Track Three

We watch Beach Guy and Diver Dude head out in a motor boat. I get the impression that it's Diver Dude's boat; he's got that possessive vibe to him. To each their own, I suppose. Getting a look at the islands is interesting in that same sort of way any new location is a curiosity. I'm not really looking at things from Maddie's point of view — not quite doing a threat assessment. But I'm looking for any of the obvious potential risks. I'm not sure yet what the point of their excursion is, but it's probably not as mesmerizing for me as it could be for other people. It's that whole thing about taking the girl out of the desert but not being able to take the desert out of the girl. I wasn't any more impressed with the Pacific when we finally made it out to L.A. on the second trip to visit Pablo's family.

Yep, that's a lot of water. I've seen it from the other side, too.

I suspect Blanca would have slugged me if I hadn't been holding one of the twins at the time. Not that she would have hit me all that hard — just enough to let me know that water people like their water as much as earth people like the land. Ah, good times, good times!

"I'm glad they decided to keep journals," Pablo says. "Otherwise, this would be the most boring TV show ever."

"Damn sturdy-looking bridge," I murmur.

"Agreed," Rene says. "Maddie could find a way to take it out, but I don't think it would be easy."

We watch while the two of them talk, which is worse than boring. Diver Dude continues taking pictures. Beach Guy is looking around, inspecting anything he can see from the boat. They look like they're planning something . . . conspiring perhaps?

"The islands are odd."

I take my eyes off the scene to look at Rene.

"Have you ever been out to Long Island?" he asks.

I shake my head. "New York City once for an ALA conference, couple of times with Maddie for Fashion Week, but that's as close as I got."

"How about you, Pablo?"

"Until I met you reprobates, I'd never been east of the Mississippi."

"Hmm. Just interesting, I guess. I was out at the state park there once. Oddly, it was Jeremiah who took me, although I suppose that's not relevant. But I remember a park ranger doing a talk about the area when we climbed up to the top of the lighthouse." Rene's smile has a bittersweet touch of fond memories. "I was probably around the age your kids are, and I don't doubt I was insufferable. Jeremiah didn't want to climb up there."

I nod. "Having met your father, I could probably come up with three or four reasons why he'd balk at being up in a lighthouse, not the least of which is his healthy dose of paranoia."

Pablo gives our brother's arm an understanding squeeze. "You're still surprised by your father's reluctance?"

Rene shakes his head. "No. Not anymore. At the time, I was completely unaware of what a father will do for his children. The thing I remember most — and what's probably relevant here — is looking out at all that water, all the different shakes of blues and greens. I probably wouldn't have paid any attention at all to the ranger's talk if it hadn't been directly related to the patterns of colors I saw in the water. Turns out there are some shoals and buried rocks that could have been islands if the sound had ten or twenty feet less water than it does." He shrugs. "Their islands look like something took a nibble out of the point, spit it out, then pushed up some of the hidden islands the ranger was talking about."

"It's interesting, that's for sure," I admit. "I'm not saying that particular scenario would be useful for the dissertation Charles is trying to talk me into writing. Hmm, well, given that I've started compiling notes, I suppose he's succeeded. Anyway, there are differences between dimensions even when they appear to be the same as ours, or very nearly the same. Water levels, tectonic movement, even simple natural environmental occurrences could explain why some of the differences I see between dimensions actually happen. I'd rather not speculate on some of the more horrendous dimensions."

"Dimensions . . . or alternate realities?"

I shrug. "I'm using dimension as a catch-all term, I suppose. Some of the worlds — like the one we're looking at — might be alternate universes. Charles, of course, would like more precise terminology."

Pablo chuckles. "Precision in your field is as important as in mine. At least you'll know he's never going to ask you to teach marksmanship."

I stick my tongue out at him. "I can handle a weapon well enough to not be a danger to myself or my squad mates. Maddie's drilled into me the proper care of guns — lots of guns, all kinds of guns! Dear gods, does Maddie ever have lots of guns! But if I'm reduced to using firearms as the only available weapon, then we're up Shit Creek without a paddle."

