Track Nine

It's a brand new day. Unfortunately, this isn't a scene from The Wiz. Nor does it seem that anyone's heart is singing joyfully.

Of course, it isn't really a brand new day, either. If I remember the previous iterations correctly — and let's face it, it would be nigh unto impossible for me to forget them — it's just another Tuesday in mid-May. And it's the same Tuesday in mid-May that we've seen before.

Chelsea goes through her morning chores and heads for school, to have a conversation with Melody.

Beach Guy heads toward the school to replay a conversation with Chelsea and Teresa.

Newspaper Man heads out to the store. But then he turns around and pours a second cup of coffee before going in search of his sister. Interesting.

Diver Dude abandons any pretense of repetition and heads for the library. Of course, he would.

Lucy sits at breakfast, thumbing through her now well-worn guidebook to the town. Her notes are evidence of previous iterations — events, deaths, voices.

The sky is gray, and the looming clouds stretch over the town. One might say that the clouds look ominous in a way that could forecast a nasty spell of weather.

That's not why I'd call them ominous: it would be the fact that they only cover the town of Montaukettston, barely stretching a half-mile beyond the shores of the islands.

The first scene after the teaser follows Beach Guy. The scene plays out exactly as it did before. The only difference is that the writer is now merely an actor playing a part in a play, so my annoyance is gone. I'm only curious. He even sends out the same text to the other three adults, something that amuses me this time around. He tarries near the schoolyard gates a little longer today, however.

In fact, he lingers long enough that he can see a woman walking down the nature trail, stopping to inspect some of the wildflowers along the way as she comes toward him.

"We've seen her before."

I nod. "Yep. Crazy Ice Cream Lady."

Everyone likes carrot cake, correct?

"No, I don't like carrot cake."

I look at Rene. "There's obviously something wrong with you. Or you haven't had my mother's carrot cake. I can remedy the second. There's no hope for you if you don't like her carrot cake."

He smiles. "So we're going to Flagstaff later?"

I roll my eyes before turning back to the portal. "We have a trip planned for next month. You're family. You're always welcome."

It doesn't seem to matter that he can't see my smile. It also doesn't matter that Beach Guy disagrees with him.

Yes, I guess they do.

The woman bends down and examines one of the plants along the path, then looks up at Beach Guy.

This is Queen Anne's Lace. It's also called Wild Carrot because it's edible. I learned about it when I was scouting! I wonder if it will make a good ice cream.

"Don't tell Bobby about that," Pablo says. "He'll actually try it. I love your mother's carrot cake, but ice cream? Sounds dreadful."

So are you going to give it a try?
I love carrot cake. I bet the kids will like it, too. They always like new things and favorite flavors can become stale after a single weekend or if the right set of students say they happen to like something else this week. It will be both good and bad! They can tell their parents, and how can eating carrots be a bad thing, especially carrots grown on our very own island, and it will be bad because it's really . . . ice cream!

"She's very strange." I don't think my statement is the least bit controversial, either.

The best of all possible worlds! Yes. Yes, I will. And you? Is this research for your next book? Clandestine political intrigue hidden behind the façade of a quaint New England grade school.

Beach Guy smiles at the eccentric woman.

Researching local legends and tales. No firm plans for a new book as yet; just looking at things, waiting for the inspiration to strike. You don't know any local tales, do you?"

I snicker. "He's asking her about the local myths and legends."

"Dear God, I hope it's not a litany of culinary botany."

"It would serve you right if it was, dear."

Stories? I run an ice cream shop! How am I supposed to know about things that go bump in the night or creepy cabins in the woods? The best I can do is overhear the gossip that goes on in the back booths when the kids think no one is listening. Like how jealous the O'Rourke girl gets when her boyfriend looks at someone else and if she knew just how often he has shared a milkshake with another girl he'd probably be dead, dumped, or singing in the Vatican choir. Especially in the summer when the town is crowded with tourists and out-of-towners.

"Wow. She's worse than Bobby . . . or as good, depending on your point of view." Of course, I suppose it makes sense that she'd know all the teen gossip. She does run the ice cream shop, after all. But then she keeps on going . . . reminding me of that Energizer Bunny.

But there are town legends. They do call the forests north of the Homestead the spooky woods, but I think that's just because the sound of the sea and tides hitting the cliffs would make anything sound creepy after sunset. After the Blair Witch Project hit our little cinema, those twisted stick sculptures started to appear everywhere. Of course, they made up all sorts of stories about them, and that bad things happen if they are ever disturbed. It's also a common dare to ride the bike paths after dark; while they say it's because the woods are haunted, and they might get eaten by the Montauk Monster . . . Well, first everyone in town knows the Monster isn't real, and we rarely go a summer without one city kid thinking he's better than the DeCoon boy and ending up hurt because after sunset the paths are really dangerous and between the dew and the sea spray the bike bridges are slipperier than a well-lubricated porcine. And now, of course, they have that poor Tracee girl to pick on. With her illness and special treatment, of course, they whisper all sorts of strange things about her. Everything from being a black butterfly priestess doing all sorts of sexy drug-induced cultic rites on moonless nights to writing death poems in her little black book to curse the entire town. I mean, curses, really? This is Montaukettston, not Collinsport. Collinsport is on the other side of the Cape, way up in Maine.

"Well. she really likes to talk, doesn't she?"

"Even more than you do, sister."

"Shut up, Jacobs."

"The bit about Collinsport is funny, though," Pablo admits. "One of Momma's deep, dark secrets was her love of that show Dark Shadows."

I shrug. "I never saw the appeal, but a lot of my friends have said the same thing about their mothers. Must be a generation thing. I wasn't impressed with the movie that starred Johnny Depp. It seemed . . . I don't know . . . dumb?" Then I chuckle. "Apparently, Beach Guy doesn't know about the Collins family. He's asking about Collinsport. Crazy Ice Cream Lady explains it's the place for vampires and were-wuffies. That's cute. Speculates that the town started their mythos because of the downturn in the fishing industry, which makes sense. Oh, gods, and now she's going on about vampire-flavored ice cream."

I watch her as she stands, shaking out her skirt and apron. Something odd about her . . .

So, you have met our black sheep. In truth, she seems like a good girl; a bit lonely and withdrawn, but that's only to be expected. But at the least, she is under a very, very, very good doctor's care. I would hate to think what would happen without her medications; she can live an almost normal life now, and she is like a fragile porcelain doll. She makes you just want to take care of her, no? I just worry. Porcelain dolls. I had one when I was a little girl. The cat knocked it off the shelf, and it broke into a thousand pieces, and we had to throw it out.

"Are you okay, Andrea?"

"Yes, but I'm not so sure about her. There's some sort of weird fluctuations in her aura when she talks about Melody." I don't trust people who have erratic auras. It can happen, sure. And it happens when someone is under enormous stress or very sick. But that doesn't look like a stressed out or ill person.

"Hmm. Beach Guy asked about Melody's doctor, by the way."

Oh! You mean Miss Janis? She came into town just after I did. But while I come from the dairies of Vermont, she's a big city gal. Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Cornell, Reed, St. Jude's. And now private practice in our little town! Aren't we lucky?

We watch Crazy Ice Cream Lady gather up her plants and head into town.

"That's suspicious."

"Which part of it, Pablo? Because she has the qi of a person who's hiding something."

"Oh, I was talking about the doctor. All those big name hospitals and now she's here in this tiny village?"

"Maybe she got tired of the big city life. It can happen." Not that I believe it in this case. There are too many weird things going on and too many coincidences.

"I suppose. But did you catch that she worked at Walter Reed? There are already plenty of theories among the dreamers connecting the military to whatever is going on."

"But don't most of these originate with the paranoid diver?" Rene asks.

"Newspaper Man's brother-in-law was in the military, so there's a legitimate connection. And when the sheriff was giving Lucy a history lesson on the area, she mentioned an old base that was shut down."

As the Crazy Ice Cream Lady walks down the street, the scene fades out as the next one fades in. Newspaper Man is sitting on the bench with his sister, who seems to be mumbling something. When she notices who's there, she sits up in the middle of the bench and eyes the cup of coffee in the hand nearest her.

What are you trying to do? Kill me?

The camera pans out, and we see the sheriff walking up, also with a cup of coffee in her hand. She looks amused.

Newspaper Man's sister does not.

"Ah, so she must have asked what was in the cup because Newspaper Man is telling her about the coffee that he can't actually say is coffee because there's so much cream and sugar that it's a dessert. Dear gods, that's disgusting. Anyway, it's a peace offering, let's be friends."

The town drunk takes the offered cup and looks at it suspiciously. Finally, she takes a sip. The sheriff shrugs and sits on the opposite side of Sunny's mother, tucks one cup under the bench, takes the top off the other, and drinks a healthy dose of her elixir.

"Ah, a woman after my own heart."

I sigh, and roll my eyes for good measure. Pablo drinks coffee the way I drink water. I've compared him to Leroy Jethro Gibbs on more than one occasion.

Hey, Mary, there are worse ways of starting the morning. Don't let a good thing slip through your fingers, eh?

Mary looks at her coffee, seemingly ignoring both her brother and the sheriff, for at least a minute, maybe two. Finally, she looks up at her brother.

What do you want?

She sheriff shakes her head, and repeats the woman's name.

Newspaper Man's sister doesn't say anything else for a while. Again. A woman of few words, it seems. But she does apologize. Eventually. After a fashion, which appears to be good enough for Newspaper Man.

For his part, he's trying to reach out in an attempt to make amends, to rebuild a broken bridge. His qi is overly cautious, and his sister is downright suspicious.

"Does that sound as severe as it seems to?" Pablo asks.

I nod. "It's harder to rebuild trust and a relationship once it's been that terribly damaged, but he is trying."

"Body language says she's not buying it," Rene adds.

I bite my lip watching the sheriff interact with the town drunk. We've seen it before, or rather, I've seen it before: the way the sheriff tries to protect this woman without interfering. At first, I wasn't sure who it was that she cared for this much. Then I had a suspicion. And now?

