Track XXX

We're allowed a moment to look at the page in the book before we're shown, almost gently, the next scene. Newspaper Man is cooking kabobs on the grill. Again. Teresa and Chelsea and Melody are chatting. Again.

Crazy Ice Cream Lady interrupts and passes out ice cream. Again. I peer at her once more. There's something about her that nags me.

Sunny seems to hug her bear even more tightly, if that were even possible. Yet again.

The adults get their carrot cake ice cream, although in this iteration Crazy Ice Cream Lady makes more of a point — or so it seems — to wink conspiratorially at Newspaper Man when mentioning she'll just tell the sheriff that it's frozen yogurt.

"I don't think the sheriff has a problem with ice cream, as much as it's carrot-flavored," Pablo mutters.

Miss Jilly speaks up again. How many times has it been?

You know, it's so nice seeing that Melody has friends.

This time, we see Newspaper Man and Chelsea exchange a look . . . they know just what she's going to say. But this time, they look terrified. This time Chelsea doesn't close her eyes. Instead, she glances around at the others.

I think friends . . . friends might be the best medicine.

She looks at her two friends, Melody and Sunny. They look right back at her.

Sunny couldn't possibly hold her bear any tighter. Melody looks desperate. They're both so far beyond the expression of fear that mere words can't contain it. Terrified only cuts the surface of their emotions.

And it doesn't take a telepath to know what Chelsea is thinking: I can't do this anymore.

Melody has managed to grab Teresa's hand and holds on so tightly that her hand is white. Teresa appears to be in shock.

Chelsea stands quickly, heedless of chair or bowls or anything else, tears streaming down her face has she heads for the nearest trees. Her aura flares with pain and raw emotions, blindingly bright and dangerously dark.

"Gods damn him to an eternity of suffering!" I say though clenched teeth, tears of pain and sorrow and anger falling from my eyes.

NEVER HURT CHILDREN!!

The teen reaches the nearest tree and just leans against it, sobbing.

Newspaper Man watches her hurry off. With the look of confusion, disorientation, pain, and guilt on his face, I can't really fault him for not following Chelsea. He takes a step toward her — just a single step — before indecision freezes him.

I know people. Pablo knows people. It would be naive of me to think Rene isn't also a student of the human condition.

"He doesn't know what to do, what to say," Pablo whispers. "Will saying anything or doing anything just make it worse?" He shakes his head. "We all need more strong women in our lives."

Rene looks over at him; I feel the bemusement rolling off him in waves. "Maddie and Andi aren't enough?"

Pablo looks at his brother, sadness filling his dark eyes. "Little boys, I mean. How else are we going to learn to be nurturers when we're called to step up?"

I close my eyes again because right now . . .

Everything.

Hurts.

So.

Much.

"You continually surprise me, Pablo." And Rene does sound surprised.

"I might play the dump cop, Rene, but it's just an act."

"So I see."

I just watch Chelsea's qi, listen to her sobbing against the tree. After a moment, I open my eyes again. She needs someone to help her remember her strength. Dying so horribly, so frequently, so many times — that way lies madness, the kind of madness my sister knows well.

It's probably my imagination or wishful thinking that a gentle breeze moves the tree's branches in a way that almost makes it look like Mother and Father are trying to comfort her. After a few minutes, she pulls her phone out of her pocket as she swipes a sleeve over her eyes. Her hands tremble as she types out her message to the group.

Whoever is doing this, please stop. Please. I can't take it anymore.

She puts the phone back in her pocket and wipes her eyes once more. Only then does she turn to go back to the group.

But one step and then a second brings her to Newspaper Man, who doesn't look any less conflicted now than when Chelsea had walked away. She leans against his chest, hugging him, and starts crying again.

Perhaps his instincts kick in, perhaps he just needed that small connection with another human — but whatever it was that had nudged him, he responds to Chelsea by wrapping her in a hug. It's almost fatherly, but not quite. It's still too awkward.

With practice, though . . .

It's a peculiar scene. Chelsea and Newspaper Man, Melody and Sunny — they know what's happening. They're scared.

The sheriff and Sunny's mother are chatting near the split rail fence. It has the look of a friendly bickering session that's been played out hundreds of times over countless years. Of all the players in this scene, they might be the most ordinary.

Miss Jilly is sitting with Crazy Ice Cream Lady having what appears to be a serious conversation. Every now and again, one or the other of them looks over at Melody. Miss Jilly clearly sees the newfound friendship with Chelsea and Teresa, with whom she still sits, as a very good thing. However, each time the Crazy Ice Cream Lady looks over at Melody, her expression is less kind. Her aura whirls with dark colors.

"I don't trust her."

Pablo and Rene don't say anything; the players on the stage across the invisible line of qi aren't acting appropriately.

And yet . . . and yet, they are. Those who have no awareness of what just happened are behaving as though nothing happened. Those who just suffered through that series of ever-worsening nightmares are trying to recover.

The only person who seems to be thoroughly confused is Teresa DeCoon.

Crazy Ice Cream Lady doesn't look confused. But I have a feeling she knows something is going on.

Sunny walks over to Chelsea and Newspaper Man, wrapping her arms around the older girl's legs and hugging her as tightly as she'd been hugging her bear.

Don't go. She can't go into the woods tonight. You can't let her.

Chelsea looks down at the little girl and forces herself to smile. Oh, I know a forced smile when I see one! I've seen enough of them on my best friend's face. She reaches down to scoop the little one into her arms and hugs her close.

We're all staying together tonight. Nobody is going into the woods. Nobody.

Newspaper Man looks out of his depth once again.

You keep us on track, Sunny. We're still muddling around, but we're fighting back.

He pauses a moment, looking around, before continuing.

Let's get back to the party rather than let them have an excuse to part company. I think it's a good idea to stay together.

The little girl nods.

Mister Teddy says it's not your fault.

"Well, that's good to know."

Pablo and Rene look at one another over my head before Pablo asks, "Um, what's good to know?"

"Oh, bother! You didn't see what any of them said, did you?" I sigh. "I hear the little one now, too. She said that whatever caused that . . . that hellstorm wasn't their fault."

"Ah. I'm sure you reached the same conclusion that I did, sister."

I nod. "It's the diver. It's his fault."

"I couldn't watch," Pablo admits. "Why do you think it's him?"

"Every repeat starts with him getting on that fucking boat of his trying to defuse a bomb that can't be defused. Plus, Beach Guy and Lucy never have a chance to do anything at all except die before the next cycle starts."

"Okay. And because the bomb is being remotely detonated, it's a fool's errand." Pablo nods. "I'm caught up now."

I squeeze his hand as he looks back at the portal. Melody is sitting next to Teresa with her knees drawn up, and arms wrapped oh-so-tightly around her legs. Teresa holds that little scrap of paper with words of dubious honesty. As Newspaper Man, Chelsea, and Sunny approach, Teresa looks up from the crumpled yellow paper, her eyes on Melody and full of compassion.

"Andrea, look. There's some goodness here, too. Before this—" Pablo pauses and then just shakes his head. "Well, whatever this is — she never would have even thought about Melody. I might not be able to hear what she's saying, but I recognize protectiveness when I see it."

I breathe again, allowing Mother's radiant energy to wash through me. I nod.

"She said that — well, promised, actually — that no one was going to bother Melody at school again." I smile ever so slightly at Teresa's offer to help. She's a good person.

"Assuming they get to school again," Rene adds darkly.

"Damn it, Jacobs, the last thing I need now is pessimism!"

"I know. I'm sorry, Andi. That was hard on all of us."

"How much of that did Paul see?" Pablo is more than just a little worried about our son.

"About fifteen or twenty seconds of Chelsea's . . ." I trail off. I can't bring myself to say the word torture. "It was the second one. No . . . the third."

"Those weren't spirals, Andrea."

I look into his eyes for a moment before resuming my duty as Witness.

"No. They weren't."

Melody is again explaining to one more person about her reality . . . about her dubious diagnosis.

There but for the grace of God go I, as John Bradford said — or possibly John Newton or Philip Neri as documents from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries are not always in agreement about who the phrase should be attributed to. Conon Doyle, in his voice of Holmes, attributed it to Richard Baxter.

Not that it matters, really. Without my parents' concern for their children, without the training of the leading masters in Aikido and Taijiquan, without my extended family's support — any microscopic change could have made the difference between a young woman successfully graduating from the University of Denver and a terrified young woman locked in a ghetto. Or worse.

It's not that I can't imagine being in Melody's shoes. No, I can imagine it all too well. And it terrifies me.

She's living it.

It rips at my heart that I can't protect her — not just from the particular people who are threatening the world over and over again, but from the effects of not understanding the gift she has.

I point at the portal.

"There . . . do you see it? She's stuttering like she does on Monday mornings. Newspaper Man notices it, too."

Sunny stays between Chelsea and Newspaper Man, hugging her bear. Melody looks up at Chelsea, her eyes becoming glassy and nearly lifeless.

I breathe through the anger, not letting it rise again to a dangerous level.

"Melody knows something is wrong. Teresa is asking if they should take her down to Doctor Janis."

Melody shakes her head back and forth.

Then the view pans out again to show the others. The sheriff still stands at the fence with Mary Lee, but now she holds her face in her hand . . . and is possibly chuckling.

Mary Lee has fallen asleep standing up, leaning against her friend.

Crazy Ice Cream Lady is heading back to her own house.

"I really don't trust that woman. Her aura is . . ." I shrug. It's just not right, but I don't have the words to say exactly what's wrong. I can't help thinking that somehow, some of this is her damn fault.

Miss Jilly is cleaning up, quietly going about each little step of picking up plates and napkins and cups. She glances at her niece and the people around her. She doesn't know yet that anything is wrong. In fact, she smiles at the sight of Melody with friends.

Newspaper Man lets out a laugh at the sight of his sister sleeping standing up, almost as though it's a talent she perfected long before she started drinking. His amusement is short-lived as he looks back at Melody with concern, before turning to Chelsea.

I'm going to help clean up. Are you okay? Okay enough? Find out if Melody missed a dose or an appointment. That seems the most glaring thing to me, at first glance, anyway.

"Is he an idiot?" Rene asks.

In response to Newspaper Man's question, Sunny hugs her bear more tightly, and looks at him with a terrified look on her face.

Melody blinks, swallows, blinks again.

Is it Friday already?"

"Apparently, he is," Pablo replies.

"Teresa is confirming that it's Tuesday."

Chelsea looks particularly fragile, and I push the anger away, let it bleed into the Earth. Mother responds with a swell of energy that feels almost like a warm blanket.

