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Caitlin vs. Death

by on February 21, 2011

It was the breathing that woke her. The sound reminded her of normal breathing, except it seemed oddly metal somehow. Hooooo-paaaaaaa. Hooooo-paaaaa. It didn’t seem like a normal human breathing. Then it clicked in her mind that there was someone, human or otherwise, breathing very close to her and they hadn’t said a word. That rather frightening realization shocked her into action. Princess Caitlin’s eyes flew open and she sprang upright. Then she paused. This…wasn’t where she had expected to be.

She had apparently been lying on an extremely comfy couch, red with big yellow daisies. Around her rose walls of books, books up to the ceiling, more books than she could read in a dozen lifetimes. At first, Caitlin thought she had awakened in her castle library. Perhaps Colin had carried her back home, and she had for some strange reason been put in the library instead of in her room or in the castle  infirmary. Then she glanced towards the nearest window, and her mouth dropped. A black helmet was mounted above it, and the helmet was breathing. Hoooo-paaaa. Hooo-paaaa. Wild and gruesome imaginations raced through her mind. Was there a severed head inside the helmet? Was it a ghost? Had someone been horribly murdered (the italics were her own) and now they wanted REVENGE? She stepped towards it, stretching out a tentative hand. Maybe it was a magic helmet, and….

All at once Caitlin was distracted by an even more shocking discover. As she drew closer to the helmet, she could for the first time see out of the window. Had this been her castle library as she had thought, she would’ve expected to see a gentle grassy slope leading down to her castle wall. Instead she saw a bank of white clouds. Beyond the clouds loomed twin gates of a shining white material that looked suspiciously pearly. The horrible truth coalesced in Caitlin’s mind at last. “Oh…blast!” she exclaimed. “Blast, blast, BLAST! I’m dead! Wonderful. This is just wonderful. Of all the….this is just….oy! I cannot be dead!”

“Well…” said a dreamy voice. “You are, and yet…you’re not.”

Caitlin spun around. If her mouth had dropped before, it positively hit the floor and went into the basement now. “….Mother?”

Somewhere a chorus of violins began to play. Caitlin didn’t care. She rushed forward into her mother’s arms, and for a few moments she didn’t mind that she was dead, and that there was a weird dark helmet breathing in an odd way above the window. Her world was right again.

At last, after an emotional half hour or so, Caitlin asked the inevitable question. “So…I’m really dead, then?”

“Well…” Queen Maralyn said hesitantly, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. “That’s rather debatable, actually.”

“Mother, I’m either dead or I’m not dead. It’s not exactly a complex question.”

Maralyn sighed. “That’s what I thought, until I came here. Caitlin, I have to tell you something that’s going to be difficult for you to accept. You’re not…oh dear…you’re not a real person.”

Caitlin blinked. “Mother, you’re not making sense. Of course I’m real! I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I? Even if I’m dead, I’m clearly existing in some way, right? I’m still thinking, right? Don’t go all meta-existential on me, Mother!”

“I’m afraid we do have to go meta-existential, dear,” Maralyn said. “You, and I, and the man who owned the black helmet there, and a countless number of others…we’re not real. We’re made-up. We’re characters in someone else’s story. We’re letters on a page, pictures in other people’s imagination. Our mutual author wrote your death scene, and unfortunately, that means you have died. You should consider yourself fortunate, Caitlin. You’re the heroine. Our author apparently relegated me to your tragic backstory. I didn’t even get a name until now. Your own mother, the reason why you took up sword-fighting, and I didn’t even have a name. Tragic, isn’t it.”

Caitlin’s head was spinning. “But…but…so, where am I now? If I’m just a figment of some clown’s imagination, and I died, which apparently I did, what happens to me?”

“You end up here. Character Heaven. It’s a nice place, really. You’ll grow to like it…and it’s vastly better than Character Hell…” Maralyn’s voice trailed away at the look in Caitlin’s eyes.

“Mother,” she said, her voice tremulous with emotion, “I thought I was a real person. I thought you were. When you died, everything…my life…it was all wrong. I thought that when I killed Vladimir I was setting things right again, and now you tell me that none of that mattered because I’m just a bunch of words on someone else’s page? Suppose my author had decided to make me a boy, or decided that he liked Vladimir as a character better and let him defeat me! What you’re saying is that nothing I’ve done, nothing I am even matters! I’m a puppet!”

She spun around and yelled furiously at the ceiling. “I am not your puppet!” Caitlin screamed. “I’m not! Do you hear me, whoever you are up there? You can’t just write my death scene because you think for some reason that it’s funny, because I’m not laughing! Are you even listening to me? I am not your puppet, I’m not just your imagination, and in point of fact I am not dead!”

