DD – The pressure kept building while the sun set. Tupac, if we had to spend another night in this cold dark.
After a long stomach growl, Lourdes asked, “Ever wonder what a vanilla fly tastes like?”
“That sound you don’t hear is me laughing on the inside.”
Scatterlegs popped up from sleeping, zipped fast circles around Lourdes, snapped at the air. A little strange but that’s Scatterlegs.
Grayfast puffed up and hissed, the fake way that cats play with each other. Except he was playing with nothing. The air.
“Wow,” Lourdes whispered. She twirled as though the air felt amazing.
To me it was still just air.
Except. There was a glow. Inside the air.
The glow bubbled and flowed into many separate glows. (117 of them. Lourdes counted.) The bubbles turned into fur and feathers and scales. 117 animals, all sizes, all kinds. All getting along, comfortable with each other. Rabbit beside wolf. Hawk helping mouse.
They got more clear to see but never completely solid and the water animals stayed see–through.
117 people milled around. More kinds than I could imagine – ages, sizes, colors, clothes styles. Some looked wise like the animals and moved with sure steps. Others walked in spirals, looking everywhere.
One old man dropped to the ground, crying so hard he hiccupped. “I’m not the only one.”
A boy as short as Matty bowed and took a step onto our hill. “Thank you for gathering us,” he smiled to me. And/or Grayfast. The cat flicked his tail.
“Um,” I forced my lips into a smile.
“I am not like that one,” the boy replied and stepped away.
Yup. Reading my mind, my ricochet thoughts – he looked so young but his voice was old and his skin had antique wrinkles. Just like Natalie.
At the top of the hill, Lourdes teetered on tiptoe, pointed from one to the next to the next. Counting.
Below, some of our guests would follow her finger pointing and look surprised to discover other people nearby.
But mostly people were nodding at each other, and bowing respectfully to the animals, who ignored us like so many bushes.
A red–haired man called to Lourdes, “Who do we kill and when do we start?”
An identical man gave him an angry push. “Last resort, not first resort.”
The first man pushed back. Their animals (a blue jay and a crow) gave each other a seriously then went back to grooming.
So, changelings could be as pointless as any other people.
Changelings. 117 plus us. So many! It confirms what we already sensed, and as Galalena wrote in her journals, ‘We come to fight in no ordinary time and ours are no ordinary foes.’
Outside and all around, the pressure is still building. Now we can do something about it.
A woman stood on the back of a giant tortoise. She began to clap and cheer. The noisy applause spread and exploded with growls hoots shrieks as the animals joined in.
The sun finished setting but now the dark didn’t matter.
This is what we’ve been waiting for. This changes everything. – sE
DD– We sat on our knobby little hill and waited for the something to happen. We heard no more conversation from back at Franklin’s cabin.
We sat some more. It was so quiet we heard paws stepping when Scatterlegs and Grayfast wandered down the far side of our hill.
Lourdes and I nibbled mounds of crushed cereal bar from the bottom of my backpack. I never used to miss meals.
Natalie was a scab we couldn’t stop picking. What were her intentions? Was she for us or against us? We kept talking about her, discussing what we knew from different angles. As if the missing pieces would suddenly snap into view.
We couldn’t even decide whether the fact that we didn’t understand Natalie made her more scary … or less scary. But we kept discussing. One of us would get sick of it and demand quiet. Time would go by and the silence would thicken. Then the other one would start Natalie–ing again.
It was Lourdes’ turn. “Evidence for Natalie being on our side.” She shoved a finger into the air for each piece of evidence. “She brought me to you at the Trigg house… Her owl led Lewis and me to you when you were stuck in that cottage by the ocean… She caused a distraction so Alcatur didn’t find Paul and Grayfast at the cemetery… Her owl protected Franklin, um, by destroying his cabin?”
“Evidence for Natalie being against us.” She slammed a finger closed with each item. “She helped Alcatur escape after his trial. She was with Barracuda at the accident that killed your family.” She wiggled the fingers still standing. She had run out of evidence against Natalie. “The evidence against her should count double, Or triple. It’s evil.”
Lourdes closed her fingers to make a fist and shook it. She was ready to punch something. I can understand that side of Lourdes. I have it too. We get mad when we don’t understand.
Maybe Alcatur told Natalie to confuse us. Well. She was totally succeeding.
The animals strolled back up the hill, flopped into nap positions. Grayfast’s tail flicked while he dozed.
This afternoon I’m learning how scary boredom can be. Nothing is happening except our stomachs growling. But pressure keeps building and building, invisible but all around. Violence and war, out there, just past the horizon. From Alcatur and Natalie, definitely. Probably others we don’t even know about. Yet.
I’ve felt that lurking danger before, but never like today. Lourdes must feel the same. She usually sits a little separate from everybody else, but today she’s right beside me.
We aren’t talking. We’re listening. Straining to hear, is more like it. – sE
DD – “Did you hear that, too?” Lourdes asked.
I stood up to see. Where it was coming from. Franklin’s voice.
The knobby hill wasn’t high enough to give a view across the rushes to where his voice seemed to be.
Grayfast stared into the rushes, ears perked way up.
Franklin’s voice said, “Here, Paul, help me move these.”
“Sure thing.” Paul’s voice. My heart resumed beating like it wanted to be alive. It stopped beating that way when Paul left with Lewis/sirene.
Wood clattered. But there was no wood in view. Nothing but reeds below sky.
I caught a whiff of burned wood, mixed with Paul’s sweat. Aunt Axi’s hand cream. Lewis’ shoes without socks. From the lake, intense, fly vanilla.
Oh. We must be sharing Grayfast’s sensations. The others were talking too far away for people to hear, but not too far for a cat.
So! Franklin was rescued and everyone was back at the cabins’ ruins. I felt more peaceful than happy. Things could turn out all right.
The voices and footsteps faded in and out. Back forth. Scrapes scufflings. They must be helping Franklin sort through his ruins, walking in and out of range of Grayfast’s hearing.
They murmured out of hearing then exploded with shock.
Grayfast flicked an ear. Lourdes and I traded frowns.
“Impossible! Natalie is a changeling, she can’t be a hunter!” Franklin sounded confused.
Lewis replied in the hollow sirene voice. “She is also a hunter. I know my kind. No doubt exists.”
“She’s a hunter but she pretends to be Everweer. That’s a crime punishable by death,” Paul sounded shocked.
“She must expect to avoid detection,” Aunt Axi said.
“She’s wrong. They’ll catch her. And the executions are cruel.” Paul was such a good person. He could even sound concerned for Natalie.
“We build our own fates,” Aunt Axi replied.
Their voices and footsteps faded. Out of hearing range.
I wanted to run through the reeds to them. But I couldn’t. We had come to this hill for a reason, however unknown. We had to wait here.
I hoped the reason wasn’t to face Natalie. I had such a bad feeling about her, the thought of seeing her again gave me aches like the flu.
Lourdes and I stared at each other.
“Natalie.” Was all I could say.
“I feel you! What the termite is wrong with that woman?!” Lourdes said.
“What the termite?”
“I see your way now – talking feels more comfy without swearing. But I don’t like rap. So.” She shrugged.
What the termite. Lourdes. – sE
DD – Yeah. It got way dark. Black was putting it mildly. I knew my three partners were nearby because I heard them breathing. Lizard inhales. It was that quiet.
We stayed outside of each other’s heads. We needed to rest before whatever we were waiting to have happen, did happen.
With every inhale, the air inside my throat got colder. Our knobby little hill was nothing but dirt and rocks and damp wind from the lake.
From out of nowhere I thought of Barracuda, dead, maybe still stuck in her car. I hated her for whatever the Tupac her role was in my family’s death. But I had to feel sorry for anybody so dead and alone.
It was too dark. I needed happy thoughts, fast! Happy. Happy happy.
Happy … birthday. Seriously?
With the cave and hiding out and sudden trips to Chicago I had no sense of time. When we first arrived at Mono Lake we had just missed Thanksgiving and a lot of days had gone by since then but not enough that we could have missed Christmas yet. Which put us around middle– ish December.
Around my birthday.
Amazed disgust. Disgusted amazement. Grown–up birthdays are sad compared to kid birthdays so mine could only head downhill. But to miss it entirely. Eminem.
“I might be 17 now.”
“Your party will be bigger for being postponed. ” Lourdes sounded like she was quoting. Her teeth chattered.
So did mine. “Is that what your family used to say about missing a birthday?”
“My sister would. Our parents never –” Her frown carried through the dark.
“I wish your parents weren’t jerks.”
“Bright side. They earned me a major big party but ha ha. No invites for them.”
My lips were shivering too hard to joke back.
“Okay. Cold enough.” Lourdes moved from shivering to shaking.
No doubt it kept getting colder but that was the last we suffered. Our animals managed an awesome trick to warm us up.
I couldn’t feel my own body because Scatterlegs and Grayfast took over. Grayfast had tucked his nose under his tail and his fur kept him toasty. Scatterlegs was cozy, burrowed under Grayfast’s belly. Grayfast’s purrs vibrated my foot, which was next to him. And vibrated all around me, as I shared the lizard’s experience.
“Mmm–mm,” Lourdes did her own kind of purring.
Now I’m wondering what she was sensing. But not at the time. As Ella, I couldn’t think. My head was filled with thoughts I couldn’t understand. Lizard thoughts. Cat thoughts. So different I can’t describe them. Even trying to remember them changes them. Like when I describe a great dream. So I’m going to stop trying and enjoy how warm they made me feel.
It’s sunrise and soon the sun will add its own warmth. We’re still waiting on the knobby hill, btw. – sE
DD – We went in and out of connecting for the rest of the afternoon. What I call connecting, Grayfast calls TWOING and Lourdes calls rehearsing.
“Rehearsing for what?”
“That’s all he told me,” Lourdes shrugged and scritched Scatterlegs on the neck.
SK###SK###KS, from Scatterlegs.
I was getting used to not understanding.
From what I could get, we were practicing to live our lives – see, hear, act, decide – while sharing experience. It was like rubbing your head and patting your stomach while cooking with a recipe in a foreign language.
The hardest was when Grayfast and I ran fast in opposite directions. Jump over a hole here while landing there! Uphill downhill simultaneously! Eminem! Start to get used to it and Scatterlegs would leap out of nowhere and startle me just as Lourdes asked me a question.
After that we took an extra long rest.
At the same moment, Lourdes and I stopped splashing and looked to the side of the lake.
“We should go over there.”
“Just what I was thinking.”
Having the same thoughts as Lourdes was weird but not surprising. The surprising was my wanting to go. Over there, in the tall sharp reeds. The ones that blocked my view of my steps, that freaked me so badly.
This time, walking through the reeds was beyond disorienting. I saw my feet from Scatterlegs’ eyes. I ducked between reeds as Grayfast, and felt reeds scrape my arms as Lourdes plowed through them. Confusing. But not scary, this time, because no way was I alone.
Anyway, we had to finish that walk. Nothing felt as important as getting through the reeds to whatever was on their other side.
And yet. At some point, I couldn’t go farther. I kept trying to step forward but stumbled sideways like one of those supermarket carts that freezes if you cross the yellow line that makes you a cart thief.
What was stopping me was wind chimes. Franklin’s had survived the destruction of his cabin, and the breeze kept them murmuring like when my mom hummed lullabies. I’d been hearing them all this time, not noticing until I got too far to hear them. One step too far.
Hearing the chimes, I could believe in safe and sound. Lewis/sirene would guide Paul and Aunt Axi safely and they’d all bring Franklin home. I needed to hear the chimes.
But we needed to get past the reeds.
Everybody understood. They waited with total patience.
Finally I realized. This group was what I should believe in. Grayfast Lourdes Scatterlegs. Not wind chimes.
I took the next step, and we pushed through the reeds, and got to a dry knobby hill beyond them. Where there was.
But that feeling is back. Something really big is about to happen. So now we’re sitting on the hill.
When the sun finishes setting it is going to be so dark out here. – sE
DD – Tupac amazing. I can’t even. Wow.
I’ll describe what just happened but I won’t get it right because it was outside words. Words are for people. Cats don’t need words. Neither do lizards.
Lourdes and I were splashing and waiting and then. Our animals connected with us in a new way. The right way. We were ready to learn how to do that.
Before, when Grayfast and I connected, I’d be in his head or he’d be in mine and most of the experience was getting past the headache and the where–am–I. One of us would control the experience for both species. Today, we were both still there. Sharing awareness, not trading it off.
And this time, the way I knew something was happening wasn’t from blasting pain. Instead, colors shifted. Like they slid behind thick dark glass, but the glass didn’t darken them, it muted them. They became jewels bright as spotlights.
Edges turned so sharp, the tiniest movements showed up. A fly flapped its wings which vibrated air and made a wind that tickled my nose. I got a whiff of the fly. Believe it or not, a little like vanilla.
Which gave me a flash of memory. Making cookies with Matty. He emptied a full bottle of vanilla into the dough and copied the noise. “Glurb glurb.”
My head snapped against my shoulder. Grayfast had spun around, so fast, then looked at me, suspicious. And I got it. He shared my memory but thought it was happening now, thought I’d added a little boy here on the shore of Mono Lake.
“I was just remembering,” I said. My voice was thick and warbly, a mouth full of bells.
Grayfast didn’t understand the concept. Remembering.
I shared other memories of Matty and the cat went so still, trying to understand. My back tightened. I kept remembering.
…the van in the ditch, the night Matty died… the same ditch, months later, when I rode a bike to the accident site and first saw Grayfast in a tree.
My back relaxed. Grayfast sort of understood.
BABY BIRD LEAVES NEST AND KEEPS NEST.
Somehow I understood that Grayfast doesn’t have memories, not like a person does. He acts, and from his actions he learns, and learning turns into knowing. But he can’t trace back to what happened before.
My memories confused him so I tried to focus on what was happening at that moment.
“Same here,” Lourdes murmured.
What the Tupac, she knew my thoughts! I didn’t know hers!
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to,” Lourdes said.
ALL BABY BIRDS LEARN TO FLY.
Grayfast reassured me. I’d catch up to where Lourdes was.
SK##SKSK##, from Scatterlegs.
Lourdes laughed, Grayfast purred. Someday I’ll get the joke.
The animals disconnected and I understood. Our brains needed to rest. So now we’re back to splashing.
Without bright jewel darkness, colors are less beautiful. – sE
DD – Lourdes and Scatterlegs and Grayfast and I. The changelings and their animals. The animals and their changelings. We’re sitting at the edge of Mono Lake. Lourdes and I are splashing bare toes in the water. Our skin goes icy, then we hold our feet in the sun to thaw them. The only sounds are splashes of toes and lapping of waves. I’m listening hard for sounds up the slope, from Franklin’s demolished home. Sounds of our rescuers coming back with Franklin. Sounds of more trouble arriving.
Lourdes and I are sitting together but in separate pairs. She is with Scatterlegs, even though the lizard is running back and forth a few feet away. He opens his mouth and charges through the line of flies on the shore. Then he peels away to munch his catch. His first bite takes three tries because his mouth is so full.
I don’t have to question Lourdes to know that she was as scared about Scatterlegs as I was about Grayfast, when they collapsed outside the sirene’s doorway. We’re changelings. They’re our animals.
I am with Grayfast, even though the cat is flattened above us. The weak sun turns his fur golden and warms the flat rocks under his belly. He’s stretched out but not lounging. The tip of his tail flicks at the tiniest sounds from Franklin’s ruins. Grayfast is expecting danger. I know him well enough to know that.
My connection with Grayfast goes beyond love. I don’t feel a bit bad saying that Grayfast matters more than anyone else. I’m a changeling, he’s my animal. That makes him my most important point of all.
Lately I’ve been seeing him as just a cat. Sure, a smart cat. Fast. Powerful senses. But that is nothing compared to who he really is. It’s been so long since we shared heads. Have I lost my special connection with him? No, it must still be there, but it takes effort I haven’t been making. Attention I haven’t been paying. I’m not blaming myself, I’m realizing. If I want that connection I have to make an effort.
I want it more than anything. And I need it now, to have any hope of truly acting like a superhero. To have any hope of getting past the superhero stuff to get back to Paul. I love Paul with all the love there is, but my connection with Grayfast is even more important than love.
That’s not something I could admit to just anybody, D, except you.
And Lourdes, of course. Any changeling would understand.
Right after I thought all that, Grayfast flopped across my foot and Scatterlegs perched on Lourdes’ shoulder.
Something is about to happen. Something big. But we’re all just sitting here.
Okay. – sE
DD – It was like a door slammed behind Paul, Aunt Axi, and Lewis/sirene. Which is probably what happened, right? A door to where the sirene belongs.
I have to believe they’ll be okay. Come back to us.
I keep reliving Paul’s unhappy skeptical expression before the gray swirling took him. I had just scooped up Grayfast, so limp and still, and when I stood, Paul twisted to see over his shoulder and our eyes found each other.
Paul already looked miserable about having to follow the sirene, but the expression on his face after Lourdes screamed and the animals fell unconscious!
Paul and I are heroes in a black–&–white movie where we have to say goodbye for a cause that’s more important than our being happy. Like Casablanca. I never liked that movie. Whenever Mom watched it, I’d leave. Don’t know whether Everweer watch old movies but from Paul’s expression, he wouldn’t like it either.
Our eyes met and Paul straightened even taller than usual and he kept walking away, staying close to Lewis/sirene like he had no choice.
We have no choice. We have a purpose but it doesn’t come with choice.
If anything happens to Paul.
If something had happened to Grayfast. He’s better now. Still limp but his breathing is normal and his eyes follow Scatterlegs every time the lizard pokes his head over Lourdes’ cupped fingers and looks around. As soon as we got away from the sirene’s doorway, the animals began to revive.
Sorry my thoughts are so jumbled, D. I’m still dizzy from the sirene’s doorway. And from all that I am realizing. I have a purpose and I know what it is. A purpose. A point.
I always used to ask that. What’s the point of being Ella? Dad said nobody needed a point but he never convinced me. For once I was more right than he was. I’m a changeling and Alcatur is my point. Stop him before he causes more harm.
Being with Paul, that’s a different kind of point. Paul matters more to me than saving the world, even if we have to set our life aside for now.
Back when we were in the cave, we planned to hold a ceremony about leaving the cave, about having to stop touching each other again. But we forgot all about our ceremony, once we reconnected with Aunt Axi. We had no choice. She can help us stop Alcatur.
I have another point. Finding out why that car crash killed my family. Then probably I’ll have a new point. Revenge.
Fighting evil. Avenging deaths. Superhero words. Embarrassing. – sE
DD – It’s easier to rescue someone if you know where he is.
The sirene knew where the hunters took Franklin, but she stopped giving us helpful information after we made her mad.
How that happened was, loading the van for our trip to rescue Franklin.
Lourdes said, “If we find Franklin’s exorcism equipment, can you take over getting rid of that thing. The sirene.”
Aunt Axi shook her head. “To release a human from a sirene’s grip requires persuasion, not exorcism. Franklin would have engaged her in discussion until she agreed to leave.”
Lourdes got jumpy and hissy. A pot boiling over with outrage. “All that talking will take forever.”
Aunt Axi held Lourdes by the shoulders. “We will free Lewis but our focus must remain on Franklin. The danger to Lewis is not so time sensitive.”
“Just so you get rid of the sirene,” Lourdes muttered.
Right then, Paul and Lewis walked up carrying towels full of veggies, the remains of Franklin’s garden.
“Enemy,” The hollow echo voice growled from deep in Lewis. He gave Lourdes a hate look, dumped his veggies, stomped through the ruins.
And that was the last thing the sirene would say to us. Although she kept talking inside Lewis’ head, based on his yelling, “Never. Exactly. I KNOW.”
Lourdes watched him/them for a while, then stomped (just like Lewis!) down to the lake, then stomped back up the slope to Lewis/sirene. She coughed like clearing her throat of frozen barf. “This message is for the sirene. I’m sorry I fought against you. Please help us.”
Lewis ignored her and grabbed the arms of Aunt Axi and Paul. “Everweer come with us.”
Didn’t the sirene know how rude it was to ignore an apology? Lourdes dropped to the ground like she was lost in the wilderness.
Aunt Axi’s fingers tapped Lewis’ hand. She was so eager to go – Franklin must be in major danger. But Paul stood like his shoes were glued, until I gave him a better–just–go.
Aunt Axi and Paul started walking, with Lewis/sirene between them. I swear Lewis’ hair swirled.
“Changelings,” The hollow voice called. Lewis looked back at Lourdes and me. An invite to follow?
The world in front of them swirled. They kept walking and vanished into fuzzy spinning gray. I couldn’t look, then I couldn’t look away. I knew I should look away but I couldn’t remember why.
“No!” Lourdes shrieked. She pulled Scatterlegs from her pocket. The lizard dangled like a corpse.
My head blasted with dizzy confusion. Something hit my foot. Grayfast! Collapsed across my sneaker. I scooped him up and ran toward the lake. We had to get away from the sirene’s fuzzy spinning gray. Lourdes’ feet pounded beside me.
Only one thing that I wasn’t confused about right then. Changelings can’t go near a sirene’s home. – sE
DD – I blocked the ax metal sounds so well that I didn’t notice when they stopped. Aunt Axi had been strolling beside Lewis, talking to the sirene while he dragged the oar. Now Aunt Axi tugged on the oar, politely took it from Lewis and handed it to Paul, who peeled splinters off the dragged edge.
Lewis kept making the dragging motion until Aunt Axi stepped in front of him and shook his hand. She introduced herself, in English. He nodded and resumed dragging the oar that wasn’t there.
“That – thing should be shot for what it does to him.” Lourdes gouged dirt with her fingernails.
Aunt Axi let Lewis wander and knelt to give us a group hug. “Against the odds, here we are, together and thriving.” She reached to pet Grayfast, and he let her touch him, which made her smile. Briefly.
She dropped the smile. “Franklin’s work to protect Lewis from the sirene has been undone.”
“I didn’t need protection. She would never hurt me,” Lewis exclaimed, still dragging the oar that wasn’t there.
Aunt Axi was gentle with Lewis. “I understand. The bond between you is real.” Then to us, “This could only occur if Franklin’s powers were overcome. I fear for his safety and his life.”
“So Natalie’s owl destroyed Franklin’s house in order to hurt Franklin?” Lourdes flopped onto the ground. It wasn’t a new idea but now it sounded way too possible.
“No,” the sirene’s hollow voice echoed out of Lewis. “My kind took him. The owl fought to stop them. The house was the battleground.”
“Wait – what?! Natalie’s owl tried to help? Hunters kidnapped Franklin?” Paul touched fingers to lips in apology for his outburst.
Axes scraped metal as Aunt Axi said something to the sirene.
The hollow voice replied, “Yes. They stole Franklin for the white hair.”
“The white hair,” someone repeated. I think it was me. I had a horrible vision of a whole pack of hunters, blond like Chrissie – or Alcatur. They circled and pounced on Franklin like Chrissie did with Paul’s backpack.
Having a nightmare while you’re awake does not improve a situation.
“Do you mean they have taken Franklin to Alcatur?” Aunt Axi demanded.
“That is their destination but they have not reached it,” the hollow voice said.
Lourdes jumped to her feet. “Do you know where they are?”
“Yes,” the hollow voice said.
Now we’re loading the van with supplies.
We’re going to rescue Franklin. – sE
DD – The choppy waves crashed us onto the beach near the ruins of Franklin’s home.
Lewis and the sirene carried the boat away from the water’s edge. Lewis had the heavy boat touching his back but not weighing him down. I guess the sirene did the lifting, because his walk was springy, no weight on his shoulders.
He and the boat went behind a shelf of rocks. We couldn’t see him but could hear his one–sided conversation with the sirene. The boat ride with Lewis had given us important new topics to discuss but we didn’t dare discuss those in front of the sirene. Instead, we wandered around the cabin ruins, repeating our usual questions, without getting closer to answers.
Who killed Barracuda, and why?
Why did Natalie’s owl attack Franklin’s home?
Where was Franklin? Not to mention Aunt Axi?
We got one answer when a car zoomed onto Franklin’s property, raising a thick cloud of dust. A door slammed, shoes scritched on dirt, wood scraped. The dust cleared and there was Aunt Axi behind a grimy van, pulling a small boat off a trailer.
Before we could call to her, she turned as though we had. “Has Franklin returned? How did you get back from the island? When I arrived I could find no boat, and I’ve lost count of the number of places I tried before I succeeded in renting this one. My frustration has been enormous. I flew across country more quickly than I obtained a boat.”
She spoke like her calm queenly self, except it wasn’t like her to rattle off thoughts like that.
Before we could reply, Lewis walked back around the shelf of rock, dragging a boat oar. Aunt Axi gave a Jedi nod. (Was that where Paul got them from!?) “You must be Lewis. And you –” She made a few harsh sounds that sounded like she was chopping metal with an ax.
The hollow voice of the sirene replied with similar harsh sounds. Lewis kept walking and dragging like he didn’t know his mouth was operating.
I had to assume Aunt Axi was conversing with the sirene. She made more ax metal sounds and Lewis’ hollow voice replied. I scuffled my shoe back and forth on some rock. I didn’t want to show how freaked this was making me.
Lourdes and Paul were acting nonchalant, too. The ax metal convo kept going and we kept acting like it was no biggie. That Aunt Axi knew how to speak the sirene’s language. That it was so harsh and strange. That Lewis got treated like a machine or device, words emitting from his mouth.
We flopped on the ground. Lourdes murmured, “It was already weird enough before, thanks.”
Which summed it up. – sE
DD – We got in the boat with Lewis and the invisible sirene. What choice did we have? To get off the island.
Anyway, Grayfast and Scatterlegs hopped right in.
We took turns rowing and when Lewis got a break, he leaned forward and stared all over Lourdes. Everybody knows Lewis isn’t a lech, so this had to be a sirene thing.
“What the.” Lourdes pulled farther away from him then shoved back like she refused to give up airspace. Her shimmering armor turned neon intense.
“Why are you so special? Why does she want to touch you?” Lewis asked her.
I had a hunch that the sirene could see Lourdes’ shimmering armor. We never found out for sure because we pulled out to the open lake where wind made the boat tilt and rock. Paul had to do stuff with the oars to steady us again.
Lewis dropped to the edge of the boat and hung his head over. Waves knocked the hull into his chin. “Gonna barf.”
He is so afraid of barfing. I knew that already. The others learned it during the rest of that trip. We took turns rowing without him. The waves stayed choppy and the boat kept rocking. Lewis groaned and muttered.
At least he stopped bugging Lourdes. And he seemed to lose contact with the sirene.
Paul is so good at so many things. During his turns to row, the boat shot toward shore, sliced through waves. He knew how to angle. When it was my turn to row, wind and waves shoved us around. Lourdes rowed with a skill level that was in between.
Skill level. Did I really think that? In the old days, Lewis would have been proud.
Except Lewis was moaning over the side, “I need you. Please.”
At first I thought he was calling for Lourdes, then I realized. He was begging for the sirene.
Lourdes reacted the same way. For a moment, she thought Lewis was calling for her. She looked surprised and happy. Until she realized the truth. Her changeling shimmer stopped and left her so – little. A small person sitting alone, waves knocking her back and forth on a boat bench.
Like that wasn’t bad enough, she noticed that I was watching her. Whatever expression was on my face made her look away fast.
Tupac. She really likes Lewis. Who rarely notices she exists, nowadays.
Even in normal circumstances, that is the worst. I speak from experience but with the guy I crushed on, my competition was the cheer team captain. Not a supernatural beauty of legendary danger.
Even more the worst, if it weren’t for the sirene, Lewis and Lourdes would probably be a thing. It seemed headed that way, anyway.
I wish I could say something to Lourdes that would help.
I wish I could give her back her privacy. – sE
DD – Lewis was the only one in the boat but he wasn’t alone.
When the boat first rowed out of the canyon into the cove, Lewis was his old, goofy self. He yelled and made whip crack noises, ducked and rowed harder – like he was the slave driver and the slave. He dropped the oars when he spotted us, stood with bent knee like George Washington in a boat.
Then he stopped acting like himself. He should have waved, “See what I did there?” and repeated the whole thing in case we missed it. Instead he cried, “No! Don’t leave yet,” and whimpered like a puppy in a cage. He called to us, “She’ll be right back.”
“What the – Franklin didn’t get rid of that thing. The sirene,” Lourdes hissed.
Way across the cove, Lewis whipped around and glared. Like he heard. But he couldn’t have.
Lewis spoke in a hollow voice that was the sirene’s, not his. “He banished me but his work was incomplete. They took him and I returned.”
Lewis resumed goofy rowing like the sirene hadn’t just talked through him. Which was even creepier than the sirene’s talking.
He climbed ashore in like an inch of water but with so much shuffling and stumbling that he got soaked to his butt.
In the old days, I could have laughed at that. Lewis might never be laughter material again.
“Grab your stuff,” he greeted us, “We need to get there before the war starts.”
“Get where?” Paul replied like it was a normal conversation.
“Franklin’s ruins. We’ll make our first stand there. The survivors will move on,” Lewis said.
That was totally Lewis. Strategizing to reach the next level.
The hollow voice came back. “Choose one of you to sacrifice. That is your hope of surviving battle with my kind.” Lewis whipped around to point at Lourdes. “You will choose. That is a right path.”
Lourdes shimmered her changeling armor and shook her head, “I don’t know what you mean but I disagree.”
Lewis’ cheeks shivered and his head whipped back and forth until his eyes pointed at Grayfast. The hollow voice told the cat, “The path to survival is narrow. My kind will burn your woods.”
The tip of Grayfast’s tail flicked like he was annoyed. Maybe he understood.
When I focused on the sirene’s words they made no sense but when I let myself feel what she meant, I sort of got it. The sirene thought we were going to have to battle a bunch of hunters.
Did that mean Alcatur’s army was coming this way?
Where the Tupac is Aunt Axi? – sE
DD – Whatever the unknown dangers, we trusted Aunt Axi to get through them and get us off this island. We made a banquet to use up the rest of our food. A ten–course meal of snacks appetizers desserts.
While we prepared the banquet, we discussed all the possible lengths of time we might have to wait until Aunt Axi arrived. Plane from Chicago, car after she landed, boat from the shore of Mono Lake. If everything went perfectly – like, flight left as soon as she reached the airport – we’d see her in 10 hours.
By the time we sat down to eat, we were out of words. Our only sounds were crunching of cereal bars and whirring whenever we pumped the little hand cranks that powered light in the emergency lanterns.
We needed the lights cause it’s no fun to sweat into your food so we had our banquet in a dark corner, far from all the heat and light of glowing cracks.
So full. We propped against the wall. Warm rock, stuffed guts. Zzzz.
How long was I asleep? About the same amount of brightness in the cove. So I either slept a few minutes, or I slept through the night and it was the next day.
A low rumble beside me. Lourdes’ stomach was growling. It would have been too full to growl after our banquet.
So it was the next day. Aunt Axi’s trip was taking longer than we had hoped and of course now it seemed stupid that we finished all our food.
“Halloooo, you are rescued,” An impossible voice echoed in the cove. Grayfast walked out to the cove. Scatterlegs skittered after him.
“Halloooo?” The voice echoed again.
I wasn’t going to answer until I figured out where he was. Paul and Lourdes looked around, too. Where the Tupac was he?
The animals were looking straight up at the roof of the cove.
And sure enough, there was Lewis’ chubby head, peering over the lip of a roof hole. “Oh. Hi. How’d you get down there?” He was on the outside, on the island mountain that sheltered this cove.
“You can only get here by water, not from the island itself. Tell Aunt Axi to go back to the boat and circle the island, heading west. Turn at the second canyon,” Paul called up.
“Tell who?” Lewis replied, “Is there someone else on this island?”
I boggled. Wasn’t Lewis with Aunt Axi? Didn’t she find him when she arrived at Franklin’s property, and bring him with her as she came to rescue us?
I had jumped to those conclusions, of course. I mean, otherwise where was Aunt Axi and how did Lewis know to come here?
We had plenty of time to try to solve those mysteries while we waited for Lewis to go back to his boat then find our canyon entrance. – sE
DD – We didn’t get breakfast after all, because we showed Aunt Axi the spy drawing of Franklin’s demolished cabins. I’ve read about people turning gray but I thought it was just a book thing. It’s not. She turned gray and said nothing, just sipped her coffee.
At first the sipping was a relief – like the news was no big deal. But then I saw it. As she raised the mug, her hand shook. The warrior queen was stalling.
When her hand stopped shaking, she spoke. “Franklin’s cabins manifest his power. They do not appear as they exist – and the appearance may change with his moods. But he would never expose the hearth of his true home.”
She pointed to the spy drawing. To the remains of the fireplace where Grayfast always lounged.
I clenched my fists but a horrible shivering grew, like earwigs swarming inside my chest. I couldn’t hear what Aunt Axi said next.
She hurried away, leaving her precious coffee behind.
Paul said, “I’m going to take another look. Maybe things are better. ” He muttered over a new spy drawing. On the paper, another view of the cabins emerged. Still demolished. Still no sign of Franklin.
“Exactly the same!” Lourdes said.
“The owl is gone,” I pointed out.
We started to debate whether that was a good or bad sign when Aunt Axi swept in, buttoning a coat. “I am unable to reach Franklin by any contact method. We must go to him and we must hurry.”
She said we but she went alone. Aunt Axi returned us to the island because that’s where we actually still were. It only seemed like we were in Chicago. And no, I don’t have a clue how that could be.
She warned us what our return would be like, but I still couldn’t believe it when it happened – she stepped out the front door and snap. The five of us were back in the cove on the island.
Aunt Axi was headed for the airport. She would travel to Franklin’s cabins and rescue us from the island if he didn’t show up to fetch us in the meantime. She made it all sound do–able, which gave me hope.
As soon as we returned to our cove inside the island, Grayfast and Scatterlegs nipped at our feet to move us into the safe haven of the cave. Apparently danger was near.
“How did that happen? Did she hypnotize us or cast a spell or what?” I didn’t mean to sound mad. But I was so done with being in that Eminem cave. Trapped by dangers unknown.
“It’s just a different kind of physics.” Paul touched my cheek with sympathy. “Aunt Axi will get us out of here soon.”
I was glad that Lourdes sounded mad, too. – sE
DD – We’re back in Chicago! The building with the wavery reflections is Alcatur’s headquarters, reflecting the building we are in.
Aunt Axi has been hiding across the river from Alcatur, in a top–secret safe house known to only a few Everweer. She ran for her life when Alcatur set her mini–van on fire in the cemetery, and she kept running straight to his home base to keep fighting him.
And somehow we were with her in Chicago.
“How did you do that?! Bring us here?!” Lourdes yells when she’s nervous.
Aunt Axi gave us each a welcome hug before she answered, “It is a skill I will teach you. Specialized, and difficult, yet any changeling and many Everweer can learn it.”