Chelsea sits down next to Melody, wraps the girl in a hug, and whispers in her ear.

We're going to fix this. We're trying.

As she leans back, making sure that Melody is comfortable sandwiched between her and Teresa, she wipes more tears from her face.

"It's possible that I want to kill Diver Dude more than I want to kill William Asshat Stryker."

Mister Teddy says this has never happened before.

The town's heiress doesn't even bat an eyelash at the child's pronouncement, which makes a certain amount of sense. Sunny has probably been having conversations with her bear since her father died. But it's also an incredibly sad fact of her life.

Hey! Sunshine! Let's get your mother to bed!

The sheriff is holding Mary Lee up, something that looks instinctive and habitual. But it seems this hasn't happened before either: Sunny's mother is merely exhausted instead of falling-down drunk. The child looks between her mommy and her friend, then finally scrambles after the pair of women heading up the road. She continues to look back over her shoulder at Melody every few steps.

"Miss Jilly is making up places for people to sleep," I note as the elderly woman goes back in the house.

Teresa looks between Chelsea and Newspaper Man.

Something's going on, isn't it? If I'm not supposed to know, just say so. I'll understand. But if I can help, just ask. You don't even have to explain why or what for, okay?

Newspaper Man nods.

All right. For now, just help Jilly. I want to keep an eye on her and Melody. Can you do that for me?

Chelsea looks at Teresa for a moment, then wraps her arms around herself, shaking her head as she looks down at the ground.

I can't explain what's going on. It's just weird. Like supernatural weird, and that alone might make you think I'm crazy. Maybe I am.

Although she tries to laugh, she looks miserable. There's no humor in this situation.

All I can say — because I really don't understand much — is that I want to keep Melody safe and I think that will help. That's pretty much it.

The scene fades out with Teresa looking at Chelsea, and Newspaper Man answering his ringing phone. The cliffs off Highway 23 are behind Beach Guy and Lucy as the next scene fades in.

The spider and her web are still gone.

Once again, the two of them stand on the patch of scraped earth that passes for a shoulder along the highway, looking at one another. We see it in their eyes: they know someone screwed up — horribly, catastrophically — and they're afraid it was them.

"I hope to God I'm never in that kind of situation ever again," Pablo says. "The thing is, every time I died, and that fucking snake brought me back to life, I could really only blame him for putting me in that position and myself for not learning fast enough to dodge those weird Shadow-infected creatures. But over there?" He points at the author and the tourist. "I'd be wondering who keeps fucking up again and again and again."

"They must have a fairly good idea by now, don't you think?" Rene asks.

I shrug. "You'd think." For some reason, we can only see the back of Beach Guy's head. Some might attribute it to the camera operator's desire to show just how efficiently that universe can erase the effects of multiple gunshots to the head. Maddie had said to avoid that, it leads to Swiss Cheese Brain and memory gaps. Logan is certainly proof of that. I suppose it would depend on which parts of the brain get shredded, though. I've never been interested in finding out.

"They're talking about how they died. He's asking her how she's doing."

Lucy pulls out her phone and texts the group.

Everyone okay? Or did you all just have another loop moment?

He waits for her to send the text, then suggests they fetch his pack.

I'm mostly okay, I think. It's just . . .

Her shudder is evident even in the dimming light of the oncoming night.

I still think being a sacrificial goat is a good way to get information, but it has a big downside, too.

She's silent for a moment as she watches Beach Guy pick up his backpack.

But I think not knowing is a bigger downside.

"It seems like regular folks going through this . . ." I gesture to the portal. ". . . this nightmare have some degree of a healing factor. Earlier Rene hypothesized that Sunny's mother would have a lower-than-normal healing factor because of the drinking, which makes sense. She wasn't drinking tonight, but she still seems to be exhausted from the experience."

"So alcoholism has lingering effects even when someone hasn't been drinking?" Pablo asks. "I guess it makes sense on some level but . . ." He trails off as we see Beach Guy read the message on his phone from Chelsea.

Whoever is doing this, please stop. Please. I can't take it anymore.

He sends a message to everyone, though he pointedly addresses Diver Dude.

Welcome to join us, Paul?

Then he sends another message just to Chelsea.

Don't think it was us. Mostly importantly, think it's over. Chin up, we're with you in spirit. You OK?

Lucy voices what we're all thinking.

Poor Chelsea.

In the growing darkness, it's hard to see what either of them is saying.

"She's asking if they should all meet, there being safety in numbers and all. He wants to stick with the original plan of saving Miss Jilly. Says that's why they're at the cliffs, but goes on to say that keeping in touch by phone is a good idea."

I sigh and go back to the previous topic. "It's possible that Mary Lee would have muddled through one or two of those flips with relatively minor effects. The sheriff, Miss Jilly, Crazy Ice Cream Lady, and Teresa all seemed fine. So it's possible that the cumulative weight of so many flips in such a short amount of time just pushed her beyond her endurance.

"But my point is that going through that experience once or even twice allows ordinary folks the opportunity to heal. You saw that it got more and more difficult for them as the transitions came faster and closer together."

I shrug. "I have a feeling that even those of us with incredibly high healing factors would have been wrecks by that penultimate death."

Pablo nods. "Okay, I see what you mean. You and Logan heal the fastest; Emelia isn't far behind. Madeline and Vincent are about the same, and both are a lot better than I am. I'm really not interested in learning how good our kids are."

"Probably as good as you, at this point, unless they're consciously holding back — something I wouldn't put past them, by the way. Eventually, they'll reach Maddie and Vin's level. Beyond that? I guess it depends on what abilities they continue to develop."

Beach Guy sends another text to everyone.

Hang in there. Still need to save Miss Jilly. Two guys here. Said she's not alone. Could be Lucy? Miss Jilly? Melody? They moved on. Staying with original plan.

It's full dark by now; the thick, nearly solid cloud cover makes it difficult to see. There's a bit of diffuse ambient lighting, but it's just enough to make out the fact that it's actually Beach Dude standing beside Lucy. My night vision is considerably better than either Pablo's or Rene's, so they probably can't see anything at all. Streetlights are haloed spots of yellow in the distance.

"She's suggesting that they get away from their current location for a while. He . . ." I furrow my brows. No. I heard him correctly. "He's asking her if she smells anything. I don't think she does. Hmm. I wonder if he's got some sort of scent-based ability. One of the Cursed that Talia knows says she smells different things before she has a precognitive event. Talia said it had seemed completely random at first, but after mapping it out, they figured out that the different smells indicated who the seeing was about . . . well, in relationship to Geena, at any rate: male or female, younger or older, related or not related."

"That's a pretty specialized mutation," Rene says.

"It's part of her precognitive skills," I say with a shrug. "I think maybe Hank might be the only person who could explain it. And I knew a lawyer back when I first started out as Ninja who could change her hair color at will. That was it. She flaunted it in front of the wrong person one night when she'd been drinking too much and got a visit from some very nice people who wanted her taken up to Commerce City. Fortunately, the person she provoked was a tourist. The DA knew her and had a long chat with her. Sanchez asked me to have a nice chat with her, too. She stopped drinking."

"Wait . . ." Pablo looks at me with surprise. "Are you talking about Fernanda Mendelsohn?"

"Yeah, you know her?"

"Ran into her a few times when I was still in Patrol and needed to be in court to testify about something. She always had a different hair color. I just figured she liked to dye her hair and that it would eventually fall out someday."

I snicker. "That's the story she told, with out the hair falling out nonsense. But when she was drinking, she got cocky."

"Huh. Lost track of her after my promotion. She usually handled the drug cases for the DA's office."

"She retired . . . oh, probably a year after we got married. I think she moved to Australia."

Rene nudges me and points to the portal, where Beach Guy is just answering his phone. "Can you hear what's going on?"

It doesn't matter because the scene changes again. We see Diver Dude on the docks with the sun just starting to slip beneath the horizon. It's getting dark pretty fast because of the storm clouds; streetlights and the dock lights are on, but all of the businesses along the dock are already closed.

If anyone has ever wondered if it was possible to meld paranoia with confusion, the look on Diver Dude's face would be the answer. He takes out his phone and texts the group.

Some bastard put a bomb on my boat. Negligible chance of disarming it personally. Advise.

The response is nearly instantaneous.

Whoever is doing this, please stop. Please. I can't take it anymore.

Before he can do much more than glance at Chelsea's message, another one comes through from Beach Guy.

Welcome to join us, Paul?

The confusion is wiped away by anger. This isn't going to be good. Angry people are dangerous. I should know: I'm an angry person right now. But angry individuals who are paranoid? It's a bad Friday night at Charlie's during Pride Month.

I'm sure Pablo and Rene can see him well enough with the lamplight on the docks. They can read his body language, but that only tells half the story. His aura, his qi show the rest of the tale.

This is a man who needs to be taken into custody and admitted to a psychiatric facility for an initial assessment period. Right now, he's a danger to himself and everyone around him.

He sends another text to the group.

Come to my boat. Important. Get everyone here.

"Jesus Christ." Even Pablo is exasperated, and he has the patience of a saint.

"Oui."

"Damn it, Talia."

At least Diver Dude stays on the dock while waiting for a return text. When it arrives, it's garbled. And it's not in response to the texts he sent.

Hang in there. ១ខໂᥜᥘ ๔ำ៑৸ ঢ४ save Miss Jilly. Two guys here. ऄઠಏೡ ൳ടᱫᱤ not alone. Could be Lucy? ଐ௨ss Jilly? Melody? They ளఉథރޝ ༊༓༶ য়ढ़ਖ਼ླྀㄓあァᡂ ᡥᡚꀐꀘ oꅂꄰꡉ꡵ⶒ᎙߉ߖⵒ ⵙꔘꕢϣꗜ

"Whoa. Some of those characters are part of the Unicode set I don't think I've looked at twice."

"Which means you have no idea what they are."

"You have a knack for stating the obvious, dear."

Diver Dude takes a couple of steps toward his boat, pressing the Call button under Beach Guy's name.

"Jesus Fucking Christ!"

Pablo pats my shoulder. "You shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain, dear. I think you're only allowed to do that if you believe in him."

I glare at Pablo. "I do believe he exists. He's one of the Higher Spirits. I even met him . . . well, sort of. He wasn't exactly in physical form." I look at Rene. "That night in Commerce City."

Rene's eyes widen. "You're not joking?"

"No, of course not. You didn't sense his presence?"

The man who's now a Benevolent Spirit just shakes his head.