"Now, Andi . . . you know you don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

I look over my shoulder again at Rene. He's trying to be helpful. I think. "First of all, my knives would be swords. Second, with my strength, speed, and accuracy using shuriken, I'm better than most folks and their guns. Maybe not quite as good as the top marksmen types, but I'm no slouch. Third, if I can't pull qi from Mother and Father and use that as a weapon . . . we'd best be getting ourselves gone from whatever fight we're in, don't you think?"

He grins. "You never do anything the easy way, do you?"

I merely raise an eyebrow at him.

"No. She doesn't," Pablo teases.

I sigh and go back to watching the two men in the boat. The water looks a bit rougher than I'd like it, but I'll grant that I'm not the biggest fan of small boats. Fine. Kayaks are a lot of fun. Anyway, it would appear that their mission to look at the bridge is over, and now they're off in a car taking a leisurely drive around the island. It's quaint, kind of charming.

I study the driver of the vehicle — Diver Dude — more carefully. His qi is . . . Hmm, if someone I knew looked like that, I'd recommend some therapy. There's something else odd about it, too. Something familiar.

"Damn," I whisper.

"Something wrong, Andrea?" Pablo tries to get a read on their body language, but this is too subtle.

"He's not as crazy and over-the-edge as the assholes in the Brotherhood, but his whole aura has that same . . . resonance, I guess I'd call it."

"I think it's highly unlikely that an African American man is going to be part of the Aryan Brotherhood, dear."

"That's not what I mean, Pablo. It's not the particular organization. It's the almost-fanatical devotion to something. I don't know what his trigger is, but that guy has issues and a hell of a trigger. Does he have something to prove to someone? Was he bullied as a kid? I don't know. But the dude definitely has issues. See? Even his pal is starting to get nervous."

Pablo nods. It's like looking in a mirror in a way. Beach Guy's reactions to Diver Dude's words are the only way to tell anything is amiss. However, Diver Dude does apparently calm himself down. Eventually.

This time, in this scene, they just drive over the bridge.

"That's another not-at-all subtle change," Rene points out as those in the car approach the bridge. "Weren't there some buildings right on the other wide of the bridge in the last version?"

"Yes."

They both look at me, and I can do is shrug. This is becoming more and more strange . . . yet, still in the back of my mind, there's something terribly familiar about all of it. Let it come in its own time . . . that's was Tita would say.

The road is hardly more than a single-lane path in some places, although it's definitely pretty. Arriving at the clearing, we see the buildings and the signs. Signage is good — it's always more informative than trying to guess.

"Pretty impressive setup," Pablo notes. "To hear your cousin tell it, LEED certification isn't any easier to sell to clients now than it was ten years ago."

"It's just because people are idiots. When we had him design our house, I'm pretty sure my eyes glazed over. But the whole process has been streamlined so much in the last decade that even Bobby understands it."

Pablo snorts. "Are you sure Daniel didn't just tell your best friend that Martha Stewart endorsed it?"

"Hmm. That is a possibility."

"That's an exceptionally well-planned educational space," Rene notes, trying to get us back on track.

Looking at the displays along with Beach Guy while Diver Dude talks to the facility worker, my librarian instincts take over as I try to absorb all the information we can see.

"Wow, that's weird . . . not ominous weird this time, just peculiar weird. In our world, the Black Darter is a dragonfly. In their world, it's a butterfly that became nocturnal because of dragonfly predation. Well, partly anyway. And here, only moths are nocturnal. Butterflies are diurnal. Okay, a few are crepuscular. I wonder if their dimension is the equivalent of a perpendicular street."

"Do you know what she's talking about?" Rene whispers to Pablo.

"Hello! Super hearing over here!" I roll my eyes. "Moths like the night, although some flit about during the day. Butterflies are daytime flitterers, and crepuscular means they also fly around at dawn and dusk. I just like the word. Crepuscular, crepuscular, crepuscular!"

Pablo gives me an indulgent look. "Does it matter? And do you want to go back to work, dear?"

I shrug. "It's probably not that important. We'll see, won't we? And why would I want to get a job, Pablo? I'm having so much fun working with Billy on the Nation's data analyses, and enjoy working with my gray hat a lot more than I'd expected. Plus, I still volunteer for Story Time often enough to keep me happy."

