Track Four

This time the change of scene looks almost like a return from a commercial break; we're back at the diner. Chelsea is at the counter with her schoolbooks, so it's either the next day or . . .

Hell, without any reference points, who could possibly tell what day it is? Shouldn't it be a rule of some sort that diners have calendars on the wall so peeping Ninjas from other dimensions can tell what's going on? I think so. Beach Guy and Diver Dude show up, shortly followed by Lucy and then finally by Newspaper Man. It doesn't take long for something out-of-the-ordinary to start happening.

"Our intrepid LEO is certainly in a hurry."

"Blue light special doesn't bode well either," Pablo mutters. "If there's only the one sheriff, and no plainclothes cops, the next best guess is forensics tech or coroner."

"In a small town like that, they could be the same, couldn't they?" You'd think after knowing him for so long, and working with LEOs as long as I have, I'd know the answer to that. But I don't investigate or clean up after criminals — not unless they're in Stryker's class of evil. My job is to keep the shit from happening in the first place.

"Maybe? I'd say it depends on the training of the sheriff and the coroner."

Rene nudges us. "I know this is boring, kids, but shouldn't we be watching these troublemakers?"

"I can watch and talk to my husband at the same time, Rene." I gesture to the diner scene. "They're just talking. They're more agitated than the rest of the folks in the diner. Chelsea's concern is a different vibrational tone — probably more concerned about school. Her mom seems nice, though."

We watch as Chelsea's mom steps out of the diner for a moment. Her movements have the look of a ritual to the them — a bit of calm brings a chance for some fresh air — it's something she's done every day, at least several times a day. The look on her face, however, isn't ordinary. She looks worried. Not a lot, no, but it's there. Maybe concerned would be a better word for it. Unfortunately, most of what she says is over her shoulder. When she does turn around, about all I can make out is something about . . . rain?

"I really wish people wouldn't mumble when I'm trying to read their lips."

"Just something about it looking like rain."

I glare at Rene. "Thanks, Sherlock. I got that part."

Pablo interrupts us. "Does that look familiar, Andrea?"

I look at the little bunch of flowers Beach Guy is pushing across the table toward Chelsea.

"Other than flowers? It resembles the mess he broke off earlier. Yesterday? Did I mention that it was probably a bad idea?"

"You did . . . if we assume it was some sort of pagan circle of protection."

"Good. Just making sure."

Pablo chuckles. "Given that your expertise with flora of our world is relatively close to my level of knowledge, I just wanted to make sure we're on the same page about it being the same bunch of flowers from the butterfly place."

"You two crack me up," Rene comments, the nods toward the portal. "Hey, maybe we'll get a change of scenery now that the newspaper guy is leaving. Watching people eat is beyond dull."

"Maybe we'll even find out what's going on outside," Pablo adds hopefully.

While I think that's a lovely idea in theory, with the creepy vibe of that town — and knowing that we haven't seen the worst of it yet — I wonder if we really want to find out what's going on.

While Beach Guy and Lucy look to be teaming up for the morning's activities and Chelsea is about ready to head to school, I can't help noticing how ordinary it all looks. I brace myself for an unpleasant and abrupt change of scenery.

As we've come to know, each scene follows one or more of the dreamers through their mini-adventures. This time, we're following Newspaper Man first . . . over toward the end of town to two rather nice homes. Ah, one of them is nice. The other is a crime scene, and a horrific one at that if the brief glimpse we get of the interior is any indication. The sheriff's car is on the lawn; yellow police tape is blocking off the driveway and part of the yard; a small group of lookie-loos stands off to the side.

On the porch of the house, a woman stands there staring vacantly; blood soaks the hemline of her long white dress; a teenage girl sits on the porch wrapped in a blanket. They both have the appearance of someone trying to escape — not necessarily physically, either. If they could leave their bodies and come back later, they would. From the colors in the woman's qi, I'm not even sure she'd care all that much about returning.

"You notice how fashionable those long white skirts and blouses are? They're not terribly practical for actual work. If that's blood — and it sure looks like it — it will never come clean." I briefly wonder if the town has a dress code.

"You've been paying more attention to my wife's frou-frou fashion business than you've let on, Andi," Rene teases.

"Hardly. It comes from living next door to to a Fashion Queen for a handful of years."

"If they have similar materials in that dimension as we have in ours, maybe they're almost as dirt-repellent as our uniforms," Pablo notes.

I look at him and point to the semi-catatonic woman. "Pablo. Look at her hem. It's soaked. I've gotten other people's blood — oh, yeah, and my own, too — on my uniform and it very creepily just oozes away."

"Yeah, I did notice that," he says, shuddering slightly. "I love the protective virtues of the material, but its self-cleaning capabilities are unnerving."

We watch the sheriff come out of the house, which allows us to get a better look inside. Even Rene swallows hard.

"Isn't that what some of the dreamers' windows looked like when . . .?" Pablo can't finish the sentence.

I nod.

The sheriff says something to Newspaper Man — presumably that he can go in the house because that's what he does. The scene tightens in on him as though to capture the feeling that he's looking carefully at everything around him.

The look on the man's face as he walks through the house is one of fear and disgust. I'm not even sure he realizes it yet. Every room is destroyed. Blood, gore, tiny bits of bone are everywhere. All of that was once a human body. Now it's broken and smeared . . . everywhere.

"Jesus," Pablo whispers.

"Oui," Rene agrees.

I swallow again as Newspaper Man stumbles out of the house and vomits in the bushes. Who can blame him? I have to give him credit for going back inside and looking around the second floor. I'm not sure I would have done it. It looks like whatever had done this wanted to crush the house as well as the human. It was the Shadow — I'm convinced of that — but how could it have taken a form physical enough to do this kind of damage?

There's no indication of an answer to most of the questions the journalism instructor had drilled into our heads during a college semester more than two decades in the past. "When?" is apparently answered by the clock impaled in a TV screen, or at least it gives us a clue. The clock stopped close to midnight, so it would depend on how long it could keep going after being smashed like that.

Then there's the small footprint that would probably match the girl on the porch. Had she seen what had been happening? Had she seen the Shadow marauding through the house? It's no wonder she and her mother are nearly catatonic.

