Transitions

Transitions

  Alden sat outside on the library steps with Hailey. The rest of the group was still inside going over the specific logistics of where everyone was headed, spearheaded by Boris and Jackie. Boris, in addition to his other many talents, was also apparently quite skilled in disguises and forgery.

  ”Guess you don’t really need to worry about hiding, huh?” Hailey said, nudging him.

  Alden shook his head. “Just going right back home. No one really knew I was here, and I paid for the train in cash. Going home’s the only way I’m ever gonna get Meg to shut up about that video.”

  ”What are you gonna tell her?”

  ”…The truth?” Alden shrugged. “She can keep a secret, and it’s not like I can awaken her, so we don’t have to worry about that. Plus, I’m a terrible liar. This’ll be way easier than trying to explain away all of this somehow and getting her to keep it quiet.”

  ”Think that’ll work?” Hailey asked skeptically.

  ”I know Meg. She loves secrets. Getting to keep one this big will make her happy.”

  Hailey shrugged. “I never had any real siblings. Just my parents, and we weren’t close. I doubt they’ll even notice I’m gone.” Seeing his expression, she quickly added, “Don’t worry. I really don’t mind. I’m glad you have a good family though.”

  Alden shook his head. “‘Good’ might be stretching it. My parents and I don’t talk much either. Meg and me are solid though. She’ll get it. Only thing I might worry about is her trying to drag magic out of me somehow. Like I could just teach it to her.”

  ”Well, if you need me to come talk some sense into her, just say the word.”

  ”You two’d get along great.” Alden paused. “How am I gonna get in touch with you though? You have to ditch your number and stay low key.”

  She rolled her eyes. “I’m not planning to leave the state or anything. I’ll stop by after I settle in. I’m gonna need something to do, if I’m gonna be out there living alone. I can get around pretty quick, you know.” Her eyes twinkled. “Maybe you can teach me your time travel tricks sometime, too. If you ever figure it out for real.”

  ”Time magic from you?” Alden mock-shuddered. “The world would never survive.”

  ”You’re just jealous of how much better I’ll be at it.”

  ”No kidding.” Alden looked around. “What about Jessica?”

  ”She’s still inside with her parents. She wanted to be alone with them for a bit.” Hailey shrugged. “I don’t know what she’s gonna do.”

  ”She’ll be okay. Jessica’s probably the strongest person in the building except for Grey-eyes, remember?”

  ”That doesn’t really help her stay hidden though,” Hailey sighed. “I love her like a sister, but if we’re going back to the real world this is gonna be rough.”

  ”Like we weren’t already in the real world?”

  ”Not to play the ‘one week’ card again, but you really were only here for less than a week. Living in a town this small screws with your perception. Honestly, it felt like the rest of the world just wasn’t there half the time.” Hailey leaned back and stared up at the sky, which was finally clear of smoke and drifting into night. The stars filled the sky, and the arm of the galaxy twirled away above them. “I’m not gonna miss a lot from this place, but I will miss that view.”

  A commotion behind them drew their attention. Hailey was on her feet in an instant, fists at the ready, but she dropped them immediately as Jessica emerged from the structure. Her parents followed a moment later, calling after her.

  ”Jessie, come back!”

  Jessica found her place at Hailey’s side, taking her hand firmly. She chirped something at her parents, shaking her head emphatically. She pointed at herself, then at Hailey, then drew out the shape of a house in midair with a tiny flame — a simple square with a triangle on top. She dissipated it a moment later.

  ”You’d rather live with her?” her mother asked, sounding more confused than appalled. She pointed at Hailey to try and get her point across. Jessica nodded.

  ”Who are you, again?” Malcolm asked, catching up to his wife. “Are you her… uhh… her girlfriend?” He said it like he was still trying to get his mind around the concept — like he’d never heard of the possibility in his life.

  Hailey shook her head, vaguely amused. “Just her best friend. Jess never actually went out with anyone.”

  ”Oh.” Her father still looked confused. “I’m sorry, I just assumed.”

