Book Six (218 – 259)

218.

DD – If only this night would end. Do more bad things happen in the dark or do nights just drag out more? I actually spent time trying to decide, listing bad things that happened, day versus night.

Day. Wars mostly happen in day. Chrissie burned in daylight. Alcatur killed Ms. Benson one morning outside her gym.

Night. In my own life, night wins by a mile. I can’t stop remembering Alcatur murdering Ma Warden at her front door. Alcatur escaping after his trial. His followers killing Trevor and Mr. Colvant. Burning Aunt Axi’s mini–van, chasing her through the cemetery.

Last but not least, the car crash that killed my family happened at night.

The so–called accident.

From one minute to the next I was sure of it, deep down where I just know. The car crash wasn’t an accident. Why who how. It all made zero sense but I knew.

Natalie and Barracuda were involved somehow. And I would find out how! Their expressions as they watched paramedics slide me into the ambulance that night. Not like the other spectators – not surprised or horrified. Not pleased, either.

They might not have caused the crash. But they’d know who did, and I’d get them to tell me. One way or another, I’d get answers.

And maybe revenge. That part was strange. Whoever did this. Even though the faces were fuzzy, I could picture terrible ways of hurting them and those pictures were so satisfying. But the satisfying dissolved to sickening, as though my stomach had filled with blood.

For a minute I could hear Lourdes and Paul, explaining to Lewis why I was so upset. Soon their words stopped making sense.

I was awake but having nightmares. Running as hard as I could to reach my family. The more my feet pounded, the more my family shrank away.

I could have been running, the way my breath gasped. Actually I was riding in the back seat of Lewis’ car. It was completely dark but I could feel all five companions, sending their caring and sympathy. Their good feelings reached me through Grayfast, curled in my lap, purring mightily. At last the vibrations blocked my nightmares. – sE

219.

DD – We stopped for gas and I splashed water at my face until my hair dripped. Lourdes got wet too, she stuck that close by me. Paul waited outside the bathroom door.

“I’ll be okay again,” I reassured them.

What snapped me out of my flip–out was Lewis. Back at the car, he said, “You can sit in front. I know she’s not here. I pretend so I can keep going until she returns.”

“I’d rather ride back here, but thanks.” I climbed in back. Sitting up front would kill his hope.

“Where to now?” He gave the world’s saddest sigh. “She might never come back. I know that.”

It didn’t matter that Lewis was insane where the sirene was concerned, or that the rest of us hoped for what he dreaded, that she was gone forever. His grief was real. He was as lost as I had been right after the crash. I never want anyone to feel that. (Except whoever caused the crash.)

The car idled at the gas station exit. Where to now. Like somebody knew.

Lewis asked Paul, “What did you find in the tufa?”

Question marks floated in the dark.

Lewis reminded, “You kept drawing tufa? Why you came to Mono Lake? To find the tufa in your drawings?”

“We haven’t seen any tufa,” Paul realized.

“It’s only in certain areas,” Lewis explained.

Our question marks became exclamation points. We weren’t done with Mono Lake. “Turn right at the highway,” I directed Lewis toward Franklin’s cabins.

Franklin would help us find Paul’s tufa. And maybe he could help Lewis get over the sirene.

Franklin’s cabins always look deserted, so no surprise that the property was dark and empty.

“Someone lives here?” Lewis sounded slightly less destroyed. He has such a curious nature, any mystery could be good for him!

“Come and see,” Lourdes said like she realized the same thing.

Two steps from the car, Lewis tripped on the uneven ground.

Paul turned the headlights on, flooding one cabin with light, shoving the others into blackness.

We knocked and knocked. On doors then windows. We called out hellos. No answer.

We shut up. Turned off the headlights. Slipped back in the car and nobody slammed a door.

It was so dark and so quiet.

Probably we were the only people for miles.

“Maybe Franklin’s out looking for us – where we ran from that lady,” Lourdes said.

Barracuda. Her visit to Franklin felt like years, not hours, ago.

We drove down a steep dirt road in the direction of the reeds, where we had run to escape Barracuda. Our blaring headlights burrowed a tunnel into black silence.

It was so dark and creepy that even Lewis noticed. He muttered, “Nope.” No one disagreed when he turned the car around and took us back to the 24–hour gas station, where it was never dark or silent. – sE

220.

DD – If you traced our routes that night, you would draw a pile of unfolded paper clips, bent around the gas station and Franklin’s cabins. We’d get sick of the buzzing fluorescent lights over the gas pumps and head for the cabins. Every visit, the cabins would be just as dark and way more cold. So quiet, we’d hold our breath until we got back to the gas station and that flickering buzz. Fluorescent mosquitos.

Finally we just parked at a pump. The gas station guy didn’t care.

It was the part of the night when morning is hard to imagine. Lourdes dozed with Scatterlegs tucked along her collar. Paul was lost, drawing somewhere/thing I didn’t recognize. More travel coming soon.

On the highway, headlights went by like a pair of shooting stars.

It was Grayfast who alerted me to trouble. He jumped to the back window ledge, stared inside the convenience store, tail swishing.

If Grayfast was sensing a problem, we needed our driver. There. Inside the convenience store. Lewis’ rumpled head poked above some shelves.

I went in to get him. He was reading a label in Automotive and Cleaning Supplies.

“Do you need to add oil?”

“Oil,” he said like he hadn’t thought of that. He picked up a can, read the label, shrugged, set down the can, out of place. “Naw.”

Lots of other shelves had containers out of place, like Lewis had discarded those, too.

Odd, even more than the Lewis usual. “We might need to drive out of here soon.”

“In that case, I better – bathroom. Meet you at the car.” Before Lewis zoomed away, he glanced at a shelf.

On that shelf were a few bottles and jars, set aside like somebody was saving them. Somebody like Lewis. Transmission fluid. Bleach. Solvent. All with huge warnings. Red exclamation marks. Poison. Danger.

I skimmed the labels Lewis had picked up but discarded. Harmful if swallowed or inhaled, seek immediate medical attention. Bad, but survivable.

The ones he had saved gave no hope. Death within minutes, they warned. Or promised.

Lewis wanted to die.

When he got back from the bathroom, he looked sorry to see me in his aisle.

I had reasonable words in my head but only crying came out. I sobbed so hard Lewis took my hand to reassure me. If I hadn’t brought him into this, he’d be home winning video games. “I am so sorry,” I blubbered.

“You aren’t the one to blame. It wasn’t your house that hurt her.” Soft calm awful.

He patted my arm and headed for the door. I raced after him. I couldn’t leave him alone.

Because of the sirene, Lewis wanted to kill himself and/or Paul. – sE

221.

DD – Paul was still lost in a drawing and Lewis was putting air in the tires, which gave me the chance to tell Lourdes about the murder/suicide containers.

She cursed the sirene in Spanish and twisted to see the sky out the windshield. “Almost sunrise – let’s go back to the cabins. Gives him fewer options.”

Grayfast stayed at the back window, swishing his tail, watching Lewis. Like the danger he sensed was Lewis. I skipped that detail when I rolled down the window to say, “Grayfast senses danger. We need to go back to the cabins.”

“Sure thing, I’ll be right –” Lewis stepped toward the convenience store.

In one fast motion, Lourdes slipped Scatterlegs into her shirt pocket, climbed over me, threw open the door, blocked Lewis’ path, patted her pocket. “Same message from – mine. Cabins – right away. I’m taking you up on your offer – the front seat. Too crowded in back.”

That got his attention! Lewis reached for Lourdes like he might toss her aside. She scampered around the car and opened the front passenger door.

“Come ON,” she ducked inside, violating the precious sirene space.

Lewis emitted angry whimpers.

The car shot onto the highway with Lewis facing Lourdes instead of the road.

“Thank you for offering this seat,” Lourdes said in her tiniest mouse voice. Meanwhile her changeling shimmer spread like liquid armor. She must expect Lewis to attack her.

“Sure.” Lewis made the sharp turns to Franklin’s dirt road without brakes. But by the time we parked by the cabins, he was pure sweet, which was so confusing. He set out a bowl of water for Grayfast and a jar lid of water for Scatterlegs.

On this visit, the cabins had glowing cyclops eyes. Their windows reflected the sky, which turned gray blue pink in our short walk from car to cabins. I was relieved to see the sun coming back.

Still no answer when we knocked, but Franklin felt closer. Maybe it was the sunlight.

“Is it the same night?” Paul asked. Which meant he was back from drawing. “Let’s go down to the lake,” he suggested.

At the lake’s edge, things felt normal for a time. We oohed about the sunrise and laughed about the animals. The flies were already out and Scatterlegs, in a hurry to start munching, jumped wildly and flipped over. Until then, Grayfast had been trotting after the lizard. Now he braked and turned his back to the lake. Too–cool–to–chase–flies.

While we laughed, Lourdes and I were careful to stand between Paul and Lewis. Paul with his oblivious drawing, Lewis with his psycho sirene. It was up to the changelings to keep them safe. – sE

222.

DD – “A handsome start to the day.” Franklin’s voice made us jump. He stood on the ledge just behind us, had walked close without our noticing! Certainly the animals were fine with his arrival. Grayfast gave Franklin a glance and went back to ignoring Scatterlegs.

Franklin’s dreadlocks snapped against his thick jacket. We stood in an icy wind. I thought about Franklin’s fireplace and started shivering. I thought about Franklin’s cooking and my stomach started growling. It’s like I couldn’t admit I was cold or hungry until the solution appeared.

Who knows how long I could have gone being hungry and cold. Nowadays I am so used to being uncomfortable.

The rest of us crowded around Franklin but Lewis still faced the lake with his face twisted – he must be in contact with the sirene. When we introduced them, they made eye contact and gasped. Franklin’s noise was an exclamation, Lewis’ was a growl.

“A sirene creates a terrible tangle,” Franklin said with sympathy.

Lewis’ eyes glistened – with tears?! Or the wind.

Lourdes tried to talk but it came out tck tck tck from her teeth chattering.

“Cocoa by the fire!” Franklin gestured toward the cabins.

He and Lewis walked together up the slope, gabbing. It usually takes forever for Lewis to talk to someone new! I felt hopeful that maybe Franklin could help Lewis, but my hope drained when I overheard Franklin say, “No, neither bleach nor solvent are chemicals I keep near my home.”

Lewis was still trying to get his hands on deadly potions. We couldn’t let him out of our sight.

I wasn’t the only one thinking this about Lewis. Lourdes nudged me to notice what she dangled between fingers – Lewis’ car keys!

Lourdes can be very sneaky. That’s a compliment.

Cocoa by Franklin’s fireplace. Ahhh. The stress swirled away like the steam from our mugs.

Until. Lewis fell asleep, mid–swallow and sitting up.

Hmm. Franklin had made a thing about serving Lewis a particular mug of cocoa. “I prepare drinks for each palate. Lewis, I’ve made you a varietal I’m confident you’ll enjoy.”

Hmm. Franklin tugged Lewis into a comfortable position like he wasn’t surprised or concerned about waking Lewis. Who kept sleeping.

“You fled fewer than 15 hours ago, yet already we have much new to discuss,” Franklin said. “I believe you were right to run from here, although I could not determine why that woman seeks you. But enough for now. I must prepare fuel for our extended conversation.”

Meaning, we’ll talk after he fixes breakfast. He gathered the empty mugs and left us by the fire.

He’d confirmed fears about Barracuda but she wasn’t on anybody’s mind. Lourdes, Paul and I kept looking around. At each other. At Franklin through the kitchen door, bustling around. At Lewis the snoring lump.

We shrugged at the same time, which made us smile.

“Lewis unconscious solves some problems,” Lourdes said.

“We’ve already been at Franklin’s mercy and we’re fine,” Paul added.

“If we can’t trust Franklin then we might as well be unconscious,” I agreed.

But it was startling. How smooth calm cheerful Franklin was when he did whatever he did to Lewis. – sE

223.

