Wind. Hot, dry, relentless, and familiar. Familiar was good. Anything I could feel, identify, make sense of was good. If I’d been able, I would have caught hold of the wind the same way I was clenching handfuls of the grass under me — normal, bladed, mildly scratchy Earth grass, not the soft stringy stuff I’d been getting used to.
Awareness was coming in waves, like fading in and out of sleep on a Saturday with no alarm clock, except with a face full of lawn and a mind full of inexpressible terror. Only once my body got the memo and dutifully flooded with stress hormones did the awareness stick. I rolled over, spat out a grass blade, and sat up, heart racing and muscles jittery.
The fear and confusion that had followed me back from the map’s edge near Camp Outlook had begun to fade as soon as I was taking in things I could recognize. This time it was more penetrating and persistent, remaining with me even as I took in the view that had greeted me every day for almost six years. Barring any reality-hole-induced hallucinations, I was sitting dazed on the front lawn of my house in Morrow Glen, CA, USA, Earth.
Neither she nor anyone else was around to hear. It wasn’t unusual for my street to be dead quiet and empty of people at midday, though I would have expected to see at least a few cars. Even the immovable El Camino two doors down was absent from its driveway for the first time since we’d moved in. But I didn’t waste any time pondering curiosities. As soon as I convinced myself I was really back, I made for the front door.
It was unlocked. “Mom! Dad! Tori!”
There they all were waiting for me, even Esther, and we had a good laugh as I told them all about the trippy dream I’d had while passed out on the front lawn. I never forgot the lessons I learned that day about appreciating family members and the importance of hydrating before pickup basketball games.
I didn’t make it past “M—”.
When I say the house was empty, I don’t just mean no one was home. It was as bare as the first time I’d set foot in it. At first, as I ran bewildered through every room, it looked like no one had ever lived there. Then I began to notice subtle traces here and there, like the door I’d helped Dad install on the laundry room, or the poorly patched dent Esther had put in the dining room wall during one of our more brutal Nerf wars with Tori.
I still had the backpack and everything from Var. My watch once again told me it was a few minutes past midnight on Sunday, January first. And aside from the high position of the sun, there was nothing to tell me otherwise.
The existential panic faded out just in time for a more grounded and specific variety to take over. The street sign and house number confirmed that this was 618 Tilton Street, but it wasn’t my home. Not without Dad’s beachcombing relics and metal detectors that had yet to turn up anything but soda cans for me; without any of Tori’s odds and ends in random places, from handcuffs to boomerangs; without Mom’s goofy sculptures from college or my shrine of all the autographed hockey memorabilia my grandparents kept sending me. I’d even have been happy to see Esther’s shelves full of trophies again. Instead I had to settle for traces of the gouge in the wall where I’d tried to pull them down years ago, which was no comfort.
All the neighbors’ houses I checked were the exact same. There was no electricity or running water to boot. After the fifth try, I sat down on the sidewalk and tried to calm down.
There must have been an evacuation since I left. Another earthquake? Then why no structural damage? And why, as I forced myself to keep quiet and listen, could I hear nothing but wind and leaves? Not only was the constant background of car noise gone, but there were no birds or insects.
I got up and started walking fast, breaking into an occasional run. Whatever had happened, if it wasn’t all in my mind, must have only cleared out my neighborhood. There was no way it could be like this —
Everywhere. Everywhere I passed through it was the same: streets and structures perfectly intact, all the familiar trees and plants, and not a sign of life otherwise. Not so much as a lizard or stray ant.
By the time I drew near the center of town, my feet were getting sore from walking and my head from rationalizing. Also presumably from dehydration. The only water I’d come across was in drainage ditches by the road and a moderate trickle in the glorified flood control channel we called an arroyo, but I wasn’t that desperate just yet.
The first hint that I might not be alone came at Vista Mesa Park, the sprawling backyard of the community rec center where Esther, Trina, and I had done so many summer programs. As I was trudging past a row of shrubs along the sidewalk, something rustled inside them. I moved toward it more quickly than was judicious and must have spooked it, because it burst out of its hiding place and took off across the field.
