Track XXX.3

The next scene is, I suppose, what the movie types call a cold open. Chelsea and Melody are sitting at the counter with large glasses of orange juice, hash brown potatoes, and thick waffles soaked in syrup and garnished with fresh strawberries. I groan.

"I'm pretty sure they have a waffle iron in the kitchen," Rene says. "If you'd like, I could warn Charles that you'll be starving when we finish here."

I shake my head. "Don't bother the man. He's keeping our hellions out of our hair. And by the time this show wraps up, I'll be hungry enough to eat whatever they've got in the fridge."

The three snooping adults wander in and take the booth behind the girls: first Lucy, then Newspaper Man, and finally Beach Guy with the laptop computer that had recorded whatever the cameras had seen. I'm curious about what they could possibly discover. I guess we'll find out.

After Missus Parsons takes their order, Beach Guy opens the computer, then opens the recording for each camera, arranging the windows on the screen so they're all visible. There's not much going on for most of the night. We can see that lights are on in the research center, but we can't see what's going on inside.

Late into the night, a figure in utility clothes walks from the research center to the garage. It looks like Frank, though the folks watching the computer don't seem to recognize him. Whatever he's doing in the garage is as mysterious as what's going on in the research center. But when he opens the big garage door, the block outline of a large vehicle is apparent — it looks like Maddie's Humvees, but on steroids. He doesn't return immediately to the research center, but pauses for a cigarette break.

"Yeah, that'll be our buddy, Frank," I note.

"The dreamers don't seem to recognize him," Pablo says.

I shrug. "The image might be too indistinct and, besides, he from a different reality. It's possible that Lucy and Beach Guy don't remember anything about the docks, since Paranoid Diver Dude doesn't seem to exist in this reality. Or, you know, their brains still haven't made the right connections."

Much later, a car pulls up, and just one person storms out of the vehicle and to the research center door. It's our good friend, Doctor Schwartzer, and she looks pissed. Immediately following that, another car drives out, and Crazy Ice Cream Lady gets out. She seems even more pissed as they head into the research center.

"You were right about her being one of the bad guys," Rene says.

I nod. "That just leaves figuring out what the hell she's doing, and why."

Maybe an hour before dawn, the facility finally shuts down for the night. The first person to leave is Frank in the town truck. Next, Doctor Danalla and Doctor Grumpy leave, having a conversation in which Grumpy is definitely cowing the younger man. It's too dark to be able to see what they're saying. I'm sure it's nothing nice. I'm not sure if Doctor Grumpy is a bad guy or just an asshole.

"Guess Teresa was right about that being Danalla's car." I smile at Pablo. "But you can be forgiven for thinking it was the doc's . . . they drive the same make and model in the same color. The only differece is that Danalla's is a couple of years older than the doc's."

He sighs. "How do you even know that?" Then he shakes his head. "No, never mind. You skulk around Denver enough that I'm sure you've had plenty of opportunities to get to know cars."

I chuckle. "Mostly, I get to see cars up close and personal in Charlie's parking lot."

Finally, Doc Schwartzer and Crazy Ice Cream Lady exit the building, and they appear to be arguing. If the rocks thrown up by their car tires as they leave the parking lot, they both still plenty pissed.

The dreamers are quiet as they watch the videos and eat their breakfasts, though Beach Guy does stiffen when he sees Crazy Ice Cream Lady. He must remember her nonsense with the foliage, possibly even recalling how she tried to pump him for information. He also seems to be arranging his brain cells to track something Teresa had said previous about Frank.

So, we have the doctors, Frank Dinario, Miss Ell . . . We don't know if their presence indicates involvement or not, but I think we now need to find out more about them. This is more your department, Derek, though Lucy and I are happy volunteers. How do we start?

Newspaper Man considers the question for a moment.

It's a small town, so almost everyone knows everyone else. But as we've seen, there's a lot going on beneath what otherwise appears to be a calm surface. We can use the newspaper, but most of what I've printed about people could be considered fluff pieces or almost hearsay. I don't investigate like our sheriff. Usually, most of my methods involve tedious watching and waiting. Not sure we have a lot of time for either.

Beach Guy frowns.

We could consider enlisting the help of the law and talk to the sheriff. Or move the cameras so as to watch specific people. Must admit that Miss Ell surprises me the most. It must be a cover. Explains the foraging and the dotty flavor recipes she keeps coming up with. If you think someone is a bit loopy, you tend not to look too closely. So, we need to dig behind the front she puts on. How long has she been around here, Derek?

Ooh, that's a good question! She mentioned that Melody's doctor came to the island around the same time she did.

"The two of them are in cahoots," I say.

"I don't disagree, Andrea," Pablo says, "but other than their actions last night, we don't really have any proof."

"Well, they just need to break into her house and see what she's up to!"

"Andrea!"

"Well, it's what Maddie would do," I say faux defensively.

Rene chuckles.

"She's not wrong, Pablo."

"And don't start with that nonsense about Maddie corrupting me, either. Bobby made me watch all kinds of spy movies, you know."

Pablo just sighs.

Newspaper Man notes that they might consider putting the cameras in other places, especially since they have actual targets now. Lucy agrees that it's a good idea.

Melody finishes her meal, placing her silverware quite properly on her now empty plate. She gives both Chelsea and her mother a smile, before looking awkwardly between Chelsea and the door. It's as though she's expecting Sunny to come in, I think. But Sunny is also having a Something New Thursday, so Melody turns back to Chelsea.

So, what are we going to do now?

As she stands and waits, Melody fumbles through her books. With one hand, she balances her gloomy little black book of poetry in one hand, and reads a margin note on one of the back pages.

Up until now . . . I have been running away from every fight, afraid of losing. But running away is even worse than losing. Unless one continues to fight . . .

She trails off, closes the book and swallows, then glances back over her shoulder to Chelsea.

We're going to be late.

That's all Chelsea needs to get her things together and head out the door with Melody for their school day.

"You know, Melody's right. These folks need to actually get up and do something instead of talking about it all the time."

"They've managed to do a few things," Pablo points out. "They saved Miss Jilly. Maybe they had something to do with Mary Lee deciding to stay sober." He smiles and shakes his head. "Okay, that seems farfetched. I'm pretty sure Sunny was the one instigating that."

"No, no . . . Newspaper Man decided to bring his sister coffee and talk to her one morning," I say. "That might have helped."

"Besides learning more about who's involved at the Butterfly factory, what else do we know?" Rene asks. "I'm not going to ask what they know. I'm not sure their brains are fully engaged."

"We know Miss Ell is probably evil," Pablo says. "If running the ice cream shop is a cover, she's got to maintain that cover. If our dreamers are going to spy on her . . ." He sighs. "Well, I suppose the best time to do it would be while she's at the shop. Frank works for the town and probably has to punch a clock. And something is going on out at the research facility that probably isn't aboveboard. Why else would they be so upset that Melody has friends now?"

Beach Guy leans forward to speak more softly to his two friends.

We need to focus on one or more of our suspects. At some point, we may have to get into homes or places of business, but we promised the sheriff we'd try to stay within the law, and I think we should, at least for now. Shall we go and retrieve some cameras and find new subjects? My vote would be Miss Ell, but we can do more than one.

"Hmm, pretty sure the sheriff just said not to get caught," Rene says.

Newspaper Man has the look of a man deep in thought.

It occurs to me, as I think over things, that the facility and Miss Ell's shop opened at the same time. It might be a coincidence, or it might not.

I snicker. "Gibbs Rule Number 39: There's no such thing as coincidence."

Given what we know about things, it's less likely to just have happened. So, I'd agree learning more about her is useful. I don't want to be all paranoid, but I also don't want to just ignore a potential lead given what we just discovered. I don't have the skills to break into the facility, but that's another possibility. As you say, checking things aboveboard is a better choice. I'd offer Miss Ell and then the other guy to follow up on.

Rene laughs. "Seems that Tyler doesn't believe in coincidences, either. Also wonders if the woman's odd flavor combinations might be more science-based than grounded in culinary science. I guess he means other kinds of science?"

"Chemistry, maybe? I have memories of doing odd almost-cooking stuff in Chemistry class at the American School," I say.

Pablo looks at me with a raised eyebrow. "What kind of odd stuff?"

"Oh, we made sauerkraut so we could learn about fermentation. It was neat!"

He shakes his head. "I can't even remember if I took Chemistry."

I roll my eyes. "Did you pay attention to anything in high school, dear?"

He grins at me. "Only what Rosalia told me to pay attention to."

I regard him for a long moment. "Our hellions insist that everyone comes around again in our lives, we just might not recognize them. I hope I recognize her when she shows up, because I'd like to thank her for getting you to at least learn something," I say with a chuckle.

He squeezes my hand. "You know I just kid about all this right. I might not have been the best student, but I never failed a class. It was just the ones I found interesting and the ones where Rosalia told me to pay attention that I go anything higher than a C."

"Well, thank goodness the hellions are over-the-top excited about learning everything. There are a lot of things I'm going to worry about when it comes to those two, but their grades won't be one of them."

Rene clears his throat. "Tyler also mentions that concocting her odd ice cream flavors gives Miss Ell the perfect opportunity to snoop around, noting her odd foraging expedition near the school. I'd add that being the proprietor of the ice cream shop allows her to spy on anyone to frequents her shop."

Lucy pauses a beat.

So, what shall we do about her?

"That sounds almost bloodthirsty," I say.

"You would know," Rene teases.

I give him a stink eye over my shoulder before turning back to the portal. "Beach Guy is more sensible, wanting to research her history." He also mentions the newspaper archives and possibly repositioning a camera.

Newspaper Man nods.

The newspaper archives I can help with. Since we can't leave the area, trying to find out more about her past before she started here might be a bit of a challenge. The camera element is good. We might be able to pick up associations, who she spends time with, or meets. That will give us an ability to connect individuals to what's going on. As in many things, it's who you know that's important.

"Hmm, I don't know that they can't leave the area," I muse. "I understand why they might not want to, but I'm pretty sure the only people who actually can't leave are Melody and Sunny."

"Maybe he's thinking about not leaving the girls alone, possibly even his sister," Pablo says.

I shrug. "Sure. Physically, they could leave. Morally, they can't. Guess that makes sense."

Lucy smiles at the two men with her.

I'm all for connecting the dots. I really am tired of not knowing who the players are, and I know I'm not the only one. It'll be nice to get some answers.

Tyler nods.

Then the first order of business should be camera retrieval and archives. I volunteer for the first, Derek is an obvious candidate for the second. Lucy gets a choice.

Lucy offers to help with the camera retrieval, then help Derek go through the archives if he still needs help. The three of them finish up their breakfasts, then Beach Guy packs up the computer and pays his bill at the counter. Lucy follows. I note that she leaves a generous tip. More people should be like Lucy in that regard. Hmm, well, or the people who run restaurants could pay their people a living wage . . . but that doesn't seem to be the world we live in.

As Beach Guy steps outside, he notes to Lucy that they ought to take some of the same paths that Teresa showed them last night.

Best not to be seen around the center too often. As tourists walking and exploring the area, it makes for less comment.

"What do you want to bet they get caught?" Pablo asks.

"I won't take that bet," Rene says.

"Me either," I say. "The lot of them have acted like ditzes nearly from the beginning. But maybe they'll get lucky."

Newspaper Man also pays his bill, following the other two out of the diner. He turns toward his office, however, and looks to be deep in thought, though he's got a smile plastered on his face.

Beach Guy and Lucy head in the other direction, with Beach Guy taking an early lead. Apparently, forgetting that his legs are longer and that he's moving faster than Lucy, it takes him a couple of minutes to realize she's not keeping up with him.

Sorry, part of the military heritage, I guess. I always wanted to be first to the mess tent.

Lucy shakes her head and moves a little more quickly.

Sorry, lost in thought. My mother is supposed to be joining me on vacation. And while we're not resetting as much, which I like, it brings us closer to when she arrives . . . and that's worrying me quite a bit. But, right now isn't the time for distractions.

We follow Beach Guy and Lucy on their trek toward the research facility, following the path Teresa had shown them the night before. As they pass by the Mallory homestead, they could see the big Peterbilt semi cab in the next driveway over, complete with a deep back cabin and fiberglass fairings. I figure that's got to be King's truck . . . it's a nice rig, if you like that sort of thing. Crazy Ice Cream Lady's sedan isn't in the drive across the road, presumably running some errand or opening her shop early. The two of them chat as they continue their hike.

Are you worried about your mom getting nixed up in all of this? You could always text her to put her off.

Lucy shrugs.

I thought about texting her, but then part of me feels like that would be admitting defeat, that this was never going to end.

Then she nods toward Crazy Ice Cream Lady's home.

Hmm, if any of the stores in town sell pay-as-you go phones, maybe we could get some, load them with one of those where's-my-friends apps, and slip it into her car. It would be interesting to track everyone involved and see where they intersect.

Rene chuckles. "Smart thinking, especially since she doesn't have the technology to track a vehicle in a more covert way."

"And she doesn't have a spy network like mine," I add.

Pablo shakes his head. "Even after all these years, I find it just a little disturbing that all the neighborhood strays keep Ninja updated on whatever the hell she wants to know."

"Hey, don't forget the birds!" I remind him with a laugh. "They're more useful during the day than the cats. And dogs are just sweet, if a little ditzy like those folks."

Beach Guy agrees that the phone-in-the-car idea could work, and notes that saving someone from going through all that they're going through has to be a priority.

I suppose, though, I don't know what I'd tell her to keep her away, not and have her think that I'm still sane. 'Hey, mom, a crazy military operation is going on, probably summoning demons, I'm stuck in a time loop, raincheck?' Yeah, that might not go over well.

I chuckle. "At least she's managing to keep her sense of humor."

"The bad guys aren't summoning demons," Pablo says.

"Are you sure, dear? Remember that Shadowkin that possessed you? I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people who'd call that a demon."

He sighs. "Okay. Potato, potahto. And don't bother with succotash."

I grin, then turn back to the portal.

Okay, but couldn't you just tell her that you've been called away to deal with a friend's emergency so everything is on hold right now, and you'll be in touch as soon as things revert to normal? That's pretty close to the truth. But you're right: we have to work on our problem.

When they arrive at the research facility, Beach Guy inquires about which camera they should move, and how many they should move. Lucy shakes her head.

I don't know. I definitely want to keep an eye on our ice cream lady, but other than that . . . Who do you consider the biggest players, and who aren't we watching?

Beach Guy considers this for a moment.

Well, there's the workman guy, and the doc. But I don't know where the workman guy lives or even who he is, so maybe a little research first. Same with the doc, I guess. And we probably still want to watch the center here. So, maybe just the one? We can always move another later. I need to ask Teresa when she needs the cameras back.

Lucy looks at him and shrugs.

That's a big factor. I hope she doesn't need them back soon. And . . . hmm. I think the doc should be another one of our priorities. I wish there was an easy way to keep track of everyone, or do something with them, but that might tip our hand to whoever the opposition is.

"All of us would have no problem with any of that," Rene says. "It seems like Tyler is the only one with any professional training even moderately adjacent to what they're trying to do. Even that's not going to help him." He looks between me and Pablo. "You've got that chameleon thing down pat, Andi. And you've spent more than your fair share of time undercover, Pablo. I'm not sure I could keep up with you."

I nod. "You did say that you were always Maddie's backup, waiting for her to call you in while she did the actual sneaking around."

"Oui."

Maybe we should bring two back — one for Miss Ell's place and another in hand for the doc or anything else we find. At least that way we won't have to visit the center every day. The more often we do that, the more likely we are to raise suspicion.

The smile Lucy gives Beach Guy shows just how relieved she is.

Thanks. I think that would be a good idea. Those two . . . I don't know. There's just something sinister about combining doctors, ice cream, and some unholy force. It almost makes me feel like Stephen King is writing my life.

As they move carefully around in the trees, we can see Crazy Ice Cream Lady's car parked at the research center. Beach Guy points to the building, showing Lucy where the center's cameras were. They work out which of Teresa's cameras to take, which to leave behind. It's a quiet morning and the time goes by quickly. Lucy has to freeze, crouched low, when the research facility's door slams open. Crazy Ice Cream lady doesn't look the least bit kind or loopy this morning. In fact, she looks stern and forceful . . . if she weren't a bad guy, there are any number of people I'd compare her too, most of them cops.

The two of them decide to take several cameras, and Beach Guy packs them carefully in his backpack. They're still not sure where they're going to put the cameras, of course. Beach Guy suggests they head back to town and meet up with Newspaper Guy.

Their hike back is uneventful, which is probably a good thing. They eventually reach the end of the path where the three Victorian homes sit at the back of their long yards.

Wonder who owns that rig. I think we have to treat anyone as suspect until we find a reason not to.

I snort. "Oh, just the abusive asshole who likes to beat on his sister-in-law, the former town drunk. He probably spends enough time out of town that he's not mixed up in any of the weird shit going on."

The two of them proceed to sneak around the backs of the three houses. Aunt Jilly's place, of course, is familiar from the barbeque the other night. From Asshole Trucker's house, I can hear the sounds of loud country music. He's got several old pickups and cars lined up out back, in various stages of deterioration: one truck and one coupe are up on cinderblocks. The garage out back has the big door rolled up, and it would appear the man has turned it into a workshop. There's no room for vehicles in there.

The back of Crazy Ice Cream Lady's house is . . . well, pristine. The lawn is neatly mowed, but it's completely empty. Maybe she doesn't spend time outside. I've met a few people like that, folks with lovely back yards that they ignore for the environs of their well-kept homes. They're all geeks, and have computer systems that nearly rival Black Wolf's communication center in her lair. The plethora of antennas and Dish receivers might point to Crazy Ice Cream Lady as being such a person.

Of the three houses, hers is the only one that's empty.

Beach Guy pulls out his camera and takes pictures of the woman's setup. He then suggests putting up their camera at the front of the house, noting that she doesn't seem to use the back yard.

Lucy shrugs.

Front works, though sometime I think we might want to monitor the back, just in case. Or . . . perhaps I'm just being paranoid. Though, as they say, you're not paranoid if invisible demons really are after you.

"They're not invisible," Pablo murmurs.

"No, but they are something that minds have a hard time categorizing," I say.

Beach Guy sets up a camera in a tree out back. After it's positioned and he returns to Lucy, who's keeping watch, they banter back and forth for a bit, before Beach Guy suggests that they might be able to set the second camera where they can watch both Aunt Jilly's house and Crazy Ice Cream Lady's house.

Of course, setting up the camera outside isn't going to tell them much they don't already know. They know when Crazy Ice Cream Lady's at her shop. They know the times when the shop's open. Now they know she spends some time out at the research facility. Then they start going down another path of inquiry: What if there are already surveillance cameras watching what they're doing?

Pablo shakes his head. "It seems like it's a place where the biggest crime is whatever delinquency Teresa's brother and his little gang get into. I'm sure the sheriff is getting pretty tired of that. She's got those two murder cases still open, but other than that?" He shrugs. "Aside from rescuing her best friend from whatever scrape she's gotten herself into, there's doesn't seem to be much going on there, crime-wise. What's your take on it, Andrea?"

"I don't disagree. I haven't seen anyone over there with qi indicating they might be up to no good or hiding stuff." I narrow my eyes at the figures in the portal. "I haven't seen Asshole Trucker yet, so I can speak to his propensity for domestic abuse. I didn't get a close enough look at Schwartzer, and Doc Grumpy just look like he hates life in general. Crazy Ice Cream Lady is a conundrum, though. She looked plenty pissed off when she was out at the research center, but otherwise, she just looks like a harmless loopy person. I don't trust her."

"Not only do we agree," Rene says, "but it would appear at least some of the dreamers also agree."

As Beach Guy and Lucy continue to snoop, they discover that neither Aunt Jilly nor Asshole Trucker have any sort of security setup. The surprising find — though not surprising to me — is the surveillance at Crazy Ice Cream Lady's place. As they get a bit closer to the house, they can see the familiar ADT stickers on the building's windows. This is normal around here, in Denver, in our universe. It seems completely out of place over there, in that tiny town. As they peek into windows, even we can see the contacts around the windows as well as a camera pointing at the back door — from inside the house. There's nothing to track anyone walking around outside, but inside? That woman's either uber paranoid, or she has something to hide.

"She has something to hide," Pablo says.

"You reading my mind again, dear?"

He chuckles. "You know I can't do that. It's a matter of great minds thinking alike. Again."

"Huh," Rene says, nodding to the house on the other side of the portal. "She hasn't put security contacts on the basement windows. That certainly seems like an oversight."

"Could be," I agree. "Or she doesn't use the basement and has it locked off."

Lucy looks around after Beach Guy makes note of the basement windows as well.

In for a penny, in for a pound? We're here, and it looks like we're not being observed. I think we should do whatever we can now, just in case there's not a better time in the future.

Beach Guy nods.

Just thinking the same thing, but I want to phone Derek first.

He pulls out his phone and dials Newspaper Man. In a way that doesn't give much away, he lets Newspaper Man know that they're checking out Crazy Ice Cream Lady. When the call is over, he turns back to Lucy.

Hopefully, if we need a rescue, Derek will know where to look. He says he has some news for us, too.

The two of them are certainly doing something new on this Something New Thursday. It's both difficult and not particularly difficult getting into the house. Popping the basement window open is easy. Squeezing through the short, wide opening is not, especially when taking into consideration the dust, dirt, and cobwebs they have to get through. Once through the windows, however, they drop into the basement without problem. It's an unremarkable basement, with fieldstone walls and a packed dirt floor. The inhabitants of the basement are all dust bunnies. There's a large boiler, a hot water heater, and a large electric panel. Ambient light streams in through the windows, but there's also a pair of bare bulb fixtures with string pulls to illuminate the area after dark. In the center of the space is a set of stairs leading upstairs.

The stairs creak as they walk up — and why the hell do I hear that? Damn stupid portal! The door doesn't even have a lock, and there aren't any security contacts on the door. That's definitely a hole none of us who know Maddie would ever make. I guess it's a good thing, at least for the dreamers' sake, that Crazy Ice Cream Lady isn't as paranoid as my sister. The stairs open into a small anteroom that serves as the landing for a second set of stairs leading to the second story. Opposite the stairs is a hallway running left and right. To the right is a large, recently remodeled modern kitchen with stainless steel appliances, polished stone counters, a large gas oven and range, and an oversized microwave. To the left, the corridor opens up into a large room. The outside wall is lined with windows; the inside wall has three large pairs of bi-parting pocket door, each surrounded by fancy Victorian trim. All three doors are open: the farthest doorway is a dayroom, the middle is the living room, and the closest is a den.

The den is the most interesting of the rooms, by far. It's a long rectangular space with a bay window on the far wall. One side is lined with bookshelves, the other has a long counter with three computer workstations set in a precise, equally-spaced row.

"She's not anal-retentive or anything," I remark.

Not only does each workstation have a pair of flatscreen monitors, but the wall above them is nearly filled by four television-sized panels. Above one computer is an odd bit of art: it's a large printout tacked to an even larger piece of a thick, gray board what's anchored into the wall with screws. There are five large darts impaled on it; there's evidence of many, many holes from previous impalements scattered across the surface.

"That's CERN," Rene says.

"Hmm, always wondered what it looked like," I say. "Seems like Crazy Ice Cream Lady doesn't like it."

The workstation monitors are all dark, but the large monitors above them show various images. The first is a bedroom; it's furnishing are more feminine than not, and on the nightstand is an alarm clock and a pair of textbooks. The room's trim looks much like Aunt Jilly's home, which makes sense if the houses were built around the same time.

The second monitor is split into six separate windows, each showing a wooded landscape: the grounds around the research facility and Discovery Center.

"Nope, that's not weird at all," Pablo says.

The third monitor is also split into separate windows: two are white hallways, one is the interior of the Discovery Center, the last is some kind of white vestibule.

It's the last monitor that unnerves me the most. It's an image of a cutting-edge operating room. It's the same operating room where Chelsea was tortured. I shudder.

As a librarian, I'm always interested in other people's books. Crazy Ice Cream Lady seems to have a better collection of local folklore than the library, which annoys me. There are several treatises on the works of Nikola Tesla, most dealing with his theories of power transmission. There's another called The God Particle, by Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi. I think the only folks who checked it out at DPL were the AP Physics students. There are several books by someone named Roberta Sparrow: The Tangent Universe, Water and Metal, and Manipulated Living and the Manipulated Dead.

Pablo laughs. "Those last three? They're right out of Donnie Darko! So is the author, for that matter."

I nod. "Ah. That would explain why I've never heard of her."

"Looks like you have an assignment," he says, nudging my shoulder.

"I guess."

There are a couple of other thoroughly odd books on the shelf: Operation Blackwatch — Collinsport March 1972, which sits next to Lycanthropy: History, Epidemiology, Containment and Elimination.

"Okaaaay. That's a very bizarre world."

"When the ice cream lady was babbling about Collinsport to Tyler . . ." Pablo begins.

"If werewolves exist in that world, she knows more about it than most," I finish.

"I don't know if you noticed," Rene says, "but those werewolf books are published by the United States Army."

I shake my head, as Beach Guy and Lucy look at the book sitting on the counter next to the central computer station. The cover is worn, the pages are dog-eared, and there are at least a dozen note pages tucked into the book. It's not a manual like the werewolf books seem to be, but it also bears the imprimatur of the United States Army.

Sensitive Compartmented Information: TAargets Division
Resolution of the Eldridge Contradictions by Practical Application of a Multiversal Landscape
by
Lieutenant Colonel Danielle Laurence
Chief of Special Operations: TAargets Delta

"Um. That's all kinds of not-good shit going on there," I say.

"Your turn to state the obvious, huh?" Pablo says.

"I guess so. Miss Ell . . . Miss Laurance. Definitely evil."

"I believe we can all agree with Lucy over there," Rene says. "This is beyond creepy."

Beach Guy suggests that Lucy look more closely at things while he photographs everything he can.

She starts reading the journal, and we get to read over her should. It's not written in the manner of someone who's crazy. It's a dry, detailed, technical tome, laying out a hypothesis, presenting data, and making conclusions meticulously. It's very dry and very boring. The accompanying photos are very much the opposite of that. One shows a man whose entire left side appears to be half-buried on the deck of some ship. And when the picture was taken, he might have still been alive.

The gist of the journal is fairly simple and straightforward. It's about the mysteries surrounding the USS Eldridge and the so-called Philadelphia Experiment: the old conspiracy theory about the Navy attempting to make a ship invisible and winding up in the realm of time travel, black holes, and other madness. The thing about that conspiracy theory is that it wouldn't die down even after the Navy provided an abundance of documentation showing that the USS Eldridge was never in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard when the supposed experiment took place. It couldn't have disappeared because the Navy had documentation that the ship had gone on to serve as an escort for military convoys to the Mediterranean.

Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady is proposing in her little dissertation that, rather than some of the stories surrounding the Eldridge being true, they all were true and factual. She claims that whatever happened on the Eldridge wasn't invisibility tests, degaussing of the Engstrom — which was once berthed next to the Eldridge — teleportation experiments, or an accidental timeslip. It was all of the above, and the contradictions in the historical records could be resolved by an acceptance of the multiverse theory of the universe. Because they represented not one USS Eldridge but several versions of the Eldridge, each belonging to a different alternative, but parallel, universe, all the alleged datapoints regarding the ship would be true.

"You're going to make sure those lunatics can't get into our world, right?" Pablo demands.

"Oh, yeah. My head hurts just thinking about the havoc they can cause."

The book goes on to propose two other hypotheses: First, not all participants were able to maintain memories of passing through the multiple universes. And second, that since the Office of Naval Research has been unable to replicate the experiment because of technical shortfalls, there may be a human factor involved, that a single person or select group of people may be needed to act as a "key" to allow opening of a successful multiverse transition. The investigation of the multiple crew rosters has indicated one potential candidate: Signalman 1st Class Edward A. Tracee.

"Jesus," Pablo whispers. "Melody's father?"

I shake my head. "The nonsense with the Eldridge started too long ago for that . . . so, more like her grandfather."

"That poor girl."

"Yeah. Though the use of CERN as a dart board makes more sense now. The Higgs-Boson particle was supposed to have settled the argument between the standard model of the universe and the more chaotic multiverse theory. But when CERN finally managed to create the particle, it had an unexpected, middle-of-the-road energy level. It only proved that the universe is more complex than anyone previously thought."

"Wait . . . people in this universe couldn't prove the multiverse theory?" Rene sounds positively shocked.

"Rene, I'm not letting anyone experiment on me or my son. Without the two of us, all they can do is slam atoms around their Large Hadron Collider," I say, looking over my shoulder at him. "Even if I could explain how we open the portals, they couldn't replicate it. They don't have the math yet, and they probably don't have the equipment. I hope they don't have the equipment."

"Have you mentioned this to Maddie, the woman with most of the money in the world?" he asks.

"Yep. Charles, too. Charles knows better than either of us how to keep up with what the science folks are doing, and he'll let us know if we should worry."

Rene sighs. "I think I might still worry."

"Okay. I'm not going to, because the smartest person I know is your son, and I trust he won't go breaking the universe."

Beach Guy and Lucy take note of a bookmarked quote in one of the books, The God Particle:

This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why 'God Particle'? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one . . .

"Hmm, he's referring to the Book of Genesis, from the Bible," I note.

On the first page of the book is a dedication: My Dear Colleague — maybe this will finally end our discussions on symmetry.

Hidden between a pair of books, almost as an afterthought, they come across a large piece of parchment.

"The ice cream shop owner has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics?"

"Nothing evil about her at all, Pablo," I say with an appropriate amount of sarcasm.

Lastly, they find a note scrawled in a book filled with mostly complex math.

We successfully triggered an event tonight, lasting approximately one and a half seconds. Take that, Nietzsche. The problem with saying God is dead? It presumes he was once alive in the first place.

"She seems nice."

For once, I ignore Pablo's snark.

As the two of them are putting things away and getting ready to leave, Lucy has a disturbing thought that she just has to share with Beach Guy.

The resets . . . they've done all of this to Melody because she was useful. What will happen if they find out that the rest of us are immune to the forgetting side of the resets? How useful will we become to them?

Beach Guy quite sensibly says that they better not get found out. Then they retrace their steps down to the basement and out the window. Beach Guy scuffs up the dirt around the window a bit to cover their entry. They relax as they walk down the road into town, and as they enter the town proper, they see Newspaper Man walking toward them.

The scene change is a dizzying flip from looking at Newspaper Man from Beach Guy and Lucy's point of view to looking over Newspaper Man's shoulder as he opens the door to his office after leaving the diner. Damn portal editor.

We get another look around his office: Behind a door in a rusted frame at the back of the space is a large printing press. It wouldn't surprise me to discover the lock is frozen shut. The darn thing looks like an antique, and far too heavy to get out of the space easily. Next to that is what passes for Newspaper Man's archives. One wall is lined with a mismatched set of vertical file cabinet. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they're all seven drawers high. Two walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with copy boxes. Enough of them lack lids that we can tell they're full of notebooks and back issues of the newspaper. Against the last wall is a battered, out-of-date computer. In fact, it's so old that it's still got a 3.25-inch floppy drive — a misnomer if I've ever heard one — a Zip drive, and a CD drive — not a DVD drive, a CD drive. Beside the computer are two more boxes, these filled with a disorganized collection of media for all three drives.

"I'm not a computer nerd, and even I feel sorry for the guy," Pablo says.

"None of our computers — yours, mine, the kids' — could read most of that stuff."

"If we came across a collection like that and needed to see what was on it, Freya could probably figure it out."

"No doubt. I suppose it would easy enough for her dump it all on flash drives."

Newspaper Man flips on the power strip and boots up the computer. While he waits, he looks around the room, no doubt trying to figure out where to start his search. Once the computer boots up, showing an old Windows XP screen, he starts a search to find out anything he can about the handyman, Frank Dinario.

He doesn't discover much: Frank picks up the litter, trims the hedges, makes sure the flower boxes are set out for tourist season, keeps a fresh coat of paint on the town office building, and drives the town's garbage truck. The most interesting thing is a five-line notice announcing his hire, presumably needed because the man's being paid with public funds. And the most interesting thing about the announcement? It's in the same issue as the grand opening announcement for the town's new ice cream shop.

"The doc, ice cream lady, and maintenance man all come to town at the same time?" Rene says. "No, not suspicious at all."

"Looks like Newspaper Man is starting to see the connections, too," I note. "There's another announcement about Schwartzer taking over for another doctor, who moved to be closer to his family out west. And then there's the small contracting start-up. I can't see that there'd be much work for him in a town that small, and there are indications that the economy's in a downturn. Yet, the guy's still doing fine."

"Maybe his work is farther inland and he just keeps his office here because it's cheaper?" Pablo speculates.

"Hmm. Maybe."

"Is it unusual that the cable company opened an office in a little town like that?" Rene asks.

"Maybe? They're living in 2016. I don't know how prevalent physical locations were back then," I say. "We only had a couple in Denver, but things might have been different in New York."

Newspaper Man sets up searches on Schwartzer and the contracting company as well. Schwartzer has an interesting history in medical research, primarily in psychological health and traumatic brain injury. So, the fact that she's a general practice physician in a small town is . . . odd. Her past three locations of practice were in Las Vegas, Nevada; Lancaster, California; and Dayton, Ohio. Beside each city, he makes an interesting note. Those locations are close to Groom Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Pablo's brow furrow. "I can almost understand the two air force bases, if she's with the military. But what's out at Groom Lake?"

I stare at him for a full ten seconds. "Wow. Area 51? Ever hear of it?"

"Aren't all the stories about that place in the conspiracy theory category?"

"Pablo! The reason there are so many conspiracy theories about the place is that it's a highly classified Air Force facility, and it's administered by Edwards, where the doc also had a practice. Starting back in the fifties, the Air Force — and supposedly, the CIA — have been doing testing on various aircrafts."

