Track XXX.1

The next scene fades in slowly. It's not quite sunset at the docks. The berth where Paranoid Diver Dude's boat had been is empty.

It's a short scene, though, and after a few seconds, we're looking at Lucy and Beach Guy again along the side of the road, earlier in the evening. Beach Guy is following the two men Lucy had heard, she's following him. When they reach Route 23, it's empty . . . whatever vehicle the men had come in was the same one that they left in, one would presume, of course. It makes sense. Beach Guy and Lucy seem lost, confused, maybe traumatized . . . but mostly confused.

Beach Guy pulls out his phone to check in with Newspaper Man, once again reporting on the men and hypothesizing that Miss Jilly might be safe for the night.

That's when things change. I can tell he wants to ask if Paranoid Diver Dude went back on the boat again, except . . . except he stutters through the question as if he's got a big hole in his memories.

Again . . . did . . . go back on the . . .

"He doesn't remember the diver?" Rene asks.

"I don't think so. You can't see how fast his qi is trying to rearrange itself," I say. "Same with Lucy. It's gotta feel like . . . I don't know. Not quite jamais vu, but something like that, only a lot worse."

Rene nods while Pablo sighs with exasperation.

"Not all of us know French or are librarians."

"The opposite of déjà vu," Rene says with a chuckle. "Well, as best as can be translated to English. It's feeling like you're experiencing something for the first time, except it's something familiar that you should know."

"Hmm. It looks like they're having that brain fart moment where you're trying to remember something, it's on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't remember it," Pablo says.

I nod. "More like that, yes. They're confused, they're scared. Beach Guy says it's like forgetting something important. And Lucy thinks they're in more trouble than they thought."

"Are they?"

I raise an eyebrow at Rene. "I'm not the precog here, so . . . no idea. Paranoid Diver Dude's gone, so maybe not."

"And, ah, what happened to him?" Pablo asks.

I shrug. "I'm pretty sure I know who's doing the flipping, but I need to watch the qi more closely. But if I'm right, the lot of them might not find themselves flipping again. Well, unless they do something monumentally stupid . . . but with Paranoid Diver Dude gone, that seems less likely."

I gesture to the portal. "The plan is to head to the Mallory place and met up with the others."

At that, the scene abruptly switches from the side of the road to Miss Jilly's home. Melody is tucked in between Chelsea and Teresa on the steps on the house.

It's a repeat of a previous iteration . . . at least, it starts off that way. The sheriff is holding up her friend, who's exhausted and not falling-down drunk. I'm happy to see that. Sunny runs after them, and once again keeps looking over her shoulder at Melody. It could be my imagination, but the little girl looks even more torn than the last time around. Who could blame her, though? Melody has gone through a literal hell, and Mommy is her mommy again. I'll bet that isn't something she's seen in a very long time.

Jilly is bustling about getting ready for the girls' sleepover; Newspaper Man's phone rings and he spends a moment chatting with Beach Guy.

The same scenario with the three teens plays out again: Teresa offers her help, Chelsea explains that they need to keep Melody safe. The only difference here is that Chelsea is well-aware that this is a repeat and shudders as she replies to the island heiress.

This time around, Derek heads down driveway to meet Beach Guy and Lucy, and the scene follows him. It's strange that the weather follows Beach Guy and Lucy from the town. Fortunately for all of them, the trees lining the driveway gave them all a bit of shelter from the elements.

Newspaper Man is kind of babbling, asking what happened. It's Lucy who answers.

It felt like a reset, but not . . . exactly. And it feels off, like one of those games where you look at two pictures and try to figure out what's missing. You know something isn't there that should be, but you can't pinpoint it. Does that make any sense?

"That's a pretty damn good explanation," I say. "Not quite on the nose, but probably as close as they're going to get."

"The portal is doing a better job of letting us do our lipreading thing," Pablo remarks. "That's handy."

I snort. "Did I mention I can hear every damn thing that's going on over there now? I don't know what's up with that dimension or universe or whatever, but the fucking portal is broken all to hell and back."

"Too bad you can't project the sound as well as the picture," Rene remarks. "That would be even better."

I turn my head to stare at Rene, and I keep right on staring until he smiles and shrugs.

"Sorry. I thought it was funny."

"You're the one doing the projecting, Rene." I pause. "You know, maybe you should be working harder . . . you were able to give us sight and sound when you showed Maddie my conversations with you, and then all of us my conversations with Moira.""

He gives me his version of a stink eye, which is pretty unimpressive as stink eyes go. "This is your weird portal, sister. I'm just able to tap into the visuals so Pablo and I can see what's happening."

I sigh and turn back to the portal again.

"Derek said something about Teresa catching onto the oddities they're experiencing," Pablo notes. "And Melody's meds are out of whack."

I nod. "Yeah, and I think it was Crazy Ice Cream Lady with her spiked ice cream. I'm not sure anyone else is being dosed with anything, but I'm about ninety-eight percent sure the woman is giving Melody her drugs when she's not due to get them."

"Ah, that means she's definitely one of the bad guys," he says.

"Ayep."

"Not letting you hit her with your big stick," Rene says.

"I've calmed down. For the time being, I'm just going to hope for awful things to happen to her."

"Hmm. So, they're planning to head over the Butterfly Factory to see who's doing what to Melody?" Pablo asks.

"Seems like their first plan of action is just to keep Melody from going over there. Not sure how they're going to manage that, since Aunt Jilly is her legal guardian. Then they're going to storm the castle."

Pablo snickers. "Okay, that's a movie I really like."

Rene taps Pablo on the shoulder. "Pay attention to the show right here, brother. You can go watch Princess Bride later."

"I'll say one thing for getting rid of Paranoid Diver Dude: these three are actually thinking about doing something." I chuckle. "I'm not sure hiding Melody at the Inn is any better than hiding her in the newspaper office. They're forgetting that Jilly is responsible for the girl, or just not taking it into account."

"Tyler wants to take the girls camping," Pablo says.

"Good thing I'm over here, then, isn't it? He doesn't think it's at all creepy for a grown-ass man to be out in the woods with three teenage girls?" I snort. "I really have to worry about that guy."

"But it seems like they're finally trying to be proactive," Rene says.

"Sure, and that's a start. But remember what Sunny said about the time they ran away? The monsters still came, and they ate Manhattan first." I shake my head. "No, I think they're going to have to think differently about all this. They still need to protect Jilly, right? I mean, she's safe for tonight, but what about tomorrow and the next day? Well, assuming they get that far."

Pablo nods slowly. "Well, since they're not dying in a God-awful spiral of horror, maybe they can take a few hours to think some sensible thoughts."

"Let's hope so."

The discussion between Newspaper Man, Beach Guy, and Lucy seems to be coming to a close. The scene fades out as Beach Guy and Lucy head up the road toward the research facility, while the next scene fades in with Melody sitting between Chelsea and Teresa.

Melody's eyes close and she slumps against Chelsea, apparently asleep, and it would be worthy of a giggle if not for the fact that Melody's condition has been caused by whatever drugs Crazy Ice Cream Lady managed to give her and not sheer exhaustion. Though, to be fair, there seems to be plenty of the latter for all of them.

Guess you're stuck . . .

I'm not sure Teresa meant to lighten the mood, but I smile even if Chelsea doesn't.

It's strange. I couldn't imagine doing this, being here, a week ago. I look back and it's like I was trapped in a badly-written school play . . . just following a script over and over again. Now I'm not. Thanks.