It was really tearing along too, on a pair of gangly legs like a roadrunner’s, though without any feathers or other birdlike features I could make out. It was about a foot and a half tall, with a compact little body and pointy head, all colored the same dusty gray and brown as every camouflaged animal in the hills.
“Hey, wait! Sorry!” Determined not to lose the only other sentient thing in this daymare of a suburb, I hurdled the bushes and jogged after it. “I’m not gonna hurt you.” (I mostly meant that, although my stomach was getting empty and I hadn’t seen anything edible so far. I couldn’t help wondering for a fleeting second how this little guy would taste.) “We’ve got to stick together, us…still-existing…living things.”
It stopped and swiveled its head to look straight back at me. Not like a twitchy bird glancing over its shoulder for danger, but a response. It then ran at a more leisurely clip back in my direction. Just as I was remembering the relevant scenes from Jurassic Park and wondering if if I’d made a mistake, it halted a couple of yards away.
I mentioned that it looked at me, but now that it was up close, I couldn’t make out any actual eyes in its head. Some rounded symmetrical spots on either side might have served it in that capacity. It gave a sort of chirp and extended a small appendage toward me.
“Holy cow. You got something to tell me? Can you understand me?”
It turned, jerked its head in the direction of the Alta Heights neighborhood, and scampered off. I didn’t see any choice but to follow. It seemed smarter than a normal animal, not quite smart enough for language perhaps, but it knew something I didn’t. As long as it stayed friendly and didn’t summon a pack of its little buddies to go procompsognathus on me, I’d play along.
It paused every so often to check that I was still following — without turning its head, I noticed. I got the distinct impression that its shape was no longer exactly the same as when I’d first seen it. “It’s okay,” I muttered. “You’ve seen weirder things.”
Yeah, but weird isn’t supposed to happen here.
Alta Heights was possibly the geographically lowest point in town, situated so that everyone else could look down on it literally as well as figuratively. I lost sight of the critter after walking only a short way into it. When shouting for it produced no response, I tentatively kept going.
The first thing I’d thought of while approaching the old neighborhood was Nik’s house. I didn’t visit often: Mom didn’t like me spending time in this part of town, Nik didn’t like my heinous attempts at flirting with his sister, Jess didn’t like being heinously flirted with, and we had better video games at my house anyway. Still, I was familiar enough with it to feel the urge for a quick peek. It would only be another disappointment, I knew.
I had just admitted with a heavy heart that tracking down my little mutant spirit animal guide should be my priority when I heard one of the sweetest sounds of my life, a very close challenger to that first intelligible sentence from Forside. A screen door slamming, two rows of houses away.
Given that the wind and any number of inhuman agents are perfectly capable of slamming screen doors, you might call me overly optimistic for sprinting ecstatically toward the noise. And unless you too have been transported to a ghost town all on your own with no explanation or apparent way out, I must request that you kindly shut your face.
I rounded the corner onto Nik’s street (Please let it be his house, please please please). His place looked typically deserted from the outside and through the blinds of the front windows, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I prowled around it as quietly as I could, not for fear of being heard but for fear of missing the next sound. It didn’t take long; I had almost reached the back of the house when I heard the bump of dresser drawers coming from inside.
I ran for the back door, shouting, “Hello? Nik?” No answer. I opened it onto the empty kitchen and yelled even louder, “Mrs. Alwyn! Jess? Anyone?” Silence.
“I’m coming in!” All the rooms in sight were bare. Had I been hearing things? If so, it was still happening. A bedspring creaked, there was a slight thump and a metallic scraping from the end of the hall that I hadn’t inspected yet.
Like a castaway seeing a ship, I reached the hall and saw Nik’s bedroom at the other end, the door partially open. And out of the entire house — the entire town — it still looked like a place someone lived in.
