Track XXX.2

The littlest one wraps her arms around her mother's waist, one arm also hugging Mister Teddy between them.

I shake my head. "It's almost as if she knows she needs to be her mom's anchor right now. Well, sure, I suppose if she's been living the same few days or weeks hundreds of times, she'll have some pretty grown-up instincts . . ."

"But it's sad that she's got those grown-up instincts," Pablo says.

"Yeah."

Conversations still swirl among the folks in front of Jilly's home. Eventually, the sheriff speaks up again.

You know . . . you folks are starting to sound a bit peculiar, and not in a good way. Kind of like folks in one of those crime novels where the bad guys are haunting the local bar planning their next score, having conveniently forgotten that the stranger sitting next to them is the town sheriff. Especially since you're all talking doom and gloom. It's not helping that, except for a tossed-away accusation of the mistreatment of a minor by a well-respected doctor, the information content of your ramblings are on the wrong side of zero. Do I have to remind you just where the town sheriff happens to be standing at the moment?

Pablo laughs. "Oh, I like her!"

"Me too. She's a lot like Forsythe down in Douglas County."

He nods. "Yeah, I can see that."

Mary Lee smiles and kisses her daughter's cheek, and then the teddy bear's head.

Sunny, love? You probably don't know the answer . . .

Mary Lee's whisper is barely loud enough for me to hear.

But maybe Mister Teddy knows, 'cause he's a pretty smart bear. Who're you supposed to be saving instead of your daddy? I know we're all sad about that, but I don't think anyone could have saved him, you know. Even the bestest doctors ever. So, it ain't your fault, baby. Maybe you and me could be less sad about daddy if Mister Teddy could tell us that.

I share her words with Pablo and Rene.

It looks like her question catches Sunny by surprise, and she exchanges another look with Melody. Then she looks at her teddy bear, turns it around so it's looking at her, then brings the bear to her ear . . . as though it might be telling her a secret.

Mister Teddy says that it's always better to tell the truth, just like Mommy says.

Leaning against her mama, the little girl gnaws on her lower lip, before looking up into Mary Lee's eyes.

I would never have figured it out except I got beat up and Mister Teddy got blinded and no one had ever been just nice to me before. It was always poor little Sunny, isn't Sunny sad, and when I said I don't care, I love my mama, they would just pat me on the head and say of course, of course. But she didn't, she was just nice. Mama, we got to keep Melody safe. I gotta help her . . . because . . . because . . . because . . .

She stops, and Melody comes over to sit in front of her. She looks up, her gaze going between Sunny and Mary Lee. Then she begins slowly flipping through the black composition in her lap.

Officer Garret, all I know is that Doctor Schwartzer scares me, but lotsa folks are scared of their doctors. But again, I don't know, because I can't remember what happens to me between Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning. They say I'm getting better. But again, I don't understand.
Missus McGee, I'm sick. I mean really sick. It's hard for me to figure what's real and what's not. I haven't seen my mother and father for over a year. But I know they love me. I can't prove it. I can't tell you why. Trying to understand why I know they love me even though we're apart and they can't tell me, can't prove it to me, what would break me.

I growl. "Those people hurting that girl—"

"Yes, we know," Pablo says. "They deserve Ninja. They absolutely do. And if I thought Talia was wrong — which I don't — I'd let you go crack some skulls over there."

Melody runs her finger along the page in front of her as she reads out loud.

Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

She looks back at Mary Lee then.

Sunny's going to tell you why. And you won't understand. But please believe it's true.

Sunny holds Mister Teddy up so he can answer her mama's question. When she speaks, her voice seems so much older than a six-year-old should sound.

Mister Teddy says Daddy must have figured it out. If Melody is safe, Mommy won't die.

I tilt my head, watching the qi, and nod.

"You have it figured out," Rene asks.

"No, not all of it. But I know Sunny just told the absolute truth. If Melody is safe, then the monsters don't come, right? And if the monsters don't come, well, everybody gets to live their lives." I give him a half-smile. "At this point, I think I know enough to keep from accessing this world again, but . . ." I shrug. "I guess I just want to see if they get their happily-ever-afters."

He returns the smile. "When you say things like that, it's easy to forget that you're as much a bloodthirsty bitch as my wife."

"Oh, I'm sure Maddie manages to occasionally get you to forget that she's a bloodthirsty bitch, too," I say, winking at him.

I turn back to the portal where Mary Lee is just sitting on the porch with Sunny on her lap and Melody by her feet, thinking very deeply. Finally, she reaches out and rests trembling fingers on Melody's shoulder.

Oh, no, no, Melody. Don't try to prove anything. Don't try to understand. Your parents love you. A parent's love for their child is unconditional if they're good parents. And you make them sound like very good parents. Sweetheart, there's nothing to figure out. Your parents love you because you're their daughter. Even if they can't be with you, they love you.

"Gah! All the feels!!"

Pablo chuckles. "But at least we're getting good feels instead of you wanting to go kill people over there."

"I'm not going to kill them. I just want to crack their skulls."

Mary Lee shrugs slightly.

You're sick. I'm sick. We're just different kinds of sick.

Then she looks up at Pat.

Melody is right. I don't understand what . . . what Chuck could possibly have been doing. Or how any of this could be connected to his death or the new case you have.

She pauses for a breath, her aura radiating intense pain. Actually, that happens every time she mentions her husband. I suspect most of the times I see that pain, she's at least thinking about him.

But I know what it's like not to remember whole days and weeks, Patty. Even if that's the only reason to keep Melody safe, it's a darn good one in my book.

Her gaze flickers to her brother and back to Pat.

If those dingleberries want to play at whatever the heck they're playing at, you can always arrest them later.

Then she sighs and studies Melody over Sunny's shoulder.

You know, I've read Lathe of Heaven a dozen times, maybe more. If your quote is a metaphor, my head's going to hurt a whole lot trying to figure it out. So, I probably shouldn't even try. On the other hand, if that's a 'mackerel slap to the face' kind of clue to what's happening to you . . .

She closes her eyes and shivers.

If you're George and Doctor Schwartzer is Haber . . .

"What the hell is she talking about?"

I nudge Pablo. "You need to read LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven. But, holy hell, the woman sounds like a librarian!"

Rene chuckles. "No wonder you like her."

Mary Lee addresses her next words to the stuffed bear.

Well, Mister Teddy, I think you might be right about Sunny's daddy. He was really, really smart. So, if Sunny's supposed to save Melody, that's what we'll have to do, won't we? Well, of course, I'll help! No, I'm probably not as smart as Sunny's daddy, but I can make sure to hug Sunny a lot. And tickle her, too. What's that? Tickling is a good idea? Yes, I think so, too, Mister Teddy.

She grins broadly, something I think she hasn't done in a long time. She boops Sunny's nose and pats the bear on its little head. Finally, Mary Lee looks at Melody again.

Anytime you get your head all wound up trying to understand your parents loving you, come see Sunny and me. Love is real. I promise.

Unlike Mary Lee, the sheriff has a grim look on her face.

She's right. I'd rather not fill my cell with dingleberries. There's not enough room for all of you. So, you better be glad that, because Mary Lee asked, I'll let you off with a warning: Don't do anything stupid.

Melody leans back against Sunny's legs; the youngster drops her teddy bear in her friend's lap, where he's immediately hugged tightly.

Beach Guy and Teresa are having their own conversation, with the teen showing her spine of steel with the older man. He's not keen on telling her what's going on and she's insisting that the cameras are for a school project, but he's welcome to help her set them up. I snicker. Beach Guy's not going to win, which is great. Still, he keeps right on withholding information from Teresa. At this point, I wonder if keeping secrets is worth the effort anymore.

I do trust you, Teresa, more than you know. But I can't tell you what I don't know, and I won't lie to you. And I think we're beyond the Mr. Ferris stage now. Tyler is fine. And I'll definitely need your help with these because I suspect you're a lot cleverer than I am when it comes to this sort of stuff.

Pablo snorts. "Buttering her up, is he?"

I raise an eyebrow in his direction. "This from the guy who has to get the kids to fix his digital camera every other month?"

Teresa glances at Melody for a second and shrugs slightly.

I guess I don't have to understand. I just don't want to be my brother, doing things just because.

Then she looks over at the sheriff before turning back to Beach Guy.

Mother always says that doing the wrong things for the right reasons still means doing something wrong. And the Halloran brothers just follow the Jerk around because he says so. I don't want to be like any of them.

Beach Guy smiles at her.

You aren't your brother. I watch people, always have. Firstly, as a soldier, mostly from the security angle, and now as an author, for inspiration. People interest me. And I know you're not like your brother.

"That's disturbing." Rene stares at Beach Guy through the portal. "Maybe he shouldn't have mentioned the military angle, with all the ties to the military going on in that town."

Pablo nods. "Mary Lee's husband was in the military, and look what happened to him. Who's got the resources to pull off the sorts of things happening there? The military, certainly . . . maybe one of the alphabet soup folks. Hell, put the military and one of the alphabet soup organizations together and you've got a plot for a pretty good spy novel."