Rene chuckles. "Trust a librarian to know something more than conspiracy theories."

The scene change reminds me of bad PowerPoint presentations as the newspaper office slides to one side and the sheriff's office fills in the space. It's possible that I actually wince, though not loudly enough to elicit a comment from either Pablo or Rene.

The sheriff has pulled a stack of paper cups out of a little closet and set them on top of her water cooler. She crosses her arms and gives her best friend a stern look.

Your job today, Deputy McGee, is to drink this much water from the cooler between now and noon. And sit on the couch. Because you're going to be sick today. But that's a hell of a lot better than being drunk.

Mary Lee shrugs as she fetches her first cup of water.

I'm also going to be peeing a lot, apparently.

Pat smiles as Mary Lee sits down again on the sofa, before turning to her big whiteboard — turned so Mary Lee can't see her work — full of Post-It notes, too many disturbing photos, and dry-erase lines crisscrossing the board. Not much happens for a while: Pat works her case and Mary Lee drinks her water. Eventually, the sheriff murmurs, "Damn you, Doyle."

Mary Lee fetches a second cup of water and continues watching the sheriff.

I always thought this town would make a better setting for one of Christie's novels. What's Doyle done this time to vex you?

The sheriff looks around the board.

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Mary Lee nods, as though that's always Pat's answer when she's annoyed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I probably don't want to know what happened over at the Canton place. Saw a flutter of your yellow crime tape hanging off a shrub. Haven't seen Haley around school or Rachel around town. The Sea Witch didn't go down in a storm, did it?

Pat's quiet for several seconds before shaking her head.

No. His boat didn't go down. It would have been better for everyone if it had. His wife is still in counseling, and I don't think they've let Haley out of the psychiatric hospital yet. You know the one book section you hated keeping up? Well, this is right out of the books of blood, princess. Definite proof that in the end, our life stories are red.

After another sip of water, Mary Lee raises an eyebrow.

You've got data points that don't fit into any of your boxes, don't you? I know how much that annoys you.

The sheriff frowns at that.

Yes. No. It's that the boxes those data points are fitting into are old ones. It's not just that I now have two unsolved cases, it's that both are inexplicable. One was how Chuck died and no one could explain to me why there were no bloody tracks leading up to the bedroom or why the walls of Sunny's room were completely unscathed. A hundred bullets and not one casing or bullet hole. This one didn't have a body. Fine, there were remains — splattered across every single wall of the house. Your big brother? Walked out sick. And in both cases?

She crosses her arms again.

We had military here, black Humvees and a couple of guys in camouflage, before troopers could get here. Within an hour, I was told what happened: in this case, he must have caught a rare Ebola-like disease from a fish he caught and that the house was quarantined until further notice, and please box my evidence and reports and send them in for analysis. Just like before, every time I send in a request on their investigation, I get a reply . . . with ninety percent of the words blocked out by black magic markers. Gods. We should by stock in Sharpie, princess.

She stops speaking to look at Mary Lee. The other woman, however, seems to be in a spiral thinking about her dead husband. Mary Lee apparently realizes she's about to start hyperventilating, so she sucks in a deep breath, curling her hands into fists while she holds her breath. Her nails dig into her palms; she's focusing on that pain rather than memories of her husband.

Everything I'm being told is that it's a unique, accidental, naturally-caused death. The exact same thing I was told before. And they want me to believe they're not connected. The problem, Mary Lee, is that if they're indeed connected, we're either on a train barreling straight into Crazy Town or we're just seeing the top of a black budget iceberg, the type hidden by a cold-air mirage. If we're on the Titanic, we need to get Sunny and Melody off of it.

When Mary Lee looks up at Pat, her eyes are haunted.

I've been on the Crazy Train for three years, Patty. Maybe I'm still on it, I don't know. But I look at my kid, and all I want is for life to be normal again. Except . . . except I don't even know what normal is anymore.

She shakes her head slowly, visibly trying not to touch those memories that hurt so much. Qi can say so much, and this woman is in a lot of pain.

Once you eliminate the impossible . . .

Her brows draw together as she whispers those word. From the sound of things, whatever had happened to her husband should have been impossible. So had the nightmare up at the Canton place.

. . . whatever remains . . .

Seeing the way her aura pulsates with pain, I can understand why she started drinking and never stopped. Maybe I'd been the lucky one when Pablo went off to Quetzalcoatl's training dimension and I fell into a coma. On the other hand, Pablo came home. Mary Lee's husband didn't and won't.

. . . no matter how improbable . . .

I think she's trying to work out what could have happened, or at least asking herself hard questions. Had her husband lied to her? If so, about what? Was it just lies of omission? It's hard to see her coming to any conclusion other than him having a damn good reason if he had lied. Hadn't Pat said Mary Lee and Sunny were the most important people in his life? So . . . if he'd been keeping secrets, it was probably to keep his wife and daughter safe.

It all makes so much sense to me. I know Pablo doesn't tell me things if he believes not knowing will keep me and the hellions safe. I do the same with some of the seriously awful stuff I deal with as Ninja. Why should someone in that other universe be any different?

. . . must be the truth.

And sometimes, the truth will show you the absolute worst that humans can do to other humans.

"You're reading more from her qi than either Rene or I can see," Pablo says.

"Duh?"

"Well, maybe you could stop clenching your jaw like that. It looks painful." He lifts my hand to his lips again and kisses my knuckles.

I smile at him. "You're good for me."

"And to think you spent a decade trying to pretend I wasn't!"

"Okay, don't you start on that again!" Rene says. "Focus."

Pablo and I snicker as we turn back to the portal.

Barker, King, Koontz, even Kafka and Lovecraft and Poe — all of them considered authors of the horror genre. Did you know there are hundreds of authors who write in that genre? There are far too many for a little town library to have in its collection. And it's mostly the teens and preteens trying to show their friends how cool they are by reading things that would give folks nightmares if any of it were real. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me if some of them got nightmares anyway. But it's fiction, Pat. It's all fiction — even that thoroughly crazy stuff by Barker and King. And yet, it didn't stop some part of me from shivering whenever I saw a shade of green that I associated with those Tommyknockers.

Pablo sighs. "Another reading assignment?"

"I'm not going to make you read anything by Stephen King. It's something you have to want to read going in," I say. "But if you want to start on slightly less nightmare-inducing books, I'd recommend Seanan McGuire writing as Mira Grant."

Mary Lee stares at the back of Pat's whiteboard.

What you're asking is what do we do when reality starts to look like a page from a novelist's nightmare, aren't you? Okay, well, what do we do now that I won't be spending all my spare time over at Danny's Bar, that is."

She tries to smile, but can't quite manage it. She lets silence surround her as she sets her feet flat on the floor and leans back against the sofa, staring at the ceiling. Her mini-history lesson about the Titanic proves that she's a librarian. How many ordinary people keep that sort of information in their heads? I smile at her. History buffs would, of course. But librarians are the best. Finally, when she lifts her head to look at Pat again, there's something more in her eyes than her haunted past.

"Ut oh," Pablo says.

I just turn my head to look at him.

"Well, whenever to start getting that look in your eyes, someone's eventually going to get their asses kicked."

I shrug. "Yeah, but I'm a superhero."

If we're on the Titanic, someone needs to figure out who put us here. I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark and say that's the trail my brother and his friends are following. And you know what? I'm all for getting the rest of the town onto those lifeboats and let those fuckers drown in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. And I'm not even a little bit sorry for wishing anyone ill. Because if you're right, if all of this is related? Those fuckers killed my husband. They can burn in Hell, and I hope they do.

"Hoo boy. And maybe that world is lucky Mary Lee's not a superhero," I say. "Now that she's getting sober, well, she'd lay waste to the bad guys in a heartbeat if she had my powers. Or even yours or Peregrine's."

"I won't argue about that," Pablo says.

Shh, princess. We deal in justice, not revenge."

"I would hasten to point out that justice can be excellent revenge," Rene says.

"Especially for those of you who aren't as bloodthirsty as Maddie and I are," I agree.

You know those stages of grief the eggheads are always talking about? Well, I think I just got to anger. I know revenge doesn't help but honestly, Pat? I'm not sure justice does either. Maybe you need a little of both. Or at least just thinking about both.

The pragmatic sheriff simply nods.

Angry is fine. Just don't act on it. I like you better on my couch instead of in my cell.

Mary Lee shrugs.

What am I going to do? Even when I was younger and healthy and athletic — sort of athletic — I was always a lightweight. It seemed like you and Chuck could do anything you put your minds to doing: long-distance running, shooting your noisy guns, lifting weights. About all the fame I can claim is that I was a better bowler than the two of you put together. So, right. I'll challenge the bad people, whoever they are, to a few lines and see who comes out on top.

"She keeps reminding us that she has a sense of humor," Pablo says.

"Yep. Hey, you want to take the kids bowling when we get back to Denver?"

"Hell, no! You embarrass me when you get perfect scores!"

He's mostly kidding, but not completely. I can't help it that my hand-eye coordination is so good that bowling is really too easy.

"Hmm. Okay. We'll play Settlers of Catan instead."

Mary Lee shrugs and gets up for another cup of water as Pat continues discussing the vexation with the two murder cases.

So, let's consider the impossible: that Chuck wasn't telling the truth. We both know Chuck was head-over-heels in love with you. So, the question isn't 'did he or didn't he?' The question is why. It's one of the things I deal with every day: motive. What would be his motive? And the only one that makes sense goes back to the Fort. Let's say that whatever he was doing at Fort Hero was one of those high-security classified things that the military does. Like Area 51 was where they made the U-2 spy plane.

I chuckle. "Parts of their history is the same as ours."

"Shouldn't most of it line up?" Rene asks.

"Oh, probably. And we don't have a Fort Hero . . . it's Camp Hero. I wonder if the conspiracy theories on their side match up with the ones here."

"It wouldn't surprise me," Pablo says.

So, what could keep him from telling you, or telling you he couldn't talk about it? It would have to be something bloody well compelling. The only thing I can think of is that he was protecting someone. You know he'd do that in a heartbeat. But still, if he was looking out for you, if someone was threatening you, that he would have shared with you, I'm sure. So, who could it be? You know he'd do anything to keep Sunny from being hurt. Anything.

Pat pauses to take a drink of her coffee, then drags one of the wooden chairs across the floor with one hand. She sets it opposite the sofa and sits down.

Maybe the Titanic is an apt metaphor, Mary Lee. Do you know why the iceberg hit the ship?
Pat, the ship hit the iceberg, not the other way around. And yes . . . cold-air mirages.

Pat nods.

Are we looking at a mirage that's been covering the town for over three years? The real question isn't just what's hidden behind the mirage. It's what's so bad that Chuck would be afraid for you and your daughter.

Mary Lee sits down again, reluctantly, and looks at her best friend.

He wasn't the one Sunny needed to save. Sunny . . .

She closes her eyes tightly, pausing for half a minute or so.

How long has Melody Trasee been staying with Miss Jilly?"

She shakes her head almost violently and opens her eyes again.

It doesn't make sense, Pat! Why in God's name would Sunny need to save Melody? How? Fine . . . I can almost understand the why. I don't think I've ever seen anyone who wasn't covered in blood so terrified as Melody when she talked about that doctor of hers. I don't understand how. How is a six-year-old supposed to save anyone?

"Besides her mommy," Pablo whispers.

"She doesn't understand the how and why of saving Melody," I say, "but she absolutely groks its rightness."

None of it makes sense, Patty. It makes my head hurt. Because whatever happened to Chuck and whatever happened to Jack Canton aren't even close to the same thing. The only thing they have in common is the military. You know I love science fiction more than most, but we're veering into the works of Philip K. Dick. And while he might tell the occasional engaging story, he was batshit crazy!

I laugh. "Oh, sister, you are so right!"

No, what happened to Chuck and Jack weren't the same. But that's not what's bothering me. It's that the response is the same. The response in both cases was far too quick, far too organized, and they swung military jurisdiction, and they flashed dangerous-sounding national security credentials like they were school kids playing Magic cards.

"Kids still play that?" Pablo asks.

I shrug. "No clue. I never got into it, and I haven't seen evidence that the kids or their friends are into it either."

Mary Lee downs the water in her cup then stares into it for a moment. Then she looks back at Pat, her face a mask of pain and grief.

I think the most coherent answer you're going to get is from Mister Teddy. Sunny's coping mechanism. Maybe it's something she would have needed anyway, I just feel . . . well, shitty that I wasn't there for her when she needed me.

Pat spins one of her whiteboards around, picks up an eraser and brutally scrubs it clean, scattering her notes and taped-up photographs of the Canton death. She writes two words across it, two names: Sunny, Melody. Then she stands back, crosses her arms, and looks at the board.

You're right. Why in God's name would Sunny need to save Melody?

She circles Melody's name in red.

Because she's the one being worked on up at the research facility every weekend. Just what the hell are they doing to her up there?

Then she throws the marker at the board, clearly angry. The look on Mary Lee's face tells us that Pat gets angry less often than a blue moon.

I don't even have enough to write them a goddamn parking ticket!

"Yeah, look at Mary Lee," Pablo says. "She's surprised, shocked even. But she's settling into a space where Pat's anger is almost validation that she's not the crazy one."

"Explain," Rene says, not quite keeping up with the detective.

"Well, my take on things is that Pat can't be considered crazy by anyone's standard. So, if she's angry, the anger is valid. That means Mary Lee's anger is also valid, and that maybe . . . just maybe . . . she's not crazy either."

"Huh. That makes perfect sense now that you say it out loud."

Pablo shrugs. "I deal with angry people a lot. I tend to leave the crazies to Ninja, but I still see some of them. I'll take angry people over crazy people any day."

"Me too," I agree.

"No argument from me," Rene says.

Mary Lee replies, but it seems like she's talking to herself more than Pat.

Why? Maybe it does have something to do with whatever treatments she's getting up there. Maybe it doesn't. I know fear when I see it, though, and Melody Trasee is one terrified girl. That's a good enough reason for me to explain why Sunny would need to save her.

She looks at Pat then, and it's obvious she talking to her friend now.

Hell, that's a good enough reason for me to need to save her. And there's not a goddamned thing I can do to help that poor girl!

She stands up and drains the last few drops of water from the cup, then walks over to the counter and sets the cup on it, upside down. Then she slams her fist down on the cup, nearly flattening it. Although her qi shows the satisfaction she feels, she shakes her hand out since she's managed to hurt it.

How, Pat? How can a six-year-old save Melody? I don't know. You don't know. I don't even know if Sunny and Melody know. And if they do, are they going to tell you?

Mary Lee shrugs and sighs.

Maybe. I mean, my conversation last night with Melody could have been interpreted as all metaphor and allegory, but I think there was a kernel of truth in there, too. It's not the kind of truth that you're going to believe. It's barely the kind of truth I can accept is even possible. But she's scared, Pat. So, there's some kind of truth about the research facility and her doctor that's frightening in a horrifying kind of way. Past King and Straub and all the way into Lovecraft territory.

She rests her elbows on the counter and holds her head in her hands. She's silent for quite some time.

"I wish we knew what she was thinking," I say.

Pablo shrugs. "Could be any number of things. Like, why isn't she over at the bar drinking? Or wondering again what her husband was up to.

Then she whispers something so softly that even I almost miss it.

"Hmm. Yeah, demons are real," I say. "Sometimes they take human form. Okay, most of the time, they take human form."

"Andrea?"

"Oh, sorry. She was wondering if demons were real. She hasn't seen Melody's little not-Shadowkin, and she doesn't remember any of the horrors that come along with the world ending."

Mary Lee sighs again and tilts her head up to look at Pat again.

Derek is up to something. I don't know what it is, but I'm his sister, and that dipshit has tells. He and his friends might know something. Christ, he was practically turning himself inside out yesterday to keep from saying anything useful.

Pat crosses her arms and looks at the names on her whiteboard.

Yes, they're up to something . . . something bothersome. I suspect, however, they also don't have anything solid and are just this side of me arresting them, which would be a problem. Not because he's your brother but because I only have so much room in my holding cell.

Mary Lee stands up straight, crosses her arms, and stares at the wall, as though she might be able to see right through the walls of the Municipal building and Derek's newspaper building and all the space between them.

I say we go over there and talk to him. If I have to try fighting with him like we did when we were kids, well, you might wind up arresting both of us. But he'll talk when I start trying to rip his ear off.

When she looks back at Pat, her eyes have narrowed and she's got a hard glint in them.

He's older than me, and he's always been bigger than me. And that just means that I fought dirty. I remember how to do that. He'll scream about needing a tetanus shot if I bite him.

"Jesus, I hope are kids get along better than those two as they're growing up," Pablo says.

"Yeah, that isn't the kind of behavior either one of us understand," I say. "But I don't think we have to worry. They've got your family and my family as role models. They'll be fine. Plus, according to them, they're just one soul that split in two, so maybe they can't act destructively toward one another."

I'm sober. He's my brother. Siblings fight. Let's get some answers from that dingleberry. I won't even be mad at you for arresting me if I wind up actually hurting him.

Pat pauses, arms still crossed.

Yes, you were the lightweight. But you were also the one who always knew more than either of us. Remember, you were the one who told us how old Isabella of France really was during the time of Braveheart and turned it from a rousing historical drama to something really, really creepy.

Pablo raises an eyebrow. "Do I want to know?"

"Do you enjoy Braveheart?"

"Yeah," he says slowly.

I grin one of Ninja's grins. "Then no, you don't want to know."

Do you know how hard it is to watch movies with so many historical inaccuracies — especially ones that are trying to take themselves seriously? Maybe that's why I like science fiction or fantasy movies so much. It isn't likely we're going to see elves or ET wandering down Main Street unless it's Halloween. And how many times did you throw your shoes in the general direction of the TV whenever people were walking around with their fingers on the triggers of their guns in cop shows, huh?

Pablo laughs. "Pat and I would definitely get along."

I smile. "Yep. At least you don't throw footwear at the television!"

But we have to be careful. Not that we may be entering spooky territory, there's a rational explanation behind all of this. But we're definitely walking into spooky military stuff, the kind of thing that can get us redacted if we take the wrong step or they think we know something they don't think we should.

Pat gathers up her things, including two large water bottles, which she fills from the cooler.

Let's go visit that brother of yours.

The scene change is a reverse of the last one: The sheriff's office slides to one side and the newspaper office moves into the empty space, showing Mary Lee and Pat entering the building.

Newspaper Man looks up from his research, surprised to see them, but he gives them a welcoming smile.

Welcome. We don't get visitors here very often. What can I do for you both?

He stands and points to the coffee pot, moving to refill his own cup.

Although she follows Pat into the newspaper office, Mary Lee heads right for the round pseudo-conference table, sets her water bottle down, and takes a seat so she can look at her brother as he moves from computer to coffee pot.

So. Something is going on around here. And whatever it is? You're involved. Also, it's probably batshit crazy stuff, too. And I know that Sunny is somehow mixed up in all of this — and by extension, so is Melody. Let's see, what else do I know? Oh! You don't want to talk about it.

She takes a sip of water, setting the bottle down precisely where she'd first placed it. Then she stares at her brother for a few seconds.

But you know what, Derek? I think you're going to tell me what you know. You want to know why I think that? Because my daughter is involved and if you know anything that might be a threat to my baby and you don't tell me, Pat here is going to have to arrest both of us because I'm going to try to bite your damn ear off again and wind up doing some sort of property damage in my zeal to get to you. You'll wind up giving me another black eye to keep me from getting at your ear.

She smiles sweetly, but . . . holy shit, that looks like something the bad guys generally see on my face when I'm out working.

Newspaper Man merely looks at her after filling his coffee cup. He then pours a cup for the sheriff and set both mugs down on the table, and takes a seat.

The biggest reason I haven't told you anything is because it's been my experience that when I involve anyone other than the core group, bad things happen. It's as simple as that. As for biting my ear off . . . to be fair, I was five and I likely deserved it. Regardless, I'm not sure you want to take this on a sober, water-only belly. The stuff is way beyond batshit crazy. Trust me, I was sure I was losing it when I first started figuring things out.

Mary Lee snorted.

You were six. You absolutely deserved it! You ripped the head off one of my dolls. I've eaten a good breakfast. And I'm drinking water, only water, no booze. I'm serious, Derek. I need to clean up my act, and Patty will toss me out of her place on my head if I start drinking again. And you want to talk about odd? Hit me with your best shot . . . fire away.

"Pat Benatar is great," Pablo notes.

I chuckle when Rene asks, "Who?" He might be teasing us.

Newspaper Man takes a sip of his too-hot coffee and winces.

What I know and what I suspect are different things. In addition, whatever I have can't be proven in a court of law. So, again, this will get odd. Let's start with the basics. Melody has episodes. For this, she's been seeing a doc in town. That's a fact. We know from experience, not just anecdotally, that Melody is clearer in her mind after the treatments have worn off a bit than when she gets them initially. Next fact: Sunny has suffered a terrible loss. She speaks to Mister Teddy and tells him things that she couldn't tell any adult.

He pauses a moment, and Mary Lee speaks up.

She watched her daddy die in front of her, Derek. You can say that. I won't hate you for saying it. Well, I won't hate you any more than I hate myself. And she's been processing all of this with only a stuffed bear for help. And to be honest, maybe it wouldn't have mattered, and Mister Teddy would still be her constant companion and means of communicating things that six-year-olds shouldn't know.

She motions for Newspaper Man to continue.

Another fact: Melody sleepwalks. We witnessed her trying to walk away from a sleepover at her Aunt Jilly's. While this fact is not as strange as it might seem, it concerns the whole experience. It seemed as if she was trying to go someplace that she's gone before. Okay, what other facts do we have? We have some coincidences. We have some oddities, and we have some downright crazy stuff. We know that the death of your husband . . .

Mary Lee shudders and her aura flares again with pain. I'm not certain she's actually paying attention to her brother, who can't even say Chuck's name or admit that he has a relationship to him. Newspaper Man is one hell of a coward.

That death was very odd, unexplainable, and carried some stuff along with it. We're beginning to get into those facts. The continuing pay, the extra bullets at the scene, the coverup. We have individuals and organizations all appearing in our sleepy little town right near the same time. Coincidence? Possibly, but some of them are linked to other observations and potential facts. For example, the doctor that treats Melody has never worked in general practice before coming to our sleepy little berg. No, she's worked in clinical research. So, how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go, Alice?

He looks at Mary Lee and gives her a grim smile.

I don't want to risk you getting hurt, but I'm also not going to have my ear bitten off by a crazed little sister.

He finishes that up with an even wider grin, which apparently has frayed Mary Lee's very last nerve because she practically flies at him across the table and grabs one earlobe, digging in with her thumbnail. Then she slaps his face as hard as she can with her open palm. She doesn't let go of his ear. He's taken by surprise. I'd bet he didn't think she'd actually follow through on her threats.

My husband has a name! Sunny's father has a name. Your brother-in-law has a name. His name is Chuck McGee, and he died in his daughter's lap.

She lets go of him and slumps back in her chair, glaring at him.

Don't you dare take that impersonal tone with me, Derek Emerson! This is fucking personal to me and to my daughter and to my best friend. If you're going to treat it like a story about the Founders Day Picnic, well, fuck you!

"Maybe I could just pop over there and knock some sense into the man?"

Rene sighs. Pablo shakes his head.

"Well, I hope his sister can get through to him." Then I sigh as well. "I don't have a lot of hope, though. He's pretty dense."

I get a pension because I'm the widow of a veteran. But right now, we're not going to talk about the military because Pat — whom I have never seen scared in the entire time I've known her — thinks we ought to be really fucking careful about even saying the word, or we'll get redacted just as thoroughly as Chuck's file was. Or something like that.

She notices that her water bottle had rolled off the table and looks at the floor for it . . . to see that the sheriff has already picked it up. She accepts the bottle and drinks down several ounces before setting the bottle down again and wrapping her hands around it. She glares at her brother for a few more seconds.

You missed the fact that Melody is terrified of her doctor and you missed the connection to the Canton murder. But the connection is the people we're not going to talk about right now.

Mary Lee takes a deep, shuddering breath and turns to Pat again.

Yesterday, you said that according to the records you got that my pension is considerably larger than it should be. Considerably larger than I ever saw. Even if King doesn't have anything to do with the rest of this bullshit, that abusive loser knows about the money. I'm tempted to take a carving knife to every tire on his damn rig, except that there are a lot of tires and they're big tires, and I'm a lightweight, and I'd have to steal one of your knives anyway.

She manages a weak smile for her friend.

I just used up all my energy I have for the day to bitch slap my brother. So, don't worry about me, Sheriff. My brother-in-law's precious, precious truck is safe. From me.

Then Mary Lee turns back to her brother. She's still plenty ticked off at him, but she right about using up most of her energy on that last display of anger.

Stop it. Stop acting like this is some academic problem. Stop pretending that you're some fucking objective observer in this mess. You say you don't want to risk getting me hurt, huh? Really, Derek? What do you think you're doing to me every time you won't say Chuck's name? Did you really hate him that much? Were you really so jealous that I was happy? That little love tap I just gave you is nothing next to the knife you twist in my gut by pretending you don't even have a family here.

She takes another sip of water and narrows her eyes at Newspaper Man again.

You know what? If I walked outside, I'll bet I'd find Jessie and Shannon taking their daily meandering stroll around town. And if I told them I was honest to God, swear on the Bible serious about being sober, do you know what they'd do? They'd help me, Derek. Sure, they'll be judgmental. Sure, they'll be dragging me along to every prayer meeting they can find or create. But at the end of the day, the Lorgnan sisters would be doing what seems to bring them joy: setting a person back on the straight and narrow path to God. And God knows I can use all the help I can get. The point is that they'd embrace me like the prodigal daughter and care more about me than you seem to. So, if that's how you want to play it, fine. Go ahead and keep pretending you don't know me. But if your bullshit attitude gets my daughter hurt and makes the life of her best friend worse in the slightest way, that love tap won't be the first one I give you.

Newspaper Man hasn't interrupted her in all this, and his qi . . . Well, let's just say that his sister is more right about his mindset than wrong about it.

You're proving my point exactly, right here, right now. How did you react when I tried to make things impersonal? You flipped out.

"Nice," I say with all the sarcasm I can muster. Given that snark is Ninja's trademark, it's a lot. "Blaming the victim. I hope she slaps him again."

Pablo shrugs. "I can't condone violence, but at least you're not trying to slap him yourself."

"Maybe Sheriff Pat will lock him up until he comes to his senses," I say, almost wistfully.

Rene snorts. "I've met a lot of LEOs in my life, Andi. None of them arrest people for being stupid."

Mary Lee glares at him.

Impersonal? Really? That's the road you're going down? You always were a coward, weren't you? Afraid of your own emotions. Let me tell you something, brother dear. When you're in the world of shitty things happening, you can't get away with being all impersonal and distancing yourself. I tried that, remember? And you see how well that worked out. And yes, I'm going to insist that you say my husband's name. I didn't 'flip out' as you call it because you can't say a name. I got pissed off because you think you can do something — God only knows what — by standing back and being impersonal. Do you really imagine that reporting on a story can affect the story?

She laughs harshly as she holds her water bottle tightly.

You're an idiot, Derek. That's it. You're either part of some crazy cabal that's trying to save lives, or you're the objective observer on the sidelines. You can't have it both ways. Shit or get off the pot.

"Have I mentioned I like this woman?"

"Yes, dear," Pablo says with infinite patience. "Do you want to drive down to the end of Long Island to see if you can find her in this universe?"

"Nah, I'm good."

He rolls his eyes while I chuckle.

Mary Lee waves a hand at Newspaper Man dismissively to continue his story.

The rest of what I know and what I suspect is far too painful and way too fucking ridiculous to even begin to share with someone who demands I say a name when I'm trying to distance myself from what I know. It's not all about you. As much as I might be an insensitive lout, I do love you. I may be broken and unable to express myself in the way you do. But I know how to write and express myself in a clear way. My story, that I'm still trying to sort out, is personal to almost everyone I know and people that I do care about. It isn't about helping you; it's about saving your life and the lives of others.

Newspaper Man takes a deep breath as he looks at her, his face showing his emotional pain. He looks down at the table before whispering that they could all use God's help right now. He's at least being honest about the pain, but I'm pretty sure his focus is way off the mark. He finally looks back up at Mary Lee.

The rest of this gets dicey and odd . . . things in a way that I can't explain kind of odd. We know that the deaths, Canton and Chuck's, were abnormal, to say the least. We know that Melody is suffering at the hands of a clinical research doctor. We know that she sleepwalks to the butterfly facility. We suspect she's called in her sleep to go there and have experiments performed on her, which make her so frightened that she can't tell a soul other than our lovely Sunny. Now, let's see how much further you want to wander down my rabbit hole. Or have you had enough? Are you going to go get solace from the sisters Lorgnan and forget your nasty old brother?

Mary Lee's expression isn't quite as severe as mine as we stare at the man. But I think we're both just about fed up with him.

It isn't about me in this instance. You get to choose whether or not you want to be dragged into this mess. I have no choice. I've seen things and been through things that leave me with but one inescapable conclusion: I act or people die, maybe all of them. You have a choice. Just as you made a choice, a very hard one, very recently, to come out of the bottle, you have a choice to ignore the crazy shit and live thinking that I'm an asshole. I don't get those choices. It gets much weirder and crazier every step of the way from here. I can't prove to you that what I might say, and you will undoubtedly believe that I should go to Melody's doctor. I wouldn't blame you. But I'm sure it's all good enough to make you want to have me shipped off to the mainland and locked up. But here's the trick: we can't even do that.
Still want to wander down the really scary hole anymore? It could lead to us getting killed. But doing nothing or doing the wrong thing, well, the outcome is the same.

When he finishes speaking, Mary Lee picks up her water bottle and takes another sip. Then she leans back in her chair and studies her brother.

I tilt my head to one side. "Huh. Well, she believes that he believes what he's saying."

"How close is he to the truth?" Rene asks.

I shrug. "They're both right that he needs to shit or get off the pot. Doing nothing isn't helping. The problem is that he and his pals don't have a plan, so they can't actually do anything useful. And from what I can tell, they'll still be dithering when the world blows up again."

Mary Lee glares at Newspaper Man again.

Well, I suppose you can be excused for believing I have a choice here. After all, I'm the one who couldn't handle the circumstances of Chuck's death very well. I'm the one who couldn't tolerate not getting any answers. Although, to be fair, Patty was every bit as frustrated as I was — maybe for different reasons, but that doesn't negate the fact that Chuck was her friend, too. And yeah, I'm the one who crawled into a bottle of whiskey and stayed there for three years. But if you think I have a choice right now, right here — when there's overwhelming evidence that my daughter is caught up in all of this with Melody — well, you're dumber than you look.

I snicker. "She really does have to keep needling him, doesn't she?"

"She probably doesn't," Pablo counters.

"No, she does," I insist. "I'm not sure how they wound up siblings in this go-round, but even I'd agree with the kids that these two have been antagonists throughout all their many lives."

"I hope for your sake, Pablo, that one gets used to that kind of talk," Rene says.

I shake my head. "I have a slightly easier time accepting it, having grown up around a lot of Buddhists, but I don't think we'll ever really get used to it."

Maybe I forgot to mention that Melody is terrified of her doctor. Or possibly you weren't paying attention. She probably has a really good reason for it, but there isn't anything the sheriff can use as evidence against her. So, the only reason I'd want to send you over there is so you can get a firsthand, eyewitness account of what the good doc is going to terrify that girl.

After carefully setting the water bottle down again, Mary Lee leans forward with her arms crossed on the table.

You still don't get it, Derek. You might be focused on Melody, but you seem to be forgetting that she and Sunny have become best friends, as unlikely as that sounds, and are closer to being siblings than you and I are. Sunny is mixed up in all of this, moron. If you believe I have a choice about anything that involves my daughter's safety, you're dead wrong. Once I poured out that last bottle of booze, I stopped having a choice. Now, all I can do is be the best possible mother I know how to be. So, you might as well tell me all about why I'd lock you in a padded room if I could.

She leans back and takes a couple of slow, deep breaths.

But I swear to God, Derek, if you do anything to hurt my baby, I'll make you suffer like you've never suffered before . . . and I'll do it for all eternity. That's not a threat, by the way, it's a promise.

I sigh. "Mama Bear just woke up. Sometimes, I kind of wish I had that sort of fierceness when it comes to my own kids."

Rene hugs me tightly. "You have plenty of fierceness when it's called for, sister."

Pablo nods. "I think deep down, you're the only who really understands that our children are a lot tougher than preteens ought to be."

I study his face for a moment. "I'm not sure I do. But it does make me feel better about not being much of a mama bear."

Rene smiles. "Andi, don't worry about it. They don't need your protection as much as they need your love."

Newspaper Man turns to Pat then.

Sheriff, I'm going to need a moment with my sister, alone. There are things she obviously wants to hear that you shouldn't, given your interest in potentially putting people in jail. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have your opinion on some of this, but it's time to end the name calling. Stand outside if you want, in case you have to come in and resuscitate me but . . .

The sheriff merely raises an eyebrow and shifts to lean against the wall more comfortably. I smile. We get by with a little help from our friends, and Pat Garret is definitely Mary Lee McGee's friend.

He turns back to look at his sister.

The reason I'm trying to keep it impersonal is because it gets fucking old dying over and over and over again.

"He's not wrong about that," I mutter.

"Yeah, and you've only done it twice," Pablo says, shuddering.

You have no idea what it means to have been exposed and embroiled in the shit that I've been going through. You're not here on my side of the table. You want to know why I haven't mentioned Sunny? Because she's the one fucking person in this town that has a clue. She talks to her teddy bear, and the bear talks back . . . no, not Sunny's voice. Mister Teddy talks. He's been clearer about this shit from the get-go than anything or anyone else.