He was just back from track practice, sprawled on his bed with his running clothes in a heap on the floor, textbooks spilling half out of his bag. He’d just opened one of the two terraria that dominated the wall behind the bed to take out Orm Embar, his black rat snake. He was also blissfully ignoring me. Orm turned his head toward me briefly, but I couldn’t tell if that meant anything. Could snakes even hear?
Only at this point did it occur to me that I might be dead.
Again, shut your face.
The afterlife was a raw deal if I could still get footsore and hungry in it. If Nik was the only person I could see, I would find a way to mess with him, maybe get some cryptic messages across. But if I had to be stuck haunting one person, why couldn’t it have been my seventh grade English teacher or one of those cretins from the school baseball team?
By this point I’d already barged down the hall and into his room. He was turned away from the door, still unresponsive to anything I said. I took a deep breath, suddenly scared to find out whether I would go through him, strode up to the bed, and clapped him on the shoulder with one final “HEY!”
The poor kid almost chucked Orm across the room, he jumped so hard. His other reflex was to swing out with his free arm and clock me square in the gut. From there our touching reunion consisted of me doubled over groaning and him crouched on his bed cussing me out, as bug-eyed and discombobulated as I’d ever seen him.
“Reid? Where did you come from? What happened to knocking?”
“Nice to see you too,” I half wheezed, half laughed.
“…not enough for you to send everyone into this mass panic hysteria, you had to sneak in here and — the crap are you wearing?”
I finally realized how odd I must look in my outfit from Brenest: the coarse pants woven from waterproof plant fiber, shapeless lightweight shirt, and long-sleeved green woodsman’s jacket I had tied around my waist on account of the heat. “You don’t like it? I’m an adventurer now. You gotta see it with the cloak to get the full effect. Here — aw, right, I lost the cloak —”
“Forget the cloak! Everyone’s been losing their minds for the last two days!”
“Two days? I’ve been gone for —” I remembered my watch was no longer giving me instant time updates, checked it manually, and remembered it had reset — “like eleven days.” Eleven Var days, whatever that comes out to.
“Are you high? It’s been two days. You and Esther are all anyone’s talking about. There’s cops everywhere, search parties — some kids didn’t even show up to school because their parents wouldn’t let them out of sight. Trina and I are busted for the camping trip, if you were wondering. We both got questioned and we had to tell them everything.”
If it’s possible to be nostalgic for something two weeks/days ago, I got nostalgic for the halcyon days when being busted registered on my list of worries.
“Where were you? Where’s Esther?”
“Okay, I can try and explain one of those, but I’ve got bigger problems first. Like seeing if I’m an actual brain-melted lunatic or not. Come.” Ignoring all further outbursts, I dragged him into the hall by the wrist. I had to know what the world looked like to him.
His stupefaction on seeing the rest of the house told me everything I needed to know. The bedroom door clicked shut behind us as he darted from room to room with mounting alarm. “Jess?” he called, rapping on her door.
“Nik, they’re not — ”
“Jessica!” He switched to pounding, then threw the door open, froze, and ran back down the hall shouting, “Tanya!”
I couldn’t tell whether to be more relieved that I wasn’t going irredeemably bonkers or worried that the two of us were now in the same boat. After a minute of standing in the hall thinking in circles, I gave up trying to make sense of it for now and went to reel Nik in.
“They were both here,” he said wildly. “Tanya and I just got home, I could hear the TV, Jess was on the phone in her room, then you popped up.”
He was panicked, but not in quite the same bewildered floundering way I’d been. Underneath his confusion was the kind of paralysis that comes from something you’ve been expecting, something you’ve had the time to dread. “This can’t be it,” he was muttering to himself as we returned to his room, gripping his snake a little too tightly lest she disappear as well. “There should have been some warning, I thought we had more time, I’m not ready…”
He opened his door and froze again. Only one thing remained in the bedroom we had left fully furnished and lived in: his other pet, a kingsnake named Great Red, crawling casually on the carpet beneath where his tank used to be. Otherwise, it had become as much of a shell as the rest of the town and, for all we knew, the world.