"Okay, children, stop your quibbling. Is it significant that the People would care for these butterflies as they became nocturnal?" Rene wonders.

"It looks like typical Earth-keeper behavior to me. Granted, I'm not an expert on the histories of all the People, but on the surface, it isn't something that stands out. If it seems like it might be relevant, I can always call Charlie and ask him to tap into his network."

I point to Diver Dude. "That one, on the other hand, looks like he'd buy any sufficiently mystical story about the People. And no, I'm absolutely not calling Henry. If I want Coyote's input, I'll call Coyote."

"Of course you're not," Pablo replies with a chuckle. "His wife would kill you."

"Nah. He's on vacation, and it would distract him from rearranging rocks in their front yard."

"He still does that?"

"I do Taiji . . . my cousin moves rocks around. It's very meditative."

"Have I mentioned lately that you have some real oddballs in your family?"

"Yep, just yesterday when Justin called to see if we thought he should be Chris's Alfred."

"Ah. Right." Pablo shakes his head but smiles. "There's so much wrong with that idea, not the least of which is that Chris doesn't have nearly enough money to be Bruce Wayne."

"Just be grateful that my brother doesn't want to dress up and pretend to be Robin."

Pablo laughs. "As if Nicole would let him."

"Yes, there is that." I pause and point to another display. "That's an interesting story about their world's Montaukett, though," I say.

"Think there's any truth to their claims that the butterflies can be used in medical research?" Rene asks.

I shrug. "By our world's standards, the butterflies are just science fiction. But experimenting with a plant or animal on the Endangered Species list seems pretty unethical to me . . . to say nothing of the fact that it's frowned upon with grave and ponderous frowning."

"What if no butterflies, fictitious or otherwise, are harmed in the process?" Pablo has one of his teasing smiles at the ready.

I snicker. "I'm not going down that rabbit hole, dear." Then I sigh. "I know that ethical scientists can do tons of research without harming endangered species or their habitats. The problem, as you well know, is that there are too many unethical scientists." I nod toward the young man talking to Diver Dude. "The kid seems honest and earnest enough. And he probably manages to stick to ethical research. But what about his boss and his boss's boss and so forth up the food chain? If even the most saintly scientist thought she or he could eradicate a real threat to human lives and health — how far would that saint stray down the dark path?"

They're both silent for a minute.

"I don't doubt that there were some in Stryker's organization in similar situations," Rene barely whispers. "They may not have known where their blood and tissue samples came from as they worked to cure everything from cancer to the common cold, or so they believed." He looks at me with haunted eyes. "How can we ever know if we're killing one of the good ones when we — Maddie and her crew at Alkali Lake, all of us in Idaho Springs — shut down those research facilities?"

I lay one hand over his where it rests on my shoulder. "Even I'm not perfect, Rene. I can't speak for Maddie after you were killed, but I can say with enough certainty at Idaho Springs that there wasn't anyone with an aura like that kid's in Stryker's lair. Not the scientists, not the goons, and certainly not Stryker himself. I read the kid on the other side of the portal as someone who's honest and has the best intentions. But what if he's a true psychopath and has no moral compass whatsoever? I'd like to be able to say I'd see it . . . but I'm not a hundred percent certain I would from this far away."

Meanwhile, in the other world, the conversation between Diver Dude and the research facility kid continues.

"Well, your Diver Dude seems pretty unhappy about something."

"I see that, Rene. Not being able to eavesdrop kind of hampers my ability to give you a complete threat assessment."

"Holy shit, will you look at all those cameras!" Pablo exclaims. "The State Capital Building, the City and County Building, and all the sports arenas combined don't have that much surveillance!"

Rene and I look at the cameras. "Well, not as much overt surveillance, I'll grant you that. You should see the new Douglas County building . . . not a camera to be seen!"

"Bet I could find some of them," Rene boasts.

I smile at him with a wicked Ninja grin. "Really? What if I told you they consulted with Black Wolf for recommendations?"

His eyes widen. "How did they talk Maddie into that?"

"They didn't. They asked Ninja. Ninja asked Black Wolf." I shrug. "It's easy when you know who to ask. Even Masterson was impressed."