  ”It’s okay.” Hailey shrugged. “I didn’t think you even knew who she preferred.”

  ”We guessed,” Beth explained. “I never had the courage to ask her, then we fought and she left and now…” Beth looked at her daughter in dismay. “It was such a stupid fight and I can’t ever apologize now. I don’t know what to do for her anymore.”

  Hailey sighed. “She’s the same Jess in there, you know. She can’t speak, but she still knows what’s going on and she’s just as smart as she always was. You’ll figure it out.”

  ”Will you…” Beth started, but trailed off. She glanced at her daughter again. “Do you want to come with us?”

  ”Huh?”

  ”You were going to live on your own, right?” Hailey nodded slowly, not following Beth’s train of thought. “Well I thought, we’re supposed to seem like a different family. Two children throws it off more, and I know Jessie would want you there.”

  Hailey smiled. “You know I don’t look anything like you guys, right?”

  Jessica’s parents looked taken aback. Apparently that hadn’t even crossed their minds. Alden was resisting the urge to laugh. Malcolm was the first to speak up. “Can’t we work around that somehow? Maybe you were adopted or something.”

  Hailey frowned. “That sounds boring.” She took a second to consider. Alden noticed her hand flex slightly, fingers flicking a pattern and curling inward. A moment later, her hair shifted to the exact same shade of brown as Beth and Jessica. “Yeah, I guess we can make it work,” Hailey added with barely suppressed glee, as Beth’s jaw fall open.

  Jessica looked up at Hailey curiously. Hailey pointed at her parents, then back at them and drew a circle in midair, followed by the same house symbol Jessica had used. Jessica cocked her head to the side, and Hailey nodded. She made a vague disgusted face for a half-second, prompting Malcolm to start to object. Jessica smiled, and Hailey grinned back. “Looks like we’re in.”

  Jessica nodded. Her parents looked about to raise another question, but before they could speak any further, she pulled them away, leaving Hailey and Alden alone again.

  As soon as they were out of earshot, Hailey burst out laughing. Alden grinned. “Worth it?”

  ”Not even slightly, but that was still fun,” Hailey said, calming herself down. She released the spell and let her hair shift back to its usual yellow-blonde. “Looks like I’m going to have a new family after all. Yay me.”

  ”Can’t be all bad. Jess’ll be there, and you can always just fly away if they really piss you off, right?”

  ”Yeah. I’m gonna have to get them to stop calling her ‘Jessie’, though. She hates that.” Hailey smiled. “I’ll see you around, Alden.” She took a few steps away from him, then without warning, she leapt into the air. It took her a few hard wingbeats, but she was soon perched on top of the closest turret of the library. She waved at him, her legs dangling over the side. “Don’t get hit by any phones!” she shouted down.

  He waved back, then he turned and walked inside. Hailey could get to where she was going easily on her own, but the rest of them had to form a makeshift convoy to leave Rallsburg, to make sure they weren’t spotted on their way out.

  They weren’t quite out of the woods yet.

***

  Jackie Nossinger had a lot of regrets in her life, but trusting the tall college girl from Rallsburg wasn’t one of them.

  Her battered old squad car actually managed to survive the chaos in Rallsburg relatively intact. The windows were shattered, and there was an odd noise coming from the engine, but it ran. She’d always loved that car. It had followed almost her entire career, even as a detective when she could’ve gotten something more normal. She’d even persuaded her superiors in Seattle to let her keep it when she transferred out, and it followed her all the way to Rallsburg — repainted to suit the town, but otherwise the exact same car she’d always driven. It had seen thrilling chases and endless stakeouts, and it had carried many of the worst Seattle had to offer in the back seat at one time or another.

  Today, it was one of three vehicles in a convoy, ferrying away the survivors of Rallsburg.