DD – I was comfortable, not trusting Franklin. That was my normal state, not trusting grownups. Even before he did something to Lewis. Whatever grownups said, a little voice inside would react. Yeah right. Or not. Oh sure.

Franklin wheeled in a cart and prepared an amazing breakfast in front of us. In the window behind him, the lake and mountains gleamed in morning sun. Grayfast and Scatterlegs lounged on fireplace rocks. Their attitude toward Franklin was as chill as ever.

Waffles with the most delicious fruit sauce. Lewis kept sleeping, right through those aromas from the waffle iron. Which proved it was not a normal sleep!

Franklin ate one waffle and smiled as we devoured thirds and fourths. “You all have questions today,” he said.

Lourdes and Paul nodded. Which surprised me. Which embarrassed me. It never occurs to me that anybody except me needs answers.

Come to notice it, Paul was missing his usual calm. He shifted here, shifted there like his chair back had thorns.

Lourdes gave Paul a you–first wave.

Paul stared at Franklin. “Why did you build a mausoleum for my parents if you don’t know whether they are dead?”

Franklin stopped gathering breakfast dishes and met Paul’s eyes. “Think of it as a poultice to draw out poisons. We are a people of rituals and symbolism. Whatever the wrong done your parents, we hoped and anticipated that the wrongdoer would be drawn to the mausoleum.”

“Has that happened?”

“Time will tell.”

Paul dropped back to his chair. His nod was sad but the thorns were gone.

“Why did you drug Lewis?” Lourdes asked.

Franklin skipped any bogus how–dare–you–accuse–me. “To give him time to heal. Connection with a sirene frays the psyches of the afflicted and those around him. We cannot leave him alone, or with a single other one of us, until we sever this tie.”

“You can help him get free of her?!”

Were we about to see Lourdes cry?

“Perhaps. He is willing for her to depart but she must be also. We have a good chance. By all accounts, humans do not satisfy these hunters.”

“What does she want, why did she even show up?”

“We cannot comprehend a sirene’s motives. But I have sufficient knowledge of sirene exorcism to help this boy. I’ve ordered the essential supplies. As soon as they arrive, I’ll begin. In the meantime, at least two of us must stay with him at all times, for his protection and ours.”

At least two of us. Oh, Lewis, I’m sorry. – sE

224.

DD – Franklin is preparing an exorcism chamber for Lewis. Hard to believe we are eager for something called that!! Meanwhile we three are watching Lewis sleep. The world’s most dangerous lump.

We five, I should say. The animals lounged around Franklin during breakfast but now they’re by the fireplace, sort of snoozing and sort of watching Lewis.

By the time we had finished washing the breakfast dishes, I was back to trusting Franklin. No surprise. I do trust seesaws with Aunt Axi, too. The weird part is spending any time on the trust side. I could never trust my parents. No matter how much we loved each other, they would always Eminem me to get things their way.

Ms. Benson was the first grownup I ever trusted. Even how wrecked I was after the accident, the minute I entered her algebra class I knew she was okay.

She’d be alive if she hadn’t helped me.

Would I someday be saying the same about Aunt Axi? Franklin?

A wonderful voice filled my head like silver wind chimes. You did not bring the danger, you bring them hope of ending the danger.

Right away I knew the voice was changeling me. Wise, reassuring. Like being my own fairy godmother.

“We have reasonable hope of success with Lewis.” Franklin returned with a pitcher of fresh orange juice. He was sweaty and drank half the juice himself. Apparently exorcisms are hard work. I was crazy curious to see the chamber but if he didn’t invite us there’d be a good reason.

At last I got my turn to talk with Franklin. I got so emotional, Paul and Lourdes had to help me tell him the news. That Barracuda and Natalie were at the crash site. That my family’s deaths weren’t accidents.

Franklin went all logical, examined my news like Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock. Which helped me feel more peaceful. “Natalie is a changeling like no other. While that second woman, the one you call Barracuda, carries a strange empty energy.”

“I bet she’s still nearby. We could find her. Get some answers.” Lourdes spit the words like they were bitter.

Franklin shook his head. “She may understand little. Yet either or both may be more dangerous than we comprehend.”

“I could spy on them,” Paul said, waving a drawing pad.

“No. We must hide our awareness of their truth. We’ll get the answers but we will need time to do so.”

The way Franklin put it, it seemed possible to find patience. – sE

225.

DD – Franklin wanted to interrogate the sirene through Lewis! It was up to us. He asked our permission. He explained, “Word from many sources is that Alcatur forges alliances with our old adversaries, the hunters. The sirene may have knowledge about this. Are these rumors or are they reality? The foes of Alcatur dare not waste resources preparing for rumors.”

Until now I hadn’t thought of the sirene as a being who could have allies and foes. She seemed more like a fungus. Or bad weather that Lewis got stuck in.

“Would you hurt Lewis to get the information?” Lourdes asked.

“Never! However, I am not the only source of risk. Lewis could be hurt if the creature who entangles him dislikes my questions. That is more likely if she is indeed allied with our foe.”

“We’re hoping for a yes answer so you are sure about Alcatur’s plan, but a no answer so Lewis will be okay?” Paul summarized the confusions.

Franklin chuckled without humor. “We’re hoping to maximize information and minimize danger. We shall get our most definitive answer if this sirene was invited to join Alcatur, but declined.” Franklin stood. “I’ve worsened a difficult situation by asking you to make this choice. Let’s not pursue it.”

“We have to say yes. Lewis would say yes.” I was pretty sure.

Paul and eventually Lourdes nodded.

We got to see the exorcism chamber because it took all of us to lug Lewis the lump back to the chamber. Through a door past the kitchen, we stepped inside a giant wood balloon made of rough splintery planks. There were no corners and the floor gave like it rested on air.

In the center was a wood lozenge where we laid Lewis. Again no corners and a sag–bounce when we added his weight. Franklin braided long thin flexible branches to strap Lewis to the lozenge. Shoulders, chest, waist, thighs, shins.

Back in the kitchen, Franklin gave us assignments to prepare snacks. None of us were listening much. Lourdes especially kept looking toward the exorcism chamber. Franklin prepped the snacks himself and we carried the trays to the front room.

He gestured out the window, “On this spectacular morning, a trip to the lake will help your wait pass more quickly. I’ll return as soon as I have news.”

But we’re still in the front room, not eating snacks, not talking. Something must be happening in the chamber – Grayfast and Scatterlegs stopped lounging and are staring through walls to where Franklin and Lewis are. They’re alert. We’re more on the numb side. – sE

226.

DD – Don’t know how Franklin could be cheerful after Lewis bit him. So many times. Bruises and teeth indents all over one arm. Franklin rushed into the front room, modeled his trashed arm like the latest fashion, said, “Only one of us suffered injuries, and none that broke the skin.”

“Um – good?” Lourdes was relieved enough to joke.

“Better than I dared to hope. It was not Lewis, of course, but his sirene who attacked. My questions enraged her and showed me which restraints needed tightening.”

“Does she side with Alcatur?”

“She has not been approached – but other hunters have allied with him. She is furious that any of her kind would join Everweer. And yet.”

He rubbed his arm as he looked out the window. Like it hurt more than he wanted to notice. “She has a bond with the boy. She is protective of him. She had him bite me so as not to break my skin because my blood might sicken him.”

“Oh no! A bond! She won’t go away!” Lourdes wailed.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions.”

“If she cares about him she will leave because she is bad for his head,” Paul suggested.

Lourdes looked hopeful until Franklin replied, “We cannot expect a sirene to think as we do. She may interpret her influence more positively.”

Lourdes shouted, so angry her changeling shimmer had sparks. “She makes him want to kill! That helps – how?”

“I cannot predict how she would answer. A sirene is a creature of rage,” Franklin opened the front door. “Please wait outside. She senses your presence, thus feels outnumbered and threatened.”

“What if she needs to be outnumbered?” Down the slope the lake gleamed and being outside sounded like a great idea. Except for leaving Franklin alone with the sirene and Lewis, still doing her bidding.

Lourdes stomped outside, tripped off the platform deck, punched at Paul when he asked was she okay. I didn’t know Lourdes could lose control like that. Could the sirene take over the rest of us?

“Lewis has many who care about him,” Franklin smiled. He froze with one boot in the air as Scatterlegs ran under it to catch up with Lourdes.

Lewis always has angry women in his life! His mom used to pick fights at school events. He’d stay home “sick” the next day, he’d be so embarrassed.

He’ll be a different – happy – embarrassed if he ever realizes how Lourdes feels about him. – sE

227.

DD – I can’t really think enough to write but I have to do something so here goes.

Our visit to the lake was peaceful but nerve–wracking. I always feel better around big water, so that part was good. Paul wasn’t drawing and kept grinning at me over the top of Lourdes’ head. Just to grin. I’ve given up on ever getting private time with him, and that makes everything calmer.

When we reached the last ledge of rocks before the lake, Lourdes looked each of us in the eye. “Sorry – for.”

One of us answered, “How could you not?”

While the other said, “I feel just as mad.”

We sat on the ledge, watching the lake shimmer, Scatterlegs skitter, Grayfast stroll (too cool to skitter).

It was hard to remember Lewis and Franklin in the exorcism chamber.

The first sign of trouble was when Scatterlegs stopped munching flies. He and Grayfast ran along the lake edge, focused on something we couldn’t see.

They vanished behind a jumble of rocks.

“Follow?”

“Yeah – what’s up with them?”

“They’re not acting like we’re in danger.”

So we trailed in the direction they had gone. Opposite the direction that we went, the day Barracuda drove up to the cabin and we ran through the nightmare reeds.

The rocks here were more hilly, up down up down. Lots of places for small animals to be out of view.

We caught up to Grayfast and Scatterlegs on a one– lane dust road where it curved around a tall spear of rock. The animals sat on the spear, backs to us, staring down the other side.

We went around the spear of rock, gasped, ran back to the near side.

On the far side was Barracuda’s car. Slammed into the rock with a smashed front end.

Grayfast swished his tail but didn’t act like we were in danger.

We gave each other What the Tupac. The car’s windshield wipers were going, scraping dirt across the glass. Old rock music faintly pounded. It must be blasting in the car with the windows up.

Gestures, grimaces, and a couple whispers later, we decided to wait for Barracuda to come back. She had probably gone to find a spot with cell service to call a tow truck.

Obviously, she hadn’t given up on finding us. So we needed to question her. We three – actually, five – against her one. I was mad enough to have confidence we could control the discussion. Interrogation. Next step in understanding what happened to my family and why.

But underneath my anger I had a really bad feeling about Barracuda’s car.

Still, the animals didn’t act like we were in danger. – sE

228.

DD – We sat behind the spear of rock. We couldn’t see Barracuda’s car but we could feel the music faintly pounding.

We couldn’t see the lake, we couldn’t see the cabins. Just silvery blue sky. And our fidgety bodies, more restless every time the music looped.

Whenever the music paused, we could hear windshield wipers scrape dirt across glass.

Lourdes climbed the spear of rock, flopped beside the animals, stared down at the car.

I listened hard for pairs of footsteps. Barracuda’s sensible heels plus a tow truck driver’s boots. Or Franklin and Lewis fetching us after a successful exorcism.

Paul got paper and pencil from the backpack and muttered while he drew, “…according to… who she is… what I see…”

Another great Paul Trigg idea! Use a spy drawing on Barracuda. That could save us hours of waiting here at Boredom Rock.

He noticed me and turned red. I must have been giving an Adoring Gaze. My cheeks got hot. Awkward forever!

Paul pointed at my hand, tapped then held the corner of his paper. A demonstration. He resumed drawing and I followed his instructions. I held the corner and my spine got icy. I was sharing his contact, spying with him.

We must have been seeing through Barracuda’s eyes. Bright silvery blue surrounded by dark. Bright around a shadow halo… A halo with spokes… Thin shadows moving back and forth in rhythm… Bare toes in cool lawn… French fries… Tiny ripples from ducklings crossing a pond.