I sigh heavily, almost theatrically, definitely imitating my friend Moira.

"Dear?"

"The bear isn't talking, for fuck's sake. It's all Sunny."

Pablo squeezes my hand. "I know. But Derek clearly can't wrap his mind around that. He'd rather believe that a stuffed bear can talk than believe his six-year-old niece has grown up to the point where she can say the things the bear does."

I sigh, more softly this time. "I guess."

So, if any of us have a chance, that's Sunny, and do you know why? Because of Chuck. Something Sunny said sticks in my mind. I can't get the exact quote right but, in essence, one of the last things Chuck said to her was that someone had to die to give us a chance. That someone was Chuck.

"Um."

"I know, Pablo. That's not what he said. Newspaper Man doesn't seem to be a very good reporter."

He died for Sunny and for you. Now, beyond that, well beyond, we have the very real element that every fucking time I screw up, or any of my crazy little friends, as you call them, everything gets reset to the point that you, the sheriff, and others don't know what the fuck just happened. Yes, I'm talking about full monty fucking time travel kind of a reset.

All three of us laugh. "They still haven't figured out that they're not looping back to the same day and time?" Rene asks.

I shrug. "They can't see what Sunny's doing, so I suspect that's the only way he can explain it that makes even the slightest bit of sense."

That's why I'm trying to be impersonal. That's why we're having this discussion in this way. The last time I told Pat something, she ended up following up on it and getting fucking killed by paramilitary out of the research facility slash butterfly sanctuary up on the hill. I had pictures, fucking pictures of something. I can't even tell you what. So, I've avoided telling her anything for fear of getting her killed, getting another fucking reset, and being killed myself. Do you know what it's like to be shot repeatedly to death? Not my idea of a good time. I also know that others in my little crazy cabal have died much worse deaths. Heck, there's the issue that there's something I should remember but I can't. You know what that's like? To know that you altered time so much so that you can't be sure if you fucked something or someone up so bad that they aren't even in the timeline anymore? No, you don't. To you, I sound crazy. Which is in no small part why I haven't said anything to you. Yet you're sitting here yelling at me for keeping secrets.
This is the first time, and I do mean the first time, I've managed to get you sober. That's a fucking miracle. I've gotten drunk with you. I've spent nights taking care of you. I've done all kinds of shit to save you. But do you know the one thing I've never had to worry about? Sunny. I take care of her always. It's instinct. Yet, she always knows better. She knows what her mommy is doing, where her mommy is, why her mommy is doing what she's doing. She always knows. Not in a 'I've heard it' kind of way, but in a 'I've tried this fucking shit so many times that there are only so many answers' kind of way. The reason she called it Anything Can Happen Wednesday is because it's new. It's different. We didn't fuck up so badly that everything got reset. We got you sober. Melody is clearer than she's been in a long time. We prevented Melody from going to the facility last night when she tried to sleep walk there.
We prevented Miss Jilly's death. I could go on and on about the shit we prevented. But you know what? None of that matters because we're here now. I don't give a shit if you think I'm crazy. I've seen the end of this cycle. If we don't get it right? Everything, everyone, all of it dies in a horrible nasty . . . thing. I can't even describe how bad the end of the world is. The reason I haven't pushed you or been overly demonstrative is because I want you to live. I want Sunny to live and I've been more than a little preoccupied with trying to figure out why Melody going to that facility unleashes a supernatural killer that destroys the world . . . all the while not letting the people behind Chuck's death, behind Jack Canton's death, and whatever other crazy shit they're up to know. I'm not a fucking spy. I'm a newspaper guy who knows how to tell a good story. I know how to suss out facts. I know how to put threads and leads together that most people just don't see.

"Yeah, but . . ." Pablo starts.

"The conclusions he's come to, while halfway to outer space, are about as close as he can get with the facts he has at his disposal," I say. "He's not wrong about Melody having something to do with the end of the world, but he's not making the right connection there. Sunny said that when Melody dies, the monsters come, right? That ought to be a big enough clue to him that Melody isn't causing anything . . . she's preventing it."

"Wait, what?"

I shake my head. "I don't know what exactly she's doing, Pablo, or how she's doing it. My gut tells me it has something to do with those little not-Shadowkin friends of hers."

"Hmm. Okay, that's an interesting path they should be going down."

I shrug. "The show's not over."

I was just at my desk putting together a list of people to take an interest in because they seem to have arrived at the same time in town. How crazy is that? I don't even know the players in this little melodrama. So, go ahead and yell at me, scream at me, bite me, and slap me. I'm so happy to have this part of you, I could just cry. But I don't have time for that because the fucking world is ending because of some stupid experiment the military started way back when, one that came back to haunt you, Sunny, and Chuck. My hypothesis, and it's just a guess at the moment, is that Chuck did stuff in the military under a black ops project. He was shot plenty of times when he was overseas. Yet this project, whatever the fuck it was, deferred those bullets until later. Then one day, probably when he said, "I'm done with this shit, I have a wife and a daughter who need me too much," that's when the project reversed whatever it was that was on hold. Those deferred bullets, the held-off death, all came calling at once. Then the military covered it up because they didn't want people asking questions they didn't want to answer. That's why your pension is larger than it should be, it includes hazardous duty pay. Whether or not King is spending it on you, that's a different question.

Newspaper Man finally winds down his diatribe. Maybe he has all his facts correct, but he's not coming to the same conclusions I am. But he can't see qi, so there's that. Mary Lee is looking at him like he's lost his mind. Honestly? I think some of that stuff is nuts, and I've seen their world end hundreds of times. Finally, she whispers as she stares right through her brother this time.

He wasn't the one Sunny needed to save. That's what Sunny said.

I narrow my eyes, entirely too suspicious of this damned portal.

"You know how characters get thought balloons over their heads in comics?" I ask. "Well, I can almost see a cloud over Mary Lee's head with a scene from that George Clooney movie about staring at goats. What the actual fuck?"

"I thought that movie was funny," Pablo says.

"I'm more interested in the peculiar properties of this portal." I know for a fact that I sound grumpy again. "But I guess if you're going to make a movie about conspiracy theories, you might as well make it a comedy."

Mary Lee picks up her water bottle and finishes the remainder of it. Then she holds the bottle in one hand, taps the top with the other, and holds it out to Newspaper Man.

You didn't get me sober. Sure, maybe you and Pat helped. But it was Sunny.

She doesn't sound angry or accusatory now. It's as matter of fact as stating that her little girl has blond hair, it's that obvious to her. And why not? People need reasons to step away from bad habits. I put the fear of Ninja into minor miscreants to go back to walking the straight and narrow. Why shouldn't Mary Lee decide that the best reason to do anything is for her daughter to have the best possible life? She's a lot like the women in my family . . . and Pablo's, too, for that matter.

But she looks bemused about something as she gets up and hands the empty water bottle to Pat, taking the full one in return. She stares off into space, speaking mostly to herself.

Miss Jilly . . .
That was . . . Tuesday night. I remember that, mostly.

She actually smiles then, although she's still staring into the past. Her brows furrow for a moment, before her eyes widen and she looks at Newspaper Man.

Did Miss Ell just drop by with all that ice cream, or did you actually invite her? I remember thinking it was weird because if ice cream isn't chocolate or vanilla or strawberry, you won't eat it. Or wouldn't, I guess; maybe you've broadened your culinary horizons. And I got spoiled when I went up to Albany. If it's not Stewart's Sweet Black Cherry, I don't have any use for ice cream, especially some of those weird concoctions of hers. And . . . and Chuck thought she was a bit odd, too, what with all the bizarre flavors she tried mixing up. Good God, some of them didn't even need to be seen to know it wasn't going to turn out well! Pizza-flavored ices cream? Really? Ugh.

Mary Lee starts to pace the few steps back and forth in the area near the table. One, two, three . . . turn. Rinse and repeat.

But sure, if you wanted to have a nice picnic, I suppose ice cream isn't the worst idea. But Miss Ell's ice cream? Maybe the kids had great flavors — she brought each of them their own special flavor, did you see that, Pat. And what did we get?

She pauses and looks at her brother.

Carrot cake. Who makes a carrot cake-flavored ice cream? Oh, right!

She tosses one hand in the air, almost theatrically.

Miss Ell, that's who. Maybe Sunny plied me with too many hot dogs and too much corn and a week's worth of potato salad, but the thought of eating an actual carrot cake was too much. And I like carrot cake.

I snicker. "See, Rene? You're in the minority."

Mary Lee looks quizzically at Pat.

Maybe Miss Jilly wouldn't mention it, but have you heard anything about Melody sleepwalking? Does that even make sense? Okay, sure, sleepwalking makes sense. But sleepwalking all the way from the Homestead to the research facility? Often enough to get Derek riled up? Maybe not. What do I know, right? I'm just saying that's a long walk through the woods and over a bridge and then through more woods. But I've heard stories of folks driving to the store and back while they were asleep. I guess anything is possible.

"It still makes more sense that Melody was 'sleepwalking' up to the road where the research facility people picked her up," Rene says.

"Definitely," I agree. "Those people who drive to the store while they're sleeping? They're in their nice cozy cars, not traipsing through wet woods at night. And the distance the girl would have to walk? Even though she was drugged and not sleepwalking, I don't think she could make it that far."

Mary Lee is quiet for a few minutes as she continues pacing back and forth, her fingers drumming across the side of the bottle.

Melody goes to the facility because Miss Jilly thinks it helps her, right? And she said her parents — well, what I remember most is that she misses them horribly, has a hard time remembering them, and sometimes wonders if they even love her. They aren't here because . . . they can't be? But why not? Does it make sense that they'd need to take high-paying jobs elsewhere to pay for Melody's treatments? Sure, if it was a private facility. But I thought it was publicly-funded. Am I misremembering? Maybe it's just the sanctuary that's public, and the research facility is private. But that's . . . weird? I know the New York State government is, always has been, and likely always will be one hell of a mess, but . . .
Thinking about the New York State government isn't a good idea on the best day. There's something in the water in Albany that turns them into . . . Hmm. The Tower of Babel story form the Bible. That's Albany. Not a one of them understands what any of the others are saying. Which may or may not have anything to do with what's going on here in our little corner of the state. I think my point is that patients aren't supposed to have to pay to be in a legitimate research program. At least, well, I don't think so.

"Remind me not to visit Albany," I say.

Rene chuckles. "This is the closest you need to get, I think."

"Good. They sound worse than the Colorado legislature."

"Even worse than California's," Pablo says.

"And did you catch what she said about Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady? That she brought a different flavor of ice cream for each of the kids?" I nod toward the portal. "Seems like Newspaper Man completely missed it, but it's important."

It's really circular, which is maddening. Sunny says we need to keep Melody safe . . . because Chuck figured something out.

Mary Lee stops and looks at Pat again.

You heard her, right? I'm going to leave the bear out of the equation for a minute, but Sunny said that he must have figured it out: that if Melody is safe, Mommy won't die. I suppose that fits with Derek's world ending and restarting part of the story. And, you know, maybe it's not so much circular as it's a damn spider web. Everything, everyone is somehow connected. And it's one of those gossamer ones that you can't see until you walk into it. And the spider at the center of the web . . .

She holds the water bottle to her forehead as she closes her eyes. Whatever thoughts she has rolling around in her brain aren't making enough sense.

Well, the spider would be those people who we don't want to talk about right now. And so, crazy or not, you're both right about being fucking careful because that spider is poisonous and touching the web is really bad.

She takes and deep breath then.

My head hurts.

"Yeah, mine's starting to hurt, too," Pablo says. "Although the spider in the web is more accurate than their so-called resets and maybe even your spirals, Andrea."

"Sort of. The spider analogy works from the beginning of one iteration to the end, but even the spider and its web get destroyed every time the world ends."

Mary Lee opens her eyes and sets the water bottle down on the table, then looks at her brother.

You're fucking nuts . . . batshit crazy. Half the shit you're talking about I wouldn't believe if I read it in a novel.

She holds up a finger to forestall an immediate response from him.

That said, I think we're all nuts. Maybe different types of nuts, but Pat might be the only sane person among us.

When she turns to her friend, Mary Lee looks terrified.

From the way Derek talks, it sounds like he believes Melody is at the center of all this. That she's the one the spider is hunting for, or has already found, I guess.

She swallows hard and wraps her arms around herself protectively.

And maybe the spider is hunting for her or holding onto her because it believes she's at the center of all of this, too. Dear God in heaven, I hope so — not that I want any harm to come to Melody. Because from what Melody and Sunny said last night, I don't think any of them are right — not the spider, not Derek, not his friends.

"Gods, she terrified." Once again, I'm glad my niece isn't here. There are too many strong emotions swirling around over there. Sure, she shouldn't be able to feel emotions from other there, but I'm not supposed to hear anything either. Mary Lee's jaws are clenched tightly, her breath is ragged.

I think it's Sunny. She's protecting Melody, and I have no idea how. But if you take Chuck's last words in the context of all this madness . . .

She looks into Pat's eyes as though her friend might be the only thing keeping her from drowning.

. . . Sunny was trying to save her daddy. She tried, but she couldn't.

"Jesus," Pablo whispers. "Even our hellions couldn't have done much at age three. That poor child."

"Oui."

Newspaper Man has been watching his sister pace back and forth, making notes on a pad of paper in front of him while never taking his eyes off her. Handy skill to have, I suppose.

I like the spider analogy. But I'm not sure that Melody is being hunted. Rather, I think she's in contact with the spider. It's when she isn't in control or in their control, whomever they are, that things go awry. I think that relates to what happened to Chuck and what he discovered. Though, to be honest, I don't have all the pieces, nor are they in the right places. But for a long time, I suspected that what Chuck discovered had to do with what's happened, or will happen, depending on how I want to describe it.

He's quiet for a moment, a glimmer of compassion in his eyes. It's about fucking time.

Yes, Sunny didn't need to save Chuck. I know you see Sunny as a six-year-old kid, and that's true. But she has a connection to something that I can't even begin to understand. The thing that talks through the teddy bear is trying to get us to change the events without directly interfering, as near as I can guess. Again, I'm just grasping at straws.

"Stop gnashing your teeth, Pablo. The man can't grasp that his niece is wise beyond her years," I say. "Making the bear into an alien is the best he can do to conceptualize parts of what's happening to them."

"I know. I'm just . . ." He sighs.

"Frustrated. Yeah. I get it."

To correct your comments, Melody sees the doc in town, that's where she's medicated to make her more pliable and not hear voices. The sleepwalking is a different thing. I believe she sleepwalks because she's called by the people at the facility that want to use her to control the thing, our spider, in this analogy. I don't think she walks all the way to the facility. I believe she walks to the woods where she's met and then carried by paramilitary vehicles to the facility.

"Now I need to gripe at the man," Rene says. "What the hell is a paramilitary vehicle? There are military vehicles, and there are non-military vehicles."

"I think he means military vehicles that may or may not have been repurposed for other uses," I say. "You know, how Maddie's got her armored Humvees for traveling off-campus. And while we're complaining, Mary Lee said, without actually saying it because she doesn't want to talk about them, that the spider is the military. Newspaper Man seems to think that the spider is some unknown thing that the military is trying to control."

"He doesn't seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer," Pablo agrees.

The facility is masquerading as part of the sanctuary because it's easier to keep it camouflaged. In addition, there's this kind of rare butterfly in the sanctuary that I think offers them a way to have Melody interact with whatever it is they're trying to control, again our spider.

"He really does sound crazy now," Pablo opines.

"It's as if . . ." I sigh. "Well, as if maybe he's got a lot of disparate facts and can't seem to fit them together into a coherent theory. To use the jigsaw analogy, you've got a puzzle with pieces that are all the same shape and size, and he's putting it together with a picture that doesn't match what's on the missing box."

Rene nods. "That's a good way of putting it. And it seems like his sister has a clearer memory of what the box looked like, but can't get him to follow along with her."

"Pretty much," I agree.

You know, I hadn't thought her parents were alive. I always thought that they were killed due to whatever it is that's going on. If they're alive, they could be a motivational factor to keep Melody in check. If they're alive, they might be compensated for the use of such a rare lab specimen, but I'm not sure we could track that.

He makes another note on the pad in front of him.

I'm not sure it's New York State that's involved. I suspect that this is more at the federal level, probably part of a military hidden-budget kind of an operation. This is why I offered the black ops kinds of stuff. Not to mention the way that people have been removed when they become a hindrance.

"I don't know much about the politics of New York State," Pablo says, "but I don't think federal interference would fly in Colorado outside of the bases we've got here. And NORAD."

I shrug. "I'm not sure either. But I think if anyone's going to be involved at the federal level, it's going to be the FBI and other alphabet soup agencies, and not the military . . . at least outside NORAD and the bases. Maybe New York is more fucked up than we ever knew?"

Pablo chuckles. "Probably not. We are talking about another universe and their politics, after all."

"Right. Good point."

Newspaper Man looks back at his notes.

Miss Ell . . . that's a good point. No, she hadn't been invited. She's also quite high up on the suspect list of someone in town who's directly involved with whatever's going on. She's likely an information source for the organization behind the scenes. And yes, the logic is terribly circular, or even weblike. I don't have an answer for that. We're operating with a very limited amount of knowledge and that doesn't lend itself to a nice, neat flowchart of ideas. As far as what Chuck figured out, I have no idea. But I agree that Melody is important in the scheme of things. I believe that because we prevented her from going to the facility during the night, that we ended up with Anything Can Happen Wednesday.

He shrugs again, gives Mary Lee a thin-lipped frown.

I completely agree. I'm sure we're not right because we haven't figured it out. If we had, this would all be over and we wouldn't have to have this conversation. You wouldn't have to be roped into this web of chaos and have to suffer more pain because of it. Lord knows I've tried to keep you from having to deal with this level of batshit crazy, but here we are.

Apparently, his coffee has gotten cold, so he gets up and tops it off. After taking a sip, he adds a little more before returning to the table and his notepad.

It's not hard to see that Mary Lee has been getting almost as frustrated with her brother as we are, but she's kept quiet and hasn't glared at him once. She's only rolled her eyes at him twice. She takes a deep breath now, exhaling sharply as she rakes her fingers through her hair.

I'm going to split hairs and get into semantics now.

I giggle. "Librarians and English teachers love that shit."

"Hush, dear," Pablo says with a smile.

Or I'm going to piss you off again, which isn't my intention. When Chuck told Sunny that . . . that he wasn't the one she was supposed to save . . .

She stops for a moment, closing her eyes, before taking another deep breath and continuing as she opens her eyes to look at Newspaper Man.

. . . you interpreted that as Sunny didn't need to save Chuck. You're wrong, Derek. Whatever she was doing — which, as far as I know, was just cradling her daddy's head in her lap while he died — I will guarantee that Sunny thought she needed to save Chuck. But she couldn't.

Although her eyes never leave his, she swallows hard.

Use whatever analogy you like best but Sunny didn't have the right spell or the right potion or the magic wand to do what she believed she needed to do. You weren't there, Derek. You didn't see her face, and you didn't se all the blood, and you didn't hear her sobbing, and you didn't try to comfort her after she woke up from her nightmares. She needed to save him, but she couldn't. And dear God, if there'd been some way for her to save him, I needed it, too. Maybe his last words were meant to be some small amount of comfort, some reason only Chuck and Sunny understood about why she couldn't keep her daddy from dying.

She did glare at him then, then shook her head furiously. Instead of running her fingers through her hair, she grabs whole handfuls and barely refrains from screaming at him.

God damn it, Derek! Knock your head against the wall and loosen up your brain cells, will you?

Rene bursts out laughing. "She sounds like you and Maddie."

"Oh, no, brother dear," I say with a Ninja grin. "I might ask someone to knock their own head against a wall, but Maddie would do the knocking for them."

He continues to chuckle. "I stand corrected. You're right."

The so-called thing that takes through Mister Teddy is Sunny. Mister Teddy is a stuffed bear. It's her security blanket, sort of. Or think of it as a therapy doll, if that helps. It allows her to communicate and say things that are too painful for her to actually say out loud. Don't you get it? She's had to grow up all on her own, and she's the child of two genius parents — even if I lacked the common sense to stay out of a bottle of booze. Her dad was off-the-charts brilliant. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Sunny understands a lot more about life than the average first grader. It's utterly reasonable and rational to accept that she uses her bear to communicate sometimes. Jesus Christ, Derek, people already pity her because of everything that happened. Can you blame her for at least trying to pretend to be a perfectly normal little girl who just happens to let her teddy bear talk for her when it's something hard or complicated that she's saying? How would people look at her if she actually said things that most adults don't grasp? For fuck's sake, the bear is probably the most ordinary part of this whole insane story! It certainly isn't a damn alien!

I grin broadly.

"Yes, dear," Pablo says. "We know. You like her."

"Well, I do!"

Mary Lee has turned to Pat again.

You're rolling your eyes so hard they're turning white. But Mister Teddy? Normal, normal, normal and if you'd tell the dingleberry that, maybe he'll believe you. Or not. Miss Ell was saying something about Melody seeing the doctors out at the research center before she started dishing out ice cream. What's more reasonable, Pat? That Doc Schwartzer gives Melody a ride out there on her treatment days, or that she sleepwalks out there. Nope. Don't bother answering. You're living in the rational world, and I'm right there with you.

She looks back at her brother.

Melody sees Doc Schwartzer. She's terrified of the woman. From what she said to me last night — and I remember last night, Derek — Melody goes to see Doc Schwartzer on Fridays and doesn't remember much of anything until Tuesday. Why would you go for the crazy conspiracy theory when a logical, sensible, reasonable explanation is that Doc Schwartzer gives Melody her medications, sends her home for them to start working, and then the poor girl gets a ride out to the research facility? If you want to start in on conspiracy theories, why was Melody sleepwalking on a Tuesday night, when she seemed to be doing just fine up until Pat and Sunny and I left?

"Ooh, ooh, ooh! I know!"

"Andrea."

I giggle. "Don't you prefer silly Andi over grumpy Andi?"

Pablo sighs. "Yes. I suppose I do."

"Can I send a paper airplane over there to Mary Lee with Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady's name on it?"

"No."

"Spoilsport."

Now Rene sighs. "Children . . ."

Have you ever known her to sleepwalk before? Have you ever seen her sleepwalking before? Has Miss Jilly ever expressed any concern about Melody's sleepwalking . . . ever?

Mary Lee shakes her head, frustrated. She takes a step forward, snatches up the water bottle, and drinks deeply. She doesn't quite slam the bottle down on the table before placing her fisted hands on her hips and giving Derek a look of annoyance mixed with disdain, with a touch of concern folded in for flavor.

You need to step away from the edge, Derek. You have some traumatic brain injury or something. Or maybe the kids around town have put you up to this, huh? They're so tired of Dottie running the library that they'll do absolutely anything to get Missus McGee back? Is that it?

She snorts, then sighs before continuing.

The Black Darter Butterfly was on the endangered species list when the Wildlife Refuge was set up here in 1968. The Eastern Black Darter Butterfly Preservation Commission manages it. It's a public benefit corporation. Do any of you kids know what a public benefit corporation is?

"I don't," Pablo says, looking at me.

"Believe it or not, I don't either. Might be a New York thing. I'll look it up later."

Mary Lee smirks and crosses her arms.

Derek, the State of New York is all over that place. The legislature formed this particular commission to save some rare butterflies that were going to go extinct if we humans didn't step up to stop it. Given all the people with important titles on the commission, I have a hard time believing the whole lot of them would voluntarily turn the whole kit and kaboodle over to the feds. I mean, come on, Derek! When has any mayor of New York City embraced the federal government like a long-lost friend? As far as I know, never. Most of them would rather spit on Washington. Granted, a lot of that might just be political posturing, but the Butterfly Sanctuary itself is New York's. The Education and Research section is managed jointly by SUNY and NIH. That's the National Institutes of Health, by the way. That's where the grant money for their research comes from. So, your semi-obsession with the folks we're not talking about is a little creepy.

"She does make a lot more sense than Newspaper Man and his theories. She's about as grounded in reality as anyone over there is going to get, I suspect."

"Other than her friend, the sheriff," Pablo says.

"Okay, yes. The sheriff is also very much on the no-bullshit side of the street."

That said . . . well, a public benefit corporation can contract with pretty much anyone they want, including private firms. And with enough shell corporations in the mix . . .

"How would a librarian know about things like that?" Rene asks.

I give him a look over my shoulder that says, Really, Rene?

"Your pardon, madame," he says with one if his magic-infused smiles.

Well, involvement by those folks we're not talking about isn't impossible. But it might be a private organization, too. If you want the God's honest truth, if you want a federal agency to be at the top of the pyramid — or the center of the web — I'd say the NIH is more likely, given what they seem to be doing to Melody. I guess the only thing that points to government rather than private, ah, security is the fact that my pension is too large for Chuck not to have been at least active Reserve. And how fucking hazardous is computer and network setup and maintenance? It's maddening, Chuck said that often enough. And he joked about hazard pay. But then he'd tell me all the new things he'd learned from Jean-Michel at the NOAA station, and that seemed to make everything better.

Mary Lee spins quickly on her heel, turning away from both of them, hugging herself tightly as a sob catches in her throat. Gods, this woman need time to heal. When she speaks again, it's in a whisper.

I'm glad you stopped Melody on Tuesday. She was still scared yesterday. She . . .

She's trying so hard not to sob uncontrollably. As much as she needs a good cry, maybe doing that in private, possibly with her best friend holding her, would be best. It's not so much that she's speaking softly as much as the tone of her voice that makes me think she's talking to herself.

I know you believe you were trying to protect me, Derek. And, you know, I'll probably get to a point where I actually appreciate that. But . . . well, your crazy stuff is so far out there that you might have overshot the mark. I'm not going to say there isn't crazy stuff going on, but not everything is filed in the Creepy Shit section of the library. You're a journalist. I'm a librarian. Pat's a cop. We can come to an agreement, I hope, about what's nuts and what's not. Mostly.

She almost turns around then, but just shakes her head.

There's nothing you can do about the pain, Derek. All of this was bound to be here once I crawled out of the bottle. I want to stay sober. I really do. And I know it's going to hurt. I held onto all this pain for three years instead of letting it loose. I fermented it with booze. It's pretty potent. But Pat has faith in me. Sunny . . . God, Sunny believes in me. I'm still not sure I deserve either Pat's or Sunny's faith, but I'll borrow it just like Bill Withers said. And I'll get by with a little help from my friends. Melody and I? We walk the same line.

"That's one song lyric too many, if you ask me."

"And yet for her, Pablo? It's just enough. She's . . ." I sigh. "It's a while since I've seen anyone hurting that badly."

Mary Lee finally turns around to face her brother.

I'm trying, Derek. I'm not really sure how to be the person I was before. I'm not even sure it's possible. All I can do is the best I can. You can't protect me — not from the pain of my grief, that's for certain. And if the world is even half as crazy as you claim it is, you can't protect me from that either. Work on protecting Melody.

She sighs and sits down again, although she looks like she could jump up and dash out the door at any second.

'If Melody is safe, Mommy won't die.' Sunny said that, said that's what Chuck figured out. Melody said I wouldn't understand it, and I really don't think I do. But I'm not sure it's necessary for me to understand it, either. 'To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment.' It's a quote from LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven that Melody had in her notebook. The last line of the quote seemed pretty important to her too: 'Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.' It's generally interpreted, colloquially as 'don't beat your head against a wall trying to understand something that can't be understood; it won't be good for your general health and wellbeing.
Occam's razor is for you, Derek. In non-philosophical or non-scientific terms, it boils down to 'the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.' Maybe the spider is trying to understand something that just can't be understood by mere mortals. Maybe that's what's causing all the awful stuff that you say you've seen. Like Icarus flying too high . . . they're messing around with things they don't understand and can't understand. And whoever they are, they're hurting Melody in the process.

The sheriff pushes herself away from the wall she's been holding up this whole time.

You've definitely strayed into crazy town . . . someplace right out of the urban folklore — otherwise known as the aluminum foil hat — section of the town library. Not that we aren't used to it. Miss O'Connell is our local cryptozoologist, but that's because she likes explaining how those mysteries can be solved by a little too many Friday night beers and creative taxidermy. But you're both rather soft when it comes to facts and evidence.
First and foremost, if Melody Tracee has been sleepwalking, it's news to me. Truth? She's the least of my problems in this town. Quiet, reserved and, you know, she's actually very respectful of folks. So no, if there were any hint of that sort of thing, I'd have heard, which makes the ice cream thing disturbing. But right now, that's what we call circumstantial evidence. It's enough to get my attention, but not enough for a warrant. For example, Melody could have had an allergic reaction to that ice cream. It wouldn't be the first time: Ell's Peanut Butter Surprise was a complete failure.
But I agree that if this is true, the chances that it has some manner of unconscionable group behind it is high. Toss all the conspiracy theories out the window and you still have the fact that Project MKUltra wasn't fantasy. The CIA actually did those experiments and, yes, some of them were illegal. It's also a fact that when MKUltra was abandoned, several other MK projects followed in its wake. That brings us back to your brother-in-law, my friend, and Mary Lee's husband, Chuck. Let's take another piece of circumstantial evidence: the size of Mary Lees pension. Hazard pay? For what? Fine, let's presume that something similar to MKUltra was being done at Fort Hero — such as the urban legend of Project Stargate. What if it, like MKUltra, really didn't end?

"Project Stargate is a real thing, and not alien technology under Cheyenne Mountain?" Pablo asks.

"As much as I hate to admit it, yes. It's what they based the Clooney movie on, mostly," I say. "Mostly remote viewing stuff, but I guess there were other psychic phenomena they were studying. It doesn't negate the possibility of alien technology under Cheyenne Mountain." I wink at him.

"Since you've been trying to convince me that your imaginary friend the Starship Captain is real, it makes sense that you'll stick to the Stargate story," he teases. "But . . . there are people who can do remote viewings."

I stare at him for a few seconds. "Yes, indeed. Just another flavor of the white man's curse."

"Ah. Sorry."

I shrug as we turn our attention back to the portal.

That's the real danger. It means that beneath the surface of this town, we do have some shadow organization that's managed to stay undetected for over a decade. It makes sense in that both the Canton murder and Chuck's death ended up in need-to-know territory within hours and we — even me — are those who've been labeled as not needing to know. They won't take being poked very well, and if there's a real danger out there, it's crossing that line. The only other facts we know is that they seem focused on Melody Tracee. And we don't know why, except that she's scared of her doctor. So, the real question is 'what the hell is really going on?' You have a lot of conjecture but very little fact.
Of course, Sunny tried to save your brother-in-law. Why? Even if it wasn't the right thing to do, he was her daddy! But she's just a kid. Do you expect a kid to know how to do CPR or dress a wound? Of course, it went wrong. And that guilt is probably ninety percent of why we have Mister Teddy. Whoever is behind this has focused on Melody. If Melody is so important, then why? Why the bloody butterflies? They're supposed to make folks more aggregable — you want to go to war with the Montauketts, they invite you to dinner and you leave best friends. If that's true, what are they trying to make Melody do?
But you want to know what scares me more? They're so focused, they've overlooked Sunny. Not only is that a bigger what or why — the relationship between them — but she's Chuck's daughter. If they decide she's a piece of this puzzle, if she's somehow connected to what they're doing to Melody every weekend, just imagine what would happen then. They can't be allowed to find out about Sunny.

"That sheriff is making logical connections, based in real-world facts, and still coming up with the conclusion that Sunny's in danger," I say. "She doesn't even have the advantage that I do."

"It's not really helping Mary Lee's state of mind," Pablo notes.

"No. But I think staying pissed off at her brother keeps her from falling into an abyss of fear."

"The ditz still thinks the teddy bear is an alien," Rene says. "Did you see his body language, the way he almost rolled his eyes, barely kept from shaking his head when the sheriff mentioned Sunny's guilt?"

I do roll my eyes. "If it were anything other than a cotton batting-stuffed bit of fabric, I'd be able to see that. I don't understand why he's so cemented to the idea that the toy is an alien."

"You did say earlier that he probably can't accept what his niece has gone through," Pablo reminds us. "That makes sense, up to a point. If Mary Lee is willing to accept reality, though, there doesn't seem to be any reason for him not to."

I agree. Sunny must be protected, but treating her as a little kid will offer us protection. They're disregarding her now just as the pair of you are. Melody is a key to whatever it is they're doing, as near as we can tell. What or why, I can't say yet. But I suspect it has to do with the voices she hears.

The look Mary Lee gives Newspaper Man is almost amusing. It's a more pronounced version of what I suspect is on my face.

"Has he not been paying attention? Okay, maybe he does need some psychological assistance."

Mary Lee turns to Pat.

Have we been disregarding Sunny? I don't think we've been disregarding Sunny. In fact, we're both of the opinion that Sunny is every bit as much involved in whatever the hell is going on as Melody is. They're best friends, how could she not be?

She sighs and rolls her eyes.

You know, he wasn't always like this. Fine, he's always been stubborn. But he used to listen, and then remember what he just heard.

She goes quiet again, and I can see a chaotic mess of qi . . . I suspect she's trying to piece through things on her own here. Finally, she looks at Newspaper Man again.

It doesn't have as much to do with the voices she hears as what's attached to them. And that little piece of paper she carries around with her? I'll grant that I'm not a doctor, but I'm a more voracious reader than anyone on this island with the possible exception of Teresa DeCoon. Sure, Melody hears voices. But she sees things, too. Two types of hallucinations? That's pretty unusual. And she doesn't seem particularly delusional to me, her fear of Doc Schwartzer notwithstanding. Is she paranoid about whatever goes on at the research center over the weekends? No. Now, don't start, Pat. Hear me out.
She doesn't remember anything from Friday afternoon to Tuesday morning. Being frightened of not knowing or not remembering what happened for days at a time isn't being paranoid. That seems like a pretty healthy reaction to feeling like parts of your life are out of your control. You're not really paranoid if they're out to get you. Isn't that how the saying goes? I'm not saying one way or the other about someone being out to get her. I'm just saying that even her diagnosis feels . . . off. But, again, what do I know?
I do know there aren't any facts, Patty. Except that you're right about Sunny. I've said it more than once. I need to keep Sunny safe. We need to keep Sunny safe. Whether it's from King or it's from whoever these mysterious and hypothetical bad people are, she has to stay safe. I'm saying that as her mother. No tin foil hats involved.