She whirled back to her aghast mother. “Is there a way I can go back?”

Maralyn said no, very quickly. Too quickly, in fact. “There is a way!” Caitlin exclaimed, her green eyes shining. “How?”

“Through those gates out there,” Maralyn admitted reluctantly. “If you run out of the gates, you’ll see an opening in the clouds. If you jump through that opening, you’ll end in the living world. ”

“Great. Perfect. Thanks.” Caitlin started towards the window, but Maralyn gripped her shoulder in a sudden fear.

“Caitlin, please, don’t do this. Think again. The world you end in won’t be the same as the one you left. Even as characters, we live according to certain rules. And one of the highest rules is that we cannot resurrect ourselves. If our author decides to bring us back, that’s one thing, but we can’t decide to go back on our own. You won’t like it!”

“What, you think I’ll turn into a zombie? Please. That only happens in books.”

“You’re in a book!”

“Right. Well, whatever happens in other books, it’s not going to happen in mine!” Caitlin didn’t have her sword, but she made do by grabbing a particularly hefty dictionary and heaving it through the window, shattering it into a hundred pieces. She paused on the sill and looked back. “Goodbye, Mother,” she said, blinking back her tears. “Wherever I end up, at least I got to see you again.” With that, she jumped onto the clouds. In complete defiance of the rules of physics, she found that she could run across them. Caitlin ran, skimming across the clouds and through the Pearly Gates, diving headlong through the opening. Light blazed around her, wind howled in her ears, all seemed chaos and madness….

Then she landed with a bump on solid ground. Caitlin’s eyes grew wide. This was definitely not her kingdom.

Tall towers of gleaming steel and glass rose into the sky. The towers seemed a riot of color, lights and letters flashing in incomprehensible patterns. She was surrounded by people, pushing and shoving their way past her. Many of them directed foul epithets at her, apparently irate that she was blocking their way. Caitlin wasn’t even sure if some of their suggestions were physically possible, let alone sanitary. But then one of the strangers made a reference concerning her mother. Without hesitation, Princess Caitlin slugged him.

The stranger howled and went down, yelping about the cops and this being a free country and so forth. Several of his friends started towards her, none of them looking particularly pleasant. Caitlin reached automatically for her sword, before remembering that she had left it at Vladimir’s camp. Then all at once her hand felt its familiar hilt, and she smiled that same half-smile. Whatever strange process had brought her back to life and landed her in this strange city, it had at least given her back her sword. She drew it with one smooth motion, thrilling to the sharp ring of the steel in the air. The crowd about her surged backwards in fright. Then one of them broke free, a tall man in an official-looking black uniform and a shiny badge. “Ma’am, NYPD! I’m going to need you to drop the sword and put your hands in the air!”

“I’d rather not,” Caitlin said. “And what, out of curiosity, is an NYPD? Are you the constable here?”

“Drop the sword, ma’am! Now!” he yelled, and in his hand was an odd metal device of which Caitlin had never seen the like. It looked very small, and she wondered what it was supposed to do.

“As I said, I’d rather not, and-”

Suddenly a sharp, cold pain lanced through her. It reminded her of the sword-thrust Vladimir had given her before she had killed him, but it was different somehow, colder and more…fluffy?

Caitlin lost her grip on her sword. She looked down, and saw that her hands were turning hard and flat. Her feet had disappeared, changing into something that looked more like a bird’s. She opened her mouth to cry out, but all that emerged was a strange, unearthly squawk. A sudden craving for fish blazed in her stomach. She moved towards the constable, and found that she could only waddle. “Squawwwwwk, “she said in an attempt to convey her distress at this unfortunate and unexpected situation.

The princess had rarely traveled outside her kingdom, and never to the wild, cold lands of the south. She had no idea what she had become. The citizens of New York recognized the animal and ran screaming, but even in their fear they didn’t know what it meant. No one yet had even an inkling of the dire peril they were all in now. The Zombie Penguin Apocalypse had begun.

Author’s Note: This story was written for Prompt Number Eight of the Chrysalis Experiment. For previous posts in the Caitlin Chronicles, go here.

  1. I am a little lost for words, because I’m laughing in too much wonder. lol. I definitely didn’t anticipate this twist in Caitlyn’s story 😉 Can’t wait to see where it goes next. 😀

    • I’m not sure where it’s going to go next myself. 🙂 I’m reading the Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks as research; tragically, while there are many helpful suggestions on what to do with zombies, the literature is lacking on what to do with zombie penguins. Clearly this is an area that needs further study. 😛

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