A grunt became a groan became a sigh. Really difficult then super easy.

Paul’s pencil stopped. He muttered more, but the pencil wouldn’t budge again.

Frowning, thinking, Paul crumpled the drawing, pulled the lighter from his pocket.

I started to understand. Thin shadows moving back and forth in rhythm. Windshield wipers. The halo was a steering wheel, seen from below. Looking up at a windshield filled with bright sky.

“She’s still in her car.” I didn’t whisper. I walked around Boredom Rock and stared at the car.

Sun reflected on the car’s windows. We couldn’t see inside.

“What’s that drip?” Lourdes slid down the spear of rock.

The driver’s door was not closed tight. Plop. Plop. Plopplopplop. Dark drops fell from the bottom of the door, vanished in the thirsty dirt. The drops fell more quickly for a minute, then stopped.

“She’s been in the car the whole time and she just died.” I took a step forward. Stopped. Someone else would have to prove it.

Paul snapped his lighter, burned the spy drawing. His hands were shaking. “She was in there dying a really long time.”

Slowly, under a steering wheel, alone, bleeding, middle of nowhere. No matter what Barracuda knew about my family, it was a terrible way to die.

Paul and I had just shared her last thoughts with her. – sE

229.

DD – We sat on the platform deck outside the cabins. I slightly remember stumbling back there. Sitting. Writing.

We left Barracuda’s body alone. We never opened the door to prove she was there.

Dead in her car. Dead some way that made her bleed. A ton of blood.

We couldn’t go inside the cabins because of the sirene. But we needed to be close to Franklin. He would know what to think. What to do. If anyone could.

We sat in a row and Scatterlegs jumped from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Funny and cute if we could notice such things. Grayfast got in every lap then settled in mine. His purr rumbled through me. That helped me see again as Ella sitting on a platform overlooking Mono Lake.

Sky too bright behind steering wheel halo. Wipers scraping. Bare toes in cool lawn.

It was easier or harder to share death when it was someone I didn’t much know or like.

I wanted to reach out to Paul. To Lourdes. With my hands. My words. I could feel them wanting the same. But we just sat there.

Grayfast’s purrs matched the waves on the lake.

The cabin door opened. As usual, Lourdes reacted the fastest. She jumped off the platform and spun around before I could turn to look behind me.

Lewis stood in the doorway, Franklin right behind him. “Hi. We’re taking a break. I’m not crazy anymore. I’m not okay yet but I want to be and that’s more than half the battle.” He asked Franklin, “How much more? Like 60%?”

Franklin gave a kindly smile instead of an oh–brother.

It had been a while since Lewis had nerded out like that. A proof that he had regained control of his own mind. I would be glad, if glad were possible right then.

Lewis thought our terrible moods were because of him. “I’m sorry I did – whatever I did. My memories are foggy.”

“We’re happy about you, we don’t show it because –”

Franklin interrupted Paul. “Thanks for your help in my garden. You must be exhausted after so much physical labor. Do take naps, then you can catch me up on what you accomplished.”

Franklin isn’t an interruption type so it was easy for Paul to take the hint and shut up.

“I won’t get caught up,” Lewis was sad.

“You most certainly will – when the time is right. Come, let’s resume our work.” Franklin held the door wider.

Lewis stepped back inside with a big sigh. Franklin starting blah blahing Lewis with a pep talk.

As Franklin closed the door on us, he pointed to the deck. We got the message. Wait for him here.

Waiting here was about what we could manage. – sE

230.

DD – My throat is hoarse. We spent the night talking with Franklin. The instant we told him about Barracuda he ran outside toward her car and when he got back, he was more freaked than we were. Which was a relief. To get confirmation that I was right to feel bad.

But I wasn’t comfortable sharing every secret with Franklin. I waited until he left to check on Lewis before I told Lourdes and Paul, “What I don’t get the most – ”

“Or – what you get the least,” Lourdes giggled. “Sorry – delirious.”

“What I don’t get is why the animals were fine about Barracuda dying.” They were even more chill now, stretched beside Franklin’s fireplace.

“Doesn’t that prove she was an enemy?” Lourdes hit the fire with a poker, making sparks. She didn’t care how an enemy died.

Paul asked, “Can you ask your animals about Barracuda?”

Lourdes and I hmm–ed each other then turned to the lizard and the cat.

When I pushed my mind toward Grayfast’s, he flicked his tail like cats do when they’re busy relaxing and you disturb them. But then he stretched longer, closed his eyes, and I felt his welcome.

I saw the fireplace from his view. The warm air between him and the flames had a gentle orange glow – if you could see kindness, that’s what it would look like. The fireplace made him feel the way his purr makes me feel.

I was in his head but unsure how to ask about his reaction to Barracuda’s dying. Maybe I could learn his general attitude about Barracuda and maybe that would explain his reaction.

I shared my memories of Barracuda. All but the last one.

Grayfast just kept lounging. I was wondering if I’d lost the connection, he had zero reaction, until I thought about Barracuda and Natalie at the accident site, watching me get shut in an ambulance. With that memory, his tail started thumping like he was mad.

STRONG WIND. BABY BIRD STAY IN NEST.

I was filled with the weirdest sensation. An intense longing to eat worms. Which grossed me out and then the connection did break.

Pretty sure Grayfast was telling me I wasn’t ready to understand what the deal was with Natalie and Barracuda being at the accident site. First I needed to eat my worms and grow big and strong.

Ironically, Paul watched me like I was a superhero. I think he’d trade everything to be a changeling. And not just because Everweer have issues.

“What’d you find out?”

“That I’m not ready to know.”

“Oh.” Paul was more disappointed than I was.

“Scatterlegs doesn’t think in questions and answers.” Lourdes went back to poking the fire.

The effort to get explanation wasn’t a failure, though. It left me a little peaceful – at least Grayfast understood things. – sE

231.

DD – If the world ends, Franklin will make everyone pause for hot chocolate first.

He came back to us carrying a tray of steaming mugs. “Lewis rests quietly,” he announced then gave a huge happy sigh because the animals made room for him beside the fireplace.

While we sipped, he looked from one to the other of us like he might see something new. “I have hope that I can persuade the sirene to release him, but not when you are near. She senses you as a threat to Lewis.”

“She’s the threat. She makes him act stupid enough to get hurt!” Lourdes yelled like Franklin was the sirene.

I kept quiet. If the sirene was right. Maybe I was the threat to Lewis. Maybe my dragging him into all this would lead to his doom.

Paul asked, “Do we need to leave?”

“You must, for many reasons. Come morning I will take you away. Forces are converging around you children and you face dangers that none of us yet understand.”

When other grownups call me a child, it’s Eminem, but with Franklin I feel like a fairy tale girl who could hide in the palm of his hand.

Lourdes tried to start a debate about staying.

Franklin shook his head once and glugged his hot chocolate to finish it. “The car and the dead woman are missing. I want you beyond the reach of whoever took them.”

I went numb and squeezed my eyes to stop seeing the wiper blades scrape across Barracuda’s windshield.

The fire crackled. Franklin’s voice was gentle. “You will remain safe and eventually we will understand.”

Lourdes was the first who could talk again. “What are you doing with Lewis? Do you cast spells on him?”

Franklin tossed his head in a laugh. His dreadlocks snapped. “Nothing so exotic. I hold conversation with the sirene when she is present, and catch up on email when she is gone.”

“I didn’t know anyone could talk to a sirene,” Paul said.

“I speak as seldom as I can. Fewer words mean fewer misunderstandings. A sirene is quick to take offense and holds grudges indefinitely. The building of trust is gradual and delicate. As in so much of life.”

After he went back to Lewis, we didn’t talk. The fire crackled in a late–night way like life was normal.

A log snapped and we all jumped.

“Things are about to get worse, aren’t they?” Lourdes asked in a mouse voice.

“Not necessarily,” Paul said.

“We’ll handle it.” My voice amazed me with its confidence. It was as if Grayfast had spoken through me.

After that he filled my head with gentle orange fireplace glow. – sE

232.

DD – Franklin’s boat was rough and one–of–a–kind, like his cabins. I wouldn’t be surprised if he made it himself. The boat was small with bulgy hollow sides that held lots of stuff. Scatterlegs and Grayfast perched on the center bench – as far from the water as anywhere on the boat could be.

We left the cabins right before sunrise. Paul and Franklin carried the boat, Lourdes and I lugged supplies and camping gear. We had to feel our way down the bumpy slope. The sky was lightening but the ground was still dark. I watched for Natalie’s owl although I couldn’t see much.

Lourdes kept watching the sky, too. She whispered as we climbed into the boat, “It had to be Natalie, right? Who killed Barracuda and took her car? Do you think it’s related to your family? ”

“Yes but let’s not jump to conclusions. It might make us miss something. ”

Franklin put a finger to his lips and showed us a sideways skim technique for rowing in shallow water with no splash. He grabbed one set of oars, I got the other and we took off, black shadows on the black lake. We took turns rowing until we got way out on the water. Franklin didn’t want the noise of the motor too close to shore.

By the time the sun officially rose and morning reached the ground, we were so far out on the lake that I could no longer see the cabins. Presumably we would be unseeable to someone on shore.

Out here I felt safe. Surrounded by water. No one was talking but calm filled the boat as we looked all around. The sunlight was weak and the water stayed gray but flat, with no wind to stir up waves.

Franklin said, “Oars out. We’ll drift for a spell.” He unpacked a thermos, potato pancakes, dipping sauces. We ripped pancakes into pieces and tried to decide whether the salty, sweet, or spicy sauces were best.

Franklin yanked a cord and the boat’s motor buzzed. The sound spread and within seconds it bounced off the mountains that surrounded the lake.

A sharp white rock loomed ahead. An island with no vegetation. I squinted and blinked to clear my vision but the rock kept crawling. Another minute and I could see the explanation – tons of gray birds roosted on the island, fluffing their wings.

“We’ll arrive in an hour,” Franklin said.

An hour! Farther than it seemed. And much bigger. – sE

233.

DD – As we got closer, the birds began to lift off from the island, chirping, cawing, flapping. Starting their day.

Nowhere for us to land. The island was steep from where it poked out of the water to the top of its pointy mountain.

“Yuck,” Lourdes said. Everywhere, the rock was crusted with long drips of bird droppings. Fresh glistening, dull dried.

“Jackson Pollock birds,” Paul said.

I was pretty sure that was a painter’s name, but I couldn’t add to the joke.

“No bird art where you’ll be,” Franklin said, “although you may see birds in your cove during the snowfall.”

“Snowfall?”

He pointed. Piles of dark clouds slid over the farthest mountains. “The storm should be here by noon. You’ll be warm and dry.” He turned off the motor. “From here we row, and quickly. I want to be home well ahead of those winds.”

We unpacked the oars. My arms and shoulders were soooo sore. I didn’t notice how much until I started rowing again. Lourdes and Paul were in similar pain, based on their little noises and shoulder rolling.

But we couldn’t baby our muscles. We had to concentrate because now Franklin called out rowing instructions. “Left oars only for three strokes … Back oars out of water…”

This curled us around the island and into a gap, a long canyon between walls of island rock. The canyon widened into a fat cove with a rocky beach. Here, the sky showed only in patches, like this used to be a cave but parts of the roof collapsed. Beyond the beach, up a short slope, was the wide mouth of a cave.

Franklin rolled out of the boat into the water. His splashing and sploshing echoed on the canyon walls as he pulled us to shore. He gestured at the huge cave. “Behold an Everweer safe haven.”

As we unloaded gear, Franklin explained about how some natural places prevent all contact with beings outside. He described theories about how such places worked.

No doubt it was super interesting, but I couldn’t listen. All the dangers that brought us here and I could barely remember them. My brain was racing around the news that this was a place where Paul and I could touch without creating an Everweer connection.

I was so ashamed. To be so excited. To catch myself searching for reasons Lourdes ought to leave with Franklin. As soon as I started thinking that, Lourdes stomped to stand on the far side of Franklin.