Is Newspaper Man wondering the same things, or do other thoughts fill his mind? His qi is roiling, and he has the aura of a man who's seen things that should never be seen. As he flees from the house, it's obvious that he's not the only one with an aura like that, either. Even the sheriff is unnerved.

I think about two honest patrolmen who stood on a bridge with me the night Sally Banner had been murdered. As horrible as her death had been and how deeply we were all affected by it, what is happening in the other reality beyond the portal is something even the Aryan Knighthood couldn't have contrived.

What might be the worst of it — if it would be possible to say one part of this nightmare is any worse than any other part of it — was the look on Newspaper Man's face as he walked along sodden carpets. They were probably squelching with the blood and viscera has he hurried out of the house.

"Andi . . ."

I look over my shoulder at Rene.

"Did you see what the mother said?"

I shake my head. "I'm watching the qi and the auras."

"Well, you're not going to like it, but she said 'At least now you can say no to that horrible DeCoon boy.'"

My hands curl into fists again as I clench my jaws. Turning around, I watch mother and daughter get themselves into the SUV. Oh, yeah, that's really a lovely town. The slimy son of the town's most powerful family can go around being a sexual predator, and young women need to put up with it?"

"That place needs Ninja," I whisper.

"And they can't have her," Pablo replies, squeezing my hand. "Denver needs her just as much, you know."

"Yeah. I know."

The sheriff and Newspaper Man have a bit of a conversation; neither of them cooperates and looks in our direction so we can't tell what they're saying. But she's more upset than we're seen her so far and he's . . . all over the place, I suppose. He wants answers and doesn't want them at the same time. Yet, as upset as she is, there's someone the sheriff cares about very much who is either involved or affected by something that resonates with this situation. It was something in the past, and when she talks about it, Newspaper Man connects to the same people or person, albeit in a different way.

"Damn. They're such a mess."

It's obvious, of course. Yet it reminds me of so many things — my life, other people's lives — that I can't even name most of them. But I can point to my own memories and know they all look too much like Pablo and Denise's family after they took her off her life support all those many, many years ago. I don't doubt I looked the same way these two look.

Broken.

Yeah, my Curse is an asshole.

There isn't much to see as Newspaper Man walks back toward the center of town after the sheriff drives away. He seems to be caught up in his own memories, and they're making him maudlin. Guilt, hurt, anger, sadness . . . that's an ugly combination. So it's a little surprising when he wanders into the bar, presumably in search if his sister.

It isn't hard to find her as she's the only customer in the place. They resemble one another even more than he resembles the little girl, both in appearance and qi signatures.

Other than being drunk, the most obvious thing about her is that she doesn't trust her brother. I can't hear the words, but her energy backs away from him even if her body doesn't. The play of qi between them is fascinating, and not in a good way.

"This is another really dull episode."

"It's not a whole lot more interesting from my point of view, Pablo. I'm not sure it would help to know what they're talking about. She doesn't trust him, he's trying to find something out but asking questions in a way that makes her trust him even less. And he's annoying her." I pause for a moment. "Huh. He just said something that scared her . . . and now he's backpedaling. I think he might be trying to break down those barriers of hers, but she doesn't have a reason to trust him. She's certainly not going to let him in."

As we continue watching, the siblings turn toward the mirror behind the bar as they go on with their conversation, making it easy to read their lips.

I think of him every day, every single awful day. And if I'm not drunk, every time I close my eyes it's like a flash of lightning on a hot August night. Completely black and then suddenly everything is illuminated sharp and crisp and far too real. Sunny's bedroom. The red. Sunny screaming about Daddy being hurt and every time I blinked, there was just more of it, like some Loony Tune nightmare. Blink, and more blood. Blink, and Chuck is even more hurt. Blink, and he's whispering to me . . .

You know what the last thing he said to me? He said he was sorry, that he was sorry, but he wasn't the one she was supposed to save.

Newspaper Man's sister stops for a moment.

Not the one she was supposed to save? God damn it, what the hell was that supposed to mean, Derek?

I stare at them.

"Any idea what that means, Andrea?" Pablo asks. "Never mind. I see the look on your face. You might not know, but you have a damn good idea."

"Maybe. Not really. But the depressing poems make a little more sense now." I look at my husband. "Not enough sense, not as much sense as I'd like, not even to tell me who she is. A little girl? Difficult to believe."

"Not necessarily, sister . . . your niece and nephew saved my wife's life before they were even born." Rene squeezes my shoulder gently.

I nod. He's right. Gifts blossom early in some people. My children did the same thing — well, not necessarily saving my life, but they definitely shared their gifts with me before they were born. But ours is a world full of mutants. On the other side of the portal, there only seems to be the horror of the Shadow and the Shadowkin.

I don't think they have superheroes there.

"She doesn't know how to move on," I note, nodding to Newspaper Man's sister. "She lost her husband in a brutal and unbelievable way, and she just doesn't know how to move on."

"I understand that feeling," Pablo says.

I hold his hand and lean against him. "I know, love. I know you do."

This time, as the two siblings go their separate ways — him pulling out his cell phone, her just heading up the hill toward the school — one scene dissolves into the next one. We've jumped back a few hours to the point where Lucy, Beach Guy, and Diver Dude follow Newspaper Man out of the diner. They're walking down the street, just chatting. Diver Dude seems lost in his own thoughts. When they arrive at what appears to be the town's library, Lucy and Beach Guy go inside while Diver Dude continues on whatever mission he has.

This scene follows the dreamers into the library. It's a quaint little building that was probably someone's home at one time. I like it. Granted, it definitely wasn't designed to be a library. But it's small enough that it wouldn't be difficult to keep track of what books are in which room.

As Lucy and Beach Guy look around, I find myself inordinately pleased that they still use the Dewey Decimal system rather than Library of Congress. I know it's an affectation of mine, probably a holdover from the base library when my parents were stationed in Japan, but I understand Dewey every bit as well as LoC. Most librarians my age don't: about all we were taught in college was how to convert from the older system to the newer one. Library of Congress was a well-entrenched system by the time I got to college.

