughing, laughing until her face turned bright red. Utterly embarrassed, Adam was blushing as well, his face a darker shade of red than Artie's.

"I just noticed you still have that yellow stain on your shirt from the other day at Subway!" Artie snorted, poking Adam in the chest. "You need to learn how to work a squeeze bottle properly, Adam!"

"ARTEMIS!" he whined, clenching his fists. She just continued laughing, much to his chagrin.

Those two are definitely a weird match made in heaven...

[[[

"Are you happy now, Adam?" I couldn't help getting kind of irritated by this point.

Sighing, I took a look at Dawn. From the slight twitch of her closed eyes, it looked like she was having trouble concentrating on meditation, too.

"What does Mike eat? Tofu burgers?"

"Hamburgers!" I rolled my eyes. "He eats at least three a day!"

"Oh, yeah..." Adam mused as he tugged at the teal shirt he was 'borrowing' from Mike. "Artie hascalled him Shaggy the Second before..."

"Apparently, she has stronger powers of observation than what you do..."

"What has your TARDIS on the fritz, Cam?"

"You need to be quiet!" I finally broke. "Dawn and I are going to need complete and utter silence for this to work!"

"Can I watch the Doctor on my phone?"

"No!"

"Okay," he relented, shrugging.

I gave him the evil eye until he settled back into the couch cushions, arms folded. Considering how restless the guy can get, I wanted to take at least two more minutes to make sure he could be adequately quiet and observant. Instead, Dawn gently took my hand.

"He'll be fine," she whispered, smiling.

Personally, my nerves were still jarred, but I closed my eyes and started to prepare anyway.

"Deep breaths, Cam," she instructed.

I took one long, deep breath.

"In through the nose, out through the mouth..."

After doing just that three or four times, my mind started to clear. Liquid calm collected in my brain, then traveled down through the rest of my body, making me feel like I was suspended in cool water. The new state I was entering felt like that ambiguous state of mind between feeling awake and falling asleep.

If I could learn how Dawn was able to access this state of mind so quickly and easily, I'd have less trouble falling asleep at night. I swear, my mind is a constant buzzing bee hive.

"You'll probably feel a bit disoriented at this next step..." Dawn appeared in the pitch black of my mind, colored in various hues and shades of blue. My nerves were jumping and scattering; the calm I'd entered started rippling, like the surface of a pond. I couldn't help it; I'd never been the calm, cool, and collected guy under pressure. Maybe her supreme self control is what drew me towards Dawn.

Smiling serenely, Dawn extended her hand to me. "I warned you that this was going to be an out-of-body experience," she sighed. "I know you can get kind of skittish-"

"I knocked Mal unconscious!" I protested and my voice echoed in a very unnerving way...

"Cameron." Her voice was stern now. "You're familiar with the objective and material world. Where we're about to go is subjective. We're going to be at Mal's mercy."

From the way her eyes flashed, I could see the fear buried there. Part of me wanted to withdrawal and wait for Zoey; she's a bit braver than me. But, another part of me was putting his foot down. Mike, my love of insects, nature, and Sara Bareilles taught me to be brave; taking Dawn's hand and feeling her fingers between mine gave me further, stronger conviction.

"I'm ready!" I told her, trying to convince myself, too.

She nodded simply and tightened her grip on my hand. Then we stepped out of the darkness into a huge blurring and fuzzy morass of color. I felt like some part of me was getting torn off; it was painful, every part of me screaming and singeing, as if I were engulfed by flames. All throughout, Dawn was saying something, but her words were drowned out by my screams and shrieks.

A few more minutes passed; the colors straightened out and solidified into reality. There was Adam, doing exactly what I'd asked him not to: He was staring intently at the screen of his phone, earbuds plugged in.

"You're going to go deaf at the volume you're listening to that at!" I cried.

Dawn lightly tapped my shoulder. "He can't hear you, Cam."

"What happens if we get stuck-?"

"Good question," she replied, her own face corkscrewed in a worried way.

"We can't go in there now!" I grabbed her shoulders.

"We have to..." Dawn sighed. "It takes a lot on my part to get as far as we have right now. I don't know when we'd get another chance to try this and...Time is really of the essence, Cameron. Mike's aura is spiked with so many death and doom omens, it's frightening me."

Nervously, I let go of her, then turned. There were her and my bodies, barely moving except for the rising and falling of our chests. So much of me protested that my current state was impossible, while another part of me was only starting to accept the larger, more unbelievable gravity of what might happen next.