Chelsea's reply is a variation on a theme, insisting that Teresa is helping, reiterating that they need to keep Melody safe. Although not a word-for-word repetition, her comment about living in a small town and how the two of them never really spoke elicits a similar and slightly different response from Teresa. I think the most important element is that she doesn't like big cities because one can't know everyone. I'm reminded again of the differences between Denver and Ganado or Nageezi. Once again, Teresa likens her situation on the island to being a chess piece. Poor girl.

Then she links her arm with Melody's to help keep her from toppling over.

I know we have to keep her away from Jeremy. It's scary. I know he and Elaine are probably doing things — because he thinks she's his and she sees him as a way to not be just anyone else. Melody is someone he doesn't have, mysterious, alone, broken . . . like a deer with a broken leg or something like that. The problem isn't hiding her from my brother. The problem is how to get my brother to stop thinking about her. And yet . . .

The heiress stops then, regarding Chelsea over Melody's slumbering form.

Tell me the truth, Chelsea. You're my friend, right? Melody has bigger things to worry about than the Jerk, doesn't she?

"Nothing like becoming more away of a situation," I murmur.

"Do you think the townsfolk — or at least Teresa — are becoming more away of the situation in the town?" Pablo asks.

I study Teresa for a moment, then shrug. "Hard to say. Her qi doesn't have the same quality as the dreamers'. Maybe she's just smarter than most folks over there. On the other hand, all those flips really did a number on everyone. Even if they weren't as hellacious as what Melody and Chelsea went through, dozens or hundreds of flips like that are going to affect everyone somehow. Did you see Mary Lee? Her level of exhaustion was beyond merely having a long day of being sober."

"The sheriff and the Mallory woman didn't seem to be any worse for wear," Rene notes. "Why not?"

"They might just be more grounded and balanced people," I say with a sigh. "Honestly? I'd have to see a lot more of the town before being able to come up with a theory."

Pablo nods toward the portal. "Chelsea's in a shadow, but I know she said something."

"Oh. Right." I shake my head. "Just reiterating that Teresa is her friend, and agreeing that Melody, and everyone really, has more problems than just Teresa's brother."

Newspaper Man comes back into the room just then, to Teresa pointing out the obvious.

You know what Melody would say about that? She's really good at mathematics. You break it down into smaller parts that are easier to solve and then work each part one at a time.

Chelsea nods.

I suppose that's what we're trying to do . . . small steps forward without too many backward.

Then they both look up at Newspaper Man. Teresa speaks up first.

So, what's happening, Mister Emerson?

He studies the three teens for a few seconds before saying anything.

There's a discussion of trying to get someplace possibly safer. Also checking for some kind of a response for Mel not going sleepwalking. Two of our friends are going to see what they can do.

Chelsea seems to hear more of the underlying meaning in his words than Teresa.

Be careful, all of you. We're fine here. I'm going to try going back to sleep.

Newspaper Man lets them know he's going to keep watch before heading out to the kitchen. It's not surprising that he keeps the lights off or that he starts a pot of coffee going. Then he sits down at the table so he can keep an eye on the back door.

The next bit is boring beyond belief. Newspaper Man sits in the kitchen drinking coffee and staring out in the darkness outside. For a while, we can all see the yellow light from another window in another house, but that winks out eventually. Chelsea sleeps on the daybed with Melody, presumably trying to keep her safe. Teresa settles into a big comfy chair on the other side of the room.

The only real excitement of the whole night was watching Melody toss and turn. It's truly a shocker that she doesn't wake Chelsea. Even Pablo would wake if someone draped their arm over his face.

I chuckle. "That girl is quite the contortionist."

Pablo laughs as well. "Not someone I'd play Twister with!"

"Doesn't look like the princess can sleep," Rene says as Teresa gets up, opens the door to the kitchen a crack, and picks up Melody's book of poetry before making herself comfortable again in the chair.

The most intricate thing to find in this world.
Is it a needle that you lost in the desert?
The most intricate thing to find in this world.
Is it a crow's feather that you lost in the darkness of the night?
The most intricate thing to find in this world is
Realizing your own erroneous contemplation.

After Teresa reads that particular poem, she gets up and heads into the kitchen with the book of poems under her arm.

Mister Emerson . . . you know, if I try hiding anything from my idiot brother, it only makes him try and find it more.

"Oh, she's smart," Pablo says. "Or she knows a lot more than she's letting on."

I shake my head. "I don't think she knows as much as she ought to know. Maybe she overheard someone mentioning the Inn."

"Then she's smart."

Newspaper Man looks up at her, then takes another sip of his coffee.

It has been my experience that those we confide in . . . Well, let's just say that things don't go well for them. So, the real question isn't so much what you want to know, but more about whether I'm willing to risk your life.

He pauses then, regarding the young woman. It's hard to tell if he's trying to scare her or warn her or just confuse her. Lack of sleep and a lot of coffee is stirring his qi into a more chaotic mess than it really ought to be. See? Sleep is important!

So, it would seem to me that you're better off not knowing. Is that true?

Teresa is still for a moment, blinks once and then a second time. Then she smiles.

Oh. That's a Taz thing. Because it focuses the world on her. But Taz only comes out at home or at school. The best thing about today? I was able to be Teresa for most of it. Maybe that's why I'm sticking around.

I swallow hard. I remember very well the days when I had a clear and sharp demarcation between Andrea the librarian and Ninja the warrior. Thankfully, these days, it's merely the difference between working and not working.

And maybe that's why what you just said . . . was the furthest thing from my mind.

She walks over to the table and holds the book out in front of her.

That's not what I meant. I was speaking about helping Melody. You said people were trying to hurt her. So how do you stop them from hurting her? I was reading Melody's poetry book and came across this.

She opens the book and recites the last two lines of the poem we'd read over her shoulder. Then she closes the book again.

As I said, when I try hiding something from my brother, it only makes him look harder. So, if I don't want it found, I need to come up with a very different solution. Maybe you need to look outside the box, too? To help Melody, that is.

"Oh, yes. That's one smart kid," Rene says.

"There definitely are good people in that town," I say.

After offering Teresa a cup of coffee, Newspaper Man nods.

I feel like I'd like to hear your thoughts a bit more. I completely agree that a new way of thinking is necessary. We've been trying, but, frankly, we've been stumbling along as well.

The young woman shakes her head, declining the offer of coffee, noting that she's going to need to get some sleep as she has school in the morning.

Stumbling along usually means you're reacting to whatever is going on, doesn't it? With Jeremy, I've found that's never a good plan. It always ends up with him pushing me exactly where he wants me. On the other hand, when I take action, set my own plans, it often confounds him. Of course, it can also blow up in my face when we end up crossing each other. I usually win because I'm older, smarter and can play the 'don't pick on your sister' card. But when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. When he's doing something really stupid, just trying to stop him usually isn't going to work. I have to find a way to stop him from considering it in the first place.

I chortle. "And the best way to get someone to consider other options is to put the fear of Ninja into them."

Pablo sighs. "You're not going over there to smack people with your stick, as much as they deserve it."

"Spoilsport."

"I'm just reminding you that your cousin warned you away from doing something you shouldn't."

Anyways, I think I need to get to sleep. I have a lot of damage control to work out tomorrow. Certain folks are not going to like the fact that I left school with Melody and Sunny. Sunny's harmless, but Jeremy has made it clear no one is supposed to hang with our goth girl.

She tilts her head and smiles.

You know, she's really not very gothy when you get to know her.

With that, Teresa heads back to the parlor. After a few seconds, the scene changes, shifting us all to morning.