“Reid…what did you do to me?”
If I’d been hoping for a link back to the normal world, I had achieved the exact opposite. Nik was now trapped here with me.
After going through an abridged version of the same stages I had, after seeing the outside for himself and accepting my assurances that it really was like this everywhere, he was ready to slow down and talk things over sensibly. Either that or we were both ready to go bonkers together, which I still considered an improvement.
He sat with his snakes on the low brick wall of his neighbor’s yard while I paced in front of him, thinking of how to make what I had to say remotely plausible. “Okay. You’ve heard of parallel worlds, right? Neverending Story, Narnia…Half-Life. That kind of thing. That may not be exactly what’s going on, but I gotta start somewhere.”
“You went there?” Instead of the skepticism I was expecting, he immediately leaned forward, his eyes drilling into mine. “What was it like?”
“Imagine Humboldt County but like, insane, and with monsters. I almost died so many times, you have no idea. Although the whole place wasn’t like that, just the part I spent the most time in. You’d probably love it there with all the weird animals, it’s like they took the training wheels off evolution.”
“Sure…” He looked more deflated than excited at my description, but he was still hungry for information. “Is Esther still there?”
It was my turn to deflate. “She wasn’t with me. We think she got taken to a different domain — a different world.”
“You got back by yourself?”
“Don’t sound so surprised. I mean, I did find a few adults who helped, but one of them ditched me and the other two…I just hope they’re still alive.”
“So how did you get back?”
“Fell down an institutional hole.”
“Down a what of a what now?”
He looked down the deserted street in both directions, then pointedly back at me. “You got somewhere to be?”
“That thing she said about her city. Was there any more to it?”
“She said a lot of things about everything. I can try and summarize, but bear in mind I’m probably butchering it. She said…a city is a relationship. Places can remember what they were made for, but if people aren’t doing their thing and keeping it all together, it just becomes a bunch of pieces. Like the Institute. It stayed what it was because of all the work she put into it. Of course, Bugsen was still able to slide right in and jack it all up in basically no time.”
“I need you to know that every time you say ‘Bugsen,’ all I’m picturing is Bugs Bunny.”
“Which still isn’t as moronic as you trying to fight them with tampons.”
“A, number one, we refer to them as absorbers,” I said loftily. “Don’t go disdaining on them, they’re versatile. B, number two, it could have worked. Maybe.”
We had walked and talked our way to the market a few blocks away from Alta Heights. The facade of the main building included a set of roofed turrets, and while any reasonable person would assume they were there for zombie/Y2K apocalypse defense practice, the management insisted they were just decoration and no one was allowed up there. With no management in sight, we’d found a way up to one of them and were now targeting the parking lot’s light poles with pieces of roof gravel as we continued our conversation. Great Red was coiled comfortably around Nik’s shoulders while Orm made himself at home in the crevices of my cast-off jacket.
“You really think you could have picked up Esther’s trail if those guys hadn’t shown up?”
“If Sem knew what she was talking about.” I added under my breath, “It’s not like anyone else did.”
“That’s annoying that there was nothing in her journal.”
“Doesn’t mean she didn’t write anything in it, I just couldn’t…” I stopped short, realizing that the journal was now an ordinary book again. I whipped it out and —
“Oh come on!” Esther’s neat, expansive handwriting was indeed there on the pages, but so were all my writings and drawings, directly on top of it. We could only make out words here and there. Nik gave me a look when we got to the page entirely filled by my picture of a shark eating a surfboard.
“Well, I wouldn’t have colored it in if I’d known, would I…look, there was a long wagon ride, I got bored. Sue me.”
“I guess none of her stuff is going to be much use then if it’s all back to normal.”
“There is one thingy I got that’s from another another domain. It might work here. Maybe we can use it to find someone.” I began rifling through the backpack looking for Forside’s locator before I remembered. “Ah, crapsicles, I gave it to Sem. Man, I hope she’s okay.”
“If that hole you fell in spit you out at home, kind of, maybe the same thing happened to her?”