"Excuse me, children, but my exclamation of surprise was meant to point out the overabundance of easily-seen surveillance cameras, not an invitation to admire Douglas County's system." Pablo pauses for a beat. "Although it is pretty sweet."

"Fine," I say with a sigh. "You sound peevish, dear. Did you eat enough before you left Denver?"

"I did. Consider it an expression of fatherly concern for my son."

"Fair enough. And he'll be fine." I squeeze his hand and smile before looking at the facility again. "It doesn't look like any of the military installations I've toured — though, I'll grant there have only been a half dozen or so. But I think they've got enough cameras per square foot to rival NORAD, which I haven't visited, and Fort Carson, which I have."

"So you think it's a military operation?" he asks.

"Maybe. But it's just as likely that they've inherited the site like the cities of Denver and Aurora did when Lowry Air Force Base shut down, or that school in California when Fort Ord downsized."

"Hmm. True enough."

"And getting back to the kid, he doesn't seem to know how to deal with Diver Dude. Whatever Dude is asking has him confused, although he's still got that open and honest vibe going on. But some of Dude's questions are making him nervous, as well. Like . . . maybe he's asking questions that shouldn't be asked?" I watch for a moment longer, then nod. "A high ethical standard, that's what I'd call it. And Diver Dude is pushing him too hard. Huh. See how his stance just barely changed? The kid has this sense of . . . let's call it 'service to humanity.' What he's doing here is helping people. And Rene, please don't start with Stryker's people again."

I know the tone of my voice carries the pain of our memories, both individual and shared, from our encounters with that rat bastard. Rene squeezes my shoulder. He knows.

"So it's like your brother's research into mitigating the effects of the Virus?" Pablo asks.

I nod. "Yeah, that's what his aura looks like. But maybe something . . . I'm not sure . . . more pervasive but not as devastating to the fabric of society? As if . . ." I stop and watch the young man for another minute. "As if being able to make a difference to individual people gives him purpose, maybe. So, not curing the common cold or something weirdly random like the Virus, but something more . . . Well, something less prevalent than most of the diseases that run rampant, but something that has a meaning to him, anyway."

Pablo nods slowly. "Something like maybe his grandmother had Parkinson's and he wants to cure that." He looks at me and smiles. "Reminds me of a biochemist I'm related to who wants to rid the world of horrible side effects of the Virus because his big sister suffered so much."

I return his smile. "Not that I caught the Virus. But his best friend did, so I think there's still a good analogy there . . . as is the biologist trying to find ways to eradicate heart disease because her poppa died when she was a little girl."

"Right," he agrees. "Justin and Blanca do want to make the world a better place."

"We all do, Pablo," Rene says. "Some of us just use different methods."

"You and I, Rene," Pablo says, understanding in his voice, "are not cut out to be scientists. So we'll find the bad guys and take them out."

I'm watching what almost looks like a fencing match between Diver Dude and the kid — the kid is becoming anxious about getting back to work, and Diver Dude just keeps talking. While the young scientist is excited about his work, Diver Dude keeps verbally lunging at him. To be honest, the qi between them is starting to look more like a sparring match. If I had to guess, just based on the paranoia I saw earlier in Diver Dude's aura, I'd say he was trying to catch the kid in some kind of lie.

Good luck with that, my dude.

Both Pablo and Rene look at me.

"What?"

Pablo points to Beach Guy, who's gone outside again, to all the cameras, and to the circle of little bouquets all around the facility.

"The flowers . . . what's that all about?"

I just stare at my husband for several seconds. Just. Stare.

"Well, you're the librarian, aren't you?"

I love him dearly, but sometimes? I take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"Dear, my brain isn't Wikipedia. Nor do I have the internet inside my head. Now, I have no doubt that Bobby could identify all those plants. Okay, fine, I recognize Queen Anne's Lace when I see it. Bobby could go on at great length about the aesthetic appeal of all the flowers and how placing them where no one would see them is either fortunate or ridiculous, depending on his opinion of their decorative value on any given day. That said, if you want my opinion, we'd be better off talking to one of my Wiccan friends back in Denver. It sort of looks like the protection circle Peggy had around her property. Only sort of, though, because she has actual plants growing around her house rather than bundles of dried flowers."