"Huh. The other Spirits didn't seem to notice him either. I guess it's because he's in a different realm from you guys."

I shrug. It's an interesting academic question that I can put aside until the next time I have a chance to speak with Moira's goddess.

We're shown a split screen view again, but this time, the transition seems almost natural. The view of Diver Dude slides to one side as Beach Guy answers his phone. Oddly, the lighting improves, too.

When we're finished here, I'm going to have to examine this portal more carefully before sealing it off completely. Drats. I'll probably need to get my son over here to explain precisely what he was doing when he opened his portal.

I hear Diver Dude's voice, and repeat what he's saying to Pablo and Rene.

Big news. There's an explosive device on my boat, every time it detonates, the loop resets. We need to stop it detonating, absolute top priority. In addition, OpFor is both loop-aware and loop-manipulative. Feels like it was causing glitched loops, effects carrying over between them to our detriment and its benefit. On top of that, it's trying to compromise our communications to deliberately manipulate us. How much of this are you receiving?

"I wonder if he even realizes that he sounds crazy," Rene remarks.

"I'd have been happy with 'death paranoia blah blah,' to be honest," Pablo adds.

"I doubt it, Rene. He can't see that he's causing the detonations by trying to defuse the bomb." I shrug. "I think David would call that narcissistic — everything bad that happens is produced by some outside force."

"Paranoid, too, don't forget," Pablo says.

"Well, that goes without saying. There's no proof the bad people are aware of the flips, never mind being responsible for them. Although, you know, they likely are aware."

"And you know who's responsible?" Rene sounds just a teensy miffed.

"I think so."

"Are you going to share with the class?" Pablo asks, grinning. He knows damn well I won't.

"I have faith, Detective, that by the time I'm sure, you will be too . . . using your skills and not relying on mine."

Beach Guy summarizes what the Paranoid Diver Dude had said before adding:

Didn't understand all of it, though. Important thing is not to keep trying to save the boat. Think you need to go back in time further than we are to do that. And the resets are tearing Chelsea apart. Hell, even I don't want to go through getting shot again.

Beach Guy looks at Lucy.

Perhaps you can head back to me and Lucy. Got some supplies here for you. We can talk it over and work out a way forward.

"O Paranoia, your sweet mistress," I mumble at the look of crazy on Diver Dude's face. Wisely, Pablo and Rene just ignore me.

Can't risk others getting caught in the blast. We're talking a massive charge that will devastate the docks and completely change the atmosphere in town, like the bridge lockdown closer to the end. I have to stay here. Bring help if you can, but we can't allow this explosion to happen. Bring everyone here. We have to break the cycle, or we're trapped in a dead end. Save the ship . . . save Chelsea.

I'm clenching my teeth again. I'm also trying not to explode myself . . . with anger.

What's triggering the bomb? Timer, remote . . . or your interference?

"Look, dear," Pablo says, "someone with a working brain!"

It's enough to get my jaws to loosen up, even if I can't manage a smile yet.

Lucy speaks up in response to Beach Guy's question for Paranoid Diver Dude.

What if trying to stop the bomb is what's triggering the time loop? Maybe it's supposed to go off. Or maybe someone else is supposed to be there to defuse it?

Beach Guy puts his had over the phone and replies to Lucy.

That would be my guess. Not sure about options.

Nope, no smiling today — especially not with Paranoid Diver Dude's reply.

I'd need to do more testing to verify exactly.

"NO, you don't!!" I yell at the moron who can't hear me. "AARGH!!"

It's almost comforting that his comrades are becoming frustrated as well.

Let's not do anything active. We need a break now. Just watch from safety for a while. If it doesn't go off, then it's not a timer. But I guess we probably know that by now.

Beach Guy rummages in his backpack and pulls out some food for himself and Lucy.

So it's either remote trigger or anti-tamper. If the latter, then we have plenty of time and not going aboard is the best option. If it's remote, then you could take a quick look around. But these guys are good, trained, so unless you know what you're doing, best to come here. And we have food.

He grins at Lucy who nods her agreement.

On the opposite side of the screen, Paranoid Diver Dude is having none of it.

They're letting you come through loud and clear when you advocate leaving it, Tyler. Did you get my text earlier outline the situation?

"It doesn't occur to him that voice communication is getting through while the text messages weren't?" Pablo asks.

I snort. "Here's what I think they should do: Beach Guy and Lucy should head over to the docks, shiv the crazy man, and then come back to their campground on the cliffs."

My husband states at me. "Really?"

Oh, the overtones in that one word! I laugh.

"No, sir. You can't blame Maddie for that, either. That's all on Bobby and his gangster movies."

When Rene chuckles, Pablo sighs and rolls his eyes.

I go back to listening to the people on the other side of the portal. I'm glad it's light enough over there that Pablo and Rene can read lips. Repeating some of this some just pisses me off. At least Beach Guy is a sensible sort.

The one about the device and loop resetting, yes, but I didn't understand a lot of the loop resetting stuff. You wanted to stop it detonating, the best way is to leave it be.

Paranoid Diver Dude continues to look at his boat, which is just outside the frame on his side of the portal view.

So that's a 'no' then. My first text did not get through. Our communications are being deliberately tampered with. The ones that are getting through and advocate a less interventionist course of action are in line with what our adversary wants us to hear, wants us to do, else they'd also be blocked, impeded, or garbled.

"I'm going to concur with Pablo's notion of voice versus text communications," Rene says. "However, I'll admit that I don't understand the technology as well as you youngsters."

I shrug. "I usually have the opposite problem with my personal phone when I'm out at some of the locations on the Education Campus. Text will get through those old military buildings, phone calls won't. It has something to do with the carrier wave frequency, I think." I look at him and grin. "If you're that interested, you can ask one of our hellions about it later. Pretty sure Paul groks that stuff."

Beach Guy looks decidedly uncomfortable with Paranoid Diver Dude's words.

We don't know who or what is interfering with comms, nor whether they are enemy or friendly forces. What I do know is that Chelsea is traumatized by the constant reset and dying pattern, and it needs to stop. That's reason enough for me.

I have to admire the guy's patience. Paranoid Diver Dude tilts his head ever-so-slightly.

All right, okay. I'd point out that friends wouldn't make it impossible for us to communicate reliably and that we're stuck in a reset-dying pattern anyway until we change something. But I get the feeling that'd be moot at this point. So, let's compromise. If you come here, if you can get the rest of us here so we can get this damn problem off the table once and for all, together, then i won't take matters into my own hands again for Chelsea's sake.

"Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland."

"Please don't start singing, Andrea. Not that your voice isn't lovely, but I hardly think this is the time."

"I wasn't singing, Pablo. I was just quoting an appropriate song lyric."

Beach Guy shakes his head slowly, almost as if he's trying to smell something in the air around him. Interesting. I wonder if it is something like Geena's ability.

Not possible, Paul. The plan tonight was to save Miss Jilly. If we desert our posts, we may not be able to do that. Your boat should be safe for tonight. If it is a tamper device, then not tampering with it until we can find a solution that might actually work is the best course. If remote detonated, then it will tie up an enemy for a time waiting for a no-show.

He raises his eyebrows in Lucy's direction, but she seems distracted by something. I study their side of the portal more closely.

Oh. The not-Shadowkin.

. . . I like him. He's on the big ones side. Help him, we could become big ones too . . .

There's a horrible sound of crunching and popping and screaming, of chewing without closing one's mouth, of tearing and snapping and ripping.

I shudder.

. . . big ones not friend . . .

. . . big ones eat everything, we part everything . . .

"Hmm. Those little not-Shadowkin are smarter than Stryker. At least they know that the Big Ones eat everything, which includes them. Also? They vicious. I think they just ate one of their companions because said companion suggested they help the Paranoid Diver Dude. Because helping him would . . . ah . . . allow them to become Big Ones. I think." I shake my head. "Not all extra-dimensional beings make sense."

I pause. "Come to think of it, most don't."

Lucy is whispering . . . either to herself or the not-Shadowkin.

"She just asked the not-Shadowkin who the big one is."

That's when Paranoid Diver Dude interrupts to respond to Beach Guy's comment.

The plan has not survived contact with enemy action. It called for—

"Okay, now I want to hurt him," Rene says.

—me, on my boat, keeping the cliffs spotlit.

"I thought he was just supposed to be watching," Pablo says. "I don't remember anything about spotlights.

I shrug. I don't remember anything about spotlights either.

Either we get the Rock Steady in a state where we can take it out, or we need to rethink. I'm not going to leave my boat unattended because of the risk to any and all nearby innocents. It would be utterly irresponsible to put their lives at risk with some hypothetical bored psychopath with a detonator nearby, or with something motion-triggered on a seagoing vessel.

"Dear gods, where do I even begin?"

Rene snorts. "Maddie would make sure she had her steel-toed boots on, calmly tell him that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and then kick him in the nuts to prove her point."

I laugh so hard that Rene needs to hold me tighter so he doesn't lose contact.

"Thank you, Rene. I needed that."

"Remind me never to piss Madeline off." Pablo is smiling, though. He's too smart a cop to get that far onto Maddie's bad side. "But the next point is that no one has mentioned motion-triggered devices before this either. It's not the same thing as tamper-triggered. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say the biggest psychopath on the docks is the diver."

"All excellent points," I agree, then pause to listen. "Hang on, the not-Shadowkin are saying something again." I have to strain to hear them. "They're repeating 'are' over and over. Who are the big ones? When the big ones begin, you end. Ah, the monsters? That would make sense, given what we've seen."

Beach Guy is continuing his conversation with Paranoid Diver Dude.

I hear you, Paul. And yes, there's a risk to others if you just leave. Okay, so what would be the best course of action? In normal circumstances, you'd just report a bomb on your boat to the police. That an option? They could call bomb disposal. Even if those guys turn out to be the bad guys, their best option might be to admit failure and fix it. Worth a shot, I'd think.

"Sure, except that you're in a small town with one sheriff and the bomb experts are probably with NYPD in Manhattan," Rene says. "And yes, Andi, before you say it, I realize he's just trying to placate the crazy man."

Then he grins at me.

"Stop using your magic on me, Jacobs. I'm trying to work here." But I smile, too. "Oh, and Lucy is asking the not-Shadowkin what stops the big ones from beginning."

I smile more broadly. "They say the Nice One. She's asking if that's Melody . . . oh, my gosh, they're chanting 'nice one' over and over and getting very excited and I think if they could sound happy, that would be it."

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"Okay. Melody's little friends really like her. Somehow, she manages to keep any of the naughty bits from becoming big ones that go forth and wind up eating the world. Poor kid. That's a precarious balance."