"Oh, so you do read," Rene teases him.

Pablo shrugs and grins that boyish grin of his. "I like what I like. I have no use for the rest of it."

"I've trying to broaden his horizons since he started stalking me back in college," I say, chuckling. "No luck so far, but we've got a nice long future in front of us. Someday, I'll get him to read something besides mysteries and espionage novels."

Teresa makes sure the cameras are tucked safely in her gym bag before replying to Beach Guy.

Well, they're Bluetooth, so as long as there's a computer in range, they'll download to that computer's drive, I think. And, no, not waterproof, but . . . what is it? Oh, water-resistant. We've used them out of doors before, so they should work as long as they have power and are sheltered. That shouldn't be a problem. When we built the Inn, Father used cameras like these so he could watch the construction progress from home. The battery packs should last about four days before needing to be replaced or recharged. That will take them through the weekend, I think. So, it's all a matter of where you want them. And we need to do it soon, because once it gets dark, Chelsea and I will be needing to get home.

Mary Lee whispers again to Sunny.

I know you can help me get better. And Sheriff Pat promised to help, too. And if I can help keep Melody safe, I'd do that just for the same reason she helped Mister Teddy to see again. If I can't do much to help, I'll still have good thoughts for Miss Melody.

Melody relaxes a bit, then. It's as if she's trying to remember what it's like for someone to simply care about her . . . someone who wasn't her Aunt Jilly, that is. Now, the teen leans more on Mary Lee than Sunny.

Aunt Jilly says the first thing about getting better is admitting you're sick. That there's nothing wrong with being sick as long as you try to get better. Folks get hurt because I'm sick, which makes it really hard to go on. But this time, it's different.

She hugs the bear even tighter, tilting her head and contemplating something or another. After a minute or so, she smiles slightly and offer's the bear to Mary Lee.

Your turn.

Melody closes her eyes again.

I think . . . I think if Missus McGee can do it, we can, right? I think it's time to stop talking about getting getter and actually start doing something about it.

Oddly, it's Beach Guy who speaks up from the porch where he's been chatting with Teresa.

Melody, you're not on your own anymore.

The little tableau holds for a moment, making me think that maybe there was a director behind all of this. That's a ridiculous idea, just a fanciful notion of mine. Honestly, I need some food and an hour or two of Taiji. Teresa gathers up her little cameras and nods.

I think Melody is right. We need to stop talking and start doing. So, um, Tyler . . . where do we start?

Although he addresses Teresa, Beach Guy speaks up so all of them can hear him, which seems kind of stupid what with the sheriff still standing right there.

Getting these cameras deployed is probably the first step. We need to decide when we do that — night or day — and how we need to rig them. They'll be outside, so are they waterproof? How do they record? Or do we need someone to watch in real-time?

"Didn't Teresa just say they're water-resistant?" Pablo asks.

I sigh. "She did. He wasn't listening. She also mentioned that they'll download to a nearby computer. What the hell is wrong with him?"

Mary Lee accepts the bear from Melody and hugs it between her and Sunny. She's thinking hard again, and I see waves of pain and grief in her aura. She really hasn't healed at all in the past three years. She peeks around Sunny to look at the teen, speaking softly to her. Sure, maybe the rest of them can hear what she's saying, but the way she gives Melody her full attention, speaks directly to her . . . she's making sure Melody knows she matters. Gods, I hope things work out better for her.

I know I probably don't understand much at all, Melody, about you being sick. And if you say folks get hurt because of it, well, who am I to say anything different? I know Sunny and the sheriff . . . well, I hurt them by taking to the bottle all the time. Except I feel like I might hurt myself real bad if I don't. That would be the worst thing I could do to my baby.

Pablo and Rene both hug me tightly. I've got the strength of the Pentad, a large extended family, and more friends than I can count to get me through anything that tries to crush my soul like Mary Lee's has been crushed. And who does she have? Just her daughter and her best friend.

I started wondering today . . . I wondered which was worse. Was the pain of feeling so broken that I don't even know how to be a person anymore worse than the medicine I was using to pretend I wasn't so broken?

She pauses for a minute or so, then pulls the stuffed bear from between her and Sunny, and plops him in Sunny's lap.

I'd tell Mister Teddy a secret, but he's such a good friend to you that . . . well, being the wise old bear that he is, he'd tattle. And I wouldn't even be mad at him for telling. But I'll tell you the secret I would have told Mister Teddy . . . that before today, I probably didn't care much about living or dying. So today has been a pretty special day, because I do care. And I don't want to forget that I care.

I bite my lip as another wave of profound grief rolls through her. "I fell into a coma when you left for Quetzalcoatl's training dimension," I whisper, "and I knew you'd be back eventually. I think she had that same sort of connection with her husband that we had, that Maddie and Rene had. But like Maddie, she couldn't follow her husband into death because she had her daughter to care for."

"How can she possibly heal from something like that?" Pablo asks.

I shrug. "I'm not sure she ever will, not completely anyway. I hope she can manage to get to a place where she's looking forward again, rather than back at that one moment in time. Maybe that's the best she can do."

"And she'll just pretend to be happy?" Rene asks.

I shake my head. "Given enough time and enough support, she can heal. Maybe she won't ever find another person to share her life like her Chuck, but eventually thinking about him won't hurt so much. Well, assuming they can stop the constant flipping they're doing over there."

I honest to gosh don't understand what the dingleberries are up to, and I sure as heck don't care. And I don't understand what the dingle plan has to do with you, Melody. Getting better . . . that's what we all need to do right.

She addresses the bear again.

You know, Mister Teddy, I have some pretty crazy thoughts sometimes. Jack isn't much of a friend . . . not like you are. But it seems to me that if George is getting medicine that makes him forget all kinds of stuff, that can't be very good for George. Or anyone else.

Mary Lee nods decisively and smiles at Melody.

Well, there you have it, Melody. Mister Teddy is going to think about that one. But you're real, and Sunny is real, and I'm pretty sure I'm real. Sheriff Pat is real. Even my doofus brother is real. Miss Chelsea is real, and Miss Teresa is real. Your Aunt Jilly is probably more real than any of us because how could anyone make snickerdoodle cookies like she makes if she wasn't real?

She leans forward conspiratorially and stage whispers:

Those other two? I'm not sure about them. They might be figments of my brother's imagination. He always did have an overactive imagination.

I chuckle. "For all her faults, I have to give her props for keeping her sense of humor."

Pablo nods toward Newspaper Man. "You'd think her dingleberry brother would say something."

"You'd think," I agree. "Giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he just doesn't know what to say." I shrug. "Or he's a coward." I point to Beach Guy. "But something in his background is resonating with Mary Lee's pain right now. He's been there, sort of."

Beach Guy stands and moves the few steps necessary to stop in front of Mary Lee.

Excuse me. I think it might be time for this figment to make an introduction. Name is Tyler, ma'am. And the lady over there is Lucy. Think you know everyone else? My apologies for the lateness of the introduction . . . not intentional.

Mary Lee continues to stare at the face of the little stuff bear for a few minutes. Again, the pain washes over her. I'd guess because Tyler has a military vibe about him, and her husband was military, and it all just makes the grief hurt more. But she steels herself and looks up at Beach Guy.

It's not your place to apologize, Tyler, but it's kind of you to try. Intentional? With Derek, I never know. Never knew, either, for that matter. So that's for him to say.

She glances at her brother, then gives her attention to the bear once more.

It's his place for apologies, too, if they're going to be made.

"Huh. That's an interesting sibling dynamic that doesn't exist in our families," I say.

"How do you mean?"

"Well, it looks like the two of them — Mary Lee and Newspaper Guy — have been needling one another forever. I wonder if they were mortal enemies the last time they went through life together. Maybe I'll ask the hellions about it someday."

Of course, maybe being out there in California for so long made him forget what mom taught him about being polite.

Pablo snicker. "You seem to be right about the needling, at any rate."

Your brother will need to speak for himself, ma'am. But if there's anything I can do, you have only to ask.

Mary Lee blinks. Her qi has gone all chaotic again.

It would help a whole lot if you didn't call me ma'am. My name is Mary Lee. The kids call me Missus McGee because they're all polite. I like my name. And I don't like to be called ma'am.

"Prickly, isn't she?" Rene notes.

"Oh, come on, Rene! Your wife hates it when people call her that too!"

He grins at me. "As I said . . . prickly."

Sunny looks up at her mother.

Mister Teddy says that new things are good. Even if they hurt. Because the world ends if everything stays the same. And . . . and . . . I don't want Anything Can Happen Wednesday to end. Maybe tomorrow can be Thursday When Something New Happens?

Mary Lee kisses her daughter's head.

I guess I agree with Mister Teddy. Sounds like something my grandma used to say — that's your great-grandma who died a long time before you were born. She'd say to learn something new every day, and you'll always have an interesting life. Then she'd talk about science things — she was a biologist, you know. I was hardly older than you and had no idea what she was talking about. But a Thursday When Something New Happens? Sure, sweetheart. I like that. Let's make tomorrow our first Thursday When Something New Happens.

Melody nods and looks up at Mary Lee as well.