The librarian sits behind a desk near the entrance. She looks at least as old as I believe Mrs. Kumata to be — beyond retirement age, that's certain. Yet she looks so at home here that there probably isn't anything short of death or catastrophic illness that will get her out of the place. Okay, I don't think she lives here, but that's not what I mean anyway.

The funny thing? The book she's reading is the one Beach Guy wrote. He's trying very hard not to be noticed.

"What are you snickering about, dear?"

I point out the book and then gesture to Beach Guy. "He's the author. She knows it. He doesn't know she's as kind as she looks and won't make a fuss, seeing as he's pretending to be part of the furnishings."

"That's sweet of her." Pablo pauses for a moment. "You should write a book or two."

I snort. "This project I'm doing for Charles could turn into a whole series."

"No, no . . . I meant a fun book!"

"It is fun! It's just that it will take someone at least as smart as Leon to translate my metaphysics into actual physics to make it much more than something of passing interest to me and possibly our son someday."

"What happens when someone smarter than my son comes along?" Rene asks.

I shrug. "Don't know. Talia knows about the project and hasn't said anything, so I'm going to take that to mean it's fine to write all this stuff down. I figure since I'm writing it from a metaphysical point of view, getting the math and physics parts lined up are going to be really, really difficult. Your son is a Grade A certified genius, Rene, and I'm not sure he'd be able to make sense of a lot of it. Maybe the math hasn't been invented yet."

I smile, though, as I watch the librarian point out the various sections of the tiny library to Lucy. When she stands after some back and forth conversation, she looks like she's in teaching mode. We all get like that, of course — at least those of us who are good librarians. We do have a passion for our books. She points over to one set of shelves, which seems to make Lucy very happy.

I really wish I could hear this conversation. It looks like they're having a great time!

Lucy stops at the section on . . . well, some might call it local modern mythology and others might call it conspiracy theory. It's the section the high school kids most often frequented of their own volition. There are a lot of ghost stories about places in Colorado. Fortunately, the authors selected were not only excellent storytellers, but they were also fine historians, too.

The elderly woman next leads them into a quaint sitting room where she unlocks the glass doors to an antique cabinet and takes out two large leather-bound journals. After setting them on the table near the big bay windows, she also fetches a set of cotton gloves for each of them, as well as a magnifying glass. Finally, she has them sign for the documents.

"Oooh, I wish I could check out that library!"

Pablo laughs. "Are you sure you don't want to go back to work?"

I nod. "Yes, I'm sure. But I might volunteer more often if the kids can stay out of trouble."

"Right. So no more volunteer work for a while."

"Pessimist."

Rene chuckles. "No. I'm a realist. What makes you think your kids are going to be any less precocious than Vincent and Emelia?"

I sigh. "You're a depressing sort of charmer at times, Rene."

The two dreamers don't seem to have much luck or much fun pouring over the ledgers. I'd love to be able to read them if for no other reason than academic curiosity. I'm not sure I'd find anything to explain the oddness they have in their world, but I do so love old books.

Although . . . I note an interesting passage in a section about the island's history. In short, the Mallorys and the DeCoons have always been at each other's throats, with the DeCoons trying desperately to push the Mallorys from the island.

Nightflyer, the chief's wife, never seemed surprised that Master DeCoon's intrigues kept failing, like the sea against stone. She said, quite simply, you cannot make leave that which belongs here . . .

If both the Mallory and DeCoon families had been colonists — and that seems a reasonable assumption — why would the local Native People believe the Mallorys belonged? I suppose if I extrapolate our own history to theirs, it could be because working with rather than against the indigenous people is always a good idea. Building friendships — real friendships and not the pseudo-friendships induced by science fiction butterflies — is a better strategy than conquering and subjugating people. That could explain the passage, I guess. There's no reason not to have at least some parallels between worlds even when the histories are so wrong and yet so similar.

They've pushed the ledgers aside now and are going through the books Lucy had brought from the other room, so I take a look at those, too. Seriously? I shake my head and sigh. I guess some things really do transcend universes.

"Problem, Andi?" Rene frowns as he tries to read the book titles and author names on the table in front of the dreamers.

"It depends on how different their world is from ours, I suppose." I point to the books. "Nichols? He's a moderately successful science fiction author here, but very firmly in the sci-fi category. Vallee — when he was alive — was a well-known crackpot, conspiracy theorist, and fan of UFOs. The Montauk Project?"

I pause a moment, taking the information I know and couple it with the conversation we just had about the information Charles wants from me. I shake my head again.

Project Montauk was a conspiracy theory that got its start not long after I was born. Not that I knew anything about it until I began working for the Denver Public Library. Gods, some of those kids at East High were not only collecting every conspiracy theory they could find, but I'm pretty sure they were concocting new ones, too.

I know how hard it is to open windows and doors into other dimensions and alternate universes. I'm the expert. I have the energy of the entire planet at my disposal. My son has the innate skill that just needs to be refined so he doesn't wind up getting lost — but he'll never have the power I do. As far as I know, he and I are the only two people on our planet in our universe who can deliberately open these doorways.

Has there ever been a program like the Montauk Project of the other world to use technology to rip open the space-time continuum? Given the possible dimensions from which I know other entities enter our world, it's not even a stretch of the imagination. I don't doubt our world's governments would try to do what I do. I don't doubt that these governments tried to create the teleportation and the mind control and everything else Valle claimed in his books.

Our government had, after all, come up with the Virus long before I was born.

So I'd asked Freak about it — or rather, asked Maddie to have him research the information. He trusted me to be in the same room as Maddie when they talked. He never warmed up to me to the point I could get him to initiate a search for me. Not a trusting soul, that one.

Still, he came up with absolutely nothing beyond the usual stuff anyone could find on the internet. No reference to deleted or redacted CIA files, no rumors of anything like the stuff in Nichols's novels — or the Ludlum novels, or that movie about goats with George Clooney either.

And if Freak couldn't find it? The information didn't exist. He's that good. You can bet that between Charles, Maddie, and me if someone started experimenting with that kind of dangerous technology . . . Well, Maddie has more money than God and a lot of contacts. Anyone who decides to experiment with ripping open the fabric of space time, they'd find an awful lot of really great reasons to find a new line of research. Or someone like Leon is going to be overseeing the project and consulting with Aunt Andi on a regular basis.