Mary Lee pauses to drink again from her water bottle.

I've already lost Chuck. I won't lose my baby, too.

Newspaper Man nods. At least he seems able to agree that the little girl needs to be protected. He's still got his aluminum foil hat on, though.

So, we're in the information-gathering phase. I've been doing some research and noting some interesting coincidences. Miss Ell seems odd, and in the mix with all the others: the doctor, the facility. All of these things seem like we should take some interest in them. There's even the Time Warner Cable building that started up at the same time. They have a lot of high-tech equipment that could lend itself to what Chuck was working on. I'm not saying he did work there, just noting similarities.

I swear Mary Lee is getting ready to take another swing at him. Or maybe that's projection: It's certainly what I'd be doing at this point.

What we need is evidence, as Sheriff Pat has so eloquently said. What that means for us, is the basic elements of investigation and/or police work. We watch, study, learn, and discover all the pieces we can from more mundane and reasonable choices.

Mary Lee shrugs and foregoes any violence.

You know that Miss Ell isn't a Time Warner subscriber, right? Oh, hell, she could be subscribing to every service available — although the last time I noticed, it was just Time Warner and Dish. I don't know. You figure it out. Christ, she has so many of those damn antennas on her house that you'd think she DVRs everything on every channel all day every day. Who in the world does that? Well, I suppose CSPAN is great if you have insomnia.

"Oh, Mary Lee, that's where you're wrong . . . unless the CPAN in your universe is different than ours," I mutter. "That shit makes me want to throw footwear at the television. Gods, those people are stupid."

Pablo squeezes my hand. "Now, now, dear. You're maligning our elected officials."

"If it's any consolation, Andi, things aren't a whole lot better in Europe."

"Well . . . at least they repealed the Mutant Registration Act, which shouldn't have been passed in the first place."

And we? WE? I sure as hell hope you mean you and your little cabal because my job is staying sober . . . being a good mother . . . cleaning Pat's apartment in exchange for letting Sunny and me stay there . . . reading stories to my kid . . . hugging her until she gets sick of it, which probably won't be until at least puberty . . . lending an ear and a shoulder to Melody when she needs one. All this spy nonsense is too much for me.
But I'll tell you something, Derek. If things are as dire as you seem to believe they are, watching and studying and learning and discovering all mean that you're waiting and not doing. This time next year, you'll still be right where you are now.

She stands and drains the second water bottle. Great. Now I'm thirsty, too.

Now, I'm going to go drink more water, eat decent food, finish cleaning the mess Sunny made in Pat's kitchen this morning, and maybe take a walk before picking up my daughter and her friend from school. And then? Well, then I'm going to talk to the one person the rest of you seem to have disregarded in all of this: Sunny.

She looks at Pat then.

I also need to pee, and I'm about a hundred percent certain the bathroom in your office is cleaner than the one in here.

She walks out the door without a backward glance at Newspaper Man, the sheriff following behind her.

He shakes his head, muttering, "Next year? Right. How about tomorrow?" He stands in the front area of his offices, lost in thought, for several minutes. Finally, he goes back to his computer with a fresh cup of coffee to do more research. First, he searches for "Ell" as in Dani Ell, the shopkeeper. The top listing in Google is "A Guide for Engaging ELL Families." ELL, as anyone in my family would know, stands for English Language Learners, not ice cream inventors. That particular line of investigation dies out very quickly.

It's easier to track Doctor Schwartzer from one location to another. It's her first posting that catches his attention: Groom Lake. He makes some notes about Area 51 on his notepad, before diving into the rabbit hole. He doodled "Conspiracy Theory" on his pad, too.

"That was one of the stranger movies Bobby's made me watch," I say. "He didn't even realize that Patrick Stewart was in TNG. I had to tell him about that."

"Dear, Bobby doesn't even recognize TNG exists."

"Okay, you're right about that."

Newspaper Man dives though the actual history of Area 51 before spiraling into the conspiracy theories, and not just those related to Area 51. There's Nikola Tesla's power generation towers and their rumored death beams, and a page about the Montauk Monster. It's a wonder he doesn't go looking into the Jersey Devil, but I guess being in New Jersey makes it less interesting. Then he plunges into all the conspiracy theories about Montauk Air Force Station, which in our world is the site of the Stranger Things show. It was fine. I just didn't like it as much as some other shows, most notably Stargate SG-1.

"Huh. In that world, the Blackbirds were decommissioned a while back." Pablo has always been more interested in the planes the military was testing out at Area 51. "Maybe it didn't work out as well there as they have here?"

"With everything else being so similar, that is kind of surprising." I peer at Newspaper Man's computer and the list of conspiracy theories he's making on his notepad. "Time travel seems to be his favorite theory at the moment."

Newspaper Man's phone rings and he picks it up. It's the phone call we heard from the other side when Beach Guy called him. We don't learn anything new, as Beach Guy had relayed Newspaper Man's side of the conversation to Lucy. When he hangs up, he goes back to his notes and his research. However, it looks like he's finally reached the bottom of the rabbit hole — or he's gone down as far as he's willing to go. He finishes off the coffee, then heads out into the town.

It's probably a typical stroll through a small New England town on a lazy spring afternoon. I've seen movies in this kind of location, so I'll buy it. Newspaper Man wanders down to the docks where the Applebys are taking a group of tourists out on a dive.

"He's kind of got the heebie jeebies trying to figure out why he thinks there's something wrong at the docks," I muse.

"It's good that he doesn't remember the diver. He was evil." Pablo shrugs.

School has already let out, so the ice cream shop is busy. Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady has a new flavor of ice cream, as announced by the sign above the door: Brand New! Multi-Crème! No Two Scoops the Same!

Although it seems to be a hit with the school kids, it sounds pretty terrible to me. Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady catches sight of Newspaper Man and waves to him. He smiles and waves back. He takes the notepad from his pocket and makes notes as he walks: One could smile across at the man one was shotting at, it happened all the time in war. Was this war? How long has this been going on, how many resets?

"I get the sense he thinks he should be able to know how many times he's been through this," Rene says. "But clearly, he can't remember."

I look at him. "I don't think either of us could say how many times Sunny flipped them through different realities when she was trying to get rid of Paranoid Diver Dude. It's not surprising he can't remember."

He wanders silently through the town, occasionally make notes. But the notes don't tell us much about what's going on in his head. Eventually, though, he's walking toward Beach Guy and Lucy. It's a relief, really. Newspaper Man is the epitome of boring when he isn't being frustratingly dense. As they draw close enough together to talk, it's Beach Guy who speaks up first.

Things to talk about, things to show you. Where's best?

"Have I mentioned he sounds like he's in a bad spy movie?" Pablo asks.

"I know one of us did. And he does write espionage for a living."

"I hope his book is better than what he's got going on in real life."

"Or we can be grateful it doesn't exist in our universe," I say cheerfully.

I don't know if my office is being watched, but that's one option. The town is pretending to go about its business, so there are other places we could talk, depending on how much privacy is needed. Public places like the beach or an ocean overlook might work, as well.

"Pretending to go about its business?" Rene looks at the man suspiciously. "Is he well?"

"Clearly not," Pablo says.

Maybe an open-air spot might work best. Luce?

She gives Beach Guy a grin.

I'm fine with anywhere really. Well, as long as there's no ice cream involved, that is. But I think it should be somewhere at least semi-private.

The three of them agree that a secluded part of the beach would work best, at least until they get to the docks to rent a boat from Roy Appleby. The man is downright concerned.

Are you sure you want to go out, this late in the day? The sound is getting quite choppy.

But he sighs, and his son preps one of the smaller motorboats for them.

Just be careful you get back before dark. We've been getting rain about an hour after sunset the last few days.

As they're motoring out of the little harbor, the three of them shudder as they pass the empty berth where Paranoid Diver Dude's boat had been docked.

"It's almost as if the memories are there," I say. "They've just been pushed down so far that they can't access them."

"Does it really matter?" Pablo asks.

"No. Well, probably not. They'll either eventually let it go, or they'll drive themselves crazy."

"Crazier."

"Right. That."

They pull up to the secluded beach, and tied the boat off to a large rock near the water's edge. Beach Guy looks around and points up at the cliff face.

Those are the cliffs where Jilly fell, except she didn't. There's a sheltered side to that rock over there where we can sit and talk.

Newspaper Man and Lucy follow him around the rock and make themselves as comfortable as possible. Newspaper Man looks from Lucy to Beach Guy.

So, now that we're together, who'd like to start? I did some digging on the internet and came up with some interesting tidbits. Nothing I found was conclusive, but it does hint at the larger picture. What about you guys?

Pablo snorts. "I like how he's completely ignoring the visit from his sister."

"It isn't surprising, Pablo. He doesn't subscribe to her version of reality, so why mention it?"

I nod. "Rene has a point. I think he'd just as soon forget the whole thing."

Beach Guy takes out his phone, opens the gallery, frames the first picture, and shows Newspaper Guy the zoom button.

We did some investigating . . . and see what we found. You can just swipe through them.

Newspaper Guy sits down on a rock and starts going through the pictures, trying to make sense of them. Occasionally, he asks Beach Guy or Lucy a question about a picture, but for the most part, he scrolls through them in silence. Eventually, he hands the phone back to Beach Guy.

That's quite a bit of information discovered here. It matches up with some of the tidbits I was able to discover on my end, though nothing compared to your success.

I sigh. "Okay, finding out that Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady is one of the masterminds of whatever the hell is going on doesn't really match up with anything he's found."

"He's got other conspiracies inside his head?" Pablo suggests.

I just shrug.

Beach Guy nods to Newspaper Man as he accepts his phone back.

Blows the mind, doesn't it? Question is, what do we do with this stuff. Is there anyone we could take it to? Who do we tell? Chelsea . . . Teresa? Possibly the sheriff, but what would she do? Your sister? And does it give us a next step? Does it help Melody? I'm full of questions today, but very few answers.

Pablo glares at the man. "So, he doesn't just act creepy around Teresa? The way he's grinning at Lucy just feels wrong."

"What, like he's only vacation without a care in the world?" I ask.

"Yeah, something like that."

"Maybe it's a defense mechanism like Sunny's bear."

If the resets were still happening with any frequency, I'd have suggested one of us beard the lion in his den, but . . . just in case, I don't think any of us want to be lab rats for the rest of our lives. Knowing all of this is great, but we don't have many options, do we?

"There are moments when I think that woman has a death wish," Rene says. "Though I suppose all those resets so close together might have dulled it down a bit."

Newspaper Man accepts a piece of the chocolate Beach Guy is passing around. Gods, they need to stop eating!

I think it lends credence to the whole nutty thing about conspiracy theories. There's absolutely something going on. They know it, and they're trying to keep it quiet. Melody is in the heart of things due to whatever it is in her biological or mental makeup that allows them to experiment with her. As you say, the real question is what to do next. We can't let Melody see the doc, or maybe we can but we need to make sure that she doesn't get her medicine. We could break into the doctor's office and swap her meds for something harmless and, of course, pray we don't get caught. Though they'd notice it didn't work, because it makes her seriously loopy. And . . . we know that they're likely to do their experiments on the weekend when she doesn't have to appear in school. I don't want a reset to happen. I'm just getting my sister back, even if she's more of a pain in the butt than she was drunk.

The cop next to me shakes his head. "I don't even know where to start with that plan, but it would end up with him in a jail cell."

I've been to that center more than once . . .

Beach Guy begins speaking with confidence, but trails off.

"Remembering trips out there with the diver?" Rene asks.

"Or at least trying to," I agree. "The trouble they're having remembering the asshole is proof enough for me that the man never even existed in this universe."

Anyway, security there is tight. Breaking in wouldn't be easy and I suspect from what we've seen that there's someone there at all hours. No, I think the thing to do is to prevent Melody from going somehow, though how is a new question. We could hide her . . . maybe. Or get the Sheriff's cooperation and get her locked in a jail cell, but I don't think that would fly. Hiding her would also cause problems. We'd need to persuade Jilly to cooperate, otherwise she'd be reported missing. Then it could be us behind bars for kidnapping. Hmm. Maybe we could kidnap the doc? Or sabotage the center so it has no power? All wild ideas, but no easy solution comes to mind.

"I don't think we need to ask how you'd go about taking care of the problem," Pablo says wryly.

"Nope. I have a big stick, and they'd all be introduced to it."

"Even though you don't have enough proof for me to lock them all up?"

I shrug. "I wouldn't call you. I'd call Masterson. The military should take care of its own trash, shouldn't it?"

Lucy, too, is nibbling on a piece of chocolate.

I like the idea of kidnapping the doc. Or . . . this is . . . difficult: Perhaps we could convince Miss Jilly or someone else that one of the doctors behaved inappropriately with Melody? It might just be a delaying tactic, but it might buy us a little bit of time.

"The solution is obvious," Rene says. "I'm just not sure they have the means to pull it off."

"You mean getting Melody away from the island while making the bad guys think she's dead?"

Pablo looks between Rene and me for a few seconds. "It would have to be convincing enough that I'd buy it. The sheriff over there is good, and the military seems rabid."

"That's their problem, though," Rene says. "They don't have even an outline for their plan. Even Maddie won't go into an op without a general idea of who needs to do what."

"Or she just walks up to the bad guys' front door and starts improvising." I give Rene a half-smile. "I'm beginning to appreciate that tactic, by the way."

Pablo groans in response.

I pat his arm. "And at least Maddie and I know who the bad guys are that we're targeting."

"That doesn't help as much as you think it does."

Newspaper Man pauses before replying.

I guess it comes down to how much attention we want to attract. The photographer ended up censored by the paramilitary guys who seem to run security for the center, if we're correct in our assumptions. No matter which choice we make of those, we'll get their attention, which admittedly is better than a reset or the deaths we suffer doing them.

"Would a military operation contract out to a paramilitary group for security," Pablo asks.

Rene shakes his head. "They might hire a private security firm, the sort that backs them up in war zones. But when I think paramilitary, I think of all the amateur groups you have here in this country that just play at being soldiers. I'll grant that there may be a fine line between the two."

"No, I think you're right, Rene," Pablo says. "The private firms don't generally call themselves 'paramilitary.'"

"We're getting hung up on semantics?" I ask.

Rene shrugs. "I was a Legionnaire, part of the military. I'm vaguely insulted by their casual use of the word paramilitary."

"Okay. Just wondering. I have my own reasons for disliking it."

"And those would be?" Pablo asks.

"It smacks of conspiracy theories, and I'm getting really tired of those."

Unfortunately, getting their attention has, in the past, caused a reset. I remember getting shot at night. I think we have to try being cleverer than this. Not sure how. Maybe we could do something to break up their little cabal, turn them against each other . . . disappear the doctor but leave a note behind, for instance. Not necessarily suggesting that, but maybe we could consider who's the best target and how we could sow those seeds.

I sigh. "They don't have the resources to do anything like that. Beach Guy might have been in the military, but the three of them are weenies."

This . . . I know this is ruthless, but desperate times and all. Kill one and implicate the others? Get them going after each other, and get the police looking hard at some of the other suspects? I know, it's . . . I'm . . . horrible for thinking of that. But one less person involved and, yes, I'm a little tired of us being the only ones dying all the time.

"Lucy, Lucy, Lucy . . . oh, you sweet summer child."

Pablo snickers. "She doesn't realize that when the world ends, everyone dies?"

"Perhaps she means being killed by that truck that was running her over?" Rene suggests.

"Maybe, but then they get a reset, and resets happen because the world ends."

Beach Guy nods.

That was going to be my next question: How far are we prepared to go? Killing means stepping outside of the law, alienating the sheriff and perhaps Derek's sister. And although we know the serious nightmare that we're in, others won't see any of that, certainly not as justification. And killing isn't an easy thing. I've been in a Special Forces unit, and I've killed in the past. But then I had gear, guns and such, and it was legitimized by our commanders and government. It's not so easy without a gun and without backup. But if there's killing to be done, then I guess I'm your guy. But it should be a last resort. Somehow, I can't see Melody welcoming that solution either.

I shake my head. "At least they're talking about things they might eventually do, even if those things are beyond them."

"Clearly, they need to have a plan they can actually manage," Pablo says.

"I like plans." I smile at Rene. "Even though I fully understand it's the first casualty in any engagement. Thinking up new ones on the fly keeps the mind sharp!"

He shakes his head, but returns my smile. "You may never convince your sister of that."

I shrug. "I don't need to."

We're already stepping outside the law, so right now, it's a matter of degrees. But . . . last resort it is, then. But I don't think you should have to do it alone. That's not fair.

"She's out of her mind," Pablo mutters.

I sigh. "Probably."

Newspaper Man has kept quiet through their discussion of death and killing. Finally, he adds his two-cents' worth.

If death was the answer, I'm sure the kids would have found it out. The reason I say that is suicide is an option, doesn't kill anyone else, but I have the feeling that it didn't work for them. Mind you, it isn't a subject I'm going to bring up with them, and I'm just guessing, but it's a logical end route. We have a few different options. We can, as you say, take someone out . . . messy, difficult, and not without a lot of risk. Planning a frame job is even more work, and almost impossible to pull off correctly, especially against people who just make up their version of events and tell us to believe it. But we have the facility: it's possible to shut it down. I'm sure that it has backup power and all kinds of things, but not impossible. The fear in that instance is not only risk to our own lives and limbs, but more importantly what if that thing gets loose. We've seen the carnage it leaves behind when it visits just once. Can you imagine what it could do if their actions are somehow controlling or restraining it, and it's suddenly freed?

"How can he be so close to the truth and still so far away?" Yes, I'm frustrated. Those people are one fry short of a Happy Meal.

"Cut them some slack, Andrea," Pablo says. "They still haven't figured out they're flipping between realities. How can they understand that different dimensions exist within each reality, places where the Shadow lives?"

"I suppose you're right, Pablo. I do have a unique perspective on that sort of thing."

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

Another option is to figure out a way to show that they're compromised. I have no real knowledge of actual black ops, but one would assume that if light was shined on their shadowy actions, that they might shrink from that light. The real trick is to shine the light in a way that doesn't make you the target. It has to be a bright enough light to even have a chance of making a difference, like the whole Wiki Leaks kind of thing. What other options do we have? We know that we have to keep our momentum going. We have to continue to be unpredictable. Also, I have to mention something with regard to that. As we came out here, I just had the strangest feeling that I'm missing something. What happens if we do something so incredibly . . . I don't know. But let's say that one of us could be erased. What happens then? I hadn't thought about that possibility until we came out here and I had that nagging feeling. I'm not one who forgets things easily, so it has to be a big thing to notice that one's forgotten it. Well, at least, to my mind. That makes me concerned.

"They don't have any momentum to keep going," I mutter.

"If the diver never existed in this universe, can they actually get to the point of remembering him?" Rene asks.

"Hmm." I ponder that for a moment. "Given that they seem to remember everything else that's happened to them, and are only forgetting everything related to Paranoid Diver Dude, it might be possible. Those memories might exist in their brains, but there's nothing real to attach them to. So . . . it could be something like a dream or a fantasy if the memories finally do break through."

Beach Guy gives Newspaper Man a long look.

I've had that feeling, too . . . a few times since the last reset, particularly back there in the harbor. But I can't get my mind to focus on it . . . like there's nothing there to focus on but, somehow, I know there is. It's been driving me crazy! What about you, Luce?

Lucy nods her agreement.

I've had that feeling a few times, but are we missing someone or something? Person or event? For me, it felt like some things just skipped a bit, jumping over what I can't remember.

Beach Guy nods as well.

Yes, same for me. Hope it's not a person.

I snort. "Oh, my dude, you're better off without that person, trust me."

So, getting back to the matter at hand, it seems that public opinion has it that we sabotage the center.

"What? Don't desecrate the English language like that!"

Pablo sighs. "Andrea?"

"Public opinion . . . the general consensus opinion of the masses, not just three people."

"Maybe Rene should head over to the kitchen and fetch you a snack."

I point at the portal. "This can't go on forever."

We need to work out how to do that and quickly. We should also keep Chelsea in the loop, too . . . but verbally. Phone messages are traceable. We should also try to think beyond the sabotage. What will the enemy do? Try to move operations? Establish a new center elsewhere? Some other action? We should try to anticipate and be ready. It might be useful to get Chelsea to have a sleepover with Teresa and Melody just so she isn't alone . . . and maybe we should cover where they stay? Thoughts?

Beach Guy grins again. Maybe it's an unconscious tick on his part. A lot of the grinning the man does seems pretty inappropriate to me.

Newspaper Guy seems to be giving Beach Guy's comments due consideration, but with him, it's hard to tell. Like his sister, he spends a lot of time thinking and not speaking. At least she's started speaking, and her aura is a lot more communicative than his.

We need a way to sabotage their experiments or debunk them so much so that they won't continue to try. Otherwise, Melody will always be a target. If they take her from here, we won't be able to act. Currently, they can't, which, now that I'm thinking about it, might have to do with her directly. Not sure why or how, but it makes sense if she can't leave either.

"Oooh, hey, how's this for an idea? Figure out how to get Melody away from the island in such a way that the bad guys won't go looking for her?"

If we could sabotage the power, there would be no light, no heat, no security, and none of the equipment would work. That might be sufficient to stop the Friday night session, put a wrench in the works without forcing them to relocate. I expect there'd be a backup generator, probably in those outbuildings at the back. We'd need to take care of that, too. Short of contaminating the fuel or smashing things up, cutting wires and the like, I don't have any specialist knowledge on how to do this. Either of you?

Beach Guy still seems to be focusing on finding the immediate next step. It seems to me that it would be easier to find the next steps if one knows the goal at the end of all the steps. That's how Maddie can get away with eschewing plans: She knows the target, and just keeps moving toward it. Me? I like to have an idea of the intervening steps on the way to the target. However, I'll admit that might just be more of a security feature for me.

I have no real knowledge of how to do any of that. I don't even know how to do what I'm going to offer, but I have an idea. Rather than being too obvious, what about swapping the pills for Melody to placebos. If we could make sure that she doesn't get bad meds, or gets the meds of our choice, then that would buy us some time. It won't fix it, because they're going to know something is up, but it might keep Melody clearheaded, which has been a real boon of late. Something about her connection to whatever it is that's on the other side. If they can't make her open the pathway, or whatever it is they're making her do, then . . . I don't know. I'm not sure what it means. I'm just trying to come up with a way that we can, as you say, throw a wrench in the works, without killing people. I also don't want to lose track of those involved. Right now, we have an upper hand because of surprise and the facts that we know. As soon as they suspect we know, we're out of luck.

"Ah! See, Andrea?" Pablo says. "The reporter is at least entertaining the idea of a door that's opening to let the Shadow and Shadowkin into their reality."

Beach Guy looks up with keen interest.

Do we know what pills she takes and what they look like? And we'd have to get into the secure lab to affect a substitute . . .

I shake my head. "Talk about rabbit holes. If keeping track of drugs is as strict in that universe as it is in ours, I don't see how they can possibly manage it."

I'm not a burglar, I don't have the skills or the tools for it. And I've seen some of the security at the center. That could pose an issue and we're running out of time. I have, however, had some training in infiltration in my service career. I dare say I could break in, but it might not be an undetected break-in. We have our cameras, so, hopefully, we can pick a time when there's no one around. It might be wise to go in looking like local kids, regarding clothing. We steal all the drugs so it seems like the thieves were after cheap highs. Might be interesting to see if any warnings were issued by the center afterward.

Pablo sighs and shakes his head, but doesn't have a comment on Beach Guy's idea. Newspaper Man adds his thoughts on the matter.

I'm not sure that I've ever done anything other than stupid stuff as a kid, when I was drunk. I don't even have a speeding ticket on my record. So, I don't have any of the specialized skills, fighting, sneaking around, or whatever. What other way can we prevent tomorrow night, or tomorrow and the drug-induced effects? I think that's the key. Well, one of them anyway. Do you think that it's only the pills? Or do they do something else in the facility? I guess the only real way to find out would be to break in and look around. Did you say something about a camera in Ell's house that looked on some kind of a chair? Would that be where they did whatever they do to poor Melody, do you suppose?

Rene sighs this time.

"I know those guys think they're trying, but if we spent as much talking things over as Beach Guy and Newspaper Man are, Maddie would whack me over the head with my own staff. Do they have all the information they need? Sure. The only thing they really need to know is that they have to save Melody before the weekend. Do they even have a little, teensy clue about how to go about that? Nope."

Beach Guy pulls out his laptop, selects playback, and sets it up on a rock so all of them can see it. Then he pulls out his phone and brings up the photos he'd taken earlier in the day.

Let's have a look at the pictures and camera feeds we have. There might be more information in them if we study them from the point of view of the current proposal. They might show medication, security, which areas are overlooked . . . that sort of thing.

Newspaper Man looks at the darkening sky.

Do we have time to look at them? Not sure if the squall will stay offshore long enough for us to get back.

Beach Guy, too, looks around.

Quick look, then we should head back.

They look through the recordings from the cameras, and the pictures on the phone. It's not like they're seeing anything they haven't seen before. Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady has a bizarre collection of books. The fact that she's using a poster of CERN as a dartboard just tells me she's pissed at them. Maybe for not proving or disproving the multiverse theory? The woman needs to chill out. Not everything is knowable.

After they finish going through everything, Beach Guy looks at Newspaper Man again.

Been wondering about your sister and the sheriff. We have a kind of proof now. Do we tell them . . . or one of them? I'm not sure how reliable your sister is, not sure how the sheriff would react. But generally, I'm happier coming clean, and having the law on our side would be useful. I don't want to get her killed though . . . but telling her what happened before . . . Well, you know them better than I do.

Newspaper Man looks downright surprised at the idea.

I hadn't thought of telling them at all. Last time we involved the sheriff, she was killed. I don't want my sister to get killed, never mind involved in this craziness, unless we have to. I just started to get her back. How do we involve them without getting them to do something stupid? I think it would be useful to have help, but . . . Right now, my sister thinks I'm a lot odd, and that I don't have a grasp on reality. Frankly, she isn't far off. This stuff is unhinging at the most basic level, never mind carrying it to the level we've figured out it goes.

Beach Guy glances over at Lucy, who seems to be giving the majority of her attention to her phone, before replying to Newspaper Man.

I hear what you're saying, but what if they get killed because they don't know enough to avoid trouble in the first place? They're both on the fringes, knowing something is going on but not how bad the danger is. I think we owe it to everyone involved . . . Teresa, too . . . to tell them.

Newspaper Man doesn't look like he buying it.

I hear you. I really do. Part of me is sitting here and wondering exactly what the right option is. We infer from talking with Melody that her death won't solve the problem, or at least I did. That leaves us with options that keep everyone alive that we care about, and end the testing. It might even take something more, like reversing some of the experimentation, closing a door, so to speak. I don't know, and have no way of knowing without more information. We need information from the doctors doing the testing, and we aren't likely to get that easily. Too bad we can't just corral everyone and sit them down at gunpoint and tell them, 'You're ending the world, you idiots. How do we stop it? Help us rather than continuing down the road to hell.' But the odds are good they'd think we're as crazy as my sister thinks I am.

I'm beginning to wonder if the bad guys, Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady in particular, even realize the world is ending. Didn't she have a note in her book saying that the event only lasted a second-and-a-half? Would she make a note of monsters and the end of the world if she remembered it? Well, maybe not. She is, after all, crazy.

I'm not sure there is a wrong or a right. We have to do what we think is best. I say tell them, but you and Luce have a say, too.

"Telling Mary Lee might be fine, although she's likely to think the whole lot of them are out of them minds," Pablo says. "But unless they have real evidence they can take to the sheriff, they ought to leave her out of it."

Newspaper Man looks out at the water again.

We better get back before the swells get too difficult. I guess we'll have to find a time for me to talk to my sister again. It didn't go so well the first time. But that doesn't change the fact that we don't know what to do next. I guess we'll have to pick something and hope we can make it work.

Beach Guy, too, glances and sky and water.

Yes, I think we've finished here, for now anyway. Derek, let's get everyone together tonight and I'll do the talking. That way, your sister won't be targeting you, and it could keep the family emotions out of it.

Pablo chuckles. "Look at the reporter. He seems to really like the idea of Tyler talking to his sister, and he kind of hates himself that he likes it."

"Lot of baggage in that family," I say. "I suspect nothing is going to get them on the same page, short of some therapy. And they don't have time for that."

"So, having Tyler as a go-between is the best option?" Pablo sounds skeptical.

"Oh, I didn't say that. Well, I guess if they feel like that have to include Mary Lee, it might be the best option." I shrug. "I'm just not sure they really need to."

Beach Guy looks at Newspaper Man again, then at Lucy.

Yes or no? And Luce, are you okay with this?

Lucy shakes her head, looking in the direction of the town.

I need to go back to the Inn first, though this is a very dysfunctional place. If I'm late, start without me.

With the coming of darkness, they make their way back to the boat. The ride back is definitely rougher and wetter than the trip out to the beach, but they make it back to the little marina before the storm hits.

Lucy makes her way back to the Inn, while Beach Guy and Newspaper Man head in the opposite direction toward Asshole Trucker's home. They think Mary Lee is going to be there? Didn't Newspaper Man get the memo that she's staying with the sheriff? There are lights on in Miss Jilly's house. In addition to lights on in Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady's house, her car is out front. In front of Asshole Trucker's house is his big rig, and country music is blaring through the screen door in front of the house. He seems like an excellent person to avoid.

Interestingly, we can see Chelsea and Teresa coming down the hill from the Discovery Center, which is the portal's cue to change scenes again. We seem to be sticking with the slide-to-the-side theme, as we go back to school earlier in the day.

History class is interesting, and not only because Chelsea, Melody, and Teresa are getting along well. It would appear that the mean girls don't like that very much, but Teresa shuts Elaine down with a simple condescending question.

Just how well did you do on your last math test, Elaine?

I snicker. "Snark in the service of friendship. I like that."

Today, their teacher isn't just talking about history, but history that might be just a little relevant to all the nonsense the dreamers are facing.

We all know the tales of Camp Hero and the Montauk Base. It had always served as part of the military's early-warning system until it got replaced by the Texas Tower and they, in turn, by satellite technologies. But think about it from an everyday person's point of view: In its time, the base's radar was one of the most powerful in the world, powerful enough to disrupt the television and radio signals. During the cold War, if you were sitting in Hartford and your television burst into static, wouldn't it be more tempting — and more importantly, much more interesting — to say it was because of some top-secret experiment than just a very big, very understandable, radar being turned on.

Rene harrumphs. "It just points to the sorry state of education, if you ask me."

The teacher goes on to discuss the myth of El Dorado and how it could have arisen due to unexpected riches discovered when people first came to the New World . . .

"Yeah, because they were stealing from those of us who were already here."

. . . Loch Ness and the supposed monster in the lake's depths, and even Slenderman and his origination as an entry in an internet Photoshopping challenge.

The menu of the first Thanksgiving: While it's possible that turkey was on the menu, it wasn't actually recorded. They did spend three days fowling, which probably did include turkey, but only as one helping among plentiful duck, goose, and swan. Their main course was probably the five deer brought to the feast by the Wampanoag Indians.

I nod. "That tracks. Venison has always been a staple in the woodlands."

From black butterflies to Area 51, we have a tendency to romanticize what's happened. And that's why we must always question what we're being told. Not only, as we learned last week, is history written by the victors, what actually happened is often trumped by what makes a better story.

"That only works up to a point," Pablo says. "When you start denying actual science while 'questioning' what we've been told, that's when you get into conspiracy theory territory."

What piece of folklore interests you the most? Is there a historical tradition, myth, or mystery you find intriguing? Would you like to peek beyond its curtain and understand what it was built on?

I'm pretty sure that's a rhetorical question. From the way the teacher is looking around the class, I'm sure she expects her students to research something. Then Miss O'Connell proves it by asking Chelsea what urban legend interests her.

Black butterflies . . . what's so special about them?

The woman raises an eyebrow at Chelsea.

First, that's an excellent example of evading the question, Miss Parsons. Second, if you must know, I'm a fan of cryptozoology. But I must clarify: I follow in the footsteps of the Amazing Randi. It's a fascinating field, but I've yet to find anything more than mis-remembrances and very imaginative taxidermy.

"Okay, what's cryptozoology?" Pablo asks.

I chuckle. "It's a pseudoscience wherein one searches for and studies unknown, legendary, or extinct animals. You know, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Yeti, the Jersey Devil, that kind of thing. Remember Clarence? He's a big fan of that sort of stuff."

He sighs. "And he always seemed so normal, at least compared to Anna."

"Anna just tried playing matchmaker," I say. "In that endeavor, she was slightly less annoying than my best friend."

"Bobby never tried setting you up with women."

"Oh, he'd have gotten around to it eventually if we hadn't decided we'd waited long enough to start dating."

I giggle and Pablo sighs again, as Miss O'Connell continues.

I suspect our butterflies might just fall into that category. While they were certainly revered by the island's original inhabitants as the spirits of the woods, they do exist, are an endangered species, and we see them at least once a year when we go up to the Discovery Center on our annual field trip. The stories of their mystical nature likely result from the fact that they're nocturnal, which is quite unique for butterflies as a whole, and they do appear quite mysterious when flying through the night. On the other hand, they figure in many native stories, but in a more pragmatic way. They were considered a rare delicacy and included in several ceremonial dishes. Curiously, these were most often shared when they held council with the neighboring native people. That's where the first stories of their properties come from: it's a historical fact that this has always been a peaceful land. After a council meeting, visitors — no matter how harsh their differences were — always left on friendly terms and had been convinced not to take out their aggressions on the locals.