Oh, Mary Lee McGee is her friend. Absolutely. And Sheriff Garret is protective.

"He's . . . he's trying, but I think he's taking the wrong path. He wants to reconnect through stories, their stories, family stories, shared stories. She's just building a hard shell of resistance."

Who the hell would want to read our stories? They aren't fair, they don't make sense, and they never end well. What sort of whack job would read them? Some deranged tragedy junkie?

She shakes her head in denial.

Sunny's the only good thing in my life. Do you know how long it took to convince her that it wasn't her fault? That there was nothing she could do, could have done? That it was nothing that she did? Do you really, really think it's right to make her a character in some horror story?

The woman sips at her coffee; her qi looks too familiar and thoroughly alien. It's how Bobby looked after he'd learned his sister had committed suicide. It had taken David and me and my mother and my grandmother days to pull him out of that. I don't even know if David and I would have managed without Tita.

Why would she even think that? She's a good girl.

"Gods, if this same little bit of time keeps repeating over and over, even with the different variations and with it not actually being what I'd call a time loop — is someone who's hurting as badly as Newspaper Man's sister ever going to have the chance to heal?"

Both Pablo and Rene are silent as we watch brother, sister, and sheriff drink coffee on a bench in a small town. I collect memories, thanks to my Curse. But I usually have time to process them . . . eventually.

"I don't know, Andrea," Pablo says. "If time acted normally, if it affected the body and mind in a way that let the memories fade . . ."

Rene shakes his head. "No, Pablo. Loop or no loop, you can't heal from that kind of grief until you get your chance at a miracle."

I hold memories of each of their pasts. I know those things that once ate at their souls.

Pablo looks at Rene. Despite the bond the Pentad has shared for over a decade, I think he finally groks what I did that day in late October 2012, the day Madeline Jacobs came back to Jefferson County to clear out her weapons bunker.

"Andrea was your miracle, too."

Rene nods.

I sigh. "Mary Lee needs her own miracle. I can't do anything for her. But maybe her brother and her best friend can."

"And what is it that she needs?"

I look at Pablo and smile sadly. "Isn't it obvious, Detective? She needs peace, whatever that looks like to her. She drinks to dull the pain, to blot out the memories — I've known enough people like that to recognize it. She needs peace in her soul to be able to step away from the bottle. Her daughter is the only thing holding her there. Her friend is trying, has been trying since her husband died, I think. And this spiral — or whatever the hell it is — isn't letting her go anywhere. Maybe her brother can help, but right now, I don't think there's a lot he can do. She needs to trust him more."

I shake my head and sigh softly.

"Her daughter is her miracle, I think. She just needs to realize it, really grok that Sunny can help heal her broken heart."

Newspaper Man is certainly persistent when he wants to be. He keeps on trying a different tack, moving through the waves of her emotions as they hit his sails.

And the sheriff . . . Well, we can't catch everything she says, but she seems to be spinning some tale for Newspaper Man's benefit. The last murder in the bloody house has been—

"Wait, am I reading that right? The local doctor is in charge of the case, there's a cover-up of the whole thing with the media saying it's an Ebola outbreak?"

Pablo nods. "The girl was taken to a military hospital, so the military has jurisdiction now."

I frown. "That makes no sense. Well, maybe their universe is considerably different from ours, but how different can it be if they have Time Warner Cable? Even if the Plum Island facility isn't open — which I'll grant is possible given that the geography of Long Island is so strange — the Level 4 biosafety lab at Boston University is less than half the distance from the end of Long Island than the military lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland."

"The sheriff is suspicious."

"As well she should be! Local authorities — starting with her and the town's mayor — are at the epicenter of containing outbreaks. If they need county, state, CDC, or even military assistance, they can request it. That's one fucked up universe over there."

"Or their military has something to hide."

I glance at Rene. I suppose he'd know. He spent a lot more time around people who have a lot to hide than either Pablo or me.

"And how the heck do you know about biosafety labs?" Pablo asks as I turn back toward the portal.

I roll my eyes. Again. "Whose brother has been studying a dangerous pathogen for the past decade and then some?"

"Oh. Sorry."

I shrug. "It's fine. Justin likes to talk about his work. Paul thinks it's interesting."

"Not Maria?

"This week — actually, the entire month — it's been traditional arts, mostly weavings like Aunt Sonia does."

"Hmm. I can't keep up with her."

I chuckle. "Honestly? I rarely can either. Everything is too exciting. I swear she'll wind up spending twenty years in college and come out with four bachelor degrees, a couple of masters, and maybe a Ph.D.

"Oh, and Newspaper Man also thinks there's enough that doesn't make sense to make him suspicious. Almost paranoid, but nowhere near the level of Diver Dude. He knows what's in the records that exist about his brother-in-law and he's digging to get more information. To make things right, he says."

"I don't need David to tell me that's a terrible idea," Pablo notes.

"Interesting insight from the sheriff," Rene says. "If the military didn't pull out of the area, where are they that they arrived so fast after the last massacre?"

"Nearby. If they didn't come in with their Chinook, they drove. That means somewhere on Long Island. But yeah, the real question should be 'who tattled?'"

Newspaper Man's sister is staring at her coffee cup. It's an interesting camera angle, as if the director of this episode really wants to emphasize how alone this woman feels. We're looking up at her — a pigeon eye's view.

Derek, I drink to forget. Because there's no other way I can live. I'm really, really, really good at it, too. Professional even. To make things right? Sunny doesn't have a father. There's nothing right about this. Why did the MPs show up when Chuck died? He was supposed to be cashiered out. How did Chuck end up in Sunny's bedroom? He was supposed to be doing an install in Nassau and had called to apologize for not being able to get home for dinner. How come the only thing bloody was the carpet? Who shoots a computer repairman? What the hell does 'not being the one to save' mean? How come Sunny couldn't sleep for months because she believes it was her fault? How can I remember any of that? All I know was that I wasn't allowed into the room until after they'd taken my husband away.
Derek, I drink to forget what it was like to lose the second most important person in my life. I drink to forget the questions I don't want to know the answers to. I drink to forget how those first two things make me the worst mother in the world for the first most important person in my life.

I hate this director. I hate him or her because reading what this woman is saying just brings up far too memories — not just mine, but the memories I carry because of my Curse, the memories over every loved one, every friend, who has lost someone dear to them.

Her brother has his own agenda despite the fact that he's trying to reconnect with his sister. But his agenda is interfering with the reconnection. Which one is more important? Because right now, he can't do both things, at least not in a way that's meaningful.

But the sheriff seems to be trying to work with Newspaper Man, within the strict parameters of her profession and personality. She's pushing him to think outside the box she's constrained to, I think. It's the same box that restricts my husband. He becomes vexed when I step outside the lines he needs to stay inside, but after more than a dozen years he's just now coming around to the understanding that I'm a law unto myself . . . that when I do step over lines he can't cross, there's always a damn good reason for it. I think it helps that he knows I won't step outside the rules Masterson has established for himself and his team.

Well, except when I'm working with Maddie.

I shake my head.

"When is it ever going to be a good idea to tell an officer of the law to keep their nose out of something?" Clearly, that's a rhetorical question, and the men respond in kind: Pablo laughs without humor, Rene just snorts.

"Yep. That's what I thought."

"She's giving him enough rope to hang himself, though," Rene notes.

"It's hard to know what to believe and what to question. She seems as honest as they come — reminds me of our pal Wright. She believes the Learning Center is harmless and the Research Center is bad news. I'm inclined to trust her instincts. I'll admit that part of it's because she describes the grumpy doctor who treats his staff like crap as someone who's 'as pleasant as a rabid hedgehog.' I'd have compared his personality to your ancestral asshole's, but she doesn't know about him. Lucky woman."

"It's interesting that the lovely Doctor Schwartzer gets along with him," Pablo says. "The sister doesn't seem to care for the doctor any more than Melody does."

Newspaper Man's phone buzzes with a text message from Diver Dude, wondering if everything is okay.

Pablo chuckles. "He's supposed to be buying the supplies for the picnic, isn't he?"

"Yeah. Didn't you see both Lucy and Diver Dude eyeing him earlier?" I shrug and give Pablo a half-smile. "He might not be doing the best job with his sister, but she is family. He is trying. There's a big learning curve there. And he's talking around the fact that he can't really tell the sheriff anything."

Then he sends a text back to Diver Dude.

Exploratory discussions, seems fine. Why? Signs?

The sheriff says something else we can't catch, but we can read what Mary Lee has to say.

What ol' High and Mighty is saying, big brother, is that what she doesn't know you can't be arrested for. So just don't get caught.

It's interesting watching the qi between the two women. There's a connection of long-time friendship, but exasperation and worry on the sheriff's part war with anger and fear on the sister's part.

Because I'd give anything to know why . . . why did Chuck die? Why does Sunny think it's her fault? I hate coffee. By now I should be plastered. And ol' High and Mighty would be dragging me back to the city jail. Maybe this would be one of the days she'd handcuff me to the couch. Maybe not. But at least I wouldn't be remembering all this.
I married the Handsome Prince. I have the world's bestus Princess. I'm tired of having the last page of my fairy tale covered in blood. Where's my happily ever after?

"Gods damn it, Talia," I mutter.

"Dear?"

I point at the woman on the bench, the town drunk who isn't drunk this morning.

"She's right, you know. Not Talia . . . Well, sure, Talia is always accurate about her foreseeings. But doesn't Mary McGee deserve a happily ever after? Hell, even Maddie's got her happily ever after."

"I don't know if what we all have with the Pentad could be considered happily ever after," Rene remarks dryly. "I am, after all, still dead."

I smile softly at my Spirit brother.

"Maybe you wouldn't, Rene Jacobs, but Maddie would. And aren't you the same non-corporeal entity who told me — and Deer and the rest of the Spirits — what you wanted most was to be with your Maddie again like you were when you still walked in the human world? That you know it wasn't possible but that you'd wait an eternity for her among the Benevolent Spirits?"