Maddie hasn't had to pull out those big guns yet. None of that has happened yet.

"You're staring at those folks in a way that should make them very afraid."

I blink and look at Pablo. "Not them, specifically. The damn fools who thought fucking around with the dimensions and possible alternative universes. There are times when I don't know what's on the other side of a portal. The eggheads over there tried to do some of what I can do and never did more than get people hooked on drugs or killed. Maybe they were ahead of their time."

"So you're implying that Paul needs more supervision? That he got lucky his first time opening a portal, and better luck since he's been here? Well, except for this last time."

I consider that, then shake my head slowly. "No, I think his instincts are good. His technique is improving. I think this world was an anomaly . . . that something happened over there just as he opened the portal. What we've seen so far is odd, but it wouldn't have been a cause for concern except for that something. I aim to find out what it was. And when it happened. That way, I can make sure none of us wind up there accidentally."

"And if they show up here uninvited?" Rene asks.

"Unless I hear otherwise from my cousin, we go to work. Full threat assessment and mobilize the troops if necessary. We've kept the small bits of Shadow under control for over a decade. I'm not allowing a breach."

Pablo squeezes my hand as Rene tightens his grip on my shoulder.

"You wouldn't be doing that alone, Andi," Rene offers quietly. "And . . ."

"And it won't come to that," Pablo says confidently.

"I know, Rene. And I hope you're right, Pablo."

I still can't shake the feeling of unease that I have while watching the people in the other dimension. Lucy and Beach Guy continue talking; between bits of conversation, Lucy is taking notes from the books. From what she's writing down, it would seem Nichols wrote a series of very different books in their world, books that aren't as strictly science fiction as they are in our world.

There's another short conversation with the librarian — she seems to be giving them directions — before they leave, and we have another change of scenery.

This time, we're at school with Chelsea.

Personally, I think it's fascinating because I didn't go to a traditional high school like most of my contemporaries. We had more than two rooms at the American School, of course, but we did have multi-grade classrooms like Chelsea and Melody and Sunny have. The older kids helped the younger ones just like the school in the other world. We didn't have such hard and fast demarcations of rank and privilege, however. We didn't have the kinds of cliques I see in the other world. It didn't matter that Justin and I were the children of officers and that most of our friends were children of enlisted personnel. When I listen to the stories that Pablo tells of his enormous high school in Los Angeles, I'm flabbergasted.

Chelsea is a friendly young woman without being cliquish, which is refreshing. Her aura changes sharply when she sees Melody and Sunny: she's more than just friendly, she's protective. She's not the least bit happy about whatever it is that's happening to Melody.

Knowing what my son saw, I need to make a conscious effort to push my anger away. For someone to do what my son saw to this girl . . .

Chelsea pauses a moment to greet her classmate and the young girl, apparently complementing Melody's hair, for the older girl seems to notice with a bit of resignation the red ribbon tied in her long black hair.

From the corner of my eye, I see Pablo as the tyke has a conversation with her teddy bear, and then says something to Melody. Yes, that's something our children did when they were small. They didn't confine their conversations to just stuffed animals, however. When they wanted to convey concepts from the Not Born Place, as they call it — concepts I always felt were better left inside their little heads — we'd never know if their toys or appliances or ordinary household objects were going to be responsible for "telling them things." As Auntie Uncle Bobby has said on more than one occasion, "Your children are very strange, Andi." Yeah. Don't I know it.

As the girls go up the stairs, we all see that the juvenile delinquents are waiting at the door. While the morning's activities at the crime scene up the road appear to hold their attention, their auras say otherwise. Apparently, the tyke notices their less-than-honorable intentions as well. It's odd, and yet not odd in the least, the way the little one "accidentally" bumps Melody just the littlest bit so that the lead thug, the son of the Inn's owner, doesn't manage to trip the dark-haired girl this morning. He might have whispered something, or he might not have — given that Chelsea says something to him, I'd put the chances of him having said something obnoxious at well over fifty percent. His aura is certain menacing.

Almost as if she can read auras herself, the little girl hurries the other two toward their classroom. Of course, it could simply be a scene that's played out so many times that by now it's predictable.

It's an ominous reminder of the crime scene to see an empty desk in the classroom of the older children — no doubt the girl who had driven off with her mother earlier. The teacher stands awkwardly and uncomfortably at the front of the class, his high level of unease probably only clear to me.

What's clear to both Pablo and Rene is Melody's expression, or perhaps lack thereof, as the teacher speaks. I think he means to be reassuring to his students as he refers to the missing girl — the quick, darting glances at the empty desk made the subject plain.

"God, look at that poor girl," Pablo, father and detective, says as he watches Melody go from pale to virtually bloodless. "I understand that they're upset about their classmate, but she looks like a witness, maybe a suspect who believes they might inadvertently be responsible for a crime."

He looks at me, and all I can do is shrug. "You're right, and then some. Her aura is projecting guilt. With the disarray of the qi through all her meridians, I'm surprised she isn't shaking more than she is."

"Is it possible that she's responsible? Guilty by association?"

I look at Rene, my own expression full of pain. "I don't know, Rene. I can't see how, but she certainly believes it."

It hurts to watch her: consumed by fear and guilt, stuck in the fog of her medications, plodding ponderously through her day. It's a relief when lunchtime rolls around for the students. Unfortunately, it reminds me that it was close to lunchtime when I'd been summoned to Hank's lab, and it's well beyond time for the midday meal now. Not surprisingly, my stomach growls, causing both Pablo and Rene to chuckle.

"Woman cannot live by qi alone, and breakfast was a long time ago." Before they can tease me any further, and despite the gravity of the situation in the other universe, I manage a smile at Melody's reaction to Chelsea staying with her for lunch. Sunny's surprise in the doorway to find Chelsea with her friend elicits a giggle.

"Well, that felt good."

"Obviously something that's never happened before," remarks Pablo.

"Indeed."