I know what that's like, Missus McGee. There are days when I think it'd be easier to just not be. Not be sick, not be crazy, not ever not remembering things, not be anything anymore. But Sunny won't let me do that. And so I don't. At the start I was doing it for her, and it still hurt so much. When I tried doing it for me, it was just so lonely. So now . . . now I'm trying to do it for us. That seems to work much better. Mebbe we are the same . . . that what happens to us is too horrible to be real. But maybe it is . . . real, that is. And that's scary. But if it's real, maybe instead of trying to forget, in drink or medicines, we need to deal with it straight-up. It's not like we're trying to do it alone anymore, are we, you and me, Missus McGee? And figuring out how to do that will help . . . help . . . both you and me. Maybe.

Her head snaps to the side then.

"Uh oh."

"Andrea?"

"The little not-Shadowkin just made a smartass remark."

Hush! That last thing I need is all of you going I told . . . you . . . so . . .

Then Melody blinks . . . once, twice, thrice. Swallowing, she turns and buries her head against Sunny and Mary Lee.

Oh, God, I just did it again, didn't I?

Mary Lee nods through the teen's comment, as though the pragmatic outlook is exactly what she's looking for. But at Melody's outburst, she bends down to hug the teen.

Oh, Melody, don't you worry about that. It's not anything I've never done, I promise you that.

She takes a deep breath as she strokes Melody's dark hair. I smile. I think mothers have been doing soothing their children like that since the dawn of the human race.

Even before . . . even when I didn't see things that might not be real, I'd talk to . . . Well, I'm not really sure. Maybe I talked to God, or the saints, or the angels. I know that sometimes I would talk to my grandma like I used to whenever I was having a bad day. Sometimes, there would be people who'd ask who I was talking to and I'd just tell them I was talking to my guardian angel. Sheriff Pat here? Well, she'd roll her eyes at me, but what did it really matter, right? Sheriff Pat was my friend, and even if she thought I was being goofy, she was still my friend. Still is, for that matter. Miss Shannon and Miss Jessie thought it was wonderful, of course. I don't think they care much for the way I've been acting lately.
Sunny's daddy? He'd say it was just a way for different parts of my brain to work together to figure out the answers to problem. I guess not all brain connections are created equal and talking through things helps different parts of the brain to all get in sync. Or something like that. Lord knows, he'd talk to his computers like they were real things that could understand him. Thinking out loud . . . that's what some folks call it. Yep, even when you're only having a one-sided conversation or are telling computers how dopey they're being.

I narrow my eyes at the woman.

"Andi?

"Remember a little while back when she said she wasn't as smart as her husband?"

Rene nods.

"I think she wasn't being completely truthful. She's got that same self-deprecating personality trait that my husband has."

"Hey, I resemble that remark!"

I roll my eyes, but smile at Pablo.

I'm not going to pretend to know how brains work. Even before . . . well, even before all kinds of bad things happened, I didn't understand as much as I'd have liked. And now . . . well, I've forgotten stuff. But I do know that the brain, people's brains, they're more complicated than anything else, and there isn't anyone who knows for certain everything there is to know about brains. If they say they do, they're lying, that's for sure. So, if you have real things we can't see talking to you, or if it's just a different part of your brain trying to get you to think in a new way, I'm not judging you for that. Like you said, maybe it is real. And maybe it's scary. But I'm pretty sure getting your brain to go to sleep for three or four days isn't really helping. Sure, we can all get some good ideas and work through problems when we're sleeping, but that's not the kind of sleeping you've been doing, is it?
Neither one of us is alone, Melody. The dingleberries want to help you. Sheriff Pat wants to help me. Sunny and Mister Teddy want to help us both. I suppose if we help each other, you and me, it will be easier for them . . . especially Sunny and Mister Teddy, who are probably kind of exhausted from all the helping they do. I'll bet if we asked your Aunt Jilly, she'd say she'd do anything at all to help you because that's just the good, kind, decent, and loving sort of person Jilly Mallory is. Now, maybe she wouldn't understand just how sacred you are of that doctor of yours. And maybe she believes deep down in her heart that your doctor and your medicines are really, truly helping you. When we love someone, we just want what's very best for them . . . and sometimes we ignore things we don't want to see. It's just a thing people do, it's not bad or good. It just is.

All this time, through all her soft words, Mary Lee continues to stroke Melody's hair. It looks exactly like what my mama used to do when I was little and woke up from a nightmare.

I didn't know what Sunny's daddy was doing. Maybe it was because he was real good at keeping secrets. Or maybe I just didn't want to know. But I'll tell you a secret, Melody. Sunny's daddy wasn't all that good at keeping secrets from me. So, I guess that means I just didn't want to know what he was up to. And sometimes, it seems like I have part of my brain saying, neener, neener, told you so whenever I figure something out that's . . . well, on the right track, I guess. Like today when I was cleaning the house and thinking it was a good thing to do. The scary part is that it always sounds like Sunny's daddy.

Melody shivers like a frightened rabbit before finally allowing herself to be comforted.

No one's ever done this before . . . when I hear them . . . hugged me, that is. Folks usually look scared, or that I'm crazy.

Finally, Newspaper Man moves a little closer to his sister and speaks up.

You're right, sis. I should be the one apologizing. So, here it goes. I'm sorry for not giving you the time of day. I'm sorry for not being there for you to be able to confide in because I was too much of a chicken to even deal with how I was feeling about how hurt you were. Does this make it any better? No. I don't think so. I was still a . . ."

He stops and clears his throat, looking at the young people around him.

The biggest reason I hadn't introduced Tyler or any of the others was to protect you. This thing, whatever it might be, has rather deadly effects on people. For all my faults, I love you and your daughter, beyond any ability to express it. I don't want to take a chance on you getting hurt further. Even talking about what happened, especially trying to figure it out, might cause you pain or worse. It seems like that cat is out of the bag, so let's just skip my many failings and move on. I'm trying to be better . . . just having to learn how.

Sheriff Garret looks from one dingleberry to another.

Right now, I'm rolling my eyes real hard, listening to all this. On the other hand, I made Mary Lee a promise. So, unless all you dingleberries actually do get caught breaking the peace of my little town, I'll listen to whatever stories you have to say and not make any comment except this one: Doc Schwartzer, she's got enough diplomas and accolades on her wall to paper a house, so I'm going to need a little more than spooky talk to even think about looking into poorly substantiated rumors of her endangering a minor.

Then she looks at the two teens on the porch.

Now, don't give me that look. None of you kids are quite eighteen yet. And don't think I don't know — I got a big red star on my calendar for your brother's birthday, Miss DeCoon.

She rests a hand on Mary Lee's shoulder.

Now, for myself, this is the best friend I remember: World's Best Mother. So, I'm willing to cut you folks a little slack if it helps keep her on this path.

Melody pulls out her little piece of paper, staring at it for a moment before pressing herself closer to Mary Lee once again.

DSM-IV-TR Schizophrenia, paranoid type. What does that mean? If I have real things you can't see talking to me, or if it's just a different part of my brain trying to get me to think in a new way . . . Like you said, maybe it's real. Huh.

She wraps her arms around herself, maybe comforting herself, maybe trying to hide. Hard to tell . . . her aura hasn't quite settled down yet.

If they're real, they've always been real. Then that means this is the way the world is. It means there are things so horrible out there that forgetting them seems like the only way out.

She closes her eyes and shivers again.

But we know this is real.

Then she opens her eyes and looks up at Mary Lee.

Missus McGee, I think . . . I think our medicine, I think it's hurting us. What's happening is real. So. We can't run away. What do we do about it? It's not like I can say no. I guess that's the difference between you and me, Missus McGee. I can't say no. You'll have to get better so you can say it for me. Just . . . just . . . just until then . . .
Do you remember? In that book, The Lathe of Heaven . . . whenever Doctor Haber or George tried something drastic, things always got really worse. I'll have to got the doctor on Friday. That's two-and-a-half days away.

Mary Lee listens patiently to everything Melody has to say. That's a rare quality: being able to listen without judgment, without thinking about what you're going to say next. When she finally speaks, her voice cracks and tears roll down her cheeks.

I know what it's like to need a hug so badly that you don't even have words for it. You've got your fancy words there from that big book doctors keep that tells them how crazy everyone is. And everyone is crazy if you ask me. Not everyone gets a special number in their big book, though.
What does it mean? Honest to gosh, Melody, I don't know. And I don't think the doctors do either. They sure do like to label things, though, don't they? And . . . and I know for sure my medicine is really bad. I know for sure it's hurting me. And if you believe your medicine is hurting you, I'm not going to tell you it's not. What do I know about anything, right? Up until this Anything Can Happen Wednesday, I was just the town drunk. Today, I'm trying not to be that. But I'm inclined to believe you because once upon a time I'd believe in things that other people thought were impossible.

She pauses for a breath, awash again with the pain of remembering her husband.

Well, I never did make it up to believing six impossible things before breakfast, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

"Hey, I recognize that line."

I stare at Pablo. "You know that and you don't know who Alice is? What is wrong with you, Pablo?"