I shrug.

"You think he should be taking one of them with him?"

"If it's a protection circle? Fuck no. Those things are like the Pentad — take one of us down, and the rest of us will keep going, most of us will get up again. That? It would be like taking Perry out if he didn't have us to back him up."

"Passionate much?"

"You're the one who asked, Pablo."

It's a little jarring when the scene changes to follow Newspaper Man and Lucy. She's on the phone . . . and still on the phone . . . and on the phone some more — on a single phone call, too, as far as I can tell. Good gods, who the hell could possibly talk that much? Right. I could. But not on the phone!

The two of them wander over to his newspaper office — she's still on the phone, by the way — and it looks like it's been trashed.

"Who trashes newspaper offices these days?" Rene asks. "Wait, are there even any newspaper offices left?"

This time Pablo sighs. "Of course there are, Rene. Not as many as in your day, but they still exist."

Lucy stops every once in a while as she helps Newspaper Man clean up. It's as though she's listening for something. To something?

"There . . . look. Those little . . . whatever they are have come back."

"Think they made that mess?"

I look at Pablo and start to say something snarky, but then shrug. "If it were our dimension, I'd say you were out of your mind. But over there? Who knows?"

The scene with the two of them gets pretty tedious and dull after that as they walk out to one of the outlying homes and meeting . . . ah! The kindly old woman who'd died in one vignette, and had given the little girl the basket of food in another. The woman looks seriously worried about something.

We're treated to yet another change of scenes, this time to Chelsea. It's after school, and she's attempting to follow the three juvenile delinquents — not an easy task once they go to the Inn. If we hadn't already guessed it, the diner is a busy and bustling place. In addition to helping out where she can, Chelsea sits at the counter doing homework during the few lulls. Later, the delinquents ride their bikes past the diner toward the other end of town.

Chelsea decides to follow them.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

Well, it's not as though I've never done anything that foolhardy, but at least I can defend myself from any delinquents to decide to make trouble.

"Oooh, did you see that? Black butterflies!" Pablo exclaims.

"Are you sure. It could be more of those . . ." Then Rene stops and peers through the portal. "Well, what do you know? They are butterflies. I've never seen anything like it."

"Do they even exist in our world?" Pablo asks.

"That sign we saw in the first . . . viewing? There was something about a Black Darter Refuge. You think that's one of them?"

"Guys, I already told you that the Black Darters are dragonflies in our world, which no one is going to confuse with a butterfly. I can't remember anyone looking for reference material on black butterflies and, again as far as I know, they don't exist in our world. There are mostly black ones, I think, but not all-black like those are. And researching black butterflies is definitely something that would be right up a middle school boy's alley. So if the information about their world's Black Darters is correct — and why wouldn't it be? — I'll concede those could be them."

"Hmm. Well, that proves we're not in Kansas anymore."

I nudge Pablo with my shoulder. "First, we've never been in Kansas except to drive through it. Second, you've been hanging out with Bobby and David again, haven't you?"

When Chelsea stops to rest — not an unexpected consequence of wandering through the forest in the dark for who knows how long — she's suddenly hit by one of the boys' bikes. The three of them are pedaling as though their lives depend on it, fleeing the extremely dark forest like the proverbial bats out of hell.

What they're riding from is a specter zig-zagging through the trees, looking eerie enough to give most of us pause. Then the scene zooms in, and we see that the ghostlike apparition is Melody — and she's being followed by some sort of Shadowkin.

All three of us gasp.

"Mon Dieu! Even in that place where you found me, It never looked like that!"

There isn't anything to add to that. That . . . that thing, that manifestation of the Shadow is what would have, could have infested our world had we not stopped it before it could fully emerge into our dimension. Although . . .

I swallow and realize my mouth is way too dry. "The things in that dimension from the grocery store where we fought Tsui . . . they looked more like stingrays, but they had eyes like that. And the teeth . . . some of them had teeth like that, too."