  The strange grey-eyed girl everyone tended to avoid, the Silverdale girl who couldn’t talk, and the Winscombe girl had apparently cleared out the roadblock leading back toward Olympia. The Silverdale couple rode in the last vehicle with their daughter and the new kid in town. They were to take that truck into Tacoma somewhere, drop the kid off, then their daughter would destroy it down to the last scrap of metal. It was Robert Harrison’s old truck, which they’d recovered from his lodge outside town. Jackie figured he’d probably miss it, if he were still alive. Sucks to him.

  Boris drove just ahead of them in his own truck. The old Ruskie kept his ride far outside town, sparing it from the magnet storm — or whatever the hell Rachel had called it. Dan Rhodes, Hector Peraza, and Julian Black were packed in with him, off to Canada. Boris had recommended it as a solid option for a getaway, but he didn’t get any volunteers from the rest of the group. Jackie certainly didn’t feel like roughing it, even if it meant a greater chance of discovery. If she knew those four, they’d be splitting up the moment they crossed the border.

  Boris had a bit of bonus cargo in his trailer. Jackie’s overeager but competent deputy and his impossible sister were hanging out in the back, along with the creepy cult leader with the crazy voice and her red-haired sidekick. Apparently, the two grey-robed kids were keeping the convoy totally invisible as they drove, to make sure they didn’t show up on any satellites or aerial feeds. Jackie didn’t understand how in the slightest, but she didn’t doubt it anymore. Not after the week she’d had. The Bowmans would be heading off to Canada as well, while the two Greycloaks were only sticking with them for the first leg. They’d find their own way back.

  Jackie glanced over at Rachel in her passenger seat, who had finally fallen asleep. The tall girl was barely visible from the glow of the instrument panel. She really felt for the kid. Rachel was still young, even if the world called her an adult. Folks might make fun of the current generation for being the ‘adult at thirty club’, but when the hell did someone really become an adult anyway? Jackie had worked with plenty of officers way less mature than Rachel DuValle.

  She wished she could have done more for Rachel, but Jackie still felt totally in over her head. She hated that feeling. It was the reason she’d eventually driven away from Seattle and never gone back. Jackie handled her cases just fine, with or without a parade of partners good and bad, but the city just kept piling them on. She started taking shortcuts and accepting the easy answers even when she had doubts, because it was just too much for her to cross every i and dot every t — or whatever she was supposed to do. It got so bad that Jackie eventually just marched into her captain’s office, cited her stellar record, and demanded she get sent out to the loneliest, quietest post she could find.

  Sure, sometimes she missed the loud bustle and excitement of the city life, but Rallsburg was worth the loss ten times over. She’d finally felt at peace, right up until her nice quiet town had — quite literally — exploded.

  Jackie still didn’t regret it, but she’d always regret not having more to offer Rachel. The best she could do was this one last gift. Jackie would make sure she got home safe to her parents, who were waiting for her under assumed names in Issaquah. Rachel’s parents were the only outsiders who knew about what had happened in Rallsburg, and though a few had protested the discrepancy, they’d been vehemently shouted down by Rachel’s friends. She’d earned the indiscretion. Jackie would brook no arguments.

  They’d have a few stops on the way through their long night drive. In the back seat of her cruiser sat the fiery-haired professor, and her identical twin that Jackie had never heard of. She still didn’t get how that was possible, but hey, rich people, right? Those two didn’t concern her. The Laushire fortune was vast, so they’d be fine even if they were caught out. Money could buy their way out of any jam. Jackie was most concerned with the last, littlest one in her car.

  Natalie was laying down with her head on Lily’s lap, straining her seat-belt and sleeping through the drive as best she could given the hard plastic seats in the rear. The uneven roads out of Rallsburg didn’t help much either. Jackie tried to avoid the larger bumps in the road, but she could tell Natalie was waking up hard every time she managed to get a few minutes of rest.

  Jackie couldn’t imagine how miserable the girl felt. Her father was a mass-murderer. Her friends were dead or missing. She was being taken away from the only home she’d ever known. Hell, she hadn’t even been allowed to bring her pets. All she had were the things they’d collected from her house, stuffed into Kendra’s magic bag. Yeah, Jackie didn’t blame Rachel for telling her to leave them behind. They couldn’t exactly take a goddamn wolf through Tacoma with them. But seeing the heartbreak on Natalie’s face as she said goodbye to Gwen? Jackie wanted to drink herself into a stupor after that one.