Newspaper Man had dozed off at the kitchen table, and now we watch him get up to wash and get dressed. Aunt Jilly comes into the kitchen as he's leaving, and starts breakfast for her mini-hoard. I can almost smell the bacon and eggs. My stomach growls again. She sets out orange juice for the teens, and starts another pot of coffee going.

Melody looks like she's in a daze, though she's trying to shake it off.

Did something happen last night?

Pablo groans. "She looks like she has the world's worst hangover."

"And you know about such things, dear?"

"I was young and stupid once upon a time."

I smile. "Young I believe. Stupid . . . not so much."

"It's true. Ask Elvia about it sometime."

Chelsea and Derek exchange a glance, but opt not to say anything about last night in front of Aunt Jilly. That's probably for the best.

"Melody looks happy despite the hangover," Rene says.

"Yeah. It probably has to do with the fact that it's Wednesday and her aunt's still alive. I'm betting that hasn't happened in a long time for her."

Jilly bustles about making sure everyone has a good breakfast, then makes brown bag lunches for the teens.

I hope you like peanut butter and jelly. It seemed . . . it seemed traditional. There's some snickerdoodles and carrots and celery. There's one for each of you. I know it's not fancy, Miss DeCoon—

Teresa shakes her head.

I'm sure it's just fine. I haven't had anyone actually care to make me a lunch as opposed to being paid to. So, this is new.

Chelsea, Melody, and Teresa head off to school. Newspaper Man helps Jilly clean up without saying much, and certainly nothing worth noting. Once the kitchen is clean and the bedding from the parlor either put away or stashed in the laundry room, he steps out onto the porch and sends a text to Beach Guy.

Survived the night. How about you? Shall we meet and see what's what?

And that's the cue for a scene change. It's an abrupt change of view to Beach Guy and Lucy from last night as they walk down the road, presumably toward the research center.

The first house they pass, where Sunny lives with her mother and an unknown and obviously scary person, is dark. That's a good thing. They both need rest. The next house is the one with all the dish antennas; there's a single light on in one of the upstairs windows. Presumably, it's the same light Newspaper Man saw from the kitchen of the Mallory home.

There aren't any other lights, and the sky is still cloudy. The moon only occasionally shines down a sliver of light on the two of them as they walk toward the bridge. The wood and steel cables of the bridge are glistening and slick with remnants of the rain. Once they cross the bridge, dark and eerie shapes start flittering around the two of them.

"Butterflies." I didn't expect to see these fictious creatures. They're nothing like I've ever seen before.

"You sure there's nothing like that over here?" Pablo asks.

"Yes. They're pretty awesome, and I'm a hundred percent sure kids would have been fighting over library books about these things."

Beach Guy and Lucy walk through the woods around the building he and Paranoid Diver Dude had visited previously to find the research building behind it. Beach Guy might not remember the diver, but he seems to recall where the security cameras are, as he points them out to Lucy.

Two men exit the research facility, close and lock the door behind them. They're fairly nondescript, but they seem to be wearing a uniform of sorts. It looks more like utility worker outfits than military.

"One of the guys says that something is a waste of time, there's no event tonight, suggests they head home," I report.

"Thanks. It's way too dark to be able to read their lips," Pablo says.

Beach Guy looks like he's trying to figure out a way into the building while avoiding the cameras.

"Lucy's questioning how they — the mysterious they — have managed to keep their nefarious deeds secret. Claims that most people are too curious not to snoop around."

Rene laughs. "I'm not sure I agree with her. People like you and Maddie are going to stick your noses into anything that seems even a little out of the ordinary. But most folks? No, I suspect the average person in the average town would just let things be."

I grin. "Maybe. I'm related to some people who wouldn't care about the research center if they didn't know how badly Melody was being hurt. But if they did?" I snort. "The whole family would be busting down the doors demanding answers."

"Ah, so you come by your savior complex honestly," Pablo teases.

I shrug. "Guess I do. And Lucy's suggesting they put up their own cameras to spy on the center. Where they're going to get cameras is anyone's guess. Beach Guy thinks it's a great idea, and they're going to talk to Newspaper Man about finding the equipment."

I peer at the woman on the other side of the portal. "And she wants to get tracking devices for Jilly, Melody, other people? I think maybe she's watched too many bad movies. And don't the two of you start again!"

I watch the butterflies flittering around for a minute.

"Hmm. She seems to think there might be extra cameras at the Inn, seeing as they have a DeCoon on their side now . . . maybe in the tourist shops. Beach Guy mentions Teresa might be able to help. Recommends they snoop around a little — out of the view of the security cameras — before heading back to town. He'll chat with Teresa in the morning."

After quite a while, another person exits the building. We haven't seen her before, and she appears to be in a very bad mood. That makes me put her in the Bad Guys category. She drives off and, bizarrely, we follow her to town. She parks in front of a building near the newspaper office. We get a good look at the plaque beside the door: Janis Schwartzer, M.D.

"Merde. That's Melody's doctor, isn't it?"

"Yeah. That woman is up to no good, and I suspect actually helping Melody is the last thing on her mind."

"Everyone thinks she's so nice, too," Pablo notes.

"Everyone is being deceived."

The scene morphs to watch Beach Guy and Lucy having breakfast at the diner, chatting about their plans for the day. Beach Guy pulls his phone out, showing Lucy the message from Newspaper Man. He sends back his response.

Just discussing same with Lucy. We're at the diner. Where shall we meet?

The scene changes again, this time to an unfamiliar location.

"Okay, this is different."

"I love how you state the obvious, Pablo."

"That's . . . Mary Lee, right?" Rene asks.

I merely nod as we watch the woman drag herself out of bed. The way she squints, one can almost feel how much the bright sunshine hurts. But other than that, she looks far better than we've ever seen her before. A day without drinking can do wonders, I guess.

"You don't think she's become one of the dreamers, do you?" Pablo asks.

"Gods, I hope not. She's got enough pain to deal with already."

Mary Lee walks out into the kitchen to see her daughter standing on an upside-down milk crate, making breakfast. Bacon, fried vegetables, potatoes, seasonings in the pan . . . toast, water, orange juice on the table already. A lunch bag already sat on the counter. Once again, my stomach reminds me that it's been too long since breakfast.

Good morning, Mama!

The little girl smiles, bright as sunshine.

There are tears in Mary Lee's eyes. It's as though, maybe, she's remembering all the things she's been trying to forget by drinking, and realizing that one of them is her daughter. She blinks a few times, maybe trying to banish the tears, or maybe just shocked at the sight of her little girl making breakfast. When she speaks, it's as if she hasn't been using her voice in a long time.

Hey, Sunshine.

She drinks down her entire glass of water, sets down the glass, and walks over to Sunny. She looks from all the food to her daughter and back again.

Morning, Sunny One. You . . . Aw, Sunny, I haven't been a very good mom, have I?

I've been shot in the heart, back when we were fighting the skanky whore Chosen One of Tezcatlipoca. Mary Lee's words hurt just as much as the bullet had. Pablo kisses my cheek.

You're my mom. I don't want any other mom.

Mary Lee wraps her arms around her daughter.

Have I told you lately that I love you more than anything in this whole wide world, my Sunshine? 'Cause I do.

Sunny squeaks at the sudden embrace, and then hugs her mama back, standing on her tippy toes to do so.

Uh huh! Makes this a lucky day!

Then she climbs down off the milk crate and brings all the food to the table, and refills Mary Lee's water glass.

I'm gonna try so hard to be a better mom. I guess I probably said that before, huh? Well. Let's call this a lucky day, then. And maybe luck will help it be true.

