Track Eight

The drive back to town is eerie. It's darker now; the clouds have gotten thicker, so the moon is barely a dim spot in the sky, shedding no light. I'm glad the actors in this scene are quiet on their ride back to Newspaper Man's office and apartment. I'm also delighted and extra happy that the Smell-o-Vision never got installed in the portal.

All the shops are closed up, which makes sense. The announcer on the car radio mentioned it was past one in the morning. The sheriff's truck is parked outside her office. There's a vague sense of uneasiness from the dreamers about the truck being there, something I don't quite understand. We'd seen the sheriff arriving at the office once or twice — her apartment is across the street and up the block. It isn't far. And don't police officers take catnaps in their offices in that universe? I mentally shrug. Maybe not.

Newspaper Man makes coffee. Beach Guy hurries to his apartment to shower while Diver Dude checks on his boat. Both make it back to the newspaper office before the rain starts.

Eventually, the four of them gather at a tiny conference table, stripped of the scents, although never the memories, of the dump.

The rain has picked up now. It's not a gentle spring rain — it slashes across the scene like needles, the wind whipping it along. The same wind is rocking the boats tied up at the dock. For some reason, Diver Dude's vessel is singled out for an extended look, somehow making it look lonely and forlorn . . . and significant.

Then there are the chittering sounds of something, possibly the not-Shadowkin, outside in the darkest parts of town as they flee. Is it the rain, the storm that's driving them away? Or the people sitting in the white light of the newspaper office?

Strangely, the scene shifts to Chelsea, asleep in her bedroom. The phone on its charging stand softly glows with the time — it's after one in the morning.

So we're in sync with the others? That's helpful.

Her phone brightens with an incoming text message — and likely vibrates, too, if she's like most of us who don't sleep like rocks.

I glance at Pablo. Since moving in with me, he mentions it every time I wake to a vibrating phone: I sleep better knowing you're guarding my dreams. He leaves his phone set to ring. Why he does this is still a mystery. It's going to wake me up even if it's merely buzzing, and I'll wake him. I do hide the phone when he's not supposed to be working, and then he pretends to get grumpy. I smile as I turn back to the portal. I'm a lucky woman.

The phone number on Chelsea's phone isn't a name or even a number. It looks like a string of random characters from different character sets of the Unicode table. The message itself is in the standard Latin set, but it's definitely somewhere on the nonsensical spectrum.

the big ones like it when people die

Chelsea sits up and pulls the phone from the charging unit, pulling up the message to look at it. She stares at it with as much confusion as the three of us. Then she sends a message to the adults in the group.

Just got weird text. Says the big ones like it when people die.

Back in the newspaper offices, four phones ring or buzz in order. All the message show they're from Chelsea.

Newspaper Man's message reads: the big

Beach Guy's messages reads: ones like

Lucy's message reads: it when

Finally, Diver Dude's messages reads: people die.

"Um."

"Dear?"

"Well, they're all talking about the messages and ignoring the order in which there received them. They each got part of the same strange message Chelsea got. And if they'd just read it in the order in which it was received—"

"You've been on hold with Xcel again, haven't you?"

I roll my eyes at Pablo. "—they'd know the message said that the big ones like it when people die."

"And that makes any more sense than a chopped up message?"

"Rene! Haven't you been paying attention?"

"Apparently not."

Beach Guy sends a return text to Chelsea.

Got a garbled message, you OK?

Back in Chelsea's apartment, she's coming back from the kitchen with a glass of water as the message from Beach Guy arrives; she frowns at his text. However, another cryptic text arrives before she can say or do anything. This time, there's no phone number at all.

I didn't think that was possible, although I've gotten phone calls from numbers that were all zeros. Telemarketers: one of the many reasons that evil still exists in our world.

The message has a few strange characters from the more obscure parts of the Unicode table. The message itself is chilling.

run run run she stirs go go go stupid stupid stupid stupid not little ones hear

"Hoo boy, as Henry likes to day. That's not good."

Both Pablo and Rene sigh. This particular sigh means that Andrea is confusing them. And here I thought they were keeping up with everything that's been going on.

"Okay, the not-Shadowkin? Those are the Little Ones. The Big Ones, or the not-Little Ones, are the Shadowkin. Any other questions from the class?"

"Yes," Pablo says. "What the hell is going on?"

"Hmm, it's possible that the Big Ones are the Shadow, which would actually make more sense in context with our experience. But I'm not sure the Little Ones mean the Shadow, which I think would technical be the Monsters over there. But what's going on?" I shrug. "Looks like Melody's little friends are trying to communicate with them . . . or with Chelsea, at any rate."

"Is that a good thing?"

Once again, I shrug. "I wish I knew."

The scene fades back to the newspaper office, where Diver Dude immediately makes me want to slap a roll of duct tape over his mouth. I probably groan without even meaning to do it.

"Diver Dude is in paranoia mode, babbling about hacked signals and the military and compromised communications."

Rene pats my shoulder. "We won't let you jump through the portal."

"Gee, you're swell, Rene," I say with more than the usual dose of sarcasm. "Anyway, his brilliant suggestion is that they carry on as if nothing odd is happening, that they — the mysterious 'they' of paranoid persons everywhere — are just flexing their muscles. They know. We know they know. They want us to know they know. Damn, he can't even get the aphorism right."