He grins and shrugs. "Interesting things stick in my brain. Unlike like you, my dear, I don't care very much where they come from." Then he kisses the tip of my nose.

I grin back at him. "You know, you're a lot more like my sister than you're willing to admit."

Yes, what's happening is real. Maybe everybody has a different way of saying what's real. And . . . and maybe I can say no . . . I know I can want to say no, but . . .

A sob catches in Mary Lee's throat, and she breaths raggedly for a bit until it starts to even out again. My heart goes out to her. Thank the gods I haven't had to experience what she's gone though. But someday . . . yeah, someday, Pablo is going to walk on without me, and that's going to hurt like hell.

I can say no, maybe I can. Today, I have. I have a choice. Choices are sometimes the hardest thing, don't you think, Melody? Normally, if this wasn't an Anything Can Happen Wednesday, I'd think that not a single one of you could really know how hard choices could be. But . . . but today, I'll believe that maybe some of you do. I think Miss Parsons and Miss DeCoon over there kind of understand, or else they wouldn't be sitting there with Derek and his Dingleberries.
And I remember, Melody. You can't run away . . . not that it did George a whole lot of good. The running away part, I mean.

Then she looks up at her brother again. Her eyes are red-rimmed, but she's not angry or upset . . . more like resigned, I'd say.

You don't get it, Derek. I'm not here to catalog your many faults because that would be awfully darn hypocritical of me, wouldn't it? But you're making up stories again to make yourself feel better. I guess if that's what you need to do . . . well, who am I to talk? I went on a three-year bender so I wouldn't have to feel anything at all.
I'm pretty sure I don't want to know why you think a simple, 'Hey, Sis . . . these are my friends Tyler and Lucy from out of town' would somehow endanger me. You're out of your pickle-and-fudge-stuffed mind if you think I give a Jeremy DeCoon-sized pile of poo — begging your pardon, Miss Teresa — about what you and your friends are doing. Don't care about your silly capers. Don't want to know about your silly capers. Never did, never will.

She rolls her eyes at Newspaper Man, then turns back to Melody and Sunny . . . and Mister Teddy, of course.

Those doctors are gonna have to make up some new numbers for brains full of pickles and fudge. And Miss Sunny, don't you be giggling at your uncle like that.

Mary Lee rests her head against her daughter's and looks at Melody, practically whispering.

You be careful, will you, George?

Newspaper Man's aura flares with anger, and he lets his pain and anger show on his face.

'Don't care' is exactly why we have a problem. I tried to make it simple. I tried to even apologize. But, evidently, that isn't what you want. You want to sling whatever depreciations you choose. You say that you're interested in what's going on, yet now you say you don't care. Which is it? Do you want in with this dingleberry who's trying to figure this out? Or do you want to ignore me for a change?

Mary Lee closes her eyes and stiffens at her brother's words, almost as if she's expecting a blow to follow the words. Of all the people over there, only Melody can see the tears slowly slipping one by one past eyelids that try desperately to hold them back. She doesn't say anything for a while, and when she does, once again, it's a whisper meant primarily for Melody.

Cold-hearted orb that rules the night removes the colors from our sight. Red is gray and yellow white. But we decide which is right.
We decide which is right . . .
And which is an illusion.

Melody swallows, and then whispers back:

Gazing at people, some hand-in-hand, just what I'm going through, they can't understand.

The sheriff looks from her friend to Newspaper Man, Beach Guy and Lucy.

Just don't break any laws finding things out. That said, most of the Discovery Center is a public facility, which means taking photographs is allowed unless there are regulations posted against. Last time I was there, there were no such signs.

Beach Guy grins at the sheriff, agrees to do his best not to break laws, then moves closer to Chelsea and Teresa to work out what they need to record the images from the cameras.

Melody looks up, gnawing on her lower lip.

We know that bad things happen. We know the world isn't right. And we're really trying to make it better. It's just not the same for all of us, is it?

Leaning back against Mary Lee and closing her eyes, she reaches up to cover the hand resting on her shoulder.

If you care for me, you'll be hurt. If you care for Sunny, you'll be hurt. The people who care for us . . . they always get hurt. Mister Emerson is trying to stop us from getting hurt. This is a good thing. So are Mister Ferris and Lucy, Chelsea, too. There are those who are using us, I guess. But since I can't remember what happens, all I know is that being used hurts like when you get hit by a metal pipe. It's the hurt of not knowing.

She opens her eyes and looks at Newspaper Man.

Then there's the hurt of having to live through this over and over and over again, knowing it's your fault. That's a whole different kind of hurt. It's the one we share, Missus McGee and me. It's our illusion that we got to make the right choices about. Maybe we can make ourselves not sick together. It's just going to get much worse before it gets better, though. If I stop taking my medicine, things will get much worse. But we got to stop hurting each other. Mister Emerson, can't you see how much your words hurt? In every breath Missus McGee takes?
That's got to stop. Neither of us can take much more of that, you know. We're supposed to be friends — all of us.

It's my turn to swallow hard against the feelings. Pablo reaches over to wipe tears from my cheeks that I hadn't even realized were falling. There's nothing I can do, and there's nothing I can say that hasn't already been said.

"Gods damn it."

I don't know how to fix myself, because I don't know how I'm broken. You can fix certain things, and we need you to figure what they are. Only a mother can fix other things. Fix what you can fix. Let others fix what they can fix. You don't have to understand. You can't understand everything.

It's obvious that Melody's words sting Newspaper Man. He probably needs to do as much introspective thinking as his sister has . . . the kind of thinking that seems to be helping her.

I'm not sure that it's necessary . . . I know. But are you responsible for the reenactments?

Then he looks at his sister again.

How much does this dingleberry explain to put you at risk? How much matters? It's pretty much supposition and guesswork, anyway. I think that our problem is associated with what happened to Chuck. I'm unclear as to what exactly happened or, even more perplexing, how it could be connected. But we have strange events in a really small physical area. We have people involved that frankly are beyond suspicious. Last and not the least of which, we have concern over how these things might be influenced possibly by a few different people, not the least of which is our lovely Melody. Something is going on. Something has gone on in the past. Some people want to keep us from learning whatever those things are, and how they're related. That presents the risk, which we'd rather not expose anyone to, yet to get someplace we have to take risk.

He shrugs.

"Well . . . he's trying . . . sort of."

"Really? Because that sounded like a load of bullshit to me."

I shrug. "I'm not focusing on the words as much as his aura and the flow of qi, Rene. He's trying, but he has no idea what he's supposed to do for his sister. He doesn't actually want to hurt her, but he keeps on doing it anyway."

"Sounds like they need to sit down with David," Pablo says.

"You're not wrong. The two of them could really benefit from a good therapist. I'm just not sure that town has one."

Mary Lee smiles sadly at Melody.

I already hurt, Melody. I can't not care for Sunny. She's my daughter and I love her. I loved Chuck with everything I am. And he's gone. Can you understand that this pain in my heart is forever? Honestly, I hope not because that would mean something like this has happened to you, and I'd never want that for someone else. I won't tell you that it's not your fault — not because I think anything is your fault but because I don't know. And it doesn't matter whether or not I know.

She takes a shuddering breath and looks at Newspaper Man again.

I can only take in the simple things. Don't you understand? I'm sick, Derek. Losing Chuck almost killed me. I'm not even sure sometimes . . . when . . . when King is . . . is using me as a punching bag . . .

She stops again for another ragged breath.

Sometimes I'm not sure that I'm not dead. But Sunny reminds me that I'm not.

"Okay, that brother-in-law of hers needs—"

"Andrea, you're not going over there!"

"I wasn't going to say that, Pablo. He's ordinary evil. He needs that nice sheriff to serve him up a pretty little restraining order or maybe toss him in her cell."

"Oh." He blinks. "Well, okay, then. That's fine. Yes, he needs to be reminded that he's committing a crime."

Mary Lee stares at her brother for a moment.

I only wanted to know who was sharing this porch with us. That's all. They're your friends, so that's . . . that's fine. But people have names. It's nice to know people's names, isn't it, Derek? People want to be known. It's so simple. Tyler and Lucy are your friends. It doesn't matter if you met them last month or if you've known them for years. Honest, Derek. It's the simple things. They have names. They're your friends. Simple as that.

Then she looks back at Melody, simply breathing for a few minutes.

Sweetheart, you gotta understand that Derek and me? We're siblings, and as anyone with siblings will tell you, we bicker. We've been doing it as long as I can remember, which is as close to forever as a person can get. I call him names, he calls me names. It's what siblings do, I guess. Sometimes we're nice and sometimes we're mean.

I shake my head. "Except not all siblings do that, and I wish . . ." I sigh. "Well, I guess I wish they'd had a better time of it growing up, I guess."

"Emelia isn't the only empath in the family, huh?" Pablo says with a smile.

"Oh, I'm no empath. I just have compassion for other people."

"They're related, though," Rene says.