"I suspect whatever drugs they give her upsets the balance."

I nod at Pablo's observation. "Seems like it. I'd say they kick that balance right to the curb and stomp all over it. Asshats. If she can maintain a balance with the not-Shadowkin without the drugs in her system, I say good for her. Those little things, whatever they might be, are very real."

Rene is quiet, and when he does speak, it's barely above a whisper. "It's worse than what happened to Pablo in Tezcatlipoca's realm."

I nod.

"What would happen if . . ." He stops and just shakes his head, but he continues to look me in the eyes.

"If someone tried to do that to me?"

"Oui."

"Before Pablo and I were married, I'd probably be a lot like young Melody over there. In the short span of time between forming the marriage bond and forming the Pentad, I suspect we both would have been in so much pain that . . ." I shrug. "Well, Pablo made me lock his gun away after Denise was murdered."

"And now?"

I shake my head and turn back to the portal.

Paranoid Diver Dude has been going on about having tried all options and that he called because he wants the whole gang down on the docks.

Okay. I think I should sound out the others and try to think of something we can do. Can you hang tight there for just a little while longer? Maybe we can re-plan on this end. Lucy is here, and we can call Derek, see if we can come up with something.
Works for me. If you hear an explosion from the harbor or wake up after another terminal loop, standing around was the wrong thing and try to get back to me quicker next time. Paul out.

"Yeah, we know," Pablo murmurs. "You hate him."

I shrug as the view switches back to just Beach Guy and Lucy. She looks semi-satisfied with the answer she got from the not-Shadowkin and asks him if everything as been settled.

Not really. Paul is staying with the boat. There are explosive aboard, and he's rightly concerned about the public around there. So he needs a solution. His trying to find one — trying to disarm the bomb — is, I think, the thing that kept triggering a reset. It sounds to me, though, that the bomb has a tamper device which triggered when it was interfered with. One solution might be to tow the boat out somewhere and try to remote trigger it with no one on board, but I suspect that Paul would prefer a solution that saves his boat.

Rene leans over and whispers in my ear opposite Pablo. "We'd have worse things to deal with than just Maddie becoming Mad Messijer again, wouldn't we?"

I close my eyes and try not to listen to the other side of the portal.

Rene, please don't even think about that. We will not let anything break the Pentad bond. None of us. But yes . . . you'd have a lot to worry about. Eventually, however, I suspect my friend Jeffrey Masterson would wind up a broken man if he had to lock Pablo and me in whichever little dark bunker they keep those of us who've become a danger to the planet.

I open my eyes and look back through the portal. Beach Guy is telling Lucy that talking to oneself is the first sign of madness.

I snort. "Not even close," I mutter. Then I chuckle while listening to Lucy. "You know, she's pretty damn funny. She's talking about finding a way to blow up the boat if they need to ditch it. Does microwaving hairspray or putting Styrofoam in the gas tank blow things up? Like Lucy, I didn't have a misspent youth. Unlike Lucy, I tend not to believe most of what I see on television. Oh, and she's telling Beach Guy that she's not talking to herself, she's talking to Melody's little friends. Not that she calls them that."

Pablo shakes his head. "Microwaving some spray paint might start a fire, but I don't think hairspray will. And Styrofoam in the gas tank?" He snickers. "No. It might gum up the fuel system, but it's not going to cause an explosion."

"Is she trying to make napalm?" Rene asks. "Because she's going to need a hell of a lot of Styrofoam. What's he saying?"

I shrug. "I report what I hear, and she didn't mention napalm. Okay, then. Too much television and a chemistry teacher who was giving his students just enough information to make class interesting but not turn the lot of them into arsonists. Got it. Anyway, he's being non-judgey, which is nice. Asks what they had to say, she relays the essence of the conversation. He wonders who 'him' is; Lucy is noncommittal on whether it's Beach Guy or Paranoid Diver Dude, but it's whichever one would help one of the little ones get big, and now we're on the spinning teacup ride."

"What?"

I look at Pablo. "Going around in circles?"

"Why didn't you just say that?"

"I'm cranky, and I'm hungry, and there but for the grace of god go I." I shrug. "Would you prefer full-out snark?"

"No, no. Incomprehensibly weird is fine." He grins that incredible boyish grin of his that always makes my heart melt.

"Hey. You put your magic away, too."

He does, but not before he leans over to kiss me.

On the other side of the portal, now that we don't have the split screen with Paranoid Diver Dude, it's considerably darker. Most of the light is coming from Beach Guy's cellphone. It's also started raining lightly.

As Newspaper Man answers the phone, the scene splits again — the little bit of light coming from Miss Jilly's house spills over both sides of the conversation.

Fucking bizarre portal.

Derek, it's Tyler. Thought I should check in. Someone has planted explosives on Paul's boat. In trying to solve that issue, I think Paul caused the series of resets we experienced. He's agreed not to board his boat for now but is understandably concerned about others being hurt or killed. I think the bomb probably has an anti-tamper device which sets it off . . . or, maybe more likely, a remote detonation. He wants us to go down to help, though I'm not sure what to do.

He pauses, glancing at Lucy before continuing.

Lucy and I encountered a couple of guys here at the campsite. They've moved on, so Miss Jilly might well be safe from these cliffs tonight. How are things at your end?

"Have I mentioned that an anti-tamper trigger isn't going to get anyone killed unless some idiot tampers with it?" Rene asks.

"It does sound vaguely familiar," Pablo says.

"And if there's a psychotic person with a remote trigger, staying near the boat isn't going to help. Who goes on other people's boats besides bad people who plant bombs?" I ask.

Rene pats my shoulder. "Besides other kinds of bad or naughty people? Just your sister."

I nod. "And she's not here. Or there. I still say they should go down and shiv the diver."

Newspaper Man has walked far enough away from the house that no one can overhear him. He's turned his back on them, too. I guess the paranoia is getting to everyone.

Is that what happened? Let's just say the resets were not particularly fun. Chelsea, in particular, took it very badly. I don't know what happened, but she's barely holding it together. As far as on track, we're here for the sleepover. I have help from someone else watching both Jilly and Melody. Melody is distinctly different, acting like a different day of the week than her normal medication program would suggest. Also, all of those who are aware — Sunny included — noticed a difference in loops. We changed something. For my own, I was killed differently in the last loop than the ones before. I can't say the significance. Heck, I'm having a hard time separating them in my head. But I second the different element.

It looks like Beach Guy is worried, but it might just be the odd lighting.

Who is the someone else? Are they aware of the resets? Sleepover, okay. Does this mean that you don't need Lucy and me to stay on point? And any ideas what we can do with the boat?"

"Ooh! Ooh! I know the answer to the last one!" I say, grinning.

Pablo sighs. "Ninja. Settle down."

I chuckle. "Sure thing, Chief."

"She still does that?" Rene asks Pablo.

He sighs again, this time with more, or possibly less, enthusiasm. "To my constant dismay."

I snicker. "Newspaper Man is telling Beach Guy about Teresa, that she's offered to help. No opinions about anything to do with bombs and boats. Suggests Paranoid Diver dude has done something to capture the bad guys' collective attention.

"That little tirade in the search earlier is enough for me to sarcastically exclaim 'Ya think?' Although, given that he was using a Time Warner connection, he might have simply broken Google. And Newspaper Man also mentions the money nonsense, which — given the way he was going about things — makes just as much sense. And Newspaper Man probably doesn't know exactly what went on with that particular search." I pause and shake my head. "I'm pretty sure Paranoid Diver Dude doesn't know what he did either."

I shrug. "If we absolutely needed to know, and didn't have the problem of that computer being in a different universe, I'd borrow it for a while and ship it to Freya. I don't think we really care, though."

"I know I don't," Pablo says.

"You really did hate working the cyber crimes detail."

"I knew kids were smart and good at that kind of thing, but I never expected the mastermind behind that massive prank on the entire city to be a high school sophomore!"

I give him a stink eye. "Really? Between Leon and Maddie's two hellions and our hellions, you're surprised? Still, since all she did was point out the City and County's vulnerabilities, it was sweet of you to recommend probation for her."

"That's not now I remember it," he says, grinning. "I believe the DA called me and informed me that Ninja had recommended probation."

"Oh, details."

"Whoa, wait!" Rene looks at me with an expression that comes close to being shocked. "Is this the same Ninja who used to freak out over Maddie's total disregard for the concept of planning?"

"No, that was then. This is now. By the way, Beach Guy notes that Teresa is a nice kid and he trusts her; he's telling Newspaper Man that he and Lucy are going to head over to the docks and attempt to talk Paranoid Diver Dude out of killing them all again. Newspaper Man is very much in favor of that idea. Everyone agrees that Melody needs to be kept safe. If they mess up with Miss Jilly, they should have another chance next time, not that I necessarily agree with them. Signing off—" I gesture to the portal that just shows Beach Guy and Lucy now. "—obviously. Relaying information to Lucy, making sure she's okay with helping Paranoid Diver Dude."

"I see his name has been lengthened," Pablo says, raising an eyebrow.

"I know. Not many people get that lucky. I usually reserve that treatment for insane Aztec demigods and demented ex-guardian Spirits. She's all for it, says there's safety in numbers. Not necessarily, but if it makes her feel better, sure."

Beach Guy closes up his pack and shoulders it, gesturing for Lucy to lead the way as he pulls out his phone and dials Paranoid Diver Dude to let him know they're on their way.

"And why did Ninja get involved in the juvenile delinquent's case?" Rene asks as the scene with Beach Guy and Lucy fades to a deep velvety gray.

"I thought it was funny. Also, by that time, Freak had annoyed me enough that I needed my own gray hat. I ran into her one might on her way home from the library."

"You probably scared her half to death, too," Pablo remarks dryly.

"No, she was pretty chill about it. I gave her an assignment and asked her to give me a call if she succeeded." I grin at Rene. "Two days later, I got a call from Maddie in which she sighed heavily before asking why Freak was calling her and making incoherent noises that he probably thought were some kind of human communication."

"You probably should have warned her, you know." Pablo says with a sigh.

"Maybe. But he called Maddie when his outer security perimeter was breached. I know my sister is a consummate actress, but I wanted to get as close to a real-world scenario as I could. He knew the attack was coming from Denver. Maddie had a very strong suspicion I had something to do with it."

I watch the portal brighten slightly to show the scene out at Miss Jilly's house.

"And you still didn't tell her what your little friend was doing?" Pablo asks. As always, he's surprised by that.