"I said that?"

"Yep."

"I'm a sap . . . as bad as you are."

I grin at him. "Oh, I think it was the circumstances at the time. Stress and all that."

"You two are going to make me hurl." However, Pablo does have a smile on his face as he watches the portal.

As we read what the sheriff is saying, however, he frowns.

"I understand her telling the brother to leave his sister out of all the intrigue. Having found my fair share of drunks in alleys, I know their hallucinations can get plenty violent when they get vivid. But finding her mauled? That's . . ."

"People are the worst animals on the planet," I say flatly. "If any of this ties together with what's happening to Melody, well . . ."

We haven't actually seen anything except the Shadow, the Shadowkin, and the not-Shadowkin. We've seen the end of the world. And we've seen the stories start up again — sometimes in similar places, sometimes in quite different places.

I've seen odd . . . No, I'll call them thoroughly bizarre qi flares every time the world ends.

"No, it doesn't really explain her fear of the doctor, but some fears aren't rational."

"The fact that she doesn't remember could just be the usual state of affairs for someone who isn't a dreamer, as you call them," Rene says. "Being an alcoholic could effectively give her a negative healing factor." He shrugs. "You'd probably want to talk to Hank about the possibility, but if she's in the path of one of the Shadow monsters at the end of the world, maybe she'd heal more slowly than, say, the sheriff or the ice cream shop owner."

I shrug, too. "Could be. However, I don't think there's a way to test that hypothesis that comes anywhere near the realm of ethical scientific research. Granted, that would be right up Diver Dude's alley. If it's just a mental puzzle to think about, well, Hank's welcome to it."

Pablo sighs at one of the sheriff's comments. "I remember when the History Channel had shows on actual history. And wasn't American Chopper on the Discovery Channel?"

I stare at him for a few seconds. "Do I know you?"

"It was about motorcycles. I'd have thought it would be your kind of show."

"Focus, children."

"Yes, grandpa," I mutter, earning me a Gibbs slap from Rene. I suppose I deserve that.

"Newspaper Man is going to leave his sister out of the quest he's on, which is probably a damn good idea. On the other hand, he's going to keep up the Getting To Know You part of the program. He's also convinced the recent murder is related to his brother-in-law's death. I think we've already established that it is, despite not having any concrete evidence."

He sends a text to Beach Guy.

Any questions for the sheriff that we think we can ask without getting her killed?

"Oh, good grief." I think I speak for all three of us.

Beach Guy replies almost immediately.

Nothing from us. Just scouted a campsite for tonight. You and Chelsea have the best deal I think.

"There's someone who either hates camping or has found the site with the most rocks, reptiles, and insects on the island," Rene says with a chuckle.

The sheriff is still talking to Newspaper Guy.

Let's presume you're right, Derek. If there are people who don't want us to know what's going on, that necessitates one very important thing.

She pauses to watch Beach Guy as he approaches.

That means they must be observing the town. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to know if someone is poking their nose into places they don't wish. That means they're here with us. Right now. But where are they? Working on the docks? Who are they? The grocer? A maid up in the DeCoon's hotel? A novelist who, of all the nicer places in the world, decided to vacation here?

"Hmm. So the sheriff has already figured out that the town is being watched," Pablo says.

I nod slowly. "She'd almost have to reach that conclusion if she's as suspicious about the two murders as she seems to be. And—"

The scene doesn't fade, it just flips to a different point of view, slightly earlier in the day. Diver Dude is walking along the docks, pausing to chat a moment with Lucy, then continuing up the street to the library.

"Well. That was . . . interesting."

Pablo nods. "I think even your brother's kids could do better, and they're only five."

"Sandi does have an artist's eye. Charlie . . . not so much."

The librarian is the same one Beach Guy and Lucy encountered on their trip, which makes sense for a small town. She's still reading Beach Guy's book, and I suspect she'll manage to finish it today or tomorrow, assuming the world doesn't end.

"Guess why he's there."

Diver Dude is in profile and they can't see what he's saying.

"Do I get a prize if I guess right?" Pablo asks, waggling his eyebrows — suggestively, he'd say. I maintain that he looks ridiculous.

"Do I get a prize if I guess wrong?" Rene asks, joining the game.

"No prizes. You two are nuts."

"It's the company we keep," Pablo admits.

"That's true," Rene says, nodding. "Anyway, he's looking for every book on local history, mythology, conspiracy theories, and other things a paranoid person would find fascinating."

I sigh. "Just the local history."

"Ooh, but the lovely librarian is pointing him toward the other stuff anyway."

"I love how she keeps bringing up the 'nice lady,'" Pablo says with a chuckle. "She's a matchmaker for sure."

We watch as Diver Dude begins reading, starting with the history of the island.

"I never did care for history class."

"I think everyone knows that by now, Pablo. And this must be so tedious for you, seeing as it's a rerun." I snicker.

"But look, brother! He's getting into the conspiracy theories now!"

Pablo gives Rene a scathing look. "Conspiracy theories don't solve crimes."

"No, but even you have to admit, dear, that knowing what kind of crazy thoughts a criminal might be thinking could help figure out how to prove they did their dastardly deeds."

"The two of you are in cahoots."

I smile. "No. Rene is teasing you. I'm the magnet for weird."

At the point where even I'm starting to get tired of the repeated history lesson and review of conspiracy theories, Diver Dude's phone vibrates with a message from Beach Guy.

Off to scout the cliffside path shortly. Anyone want a walk?

Diver Dude leaves the books on the table and barely acknowledges the librarian, although she gives him a friendly wave.

Some folks might look at that pile of books and think Diver Dude is mightily rude. As a librarian — and once a librarian, always a librarian — it's something that's very much appreciated. I'd much rather put books away myself than have our patrons shelving them in the wrong section.

We follow Diver Dude out of town and along the highway toward the cliffs where the sheriff's truck was found this morning in the later iteration and where Mrs. Mallory's body will be found tomorrow if they don't keep her from dying tonight. I still don't see how it's possible for her to have been here.

The scene change this time is at least more gradual, but it's still a crappy editing job.

Fine. I get it that we're not actually watching a show with actors and a director. But given the singularly peculiar nature of this look-see portal, it's just about the only way I can conceptualize it. My other option is to attribute the strange jumps to the qi itself, and I'm not ready to do that. Although . . . hmm. It might have something to do with the qi flares every time the world ends.

Lucy is having breakfast at the Inn. Both of the DeCoon children have gone off to school, and the proprietor's wife has just come down the grand staircase and glides into the dining room. She doesn't look happy at all. She takes her breakfast — a cup of tea, some fruit, and a muffin — to a small table near the windows. While perhaps not the healthiest breakfast in the world, it's more than enough to remind me yet again that I'm hungry.

Lucy was looking up at the balcony as Mrs. DeCoon came down the stairs. There isn't anything we can see from our vantage point, so it would be reasonable to assume she heard something. In fact, it's an assumption that gets more reasonable as Lucy creeps up the stairs and turns away from her room when she reaches the top. Fancy French doors create a demarcation between the Inn and the private quarters of the DeCoon family. Our view is over Lucy's shoulder, and we see Harry DeCoon pacing back and forth. Body language tells us he's rather ticked off about something. His qi? Yikes! That's one angry individual. It's a wonder he doesn't have a stroke.

The qi changes to something uglier, however, when he pulls out his cellphone.

"I'd toss him in a cell as my number one suspect if he wife ever turned up dead," Detective Garcia says.

"And I wouldn't blame you," I agree.

Lucy sends a text to Chelsea when DeCoon sets the phone down and moves off screen.

Who is Jeremy DeCoon dating? It sounds like his father is encouraging the girl to pick on Melody, and that Melody is someone Jeremy is interested in. At least, that's who I assume Goth Girl is in the conversation. Yes, I was eavesdropping.

As she heads down the stairs, she receives a reply from Chelsea.

Elaine O'Rourke. They just left here. I'm with Melody, Sunny and Teresa. She's safe at the moment. I'll stay close.

Lucy purses her lips as she sends off another text.

Any idea why Elaine's mom would call Harry to take care of his son's crush? The fact that he was encouraging her to have Elaine pick on Melody is creepy as hell.

A moment later, another reply comes from Chelsea.

I don't know. Elaine has her hooks in him. They deserve each other.

Lucy keeps moving, but then pauses once more to text another question to Chelsea.

One last question. What do Elaine's parents do? They're not connected to the military, are they?

"I almost can't wait to get to Chelsea's scene," Pablo says. "Fifty bucks says she's rolling her eyes."

"She's a teenager getting asked crazy questions. Of course she's going to be rolling her eyes." I poke him in the ribs for even considering I'd be against him. "I've spent plenty of time around teens and ours aren't even technically teens yet."

Not that I know of. Her dad is one of the DeCoons top captains. I don't think her mother does anything more than look unhappy.

"This is definitely more in line with Momma's telenovelas."

I shrug. "If you're interested in intrigue, hang out with the guys at Charlie's. Even I can't keep up with the gossip."

Just then Beach Guy's text comes in, inviting the group to take a walk along the cliffs. Lucy jogs back up the stairs to gather a few things in her bag and heads out.

The last time she did this, she ran into Newspaper Man as he was coming out of the general store. In this iteration, Newspaper Man sits with the sheriff and his sister. So Lucy heads out of town, walking along the highway. She's the first person to reach the spot where they'd parked previously.

Interestingly, because there are no tire tracks from the sheriff's truck, Lucy is demonstrating how very difficult it is to get through the tall grass and brambles that make up the majority of vegetation on the south side of the road. The rocks, once she reaches them, however, are every bit as slick as they were in the last iteration.

"Yep, the old lady was murdered."

Rene chuckles. "When did you become a detective, sister?"

Pablo chuckles as well and nods. "She's right, though. But are you doing real detective work, Andrea, or just looking at the qi?"