I don’t dare look in Paul’s direction. – sE

234.

DD – The safe haven began three steps inside the cave and we could feel it. The air changed from cold fresh to stale with a hint of steam. The echo dropped like the cave shrank no bigger than a closet.

Franklin unpacked a BBQ lighter and touched the lighter’s fire to fat candle wicks that drooped from holes in the rock. The wicks flamed and burned bright yellow.

“Those torches smell weird,” Lourdes snarled.

“They’re fueled by gases from the hot springs, which also provide heat. Most visitors stop noticing the odor within minutes. If you prove one of the rare exceptions, I hope you can focus on their gift of light and heat.”

Lourdes shrugged a whatev, which ejected Scatterlegs from her shoulder. He chittered and ran down her back. She ignored the lizard – a first. She dragged her bags toward the dark at the back of the cave. Her mood was bad and getting worse. I must have really hurt her feelings when I wished she would leave.

“Can we sit in the hot springs?” Paul scrunched and re–scrunched his shoulders. “I must not ever use my rowing muscles.”

“Most of these hot springs will scald you, save one. I’ll show you.”

Franklin gave us a tour as we unloaded stuff, lighting lanterns everywhere until the whole stinky cave glowed.

Caveman hotel. The huge lobby had smaller cave rooms on most sides. Every room was dotted with wooden chests full of thick comfy pillows. You could lounge on the ground or against a chest. Or mess with ropes and pulleys that made nets bloom into hammocks.

You couldn’t adjust the heat, it rose as thin steam between rocks. Some places it was mild. Other places caused instant sweat and the kitchen was one of those. No appliances, no cooking, but iron plates over steam to warm stuff. Or on some plates, to boil it.

TMI but incredible, the toilets here. Sit over warm orange air. To flush, step away and pull a lever. Lake water flows into the hole from below. Cold water hits hot rocks and blammo, a steam explosion blasts the hole and any, um, deposits.

The toilet demonstration amazed Lourdes into a decent mood.

When Franklin began his long row home, we stared across the cove into the canyon long after he disappeared. The splash of his oars stopped echoing and it got way too quiet until we laughed, thanks to Grayfast.

There weren’t many birds in the cove but there were a few. Grayfast wandered to a rock to sniff a blob of bird poop, then slipped and ran like a cartoon creature to avoid hitting the water in the cove. When we finished laughing we turned our backs on the cove.

“Excuse us a minute,” Paul told Lourdes. He grabbed my hand and led me into one of the side caves.

That was the longest best kiss ever. So far.

Now we’re back near the entrance, sitting in a line with Lourdes, watching the animals explore the cove, sending each other vibes.

We don’t want to ditch you but.

It’s okay I understand but.

Entertained by the animals but.

What a weird silent place this safe haven is. – sE

235.

DD – I got to hold hands with Paul! In fact, we propped against each other, arms and legs wrapped. I could feel my pulse through him. The three of us kept sitting at the entrance, watching the animals explore.

“We’re done with teen life, huh? Goodbye, high school!” Lourdes smacked her lips.

That idea tasted delicious to her but it made my stomach hurt. Of course high school. Of course trying hard for best grades. Of course family taking me on college tour to choose where next… Now I wouldn’t even be finishing high school. That’s how far I was from life with my family.

On the other hand, I was in what was basically a magic cave with friends who shared unusual powers, all twined together with the most amazing gorgeous boyfriend possible.

“This is as normal as things are going to be for a long time,” Paul said.

How he could sound so certain or how I could nod. But he was right. I could feel it. Normal wasn’t headed our way.

Battles to stop Alcatur. Why my family died. Dangers and answers. I’d take the one to get the other.

I’d get them both whether I wanted them or not.

We’d had no contact with Alcatur for so long but he lurked behind everything.

“True dat,” Lourdes replied, to what Paul said or to what I thought. “Is that – snow?!”

The cove echoed like an indoor swimming pool but the water shimmered with daylight. I’d forgotten there were holes in the ceiling rock. Not in our safe haven, but out over the water. That was how daylight reached here – duh.

And now, flecks of white fell through the holes and vanished somewhere above the water.

“Snow. Yes. I think so.”

“What else could it be?”

Seriously. None of us had seen snow fall before.

I was starting to say that it reminded me of a snow dome, when three birds interrupted with caws like smashing glass. They dropped through roof holes and dive–bombed for Scatterlegs, who was out exploring the beach. They surrounded him in a flat area with nowhere to hide.

“Noooo!” Lourdes jumped up but we were too far away to help.

Grayfast leaped from out of nowhere and whacked at the assassin birds. Scatterlegs hid underneath the cat. The birds shot up and out the roof holes before Lourdes’ shout finished echoing.

Grayfast began grooming like no biggie.

“That just happened, right?” one of us asked.

“Normal,” another said.

The cove was quiet but had lost its peaceful feel. The safe haven around us felt less reassuring, too. We were sitting by the only entrance. Which made it the only exit, too.

“Did Franklin mention whether there’s another way out of here?”

“In case we want to swim during the snowstorm, you mean?”

Silence.

Scatterlegs resumed exploring. That was a good sign, right? – sE

236.

DD – Lately I know what Lourdes and Paul are thinking. What Grayfast is feeling. (Scatterlegs not so much.)

For example, a little while ago. We sat at the edge of the safe haven, watching snow. The temperature in the cove was dropping fast. When snow came through the roof holes, at first only a few flakes survived to reach the water. Soon we saw curtains of flakes and these turned into strips– the roof holes were freezing over. Sad moans of wind echoed up the canyon from outside the island.

This might be a blizzard. Glad we had a steamy kitchen. Right as I had these thoughts, Paul asked, “What’s the difference between a snowstorm and a blizzard?”

And Lourdes stood. “Let’s have lunch by a steam crack.” She tapped her shirt pocket. “Scatterlegs is cold. He told me, ‘young bug, help me move’.”

“He calls you ‘young bug’? Grayfast calls me ‘baby bird’.”

“They think fondly of you as small helpless prey,” Paul said.

“That’s not creepy,” Lourdes said. She headed deeper into the cave.

“Nothing is creepy unless we want it to be,” Paul called after her.

“All in our heads,” I agreed.

Paul and I got up without untangling, by pressing into each other as we stood. Not easy! But we could do it because we knew where the other would balance next.

We stood, and we hugged. My memories had been so weak, compared to what it felt like to have Paul’s arms around me. My hands slid up and down ridges that were his ribs.

“You’re thinner,” I whispered.

“I’m sorry. Do you mind?”

“Are you joking?”

We kissed for a while. A while longer.

Eventually we found Lourdes in the kitchen. She sat beside a fat thermos from Franklin and waved a spoon at it. “Best soup – ever.”

She glanced at us then stared into her soup bowl. We stared into ours. I was vaguely aware of eating delicious soup. Mostly aware of how embarrassed we were. But even that was barely noticeable.

Paul’s kisses. That’s where my attention was. Reliving them. Wanting more.

Lourdes put her bowl in the sink. “I’m going out to the entrance to watch the snow. I’ll need to come back when it gets dark.”

She was gone. And we were officially alone for the first time since Chicago.

Steam puffed around the kitchen. Paul’s skin glistened with sweat and so did mine.

“So many ways I pictured being alone with you but never including hot springs.” Paul took my hand and we went searching for a cooler room.

You won’t believe what happened next, D.

Paul dropped my hand to grab paper from the backpack and he’s been lost in a drawing trance for ages.

I might go sit with Lourdes. – sE

237.

DD – I love Paul Trigg and he loves me.

When I think those facts I get super shaky but when I write the words, my fingers are steady.

“Drawing? Now?!?” Was how Paul came back from his trance.

“It’s been a while since that happened. I almost forgot what it was like.” I tried to smile but my lips wouldn’t cooperate. Just as well, because the smile would have been a lie.

Paul waved his drawing. It was a photo drawing, insanely detailed but – blurry. “I wasted our time alone and I can’t see why.” He stared up at the ceiling of the cave, full of dark orange smoke from the wall torches. “This safe haven is blocking my drawings.”

“Maybe if you go out to the cove the picture will come through.” To fulfill our work against Alcatur, that was probably a good idea. Otherwise it was Tupac.

He dropped the blurry drawing into a glowing slit between rocks. The glow flared brighter.

He gave me a stern look. “Ella. This is the first time we’ve been alone since Chicago. I don’t care how important this new drawing is. By comparison it doesn’t matter.”

And then he was holding me. I felt his heartbeat everywhere. He whispered into my hair and his breath was cool and soothing on my cheek. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How much he loves me and everything is nothing without me and I was his first thought every morning and his last thought every night.

I had to get us started kissing, he just kept gabbing. Not that I wanted to stop those words.

Part of me kept asking, why me? Why would someone like Paul Trigg feel that way about me? I had no good answer but I didn’t have doubts, either. He meant it, through and through.

One main reason I write to you, D, is to remember stuff. The other is to be as honest as I can be. But there will be gaps in this scene. It’s embarrassing, how excited Paul makes me feel. Way more than dirty books describe. Like a person could ride three roller coasters at once.

How do I know about dirty books? When my parents took weekend trips our babysitter had them. She thought she used foolproof hiding places.

Those books had a lot of interesting information but mostly they were funny. So much gasping rushing pounding can’t help yourself. That last part turns out to be true.

Now we’re just enjoying lying next to each other. Paul is trapped in a drawing again. No paper, just finger on blanket. (It’s so warm, we don’t need a blanket. But it feels weird to lie in a big open cave.)

The light at the cave mouth is getting darker. It’s too nice here for me to move so I’m trying to beam messages to Lourdes. OK to come in. – sE

238.

DD – “El–la. Pa–ul. I’m inside the cave now.” The echo was so thin I could barely recognize Lourdes’ voice.

I pulled clothes on and stumbled toward the cave entrance. Empty. “Where are you? Tupac!” Barefoot was wrong. The rocks were sharper than razors. My feet were bleeding! But I was too happy to feel the cuts.

There she was. Lourdes sat on a rock, rolling pebbles into a glowing hole. Scatterlegs crouched nearby, took a huge leap, flicked dirt when he landed. Lourdes said something in Spanish, sarcastic and comfortable like she was teasing a family member. Except not her family.

I studied her as I walked up. She says whatever so she seems open, but actually she keeps herself a secret.

I wanted to share my kind of life with her. Give her parents who could be trusted with a kid’s love. Give her eyes that smile like Paul’s when he touches my cheek.

Lourdes has no memories like that. You can tell by the way she sits. Even when she’s relaxed, she’s ready to leap away. Just in case.

She’d be mad if she thought I felt sorry for her.

I made noise and she spotted me.

“I couldn’t stay outside longer,” she said.

“I was about to come get you, anyway. Paul’s back there, drawing.”

Lourdes checked out what I was wearing and what I wasn’t wearing. Obviously Paul hadn’t been drawing the whole time. “What’s he drawing?” She didn’t care, the topic kept us from awkward.

“Unknown. But it must mean we’re headed somewhere new soon. What happened outside?”

The way the animals were staring out at the cove, they weren’t watching snow fall.

“Chip chip chipping up high, then big wads of ice crash down, then snow falls in wide areas.” Lourdes noticed her fingers wiggling the snow down. “Do you like my interpretive dance?”

“You’re in a weird mood.”

She dropped the goofy. “Trying to not be scared.”

“Someone was on the roof and opened the hole that was clogged with ice?”

“The owl. The one Lewis calls Fearless Leader.”

“Natalie’s owl is on this island?”

“Or some other huge black and silver owl.”

What the Tupac. Although that owl had never tried to hurt us, it was Natalie’s animal so trouble had found us.

Grayfast and Scatterlegs jumped from rock to rock, staring outside the safe haven but staying inside it.

“Cut off from civilization and hunted by an enormous cunning predator,” Lourdes announced as a news reporter, then her voice returned. “Let’s get dinner.”