"I'm not sure we need to get into mysticism for that," I say. "Maybe they were all like Uncle Leon and just good at convincing people to be nice."

However, this wasn't magic or urban legend. It turns out that the metabolism of our butterflies does, indeed, create a medicine of sorts. Much like a certain spineless cactus in the Chihuahuan desert called peyote, they create what's called a psychoactive alkaloid. Simply put, it's a drug that seems to have an affect on emotions, reducing conflict, and making one forget the reason they were angry in the first place. The entire purpose of the government's research facility is the study of this drug and to see if it truly has medicinal qualities.
As best I can tell from reports they've released, it's good research and it works. But it's also very cutting edge, and it must be one of those times when it's very scary to be the first in line for the medicine, which means anyone involved in that necessary task must also be very brave.

"Can we assume she's being honest, that what she just said is the truth?" Pablo asks.

"I think so. She's got the vibe of a good teacher." I pause to study her for another moment, but still come to the same conclusion. "Melody's been brought here, as opposed to, say, University of Chicago or UC Berkeley, so . . . I think we can conclude that this butterfly drug is involved with her treatment."

"And if that's the case," Rene says, "just what is it that they're trying to get Melody to do, or to forget?"

"Well, we know it involves torture."

"Are they torturing Melody out there?" Pablo asks. He's very unhappy.

"We saw what they were doing to Chelsea. It's not unreasonable to think they were torturing Melody before Chelsea got involved." I shake my head. "That's probably what they're trying to get her to forget."

"And what are they trying to get her to do?" Rene repeated.

"That's the question, isn't it? If their main goal is to prove the multiverse theory, Melody isn't the one who can help them with that."

"Jesus," Pablo whispers. "I'm glad they don't know about Sunny."

That's really fascinating. It always makes me wonder, when I hear something like that, how someone even decided to use butterflies as medicine in the first place. I mean, does someone just wake up one morning and decide that it's a good idea? Will we be taking a field trip to the center?

"She's on the right track, I think." I snort. "She's thinking more clearly than the adults in this little group of dreamers, at any rate."

We usually do that earlier in the spring, when the butterflies are first coming out. I believe you had your usual change-of-season cold that day.

"That's . . . disturbing."

I look at Pablo, brows furrowed. "What is?"

"That she knows Chelsea was out that day."

"It can't have been that long ago. Besides, it's a little town." I chuckle. "There were slightly more students at the American School at Camp Zama, but our teachers always knew what was going on with each and every one of us." I nudge his shoulder. "Small schools aren't at all like the big schools you attended in L.A."

However, the center is open every day from 10:00 to 4:00 and, come the summer, it's open weekends, too. If you want to go, I'd suggest doing so before the season opens up and the out-of-towners crowd arrives. In fact, I believe Miss DeCoon is doing her end-of-year project up there."

"I can wrap my brain around a teacher knowing what projects all her students are working on, at least," Pablo says.

As for the butterflies, that's Doctor Lermentov's area of specialty. As a serious lepidopterist, he probably did exactly that. Rare creatures attract attention simply by their rarity. He knew about their folklore qualities and decided to undertake a study to see if the stories had a basis in fact. Once proving that, the logical next step was to see if those properties could be beneficial. And that's why we have a research and discovery center right up the road. Perhaps one day, their treatment will help people across the world. That's a pretty nice thought, isn't it?

It would be a nice thought if Melody weren't turning white as the proverbial sheet. Once class is over, Chelsea waits until she can have a word with Teresa.

We need to go to the research center as soon as possible. If you don't mind, I'd like to go with you. Your project is a perfect reason to get us in.

When their school day has ended, the two of them gather up their books and head up the road to the discovery center.

Can I help you girls?

Doctor Danalla is sitting behind the information desk going through some paperwork. He's got a pencil behind his ear, and he's got "studious scientist" written all over him. Teresa just blinks and looks at Chelsea. Well, it had been her idea to come up here. She takes a deep breath as she steps forward, clutching her books to her chest.

Hi. We're doing our end-of-year project on the research center. We're hoping we could get some information to help us. We know some of the history, so we're looking more into what current research is going on.

"If he's part of the research staff, what's he doing manning the front desk?" Rene asks.

"They don't have much staff?" I guess. "They'll probably hire someone once all the tourists start arriving, but now? It's mostly just the townsfolk coming by."

It's been long known that extracts of the Black Darter have had certain psychotropic effects; that is, they can alter one's perceptions, mood, and behavior. Now, this is a very tricky field, of course. For example, take an opiate like morphine. It's a heavily-regulated narcotic with highly addictive properties. Yet, when used by a doctor in a rigorously-defined manner, it's an invaluable pain reliever. Steroids, which can be drastically abused in sports, are the same family of medicines that are used to treat severe allergic reactions. And so, we have this butterfly, the Eastern Black Darter, a rare and beautiful creature, that produces a drug with definitely amazing properties.

He pauses while he closes down all the applications on the information desk computer.

That makes this a very important facility. The extract changes one's perceptions of the world; it makes them open to alternative ways of thinking, and we're hoping that it can help these people who have a hard time discerning what's real from fantasy by . . .

Danalla falters then a bit as he looks back over his shoulder toward the research section of the campus before continuing, a sad smile on his face.

. . . reinforcing true perceptions instead of unreal ones. We're hoping that it can be used to help folks crippled by certain mental diseases, like schizophrenia. Eventually.

"She knows that sounds wrong, but she's not sure how or why." I sigh. "Well, she's probably remembering her experiences, so that explains why."

That's really interesting. I mean, how do you know what exactly they're thinking when they get the drug? Well, I guess you could talk to them, but I don't understand how you control what they think they're seeing. Is it like . . . you tell them it's a sunny say and just like that, they believe it, and they're happy? I guess I don't really understand. But it's amazing that a tiny butterfly can do something like that.

"If she's remembering her torture, she's hiding it exceptionally well," Rene notes.

Well, it's not the butterfly, per se. They're still butterflies and aren't very intelligent. The best they can do is fly, drink sap, eat pine needles, and make more butterflies. That's about the limit of their amazing abilities. But what is exciting is that, with a combination of their diet and evolution, they metabolize a chemical that can have an effect on people, similar to the coffee bean being the source of caffeine.

Again, the young doctor falters. He doesn't appear to be completely comfortable with whatever they're doing here.

And you're actually right. It's exactly like a therapist uses conversation to help a sick person better understand the world. What the butterfly extract does is make the patient much more open to these revelations: Where a very sick person, not understanding or realizing, might resist or not want to believe the truth, the extract allows us to break down those barriers so we can help folks. That's what . . . what . . . what this research is all about.
It can be like a post-hypnotic suggestion, like when people are trying to quit smoking. But just like that, it's not perfect. It's like a post-hypnotic suggestion not being able to get someone to do what . . . what . . . what . . . well . . . what they really don't want to do.

"He's very uncomfortable right now," Pablo says. "But is it because he doesn't like what's going on, or is it because he's just awkward around young women?"

"Huh. Interesting point," I say. "He doesn't seem to be all that much older than Chelsea and Teresa, so I guess that might be possible. All I'm picking up from his aura is that he's nervous."

Like a hypnotist? I've seen some on TV where they can make someone cluck like a chicken or believe they're someone else. That seems more than what they'd want to do. I guess you mean you couldn't convince someone to jump off a cliff because they thought they could fly. Or could you?

"Good questions," Pablo notes.

Well, that would be what the extract is for, to be extra convincing, to break down those barriers, along with other tech . . .

"And that's a little suspicious," he says.

"But only because we know what they're doing. This 'other tech' could be something totally innocuous," I say.

"Like what?" Rene asks. "I'm asking because my mind tends to go toward the sort of tech Maddie uses."

I know exactly the sort of tech Maddie uses in her "interrogations." It's no different that what the people over there were using on Chelsea. I suppress a shudder. Thank the Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits Pablo doesn't know about that little corner of Maddie's world. I shrug.

"I knew a guy back in college who was trying to give up smoking. He went to a hypnotherapist in town, but he had a rubber band around is wrist, too, and snapped it whenever he wanted to smoke." I look over my shoulder at Rene. "I thought it was weird, but he claimed it helped, especially during classes."

How long would the drug last? Surely not forever. Are there side effects like you hear in commercials? You know, like the acne drug that could possibly cause anything from hair loss to death?

"Those are good questions, too," I say. "Chelsea's a smart kid."

That we have a good handle on. The patient does suffer from mild disorientation and occasional short-term, non-harmful memory loss. Usually, they simply can't remember the treatment session itself. During intensive studies, the disorientation can take up to seventy-two hours to clear. That's actually why we're doing this research here in Montaukettston. As far as towns go, this is a very quiet and stable community. It allows our patient to recover in a more normal, less stressful environment: that of a small New England town. If we were doing this work in, say, New York or out west, we'd have to keep her in the facility throughout the procedure.
That wouldn't be very nice, would it? To be kept in a small room day in, day out? Here, she can make friends and have the best normal life she can, with friends and family. Remember, folks as sick as Miss Tracee usually need to be institutionalized. That we don't need to . . . is the first proof we've had that this procedure has a chance of working.

The young doctor once again offers them a small sad smile.

"I don't think he understands just how bad things are for Melody," I say.

Um, you didn't say how long it will last. Is the hope that you can break down the barriers, as you say, and then the person is good for life? Surely, they don't have to go through treatments for life. I have to admit that it sounds kind of scary. I mean, what if you perfected this and someone stole it. Couldn't they give it to a perfectly normal person and make them believe things? You say you can't make them do things they wouldn't normally do, but how do you know? I'm sure it's not like you've told a patient to go kill someone or go kill themselves. So, how do you know you couldn't force them. After all, the whole thing sounds incredible.

Danalla takes a deep breath before answering.

Well, of course, we want that to happen: for our patient to be able to eventually go home and no longer need treatment. Isn't that what every doctor wants? The real truth, however, is that it's completely dependent on the patient. Some are sicker than others and sometimes sicknesses don't go away, and you need the treatment for the rest of your life. I'm sure you know people like that: they need to take their blood pressure medication or go through dialysis.

He shuffles his papers around, not really seeing them, worrying at his lower lip.

About your friend? We just don't know. But that's . . . that's often the case for the first time. This is a learning experience, this kind of research. As for losing it . . .

Fear flashes across his face, too quick for most people to notice. But his aura is hanging on to it. He's also concerned . . . about Melody? About what they're doing here?

There's always a danger of that. For example, most narcotics can be used to help people, but in the wrong hands, can hurt them badly. As for making people do what you want, like creating killers and assassins, that's the realm of Hollywood, overseas animation, and horror stories, not real life. These procedures are far too fragile to use on a large scale. Besides, who'd come out here to steal our butterflies? They don't live well in captivity and we've proven it's a symbiosis of butterfly, climate, and the local vegetation that creates the extract. That, and we have pretty good security.

He taps his identification badge, more confident now.

So, this falling into someone else's hands would be very difficult.

Chelsea nods, though I'm not sure she's buying everything the doctor is saying. It could just be that his hesitations and mannerisms are making her uneasy.

I see. I want so badly for Melody to get better. She seems so out of it after she's been here. I feel so bad for her. That's no life. How do you know if a treatment isn't going to work, like how do you know that you should give up? It kind of seems like she's an experiment, not a patient.

Danalla is quiet for quite some time.

I think . . . I think that Melody has improved by leaps and bounds. If she were my patient . . . I'd think she should be given some time to see just how well she's become. I mean, if I were being a devil's advocate, I might point out that too much of any drug starts building up a resistance, and that the answer shouldn't be simply increasing . . . the . . . dosage.

He looks away from the two teens, his gaze coming to rest on one of the display cases.

It's a common condition of any rigorous test. However, Doctor Lermentov would be the first to remind me that my doctorate isn't in medicine, that I'm just a lepidopterologist and not a physician. For matters such as that, well, Doctor Schwartzer makes all the decisions, as she's Miss Melody's physician of record.

At that, Chelsea asks Teresa if she has any questions.

Does Doctor Schwartzer have any other special patients like Melody?

The doctor swallows hard, then admits, almost in a whisper, that Melody is Schwartzer's only patient.

Chelsea thanks the doctor for the information, they all say goodbye, and the two teens have out of the building. They've apparently been there long enough that it's time to close up shop: Danalla locks the doors behind them, and can be seen bustling about, picking up his papers, emptying the trash, and other chores one might do at the end of a day. By the time Chelsea and Teresa reach the end of the parking lot, the lights in the discovery center have been turned off.

"Is it my imagination, or did the doctor, there at the end, seem disturbed by what's going on?" Pablo asks.

"Not your imagination," I confirm. "His qi showed both concern and fear. He doesn't seem to know the extent of what's happening, but he knows enough to worry him."

By the time they teens reach the bridge back to the large island, it's starting to get dark with the storm rolling in. Chelsea is starting to relax.

Did we learn anything? And where do we go from here?

Teresa's tone only holds sincerity; there's none of the mocking, sarcastic tone she takes at school as Taz. Chelsea shrugs lightly.

I don't know. He was nervous at the end. My questions about Doctor Schwartzer got to him, for sure. If I had to guess, I don't think he agrees with Schwartzer's way of handling Melody. I think they're experimenting on Melody. Not the 'this is okay for humans' testing, but the real experimental kind. She's their lab rat. And that really scares me. We need to meet up with the others and tell them what we learned. It would probably help if someone looked into this Doctor Schwartzer a bit.

Teresa nods and looks back over her shoulder toward the discovery center.

Yeah, he certainly seemed uncomfortable at the end, like he didn't like what he was doing at all. One of those 'but I got no choice' kind of things. It's easy to recognize, when you've been there yourself far too many times. That's scary if she is, being experimented on, I mean. Not just that she is, but that the folks doing so think they can get away with it. The scarier part is that they seem to be nasty enough to do so. And if the young doctor is having second thoughts . . . maybe that's a good thing. Have you met his boss? He's old, nasty, I'd 'hate to be in his care' grumpy, and definitely not as good looking.

Chelsea nods, then wraps her arms around herself, clutching her books tightly, and fights back a shiver. It's reasonable to assume she's thinking back on the torture sessions in the world where it all ended the last time. Teresa's last comment, though, brings out a smile.

He is handsome. And he did seem to be glancing at you a lot.

I chuckle at Chelsea's teasing of Teresa. It's nice to see them acting like real friends.

Are you thinking weird things or something? He's a doctor and all!

This time Pablo chuckles. "I think the young doctor is a lot less creepy than the author. He's terribly shy, and wasn't giving Teresa the same creepy grins that the author does."

"To be fair, Beach Guy gives everyone creepy, often inappropriate, grins."

Teresa gives Chelsea a sidelong glance.

You do realize that half the guys in our class wouldn't mind going out with you, even if half of them are doing it for a chance at dessert afterward. I do hear everything that goes on in school, after all.

Chelsea shrugs, then laughs.

I think the pie is their first goal.

It's refreshing to see that a teen can still be that innocent. After all, "dessert" has more than one connotation. I was well into my twenties before I figured that out.

After a short walk in silence, Teresa returns to a more serious topic.

I don't think it's a matter of wanting to help Melody. I think that Doctor Danalla would rather Melody wasn't here at all and that he could go back to studying his butterflies.

Chelsea sighs and nods.

I think you're right. I guess someone needs to find out more about Doctor Lermentov, too. It sounds like he's the one in charge, at least in charge of Melody's medications. And I don't believe he's doing what he's doing to help her.

As they round a corner, arm-in-arm, they're surprised to find Beach Guy and Newspaper Man waiting on the road at the end of Asshole Trucker's driveway. As soon as she sees then, however, Chelsea disengages her arm from Teresa's and waves at the two men. As they walk up, we hear Beach Guy's question for Newspaper Man.

Do we go knock, or do you have a phone number for your sister?

Being the coward he is, Newspaper Man pulls out his phone and shows Beach Guy his sister's phone number.

I guess you can talk to her.

Beach Guy dials her number, and apparently reaches Mary Lee's voicemail.

Er, Mary Lee, this is Tyler, Derek's friend. I want to find a convenient time to get together with you, and possibly the sheriff, so that we can tell you everything that we know, and try to answer any questions you might have. Ideally, we would like to do this tonight, as there are things to be done tomorrow. Is there a time and place convenient to you? I'd also like to include Chelsea and Teresa, too. Please call me back as soon as you can. Thank you.

I shake my head. I'm not surprised Beach Guy has to leave a message; it looks to be around dinnertime over there. Once again, my stomach growls. But Teresa nods to Chelsea.

Maybe you should tell them about what we think of Doctor Danalla.

Newspaper Man looks as uneasy about including Teresa in their scheming as he is relieved that Beach Guy has to leave a message for his sister. I don't understand that kind of dysfunction.

He clearly doesn't like the way Melody is being treated. Not mistreated, I mean, but he doesn't believe they're using the butterfly extract to treat her properly. He said they just keep increasing the dosage without ever waiting a while to see what the results are. He said that would be pretty standard, waiting a while. He was pretty nervous about the way Doctor Lermentov was dealing with Melody, and he admitted that she was the only patient. Do you think we can convince someone to get her away from them?

Beach Guy looks between the two teens as he replies.

We've been talking over ways of doing that. First off, we're going to get everyone together and share what we know and our ideas going forward. I'd like to include both of you. You found some good information back there. Well done! I'm just waiting for a call back from Mary Lee so we can sort out where and when. Hopefully, not too late.

A couple of minutes later, Newspaper Man's phone rings, startling him. Forcing a smile on his face, and sounding entirely too cheerful, he answers the phone.

Hello, sister dear.

The portal does another of those sideswipe scene changes, and we're back to following Mary Lee and the Sheriff earlier in the day. The first thing Mary Lee does when she enters the sheriff's office is head for the restroom. I can actually hear her washing her hands in there. She fetches another cup of water, and slouches on the sofa, stretching her legs out.

So maybe that wasn't as helpful as it could have been. Honestly? I see why they'd focus on Melody and think . . . I'm not really sure what Derek and his friends think about Sunny, really. But I seriously do need to have a chat with her about them, because all of this crazy stuff that Derek was talking about makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But if Chuck was involved in crazy stuff?

Pat looks across the small office and lets her friend talk.

I suspect that was the case, Mary Lee. Chuck probably could have been caught up in crazy stuff. But whether it was crazy stuff like staring at goats or he was in too deep in some super-secret operation that doesn't show up in the Congressional budget reports . . . that's another thing altogether. The latter is more reasonable, but it's also the more dangerous. Those folks like to keep their secrets.

Mary Lee lifted her head from the back of the sofa and stares at the wall across from her.

Secrets. Hornets' nests. Right. They're going to keep their secrets until some real-life Fox Mulder shows up to blow the whole thing wide open. Or until they kill him, too, which is apparently what happens in my brother's real life. And honestly? He's not wrong to believe we think he's nuts. How the hell am I supposed to even start accepting a story that's self-contradictory, never mind the fact that it's a poorly written science fiction horror movie. You'd think he could at least come up with a coherent and consistent story, right? Forget about the fact that there's no proof for most of his outrageous claims — he's losing his credibility as a writer.
Maybe he can't spin the tale without taking on the role of the objective observer. But he's using that narrative trope to tell a story that needs to be told in the first person. So, yeah, I guess that could explain why it's a shitty story.

Mary Lee looks up at her friend, her voice shaking.

How can we keep Sunny safe when we have no idea what's really going on? And Patty . . . are you going to be able to keep her safe if you don't even know who's—"

She stops short and shakes her head.

No. she's just a little girl. That's all they need to know. That's all they do know. She's just six . . .

She sits up quickly, leans over with her head between her knees, and just breathes.

"Well, that seems different," Pablo says.

"Yeah. She just short-circuited a panic attack there."

Pat takes off her metaphorical sheriff's hat and sits down on the sofa next to Mary Lee.

As long as everyone thinks Sunny is just a little kid, she'll stay under everyone's radar. It's the same reason they let her take her teddy bear into school every day. She's a little girl who lost her father and whose mother is a drunk. Always remember, Mary Lee: People believe what they want to believe. Most folks like little kids, have no reason to think she's not just a little kid. They'll see her that way. We hated it when they did that to us, remember? The best thing about being a kid is that no one takes you seriously.

Then she puts her professional hat back on, and smiles.

You know something else? You not drinking? That's an even better thing. Why? It takes attention off of her and puts it on you. And in this case, that's a good thing.

Mary Lee nods, then stands up, snagging the paper cup off the floor where she'd dropped it.

I'll go clean up the rest of the mess Sunny made of your kitchen. Maybe stare at whatever you have in your fridge and cabinets to come up with a dinner idea. Right, eat lunch, too, and drink more water. I can do this. Cleaning keeps me distracted. You have a timer on your stove, another one on the microwave . . . I'll fetch the girls from school. You do all your exciting police stuff!

She grins broadly as she opens the door.

Cleaning is more fun than writing parking tickets!

We watch the next several hours fast-forward by as Mary Lee cleans not only Pat's kitchen but the bathroom, has a decent lunch, takes a shower, and gets a start on dinner. Locking the door behind her, she takes a leisurely stroll up to the school. The hardware store owner does a double take when he sees her, but then smiles and waves. Mary Lee waves back, a smile on her face. As she passes by Doc Schwartzer's place, she shudders. I'm not even sure she knows why. She pauses, however, in front of the library, trying to decide if she should go in or not. A glance toward the school and the ringing bell — which I shouldn't hear, damn it — gets her moving again in that direction.

As she nears the schoolyard, Chelsea and Teresa are walking together up the nature trail. Mary Lee watches them for a moment before Sunny comes barreling at her; she has time to crouch down and brace herself before her daughter tries to engulf her in a hug, after which Mister Teddy dances on both their heads.

Mister Teddy has some new dance moves, I see. Does he remember how to do the YMCA dance? I think maybe your daddy spit water out of his nose when I taught Mister Teddy that one when you were really, really little.

She looks up at Melody, her smile full of joy.

Would you like to come over for dinner? Pat had all sorts of veggies, some meat, and all the right spices in her kitchen, so I got a stew doing. I'll have to send her over to the market for dinner rolls. She seems to think it's a sin to keep much bread in the house.

Mary Lee glances at the books in Melody's arms, an expression of embarrassment on her face as she stands.

Okay, I do have an ulterior motive beyond just enjoying the two of you making my world a little brighter. I'd love to have a look at your Frederica Bernkastel book. I haven't run across one since college and . . . well . . . I guess I do miss being a librarian. All her books were put out by small presses with limited runs.

"Before you ask, that likely means the woman's books are rare collector's items."

Melody and Sunny communicate with nothing more than a glance, and the three of them head back to Pat's apartment. Mister Teddy rides on Mary Lee's shoulder because Sunny claims he wants to know what it's like to be tall. As amusing as that is, I suspect the real reason the bear is on her mom's shoulder is because that way Sunny can hold both Mary Lee's and Melody's hands as they walk. And sometimes she does hold both their hands, but she also skips around the two of them singing YMCA out of tune. She might not have the notes right, but she does get most of the words right.

Mister Jorgensson is surprised as the three of them walk by his store again, but he seems pleased in his surprise. Maybe he was one of those friends in town that Mary Lee had alienated. As they walk past Doc Schwartzer's office, the three of them are holding hands again. It looks like they're trying to protect and be brave for one another.

It's obvious Mary Lee is still a little awkward about being in Pat's apartment, and maybe even being around other people while sober.

Um, well, if you have any homework—
We do all our homework at lunchtime, Mommy!

Mary Lee blinks in surprise.

Really? You don't go . . . Oh, right. The Jerk. Well, we can still sit around the kitchen table and talk, right? I used to sit and talk with my grandma at the kitchen table even though she had a lovely porch with a porch swing and everything. Of course, she was a lot like Miss Jilly . . . always bustling around and baking and cooking.

Pablo chuckles. "Like your mother and mine, for that matter."

Melody pulls out her black leatherbound book of poetry: The Forever June of 1983: the complete works of Frederica Bernkastel. It's a small book, so I suspect it won't take much time to go through it, unless Mary Lee wants to discuss the poems.

She only wrote these short poems. I read once that some were originally sent as postcards to a place called Hinamizawa: six lines fit perfectly on the back of pasteboard, yes?

Her words are slow and broken, as if she's hesitant about turning over the poetry book. Sunny is happily creating a little chaos in the kitchen, having discovered an ancient box of Swiss Miss in Pat's pantry. She pasues in her work to place her stuffed bar in the center of the kitchen table.

Mister Teddy says it might not be right, but it is new, and it's fair.

The look the two of them share is more than a little nervous. Finally, Sunny nods and Melody pushes the book forward. It's something silent that two friends would share, that look. I see that sort of thing all over my life. Maybe from Mary Lee's point of view, the girls have only known one another for a week and that kind of silent communication would seem odd. But we've seen how many times Sunny and Melody have gone through the same few days and weeks.

So, Melody sits across the table from the town librarian, hands wrapped around a cup of hot chocolate that Sunny made. And we can read along with Mary Lee as she pages through the small book. Some of them we've already seen.

She had no hope
She knew there was no way out.
They had more
They didn't know there was no way out.
Everyone else, they had all the hope in the world.
They didn't know they had to get out in the first place.
* * *
Please do not deplore yourself.
Even if the world does not forgive, I will forgive you.
Please do not deplore yourself.
Even if you do not forgive the world, I will forgive you.
So please tell me:
What will it take for you to forgive me?
* * *
I cannot quench your thirst
Because even if you yearn for the truth, you refuse to believe in it.
I cannot quench your thirst
Because no such truth exists that you are in anticipation for.
But I still want to quench your thirst
Because I am the one that put you into the desert.
* * *
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.

The poems aren't only dark, they're disturbing. They follow a simple format. The first four lines set up a hypothesis; they usually speak of the real world, of how things might be perceived. Then the last two lines come from left field, another equally valid point of view, that put the original perceptions into question.

The frog in the well was happy.
It wasn't interested in what was outside the well.
The frog in the well was happy.
It was recluse to anything that happened outside the well.
And you were happy
Because you didn't know what occurred outside the well.

"If nothing else, the woman is depressing," Pablo says.

I can't remember what it's like having dinner with mother and father anymore. My memories are like a shattered mirror: pieces are missing and they don't fit together well, and the pattern of the broken mirror is what tells me I'm sick and stronger than anything reflected. When a mirror breaks, the shards are visually stronger than any image they see.

Melody looks down into her mug of cocoa for a moment.

Maybe they were like this. Maybe they were like dinner with my aunt, when she's just my aunt and not worried for me. It's why I go every Friday instead of running away, you know. Not because I know running away just doesn't work . . . but I'd like to be able to remember good things again.

Mary Lee reaches across the table and lightly rests her fingers on the back of Melody's hand for a few seconds.

Remember this. This is good.

I sigh softly. "Gods, that poor girl."

So who is the culprit, you ask?
Finding that out is part of the story, right?
So who is the culprit, you ask?
Do you even know what is the culprit in the first place?
So who is the culprit?
Who is the culprit that's gonna kill me?!

Sunny sits down on a chair between Melody and Mary Lee. By sitting on her knees, she makes herself tall enough to pull Mister Teddy over and set her head on top of the bear's. The little bear squished down a bit, and it would have looked silly if not for the expression on Sunny's face. She's far too serious.

What is it that I seek?
Perhaps it is a knight from a faraway land.
What is it that I seek?
Perhaps it is a shore that will save me from this eternal swamp.
There is only one thing that I seek:
What I would obtain will either be the kishi, or shiki.

There are notes in the margin of this particular poem. As someone who speaks Japanese, I find the notes interesting. 'Kishi' is translated as 'shore,' which is correct. But 'shiki' is translated as 'death,' which is odd. In this world, 'shiki' means 'four seasons.' I wonder if the author of the poem meant 'shi' instead. Melody noted that 'shiki' means 'my death,' as in the death of the author. But in our world, that would be 'watashi no shi.' I suppose it's possible that it's a dialect I never learned. Still, it's odd. I can't decide if that's more or less odd than Bernkastel appearing to be a Germanic name.

The little girl cried when she lost her marbles in the desert.
She searched the desert for one hundred years.
The little girl cried when she thought she might've lost them in the sea rather than the desert.
She searched the depths of the sea for one hundred years.
The little girl cried when she thought she might've lost them in the mountains rather than the sea.
How long will it take til she begins to doubt whether or not she actually lost them to begin with.

As we read this poem with Mary Lee, Melody offers her a small, sad smile.

"That rings true as something that happens to children, and even teens, often enough," I murmur. "It doesn't seem to matter what the truth is, if you're told a lie often enough, you'll believe it. If a bully calls a child stupid often enough, they start to wonder if it might be true."

"It's especially awful when the bully is the child's parents," Pablo says.

"Yeah. Like the little girl in the poem who lost her marbles and doesn't even know if she ever had them in the first place, maybe Melody's been told so many times that she's sick that she can't tell anymore whether she is or isn't."

At the first time, I do my best to try again
against the inevitable tragedy.
In the second time, I become disgusted
toward the inevitable tragedy.
The third time, disgust is overwhelmed into painfulness.
But by the seventh time, this all becomes a farce comedy.
* * *
I tell Melody to never give up. That's what friends are supposed to say to friends, yes, when things go really, really bad, isn't that right, Mother? Please?

Sunny's expression as she looks at Mary Lee is far too old for a six-year-old. And it's not a child's question; it's the question of someone who cares for someone else but are afraid they're actually hurting them. Mary Lee returns the solemn look, nodding.

Yes, dear. No matter how hard it is, we should stand with our friends and keep going. Never give up on your friends. When it's really, really hard, sometimes you have to carry your friends. It's what Miss Pat did for me.
* * *
She wasn't discouraged nor did she cry at her fate.
She was beautiful.
She didn't fawn anyone and fought them all by herself.
She was noble.
She shined brightly, like a divine figure.
I needed someone like her.

I nod. "We all need our guardian angels, our knights, our friends who have our backs through thick and thin."

Mary Lee looks up after reading that poem.

I remember this one, too. Our professor said it referenced the Japanese proverb, "fall down seven times, get up eight." But I always read it with a postscript . . . you have to laugh through the bad stuff otherwise you'd be crying so hard you'd never be able to stand up at all. I guess your daddy had already found me by that time because he believed life was a joyful gift. I really miss him.

She looks at Sunny, smiling.

I'm going to be okay. I'll stay well.
* * *
I wanted to know the world that was outside of the well.
So I tried hard to get out from the bottom of the well.
I wanted to know the world that was outside of the well.
So I climbed up numerous times despite falling down over and over again.
But then I realized it.
The higher and higher I climb, the pain increases when I fall down again.
When my interest in the world outside of the well began to equal the amount of pain.
that was when I finally realized the meaning of the story to Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich.

"Heh. The Frog Prince. Did you know in the original Brother's Grimm story the prince's curse wasn't broken by a kiss, but when the disgusted Princess threw the frog, the last emperor, against the wall?"

"Those guys were the original horror authors," Pablo mumbles.

"No argument from me," I say. "And did you know that the prince had a manservant named Henry, who had bound his heart with three iron bands to keep it form breaking in the sadness of his master's curse?"

Please tell me what happened in this night.
It's like the cat inside the box.
Please tell me what happened in this night.
You don't know if the cat in the box is dead or alive.
Please tell me what happened in this night.
The cat in the box was dead.

Melody swallows hard as Mary Lee reads this page, her eyes bright and sharp. Then she whispers:

Tomorrow's Friday.

I clench my jaw. Her eyes would only be bright and sharp for another twenty-four hours before she goes back into her weekend box.

Mary Lee bites her lip as Melody whispers.

Quantum superposition. Pat says the cat is either dead or alive and would you please just open the damn box to find out which it is.

She looks over at Sunny.

Oops. We need a swear jar in here, don't we? I always said that the cat was alive and dead, you just needed to be in the right universe where that cat was alive because people who try to poison or blow up cats are horrible and mean. There are other theories, too, except when your Daddy tired to tell us about them, dear, Pat and I would throw pillows and socks and sometimes popcorn at him because they only made sense to him.

Then she looks at Melody again.

We need to get you out of that box.
* * *
What kind of world lies outside of the well?
Is it something that is worth struggling for?
What kind of world lies outside of the well?
Is it something so attractive enough to fall and try over and over again?
What kind of world lies outside of the well?
Let's enjoy taking the pains of finding that out.
If I reach the world that I yearn for, it must be a spectacular world
Even if that world was another pit inside a well.
The key to the new world is the resolve to get out of the well.
Being able to get out or not, a new world awaits . . .

Melody sets her barely-touched cup down.

I get awful tired sometimes. But it's like getting sleepy in winter snow. Sunny doesn't let me fall asleep. Sometimes she's mean. But sometimes that's fine.

"Has anyone mentioned how depressing this poet is?" Rene asks.

Mary Lee nods without looking up.

I know. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to give up. But we can't, no matter how mean Sunny and Miss Patricia get.
* * *
Everyone has a right to pursue a happy life.
The difficult part is to be given that right.
Everyone has a right to pursue a happy life.
The difficult part is to fulfill that right.
I too have a right to pursue a happy life.
The difficult part is to work out a compromise for that right.

"But maybe a bit encouraging, too. Makes me wonder who this Bernkastel was writing to on those alleged postcards," I muse. "Can't actually be Melody, because she wasn't alive in 1983. Or . . ."

"Andrea?"

"Was she experiencing the same kind of thing Melody is? The constant repeats?"

"Are you saying this kind of thing happens regularly in that universe?" Pablo asks. "That's awful."

I shrug. "I can't say one way or the other, not without more information. It's just a thought."