  She was shocked Natalie didn’t even try to protest though. Anything the Laushires or Jackie asked, they got the typical tween attitude — but Rachel? She seemed to take anything Rachel said as a direct order without question. It was total deference Jackie rarely saw even in the actual chain of command she used to work in.

  Natalie was allowed to keep her hawk though, so there were some small mercies left in the world. Jackie reluctantly let it into the car with them, expecting it to wreak havoc on the interior as soon as they took any sharp turns or hard bumps — but Natalie only had to speak a few strange words to it, and it was calm as could be. It found the best perch it could under the circumstances and kept mostly to itself while Natalie tried to sleep.

  Time dragged on as they drove through the night. Jackie had to keep it slow so they could keep their invisibility cloak in place, and combined with the winding path out of the hills, it was a long drive. They took a while to emerge from the vast Olympic forests and re-enter civilization. Kendra and Lily had both fallen asleep along with their soon-to-be “adopted” daughter, leaving Jackie and the hawk as the lone riders burning the midnight oil.

  Jackie didn’t mind, though. She was used to working alone well into the night, and she enjoyed rolling around empty streets this late at night. What she didn’t expect was the voice from her passenger seat an hour or so later.

  ”I never thanked you,” Rachel said quietly, just audible above the breeze through the broken windows.

  ”Shouldn’t you be sleepin’?” Jackie asked as they went around a gentle curve in the highway.

  ”I only need to sleep an hour every night. Part of the magic.”

  ”Well isn’t that somethin’. Pretty sure you did thank me though. Not that I did much.”

  ”I have a perfect memory,” Rachel pointed out. “You helped us out so much and I never even thanked you once.”

  ”Rachel, I was homicide in the biggest city in the Northwest. I’m used to it.”

  She sighed. “Thank you, Jackie.”

  ”I should be thankin’ you.” Jackie slowed them to a stop at a red light — the first one she’d seen in almost a year, since her last vacation. “I’m sorry you’re not gettin’ anything you deserve, after all the shit you had to get us through.”

  ”I’m going home. That’s something,” Rachel said. She twisted back around in her seat to look out the window as they started moving again, the light detecting their car and swapping to green. “I get to see Will and my parents again. I thought I was going to die, and I made it out alive. That’s something.”

  ”You deserve more though.”

  ”It’s enough,” she murmured.

  They didn’t speak the rest of the way to Olympia. As they reached the outskirts of the town, the convoy slowed to a crawl and pulled off to the side of the road.

  There was one final thing to do as a group before they split up for their separate destinations. Jackie got out and stared at the city lights in the distance, the glow blotting out the stars they’d been able to see so clearly back home. The two Greycloaks and the Winscombe girl joined Rachel and Jackie, while the rest of the convoy stayed with the trucks.

  They’d be back soon. Hopefully.

  ”Here we go again,” Jackie muttered.

***

  Cinza took charge of the mission. Rachel surrendered command voluntarily — almost eagerly. She worried about Rachel’s sudden lack of motivation and willingness to lead. Still, in this case it made tactical sense. Cinza’s magic was most important part of their excursion.

  They waited while the Laushires and Natalie got out of the cruiser, bleary-eyed in the early morning hours, and swiftly took their places. Cinza and Ruby joined Hailey, piling in uncomfortably in the back seat of the squad car. Jackie started up the engine again, and they set off while the remaining Ghosts of Rallsburg (as Ruby now insisted they be called) stayed with the convoy to await their return.

  It took them a while to reach their destination, since it lay on the opposite side of the city from where they’d arrived. Jackie drove precisely the speed limit, avoiding drawing any unwanted attention to them. Cinza would have preferred speed, but she supposed that a police officer from the city would know best how to avoid getting pulled over. The worst thing for them would be to get their names and vehicle on record now, when they were supposed to be dead back in Rallsburg.