“When in doubt, eat.” Bonus: the kitchen was farther from the entrance. – sE

239.

DD – Lourdes said, “The last few days, it feels like the air is getting sucked out at the edges.”

I agreed. “Like the sky will explode.”

We sat in the cave lobby and smacked our lips. Dinner was sandwiches made by hungry careless people who were hurrying to get out of that hot kitchen – sandwiches too thick on peanut butter, too thin on jam.

“I was expecting more changelings to join us by now,” Lourdes said. “A changeling  convergence like Galalena wrote about.”

“We’ve been pretty remote. Maybe the others are all finding each other.”

“Maybe they’re with Natalie. Maybe she sent her owl to find us and join them.”

I shoved my plate away and it fell off the rock we used as a table. My plate shattered and my brain hit a spin cycle. I didn’t understand anything. “What’s the deal with Natalie? How can a changeling help Alcatur?”

Lourdes kicked pieces of broken plate into a big glowing gap between rocks, which flamed briefly as it consumed the plate. “She scares me, too. Does that mean – she’s okay? Remember – about Chrissie? She didn’t scare me.”

“I remember.”

Grayfast and Scatterlegs lounged on rocks beside us. Like a dance routine, they looked over their left shoulders at the same moment to watch Paul stomp toward us.

He waved another blurry photo drawing, shoved it in a gap, and slapped the rock when the glow ate the drawing.

“I’ve never seen you frustrated before,” I said.

He dragged his hair with his fingers. His mood was so intense there was a brightness around him. He looked even more amazing than usual.

He noticed me ogling him, gave me a long kiss. “I keep feeling like I have to hurry but I don’t know how. It’s like I’m reaching for something in a nightmare.” He perched behind me on a rock, folded his arms around me.

“Lot of that going around,” Lourdes said. We told him about our conversation. And Natalie’s owl.

Paul kept asking the same question different ways. Did the owl know we were here? “I’m sorry I keep asking that. I don’t know why it’s important,” he snapped.

It was so unusual to see Paul in a bad mood I had to smile.

“I was going to go out to the cove and see if I can draw without interference. But if the owl is there. I better wait until dark.”

“Er. Owls. Nocturnal,” I said.

“Then why is it out there during the day?”

“You’re asking ME?” – sE

240.

DD – We’d talk, we’d hang out, we’d talk some more. For each of us, it helped to know that the others had equally unclear thoughts and dread. Despite all our bad feelings, I felt good, because underneath everything I felt a humming that came from being so close to Paul.

Lourdes looked at the animals. “I bet they understand – everything we don’t.”

What’s about to happen? Why do we feel this way? I had little hope that I could ask those questions in ways Grayfast could answer, but I tried to push my mind into his. Tried. Grayfast only talks when he sees something to talk about. He gave me a totally uncurious look then put chin on paws and went back to snoozing.

About the same time, Scatterlegs gave Lourdes a similar look. So much for getting information from the animals.

Hurry up and wait. It’s even harder to be patient when you know something bad is coming. The just–get–it–over–with factor.

Paul kept going to the cave entrance. Lourdes and I would tag along. I confess I didn’t entirely trust Paul to watch out for his own safety. He was so anxious to get an unblurry version of his latest photo drawing. It was too easy to imagine him leaving the cave to draw away from the safe haven’s interference.

We couldn’t be sure whether the owl was still on the island. Although we hadn’t heard any noise that might be an owl’s beak chipping ice from a roof hole. Maybe the hole was iced over again, or maybe the snowstorm was over. Anyway, no snow fell. When morning arrived we’d be able to see the roof again and we’d know whether the ice was gone.

The cave glowed even brighter by comparison with the outdoors. Outside was black on black and so cold. Where the outside air met the cave’s air, colored steam erupted.

“This air must have lots of chemicals. If the roof freezes over do we have ventilation?  Do volcanoes have carbon monoxide?” Tupac. I was starting to feel trapped.

“I’m glad I don’t know science,” Lourdes replied. “Those aren’t normal worries.”

Paul’s fingers twitched. That drawing really needed to come out. “It’s too dark out there to see danger. We have to stay in here until the sun comes back. It’s still hours until morning. Maybe we should try to sleep.”

He was right. We dragged bedding out of storage boxes and set up near the animals. Everyone was asleep within seconds. Except me, of course. – sE

241.

DD – We went out to the cove at sunrise. Paul thought he was going out there by himself but of course we all went.

He started drawing immediately. Lourdes and I looked everywhere for dangers he might not notice. No sign of the owl, but the animals walked the shore like they were patrolling.

While Paul scraped pencil over paper, Lourdes and I watched the entrances we knew about – the canyon that connected the cove with the lake outside, and the roof holes. On the far side of the safe haven, the cove was shadowy and you couldn’t tell how far it went or whether there were other canyons. I hadn’t noticed those shadows before.

The roof holes were clear of ice, though the air was cold enough that breath steamed. So cute to see Grayfast’s breath! Anyway, goodbye snowstorm – weak sun and chilly blue sky gleamed through the roof holes.

We couldn’t tell how high and far away the roof holes were. But we had to assume we could run back inside the cave before trouble could come through the roof to get us. We were only a few steps from the cave mouth. If necessary we could drag Paul.

He finished his drawing in record time. A tall wavery black gray brown building. Same colors as Grayfast but the building had a bad feel.

“Is that building underwater?” Lourdes asked.

“My guess is that it’s made of glass and is reflecting water.”

“Tall buildings next to water. Describes every city with a river or a lake. Which most of them have.”

“We don’t need to search for this building. It will find us.” Even Paul looked surprised at his certainty.

Now what.

With the snowstorm over, we assumed Franklin would come back for us, but he didn’t come and he didn’t come. The entire day. We’d stay in the cove until we got too cold, then go back inside the cave to get too warm. Cove cave cove cave. Cove cave.

We ate but we weren’t hungry. We cracked jokes but none of them made us laugh. We tried to plan but the air swam with question marks.

How was Lewis? Franklin? How much longer did we need to wait here?

Every time we went out to the cove, the animals resumed patrolling, which matched our feeling that something bad was on its way.

So come already. – sE

242.

DD – That whole night was basically Eminem. We couldn’t leave. We couldn’t see the outside world. We had food for maybe one more day. Unless we hunted one of the birds that splashed in the cove.

Right. That’ll happen.

We got more and more quiet and gloomy.

Lourdes dug deep in our supplies then cheered, waving marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, sticks.

We chose the right glowing crack to roast S’mores. By the yawns, it was about 3 am. Grayfast woke up to sniff what we were cooking then resumed snoozing with his paw over his nose.

“I love Franklin!” I mumbled through marshmallow.

“‘antastic,” Lourdes’ mouth was full, too.

Paul waved a S’more at Lourdes. “With your family, I’m surprised you know about these.”

“The internet teaches,” Lourdes explained.

Thanks to S’mores sugar crash, we could finally fall asleep. Which might have been refreshing except a couple hours later I woke up with shouting inside and outside my head. Plus a skull crusher headache. My next memories were like lightning bolts.

Flash. Lourdes screaming about Paul being the world’s stupidest idiot. I stumbled toward the noise. I couldn’t feel my balance.

Flash. Shrieks inside my head. Grayfast yowling in cat language.

Flash. Lourdes and Paul outside, by the water.

Flash. Paul muttering the words that let him do a spy drawing.

Flash. “Ella! He came out here by himself, didn’t even warn anybody where he was going.”

Flash. The backpack, between their feet. I lunged for paper and pencil so Grayfast could tell me what he needed to.

Flash. My hand took off writing fast and scrabbly.

Flash. Paul showed us his spy drawing, swiveling it between us.

Lourdes grabbed his wrist. “Stop moving if you want us to see it.”

The drawing showed something that seemed familiar but. Tupac Tupac Tupac. Those vines growing around a swing set. That was Franklin’s garden. Behind the – – – cabins? Where were –

The cabins?

Broken rough wood lay piled in three mounds.

The cabins were destroyed. In the air above the ruins, divebombing for another hit, the cabin destroyer. An enormous black and silver owl.

Franklin! Lewis!

Not to mention our way off this island.

Paul, Lourdes, and I could only stare from each other to the drawing. No words. No ideas. No actions.

Until Paul asked, “What’s that you’re holding?”

In my hand, a message from Grayfast.

It’s telling us what to do next. We’re sure of that. If only we can understand.

I’m taping it below. – sE

USE YOUR OTHER ONE. TOUCH THE FEMALE WITH SCRATCHING PAWS. SLOW IS DEAD.

243.

DD – Grayfast’s message had to mean that Paul and I should contact Aunt Axi. Lourdes, Paul, and I did lots of talking to reach that decision.

The instant we decided, I started bawling.

“Um – okay.” Lourdes’ voice was sarcasm but her eyes were comfort.

“I’ve been afraid she’s dead. But Grayfast must know she’s alive.” Next thing I knew, I was laughing because I imagined trying to complain to Grayfast.

You didn’t tell me Aunt Axi was alive.

You didn’t ask.

I finished laughing. Guess I was even more tense than I realized.

“The air in here does have weird gases,” Lourdes decided.

Paul folded me up in a big hug and kissed my scalp. “I’m ready when you are.” His heartbeat was slow and strong.

We left the safe haven of the cave to try to contact Aunt Axi.

Franklin had packed rope and we looped it around our waists to connect to each other. If danger arrived while Paul and I were contacting Aunt Axi, Lourdes would leap back inside the cave. She probably wasn’t strong enough to pull both of us in with her, but the tug on the rope should get our attention.

Out in the cove, the animals did their restless patrolling. Back and forth at the water’s edge. Watching roof holes, cavern entrance, shadows.

I stopped feeling danger when Paul put his arms around me and pressed me close. Before, when we used to touch, we couldn’t control who we might contact. But every day we woke up understanding more about our Everweer and changeling abilities. Maybe someday we’ll have enough knowledge to be able to touch outside a safe haven!

Anyway, today we knew how to contact Aunt Axi.

Little waves lapped on the rocks. Then, faintly, a new sound. A beautiful melody of a voice. “Yes,” Aunt Axi greeted us, “I am here and you are safe to reach for me.”

Paul’s breathing turned hiccupy. He was crying, too.

I couldn’t see Aunt Axi but somehow knew she was reaching for us.

“Come through, quickly, and welcome.”

Grayfast brushed against my leg with Scatterlegs perched on his back. The animals moved toward Aunt Axi. And disappeared.

Paul did a steady pull on the rope until Lourdes was between us. Gently he pushed her to follow the animals. She disappeared.

I took his hand and reached my other hand forward. He did the same. A cool smooth grip found my hand. The cove disappeared.

Aunt Axi stood before us, holding our hands. Behind her was the real live building from Paul’s photo drawing. The wavery building wasn’t underwater, though. It wavered because it was a reflection of a reflection, a building reflecting in the glass walls of another building.

I don’t know where we are but it’s where we’re supposed to be. – sE

244.

DD – We’re back in Chicago! The building with the wavery reflections is Alcatur’s headquarters, reflecting the building we are in.

Aunt Axi has been hiding across the river from Alcatur, in a top–secret safe house known to only a few Everweer. She ran for her life when Alcatur set her mini–van on fire in the cemetery, and she kept running straight to his home base to keep fighting him.

And somehow we were with her in Chicago.

“How did you do that?! Bring us here?!” Lourdes yells when she’s nervous.

Aunt Axi gave us each a welcome hug before she answered, “It is a skill I will teach you. Specialized, and difficult, yet any changeling and many Everweer can learn it.”

She kept her hands on Paul’s shoulders and gave him the biggest saddest smile. “I had to believe you were safe.”

Oh right! She had no way to know. Was he rescued from the cemetery. Just like we didn’t know, was Aunt Axi okay.

“We keep getting away and getting help,” Paul said.

“A nice summary of all our endeavors.”