That's because
I'm gonna become much, much more happy from now on.
I'm not gonna compromise with just this.
We are gonna take back all of our happiness that we lost.
For me, that's about a hundred years' worth.
For you, a thousand years' worth.

"They haven't been doing this repeating for that long, have they?" Rene asks.

"There's no way to know, Rene. How long were they all doing this before we happened on that first scene?" I shake my head. "It seemed like it might have been the beginning for the dreamers, but maybe not. It certainly wasn't the beginning for Sunny and Melody."

Do you know what is the sin?
It isn't because you ate the forbidden fruit.
Do you know what is the sin?
It isn't because you listened to the serpent.
You still don't know what is the sin?
Then, that itself is your sin.

And after this last poem in the book, someone had written a note, one we've seen before. It doesn't read like a plea, or someone begging. It's more a command, and is worded as if it's something ongoing, over and over again. It could be read as an ultimatum. We know why, and I pray to the Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits that Mary Lee never finds out.

STOP MURDERING MY FRIEND

Mary Lee absolutely recognizes her daughter's handwriting. She stares at it for several seconds, tracing her finger over the words, before looking up at Sunny.

You have more friends than I thought you had before I started getting better. Your uncle told me a crazy story this morning, and I think maybe I only don't want to believe the parts that he doesn't understand. Because he wasn't good at explaining them, you know? And now I think you can tell the story better.

She turns to Melody for a moment.

Thank you for sharing this with me.

Then she looks at her daughter once more.

Who was murdering which friend? And what's really going on?

Mary Lee swallows and seems to realize how dry her throat is. She reaches for her glass of water, takes a long drink and sets the glass down again.

Well, unless your uncle is right and telling me the truth is going to get me killed. Then maybe you shouldn't tell me? I . . . I don't remember dying before, but he does.

When she looks at Melody again, her eyes show a bit of fear, but there's determination there, too, and a myriad of other emotions: love, confusion, protectiveness, and even some anger.

Besides what I'm doing right now, what can I do to help?

The teen bites down on her lip before answering.

Help us? We need to find a way out of the box without everything falling to pieces again. Does it matter how many times we've tried before? Ms. Le Guin was right. No one needs to understand or even believe. We've always only had one chance and this is once again our one and only chance.

Then Melody looks at Sunny and shakes her head.

I'm making a mess of things again.

Sunny nods and takes up the narrative, still resting her head on her teddy bear.

Mommy, did you ever have a big, bright red, shiny apple? And you were really, really hungry, and you really needed to eat and not starve, and you took a big, big bite and it was all squooshy, and you looked down and it was icky brown and then . . . then . . . then you saw . . .

The little girl winces, and looks at Melody.

. . . half a worm? There was a really, really bad man. He kept killing Melody. Melody is the first person that was nice to me, not because she had to be, but because it was just nice to be nice. And when Melody dies, the monsters come, and the world ends.

Sunny slowly turns her attention back to her mother. When she speaks, she sounds so much older than six.

Mister Teddy said he was evil.

It takes only a blink, and she's a little girl again.

Pablo squeezes my hand. "Children shouldn't look like that, sound like that."

I nod. "No. They shouldn't."

You and Daddy always told me that, where there are bad folks, I should run away. So I did. I ran and ran and ran until I found a place he wasn't. It was hard. I got real tired. Things didn't go right.

Her voice drops down to a whisper.

Daddy went forward and backward. I go sideways.

"Her father travels through time, she travels through space. He could stay in the same reality, she doesn't." I bite my lip. I was a teen when my powers first manifested, and I had a lot of help leaning how to use them. Like more and more children in our universe, Sunny seems to have been born with her abilities. And she never had anyone to teach her how to use them. It's all been trial and error . . . and she's only six. No wonder she's tired.

There are tears in her eyes, and she swallows again as she looks at her mother. Melody reaches out, biting her lower lip, and catches a bit of Sunny's sleeve between her fingers.

I found a place where there was no bad man. I found a place where you don't want to be sick. I don't want to lose you again, Mommy.

"I'm beginning to see a little more clearly what Leon might have been feeling when I died," Rene says. "I hate that he and Maddie had to go through that."

I look up at him. "It wasn't your fault, Rene."

"I know. And thank you once again for reuniting us."

"You're welcome once again. If I had to do everything over again, that's a decision I'd always make the same way."

I don't want to be lost again, I promise.

Mary Lee stands and lifts Sunny into her arms, and hugs her tightly, wiping away the little girl's tears. She sits down again in the chair Sunny claimed, sideways so she can hold Sunny in her lap so that the two of them can be closer to Melody. She takes a deep breath, holds it, then lets it go in a heavy sigh.

Okay. The very bad, evil man is gone. That's good. And sometimes we all mess up. It's hard to do ordinary things when you're really tired, and it sounds like you were doing something that's even harder than . . . well, maybe all the things I can do. The important thing is that you did your best.

She smiles sadly at Melody and nods.

I think you make enough sense, Melody, don't worry. Like that saying about not ever stepping into the same river twice, you know? This is what's real, and you want to solve the puzzle so . . . Well, so you and Sunny can go find another river or something. Something different, new adventures.

Mary Lee bites her lip, and I can tell she's trying to simply accept all this weirdness, trying not to have the need for understanding everything. I've grown up in a world of mutants and mutant abilities, and I still try to make sense of things. I don't envy Mary Lee right now.

But feeling like you're stuck? Even when you are stuck — at least, I think it's what you're saying about this puzzle — it's just a bigger, more hurtful way of being stuck than the rest of us. I felt stuck in one place for a long time. Drinking didn't help. Even yesterday, I couldn't imagine how to move out of my place of being stuck.

Pablo tilts his head. "Oversimplifying things there, isn't she?"

"Hey, her daughter is only six . . . even if she is older than that." I smile. "You and I have done the same thing with our hellions. They don't need the simple answers any more than Sunny does."

"You know, there are times when I wish they'd dumb things down for me."

I smile. Pablo's been saying that since Maria and Paul started talking out loud. Most of the time, it's all part of his "dumb cop" act. But I have to admit: There are times when our children start going on about stuff I even have no idea what they're talking about.

Today I don't feel that way. Or not as much, anyway. I know there are big things I need to do and thinking about those big things make me not want to move. So I think about the small things. I did a bunch of chores today by just doing one of them at a time and not thinking about the next thing. You remember yesterday, when you said that new things are good even if they hurt? Oh, sorry, that was you, Mister Teddy. I might have still been fuzzy-headed yesterday. Well, definitely more than today. And then Melody was pretty upset about talking to her—

Mary Lee tilts her head, clearly puzzled.

Are they just little critters that follow you around? Well, I guess critters implies they wouldn't talk, doesn't it? So more like lost children? Or are they more like friends? Maybe not close friends, though. Or maybe so.

"Mon Dieu! She's this clear-headed and accepting of the not-Shadowkin after not drinking for only a day?" Rene is nearly incredulous. "I suspect she might actually be able to believe those six impossible things before breakfast once she is further down her path of sobriety!"

I chuckle. "I suspect you're right."

Mary Lee looks down at the stuffed bear in her daughter's arms.

Oh, now don't be such a worry wart, Mister Teddy. It's Something New Thursday. Don't you think somebody being interested in Melody's little whosie-whatsits is new? Especially when I'm interested in a nice way? And of course, wise old silly bear! I wouldn't make Melody tell me if she didn't want to talk about them!

"Do you think David uses that tactic with his young patients?" Pablo asks.

I shrug. "Seems like a good move, using the therapy bear as an intermediary. So, sure, he probably does." I smile at my husband. "He's smart like that."

Mary Lee shakes her head and looks down at Sunny.

Has Mister Teddy been this much of a ding-a-ling the whole time? I hope not. You know, he probably just needs a good tickling later, I'll bet.

Her next comment is murmured half to herself, half to Melody.

Hmm. All of this has to do with your weekends at the facility. You don't remember what happens. But given your alleged illness . . .

Her brows furrow as she looks from Melody to the tyke in her lap.

Melody doesn't do what you do and what daddy could do, does she?

Then Mary Lee blinks several times before staring at Sunny with surprise. For nearly half a minute, she stares at her daughter in wonder.

You found a place where I don't want to be sick.

So many emotions are shooting through her qi that I can't catalog them, but most prevalent are worry and confusion.

Ow. Thinking about all that going sideways stuff hurts my brain. It's like the transporter on Star Trek. Well, not really, but that's the analogy that works right now. Is the person who beams down to the planet the same person who left the ship? And what about the transporter accident that created two Kirks? Are the people all the same when you move sideways? I feel like me, and you're my wonderful Sunny, but a couple of days ago I didn't want to get better. Now I do. But then there's that river, so is anyone the same person they were yesterday?

She blinks and smiles at Melody, a little embarrassed.

I think part of wanting to get better is remembering that I like to think about puzzling things and that I talk about them. A lot. To myself or Teddy here if no one else wants to listen.

Both Pablo and Rene burst out laughing.

"Oh, that doesn't sound like anyone we know, does it, Rene?"

I nudge both of them. "Fine. She's pinpointed pretty much exactly what I do. But I don't babble, as my dear sister calls it, about just anything, you know."

"Perhaps," Rene admits. "Though I think Maddie might be most . . . vexed by your mystical mumbo-jumbo."

"Bah!"

But the puzzle to solve first is yours, not mine. How do we find a way out of the box? What if . . .? Well, you need your aunt's permission not to see the doctor. And we definitely don't want you to go there. So . . . what if you ask Miss Jilly for a weekend off? Finals are coming up, and you want to be clear-headed for them. You do want to get better — although I think 'getting better' might mean different things to you and to Miss Jilly and to the doctor. Still, schoolwork is very important.
You seem to have some good friends in Chelsea Parsons and Teresa DeCoon. I know Mister Kendricks and Miss O'Connell are good teachers, and they want all their students to do the best work possible. I think they're adults you can trust. Oh, do your little whatevers listen to you? Say, if you asked them to hush and let you just be in school, would they do that? I guess if they want to natter at you in private, that's a different issue.

Mary Lee closes her eyes and swallows a lump in her throat. She has pain rolling through her aura again, but she seems to be getting better at not being overwhelmed by it. She swallows again and hugs Sunny. Still, when she speaks, her voice cracks several times.

I have to accept that getting better for me means living in a world without my husband. What if . . . What if getting better for you means living in harmony with the Littles? Accepting that, for whatever reasons, they just want to be around you. You already know that Sunny is on your side. She's done all her sideways skipping to help you. I'm not sure what I can do to help you but if you tell me, I'll do my best. Maybe it's enough to say that I don't believe you're crazy. No crazier than a lot of us, anyway, and a lot less crazy than the people who try to hurt you. Maybe it's enough to listen. Maybe it's enough to talk about books.

When she blinks, tears spill down her cheeks and she wipes them away with the back of a hand. Her smile is sad, but hope is starting to blossom in her aura.

Heck of a lot of new stuff here, don't you think, Mister Teddy? Yep, you're right . . . this might be the busiest Something New Thursday we could have imagined.

Sunny giggles and turns her bear around as if to listen to one of its pronouncements.

Mister Teddy says you really, really need to start going to the library again.

Pablo burst out laughing. "I wonder if I can convince Maria to remind you that you need to go back to work."

I stick out my tongue at him. I know. Very mature.

Sunny pretends to frown at Mister Teddy, poking him in the stomach with a finger.

No picking on Mother!

Mary Lee just chuckles, then she hugs Sunny and Mister Teddy.

He's not picking me, not rally. I do need to go back to the library, and not just to save everyone from Miss Dottie's obsession with cookbooks.

"See? Mary Lee admits she needs to go back to work. I have no such delusions." I give Pablo a stink eye. "Don't I already have enough to do with my Ninja gig and trying to keep the hellions from taking over the world before they reach puberty?"

Pablo sighs. "They aren't going to take over the world, Andrea."

"You don't know that."

He smiles that smile of his that's full of patience and faith. "Yes, I do."

Melody crosses her arms on the table and rests her head on them.

If they're real . . . The little ones can't be kept away. They're just mischievous kids, I guess. Not bad, not good, just curious, and they don't understand anything at all, and it's like you can't keep them out because they're so small they slip through the cracks of the door.

Mary Lee tilts her head at that.

The big ones must need the door to be opened. But usually, the door must be shut tight, I guess. And no, I didn't remember what happens.

Lifting her head, Melody locks her gaze with Mary Lee's It's not a happy look: it's scared, hurt, and just this side of panicked. But it's not just fear. The foundation of her terror is something else altogether: it's compassion. She truly cares.

We've tried not going. They've got Aunt Jilly convinced real good, and the one time we refused, I got taken out of her custody — any excuse and it gets worse and worse and worse . . . Last time, when things went really wrong . . .

They hurt Chelsea!
At least . . . at least . . . when it happens to me, I don't remember.

The teen rests her head on the table again, closing her eyes.

Aunt Jilly cares for me because I'm family. The others, because they see me as a hurt kid, that I'm just a piece of the puzzle that they've been caught in and they can't get out without dealing with me. I miss my mother and father. But they left me alone because I'm sick and it was the best they could do for me. Maybe I need someone who would just believe in me because I'm me.

She manages a tiny smile.

Well, besides a best friend and a stuff animal. They don't let me give up.

Mary Lee is horrified that this mysterious 'they' hurt Chelsea Parsons just so they could, in turn, hurt Melody.

"Yeah," I whisper. "She's terrified that the bad guys would hurt one of the kindest of Melody's agemates just because, well, because Chelsea is Melody's friend.

The woman reaches out to rest a hand lightly on Melody's shoulder.

Well, how about if I believe in you? These folks who keep on hurting you, who hurt Chelsea, of all people, are much, much sicker than you are. But they have a sickness in their souls, and I don't know that any kind of medicine could help them get better. Father Jakob is a good man, but I don't think the Church teaches exorcisms anymore.

"Um, did they ever work?" Pablo asks.

"What, exorcisms? No, probably not." I sigh. "It's exceedingly rare that anyone is actually possessed by a demon, that Exorcist movie notwithstanding. In fact, you and Ben are the only people I've ever seen be possessed by the Shadowkin." I shake my head sadly. "No, most of what the early Church thought of as demon possession was just mental illness of one kind or another. Is it possible that some of the people over there are possessed by the Shadowkin? Sure. But I haven't seen that's the case. Those are straight-up purely human evil assholes."

And missing your folks is understandable, Melody. It's so complicated, isn't it? They love you enough that they brought you here to live with your aunt and get you the help they thought you needed. But then they had to go off somewhere else because they believe it's best for you. I wish I could tell them that loving you and accepting you would be enough. I wish I knew for sure that was true. I don't really understand everything and feel like I'm stumbling in the dark trying to catch up.

Mary Lee sighs.

But I do believe you, and I believe in you. I have no idea what Sunny does, but I'm her mom, so I just love her because she's Sunny. Maybe someday I'll understand what she does. But that doesn't really matter. I love her . . . period, end of story. Your little ones are mischievous, curious, and lack understanding . . . and now I'm not going to be able to get the idea of a big basket of cranky kittens out of my head. The big ones don't sound like they're very good for anyone or anything.

She furrows her brow, concentrating. It's likely she's thinking about all the things Sunny said about monsters and the end of the world. Mary Lee strokes Melody's hair . . . in much the same way as I soothe the children when they have a nightmare, or the way Pablo strokes my hair when I've had a particularly bad night out on patrol.

You don't remember . . . So . . . so they can't possibly know about the big ones, can they? Because they're what makes everything go awful, right? Why would they hurt you if it meant all the horrible things happening and the world ending and . . . well.

Mary Lee shakes her head again, but smiles at Sunny and her bear.

Well, we absolutely don't want to make Daddy sadder than he must already be. If Daddy can't be with us, I hope he's in Heaven. And the same for Melody's mommy and daddy, wherever they are in this great big world. I'll bet they're plenty sad about not being with her. So, right . . . I think it's a good idea to keep living. And even though the bad guys seem pretty dumb, they must be smart in some ways. What I mean, is that they're probably stupid to be messing around with stuff they don't understand. But they're smart enough to get Melody and all of us trapped here inside a box.

This time, she rolls her eyes as she sighs.

You know, even if your uncle and his friends have anything figured out, he really like to keep all his thoughts inside his head. Hmm. Except when I make him mad, but he had to tell me this afternoon that he remembers a bunch of your sideways jumping. Except he called them loops or resets or something. He doesn't want to tell me everything because he thinks that going to . . . I don't know. Get me killed? But if I understand what you and Mister Teddy are saying, that's already happened. I just don't remember. And that's fine that I don't remember. I'd really rather not.
But you three are outrageously talented. You'd have to be, right? I'm smart, too. I just don't have enough information, and I'm going to guess that anything that's going to be useful isn't going to be at the library. I know Chelsea and Teresa are smart. Uncle Derek is smart when he remembers that he's smart. I don't know anything about his friends, though. And Pat is really smart, too, but this kind of stuff is . . . Well, it would sound like a bunch of crazy talk to someone as sensible as she is.

I raise an eyebrow. "You know, there might be something to Sunny's trips sideways to find a place where her mother wanted to get well. She seems to be recovering from a three-year bender faster than I'd give anyone credit for . . . well, anyone without a healing factor at least as good as yours, Pablo."

"So, is she a different person than the one who wandered through town drunk all the time?"

I look at him for a few seconds. "I think that might be a question for philosophers. But now that you and she have asked the question, there's no way I'm not going to think about it. Ask me again in another ten years."

Mister Teddy might be the smartest one here! He's right, you know, about friends. Everything seems to be just a little bit better when you have friends.

I smile. I could have told her that. It's even better when everyone becomes family.

When you miss someone, it often helps to talk about them, Melody. Would you like to tell me about your folks? What are their names, what do they do for work, what are their favorite colors? Maybe you don't remember as much as you'd like, but I think the more you talk about them, the more you'll remember.

Hope suffuses her aura; for the first time since I've been watching her, it's the predominant color.

And just as I'm going to believe in you, I'm going to believe they'll come back for you. I'm going to pray that it's sooner rather than later. But I'd like to be able to say, 'You have a wonderful daughter, and she's told me so much about you.' That seems like a nice thing, don't you think? When they come back, it will make them feel better to know how many folks cared out you when they weren't able to be here.

"Sometimes I'm convinced that she's a librarian," Pablo says, "but sometimes she tries to convince me she's a therapist like David."

"Nah, more like social workers," I say. "I did plenty of that in my time at DPL."

'Talk softly, please. I have been engaged in experiments which suggest the atom can be artificially disintegrated. If it is true, it is of far greater importance than a war.'

Melody looks up, merely turning her face toward Mary Lee like a flower turns toward the sun.

Ernest Rutherford said that in 1918. Did you know he was from New Zealand? I'd like to visit there, one day. On July 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita. Edward Teller was already thinking about the hydrogen bomb. It was Teller who got Einstein to write that letter to Roosevelt, you know.

She closes her eyes, resting her head against Mary Lee's hand. Sunny speaks up then, in that odd old voice of hers.

Mister Teddy says . . . Mister Teddy wants to know why we always think of what a scientist does and not what they are. They open doors. But maybe some doors should stay shut. Maybe some doors should never be opened in the first place.

Mary Lee sighs.

Mister Teddy is the smartest bear I know. He's right that some doors shouldn't be opened, especially if no one understands what's on the other side or how to deal with it.

Pablo clears his throat. "Like maybe some people shouldn't be opening portals to other dimensions?"

"Our son needs to learn how to use his powers. And I'm pretty sure I've never had a problem dealing with what's on the other side — either with my mystical mumbo-jumbo or using Maddie's more straightforward approach of shooting anything that moves."

I feel like you and Melody are the guards at the castle gate. You're just trying to keep all these folks from getting that door open. Uncle Dingleberry and his buddies aren't doing a very good job of keeping the bad people away in the first place. Hmm, well, he did seem kind of confused this morning.

Mary Lee shrugs.

I guess it's easier to think of brave knights guarding the castle than it is to imagine you as prison wardens that keep evil locked up. It's less scary for me, I suppose.

Rene nods. "You, Andi dear, are definitely the prison warden."

I shrug. "Works for me."

Then the little girl smiles, bright as sunshine, and continues in her happy, little girl voice.

Aunt Patty is really smart and nice. She always has a pillow for you and lets me take you home and hasn't even yelled at me once for making breakfast. Maybe she'll teach me out to make coffee! She really cares, Mommy. And she still gots important stuff to do.

I chuckle. "Pretty sure Maddie's kids could make a proper pot of coffee by that age. Why shouldn't Sunny?"

Mary Lee chuckles.

She's my best friend and has been forever. I know she cares, sweetie. I really do. One of the important things she has to do is just be my friend and your auntie. And I'm not sure you need to be making coffee, young lady!

Then she laughs.

Fine. If Aunt Pat wants to teach you how to make coffee, I suppose that's all right — as long as you don't start drinking it for a few more years, okay?

"It'll stunt her growth," Pablo says, nodding sagely.

"You know that's not true, right?" I ask him.

He gives me a stink eye. "Maybe you ought to revive that Mythbusters show, Miss Smarty-Pants Librarian."

I waggle my eyebrows at him and giggle.

Melody speaks up again, without moving.

I hope they remember me. Sometimes I have a hard time knowing who they are, but I have to have parents, right? I'm not what Elaine says, an evil clone or hatched from a black lizard's egg, like some fantasy witch. When I can think, I know Father works for the Navy, just like Grandpa and all my uncles. He works on jets and is really good and really smart at it. He's in charge of flight operations. That's a very important job. Mother is a teacher, I think. When I close my eyes, I can't see her, but I can hear her reading to me: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn.
I think . . . I think Father got reassigned, on one of the really, really big carriers. They put him on one that sails out of a port that's far away. He sent me my book of poems from there, I think. Before, when I was little, I'd ask him what he did all day. And when he said he worked with airplanes and I would get all angry that he should have been spending time with me, he'd pick me up and sail me through the air, saying I was his best and favorite airplane.
I want to be able to fly again. I want . . . I wish . . . I wish I could find a place where I can be a teacher like my mother.

Mary Lee just listens, a hand on Melody's shoulder, just letting the teen know she's not alone. That's important for kids, and even adults: being present for them, letting them know you hear their concerns, listening instead of rushing ahead trying to fix things.

Ah, Melody . . . I bet I could tell you what your mother looks like. She looks like kindness and love and some worry, too, about her daughter. It's all wrapped up in a fierce strength and trust that her daughter will see her again. That's where you get your strength to keep going, you know . . . from your mother. And don't listen to Elaine. She's too self-absorbed and concerned about what the world thinks about her to realize she doesn't even know who she is. She lets the world define her. Her self-worth is all tied up in her status. Like the Jerk, she's a bully.
I hope we can help you find your place, Melody. We'll do what we can to help. You would be an incredible teacher. Find that place where you're comfortable with your bushels of kittens, where people aren't trying to hurt you, and you'll be able to teach others how to fly. And you know I don't mean a plane, right? I mean hearts and minds.

She's quiet for a few moments, then looks at Sunny again.

Sunny One, you said you went sideways to find a place where there was no really, really bad man. I guess it must be hard finding places, right? Mister Teddy is smart, and you're clever, so you'd probably at least think about looking for a sideways place where all the people trying to hurt Melody don't exist. Are some of those people significant enough that they have to be here so that we can be here, too? Or are they just, well, everywhere?

"Did she say earlier that she's a genius? Because I'm pretty sure she's a genius."

Pablo chuckles. "She did. She might even be smarter than you are, dear."

I shrug. "I'm the world's expert on trans-dimensional portals. I've never claimed to be an expert in anything else. And if you want to know about quantum entanglement, talk to your nephew Leon."

Melody sighs.

That would be nice, even if it was a place far, far from here. But they always keep looking for me, no matter how far I run. When I close my eyes, I can't see them, mother and father. But I can feel them. Or, rather, I can remember what they feel like. And it's just like you said. Really. Maybe. I hope so. If I knew they were safe and that they knew I was safe, I think that's what would be important. And we could live with that, even if we could never see each other again. Because if I were to escape, they'd probably watch them. They wouldn't be mother and father anymore . . . they'd be bait.

With both hands, Sunny holds up Mister Teddy so he can look at both Mary Lee and Melody.

Mister Teddy says it's not like there's all the places everywhere. If there was, we could just keep moving sideways until we found one that worked. That would be too easy, Mister Teddy says. Like playing Chutes and Ladders and everyone else has to use the dice but you don't have to. But that there's only so many places to go and we have no idea when we're at the last one . . . so . . . so . . . so . . .

Melody picks up the thread and completes Sunny's thought.

Since we don't know which will be the last time that we can do this, we need to treat it as if it were the last chance we have.

Sunny nods.

Mister Teddy says it's not a matter of them existing or not. Mister Teddy says it's cause and effect. That this is caused by them using Melody with the effect that I have to save her. But I have to be here to save her. If you and Daddy never met, I wouldn't have a Mommy or Daddy and you'd never have a Sunny, Melody would never be helped and the world would end. And if Daddy never worked at the Base, he'd never have met you and you wouldn't have become my Mommy and Daddy. And he wouldn't have worked on the bad base if they didn't exist. So, they have to exist. Besides, Mister Teddy says that it's good that I exist even if it means that I can't go sideways to a place where they aren't because then I wouldn't be there either.

She sets her teddy bear back in her lap and rests her head on top of it again.

I like being me. If I wasn't me, I wouldn't have the world's best Mommy or Aunt Pat or a friend like Melody. So, Mister Teddy says we got to make do with wherever we are. Worlds without you are so sad and so empty and they always go bad. I like here a lot. Because here is the first time you ever wanted to get better. So, I guess we need help. We need to make here work. That's what friends are for, right?

Mary Lee shakes her head before hugging Sunny and Mister Teddy again.

Okay, sweetie. You and Mister Teddy make enough sense that I can see there are no easy answers. So . . . I'll deal with this world because it's the only one we've got, at least as far as we know. And I really like this world because getting better seems like . . . Well, it's the right thing to do. It makes my heart feel better, a little bit. But now . . .

She lifts Sunny off her lap and sets her on the floor.

Now it's just about dinnertime. Why don't you set the table while I text Aunt Pat to bring us some dinner rolls, hmm? No climbing on counters, Miss Sunshine! Maybe Melody will help you with the upper cabinets. And if Pat doesn't have a stepstool, we'll get one from Mister Jorgensson tomorrow, okay?

After sending her text to Pat, Mary Lee stirs the stew one last time.

The dilemma of keeping you away from Doctor Schwartzer and the Center still remains. Not going to the doctor won't work because both she and Miss Jilly will insist that you go. They really have Miss Jilly bamboozled. Not getting that awful medicine will only mean they'll do more horrible things if you wind up at the Center. So . . . it seems like the most logical way to circumvent the cycle of abuse is to remove the abuser, the first-level abuser — that would be the doctor — from the equation. That's where it starts, isn't it? Her and the drugs on Friday afternoon? I'm not sure we can do anything. Pat doesn't have any legal way to keep you from seeing her or even locking her up to keep her away from you. I'm so angry about what they do to you, Melody, that I feel like giving the doctor a couple of doses of her own medicine. It would be wrong, but it would serve her right.
Too bad neither of my brother's friends has a boat. That would be a hoot: dose her up and take her on a night cruise around the island. Though, with the weather being so bad lately, that might not be the best idea. Not that I really care about the doctor, which isn't very Christian of me, but I'd worry about better people being hurt. And I don't want to get Archie involved in any of this, so 'borrowing' one of his boats is not a good idea. Oh, and it would be illegal, too.

Sunny picks up her bear from where it had been sitting on the table and turns to look at it.

For those who think two heads are better than one, they've never met a hydra. I don't really know what that means, but Mister Teddy said he's the only kind of bear that its safe to poke, because he's full of fluff and not meanness.

Mary Lee nods.

Hmm. Well, you're right about that, Mister Teddy. In Greek mythology, it took Heracles — supposedly one of their greatest heroes and a half-god — to kill the hydra. In the comics, I don't think HYDRA was ever completely eliminated.

Pablo narrows his eyes at the portal. "Is that something we should be worrying about? Does HYDRA exist in our world?"

I pause at that. It's not something I've considered before. "I don't really know. If HYDRA exists, then the SHIELD organization would have to exist, too, wouldn't it? They're separate from Tony Stark's little gang of mischief-makers. I haven't even heard whispers about SHIELD, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I guess Maddie would be the person to ask. She seems to know who's who in the world of secret organizations."

Rene chuckles. "I might have disagreed with you at one time, but considering all that she got up to while I was dead and stuck in that other dimensions . . . Well, anything is possible with her."

"Great," Pablo says with a sigh. "One more thing to worry about."

Mary Lee turns back to Melody.

How bad is your amnesia when you get the drugs? What I mean is . . . well, do you remember where she keeps them? I've never been a very sneaky person, but Derek can be, when he wants to be, when he remembers that he an be. I wonder if he could sneak in and get some. Maybe that ex-military friend of his — Tyler, is it? — could hide in her office if they could sneak in and then dose her up before she can get to you. But then we'd have to find a way to keep you safe from the folks at the Center, right? The jail cell isn't the nicest place to spend a night, but it would be better than whatever goes on out there at the Center.

Mary Lee rolls her eyes.

Dang, now I'm starting to sound like an incredibly awful spy novel. Any of you have an idea for editing it into a better one? Think we should call Derek and his friends after dinner? You seem to know them better than I do.

Melody looks at her friend's mother, surprised.

But, but, but . . . I mean, everyone expects me to do all sorts of dark and wild things because they say I dress all gothy and stuff. But I don't. I just like black and the fanciness is kinda nice. I would never do something that would get me arrested and thrown into jail! I wouldn't be able to look Aunt Jilly in the eye when she comes for me!

Mary Lee blinks, also surprised.

Oh. No, no, no, that's not what I meant, honey. In stories, on television or in books, they call it protective custody. Pat wouldn't arrest you! No. She'd just try to keep you safe, protected.

Melody shakes her head, biting her lower lip.

I don't really know. I get my first pills when I report to the Doctor's office after I get out of school. Then she takes me up the road to the research facility, and she has Doctor Danalla help me out of the car and all because I'm not walking straight by then. There are white corridors and no windows at all, and it's really cool, even though it's summer and even if it's been rainy lately. The walls are white, except when they aren't, and the light is blinding: big saucers with white hot circles making it hard to see anything, let alone think. Then, well, a little after that, I usually can't think anymore.

She just sighs.

But they'd know where I was. And they'd probably do stuff. I could only be protected for a small time. They found us when we stowed away in King's truck and made it all the way to New York. If they think I can be found, they always find a way to.

Melody looks down at the table and smiles a little.

Times like this, I'm glad its Thursday. I'll be able to remember this. This doesn't happen very often. If I were in jail, it would only hold them off so long. If they know I'm there to be found, they keep looking until they find me.

Mary Lee smiles a bit in return. It's almost as if she's consciously reminding herself that she's making new memories of her own.

Seems like whatever the doctor gives you makes you awfully disoriented. Poison all the heads of the hydra? I guess that would be hard, especially if we don't even know who all the heads are.

Sunny looks at Mister Teddy, then at her mother.

Mister Teddy says that Uncle Derek needs to stop talking and start doing.

Mary Lee snorts.

Yes. Uncle Derek needs to start doing things. But Uncle Derek is not all that great at doing things. He'd rather think and stay inside his head all the time. Sometimes, he'll come out of his head and say a few things.

She sighs and shakes her head.

I love my brother because he's my brother. But sometimes I want to find one of Aunt Pat's fly swatters and smack him. When I was little, I used to rub my feet on the carpet to build up some good static electricity and zap him when he was being a total doofus, which was a lot.

Melody takes Sunny's hand and offers Mary Lee a small smile.

Still, when I start getting sad and can't think of a way out anymore, Sunny says there's got to be a way.

Sunny looks back at Mary Lee; when she speaks, it's as though she's ages old rather than merely six.

I believe Melody is the one I have to save. I believe Daddy.

Mary Lee nods to Melody.

I think I understand. Well, I guess I understand as much as anyone possibly could who hasn't been living with all of this as long as you have. And Sunny? Well, she's always been our brightest ray of hope.

She looks at Sunny with a fond smile.

If you say there has to be a way out of this, then I'm absolutely going to believe that. You found me right where and when I realized I wanted to get better, after all. So yes. Melody is the one you need to save because I believe your Daddy, too. That whole back and forward thing still confuses me, but I guess I don't really need to have it all figured out and settled in my head today, do I? Nope.

Mary Lee sighs, then nods at the two girls, waving them off in the direction of the bathroom.

Okay, then. Go wash up for dinner. I'm going to check your fingernails and behind your ears, my Sunny One, so do a good job.

Sunny bounces on her heels and smiles that bright smile of hers that lights up the room with her joy.

And I'm a good girl and listen to both my Daddy and Mommy! I'll make sure I do a good job, I promise.

As she leads Sunny off, Melody gives Mary Lee another smile.

Don't worry, I'll make sure she washes up well.

While the two of them are in the bathroom, Pat arrives home.

And now you're inviting guests to dinner? You've settled yourself right in now, haven't you? Guess it's a good thing I bought a few extra rolls from the bakery.

The sheriff is only pretending to be stern and disapproving. She's actually quite pleased. Then she calls the Mallory residence to explain to Jilly that Melody is safe, still with her, not in trouble at all, and might end up spending the night, as it was getting late and the weather was starting to turn bad. Then she turns back to Mary Lee.

Actually, I'm going to take that as a good sign, princess. It means you're remembering that it's a good thing to care. It feels good, doesn't it?

She sets Mister Teddy in the center of the table, and helps with the last bit of preparation for dinner.

The rest of the day was quiet. I had to break up a fight at the Town Garage: idle hands and stress, and our handyman got into a fight with one of the drivers. A couple of black eyes, apologies were made from both sides, and no one pressed charges. Then . . .