And yes, his words hurt me, but he's done that before. He'll probably even do it again. Not because he's a mean and spiteful person, but just because he's my brother and I'm his sister and that's just the way we circle around each other sometimes. We'll get to the apologizing part, and things will be fine for a while and then . . . Well, doesn't matter right now, about how Derek and I are both a little crazy, I mean.

She sighs heavily and shrugs.

If I care for you, Melody, I can't hurt any more than I hurt already. If I care for my daughter — and God knows I do! — I can't hurt any more than I hurt already. This hurt I have . . . missing my husband? It's like living in an ocean of acid. It's inside me and outside. It's everywhere. So. I can stop feeling a lot of that when I drink. It only feels like I'm drowning instead of boiling in acid. I can forget for a little while that Chuck . . .

Mary Lee blinks away the tears that threaten to fall and takes another deep breath.

It's going to get worse than this? I'm already in Hell, Melody, honey. When we stop talking in allegory and metaphors, things get a lot less simple. And I'm not sure my brain is ready for a whole lot of complexities just yet. You say that you're broken and hurting, and you don't know how or why. I can't fix anything for you, but I can hold your hand or hug you or tell you that people love you. Sunny is one of them. So am I. And don't forget your Aunt Jilly.

Melody looks back up at Mary Lee.

This time . . . can we . . . can we make this time . . . work?

It's obvious that Mary Lee isn't parsing what Melody's saying, not exactly anyway. And how could she? She doesn't know about the flips and, if there's any deities in that world watching out for her, she'll never find out. But that doesn't seem to matter.

Of course. Let's see if we can make everything work out right. For you. For me. For all of us.

Melody is quietly absorbing everything else going on around her — primarily the hubbub of Beach Guy, Lucy, Chelsea, and Teresa planning their little spying missing. She lets out a long breath, looks up at Mary Lee, and extends a pinky finger.

If you don't give up . . . I promise I won't give up. Let's keep it simple. We're both sick. We both want to get better. To do that, we have to both move forward. If you promise to do that, I will too. And we'll eventually reach Sunshine . . .

Reaching out and loosening her hug around Sunny and Mister Tedding, Mary Lee momentarily hooks her little finger around Melody's.

Simple works for me. And I have a ray of Sunshine right here.

I chuckle. "The little not-Shadowkin are chanting 'yes yes yes yes yes.'"

Melody looks down at the ground then, doing nothing but breathing.

You're mistaken. It's a very basic mistake, but an important one. They're not reenactments. They're not loops. And I'm not the one responsible for them.

She shakes her head, glancing up at Newspaper Man.

What happens to me . . . is different. It . . . it . . . it's like being run over by a car. I'm the cause of the accident. Seeing it, someone else calls the ambulance . . . trying to help.

"Do you have enough information yet?" Rene asks.

I shake my head. "It would be nice to know who's responsible. Clearly, they're not resetting or running in loops. They're flipping between realities, which . . . Well, that's something else weird that I'll have to add to my theory of trans-dimensional portals."

"If Melody's not causing the flips, then what's her role in all of this?"

"Not sure, Pablo. I'm pretty sure it has to do with the not-Shadowkin, Shadowkin, and Shadow over there. But I don't know how it all fits together. Yet."

Newspaper Man looks at Melody with even more confusion than my husband has.

What are they, if not loops? Get to Sunny? I'm sure I don't understand. Can you elucidate?

It's Sunny who speaks up.

Mister Teddy says that it's a place where kids can be kids and mothers can be mothers and friends can be friends and teddy bears can be just teddy bears.

Then she lifts her teddy bear up so she can look at its button eyes.

I'm going to get there . . . because Anything Can Happen Wednesday should be every Wednesday.

I grin at the little girl. "She still not sure if she's found the right place. I hope she has, because she's got her mommy back."

"Wait . . . she's causing the flips?"

I look at the surprised look on Pablo's face. "I didn't mention that?"

"You did not, sister."

"Huh. Well, I'm mentioning it now."

Pablo eyes me suspiciously, then gestures to Sunny. "Is she doing the same thing you and Paul do with the portals?"

"No, not exactly. And I'm not sure if it's just the town that's moving from reality to reality, or if it's larger parts of the world. Or maybe she's just moving the townsfolk from reality to reality." I shrug. "In the grand scheme of things, I'm not sure it matters."

"I might be more confused now than I was before."

I pat Pablo's hand. "It's fine, dear. If you're still confused at the end of the show, I'll explain everything I've figured out."

Mary Lee hugs her daughter.

Are you tired, sweetie? You've been pretty quiet. So many things happen on an Anything Can Happen Wednesday . . .

Sunny, in turn, hugs her bear tightly.

I'm only a little tired, Mama. I'm just being The Sponge. Daddy always said that when times are really, really good I should be a sponge and soak it all up and make it a really good memory. So, when things go bad I can squeeeeze myself, and the good memories would help me through the bad times, make them not so bad and make them go away. I've been dry for so, so long. And now I'm not. Love you, Mama!

Mary Lee closes her eyes, and I can actually see her trying to push some of the grief down. Maybe she just needs practice. She's certainly taking the right path by walking away from the alcohol.

I love you, too, baby. Your daddy was terribly smart, wasn't he?

Melody looks up at Newspaper Man again.

Mister Emerson, imagine being in a school where someone always beat you up. And you knew if you stayed, you'd never learn anything except how to get beat up. Or if you lived in a city but there were no jobs . . . there'd be no future there for you. You can't do over, but you can move — to a new school, to a new city, where the future might be different. The problem is that there isn't an infinite number of new schools and not an infinite number of new cities . . . and we may be running out.
Missus McGee has it right, though. It's not good to think about it too much. Maybe it's something we can't understand. It's not an escape. We need to do our best where we are, right now.

Mary Lee is doing her introspective thinking again. What's odd is that her aura has overtones that I usually associate with someone singing, and that makes me wonder what song she's thinking about. She turns to Melody again.

I guess that's what those meeting folks mean about 'one day at a time.' Since we got a pretty good school and a really friendly town most of the time, here would be a nice play to stay a while, I think. No one's perfect, and I figure I'm going to fall down — we all do, even if we just take a tumble on the soft grass or scrape up our knees pretty bad on the gravel. So, we just get up again, right? And it's easier with help from friends, the getting up part, I mean. That's what the Beatles and Bill Withers tell us, anyway. And they're not wrong.

Heh. Well, that would explain why she's got the song vibe going on. She looks up at the sheriff.

I know you've been trying, and thank you. I guess I wasn't ready to try getting up at all until now. I'm lucky to have such a good friend.

"Oui," Rene says almost wistfully. "We all need good friends in our lives."

I turn and study him a moment. "Oh. You're thinking about your friends, yours and Maddie's, from before you died."

He nods. "I'd love to see them again, but . . ."

"I know. Even if I knew where to look for them, I'm not sure it would be a good idea to actually look for them. I really hope they've had the chance to move on to whatever happens when they die. None of them had connections with anyone like you have with Maddie, did they?"

He shakes his head.

"Then I'm going to say they've happily moved on until I find evidence otherwise."

Rene smiles ruefully. "Don't go looking for it, Andi. I'm fairly certain Maddie will knock you over the head with your own stick."

I chuckle. "I won't because she absolutely would."

Mary Lee looks up at Newspaper Man and manages a smile for him.

Family helps, too. You're still a dingleberry, but, well, you're my brother. And at least you're just a dingleberry and not a . . . well, not a word I'd say out loud about King. Now, you ought to go help your friends to whatever it is they're doing, 'cause it seems pretty important to you and them. I think we'll be just fine right here, what with the Sheriff with us and all.

Mary Lee takes another breath and hugs Sunny again, then nods. Her smile finally reaches her eyes.

That is, as long as you don't get yourselves in any trouble that's going to annoy Missus Parsons, Missus DeCoon, or our sheriff. Whatever you're up to, Derek, it's beyond me. But . . . but be careful, okay?

Newspaper Man looks dazed by the implications of what Melody told them, about having a finite number of flips available to them. Finally, he looks at his sister.

There's so much to say and no time to say it in. Sis, I love you and Sunshine. Hopefully, I'll get to say more. But you're right, I have to go.

Mary Lee silently watches her brother head off with his friend and Teresa. She takes a breath or two before smiling at Melody.

You know, I guess it makes you family, too, after a fashion because you're Sunny's friend. So, what do you say if we prop each other up when we stumble, we can maybe try not to fall down as much? I know we've got different ghosts or demons or whatever you want to call them plaguing us, but we sure do have them! I don't know if you need a mama or a big sister or just a friend, but . . .

"If I have faith you need to borrow . . ." I mutter. I smile at Pablo. "Bill Withers. Great song."

Mary Lee looks up at the sheriff and smiles.

Come on and sit with us, Patty. I'm hoping you can explain what you were talking about before . . . about Chuck's pension. You made it sound like it was a whole lot bigger than it is. And . . . and . . . and I don't even remember what I did about the house after . . . Well. If . . . if I can get my act together and we could afford not to live with King, Holy Hannah, I'd like that a whole lot! Sunny would be happier, too.