She kept her hands on Paul’s shoulders and gave him the biggest saddest smile. “I had to believe you were safe.”
Oh right! She had no way to know. Was he rescued from the cemetery. Just like we didn’t know, was Aunt Axi okay.
“We keep getting away and getting help,” Paul said.
“A nice summary of all our endeavors.”
Aunt Axi showed us how she spies on Alcatur and his top followers using binoculars and a telescope. While we tried them, she pointed out different windows and floors in the wavery building. Using the telescope was fun until sick blond hair loomed in the glass.
I couldn’t say for sure if that was Alcatur’s hair because I knocked over the telescope. (Phew! It didn’t break.)
Whenever Aunt Axi talked about Alcatur, she was a warrior queen strapping on her armor. When Lourdes heard that the scary violent thing who killed her sister was right over there, I swear she growled. Paul examined the building like he was looking for a way in.
I refused to be the only wimp. I aimed the telescope back at the wavery windows like I wanted to see Alcatur.
The windows were empty now.
“Time for their morning staff meeting and time for our breakfast,” Aunt Axi said. “While I prepare food you can tell me about the urgent business that compelled you to contact me, despite the dangers.”
She led us through a narrow hall into a bright warm kitchen.
That’s one thing about Everweer. They don’t face problems on empty stomachs. – sE
DD – Grayfast’s message had to mean that Paul and I should contact Aunt Axi. Lourdes, Paul, and I did lots of talking to reach that decision.
The instant we decided, I started bawling.
“Um – okay.” Lourdes’ voice was sarcasm but her eyes were comfort.
“I’ve been afraid she’s dead. But Grayfast must know she’s alive.” Next thing I knew, I was laughing because I imagined trying to complain to Grayfast.
You didn’t tell me Aunt Axi was alive.
You didn’t ask.
I finished laughing. Guess I was even more tense than I realized.
“The air in here does have weird gases,” Lourdes decided.
Paul folded me up in a big hug and kissed my scalp. “I’m ready when you are.” His heartbeat was slow and strong.
We left the safe haven of the cave to try to contact Aunt Axi.
Franklin had packed rope and we looped it around our waists to connect to each other. If danger arrived while Paul and I were contacting Aunt Axi, Lourdes would leap back inside the cave. She probably wasn’t strong enough to pull both of us in with her, but the tug on the rope should get our attention.
Out in the cove, the animals did their restless patrolling. Back and forth at the water’s edge. Watching roof holes, cavern entrance, shadows.
I stopped feeling danger when Paul put his arms around me and pressed me close. Before, when we used to touch, we couldn’t control who we might contact. But every day we woke up understanding more about our Everweer and changeling abilities. Maybe someday we’ll have enough knowledge to be able to touch outside a safe haven!
Anyway, today we knew how to contact Aunt Axi.
Little waves lapped on the rocks. Then, faintly, a new sound. A beautiful melody of a voice. “Yes,” Aunt Axi greeted us, “I am here and you are safe to reach for me.”
Paul’s breathing turned hiccupy. He was crying, too.
I couldn’t see Aunt Axi but somehow knew she was reaching for us.
“Come through, quickly, and welcome.”
Grayfast brushed against my leg with Scatterlegs perched on his back. The animals moved toward Aunt Axi. And disappeared.
Paul did a steady pull on the rope until Lourdes was between us. Gently he pushed her to follow the animals. She disappeared.
I took his hand and reached my other hand forward. He did the same. A cool smooth grip found my hand. The cove disappeared.
Aunt Axi stood before us, holding our hands. Behind her was the real live building from Paul’s photo drawing. The wavery building wasn’t underwater, though. It wavered because it was a reflection of a reflection, a building reflecting in the glass walls of another building.
I don’t know where we are but it’s where we’re supposed to be. – sE
DD – That whole night was basically Eminem. We couldn’t leave. We couldn’t see the outside world. We had food for maybe one more day. Unless we hunted one of the birds that splashed in the cove.
Right. That’ll happen.
We got more and more quiet and gloomy.
Lourdes dug deep in our supplies then cheered, waving marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, sticks.
We chose the right glowing crack to roast S’mores. By the yawns, it was about 3 am. Grayfast woke up to sniff what we were cooking then resumed snoozing with his paw over his nose.
“I love Franklin!” I mumbled through marshmallow.
“‘antastic,” Lourdes’ mouth was full, too.
Paul waved a S’more at Lourdes. “With your family, I’m surprised you know about these.”
“The internet teaches,” Lourdes explained.
Thanks to S’mores sugar crash, we could finally fall asleep. Which might have been refreshing except a couple hours later I woke up with shouting inside and outside my head. Plus a skull crusher headache. My next memories were like lightning bolts.
Flash. Lourdes screaming about Paul being the world’s stupidest idiot. I stumbled toward the noise. I couldn’t feel my balance.
Flash. Shrieks inside my head. Grayfast yowling in cat language.
Flash. Lourdes and Paul outside, by the water.
Flash. Paul muttering the words that let him do a spy drawing.
Flash. “Ella! He came out here by himself, didn’t even warn anybody where he was going.”
Flash. The backpack, between their feet. I lunged for paper and pencil so Grayfast could tell me what he needed to.
Flash. My hand took off writing fast and scrabbly.
Flash. Paul showed us his spy drawing, swiveling it between us.
Lourdes grabbed his wrist. “Stop moving if you want us to see it.”
The drawing showed something that seemed familiar but. Tupac Tupac Tupac. Those vines growing around a swing set. That was Franklin’s garden. Behind the – – – cabins? Where were –
Broken rough wood lay piled in three mounds.
The cabins were destroyed. In the air above the ruins, divebombing for another hit, the cabin destroyer. An enormous black and silver owl.
Not to mention our way off this island.
Paul, Lourdes, and I could only stare from each other to the drawing. No words. No ideas. No actions.
Until Paul asked, “What’s that you’re holding?”
In my hand, a message from Grayfast.
It’s telling us what to do next. We’re sure of that. If only we can understand.
I’m taping it below. – sE
USE YOUR OTHER ONE. TOUCH THE FEMALE WITH SCRATCHING PAWS. SLOW IS DEAD.
DD – We went out to the cove at sunrise. Paul thought he was going out there by himself but of course we all went.
He started drawing immediately. Lourdes and I looked everywhere for dangers he might not notice. No sign of the owl, but the animals walked the shore like they were patrolling.
While Paul scraped pencil over paper, Lourdes and I watched the entrances we knew about – the canyon that connected the cove with the lake outside, and the roof holes. On the far side of the safe haven, the cove was shadowy and you couldn’t tell how far it went or whether there were other canyons. I hadn’t noticed those shadows before.
The roof holes were clear of ice, though the air was cold enough that breath steamed. So cute to see Grayfast’s breath! Anyway, goodbye snowstorm – weak sun and chilly blue sky gleamed through the roof holes.
We couldn’t tell how high and far away the roof holes were. But we had to assume we could run back inside the cave before trouble could come through the roof to get us. We were only a few steps from the cave mouth. If necessary we could drag Paul.
He finished his drawing in record time. A tall wavery black gray brown building. Same colors as Grayfast but the building had a bad feel.
“Is that building underwater?” Lourdes asked.
“My guess is that it’s made of glass and is reflecting water.”
“Tall buildings next to water. Describes every city with a river or a lake. Which most of them have.”
“We don’t need to search for this building. It will find us.” Even Paul looked surprised at his certainty.
With the snowstorm over, we assumed Franklin would come back for us, but he didn’t come and he didn’t come. The entire day. We’d stay in the cove until we got too cold, then go back inside the cave to get too warm. Cove cave cove cave. Cove cave.
We ate but we weren’t hungry. We cracked jokes but none of them made us laugh. We tried to plan but the air swam with question marks.
How was Lewis? Franklin? How much longer did we need to wait here?
Every time we went out to the cove, the animals resumed patrolling, which matched our feeling that something bad was on its way.
So come already. – sE
DD – We’d talk, we’d hang out, we’d talk some more. For each of us, it helped to know that the others had equally unclear thoughts and dread. Despite all our bad feelings, I felt good, because underneath everything I felt a humming that came from being so close to Paul.
Lourdes looked at the animals. “I bet they understand – everything we don’t.”
What’s about to happen? Why do we feel this way? I had little hope that I could ask those questions in ways Grayfast could answer, but I tried to push my mind into his. Tried. Grayfast only talks when he sees something to talk about. He gave me a totally uncurious look then put chin on paws and went back to snoozing.
About the same time, Scatterlegs gave Lourdes a similar look. So much for getting information from the animals.
Hurry up and wait. It’s even harder to be patient when you know something bad is coming. The just–get–it–over–with factor.
Paul kept going to the cave entrance. Lourdes and I would tag along. I confess I didn’t entirely trust Paul to watch out for his own safety. He was so anxious to get an unblurry version of his latest photo drawing. It was too easy to imagine him leaving the cave to draw away from the safe haven’s interference.
We couldn’t be sure whether the owl was still on the island. Although we hadn’t heard any noise that might be an owl’s beak chipping ice from a roof hole. Maybe the hole was iced over again, or maybe the snowstorm was over. Anyway, no snow fell. When morning arrived we’d be able to see the roof again and we’d know whether the ice was gone.
The cave glowed even brighter by comparison with the outdoors. Outside was black on black and so cold. Where the outside air met the cave’s air, colored steam erupted.
“This air must have lots of chemicals. If the roof freezes over do we have ventilation? Do volcanoes have carbon monoxide?” Tupac. I was starting to feel trapped.
“I’m glad I don’t know science,” Lourdes replied. “Those aren’t normal worries.”
Paul’s fingers twitched. That drawing really needed to come out. “It’s too dark out there to see danger. We have to stay in here until the sun comes back. It’s still hours until morning. Maybe we should try to sleep.”
He was right. We dragged bedding out of storage boxes and set up near the animals. Everyone was asleep within seconds. Except me, of course. – sE
DD – Lourdes said, “The last few days, it feels like the air is getting sucked out at the edges.”
I agreed. “Like the sky will explode.”
We sat in the cave lobby and smacked our lips. Dinner was sandwiches made by hungry careless people who were hurrying to get out of that hot kitchen – sandwiches too thick on peanut butter, too thin on jam.
“I was expecting more changelings to join us by now,” Lourdes said. “A changeling convergence like Galalena wrote about.”
“We’ve been pretty remote. Maybe the others are all finding each other.”
“Maybe they’re with Natalie. Maybe she sent her owl to find us and join them.”
I shoved my plate away and it fell off the rock we used as a table. My plate shattered and my brain hit a spin cycle. I didn’t understand anything. “What’s the deal with Natalie? How can a changeling help Alcatur?”
Lourdes kicked pieces of broken plate into a big glowing gap between rocks, which flamed briefly as it consumed the plate. “She scares me, too. Does that mean – she’s okay? Remember – about Chrissie? She didn’t scare me.”
Grayfast and Scatterlegs lounged on rocks beside us. Like a dance routine, they looked over their left shoulders at the same moment to watch Paul stomp toward us.
He waved another blurry photo drawing, shoved it in a gap, and slapped the rock when the glow ate the drawing.
“I’ve never seen you frustrated before,” I said.
He dragged his hair with his fingers. His mood was so intense there was a brightness around him. He looked even more amazing than usual.
He noticed me ogling him, gave me a long kiss. “I keep feeling like I have to hurry but I don’t know how. It’s like I’m reaching for something in a nightmare.” He perched behind me on a rock, folded his arms around me.
“Lot of that going around,” Lourdes said. We told him about our conversation. And Natalie’s owl.
Paul kept asking the same question different ways. Did the owl know we were here? “I’m sorry I keep asking that. I don’t know why it’s important,” he snapped.
It was so unusual to see Paul in a bad mood I had to smile.
“I was going to go out to the cove and see if I can draw without interference. But if the owl is there. I better wait until dark.”
“Er. Owls. Nocturnal,” I said.
“Then why is it out there during the day?”
“You’re asking ME?” – sE
DD – “El–la. Pa–ul. I’m inside the cave now.” The echo was so thin I could barely recognize Lourdes’ voice.
I pulled clothes on and stumbled toward the cave entrance. Empty. “Where are you? Tupac!” Barefoot was wrong. The rocks were sharper than razors. My feet were bleeding! But I was too happy to feel the cuts.
There she was. Lourdes sat on a rock, rolling pebbles into a glowing hole. Scatterlegs crouched nearby, took a huge leap, flicked dirt when he landed. Lourdes said something in Spanish, sarcastic and comfortable like she was teasing a family member. Except not her family.
I studied her as I walked up. She says whatever so she seems open, but actually she keeps herself a secret.
I wanted to share my kind of life with her. Give her parents who could be trusted with a kid’s love. Give her eyes that smile like Paul’s when he touches my cheek.
Lourdes has no memories like that. You can tell by the way she sits. Even when she’s relaxed, she’s ready to leap away. Just in case.
She’d be mad if she thought I felt sorry for her.
I made noise and she spotted me.
“I couldn’t stay outside longer,” she said.
“I was about to come get you, anyway. Paul’s back there, drawing.”
Lourdes checked out what I was wearing and what I wasn’t wearing. Obviously Paul hadn’t been drawing the whole time. “What’s he drawing?” She didn’t care, the topic kept us from awkward.
“Unknown. But it must mean we’re headed somewhere new soon. What happened outside?”
The way the animals were staring out at the cove, they weren’t watching snow fall.
“Chip chip chipping up high, then big wads of ice crash down, then snow falls in wide areas.” Lourdes noticed her fingers wiggling the snow down. “Do you like my interpretive dance?”
“You’re in a weird mood.”
She dropped the goofy. “Trying to not be scared.”
“Someone was on the roof and opened the hole that was clogged with ice?”
“The owl. The one Lewis calls Fearless Leader.”
“Natalie’s owl is on this island?”
“Or some other huge black and silver owl.”
What the Tupac. Although that owl had never tried to hurt us, it was Natalie’s animal so trouble had found us.
Grayfast and Scatterlegs jumped from rock to rock, staring outside the safe haven but staying inside it.
“Cut off from civilization and hunted by an enormous cunning predator,” Lourdes announced as a news reporter, then her voice returned. “Let’s get dinner.”
“When in doubt, eat.” Bonus: the kitchen was farther from the entrance. – sE
DD – I love Paul Trigg and he loves me.
When I think those facts I get super shaky but when I write the words, my fingers are steady.
“Drawing? Now?!?” Was how Paul came back from his trance.
“It’s been a while since that happened. I almost forgot what it was like.” I tried to smile but my lips wouldn’t cooperate. Just as well, because the smile would have been a lie.
Paul waved his drawing. It was a photo drawing, insanely detailed but – blurry. “I wasted our time alone and I can’t see why.” He stared up at the ceiling of the cave, full of dark orange smoke from the wall torches. “This safe haven is blocking my drawings.”
“Maybe if you go out to the cove the picture will come through.” To fulfill our work against Alcatur, that was probably a good idea. Otherwise it was Tupac.
He dropped the blurry drawing into a glowing slit between rocks. The glow flared brighter.
He gave me a stern look. “Ella. This is the first time we’ve been alone since Chicago. I don’t care how important this new drawing is. By comparison it doesn’t matter.”
And then he was holding me. I felt his heartbeat everywhere. He whispered into my hair and his breath was cool and soothing on my cheek. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How much he loves me and everything is nothing without me and I was his first thought every morning and his last thought every night.
I had to get us started kissing, he just kept gabbing. Not that I wanted to stop those words.
Part of me kept asking, why me? Why would someone like Paul Trigg feel that way about me? I had no good answer but I didn’t have doubts, either. He meant it, through and through.
One main reason I write to you, D, is to remember stuff. The other is to be as honest as I can be. But there will be gaps in this scene. It’s embarrassing, how excited Paul makes me feel. Way more than dirty books describe. Like a person could ride three roller coasters at once.
How do I know about dirty books? When my parents took weekend trips our babysitter had them. She thought she used foolproof hiding places.
Those books had a lot of interesting information but mostly they were funny. So much gasping rushing pounding can’t help yourself. That last part turns out to be true.
Now we’re just enjoying lying next to each other. Paul is trapped in a drawing again. No paper, just finger on blanket. (It’s so warm, we don’t need a blanket. But it feels weird to lie in a big open cave.)
The light at the cave mouth is getting darker. It’s too nice here for me to move so I’m trying to beam messages to Lourdes. OK to come in. – sE
DD – Lately I know what Lourdes and Paul are thinking. What Grayfast is feeling. (Scatterlegs not so much.)
For example, a little while ago. We sat at the edge of the safe haven, watching snow. The temperature in the cove was dropping fast. When snow came through the roof holes, at first only a few flakes survived to reach the water. Soon we saw curtains of flakes and these turned into strips– the roof holes were freezing over. Sad moans of wind echoed up the canyon from outside the island.
This might be a blizzard. Glad we had a steamy kitchen. Right as I had these thoughts, Paul asked, “What’s the difference between a snowstorm and a blizzard?”
And Lourdes stood. “Let’s have lunch by a steam crack.” She tapped her shirt pocket. “Scatterlegs is cold. He told me, ‘young bug, help me move’.”
“He calls you ‘young bug’? Grayfast calls me ‘baby bird’.”
“They think fondly of you as small helpless prey,” Paul said.
“That’s not creepy,” Lourdes said. She headed deeper into the cave.
“Nothing is creepy unless we want it to be,” Paul called after her.
“All in our heads,” I agreed.
Paul and I got up without untangling, by pressing into each other as we stood. Not easy! But we could do it because we knew where the other would balance next.
We stood, and we hugged. My memories had been so weak, compared to what it felt like to have Paul’s arms around me. My hands slid up and down ridges that were his ribs.
“You’re thinner,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry. Do you mind?”
“Are you joking?”
We kissed for a while. A while longer.
Eventually we found Lourdes in the kitchen. She sat beside a fat thermos from Franklin and waved a spoon at it. “Best soup – ever.”
She glanced at us then stared into her soup bowl. We stared into ours. I was vaguely aware of eating delicious soup. Mostly aware of how embarrassed we were. But even that was barely noticeable.
Paul’s kisses. That’s where my attention was. Reliving them. Wanting more.
Lourdes put her bowl in the sink. “I’m going out to the entrance to watch the snow. I’ll need to come back when it gets dark.”
She was gone. And we were officially alone for the first time since Chicago.
Steam puffed around the kitchen. Paul’s skin glistened with sweat and so did mine.
“So many ways I pictured being alone with you but never including hot springs.” Paul took my hand and we went searching for a cooler room.
You won’t believe what happened next, D.
Paul dropped my hand to grab paper from the backpack and he’s been lost in a drawing trance for ages.
I might go sit with Lourdes. – sE
DD – I got to hold hands with Paul! In fact, we propped against each other, arms and legs wrapped. I could feel my pulse through him. The three of us kept sitting at the entrance, watching the animals explore.
“We’re done with teen life, huh? Goodbye, high school!” Lourdes smacked her lips.
That idea tasted delicious to her but it made my stomach hurt. Of course high school. Of course trying hard for best grades. Of course family taking me on college tour to choose where next… Now I wouldn’t even be finishing high school. That’s how far I was from life with my family.
On the other hand, I was in what was basically a magic cave with friends who shared unusual powers, all twined together with the most amazing gorgeous boyfriend possible.
“This is as normal as things are going to be for a long time,” Paul said.
How he could sound so certain or how I could nod. But he was right. I could feel it. Normal wasn’t headed our way.
Battles to stop Alcatur. Why my family died. Dangers and answers. I’d take the one to get the other.
I’d get them both whether I wanted them or not.
We’d had no contact with Alcatur for so long but he lurked behind everything.
“True dat,” Lourdes replied, to what Paul said or to what I thought. “Is that – snow?!”
The cove echoed like an indoor swimming pool but the water shimmered with daylight. I’d forgotten there were holes in the ceiling rock. Not in our safe haven, but out over the water. That was how daylight reached here – duh.
And now, flecks of white fell through the holes and vanished somewhere above the water.
“Snow. Yes. I think so.”
“What else could it be?”
Seriously. None of us had seen snow fall before.
I was starting to say that it reminded me of a snow dome, when three birds interrupted with caws like smashing glass. They dropped through roof holes and dive–bombed for Scatterlegs, who was out exploring the beach. They surrounded him in a flat area with nowhere to hide.
“Noooo!” Lourdes jumped up but we were too far away to help.
Grayfast leaped from out of nowhere and whacked at the assassin birds. Scatterlegs hid underneath the cat. The birds shot up and out the roof holes before Lourdes’ shout finished echoing.
Grayfast began grooming like no biggie.
“That just happened, right?” one of us asked.
“Normal,” another said.
The cove was quiet but had lost its peaceful feel. The safe haven around us felt less reassuring, too. We were sitting by the only entrance. Which made it the only exit, too.
“Did Franklin mention whether there’s another way out of here?”
“In case we want to swim during the snowstorm, you mean?”
Scatterlegs resumed exploring. That was a good sign, right? – sE
DD – The safe haven began three steps inside the cave and we could feel it. The air changed from cold fresh to stale with a hint of steam. The echo dropped like the cave shrank no bigger than a closet.
Franklin unpacked a BBQ lighter and touched the lighter’s fire to fat candle wicks that drooped from holes in the rock. The wicks flamed and burned bright yellow.
“Those torches smell weird,” Lourdes snarled.
“They’re fueled by gases from the hot springs, which also provide heat. Most visitors stop noticing the odor within minutes. If you prove one of the rare exceptions, I hope you can focus on their gift of light and heat.”
Lourdes shrugged a whatev, which ejected Scatterlegs from her shoulder. He chittered and ran down her back. She ignored the lizard – a first. She dragged her bags toward the dark at the back of the cave. Her mood was bad and getting worse. I must have really hurt her feelings when I wished she would leave.
“Can we sit in the hot springs?” Paul scrunched and re–scrunched his shoulders. “I must not ever use my rowing muscles.”
“Most of these hot springs will scald you, save one. I’ll show you.”
Franklin gave us a tour as we unloaded stuff, lighting lanterns everywhere until the whole stinky cave glowed.
Caveman hotel. The huge lobby had smaller cave rooms on most sides. Every room was dotted with wooden chests full of thick comfy pillows. You could lounge on the ground or against a chest. Or mess with ropes and pulleys that made nets bloom into hammocks.
You couldn’t adjust the heat, it rose as thin steam between rocks. Some places it was mild. Other places caused instant sweat and the kitchen was one of those. No appliances, no cooking, but iron plates over steam to warm stuff. Or on some plates, to boil it.
TMI but incredible, the toilets here. Sit over warm orange air. To flush, step away and pull a lever. Lake water flows into the hole from below. Cold water hits hot rocks and blammo, a steam explosion blasts the hole and any, um, deposits.
The toilet demonstration amazed Lourdes into a decent mood.
When Franklin began his long row home, we stared across the cove into the canyon long after he disappeared. The splash of his oars stopped echoing and it got way too quiet until we laughed, thanks to Grayfast.
There weren’t many birds in the cove but there were a few. Grayfast wandered to a rock to sniff a blob of bird poop, then slipped and ran like a cartoon creature to avoid hitting the water in the cove. When we finished laughing we turned our backs on the cove.
“Excuse us a minute,” Paul told Lourdes. He grabbed my hand and led me into one of the side caves.
That was the longest best kiss ever. So far.
Now we’re back near the entrance, sitting in a line with Lourdes, watching the animals explore the cove, sending each other vibes.
We don’t want to ditch you but.
It’s okay I understand but.
Entertained by the animals but.
What a weird silent place this safe haven is. – sE
DD – As we got closer, the birds began to lift off from the island, chirping, cawing, flapping. Starting their day.
Nowhere for us to land. The island was steep from where it poked out of the water to the top of its pointy mountain.
“Yuck,” Lourdes said. Everywhere, the rock was crusted with long drips of bird droppings. Fresh glistening, dull dried.
“Jackson Pollock birds,” Paul said.
I was pretty sure that was a painter’s name, but I couldn’t add to the joke.
“No bird art where you’ll be,” Franklin said, “although you may see birds in your cove during the snowfall.”
He pointed. Piles of dark clouds slid over the farthest mountains. “The storm should be here by noon. You’ll be warm and dry.” He turned off the motor. “From here we row, and quickly. I want to be home well ahead of those winds.”
We unpacked the oars. My arms and shoulders were soooo sore. I didn’t notice how much until I started rowing again. Lourdes and Paul were in similar pain, based on their little noises and shoulder rolling.
But we couldn’t baby our muscles. We had to concentrate because now Franklin called out rowing instructions. “Left oars only for three strokes … Back oars out of water…”
This curled us around the island and into a gap, a long canyon between walls of island rock. The canyon widened into a fat cove with a rocky beach. Here, the sky showed only in patches, like this used to be a cave but parts of the roof collapsed. Beyond the beach, up a short slope, was the wide mouth of a cave.
Franklin rolled out of the boat into the water. His splashing and sploshing echoed on the canyon walls as he pulled us to shore. He gestured at the huge cave. “Behold an Everweer safe haven.”
As we unloaded gear, Franklin explained about how some natural places prevent all contact with beings outside. He described theories about how such places worked.
No doubt it was super interesting, but I couldn’t listen. All the dangers that brought us here and I could barely remember them. My brain was racing around the news that this was a place where Paul and I could touch without creating an Everweer connection.
I was so ashamed. To be so excited. To catch myself searching for reasons Lourdes ought to leave with Franklin. As soon as I started thinking that, Lourdes stomped to stand on the far side of Franklin.
I don’t dare look in Paul’s direction. – sE
DD – Franklin’s boat was rough and one–of–a–kind, like his cabins. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made it himself. The boat was small with bulgy hollow sides that held lots of stuff. Scatterlegs and Grayfast perched on the center bench – as far from the water as anywhere on the boat could be.
We left the cabins right before sunrise. Paul and Franklin carried the boat, Lourdes and I lugged supplies and camping gear. We had to feel our way down the bumpy slope. The sky was lightening but the ground was still dark. I watched for Natalie’s owl although I couldn’t see much.
Lourdes kept watching the sky, too. She whispered as we climbed into the boat, “It had to be Natalie, right? Who killed Barracuda and took her car? Do you think it’s related to your family? ”
“Yes but let’s not jump to conclusions. It might make us miss something. ”
Franklin put a finger to his lips and showed us a sideways skim technique for rowing in shallow water with no splash. He grabbed one set of oars, I got the other and we took off, black shadows on the black lake. We took turns rowing until we got way out on the water. Franklin didn’t want the noise of the motor too close to shore.
By the time the sun officially rose and morning reached the ground, we were so far out on the lake that I could no longer see the cabins. Presumably we would be unseeable to someone on shore.
Out here I felt safe. Surrounded by water. No one was talking but calm filled the boat as we looked all around. The sunlight was weak and the water stayed gray but flat, with no wind to stir up waves.
Franklin said, “Oars out. We’ll drift for a spell.” He unpacked a thermos, potato pancakes, dipping sauces. We ripped pancakes into pieces and tried to decide whether the salty, sweet, or spicy sauces were best.
Franklin yanked a cord and the boat’s motor buzzed. The sound spread and within seconds it bounced off the mountains that surrounded the lake.
A sharp white rock loomed ahead. An island with no vegetation. I squinted and blinked to clear my vision but the rock kept crawling. Another minute and I could see the explanation – tons of gray birds roosted on the island, fluffing their wings.
“We’ll arrive in an hour,” Franklin said.
An hour! Farther than it seemed. And much bigger. – sE
DD – If the world ends, Franklin will make everyone pause for hot chocolate first.
He came back to us carrying a tray of steaming mugs. “Lewis rests quietly,” he announced then gave a huge happy sigh because the animals made room for him beside the fireplace.
While we sipped, he looked from one to the other of us like he might see something new. “I have hope that I can persuade the sirene to release him, but not when you are near. She senses you as a threat to Lewis.”
“She’s the threat. She makes him act stupid enough to get hurt!” Lourdes yelled like Franklin was the sirene.
I kept quiet. If the sirene was right. Maybe I was the threat to Lewis. Maybe my dragging him into all this would lead to his doom.
Paul asked, “Do we need to leave?”
“You must, for many reasons. Come morning I will take you away. Forces are converging around you children and you face dangers that none of us yet understand.”
When other grownups call me a child, it’s Eminem, but with Franklin I feel like a fairy tale girl who could hide in the palm of his hand.
Lourdes tried to start a debate about staying.
Franklin shook his head once and glugged his hot chocolate to finish it. “The car and the dead woman are missing. I want you beyond the reach of whoever took them.”
I went numb and squeezed my eyes to stop seeing the wiper blades scrape across Barracuda’s windshield.
The fire crackled. Franklin’s voice was gentle. “You will remain safe and eventually we will understand.”
Lourdes was the first who could talk again. “What are you doing with Lewis? Do you cast spells on him?”
Franklin tossed his head in a laugh. His dreadlocks snapped. “Nothing so exotic. I hold conversation with the sirene when she is present, and catch up on email when she is gone.”
“I didn’t know anyone could talk to a sirene,” Paul said.
“I speak as seldom as I can. Fewer words mean fewer misunderstandings. A sirene is quick to take offense and holds grudges indefinitely. The building of trust is gradual and delicate. As in so much of life.”
After he went back to Lewis, we didn’t talk. The fire crackled in a late–night way like life was normal.
A log snapped and we all jumped.
“Things are about to get worse, aren’t they?” Lourdes asked in a mouse voice.
“Not necessarily,” Paul said.
“We’ll handle it.” My voice amazed me with its confidence. It was as if Grayfast had spoken through me.
After that he filled my head with gentle orange fireplace glow. – sE
DD – My throat is hoarse. We spent the night talking with Franklin. The instant we told him about Barracuda he ran outside toward her car and when he got back, he was more freaked than we were. Which was a relief. To get confirmation that I was right to feel bad.
But I wasn’t comfortable sharing every secret with Franklin. I waited until he left to check on Lewis before I told Lourdes and Paul, “What I don’t get the most – ”
“Or – what you get the least,” Lourdes giggled. “Sorry – delirious.”
“What I don’t get is why the animals were fine about Barracuda dying.” They were even more chill now, stretched beside Franklin’s fireplace.
“Doesn’t that prove she was an enemy?” Lourdes hit the fire with a poker, making sparks. She didn’t care how an enemy died.
Paul asked, “Can you ask your animals about Barracuda?”
Lourdes and I hmm–ed each other then turned to the lizard and the cat.
When I pushed my mind toward Grayfast’s, he flicked his tail like cats do when they’re busy relaxing and you disturb them. But then he stretched longer, closed his eyes, and I felt his welcome.
I saw the fireplace from his view. The warm air between him and the flames had a gentle orange glow – if you could see kindness, that’s what it would look like. The fireplace made him feel the way his purr makes me feel.
I was in his head but unsure how to ask about his reaction to Barracuda’s dying. Maybe I could learn his general attitude about Barracuda and maybe that would explain his reaction.
I shared my memories of Barracuda. All but the last one.
Grayfast just kept lounging. I was wondering if I’d lost the connection, he had zero reaction, until I thought about Barracuda and Natalie at the accident site, watching me get shut in an ambulance. With that memory, his tail started thumping like he was mad.
STRONG WIND. BABY BIRD STAY IN NEST.
I was filled with the weirdest sensation. An intense longing to eat worms. Which grossed me out and then the connection did break.
Pretty sure Grayfast was telling me I wasn’t ready to understand what the deal was with Natalie and Barracuda being at the accident site. First I needed to eat my worms and grow big and strong.
Ironically, Paul watched me like I was a superhero. I think he’d trade everything to be a changeling. And not just because Everweer have issues.
“What’d you find out?”
“That I’m not ready to know.”
“Oh.” Paul was more disappointed than I was.
“Scatterlegs doesn’t think in questions and answers.” Lourdes went back to poking the fire.
The effort to get explanation wasn’t a failure, though. It left me a little peaceful – at least Grayfast understood things. – sE
DD – We sat on the platform deck outside the cabins. I slightly remember stumbling back there. Sitting. Writing.
We left Barracuda’s body alone. We never opened the door to prove she was there.
Dead in her car. Dead some way that made her bleed. A ton of blood.
We couldn’t go inside the cabins because of the sirene. But we needed to be close to Franklin. He would know what to think. What to do. If anyone could.
We sat in a row and Scatterlegs jumped from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Funny and cute if we could notice such things. Grayfast got in every lap then settled in mine. His purr rumbled through me. That helped me see again as Ella sitting on a platform overlooking Mono Lake.
Sky too bright behind steering wheel halo. Wipers scraping. Bare toes in cool lawn.
It was easier or harder to share death when it was someone I didn’t much know or like.
I wanted to reach out to Paul. To Lourdes. With my hands. My words. I could feel them wanting the same. But we just sat there.
Grayfast’s purrs matched the waves on the lake.
The cabin door opened. As usual, Lourdes reacted the fastest. She jumped off the platform and spun around before I could turn to look behind me.
Lewis stood in the doorway, Franklin right behind him. “Hi. We’re taking a break. I’m not crazy anymore. I’m not okay yet but I want to be and that’s more than half the battle.” He asked Franklin, “How much more? Like 60%?”
Franklin gave a kindly smile instead of an oh–brother.
It had been a while since Lewis had nerded out like that. A proof that he had regained control of his own mind. I would be glad, if glad were possible right then.
Lewis thought our terrible moods were because of him. “I’m sorry I did – whatever I did. My memories are foggy.”
“We’re happy about you, we don’t show it because –”
Franklin interrupted Paul. “Thanks for your help in my garden. You must be exhausted after so much physical labor. Do take naps, then you can catch me up on what you accomplished.”
Franklin isn’t an interruption type so it was easy for Paul to take the hint and shut up.
“I won’t get caught up,” Lewis was sad.
“You most certainly will – when the time is right. Come, let’s resume our work.” Franklin held the door wider.
Lewis stepped back inside with a big sigh. Franklin starting blah blahing Lewis with a pep talk.
As Franklin closed the door on us, he pointed to the deck. We got the message. Wait for him here.
- Waiting here was about what we could manage. – sE
DD – We sat behind the spear of rock. We couldn’t see Barracuda’s car but we could feel the music faintly pounding.
We couldn’t see the lake, we couldn’t see the cabins. Just silvery blue sky. And our fidgety bodies, more restless every time the music looped.
Whenever the music paused, we could hear windshield wipers scrape dirt across glass.
Lourdes climbed the spear of rock, flopped beside the animals, stared down at the car.
I listened hard for pairs of footsteps. Barracuda’s sensible heels plus a tow truck driver’s boots. Or Franklin and Lewis fetching us after a successful exorcism.
Paul got paper and pencil from the backpack and muttered while he drew, “…according to… who she is… what I see…”
Another great Paul Trigg idea! Use a spy drawing on Barracuda. That could save us hours of waiting here at Boredom Rock.