Aunt Axi showed us how she spies on Alcatur and his top followers using binoculars and a telescope. While we tried them, she pointed out different windows and floors in the wavery building. Using the telescope was fun until sick blond hair loomed in the glass.

I couldn’t say for sure if that was Alcatur’s hair because I knocked over the telescope. (Phew! It didn’t break.)

Whenever Aunt Axi talked about Alcatur, she was a warrior queen strapping on her armor. When Lourdes heard that the scary violent thing who killed her sister was right over there, I swear she growled. Paul examined the building like he was looking for a way in.

I refused to be the only wimp. I aimed the telescope back at the wavery windows like I wanted to see Alcatur.

The windows were empty now.

“Time for their morning staff meeting and time for our breakfast,” Aunt Axi said. “While I prepare food you can tell me about the urgent business that compelled you to contact me, despite the dangers.”

She led us through a narrow hall into a bright warm kitchen.

That’s one thing about Everweer. They don’t face problems on empty stomachs. – sE

245.

DD – We didn’t get breakfast after all, because we showed Aunt Axi the spy drawing of Franklin’s demolished cabins. I’ve read about people turning gray but I thought it was just a book thing. It’s not. She turned gray and said nothing, just sipped her coffee.

At first the sipping was a relief – like the news was no big deal. But then I saw it. As she raised the mug, her hand shook. The warrior queen was stalling.

When her hand stopped shaking, she spoke. “Franklin’s cabins manifest his power. They do not appear as they exist – and the appearance may change with his moods. But he would never expose the hearth of his true home.”

She pointed to the spy drawing. To the remains of the fireplace where Grayfast always lounged.

I clenched my fists but a horrible shivering grew, like earwigs swarming inside my chest. I couldn’t hear what Aunt Axi said next.

She hurried away, leaving her precious coffee behind.

Paul said, “I’m going to take another look. Maybe things are better. ” He muttered over a new spy drawing. On the paper, another view of the cabins emerged. Still demolished. Still no sign of Franklin.

“Exactly the same!” Lourdes said.

“The owl is gone,” I pointed out.

We started to debate whether that was a good or bad sign when Aunt Axi swept in, buttoning a coat. “I am unable to reach Franklin by any contact method. We must go to him and we must hurry.”

She said we but she went alone. Aunt Axi returned us to the island because that’s where we actually still were. It only seemed like we were in Chicago. And no, I don’t have a clue how that could be.

She warned us what our return would be like, but I still couldn’t believe it when it happened – she stepped out the front door and snap. The five of us were back in the cove on the island.

Aunt Axi was headed for the airport. She would travel to Franklin’s cabins and rescue us from the island if he didn’t show up to fetch us in the meantime. She made it all sound do–able, which gave me hope.

As soon as we returned to our cove inside the island, Grayfast and Scatterlegs nipped at our feet to move us into the safe haven of the cave. Apparently danger was near.

“How did that happen? Did she hypnotize us or cast a spell or what?” I didn’t mean to sound mad. But I was so done with being in that Eminem cave. Trapped by dangers unknown.

“It’s just a different kind of physics.” Paul touched my cheek with sympathy. “Aunt Axi will get us out of here soon.”

“Somebody better.”

I was glad that Lourdes sounded mad, too. – sE

246.

DD – Whatever the unknown dangers, we trusted Aunt Axi to get through them and get us off this island. We made a banquet to use up the rest of our food. A ten–course meal of snacks appetizers desserts.

While we prepared the banquet, we discussed all the possible lengths of time we might have to wait until Aunt Axi arrived. Plane from Chicago, car after she landed, boat from the shore of Mono Lake. If everything went perfectly – like, flight left as soon as she reached the airport – we’d see her in 10 hours.

By the time we sat down to eat, we were out of words. Our only sounds were crunching of cereal bars and whirring whenever we pumped the little hand cranks that powered light in the emergency lanterns.

We needed the lights cause it’s no fun to sweat into your food so we had our banquet in a dark corner, far from all the heat and light of glowing cracks.

So full. We propped against the wall. Warm rock, stuffed guts. Zzzz.

How long was I asleep? About the same amount of brightness in the cove. So I either slept a few minutes, or I slept through the night and it was the next day.

A low rumble beside me. Lourdes’ stomach was growling. It would have been too full to growl after our banquet.

So it was the next day. Aunt Axi’s trip was taking longer than we had hoped and of course now it seemed stupid that we finished all our food.

“Halloooo, you are rescued,” An impossible voice echoed in the cove. Grayfast walked out to the cove. Scatterlegs skittered after him.

“Halloooo?” The voice echoed again.

I wasn’t going to answer until I figured out where he was. Paul and Lourdes looked around, too. Where the Tupac was he?

He. Lewis.

The animals were looking straight up at the roof of the cove.

And sure enough, there was Lewis’ chubby head, peering over the lip of a roof hole. “Oh. Hi. How’d you get down there?” He was on the outside, on the island mountain that sheltered this cove.

“You can only get here by water, not from the island itself. Tell Aunt Axi to go back to the boat and circle the island, heading west. Turn at the second canyon,” Paul called up.

“Tell who?” Lewis replied, “Is there someone else on this island?”

I boggled. Wasn’t Lewis with Aunt Axi? Didn’t she find him when she arrived at Franklin’s property, and bring him with her as she came to rescue us?

I had jumped to those conclusions, of course. I mean, otherwise where was Aunt Axi and how did Lewis know to come here?

We had plenty of time to try to solve those mysteries while we waited for Lewis to go back to his boat then find our canyon entrance. – sE

247.

DD – Lewis was the only one in the boat but he wasn’t alone.

When the boat first rowed out of the canyon into the cove, Lewis was his old, goofy self. He yelled and made whip crack noises, ducked and rowed harder – like he was the slave driver and the slave. He dropped the oars when he spotted us, stood with bent knee like George Washington in a boat.

Then he stopped acting like himself. He should have waved, “See what I did there?” and repeated the whole thing in case we missed it. Instead he cried, “No! Don’t leave yet,” and whimpered like a puppy in a cage. He called to us, “She’ll be right back.”

“What the – Franklin didn’t get rid of that thing. The sirene,” Lourdes hissed.

Way across the cove, Lewis whipped around and glared. Like he heard. But he couldn’t have.

Lewis spoke in a hollow voice that was the sirene’s, not his. “He banished me but his work was incomplete. They took him and I returned.”

Lewis resumed goofy rowing like the sirene hadn’t just talked through him. Which was even creepier than the sirene’s talking.

He climbed ashore in like an inch of water but with so much shuffling and stumbling that he got soaked to his butt.

In the old days, I could have laughed at that. Lewis might never be laughter material again.

“Grab your stuff,” he greeted us, “We need to get there before the war starts.”

“Get where?” Paul replied like it was a normal conversation.

“Franklin’s ruins. We’ll make our first stand there. The survivors will move on,” Lewis said.

That was totally Lewis. Strategizing to reach the next level.

The hollow voice came back. “Choose one of you to sacrifice. That is your hope of surviving battle with my kind.” Lewis whipped around to point at Lourdes. “You will choose. That is a right path.”

Lourdes shimmered her changeling armor and shook her head, “I don’t know what you mean but I disagree.”

Lewis’ cheeks shivered and his head whipped back and forth until his eyes pointed at Grayfast. The hollow voice told the cat, “The path to survival is narrow. My kind will burn your woods.”

The tip of Grayfast’s tail flicked like he was annoyed. Maybe he understood.

When I focused on the sirene’s words they made no sense but when I let myself feel what she meant, I sort of got it. The sirene thought we were going to have to battle a bunch of hunters.

Did that mean Alcatur’s army was coming this way?

Where the Tupac is Aunt Axi? – sE

248.

DD – We got in the boat with Lewis and the invisible sirene. What choice did we have? To get off the island.

Anyway, Grayfast and Scatterlegs hopped right in.

We took turns rowing and when Lewis got a break, he leaned forward and stared all over Lourdes. Everybody knows Lewis isn’t a lech, so this had to be a sirene thing.

“What the.” Lourdes pulled farther away from him then shoved back like she refused to give up airspace. Her shimmering armor turned neon intense.

“Why are you so special? Why does she want to touch you?” Lewis asked her.

I had a hunch that the sirene could see Lourdes’ shimmering armor. We never found out for sure because we pulled out to the open lake where wind made the boat tilt and rock. Paul had to do stuff with the oars to steady us again.

Lewis dropped to the edge of the boat and hung his head over. Waves knocked the hull into his chin. “Gonna barf.”

He is so afraid of barfing. I knew that already. The others learned it during the rest of that trip. We took turns rowing without him. The waves stayed choppy and the boat kept rocking. Lewis groaned and muttered.

At least he stopped bugging Lourdes. And he seemed to lose contact with the sirene.

Paul is so good at so many things. During his turns to row, the boat shot toward shore, sliced through waves. He knew how to angle. When it was my turn to row, wind and waves shoved us around. Lourdes rowed with a skill level that was in between.

Skill level. Did I really think that? In the old days, Lewis would have been proud.

Except Lewis was moaning over the side, “I need you. Please.”

At first I thought he was calling for Lourdes, then I realized. He was begging for the sirene.

Lourdes reacted the same way. For a moment, she thought Lewis was calling for her. She looked surprised and happy. Until she realized the truth. Her changeling shimmer stopped and left her so – little. A small person sitting alone, waves knocking her back and forth on a boat bench.

Like that wasn’t bad enough, she noticed that I was watching her. Whatever expression was on my face made her look away fast.

Tupac. She really likes Lewis. Who rarely notices she exists, nowadays.

Even in normal circumstances, that is the worst. I speak from experience but with the guy I crushed on, my competition was the cheer team captain. Not a supernatural beauty of legendary danger.

Even more the worst, if it weren’t for the sirene, Lewis and Lourdes would probably be a thing. It seemed headed that way, anyway.

I wish I could say something to Lourdes that would help.

I wish I could give her back her privacy. – sE

249.

DD – The choppy waves crashed us onto the beach near the ruins of Franklin’s home.

Lewis and the sirene carried the boat away from the water’s edge. Lewis had the heavy boat touching his back but not weighing him down. I guess the sirene did the lifting, because his walk was springy, no weight on his shoulders.

He and the boat went behind a shelf of rocks. We couldn’t see him but could hear his one–sided conversation with the sirene. The boat ride with Lewis had given us important new topics to discuss but we didn’t dare discuss those in front of the sirene. Instead, we wandered around the cabin ruins, repeating our usual questions, without getting closer to answers.

Who killed Barracuda, and why?

Why did Natalie’s owl attack Franklin’s home?

Where was Franklin? Not to mention Aunt Axi?

We got one answer when a car zoomed onto Franklin’s property, raising a thick cloud of dust. A door slammed, shoes scritched on dirt, wood scraped. The dust cleared and there was Aunt Axi behind a grimy van, pulling a small boat off a trailer.

Before we could call to her, she turned as though we had. “Has Franklin returned? How did you get back from the island? When I arrived I could find no boat, and I’ve lost count of the number of places I tried before I succeeded in renting this one. My frustration has been enormous. I flew across country more quickly than I obtained a boat.”

She spoke like her calm queenly self, except it wasn’t like her to rattle off thoughts like that.

Before we could reply, Lewis walked back around the shelf of rock, dragging a boat oar. Aunt Axi gave a Jedi nod. (Was that where Paul got them from!?) “You must be Lewis. And you –” She made a few harsh sounds that sounded like she was chopping metal with an ax.

The hollow voice of the sirene replied with similar harsh sounds. Lewis kept walking and dragging like he didn’t know his mouth was operating.

I had to assume Aunt Axi was conversing with the sirene. She made more ax metal sounds and Lewis’ hollow voice replied. I scuffled my shoe back and forth on some rock. I didn’t want to show how freaked this was making me.

Lourdes and Paul were acting nonchalant, too. The ax metal convo kept going and we kept acting like it was no biggie. That Aunt Axi knew how to speak the sirene’s language. That it was so harsh and strange. That Lewis got treated like a machine or device, words emitting from his mouth.