I had a vision of her wandering a hollow version of So Ameda and never knowing the difference. To banish that depressing thought, I turned to the practical. “Even without my locator, I still found you. This is a big town, there must be at least a few more like you out there that we can find.”
“Like me,” he said quietly. “Yeah, about that…There may not be anyone else like me.”
“What does that mean?”
“I was trying to think of a good way to tell you, since today’s the day for dumping crazy news on people.” He let out a long breath through his teeth. “I’m not from here.”
“Not from Earth, Reid.”
Facing him in silence, I discovered that no amount of strange new encounters can prepare you for the moment the old and familiar suddenly becomes the strange encounter.
“You’re from another domain,” I said slowly.
“If that’s what you want to call it.”
“You’re — I — ”
He kept quiet and gave me space to come to grips, looking away and stroking Great Red anxiously.
“I thought you were adopted from Pakistan! Even the teachers think so.”
“When did I ever say that?”
“You totally…um, wait. Give me a second.”
“Better question. Where did you first hear that rumor?”
“I dunno. Martha, probably.”
“You really think Martha knows what a Pakistani looks like? She made it up, or someone else did and she passed it on.”
“And you just went along with it?”
“I never denied it. It was easier than making something up myself. I was grateful, really — just had to do enough research to answer the same three or four questions you guys would ask.”
“I asked more questions than that.”
“Which is why —”
“— you started saying you were too little to remember!” It was finally making sense, the hidden layer of Nik that had kept me curious all these years. It was easy enough to buy the nationality the rumor mill had assigned him, because I couldn’t have guessed with any confidence. With his dark skin and hair, something African or vaguely Middle Eastern would have been the limit of my conjecture, but the truth was he didn’t quite have the features of any race I recognized. Because of course he wouldn’t.
“Oh, shoot. Are you an alien?”
“You can tell me! Is that why you’re so flexible? Please tell me you’re one of those robots with a little dude in your head.”
“Even more no.”
“How do we prove it, though? Let’s see, everyone knows robots don’t have boogers…”
“Want me to blow my nose on you, dingus? Keep this up if you really want to see my snot up close.”
“I’m just messing.”
“Yeah, I know. Look, I think I’m human. Pretty sure my doctor or dentist would’ve said something by now.”
“And we both hit puberty around the same time, didn’t we?”
“That’s another thing. I couldn’t actually tell you how old I am. Not in years. We didn’t do birthdays back home that I recall. The agency had to take a guess based on how I looked.”
“Is that why you stopped having birthday parties?”
“Nah, that was your fault. You traumatized me that time you puked all over the piñata.”
“No, for real.”
“Maybe I was tired of getting the same Power Ranger sword from three different people.”
“Dude, it’s okay. It’s me.”
He relented and dropped the flippancy. “Yeah, that’s why we stopped. It got too weird for me, knowing it wasn’t real. Making me think too much about…home.”
“Home. Right.” I refocused. “Why are you here? How are you here? What was it like where you came from?”
“Where to even start with that,” he sighed. “My parents didn’t tell me why we had to leave home, just that it wasn’t safe there anymore. After that we were walking what felt like forever, days, weeks, I don’t know. Sometimes there were other groups walking with us. That and being hungry is what I mostly remember, hungry all the time. Starving.”
It was the first time I’d heard him say “my parents”. He couldn’t mean Tanya and Gavin Alwyn. It was jarring, after feeling bad for him that he’d never known his birth family, to instead feel bad that he had known and lost them.
“What happened to — ”
“I don’t want to talk about that part. Let’s just say it was only me and my dad by the end.” His demeanor was stoic throughout the story, but it was costing him some effort.
“I was too weak to really move much or do anything, all I remember is people talking, some of them in a language I didn’t know. Men in strange clothes. My dad told me I had to go with them, they would take me somewhere safe, but he couldn’t come. He was really weak too by that point. Then I remember lights, wind, high-pitched sound like a siren, and feeling like I was falling for a really long time.” He threw a rock as high and far as he could, watching its arc until it bounced to a stop far away on the asphalt. “After that all my memories are from here.”