He noticed me and turned red. I must have been giving an Adoring Gaze. My cheeks got hot. Awkward forever!
Paul pointed at my hand, tapped then held the corner of his paper. A demonstration. He resumed drawing and I followed his instructions. I held the corner and my spine got icy. I was sharing his contact, spying with him.
We must have been seeing through Barracuda’s eyes. Bright silvery blue surrounded by dark. Bright around a shadow halo… A halo with spokes… Thin shadows moving back and forth in rhythm… Bare toes in cool lawn… French fries… Tiny ripples from ducklings crossing a pond.
A grunt became a groan became a sigh. Really difficult then super easy.
Paul’s pencil stopped. He muttered more, but the pencil wouldn’t budge again.
Frowning, thinking, Paul crumpled the drawing, pulled the lighter from his pocket.
I started to understand. Thin shadows moving back and forth in rhythm. Windshield wipers. The halo was a steering wheel, seen from below. Looking up at a windshield filled with bright sky.
“She’s still in her car.” I didn’t whisper. I walked around Boredom Rock and stared at the car.
Sun reflected on the car’s windows. We couldn’t see inside.
“What’s that drip?” Lourdes slid down the spear of rock.
The driver’s door was not closed tight. Plop. Plop. Plopplopplop. Dark drops fell from the bottom of the door, vanished in the thirsty dirt. The drops fell more quickly for a minute, then stopped.
“She’s been in the car the whole time and she just died.” I took a step forward. Stopped. Someone else would have to prove it.
Paul snapped his lighter, burned the spy drawing. His hands were shaking. “She was in there dying a really long time.”
Slowly, under a steering wheel, alone, bleeding, middle of nowhere. No matter what Barracuda knew about my family, it was a terrible way to die.
Paul and I had just shared her last thoughts with her. – sE
DD – I can’t really think enough to write but I have to do something so here goes.
Our visit to the lake was peaceful but nerve–wracking. I always feel better around big water, so that part was good. Paul wasn’t drawing and kept grinning at me over the top of Lourdes’ head. Just to grin. I’ve given up on ever getting private time with him, and that makes everything calmer.
When we reached the last ledge of rocks before the lake, Lourdes looked each of us in the eye. “Sorry – for.”
One of us answered, “How could you not?”
While the other said, “I feel just as mad.”
We sat on the ledge, watching the lake shimmer, Scatterlegs skitter, Grayfast stroll (too cool to skitter).
It was hard to remember Lewis and Franklin in the exorcism chamber.
The first sign of trouble was when Scatterlegs stopped munching flies. He and Grayfast ran along the lake edge, focused on something we couldn’t see.
They vanished behind a jumble of rocks.
“Yeah – what’s up with them?”
“They’re not acting like we’re in danger.”
So we trailed in the direction they had gone. Opposite the direction that we went, the day Barracuda drove up to the cabin and we ran through the nightmare reeds.
The rocks here were more hilly, up down up down. Lots of places for small animals to be out of view.
We caught up to Grayfast and Scatterlegs on a one– lane dust road where it curved around a tall spear of rock. The animals sat on the spear, backs to us, staring down the other side.
We went around the spear of rock, gasped, ran back to the near side.
On the far side was Barracuda’s car. Slammed into the rock with a smashed front end.
Grayfast swished his tail but didn’t act like we were in danger.
We gave each other What the Tupac. The car’s windshield wipers were going, scraping dirt across the glass. Old rock music faintly pounded. It must be blasting in the car with the windows up.
Gestures, grimaces, and a couple whispers later, we decided to wait for Barracuda to come back. She had probably gone to find a spot with cell service to call a tow truck.
Obviously, she hadn’t given up on finding us. So we needed to question her. We three – actually, five – against her one. I was mad enough to have confidence we could control the discussion. Interrogation. Next step in understanding what happened to my family and why.
But underneath my anger I had a really bad feeling about Barracuda’s car.
Still, the animals didn’t act like we were in danger. – sE
DD – Don’t know how Franklin could be cheerful after Lewis bit him. So many times. Bruises and teeth indents all over one arm. Franklin rushed into the front room, modeled his trashed arm like the latest fashion, said, “Only one of us suffered injuries, and none that broke the skin.”
“Um – good?” Lourdes was relieved enough to joke.
“Better than I dared to hope. It was not Lewis, of course, but his sirene who attacked. My questions enraged her and showed me which restraints needed tightening.”
“Does she side with Alcatur?”
“She has not been approached – but other hunters have allied with him. She is furious that any of her kind would join Everweer. And yet.”
He rubbed his arm as he looked out the window. Like it hurt more than he wanted to notice. “She has a bond with the boy. She is protective of him. She had him bite me so as not to break my skin because my blood might sicken him.”
“Oh no! A bond! She won’t go away!” Lourdes wailed.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
“If she cares about him she will leave because she is bad for his head,” Paul suggested.
Lourdes looked hopeful until Franklin replied, “We cannot expect a sirene to think as we do. She may interpret her influence more positively.”
Lourdes shouted, so angry her changeling shimmer had sparks. “She makes him want to kill! That helps – how?”
“I cannot predict how she would answer. A sirene is a creature of rage,” Franklin opened the front door. “Please wait outside. She senses your presence, thus feels outnumbered and threatened.”
“What if she needs to be outnumbered?” Down the slope the lake gleamed and being outside sounded like a great idea. Except for leaving Franklin alone with the sirene and Lewis, still doing her bidding.
Lourdes stomped outside, tripped off the platform deck, punched at Paul when he asked was she okay. I didn’t know Lourdes could lose control like that. Could the sirene take over the rest of us?
“Lewis has many who care about him,” Franklin smiled. He froze with one boot in the air as Scatterlegs ran under it to catch up with Lourdes.
Lewis always has angry women in his life! His mom used to pick fights at school events. He’d stay home “sick” the next day, he’d be so embarrassed.
He’ll be a different – happy – embarrassed if he ever realizes how Lourdes feels about him. – sE
DD – Franklin wanted to interrogate the sirene through Lewis! It was up to us. He asked our permission. He explained, “Word from many sources is that Alcatur forges alliances with our old adversaries, the hunters. The sirene may have knowledge about this. Are these rumors or are they reality? The foes of Alcatur dare not waste resources preparing for rumors.”
Until now I hadn’t thought of the sirene as a being who could have allies and foes. She seemed more like a fungus. Or bad weather that Lewis got stuck in.
“Would you hurt Lewis to get the information?” Lourdes asked.
“Never! However, I am not the only source of risk. Lewis could be hurt if the creature who entangles him dislikes my questions. That is more likely if she is indeed allied with our foe.”
“We’re hoping for a yes answer so you are sure about Alcatur’s plan, but a no answer so Lewis will be okay?” Paul summarized the confusions.
Franklin chuckled without humor. “We’re hoping to maximize information and minimize danger. We shall get our most definitive answer if this sirene was invited to join Alcatur, but declined.” Franklin stood. “I’ve worsened a difficult situation by asking you to make this choice. Let’s not pursue it.”
“We have to say yes. Lewis would say yes.” I was pretty sure.
Paul and eventually Lourdes nodded.
We got to see the exorcism chamber because it took all of us to lug Lewis the lump back to the chamber. Through a door past the kitchen, we stepped inside a giant wood balloon made of rough splintery planks. There were no corners and the floor gave like it rested on air.
In the center was a wood lozenge where we laid Lewis. Again no corners and a sag–bounce when we added his weight. Franklin braided long thin flexible branches to strap Lewis to the lozenge. Shoulders, chest, waist, thighs, shins.
Back in the kitchen, Franklin gave us assignments to prepare snacks. None of us were listening much. Lourdes especially kept looking toward the exorcism chamber. Franklin prepped the snacks himself and we carried the trays to the front room.
He gestured out the window, “On this spectacular morning, a trip to the lake will help your wait pass more quickly. I’ll return as soon as I have news.”
But we’re still in the front room, not eating snacks, not talking. Something must be happening in the chamber – Grayfast and Scatterlegs stopped lounging and are staring through walls to where Franklin and Lewis are. They’re alert. We’re more on the numb side. – sE
DD – Franklin is preparing an exorcism chamber for Lewis. Hard to believe we are eager for something called that!! Meanwhile we three are watching Lewis sleep. The world’s most dangerous lump.
We five, I should say. The animals lounged around Franklin during breakfast but now they’re by the fireplace, sort of snoozing and sort of watching Lewis.
By the time we had finished washing the breakfast dishes, I was back to trusting Franklin. No surprise. I do trust seesaws with Aunt Axi, too. The weird part is spending any time on the trust side. I could never trust my parents. No matter how much we loved each other, they would always Eminem me to get things their way.
Ms. Benson was the first grownup I ever trusted. Even how wrecked I was after the accident, the minute I entered her algebra class I knew she was okay.
She’d be alive if she hadn’t helped me.
Would I someday be saying the same about Aunt Axi? Franklin?
A wonderful voice filled my head like silver wind chimes. You did not bring the danger, you bring them hope of ending the danger.
Right away I knew the voice was changeling me. Wise, reassuring. Like being my own fairy godmother.
“We have reasonable hope of success with Lewis.” Franklin returned with a pitcher of fresh orange juice. He was sweaty and drank half the juice himself. Apparently exorcisms are hard work. I was crazy curious to see the chamber but if he didn’t invite us there’d be a good reason.
At last I got my turn to talk with Franklin. I got so emotional, Paul and Lourdes had to help me tell him the news. That Barracuda and Natalie were at the crash site. That my family’s deaths weren’t accidents.
Franklin went all logical, examined my news like Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock. Which helped me feel more peaceful. “Natalie is a changeling like no other. While that second woman, the one you call Barracuda, carries a strange empty energy.”
“I bet she’s still nearby. We could find her. Get some answers.” Lourdes spit the words like they were bitter.
Franklin shook his head. “She may understand little. Yet either or both may be more dangerous than we comprehend.”
“I could spy on them,” Paul said, waving a drawing pad.
“No. We must hide our awareness of their truth. We’ll get the answers but we will need time to do so.”
The way Franklin put it, it seemed possible to find patience. – sE
DD – I was comfortable, not trusting Franklin. That was my normal state, not trusting grownups. Even before he did something to Lewis. Whatever grownups said, a little voice inside would react. Yeah right. Or not. Oh sure.
Franklin wheeled in a cart and prepared an amazing breakfast in front of us. In the window behind him, the lake and mountains gleamed in morning sun. Grayfast and Scatterlegs lounged on fireplace rocks. Their attitude toward Franklin was as chill as ever.
Waffles with the most delicious fruit sauce. Lewis kept sleeping, right through those aromas from the waffle iron. Which proved it was not a normal sleep!
Franklin ate one waffle and smiled as we devoured thirds and fourths. “You all have questions today,” he said.
Lourdes and Paul nodded. Which surprised me. Which embarrassed me. It never occurs to me that anybody except me needs answers.
Come to notice it, Paul was missing his usual calm. He shifted here, shifted there like his chair back had thorns.
Lourdes gave Paul a you–first wave.
Paul stared at Franklin. “Why did you build a mausoleum for my parents if you don’t know whether they are dead?”
Franklin stopped gathering breakfast dishes and met Paul’s eyes. “Think of it as a poultice to draw out poisons. We are a people of rituals and symbolism. Whatever the wrong done your parents, we hoped and anticipated that the wrongdoer would be drawn to the mausoleum.”
“Has that happened?”
“Time will tell.”
Paul dropped back to his chair. His nod was sad but the thorns were gone.
“Why did you drug Lewis?” Lourdes asked.
Franklin skipped any bogus how–dare–you–accuse–me. “To give him time to heal. Connection with a sirene frays the psyches of the afflicted and those around him. We cannot leave him alone, or with a single other one of us, until we sever this tie.”
“You can help him get free of her?!”
Were we about to see Lourdes cry?
“Perhaps. He is willing for her to depart but she must be also. We have a good chance. By all accounts, humans do not satisfy these hunters.”
“What does she want, why did she even show up?”
“We cannot comprehend a sirene’s motives. But I have sufficient knowledge of sirene exorcism to help this boy. I’ve ordered the essential supplies. As soon as they arrive, I’ll begin. In the meantime, at least two of us must stay with him at all times, for his protection and ours.”
At least two of us. Oh, Lewis, I’m sorry. – sE
DD – “A handsome start to the day.” Franklin’s voice made us jump. He stood on the ledge just behind us, had walked close without our noticing! Certainly the animals were fine with his arrival. Grayfast gave Franklin a glance and went back to ignoring Scatterlegs.
Franklin’s dreadlocks snapped against his thick jacket. We stood in an icy wind. I thought about Franklin’s fireplace and started shivering. I thought about Franklin’s cooking and my stomach started growling. It’s like I couldn’t admit I was cold or hungry until the solution appeared.
Who knows how long I could have gone being hungry and cold. Nowadays I am so used to being uncomfortable.
The rest of us crowded around Franklin but Lewis still faced the lake with his face twisted – he must be in contact with the sirene. When we introduced them, they made eye contact and gasped. Franklin’s noise was an exclamation, Lewis’ was a growl.
“A sirene creates a terrible tangle,” Franklin said with sympathy.
Lewis’ eyes glistened – with tears?! Or the wind.
Lourdes tried to talk but it came out tck tck tck from her teeth chattering.
“Cocoa by the fire!” Franklin gestured toward the cabins.
He and Lewis walked together up the slope, gabbing. It usually takes forever for Lewis to talk to someone new! I felt hopeful that maybe Franklin could help Lewis, but my hope drained when I overheard Franklin say, “No, neither bleach nor solvent are chemicals I keep near my home.”
Lewis was still trying to get his hands on deadly potions. We couldn’t let him out of our sight.
I wasn’t the only one thinking this about Lewis. Lourdes nudged me to notice what she dangled between fingers – Lewis’ car keys!
Lourdes can be very sneaky. That’s a compliment.
Cocoa by Franklin’s fireplace. Ahhh. The stress swirled away like the steam from our mugs.
Until. Lewis fell asleep, mid–swallow and sitting up.
Hmm. Franklin had made a thing about serving Lewis a particular mug of cocoa. “I prepare drinks for each palate. Lewis, I’ve made you a varietal I’m confident you’ll enjoy.”
Hmm. Franklin tugged Lewis into a comfortable position like he wasn’t surprised or concerned about waking Lewis. Who kept sleeping.
“You fled fewer than 15 hours ago, yet already we have much new to discuss,” Franklin said. “I believe you were right to run from here, although I could not determine why that woman seeks you. But enough for now. I must prepare fuel for our extended conversation.”
Meaning, we’ll talk after he fixes breakfast. He gathered the empty mugs and left us by the fire.
He’d confirmed fears about Barracuda but she wasn’t on anybody’s mind. Lourdes, Paul and I kept looking around. At each other. At Franklin through the kitchen door, bustling around. At Lewis the snoring lump.
We shrugged at the same time, which made us smile.
“Lewis unconscious solves some problems,” Lourdes said.
“We’ve already been at Franklin’s mercy and we’re fine,” Paul added.
“If we can’t trust Franklin then we might as well be unconscious,” I agreed.
But it was startling. How smooth calm cheerful Franklin was when he did whatever he did to Lewis. – sE
DD – Paul was still lost in a drawing and Lewis was putting air in the tires, which gave me the chance to tell Lourdes about the murder/suicide containers.
She cursed the sirene in Spanish and twisted to see the sky out the windshield. “Almost sunrise – let’s go back to the cabins. Gives him fewer options.”
Grayfast stayed at the back window, swishing his tail, watching Lewis. Like the danger he sensed was Lewis. I skipped that detail when I rolled down the window to say, “Grayfast senses danger. We need to go back to the cabins.”
“Sure thing, I’ll be right –” Lewis stepped toward the convenience store.
In one fast motion, Lourdes slipped Scatterlegs into her shirt pocket, climbed over me, threw open the door, blocked Lewis’ path, patted her pocket. “Same message from – mine. Cabins – right away. I’m taking you up on your offer – the front seat. Too crowded in back.”
That got his attention! Lewis reached for Lourdes like he might toss her aside. She scampered around the car and opened the front passenger door.
“Come ON,” she ducked inside, violating the precious sirene space.
Lewis emitted angry whimpers.
The car shot onto the highway with Lewis facing Lourdes instead of the road.
“Thank you for offering this seat,” Lourdes said in her tiniest mouse voice. Meanwhile her changeling shimmer spread like liquid armor. She must expect Lewis to attack her.
“Sure.” Lewis made the sharp turns to Franklin’s dirt road without brakes. But by the time we parked by the cabins, he was pure sweet, which was so confusing. He set out a bowl of water for Grayfast and a jar lid of water for Scatterlegs.
On this visit, the cabins had glowing cyclops eyes. Their windows reflected the sky, which turned gray blue pink in our short walk from car to cabins. I was relieved to see the sun coming back.
Still no answer when we knocked, but Franklin felt closer. Maybe it was the sunlight.
“Is it the same night?” Paul asked. Which meant he was back from drawing. “Let’s go down to the lake,” he suggested.
At the lake’s edge, things felt normal for a time. We oohed about the sunrise and laughed about the animals. The flies were already out and Scatterlegs, in a hurry to start munching, jumped wildly and flipped over. Until then, Grayfast had been trotting after the lizard. Now he braked and turned his back to the lake. Too–cool–to–chase–flies.
While we laughed, Lourdes and I were careful to stand between Paul and Lewis. Paul with his oblivious drawing, Lewis with his psycho sirene. It was up to the changelings to keep them safe. – sE
DD – If you traced our routes that night, you would draw a pile of unfolded paper clips, bent around the gas station and Franklin’s cabins. We’d get sick of the buzzing fluorescent lights over the gas pumps and head for the cabins. Every visit, the cabins would be just as dark and way more cold. So quiet, we’d hold our breath until we got back to the gas station and that flickering buzz. Fluorescent mosquitos.
Finally we just parked at a pump. The gas station guy didn’t care.
It was the part of the night when morning is hard to imagine. Lourdes dozed with Scatterlegs tucked along her collar. Paul was lost, drawing somewhere/thing I didn’t recognize. More travel coming soon.
On the highway, headlights went by like a pair of shooting stars.
It was Grayfast who alerted me to trouble. He jumped to the back window ledge, stared inside the convenience store, tail swishing.
If Grayfast was sensing a problem, we needed our driver. There. Inside the convenience store. Lewis’ rumpled head poked above some shelves.
I went in to get him. He was reading a label in Automotive and Cleaning Supplies.
“Do you need to add oil?”
“Oil,” he said like he hadn’t thought of that. He picked up a can, read the label, shrugged, set down the can, out of place. “Naw.”
Lots of other shelves had containers out of place, like Lewis had discarded those, too.
Odd, even more than the Lewis usual. “We might need to drive out of here soon.”
“In that case, I better – bathroom. Meet you at the car.” Before Lewis zoomed away, he glanced at a shelf.
On that shelf were a few bottles and jars, set aside like somebody was saving them. Somebody like Lewis. Transmission fluid. Bleach. Solvent. All with huge warnings. Red exclamation marks. Poison. Danger.
I skimmed the labels Lewis had picked up but discarded. Harmful if swallowed or inhaled, seek immediate medical attention. Bad, but survivable.
The ones he had saved gave no hope. Death within minutes, they warned. Or promised.
Lewis wanted to die.
When he got back from the bathroom, he looked sorry to see me in his aisle.
I had reasonable words in my head but only crying came out. I sobbed so hard Lewis took my hand to reassure me. If I hadn’t brought him into this, he’d be home winning video games. “I am so sorry,” I blubbered.
“You aren’t the one to blame. It wasn’t your house that hurt her.” Soft calm awful.
He patted my arm and headed for the door. I raced after him. I couldn’t leave him alone.
Because of the sirene, Lewis wanted to kill himself and/or Paul. – sE
DD – We stopped for gas and I splashed water at my face until my hair dripped. Lourdes got wet too, she stuck that close by me. Paul waited outside the bathroom door.
“I’ll be okay again,” I reassured them.
What snapped me out of my flip–out was Lewis. Back at the car, he said, “You can sit in front. I know she’s not here. I pretend so I can keep going until she returns.”
“I’d rather ride back here, but thanks.” I climbed in back. Sitting up front would kill his hope.
“Where to now?” He gave the world’s saddest sigh. “She might never come back. I know that.”
It didn’t matter that Lewis was insane where the sirene was concerned, or that the rest of us hoped for what he dreaded, that she was gone forever. His grief was real. He was as lost as I had been right after the crash. I never want anyone to feel that. (Except whoever caused the crash.)
The car idled at the gas station exit. Where to now. Like somebody knew.
Lewis asked Paul, “What did you find in the tufa?”
Question marks floated in the dark.
Lewis reminded, “You kept drawing tufa? Why you came to Mono Lake? To find the tufa in your drawings?”
“We haven’t seen any tufa,” Paul realized.
“It’s only in certain areas,” Lewis explained.
Our question marks became exclamation points. We weren’t done with Mono Lake. “Turn right at the highway,” I directed Lewis toward Franklin’s cabins.
Franklin would help us find Paul’s tufa. And maybe he could help Lewis get over the sirene.
Franklin’s cabins always look deserted, so no surprise that the property was dark and empty.
“Someone lives here?” Lewis sounded slightly less destroyed. He has such a curious nature, any mystery could be good for him!
“Come and see,” Lourdes said like she realized the same thing.
Two steps from the car, Lewis tripped on the uneven ground.
Paul turned the headlights on, flooding one cabin with light, shoving the others into blackness.
We knocked and knocked. On doors then windows. We called out hellos. No answer.
We shut up. Turned off the headlights. Slipped back in the car and nobody slammed a door.
It was so dark and so quiet.
Probably we were the only people for miles.
“Maybe Franklin’s out looking for us – where we ran from that lady,” Lourdes said.
Barracuda. Her visit to Franklin felt like years, not hours, ago.
We drove down a steep dirt road in the direction of the reeds, where we had run to escape Barracuda. Our blaring headlights burrowed a tunnel into black silence.
It was so dark and creepy that even Lewis noticed. He muttered, “Nope.” No one disagreed when he turned the car around and took us back to the 24–hour gas station, where it was never dark or silent. – sE
DD – If only this night would end. Do more bad things happen in the dark or do nights just drag out more? I actually spent time trying to decide, listing bad things that happened, day versus night.
Day. Wars mostly happen in day. Chrissie burned in daylight. Alcatur killed Ms. Benson one morning outside her gym.
Night. In my own life, night wins by a mile. I can’t stop remembering Alcatur murdering Ma Warden at her front door. Alcatur escaping after his trial. His followers killing Trevor and Mr. Colvant. Burning Aunt Axi’s mini–van, chasing her through the cemetery.
Last but not least, the car crash that killed my family happened at night.
The so–called accident.
From one minute to the next I was sure of it, deep down where I just know. The car crash wasn’t an accident. Why who how. It all made zero sense but I knew.
Natalie and Barracuda were involved somehow. And I would find out how! Their expressions as they watched paramedics slide me into the ambulance that night. Not like the other spectators – not surprised or horrified. Not pleased, either.
They might not have caused the crash. But they’d know who did, and I’d get them to tell me. One way or another, I’d get answers.
And maybe revenge. That part was strange. Whoever did this. Even though the faces were fuzzy, I could picture terrible ways of hurting them and those pictures were so satisfying. But the satisfying dissolved to sickening, as though my stomach had filled with blood.
For a minute I could hear Lourdes and Paul, explaining to Lewis why I was so upset. Soon their words stopped making sense.
I was awake but having nightmares. Running as hard as I could to reach my family. The more my feet pounded, the more my family shrank away.
I could have been running, the way my breath gasped. Actually I was riding in the back seat of Lewis’ car. It was completely dark but I could feel all five companions, sending their caring and sympathy. Their good feelings reached me through Grayfast, curled in my lap, purring mightily. At last the vibrations blocked my nightmares. – sE
DD – Grayfast’s purr rumbled comfort through me. Rocks scratched my pants. The lighter flame made Paul’s fingers yellow. Small strong hands held my shoulders so my head stayed out of the dirt.
“After she sits up, keep holding her.” Paul’s voice.
“I am – I will.” Lourdes’ voice.
Ohhhhhh. I tried to stay on the road with them, but I kept slipping back to the nightmare.
Nightmare. I wish. What I had remembered, what I had realized, it was no dream.
Paul’s lighter flame, flickering in the dark. That’s what started it. The memory that knocked me down.
It’s been coming for a while. Something I needed to remember about the accident. Something important. But it didn’t come and it didn’t come and I had to stop thinking about it because waiting and trying to remember were making me crazy.
Ambulance and police lights, flickering in a different dark night. The night the accident killed my family. Policeman looming over me, frowning. Paramedics prodding me, wiggling me. Lifting me onto a stretcher. Walking the stretcher out of a ditch.
Cars lining the road behind a police car. Road closed due to crash. Some cars empty, their people standing, staring, pointing, from the far side of yellow caution tape. How many dead? Look at that van, no one alive inside that. That lucky girl got thrown free. Glad it wasn’t our family. Oh that poor girl.
Paramedics slid my stretcher into an ambulance and I tilted my head to look out the doors before they closed. Outside, watching, apart from the other spectators, two women side by side. Two people I didn’t yet know. Barracuda and Natalie. There at the crash.
“What?” Paul’s voice was tight – he was so worried – but so warm with love. “Ella, say that again?”
Grayfast’s purr got more intense. Lourdes’ hands on my shoulders shared her strength.
I said, “My social worker and Natalie were at the crash. Together. It’s all connected. None of this just happened. Which foster family I went to, which new school, Barracuda still following us, Natalie always showing up. None of it is coincidence.”
“The crash. The car accident where your family died?” Paul asked.
Lourdes finished for me. “The crash wasn’t an accident.”
“How could that be? How can you sound so sure?” I’d never heard Paul angry before. Not mad at us.
“I just know.”
At that worst possible moment, tires crunched rock and headlights swung around a bend. We didn’t run and drop in the dark to hide. We froze in the road like a snapshot, bent over, propped up, kneeling.
The car braked and the driver’s door squealed. “Aren’t you cold?” Lewis called over the burping engine.
Relief because it wasn’t Barracuda who found us. Fear because we were alone in black emptiness with the sirene’s victim.
“You guys? Don’t you want a ride?” That was so old–days Lewis.
Grayfast trotted toward the car, so we followed. Lourdes helped me walk. Paul hovered as close as he could get without touching me.
Lewis opened both back doors. “Squeeze in back. She likes the front.”
I collapsed in a corner. Lourdes climbed over me to the middle, pulled me to rest against her.
Presumably ‘she’ was the sirene, but the car didn’t feel like a sirene had been there and the front passenger seat looked empty. Grayfast stared at that seat, like something was worth examining there. But then he curled on my lap, purring like a–okay.
“We’re gonna need gas soon,” Lewis did a million point turn to head back the way he’d come.
Like he’d never ditched us. Like the last two days never happened.
Even with the imaginary sirene passenger, right now Lewis reality looked pretty good. – sE
DD – We found a dirt road just past the piranha reeds and took it back toward Franklin’s. Grayfast kept sending me the conversation on Franklin’s deck, and I amused us by repeating Barracuda’s nosy questions and Franklin’s hilarious answers. He misunderstood nearly everything, and the rest he heard wrong. Barracuda had to keep repeating, rephrasing.
I think Franklin was trying to catch Barracuda in lies, but she stuck with her claim of runaways spotted. A lot like what she told Aunt Axi, when she came to the Trigg house with cops. Now she claimed to be hunting for two teenagers – Lourdes … and Lewis!
“She comes to places where Ella is, but never mentions Ella. That’s worse than if she asked for Ella,” Paul said.
At last Barracuda gave up.
“Nice talking with you,” Franklin yelled. “Highway in oh point four miles. If you miss it, honk, and I’ll come find you with my torch. Would you like a blanket for car camping? Just in case?”
“I’m a wilderness gal,” were Barracuda’s last words. But her laugh sounded nervous.
As the car tires crunched rocks and headed away, Grayfast ran from his bush toward us. … Rocks, rocks, rocks, lake. Reeds! … I felt a moment of fear. No, the cat would find his way.
He ran through the mystery bottom of the reeds. At last I would see what my legs went through! Except I couldn’t, because it was too dark. Just gray motion past the sides of Grayfast’s head.
It was so dark. “Stop!” I rubbed my shoe back and forth. The sole scraped on rock. “Hear that? We’re not on the road anymore.”
A thin shadow that was Lourdes stooped to walk while patting the ground. “Back here – the road.”
After that, we did a lot of shuffling to make sure we stayed on the road. Its thin layer of loose dirt had a different sound than the other ground. Turns out you can shuffle really fast.
We stayed near the edge of the road. If Barracuda drove up, we would jump to lay down beside the road. She’d miss us. It was that dark.
Paul held up his lighter. It showed his frown but couldn’t light the huge darkness all around us. “Did the road turn? Are we still headed back toward Franklin’s?”
Tonight, clouds were too thick for moonlight to show our way. But, even with clouds, it was colder than when Lewis ditched us and we had to walk. Moving fast gave the only hope of warmth.
“Let’s wait for Grayfast to catch up,” Lourdes said. Scatterlegs must have told her the cat was on his way.
We flopped on the road. Cold was better than lost. Grayfast always knew the right way, so he could lead us back to Franklin.
I can write in the dark if I spread the words so they don’t cover each other. That’s why the extra space, in case you’re wondering, D. – sE
DD – We were just about thawed when the animals lost their calm. Scatterlegs chirped and hid in Lourdes’ pocket. Grayfast growled and ran toward the cabin, fast and low to the ground.
Tires crunched on rocks. I stood to see the dirt road winding to the cabins. A plume of dust trailed from the highway. At a turn, the car inside the dust appeared.
The driver was Barracuda. My social worker after the crash. First she shows up at the Trigg house, then at Lewis’ house, now here?!? I dropped to my knees and whispered the news.
Parking brake scraped, door slammed.
“May I help you?” Franklin shouted, “Please shout, I lost my hearing aid.”
Which got her yelling, too. Which meant we could hear the conversation. “I’m looking for missing teenagers who were spotted in this neighborhood.” Barracuda handed Franklin some papers.
I could see because Grayfast was behind the only bush at the top of the slope, sending his view. I heard the words in my head, from him, slightly before they came down the slope.
Spotted in this neighborhood. Such Eminem. Franklin’s cabins had no neighborhood. They were the only buildings for miles.
We flattened against the ground, listening as hard as we could. Why Barracuda was chasing us, no clue, but our need to hide was intense. If she took just a few steps toward the lake, she’d see us.
The protecting slope got higher to our right, away from the highway, so we crouched–ran that way. Toward a dark line that might be trees. The sun had dropped behind the mountains and that low area was in deep shadows.
Grayfast would be fine and he would find us.
We reached the dark line which was scrawny trees curving away from the lake. Beyond the trees was a wide stretch of. Reeds? Rushes? Thick stiff spikes, maybe hollow because they bent as we ran through them.
They stood as high as my hips. The ground underneath was crazy uneven. T:H:E W:O:R:S:T. My ankles and knees twisted so many times. I guess my feet caught in holes. Beyond creepy – I couldn’t see my legs. Where I was stepping. What I brushed against. I started imagining snakes and got to piranhas, skulls with snapping jaws. I ran faster.
Beyond the reeds I collapsed, out of breath from fear, even though I kept telling myself to keep moving. The trees and slope and distance would hide us from Barracuda. But dark was coming. Find a road or at least a trail. – sE
DD – Snow on mountains, whitecaps on lake. Just like Franklin said would happen, the wind got strong and clouds streamed by, covering the lake with shadows. Bad timing. We had just agreed to go stand in the water.
Paul pulled a cigarette lighter ?!?! from a pocket and fed his crumpled drawing to the flame. Any small piece that fell away, he chased with the lighter. He burned every bit.
“How long have you had a lighter?” I asked. He couldn’t be a smoker. I would know that about him.
“Since I started doing spy drawings. I don’t understand how they work but don’t want to take any chances that some little piece can reconnect.”
Lourdes said, “If he’s the reason – a major bad guy. If we’re not a coincidence – if we’re coming back.”
She chopped her hands around. “How does anybody start at the beginning when they talk?”
Ideas jumping around. I could relate! “Talk like you’re telling a story to a little kid.”
She took a slow breath and gave my technique a try. “In Galalena’s time, changelings appeared to stop an especially bad guy. If Alcatur is that kind of major bad guy then more changelings should appear. How do we find the others?”
Paul said, “In Galalena’s journals, the changelings were drawn to each other. What you just said made sense, by the way.”
“Thank you.” To celebrate, Lourdes distributed cereal bars from her knapsack. I had my pack, too. After losing gear inside Lewis’ trunk, we were keeping our bags nearby.
We chewed stale bars and watched the animals explore cracks in the rocks.
“Were we drawn to each other?” Lourdes asked me.
“Possibly. I dunno. What do you think?”
“I think so. Except I don’t get Natalie. Galalena didn’t have doubts about her changelings.”
I opened the backpack. “As far as we know. Remember, the last pages stayed blank to us.” I held up Galalena’s journal. “Standing in big water, both holding the book, we might read those last pages. That method worked for Paul and me once.”
The lake’s water was liquid but colder than ice. Paul came in to share the experience with us. But it wasn’t long before he spread his hands below, in case Lourdes or I dropped Galalena’s journal from shivering so hard.
Blank blank blank pages. Then a few words. NOT CALL BETRAYAL WITHOUT PROOF. Blank blank blank.
“Take a break. Before my legs snap off.”
For now, I am squirming on the rock ledge. When the sharp rocks poke me, feeling will have returned to my butt. Which wasn’t even in the water.
“With hypothermia do we rub the skin or not rub the skin?” Paul asked.
“Yes,” Lourdes said.
We laughed. Weakly. – sE
DD– It’s a different kind of power when Paul uses drawing to spy. He controls it, he doesn’t disappear into it. We watched over his shoulders.
As soon as he started the process, he seemed older than Franklin. Wiser than Aunt Axi. He held the pencil against the paper and chanted, “I draw Alcatur according to what I know, who he is, not what I see, not what he shows.” The pencil scritched lines. “Who he is … what I know …” The lines became Alcatur’s sharp jaw.
The lines turned shadowy. The page became a window. The air got super cold like it did when we connected to the courtroom during Alcatur’s trial.
Alcatur was in a boxing ring, slamming fists into something that squelched. There was complete quiet except for the fists. Flecks of liquid flew around Alcatur. His hair was soaked with sweat. He shoved hair from eyes and his face streaked with blood. He wasn’t wearing boxing gloves. His knuckles were raw and pink.
Lourdes whimpered and held onto my arm. I thought she was frightened until she muttered swear words in Spanish. And whispered, “Azalea.” Her sister’s name. Hate came out of her in an avalanche.