"I told her not to worry. I know how paranoid Freak is. I figured if we just chatted for a little while, either he'd stop the attack or Freya would find him. One of us would get a phone call." I shrug. "Turns out, it took another ten minutes for Freak to call her back." I grin then. "She'd managed to get through three — almost four — layers of security before he shut her out. And then she went dark so he couldn't backtrace her. I was waiting for her after school on Monday. I offered her a job. The rest, as they say, is history."

I'm not sure now much of this Rene has heard from Maddie — gods know I got an earful from her later because Freak can be, ah, temperamental — but I know I've only told the full story to Pablo.

"Didn't you tell her to call you back?"

"I did. But I told her to call if she succeeded. She didn't consider her assignment a success. I sure as hell did. Maddie just facepalmed."

We watch Teresa carrying a pile of blankets, sheets, and pillows into Miss Jilly's sitting room. It's a lovely old Victorian-style room, big enough for several sofas, side tables, and a coffee table, reading lamps, and even a fireplace.

I smile at the picture she presents. Here she is, the daughter of the richest and most powerful family on the island, doing what her father would no doubt consider menial labor. And she's taken to it like a duck to water. She's adaptable, that's for sure.

"The girls are going to have their sleepover downstairs, Newspaper Guy gets the guest bedroom upstairs. Miss Jilly has already gone to bed. And why the hell am I hearing everyone now?"

I shake my head. Teresa and Chelsea get the sofas set up as beds; Melody merely stands off to the side looking dazed . . . and heavily medicated. How did she manage to get medicated during all of that?

Oh. Hmm. I have a thought . . .

As the teens get ready for bed, they're sharing what I assume is typical sleepover gossip. How would I know, right? Before having roommates in college, my last sleepover had been a few years prior to the onset of my Curse — ten-year-old girls, at least in 1990 and in that particular place, were more interested in talking about things not related to school. Boy bands, trips off the base, movies . . . that sort of thing. Still, their school culture seems more stratified than ours had been.

I feel sorry for the new kid. It looks like Elaine has already set her up as her gofer and ghostwriter. I keep thinking we'll come into class and she'll say, just to prove her place and be mean, 'Put that book on your because because I said . . . so . . .'

"Um." I can't think of anything more witty as I watch Melody reach for a book and start to put it on her head.

No, no, no, no!

Teresa takes the book from Melody, looking more than a little worried.

"The drugs she gets on Friday that come from the Butterfly Factory," Pablo says.

I nod. "Yeah, that's my take on it, too. But how . . .?" Oh, yes. I have my suspicions.

The scene fast-forwards a bit as we watch the girls settle down to sleep, the rising moon the only indication that time is moving at an unusual pace.

"This portal is starting to piss me off," I mutter.

In response to something I can't hear, both Teresa and Chelsea wake, and the view pans to show Melody standing in the moonlight streaming through a window. Chelsea looks at Teresa.

Go wake up Derek. I'll stay with her. I heard it's not good to wake a sleepwalker, but I'm afraid she'll try to go outside.

Teresa hurries up the stairs and knocks on the door to the guest room.

Mister Emerson? Mister Emerson, can you wake up? Melody . . . she's sleepwalking, and it's really spooked Chelsea, and she said to get you right away.

"Interesting. She's integrating with the group to the point where she's accepting Chelsea's recommendation rather than waking Melody's aunt." Pablo seems apprehensive about that.

"Do either of you have any experience with sleepwalkers?" Rene asks.

Both Pablo and I shake our heads.

"Why?"

"Because I have plenty of experience with drugged people and that girl looks drugged."

"I agree, Rene. And that's one interpretation, Pablo, although I think you might be right. For the most part. Miss Jilly is an old woman who's sleeping soundly. If Melody were sleepwalking, wouldn't Newspaper Man be more likely to keep her safe? But since she's drugged — not that they seem to be able to figure that out — Newspaper Man is definitely going to be the better person to handle the situation. And Teresa still isn't sure what's going on, but she knows this isn't a normal situation."

As Newspaper Man comes down the stairs dressed in shorts, t-shirt, and sneakers, followed by Teresa in her borrowed pink and white gingham pajamas, they're greet by the odd tableau we've been watching. Melody, in a white Victorian nightgown that Clara would love, continues to shuffle down the hallway toward the kitchen. Chelsea, also in a t-shirt and shorts, has managed to get between Melody and the open back door. All three girls are barefoot.

"Well, that's interesting," Rene notes. "I distinctly remember seeing the journalist locking that door while the two of you were gabbing about your friend Freya."

"And I didn't see anyone unlock it afterward," Pablo says. "Andrea?"

I shake my head. "No. There was that section of fast-forwarding, but I didn't catch any movement."

"As I said, it's interesting."

I nod in agreement. "And not in a good way, either."

Newspaper Man and Teresa check the first floor of the house — presumably to make sure no one and nothing has come in through the open door — before making their way around the grand veranda to the kitchen. The young woman closes the door and locks it as we look at the four of them: Teresa and Newspaper Man at the kitchen door, Chelsea at the end of the hallway barring the way for Melody to enter the kitchen, Melody slowly shuffling down the hall.

Hey, Mel, let's go sit down. It's cold out here.

Melody pauses a moment and then sits down — right there on the hallway floor.

That's . . . creepy.

"I'm going to agree with Teresa over there. That's just damn creepy."

"Remember from back in one of the early parts of this drama there was something about the butterflies and drugs and those drugs making people more susceptible to suggestions?"

I look at Pablo, pretty sure I know where he's going. "I remember, Detective. Elaborate?"

"Well, Rene said she looked drugged, right? And that's the second time Melody just stopped and did whatever someone asked her to do. Hell, Teresa wasn't even talking about Melody putting a book on her head, was she?"

"No, she wasn't."

"You're suggesting that someone, somehow managed to get her drugged during that . . ." Even Rene pauses. ". . . experience? And gave her the suggestion to wander out into the night?

"Strongly suggesting," Pablo agrees. "And that makes me ask the question . . . how?"

I will not let the anger well up again. I will not.

"And who," he adds.

"And while we're playing the question game," Rene says, smiling the sort of smile we usually only see when the Wolf Pack is on a mission, "why?"

"All good questions," I say. "I don't know that I have answers, but I have suspicions. Fine, I'm pretty sure I know who and how, not sure about why. Unless that's the reason why." I gesture to Melody's drugged state. "But you'll be happy to know that Newspaper Man agrees with the notion that Melody's been drugged. Chelsea suggests getting Melody back to bed."

That's when Melody starts shaking uncontrollably. The look in her eyes . . .

"Oui," Rene whispers, responding to my stiffening posture. "Maddie used to have that look sometimes, too, before she let the madness cover the fear."

"This might be worse, Rene. I was pulled into Maddie's memories, and her qi never looked this chaotic. I've never seen anyone so terrified in my life."

"Do you think the drugs exacerbate the fear?" Pablo asks.

I nod, not even pausing to banter with him about using big words. "There's a good chance of it. But what if . . ." I clench my teeth for a moment, just breathing, just letting Mother's energy flow through me. ". . . what if she remembers, too? That would explain the amount of fear. She could be remembering what happens during her lost weekends. She could be remembering — just like the rest of them — everything that transpired during those neverending flips."

I gesture toward the portal. "Chelsea is saying the right things. No straps, no knives. Teresa . . . Well, I think she's both surprised and shocked — and possibly even a little indignant — about someone using knives to hurt Melody. She doesn't understand that Chelsea is reassuring Melody that she's not getting hurt."

The other two teens manage to get Melody back to her daybed, where she just lies down, shivering.

Do they do this because I'm sick? What is it they want?

I bite my lip as she states at the ceiling.

Who am I? What am I?

"Oh, fuck them all if I find out who's behind this! And Talia can just stuff it!"

I clamp my jaws together tightly, so I don't say anything else . . . and maybe give me a chance to keep the anger under control. They both look at me and then look at one another. And for what seems like a long time — but can't be more than a few seconds because there's very little happening on the other side — they continue to say nothing.

Finally, Pablo asks the obvious. "Who said what to piss you off?"

I shake my head and sigh as Chelsea turns to comfort Melody.

"Whatever is going on with that poor girl, whatever they — the mysterious they — are doing to her has her questioning who she is. And worse . . . questioning what she is."

Pablo squeezes my hand. We'd been there — Ninja, Peacekeeper, and Peregrine — the day not so very long ago when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to tear down the wall around Commerce City. It's still a town that's made up mostly of mutants. The most fearful of them stay deep inside the village. They feel safe there.

Brighton and Vasquez Boulevards have been reopened; the residents stay east of Vasquez. The community farms are still there, and more of the buildings have been demolished to use as additional farms and an open-space barrier to keep out the curious folks. Where the concrete walls once stood on the north, east, and south sides of the compound are now simple wooden fences. They're considerably taller than the ones down in University Hills and far more fortified — the residents feel safer, and it leaves Vasquez Boulevard the only official entry to the village.

There is always, always someone watching the road. They'd spent so many years behind the walls that the majority of them who can't pass for normal don't even try. To this day, there are still too many people who doubt their humanity because of genetic mutations. It really pisses me off.

Just as Chelsea has managed to almost get Melody calm, she looks over at the little table beside the daybed where she'd been asleep. Her phone is flashing; I'll assume that it's probably ringing, too. She turns to look at Newspaper Man as asks him to answer the phone.

He crosses the room and checks the caller ID before picking it up and answering it. It's Lucy.

The scene fades out, and we see the town docks. Paranoid Diver Dude stands two slips down from his boat and doesn't look happy.

"Think he's going to wait for his friends?" Pablo asks.

"Maybe? He sure as hell doesn't want to."

Beach Guy and Lucy approach from behind him. An old man is sitting on one of the benches along the little marina. If he's been here through all the flips, I suppose getting blown up gods only know how many times would explain his grumpy demeanor — even if he has no idea why he's feeling grump. Paranoid Diver Dude doesn't even greet his friends — alleged friends, at this point — before he gets right down to the business of saving his boat.

Right then. I tried calling in federal-level help. Didn't work. Should we risk local?

"What??" Pablo stares at the man, his expression incredulous. "Did he just say he called the Feds?"

I sigh as I close my eyes. "He did. Well, that explains a lot."

"It does?" Rene asks.

Pablo glares at Rene for a second before shaking his head. "I keep forgetting you're not a U.S. citizen."

I smile and listen to the conversations on both sides of the portal.

"And that has to do with this . . . why?"

"Chain of command, mostly. Who's in charge of what types of events. Remember Andrea being surprised that the military took control of a supposed Ebola outbreak?"