We flopped on the ground. Lourdes murmured, “It was already weird enough before, thanks.”

Which summed it up. – sE

250.

DD – I blocked the ax metal sounds so well that I didn’t notice when they stopped. Aunt Axi had been strolling beside Lewis, talking to the sirene while he dragged the oar. Now Aunt Axi tugged on the oar, politely took it from Lewis and handed it to Paul, who peeled splinters off the dragged edge.

Lewis kept making the dragging motion until Aunt Axi stepped in front of him and shook his hand. She introduced herself, in English. He nodded and resumed dragging the oar that wasn’t there.

“That – thing should be shot for what it does to him.” Lourdes gouged dirt with her fingernails.

Aunt Axi let Lewis wander and knelt to give us a group hug. “Against the odds, here we are, together and thriving.” She reached to pet Grayfast, and he let her touch him, which made her smile. Briefly.

She dropped the smile. “Franklin’s work to protect Lewis from the sirene has been undone.”

“I didn’t need protection. She would never hurt me,” Lewis exclaimed, still dragging the oar that wasn’t there.

Aunt Axi was gentle with Lewis. “I understand. The bond between you is real.” Then to us, “This could only occur if Franklin’s powers were overcome. I fear for his safety and his life.”

“So Natalie’s owl destroyed Franklin’s house in order to hurt Franklin?” Lourdes flopped onto the ground. It wasn’t a new idea but now it sounded way too possible.

“No,” the sirene’s hollow voice echoed out of Lewis. “My kind took him. The owl fought to stop them. The house was the battleground.”

“Wait – what?! Natalie’s owl tried to help? Hunters kidnapped Franklin?” Paul touched fingers to lips in apology for his outburst.

Axes scraped metal as Aunt Axi said something to the sirene.

The hollow voice replied, “Yes. They stole Franklin for the white hair.”

“The white hair,” someone repeated. I think it was me. I had a horrible vision of a whole pack of hunters, blond like Chrissie – or Alcatur. They circled and pounced on Franklin like Chrissie did with Paul’s backpack.

Having a nightmare while you’re awake does not improve a situation.

“Do you mean they have taken Franklin to Alcatur?” Aunt Axi demanded.

“That is their destination but they have not reached it,” the hollow voice said.

Lourdes jumped to her feet. “Do you know where they are?”

“Yes,” the hollow voice said.

Now we’re loading the van with supplies.

We’re going to rescue Franklin. – sE

251.

DD – It’s easier to rescue someone if you know where he is.

The sirene knew where the hunters took Franklin, but she stopped giving us helpful information after we made her mad.

How that happened was, loading the van for our trip to rescue Franklin.

Lourdes said, “If we find Franklin’s exorcism equipment, can you take over getting rid of that thing. The sirene.”

Aunt Axi shook her head. “To release a human from a sirene’s grip requires persuasion, not exorcism. Franklin would have engaged her in discussion until she agreed to leave.”

Lourdes got jumpy and hissy. A pot boiling over with outrage. “All that talking will take forever.”

Aunt Axi held Lourdes by the shoulders. “We will free Lewis but our focus must remain on Franklin. The danger to Lewis is not so time sensitive.”

“Just so you get rid of the sirene,” Lourdes muttered.

Right then, Paul and Lewis walked up carrying towels full of veggies, the remains of Franklin’s garden.

“Enemy,” The hollow echo voice growled from deep in Lewis. He gave Lourdes a hate look, dumped his veggies, stomped through the ruins.

And that was the last thing the sirene would say to us. Although she kept talking inside Lewis’ head, based on his yelling, “Never. Exactly. I KNOW.”

Lourdes watched him/them for a while, then stomped (just like Lewis!) down to the lake, then stomped back up the slope to Lewis/sirene. She coughed like clearing her throat of frozen barf. “This message is for the sirene. I’m sorry I fought against you. Please help us.”

Lewis ignored her and grabbed the arms of Aunt Axi and Paul. “Everweer come with us.”

Didn’t the sirene know how rude it was to ignore an apology? Lourdes dropped to the ground like she was lost in the wilderness.

Aunt Axi’s fingers tapped Lewis’ hand. She was so eager to go – Franklin must be in major danger. But Paul stood like his shoes were glued, until I gave him a better–just–go.

Aunt Axi and Paul started walking, with Lewis/sirene between them. I swear Lewis’ hair swirled.

“Changelings,” The hollow voice called. Lewis looked back at Lourdes and me. An invite to follow?

The world in front of them swirled. They kept walking and vanished into fuzzy spinning gray. I couldn’t look, then I couldn’t look away. I knew I should look away but I couldn’t remember why.

“No!” Lourdes shrieked. She pulled Scatterlegs from her pocket. The lizard dangled like a corpse.

My head blasted with dizzy confusion. Something hit my foot. Grayfast! Collapsed across my sneaker. I scooped him up and ran toward the lake. We had to get away from the sirene’s fuzzy spinning gray. Lourdes’ feet pounded beside me.

Only one thing that I wasn’t confused about right then. Changelings can’t go near a sirene’s home. – sE

252.

DD – It was like a door slammed behind Paul, Aunt Axi, and Lewis/sirene. Which is probably what happened, right? A door to where the sirene belongs.

I have to believe they’ll be okay. Come back to us.

I keep reliving Paul’s unhappy skeptical expression before the gray swirling took him. I had just scooped up Grayfast, so limp and still, and when I stood, Paul twisted to see over his shoulder and our eyes found each other.

Paul already looked miserable about having to follow the sirene, but the expression on his face after Lourdes screamed and the animals fell unconscious!

Paul and I are heroes in a black–&–white movie where we have to say goodbye for a cause that’s more important than our being happy. Like Casablanca. I never liked that movie. Whenever Mom watched it, I’d leave. Don’t know whether Everweer watch old movies but from Paul’s expression, he wouldn’t like it either.

Our eyes met and Paul straightened even taller than usual and he kept walking away, staying close to Lewis/sirene like he had no choice.

We have no choice. We have a purpose but it doesn’t come with choice.

If anything happens to Paul.

If something had happened to Grayfast. He’s better now. Still limp but his breathing is normal and his eyes follow Scatterlegs every time the lizard pokes his head over Lourdes’ cupped fingers and looks around. As soon as we got away from the sirene’s doorway, the animals began to revive.

Sorry my thoughts are so jumbled, D. I’m still dizzy from the sirene’s doorway. And from all that I am realizing. I have a purpose and I know what it is. A purpose. A point.

I always used to ask that. What’s the point of being Ella? Dad said nobody needed a point but he never convinced me. For once I was more right than he was. I’m a changeling and Alcatur is my point. Stop him before he causes more harm.

Being with Paul, that’s a different kind of point. Paul matters more to me than saving the world, even if we have to set our life aside for now.

Back when we were in the cave, we planned to hold a ceremony about leaving the cave, about having to stop touching each other again. But we forgot all about our ceremony, once we reconnected with Aunt Axi. We had no choice. She can help us stop Alcatur.

I have another point. Finding out why that car crash killed my family. Then probably I’ll have a new point. Revenge.

Fighting evil. Avenging deaths. Superhero words. Embarrassing. – sE

253.

DD – Lourdes and Scatterlegs and Grayfast and I. The changelings and their animals. The animals and their changelings. We’re sitting at the edge of Mono Lake. Lourdes and I are splashing bare toes in the water. Our skin goes icy, then we hold our feet in the sun to thaw them. The only sounds are splashes of toes and lapping of waves. I’m listening hard for sounds up the slope, from Franklin’s demolished home. Sounds of our rescuers coming back with Franklin. Sounds of more trouble arriving.

Lourdes and I are sitting together but in separate pairs. She is with Scatterlegs, even though the lizard is running back and forth a few feet away. He opens his mouth and charges through the line of flies on the shore. Then he peels away to munch his catch. His first bite takes three tries because his mouth is so full.

I don’t have to question Lourdes to know that she was as scared about Scatterlegs as I was about Grayfast, when they collapsed outside the sirene’s doorway. We’re changelings. They’re our animals.

I am with Grayfast, even though the cat is flattened above us. The weak sun turns his fur golden and warms the flat rocks under his belly. He’s stretched out but not lounging. The tip of his tail flicks at the tiniest sounds from Franklin’s ruins. Grayfast is expecting danger. I know him well enough to know that.

My connection with Grayfast goes beyond love. I don’t feel a bit bad saying that Grayfast matters more than anyone else. I’m a changeling, he’s my animal. That makes him my most important point of all.

Lately I’ve been seeing him as just a cat. Sure, a smart cat. Fast. Powerful senses. But that is nothing compared to who he really is. It’s been so long since we shared heads. Have I lost my special connection with him? No, it must still be there, but it takes effort I haven’t been making. Attention I haven’t been paying. I’m not blaming myself, I’m realizing. If I want that connection I have to make an effort.

I want it more than anything. And I need it now, to have any hope of truly acting like a superhero. To have any hope of getting past the superhero stuff to get back to Paul. I love Paul with all the love there is, but my connection with Grayfast is even more important than love.

That’s not something I could admit to just anybody, D, except you.

And Lourdes, of course. Any changeling would understand.

Right after I thought all that, Grayfast flopped across my foot and Scatterlegs perched on Lourdes’ shoulder.

Something is about to happen. Something big. But we’re all just sitting here.

Okay. – sE

254.

DD – Tupac amazing. I can’t even. Wow.

I’ll describe what just happened but I won’t get it right because it was outside words. Words are for people. Cats don’t need words. Neither do lizards.

Lourdes and I were splashing and waiting and then. Our animals connected with us in a new way. The right way. We were ready to learn how to do that.

Before, when Grayfast and I connected, I’d be in his head or he’d be in mine and most of the experience was getting past the headache and the where–am–I. One of us would control the experience for both species. Today, we were both still there. Sharing awareness, not trading it off.

And this time, the way I knew something was happening wasn’t from blasting pain. Instead, colors shifted. Like they slid behind thick dark glass, but the glass didn’t darken them, it muted them. They became jewels bright as spotlights.

Edges turned so sharp, the tiniest movements showed up. A fly flapped its wings which vibrated air and made a wind that tickled my nose. I got a whiff of the fly. Believe it or not, a little like vanilla.

Which gave me a flash of memory. Making cookies with Matty. He emptied a full bottle of vanilla into the dough and copied the noise. “Glurb glurb.”

My head snapped against my shoulder. Grayfast had spun around, so fast, then looked at me, suspicious. And I got it. He shared my memory but thought it was happening now, thought I’d added a little boy here on the shore of Mono Lake.

“I was just remembering,” I said. My voice was thick and warbly, a mouth full of bells.

Grayfast didn’t understand the concept. Remembering.

I shared other memories of Matty and the cat went so still, trying to understand. My back tightened. I kept remembering.

…the van in the ditch, the night Matty died… the same ditch, months later, when I rode a bike to the accident site and first saw Grayfast in a tree.

My back relaxed. Grayfast sort of understood.

BABY BIRD LEAVES NEST AND KEEPS NEST.

Somehow I understood that Grayfast doesn’t have memories, not like a person does. He acts, and from his actions he learns, and learning turns into knowing. But he can’t trace back to what happened before.

My memories confused him so I tried to focus on what was happening at that moment.

“Same here,” Lourdes murmured.

What the Tupac, she knew my thoughts! I didn’t know hers!

“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to,” Lourdes said.

ALL BABY BIRDS LEARN TO FLY.

Grayfast reassured me. I’d catch up to where Lourdes was.

SK##SKSK##, from Scatterlegs.

Lourdes laughed, Grayfast purred. Someday I’ll get the joke.

The animals disconnected and I understood. Our brains needed to rest. So now we’re back to splashing.

Without bright jewel darkness, colors are less beautiful. – sE

255.

DD – We went in and out of connecting for the rest of the afternoon. What I call connecting, Grayfast calls TWOING and Lourdes calls rehearsing.