Alcatur was saying, “Their fear is our weapon. They know I wish them dead. You see how quickly –” he waved toward where his fists had slammed.
Several voices called questions like reporters at a press conference.
A man’s voice broke in, calm though he shouted. Familiar voice. Ezra. “We are no longer alone.”
Alcatur went stiff and began sniffing. He turned, found us, smiled.
Paul’s fingers shot out and crumpled the paper. Alcatur vanished. The icy connection broke. Part of Paul’s drawing showed outside the crumple. Just pencil lines again. He crumpled the paper tighter, which revealed the ground below. Grayfast and Scatterlegs stood staring at the paper, tails flicking.
Sun warmed my scalp. Wind bit my cheeks. Waves swashed the lake. We were okay.
Lourdes spit out words. “We’ve got to – stop him.”
We sat on our ledge of sharp rocks. Wind dragged clouds our way. We wouldn’t have much longer to enjoy the sun that warmed our heads and sparkling the waves. For the rest of our basking time, we discussed what we thought we had spied.
We had no proof, of course. But impressions. Alcatur was getting worse. Crazier. And worst of all, popular.
We had to block him. Stop what he was starting. Whatever that was. – sE
DD – As we walked down the slope to Mono Lake, Franklin’s cabins disappeared except for the roofs. It was comforting to see those roofs. This world was big and empty. Fortunately, the lake had a Big Water feel.
We stumbled all the time. It took practice to walk on those sharp rocks. We picked a slow path and talked about what we had learned – from the library and from Franklin. But we didn’t discuss Crimes Seen. That was a stampeding elephant, full of tranquilizer darts, collapsed in my head.
Good thing Franklin warned us about the flies. They’re thick around Mono Lake. They always have been. Native tribes used to eat the flies for protein.
Luckily these flies are not gross and not completely annoying. If you walk into their thin strip of shoreline they swarm up around you, but they have zero interest in landing on you.
So we just stayed out of the fly zone. Everybody except Scatterlegs, who snapped at the air again and again, munching flies.
As we walked and talked, some question marks kept floating, like whether Aunt Axi was okay and what our enemies were doing.
“We could contact Aunt Axi,” Paul said. “When Ella and I touch, we connect with her.”
“Is she the only one we’d connect to?”
“Good point,” Paul said.
“I wasn’t making a point. I legitimately don’t know.”
“None of us do, so scrap that idea,” Paul sighed.
Lourdes kept going with the contact idea. “In Galalena’s journals, changelings could contact each other’s minds. If we – want Natalie back. We could try to contact her.”
“We don’t know enough to contact Natalie. She’ll take advantage.” I sounded so definite!
Lourdes perched on a ledge. “Changelings have to stop bad guys. We can’t keep hiding. We need to find them.”
My legs wobbled and I lost the energy to stand. I dropped to the ledge beside her. “We have to be ready for them first.” Maybe I was chicken but I was also filled with certainty that it was too soon for us to go after bad guys.
Lourdes shrugged a yeah–sure. She was as hungry for action as her lizard was for flies. Speaking of Scatterlegs, he munched one last fly then waddled up to us. Grayfast watched him with a hmm look. The made me smile but I couldn’t laugh.
I guess when I lost my energy it went into Paul. He paced in front of us. “We need information. I can use my drawings to spy on Alcatur. When I was on the run with Grayfast, I kept track of Alcatur that way.”
“Wouldn’t that make a two–way connection?”
“Not if I stop it soon enough.”
So here we are sitting by the Big Water. Paul is getting ready to do a spy drawing on Alcatur. Getting ready: pencil and paper out, remembering times he spied before. How he knew when Alcatur had noticed. How he disconnected. Faster than Alcatur could react. After all, Alcatur’s powers involve fighting, not connecting.
“Was he just as slow to react every time – or did he get faster when your spying repeated?” Lourdes asked.
Paul held his knees and rocked. “Ow.” The sharp ledge cut his back. “He did get faster. But there was still a margin.”
“A margin – of safety.” Lourdes sounded satisfied.
We’re staring at sun glitter on the lake and wondering, is spying on Alcatur a good idea.
But we’re going to do it. You can tell. – sE
DD – We went back to the library but the books showed nothing more. A door slammed and Franklin called hello. We found him opening curtains. Outside, rough ground sloped down to a shiny sheet. The lake. Everything had a silver tint. Maybe from whatever made the windows reflect everything.
Franklin whistled from window to window.
“You aren’t as – heavy,” Lourdes said.
“Alcatur is in Chicago, and from there Natalie leads a search for Axinara. In sum, Axi eludes them, and they are far away. I need reminders that events proceed as they must. Drivers seats and steering wheels are illusory constructs. Forgive me,” he chuckled, “for philosophy before lunch. It’s a glorious day and I recommend you get outdoors before afternoon clouds arrive.”
“Can I ask you some questions first?” I requested.
“Of course!” He raised a window and messed with the fireplace until flames grew.
Cool fresh air and crackling wood, circle of friends in comfy chairs, sky mountains lake outside the window. Indoor camping.
Delight is not a word of mine but it’s the one that fits. Franklin looked delighted when Scatterlegs and Grayfast – changeling animals! – stretched out at his feet. It was probably the fireplace that brought them, but who knows.
I told Franklin everything. I had never said it all before. Paul and Lourdes reacted whenever they heard something new. After, I felt empty but better. Like when the flu is finishing and you know you just TMI–ed for the last time.
Car crash, dead family, lame random foster parents. New neighborhood near the accident site. Meeting Grayfast there. Paul at the new school. Alcatur serving me bloody meat. Santa Cruz. Chicago. Aunt Axi protecting us and helping me learn. Bruce’s carvings on the mausoleum for Paul’s missing parents. Some carvings matched images in Aunt Axi’s poems. One carving showed the accident site.
“Why would the place where my family died be in Bruce’s carvings? How?”
“What grace and strength you share with us, Ella.” Franklin’s voice was warmer than the fire and his face blurred behind my tears.
Lourdes wadded a napkin and tossed it into my lap. I dabbed my eyes.
Franklin continued, “Bruce never explains his art. No matter, he speaks in riddles anyway. I can only say the carvings were part of a series he calls ‘The Wisdom in Ignorance.’ The mausoleum set are subtitled, ‘Caution! Crimes Seen.’ S–E–E–N.”
Crimes. What the Tupac? Fire burned behind my eyeballs.
Franklin kept watching me. “When information overwhelms me, I set it aside, confident I’ll know when to pick it up again.”
Everyone stared at me.
“Let’s go to the lake,” Paul said. – sE
DD – We knew Franklin was back when his laughing filled the kitchen. The last time I’d heard a grownup laugh was in the Trigg house with Aunt Axi.
Which made me realize why my hours in Franklin’s cabin left me feeling bad, like I swallowed a clump of cement. In spite of all the good stuff that happened.
Deep down, I was hoping Aunt Axi would be there. For no valid reason, just because she went to Franklin for help before.
The refrigerator was open and Franklin held a mostly empty plate with dabs of the surviving leftovers. Green beans. Salad. Rolls too hard to bite.
“Sorry we ate so much,” Lourdes squeaked.
“On the contrary, you have saved me from excess and repetition. The cider is homemade. Will you join me?”
He had four mugs around the table. We sipped and he gobbled his food like it wasn’t too old and too healthy.
I decided to ask him about Aunt Axi as soon as the chewing slowed. As usual when I let one bad feeling out, more escape and the next thing I knew, I asked, “We didn’t see your granddaughter while you were gone.” She would have been safe with us.
“She returned home before you arrived. Fortuitously, as she is fascinated by changelings, yet too young to hold fast to the revelation that they again walk among us.”
Embarrassed grins from Lourdes and me. To have someone talk about you in that idolizing way. Lourdes went shimmer, no–shimmer, shimmer like flicking a light switch and Franklin chuckled.
“I was hoping Aunt Axi would be here with you,” I admitted. Paul made a sad noise like that was beyond hope for him.
“Do you bring news of Axinara?” Franklin’s smile fell. “I’ve had word that she and Alcatur disappeared on the same night.”
Paul and I told him what we saw that night in the cemetery.
When we got to the part about Natalie seeming to protect Paul and Grayfast’s hiding place, Franklin reacted like she was moldy bread. “That one is too active.”
“is she on our side? She keeps – acting like it. But.” Lourdes.
“She plays all sides for best advantage. That was not your only encounter with her, then?”
“No way.” We told him all our Natalie stories. He was shocked to hear she’s a changeling. His mouth stayed open so long I wondered could a person faint with eyes open.
He clamped his teeth and stood. “Please remain inside. I must leave you on your own again for a time. You bring news I cannot interpret on my own.” He whisked outside, leaving a glimpse of bright cold daylight.
“Every time I think I’m starting to understand things …” Paul trailed off.
I just had exactly the same thought.
Lourdes said, “Wait – that’s what I was thinking.”
“Yup,” I said.
We all gave Jedi nods, then refilled our cider and waited for Franklin to return. – sE
DD – Below here I taped Lourdes’ notes from when Paul read Everweer history books about Galalena’s bad guys.
If Lourdes and I ever go back to high school and ever take a class together, I will never borrow her notes to study for a test! On the other hand, maybe I should.
She focused on random details. Not bad guys’ powers or how to stop them, just – well, see for yourself, D. But then sometimes she noticed a big overall pattern, the way A students do in extra credit essays.
No matter what, I’m glad I got to read the notes and go Inside The Mind Of Lourdes. A place I never imagined. – sE
+ – +
She got blankets from sick people who died then gave them to poor children. Ha ha lady. Humans don’t care about the poor ones.
Advisor to king. Bad advice. Got king beheaded. Bad way to die. Two tries. First sword not sharp enough.
He caught his sister kissing a human. That earns her torture. He pushed her off the cliff kind of to protect her. He was just a kid then. I don’t blame him for that. The poison in the wells. Blame.
Everweer would rule the world if they weren’t hiding from humans. Correction they would kill each other off.
How come Paul is so chill but Everweer?
Way long ago. Are they still this crazy? Paul is in big danger.
She kills humans. Skins them. By hand. Only kills redheads.
Murder rate up? You’ve got Everweer in the neighborhood.
Troops get ambushed? Their general must be an Everweer who betrayed them.
Goal is to kill maximum number of humans.
Kid scared of humans under the bed.
Everweer versus humans. Good video game.
When Lewis gets back he might not remember me.
Faked them being witches. Fun, watching humans kill humans.
The cows stampeded. Frightened by a changeling snake.
Everweer fight, humans die.
Lots of them.
Lots and lots.
How do we never notice?
DD – We learned so much that night. It seems like we are supposed to work together. The three of us. Paul, Lourdes, me.
(In my head was ‘the four of us’. Lewis has been popping into my thoughts so much. Hope that means the sirene will go home soon.)
Lourdes demolished the leftover leftovers, with help from Paul and me about the pies. Then we got comfy by the library fireplace and I think Scatterlegs knew Lourdes was nervous about reading Galalena’s journals because he became a stunt lizard, which made everybody laugh but especially Lourdes.
Scatterlegs raced up–down the wooden rocking chair which got it rocking intensely. He perched at the top and when the chair dipped at an extreme, he leaped to the fireplace rocks. As soon as the chair calmed down, he raced back and started the wild rocking again.
The chair tipped over. At the crash, Scatterlegs squeaked and zoomed up Lourdes to disappear in her pocket. What was most hilarious was Grayfast snoozing through the whole thing, then raising his head to stare at us, like only laughing disturbed him.
Lourdes and I opened a journal, resting it half in each lap. At first, a total loser effort. Blank page after blank page. But Paul made a great coach, sharing pointers about how to see more words in Everweer books.
And giving encouragement. “You got this,” he’d say. Or, “Better than it was, definitely improving.” His words didn’t matter, it was his voice, his attitude that really raised our confidence.
Bit by bit, he was right. We opened a different journal and there it was. Page after page of Galalena’s handwriting. Lourdes and I took turns reading aloud.
I assume Paul stopped coaching and listened, but I remember nothing except those words, so bright they branded the air. Lourdes and I kept reading, faster and faster, and my throat would rasp then sooth when someone handed me water.
We read every bad guy journal and most of Galalena’s personal diary! The only pages that stayed blank were the end of the diary, after she mentioned the sorcerer. So I still don’t know what happened to Galalena.
When we finished, Paul had hot chocolate waiting and was surrounded with open books. He had recognized some of the bad guys in Galalena’s interviews and found Everweer history books that described the same events. While we sipped hot chocolate, Paul read the histories.
Lourdes had enough brain left to take notes.
We did the dishes and we are going to try to sleep now. – sE
DD – We had an important night in Franklin’s library.
Paul found out that Bruce had disappeared before and showed up again eventually. So maybe he’d show up soon and we could ask him about the mausoleum carvings.
“When he disappeared he said going will be easier than returning.” Paul didn’t show any sign of recognizing the words. I reminded him, “Which is exactly what you wrote to me, about your drawings.”
Paul repeated the words. He still didn’t remember.
Lourdes wondered, “Do you have power in common – with Bruce?”
Paul said, “Maybe that’s it. Sometimes when I draw a place, I feel like if I kept drawing a certain way, I would go there.”
“Into the drawing or through the drawing to the actual place?” How strange my life is nowadays, that those could be possibilities!
Paul replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t wanted to find out. Bruce sounds braver, though.”
“Or something.” I didn’t mean to sound mad but. Paul thinking he wasn’t brave enough. Tupac Eminem.
Paul is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. In her own way, so is Lourdes. All she went through, totally alone, before she even knew about changelings. That makes her like Galalena. Who is the bravest person I’ve never met except by reading her journals.
Galalena’s journals. I took them from the Trigg library, plus some of Aunt Axi’s poetry. Some people shouldn’t borrow books. Especially not one–of–a–kind volumes. A few were stuck in the trunk of Lewis’ car and some I’d forgotten to grab from the Trigg cottage.
But the rest were stuffed in my backpack.
All of a sudden. Poof. A great idea.
My voice vibrated, I was so excited. “There was a changeling, long ago. Galalena. She had to figure out what that meant, who she was, and she wrote about it. She learned that changelings appear in times of crisis to stop bad guys. Galalena interviewed bad guys, to understand how to stop them. She wrote about that, too. We should read those journals together.”
It was the middle of the night but suddenly we were alert.
Lourdes sounded nervous. “If you say so – okay. But – can we get a snack first?”
Paul groaned and protected his stomach. Which was how I felt. Still packed with dinner.
Lourdes said, “You’re right about – everything. Being too full – needing to read the bad guy journals. But I need – to stall first.”
Honesty is something I like the most about Lourdes. The only way she can lie is if she doesn’t know the truth. – sE
DD – After dinner, it was impossible to stay nervous about whatever Franklin was doing. About whoever had followed us. I mean, when you eat food that great.
Jokes aside, Franklin seemed like he could handle stuff. And Grayfast stretched beside the fireplace, more relaxed than I’d ever seen him.
Fireplaces, plural. Whenever we changed rooms, Grayfast would stroll in and get comfortable in the new room.
It was easy to figure out which bedroom was ours because the other doors were locked. Or, they would only open for certain people and we weren’t those people.
Just past the bathroom was a door that opened, to a long room with six beds.
“How is this tiny cabin so big when we’re inside it?” I asked Paul.
“I don’t know,” he said like it was an everyday thing.
Lourdes muttered and gestured. “The woods are that way – the middle cabin is this way. A long room can’t be here – the cabin ended back there!”
Paul said, “This might be one house disguised as separate cabins.”
“Everweer can do that?” I didn’t bother to ask why would they want to.
“They, we, can,” Paul sounded proud but embarrassed.
Which reminded me how little I understood.
The library door let us enter and that’s how we spent the night. Trying to learn. Franklin’s library was as big as the Trigg library and a lot less frustrating – many books had pages we could read. (Was the library different or were we changing?)
At first we had separate missions, all suggested by me. Lourdes looked for information about sirenes. Paul hunted for anything about where the sculptor, Bruce, could be. I focused on identifying the locations of Bruce’s mausoleum carvings.
Lourdes propped a book against a shelf. “This one is way heavy. Check it – ‘the sirene cannot dwell long among us. Until she returns, those under her sway will be released, cut deep by abandonment, with no memory of occupation, but sense of –’ bereftment?”
Paul said, “That means he’ll miss her like crazy.” He looked at me in a way that gave me ladybug tingles from head to toes.
Lourdes slammed the book shut, muttered, “Everybody but me.”
Paul and I stopped ogling each other.
Lourdes switched to my search and she had a great idea. The mausoleum carvings showed real places. She would try to learn about the places while I searched about the carvings.
So she’d know what to look for, I wrote down everything I could about each carving. I remembered more when I wasn’t trying to, so I took the time to write to you, D. Though we all feel like we need to hurry. – sE
DD – Franklin was gone too long. I lost my confidence. That we came to the right place. Understood which answers we needed. Really could trust Franklin.
When I feel it, Lourdes feels it. Or vice versa. She stopped lounging. “Should we – leave or something?”
Paul shrugged, “We have to be somewhere.”
“And the animals,” I reminded. They were right beside us and completely chill.
Something I don’t have in common with Lourdes. She switches moods, black white, so fast. She resumed lounging. “I hope he has lots of sauce – cranberries. What’s your favorite Thanksgiving food?”
Paul shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to a Thanksgiving dinner. We didn’t celebrate human holidays. Except Fourth of July.”
“Alcatur was always fond of explosives.”
We startled at Franklin’s voice coming from a corner. When did he arrive?
The corner had two swinging doors. They shared a pole like a revolving door which let them move without bumping. Franklin swung the left door, then the right. Each led to hallways. “Bathroom to left. You’ll refresh after your travels then join me at the table, to right.” And he was gone again.
Once again, Grayfast went first. He headed straight for the delicious smells.
The wood on the walls was so rough it snagged my sleeve. I washed my hands and face as quick as I could.
Water came to the sink when you pumped an iron lever. We pumped for each other. Otherwise the water trickled away before we could move our hands from the lever to the sink.
Dinner was one bowl after another, piled on an indoor picnic table. The only sounds were the tappings of serving spoons as we filled our plates, and the crackling of that room’s fireplace.
Franklin kept a beaming smile but he said, “Were you aware that someone followed you here? Well, that is of no import now, but I must leave you for the evening to attend to my uninvited visitor. Please confine yourselves to this cabin. My library and your beds are just past the bathroom. I shall see you at breakfast.”
And he was gone, and we were staring at each other over full plates of food.
“Someone followed us?” one of us repeated.
“Natalie?” one of us guessed.
“Franklin didn’t sound super worried though, right?”
Bit by bit, we got each other to start eating. Whatever was happening, it would be worse if we stayed hungry. – sE
DD – We stood at the edge of the woods while the sun finished setting. All five of us, staring at the black box silhouettes of the cabins.
Did the house have protections? Should we go up and knock or call out from here?
A cabin door opened. Glowing yellow light made sharp black edges around the silhouette of a tall man. Franklin. His long ropey hair swung like he made his own breeze.
He couldn’t possibly see us but he called to us, “Welcome. I’m glad you’re ready to come inside and warm up.”
Grayfast was the first on the platform deck. Franklin stepped aside with a little bow. Grayfast flicked his silhouette tail and continued inside.
Lourdes and I let our changeling shimmer show and as we passed, Franklin whispered like he was thanking us, “You are most welcome here.”
I turned to give Lourdes a see–I–told–you–he–likes–changelings. Instead I intruded on Paul’s privacy. Franklin had Paul in a bear hug. Franklin said, “Your father’s aura, your mother’s eyes.” Paul started crying and Franklin murmured, “Yes, we need them home.”
It was such a big deal to be safe inside Franklin’s house, on the road to important answers. My reaction? Pure selfish jealousy that everybody could hug Paul except me.
When we were separated, I missed Paul so much I had a whole–body toothache and I was so grateful that he was back but who knows how long until we can have an actual reunion. We haven’t even had a chance to talk by ourselves!
What snapped me out of my sulking was when I noticed my bottom lip. I was pouting.
Fortunately, only I noticed.
Lourdes was wowing about a crackling fireplace set up with lounging pillows and mugs of hot cider. Grayfast and Scatterlegs stretched out across rocks that lined the fireplace. Lourdes flopped on the pillows and warmed her hands around a mug.
“Have you had dinner?” Franklin asked.
“Nope. Or – lunch. Or – breakfast,” Lourdes replied.
Franklin chuckled. “Now I understand what compelled me to cook so much on Thanksgiving. I’ll prepare the leftovers.” He left us by the fire.
It was my turn to cry. Thanksgiving LEFTovers? Thanksgiving passed by and I didn’t even know.
My parents made a huge deal out of Thanksgiving, a giant party of a meal, invite anyone who might be alone.
I was crazy emotional tonight. I get that way when I’ve been stressing then the stress calms down.
Maybe Lourdes has that in common, in an opposite kind of way. “Can’t believe it – I’m crying!” Lourdes said. “So relieved – I missed their evil Thanksgiving! I really did it – I escaped.”
Got away or got left behind. It all depends. – sE
DD – Did our animals show no reaction to Natalie’s owl because the owl is okay or because they didn’t notice it?
Lourdes debated whether we had seen our animals make a mistake. We had some laughs trying to figure out a way to ask them if they were ever wrong.
“‘Do you ever think like a two–legs?’ might work with Grayfast.”
“Two–legs. Good one. Scatterlegs calls us No–tails.”
“Makes sense.” I copied her dangling from branches, then pulled my knees up so I could swing. She copied my swing, added a twist. I copied her twist, my branch broke, I crashed to ground.
I wasn’t hurt but the crash was way loud. It echoed and faded and the woods got very quiet. Dark soon.
Lourdes and I always think the same things these days. “I’m not staying here tonight,” she said.
Paul was still drawing. Lourdes fished Scatterlegs out of her pocket. “Please – help.” She stared at the ground, then explained, “I’m picturing what I want. Scatterlegs to get Paul’s attention.” She opened her hand but held it so that Scatterlegs could get back in her pocket if he preferred.
The lizard jumped from her hand onto the ground, then raced over to Grayfast, who was cleaning his face after what was apparently a delicious meal. The lizard ran around Grayfast a few times.
Lourdes said, “I guess I didn’t – oh, hey, I did!”
Scatterlegs zipped across the clearing and scurried all over Paul’s chest back arms. Paul kept drawing.
I put an image in my mind. Paul standing up, Paul seeing us instead of his drawing. Before I could try Lourdes’ technique and share that image with Grayfast, the cat sauntered toward Paul. I think maybe Scatterlegs got Grayfast involved.
You know how cats are. If they want you to notice them you will notice them. They know just where to sit to be maximum in the way. Grayfast climbed into Paul’s lap, which blocked Paul’s view of his hand, then bit at Paul’s fingers every time they moved.
Paul looked around like he didn’t know where he was, then petted Grayfast, who sauntered away with a my–work–here–is–done. Paul spotted us watching him and sighed, “Is it the same day?”
“Barely but yes. You’ve been drawing and we’ve been seeing some stuff.” We told him about our afternoon. Meanwhile, he stomped in goofy circles – both his legs had gone to sleep. Limp stomp stumble limp.
“What did you draw, anyway?” I wondered.
“Somewhere I don’t recognize. Somewhere new.”
Sorry to hear that. Everywhere that Paul draws, we seem to wind up. I was hoping Franklin’s could be our last stop, not our next stop. – sE
DD – If the owl noticed us it gave no sign. We’d slip back to Paul, creep to the edge of the woods to watch the owl circle the cabins. At last it flapped away. Franklin stepped outside and stared over the lake like there was something to watch in the vanished speck of owl. The way he squinted, he looked so wise. I wanted to leap onto the deck platform so he could crush me into his chest for protection.
He stepped back inside the cabin and Lourdes made a disappointed grunt.
“Same here,” I said.
Franklin opened a cabin door to grab an armful of firewood from a big stack. Light gleamed inside but when he shut the door there was no sign of people or warmth, just the gray reflected sky.
“He came out a different cabin this time!”
Lourdes said, “Connected – underground?”
“That would be so Everweer.”
The sun slid behind mountains and the temperature dropped ridiculously fast.
How Paul could still be air drawing. We cracked unfunny jokes about how frozen he would have to get before he would stop drawing. Meanwhile, Lourdes helped me arrange space blankets around Paul.
“Must be so intense – inside his head,” Lourdes said.
Embarrassing. “I never thought about that. I always assume everyone has it easy except me.”
Lourdes made a noise. “When Scatterlegs got – in my head. I thought it would explode – literally.”
“Yes! Same with Grayfast!”
“But it got easier – fast. He’s amazingly smart.”
Now that she mentioned it! That described what happened with Grayfast, too. Lame that I didn’t notice on my own. But I did realize, “Grayfast hasn’t been connecting like that lately. Maybe he has learned a gentler way.”
Lourdes reacted. “Hey! Same with Scatterlegs.”
“What’s it like – the world through a lizard’s eyes?”
“I can barely – it doesn’t fit our words. Everything is light or shadow. Hot or cold. Food or eater. But his thoughts are as complicated as a person’s.”
Scatterlegs ran into our clearing and zipped over Lourdes’ shoulder, into her pocket. Lourdes frowned and turned to watch Grayfast trot in, munching something furry.
“Gag–ola,” Lourdes said.
“He does what’s necessary,” I said. Grayfast never grossed me out.
“The animals weren’t concerned – about the owl. So we – don’t have to be?” Lourdes leaped up to dangle from tree branches. She wasn’t good at sitting still.
But she’s really good at not caring what I’m writing. I can write in front of her with no awkward.
Dangerous and helpful can be so tangled. Another reason to thank Natalie – she put Lourdes in my life. – sE
DD – Good news, Paul gets lost in drawings less often. Bad news, he goes way deeper in his trance or whatever it is. Attack by fire–breathing dragons and he’d keep drawing while the paper burned. Good news, we were not under attack right then.
As far as we could tell. Lourdes and I stood at the edge of the scraggly woods, studying what had to be Franklin’s property. Three boxy cabins made of rough thick worn wood. Each sat in the middle of a wood platform, a deck without railings.
The land was dirt and rock down to the lake. But behind one cabin were thick gnarled vines and empty planter beds. No parked cars. No curtains or lights through the cabin windows, which were old glass that reflected the view and made the mountains look wavy.
“Are those buildings deserted? What are your thoughts? ” Lourdes asked like she was interviewing me.
“I think not cuz that’s a vegetable garden.”
“So that’s – what that is.” Like she had never seen one before. “Makes sense – no town. A gas station store – lousy and expensive.”
“You sound like you’re planning to move here.”
“Sure, maybe – when we’re done. I’m always looking for – somewhere.” Her embarrassed smile made me proud that she trusted me enough to share a wish.
The way she said, ‘When we’re done.’ Like we were on a mission. I started to ask what she thought our mission was.
“Wait – is that Owl Leader?”
Circling above Franklin’s property. The silver head, black body owl that brought Lewis and Lourdes and me to the cemetery to rescue Grayfast and Paul. It was Natalie’s animal, so she must be nearby.
Which stabbed me with guilt and fear. At the cemetery, Natalie led Ezra away from Grayfast and Paul’s hiding place. Thanks to her owl, I was rescued from the Trigg beach cottage and reunited with my guys. But I hadn’t had a single thought that thanked her or worried did she get away from Ezra and Alcatur okay.
Because. She scared me. Even though she was another changeling and had done so much to help. Something about Natalie.
Lourdes sounded scared, too. “That lady – she lives here?”
Apparently not. A door slammed and Franklin ran from a cabin, laughing. His hair looked like cotton candy. A giggly little girl chased after him, waving a hairbrush. The owl flapped its huge wings. Franklin looked up, stopped laughing, crushed the girl into his chest. His words shot our way like bullets. “Inside. No questions. Now.”
Which isn’t how you would act if the owl or its person lived with you, right? – sE
DD – At last the highway had a turn–off.
“This way,” Paul led us down a steep gravel road. “At the bottom, we turn right.” He looked around. “I guess I have been here before.”
“Or you saw it in drawings,” I reminded him.
“I keep forgetting I have powers now, which is even stranger than having the powers,” Paul said.
“What are we asking the wizard for? Woah–yeah!” Lourdes slipped on the loose rock but turned her slide into a championship sprint.
“Whether my Aunt is safe,” Paul said.
At the exact same moment I said, “Aunt Axi! Where she is.” We tromped down the steep road, calling out ideas as we went.
Lourdes added, “How to save Lewis – from the sirene. If he wants – to be saved.”
“And what the mausoleum carvings mean.”
“What happened to my parents,” Paul added.
“How to stop Alcatur,” I said.
“Changelings – everything about them,” Lourdes said. “And – what’s for lunch.”
A scrape of gravel behind us made Lourdes and I jump. We turned just in time to see Paul go down a different road. We followed and didn’t bother to complain that he nearly ditched us. His fingers were sketching in air. He was lost in a drawing.
“Our powers control us – not vice versa,” Lourdes sighed.
“Only for now, we’ll figure everything out,” I said.
“Sure – right,” Lourdes disagreed.
“I have a bunch of books written by a changeling from long ago,” I patted my backpack. “She figured everything out.” Right before she vanished forever.
“Okay!” Lourdes said with actual hope. We ran to catch up with Paul.
One more turn and he disappeared. We ran downhill, back uphill. He was nowhere. Fortunately, Grayfast and Scatterlegs waited at the edge of – what else, it’s where we always wind up – a patch of scraggly woods.
Under the trees, Paul knelt on the ground, air drawing. When he does air drawings I can’t tell what he’s drawing, so I set paper and pencil by him. He ignored them. Us. Everything.
On the other side of the woods is Franklin’s home. I think. We’ll know for sure as soon as Paul comes back to us.
Lourdes and I sat and waited for Paul.
“You’re glittering – you know?” Lourdes said.
“Oops, thanks.” I hadn’t noticed that I’d slipped back into changeling reality. Now that I was getting used to all the extra sensations, I went changeling without realizing it. I needed to get in a new habit of hiding my nature. Galalena’s journal made a big point about that. Changelings have to stay secret when possible.
“Things would be so much weirder without each other,” Lourdes said.
“I was just thinking that,” I said. But I also thought the opposite. Can’t seem to stick to one opinion nowadays. – sE
DD – Walking along the highway was creepier after dawn. Lewis could loom up at any moment. The road was mostly empty and when something drove near, the sound of tires arrived before we could spot movement. The tires echoed, so no telling which way anything was coming or what it was. Car, truck, motorcycle (brrr!).
The mountains were white with snow. The sun glared strong but the air stayed frosty. I bet if I tossed water it would freeze before it hit the ground. I couldn’t win that bet, though, because we ran out of water last night.
“Purple!” The sun sparkled on purple metal, rounding a curve. If we had to flee, this wouldn’t be a terrible place. Off the side of the highway, the slope was less scary here. But no need to flee. A giant purple truck rumbled past and followed its echo around a curve.
I never expected to fear Lewis or his red and purple Buick.
On the gas station map, the turn–off to Franklin was two inches away. That equaled hours of walking. We hadn’t missed the turn–off because there were none. Just steep crumbly slopes to the lake.
This area was about as opposite of our corn field as you could get. The only flat surface was the lake. Even the lake’s beach was uneven. Everywhere, mountains. Rounded, sharp, all heights, repeating until they blurred into sky.
And basically no plants. Sometimes scrawny trees. Mostly, rocks grew here. The hillsides were bumpy with loose rocks of every size.
It was the most beautiful place I ever saw. Twice! When the wind paused and the lake got still, the silver water reflected shadowy mountains and sky that was too cold to be blue.
Paul swung over the railing and dangled his legs off the edge of the highway. “Good spot for breakfast.”
I fished cereal bars from my backpack.
“More thirsty, less hungry,” Lourdes wolfed her bar and looked around. “This planet looks better without people.”
We stared at the lake. “Like my Dad used to say, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” I mentioned Dad without choking up, which was awful. I was getting used to losing him.
“I’ll be Cowardly Lion,” Lourdes goofed.
“Tin Man,” Paul raised his hand.
“Guess that makes me Toto. Right, Dorothy?” I asked Grayfast as he strolled down the slope.
We laughed so hard I lost my stress about Lewis. Who was my fault.
“Hope Franklin’s not a wizard,” Lourdes said and we went crazy again.
When I could breathe I said, “Good thing nobody gave us any rings to carry.”
Grayfast strolled back up the slope, flicking his tail like our laughs were flies. But the way Scatterlegs skittered, I swear he got the jokes. – sE
DD – Grayfast showed me the view from the back seat.
… Lewis kept looking over his shoulder. He drove like a cartoon, curving with steering wheel turns. He never looked out the windshield. When he wasn’t wincing over his shoulder he glared to his side.
A blur shot from the passenger seat, hit Lewis on the face, flashed away.
Lewis grabbed his face. With both hands! The car swerved and now he looked out the windshield. He yelled and yanked the wheel and must have stayed on the road. Anyway, no crash.
I smelled blood because Grayfast did. Long bloody scratches on Lewis’ cheek. Tiny blood dots on the dashboard, where Scatterlegs jumped after scratching Lewis. The lizard crouched, ready to jump again.
When Grayfast thought about me, he filled with fondness for his baby bird. When Grayfast looked at Scatterlegs, he filled with respect.
Lewis shot an arm out, yelled, “Stay away.” His anger heated the air inside the car. His voice changed like he swallowed his tongue. “I’ll catch you. I’ll eat you.” …
Next to me, Lourdes said, “Ha – right!” I guess she was watching through Scatterlegs.
She didn’t believe Lewis but I did. He sounded totally insane.
… He twisted the wheel and shoved his legs like he was braking with both feet. Everything jerked. He jumped out and opened all the doors, roaring, “Out! Out!”
Grayfast sauntered away from the car with Scatterlegs riding his back. Lewis slammed all the doors and peeled out. Grayfast slipped inside a bush, out of the wind…
“They’re waiting for us – that way,” Lourdes pointed.
“The same way to Franklin,” Paul said from my other side.
How they could know. Dark empty highway all looks the same.
The gas station had the only lights anywhere. It was hard to leave that ugly green glow but easier to walk the highway when no light blinded us. We walked with chicken wings, hands in pockets for warmth, elbows out for balance.
The wind skidded clouds. Cloudy. Clear. Cloudy. Clear. We walked faster during clear times, because 1) Moonlight showed where to put our feet. 2) The temperature dropped a million degrees.
A huge truck whooshed by and for a second we could see. Right off our side was a steep crumbly drop into black.
I stumbled. My feet were so cold I couldn’t walk straight. I could barely ask, “How far is Franklin’s road?”
“We might have passed it,” Paul mumbled. His lips sounded stiffer than mine.
“Here they are!” Lourdes slip–crawled over the steep crumbly edge.
We slipped and scrambled downhill to where a broken pine tree made a tent with snapped branches. Inside, the animals waited. And scampered as we joined them on hands and knees.