They eat their breakfast in silence, but it's certainly not an unpleasant or awkward one. When they're finished, Sunny clears the table and makes sure it's wiped clean. Gods, even my kids, precocious as they've always been, weren't cooking and cleaning at six. As she takes her lunch bag from the counter, Sunny speaks up again.

I'll be okay at school. Will you be okay today? Melody will look out for me on the way . . .

She pauses, biting her lip.

If you want, you can come, too. I'd like that. It'd be nice.

"This cold-hearted bitch might just start crying."

Rene hugs me. "You're only a cold-hearted bitch when you're working."

"I'm working now, Rene."

"Yes, but there's no one for you pummel. So, it doesn't really count."

Mary Lee smiles at her daughter, love saturating her aura.

I'd love to walk with you, sweetie. And it will be nice.

The woman runs a hand through her hair and grimaces. Then she winks at Sunny, likely in an attempt to lighten her own mood.

I'll just get my sneakers on and shave my head . . . and we can go out and meet Melody.

We follow the woman into her bedroom, where she dons a pair of sneakers before pulling a faded blue bandana from a drawer. She carefully folds it into a triangle, then ties it under her hair at the nape of her neck, covering the worst of the mats and snarls. She's a woman who's deep into introspection, though she snaps out of it when she goes back to the kitchen where Sunny is ready for school.

Mary Lee smiles and straightens Sunny's collar. Then the two of them walk outside and, hand-in-hand, make their way up the driveway as the scene fades out.

There's just a moment of darkness before the next scene pops into the portal: Chelsea, Melody, and Teresa walking up the Mallory driveway toward the path that will take them to school.

"Melody looks a lot better." Pablo tilts his head to lean it against mine. "And stop worrying about our hellions."

"Oh, so you've stopped worrying about Paul?"

"Of course not. But we're going to make sure they never have to go through something like that poor girl is enduring."

I squeeze his hand. "You're a great dad, Pablo."

"And you're a great mom."

I snort. "The hell I am. I'm adequate. I'll protect the hellions with my life. I'm never going to be as sappy as you get over them."

Rene clears his throat. "Can we watch the show? You two can continue your bickering later."

Halfway up the driveway, Teresa pulls out her phone to answer it. Her qi rearranges itself as she speaks.

What's it to you? While you were down at the 7-Elevan knocking back slushies and making out with the Jerk, I scored a bag of Jilly Mallory's cookies, apple pie, and I'm going to ace the calculus final.

She hangs up abruptly, then sighs.

I hate my friends.

Then she stops, just before the end of the driveway.

Actually, no. I like my . . . friends. Elaine and the posse? They aren't really my friends, are they?

Before anyone can reply, Sunny and Mister Teddy appear at the end of the driveway. What surprises the three teens is Mary Lee, holding Sunny's hand, blinking in the bright morning, but totally sober.

Mama's gonna walk me to school today! That's okay, isn't it? Please?

Melody gives her little friend an odd, poignant smile, tilting her head and nodding.

That would be really nice.

Mary Lee's words are quiet, but clear and steady. She smiles at her daughter and the teens as she announces that they should all walk together. She seems a little unsteady as she nods to Melody, but her qi is strong and flowing easily.

I've probably thanked you before, Melody, for being so kind to Sunny. I don't remember. But thank you.

Melody peeks at Mary Lee from behind her black bangs, scuffing her foot across the rough ground.

Sunny's important to me. It was the right thing to do and . . . If I had to . . . I'd do it over and over and over and over again.

"Ouch," is all Pablo says.

Mary Lee looks at the other two girls with Melody.

Miss Parsons . . . Miss DeCoon . . .

She seems baffled by the latter, as if seeing Teresa being in the mix might be another hallucination brought on by too much drink . . . except, of course, she's sober.

Hello, Missus McGee . . . and don't worry. I won't let my brother try . . . that . . . again.

Mary Lee gives Teresa a sad, knowing smile.

I remember he always was spoiled rotten. Guess some things never change.

"I know you didn't catch it because she's muttering to herself, but she says maybe something can change if they're lucky."

"I can't see the qi like you do, but she really seems to want to change things for the better, at least for her daughter's sake."

I smile at Pablo and nod. "Yeah, that's my take on things, as well."

Mary Lee ignores Beach Guy as he strides up and says good morning. She's staring behind Beach Guy and Lucy to Newspaper Man. I can practically see her trying not to scowl at her brother and give him a hard time. Finally, she manages a shaky smile.

Morning, Derek. Kinda surprised to see you here.

Newspaper Man is surprised, almost shocked, to see his sister walking Sunny to school, and stone cold sober.

I stayed over at Jilly's; had to help clean up. Nice to see you. Walking to school?

I grin. "Oh, look dear! You're not the only one who excels at stating the obvious."

Pablo rolls his eyes.

Teresa turns to Melody for a moment, and it looks like she's going to say something when she catches sight of the three adults coming up the path.

Okaaaay. This is getting weird.

When Beach Guy asks Teresa if he could add her phone number to his contacts, Pablo narrows his eyes at the man.

"Well, that's not creepy."

"You be happy to know he realizes he might have put his foot in his mouth," I say. "Following up with reminding her that she'd offered to help Derek and keeping in touch might be a good idea isn't helping as much as he hopes."

Teresa nods slowly, pulling her phone out to sync with Beach Guy's. However, she is murmuring under her breath.

This is now definitely weird.

I snicker. "Now Beach Guy is asking her what's weird."

That we're all meeting here in the morning, and that you knew I said I'd be helping Melody and Chelsea out. So, it's very hard to think of this as an accident.

"She's getting tripped up by the fact that she doesn't remember all the resets and they do," Pablo says.

"No doubt. Anyway, she's asking what she can do to help. He's asking if she can get some cameras for the surveillance he and Lucy want to set up. She'll see what she can do."

Mary Lee studies her brother for a minute.

"I can almost see the gears grinding in her head," Rene says. "Trying to figure out why he's there, maybe what's going on."

Yeah. Walking Sunny to school.

She pauses once more. Maybe she isn't used to talking to her brother. Well, we've certainly seen evidence of that. She's probably even less accustomed to talking with him when she's sober.

That was real nice of you to help Miss Jilly.

As the group reaches the entrance to the schoolyard, Mary Lee crouches down in front of Sunny.

You and Mister Teddy have a good day today, Sunny. You know I want to be here for you after school, right?

She kisses the tip of a finger and boops her daughter's nose, then pats the stuffed bear on its furry little head. It all looks so ordinary, but her qi shows just how much she's struggling to remember how to be sober and a good mom.

Sunny giggles and it almost reminds me of the way the trees laugh when Mother and Father are extremely happy. She hugs her mommy tightly.

I know you want to. That's what matters. You deserve a day off, Mama! Why don't you stay at home and when school's over, it would be nice to make dinner together? And if anything happens, go right to Miss Pat, anything at all. Okay? Please?

Mary Lee hugs her daughter again.

Well, now, my only Sunshine, I imagine about the only thing that's going to happen if I'm at home is that I'll forget how to run the washer. Miss Pat would help, of course. And then she'd make Mama feel like a big dummy.

Rene smiles. "That woman has an odd sense of humor."

I raise an eyebrow at him. "It's called self-deprecation. Generally, I'd say it's not a healthy road to go down, but maybe that's where she needs to start her journey to sobriety."

"I think she's just trying to keep Sunny from worrying about her," Pablo says.

"Likely," I agree.