Rene nods.

"Well, this is a case where things line up correctly for a change. If a bomb goes off somewhere in my town, we get our people to the scene as fast as possible while the Chief of Police — currently Rodrigo Sanchez — calls the FBI. Then the FBI kids come over and join the party. Sometimes they're willing to play nice, sometimes they tell us all to go home." Pablo shrugs. "Since Ninja does whatever she damn well pleases, she'll stick around. I think her primary agenda is to annoy the FBI—"

"It is not! I made up with them years ago! I'm there to help you and your people."

"—although she does manage to get information the FBI doesn't usually want to share with the locals."

"It's my charming personality, you know."

They both snort. I'm truly underappreciated in my role.

"I suppose if there's something really big — say, a bomb out at the airport — the FBI would get the NSA or DHS involved. Or both."

"That's when I skedaddle on home. Those NSA types are not friendly."

Pablo nods. "I don't disagree. The point here, however, is that the paranoid diver called in the Feds. A private citizen. Even in a small town like that, it's highly suspicious. And when the Feds get suspicious, they tend to swarm.

"If there are bad people there who have something to hide, they are definitely not going to want the Feds swarming around their little town. If they're really as bad as all that — and I saw more than I needed to see to know they are — they're going to make sure that everyone who's associated with their problem disappears."

"And by 'disappear,' you just mean dead." I raise an eyebrow.

Pablo shrugs. "It depends. If the military is involved with the bad guys, they could wind up at Gitmo. But it could also be a body in a fifty-five gallon drum out in the town dump. Whatever works for them."

Rene has been studying both Pablo and the boat on the other side of the portal. Finally, he nods. "You're right. That's not the way Maddie and I ever worked. And it's not quite how agencies collaborate among the various European governments and INTERPOL."

He stares at Paranoid Diver Dude for several seconds. "So he knocks over the first domino by getting on his boat and thereby being blown up, which leads to the end of the world. Then the cycle starts all over again."

"Right," Pablo and I say at the same time. He knows police work. I know qi. It's pretty easy to come to the same conclusion using either method.

Rene nods. "I see why you want to kill him."

I gesture to the portal again. "They're discussing the idea of calling the sheriff. Beach Guy first has Paranoid Diver Dude walk him through the process of finding the bomb. Notes that calling the sheriff to say there's a bomb without being able to tell her how they actually know that there's a bomb is going to be problematic. Paranoid Diver Dude counters with the fact that he's seen it. Beach Guy points out the old man on the bench, asks Paranoid Diver Dude how long he's been there.

"That's a stupid question, by the way. The man is so mono-focused that he wouldn't notice if half the town showed up naked as long as none of them were in his line of sight to the boat. Needless to say, Paranoid Diver Dude says the local is suspicious."

I stop and shake my head. "The man is just sitting there. I'll grant that his focus is on Paranoid Diver dude, but since he's acting like a damn fool, I'll also accept the old man's behavior as well within the bounds of normal. Paranoid Diver Dude suggests that a couple of them — and his tone implies not him — go over and question the man. Beach Guy is picking up on the paranoia."

I point to the portal as Beach Guy says a few words to Lucy and turns to walk toward the old man.

"He's asking Lucy to keep an eye on the boat, and now Beach Buy and Paranoid Diver Dude are going to chat with the guy on the bench. Bench Man!"

Pablo groans . . . and I grin.

"Also, Lucy tells them — or maybe just Beach Guy — not to die, to which Paranoid Diver Dude responds, 'Given the circumstances, will you settle for don't die yet?' Gods, what an asshole. Beach Guy asks if Paranoid Diver dude noticed any differences in the resets."

I listen to Paranoid Diver Dude's reply, staring at him open my mouth to say what I'm thinking, then close it again. I replay his words in my head. Nope. They still make no sense.

"Paranoid Diver Dude said — and I quote — 'They were glitched, like a bugged computer game. Physical sensation carryovers as if data from a previous loop had corrupted the current file. Slightly differing moves from the opposition.' Does that make sense to either of you? Let's assume, giving him the benefit of the doubt, that he meant 'buggy' rather than 'bugged.'"

Rene shakes his head. Pablo takes a little longer to answer, probably thinking about the ancient computer he had as a kid. Finally, however, he, too, shakes his head.

"No. A bad disk might give you problems similar to that if you saved and erased a lot of files. But the game itself? Probably not. Those were either on another disk or on the computer hard drive."

I nod. "Okay. Just checking. Personally, I wasn't even sure it was English."

The two men approach Bench Man. Beach Guy seems to almost be pretending to walk past the guy, then stops suddenly to chat. Maybe he's trying to be a spy?

Evening. Mind if I ask you a couple of questions?

Rene chuckles. "Does that ever work on anyone?"

"Sure, on the homeless folks, sometimes," I say. "But it all depends on how hungry they are. Beach Guy wouldn't have gotten past a couple of them in civic Center Park."

Pablo sighs. "I really wish they'd go to the shelter . . . especially in bad weather."

"Yeah, so do I, Pablo. But they don't like the 'preachifying' at the Mission shelter, and they're too scared to go over to Five Points on their own. So the best we can do is get one of the Patrol folks to give them a ride. Oh, and Bench Man says he's willing to answer questions."

My friend here believes someone has been on his boat. I wonder if you've seen anyone.

The view shifts so we can see Bench Man take a drag on his cigarette before answering.

Nope. Town closes up on sunset. You won't see most folks out after dark, especially on a rainy evening like tonight.

He points at Paranoid Diver Dude.

He's the only suspicious person that I seen all night. Out-of-towner standing around on the docks all by himself . . . like he's lookin' for trouble or something.

This time, he gives both men a long, hard look before looking back down the dock where Lucy waits.

Mebee you better be getting your moll home. Prolly be a smart idea, lest folks get the wrong opinion and all.

Paranoid Diver Dude stiffens at Bench Man's words but surprisingly says nothing.

"Huh." That's all Pablo says.

"Yeah." It's a bit of a shocker, all right, given his overwhelming paranoia. It's not like Bench Guy is wrong about Paranoid Diver Dude being suspicious. But it's as though he decides now would be the appropriate time to remember his considerably darker complexion. Nah, that doesn't make sense to me either.

Beach Guy thanks Bench Man and asks his name, which is hilarious because Bench Guy is wearing a shirt with his name sewn over the pocket. But Bench Guy slaps his chest and gives Beach Guy his name. I'd have thought Beach Guy was more observant than that, what with him being an author and all.

Sorry, should have noticed the name. Frank has a point. Maybe we should be making tracks.

Bench Man smiles, but it's not a nice smile. It's not even a Ninja smile. It's the sort of smile you see on the villain in a Bond movie.

"I don't like him," Pablo declares.

"Excellent! You put your chips on Bench Man, I'll put mine on Crazy Ice Cream Lady, and Rene can pick his least favorite townsperson later!"

"Andi, I dislike everyone in that town on general principle because I have to stand here watching this show." Rene smiles, but it's an entirely different flavor than Bench Man's. "If I can't talk the two of you into burning down a building, I could at least be visiting with my son and his wife."

"No, you can't. Leon and Jenny are on vacation visiting her folks, and you're going to leave them alone. They need a break."

His smile morphs into a grin. "Yes, Mom."

I jab him with an elbow.

Well, then, goodnight to you. And don't forget your lady friend. It may be 2016, but it's still not safe for a lady alone at night. With a summer storm coming up, the piers and dock get real slick, and you'd not believe how easy it is getting lost on a small island once off Main Street and away from the street lights. Just helpful words of advice.

I raise an eyebrow. Sure, that might all be taken as helpful advice, but his aura says it's also a warning.

After thanking Bench Man again and bidding him goodnight, Beach Guy and Paranoid Diver Dude head back in Lucy's direction, the diver still being uncharacteristically quiet. When they reach her, Lucy speaks up.

So do you think he's the bomber? Or a person of interest?

Paranoid Diver Dude shrugs.

Hostile toward outsiders. I can't discount the possibility.

"Okay, I'm going to quote you now, Andrea," Pablo says as he stares at Paranoid Diver Dude. "What the actual fuck?"

I shake my head. "If I don't look at the qi and absent his creepy, smile, I'd say he was appropriately suspicious of strangers in his town asking weird questions."

"Yes. That."

"Of course, there is the creepy smile, and Paranoid Diver Dude is ultra-paranoid. And since I can see the qi, you might want to keep your chips where they are." I smile sweetly at Pablo. "At least for now. I'm not saying he's the bomber, but he definitely wants to get the three of them off the docks. And Lucy says they'll have to add him to their list."

Paranoid Diver Dude turns to look at his boat, but the view pans right along with him.

So what's our way of the rather explosive situation we find ourselves in?

"Is he trying to be funny?" Rene asks.

I shrug. "Hell if I know. All I see in his aura is paranoia. Beach Guy is asking if Bench Man is still sitting there."

The view pans over to Beach Guy.

He might be more than meets the eye, but I rather think he's a local who doesn't much like out-of-town visitors.

"Well, yeah. There's that vibe in his aura, too."

Beach Guy looks at Paranoid Diver Dude.

I'm not sure. First thing, how much do you care if your boat survives? How good is your insurance?

I squint at the portal. Okay, mostly at Paranoid Diver Dude. "I think Paranoid Diver dude has put himself in a paradox. The boat is the only thing keeping him on the island, but he can't get off the island because the boat keeps blowing up. Says it would take weeks or months to get a replacement."

Rene snickers. "Maddie could have one overnight. If she wanted one."

"I know that, Jacobs. If his words match any sort of logic — and I'll grant they might not — his paranoia is saying that someone wants him off the island, but blowing up his boat is the best way to keep him here, so . . ." I shrug. "So I don't know. And you can see that Bench Guy is still sitting there in the background. Either he's just chilling out, or he's watching them, and I think Paranoid Diver Dude might be infecting Lucy, too."

Okay, so you're saying to save the boat if we can? Did you learn anything of use on the resets? Do you, for example, feel that a bomb disposal guy might succeed? Failing that, maybe we work on getting the person who planted it to take it away.

"At least Beach Guy is staying sensible," Rene notes.

Paranoid Diver dude's expression is lacking all humor. It's cold, and it's dark. Frankly, it's the expression of a madman.

"Um . . . Andrea?" Pablo sounds worried.

When I look at him, I realize my eyes are glowing again.

He squeezes my hand. "Come on back, love. You sounded like Logan there for a minute. Well, no, I guess more like Em. Growling."