"You know, if you could see the qi as well as I do, you wouldn't dis it as much as you do. If you know where to start looking and what paths to follow, your physical evidence will be easier to find. Usually. But yes, I used real detective work." I sniff with feigned indignation. "Can you imagine Tita trying to do what Lucy just did? No? Neither can I. So there."

Lucy slips and barely catches herself when Diver Dude startles her.

"She's catching him up on the town gossip."

"I'm sure he's thrilled," Pablo remarks.

"He isn't concocting any conspiracy theories, so I consider it a good conversation. Oh, and now she's asking about contingency plans. I'm sure we're in for a treat now."

Beach Guy joins them, asks about Newspaper Man, and Diver Dude comments about getting in touch with him.

"Is there a number in the latest DSM for necromania?" I ask. "Because that dude is seriously obsessed with death and dying. He's suggesting that they get in touch with Newspaper Man, which is fine if he just stopped there. But then he had to continue with 'if he's dead' and blah blah blah."

"I doubt that's what he actually said," Rene notes just a little too cheerfully.

"Maybe not. But I'm getting extremely annoyed with his paranoia, so I'm just going to translate everything as 'death, death, paranoia, blah blah, paranoia, death' from now on."

Both of them wisely stay silent as Diver Dude texts Newspaper Man, and Lucy asks about any new discoveries Beach Guy might have made.

"He's telling them about meeting Crazy Ice Cream Lady. Oh, boy! And even he's wondering how Mrs. Mallory got out here. I'm glad someone over there is. Hmm . . . he's asking if she might have been running after Melody or possibly running away from something."

"I don't think we ever saw what actually happened, did we?" Pablo stares down the group on the other side of the portal. "I recall Tyler and Teresa discovering the body and then the funeral."

I shake my head. "No. Wasn't that the first time everything went to hell, and we saw the Shadow eating the world?"

"Pretty sure that was it, yes."

Diver Dude's phone shows the return message from Newspaper Man, as well as a message we hadn't seen on Newspaper Man's phone in the previous scene. Diver Dude texts him back.

Checking in, carry on.

I roll my eyes, then continue my conversation with Pablo and Rene. "All of this aligns with a theory that some people are indispensable to this world and somehow manage to prevent the ending of said world. But we don't know why, they certainly don't know why. It could be something they do, it could be something they prevent someone else from doing, or it could simply be the fact that they exist — like Mrs. Mallory, who takes care of Melody.

"But it seems obvious that to continue to a path that leads to . . . well, at least to the end of the year, they need to keep both the sheriff and the old woman alive."

"The sheriff is alive. And they're going to keep the old woman company tonight, right?"

"Seems to be the plan. Newspaper Man and Chelsea are supposed to be over at her place — and the others are getting concerned about the fact that he hasn't been to the grocery store yet. Beach Guy and Lucy are going to be camping along the cliffs there, and Diver Dude is going to be offshore in his boat."

Rene makes a rude noise but then laughs. "Oh, just your Beach Guy's question about the camera. A telephoto lens that will capture useful images from offshore? At night? On a regular camera?" He chuckles. "He'll need a tripod, too."

"Hmm, well, Diver Dude says that they'll just buy something during the next loop if they don't have what they need this time. Dear gods, I'm getting tired of his talk about loops. Oh! Here's a doozy — they should make a note of the time anything happens, so they don't need to do things in shifts the next time."

If sarcasm were a physical thing, it would be oozing from my pores right now.

"Can you make out what the other guy is saying?" Pablo asks. "He keeps shifting his head."

"Yeah, I can hear him. He's saying that they don't know that they 'reboot' when they die. I guess having done it isn't proof enough? They know others 'reboot' but that they aren't in the same category."

I stare at Beach Guy for a second.

"Great. Paranoia is contagious. He's wondering if the bad guys — whoever they might be — are also rebooting and are aware of what's going on. Diver Dude says 'paranoia blah blah paranoia' and that he's been assuming they've been doing so the longest.

"See? This is why you take the paranoid person aside and crack them over the head with a big stick until they come to their senses. Now he's got Lucy worried about it, about what the bad guys might know about them."

"Is it possible someone is causing whatever is happening over there?"

"Possible? Sure, Pablo. It's possible. In fact, it's quite likely that someone's doing this. I just haven't seen anything yet that would point me to any particular person or persons."

I sigh and gesture at the portal.

"Death, death, paranoia, blah blah, paranoia, death?" Rene asks.

"Pretty much . . . with a sports training metaphor tossed in for good measure."

"I'd shoot him if it would do any good," Pablo offers.

"You're sweet, dear. Thank you. I'd rather do it myself, though."

"But do you think any of the bad guys are aware?" Rene presses.

I shrug. "We've been following only these five folks from the very beginning. There are other people we've seen come and go, but no one else has been the focus of any of these little vignettes. These guys, plus Melody and Sunny, each have a distinctive . . . vibration? Overtone? Whatever. They all have something in common in their auras that's not easy to see all the time. But like I said, it's distinctive. I haven't seen it on anyone else, but that could just mean they haven't been in any one scene long enough for me to catch it. I think that distinctive . . . whatever is what makes them aware of the cycles. So . . . my initial assessment would be that no one else is aware. But I could be wrong."

Beach Guy's phone beeps with a message from Newspaper Man.

Any questions for the sheriff that we think we can ask without getting her killed?

"Sending a sleeper agent against the enemy?? Did he just really say that?" Rene asks, laughing harder than I've heard him laugh in months.

"Yep. That's what he said. I'm glad someone can find such joy in his obsessions."

"Andi, he's like a character in one of those really bad movies that are so bad they become cult classics!"

"Like Barbarella," Pablo says.

I look at him blankly.

"Or It Came from Outer Space."

I look over my shoulder in confusion. The two of them try to outdo the other with more and more bizarre movies that I've never seen. Or heard of. I'm probably the only one who notices the text Beach Guy sends to Newspaper Man.

Nothing from us. Just scouted a campsite for tonight. You and Chelsea have the best deal I think.

"Or Plan 9 from Outer Space."

"Attack of the 50 Foot Woman."

"Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!"

"Hey, I've seen that one! It's funny." They look at me like I've lost my mind in a way that's considerably different from the way I generally lose my mind. I should win a prize for that!

"Are you two finished playing now? Yes? Good. Because our intrepid heroes and crazy person have decided the sheriff might be safe for today and that maybe someone should get some supplies for their camping trip. Let's see, Beach Guy wants to know if either of the other two knows Morse Code in case their phones get all freaky. That's his word: freaky. Lucy doesn't, Diver Dude does. Of course he does. Oh, blah blah, paranoia, learn stuff, future loops, paranoia, blah blah."

Beach Guy heads into town; interestingly, our point of view follows him along as he walks up to the group on the bench and speaks to Newspaper Man.

"Hmm. That's good. I guess. Maybe it helps that he's acting childishly with his sister. If nothing else, it might help her."

"Are they saying anything interesting?"

I shrug. "Catching each other up on what they've been doing, mostly. Talking about the military facility that was supposedly shut down but might not actually be shut down."

I listen to what Newspaper Man is saying, then shake my head. I feel a bit confused.

"I think he's assuming that the base is currently occupied. And heavily guarded, which would make sense if it's still occupied. Wait . . . what? Okay, no, you're not making sense, man!"

"Um, Andrea? Want to share?"

I sigh. "Sure. Newspaper Man hypothesizes that the military is doing experiments that killed whoever it was in the garbage truck. He's been infected, too. Spies are everywhere! It makes sense! Ugh. To whom?? Fine, there are probably spies, if you make the assumption that whoever is behind this is hiding in plain sight. So anyone you run into could be a spy. The guy at the hardware store, the parish priest, the wife whose job it is to sit around looking unhappy, the crazy ice cream lady, the bartender!"

I take a breath and let it out slowly.

"At least he's asking why. It doesn't seem like anyone over there has done that before. But then he gets sucked into a rabbit hole — his term and I certainly won't argue it — about his brother-in-law and what he'd been up to that got him killed. Is Sunny more aware of what's going on because she's her father's daughter? Sure, that makes sense. But did he undergo experimentation that caused her to inherit some kind of ability to recognize these events?"

I shrug. "We see that sort of thing in our universe with kids inheriting mutant abilities from their parents. I mean, look at our hellions. Paul clearly gets his portal-opening ability from me. According to Eagle, the two of them got the Heal From Everything Including Death, Live For Who The Hell Knows How Long thing from me, too. Not sure where all the other stuff comes from."

I stop and stare at Newspaper Man. Damn it. Fucking military. The white man not only experimented on us but their own people? That's cold, really cold. And if Newspaper Man is right, if Sunny is aware of these jumps because her genetics are screwy, does that make her any different than my cousins or me or the hundreds of thousands of people who've been affected by mutant abilities in this universe?

Damn it.

"Poor kid. If he's right — a big if still at this point — she's one of us, one of the Cursed." I don't think I say that any louder than a whisper.

I shake my head again. "So Sunny and Melody are directly involved, he theorizes. Melody is medicated; this is known. He asks if the medication is meant to keep the monster at bay or to bring it out. Wonders what it is — is it a manifestation of her own subconscious or something out of time and space trying to fix the problems they caused."

"Jesus, he sounds like you."

I wonder if Pablo means that as a joke.

I nod slowly. "He does. But he doesn't go far enough. He's backing off and telling Beach Guy that he's following threads of ideas to their conclusions even if they don't pan out. That it makes for a better story."

"As though they're writing fiction? He doesn't grasp that he's actually living in that nightmare?"

I look at Rene again and raise an eyebrow. "People go mad when their realities break their minds."

He holds my eyes until the pain and sadness in his make him look away.

"You did everything you could, Rene. Stop blaming yourself. I thought you promised Maddie to give up the guilt."

"It's never enough."

It's a mantra that the two of them shared; it's one I've known since long before I met them. Those three words hold volumes of stories.

"I know, Rene . . . I know." I reach up and squeeze the hand he has draped over my shoulder. "We discovered our miracles. Let's pray they find theirs."

Pablo squeezes my other hand, and I smile weakly at him. "This is turning into more than just a shit show . . . too many memories are coming up."