I thought I'd go say hi to Miss Pat and thank her for helping me laugh last night. And maybe ask her to give me a call before school lets out. You know, just in case I get so excited about cleaning the grout with a toothbrush that I lose track of time.

I chuckle. "I'd be willing to bet she's never cleaned tile with a grout in her life. I mean, who even does that?"

Pablo shrugs. "I've heard they make the kids do that in the group homes where they send them after they get released from juvenile detention."

"Huh. I guess it would keep them busy."

Then the little girl bounces back, spins around, and holds her teddy bear high over her head.

It's Wednesday. A new Wednesday! An anything-can-happen Wednesday!

As Sunny dances her way into the schoolyard, Mary Lee eyes her brother's friend chatting with Teresa before shrugging and heading down the road toward town. Then the three teens follow Sunny for their day of learning.

The three adults start to walk off, and the scene changes to follow Mary Lee. It seems like it's a day of introspection for the woman. I see her aura flaring as she passes the bar, as if something inside were trying to pull her in. She shudders, but keeps right on walking. I've never met anyone who was in the beginning stages of trying to kick an addiction, but I suppose this is what it would look like.

This time, when the door to the Sheriffs Office opens, I hear the jingle-jangle of the bell above the door. This damn portal isn't acting like portals should, but I guess that means I need to do more research on my end. I sigh softly. Just when I thought I understood my Curse, I get thrown another curveball. I feel like I should go back to blaming my hellions for this. Hmm. Well, Paul did open a portal to this world, so at the very least, it's partially his fault.

Mary Lee just stands in the doorway for a second, radiating fear . . . maybe fear of being rejected by her friend, fear of what her friend might say. The sheriff turns around at the sound of the bell, cup of coffee in her hands, and blinks a couple of times. Then she smiles at her friend.

Hey, Mary Lee.

Mary Lee remains frozen in place for a moment.

Hey, Pat.

Then she walks across the space to the counter, keeping her eyes on Pat the whole time.

Sunny thought I ought to go back home after walking her to school and I really ought to because King's gonna be King if things ain't just so. But I figured I ought to come by and say thank you first. For yesterday, for the last three years. And that I'm sorry, except I know you don't have any reason to believe me and that's okay. I want to pick Sunny up from school this afternoon; I promised her I'd try. I figure maybe you could give me a call because you know I lose track of time even when I'm sober, especially if I'm gonna be cleaning and whatnot. And she said something about calling you if anything happened like she expected something to happen maybe. Not like a drinking kind of thing because God knows I'd never call anyone.

"Oof," I say softly as Mary Lee closes her eyes.

Gotta tell you, Pat, I want a drink so bad right now I can't even tell you how bad. But I'm standing here instead of sitting in the bar, and I think that means something. Sunny said it was an 'anything can happen' Wednesday, and I don't know if that's good or bad, but she sure seemed to think it was a good thing . . . her and that furry bear friend of hers were dancing in front of the school.

When Mary Lee opens her eyes again, tears flow down her cheeks.

I know you're busy. And I don't want you to have to babysit me, Pat. But I gotta be honest, I have no idea how to be sober anymore. If last night and this morning are a taste of that, I want it back. I don't know if I want it for me, but I want it for Sunny. I know that. And some of that bullshit the Lorgnan sister spout makes me think I ought to want to do this for me. Well, and for God, but fuck him.

Pablo makes a soft, inarticulate sound and, when I turn to look at him, his jaws are clenched so tightly that it's got to hurt. Oh, yes, he understands Mary Lee's pain. I squeeze his hand and bring it to my lips, kissing it softly. It takes a moment, but his jaws finally relax and he smiles weakly.

"Thanks," he whispers.

"Always, anytime."

Mary Lee, too, has her jaws clenched tightly, and she shakes her head. Finally, she speaks up again.

Sorry. I ought to go. Let you work. I guess I'm just not a very nice person anymore. But for some damn reason, that kid of mine believes in me. I don't know that my brother does. Wouldn't blame you one damn bit if you didn't either and that's the honest-to-God's truth, Pat. I wouldn't blame you at all. But . . . but maybe someday you could believe in me again. It's okay if you don't. I've been the worst friend a person could have. Guess maybe I gotta believe in myself, huh?

The sheriff walks around the counter, going to the door and locking it, making sure the shades are drawn. She looks at Mary Lee and taps the chrome panic bar on the door, pretty much saying that this is a safe space for her friend: No one else is going to come in, but Mary Lee's free to leave any time she wants to. Then she sits down on the sofa, leaving room for Mary Lee if she decides she wants to sit as well.

Sunny is something else, isn't she? Smart kid. And you know what? She loves you to pieces. And the Lorgnan sisters? Heaven knows they're the most narrow-minded siblings on the east coast, but their hearts are in the right place. They wouldn't be so infuriating if they weren't so nice and truly believed in what they say.

Hesitantly, almost as if she might shatter at the littlest thing, Mary Lee walks over to the sofa and sits down. She picks up the pillow and hugs it tightly to her chest. In that moment, she looks so much like her daughter and Mister Teddy that my heart aches for her.

Mary Lee . . . I know you lost everything. I do. But you don't realize there are two things you haven't lost. You haven't lost Sunny. You haven't lost me. I'm your friend, I love you, and you're very important to me. I worry every night for you. I worry just how much you're hurting yourself. I worry about your drinking and I worry that you'll end up doing something you'll never be able to recover from.

Pat smiles softly, even though Mary Lee can't see because her eyes are shut tight again.

I like you like this. No wonder Sunny said it was an 'anything can happen' Wednesday. There's one more thing, Mary Lee. I can't save you. I'm a cop. It's what I do and this is so far beyond me. There's only one thing I can do. When you decide you want help, I'll go with you. I'll stand next to you from the first day until forever.

Both Rene and Pablo are nodding now.

"She'll do her damnedest to help Mary Lee like you helped me and Rene," Pablo says softly. "Sure, maybe she doesn't have the skills you do, but she'll be there for Mary Lee because that's what her friend needs. That whole thing about recovering from addiction? That's going to be nearly one hundred percent up to Mary Lee."

I look at my husband for a moment. "Ah. You took up running when the shit hit the fan after Denise was attacked. I take it some of your pals found other ways to deal with the stress and pain of the job?"

He nods. "Couple of them took up drugs or alcohol. Some of them took to gambling. One of the guys made it through his drug addiction with a lot of help from NA and his family. He quit the force about five years ago, but he's still doing okay. The rest of them?" He just shakes his head.

I sigh. "It's not all on Mary Lee. But she'll get by with a little help from her friends."

Pablo smiles. "Sometimes, you can be a real sap, dear."

I laugh. "Andi certainly is . . . and Leon never tattled that Ninja can be, too."

I don't know why you put up with me, Pat. I don't know how you can love a wretch like me. I . . .

Mary Lee swallows hard, then opens her eyes to look at the floor in front of her. Gods, she's hurting so much! That world over there is all kinds of fucked up and stupid!

I can't go anywhere. I can't leave Sunny.

She's silent for so long that I think maybe the view in the portal has paused again, except I can see the two women breathing.

I know I got to do this by myself. And I got to do it for myself, too, except right now I can only think about . . . about . . . not drinking for Sunny. And you.

Finally, she looks up at Pat. Her aura is saturated with pain and grief. When she speaks, her voice is filled with anguish that only I can hear.

I miss him so much, Patty. Why'd he have to die?

I close my eyes and simply breathe. Her pain is as raw as Pablo's was when he first told me about Rosalia and Juan. His pain had festered for far longer, so maybe . . . maybe it won't be so hard for Mary Lee to heal her broken spirit. Through all of it, Pat listens quietly, patiently, without judgment. She takes a sip of her coffee before answering Mary Lee.