Pat Garret joined Mary Lee, Sunny, and Melody on the steps of Aunt Jilly's house, and went into great detail about Mary Lee's benefits. Given what we've heard about King McGee, it's not surprising that the sheriff suspects he's trying to get his hands on the very large amount of money held in trust for Sunny.

Here's my take: Chuck got mixed up in one of those black operation missions that you can't talk about, that when he tried to get out things went really bad. And while the military doesn't want you to know what he did, they're paying you enough to keep you quiet.

Her theory includes the fact that the mysterious "they" were likely thrilled to see Mary Lee take to the bottle, because then she's not going to be asking uncomfortable questions.

"She's got a point," Pablo says. "Sometimes it's dangerous to ask any questions at all."

"Oui, especially if they don't know where the military still is in that town," Rene says. "They've got to be there, hiding in plain sight."

"If you and Maddie were running the op, where would you put them?" I ask.

He shrugs. "It seems like Melody's doctor is already involved, and there's probably at least one person out at the Butterfly factory. But of the ordinary-seeming townsfolk? Any of them, really, Andi."

"Probably not any of the long-time residents," I muse. "On the other hand, we can't entirely rule them out."

Pat turns to her best friend.

Look, you know I can't have the town drunk living in my apartment. But I can have a sick person trying to get better. If you're serious and as long as you're off the bottle, we can grab your things out of King's house and you can stay with me. But this isn't easy street, princess. One drink and you're out, got that? First thing we do, you call AA and I call Alanon. But if that's fine, you can have my couch . . . my real couch.

Pablo grins. "That woman is a great friend."

I nod. "Melody's singing along with the radio . . . she has a nice voice. It's We Walk the Same Line by Everything But the Girl."

"I'm not familiar with that group."

I glance back at Rene. "They were popular in the 80s and 90s. Clara liked them a lot, so Pablo got to hear their entire discography frequently."

Pablo nods. "And we can't run and we can't cheat, 'cause babe when we meet what we're afraid of, we find out what we're made of . . . I listened to that one a lot after Denise died."

"Yeah. Me, too." I gesture to the portal. "Mary Lee's telling Pat that the financial stuff is too much for her at the moment, but that making sure Sunny was taken care of was something she and her husband talked about. They wanted their daughter to have the chance to go to any college she wanted. The local state school are good, but they wanted to make sure Sunny could go anywhere. And she doesn't want to know what all is going on right now."

Someday, I'll be ready. But it still feels like all that bad stuff just happened. Maybe not yesterday, but not three years ago, either. Hiding in a bottle was probably the dumbest way to deal with all that pain, but . . . Okay, I didn't actually deal with it, did I? I gotta figure out how to heal my heart before I go poking hornets' nests.

I smile. "I guess Mary Lee knows the song, too. She just whispered 'When it's dark, baby, there's a light out shinin' . . . and if you're lost I'm right behind 'cause we walk the same line. It's nice to know some good things are same in our dimension and theirs." I shake my head and sigh. "It's amazing how waking up from her alcoholic daze lets us see that she's the sort of mother all the women in our families are. Well, maybe excluding me and Maddie, since we're bloodthirsty bitches and I don't see that Mary Lee is. She's just protective."

I can't even say how much your offer means, Pat. And if it were just me, I'd say let's get moving. But I guess I need to think about other folks here, too. I know getting away from King is what's best for Sunny and me. But what about our somber scholar and splash of sunshine? They're best friends and better siblings than Derek and I ever were. Time gets so funny when you're always drunk. Seems like it was only last week that Melody here gave Mister Teddy his sight back. But it seems like they've been friends forever, too.

Rene chuckles. "But look . . . she's worked it out that talking a daily walk up here so Sunny and Melody could spend time together would even be good for her health."

Pablo smiles. "She's not wrong about that." Then he frowns. "The sheriff is willing to poke at the hornets' nest even though the mysterious 'they' aren't going to like that at all?"

I nod. Before I can say anything else, Sunny speaks up again.

Mister Teddy says that the bad guys can't know that we know because then they'll know that we know and they'll make sure that knowing stops. Sometimes Mister Teddy makes my head spin.

The three of us chuckle, while the sheriff merely smiles.

Actually, that makes perfect sense. You're your father's daughter, kiddo.

"She's a good friend. I guess if not letting Mary Lee backslide will make her friend hate her, that might be a good thing," I say, studying the former town drunk for a moment. "But I have a feeling she's not going to have to do anything that'll make Mary Lee hate her. When it comes to her daughter, she's got a lot of willpower, at least now that she's got a clear enough mind to realize it."

I want to see Sunshine here make that choice. She's as smart as her father. I want to slam the hatchback door closed when she drives off to college.

Mary Lee has a few more things to say about things that go bump in the night, about not really want to know what's going on yet, and the fact that she's more than happy not trusting anyone Melody doesn't trust . . . or the stuffed bear, for that matter. That part makes me smile, mostly because that's a less painful way of saying she'll distrust anyone Sunny distrusts, because that little girl is far more grown up than she ought to be at six. We can see why . . . Mary Lee can't.

"Uh oh. Her aura's got the colors and patterns of someone who's developing a headache."

Pablo looks at me, then back at Mary Lee. "Well, if she's going to start backsliding, this would be the perfect excuse, I suppose."

"She won't," I say confidently.

Mary Lee leans over and hugs Melody.

You are who you are. And that's fine by me. I'd be happy to come sit beside you when you're feeling poorly and sing you songs like I used to do for Sunny when she had herself a tummy ache or an earache. If Miss Jilly doesn't mind, of course. Maybe you won't even know I'm there, and maybe you won't even remember that I came by. But if you . . .

She snaps her teeth shut and blinks, a comically surprised look on her face . . . as though maybe it's just in this moment she's realizing the words coming out of her mouth. She blinks again and grins.

Oh, heck, why would I care about what other people think about me? I guess I haven't cared much since . . . Well, why start now? So, if you and Miss Jilly don't hate the idea, I'll just do my darnedest to help you feel like you really are Sunny's sister.

Unseen by the folks on the porch, Miss Jilly has stepped out of her house to join them, carrying a small woven basket. She offers the basket to Mary Lee.

"Your aunt doesn't make baskets like that," Pablo notes.

"Nope. Navajo baskets don't have handles." I chuckle. "Though I could certainly see lining one of Aunt Sonia's baskets with a pretty little tea towel like that."

"Not for the mushy corn," he says, grinning.

"You niece still calls it that?"

"Oh, yes. Everything about our wedding day made a big impression on her."

You're welcome to my porch whenever you wish, Missus McGee. I may be old, but my hearing is still good. Aspirin, tea, honey, some tea biscuits, and some snickerdoodles for the little one. While we won't be neighbors anymore, you start feeling sickly, you come right this way. Why?

The elderly woman smiles softly, though it seems to light up her face as much as Sunny's smile does.

You're being kind to my Melody. And the only reason we can get by in this world is with a little help from our friends.

"Yep, the Beatles were channeling the Buddha. For sure."

Mary Lee smiles up at Aunt Jilly.

Thank you, Miss Jilly. And you don't need to call me Missus McGee; Mary Lee is just fine. And . . . it's not hard to be kind to Melody, not at all.

Melody nods, looking between her aunt and Mary Lee.

I'd like that: to be able to sit on the porch and read poems. Right now, right now I'd just settle for being able to think straight and remember who I am and what needs to be done and not be sick. Though . . . I've never been anyone's big sister before. Usually . . . usually . . . usually, it's Sunny looking out for me, Sunny and Mister Teddy.

She presses herself closer to Mary Lee for comfort.

Mister Teddy is never wrong. He just doesn't know everything. He doesn't know a lot, just what's right . . . no matter how hard it is. And sometimes, it's so very, very hard.

Sunny stirs in her mother's lap and opens her eyes. First, she looks at Melody, then her teddy bear, and finally turns the bear toward Melody and gives her friend a sad smile.

Mister Teddy says you can't give up. Give up and the world ends. Mister Teddy says he's sorry.

"I'd really like to know Melody's role in all of this," Pablo says.

"Hmm. It has something to do with the Shadow, I'm pretty sure of that," I say, shaking my head. "I'm just not sure exactly what."

With that, Pat, Mary Lee, and Sunny head off to fetch their belongings from King's house and heading back into town.

Melody and Chelsea sit on the porch for a few minutes before Melody speaks again.

I'm scared. Things are going too well. So . . . what do we do now?"

Chelsea smiles at her friend, stands, and offers her hand to Melody.

Get used to it . . . things are going to keep getting better. We're going to figure this all out, Melody. All of us. You're not alone anymore. Now, go get clothes for school tomorrow. Get something comfortable to sleep in and let's go to the diner. I bet we can get some pie and ice cream. Oooh, have you ever had a root beer float? It's one of my favorites.

I chuckle. "I really like that girl. And she's not wrong about root beer floats!"

We watch as the two teens gather up some sleepover items for Melody and head down the road toward town. The scene focuses on the house where Mary Lee lives — all lit up with the sheriff's pickup out front. For a few minutes we watch Mary Lee packing up two big suitcases before rolling them out to Pat's truck.