Suddenly Melody collapses, clutching her head and screaming, curling in on herself; then she begins convulsing and crying. Is that the Shadowkin's effect on her? Her head is thrown back as she bends back like a bow, as unnatural and painful to watch as it likely is for her to endure. She seems to be screaming something more coherent than just an expression of pain and terror, but we can't tell from here. Even watching the qi gives me no clues other than she's scared and hurting.

Once more, she drops into a curled bundle on the ground, which is when lights suddenly illuminate the small area of the woods. We watch as two men step into what looks like the halogen headlights of a vehicle. Chelsea sees it too. We all watch in horror as one of the men drags Melody to her feet. When she tries to run, he hits her hard, violently.

If that's not enough to curl my hands into fists, I note the men's guns.

"Military, paramilitary," Rene whispers, despite the fact that there's no way for those on the other side of the portal to hear him.

I feel the answer rising again, and not just my own this time. Pablo, too. Even Rene. Maybe especially Rene.

"If this keeps up, you might need to get Hank out here to stop me from just busting through that portal."

Oddly, my words have a calming effect on Pablo. "He's too gentle. Where's Em?"

"Canada," I say through clenched teeth.

"If you can't control the Warrior, we're fucked, Andrea."

I take a few short, shallow breaths and then look at my husband. "Wife has no desire to keep the Warrior from raining down the fury of righteous retribution on people who hurt children."

"Then I'll call in Eagle and the rest. It might take your whole Pantheon to stop you, but they will."

I'm not calm, not even close to it. But I nod. "It might take all of of them. But do it if you must."

Weirdly, the sudden change of scenery does enough to calm me down as anything either Pablo or Rene is going to say.

It's not particularly odd that Jilly Mallory hears noises outside. There's a truck coming up the road, up her driveway. The strange thing is the chittering little voices that are coming from the forest. I hear them. Lucy seems to hear them. They might even be audible to Chelsea as they follow her.

"Gods, they're everywhere."

"What are?"

Pablo tries to see what I do in the nighttime of the other world, but it's just qi. At least . . . I think so.

"Those little neutral things. The not-Shadowkin."

"Well, that explains why we can't see them in the dark."

Good girls remember the kind . . . even good girls broken.

I inhale sharply. "Did you . . .?"

No, they didn't, because they're looking at me like I'm nutso-coocoo. Not for the first time, I wonder if I am.

"Okay. Just me then. Sounded a bit like the Spirits talking if a bunch of them were talking all at once, but the less annoying ones."

"Raven is the only . . . oomph!"

"I will continue to introduce my elbow to your ribs, Jacobs, if you continue to speak of that one. Besides, it sounded more like Hummingbird, although not exactly."

As the DEC truck pulls into the Mallory driveway and the young scientist helps Melody out, I wonder if I'm actually reading him correctly. He seems polite and solicitous and honestly appears to care. But was he part of the spectacle we saw earlier? How much time has passed in that world? What did we miss in the scene change? He doesn't leave until he sees that Melody is being cared for, though, which does say something about his character.

It's the whole scenario that I find discordant — from Chelsea's run-in with the delinquent bicyclists to Melody's return home. Jilly, Lucy, and Newspaper Man all appear to be genuinely happy to see Melody, who looks none too good at this point. After the scientist is gone, Lucy signals oddly to Newspaper Man. Does he not understand what she's trying to say? Or does he not hear what she hears?

"See? I'm not crazy. She hears something, too."

"Not what you heard, though, Andi. She's certainly not a professional, but even the average person would know that tapping one's teeth is not going to convey the idea that one hears voices."

"I didn't say she heard voices, Rene. Just that she heard . . . something."

Pablo nods. "It's probably literal. Did you hear teeth clattering? Something like that?"

"No, it was more of a buzzing for me."

"So . . . there are definitely things there that we can see, though only Andi can see them consistently and hear them. But at least some of those in-country can at least hear them. They certainly appeared to see It when it gets near them. What does that tell us?"

"That it's nothing like the telenovelas my momma watched," Pablo replies absently. "Why are some people aware of what's going on and others aren't?"

I snort. "Why can some people fly or shift forms or see qi or know the future or teleport or open portals or act like Doctor Doolittle in our universe? Their version of mutant abilities, I suppose."