Just then, Diver Dude's phone indicates an incoming message from Chelsea.

wrong!

Then Newspaper Man gets a message, also from Chelsea's number.

can i eat him?

In apparent response to the text, Beach Guy's phone dings next. However, rather than a text message, it's an audio recording. Except . . . it isn't really a recording, is it, if it's happening in the moment?

Beach Guys phone emits a cry, followed by a shocked and panicked growling that rises in pitch to a scream that makes my ears hurt. In the background, I hear the chittering get louder and louder — from the gentle sound of cicadas on a summer night to the horrific sound of teeth gnashing and sharp knives clattering and finally a beyond-horrifying sound of something living and substantial being torn apart.

The silence, as the saying goes, is deafening . . . until Lucy's phone chirps with a message from Chelsea.

he wanted to be big

Lucy immediately texts back a question.

Who wanted to be big?

She looks at Diver Dude. "I don't think that's Big Brother."

I'm beyond confident that both my hands would be curling into fists at Diver Dude's response if not for the comforting grasps my husband has on one of them.

Then I blink.

"Ah . . . Well, that's nice. Not only is Beach Guy concerned for Chelsea's safety, but I can hear him. Marvelous. Oh, and they're arguing about what they should do. Diver Dude says . . ."

I pause and grind my teeth.

"Nope. Not gonna repeat that bullshit. Lucy and Beach Guy are worried about Chelsea and want to check on her. Newspaper Man is partially on the road to paranoia and doesn't think there's anything to worry about."

"I take is Diver Dude is just being an ass."

Rene's comment doesn't even merit a response.

In Chelsea's bedroom, it isn't hard to see that she's terrified. She's staring at the last message from Beach Guy, and it not hard to imagine that her thoughts are going in the direction of Fine? Oh, sure. Everything is peachy. Strange text messages in the middle of the night are the new normal. No, of course I'm not fine, you dim bulb!

Okay, maybe with a lot less snark. Yeah . . . definitely with a lot less snark.

She dials Beach Guys number rather than responding via text, then crawls under the blankets.

I smile. That's not a trick my kids can use, but I doubt Chelsea's mother has the hypersensitive hearing that I do. In fact, Maria and Paul get away with considerably more when mom is off working as Ninja and dad is tasked with making sure they get enough sleep.

I'm going to put audio sensors in their rooms, I swear to . . . I'm not sure to whom I'd swear. But those kids are going to lose their phones, the brats.

Beach Guy finally answers the phone.

And I snicker.

"I like that girl. She's plucky. He asked if she's okay. She responds with 'No. No, I'm freaking out.' I could hear the touch of panic in her voice, but I don't know about Beach Guy. That could almost qualify as snarky."

"Oh, so people in other dimensions can be snarky and we can't?"

I give Pablo another stink eye. "Freaked out seventeen-year-old young women get to be snarky any time they want to be snarky."

Then I look at the portal again, which is a mistake. I really should have been paying attention. Why do we get a side-by-side view now?

"Um." That's all Pablo says to the new view of the portal. He hadn't been paying attention either.

"You'd think I would understand the weirdness that floats around your wife like a sad cloud," Rene says, "but I don't."

"That's . . ."

Hmm. Well, I am a magnet for weird, so claiming that the scene's director suddenly changing to a new dual-vision format isn't my brand of weird is a bit disingenuous.

"That's . . . weird."

"Really, dear? I hadn't noticed."

"Pablito, I told you to stay away from the snark. I mean it."

Chelsea is under the blankets. The other scene reveals Newspaper Man and Lucy's shoulder. Super helpful.

"Chelsea is asking if the two messages made any sense. Beach Guy notes that her message was garbled and they only got fragments of it. Asks for a repeat. Chelsea seems surprised by that."

There's movement under the blankets indicative of someone fiddling with their phone.

"Hmm. She's reading the two messages she got. Mentions the odd characters and the fact that there was no real number on either of them. Beach Guy is repeating them to the others. Lucy notes that the first one was garbled and they never received the second. Wants to know about the emoji characters. Those weren't emojis, though. One of them looked like a symbol from the Thai character set, but the others . . . I don't know. All vaguely from Southeast Asia, but not from any of the major alphabets."

We all stare at the portal as the two scenes overlap and blend and finally fade.

"Well," Rene finally says, "that was a particularly unsatisfying episode."

"I'm going to ask again," Pablo says. "Should we be worried?"

I regard him steadily. "Maybe."

"That's not reassuring, Andi."

"It's not meant to be, Rene. The fact that I can hear their conversations — even if you and Pablo can't — shouldn't be possible. But there you have it. Is there something about that dimension or universe that affects those who touch it? Diver Dude keeps going on about empirical evidence, completely ignorant of the fact that he's talking about experimenting with the warp and weft of reality."

I look back at the emptiness of the portal.

"Or maybe he doesn't care, doesn't know what the hell he's talking about." I shrug. "And maybe he's the crazy one there. People without a sense of morality are definitely more dangerous than a heavily-medicated allegedly schizophrenic teen."

Next up: Track Nine

© Kelly Naylor