Morbid curiosity shred through me like a lightning bolt. "Let's go."

[[[

"Mal isn't a demon, so this is an entirely new experience for me," Dawn explained. "He gives off similar vibes and intent to what a demon does, but he's an inextricable part of Mike. A part that can't be exorcised or fought off."

We'd landed in the chasm of Mike's mind. I remember reading a section of a dream symbolism book that when someone dreamed about their childhood home, it was representative of their personal thoughts and inner sanctum. Right now, we were creeping through the narrow, faded yellow hallways of a home very unfamiliar to me. Photos of a tall, imposing man with a triangular chin were spread throughout the hall every so often; he had Mike's dark hair and brown eyes, the same awkward smile.

I'd first met Mike when he was eleven years old. At that time, his mom had re-married, so I'd only ever met and interacted with Mike's step-dad; Mike never mentioned his biological father, or on the rare occasion he did, Chester usually came out and started ranting up a storm about how much he hated communism or something.

There was so much about Mike I didn't know, but I felt...perverse. As if traveling through his mind was reading deep, dark secrets in a diary that I wasn't supposed to know.

"Cameron..." Dawn squeaked. She looked at me with wide, scared eyes, biting down on her lip; silently, she gestured me over.

We peeked around the wall into the remains of a bedroom with pale blue walls. Beyond the crumbled outcropping of the walls was the African Serengeti, sparsed with tall, yellowish brown grass and a few trees. There were plastic dinosaurs, alligators, and crocodiles halfway buried in the dirt; the shredded remains of an indecipherable poster scattered everywhere.

In the middle of it all...lay an eight-year-old Mike, curled up tightly into fetal position. He was clutching a stuffed crocodile tightly against his chest and...he looked mortally wounded, bone showing beneath his knees; his bare legs covered in oozing scratches. An older, muscular man wearing a tan ten-gallon hat was bent over Mike, weeping profusely and crying his name; it was the man from the photos.

I wanted to rush over, to try and help heal Mike with what little medical knowledge I had. But as soon as I tried, Dawn grabbed my upper arm and squeezed, holding me back. Tears burst from my eyes; my heart was trying to escape from my chest and I couldn't breathe.

"Dawn, let me go!" I cried. "My best friend needs me!"

"It's a memory, Cameron!" she reasoned, her own voice filled with emotion. "It...already happened."

Gasping, I backed off and looked away. I was still crying, heaving with feral, unbridled emotion. Despite myself, I'd started connecting the dots. Mike's biological father was the inspiration for Manitoba Smith...Mike had created Manitoba to deal with the severe psychological stress of recovering from being mauled by...

I couldn't finish the thought; a huge lump had lodged in my throat.

"Cameron..." Dawn looked at me with tear-filled eyes. "We have to keep moving."

"I never knew Mike had been..." I gasped, feeling like a fresh wound had been punctured in my own chest. Mike had promised to share his secrets and tell me everything, hadn't he? He couldn't face something this utterly horrendous on his own; the psychological weight was...unimaginable...

"Hey! What are you two doing here?" As if summoned on cue, Dawn and I were face to face with Manitoba himself. He looked exactly as he imagined himself to look: He was a big, buff, twenty-something explorer decked out in khaki clothes and hat, pretty much an older, stronger version of Mike himself.

"We're here to make sure that Mike is Mike when he wakes up," Dawn explained in a clear, steady voice. "We're sorry to be intruding on your privacy, but it's for Mike's safety."

"You're sticking your nose in the wrong place, shelia," Manitoba warned, folding his arms. "I'm gonna have to ask you to leave. I'll ask politely since you're quite the pretty little lady."

"Thank you, but I'm afraid we can't comply with your request."

"Manitoba!" I spoke up, shrinking as I forced myself to look into those steely eyes. "Please..."

"Let them pass, Manitoba," Mike demanded. A moment later, he pushed past Manitoba's big meaty arm and stood in front of him. Maybe Adam had been on to something with the comment about tofu burgers; Mike looked like a thin toothpick compared to Manitoba.

Yet, while I'd been expecting Manitoba to pick up Mike and crush him like a car at a demolition derby, he instead tipped his hat politely, then disappeared. Once he was gone, Mike approached us, arms folded and expression wary.

"So...you're Dawn?" He nervously extended his hand.

"I'm sorry to be intruding on the privacy of your mind, Mike," she replied, taking his hand and shaking it gently. "I wouldn't be here if the matter weren't urgent."