Chelsea had been waiting for the truck to leave and get far enough down the road that the driver wouldn't see her before heading up the stairs to the front door. When she knocks on the door, Mrs. Mallory lets her in. Newspaper Man looks to be worried about her, talking to her as he helps her sit down. I'm going to guess he's asking if she's okay because she looks terrified as she shakes her head. She looks like she's going to cry, too. If I'd seen what she saw before my Curse hit me? Yeah, I'd have been terrified, too. Lucy tries comforting her, Mrs. Mallory gets Melody to sit beside her. The elderly woman is concerned about both of them, but more so about Chelsea, and then she leaves the room . . . to get her a sedative, the first aid kit, a shot of bourbon?

Chelsea says something to Melody, and the dark-haired girl looks at her classmate with sad, sorrowful, dull eyes before beginning to panic. She starts looking for something, a book probably, on the nearby table. Because she's so scattered and unable to concentrate, it takes a while for her to find a passage in the book she picked up, but she finally pushes it over to Chelsea. It's a page from a book I've never seen before: The Forever June of 1983: the complete works of Frederica Bernkastel.

I cannot quench your thirst
Because even if you yearn for the truth, you refuse to believe it.
I cannot quench your thirst
Because no such truth exists that you are in anticipation for.
But I still want to quench your thirst
Because I am the one that put you into the desert.

"Who is this Bernkastel individual?" Pablo asks. "She's depressing."

I shrug. "I've never heard of the author. Mrs. Kumata was the poetry expert at DPL, not me. It's possible she doesn't even exist in our world. After all, Beach Guy never wrote any books under either his own name or the nom de plume he took in that universe."

Chelsea squeezes Melody's hand, and Lucy gives her a hug, which surprises her. The look on Melody's face is something I've seen far too many times; it's the expression of someone who doesn't believe they're worthy of the kindness being shown them. As the others continue their conversations, Melody tries to concentrate, but I can tell it's getting harder for her to do so. Still, something they say gets through to her, and she pulls out that scrap of paper again.

"That's getting a little hard to believe at this point," Rene says.

"As in you're not paranoid if they really are out to get you?" I ask, still upset over Melody's earlier treatment in the woods.

"Yes. But if that part is suspect, then would all the rest of it be a less reliable indicator of her state of mind?"

I close my eyes on the scene in front of us and sigh.

"You know drugs fuck up a person's aura, Rene . . . sometimes to the point that I can't even recognize what's a reaction to the drugs and what might be an underlying problem. No. We all saw what just happened in the woods. I don't really believe she's paranoid. And schizophrenia?"

I open my eyes and look at him. "If I understand even half of what David talks about — and believe me, I understand more than half of it — I might be classified as schizophrenic, too. I mean, you're a Spirit. I can communicate with you and all the other Spirits even when you're not manifesting physically on this plane. If that girl's biggest problem is being able to hear and possibly see the little not-Shadowkin? Then I'd have to say she's as sane as I am, which isn't a ringing endorsement some days. So . . ." I shrug once more and look back at the cozy home of the woman who's supposed to die in the near future. "No. I'm not buying it either."

"Seems like someone else isn't buying it any more than you are," Pablo notes as Chelsea shakes her head. "I'm no literary genius, but is there a connection between the poem she chose and her alleged diagnosis?"

"You're inviting weirdness just asking that question, Pablo . . . you realize that, don't you?" I watch the interaction between the two girls. It seems significant. I don't know why, and that bothers me. It means something, and I don't know what it might mean. It's frustrating not being able to trust what a person's aura is telling me. I mean, I'm assuming that Melody's aura is being affected by drugs because that's what her physical appearance tells me. I wonder if that's all there is to it, but without getting a lot closer to her, there's no way to find out.

"If the diagnosis is bogus and Melody can see the Shadow, the Shadowkin, and the not-Shadowkin . . ." I roll the poem over and over in my mind. "Anything is possible, I guess. Is she admitting that the things she sees are real? Is she saying that she can't explain it to them because they wouldn't believe her? Is she saying that there's no way for her to explain it in a way that could be believed? Is she admitting that it's all her fault that the dreamers are a part of this? I guess if you want to look at it that way, there might be a connection."

