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A Ragman's Vow
by Brent Knowles
Dan is the creator of a comic book featuring Ragman, a dark superhero... real life and fantasy merge when Dan tries to find his missing wife.

Dark Fantasy, 23 pages.
Originally Published in On Spec #73 (reprinted in A Thousand Faces 2010), 2008

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(Ragman, Issue #14) Below the slum known as the Labyrinth, Ragman sits atop an overturned crate, half submerged by sewage. Rats cover him.

“Stop with the puppy dog eyes,” Ragman says to them, “you won’t make me feel guilty about leaving the boy...”

The cab stopped. Dan’s fake-leather shoes stepped into dry snow, and he thought of how his own life seemed to parallel the city’s seasons, in pattern, if not in fact. The hustle and bustle of a wonderful summer had given way to a melancholic fall, which in turn was now replaced by an impassive winter. He had forgotten his scarf again, and so he pulled his business jacket tight to ward the mild wind as he left the cab to plow through sterile streets towards the bank. Rumbling bass turned his head in the direction of a long black sedan that had stopped for a red light on the street parallel to Dan’s sidewalk.

A curl of smoke drifted out of a half open window, and Dan stopped and stared at the smoker. His hands pawed at where his scarf ought be. How many times had she rushed out the door of their little suburban house to hand-deliver it to him? The light changed before he could do more than stop and gawk, and soon the car disappeared around a corner. Three years since he had last seen Amanda, his wife.

He shook his head, desperate to dislodge the past.

Ahead was the gauntlet, the homeless sitting or kneeling on cardboard with hats, cups, and folded hands held out. Mark and Stacey were singing and Dan smiled, donating more than he could afford, all the while pretending not to know these people. They returned the favor, with understanding in their eyes.

“That only encourages them,” Dan’s boss, the bank manager, said with a frown of disappointment. Dan did not care. Amanda had not been the only one to hit rock bottom. Difference was, he supposed, that he had scrambled back to the surface.

Or so he liked to believe.

* * *

Ragman rocks himself, his mind lost in the past. It had ended with violence and blood-the Ghoul’s body never found. So Ragman had crawled down, down, down to where no one would find him. Not even the boy. Here, only the rats would blame him for what would happen next.

Dan’s apartment was a swirl of chaos, the focal point a drawing easel in the living room where a television ought to belong, paints and books of paper piled and scattered across the floor, and beer cases serving as support furniture around the easel. A worn stool sat in front of it. The only element of neatness was the stack of comics, piled straight and square, just like Carl had always insisted, on a second stool.

The boy’s school photo was tacked onto the corner of the easel so Dan always saw it when he worked. He looked up now, his hand covered in dried ink, from working on Issue #14. The stack held thirteen comics. Though Carl would never read it, Dan still thought his son would have appreciated Dan’s continuing the series. Memories warmed him: Dan had handled all stages of production for his home-brew comic, from writing to distribution. Dan’s career had been in full swing.

Before the dying.

With a headshake, he knocked the dark thoughts back. Almost done this issue, his atonement.

Ragman still listens to the city’s gossip. The rats that run through sewers, live in cupboards, and climb across sleeping couple’s beds, they all talk. A big, old-fashioned chat room. Ragman listens to the rats as they whisper of bodies and bits of bodies. Yes, Ragman listens; knows that Ghoul has returned.

Police sirens stirred the night air, and Dan took advantage of the interruption to go to the window, draw back the simple canvas curtain, and look out at the night. He lived several blocks from the Labyrinth-a shantytown growing out, as if a malignant tumor, from the city proper. A clever journalist had lifted the label from Dan’s comics. He supposed he ought be flattered. That meant of course, that there were two Labyrinths: a real one and an illusion. For Dan, his Labyrinth was the real one; for he had never visited the slum town that sat a half-dozen blocks from him.

His eyes flickered around, focused finally on the frozen mounds of snow that littered the street side. Already they browned, as if the dirt beneath them fed on the snow, and grew from that feeding, brown maggots erupting from a snow-white corpse. Much like how Dan imagined Ghoul returned in the Ragman series.

Was Amanda out there? His worry for her surprised him, and brought his gaze to the pile of clothing hidden behind the curtain. It still smelled of barrel fires, sweat, and street.

* * *

Ragman crawls up and into a world of sirens, sky-clutching scrapers, and bright lights performing macabre dances with the lingering shadows of this never-night but always-dusk place. War has come. Again.

He wanders, k -- [End of Preview.]