“Warmer in here,” Paul noticed.
We huddled with our backs pressed together and waited for daylight. – sE
DD – How does anyone open a car door with a slam? Lewis got out for a gas fill up, his voice a hammer on glass. “Writing a confession?”
“Just writing. Just something to do,” I replied.
“Driving is boring too. You can’t drive, only I’m insured!”
On the seat beside me Grayfast stopped lounging.
“You explained about the driving already, it’s fine. I write all the time, it’s my diary.”
“I’ll read the parts about me,” Lewis ‘laughed’.
“So far I don’t let anyone read it but when I do, sure.” I did a decent job sounding friendly, shy, normal, considering. Inside I was screaming. No way could Lewis see my diary and learn more about the situation. Knowledge could become a weapon in his hands. Or whoever controlled his hands.
I had no actual clue what was going on with Lewis and maybe I could only see my own experience. But I suspected that the sirene was in Lewis’ head, like Grayfast gets in mine.
When the sun dropped behind the mountains, night came so fast. So dark. All black except on curves, where our headlights caught the snowbanks that lined the road. More like ice banks.
Ice sculpture. My eyes avoided the snowbanks. I didn’t want to see the melting faces of Hansel and Gretel. The ice sculpture that ruined the food at that party where I was mean to Matty.
I wasn’t mean to Lewis but I felt just as bad. If only I never gave Lourdes his address.
Lewis was humming, shoulders bopping. He was suddenly loose and cheerful, which made the rest of us more tense.
Another gas stop. Lourdes shot outside before Lewis stopped the car. Bathroom break! Great idea. Or excuse. To get farther away from Lewis.
The air was frosty outside. While Lewis pumped gas, he blew breath in smoky swirls and complimented himself, “Best ones yet.”
The changes weren’t as obvious when he was driving but at every gas stop, he was weirder. At first he was just different. Then strange. Then angry. Now crazy.
Lourdes and Paul were in the back of the gas station mini–mart. Stapled there was a ragged faded map.
“You – we are here.” Lourdes touched a pink dot, formerly red.
Near the dot stretched a huge pale blob. Leaning close I made out the name. “Mono Lake! We made it?!”
Paul touched a road that crossed the highway a couple inches up. “This goes to Franklin.”
Franklin, who might help Lewis as well as us.
“No!” Lourdes grabbed her head and ran toward the gas pumps. I was already running, hitting mini–mart shelves, because I was seeing through Grayfast’s eyes. Inside the car.
The gas pumps were empty. The car was gone. Lewis was gunning it down the highway. With the animals still inside. – sE
DD – All I want is to be out of this Tupac car, alone with Paul and Grayfast.
Lourdes probably knows I wrote that, she notices everything. Driving me crazy. Which she notices. I wish she would get mad at me. At some level I know it’s Eminem to blame her. Instead she stares out the windshield like that will give me privacy.
I slide off and on my surfboard, in and out of the changeling ocean. Every time I make the switch, Lourdes twitches. She feels the change, she can’t help it, she can’t give me privacy. She can’t give anyone privacy.
She has always been that way and I just started noticing, or this is how changelings get and she has evolved farther along than I am. I would ask her which, but nobody is talking.
Grayfast is behind me, on the shelf under the back window. Scatterlegs is on the dashboard by Lourdes. They seem to be lounging in the sun but I know Grayfast well enough to know that he is watching. Alert.
Paul stays very still, like he’s listening but I don’t know to what. No music, no conversation.
The tires rumble and the highway has more and more rough patches. Along the road are long white ledges. Snow!
“Actual winter. Actual mountains,” Lewis says. It’s the kind of thing Lewis would say, but it doesn’t feel like Lewis is with us.
Lewis is the focus of everyone’s attention. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s still driving like a driver’s education demo. Perfect position, eyes always moving. Every time his eyes see Paul in the rear–view mirror, they shoot hate daggers.
We stop for gas every hour or so. Fortunately, amazingly, when we were in the Trigg house Paul realized we’d need money and filled the backpack with cash. After getting it out of the trunk. Like we might have to make a fast getaway. But from what?
Every stop is the same. Lewis opens his hand over his shoulder, Paul sets cash in it even though Lewis has leftover cash from other stops. Lewis leaves the car, sticks his head back in. “Try not to trap or kill anybody while I’m gone.” He glares at each of us. Longest at Paul. Lewis slams the door, Lourdes swears in Spanish, Paul zips his backpack. Scatterlegs runs along the dash, keeping Lewis in view during the fill up.
This stop there’s more. Lourdes turns around. “He’s going to murder us – in our sleep.”
Paul replies, “No, Franklin will protect us.”
Notice nobody says ha ha don’t be silly. – sE
DD – We couldn’t get through to Lewis about how the sirene had to go and would be okay. Oh sure, we said words and he heard them. But. He wasn’t really there. Or we weren’t. Like he was shipwrecked and thought he was imagining us.
He hugged his knees and rocked. And stared at the scratched words on the door. “You’re bragging about hurting her.”
“No, I wrote a warning. No one can go inside until her attack is stopped and that takes special equipment and a lot of time. It’s okay for us to leave, though. People who don’t understand the warning won’t be capable of breaking in to this house, anyway,” Paul said.
“I want to leave,” Lourdes said.
Lewis stood. “My car keys. You have them.”
It was like a stranger was imitating Lewis’ voice. And the way he stood. Taller and further away. Before, one look at Lewis and you knew everything. Now his eyes were full of secrets.
We all stared at him, including Grayfast and Scatterlegs.
Lourdes tossed him the keys.
Lewis looked us over. “Lourdes and Ella are blurry.”
Lourdes stopped her changeling shimmering. “Is that better?”
Lewis said, “Yeah,” and headed for the woods. Except Lewis should have been crazy curious how she did that.
Lourdes snapped back into shimmering. “He’s in trouble – or we are.”
“Our animals are still calm, though,” I said. Which kept me calm–ish. “Franklin might know what’s going on with Lewis.”
“Who?” Lourdes asked.
I explained about my conversation with Franklin. So long ago now. This day had become nothing but sirene attack. Which maybe was continuing inside Lewis.
We went through the woods to the car. Way up ahead, the fabric on Lewis’ pants rustled as he walked. The sun was low and the car must be waiting in shade now, because the air around it was cool. I couldn’t see it but I knew that. From staying in changeling reality. I was getting more information without getting overwhelmed by it.
Lourdes asked, “Where is Franklin?”
Paul said, “Mono Lake. Actually I think he lives more than one place but Aunt Axi always visited him there.”
“You’ve been drawing Mono Lake,” Lourdes realized. “And Lewis has been there.”
Yup. Mono Lake here we come. – sE
DD – “She’s not dead, she went back to where she comes from.” Paul crawled to the porch step and kept talking to Lewis. “She couldn’t stay here, she’s dangerous to us.”
Lewis stayed curled in a sobbing heap.
Paul told Lourdes, “Watch him. We have to go inside to make sure nothing else gets through.”
Good thing Paul knew what to do, I was ready to collapse on the walkway with Lewis.
At the front door, Paul made a gesture that I recognized. Giving me permission to enter. “Come on. And take care. Every place the sirene touched will be a booby trap.”
“Don’t touch – – –” His lips moved but I couldn’t hear with Grayfast freaking inside my head.
BABY BIRD DANGER IN NEST
I hoped Grayfast was only sensing the booby traps. I kept sending him one thought: I have to.
Paul and I jogged through the house. In every room all the furniture was in tiny pieces but the structure of the house, the carvings, the art, looked okay.
But they weren’t okay. I was still open to changeling reality and I could feel the bad areas. Spinning, sticky – and growing.
“Stop!” I screamed and Paul did. He didn’t sense sticky tendrils reaching from a bannister. “I better lead,” I yelled and curved us wide of the problem. If we didn’t get out soon, the tendrils would block our escape.
Luckily my scream also pushed Grayfast out of my head. So hard to think with his warnings blasting between my ears.
We made it to the secret screen room. There were no sticky bad areas there or in the secret library. Interesting, if I had time to think about it.
In the secret screen room, the wall still glowed but no longer seemed frozen. Pink swirled with white.
“I think the sirene came through here and was already holding the way open when we were trying to disconnect,” Paul reached for the controls in the chair, then waved me toward them. “The person who opens a connection has best chance of closing it.”
I pushed the connect button sequence in reverse. Like we had tried so many times before. This time, the swirling colors faded and the wall became a wall.
Paul gave me a look that sent a hug kiss high–five.
Invisible sticky tendrils had grown to fill the front of the house but we got out the back.
Lewis was still in a heap on the front walkway. Lourdes sat beside him. Scatterlegs skittered across Lewis’ back.
I sat on Lewis’ other side and Grayfast was there instantly, nuzzling me like crazy.
Paul used a key to scratch a giant warning in the front door. SIRENE ATTACK. – sE
DD – Sometimes sirenes numb their victims and that happened to Lewis, Paul explained. The longer Lewis was out of the window seat, the more pain he showed.
While the rest of us discussed ideas to lure the sirene, Lewis shifted around like he couldn’t find a good position and finished each breath with a whimper.
Lourdes noticed. “You might need a hospital. Not for cracked ribs. But – broken. Or – a punctured lung. Sometimes liver damage feels the same.” She asked him tons of questions about where and how it hurt. “Cracked ribs, sounds like. And something – with your collar bone.” She showed him a way to breathe that hurt less.
“Do you have doctors in your family?” Paul asked.
“My parents taught their kids lots about injuries,” Lourdes said with a don’t–ask. “I vote for the porch plan.”
Paul and I agreed. The porch plan. We would use Lewis and Paul as bait to lure the sirene outside.
Paul opened the front door of the Trigg house, then he and Lewis sat on the steps off the front porch, their backs to the open door.
Lourdes and I couldn’t sit with them because Scatterlegs and Grayfast insisted on staying beside us. If the sirene knew about changelings, seeing the animals so close would guarantee she’d get help.
Lourdes and I couldn’t even watch. To keep our animals far enough away, we had to go through the woods and wait in the car.
Horrible to walk away. Paul sat beside Lewis but looked so alone. Lourdes waved good luck from the woods and Lewis called, “Can you sit in the back from now on?” So the sirene could sit beside him in the car.
Lourdes didn’t answer but when we got to the car she sat in the driver’s seat.
Grayfast and Scatterlegs stretched in sun on the car’s hood. They acted calm again but Grayfast kept his mind closed to me like he did when he was battling danger. In the bright sun, Scatterlegs had skin like abalone shell and Grayfast’s ears had white tips.
The animals leaped up and darted into the woods. An instant later, wails screams shouts hit the car. I ran almost as fast as Lourdes back to the Trigg house.
Our plan worked but it missed something. Important. How it would affect Lewis to see the sirene get hurt by the protections.
Paul and Lewis wrestled on the front walkway, Paul to keep Lewis away from the porch. Lewis got an arm free and Lourdes threw herself on top to keep him pinned.
At the open front door a black fog tornado spun. Red blobs shot away from the tornado and with every blob came a violent moan of pain. Even I felt sorry for the sirene. Whatever was happening must hurt insanely.
The tornado disintegrated. The only sound was Lewis crying. – sE
DD – We escaped the house through a back door while the sirene crashed around the front stairs. I hoped she wasn’t destroying the bannister carvings.
Paul invited us through the protections so we were safe to leave. As soon as we were past the protections, we made tons of noise and walked slowly and obviously toward the woods.
Here sirene, here sirene, come out and chase us.
But she didn’t.
Because she knew about the protections? Because Grayfast and Scatterlegs were looping in excited circles around us?
Paul said, “She may not understand that a window shows outside. She’s not a person.”
“Angel.” One guess who said that.
We sat at the edge of the woods like we were hiding, badly, and discussed how to lure her into the protections. The discussion took a while because we had to keep tricking Lewis.
Lourdes said, “We got out – let’s keep going. She didn’t follow – that’s a good thing.”
Paul said, “Eventually she’ll track us.”
“Scatterlegs and Grayfast must be expecting that.” I pointed to the middle of the field, where they hid in the weeds and watched the house like they were waiting to ambush somebody.
“Let’s go back for her. There’s room in my car for one more,” Lewis said.
Lourdes slapped a tree and said Spanish words that could only be swearing. No way around it. She’s jealous. She capital–L Likes Lewis. Whaaa? They’re probably about the same age but she is so much older than he is. I need to change my opinion of one of them.
Paul knew how to talk Eminem to Lewis with complete bogus sincerity. “Without the protections we can’t risk it, we don’t want to lead her into danger with us.”
“Of course. Thanks!” Lewis gushed. You had to worry about him: he couldn’t see how Paul made no sense. Lewis was a great game player because he was so logical. Now it was like his brain got fried.
“So what now – wait for her to wander out here?” Lourdes asked.
Paul spoke with long pauses. “No. She might see our animal friends and … call for … friends of her own. And those friends might sense the protections and … get greedy, hog them, not share with her. We need to convince her to come out here … soon, right away, by herself.”
Lewis stood. “Let’s go back and get her.”
Paul warned, “That’s a last resort. Every time anyone passes through the protections, there will be less for her.”
“What do you think we should do?” Lewis asked Lourdes.
“You don’t want to know,” she replied. And that was no Eminem. – sE
DD – Lewis has always been kind of spongy but that doesn’t explain how he could fit in that window seat. He couldn’t say how he got there.
He kept saying stuff like, “So beautiful. So angry. Made of smoke. How could anybody. I’m sorry! For what?”
We couldn’t get his attention.
We sat around my loft. I kept still for two reasons. Moving stirred clouds of ripped fabric that used to be the pillows. And I was listening hard to smashing destruction around the Trigg house. Not sure what I’ll do if the sounds head this way but I still want to know if they’re coming.
Lourdes and I looked out the windows a lot but Grayfast and Scatterlegs were out of view. They had run toward the front of the house. Where the smashing destruction was.
“If I know who is in here with us we’ll have a better chance of fighting him or her,” Paul said.
“Her. So beautiful. So angry. Made of smoke,” Lewis said.
“We know. You told us,” Lourdes got mad whenever Lewis mentioned the beautiful.
“Your family photo had rows of extra people in back. They looked made of smoke.” The really scary mean ones.
“I think it’s something else, more dangerous,” Paul said.
“They looked plenty dangerous,” I said in a mouse voice.
Paul nodded like it hurt to agree.
Crashing, smashing. Was the destruction moving closer?
“I have an idea,” I said.
Lourdes stopped fidgeting. Paul gave a Jedi nod.
Well. Maybe I had an idea. “Do all Everweer houses have protections like this one?”
Paul shook his head.
“How many people know about these protections?”
“Hardly anybody,” he said fast like I was on the right track.
“Instead of trying to fight the visitor, let’s lure her into the protections.”
“Yes we must protect her,” Lewis said.
We looked at each other. “Is he under a spell?” Lourdes asked.
Paul nodded, “I think I’m getting this.” He yanked paper from backpack, sketched fast. “Is this –”
Before he could finish asking, Lewis grabbed the paper and kissed the sketch.
“Wow,” Paul said. “A sirene is in the house with us. No matter what, don’t let her touch you.”
It was hard to think with all the crashing, but we made a plan to get rid of the sirene. We couldn’t discuss it directly because we had to trick Lewis about the details. It felt bad lying to him but what could we do. We had rescued his body but not his mind. Paul said, “We have to get safe before we can help Lewis more.”
Lewis said, “Save her first.”
It was almost funny. Except the sirene only had to touch us and we’d be in the same condition. Or worse – sE
DD – We talked fast. We didn’t know how much time we had.
Maybe Lewis went outside? No, the screaming would have been way worse if he walked into the house protections.
Maybe we should flee? No, we couldn’t ditch Lewis in the house.
“We have to find him,” I said for all of us. If he could just be okay. I would never call him Clueless again.
Lourdes let her changeling nature out. Her shimmering was like armor. “Lewis and us – we’re not the only ones in this house.”
She was right. I felt someone. Something. Else. My stomach dropped away from my head like I was biking downhill and hit a grease patch.
I slipped off my surfboard into my changeling ocean. The tingling came and as soon as I went changeling, I felt it under everything. Thick hulking danger.
Grayfast blurted feelings: Danger. Look big. Act strong. Danger.
The extra sensations of changeling reality overwhelmed me. But Lourdes seemed fine. It helped to know that fine was possible. I was using so much energy to ignore what I didn’t need. My mouth dropped open. I was panting!
Paul almost smiled about our shimmering. “Looks like we’re all set.”
We linked arms and, with Lourdes in the middle, went room to room to search for Lewis. And meet the danger, if we had to.
The kitchen was trashed. Broken everything. Blinds dangling. Refrigerator on its side!
“The Trigg family home,” Paul said, low and angry.
Next we checked my loft and I had to cling to Lourdes. Otherwise it would have knocked me over. The hate in the loft. Which was demolished. The colorful pillows were now piles of shredded cloth.
Single file upstairs to Paul’s room. It was fine. Untouched.
As we headed back through the loft, loud bangs and smashes came from the other side of the house. From one direction, then another, then another. We looked at each other.
“Three noise areas. Like we’re going to split up to investigate,” Lourdes said. “Nice try.”
Outside in the field, Grayfast darted back and forth, one way then the other. His thoughts were muffled. Were they being blocked by the thing in the house with us?
Maybe if we opened a window.
Lourdes reached for the window latch, stopped, sniffed. We could both smell it. Him.
I never thought of Lewis as having a smell but here the air smelled like him.
I raised the lid of the window seat and in the impossible too small compartment was Lewis. He was crammed in a position no body could be in.
Lourdes and I had to break the edges of the wooden seat. We used a rock on display in a cabinet.
Lewis couldn’t move so we dragged him out and unfolded him. He whimpered like a hurt walrus when we touched him. – sE
DD – I’m writing this in case it helps someone understand what happened to us.
To find where Franklin lives, Paul went to a shelf of thick books. “Every ten years, Everweer contribute to a report about all the families. Franklin’s family pages might have details that let us figure out where he is. I visited but only as a little kid.”
Paul read aloud, all the words he could see, and I took notes but the snips of sentences didn’t make sense. Lourdes and Lewis went back to their own conversation.
I kept listening for any noise from inside the screen room.
Paul murmured, “I keep hoping Franklin lives near Chicago. So we can visit that safe room.”
Where we could touch. “Me too!” I hid my blush between me and Paul.
Clueless Lewis joked to Lourdes, “Me three, you four.” If he knew what Paul and I were talking about, he’d turn redder than sunburn.
Paul opened the last of the thick multi–family reports. “We should leave after this.”
I had pages of notes. “If we go to a library and Google these descriptions, they could add up to a location.”
Lewis stood. “Bathroom. Where?”
Lourdes picked up lunch dishes, “By the kitchen. I’ll show you.”
Paul and I looked from each other to the bookcase that blocked the secret room. Should they stay here with us? If an enemy came through the screen could we fight it, with or without them?
“Pack what food makes sense,” Paul instructed.
And they were gone, lugging lunch remains.
Their footsteps faded and it went so quiet. No sound from Lewis or Lourdes. But also no noise from the screen room. And on the security cameras, Grayfast and Scatterlegs continued to patrol outside, watchful but calm.
Paul found the Franklin family section in the last report book and smiled. “At last! ‘Our sculptor cousin Bruce memorialized our view when he carved a tufa tower.’ Tufa. Franklin’s family lives near –”
“Mono Lake! Which you’ve been drawing.”
Motion on the security cameras. Outside, Grayfast and Scatterlegs dashed in crazy circles. No longer calm.
Like it came on the wind from miles away, a faint long scream filled the library.
Lourdes dashed in. “I can’t find Lewis. Did you hear the scream?”
Paul asked, “Is Lewis into practical jokes?”
I pointed at Grayfast and Scatterlegs, flipping out. That was no joke.
How can a person disappear inside a house? If one person disappears, will four people disappear? – sE
DD – The others were wandering downstairs, looking out one window after another. “What’s happening?” I asked.
All three spun around at the first sound of my voice. Paul gave a Jedi nod, Lourdes slapped her hands over her mouth to stop a yell.
Lewis. Started to cry. “You’re okay!”
Lourdes said, “You vanished.”
“I said I was going to the library.” Nobody did an oh–yeah–now–that–you–mention–it. “Didn’t I?”
“Not that I heard, but my hearing lately,” Paul waved a handful of photo drawings.
“He keeps drawing the same picture but it’s already perfect,” Lewis said.
Lourdes seemed mad. “You said nothing then – poof.”
“Weird. I thought I. Sorry.” I told you, D, but not them. Hmm.
Paul said something I missed. It was hard to focus, everything was so complicated. Oh. I was in changeling reality. I imagined that I climbed out of my ocean onto my surfboard. I stopped tingling and things got simple again.
When my shimmering disappeared, Paul gave another nod. “Are you hungry? We made lunch.”
“But we waited to eat. Waited – for you. No wonder I’m crabby,” Lourdes said.
“Let’s eat in the secret library, I need help there,” I said.
“Secret library,” Lewis gave a sigh that was part cheer.
With everyone lugging supplies, we only needed one trip from kitchen to library, which was good because I was more and more tense about the screen staying pink.
Paul spread a beach towel on the rug for a picnic and everyone placed their armfuls. Lewis spilled the dip because he was ogling the laptop with the security camera feeds.
Paul said, “These are private books that most people aren’t allowed to read. Please don’t touch anything. You could get hurt. Or somebody else could. That’s not much of a welcome.” He knelt to help Lewis rescue the dip.
“We feel you,” Lourdes said. “Thanks for – trusting us.”
“But only Paul can come in here,” I said from the opening to the inner room.
“We’ll build sandwiches.” Lourdes started giving Lewis assignments.
Paul followed me into the screen room, looking startled. I explained about my call to Franklin and my effort to disconnect. The screen was the same dull pink.
Paul messed with the chair arm controls. “Reversing the connect code should have worked. Someone is holding the connection open.”
“Maybe Franklin didn’t disconnect completely?”
“Maybe,” Paul said. “But doubtful. Well, there’s nothing we can do except be cautious.”
“We could run.”
“Nothing has happened yet, that is probably a good sign. Let’s find a book that says where Franklin lives, then get out of here.”
We closed the bookcase to the screen room and Lewis acted like we’d teleported to Christmas morning. Still clueless. Lourdes stopped eating. She could tell our situation wasn’t good. – sE
DD – A piece of paper made me feel much better.
In the secret room, inside the chair arm next to the screen’s control buttons was a folded piece of paper with Aunt Axi’s beautiful handwriting like every letter was art. She writes as fast as anybody but this comes out.
I touched the paper and memories filled me. Aunt Axi made me a dessert pizza. She giggled about reading Stephen King. She protected us in Chicago. She leaped from the burning van and ran from Alcatur.
She survived. The feeling was so strong. I had to believe it.
The paper said CHEAT SHEET. It showed the buttons and dials in the chair arm, with words and arrows saying what did what. Pushing buttons in different order created different codes. At the bottom were names with button codes. Franklin was the name I recognized.
The CHEAT SHEET was such an everyday thing it got less scary. What I was about to do. I pushed buttons. Open. Connect. Franklin.
The screen turned red and a deep voice grunted in pain. “Who?” Franklin gasped between grunts.
“Um.” I searched the CHEAT SHEET for the disconnect code.
The red screen washed into brown and orange. I call it a screen but it was more like an opening. The room had been stuffy and now had a draft.
The brown and orange were leaves on dirt. Franklin, knees bent, carried a crate of dirt and grunted with each step. He dumped the dirt onto a compost pile, searched the “screen”, found me.
“Brave and resourceful,” he greeted me and I felt hope. He dropped the crate and his hair bounced. His dreadlocks were in pigtails. I stared and he touched them. “My granddaughter coiffed me.”
Everweer and humans were all just people.
We flashed smiles.
“How may I be of service? We must speak but briefly.”
His voice was so gentle. My view blurred with tears and my mind raced from one question to the next. Which first?
Instead of careful questions, I gushed, “We don’t know. Whether to fight or run. Where to go or who to trust. What powers we have or how to use them. What the mausoleum means or why the carvings matter. We’re learning but not fast enough. What we should do or how we can find out.”
“Bring those children here, changeling.” Franklin reached his hand toward me then froze like he heard something. “Disconnect!”
His arm snapped and the view disappeared. The air got stale again but the wall stayed red. Was I disconnected? The CHEAT SHEET had no disconnect code! I reversed the connect code and the wall faded to faint pale pink.
I ran to the library and searched books for clues. About where Franklin was. About Everweer screens.
Gee what a surprise, the books were no help.
Maybe Paul knew. – sE
DD – Everweer books are annoying. Useless. No way to tell which ones could I read. It would take so long to check every book for readable words. I opened a few, saw words here and there. Nothing helpful.
I counted cases shelves books and flipped the latch to the secret room. The bookcase door slid aside with silly squeaks like mice were involved. I laughed, which made me notice how tense I was.
Of course I was tense. Aunt Axi had warned me it was dangerous. What I was about to do. Trying to contact Franklin, the mausoleum architect. Because he might know about the mausoleum carvings.
I stared at the wall where Franklin had appeared for Aunt Axi. To connect with him, I would open a connection to enemies. That I wouldn’t know how to fight.
If I could even figure out how to connect. Did the connection require powers? I searched the room for levers or dials. Nothing. Not even a light switch. I couldn’t find a motion sensor either, if that was why the ceiling lights glowed when I stepped inside the room.
“You’ll get it Ella, you can do this,” I gave myself a pep talk. Out loud. Words are more real than thoughts.
This was basically an empty room – not many hiding places. “Sure. You can do this.” My pep talk turned sarcastic. I flopped in the chair where Aunt Axi had talked with Franklin. I smacked my hands on the arms. Frustration is my least favorite feeling.
My exhale sounded like a jet engine. I held my breath until I couldn’t.
Oh. Aha. Back when I smacked the chair arms, one of them sounded hollow.
So Everweer. One chair arm slid to reveal a secret compartment. With buttons and dials.
I had done it. Found the screen controls. Now I was like a gif animation that repeats. Reach toward the controls, pull away. Toward. Away. Toward.
Away. Tupac. I was scared to push the buttons.
I stomped back to the secret library. An empty bookshelf gave me courage. It once held Galalena’s journals, now stuffed in the trunk of Lewis’ car. Galalena tried to figure out her role as a changeling by interviewing bad guys. She was super brave. So were the other changelings she met.
I wasn’t alone. Doh.
I imagined slipping off a surfboard into the ocean. My changeling tingling started. I reached my mind out to Grayfast. He and Scatterlegs were keeping watch outside. He was still calm and stayed that way when I shared thoughts about contacting Franklin. If he understood me, he approved.
OK I could do this.
I’m back in the library but the frustration is gone. I’m stalling but it’s fine. I’m writing a list of questions so I don’t forget to ask Franklin anything. That’s my last excuse. – sE
DD – We stood at the edge of the woods. Across the field, the windows of the Trigg house were pink with sunrise.
“Should we go in?” Paul wondered.
“I need to try it but I can’t decide for anybody else,” I said.
“I’m good either way,” Lourdes said in a no voice.
“Where you live. I want to see it,” Lewis said. Which made me angry. Clueless Lewis. True, he doesn’t have the background information. But couldn’t he notice how nervous we were?
“Staring longer won’t make it safer. Come on,” Paul led us across the field. “I’ll check inside first. Then I’ll open the front door, invite you to enter, and cross the threshold in front of each of you. That should permit you to enter.”
We stopped where the field met the driveway.
Paul handed me his backpack and held on to it after I took it. Our hug goodbye. “It’ll take me several minutes to check inside.”
He entered his house.
Grayfast and Scatterlegs stood beside us, Scatterlegs on Grayfast’s back. Friends again, not hunter and prey. I wished they would go with Paul but I was relieved they stayed with us.
I pictured Paul checking from room to room. How many secret rooms did he know? How long would those take to check? He must have walked fast because I was surprised at how soon he opened the front door.
With a wave and a call, he invited us inside. Clueless ran up the porch steps and inside, right away. Lourdes and I didn’t move. We didn’t have to ask each other, did we remember. My head touching the house protections. My blood beret.
Sometimes you have to assume you’ll be okay. We walked up the steps.
And I was. We were. It was.
Grayfast and Scatterlegs wouldn’t follow. They stayed in the field. From the porch, Lourdes and I and made noises to lure Grayfast like he was some normal cat. He ignored us.
Scatterlegs disappeared into the weeds. The cat trotted away like he was following the lizard.
“They won’t come in? Or can’t?” Lourdes asked.
“I’m going to try to ask Grayfast,” I said. Lourdes snorted like she got why I was uncertain. Then she nodded and went quiet, like I did. SUCH a relief to know another changeling.
I pushed into Grayfast’s mind and felt only calm.
Lourdes shrugged, “I guess the house is okay for us.”
We went inside and Paul showed us around. Lourdes and Lewis were all, no way you live here. Which reminded me how amazing the Trigg house is. But mostly being inside made me notice the giant hole left by Aunt Axi.
Sometimes you have to assume they’ll be okay.
Paul continued the tour and I went to the secret library. – sE
DD – It was a long weird night, eventually in a good way. It was so dark in the hideout that every time somebody talked, there’d be a rustle–uh! because the voice startled somebody else. Which made somebody laugh, a little. The dark was so thick it swallowed sounds and movements.
“At least there’s no corn,” I said toward Paul.
“I was just thinking that. Not.” Lewis said.
“No Trigg will ever plant corn in our field,” Paul vowed.
Scrape–rustles from Lourdes. She must have stood because her words came from above my head, “Time to check for lights in the house.”
Scrape–rustles from Paul. He and Lourdes would do the walking through the woods tonight because they were the least clumsy. Most likely to move quietly. Sure enough, their footsteps made less sound than the breeze in the leaves.
After two pairs footsteps jogged away, Lewis asked without asking, “He’s your boyfriend but you never touch each other.”
“We can’t. It opens a portal to our enemies.”
Portal. Enemies. His wow filled the hideout. “How did you two acquire your magic powers?” I never expected Lewis to send such admiration my way.
“No idea. We seem to be discovering powers, not acquiring them.”
His wow filled the galaxy. “Thank you! For sending Lourdes to my house.”
Two pairs of feet jogged into the hideout. Lourdes whispered, “Paul and I could hear you over by the field.”
Paul added, “Our voices really seem to carry so we all better stop talking.”
We sat on dirt and dead leaves. Waiting for what. I touched my eyelids. Eyes still open. I pictured the Trigg house, windows black. If there was light in a secret room would it show? The two secret rooms I knew had skylights. Maybe those would glow.
My view got clearer. I was seeing through Grayfast’s eyes.
… Leaves brushed my face, twitched my ears. The nest of the Other Ones was dark and its smells were old. I pressed my belly low and ran like a shadow. A line through the weeds, a circle around the nest. Stale. Quiet. Empty. No fear, baby birds …
Grayfast had figured out that we wanted to watch the house!
“Everybody get in the car! I can watch the house from there.” Excitement cracked my whisper. The car would be less uncomfortable and we could talk if we kept the windows up.
For the rest of the night, Grayfast patrolled for us. I’d interrupt the conversation every once in a while, “Still dark and quiet at the house.”
After a few reports, Lewis got frustrated. “I’m the only one. Wondering how you know that.”
He was right. Paul and Lourdes knew some things about Grayfast, so at this point, keeping my connection with Grayfast secret basically meant excluding Lewis. I could at least raise Lewis to Paul’s level of partial understanding. “Grayfast is checking the house and lets me know.”
“The cat, yes.”
It was too dark to see expressions. Lewis’ shoulders scrunched up. His silhouette head looked from Lourdes to Paul. His shoulders dropped.
“Okay,” he replied. And repeated after each of Grayfast’s reports, which continued until dawn. – sE
DD – Guy–shaped protoplasm. That’s how Lewis describes himself. Before this mission, his claim to fame was the day he rigged a swivel seat surrounded by controllers wands joysticks so he could win six games at one time.
He drove back right at sunset. By then, we were all at the edge of the woods by the turnout watching for him.
“Reconnaissance report, sir,” Lewis saluted Grayfast.
You know how cats are, they make you look like an idiot even when you aren’t being one. Grayfast flicked his tail. Lewis’ blotchy cheeks turned pure pink. An embarrassed stuffed animal.
“What did you see?” Paul asked.
Lewis looked relieved. “On the far side of the house. Nothing different. Just as empty.” We followed him to the hideout and flopped down when he did. “I went by twice. Got gas, too.”
“Good thinking,” Paul said.
“Thanks. Are you done drawing?”
“I never know,” Paul said cheerfully. “It’s a power I don’t control. Maybe someday. Maybe never.”
No one knew how to react.
Lourdes arranged backpacks like placemats and divided protein bars into servings. “Keep our voices right above whisper – that’s when we’re quietest.”
Lewis tested a different voice level with every word. “What were you drawing?”
“I never know,” Paul murmured. “For a long time I only drew that one cemetery. Over and over.”
“And over,” I added. It was easier to whisper than to talk a notch louder. “Do any of your drawings include the mausoleum carvings?” Maybe we didn’t need Aunt Axi’s camera.
“Maybe. I never look at my drawings.” He pulled a thick stack of papers from the backpack and distributed them. We had about two minutes of weak sunset before it got too dark to see the pages.
Lewis held up a drawing with a lumpy tower. “Mono Lake! So cool there. Couldn’t believe my parents took me.”
“Mono – lake?” Paul sounded puzzled. He pointed at the bottom of a drawing. “Is that water?”
“I think so. I recognized the tufa,” Lewis pointed to the lumpy tower. “Tufa is a formation. Rock formation? Limestone?”
Lourdes clowned around making confused expressions.
Lewis examined the drawing. “You have an amazing memory.”
“I’ve never been there,” Paul said. “Maybe we’re supposed to go.”
“Are these? Why you went to that cemetery?” Lewis waved a stack of mausoleum drawings.
“I think so,” Paul’s voice said.
It was now too dark to see faces.
Lourdes’ voice said, “I take orders from a lizard – he obeys drawings. What could go wrong?”
Part of me wanted to joke about following Grayfast but the words stuck. I can’t crack jokes with the group where he’s concerned. – sE
DD – All afternoon we took turns sneaking through the woods to check the Trigg house. One time Paul and I got back to an empty hideout. A chance to talk without the others! Except he lunged for paper and started a photo drawing. Another lumpy tower.
I wished I still had Aunt Axi’s camera so I could show him the mausoleum carvings. No lumpy towers in the carvings, but he might recognize other scenes. I was starting to suspect it was all connected – the Everweer art that comes during obsession sessions. Must draw. Must rhyme. Must carve. Connected.
Sorry I thought about Aunt Axi’s camera because that got me remembering. Alcatur chasing her through the cemetery.
She had to get away. She has to be okay, somewhere.