  Still, this excursion wasn’t something they could delay a single moment. As they crossed the heart of Olympia and reached the other half, the signposts leading to their target increased in frequency. Cinza felt more reassured with each one, knowing that they’d soon be done with this and back home where they belonged. She may have grown up entrenched in a city far larger and harsher than this one, but she’d sworn them off entirely ever since. Every minute spent in the oppressive lights and sounds irritated her. At least her beloved seemed not to be bothered.

  Ruby was intensely focused on the road ahead. She had been practicing the invisibility wall as Cinza had taught, but she’d never quite managed to keep it as stable as they’d need for it to be totally impenetrable even to the sharpest eyes — human or artificial. Cinza could keep it steady, but she could only last so long. Even with Ruby supplying all the energy, Cinza wasn’t sure if she could cover a large enough area for the time Hailey needed.

  Her own magic was so far away and difficult to reach, ever since the ritual. Her limbs felt like they were twigs, bending at the slightest pressure and threatening to snap. Ruby was all the power, and Cinza merely the guidance. They’d only managed the vehicles from above, in case of a flyover, and using the smallest possible area of cover. Even that, when coupled with the additional complications of a moving target, had left her gasping.

  They made their final turn, pulling into a parking lot that bordered St. Peter Hospital. Jackie turned the car off, and they got out into the cool night air. Rachel bumped her head on the roof of the car getting out. She shivered, as the only clothes she had left were the light dress and thin jacket she’d been wearing all day. Her apartment had burned down at some point during the night. Compared to the practical clothes Cinza and Ruby wore or Jackie’s uniform, Rachel was quite underdressed for three in the morning in the springtime. Standing next to Hailey in her full flight outfit, she looked particularly out of place — but none of them would ever think to ridicule her.

  Rachel was a step beyond that now. Cinza no longer felt affection toward her as a leader akin to herself. Rachel was something above her. Cinza felt reverence. She didn’t think of Rachel as holy in any sense, and certainly not as something to worship, but there was a remove that simply hadn’t been there before. The old library had become their church, and Rachel their savior. She’d sacrificed so much for them and saved their lives at great risk to her own.

  Cinza would follow her without hesitation and do everything in her power to help her.

  With that newfound devotion in mind, she’d spearheaded this particular excursion after Rachel had expressed only a vague hope of a chance. Cinza couldn’t allow that wish to be cast in vain. She’d see it through, damn any potential consequences. Luckily, her more foolhardy plans were made astonishingly simple by the addition of one final piece to their rescue party.

  Hailey Winscombe stepped forward as Cinza and Ruby joined hands, seated on the ground. Ruby began releasing as much energy as she could spare into Cinza’s waiting grasp. They pulled together, as though their embrace could somehow amplify the effect, and a vague shimmer sped through the air up to the window they’d selected. A few moments and it stabilized, looking for all the world as though nothing was out of the ordinary.

  Cinza held the tunnel steady as Hailey took off, bounding up step-by-step through the air. She wasn’t flying, exactly, but it was like she were taking four-foot leaps up an invisible staircase. It only took her a few seconds to reach the window. She rapped her knuckles on it, a bit harder than intended as the knock echoed through the empty grounds.

  A face appeared at the window on cue. Nicole Parsons, ever willing and loyal, propped the window open to let Hailey inside. As the window snapped shut again, Cinza gratefully released the corridor of invisibility, and Ruby gasped aloud as the energy flow between them was cut short.

  They waited. The clock continued to tick incessantly in Cinza’s mind as they stared up at the faint yellow pane set against the dark hospital wall. They’d all agreed, without mentioning it to Rachel, who the first one back out of the building must be.

  Hailey appeared at the window. Cinza established the corridor once more, then flashed a signal light. Hailey propped the window open and leapt out. She had a much larger outline as she bounded back down to them. As she landed gently, Jackie hurried forward to help her let him down easily. He was still battered and beaten, and he looked like he couldn’t move on his own, but he was alive.