What do you say to a revelation like that? Sorry for your loss, like everyone at a funeral? Something about being brave?
“Wow,” I mumbled. “That sucks. Sorry.”
We threw more rocks.
“As for what it was like there, I shouldn’t — I feel bad saying this, but I get the feeling the whole place was…kinda boring? The first thing that really knocked me back when I got here was how many colors there were.”
“You don’t understand.” He pointed up. “You don’t realize how blue this sky is. I think ours was sort of blue too, but it was all just less, somehow. My dad tried explaining it to me, but I don’t think I could put it right in English. You could say everything was ‘falling apart,’ maybe, but that’s not really it.
“There’s a few strong memories of places, obviously memories of my family, and the rest is a blur. I don’t know how much of that is ‘cause I was little and how much is there not being a whole lot worth remembering.”
“All this interplanetary-dimensionary-domain…sionary voodoo does glitch up your memory, I can confirm that. I remember plenty from when I was four, or however old.
“Are you okay talking about all this?” I went on after a pause. “You’re not still mad at me, right?”
A subtly twisted, pained smile. “I’ve been holding all this in for nine years, man. Letting everyone think what they wanted because it was easier that way.”
“There’s no one here but us. What better time to LET IT ALL OUT!” I leaned over the edge and bellowed the last few words. Nik put Red down and joined me, the two of us screaming our every care and frustration over the parking lot, the rooftops, and the soccer fields beyond, the storefronts across the street screaming echoes back at us.
“Damn, I needed that,” he said once we were hoarse and breathless.
“I think I did too.”
“I’m not glad about what happened to you and Esther, or that we’re stuck here, but having someone to talk to about this? It’s like taking a breath after you’ve been at the bottom of the pool for too long.”
“You never told anyone? Not even Tanya and Gavin?”
“Once I had enough English to start talking about it, someone from the agency told me it would be too dangerous. They think I was abandoned at a church and no one knows where I’m from.”
“And how did you know you weren’t from Earth?”
“Remember about the colors? Some things you can tell just by looking. When I asked to go home, they told me we were too far away to ever go back, and if we could…well, there might not be anything there anymore.” I got a bona fide chill when he said this. “From there, as I got older, all I had to go on were stories, like you said. Parallel worlds. They got me thinking, putting my own theories together. Didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to test them.”
“I assume this wasn’t the kind of chance you were hoping for.”
“I had no idea what to hope for. So if you have any ideas what to do next…”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty, I had a long walk to think. It’s just that almost all of them are terrible. The only one so far that makes sense is to go back to the place where this all started.”
“That valley from our camping trip. Oof.” He massaged his leg. “That’ll be a slog.”
“Soon as you’ve got something better, speak right up. Please.”
“I know, I know. Let’s do it.”
“We’ve only got — well no, I guess we still have a few more hours. It’s still so bright out. Heh, it’s crazy how fast I got used to shorter days.”
Nik tied on my jacket with the snakes curled up in two of its deep pockets and we descended to ground level. “You know,” I observed as we were passing by the surrounding shops, “it’s funny how all the buildings are abandoned, but some of these look more abandoned than others.”
“What do you mean? Those stores were already abandoned. They went out of business months ago.”
“No kidding? We used to go to a few of these places when we first moved out here. I didn’t hear anything about it. Don’t really pass by this way anymore.”
I got to pass by much more than I’d ever paid attention to in the course of our trek. We walked down the center line of every road, hopped every fence that got in our way, cut through someone’s backyard every time we felt like it. We took a shortcut down the long desolate corridor bisecting the town that was the high voltage right of way, the towers free of their ominous buzzing for once. When we passed through the substation, Nik ran his hands along wires and swung from transformers with impunity, and I followed as soon as I was ninety-five percent confident we wouldn’t burst into flames.