I close my eyes for a moment as Lucy, Beach Guy, and Paranoid Diver Dude continue their conversation.

"Be thankful you can't hear what the fucking moron is saying."

"Don't let him get to you, Andrea. There's nothing we can do about it anyway."

I shake my head and just watch the qi. I don't need to open my eyes for that.

"Pablo, the man is dangerously unstable, more paranoid than anyone I've ever seen, and apparently has a death wish. I'd say that's marvelous . . . he should just go die already if it didn't involve so many other people. His boat — a physical object, a thing, a toy — is worth more to him than the suffering of people who are supposed to be his comrades." I open my eyes to stare at the loathsome creature on the other side of the portal. "Two of those people who are suffering more than I'd ever allow anyone in my city to suffer are teenage girls. Even the little one suffers in her own way.

"How can eliminating him, removing him from his pathetic existence be a bad thing?"

Pablo is silent, Rene sighs. They don't have answers either. Finally, Rene speaks up, but it's so softly that I can barely hear him, even with hypersensitive hearing.

"Maybe it's about protecting our world from the Shadow, sister. We all did so much, suffered so much to rid our world of William Stryker, the Aryan Knighthood, Tezcatlipoca and his Chosen One, even Pablo's ancestral pain in the ass. If you open a bridge to that world to protect a few dozen people — no matter how much protection they need — can you be sure that the evil on the other side won't talk over the bridge to re-enter our world?"

"No." And I hate it. I hate being helpless and unable to protect people who so clearly need help. "There has to be a way to stop him. If he cares so little for human life that he'll continue these rapid flips to save a fucking boat at the cost of a young woman's mind and her soul . . ."

I press my lips together tightly. I breathe as Doshu Ueshiba taught me when I was a child. I listen to the deranged diver repeat his assertion that he can't leave the bomb on the boat because the movement of the water might cause the bomb to go off — despite the fact that they've already determined that the bomb is being remotely detonated. Well, he doesn't believe that, but I think at least Beach Guy gets it. Paranoid Diver Dude is in a loop of his own making now.

"He still thinks the motion of the boat is going to set the bomb off. I've been hanging around you and Maddie long enough — those were blocks of C-4, weren't they, Rene?"

"They were. And the reason we like to use it is its stability. The only conceivable way for that bomb to go off, absent a psychopath with a remote detonate, is to trigger an anti-tamper tripwire. Don't pull the cover off and you avoid the whole problem. But I don't think we saw an anti-tamper trigger."

"He's doing his damnedest to convince the other two that the damn thing could blow up at any moment, despite the fact that all evidence we've seen points to the fact that stepping onto the boat is what causes it to explode. He's not even making sense anymore! Even he's seen that evidence."

"He's under the impression that the bomb is made of volatile chemicals?" Pablo asks.

"Highly volatile, in his words, yes."

Detective Garcia shakes his head. "His entire chain of reasoning is based on false information. If he believes those blocks of C-4 are dangerous in and of themselves . . ." He exchanges a glance with Rene. ". . . Well, I understand your desire to rid their world of him, but you can't really do anything about it, Andrea."

"I know that, Pablo! The problem with giving him a Darwin Award is that he eventually takes the whole world with him. Here's the paradox: he's decided that the bomb will go off simply because of the boat's motion, right? So they have to solve this problem because he doesn't want innocent people to get hurt. Then he has the unmitigated gall to say he doesn't want innocent people caught in the explosion while knowing that the blast causes resets that are close to breaking Chelsea's mind.

"Won't have it on his conscious? He doesn't fucking have a conscience! How can a person possibly still be alive with a brain that doesn't even function as well as a cat's? A stupid orange cat, to boot!"

"His friends are tying to talk him out of getting on the boat," Rene says, an arm wrapped around me in a fierce hug. "There's a chance they'll succeed."

"Still," Pablo adds, "I do wish there was an appropriate afterlife for someone like that. Even Hell seems too mild a punishment."

I nod, trying to calm down. "Well . . . Lucy is insisting . . . demanding, really, that Chelsea be warned."

Fine. Go ahead and call her while we call the authorities.

Pablo sighs. At least we can see Lucy's response as she pulls out her phone and scrolls through her contact list.

Hold off on calling the authorities. Those of us who are affected by this event and remember it might want to have an equal vote on what to do about it. I know you don't want anyone hurt by this, Paul, and neither do I. But if it's a choice between someone who'll remember dying and someone who won't? I think we should side with whoever will be traumatized the most.

"Look there's one sensible person over there," Rene says.

Then Paranoid Diver Dude's verbal diarrhea leaves me speechless and nearly slack-jawed.

"Did he . . .?" I blink and shake my head. "After getting himself blown up gods only know how many times and causing the suffering of millions, now he's going to lecture Lucy — at the moment, a rational, sane person who obviously cares about what happens to Chelsea? Seriously? The paranoid, obsessed megalomaniac asshole who just sent Chelsea into the deepest, most horrifying nightmare imaginable? HE's going to lecture someone??

"Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits! Lucy isn't saying anything about being godlike or immortal, you fucking cow turd! She's just trying to save her friend's sanity.

"'Down that way lies madness'??? Oh, give me a fucking break. You're already embedded in the world of madness, and you're the gods-be-damned emperor. Get off that high horse of yours, you hypocritical shit bag!"

"Andrea? Dear? He can't hear you."

I glare at Pablo. "I know that. It makes me feel better."

"I say carry on then." Rene looks over at Pablo. "Maddie's habit of find the seediest dive she can and starting bar fights, while entertaining to watch, is in an entirely different league than Andi's cursing of someone who can't even hear her."

I close my eyes again and focus as much of my attention as possible on Pablo's hand holding mine, the warmth of his fingers as they twine with mine . . . on Rene's arm around my shoulder, reaching across my chest to hug me, the peculiar energetic feeling of his Spirit nature. I know that a single thought could bring the Entourage — as Bear refers to itself and the three other Spirits who have become my companions in this journey. But they can be as frustrating and annoying as they are helpful. For now, I'm content to have them stay in their own realm.

I listen to Lucy trying to reason with Paranoid Diver Dude. Despite everything that's happened to her since the day she first woke to this nightmare, and despite her moments of deliberate flightiness that have grated on my nerves, she's been the most grounded and steadfast of the group. Chelsea is still a teenager, and it isn't hard to see that she often feels overwhelmed — what teenager hasn't felt overwhelmed by an ordinary reality, let alone something as terrifying as hers? The other two men react more than they act. That isn't an indictment of them or their values, but rather a sad testament to the reality that so many in my world have faced: when called to step forward and be the superheroes we need to be, how many of us have held back from the monumental and terrifying responsibilities of the role? I know I did for years.

. . . no way, this side of heaven or hell, do any of us have the right to play with Chelsea's sanity. Chelsea has said she can't take more resets like she recently had. She gets a vote in anything that we know will cause a reset, and playing with that bomb falls into that category.

See? Lucy is the sensible one.

No one is playing with anything. This isn't a game, nor should it be treated as such. If we keep going as we are, no changes, there will be another loop, and another, and another, and another. Which one will send her over the edge?

Apparently, Pablo and Rene are still reading lips because Rene says, "He really doesn't get it, does he? He's the one causing the loops, resets, flips, whatever you want to call them."

I just shake my head as Paranoid Diver Dude continues babbling.

If she's that fragile that it remains only a matter of time, we had best start making contingencies for it because unless something major and fundamental changes, the loops will keep on keeping on — and not under our control, not at our behest. The thought of voting is meaningless when at any time, any misstep by any of us could trigger a reset.

"Wow," Pablo says. "It's been a while since I've had to listen to an adult who was that clueless."

"He's an arrogant fuckwad," I say. "Come to Cheesman Park on Sunday for the Pride Festival. The so-called Friends of Jesus will make their appearance. You can listen to them be clueless."

It was not any event that was sending her over the edge. It was the result of resetting from this event. And yes, any misstep could trigger a reset, but we know this one does.
We don't know that for certain . . .

"Can I please go kill him?"

"No," Pablo and Rene say in unison. They say it softly, almost as though they'd rather not be saying it.

. . . we only know she isn't coping with the loops.

"The ones you're causing, pus for brains," I mutter.

We have no idea how badly she'll react to the next one, whatever its source.

What we know is that each time your boat blew up and we reset, she was getting hit with a really bad loop. So for certain or not, if we think something might cause a loop, we vote.

Lucy actually sounds angry or, at the very least, she's sliding in that direction.

"If I understand your explanation earlier, Pablo, coupled with our understanding of the motivation behind all the deaths," Rene says, "we would conclude that calling anyone to take care of the bomb will cause a remote explosion."

"That's my take on it, too, Rene. If the man wants to sit on the dock and watch his boat, that ought to be safe enough. But calling anyone in will trigger the events that kill them all."

Pablo nudges my shoulder. "Lucy is calling Derek."

I sigh and open my eyes. We're treated to another split-screen effect again as Newspaper Man greets her. Lucy spends a couple of minutes catching him up on what's been going on at the docks.

Paul wants to bring in a bomb squad, but I'm calling for a vote since this very well might set off yet another reset. What do you two think?

Newspaper Man not only steps away from the girls but turns his back on them as well; he's speaking softly.

We have a situation here, too. But to answer your question first, I suggest that the boat is a red herring. I'm pretty sure setting off the explosives will do another reset. We're pretty sure, given what happened here, that Melody is being called to walk someplace during the night, which is why she's so tired during the day.

"That doesn't make sense."

"Andrea, half of what they say doesn't make sense."

Once again, I sigh. It isn't really half — Pablo just likes to pretend he's not a smart guy — but those folks do have a tendency to wander down paths that don't actually head anywhere.

We think it's within walking distance of the house, which really means one place only — the facility.

On Lucy's side, she pulls the phone away from her face to summarize Newspaper Man's information for Beach Guy and Paranoid Diver Dude.

"I think tonight is an anomaly for Melody. Earlier, she asked if it was Friday already. She's in that Drugged Friday Afternoon frame of mind. But Teresa said it's Tuesday. Hence, an anomaly. I guess Newspaper Man didn't hear that part. Or he's fishing for his own red herring."

Lucy goes back to the call with Newspaper Man.

Gotcha. On the boat, is that a 'no' for letting the bomb squad in on things, and how does Chelsea feel? I don't want to make any assumptions here.
I answered her phone because she's trying to keep Melody calm. Whatever they do to Mel when she sleepwalks . . ."

"She's not sleepwalking, idiot!"

"Pablo sighs. "Andrea."