There's a short conversation among the three of them. I have no idea what they're saying, but based on body language and the flow of qi, I'd probably script something like Melody wearily saying that Chelsea shouldn't be there. Then the other girl asking why she shouldn't be there in an oddly confusing way, and the littlest one — after practically sneaking in and trying to make her messy lunch slightly less messy — reminding Melody to eat her lunch.

But it all seems just a bit more solemn than just a typical school day lunch conversation. Melody and Sunny are confused, and Melody even more so when Chelsea gets up to hug her. As Chelsea sits down again, the other two confer about . . . something. Melody ends up trying to push Chelsea away with what little force of qi she has, but Chelsea is rock steady. She doesn't have the disadvantage of drugs soaking her system.

I hear the tinny echoes of an old song, something from my college years.

. . . call my name and save me from the dark . . .

Odd. I'm fairly sure the sound is coming from the other side of the portal. The girls finish up their lunches, though not before Sunny whispers something to Chelsea. Just as lunch is finishing up, the head bully arrives. Fortunately, the rest of the class and the teacher are right behind him.

"I've changed my mind. High school boys who pick on little girls like that are going to get noticed by Ninja. Sooner or later."

"Sooner, I would hope," Pablo says. "It'll keep them from getting snared by my colleagues."

I nod in agreement.

As the teacher makes his way from the door to his desk, Chelsea pulls out the bundle of flowers Beach Guy had given her that morning and passes it over to Melody. From the look on Melody's face, I'm going to guess that Chelsea asked her about it, and Melody doesn't know anything.

But the teacher recognizes it and takes if from Chelsea. Thus begins a Teaching Moment. It's a shame we can't hear anything because I'd be interested in knowing what the guys has to say.

". . . native spirit catcher . . ." Pablo says, reading the man's lips.

"Seriously?" I'm not that gullible.

"Hush," he replies absently. ". . . entry of your longhouse . . . bad things out . . . in a circle . . . evil spirits in . . ."

I note the flare of qi from Melody and the way her pencil gouges her notebook, the tip breaking off.

". . . breaking a ring . . . bad thing to do."

We watch for a moment longer, then Pablo shakes his head. "He seems to be going off on a history lesson now to more worldwide topics, including something about the Bible and Yucca Mountain."

The two of them look at me expectantly.

"What? Didn't I already tell you that I don't know all the histories of the People? I suppose any of that could be true, but it sounds more neo-Pagan to me." I shrug. "The desert and mountain People aren't the same as the plains People, who aren't the same as the woodland People, who aren't the same as the coastal People. Should I give Charlie a call?"

"I guess not," Pablo finally says. "They're on tour, aren't they?"

I nod. "The girls are spending the summer with Junior and Alicia, but the band is sticking to the southwest so they can get out to see them most weekends."

"It was good seeing them at the March Powwow." He pauses. "I'll admit the biblical stuff probably isn't relevant, but what's the relevance of Yucca Mountain?"

I quietly watch the class for a while before answering.

"It and the land around it are sacred to the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute People," I respond softly. "Out in Nevada. They wanted to put a nuclear waste repository there. It would have been worse than the uranium mines on the Diné lands."

Neither of them needs to ask they "they" are.

"The only reason the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute People haven't seen as much devastation from the Curse is that they'd already been pushed off their lands — most of them — when the government was doing the nuclear testing in Nevada." I shake my head. "I wonder if I'll ever stop being pissed off about . . . all of that, the White Man's Curse."

"I suspect not, dear sister," Rene says, squeezing my shoulder. "You care deeply. You'd probably need to have your memories Swiss cheesed like Logan."

"I'd prefer that you not do that," Pablo says.

I smile sadly. "Me, too. The memories are hard to hold but . . . Well, I suppose that's why I've been given the task of holding them. I keep getting better at remembering the more I remember."

"So there's an upside to it. You'll never forget anyone's phone number."

I elbow Rene again. "Very funny, Jacobs. My Curse is an asshole and will always be an asshole."

It's good to see that Chelsea has convinced Melody and Sunny to go down to the diner with her.

. . . willshebesafewillshebesafewillshebesafewillshebesafe . . .

Aw, crap.

"Andrea?" Pablo sounds less worried than intrigued, which is a good thing, I guess.

. . . watchandseewatchandseewatchandsee . . .

"Her, ah . . ." I gesture to the little not-Shadowkin in the shadows. ". . . little friends are wondering if she's going to be safe. Others are telling the ones asking the question to watch and see."

"I don't like it." Rene, on the other hand, sounds more worried.

"Yeah, I know. I don't either."

Chelsea's mother isn't as thrilled about her daughter's new friend as the teen might have hoped, but on the other hand . . . I let out a soft sigh. It is a small town. It's not like there wouldn't be repercussions if her daughter became friends with one of the town pariahs. That's an indictment against the town, in my opinion. But I get it. As much as Denver has spread and sprawled in the past twenty years, it still tries to pretend it's a small town, with small-town values.

Some of those values include prejudice.

However, for all of that, I watch the youngest claim a seat at the counter with all the joy a child can have on such an occasion. As Sunny settles on the stool and looks at her bear, the seriousness of her expression reminds me of my own little ones at that age. Wise beyond their years from the day they were born, they took such joy in life and would suddenly become just as earnest as Sunny looks right now.

Come to think of it, they still do that.

I know my children got that look, still get that look in their eyes because they decided to bring with them the knowledge of their previous lives into this one — something I still have trouble believing. When I do manage to believe it, I'm convinced they were, are, and possibly always will be nuts. But the little girl on the other side of the portal? She's tugging at my heart — fending for herself since her daddy died and mama became the town drunk? Yeah, that would account for a lot of the air of seriousness. Poor kid.

As Sunny and Melody let Chelsea know what they'd like to eat and drink, Lucy and Beach Guy come in from their day at the library. Probably? I still think diners should have calendars and clocks available for peeping Ninjas. Oh, ho! Well, will you look at that! This scene does include a clock. It's a little early for dinner, but not all that much.

Lucy and Beach Guy head for a booth in the back as Chelsea puts the food order in, texting . . . ah! How lovely of the focus to change! She's texting to Beach Guy:

I'll have to work in an hour. Can one of you escort Melody and Sunny home?