We climbed gradually higher as the sun sank lower, till we could take in nearly all of Morrow Glen steeped in orange light and long shadows. The moon had been out for a while, looking friendlier than I’d ever given it credit for. I kept looking up to reassure myself it was still there, half blotted out by a shadow that could only be Planet Earth.
“You really think we can make it there before night?” Nik asked.
“I’ve got a flashlight.”
“I don’t feel like stumbling around in the dark when we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Real talk, I was wiped out from practice even before all this walking and I’m mostly thinking about where we’re supposed to sleep.”
“Find a house with a nice soft carpet, maybe. I’m tired too — pretty sure this is the literal longest day of my life. I just don’t want to quit until we have to. Remember we’re probably not eating till we get out of this, never mind seeing our families.”
“Like I could forget,” he groaned.
“Sem was going to make something special for dinner too. Caught all those ick balls in the water tank for nothing…now if I get any hungrier I bet I could eat a handful of them raw.”
We continued discussing which Earth or Var animals we’d be willing to devour raw until he caught me eyeing the jacket pockets where the snakes were. “Let’s talk about something else.”
As the last light was fading, we stopped by the edge of the outermost housing tract to make up our minds about pressing on. It was there that we saw the first of the stars come out.
I was hit with the same relief as when I’d first spotted the moon. As alien and impossibly distant as I knew they were, they were my stars. Before long we were lying under a brighter, deeper, and more crowded sky than either of us had seen in years, the kind that, when you’re on your back and it takes up your whole field of vision, lets you realize that you’re not just looking up, you’re glued to the side of a planet and looking out at the universe.
It’s not my fault, Kir. I hope.
“Wow,” Nik whispered. “I bet nobody’s seen this many stars here since the quake.”
“You know people in LA saw the Milky Way for the first time that night and got so spooked they called 911?”
“Ha! I wish that surprised me.”
“Actually, I’m no constellologist, but I’m not seeing the Milky Way. These are our stars, right?”
“Over there. Big Dipper.”
I sat up, trying not to think about candy bars, and took another look at the town. A completely dark Morrow Glen was an impressive sight in its own way, as comforting as it would have been to see some—
“Light! Look, look, get up, there’s lights on!”
There were two, no, three of them in view, small but unmistakable points in the blackness. Candy bars and constellations forgotten, we jumped up and tried to figure out where they were coming from. “Okay, the closest one is downtown. Looks like it’s right on the other side of the…” I snapped my fingers, trying to recover the name for those sets of parallel steel rails that ran past the industrial area. “You know, the thing.”
Nik stared at me like he didn’t know whether to laugh at me or check my temperature. “The train tracks?”
“You all right?”
“My brain needs food, give me a break.”
“Is my brain starving too, or is the other one coming from Bohrdom?”
“I think you’re right. Yeah, it is! Huh. We should still check out the train tracks one first.”
After some tedious backtracking, we hit the railroad and followed it until we caught sight of the nearest light, emanating from the top of one of the ramshackle, supposedly abandoned farm supply buildings. As usual, the door was unlocked.
The inside of the place was as empty as every other, but parts of it looked clean and well-maintained, in sharp contrast to the exterior. We found the stairs to the roof and emerged into the faint electric glow coming from inside a single massive air handler, chugging away like it was any old non-eldritch April evening. Nik approached it, and seeing that I hung back, said, “It’s safe, come on.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. Have I ever been wrong about this kind of thing? I can feel whenever something’s dangerous.”
My feet and brain ground to a halt as years’ worth of unexplained incidents slotted themselves abruptly into place, from our camping trip all the way back to his first run-ins with school bullies. “Holy — so that’s why — buh — ”
He let me splutter for a little longer, unable to keep a good-natured smirk off his face. “Yeah. Guess I should have mentioned that earlier. It does come in pretty handy.”
“Handy? It’s like a superpower! I was thinking you were like Superman, getting sent to Earth from wherever, but this is like that Spidey-sense thing. You’re Spider-man! Ooh, have you ever tried shooting a web?”