. . . over there is terrifying. I don't want to disturb them further. But I can tell you this: The last set of repeats were particularly hard on Chelsea. I can't say what happened, but when it stopped, it was all she could do to not come completely apart.

Lucy reports to the men with her that it's safe to say that Newspaper Man and Chelsea are voting no on anyone going near the boat. She turns back to her conversation with Newspaper Man.

What would you like us to do, Derek? I'm not sure how much help with Melody we can be right now, unless you want more eyes on the facility she's walking to.

Paranoid Diver Dude interrupts Lucy.

Don't be 'safe to say.' Be explicit. We can't stop people going near the boat. This is a public harbor! There are school kids that come around here and help out!

"So you're concerned about everyone except Chelsea? Why is that, Diver Dude? Are you actually an agent of the Shadow?" I say this last with as much scorn as anger . . . and I have a lot of anger.

"Fine, I'll stipulate that the diver needs to be medicated and/or held for the standard seventy-two hour observation at a mental health facility," Pablo says.

Investigating the facility seems warranted, though they're going to come looking for her, I suspect, when she doesn't show. So be careful.

This time, I just give Newspaper Man a stink eye. It looks like Lucy is giving Paranoid Diver Dude her own version of the stink eye.

Derek, sorry, Paul is being . . . well, Paul at the moment. I need actual yay or nay votes on letting the bomb squad anywhere near the boat. He wants an explicit answer.

On Newspaper Man's side of the portal view, I hear Teresa calling attention to the fact that Melody's looking for a book. Momentarily, Melody hands the composition notebook to Teresa, who brings it over to Newspaper Man, pointing out something that Melody had noted. He nods.

Tell Paul to leave the boat alone. Just that most recent mention of messing with it got Melody more agitated and she showed me a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We know the results of that action: death, pain, reset. I don't know how much more explicit I can be. Keep in mind we've had some success reaching a point were we hadn't been before. Everyone was surprised last night at the dinner. So although we're fumbling our way along, we need to keep going forward, not back. That clear enough for him, or do I have to come out with a written letter to spell it out for him? Oh, wait. I can do that over the phone. Two simple letters: 'N' and 'O.' Don't mess with the boat and the explosives. Clearly, he made an enemy of someone, some place, or else he wouldn't have been dealt with.

I smile at the man's snark. "Thanks, man. I really needed that."

Lucy also chuckles at his comment and she rests the phone against her shoulder, returning the view to a single scene. That's odd. And I'm annoyed again at this damn portal.

The vote is definitely no. Even us discussing it has Mel in fits, saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result. So we leave the boat alone, we don't send others to deal with it.

She and Paranoid Diver Dude locks eyes, staring until he finally nods once.

All right. We leave the volatile explosives—

"They're not volatile," Pablo and Rene say, practically a sing-song type of refrain.

I giggle. "I love you guys. Thank you. I still want to kill that bastard, though."

"Andi, don't disparage his mother like that."

I grin at Rene. "Okay, how about 'cheesy pus rectal cancer odoriferous son of an unmarried woman of ill report'?"

"Ew?" Pablo remarks.

"Blame Deb."

"Figures."

—in situ for now. What's their alternative plan for preventing them from causing a reset through blowing up a passerby?

"He sounds like a broken record." Rene sounds like he wants to call Maddie in.

"Nah, more like variations on a theme. He's got the same monotonous tune, but uses different words each time."

"Yep, there he goes again," Pablo says. "He's seen the bomb — obviously multiple times. Does he think every explosive device is volatile? Hmm, maybe he does. Maybe he doesn't watch enough television."

"Or too much of the wrong television," I point out. "You yell at Law & Order every time they get something wrong.

"Well . . . that's true."

Lucy is still trying to reason with Paranoid Diver Dude.

. . . as it stands — I know you don't want to hear this — but the smaller risk is that the bomb accidentally goes off. If it's between a reset that's harming Chelsea or the docks going, I'm going to always vote for the docks disappearing.

You're thinking of the two as unconnected. I strongly suspect that if the bomb kills anyone, there will be a reset. I'm not saying to deal with this rather than help Chelsea. I'm saying that if we don't deal with this, it may well harm Chelsea.

"I'd love to shoot him in the back of the head with a spitball," Pablo says, "and then throw a note at him that says the bomb goes off because he gets on the boat."

"I love the spitball idea! I'd rather use a baseball, but sure . . . let's start small." I grin at Pablo.

"You're sure, Andi?" Rene asks. "I know I'm fairly confident that the bomb never exploded before he got on the boat, but confirmation would be nice."

I nod. "I watch him, I watch the qi. You know the whole world has qi, right? Every single time he got on the boat . . . kaboom! But ever before he actually got on the boat."

Lucy is starting to look frustrated with Paranoid Diver Dude. Welcome to the club!

This is just a guess, though. Let's leave the boat alone and see what happens.

This is all just guesses. When the bomb explodes, there's a reset. That, at least, we know. I don't want to gamble Chelsea's life and sanity on the off-chance that something as volatile as that won't be set off. Believe me, I practically majored in things designed to explode unexpectedly, sinking the ship they were on.

Pablo's eyebrows go way up. "Did he just admit to be being a terrorist?"

"Well, if he . . ." I stop, considering various scenarios and alternatives. "Huh. Maybe?"

"I think we all hate him now," Rene says.

"But how do you explain his obsession with the volatility of a substance that's as stable as explosives can get?" Pablo muses.

"Oh, that's easy!" I reply. "He's off his meds. Or needs that seventy-two hour mandatory psych eval."

"How is putting up a sign any sort of help?" Rene wonders. "The bully and those delinquents who follow him around would see it as a dare."

I shrug.

It also opens up a lot of questions we might not want to answer. Why didn't you report the bomb? If you know it was dangerous, why did you leave? It also lets whoever is expecting you to get on the boat know that somehow you did get on the boat.

"Huh, she's pretty smart." I do believe I hear a hint of admiration in my husband's voice.

The three of us sigh in unison this time as Paranoid Diver Dude continues to . . . what was it Teresa had said? Ah, yes . . . he's running in circles because he's tied to a stake. Beach Guy tries to point him toward reason. Gods know Lucy's been trying. He just won't let this go.

"Well, you're on the side of the demons, that's for sure," I mutter.

Paul, if you want to vote in it, fine. Let's go meet the others and leave the boat alone for now.

She puts the phone back to her ear; I'm surprised that Newspaper Man is still connected, but it would appear that he is.

Sorry. Heading your way now. At least I am.

Shaking her head, Lucy disconnects and looks at the two men with her.

I understand your concern, Paul. However, you've been on the boat multiple times now, enough to know where the bomb is, to have tinkered with it a few times. If simply walking by on the docks was going to set it off, it would have gone off by now. Likewise with the rocking of the waves. The point was to let you get onto the boat before you die, not to let you survive by having it go off even before you get to the boat. So, for now, until we talk to the others and vote on whether to leave a sign or not, why don't we try something you haven't done yet? Leave the boat alone.

Even I'm impressed, and I'm not easily impressed.

No need to take that tone of voice. It's important we remain calm and rational here. Anger helps no one.

I snort. "Oh, the rational train left your station long ago, bub. And Lucy doesn't sound angry to me . . . more like exasperated from all your bullshit."

The vote is more for how we respond to questions about the sign. I'm not leaving the threat unmarked. Kids come around here.

"Can I just jump through to kick him in the nuts?"

"No," Rene and Pablo say in unison.

Then stay here while everyone else votes. Your call. And there was no tone of voice, and I'm not even close to being angry. You'd be unconscious and duct taped to hell and back if I was.

I burst out laughing. "I think if I just came in on this part of the show and hadn't seen all the flips, that's exactly what I'd have done. Crack him right over the head with my staff and duct tape him to that lamppost there."

But I agree on us all being rational. I just don't agree that you are.

"Oh, snap! Nicely done!"

"You're getting too excited about other people learning the ways of snark, dear."

I smile and shrug. He's not wrong.

Lucy turns to walk off, waving at both men as she walks back toward Main Street. Beach Guy tells Paranoid Diver Dude that it's time to get back to the others, before turning to follow Lucy.

The scene fades out as the next one fades in. Newspaper Man holds the phone in his hand, looking into the parlor where the three teenagers wait.

Melody is shaking almost uncontrollably, as if she knows that's about to happen next. Chelsea sits beside her, still trying to comfort her. Teresa stands close, confused, unsure what she should do.

I hear the dull whump of an explosion, and I suspect the people on the other side of the portal do too. We can see the fire over the trees out the window. Melody doesn't seem surprised . . . this has happened before. She starts counting and when she reaches twenty, she impulsively reaches out to take both Chelsea's and Teresa's hands.

What do you see when you turn out the light?

"Huh?"

"Another line from that Beatles song, Pablo."

We hear the shattering of wood . . . it sounds like a door being smashed in.

I hope we get to be friends again.

Faintly, just barely loud enough for me to hear, a whispered voice says between sobs, "Stop murdering my friend."

I swallow hard and bite down on my lips. Oh, Great Spirit, how I wish I could help that little girl!

The scene switches to Lucy and Beach Guy as they walk away from Paranoid Diver Dude. They pass by Bench Man and start up Main Street. Just after they pass him, Bench Man finishes his cigarette and also gets up to leave.

They're in front of the town hall when the boat explodes, knocking Lucy to her knees.

That fucking moron. He just had to go make a sign after they told him not to.

The scene goes back to Paranoid Diver Dude on the dock. However, as the camera pans out, I blink and feel my jaw slacken in surprise. Pablo actually gasps.

From behind him, an individual shrouded in shadows glides close enough to raise a silenced gun and pull the trigger.

Game over. Thank you for playing, Mister Wilcott.

The voice is neither identifiably male nor female. The figure is equally as androgynous as they drag Diver Dude's dead body over to his boat and haul it over the side to sprawl on the deck. Then the shooter polices his brass, meticulously cleans the gun, and tosses all of Paranoid Diver Dude's possessions onto the boat. The most visible physical evidence of the crime — blood, flesh, hair, brain chunks — is scuffed away.

The figure walks away from the docks and down the road before pulling out a cellphone, tapping a simple pattern on the screen, and pocketing the phone again.

That's when the boat blows up.

I blink again — twice and then thrice.

"Is that cosmic justice? Proof that the universe has a sense of humor? All this time he's been acting as though he's a character in a video game and what's the last thing he doesn't hear?

"Game over."

"We'll only know when the next flip comes around," Rene notes.

"Yeah. I guess so."

Next up: Track XXX.1

© Kelly Naylor