You hear about people facing their fears. I eject mine. I’m a spaceship and my fears cling outside my hull where there’s no air. If I let them in they’ll swallow me.
Seeing the Trigg house looking so empty, I realized one reason I brought us here. Hope that Aunt Axi somehow made it back here. But no sign of her.
Scatterlegs ran down a tree with Grayfast close behind. The cat stopped by me and the way he watched the lizard. He wanted to chase it. Would definitely catch it. But he resisted his hunter side and it was so hard for him – I could feel that. But he did it.
Lourdes and Lewis flopped on the ground facing Paul and me. They moved like they had been practicing together.
Scatterlegs ran into Lourdes’ pocket and stayed there. Lourdes gave Grayfast a hmmm and said, “The house still seems deserted.”
Lewis stood. “We can’t be sure until we see the whole house. We can only see one side from here. But you three have to hide. They’re looking for you. No one knows about me. I can go look at the other side.” He handed me his car keys, “In case I’m wrong.”
Lourdes sounded panicky. “Don’t let him go. I told him – bad idea to split up.”
Paul stopped drawing. “He’s right, though.”
We compromised and made Lewis take the car on his reconnaissance mission to the far side of the Trigg house.
Embarrassing that I could know Lewis for so long but be so surprised by him. He was brave as a hero and he figured out important stuff even though he had zero experience outside his living room.
He’s been gone a long time. Paul is drawing again, Lourdes is watching for Lewis’ car, and I’m hearing imaginary clocks tick. – sE
DD – It was my idea to go to the Trigg house. For the books and to try to contact the mausoleum architect, Franklin, like Aunt Axi did in the secret room inside the secret library.
Our plan: watch the house today and tonight. If we see no hint of Alcatur supporters, we’ll go inside tomorrow morning.
Lourdes was expert at spying from the scraggly woods. She had Lewis park near the accident site and I froze my mind to make it just a place to hide a car. Right about there, once when I was leaving fresh flowers, I first saw Grayfast.
As Lourdes led us through trees, Lewis said, “Enemies could be spying here, too.”
The woods surrounded us, full of enemy hiding places. Lourdes doh–ed her forehead. “Fast walkers – slow thinkers.”
Paul made us feel less dim. “Grayfast would have felt danger and stopped us from coming here.”
“Oh – same with Scatterlegs,” Lourdes said, cheerful again. She ducked between sagging branches. “This is where I slept.”
Scatterlegs. Her lizard. He (she?) and Grayfast zipped up a tree, not friends, exactly, but each leading the other.
We dropped our backpacks in Lourdes’ hideout and she showed us where to sneak to watch two sides of the Trigg house, the patio, and the street out front. It all seemed empty, ignored.
We sat around Lourdes’ hideout and shared snacks. Sometimes cars whizzed by on the other side of the woods. By the accident site. Brakes screeched on a car that must have been too fast through the curve. I shoved my feet down so I wouldn’t jerk around in the crash.
No crash. The tires skidded away. But my feet kept shoving. About to crash to crash to crash.
“Ella.” Paul’s voice unlocked my thoughts again.
Everyone stared at me. I pointed toward the road. “That’s where my family died.” Some memories escaped. “A truck coming the other way. Dad couldn’t swerve enough. Cops found me in the dirt. I don’t know how I got out.”
I wasn’t the only one who deserved sympathy. Paul with those eyes that never smiled anymore. “Paul. Doesn’t even know what happened to his parents.”
“Which lets me still hope,” he said with a look as good as a hug.
I don’t know why I needed to be the anti–Pollyanna. “Alcatur killed Lourdes’ sister and she watched it happen.”
Lourdes turned so no one could see her face.
“My uncle,” Paul said, like Alcatur was a mistake he could apologize for.
“So much. You’ve been through,” Lewis said. He grew a super– serious face. “Me, too. On a single Sunday morning, my PlayStation AND my Xbox broke.”
Lourdes sprayed chewed apple and laughed. Paul laughed next. Lewis turned the super–serious on me until I broke, too. Finally, he laughed at us laughing.
You never know who or how will save the day. – sE
DD – The trip to Lewis’ house for a better car had issues.
Issue 1. Turns out Lewis is the only kid from a suburb who never managed to catch a lizard and this left a special hole in his heart. Good thing traffic was stopped when he spotted the lizard because he went crazoid.
The lizard jumped to Lewis’ seat, skittered across his shoulders, vanished down the door. Lewis actually laughed.
Owl Leader, dangerous cemetery, getaway driver, and now a lizard. I’ve never seen Lewis happier than on this mission. Which made me happy for him, except for the whispers in my head.
A whisper escaped. “Helping us puts you in danger, Lewis. Bigtime.”
“I know.” The lizard streaked across the dashboard. Lewis laughed again.
Which made me mad. “People have died.”
Another first. Lewis looked me right in the eye. “Not a game.” He started the car and grabbed the wheel at 10 and 2. Traffic was starting to move again.
Issue 2. I barfed. Lewis lives near my family home and I hadn’t been there since the day I packed to go to the foster family. Those streets. Day after day then never again. Seeing them shot nails into my stomach.
It wasn’t much barf because we’d skipped meals, but the smell brought Paul back from his drawing trance. No point stopping to clean up, though. Lewis’ house was just blocks away.
Issue 3. We couldn’t stop at Lewis’ house. Cop car outside. Strangely familiar scene at the front door – housekeeper talking to two cops in uniform and one woman with shaggy hair like a ’70s rock star. Whaaa? The woman was Barracuda, my social worker!
“That can’t be a coincidence!” I quick–explained how Barracuda had come to the Trigg house, supposedly looking for Lourdes as a runaway.
“Nobody reported me for runaway,” Lourdes said in a black voice.
The housekeeper had to recognize Lewis’ car, but he was her darling since diaper days and she gave no sign to the cops as we slid past the house, around the corner, away.
“They’ll watch that house, we can’t go back there,” Paul said. “What?”
We all stared. Those were his first words since we rescued him! His voice was rusty like he hadn’t talked forever.
“Forgot you,” Lewis said to the mirror.
“Didn’t know you noticed – anything.” Lourdes made a scribbling motion.
Paul studied his fingers like they were aliens.
“Don’t look,” I said to grab attention. I removed the barf shirt without contaminating my head, wadded the shirt, threw it out the window. Me sitting in my green bra until Paul found me a cleanish t–shirt. That was no one I ever met before, the Ella who could do that.
Grayfast’s snoozing purr made me braver. – sE
DD – I was in changeling reality. Grayfast’s purr was so complicated. Its revs and rumbles were a beautiful maze. I was noticing so much that – heh. I failed to notice Lewis and Lourdes.
“Ellllllaaaaaa!” pulled me back.
“I take it that wasn’t the first thing you said to me,” I replied.
Lourdes made a noise too sarcastic for words. “You and Paul – perfect couple.”
Paul hunched over a page, pencil flying in tight circles. He was drawing a closeup of holes in the lumpy tower.
I had assumed the photo drawing obsession would go away after he turned Everweer. Instead, it seemed more intense but that might be because I wasn’t used to it anymore.
I was doing a lot of shrugging that morning.
Lewis announced, “This traffic. It’s an opportunity. Decide our direction.”
Lourdes added, “Or lack thereof.”
Lewis replied, “Like a novel. That’s how you sound.”
Lourdes said, “Thank you?”
I glanced outside and jumped. When you’re on the freeway you don’t expect to see torsos.
People walked past our windshield like we were in a parking lot.
Lewis turned his car off. “Gas is low. Again. A getaway car. Is what we need. One of my parents’ cars?” He asked in the rear–view mirror, to me, then added to Lourdes, “Out of town. They won’t know.” His parents were big deals at a corporation and were usually gone.
Whether we should go back to the sub was a huge decision. I wanted to ask Paul and I would have yanked his drawing away if I thought that would get his attention. But he would have kept drawing in air.
“What do you think?” I asked Lourdes.
She looked surprised and happy to be asked. “We should try it. If we’re wrong – they’ll stop us.”
They. Grayfast and her lizard.
“I’m glad I’m not alone,” I blurted.
Lewis’ eyes in the mirror went squinty, embarrassed. On some level I was talking to him, too. But what I meant was, glad I’m not the only changeling.
“Agree.” Lourdes reached inside a huge pocket on her flannel overshirt then rested her hand on the back of her seat. An iridescent lizard slipped from her fingers to face us. To stare at Grayfast. Who stared back.
For once, the cat showed no interest in hunting a small animal. It was like they knew each other. – sE
DD – Which way. Where to now. At first those decisions were easy. Whatever took us away from the cemetery was right. From what I could hear, Lewis and Lourdes made a good team figuring out directions, and, amazingly, he seemed so comfortable around her that he didn’t just emit words. Sometimes he spoke in sentences.
I didn’t hear much, though. I was Paul Paul Paul. His hair was longer and raggedy, his shirt was faded and raggedy. The backpack had ripped parts. Raggedy. The gray in Paul’s eyes was darker now, maybe because he was extra serious. His face was happy, though, crinkled and stretched in the world’s biggest smile which got bigger every time he looked at me. But the smile added no light to his eyes.
Grayfast stretched between us, purring so hard the rumble tickled my leg. I rubbed his favorite spots and kept hitting nicks and scabs under his fur. Recent fights?
When we got some time alone I’d hear the details, but already I could tell. Paul and Grayfast had been through rough times.
Here. Alive. Fine. Together. Was what mattered.
Paul pulled a pencil from the backpack, offered me one end. He was right, we had to assume that touching each other could still open a connection to Everweer. Of course I took the other end.
So many things to tell him, ask him. But not in front of Lewis or Lourdes. We were running for our lives together. But I didn’t dare blab a secret unless I was sure it was one that was okay to share.
But I couldn’t wait to tell Paul about … I pictured myself in the changeling ocean and climbed onto a surfboard. As soon as the tingling began, Grayfast stopped purring, like he was paying special attention. Paul’s loving smile turned amazed. I couldn’t wait to ask what he saw! But I would have to, because Lewis was totally out of the changeling loop. He kept driving driving la la la.
Lourdes whipped around immediately, though. She frowned then grinned and began to shimmer.
Paul looked at us with shock and excitement. Then he –– lunged for the backpack, pulled out paper, and began drawing like crazy, alone in his head. Another photo drawing. Some strange lumpy tower.
I shrugged at Lourdes and slipped off my surfboard. Lourdes shrugged back and stopped shimmering. Paul’s pencil moved fast over his page. Lewis held the wheel at 10 and 2 and his eyes flicked between mirrors and road like a driver’s–ed demo.
Aware but oblivious. Okay. Grayfast resumed purring, Lourdes faced forward, and I just had to smile. – sE
DD – We packed the car with supplies then waited on the roof with a large quantity of snacks. We were on our third round when Lewis hooted.
“Owl Leader returns!” He shoved his finger to point up the road. He was into this ‘game’.
The owl didn’t fly overhead again. Its black wings gleamed as it circled an intersection a block away. We dashed downstairs and Lewis swerved us out of the neighborhood, following the owl. No one followed us. At least not that we could see.
Danger here we come. Too bad that I was the best–informed person on this mission.
Mission. Lewis’ enthusiasm always rubs off. Anyway, it felt good to be taking action, whatever the Tupac that action was.
Lourdes talked to Lewis like she’d known him forever. “Dude, you’re a menace. Drive in one lane.”
Lewis ran the next stop sign more slowly. “We’ve lost Owl Leader. Where to now?”
The answer was obvious. We had to try a rescue. “Turn right. There’s a cemetery …”
They let me trail off. They trusted me to have a plan.
The sun was so bright this morning, no shadows anywhere, not even between the thick trees that lined the dirt road into the cemetery.
The mausoleum glowed white in the sun.
The grounds were empty and bright, but even Lewis got quiet as his car chugged through the cemetery. It felt bad there.
The tombstones were low and the trees scraggly. No place for Everweer to hide. So I must be imagining. Thousands of eyes stabbing us with their interest.
Every clump of bushes, I had Lewis pause. No one emerged.
“What the –” Lourdes whispered. Blocking the road was the burned husk of Aunt Axi’s minivan.
Lewis did a 300–point turn. He and Lourdes stared at the husk, I stared at the bushes. Right there. Had to be where Grayfast and –
I thought it was a fantasy running toward us, until Lewis said, “the guy from the pier” while Lourdes said, “your boyfriend”.
The fantasy jumped in the backseat beside me, clutching a raggedy backpack. A cat shot out of it into my lap.
“Now where?” Our getaway driver asked.
“Far and fast – out of here,” Lourdes replied.
I couldn’t talk. My face was buried in Grayfast’s fur. My eyes were full of Paul.
Lewis swerved us up the dirt road to the cemetery exit. No one seemed to follow us. “Eeny meeny miny – eastbound,” and then we were on a freeway with Lourdes studying Lewis’ phone and debating routes with him.
Grayfast purred. Paul smiled.
I’m the world’s biggest dork. I gushed tears. Didn’t try to cry quietly, much less stop.
I had only friends in the car so no one cared. – sE
DD – I was alone in the beach cottage — trapped inside a locked safe. Was the cottage protected like the Trigg house, if I stuck out too far would I get another blood beret, how long until anyone figured out I was here, what if Alcatur knew I was here?
If only I could be running for my life with Aunt Axi. Hiding in bushes with Grayfast and Paul. Not crouched in the hall waiting to hear a noise that meant someone was setting fires outside.
I couldn’t stand it. Being inside.
The roof had a cold wind that made my nose run but the rest of me was good inside a blanket. The waves crashed loud so I couldn’t hear every little creak. My cheeks got sore and cracked in the windy spray but I stayed on the roof. Outside. I only went inside twice, to fetch dry blankets when my cocoon got too damp. I ran back to the roof both times.
By sunrise, my thoughts were as numb as my face. Fine with me.
The fog got brighter then thinner and the wind calmed down. A gust blew my hair and when I looked up, black filled my view. Black wings, white head. A huge owl slowly circled the cottage.
A dented old car hiccupped in the street outside. Lewis! Impossible but there couldn’t be another purple Buick with one red door. Lewis popped out from one side, Lourdes the other.
“Stop!” she yelled and Lewis braked like a cartoon with one leg in the air. It had taken years for him to act that goofy with me. “The house will hurt – don’t get too close.”
Lewis turned alert like he’d entered the top level of a game with only one life left.
Lourdes spotted me on the roof. “Natalie said – get you out of here.”
I ran a loop searching a safe way past the defenses. Maybe if I jumped to the sand then ran to the big water. Below, Lourdes matched my loop. From the driveway, Lewis suggested, “I could ram the door.”
“I know! Get back in the car!” I ran downstairs, opened the garage door. “Test it! Slow!” My hope was that the cottage would allow me to invite them in.
Lourdes directed Lewis to inch the car forward. Nothing bad happened to the headlights, wheels, windshield. They were in the garage without damage! I lowered the door and felt protected instead of trapped.
I hugged Lourdes who I barely knew. Shook hands with Lewis which was the most I’ve ever touched him and he was as shocked as if I grabbed his TMI parts.
“We’re supposed to leave – when the owl comes back,” Lourdes said. “Could we see your food?”
I went inside to get snacks while they watched for the owl. When I passed Lourdes, she whispered about Lewis, “You weren’t kidding – he knows nothing.” – sE
DD – Shadows and fear at the cemetery. My connection with Grayfast was back.
… Disgusting wet sniffing from a shadow close to our bushes. “We be not alone,” the shadow called and other shadows headed this way. From the top of the hill, a shadow ordered, “Idiots, do not empty other quadrants.” That was Ezra’s voice. Ezra, one of the Chicago traitors.
The other traitor, Natalie, called, “Over there! Light!” She used her whole arm to point across the cemetery.
“I see no light.” Ezra sounded like he trusted Natalie less than I did.
“I saw a fleeting flash and thought I imagined it, until it came again. Shall I investigate?”
“We’ll go together.” Ezra sounded angry.
“By all means.” Any more cheerful and Natalie would be laughing.
Ezra ordered shadows to hold positions and they did but their attention followed him away. Grayfast’s fear slipped.
Paul’s breathing was normal now. He made a low noise. The curvy dirt road disappeared under a sliding boxy shadow. A car with lights off, gliding silently.
Not a car – Aunt Axi’s minivan. It paused like she knew someone was in the bushes, needing rescue. Paul rustled – he would run for it – then swallowed a noise of pain. Guessing Grayfast bit him to keep him in the bushes.
“I knew you would betray me.” A tall fast shadow stomped down the hill. That proud cruel voice. Alcatur. Aunt Axi’s headlights jumped on. Alcatur squinted but kept coming. “And there you hide in your protected vehicle. Or might I call it your tomb?”
When I was a little kid, skulls scared me because their smiles were a trick. Alcatur had that smile. He gestured to people behind him. They shoved wood and paper under the minivan. With a howling laugh, Alcatur set the paper on fire and kept laughing while others applauded. Watching Aunt Axi burn to death would be the most fun he’d had in ages.
The minivan doors sprang open and the shadows surrounded the minivan and flames climbed its sides. Burning rubber stung my throat. A tire whooshed flat.
Something burst out the other side of the minivan and, as soon as the shadows swarmed it, Aunt Axi sailed out on our side, over the fire and running away. Alcatur shouted with joy and sprinted after her.
Two huge black shadows dropped from the sky. Beating wings. Alcatur fell with arms up for protection. White flashed between the wings. White head, black wings. Natalie’s owl was attacking Alcatur.
“Catch her, I’m fine!” Alcatur yelled. His supporters poured after Aunt Axi.
The next time the owl stretched its talons, Alcatur’s arm shot out and briefly grabbed the bird’s leg. The owl flapped out of reach and stayed there.
The outside of the minivan burned so hot the body bubbled.
Grayfast had stopped transmitting fear. He was confident again. The connection broke.
Thanks to Aunt Axi, Alcatur’s followers had stopped searching the grounds.
Please let her get away. – sE
DD – The ocean gets so dark at night. I shut every blind, turned on every light, pretended it was daylight. 60 steps from one end of the cottage to the other. Every time I paced the cottage, that was another minute closer to when Aunt Axi would be back.
I read her poetry journals while I paced. No mention of pomegranate seeds so I guess I didn’t pack that journal. But I found a poem that might match another carving. ‘scorched wood skeletons new green hope’ might be the carving of a mountain after a wildfire.
The carvings didn’t make sense as a collection. Closeups, faraway scenes. Nature people buildings. Boring as the sub, stranger than fairy tales. Aunt Axi’s poems were just as scattered. I pictured her with a poem, and Bruce with a carving, like Paul when he finished a photo drawing and studied it sideways. Hmm why did I make this.
I fell and bumped my chin on the rug. My head did the breaking–apart that came from Grayfast making contact, but with it came a smash of fear. Never before had I felt Grayfast so afraid.
I wasn’t inside Grayfast’s head, this was more like the time he acted like a security camera and I watched street kids break into a house.
… Shadows, black and blacker. Thick gasps by my ear, a white river curling away from me. The gasps were Paul, breathing hard like he just stopped running and was trying to breathe silently by pressing his mouth into Grayfast’s fur.
Some shadows were still and leafy – Grayfast and Paul were inside bushes. Beyond, tall shadows moved. Two–legs, walking slowly. When shadows moved toward the bushes, Grayfast blasted me with fear.
The white river wasn’t water. It was a dirt road in weak moonlight. The road curled to a dark knob that was covered with slow tall shadows and a white box …
No, please no.
Paul and Grayfast were at the cemetery, in bushes near the mausoleum. They were very much not alone. They were hiding, but not safe. Grayfast was afraid.
The cemetery view vanished. Grayfast had disconnected. I screamed and punched the stupid white cottage wall that was all I could see now.
At the cemetery, not alone, hiding, not safe, afraid. Those facts kept slapping me, made it so hard to think. Where was Aunt Axi? How long had she been gone? Should I go out and look for her? We had to get to the cemetery. Didn’t we?
Hiding but not safe. Afraid. Afraid. Afraid.
I’m so helpless I could melt. – sE
DD – I’ve never seen Aunt Axi mad but this came the closest. She was violently chopping vegetables.
“How did she find us?” I didn’t need to say Natalie’s name. The kitchen was crowded with thoughts of her.
“It matters not. She is here.”
“What does she want?” How I could sound calm when my thoughts were screaming.
“To warn that Alcatur is sending guards to the mausoleum.”
“She did not volunteer that information and I displayed indifference to all she said.”
I held up the camera. “We need to figure out why the mausoleum matters. I maybe recognized two of the carvings. From a book. Where is the library here?”
She led me to the roof. Along the railing by the ocean, she counted sections and at “four” she pushed a screw on the deck. Click. The deck tilted and slid, revealing steep stairs to a long narrow room full of bookshelves. There was a window on either side. One saw the ocean, the other saw my bedroom. But when I stood at my bedroom window looking at the ocean, I hadn’t seen this room in between!
We had to use the stairs single file.
“We rely on daylight to read here and the sun will soon set. Where should we begin?”
I pointed at a sick green cover. Another copy of The Book of the Everweer.
I scrolled on Aunt Axi’s camera to the first carving photo that looked familiar. She nodded and paged through the book to a scene that matched. “The garden outside Franklin’s home.”
Took me a minute. Franklin was the man with dreadlocks. She contacted him in the secret room inside the secret library at the Trigg house.
As I scrolled more photos, she stopped me to stare at one. “‘Pomegranate seeds in soft sand.’ A poem of mine. The image was nonsensical but here it is in a carving, too. Mysteries upon mysteries.”
The next carving photo startled her. “How did I not recognize these previously? She paged through the book to an image that matched the carving. “Natalie’s ranch.”
The sun slid into fog and everything turned to white marble. We went up the stairs to the roof.
“Our car needs fuel and gas stations are busy as people return from work, thus I will go to obtain fuel now. I need your help to leave safely.”
I stayed on the roof with a flashlight, watching as Aunt Axi backed out of the garage. If I saw any sign of Natalie, I would signal with the flashlight. Aunt Axi’s minivan disappeared around the corner and nobody followed.
I was safe on the roof but I felt safer when I went to my room. I let myself check that the closet and under the bed were empty, then I examined my window edges but couldn’t see the secret room.
Anyone could be watching. Shut the blinds. – sE
DD – As usual Aunt Axi knew how to help me and sitting on the roof right by the ocean, I felt lucky as much as unlucky. Or like luck wasn’t the point.
Wind made whitecaps and people on the beach hurried past, hands in pockets. I snuggled deeper under the blanket. The wind brought snips of beach conversations that made no sense in a fun way. My awareness of changeling reality was gone but that was fine for now. It took a lot of energy.
Two voices came from the other direction, the street. I knew those voices. Aunt Axi and – ??? No way!
I crept to the edge and peeked over.
Yup. There she was. At the bottom of the driveway. Natalie. How did she find us? Did this prove she was a traitor or a spy?
Natalie and Aunt Axi were arguing. Aunt Axi stood so queenly she could be seven feet tall. Natalie looked frustrated enough to spit nails, like mom used to say.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Natalie faced me and I didn’t want her to notice me so I would back away from the railing, change position, creep forward to a new spot. Nope. Still no clear words.
Natalie stomped away down the block, turned back to say one more thing. While she talked, she became see-through and behind her, around her, I saw a huge owl with black feathers but a white head.
Natalie looked up, right where I was. The owl vanished, she raised a hand to Aunt Axi like a sarcastic farewell. She got into a car. As she drove away, she glanced right at my hiding place again.
What the. Natalie is a changeling and she wants me to know.
By the time I got back under my blanket, I was shaking but not from the wind.
Is that why Lourdes trusted Natalie? Does Aunt Axi know? I want to run downstairs to ask, but I can’t. I have to keep the secrets of other changelings.
This is huge. Either Natalie can be trusted because she is a changeling, or not all changelings are okay. – sE
DD – That carving of the accident site dumped me in a deep cave. I went from changeling reality, noticing everything, to black blank like right after my family died.
My next memory was Aunt Axi tucking a blanket around me on the cottage roof deck and leaving me with hot chocolate and ocean air.
Ha ha your family is dead, one less clump of Meer in the world. That was the carving’s message to me. Which made no sense. The carving was done years before the accident or Alcatur’s trial. A proof I’d been hanging with Everweer too much. I assumed the worst, aimed at me.
Anyway, Aunt Axi made Bruce, her sculptor cousin, sound like a good person. Someone who would believe in leniency. A concept I barely got.
Everweer were lenient to let other races of people live? We outnumbered them, like, billions to thousands, how bad were they at math to think they could wipe out everybody. Everweer weren’t the only ones with fancy powers. Changelings could take them.
For a second, the idea of war made me happy. What bloodthirsty thoughts!
But, um. Changeling power? Lourdes and me versus Alcatur’s hordes? Only in Lewis’ video games would that go well.
The hot chocolate gave me more sensible thoughts. I had to find out. Why that carving. Bruce had to have a reason. But no one knew where he was or even if he was alive. I made a list of questions that needed answers and I finished my chocolate.
Aunt Axi’s camera was in my lap. Camera, right. When we got back from the mausoleum, she had said, “I photographed all the carvings. Perhaps we can identify other scenes.” But I was deep in my black thought cave then.
I went through all the carving photos. A couple carvings seemed familiar. I might have seen something similar in books in the Everweer library.
I had so many questions for that library now! Aunt Axi said there was a small library here. But I hadn’t seen a single book. Hard to picture where a secret room could be in this tiny cottage. But Everweer would find a way to sneak one in. – sE
DD – The cemetery was on a skinny dirt road in some hills. No witnesses, uh oh. No Alcatur supporters, phew.
Aunt Axi parked below a knob of a hill covered in shimmering green weeds. On the hilltop was the mausoleum in Paul’s drawings. A white marble box with carvings. The air was noisy with birds singing in so many different bird languages.
Aunt Axi closed her eyes, touched her forehead, ears, nose, mouth, opened her eyes. “We are alone.” She sounded certain. “Stay close.”
And we were climbing the hill to the mausoleum that was built to hold the graves of Paul’s parents. If they are dead. If their bodies are ever found.
Bugs scraped the dirt to scramble away. Squeaks came from the mausoleum marble where lizards chased each other in the sun. A bee took off from a flower and the petals rattled.
I was noticing so much, I thought I might be inside Grayfast’s head. Until I realized. For the first time I was experiencing the world as a changeling. Pretty sure my changeling nature came out because I felt danger.
By the time we got to the top of the hill, I was shivering about how complicated and beautiful everything is.
Next came confusion. My job is to get ready for war, but war is the last thing a changeling would ever be into.
Then came anger. Stupid Everweer. If no one followed Alcatur, no changelings would have to go to war. Weird, though. My most and least favorite people are all Everweer.
At the top of the hill, we circled the mausoleum. Aunt Axi studied near and far, ground and sky. Good thing she could pay attention because I was in a flood. Noticing realizing sensing.
“I see no evidence of tampering or recent entry. Do you?” She sounded relieved.
“That’s for sure,” I sounded huhwhereamI.
Up close, the carvings were amazing and I kept expecting the white marble animals and people to come to life. Some scenes were so unusual I couldn’t describe them, other were totally everyday.
One carving stabbed through me. I dropped to my knees and yelled, “That! Is the road, the exact curve, where my family died.”
“Are you certain?” Aunt Axi crouched to stare at the carving.
I was sure. The skimpy woods, the W–shaped turnout, the boulders around the curve. On the far side of the woods was a field and across the field, at the edge of the carving, were the jumbled corners of a house like no other. I pointed to it. “That’s your house.”
“So it is. How very odd.” She touched the carving like she was soothing it.
Why how why would the accident site be in a carving on this mausoleum? “Can Everweer tell the future?”
“Not to my knowledge. The artist may be the only person who can explain why he carved this scene. But we’ll do our best to understand, Ella. I promise you.”
It made no sense and it made me feel so sick. – sE
DD – It was a two–hour drive to the Trigg cottage but it lasted three hours because Aunt Axi took the most crowded roads. Other drivers could be witnesses and Alcatur’s supporters wouldn’t want witnesses. No Everweer could touch us inside the car but if they caught us in a remote area they could trap us like in a siege, wait until we had to come out, get us then.
Everweer are so fun.
We made the trip without problems, though.
The drive ended with a great surprise. The cottage is next to the ocean! Step outside and you’re on sand. I couldn’t step outside – not protected – but I got the bedroom facing the water and my room had ocean air.
The cottage rooms were munchkins and connected by halls that barely fit one person. Just unloading the minivan, we made each other do so many back–ups that we stopped bothering with excuse–me. The kitchen was big, though, with tons of storage room. Made me wonder. How often Triggs stayed here, prepared for siege.
The roof above my room had a fenced deck. We took snacks there and watched the waves.
“Now that we’ve settled in, I’m headed for the cemetery. I want to be back well before dinner.” Before dark, I think Aunt Axi meant.
“You can’t leave me here.”
“The protections will remain strong while I am away.”
“But if –” My horrible idea stuck and I had to shove it out into the open. “If something happened and you didn’t come back. I wouldn’t know what happened. What to do. I’m okay being in danger together. But alone.”
“I hadn’t considered that perspective.” She sipped coffee and thought about it, in a hurry but calm.
I shoved celery in my mouth to not ask questions that could have unhappy answers like would I get hurt trying to leave here, what could be chasing me as I ran. But I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I acted. To avoid sending lie vibes, I admitted, “Also, I really want to see the mausoleum.”
Aunt Axi nodded and sipped. She set her coffee on our snack tray. “Very well, we’ll go together. We’ll depart in ten minutes.”
I wrote this in about nine minutes, in case you can’t read my writing, D. – sE
DD – We were gone by noon.
I woke up to delicious smells. Blueberry pancakes. I usually lounge on the pillows and watch the sky after I wake up. But today I was downstairs asap. Partly for pancakes, partly for how I’d acted last night.
How anyone can look queenly, flipping pancakes.
“I’m sorry I blamed you. I’m not sure what I blamed you for.”
“No apology needed but I appreciate your awareness. As soon as you set the patio table, we’ll eat. It’s a lovely morning and I’m hoping to speak to Lourdes before we go.”
Why we were leaving. Aunt Axi must be in a hurry because she explained during breakfast. Usually meals are off–limits to stressful conversation.
“The Triggs have a cottage near the mausoleum you’ve seen in Paul’s drawings. From there, I can monitor the mausoleum to watch for Paul, although I hope he does not visit. Were you successful in warning him?”
“Don’t know. Kind of a one–way conversation.” I slid more pancakes on my plate so I could look down. I hope hiding my Grayfast connection doesn’t seem like lying. “So the cottage is safe?”
“Yes, as is my vehicle, provided we remain inside it. The cottage is uncomfortable for lengthy stays but we’ll manage, won’t we?”
“Sure.” In case that sounded sulky, “How can I help get ready?”
“The cottage holds but a modest Everweer library. If you can tolerate the risk of more injury due to Everweer oddity, see if any of these library books will permit you to take them. When you are done packing, help me harvest produce from the roof. Then we’ll load the car, leave one last box of supplies for Lourdes, and off we go.”
Lourdes couldn’t be too scared because she’d come back in the night to get the supplies. She missed breakfast, though. The field between the patio and the woods was sunny but empty in a lonely way.
“I’ll leave Lourdes a note.”
“Best not. We shouldn’t reveal our plans.” Aunt Axi sounded sad.
“Lourdes will be okay, she’s tough.”
“Shouldn’t I be reassuring you?”
We shared a smile then dashed to get ready.
I took Galalena’s journals across the library threshold in one giant armful. Good thing I guessed right that they would come with me. That would have been a lot of paper cuts. Walking slowly past other shelves, I didn’t get good feelings from any other books. So I left the rest. I also grabbed empty diary books from Aunt Axi’s writing room – and some of her poetry, too.
We filled her minivan, mostly with food. The last time I was in a minivan was the day of the accident.
I turned as we drove away and for a second I had the same view as my first glimpse of the Trigg house with all its crazy levels. It would stay mysterious no matter how well I got to know it.
If I ever saw it again. – sE
DD – I hate Everweer reality.
“I heard you calling but I couldn’t find you. Oh! Ella!” Aunt Axi greeted me.
She was out of breath from running searching. Except I hadn’t called for her for hours.
That was too much, weirdness–wise. She made me so angry, even though I know Everweer reality isn’t her fault.
As soon as Aunt Axi saw my head, she hurried to the kitchen and clattered around. She returned with a bowl of sludge that smelled like burned fish. She slopped it over my head and aaaah. So soothing, I didn’t care when it oozed down my neck. She led me to the shower and adjusted the nozzle to gentle. It barely stung.
I studied my hair in the bathroom mirrors. Less thick but no obvious bald spots.
Aunt Axi had hot chocolate waiting on the patio with a fuzzy wrap for my legs and an overhead heater. The clumps of hair were gone and the tile glistened, damp.
Eventually I sipped the hot chocolate. I wanted to throw it when she questioned me.
“Why did this occur?” She didn’t ask what or how. So she Tupac knew this could happen.
“The box for Lourdes got stuck and when I tried to free it.”
“Did Lourdes also get hurt?”
“No! You never said we might hurt her by giving her supplies.”
“From the ground, she cannot be hurt. I feared that she had climbed up to help you.”
“No, she didn’t. Phew. Wouldn’t want anybody to help me.” Irrational can be so satisfying – no one can debate you. But Aunt Axi just listened like I made sense, which ruined it. “She didn’t get the supplies though. She ran away. She’s afraid of you now.”
“That may be appropriate.” She gathered our cups. “I’m headed for bed. You are welcome to sleep in my room tonight, should you choose to do so, now or later. Get what rest you can. We must relocate, come the morning. I will explain more when your distress has passed.”
Whaaa? How the Tupac was I supposed to rest after that announcement? My distress was no way going to pass, especially when she treated me so Eminem.
I steamed for a while. Until I could hear the little voice that was Ella making sense … You can’t hear important information in this state of mind. You’ll feel better in the morning …
I’m laying on pillows in my loft and the more I hear the little voice, the more I notice that I’m exhausted.
Goodnight, D. Lucky I can never offend you. – sE
DD – The sun set but I didn’t look in a mirror.
My echoing scream. I can’t get it out of my head.
I made a story about what happened. Alcatur’s followers had a booby–trap with a sound system to tell them when they catch somebody. They were cheering now like Mission Control about a space flight.
I might barf. At all costs I had to not. Even breathing made my head hurt. I was hungry though. I shuffled to the crackers. If I dissolved them on my tongue, I could swallow without disturbing my scalp.
Clumps of hair on the patio.
But a person has so much hair.
Clumps of bloody hair.
I hate blood.
I slid another cracker onto my tongue.
“Ella,” a voice called, thick like through a pillow. Or a wall. Could Aunt Axi get stuck in a secret room?
An apple clunked on the patio. Lourdes.
I shuffled to the patio door. It was too dark to see much.