"If I need to anchor both of you, I will."

"No." Rene shakes his head as he speaks. "No, but thank you, Pablo. You know how this one gets when she doesn't have the proper grounding. I'll find Maddie later."

I clear my throat. "Beach Guy is trying to do the same for Newspaper Man, I think. He's trying to stay grounded and out of the rabbit hole. The problem is that . . . well, I suspect that they're going to need to go down the rabbit hole."

"There seem to be an awful lot of them. Would I be correct to assume there's only one rabbit hole they should be falling into?"

"I'm not sure, Pablito. There are unquestionably paths that are more suited to my skillset than any of theirs. Although . . ." I consider the situation across the portal as the two men head into the general store. "I think with my skillset, I could tunnel right to the answer but I'd have to be over there. They need to go down the rabbit hole I'd choose, though. At least, I think so."

"So it's more metaphysical than physical, this dilemma of theirs?"

"If it's more so, Rene, it's only by a small margin. They have real people with real weapons, and some of them are definitely assholes. But there are more metaphysical aspects of the situation than any of them will accept at the moment."

"This is because you're the magnet for weird, sister."

"Unless our son has inherited that magnetism. I won't stand for that, Andrea." Pablo is smiling. It's a joke, but it's a serious one.

The two men chat as they first make a side trip to Beach Guy's apartment, then head over to Mrs. Mallory's place. Oddly, as they walk up the street toward the nature trail, today — or this version of today — it's Beach Guy who's carrying the lion's share of items.

I nudge Pablo. "Paul didn't inherit magnetism for weird. Not exactly. You now Cat keeps saying that I call the portals to me?"

"Yes. Please tell me our son can't summon that weird shit."

I shrug. "Not exactly. But if he goes looking for the weirdness, he's more likely to find it than you."

"I never go looking for weird stuff! It follows you around like a sad and lost puppy."

I chuckle. "Okay, think of it this way: Paul would need to go dumpster diving to find it."

"Hmm. I'll need to have a chat with that boy."

"Perhaps you should ask Maddie to talk with him." There's a smile in Rene's voice. "You two are his parents and, therefore, anything you tell him will likely be seen as a dare in a few more years."

I nod. "I'm sure Aunt Lin could put the fear of many gods into him."

Pablo shakes his head as we watch the two men approach the school where there is quite the crowd waiting.

That's when the scene jumps back to the beginning of the school day with Chelsea hurriedly getting ready for school, wolfing down her breakfast to get to school in time to meet Melody. The morning goes by as any uneventful morning would. It's lunchtime, the most dangerous part of the day — at least when the town bully isn't lurking around the front gate or doors before school.

The two teachers head to their little office to have lunch and go over lesson plans. Some of the students go to the gym where the Parasol Sisters are cooking and serving lunch. Some students stay in their classroom — the bully is on one side of the room with his henchmen; the entourage of his so-called girlfriend and minions are huddled nearby, no doubt whispering among themselves as mean girls in all universes tend to do. The newest of them stands apart, still not sure of her place. Melody and Sunny are on the other side of the room, a smart place to be with all the wickedness on the far side.

In the middle, still gathering belongings from their desks, are Chelsea and Teresa. Chelsea walks over to Melody's table to join her and Sunny, but smiles as she turns back to Teresa.

Teresa, want to join us?

"Oh, boy! I love that girl! I'll bet every single one of them could be knocked over with a feather right now."

Even the subject of the inquiry seems surprised, though she recovers quickly. However, she still takes time to make a very deliberate move, looking first at Chelsea and then at her so-called friends and finally at Melody.

Indeed. Miss O'Connell said there would be integrals on our finals.

Pablo groans. "Oh, God, even with Rosalia's help, I never understood integrals."

I squeeze his hand. "It's okay, love. You might need to take your shoes off to count beyond ten, but I still love you."

He grins at me. "Ha ha. Very funny. My phone has a calculator, so I don't need to take my shoes off anymore."

The bully looks like he's ready to lose his shit — his face is red, his fists are clenched, and his eyes burn with evil when he looks at Chelsea. But then his so-called girlfriend slinks over and says something to him. There's definitely a whole lot of inappropriate touching going on there, but she manages to get him out of the room. They're followed by the bully's little henchmen and the entourage of mean girls.

Sunny looks downright shocked. She waves her teddy bear's little paw at Teresa.

Mister Teddy says this is new.

The camera pans to show Teresa's reaction. She nods before speaking; she doesn't smile, but her qi does.

Yes, it is.

Chelsea echoes Pablo's love of integrals.

Ugh, integrals. Melody, is there any way you can explain them so we might really understand them? I hear Miss O'Connell, and I read the textbook, but it might as well be Chinese.

"Ha! I saw what she said! I'm not the only one!"

Rene chuckles. "You aren't, Pablo."

Chelsea opens her lunch and takes a bite as she watches Teresa unpack her lacquered box containing some homemade food.

"Those people need to stop eating," I complain.

That looks delicious.

I agree with Chelsea: it really does. I'm very, very hungry.

"Huh, that's weird . . . well, unless they eat lunch fairly early there. I could have sworn those texts from Lucy started much earlier. Maybe Lucy slept in? Or spied around the Inn for longer than it seemed?"

"Isn't 'time moves differently in other dimensions' the first thing you try to get people to learn about other dimensions?"

"Yes. But it should be internally consistent. It's not like there are eight time zones in that one little town."

Chelsea looks surprised by the first message. Then she tucks the phone away after replying to Lucy and looks out the door where the bully and his so-called girlfriend went.

Between the words I can read and the things Melody sketched out on a sheet of paper for Chelsea and Teresa, I think she explains integrals in such a way that maybe even Pablo could understand them. She'd be a great teacher.

It's interesting seeing the text exchange from this side of the conversation. I watch as Chelsea manages to keep up with Melody's instruction — she's patient, even with the interruptions — but it's far more apparent now just now much of a disturbance Lucy's odd questions are causing. At the second interruption, Chelsea's expression shows confusion and a lack of understanding. Melody merely pauses as Chelsea quickly replies and put the phone away, and the lesson continues.

Teresa's aura shows a shimmer of curiosity about Chelsea and her phone, but Sunny is far more interested in the lesson.

"First graders who understand integrals are scary," Pablo says.

But Sunny isn't a spooky child at all — not when you look at her qi. She's just, well, old. That puts her behavior into a different context.

As the lesson is winding down, Chelsea's phone buzzes again, and she rolls her eyes and gives the other girls an apologetic look as she whips off a reply. Teresa has her eyes down, watching her hands clean up her fancy lunchbox and put everything away.

This reminds me of that movie with Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. And just like Veronica, I now get to return to work. It's just that my job is being popular and, um, stuff. No, my life's not perfect. I don't really like my friends.

Chelsea gives her a smile, one that's honest and friendly. What's interesting is that we seem to have a new director. The camera, er, portal angle moves from person to person as they speak.

You have new friends in us if you want. As small as this school is, I'm amazed that people still feel the need to have cliques.

Teresa shakes her head slightly.

The smaller the town, the tighter and more important these little groups are. We move like pieces on a chessboard; would you really want Elaine to be the Queen with my idiot brother the King, to run this town unchecked? I have no idea why father gave Jeremy to Elaine; Jeremy is too dense to see it. This is a small town, and this is the only way they feel important.

Teresa pauses, her eyes flickering from one to the next to the last of her tablemates.

Me? I actually like it here. There's something about small towns that's honest and true. Have you ever noticed, Chelsea, that the folks who have lunch in your mother's diner know each other? And that when you eat lunch with those you know, it tastes better?

This time, the wealthy young woman just shrugs.

Mother sometimes takes me to the City. It has so many people you can't know them all. I never felt lonelier in my life.

Melody uses a lacy handkerchief to clean a bit of food from Sunny's face.

I like small towns, too. I keep thinking, maybe one June, things could be different. Things just never end well. I wish I wasn't sick, Teresa. I'm so tired of watching everyone get hurt.

The young heiress looks away, although the view smoothly follows her.

You're the one always getting hurt, aren't you? By my friends. By my brother. By his gang. Because you're an easy target. I wish there were something I could do. I'm just another piece in this game, and I have less choice than you'd think, and I must go where my player places me.

She only gives the impression of shaking her head; her bearing remains almost regal.

Be your friend, Chelsea? If it were only that easy. It makes me a very poor choice.

Melody opens her black book of poetry, flipping through the pages looking for the right poem.

Please do not deplore yourself.
Even if the world does not forgive, I will forgive you.

Please do not deplore yourself.
Even if you do not forgive the world, I will forgive you.

Melody doesn't read the last line of the poem before closing the book, but we can see it.

So please tell me: What will it take for you to forgive me?

Her qi, her aura shows that she doesn't really understand what just happened between the other two teens, but Chelsea nods anyway.

Okay. Well, things are going to be different, one way or another.

Teresa turns to look at Chelsea.

Different . . . They already are. Right now. This is different.

Then she looks at Melody.

Be careful. Don't let yourself ever be caught alone with my brother or his friends. That means Elaine, too, because she probably knows. And while my brother is stupid-mean, she's smart-mean. And I can't be everywhere. And I wish . . . I didn't have to be forgiven.

Sunny looks around at the older girls and sets her teddy bear in the middle of the table.

Mister Teddy says that love doesn't just sit there like a stone. It has to be made like bread, remade all the time, made new.

She smiles an adorable little girl smile.

He also says that we have Home Ec after lunch, what Miss O'Connell calls 'modern-day survival skills.'
Yes, we need to get back to class. We'll see you later, Sunny. And we're going to have a nice dinner at Jilly's tonight.

Then Chelsea looks at Teresa.

If you like, you could join us. I know Jilly wouldn't mind.

"Oh, my."

I look at Pablo. "Ah, so you were paying attention to some of the history of the town."

He nods. "Enough that it explains the look of utter shock on Teresa's face. Enough to know that the barely perceptible nod from Melody is a huge fucking deal."