"Are those the same pictures from back in the beginning?" Rene asks. "It's been hours, so I'm not sure."

"They are," I say. "I wonder . . . They looked like evidence of some crime back at the beginning. I wonder if things had gone differently, King might have wound up seriously hurting Mary Lee."

"Given that the sheriff took them as evidence, I'd say he wound up killing her," Pablo says. "Otherwise, she'd have left them in place if Mary Lee just wound up in the hospital. Well, or taken them to her place. But she wouldn't have bagged them up as evidence."

The angle from the portal shifts to the house with the many dish antennas, where the lights are still on. Crazy Ice Cream Lady sure loves her movies.

Then the scene slides to Chelsea and Melody arriving at the diner, where Missus Parsons eyes them with surprise. Presumably, it's a shocker for Chelsea to have a friend over on a school night, to say nothing of it being the town's teen pariah. But she recovers quickly. She lets the teens know that root beer floats aren't free, that the price is getting chores done.

I snicker. "Bribery works."

"Not with our two," Pablo laments.

"Well, no. But those two aren't exactly normal, are they?"

After they finish up the chores set by Missus Parsons, Melody pauses before tucking into her dessert.

You know what the best part of this is? It's Wednesday night. That means I'll probably remember this. Thank you.

Chelsea beams at her friend.

I'm glad. I hope we got to the point where you remember all the good things.

The scene abruptly switches to earlier in the evening, with Beach Guy, Lucy, and Teresa walking up the driveway. Just as they reach the path to the butterfly factory, Newspaper Man catches up to them.

"Well, the not-Shadowkin are chittering at them again. They're not saying anything, though . . . just making noise." I peer at the group. "Hard to tell if anyone besides Lucy can hear them."

Teresa leads the way through the walking trails, going over narrow wooden bridges linking the high rock outcroppings. It's a different route than we've seen before, presumably because Teresa is more familiar with the area than the two tourists or even Newspaper Man. A few dozen feet after they cross the last pedestrian bridge, the teen stops and sets the bag of cameras down.

There's three ways to get to the Discovery Center. The quickest is to take the walking bridge on its east side from Kerry's Rock. But that drops you off right at the center, and I suspect you'd be seen right away. The main road comes in from the south, and it's the most used. This way . . . we come in from the west, from Darter's Rock. This time of year, you're lucky to see ten feet or so ahead, and I suspect if Mister Ferris, er, if Tyler were to stand right here where we are now and throw a rock as far as he could, without the trees in the way, he'd hit the parking lot. The only problem? Darter and High Rock are where most of the butterflies live. If we're out here after sunset and they wake? It gets really spooky.

Beach Guy winks at her. I groan. That man is downright creepy.

Spooky, I can deal with but I don't want to keep you out at night, so best we hurry and get these cameras set up. So, we'll need to get a little closer to find good positions — but carefully and quietly, okay?

Teresa mentions the woods' thickness, noting that they should probably be able to get fairly close to the Discovery Center without anyone noticing them. It's edging toward sunset as they finally approach the buildings, catching sight of them through the trees. The Discovery Center is definitely closed up for the day, but there's a truck and a car in the lot.

"The same ones we saw earlier," Rene notes. "The car belongs to the doctor."

"Yeah. Teresa is telling them that the truck belongs to Frank Dinario, who does odd jobs around town. Her father has him cleaning the Inn every other day, and speculates that he might be doing the same out here."

"Frank? That the guy from the docks earlier?" Pablo asks.

I shrug. "Maybe. I mean, it does seem likely, but there could be more than one Frank in town. She's speculating that the car might belong to the young guy who works there . . . Danalla. Would Danalla and the town doctor have the same kind of car? Well, some cars are a lot more popular than others, so I guess it's possible."

"On the other hand, Teresa might be wrong," Pablo says.

I merely shrug.

Beach Guy turns to the others and lays out his plan for the cameras. First, they need to be placed toward the treeline to get an unobstructed view of the buildings. That seems obvious even to me. He's planning to use the totems for reference, and points out where to place the cameras: inside of Totem 3 to cover the parking lot and the south end of the learning center; another near the same totem but covering the bridge road; inside of Totem 7 to cover the west side of the learning center; inside of Totem 9 to cover the west side of the research facility; and close to Totem 11 to cover the shed, garage, and north side of the research facility.

I snort. "Lucy wants to play the nosey tourist and check out the research facility."

"I'm sure nothing bad will happen because of that," Pablo says. I don't even have to look at him to know he's rolling his eyes.

"It's basically Maddie's modus operandi," Rene says.

"Exactly. Nothing bad ever happens when Madeline storms up to the front door of the bad guys' lair."

"Pablo, dear, what did I tell you about the snark?" I say, chuckling. "That's my job. However, I agree with you. And Newspaper Man is going on about how the facility is part of the puzzle they need to solve, and talking about the totems." I pause as he finishes up. "Huh. He's pointing out that they might very well be for protection, and that maybe Beach Guy could put one of the cameras outside the protection zone.

"Now Beach Guy's saying he has a good idea, adding that he removed one of the totems at some point in the past. Interesting that he remembers doing that, but doesn't remember Paranoid Diver Dude. That seems to point to the idea that in this reality, Paranoid Diver Dude never existed in the first place. Anyway, he's suggesting that they have one of the cameras pointing down the road at the first totem, and then grab it as they leave."

"Seriously?" Pablo says. "The doesn't remember that all kinds of horrible things happened the last time he did that?"

I shrug. "Apparently not. Oh!" I laugh. "Teresa is asking him if he really wants to do that. She's mentioning what her teacher said about them keeping bad things inside. She says she doesn't really believe in ghosts, but she never expected to be putting up cameras to spy on the Butterfly factory either."

"Would be nice if the lights would come on so Pablo and I can see what they're saying," Rene complained.

"Yes, well, that would be great, but getting in touch with the director of this damn show seems impossible."

"You're getting grumpy, dear," Pablo says.

"It dark here, Pablo. I haven't eaten anything since breakfast. Of course, I'm getting grumpy."

"I'd pop back to the mansion and fetch you some food," Rene offers, "but then Pablo would miss out on everything."

Pablo sighs. "That's all right, Rene. I've dealt with Grumpy Andrea before. She was considerably worse when she was pregnant."

I clear my throat. "Lucy suggests leaving the totems up for camouflage, Beach Guy acquiesces, saying they can always come snatch one later. He's an idiot. Newspaper Man says he just wants to observe them. I'm not sure they'll do anything if Melody isn't at the research center, but at least he doesn't want to disturb them. Beach Guy and Lucy are bantering back and forth about how they came here looking for peace and quite and got nightmares instead. Beach Guy might write another book set around the things that have been going on, but he'll make sure it has a happy ending."

Once all the cameras are set up and adjusted, and the laptop tucked away to record from the cameras, the four of them head back to town, presumably to get some sleep.

The scene change is once again jarring as we're thrown back to watching Mary Lee packing up her suitcases, including the pictures we'd see earlier. Once everything is put in the truck — what little there is — Pat drives them back to town, parking in front of Pat's building. Mary Lee carries her sleepy daughter up to the apartment; Pat makes two trips for the two suitcases. Finally, the two of them are sitting in Pat's living room, sipping tea; Sunny's asleep with her head in her mom's lap, hugging her teddy bear tightly.

I know I'm not ready to go back to work, and if I walk into the library . . .

"Ha ha!! She is a librarian!" I'm more pleased than I probably should be. Pablo sighs and rolls his eyes.

Well, Dottie is just going to turn everything over to me and then I'll be working and . . . and . . .

"It would be good for her, though," Pablo says. "And before you disagree, I'll even grant that jumping into things with both feet might be a bit much at first. But that little library there isn't anywhere near as big or busy as Denver's library."

Rene chuckles. "So, she's offering to scrub the sheriff's apartment from top to bottom instead?"

"Maybe physical labor is what she needs," I suggest. "Busy hands keep the brain from wanting the devil's brew, I guess. I mean, look how she managed earlier to clean the house where they used to live."

Then I blink at her. "She's . . . she's considering enlisting the Parasol Sisters to keep her on the straight and narrow?"

Rene shudders. "They're scary."

I shrug. "Apparently, Mary Lee enjoyed singing with them at services. I suppose . . ." I shrug again. "Whatever works for her."

Pablo nudges my shoulder. "At least the sheriff says the cleaning would be a good trade until she can go back to the library. And she'll probably be reminding Mary Lee many times a day that her primary job is to get sober."

I nod. "But the suggestion to chat with the local priest is practical, as well." I shake my head. "Well, she's right . . . if the man can put up with the Parasol Sisters, he probably does have infinite patience."

The scene fades slowly to black, and just as slowly brightens again as a bleary-eyed sheriff looks into her kitchen where Sunny is making them breakfast. Mary Lee is right behind her, also still looking sleepy. She's going to earn her keep cleaning Pat's kitchen, that's for sure. The sheriff shakes her head and looks at Mary Lee.

Don't look at me . . . I didn't even know I still had pancake mix in the house. I woke up and Sunny here had already made her lunch and was making breakfast.