“Rehearsing for what?”

“That’s all he told me,” Lourdes shrugged and scritched Scatterlegs on the neck.

SK###SK###KS, from Scatterlegs.

I was getting used to not understanding.

From what I could get, we were practicing to live our lives – see, hear, act, decide – while sharing experience. It was like rubbing your head and patting your stomach while cooking with a recipe in a foreign language.

The hardest was when Grayfast and I ran fast in opposite directions. Jump over a hole here while landing there! Uphill downhill simultaneously! Eminem! Start to get used to it and Scatterlegs would leap out of nowhere and startle me just as Lourdes asked me a question.

After that we took an extra long rest.

At the same moment, Lourdes and I stopped splashing and looked to the side of the lake.

“We should go over there.”

“Just what I was thinking.”

Having the same thoughts as Lourdes was weird but not surprising. The surprising was my wanting to go. Over there, in the tall sharp reeds. The ones that blocked my view of my steps, that freaked me so badly.

This time, walking through the reeds was beyond disorienting. I saw my feet from Scatterlegs’ eyes. I ducked between reeds as Grayfast, and felt reeds scrape my arms as Lourdes plowed through them. Confusing. But not scary, this time, because no way was I alone.

Anyway, we had to finish that walk. Nothing felt as important as getting through the reeds to whatever was on their other side.

And yet. At some point, I couldn’t go farther. I kept trying to step forward but stumbled sideways like one of those supermarket carts that freezes if you cross the yellow line that makes you a cart thief.

What was stopping me was wind chimes. Franklin’s had survived the destruction of his cabin, and the breeze kept them murmuring like when my mom hummed lullabies. I’d been hearing them all this time, not noticing until I got too far to hear them. One step too far.

Hearing the chimes, I could believe in safe and sound. Lewis/sirene would guide Paul and Aunt Axi safely and they’d all bring Franklin home. I needed to hear the chimes.

But we needed to get past the reeds.

Everybody understood. They waited with total patience.

Finally I realized. This group was what I should believe in. Grayfast Lourdes Scatterlegs. Not wind chimes.

I took the next step, and we pushed through the reeds, and got to a dry knobby hill beyond them. Where there was.

Nothing.

But that feeling is back. Something really big is about to happen. So now we’re sitting on the hill.

When the sun finishes setting it is going to be so dark out here. – sE

256.

DD – Yeah. It got way dark. Black was putting it mildly. I knew my three partners were nearby because I heard them breathing. Lizard inhales. It was that quiet.

We stayed outside of each other’s heads. We needed to rest before whatever we were waiting to have happen, did happen.

With every inhale, the air inside my throat got colder. Our knobby little hill was nothing but dirt and rocks and damp wind from the lake.

From out of nowhere I thought of Barracuda, dead, maybe still stuck in her car. I hated her for whatever the Tupac her role was in my family’s death. But I had to feel sorry for anybody so dead and alone.

It was too dark. I needed happy thoughts, fast! Happy. Happy happy.

Happy … birthday. Seriously?

With the cave and hiding out and sudden trips to Chicago I had no sense of time. When we first arrived at Mono Lake we had just missed Thanksgiving and a lot of days had gone by since then but not enough that we could have missed Christmas yet. Which put us around middle– ish December.

Around my birthday.

Amazed disgust. Disgusted amazement. Grown–up birthdays are sad compared to kid birthdays so mine could only head downhill. But to miss it entirely. Eminem.

“I might be 17 now.”

“Your party will be bigger for being postponed. ” Lourdes sounded like she was quoting. Her teeth chattered.

So did mine. “Is that what your family used to say about missing a birthday?”

“My sister would. Our parents never –” Her frown carried through the dark.

“I wish your parents weren’t jerks.”

“Bright side. They earned me a major big party but ha ha. No invites for them.”

My lips were shivering too hard to joke back.

“Okay. Cold enough.” Lourdes moved from shivering to shaking.

No doubt it kept getting colder but that was the last we suffered. Our animals managed an awesome trick to warm us up.

I couldn’t feel my own body because Scatterlegs and Grayfast took over. Grayfast had tucked his nose under his tail and his fur kept him toasty.  Scatterlegs was cozy, burrowed under Grayfast’s belly. Grayfast’s purrs vibrated my foot, which was next to him. And vibrated all around me, as I shared the lizard’s experience.

“Mmm–mm,” Lourdes did her own kind of purring.

Now I’m wondering what she was sensing. But not at the time. As Ella, I couldn’t think. My head was filled with thoughts I couldn’t understand. Lizard thoughts. Cat thoughts. So different I can’t describe them. Even trying to remember them changes them. Like when I describe a great dream. So I’m going to stop trying and enjoy how warm they made me feel.

It’s sunrise and soon the sun will add its own warmth. We’re still waiting on the knobby hill, btw. – sE

257.

DD – “Did you hear that, too?” Lourdes asked.

I stood up to see. Where it was coming from. Franklin’s voice.

The knobby hill wasn’t high enough to give a view across the rushes to where his voice seemed to be.

Grayfast stared into the rushes, ears perked way up.

Franklin’s voice said, “Here, Paul, help me move these.”

“Sure thing.” Paul’s voice. My heart resumed beating like it wanted to be alive. It stopped beating that way when Paul left with Lewis/sirene.

Wood clattered. But there was no wood in view. Nothing but reeds below sky.

I caught a whiff of burned wood, mixed with Paul’s sweat. Aunt Axi’s hand cream. Lewis’ shoes without socks. From the lake, intense, fly vanilla.

Oh. We must be sharing Grayfast’s sensations. The others were talking too far away for people to hear, but not too far for a cat.

So! Franklin was rescued and everyone was back at the cabins’ ruins. I felt more peaceful than happy. Things could turn out all right.

The voices and footsteps faded in and out. Back forth. Scrapes scufflings. They must be helping Franklin sort through his ruins, walking in and out of range of Grayfast’s hearing.

They murmured out of hearing then exploded with shock.

Grayfast flicked an ear. Lourdes and I traded frowns.

“Impossible! Natalie is a changeling, she can’t be a hunter!” Franklin sounded confused.

Lewis replied in the hollow sirene voice. “She is also a hunter. I know my kind. No doubt exists.”

“She’s a hunter but she pretends to be Everweer. That’s a crime punishable by death,” Paul sounded shocked.

“She must expect to avoid detection,” Aunt Axi said.

“She’s wrong. They’ll catch her. And the executions are cruel.” Paul was such a good person. He could even sound concerned for Natalie.

“We build our own fates,” Aunt Axi replied.

Their voices and footsteps faded. Out of hearing range.

I wanted to run through the reeds to them. But I couldn’t. We had come to this hill for a reason, however unknown. We had to wait here.

I hoped the reason wasn’t to face Natalie. I had such a bad feeling about her, the thought of seeing her again gave me aches like the flu.

Lourdes and I stared at each other.

“Natalie.” Was all I could say.

“I feel you! What the termite is wrong with that woman?!” Lourdes said.

“What the termite?”

“I see your way now – talking feels more comfy without swearing. But I don’t like rap. So.” She shrugged.

What the termite. Lourdes. – sE

258.

DD– We sat on our knobby little hill and waited for the something to happen. We heard no more conversation from back at Franklin’s cabin.

We sat some more. It was so quiet we heard paws stepping when Scatterlegs and Grayfast wandered down the far side of our hill.

Lourdes and I nibbled mounds of crushed cereal bar from the bottom of my backpack. I never used to miss meals.

Natalie was a scab we couldn’t stop picking. What were her intentions? Was she for us or against us? We kept talking about her, discussing what we knew from different angles. As if the missing pieces would suddenly snap into view.

We couldn’t even decide whether the fact that we didn’t understand Natalie made her more scary … or less scary. But we kept discussing. One of us would get sick of it and demand quiet. Time would go by and the silence would thicken. Then the other one would start Natalie–ing again.

It was Lourdes’ turn. “Evidence for Natalie being on our side.” She shoved a finger into the air for each piece of evidence. “She brought me to you at the Trigg house… Her owl led Lewis and me to you when you were stuck in that cottage by the ocean… She caused a distraction so Alcatur didn’t find Paul and Grayfast at the cemetery… Her owl protected Franklin, um, by destroying his cabin?”

“Evidence for Natalie being against us.” She slammed a finger closed with each item. “She helped Alcatur escape after his trial. She was with Barracuda at the accident that killed your family.” She wiggled the fingers still standing. She had run out of evidence against Natalie. “The evidence against her should count double, Or triple. It’s evil.”

Lourdes closed her fingers to make a fist and shook it. She was ready to punch something. I can understand that side of Lourdes. I have it too. We get mad when we don’t understand.

Maybe Alcatur told Natalie to confuse us. Well. She was totally succeeding.

The animals strolled back up the hill, flopped into nap positions. Grayfast’s tail flicked while he dozed.

This afternoon I’m learning how scary boredom can be. Nothing is happening except our stomachs growling. But pressure keeps building and building, invisible but all around. Violence and war, out there, just past the horizon. From Alcatur and Natalie, definitely. Probably others we don’t even know about. Yet.

I’ve felt that lurking danger before, but never like today. Lourdes must feel the same. She usually sits a little separate from everybody else, but today she’s right beside me.

We aren’t talking. We’re listening. Straining to hear, is more like it. – sE

259.

DD – The pressure kept building while the sun set. Tupac, if we had to spend another night in this cold dark.

After a long stomach growl, Lourdes asked, “Ever wonder what a vanilla fly tastes like?”

“That sound you don’t hear is me laughing on the inside.”

Scatterlegs popped up from sleeping, zipped fast circles around Lourdes, snapped at the air. A little strange but that’s Scatterlegs.

Grayfast puffed up and hissed, the fake way that cats play with each other. Except he was playing with nothing. The air.

“Wow,” Lourdes whispered. She twirled as though the air felt amazing.

To me it was still just air.

Except. There was a glow. Inside the air.

The glow bubbled and flowed into many separate glows. (117 of them. Lourdes counted.) The bubbles turned into fur and feathers and scales. 117 animals, all sizes, all kinds. All getting along, comfortable with each other. Rabbit beside wolf. Hawk helping mouse.

They got more clear to see but never completely solid and the water animals stayed see–through.

117 people milled around. More kinds than I could imagine – ages, sizes, colors, clothes styles. Some looked wise like the animals and moved with sure steps. Others walked in spirals, looking everywhere.

One old man dropped to the ground, crying so hard he hiccupped. “I’m not the only one.”

A boy as short as Matty bowed and took a step onto our hill. “Thank you for gathering us,” he smiled to me. And/or Grayfast. The cat flicked his tail.

“Um,” I forced my lips into a smile.

“I am not like that one,” the boy replied and stepped away.

Yup. Reading my mind, my ricochet thoughts – he looked so young but his voice was old and his skin had antique wrinkles. Just like Natalie.

At the top of the hill, Lourdes teetered on tiptoe, pointed from one to the next to the next. Counting.

Below, some of our guests would follow her finger pointing and look surprised to discover other people nearby.

But mostly people were nodding at each other, and bowing respectfully to the animals, who ignored us like so many bushes.

A red–haired man called to Lourdes, “Who do we kill and when do we start?”

An identical man gave him an angry push. “Last resort, not first resort.”

The first man pushed back. Their animals (a blue jay and a crow) gave each other a seriously then went back to grooming.

So, changelings could be as pointless as any other people.

Changelings. 117 plus us. So many! It confirms what we already sensed, and as Galalena wrote in her journals, ‘We come to fight in no ordinary time and ours are no ordinary foes.’

Outside and all around, the pressure is still building. Now we can do something about it.

A woman stood on the back of a giant tortoise. She began to clap and cheer. The noisy applause spread and exploded with growls hoots shrieks as the animals joined in.

The sun finished setting but now the dark didn’t matter.

This is what we’ve been waiting for. This changes everything. – sE

+++ End of Book Six +++

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