You aren't joking with me, are you?

Teresa looks at Melody for a moment before closing her eyes.

Mrs. Mallory's dessert pies are to die for. Father tried to get her to sell them at the Inn, and she got him real angry when she said something made with love shouldn't cost a penny. Father will forbid me to go.

None of them say anything for a minute that stretches into to. Then Sunny leans over and pokes Teresa with the teddy bear's paw, causing the older girl to open her eyes again.

Oh. That's right.

She pulls out her phone and sends a short text.

Mom, studying math, home late
It's fine. I just won't tell him.

"Oh, wonderful. This is what I have to look forward to in another five years?" Pablo asks.

"Of course not, dear! By that age, the kids will be studying here full-time. And I'll be willing to bet that Charles does not abide any of this Montague and Capulet nonsense at his school."

Rene laughs. "Absolutely not!"

At the end of the day, the four of them leave school together; they're some of the last to depart, as it's apparently Sunny's turn to help clean up her classroom. Not surprisingly, Melody helps Sunny. Surprisingly, so does Teresa. As they walk down the hall to toward the front entrance, Teresa asks a question that likely been in the back of her mind all afternoon.

Why? Why are you being so nice to me?

Chelsea laughs.

The best answer is a simple answer: Why not? But I suppose I used to be afraid to speak to you. You've never done anything to me, so that was silly. We can all use more friends, right? And in all honesty, we need to change things here, or we're all in trouble. We've known each other all our lives, and we've probably never really talked. In a place as small as this, that's crazy. There aren't that many girls our age. We should be friends, or at least get to know each other better. The same for Melody.

Teresa pauses at the top of the stairs.

My mother says the same thing. 'Give me a reason why not to adopt [OR IS IT ADAPT?] in this way, or judge me to be guilty of so many incurable sins. Tell me why, or why not. Complaining way too much, maybe I overlooked something fatal for me.'

Melody looks startled by Teresa's quote.

I was a believer in life to be myself always . . .

She rustles through her belongings, pulls out her little black iPod, and shows the display to Teresa so the other girl can see the title of the song.

why, or why not

Teresa doesn't smile, not exactly. But, again, her qi does. And she answers Chelsea's question:

Maybe making two — no, three and a half — new friends today is a good enough reason. I hope it is.
Hey! Mister Teddy is a full-fledged friend!

The tiny blonde looks fiercely at Teresa, or at least as fiercely as a first grader can be.

The older girl nods and corrects herself.

Four.

The scene outside the school is like a scene out of some comedy that had meant to take itself seriously and failed miserably. The girls stand at the top of the stairs; in the schoolyard between the steps and fence are Teresa's brother and his minions. Beyond the gate?

Sunny notices them first and squeals with joy, taking off at a run to the two figures waiting there. No, I can't actually hear her, but I saw my daughter that excited when she was smaller — it didn't matter if it was mommy or daddy coming home, that girl was a bundle of happiness. She's toned it down a bit, but she still gets excited if either of us has been gone for more than a couple of days. Fortunately, she doesn't have the force of a more dense musculature that Em had at that age. Sunny doesn't either.

The three older girls follow the tyke; Teresa laughs, pretending to ignore her brother. Melody looks a little less confident and very definitely confused, but follows the other two teens.

The bully? He does, in fact, take a step toward the three girls before he realizes who's standing outside the gates.

Pablo laughs at the boy's reaction when he sees the sheriff with Sunny's mother.

"I can't tell if any of them are peeing on themselves."

I smile grimly. "No, but it's probably only because they've had so much practice, in the bully's case, anyway. It's hard to tell about the lackeys. He overpowers them."

Sunny is standing in front of her mother looking every bit as confused as Melody, perhaps even more so. She takes one of her mom's hands and swings it back and forth, then does the same with the other. After doing that several times, she looks up at her mom, and the mutual hug fest ensues — Mary Lee crouches down, Sunny leaps into her arms, and . . .

Well, it's kind of dusty out here all of a sudden.

"Remember when the little ones used to do that?" Pablo asks, smiling wistfully.

Rene and I answer simultaneously, and just as wistfully.

"Oui."

"Yeah."

Rene's thinking of Leon, I'm thinking of both my hellions.

Very dusty, indeed.

Mommy, mommy, mommy! Please stay better! We got invites! To a barbecue at Aunt Jilly's! Can I go? Can I go? You too! Please, please, please? Please come too!

Mary Lee closes her eyes as she holds her child tightly.

How can I say no to my Sunshine?

The sheriff looks at the mother and child reunion with approval, then glances at the hooligans on the school lawn. They slink away in the opposite direction, behind the school. Then she regards the three teenagers.

Now, this is a trio I would never have expected. This must be your doing, Miss Parsons. Take good care of these two.
Doing? I'm just being me, Sheriff.

Chelsea has a thoroughly innocent look on her face. It's every bit as good as my son's. He's going to be a terror when he gets to her age.

I'm counting on that, Chelsea.

Sunny is bouncing around her mother, chatting about — well, there isn't much that we can catch only because she doesn't stop moving, but perhaps there's something about Miss Melody teaching numbers and Miss Taz teaching English. The teddy bear joins the dancing, too — sometimes conveying information to Mary Lee and sometimes just dancing with Sunny.

"Leon was not quite that energetic," Rene remarks.

"Nor was Maria," I say. "I think Paul probably made up for both of them."

Pablo chuckles. "I can't tell if the boy has calmed down or if I'm just used to it by now."

"A little of the former, from what I've seen," Rene notes, "and much more of the latter."

Behind the small group, walking up the street from town, are Newspaper Man and Beach Guy, both carrying armloads of supplies.

Mary Lee catches sight of them in one of the spins she and Sunny pretend are dances. Her arms go around Sunny protectively, and her head tilts to one side as she looks at her brother.

Wait. This is your barbecue? You were going to have a barbecue and not invite your sister? First coffee, and now this? What a rotten brother!

She sheriff scowls for a second, ready to nudge her friend back toward civil human being territory, before catching the look on Mary Lee's face.

The woman has actually made a joke!

Teresa offers to carry some of the items overburdening Beach Guy, chatting with him about camping.

It's a rather large group that hikes up the nature trail. Sunny holds her mother's hand and her teddy, on her other side, is secured by its little paws by her and Melody. The sheriff walks on Mary Lee's other side.

"She's the warrior of the little group," I muse as they continue up the path toward the access road on which Melody and Sunny both live.

"Did you say something, Andrea?"

I look up at Pablo. "Oh. The sheriff — whatever configuration their friendship took when Mary Lee's husband was alive, she was always the protector. Even when he was in the military, although maybe she was just protecting their relationship. Sort of like what you did, Rene, for Maddie and Logan before the three of you found your balance." I nod toward the portal. "She's still doing it."

Pablo's brows drew together. "Even here and now? Is there anything that's threatening the other woman?"

I shrug. "I think she's just relieved to see her friend sober. So other than the specter of alcohol? I don't see—"

The relief that pour over Sunny and Mary Lee when they look up the road toward the house where they live is all out of proportion. Unless . . .

"Never mind. I do see. Whoever lives with them is a potential threat who happens not to be home at the moment, so it's one less thing for the sheriff to worry about."

Next, we get to examine the mushroom house.

"I'd want to visit that woman just to see what the hell she's recording with all those damn Dish antennas," Pablo says. "There can't possibly be that many shows to record, let alone watch!"

"You realize that not all areas of the world have access to cable-based internet, don't you, brother?"

Pablo's expression as he looks at Rene is priceless; I burst out laughing.

"Apparently, Pablo can't conceive of such a barbaric world. And he doesn't remember that there isn't cable at the plantation in Suriname."

"Oh. Well. Fine. That woman still has a lot of antennas on her house."

"Hmm. Not necessarily." I count the number of antennas I can see from our vantage point. "It's possible she's boosting one off another to get a better signal. Freya tried to explain it. While I generally understood what she was talking about, and believe her when she says it's 'easy peasy' to accomplish, she went so far into tech-talk land that I suspect only Freak would understand what she was walking about."

Rene laughs. "Like you and your qi mumbo jumbo."

I stare at him for a moment, then shrug. "It's a fair cop."

Mrs. Mallory is saying something about cookies and trying to talk to everyone, and she reminds me so much of Mama that my heart squeezes in on itself for a second. Pablo notices, of course, and leans his head against mine.

"Just like our mothers, yes. She's a lovely woman. I hope they keep her safe."

Beach Guy sets down the groceries he'd carried for Newspaper Man, says a few words to Mrs. Mallory, and then takes out his phone to text Newspaper Man.

Watch out for your sister, bad feeling.

Having put the groceries down in the kitchen, Newspaper Man reads Beach Guy's message and replies with one of his own.

Many to watch tonight, more than I thought. Thanks.

While I appreciate the fact that these two are texting information to keep us informed over here on this side of the portal, I wonder why the hell they don't just talk to each other. In the next instant, I realize that those of us in the Pentad do the same thing. Sort of. This makes me really glad those folks are limited to the modern technological wonders of text messages and that none of them are telepathic. I'm not sure even Charles could spy on that . . . even with Cerebro.

Beach Guy texts back a wish for good luck before finishing his lemonade and gathering his belongings to head off. Mrs. Mallory makes sure he has a bundle of cookies to take with him. He texts Lucy on his way down the driveway, letting her know that he's on his way.

The elderly woman opens the big double French doors between her kitchen and porch. Newspaper Man takes dominion over the grill. Chelsea is placed in charge of the kitchen with Teresa and Melody as her helpers. Mrs. Mallory bustles from here to there, generally making sure that everyone is happy, comfortable, and filling up on her lemonade.

Great. Now I'm thirsty, too.

Sunny's mom sits cross-legged in the middle of the yard, holding her daughter's teddy bear for dear life, as she watches her daughter run around the yard, picking flowers and exuding joy. Every once in a while, she spends a half-minute or so watching her brother at the grill.