Then she gets drinks for Melody, Sunny, and herself. As Beach Guy pulls out his phone, he says something to Lucy, but then the scene shifts slightly to see his phone, too!

Probably. Paul needs some help, just waiting on him.

Then he texts Diver Dude.

Lucy & Tyler in the diner, small errand then we are free. Come & grab a coffee.

"Oooh, if this keeps up, it's going to help a lot!"

"You might have just jinxed us, dear," Pablo says with a smile.

I stick my tongue out at him. I can practically feel the way Rene's eyes are rolling.

A waitress brings the girls their food, then takes Beach Guy's and Lucy's orders. Diver Dude comes in and joins them, and Chelsea gets up to whisper something to the adults.

The change of scenes is abrupt and disorienting this time, and I have to blink a few times to realize we've once more gone back to the morning. Now's we're following Diver Dude after he leaves Beach Guy and Lucy at the library.

Based on what we can see of Diver Dude's computer — emails back and forth to and from financial advisers and lawyers — it's probably safe to say the phone calls he makes are of similar content. The fact that his people aren't particularly happy with his plans isn't surprising. He doesn't have nearly the amount of money Maddie has . . . not even close. Hell, if Pablo and I didn't give away a good portion of the stipend Maddie still thinks she needs to give me, we'd have more money than this guy.

What's odd, at least as far as I can tell from having watched various people around the town, is that his computer connection is starting to get really crappy — a bit like Comcast gets when we're visiting Elvia, and all the kids are online at the same time — all the kids include the seven younger cousins and Pablo.

At least the paranoia of Diver Dude gets him started running some diagnostics. He has Time Warner Cable out here, which handles internet loads about as well as Comcast does. That is to say, he probably shouldn't be having the problems he's having.

When he types in his search — "Intrusion detected, compromised machine isolated, performing reverse trace on monitoring software. This is a friendly warning, I wouldn't do this if I were you" — the three of us start snickering. When his response is a BSOD, Pablo and I start laughing.

"Oh, my God! I haven't seen a blue screen of death in . . . what? Ten years?"

I grin. "At least. The worst case scenario for a search like that might be a crashed browser."

"So somebody is screwing with him?" Rene asks.

"Just watch him." I point to Diver Dude as he pulls the dedicated network line out of the computer. "He certainly thinks so."

This time Pablo shrugs. "Theoretically, I suppose it's possible." He'd know more than any of us, I guess. Sanchez made him work cybercrime for a couple of years, part-time, of course, to get more experience under his belt. While I trust my husband, I'd rather trust the White Hat I have on retainer thanks to Maddie's stipend.

I watch Diver Dude with fascination as he gets his computer up and running again. "Wow, his paranoia is definitely in the red zone."

Then he types in a second search: "Thank you for confirming your presence, identity and location. Keep acting like that and you'll have another Snowden on your hands, and given what you're trying to protect, that's several orders of magnitude beyond what the original achieved. Do you really want that, Agent?""

"And it just spiked. If paranoia caused aneurysms, he'd be dead now."

But I snicker again at the search results that come up. Some of them are very weird, although not surprising given his query. Really, the most interest thing is the second line.

"Doesn't Google cap out at a hundred and twenty-eight words?" I ask Pablo.

"Yep," he says absently. "For the past four years or so. Strips out the boolean operators and articles if the phrases aren't quoted, though."

"Oooh, I love it when you talk sexy to me!"

Pablo blinks and looks at me, while Rene snickers. "Sometimes your comedy routine is almost as good as Nelson and Junior's, you know."

"I try," I admit. "They've got decades more practice, so check back on us after the hellions graduate from college."

He smiles. "As you wish, sister." The he nods toward Diver Dude, who is merely watching his screen at this point. "What about him?"

"Still red-zoned for paranoia," I say, "meaning I can't tell you anything else. It's all paranoia, all the time."

"Hmm. You know, a little paranoia is good for the soul—"

"Yes, so Maddie has drilled into us."

"Hush, youngster. But too much of a good thing isn't a good thing."

Just then, Diver Dude bestirs himself and sends a group text to the other dreamers.

Headed out for a drive, will take an hour or so. Anyone want to come along for the ride, y/n?

A response comes almost immediately from Beach Guy: the text we previously saw him send.

Diver Dude barely nods before responding.

Kk. OMW, ERA 5 mins

We snap back to the diner where we'd left the others.

"Damn, whoever did the editing on this show needs to be fired."

I look at Pablo and just raise an eyebrow.

"I'm just saying . . . that was a shitty editing job."

Although I'm tempted to sigh or roll my eyes or both, Pablo isn't wrong . . . about the rough transition, at any rate.

There isn't much going on in the other universe anyway. Melody and Chelsea are chatting; Melody's qi is looking more coherent by the minute, and Chelsea is worried about her new friend. In the nearby booth, Beach Guy and Diver Dude are chatting. Beach Guy is relaxed and calm, while Diver Dude's paranoia has dropped enough, barely, that I can see something else peeking through.

I study him for a moment. With all the frowning I've been doing, I'm glad my healing factor also erases the worry lines between my eyebrows. Of course, Bobby thinks it's just the moisturizer I use — who am I to disabuse him of the notion?

"It's almost as though that idiot is treating all of this like it's some sort of game," I mutter, watching as Diver Dude pontificates about something. Then Chelsea whispers to Beach Guy.

"She's saying something about the flowers, I think," Rene says as he leans on our shoulders to see better. "What if . . .?"

"What if there was some sort of protection circle, you mean?" Pablo asks.

"I'll grant that it's a bit farfetched," Rene admits with a rakish tilt of his head.

I look from one to the other, my gaze coming to rest on my husband.

"Okay, Detective, what if you're right? What does that mean?"

"Hmm. Well, Tyler — Beach Guy — snatched the flower bundle in the afternoon or early evening, right?"

I shrug with one shoulder. "Hard to tell what time it was, but sure . . . call it about then. Your point?"

"Chelsea saw that Shadow thing after it happened, in that case. Maybe it was being held inside the circle?"