Pat sits down in a chair, and leans back, letting her head fall over the back of the chair so she's looking at the world upside down.

Two hours with the Lorgnan sisters saying that modern medicine can't cure the darkness and that prescriptions should be accompanied by counseling from the Good Book. Needless to say, the town doc isn't a churchgoer. Between me and you, I'd rather handle a fist fight than be caught in the middle of an argument between science and religion. How was your day?

Mary Lee shrugs.

It's all good, Patty. Melody misses her folks. I listened, did what I could to help. Not that there's much I can do beyond listening, but it does help a person feel a little better when they know they're being heard. And sometimes it's easier to care about someone else, you know? To remind myself to care about me, too. And you know me. I'll debate practically anything, and I can almost understand where the Lorgnans are coming from. Like that tussle in the garage — idle hands are the devil's workshop is what they'd say. Now, they could believe that in a literal sense, that the devil is working over at the garage, but even taken figuratively, you have to admit that people get into more troubled when they're bored.
It would make the world a calmer place if science and religion could get along. I don't see Jessie and Shannon taking too well to that idea. And it's not that I necessarily agree with the two of them, but Doc Schwartzer creeps me out, and it has nothing to do with her being a church-going woman or not. On the other hand, they might be right. Sort of. I'm not so sure there's darkness here that can be cast out even by the Good Book, but I'm not convinced that modern medicine isn't making things worse.

Pat lifts her head and smiles as the two girls return.

Being a sheriff is hard work. This dinner better be good, Mary Lee. So how did we end up with company? Not that I mind at all. I hope the answer isn't that you told me and I forgot.

Mary Lee ladles the stew into bowls and warms the rolls in the microwave before setting them on the table. She sighs softly and makes a big show of checking Sunny's fingernails before sitting down.

You've had my stew before, Pat. Your larder was woefully deficient on carrots, but you had all the right spices. Gosh, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were turning into a dingleberry like my brother.

Pat looks up with both a wrinkle around her nose and a sparkle in her eyes.

Right. First, my stew comes from a Dinty Moore can. And second, all the carrots are in the cube fridge in my office because I snack on them as the day goes by. And I remember the day you made us a dingleberry pie, which turned out to be an upside down pineapple pie thing. Why? Because there's no such thing as a dingleberry!

Mary Lee shudders as she closes her eyes.

Dinty Moore? Patty, that's not even real food! It's disgusting! Ew!

Then she snickers and looks at Pat.

It was a pineapple upside down cake and it was every bit as good as my grandma used to make. And Chuck claimed there was no such thing as a dingleberry, except it turns out they're gooseberries.

She takes a dinner roll from the basket and puts in on her plate beside the bowl of stew, then takes another one for Sunny before passing the basket to Melody.

Other than doing some cleaning and cooking and picking the girls up from school? Oh, an exciting day of chatting about strange things that you probably won't believe are true but really are true as far as I can tell. And nope, you're not going senile. Yet. I didn't mention it because I didn't realize how much time we'd spent talking.

Mary Lee's phone rings then, startling her. When she pulls the phone out of her pocket and looks at the caller ID, the look of confusion on her face is almost comical. It's clear she can't think of any reason for her brother's friend to be calling her. Then she shrugs and puts the phone back in her pocket, letting it roll into voicemail.

Pablo chuckles. "I understand why you turn off every phone in the house except Ninja's during meal times. But you did get me in trouble a couple of times when Sanchez was head of Homicide."

"Nonsense! He was only pretending to be annoyed with you," I reply. "He knew very well that he could call my number in an emergency, even one that was in your wheelhouse and not mine."

While eating a spoonful of stew, Mary Lee looks at Melody and then Sunny. After swallowing her food, she takes a deep breath before continuing.

Is it okay to tell Aunt Pat about the stuff we talked about? Uncle Derek thought it was too dangerous to share stuff with her. I still think Uncle Derek is a ninny. And I think maybe Aunt Pat isn't going to believe all of it even if she looks at your book, Melody. But we have to all trust as many people as we can, right? I don't think Uncle Derek knows as much as he believes he knows. But I'm starting to think he might not be as crazy as I thought he was.

To take some of the gravity from the conversation, she winks at Sunny and smiles.

And I'm going to argue with him until I turn blue about the reason I decided I need to bet better. Maybe he tried to talk my ears off while I was sick and maybe he didn't. I knew I needed to get better because of you, my Sunshine. I remembered that you need your mommy. Sorry that I forgot that. I was being a dingleberry when I was sick.

Pat lets out a long breath.

I'm not sure I want to know. As opposed to dingleberries that do what they wish all willy-nilly, I can't do that. I'm the town sheriff and that means if I get evidence that certain things are happening, I have to do something about that. I've heard the wild tales spoken by your brother, and I had to tell him I needed something solid, not just crazy stories. And he has yet to provide me with anything . . . and neither have you three either, I might add.

Melody swallows hard, biting her lower lip, but Pat continues, trying to reassure her.

Except that what's going on with Doctor Schwartzer is more than creepy. It's creepy like my two murders are creepy. Maybe if I had something that connected them all, I could do something about it. But right now, I'm more worried for setting off something that might make things worse.

Sunny looks up at this, first looking at Melody, then to her bear, and then back to Melody as she picked up Mister Teddy. She holds it up so his little button eyes are looking at Pat.

Mister Teddy says it's best for you to be you even if it means we don't say anything. He says Aunt Pat has to stay alive first. That way, when the impossible happens, she won't be scared, she'll know that this must be the scariness that was scaring us.

Melody swallows again and her next words are only a whisper.

The more you know about a particle's location, the less you know of its momentum; the more you know of its momentum, the less you know about its location.

Sunny nods.

Mister Teddy says exactly. The more Aunt Pat knows, the less she'll be able to help.

Although Mary Lee tries to hide it, Melody, Sunny, and Mister Teddy made her smile. The sheriff looks between mother and daughter, and then to Melody.

Fine. I'll ask the dingleberry question: Who's been teaching this bear about quantum physics?

Mary Lee burst out laughing.

It depends on how much impossible you're willing to believe. It's pretty late in the day, so you can't use the excuse that you haven't had breakfast. Maybe it was Chuck. Or Melody. Maybe Sunny taught Mister Teddy herself. Or maybe the bear just knows from experience. We don't know what's tucked away inside that fluffy head besides cotton batting. Maybe there's a quantum computer in there.

Then she shrugs as she smiles at her friend.

Does it matter? Mister Teddy is, as usual, right. And anyway, speculating on science fiction is my thing, isn't it? Now, I thought about making a pie for dessert, but you have some serious deficiencies in your pantry, Patty. And if everyone has gotten used to eating Miss Jilly's pies and cookies and cakes . . . Well, I have a lot of catching up to do!

Pat laughs along with Mary Lee.

Fine, we can go shopping on Saturday, all three of us. We'll buy pie stuff. But in the meantime, I'm sure I have a couple of bags of microwave popcorn. It's no Aunt Jilly, home-cooked special, but I do happen to have The Emperor's New Groove on DVD.

Even I laugh as Sunny jumps up, grabs her teddy bear, and starts dancing.

Bad llama! Bad llama!!

Mary Lee sweeps the dancing Sunny and bear up for a moment to kiss each on the nose before settling her daughter on the sofa.

I've really missed being me and watching you be happy. Thank you for finding this sideways place where I don't want to be sick anymore.

Once the cleaning up is finished and the girls settled with their popcorn on the sofa and the Bad Llama movie started, Mary Lee goes back into the kitchen and dials her brother's number, staring out the window while waiting for him to answer. As Newspaper Man answers his phone, the portal shifts to a dual-screen presentation again. I sigh. Mary Lee shakes her head as he speaks.

Oh, knock it off, Derek. Your fake cheerfulness always gets on my nerves. And you had your friend call me, you wuss.

Pablo shakes his head. "I can't even imagine you talking to your brother like that . . . or any of your relatives."

I raise an eyebrow as I look at him. "Not even Henry?"

He pauses a moment, then shakes his head. "Maybe in the beginning. But since he got married, he's calmed down a lot."

I snicker. "No, he hasn't. He just has someone who loves him as much as he loves her, and she even puts up with his antics . . . thus, sparing the rest of us."

"I think I'm beginning to appreciate Antonia even more than you care about Rosalia."

"And you have the chance to thank Antonia! I'll have to wait until we meet in another life to thank Rosalia."

Mary Lee sighs and rubs her forehead with the hand not holding the phone.

But to address your friend's request, well, it's going to be tough. It's a school night. I don't know what kind of structure Missus Parsons and Missus DeCoon expect for Chelsea and Teresa, but I'm going to guess they have some expectations that their daughters will be home at a reasonable time.

She pauses to lean against the wall farthest from the doorway.

Listen, Melody and Sunny agree that keeping Pat out of it is best for her. Probably for everyone. She's a lot more skeptical about all this weird shit than I am, and I've got a six-year-old daughter that understands quantum physics. So, I guess I'm starting to get used to bizarre stuff. Anyway, consider Schrödinger and his cat experiment, and you'll understand. I hope. I had a long talk with the girls this afternoon and . . .

Her voice trails off as she closes her eyes. After a moment, she shakes her head sadly.

They're watching The Emperor's New Groove right now. You know Sunny loves that movie, right? So if you want their input, you'll have to wait until the movie is over. But it's going to be pretty late, so maybe not. Maybe your office? I'm already imposing on Pat enough as it is. So, I'm not going to invite you over here for a conversation she shouldn't be part of anyway.

She pauses again, opening her eyes to look toward the sound of Sunny's giggles.

I know we need to protect Melody, Derek, and I don't know how. If you and your friends have some ideas, I'd love to hear them because . . . Well, this might be the last chance any of us have.

On his side of the viewscreen, Newspaper Man smiles and nods his head.

Let's meet at the newspaper and talk. We've learned stuff. Get here when you can. I understand enjoying the movie. As much as I want to do everything immediately, I believe that they should be able to have fun, too. They're kids, after all.

Mary Lee continues to stare in the direction of the living room.

Sometimes I wonder.

Once again, she sighs.

I hope whatever you've learned can help Melody. My thoughts run more toward those of a mama bear protecting her cubs, which implies violence and, therefore, a pissed off best friend. If you've got ideas that won't land any of us in jail, that would be great. I'll see you when I see you.

As she doesn't appear to have anything else to say to her brother, she ends the call and tucks the phone back in her pocket. The view showing Newspaper Man winks out and Mary Lee goes back into the living room. She settles on the sofa, pulling Sunny and Mister Teddy into her lap and sitting so Melody can lean against her if she wants to. Sunny's enjoyment of the movie makes her mother smile, and soon enough, Mary Lee is relaxed and chuckling along with her daughter's giggles.

They make it to the scene where Pacha and Kuzco are back-to-back, walking up the statue, working together to retrieve the magic vial. Both Melody and Sunny have fallen asleep: Sunny in her mother's lap, Melody leaning against her shoulder.

I shake my head as I watch them. The girls haven't fallen asleep because they're tired, or because it's their bedtime. They're beyond tired; they're exhausted. It's as if they've been awake — or, at the very least, haven't sleep well — for days, weeks, months, years. But now, finally, they feel safe enough to just fall asleep.

Pat has captured the remote, making sure the movie continues to play. I chuckle. There are movies that Pablo and I will continue to watch after the hellions have fallen asleep in the middle of them. Not all kids' movies are made strictly for the kids. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that adults can enjoy kids' movies just as much as kids do.

Sunny, she always looks cute. I've never seen an emo goth girl look cute before. I guess it's just that she likes the color black after all.

Pablo chuckles. "Isn't that the same line your Freya likes to give you?"

"Yep, when she's going through her 'Black is my favorite color' phase. She does tend to swing between black and white on a fairly regular basis."

They're not going to wake up any time soon. If you want to visit your wannabe delinquent brother, I'll watch over these two. Maybe I'll watch one of my westerns. I've haven't seen The Quick and the Dead for a long while.

Pat gives her friend a serious look then.

There and back, princess. I don't want to have to leave these two alone to come looking for you.

Mary Lee looks down at her sleeping daughter, then at the young woman dozing against her shoulder before looking back at her friend. I get the feeling that Pat Garret hasn't seen that sort of smile on her friend's face since the woman's husband died.

Contrary to what the Lorgnan sisters have to say, there's nothing wrong with someone's favorite color being black. It's no better or worse than their favorite color being white.

Pablo snickers. "Called it."

With a bit of contortionism, Mary Lee extricates herself from the role of pillow and cushion and then tucks a few cushions and pillows around the girls to make them as comfortable as possible. She shrugs on a light jacket, which seems a sensible move after seeing how awful the weather gets after sunset around there.

I got my phone, Pat, and it's fully charged. I'm just going to stand out front where you can see me until I see the lights go on in the newspaper office. I'm about as scared of that damn doctor as I am of King, and I know you'll come running if you hear me screaming. Good choice of movie, by the way.

She bites her lips and looks back at the sleeping girls. She's got all manner of internal conflict going on. If I had to guess, she's worrying about missing out on a single moment of being a sober mother for her daughter. But I think she realizes that saving Melody is the point of all this nonsense. She definitely believes what the girls told her earlier, even if she doesn't quite understand large parts of it. Finally, she nods and slips quietly out the door, making her way across the street to the newspaper offices, where the lights are on, beckoning her forward.

The scene flips slightly to the offices, and we can see Mary Lee walking across the street toward us through the window. Beach Guy smiles at Chelsea and Teresa.

You may want to let your parents know where you are.

Teresa replies, first cooly — as the school's princess — then more warmly.

Father doesn't care how long Jeremy or I stay out, as long as we're bright and sparkly for breakfast. Mother gets worried when I'm not home before eleven and then says she's disappointed in me if it's after midnight.

Chelsea nods in agreement.

I have time still. Mom asks lots of questions, but as long as I don't get in trouble and I spend some time tomorrow working the dinner shift, she'll be fine. She understands that I can't work all the time at the diner. She wants me to have fun too.

"With that expression on her face," Rene says, "what do you want to bet she thinking that this isn't fun at all."

"No one's going to take your sucker's bets, Rene," I say.

Out the window, Mary Lee glances at the bar. I'm the only one who can hear her; it's too dark and far away for Pablo and Rene to read her lips.

Oh, fuck off. I'm not listening to you anymore, Jack.

She stops for a moment, taking a deep breath and shaking her hands out, before reaching for the office's doorknob and mumbling to herself.

Gonna have to go to confession in the morning. Hopefully, it won't be to confess a mortal sin.

Then she opens the door and steps inside, closing the door behind her. She stands leaning against the door for a few seconds, letting it hold her up, before moving slowly to the counter that divided the space.

Melody and Sunny fell asleep. I didn't have the heart to wake them.

Newspaper Man walks over to the coffee pot and pours himself some.

Sleep is good. Want a cup of coffee? I just made a fresh pot.

Mary Lee shakes her head.

No, I'm going to want to get some sleep tonight. A glass of water would be great, though. Thanks.

She looks around at the others in the office, her gaze lingering on Chelsea for a moment, before turning to Beach Guy.

You have information that can save Melody? I'm not sure how much of what I learned this afternoon will help you, but we really need to keep her from going to the research center tomorrow. And that creepy-ass doctor, too, if possible — pardon my French.

Beach Guy glances at Newspaper Man, almost as if asking permission to talk to his sister. But since Mary Lee addressed him directly, he seems to decide that's good enough.

Funnily enough, we've just spent time this afternoon discussing that one thing. Neither you nor Teresa have heard the full story, and I . . . we felt that it was time we shared that knowledge with everyone who's involved.

He leans against the wall as he gathers his thoughts.

I think I'd like to start with the basic overview of what we think is happening, and how it all came together. Happy to take questions as we go but, although I may not have answers to everything, I'll be honest and open. It started for me when I met Teresa on the beach. The following morning, we awoke to find Aunt Jilly had fallen from the cliffs and died, then someone had dragged something bloody all the way through town. Gradually, we met up with each other and started to try to find out more about this place and the people who lived here. Eventually, we end up in a nightmare where some creature not of this world is attacking and killing everyone. Then I find myself back on that beach, meeting Teresa again, but for the first time again, except that I remember meeting her before. This is what we call resets. It seems that we can change what happens, but if we get something wrong, we get reset to a previous time, remembering what happened before. And we set off again trying to do it better next time.

He shrugs helplessly.

I know. I sound insane, and feel like that sometimes. But this is all about Melody. So, questions so far?

Mary Lee shakes her head.

Not really. At least, not about the stuff that's happening to you.

She bites her lip, and I can see her qi reordering itself. It's a sluggish process, but it looks like it's something she used to be able to do fairly well. Finally, she sighs and focuses on Chelsea and Teresa.

Everything revolves around Melody. I think you all understand that or, at least, I hope you do. If I'm going to accept that my husband could move backward and forward in time and that my daughter . . . well, maybe I shouldn't say too much right now about that. Anyway, if I accept that the world is more like a science fiction novel than I ever believed, then I have to take everything Melody says at face value and reject the notion that she's suffering from schizophrenia of any type. Part of the criteria for diagnosing the paranoid type of schizophrenia is the presence of delusions, and I don't believe Melody is the least bit delusional.
Yes, she hears . . . something. She described them as little creatures that are insatiably curious. How did she describe them? Oh. Mischievous kids. Neither good nor bad, just inquisitive. And they don't really understand anything. They're little, so they can slip through cracks around doors. I'm not sure where the doors are and . . . Well, maybe they're doors to another place that can be explained by quantum superposition and math that's beyond me.

I nod as Mary Lee shrugs. "Yes. Exactly so. She might not be able to explain exactly what's going on, but she certainly groks it."

I think Chuck might have understood. And then there are the big ones. Those are the monsters, I think.

"Hmm. Maybe? At least, it might seem that way from their point of view." I shake my head. "The big ones look like Shadowkin to me, but I guess one could call them monsters. The monsters that eat the world at the end are all Shadow, pure and simple." I shudder. "I guess it's possible to have two different levels of monstrosities there."

She pauses and closes her eyes again. She's scared and she doesn't want to talk about any of this, but at the same time, she wants to help Melody. When she opens her eyes again, she looks at Beach Guy.

They aren't resets, these things you experience. Not exactly. Sunny and Melody — and I guess you guys, too — move to a slightly different reality, different place, to the last time that felt safe to the girls. When Melody dies, the world ends. The world ends because the monsters come. The monsters come when someone somehow manages to open a door so they can get here. Melody did say that the big ones, the monsters, need to have that door opened. They can't just slip through like the little ones do. I think Doctor Schwartzer and people at the research center are doing something to Melody to open that door.

I narrow my eyes and stare at Mary Lee. "Hot damn, she's smart."

Rene chuckles. "Are you sure you don't want to go looking for her in our reality?"

I smile. "Nah. I'm pretty sure if a Mary Lee Emerson McGee exists in this universe, she won't be like the one in that universe, having not gone through everything that Mary Lee's gone through."

"That might be an interesting tangent to your papers on the portals," he says.

"Be careful what you wish for, Rene!"

"Yes, Rene. Don't encourage her to dive more deeply into the weirdness that's her life," Pablo says wryly. "I can barely keep up as it is."

"Okay, well, my point is that she's pretty much figured out what the folks at the butterfly factory are doing."

"They're making her open the door between dimensions?"

I nod soberly. "I think she's supposed to be the one who's guarding the door, making sure it doesn't get opened. So, if she dies, no one is going to be guarding that door."

"Shit," Pablo says eloquently. "And she's got to do it all by herself?"

I shrug. "If you look at it from a mutant power point of view, you can kind of equate it to what I do. Until recently, when Paul's powers started to develop, I was the only person on the planet who could open trans-dimensional portals. I could probably open the doors that Melody is holding shut — not that I would. If there's only one of me, why is it surprising that there's only one of her?"

Pablo shakes his head. "Her job is harder."

"Yes. It is."

"So, she should have help."

"And in a perfect world, she would, Pablo."

Mary Lee blinks and tightens the fingers she has clasped in front of her as her gaze returns to Chelsea and she whispers to the teen.

She said they hurt you. How you manage to keep going is beyond me. Maybe your guardian angel pays more attention than mine does. I'm so sorry, Chelsea. I wish all that hadn't happened to you. Sunny said she was so tired and she thinks she might have messed something up . . . I'm not sure what. But she was trying so hard to save you and Melody. She finally found a place where the evil man didn't exist. I don't understand it all, Chelsea, but you ought to be safe now. I pray to God that you are.

Chelsea hugs herself and tries not to shake as she shakes her head.

Mary Lee looks like she wants to comfort Chelsea, but isn't sure how Chelsea would take it. I suspect that would be the point at which Chelsea would start sobbing again. She's barely holding herself together, and she knows she needs to hold herself together for Melody's sake.

She turns to look at her brother then.

She not only found a place where the evil man didn't exist, but she found a place where her mommy wanted to get better. I guess I don't always want to stop drinking. If I really stop to think about my life, I suspect it would be pretty rare. But I do want to stop drinking and get better. I'm sorry, Derek, but it has nothing to do with you or, at least, very little. My primary motivation for sobering up is Sunny. My memories don't jibe with your flips around alternate realities where you try to talk me out of drinking. That isn't my reality. I'm doing this for my daughter, for my best friend, for me. And because I care about the kids on this island, I'm doing it for Melody and Chelsea and poor Teresa over there who has to deal with Dottie's ridiculous penchant for featuring cookbooks and insular non-fiction. Hell, if I thought her jerk of a brother had any interest in learning anything, I'd be sobering up for Jeremy, too, if for no other reason than to find something for him to be interested in besides being a jackass.
It's not about you, Derek. You left the island. You only came back when Chuck died, but you never helped me. Maybe you talked to me like you said, but I don't remember any of it. And since I stopped drinking, you've been doing your damnedest to not talk to me. Jesus Christ, Derek, you had your friend here call me rather than pick up your own damn phone! I'm not blaming you for anything. I'm not saying you should have stopped King from using me as a punching bag because Chuck's brother would probably have used you as a punching bag, too. What happened to me wasn't your fault, okay? But you can't take credit for my need to get sober, either. Just don't. Because you're going to get me really pissed off. And don't even think it! Maybe you can hide behind that mask of yours from everyone else, but I've known you as long as both of us have been alive.

Beach Guy is nodding when Mary Lee turns her attention to him.

Blame me for phoning instead of Derek. I persuaded him that it was a good idea. I'm sorry. The last thing I want to do is make things more difficult between you two.

She raises an eyebrow.

You're an only child, aren't you? If you had any siblings, you'd know that there's nothing you're going to say to convince me to blame you instead of Derek for his own actions or inactions. Besides, outside forces aren't going to make things any worse.

"You know, that part I think I understand. If Justin wound up doing something that irked me, I wouldn't let him off the hook even if Nicole or Chris or any of his other friends tried to take the heat for it."

Pablo chuckles. "Andrea, I'm fairly certain your brother is incapable of doing anything to upset you as much as Mary Lee's upset with her brother."

"It's true that he hasn't yet, and maybe he wouldn't in the future either."

"You, on the other hand, have upset him more than once," Rene says.

"Yes, yes. I scared him terribly when my Curse took me, but that wasn't something I could control." Then I sigh. "But yes, I potently vexed him, as Moira likes to say, when I didn't tell him what I was doing the first decade I was doing the Ninja gig. We're good now."

"Only because I have to remind you," Pablo says.

"Oh, no. Justin reminds me at least once a month!" I say with a smile.

Mary Lee takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly.

Who's involved in all of this? How can we keep Melody away from the people who are hurting her? You can't just . . . stop her from going or taking her away. That makes the people hurting her just come at her all the harder. It upsets Miss Jilly. The world eventually ends. You have to come at it another way. Stop the doctor. Stop everyone else involve. I'm not actually a hateful person, but at this point, I'm okay with looking God in the eye and telling Him they all deserve to die.

She unclenches her hands, rests her elbows on the counter, and props her head in her hands, eyes focusing on the counter now.

I'm scared to death. I'm pretty sure Melody is, too. If Chelsea isn't then she's some kind of angel come here to help us. The only idea I had was to find whatever drug the doc gives Melody and give her a taste of her own medicine. The rest of it was more of a sick fantasy about dosing everyone involved with butterfly juice and sending them off on a three-hour tour in the middle of a storm.

Despite the seriousness of the scene, Pablo snickers. "Sorry. Every time I think about Gilligan's Island, my brain goes to Galaxy Quest, and their historical documents."

I pat his arm. "That's fine, dear. We can watch that, too, when we go home. The hellions love it even more since I took them to Fan Expo Denver last year."

But I wouldn't want to do that to Roy . . . destroy one of his boats, I mean. He's a good guy and trying his best to get by.

"I'm not saying the harbormaster is a bad guy or anything," Rene notes, "but this woman clearly looks for the good in everyone."

I nod. "I guess that makes it all the more surprising that she'd like to dump all the bad guys in the water to fend for themselves."

Mary Lee raises her head but keeps her chin propped on her hands as she looks at Newspaper Man.

I even thought that it was too darn bad you never did get that boat you wanted before you left the island. Of course, you were gone long enough, the Applebys might have taken possession of it by now.

Beach Guy nods once more, and one of his entirely-too-inappropriate-for-the-situation grins crosses his features.

Interesting what you've told us. Much of it we know or guessed, but not the alternative world solution. It fits everything much better than our resets. Good for Sunny! I have an idea what might have gone wrong. All of us have a memory that has kind of disappeared. We know something was there that isn't here anymore, but not what it was. And this was at the time Chelsea—

He stops when he sees the blood drain from Chelsea's face.

Anyway, we know a lot more today than we did yesterday. The conspiracy is much bigger than just the doc. The military is involved, and there are agents among the people in this town, principally Miss Ell and the handyman guy. And we can prove it. We have some thoughts on Melody and how to keep her safe, but nothing firm yet. But before we discuss that, I think you ought to review what we've found. There will be references to your husband in that. You okay with that?

Mary Lee clenches her jaws tightly for a moment before lifting her head and shaking it.

Now that you know about Sunny, you need for forget it. Understand what's happening? That's fine. But everyone needs to continue to believe that Sunny is a little girl who has conversations with and through her teddy bear because she was traumatized by the death of her father and emotional abandonment by her mother. It's the God's honest truth, and ignoring everything else is the only thing that will keep her safe. Pat says my newfound sobriety will keep attention on me instead of her, so I guess that's a plus. A parent ought to stand between their child and danger. I know King won't be happy that I moved out because he doesn't have a built-in dishwasher anymore, and won't be able to skim off my benefit check. But he's just a bully and an asshole. I don't think he's downright evil.

Beach Guy gets his laptop out and sets it up. He shows Mary Lee the recordings of the center, the people coming and going. Then he gets his phone out, opens the gallery, then hands the phone to Mary Lee.

Interesting that you talk about the small voices that Melody hears. Luce hears them, too. In fact, she should be here, and we'll need to check on her soon. But you should see this first.

Mary Lee raises her eyebrows at him.

So, if you believe your girlfriend hears these voices, then there are two explanations: Either Melody isn't crazy, or your girlfriend is. And I already told you that I don't believe Melody is.

She looks at Beach Guy's videos with a decided lack of enthusiasm as she drinks the water Newspaper Man handed her.

I nod at her. "I suspect she's never met most of those people or, at the very least, doesn't remember them. And I think the whole town thinks Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady is a little off her rocker, definitely in a different way than the Parasol Sisters."

She's having a harder time going through Beach Guy's photos, but it does give her more clues about why her husband had died. She might even be getting to the point of understanding how he died.

"Having information doesn't stop the pain," I whisper. "But maybe having explanations for some of the things that happened to her husband will help her push back against the pull of alcohol."

Something she sees in one of the photos sets her hands to shaking so hard she drops the phone on the counter. Nausea roils through her, the spikes of color in her aura almost dizzying. She wraps one arm around her midsection and covers her mouth with her other hand. Backing up to the door, she keeps her eyes on the object that triggered her panic: Beach Guy's phone showing the note by Crazy Military Ice Cream Lady mentioning the fact that an event was triggered. She stands against the door for a few seconds, a look of abject horror on her face. Then she slides her back down along the door and practically falls to the floor, pulling her knees up, wrapping her arms around them, and staring at nothing.

"She just realized the military woman thinks Melody is doing the things that her daughter is actually doing," Rene says softly.

I nod. "The pain and fear in her aura are . . ." I close my else against, except I can still see the qi with my eyes closed. "I'm pretty sure she realizes that if anything happens to her daughter, she's not going to be able to survive the pain. She doesn't have a connection strong enough to keep her from just . . . letting go."

Pablo squeezes my hand. "We'll pray that they keep Sunny safe, then."

"I wonder . . ." I open my eyes and sigh. "I wonder how they never made the connection before, any of them. Especially the sheriff. Miss Ell . . . Danielle Laurence. She's the person who signed the documents cutting her out of the investigations of Chuck's murder and that Canton guy's murder."

Pablo shrugs. "You only suspect the evil mastermind is the town's eccentric person in movies, I guess."

Teresa speaks up then.

My jerk brother doesn't do his homework, and depends on Father's influence to get him through life. He plays Silent Hill and all those kinds of horror video games. How come this sounds like one of them?

She turns to Chelsea.

Are they nuts, Chelsea? I trust you. Are you telling me this is all real and this is why we put all those cameras around the Discovery Center? I mean, I can understand that there are folks out there who're doing nasty things to Melody and they need to be stopped, but this is venturing into Area 51, the Jersey Devil, Hinamizawa, Project Stargate, Collinsport, and men staring at goats territory.

Teresa turns back to Mary Lee, trying in vain to her eyes.

My mother doesn't like the way my father does business. She says a house built on a foundation of blood will collapse in on itself. I don't know Melody very well. But we all know Sunny. How will they feel if whatever we do is built on blood? If they don't know that we know . . . Well, it's simply what happens in the classroom every day. If I don't want Elaine to know what I'm up to, I make sure not to do anything that will let her know I'm up to something. People will see what they want, what fits the way they look at the world and if you know that, it's easy to get them to believe the wrong things.

Newspaper Man nods.

Good point. Your thinking is a definite asset. We've been caught in little whirlpools of speculation. Thank you for the new viewpoint. What can we do without giving away our knowledge? Change the things that Melody takes, or are done to her, but that won't last. What we really need is their research to not be successful, to be fruitless, so that they stop doing it.

"I'd like to know why a high school senior is smarter than grown-ass adults," I grouse.

Mary Lee sits in silence, but her thoughts are whirling around her again. She's not paying any attention to what the others are saying or doing. Beach Guy picks up Mary Lee's glass of water and walks over to her, offering her the water, asking if she's okay. She blinks, almost surprised that there's someone else in the room with her.

No. No, I'm really not okay. Mad scientists are trying to get a bright, sweet, charming young woman to do things she can't do because she's not the person who's capable of doing them. They're perverting her natural gifts and have convinced her that she's sick. How can I be okay with that, knowing that's happening?

When she blinks, tears stream down her cheeks, down her neck, soaking the collar of her polo shirt. She pays no attention to them, just takes a sip of water. She stares at the water, clearly trying to make sense of what her brother had said, obviously giving up after a few moments.

Jessie and Shannon are more right than Father Jakob knows. They just have the wrong . . . focus, I guess.

She pauses again, still not looking up at anyone. I'm not sure if she's actually talking to them, or if she's just talking to herself again.

Sunny's favorite song is I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends. Always has been, I guess. Those mad scientists started something that killed my husband. I think it might have killed something inside of me, too. Now they're doing . . .

She pauses and takes another sip of water.

Well, I guess you remember more than I do. But friends . . . that's my point. I've only got one friend left. It's a small town, Mister Ferris. With a few exceptions, we're all pretty friendly with one another. Teresa's father can't abide Miss Jilly, but that's something that goes back forever. Sure, we have our differences. This isn't a perfect world. But most of the people here, the townsfolk, they used to be my friends. I understand why they stayed away from me. I don't blame them for it. I'm not any less sick than they think Melody is.

Although Mary Lee addresses Beach Guy, it's impossible to tell who she's actually talking to as she stares down into her glass of water. All of them? Herself? Hell, if I thought it were possible, I might even think she's talking to us.

I need to mend some fences . . . a lot of them. There's not enough time, though. Sure, these mad scientists are outsiders and I'm not. But I hurt people, and memories are long around here. Maybe the sisters are the key. I don't know. They don't trust the doctor. I don't trust the doctor. Melody doesn't trust the doctor. None of us should trust her. But can I enlist their help in time to save Melody? Will Father Jakob believe me? Melody can't go back there tomorrow. She said that she and Sunny have to live with the expectation that this is the last safe place Sunny can find. Maybe it is. What do I know?

She looks up at Beach Guy then.

I'm not sure the people in this room are enough to go up against the U.S. Army. They're not supposed to be here anymore. But we can't turn the town against them without tipping our hand. It has to work the other way. The town needs to see that whatever is wrong with Melody isn't something that can be fixed by drugs and whatever other awful things they do to her on the weekends. I'm not saying the Lorgnans are right about her needing all the religion they've got, but there needs to be a middle ground. Well, maybe not even that. I don't have any great ideas, but I know it's good that Chelsea and Teresa are her friends. Maybe she just needs more of the locals to stand up for her, too.

Mary Lee drinks down the rest of the water and sets the glass on the floor. Then she rests her wrists on her raised knees, leans her head against the door, and closes her eyes again.

I've babbled enough. Right now, I need to talk myself out of leaving and heading over to the bar.

At least Beach Guy has been letting her talk without interruption. And he hasn't grinned one of his weird grins again. So, that's good, I guess. He fetches his phone from the counter and slips it into his pocket, then turns to Newspaper Man.