Chelsea is at home in the kitchen, which makes sense because we've seen her helping her mother at the diner. Teresa doesn't seem to have much experience but is a quick learner. If not for the fact they they're making summer barbecue foods, it almost reminds me of all the times I've spent with Pablo's mother and eldest sister learning how to make tamales and enchiladas and chili rellenos and dozens of other amazing dishes that have been passed down through the family for generations.

Poor Melody, on the other hand . . .

After making a mess of a half dozen or so hard boiled eggs, she nearly slices her hand with a paring knife. I doubt it would have been a bad cut at all — something small enough that I would have healed from it in a few minutes before I'd even finished up my first three months with Grandmaster Chen. But Melody looks horrified.

She sits quietly for a few minutes with her head bowed as the other two girls work. Although they concentrate on the food, their auras are focused with worry on their friend. Finally, Melody looks up.

Maybe we all have something we are here to do in this world. And mine just isn't cooking. I wish mine could be helping the kids in school. Is that selfish of me?

"Damn it," I whisper.

"Reminds you of Missy, doesn't it?"

I nod. The Mutant Registration laws might have been repealed, and the walls of the ghettos might have been torn down, but even now schools are unwilling to hire a brilliant, capable, funny woman just because she looks like an ogre from a children's story.

It seems that Chelsea shares my opinion of Melody's skills, however.

I think you'd be a great teacher, Melody. I'm not really sure what I'm going to do. I know my mom wants me to just stay here and help her. What about you, Teresa? Do you have big plans when you finish school here?

Melody gives Chelsea a half-hearted smile.

Thank you. Things go bad when I get hurt. I don't handle it too well. Maybe when I get better. I hate being sick.

Teresa looks up at Melody, surprised . . . as though it never occurred to her that there was anything else to the other teen than Being Sick. Chelsea adeptly intervenes.

I know, Melody. And as much as anything, I want to see you get better. I want all the badness to go away.
You know, they have an excellent teaching school up in Albany, Melody. It's part of SUNY, so it's quite . . . affordable.

Biting her lip, the heiress has a look in her eyes that likely means she's wondering if that might have been a bit tactless. She looks at Chelsea as she answers the question asked of her.

You aren't going to believe this: I'd like to stay here. I'd like to stay here and run the Inn. But that's not going to happen. Father is trying to turn it into a casino and has already said that Jeremy will be taking it up after him. But Jeremy couldn't run in a circle without being tied to a staked rope.

I snicker. "Oh, I'm going to have to remember that! I could use that line on those of lesser intellect that I enjoy taunting so much."

Pablo sighs. "As if those dim bulbs from down in the Springs would even understand that you're insulting them."

"Maybe not . . . but the bystanders would, especially the folks at Charlie's."

"Right. The same folks who would go on a laughing spree at the wrong time."

"Hmm. Maybe you're right. I should just save it for Henry."

Pablo rolls his eyes. He gets along better with my cousin now, but he still doesn't have the patience to deal with Henry's lunacy that most of us do.

Mother and I look out from the breakfast balcony some mornings, and this is actually a really pretty town. But Father's already made arrangements for me to go interview at Wellesley and Mount Holyoke. I'm just a piece on his chessboard. Jeremy's definitely a pawn. I may be too, but Mother's helping me advance eight squares.

That's a damn astute observation from a teenager. Maybe her happily ever after will be staging a coup against her father when he can't buy his son's way out of a jail that's bigger than a single cell. Given what I've seen of that family, I think that would be fantastic.

Just like Alice.

Teresa smiles at Melody's comment. I nod. Yep, just like—

"Alice who?"

This time, both Rene and I look at Pablo with mock horror.

"I hope you're joking, Pablo, because I will take care of you long before your beautiful wife can."

"I have a reading assignment for later?"

"Ya think?" I sniff and pretend to be offended as I look back at the portal. Chelsea is replying to Teresa's comment.

I want to see more of the world. This is all I've ever known except for a few short trips in a car. I've never even been on a plane or train. The hardest part would be leaving mom here alone. I know how much I mean to her. I think I'd come back, though. I do love this place. It's like our own little world, except for the tourists, of course, but it really is ours. I think you'd do great running the Inn. If a casino comes here, I'm definitely leaving. And I'd do everything I could to take Mom with me. I don't think I'd like what this place would turn into.

Sunny is still running around with enough energy to power the eastern seaboard if it could be harnessed. She's made several trips up to the porch to poke her uncle — it seems like some sort of game she just made up — but this time she stops and looks up at him with an enormous smile.

I like this Tuesday best!

Given some of the Tuesdays the child has seen, it's a wonder that she's been able to hold onto her joy.

Teresa answers Chelsea as they share a bowl of potato salad and nibble on the kabobs Newspaper Man made.

I have money. I've done the rich heiress thing. I just think there's got to be something more, something real, something that can't be bought. I don't think it can be found in cities. Maybe it can only be found in places like this.

"You go, girl." My whisper is so soft that it would take Logan or Em to be able to hear it.

Chelsea is listening attentively to Teresa . . . listening to her new friend rather than eating.

I suppose that makes sense. And maybe I'll want to be here. But if I don't try elsewhere, how will I ever know that this place is perfect for me?

"Dear gods, are they all geniuses?"

Rene chuckles. "The universe has taken the most pragmatic and fanciful parts of both you and Maddie, stripped out the bloodthirsty wenches, shook it all up, and gave it to those two."

I smile. "Maybe so, Rene. Maybe so."

So until I get the chance, I'll dream and I'll always wonder.

Chelsea shrugs, and the view shifts to the sheriff, who's been watching her friend from the porch.

Little miracles. She's been sober all day, Derek. Remember when she was like this every day? I know. If bad things stop happening to good people, I'd be out of a job. But that . . . that might not be the worst thing in the world. You know, Chuck gave her that teddy bear. Aside from bad memories and a pension check once a month, that's all they have of him. And it's actually a very reasonable amount. Heck, it's much bigger than any of the other retirees here get. If she had a job, she and Sunny could probably live quite comfortably. If she could hold a job.

Newspaper Man nods.

Wouldn't be bad at all. I can't say that I can fix anything, but I'm willing to see what I can do.

That's when Crazy Ice Cream Lady comes strolling up the walk carrying a cooler. Hmm, well, I guess she's not the first person to invite herself.

No, wait. Sunny invited her mother, and Chelsea invited Teresa. So, yes. Crazy Ice Cream Lady is the only person to invite herself. She isn't what she seems — I don't like the look of her aura.

I was sitting on my porch and saw you were having a little home picnic! I brought Ice cream! I even have a new one! Carrot cake! Everyone likes carrot cake, right?

The sheriff visibly winces.

"See?" Rene says. "I'm not the only one."

Mrs. Mallory might be eating less than anyone else simply because she's dashing all over the place taking care of everyone. In this, she differs from the women of my family — we take good care of our families and guests, but not to the exclusion of our own rumbling tummies. But Pablo's Momma is just like that. Her children need to remind her to stop fussing and eat something.

Sunny, of course, isn't the least bit concerned about asking for seconds or thirds. She keeps plying her mother with food, almost as if filling Mommy up with food will make her well again or possibly won't leave any room for alcohol.

At one point, she and Melody exchange looks so poignant that it takes no special talent to note the concern, confusion, and fear of Sunny's wordless question: What's happening here?

Melody's tiny shrug is enough of an answer. Neither of them recognizes this day. It's a new day, this barbecue party is something that's never happened before.

These are definitely not loops. They could well be spirals . . . unless they're something even more in my wheelhouse. But I need to see more.

Melody is sitting with Chelsea and Teresa, looking awkward. The absence of predictability, perhaps, allows her to speak up and come back to the question the other two girls had been discussing.

I just want to get better. I want to be able to go a whole week without seeing things that aren't real or hearing voices that I've made up for myself. It's not goofy. It's not an act. It's scary, really scary, not being able to tell the difference.

They're interrupted by Crazy Ice Cream Lady.

Hush, hush, hush. That's why you're here, right? The best doctors, the best research folks looking out for you. It could be much, much worse, couldn't it? CERN could have created a black hole that would have eaten the Earth. Instead, it just went stupid. Besides, you know what time it is? It's ice cream time!

"I still don't like her."

Pablo raises an eyebrow. "Proof? Evidence? All you have is a vague sense that her aura is a bit off."

"I know. Just call it instinct, okay? I know you grok that."

He sighs. "Okay. Let's see if we can either convince you that she's eccentrically harmless or gather evidence to convince me she's not."

We watch Crazy Ice Cream Lady pass out containers of ice cream from her cooler to Teresa, Melody, and Chelsea.

Let's see what we have! Oh! This I know. I've been told — I hear everything that's said in my shop, you know — that a certain girl has a sweet tooth but just can't be seen eating a kid's flavor. We won't tell anyone you like peppermint stick, Miss DeCoon.

Oh! Of course! The purest vanilla! Whiter than white! I call it Melody's Lace because it's just like that beautiful Victorian trim you're always wearing, my dear.

And for you, Miss Parsons? Here . . . we add a touch of crème imported from overseas, and we have the smoothest French Vanilla. Close your eyes, and you can pretend you're no longer in this little town and instead are lounging in a café on the Seine, looking up at the Eiffel Tower.

She apparently has another flavor for Sunny, but the child is fast asleep in her mother's lap, her teddy clutched in her arms. I smile fondly. That's exactly how they do it, those little ones. One minute they're whirling dervishes and the next they're asleep wherever they've dropped.

Crazy Ice Cream Lady has the carrot cake ice cream for the adults, though. Newspaper Man appears to be only slightly more interested in it than the sheriff. Mary Lee calls out to him as he walks across the yard with the sheriff.

Hey, Derek? For a stupid brother, this was a really good idea. Sunny was so happy.

Pablo smiles. "Sunny's mom seems pretty happy, too."

I nod. "She does have moments. I really hope she has a lot more of them."

Mrs. Mallory stands on her porch, looking over at her niece, smiling as she tastes the ice cream.