“No I can’t shoot webs.” He rolled his eyes.
“But have you ever triiied? Climb up that wall.”
“Stop being dumb.”
“No. Pbththbpt. Seriously though, can everyone do that where you’re from? Wait, no, this is because you’re displaced, isn’t it? You’re the tube of sunscreen I was telling you about, the one that gets taken up to the top of the mountain and then…explodes? I don’t think I’m saying that right.”
“I was thinking about that. Wouldn’t it be the opposite of what happened to you? Wouldn’t me coming from my world to here be like going from the top of the mountain to the bottom?”
“So then the tube would…”
“Get crushed,” he finished morosely.
“Hold on now. But when you open it, it would suck everything back in, wouldn’t it? That’s like the same force. Same difference, literally. Aah, this metaphor made more sense when Sem was doing it. Basically the moral of the story is that you suck.”
“And you blow. Glad we cleared that up.”
Examining the boxy unit turned up a single panel we could easily open. Rows of buttons, some knobs, and an LCD screen were among the controls we recognized inside. Below them were more esoteric inputs such as a pair of circular pads and what looked like a cross between a joystick and a fancy wine opener. I commenced the universal protocol of pushing every button at random and the screen blinked to life. A crawl of text ran down it too fast for me to read, then a virtual keyboard popped up with a prompt:
“Great. Anywhere else we can try?” The remaining panels couldn’t be pulled open, so we resorted to prying. Nik got a purchase underneath one of them with the flathead screwdriver on the multitool, and I was able to slip one of the scissor blades in and lever it outward. Almost immediately there was a sharp hiss and air began rushing into the gap we’d created. The light inside the unit flickered and the LCD froze, jagged lines distorting the image. The hissing stopped after a minute, and we found we couldn’t pry the panel any further without risking snapping the scissors.
Nik tapped the screen, which stayed frozen. “Oops.”
I gave the unit a kick, equal parts annoyed at what we had failed to learn and freaked out by the one thing I could deduce. “They were already here. Of course they were.”
“How should I know! I forgot to tell you about all the sketchy stuff that went down before Esther ran off. Like what they did to the mall. I got lost in this employee closet, and Esther — wait, Esther was talking to someone, meeting with someone the day before! She told me not to worry about it…aarrgh, why can’t I remember?” I kicked the machine some more until the screen went black, then sat with my back against it. Nik slid down next to me.
“So Nik,” I said after a long pause to cool down, “You said your family didn’t…you know, make it. None of them came here with you.” He nodded.
“Who brought you here?”
“No idea. It’s not like I could understand anything they were saying. I only remember one guy’s name, the one who spent the most time with me. The others called him Anthony.”
“Okay, probably an American name. You sure it wasn’t just something that sounded like it?”
“How much are you absolutely sure of from when you were that little?”
“Fair. How’s this for a theory: First I found the little goober that led me to your neighborhood — that was out of place. Then I found you — now we know you’re out of place here. Then we find this thing, however it’s getting power. Oh, and the snakes for, um…some friggin’ reason. Where did you get those two?”
He took them out for some fresh air, and to make sure they hadn’t relieved themselves in my jacket pockets. “Zoo Station. It’s just a normal pet shop as far as I can tell.”
“Well fine, ignoring them for now, what if everyone or every functioning thing that shows up here has a connection to another domain?”
“Like we’re on some kind of border.”
“And it’s safe to say someone who lives here made this, someone who programmed it in English, probably the same people who fixed up the downstairs. Also, tangent, is it just me or do like seventy percent of the ghost stories kids tell come from this part of town?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t get many trouble vibes around here.”
“Whatever. There are people in Morrow Glen up to some seriously not-normal stuff is what I’m saying.”
“Good theory, good theory.” He yawned. “Where are you going with it?”
“See, I was hoping I’d have that figured out by the time I was done making all those points…”
The night was getting no younger and we weren’t likely to learn any more from the machine. So speaking of learning, it was time to make for the distant flickering light that appeared to be coming from, of all places, our school.