“Ella – come out if you can. I saw you on the wall – did you get stung by bees?”
I found a patio light switch. Lourdes prayed, “What the – Madre de Dios.”
“How bad am I?” I grabbed the table for support and stared into the dark toward Lourdes’ voice.
“You’re wearing a blood beret.”
I tilted my head toward her. “Do I have bald spots?”
“No – not that I can tell. But how – did you get hurt trying to escape?”
“I’m not a prisoner.” Maybe I hadn’t been hurt by Alcatur’s supporters. Maybe it was the house’s shield.
“I don’t understand – anything.” Lourdes’ voice was tiny in the dark.
I told her what I knew that wouldn’t endanger anybody. I told her how there are three types of people and how she probably started as a Mere since she knows nothing. How Chrissie was a hunter. How Natalie might be helping a dangerous Everweer named Alcatur, who was after me and Aunt Axi.
“What about your boyfriend?”
“Alcatur is after him, too.” Was all I would say.
For some reason, I gave her Lewis’ address and phone number.
“Is he a changeling, too?”
“Lewis knows nothing, he’s a good friend from when I was like him. Ignorant of reality. Tell him ‘Bogwan sent me’. He’ll do everything he can for you.”
Bogwan. Cracking stupid video game jokes with Lewis was a comfy dream from long ago.
Inside the house, running footsteps and Aunt Axi calling my name.
“No thanks,” Lourdes muttered and her steps pounded toward the woods.
So dizzy. I sat and waited for Aunt Axi to find me. – sE
DD – It was like I was alone in the Trigg house. No noise from Aunt Axi, no sign she was anywhere. I checked every room, patio, balcony.
The roof was empty.
The library and the secret room inside the library were dark.
Doh. Lourdes’ box of supplies wouldn’t help her much, sitting on the kitchen table. I lugged the box to the patio and tied the rope around it. The rope we used to lower supply boxes outside the wall.
The box snagged half way to the ground. I couldn’t lift it or lower it. Eminem.
I poked my head over the wall. The rope was caught on an iron decoration. I wiggled waggled giddyupped the rope. Still stuck.
I flopped my belly across the wall and leaned over, down. I couldn’t quite touch the rope. I raced up to the roof, grabbed a gardening tool with a claw.
The claw pulled the rope free but all my lifting lowering had jammed a corner of the box into the iron decoration. I yanked with the claw. The box budged. Yanked again.
That’s when it happened.
Yanking, I moved farther away from the patio wall and, at a certain distance, the top of my head went white hot pain as if I hit a wall of fire. My scream circled the planet. I dropped the claw, lost my balance, grabbed the box to break my fall.
The box stayed stuck a second longer, which let my legs hook the wall. The box fell, I didn’t. I hung over the wall, shaking from shocking pain. Below me, the supply box split open and again apples skidded. They’ll be so bruised. I can’t believe that was my thought.
I scraped my arms raw, backing up over the wall, and collapsed to the patio tile. My ears filled with a strange noise. It came from my mouth. A gasp choke whimper.
My head hurt so much I expected to touch flaming razor blades if those were even possible. I patted my fingers up there and they came back with bloody clumps of hair. Noooooo.
I rolled on my side and rocked in a ball. The sun crossed the sky and shadows climbed over me. The pain dropped enough that I could kind of think. I sat up, waited until the dizziness passed, used the table legs to pull myself to standing.
The tile was covered with bloody clumps of hair.
I stumbled inside and turned lights on everywhere. I called to Aunt Axi. No reply.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table sucking ice chips. After the sun sets, I might go look in a mirror. – sE
DD – I can barely tell Grayfast good morning and now I needed to communicate complicated warnings. Keep Paul away from the mausoleum. Someone could be waiting for him.
Danger at mausoleum. That was simpler. But everywhere had dangers. Grayfast could just say, oh, baby bird, of course.
Ambush. That had to be a cat concept, but how did a cat see it?
Under enemy observation? I could barely explain that to myself.
Mausoleum. Um. Cold hard white nest for dead Two–Legs.
I got out my diary pages to study all Grayfast’s scrabbly writing, to figure out how to describe things so Grayfast might understand. Such good luck! I discovered one of Paul’s drawing on the back of one page from a time when Paul had no paper.
He was just starting to do the photograph drawings and this one was not ultra–realistic like the later drawings. No question though, it was the mausoleum.
My first idea was to add blood coloring and maybe a body on the ground in the drawing. I experimented in Paul’s room with his art supplies but had to give up on that idea. I JayZ at drawing.
I stared at the mausoleum drawing and imagined the situation I was trying to avoid. Paul at the mausoleum, getting attacked hurt kidnapped. That was as bad as I could imagine. I pretended I was watching it all happen and let my reactions create feelings. They hurt really bad. I writhed around, which broke my concentration. I lay down with pillows packed around me so I couldn’t move much.
First time rehearsal, second time for real. I pushed my mind out to find Grayfast’s. That net was still there, I pushed more until the net got tight and I couldn’t go any further. I held the drawing in front of my face and, as quickly but carefully as I could, I re–imagined the scene of Paul ambushed at the mausoleum.
The net snapped tighter and popped me out of Grayfast’s mind. The loft ceiling was sharp and shadowy like turning on the light after a nightmare. I rolled over and cried into the pillows.
Did I give Grayfast the message? Did I put him in danger? No clue. But I did all I could do to keep my mausoleum nightmare from coming true. – sE
DD – I am officially bored.
Sorry I haven’t written, D, but I was hoping to have something to write about.
The library books are staying blank.
We’re getting no mail at all.
I tried to visit Grayfast’s mind but something blocked me like a net, I could only push a little way in. I don’t dare try again.
I can’t find any secret rooms. I’ve searched every wall. I’ve slid decorations, pushed woodwork, looked behind and underneath things. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I’ve looked.
Lourdes is pretty lame, she comes out by the edge of the woods and stares at the house then goes back inside the trees. Whether she’s a spy or a friend, what’s the point of that?
Aunt Axi is doing stuff by herself. I can join in but she won’t invite, that’s the message. Why bother, it’s not like she’s doing anything interesting.
How long will we be prisoners in this crazoid house?
Paul’s room is full of high school Paul. Friendly with everyone, interested in so many things. Somebody like that won’t miss a person very much, he’ll always have something new to do.
I’m too old to sulk. I notice I’m doing it and then I feel like a Tupac Kanye. What kind of person sulks at a time like this with so much death and danger.
So weird how you think one way and then the least little thing makes you see everything differently. Lourdes stared from the edge of the woods and the way she touched her stomach. It caused thoughts like fireworks that set each other off. She was hungry. She was way ready for another box of supplies. She wasn’t sure we wanted her around. She wanted to be with us. Near another changeling.
So did I.
The instant I stopped sulking, I realized. I could still be learning even when the books weren’t helping.
I found Aunt Axi in the kitchen. “Lourdes needs more food.”
She smiled a welcome back and we got busy packing a box. I asked, “Do you have any idea why Paul makes so many drawings of the mausoleum? Did you ever talk about it?”
“I recall no conversations of import but we surely discussed its existence.”
“He says he has to go there.”
Aunt Axi dropped a bag and apples skidded around the floor. “He must not! The mausoleum will be watched for just such an opportunity. Violence committed there would harm Franklin as well as Paul.”
She was more tense than if people were screaming. She left the rest of Lourdes’ box to me. “I will see you at dinner.” She stepped over apples and hurried away.
Pretty sure that if I followed her, I’d see another secret room. But this was no time for nosy curiosity.
I spent the afternoon figuring how could I warn Paul through Grayfast. – sE
DD – After lunch I went back to the secret library in case I could read the blank pages of Galalena’s journals. Nope.
The bookcases were back in place and I couldn’t figure out which one was the door to the other secret room. None of the cases had hinges or hints that they could move.
I didn’t hear Aunt Axi arrive! She said, “Many dangers come with Everweer connections. For both our sakes, do not use this one on your own.”
“I wasn’t. I just.” I shut up. Curious still counts as snooping. Heat from my cheeks made my eyes water.
She smiled. “Third bookcase, fourth shelf, fifth book. Like this and then so.” The fifth book was a switch to open the bookcase door.
“That is. The dopest.” I closed opened closed it. This house had so many layers and skills, it could be a video game. “How many secret rooms are there here?”
“Seven in total. You’ll see them if and when appropriate.”
Seven in one house. “If I find any I won’t open them on my own,” I promised. I would try to not look for them but I couldn’t make that a promise. I could only guarantee I’d put my job first.
My job. Paul’s job. Every time I have a second without something to do, Paul’s newest letter fills my head, all the dangers outside this house where he and Grayfast are.
As usual, Aunt Axi discussed what was on my mind. “We are safe here but cut off from information, which brings its own dangers and magnifies our fears. I am glad that I contacted Franklin. We shared much of import although we risked attack during that vulnerable contact time.”
The mail slot clunked. Aunt Axi gestured for me to follow her to the front room.
“Who is Franklin?”
“A tireless champion of justice and leniency, and a dear friend of the Trigg family. He raised Paul’s mother.” She always sounds sad when Paul’s mother comes up. “He is an architect and when Paul’s parents disappeared, Franklin crafted their mausoleum, with carvings from their favorite sculptor, Bruce. It is exquisite. We look forward to smashing it to bits, should they return to us.”
“Do you think they might?”
“My heart cannot contemplate that answer.”
I wanted to kick the front door. Just junk mail under the mail slot. Nothing from Paul. Aunt Axi was all sympathy which made me feel worse. I hope I didn’t shout. “It’s fine! Better. Not safe for him to mail stuff.”
She nodded. “I would welcome help in the greenhouse.”
“I don’t even like plants. I’m going to take a nap.”
As soon as I was alone I was sorry. – sE
DD – Imagining a curtain didn’t work for me. From what I could tell. Lourdes knew when her changeling curtain was off, so something must change for her. Some look feeling sound taste smell. Now that I thought about it, ever since I finished Galalena’s journal, ever since my okay–I’m–a–changeling moment, I’d been tingling everywhere. Maybe tingling was the sign that I was shimmering.
Basically, I had no clue how to hide being a changeling. But I kept trying because Grayfast needs to stay secret.
I took a break from trying and relaxed with memories of Grayfast and Paul. Thinking about our times at the ocean, I remembered pulling myself out of the big water onto a surfboard and with that, I discovered the way to hide my changeling nature.
In the water, tingling. Out on the surfboard, tingling stopped. Fortunately to stop the tingling I could just lie on the surfboard. I didn’t have to stand, which was hard to do, even in my imagination.
I wanted to test the change on Aunt Axi. How to ask. Notice anything not different about me anymore?
It smelled like she cooked a lunch but she never came to find me. I bet she was giving me privacy.
She was in the kitchen, washing her lunch dishes. My plate had bean salad and a big empty spot where a grilled cheese sandwich would go.
“There you are,” she said at my footsteps, “start the grill for me, please.” She glanced at me then studied me up and down. I didn’t have to ask anything. “Well done, Ella, how quickly you have learned the need for discretion and the means to achieve it!”
“Lourdes came back,” I said, with reluctance. That news would delay my sandwich.
Sure enough, Aunt Axi sat us the table. “Go on.”
“She brought a message from Natalie. Alcatur’s supporters are trying to get hunters on their side.”
“I heard the same news from Franklin.” She got my sandwich started.
“That’s really bad news, right?”
She turned away from the grill to give me a don’t–worry. “The situation could play out many ways. We’ll have to let it evolve.”
“Since she told us, does that mean Natalie is on our side?”
“What is your sense about that?”
“Words prove nothing.” I gobbled my salad. It was good to be so hungry, I couldn’t focus on hunters or traitors.
“I would agree. Are you comfortable talking with Lourdes?”
“Yes. I like her.”
Lourdes hadn’t dropped her curtain around Aunt Axi so I kept quiet about that part of our conversation. Changelings have extra secrets. – sE
DD – I didn’t make lunch. Out the kitchen window I saw Lourdes running across the field, so I went out to the patio to meet her.
“The lady said to tell you that they’re trying to get hunters on their side. Hope you know what that means.”
That sounded bad. But I shrugged to hide my reaction. I didn’t know. Whose side Lourdes was on or how many sides there were. “Her name is Natalie. Where is she?”
“I don’t know – think she left. Do you hate her?” Lourdes flopped on the weeds.
“I definitely don’t trust her.”
Lourdes made a face.
“What does that face mean?”
“I never trust the right people,” Lourdes said.
“Uh oh, I trust you,” she teased.
“Get over it,” I teased back.
Lourdes reminds me of Dad, she jumps from one thing to the next. She looked down and said, “My favorite! This kind tastes so good.” She plucked a grassy weed from the dirt, peeled the root bare, nibbled it.
Her nibbling made me long for lunch. Or maybe having a nothing conversation let me feel a normal thing like hunger.
“You shouldn’t show it all the time.” Usually Lourdes talked like a cartoon but now she sounded serious.
“Show what?” She couldn’t possibly know about changelings.
“That you – and me. We – live on the animal planet. The way I hide – I pretend I’m behind a curtain that only I can see through. Watch – curtain off.”
Lourdes got shimmery, like a model in a beauty commercial. She moved her arms and the air they passed through turned pearly gray. Behind her – or in front of her – huge boulders appeared, with a brown and black lizard clinging to a crack between the rocks. Seeing the lizard was like having a memory while talking to somebody. You’re staring at the person but seeing something else. The rocks and lizard weren’t there but I saw them.
Lourdes stretched her arms and legs to match the lizard’s pose. “Almost the same markings as your cat – pretty interesting.” she said. “Curtain on.”
The boulders and lizard disappeared.
“Do I show a cat to everybody?” My voice sounded scared.
“Only today. Anyway, only to people from the animal planet,” Lourdes said.
“You mean only changelings can see it?”
“Is that what we’re called? Changelings.” Lourdes looked more grateful than when I gave her food. “Yes, only changelings.”
Footsteps then clattering in the kitchen. Aunt Axi was finally off the phone.
“Give Axinara the message – from Natalie.” And Lourdes ran to the woods.
I wanted to follow her. Find out everything she knows about changelings. But first things first. I needed a curtain to hide Grayfast. – sE
DD – I returned Galalena’s diary to its shelf and stood undecided. Interrupt Aunt Axi? She was still in the secret room inside the library, talking with the man with the echoey voice.
I went back to the chair and tried something I learned in Galalena’s journal. I focused my thoughts and feelings on Grayfast and vowed to connect with him.
… My eyes are low for sleep. My Two–Legs visits in a strong way. My eyes open to let her see her Other One. He sleeps and the night sky ball puts white patches on his belly. I stretch and rumble for my Two–Legs. You have learned much, baby changeling, and now you can fly …
I was out of the moonlight, back in the secret library. D, I went into Grayfast’s head! Tupac A:M:A:Z:I:N:G:!:!:!
Now I don’t have to wait for him to come to me.
Or should I? Did I give him a terrible headache, too? When he’s in my head I barely notice what is happening around me. If I take over Grayfast’s head at the wrong time, I could put him in danger.
I felt brave enough to investigate the secret room.
It was empty except for three comfy chairs arranged in a triangle. The walls glowed white, humming with energy that made me feel stronger. Aunt Axi sat in the middle chair. She had her back to me, staring at a wall that looked into another house, where a man was turning back from a bookshelf.
The man had black skin and ropes of white hair dangling to his shoulders. The way he reacted when he spotted me, I had rainbows for eyebrows. “A changeling.”
“I’m glad you decided to join us,” Aunt Axi said as she turned. When she saw me she jumped up and grabbed both my hands and the way she said, “Ella,” it felt like she was bowing. “May I introduce you to Franklin?”
They looked at me with so much hope and admiration. Whatever they expected, I didn’t know how to give it to them. My mind zoomed around, looking to get back to normal.
“Hi,” I said to Franklin, then to Aunt Axi, “I’m going to fix lunch.” They gave me patient little smiles like I was a stray cat, running under a bed.
On the way to the kitchen I stopped at a mirror. I look exactly the same.
Eminem. I don’t know how to be a changeling! – sE
DD – My next time in the library, I found a journal that amazed me. Every page was crammed with words that I could see. Maybe because this was the diary of a changeling. A teenage girl who got terrible headaches and thought she was going crazy. Sound familiar?
Except she started as an Everweer instead of a Mere. Although, from reading this journal I learned that having changeling in common is what matters, regardless of what kind of people we start as. Regardless of what animal we connect with. Hers was a rabbit, a practical joker. The rabbit would dig tunnels in a field, then lead hunters over the tunnels and stomp his hind foot when the tunnels caved in and the hunters dropped.
The changeling’s name was Galalena.
She didn’t write in her journal much, so this one book held years of writing. The Everweer believe that changelings come to help in times of danger, but in her day, there was no clear threat like Alcatur and his followers. So her family sent Galalena on a quest to discover her purpose as a changeling and she kept this journal on the trip.
She only had her rabbit for company and not that often. She wrote a lot about feeling lonely. On her travels, when she met Everweer who were bad or dangerous she would get to know them without explaining that she was figuring out, are you the ones I’m supposed to stop. She wrote down what she observed, especially about their powers and flaws.
I leaped over to the bookcase where I got her journal. Yes, every other book on the shelf was also signed Galalena. Her bad guy journals. They might help me fight Alcatur and his followers. But her name was the only word I could read in the other books.
For now, right?
I don’t know the end of Galalena’s story. As she traveled she began to meet other changelings, also searching their destinies. They felt like they must be getting close to answers, if they were gathering near each other. Her last entry, she was excited about finding a woman with a reputation as a sorcerer. Galalena was headed out to meet this woman.
The rest of her journal was blank. Or covered in words I couldn’t see yet.
In a moment I would feel frustrated and impatient and I would find something to worry about. In other words, I would act like myself. But that moment I was different. I was a pattern, a few bits of thread in a huge complicated design that included all the other changelings and bad guys that already happened and someday would be.
Seeing that design was the moment when I became a changeling. – sE
DD – Aunt Axi’s voice, muffled, came through the floor. Was someone with her?
I decided to forget that she said to wait in my loft and followed her voice downstairs. She would pause then talk, like on a phone, except she had warned me we shouldn’t connect with anyone, by phone or internet or Everweer book, because that could open the house to attack.
A man’s voice rumbled like he yelled through a pipe.
The voices came from the secret library but when I peeked inside, the library was empty.
Empty and different. One of the bookcases had slid aside, revealing a secret doorway.
The voices came from a secret room inside the secret room.
That was so Everweer.
I had heard that man’s voice before. In the court during Alcatur’s trial.
It scared me that Aunt Axi would talk to someone from the trial. It felt too close to Alcatur.
“She suspects nothing.” Aunt Axi said, and it was like I was dangling over a cliff. Aunt Axi and this unknown man held my ankles. They could pull me to safety. Or.
“First with a hunter and now this purported double agent,” Aunt Axi continued, and I was standing in the doorway again. She was talking about Lourdes, not me.
I should have felt better.
If I couldn’t trust Aunt Axi. I stomped into the library, grabbed an Everweer journal, flopped in the reading chair.
Aunt Axi continued her conversation like I wasn’t making tons of noise.
Suddenly, my head felt like it was ripping apart.
… I lie on the ground. The dirt is cold but dead leaves warm my belly. It is night but not black. The moon shoves light between branches. Wind gives a cold whistle but the branches make a cave around me. Around us. The moon touches his eyes. He is the Other One who belongs to my Two–Legs. He sleeps like there is no danger. I watch him. I watch everything. My Two–Legs can sleep. This is the same moon. We three are safe…
My view through Grayfast’s eyes was short but I kept seeing that image of Paul, asleep in moonlight. I felt so peaceful. Grayfast’s purr rumbled through me like he was right beside me.
Aunt Axi kept talking but I stopped eavesdropping. – sE
DD – This morning felt like the last day of vacation. We served each other breakfast in bed and Aunt Axi told stories about little kid Paul.
Her room is in the middle of the house so the sounds reached us gradually. Pounding. Hello–are–you–theres. We checked the security cameras. Lourdes. She knocked at the front door, ran around the house to stare at the patio, ran around the house the other way to the front door.
“Unless she’s a long-distance runner, she’ll stop soon,” Aunt Axi said.
We took our juice and coffee out to the patio table. Lourdes arrived with no breath. She bent her arms behind her neck like after a race.
“Good morning,” Aunt Axi said.
Lourdes gasped, “The lady – needs to talk.”
“The one who drove you from Santa Cruz?”
Lourdes nodded. “Can I bring her over?”
“She will stay outside this time,” Aunt Axi said.
“Sure!” Lourdes ran to the woods.
Aunt Axi said, “Quickly, let us review what you remember of this social worker.”
I let the memories jump around. Barracuda playing music in the car. Talking secretly to Ma Warden then pretending surprise when I told her the same thing. Always sneaky.
We took turns glancing toward the woods. Lourdes had been gone a long time.
A bush rustled and there they were, just outside the balcony wall.
Lourdes wasn’t with Barracuda. She was with Natalie.
The Everweer woman whose bangs and size made her look like a little girl but she was older than you could say. Who helped Alcatur escape and tried to kill Aunt Axi. Did kill Trevor and Mr. Colvant.
Natalie sounded angry. “Hear me out. I am not what you believe. I am a spy, not a traitor. My family has always championed leniency. Axinara, you are alive because I took the assignment to kill you.”
“Why are you here?”
“To share what I have learned about our enemy. I will gather information until they stop me, but my sacrifices will be worthless if the information goes unshared.”
“A pretty speech. Good morning to you both.” Aunt Axi gathered our cups on the tray. I got the message and stood to follow her inside.
“Has anyone tested your house wards?” Natalie spread her arms like she was touching an invisible fence.
“It would amuse me to see you try,” Aunt Axi replied. I’d forgotten how cold her queen voice was.
She led us to the kitchen like Natalie was watching through the walls. “Please wait for me in your loft.”
From one window then another, I could watch Lourdes and Natalie. They strolled across the field and disappeared into the woods.
Lourdes has terrible taste in leaders. – sE
DD – Meals are a big deal to Aunt Axi – what to make, what order to serve things, where to eat, does the food fit the weather, our moods. We went to the roof to enjoy soup by a fire pit and watch the sun set behind the woods. No sign of Lourdes.
Aunt Axi used to hate to cook and the first time she made something special – cookies for Paul’s kindergarten – she used salt instead of sugar. While we laughed about the reactions after first bites, I calculated. That was about when Paul’s parents disappeared.
Like she heard my thoughts, she said, “We do all we can for those we love, and it is the love that gets remembered, not the mistakes.” I felt her love for Paul. And for her missing sister, Paul’s mom. For a strange moment, I felt lucky to have lost my family through a car crash – an accident, no wondering if I did something could they return. I pushed my soup away.
Aunt Axi jumped up like she’d been waiting for that. “And now, dessert, guaranteed salt–free.” She removed a lid with a ta–da. Pale crust, whipped cream, grated chocolate. “Dessert pizza.”
She had made a bunch of effort to do something special for me.
“This is my favorite dessert ever,” I announced during my third slice.
Her expression turned serious but her eyes kept smiling. “Warm, comfortable, and relaxed. Those are excellent conditions to enhance understanding. Please share what you learned this afternoon.”
“I barely remember a few words. Except –” As soon as I said that, I started to see patterns.
She nodded. “Keep talking, your understanding will emerge.”
I opened my mouth and listened to the sentences that came out. “Everweer lose or weaken their powers when they doubt them. That is the flaw all Everweer share. They know it but they still give in to it. Also they mistrust everyone. I can use that against them, too. When they feel isolated they make bad decisions. Fighting Everweer is a chess game with feelings instead of moves.”
The flames in the firepit flared. I went over my words until I memorized them. I would need them. I don’t know how I knew that.
A tear slipped down Aunt Axi’s cheek. “You are headed for battle.”
I felt the yes inside me. “I need to learn about changelings.”
“Must that happen tonight or can tomorrow suffice?”
“Tomorrow is okay.”
We watched the fire turn to ashes. That night, without discussing it, I slept in the extra bed in her room. I fell asleep right away. – sE
DD – From then on I went to work, to do my job. Um. Whatever that was. Pretty sure that meant learning stuff.
The Everweer library is amazing.
I know, right? After all my creepy, bad, dark.
Which are still true. I wouldn’t want to spend the night in there, except with Grayfast. Some of the books have a bad attitude, like the people who wrote them.
The rest of them, though. Everweer books know who’s reading them and they change depending on what you are ready to read. Even in one day, I saw changes. I learned stuff from one book, which made a few words appear in a different book that was completely blank when I first opened it.
Aunt Axi explained the least little bit about what was happening, then let me discover the rest. She watched me with a sweet smile like I brought her happy memories.
I darted from one shelf to another until my feet throbbed. I kept opening books, searching for words like prizes. I had to stop when my eyes filled with fog. I squeezed them. Open shut open. The fog remained. I flopped into the reading chair and rubbed my eyes. Still fog. So frustrating!
Aunt Axi soothed, “It’s well past time for a break. That will clear your eyes and more importantly, allow you to absorb what you have gathered in so scattershot a manner.”
Now that she mentioned it. My head was stuffed with disconnected words. I wobbled to my feet. When I got to the door I looked back longingly at the shelf with the most readable books.
“Some books can be transported outside this room but there is no painless way to identify which books will permit transport. If you carry an unwilling volume across the threshold, it will fall in such a way that every page will cut you. Each injury is trivial – merely a paper cut, after all. However, hundreds of paper cuts are not an experience I recommend. I speak from experience. Some of those stains are mine.”
The floor near the door was stained with thousands of brown flecks. Blood?!
The creepy bad dark returned.
I lay in my loft while Aunt Axi fixed dinner. The words I had read streamed around me like I was laying in the surf. Some jutted out like rocks as the surf slides away.
Power and doubt … the loneliness of turning … their softest days … relief from the secret way of life … the subtle weaponry of half truth …
I tried to write them down but it was like describing a dream. Every word erased others, every detail blocked a scene. So I lay back and closed my eyes and remembered all that I could. – sE
DD – I rested until the squeak–thud. Mail coming through the metal slot and hitting the wood floor. When I got to the front room, Aunt Axi handed me an envelope and left me with a smile. “Join me in the library when you’re ready.”
The first letter from Paul I memorized and whenever I think of it, I smile. This second letter I had to force myself to finish. It scared me even though I didn’t understand it all, he was talking in a code. I could make jokes about his taking writing lessons from Grayfast, if the letter gave any reason to crack jokes.
I’m going to tape the letter here and show it to Aunt Axi. It proves I have to get busy in that creepy library. – sE
I’m writing to warn you that people we thought we could trust, we can’t and you have to watch out for everybody except you, me, your special friend who finally likes me, and Aunt Axi because she has to be okay since everybody wants her dead.
Alcatur is a hero to so many that it makes me sick, he comes to meetings and people cheer, bigger meetings all the time, it’s like violence is a disease and they’re all catching it, infecting as many others as they can. They don’t know that I see them because I can watch better than if I had a telescope or a drone, thanks to that project I was working on, you know when I would get so distracted and you would wait and wait for me to finish.
I want to write you a new letter every minute because it makes me feel closer to you but I may have been wrong that no one would check the snail mail and the way things are going even innocent comments could be dangerous secrets.
Your special friend and I are moving around, faster all the time and I won’t be writing much because as we go from place to place if I send you letters that might show a pattern to our direction.
I don’t understand how all this came to happen but one thing I see very clearly is that you and I have jobs to do and finishing those jobs is the way we can be together without hiding and running our whole lives.
DD – What was Barracuda doing with Lourdes? No clue. I could barely remember my social worker. I told you about her, D, but what did I say? I got all my sheets of Dear Diary and paged through them like a dog digging for bones. Pages all over the loft before I remembered. Some pages were buried at the accident site. Maybe those pages wrote about Barracuda.
I gathered the tossed pages and made a terrible discovery. I was almost out of paper. I ran upstairs to Paul’s room and searched everywhere. No paper there, either.
Ever notice how the last straw is tiny?
I thought I was crying silently but Aunt Axi came running to my loft. She gave me a big hug, fluffed our pillows like we would stay there as long as I needed. She didn’t give me any there–there–no–need–to–cry.
Words shot out like my mouth was a broken popcorn maker. Somehow Aunt Axi figured out what the Tupac and led me through a door in her bedroom to another room I had never seen. Tons of windows, bookshelves filled with handmade books. Journals. “Here is where I write.”
She stopped by a window seat, lifted the seat. Inside was a cavity filled with more journals. “These are unused and you are welcome to take any that suit you.”
I chose two for starters.
We set out a new box of supplies for Lourdes but we ate lunch on the roof. I kept my back to the woods. We found all the unlikelys and yeah–buts in Lourdes’ story. In between I kept remembering tidbits about Barracuda.
“That social worker is much on your mind today,” Aunt Axi noticed.
“Cuz of trying to figure out why would she drive Lourdes from Santa Cruz.”
Aunt Axi looked like a snapshot of someone about to bite a sandwich. “What an interesting theory. That she might be the driver.” She finished biting her sandwich, staring behind me where the woods are.
I better stop writing for now. Aunt Axi said to lie down and rest even if I can’t sleep. We’re going back to the Everweer library to try again for me to learn stuff. Those police had better not show up again today!
Yesterday I was so nervous about the library. Now I’m more excited than anything else.
D, next time I write to you, it’ll be in a handmade journal covered in black and brown fabric like Grayfast’s fur. – sE
DD – Lourdes held up an amazing leaf she found. I admired it from across the patio wall. We talked about nothing for a while, like how weird it was to live without a cell phone, which neither of us had anymore. As soon as Lourdes sounded comfortable, Aunt Axi stepped out to the patio.
I said as fast as I could, “This is the aunt that the man who killed your sister mentioned. She’s not sick and she didn’t send the man.”
The instant Aunt Axi appeared, Lourdes gave me a look like I threw an ax at her and ran toward the woods but my words caught up with her. She stopped and turned. “Hi,” she said in a mouse voice.
“Good morning, Lourdes, my name is Axinara. I regret we cannot invite you to join us, the house excludes strangers. Please let us know when you need additional supplies and we will do what we can to help you. We hope you will do the same for us.” Aunt Axi sat at the table beside me and lifted the fruit bowl to offer Lourdes some.
Lourdes grabbed her stomach. “No – I ate so much last night. I could barely wake up – thanks to all your food. I slept and slept – I had so many dreams. That was nice – sleep late and dream. Chrissie hated when I dreamed – or slept. She could hardly ever sleep so didn’t let us.”
“Why would you even hang with her?” This wasn’t on the list of questions I was supposed to ask. Aunt Axi and I had made a list in order of importance.
Lourdes shrugged, “Too scary on my own.”
I ate omelet to act like no big deal and went to the top question. “How did you get here, anyway? Santa Cruz is so far.”
“A lady gave me a ride. She seemed okay – she said she knew you.” Lourdes was backing away. “Why are you looking like that – are you mad at me?”
I tried to hide my flip–out. “Rides with strangers, dude.” I forced another casual bite of omelet. “What lady? What did she look like?”
“Hard to remember – I mostly slept. She had – old skin, young hair.”
This freaked me and I reacted. Was she describing Barracuda?! Did my social worker bring Lourdes here? Barracuda was a grandmother with hair like a 1970s teenager.
Lourdes ran and disappeared into the woods.
“I messed it up,” I apologized to Aunt Axi. I was supposed to ask a lot more questions.
“She’ll be back. Please excuse me.”
Aunt Axi hurried inside. She looked as freaked as I felt. Not good. – sE
DD – Another sunny patio morning. Aunt Axi listened from inside, I sat at the table with an herb omelet sending aromas to the woods. All to lure Lourdes.
I have doubts about Lourdes that make me keep picturing a scene I don’t want to see. Alcatur killing her sister.
Lourdes’ story matched what I know of Alcatur. Crazy angry grabbed the sister broke her neck. I’d seen him crazy angry. Coming for me. Too easy to imagine that violent face looming, hands grabbing too tight to pull away.
What’s suspicious is that Lourdes got away. Alcatur was fast and strong enough to grab both girls. Just because some cops drove by, he wouldn’t give up searching for a survivor. Paul and I got away because we got help from Ms. Benson. And Grayfast.
Lourdes wasn’t telling her whole story. That’s what it felt like to me. Aunt Axi agreed. We talked about it last night. Ever since Lourdes arrived, question marks have been flying. We can’t ignore her or pretend we’re done with her.
So there I was spreading jam on toast like I had no other plans.
Once again I didn’t hear Lourdes until she was right outside the patio saying, “Ella.” She acted surprised by my surprise.
The fact that she could sneak up on me made my mistrust grow, but there is something about Lourdes. When I’m around her I feel friendly.
“What’s it like to sleep in those woods?” I greeted her.
“Not bad – especially with the sleeping bag. I’ve slept in way worse places.”
“Where did you used to live?”
“L. A. – had to get out of there.”
“Okay.” Because? hung in the air. But it was only my business if she told me.
“My dad – he’s a bad person.” Lourdes smiled like admitting she wet the bed. Since the accident, when somebody complains about their parents I get full of you’re–lucky–to–have–them. But this time, no. She wasn’t lucky.
“You talk like he’s your fault.”
“My sister wanted to kill our dad – so I made her run away. Should have let her do it – she’d be alive in prison.” Lourdes acted like a sparrow but underneath she was more like a hawk.
“What happened to your sister wasn’t your fault either, dude.”
She wrung her hands, watched them like they were wringing themselves. “If everything’s my fault that makes me pretty powerful, though.”
She grinned and for the first time I saw the real Lourdes underneath the scaredy–cat runaway.
That was the moment when we became friends and we both knew it. – sE
DD – At last Aunt Axi opened the door. I shuffled diary pages to hide Grayfast’s scrabbly writing. Protecting Grayfast is becoming a reflex.
Explaining made the hiding look worse. “I write a diary. I’m private about it.” It was the kind of lie where you don’t say the whole truth.
She knew. “You have a right to secrets, Ella.”
If only she looked angry. Or curious. Instead, for a second she looked. Hurt.
“Someday I’ll be able to talk about them.”
“Secrets can be a burden.” She studied the security camera views on the laptop. “Has there been any sign of Lourdes?”
“She showed up right when the cops were outside! But she ran away. What happened with the cops?”
“They were quite thorough. They checked every room and cupboard. I mentioned that I had family visiting, although gone for the weekend. That explained the clothing in your loft, and the extra bed in my room. I encouraged them to stop back any time. I hope that dissuades them from returning.”
By now we were in the kitchen and she handed me carrots to chop. Dinnertime! I’d been shut in the secret library for hours. That made me feel brave. “How did the police know about Lourdes?”
“The woman said she received a complaint, but that felt false. Something about that woman. As the visit went on … ” Aunt Axi trailed off. “Fortunately, nothing came of my permitting her inside this house.”
“I knew her. Before.”