I've just had a thought. It might be a dangerous thought, though. What if we air all the dirty laundry in public? Derek, you're a newspaper guy. It should be within you to write one hell of a story. We have evidence. Would exposure locally and maybe nationally not be enough to scare these people off? Could we appeal to child services, religious groups, all sorts of people to come to Melody's aid?

Mary Lee sighs softly. When she speaks, her voice is barely above a whisper.

We're talking about going up against a secret evil cabal that's part of the United States military industrial complex. They have the resources to just make people disappear. All of us. Any of us. Anything that they see as an attack is going to ultimately risk accelerating the very thing we want to stop. Yes, Mister Ferris, that's a dangerous thought.

"I hope they don't expect her to help them plan their little coup," Pablo says. "That poor woman as enough on her mind just being sober and caring for Sunny and Melody."

"I hope they aren't that stupid, but we've seen how idiotic they can be." I sigh.

Do you really have evidence? Or is it the fruit of a poisoned tree? It might be real, but you can't prove it. It's your word against theirs. These people killed my husband, Mister Ferris. These people hurt Melody and Chelsea — I'm sorry for saying that again, Chelsea — for their own sick reasons. You're not going to scare them off.

She slits her eyes open and looks at Beach Guy.

We get by with a little help from our friends. Not child protective services, not religious groups, not any sort of organization. Friends. Chelsea has friends at school. Teresa has . . . influence. Given time, they could affect a sea change in their community to protect Melody instead of treating her like an outcast. I've broken fences, but I don't think I've burned my bridges. Given time, I could facilitate a more compassionate treatment of Melody in the town. None of it would be perfect, but maybe it would be enough to save her. The problem is time. We don't have enough of it.

Mary Lee closes her eyes again, shaking her head slightly before resting it once more against the door. She doesn't say anything for a while, and when she does, it's very quiet.

It's ironic that the very thing we need is what the conspiracy theory cabal are, in a sense, trying to create. On the other hand, we have something they don't have: friends.

Newspaper Man looks at his sister for several seconds, then nods.

Okay, friends offer us the ability to be in multiple places at once. But they need to be organized and efficient. Against a military or paramilitary organization, we'll face challenges. We can prevent Melody from taking her does this Friday. But we'll need to control their access to her all weekend. How do we do that without them knowing? Can we make it look like they're able to do whatever it is they want to do, and that it's less effective, that maybe the drugs don't work?

I groan. "He just doesn't get it."

He shakes his head, as though he's trying to shake some thoughts loose.

Ignore me for a moment. Don't answer, figure out your own ideas. I feel like I'm not helping. I can write a story, but I agree with my sister. I don't think it will have the desired effect. It will likely only get us outed and removed.

Beach Guy looks around at the little group.

Well, the other idea we had on the beach this afternoon was to sabotage the center . . . cut the power, wreck equipment, make it impossible to treat Melody. It might buy us a few days, maybe.

Newspaper Man shakes his head.

I'm betting they have backup power, generators and such. But if we put sugar in those and then cut the main power, maybe run a vehicle into a pole, or something worse, that might keep them from having power for a bit. That's assuming they need power for what they're doing. I really have no idea what it takes to span the space between worlds.

"I want to hurt him again."

Rene sighs. "At this point, Andi, I'm pretty sure we all do." He points to the portal where Mary Lee has started to run her hands through her hair, but stops and clenches them into fists instead. "So does his sister, apparently."

Rene's right. She looks like she's trying to tear out her hair. The sound she makes is something between a groan and a muted wail.

Oh, my God! Will you two just stop?! This isn't a military operation!

She rubs her temples for a moment before standing up and glaring at her brother, then picks up the empty water glass from the floor. Walking back to the counter, she mutters, "Men!" under her breath before slamming the glass down on the counter not quite hard enough to break it.

What the hell is wrong with you? You . . .

She points a finger at Newspaper Man.

. . . misinterpret my comments about friends and think of them as additional infantry or pawns on a chessboard. And you . . .

She turns to aim her finger at Beach Guy.

. . . seem to believe we're the Rebel Alliance going after the Death Star. What we're supposed to be doing — at least in the short term — is circling the wagons and keeping Melody safe. We're not attacking the bad guys . . . not now, not ever. It's a fight we can't win. What we are going to do, figuratively speaking, is sneak in and steal O'Keefe's Black Iris from The Met.

"The what?"

I sigh as I look at Pablo. "Georgia O'Keefe? Famous American artist? She painted huge flowers, skyscrapers, and landscapes of New Mexico."

"Oh. I suppose I've probably seen some of her art?"

"Very likely. Look her up when we get home. I won't make you write a term paper about her," I add with a chuckle.

How are we going to do that? I. Don't. Know! As far as most of this town is concerned, I'm still the town drunk. And I'm two days into recovery, so I don't feel too great right now. Stop think about everything is a competition, that there are enemies to be vanquished. There are enemies, yes, but we need to outsmart them, not beat them into a bloody pulp.

She turns to the high school students, and manages a smile.

Okay, given that making a mess of the Discovery and Research Center is a bad idea for a lot of reasons, let's think of something else. When was your last field trip out there? That Danalla kid still works out there, doesn't he? I swear, he looked like he was twelve the first time I saw him. The thing I remember most about him, besides that baby face of his, was his massive geekiness over the butterflies. I appreciate geeks. Anyway, you two are more likely to know if he's someone to be trusted. I think he'd want to do anything to protect those butterflies, but if he has a leaning toward the Dark Side, he'll only think about protecting the Black Darters and not worry about Melody.

She glances back over her shoulder at Beach Guy, her gaze raking Newspaper Man in the process.

Either of you ever watch that show Leverage? It's been off the air for a while, but that's the sort of what I'm suggesting here. Just don't look at me for any of those roles. I'm going to be busy spending time with my daughter.

Then she snorts.

Although, if you want my opinion — and of course you do — Sunny and Melody would make great masterminds.

Then she cradles her head in her hands again as a pang of anguish shoots through her.

Once again, I sigh. "Yeah, the girls had said they'd tried everything. She knows that anything she suggests is likely going to be something Melody and Sunny have already tried."

"They never had friends before to help them," Rene reminds us.

Violence isn't the answer. And we'll get by with a little help from our friends.

Beach Guy as the good sense to at least appear a little chastened.

Apologies for the military mindset, Mary Lee. I was in the Army for a while; guess it rubs off.

Then he nods.

Okay. Chelsea and Teresa spent this afternoon talking to Danalla and concluded that he's uncomfortable about Melody's treatment, so we may have a potential ally there. There is, however, good security at the center. Breaking in to steal the meds won't be easy. There's another added potential benefit to going this route, though. If Melody doesn't get her meds, and actually improves — which I have a feeling she may — then we could get Miss Jilly on our side. If she withdrew her permission for the treatments . . .?

The look Mary Lee gives Beach Guy . . . I laugh. "She asks Chelsea and Teresa a question, and Beach Guy answers. I'd scorch him for being such an insensitive prick. She just rolls her eyes."

"And stares," Pablo adds. "When you stare at me like that, I know I've done something wrong and/or boneheaded."

"But you're smart enough to figure it out quickly and reverse course. Definitely smarter than Beach Guy."

"Thank you, dear."

Mary Lee finally crosses her arms protectively and closes her eyes.

Melody sees Doctor Schwartzer after school every Friday. She gets some sort of medication in the office before Schwartzer drives her up to the research center. She's plenty woozy by the time she gets there. But she gets more medication once she's there, and from that point, she doesn't remember much. Can you circumvent that cycle? How would I know? That's why you get to do the illegal stuff and do it with stealth. That way, we don't annoy my best friend and you, the stealthy one, don't get arrested by the sheriff.
Even though they probably targeted Melody because she has a relative they believe did what Sunny can do, that doesn't negate the fact that she does hear those little ones. Not taking the medications, not going through whatever hell they put her through over the weekends? Sure, that just might save the world — something Miss Jilly doesn't know about. All she knows is that Melody hears voices. She's a kind and generous and loving woman who knows in her heart and soul that Melody's life will be better if she could stop hearing the voices. And maybe it would be for some definitions of 'better.' Melody would rather not hear the voices either, but I don't think she cares all that much for the feelings of being so fuzzy-headed from the medications. My point is that stopping her meds is going to keep her clear-headed, which I think might prevent the evil cabal from opening the wrong door and letting the monster through and thereby ending the world. Would it stop them from trying to experiment with reality? No, I don't think so.

She takes a deep breath before continuing.

Until Melody can find a way not to respond to the little ones' voices at the wrong time or in the wrong place, she's not going to convince Miss Jilly that she's improving. But if she could manage that, maybe Miss Jilly would consider withdrawing consent for the treatments. And maybe that's when Miss Jilly mysteriously falls off a cliff onto a beach.
Everything is potentially deadly. To be honest, I'd feel paralyzed if I had to wander the labyrinth the rest of you walk through every time one of these side jumps happens. What should I do? What shouldn't I do? I'll be gracious enough to acknowledge that it's probably the reason my brother is even less proactive than he usually is. He's paralyzed by his fear of making a decision. I don't remember, so I don't have to worry about figuring what the right thing to do is and what the wrong thing to do is. All I need to do is focus on staying sober and taking care of Sunny and Melody. I just need to trust my daughter to do her best to protect Melody. If we all fuck up and slip back into a world where I don't have an interest in sobering up, Sunny will be heartbroken.

Mary Lee eyes Beach Guy with an intensity we've never seen from her.

So how about if you don't fuck up and figure something out, okay? You seem to be in charge here, so good for you. Get out of your own way and stop thinking like a military person. You're a spy now. Congratulations.

Rene chuckles. "Now, that would be a job Maddie would excel at."

I nod. "Rene, dear . . . I'm pretty sure the five of us would have had this little problem mopped up before the bad guys ever got to the point of hurting Chelsea, and Paul never would have seen what he saw. But Melody and Sunny seem to be the only mutants over there, and when it comes right down to it, the majority of normals just aren't cut out for a life of supporting us."

He sighs. "I'll grant that most of them are just ordinary people living ordinary lives. But you'd think the military man would have had more of a clue."

"You know how long Masterson and his folks trained for what they do?" I shrug. "They and the other team supporting the supers have decades of training between the lot of them. And, at least for Masterson's folks, they're not as normal as, say, Lucy and Newspaper Man are."

"So, you're cutting them some slack?" Pablo asks.

"Not really. With the number of jumps they've made, they should have figured a lot more out by this point . . . even if they are just normal humans."

Newspaper Man continues to silently observe his sister addressing Beach Guy. From the looks of his aura, there's a lot he doesn't agree with, but it all settles down when Mary Lee mentions how paralyzed he is. Recognizing you have a problem is a good first step to overcoming it.

Beach Guy just smiles at Mary Lee. It's like the man has three facial expressions: neutral, smiling, and grinning. I'm pretty sure that's not normal.

I'm not in charge. We're all just trying to find a good way out of this situation, one that works for everyone. That's good information about the doctor. We can check that out and see what we're facing. Best to leave the sheriff out of it as much as possible. The last time we told her anything, she died. Some of us feel it's too big a risk telling you, but we need help, need to widen our circle. And as Sunny's mother, I feel you have a right to know.

Mary Lee wraps her hands around the empty water glass and stares at her brother. Her eyes narrow and her nostrils flare as she presses her lips together in a thin line.

I know that look, asshole. You're refusing to let go of one of your imbecilic ideas again, aren't you? Let me guess: You're still entertaining the notion that Mister Teddy is an alien or a creature from another dimension or just a sentient teddy bear. Do you know how insane and ludicrous that sounds? No, of course you don't. You know, to paraphrase a quote allegedly attributed to Sigmund Freud — there's no evidence he ever said it, by the way, just in case you needed reminding that I'm the smart one — sometimes a teddy bear is just a teddy bear.

She pushes the glass toward him, right to the edge of the counter.

Don't want to risk drinking your water just in case that's what's causing your delusions.

Then she turns on Beach Guy again.

You are in charge. Want to know why? Because Chelsea and Teresa are in high school, they have homework and papers to finish, and finals are coming up. Because my brother can't even find the word 'initiative' in the dictionary. And because I'm busy doing my job.

"Burn!" Pablo mutters.

"She's not wrong," I say. "I'd have put Lucy in charge, but she's not there."

Mary Lee walks over to the door and rests a hand on the knob, pausing to look over her shoulder at Beach Guy.

In case you're not clear on what that job is, Mister Ferris, I'm a mom. So, I'm going to go home now and be with my daughter and her best friend.

Then she opens the door, looking at her brother and his friend.

Bye-bye, boys. Have fun storming the castle.

She slams the door behind her.

"Yes, indeed, we're going to have to watch Princess Bride again," Pablo says, smiling.

"I'll bet none of them get the reference, though," I say with a sigh.

Once again, we follow Mary Lee as she crosses the street, her hands in the pockets of her jacket. She doesn't walk past the sheriff's door, but I can see how much the siren call of alcohol is pulling her toward the bar. I don't really know this woman — and is that really true? — but I'm inordinately proud of her. Her hands tremble as she unlocks and opens the door, and nausea is rolling through her aura again. She heads straight for the kitchen where she fills her water bottle, drinks down half of it, and fills it to the top again.

After shrugging off her jacket and hanging it on the back of a kitchen chair, she walks back into the living room, and smiles wanly at Pat. She pauses to look at Melody and Sunny sleeping peacefully; Pat had retrieved a blanket and wrapped it around the girls. She's also tucked a pillow beneath Melody's head and a smaller one beneath Sunny's. The two of them fit like peas in a pod. They fit like best friends. They fit like sisters.

Mary Lee sets her bottle on the coffee table and sits on the floor in front of the sofa, leaning back against the arm near her daughter's head. Glancing at the television, she draws up her legs and wraps her arms around them. I don't think she even realizes she crying until she opens her mouth to speak. Then she wipes the tears away with the back of her hand, and reaches for the water bottle and box of tissue on the table.

I don't know how to help any of them, Patty. My brother is still an idiot. His friend thinks in military terms. Chelsea and Teresa have good heads on their shoulders but . . . Jesus Christ, they're just kids. I can barely take care of myself, and I hate that Sunny is so self-sufficient. I can't protect Melody, and that hurts so much you'd think she was my daughter, too.

Grabbing a tissue from the box, she shakes her head before wiping her eyes and face.

I don't even have words to describe how much I miss Chuck. Folks just aren't made to hurt this much, Patty, we just aren't.

Pat smiles down from her comfy chair, legs crossed and a bowl of popcorn in her lap.

You always thought too much, Mary Lee. Derek's always been a watcher, not a doer. The other guy writes military procedurals for a living. Teresa and Chelsea are two kids I never have to worry about. And then there's you. You can be so smart and so wrong at the same time.

She offers the bowl of popcorn to Mary Lee.

First, you made it back here. I was betting on you, but to tell you the truth, they were really long odds. You did good, princess. Second . . . you can't help the kids? Look at them. I bet they haven't slept that well for a long, long time. It's not exhaustion and it's not even comfortable. It's the sleep of two kids who know they're cared for. You know Sunny . . . Sunny never ever gave up on you. And Melody? She's got a real nice aunt. But Jilly's in her eighties. She probably has good folks, too. But they ain't here. So, you got another kid, Mother. And last . . .

Mary Lee shakes her head, declining the offer of popcorn.

I had to come back. After hearing their story this afternoon, there's no way I could let Sunny down again. I know you're right, Pat. Inside my brain, I know I'm doing a really good thing here. It's so easy to love Sunny. In the past two days, I realized how easy it is to love Melody, too. She's definitely one of the good ones. It's not enough.

I swallow hard. Isn't that just the story of my life? It's never enough

It doesn't feel like it's enough. I can't even solve all of my own problems, so I don't know why I think I ought to be able to solve theirs. Because I'm the mom, and that's just what moms do? Sure, for the little ones. I guess there's a point where kids start solving their own problems. But when the problems are so huge that they seem like they're bigger than the world?

Pat smiles again. It's the kind of smile I might give anyone in my family who's being just a little boneheaded but are on the right track to figuring out whatever they need to figure out.

You may be right, but you're not completely right. Folks may not be meant to hurt this much. The kids will be fine. Sit here.

She points to the spot in front of her chair.

Because you're right . . . but wrong. Folks aren't made to hurt that much . . . alone.

Mary Lee looks up at her, tears not quite falling from her eyes.

It's not that I feel alone, Patty. Disconnected from a lot of people, sure. But you and Sunny have never given up on me. Ever. Alone isn't the problem. It's the empty place in my heart and soul where Chuck ought to be, the place that's all filled up with pain . . . that's the problem.

I feel how much Mary Lee's pain resonates with Pablo. When I look at him, his eyes are closed, his jaw is clenched.

"Hey," I whisper. "I'm here, love."

He nods. "I didn't realize the place where Rosalia and Juan ought to be still hurt so much."

"I know. But I make this journey with you." I've only been reminding him that it's perfectly fine to still grieve for his first wife and eldest son since he told me about them twelve years ago. He'd held onto that pain, never talking about them, for nearly as many years before he shared them with me.

Mary Lee looks at the sleeping girls again.

There's a quote by Rose Kennedy that I've always remembered but never really understood deep down until now: It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.
I guess I just don't have enough scar tissue yet.

Pablo smiles sadly and opens his eyes again. "I guess I don't either."

"We have plenty of time, Pablo. Heal at whatever pace you need."

"I love you, Andrea."

Rene tightens his arm around my shoulder. "I do too, sister."

"Right back at ya, both of you."

Well, that's only to be expected, Mary Lee. It took you three years or so to figure out that forgetting doesn't work. You've only been healing for a day or two. Scars take time to form.

Pat takes a slow, deep breath, letting it out just as slowly.

We can be a little selfish, you know. It's allowed. I think of Chuck every day. And even if all this craziness is true, it pretty much says we aren't ever going to get him back. Now, I know there will never be a way to forget Chuck or fill that hole. But I had another one, you know. I've been wanting my best friend back for so long. And now that I've got her, I ain't letting go. You got that?

Mary Lee shakes her head.

I know Chuck isn't coming back. How could he? He's dead. I saw . . . Sunny is right about things happening the way they had to happen. I don't mean that any of this — our lives, this situation — was preordained or anything. But the past is the past. We can't change it. Dead people only come back to life in books and movies. And besides, the past makes us who we are today. The people we are today are the ones who work to become the people we'll be in the future.

I smile crookedly at my husband. We've been through so much individually and together . . . "She's quoting Grandmaster Chen and Papa without actually quoting them. I guess some things are fundamental between universes."

Pablo nods. "Things happen as they should happen for the greatest good of all. I don't think that's a comfort to her any more than it's a comfort to me sometimes."

"No, probably not."

"I'm going to add that it sucks a lot," Rene says.

I nod. "But we eventually eliminated Stryker, I reunited you with your Maddie, and you can watch your son grow up. It's not all bad."

"No, not at all. It's just awful in the moment, I suppose."

"Yeah. It is that."

Pat smiles a little sadly at her friend.

Yah, nothing and no one can replace Chuck. But he's not completely gone, you know. Look over there, at that little ball of sunshine. Did you see how she made breakfast? First, she stood back and looked and the cabinets and refrigerator, and then reached up to rub the back of her neck . . . just like Chuck used to do.

Mary Lee folds her arms over her knees and tries to smile.

No one is ever really gone as long as someone remembers them. Sunny is a little sponge. She picked up mannerisms from Chuck, from me . . . hell, even from you. It's disconcerting to see a six-year-old giving her homework the same look you give your whiteboard when you're trying to figure something out.

This time, she manages a real smile.

I got it. I'm pretty sure your best friend is here to stay. Well, I guess I need to figure out who I am again, but I'm willing to do the work. I swear, Patty.

Pat sighs.

I hate not knowing what to do. You know what the worst thing about Montaukettston is? Everything happens come the summer, the tourist season. Between then and now, because of this horrible economy, we have to work hard to make it to the next one. Healing takes time, scabbing over takes time, and it doesn't happen if you aren't given the chance. We're everyone else's vacation. But when do we get ours? We need a break.

She looks over and Melody and Sunny, asleep on the sofa, and nods.

It might only be a few hours, but it's probably the best vacation they've had in a long while. They need a longer one. We do, too.

Mary Lee sighs and shrugs.

I'm not sure what to do either. I mean, sure, I can take care of the girls, I can take care of myself, I can give myself time for the scabs to form, and I can go back to work. But about the awful stuff that's going on? Life used to make sense. Now it doesn't, at least not completely. The military is still here, and they shouldn't be, should they? They're batshit crazy. There's not much more to say than that.
The economy . . . Well, some years we catch a break, other years are really bad, and we've had a bad stretch. We're due for an upturn, but this weather isn't going to help. It's still about cycles. You know, I hated those econ classes that were required, but at least knowing about statistics and economic theories can keep me from worrying too much about it. Shannon and Jessie find comfort in believing God and the Devil have something to do with everything.

She shakes her head and sighs again, then turns her head to look at the sleeping girls for a moment before looking at Pat again.

You know what I'd like, Patty? After all the tourists are gone, just before school starts again, I'd like to take these two to Disneyland. Or the Grand Canyon. Anywhere that isn't here, really. Just for a week, to remind us that we're connected to the big world out there.

Mary Lee gets up to fetch another pillow and blanket, then settles herself on the floor in front of the sofa after softly kissing Sunny's forehead.

I'm happy to curl up here on the floor. It's not like I've never slept in worse places. And besides, I think I just want to be close to the peacefulness these two have. Maybe it will rub off, you know.

As Pat gets up to make her way to the bedroom, Mary Lee jabs at the pillow a few times, wraps the blanket around herself like a cocoon, and settles herself in front of the sofa: a passive sentry stretched out in front of a door to keep intruders away form the girls' dreamless slumber.

G'night. Gonna see about mending some bridges in the morning.

The scene fades to black as if someone is slowly dimming the room's light. The portal brightens again to show Newspaper Man, Beach Guy, Chelsea, and Teresa standing right where they were when Mary Lee walked out. Beach Guy stares at the door for several seconds.

And she's on our side . . . good job, I reckon.

"He's not as funny as he thinks he is," Pablo notes.

Beach Guy turns to the teens, smiling again.

You both did a real good job with Danalla this afternoon. I guess it might be time for the two of you to head home. And try not to worry too much, we got this.

"And he's pretending to be considerably more confident than he actually is," I say.

He crosses to the coffee machine and pours himself a cup. Newspaper Man is all kinds of confused by his sister. It's as if her behavior is somehow familiar and, at the same time, surprising. Maybe he's gotten so used to seeing her drunk that he's forgotten how strong she actually is. He nods, agreeing with Beach Guy.

Yes, you're doing well. Your thoughts are helping put things in a different frame, which is important for us. We all have a tendency to get stuck in ruts. It's human nature, after all.

Pablo snorts. "And he ought to know."

Teresa looks between the door and Newspaper Man a few times.

You know, you two may be the only people who get along worse than me and my jerk brother. The only thing you have going for you is that she's actually decided what she needs to be doing, and that's really good. I'm stuck with a jerk.

Then she nods and turns to Chelsea.

It's getting late. Your mother will be getting worried. Mine, too.

As she gathers up her books and other belongings, she takes a deep breath.

Doctor Danalla, if he was in school, he'd be the nice nerdy kid that the school bully drags around to do his homework, I guess. He's there because he has to be there, as best the two of us can tell. But right now, Chelsea and I, we're two kids who've been out all night with no chance to study and a geography test after lunch. That leaves . . . well . . . it's up to you. If you can't kill folks, can't out them, how else do you get them to not want something?

With that, she and Chelsea head out the door. Newspaper Man watches them walk out, then stares at the door for a few seconds before shaking himself from whatever reverie he's fallen into. He turns to Beach Guy.

Okay, so let's learn about the doctor and her treatments. Maybe we can foil the plot that way. Mostly, what I think we need is for them to feel like this isn't a viable experiment anymore. Not sure that's enough, but it's a start.

Beach Guy nods.

Yeah, we should go and scout the doc's place. You know where that is, yes? I'll just give Luce a call.

He dials her number, and the call goes straight to voicemail. And what an interesting voicemail!

This quaint New England countryside has eaten my mother's Audi. I'm off to rescue her and keep her company until Triple A arrives. I don't know when I'll be back. Leave a message at the beep.

"Huh. So, it is possible to escape from the madness," Pablo muses.

"Apparently. I guess maybe only Melody, and by extension Sunny, can't leave." I chuckle. "He's got the vibe of someone who's suspicious, though. Like, maybe he doesn't believe the message is legit."

Pablo merely sighs.

Tyler. Was worried about you, but family comes first. Stay safe.

Beach Guy looks at Newspaper Man again.

She's had to go rescue her mom. Car trouble. So, it's just the two of us for now. Ready?

I laugh this time. "Newspaper Man is every bit as suspicious. These guys!"

Newspaper Man nods, and Beach Guy hefts his backpack over one shoulder, then the two of them head out the door.

"Maybe because we have this different perspective, we realize they're being foolish," Rene says. "Or is it possible something really happened to Lucy?"

I turn to answer Rene's question, but before I can say anything, Pablo squeezes my hand . . . hard.

"Jesus fucking Christ!"

Rene and I both look back through the portal at the same time.

"Madre de Dios! Qué demonios es eso? Spanish: Mother of God! What the hell is that?"" Pablo asks.

"Godverdomme Dutch: Goddamn," Rene whispers.

For once, I'm speechless.

We've seen the world on the other side of the portal change several times. Aside from the relocation of the butterfly factory buildings, everything has been minor: a building with new colors, different registry numbers on some of the boats, the Parasol Sisters with blue trim on their dresses one time. This? This is mind-boggling.

Instead of a minimal slope from the main street down to the docks, there's a sharp drop. Buildings have moved, turned to face the water instead of the street. Extra roads have been added. New buildings have been added! It hardly looks like the same town at all, at least on the western side of the primary road. The docks have widened, too, to allow for vehicular as well as pedestrian traffic.

It makes no sense. Every other time we've seen a change to the world, no matter how small, it had come after the monsters, the Shadow, kills everyone . . . after the world ends. The changes come after the little girl moves everyone to an alternate version of their world. She does it consciously. She expends energy to make it happen. I can see the toll it takes on her by watching her qi.

But right now, she's sleeping soundly and isn't even disturbed by unhappy dreams. And yet . . . she effortlessly changed the world. Maybe it matches something in her dream. Maybe it's something from her memories, the way the world looked once upon a time.

"They don't even realize the world has changed this time," I say. "The dreamers, who were always cognizant of what they called resets, have strangely reverted to ordinary people this time around."

They're both silent for a minute or two before Pablo asks the obvious question. "What the hell does it mean, Andrea?"

I shrug. "I have no clue. Other than Sunny feeling safe and secure for the first time since we started watching them, I can't even begin to guess. Melody is just as peaceful, for what it's worth."

"Safety and security allowed her to reset the world to its default settings?" he asks.

"Not a reset, Pablo. She might have reached out, found her original home, and transported everyone there rather than reacting from her usual position of fear. But sure, that's a possibility. Maybe this is the default."

"Or maybe they're close to resolving whatever problem is keeping them in this spiral of sideways jumps," Rene says.

Once again, I shrug. "Maybe. Newspaper Man is going to have to actually do something, I think. Beach Guy isn't a whole lot better. To be fair, though, they're up against some serious evil over there, and they don't have the resources we do to fight that kind of thing."

"We're still not letting you go through to help them, you know."

I smile sadly at Rene. "I know. They need to do this themselves. I can't even toss them a message in a bottle to help."

"A book wouldn't fit in a bottle anyway," Pablo mutters.

I nudge him in the ribs. "A single sheet of paper with bullet points would fit in a bottle, dear."

Rene chuckles. "Keep it up, you two. Once I tell Maddie about this, she's going to want to hear your report. She's not going to be pleased that you're planning to write a book about it."

I grin back at him. "She loves me and will find every word utterly fascinating. Plus, I think I can keep it in the short story category."

They look skeptically at one another over my head.

"Of course, dear," Pablo says. "Your optimism continues to be a source of inspiration for me."

"Even I'm not going to bring that level of sarcasm to the table, brother," Rene says with a grin.

I roll my eyes, sigh with a touch of exasperation, and go back to watching the town.

It's a dark and stormy night. I know that's cliché, but it happens a lot more often than most people think. The only illumination comes from the dull glow of the quaint New England streetlamps and squares of light in second floor windows where people have yet to turn in for the night. A harsh wind rattles the boats in the marina. Lately, it always seems to start raining a bit after midnight. Sometimes, it's still coming down at dawn and occasionally things don't clear up until mid-morning.

Newspaper Man and Beach Guy don't seem to have a problem finding the doctor's office, even though it's now located across from the dive shop. It's a cute little two-story building with simple wood frame construction and a hint of gingerbread trim. It looks like all the other businesses in town. The only thing proclaiming it to be the doctor's office is the engraved-style text painted on the front door window.

J. Schwartzer MD
10:00 AM to 3:00 PM
or By Appointment

It's even got a number for emergencies. The door's three steps up, but there aren't any basement windows for them to break into. Next to the front door are two tall double-hung windows with white curtains preventing anyone from seeing into the building. I'd guess there's a waiting room on the other side of the door and windows, so the curtains make sense. Patients deserve their privacy. The windows are wired for security, and an ADT logo is stuck in the bottom right corner of each window, and the glass pane of the door. Above the door, there's a built-out bay window and two matching double-hung windows. Given what we've already seen of the town and its business owners, the doctor likely lives above her offices.

There's a narrow breezeway on both sides of the building between neighboring shops. Windows on each of the buildings open into the breezeway; in the doctor's building, in the back on the second floor, a light is on. On the roof, at the back of the building and anchored to the tall cornice, is a Dish Network antenna.

After taking it all in, Beach Guy whispers to Newspaper Man.

Which resident lives about the farthest from here? I'm thinking that the doc should make an emergency house call.

Newspaper Man looks skeptical.

Won't they be able to track the number it's called from? In addition, I guess it would show that someone broke in. I was hoping for a more subtle approach. Let's look around back . . . two guys just going for a walk.

Beach Guy shrugs, and starts down the street to presumably circle around the buildings rather than go between them.

I was thinking about a pay phone. But yes, let's take a look around.

The rain begins as they head down the block. Behind the houses, however, things get a bit tricky. The space beyond the buildings' backyards is a narrow alley, just wide enough to fit a car with no space to pass before the grade rises up steeply. At the top of the rise is Main Street. The yards are well-kept, however, and most have a parking space or small detached garage for a single car. Some yards have gardens and others — like the doctor's house — are taken over by stained wooden decks.

From the alley, the doctor's house is fairly residential. A pair of sliding doors, marked with the ADT logo, open onto the deck. Double-hung windows march up the back wall. One of them, on the upper right corner, is lit. Considering the time, it's probably a bedroom. The doctor's garage is closed and dark and is probably only a little larger than the doctor's car. And here I'd thought my little house next to Bobby had a small garage! Well, since I never tried to put a car in there, it might have seemed larger than this one looks.

Based on the geography of the town — either the layout we've been used to or this new configuration — the farthest people from the doctor's office would either be Jilly Mallory on the west or everyone up at the Inn on the east.

The two men stand in the alley looking up at the lit window. The rain that had started out as a light drizzle is now coming down in sheets. They both look miserable.

So, she's definitely there, given that light. Still want to go in? Or do you want to head back to the facility and see if we can wreck some havoc there?

The two of them stand there for entirely too long, given the weather. Finally, Beach Guy shakes his head and calls it a night. That's probably for the best. Their half-baked plan would have gotten them either arrested or killed again.

The scene shifts from the dark and stormy night, to Chelsea's warm and cozy bedroom, although the rain pounding on the metal roof of their building sounds like it's being pelted with rocks. She's brushing her hair, getting ready for bed. There's a flash of light, then everything goes dark. Maybe a transformer was hit by the lightning, maybe a breaker just tripped. Who knows? But I can hear the voices of the little not-Shadowkin.

. . . what . . . what . . . what . . . what . . .

It's so dark that it's hard to tell if the little things are outside Chelsea's window or right there in the room with her.

. . . wanted . . . wanted . . . to do . . .
. . . can be . . . can be . . . can be . . .
. . . have a choice . . . have a choice . . . have a choice . . .
. . . no one said . . . no one . . . no one . . .

"Okay, even I can't make sense of those little ones."

Pablo raises an eyebrow as he looks at me.

"The little chittering not-Shadowkin . . . they're talking to Chelsea."

She's holding perfectly still, not moving a muscle. She whispers to herself.

It isn't real. It isn't real. What are they saying? A choice? What choice? It isn't real. There's nothing out there.

"Ah, the poor kid," Pablo says. "Scared of the dark."

"In that town, who can blame her? Even I might be afraid of the dark."

Rene snorts. "Really? Big bad Ninja . . . afraid of the dark?"

"Oh, definitely not Ninja. Ninja likes the dark." I shake my head. "No, I meant the girl I was before the Curse took me."

There's another sudden flash and the lights come back on: There's faint illumination from the streetlamp outside, and her alarm clock brightens a little. I guess it's one of those that dim way down when it's on battery power.

Chelsea finishes brushing her hair, then gets into bed, leaving the table light on. Then she pulls the blankets up around her tightly. I wouldn't be surprised if she's trying to convince herself that none of it's real.

But lined up at the foot of her bed like paper dolls — black, inky, paper-thin, and very small — are the Little Ones. They're not just the color of black ink on paper, they're the blackness of nothing at all. I've seen shit like that. Even their triangular eyes and spiky-toothed mouths, like cutouts, are eerily reminiscent of the things I saw in the dimension that sucked the bad juju out of Tsui. I shudder.

. . . but we are real . . . real . . . real . . . real . . .

They're only there for a heartbeat, moving like blades of grass in the wind, before winking out. The scene goes completely black then.

Next up: Track XXX.4

© Kelly Naylor