"I guess Cam wasn't kidding about your ties to the supernatural..." he commented, staring at her in a very nervous and self-conscious way. "You're going to pry me open like a walnut, aren't you?"

"I..."

Mike sighed, looking at me in defeat.

"We can't wait for Dr. Renard," I tried to assuage. "If we're going to stop Mal..."

Mike held up a hand and furrowed his brows. "I should have told you about my childhood sooner, Cam...You out of everyone in the group has the right to know, so I may as well just tell everyone's origin story."

"The only one I really need to know is Mal's!" I protested, hating the pained look on my best friend's face. "Mike-"

"Mal's story is the worst one," he replied stoically, his eyes shining and sad.

:Mike:

I'll start out by formally introducing you to my biological father: Richard Valentino.

He used to be my big hero: a strong, brave, and adventurous man, the very type that most traditionally masculine little boys aspire to be. At least, that's what I imagined him to be; I really didn't see much of him at all as a young child, considering he was busy more often than not. In short, he was the breadwinner, a full-time nurse and a volunteer fireman, then a Moose Lodge member on the weekends. The few times he was home, he went straight to bed, too exhausted to say more than a few words to Mom and I.

I liked to believe that the Moose Lodge was a superhero hang-out. In retrospect, when I brought up the topic to Mom, she just nodded her head tiredly and agreed, the smile on her face a mask.

One night, probably one of the absolute worst of my life, Mom had a heart attack. I dialed 911, panicked and weeping. Everything else is a giant blur; all I vividly remember is a kindly redhaired and brown eyed angel, trying to get me to calm down, asking me if there were any other relatives I could stay with.

No, my aunt and uncle live in California. Two of my grandparents died before I was born. My one living grandfather is in the nursing home...My friends are out of town for spring break...

"Where's your father...?"

"He's at the Moose Lodge..."

That nurse became a living thunder clap of sheer rage. She spoke in hushed tones to her co-workers, then dragged me to her wood-paneled van. When I started begging her to let me go to the hospital with my mom, she said that we'd go there soon enough; she needed to go get my father first. Even at the age of six, I could tell she was angry; I was scared, shaking and trembling in fear against the faux leather seats. Things only got worse when I looked out of the nearest window and realized we were in what Mom called the "naughty" district: dirty and dingy looking bars, clubs with flashing neon signs.

"I want Daddy!"

"I don't think you do," the redhead replied through gritted teeth. "But I'm going to get him..."

"Daddy isn't here..."

"Unfortunately...he is."

"You're lying!"

She sighed as she parked the van in front of a red brick building. Frightened and morbidly curious, I looked around: there was a bill board featuring a scantily clad grown woman, biting at the strap of her bra. "Cover your eyes, kiddo," the woman crowed when she noticed where I was looking.

So many questions were swimming in my mind, but they all started shriveling up as the woman exited the car. "Where are you going?!" I cried. "You're leaving me-"

She closed the door with a loud slam; my heart sank to the toes of my shoes as she walked up towards the building. Feebly, I reached for the door handle and yanked, trying to exit, but the door wouldn't open. Mom told me never to enter a stranger's car and now, here I was, in the very backdrop of my worst nightmares.

Every part of me screamed that I'd rather face the boogeymen outside than be trapped inside this car. So, I pulled the trick I promised Mom I'd never do: I crawled into the front seat and unlocked the door manually. Then I scrambled out into the parking lot, stumbling around in the darkness, and trying to figure out which direction would lead me home.

I made my way to the front door, just as the redhead was pulling Dad out by the collar of his shirt. All the way, Dad was hiccuping and laughing, a beer bottle dangling from his left hand. A sandy-blond haired woman in a bright green bikini bottom stumbled out after them, trying to adjust an ornate bejeweled top over her big, ample breasts.

"Hey, you bastard!" the redhead shrieked as she dropped Dad. "Your wife just had a heart attack!"

I shrieked at the top of my lungs, racing over to stand between the two of them. Arms extended, I stood in front of Dad, glaring daggers at the redhaired woman. "I won't let you hurt Daddy!"

She took a few steps back. "Kid! You were supposed to stay in the car!"

"Why the hell did you bring your child to a strip club?!" the sandy blond cried, stomping up to the redhead. "I get that you're furious with Giggles McGee for stepping out, but this innocent little cherub didn't need to see any of this!"