The three of them sit down at the table, after Sunny's brought all of them stacks of absolutely delicious-looking pancakes. Once again, my stomach growls. When we're done here, I'm going to be making my own mess in the school's kitchen. Okay, just kidding. I rarely make a mess and I'm very good at cleaning up after myself.

You know how some lizards have little sucker things on their feet so they can run up walls and across ceilings? Sometimes I wonder if Sunny isn't part lizard like that. Either that or she climbs up on counters to look in the back of the top shelves of cabinets. But she wouldn't do that because she knows she's not supposed to be climbing on counters. So, she must be a lizard.

I snicker as Mary Lee leans over to Sunny, whispering that she hopes the little one at least took her shoes off before climbing on the counter.

As they finish their breakfast, Sunny looks up at both of them.

Are you both going to walk me to school?

Mary Lee looks from Sunny to Pat and back again.

I'm certainly going to, sweetie. And you know, as long as we're staying with Miss Pat, I ought to be getting back in the habit of taking care of you, right? So, how about if we make breakfasts together?

The little girl hesitates, looking down at the table and hugging herself for a bit. When she looks up, though, her eyes are sparkling with happy tears and her smile is as radiant as the sun.

I think that would be really fun. I'd like that, Mommy. It really is Something New Thursday, isn't it?

Pat looks at Sunny over her glass of orange juice.

You know, there's a nice thing about being the sheriff of a small town. As long as I get done what I have to get done today, I'm fine. Anything else is up to me. Second, I'm tasked to look over everyone in this town. Sometimes, that includes the two of you. Last? School starts before I open up the office anyway.

They finished up their breakfasts, and this time, Mary Lee cleared the table and rinsed off the dishes. As they stepped out on the street, Sunny hesitated, looking up the street and down.

"Aw, she's looking for Melody," Pablo says. "As far as the town can tell, the two of them have only been walking to school together for a week or so, but . . ."

"Yeah. It's been hundreds of times . . . maybe a few years' worth of school days as they've repeated the same couple of weeks," I say. "Damn, I sure hope they can get on with their lives."

"At this point, we all do, Andi."

Instead of seeing Melody, we spy Teresa DeCoon walking up the street.

Good morning, Missus McGee, Miss Garret.

The school's reigning queen looks positively awkward, not something we've ever seen . . . nor it is something I'd expect from this poised young woman. Mostly, she addresses Sunny.

Mind if I walk with you? We seem to both be going to the same place.

Rene chuckles. "She's doing that chameleon thing Maddie, Mitch, and you do. She's not quite the haughty queen of the island, but she's not quite the relaxed, friendly kid from last night."

"And I'll bet that a little part of her is planning to walk to school with Sunny just to piss that delinquent brother of hers off," Pablo adds.

"Right . . . to say nothing of being in the company of his nemesis, the sheriff," I say with a chuckle of my own.

Don't worry, Missus McGee, we'll make sure no one picks on Sunny."

"Ouch, she's half-way to panic," I note as Mary Lee glances between Teresa and Mister Teddy, and finally at the sheriff.

Your brother and his posse of hooligans? Thank you, Teresa. We appreciate that.

Sunny nods and looks at her little button-eyed bear.

That's right. Mister Teddy says that right now, they will be more worried about Melody than me.

Mary Lee rests a hand on her daughter's shoulder, a puzzled look on her face.

Why are they going to be worried about Melody, sweetheart? Surely it can't be because I was nice to her yesterday, or that Miss Chelsea has struck up a friendship with her. Can it?

She takes another look at Teresa.

Your brother hasn't turned into that much of a . . . ah . . . a donkey's posterior in the last few years, has he?
Things are as well as they can be, up at the Inn.

Teresa's quiet reply to Mary Lee is oddly stated. The sheriff pauses a moment before responding to both Mary Lee's question and Teresa's observation.

Actually, he has. At least twice a month, sometimes three, I'm up at the Inn telling Harry to keep his son on a shorter leash . . . especially since he's discovered girls and needs to prove that he's the big fish in the small school.

Teresa nods, acknowledging the obvious.

He's a jerk.

I chuckle. "Yeah, nothing like stating the obvious there, kiddo."

As they continue their walk and then wait outside the school gates for Melody, Sunny appears to be having a silent conversation with her teddy bear.

Mister Teddy says they are going to be mad because it's Something New Thursday. Not just for you, Mama. Not just for Miss Teresa, not just for Ma'am Garret, but because it's a Something New Thursday for Melody, too. Mister Teddy says Melody is supposed to stay sick. Getting better isn't part of their plans.

A flare of anger and protection washes across Mary Lee's aura. She's apparently fully invested now in her role as Melody's surrogate parent. But outwardly, not of that shows as she crouches down in front of Sunny.

You know you're confusing Mommy, don't you?

Mary Lee is doing her best to work out the oddities of the whole situation while talking to a six-year-old and a teddy bear. She's confused that her daughter seems to know more of what's going on than the average six-year-old ought to know, but she's rolling with the punches and talking to the bear as much as Sunny. I guess even adults need would need a surrogate sometimes to help them get ideas across. But the bottom line is that she's not pleased that anyone would try to keep Melody from getting better, that she really wants the bad people to stop hurting Melody, and she thinks Melody having more friends is an excellent idea.

Sunny raises up her bear until it touches Mary Lee's nose.

Mister Teddy says being a good mommy will help lots . . . because it's a lot harder to give up when you know folks care for you. Miss Jilly is the sweetest person, but Melody misses her mommy and daddy so much. How do you make a good girl scared and frightened? Not knowing who to turn to? Ready to believe everything an adult says is true? You take away her mommy and daddy.

Then the little girl blinks, as if maybe this is the first time that she's actually heard what her bear has said, understanding that the bear's last statement could well apply to her as well. She jumps forward and wraps Mary Lee in a tight hug, hanging on for dear life. Behind them, the sheriff crosses her arms.

Sunny, if that's true, I'm going to need more than the testimony of a teddy bear to even start looking into it. You understand that, right?

Sunny nods and whispers "yes, ma'am" against her mother's neck. She can't see Melody and Chelsea coming up the road from town, but Teresa does.

I'm no angel, Missus McGee. We're alike, Melody and I. We both lack friends. I can't be her guardian angel, but maybe, just maybe, we can be friends.

Then Teresa does something odd, strange, and completely new on this Something New Thursday: she raises herself up on tiptoes, puts her hand up high, and waves good morning to Melody and Chelsea. Chelsea does a double take, then smiles as she waves back to Teresa.

Mary Lee hugs her daughter tightly, then wipes the tear that trickles from the corner of Sunny's eye.

I know she does, sweetheart. I'll help her not feel so alone until she gets her mommy and daddy back. I'm sorry I scared you, baby.

She looks up at Pat, and after a few moments of silence finally voices what's on her mind.

There isn't much a teddy bear can do other than comfort a little girl — and maybe a not-so-little girl — when her daddy and mommy aren't there for her anymore. God knows I'm no help here, other than getting myself well and taking care of Sunny and letting Melody know she's not alone. But that brother of mine is up to something. Maybe he and his friends can tell you something. Of course, you might need one of those Jaws of Life contraptions to get Derek's mouth open. But just be careful, Patty. If any of this is connected to what happened to Chuck . . .

She lets the thought trail away as she watches Teresa greet Chelsea and Melody, then whispers to Sunny again.

Did you want to run up and meet Melody? She probably misses you and Mister Teddy skipping circles around her.

The little one bounces back from her mother, then runs to meet Melody, skipping around both Melody and Chelsea as the three of them walk to the gate. That's when Sunny holds up her bear to Chelsea.

Mister Teddy says good Something New Thursday morning! And that it's good to have friends! And it's good to have friends doing stuff for you!

Meanwhile, Teresa is responding to something Mary Lee said earlier about the library.

The librarian they got now is nice and all. But she's old and only knows about classics and cookbooks. Those are fine and all if you're a tourist, but a library's supposed to be a window to the world, isn't it? There's got to be more to the world than Peyton Place and Fifteen Traditional Montaukettston Ceremonial Dinners.

I chuckle. "She's not wrong, that girl. I guess Mary Lee needs to get herself straightened out right quick so they have a proper librarian at their little library."

"Well, thank goodness you don't want to jump through the portal to fix that," Pablo says.

"Of course not!" I say with a laugh. "Mary Lee doesn't need my help for librarian stuff!"

Sunny reaches up and wraps her arm around Melody's, then consults with her stuff bear.

Mister Teddy says it's a new day, Melody-friend. It's a new day we've never ever had before. Miss O'Connell is teaching history this morning. Won't it be nice to be able to sit with Miss Teresa and Miss Chelsea today?

Melody smiles and greets the adults, then hesitates a moment.

Good morning, Teresa.

To that, the heiress blinks and nods.

Hey, Melody.

Such a simple reply, but Teresa's tone is kind. That's not something that's ever happened before either. The DeCoon girl as always been "Taz" at school.

"Seems like a breakthrough, there," Pablo says.

I nod as the scene fades to black.

Next up: Track XXX.3

© Kelly Naylor