  Rachel tried to choke out a few words, but it just came out as a garbled mess. It didn’t matter. They all understood the sentiment. She hugged Will as tightly as she dared, given his injuries, then helped him back into the squad car while Hailey went back for the others.

  Cinza’s reunion with Brittany and Matthew was no less emotional, if a bit more coherent. Brittany was doing much better, it seemed, though she had to be supported everywhere she walked. Hailey had volunteered to fly her back to their home, while Cinza and the rest of her people went back on foot. They’d considered driving a fourth vehicle, but hadn’t managed to find an intact one left in Rallsburg and didn’t want to steal one. None of them felt like criminals, even if they were now in hiding from every government in the world.

  Nicole was the last one down, and she dealt one final blow to the group, though she tried to soften it as much as she could. Morton Pollock had died in the helicopter, bleeding out before they could get him any real help. Cinza hugged Nicole as she cried, but there was nothing more they could do. She offered again to let Nicole leave, if she so desired, but the farmer’s daughter — who’d once confessed to joining them solely to spite her mother — vehemently refused.

  They were family, Nicole said, and Cinza, having spent her whole life abandoned by one family after another searching for the one to call her own, couldn’t agree more.

  As they set out to depart and Hailey took off with Brittany in her arms, Cinza turned to Rachel.

  ”Rachel,” she started, removing the spell from her voice, and her leader — her savior — looked up from where she had been making Will comfortable in the front seat of the patrol car.

  ”Thank you,” Rachel said, and the words were like pure honey to Cinza.

  ”You have my number,” she said. Hers, unlike the rest of them, would not change — she’d set it up discreetly following guidance from Tezofarl, and it could not be traced back to her in any way. Rachel, of course, would never forget it. “I will always be there, the moment you need me.”

  Rachel nodded, though she was still overcome with emotion from her reunion with Will.

  Following her sudden instinct, Cinza took a leaf from Ruby’s book and bowed. The gesture startled them both. It felt right, though. Cinza should show deference to her, as she had just sworn to follow her into Hell and back whatever may come.

  Rachel gave her a silent nod of acknowledgement, and that was all Cinza needed. The girl in the silver cloak turned and vanished into the night on Ruby’s shoulder — following her family home.

***

  Two more meetings were taking place in the dead of night, deep in the forest and much closer to Rallsburg. The other two ghosts of the broken town had finally appeared for their agreed-upon meeting, at the agreed-upon time.

  ”I wondered if you’d show up,” Robert growled, tossing a pine cone at a nearby tree in frustration. “What the fuck happened?”

  Brian Hendricks didn’t answer him. He wandered in half-dazed, still processing what he’d witnessed in the clearing of the heretics.

  Jackson wasn’t supposed to die. He couldn’t die. He was supposed to be more powerful than everyone, commander of impossible and terrible magicks and ruler over the monsters of Hell itself. Jackson was the unwitting tool of God chosen to cleanse the earth — and yet Rachel had shot him in the back. With a simple, mundane handgun.

  ”What are we gonna do now?” Robert asked.

  Brian didn’t answer. He was still working his mind through the day. They’d laid a trap for Jackson. Not once, but twice. Something felt off. Brian’s mind was churning through hellish possibilities. An inferno of illusions danced behind his eyes as he envisioned Jackson dying a thousand horrible deaths at the hands of the cruel sorcerers that had infiltrated Rallsburg. Had his dying throes triggered the explosion that ripped the very town apart?

  No, that had happened first. Brian was mixing up his timeline of events. The Awakened, those devil-worshipping lunatics, had destroyed his home. They were responsible for every terrible deed committed within, killing the last good man of the town and forever damning the rest. Jackson had set out to find their hiding place, leaving Brian in charge of surrounding the town.

  He needed to know something concrete, and Robert had been in Rallsburg proper more recently than he. “My daughter, is she all right?”