I chew my lower lip as I watch the other universe, considering Pablo's idea. On the one hand, his conjecture means that he's getting used to being married to the Magnet for Weird. On the other hand . . .

"And then there was the bloody massacre at the house at the end of town at some point during the night," he adds.

"That's a horrifying thought, Pablo. While it certainly would be awful to scare Chelsea like that and have Melody wind up practically being used as a punching bag, whatever happened at that house is beyond the pale. But that's assuming the protection circle is a real thing. Now, I'm not saying that it isn't. From what I learned during my visits with Moira and given the amount of power I have available, I might be able to create something like that. But would it actually hold back the Shadow?"

"What's keeping it from trying to re-infect this world?" Rene asks pointedly.

"The fact that I . . ." My voice just trails off as my brains catches up to Detective Garcia's.

"Oh."

"Right," Rene says. "Oh. It's your work, with our help."

"Fine. Okay. What was your point, Pablo?"

He shrugs. "Just that it's suspicious timing. My detective spidey sense says there's more to this than just coincidence."

"And we don't believe in coincidences anyway," I reply, nodding.

Beach Guy's phone evidently rings or beeps or vibrates, and we can see the text Newspaper Man sent at the end of the last scene he was in.

Going 2 diner. Learned some things. Will be there a while.

To which Beach Guy replies:

Already at diner - all here.

A few minutes later, Newspaper Man comes in and joins the group in the booth. The little girl turns around to look at her uncle and nods in response to something Melody says, then scrambles down from the counter stool, teddy bear in hand, and walks over to her uncle. She sets the bear down in front of Newspaper Man and says something before going back to her place beside Melody.

No one is quite at the proper angle to see what they're saying, something that annoys me. But both Beach Guy and Diver Dude speak up before Newspaper Man — and Newspaper Man seems to have quite a bit to say. Once again, I wish we could figure out what it is. The four of them chat back and forth for a few minutes before Sunny turns around to face us.

You're going to hurt Mister Teddy's feeling. It's not like he isn't sitting there right in front of you and all.

"She's adorable."

"I'm not jumping through a portal so we can adopt her, Pablo. Besides, I think her mother would strenuously object. To the best of her abilities." I give him a side eye, and he smiles.

"She reminds me of our kids," he says. "Although, now that I think it, they tended to have more conversations with salt and pepper shakers rather than their toys."

"I'm going to spend the rest of my life reminding them that they decided to come into this life remembering all their past lives and specifically looking for Vin and Em."

"I'd say I feel sorry for them," Rene mutters, "except that they're damn creepy sometimes. Which reminds me: if they remember all their past lives, why did Charles need to block out what your son saw earlier?"

"When we get that far, you'll know." I take a deep breath before continuing. "And he said something about not being old enough to know about that kind of stuff."

"I'm confused."

"Join the club. But translating Paul's kid-speak, I'd venture a guess that his neural pathways aren't tough enough yet to handle even Witnessing a trauma like that. I mean, he is only eleven."

"Twelve," Pablo reminds us.

"Don't you start that, too!" I say. "They'll be twelve on their birthday and not a moment before. The foot has spoken!"

Pablo grins; Rene appears to have ignored our exchange entirely.

"Makes sense. Creepy," Rene reiterates, "but it makes sense. It would explain more about Maddie's madness, too."

"As well as why mending our soul and the formation of the Pentad helps to keep her sane."

The dreamers continue their conversation, although Lucy does direct a comment to Sunny. Melody is clearly nervous about something, almost panicked. The only way to tell that Sunny is speaking is through her body language and an aura that doesn't look quite right for a little girl — even one who has suffered as much as she has.

The Melody takes up whatever narrative they have been sharing, keeping her back to all all of us. However, something she says upsets the little girl, who practically whirls on Melody, qi quivering with fear.

DON'T SAY THAT!

Melody drops her head down as she continues speaking to the floor.

At least we can read Newspaper Man's lips this time.

So is that the poem? I'm not so sure that you're living in two different worlds. I think they're one and the same, though I don't know what the rules of them both are.

Pablo and Rene look at me expectantly.

"Overlapping dimensions?" Pablo asks.

I shake my head and think about what Newspaper Man had said. Both Beach Guy and Lucy say something, although the angle isn't good enough to know what they're saying. From the movement of qi around the group, all of the adults are contributing something to the conversation.

"I don't know. I mean, theoretically, it might be possible. I'm more inclined to think it's closer to what we've seen here before I banished the crazy Aztec Twins — breaks in the dimensional walls where unpleasant things can get through."

We definitely see Sunny speaking.

Mister Teddy says that saving anyone is really, really hard.

She stops then, just staring off into space, past the adults in the booth — almost as if she can see us.

"And that's even creepier than your kids," Rene whispers.

There appears to be silence for a long minute, maybe even two, before Melody speaks up.

I'm tired, Sunny.

It almost feels like an apology for whatever she'd said earlier that upset the little one.

Mister . . .

Melody is looking at Beach Guy, at the group of adults, and pauses.

Save people. You are kidding, right?

Sorry, I'm not trying to be mean. I don't even know what's happening around me. Your imaginary world isn't Narnia or Middle Earth or the Land. If it has a name, Miss, its name wasn't crafted by Lewis, Tolkien, or Donaldson. It was recorded by Dante. Abandon all hope ye who enter Hell.

"That's an apt analogy for the dimensions where the Shadow and Shadowkin reside," I note. But Melody continues.

Those little imaginary friends all kids have when they're young and innocent? Well, they never go away. And when my demons grow up, they eat people.

She stares at something slightly to the side of us.

Well, you do!

Then she buries her face in her hands and looks like she's crying, but when she raises her head a moment later, her eyes are merely haunted.

Oh, God, I did it again, didn't I? Please, please, please. Please, I don't want to need my medicine early this week!

Because Sunny is still staring right at us — or, at least, that's the way it looks — we can see her speaking again. Picking up the tale?

Mister Wilcott, Mister Teddy says that the time we ran away to the city, Manhattan died.

She pauses and shifts her eyes enough to look at Diver Dude.

First.

She pauses again to look at Melody, who is simply gazing down silently. Then the child looks back at the adults.