You know, it's so nice seeing that Melody has friends. I think friends . . . friends might be the best medicine.

"Ah, there! That's it."

They both look at me and then back through the portal.

"What's what?" Pablo asks.

"Friends are the best medicine."

"I thought that was laughter. It's the best medicine, I mean."

"Silly Pablo! With friends, you have laughter. Laughter is part of friendship."

Rene chuckles. "She's got you there, brother."

Interestingly, the view shifts ever so slightly from the yard to the road and the evening seems to brighten. That's when we see Beach Guy walking down the path toward the State highway.

"Oh, that was a much better transition. Maybe the portal could keep that editor."

Pablo nudges me. "You're being silly."

"Yep."

When Beach Guy reaches the highway, we see the Department of General Services truck parked on the side of the road. While both doors are open, only one man in an orange safety vest picks up trash from the side of the road. It does make one wonder why he'd leave either door open, never mind both of them.

Then the portal editor gives us an abrupt cut back to Lucy and Diver Dude even earlier in the evening.

"You jinxed it, Andrea."

"Do you remember one of my favorite movies back in college? Deb introduced it to me."

Pablo groans. "Dear God, how could I forget? The three of you taunted me with your outrrrrageous fake French accents for weeks after you'd watch it."

I chuckle. "It was funny at the time. Might still be, now that I think about it. Anyway, you've watched it enough times to remember the opening credits with the fake Swedish Tourist Center and the moose and the llamas, right?"

"Who could forget that," he says with another groan.

"Hell, even I remember that," Rene says.

I gesture toward the portal. "Well the directors of the firm hired to continue the credits after the other people had been sacked wish it to be known that they have just been sacked."

"As long as none of the scene changes try to induce epilepsy on the unsuspecting viewers — not that any of us is epileptic — I think we can manage to endure some bad editing," Pablo notes. "It's not like it wasn't all the rage back in the aughts."

"I guess you're right. Who are we blaming for that again? I know blowing everything up is Michael Bay's thing. Who started the jump cut craze?"

Pablo shrugs. "Ask Bobby? They're probably not all over his favorite genres of movies, but he'll know the right person to ask."

Lucy and Paul are alone at the spot along the cliffs that had been chosen for tonight's campout. The weather is definitely not improving here, despite the fact that a very short distance away, there is — or will be — a rather successful barbecue dinner happening. The water is getting choppier; that's going to make Diver Dude's night all kinds of fun.

They sit alone, not speaking, just looking out at the water, at the weather, at the cliffs. Honestly? They're dull and beyond tedious. It goes on for so long that I almost hope Diver Dude starts spouting more of his paranoid theories. Almost.

"Worse movie ever," Pablo says. "Zero tomatoes on Rotten Tomatoes. Cinema Sins gives it fifty sins for no plot, but takes them all away for no narration. Film Joy refuses to even consider it . . . though it might wind up on a future episode of Deep Dive." He looks at me. "Have I forgotten any?"

"Nerdwriter wouldn't look at it either. Earthling Cinema might try to explain it. That could be funny. And Honest Movie Trailers wouldn't know what to make of it."

"Oh, forgot about the Wisecrack channel. Why do I deep doing that? Everything is so good."

I snicker. "Maybe because the first two dozen shows I made you watch were all Thug Notes?"

He grins. "Maybe."

Finally, Diver Dude gets up and heads back toward town and the docks where his boat is waiting. That leave Lucy all alone, doing nothing, being uninteresting.

Hmm. I guess Lucy isn't exactly alone. The portal angle pans over to the nearest trees where a rather large spider is weaving her web. I've always found them fascinating to watch, even before Spider became Em's guardian Spirit. As the view pans back, we see Lucy trying to hide from . . . well, who knows? The only thing we can see is Lucy and the spider, who seems quite happy to continue making her web.

Eventually, Beach Guy approaches and notes Lucy's unease and attempt at hiding. Ah! Now things are getting interesting. She gestures toward the spider and its web — well, maybe beyond it, to be fair. There's nothing we can see, but maybe she saw or heard something. In any case, Beach Guy quietly lowers his pack to the ground and edges around toward the spot Lucy indicated.

"That guy's been in combat."

"Uh huh. I've seen Maddie be all sneaky like that. She's better at it."

"Probably just more practice."

"Yeah, could be."

We then see the two men Beach Guy spies. They're incredibly nondescript — the kind of people most folks would forget after having passed them on the street. Beach Guy is acting like he's hiding from them, though.

"I'm going to guess they said something that spooked him."

"Reasonable," Rene acknowledges. "There's no way they'd have noticed him."

"Unless they aren't your average, run-of-the-mill DGS workers," Pablo notes.

"Oh?"

I smile; I can almost see Rene's eyebrow going up just from his tone of voice.

"I worked undercover for five years, Rene," Pablo says.

"Oh. Did I know that?"

I poke his ribs. "You should. Behave yourselves."

The two DGS men turn and walk away, back toward the road.

Both my eyebrows reach for my hairline as Lucy gets up and starts after them, running right through the spider's web.

"That's rude," I mutter.

Rude, surprising, disturbing . . . kinds of things, none of which I'd have expected from her. She seems to be grossed out by the spider. Or the web. Her hesitation is the only thing that gets Beach Guy to her — an arm around her waist to hold her still and a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. However, the two DGS guys halt for a moment on their way back to the highway.

They heard something, and that's probably not good.

Beach Guy whispers with his lips practically touching Lucy's ear.

Need to stay quiet.

Only when she relaxes does he let go of her. She looks at him for maybe thirty seconds before speaking.

Why did you stop me? I could have found out . . . we could have found out who they were and then on the next go-around, we could do something.

But then she stops and smiles.

And thank you. I don't want to be turned into chum, but it's just so . . . frustrating.

"She certainly seems to be nearing a breaking point."

"Could have been the spider."

I look at Pablo, baffled.

"Some people — oh, let's say, my sister Ladonna — are totally skeeved out by spiders."

"Really? Well, okay, yeah, I guess I've noticed that. Huh. But I just thought it was the big ones with hairy legs."

"That was once. You were visiting once when we saw a tarantula. She doesn't even like the little tiny ones that are supposed to be nice to plants. And remember that first iteration when things went to shit? Her windows looked like a spider web and then it reached out and sliced her pieces."

I look at Lucy and study her qi again. "Well . . . maybe. She's definitely freaked out, so I guess she could have a thing about spiders like Ladonna does. Oh, and Beach Guy is going to go see if he can spot the guys who were watching them."

He does follow, I suppose. He probably hears things we can't. But he eventually creeps back out onto the highway. It's empty. The DGS truck is gone. There are no men . . . no people at all, in fact.

Lucy follows him, although much more slowly because she's texting the others as she does so. It seems more like a diary entry than anything else. She gives the time and their location, a description of the voices, what she had heard. And then the last line:

Tyler following, Lucy trailing behind.

"In case they spiral back this way?" Pablo asks. "That's my only guess: a record of their actions."

Rene sighs. "If I thought I'd get another crack at the area under the same circumstances, sure. But circumstances are never the same, even when they seem to be."

I sigh as well. "You and Maddie never had the expectation that circumstances would be the same; you expected new shit every time you want on a mission. These people don't appear to get it yet that nothing is ever exactly the same."

Because I'd been looking back at Rene, I miss the scene change. I should probably be happy about that.

Diver Dude is checking over his boat, which makes a modicum of sense. Always check your equipment. I do the same with with my bike if it's been sitting out on the street for a while. Wait . . . do I ever even do that? Well, not if I can help it, that's for sure. Not even my Harley.

But I'm obviously not as paranoid as Diver Dude either.

It's fascinating to watch, though. I don't know much about boats and don't really care. But if I ever wanted to know every square inch of whatever the hell kind of boat this is, I'll want a YouTube video just like this.

Ah . . . well, except I'm pretty damn sure I'll not want to see a bomb.

"Oops."

"No kidding," Pablo says.

"Merde!" Rene opines.

And then Hell rains down its fury on the island. Again.

The explosion of the boat is impressive as such things go.

Maddie came back after being blown up like that. Well, something like that. She said it had taken her three weeks to heal from that. This was before I met her, of course. She recommended that dying that way is a bad idea. For someone who heals from death, absolutely. I can see the practicality of that advice.

For someone who just gets another chance? If nothing else, it's pretty quick, which is too bad. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Have I said that before? Or is this the first time?

Then the focus shifts to Lucy as she's heading up the little hill from town to the Inn. The DGS truck seems to lose its brakes and zigs where it should have zagged. In any case — accidental or deliberate — Lucy is crushed between the flat front grill of the truck and the brand spanking new Mercedes Benz parked in front of the Inn. I'm sure King DeCoon will be pleased when he sees that.

Go back to sleep, Ninja.

Derek interrupts a burglary when he returns from the barbecue. It doesn't really look like a robbery from where we're standing, and there certainly isn't any nervousness on the part of the perpetrator.

It's a straight-up execution-style shooting for Tyler as he's lying in bed. Who would want to kill a novelist?

Chelsea somehow gets lost in the woods. This scene is chaotic and fuzzy — getting up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, then wandering outside Mrs. Mallory's house looking for Melody. Had Melody left the house? She must have. I hear the voices of the not-Shadowkin screaming.

Run away! Run away!

But Chelsea seems dazed and confused; the next minute someone is lifting her off the ground and knocking her unconscious. The scene is dark for a couple of seconds before we see Chelsea in a bright white room with blood everywhere.

There's screaming . . . I hear it, but it's not Chelsea's voice. Who is that?

No, no, no! Stop it! Stop it! No, no, no! Kill me, kill me!

Then the scene goes black again before we watch the town fall to ruins and the world is eaten by the Shadow.

If the point of these spirals or jumps or whatever is for the dreamers to make some sort of progress, to survive until some unknown demarcation point in time, then even I'd call this round fucked up beyond all recognition. They all die even before the monsters show up.

Well, except for Chelsea.

Next up: Track Ten

© Kelly Naylor