  ”Yeah,” Robert said, though he had hesitated. Brian didn’t believe him to be lying, but he was still concealing something. Something important. “Nat’s fine. So’s the Brit takin’ care of her. You ain’t gotta worry about them.”

  He felt some relief at that reassurance, but still, his mind was troubled. It wasn’t his daughter’s fate — Brian still truly believed Natalie would be better off if he focused wholeheartedly on cleansing the world for her — but something else. Something more sinister, like a worm nestling its way through his skull and chewing out his ears for not hearing what he was meant to hear.

  ”Pity he didn’t finish the job when he could,” Robert added, chucking another pine cone at the tree. “Bitch must’ve got him, yeah?”

  A note clicked in Brian’s mind. It was a sweet, heavenly note of truth, baring Robert’s lies for him to see like the sun emerging from behind the clouds. Robert had slipped and revealed himself, though he didn’t yet know his damnation.

  He grasped the black rod that was in his jacket pocket, and to his astonishment, the familiar thrum of energy was still present. The monsters, infinite in number and eager to bend to his will, were coiled inside like a snake waiting to strike.

  ”How did you know?” Brian asked quietly.

  ”Huh?”

  ”How did you know he was dead? Or who killed him?”

  Robert stood up suddenly, and Brian called to them the moment he did. One of the monsters, faceless and merciless, began to emerge out of its portal in the forest floor, silently rising to the ultimate doom of the unsuspecting hunter standing before him.

  Robert’s eyes narrowed. “Fuck you, man. Fuck. You. Your daugh—”

  Brian turned away, ignoring his ranting. A painful crunch somewhere behind him was the last he ever heard from Robert Harrison. Brian set out into the forest, heading west. The pouch of stones Omega had given him clattered against his side. He didn’t have a home anymore, but he knew how to survive at least for a while in the wilderness. He’d get his bearings, find food and shelter, and marshall his forces.

  His war wasn’t over yet.

***

  The second meeting in the forests outside Rallsburg was much quieter. A young man sat on another log, quite like the one Robert had recently vacated, and he too was tossing pinecones about the trees. Unlike Robert, he had full confidence that his appointment would be kept.

  ”Hi,” she said, appearing out of thin air next to him.

  He frowned. “What were you doing? You’re a little late.”

  ”Are we really going to do this? We haven’t talked in weeks.”

  The young man sighed. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m just a bit on edge.”

  She looked at him sympathetically. “We all are.” He put an arm around her, meaning to hug her, but she pushed him away. “Don’t, please.”

  ”What’s wrong?”

  She looked at him like he was insane. “Where do I start?”

  He held up a hand. “That was a stupid question.”

  ”I know you have your rules, but seriously. You could have helped end this.”

  He hesitated. “Maybe I should have. We argued about it for hours after the first few deaths.”

  ”You and Jackson?”

  ”No, I meant at home.”

  ”Oh.” Her silver-grey eyes softened. “Are you guys okay?”

  ”We’re still together, yeah. I would have kept arguing, but he stopped it before we said things we’d regret. He’s angry, but he and I still agreed in the end. The rules are there for a reason.”

  ”Until he broke them,” she pointed out.

  He shook his head. “He never did. All the first attacks were carried out in self-defense or by surrogate. He was never the aggressor. Even at the end, it was in self-defense, since he was being targeted by their magnet ritual from halfway across town.”

  ”This is all so weak.”

  ”Why do you think we’re still arguing about it?” He sighed. “I swore after that night I’d stay out of it. I keep my promises.”

  ”Is it worth keeping a promise to the letter if the other guy’s going to find every possible way to get around it?”

  He picked up a pinecone, examined it for a moment. He dropped it back onto the ground. “What are you going to do now?” he asked.

  She sighed. “Find a new place to live, I guess. I liked staying with Boris and his books. I went back to look for some, but a lot of them burned up. Their stories are done. I’ll probably take the rest to him whenever he settles down, but I don’t think I can stick around them anymore.”

  ”You could—”

  ”No,” she replied, cutting him off. “Thank you, but no. I’m okay on my own.”