If there's one thing I found out in this job, it's that most folks are great friends when things are right, nice, and easy. It all changes when you hit a bad spell. Friendship isn't tested in fair weather, Mary Lee. It's tested when times are hard. That's when you find out who your true friends are. So, you're going on a three-year bad stretch. I wouldn't be much of a friend if I walked away, would I?

Then the sheriff pauses, looking down into her mug of coffee.

You're only half right. Yup, you got to make this decision yourself. And you got to do this yourself. Not drinking for Sunny may not be the best reason in the world, but it's probably a good start. Where you're wrong is that once you make the decision, you don't have to face it alone. You can bet your life that Sunny will be holding your hand, and that I'll have your back. I was your maid of honor, kiddo. It comes with the job.

She looks back up at Mary Lee, smiling sadly. But the woman has a strength that I've come to associate with good cops.

I miss him, too. He was my friend, and losing him hurt. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him. Mostly, it's because you two were my best friends. And you still are. And, yeah, it's also professional and I hate that it's so hard to answer your question. I hit a brick wall, Mary Lee. I've never seen so much black marker strikeouts on a report than the ones I got back from the Feds, and the door that was slammed in my face had 'sorry, not next of kin' written all over it. Which is ridiculous. You know, I got more from Sunny than I ever got through official channels.

Pat leans forward slightly, biting her lower lip.

One thing Sunny said has struck with me. It helps, when I start to miss Chuck. Remember what she said? What his last words were? That he wasn't the one she needed to save.

She holds up a hand to forestall a response from Mary Lee.

Chuck was a good man. He was a straightforward kind of guy. He was smart. We also know he worked at the Air Force base, the one that everyone says really wasn't an Air Force base, but was the great-granddaddy of spook stories and whacked out urban legends. Now, the guy who taught me police work had a pretty interesting view on all that. He taught me that when there are so many different wild stories haunting an incident, while you may not be able to figure out who's telling the truth, you can be pretty much assured that whatever the truth is . . . it isn't what anyone is telling you.

Pablo snorted. "That's the truth! Thank God I don't run into too many situations like that."

"But dear, if you do, all you need to do is give your friendly neighborhood Super a call," I say with a smile. "I'll tell you who's telling the truth and who's lying their asses off."

"Maybe you should be working with Black Wolf more often," Rene opines.

"Don't make me fetch the big stick and smack you with it, Rene," Pablo says, only half seriously.

"Pfft. All Maddie has to do is call me. I'll figure out a way to help." I gesture to the portal. "Hush now."

So, whatever it was, Chuck had gotten himself caught in something well beyond running a NORAD radar station, and it was definitely classified. That gets us no answers. But we both know him. And we both know the two most important things in his life: you and Sunny.

Pat smiles wanly again.

Whatever happened, Mary Lee, he must have discovered something, he must have seen something, he must have figured something out . . . something very bad and dangerous, something he couldn't handle. If he wasn't the one who should be saved, then who is? I don't know. But you know, the more I think about it, I think maybe, me and you, we need to ask a second question: not who needs to be saved, but why? And knowing Chuck, the why is simple: to protect the two most important things in the world to him. You and Sunny.

Her smile broadens just a bit.

It's why I keep his case file open. It's how I keep missing him under control. He gave everything to tell us that . . . and I'm not going to let him have died in vain.

Through all this, Mary Lee seems to be absorbing the strength Pat's offering her. She looks a confused by some of it, the bits about her husband and what he was doing. Finally, she swallows hard and takes a deep breath.

Circles, Pat. It all sounds like circles to me. I don't know what Chuck was doing. He was just a geek with the equipment. Okay, so maybe there was something going on, but . . . I know he'd do anything to save us, but how does it make sense that Sunny wasn't supposed to save him? What does that even mean, Pat? How can a three-year-old do anything to save anyone?

"Do you think she grasps more of the situation even though she's not a dreamer, as you call them?" Rene asks. "After all, circles aren't a whole like different from the spirals you're talking about, Andi."

I shake my head. "No, I get the sense from her aura that asking questions doesn't get them the right answers, which brings everything full circle when they get around to asking the same questions again and again."

Mary Lee throws the pillow across the room, angry. Then she turns on the sofa and pulls her knees up, wrapping her arms around her legs.

Who and why? Jesus, Pat, I'd ask how! Sunny is only six . . . how is she supposed to save anyone?

Tears threaten to fall again, and she takes a shuddering breath before whispering.

Okay, sure, that girl's smile can heal a heart that hasn't turned to stone. But even if you figure out why she's supposed to save whoever it is, I still want to know how.

Mary Lee lowers her head to her knees and is silent again for a while. But her aura, her qi is swirling differently now, practically reaching out toward Pat.

"Huh. That's interesting. She thinks of Pat as part of her family," I say. "In fact, at this point, I'd say she thinks Pat is more family than Newspaper Man."

Pablo shrugs. "Sounds like your family. The line between relations and friends get mighty blurred where your family's concerned." He smiles . . . and I know darn well that it's one of the things he really loves about my family.

Pat? You said you couldn't get answers because you weren't kin. What if you write them again, except this time I'll sign the letter?

Mary Lee bites her lip so hard I'm worry she might start bleeding.

This town's gone crazy, and I ain't just making that up. The DeCoon girl was being friendly with Miss Jilly's niece and Chelsea Parsons, and Sunny acted like that was perfectly normal. And I don't mean Taz's usual 'putting on airs and being nice to the peasants' kind of thing, either. What the hell is going on?

She blinks and shakes her head.

No, wait. Maybe I don't want to know.

The sheriff stands up, crossing the room, and sets her coffee cup on the counter before going over to the tall, somewhat battered file cabinet. She returns to the sofa with a sheaf of papers — a handful of official-looking forms — as well as a clipboard and pen.

Before you go, let's walk upstairs and visit Alice.

"Notary?" Pablo asks, indicating all the forms the sheriff holds.

I nod. "Yeah, that's my guess."

And actually . . . that's exactly what I'm worried about: that the town's gone crazy again. I've never been one to believe in coincidences, and the Canton case has gone all squirrely. I've never been locked out of my own crime scene before, and it feels exactly like when the Feds shut me down three years ago. If this is what Chuck was talking about, it means we're dealing with something right out of a Clancy or Trent novel.
On the bright side? You say the DeCoon girl is now hanging out with Sunny and Melody Tracee? Give the girl a break, Mary Lee. I've been up to the DeCoon mansion far too many times dealing with Harry's delinquent son, so believe me, I've seen the dynamics first hand. To say Missus DeCoon is protective of her daughter is a major understatement. It reminds me of just how much you love Sunny. Once you get her out off the gameboard, Taz is a good kid and her mom has worked a few miracles to make sure she stays that way. And that's something you need to remember, it's one of the few things the entire town agrees with: You got a good kid, too.

Mary Lee reaches out a hand to Pat, who takes it after a tilt of her head and a nod.

Thank you, Patty . . . for trying your best, for not giving up on me, for believing in me when I'm still not sure I believe in myself.

Pat helps her friend to her feet, smiling.

Come on, let's get these signed and notarized, and then I'll walk you out. It's time for my rounds. If we're lucky, maybe I'll have some news later this afternoon.

Mary Lee smiles in return, and nodding.

Ought to get home and do things that need doing so King has less to . . . well, be a jackass about.