Mister Teddy says she's trying to apologize to you. Mister Teddy says you need to listen to the words. She thinks it's all her fault. And now it's not just the two of us. Do you really think we want to add you to this nightmare? Wouldn't it be better if you just didn't know?

Melody clearly says something. Unfortunately, she's still looking down. Sunny continues.

She's right. We aren't in charge of the rules. All we know is that the Shadow Beasts come on the weekends. Other bad things come in between. And when they kill Melody, it's the end.

There's more chatter among the adults; the only absolute thing I can say about them is that Diver Dude gives off a vibe of disbelief, of wanting someone to prove to him that all of this is real.

It makes we want to step through the portal and slap him. I wonder if that would prove Melody's reality is real. Rene turns my head toward him and kisses my cheek.

"Calm yourself, Madame Warrior. There will be no skull cracking today.

I smile crookedly at him. "Thank you. Diver Dude is apparently working my nerves."

Pablo squeezes my hand as well. "The girls are doing the best they can. They don't know the rules, and Melody believes whatever is happening is her fault and that whatever it is includes the Shadow Beasts, as Sunny calls them, and that if the Shadow Beasts catch Melody . . ."

"It's the end of the world, yeah. The Shadow devours everything." I swallow hard. "Could be the Shadowkin causing all the bad things before the end of the world."

As I watch the two girls at the counter, I realize that Melody looks an awful lot like I felt in those maddening days between Quetzalcoatl's appearance on the scene through . . . Well, I suppose things didn't really settle down to anything approaching "normal" again until after the twins were born. There had been times I thought I was losing my mind, that I was going to destroy the world with the power I was learning how to harness.

Adults forget too much . . . what it means to have a sister, to not be able to save your father, how to play tag . . .

Sunny's words bring tears to my eyes. I can never forget. And I know there have been and will continue to be things I won't be able to do. I can't forget any of the people I couldn't save. I know that it's inevitable that those I love will all walk on, including my beloved husband. It's easier to forget — except for those of us who can't.

Tag. Tag is a fun game, every kid pays it. Tag, your it!

Do you want to know when a game of tag turns into a nightmare? When you don't know who it is? And it's obvious . . . it knows who Melody is. It knows who we are. It . . . doesn't care. And eventually, It always finds us.

Based on the way the qi flows, Melody says something then, but she's still looking down at her hands in her lap. Sunny looks at her for a moment, then hops down off her stool again and turns her teddy bear to face Lucy this time. Oddly, our perspective follows her.

Black Shadows that kill people, all horrible like, are certainly not angels from heaven.

"Damn that prophetic cousins of mine," I murmur as I wipe the tears from my eyes. "They need help, and all we can do is Witness."

"It's never enough . . ."

I nod. "I know, Rene. I know."

Newspaper Man seems lost, confused, and unbearably sad. Beach Guy has the tightly coiled qi of someone who wants to do something; I can certainly relate to him right now. Lucy is determined . . . to help, I suspect. And above it all is Chelsea's optimism.

Melody looks up at the other teen.

There's a difference . . .

She pauses as she closes her eyes and sits up a little straighter on her stool.

. . . between giving up and being exhausted. I've been told giving up isn't an option. So it isn't. I can barely remember what my father and mother look like. I can't remember when it wasn't the end of Spring. I get tired, and I can't tell if its me or my medicine.

And then Sunny, holding her bear as though it was the one speaking, said to the group in general:

Think. Would you be here, now, if someone gave up?

The words seem to strengthen Newspaper Man. Diver Dude now has an aura of pomposity about him, and it feels like . . . I narrow my eyes at him. Yes. Yes, he's looking at this as a military mission.

"Damn it, that asshole is gong to get them all killed." I clench my jaw at the same time I feel Rene's breath near my ear.

"Relax, dear sister. There's nothing we can do but Witness."

I nod. Lucy, Newspaper Man, and Beach Guy all have something to say, but we can't see them well enough to read their lips. It would seem our idiosyncratic editor of this show has decided to cinematically slam home the fact that the two girls, Melody and Sunny, are at the center of whatever is happening. It's a bit heavy-handed, if you ask me. But then . . . I can see the qi and the auras. Maybe it's just about right for Pablo and Rene, who can't see what I do.

Melody slowly and methodically gathers her belongings and prepares to leave. She's more upset than she'll allow others to see, but after opening the door, she turns back to those in the booth with a bit of a shrug.

I've kind of lost count. I've forgotten what a nice Wednesday night is. A chance would be nice.

Wednesday. That's the day after her aunt dies; presumably, this has happened many times. Poor kid.

It's the little girl who seems panicked this time. She runs after Melody, stops short and turns around for her books, then after a few quick steps after her friend turns back once more for her bear.

I sigh with frustration after the door closes behind her, but before I can put any thoughts into words, the door opens again as she peeks her head in.

Two hundred fifty. We stopped keeping count somewhere around two hundred and fifty.

Chelsea turns and looks at her mother, who is now clearing plates from the counter, and nods at whatever the diner owner says. Once again, we're left with no way of knowing what the dreamers are saying, although they appear to be making plans of some sort.

The most worrisome of the lot is Diver Dude — and not just because his aura is a mess either. Pablo manages to catch a few words that he says to the other dreamers.

". . . time travel . . . watch the markets . . . lotteries . . ."

He shakes his head. "Even I think the man is disconnected from reality. Time travel? Seriously?"

"Yeah, their reality might be as weird as mine has been from time to time," I say, "but he's focusing on the wrong things. It's not time travel. Well, not in the sense he thinks of it." I pause to mull that over for a bit.

"You said it looked like a spiral, right?" Pablo asks.

I nod. "It's not even a good analogy to say that you can't step in the same river twice. I get the sense that he'd picture a game board more than anything else. And he thinks he's playing chess but then acting like its Candyland or something. Going back five squares isn't going to win him the lottery."

"So . . . what? They're playing Risk, Stratego, something like that?"

I glance at Rene and shake my head. "It's not a game, Rene. It's their lives. The spiraling? I don't know. I haven't figured that out yet. But with the Shadow being a part of it . . . Well, it's not good."

Next up: Track Five

© Kelly Naylor