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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 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 – 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 – “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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 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 – 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 – 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– 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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