Pablo nearly growls. "Who's this King, and can I jump through the portal to teach him a lesson about abusing women?"

I squeeze his hand. "I think it's her brother-in-law, Chuck's brother. Sometimes, it amazes me that siblings can be so vastly different. And, no! If I can't go through the portal to beat back the Shadow, you can't go through for lessons about domestic abuse."

"Harrumph. Well, I hope the sheriff takes care of him, then."

Rene chuckles softly. "If her body language is any indication, all the man will have to do is look at her friend sideways in the future and he'll be a guest in her little cell."

I nod. "Yep, that's how I read the qi."

The women head up the stairs where Alice the Notary has her desk, and we watch Mary Lee sign the little stack of papers and Alice put her stamp on them. Then Mary Lee and Pat walk back toward the school, and then beyond it to the house where Mary Lee lives. Pat says her farewells, and Mary Lee heads inside.

The first thing she does is take a deep breath, as if steeling herself for an ordeal. And maybe she's facing one. She walks into the kitchen and starts a pot of coffee brewing in the old coffeemaker. Then she heads into the bathroom for three aspirin, and knocks them back with a full glass of water. She just stands there for a few minutes. I'm betting she's trying to decide what needs to be done, and where she should start.

As she walks back to the kitchen, she peeks into Sunny's room with her already-made bed. There's another flare of guilt in her aura, and she goes back to the kitchen where she stares at the coffeemaker as it brews the coffee.

God, Chuck . . . what the hell happened? I sure hope Father Jakob and the crazy Lorgnan sister are right about heaven and all. And I hope you're up there watching out for us. Because honestly? Even with Pat's help and Sunny's boundless joy, I don't know how I'm going to live without you, and stay sober.

"Gods damn them all to every hell that exists," I mutter. "Also, it's a damn good thing Em isn't part of this little extravaganza."

She fills a large mug with coffee — a woman after my own heart! — and adds a little sugar. Then she just stares at the mug for a bit, hugging herself. Finally, she turns around and goes back into her bedroom, freezing in the doorway.

"Damn, that's messier than both the kids' rooms put together," Pablo notes.

"Looks like a mini-dust storm went through there," Rene agrees.

Mary Lee continues mumbling to herself.

Just start at the very beginning, which is not helpful, Mary Lee, when there's no beginning to this mess.

"At least she has a sense of humor," Pablo says. "That'll help her get through all this."

Four cups of coffee, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nearly a half-gallon of water, and a shower later, Mary Lee is looking at the empty floor that once was piled with dirty laundry. She's washed and put every bit of it away. Her bed and Sunny's have clean sheets, pillow cases, and blankets. The kitchen is as clean as mine. Most of the windows are open, letting in the spring breezes.

She looks exhausted, though.

This time, when she walks back to the kitchen to fetch another glass of water, she stares at the eight bottles of whiskey, in varying sizes, on the counter. She's pulled them out of hiding places all around the house as she cleaned. I shake my head. This isn't something I understand at all, though I can empathize with her pain. No, it's her version of medication that baffles me, though I'm sure it's because alcohol has no effect on me. A couple of the bottles are nearly full; others range from half-full to nearly empty. One is even unopened.

She takes a sip of water, then sets the glass down before pulling out a plastic tape dispenser from the junk drawer and setting a picture of her daughter on the counter beside it. Then she turns on the hot water in the sink.

One by one, she opens each bottle and pours the contents down the drain. We can all see how hard this is on her, how much it pains her to watch the brown liquid flow down the drain. Yet, each time it seems like she's going stop the purge, she looks at the picture of her daughter. That gives her the courage to continue. She then rinses out each bottle. Once all seven bottles are rinsed and clean, she spooned about half a box of baking soda into the drain as the water continues to run.

"Not sure that's necessary, given the amount of water that's going down the drain," I say with a shrug. "But what do I know?"

Mary Lee carefully sets each bottle in a recycling bin on the side of the house. After that, she picks up the picture of Sunny and tapes it to the full, unopened bottle, and stares at it as she sips most of the water. Finally, finally, she looks up at the clock and smiles.

"What's all that about?" Pablo asks.

I shrug. "Not sure. Maybe she's just staring it down, daring it to try anything."

"On its own, a bottle of whiskey isn't going to do anything," Rene says, a little confused.

"Okay, maybe it's more a matter of making sure she can stand up to the devil's brew, as Moira calls it."

Mary Lee finishes her water, rinses the glass, and leaves it in the drying rack beside the sink. She picks up the bottle and puts it on the top shelf in one of her cabinets, the picture of her daughter facing her. Then she closes the cabinet.

"Huh. Interesting strategy," Pablo says. "Seems dangerous to keep the alcohol around."

Again, I shrug. "I'd think so, too. But maybe having the picture of Sunny there is what's going to keep her on the right path."

We watch her walk down her driveway and up the path to the school. In the distance, we call catch sight of Pat coming up to meet her, but she stops and waits for Mary Lee to reach her.

Can I tell you about my exciting day first? We'll I'm going to anyway! I did laundry! A lot of it. I drank coffee and ate a couple of really messy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because the messy ones are the best. And I drank so much water that I'm probably not going to get dehydrated in the next six hours. Nope. Definitely not. Okay, maybe the four cups of coffee were overkill. But, Pat . . . I poured out all the alcohol except for the unopened bottle. I wanted to tell you that. And I taped a picture of Sunny to it, too, so I can remember when I'm hurting real bad why I'm hurting. For her. At least until it can be for me.

They reach the school just as the kids are being set free. Garret takes a step forward and draws her friend into a hug.

We're going to need help. You know, I'll be right there. I got a number for you to call. I got a number for me to call. We'll do this together, okay? We'll stumble together. But then we'll pick each other up and make it right. You made it one whole day. Let's make it two.

Mary Lee seems surprised by the hug, but smiles.

You remember that old Beatles song with the line about getting by with a little help from friends? It's like that. But you know what's a better one? Lean on Me by Bill Withers. I swear, if Chuck had a favorite song in the Oldies category, that was it hands down. I even learned the harmony part. Once upon a time, I could actually sing.
Well, I'm ready to swallow my pride, what little of it I had left, and admit I need help. Thank you. And yeah . . . I'm up for two days in a row. After all, I've got a friend and her name isn't Jack.

I sense Pablo's confusion, though he doesn't say anything.

"Jack Daniels?" I say.

"Ah. Right."

Mary Lee sees Sunny at the same time Sunny sees her mom. Mary Lee waves and Sunny squeals with delight, holding Mister Teddy high in the air and skips over to her mom and the sheriff.

Mama! You came!

Then she looks up at the sheriff.

Thank you for bring me my mama. Mister Teddy says 'atta girl!'"

More sedately, Chelsea, Melody, and Teresa follow the youngster from the schoolyard. Teresa is carrying a small gym bag that she didn't have earlier. Melody is smiling at Sunny and her mother. From the direction of the town, Newspaper Man, Beach Guy, and Lucy are walking up. The entire group turns back up the path toward the Mallory homestead, where Aunt Jilly has a tall pitcher of lemonade waiting for them on the porch. Teresa opens the gym bag and pulls out five small web cameras, little Bluetooth plugin devices, as well as a handful of small battery packs.

I asked Mister Kendricks for them. It's part of an internet teaching thing, where we can talk to other schools. I said I wanted to record the butterflies for the end-of-term presentation — all nice and scientific and school-spirit kind of thing. What are you going to do with them?

The question was directed at Beach Guy. He hesitates, likely trying to decide what and how much to tell Teresa.