Mrs. Mallory comes back with blankets, pillows, a first aid kit, piling the first two around the girls and then tending to Chelsea's cuts. She takes Melody's piece of paper from Chelsea.

"Gods, she's so sad. She's a good woman, kind, caring. Kind of reminds me a little of Old Mama."

I can't hear what she's saying, but it's obvious, to me anyway, that she cares an awful lot for Melody.

. . . sorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorry . . .

My brows furrow, almost of their own volition. The old woman is still talking, but it would appear that both Lucy and I hear those voices again.

. . . sorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorry . . .

And so does Melody. She very obviously raises a finger to her lips. I can't hear her, but I know she's saying Shhhh . . .

"Lucy can hear the voices. Melody can hear the voices. And I can hear the voices, despite the fact that it should be impossible for me to hear them. They're not telepathic, I actually hear them with my ears — through a look-see portal from another dimension. Did I mention that should be one hundred percent impossible? They're apologizing over and over and over."

Lucy texts a message to someone as Chelsea settles beside Melody and Newspaper Man listens. They all seem to want to help somehow. I don't think they know how. Those voices, though . . . they're nagging me.

"I don't get it."

Yet. There's always that implicit "yet" when the Warrior decides there are terrible things in the world that need to be eliminated. There's nothing I can do for their world but witness, which is part of my duty as the Warrior, as well as a healthy portion of the foundation of my frustration and anger. There's more conversation among the folks we're watching. At one point, Lucy must have asked a question because Melody pushes the book in her lap over to Lucy. When Lucy opens the book — a well-read one, that's obvious — she lets it fall open to a random page.

Well, why not? It's something I frequently do with old books. What page is it that most people have found interesting in the book? Perhaps that's the librarian in me. Oddly, Melody's book doesn't fall open to one of the inner pages — it opens to the first page in the collection of poems. That's an oddity I've never seen before.

She had no hope,
She knew there was no way out.
They had more.
They didn't know there was no way out.
Everyone else, they had all the hope in the world.
They didn't know they had to get out in the first place.

As we read the words along with Lucy, Pablo shakes his head. "It's so sad and depressing."

I'm watching Melody, though.

"No. It's a message."

"A sad and depressing one."

"Stop it, Pablo," I say absently as I watch the strange girl with an all-too-conventional diagnosis that isn't quite right. Or is thoroughly wrong, depending on how one looks at the situation. "I've never heard of this Bernkastel, but as I said before, she might not even exist in our world. Not that we don't have our fair share of depressing authors, of course."

"So you're saying these poems are somehow significant?" Rene asks.

"Maybe? I've never opened an old book that's been read hundreds of times and have it fall open to the first page of the first chapter. I'm only guessing here, but my guess is that Melody reads that first poem a lot. So as far as significance goes? Yeah, it's significant to her."

"She's the one with no hope?" Pablo sounds . . . worried.

"She's too drugged up for me to tell anything from her aura, from her qi. But given everything else we've seen, I'd tentatively say . . . maybe? But then you have to ask: get out of where? I'll say the ones with some hope are the dreamers, while everyone else has all the hope in the world."

"The youngster . . . Chelsea? She's scared."

I look at Captain Obvious. "Gosh, you should be a detective, Detective!"

Rene sighs at us. Again.

"Please don't lie to me, Rene, and tell me that you and Maddie have never, ever teased one another."

"Oh, I won't lie. I just don't think we've ever taken it to the heights you two do."

I snicker. "Yes, you have . . . you just take it in an entirely different direction. One that might be called depths rather than heights."

He rolls his eyes as he sighs this time.

I look back at the portal. "There are more whispers, but they're too soft for me to make out what they're saying. And Newspaper Man is . . . hmm, going into protective mode. That's nice. He seems like a decent guy, watching out for his niece and now Chelsea. And Lucy's qi is . . . trying to wrap around everyone in the room? Safety, protection. Maybe just a desire to keep everyone together? Chelsea is most worried about Melody; the adults are concerned about Mrs. Mallory."

"But still no clue how they get from here to . . . whatever our son saw?"

I shake my head. It's not an answer that makes either of us happy.

Next up: Track Four

© Kelly Naylor