Aunt Axi sat us down at the table. “Go on.”
“After my family died, I was a case and she was the social worker. She took me to doctors and courtrooms.”
Aunt Axi gave a hmm look. “An odd intersection, is it not?” I guess I looked concerned because she patted my hands. “Perhaps coincidence does exist. In any event, whatever future comes our way, we cannot divert it.” She pointed and teased, “If you can tolerate pizza, please get that bowl of dough.”
She let me make the crust and I did a good job. While we added toppings, she asked, “If you don’t mind explaining, why were you in a foster home? Are you without relatives?”
“I have a few. Grandparents in Baltimore in a – place. They aren’t doing too well. And my mom has a brother but nobody hears from him. He’s into drugs.”
She hugged me and we slid the pizza into the oven.
If I hadn’t moved in with the wardens, I wouldn’t have gone to Paul’s school. Or lived near the accident site. Where I met Grayfast. One thing really leads to another. – sE
DD – The headache blasted me so fast. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the rug with this page of scrabbly writing.
TWO–LEG SPEAKING IS BROKEN, MANY WORDS DO NOT LIVE IN THE WORLD. I SEND GROWLS THAT HEAL TO MY TWO–LEGS. SHE IS A BABY BIRD IN A NEST OF FANGS. SHE FEELS THE DANGERS BUT THE DANGERS ARE IN CAGES.
THE TALKING ROCKS CAN OPEN. THE TALKING ROCKS CAN CLOSE. THE TALKING ROCKS HAVE FANGS BUT CANNOT BITE. THEIR CAGES ARE CLOSED.
LEARN TO FLY BABY BIRD. YOUR TWO–LEGS IS FLYING NOW. FLY TO REACH HIM.
MY TWO–LEGS SEES DANGER IN ALL PLACES. your TWO–LEGS SEES DANGER IN NO PLACES. FAST RUNNING TO KEEP OUR LIVES.
THE BIG WATER IS SAFE.
I wished I could thank Grayfast for trying so hard to communicate. I am so proud to be his two–legs.
If I understood his message, it said that we’ll be back at the ocean at some point. That I needed to start my training and stop worrying. And that Paul is causing Grayfast some work, safety–wise. I bet Paul is drawing all the time and not noticing things.
No clue how long I’d been closed in this room. On the laptop, the security cameras showed no information. I was tempted to try the internet but a little voice in my head screamed nooo.
This rug was soft. I stretched out but sat up with a terrible what–if. What if the books left their shelves to bury me.
I have to assume Aunt Axi will open the secret door as soon as she can. That is probably not books whispering but just the plumbing. That’s what Dad would say if Matty didn’t like a noise in the middle of the night. “Just the plumbing.” Once we were in the car and Matty cried about a truck that honked and Dad said, “Just the plumbing.”
When you’re three you believe everything.
Nothing outside the room. Voices. Footsteps. Nope. Nothing but the whispering plumbing.
Stop worrying, self. The talking rocks can’t bite me. Their cages are closed.
What would open the cages, I won’t wonder.
Will the police see something suspicious in my loft? What if Barracuda recognizes my shoes (green Converse with yellow patches)? Did Lourdes find her box outside the patio? What if the police see it?
Good thing I stopped worrying. – sE
DD – I held still so I could hear every word.
Aunt Axi opened the front door. “Good afternoon, officers. Please forgive my keeping the chain on the door – I am cautious about strangers, even those in police uniform.”
“Call the station with our badge numbers to confirm we’re legit.”
“An excellent idea. May I first know the reason for this visit?”
By now she must have detected whether they were lying.
“We’re investigating a report that you’re harboring a runaway.”
I lost my balance. I grabbed my knees and managed to not fall. How they could know I was here.
Aunt Axi’s voice was so calm it made me stop freaking.
“A runaway – person?”
A new voice from the porch described the runaway. Female, seventeen, black hair, dark brown eyes.
The laptop showed motion in a security camera view of the woods. Tupac, of all the times for Lourdes to leave the woods.
Took me a while but I got it. Lourdes = the runaway.
If the cops went back to their car she might be in their view.
I could do nothing but I had to do something. So I pretended I was psychic and beamed messages everywhere. Lourdes, go back in the trees. Aunt Axi, keep them talking. Cops, take forever to go back to your car.
Aunt Axi did keep talking. “Let me confirm your visit.” She called the police station. The front porch security camera showed each cop step forward and hold something up to the door as she read badge numbers over the phone. The third person was a woman with long permed hair and bangs. Eminem, it was Barracuda, my social worker when I was with the wardens!
I freaked again then got the doh. She wasn’t going to recognize me. A, she was looking for Lourdes and B, I was hiding in a secret room.
Aunt Axi finished her phone call with, “A warrant won’t be necessary, I’m happy to let them look around.” Then she said to the front porch, “Would you like to come in?”
“One moment – I must shut the door to remove the chain.”
When she shut her door, I shut mine.
The light hadn’t changed but the library felt darker. I sat at the laptop, watching Lourdes. She paced near the trees, then glanced toward the street and shot into the woods. She must have seen the cop car. Good thing the cops were so obvious. – sE
DD – The secret library room was not as dark and creepy as I remembered it. Tube skylights filled the air with pale glow that missed the warm parts of sunlight. Aunt Axi set down a tray with cookies and lemonade, which made the reading area almost cozy.
Bookshelves, floor to ceiling. Paul had showed me one shelf. That shelf was empty! I stepped toward it and tripped, which explained where those books went. Scattered all over the floor, bent and mangled.
“Alcatur became upset when he discovered that our family volume was missing.” Aunt Axi knelt to gather books and return them to the shelf.
I helped. “Paul felt terrible about losing the family book.” And we felt just as terrible when he had it.
“The families can help to make another. I won’t ask them to do so now because that could reveal how the Trigg volume was lost and that a Mere has seen its contents. But when the time is right, it is a volume most easily replaced.”
“What are all these books? Do all Everweer have libraries like this?” Books all shapes colors sizes, leather and cloth and paper. Some old enough to fall apart if you opened them fast, with others brand new.
“We Everweer are careful to document our history, politics, philosophy. As you’ve encountered, we entertain opposing views and thus have conflicting versions of most ideas. Some libraries reflect the narrow beliefs of one family, while others, like this one, strive to include all available views. I sympathize with your annoyance.”
I didn’t mean to roll my eyes but. When they’re not dangerous, Everweer can be so lame.
“In addition, these shelves hold written artworks.”
“Like your poems?”
“Some of my poems are here, yes, and –” A chime interrupted her. “The doorbell?”
She went to a desk and opened a laptop. On the screen were nine fuzzy photos. Security cameras! One showed the front porch with three people standing there.
“Wait here,” she murmured and swept out of the room. She came back a minute later and waved me over to the door, which she slid mostly closed, leaving me inside the library. “There appear to be police and officials at the front door. Perhaps they’ll leave. But be prepared to shut yourself inside here.”
She left, then popped back to say, “Don’t worry.”
I swear the books are whispering. I’m standing at the sliding wood door scribbling this page, trying to write louder than the whispers. – sE
DD – Waiting is torture. No letter from Paul, no contact from Grayfast. Now the girl, I mean Lourdes, hasn’t come back. Aunt Axi and I have had three meals since Lourdes gobbled that fruit.
After Lourdes ran off, Aunt Axi and I didn’t need to talk for long. We had the same reactions. Aunt Axi didn’t get any of the bad feelings that tell her someone is lying. I agreed Lourdes was telling the truth – but we didn’t think we should let her enter the house, because that was a one–way choice. Aunt Axi said, “She could be an unwitting pawn. We can’t take the chance.”
We dropped a box of help outside the patio wall. Duffel bag. Clothes. Sleeping bag. Cash. Lots of food. Water and so forth. We’ll do what we can for Lourdes.
But she has to come back first.
The worst part of this waiting. Everyone I’m not hearing from could be in danger and that’s why the silence.
I found Aunt Axi in her bedroom, which still had the extra bed just in case I need to sleep nearby. She sat at a desk, reading a book by Stephen King. Which made me laugh. So I had to explain, “Your family is scarier than people in his books!”
Her first reaction was shock like I spit on her bed. As I started an apology, she interrupted, “Only a few!” Then she did a funny blink. “What did I say?”
“Only a few,” I said cautiously.
She giggled. A sound of pure fun like would come from a little kid.
We laughed together about her scary family and I felt so much love for her. From that moment she became my aunt, too.
“I’m ready for you to teach me about Everweer,” I told her and we stopped laughing.
“Then here we go.” She closed her book. “Let me make brief preparations. Shall we meet in the Everweer library in 30 minutes?”
OK, D. Here we go. – sE
DD – Warm sun, fluffy clouds. Beautiful morning on the patio. Like my homemade granola breakfast, I didn’t enjoy it.
I sat pretending to read. Aunt Axi was just inside and if anything bad started to happen, or if she detected a lie, she would come outside. ASAP.
Assuming the girl showed up. It was later than yesterday, the sun was higher, I could see the woods without sun glare. No sign of the girl.
Her voice was soft but it made me jump. “Ella.” The girl stood at the nearest corner by the patio.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know.” She did a good job looking confused. “I guess I hoped you could explain – what’s been happening.”
No sound of Aunt Axi heading outside, so no lies detected.
“Such as.” I tried to be less suspicious but I couldn’t even say it like a question.
She talked in a huge rush, with fast gasping breaths like she’d been underwater too long. “Azalea and I – my name is Lourdes. My sister was Azalea. We ran from that beach, where Chrissie – whatever it was that happened to Chrissie. We didn’t tell anybody what we saw – just, we didn’t know where Chrissie was. A man showed up. He said he was family looking for you – he needed to tell your boyfriend about an aunt being sick. Azalea and I were behind a house – finding a place to sleep. I guess he could tell we knew you – he kept yelling questions, more and more angry. Azalea asked for money and – he went insane. He grabbed her and I think he broke her neck. I ran and he had to stop chasing me – cops drove by.”
“And now you’re here.”
“I know – it doesn’t make sense. To come to his house – except I thought someone could help me. I thought he would keep searching for you and not come back. I didn’t dream you would be here – but somebody. With answers.”
“How did you find this place?”
“The man showed us his driver’s license and I remembered Trigg and part of the zip code. So then I looked on–line.”
Searching Triggs online was how I found this house.
Lourdes’ eyes kept darting to the bowl of fruit. I tossed her a banana and it flew funny but she snagged it. She caught the apple with one hand. “Sorry – wait.” She gobbled them both.
“Can you come back later?” I couldn’t think with her there.
She looked nervous, maybe scared, but she nodded and ran off right away. Meanwhile, I ran inside. – sE
DD – Aunt Axi and I had dinner in a room she didn’t show me on her house tour, which made me feel better about her skipping the secret library. Maybe she skipped a bunch of rooms.
Now that it was dark, having one of Chrissie’s friends just outside the house felt like having Chrissie outside. And of course right when I thought that, Aunt Axi got up and shut the blinds.
Time to talk for real. And relive memories that made me want to scream and hide.
Paul and me taking that surfing lesson. Chrissie and the satellite girls stealing the backpack. Chrissie circling the backpack. Pouncing. Catching fire from the book of the Everweer. The satellite girls disappearing behind the glare of the flames. Empty beach, scorched sand. Paul explaining the flames meant Chrissie was a hunter.
“I thought the book killed all three, but this morning one of them was outside.”
Aunt Axi stayed calm, which I appreciated. “Based on what you witnessed, to be a survivor suggests she is not a hunter.”
“She always seemed okay but now I’m doubting that. I mean, what does she want and how did she know to come here?”
Aunt Axi gave me a shrugging smile. “I see only one way to answer your questions.”
In the morning I’ll be back on the patio alone and if the satellite girl shows up again, I’ll ask her. What she wants. Why she’s here. Aunt Axi will be inside, nearby, listening. But.
“She really can’t get onto the patio?” I tried to sound brave but my voice warbled.
“From all that I know of our world, she cannot. But dearest girl, no one can guarantee safety. It is unlikely, yet possible, that your visitor holds an unknown ability that will surmount my Everweer power. Ella.” She waited until I looked at her. “You do not have to speak with her.”
But how could I not.
So, D, no need to ask could I sleep.
Instead I stared at a blank page, trying to beam messages to Grayfast. Write to me. Show me you’re okay. Show me what Paul’s doing.
Then the sun came up and I stared outside. My eyelids stick when I blink. – sE
DD – I talked and talked. About street kids in Santa Cruz and Chrissie with her satellite girls. How they kept showing up, with Chrissie too curious about Paul’s backpack. That held the Trigg family’s book of the Everweer.
“Paul took our book without permission!”
“Please don’t get mad –”
“I’m not angry with him, I’m shaking for him, for you both. You have no idea how many ways you risked death in taking that book without privilege granted.”
“We got the idea.” I told her about Paul’s skin blisters, and his heart beating wrong, and going beyond frozen when we took it in the ocean. She whispered what sounded like thank you prayers.
“You touched the pages and survived.” She gave a no–way shake to her head.
“Somehow I knew I’d be okay in the ocean.”
“Remarkable. Your creature is a cat but your element is water.”
The sun dropped low and weak. Wind rattled the greenhouse. Downstairs inside would have been more comfortable, but moving would have interrupted us.
“Am I a changeling? What is that anyway?”
“You may be, although no one now living has experience with one. A changeling is a person – human, Everweer or even perhaps hunter – who has powers through connection to an animal. In Everweer childhood games, we fought to play the changeling. It is said that the races of persons have drifted from the races of other animals and lost their sense. It is said that a changeling and his – or her – animal can help people regain sense. And it is said that the changeling is a trick so that other races can oppress Everweer.”
I guess I’m getting to know the Everweer. Crazy suspicion didn’t surprise me.
The wind tipped the umbrella. I held the pole while Aunt Axi cranked the umbrella closed. Time to leave the roof. Aunt Axi sent me downstairs with our old lunch dishes while she picked dinner veggies from the greenhouse. With the greenhouse, we could stay here without going hungry for a long time.
In school I did a report on anti–government survivalists. Everweer were like anti–human survivalists.
How many believed a changeling would try to trick them?
Always more to discuss – and we still had to finish talking about the girl in the woods. – sE
DD – Aunt Axi was busy in the greenhouse, watering pots and cutting herbs, but as soon as I said, “I need to tell you something,” she had us sitting outside in the chairs where we watched the moon. Today she cranked open a thick green umbrella for shade.
Paul’s words about a journey scared me because they sounded exactly like Aunt Axi’s cousin, the missing world carver. “Did you ever tell Paul the story about your cousin and his journeys?”
“I don’t recall, but I may have done so.”
I tried to feel relieved.
“It is only natural for you to worry about Paul,” she said gently.
“He has to follow his drawings somewhere. Where it will be easier to go than return. He used exactly the same words.” Was that me shrieking?
“That does not guarantee the same fate. Nor that my cousin Bruce’s fate was an ill fate.”
I tried to feel better. She kept staring at me until I stared back. “We cannot know our destiny, much less another’s. But I believe you and Paul have many steps to take together.” I tried to nod.
She fished in her basket of cuttings and found us mint leaves to nibble. The sharp cool flavor helped.
She looked out at the trees in the measly woods. “I believe in many things but coincidence is not among them. You entered Paul’s life with a sure step. As did the cat, which is no ordinary cat.”
I noticed stuff about my mint leaves. I didn’t want to discuss Grayfast.
“I mention the cat to point out that he is your creature. He will come back to you. It is reasonable for us to hope he will have Paul with him.”
I almost smiled.
“I would like to discuss whatever happened on the patio this morning that so magnified all your concerns, Ella. That is, if you are comfortable confiding in me.”
How the Queen Latifah she knows this stuff. “Yes, I need to explain about that.”
“I sense a lengthy story. Shall I make lunch first?”
She sent me into the greenhouse to finish watering and she went down to the kitchen. It helps to be busy. And to not keep secrets.
To talk about the girl in the field I have a lot of other talking to do. – sE
DD – I went downstairs to tell Aunt Axi about the girl and found Aunt Axi at the mail slot in the front room. She handed me an envelope and walked away, calling over her shoulder, “He was always resourceful.”
The words slanted like they were racing. Paul’s handwriting! I read the letter so many times I could read it with my eyes closed, then I taped it to the back of this page.
Paul has ridiculously clear handwriting but the letter was hard to understand. Almost in code like an enemy might intercept it.
I couldn’t read the postmark – someone had taped the stamps which smeared the postmark ink. Letters travel slowly, so no proof they were okay now. But Grayfast would do his best to keep them safe. – sE
Dear you, How bizarre to converse one–way but I have one–way experience you probably don’t realize because I used to talk to you when you were asleep did you know I did that? I always wondered if my words became your dreams and I liked that idea so long as they were good dreams.
The small friend in the portable container wrecked it and I had to buy a new one but that was worth it for the warning. After we left I got a few miles away then changed my mind about leaving you and turned around and we were almost back when the friend grabbed me so hard he ripped through his container. Fortunately I didn’t shout about the pain and stopped running before a car pulled up and two people ran upstairs where we had stayed. People we’ve spent a lot of time with and thought they were friendly but now they didn’t seem friendly and instead more like the one who burned that thing, the thing I stole. I was so relieved that you seemed to be gone because they left again without you and now I’m letting the small friend decide directions, we get on and off public transportation and I’m not sure where we are because I miss a lot when I keep drawing so all I can say is we’re moving around. Soon I will lead us to my drawings but on those journeys, going will be easier than returning.
I will try to write regularly to pretend we’re in touch but I have to go now because the friend is restless again, love, me.
DD – The morning started sweet and peaceful. We ate fresh applesauce and toast on the patio then Aunt Axi set a fat scrapbook on the table. Photos of Paul from babyhood to age four. Matty’s age.
Tiny Paul was impossibly cute, of course. But “He’s so serious!” He looked like the camera was yelling at him.
“He never liked cameras.” Aunt Axi turned the page. “Look there, his rabbit, Marceau.”
The rabbit stretched next to Paul in a chair, a lot like Grayfast had done in Chicago.
My view got cloudy with tears.
Aunt Axi turned another page and I recognized a face. “Ms. Benson!” Our algebra teacher, younger and chubbier, sitting on this patio with a woman who had to be Paul’s mother – same long bones and gray eyes. That’s right, they were friends. And Aunt Axi, too, the way she touched the photo before she took the coffee carafe inside. She drinks tons of coffee.
Maybe I would have heard a noise sooner, but I started remembering all the times Ms. Benson had helped me, before Alcatur killed her. Then out of Tupac nowhere a voice said, “Ella.” I startled. A scrapbook page ripped.
The voice came from the field beside the house but I couldn’t see anyone. Turned that way, morning sun blinded my eyes.
I somewhat knew that voice. A female voice. Whoever it was could see me. Maybe it was time to go help Aunt Axi. I stacked our plates to take them inside.
Weeds rustled closer to the patio.
Outside the patio wall stood a satellite girl, one of the Santa Cruz street kids who let Chrissie lead them. I never learned the girl’s name. She had seemed okay except for her taste in leaders.
I had so many reactions in such a short time. Relief that she didn’t die, after all, when the book and Chrissie burned. Confusion about how she could have found me here. Fear, same reason.
From inside the house, through the patio door came clattering of dishes and snappy footsteps. Aunt Axi was returning.
“Don’t tell on me,” the girl whispered and ran, disappearing in the sun glare.
I guess Aunt Axi and I finished looking at the scrapbook. Now I’m in my loft, staring out one window after another. No sign of the girl. I should tell Aunt Axi about her right away but what if I shouldn’t?
Tupac Eminem. – sE
DD – I found Aunt Axi staring out a window at the black. Matty did that, waiting for Dad to come home.
“Seems like remembering makes you sad,” I said.
“Somewhat, perhaps, through this lens of new understanding.” She led me to the kitchen. “Let’s greet tonight’s moon with tea.”
We went up to the greenhouse on the roof. The moon rose bright and close. The tea was full of spices.
From the stories Aunt Axi had told me, being an Everweer is awesome and awful. You get a power but you might not have control over it and it might ruin your life. Meanwhile, you know there are other kinds of beings that outnumber you, humans and hunters, and some of them are dangerous but you can’t tell which ones.
I had many questions but they all seemed rude and angry.
Aunt Axi did one of her should–be–creepy mind readings. I swear she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. “You must have many questions, Ella. Please be assured you can ask me anything.”
Okay. “How many in your family have been killed because they didn’t turn?”
“Had you asked me that a few months ago, I would have said ‘none’. Now I fear ‘several’ is the answer.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder about Alcatur like when –” I was going to say, when Grayfast attacked him. But I didn’t want to mention Grayfast. “– he served a new guest such bloody meat?”
“That was ill–advised but not evil.”
“A lot of you are dangerous, right?”
“We are not the cruel ghouls you envision. Alcatur solves imagined problems with violence but his way is not the norm. You enter our world at a time of crisis but surely reason will prevail. Lenience must be our answer. If the only way to survive is to destroy, we cannot justify survival.”
She was one of the Everweer who stood in front of Paul and me for protection when Alcatur’s verdict was read. The verdict after a vote that could have gone the other way and set him free. Like he is now. “How often do Everweer kill Meer?”
“I believe our Alcaturs are rare but I lack evidence to persuade you, or perhaps myself. Your mistrust is evident – and reasonable, given your experience.”
After that we just watched the moon, until it rose so high it kinked my neck to look. Where moonlight hit Aunt Axi she glowed. But black shadows erased parts of her.
Suddenly I knew. Doubt was the weakness that would counteract Aunt Axi’s powers. But please! that I’ll never need to fight her! – sE
DD – Aunt Axi taught me to make pizza from scratch. A valuable skill and it used a lot of emotions, pounding and stretching and drizzling.
Her instructions were simple which left time to talk. She started by repeating the family stories she told me but I missed on the first house tour.
The house is good for Trigg history lessons because when family come to visit, they have their favorite spots and most of the rooms were originally built to suit somebody.
From the kitchen I could see several rooms, every one beautiful and strange. I tried to imagine the people who fit each room. But lately when I think about Everweer, I imagine poisonous fangs and demon howls.
Aunt Axi handed me peppers to slice and said, “I’m happy Paul has a friend who knows his truth. Many of us grow up feeling freakish.” She gave me a dark smile and set the oven temperature. “We take everything too personally, of course. Most Triggs are artists, our powers tied to our creations.”
It was rude but I blurted, “What is your power?”
“I am a poet.”
How was that a power. “I never get poetry.”
She laughed. “Nor do I, particularly my own.”
We ate at the kitchen table and she reminisced about Triggs. She really missed her family.
So hard to picture Aunt Axi as a kid in my sub. But she grew up here and she would run home because she never knew who might have arrived. “I’d race from room to room to find visitors.”
Her favorite was another cousin, Bruce, who carved the bannisters. “He shaped worlds as detailed as the image in a magnifying glass and as exotic as sun in a hailstorm. He called them his travels but I’ve made study of geography and have never identified a single locale. When I asked him to take me on a trip, he warned that on some journeys, going was easier than returning. I fear he is trapped somewhere but I know not how to find him. Nor if he wants to be found.”
She looked at me like she just realized. “After Paul’s parents disappeared, the house grew so empty. Perhaps the others became afraid. How did we not suspect Alcatur? Or did all but I?”
She dropped her plate and it broke into pieces like arrowheads. She wouldn’t let me help clean the mess.
I can tell when someone wants to be alone, that’s the mood I understand best. So here I am in the loft. The sun is down and Aunt Axi isn’t moving around. She might be sitting in the dark. – sE
DD – My time in Paul’s room got me extra missing him. And once I start missing somebody, I start missing everybody.
Dad would have loved Paul’s door. He was really into what he called everyday art. “People being special when there’s no requirement, Ella. That’s a gift.” He was always so cheerful. Same with Matty. I guess I take after Mom. I don’t feel gloomy but things happen that make me gloomy and Dad would say that’s the point.
Dad, I’ve really been trying to not let the things decide for me. How I feel. But.
Mom would have loved the greenhouse on the Trigg roof. Now that Matty was growing and needed less of her attention, she had just gotten back to gardening. Before they. Died.
And Matty. He loved everything in the whole wide except peas. That’s a quote. But he would have especially loved all the hiding places in the Trigg house. He was always playing hide and seek. He never understood it. He’d hide with his round little butt in the air. Amazing how he still managed to win. Wink wink.
I keep having nothing memories of my family. That don’t even make me very sad. But underneath is something. Big. A memory about my family that will blast through the floor and knock everything over.
That memory has something I need to know. No clue how I can be so sure. I’m afraid of it and impatient for it.
The little birds are back, hopping on the branches outside in their sweet cute way. Aunt Axi is clattering in the kitchen below, humming notes without a song. Her voice is strong and soothing like the glossy wood of this window seat.
I’m lounging on pillows in my loft and when I turn my head I see the stairs to Paul’s room. Where I can visit any time.
This might sound weird but who I miss the most is Grayfast. And sharing thoughts and whatever. Ever since I found out that could happen. It changed everything.
I keep paper and pencil handy in case that helps him start some scrabbly writing.
I can’t imagine what they’re going through, wherever they are. Meanwhile I’m lounging on pillows.
However, I’ve been feeling like new problems are looking for me. The feeling has been growing more and more strong but I’m just admitting it now.
I better get going, to learn from Aunt Axi.
The big deal memory might come sooner if I’m busy. – sE
DD – Aunt Axi did some kitchen clattering then called up my ladder, “May I get you anything?”
“I’m feeling better now. Do you want to come up?” What Mom called waving the olive branch.
Aunt Axi was so graceful, climbing the ladder into the loft. She relaxed into a pillow. “As I share with you about my home and history, I don’t wish to overwhelm you but if I reveal too slowly, do let me know.”
Which felt like I had permission to ask about the secret library, which made me stop worrying about it.
“Also, let me know if you need refreshers on the information so far.”
Which took care of my missing most of what she had said because I got stuck on what she hadn’t said.
“Come, one more stop today,” and she led us up the stairs that started in my loft.
She stopped outside an amazing door that was mostly stained glass. The glass showed trees on a cliff at an ocean. It reminded me of Santa Cruz. Her smile made her mischievous as an elf. “Before we enter Paul’s room, would you care to guess what it will be like?”
Paul’s room. How could I not realize he would have a room in this house.
“Uhhhmm,” I started.
She removed her hand from the door latch. I could take as long as I wanted to guess.
Messy? Books? Computer? Drawing supplies? Empty walls or covered with ––– what?
Eminem. This was hard. I went through all my everyday memories of him and that was so nice.
I closed my eyes to get closer to my memories. Suddenly I knew what to expect on the other side of the Santa Cruz door. “Most of the room will look like a motel. He doesn’t care about decor. His bed will be made but not carefully. One corner – probably a desk – will be packed with interesting stuff that people gave him or he found. With pin holes in the walls like he puts pictures up but only when he’s in there.”
I opened my eyes to Aunt Axi giving me a what the Tupac. Then she rushed over and hugged me. “I look forward to knowing you so well.”
The room was pretty much like I said.
She claimed she had to start dinner so I could hang there by myself.
After she left, I turned in a slow circle a few times. Being in Paul’s room, I was less lonely for him but missed him more than ever. How that is even possible to feel both ways.
I tried sitting at his desk. It took a long time to write this because I kept stopping to hold stuff. Things that mattered to him.
He felt so close and so far. – sE
DD – If a person has to be stuck in a house, this is a good one. You can go on expeditions inside. The Trigg house has seven balconies, three patios, and a rooftop greenhouse. Two, no, three lofts, a recreation room, a reading room, a writing retreat, an attic tea room with its own tiny kitchen, a basement game room, two libraries. Plus the usual blah blah like bedrooms.
Stairs and ladders climb everywhere and with so many windows and skylights, even the hallways feel outdoors. The bannisters and window seats are carved with scenes it could take days to describe. And they are full of secret compartments.
During Aunt Axi’s tour, most of me thought, dope to the utmost! But part of me whispered, uh oh.
I happen to know this house has a secret room – the hidden library full of top secret Everweer information. But Aunt Axi did not mention that room on her tour. Fine with me if I never saw that nasty room again. But if she’s going to teach me more about the Everweer. Shouldn’t she mention the room with the Everweer information?
Maybe this house has other secret rooms that were also left off my tour.
It feels bad to like someone so much but not entirely trust her. And it feels less safe. First I wondered why she didn’t mention the library. Then I caught myself wondering what her Everweer weakness might be. Like I might have to fight her someday.
If only she had showed me the hidden library.
I almost interrupted her tour to ask her. Does she know Paul took me in there. Showed me the Everweer book. Before Alcatur killed Ma Warden and we ran away. With the Everweer book. Which – despite promises of death – we read. Which Chrissie destroyed. Which destroyed Chrissie. And maybe the satellite girls who hung out with Chrissie but didn’t act like her. They didn’t deserve to die. I don’t know about Chrissie.
My thoughts spun into a whirlpool and I missed most of what Aunt Axi told me about the Trigg family. I stopped walking, she stopped talking. “I need to lay down, I don’t feel good.” Which was legitimately true, but I think she knew it was not the full story.
Now that I’m alone in my loft, I’m wondering did I overreact. Wondering. I’m not sure about anything. – sE
DD – Thanks to Aunt Axi, I stopped hurting so much about Paul and Grayfast. Usually when a grownup tries to distract me they’re obviously sneaky and I feel tricked. But her “obviously” was wanting to help me feel better, so I could accept the help.
She served lunch on a balcony overlooking the woodsy trees behind the house. Pretty sure those were the woods Grayfast hid in, before he interrupted my first dinner with the Triggs. “We can’t leave the building – the grounds are not under my protection – but we can enjoy views of the outdoors from many angles,” she sighed. Staying in the house was Eminem for her, too.
I slid the cheese out of my sandwich and stuffed it in my mouth then remembered the concept of manners.
She interrupted my apology. “I take that as a sign that you feel comfortable around me.”
As a matter of fact I did. Partly because of the Paul connection. Although once Paul said he wasn’t completely sure he could trust her. But then Paul and I trusted Ezra and Natalie. The traitors.
Aunt Axi hadn’t trusted them, that last night.
I slid cheese from the other half of my sandwich. “Paul said you can feel betrayal.”
“I can tell when someone lies. But I rarely know the reason, which makes me second–guess my instinct.”
That didn’t seem like a fun power. “Paul says you’re super powerful.”
“Is that his perspective?” She peeled the bread off a sandwich and offered me the cheese. “Then with great power comes great uncertainty.”
I took the cheese. One side was covered with mustard. Grayfast always stole my cheese except when it was mustardy.
I didn’t know when I’d see them again.
Paul and Grayfast must have showed on my face. Aunt Axi squeezed my hand and said, “I’d like to give you a tour of the Trigg house, which will also be a Trigg history lesson. Your future with Paul will make more sense with some knowledge of our history.”
My future with Paul. She said it like she was sure I would have one.
We made a plan to start our tour in an hour. She seemed to know that I wanted to write now.
She understands so much it feels like mind–reading. But Paul didn’t mention that as a power. Anybody else I’d be creeped but she’s just not creepy.
Ezra. Natalie. – sE
DD – Heartache is an actual thing. I miss Grayfast and Paul so much my entire body hurts. Everything seems too hard to do, even climbing down the ladder into the kitchen. I’m just laying around on the pillows, pretending I’m Grayfast watching the little birds hop on the branches outside. They have extra energy in the morning.
Matty was like that too.
The way I miss Matty, that’s not heartache that’s heartscream.
“May I come up?” Aunt Axi called from the bottom of the ladder.
“It’s your house,” I said then hated myself. She’s not acting like a grownup so don’t treat her like one.
She joined me on the pillows watching the birds, giving me privacy even though next to me.
I shouldn’t have asked to sleep here in the loft last night. I asked because I could feel a lot of crying coming on and I didn’t want to lay in her room biting my fingers to keep quiet. In the loft I cried as much as I wanted to. Well. Wanted? But she probably heard me anyway and crying in a dark new room left me full of holes.
People say crying makes you feel better but some kinds of crying don’t. Correction. Humans say. No clue what makes you feel better, Everweer. No clue for you either, hunters.
Of course, I’m not exactly a human if I’m a changeling. Whatever the Tupac that is. Figures I wouldn’t belong in any of the normal groups.
If Dad were here he’d blow his stupid green plastic horn and announce me as the grand winner in the sorry–for–yourself sweepstakes.
A little choke of a laugh popped out.
Aunt Axi glanced at me to check was I okay, then looked back at the birds. She has golden brown eyes that remind me of a lion. She sank deeper into the pillows and looked around. “This was my sister’s favorite room. After we lost her, it was years before I could come in here again.”
“What happened to her?” But I knew the answer before I heard it.
“She was late to turn and she disappeared. Now I suspect that Alcatur –” She didn’t need to finish the sentence. “Back then we had no notion of his nature.”
“Everweer make zero sense!” Suddenly I was so angry.
“You may be right.”
After that we talked about the hopping birds. – sE
DD – If all my teachers were like Aunt Axi, school would have been okay. She is patient and clear. I’m still Tupac confused, though.
Some of her info I already knew. There are three basic groups of people – humans (like my family), Everweer (like Paul’s family), and hunters (like Chrissie and maybe her two sidekicks, the satellite girls). Humans and hunters divide into many different races and cultures. Everweer are all one race and culture but seem divided because they disagree about everything.
Hunters and Everweer know the three basic groups exist. They are dire enemies and different races of hunters are also enemies. Hunters have anger management issues. Anyway, hunters and Everweer would probably be in wars all the time if it weren’t for hiding reality from the humans.
Around the earth there are maybe a million hunters, thousands of Everweer. But billions of humans, who are like, la la la, we run this planet, we control all these animals and plants. Clueless. Sometimes humans have found out about the other groups of people. They’ve never said, ‘oh good, let’s share’.
Aunt Axi and I sat on the patio sipping fresh lemonade like we were talking about hairstyles.
“Why are they called hunters? Who – what do they hunt?”
“Despite the name, they don’t all hunt. In fact, some hunters are surely vegan. Rather, the hunting is a frame of mind, an approach to life.”
“They sound super creepy.”
“I’d call that a fair assessment of hunters I’ve met.”
I’m glad I didn’t know about hunters when I was around Chrissie, I might have wimped when she harassed me.
“But perhaps I simply don’t understand them. Have you encountered hunters?” Aunt Axi asked.
I’d gone several days without re–living the end of Chrissie, the burning on the beach. Now the memory came back and Aunt Axi saw it in my face.
“Best answer some other time,” she said.
Which saved me from deciding what to say. I’m pretty sure Paul should be the one to tell her what happened to the book of the Everweer, Trigg family edition.
I don’t want to keep secrets from her but there is so much that I don’t think I should say. So many thoughts I don’t dare release into the world.
Now that Paul and Grayfast are gone, I’m realizing how much scary stuff we went through together. – sE