We're concerned about the treatment Melody is getting, not sure that it's intended to help her. So we want to learn more about those who might be abusing that duty-of-care.

Teresa looks between him and Melody as he speaks.

I thought that was why Melody was here, because of the research facility. But if it's not helping her . . . what are they doing? I mean, my mother would never let me be researched on . . . oh . . . Melody's parents are out of the country. Of course. I knew that.

Aunt Jilly comes out holding a basket of freshly basked snickerdoodles. My stomach growls again.

Pablo smiles and looks at his watch. "You're allowed, I guess. It's very nearly dinnertime."

To be honest, Teresa, we just don't know. There's some funny stuff going on and some dangerous guys involved. We suspect the research facility is involved, but we don't know, hence the cameras. But you have to promise me that you won't go asking any questions. It's very dangerous. And it's important to me that you're safe — you and Melody and Chelsea and Sunny and all the other kids. Promise me.

Conversation swirls around pockets of the group. The most interesting thing — something about which Mister Teddy would declare 'This is new' — is Mary Lee, looking nothing like the town drunk. She just looks like a worried and unsure mother as she sits on the step of Aunt Jilly's house.

The sheriff hands a stack of papers to Newspaper Man, resting a hand on Mary Lee's shoulder.

I got some help today from Mary Lee. She helped me leverage a few files out of the Veterans Administration that I wasn't able to before. Now, with her help, I could probably go after more, but I figured that would be like waving a red flag in front of a dangerous bull. So, I went around, because there's one thing I couldn't figure out. Why did the military get between me and the investigation into Chuck's, your brother-in-law's, death. Take a look at that.

Newspaper Man opens the folder and starts reading the documents.

It's very subtle, but look at Mary Lee's benefits. They aren't your normal insurance benefits or pension. They're death-in-service benefits. Not only that, there's a hazardous-duty bonus. That's right. Chuck was never official discharged. He was still working for the military when he died. Now, he was a good man, believed in his service, but they must have had hooks real deep in him when this happened to not tell us.

She pointed to the bottom of one of the forms.

See this? Three years ago, sighed by a Major Lawrence . . . Well, guess what? The notice of jurisdiction change that I got, the one that kicked me off the Canton murder case? It was signed by a Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence. Something stinks. This morning, I thought I had only two unsolved crimes in Montaukettston. Now it looks like they're both one and the same.

"Before you say anything, it's not a conspiracy theory if someone's proving that all the shit is real," I say.

"Was I going to say anything?" Pablo asks.

"No. But Rene was." I grin over my shoulder at him, and he just shrugs.

Newspaper Man looks through all the papers in the folder. After a moment, he looks up at the sheriff.

I'm very glad you took this and did it softly. As you can see from what you found, some of my suspicions were correct. We need to learn more, but we can't agitate things too much. Now we know he remained in active duty for whatever it was he was doing for the military. Being entitled to hazardous-duty pay requires some pretty straightforward conditions. That means a lot more risk than I'd suspected. We need to step very carefully.

The expression on Mary Lee's face can rightly be called heartbroken; tears flow down her cheeks again. She looks only at her friend.

Patty? I don't understand. There's no benefits but the normal pension. It's not all that much. It's part of the reason we gotta live with King. He had to have been discharged, Pat. He said so. The monthly check says so.

"Gods, that poor woman. I know you don't tell me everything about your work, Pablo, and I suspect her husband couldn't tell her everything he was doing. But I know and accept and understand that you have secrets to keep. She doesn't." I sigh.

Mary Lee wipes the tears away with a shaking hand. She sets down the glass and clasps her hands together to stop her trembling. Her eyes are filled with terror as she looks around at all the people gathered on and around Miss Jilly's porch, having their own little conversations.

There's something going on here that doesn't make sense. I take that back. There's a hell of a lot that doesn't make sense.

Finally, she shakes her head and focuses on Sunny. Once more, she whispers more to herself than anyone around her.

If you need a friend, I'm sailing right behind like a bridge over troubled water . . .

Newspaper Man clears his throat.

Mary Lee . . .

Then he stops, obviously not sure what he should, or possibly could, say. It's also pretty clear that her pain isn't something he can deal with. Finally, he starts over.

I'm not sure Chuck did the lying. I think that there's something else going on, something that's highly secret. I think Chuck was involved, in the fact that he was part of something way back when, and was paid for his service. What he did at the base, I can't say. It may have been exactly what he said. It's other things that make me suspect that there's something else going on.

Mary Lee continues to stare at her daughter and stuffed bear, hands clasped tightly together in her lap. Although she speaks to her brother, at times it seems like she's talking more to herself.

Does it really matter, Derek? Does it really matter what's going on now? Chuck is gone. It's just that . . . well, whatever geeky thing Chuck was doing, he liked it. The whole world of technology was . . . He said it was like going to work to play. He was happy. It doesn't make sense. None of it makes sense. We were happy. Chuck never let on that anything was wrong at work, at least not that I can remember. Everything was so ordinary, so normal until . . .

After a moment, she looks up at Newspaper Man.

I don't know what's going on, Derek. If your friend is trying to scare people . . . well, nicely done.

I snort. "I guess she heard what Beach Guy said to Teresa. And she's not wrong: Beach Guy is doing a good job of scaring people away from asking questions."

Here's what I want you to do, Derek: I want you to tell me what in blue blazes is going on. Why the hell — oh, sorry, Mister Teddy — are you and your friends sneaking around? Why are you trying to scare children? And, probably most importantly, why are you trying to make my best friend mad with all your amateur spy nonsense that she clearly knows nothing about? Hmm, Derek?

"Oh, that's interesting," I say, nodding toward Mary Lee. "She sounds angry, you know? But there's a very different vibe to her aura now. This isn't the angry drunk picking fights just for the hell of it. This is a mama bear waking up to protect her baby."

"Good for her," Pablo says.

"Oui," Rene agrees.

Probably for the first time in years, Newspaper Man meets his sister's gaze. He looks sad and worn. Maybe once upon a time, he was bright-eyed and cheerful, but not anymore. And maybe surprisingly, he answers her, speaking softly.

Not here, not now. There are too many ears about. The simple answer won't suffice, and the long answer won't make any sense. Trust me when I say, the more you know, the more risk you take. Am I, are we, scaring you? Good. You need to be scared. This isn't just some easy fix. It doesn't matter if you return to the bottle, because even there, none of us is safe. God, I wish we were . . .

He trails off, but his eyes never leave hers.

This is no game. If I explain what I suspect and trust you, there's every reason to believe that we might lose you. We're all at risk anyway, but it seems worse when we involve others.

"Well, he's quite the asshole, isn't he?" I glare at the man across the look-see portal. "Telling her that it doesn't matter whether or not she stops drinking? I'd Gibbs slap him for sure."

I get the sense even he's not sure his words make sense . . . even to himself. He looks at Sunny for a moment, then back to his sister. He's clearly apprehensive about telling her anything, yet I get the feeling he believes Mary Lee has a right to know what's going on. No wonder he's torn.

The simple answer: I have a ton of suspicions and very little fact. This latest piece of evidence further corroborates my concerns but doesn't do more than that.

Now, when he looks at her, his eyes seem to be begging her to understand, to back off. For her part, Mary Lee is silent for a while, watching her brother. Finally, she closes her eyes and sighs softly.

Sunshine, can mama get a hug?

Sunny comes around Melody, climbing into Mary Lee's lap and her open arms.

Mama, you never have to ask.

The portal fades to black on that poignant scene.

Next up: Track XXX.2

© Kelly Naylor