  He shrugged. “The offer’s open. Always.”

  She didn’t answer. After a minute of silence, she vanished, with only a faint breeze reminding him that she’d been there at all.

  He picked up another pinecone, then dropped it again. “See you around, BB,” he whispered to the empty forest.

***

  ”Thank you for that report. Next up, the FBI has continued to stay silent on any progress of the investigation into the destruction of—

  The television abruptly cut off as Maria clicked the remote. A few curious coworkers looked up at the sudden change in noise, and — seeing her enter the room — quickly returned to their phones. She could have sworn she saw a few grateful expressions at the newfound silence. Sure, they could still hear the muffled bustle of the sales floor just on the other side of the thin walls, but at least they didn’t have anything blaring advertisements at them from only a few feet away when they were just trying to get a few minutes of peace.

  Of course, not everyone in the room got the memo.

  ”Did you hear about this new bullshit?” Karl asked, landing on the chair between Maria and Jose. “You know what we have to do just to fill a pick now?”

  ”Karl, we’re in the break room,” said Jose, not glancing up from his phone.

  ”So?”

  ”So none of us want to talk about work shit in the break room,” Maria agreed. She was digging through her bag for something. Karl glanced over, but she just came up with her own phone, hopping on some social network he didn’t recognize.

  ”Sheesh, sorry I’m ruining your thrilling conversation,” Karl grumbled.

  ”Oh, you know me and Jose,” Maria said dryly, not looking up for a second. “Closer than family here. We don’t have to talk anymore, we just beam thoughts to each other.”

  ”Yup,” added Jose.

  ”Riiiight.” Karl glanced between them. “If you want me to fuck off, just say so.”

  ”And miss out on the sheer joy of watching you figure it out for yourself?”

  Karl took a second to understand what she meant, which only made her grin wider at her phone. He stomped off in a huff, leaving them alone once again.

  Maria stretched out and tried to relax, thumbing through her news feed idly and trying not to look too closely at the stories that flicked by. She only wanted an impression of what was going on in the world, she didn’t want to actually get involved in it. Getting involved meant she’d start caring about the people in it, and Maria didn’t have time for such things. She was barely keeping up with her own life.

  She wished she hadn’t had to pick up such a menial, degrading job like a lowly retail worker, but something had to pay her bills. At least they hired fast. They were desperate for anyone young, fit and eager. She had two out of three, and she was pretty good at faking the “eager” part so far around management.

  ”Hey Maria,” said Jose.

  ”Shh shh shh,” she interrupted. “We just achieved the perfect break room volume. Do you want to upset our karmic overlords when we’ve clearly pleased them?”

  ”I was just gonna tell you that your hair’s sticking up at the side.”

  ”What?”

  ”Right here—” he said, and he started to reach toward her to point it out. She recoiled violently away from his hand. “Whoa, sorry. Just right there on your left side.”

  She reached into her bag and pulled out a small hand mirror. “Shit, that looks stupid. Thanks.”

  ”No problem.”

  Jose returned to his phone, leaving them in silence. Maria looked him over. Jose wasn’t bad looking, and he was confident enough to talk to her directly and do it kindly. He might actually be worth remembering, all things considered.

  Nope, she reminded herself. Not again. Definitely not again.

  ”Hey, break’s over,” Karl said, leaning back into the room. “Time to end your amazing party.”

  Maria sighed. She tucked her things back in her bag and wrapped it back around her shoulder. She was allowed to carry it back on the floor, after a great deal of persuasion from her supervisors of its necessity. No one else was allowed to have a bag or purse of any kind, but hers was special.

  She was walking out of the break room when something caught her eye. Jose noticed her turn, but there was nothing there. She didn’t seem to think so either, as she was already turning back to the door — but she wasn’t quick enough to notice Jason coming in at the same time. They bumped into each other, and he happened to brush his arm against the slim part of her skin exposed between her thin gloves and thick sleeves.

  A bright spark of electricity jumped between them.