At that, the redhaired woman's pupils shrank to pinpricks, then she stomped over to the woman, screaming and shrieking like a banshee from folklore. Lump in my throat and more frightened than I'd ever been in my life, I turned towards Dad and leaned against him. I clawed at his shirt, weeping profusely, and begging him to make it all go away.

"Daddy..."

"I can't save you," he coughed, his eyes sad and faraway. "You died...I heard the machine go 'Beep...Beep...Beep...', then it flatlined. You're a ghost..."

Desperate, I grabbed a fistful of his shirt. "No!"

"I couldn't stop you from going into the light..."

"I'm alive..."

"No...you're dead..."

After that, he slung his arm around my shoulders, staring deep into my eyes. Helplessly, I returned his gaze, hearing my heart roaring in my ears like an ocean wave.

"We're all dead inshide..." he slurred, his breath smelling like pineapples. "Wvhen you grow up, you'll hate yourself and feel like you hash a great big hole in your chest. A great big hole that can never be filled. You'll be successful, marry a woman that's shway too good for you, but it'll never be enough."

By now, he was crying buckets, wailing; he pulled me into his arms, hugging me so tightly I couldn't breathe.

"I'm the worsht father in the world..." he warbled. "I let you die...Die before you felt dead inside..."

[[[

When I was four, my mother volunteered to help a charity in Africa. Richard and I tagged along; him keeping an eye on me. On that trip...I had the one-in-a-million chance of encountering and then getting viciously mauled by a lion. I was extremely lucky to have survived, but I lost two years of my life recovering; I even started school late. It's a mystery to this day how I managed to achieve junior status now, considering I was out of school more often than in it through my childhood and even into my pre-teen years.

There's a special reason for why I never talk about Richard: After the incident in Africa, he spiraled into depression. With that, he pretty much became distant, finding solace in alcohol, and cheating on Mom with a sandy blond stripper named Elsie. After the divorce, Mom tried to keep me in touch with Rich. On the weekends that I was supposed to bond with Rich, he was always absent, leaving me with his now live-in girlfriend Elsie.

Usually, Elsie was always...drugged up or something. I'd hide from her, but she'd always find me, and...I'd rather not go into detail about what she did. I'll leave it at this: She went to prison, then had to register as a...yeah.

According to Doc Renard: The lion was what created Manitoba; Mom's heart attack and encountering my drunk father, coupled with memories of how Grandpa used to lecture Richard, created Chester; the divorce created Svetlana; the 'encounters' with Elsie created Vito.

And Mal...?

Why I call this the worst story is how personal and difficult it is to admit to. I'd officially been diagnosed with MPD by Dr. Renard. At school, I was teased, insulted, and alienated. The few friends I managed to make at the time ended up turning on me or dropping me like a hot potato. Mom had met my now step father Leo and, due to some scrap of hope I still had that Rich could be redeemed, I felt betrayed. Essentially, I felt so dismally alone, both because of my fellow peers and my self-initiated efforts to lock my mom out.

One day, while Mom was out with Leo, I'd reached my breaking point. Lips trembling, I'd taped my farewell to the world letter to my bedroom door. Then I closed and locked it, taking several shuddering, shallow breaths...As the tumblers slid and rattled in the lock, I felt myself shatter like glass.

Every beat of my heart was followed by a mental whisper: Do it...do it...do it...

Tentatively, I approached my second story window, flipped back the latch. My fingers trembled and shook, Elsie's Jersey-accented voice whispering profanity in my ear; I saw myself falling, then landing brutally on the ground, skull cracked open and leaking brain matter and blood...

That scene replayed over and over, steeling my reserve that much more. I crawled onto the window ledge and started squiggling out-

"MIKE!"

That was Leo's tenor voice...

I crawled out faster, jumping, taking that pregnant leap of faith. As I fell, I saw the empty window sill, turquoise curtains flying up and away with the wind. Closing my eyes, I imagined my redhaired angel, wrapping her arms around me, taking me somewhere better and relieving the world of my burden.

Hours later, I was in a hospital bed, the too-familiar beep of a heart monitor in the background. The first thing I saw, rather than the golden gates of heaven, were the concerned faces of mom and Leo.

"Mike..." they both cried, relief in their voices.

I'd survived my suicide attempt, but as I struggled to get through and overcome that difficulty, in came Mal. Over the next three years, he came out more and more often; Doc Renard encountered and dealt with him the most often. Strangely enough, until I turned fourteen, Doc was the only one who ever saw and interacted with him...